Bedazzle Your Burqa

Part of the extensive produce selection at Carrefour

Sunday (the first day of the work week here,) we went to the Maadi City Centre mall to go to Carrefour, a hypermarket – a supermarket squared – that is like the bastard child of a love triangle between Wegmans, Whole Foods and a small suq.

Best Spice Rack Ever

Since it was a mall, I walked around and checked out the stores.  There was a Starbucks, two other coffee chains,  and lots of typical mall clothing stores – Mango, Monsoon (which I liked automatically, because Triny and Susanah always recommended it), Zara and Aldo shoes to name a few (Top Shop and Next coming soon.) Continue reading “Bedazzle Your Burqa”

Khan El Khalili

On Friday, April 1, we all went to the Khan El Khalili in Islamic Cairo, located at the apex of al-Qahira, the walled old city.  Over time, this structure has included a souk or suq – a commercial area or quarter- as well as a caravanserai – a roadside inn for travelers, and is a walled-in area with one traditional entrance way. The site also includes the Sultan al Ghuri complex, a Khanqah, Mausoleum, Sabil-Kuttab, Mosque and Madrasa in the Fahhamin Quarter, al Mu’izz li-Din Allah street in Islamic Cairo.  Since the 1500s, this site has been a multi-use structure – sacred, commercial and lodgings.   The traditional entrance/exit gate still stands today, and you can see the areas in the architecture where boiling oil was poured on potential invaders.  Inside this area are warrens full of stalls selling all kinds of cool things, and the shoppers seem to be tourists and Egyptians alike.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

During our visit, we wandered into a carpet store.  My nephew asked if they sold flying carpets.  The proprietor responded, “No, but we have repaired carpets over 500 years old, and from as far away as Russia.”  Pretty cool.

(As an interesting piece of info – wikipedia notes the following about the word suq: “In Modern Standard Arabic the term refers to markets in both the physical sense and the abstract economic sense (e.g., an Arab would speak of the souq in the old city as well as the souq for oil, and would call the concept of the free market السوق الحرّ as-sūq al-ḥurr.)”

Coptic Cairo

Walking through Old Cairo, and specifically Coptic Cairo off of Sharia Mar Girgis , you walk through the various stages of the city’s history. Cairo: The Family Guide describes it as providing “a visual history of Cairo’s growth and evolution.” An important key to this evolution is religion, and the ways it manifest itself on the city, and Egypt as a whole. Walls here date back to 100 CE when the Roman Emperor Trajan built a fort known as the Babylon of Egypt.  A five block walk from the metro passes spaces sacred to Christianity, Islam and Judaism (in historical order)– including the crypt where The Holy Family supposedly hid from Roman soldiers on their flight from Herod, the Ben Ezra Synagogue and eventually the Amr ibn al As mosque.  Along the way, you pass The Hanging Church, the round Church of St George,  and churches of Sts. Barbara and Sergius as well as the Coptic Museum

Laura, my host, companion and guide, had been reading The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge.  Cairo is an amazing example of how much secular politics have created false geographical as well as other constructs in MENA, and how early these constructs began. Not that the 20th century didn’t have a large impact on the overall area – as evidenced by the fact that Pakistan is an acronym: : Punjab, North-West Frontier Province (Afghan Province), Kashmir, Sind, and BaluchisTAN. In Cairo, and as I understand it, Egypt, these constructs started to directly effect the country with its entry into the Byzantium Empire, or around the first century CE.  Egypt has been an empire itself, then a central part of the following: Persian Empire, Ptolemaic Kingdom, Byzantine, Muslim Arab Caliphate and Ottoman Empires.  By the 7th century, Cairo was a Muslim city and remains so to this day. In The Crusades, Asbridge makes note of how the Arabs and Muslims in Cairo saw the infidels invading their lands (aka The European Crusaders) as pagan polytheists, who believed in 3 gods instead of one true god.

The Coptic Museum also reflects a lot of Egypt and how its history is so entwined with religion and war, present and past. It’s amazing how proud this city is of its Coptic history (it is basically the seat of the religion the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.) The items on display demonstrate how Christianity and its imagery developed from the polytheist gods of Old and New Kingdoms of Egypt and later Rome and Greece.  Interestingly, its artifacts span the 3rd century to the 19th, and are housed in a 20th century building that meshes modernism with the aesthetic of the ancient culture it displays, as the images depict cultures combining.


