El Gouna

Apparently, during revolutions, resorts slash their prices! This week,  we went to El Gouna,  an amazing resort on the Red Sea5 hours Southeast of Cairo, by a car that beeps at you if you drive over 120km per hour.  If your car doesn’t do that, it is rumored you can make it in four hours.

Sign prohibiting Burq'inis for health reasons.

Movenpick El Gouna is part of a small resort and golf course that was built in 1998 and 1999 and aims at making the experience for most a true five star experience.   The hotel offers everything you could want in a resort – kids entertainment, multiple pools, nighttime floor shows and access to kite diving, scuba diving, deep sea diving – well you get the picture.  Plus – the opportunity to eat Movenpick ice cream at any time of the day, starting at 8 am.

It’s packed full with European tourists – I’ve mainly heard accents from the UK, Eastern Europe, Germany and France.  Many of these people come ritually, and were not going to let the current political climate in Egypt stop them this year.  So far in the time we’ve been here, I’ve been asked if I was English, Swedish, Belgium and Dutch (all flattering, apparently the worst thing to be asked is if you are German. ) Since so few Americans make it here, people are always a little surprised by my “No, America” response.

The pool-side crowd is an interesting mix of very in-shape people wearing all sorts of bathing suits to the overly tanned (and chain smoking seems to go hand and hand with this, but I don’t want to stereotype), large and larger people wearing too little (yes, the Banana Hammock is alive and well, and living on the Red Sea – it’s a shame the spa there didn’t do any waxing. . . )  I know that as an enlightened woman, I should be happy to see a large woman in an itsy bitsy bikini because she’s that comfortable with her body, and part of me does think – You Go Girl.  But another apparently twelve year old part of me can’t help but stare in fascination at all of that orange skin hanging out over tiny pieces of lycra.

At one point, poolside, I saw a woman swathed from head to toe in loose fabric –tropical colored flowers all over a black background – settling her family in to a series of loungers under an umbrella.  Immediately next to her, my right as I watched, a Western woman turned her back on the crowd, stripped down and changed out of her bathing suit to other clothes.  She then proceeded to have her children do the same thing.  Both sides of the modesty scale, right for my viewing pleasure – I ended up with mental whiplash.

The Movenpick, and other Western-owned resorts across Egypt, have banned the true burq’ini.  I’m not sure what health risk they really pose, as the sign banning them claims.  I am torn, though, about the fact that women who choose hijab or niqab, either by choice or cultural expectation, cannot go comfortably to high end resorts in their own country.

In Egypt, the high clerics are anti-burqas  – but they face their own doubt issues, as they do not rise based on their theological qualifications but are appointed by the government. It is still weird to see such an imposition of a foreign culture at one of the prettiest settings in the country.

Toy Shopping

Bags of Sand for Sale in Maadi

Redundancy much?  Why does a country which is mostly desert need to bag and sell sand?  And why does the age cap out at 8?

We went toy shopping for the birthday party of two 5 year olds – a boy and a girl who are good friends.  Toy shopping in Egypt is its own wild experience.  While toys are basically the same all over, even in this area of relative innocence, the gender divide is extremely evident.  The first toy store we walked into (an educational oriented store supposedly) had walls and aisles of trucks, dragons, knights, castles, hand propelled quarries (um, yeah try explaining what that is to a 5 year old) and building materials, blocks, and legos in ships, castles, dragons, aliens and anything else little boys would like or could possibly imagine.  For girls, you could be princess, nurse, shopping for food, cooking food or practicing to be a secretary or play with fairies  – as long as it was lilac or pink.  It was like a full blown split describing a lot of the domestic gender associations seen in this society aimed at newborns to 8 year olds.  Might as well start them early.

The Secret Garden

Imagine walking into famous gardens, now neglected and so arid you expect a tumbleweed to cross your path.  Now add to that a museum where mannequins dressed in various styles depict the agrarian history of a country, and where women are categorized and displayed as if they are a species, between the Zebra hide and the stuffed rhinoceros.  At the Museum, a gentleman appears and starts opening walls to show you exhibits, and you suddenly realize that no one has been into the museum in while, a long long while, and not just because of its 3 hours open a day policy.  Walk a little further and suddenly, you are in a replica pharonic garden, teaming with spring blooms, if somewhat overgrown.  You picnic while its caretakers (who also may live in a bower in the garden) bring you flowers and berries. Finally, add indiscriminate gunfire from a shooting club nearby as background noise.  That’s what visiting the Agricultural Museum is like.

