We perused the Sephora, we weren’t quite sure was a Sephora, one more time. I was drawn to a Spiderman cologne, which ended up smelling like lemon cleaning substance. Nadia headed to a shelf with a scent she knew. “Need a tester?” I offered. Nadia declined– “I know this one,” before liberally squirting.
She sniffed her wrist and offered it to me. Ughh…something was wrong! It doesn’t smell right, she lamented. Too late.
We headed out of the ”Sephora” laughing.
Our suspicions seemed confirmed. We were now pretty sure the store must be hiding a disclaimer or facing a lawsuit (if anyone bothered to notice or care).
I’m non-material, don’t much like shopping and have little brand loyalty. Despite, it is always surprising when you realize the product you’re seeing only shares a similar name and packaging style. This applies for food, clothes, makeup, jewelry, accessories etc.
Sometimes the differences are very easy to spot, as Nadia and I discovered last week. Others are are less obvious if you’re not suspecting.Plus, the practice obviously isn’t confined to expensive brands, to which the shampoo example attests.
It happened to me a couple months ago with shampoo. I bought a bottle, which I could have sworn was Herbal Essences.
Silly me right? But hey, it even had the same picture of the fruit/flowers, green top and pink color.
The other thing I find most entertaining about the whole brand knock-off practice, is very often descriptions and product details are spelled completely incorrectly too, raising the question–is the brand misspelling always purposeful? Very likely if these fakes were trying to be legitimate they would have typos, which would give them away despite
Back in Mohandaseen Nadia and I have moved from the “Sephora” to two amazing accessory stores which beckoned with their glitter and lights. Beside the photo-worthy brands featured here, highlights were a large selection of snake sunglasses (Nadia modeled every pair), belly-dancing beads and endlessly shiny, big and beautiful earrings.
I love going to work in the morning.
Not only because I love my job, but because my trip there (only 20 minutes!) is always filled with interesting sightings and people. Whether an especially precarious load atop someone’s head on a bicycle, clothes waving in the wind or half-understood conversations with the neighborhood tawla champ or a fruit-seller, my walk is never dull. The short journey is always filled with waves, smiles and sabah el-khair (good morning).
As I become more comfortable with the sights and sounds, I increasingly notice how beautiful and unexpected things are around every corner.
I feel like I could walk this way my whole life, and something new would draw my attention each time.
Cutting through the alleys, I stall to gaze at an unexpected courtyard, a nursery? with flowers painted on the walls, men polishing elegant furniture, or knots of garlic or bright clothes catching the sunlight.
I talk about Cairo a lot to friends and family across the world. I want to convey my passion, the beauty, the community, the ‘differentness.’ But there’s only so much words can say.
So today, enjoy the walk with me!
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.
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!!
In other news, I’m off for adventures in Sinai for a few days, and I’m going computer-less.
Got some big blogging plans when I return, insha’allah
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.
A couple days ago an Egyptian friend told me the infamous Moulid at Saayida Zeinab mosque was cancelled because of the hoorah over swine flu.
They don’t want big crowds, he said.
Camping out, as hundreds of thousands supposedly do in the weeks leading up to the big day, was declared illegal by the Egyptian authorities.
Moulids, meaning birthdays, are Suffi traditions celebrated all over Egypt.
Not specified in the Koran many Muslims do not know, partake or condone the practice.
This one in particular celebrates Saayida Zeinab, who is the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammed, and therefore must occur only at her mosque.
When my roommate AJ announced it was today and he was covering it (he’s a journalist), I repeated what my friend said and stared out the window, wondering where all the people were.
While the huge crowds might have stayed home, Saayida’s birthday, was not a total bust.
Standing in front of the mosque, with an Egyptian friend, Amr, crowds swarmed around us.
He pointed out the frequency of galabyias–the long loose dresses men wear. It’s a different style than how we dress in Cairo, he said, explaining most of the worshippers are from rural regions of upper and lower Egypt.
A guy wearing a shirt reading, “I’m Noisy” with Elmo and white girl bearing arms, we drew attention from the crowd and the interest of a cop.
