Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Egypt's 2011

2011 has been a tumultuous year for Egypt. Things will never be the same again, no matter how hard anyone tries to bring back the false comfort of the previous regime's rule. Even though divisions have formed midst the people on how they want Egypt to be, one thing most people can agree on is that totalitarianism will not be tolerated.

Although there is a lot I can say about the revolution, its continuity, political events, revolutionary events, political figures, social figures, revolutionary figures, controversial figures and our 'beloved' military, I don't think I need to, as the box has blown wide open. The media (at least most of the independent media) has warmed to the prospect of exposing every lie, and highlighting every event, whether significant or not, that occurs on the revolution's wave of independence. Social networking has weaved itself into the fabric of Egypt's society, with usage exploding within the last year alone, particularly among the working class' youth.

The state-owned media however has maintained its broadcast of state-owned lies and propaganda. However, it doesn't really matter to many, as watching the stone-faced anchors on TV, or listening to the monotonous voices on the air waves, or reading the bland words in their drab papers is a tell-all in itself.

A window from within a doorman's living quarters in the old and prolific district of El-Manial

It's true that 2011 has ended, but there's still a lot to see in the future. Events aren't dictated by a calendar, it is the calendar that is dictated by events.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Egypt's Awakening

'Calls not allowed' - A frank message on my phone portraying the communications blackout on Angry Friday, which included a shutdown of cell phone networks, blackberry services, and the Internet.

One of the small demonstrations in Nasr City on Angry Friday which eventually joined similar demonstrations throughout Cairo to make their way to Tahrir Square in Downtown Cairo, where violence ensued.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Haunted Hilton

The Ramses Hilton was built in the seventies, a result of the late genius Dr. William Hanna's efforts. It has now become a constant feature in Cairo's landscape, featuring in photos of the city as a landmark in it's own right. Standing at 110 meters talls, with 36 floors, it is one of the tallest buildings in Cairo.

The Ramses Hilton in the mid seventies

Even though many rival hotels have since appeared, many guests, especially from the Arabian Gulf , are attracted to the distinguished service they provide. I had the chance to experience this service myself when I was invited out to dinner at one of it's classic restaurants. The waiter was chatty and candid, joking and laughing with us, telling us stories of the past and present. Even when I requested a more traditional cup of tea, with the leaves at the bottom, I was promptly served, with no delay, despite it not being available on the menu. He called it Staff's tea with a wide grin on his face. It was an enjoyable night.

There was something about it though. The hotel in general. An arcane feel. My friend only heightened that feeling, with her new found fascination with it. I felt that countless skeletons were hidden in the closets of the countless rooms of this impressive place. The veils of mystery were craving for someone to transverse them...

I believe I know why.

A few years back I read a story in the news that I associated with this hotel whenever I saw it. It was the story of Princess Hind.

Princess Hind Al-Fasi was the wife of the Saudi Prince Turki Bin Abdul Aziz. According to the waiter, the prince himself was a timid and peaceful man, who liked to keep to himself. The princess however had a completely different pesona. She was wild and stormy, who enjoyed the extravagant lifestyle she led. They lived in self-imposed exile in Egypt for more than 30 years, occuping the top floors of the Ramses Hilton. They had a multinational security task-force, keeping them shielded from the rest of the world in this hotel. The security teams moved ahead of them, behind them and alongside them, with security dogs even accompanying them to the classy restaurants they ate in.

Princess Hind was not a new face in the news. She was constantly summoned to court for law violations, including walking out of a store with more than one million dollars worth of jewelry. Another incident involved three servants trying to escape from the top floors of the hotel by tying bedsheets together when they couldn't take the torture anymore. Her servants were kept in two hotel rooms, with six in each room. The princess merely ignored the court summons, and went about her lavish life without paying any attention to these issues.

Gary Ogaick,  a former employee of the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh, decided to investigate the princess himself. He bribed some of the guards to keep tabs on her, and the people who visited her. He seemed more interested in knowing whether she was involved in extramarital affairs, of which the guards provided him with information about. He also managed to find out that the princess kept tabs on her own husband, with hidden cameras placed by her guards whereever prince Turki frequented.

Other information he managed to aquire from the guards included beatings performed on both her servants and guards, usually involving handcuffs and metal wires.

