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Nights Out in Cairo

Street Cafe

Part 1: Wednesday through Saturday

by Nicole
posted April 14, 2010

Author NicoleI am asked often what life is like in Cairo by everyone–from friends, to family, to strangers who have stumbled across my blog.

The beauty of Cairo is often in the every day things, the small things that we wouldn’t consider so worthwhile, but in fact, make up the real substance of what it’s like to live here. I don’t go to museums or monuments or see famous Belly dancers every day, but I am here in Cairo every day and that is special in and of itself.

Here are some examples of what I end up doing out and about in Cairo each evening. I have chosen them as examples from the past two weeks so that I look extra busy and not like someone who, in fact, hangs out at home every other night, and so that the reader isn’t bored with my avid life of writing papers and practicing Arabic. This is what life would be like if I went out every night, which is more or less how the summers evolve when the weather gets very hot. Cairene style involves not even waking up before noon when there isn’t work or school, so the nights are when all the action happens!

I don’t get back from the American University in Cairo where I go to school until 9 p.m. on Wednesdays, due to a late seminar and the somewhat sporadic bus schedule. However, I was determined to meet up with my language partner and do some exchange and just hang out, so I grabbed a fast dinner at home and then ran out the door to grab a taxi to the Metro, Cairo’s subway or train system. The Metro is great because it’s fairly clean, cheap (about 18 cents to get anywhere along the lines), and runs fast so you never end up stuck in Cairo traffic–the only downside is that it can get pretty crowded at rush hour.

20 minutes later, I arrived downtown at Sadat Station, the station underneath Midan Tahrir which is the huge square where both the old AUC is and the center of action in Cairo. The Egyptian Museum is situated just off the Midan, the US Embassy is a few minutes walk behind it, the Arab League Building is there, etc. Tahrir is just the easiest meeting point for everyone, and we usually reference one of the American fast-food joints there to find each other. I met up with Mohamed Ali, my friend and language partner in front of Hardee’s and we spent a few minutes chatting and walking around while figuring out what to do.

My friend group here has expanded into a strange conglomerate of Americans and Egyptians from various walks of life, but all of whom are sort of fixated on the idea of hanging out all the time, so figuring out what to do in the evening involves about ten phone calls to see what everyone else is doing and then figuring out whether to join them or not. After this necessary ritual, Mohamed and I opted to grab some cookies and then meet up with a friend in a nearby cafe. Some cheap balls of flour and butter later, we ended up in our usual street cafe downtown.

The ‘ahwa (coffee shop) is such a staple of my life here that it’s important to me to talk about what these street cafes are, but unfortunately it’s uncomfortable to get good photos because I would label myself as a tourist or foreigner in an ‘ahwa, and that is sort of asking for trouble!

Your typical street cafe is compromised of plastic lawn chairs crammed in close together at the edge of the road proper, around parked cars and various other obstacles, with tiny spindly tables rising up in between to propped-up games of chess or backgammon and glasses of tea. Shishas are ubiquitous, and clouds of smoke waft up to the palm trees above heads bent in conversation, with laughter punctuating the general dull roar of the crowd. The floor is the street, dirty and trash-strewn with bottle caps that have been flattened by cars and feet into a mosiac of American branding in Arabic. The walls are of whatever buildings are nearby are painted with various pictures, including ones depicting the kaaba to honor those going on Hajj to Mecca. Wild dogs run around out in the street, fighting only half-seriously over scraps, and street cats of all colors slink underfoot in search of food. The air smells of fruity tobacco and cigarettes, and that special dirty-sandy-polluted-but-pleasant smell of Cairo that feels like home. It’s not exotic, it just is.

We met up with a friend of Mohamed Ali’s, a Chinese boy named Josh who is staying with an Egyptian family as part of an international study program. He was there with two Egyptian guys, soft-spoken tall and skinny types–one of whom speaks English enthusiastically and is eager to chat with a new foreigner, and the other of whom was a bit more shy and reserved. They were both fluent in English though, yet again, reminding me that my Arabic is still embarassingly underdeveloped. Mohamed greeted everyone like old friends, before laughingly admitting that he had just met the 3 guys in this cafe a few days once before. We chatted quite a bit about Egypt as Josh has only been in town for a few weeks, so he still has lots to talk about and remark on which brings out in me some of the same. street cat

At some point, Mohamed Ali and I headed around the corner to buy some grilled kofta off a small stall restaurant where the man grabbed the skewer straight off the coals, removed the steaming meat into some flatbread, wrapped it in paper and forked the huge sandwich over, dripping and delicious. I indulged in some RuziBilaban (rice pudding) too, my possibly my favorite Egyptian dessert.

