Thursday, February 3, 2011


Pauline was intent on going downtown this morning, where all the protests are, to pick up an American friend Rosa, who wanted to stay with her. Rosa was petrified and didn't want to make the trip to Zamalek alone. I asked Pauline not to go. Mubarak supporters are out to get foreingers, because they are saying that the revolution can't be Egyptian inspired, it must have come from the outside. She said that if I wasn't going to go with her, that she would go alone. I tried all I could not to convice her not to go, but I didn't want to let her go alone. She warned me not to say that I was Palestinian. It was good advice. I thought of bringing a knife. My knifes would have been useless. It's a good thing didn't. I remembered in the taxi, that I forgot to bring my revolution photo filled camera... this may have saved our lives.

We were told that Tahrir Square was closed and tried to make our way around it through Garden City. When we got there we were stopped by a mob of toothless Medieval looking men wielding clubs and machetes. They asked to see our passports... and took them away. Mine is American and Pauline's is French. I was used to this by this point. People defending their streets is common. It's impossible to travel one kilometer without bumping into a community road block. These men were not from the that community. They were hired thugs and seemed to have a rank among them. Things changed when they asked us to get out of the taxi. "When are you from" asked a balding 50 something man. "I'm American." He said, "No, no, your nationality," meaning what kind of Arab are you... "Egyptian" I stated, "You don't sound like an Egyptian?" he said. I couldn't help it, but as the words were coming out, I was trying to stop them. "My mother is Palestinian." I couldn't believe I said this. I knew that it would get me in trouble. Egyptians like the Palestinian cause, but not Palestinians. I've been advised not to say that I was Palestinian many times here.

A green-eyed man, who seemed to be in charge, started asking questions about what we were doing and why we were there. Some members of the mob said "We are only supposed to check them for weapons and let them go." There was a little bit of an argument between them, including one veiled women who was on our side. Green-eyed man said "This is my responsibility." It was him and the balding guy who had it in for us. They whisked us away and said that they were taking us to the Police after frisking us for cameras and weapons.

At one point they lead us through a back ally and deserted street. I was terrified. I thought they were going to do something to use there. We turned the corner and thank God, we saw a police station with uniformed men. They handed us over to them and balding guy said. "We saw them smoking "bunga" (hash I think), in the back of a taxi. My heart fell to the floor. "Who would smoke in a time like this." I said. "I haven't even had my coffee yet. We are going to bring a friend back to Zalamek." We stated again and again. A half uniformed officer walked with us to the station also claimed to have witnessed us smoking hash in the back seat of a cab during a revolution. We're screwed I thought.

They had us empty our pockets in the middle of the half open gazebo type station. The mob began to form around us as we were searched and questioned. Someone from the mob yelled "Palestinian son of a Dog" at me (a big insult in Arabic). One guy told them to let us go if I was from "48," an Israeli Arab.  The half uniformed cop said that he was going to have the army deal with us. I said "Yes, please do." This was a relief because the army is the most professional and even handed of the mobs. As he escorted us through the streets a small group of very scary looking armed busy bodies followed us on a crowed street of thugs. We walked about two blocks before we finally spotted a lone soldier standing in front of a demolished car. Half uniformed guy handed him our passports and talked to him about the "bunga" and about the fact that I was Palestinian. I asked the soldier to take us away. The mob around us had grown to about 150-200 most with sticks, some with knifes and machetes. One toothless guy with a machete grabbed Pauline's arm and said come with me after blowing her a kiss. This was the worst moment of my life. I thought that they were going to try to separate us.

Hundreds of armed people were looking at us with hate and making comments about us. It looked like a scene from a Hollywood movie that wants to make Arabs look bad. The soldier gets in the destroyed car and tries to start it. It was a silver four-door wrecked car with the front windshield shattered and all other missing. We asked to go with him. He agreed and there was a moment of relief. The back seat of this wreck was removed. We sat on a folded cushion as the mob surrounded us. The guy with the machete asked Pauline if she was Muslim. She said that I was, but she wasn't. There were about four people who fought the rest of the crowd to stick their heads through the window as the car moved back for only two feet then stalled. We had to get out and back into the crowd. It was horror. The soldier escorted us through the crowd and we began walking through towards Tahrir. The mob slowly disappearing behind us. He took us through a checkpoint, the other side of which was relatively unoccupied. I breathed a sigh of relief. At this point I looked forward to going to jail.

We walked a block before the soldier stopped a civilian car and commanded him to drive us forward. He sat in the front,  us in the back as we tried to get our story straight. "We are just friends... we both live together in Zamalek... We were going to pick up a scared friend to bring home." The soldier was in full gear with helmet on his head and Ak47 type machine in his hand. He actually tried to console us, he wasn't too confident in the mob, but told us that he was taking us to the army post.

We drove a few blocks to an army post that was a bombed out police station near Tahrir, destroyed the days before. All windows smashed, three different spots of blood on the walls. There were about three soldiers in full uniform with flack jackets and fingers on the triggers of their machine guns. They asked us to wait while they held our passports and called someone. I was relived to be there, even with the bloody walls. A few minutes later walks in a young well dressed military officer with our passports in hand. He starts to speak to Pauline in French and at this point, the soldier who knew that I was Palestinian had left. I refused to speak anything but English and pretended not to understand the Arabic.

He was mild mannered and seemed educated, but I didn't trust him.. I could tell that Pauline was doing a good job at telling our story. I could hear the protesters in Tahrir and was hoping some event would happen so that they would quickly let us go. He continued to talk to Pauline as if I wasn't there. I stayed quiet, they seemed to have a good report . My phone rang during a lull and I had enough time to tell my friend Sarah that we were picked up and asked her to call for help.

