Sunday, 20 June 2010

Photogenic Cairo - Midan Hussain, Beit as-Suhaymi and the Nile

The Friday was a day of tourist delights as we packed in as much as possible before our departure to Luxor the following morning.

We started at Midan Hussein where we listened to the call to prayer and watched the crowds heading to the Mosque of Sayyidna Al-Hussein to pray.  Al-Hussein is the holiest site in Cairo and the most important mosque in Egypt, so sacred that only Muslims are allowed to enter.  Hundreds come to pray every day, and on a Friday this can go up to several thousand - when large umbrella's are opened outside the mosque to provide shade to those who cannot be accommodated inside. 

We then headed back to the streets of Islamic Cairo and Sharia Al-Muizz to see some of the sites in the daytime. 

We visited the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Sultan Qalawun, dating from the 13th Century.

We then visited the beautifully restored Ottoman house, Beit As-Suhaymi.  The most elegant remaining residence in Islamic Cairo, this was another clear highlight to our stay.  We explored room after room filled with beautiful panelled and painted ceilings, delicate wooden screens and ironwork, tiled floors, colourful light filtering through countless stained glass windows, all overlooking lush green courtyards.   

While we were looking round the house a lady with her daughter stopped to talk to us and ended up showing us all the things she learnt from the Arabic speaking tour - telling us something of the history of the place and pointing out the features in the rooms from the table 'just like her mother used to have' to the cupboards where the women used to store their things.

In the early evening, we went to meet Lorna and some of her friends for a sunset felucca ride on the Nile.  It was a wonderful way to spend an hour or so relaxing on the water, having a drink and a chat with the girls.

After the felucca, we went off to the Grand Hyatt to take our third evening cruise of the holiday. The boat was pretty quiet and the first part of the entertainment was bizarrely 2 singers taking turns to sing along to their ipod, karaoke style.  However, things picked up after that.  First of all with a fantastic dinner - the Grand Hyatt boat surely should probably boast the best food of all the Nile cruises - here is my very photogenic plate of dessert.

And after that we were entertained by bellydancer Camelia.  We were even dragged on stage at the end of the show to try some khaleegi style dance.  Here is Camelia with her Shamadan.

Khan, Mahmoud's (again!) and a Balcony party with Sara

Day 6 of the tour took us on a return visit to the Khan el Khalili to take our shopping more seriously, taking in Mahmoud's again along with visiting many of the smaller outlets.  This photo shows one of the many shops displaying their colourful wares in the Khan. 

In Mahmoud's I took the opportunity to order a made to measure saiidi dress and we stocked up on a whole range of costume essentials including galabeyas, skirts, hip scarves, veils and jewellery.

The evening, Sara Farouk came over to Lorna's apartment for a class and a chance to spend the evening chatting on the balcony.   A British dancer who moved to Egypt a few years back, Sara had plenty of stories to tell about the life there.  Also, Sara works for Eman's which meant I finally got a chance to order that galabeya.  Here is a photo of the view from Lorna's balcony.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Night of the Zar - the best of traditional Egyptian music

Makan, meaning the place in Arabic, is a small performance space in Downtown Cairo, by Saad Zaghloul metro, that holds regular concerts of live traditional music from the Egyptian Centre for Culture and Art (ECCA).  

The ECCA seeks to safeguard Egypt's rich musical heritage and oral tradition, researching, documenting, preserving, showcasing and celebrating some of the increasingly rare musical forms - both returning them to the Egyptian people and sharing with the world. 

One of the true highlights of my recent visit to Egypt, was a night at Makan to see the Mazaher ensemble, presenting the music of the Zar.  In its original form, the Zar is a healing ritual, one of the few, ancient healing ceremonies performed mainly by women for women. Zar is meant to pacify spirits and to harmonize the inner lives of the participants. A small circle of women gather with the aim of communicating, through music, song and energetic movements, with unseen entities or spirits.

Zar is a part of the underground culture and the practice of Zar in Egypt has nearly vanished.  In the whole of Egypt only around 25 people continue to practice this knowledge and this tradition.  The musicians of the Mazaher ensemble, Umm Sameh, Umm Hassan, Nour el Sabah are among the last remaining Zar practitioners in Egypt and they perform regularly at weekly musical evenings hosted by Makan.

This was a small, and intimate setting, with great acoustics and space for an audience of perhaps 60 people, made up of young and old alike, both Egyptian and foreign.  The show itself was an evening of stunning music with beautiful vocal melodies and energetic rhythms that could penetrate your entire being.  The lead singer had amazing charisma and with a glint in her eye she wove an interplay of gentle humour and deep emotion, which was both captivating and incredibly moving.

