Coptic adventures

A long time ago by blogosphere standards (8 years), I posted a fantasy about rendering Naguib Mahfouz’s story of the ancient Egyptian Rhadopis of Nubia into a Bollywood film. A recent viewing of the spectacle of Bhajirao Mastani immediately brought back memories of that post because it gave me ideas for those roles – the main characters as it happens – whom I had not fantasy-cast earlier. So …  I stand by my earlier line-up for Amitabh, Amir and Tabu as Sofkhatep, Tahu & the queen, Nitocris (I really do need to re-read those books again, if only I could find them), but with Irfan as a fine almost preferable alternative to Amir.  After watching Bajirao Mastani I want Priyanka Chopra as Rhadobis.. no contest. She’d be playing the opposite character from her BM role come to think of it. I also think that Ranvir Singh would fly as the Pharoah, although if one gives in to Egyptian preferences then the other Khan (Shah Rukh) would work as the Pharoah too as would Kajol as the queen because she really looks exquisite but at the same time older than Priyanka. The innocent Benamun and his physician father? Still uncast in my head though now I’m thinking a shaven Sunkrish (currently  Vikram Singh on Castle who also happens to be my cousin) might fit the bill, since he’s too young to be a Pharaoh to the queens that I’ve chosen. Another alternative is the kid from the Life of Pi. Om Puri would be a super cameo as the father  but the role isn’t meaty enough and any of the others might do (even the venerable ‘mitabachan in a double role).

Any takers-on for this project?

P.S. Om Puri died since I wrote this post, so there’s that fantasy gone with the wind or the khamsin…


The following is an expansion of a book review I wrote for Amazon and I thought it apt for this blog, which has been untouched for many a month (or is that years?) now. The book in question is John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels about Venice. (I’ve indented the part from the Amazon review and then reverted to my own ramblings):

Two may be a small sample size to make a fair generalization but I sense a pattern to Berendt’s books. First, find a city with character, whether by accident or design. In very different ways and for vastly different reasons Savannah, GA and Venice both certainly fit that first requirement. Any place with character has its fair share of characters (of the human variety) and so, the second thing to do then, is to find them, talk to them and get to know their stories. For Berendt, a career writer and editor, that would be second nature. Finally, loosely weave the personalities and stories you find around some central event that is/was important to the city. In Savannah it was a murder and its aftermath. In Venice it was a murder (maybe?) of a different sort. Fire – negligence or arson the jury is still sort of out – was the form this murder took and the victim was La Fenice, Venice’s opera house. Voila! you have an interesting mosaic of vignettes and profiles that makes for a charming & quirky book.

Berendt pulled it off both times, I think. I have visited both cities more than once, but in both cases before reading his books about them. I think I would enjoy going back with his book in hand (disguised in my Kindle no one need ever know!) and scope out some of the locations he’s mentioned. Then maybe one day I can write a following-in-his-footsteps sort of book.

Interestingly – and here I take off on a Berendt-esque tangent – one factoid the author didn’t mention in his book or if he did I missed it, was the metaphoric significance of La Fenice’s name. Fenice is Italian (unlike Venice which isn’t but is rather the Anglicization of Venezia)… but I digress again. Fenice means phoenix, that legendary bird which dies by fire and is reborn time and again from its own ashes – and how apropos is that for this opera house which has been resurrected from it ashes more than once in its history?

Another thing Berendt failed to mention is Venice’s title of La Serenisima, something I picked up from my avid reading of Donna Leon’s Brunetti books. Leon is another absentee despite the fact that the book is chock full of expat personalities (maybe Leon is not enough of of personality as she too busy creating others for paper).  But these are minor quibbles about an otherwise immensely enjoyable read. It’s also a read that has inspired me to read Henry James, who is also mentioned frequently by Leon as the protagonist’s wife’s hero. And Berendt mentioned one of James’ shorter works, The Aspern Papers which apparently bears some uncanny parallels to the real life story of Ezra Pound’s papers and his lifelong love-not wife-Olga.

As to my my own literary aspirations? What city would I pick if I had to write a Berendt-style profile? Well Cairo obviously comes to mind with its glorious character and accompanying caste of characters, many of whom I am delighted to call my friends. But then again that’s the very reason I couldn’t write this book because pinning them down in print as it were might be such an awful invasion of their privacy. But yet, Cairo is the place, as I described to a non-Cairene friend of mine, where the people i knew and sat and enjoyed coffee or other libations with, are literally characters you would read about in books! Only they’re real. Salima, John Swanson and Hoath come to mind immediately from those near and dear to me, but also a few others who are larger than life and twice as natural, personality wise. And then there are those to whom I have positive antipathy – in code now so as to avoid slander charges, but friends in the know will be able to guess – include the ubiquitous A (a.k.a. Big Ears), the slimy dead-ringer for KFC’s Colonel Sanders and how can I forget the equally slimy wannabe-bitten Meatloaf wannabe? But ‘nuf said…

