The National, Abu Dhabi
July 29, 2011
My nephew in Los Angeles likes his spaghetti plain. No sauce, no oil, no butter. Certainly no parsley. The order to the waiter goes something like this: boil it, drain it and put it on the plate.
The kid’s happy. What can you say? Keeping the children happy when travelling keeps the parents happy.
Luckily, my wife and I have never had a problem feeding our daughter Georgia. She has a discriminating palate, more inclined towards the savoury than the sweet – though I’ve never seen her refuse an ice cream or piece of chocolate cake. This has served us well on the road. The adventure of being in a new place is made so much more exciting by trying out new dishes … in Sultanahmet, Jaipur and Madaba, in Oban, Byblos and, now, Cairo.
The Egyptian capital, captivating now as Revolution Central and as safe for families as any city we’ve travelled to in this region, does not want for culinary interest, although that isn’t why we went. We went for the pyramids, for the mummies, for the Nile. We went for the fairy tale and Cairo did not disappoint.
It helped that we ate well along the way. And that started on the very first day, at Abu el Sid in the leafy Zamalek district, a 15-minute walk from the Hotel Longchamps where we were staying. The hotel occupies the fifth and sixth floors of a 1920s-era building in Zamalek, which comprises the northern half of an island in the Nile in central Cairo. Zamalek is home to embassies, a smoky English-style pub, tiny corner shops, news stands, greengrocers, towering apartment buildings and gated villas.
Entering Abu el Sid was like stepping into an idea of 1920s’ Cairo. Everything in it said old. We sat on low couches with big pillows around a large circular table. Light streamed in through the filigreed windows. The restaurant is described as being a hipster hangout where reservations are a must, but for a mid-afternoon lunch we were fine. We ordered falafels and tahini, lentil soup and, for Georgia, something she’d never tried before: koushari.
Koushari is one of those made-for-kids dishes. There’s nothing in this typically Cairene dish that a child wouldn’t like. (Except, maybe, my nephew in LA.) The base is pasta. Made correctly it will consist of two types, a spaghetti noodle and another macaroni-type, like fusilli. Then rice, brown lentils and chickpeas. The dish is then covered with tomato sauce. But the crown is its glory: fried onions. Georgia had been reluctant to go to Cairo, but the koushari won her over. As did the pyramids the next day. Just south of Cairo, there are three sites for viewing these giant monuments to belief in an afterlife: Saqqara, Dahshur and Giza. Historically speaking, it makes sense to do them in that order. You can get a guidebook and walk around thinking you know what you’re looking at, but if you’re going to go all the way to Egypt to see the things, it makes sense to budget yourself a real guide. We got lucky with Ahmed Seddik.
Ahmed has been busy a lot lately, working for foreign news channels covering the revolutions in Egypt and Libya. But his primary work is as an Egyptologist, lecturer and tour guide. He took extra care with Georgia to explain things to her though he was never condescending as we visited the Step Pyramid, the first one and completely solid, before the ancient Egyptians figured out they had to get a body inside; the Bent Pyramid, so called because the angle of ascent was changed halfway through when engineers realised, oops, the pitch was too steep; and then, of course, the Sphinx and the three main pyramids at Giza, the ones of lore – the Great Pyramid of Khufu (aka Cheops), the Pyramid of Khafre and that of Menkaure.
Because he’s worked on digs, Ahmed brings an insider’s knowledge to his stories about the pyramids, the rulers who were buried in them and the men who built them. He’s also a bit of a linguist, fluent in multiple languages, and an amusing punster. Our parting gift to him was a pun as well. When Ahmed explained that a particular ruler had built tombs of granite for his builders in thanks for their good works, my wife said it was in “granitude” for their service.
Paying a little bakshish to a guard, Ahmed guided Georgia and me into the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur, a damp, dark descent into Sneferu’s folly. We didn’t get too far. The smell of moisture got to us.
Afterward, we treated ourselves to a meal at Al Rubbayat restaurant in the Mena House Oberoi. I had grilled meats alongside a bed of soy-coloured rice shaped like a pyramid. Georgia had … koushari. Everyone left the table happy. Including Ahmed, who later told my wife not everyone pays for his meal.
For our second full day of touring Cairo, we thought it made sense to visit the Museum of Antiquities. There we would be able to see many of the items that once resided in or near the pyramids we’d seen the previous day. The museum is fascinating, dusty, old and disorganised, like your grandparents’ attic. You just never know what riches you’re going to find around the corner.
The highlight of the museum is on the first floor: the Tutankhamun Galleries. This is where you’ll find the death mask of the boy pharaoh and two of the three sarcophagi his mummy lay in for 3,200 years until discovery in 1922. The mask is the image most people are familiar with: 11kg of solid gold with eyes made of quartz and obsidian and outlined with lapis lazuli.
I’d always passed the Egyptian rooms of other museums, in search of newer artefacts, things I could better relate to. It’s impossible to do that here and why would you want to? This is as close to the beginnings of history as we have. The Greeks? The Romans? Newcomers, despite everything we’ve inherited from them.
