Tuesday, October 20, 2015


“I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” 
― Henry David Thoreau

It has been several months since I last wrote; Summer passed by all too frantically and quickly (with amazing travels in Greece and the Balkans, a month of cat-sitting in Istanbul and a too-short trip back home to Calgary), my latest teaching job began suddenly in mid-August, and I am currently settled into a new life back in old familiar Istanbul.

It is strange that a city that once took hold of me in its exoticism should feel at all familiar - the twisty, hilly streets of Beyoglu and its bars and lokantas; the ferries crossing the Bosphorus and my own specific favourite seat (bottom level of the older boats, outside, feet outstretched on the rail hanging over the edge); the yellow dolmus buses and their various routes; the gorgeous Ottoman mosques and minarets; the colourful street markets laden with figs and eggplants; the neon MIGRO's signs on every corner; the Gratis make-up shops; the everpresent simit vendors and their circles of sesame bread eaten on early mornings, with a small cup of strong tea (cay). Of course I did live here for 6 magical months back in 2013, so obviously there us familiarity from that experience, but this time around, things are a bit...different.

I am now working a full-time, respectable, stable teaching job that pays well. I have a clean, comfortable and relatively new apartment in a quiet and peaceful residential area a half hour service bus ride from my school. I now know the Asian side intimately, from Kazasker to Bagdat Caddesi to Uskudar. For all intents and purposes, I should be exponentially happier than I was back in 2013, when I barely had enough money for a pint of Efes, and lived primarly off of vegetarian Cig Kofte and lentil soup - as my kitchen was routinely occupied by 4 Syrian refugees- and I slept on a narrow steel bed that looked like it once belonged in a psychiatric hospital, in an apartment in an area of Istanbul best known for its glue sniffers and thieves.

My sheets now are clean and matching their pillows, my bedroom decorated with soft Ikea lighting and a full, organized closet- that I add new pieces to on an somewhat alarming basis (this city has always been excellent for shopping). I am extremely comfortable, middle class and for the time being, things seem to be playing out fairly well (minus the early mornings, absurd Turkish bureaucracies and my wild and untameable grade 3 classes which routinely make me question my chosen profession), yet it seems I have some unshakeable melancholia. Perhaps it is the usual Autumn seasonal effective malady, or perhaps it is just that I am a person who thrives off of chaos, struggle and instability, and whereas in Cairo every day involved a feeling of complete alienation and chaos, here I can melt quietly into the background, be mistaken for a Turk most days, and just go about my life in a quiet, humdrum sort of way.

Which isn't my preferred way or mode of living. Like the hanged man in the Tarot thrown into comfortable Ace of Cups surroundings, the normalcy and routine of being a respectable teacher in a city that can at times feel not much different than Canada, can be...dare I say it... boring? I don't mean to complain or reek of privilege: Every weekend that I take the ferry across the grey, moody waters of the Bosphorous, and throw pieces of Borek to lucky seagulls, or every Saturday evening that I sit on a rooftop and gaze at this wonderous cities endless markets and minarets, I feel gratitude and the shrewd evidence of my luck. I know that I am living a life that to outsiders must seem enviable, (I almost envy myself), but it isn't always easy, this nomadic life I have chosen - especially when you aren't indulging in romantic travel spoils, but rather are tethered to work, order and routine employment. I would be lying if I said I didn't miss my homeland; Autumn is a time of year that passes by all too quickly in Calgary, but it has always been my favourite season - buying pumpkins at Safeway, walking the Bow river and seeing the leaves change colour, the first snowfalls and of course, getting dressed to kill on North America's favourite holiday, Halloween.

Within the normal workday it seems I sometimes forget why I am really here, and why I gave up my homeland; the normalcy and stability that I currently find myself in is a struggle against my ethos of bohemian artistic wild rebellion. I make drawings between lessons and write poetry on napkins to strive to stay inspired. I am fierce in my desire to make my weekends count, to smell that salty air mixed with decaying bricks, the air that first made me fall in love with this amazing city, that stoked the coals of my soul in a way that both elated and terrified me; it is true that nothing has ever been the same since. I seek out corners of chaos in the backstreets of Kucukpazar, trying to find unique cactuses amongst the bric-a-brac to keep me and my partner company in our cozy home nest. I spot a mysterious Jewish cemetery from a taxi ride in the morning and return later that day exhausted after school, to take pictures of the stars of David peeking through the high and wired fence. I try to force myself to look up, around, and in all corners, to keep my eyes fresh, enthused and always, always seeking.