Here is a small clip that, although cannot possibly do the music justice, at least shows you something of the atmosphere of the place.  The song was one of the audience favourites - Banat el Madrassa. 

This second very short clip, shows two musical instruments featured in the Zar - the tamboura (a six-string lyre) and the manjour (a leather belt sewn with many goat hooves).

We helped ourselves to a cup of traditional tea during the interval and spoke to the Egyptian girl sitting next to us.  She had attended this concert for the first time only a week earlier, and already she had come back to hear more.  I now feel I need to plan my next trip to Egypt, so that I can do the same. 

Descriptions of the Zar ritual and Mazahar ensemble used in this blog entry are to be credited to the Egyptian Centre for Culture and Art.

If you want to receive regular updates from this blog, you can subscribe by email.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Ateliers, metro, and a night time walk

The next day, we wanted to step up our costume shopping and decided to hit some of the ateliers. 

First stop was Amira el Kattan of Pharaonix, which happens to be in the same street as Lorna's apartment.  The workshop was chock full of costumes all getting parcelled up for export to the United States, in every colour you could possibly imagine and each one carrying characteristic exquisite beading.  We chatted and looked through the albums and my friend tried a stunning asuit galabeya.    The photo is of Lorna being fitted by Amira - a fascinating process to watch. 

Next stop was Eman Zaki, a short taxi ride away to Dokki.  Turning up without an appointment caused a bit of confusion on arrival, but very soon we were busy trying on costume after costume in the workshop.  That was until I found my perfect galabeya and then more confusion, with no one to explain to me how to actually order the exact dress that I wanted.  Time seemed to disappear at Eman's and eventually we were left tired, hungry and exhausted and I still hadn't ordered my dress.  That's when Ramy the tailor came to our rescue.  He ended up taking me and my friend out to a place nearby to buy us some extremely welcome Tamiya and Foull (both Egyptian staples).  

Once we had recovered enough, we took the Metro to head back to old Cairo to continue our shopping.  The Metro in Cairo, is surprisingly clean, quick, efficient and incredibly cheap (12p per trip).  It is also a great way to travel and avoid the traffic, fumes and heat.  We opted to travel in the women's carriage and it was a lovely experience just to people watch and enjoy the journey. 

When we got out, we headed to Mohammed Ali Street to buy some Sagat.  Finding the place was also an adventure as when I asked for directions, several very helpful people then tried to do their best to direct us away as they couldn't understand any reason why tourists would want to come here. 

For the evening we headed out to enjoy traditional music at the Egyptian Centre for Culture and Art at Makan (the place) to see the zar music performance.

At the end of the show there was another surprise treat in store for us.  Lorna had just finished work, and came to pick us up with her friend Sherif so that we could enjoy a late night walk through Islamic Cairo.  We walked along Sharia Al Muizz, a street with beautiful renovated buildings which are lit up at night.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Seeing more sides to the city

To continue telling my tales of Cairo before the memory starts to fade, it took till day 4 of the trip for the temperature to drop far enough for us to visit el Haramat - the biggest tourist draw of all.

In typical Cairo fashion, the adventure again started with the taxi ride.  Instead of taking us straight to Giza, our driver chose to head towards Downtown - he was going the wrong way.  So we called our host to ask for help.  It turned out that the driver didn't know the way to the pyramids and Lorna had to give him directions.  Surely that would be the equivalent of an Edinburgh taxi driver not knowing where the castle is - it simply couldn't happen. 

At the pyramids, after quite a bit of bargaining we went for a camel ride.  This was a huge amount of fun.  We rode out to take in the amazing view, far away from the tourists at the sphinx and at the great pyramid.  I got to practice my Arabic, and we took all the touristy pictures. 

The main tourist attraction over with for the day, it was back to Mohandiseen and the start of our next mission, shopping.  Instead of exploring the famous shoe shops, we went mad in the 2.5 Egyptian Pound Shop (25p) buying up so many different things, from presents to a rather nice selection of flowery hair ties - perfect for performing. 

Then it was back to the Khan el Khalili, to start the costume shopping at the famous Mahmoud's. 

Exploring all four floors of costume heaven we piled up the costumes and tried on everything we could see - dresses, skirts, hip scarves... it went on forever.  In fact we were there so long we became tired, hungry and exhausted.  And that was exactly when we got rescued for the second time that day.

Lorna called at just the right moment, and she told us exactly what we had to do next. 

