Thursday, December 28, 2006

After being two of the thousands of people stuck in the London fog, we finally made it home just before Christmas, where we came bearing Egyptian, British, and duty-free gifts. Now that all the gifts have been opened, I thought I would write about our trip to Khan-il-Khalili.

Khan-il-Khalili is an ancient marketplace in Islamic Cairo. The Khan is probably the second largest tourist site in Cairo, after the Pyramids of Giza. J wrote about Islamic Cairo in the last entry, but let me just say that it is like a step back in time (excepting the ubiquitous motorists and the flashy gifts made in China). The best way to get to the Khan is via taxi. We chose to bring one of our Egyptian friends, Ahmed, thinking he might be a handy translator and buffer. (Turns out Ahmed, who is a suburban kid, hadn’t ever been there, and he was mistaken for a tourist almost as much as we were.) We were let off amidst speeding traffic at a green footbridge, which you cross to enter the main part of the Khan. We weren’t sure at first that we were in the right place, but we knew we were golden when we spotted a white lady with whiter hair wearing salmon-colored culottes.

We turned onto a narrow path that was unwieldy with piles of trash and dirt. Scrawny cats picked through the rubbish. To either side, several small shops belched out smiling Egyptian men who proclaimed, “Welcome in Egypt!” There were several hookah shops crammed next to kitsch – glass pyramid trios, pharaoh statuettes, amulets to ward off the evil eye, wooden boxes with Islamic designs representing eternity. There were many gold and silver stores, and other places selling precious stones, most of which are imported since Egypt has been mined to exhaustion. Several antique shops sported beautiful lanterns and dusty relics that looked as if they should have been piled in a barn. Here we found a similar sort of hawking as went on at the pyramids of Giza, though not nearly as persistent or irritating. Men walked out of their shops and promised, “Everything is free!” It seemed pretty tame to us, but perhaps we were simply more prepared for it, and we had a few more polite Arabic phrases under our belts.

We picked our way around trash as the paths became increasingly more winding and shadowed. Men and boys, hauling carts and carrying sacks many times their weight, pushed their way through the crowd, giving short whistles to indicate that they were coming. We learned to move quickly because they had no intention of stopping. (Later, Ahmed got smacked by the side mirror of a car as it passed. Many of the side mirrors here fold back, and that is what this one did.) One of the men said in Arabic, “Watch your back, woman!” just before he swept by me with what looked like heavy sacks of concrete mix over his shoulders. The further in we went, the dustier and mazier it got. Motorcycles sped through, as well as trucks spewing fumes and hip-hop. We asked for directions a few times and found people offering to share their food and drink.

Finally, we found the place I had been looking for: Casa Fernando – a papyrus shop owned by a petite man named Mohammed who speaks Spanish. He was wearing a denim shirt and chewing a small piece of gum. We informed him that one of our friends had recommended the place. He chewed suspiciously, looked us up and down, then invited us inside his shop, which contained stacks and stacks of papyrus with questionable stamps of authenticity. Two boys were arranging sheaves of papyrus on the floor, and Mohammed sent one of them off for drinks and made us sit down in chairs with seats the size of half my rear. They came back with a tray holding Lipton for James, water for Ahmed, and cold hibiscus tea for me. Then Mohammed pulled out a stack of papyrus and began rifling silently, tossing pieces haphazardly to the floor when I shook my head no. We were looking at dark brown papyrus on which there were traditional paintings of ancient Egypt – the papyrus was framed and supported by jute.

Once I started to show my interest in a few, the bargaining commenced. The first thing Mohammed did was quote a ridiculous price. Being somewhat stingy all my life, I was unimpressed. Then I offered a price I considered to be more reasonable, and he looked at me like I was crazy. “This is very old,” he said rather irritably. “That’s too expensive,” I said, wondering just when that paint had dried – was it last week, or last month? It was a lovely little dance. In the end, I got “ripped off,” but I managed to be firm about what I was willing to pay, and when it became clear I wouldn’t budge (to the point of my putting the papyrus on the pile on the floor), Mohammed gave me the price I had eventually quoted. It was great fun.

Tired of the Khan, we forced our way through a much more crowded area on the other side of the street. To each side in the narrow alley were all matter of fabrics – women’s clothing, blankets, rugs, etc. We had clearly left the tourist zone, as there were no culottes to be seen. We paused in a more open area where, in the span of a few minutes, we watched a motorcyclist ram through a crowd and a flock of sheep barrel past. Up to this point, I had been suppressing all references to misinformed films about the Middle East but could not help but remark here that this could have been the setting for the part in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones shoots the sword-wielding man in the streets of Cairo.

