Jacinto in Cairo

30 October 2006


'Id al-fitr, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast, began last Tuesday. Like so many Egyptians, we travelled. Our itinerary began with a cab ride to the bus station. When we arrived near 7.30am, the plaza was filled with a religious gathering - hundreds of people sitting on canvas tarps thrown across the ground. So, with time running out until our bus's departure, we took off our shoes and made our way through the devotees. Our first stop was Marsa Matruh, a small city on the North Coast all the way west near the Libyan border. The city is known for its delicious seafood and the striking colors of the Mediterranean there, pictured below.

After consuming whole fish and calamari, and watching Zoolander in our mediocre hotel on the Corniche, we set off the next morning for the Siwa Oasis. Siwis are actually Berber, like the inhabitants of Kabylie in Algeria and the Rif Mountains of Morocco. They eat couscous and harissa, speak a Berber language, and often have gorgeous blue or green eyes. Oh, and it's the olive harvest now and we got some delicious freshly pressed olive oil, so fruity and delicious. Also, the first picture in this blog entry is a field of karkadé, or hibiscus, or flor de jamaica, used to make a delicious deep red drink that's really popular here. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

This donkey cart took us from the bus depot to our hotel on the edge of the oasis. It's hard to describe the effects of approaching Siwa after 3 hours of driving through the desert, with nothing around but scrub brush and sandstone formations. Of course, this must be nothing compared to arriving after two weeks caravaning on camels through the Sahara, but still. The oasis is so lush, like the banks of the Nile but somehow even moreso. Underneath Siwa is a freshwater ocean that provides most of Egypt's bottled water, and there are thousands of date palms. It's also date season, and you can just pick fresh dates off the trees. So yummy.

Above you see our hotel, the Desert Rose - lovely and tranquil, with a refreshing non-chlorinated pool fed by an underground source. 5km from town, it was seriously isolated. We waited four hours for a ride into town which never came, then set off on foot, only to be picked up by a farmer bringing fresh hay into town. We ate at the fancy restaurant, and my prix fixe menu of the day included fresh pita, tahina, couscous and vegetables, a huge grilled steak fillet, and a fresh date crepe - all for $8! Then we ambled around, underneath the old fortress/town of Shali, and bought some handmade baskets in the Siwan style.

I was itching to get into the desert, and we met a group of Egyptians also staying at the Desert Rose who were planning an overnight excursion with a local guide some of them had travelled with three years ago. How fortunate for us! Twelve of us piled into two Land Cruisers and drove into the dunes, bathed in a sulfury hot spring, sandboarded, bathed in a cold spring, roasted two whole spiced goats in an underground coal pit, danced around the campfire to the sounds of a Siwi musical troupe, then set up tents to sleep under the impossibly bright stars. Now back in Cairo, how I mish that fresh air!

10 October 2006


At 3am the masharati walks through the street banging a drum, waking people to eat sahur, the early meal, and drink lots of water before going back to bed, because the day will be long. At 3pm you start to feel the distraction and anticipation: everyone's looking just ahead to iftar, breaking the fast. By 5.45pm, the sun has set and the streets are silent and deserted. After dark the party begins, sweets and sheesha and music.

We went to a concert in a plaza in Hussayn (above), the epicenter of Ramadan night life. People come from all over Egypt, it seems, for the festivities there. Firecrackers explode, music blasts, cheap toys get bought and tossed aside later. Late at night, exhausted, some people even manage to fall asleep right there amidst all the excitement.

Some facts: At sunset, people often break their fast with dates, fresh or dried, plain or soaked in milk. You say, "Kol sena wa entu Tayibeen [May you be good every year]" or you respond, "Wa enta Tayib [And may you be good]." Muslims often try to read or hear the whole Qur'an over the course of the month. And you eat lots and lots of good food and delicious sweets (baklawa and basbusa, yum). Below we've got pomegranates, fresh dates, and persimmons.

The streets are decked out with lights and lanterns, now electric and made in China. Here's some shots of our neighborhood, which wouldn't win any Christmas decoration awards, but...

04 October 2006

October already...

It's October already! Sorry for not writing in so long. My schedule's busier because I started taking an Egyptian Arabic (aka "colloquial" or "'amiya" - as opposed to Modern Standard or "fusHa") class at a language school here. They placed me in 'Intermediate Low' - which was like getting credit for spending all that time smoking sheesha at the 'ahwas.

Ramadan started, and I promise to do a whole entry (with pictures etc.) on the holy month sometime soon.

