29 February 2004

Fourth week in Egypt, 23–29 February 2004

Monday, 23 February, Cairo: I again returned to 26th of July Street in Zamalek to look for the compact disc merchant, but he wasn’t there. On my way to the Alfa Market, I stopped at a sidewalk kiosk to buy a candy whose name made me think of Polly: the Corona Bimbo. It comes in two flavors: Original Bimbo and Negrita Bimbo. (I found a link to an entirely different candy wrapper, but possibly from the same company.) The bad news at Alfa is that I discovered they too sell an Arabic copy of the Protocols (a different edition than in the Metro); the good news is that they gave me two free bags of Action potato chips when I left. Polly and I decided to eat at l’Aubergine, but after sitting looking at the menu for a while, we were informed there was no hot food available, only salads. We decided to eat elsewhere, but ordered a bottle of water to take away. Even that took far too long so we just left. L’Aubergine is wonderful, but quirky; be prepared for various unusual limitations on ordering, like the time we were told no hot drinks were available. We instead went to la Piazza, which the guidebook said was in Zamalek, but I’d place it in Gezira. It was pricey by Egyptian standards, but the food was really good. It was decorated a bit like an American chain restaurant, very Olive Garden. It was one of the fairly rare occasions I treated myself to organ meat and ordered an amazing risotto and chicken liver entree. The meal was filling and tasty, but we stayed too long considering we had an appointment with some Sufi dancers.

We rushed out of there into a taxi and sped as much as Cairo traffic would allow to the Citadel (Islamic Cairo). The Sufi dancing was really a show and very different than the religious trance one would see in Turkey. As we had seen on the M/S Aquarius, a man in colorful skirts spins non-stop while his skirts become horizontal. Then he separates them and raises one to shoulder level, still spinning. It’s really a sight, something far better experienced than read about. It’s also oddly feminine-looking for something so supposedly religious: something about a man with a big, proud smile spinning and spinning and spinning while wearing skirts. It was the opposite of the selfless homage to God I was expecting, and I appreciated that. I videotaped a little bit of it until a man told me to stop, which annoyed me because flash photographs were taken by other audience members throughout the show. The show was rather short, seemingly more so than it actually was because Polly and I arrived late. We then took a taxi to the Khan so Polly could pick up her finished Libyan-style jackets at Atlas Silks. We wandered around the Khan a little bit and visited Ekramy’s store for a rather long time. He waxed poetic in that way mostly young adults do about finding true love and whether Polly and I had boyfriends. He’s really sweet. I bought a gift for someone there and left so he and his business parter could eat in peace. Polly returned to Zamalek, and I stayed in the Khan. I said hello to Blal at his store, saw Wikalat Haramein, wandered a bit down Mu‘izz li-Din Allah Street and again saw the scaffolded and barricaded (but lovely) Mosque of al-Ashraf Barsbey. It was there I met Hassan who led me into his shop (Nour, down Nasr Passage) with the common ruse of just wanting to give me a business card. When it sunk in I wasn’t interested in his wares, he took me to the nearby store (Mona Bazzar) of boisterous friend Mohamed elSany with the usual collection of souvenirs. The people there chatted and joked with me for quite a while, but as it was mostly in Arabic, I understood precious little. Eventually, I escaped and continued wandering and soon wound up on what Polly and I consider the main drag, Badestan Road. I was in conversation with Hisham (who I believe had been talking earlier about his supposedly large endowment to Polly at Ekramy’s store) and his friends Ahmad and another he claimed had lived in Malaysia. Another young man, Mahmud, Ibrahim’s brother, kept paying a lot of attention to me and engaging me in conversation and inviting me out to a Giza disco for free. He sat me in front of his store and plied me with tea without pressuring me to buy a thing. We made plans to meet a little later in front of the Sayyidna al-Hussein mosque.
Tuesday, 24 February, Cairo: Midnight probably struck while I was standing waiting for Mahmud. We rendezvoused at the Mosque (Islamic Cairo) and he came back with me to my Zamalek apartment where we watched television, drank soda pop and snuggled. He ate the Negrita Bimbo. It had gotten quite late, and I decided to back out of going to the Giza night club, especially since his poor English had led me to believe admission would be free when in fact it would be thirty pounds. He knows someone at the club, I think, so drinks would have been free. Fretting that my sole Negrita Bimbo was gone, I went running around the Zamalek streets in a turban in the middle of the night looking for, but not finding, Bimbos. The kiosk at which I had bought them was in theory open, but the men there were asleep, and I didn’t want to wake them. I went to a different kiosk and bought Pastos, which are the same as the original Bimbo, but couldn’t sate my Negrita appetite.