This open area brought us away from the crowded marketplace and into the streets of Old Cairo. We immediately found ourselves walking through a traffic jam, where a donkey pulling a cart leaned its head into the back of a honking Nissan truck. In one shop, a man made cast iron skillets, while next door another man wove baskets. Almost every shop, emptied of patrons, boasted beautiful handmade items – from intricate wooden chairs to walking sticks. I saw just one store that was full of people – this store had enormous sacks brimming with spices and herbs – ginger, cumin, hibiscus, mint. We stopped at a small grocery store for a drink and had to stay there with our glass pop bottles until we finished and could return them, and, as we sipped, we surveyed the place. Out on the street, the donkey still leaned its head against the Nissan, and horns continued to honk. On the way back to the main thoroughfare where we would catch a taxi home and pick up some roasted corn, I witnessed a man leaping onto the hood of a moving, honking car. Ahmed and J were ahead of me, and they didn’t hear me gasp. They also didn’t see the driver of the car laughing, or the man on the hood guffawing, nor the man who made cast iron skillets chuckling and shaking his head.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

On Saturday, we took a university-sponsored trip to Islamic Cairo. I know what you're thinking: "Really, isn't it all Islamic Cairo?" And that would be true, from a certain point of view. But Cairo is a very ancient city, and each neighborhood embodies some sort of historical period. Zamalek, for instance, is not only the "exclusive" part of town, but it's also one of the most recent: Gezira Island only firmed up enough to become inhabitable in the 19th century. Islamic Cairo, which is in reality on 5 or 10 miles from where I currently sit, was once the ancient center of town and the center of Muslim life in the city. We walked down a narrow and boisterous street that was once the main street of the city, running from north to south (the city didn't actually approach the banks of the Nile until more recent times). Today there is barely one lane, even though it is apparently a two-lane road, given the traffic in both direction. Trucks, motorcycles, horse and donkey carts--you name it.

The first and largest thing we did was visit the Mosque of Sultan Hasan. I don;t now much about the guy, but his story has an interesting end. Apparently, he constructed the grand mosque that bears his name. Unfortunately, poor Hasan was never buried in his own mosque. He was murdered while out in the desert and his body was hidden, and to this day nobody knows where he is buried. To this day, Muslims use the story as a fable to warn their children against greed and hubris.

Two of the pictures direcly above this section of the post are pics from the mosque. I was struck by the absolute quiet of the place (excepting the children who had tagged along), the hushed reverence of a group. It reminded me of visiting grand cathedrals in England: Canterbury Cathedral comes to mind. Also Stonehenge. I'm not a religious fellow, but certain places have a shine to them, and big old churches and mosques have that kind of presence for me.

One difference between a church and a mosque--and there are many--was the amount of open-air space in the mosque. Churches generally are closed structures. Mosques seem to revel in the open air, especially as a place for worship. You can see this in one of the pictures above, as well.

A lot of the professors who went on the trip have children, and these children were our constant companions throughout the day. Most parents let their children traipse freely among us. Only one parent felt compelled to scold her child, but she was only mad because he did something that got his hands dirrty. "You wonder why you keep getting these diseases!" she said.

The little girl above was quite the ham. She skirted that delicate line between charming and annoying, never quite tipping the scales into annoying. At least for me. She wanted her picture taken, a lot. I never could figure out who she belonged to. I finally acquiesced to taking her picture when she picked up a colleagues backpack. Little girl! Oversized backpack! (Containing expensive computer equipment.) How cute.

And finally, you see me. I actually felt a lot worse than I look in this picture. Notice two things. First, I am wearing a new shirt I had purchased a few days earlier at a shop on 26th July St. The shop is named Dandy. The tiny place was staffed by three nice men who asked M if I was her brother when I retired to the changing rooms to try the shirts. I don't think they meant any harm. It's just normal (see: green card). Second, see the woman with the cell phone? She was like that all day. The damn thing kept going off. I think I was trying to look pensive in the picture, but as I look at it again, I can't help think I was just annoyed at her.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

It’s raining! We’ve thrown open the windows. The air is cool and even slightly fresh. Down below, the street is covered with water – there are no gutters, which tells you how much it rains here. It’s the second time it's rained since we’ve been here – and the first time was for a span of ten minutes. J just pointed out that we are able to see a building in the distance that has never been clear.

Last week the bawaab brought us the census survey. It felt strange and rather exciting to fill in the “foreigner” bubble. It felt doubly strange to give the survey, complete with an estimation of our annual salaries, back to the bawaab rather than an official census taker. As we ready for a visit home, we’ve been thinking a lot about the aspects of Egypt that intrigue, baffle, irritate, and amuse us. Today I’ll focus on the good. The food. Ah, how I love food.

