I’m a journalist, travel writer, editor and copywriter based in Melbourne, Australia. I write pacy travel features, edit edifying websites and fashion flamboyant copy. My articles and photographs have appeared in publications worldwide, from inflight to interior design: I’ve visited every continent, and have lived in three. Want to work together? Drop me a line… 

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Christmas in Cairo

It just doesn’t feel like Christmas here in Cairo.

No matter how many plump plaster-cast reindeers and glitzy gold Christmas trees in the mall.

No matter how many boys selling Santa hats (including a frightening,’Silence-of-the-Lambs’-style with an eyeless, flayed rubber Santa face hanging below the fringe.

No matter how many times Nile FM can play Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’.

It’s not surprising considering Egypt’s Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on 7 January.

My one and only work Christmas party was put off till 15 January, however, we made a good fist of it, helped by the fact Christmas Eve is on a Thursday, the Arabic equivalent of a Friday night. So we crashed the Christmas party at the pumping bar, After Eight (reached by walking off the street, through a kiosk selling chocolates and chips then down an alleyway that has actually been cleaned up).

The entertainment was a band, two DJs and they also threw in a beautiful belly dancer who had a gorgeous smile but was lacking in the whole hip movement area. The first DJ belted out a fistful of fun Arabic pop, but the second went into deep, heavy dance that lost the holiday bonhomie as well as the dance crowds.

There was no fowl on the Christmas table (Fee objects) and no pork either (Egypt objects, and has killed all its pigs in a frenzy over swine flu). Thank god, there is always smoked salmon…


The plight of the pigeon

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…


Sandboards, springs and the Schumacher of Siwa

It’s an obvious fact that once Cairenes are more than 15km past the outskirts of their town, they must tie a scarf on their heads.

Preferably a black-and-white checkered one, and then a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses, which seem to look good only on Arabs. Inevitably, we Caucasians end up looking like bad Tom Cruise wannabes or misguided PLO supporters.

So here’s the picture: 20 Cairenes attempting to sandboard the dunes of the Great Sand Sea, in far western Egypt. Thinking it would be a repeat of the last time I sandboarded – a terrifying face-first rocket down a dune I couldn’t see the bottom of – I opted out. For decorum’s sake, I gave it a hurl one last time, going down seated, but did a fairly spectacular face-plant and filled my ears with sand.

Soon everyone else who went up and down was mummified in a shell of sand glued together with sweat. Despite it being winter, this is still the Libyan Desert, friends, and that means warm days and cold nights in winter. Eyebrows disappeared beneath a layer of caramel sand, and the ever-prepared girls were giving the packets of hand wipes a good working out.

The sand came off in Bir Wahid, a hot water spring in the midst of the sand dunes. All the drivers converge there before sunset to hang out and chat, meaning the spring itself was full of bathers from all over the world, including a convoy of elderly Japanese. While I bobbed in the clean water, I chatted with a French woman, who, it turns out, was the sister-in-law of a lady I met at lunch in Mombasa, Kenya, a few months ago. The world is small and we are all but bit players.

Later that night, our Schumacher of Siwa, Nasr (that’s him here), would drive us out to a Siwi ‘party’ to hang out around the fire and watch the local boys doing their distinctive dance.

Nasr was, by this time, becoming addicted to the sound of our screams, and turned off his headlights to drop the 4WD down the dunes in the darkness.

Scream? We screamed in unison, in harmony and in mild terror. It was music to Nasr’s ears.


Watching the movies, watching the moviegoers

My ears are still doing that weird void of silence things after an assault in the cinema at Cairo’s glamour mall, City Stars. I know Egypt has only two levels of volume: off and 10 and like the rest of the region, love nothing more than a good blast of polar-strength air-con. Loud and cold is probably not the best environment to enjoy a movie, though, especially the three-hour doomsday saga of 2010.

As interesting as the movie were the clientele: being the holiday period of Eid, Cairo is once again full of holidaying Arab guys (that’s Saudi Arabians, for you and me) with their long hair and fat wallets. Also, one of our gang was shocked to see a munaqqabah in the cinema. The niqab is the all-encompassing dress some women wear that leave only their eyes visible, and lately I’ve been noticing women on the metro who go the final step and have a piece of black gauze over their eyes so they can see out but you can’t see in.

