Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ramadan In Cairo's Slums

Friday, August 10th

I woke up Friday around 11:30 am to find that the power was out. I wouldn’t normally wake up so late, but I’ve been stuck in Ramadan time; waking up around noon and going to bed in the late hours of the morning to escape the daytime heat. Most of the roommates had made their way to the Sinai to do some research about the shooting of Egyptian soldiers on the border, and if the day before was any warning, the power might not be back on til later that evening. I could of stayed in, clinging to whatever breeze I could feel through our large windows and worked on my Arabic homework, but seeing as the gas for our stove was also out (our only method of cooking anything)- staying in seemed a grim endeavor.

Instead, I decided to grab my camera and wander around downtown and to wherever else I was led to. I walked through Tahrir square, down Asr al Aini and over onto the area where the pro-Mubarak groups gathered around the Omar Makram statue. I took some pictures and pondered the moment- imaging what the area looked like filled with thousands of people. Then I continued onwards with no direction in mind. A guy came along side me, walking my direction and asked me for a smoke in Arabic. I told him I had none and as he heard my accent he began inquiring about my origin. His name was Ali. He was walking my way so we chatted for about 10 minutes, as he knew some broken English. He told me I reminded him of his son and that it was a good day to go to the pyramids since traffic was sparse and we were quite near where I could catch a bus for a couple pounds.
Ali on one of the buses

Obviously I was initially suspicious, but decided to let him show me where the bus was for future reference. I didn’t have intentions of actually going to Giza at the moment- I wasn’t dressed in anything particularly protective, nor did I have my phone with me. He led me to a group of buses and asked around who was heading that direction. I quickly realized we were about to jump on a bus and quickly accepted this fate. The bus, however, turned out not to be a full size city bus, but rather one of the privately owned minibuses I’d been warned about. They have no set route and you can wave them down if there’s room or ask them as they drop off another passenger if they’re heading your way. Often the entering and boarding is done at a slow roll, similar to a “Californian stop.”

A typical Minibus in Cairo 
He said he was going the same direction and could take me most of the way, give me instructions for the rest of the route, and gave me the number of the buses that I should take back. We jumped on three minibuses and one scooter-moped type contraption before arriving at the pyramids. He wasn’t going to take me the entire way, but by the time we got there he started calling me his other son and had grown quite fond of me.  He paid all the fares and refused to take any money. I ended up getting on a camel with a tour guide and he said he’d come back in a few hours and help me make my way back.

The pyramids were awesome and a cool breeze accompanied the entire ride so it wasn’t a miserable desert excursion as I imagined it might be. My guide saw that I was comfortable on the camel, so decided to tell me how to command it on my own. I didn’t see many other tourists, but the ones I did were trodding along as their guide pulled their camels which were tied closely together. Instead, I shouted “Yalla” (let’s go), Ha’arga (or something that sounds like such and made the camel respond much like Yalla), and maneuvered my camel around the pyramids and into appropriate positions for optimal picture taking.  The pyramids were quite the site and even though my pictures of the sphinx somehow disappeared, I appreciate how photogenic my camel was.

Gamal the Camel.

Afterwards, they took me into a papyrus shop and showed me how they made papyrus paintings. The guy striped some papyrus branches, and asked me with a grin, “Are you strong?” I gave him a equivocal look and said, “I believe so, why?” He stripped the branch and layered three pieces together and said, “Here, if you can break this without twisting, I will give you one of these fine papyrus paintings.” He pointed to one on the wall whose price tag was 900 LE. I laughed and said, “I assuming I will not be able to break it”. I picked it up, pulled and broke it in half. His mouth fell open and he said “Oh no, you twisted it.” I said, “No I didn’t, you saw me.” So he cut up another and gave it to me again. I pulled it this time slowly, and in front of his face and SNAP. I broke it again. Now he was really puzzled and asked, “How did you do that?” I lifted my hands, looked up and said “Allah.”…..”So, Can I have my painting now?” He says, “One more time.” He cut another, a big branch, and of course I couldn’t reproduce it the third time. He told me some stories behind the paintings and aggressively tried to sell me a few things. Curious, I pondered about the price as he suggested the idea of the “first Egyptian love story painting” for my girlfriend. He said, “This is would be a very nice gift for her.” I responded, “It would, wouldn’t it?” half bantering. I asked him for a quote and he told me, “No, no. Never mind the price. Just go with what you like…what feels right.” I pretty much laughed in his face. He quoted me 3200 LE. By the time I left 20 minutes later, I walked out with nearly the same painting, personalized for 350 LE. It’s still overpriced, but figured I wouldn’t be buying many souvenirs at tourist attractions.

My new friend Ali was waiting outside smoking and we left the area. He asked if I wanted to go with him to his cousins before he showed me how to get back and I agreed. He ended up just running in for a few minutes, came back, and invited me to his house for iftar (the meal that breaks the fast once the sun sets). We ended up going to a slum north of Zamalek and Dokki called Imbaba. The roads were dirt and mostly wet mud. We passed fields full of vegetables and fruit- whose freshness was apparent in the discrepancy in quality of goods at the stands in his neighborhood compared to my selection downtown. He led me through a series of narrow dark allies to his building. His entire family lived there, on various floors. Each floor seemed to be it's own flat, except each was very small. Ali’s flat  was on the first floor and consisted of a living room area the size of a typical American bathroom with a kitchen separated by a cutain, a washroom, and one bedroom. He had a wife and three young children living there. 
Ali's House. Two doors to the right: Bedroom, washroom.  Curtain behind the TV enters the kitchen.