One bequest was democracy. The Museum of Antiquities sits on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Walking from one to the other, we stepped from history of our making into history in the making; for it is in Tahrir Square that Egypt’s disempowered gathered and removed Hosni Mubarak from power.
When we were there, Tahrir Square was quiet, as far as protests go, but a bustle of cars and lorries and people hustling T-shirts, magnets and tissue packets. Crossing the street was dangerous but doable. One must look both ways, then walk like an Egyptian: straight into traffic.
We found rest in the bookshop of the American University of Cairo, a clean, well-stocked, well-laid-out shop focusing on Middle Eastern titles. We picked up some Tahrir Square T-shirts, the next-best thing to being there on January 25. Nearby was a less adequately stocked cafe called Cilantro. Every sandwich we asked for was unavailable. We had fruit juice and went off in search of Felfela Cafe, which is maybe a 20-minute walk away but in the heat of late June and in the traffic that is endemic in Cairo, we chose to take a cab.
Felfela is one of those stand-up-at-the-counter falafel places, an elbow-to-elbow eatery where you hustle to get to the front of the line to put in your order, then share space and conversation with local folks. The Egyptian variant of the falafel is called tamiya and made with fava beans and not chickpeas, which is more common in the Levant and the type we’re used to here in the UAE. The spices and herbs used in making the tamiya are familiar enough, and the vegetables and bread the same. A meal at Felfela is comfort food. In addition to the tamiya sandwich – Georgia had two – we had lentil soup (sharbet ads) and chicken shawarma sandwiches.
In planning our visit to Cairo, we thought it made sense to work our way through its history chronologically. Despite Cairo’s importance as a centre of Islamic studies now, Old Cairo is actually home to sites important to the three Abrahamic faiths. Here you will find the masjid of Amr Ibn el Aas, the oldest mosque in Cairo; several Coptic churches and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Cairo and refurbished by a foundation established by Phyllis Lambert, head of the Canadian Centre of Architecture in Montreal. It’s an important building to visit for the historical value (Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, published last month, explores some of these findings, including books and documents written at a time of mutual respect). Besides, there’s the well outside. Cairenes – Jews, Christians and Muslims – say it is from the spring here that pharaoh’s daughter pulled Moses from a basket. In the same way that the authenticity of Catholic Church relics are questioned, there’s a little suspension of disbelief required here, too. Wouldn’t the pharaoh have been upriver in Memphis? But it is the Egyptians’ story and we’ll let them tell it the way they want.
Similar stories abound in the Coptic Museum’s gift shop, where we found books claiming to identify places within Egypt that Joseph, Mary and Jesus had travelled after escaping Bethlehem and the wrath of King Herod. More importantly, the museum is filled with artefacts pointing to the desert origins of Christian monastacism.
On Mari Guirgis street, you’ll find a strip of tiny shops selling old coins, lamps made to look old and reproductions of black-and-white photographs. There are restaurants here, as well – we had tamiya and soup in one simply called Family Restaurant – and up the street near the Amr Ibn el Aas mosque and the bus station is the El Fustat Souq, worth a stop for higher-end goods and artwork.
For the lower-end goods and the excitement of bargaining and haggling with shopowners, you’ll want to head to Khan al Khalili. There is nothing in Abu Dhabi or Dubai to compare. Not even the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul matches the Khan for energy and size. It goes on and on, kiosk after kiosk, with numerous alley tributaries off the central artery, where men and boys sidle obsiquiously next to you: “T-shirts, sir? All sizes. Stones, miss? Lovely beads. Where from, sir? Canada? You-kay?” It’s enough to make you want to run, but you don’t. There are deals to be made and gifts to be bought. And when you’re done, stop at Fishawi’s Coffeehouse for a soft drink or, if you’re the smoking type, shisha.
The best part of Islamic Cairo lies outside the Khan. If you can imagine yourself in the 17th or 18th century, you can picture merchants coming from outside Cairo, from outside Egypt even, selling wholesale to middlemen or the purveyors in the marketplace, then retiring for the night in Beit el Suhaymi, a caravanserai, or merchants’ inn. Also a family mansion, the beit is a series of buildings built around a central courtyard with room spilling onto room, with light emitting through wooden latticework, and all kinds of neat corners and benches to rest in.
We ended our stay in Cairo where it began: eating in Zamalek. Sequoia restaurant rests on the island’s northern point, where the Nile reconverges. On a June night, with a breeze kicking up, it’s a great spot to enjoy a meal alfresco, watch people enjoying themselves, or feluccas zigzagging from bank to bank. The food equalled the locale. We feasted on haricots verts and tomatoes, a moutabel made with beetroot, lentil soup (of course) and spinach fatayer. Of course, no visit to Cairo would be complete without umm ali. The dessert has a legend behind it more complicated than its list of ingredients, involving kings and mistresses, rival lovers and severed heads. Everyone’s got their favourite way to make the dish. Sequoia’s is simple: it adds nuts to bread, milk, raisins.
We opted for Italian for our final meal in Zamalek, at Dido’s: cheese pizza, linguine with a white sauce, veal with pasta and an arrabiata sauce. I suppose, had we asked, we could have had our spaghetti plain, no oil, no butter. But we were in Cairo. We were living it up.