Scotsabroad's Weblog

May 24, 2008

The Yacoubian Building

Filed under: Books,Cairo — scotsabroad @ 3:21 pm


Downtown Cairo is not an area we have walked much since we arrived in the city so on Friday we decided to spend some time exploring the streets. We have often been stuck in horrendous traffic in central Cairo but yesterday, being early Friday morning, it was bizarre to find the streets eerily quiet; like a setting from a John Wyndham novel. Coincidentally, Alaa Al Aswany used a building on Talaat Harb St. as inspiration for his novel, The Yacoubian Building, and this was one of the landmarks we had come to find. A couple of planned cafe-stops were added incentives to Shona and the boys. We walked from the Metro station to Talaat Harb. The streets and many of the buildings go back to the 1860s when Ismail had the area rebuilt in the style of New Paris. If you look hard enough (often upwards) you can imagine how elegant the area looked. Groppi’s is a famous coffee house on Midan Talaat Harb where the Free Officers (Nasser et-al) supposedly plotted against the monarchy. It is one of those cavernous places that is living on past glories but doesn’t have a clue what to do at the moment. Great facade but we didn’t stay. Cafe Riche also claims to have stimulated the revolutionaries and also helped kick-start Umm Kalthoum’s singing career. It was shut. We ended up in another restaurant called Felfela that was a wee oasis (it serves beer) with a few fish tanks to amuse the boys. 

Layout 1

The Yacoubian Building is not yet a prominent landmark for tourists and we took a while to find No. 34 on Talaat Harb. There is no sign at the entrance. I ventured inside to see a most magnificent old lift. I asked the doorman if I could photograph it and he refused. We all went back in some minutes later and the lift had gone but so had the doorman. Shona noticed the name inside the entrance that merited a quick photograph before leaving hastily. It is no surprise, being in this great city, to notice the cobwebs and dust accumulating on such a literary landmark. If you’ve not read the book it is worth a read, as is his most recent novel set in Chicago. Aswany is still a practicing dentist in Cairo which makes me wonder about the last time we all had a check-up.

It has been quite a busy week for the boys and the school. On Wednesday Cairo had his Sports Day. He won lots of points for his house Fire. Lucas had an Egyptian day on Thursday and went to school dressed in his galabeya. The nursery sampled Egyptian food.  The same day I took my Year 1s to the Modern Art Gallery; it turned out to be fabulous. Just enough, not cluttered with sculpture and pictures that stimulated the children’s inference skills. I have got the next art lesson sorted (see painting below) but also children now very much up for creating sculpture of their own.

Then it was Family Day at NCBIS yesterday from 4 -8 pm. Shona and I were in charge of the Water slide. The boys had a great time on campus mostly unsupervised! Lucas is at a birthday party today and Cairo cycled to Katameya with me for a swim. I managed a run in the Wadi yesterday as well. The only negative is the sudden emergence of cockroaches. I killed a monster last night in a colleague’s flat and there were a couple this morning dying on their backs downstairs in our villa. We spray regularly.



May 16, 2008

No Sweat Minarets

Filed under: Cairo — scotsabroad @ 7:02 pm

Of the original sixty gates to the walled city of Al-Qahira, only three remain. We visited two of the gates in the north last week and today we set out for Bab Zawayla, the main southern entrance. Until 150 years ago the gates of Bab Zawayla were closed each night and I had read that each gate weighed four tons. Each gate was also studded with human teeth, and bits of cloth, as offerings to a holy saint thought to reside behind the gate. Sufferers of headaches or tooth pain still seek the help of this saint but are not allowed to put their teeth into the doors. 

The walk to Bab Zawayla was incredible. We ventured through narrow streets taking in all the sights, sounds and smells. Al Qahira was just wakening up as we arrived and shops and vendors were opening slowly to face the day. We saw fresh meat, including live rabbits and birds, fish stalls and vegetable markets still under cover, cafes with customers already sucking on the water pipes, entrances being washed down, bras and underwear being hung (for sale) in the basement of a thousand year old mosque, bales of cotton stacked up for bargaining, traffic moving through the narrow streets following unwritten rules and the constant friendliness of the populace often telling us we were heading away from the tourist bazaar and then, as we explained where we wanted to go, helping us with directions to Bab Ziwayla while trying to engage with Lucas. Just magic.