Do you want to go in the mosque? Amr asked me. The women go in that way–he pointed to an entrance where a mob of women fought to descend a couple steps into the mosque.
Yeah definitely! Can I…I asked? Our new buddy, the cop, said I could if I covered my arms and hair.
Putting on my veil, I spotted a women, standing with two friends, snapping my picture.
One of the friends came over.
Are you here to see this? She asked in Arabic, which Amr translated.
I live down the street, I told her. But yeah, I’m here now to check it out.
Are you scared of getting swine flu because of the big crowd.
Everywhere in Cairo is crowded, I answered. Plus I’m American, don’t you think I already have it? (Swine flu has been a huge deal here, especially since cases were found among American University students. Co-workers say people have moved away from them on subways out of fear of catching the bug.)
As she began to ask another questions, I became suspicious.
Her questions were well thought out, targeted for a specific angle…her friend snapped another picture and she held, what I’d thought was an iPod in her hand.
She was dressed differently, looked better kept and more focused than the many milling around the area.
Are you a journalist? I asked her in Arabic.
Are you recording this?
She said she wasn’t.
She asked if I was going to go in. I said I was, half hoping she’d join.
She didn’t seem to have any intention.
Her friend snapped another picture as I put on my headscarf and Amr and I headed to the entrance.
I relinquished my shoes to a guy at the door was pushed forward by the masses of woman vying to enter.
Think of the most crowded concert you’ve attended and those lines of people forcibly pushing their way to the front or out. Now imagine there is not one destination, people are sitting on the floor, praying begging for money, eating, holding babies, yelling and grabbing your clothes.
From all sides I was shoved deeper into the congregation.
Eyes ahead, overwhelmed by the masses of praying before me, I felt a slap on my shoulder. An elderly woman was whacking me with some clothe.
Apparently she didn’t approve of my dress. Khalas–”enough” I yelled at her. Another woman tried to help by forcefully rearranging my shawl.
In the deepest room women touched and prayed toward a wall and snapped pictures with their cell phone.
All the incentive I needed, I pulled out my camera and snatched a couple shots.
Out in the street, Cairo air never felt so fresh and clear.
“Display patience and good humor when dealing the Mugamma;” My Rough Guide instructs. “Only stage a tantrum or nervous breakdown as a last resort.”
Mugamma is the Arabic word for ??
In Egypt it’s the place where all types of citizen-government and government-alien paperwork takes place.
The day I could no longer postpone renewing my visa was not marked on my calender with hearts and stars.
One of the translators in the RLAP office copied the page with my picture and entry visa into Egypt.
They’ll ask for these, he told me.
I wondered at his expertise.
We [Iraqis] have to do this all the time.
The book said stamps for the visa would cost 8LE but made no mention of the visa itself.
Chantelle a young French woman in my office who’s been here around two years said the first time she renewed her visa it cost 3LE, the second 71LE.
This did not surprise any of us. Maybe there’s a legitimate system, maybe there is not. After all, we are in Egypt.
That may sound critical or patronizing.
It’s actually rather affectionate.
Things have a special way of happening in Egypt.
People are always late, Bowabs always want to carry your groceries, guys always want to open doors, people constantly push each other in the streets and cut each other in lines, foreigners usually play slightly higher for commodities on the street, cars always beep a chorus and taxi drivers yell and stop when you’re walking in the opposite direction.
The sooner you make peace with it the happier you’ll be.
Armed with the copies of my visas, a passport-sized photo, my passport and enough money to cover the unexpected, I walked the 10 minutes from my apartment to Tahrir.
I expected a tiresome and wasted morning.
Most metal detectors do not work in Egypt (they beep incessantly and security guards wave everyone through. Whether this one did or not, I cannot say, but the scanner beside it at least did.
They took my camera out of my bag attached a plastic “9” with a rubber band and gave me another “9.”
Being the untrusting American I am, it was not an easy parting.
The guy who took my camera at least pointed me in the right direction, up a set of stairs where others were also hurrying.
Walking up the two flights it struck me how dark it was.
