Walking in Zamalek

I walked down the road yesterday, swerving slightly to one side as horns blasted behind me. It always reminds me of the women in my patchwork class in Ramallah, responding to some long horn blasts in the street above us, talking about how Palestinian men liked to make loud horny noises. Egyptian men are no different - and the women do it too!

I suddenly realized that I am becoming a local. When I first arrived, I couldn’t understand why people always walked down the road – even in quite heavy traffic. There were footpaths – so why dodge traffic?

Well, it only took one walk to work out why.

The pavements are terrible. Edges collapse and are frequently very high – a good half metre is not unusual. They have odd lumps of concrete which look as if they might have fallen off a building above and no-one has seen any good reason to move them – at least, not for the last ten years. There are deep holes in some – one nearby is two feet deep. I asked a nearby boab (in Egypt this is a guard outside a building, not a big tree as in Australia) why there was a hole right in the middle of the footpath. He smiled and said “cats”. This would have taken a lion a week to excavate – and I have yet to see the cat that could dig through asphalt!

Now and again there is a nice, neat piece of pavement which is really good to walk on. These are often outside Embassies. For security reasons, a large chain stops anyone from stepping onto this pavement, and the chain lasts until you are level with the next bit of broken up footpath. I often wonder if the chain is the reason the pavement is so good.

Add to this the fact that there are frequently small brown piles on the pavements, some steaming gently. Now and again I suspect that they are not all from animals. You can see the odd skid mark where one has been trodden in. You don’t get these on the roads.

Then – there is the local trick of parking absolutely anywhere. There are frequently two lines of cars parallel parked at the side of the road – the inner line against the curb, and the outer line against the traffic. Anyone who wants to get out just sits there with his hand on the horn (making horny noises?) until the car blocking his exit is moved. A favorite parking place is across the end of the pavement, where you would normally step down to cross the road. Except that usually you can’t step down because there is a car in the way.

I used to look at the way the cars were parked and feel totally impressed with the quality of Egyptian driving. While I am still at times over-awed, it is not necessarily admiration.

You see cars parallel parked against the curbs, some bumpers actually touching; sometimes there is a bare handspun between vehicles. In one place I noticed that every car in a line of twenty was jammed tightly against the one in front. I noticed this because I was trying to escape from an area of bad pavement.

Unless cars here are able to turn their wheels and shunt in sideways, it seemed unlikely that this was just skilled parking. Then I realized that four men were happily bouncing cars against each other to pack them in so more people could park. When someone wants to get out they ‘unbounce’ a few! I even watched someone park a lovely Mercedes by gently and firmly pushing the car in front against the one in front of him.

So – for the time being I will walk on the road, moving aside when people honk at me. When I do start driving I will hand over car keys, look the other way and block my ears.


Valentine's Day

I have had an extraordinary day. Our shipment arrived yesterday. We had been warned the night before that six or the large boxes (all of which held a lot of smaller ones) were damaged, possibly by a forklift driver. They also looked as if they had been wet.

None of this was good news. I had a fortune in fabric in those boxes - and although it was insured - I knew that I couldn't replace it here. We had bought fifteen cases of Australian wine as wine orders take such a long time that it weemed wise to bring enough to cover six months of entertaining. I also had a lot of my precious quilts and could see Arabesque coming out of the boxes drenched in red wine or mouldy from rain.

All was well. The delivery arrived and was in cardboard boxes, the wooden outer containers were gone, in two trucks. A mob of men - well, five, but they were all moving fast swarmed into the house and stacked them in the entrance hall while we ticked numbers off on our lists.
All were present. They then shunted them into rooms to match the rooms we had labelled them in in Australia.

We will unpack them slowly over the next few weeks. About a quarter are already done. We hve had some minor breakages, but the quilts were fine, and all fabric boxes look dry. One bottle of red is a small libation for the gods and we were happy to lose only that.

Last night the Marriot gave a dinner for the diplomatic corps at the hotel on Zamalek. It was Valentine's Day - a huge thing here. Every shop with anything for sale which was red has for weeks been putting these things in the windows. all the dress shops are featuring bright red dresses, often evening gowns weighty with beading and fringes. The flower shops have nothing but roses and babies breath, confectionery shops have heart shaped scrlet-foil-covered boxes in high stacks on the display plinths.

We walked into the small ball room at the Marriot to find ourselves floating in space. The rooms were dark, with only the walls really lit. They had had a local artist paint the most amazing backdrops which covered the walls and windows - planets and moons - in closeup, with craters, and all on a midnight blue sky scattered with thousands of tiny light stars.

Every table (for eight) was a mass of glittering points of blue light which flowed down over the sides to the floor. They were covered with very deep blue cloths, then a deep covering of tiny Christmas lights all in blues - but with varying shades, then small glass chocks on the corners of the tables held a thick sheet of glass above the lights, and the table was set up on that. Deep blue glass plates allowed the lights to shine through, so it felt as if the superb food floated.

