Sunday, November 4, 2012
Trick or Treating for Leftovers: Halloween in Egypt.
I have never been the biggest fan of Halloween. Even when I was younger the appeal of amassing a years worth of candy in one night was overshadowed by the inevitable tomfoolery and hooliganism of masked and unsupervised teens. In college I continued to be underwhelmed by Halloween, as the amount of shenanigans and hooliganism remained the same but with considerably less candy. Now, as far as I can tell, Halloween is just another excuse to get drunk on a weeknight. So when Halloween came and went this year, I didn’t get too excited.
Apparently my feelings about Halloween are not widespread, and even in Egypt I was unable to escape Halloween celebrations. The US embassy hosted a Halloween costume party for Cairo’s expat community and a select number of Egyptians. With a whopping one hundred pound entrance fee, one hundred and fifty without a costume but only fifty pounds for women, the party could be nothing less than an extravaganza. Partygoers were promised a night of fun and dance, and perhaps the most anticipated attraction, non-Egyptian alcohol. Needless to say the party was packed.
Not wanting to pay the no costume tax, but also not wanting to spend too much time on a costume, and being that I am in Egypt, I decided to wrap myself in toilet paper and go to the party as a mummy. After raiding the men’s bathroom at the dorms, and with the aid of some friends, I was able to get impressive toilet paper coverage. My costume looked pretty good. Much to my surprise the toilet paper proved to be significantly softer and suppler than my previous encounters would have led me to believe. As a result, the integrity of the flimsy material rapidly deteriorated as I moved, and within minutes I had streamers of toilet paper hanging from my body in authentic mummy style.
Unfortunately, I did the majority of the toilet paper wrapping before I went to the embassy, which meant that I had to walk around the streets of Cairo covered head to foot in toilet paper. As I walked down the street with my streamers of toilet paper whipping in the wind, I became very aware that every Egyptian had stopped whatever he were was and was looking at me. The expressions showed a mix of surprise, amusement, and disgust. Children pointed and laughed, some of the preteens yelled out to me in Arabic, and the adults tried and failed to ignore the tall, blond toilet paper mummy walking in the street with leaving a trial of tattered toilet paper in his wake. I would not have felt self conscious if the rest of my friends had worn better costumes. But most of them went as frat kids, nerds, or college students… I was alone in the outrageous costume department.
Security at the US embassy was impressive, having been bulked up following the protests and breaches of security in September. No cabs are allowed to go within a block or so of the US embassy… for security reasons. The front gate of the embassy is hidden behind a fearsome maze of barbed wire coils, cement block barricades, and armored personnel carriers. After navigating thought this hostile terrain all partygoers had to present ID, sign in, pass though metal detectors, and check all cell phones, cameras, pagers, iproducts, etc. at the security checkpoint. My choice of costume was not ideal for complying with this high level of security, snagging on the copious barbed wire, and littering floor of the checkpoint as I tried to remove my illicit cellphone and belt.
The party was actually pretty fun, but the majority of the costumes were pretty much par for the course. There were the slutty mime, the slutty Egyptian princess, the slutty regular princesses, slutty pirates, slutty… However, the embassy’s Marines, the party’s hosts, had some of the best costumes that I have ever seen. The highlights include Link from the legend of Zelda, Maverick, Jackie Moon, and an especially well done slutty black swan, I will leave that one up to your imagination.
My vote for best costume of the night went to the American beer that was being serving. In the true spirit of Halloween, the American beers, like Budweiser and Coors, dressed up as good flavorful micro brews, and with a little imagination and momentary suspension of disbelief, the beers totally pulled it off. I can say with nearly total confidence that I have never been so happy, or excited to drink a Budweiser. I guess there is something to be said about absence and a fonder heart.
Anyway, that was Halloween in Cairo. Oh yeah, I nearly forgot to mention, we celebrated it on the 19th not the 31st. I am not sure why, but at this point, in this part of the world, does it really matter? I wonder what Thanksgiving will be like.
Sunday, October 28, 2012
Its Eid al-Adha and My Brain Hurts.
It is the Eid al-Adha holiday in Cairo right now, which for me means a much-needed four-day vacation from school. Aside from providing an extended weekend, I knew nothing about the holiday, so I decided to do some research.
Eid al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice, commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son, Isaac, as a way to demonstrate his obedience to God, who, just in the nick of time, stays Abraham’s hand and provides him a ram to sacrifice instead. To celebrate the occasion, wealthy families are expected to provide their best animals for slaughter to feed themselves and their community. The meat from these animals is divided into three portions, one third of which is kept by the family, one third is shared with relatives and neighbors, and the final third is given as charity to those in need. During this wholesale sacrifice more than 100 million animals are slaughtered in the span of two days.