About a half hour later, walked in a large, also well dressed man who later claimed to be the head of the army in Tahrir. He asked us similar questions, but he didn't speak English or French so Pauline translated in perfect Arabic. They seemed friendly and seemed to be interested in the story of us picking up her friend. "You shouldn't worry about her, it's safe out there" he said like he really believed it. At one point the chief asked Pauline to call her friend and tell her that we weren't coming to pick her up and she should go to Zamalek buy herself. I thought this a good sign because it meant he might let us go to meet her.

They kept us for another hour. This was not a good sign. If they bought our story, Why would they not let us go? I was concerned. Finally the young guy goes outside and has words with the chief, he comes back and says that he wants to let us go, but he doesn't know a safe route out. He said that he told his boss that he went to language school with Pauline and that she was okay. He suggested that we go back in the direction of the Medieval mob. We said "No way." He gave Pauline his number and asked her to call if we got into more trouble. We are indebted to him.

Each of the three groups, mob, police and army, were very interested in whether or not we had a camera. If they saw the photos of us in Tahrir square the days prior or behind the lines with the protesters, we would have been in real genuine trouble. This may have been the first time that I left my house in Egypt without a camera and it was only because it forgot it. I thank God for that.

The problem now was how not to get arrested again. We walked through several streets and turned back when we saw mob check points. It wasn't before long that we found ourselves in front of Rosa's house. It was a relief, we were on the protester's side now and that was a really good thing. They were awesome. We went upstairs and found Rosa waiting for us. There was a problem. The only safe way out was to walk through Tahrir Square. We had no other choice. It was closest to the bridge and we felt that the pro-Mubarak mobs were on the other side. It was tense. I was very nervous going through the first few mob checkpoints, but these were good guys, they checked out passports and welcomed us. We could see Tahrir a block away. While almost there, we heard screaming behind us. A pro-Mubarak gang had gathered to fight the protesters, we were between them. The protesters began whistling and yelling to alert the others. A wall formed and the mob retreated as we slipped past the protesters.

Tahrir square was safe and peaceful. One would never know that tens of people were killed there just hours before. I felt safest in the eye of the storm, the epicenter of the revolution. There were many many injured and bandaged protesters where still there and refused to leave. It was unbelievable. We bumped into some journalist friends and told them what had happened. We made it safely over the bridge to Zamalek.

It's early evening and I just heard that Rosa, the girl we just got arrested trying to help, was arrested herself after she left the apartment to buy phone credits. I was just on the phone with the embassy and they told me that there is nothing they can do. I'll keep trying.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

There's nothing like a little revolution to get a neglected blog going again.

We knew things were going to be bad when the Mubarak administration cut off text messages, the Internet and cell phone calls on Friday morning. It was a recipe for revolution and I don't believe it's over. As we were tending the goats in the garden, Pauline told me that she had decided to join the protests in Tahir Square. I tried to prevent her from going, used words like, "Egyptians need to do this for themselves," "Foreigners will be blamed for this" and even stooped as low as to say "You can't do this to your parents." It didn't work. There was nothing I could do to prevent her from going. It seemed that the more I tried the more the more she wanted to go. I remember seeing her off by saying "The first thing you do in a war is cut off your enemies communication and that's what the government just did. This is a war... be careful." She left and I returned to plan my day and finish my breakfast... fench toast (what she and apparently other French people call Eggy Bread).

I left the house boat at about 1pm to go buy eggs for banana bread that I was planning on making on Friday afternoon. I opened the front gate and saw hunderds of riot police and armored personnel carriers surrounding Kit Kat square and Kit Kat Mosque, which was about to let its cell phoneless worshippers out. It was a sea of blue officers, mainly 18 year old boys who looked like they were from upper Egypt. Most had peach fuzz growing on their faces. They were scared. The riot police set up their canteen right in front of my gate. I heard them argue when one boy asked the other in charge for an extra juice box. They had closed Nile Street off to prevent protesters from joining others downtown. The worshipers and others stood their ground... for the time being. The police refused to allow me to leave the garden. They yelled at me as I unlocked the gate. If they let me out, I would be between the two rows of riot police with their backs facing each other. I stood at the gate for the next several hours and watched the protesters begin to hurl rocks bottles and Molotov Cocktails, while police shot endless canisters of tear gas. There were some very tense moments. It soon became clear that there would be no banana bread to be had that day.

By late afternoon I could see bloodied and wounded police officers being rushed back to the camp. The protesters were in sight and the police were gathering stones to throw at them. This seemed really stupid because, there were plenty of stones already on the ground and they were just replenishing the protester's supply by thowing their stones back at them. The circle of police that was created earlier in the afternoon had split up to battle the protesters from the four streets that intersect Kit Kat. Protesters began setting fire to police cars and piles of tires. There was a thick mix of burned rubber smoke and tear gas in the air. Tear gas canisters were being shot with the frequency of a heart beat. There were nonstop clashes for hours. Police were slowly pushed back up until the point of my gate. Their lunch, tin canisters of rice and grilled chicken had been sitting in front of my gate since the morning, never to be consumed. It was about six o'clock when police captain called for a retreat. They backed up their tired cops in there several vehicles that resemble big box trucks with a series of three or four mesh covered holes cut out for air. These armored carriers look more like prison transport vehicles than police ones. There was a huge burst of excitement and euphoria from the crowd of about several hundred from each street that were now consolidated. The police moved back, but were still within sight. At this point I was free to leave the garden and walk about freely among the protesters.  I witnessed much destruction. I watched them set fire to a small police building just two doors down. This made me just a bit sad, because it is where I had the taxi cab drivers drop me off when I thought that they might rip me off. The crowd also set fire to several piles of chairs, political banners, wooden poles and anything else that would burn. The clash line was now about 100 yards away. I was surprised to see 10 year old boys and several covered women among them. Tear gas and rocks were still being hurled at us. I one point a canister landed a few meters away from me. It made me tear. I saw the police line take a direct hit from a Molotov Cocktail. The police began to fire something, where rubber bullets or shots into the air. The crowd retreated up to the point of my gate. The police didn't follow. After a few minutes, the protesters returned. At about 11pm, the police had fled completely, not only from my street, but from all of Cairo.

