Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Believe it or not!

The weather has turned really hot now.

Yesterday was a terrible 41degrees and I was wilting, standing in the hot sun, outside the Turkish consulate, when this old gentleman walked up to me, and, asked, in his broken English, if I would like to sit in his air conditioned car instead of the sun.

My first instinct was to whack him or respond with a really rude, biting retort, when he suddenly said oh! and put up his hands in mock horror and started nattering in Arabic with his hands gesturing his conversation.

I think, my look of complete puzzlement, stopped him short, or we would have continued this one way conversation for a significant amount of time. We stood eyeing each other for a while, me glaring, and, he looking most hapless (Oh, oh! Shouldn't I be the one looking hapless, I thought? The man was trying to proposition me!). I had heard so many stories about men harrassing women here, that I was ready to chop the man down if he moved as much as a foot - he was an old man, I could take him any time!

After much shaking of his head, and, wringing of his hands, in his broken English, he explained that his wife, and, daughter were also in the car, I was like his daughter, he meant me no harm, and that I would be ok, mesh mushkil...

Just then, the Turkisk Consulate door opened, and, they called me in.

I am very intrigued. I shall never know whether the man was genuinely trying to help, or would I have got into trouble if I had taken up the guy's offer.

I'd like to beileve the former, and, in the fact that there are still good people around.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Do we know how to appreciate our heritage?

Hi! On one of the groups that I am a member, one of the members had circulated a message from a lady who wanted to do something to improve the status of monuments, and, the impression it creates on vistors when they come to Egypt.

I thought it was a great idea, not so much for what the vistors to Egypt think of it, but more on account of what visitors to Egypt do to it.

On my visit to the Valley of Kings, the tour guide specifically asked us not to speak in the tombs as the moisture ruins the frescos on the walls. To my shock, the tourists continued to chat and have discussions inside with little or no concern for the heritage that they were destroying.

Here we were, talking in sign language to our 6 year old son, who seemed to have no problem in understanding that he was NOT supposed to speak, and, there were full blown adults nattering away, obviously discussing some life threatening crises in the middle of the tombs (what else could make them ignore the guide's rather clear instructions?), and, guffawing at a joke that someone had just cracked!! Honestly, it was appalling!

The pyramids & the tombs etc are a heritage for all of us and not just the Egyptians, and, no one has the right to fritter it away.

I beileve it would take some concerned and like minded citizens to do something about it.

There is something similar that was done in India for our financial capital Bombay. Bombay, as a city, has a similar problem as the pyramids - a huge influx of people who come in to work or seek their fortunes.

Plus being the financial centre, it attracts a lot of overseas visitors as well and the city's infrastructure could not keep pace.

A group of concerned high profile citizens got together and formed a citizen's action force called Bombay First, which has over the years made some difference to the landscape.

It drew members from some of the biggest business in the city on account of the fact

a/ Business leaders have visibility and a political voice (to some extent) as they contribute to the income / employment being generated in a state

b/ As a part of their corporate social responsibility they have the ability to contribute funds

I don't know but destroying what nature has preserved for so many years really bothers me, and, I, very strongly, feel that one must do something about this.

Of Turkish delight & frustrating times

In the last 7-10 days, I think I must have lost considerable weight and hair, not to mention my temper. The hours of standing in the hot sun have considereably dimished my natural (non-existent) glow.

Hubby, and, I decided to visit Turkey (they've been tempting me with visit Turkey in my Inbox ever since I googled some Turkey tourism websites) in the summer break before we headed home (there is something very similar about homing pigeons and expats in the Cairo summer - they all head back home!!!).

So I marched into Thomas Cook's Mohandisiene office (the Maadi one is a disaster, don't ever venture there - they appear to take time off by rotation, except that the rotation seems to be every alternate day - maybe some new cost saving measures adopted by Thomas Cook), booked ourselves tickets to Istanbul and a Hotel, and, then handed the passports to the lady for the visa.

That's when she dropped the bombshell - travel agents don't do visas for foreigners, no matter that they are residents (after what I have been through, I am not surprised, even I wo'nt do visas for myself in Cairo!!)

Ok, what's the big deal, I'll do it myself... Little did I know that it was a big deal...

Lesson 1: No travel agency does overseas visas for foreigners. They all know how nightmarish it can be!!

Lesson 2: No expat does overseas visas in Cairo. They go home for summer and get it done there. At least they know how to deal with the blokes back home. (I'm kidding, ok?)

After 5 days of trying to get the elusive Mr Rami (who seem to carry the burden of the consulate on his shoulders and was unable to spare 2 mins to tell a harried soul what was needed to get a visa), I barged into the consulate one afternoon. I think just to get me off their back, they responded to me, even though it was after consulate hours.

After trekking to Downtown at 6.30 a.m. in the morning (yes, you need to submit docs at an unearthly 7 a.m - what is about consulates and early morning obsession), imagine my shock, when they shook their head and returned my papers. Why? They needed a certificate from my son's school certifying that he is a bonafide student registered with them!!

That really stumped me - now how did they know my son could be a terror? Even if he was an adorable terror, asking for a character certificate was a bit too much.

