BootsnAll Travel Network

Cairo Cliché

I’m sitting in my room, playing out what must be a Cairene custom with a pedigree bordering on the cliché, right up alongside smoking sheisa (what American’s call ‘hooka’) and walking in the street in the pantheon of Cairene traditions. From my room, the first thing one notices is the cacophony of car horns coming from Tahrir square, some seven floors below; short bleeps, repeated honks, sustained blurts and my favorite, the joyously tuned ‘da, dadada’ that makes one think the unknown driver must be reveling in something, maybe a wedding or a successful soccer match—another unavoidable national pastime.
Something else can be heard though. A lone muffled song lovingly sung, momentarily calming the car horns, is almost romantic in what sounds like a lamenting note: a call to prayer settles like a blanket over the street, softening but not stopping the craze.
In my hands are two things: a collection of three novels by the beloved and recently deceased Egyptian Nobel-laureate Naguib Mahfouz and a plastic spoon digging into a take-away container of a local favorite: koshery. Koshery is a fantastic working-class food, and by the hand of Abou Tarik’s, where this is from, it’s taken to an art form. Abou Tarik’s is an institution here in Cairo, indeed each of the three people I’ve asked so far about the best koshery in the city have pointed me toward it.
The dish has the feel of a creation out of necessity, as if some long ago Egyptian mother asked “what’s left in the kitchen to throw in?”, and ended up with koshery. This leaves it with a homey, feel good, stick-to-the-bones, if-you’re-sick-reach-for-this feeling. The purposely luke-warm dish has quarter inch cylindrical pasta as its back bone, with white rice and spaghetti (both white and whole-wheat) thrown in. Next comes some lentils, a few chickpeas, some shaved fried onions and finally a tomato-herb sauce of which just enough is added to kiss each of the elements, leaving an aroma of sun dried tomatoes in each bite. Egyptian comfort food!
The Mahfouz story I’m reading also leaves a feeling of relief and satisfaction, a welcome respite from the street out the window. His control, mastery of style and ability to portray the unique flavor of life on the Cairo street leaves me feeling like life here isn’t as different as one might ostensibly presume. The novel, titled Respected Sir, concerns ambition and the struggle to balance happiness with success in an (initially) young bureaucrat trying to propel himself from poverty into the firmament of bureaucratic heavyweights, all the while living an austere, monastic life reminiscent of his humble beginnings. Maybe the drive for individual success isn’t as unique to America or the West as some would make it out to be.
Out the window the light cast from the setting sun has lit up the thick cushion of pollution to a vaguely purple hue, turning green and finally grey-blue at its height. It’s sad to say, but in my short time in Egypt, nearly a week, I have yet to see an area lacking the affliction of this layer. Luckily I have time to see more of the country, insha’allah (lit. if God wills it, but used as everything from “definitely” to “there’s no way!”).
Not only does the pollution leave a legacy on the untouched furniture and floors of my room (I can see a good indication of my travels between the carpet, my bed and the door), but grime seems to have become a way a life. One finds it equally on the skin and in the eyes as on the cornices studding the belle-époque buildings who passionately stand their ground despite the change of so many ideologies and faces in power.
Welcome to Cairo.


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