Diagonally across the street from my office there is a juice stand headed by “Captain Jack.”
It took me months to start going here because there is another, bigger, juice-stand next store. But after going the first time, with the preference of a coworker, I never went next-store again. (Though I still wave “hi!”)
Also interesting, we’ve discovered Captain Jack and crew are coptic Christians while the guys next store are Muslims. Nothing to do with the deliciousness of their juices of our preference, but I wonder if it contributes to competitiveness, rivalry or other customers’ choices in any way.
Ten students (American, Canadian and Norwegian ), our Iraqi teacher Azhar, a couple Iraqi friends and myself, are squeezed into St. Andrew’s modest kitchen. Some students jot notes, while others cut onions or mix a concoction containing surprising amounts of garlic, spices and oil.
It’s RLAP’s second Iraqi cooking class, a fundraiser to support out work providing legal, psychosocial and cultural advising, as well as English classes to refugees in Egypt.While working as a legal advisor can become completely consuming, we’ve got to escape our endless interviews and piles of testimonies once in a while. Cooking delicious food and earning money to sustain our work seemed like the perfect break from the routine.
One of the best perks of my work Resettlement Legal Aid Project (RLAP) is the constant flow of sumptuous and inspiring Iraqi food. From frequent parties on weekends–whether a birthday, holiday or a resettlement case won–to homemade lunches sent to work, there always seems to be something to celebrate and a willing Iraqi ready to prepare the goods.When the topic of fundraisers arose it seemed natural to share our wealth of food knowledge with the wider Cairo community.
Some highlights of our first two classes are: 19 students (and me!) with hints about Iraqi cooking and newfound lust for Iraqi food, expats buying meat, (there’s a stereotype here that many expats never learn how to cook and buy meat in Egypt) hilarious translation bloopers (the first teacher who taught only speaks Arabic), new friends and connections(everyone seemed to leave the class with someone’s contact info).
And what caught me by surprise?
Cooking was only one of two draws to the class. More than one student loitered outside the kitchen, questioning our Iraqi friends about their lives rather than the culinary traditions. Working and socializing with Iraqis on a daily basis, it seems I’ve lost all sense of what thoughts about Iraqis and Iraq conjure for many other Americans. Will I get a reality shock back in the States in a few weeks?
Classes and menus are arranged on a weekly basis. Let me know if you’re in town and want to reserve a spot.
Otherwise, you better hope I feel like showing off my newly acquired skills the next time we meet =)
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 never expected to confront ice in Cairo.
Yet here I am at 11 a.m. On a Friday morning (equivalent to a U.S. Saturday) madly hacking away at a mound of it, filling up my sink with frozen chips and mopping up its watery remains from my kitchen floor.
It all started the very day I moved into my apartment. I couldn’t tell you the nature of the problem, but a couple men were standing around the kitchen do some repair work on our fridge.
After they left we (AJ, his friend and I) stood in the kitchen, examining a suspicious black rubber strip abandoned against the wall. It seemed to be the suction, which should keep the fridge properly shut. Predictably the fridge wasn’t quite sealing when we shut it.
AJ, having the advantage of speaking Arabic quite well and being male, sighed in disgust and said something about telling the landlord to hire new repair guys.
That was that. The fridge seemed to serve it’s purpose for me and I didn’t think much of it until a couple weeks later.
Karen and I were hanging in the kitchen, cooking dinner and chatting.
I thought AJ ate my chocolate, she said, and I was really annoyed because he used to eat it all the time.
And then I realized the ice ate it.
The ice in the fridge ate your chocolate?
Yeah, look, I can see it.
She opened the fridge and pointed to the back. A chunk of ice was growing from the top of our fridge and expanding outward. We could see the chocolate wrapper, helplessly enveloped in the thick cold block.
From that day on we watched the ice grow, putting big things in its path to slow it’s progress.
Both AJ and Karen left last week. (Karen back to Germany and AJ for three weeks in the States)
Before leaving AJ wisely advised me to stop buying food.
After Karen leaves, because she’s the one who has the most food in there, we’ll have to take care of that ice, he said.
He started explaining something about condensation, pressure and air flows, but interrupted himself.
You’re a smart girl. You know all that physics.
Sadly, AJ didn’t get the dates right.
Karen and AJ left the same day, leaving the ice and I the sole growing inhabitants in our flat.
Last night, over some delicious Eritrean food, airconditioner repairs (another humorous subject) came up.
“What about I refrigerator repairman? I think I need one,” I confessed. “Yesterday the ice ate some jelly.”
To my surprise my refrigerator saga was not quite as unique as I thought.
The same thing happened to my fridge in San Francisco, my legal director, Stephanie, said. Someone said their old fridge in Cairo used to do the same thing.
Apparently from NY, DC and Boston, I’ve lived a sheltered-fridge-life.
The advice: chip as much as you please away and let the rest melt.
As I hammer away at the block of ice, I close my eyes as cool chips fly in all directions. It’s really quite refreshing.