Polly and I explored Central Cairo. We started at crowded, congested Ramses Square, the immense replica of the Colossus of Ramses II lost among the highways and overpasses. Just south of it, we saw al-Fath Mosque, which was spectacular. For a fairly small mosque, its minaret is very large. Right across the street from it, we saw the lovely Sabil of Umm Mohammed ‘Ali. We looked in some bookstores on Faggala (not Feygele [‎פֿײגעלע]) Street, and continued walking eastward, saw from a distance the pretty architecture of the College de la Salle and came to Zahir Square and the rather stark minaret-less Mosque of Baybars [‎جامع السلطان الظاهر بيبرس] there. We continued to Sakakini Square and saw the gorgeous Sakakini Palace. It was incredible with its rococo style and statues of pretty ladies all over, but in a sad, horrible state of disrepair. Unlike with the Baron’s Palace in Heliopolis, at least so far as we know, there are plans to renovate this palace.

We took a taxi to Islamic Cairo so that Polly could return the jacket that had been mistakenly given to her unfinished. Thank goodness we returned, because inside Atlas Silks we found a reproduction of an old clipping from Al-Ahram newspaper featuring a photograph of the current owner’s father with no one short of Ann Miller! We saw many of the usual suspects in the Khan: Dahab, Mahmud, Hisham, Hisham’s friend Ahmad, little Magdi, Blal etc. We tried a new restaurant and were terribly disappointed; all the food at Haram al-Husseini on Hussein Square was terribly bland and uninspired. I saw sexy Ahmad, a waiter at ad-Dahan (Ulad Yusuf), and apologized we hadn’t eaten by him. We wandered down Mu‘izz li-Din again, and this time Polly got to get trapped in Nour with Hasan and encounter boisterous Mohamed S. We found a great little used-book shop near Wikalat Haramein with a magazine on display, proudly showing off its full-page photograph of Irene Dunne.
Wednesday, 25 February, Cairo: Polly and I again stayed up quite late talking—until around 05:00, I think—and wound up sleeping most of the day away. We had little time to do much of anything but take care of some chores and eat together at l’Aubergine in Zamalek. We returned home and Polly continued packing. At 23:25, Mustafa arrived and whisked her away to the airport. And then there was one.
Thursday, 26 February, Cairo: I stayed up far too late in Sigma Net (Zamalek) fruitlessly researching additional Jewish sites in Cairo. I woke fairly late and went out to have another of Osama’s henchmen put a blade to my throat. Since I really wanted to see the winter variety show at the American University in Cairo, I decided to promenade to the area around Tahrir Square (Central Cairo). I walked down Saray al-Gezira from 26th July Street from Zamalek into Gezira to Sa‘ad Zaghloul Square. I saw Cairo Tower (Burg al-Masr) and the Andalusian Garden from the outside. Looking to the east, I of course saw the lovely Nile, my view taken up however by the less than lovely Foreign Ministry, Radio & TV Building, Ramses Hilton and Nile Hilton. (The Foreign Ministry is the prettiest among them though.) The statue at Sa‘ad Zaghloul Square is very similar to the one in Alexandria. The Tahrir Bridge, with its immense lion sculptures guarding each side, is lovely, but not as lovely as its view. Looking north toward the 6th of October Bridge, the evening East Nile was breathtaking. Looking south toward Manial, I saw the Semiramis Inter-Continental, Helnan Shepheard’s and the Grand Hyatt Cairo, not as pretty as the northern view, although the Hyatt complex is pretty striking.

