Cairo - Round-Up

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

So I’m back in Germany, now. My computer stopped working while in Egypt, so I’ll probably have to wait until I get back to Austin to put the new ones online. So it goes.

Anyway, Haley had a personal connection in Cairo, a jazz saxophonist named John Dikeman who lives in Zamalek in a huge apartment with his very international hotel-industry businesswoman girlfriend Cristina. They showed us around and let us both spend a couple of nights sleeping on their sofa. (Haley’s still there, I believe.) Many thanks to both of them, of course!

Whew. So where to begin? Um…

Mohammad Mounir. So John had a gig playing back-up for Nubian pop sensation Mohammad Mounir on Firday night. Nubian pop? If the Mounir show was any good indicator, it’s a kind of blend of jazz-funk fusion that most Americans are pretty comfortable listening to and the airier, more mystical dronings of traditional Nubian music (Nubia = Upper Egypt = southern Egypt). Mounir, a dark thin Arab gentleman, came off as a kind of Tom Jones figure — an aging crooner who had seen his star rise in the 70s and who still knew how to stir up a bit of sex appeal and emotional response in his crowds. Except. This being the Middle East, the women tended to stay quiet and subdued while the boys got up on each others shoulders and ripped their shirts off and that kind of thing. Odd. But good. I enjoyed it.

The event took place in the parking lot outside of the Cairo Opera House and the staging was actually quite elaborate. Mounir had a live ten-piece (about) behind him featuring a couple horns, a drummer, guitars, a guy on keyboards, one on fife, etc. And they had extensive lighting and every other song featured some kind of firework: big exploders or colored smoke or spinning crazy fireworks hanging from the metal stage frame or flares shooting every which way or spark-flames shooting up form the front of the stage or something.

Oh, and Egyptian bureaucracy being what it is, we had to go through six (6) checkpoints after buying out ticket, each time showing the ticket once again and maybe every other time submitting to a search or metal detector. Rumor has it that the government keeps unemployment low by hiring ten people to do what one might be capable of. This seemed to make sense, given the number of security people lingering about the city doing nothing but bothering tourists to let them take photos of the tourists for baksheesh…


Saqqara. Well, I had given up on going out to Saqqara, but once Haley got into town we all decided to make the trip. (We = Haley and myself, John, Cristina, and Darren, a local keyboardist originally from New Zealand who sometimes plays in combos with John.) Darren lives in the south of Cairo in a nice, more residential neighborhood called Maadi. He has his own car, so he drove us down, out west through Giza and then south through the irrigated farmlands to Saqqara. What’s interesting about the Egyptian greenbelt that runs along the Nile down to Lake Aswan in the south is that once you get south of Cairo it’s only a few miles wide. So. We drive through tall palm tree groves and wet fields of whatever grains and vegetables with farmers and lazy, over-worked donkeys pulling carts this way and that — but the horizon is sand-colored desert hills, completely devoid of life and liquid. The Sahara (on the west side of the Nile, at least). As soon as the irrigation ends, absolute desert begins. You could almost draw the line where it happens.

Saqqara is an outcropping of Pharaonic ruins about 20km south of Cairo. It seems to have more actual stuff to look at than Giza, but the pyramids are older and not quite as accomplished. Pharaoh Zoser’s Step Pyramid is considered, though, the oldest surviving stone monument built by man. I’ll put up photos as soon as possible, but it’s essentially a pyramid prototype. But instead of having flat, angled sides it has big rock steps. It sits in the middle of an extensive complex of pillars and buildings and stone art that still remains on-site.

It also sits in the middle of an extensive complex of people trying to squeeze extra LEs out of the tourists, like the dipshit who just lingers at the entrance to one of the temples asking for baksheesh. Haley and I decided to find some toilets before our camel ride that afternoon and baksheeshed this dude to get the info — but he wouldn’t tell us. We didn’t give him enough. So fuck it. We left him with the money and found it on our own. Like I’ve commented before, this whole culture of baksheesh at the tourist spots is rediculous. Especially when someone expects more than a couple of Egyptian Pounds to point to the toilet. If I’m being a culturally-insensitive American tightwad, please let me know in the comments. I hated it. And, I reiterate, I think it reallyreallyreally gets in the way of actual communication or helpfulness when after any little thing a tip is expected. If these guys were really providing a service at the monuments (and I’ve heard that they do help keep the places a bit clean and keep the tourists on the designate paths, which is great). That’s great. But. I suspect more western tourists would happily pay two, three, or four times the cost to enter some of these places. Maybe that extra money could be spread around a bit and everyone would wind up with more…

Anyway. I can whine about that issue endlessly and the want me to leave, so I’ll wrap up. More soon… Sorry to leave it hanging…


Posted Thu, July 28, 2005, 5:26am EST by Eric

Just checking in. I have to ask if any one of you spoke the language well enough to directly ask where a toilet was in Egypt. That's just one of those basic phrases like 'una cerveza mas, por favor'. =)

Call when you make it back state-side. That goes for Haley, too.

Take care.


Posted Thu, July 28, 2005, 11:46am EST by Brian

It's pathetic how some some people will behave they are hungry and live in a shanty with a family to feed.

Baksheesh II

Posted Thu, July 28, 2005, 7:04pm EST by Josh

Yeah, I mean it's any person's right to ask someone else for money. I guess after two weeks of walking around as if I had a giant, glowing dollar bill on my forehead I felt a bit uncomfortable about the constant pestering.

Anyway, I was perfectly happy to baksheesh well above rates to people who I felt did a good job for me. The guy who showed me around the al-Ahzar Mosque got about 30LE because, as a former student, he knew his stuff and communicated it quite well.

I mean, do you give every homeless person along the street in Austin a buck as you walk by? Or give money to the Salvation Army? If it's charity we're talking about, there's no real reason why one has to be in Egypt to help out those less fortunate...

Anyway. Yeah. It is, though, a weird issue in a place where a group of twenty-somethings can spend more money in a day than some of these people will make in a year...


Posted Fri, July 29, 2005, 10:28am EST by Brian

I wouldn't give them anything, but I would empathize with them. Share their pain.

Baksheesh III

Posted Sun, July 31, 2005, 8:55pm EST by Josh

By the way, I wasn't trying to jump on you, there -- just going through my own reasoning on the matter. It's a tough question and it leads to all sorts of other questions about how those with wealth should relate to (and help, possibly) those without.

(And if you're reading this, you're probably in the top 5% of global earners...)