What’s so weird about a woman wearing the niqab in the cinema? I asked, only to be reminded that many in this super-conservative group consider movies and music to be haram, or against Islam.

Recently, the imam of Al-Azhar mosque, the esteemed seat of Islamic learning, banned the niqab from female-only classrooms in the mosque’s schools, secondary schools and university institutions. The debate amongst bloggers is raging.

I don’t know a lot about it: I do know women wearing the niqab aren’t so keen to sit beside the obviously non-Muslim foriegner, though I had a chat with a nice young munaqqabah last week on the train. Locals can’t understand my fascination with the topic, but I maintain that what people don’t understand, they fear. And in a time when the world is in religious upheaval, understanding and appreciation are the only ways toward acceptance and tolerance.

(Pic credit: Bikyamisr)


The night before Eid

The streets are filled with sheep and the occasional cow in the last days before Eid, the Feast of the Sacrifice. The sheep have been set into makeshift pens and are guarded day and night by a shepherd. They are going for LE1500, or about A$300 each. That means there’s a whole lotta cash messing up the roads here in Cairo

However, it seems that not theft, but small children are the issue most concerning the shepherds. Kids are hanging delightedly around the sheep, trying to wrestle their long horns and ride them the minute the shepherds’ backs are turned. The guys have big sticks they wave at the kids, who fall back slippery as eels, then resettle around the pens, totally uncatchable, laughing and jeering.

It makes logistical sense, but it’s also a bit grim that the sheep are living outside the butchers, snacking cheerfully from wooden troughs. Above them hang the carcasses of their peers but being sheep, they don’t seem to have made the connection. Or perhaps they’re in denial.

Today, Egyptians fasted on the last day before Eid, then the sacrificing begins after prayers at sunrise tomorrow morning.

I took pix down the street last night, got mobbed by about 20 kids, and the old market women who kill the rabbits and pigeons for a living were shouting in the street, “Our cow’s getting photographed by Australia!” I also snapped two happy bakers with one of the huge mountains of bread on the street that tomorrow will become part of fattah, the traditional Egyptian dish of rice, fried bread and meat that I’ve eaten slathered with garlicky mayonnaise.

For the four-day holiday, I’m skipping out to the desert oasis of Siwa with a bunch of friends-to-be, 50km shy of the Libyan border, on the edge of the Great Sand Sea. Land of sand dunes, palm gardens, hot water springs and those weirdly giant plastic date palms that are actually mobile phone towers. Kul sanaa wento tayebeen (Best wishes to all)!


Animal kingdom visits Cairo

Cairo is gearing up for Eid. Last night, as I closed my windows, I heard the familiar sounds of geese disturbed in their sleep, the rooster trying out his pre-dawn lungs and a new sound, the baa-ing of sheep. This is in central Cairo.

Farmers are bringing in their livestock to sell for slaughter during Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice. The other day, in Gamaliya (Islamic Cairo), a man was whistling a herd of sheep through the main thoroughfare of el-Muiezz. Then I rounded a corner and nearly took out a large cow, one of those mournful Egyptian cows with skinny legs, huge ears and the saddest face that would break your heart.

Walking back from the fruit & veg market, my street has suddenly sprouted several sheep pens with brown shaggy, horned animals milling about, and the sidelanes are like a scene from Animal Farm.

Thursday. It all starts Thursday.


Football: the drug of the nation?

It’s been days now. Days since Egypt was defeated by Algeria in its last chance to play in the 2010 World Cup. But Egypt’s not letting go.

Even though Ireland is calling for a rematch from a goal handballed in by a French player who admitted his deed, and the whole European soccer scene is plagued by allegations of widespread match-fixing and subsequent healthy but unusual betting wins, Egypt is still shaking its fist at its North African rivals.

Even I am getting hate Skypes because I’m in Cairo, with someone skyping me and my mother bad names. After giving me a serve in Arabic because I rejected the call, he beat me to the ‘block’ button, spraying venom by text then declaring “iam algerien”. How rude! How badly spelt!

