Monday, January 16, 2012

Travelogue: The Colourful Friday of Cairo

Taxi Tips: Know Your Numbers

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday Evening at a Tahrir Cafe

Can’t Everyday in Cairo be a Friday?
I wish everyday of our trip would have been a Friday, so that I could get the opportunity to offer the grand prayers, جمعہ, in five different historical mosques! 

Out of the innumerable, the Mosque of Huusain (RA), مسجد حسین, is special. It is believed to bury the head of Hussein ibn ‘Alī (RA), امام حسین, the beloved grandson of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), حضرت محمّد. The awareness also resolved my confusion of choice!

حیی علی خیر الفلاح 
It was already full house when I reached the mosque around 11. Consequently, I had to sneak around to find a place to squeeze inside the hall in a rather uncivilized manner. Imam of the prayers, خطیب, sounded like an exceptional orator. He was quoting historical references, especially from the life of the Prophet, to stimulate the responding audience to quit the bad habits and to come back towards an honest life. 

After the inspiring speech, خطبہ, he led the official prayers, during which I was observing the fine difference in the prayers when compared to how it is observed in Pakistan. The most notable was the use of Muakabbir, مکبر, which has now been obsolete in most of the Subcontinent after the acceptance of microphone. 

The other major difference was the better communication between the Imam and the audience, during the speech. 

Post prayers, a group made a couple of standing rows facing towards each other and started chanting ‘Allah-Allah’ in a chorus with a man in the traditional attire walking in between as their leader. That was the variant of Zikr, ذکر, which is observed among the followers of Islamic mysticism quite seriously.
Masjid Hussain
The Sunday Market
During the walking marathon to and from the mosque, located off the busy Azhar street in the heart of Khan Kahlili bazaar, I observed how the Friday prayers produce a contrast in the lifestyle. Before the congregation, the outdoors was peaceful and festive. And once that was done, it looked like that whole of Cairo was out on the streets. They were actually! 
Within no time, the whole area turned into a gigantic bazaar, with literally no space even to walk, especially in the inner narrow streets! 

Getting Lost in the Narrow Cairo Streets
Soon I got lost in the zigzag alleyways – abundant with the consumer stuff on one hand and historical structures on the other! I only realized that when the sun went behind me instead of being in the front initially! 
Getting Lost
Mosque Al-qamar b. 1125 AD
The City of Minarets
City Gates
Thick Walls
Some Food Now!
Want to Buy One?
Shop Till Drop
A couple of hours later I came back to the bazaar district, this time with the better half, for the shopping spree to follow!

We took the taxi to the the Al-Hussain mosque before diving into the Khan Al-Khalili, خان خلیلی. 

After an hour of meandering, we actually found ourselves at the same place we started from and without a clue what to buy at what price. In this fix, we saw an Egyptian family – out for shopping – and impulsively decided to follow them! 

Soon we found ourselves in a bottleneck type gully which fortunately opened in a big shop selling stitched as well as unstitched clothes. It was like coming out of a deep buried tunnel and suddenly exposing to a refreshingly inspiring landscape in front!

The fixed price store had something to offer for everyone; even for the Misha’s aunt gang! The feeling of not being ripped-off made us more confident so that we could also shop from the vendors spread all around. For us, the biggest challenge was not those hard selling touts, as many tourists complain, but to actually found artifacts which are not ‘Made in China’! And that was a tough task, I bet. 
The 'Sunday Market'!
Khan Khalili
Local Experience
Emad's call saved me from bankrupting who was free in the evening to take us to the famous Tahrir cafes. Although working as a Sales Engineer, Emad has not only got good insight of the ongoing political transformation but is also an eyewitness of the historical happening around the square.

"There are already 30,000 inmates and all is ok till we are one of them", he replied casually when I asked if there are still touts around while sipping the hot and tasty Sahlab!

