Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Letters from Egypt: Forget Your Surroundings

Kormac's Big Band and Egyptian Percussionist show on the Nile Pharaoh

It’s hard not to be depressed these days. Crime rate continues to rise as the Egyptian pound continues to fall. There is an increase in the price of food and a decrease in gas supplies. Things aren’t looking too good, but there are some things that you can still do that offer a brief moment of sanity.

A friend called me a couple of weeks ago and enthusiastically told me about this Irish percussion band playing at a boat in Giza. I was not impressed, but I promised to go along and besides – it had been awhile since I’ve checked out the scene. Cairo nightlife can be a toss-up. Even before the revolution, you were always unsure of what you were going to get. It’s usually all marked by the same modus operandi: you run into the same crowd, see the same fights and struggle with bill inaccuracies. I’d been hearing about these “Nacelle parties” through various people, but I refused to believe they were any different. After all, I spent many of my earlier years out and about all over the Cairo nightlife scene – I know everything. Or so I like to think.

I was wrong (shocking, but don’t expect it to happen often). At least in this particular case.

Tickets for this show ran on the Nile Pharaoh boat in Giza went for LE 200 (around $28) with the opening act a five-man Egyptian percussionist group. I lost you there, right? I know I was daydreaming when the other person said it thinking – yawn. However, it was anything but a snooze-fest. In fact, the opening act really got the crowd all hyped. Take a look:

Then the next act, Kormac’s Big Band, is supposedly “Dublin’s hottest seven-piece orchestra (although their website says 11-piece) playing a funky mix of live turntables, samplers, drums, double bass, vocals, trumpet, trombone, tuba, guitar and live visuals. The shows really rock the joint, providing a dynamic, vivid incarnation for their leader’s tunes” (via the program’s FB page). And I love love LOVE hearing a DJ mix while there is some sort of live instrumental backup – it happens quite often in the Cairo clubs. Amir Sharara used to have a violinist that would regularly perform alongside back in my early days in the Sandpit. Even a few weeks ago at a going away party, a saxophonist came out playing through the crowds while a DJ kept spinning away.

The show was supposed to start at 9 pm, but this is Egypt and while we can maybe escape the problems outside momentarily, we’ll never escape the less-than-stellar idea of punctuality. Doors were supposed to be open at 8, but we weren’t allowed to go inside until after 9 and of course, the show didn’t start until 10 or so but hey – don’t sweat the small stuff. After the Egyptian percussion finished, there was a really long setup for Kormac’s (which turned into so many jokes like “How many Irishmen does it take to do a sound check?”) then finally the lights went out. A screen came on with some old man, I’m assuming a scientist (and if you know who he is, don’t be a jerk and just let me think no one else recognized him), discussing sound waves. And then the show started. 

Although I had to leave early, I will say that it was nice to get out, see something different and most importantly momentarily forget the problems throughout Egypt.

I found a well-written piece by Soraya Morayef in Egypt Independent that accurately describes the Nacelle scene. She discussed how party organizers charge between LE 250 to over LE 1,000 ($35 to $140 at today’s exchange rate) for New Year’s Eve events saying, “The risk of not getting your money’s worth is pretty high…” She detailed other problems, but I remember paying around LE 200 (at that time, the exchange rate was around $33) for a party once and what a disaster it was! First of all, it was at the villa of some man suffering a midlife crisis in Heliopolis. With the ticket, you received ONE drink which was local spirits (bleck) and the purchase of additional drinks was well above the average cost. The music was crap and the crowd was less-than-stellar. Basically this man, who randomly had monkeys in his home, threw a party to pay his bills. Not a bad idea. I should try it sometime because no way he spent that much on food that was seemingly made by his maids or a so-called DJ that played music live…from the CD of his choice. And that's only one experience out of many I've had, so I can completely back up Morayef's article.

She also said: “Nacelle was created by DJ Tito to fill what he felt was a market gap in Cairo; he wanted to deliver a series of parties offering diverse and less mainstream dance music to an easy-going crowd, recreating the intimate atmosphere of a house party — no fuss, no pretentiousness, no minimally dressed dancers or elaborate entertainment acts; just good music and a happy atmosphere.”