The football channels are full of news of Algerian youths rioting in Marseilles, of stories (quickly disproven) of 11 Algerian deaths in Egypt, of reports of Egypt fans threatened in Sudan, where the game was held. Footage of Algerian fans waving knives (so much for the 15,000 Sudanese riot police) as they chanted in the stadium are flooding the net, and on Friday, what started as a peaceful protest outside the Algerian embassy in leafy (well, as leafy as you’ll get in Egypt) Zamalek ended in yet another riot.

“They are not our Arab brothers,” say my football friends. “We have ended diplomatic ties with them.”

It might come as a surprise to some of you that there are some people in Egypt who are not into football. “At least we’ll talk about something else,” one said to me. Yeah, like bread prices. As my lovely Arabic teacher pointed out, Egypt is full of families who can’t afford their daily bread, which has doubled in the past year to what equate as 12 cents for a plain round of aish balady (brown bread – the processed white is, of course, more expensive again). Instead, they’re reliant on the government bread, at half the price and, apparently, half as palatable.

It’s true football is a drug. I would have said before yesterday, that it is a drug that’s cheaper and healthier than, say, Egypt’s rough and nasty budget drug of choice, bango, which is famously trafficked from the Sinai. But if the alternative is the severance of diplomatic ties with a North African neighbour and fellow Arab country, makes you start thinking otherwise, doesn’t it?

(ps: apologies to The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy for bastardising the title)


Tension in the hours before Algeria-Egypt match

Palpable. That’s the word of the day. The final qualifier between Algeria and Egypt is being played at 7.30pm local time today, in Sudan. Because it’s not in the Cairo stadium, like Wednesday’s match, when Egypt managed to stave off defeat to go to a rematch, there’s less traffic clogging the streets as we saw when fans poured into the stadium early. Instead, last night, in the dead of night, we spotted buses packed with fans heading down to Sudan.

Word is the Sudanese have waived the usual visa restrictions for Egyptian fans. I heard that tickets cost LE500 (about A$100) but the black market snapped them up and spat them out again for LE2500 (A$500).

TV shows happy Sudanese people rooting for Egypt…but then again, that WAS Egyptian TV. The news wires report that Sudan is “overwhelmingly supportive” of Algeria.

The sport shows have been full of claims and counterclaims of violence: the Algerian team was allegedly attacked in their bus in the airport on arrival into Cairo on Wednesday, and three players appeared on the pitch sporting head bandages. But the driver of the bus said it was all nonsense, that there were a few people managing to sling some mud at the bus, but the team themselves smashed the windows to paint Egypt in a bad light.

Also for a few brief minutes were reports in the Algerian online press of 11 people killed at Cairo stadium at the Wednesday match. The stories were quickly whipped down, but not before they’d travelled the world. Egypt is full of righteous indignation. They know they could lose the chance to attend the 2010 World Cup if FIFA decides they can’t control their fanatical fans.

So it’s four hours to kick-off and the drums are ready…


Monkey business and Pet Shop Boys

Cliched title, I know. Due to popular demand, I went back down to the pet shop that had a monkey/ape (I’m not so good at primate identification) and snapped a pic for you. And there were two!

The one I saw the other day is the larger, hairier one. For your edification, people, he is nine months old, probably from Sudan or Senegal, costs LE1500 (about A$300 – but that’s the first, pre-haggle price) and his name is Hany.

As I was taking pix of Hany, a little girl let go of her mother’s hand to tear past me, exclaiming, “Mama, beautiful! Beautiful!” She had rushed toward some rather mediocre white kittens, dismissing the exotic Hany with a single glance.

The littler monkey is still being bottle fed. He is just eight months old, with a nose that he wrinkled while devouring pieces of cucumber and displaying his manhood for the crowd and the pet shop boys.


Weird spotting on Cairo streets

Weird things spotted in a neighbourhood walk today: Entire buses full of red, white and black painted men geared up for the Egypt v Algeria match tonight. Cappuccino-mint flavoured toothpaste. A large caged ape for sale on the footpath. Ah, lovely Cairo.


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