The next day, I went again, only to be told that since we have not been resident in Cairo for 6 months, we cannot get the visa. What bladderash! He didn't figure this out the last time he went through the papers?

Lesson 3: Expect to do multiple trips to get a visa issued. If you manage in one, either the country is not visited often enough, and, they are desperate or the guy is just nice or he likes you.

Finally, one very kind soul, took pity on my hapless state, went through my papers, and promised to get my visa done if I could submit all the docs that he had asked for by tomorrow morning, which I am going to do. Mr Shaheen, you're a good man!!

Inshaaallah, visa bukra, otherwise maalish!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Handwriting Personality Analysis Test

Was looking at head hunters' websites in Egypt when I came across the website of a company called Recruit Egypt.

They have a very interesting "Handwriting Analysis Test".
(its on the right hand corner)

I tried it, and, they seem to have a lot to say about me , much of which is very accurate!!

So go ahead, and, try it...

Friday, May 25, 2007

Arabic names of some vegetables & fruits

I struggle everyday when I ask my porter to go buy vegetables and fruits. He doesn't speak English and I don't speak Arabic - the story of my life! You would've thought that I would have made an effort to learn the language, but I never seem to find a teacher whom I like. Inshallah, we shall overcome one day, oh deep in my heart I do belive ....

In the interim, to help me at least get my groceries right, I managed to get together a list of the names of some of the common fuits and vegetables.


Bread Aish
Butter ZIBDA
Cheese GIBNA
Beans FOUL
Bean patties TAMEYAH


Beetroot BANGAR
Cabbage KURUMB
Cauliflower ARNABEET
Carrot GAZAR
Cucumber KHIYAR
Lettuce KHAAS
Zucchini KOOSA
Garlic TOUM
String Beans FASULYA


Banana MOOZ
Strawberry FARAWLA
Grapes EINAB
Mangoes MANGA
Peaches KHOUKH

Now to try my newly acquired knowledge on my porter tomorrow!!

Edited on June 3, 2007: My friend Soumaia corrected some of the words which I had got wrong, these are highlighted in red. Thanks Soumaia.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

New Driver

Dropped dad to the airport today.

New driver appears to know shortcuts to just about every place. His English is a lot better than my previous one. Hope he lasts!!

He used to drive a tour operator's car - goody, hopefully, I'll get to see a lot more of Cairo now.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Hurghada - the Red Sea resort city

While Sharm or Sharm-el-Sheikh is a destination that every local / resident expat will wax eloquent about, I have heard fewer people talk about Hurghada. So when hubby mentioned that he was going to Hurghada for work, I decided to tag along. It was going to be a short two day trip, hubby warned me, but it seemed worthwhile to go check it out and to figure out whether I wanted to go re-visit it at leisure!

Since it was a two-day trip, we decided to fly. Egypt Air runs daily shuttles between Cairo and Hurghada at unearthly (at least for me!) hours. Flights depart from Cairo at 6.15 a.m. (morning) and at 11 p.m. (night) on a daily basis. On Mon, Tue & Fri, it operates an additional flight at 9.15 a.m. in the morning. Since we were traveling on a Saturday, we had to wake up at 3.30 a.m. to bathe, get ready and reach the airport by 5.00 a.m!

Return flights are at equally exotic hours - 7.50 a.m. in the morning (that's ok) and at 12.30 p.m. a night (ouch!). On Mon, Tue & Fri, there is an additional flight from Hurghada to Cairo at 11 a.m. Obviously, Hurghada is a popular destination!

The economy return will cost approx LE 360 while business class return would cost approx LE 850.

On landing at the Hurghada International Airport I discovered the reason for the timings of Egypt Air’s flights! The afternoon / evening hours during the day are reserved for international flights being operated by a number of European airlines (click on airport link to see airlines operating to Hurghada).

Hurghada till very recently was a fishing village with little or no tourism. However, in the last few years, the town has developed rapidly, fuelled by investment from American, European, Arab and Russian investors. As a result, today it’s a leading Red Sea destination, which attracts huge number of tourists from Europe, notably Russians, Germans & Czechs. A testimony to this, is the presence of German resorts, bakeries serving German breads usually not seen anywhere else, and, almost every restaurant having a menu in English, German & Russian. This would perhaps be the only place outside of Russia where you see so much stuff in Russian!

Hurghada is divided into three parts: Downtown (El Dahar) is the old part; Sekalla is the modern part, and El Korra Road is the most modern part. Many restaurants, bars and shops, small pubs and Internet cafes dot the landscape.

We stayed at a huge 5 star German resort called Steigenberger Al Dau which is supposed to be a really luxurious resort, which, despite its size (its huge – some 390 deluxe rooms, 15 Suites etc) during peak seasons runs at full capacity and can be difficult to get reservations at!

Things to remember: Once we checked in, I realised that local Egyptians and resident expats have to only pay 50% of the published / rack rates. I must remember that the next time I take some visitors with me.

The hotel is done up in cream and dark brown wood which adds to the impression of space. Every room has sea view and is furnished in Kenyan Swahili style and has its own balcony. The rooms are equipped with telephone, satellite TV, broadband Internet, safe, mini refrigerator, individually adjustable air-conditioning system, bathroom with bathtub and a separate shower.