In celebration of the holiday the streets of Zamalek are decorated with colorful banners and strings of lights that twinkle spastically with no discernable rhythm or pattern. Beneath the manically festive lights, the gruesome carcasses of freshly slaughtered cows, sheep, goats, and rams hang from meat hooks. Other animals awaiting a similar fate are tied to light posts and fence rungs, or held in makeshift pens, sometimes in the middle of the street.
In the evenings the atmosphere is electric with the anticipation of the coming celebrations. Fireworks punctuate the charged air, and group of youth laugh, dance and sing together on the street corners. I have enjoyed the spectacle of Eid from street side cafés, where I can watch the festivities and review flash cards at the same time. The people watching is wonderful, the flash cards are not.
The last couple of days have been pleasantly quiet. The usual din of traffic, and the incessant car horns are muted, and it is actually possible to hear and enjoy the birds. Except for the stray cats the side streets of Zamalek have been empty. These strays seem to be enjoying Eid as well. Now that there are no cars to dodge and no nagging taxies, I even found it in myself to go for a stroll. However, aside from a few short walks, and the relative quiet, I have not been able to take advantage of these lovely days because I preparing for the GRE.
While everyone that I know is taking advantage of this holiday by traveling, adventuring, and exploring, I am cooped up in my room studying my forth coming GRE examinations. It took every ounce of my will power and forward thinking to keep myself from exploring the wonders of Egypt and the rest of the Middle East during Eid, and while I know that I made the right choice, it sucks. Instead of sleeping on the beach in Dahab or hiking to Petra, I am getting up at a eight o clock each morning, eating a bland breakfast, drinking a filthy cup of Nescafe before I settle into six and a half hours of ridged study.
Although my Eid has not been fun or exciting, it has not been too bad either. By imposing ridged structure for the day, I have been incredibly productive, and though I am a million miles away from have it in the bag, I feel much more prepared for the GRE. It is scary to think what I could accomplish if I would impose the same structure to other aspects of my life! I guess all I needed with the impending doom of rejection from graduate school to motivate me. The lack of distractions helps as well.
Pro Tip: Taking the GRE while studying abroad.
Thankfully ETS, the company that produces the GRE, has testing centers all over the world. There is a complete list of testing centers out side of the US on their web site. Depending on the country and city, taking the GRE abroad might not be a possibility, in some cases the test is not offered in the desired country or city. If you have any inclination of taking the test while abroad, make sure it is offered in the desired location. In my case, there are two testing centers in Egypt, one in Alexandria and in Cairo, only a couple of miles from where I live.
Monday, October 22, 2012
An Unexpected Respite: An Extended Weekend in Ain Sokhna
Before coming to Egypt I made a choice to keep myself ignorant of the country had to offer. I hoped that my willful ignorance would make my adventure more…adventurous. Had I done the proper due diligence, I would have known that Egypt has world class coastlines, on the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and a reef that supports some of the best scuba diving in the world. But I didn’t, and much to my surprise, I spend a lovely extended weekend in paradise.
In order to conduct a follow up session regarding international student orientation, The American University in Cairo sponsored an all-inclusive trip for the international students to spend a weekend at a four-star hotel in Ain Sokhna. This generous offer was a poorly disguised bribe. Without the promise of a weekend at the beach, no one would voluntarily participate in this ‘important’ follow up session.
To this end, the AUC created a strict itinerary for our time at the Red Sea, trying to insure no one could shirk the obligatory session. We would arrive in the early afternoon on Friday, eat lunch, and spend the afternoon at the beach. In the evening, and in order to get a ticket to dinner, the mandatory follow up meeting. The next morning the AUC would take us on an expedition to one of the oldest monastic orders in the world, and return us to Cairo by Saturday night. Needless to say the event organizers wanted to transform a relaxing weekend at the beach into a perpetual bus ride by packing too much fun into two days.
Concurrent with the trip was a student protest that had shut down the AUC Campus, causing classes to be canceled. Unfortunately, the administration alerted students about class cancelations around 10:00 AM. Being a student of the Arabic Language Institute, my classes began at 8:30 AM, so I had to show up to school every morning to find out for myself if I was locked out of my class. Knowing that there was a distinct possibility of being locked out of school, a couple of buddies and I decided it would be a good idea to extend our trip to Ain Sokhna by a day.
Thursday morning, I packed my backpack with the bare essentials for school. I packed the folders, flash cards, text book and pens, necessary for a day in class, and filled any remaining space with underwear, T-shirts, bathing suit, flip-flops, toiletries, and a couple of bro-tanks for the beach. My intention was to go to class and learn, my hope was to go to the beach and relax.
As expected, the gates to the AUC were chained shut, and entrances barricaded by the BMWs of the student protestors. A large crowd of students, teachers, administrators, and on lookers amassed in front of the main gate as buses continued to deposit their loads. After snapping a couple pictures of the mess, and not wanting to get lost in the crowed, I wound up at a coffee shop a couple miles down the road where I was going to meet my buddies and head to the beach.