As the protesters marched forward some policemen were left behind. About half a dozen or so jumped the fence onto the property next door. They were terrified. These were not the the boys with the riot gear. They were 40 something officers with stars on their shoulders. Rocks were being thrown at them as they hid on the side of the boat. They were between the protesters and the nile. As the crowd moved forward, they stayed on the ledge of the boat for hours. Asking me for water, and at one point, a change of clothes so that they could go home in civilian garb. "Please brother, can you throw us a used robe... an old dirty one is fine," yelled a desperate man, who a few minutes before was commanding forces agaist civilians. My dilema was not whether to give it to them or not... I wanted them to leave. It was that the clothes that I brought to Cairo were my favorite ones. I wasn't really ready to part with them. I asked them to hold on while I went through my closet and found "my cleanest dirty shirts." I turned on my deck light, one floor above them, to throw the clothes over. This frightened them because they were no longer in the dark. They asked me to turn off the light while I threw, over a 10 foot gap in the Nile, some American Apparel t-shirts and thermals on to the 12 inch ledge that they we standing on. They changed and and asked for a shopping bag to place their uniforms. They stood on the ledge for another two hours before getting the courage to walk through the crowds and return home as the entire Cairo police force had just done.

As things calmed. I think around midnight, I walked over the bridge to Zamalek and went to see my friend who worked at the New York Times bureau to offer the pics and videos that I had (will post soon). There was almost no one in the streets by then. All of the five or six people in the office were scrambling to get news out. My friend directed me to a journalist and I showed him my footage. The times was apparently more interested in showing ministries burning that day than the burning tires and local riots that I had shot. They also filled me in on what happened in the rest of Cairo that day. I safely walked home and I went to bed at about 2 am, not knowing what to expect the next day.

I woke up the next morning and was surprised to find business as usual at the Imbaba market. Plenty of eggs for eggy or banana bread, old ladies with their fruit stands, the live chicken guy slicing throats and men puffing on sheesha while watching state news at the local cafe. Traffic was being directed at very busy street that I crossed to get there by a group of young men, who were doing a much better job than the cops, who were no where to be found. I stayed home that day and remember Pauline commenting that she was proud that the Egyptians had refrained from looting. That was about to change. Word on the streets is that the Mubarak admistration sent police officers to start looting. A number of early looters were arrested by citizens and were found with police ID. Instead of covering the protests, the state T.V. was airing phone calls of hysterical women, streaming about how there were thugs trying to break down their doors. Reports of prisoners being freed did not help. That night was one of the scariest of my life. Here is what I wrote while it was happening:

Right now: My houseboat neighbors and I are on alert, all holding sticks. Mine has nails in it. If I've ever wanted a gun, it's now. We can see looters roaming the streets and we hear gunshots and screams every few seconds with no exaggeration. Egypt went from being a police state of thirty years, to one with no authority or government whatsoever. There are reports of rich neighborhoods being looted and burned. I live in the Bed-Stuy of Cairo... Kit Kat square. It's between Zamalek, a wealthy island of embassies and poshness that splits the Nile and Imbaba, a poor to working class neighborhood, that has a great vegetable market and lots of small yumma and yabba shops. Although only yards away from Zamalek, across a 100 meters of Nile, they two are worlds apart. I can hear the mosque in Zamalek asking people for weapons on their P.A. system. The gunshots have been consistent for hours. Everyone is terrified. There are about six of us on the boat and garden, the groundskeeper and five others in four apartments. We've established a call system with the neighbors. I just saw a mob transporting three suspected thieves to a military post while beating them mercilessly and chanting self praising slogans. I'm thinking of hiding the kitchen knives. I hope the gunshots never reach their targets.

That night I got a call from Rania, who told me that Diane an older English astrologer was alone and terrified on a boat nearby (houseboats tend to have eccentric occupants; artists, homeopaths, healers, actors etc.). I called Diane and asked if she wanted me to come and get her. She said she did, but her gate was padlocked and barricaded because two men had told her that they were sent to take the houseboats they were scared off by the neighbors. I told her that I would ask the groundskeeper to take me over to her with his row boat so that she could stay with me and that's what we did. We got in the three meter, dirty old boat and rowed about six houseboats down. The Nile was spooky calm, but gunfire and screams were heard from all directions. The trip would have been beautiful sans sound, a midnight sail through the Nile on a clear night. As we neared her houseboat, I yelled her name and saw the lights turn on. She came out a bit shaky and made her way to us. I was expecting her to bring things... food, a laptop, clothes, but all she had was her small hippie handbag. As she entered the wobbly boat, I thought she was going to fall in the river, but she made it. She was grateful and offered to read my charts for free.  She came over, sat on my chair for two hours without moving while Pauline and I kept a lookout for looters and ran to my downstairs neighbor's apartment for T.V. news. She finally got up and did all my dishes and cleaned my kitchen and for that I am grateful.

More to come. I want to get something out before the internet is cut again.  Peace.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

18 Million and 1

I woke up to a call on Thursday morning from my Brooklyn friend and fellow Red Hooker, Harry, who said that he was traveling for work and made arrangements to stop in Cairo for the weekend. I was excited to have my first visitor, but a bit concerned that I may have a hard time making him comfortable here. You see, Harry is an Ivy League educated, native New Yorker who likes the finer things in life… like sanitation. The whole Middle Eastern hospitality thing is much stronger for me here, so I felt more compelled to be gracious host. I was comforted by the fact that he’d be taking the obligatory cab ride from the airport to the Marriott in Zamalek. This airport to destination cab ride is a necessary orientation. Some of the lessons you’ll learn include the following:

Your first lesson almost always involves having to negotiate with your first Egyptian taxi driver and/or broker, if necessary. Rania told me to pay 60-80 pounds ($10-14) when I arrived. I paid 90 pounds. I found out later that it should cost around 40 ($7). Here, you may learn that some meters are “broken,” that there are a lot of “scenic” routes that metered cabs prefer or to agree on the fare before you leave in an unmetered car. If you’re lucky you’ll realize that the difference is only a couple of dollars and not let it get to you.