The only jarring note (surprisingly) was the absence of a tea / coffee machine in the room and my favourite cloth slippers (the latter made my trips to the pool and beach extremely difficult!)The property has a 400m long private beach, 5000 sqm pool landscape with Lazy River and a 1000 sqm Spa and Wellness Centre.

The town itself is charming with a spectacular marina where hundreds of yachts are docked and azure blue of the sea invitingly beckons you. There are semi submarine operators that for LE 200 will take you out to the sea to view the fish and sea life underwater! Alternately, all the good resorts will rent out glass bottom boats for you to go out to the sea. And believe me the sea life that you see, it’s worth every penny you've paid.

There are tours where the boat takes you out to the sea to watch the sunset. To watch the orange sun set fire to the water with its golden hues before it softly disappears into the water leaving a slowly darkening sky with the gentle sound of water lapping - its breathtaking!

Post sunset, Hurghada turns into the ultimate party city and parties late into the night! Calypso, Papa’s Beach 7 Hard rock Café are some of happening nightclubs. Calypso is especially interesting, as its shaped like the hull of a ship! If you are staying at a resort, almost all resorts have their own evening entertainment programs. If you don't want to do any of these, just sit in any of the many cafes that dot the main street (I loved Da Cappa), and, sip some great coffee...

Before we knew, the weekend was over, and, it was time to head back. More in a separate post on some really nice places that we went to in Hurghada, but for now, we packed our bags, very sure that we'd be back very soon. Inshaallah!

Friday, May 18, 2007


One of the things that I miss as an Indian in Cairo is the ready availability of Indian sweets. And the two sweets that I miss the most? Ice cold rasagollas and steaming hot gulabjamuns. Ah what pleasure there is in partaking the soft wholesome sweetness of these two "mithais"! You have to taste them to understand what I mean.

Out of the two, a gulabjamun is relatively easy to prepare. A nationally popular sweet delicacy, it is made with khoa (a desiccated milk product) and maida (wheat flour). Shaped round or cylindrical, a gulabjamun is golden to dark brown in color and has a soft yet firm body and smooth texture. It is soaked in thick sugar syrup. In 1858, it attracted the fancy of Lady Canning, the first Vicereine of India, after whom a variety was "created" in her honor, named Ledikeni.

Gulab Jamun is a sweet basically of Bengali origin and has been happily adopted and claimed to be their own by all regions in India. Perhaps this is one Indian sweetmeat, called the same thing practically throughout India. Gulab in Hindi means rose and jamun is a fruit of deep purple colour. The sweet must have got its name because of its size/shape /colour and the fact that rose essence is added to the sugar syrup.

In a quest for making something familiar, I managed to get a recipe for making gulabjamuns at home from my aunt-in-law! It comes from a good cook, so should taste good. Most importantly, it can easily be made with locally available ingredients. So go right ahead and read this very accurate, yummy tasting recipe with its deliciously wicked writing style. Thanks maashi, you are a treasure! (and I love the style of writing!!)

"GULABJAMUN - the recipe

Take one cup of Nido milk powder, preferably made of FULL CREAM milk (I sense u wince!) and 1 tablespoon of flour.

Use MOSTLY oil or GHEE,and virtually no water, to knead the dough (I hear u groan!).

Add 1/4teaspoon of baking powder.

Make the dough into balls that could expand to the size of jeejays, preferably with a pistachio nut, elaichi at its centre.

Make a THICK, SYRUPYconcoction, obviously letting sugar & water come to a boil (I see u throw up your hands in despair!).

Heat the oil to the maximum possible, and DEEP-FRY the sinful little globules in the even more sinful oil ( Oops! do you need smeling salts?).

Don't use a sharp implement so that the perfectly spherical, prospectively juicy mouthfuls don't suffer its sharp stabs and disintegrate.

Keep lowering the flame & stirring patiently.

Let your heart feel overjoyed and sing as you see the virgin white confections acquiring a golden brown tinge.

Don't let them become dark brown or black, or u will have a repeat performance of King Alfred and the cakes.

Let the treacle cool a bit before immersing the fleshy roly-polies in them.

Try dropping in one of them first to see if it breaks, and take further care that the others don't.

Play it by the ear for the chef's experience of such culinary catastrophes.

Justifiably swell with pride as you see your mushy, sachharine-sweet creations desirably puffup to a mature size and shape."

Monday, May 14, 2007

Naguib Mahfouz Cafe at Khan el-Khalili

My dad is in town, so took him to Khan-el-Khalili to browse and send some stuff back home as gifts.

I just love the Khan - the hustle bustle of the narrow streets, the hoarse cries of multiple vendors, the general bonhomie, the beautiful mosques and aesthetically pleasing arabic looking brown stone buildings (well, some of them) and of course the El-Fishawy cafe!

However, not having had any breakfast before leaving home, we were not in a mood for coffee. Even the thought of hot, butter & sugar pancakes was not appealing. By 12 o'clock, we were starting to feel ravenous. That's when I remembered the Khan Khalili Restaurant/Naguib Mahfouz Cafe - a restaurant and cafe run by the Oberoi chain, where I was sure to find something vegetarian.

