Cairo Life

this article was done by a Singaporean acquaintance of mine about a week ago (published in the Sunday Times).  i don’t really agree with all that he posted below but then hey, its a free country (here)!  …


IN CAIRO WITH…Hermes Lin Yichao

Age: 24 

Occupation: Trainee manager 

Length of stay: One year 


Cairo is a city that thrills, in every sense of the word, says Hermes Lin Yichao, a trainee hotel manager with Hilton Hotels Worldwide, who has been in the Egyptian capital for a year. 

While Cairo literally means The Conqueror in Arabic, it is also known to many as Um ad-Dunya (Mother of the World), a reference to its antiquity. 

Established in the 10th century, the city is a big tourist draw with the Sphinx and pyramids of Giza about 20km away. 

Like many ancient cities, Cairo has been occupied by invaders from the Mamluks and Ottomans to the British. 

Today, it is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, with nearly seven million inhabitants. It is also an educational and cultural hub. 


The best way to explore the city is… 

By white metered taxis. The meter starts at 2.50 Egyptian pounds (S$0.60)) and generally increases by 0.25 Egyptian pounds a kilometre. However, meters are sometimes rigged and drivers may spend the entire trip haggling for a higher fare. 

Be assertive and never pay more than 25 Egyptian pounds (S$6) for any trip within Cairo, regardless of the distance. 

The city is often classified as one of the most dangerous cities in the world to drive in. 

Public transport consists of a limited underground train network, charging 1 Egyptian pound for trips to any station and a sprawling bus network, with fares costing 0.5 to 2 Egyptian pounds, depending on the distance. However, both are not recommended if you do not speak Arabic as they are poorly maintained and do not have proper signage. 

The best time to visit is…  

During winter between November and March, when the temperature is about 25 deg C in the day and 10 deg C at night. Cairo usually has a very brief spring and autumn and it almost never rains. 

Summer temperatures can be searing, going up to 40 deg C, and the discomfort is often worsened by the pollution. 

Which places in the city excite you? 

Wander in Islamic Cairo in the city centre, known for its historic mosques and Islamic monuments, and you will be transported back to a bygone mediaeval era. 

The Cairo Citadel, a fortification built in the 12th century, is the most prominent landmark. 

Notable buildings in the district include the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the oldest and largest mosque in Cairo, and Al-Azhar University, the oldest university in the world with a history dating back to AD970. 

The Egyptian Museum, the city’s main museum, is bursting at the seams with the priceless trove of Egypt’s antiquities. It is open from 9am to 5pm daily, and the entrance fee for adults is 60 Egyptian pounds (30 Egyptian pounds for students). But the real heart of Cairo lies in the quiet moments you steal in between: sipping a sugary chai (tea) or puffing leisurely on a sheesha (water pipe) by the Nile during the evenings while watching people go by. 

Do you need to know the language to get around? 

Most of the residents generally do not speak much English. Picking up basic Arabic phrases will go a long way in building some rapport with them. 

For example, ‘maharba’ means hello, while ‘shukran’ means thank you. A smile will be appreciated by most Egyptians too. 


Where can you find food that is close to Singaporean fare? 

Asian food is not common in Cairo and there are only a few restaurants which serve authentic Asian fare. 

The best Asian restaurant that I frequent is Kamala (Conrad Cairo, 1191 Corniche El Nil, tel: +202 2580 8430) which features cuisine from South-east Asian countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. 

The restaurant has attracted a large number of loyal Singaporean diners, including the Singapore ambassador to Egypt. 

Dishes on the menu include favourites such as Indonesian ikan pepes (steamed fish in banana leaves) and ayam bakar (flame-broiled chicken), and Thai green curry and stir-fried basil jumbo prawns. 

Prices are surprisingly moderate, considering the well-appointed interiors, food quality and service. 

It costs about 120 Egyptian pounds for lunch and 150 Egyptian pounds for dinner, depending on how much you order. 

Your favourite eating place is… 

GAD restaurant (13 Fouad St, Downtown Cairo, tel: +202 2576 3353), which specialises in traditional delicacies such as shawarma (a wrap with different meats), kibda (Alexandrian-style liver with chilli) and some of the best fatir (flat bread) in town. 

While you can get a sit-down meal at the air-conditioned area upstairs, the restaurant also has a very popular takeaway section downstairs, which is always crowded. You will be able to eat to your heart’s content for 20 to 30 Egyptian pounds. 

Do not leave the place without trying…  

Koshery, a vegetarian dish that was originally popular with the Coptic Christians who adhered to a meatless diet during their fast. Ingredients include rice, lentils and macaroni, with a spicy tomato sauce topped with caramelised onions. It costs 5 Egyptian pounds, and is an Egyptian staple. 