As my idol Patti Smith writes in her upcoming book 'M Train' (that I recently ordered from the local English bookshop):

“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,”

Perhaps my heart is just so used to being transformed by constant change and delirious experience, that I just need to learn to see the beauty again, in the small things. I look forward to seeing my first Istanbul snowfall, planning adventures for my winter holidays, and always, to the next cup of Turkish tea. Perhaps I am nostalgic for the past, if only because upon reflection, it seems my heart was being constantly transformed, and now I seem to be existing in some sort of denouement. I know that life is a series of peaks and valleys and plateaus; I ought not be melancholic, as all parts are crucial to the landscape. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Istanbul Chronicles

Today, as I walked across the Galata bridge (that Istanbul institution linking Eminonu's pier with the up-and-coming hip district of Karakoy -and up the hill, the bridge's namesake, the beautiful Galata tower), I noticed a fashionable young mother in acid-wash skinnies, holding her kindergarden-aged sons hand. Behind her, a man held what appeared to be an identical twin brothers hand. Both boys were wide eyed, wore glasses, and immediately I recognized them as two twin boys who I used to teach at the preschool I worked at in Istanbul, in 2013. These two twin boys, now grown into actual little upright walking humans, were mere 18 month old toddlers when I used to spend the lunch hours spooning rice and peas into their chubby smiling mouths. Even then, one of them wore red glasses, attached to his head with a snug headband, that he would always find a way to tear loose, leaving his tiny lenses in random spots around the garden, crawling in the playroom, dropping them in a bucket of germy dirty lego. Both boys were adorable and two of my favourite kids at that school, and it was a surreal sight, to randomly recognize them 2 years later, in this city of 20 million people, walking on a bridge full of fisherman and simit-sellers, squinting in the afternoon sun.

When these sorts of unlikely coincidences or chance occurrences occur, an average logical person might take notice, smile and move on - but I always tend to think about the more esoteric meaning. One theory is that these little coincidences are a trace evidence of our destiny, or more poetically, "fates fingerprint". Just a little seemingly meaningless sign that we our on the correct path, fulfilling our destiny as we are meant to. Whether I believe that or not, I havent fully decided, but I definitely feel like Istanbul, in particular, has opened its doors to me in a most spectacular and cosmically wonderous way.

Here then, for my own reading pleasure and perhaps others who are interested, are my Istanbul chronicles:

Istanbul #1. September 2010.
My first trip to this gorgeous, continent spanning city, was a quick jaunt after visiting Rome with a friend, on my first European holiday. We flew into Sabiha Gokcen airport on a budget flight, where I had checked my friends luggage under my name (as he had not paid prior for luggage, and my backpack was light enough to be considered carry-on), and, unbeknownst to me, he had a certain illicit substance in his bag, that he had neglected to consider or mention. I shan't get into details, but suffice to say, I will never check anyone's luggage under my name ever again, and I am grateful that there were no parallels in my arrival, to any scene out of "Midnight Express". I spent the entire 5 days in Sultanehmets touristic bliss, experiencing my first call-to-prayer, my first tastes of borek and Turkish tea, red lentil corba soup with lemon, my first glimpse into Islamic culture, Sufism, Dervishes, the Ottoman legacy, glittering minarets and bazaars, and, for lack of a better word the "the Middle East". It completely changed my life, and became an obsession and fascination that carries over into my life, right until the present day.

Istanbul # 2. August 2011
After experiencing Istanbuls majesty the year prior, and instigated by a rather painful and dramatic relationship breakup, I decided to throw all manner of caution to the wind, quit my job, and plan a 4 month Middle East extravangaza, which coincidentally coincided with the arrival of the regime shattering and chaotic "Arab Spring". I began my solo journey in Cairo on May 5th, touching down to a government-less country, a frenetic and inspiring Tahrir Square, and slowly made my way overland through Jordan, Syria, Northern Iraq, Turkey, and finally ending in Istanbul. By the time I arrived in Istanbul I was tanned for the first time since elementary school, dizzy with amazing delirious experiences, fully addicted to sheesha, and I had nary a penny left in the bank account. So, I took to working in a hostel full of cats, to earn my bed and breakfast, and enjoyed a few weeks before my flight was due to head back to Canada. I visited the Basilica Cistern for the first time, got to know Cihangirs cafes and Taxim's bars - I call this completing my beginner's Istanbul diploma.

