The first time I looked up, properly looked up, in medieval Cairo, I noticed weird wooden towers built on the top of apartment blocks. “What are they?” I asked the old man showing me the view from a mosque in Cairo’s City of the Dead. “Hammams”, he said. “Bathrooms?” I thought. How weird! People climb up those rickety little ladders to go to the toilet? “Hammans?” I asked, just to be sure. Yes, yes, he nodded. “Hammams.” What I later discover in the great game that is learning Egyptian is that a hammam is a bathroom, but a hammam…is also a pigeon. Something to do with more or less ‘m’ pronunciation. Yes, winged rats despised by the Anglo world, scourge of European monuments. Yet all over Egypt, these little boxes on stilts are where one of Egypt’s great delicacies are nurtured. In the evenings, you can hear a whistling as the owners call their beloved flocks home. “They’re very intelligent,” someone tells me. A first I’ve heard that, but then I’m not a pigeon fancier. The best restaurants in Cairo are said to include Farahat in the medieval part of the city, Gamilaya, as well as upmarket Nasr City. I’ve eaten pigeon in the alleyways of Khan al-Khalili, where a boy rushes up to you, asks you, “How many?” then rushes off again to grab the required number of pigeons, salad, bread and a peppery, watery pigeon broth and slaps it all on the table without any ceremony or cutlery. It’s oily and messy, the little bodies stuffed with fireek, or crushed wheat (think bulgar, Aussies). In comparison, I ate pigeon at a friend’s home. His wife is obviously the mistress of pigeon cooking – she stuffed hers with rice, which sits just beneath the skin. Less oily, less messy, infinitely more tasty. “Eat like you’re at home,” she said as she dropped two platters of pigeons on the table. “With both your hands, your feet…whatever.” Then I learned what is considered the pièce de résistance amongst this breed of pigeon fanciers. A quick tap on the head and voila, pigeon brains. I have only one word to describe them. Small. But then, what do you need a brain for if you’re a pigeon? Thinks: eat. Thinks: procreate. Thinks: eat. Sounds like utopia. If only the accommodation was better. Still, city views are good…
‘Begoon,’ it reads on the menu. I’m getting pretty good at menus, but this one has me stuffed. And stuffed it is. Begoon is the Arabgleeze for ‘pigeon’. (is there a word for Arabic-English, like Spanglish? Let’s make one up!) Yes, the flying rat.
So I order the begoon, sitting in the most touristy midan or plaza, of Cairo. I have taken up residence in the front seat of a café that faces the country’s most holy mosque, Al Hussein (died AD 680), the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. Its holiness derives from the tomb inside, which is said to contain Hussein’s head.
As we’re in sight of a mosque, there’s no beer (though they serve a non-alcoholic version, Birrell) and the square is packed with tour buses, tourists more touts than you can poke a sheesha pipe at.
They’re selling shoe shining, Ko’rans translated into a Babel-like number of languages, tacky headdresses supposedly worn by belly dancers, cheap papyrus, leather wallets, fake watches…what do you want? One boy is carrying a standard wooden crate of flat bread on his head. If he can’t sell you the bread (and he’s pedalling to café patrons) he’ll sell you a photo opportunity of him with said picturesque bread on head. Some, like the woman with a sleeping baby, are just out-and-out begging.
The begoon when it arrives, is a taut drum of well-cooked, oily skin containing rice and a few scraplets of meat on the tiny legs. The bones, of which there are many, go to a battalion of waiting cats beneath my chair, the scene of open warfare between a big-headed ginger tom and a black, malevolent creature that hovers just out of ankle’s reach.
So what does pigeon taste like? Chicken. Of course.