22 February 2004

Third week in Egypt, 16–22 February 2004

Monday, 16 February, Cairo [‎القاهرة]: (Presidents’ Day in the United States.) In the wee hours, probably shortly after midnight, I visited the Metro supermarket in Zamalek [الزمالك], and Hani [هاني] asked if I were ill because I supposedly looked yellow. I looked in the mirror right behind him and thought I looked as cotton-candy pink as ever.

With the weather getting comfortably warmer, Polly and I returned to Doqqi and finally found the site of the Nadim mashrabiyyah workshop only to discover it had moved to another location. Azoy geyt es in Mitsraim. [אזױ גײט עס אין מצרים܁]

On we moved to Heliopolis (Masr al-Gedida مصر الجديدة). Heliopolis is lovely. We arrived in front of the ‘Uruba Presidential Palace; after videotaping the tram, I briefly turned my videocamera toward the wall surrounding the palace, and a guard nearly confiscated my videocassette. This should serve as a warning to any tourist not to photograph any government buildings or other government property. We walked along Mirghani Street and ‘Uruba (Airport) Road to the Baron’s Palace (Qasr al-Baron). It is in Hindu rather than any Egyptian style, and it’s absolutely stunning but in a terrible state of disrepair. The façades are ornate with numerous statues of gods and monsters, but also graffiti and boarded-up windows. Polly and I agreed it really deserves more attention from the government. Then we saw the Basilica and walked around, stopping to eat in Shabrawi’s, full of lots and lots of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food and low prices. I had my first bowl of kushari. We hailed a taxi to return to Zamalek, and it stopped for us on the far side of the street, but the traffic was so intense, we took a long time to cross the street. The driver stepped out of the car, crossed the street to meet us and then crossed back with us, escorting us through the dense traffic. In the taxi, I discreetly taped some of the ‘Uruba Presidential Palace.

Later, we went to ‘Agouza [العجوزة] to see a lecture, “Ancient Egyptian Mummies: Life and Death over 5,000 Years,” presented by the Egypt Exploration Society at the British Council. The speaker was the incomparable Prof. Rosalie David from Manchester University and Manchester Museum, whom I had only prior seen on télévision (Secrets of the Pharaohs). My videocamera was not allowed beyond the metal detectors, so again, go visit the British Council yourself or watch Secrets, or both.
Tuesday, 17 February, Cairo: Although the Lonely Planet guide to Egypt calls it the “Fish Garden,” the sign on the outside made it clear Polly and I actually visited the “Aquarium Grotto Garden” (Hadiqat al-Asmak) in Zamalek. It was very pretty. An annoying guide/security officer attached himself to us very quickly, ignoring the park-like area while pulling us through it, and bringing us to a cave-like area with displays of fish, some alive, some dead. He led us past a barricade into a bat-infested area that he said would eventually become a museum open to the public. He of course made sure to request his tip while we were quite secluded, then proceeded to shake my hand goodbye, kiss me on the cheeks, then attempt to kiss me on the lips and touch my buttocks. (Can you imagine? What kind of girl did he think I was?) We firmly rebuffed his advances, but he followed us around a little more, in part trying to get us to stay a few minutes in other fairly secluded areas, probably hoping for more bakhshish. When he left us alone, we could appreciate the unusual trees in the park, and the unusually large number of opposite-sex couples pitching woo. Apparently, this is where they go to escape the public mores dictating only same-sex couples may openly display physical affection. (This last observation must have been overlooked by our guide.)

Polly and I continued walking, crossing the infamous West Nile and strolling in ‘Agouza or Doqqi.