Within seconds of the car moving you’ll inevitably think. “Wow, I have worst driver in all of Cairo!” Not so! Your cab driver drives no differently than an old lady in the Burka. There is only one skill level of driving here and it includes the ability to drive as close, and as fast as you can to the cars around you while honking your horn as many times as you can. It’s usually not a “please excuse me honk,” or “the light’s just changed honk.” It’s an “I’m within milliseconds of killing you and your family” honk. On the bright side, people are really polite about aggressive driving. There is no road rage. On the contrary, if someone cuts another off while crossing six lanes to make a right turn in reverse, the cut off driver will tip his hat out of respect, nod his head and think, “Wow, nice move.” I learned how to drive, when I was is 16 on the streets of NYC and I’ll never, ever, get behind the wheel here. I witnessed three accidents in my first week. Humans have an innate ability to adapt to new environments, but I’ll never feel comfortable crossing the street here… ever. I walk three extra blocks crossing several smaller streets, so that I don’t have to cross the main street in front of the Museum to get to the Metro (subway).

Harry complained that his driver stopped to put air in the tires. I told him that mine stopped three times… once to put gas, once to buy cigarettes and once to buy a phone. He’s lucky that his driver didn’t stop for a car wash, something that’s not unheard of. It is common for driver to stop mid-fare to drink a mango juice or get a sandwich. What’s learned here is that it’s not all about you and as chaotic as things seem, time is abundant.

Another lesson learned from this initiation is not to slam a cab’s door. People are really sensitive about door slamming and American males seem to really like to slam car doors. Maybe they think it’s an insult or maybe they’re sensitive about wear and tear on their cars (a door slam has lead to an exchange of words on many occasions). You may use it as a tactical move to instantly find out if your driver really speaks English.

If you arrive at night, you may think that the car’s headlights are broken or that the bulbs are out, this might not bother you because, you’ve already accepted the fact that your seatbelt doesn’t work. I still don’t know why drivers don’t turn them on. I saw this expensive new Porsche 4x4 speeding through the streets of Zamalek, late at night, practicing this custom. Sarah says it’s because they believe that turning your lights on wastes gas, others say they want to extend the bulb life, and some say that they don’t want to be “rude” to the drivers in front of them. When I first noticed cars driving at night without their headlights on I felt sorry for them because I thought that they were too poor to afford new bulbs.

On your way to your destination, you’ll notice many grand structures, compounds, buildings and monuments. If you ask the driver, he’ll tell you that they are military compounds, military barracks, military academies, armories or presidential palaces. This is a reality check. Egypt is a police state and has been under a type of martial law for decades, but you don’t really notice it unless you’re an Egyptian that is being held indefinitely, “under suspicion,” and without trial. There are at least two cops on every corner… everywhere. Someone thought that it was a good idea to dress them in pure white uniforms, from head to toe, in one of the dustiest cities on earth. As a result, Cairo is very safe. I’ve never felt unsafe, even while walking home at 4 a.m.

Cairo is not a geographically large city. It’s about the same size as Brooklyn, but it hosts about 18 million people. This is evident when you start driving through the first very densely populated neighborhood and see endless 9 story buildings with other 9 story buildings built in their back yards. You’ll begin to realize the magnitude of the density when you see that this overpopulated “neighborhood” never ends… miles and miles of buildings on top of buildings with very few breaks, parks, fields or even outdoor parking lots to separate them. It would be like extending downtown Manhattan, during lunch, over the entire area of NYC and adding ten times the people. Throw in the fact the buildings and streets don’t get cleaned because it only rains twice a year and when it does, the dust doesn’t get removed because there is no sewer system (water accumulates in large puddles until it dries)… this is Cairo and for some reason, I love it here!

You’ll also, for the first time, notice the absence of traffic lights, which is deliberate. Cairo can’t afford to have an intersection with one street full of stopped cars, while the intersecting street is empty. Although there is a lot of congestion, traffic seems to move, slowly, but it does move. Rania’s mom told me that the streets of Cairo were built to handle half a million cars and that there are now five times as many on the road.

Harry’s taxi driver must not have given him one of the most valuable lessons, where the driver smokes non-stop through your ride. I say this because Harry complained when I lit a cigarette indoors during Caitlin’s going away brunch on the afternoon of his arrival. I humored him and put it out. Minutes later, six of Caitlin’s dozen or so guests simultaneously started smoking. Welcome to Cairo, I said. You’re in my town now.

Harry arrived and checked into the Marriot in Zamalek on Friday morning. Friday mornings here are wonderful. It’s how Sundays used to be in New York when I was a kid. Streets are quiet, almost spookily deserted, most shops are closed and there is a general calm that is so special that it makes up for the other 162 hours of Beyond Thunderdome. We met at the poolside café, where an iced coffee costs about $9US (50 falafel sandwiches). Harry’s visit was quite delightful. We spent one day doing touristy stuff, starting at the Citadel we saw many 10th century super beautiful grand mosques and had a few productive haggling sessions in the souk. We also caught a concert at Al-Azhar Park, which was built by the Aga Khan and is one of the most tasteful, beautiful, and organized things to happen to Cairo in decades.