Tahrir Square, on the other side, was full of traffic, but a wide-open space compared to Tala‘at Harb Square’s forest of buildings and Ramses Square’s claustrophobic maze of highways and overpasses. My growling stomach led me further eastward down Tahrir Street not knowing whether I wanted to find to find a fuul/ta‘amiyya place, a fiteer/kushari place, or a kebap/shwarma place. Luckily, I discovered Morgana (not to be confused with the Zamalek shop), which had every kind of Egyptian cuisine under one roof. My waiter Ahmad was very friendly and accomodating. Seeing my videotaping various things which caught my eyes, numerous workers became eager to be videotaped. The little meal turned into a media circus, and I loved it; different workers posed smiling and holding food. I stuffed myself with a chicken shwarma sandwich, a fuul sandwich, a plate of cauliflower, a can of Coca Light and a bottle of water, and the bill was less than US$4. I left amidst waves and goodbyes and proceeded to Ewart Hall with barely enough time to see the show. Unfortunately, I never made it into the building. The security officers at the door were very friendly and even seemed sad at my predicament, but American University doesn’t allow anyone, students and staff included, to have a videocamera anywhere on campus, nor could they hold it for me at the door as had been done at the British Council. I shrugged my shoulders, and left unable to see the dubious talent in the variety show. I returned to Tahrir Square and looked at the people and architecture, seeing the outsides of the Mogamma and the Arab League Building, but best of all the ‘Omar Makram Mosque and the lovely park in front on it frequented by clapping teenagers, annoying children, praying men and a great recent statue of beturbaned Sheykh ‘Omar Makram. I walked back across Tahrir Bridge, this time stopping for even longer periods to absorb the views. A man on a boat passing under the bridge and I waved at each other. The weather was perfect: warm but breezy. The traffic behind me made the bridge rumble and shake.