Before I went to dine at the Ramses Hilton, I told my friend about her story. She looked her up online and to my surprise, found out that she had passed away recently - at the age of 52. The death itself was surrounded by controversy, and that had our minds running wild. I admit I never gave the hotel and it's princess that much thought before. But when my friend looked up at the hotel and took notice at how the last few floors were dark, I saw how the stories have captivated her. Her eyes were transfixed on Princess Hind's palace of secrets.

Gary Ogaick never talked about his discoveries again. The pressure reporters placed on him was not enough for him to give way. His last words to one of the reporters were "I'm not going to tell you anything about anything."

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cairo's Phone Frenzy

It was the winter of 1999 when a bright-eyed boy who was about to turn 15 was given a new toy. That boy was me. That toy was the Ericsson A1018.

Long gone are the days when we were easily fascinated and amused by what is now labeled obsolete. This hefty phone, which came with a blue face, a thick antenna, and a monochrome display had placed me under it's spell. Exploring its options (which could be counted on the fingers of one hand) was a source of joy for me, and it's weight in my pocket made me feel nervous yet excited at the same time. It was cherished dearly.

I have seen this happen over and over again. I've seen it happen even before I got my first cell phone. My first transistor radio. My first walkman. My first CD player. My first computer. My first ipod. The list can go on forever. Right now, I've got a Sony Ericsson smart-phone. But it just isn't as smart anymore. People are popping up left and right with new models, blackberries, iphones, ipads, and gadgetry I have never even heard of before.

Suddenly I feel so out of it.

Now I look at my smart-phone and feel that it might be of better use as a paper-weight. Or maybe a doorstop. It's heavy, looks like a brick, and would do the job well. I could use its stylus to pick out the crumbs between the letters of my keyboard every now and again. If I had my old Ericsson phone on me, I might consider using it again. Perhaps I could start a retro phone fad going. That way I could always have an excuse for not buying a pricey space age phone every two to three months.

 My phone in action as a paper-weight

When I go out with friends to have a meal, it wouldn't be strange for me to feel alone. I would push the food around the plate with my fork, with an elbow on the table, and my face leaning against my fist. When I look up from my plate, I sigh at the sight of my friends' faces, reflecting the glow from their phone displays. Even when I quip a blackberry joke, I would receive a chorus of grunts, 'huh?'s and the occasional 'sorry' before they fall back into their trance-like stupors.

Maybe you can drop that blackberry for one day in the weekend, and start a new fad with me. Find an old phone that's been collecting dust for a few years now, and power it up again. Let's go retro. Are you in?


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Cairo Eruption

I don't know what it is about Cairo that keep people interested in visiting it or living in it. One of my close friends abroad has once coined an interesting term for the tourists that come here - 'sh**-in-a-hole tourists'. He was particularly referring to those who live in comfortable conditions but like to visit relatively underdeveloped areas to taste a bit of life on the other side.

You don't have to be a backpacker to come here though. Just the other night I was invited out to a restaurant where most Egyptians would have to sacrifice a month's salary to have a meal at - that's if they ever thought of actually doing it. It was located in a five star hotel, and had impeccable service and cuisine - the atmosphere was so different to what most people are used to around here. Nevertheless, the hotel was teaming with tourists. Obviously, creature comforts to some tourists involve marble walls and Egyptian cotton, while to others could just be a hole in the ground.

A hotel surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Cairo, on the 26th of July Street

Some hotels in Cairo are severely lacking in service and facilities, but make up in terms of prices and general realism. You could find yourself in the heart of Cairo, amidst the crowds and noises, marvelling at how people live here, and at the same time cursing the fact you can't get a proper night's sleep. For Cairenes, bedtime is often associated with sunrise.

Cairo is swelling by the minute. I have the constant fear (or hope) that at some point I will have to abandon my car in traffic because it had nowhere to go. Immigration from rural areas is a contributing factor, but I have a feeling it's mostly due to the young generation. Probably with myself included. The population boom is obvious, with more young people out on the streets than ever before, with older generations starting to dissolve in the crowds. Walk into any office in Cairo, and it's highly likely that even the bosses and managers are barely over 30, with most of the fresh-faced workforce looking like they've barely left university.