The cafe is named after the famous Nobel Prize winning writer - Naguib Mahfouz - who purpotedly used to eat there almost every day.

Naguib Mahfouz was an Egyptian novelist who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature who managed to modernize Arabic literature. He is regarded as one of the first writers of Arabic literature, along with Tawfiq al-Hakim, to explore themes of existentialism. He wrote on a number of subjects including homosexuality, which were considered taboo in the Egyptian society. Prior to his death, Mahfouz was the oldest living Nobel Literature laureate and the third oldest of all time, trailing only Bertrand Russell and Halldor Laxness. At the time of his death, he was the only Arabic-language writer to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Cafe is nicely done up with brass tables and comfortable chairs / sofas. A little further inside is a formal dining area serving Egyptian food (I did not see the menu).

We ordered a salad consisting of babagannoush with baladi bread, a beef shwarma (LE18), Falafel (LE18) and an Om Aly (LE25). To offer souccur to our parched throats we ordered a lemon (LE10) (this is like a fresh lime soda sweet with a slightly tangy taste of the lemon rind which is mixed in) and a vanilla milkshake (LE16).

The milkshake and the lemon were just right and completely chilled. The baladi bread was fresh and the babagannoush was just right - not too sour as I have had in some other places. The felafel was fresh and hot served with a youghurt sauce and fresh salad. The beef shwarma was delicious with the beef cooked just right. Om Aly, being Om Aly, you can't really go wrong with it.

Though we did not try it, Shisha is available in natural and fruit flavours like apple, apricot, cantaloupe, grapes, cherry and strawberry. I was tempted to try the Egyptian drink Kharkhaday, made from Hibuscus, but its really an acquired taste.

There was also an Aniseed & Fenugreek drink (oh, oh!) which I was tempted to try to just figure out what such a concoction would taste like. But I decided I would be adventurous another day. Right now, I was going to satisfy the rumblings of a hungry stomach.

The walls have mashrabeya shelves which are lined with books (in Arabic & their English translations) by Naquib Mahfouz. The ambience is nice, the air conditioning very effective, the food absolutely delicious and the prices decent. I would recommend everyone visiting the Khan to have a meal / snack at the Cafe - its probably the only cafe in Khan offering delicious food!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Wekalat Al-Balah – Fabric Market

My landlord has given me sofas which are upholstered in a very English rose kind of fabric, which he assured me, was very expensive and one of the best in Cairo. While I don’t dispute that, it does not exactly go with my wood, beige and dull orange colour scheme. As a result, I have been plotting and planning to re-upholster them, but have not managed to succeed.

Everyone I know has been advising me that Boulak is the best
place to go buy fabric for curtains or upholstery fabric etc. A wholesale market for fabric, I was told, it offers unbelievable choice and great prices vis-à-vis the big shops and the malls.

On googling, I found that other than being a large fabric market, Boulak has a great history, which vetted my appetite to go visit it.

Boulak Abu Al Ela is the fabric market, which is a part of a larger market called Wekalat Al-Balah (on the banks of Nile), though the two are used interchangeably. In earlier times, ships used to arrive in Cairo at Wekalet El Balah, carrying large amounts of used clothes from all over the world and from Europe mainly. Once they reached the market, they got cleaned and sold again with cheap prices and reasonable quality.

The market used to attracted thousands of people from all around Cairo or even from all around Egypt, especially the poor and the medium classes of the society. This is because these people used to find all that they wanted in one place and with great prices. With years passing by, the market started selling other products. Nowadays, the Wekalet El Balah is considered one of the most famous markets in Egypt.

All this was enough to get me really curious, so one Thursday afternoon, I set off to Boulak armed with my camera, determined to see this historical market. If I managed to get some good fabric in the bargain, even better. My driver assured me that he knew the place, but would madam really want to visit the place? Its very crowded, madam no like. Madam sure, madam wants to go? Yes, Mohamad, I most certainly do!

After a 45 minutes drive, we pulled into a lane (just behind Conrad Hotel) with a row of shops displaying myriad colours of woven fabric. Rows of car with drivers honking to get the car ahead moving, vendors selling koshary, koftas and soft drinks, head scarves displayed on push carts, high pitched voices of vendors hawking their wares, it sounded delicious!

As I got out of the car, on my left side were a number of stalls selling brightly coloured lingerie and women’s undergarments in tantalizing shades of red, black and smooth fabrics like satin. I could see a number of headscarves jostling with other headscarves and bargaining with the shopkeeper as they bought what they needed.

A little ahead were a number of stalls in the open, selling carpets and rugs of all hues and in all shapes and sizes. These are machine made carpets / rugs so don’t expect any exceptionally beautiful or expensive stuff. But they are beautiful for laying out in your room and the colours/ shapes are really tempting! I succumbed to the temptation and bought one for LE 165 which I thought was really a good bargain!!

Finally I ventured into the market. Boulak is the ultimate example of free market economy. The existence of a number of shops selling similar fabrics ensures that prices are competitive. Once you ask the price and walk away, the shopkeeper will beckon you back with a tempting discount. Light fabrics tends to start from LE 12, though you can get synthetic satin for as little as LE 8. Heavier fabrics start at LE 25.