Harry said it best when he said. “It’s amazing that, in a city with so many people, you can turn the faucet on and water actually comes out!” As Harry was on his way to the airport, he found a cab that took only 30 pounds. I said goodbye as he entered it and slammed the door, which lead to the inevitable exchange of words. I could hear them arguing as they drove off into the traffic.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cairo by the Pound


I wish that I'd never learned that a falafel sandwich costs US 18 cents. One Egyptian Pound (5.69 to the USD). Since then, I've been thinking of everything in terms of a falafel sandwich. I had a super fabulous dinner two nights ago with my expensive friends on a gorgeous boat on the Nile. My portion of the bill was 150 Egyptian Pounds ($26). Not so bad for a super fancy restaurant on a boat, on the Nile, which would rival any fancy New York City restaurant, but I kept thinking... "Wow, that's 150 falafel sandwiches!" I have to stop splurging!" My new set of hair clippers was 37 falafel sandwiches and 1/2 a kilo of sliced turkey from Alpha, 40 falafel sandwiches.


A cost of a pack of local cigarettes costs US 79 cents; a pack of Marlboro Lights is $1.80. In my effort to go “Balladi,” (local) I tried smoking the local cigarettes (Cleopatra), but they gave me a headache, tasted like ass (not in a good way) and because they come in a soft pack, I kept losing them. The warning label says something like, "Smoking interferes with marital conjugal relations" see photo above. It's hilarious, they can print a picture of a flaccid cigarette, but they can't say "erection." It's a good thing that I'm not married!

Doormen (boab... “bow-abb”)

My landlord suggested that I tip them 50 pounds a month ($9). They of course requested twice that. I didn’t give in. Having a boab in Egypt is like having your 8 year old brother stand out in front of your room (24hrs a day),  judge your guests, comment on your life choices, kiss your ass like it’s never been kissed before, and ask for a quarter because he polished your doorknob by virtue of him turning it to let the plumber in. I thought that my boabs were particularly intrusive, but found out later that it is the norm. At 3 a.m., my boab rolls a bed out into the lobby and sleeps there. There’s no way to come home without waking him up, and when you do the drama starts. “Oh, I was sleeping, but that’s okay, ya Pasha!

Cleaning Person:

My doorman (boab) recommended a woman who cleans apartments in this building for $10.54 a session. "A deal!" you might say. Not really. I was warned that cleaning ladies don't pay attention to detail to the degree that I'm used to in the States, but come on. My boab tells me that he made an appointment for her to come at 11am. He suggests that even though she is very trustworthy, I remain in the apartment the entire time, something I did not want to do. "It's customary," he says. So she, of course, arrives at 2pm with her (cute) 9 month old baby, Yousef. I let her in and she sits on my sofa, lifts up her shirt, takes off her hijab, and begins breastfeeding Yousef... for about 20 minutes. I'll support breastfeeding wherever I can, but I have shit to do, she's 3 hours late and I haven't had my mango juice yet (70 cents, btw). It takes her 15 minutes to put Yousef to sleep on my bed. She then goes into the bathroom and changes into a robe. She "cleaned" for about half an hour before Yousef wakes up, at which point she picks him up, places him under her arm and begins cleaning again. "I'll take him," I said... big mistake. Was stuck with Yousef for two hours (he likes pee-a-boo or "beee" in Arabic). She wipes my mirrors and windows with a dirty rag and neglects to clean my stove, my refrigerator and my bathroom. I did not complain. It was more important that she leave than finish. So, just when I think she’s was done, she proceeds to take Yousef into my bathroom, bathe him in my sink, dress him on my rag wiped coffee table, and eat her lunch for another 45mins.

Ant Spray:

$1.60. It’s not just any "Raid" ant spray. It’s Raid that smells like it used to in the 1970’s…Oh Yeah! After ants made their way through my unopened plastic bag of sugar and started a little farm in it, (with tunnels and all), I was more than happy to make the purchase and to give up the six months off my life that comes it.  There are certain things that I'm not so "hippie" about. Deodorant, antibiotics and apparently, ant spray are the exceptions. Not to worry about the wasted ant-filled bag of sugar… the cleaning lady took it home.


Cost of a ten minute cab ride to my expensive friend’s house in Zamalek, so that I can spend hundreds more on going out… 95 cents. It would cost about $3 to take an Egyptian cab from Brooklyn to Midtown. A ride on the Metro (subway) is 18 cents. It’s rather clean, crowded, there’s no P.A. system or A.C.

Egyptian National Museum:

Entrance fee: 60 Egyptian Pounds ($10)… less for nationals. I was saddened by my visit. After going through numerous checkpoints and metal detectors, I found myself in an extremely dusty, unorganized, warehouse style museum, with yellowed, hand typed, index cards that dated back to the 1970’s describing each treasure. The glass cases had fingerprints and grey streaks, tons of dust on the statues and sarcophagi. It was laid out by period and had countless treasures that I felt weren’t respected. One has to come to Egypt with an open mind. There is no good and bad here. There is just acceptable and unacceptable. A dry roast beef sandwich with slightly green edges is acceptable, no hot water in the kitchen… acceptable, elevators that only go up… acceptable. The condition of the museum was not. It is their lifeblood and invaluable part of the human story.


Apparently the cost of bribing a police officer not to arrest you for kicking another guy in the nuts at Café Hurriya is 150 Egyptian Pounds. ($27). This happened to a friend’s roommate, who, after not having the money on him, was escorted to his house, on the other side of the Nile, so that he could get the money and give it to the cop there. Now… you may look at this as a bad thing. I actually take comfort in the fact that, if I were to get into trouble, I can buy my way out. We don’t have these conveniences in the States. There are lawyers and judges, court dates and adjournments involved. It costs much more than $27 to kick a guy in the nuts there!

