Friday, August 29, 2008

Zamalek and Falling Back

Much of my day was spent in Zamalek, a leafy, rather well-heeled neighborhood of Cairo located on an island in the Nile. It's the home of several embassies, the Cairo Opera, Cairo Tower, and the Cairo Marriott, though my first destination on the isle was a bit less prestigious.
After Ross and I lunched at a fatatri (a fiteer restaurant) on Tahrir St. towards Tahrir Square, we crossed the famous Qasr al-Nil bridge and headed toward the Metro Market on Isma'il Mohammad Street. Along the way, we took refuge from the sun under the trees of which there are so few in our own neighborhood. We stopped in the mercifully air-conditioned Cairo Marriott, home to Harry's Pub where, during my first trip to Egypt, I endured my friend and host's rendition of "Build Me Up Buttercup". After that, we wound our way through streets lined with the embassies of Norway, Germany, Algeria, Spain, Colombia, Brazil, etc., stopping to ask directions as I'd become a bit turned around. Ross saved the day by understanding what was being said in Arabic and we finally got to the supermarket making only one more stop along the way–the Harley Davidson store. See, Cairo's more cosmopolitan that you might think. You can even buy t-shirts of a mummy riding a "hog" (forgive my rusty biker terminology if that's not the term I'm looking for).
At the entrance to the supermarket, there were "Ramadan bags" for sale. These bags contained basic foodstuffs and are meant to be purchased to give to the poor, a major element of the holy month here in the Islamic world. I am told that I will see, everyday around sunset, long tables in the streets withs throngs of people at them being fed at the expense of wealthy Egyptians or charities. Another impact of Ramadan on Egypt has already occurred: last night, I got back the hour that those of you in the States won't get back until October. Without daylight savings, sunset comes "earlier" in the day, allowing hungry Egyptians who have been without food, drink, and cigarettes to break the fast with iftar, the evening meal (that's something of a party with great family and social significance).
Anyway, we replenished our stock of bread and water at the store, and I got some more labna and a mango yogurt drink. Not in the mood to walk back burdened with victuals, we hailed a cab, or rather several. You see, our pasty white skin and light eyes scream "overcharge me" to just about every cabbie in Egypt. The cab ride should cost about 5-6 LE (about $1), but one guy had the nerve to try and charge us 20 LE. After waving on three or four cabs, we finally settled on 8 LE with a more reasonable driver and headed back home.
My second stint in Zamalek was much more agreeable from a transport perspective. This was because my newly assigned host counselor, Sherif Bakir from the Qasr al-Nil Rotary club, picked me up and conveyed me to Abu al-Sid, a comfortable and elegant restaurant serving Egyptian cuisine where he treated me to dinner. The president of Qasr al-Nil RC's affiliated Rotaract Club, Hesham, joined us later. Conversation ranged from Rotary, Rotaract, and the intention behind ambassadorial and cultural scholarships, ways for me to get involved (I hope to be joining Hesham and other Rotaracters in the distribution of Ramadan bags to the poor over in Mohandaseen) to US politics, energy policy, and Egyptian singers, food, and tradition. In addition to tahina, aish, and a shrimp tajine, things all familiar to me, I discovered kishk for the first time and washed it all down with delicious aseer 'asab, which is sugarcane juice, another new treat. By the time Sherif dropped me back off at home, I'd been invited to all sorts of things (a couple of iftars included) and made to feel that I now have a network of people whom I can rely up on if in trouble or just want to connect with Egyptians. It's a great feeling and the unique component of the Rotary scholarship that I was looking for.

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