The market is like a labyrinth with lanes crisscrossing each other, offering Aladdin’s treasure in terms of fabric. The lanes are peppered with numerous carts selling everything from scarves, undergarments, socks, shorts, and night pajamas. There are shops selling embroidered and lace work table mats, napkins, bed spreads etc. Another lane was full of shops hawking dresses and swimwear.

There are also numerous shops selling all varieties of dress fabric – cotton, silk to synthetic and in vibrant hues. This is where you pick up fabric if you have found a good tailor in Cairo or simply carry it home to get it stitched.

A Nestle pushcart selling ice cream seemed like manna from heaven and I quickly bought one ice-lolly to quench my thirst and beat the heat. At 1 o’clock, the overhead sun was blazing and I was beginning to feel the heat. As I started to walk back towards my car, my eyes fell on a deep red quilted fabric, which I just had to buy. At LE 20 / mt it seemed like a very good bargain and would look lovely on my sofa which I was yet to re-upholster!

As I drove back home, I must recommend Boulak to every tourist who visits Cairo. Not only is it a big part of Cairo’s history, and, a source for reasonably priced fabric, its also an experience in itself!

Wekalat Al-Balah. A market just north of the 15th May Bridge, where the 26th July Street is crossing the Nile, 400 meters (1,300 feet) south of the World Trade Center. Best time to go is in the morning around 11 o'clock or early evening when its cooler. The market is closed on Sunday.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Egypt Air

Flew for the frst time by Egypt's national carrier to Dubai.

Hubby was travelling Emirates and was keen that we join him but we opted to try Egypt Air. It also helped that Egypt Air was running a promo during this period offering a 50% discount on the Cairo-Dubai-Cairo sector - it was too good to pass up!

I guess, not having travelled too much in Africa / Middle East sector, I was a little concerned about the Egypt Air's flight. To my surprise, we drove up to a different terminal than the regular international departure terminal used by other airlines. Wow! Now I know why other airlines are considered country cousins. Egypt Air has swanky new dedicated terminals for both international and domestic travel.

Despite the chaos at the counters, we were checked in pretty quickly and ushered into the waiting lounge. For an early morning cuppa, you're spoilt for choice with coffee shops from Starbucks, Coffee & Tea Leaf Company to Beanos being all there. My son gorged on a burger at his favourite McDonalds!

The plane was neat and clean. However, if you are vegetarian, remember to intimate the airline at the time of booking. Cairo-Dubai being a Middle East sector, vegetarian food is not something they stock. So had to make do with tea, and, a bun with some cheese. Being an Islamic country, Egypt Air did not serve alcohol.

There were no individual TV screens, much to my son's ire. Not that it would have mattered since they aired Arabic programmes both ways.

The landing was beautiful, smooth as a baby's cheek! To my complete surprise, a whole bunch of Egyptians broke into spontaneous applause to demonstrate their appreciation. (If I thought this was an aberation, I was pleasantly surprised to find a similar salutation for an equally smooth landing on our return).

Needless to say, the airline is efficient, the planes are relatively new and clean, the landing superb (once can be a fluke, but both times takes skill). But be prepared for the chaos at the luggage belt when you disembark and flight to get your luggage. There's mayhem!

Having said that, its a decent airline with reasonable fares and great connections while travelling in this part of the world.

Friday, May 4, 2007

A day at the baths

Steam, vinegar and an energetic masseuse -- Amany Abdel-Moneim takes a bath at one of Cairo's few remaining hammams

My mind was swirling with images as I made my way through the small alley that leads to the Hammam Al-Arba' (literally the Wednesday bath) in Boulaq Abul-Ela. Snippets from movies shot in public hammams, the fear of sharing a bath with other -- naked -- women and the idea of a stranger giving me a massage all served to heighten my anxiety. As I dodged the traffic, lingerie vendors and vegetable crates that littered the alleyway, I imagined myself lying languidly on marble slabs, massaged by attendants while being anointed with buckets of scented water.

While the hammams of Lebanon, Syria, Morocco and Turkey have retained their traditional illustriousness, there are few hammams left in Cairo. For those willing to leave their class pretensions at the door, however, a visit to one of the few remaining clean local hammams can be one of the cheapest forms of mental and physical therapy you'll ever find.

Hammam Al-Arba' is right behind the Foreign Ministry, before the ramp of the 15 May Bridge, on Al-Ansari Street. It is also known as Hammam Okal, the nickname of the new proprietor Mohamed Al-Mesri. "Hammam Al-Arba' was built 500 years ago. The original owners chose this spot because it was near the harbour of Wekalet Al- Balah where ships loaded with dates and rice would dock," explained Al-Mesri. "The sailors believed that the hot water of the hammam helps them getting rid of rheumatic pain," he added.

Al-Mesri took over the bath eight years ago. "At that time, the place was used as a hotel at night and a bath in the morning. The entire bath was roofed with domes, with small glassed-in openings to let in light. But I have blocked all the holes with red brick to give the bathers the sense of safety from prying eyes," he said.

His wife, Umm Azza, points out that, "It is called Hammam Al- Arba' because we used to open only for brides and marriages that usually take place on Thursday. But now we open daily and for all people females and males," she added.

