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Life in Cairo, as the newspapers see it

Cairo has a number of rather slim English language papers, mostly condensed versions of their Arabic bretheren, including Al-Ahram, the Egyptian Gazette and the Daily News.
In a quick flick through the papers this weekend, here are a few of the key news items:· Up to 50,000 private medical clinics went on strike against doctors’ low salaries, which can be as little as LE470/month (about A$120) after graduation, rising to a hefty LE1000 (A$250)· A group of followers of the Bahai’i faith were attacked with stones and firebombs in their homes. There are between 500 and 2000 Bahai’is in Egypt, who recently won the right to hold government identity papers, which don’t list their religion (opponents say only Muslims and Christians should have the right to hold identity papers).· Taxis over 20 years of age have until 2011 to get off the roads, replaced with newer taxis that run on natural gas. There are more than 40,000 taixs on Cairo’s roads. Their models read like a who’s who of former Soviet and central European countries: Russian Ladas, Romanian Dacias, Italian Fiats, French Peugeots, Turkish Shahins and lastly, the home made Egyptian Nasrs. Taxi drivers are, to a man, horrified. · A man beat his daughter to death after she received a phone call from her boyfriend. · Around 27% of Egyptians have high blood pressure caused by eating junk food, smoking, obesity and lack of exercise. And, most importantly for a front page story:· Nefertiti had wrinkles.

The Sun City

I realise I haven’t written much – if anything – about my new place, and the point of this blog was to get a bit up close and personal, unlike my newspaper articles. So: I now live in Heliopolis, as the foreigners call it. The locals call it Misr el Gedida, or New Egypt. The ancient Greeks, if they read the name, would have translated it as ‘Sun City’.

I saw some photos from the turn of the century, and this area wasn’t much more than fields. Then – and I admit freely to paraphrasing liberally from my Lonely Planet amongst other sources – a cashed-up Belgian industrialist, Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Empain, built his desert city 10km from Cairo in the early 1910s. It was a planned city, though walking around it today, you could dispute that, judging by the amount of times you’ll get lost and the inaccuracy of the maps. But then, hey, people get lost in Canberra, too.

There are some notable landmarks here, the most striking being the Baron’s palace. He went all Asian and had built a Hindu palace (see the pic) by French architect Alexander Marcel. It is visible when you drive to and from the airport. So there you are expecting Pyramids and Sphinxes, and the first and last thing you see in Egypt is a palace littered with statues of the elephant god Ganesh and Hindi dancing girls.

Apparently it is hugely haunted, and has underground tunnels leading to the nearby Catholic basilica, and was the site of satanic rituals in the 1990s. The Lonely Planet explains – “The fantastical look of the place contributed to a citywide panic in 1997 about ‘Satanists’ allegedly holding rituals here – turned out there were a bunch of upper-class teenage heavy-metal fans.”

I mentioned to an unnamed (of course) Cairo friend who was delighted to learn that his antics of smoking hash and listening to Metallica there has made it into the global guidebook. It still is a creepy, though absolutely striking, memorial. The Baron is now interred in the basilica.

Nearby is Hosni’s House – aka home of the Egyptain president and dynasty builder, Hosni Mubarak. There’s also a swathe of military headquarters, which led to Heliopolis being bombed when Egypt was at war with Israel.

Going back a little earlier, the elegant, old Amphitrion cafe was a drinking spot for Allied soldiers in both world wars and there are more than 4000 British Indian Army soldiers buried in the Heliopolis War Cemetery.
There are such cute streetnames as Cleopatra Street, some of the city’s most beautiful turn-of-the-century villas and still a few formal gardens, such as the one near my apartment, have not yet been built on top of.
But the most striiking architecture is the row of white Moorish buildings along the chic Baghdad and Al-Ahram streets. Divine, many look like they’re ready for condemnation, human habitation indicated only by a rusting satellite dish. But Heliopolis is once again on the rise, with KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut built into these beautiful buildings’ ground floors, a flush of tiny, artisan handcraft shops dealing in jewellery, leather and antiques, and the sight of more than one beautifully kept balcony up on high, indicating the true wealth of the suburb.