Unfortunately, the film project never came off. M'alish (oh well). Fortunately, I've seen movers here load a dozen pieces of antique furniture on the bed of a mini-pickup, strap it down with yellow rope, and set off for their destination. Seriously, the trucks were overflowing. So maybe I'll try to get in with some of those folks, rent a video camera, and go along for the ride.

I read a great interview with Marjane Satrapi, author of the Persepolis books. Just thought I'd share.

Anyway, enjoy the photos. The building in the background of the first shot is American University in Cairo (AUC), the second shot is inside the campus. They're all Downtown (wust al-balad, in Arabic).

23 September 2006


Learned something interesting last night via a U.S. State Department employee. The State Dept. transfers its workers to a new country every two or three years in order to guard against "clientitis." Clientitis is when you start to care about the country you've been stationed in; the U.S. government worries that once this happens, you may not be able to serve U.S. interests anymore, hence the transfer.

In other news, equipment has not come through yet for my film project. I'm hoping that I may be able to catch the piano on its return trip from Haram to Heliopolis. The 60-year-old Steinway is the best and most famous piano in Egypt, played by popstar Nancy Ajram (pictured above) at her concerts.

Happy and sweet new year to everybody, and bravo to these folks.

20 September 2006

Film project "in the works"

Hazim Shaheen and his quartet, which includes our friend Miles the bass player, have a record deal! Signed to Incognito Records of la CDthèque Beirut, they have been rehearsing intensively and will soon retreat to a flat out in Haram (the Pyramid quarter of Cairo) for four days of recording. Fancy mics and all.

Well, they also require a GRAND PIANO to be moved from Heliopolis all the way across the city to Haram. I have a vision of the opening of La Dolce Vita: Jesus soaring over Rome, hanging from a helicopter. Then I translate that vision into Cairene - I simply must record this journey. I'm going to make a few calls tomorrow. Can you imagine the footage? From one side of Cairo to another, the day before Ramadan starts, with the pressure on. Perhaps even a feature-length real-time affair...

15 September 2006

Turkey, Part 3 - Lycian Peninsula

Another overnight bus ride brought us to Olimpos, site of a different Mt. Olympos, but also a dwelling place of Zeus. From here we caught a 4-day-3-night cruise along the Lycian coast, so named for the ancient Lycians who settled here in ancient Greek times. Their ruins dot the coast and the interior of the peninsula. Below you can see our boat, which had a crew of 3 Turkish sailors-who-looked-like-surfers and 8 other passengers from Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey.

We sailed from Olimpos to Kerkova, with its Lycian citadel, to the Sunken City, an old Lycian city that slid into the water after an earthquake (you can see the corner of a building if you look closely). And yes, the water is that perfect. We'd frequently pull into a protected little natural harbor and just dive in.

Probably the most beautiful stop on the "Blue Voyage" was St. Nicholas Island. The ruins in this part of Turkey are really special. They are not grandiose or in tact the way they are in some places, but sparse and nestled into the land. It's like you have access to how the locals fished, herded, prayed, and played.

After docking in Fethiye, Bettina and I backtracked down the coast to Patara. 18 unbroken kilometers of soft sand beach, fed by a freshwater river from the interior. To get there from the village, you walk through the ruins of a Lycian town, past a lighthouse the Turkish navy is in the slow process of rebuilding with the original stones, over the massive sanddunes, through some brush until a beach so big you can't take it all in opens up in front of you. Due to the ruins and the dunes, the beach is protected from development, which has left Patara sparsely visited - an ideal place to chill out for a few days, which we did, for the last four days of our Turkish vacation.

10 September 2006

Turkey, Part 2 - Göreme, Kapadokya

Turkish overnight buses defy expectations. They are made by Mercedes. A bow-tied attendant serves you sour cherry juice, tea, and little fruit cakes. Accomodation and transportation for the price of one.

After our 10-hour journey, we arrived here in Goreme. What a pleasant little town! We ate lots of pide and lahamcun, varieties of Turkish flatbread pizza, from this one excellent bakery that had their own sourdough starter and a wood fired brick oven.

Here's a typical little Cappadocian cul-de-sac.

"Fairy chimneys" dot the landscape. Residents carve them out for homes, churches, monasteries, and depots. The Goreme open air museum is a valley full of these, many with frescoes still in good shape. There are also underground cities, some eight stories deep. Villagers would retreat to these whenever marauders invaded. For self-defense they had rolling boulder doors and channels to pour hot oil down. To keep their spirits up, they had wine presses.

Sunset over Goreme, seen from the top of the valley: