Saturday, April 11, 2009

Finally back in Cairo for the first time since 1976. My first impulse was to taste the ayeesh baladi (native bread) that I never shut up about complaining that American "pita" bread is as anemic and tasteless as Wonder Bread. Guess what, my memory didn't lie. The bread is unbelievably good and totally unlike any of the American crap.
We arrived in town after over nine hours from NY and immediately set out for Garden City, where I lived as a child and stayed when I returned in '76. Due to the fact that the entire side of the street where Moreland House stood in the sixties had been replaced by the newly rebuilt Hotel Semeramis it took me a while to recognize and find Garden City House. I saw the building built in 1958 (along with the then new Hilton) and now it looks as incredibly tired, worn out and shabby as though it had been through a war in the Balkins. We spent some time and money in the tourist shop downstairs out of pure sentimentality on my part as they didn't sell anything I would ordinarily buy, but I allowed it this one time. Then we walked back and stopped at Groppi for coffee and a snack to recharge. Groppi had been a white table cloth Swiss owned restaraunt that now also looks incredibly shop worn and faded but, again, had to make the pilgramage. Then back to the room to leave off the tourist chotchkes from Garden City House and gear up to go find the Muski.
We walked past Ezebekaya Gardens and out towards Al Azhar University (that's where they invneted algebra by the way) and wandered into the maze of alleys and hallway sized passages filled with endless stalls selling every imaginable kind of garment, houseware, fabric, ribbon, button, tassle, trim and item other than what I expected that Ibegan to wonder if this too had changed. There are now massive amounts of overpasses and "fly overs" of an expressway nature all over and yet they seem plopped down on the city that still is simultaneously embracing the middle ages (in all the cultural best ways that to me that implies) as well as the world with cell phones and email.
So we wandered endlessly in a world that made Orchard Street look like preschool. We wandered and wandered, stopped for cigarettes (and water) Jesse commenting that at 12.5o LE it cost us about $2.40 US and I mumbled something about any one of the items costing us that at home. We wander up onto a walk over (due to the chronically choked streets) and I start taking pictures at night and have trouble stopping because of the grear vantage point. I restrain myself and we walk on, ducking into another lane of vendors and are stopped by the delicious smell of something roasting. There is a vendor with a cart piled with yams he's roasting. I tell Jesse Iwant to take a picture here and I'll pay what it takes. I ask the man and he says ONE DOLLAR and I think, no problem here for me, so we each order a yama and give the man an American dollar of which there are 5.61 Egyptian pounds each. I don't care, a man who makes his honest living selling roasted yams in the market place in Cairo gets my vote for who I want to support as what is perceived as a "rich" American. I am far from rich at home, but I have been lucky and had amazing privledges of class, a term that embarrasses most of us at home. Here in what can only be seen as barely crawling out of the third world (do I hear two and a half?) my most level of privledge American style makes me almost as rich as Croesus here. I don't like the feeling and I have to steel myself against the manipulative child beggars coached to look sadly at me and motion that she (no more than five) is hungry. She may be, but she's been give a job to hustle western tourists with the con and I won't buy the rap. Show me a man, no matter how poor who has some dignity and self respect and I'll give him a reward unasked for. I thought that as I passed a boy no more than nine sweeping the water out of a flooded drive in bay of some industrial space. So Jesse and I wandered on and I suggested we take a chance at an imposibly small passage (one person each way really) that looked promising to me and now I could see we were in the land of the gold workers, Jesse hadn 't quitw picked up on it and I told him to look at what they were doing in each stall, they all had scales and were either working or weighing or in one case sorting polished stones. I told him that this was approximately where I had bought his mothers wedding ring when I was here last in 1976. Again, an entire neighborhood of tiny stalls and each one occupied by only one or two men at most, no frills, no tourist hustle here, this is serious business the world over. I knew that now we were getting close to what I wanted to show him. I said at one point, "this is what I've wanted to show you ever since I was here" the smell of dust, butane, dung and a million undefined odors and twenty million friendly people who keep calling out, "hallo, Welcome to Cairo" over and over. A few of them want to hustle you some how, and so would you if you lived in an economy as tough as this and since I don't I'm soft hearted but I don't give away the store. I can't afford to. I love Cairo back as hard as it seems to show it's love. The bakeries we pass I swoon at every time and want to stop and buy one of every thing and then we begin to wander into the neighborhoods where the stalls start to have crafts and tourist items and though they aren't exactly what I want, we're that much closer. I have walked Jesse for hours and he's an incredibly good sport and begining to understand, I think, he says to me, "I think this is the most intense city I have ever been in" and I say, this is what I've been trying to show you all my life.
So finally we wander into to area where the crafts begin to look a little more serious. I dicker with a man about a tambourine he wants to sell me that is poorly made. He wants 60LE an I tell him it's really poorly made but I'll give him 100LE if he can show me one that's better crafted. He gets really excited and sends a boy out to get a better one. He gets one, I don't think it's worth the difference but I pay it anyway to get away, and it's OK because it's only $18 anyway.
Then we wander on and finally wander into both the more tourist oriented as well as more quality crafts. I keep saying that I don't want the tourist crap and to show me the better Islamic crafts. They like me because I tell them I want the truth of their culture, not the whoring for tourists. Finally we stumble upon Cafe Fishaway which is listed in a guide book as a trip for being so diverse and bizarre across the board. They're right. They seat us and immediatly there are beggars trying to sell us wallets and Korans and god knows what. But the waiters realize I want REAL native bread, not the white bread shit, also some felafal,shawarma and a couple of mango drinks. We find a shop with Islamic ceramics, and some applique tentwork that is better quality. They don't hassle me when I say I'll come back, they don't pressure us and I make not of where to come back to tomorrow or Monday.
Jesse and I discuss the fact that we should skip Alexandria in the interest of more leisurly passage. We have reconcled that we will skip Alexandria and have less stress. He goes to the bar to settle up our bill while I am writing this and I hear extended discussions about the bill. I assume it just has to do with the exchange rate and his confusion. He comes back chagrined that the fact is that I drinking Arak and he Johnny Walker black label. Our drinks, five shots each, a single and two doubles each and we realize that mine are a local product and his are Scotch. Mine are about $2.20 each and his are about $9.00 each shot. His cost us about the same as a night in the hotel and mine, being a local product, something less. They did give us a lovely plate of fava beans (called fule locally, a staple of the fellahine, the Egyptian peasant that makes the country function). But we are rich Americans, chagrined or not and can take the sting. As I explained to Jesse, this is why I usually travel with a bottle in my room for far less. This is how you teach your children how to travel I guess. I think we are having an incredibly good time, alcohol or not. More to come as we experience it. This first day was, obviously, delerious. It would have been my mothers 93rd birthday. But now she's gone and I'm here with my son and that's really cool and it wouldn't have been possible without my mother in 1957, no matter how strange I might have ever thought her. This is her unwitting gift to me and to my children. On the sound system is someone singing something to Brahms Lullyabye in French. My mom used to sing it to me. Sweet dreams. Tomorrow the pictures of the Oud factory we stumbled on.

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