Getting tongue around shisha, TB and mishmish

I was in a shisha café the other night up the back of Sheraton Helipolis, in the north of the city. It was very chic and urbane, serving espresso and the fragrant, bubbling tobacco pipes. There was even a menu in Arabic and English. Firstly, there were the listings of what flavoured tobaccos they have, ranging from the most popular, the foul-smelling grape, to much nicer mint (think Alpine cigarettes), fruity peach, apricot and cherry, refreshing lemon and girly rose.

Then, at the bottom of the list, was the item ‘Medical Layy’ for LE2 (60c). The layy is the long tube that curls up from the water pipe and to your mouth. Most cafes use disposable plastic mouth pieces to stop germs, but (and you can tell I was out with doctors at this café), the layy is a breeding ground for germs, and one of the most common ways that tuberculosis is transmitted in Egypt. We all got medical layys. Mine was even bambu (pink). Too cute.

Received wisdom is that smoking a full pipe is the equivalent of knocking off a packet of cigarettes in one hit. It’s also common knowledge that photographing yourself smoking never looks great – the drawn-in cheeks and such. So no, I don’t have a decent pic. Here’s some dude I snapped in Midan Hussein, who’s pulling it off a whole lot better.

There is a career pattern in cafes, of which I was unaware, having met shisha boys with degrees, thanks to Egypt’s current economic situation – before the Global Economic Crisis there was the great Egyptian economic stuff-up, it appears. So anyway, cafe (ahwa) career paths: you start on the shisha, then move to the bar and finally as cashier. Just as well, because sucking smoke all day can’t be good for you in a country without worker’s compensation.

If you were going to be a shisha boy, setting up the water in the shisha pipes, balancing coals on the tobacco etc, then having a speech impediment that makes you slur the ‘sh’ sound is not advisable. Yet they’re out there. So the other night, I wanted (ayza) an apricot-flavoured (mishmash) shisha. “Ayza mismish shisha” I wanted to order from the guy. To which he would have had to reply, “La, mafeesh mishmish shisha.” No, there is no mishmish. Naughty, naughty, shouldn’t laugh. Going to hell. Oh yeah… I had lemon.

Welcome to Cairo

Welcome to Cairo. I think I’ve heard that phrase more than 10 times in the past four hours. You could never accuse Cairenes of being inhospitable.
True to previous form, I have managed to find a hotel room where the “L” from the neon hotel sign is right outside my window. The good news is that it doesn’t look like the sign’s worked for years. I’m in the district called Doqqi –as well as the L, you can see the Nile from my window, and if you drive 10km down my street, you’ll run into the Pyramids. Just across the Nile and across another bridge is thumping Downtown, home of the Egyptian Museum and a thousand souvenir shops selling Nefertiti’s head on fraying papyrus. That’s not to say I haven’t met my own purveyor of such exquisite goods. In less than two hours, I’ve acquired Hassan, a jovial, rotund, moustached shop owner who has happily offered to become my Egyptian fixer. As well as selling scarab beetles carved from jade and said papyrus, he also runs private tours out to the deserts and oases, can unlock my phone to take a local SIM, has shown me where the cheap internet café is and is making calls to help find me an apartment.
My hotel, the Concorde, isn’t the Abu Dhabi Shangri-La, but then, there aren’t many places that are the Abu Dhabi Shangri-La. But the blue curtains and the carpet match, the textured cream wallpaper isn’t peeling too obviously and while there are a lot of mirrors, I’m taking this in a positive light – honest scrutiny is occasionally motivating.

Ramadam is in full swing, so while it’s poor form to be eating on the street while Muslims fast, they really know how to kick on till late, eating, drinking and, if they’re good, praying till the wee hours. There is a down side: my Abu Dhabi driver yesterday was from Bangladesh, and hadn’t eaten since sunrise (about 6am) and had two hours’ sleep, so after our long day’s drive to Al Ain so I could sate my thirst for camel photography, he was nodding frighteningly at the wheel till we pulled over at a service station so he could wash his face (I suspect he even drank some water in the loos as well).

Not quite sure what I’m doing here, but I reckon a nap and an internet fix and it should become apparent…