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!