Sunday, July 18, 2010


The mango juice here is divine. It’s everywhere, safe and relatively inexpensive. For my first few days here, I consumed little else. It’s not because I didn’t trust he food and it’s not because good food is hard to come by. It’s mainly because I’m as of yet routineless. I’m still looking for my Ft. Defiance, my Sunny’s and my Sweet Melissa’s. I don’t even have the place that I walk by and say… “I hate this place… I never eat here.” When I’m hungry I go looking for something to eat and find myself sitting at a juice bar and ordering a(n) ” ‘aseer mange.” In an attempt to put an end to any potential malnutrition, I decided to go to my local food souq and stock up. It’s called Babalouq (Egyptians pronounce it without the “q,” like the Ricky Ricardo song). My expensive friends go to the American style Alpha Supermarket in Zamalek and buy Pringles and Oreos. My sha’aby (of the people) friends go to their local markets and buy seasonal vegetables and meat cut off the hanging leg of a recently slaughtered animal. I didn’t come to Egypt to live like an American, so of course, I chose the Babalouq.

Smell must travel faster than light, because I could smell the place way before I could see it. Now, it’s not a bad smell, it’s what meat stuffs smell like before they’re, properly bled, inspected, stamped, refrigerated, packaged and made pretty for white people. There’s no adjective that describes this place better than “raw.” Lots of small booths with hanging racks of meat and what Americans would call by-products. The produce stands had the dozen or so types of vegetables and fruits that are in season. There were a couple of shops that had cleaning products and dry goods. I remember idealistically thinking that I too could easily and proudly go sha’aby. All that is needed could be found here and everything else was extreme excess.

I wasn’t ten yards into Babalouq, before my right leg fell, knee deep, through some spread out cardboard into an open sewer filled with the most wrenched, vile, disgusting soup of rotting animal guts. The three or four witnesses were silent, eyes wide open… jaws hanging and these are seasoned Babalouq’ers. I too was silent, with the exception of calmly asking for a hose, I said nothing. I was given a bucket and shown to a 50 gallon drum of water. I took off my shoe and proceeded to empty the entire contents of the drum onto my right leg and into my shoe. I wasn’t in shock. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t upset. I held no emotion other than disgust. I put my shoe back on, walked the block back to my apartment, scrubbed myself with Dettol, called my friend Maryum and asked for directions to Alpha Supermarket in Zamalek.

Friday, July 16, 2010

To be or not to be... an Arab

It started when I entered Horus House Hotel in Zamalek with specific instruction from Ashraf to pay about $30 dollars a night. It's on the 4th floor of a rather large building and has another hotel, Longchamps, directly above it. It had a bit of an older feel than my current hotel and with older people working on their laptops in the common area. It was a bit refreshing for me not to see any 20 year old American kids with seashell ankle bracelets. I walked in asked the clerk, in English, for a room. "$60 dollars a night," he asked. "Damn," thought. I should have asked in Arabic. So I reply in Arabic and say that my friends highly recommended the hotel and told me that I should only pay about $30. He responds in English and says. "Nooooo, we've never been $30." So I did what any second chance seeking identity challenged traveler would do. I tried the hotel upstairs. I walked up to the clerk with my Arab face on and asked "Be cam al udha?" The clerk looked at me and said. "Sorry brother, we only have rooms for foreigners." What the fuck! I initially was proud that I passed for an Arab, so I thanked him, turned around and asked what the price of a room would have been. He said it would have been. 200 Egyptian Pounds (about $35), which would have been acceptable for a couple of nights stay in Zamalek until I found my apartment. I had one hotel left the Mayfair. The Mayfair was one of so many buildings in Cairo that I could tell at one point was "The Shit." It was now absolutely acceptable, but not in its glory. There are so many beautiful, Parisian style buildings here with ornate detail, grand lobbies and courtyards that are still impressive, but still force me to wish I was here in their heyday. So, I walk up to the marble check in counter and ask, in Arabic, the two clerks who were telling jokes and generally horsing around, if they had a room. One stops, thinks, looks me up and down, tilts his head to the side, squints his eyes, shakes his head and says, "nah." So I tilt my head squint my eyes shake my head back and give him the I know that your lying, but there's not a fucking thing that I can do about it look.

I walked back to Ashraf's place, a bit confused. Who am I, who should I be? I stopped at a deli to buy a liter of water. The cashier, raises his eyebrows, as if to ask, what do you want? I, in turn, shake the bottle and raise my own eyebrows, indicating that I wanted the price. He responds by signaling "two" with his fingers. I then reach into my pocket, and hand him two pounds and leave. Wow! I just had an entire transaction without giving way any traces of my national origin and without revealing my accent. I'm sure that he would have charged me six pounds if I had opened my mouth. If I can only figure out a way a take the invaluable lesson that I just learned from this clerk and use it to help me find an apartment in the morning.

Every expat that I met (a dozen or so), in the less than a week that I've been here, was going to watch the World Cup game at the "Swiss Club," all I really know about it is that is owned by the Swiss consulate and has a large outdoor beer garden. Among the 2,000 or so people there was Jakob’s friend Francesco, who landed the same day that I did. Francesco is a super nice guy, is in his mid thirties and teaches Arabic in Italy. He told me that he spent the day going from doorman to doorman (boab) asking them If they knew of any apartments. He found one at 15 Al Bustan (The Garden) St., an amazing part of downtown. He told me that I should check it out and I did. I got up early the next morning, walked about 6 blocks from my hotel and found the block that I was looking for. Building numbers are not that apparent here, so I walked into the first lobby and saw the building's boab and asked if it was number 15. "It's 19" he said, "number 15 is two doors down." I thanked him, turned around, and having realized that this was my first experience with a boab, I took the opportunity to ask. "Do you know of any apartments?" "Hold on" he said, with a "ka-ching" smile on his face. "I have a friend who can help you." He goes into the office and pulls out a broker's, card, calls the broker, and puts him me on the phone. I knew better than to get involved with a broker, but also had enough confidence, as an ex-agent myself, to know that I would be able to see right through him and walk away from something I didn't feel right about. In perfect English, the voice on the phone says "Hello, this is Alex" Damn! I thought, the boab tipped him off about my English! At this point I had no choice but to play American. He said that there were no apartments available in 19, but that he did have one in 15. I told him that I was on the way to see the one in 15, but he said that he worked for the management company and that I'd have to go through him anyway. I didn't believe him and it turned out not to be true, but I thought that I'd use this guy to find other places and to help negotiate the 2500 pound ($400) rent for this one if I wanted it. I asked him what his broker fee was and he said, "Just take a look at the apartment and we'll talk about that later." "No, we'll talk about it now," I replied with a somewhat annoyed tone. "We usually get 1000 pounds" ($175) he said. That didn't bother me. I knew that I could get him down to at least half and would gladly pay him much more if he could get me a great place and negotiate with the landlord on my behalf. I’ve paid thousands of dollars in broker’s fees in NY and would gladly pay a couple of hundred here.

