Off the Deep End, Part 5

16 Jul

By Eric Shipley

Lee and Faith’s apartment was in the Heliopolis suburb of Cairo about a mile to the East of where the ancient city of Heliopolis (which means “Sun City”) was located. And as it turned out, the most arduous part of getting there was the ten flights of stairs we had to climb with our luggage. Added to this was the combination of incredibly oppressive heat (which was even more amazing given that it was winter in Egypt) and air pollution that was bad enough to make my eyes and throat burn. But make it we did, and as soon as we dropped our luggage the conversation turned to food.

At this point I should mention Sayid and the magic bus. Sayid was the Egyptian driver Lee hired to shuttle the six of us—him and his wife Faith, Charlotte and me, and our friends Rob and Laura whose visit fortuitously coincided with ours—from place to place. The magic bus (the passenger van mentioned in an earlier blog) was so-named by Charlotte because Sayid managed to squeeze it into spots that by all laws of physics it should not have fit (not unlike the Knight Bus in the Harry Potter books).

So, we piled in and headed to El Shabrowey, a popular Lebanese restaurant. From the outside, it was a hole in a wall of adobe shops on an impossibly crowded street. Normally, I would’ve stopped to look around, but we were starving and the smells coming from the open door were irresistible. Inside, the restaurant was a study in controlled chaos that was hilarious to watch. None of the waiters spoke English, so Faith advised us about what to order and told Lee what we wanted. Then they would argue about how much to get. After a while, they’d come to agreement and the real fun began. Using his broken Arabic, Lee would juggle the menus around between the two waiters and indicate what we wanted while they scribbled frantically and dodged the constant stream of people flowing back and forth. It was quite a floor show. We sat back and marveled, chatting between mouthfuls of flatbread, which Faith made sure was always in ample supply. When we ran low, she’d nudge Lee who would shout “More bread! More bread!” to one of the waiters.

One thing they ordered for us, insisting it would change our lives, was fresh mango juice. And it was indeed amazing. I didn’t know it, but mangoes are a staple crop in the farmlands on the shores of the Nile river, so the juice was lusciously fresh and delightful. (To this day, Charlotte and I get mango juice whenever we can, but it’s rare to find anything that comes close to what we had in Egypt.) Then the food came. There were kabobs, falafel (fried patties of ground chickpeas), tabbouleh (a salad of parsley, bulgur, mint, tomato, and onion with lemon juice and olive oil), shawarma (a dish of shaved meat and vegetables), and various other dishes I can’t remember. It was all exotic and delicious, and the portions were so generous it seemed like we left as much food as we ate. At this point I started to get worried about the bill, which Lee took when it came. He added a very generous tip (about 30 percent as I recall) and told us the total came to 90 Egyptian pounds. The rate of exchange at that time was six Egyptian pounds to the dollar, so that entire extravagant meal for the six of us came to $15. I found that amazing, of course, but also rather embarrassing given that the average Egyptian rarely (if ever) enjoyed a meal like the one we’d had.

We returned to the apartment and started unwinding by tipping the building manager’s son (a teenager) to get some beer and bring it to us. Now that I think of it, this was rather ironic—Egypt is a Muslim country, so alcohol is much less widely available there than it is in the United States, but they have no problem with underage kids buying it. Anyway, we were soon settled on the apartment’s narrow balcony with a supply of the Egyptian beer Stella. As the night went on, we would increasingly frequently, and randomly, shout “Stella!” (ala Stanley Kowalski from “A Streetcar Named Desire”) at the top of our lungs. It was a strange and wonderful evening, catching up with old friends while observing the Heliopolis night life. Among many other sights, we saw three wedding parties go by, each accompanied by an off-key car horn chorus of beep, beep, beep-beep-beep. Cairo at night is really something—a noisy, sprawling, bustling, dirty creature, and yet it has a strange magnificence.

Next: The Citadel and Coptic Cairo

The Magic Bus.

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