So, having steps one and two of the Berendt formula, what of the third? Some central event around which to build the book. Well for most people that would be the no brainer right? After all, I lived in Cairo right through the Tahrir-square demonstrations (and still have an unfinished “revolutionary diary” post that may yet see the light of day!) But here’s the thing about that. The revolution (for lack of a better word) is still ongoing and is a serious story, not one for amusing and whimsical vignettes, though Cairo is a source of the latter in spades! Also given my laxity over this and other blogs, is it ever likely that I’ll get a non-work related book to a publisher? Fat chance! Meanwhile though here’s a snapshot that distills the essence of that Cairo for me:

One year after the resignation of Mubarak I went back to Cairo for a short visit. For part of the time I was staying at the the apartment of my dearest friends there, right downtown on Sherif Street. One of his balconies overlooks the Ministry of the Interior, where one could see tear gas and men in uniform lined up with shields to protect the place from (justifiably) angry mobs. Looking out the wall of windows on the other side (90 degrees from the to give a sense of orientation) one sees a part of the city with pedestrian alleys lines with tables where local men and tourists used to stop for aahwah (coffee) and shisha. Well, but for the tourists the place was still the same! regular still sat around table smoking shishas and sipping coffee like the world wasn’t falling apart just a few corner away!

(I put crumbling rather than falling there first, but then realized, crumbling facades are very much a part of Cairo’s natural landscape and thus nothing for the shisha smokers to think much less worry about). So there it is, the heart of what makes Cairo live up to her name of El Kaahira, The Undefeated. No matter how much things change, there is a core to her that will endure, much like her pyramids!

Sunday, Feb 13… Reading my last post, I can’t believe how the moment determines the mood. I was so elated then to have gotten the job, that the reality of leaving Egypt never hit me. Especially since I had known coming in that AUC was a terminal 3-year gig. But 3 became 4 (which I confess I regarded as a personal defeat albeit one with perks) and then 4 cut down to 3-1/2 because of the offer from Yonsei. And now reality is biting big time! I am sitting in the airport with this giant lump in my throat, unable to cry but feeling oh so blue! …

Feb 19th…

Well, I interrupted my lament for pleasanter activities such as chatting with friends and boom! It’s a week later and  I’m in Seoul after a 2 day detour in Istanbul which was instructive and interesting and may prove yet to be fruitful. Seoul is freezing cold, in comparison to both Istanbul (which was plenty cold in its own right) and Cairo naturally. 3 full days in (I arrived Wednesday eve.. nearly night) I’ve fought jet lag, discovered many small and inexpensive places with great eats, paid a brief visit to the main campus of my new employers – where I will NOT be teaching – and lets see… what else? met a few of my new and very pleasant colleagues.

Am missing Egypt like crazy still, and I daresay the intensity will pass, but really I need to chronicle the last few weeks there before the immediacy of those memories fade. A blow-by-blow account of the revolution which I was privileged to witness is certainly in order and I will write about it. What a time to have left. But at least I listened to my inner voice and delayed the departure until the 13th for which I’m sooo…. grateful. Not only did I get a few last extra days with everyone (and if start naming them I will start blubbering…), but I also got to experience first hand, the stepping down of Mubarak. Talk about a (nearly) bloodless coup! I am proud, so proud of the Egyptians for what they’ve achieved and in such exemplary fashion. I’m truly privileged to have been a part of it albeit as a sympathetic foreigner.  And be it on vacation or insh’allah in the capacity of a visiting scholar in the years to come, I will, to quote Schwarzanegger, be back.


… as opposed to back biting, is a perfectly legitimate activity. Especially when the subject in question issued the invitation to “Bite me” in the first place. Uh.. no thanks, I’ll pass.

Believe it or not, “Bite me,” is actually the title of a new food column in The Caravan, AUC’s weekly student-run newspaper. In and of itself the title wouldn’t be offensive or more than just mildly  ribald, since it’s a student paper and one assumes that its staff is peopled with college kids: freshmen, sophomores and the rest. So the humor in it will be understandably enough, sophomoric in nature. The title “Bite me,” with its mild sexual innuendos is sophomoric. But the column is being written by a faculty member. One of my colleagues at AUC, whose name, I shall for various and obvious reasons, leave blank. And that changes the tenor of things somewhat, in my opinion (or imho as some people would prefer to say).