In a moment of supreme wisdom and drunk on the promise of adventure, I allowed my nineteen-year-old friend to take responsibility for planning the trip. As a result we had absolutely no plan. But we piled into the small taxi of a cab driver willing to make the hour and a half journey to the Suez, filled any available space with backpacks and overnight bags, and headed across the desert anyway.
For the most part I was at ease with the situation. Ain Sokhna is located only about an hour and a half east of Cairo, however, to get there we would have to cross the endless, and at times lawless, Sahara. As I gazed across the vast wasteland I began to wonder, ‘how far I could walk through that land right now with the amount of water that we have in this car.’ My musings became less theoretical when I suddenly realized that we had not stopped for gas before leaving, and the taxi’s broken gas gage made it impossible to know how much was left in the tank.
The freeway was littered with burnt out and wrecked cars. They were strewn across the shoulders, and looked as if they had been in their final resting position for no more than a week. At one point we came a cross truck and trailer that had tipped over and smashed into a concrete support structure. The driver, bloody and battered, sat on the cab of his truck in the shade of the road sign he had hit. Looking back I noticed another man, still in the cab of the truck, just as bloody, he looked like he was sleeping, I am sure he wasn’t.
Except for the occasional military checkpoint, there was very little human presence along the highway, especially in the form of gas station and emergency assistance. I must admit that the combination of potentially of running out of gas, the carnage of twisted steal, and the crushing emptiness was a bit unsettling. There is nothing like staring out of the window, watching the world fly by, on a long car ride to get the imagination going.
When the desert finally ended it was not gradual. The impressive mountain range that rims the Read Sea fell sharply into the crystal clear water. Similar to Highway 1 in California, this part of the freeway into Ain Sokhna traced this dramatic coastline. Except on this stretch of highway were are no lanes, or center divider, and cars and truck and buses passed each other around blind turns, and it was closer to the water, and a thousand times sketchier.
My previous knowledge of seaside vacation areas led me to believe that Ain Sokhna would be a sleepy village on the water filled with wind chimey tourist traps, and overpriced restaurants. Nope. Ain Sokhna is actually a major port for ships passing through the Suez Canal. Down the coast from the port is a string of luxury hotels, some offensively large, but most in a state of perpetual construction.
It was not until we arrived in Ain Sokhna that I realized the extent of our lack of planning. Since, to my surprise, we did not have a hotel reservation, we ask the driver to stop at countless hotels so we could inquire about availability for the night. Everything was either, under construction, booked, or asking an astronomically high price. Even the biggest hotel I have ever seen in my life seemed to be completely booked for the night, though I supremely doubt that that could have been the case. As we became more desperate we began to ‘joke’ about sneaking in and spending the night in one of the construction sight. We eventually found the hotel that the AUC trip had booked, and, for a reasonable rate, we checked in a day early.
The rest of the trip was a relaxing blur of swimming in perfectly refreshing water, eating delicious meals, and hanging out with good friends. The mandatory follow up season turned out to be as useless as it was boring, and, aside from the oil tanker explosion that eventually kept us in paradise a day longer, it was the only unpleasant part.
1. Teenagers are not as responsible as I thought. Never rely on one to have a solid plan and you will never be disappointed.
2. Since there is real town in Ain Sokhna the hotels are islands for accommodations, food, and water. When staying in them, you are completely at their mercy, and their prices let you know that they know it. I don’t have any advice for dealing with this predicament. It sucks. But in the grand scheme of things, its not actually that much money especially compared to a similar experiences in other parts of the world.
Monday, October 15, 2012
In Egypt Rules Follow You: An Introduction to Haraam
I would like to introduce the notion of Haraam—meaning sinful or forbidden— the opposite of Halal. It would be far too much work to discuss all the ways that Haraam impacts life in Egypt in one post, so here is just one feature of Haraam.
I have never been involuntarily deprived of nutritious food, clean water, electricity, and ‘fun’ for any significant amount of time. I often take these luxuries of life for granted. I expected that Egypt would challenge the way I viewed these parts of life, and in some respects it has, but not very dramatically. In Cairo food is plentiful, clean water easily attainable, and electricity only a light switch away. It is rich in culture, the sights are unrivaled, the people watching is amazing, and the opportunity for adventure is bountiful. What it does not have is good wine and beer—‘fun.’
The one aspect of life that I have had to reevaluate since coming to Cairo has been ‘fun.’ I am not trying to say that Egypt isn’t fun, or that Egyptians don’t have fun, only that Egypt is deficient in ‘fun’ in the way that I, as an Americans, understand it. Most of the luxuries that constitute ‘fun’ for Americans are Haraam in the Muslim World, including but is not limited to, drugs, tattoos, gambling, pre-marital sex, alcohol, and bacon. This means that Egyptians have ‘fun’ differently than American. However, there is a strong pressure to have American ‘fun,’ because the vast majority of my friends and peers in Egypt are American.
