Wednesday, August 27, 2008

City glorious city victorious

"You love this town even if that doesn't ring true
You've been all over and it's been all over you"

U2- Beautiful Day

Finally, I'm writing about Cairo. What do I like about it you may ask? Many are complaining, they want to flee to places where life's easier even if that means it'd have a rather bland taste. I can't deny I was one of those at a point in time. A summer night in July made all the difference. Sitting at a side walk café in Shari' Al-Borsa (one of the scarce pedestrian areas preserved downtown) watching for the first time in Cairo a street busker swallowing fire -a woman may I add- my mind zooms back to a breezy summer evening, same exact weather, in another sidewalk cafe in Plaza 2 de Mayo in Madrid, watching another busker dancing with fire sticks moving in complete harmony with Yann Tiersen's La Dispute. The feeling connected me to a time when I truly in sync with the universe. Though I have for long stopped believing in signs, I still took the whole setting as my cue that I should head back to my adoptive city, on second thoughts, I took it as my cue to start enjoying my home city as much as before and even with a fresher perspective. I have gone back to Madrid and come back here, I love both cities and will live in a constant state of saudade knowing that wherever I am, not a year should pass before I'm reunited with both even if for a few days.

Where do I start, every time I'm driving down the streets of Cairo I'm inspired to shed light on one of its million faces. Like that night on my way back from the movies when I thought I should write ...

I find myself in Midan El Tahrir, the main square where all protests take place, whose buildings are crowned by ads of Coca Cola and Mc Donald's, a bit shabbier perhaps but not so different from any main square in a capital city in an era where the marginal utility of travel is seriously declining...I take a longer way home as I always do, for I would get stuck in this crazy traffic for hours on end just for a glimpse of the Nile -and the Lions- from Kasr El Nil Bridge. Everyday Cairo's faces take me by surprise, and everyday I look at each of them as overwhelmed as a child or a tourist. The beauty, the disgrace, the majesty, the mediocrity, a kind smile, an insolent harassing line, this is what makes my city unique the sharp contrasts. Nothing can replace the feeling that you are in several cities, liberal, conservative, posh, abandoned, simple, complex, oriental, westernized, this is how people will describe Cairo; as in the Hindu tale of the blind men and the elephant, each touches a different side a unique part and refuses to acknowledge the other parts that others see.

Like a chameleon I take the colors of Cairo's neighborhoods. On days I bask in the faded glory of Fatimid Cairo, taking my time admiring the carvings in a mosque, imagining I'm living in Beit El Suheimi, walking down Khayameya to the patchwork shop where I find my friend the calligrapher. On others I sit at a coffee house in Zamalek, try to focus on a document I'm working on before meeting friends in the nearby pizzeria Thomas, after buying books at the place where half my fortune goes; on breezy evenings I call a friend who calls the island his home to walk the streets which by night have very little traffic as the embassy employees pack and go. On weekend nights I'm tapping my foot to a great jazz gig at the Cairo Jazz Club refusing to leave my friends early enough to get enough sleep before the next morning, as in the next morning I meet my cycling pals on the other side of the road. Cycling on Fridays I inhale the air that has not been polluted yet by the noise and fumes of the sleepyheads, I try to store every little detail, the plants in the balconies, the boats near Zamalek, the smell of fresh bread, the sight of smiling citizens, I take snapshots to be able to keep on loving the city when on a working day I'm stuck in an agonizing traffic jam in the scorching heat.

Would I do Cairo justice, would I be able to give you a list of must sees like in cities which I have visited but where I have never lived? I guess not...

I guess Cairo has given me a beautiful gift, the ability to seek beauty in little corners, to mentally crop an image and dust off all undesired details, to block any unwanted noise out and install filters on your ears to only feel serenity. I have become quite the eclectic master.

This crazy collage has made me too accustomed to big cities, I fear shops closing, I don't feel secure when the night's too still, I frown upon homogeneous places. I maintain a love hate relationship with my city where I get extremely claustrophobic every 8th week and need to flee the buildings towering over me to the plains of Sinai; and that is a story I have yet to tell.

Photo: Cairo by night - photo by Karim

What's happening, what's in:

and also for any addresses I missed or for descriptions


Al-Moe'z street near the market (Khan Al Khalili), go at sunset time and wait for the lights, here’s a list of the monuments there, you may want to stop for tea at Le Riad.

Beit El Suheimi
Kheyamya tent makers' district (ask for Ashraf Hashem and tell him you're my friend)
Fustat Market / Souq Al Fustat
Coptic Cairo
Zeinab Khatun house

Ibn Toulon mosque

Beit El Keretleya

(most guides and taxi drivers know how to get there)

Views of the city:
Cairo Tower
Azhar Park
Cairo by bike, Friday mornings with the Cairo Cycler's Club

Escaping the city:

Sakkara pyramid and nearby country club


Andrea Maryouteya

(you need a car and driver to get there)


Cafe Greco (outside Sequoia restaurant), Address: 53 Abou El Feda St., Zamalek

Azhar Park

Tea & Juice:

Essam’s, near Beit Zeinab Khatoun & Beit El Harrawy (Oud music school)


Cairo Marriott Gardens

Fairmont Nile City

Rooftop, Nile Hotel Zamalek, Address: 21 El Maahad El Swiesri , Zamalek (the entrance to the hotel is dodgy, the rooftop view is worth it)

Cairo Jazz Club, Address: 197 26th Of July St. , Mohandiseen

Art Galleries:
Cairo Atellier
Town House Gallery

Koshari Abu Tarek, Address:16 Champollion Street , Downtown

Abu El Sid, Address: 157, 26th Of July St., Zamalek

Tabouleh, Address: 1 Latin America St. , Garden City

Café Riche (a taste of downtown Cairo in the good old days), Address: 17 Talaat Harb street, Downtown

Dinner with a view:

Oberoi's Mogul Room


Oum El Donia, 3 Talaat Harb, 1st Floor , Downtown

Gallery Zeinab Khatoun

More on Cairo:

Lonely Planet Introducing Cairo
A city where you can't hear yourself scream - New York Times

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Switching SIM cards

"Cambiar de chip" is a Spanish expression that has found its way into everyday language during the last few years, it literally means "changing the computer chip in your mind". It means changing your way of looking at things, of analyzing things, of doing things and of understanding things.

I feel this happens to me every time I go back and forth between the two balconies overlooking the Mediterranean, the moment I set foot in the destination airport and switch the chips of my mobile phone a parallel card in my mind connects, with a whole different program: language, welcome message, phone book, menus, agendas... I feel almost schizophrenic!

As I go back and forth, the card installation gets smoother every time, the line between both menus get blurred yet the contrast between the operators gets sharper... and each time the card feels more foreign in the phone than the time before yet more comfy in its compartment.