Back in Gezira, I attempted to enter the Pedestrian Corniche and was told that with the videocamera I’d have to pay six times the normal admission fee. I was outraged and stupidly left, realizing only afterward that the total would be about US$2. I walked back up Saraya al-Gezira to Zamalek. I took a closer look at that cute mosque on Hassan Sabry Street with the green lights on its minaret. Then I decided I’d check out the cute waiters at the Insomnia Snack Bar. As usual, long-haired Willy remembered me and chatted with me, showing me the review in the new issue of Al-Ahram Weekly. I ordered a “tort du chocolateri” (or “chococlateri,” according to the check) and sat upstairs, and “Mocha” (really Muhammad) was my waiter, although “Midu” (also really Muhammad) did impromptu silly posing for my passing camera. I went to the fabulous Alfa Market and heard American English coming out of the mouths of two young women descending on the escalator. I said hello, and they were very friendly and chatty. They are Sue, originally from New York, and Lydia, originally from Connecticut, and they’re both students at American University. I told them my tale of woe, and they both were of course familiar with and baffled by the rule regarding videocameras. Sue used the word “resilient.” After, I went to the Metro supermarket to pick up Al-Ahram Weekly and videotape the cover of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. I was disappointed there was no sign of The Protocols, although I guess I should have been thrilled. ‘Ala’, the person who collects payment for the periodicals but who is rarely anywhere near them, was this time right where he was supposed to be and attempted unsuccessfully to talk to me in Arabic. He just kept trying despite my not understanding, as if I’d learn if he just kept talking.
Friday, 27 February, Cairo: I didn’t sleep well so wound up sleeping on and off all day. I am planning to wake early Saturday and visit the Sha‘ar hash-Shamayim Synagogue. The two prior sentences represent my excuses for my day’s revolving around Zamalek restaurants. Staying in the neighborhood and doing little other than eating makes me feel like I didn’t do enough. I couldn’t resist, and I walked to Roy’s Country Kitchen in the Cairo Marriott. The food was a little pricey by Egyptian standards, but it was a hoot. All the waiters wore plaid shirts and oversized overalls. There were random street signs and old advertisements all over the walls to create a feeling of Americana. (What music I noticed, though, was British: Shirley Bassey and Lulu.) My waiter was Wagdy Mohsen, and I ordered a chicken fajita sandwich that was basically chicken shwarma on a hamburger bun. It came with not one but two side dishes, so it was quite filling. None of the attentive, friendly staff ever said “You’re welcome,” instead following each of my thank-yous with another “Thank you.” This of course prompted me to say “No, thank you” and continue the infinite loop. When I wandered into an empty part of the restaurant (the non-smoking section, of course) to look at the kitschy wall decorations, manager Waleed Soltan, probably the cutest staff member there, cornered me, paid a lot of attention to me, and asked lots of questions. When I left, Wagdy said “See you tomorrow.” There was an unusual number of rowdy black Africans in the streets near the Marriott, some of whom looked like they were about to fight. Not satisfied with a filling meal and a bunch of waiters with whom to flirt, I returned to the Insomnia Snack Bar for more of both. Again, “Mocha” was my waiter, and I ordered the “cheesy cake” which came with a smiling face made of syrup on the plate. I was looking at two issues of the Cairo Times, and “Midu” said I could take them away for free because I’m “special.” He also tried very hard to make conversation with me in English, but we simply could not understand one another. I returned to Sigma Net and, lo and behold, saw Sue and Lydia again, but again failed to videotape them.
Saturday, 28 February, Cairo: I decided to go out promenading in Central Cairo. I left Zamalek by crossing the 26th of July Bridge into Bulaq and saw the Mosque of Abu al-Ela. I continued eastward, arrived Downtown and found Sha‘ar hash-Shamayim Synagogue. Not only wasn’t I allowed inside, it was surrounded by a barricade so that even the sidewalk in front of it was inaccessible, and “protected” by about ten policemen or soldiers at various points in front of its façade. (I found a Web page indicating Shabbat may not have been the best time to go, despite what the Lonely Planet guide says.) I went afterward to the Lehnert & Landrock Bookshop which, lovely as it was, was nothing I hadn’t really seen before, despite the copious recommendations. I wandered, saw the Cinéma Metro and crowded el-‘Abd bakery, and decided to eat at À l’Américaine. It was spacious and trendy, and they enforced their minimum charge policy despite being nearly empty. Akrami the waiter followed me around, as workers in the Alfa Market do, matching my every step no matter how tiny. The “macaroni” (more like moussaka) was pasty and too salty, but the éclair was spectacular. Sit in the non-smoking section, and get ignored! I was served by various workers as Akrami seemed to lose interest until it came time to pay. I continued wandering and saw some lovely buildings not named in my guide book, like the Ministry of Awqaf. I was amazed at my self-assurance in crossing Cairo streets when there are maybe five traffic lights in the whole city. One young woman asked me “Anta Irani?” (“Are you Iranian?”), and a man at Tala‘at Harb Square merely said the word “Indian” as I passed. The latter reminded me of the man in the Marrakech souq who merely said “African Black” as I passed, or even the man in the Pyramid (the nightclub in New York, that is) who asked if I were Pakistani when I’m sure he knew I wasn’t. Wandering past all the ultra-chic shops on Qasr al-Nil Street, I found the charming little Sherifeen Street. At the far end was the darkened, nondescript building housing the Éspace Karim Francis gallery. I went inside and saw their Nora Bachel exhibition, and believe me, I should’ve stayed in bed. The gallery was really tiny, which in and of itself is not a bad thing, but the art by Austrian-born Nora Bachel was just miserable. Her “I Love You” series wasn’t so bad, but everything else was minimalist crap, like a big white canvas with nothing on it but a few small punctuation marks. Oh, how deep! There was a white shag carpet in the middle of the room with a big star cut out of the middle of it which was filled with blue bottles. It would look really lovely in someone’s living room, but a gallery? Whatever. I intended to see more galleries, but I walked down the wrong street (Tala‘at Harb instead of Mahmoud Bassiouni, if you must know) and mistakenly wound up at Tahrir Square, so I just crossed the Tahrir Bridge to Gezira and walked up Saray al-Gezira along the Nile back to Zamalek.

