Saturday, February 24, 2007

New York Times: An article about Cairo

It’s written by MICHAEL SLACKMAN and an Egyptian reporter called Mona Naggar did the reporting for the article!!!


Published: March 1, 2007

Cairo Journal

In Arab Hub, the Poor Are Left to Their Fate

CAIRO, Feb. 23 — Ali Mezar has spent his life fishing a narrow, muddy patch of the Nile in this, one of the most crowded cities in the world. But Mr. Mezar has little contact with urban civilization. He sleeps in his boat, makes tea from the dirty Nile water and on good days earns a few dollars.

Not far away, on the shoulder of a busy avenue, Karim Sayed, 21, herds sheep and goats matted with urban filth. He spends his days staring into oncoming traffic, hoping to make a sale before the police move him or confiscate a sheep.

At the city’s edge, in a packed neighborhood built entirely by its residents, Mina Fathy and his neighbors fix sewerage, water and electricity problems on their own because they say the government offers them virtually no service in such functions.

Cairo is home to 15 million and often described as the center of the Arab world, an incubator of culture and ideas. But it is also a collection of villages, a ruralized metropolis where people live by their wits and devices, cut off from the authorities, the law and often each other.

That social reality does not just speak to the quality and style of life for millions of Egyptians. It also plays a role in the nation’s style of governance.

The fisherman on the Nile, the shepherd in the road and residents of so-called informal communities say their experiences navigating city life have taught them the same lessons: the government is not there to better their lives; advancement is based on connections and bribes; the central authority is at best a benign force to be avoided.

“Everything is from God,” said Mr. Mezar, the fisherman, who was speaking practically, not theologically. “There is no such thing as government. The government is one thing, and we are something else. What am I going to get from the government?”

Cairo has been the capital of Egypt for more than 1,000 years, and sits where the dry sands of the desert lead to the fertile Nile Delta. Egyptian officials like to say that this is where modern bureaucracy was invented, where the mechanics of governance first took shape.

While the Egyptian government is the country’s largest employer, it is by all accounts an utterly unreliable source of help for the average citizen. That combination, social scientists say, helps create a system that has stifled political opposition and allowed a small group to remain in power for decades.

One brick in the foundation of single-party rule has been public resignation. There is no widespread expectation that the authorities will give the common man a voice, and so there is rarely any outrage when they do not. The fisherman, the shepherd and Mr. Fathy all said that the most they could hope for from the government was that it stay out of their lives.

“We hope God keeps the municipality away from us,” Mr. Sayed said as he sat in a wooden chair, surveying his fetid flock of goats and sheep with headlights streaming by.

Such a feeling of separation is one reason that the leadership has been able to clamp down on opposition political activities without incurring widespread public wrath, political analysts say.

“People see the government as something quite foreign or removed from their lives,” said Diane Singerman, a professor in government at American University in Washington who has written extensively about Cairo . “Commuters to the city, or poor peddlers and working people, do not see the government as particularly interested in their lives, and they also see politics as quite elite and risky and something to stay away from.”

Officials say part of the disillusionment comes from unrealistic expectations, a holdover from the heady days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt ’s leader from 1954 to 1970, when government jobs were deemed a right and cradle-to-grave care a promise.

Mr. Mezar and his cousin Muhammad Hassan fish the Nile just as their parents and their grandparents did, living in the bottom of their small wooden boats. Dark from the sun, hands callused from their oars, they are the image of Egypt , and they often smile and wave dutifully as tour boats motor up the river, with tourists snapping their pictures.

They dock their boats beneath a busy overpass, waking each morning at 6, filling their glasses with tea made from water scooped directly from the Nile . They worry that despite their fishing licenses, the police will demand their fish or write a ticket for some invented infraction.

“There is only despair,” Mr. Hassan said as he slowly rowed while his son, Rageb, 22, stood barefoot on the front of the boat putting out the net. “It is all about connections. If you know someone, you get 20 jobs. If not, you get nothing.”

He said they knew about bilharzia, the life-threatening parasite in the slow-moving waters on the edge of the Nile , but their priority is catching fish.

“We get checked for bilharzia,” he said.

“Really?” he was asked.

“No, never,” he replied, shaking his head.

