Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Al-Azhar mosque

My driver is convinced that I am a completely mad expat let loose in town! Last week, on my way back from Khan, I asked him to drop me off at the Al Azhar mosque.

'Mosque?' He practically screeched! "Sure? You pray at mosque? Hindi pray at mosque too?"

Well, not really, I shook my head as I tried to explain that all I wanted to do was to have a look at the mosque and the university which has a big place in the theology of Islam and also claims to be the oldest university in the world (estb in 970)!

Founded by the Fatimid conqueror Gawahar al-Siqilli, as the congregational mosque for Al Qahira, over the years it has emerged as the biggest center for Islamic learning. As you enter the mosque , and look up, you see a double arched gate with some fine work. I belive this used to be known as the Gate of Barbers, because this is where the students used to have their hair shaved off!

I must admit that for a moment I was a little hesitant about walking in cos I was wearing a skirt which was below my knees. So many books talk about the dress code in the mosques that I was wondering whether my dress would be considered appropriate. However, I was otherwise modestly dressed, so figured I should be alright! I did not have a scarf, but a shawl which would do just as well to cover my head. In fact, as I was fumbling with my shawl, the attendent pointed to it and indicated that I should cover my head when I went in. I smiled, nodded, waved at him and walked right in!

When you walk through the gate, you suddenly come into a bright marble lined courtyard, and its like emerging into bright sunlight after passing through a patch of darkness! The courtyard was lined with people lounging with manuscripts in their hands. Theer were a few other tourists, who I guess had the same idea as me.

Within the mosque are two madrasas built by two different people.

The left one, built by Amir Sayf al-Din Aqbugha ( or the White Bull) housesAl Azhar's collection of manuscripts and Qurans. It also has some beautiful mosaics done in glass and mother-of-pearl depicting braching sprays coming out of a bowl, a design and technique which came to Cairo from Syria.

The right one, built by Amir Ala al-Din Taybars al Khazindar, contains the most pecious manuscripst in Al Azhar's library.

As I walked around, I was surprised to see many young men studying manuscripts ( a kind English speaking Egyptian told me these were religious manuscripts that were being studied by the Al Azhar students)!

I am glad I visited the mosque. it gave me a sense of peace even though it was densely populated.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Groppi since 1892

Everytime I drive around Downtown, I notice the tearoom "J Groppi, since 1892". The impression it gave me from outside is that of the old British tea rooms, and, many a times, I have thought of stopping the car, and grabbing a cup of tea and to see what the place is like.

I remember reading that " it was established by a gentleman called Giacomo Groppi (1863-1947) a native of Lugano, Switzerland. In time Maison Groppi became chief purveyor of chocolate to monarchs and pashas throughout the MidEast. Whenever pashas, beys and resident-foreigners traveled to Europe they took with them cartons filled with Groppi chocolates.

During WW-II King Farouk air freighted via Khartoum, Entebbe, Dakar, Lisbon, Dublin a lacquered box emblazoned with the royal arms of Egypt and Great Britain. Inside, to the delight of the then-princesses Elizabeth and Margaret of England, were 100 kilos of Groppi chocolates. "

History like this, definately warranted a visit. Today, while I was waiting at the Indian Embassy, decided to spend my time fruitfully (pun intended) occupied! So off I trotted, to discover the gastranomic wonders of Groppi, dreaming of all those chocolates..

My first impression, definately Parisian. High ceilings, polished gleaming surfaces, chandeliers, very very old fashioned. Red and gold check waistcoated waiters, many of similar vintage as the coffee shop, walked around the tables slowly and taking orders.

Had a quick look at the menu. I was shocked by the prices. After the Cilantros, Costa Coffees and Beanos of the world, this place was a steal! Amazingly reasonable and quirky. Prices were in decimal piasters e.g a Roast Beef sandwich was LE 9.52 while a burger with cheese was LE 7.62.
I decided on a cheese toast which was for a princely sum of LE 5.71.

ana ayza haikul cheese toast (I want to eat cheese toast) wa ana ayaza ashrab shay bi laban bi sucar (and I want to drink tea with milk and sugar). The waiter smiled at my attempt at speaking arabic and nodded his head "aiwa" (I swear his eyes twinkled with mirth at my attempt at arabic). Now for the acid test for my arabic. Would I get what I ordered or what the waiter thought I had ordered?

As I looked around, it reminded me intensely of the Old Flurys of Kolkata. Same high ceilings, an old world charm, quaint tables and chairs widely spaced and a sense of time having stood still. Then it struck me that both Flury's and Groppi were started by Swiss men, maybe that explained the sense of deja vu I felt at Groppi.

Service was slow, but it gave me time to look around. As you enter, there is a huge round hall which has counters displaying an amazing selection of choclates (from LE 60 per kilo to LE 160 per kilo) and pastries etc. Ordered one chocolate pastry for my son and a coconut one for myself. The pastries were good, though not spectacular, but nice old fashioned pastries.

When the food came, was not dissapointed. I had a sandwich made from the most delicious bread I have had in a long time - fresh, soft, thick (and I mean thick) slices lightly toasted, buttered and with cheese. Yum! Though next time, I'll give the cheese a miss, and, just have the bread toasted and buttered. Ah, Flurys, I miss you! The tea was regular and the bill was amazing, a princely sum of LE 15.92 along with the 12% service charge and 10% sales tax.

Clearly the place had seen better times, but it still was a place haunted by regulars, a place where the internet was not all pervasive, where people still had time to come and have an old fashioned cup of tea with complete tea service, coupled with lots of conversation and nostalgia. Definately, a must visit, maybe not so much for the food but just for the atmosphere, and for me, a slice of home (Flurys!)

P.S. Came back home and looked up Groppi and got this article. I knew there was a reason why it appealed to me!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A toast to 2008

To kinder gods and fiercer loves,
to wild abandonment and gentle moments,
to wine, to sunsets, to passion, and,
to dancing as if nobody was watching....

To laughter, joy and sorrow
to freedom, belief and confidence
to compassion, empathy and kindness, and,
to the ability to forget the past and move on...

To family,to friends and the country, and,
to the untold adventures that will light up the future.......
......... a toast to 2008!!