Alex sent one of his many minions to show me the place at 15 Al Bustan. The doorman, Nageeb only spoke Arabic, and I had to ask him several questions, so there was no getting around it. He took us upstairs and opened the apartment door to a scene out of a bad 70’s porno. The apartment had tacky sofas, a red dining room set, bad ancient Egyptian stucco scenes, including hieroglyphs… etched into the walls, and somewhat checkered black and white tile. I loved it. It also had internet, a washing machine, an elevator, TV with 300 channels, a six foot bathtub, one air conditioner, was on the 7th floor and was one block away from the Egyptian National Museum and the subway. I called Alex, told him that it was okay, but I wanted to see more and that my budget was 2000 ($350) he said that he had only one in that price range and it was in Dokki (a neighborhood on the Nile on the other side of Zamalek). He told me that he’d pick me up at my hotel, in half an hour. Two hours later, he shows up, driving VW Golf. Alex was a short, very Egyptian looking guy with sunglasses on his forehead and almost acid washed tight jeans… no gold chain necklace though. The apartment in Dokki was a two bedroom, six floor walk up, with patio furniture inside, on a bad block with tons of kids playing on the stairs. He may have just showed it to me so that I would take the flat on Al Bustan. If he did, he was good, because it worked. While driving back I told him that I wanted the first place, but I wanted him to call the landlord and get it for me for 2000, 500 a month than the asking price. If he did, I’d give him 800 pounds. Alex was willing to try but says that there’s a catch. The Egyptian landlord won’t rent to Arabs. He apparently will only rent to foreigners. Alex told me not to speak Arabic when I meet the landlord. “What do you want me to do, wear a cowboy hat and pretend that I think that the sun is the other side of the moon?” I asked, “No, he said, just dress the way you’re dressed now and bring your passport.” There was a time, when I would have found this unacceptable and would never have participated in such self hating racism, but I’m in Egypt and understand that whatever transaction I make, there’s going to be some sorta bullshit involved.

I arrive at my soon to be new apartment building wearing a pressed buttoned up shirt, clogs, a very American looking backpack, with two bottles or water strapped to the sides and with camera and (non- working) iphone in hand. I was approach by the doorman, who I had several conversations with in Arabic the day before. He greets me in Arabic, and I did my best to only sort of understand what he was saying, knowing that I he was about to introduce me to the landlord. It was a bit awkward, when I pretended not to understand him, he said, "You understood me yesterday?" I pretended to barely understand that. I was shown to the landlord's office, and invited in before the broker showed up. He was a well dressed, somewhat soft spoken tanned man. There was a large Chinese caved wooden statue of two dragons fighting each other on his large desk along with various other desk accoutrements. He greeted me in Arabic and I responded in English (I was so paranoid that I think I sounded the way Richard Prior or Eddie Murphy do when they imitate white people). Do you speak Arabic he asked, I lifted my right hand to signal "so-so" and said "Shwaya shway" (that's what Americans do when they pretend that they know more Arabic than they actually do). I think at that point I was in. We made small talk until Alex came, and then went over the simple two paragraph lease. Just as we were about to sign, the landlord, says, "Oh yes, I must tell you that our culture here is different than the culture that you are used to... so no girlfriends staying over, unless you’re married or anything else like that... you know what I mean..." "I don't know what your mean," I said. "I have friends, and I plan to have them over from time to time." "I'm going to live here and want to feel comfortable with whomever I choose to invite over my house." "You want foreigners, but you want them to act like Arabs, when Arabs don't even act like Arabs!" This really struck a chord, mainly because of experiences I had as a summer college student in Palestine. I looked at Alex as if I was going to strangle him. "No, no, you may have guests over for coffee and such, the larger the group the better." I caved, signed the lease, and wrote it off as more acceptable B.S.

I was telling friends this story last night; they said that every landlord gives that speech, and that they don’t like to rent to Egyptians due to tenant friendly rent control laws. The crabby old lady in the apartment next to mine pays 5 pounds ($9) a month. They also informed me that there are different hotel rates for Egyptians and foreigners, which explains why I was refused as an Arab. They put it best when they said, “Sometimes Egypt wants you to be an Arab and sometimes it wants you to be an American.”

Thursday, July 8, 2010

first 24

I landed in Cairo last afternoon. Made it through security checkpoints without being searched or interrogated. I was, for the first time since 9/11, able to get a boarding pass through the kiosk at the airport (My name is one of many on the no fly list and am used to getting much attention). The Jet Blue machine gives me an "Oops! there's a problem" printout. I call it the "Oops, you're an Arab!" slip.