We soon hopped in a taxi and sped to Hussein Square (Islamic Cairo) where we began our walking tour of the area north of the Khan al-Khalili [خان الخليلي]. It started on Gamaliyya Street alongside the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein, a mosque with the lovely umbrellas of which we are well familiar. We strolled north through Gamaliyya, saw various mosques and attempted to see the Musafirkhanah Palace not knowing at the time it had been destroyed in 1998. We entered the lovely Kahla Workshops Complex and were shown various artisans working in brass, aluminum and one other material I’ll have to ask Polly to identify. We passed the Wikala of Qaitbey and went through the Gate of Victory (Bab an-Nasr) and thus the Northern Walls. We turned left onto Galal Street, passing but not entering the Mosque of al-Hakim, then turned left again passing again through the Northern Walls via Bab al-Futuh. We walked south along Mu‘izz li-Din Allah Street [‎شارع المعز لدين ﷲ الفاطمي] and saw all the metalwork shops and the Mosque of Suleiman Silahdar. We were smart enough to take a small eastward excursion down Darb al-Asfur and paid admission to see three beautiful attached houses primarily in Mamluk style, but also with later, more modern additions. The first, biggest and most gorgeous is Beit Suhaymi, and we were shown room after room after room of it by our charming guide Ayhab. Many of the aspects of the house’s design were described in Turkish rather than Arabic words, and there was plenty of mashrabiyya [مشربية] to be seen. There was a display of how run down the place looked before restoration by philanthropic Kuwaitis. Ayhab also showed us the other two houses, the Kharazati and Mustafa Ga‘afar. We returned walking southward on Mu‘izz li-Dinn, passing the Mosque of al-Aqmar (the Moonlit), the Sabil-Kuttab of ‘Abdel Katkhuda and Beshtak Palace (Qasr Beshtak). The next area, Bein al-Qasreen (“Between the Palaces”), was badly flooded and muddy, and a number of its monuments were under construction. We could still see the Hammam as-Sultan (“Hammam [Bacha] of Sultan Inal” on the sign), the Madrassa & Mausoleum of Barquq (“Al-Madrasa al-Kamiliya” on the sign), the Madrassa & Mausoleum of Qalaun and other structures. To avoid the flood and mud, we detoured down an alley to Beit al-Qadi Square, resumed walking down Mu‘izz li-Dinn and eventually back in to the Khan. We were so exhausted from all that walking, we only had strength enough to sip Diet Pepsi in a Hussein Square café and have our shoes shined. One of the young men working there had a scarf around his neck that was very Isadora Duncan.

We looked in about a thousand different bookstores around Opera Square (Central Cairo) looking for a guide book in Arabic, but found none. We walked down Qasr an-Nil Street to Tala‘at Harb and ate in Café Riche where I tried and enjoyed their chicken fatta.
Wednesday, 18 February, Cairo: Polly and I stayed up all morning in our Zamalek apartment talking about Uptown and Bronx drag queens, and slept all day.

We ate at a Swiss/German restaurant called Restaurant Tirol in Mohandiseen [المهندسين] and walked around the neighborhood which reminded Polly of Forrest Hills. We saw a store called Naïve which sold “succesories for ever,” a store called Virus and an ice cream parlor called Sultana [‎سلطانة].

We took a taxi to the Khan (Islamic Cairo) to search unsuccessfully for faience beads, particularly because we weren’t 100% certain what they were, but were successful in seeing our old friend Ibrahim whom we’d met in 2002 in ad-Dahan.
Thursday, 19 February, Cairo: Is today some sort of holiday? Supposedly, today is some big Coptic holiday, according to someone to whom Polly spoke in the Khan yesterday. From our Zamalek apartment window, we could see lights strung all around Kitkat Square on the other side of the West Nile, so we walked over and took a look. We walked all over what I guess was Imbaba or ‘Agouza. A lot of folks were out, and there were various “events” going on in various places, and what looked like a wedding in the street on a particular block, and dancing in the street on another block.

Then we turned our attention once again to Islamic Cairo and visited the Khan, where we saw Mohamed W. and Ekramy and many others. The umbrellas were open at the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein, and there were crowds at Hussein Square well past midnight. Does anyone know what the special occasion might be? We finally sat in Fishawy’s Café, and I don’t really understand its allure. It was loud and crowded and in most every way unrelaxing. Why is it the most popular café?
Friday, 20 February, Cairo: Midnight probably struck when Polly and I were in Fishawy. We kept wandering around and decided to again visit Gamaliyya. We walked north on Gamaliyya Street again, almost all the way to Bab an-Nasr. You know, there’s a lot of lovely unmarked Islamic architecture there that seems to have fallen into some state of disrepair (like the Mosque of Beybars al-Jashankir and Mosque of Gamal ad-Din), and we could see it and appreciate it so much better in the very early morning when the crowds weren’t present. Returning to the Khan, Polly pointed out some scruffy merchant on Gamaliyya Street near the Sabil-Kuttab of Ahmed Pasha and identified him as our friend Blal al-Rehany from 2002. We chatted with him and confirmed that he is indeed Blal, but I still couldn’t recognize him. He certainly looked far less scruffy (as well as more attractive) in 2002.

After sleeping, I heard continuous amplified talking from presumably some nearby minaret. It was far longer than the usual daily prayers of “Allahu akbar [ﷲ أكبر]” etc. (Perhaps it was some sort of Friday sermon.) When I strolled around Zamalek, I encountered a large number of male rear ends facing me and obstructing my path. The sidewalk of Isma‘il Mohammed Street and a block’s worth of asphalt and sidewalk of some cross street were filled to overflowing with praying men on their faces at the intersection. (Actually, they overflowed onto part of Isma‘il Mohammed’s asphalt, and car’s were having a difficult time navigating past them.) I suspect this is related to ‘Eid al-Adha or the Higri New Year (Ra’s as-Sanah), although it seems a little early. I went to Sigma Net, the local Internet café, to update this journal and heard moaning coming from the speakers of a nearby terminal. I glanced over at the screen and saw a movie of a naked woman. I glanced at the terminal’s user and saw his hand on his lap. Hmm. My day quickly went from sacred to profane. I also encountered a Sultana parlor in Zamalek. Let’s see if I have the guts to enter. I certainly have the gut.

