Scenes from a Life in Egypt

Its been almost two weeks since our trip to Cairo, and I haven’t reported on anything that’s happened in the intervening time. The truth is, not much actually has happened. We’ve finally settled into the routine of daily life in Egypt, which largely consists of eating, sleeping, and studying, occasionally interrupted by a marriage proposal from a random man on the sidewalk or a particularly good Egyptian meal.  So instead of trying to write a cohesive post encompassing the past 12 days, I’ll just give you a few snippets:

July 9

Under an inky black sky, surrounded by the late-night clamor of a city that seems to sleep even less than New York, we sat in an open-air theater watching traditional Egyptian dancing. The brilliantly lit stage and brightly colored costumes makes it difficult to look away from the dancers. Despite my exhaustion — like so much else in Egypt, the performance started 45 minutes late and we didn’t leave until after midnight — I thoroughly enjoyed the show.

July 14

I discover a new restaurant. One that serves vegetables — and they’re not even drenched in oil or tahina. My life in Alex is changed permanently for the better.

The restaurant is called Bamboo, and it’s a tiny pan-Asian place run by an Indonesian lady named Susie. She married an Egyptian man and moved to Alex several years ago, but still barely knows any Arabic. She does, however, speak pretty good English and her stir-fry vegetables are swoon-worthy. We’ve all become such regulars at Bamboo that Susie knows us by name (and has facebook friended us!) and knows how we like our food. Rebecca will always ask for extra spice, Barb (my roommate) can’t eat anything with soy, I only eat vegetables, preferably unadulterated by rice and sauces. It’s funny that our standard place in Alex — the place where we’re expected and welcomed like old friends every time we show up — is an Asian restaurant. But I guess that’s the exactly the kind of quirk of fate I should expect from this trip.

July 15  

I go to a rock concert. A real life, Egyptian rock concert. Since most of the Arab music I’ve heard is catchy and pop-y and can actually be kind of annoying, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Professor Bassiouney (our program director) told us that we’d be going to see an Egyptian youth group. I definitely wasn’t expecting this. I am a big fan of this band’s music and plan on downloading all of it when I get home.

July 17

Last Monday night, we took a cooking class  at Alexandria’s college for hotel and tourism. Sadly, there are no pictures because I forgot to bring my camera with me. But it was far and away the best meal I’ve had in Egypt. We made mousaa’a (eggplant in tomato sauce), koshary (rice, noodles, lentils, chickpeas, onions and spicy tomato sauce — a traditional Egyptian street food), savory rice pudding, baba ganoush, a tomato and cheese salad with tahina, wara ayneb (stuffed grape leaves), and om ali (an Egyptian dessert that’s kind of like bread pudding, made with lots of nuts and raisins). It was particularly exciting to be back in a kitchen, seeing all the ingredients that go into my food and being part of the process. I forgot how much I like being involved in the production of a meal from start to finish. I definitely want to try making all these dishes, especially wara ayneb and mousaa’a, when I get back to the U.S.

July 19

Salma takes us shopping in Manshaya, Alexandria’s textile souq. I’m a notoriously bad shopper and couldn’t decide on anything I wanted to buy, but I did get some spices from a small shop in a far corner of the souq — cinnamon sticks and nutmeg kernels.

While we were at the spice market, a little girl in a hijab came up to me and asked, “Are you American?” in crystal clear English. I was so taken aback to be addressed in English that I responded in Arabic, “Aywa.” She asked if any of us were from Georgia, and I told her no, we all go to college in Washington D.C. She looked disappointed. “We hardly see any Americans here,” she said. I nodded in agreement, and asked her name. “Fatima,” she said. I smiled, and told her my name was Sarah. “Tasharafna” (nice to meet you) I said, before paying for my spices and turning to leave.

(At Manshaya)

For dinner, we headed to Mohammed Ahmed, our favorite Egyptian restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. We feasted on our standard meal of ful eskandrani (ful with tomatoes, lettuce, and tahina), shakshouka, falafel, baba ganoush, and copious amounts of aysh baladi (Egyptian pita bread).

(Ful Eskandrani)

July 20

The first day of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month during which people fast from the dawn prayer, around 3 am, until maghreb (sunset), around 7 pm. The streets, normally packed with people buying and selling and talking and eating and narrowly avoiding collisions with one another, are utterly silent. I feel as though I’m in an entirely different city. It’s hard to believe that this is the same Alexandria that just one night ago hustled and bustled with the activity of 10 million people crammed into too-small a space.

July 21

I turn 20. The day is mostly uneventful, marked more by a few small, sweet acknowledgements that it’s my birthday than any kind of party, which is frankly the way I prefer it. Ahmed and Sahara, who make us breakfast in the morning, put a candle in a piece of coffee cake when they brought me my daily cup of Nescafe and sang “Sana helwa ya gamil” (the Egyptian equiavlent to “Happy Birthday” — it literally translates “Sweet year beautiful one” in Arabic”). Everyone at the Tafl Center greeted me with a “Kul sana wa anti tayebba” (Every year and you are sweet!). And for dinner, we went to Bamboo, where Suzie prepared me an extra large portion of veggies with rice and gave us all dates and kunafa (a sweet pastry filled with cream, fruit or nuts), both traditional Ramadan foods. My friends all bought me even more kunafa, and Suzie took some pictures of all of us. It was a wonderful, low key birthday.

July 22

Avanti and I go swimming at the Nadi early on Sunday morning. Because it’s Ramadan, there was nearly no one there. We had the entire pool to ourselves and it was glorious. I swam 64 beautiful lengths (one mile) as the sun beat down on my back. Avanti and I arrived in class feeling refreshed from the chlorine and energized from the exercise. Al-sibaha (swimming) for the win!

July 23

I fasted. It was hard. By the time Iftar (the evening meal to break your fast) came around at 7 pm, I wasn’t even hungry. We were invited to iftar at Ustaadha Reem’s house, and she provided us with an amazing Egyptian meal, so I tried to eat a bit, but I felt pretty nauseous. I don’t know how muslims do this for thirty days. The one upside: as we were walking to Reem’s house, we passed by a children’s hospital. One room had its windows flung open, and three girls sat inside — one in the bed, two in chairs next to her. The girls all stared at us as we walked by, so I waved. They smiled and all waved back at me, and I felt like a million dollars. There is something so about a short, random, heartfelt exchange of genuine friendliness. Those seem to happen a lot in Egypt.

That’s about it. We’re headed to the North Coast (the beach-y, resort-y area of Egypt) tomorrow for a weekend at the beach, which I’m really excited about. I’ll post pictures when I get back!

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2 comments on “Scenes from a Life in Egypt

  1. Shoshana Akabas says:

    Ooh! You’ll have to make some Egyptian food when you come back!! And good that you found a veggie restaurant! I had a friend who went abroad in Italy and was such good friends a restaurant owner that when Tal and I went to Italy over a year later, and we mentioned him, the guy knew exactly who we were talking about! Those unlikely international connections are really cool!

    Yeah – I can’t imagine fasting for that long. Tishah B’Av fast day is tomorrow, which I used to dread, but it definitely gets easier. A lot of it is a mental thing and yes, by the end of the day, the hunger goes away – it’s usually worst around lunch time, and then just subsides into a general (mental) desire for food, but not really hunger.

    Love reading these! Keep posting!

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