Istanbul # 3. April 2012
Once again, I found myself penniless and somewhat distraught in the city of my dreams, after an au-pair gig in Morocco went sideways (read: fired), and my brother and I had spent a few lovely weeks draining my bankaccount sightseeing in Marrakech, Rabat, Essouria and Chefchaoen. He and I then arrived to Istanbul via cheap Air Arabia flights, and slept for free in the basement of the aformentioned Stray Cats Hostel, as I showed him all the sights and sounds of Istanbul on a budget. Due to rather fortunate coincidence (notice that word again?), another friend from Calgary happened to be in Istanbul at that same time, doing an artists residency near the Galata tower, and many evenings were spent drinking Efes on the sidewalk, enjoying the simple cheap pleasures of the city in the springtime.

Istanbul # 4. April - Oct 2013.
After a few months spent on another adventure (this time Lebanon, Ethiopia and 2 months in Iran), I arrived in Istanbul with a few hundred bucks left and an intent to try my hand at actually living in this city which seems to have left its gilded hooks upon my soul. I rented a room in Cihangir, and swiftly took task at finding a job - which ended up being a month or so back at the hostel, then a variety of very laughable private English lessons in coffeeshops, (where I had no clue what I was doing beyond drinking iced mochas), and eventually, a job at a preschool (where I was eventually fired for being unmotivated and chronically ill with teargas related Asthma). As luck would have it, my arrival in Istanbul this time would coincide with the Gezi park uprisings, and my various apartments were located right in the middle of the action. It was a pretty wild and exciting time, though after my lungs gave up on me, I gave up on being the beacon of resistance, and spent more time exploring the crumbling historical Golden horn regions, shopping the Dolapdere and Tarlabasi markets, and eating cig kofte by the sea. Eventually, when it became clear I had no job, i had spent the last of my liras on tattoos, and things appeared to be rather bleak, I ran back to Canada, for a somewhat soul-crushing winter and desk job, that propelled me to eventually teach in glorious Cairo for a year.

Which brings us up to date:

Istanbul # 5. June 2015. 
The Future is unwritten. Or....is it?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Memories of the Sphinx

It's nearing the end of April here in Cairo, and with that, the end of the school term, and the soon-to-be-near end of my (first) teaching contract at Sakkara school. While it makes the "end" and subsequent "goodbyes" that much easier knowing that I will gladly be re-hired for next year if I choose to stay (with a raise, woo!), I cannot help but be whistful and nostalgic when remembering the past amazing 8 months. I am already anxious about the idea of leaving, but as we all know, once you have drunk from the waters of the Nile, you are destined to return - and after my Nile felucca boat experience last October, I am fairly certain I may have literally drank that actual water.

My first memory involving Egypt, or my idea of Egypt, goes back to when I was in preschool - it is, in fact, one of my earliest, formative memories. This was the 1980's, and if you grew up in the 1980's you should be familiar with the Atari 2600 videogame console - the height of home entertainment fair with its 2 bit graphics and classic games like 'Donkey Kong' and 'Super Mario" lighting up many an orange-shag-carpeted rumpus room. One of my favourite games, or the game I remember most from then (even though I was barely old enough to hold a joystick), was called "Riddle of the Sphinx". It involved a fairly complex (for the time), plot of guiding oneself through a bright white desert platform, through palm trees and camels, past dangerous Scorpions and replenishing oasis', gaining special abilities through contact with Pharaonic deities Isis and Anubis, to eventually "solve" the riddle of the Sphinx. I remember being a preschooler transfixed by this game, and heartbroken when eventually the cartridge was somehow lost as we moved to a new duplex. This memory of the game (as well as another -purchased one boxing day at the local 'Consumers Distributing' - entitled "Desert Falcon", which involved navigating ones bird through the desert), never left me, and as absurd as it might sound, has contributed to the pull and claim that Egypt (and deserts and the whole "Middle East", in general), has over me.

I am part of the generation raised on video games and thriller movies, snapshots of faraway places and snippets of information on the backs of cereal boxes, T-shirts and commercial advertisements, so the idea that a video game instilled in me my first glimpse of wanderlust, doesn't seem entirely inappropriate. 21'st century mystics aren't solely of the pen and paper kind - fate and spirituality and little glittering traces of God can be found in neon packaging and bad graphics, not only leather bound scrolls or religious texts. As I grew older, my travel interests became more specific and substantial, but the first divine sparks of inspiration were most definitely laid by that video game, in the little apartment block, long long ago.

Last weekend I visited the Cairo-famous Citystars mall, a monstrous, giganta-mall structure with several Cinemas (including the VIP theater where you can lounge on lazy-boy chairs and have waiters bring you spring rolls and cappuccinos), 7 levels of shops, 2 food courts (where I go to get my Dairy Queen fix), and, keeping the thread of Egyptian specific tradition alive, full of smoky sheesha cafes and prayer rooms outside the lavatories. It sometimes pains me to think of how much time I have spent in  malls here in Cairo, but whereas in North America the mall is a place to buy things, in Cairo its a full day family outing, and more of an entertainment ritual, and I have actually really enjoyed my mall days. Anyways, as we drove our long taxi ride there, we passed over the City of the Dead - that infamous zone of ancient cemeteries and mosques, occupied by Cairo's poorest who live literally in Mausoleums, amongst the dead. As we careened and waived in and out of traffic on the overpass, the glistening mid-day heat wavering overhead, palm trees breaking up the dusty yellow skyline of minarets and crumbling bricks and arched roofs...I remembered that video game, and all my thoughts as a child: What would this fantastic legendary place called Egypt, be like?

I cannot believe that I have lived in that place, Egypt, the mythical setting of that video game, for the past year. Pollution and malls and everyday life have not dulled or obscured the magic of this experience; Even if I have never solved the riddle of the Sphinx, even if several thousand years have passed since Anubis lurked in the corners of the desert and even if ol' Sphinx face herself, (or as she is know in Arabic  أبو الهولAbū al-Haul, "The terrifying one"), is now situated in the midst of the ramshackle suburb of Giza. I grew up in the barren cold Canadian Prairies, in small apartments and bunkbeds shared with my brother; Egypt was something video games were made about, and fantastical movies and television programs, and maybe, if you were lucky, some place that rich people visited on African Safaris. I had a friend in high school who lived in a big house in the suburbs, full of expensive furniture and a backyard hot tub; "My mother bought this chair in Egypt", my friend had said, and I remember praying in my head that I would at least one day make it outside the giant vastness of Canada.

So here I am, musing and remembering, after a year spent in Cairo - or 'Al-Qahira, mother of the world', as she is known in these parts. It has been an unforgettable experience, and I am so glad I jumped at the chance last summer, when I was hired for this job at the last minute. I have learned how to become an actual teacher, I have seen it through to the end (something I have trouble doing, being the spontaneous and restless person I am), I have had the joy of family and friends visiting me here to share the adventure, and most importantly, I have gotten to experience Cairo on a much deeper level than my first visit here as a backpacker, 4 years ago. Cairo is not a city that is prone to love at first sight; beyond the impressive tourist bubble, the reality here can be frustrating, gritty, challenging if not heartbreaking. But to those willing to spend enough time, and persist, the magic and mystery weaves itself into daily life: The weekly routines of grocery shopping and buying astoundingly cheap fresh produce; goodmorning hello's to the resident street cats and dogs; feeding animals at the Giza Zoo; late nights in smoky downtown Bellydance clubs; shaking your own moneymaker at bellydance lessons; lazing on the couch with the AC blasting and watching the birds outside, drinking endless cups of instant nescafe coffee; sitting in a cafe during a powercut, eating bites of chocolate cake in the dark; 1001 nights of Syrian shawarma; the ladies balancing boxes on their heads, selling fresh parsley on street corners; the evening neighbourhood lemon man yelling up to the balconies; the many nights spent at the rooftop bar in Zamalek; watching the hazy orange and yellow sunsets in Al Azhar park... all the sightseeing and living ordinary daily life in between. It's been an amazing time, and I am so grateful.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Baladi Lady

Baladi  (Arabic بلدىbaladī; relative-adjective "of town", "local", "rural", comparable to English "folk" with a lower-class connotation)

Can refer to an Egyptian musical style, the folk style of Egyptian Bellydance (Raqs Baladi), or its rhythm, which is frequently used in Baladi music.

In Arabic, the word 'Baladi' does not only apply to music and dance, and can also apply to many other things that are considered native, rural, rustic or traditional - for example 'Baladi bread'. It is also applied to kinds of food and mostly to fruits and vegetables.

I have not written a proper entry on here in ages, so I suppose before I get into a discussion of the aforementioned 'Baladi' I will give a brief synopsis of the past few month of life in Cairo.

After a short and sweet winter, I had the pleasure of my brother visiting me, during my 3 week school term break at the end of January. We spent several days sightseeing in Cairo, and also took a  short jaunt to Luxor, where my brother got a pleasant taste of the sweet Pharaoh life, and I also met up with my friend Sharon, from Istanbul. Many shawarmas were had, many dusty taxi rides driven, and perhaps a few too many rip-offs in between, but such is life in Egypt. We also made a beautiful pilgrimage together to The Holy Land, which came at a rather auspicious time, as a long-lost cousin had recently got in touch with me, asking various questions about my Mother's supposed 'secret' ancestry - which, to make a short story of it, suggests that I may in fact be a teensy bit Jewish (which seems entirely logical given my propensity for all things philosophical, artistic, intellectual and persecuted). With this new found possibility at the back of my mind, Jerusalem certainly didn't disappoint, and it was an absolutely stunning, "life changing" experience for me - though how many times can one use the word "life changing", without sounding like a total tosser? Regardless, despite the judgements that I received at the hands of several friends, for visiting the oppressive Zionist entity, I am happy I went.  I have said it 100 times, but I will say it again: Judaism is older than Israel (Older than Islam and Christianity too, but who's counting?), and Jerusalem's history predates all this nonsense as well - my interest in Israel has nothing to do with Netanyahus idiocy and horrifying political policies anymore than my visit to Iran was a congratulatory fist-pump to the Ayatollahs last public execution, book-burning and stoning debacle.

February began with a new term, and the pleasant arrival of spring -I must say that living in a country where the season of spring is more than a 2 week tease of slushy rain, is quite lovely. Somewhere in the past 2 months, the flatmate and I also joined the gym next door (Which, unbeknownst to me, I had been living next door to THIS WHOLE TIME), and so I have gotten my already considerably orientalized booty (lots of stairs in our school are to blame for this), into somewhat better shape. The Kardashian of Kairo, according to some. Besides this, the only important development I can really think of has been me finding my foothold in the world of Egyptian Baladi bars.

As the definition above says, the term Baladi has a rather broad and seemingly bizarre meaning: used to concurrently describe bellydancers, and to talk about bread. The thread tying these differing nouns together is the rather disparaging tone of "Baladi", it being used to denote something being "of the street", authentic, and basically crass -the opposite of a fancy french croissant or stuffy high class ballet performance hall. As anyone who knows me knows, this is basically my ethos and artistic values, incarnate. Baladi bars, as they are known, litter downtown Cairo, and are hidden amongst the tiny alleys and crooked streets. Usually identified by a flickering Stella sign, the smell of sheesha, decrepit wooden and/or cheap plastic chairs, unattractive and/or marginalized looking clientele, and possibly raucous music leaking out its front door, I naturally had to make a home for myself at Cairo's granddaddy of Baladi Bars, the infamous downtown hole-in-the-wall that is Horreya.

El Horreya (meaning "freedom", in Arabic), has for decades been a living room-like bar where leftist intellectuals, artists, poets, filmmakers, writers, expats and locals young-and-old, gather to socialise and drink cheap Stella under bad florescent lighting. Located on a busy street close to Tahrir Square, Horreya's yellow painted walls are peeling, the vaulted ceilings plume with smoke, the vintage beer signs are rusted, bullet holes litter the windows, strange graffiti abounds ("See God, take Acid" being one such example), and the bathrooms are an abomination. Still, nothing comes as close to encapsulating all that I love about Cairo's energy and genuine friendliness as the surly waiter who literally hands you beer after beer without even asking, or the random people who you are sat with, offer you cigarettes and spark up random conversations on an average buzzing Thursday evening. I have seen hijabed women sitting with their fathers, drunken unemployed men offering pringles and backstreet boys tunes on their Ipod's headphones, old men playing chess, young expat journalists trying to impress each other, students blowing off steam, bearded hipsters posing, and stray 
teachers such as myself all contributing to the diversity that is Horreya. Revolutions come and go, bad governments come and go, rules, regulations and extremist fervour attempt to squash creativity and life, Empires around us fall and crumble - but thankfully, little seems to change at Horreya. It has become my religious activity - these Thursday night adventures downtown, and they always begin at Horreya, where I can be myself, free of judgement or pretension. Long live the Baladi bar!

Monday, January 5, 2015


Like a breath of unexpectedly chilly morning Cairo air, another new year is upon us; stumbling into 2015, I am 5 days shy of when I intended to write this -a recap of the past year and all the trials and tribulations that another spin around this sun, chaotically spun off.

2014 saw me go from the rather low starting point of being without a job, sleeping on my Dad's couch- to the high point of returning to teach English in magnificent crumbling Cairo. In between these two extremes there was a lot of food, drink, self loathing and self congratulation, but it's nothing to write home about - besides the fact that I finally saw a Joshua tree in person, and also managed to exercise my dormant inner groupie, meeting the inimitable Nick Cave. All in all, I feel satisfied that despite 2014's best attempts to silence and still me into Calgary-bound submission, I managed to honour my ever-present inner nomadic spirit and fled my hometown once again -just in time for the dreaded winter, no less. I also finally figured out the art of being a half-decent English teacher, and have settled nicely into the routines and daily life of living in Egypt- which brings us to now, January, and a shiny (at least, underneath all that desert dust), brand new year.

New years resolutions are something best talked about over New Years Day brunch - carelessly with a mouth full of poached egg, in between celebrity gossip and several mimosas. Does anybody ever take them seriously? We all know that the very concept of an unpleasant forced commitment (especially made after a night of heavy drinking), is doomed to fail. So why do we torture ourselves with the idea of these home improvements and grotesque makeovers? Lose 10 pounds, eat healthier, join a gym, stick to a budget, spend less time on Facebook; if there ever was a djinn of new years resolutions, you can be sure that little devil is laughing his ass off on your shoulder, tossing a pinch of glittery new ears confetti in your face, gleefully blowing a noisemaker at your impending future failures.

And yet, this year began differently for me; alone, in bed, sick at midnight with a mysterious 2 day stomach bug. As I tossed and turned in feverish agony, to the sounds of Cairo's abundant fireworks exploding outside, feeling outcast and forlorn and like a total loser, I thought that perhaps this unlikely beginning to the year might bode well for a new type of new years resolution: One of radical self acceptance.

Hear me out: By "radical self acceptance", I don't mean resting on complacency and a refusal for any self improvement, but rather a gentle illumination of ones true self. A stark examination of ones true character traits, flaws and all, and a decided conscious decision of how to maintain that authenticity, to ever better evolve into our best version of ourselves. Sound convoluted and absurd? Good. I am being authentic already! But seriously -if you truly like smoking sheesha every day, if you like eating Mcdonalds once a week, if you like watching bad reality T.V., if you like taking selfies while doing yoga, if you like the you that is embodied by these habits and behaviors, then I say, uphold them!! If you imagine yourself in a film and don't like what you see, this person you are...then change it. Be honest about who you are, what values and beliefs define you, and who you aspire to be. That's it, that's all. Maybe it's the Cairo spirit guiding me in this direction (a city where people don't even view any of the aforementioned habits in a negative light, whatsoever), or maybe its just that the older I get, the less I aspire to be someone better or different or perfect, wanting to simply BE happy, as is, the best version of myself that I am.

Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to your dark parts and your flaws, because as both Leonard Cohen AND Lady Gaga have alluded to: The wound is the place where the light enters you (though Lady Gaga took it one step further and quot-ably sang, "If you don't have shadows you aren't in the light").

I really don't know what else to say. Happy 2015 folks - may your year be full of profound lyrical quotes, and may you all stay in the light.