Horrors of Horus


The image of streets full of once-beautiful buildings now with crumbling facades overlaid with layers and layers of grime, usually within a hop skip and jump from a river that wends it way placidly northward, ought to make the identification of this city a no-brainer for anyone who has spent more than a day here. But if it doesn’t, might help to recall sounds rather than sight. The cacophony of car horns blaring with scarce thought to the need or usefulness thereof, punctuated by the plaintive tones of the call to prayer some five times a day should be a giveaway. Walk to the banks of the aforementioned river – the Corniche as any road running by it or any other body of water (e.g. the sea) is called – and pay the gray-gowned man for a ride on one of his wind-and-oar powered sailboats and within seconds the sounds of those cars recede. If you happen to have taken the boat from the area that functions as the city’s downtown then across the river you can see the geometrically-shaped domes of the Opera House silhouetted to the west. Depending on the time of day (or night) those domes may appear yellowish or starkly bright…

Of course, anyone who has read pages from this site would recognize the “where” of the above paragraph: Egypt, specifically Cairo, where I happened to at the time of the first Tahrir square uprising of 2011. In this case too it was a writing exercise based on Writing from the Senses, the sense in this case being that of hearing. Although re-reading the passage I find that despite the supposed focus on sounds,  there is more there about the sights. Which just goes to show what visual creatures we humans are for the most part.

But here’s another memory of sound: Imagine it beginning as murmur from a sea of people, gradually growing in volume and fervor as you draw nearer to the source. It had a definite rhythm too, one I can still hear in my head, but only try to replicate in spacing out the syllables (think of it, :in a ba-boom ((1) ba-boom (2) ba boom, (3)ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom

El-sha’ab

Yo-ried

Iskat el ni-zam

I am not fluent enough in Arabic to break the meaning down by individual words, but the overall meaning, loud and clear to anyone hearing them, was crystal clear. “The regime needs to go!”  As indeed it did on the night of February 11, 2011. It was a heady experience to bear witness to this piece of Egyptian history, and, as I have likely said in an earlier post, profoundly moving. For me personally, the signature moment was when a guy in Tahrir Square who was part of a contingent bearing a poster with Mahatma Gandhi’s picture. “Where are you from?” he asked me and when I told him I was Indian he beamed, shook my hand,  directed my attention to the poster and told me: “See that? We want what you have, and one day we’ll be there too.” I nearly wept with the combination of hope, pride and joy–in him, in Egypt and of course in Gandhi.

Well, it’s now nearly 7 years since that “Arab Spring” and pride and joy do not figure high in my list of sentiments right now on much (except when it concerns my darling nieces, but this post is not about them). Certainly  when I felt like weeping on the matter of Egypt, the tears are not of joy. For as everyone knows–the promise of the uprising gave away to chaos and piling problems. But I still have hope, only in tiny sparks mind you but its there. Because I know from history that 7 years is a minuscule drop of time against the backdrop of Egypt’s history. No country has got democracy “right.”–not India which has been at it since the middle of the previous century, and certainly not the good old USA. But at some level, I believe that is the point. Democracy is not static or definable, and really the only truly successful democracy is one that adapts and changes according to need, much like evolution.

But I digress… Am sleepy and losing steam and so will sign off now on this my belated entry for week 5 of my resolution (#48).

… 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.

I don’t especially like to engage in long rants and  fist-shaking on the blog although I’ve succumbed to pressure on a few occasions. In fact the whole reason for creating the Horrors of Horus category on the blog was to vent on the bad experiences in Egypt – in my defense though I haven’t indulged there too often. And on the whole the troubles I encounter are no worse than in any other place, just more unique. But I think I’m entitled today. It’s been building up and the pressure cooker needs to let off its steam!!!

It’s ironic and co-incidental (tho maybe not completely so as there may be some Freudian slip relationship going on)  that I’m writing this rant during my least favorite part of the week; the weekly shout-off that stands in for what should be the most peaceful part of the week in an Islamic country – Friday around noon. My apartment in Garden City is flanked, though not immediately by mosques. So Every Friday, come time for the Gomah (or Jumma) prayers, I am subjected to an hour’s worth of 2 imams on loudspeakers belting out their sermons at top volume over loudspeakers, in seeming competition with one another. With due apologies to the more devout of my friends, this public enforcement of prayer does not anything to endear religion to me. I’m reminded of the worst part of growing up in Punjab when a similar loud-speaker war was waged virtually everyday in that case among clashing religious cultures – mostly Sikhs and Hindus – chanting or singing off-key and later threatening the others for disturbing their  respective prayers. Seemed then to hurl any benefits of said prayers far into the outfield. Is it worse or better here? Don’t know. At least because they’re all on the same side of the God fence no threats are ensued, but still, I wish they’d be quieter about their devotions. Aahh well, I suppose as an outsider to this culture and this religion, if  I don’t like it I should grin and bear it. Mostly I do, but like I said today is my day for opening valves and letting things spill…