Arriving at the intersection of 26th of July Street and Mansour Mohammed Street, I finally saw the sidewalk setup of the phonograph-inscribed compact disc merchant, but only his little, annoying son was there and the compact discs were not. Every time I tried to look at a particular section of phonograph records, the child would stand in my light and put his hand on whatever disc I was touching at the time. When I tried to avoid him and move to a different section, he of course moved too. I guess he thought he was somehow being a good, little salesman by being attentive to me, but I had to just get away from him to return when the adult and the CDs are there.
Sunday, 29 February, Cairo: In the wee hours of morning, I decided to get a snack and possibly socialize a little. I walked all the way to the other side of Zamalek because the Lonely Planet guide said Maison Thomas was open twenty-four hours. When I arrived, I found it closed. I walked all the way back and went to the Goal restaurant again and had perhaps the best ice cream sundae of my life. It had very little syrup, but lots of nuts, including coconut shavings, and even raisins. I watched two attractive young men smoke waterpipes and play a card game so fast and furious cards would occasionally fly out of their hands onto the floor. Upon awakening, I went to Hana again, located within the Nile Zamalik Hotel, for Korean cuisine, passing a huge traffic jam and many high school students on Isma‘il Mohammed Street. My spicy chicken was great, and I got to eavesdrop on the awful part-Arabic, part-English conversation of some young men with the silhouettes of upturned mops at the next table as they discussed American action and horror movies and cracking various joints in their bodies.

A friendly taxi driver named Husam drove me to al-Azhar Mosque, and I thence walked to the Northern Cemetery (Al-Qarafat ash-Sharqiyyah) (Islamic Cairo). I saw the Tomb of Emir Tashtimur, but it appeared to be labeled for “at-Tuit” or something like that. I passed the gate into the formerly beautiful Qaitbay Complex and saw the still-lovely Mosque of Qaitbay and then the crumbling Rab‘ Sultan Qaytbay that gave only hints of its former glory. Then I passed the Complex of Sultan Ashraf Barsbey, which includes the Takiya Ahmed Abu Saif, then the Tomb of ar-Rifa‘i. I was attracting some attention being the only tourist present, but everybody was very friendly, greeting me with hellos and welcomes, rather than trying to con me. I continued past the Khanqah-Mausoleum of Ibn Barquq, and saw some boys playing ball outside the 1967 War Cemetary. I passed the Tomb of Asfur and went back the general direction whence I came via Sultan Ahmed Street. There are apparently some lovely green-domed mosques or other Islamic structures on some street parallel to and between Sultan Ahmed and the street on which the Complexes of Qaitbay and Sultan Ashraf Barsbey are laid out. All in all, it was an incredible trip and one I presume not frequently made by tourists. Walking again along Azhar Street on my way back to the Khan, I saw the stunning Mashiakhet al-Azhar and I made the acquaintance of three friendly, chatty young men: “Pero,” “Mumo” and “Mero,” really Ahmed Kamel, Husam and ‘Umar, respectively. I walked around the Khan and finally took up Mr. Hussein’s (Dracula’s) invitation and visited ‘Amber Perfumes on Muski Street. While there drinking Seven Up, I heard him explicitly tell some Finnish tourists he was 165 years old, thus confirming my and Polly’s belief he is Dracula. Muhammad (“Bido”) was anxious to talk to me on Jewish subject matter, telling me that day was the counterpart to the Jewish holiday Pesah but on the Higri calendar. (I guess he meant ‘Ashura, but I thought that wasn’t until 2 March.) I entered the Mosque of al-Mutahhar, labeled the “Mosque Sabil Kuttab of Abdul Rahman Katkhuda” based on a previous structure on the same site, some elements of which, like the minaret, remain, but should not be confused with the Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel Katkhuda a few blocks north. I was shown around by an impromptu guide met at the door. Then I bought more poor quality and overpriced audiocassettes from Abuzaid and Muhammad ‘Usman (a/k/a Khadigah). On my walk down Badestan, I saw Mohamed W., and spent incredible amounts of time sitting and chatting with him (and sometimes workers Hani and Magdi) about, among other subjects, old music and female vocalists (Umm Kulsum, Asmahan, Nagat, Laila Mourad, Shafiqqah etc. etc.). Mohamed W. is great; although I was just hanging out without intent to buy anything, he bought me a small bottle of water and then even roz bi-laban, a scrumptious milky rice pudding. His trousers were torn from the broken chair on which he frequently sits at work. After hours with him and his workers, I thought of New Yorkers for whom gifts might be in order, and he gave me really low prices. Eventually I walked away to visit Dahab just a few stores down and watched him and his worker close up shop. Dahab and I walked to Azhar Street together talking about whether we’d go to his home or mine, but we decided to part company, partly because I was tired. Tired as I was though, I went right back to Mohamed W., Hani and Magdi at the Ahmed ‘Orabi Shop.