The corrupt regime brought the country to a point where even the educated middle-class youth did not mind getting imprisoned.
Mubarak is No Longer Required
The Conspiracy Theory
The uncertainty whether the army would easily give the long held luxuries still prevailed in the air with all sort of rumors spreading around. "You know many even believe that there are Pakistani Jihadis positioned around the Tahrir to conquer the turbulent country?", I failed to swallow the peanut when he further enlightened me!

It was around midnight when we came back to our hotel only to find out that we are missing something!

Going back home after visiting an Arab country without carrying Halawa would have been a bad omen. So we dived into the market again, this time in the downtown to pack a few kilograms of mixed sweets, مشکّہ, before creeping into the warm blankets!

Today's Expense Sheet
EGP 10 Mobile Credit
EGP 35 Food
EGP 5 Taxi
EGP 35 Taxi to Airport (Next Morning)
EGP 740 Can you guess?
1 USD = 6 EGP
1 EGP = 15 PKR

Friday, January 13, 2012

Travelogue: Mummies and the Nile

Mummies do Miracles
She Used to be a Queen

The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo houses thousands of years old  human bodies in addition to a huge collection of historical artifacts. Twenty seven in number, these corpses does not only speak volumes about the timeless human intelligence but are also evident of the human desire to become immortal. 

Should any of them be given a chance to see themselves mummified, completely dehydrated, and wrapped up in the worn out yellowish and brownish yarn they would only curse their longing. The poor elite! They used to be wealthy, charismatic, powerful, royal, inevitable, earth-shattering, and worshiped in the old wooden days!

Now they do miracles, only to the department of tourism, which charges an extra EGP 100 to visit the mortuary, in addition to the EGP 60 for the museum entrance ticket!

لا فضّل عربي علي عجمي و لاعجمي علي عربيُّ إلا بتقوي الله
At the ticket counter, I could read the sign mentioning that the Arabic speaking people only need to pay a meager EGP 4 for the entrance. The difference was tempting enough to give our luck a try! Alas, the skill could not withstand the further inquiry and we were directed to where we belonged to, i.e. to the foreigners’ queue! 

Later on, I realized that the staff was only asking for our IDs which are actually written in the Arabic script, Nastaleeq, نستعلیق! Two times Alas!

Some Anatomy
Those carcasses - mostly dilapidated - were more meaningful for Urooba, an-about-to-be-a-doctor. Observing them as case studies, she was so elaborating at times that I started feeling vomiting, especially when she peeked deep inside them through the rapturous skin and arthritis hit bones!
This is not a Toothpaste Ad!
In the Eternal Life
Or Somewhere in Between
Rest in Peace?
Once Upon a Time
The Burial Chamber
A Mummified Fish along with a Crocodile Tail
Egyptian Museum
Writings on the Wall
Elucidations on the wall posters hanging around the mummy room about the incidental excavation and the discovered communiqués show how powerless those all-powerful become when their time comes! I wish Hosni Mubarak could have taken a note of that!
Writings on the Wall
The Mummified Buidling
The burned out government building adjacent to museum’s wall looked more helpless than the charcoal mummies, signifying the reduced influence of every passing tyrant!
Mobarak's Building
Back to Tahrir
After having this profound impression we walked back towards Tahrir, not to join the protestors out there, but only to meet a local Couchsurfer, Ramy, who kindly committed to take us to the traditional Nile cruise, Felucca, فلوکه. 

The square was relatively calm then; however, tension was still present in the air with half mounted camps and angry youngsters managing the barricades. They did not want to give the military a single moment of respite and were demanding the junta to quit immediately instead of following the slow transition schedule.

Paradoxically, a couple of hundred meters from the battlefield, life was as usual as it can be! Cramped up streets, jam packed bazaars, busy eateries, shouting salesmen, the ever flowing Nile, and whatever it needs to make it one of the largest cities in the World.
In the Middle of Tahrir
Tahrir Camps
The Revolution
Later in the felucca, I discussed the situation in Egypt with Ramy in detail. No matter what views an Egyptian youngster has and no matter which school of thought they belong to; I found all of them with an amazing ownership of the revolution. 