There’s a reason for my having switched metaphor right then. Spill. rather I should say spit, hissing and gushing like the sound of the water that’s finally at long last after a hiatus of TWENTY FOUR HOURS has graced my apartment with its presence again. Water shortage should not be either a surprise (after all I live in a desert?) or something I’m unable to deal with (I grew up in India – water cuts were par for the course but with regularity) but I figure if they’re cutting off supply I should be warned. So I can plan ahead. Collect some in bottles for using in toilets and bathrooms and simple hand-washing. None of which was possible in my apartment for the past 24 hours. The odd thing was that it was only in my floor as far as I could tell. The lower floors had water (and I have a disgruntled sidebar about that – where I got chastised for trying to be considerate – which I may or may not talk about in more detail later) but neither my across the hall neighbor nor I had any.Suddenly yesterday morning it had stopped spontaneously. I had a sink overflowing onto the counters and dining table with dishes from the previous night’s dinner party, carefully timed so that Fawzeya would handle the bulk of the cleaning but she couldn’t work her usual magic. There was no water (or barely any at that time) and I think she may have used bottled water (GASP!) for the last of the cleaning. Anyway… even before she’s gotten here, I’d gotten some warning of the trouble and took the precaution of calling the University housing office but they came, checked, said the storage tank was nearly empty but that we’d be fine once it was filled – which apparently was happening – and that insh’allah [How I hate to hear that invocation – usually it means “I’m not doing anything about it”]  we’d have it running again sometime during the day.

Stupid fool for believing them. Until this morning there was not a drop to be dripped anywhere. Even the toilets were unusable – thank goodness I’m anosmic! I swear,  when the plumber finally came this morning – and only in response to a frantic phone call from yours truly to the University emergency number – and opened the tank (apparently the damn thing had been full for heaven knows how long but no one had seen fit to release the water to our flats) the sound of the flushes was as music to my ears!

So things were salvaged after a fashion, but really, if one is going to cut water supplies off shouldn’t they at least warn the residents? I think I know the culprits, it’s the same damn people who have been tearing down the apartment on the 7th floor and disturbing our Saturday mornings while at it for the past few weeks. But try getting an admission or explanation. The best is – “Now everything is okay doctor, il-hum-du-allah.” No point is asking for warnings in the future either. A shrug is the best answer I’m likely to get. ARRRRGH.

This water episode was just the final straw I think in a series of incidents big and small that have been pushing me inexorably to the I-can’t-wait -to-get-outa-here mode, even though I’ve not been here for two weeks in a row since June! The swine flu paranoia — killing all pigs (by pumping them full of pesticide) and then herding all of us in airports to take temperatures thereby ensuring that if any of us hadn’t been exposed by then we surely would be! That reached it’s zenith at the airports over Eid. Getting back in the dead of the night last Saturday, the place looked like an Indian railway station – people with bori-bistras (and here of course many women in their own personal boris) – camped out in every spare inch of space. And I’m not sure if this was my sleepy eyes imagining things or not, but I could have sworn that I saw a couple of guys on the luggage  conveyor belts the better to get their bags!

The black boogers, pollution etc are ever present. I won’t say more. But despite everything there are little things that redeem the place – after all one can’t be relentlessly unhappy when good mangoes are to be had. nd despite October having begun, I’m still getting really nice ones. The weather is improving and I get to see my friends (who grow more precious as my time with them is getting more limited) on a semi-regular basis. And the feluccas beckon round the bend. And a visitor will visit in a week. But God! what I wouldn’t give for a couple of more weeks of the halcyon days of the last of summer – on the beaches of Crete. Stay tuned for a full account, maybe. While I go take advantage of my newly restored gift of the Nile, that made 5000 years of Egyptian history possible -wet and wonderful, water.

