Monday, December 10, 2007

Oh Calcutta!

I'm not a Bengli but married to one, so I guess one could call me a naturalised Bong!

However, that still does not explain the pull that I feel for the City of Joy, the city that my husband was born in, the city that I hated the thought of, the city that depressed me when I was asked to move to it, the city that seems to have stood still in time, the city that amazed me with its diversity, the city that welcomes everyone with open arms, the city that does not seek the size of your wallet or the make of your car, the city which celebrates Eid, Christams, Diwali and Puja with equal fervour and enthusiasm, the city that simply requires that you love it and live with it, the city that gives of itself so unstintingly, the city that worms its way into your heart and remains with you even when you move away, and the city that I made so many friends in a very short period and for which I wept when we moved away....

Not that this has anything to do with Cairo, but in many senses, I feel that Cairo is a little like Calcutta and the Egyptians to a large extent like Calcuttans...that would probably explain my love for Cairo despite what many expats will tell you about Cairo...

I had read this article quite some while ago, and thankfully, a friend forwarded it to me a few days ago...Read it and you will understand why so many people love Calcutta, and, to a much smaller extent that may explain why I like Cairo so much...

Oh ! Calcutta....
Vir Sanghvi, the Editorial Director of Hindustan Times on Calcutta :

Most modern Indian cities strive to rise above ethnicity. Tell anybody who lives in Bombay that he lives in a Maharashtrian city and (unless of course, you are speaking to Bal Thackeray) he will take immediate offence. We are cosmopolitan, he will say indigenously. Tell a Delhiwalla that his is a Punjabi city (which, in many ways, it is) and he will respond with much self-righteous nonsense about being the nation's capital, about the international composition of the city's elite etc. And tell a Bangalorean that he lives in a Kannadiga city and you'll get lots of techno-gaff about the internet revolution and about how Bangalore is even more cosmopolitan than Bombay.

But, the only way to understand what Calcutta is about is to recognize that the city is essentially Bengali. What's more, no Bengali minds you saying that. Rather, he is proud of the fact. Calcutta's strengths and weaknesses mirror those of the Bengali character. It has the drawbacks: the sudden passions, the cheerful chaos, the utter contemptfor mere commerce, the fiery response to the smallest provocation. And it has the strengths (actually, I think of the drawbacks as strengths in their own way). Calcutta embodies the Bengali love of culture; the triumph of intellectualism over greed; the complete transparency of all emotions, the disdain with which hypocrisy and insincerity are treated; the warmth of genuine humanity; and the supremacy of emotion over all other aspects of human existence.

That's why Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your cities clean and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities, rich and impersonal;go to Bombay. You want them high-tech and full of draught beer;Bangalore's your place. But if you want a city with a soul: come to Calcutta.

When I look back on the years I've spent in Calcutta - and I come back so many times each year that I often feel I've never been away - Idon't remember the things that people remember about cities. When Ithink of London, I think of the vast open spaces of Hyde Park . When Ithink of New York , I think of the frenzy of Times Square. When I think of Tokyo, I think of the bright lights of Shinjiku. And when Ithink of Paris, I think of the Champs Elysee. But when I think of Calcutta, I never think of any one place. I don't focus on the greenery of the maidan, the beauty of the Victoria Memorial, the bustle of Burra Bazar or the splendour of the new Howrah 'Bridge'. I think of people. Because, finally, a city is more than bricks and mortars, street lights and tarred roads. A city is the sum of its people. And who can ever forget - or replicate - the people of Calcutta?

When I first came to live here, I was told that the city would grow on me. What nobody told me was that the city would change my life. It was in Calcutta that I learnt about true warmth; about simple human decency; about love and friendship; about emotions and caring; about truth and honesty. I learnt other things too. Coming from Bombay as I did, it was a revelation to live in a city where people judged each other on the things that really mattered; where they recognized that being rich did not make you a better person - in fact, it might have the opposite effect. I learnt also that if life is about more than just money, it is about the things that other cities ignore; about culture, about ideas, about art, and about passion. In Bombay, a man with a relatively low income will salt some of it away for the day when he gets a stock market tip. In Calcutta, a man with exactly the same income will not know the difference between a debenture and a dividend. But he will spend his money on the things that matter. Each morning, he will read at least two newspapers and develop sharply etched views on the state of the world. Each evening, there will be fresh (ideally, fresh-water or river) fish on his table. His children will be encouraged to learn to dance or sing. His family will appreciate the power of poetry. And for him, religion and culture will be in inextricably bound together.