We found, quite by chance, the last remaining fez workshop, kept alive we read later by sales to five-star hotels and tourists. The fez fell from fashion under Nasser as a badge of allegiance to the Ottoman influence but also as a sign of acceptance to colonial rule. Waiters, doormen and entertainers are the main wearers nowadays. The craft is unlikely to survive. Just like that.

The gate has been magnificently restored. We climbed all over it. We found teeth, now in a glass display case, but what makes Bab Zuwayla special are the two minarets, built 400 years later, on top of the turrets offering incredible views. I was unsure if the boys would be up for climbing just one of them but in the end they went up both. The viewing ledge on the first opening was not for those afraid of heights, even I had my back to the wall, and we had to abandon our attempt at the very top (on both minarets) as the stone steps ran out to be replaced by an iron spiral ladder and a sheer drop. I’m all for letting the boys take reasonable risks but I was amazed at how the climb did not seem to faze them. Do we exert too much of our anxieties and our risk assessment culture on our children? All I can say is, I was very glad to get them down. The narrow spiral steps can be seen in the picture below of the boys at the top of a minaret. They were filthy when we got back into the street.

Lunch at Al Azhar Park was a bonus. We watched children fly kites off the old wall and a kestrel give an aeronautical display above the city skyline. We talked of the summer and how much we are looking forward to returning to Scotland. But we won’t be upset when it is time to come home.


May 11, 2008

In, Out and About Al Qahira

Filed under: Cairo — scotsabroad @ 4:32 pm


Last weekend we were in Old Cairo. On Friday we walked into Al Qahira where the first walls and gates of this new city were completed by 970. Khan-al-Khalili is at the heart of this district (the tourist bazaar) and the place to buy treasure, junk or tat. Al Qahira’s gates, mosques and streets are treasures- only recently being acknowledged by the Egyptian authorities and restored. We drove to the Khan and walked from Midan al-Husayn up a street called El-Gamaleya towards the northern gates. We came to Bab el-Nasr and walked the fortifications to reach Bab al-Futuh. Cairo was very interested in the arrow slits and the shafts above Bab el-Futuh used to pour burning oil on those below. Incredibly, both gates are still busy thoroughfares into this part of the city. The Mosque of El-Hakim is just inside Bab al-Futuh and is quite beautiful. The boys and I entered the inner courtyard where Lucas had a great time scattering a large flock of pigeons. Al-Hakim was one of Cairo’s most notorious leaders, a bampot, but he did order that all the dogs in the city be exterminated as their barking annoyed him. Oh, to have this power. He eventually went for a night ride up in the Moqattam Hills and was never seen again.

We turned back towards the Khan following El-Moezz Street and looking out for a recently restored house called Bayt al-Sihayma. This 300 year old merchant’s house is actually two (some books say three) houses that were joined together, the older house dating back to 1648. The bathroom was fantastic. Coloured glass shapes in the domed ceiling and proper plumbing. I could see myself showering and shaving there. Cool place.


By this time we were wilting, hot and hungry.

We walked towards the Khan and a cafe named after the famous Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz. Walking down El-Moezz Street was incredible, like being inside a David Robert’s painting, with many striped mosques and buildings, while dodging modern day traffic. Mosques very noisy being a Friday.

 Revitalised we shopped a bit in the Khan. 

Cairo for Dummies?

May 8, 2008

Domestic news

Filed under: Uncategorized — scotsabroad @ 5:54 pm

I don’t have a visit to post about but just some everyday news of the things that the boys have been doing recently. I am conscious that when they do speak on Skype they don’t really tell you a lot. For half day at the weekend  Andy goes to work; the boys just play at home until he comes home. I potter about doing all those jobs that need doing. I’m sure I don’t need to explain further.

 The boys both went to ‘Bubble’ shows at school last week and so decided to give me a bubble show of their own at the weekend. Just as I took this picture a huge bubble on Cairo’s hand burst.



Because I am working part time (not sure if I have ever mentioned this before!) I get to collect Lucas from nursery three times a week at 1pm. Sometimes I have things to do in the kitchen and he just loves guddling there. He squeezed four oranges  to get this glass full of juice – but then wouldn’t drink it as he didn’t like the taste.

Of course guddling can have different consequences. Today Lucas was making nests for his tortoise with the paper from the hole punch. I warned him that if he made a mess he would have to get the hoover out and, sure enough, he had to get the hoover out. Perhaps I put the idea in his head, what do you think? How happy does he look doing this?!



