copy Excellent Adventures in Egypt

Enter here to share Joni's adventures living and working in Cairo courtesy of the U.S. Fulbright cultural exchange program. Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilization. - Mahatma Ghandi


Ramadan Kareem!

Here in Cairo, we are just winding down from the first full week of Ramadan. The easy-going pace of Cairo has morphed into languor in the mornings and robotic slow motion in the late afternoons. People go to work late (9:30 or later) and leave early (sometimes as early as 12:30 or 1pm). Phones go unanswered, meetings don’t get made and projects of all kind get put off until “after Ramadan.” Universities shorten lecture times to assure that students are done with classes by 1:30 but that isn’t enough for Eman’s students at Helwan – they begged to be let out of classes altogether for the entire month! The weather hasn’t helped the daytime pace: after one week of blessedly cool fall weather, a heat wave settled over the city – I’m back to feeling like something in the batata-man’s grill. For people fasting – and that is most everyone in Egypt – the heat must make fasting nearly unbearable. Ramadan is supposed to be a time of spiritual reflection and renewal. Pocket-sized Qurans have appeared as the best-seller of the month. Building guards, shopkeepers, schoolgirls on the Metro, everywhere you go, people are reading Quran and silently mouthing prayers while running strings of beads through their fingers. Muslims have an obligation to read the entire Quran at least once in their lives and many people use Ramadan as a time to accomplish this goal. For many, concentrating on Quran also helps with the rigors of fasting, providing a tangible reason for the disomfort of throats are so parched from thirst that it's hard to swallow. Traffic jams up everywhere between about 12:30 and 3pm as people rush home to get ready for iftahr (breakfast). The metro is equally jammed - people nose to nose (or, in my case, nose to shoulder) even in the "less-crowded" ladies only cars. By 4 pm a sense of calm begins to descend, as shops roll down their shutters (assuming they opened up in the first place) and the streets empty of life. If you happen to be on the streets between 4:30 and 5pm you can actually hear the birds sing down the sun, a symphony usually drowned out by the cacophony of human Cairo. All over the city, tents and temporary rooms have appeared, made of immense sheets of geometrically patterned cloth in vivid primary colors. Each night, the tables inside are heaped with solid, nutritious food that anyone is welcome to eat – for poor people in Egypt (of whom there are many) Ramadan is the only time of year when they eat get to eat meat. When the cannon goes off and the muezzins begin the sunset call to prayer (signaling “break-fast”), people reach for something cool and liquid – tamarind juice, sweetened coconut milk and ‘amar al-din (made from sheets of apricot paste) are favorites, since they provide liquid and an immediate burst of sugar to replace depleted energy. I had iftahr with Eman’s family on Sunday, and the first dish served was a marvelous combination of chopped dried fruits (dates, figs, apricots, prunes and raisins) soaked in sugar water overnight and topped with almonds and shredded coconut. I could have ended dinner right then and there, but this is Egypt and the food goes on…and on…and on…. The city comes back to life after sundown. By 8pm shops are open, streets are humming, children are running up and down eerywhere. Brightly colored, ornate Ramadan lanterns light up the streets after dusk, and streamers of silver and colored paper criss-cross the streets. There is a sense of festivity in all the human interactions. A pair of itinerant minstrels strolled down the lane in front of Eman’s house after iftahr, one man playing the oud (a sort of flute) while the other sang traditional songs while beating out a stirring rhythm on a small hand drum. We put our monetary contributions in a wicker basket which Emans’ mother lowered on a rope from their 3rd floor balcony. Some people spend all night in the mosques in prayer or spiritual reflection, but most people watch TV all night (Rmadan is the season for new programs and blockbuster serials) or hit the streets to party. By 12:30 am, the street beneath my balcony resembles parking lot - a very loud, impatient parking lot. Last week, just before Ramadan began, I was startled to see turkeys appearing in the poultry shops. Mind you, these were not plump turkey carcasses sealed in sanitized plastic wrap, these were turkeys-in-the straw, feathers, wattles, and all. (In a country with little refrigeration, meat stays live until the cook is ready to pop it in the pan.) I never did figure out how these large, gangly birds were persuaded to perch serenely on top of the small wooden crates housing their equally doomed compatriots (chickens, pigeons, rabbits…) while awaiting their fate. Of course, I have the same question about the brown and white goat tethered to a lamppost down the street who is happily munching on anything his teeth can reach as the days tick down to the Eid (3 day celebration