Ah religion! Tell outsiders about the importance of Puja in Calcutta and they'll scoff. Don't be silly, they'll say. Puja is a religious festival. And Bengal has voted for the CPM since 1977. How can godless Bengal be so hung up on a religions festival? I never know how to explain them that to a Bengali, religion consists of much more than shouting Jai Shri Ram or pulling down somebody's mosque. It has little to do with meaningless ritual or sinister political activity.

The essence of Puja is that all the passions of Bengal converge:emotion, culture, the love of life, the warmth of being together, the joy of celebration, the pride in artistic ex-pression and yes, the cult of the goddess.

It may be about religion. But is about much more than just worship. In which other part of India would small, not particularly well-off localities, vie with each other to produce the best pandals? Where else could puja pandals go beyond religion to draw inspiration from everything else? In the years I lived in Calcutta, the pandals featured Amitabh Bachchan, Princes Diana and even Saddam Hussain!Where else would children cry with the sheer emotional power of Dashimi, upset that the Goddess had left their homes? Where else would the whole city gooseflesh when the dhakis first begin to beat their drums? Which other Indian festival - in any part of the country - is so much about food, about going from one roadside stall to another,following your nose as it trails the smells of cooking? To understand Puja, you must understand Calcutta. And to understand Calcutta , you must understand the Bengali. It's not easy.

Certainly, you can't do it till you come and live here, till you let Calcutta suffuse your being, invade your bloodstream and steal your soul. But once you have, you'll love Calcutta forever. Wherever you go, a bit of Calcutta will go with you. I know, because it's happened to me. And every Puja, I am overcome by the magic of Bengal. It's a feeling that'll never go away.

Abou El Seed

45 Road 7
Tel: 2380 50 50

Had freinds visting and they wanted to try out authentic Egyptian cuisine in an authentic Egyptian environment. Since it was their last day in town, decided to take them to Abu el Sid. It's Egyptian cuisine, has an Arabian Nights ambience and was close home!

Luckily I had booked, cos at 10 o'clock the place was buzzing with life. The outside was empty, given that winter had set in, but there were still some intrepid locals, who warmed their hearts and bodies with the ubiquitous shisha while the less adventerous souls like us preferred to troop inside.

When you walk in, its like walking into the sets on 101 Arabian Nights. The walls are done in stucco brown and painted in ochre, rust and dull red. The place is lit up with dull lighting and candles which cast their shadows on the walls making it look even more exotic. This wisps of mul curtains gently fly in the wind. The furniture is very period, rich gold framed sofas and chairs with equally rich (albiet old, worn and a tad dirty), red, brown and gold upholstry. Painted table with inlaid work. Ah, we loved the ambience!!

The food was very authentically Egyptian, the English speaking maitre de assured us. Starters? Of course!. We ordered a Mezze platter with babaghounoush, tahini and a cheese dip, some Kobeba (LE 25 for 4-5 peices) and Falafel (LE 13). The balady bread with the meze was fresh, warm and delicious. Kobeba is a local, exotic, fried meat ball made from cracked wheat and lamb and served with eggplants and sesame paste salad dip. Everyone loved it!

The restaurant serves Mouakhiya or the Egyptian National Dish (or so says the menu) which is essentially a chicken dish with pureed / cooked molakiya along with rice. At LE 48, the portion size is quite large, and, can comfortably feed two after you've been through your starters.

The Fettah (LE 58), which is essentially an Egyptian risotto with meat, yoghurt and tomato sauce, is also very nice. Again, the portion size is good for two, if you've snacked ok.

The Shrimp Tagine (LE60) is fine, not exceptional while the Circasian Chicken in Walnut Sauce (LE 48) is nice.

The vegetarians unfortunately, would have to make do with the Koshary, which by the way, isn't much to write home about, and the lentil soup. The soup was hot, thick and tasty, just what the doctor ordered on a cold winter night!

We had to round off the evening with, but of course, an Om Aly and some shisha! A lovely evening spent with decent food, good friends, interesting conversation, great ambience and a lovely memory of some good times spent in Cairo.

P.S. Just read an interesting history to Abu el Seed... so here goes..