 Judy and Alec always give super presents to the boys(of course, you all do). Lucas was given much played with meccano for his birthday and Cairo got a wooden model kit. He has started it and is very conscientiously gluing a section at a time and holding it in place for 30 seconds.  It is a work in progress still but will look great when he finishes it. In this picture he is wearing his pyjamas!


The final piece of news is rather fantastic as far as I am concerned. Cairo likes a new food. The photo tells the story.


P.S. I took a lot of photos of the flowers in the garden one afternoon when the gardener was here. I shall post some of them later in the week but thought you might like to know that we have a mango tree.


May 2, 2008

Babylon Feeling

Filed under: Cairo — scotsabroad @ 5:24 pm

Good old Cairo. Having spent a good part of last week in Hurghada, surrounded by Russian flesh-monsters, crap service and bad decor, today it was refreshing to be back in our city and out and about. We decided to take the Metro to Old Cairo (Misr el-Qadima) to find the Hanging Church within the area once known as Babylon of Egypt.

The Metro is brilliant: 1 LE gets you anywhere and children go free. The only downside is the time allowed for getting on and off the train. We joked about what we would do if we got separated on the Metro Line and began to briefly discuss with Cairo a contingency plan  – but then thought better of it in case it gave Lucas ideas. Indeed, there was a moment when separation nearly became a reality  – but you can find a huge amount of inner strength when you don’t want some automatic doors to close. The Metro stopped right outside the entrance to the Coptic Museum at Mari Girgis and in the heart of Old Cairo.

I tend to forget that Cairo, during it’s one thousand four hundred year history, has worshipped a God, spiritually and symbolically expressed through the prevailing strength of either a cross or a crescent. The Romans built a fort on this site in about AD 100 and one of the two towers still remain at the entrance. We found the real entrance to the Fortress of Babylon round the corner totally deserted and derelict. It was this Iron Gate (see Cairo’s picture below) that was opened when Babylon surrendered to the Arabs in 640 after a siege of seven months. Old Cairo reflects about 1000 years, an interlude, between pharonic and Islamic civilisation and also the enduring faith of Egypt’s Copts. It was on top of this gateway that the Hanging Church was built across two of the bastions. Also inside Babylon there are other churches and a synagogue. Says a lot for the tolerance of the future Muslim leadership who eventually controlled the city and does not sit comfortably with recent Bush-led opinions about Islam being different from other ‘People of the Book.’ Indeed recent ‘Crusades’ launched from the West against Muslim countries (and people) seem very crude and bigoted when they fail to distinguish between a faith and the fundamentalism hiding within them all. Still, in the city of Cairo, religious architecture from both of these great faiths is most impressive and often share common ground.

The Hanging Church was beautiful. Inside the thirteen pillars holding up the pulpit represent Jesus and the twelve disciples. One of the pillars is black, for Judas, and another is grey for ‘doubting’ Thomas. We then visited the Coptic Museum. This very impressive building stole the limelight from the artifacts. The ceilings in Room 18, taken from old Egyptian houses, were incredible. We then made for the church of St Seguis. This was an incredible walk through narrow lanes and down worn steps that had every tourist trap (for bus parties) known to man. Some shops off the lanes were spaceship in size selling everything from papyrus to religious icons. However, we wanted to reach the church as it is the oldest church within the walls of Old Cairo and Romans garrisoned in the fort may have built it. I wanted to see the crypt below the church where (on this site) the Virgin Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus are said to have stayed during their flight into Egypt. So did everyone else. The crypt was closed. We looked through the closed doors at the marble flooring below and took in the smell not dissimilar to vinegar. We could only wonder at the crowds, some bringing wilted flower displays (from other churches, weddings?) to place in the church and the intermittent flashing lights attached to a wall hanging of some saint. Very multi-sensory religion. I feel Cairo will survive a wee bit longer yet.


P.S. Running with a few chemistry teachers has its benefits. When I spoke of the vinegar smell in the church they announced they were probably using an acetic acid based cleaner on the marble floor. Also might mean it will reopen once the vinegar has cleaned the floor.

May 1, 2008

The Worst Hotel Room Art.

Filed under: Worst Hotel Room Art — scotsabroad @ 4:04 pm

Intercontinental Hotel, Soma Bay, South of Hurghada.  Room 2118.


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