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Real Real Housewives of Maadi

Basket seller on a tree lined street in Maadi

Maadi is its own unique place in Cairo, and even Egyptian history.  It’s actually not all Cairo, but also part of the Helwan township. People have inhabited this land since at least 3250 BCE, in the protodynastic period during the Bronze Age. Which makes sense, because its ground is very fertile and it is beautiful. As my friend Matthew put it, you can ”hear the echoes of history here.”  It’s a sprawling area, with old parts that include villas and ruins, and new parts popping up high rises and mc-mansions, Northern Africa style.  (It took me a little while to get used to the references of Egyptian history in modern architecture, I would think –How hooky, they’re trying to be Egyptian, and then remember where I was – This Is Their History.)

Inhabiting Maadi currently is a mix of upper middle and upper class Egyptians, expats and expats married to Egyptians.   The quality of life in Maadi is exceptional  – gardeners, house keepers, cooks are easily (and cheaply) had and a driver is necessary with this kind of traffic – no testing, no signals, very little stop signs.  Among the expats, there are many diverse interests – people who work for big oil probably live next to people working for an NGO, or journalists like us – truly fascinating cocktail conversation.  But the thing with being an expat family – while there are a tremendous amounts of upside – is that it usually demands one spouse subjugate their aspirations in support of another.

My exposure has mainly been to the wives who have done this in support of their husbands. Some wives have husbands whose positions allow them to take full advantage of the quality of life upgrade – what would be middle class in the US is equivalent to a really nice (extremely nice) life style here.  Bravo-esque women who spend their days dropping kids off at schools (with the help of the driver and the nanny,) managing domestic affairs (with the help of the house keeper and the cleaning woman) and all sorts of other things that it takes to look that good. And, to be honest, they really do look that good.  Enviably so.

It’s the women who Andy Cohen won’t be calling that truly fascinate me.  What’s a highly educated professional supposed to do on a new continent? It’s not like the ad agencies in Cairo care that you used to work at Ogilvy. One woman I’ve met, whose husband is a VP at a large beverage company, works for an international human rights organization.  My sister in law is looking into continuing  her IP law educator experience somewhere in Cairo.

Others have become entrepreneurs – expanding their professional capacities to allow for intellectual stimulation beyond memorizing which Backyardigan is which – and still remain dedicated to their families.  One of the first women I met here, who is originally from Northern Ontario, started a clothing line leveraging high end Egyptian cottons.  Another woman turned a passion for ice cream into a business (Crème Brulee ice cream?  White Chocolate Mint?  I’m so in.  Now, I just need to figure out how to get it when I’m back in New York.) Another, a mom of three whose youngest is 5 months old, is an interior designer.

These women have turned a complete disruption into a new opportunity with a resilience that would never happen in Atlanta, the OC,  DC, New York and definitely not New Jersey.  Though, I think the women from Beverly Hills definitely shop here, the stores here play into some serious sequin addictions.

In the Kitchen

During a trip to Carrefour we picked up the makings of Koshari, a traditional Egyptian national recipe that is delicious. The dish consists of  onion, lentils, noodles or macaroni, garlic, rice, chickpeas and macaroni, with vinegar, tomato paste and red peppers plus seasonings.  It is then garnished with fried onion.  It’s basically vegan, and vegetarian, but not quite gluten free (a recipe is included below.)

Cooking was a young mother of 3 and 3/5th children (she’s due in August) who has lived in Cairo all her life. “Only Cairo,” she said with a smile.  A slight, attractive woman, she is Muslim, and wears a hijab in the al-amira style – a covering made of two separate pieces, one close fitting  layer over the skull and then a looser outer layer.  On the wearer, the neck is covered. She travels with it on, and because there are mostly just women and children in the house, she takes it off when she gets here.  She was assisted by the housekeeper, who is Filipino, but moved to Egypt 24 years ago when she married her Egyptian husband and converted to Islam.  She does not wear a hijab, but dresses very decorously, even in the heat.