Now despite all the different ethnic and religious groups (Jews included) in Egypt living in relative peace and harmony, I have seen what appear to be a few anti-Isra’eli or anti-Zionist books being sold in religious, Islamic bookstores and some small sidewalk magazine kiosks. I was surprised to find nothing short of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in Arabic being sold amongst the fashion and entertainment magazines and newspapers at the twenty-four–hour Metro supermarket. In defense of Egyptian society and its attitudes toward Jews, I should tell you the current issue of Al-Ahram Weekly, also sold at the Metro, has an article proclaiming The Protocols a forgery. Ismail Serageldin, director of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, is quoted as saying, “The book is well-known as a 19th century fabrication to foment anti-Jewish feelings.” (“More Than a Building,” in “Focus,” Al-Ahram Weekly, no. 678, 19–25 February 2004, p. 13.)

Later, I went to “Wisdom Hall” at El Sawy Cultural Center (Sakiet el Sawy ساقية عبد المنعم الصاوي) to see the Nagham Masry [‎نغم مصري] (Egyptian Melodies) group, a rock’n’roll outfit who perform in Arabic with a mixture of Western and Eastern influences. The space is adorable, tucked away under the 15th of May Bridge; when the concert was fairly quiet, traffic could be heard overhead. It was a little like what I imagine a Junoon [جنون] concert to be like. Considering it was rock’n’roll with a male vocalist, I was thoroughly entertained especially because the music was diverse. For instance, they did a Latin-influenced number, a Caribbean-influenced number and four completely acoustic numbers, three of which were done entirely with Oriental instruments. The great composer and mediocre singer was Sherbini Ahmed [‎شربيني أحمد]; he sang his own compositions with the lyrics of three famous Egyptian poets, primarily Ahmed Fou’ad Nagem [‎أحمد فؤاد نجم]. The crowd went wild over sexy guitarist Usu [‎أوسو], who I guess was quite proficient at his craft, but I don’t know much from electric guitar. I do know he had great hair and a cute face, but a stick-figure body and rubber-band limbs (which possibly help him play better guitar). The audience treated him and Sherbini as if they were big celebrities, but my attention was more captured by the Oriental musicians: Sharif Kamal [‎شريف كامل] the sexy qanun [‎قانون] player, Hani Badir [‎هاني بدير] on Oriental drums [‎إيقاعات شرقية], ‘Ali Siddiqi [‎علي صدقي] who made love to his ‘ud [‎عود] with his face, and ‘Asm as-Sayyid [‎عاصم السيد] playing his violin horizontally supported by his shoulder blade rather than vertically supported by his thigh or knee. The bass guitar player Samr Gurg [‎سامر جورج] was cute, but again I don’t really know from electric guitar. (I apologize for not knowing or using the performers’ preferred spellings.) I don’t understand Arabic, but even I could tell at least some of the songs were religious, but I guess they wouldn’t be “Egyptian Melodies” without mentioning God. (“Allah hay” [‎ﷲ حي] was performed twice because a group of young women in the audience shouted their request.) There were plenty of folk in the audience with whom I wouldn’t have minded making friends, especially since I’d be in Egypt alone for a week and a half, but everyone was lingering in clusters of friends and chatting a mile a minute in Arabic. I went home a few blocks away hoping that my unusual appearance would help audience members (or performers) remember me and approach me if they see me again.
Saturday, 21 February, Cairo: Unfortunately, Miss Polly was feeling under the weather, so we did not attend a Sufi dance performance as we had planned. I instead shopped in Zamalek and ventured out to a number of Zamalek galleries. One of the first few times we visited the Khan this year, Polly went into a favorite store in search of a golden elephant she had seen in 2002, but unfortunately it had since been sold. I searched all over Zamalek and finally found Morgana, a store where I had seen an elephant pin that might serve well as substitute for Polly’s lost treasure. I also went to the Romancia (which the Lonely Planet guidebook calls “Romantica”) bookshop and bought her a sappy card. Because I was all dressed up for the dancing, turban and all, the folks in the galleries treated me like I was some sort of foreign dignitary, piling all manner of booklets, pamphlets, posters and programs into my eager arms. First I went to Gallery Picasso [‎بيكاسو] and saw the exhibit “Thus Spoke the Sphinx” [‎هكذا تكلم أبو الهول] with paintings and drawings by el Dessouky Fahmy [‎الدسوقي فهمي]. Despite the title, there was virtually nothing Phara‘onic or even noticeably Egyptian in the works, but they did include paintings of plainly dressed and bored women with unusually large feet. The lady at the gallery, Mrs. Zizi, asked if I were from the Indian embassy and then followed me around and tried to explain everything to me. She gave me a poster, a strawberry sherbet sucking candy and a thick, full-color book she said was made to be given out to journalists. Then I went to Safar Khan and saw the exhibit “Egypt,” paintings