The coolest place to chill out in is… 

Sequoia Restaurant (53 Abou El Feda Street, tel: +202 2735 6050/51), which has gained popularity as an upmarket venue offering exotic Mediterranean cuisine in a laid-back atmosphere with a sweeping view of the Nile. Sequoia has a minimum charge of 100 Egyptian pounds. 


What do you think Singaporeans will like most about your city? 

The ancient history, the rich culture and the friendly inhabitants. 

What is one place you always take your friends to when they visit you? 

Al-Azhar Park (Salah Salem Street, tel: +202 5103868). Listed as one of the world’s 60 greatest public spaces, this 30ha green haven offers a place for locals and foreigners to escape from the cacophony of the city. There is also an open-air observation deck on a hill in the park that provides a breathtaking view of Old Cairo and its citadel. 

What is the one thing you must do in your city? 

Catch the whirling Sufi dervishes from the Al Tannoura Troupe (Wekalet Al-Ghoury Arts Center, Al Azhar Street, Cairo Egypt, tel: +201 2590 3737). Performances are held twice a week – on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 8pm – and admission is free. Show up early as tickets are given out on a first-come-first-served basis. 

For believers, Sufism is the inner, mystical dimension of Islam, while Sufi whirling is a unique form of physical, active meditation. 

The spinning of one’s body is seen as mirroring the movement of the planets orbiting the sun and is believed to help one surrender the ego and personal desires on the path to spirituality. 

The hypnotic music allows the dancer to attain ecstasy and is a symbolic attempt to approach heaven and the Source of All Perfection, Allah. It is quite a mesmerising spectacle to watch, including the beautiful multicoloured skirts which the performers detach during a performance and twirl above their heads and torsos. 

Sufi dancers must train from a very young age, before their bodies’ inner ear is fully developed, which regulates their sense of balance. This is the only way they can spin continuously for an hour or more without becoming dizzy or ill. 

What do you do on your weekends?  

Travelling. Cairo is a massive city and you almost never run out of things to see and do. When the crowds and the intensity of the city get too much for me, I check out nearby Egyptian cities that are close to the coast such as Alexandria, Port Said, Ismailia and El Ain Sokhna for their beautiful beaches and let the refreshing sea breezes set my mind at ease. 


Where is the best place to go on a shopping spree?  

Khan el Khalili market (bordered by al-Azhar Street and Muski Market). It is easy to lose a day shopping and wandering in this sprawling souk in the heart of Cairo. Most of the shopfronts conceal cramped workshops, where craftsmen produce lanterns, hookah (sheesha) pipes and brassware using traditional techniques. 

But be ready for a good haggle. The merchants are masters in the art of haggling, and even Egyptians joke that they can never buy at local prices. 

After all the walking, give your feet a rest at the famous El Fishawy teahouse (5 Sikkit Khan al-Khalili, Islamic Cairo North). This cafe is the Grand Dame of Cairo’s coffeehouses, at 250 years of age. A drink there costs 10 Egyptian pounds. 


Are there any festivals that travellers should look out for?  

At the El-Korba Festival, which usually takes place in May, entertainment and cultural activities are the order of the day. Peace and diversity meet in one place and people indulge in the beauty of the ancient Heliopolitan district. 

Are there things to see or do outside the city?  

Apart from the usual haunts for the Singaporean tourist on the typical Cairo-Alexandria-Luxor-Aswan-Abu Simbel tours along the Nile, I would highly recommend diving in the Red Sea at the seaside resorts of Sharm El-Shiekh ( ) or Hurghada (141 Kotas Mall Hurghada Red Sea, tel: +2 0100-0633030, ). 

If time allows, include desert adventures at the beautiful Siwa Oasis, one of Egypt’s most isolated settlements, or the stunning black and white deserts at Bahariya Oasis.


Ramadan Dates

Ramadan Cupcakes

Bak Chang

Onigiri (with a coating of plum shavings)

egypt vs algeria

copyrite: amun_79 @ photobucket

the insults have been thrown.  the media had done its best to rub it in on the opposing side’s face.  the fans from both sides have been trying their best to deride the other team.  the leaders of both countries had to step in to soothe the unbridled nationalism which could boil over into violence.

yes, it is Egypt’s last qualifying match for World Cup 2010 tomorrow – 14 November 2009.  a last chance for Egypt to reach the pinnacle of international football following a 20-plus year absence.  the Pharaohs will need to win by three clear goals to leapfrog over group leaders, the Desert Foxes, and qualify.  the stadium, thankfully located far from where I live, will be a cauldron of mainly young, male football-obssessed fans baying for Algerian blood.  it could get ugly.

the stage is almost set.  flags of Egypt are being displayed all over people’s homes.  Egyptians are waving them too on the streets.  some even hang the flags on the cars and honking in delight.  all these acts of patriotism a full two days before the match!  woe to those who choose to wear or carry anything that bears a remote resemblance to the Algerian emblems tomorrow evening.