We ate a carpaccio of beef with rocket and pamesan, capers and oil gleaming on the surface, the most sumptous mushroom soup I have ever tasted, fillets of sole rolled and served in a cream sauce studded with prawns and served with multicoloured pasta, smoked lamb cutlets, tiny and totally lean, served with asparagus and potato, and then a large soup plate with a half inch deep creme brulee, faintly almond flavoured and strewn with fresh redcurrants, and wild berries.

It wa nice to meet so many Ambassadors in such an informal setting where we could talk freely about the region and its assets and drawbacks. I will now know faces when I walk into cocktail parties.
These are usually my very least favourite thing, as they mean that Bob leaves me at the door - he is working - and I have to break into groups of women I don't know and who are often speaking a language I am not good at.

More later - I have unpacking to attack and my helpers have just arrived.


The Tentmakers' Souq

The Tentmakers' Souq The Tentmakers' Souq
The Tentmakers' Souq The Tentmakers' Souq
The Tentmakers' Souq The Tentmakers' Souq
The Tentmakers' Souq
The Tentmakers' Souq


The Spruiker in the Khan and other snippets

We have just returned from a walk to a nearby supermarket - about six blocks away - but they are long blocks here. We bought groceries at the supermarket. There is no great story there, except that there is one young man who did my first delivery who has adopted me, and appears beside the till every time I am checking out my shopping, to organise my delivery.

The first time was interesting. He wanted my address. I remembered the street, but was unsure about the number. We settled on 21. He asked for my phone number. I didn't know it. I had spent the night before putting numbers into my mobile, everyone's except my own. He asked for my mobile number. I didn't know that either.

He found me anyway - despite the fact that the house number I had given him was wrong.

Coming home the other day I mistimed my arrival and managed to reach the beginning of my hedge as the school opposite poured an onslaught of young boys out into the roadway. I will never do that again. I must have shaken hands with forty boys before I reached my gate. All were either grimy, or sticky, and many were both. I had a vague flicker of concern about their personal hygeine, then decided I was better off not thinking about it. Each asked my my name but didn't listen to my answer and went straight on to "How old are you?", shaking their heads in amazement at the answer. I realised when I escaped indoors that I had said I was seventy-seven.

Bob (my husband) told me he had watched a flower seller arranging his buckets of flowers on the pavement. He then reached for a jug of water, took a mouthful, and sprayed it evenly through his teeth over the flowers.

It poured as we came home today. Really good rain, not the odd sprinkle I have seen from time to time. The only thing wrong with that was that we were still two blocks from home and not dressed for rain.

We were in the tiny vegetable shop in my street. After our purchases (strawberries, parsley, mint, and beautiful broccoli) and the initial comments about the goodness of rain for Cairo were covered, silence fell. Water streamed off the canvas awning in a stready waterfall before our faces. An older gentleman sitting under the eaves against the rolladoor next door pulled his mat back and put his foot on the fold to keep it dry.

There was a flurry of quick Arabic, and the shopowner swept a box of onions off a small stand in which was out in the rain, then turned it up to show that it could double as a small bench. It was a heavy weight wooden fruitbox on legs. He dried it thoroughly, put a cloth on it, and offered me a seat. Bob got a cracked plastic stool.

This might appear again - forgive me if it does, but I sent the following bit to the site yesterday - about thirty hours ago, and I have not seen it appear yet so I am trying again.

Yesterday was spent - delightfully - with a friend from the Embassy in exploring the Tentmakers' souq, and the local area beyond it, and briefly, Khan El Khalili.

I have sent, below, lots of wonderful faces from the local area beyond the tentmakers' souq. I am still learning ways to send photos to my blog. Text tends to duplicate under every single photo and that is frustrating and boring. So - I send them now without text, and though the heading will still duplicate, I hope the photos are worth the irritation. I have 117 photographs from a three hour walk and it is so hard to decide what to send.

The tentmakers souq is worth a piece all by itself, and I have marvelous photographs from this too, but I just wanted to tell one quick story.

We briefly dipped into the Khan before leaving the area with the intention of finding a clean toilet. Like in Damascus, local knowledge on such things is very worth while.

As we walked the gamut of urgers and calls of "come and see my shop", "what are you looking for?", "look, for only twenty five piastres you can buy something here", there was a lone voice saying something really different.

One man stood before a shop full of belly dancer costumes. He was twirling (very expertly and I bet he could belly dance too!) a coin covered scarf over his head. He called to us "Give me just two minutes and I will make you into an Arab woman".


Faces from the market

Faces from the market Faces from the market
Faces from the market Faces from the market
Faces from the market Faces from the market
Faces from the market
Faces from the market
Faces from the market
Faces from the market