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

Even back in 1990 it was hard to find a place on earth that has been untouched by MacDonald's or Nike and was not swarming with tourists. I was always travelling to some remote area in the Middle East but it always seemed that even the most remote places on earth had been tapped as some sort of tourist trap. Siwa was one of those "almost untouched" places I found in 1992. Well, I didn't actually find it. It was mentioned in all of the Lonely Planet Guides and was on the map. However, it was so remote and hard to get to that very few tourists actually took the time to visit and when they did, it was briefly and not very often.

This is probably because Siwa is on the very edges of Egypt, on the Libyan border.

So I arrived in Siwa in 1992 with an Egyptian friend and was the only non-Egyptian in the entire village. Everyone knew I was there - especially since I was tall with red hair. The residents all seemed very fascinated with me when I first arrived and many people were eager to show me the area. However, after a few days word about who I was and why I was there had spread and I was able to take some photos without disturbing anyone.

One thing that was fascinating to me about this village was that all the married women were required to be completely veiled in tent-like cloth. Because this was akin to going around with a blanket over your head, it was hard for them to manage in public, so usually the children would do most of the public tasks like shopping or driving the horse carts, etc...Men would be working or "hanging out" in the village cafes. It was amazing to see such small children functioning in their adult roles - doing the weekly shopping, driving, etc...I took a lot of pictures of children in the village. They all seemed to enjoy the tasks they had. It was like they were "playing house" - they were having fun! And they had a lot more freedom than children do in America today. These children had a few tasks and chores but when they finished them they were allowed to roam and adventure in and out of the village as they liked.

This photo is of a young Siwan girl on the way to market.