It was Umm Azza who greeted me upon my arrival. She is also a mekayissatia (masseuse) and runs the female section with the assistance of two other women. I had expected to be treated by a heavyset woman wearing way too much gold but was pleased to find that Umm Azza was a slim woman with a smiling face and well-trained hands. She was also able to concoct a marvellous facial mask made from a mixture of honey, ground lupin beans (termis) and other special herbs. The mask abolishes all black spots, leaving the face shiny and smooth.

I was also introduced to my fellow bathers, Tahany and Laila. Tahany is a regular at the hammam and has very smooth and pink skin to vouch for her consistency. "I started to come here on a weekly basis after I gave birth to my son three years ago. The bath helped me get rid of the dark spots that marred my skin after delivery and the hot water and steam helped me lose weight," she recounted. Laila began to come to the bath regularly after her marriage. She confided that the effects of the bath make her skin "as smooth as a baby, which pleases my husband".

While my partners, in the pursuit of soft skin, seemed to be unaware of their nudity, I remained uncomfortable and unsure about the exact protocol of public bathing.

The first stop was a room called Al-maslakh. It was a large room decorated with plastic flowers, pictures of smiling babies and a surreal array of inflatable children's toys, not to mention a television, bicycle and swing. I was relieved to find out that these comforts are not meant for the bathers but for the amusement of their children. Beyond the maslakh is a changing room where I quickly wrapped myself in a towel and proceeded to the pre-hammam shower area.

Then it was on to the hot chamber, so called because of the deep square pool of hot water that sits in the middle of the room. The temperature of the water was disappointingly tepid at first, but a small shower of boiling hot water falling from the domed ceiling above soon raised the temperature and created a steamy atmosphere. This stage helps in opening the pores of the skin.

Then I was ready for the next stage: the ritual known as takyyis. I was unceremoniously laid out on the stone floor next to the steam room. The mekayissatia, using gloves as harsh as a scouring pad and plenty of vinegar, then attempted to remove as many layers of my skin as possible in the briefest amount of time. I took a deep relaxing breath and entrusted my body to the skilled hands of Umm Azza as she vigorously rubbed away the layers of dead skin. It was shocking -- embarrassing in fact -- to discover when she washed my body with soap and water that the runoff was filthy despite the fact that I had taken extra care at home to make sure that I entered the hammam in pristine condition.

If asked, Umm Azza will then subject your pink and shiny skin to a massage and afterwards you are encouraged to take a dip in hot and then cold water. It is nice to have this done for you, as one can be a bit "wobbly" after such pampering. In some baths your hair will be washed and many women wash each other's hair as a treat. After all, the hammam is not just about getting clean. "We consider the day we go to the bath as an outing. We meet our friends, get relaxed having our bath while listening to Umm Kalthoum songs. Then eat together after finishing the rituals," explained Tahany.

According to anthropologist Essam Fawzi, "Hammams have a socio-economic role. At the time when bathrooms were not a part of a normal house, the hammam was not merely a place to fulfil the Islamic precept of cleanliness, but was a place in which to mingle, socialise and gossip. Also men would discuss the latest court scandal or talk business and politics or even make trade deals." He further explains that hammams were an opportunity for young women to show off their figures and for older women to spot potential wives for their sons.

After being kneaded from head to toe, and coupled with the relaxing effect of all that hot water, you naturally begin to feel delightfully sleepy -- a feeling which signals the end of the hammam. You may either lie down and relax for as long as you like or you can go outside to the reception area, dry off and rest there.

Or, if you're up to it, you can engage in some sports to tone the muscles beneath your now gleaming skin. Al-Mesri created his own small gym, made up of a very primitive hand made treadmill and a couple of other exercise machines.

How to get there: If you are coming from 26 July Street heading towards Zamalek, right next to the Foreign Ministry and before going up the 15 May Bridge, take the first left to Boulaq Street. Keep going down Boulaq Street for several blocks until it opens into Sidi Abdel- Gayid Square. Once there, ask for Hammam Al-Arba' on 5, Al-Ansari Street.

The hammam receives women every morning from 10 until four, and men every afternoon.
For reservations call 575 7310 or 010 579 0560 and ask for Hag Mohamed Al-Mesri or his wife Umm Azza.

Tips for the adventurous:

It is more hygienic to bring your own towels and pumice stone.

You can also bring your own slippers, soap and whatever you might need to feel relaxed (oils, creams etc).

If you feel uncomfortable going in the nude, bring a swimsuit along. For men, it is a requirement.

If you prefer privacy you can ask for the khelwah (a private room usually used for brides).

You should try takyyis, but bring your own scrubbing glove. These can either be bought from the pharmacy or the traditional spice vendor for around LE25, and are made of camel's hair, fur, coarse raw wool or silk.

A steam bath and takyyis cost around LE25.

If you have a friend who is going to get married soon you can advise her/him to try the pre-wedding package which costs around LE75.

Most hammams can be booked for groups. Charge will be per person.

Young children are not allowed to bathe with their mothers. However, Hammam Al-Arba' did have some facilities to keep children occupied -- toys, a bicycle, a swing and a television.

It is not advisable to take a lot of money with you. Leave your valuables in your car or with the woman in charge.

