Last year, I was building a kitchen in my apartment in Cairo. I knew the tiles I wanted – classic arabesque style. You know, I wanted something out of an Andalusian palace or a Turkish mosque in my kitchen, please. I showed a photo to the tile salesman, who smarmily told me that they don’t have those tiles in Egypt.
“You don’t have those tiles? They’re along the walls of the ahwa (traditional café) downstairs!” I fumed.
The roll of his eyes said what his mouth wasn’t saying: “So old-fashioned, crazy foreigner.”
Happily, I found the traditional tiles, now made by a savvy Spanish company (and paid a bomb for them). Since then, I’ve spotted these (new) tiles everywhere, as part of a resurgence in what’s been dubbed ‘balady chic’. The word balady translates as ‘my country’ or ‘local’. So balady chic celebrates traditional Egyptian design, and it’s coming from the cool kids of Cairo.
This trip, I found an awesome tray featuring a reworking of the Hamza, or hand of Fatima, a powerful symbol that wards off evil, from local manufacturer Joud (it’s website is joudness.com – but Egyptians pronounce the ‘j’ as a ‘g’ – cute). I also raided the fabulously haphazard, historical market Khan al-Khalili yet again for yet more beautiful metal light shades (nagafa), belted into elaborate forms in the noisy, dark metal workshops spotted throughout Islamic Cairo. And they’re not a new story, but the handmade soaps (think: milk & honey, and olive oil – how much more Arabian can you get?) and organic cotton towels from Nefertari found their way into my bag for Christmas presents (see nefertaribodycare.com).
Easy on the eye, and better in the stomach, the hottest place in the upmarket, Nile-side part of Maadi is Baladina, for classic Egyptian food such as fatta and shawarma, beautifully done and served, rather ironically, by slim-hipped waiters in gellibayas and little white cotton caps. In fact, there are a few cool, new Egyptian food chains in town: try the ‘healthy’ koshary, made with green wheat and brown rice, at Zooba, Cairo Kitchen published its fantastic cookbook last year and I love El Dokan’s balady décor.
So great to see Egyptians taking pride in their own design history. Long may it last (before it gets copied by knock-off foreign companies).