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.

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