When we returned, one of the Egyptian guys revealed that he lived in Indonesia for three years, and is fluent in Indonesian, so then we started in on an extensive 3-way comparison of Egypt, the US, and Indonesia just as my friends Alex and Ibrahim arrived. Alex is Malaysian but lives in America so he immediately started in on a language exploration and the guys began to chit-chat in various combinations of languages. Mohamed Ali and I gave up at that point and began to drill my Arabic vocabulary for class on Thursday, finally getting down to business around 11 p.m. He’s also learning Spanish from a Mexican family living in Cairo so the group began to have a Tower of Babel moment (when the various languages are shooting around). It didn’t help that at some point Sherif and Alex switched to German, in which Alex can only swear in rather than say anything useful.

As the night wore on, people stopped complaining about being tired in a joking way and started talking in earnest about going home, so we all set down the shisha hoses, grabbed our bags and snagged one of the guys running around with trays of tea to pay and get out. Trudging down the back streets downtown at midnight, conversation was no less animated, but revealed the strain of the day. Alex and I joke that we’re always tired in Cairo because once you get out for the evening, you can’t stop until the night is done, or you can’t move–even if you do have class the next day!

Typically a few friends and I go out salsa dancing Thursdays and Mondays, although, since Cairo University and AUC are back in session, we’ve been getting lazier about trying to party all the time. Thursday night we trek it out to Mohandisiin, a hot nightlife spot and a young, fun neighborhood on the West bank of the Nile. There’s a restaurant or dance club there called “Bian Caffe” which has a salsa night on Thursdays, where you pay a 50LE minimum (about US $9, but I would consider that a little bit expensive now!) to shake your butt to salsa, meringue, bachata, and sometimes rumba or cha-cha. I’m learning all of the above basically just to be able to go out and keep up!

Salsa nights, and hip-hop nights are places here where there is the unique sense of not exactly being in Cairo any more.

The group is usually much higher on the foreigner ratio, but that isn’t to say Egyptians aren’t present–I learned to salsa dance from a pair of Egyptian guys actually! There is a sense of this small dance community being an outsider group to the mainstream here, which is an interesting feeling for me, usually being part of the mainstream in America. This is the kind of place and community where you can get away from the regular Cairo standards on dress and behavior, which is refreshing every now and again. In between dragging myself to school with a 45-minute commute each way, and staying out late every night, I’ve started to feel a bit scruffy most of the time, but being able to go out and put on a pretty dress and some heels helps quite a bit. The logistics in getting into this outsider spot though shows you how removed from Cairo mainstream culture it actually is.

Taking taxis instead of the subway or walking, throwing on scarves and coats to be thrown off minutes later, even changing our shoes or skirts in the bathroom at the actual place: these things remind me of the fact that this isn’t “real” Egypt I’m entering, and these aren’t standard Egyptians. It’s still fun though when you just need to get out and enjoy yourself!

My good friends Jimmy and Ahmed have been a lot of help with getting me out and about dancing, and we usually meet up at Bian around 10 p.m. This week Ahmed’s car was in the shop so we treked from Maadi via the Metro and then caught a taxi (me carrying a bag stuffed with a short skirt to change into and sweating in my uncomfortable tights and jeans combination). We spent the evening chatting, eating, and dancing inside the warm-toned walls, often taking time to just sit and observe the couples spinning and undulating in between the pillars perforating the dance floor. Ladies in little red dresses or tight pants with their high heels on, guys in their designer jeans and button-down shirts…it reminded me quite a bit of the tango scene I used to be a part of in Seattle actually. The difference was the mix of Arabic, English, and Spanish bubbling up from the tables surrounding the dance floor, but otherwise you could just shut the rest of Cairo out for a few minutes and move somewhere neither here nor there where people just dance and enjoy. An international zone centered on dance sounds pretty nice to me!

