Bikem in falafels?

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.


mmm, koshari. "A triathlete's favorite," and always a hit.

mmm, koshari. "A triathlete's favorite," and always a hit.

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. 


5 thoughts on “Bikem in falafels?

    • Lily, I love the way your mind works…the why & how of everything…the contrasts & comparisons…it’s a joy to read your descriptions…you do write so well. You made my mouth water.

  1. Very insightful and interesting. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I told Jonathan before leaving to not eat “street food”. I had a friend visit Egypt a couple of months ago and she got sick and her only advice was don’t eat “street food”, thus my motherly advice. Anyway, if he had listened to me he would have missed out on so much rich “reality” of Egypt. When I was 23 I went to Israel with my best friend and it gave me memories to last a lifetime. You, Jonathan and all the students will follow your own “memory path” and they too will last a lifetime. It’s incredibly special to be able to share your path through the blogs……thank you. So, eat and enjoy….


  2. Hi Lily,

    Don’t ask me how I came across your blog 🙂 but anyways, as an Egyptian living in Egypt, I thought I should clarify a few things regarding your article above…

    1- The correct pronounciation of “how much” in Egyptian Arabic (the reason I’m saying Egyptian Arabic, because there are lots of differences between Arabic in the rest of the Arab World and in Egypt) is “Bikam” with an “A” not a “U”
    2- Again in Egyptian, Falafel is called “Tameya”
    3- The word bread in Egyptian is called “Aish” without an “A” at the end
    4- In Egypt, bread “Aish” is subsidized and so is gas (that’s why cabs are cheap). The Egyptian government spends EGP 6 billion a year (a little over $1 Billion) on these subsidies
    5- Egypt’s workforce is one of the cheapest in the world. This, accordingly, results in lower costs of production (that’s one of the reasons why you get a plate full of carbs for less than a dollar)
    6- It’s true that the majority of Egyptians can’t affoard most of the Western-style products and services, but I believe it’s all relative. Just as you might not afford some of the very expenisve products and services that are only accessible to the extremely rich Americans, that doesn’t mean you can’t live without them. Simply because there are less expensive substitutes. The same goes for Egyptians. A lof of us can not afford Western-style products but we don’t have to because we have our Egyptian substitutes

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