Though true to the hype, Egypt is mostly desert–only 3 percent of land is arable–when you open your eyes to it, Cairo has a pretty hopping fruit and veggie scene going back to ancient times.
“Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” is a phrase you might remember from history class, a tour book or even thrown in conversation. Historically, agriculture was Egypt’s greatest economic commodity. In 2000 agriculture accounted for approximately 11 percent of Egypt’s GDP and over 1/3 of the population was employed in agriculture.
The majority of produce is grown in the Delta, an area north of Cairo bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The rest is grown along the Nile, between Cairo and Aswan, just south of the High Dam, which controls the once annual Nile floods and ensures reliable water distribution throughout the year.
Living here temporarily, eating at cafes, restaurants and street vendors, it’s easy to believe the country is largely devoid of all produce except oil drenched eggplants, taamiya (falafel but with fava beans) salad and plentiful fresh juices. Adding to the desert theme, population locations i.e. the pyramids, temples, ruins, desert oases and beaches on the north coast and in Sinai are naturally sand-prone
Since settling down in an apartment with a kitchen and spending more time with Egyptians and Iraqis who cook, I have discovered an inspiring world of fruits and veggies throughout the megalopolis.
A market behind Sayidda Zeinab mosque and one surrounding the Saad Zagloul metro stop, both within a five minute walk of my flat, are where I usually shop.
I never had a fresh fig until a couple months ago a coworker bought a bag while taking a walk from work. Sweet, with a unique texture, they have quickly become one of my favorite fruits.
Guavas are another I never had fresh until living here. Though I drank the juice previously, I had pictured Guavas as papayas and thought the guavas on the streets were pares. When Syonara served me a plate of sliced guavas I learned they were something entirely different. Now I cannot quite imagine my life, let alone breakfasts, without them.
I first spied a couple lonely pomegranates at a small fruit stand across my street about a month ago. Being one of my all-time favorites, and an apparent anomaly in Egypt, I snatched them up. Though completely unripe, they were a promise of what has come. Since, sweet, juicy, pink pomegranates have matriculated to many fruits stands, living up to pomegranate lovers desires and costing around $1 USD a kilo.
Though I haven’t found dates as good as Mahmoud’s to date, I’ve been entranced by the many varieties. The traditional way to break fast for Ramadan, dates –dried, fresh, unripe, overripe, yellow, red and purple are profuse.
The other day I dashed home from work at 2:00 p.m. to grab a forgotten computer cord. I was shocked to see my neighborhood market more bustling than ever. Not only was it the hottest part of the day, but most Egyptians are fasting for Ramadan. The hours shift slightly each day with the sunrise and set–no food, water, cigarettes, sex etc, from approximately 4:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
It seems shopping for food might be one way the fasters distract themselves until the moment of consumption.
I have a lot to say about my work in Egypt, the Iraqi refugees and other I work with and the status and image of refugees more broadly. To begin, here is what I wrote for the Globe .
Though I was originally going to write this about a month ago, I postponed because I was concerned anything I wrote would be petty, not giving people an accurate idea of who these people are or what they have gone through, what they face or what they mean to me.
Also complicating things, is my role as a coworker, professional confident and employee. Though only a first person-blog entry, (as opposed to a reported news article) the lines between journalist and advocate, subjective and objective have become tangled and hazy. Though it’s might be possible to accept what is without overanalyzing all the whys and hows, I prefer making things complicated.
So, more to come…later. I have an appeal and training material to prepare. (The main reason I’ve neglected blogging recently.)
While the idea that I have different “lives” across the world is something I resist, It’s true that it’s often hard to forge connections between lifestyles, friends, scenery and activities, which are vastly different. Life as a novella, sometimes seems more fitting.
Showing Jess my street, apartment, favorite juice stands and Sudanese restaurants, (where I can never order quite what I want) Boston, the choices I made to be here and the continuity of my life and identity felt more tangible.
Seeing Jess accept the anomalies of Cairo, hang out in my office and flat, and laugh and argue with my friends, my world felt smaller.
We learned an important lesson in Alex.
Being a tourist during Ramadan is rough.
After catching a bus arriving and enjoying a delicious fish lunch, we set off for the two “touristy” destinations Jess was interested in. The first, Fort Qaitbey, is a citadel built in the 1480s and revamped by Mohammed Ali. According to my guidebook it’s the site of a lighthouse, which was one of the ancient wonders of the world, but was reduced to rubble by earthquakes in 1303.
Remembering the views of the city, fishermen, vivid green algae and salty fresh breeze, I was eager to return too. Upon arrival we learned it had abbreviated hours and we couldn’t enter.
Off to our next destination, Alex’s famous $355 million library, we hoped the guidebook’s 7 p.m. closing time would not disappoint. Hopping out of the cab, unlit windows and closed doors greeted us.
Though our day of being touristy turned into mostly coffee and conversation, it was one of the best. Unlike back in Cairo, where I feel at home, in Alex we were genuinely traveling and exploring together.
Come back to Cairo.
I miss you Jess!!