They all know that they have turned the course of the history! They are young, energetic, flamboyant, and hot blooded with a sense of victory from a deep trenched rival! All they need now is the direction and a leadership that can steer them through the difficult times, like our Captain Gamal who was busy in playing with the sail to move the noiseless boat with the help of sweet Nile breeze.

Felucca: Cruising Through Nile فلوکہ
It cannot be more soothing than cruising in the Nile! Even though it was right in the middle of the chaotic and polluted conurbation, the calm blue stream of the river was too refreshing. For a moment, I got free from all the worldly hassles. 

In the meantime, Misha made it to the deck somehow and started running in the excitement. Suddenly she fumbled as the boat took a jerk, and Urooba screamed looking helplessly at me as Misha was out of reach! That brought me in the real world again. Fortunately the boat tilted back giving me enough opportunity to grab the naughty little traveler!

Ramy also offered us to show around Mukattam Hills overlooking the Cairo city, however, we had to abandon the journey midway, after stranded up in the packed traffic for half an hour, and that too with the running taxi meter!
Another Felucca
Smooth as Nile
The Whole Boat is Mine!
Naughty Girl
Hiding from Abbu
The Cairo Skyline
The journey back to the downtown, through Metro, was the toughest of all our journeys in this trip because of the rush hour. On the other hand, that was the most revealing experience; watching the Egyptian lifestyle closely! A good trade-off, but not to be repeated again!

Before calling it a day at a downtown eatery, we discussed whether to go to Alexandria the next day, our last one in Egypt, or to explore the local markets. And you can guess yourself the result of the conversation! 
Some Local Food

In the Making
Tip of the Day: Students can avail discount on the entrance ticket to the historical sights. For Citadel, it was marked down by EGP 25 from EGP 50 and by EGP 30 and 60 for the Egyptian Museum and its Royal Mummy Room, respectively. 

In order to avail the discount, one needs to have a valid student card from their respective educational institute. We generally found ticket offices skeptical when Urooba showed her ID but managed to avail that except for the Sounds & Lights show where they claim to have only one class of ticket.

Today's Expense Sheet
EGP 30 Taxi and Metro
EGP 40 Food etc
EGP 10 Mobile Credit
EGP 90 Egyptian Museum Entry (60+30)
EGP 160 Royal Mummy Room Entry (100+60)
EGP 65 Felucca

1 USD = 6 EGP
1 EGP = 15 PKR

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Travelogue: The Best of Free Cairo

Taxi Tips: Know Your Numbers

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Local Advantage
It was one of the most exciting days of my traveling history. At the end of which I realized that we did not even spend EGP 100 the whole day. But the reason the day was so special was the stunning Tanoura show التنورہ; a simple looking routine that actually turned out to be a masterpiece of human skills.

The credit goes to Ahmed Usman, a young Couchsurfer, who toured us around the most defining historical sites of Cairo before taking us to the narrow Al-Azhar streets for the breathtaking Sufi performance.

The Best Things in Life Are Free
That Tanoura evening was just incredible. It was indulging and authentic. An extensive demonstration of excellence. 

At the end of the show, Marek - our Polish travel buddy - was totally awestruck. And who was not! The whole audience was just mesmerized for a couple of hours. Indeed, a must see in one’s lifetime!

While one relentless artist was busy in producing beautiful spectrum of vivid colors, I was trying to catch the vocals and the surrounding beats.  

Soon I realized that this is not a mere combination of music and colors but a way to communicate the divine message through mystical notes. I wish to have better Arabic skills to fathom what had been delivered during several Nasheeds نشید.

On the other hand, I managed to recognize a few of the beats, especially the one which is played during Ramzan, رمضان, in Karachi in the wee hours to alert people for Sehri, سحری! Another was the one which is traditionally played during wedding ceremonies here.