Drift, Nicole, Ahmed and Jimmy
Drift, Nicole, Ahmed, and Jimmy

At the beginning of the weekend our Arabic professor told us our homework to do over the next couple days was to go to Khan al Khalili, the major suuq here and take pictures of objects that we have been working on for vocabularly. Then we were supposed to talk to the shopkeepers to figure out prices of things and compile a movie montage of the pictures–with us talking in the background, describing the things and their prices, etc.

We collectively cringed. Our Arabic class is 4 people, and we’ve all lived here upwards of 6 months now, so the idea of going somewhere typically touristy (that we’ve all been to many times before) was….not how we wanted to spend our weekend. If you are in the mind set of living here, you don’t like going to touristy places or doing touristy things, because it’s not a positive thing like it is in the States; it’a not even a jovially made-fun of pastime and you never want to feel like a tourist or be mistaken for one. Tourist areas are stressful on brain and wallet, and I actually find it overwhelming now to be around so many people at one time who are new to Cairo.

We students and expats spend much effort trying to blend in here, working on our Arabic hoping to be taken more locally, dressing more conservatively, etc, so it’s not always fun to be around tourists.

Nevertheless, my temporary room mate, Drift, and I rose at the crack of 2 p.m. on Friday, and our buddy, Jon, passed by about 3 p.m. for the beginning of our huge afternoon at the Khan. Right off the bat we knew we’d made a mistake as the traffic was awful and the day was hotter than we expected for winter! Last week, there was a bit of a hot snap, so there we were, sitting in 85 degree weather in the taxi, grumbling and going over Jon’s Arabic flashcards like we were praying. The taxi driver had fun correcting our pronunciation though, after peering curiously over Jon’s shoulder for about five minutes, trying to figure out what we were doing.

Al Hussein MosqueEventually, we stumbled out of the taxi and blundered through the police and metal-dector that guard the square in front of Al-Hussein Mosque. Squinting through my dusty sunglasses, I saw denim mini-skirts, guys aggressively brandishing menus for whatever cafe or restaurant, children running around, big tour buses–pretty much exactly as I expected. We dove in, strolling down a street next to the mosque and chatted in Arabic with a street vendor who asked us if we wanted to see silver jewelery, to which we shrugged and followed his shibshib clad feet down another narrow alley to a shop where (between the three of us) we photographed probably every item (after asking politely if that was okay, of course). We asked the owner about various things in Arabic, he helped us with our pronunciation and vocabulary and was pretty friendly when we explained we lived here and were studying Egyptian Arabic. The three of us began to relax and loosen up, speaking Arabic a bit more and whipping out the video camera to record a bit of footage for later. We thanked the guy and headed out, going further into the depths of the maze-like alleys back in the Khan. We seized on the chance to practice vocabulary with a guy selling wallets and bags who was highly entertained by our gesturing, and then ended up in some sort of bizzare trinket store with bronze pyramids and alabaster vases of varying sizes plunked down next to Egyptian soccer jerseys (which tempted me admittedly), then being drawn in by a guy who had seen me before apparently, and into the very tiny upstairs of his shop where scarves upon scarves in plastic wrappers were stuffed into bookcases in front of piles of galabeyas. I bought one of each after we got some choice photos–including one of the shop guy attempting to get all up in my business, but nothing naughty happened, rest assured.

We emerged with a few purchases, and we were ready to stumble on out to the main drag when I ran into a guy I know who owns a shop nearby. He was over the moon to see me again, demanding in an only half-teasing way, “Why you no call?” to which I replied that I lost his number, but actually my friend Jon, here, was looking for a shisha, and maybe he could help us. We were immediately dragged into his tiny shop for tea while he ran to fetch items for us to look at and that he would then bargain and buy on our behalf. Jon mentioned he was thinking of buying a backgammon set so he found himself playing a round on the set that he was being coaxed into buying while several young Egyptian boys stood around giggling and swigging glass bottles of Pepsi and Mirinda. I chatted a bit with the kids, all of us guffawing and commenting on the game mercilessly–until Jon eventually lost by a narrow margin to good-humored laughs and comments in Arabic all around.