So we went to Naguib Mahfouz Cafe in the Khan.  We sat, enjoyed fantastic Mezze, and most enjoyable of all listened to some exquisitely played live music on qanun and reqq.  And they even played Enta Omri.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

More Cairo adventures

A lie in and then a bit too much time spent in BellyLorna's kitchen eating watermelon meant a pretty late start to Day 3 of our holiday.  Undeterred, we set out in the late afternoon to El 'Ala'a, the Citadel.

This meant another taxi taking highlight of our holiday - laughing and joking with driver Ahmed who offered us a share in his packed lunch and drinks and a chance to practice my newly aquired arabic - to decline. 

We headed straight for the Mohammed Ali Mosque, and what an amazing place.  It was really something to leave the sunshine to enter the peace of the interior of the mosque, a huge space lit up by 100s of little lights hanging from tinkling chandeliers.   My photos do not do this place justice.

After a hot and dusty walk along the main road by the City of the Dead, we then eventually made it to Al Azhar Park.  There were plenty of Cairenes enjoying the park the late afternoon and we soon attracted a crowd of children come to stare and smile at us and practice their English - typically "Hello", "Welcome to Egypt" and "What is your name?"

After that it was a short taxi ride to the Khan al Khalili to enjoy the cooler evening in Midan Hussein, watching the locals come out to play.  We then found our way across to the Wikala of al-Ghouri for the free Whirling Dervish show.  This was a beautiful evening featuring an amazing singer, dancing drummers, beautiful music and of course the colourful spectacle of the Whirling Dervish dance.  We had to resist the overwhelming urge to get up and join in - it looked like so much fun.  I would have given anything for the chance to be one of the background dancers and attend a one of their training sessions. 

Here is a very short video I took of the Sagat player and some photos of the Whirling.

Our last stop was the famous El Fishawi's coffee house for a chance to sit, watch people go by and engage in some amusing banter with some by passing vendors. 

If you want to receive regular updates from this blog, you can subscribe by email.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Welcome to Cairo!

The taxi ride from the airport proved an exciting opening to my Cairo holiday.  After a minor collision and the taxi driver needing to ask half the residents of Mohandiseen for directions, we eventually arrived at Lorna's to find that the lift up to her apartment wasn't working.  Luckily for us the driver then proceeded to carry our suitcases up the 8 flights to her apartment.  It was only once the driver descended again that Lorna told us "nothing wrong with the lift", pressed the call button and then opened the door. 

BellyLorna is a professional dancer Edinburgh, working in Cairo.  She also rents out rooms to visiting dancers to help make ends meet and we were lucky enough to have selected this as our accommodation of choice for the visit.  After settling us into the apartment and giving us a good dose of tourist info, plenty of instructions and even a phone with an Egyptian Sim card, Lorna headed off to work her first sail. 

That night, we went to join Lorna's boat, the Nile Pharaoh, for a dinner cruise and show and most of all to see Lorna herself, perform with her band.  We got a bit of the VIP treatment there, what with being Lorna's guests and all.

It was a great show, including some beautiful Arabic music, the first Tanoura of the holiday, and of course 2 sets performed by the beautiful Lorna.  Something I really enjoy about watching Lorna is the warmth and humour in her dancing, which I think is summed up in these pictures. 

The food was pretty good too and there was even a Tabouli that I'm still thinking about.  After her performance, Lorna hung out with us for the rest of the sail and then we returned to the flat to chill on her balcony.  Unfortunately this was also my first introduction to the Cairo mosquito who seemed particularly drawn to limbs soaked in Superdrug repellent. 

Day 2 proved too hot for the pyramids (Lorna went as far as checking the forecast and putting a note under the door to tell us so), so we went instead to Il Mathaf il Masri, the Egyptian Museum.  It was a great day out and we took in pretty much everything in the Top 10 list, and along with eyeballing the great Egyptian Pharaohs we also saw enough jewellery to whet the appetite for the costume shopping later to come. 

Night time came the chance to take the second of our Nile Cruises, this time the Nile Maxim to see Randa, a dancer I previously knew only by reputation, and You Tube of course.  The show lived up to expectations and Randa was indeed amazing, although to reveal my guilty secret, I loved her band and her two singers even more - my heart does not lie with belly dance.  Here is Randa, complete with Randa costumes and Randa band.


After the cruise, we were met by Lorna and her friends and whisked off to downtown bar called Arabesque of all places and a chance to let my hair town. Personally, I fell in love with the kitsch interior decor.

Related Posts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...