Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Game

I remember the first time I entered a cafe in Cairo. I had just come from Chicago, the land of the "hip cafes" and my idea of a cafe was that it was the perfect place to sit and write in my journal, read a book or have a latte. However, my landlady soon found out about it and knocked on my door one day with some information. It was 1989.

"Only certain kinds of women sit in cafes alone" she informed me, "people will think things."

So the next time I went I brought my friend Susan. She loved the cafes as much as I did. All of them open to the streets, a great place for watching people and they didn't have lattes but they had awesome Turkish coffee - we loved ours "Mazboot" (with lots of sugar). And we got to practice our Arabic and received the best service!

We found out later that this was because not only did single women NOT frequent cafes but women in general did not go to cafes. You would think we would have noticed this, but Susan and I were oblivious. I can't remember who informed us, but by the time they did, we already had a lot of local friends at the cafe and we were addicted. I'm not sure if it was to the cafe atmosphere, or the great view it allowed us of the square or if it was to the coffee itself. Years later I wrote an article on cafes in Cairo and learned that hundreds of years ago coffee was actually banned as falling into the realm of "alcoholic beverages".

I often look back and wonder how much business we brought that little cafe on the corner of our street. We would often join in a game and even if we didn't we had a lot of fans who would come by and say hello or invite us to play. We were young college girls. I think we liked the attention. It was like having our own fan club. And all the older gentlemen were very polite to us and very protective if anyone tried to bother us.

I remember once I was passing by the cafe on my way back from the bakery and was groped by a young boy who apparently thought all Western women were "fair game". He was quite suprised when I yelled out in Arabic "Don't Touch Me" and about 15 men came out of the cafe, surrounded him in anger and started to reprimand him. The next time I saw him he crossed to the other side of the street!

The only drinks on the menu were Lipton tea with lots of sugar, Turkish coffee, a local Egyptian beer called "Stella", Omar Khiyyam Wine (a local red) and an Egytian version of the Greek "Ouzo" - I can't remember what it was called.

I am sure a lot has changed in modern Egypt. I think they even have Starbucks there now. But back in 1989 the cafes were pure Egypt.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Siwa Village Girl

This post can now be found on our new blog at:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Man with the Gun

The Story of The Man with the Gun

One of my favorite assignments when I was living in Cairo in 1992 was with La Terre Lointaine, a French magazine for children. The journalist I worked with was energetic, enthusiastic and interested in everything around her. Claire chose an Egyptian guide to take us around Egypt. He was from the upper class of Egypt, so he was not your typical guide. She chose him because he actually owned a car and spoke French as well as Arabic and English. I think she may have met him before in France, too. I am not sure, but I am sure that he had a big crush on her the entire week we travelled together researching and photographing for the magazine. That was fun to watch.

We were quite the trio - a well dressed Egyptian man in a nice car, a tall American girl with red hair and a small blond French woman with an eager smile. It was not hard to meet people.

Our first trip was down the coast of the Nile into some smaller Egyptian villages. On the way to one of these villages we stopped to take a look at some funny water-buffaloes near a bridge. Without even thinking I took out my camera and snapped some photos of the "gamoos".

I had forgotten that it was illegal to "take pictures of bridges" in Egypt.

Before I had even had time to put my camera down to my side I was looking into the barrel of a gun. Besides the fact that this was the first time I had ever seen a gun in front of my face, it was also being held by someone who didn't seem to have much experience with guns.

In fact, most people who held guns in Egypt did not seem to have much experience with guns. In fact that was one of the strangest things to see every day. On every corner of every major street there was a young man around the age of 20 holding a very large gun. After living in Egypt one became accustomed to seeing the guns all over. However, I never became accustomed to the way the "boys" held or managed their guns. I saw them using the bayonets to poke kittens out of bushes (which I then rescued at the risk of being shot), twirling them, leaning on them, casually holding them at odd angles...everything that had me convinced they had no idea how to use the weapon or even hold it safely.

Whenever I saw someone holding a gun I would cross the street.

So, it was probably the most terrifying experience of my life to be looking at one pointing in my face.

Our Egyptian guide immediately started to talk to him in Arabic. I thought it best not to speak even though I understood what they were saying. However, while they were exchanging a couple sentences I did the strangest thing. While the gun was pointed at my head I snuck my hand down to the camera, took out my film and put in a new one so they would not be able to take my film. It felt so excitingly deceptive. Like I was a famous war photographer and I can been captured by ....

POP. I woke up from my dream. The soldier looked very angry and asked for the film in my camera. I laughed to myself. Ha! He may have put a gun to my face but he was NOT going to get my pictures of the .... of the...what? All I had on the film was a couple of water buffalo.

Looking back it was obviously a sign of shock that I would risk angering the gunman for a couple shots of some silly cow-like animals.

Luckily he just wanted to assert his authority in the village so he took my film, made us fill out some paperwork at the police office and then let us go. But not before flirting with me shamelessly and then asking me to take his picture.