So if you’re tired of doing the same old things, I do recommend trying a Nacelle party. I can't say that they're always great, but I've heard a lot of positive feedback from many different friends that attend the parties often. And I had a great time although I'd like to alert DJ Tito that some of us have real jobs and aren't hipster-wannabes attending the American University in Cairo

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Letters from Egypt: Finding Your Happiness

Taken at the Khan el-Khalili on April 12, 2013
I hear a lot of people complain about Egypt, and let me be the first to admit – I’m right up there with the best of them. Sometimes it is overwhelming. Sometimes it seems insufferable. Other times it can be so special. When others ask me how I do it or how I’ve lived here so long, I say that you have to find the little things that make you happy.

One thing is for certain, I do not tolerate anyone’s incessant complaints if they have not taken it upon themselves to search for a semblance of happiness. I understand that Egypt isn’t for everyone, and trust me, I know how you feel. But guess what, you’re here now so suck it up buttercup and at least try to make the best of it. You never know what treasures you’ll find.

On the heels of that, last Friday I had one of the best days in a long time. One of my favorite days in Egypt remains traveling to Garbage City and the cave churches alone (Indian Jones Adventures), but there are tons of other really great things to do in Cairo. You just need to get out of your comfort zone (ie the Maadi bubble) and be open to exploring.

I don’t know what’s happened to me in recent years – my employer likes to say I’m “nesting.” Scary as that may be, part of me wonders if I’m just returning to my southern roots. I love to cook and I genuinely like doing random household things. One of my favorite places to go to is a very local area called Bulaa (pronounced boo-lat). If you like to sew or even have things made – including dresses, pillows, curtains and the like – this is the place for you. Located near Tahrir and Ramses on the Corniche (many drivers will know the area), this area houses EVERY kind of fabric you could ever imagine.

Bulaa - an area to get all your material for sewing projects
There are many balls that take place here like the Marine Ball and the Green and Gold Gala. In addition to those, you may have an invitation to another fancy affair that requires a formal gown. Formal dresses here are expensive and for the most part, ugly. They range upwards from LE 6,000 ($857), and I don’t know about you but I don’t just have that lying around. Even if I did, I don’t want to spend nearly $1,000 on something that is ugly. I attended the Green and Gold Gala in October, and I ventured to Senioritas in Bulaa to acquire all the material that I needed.

If you are having a dress made, go to your seamstress first (called tarzy in Arabic) to find out which materials you need and to also bring samples to the shop so you can just pick out your color. Senoritas is the best for clothing material, but if you want material for curtains, pillow shams, etc., try out some of the other shops. All of the material that I purchased for my formal gown cost LE 400 (around $60). The tarzy cost around LE 1,000 ($142). So a one-of-a-kind formal dress that I helped design for under $200 – not a bad deal at all. Of course I bought some little accessories to attach to the dress from a store on the fourth floor of the Grand Mall, all under LE 100 ($14).

But last Friday I was looking for material to make new pillow shams and curtains. I didn’t make a purchase, but I negotiated all the prices for the material that I liked, took pictures and business cards and I will return once I decide the color scheme (most materials were around LE 25 per meter, or $4). What also makes me happy about traveling to Bulaa on a Friday morning is that a) Friday morning is the absolute BEST time in Cairo and b) everyone is always so friendly.

I’m also on the market for new lighting fixtures and the best place for that is the Souq Ka7araba (Arabic for electrical market), pronounced souk ka-ha-ra-ba, in Attaba. A heads up: Attaba is incredibly crowded and can be very unpleasant with the potential grabs so make sure you go with a man, preferably an Egyptian man. I thought Friday morning it wouldn’t be so crowded, but much to my dismay – it was and my colleague and I were forced to postpone our trip. Another warning: negotiating in Attaba from my experience is not an easy task; however, I am keeping an open mind for my next visit.