And who knows.
Maybe I’ll even get some chocolate out of the deal.
“People think Egypt’s just a desert.” Friends and interview subjects alike have expressed this frustration to me.
Fellow students have also said they’re surprised by how “Western,” Egypt is.
If you know where to look, you can find anything in Egypt.
Last night we went to Sequoia, a posh restaurant on the Nile to celebrate Christina Petrucci’s 20th birthday.
The sushi was fabulous.
Bikem means, “how much,” and is a vital phrase for any foreigner hoping to pay near-local prices or just demonstrate a little knowledge of Arabic and awareness of the local culture.
While each of our American dollars brings in 5.6 Egyptian pounds, I believe most of us have developed more complex ways of thinking about money than simple conversation rates. Considering prices here is a constant juxtaposition of how much we’re paying in American dollars, comparative prices in the United States, what else we could buy in Egyptian pounds, and most interesting to me, how accessible the prices would be to average Egyptians.
What do I mean? I don’t think of a cappuccino (9-20 EGP) costing $1.5-3.5, rather 7-15 falafels sandwiches or two cab rides downtown and back.
Aisha, the Egyptian word for “bread” in Arabic, also means “life.” For many poor in Egypt the connection is quite literal. On any given day people form lines at government stands throughout the city to collect rations of pita bread. Along fuul (beans served heated with spices) bread is probably the cheapest substance. Even in the overpriced markets near our hotel a hearty pack of whole wheat pita sells for 2-4 EGP.
While some might advise foreigners to avoid “street food,” in Egypt avoidance is missing out on Egyptian culture, casual opportunities to practice Arabic, save money and of course, delicious classics.
Falafel stands are also profuse and cheap. Seconds outside our hotel (fondouc in Arabic) we pay 1.50 EGP–(around 30 cents) for half a pita stuffed with two falafel balls, salad and a white spread. At Koshari shops (an Egyptian specialty with rice, pasta, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and red sauce) we drop 5-9 EGP in exchange for bowls filled with more carbs than we can possibly eat. On the higher end of this cheap fair are shawarma stands boasting lamb, chicken and beef (it is against Sha’ria law to eat pigs). Meat, served by default in American style white subway sandwich rolls but usually available in Syrian bread (a thin wrap) go for 7 to 15 EGP at stands.
Now want a pasta, fetir (Egyptian style pizza), salad, kofta a place to sit down or, especially vital for our group, internet and outlets?
Most casual cafes in our area range from 15 EGP to 40 EGP for a plate of food. Throughout our expat-populated island, Zamalek, these joints are never bare of other foreigners and often well-dressed Egyptian youth chilling with friends or studying. Places like this that offer sheesha (hookah– (usually) flavored water pipe smoking) seem more popular with locals.
Also profuse are outdoor cafes with rickety to comfortable chairs filled with men smoking sheesha and playing checkers, backgammon or lounging at all hours. Drinks–juice, karkday (hibiscus) tea, sahlab here can be as little as 3EGP.
Where is America’s mark here? After a night in a downtown cafe a group of my American peers and Karim–the son of Abdu (Denis’s “Egyptian twin” who beyond coordinating everything for us, befriends us and invites us to his house for dinner) set off for late night koshari. When the shop was closed we headed for the one place Karim knew was open. McDonald’s.
Our contribution to the world. Great. We joked as those who could bear it shoveled greasy fries into their mouths.
McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Hardee’s and Baskin Robin’s are scattered everywhere. I avoid these places with a passion-no different than my conduct in the U.S. Prices are comparable to lower-end cafes. McDonald’s boasts a 5EGP menu in imitation of their $1 menu in the U.S.
Water bottles (izaza maya) our most essential and frequent purchase, since none of us have braved the tap, cost less than 2 falafels.
I’ve concentrated mostly on food because this topic could consume your and my time for quite a while. But don’t be fooled. Clothes and shoes, makeup, cab rides, haircuts, baksheesh (tips) postcards tissues sold by elderly and children on the street all tell stories here. What is essential for life? Who is buying it? Do the people who sell it speak English?
Because Western-style products and services of all types are common here it is easy to forgot how much of Cairo’s population cannot afford or access them. The United Nations reported the Egypt’s gross domestic capital per capita as $1769.6 U.S. In 2007. In a popular Egyptian novel Midaq Alley written by Naguib Mafhouz in the 1940s, a young woman describes the rush of riding in a cab for the first time. Though outdated, it remains relevant. Our lifestyles as foreigners, the realities we see and live with are drastically different from the average Egyptian.
When I ask bikem or consider a price here, I am also asking who accesses, how and why it’s that price. In cafes I think about how those around me fit into this society. At the falafel stand I wonder how many the man sells to support his family. When I pay less than $2 to drive downtown in crowded traffic I wonder about how much the gas has cost.
Cairo as I’ve said before and will again is always far more complex than one glance, or trip, in my case.