Hammams in Cairo

Hammam Al-Tanbouli. Located near Bab Al-Sha'riya district, Islamic Cairo, next to Al-Tanbouli mosque.

Hammam Al-Malatili, also known as Hammam Margoush, takes its name from the street on which it stands at Al-Gamaliya district. Hammam Al-Malatili has a particular eminence after Ismail Walieddin adopted its name as the title of his novel detailing some of the variously illicit activities said to take place in the hammams. It was also the site of a movie adaptation of the novel.

Hammam Qalaoun, also known as Hammam Al-Nahhasin (the coppersmiths' bath). Next to the hospital near the mosque of Sultan Qalaoun.

Hammam Bishtak, located on Souq Al-Silah Street, opposite the southwestern corner of the ruined mosque of Mir Zada.

Hammam Al-Talat, two blocks after Hammam Al-Arba', Al-Ansari Street, Boulaq Abul-Ela

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Egypt's First Ladies

During its long history, Egypt has had several iconoclast consorts and several ruling God-Queens. If Nefertiti is best remembered from the first category, of the second, Queens Hatchepsut, Cleopatra and Shagaret al-Durr are excellent examples.

The article below talks about some of Egypt’s First Ladies, their origin & background and the role they played in public life. The entire article, written by Samir Raafat can be read at

Consorts of Monogamous Egyptian Heads of State
From Khedive Mohammed Tewfik To President Hosni Mubarak

The last satin-and-silk harem belonged to Khedive (Viceroy) Ismail Pasha who ruled Egypt from 1863 to 1879. Heretofore, the Walda Pasha (ruler's mother) was the most powerful woman in the realm often acting as political mentor for her potentate-son. Starting with Ismail's first-born son, Mohammed Tewfik Pasha, monogamy became the rule rather than the exception for Egypt's heads of state. The role of First Lady was thus introduced in a Middle East increasingly influenced by Western culture.

This is about 12 women who in varying degrees influenced Egypt's destiny.

Khedive Tewfik (r. 1879-92) Princess Amina Ilhami
Khedive Abbas Himi (r. 1892-1914 ) Ikbal Hanim + May von Torok
Sultan Hussein Kamel (r. 1914-17) Princess Ayn al Hayat Ibrahim + Melek Tourhan
King Fouad (r. 1917-36) Princess Shuvekar Ibrahim + Nazli Rehim Sabry
King Farouk (r. 1936-52) Safinaz "Farida" Zulfikar + Nariman Sadek
Prince-Regent Abdel Hilmi (1952-53) Neslishah Osmanoglou
President Naguib (r. 1953-54) Aicha Mohammed Labib
President Nasser (r. 1954-1970) Tahia Kazem-Boghdadi
President Sadat (r. 1970 -1981) Jehan Safwat Raouf
President Mubarak (r. 1981 - ) Suzanne Saleh Sabet


From Khediva Amina Ilhami to Sultan Melek, Egypt's consorts were educated at home, their worldly knowledge limited to what they learned from their benign nannies and stalwart European governess'. The overall curriculum was limited to languages (French, English, German, Turkish and Arabic), basic history and rudimentary arithmetic. There was also piano, painting and sewing.

Not members of the Mohammed Ali clan, Queens Nazli, Farida and Nariman attended elementary and primary schools. Nazli Abdel Rehim Sabry first went to the Mere de Dieu School in Cairo and later to the Dame de Sion in Alexandria. Farida, whose father was a High Court judge in that coastal city, went to the Dame de Sion. French nuns supervised both these boarding schools.

It was different with First Ladies Jehan al-Sadat and Suzanne Mubarak. The former grew up on the Island of Roda attending the nearby Church Missionary Society School run by an English headmistress.

And since Suzanne's family lived at No. 15 Abdel Moneim (Garnata) Street in Heliopolis, it was normal that she enroll at St. Claire's. This was a strict girls-only Heliopolis prep school operated by Mother Mary Cecilia and a band of Franciscan sisters, where neglecting to wear straw hat and pom-poms was virtually a punishable offense.

All of the above consorts were teenage brides married off between the ages of 15-18 the two exceptions being Countess May and Queen Nazli.

Except for Jehan al-Sadat and Countess May, all of the above marriages were arranged with the alleged consent of the teenage brides.


Aside from attending ladies-only state functions Khedivas Amina Ilhami and Ikbal Hanim had no official public role. On the other hand their travels within Egypt by private train were increasingly reported in the dailies as were their departures to and from Egypt by private yacht.
The third sole-consort, Countess May, appeared in public functions disguised as a man and often played hostess to the Khedive's guests. She also visited Alexandria's hospitals during WW1 bringing solace to wounded soldiers.

Sultana Melek too attended performances at the opera albeit seated in a loge separated from the rest of the audience by a musharabeya.

Confined to the palace through most of King Fouad's reign, Queen Nazli was nonetheless allowed to attend opera performances, flower shows and other ladies-only cultural events. She also accompanied the King during part of his four-month tour of Europe in 1927 and was much feted in France in view of her French origins.

Farida Zulfikar went public in the sense that she accepted the honorary chair of the Red Crescent Society as well as several noted charities and educational organizations where she appeared at fundraisers and commemorations. She was also honorary president of the Feminist Union and the New Woman Alliance, two organizations aimed at improving the status of women in Egypt.

