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Posts from the ‘Arts&Culture’ Category

Dining with History

Autumn has come to Cairo.

Looking at all the glorious photos of fall foliage in the Northeast of the U.S., it feels a little silly saying that, but there’s been a little nip in the air. Sure, the daily highs are still in the mid-70s or low 80s, but at night it’s been dipping into the low 60s. That feels colder here than it sounds. Air conditioners are off and it’s too chilly to walk barefoot in the house. Last night on the way to dinner I left my sweater in the cab, and I regretted it the rest of the evening.

I’ve been following through on my resolution to get out of the bubble more, and last night’s dinner was part of that. Friends of a friend from New York were passing through Egypt on a three-month round-the-world trip, so we met up at a storied establishment in the heart of Belle Epoque Cairo called Café Riche. It opened in 1908 and has been a haunt of Cairo’s intellectuals ever since.

The whole vibe is very un-Cairo. With its wood-paneled walls; its faded black-and-white photos of Cairo’s most influential cultural figures; its scattered disarray of books, papers and random memorabilia; and the klatch of old men gabbing over steaming plates, Café Riche feels a bit like a cross between the Friar’s Club and Barney Greengrass, for those of you who know New York. The night we were there, it felt like almost everyone else in the restaurant was a regular.

Café Riche has been the backdrop of many a seminal event in Egyptian history. An assassination attempt on the Prime Minister was staged from its doorway in 1919 (he survived). That same year, revolutionaries used the basement as a secret meeting space from which they agitated for the overthrow of their British rulers, and in 1952 Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser plotted his own coup from the comfort of a Riche table, this one against King Farouk, who reportedly met his wife at the coffeehouse. And Egypt’s favorite songbird, Umm Kalthoum once held a concert there.

The days when famous writers such as Naguib Mahfouz could be found loitering over Turkish coffee are gone, but the tables are still populated with a cast of fascinating characters. We were having an entertaining conversation of our own at our table, but I would have loved to have been able to talk to some of the other guests. I have a hunch many of the same people would be there if I ever manage to make a repeat visit. That is definitely now on my to-do list.

I fear I may have to erase another item on that list, though. I’ve been wanting to go camping with the kids in the White Desert, which looks absolutely stunning. A while ago one of the embassies issued a warning about going there, and this week Egypt’s most active militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, swore allegiance to ISIS. That can’t be good. The desert may well be perfectly safe, but I’m going to watch this one play out for a while before I dust off my sleeping bag.

We never did make it up to Alexandria, and with the holidays coming up our weekends are pretty packed. It looks like we might have to wait until spring. That’s okay. There’s plenty to explore in Cairo in the meantime.

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The Perfect Year-Two Week

Last week was a fantastic week—and exactly the kind that fuels my belief that one year in a foreign country is not enough. It was the kind of week that comes only after you really have your bearings in a place.

The fun started on Tuesday night, when I went to meet a friend for drinks at a rooftop bar in Dokki, a neighborhood across the river from downtown Cairo. I hailed a cab off the street to get there, and the driver didn’t speak a word of English. Nevertheless, we chatted—in Arabic—the whole way up. That marks a milestone for me, although in truth I didn’t understand half of what he said. Still, I spoke enough to be able to have a conversation entirely in Arabic, which felt great

The bar was lovely. It was on top of a hotel, but not one of the fancy Western hotels, so there were plenty of Egyptians in the mix, including a woman who was wearing hijab and smoking shisha and drinking beer. Talk about mixed signals.

I guess that’s to be expected, though. Mixed signals are everywhere here. I’ve been watching more Egyptian TV, and the more of “real” Egypt I’m exposed to, the more confusing this place becomes, especially around anything involving sexuality.

Take the advertisements. During one commercial break there were two ads. In the first, a woman peddling water coolers was dressed in head-to-toe white satin, including her hijab. In her snowy, sparkly dress she looked like a very modest bride, although as far as I could tell there was nothing bridal about the ad. I suppose she was meant to be the picture of purity. The second ad, on the other hand, was for a fruit soda of some sort, this time being peddled by a group of buff, shirtless young men and attractive bikini-clad women splashing around together on a beach—a scene you would never see in Egypt.

And then there was the show itself, Heba Regl el-Ghorab, which my Arabic teacher told me means Heba, Crow Legs (although articles about the show say it means “Unfortunate Heba”). It’s the Egyptian version of Ugly Betty. I watch it because I can understand more of the Arabic in it than on any other show, which still is only about half. Even if I understood every word, though, I’d still find it confounding.

The show is set in a fashion house, and the women dress like they would anywhere in the U.S. or Europe. They wear skirts that hit above the knee and sleeveless tops—clothes that certainly don’t resemble the attire of ordinary Egyptian women, even the most Westernized. If you go to a party here you’ll see sexy dresses, and women will often wear sleeveless tops if they’re not walking on the street, but you don’t tend to see a lot of short skirts.  I find it interesting that the media here doesn’t reflect the reality of daily life—not even the lives of the privileged. Yes, television in the U.S. is aspirational, but the idealized world depicted there still has some connection to reality. That’s much less the case here, at least from the little bit of television I’ve watched.

General attitudes about sex are no less confusing. There have been a few articles of late dealing with the topic (including this fascinating one by the New Yorker’s Peter Hessler), and they portray a country utterly obsessed. At the same time, I’ve never lived anywhere so repressed. It makes the evangelical community of my youth look downright libertine.  And yes, I realize that we’re looking at cause and effect, although you’d meet a lot of Egyptians here—probably even a majority—that would argue the opposite.

Anyway, I digress. Back to last week, which was topped by a magical night at the Cairo Opera House. The boys’ violin teacher had given us tickets to a concert by Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra. I had seen him before and had been mesmerized by his skill, so was looking forward to seeing him perform again. I was happy the boys were going to hear such a virtuoso, and was hoping Kremer would inspire them in their own violin practice.

What I didn’t anticipate was how much fun the performance would be and how much the boys would enjoy it. The first piece was a movement of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” (Summer) with an incredible vibraphone solo. That was followed by Piazzolla’s “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” a delightful and amusing set of four tango compositions (this according to Wikipedia) that incorporate themes from Vivaldi. Finally, after the intermission, we were treated to Philip Glass’ “The American Four Seasons,” which was accompanied by a beautiful avant-garde video, rendering the experience reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi, which I happen to love.

The whole thing was profoundly moving—so much so that I was almost brought to tears. I say almost because it was impossible to entirely lose myself in the experience when half the audience was on their smartphones the whole time. The woman next to me was chatting until I glared at her, but throughout the concert hall you could see the glare of blue screens. A guy a few seats down was playing video games. Absolutely maddening. Like so much in Cairo. And yet, somehow that is part of its charm.

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