I have now managed to dip into three oceans – the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian!  Here’s the view of the Red Sea from Ain Suhkna, about 1 1/2 hours away from Cairo through the desert.  I wish I had the guts to take a picture of the women swimming in Burq’inis, but it seemed too disrespectful.  Women on the beach would bathe in everything from itsy bitsy bikinis to full burqas.  Which surprised me – I originally thought a Burq’ini was going to be a resort drink.  D’uh.  Instead it is a modest diving suit with hood covering a woman from the top of her head down.  It’s a very odd site to see a woman swimming with full coverage next to a man swimming with very little (so little you occasionally wished he had more) coverage.

The view includes the mountains off in the distant desert.

Uggs in The Desert

Cairo is expanding, and that expansion includes a recently opened American University in Cairo’s New Cairo campus.  The campus is home to all undergraduate and graduate programs, with a student body of 5,000 or so students, – 85% of which are Egyptian – and 1,500 faculty, making it the largest university in North Africa, according to the Times.  It lies on a plateau East of Cairo (away from the Nile) and faces the desert on three of its sides.  The fourth faces New Cairo, what appears to be the Egyptian equivalent of McMansion-ville.  The new campus still has a new car smell to it, and does sort of appear as a movie set on the edge of the desert.  Even the buildings, none of which are taller than three stories, have architectural features that basically scream historical North Africa, almost as if conjured by Dreamworks.
View Larger Map

It also features one of the hippest student bodies I’d seen in a while.  (Sorry, CU!) I got to spend the morning crowd watching at the New Campus, after riding a shuttle out from Maadi. The standard uniform for girls was straight leg or cigarette jeans, or jeggings, (on all body types) boots or sockless ballet flats, a tight shirt and loose outer layer, accessorized by a big over the shoulder bag – most often Longchamp (or knockoff) or some other premium brand, or fancy large leather bag  – and amazing hair.  I started to notice all this because of the number of Uggs on campus – my first thought being why do you need lined boots in the desert, though despite it being the desert it was significantly cooler than Cairo? My second was the realization that Egypt is a heck of a lot closer to Australia than, say, Manhattan or Cleveland.  My other observation – this was my kind of place: shirts weren’t tucked in, and all the shoes from athletic looking mary-janes and ballet flats to over the knee boots were flatly heeled.

The young men look like young men everywhere – standard uniform of t-shirt and jeans. I think they do not stand out to me as much because they are not working with as much of a confine in terms of what is appropriate as the women are.    My first week here, I met a university professor and his rock star wife who were convinced that Western fashion designers are merely picking up trends started in North Africa.  I’m not sure I believe that, but there are some seriously stylish women here.

I also am completely jealous of the hair of women here, apparently there are no bad hair days when you are Egyptian. Very few women at the University wear a headscarf, and most of those that opted to did so with incredible style.   I saw a woman in cotton knit harem pants, a tunic gartered by a large leather belt, a cropped denim vest and a Pucci headscarf carrying a very nice large leather bag.  Brand names and status symbols count here – the most common unisex accessories I saw were the iPhone and a status symbol watch.

The women at University are so different from those I’ve seen on the Metro, where the majority of women are wearing hijab, and a good number sport burqas with the panel covering the face.  Those that just wear the hijab usually have a super tight layer on – think scuba suit, but made of spandex – under several other layers.  These women layer better than anything True Prep could ever come up with.  As opposed to the women at the University, the women on the metro are skirted down to their well covered ankles, occasionally showing peaks of jeans underneath their beyond-prairie skirts.

When you ride the metro in Cairo, it is recommended that women ride in the ladies only cars, usually about three cars in the middle of the train.  Every stop has two signs reading “Ladies” between which these cars will stop.  The shuttle out to the University  was much more integrated – with young men and women even sitting next to each other on the two a row seats.  Though, unlike the metro, the men stood aside and let the women board first.  I could get used to that.  The metro is a free for all, and especially the exits.  I have yet to get off a train either in Downtown Cairo, or any of the Maadi stops without being stepped on, elbowed or pushed.  Across from me on the shuttle were two young college students (who caused some of the graduate students and others to comment “Oh to be 18 again,” which made me laugh considering it was coming out of the mouth of 26 yr olds.  Oh to be 26 again!)  This was my first exposure to the breadth of western culture in these kids.  The young man, on hanging up his phone, muttered loudly, “Jesus!” as an oath.  The irony of which made me laugh.  He then compared a photo of his very pretty seatmate to Snooki on Jersey Shore.  Clearly, he needs to season his game.