Koshari may seem like a recipe for all the leftovers in the kitchen, but it takes a while to make all the possible sauces and cook everything, which gave me time to talk to these two ladies about the women I had seen in niqab.  In Egypt, this term covers what we would call a burqa – either with the netting over the eyes or without.  When I said the word “burqa” neither woman knew what I was saying (and it can’t all be my bad accent.)  I am curious as to what life most look like from the inside of one of those things;  especially as today (the 11th of April) was the first day of enforcement of France’s ban on the burqa.

Both women were fairly adamant that they would never wear a nijab, and both were slightly dismissive of the women who do so (either by choice or cultural dictates to which they are subjected.)  “If you wear the niqab,” says the native Egyptian “you should pray 5 times a day and memorize the Qur’an. Some women just wear it for comfort.” The housekeeper, settling in for a good gossip, then told me, “There are criminals in the city who dress in the niqab.  They beg, and look pitiful . . . and then they rob you.  Be careful of these.”

The women had strong negative responses to the garment, even though both were devout Muslims.  This really interested me, and I pressed a little further as chicken was dipped in flour, an egg mixture of milk, salt and black pepper and then breadcrumbs before before being tossed into a skillet of boiling oil (presumably to offset all the healthy benefits of the koshari.)  It seemed that while a hijab was modest, and kept men from “flirting” with them , the niqab was a false modesty.   One mentioned that to her mother-in-law, if she were to wear a short shirt (the type that goes to the waist of pants or slightly beyond) she would be immodest.  Her mother-in-law would like all of her shirts to hit her knees.  While she feels this is excessive, to her there was  difference between the “modesty” of the hijab (even with her shortish shirts that only go below her hips) and the “comfort” of the women who totally covered themselves up – implying false modesty.

But when I pushed further, to ask what either thought about this “comfort”, they both shied away and started to talk about men flirting.  “Like anything, some of the women who wear a niqab are good, some not.”

Lucy (the same person who was my guide on the first Art excursion) and who is also married to an Egyptian, mentioned that a friend, who had experience inside and out of a niqab, felt most objectified when she was inside.  She felt she instantly became an inhuman object, almost the forbidden fruit. I realized that’s in essence what I had been doing to women in this garment as well.  They were faceless things  who took up a lot of the side walk, but not someone who would be greeted with a Sabbah el khier (sp?) as  would a woman in a hijab.

Recipe for Koshari, from EgyptianRecipes.net

Ingredients:

–          2 large chopped onions
–          4 cloves of minced garlic
–          ¾  cup vegetable oil
–          ¾ cup uncooked long grain rice
–          ¼ tsp red pepper
–          1 tsp cumin
–          1 can of tomato sauce
–          ¾ cup brown lentils
–          4 cups water
–          1  cup elbow macaroni
–          ½ cup white vinegar
–          1 cup of boiled chickpeas

Directions:

1- In a large saucepan, put the lentils in water and bring it to a boil.

2- Simmer over medium heat for 25 minutes then drain.

3- Add new water to the lentils and then add the rice.

4- Continue to simmer for 20 minutes more or until rice gets tender.

5- Fill a separate saucepan with water, add a little bit of salt and bring to a boil.

6- Add the macaroni to the boiling water and cook until it gets tender, then drain.

7- In a skillet, put some of the vegetable oil and heat it up then add the garlic and simmer until its color starts fading.

8- Add the vinegar to garlic and bring it to boil.

9- After the vinegar boils with garlic, add the tomato sauce and some salt and pepper to taste, then add the cumin. Bring the mix to boil on high heat, then lower heat after it boils.

10- Put the rest of the oil, should be plenty, in another skillet and heat it up, then add the chopped onions and stir until it is brownish. Take it out of the oil and leave it aside.

11- Take a little bit of the oil used with the onions and out it on the macaroni and stir it until the macaroni gets the onions flavor.

Serving:

To serve this dish, you can put it in layers, like the Egyptians do, or just mix it all together. But if you would like to do it all the Egyptian way, here is how to do so.

1st: Put a layer of rice and lentils.

2nd: A layer of macaroni.

3rd: A layer of the special sauce.

4th: A layer of the boiled chickpeas.

5th: A layer of fried onions.