Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Finding my way home in Egypt


On her return to Cairo fifty years on as a tourist, Suzy Vidal (Sultana Latifa) found it an Arab city, much of it poor and with sprawling slums. She was excited to find her school, synagogue and her childhood apartment at Malika Farida, but did not have the heart to enter it. Read her fascinating account at Los Muestros:

"We registered for the picnic from Alexandria to Cairo by coach that took approximately three hours on that desert road my father used to take from Cairo to Alexandria, and vice versa, for our fabulous summer holidays in Alexandria: Stanley, San Stephano, Sidi Bishr, Ramle el Beda, etc. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed at the harbour white marble buildings and floor.
Everything was spotless.

Shawish (policemen) everywhere - with their guns standing guard! We were accompanied by motorised police part of the way: that made me feel safer because of that underlying fear since leaving Egypt and which was one of my nightmares: lost somewhere in Egypt, unable to find my way home.

To begin with our guide was a Copt who spoke French to perfection with that accent we love. I learned more from him than during my whole life there! He told us about the Pharaohs, how they had their Pyramids built and the huge stones that are still there today, and various anecdotes about daily life that made us laugh.

We had taken about four litres of water with us and we were offered a big bottle in the coach. It was an old bus rattling along and at one moment we thought it would break down in the middle of the desert and we would have to push!

They had told us: "Be careful it is cold on that coach and you need a good pullover."
The air-conditioning did not work! I believe it was about 32 degrees when we arrived at the Pyramids.

No sooner had we disembarked than a crowd of children, their clothes torn and sometimes without shoes, pretty nevertheless, fell on us, pushing their wares in our arms, trying to sell the fake amulets or scarabs.

Exasperated, I shouted: yalla emshi! (Go away) And they looked at me. How did this affrangeya (foreigner) speak Arabic?

After that the men renting camels and horses pulled us by the arm, almost putting us by force on their animals. Except for some, the majority did not want to take a ride. I heard the man
mumble: yen aal aboukom (God take your father), but I pretended I did not understand.

A little word about clothes: foreign women came in shorts (their bottom exposed) and naked arms and shoulders. Imagine a woman on a camel wearing her shorts and half her breast showing. The local women wore a Muslim head-covering and our tourists, compared to them, seemed almost indecent - especially as the Arab men, thinking no one understood, made their usual comments!

Afterwards we went to the Sphinx. Here the vendors could not follow because we had tickets and the entrance was guarded by shawish who sheltered under a shamseya (a sunshade). When we went out through another door, the vendors were there waiting for us!

Houses and buildings of very poor quality now surround the Pyramids and the Sphinx. We got on that coach and went on to a Pyramids Sofitel Hotel for our meal. It was cool, clean and decorated with taste.

About taste: I took a little of everything but mainly the divine tehina, (sesame salad) which was prepared as it should be and not the watery stuff you now get in oriental restaurants.
I ate tiny pieces (being diabetic) of bassboussa, konafa, a fabulous chocolate cake and picked up a gawafa (guava) that was not ripe, to keep and show my children, but then could not resist eating it three days later when it ripened!

On our way from that hotel we saw some horrendous houses. Rough blocks one on top of the other, with just one window, no electricity and no sanitary equipment either. There was a huge depot of dirt and other nameless detritus. Some of the blocks were unfinished and the guide explained that when there was money they built a new floor on top of the house without permission.

I could hardly believe my eyes. All along that desert route, the sand and wind had accumulated waste paper and plastics.

We finally reached Zamalek (where my primary school had been), a green suburb mainly inhabited by the officials of foreign embassies and what the guide called rich people.
Then, the magnificent Nile was there, with a view on the two bridges and the dahabeya restaurants moored along the banks. The latter had been refurbished with white stone and plantations of rich bougainvillea.

We saw several couples holding neither hands nor arms - but fingers! It seems that public conduct is still based on restraint and no kissing in public! Reaching the Cairo Museum we parted with the group (much to the guide's despair who probably thought he would never see us again).

Trying to cross, I was nailed to the ground by all the cars rushing from everywhere. A shawish came up to me and asked: 'Aiza te rouhi fén?' (Where do you want to go?) I answered 'Abdel Khaleg Sarwat (formerly Malika Farida.)

He said taa-li (Come).He stopped the traffic and made us cross safely to the other side."

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