at the end of Ramadan), in which he is no doubt destined to play a starring role. Jackie, Sunshine and I (see picture caption) took ourselves down to old Islamic Cairo just before sundown Tuesday night. We spent a little time in Al Azhar Mosque, a stately, elegant matriarch with a 1000-year old lineage, where preparations for iftahr were underway. A long plastic sheet was rolled out across the carpet, with plates and plastic cups and silverware laid out in individual place settings. As sunset approached, men moved quietly around the cloth laying out dates (the first food traditionally eaten to break the fast), pouring out water and placing aish (Egyptian flat bread) on the plates. Outside in the courtyard, people moved quietly among the many small groups clustered under the cloister overhang passing out dates and aish. Everyone accepted their portion quietly as the sense of anticipation rose. We headed south out of Azhar and immediately lost ourselves in the maze of medieval el-Qahiyra. Preparations for iftahr were underway everwhere: rows of 4-person tables flanked by metal or plastic chairs lining the narrow alleys, cushions or chairs of any origin grouped together in communal circles inside shops, people running back and with bowls and plates filled with white beans in rich tomato sauce, platters of roasted chicken or meat, salty pickles, bowls of hummus and bab ghanoush and the ubiquitous aish. When the cannon call to prayer finally wafted through the air, there was a great burst of excited talking as people fell to eating with vigor and enthusiasm. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with cries of “welcome, faddali” (an all purpose word meaning “here you go, help yourself, join us”) as people sprang up from chairs and waved us to their tables. The welcome was consistently hearfelt and sincere. We declined the offers with many thanks and many smiles (none of us were quite ready to test our newly-developed digestive bacteria cultures quite that intensely) as we made our way slowly through the maze. We eventually found the footbridge that crosses Azhar Street, connecting old Islamic Cairo to the better known (and intensely touristed) Khan el Khalili. Here the welcome was equally warm but with a very different edge: “Welcome, I’m your friend, I have what you’re looking for, big discount, just look, just look…” What a difference! The south side bazaars are old and dirty, full of goods like plastic water pitchers, cheap shoes, inexpensive clothing and bolts of cloth I’d never use. But I’ll take the warmth and genuiness of the south side over the Khan’s flashy lights and tourist kitsch any time. It is so unfortunate that most tourists experience only the Khan’s kind of “welcome” rather than the authentic hospitality represented in the old bazaars. On Wednesday night, Serag invited me to join his family for iftahr in one of the Hotel Hussein’s 4th floor rooms overlooking Hussein Square. It was a lovely, peaceful place to enjoy the spectacle. Tourist buses kept disgorging hordes of people, then squeezing through lanes barely big enough for their side mirrors in order to maneuver back out onto the street. People were milling about everywhere in any kind of costume you can imagine: long gallabeyahs next to shorts and tank tops, white-uniformed of traffic cops beside dirty-faced urchins, western ladies in elegant broad-brimmed hats, t-shirts everywhere. We sat in lpasha-like splendor above the crowds and watched as tables gradually filled, first with people and then with food. As dusk approached the cats appeared, weaving in and out among the table legs, staking out their spaces and waiting patiently for their share. By the time sunset neared, our own table was groaning heavily under the feast prepared by the marvelous Enab family cooks. And then it was time. Muezzin voices drifted out of the many minarets surrounding us and people dived in to the feast. Our party ate and chatted and ate some more, spending a pleasant 2 hours over dinner and tea. Down on the ground, the tables closest to the Khan cleared out in a record twenty minutes so the shopkeepers could get back to the serious business of selling before the tourist hordes drifted away. The men in our party moved up to the Hussein’s rooftop garden to smoke sheesha, filling the air with the aromatic aroma of their various flavored tobaccos while we gazed at the half moon rising above the 1000 minarets of this city that is "Mother of the World." Eventually, I made my good nights and drifted out of the Khan and into a taxi headed back to Zamalek. The driver jolted me back to reality by proposing a fare that was easily double the going rate. I laughed and told him he was charging much too much (in Arabic) and that I was not a foreigner to be taken in. He laughed back and told me that he had 4 children and needed to make a lot of money to support them. I told him he should have thought of that before he had them! We had a lively, bantering Arabic-English conversation all the way back to my flat and parted on excellent terms (with agreement that my proffered fare was “kwais”).


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