Let’s start with the vendor of sweet potatoes, typically a man in a gallibeya pushing a cart down the street. There is a smoking barrel of an oven on this cart that looks like a chimney. In this oven, sweet potatoes steam and smoke. As the vendor rolls the cart down the street, occasionally setting up on corners, people buy a potato or two for a pound. He wraps it in newspaper and hands it to the customer, who eats it as is. Sometimes the vendor stops and peels blemishes from the raw potatoes before putting them into the fire. A wintertime treat – cheap, easy, delicious, calorie-rich, warm.

Then there is koshari, another carb delight – a big bowl of macaroni, rice, vermicelli noodles, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, and a bit of tomato sauce. There are numerous koshari restaurants around, but the one we like gives you a little plastic bag of vinegar sauce and a container of hot sauce, and this really makes the meal. There is a man in charge of tying up the bags of vinegar, and he does so between pulls on his cigarette. Six pounds for two enormous bowls.

As for the fruits and vegetables, they are almost always delicious. Cucumbers are small, crisp, and available year round, as are tomatoes, which vary in taste but are much better than the nonentities we buy in the winter in the Midwest. I buy yellow peppers, which are so expensive at home, for a few pounds. Onions and garlic are sweet and fragrant. The cantaloupe here has the rind of the cantaloupes at home, but is green like a honeydew on the inside. I could go on and on. I remember the first few disorienting days I was here – when we passed a green grocer, flies were swarming the grapes, the money was confusing, and the shop was situated next to a pile of trash sweating in the heat. It seemed at the time that I might never eat anything nutritious again. How wrong I was. In fact, we’ve come to find that even the canned or frozen foods often have no preservatives, or “without conservatives,” as the mozzarella cheese package says in the photo above. This is not to say that we are totally na├»ve. Pesticides are used; food sitting out all day in the street cannot help but absorb the immense pollution, etc. I wash everything with soap and water. Some people go so far as to put it in diluted bleach. All of this does not diminish the fact that the fruits and vegetables are delightful.

Our first real experience with an Egyptian meal was at our friend Ahmed’s home. Each time a space would open up on our plates, Ahmed’s mother would hurry over and spoon more on. “You’re not eating enough!” she said. It is common for Egyptians to do this to you, and I have been warned that you must strike a delicate balance – you must eat enough, but you must not eat too much. If you do not eat enough, they will think you are rude. If you eat too much, you are a pig.

I had explained weeks before this dinner (so as to lessen my offense) that I am a vegetarian. Vegetarianism often baffles Egyptians. It did not make sense to Ahmed’s family, and they questioned me about it off and on through the night. In fact, Ahmed seemed a bit disappointed in me when I thought I was being polite in telling him in advance. I brought out my "I grew up on a farm and we would eat off one cow and one pig for a whole year" story, which seemed to improve my standing. Now that I think about it, though, I did mention eating pork to a group of Muslims. Nonetheless, vegetarian dishes appeared – steamed vegetables, bean salad, potato salad, coleslaw, pastries stuffed with spinach and flavored with lemon, a casserole dish of Chinese noodles and vegetables, rice with vermicelli noodles, and several others. Delicious! The amount of food was dizzying. Dessert consisted of a homemade cheesecake, a fancy store-bought chocolate cake, and a chocolate mousse with walnuts.

Later, Ahmed’s mother and father brought me into the kitchen to show me their fuul pot and explain how to make fuul. The fuul pot (at least the smaller family-sized version) resembles a carafe, and it steams and simmers all day. A regular fuul pot is enormous with a thin neck, almost like a symmetrical gourd. I cannot remember the exact recipe for fuul, but it involves hours of cooking after hours of soaking. It was the way they told me about it that was so beautiful. Ahmed’s mother pulled out a handful of beans to show me as she explained how long to soak them, when to change the water, etc. She moved these beans from hand to hand as she spoke, and she made me grab a handful of the beans as she explained their properties. Ahmed’s father picked up some lentils and broke one of them with his teeth to show me the inside (a small bit of lentils can help the flavor of fuul). Then he lit the gas stove and demonstrated the exact level the flame should be at. They did not simply tell me how to do it – they acted it out. The fact that I can’t remember the recipe only reflects badly on me. Fuul, though, is another typical Egyptian dish made of slowly cooked fava beans. The flavor is mild but hearty, and can be paired with lots of other foods but is mainly eaten with bread.

The meat in Egypt? J can tell you all about it.

I have always had a simple taste in food, so it should not be surprising that I love the staples of this country. Actually, I've heard and read many complaints about Egyptian food, all lodged by foreigners. The odd complaints of resident Americans, as a matter of fact, is another Egypt thing on my brain. Anyway, rest assured that the mozzarella was lying -- there are, in fact, some conservatives in Egypt.

In writing this, I have realized it is time to get some groceries. Here is a sad little picture of some of the food in our apartment. You will see a can of strained fuul on the left and spicy peeled medammas (another kind of fuul) on the right. Of course the canned stuff is not worth mentioning after having the real thing. Enjoy!