An Egyptian native of Cairo during the Fatimid period, Abou El-Sid cooked happily for friends and neighbours. Many a married man would desert his wife to come spend the evening savouring his irresistible edibles. He knew that the surest way to a man's heart is through his stomach. The women of his neighbourhood cursed him for his dexterity in the kitchen, and it appears that their incessant cussing bore frightful fruit.

A merciless Fatimid sultan whose name will not be recalled now, had heard about Abou El-Sid's talents. He disguised himself as a wandering merchant and called on Abou El-Sid's tavern. The following evening, the sultan masqueraded as a poor man and revisited Abou El-Sid's humble eatery. The sultan was intrigued by the delectable creations of Abou El-Sid. He summoned the cook to his palace and invited him to take charge of the palace cuisine, a dubious honour Abou El-Sid could hardly afford to decline.

Lo and behold, Abou El-Sid grew tired of the endless carousals and binges of the sultan and his greedy courtiers. He longed for the friendliness and sincerity of his humble neighbours. He repeatedly pleaded with the sultan to let him return to his humble abode. The sultan flatly refused and in exasperation banished the frustrated cook to the palace kitchen. Abou El-Sid complained ever more bitterly. By that time, the harem had learnt something of the secrets of Abou El-Sid's culinary talents, so they dispensed with him completely, and he spent the rest of his life in the dungeon. To while away time, Abou El-Sid jotted down recipes of his exceptional cuisine. And those recipes passed down generations are what is served at Abu el Seed...

The Egyptians in the world's 50 Richest Arab 2007

An interesting article from the Egyptian Chronicles.....

Ladies and gentlemen I present to you the official Richest Egyptians in the country and in the Arab world

The Egyptians in the world's 50 Richest Arab 2007

Of course the majority of the world's 50 Richest Arab in year 2007 are mostly from the Gulf , and surely Prince Al-Walid Ibn Talaal is on the top of the list , it is logic

The richest men in Egypt officially are :

1-The Sawiris Family in rank number 10 , estimated fortune is $ 6.2 billion , they moved two 2 ranks from last year , they were the 12th now they are from the top ten

2- Mohammed Shafik Gabr in rank number 30 , estimated fortune is $2.2 Billion , a new entry, well this is a surprise because this man what he did with Emar company he seemed to be a crook !! Here is his company's official website

3- Fayez Sarofim in rank number 42, estimated fortune is $ 1.5 billion , a new entry and I do not know him , it is first time I hear or read about him, already his business is abroad in the United States at Taxes not in Egypt. Here is his company's official website

4- Ahmed Ezz in rank number 47 , estimated fortune is $ 1 Billion , a new entry , it is big surprsie because I thought that Ezz is actually richer than Sawiris , at least this what I thought, may be he is richer unofficially , well his new bride seems to be a lucky charm he is now from the top 50 rich Arabs !! Here is his company's official website again

5- Hisham Talaat Mustafa in rank number 49, estimated fortune is $ 800 million , a new entry ,well it is not surprise because this man caused a problem in money liquidity because of his construction projects of fancy cities and buildings , his wealth exceeded after entering the stock market . Here is his company's official website

Here are the top 5

For the Sawiris family it is not a new thing , they were always there and they are moving towards the top

Yet for the rest they are new comers to the rest

For Gaber and Ezz well search for illegal operations whether from monopoly.. etc ,also search for influence , because from the policy committee ,yes NDPians ,close friends to the President's sons
Where are the President's sons ?? man I know that they are very very rich , may be they are among the unofficial richest Arabs in the world , secret accounts and so on

Still reading the list you will be surprised that the new comers this year are from countries you do not imagine that there are billionaires in it with that size

I do not mean the two Palestinian billionaires because for sure they are operating their empires outside Palestine but I mean countries like Syria and Iraq , yes Iraq

There are 3 billionaires from Iraq and all are working in the construction field , well it is their golden opportunity with all that damage in the country !!

3 billionaires from Syria ,2 of them are working in the construction field , it seems that it is the most profitable business in the Arab world now

You know I do not mean anything but most of those people really deserve to be in this list but some of them do not deserve to be in the list at all because they will be compared with people who really worked hard and honestly and to be frank I mean Ahmed Ezz , at least Gaber got some origin but Ahmed Ezz is a man who is building an Empire over the expense a whole country ,it is enough to know that the current crisis in the property market from a huge price increase ,he is the one behind it due to the increase in the steel price which he monopolized

Here is the complete list from Arabian