Because somehow, I find the idea of a teacher inviting students to ‘bite me’ just a tad inappropriate. Even if it was meant as a joke, it is inappropriate. Okay, so I’ve worked for newspapers and know that the writer isn’t the one who necessarily comes with the the headlines or titles. But I also know that the writer has input. And the very fact that a faculty member is writing for a student paper means that he can have a say in the title of his column. As it is, the title to me suggests that the writer is trying too hard to fit in with the audience. I suppose that means he’s trying to be sophomoric, and if that was his intent, kudos. He managed it with flying colors. On the other hand, it is just a little bit pathetic.

In more ways than one actually. Two installments of the column have been published and both show the author taking cheap shots at someone else. In the first the target was Omar Sherif’s son, for buying and successfully running a restaurant where the author owned and operated one of his own and ran it to the ground. Two of them as a matter of fact, though the author didn’t mention that little factoid in his column. What he did say was that the son of OS is successful where Man Kai, his own restaurant failed,  was because he panders to the crowd and shows no imagination in the menu and spends all the money on decor. Man Kai was too avant-garde, according to its former owner, Japanese-Italian cuisine with offerings like miso pasta apparently too out there for Egyptian diners. It diverted all its money to the food and kitchen, he claims, and nothing on decor (except perhaps, as he let slip in a momentary slip of self-contradiction, its bathrooms). I would have sympathized on that point, because I like culinary innovation and twists on themes as much if not more than the next person and don’t think that decor should get higher play, but according to some of other colleagues who were reading the paper last week, it was a patently false claim. The main reason the earlier restaurant failed was that the food was exorbitantly priced, said more than reader of the column, most of whom joined me in alternately hooting with laughter and cringing in embarrassment as they read their way through the piece.

One could say that success is the best revenge against petty pot shots, in which case the owner of Trattoria (as the new restaurant on the premises of the restaurant formerly known as Man Kai  and then as Sand) can read this article with a smirk, for his place is doing quite well. Ever the contrarian, I visited the place a few nights ago, when it came up as a choice of eateries, in a complete act of coincidence not long after I’d read this article. I thought it was okay as Italian restaurants go outside of Italy. Nothing spectacular, granted, but quite nice really. Certainly not deserving  of the disparagement our columnist has dished out. And what’s more the experience did not empty my pockets.

I’m not so sure if the target of the cheap shots from the second article would smirking if he read the piece on koshari, but then again, why would anyone outside of the AUC community be reading The Caravan at all? And even if he read it, would he care that a former colleague actually organized his schedule to avoid  him just because he ate koshari by himself. (I didn’t get that – if anybody else reads the column and can explain the connection between the solo eating of koshari and the lack of friends, please enlighten me). The only thing that was suggested as a possible reasons for avoiding someone after koshari was related to flatulence, but why would flatulence be experienced only eating it alone as opposed to eating in with company?? As I said, do enlighten me if you have any ideas.

On the matter of avant-garde food I feel as a foodie I must interject my reaction – that Japanese-Italian doesn’t seem quite that innovative to me. Sure, it could give rise to interesting combinations, but really why such a specific pair of ethnicities? If one were adventurous for real then surely the mixing and matching should have drawn from a larger pool of possible cuisines? After all there’s nothing specific about the stuff we get here that lends itself to Japanese cuisine, over say, Thai, Chinese, Indian or even Brazilian or Mexican? When I commented on this fact to my friends who have been here longer than I have, I learned that it was the ethnicity of the talent (read hired help) that was determining the menu. So much for being imaginative!

Back to the issue of embarrassment, cheap shots, lies, and sophomoric humor aside, there are other causes for it in this endeavor (i.e. the food column) that I could point out. Sloppy editing for one. And inaccuracies for another, opinions stated as fact.  And oh! Just in case I forgot, references to food porn. Apparently a carb overload of the type provided by koshari is food porn. Or if it it is not he doesn’t know what is. Now, that was a comment I found about as outlandish as his claim that falling in love is a group activity. Say what ??? Yes you read right. The author of “Bite Me” claims that falling in love is something to be done in groups.

Maybe he has experience in these matters? As far as I know or have experienced falling in love involves 2. One person falling for one other. Even one more than that makes a crowd. But not according to the wannabe-bitten author, who even as he issues his invitation to bite, is fondly playing his fingers over a knife. I kid you not. In case the words didn’t tell you enough, there’s the picture to add a thousand more to your experience. Readers beware, like all good columns, this one comes with a photo of the author. Only his is more than the standard mugshot. Fondling a knife resting on his lap, he beams benignly (or so one hopes), bestowing his good wishes to the world at large. If you can stomach it, more power to you. Bite him, not me.