Strictly speaking, things considered Haraam are not allowed in Egyptian society. However, Egypt is largely a tourist economy, and as such it relies on foreigners having a good time. There is also plenty of money to be made in industry of Haraam! So while Haraam items are theoretically not permitted, they do exist as a way to placate tourists and insure a continual stream of revenue from those who come for the pyramids and stay for the buying power.
As a result, numerous establishments dabble in the sale of Haraam products, most notably alcohol. By knowing where to go, what to look for, and how much to pay, Haraam seekers can satiate their thirst for forbidden hedonism. Debauchery can be purchased for a meager price, and the understanding that the impending actions will draw the ire of a large portion of Egyptian society, and may perpetuate the image of American gluttony and decadence.
What to Drink:
Once run by the Egyptian government, Al Ahram Beverages Company, now owned by Heineken, controls the majority of Egypt’s alcohol industry. Because of Egypt’s massive import tariffs on foreign alcohol, Al Ahram products dominate the Egyptian market. The company produces a number of beers including the ever popular, Stella, and the lesser Saqqara and Meister, wines, none of which are worth the awaiting hangover, and a line of loathsome hard alcohols
The Egyptian hard alcohol is not for the faint of heart. The travel guide, Frommer’s says that Egypt’s hard alcohol isn’t worth it. However, anyone intent on drinking something more to the point can choose from a variety of hard alcohols with brand names that nobody has ever heard of, including I.D. Vodka, Auld Stag Whiskey. The local Rum and Tequila are so awful I haven’t bothered to learn their names. The production and assumption that such poor quality alcohol will be consumed is almost insulting. Considering the quality and price of Egyptian hard alcohol, I will be, unhappily, sticking to beer.
There are some who say that Egypt’s Stella beer is one of the best beers in the world. They are wrong. I have tried Egypt’s three major domestic beers, and their specialty variations, and I can say with confidence that they are bad. Who ever said this must have been in the throws of a monumental binge, no sober person would ever make such an outlandish claim. I find no pleasure in drinking Egyptian beer. Stella, Saqqara, and Meister are watery, flavorless, alcohol sodas, which are chilled just enough to feel cold to the touch but still warm on the pallet. The only unique quality I have found in them is that they defy the logic of bad beer, no matter how much is consumed, the taste and quality of the beer remains the same.
I must admit, that I do believe it is fantastic that, even in a Muslim country where alcohol is considered Haraam, Egypt has a brewery. Unfortunately, it seems the brew master was dropped as a child and never developed a sense of taste.
Still beer is the cheapest and most reliable option for alcohol in Cairo. Though most bars carry a selection of beers, Stella, unofficially the national beer of Egypt, is the most widely served. At eight to ten Pounds per beer, an occasional night of drinking with friends is not too expensive. I suggest Cairo’s famous El Horreya bar, which offers a fantastically smoky atmosphere to enjoy good conversation while choking down a few bottles of Stella. Unfortunately, the price of alcohol can be much higher at many of Cairo’s more exclusive clubs, restaurants, and hotels. Though I understand the logic behind these high prices, there is no way I am willing to subject my taste buds and liver to something so bad at that price.
Where to Buy Alcohol in Cairo:
Wine and beer line the walls of Drinkies, the retail store for Heineken’s Al Ahram Beverages Company, and Cairo best known, and most public, liquor store. It is a haven for Thursday night warriors looking to stock up for the coming weekend. Because alcohol is Haraam, the atmosphere inside Drinkies is tense. For legal, the sale of alcohol is kind of a grey area, and practical reasons the workers are always on edge, and rush customers out to the door. Immediately after entering Drinkies, an energetic, bordering on manic, employee expects an instantaneous decision about what you want to buy. If and when you dismiss him, he returns moments later to check up on your browsing, without ever actually offering any assistance. This isn’t too much of a problem because Drinkies’ paltry selection make the decision process pretty strait forward. This customer service is prompt and attentive to the point of obsessive. But, as a result of Egypt’s disappointing alcohol, a rushed decision about what to drink is no worse than one made after careful deliberation.
Drinkies has a delivery service, which can be quite handy if the party is running low on libations. Drinkies’ menus are widely available, which makes ordering alcohol a good alternative to going to the shop. Unfortunately, deliveries can take a while, so don’t hold your breath while you wait. It is best to plan a head in order to be prepared for the forthcoming ‘fun,’ or to ensure the party doesn’t run dry. Because it is Haraam, actually receiving the alcohol order may mean bribing the bowab—doorman— to not confiscate it, or to allow the deliveryman into the building.