the Egyptians love for football is so great that Cairo’s notorious traffic jams will literally cease to exist as the entire country come to a standstill from 7-9 pm tomorrow, where the match is telecast live over the open-air tv.   victory will surely set off wild dances, more honking of car horns (i.e. noise pollution), waving of flags and an entire night of celebration in the streets.  hopefully, defeat will not result in any violent incidents.

not merely for the love of the sport, football is also a welcome distraction for the difficult lives of the majority of the Egyptians.  perhaps the national team’s achievements bring a sense of accomplishment to the ordinary folks who know that they may never achieve that much under their present difficult circumstances?  hopefully, it will be a pleasant hangover for all come Sunday morning when the work week begins.

as for me, I will be rooting for my ‘adopted’ country since I know nuts about the Algerian team! … so come on Aboul Troika, Mido, Ghaly, Amr Zaki and Shehata (coach)!

Though a bit risque and R(21) for those a little on the prude side, i thought that the following continuation of the second comic strip from my previous post is simply hilarious! 


Copyright:“Al Khan” by Tarek Shahin

As i’ve said this somewhere before, the problem with me is that i find everything’s funny …

Egypt and by extension, Cairo, never ceases to amaze me.

For all that this place is well-known for, its reputation is also trapped by perceptions that it is a place only good for sand, camels, pyramids, religiousity and conservatism.  The reality is that if you scratch the surface, you will find a differentiated and somewhat fragmented society like any other country.  Liberals and conservatives, Muslims and Coptic Christians, the poor and rich, all co-exist together here, for better or worse.  Practices, behavioural norms, attitudes and worldview also vary from region to region within the country.  My experience here really affirm the fact that the TV is a poor teaching medium and that one has to exit the expat bubble to really feel the vibes and heartbeat of the society.

Here is a good comic strip that highlights how ‘contradictory’ a place Egypt can be.  You surely won’t find such an occurence in good ‘ol “liberal” Singapore!  [Note: the incident illustrated is a true portrayal of what happens on the street.  I should know.  I actually experienced something similar to the scenario below!] 


Copyright:“Al Khan” by Tarek Shahin

The next comic strip depicts the very rampant (female) sexual harassment problem in the streets of Cairo (and other cities as well).  For a very religious country, this may come as a surprise.  However, sexual frustration (due to many young men’s inability to marry as wages are low and the cost of married life is inching skywards) and living by the law and not by the spirit of the law are some of the root causes of this problem.  The biggest irony is that even the ‘ninjas’ (i.e. females wearing the fully-veiled clothing known as  burkhas – see comic strip below) are being harassed!  So much for irresponsible and bigoted views that a woman’s dressing are the main cause for the uncontrollable lust of men.  


Copyright: “Al Khan” by Tarek Shahin

As in many things in life, nothing is really black and white.  So it is always important to keep an open and enquiring mind to what is around us.

So do spend some time thinking today.  It could give you a whole lot different perspective of life so that you can live it even more meaningfully.

i have been stricken down with a very mysterious ailment since Wednesday night.  Fever, headaches, very inflamed tonsils and small reddish spots all over my body came at me without warning over the space of a few hours.  To compound matters, the spots itch like mad.  Funny thing was that my fellow colleague, who occupy the same room as me, had the exact same ailment and was diagnosed as such by the doc.  “Tonsillitis” was the official diagnosis.  What do i think?  A likely attempt on the lives of two simple, hardworking, small-time diplomats appear to be the case. 

You see, in doing some detective work, we have narrowed down the cause to one of the following:

(a) the pizza that both of us partake for lunch – while it was our usual favourite pizza joint, someone could have paid the delivery chap a couple of Egyptian pounds to look the other way while the pizza get extra “liao” (Hokkien for ingredients);

(b) the airconditioning system – its summer and knowing how aircons are at full blast in all offices, a little fungi and mold placed into our aircon ducts/pipes, plus a bit of moisture and warmth from the searing heat and voila!  self-replicating “silent assassins” that two unsuspecting chappies would inhale throughout the day;

(c) the pesticides – the pest controller came to our room a few days back to fumigate and spray God-knows-what stuff to kill the bugs, but they could have gotten the proportion “wrong” purposely, and left residues of the pesticides that had a dosage still strong enough to kill two elephants.

anyway, i survived and am on the mend … while i still look as pink as a lobster in a pot of boiling water, and am scratching everywhere even as i typed this entry, im just glad the worse is over, at least for now

im sure this episode was a warning to me.  i will have to tread carefully henceforth. 

the plot thickens …

the dreaded summer heat is fast coming … yup, the thermometer’s been on a steady increase since i was last in cairo … sweaty armpits and perspiration will be the order of the day soon …

also, since last week, daylight savings kicked in and i am now officially GMT+3 on the time zone … wats that you say?  why should you care that i am 5 hours behind s’pore time instead of 6 hours behind a week ago?  …

oh …

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