From the air, Cairo looks like a massive mud brick, lifeless abyss. I was a bit concerned at first. Didn't see many trees or anything that wasn't the Nile or a large brown, too close to the next, building. That is not the case at all. Cairo is amazing, beautiful and full of life. After landing, getting a cab, accidentally giving the baggage handler a 100 pound note as a tip, (he was honest), we drove about an hour through a series of deceptively organized streets and highways, passed several elaborate military compounds and Honsi Mubarak's palace to Zamalek, a sort of exclusive island in the middle of the Nile, to my friend Ashraf's apartment. Zamalek is where diplomats, journalists and many foreigners live. It's quaint, quite for Cairo, pretty, but not pristine (nothing here is, there is no rain to wash away dust and grime from buildings, streets and trees). I met Kareem at Ashraf's house and barely had enough time to put my bags down before being whisked away to a "poker game, world cup pool party" in Ma'ade, a super nice neighborhood in the southern part if the city. Ma'ade has the feel of the Garden District in New Orleans (lots of well kept green and the charm that comes with it.) There were about ten of us playing poker and watching the game, no one made it out to the pool. The apartment was sick. Three floors, marble stairs a 55" TV and with virtually no kitsch. We ordered burgers half way through the game. Yes, burgers! I'm in Cairo for less than two hours and I'm playing poker and eating burgers in an apartment that looks like it's been furnished by Martha Stewart. I won 684 pounds. Maybe they were distracted by the Germany and Spain... I actually think that the fact that I had no idea how much I was betting (because I was unfamiliar with the currency) made me a much more conservative player. I felt bad about winning. I normally feel bad about taking my friend's money but this time I was a guest, in a new country, with new hosts and they may never have the opportunity to win it back. I don't plan to make poker a habit. Oh yeah, I saw the pyramids on the way to the game from the highway!

I got up the next morning and began my search for a phone card and a hotel room. I took a cab from Zamalek to Wust al-Balad (downtown) and asked the driver to drop me off at at hotel that Rania and Jakob recommended. It's called Pension Roma and is owned by a lovely French Egyptian woman named Madame. The elevator was broken and I had to walk up 4 flights with my bags. These are not four ordinary flights, these are four Egyptian flights. Ceiling here are miles high. Each floor seems to have twice as many stairs as the buildings that I'm used to. Roma is quite nice. There are long hallways accented by a thin red slightly patterned carpet on a white marble floor, lots of plants and flowers... some of them real. There are foreigners of all ages staying here, including some traveling families. It costs about 15 dollars a night. I was unfortunately only able to secure two nights. I tried to charm the clerk with my Shammy accent into putting me on the "waiting list."

I left the hotel around noon in search of a SIM card for my phone and began having my first real encounters with Egyptians. I speak Arabic with an accent from what's known as the "Sham" (Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Jordan). Egyptians have a pretty exclusive accent, which is loved by few outside of this country. I initially thought that I'd have problems communicating here, but I was wrong. I'd say that I probably understand 90% of what I hear and they 95% of what I say is understood, notwithstanding the few that feel that they are above the Shammies and pretend not to understand. Some Egyptians feel that Egypt should be the capital of the Arab world and have a sight superiority complex. So, I walked the streets of downtown asking for a cell phone store. Egyptians are very nice and super accommodating as I got lots of suggestions from lots of people, but was never able to find a store. The problem was that they didn't really understand what I was looking for. SIM cards and the phone cards that fill them can be found on any street corner. In many different types of stores. I finally bought mine in a little strip mall convenience store. I have yet to see any large stores. There is an endless amount of extremely well kept and super small retail stores. There is a shoe district, a luggage district, an electronics district and two art supply stores next door to each other. Many shops are only 100 square feet. Getting to them is quite difficult. There are few traffic lights and no flashing "don't walk" signs. To cross a street one must insert himself in front of cars and force them to yield. It took me about 10 minutes to cross my first main street because I was expecting some sort of opening to miraculously appear. When it never did, I followed the lead of an old woman and kept walking, with hand out. That, is not considered rude. It's perfectly acceptable for both drives and pedestrians to cut off or overtake. Beeping or horn honking is perfectly acceptable and never stops. It's kinda like the buzz of 80,000 vuvuzelas individually sounding for a few seconds each while creating a soft consistent buzz, which is easy to get used to.

With new phone number in hand, I called and then met my friend Jakob for lunch and had shawarma served on a hero. I asked for it "Shammy" style (pita), but they didn't have the bread. "Subway" style hero bread in very popular here. Jakob is a Swede puppet theater master that's lived here for ten years. We sat down at one of those outdoor cafes with the plastic molded chairs and he gave me invaluable advice for about an hour. His friends say that he is more Egyptian than the Egyptians. He called me later that night and asked if I wanted to join him on his usual Thursday night routine (Thursday nights are Fridays here.) We me at another plastic chair outdoor spot that I call the plastic chair district. It's Cairo's equivalent of Jerusalem's Ben Yahuda Street or as we call it "Shara' Yaffa." It was about three blocks long and in a "T" shape. We had dinner and waited for his friends to slowly arrive. Some Cairo advice: Don't feed the cats until you are ready to leave (I saw my first clowder.) When you do feed the cats, don't attempt to hand feed them. They are not polite and one almost took my finger off. So... friends came, we had coffee and pondered our next move, because the usual spot, Cafe Hurryia, was closed due to a religious holiday. Bars and clubs stay low key or close during these times. If they do open, Egyptians are not allowed, even the Christians. A Muslim foreigner is allowed to drink, but an Egyptian Christian is not. We decided to go to this Greek supper club not far away, which for some reason, seems immune to these "traditions." It was through a gated courtyard and upstairs in a large apartment building. Six of us walked in and the maitre d' said, "sorry we are full..." and they were, but we continued to walk in anyway and oddly enough were served. It was a large place, with lots of tables and even more empty space.

We left at about 1 am for a party at a Spanish NGO worker's house in Giza. It was a typical house party that could have been anywhere. We could hear the chatter from street and it had a diverse crowd. I met a woman from Texas, who lives on a houseboat on the Nile and a hipster guy who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn... "off the Morgan stop" (hipsters like to identify where they live by the subway stop that they take to work).

I plan to see the pyramids, take a boat down the Nile and see Rania's mom in the coming days.