One of those days when Horus has been truly horrible. Either that or I just got up on the wrong side of the bed. Woke up and got ready just fine. The taxi was even on time. All was well until…well first the damn cab decides to take the long route to the airport. Via the new AUC campus no less! Okay that should have been a clue that this is not my day….So the fare which is usually (as in last week???) 35-ish (with tip and parking it was still not quite 40 LE) cost me 60-something, took longer to get here, the driver drove like a maniac and then has the temerity to ask for more of a tip than I was giving. Lines are crowded and hordes of women sail past me (sails and rigging and all — oops excuse me that’s not showing adequate respect is it? especially since I’m referring to their hijabs) while I’m waiting in line and then the security guy acts like I”m not there, letting at least 1/2 a dozen others pass me (need I mention that they were white and had at least one male in each party). Then a damn woman who had jumped the line in the first place wanted me to “wait” while she searched for her ticket passport etc and put them into a bin at the security check, for some reason unwilling to let my bag get on there…. and the litany of complaints goes on. Oh yes and there was that comatose Japanese girl just ahead of me in the line for checking in and she’d squat every time the inching forward line would stop delaying the line still further

Anyway am finally in the airport and NOT in enough time to grab a tea or croissant at the lounge upstairs despite leaving home 3 hours before the flight was due to leave. So here I am hungry sleepy and therefore cranky. Welcome in Egypt they say… right now I can’t wait to get outa here! But am looking forward to reaching the other end. Amsterdam please be nice… after this morning I am in bad need of TLC.

Will write about Dahab (in a word delightful) later – now need to board the plane …

A steady stream of visitors since the end of Feb, and before that the flurry of activity associated with a new school term has kept me from writing in for nearly two months. And even when I am writing, the post is a second-hand account about one of those aforementioned visitors’ experiences. But the incident is too funny to bypass commemoration so here goes…

In case I haven’t mentioned it before, the taxi-cab can be one of Egypt’s main life hazards, right up there with a) crossing the street, and b) riding the elevators. Both cabs and lifts are rickety as can be, the former often with doors that may not open properly or at all, or worse still some that that have the door tied in place to ensure that it remains shut.  We needn’t even mention such accessories as seat belts and headlights. Optional only. Nevertheless all of us ride them, because we don’t have much of a choice, especially at short notice. This is the story of what Namrita, one of my friends who thought otherwise, got for her efforts.

Namrita is one of my current trio of guests, visiting from India. Emerging from the City Stars Mall (Cairo’s very own Mall of the Americas-sized shopping monstrosity) laden with her spoils of victory, she was immediately accosted by a young man inquiring “Taxi?” She made the understandable mistake of thinking he was actually someone who was there to help all customers get taxis, she said yes, realizing her error a few minutes later when the young man (boy actually) led her and the others (there were two more) to a rather decrepit contraption. Now, Namrita who likes her niceties, didn’t care for the look of the car at all, spotted  a nice clean taxi just a short distance away and hailed it down, dismissing the first young man on the grounds that his vehicle was not up to her standards.

Your taxi no good,” she said to the first driver. “I’ll take that nice clean one over there,” she said to him, before turning to the new cab to ask “Four Seasons? Garden City?” loudly enough for the first young man to overhear.

Obviously he couldn’t let that injury-insult combination  just slide by without retaliation – after all, he had just lost a fare AND had his vehicle insulted. So he poked his head into the cab as Namrita and others were climbing in and disdainfully informed her,

Your face, no Four Seasons face.”

What is one to do with a put down like that? Get out of the car and deck the guy? Or as disdainfully as he, icily turn said face away and instruct present driver to leave. She would’ve liked to do the first, was tempted to, she confessed. But prudently she decided to take the high(tail) road. After all sticks and stones etc., etc.

Another one of those hilarious native moments that I was lucky enough to have my camera at hand for. Here’s the menu (from an un-named restaurant in Luxor, where the food was actually quite decent).

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So do you want yours grilled, fried or curried?

I’m back in Cairo and there’s no mistaking the fact. Heat and dust, grime and greys (skies and buildings when the latter aren’t brown) and pollution in its plurality (air and noise most noticable but other forms too) all attest to my location. The soles of my feet are black already (and I haven’t walked anywhere except on my own floors, my eyes are red and feel gritty, and there is the incessant loud droning of the unfinished symphony that is the contruction going on behind my building, and pumps of some sort on the side. Vienna seems like a distant world, a wonderful dream that I was not ready to wake up from, and I haven’t been back a full day yet.

But despite all my whining, its good to be back reconnecting with the Cairene comrades, trading summer stories and getting ready for the first iftaar. I have arrived on the first day of Ramadan to city full of fast-and-feasters. And hey, I’m back where the laundry bills won’t bankrupt me.

So while I’ve put this post into the horrors categories, it’s not quite the disaster I thought I’d be writing about – just some good old-fashioned complaining. But I believe the campus move has plenty of genuine tales to offer in the horror genre. More on that as the stories surface.

Meanwhile, Mae ‘salaama and Ramadan Karim everyone.