October 27, 2010
CAIRO: LIVE IT LIKE A LOCAL
BY ROWAN EL SHIMI
"Allaaaahu'akbar, Allaaaahu'akbar" You hear the call for prayer as you walk through the streets of the city of a thousand minarets. Given that number, you also hear the unsynchronized call for prayer what feels like one thousand times.
Cairo's name has changed throughout the ages. The city as we know it today was established and called Cairo, or more specifically Al Qahira, by the Arabs. However, most Egyptians nowadays refer to it as "Masr" which is Egypt in Arabic.
This city is very multi-cultural, though not in the same way as London or Paris, where there is a high immigration rate so you have people from all over the world and various cultures living in one city. Cairo is always unique. It has some non-Egyptians living in it, mostly from Arab countries, and the occasional international students and foreign workers. However, each area in the city has its own culture. In fact there are so many different cultures with their own norms and traditions within the different areas that it boggles your mind.
Having such varied cultures makes it difficult to determine who is considered a "local" in Cairo, which also makes it almost impossible to determine what these locals do. There are the drinkers and non-drinkers, the shisha smokers and the non-shisha smokers, the elite who hang out in fancy cafs and expensive bars, the middle class who hang out in cheaper areas, the middle class intellectuals who hang out downtown the list just goes on. Here we will be considering locals the majority, who are the middle class and since over 70% of Egypt's population is currently under 30 we will go with the youth.
Wow! Trying to actually figure out who the locals are is intense. It gives you an idea of how diverse Cairo is, and how challenging it can be to give it a certain definition or feel. My Cairo is totally different from someone else's Cairo. The one thing that most people seem to agree on is that Cairo can be hectic, crowded and puts you on constant edge; but on the other hand it is so kind. In spite of all the chaos people somehow still care about each other, and I want to tell you a few secrets to enjoying Cairo like a local.
One thing is for sure - Cairo is full of smokers. Around 40% of Egyptian men are smokers but some women smoke as well. It is considered taboo that women smoke in public. However, with the upper-middle class and the elite classes, it has become quite acceptable. You will notice that people smoke everywhere and smoking is not banned in most places. There are talks of a smoke ban, but like we say in Egypt, it will happen one day, inshallah (if God wills it).
To camouflage yourself, you can go to areas where there are no foreigners. You will get many stares, but locals will think of you as one of the expats living in Cairo. Most Egyptians hang out in Ahwas, the Egyptian version of European cafs. Traditionally these ahwas are only for men. However, in the downtown area there are female-friendly ahwas. Try El Bursa Ahwa, which is next to the stock market building. This ahwa is located on a beautiful pedestrian street, and you sit just there on the street. If you want to really be a local, order tea with mint and a me'assel shisha (which is shisha without flavour, just tobacco).
Next, you can take a walk around downtown, and stop by a fresh juice shop and have a glass of juice. The juice is pure fruit; you can get it with ice and sugar or without. It's a great joy of the city to have fresh juice shops everywhere, especially during the hot summers. Try the sugar cane juice, its highly recommended, and you probably wouldn't find it anywhere else.
As for food, you can find the international brands like McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut everywhere because they are very popular amongst Egyptian youth. However, for a more authentic experience, you can try Koshari. This is a typical Egyptian dish comprised of rice, lentils, pasta, garlic, tomato sauce and fried onions. It is absolutely delicious and very cheap. Arguably, the best Koshari in town is Abu Tarek in downtown. Some Egyptians also enjoy the cooked beans sandwiches that are called fool, as well as enjoying taameya, more commonly known around the world as falafel. Shawerma is a popular option as well, and many people prefer the Syrian shawerma to the Egyptian one, with one of the best being Abu Ramez in the Dokki neighborhood. Egyptians also love desserts, and you can get rice pudding with ice-cream and nuts from Saber in Mohandessin, or regular rice pudding at most restaurants and cafs. Originally from Alexandria, Saber has proven itself to be among the best in Cairo at preparing this dessert. Another common dessert is sweet potatoes. You can easily find a man walking around the streets with a cart with a portable authentic oven and sweet potatoes scattered next to it. This is another very delicious and filling option.
As for culture, again it varies. Among the locals, nowadays the Sawi Culture Wheel is a place that tends to bring a lot of youth together for musical concerts, exhibitions, plays, and workshops, amongst other activities. Cairene youth go to the center in Zamalek to enjoy the cultural side of the city along the Nile. There is also the Rawabet Theatre and the Town House Gallery right next to each other in downtown where people go to enjoy cultural expression.
Egyptians love being outdoors. In spite of the heat of the summer, the rest of the year Cairo has beautiful weather. On Fridays and other holidays you find Egyptian youth and families sitting in gardens having picnics and enjoying their day. Among the popular parks is Al Azhar Park, which is located right in the middle of Islamic Cairo, with a view of the city. The location is breathtaking and, for a small entrance fee, you can enjoy all the gardens and fountains the park has to offer. At night it usually has cultural festivals with various artists at the entrance. There are also a few restaurants and cafs with spectacular views of Cairo. During the night, a lot of youth also enjoy going to the closest thing to a mountain in Cairo, Mokkatam. People go to cafs by the edge of the mountain and cast their eyes on the lights of the city and sometimes the cloud of smoke on top of it.
The Cairo experience is not easily completed in a few days. Cairo is a city that draws people from all over the world with its unique cultural charm, offering tourists a great vacation, and even convincing more than a few to stay.