In fact, time and distance lost their meaning in the clairvoyant ambiance of the historical Al-Gouri Mausoleum!
Coming into Rhythm
Building the Momentum
The Spin Effect
Mixing It!
Going Crazy
All Out
Men in Black
The stunned Audience
The Coptic Connection
Earlier in the day, we took the Metro to catch up Ahmed Usman and Marek to explore the Hanging Church and the Mosque Amr bin Alaas.
The Saint Virgin Mary's Church, or the Hanging Church کنیسہ المعلقہ, does not hang as such, which would have been a real miracle otherwise, but built on a stone pillar and extending outwards to give a hollow impression beneath.  
The place is frequented by Egyptian Copts, who make a sizable proportion of the Egyptian population. 

A Church representative kindly explained us the meaning of the various engraved religious symbols inside the main hall. I also tried to dig into their concerns about the emerging political scenario especially after reading newspaper rumors about the possible mass migration of Egyptian Copts.

And Then the Islamic One

The Historic Amr ibn al-Aas Mosque is located next door to the Coptic Cairo.
The mosque which had been originally built by Amr ibn al-Aas (RA),عمر بن العاص  حضرت, in the 7th century had gone into various transformations hence losing its structural novelty. 

Luckily, It was time for Zuhr, ظہر, so Ahmed and I joined the official prayers, جماعت! 

Decades before the unfolding of events, Muhammad (PBUH), advised Amr (RA) that “when you conquer Egypt be kind to Copts because they are your protégé, kith, and kin”.

The historical duo not only defined Egypt's political landscape in the past but also has the potential to become a symbol of peaceful coexistence in the future as well.

The Cradle of Civilization

We also got the opportunity to visit the historical Al-Azhar Mosque, مسجد الاظہر. The mosque houses the world’s second oldest continuously run University! Founded as an Ismaili institution, the seminary is now an unrivalled hub of Sunni Islam

The gown and the cap used by teachers and graduating students of the modern universities had also started from this timeless institution!

Inside the mosque, or in any other mosque we visited in Cairo, women were free to offer their prayers. A sight which is uncommon, or in fact a taboo, in the subcontinent!

ج: Jeem or Geem!?
Masjid is Masgid (Mosque) in the local dialect as Egyptians pronounce 'Jeem' ج as 'Geem'. Similar to the 'Gaaf' گ in Urdu! So January will be Ganuary there! Outside a Jeweler shop it was written other way round; جولدن (Jolden) in lieu of Golden! The Poor Q ق is not alone in Cairo!!

Islamist or Liberal?
It was not until we ordered the lunch that we knew Ahmed was fasting, in respect of Ashura, عاشورہ.

After having discussions on random topics I realized that Ahmed is not an Islamist, as per the popular definition, although he is a practicing Muslim; strictly practicing. Neither is he a liberal, I guess, not only because he did not vote for any of the Islamist parties! 

In my opinion, he is actually an example for those politicians and intellectuals who try to divide the society around the imaginary lines conveniently ignoring the real issues. 
The Hanging Church of Cairo
The Prayer Hall
Painted Arches
Baptizing Corner
The Hidden Message
The Outer Wall
Here Written a Story!
St. George Church

Masjid Amr bin Al'as
The Prayer Hall
Writing on the 'Pillar'
Some More Writing on the 'Pillar'

Masjid Al-Azhar
The Architecture
Going to the Prayer Hall
Masjid Hussain from Azhar
The Happy Chef

The chef was not only a happy soul but quite dexterous also. He quickly converted the dough into a huge rounded bread! Not only that, he could even through the spinning bread into the air to catch it back on its fingers without letting it fold!!

Everyone is Crazy about Football
While having dinner, we observed every downtown café was fitted with the television screens and locals glued up with the chairs. The ambiance was more like the cricket world cup back home.

It was no ordinary match. Egypt’s junior team was playing a crucial match with Morocco!

The cool night started turning into a hot affair with every passing minute. Good for the TV screen, 'our' team only lost with the margin of one goal!
Magician at Work
And the Magic Starts
A Downtown Ahwa-khana
A Winning Candidate Meeting His Voters
Misha Enjoying the Metro Ride
Tip of the Day: Entrance to all the sites we visited today was free!

What We Spend Today
EGP 5 Taxi
EGP 70 Food etc

1 USD = 6 EGP
1 EGP = 15 PKR