I spent time upstairs with his oldest son drinking tea and talking about life and politics- in the best English he could muster and the best Arabic I could. The power was out in their flat and he mumbled something about Morsi. It seemed that any unpleasant circumstance triggered a Morsi reference, including the traffic on the way over which I’m sure was not a new development of his presidency. His wife brought out the best homemade cantaloupe juice I’ve ever had and we smoked about 6 cigarettes (I said “La, Shukran” [No, thank you] to the first three and then gave up). Then, Ali wanted to show me around, so he gave me some flip flops and we walked through the neighborhood. He introduced me to numerous people and we bought some fruit. He decided he wanted to take pictures, so gave me money at various vendors and took my picture. 

We returned, shortly before iftar began. His daughter brought us fried fish, grilled fish, rice, pasta, yogurt sauce, and numerous pieces of pita bread. It was the best food I’ve had in Egypt so far. They brought in what I believed to be homemade grape juice, then tea, then fresh fruit. 

We smoked and various guys my age came in to talk- in Arabic. I attempted to talk with them and Ali encouraged me to speak in Arabic because he said that was the only way I’d learn. He told me earlier he only learned English from talking with foreigners. After dinner, he told me his brother made clothing and that he wanted to give me a “Gallibaya.” These are the robes you see many pious men wear around Egypt, but he told me I could wear it around the house at night to stay cool. I accepted, and he then proceeded to suggest the offering of one of his daughters. To break the awkward moment as she sat across from me in the room, I offered him a gift; my collared over shirt he had been admiring which was technically too small for me. I took it off and gave it to him. He went around showing it off to his friends.

After iftar, his son made a reference that I needed to smoke Egyptian hashish (hash) before I left the country. I mentioned I already had and that we had it in the US. They all look amazed. Before I realized,  Ali left the room, and to my surprise returned with some and proceed to roll numerous joints. I watched him intently as his method was much more sophisticated in comparison to my European roommate’s attempt. We sat and smoked, while watching a comedy show that was rather disturbing to me, but entertained them all extremely. How do I explain the show?…. Basically….it’s like punk’d, but in this episode they pretended to hijack a bus as Islamic terrorists with guns, covered faces, fake explosions, and even pretended to kill a few people on board. Then they blindfold the “target,” did something which looked like making him beg and plead for his life, then unblindfolded him, revealing a familiar face, told him it was a prank, and proceeded to laugh about it. I was rather horrified, but maybe I’m just too American, so I just laughed awkwardly.

His younger kids had grew very interested in me, my tattoos and the piercing on my neck (I told them to touch it and they awed). We went out to leave, as Ali decided he would also escort me in a taxi back downtown as they had some errands to run, and his three youngest kids came along. We shopped at a juice shop on the way out. Juice is kind of a big deal here, and for good reason, it’s amazing. Apparently Ali always drinks this sugary drink after smoking hash to “complete the experience.” We jumped in a taxi with a driver he knew and he gave the driver and I a joint to share on the drive. I played some games with the youngest son (about 6-7) and the youngest daughter (maybe 3-4?) while we rode, and by the end of the trip they were yelling “Ya Jamie” as if it were a ritual chant. After a 40 minute, traffic ridden ride, I jumped out in the middle of Tahrir so they could avoid further traffic and left with a couple numbers for the family. He told me I should come every week or so, to relax, bring a friend and stay the night. He said we’d have iftar and relax, and that I could practice my Arabic more. In his words, downtown is not the real Egypt, but here in Imbaba. Downtown, he said, it’s all politics and business, but here it’s the poor with families just trying to get by. No secular-Islamic divide, no hostilities between Christians and Muslims, just good people living lives distant from the portrayal of the media.

When I left, the entire family hugged me, and told me to come back soon.

I ended up taking a walk around my neighborhood only to escape the lacking AC and power outage of my flat, and ended up seeing the Giza pyramids and visiting a relatively inaccessible  (to foreigners) slum in northern Cairo.

I went home and googled the area I had visited (Imbaba) as I had no idea my relative location between the frequent transportation exchanges. News searches showed Imbaba as the sight of many Church burnings by Islamist groups, followed by stories about the Christian-Muslim rivalries in the area. Older articles noted the Islamic fundamentalist stronghold in the region, as well as the apparent Muslim Brotherhood associations (which may or may not still be present).  According to statistics online, the slum was home to 5 million people.

The site of economic collapse and governmental neglect? A former Islamic stronghold? Residence of recipients of Brotherhood assistance programs? The possibility to form a relationship for access?

You know what I’m thinking.

I’m going back Wednesday to spend the night.

Ramadan Kariim


  1. WOW Jamison, I'm speechless. What an experience. It's gems like this: "My guide saw that I was comfortable on the camel, so decided to tell me how to command it on my own." that show how mind boggling your experience is an how far from Santa Barbara you've come.

  2. dude, this is amazing. definitely laughed out loud at the part about the tv show. ridic.

  3. I couldn't believe this whole thing happened myself. I think I got far because he saw that I trusted him, even though I was being internally cautious. I also complimented everything they put in front of me....maybe partly because I've basically been fasting myself. Compliments go a long way here.

  4. Sounds like the perfect place to network for your research. Just follow your gut and stay cautious! Keep us updated on all the adventures! Especially me since I'm missing out on all the fun!

  5. I agree with Kaitlyn...;) rock on!

  6. Really digging all the stories! Let's keep them coming. Cheers!

  7. What an experience!

    Loved reading it :]

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