And then I went to the famous Khan el-Khalili, but this time, I was able to see it in a completely different way. I’ve had foreign friends that absolutely LOVED the Khan and would go once a week at least. I’m not one of those. I go when I’m traveling home because I need to buy scarves in bulk and the best ones are there. If you think by going early that you will save yourself the hassle, think again. It is the belief that the first sale of the day is indicative to how great or poor that day’s business will be. Therefore, if you are the first customer and are trying to negotiate – chances are you’re not going to get a good deal. Instead, go have some coffee and let someone else be the first customer.

I went with a friend who has a couple of shops and a silver workshop inside the Khan. It was nice meeting shop owners on a one-on-one basis without the usual customer/client relationship. It was great eating hawashi for LE 1.50 ($0.03) – and no, I didn’t get sick. It was nice being with someone who could shed light on the real lives of those that work and live there. Overall it was just incredible to see it in such a different way, and it reminded me of doing things for the first time like when I had just arrived to this country almost five years ago.

So listen, you’re not going to like everything about this country. Chances are you have complaints about your own country. But it’s important that you get out there and at least try. It’s also imperative that you realize it’s okay to complain, it’s okay to be depressed and feel down; however, find the little things that make you happy.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Letters from Egypt: Expat Life (Part I)

Expatriate (ex·pa·tri·ate) – one who has taken up residence in a foreign country

Sometimes I get emails asking what expat life is really like, and I’ve been soft on giving my honest opinion. I’ve heard that the more unstable a place, the greater presence of alcohol and substance abuse. I don’t know if I can actually tell an increase in that for Maadi because it was already so prevalent. Each time I return to the country from a business trip or vacation, someone at the local watering hole has died. True story.

Through the years, I’ve covered several topics on this blog; however, one subject that I’ve failed to really discuss is the life of an expat, particularly an expat in one of the wealthier areas within Cairo called Maadi – which runs on a great deal of alcohol, sex and drugs.

Maadi expats are in a world of their own. Sometimes we call the neighborhood “The Colony” because everything you need is here and the thought of leaving… well, would require too much energy (the traffic is discouraging no matter where you are). Instead something is formed that could be a case study found in some psychology book.

The breakdown of the expat circle in Maadi is majorly composed of 20-somethings to 55+-year olds mainly including:

  • Oil and gas professionals
  • Oil and gas professional wives (aka oil wives)
  • Teachers
  • Embassy employees
  • NGOs

Of course you have a few special cases which will fall under a simpler breakdown of expats: those with a purpose (e.g. job) and expats that couldn’t make it in their own countries. The latter includes the type of expat that has lived in Egypt for more than five years (usually onward over 10 years) and makes you question everyday how they are able to afford the cost of living. Egypt is a relatively cheap country even if prices are rising post-revolution. I am personally unable to understand those that don’t work and/or haven’t been able to maintain a job for two months being able to support what appears to be an expensive beer tab each night. Oh wait, I do. They’re called freeloaders.

Inside the circle, everyone knows everyone and everyone has secrets. Although how secret can it really be when the entire community knows, but I digress.

Do you know how many marriages I’ve seen fall apart? How about all the affairs? That’s not even to mention the high rate of prostitution centered around one of Cairo’s so-called best neighborhoods (while I don’t fault a woman for doing what she has to do, if there wasn’t such a demand there definitely wouldn’t be much of a supply).

I said this was Part I because there is really so much to tell about expat life here and yes, there are great things but no one ever talks about the negatives. Instead of giving the standard disclaimer that there are exceptions, life is beautiful, Maadi is great and all the things you can do here, I’m going to leave on this: I love Egypt, but I really dislike my drama-filled, colony of a neighborhood where everyone is incestuous and continuously drunk. Ever have a bad day? Well, look at these *BLEEP* and you count your blessings. I mean seriously, you could have just been stabbed 90 times, robbed, house burnt down and been victim of credit card fraud/identity theft and your life would still be better than 92% of the expats that reside in Maadi.