There were four boats working the river one morning, including Mr. Hassan’s. The crews were all relatives of his. No one expressed anger — or depression. Only resignation.

“I am sick of Egypt ,” Mr. Mezar said. “I like fishing, but you see, are there any fish? I would give all of this if the government gave me a job.”

Cairo has grown like a living organism, swallowing up agricultural lands and villages as its population has ballooned. Nearly three-quarters of the population live like Mr. Fathy, in informal communities.

Mr. Fathy comes from Manshiet Nasser, a sprawling labyrinth of brick apartment buildings along trash-strewn dirt roads that is home to hundreds of thousands of people. Informal communities are not shantytowns, but neighborhoods that grew organically, without any urban planning. People simply built homes, some buying agricultural land, some squatting on desert land.

The nature of these communities has bred a sense of distance and alienation from the government, experts in Cairo ’s life say. The government only provided services when the neighborhoods reached a critical mass, when the numbers of people could no longer be ignored. Few have schools. Roads are so narrow that police trucks cannot enter. Electricity is pirated. Order is established by the community, independent from the authorities.

“My impression is that they think they are something different from the rest of the city,” said Abdel Halim Ibrahim Abdel Halim, an urban planner and architect. “They feel like they provided housing for themselves, they control that housing.”

Residents of Manshiet Nasser, which is on a plateau, often refer to those in the formal center of the city as “people who come from under,” as Salah Ibrahim, 40, meant when he said, “People who come from under never listen to us.” He said a road in front of his house had been flooded with sewage for days until, finally, the neighbors all donated money to have it repaired.

“Every house is on its own,” said Mr. Fathy, who said he had paid a bribe of 2,000 pounds, about $350, when inspectors insisted that he tear down the third-floor apartment he was building on top of his parents’ building. “Every house has to solve its own problems.”

MICHAEL SLACKMAN is Cairo Bureau chief of New York Times

Friday, February 16, 2007

Street Food : Egypt vs India

An abridged version of this article by me was published in a magazine here in Egypt "EGO MAG" this month.

Its also been published online on desicritics at


When I first considered writing about "Street Food in Cairo" the few people I knew in Cairo had a good laugh & cautioned me that having just arrived in the city I was completely setting myself up for the curse of the Pharaohs. Well, being a desi & with an ability to eat the Pav Bhajis & Paani Puris & Vada Pavs on the streets of India, then the streets of Cairo posed no threat at all, so I was all set to explore Cairo by tasting everything it had to offer. (But I did tuck a strip of lomotil into my wallet to be on the safer side)

There’s such a variety of snacks, meals, quick bites & drinks on offer on the streets of Cairo that it would be impossible to try them all in a few days, but I did manage the highlights.

A good day begins with a good breakfast. A fuul or tamiya sandwich is what is considered ideal. I tried these at Arzak in Maadi Grand Mall, from a stall near the Sultan Hassan Mosque and Moqattam courtesy the Pen Temple Pilots and a couple of other street carts. I loved them all. Fuul is paste of cooked fava beans spiced to your liking with maybe a few fresh veggies thrown in too for texture.

The tamiya is a deep fried patty of the same fava beans. But they taste completely different in this form than as fuul. The tamiya is flattened & stuffed into the eish (pita bread) with a little hummus or tahini & more fresh veggies.

My favorite is a little tahini, a little fuul, tamiya & pickled brinjals all stuffed into one sandwich. This makes for a messy eat since the ingredients tend to squish out the sides, but to quote Rachel Ray, it’s completely “yum-o”.

These sandwiches can also be stuffed with omelettes, french fries & all kinds of combinations. At 1-2 LE each they are an absolute steal.

It’s interesting to watch the sandwich guy stuff the assortment of ingredients into the bread. It reminds me of the anda parathawala outside IIT Delhi who nimbly cracks & throws a raw egg between 2 layers of a paratha while the paratha is frying on the pan, all in one single flowing movement to produce the most scrumptious anda parathas ever.

I don't think India has a direct comparison in terms of taste for fuul or tamiya. The closest similarity I could think of was boiled & smashed peas which are used as a base in some chaat preparations. Also the tamiya is a bit like a dhalwada.