and drawings by Anna Boghiguian. The gallery itself was very pretty, with a very high ceiling that allowed a wooden mezzanine around the walls creating a second story. The paintings were nice enough, but seemed very amateurish. I liked them much more for the chosen images of Egypt, both rural and urban, then for any technical skill. Some even seemed unfinished: drawn in pen and ink, and then partially painted. The lady in that gallery asked if I were an artist or journalist, and the souvenir book was too expensive for my taste. I wandered a while along 26th July Street and encountered a street merchant selling phonograph records. Nothing really tickled my fancy, especially not his collection of CD-ROMs offering Internet access. I couldn’t imagine how these originally free, promotional compact discs would possibly be sold. He said “No computer,” removed one from its case revealing a spiral groove on its face, placed it on a phonograph, and when he placed the tonearm on the disc, I actually heard tinny music! It was the most amazing and unexpected thing! He even had a little adapter to allow the disc’s hole to fit the spindle properly. Because he spoke no English, I couldn’t find out if he carved the groove or acquired the disc that way. I should have bought one, and I think I’ll return and do so. I stepped into the Insomnia Snack Bar hoping to eat amongst their good-looking staff and customers, but they were packed. Every seat was taken upstairs, so I couldn’t order their “Cuba cubana” sandwich (unless it were to take away). Then I went to the Zamalek Art Gallery [‎قاعة الزمالك للفن] and saw the exhibit “Time and Place” [‎الزمان والمكان] featuring oil paintings by Gazbia Sirry [‎جاذبية سري]. I was almost completely ignored because the artist herself was there being interviewed on video. I was trying unsuccessfully to walk around the gallery without the parquet floors creaking, lest I be heard in the video. I walked away with a program and poster to add to my rapidly growing collection of fire hazards (paper) for my home. Last but not least, I went to Khan al-Maghraby [‎خان المغربي] to see paintings by Alexandrian artist Sa‘id el-Adawi. Not only was he not present, he was dead, having become so in 1973. His paintings were very organic, even when depicting inorganic things. Everything had round edges. He included a lot of abstract, scantily-clad women with large bodies and very small heads; one even seemed to have three breasts. The two ladies there were asking about my clothing and complimenting it. I don’t understand Arabic, but they seemed to be debating my clothing’s (or my) origins, saying a list of countries or ethnicities. I walked away with a program and poster, the younger of the ladies having struggled to fit the poster somewhere within my concentric collection.
Sunday, 22 February, Cairo: Midnight brought Polly’s birthday, and the poor dear was sick. I presented her with the elephant, a completely symbolic, otherwise useless gift. I wouldn’t even expect her to wear it, although she said she’d wear it where her heart should be. Sitting here in the Sigma Net Internet café in Zamalek, I heard a radio commercial with Arabic lyrics to the tune of “Popcorn,” by (Jew) Gershon Kingsley. This place frequently plays some unusual music: “Stille Nacht,” Louis Armstrong and some extremely vulgar rap. I went to Goal restaurant about two blocks from Qasr Abu al-Feda. As the name might suggest, it was sort of sport-oriented, with pictures of soccer players on the walls and a soccer game on television. I didn’t mind because I was staring at the North African soccer players’ butts, and when the game was over, they showed Arabic music videos. It was a nice little place with an interesting menu, with regard to both food and misspellings. I was about to order their “milk cheek chocolate” until I realized it was a milk shake, so instead I ordered their strawberry drink which I was surprised was carbonated. Also on the menu was a drink with the sexually frustrating name “Virgin Marry.” I avoided their “specialiaties” and ordered their fusilli al tonno and chicken soup. A sexy young man I had noticed at a nearby table came to sit at my table to ask me questions about my videocamera. We exchanged electronic-mail addresses so I could send him stills from the test footage I shot of him to show him how nicely the camera records. His real name is “Ahmad,” but his friends call him “Mondy” because he used to live in America. (I didn’t understand either, nor did I ask.) I went back to the intersection of 26th of July and Mansour Mohammed Streets in search of the merchant with the phonograph-inscribed compact discs, but he wasn’t there. I entered the nearby Alfa Market [‎الفا ماركت], which the Lonely Planet guide calls “ABC Supermarket,” and was blown away. It’s a big supermarket that puts the Metro to shame. Then I saw there were not one but two more floors. Upon ascending, I saw it was really a department store with plenty of everything anyone would expect in any department store: housewares, clothing, books, music, stationery and art supplies, plastic containers etc. etc. etc. I must return with Polly.