By that point, we were seriously worn out, and Jon fended off further offers of various items as we prepared to leave. I was awarded a free bag of dried hibiscus for my troubles, which I love and is used here to make a delicious sweetened hibiscus iced tea called Karkaday. Clutching our purchases, we staggered to a nearby cafe hidden within the folds of centuries-old architecture for some much needed shisha and rest.

Jon plays backgammon

The weekend here is Friday and Saturday as Friday is supposed to be a day of rest for Muslims, and there is a Friday service at Mosques that is a bit longer and most people make a point of going to it. That means that Saturday night is typically a frantic scramble to get work done for Sunday morning classes, but it’s still the weekend in our American brains, so we still want to hang out.

Saturay morning, I visited The Citadel with my friend Ramy and his brother Amgad, as well as my temporary room mate, Drift. We spent a few hours trudging around in the sun at The Citadel among the other tourists, although a bit more appropriately dressed, and headed home after a minor parking debacle.

Parking always seems to be a bit of a debacle here though, whether you’re parking in some back alley and bribing a guy to make sure someone (or himself) doesn’t steal your car, or squeezing into a tiny Zamalek garage and making sure not to set the parking brake after putting the car in neutral so that the attendants can shove your car around to squeeze more places out of a tiny lot while you are gone.

The Holy Grail of Chinese foodIn any case, we headed home and promptly fell asleep after eating lunch. We awoke few hours later to a pile of homework and a tangle of friends wanting to hang out without any defined plan, a combination which the best strategy for is to just put them together!

Arabic class lends itself to group homeworking activities with our Egyptian friends included, so we dove into putting together the Khan al Khalili movie assignment as soon as Jon arrived. Our British friend, Dave, (who teaches English here) dropped by after work, and we made the executive decision to hit up an excellent Chinese restaurant around the corner from my house. I love that place to death, because it looks like a tiny, sketchy, hole-in-the-wall place that you would walk right by but, in fact, has some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had! Plus, with the serious lack of truly good Chinese food in Cairo, it has become a hotspot for my group of friends so one of us is usually there every other night. In fact, shortly after we arrived, my good friend who is German and Egyptian (she speaks English, Arabic, and German fluently–I am so jealous) showed up with a couple people in tow, and we managed to take over the entire four-table restaurant.

I have lots of great memories of fooling around at that place, mostly because a lot of Egyptians have only experienced Chinese food through the lens of Egyptian chefs before. I remember a Chinese-themed buffet I got to experience in Hurghada that was just horrible–the spring roll wrappers were basically made from puff-pastry! Finding a good, inexpensive, Chinese restaurant in Cairo around the corner from my house was like finding the Holy Grail. After a lot of dragging their feet, I have gotten most of my Egyptian friends to go there, and now they all love it. They agree pretty much unanimously on hating the tea, which I admit is far too weak and subtle by Egyptian standards, but adore the food. To the extent that we are having a very hard time teaching them to learn how to use chopsticks because they give up in the face of hunger and delicious Kung Pao Chicken. I can’t blame them though!

Another friend met us at the Chinese place, and we all walked home to begin an evening of chatting over Karkaday and doing Arabic homework with the assistance and sometimes light teasing of our Egyptian friends. Around midnight, people started to wander off, eventually leaving Drift and me to finish up our presentation alone with the assistance of various people over Skype by about 2 a.m. By this point, I’m sure the reader is beginning to get a sense of why Alex and I say constantly that we are tired.

Drift and Nicole eat Chinese food in Cairo

Part 2: Sunday through Tuesday – coming soon!

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  1. TigerBNo Gravatar

    Apr 15, 2010 - 12:04:55

    Wonderful tales of student life in Cairo! Can’t wait to read more.

  2. Barbara GrantNo Gravatar

    Apr 15, 2010 - 02:04:05

    As with her earlier article, Nicole shows great ability to capture a sense of what life is like in a part of the world to which she is not native. I hope these experiences serve her well in whatever career field she chooses. I’m sure they will make her a better dancer, in addition.


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