No, this is not the title for a spin-off for Vikram Seth’s wonderful novel A Suitable Boy, though it could be. And maybe should be. Maybe some day? Meanwhile, here’s the story that set off this post:

Out shopping at the spice market last week, I needed to get some dried coconut. Now, although I’ve been here for three years, I have to sheepishly admit that my Arabic is not very good and though I’m able to get by at the markets, I rely a lot on visual communication, body language, pointing, hand-waving and even pure guesswork to get the items I need. In my defense, once I do find the item, I always ask the guys for the Arabic word for it. Invariably I’ve forgotten it by the next visit and I have to enact the entire pantomime again, but some of the words do stick and over the years through tiny, very tiny increments my vocabulary has grown. In this instance it was the Indian husband. Which is the literal translation of the Arabic word (or at least the of Egyptian dialect, Ameya)  for coconut, Goz el-Hind. Hah! the next time someone asks me why I’m not married (and believe me, even now some people seem to think that such intrusive personal questions are fair game if you’re Indian and single) I should probably tell them I already have an Indian husband at home. After all I wouldn’t be lying would I?  I usually do keep a stock of dried coconut at home… in my freezer.

Jokes aside, this is a great mnemonic because coconuts do feature prominently in wedding ceremonies back home. In fact, as I remember, a coconut is even used as the proxy for the man in certain ceremonies if the guy for whatever reason can’t be there. Coincidence, or does this tradition (or the perception of it) lie at the foundation for the Arabic word? Maybe a factoid worth researching, but that’s a subject for the Rhetoric and Composition class I am teaching this semester.

p.s. Coconut photos courtesy of downloads from Google Images

It’s how I’m feeling these days.

For those of you who haven’t been keeping track of time, this is my sixth and hence, last semester in Egypt. Yep that’s right – I arrived here in August 2007 on a 3-year contract which is coming to its end. And am I ever in a state of panic since I still have virtually no clue as to where I’ll be come September! So far out of the gazillion applications I’ve had tons of outright rejects, one campus visit (in Pune, about which I’m not precisely clear what’s happening) and one first round interview – I won’t say where but if I get it .. OH MY GOD!!!.. it would be fantastic – and few pending ones a new round of applications that I’ve begun in desperation.

Actually  it was completing one of those applications (I’ve spent the better part of today on it but got it off just in the nick of time (hopefully – and grammar police note that I mean I am hopeful) that promoted this post. This application was not a letter – which is somewhat simpler if annoying – but required a 2000 word project proposal as well a sample syllabus for a course that I could potentially teach based on my research. A lot of work which actually turned out to be very interesting, which fact bodes well in a way, because it means I will actually enjoy working on the project should I ever get going. Which vindicates my choice of the unattractive-to-potential-employers history of science as the area in which to pursue a Ph.D.

But I can’t enjoy myself on an empty stomach — as all off my fellow foodie friends will attest to heartily – and there are days here I’m waking in a panic wondering what the hell I’m going to do if I don’t land a job for next year. Any job, I’d say except the prospect of another stint in an Oh Where-like place is almost more daunting than having no job. So friends and well wishers send your good feelings my way… and even though I’m not a believer in The Secret, I will bless you all and treat you all to a good meal when that dream job is mine.

More venting later. Have to go shower now

It’s been a while since I last visited – indeed the so-called “new” year is a month-an-a-half old already, but there’s been good reason. Life has been mighty busy with the usual AUC stuff, visitors and visiting etc. And as I’ve said before, when I’m doing stuff, blogging, back-blogging etc takes a back seat. And now there’s so much to catch up on that I may never do. But a quick mention of highlights

Visitors – My cousin Usha and her family from England were here Dec 17-27. Then Ravi & Hema from Singapore and their son Narayan (my favorite new 20-something college kid) were here from Dec 24 – Jan 4. During the overlap we managed an entire clan trip out to all pyramids – topped off by a night visit to the Khan after dinner at home in between.  A Christmas day that was action-packed to the gills – we pulled it off successfully tho.

Visits – I took a turn at travel with an event-filled trip to Bangalore to visit family between Jan 7-24. In that time I got in Mumbai (it bookended the trip in both directions), an overnight to Madras (sorry Chennai) and a detour to Pune on the way back.

Back again and more visitors: Have been back for just 3 weeks today and am already into the beginning of my third week of classes in what will be my last semester here in AUC. And already too, have hosted my first spring semester visitors – my Swedish friend Eva and her Mom Brita – who arrived last week and left yesterday.

Meanwhile I haven’t been idle on the culinary experimentation front. A few real hits include a kiwi chutney from last night and experiment in poaching pigeons last week. The recipe for the former is up already on demand/request here, the latter will be a few days yet… check out the stuff, and stay tuned for more updates, back blogs etc.

Here’s to a great 2010. Lots of new things will be coming up! May they all be interesting and engaging!

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