Thursday, March 03, 2005

Notes on Zamalek and a Little of Alexandria

This is a country where a Tic Tac is a salty cracker.

A shop with ‘Sanitary Products’ on the signboard sells plumbing equipment.

A taxi and driver will cost you about $5 Australian an hour. A bit more if you telephone one of the many drivers who have good English and take bookings.

A standard tip is one Egyptian pound – about twenty five cents.

The butcher’s has lots of meat – and they are all lumps of muscle just as they came off the animal. You point to the bits you want, they weigh it and print a label, then painstakingly remove all connective tissue and fat from it. Then they prepare it as you wish – cubed, sliced, ‘escallops’ or minced. I watched a lady hand over a large bunch of flat leafed parsley and a garlic bulb this morning, and they peeled the garlic – all of it – and then minced the parsley and garlic with her lump of meat in their mincer. It still wasn’t fine enough, so in it went again with a good sprinkling of black pepper, allspice and salt. Beef has one cost per kilo, veal another – regardless of the cut you ask for.

We have a school opposite. Someone told me, and I have no way of checking the veracity of the statement, that there are more than one hundred schools on Zamalek.

Another story (which might be apocryphal) says that a previous ruler decided that Zamalek was just too beautiful. We had green trees, and beautiful houses, and a comfortable way of life. So he established many schools, just to make things fairer. With schools and narrow streets come huge traffic problems. My street is impossible to move in just before school, and for about half an hour afterwards. The traffic is not entirely static, it moves in fits and starts as children pour out and find parents or drivers. The worst part is after school, because then the parents hoot for their children. If the children don’t come immediately they hoot for longer. If they are getting impatient (which seems to take about forty five seconds) they lean on the horn.

Multiply this by the twenty cars in front of my house (it is a big house) and the other twenty or so before and after who have been forced ahead down the street and don’t want to get out of it without their children, add in the occasional car stuck in the middle who just wants to get through in the queue, and keeps up a rhythmic and non stop toot, toot, toot, and it is a cacophony which can be hard to live with. It lasts about half an hour, then suddenly the peace is almost palpable.

Children arrive from about 7.30 to 8.00 am. At ten past eight, give or take a few minutes, the music starts. I love this part. The children are assembled outside in lines. There is a brisk and summoning piano which belts about a few minutes of happy martial music, and the children clap – tight close clapping – on every second line. Then they sing the national anthem. I must find out what the Arabic means but it is fervent, and tuneful and really enchanting.

I keep meaning to write about Alexandria, and never leaving quite enough time.

One small snippet though. Because of the death and funeral of a previous deputy Prime Minister, many of our appointments in Alexandria were changed at short notice. Security missed us for a couple of appointments, and then the chase cars arrived.

If you are thinking of a Canberra style of motorcade streaming efficiently down broad highways, let us start again. Think dense traffic, one way road systems, frequent essential U turns in order to get back onto another side of the road to make turns, and you will see some of the problems. In the one way roads there are often drivers who go the wrong way – because they will only take a moment! When they meet a car entering correctly before they get to the end, he backs up! This is utterly surprising – I cannot even imagine it happening in the Tuggeranong Hyperdrome Carpark. We would get abuse; they shrug, and let him through. Sometimes the car will more or less obey the law by keeping the vehicle pointing in the right direction – but go hell for leather backwards! Driving here is never boring.

Back to our chase cars. In dense and edging traffic, occasionally they were behind, occasionally in front. They had no way to contact us except by hand signals. The window winder of one of the cars was broken. So was the siren. If the driver wanted to get through he honked. If he wanted to direct traffic to the side of the road because we were getting too far behind him, one of the officers in the back opened the back door, leant out as far as he could, and indicated that cars behind him should pull over.

It was all surprising friendly and efficient. We had four officers, all fascinated that I would keep jumping out to take photos of strange things like fishermen and boats and the constant and beautiful pigeon houses – tall mud structures like domes, with decorative holes for pigeons to pop in and out, and wooden sticks sticking out here and there as landing perches.

On a previous trip to Cairo – years ago and during the first Gulf War – I asked in a restaurant, where the bathroom was. The waiter nodded at my ‘Wein hamman?’ and went rushing out the back. I assumed he was checking it was clean. Fifteen minutes later I wondered what he was doing, and he reappeared with a bowl of cooked pigeons. The Arabic for bathroom and pigeon is almost identical – hamaam and hamam – and he had misunderstood. He thought I had asked “where are the pigeons”?

Our hotel, The Windsor Palace, was beautiful – straight out of the movies of the last century – very ‘Death on the Nile’. High ceilings, cream walls with delicate plasterwork all around the walls picked out in gold leaf. We had a separate salon (you could not call it anything else) with parquetry flooring and Louis Farouk chairs.

Photos will follow.


Blogger Helen from Canberra said...

Hi Jenny,

I have just come your blogspot via Connecting Threads and have spent a very enjoyable hour going back through previous postcards. I find it fascinating and look forward to future entries.

Regards Helen

2:28 pm  

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