It these little things, i.e. Dark stairs in a capitol government building which remind me I’m really not in the U.S. anymore.
At the top of the stairs I followed the signs to window 38.
There was no line. No pushing and shoving for stamps as sources had described.
“Gedeed visa?” (New visa?) I asked the woman.
Go to window #12 down there, she instructed me.
The people were at window 12, and seemed to have their game together. They jostled each other, forms and stamps in hand.
A British woman next to me seemed to read my mind. Do you need an application, she asked. I’ll show you, we wasted so much time waiting here without one–she gestured to her friend.
She showed me where to grab an application and another window to buy stamps.
When you finish that, bring it back to #12.
A few painless minutes later I emerged from the Mugamma. I’d filled out the application, bought stamps and handed my application, photos and passport copies to infamous Ms. #`12.
Two hours later I came back to pick it up.
Though I’d left my camera in my office, the same security guard was convinced I had it. After emptying the contents of my backpack he finally waved me in.
Coming out a few minutes later I stared down at the new visa in my passport.
I could stay in Egypt until 4/12/09.
Uhh…Ohh….Was I about to see the nasty side of the Mugamma?
How did they get April…I came in May and back in June, noting said May. And 12….?
They swap the month and date from the American format.
My visa is until December 4th. Exactly 7 months after I arrived from Qatar. Six months from the date my entrance visa expired.
So beautiful, so official. 6 months in Egypt. Just over 2 dollars, just under 2 hours.
After all the kindness our Iraqi friends had show us, and maybe because we were so far from the U.S., Steph and I got an unexpected wind of patriotism.
We wanted to show Egypt how Americans celebrate Independence Day.
Without a BBQ in sight, we decided to cook up a feast at my apartment and bring it to Al-Azhar park–the greenest place I know in Cairo.
We drafted the menu in the micro-bus on our way home from the 6th of October.
Green salad, fruit salad, a pesto pasta, hummus, baba-ghanoush, bread, mashed potatoes, Lousi’s(a co-worker) got the fish, chocolate chip cookies and apple pie.
We’d get a Frisbee and toss that around too.
The morning of the 4th found me off to the market, stocking up on supplies for our cookathon.
Steph was bringing processed ingredients, like chocolate chips and salad dressing from the grocery store in Zamalek. I was picking the fresh stuff from the markets surrounding my place.
Fruit and veggies in hand, I confronted the challenge of pesto. We knew we probably couldn’t find basil, so anything green and fresh looking was a contestant.
“Aye ida?” (What’s this?) I asked a woman selling something, which looked green and rather fabulous.
The irony of learning Arabic is, as long as I have to ask what something is, I probably won’t understand the answer. This green plant, was clearly not in my vocabulary.
She told me it was, “helwa, helwa owi,” very great.
Off I went with it.
Back in my apartment we confronted another problem.
Hey Karen….do you know if the stove worked? I asked my roommate.
She hadn’t used it, AJ hadn’t either. We tried to light it with no luck.
Hey Louis, I called my coworker, can we come over and use your stove? You can cook the fish there too.
I just checked and there’s a sign on my stove, which says do not use.
You never used your stove? ( Did you ever go in your kitchen!?)
Oh boys, oh appliances in Cairo.
Steph is our legal director for good reason.
Why don’t you make them on the burner like pancakes? She suggested.
I poured a bit in a pot on top of the stove. The bottom began to burn, the middle wasn’t cooking.
I poured the rest of the batter in. I grabbed the spatula.
I mixed and cut until the batter was cooked and then pressed the thoroughly chocolately substance into a baking dish, which I put in the freezer.
Obviously we pre-empted and tasted a bit. We were all fans.
Meanwhile, Steph was busy playing with the leafy greens in the blender.
One was turnip the other, something extremely bitter.
We added limes sugar, cheese and tomatoes, mixed it into the pasta and fed it to my roommate AJ.
How do you like it?
He told us was delicious and tasted grassy.
By grassy do you mean fresh? Hmmm…
We dismantled our dishes into tubber-ware containers and headed off to the park.
To be continued as 4th part II