For lunch in Cairo. I’d go for Koshary. Actually, I can eat this for breakfast, lunch & dinner & never get tired of it. It’s considered the common man’s food, but I’ve also heard someone say they think it should be named Egypt’s National Dish. A combination of pasta, lentils & tomato sauce topped with fried onions. Its light yet filling, nutritious, quick, healthy & ohhh so tasty. The guy who makes the koshary normally has all the ingredients ready & warm. When an order is placed he mixes it all in a jiffy & its mouth watering to see how he deftly assembles the dish. The crunchy onions on top are better than cherries on a cake.

When it comes to Koshary every single person you meet in Cairo will tell you that they know the “best” place to eat it & everyone claims that their place is better than anywhere else. On recommendations, I’ve tried Arzak in Maadi , Abou Yoosef in Mohandaseen & street stalls all over the city. Although I loved them all, I must confess I’m a little partial to El Omda’s Koshary topped with Chicken Shawrma because it gives me my meat fix too.

Although there’s no confirmed Number One Koshary in Cairo, what is certain is that a good hot steaming plate of Koshary can warm the cockles of anyone’s heart. Koshary is complete soul food & this is what I will crave the most when the time comes for me to leave Egypt.

For mid meal snacking there are umpteen options all over town: baked sweet potatoes, roasted nuts & seeds. A friend of mine said she would rather buy one roasted sweet potato from the street vendor than a kilo & a half from the grocer for the same price. They are that delicious. For the thirsty there are a variety of juice stalls to try from. The aaseer asab (sugarcane juice/ghanne da ras) works perfectly to counter the dehydrating effects of Cairo’s heat. It replenishes body salts, it’s tasty & completely refreshing with a strong natural sugar-fix to it.

By dinner time, most Cairenes are more relaxed & have the time & leisure to wait for a good meal to be prepared. If you find yourself with the time to enjoy a meal, then head down to one of the kebab houses, order your hearts fancy & wait for the wonderful steaming dishes to be brought to your make-shift table on the street.

The two most recommended kebab places are Farhat at Khan el Khalili & Mohammed Rifai at Sayeda Zainab. You can order various meat based items here. Kebabs & kofta are the most popular combination. In Egypt, Koftas are rolled & skewered minced meat with spices. Kebabs are roasted marinated chunks of meat. Chops, roasted chickens & grilled hamam (pigeons) are also on the menu at places like these. I’ll admit I haven’t had the courage to try the pigeon yet, but all the other meat that I’ve eaten, I’ve enjoyed.

While the tantalizing smell of your meat grilling in the open oven teases you, you will be served eish (bread) with a choice of salads. Green salad, tahini, hummus or babagannoug. My recommendation : control your hunger pangs & ignore the bread until the meat arrives otherwise you may be full before the main course arrives. Sip on the shorba (served cold & spicy)instead, it will increase your appetite.

India though, has a larger variety of kebabs in all kinds of forms made from all kinds of meat. Kareem’s near the Jamma Masjid in Delhi, Tunde Kabab in Lucknow, Chawla’s Chick Inn in Chandigarh are just three of my favorites. Tandoori chicken is perhaps the best known export from India but that’s just the starting point of Indian kebabs. Tender reshmi kebabs, boti kebabs, gilauti kebabs with ulte tawe ka paratha. Just writing their names down makes my mouth water. The varieties of kebabs available in India are as numerous as the varieties of chaat or parathas or any other dish that you may mention.

If you didn't know yet, India has more cuisines styles than it has states, so there’s variety in everything. Other popular street food in India includes Dosas, Idlis, Chole Bhature, Samosas, Vadas, Vada Pav, Missal Pav, Halwas.... At the risk of repeating myself – the varieties are endless.

Although I have broadly categorized Egyptian Street food as breakfast, lunch & dinner items, when you eat these treats can be as flexible as meal times in Egypt.

Is Indian Street Food better than Egyptian Street Food?

Well, Indian food is spicier & more chatpata, but I wouldn’t venture to say that either is tastier than the other. They are both almost completely different in flavour but both are excellent.

The only thing I would stress on is that - to eat these street food delicacies, you should be standing on the road, inhaling some diesel fumes, amidst the honking of taxis & the food should have the flavor of the street on it. No five star hotel can ever make these same items taste even half as good. Be brave, ignore the hygiene factors, the occasional fly in the hummus & dig in. It’s worth it. Bon Appetit.

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