King Farouk's second consort was similarly active despite the fact she was pregnant for the short time she was queen.

In view of the ambiguous situation as to who was in control of Egypt's destiny, the few official appearances by Princess Neslishah, in her capacity as consort of co-Prince-Regent Abdel Moneim, were strictly related to charity work. Like her immediate predecessors she was seen at sporting events including polo matches, the races and the international tennis tournament final. The Regency lasted ten months in all.

There are no records on hand evidencing public appearances of the first republican First Lady, Aziza M. Labib, the invisible wife of General Mohammed Naguib.

Tahia Kazem (Nasser’s wife), was seen now and then, always in the shadows of her larger than life husband. Her rare, self-conscious cameo appearances were either as the mother of five children or as the dutiful wife, walking five steps behind al rais. The few times she appeared at official functions she did so as the fumbling hostess to wives of foreign dignitaries.
Deciding to "reign" as First Lady, Jehan Raouf quickly broke off with the dutiful stay-at-home persona of her predecessor. She retained a full time press secretary, accepted numerous public engagements and gave willing interviews to the local and foreign media.

Aside from championing her husband's political views, Jehan al-Sadat took a pro-active stance regarding family planning and the emancipation of women in Egypt. With the arrival of satellite television her biggest statement yet for women empowerment came during a short transit in Saudi Arabia. President Sadat and his consort descended from the presidential plane and proceeded to shake hands with a dumbfounded House of Saud welcome committee, a first in an ultra-conservative Wahabi kingdom where women are relegated to the dark ages. By that unprecedented act Jehan propelled herself onto center stage as far as Gulf women were concerned.

First Lady Suzanne Mubarak took up where Jehan al-Sadat left off. Going the whole nine yards, Suzanne Mubarak is the first Egyptian First Lady during the republican era to directly address the nation via television.

Whereas Jehan Raouf confined her activities within Egypt, Suzanne Sabet, in addition to local activities, participated in international forums and UN sponsored conferences particularly those dealing with women and children.

Suzanne Sabet has been most influential on issues that concern her deeply such as the causes of terminal disease and cancer detection. There is also that lingering impression that she is the privileged advisor to the president, a task implicitly recognized in postscripts adopted by the April 1923 constitution regarding the role of the then-queen of Egypt.


From the above consorts only the sons of Amina Ilhami and Queen Nazli reigned over Egypt (Abbas Hilmi and King Farouk respectively).

Except for Suzanne Sabet's son Gamal Mubarak, none of the other consorts' male progeny pursued political careers.

Princess Ayn al-Hayat's only son from Sultan Hussein abdicated his rights to the throne preferring instead to become a Sufi mystic.

Queen Nariman's son Ahmed-Fouad dabbed briefly in sinecures before succumbing to an emotional trauma. He now leads a retired life in Switzerland.

Princess Neslishah's only son is an international banker.

Tahia Kazem's three sons reportedly went the route of fat commissions and mega contracts, occasionally bailed out by their father's Libyan disciple.

Jehan Raouf's only son Gamal al-Sadat is a part time businessman of sorts.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Metro in Cairo

Have been wanting to buy clothes for my 6 year old for the last 1 month but kept postponing it as I wanted to go Downtown rather than buy it in Maadi. All roads in Maadi seem to lead to the Grand Mall and I was not about to go there again.

Fixed a plan with a friend to go Downtown by the Metro! When I had mentioned Metro to some colleagues in my husband’s office they had thrown up their hands in mock horror! La, la (no in Arabic), as a foreigner, it will be difficult for you. Well, difficult or not, I decided I shall not be deterred. In any case, I had my Egyptian friend for company who should be able to get us out of any sticky situation, should one arise.

So off we went to the El Maadi Metro station on Road 9. Bought our tickets - LE 1 for one person from Maadi to Downtown. The Cairo Metro, I believe, is the only full-fledged metro system in Africa. The system currently consists of two operational lines, with a third in planning / construction.

Like in some other countries, the first two cars of each train are reserved for women until early evening as an option for women who don't wish to ride with men in the same car, however there is no restriction on women riding any other cars. Currently, the metro services the most densely populated areas. On enquiring, I discovered that you can only go Downtown from Maadi on the Metro – no Mohandissien, no Zemalek.

The platforms were neat and clean and so were the compartments for women. The Metro reminded me a lot of the New York subway metro with one stark difference. The Metro in Cairo was full of Egyptian women wearing the head scarf / hijab. I had to look around really very hard to find an uncovered head. As my friend remarked, that’s a very easy indicator of differentiating the Coptics (Christians) from the Muslims!

The journey from Maadi to Downtown just took a little over 20 mins vis-à-vis the hour it would have taken me by car. It was a comfortable and short ride with no trouble at all, and, much faster! But more importantly, it gave me the opportunity to see really how much of Cairo is Islamic – much more than my cocooned world of Maadi made me beileve.

How to find a Metro station? Easy - look for the red M arches (not the McDonald kind)!

The Metro deposited us (very conveniently) bang opposite the Egyptian Museum and the Nile Hilton. After that, the world is your oyster!!