Perhaps this would be the kind of scene you would see when traffic comes to an eternal halt in Cairo

Until the day comes when Cairo erupts, rupturing with traffic and people spewing out onto surrounding provinces, I will just have to wait, alternating between pedals every few seconds, crawling along, hoping to spot an empty stretch of asphalt to take me home.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Pause Cairo: Play El-Sahel (Part 2 - Taposiris Magna Revisited)

I did not get much sleep the night before last, with Taposiris Magna on my mind, and myself in it's vicinity. I decided to see it again, this time with more eye for detail and the surrounding areas. I packed my camera and wore my heavy-duty clothes (perhaps heavily-worn clothes would be a more accurate term) and set for the ancient ruins again.

The main enterance to the temple enclosure.

The sun was up in the sky, the glare was a little less than last time, with a little cloud cover. I knew I had about two to three hours til sunset, and hoped I could make the most out of them. I was greeted a lot more warmly this time, with a few more members of the family living in the shadows of the ancient city coming out to see me. We sat out in the yard, on a straw mat, with a sheesha-pipe being passed around and sweet tea being served. We chatted about everyday matters and how the North Coast used to be before the city-dwellers' invasion. A little while later, Mardy (who guided me through the ruins previously) told me would could head out now, because there was a lot more he wanted to show me.

The eastern face of the temple enclosure, including the main enterance. The rugged landscape around it contain an abundance of ancient pottery shards and stone blocks, weathered with time and history.

We drove up to the temple enclosure again, but this time I decided I have seen enough of what was inside and wanted to explore the area around it. As we walked through the rocky desert landscape, I began to realise strange things. On the ground I was stepping on, there were large stones that seemed to have been placed in rows next to each other. I stepped back a little and realized they were buried walls, possibly of courtyards or buildings. I asked Mardy about it, and he said that it probably is ancient, but no one really had explored it yet.  He mentioned that some of the walls had an ancient form of cement on them, but that it was probably placed there in more recent history, by the Bedouins that roamed the area a few hundred years ago.

Part of a wall made out of ancient blocks of stone peek out of the rocky sands. The dark material holding the stonework together indicate that a primitive form of cement was used, possibly by Bedouins of the coast a few centuries ago.

Even stranger was an abundance of pottery shards on the ground. I picked up one of them, and realised from the wear that was apparant on them, that they must be ancient. They were strewn across the landscape, being much more abundant than natural debris - In fact when I asked Mardy about it, he told me that to them, it has become a part of their natural environment, with possibly millions of ancient pottery shards from the Ptolemaic dynasty littering the landscape.

The handle of a jar made out of clay is evident on the wall of a dug up site, near the salt beds. The site has been excavated in the past by a French expedition.

We got back into my car and drove deeper in land. We passed through a small village, with fig trees growing out of the sand around the small brick homes. The track was narrow and uneven, with desert scrub scraping the bottom of the car as we moved through it. We finally reached what I had believed was part of Lake Mariut, with it's waters gleaming in the sunlight. We got out and walked over a little hill. That's when I realised it wasn't a lake in the traditional sense - it was more of a wet salt bed. What I thought were lake waters turned out to be a gleaming sea of white salt. I was stunned by it's beauty.

This lake played tricks on my eyes. As I closed in on it, it turned out to be a shimmering salt bed, without a drop of water in sight.

After pinching some of the salt crystals and tasting it, I explored the area around it. There were stones set up in the mud around the salt bed - this time they seemed to be a bit more explored, with some obvious digging having been done around them. Mardy told me this was an ancient Ptolemaic sea port. There had been a lot of agriculture in the area during the Ptolemaic times, with barley and grapes being grown in the area. The port served to move these goods to different cities in the region and abroad. There were even pottery shards in the area that were a little different from near the temple. They consisted of long arms and large brims, indicating that they were possibly large amphorae that were used to carry the wine produced here.

A part of the ancient sea port with a an entrance still standing. The port has been used to to transport agricultural goods to other cities in the region.

A closer look at the stonework found on the ground of the port at the salt bed.

In the last leg of the journey, I decided to get a closer look at the Pharos lighthouse. When we reached it, I realised it was a lot larger than it seemed from afar. It's condition was magnificent for something that has been built between 285 and 246 BC, with an imposing presence from up close. I was astounded. We walked around it and I was surprised to find a small entrance. While I pondered  whether it would be safe to go inside there, Mardy took off, running into the dark tower. I heard his fast steps climb through the tower, and went in after him, deciding perhaps acting first and thinking later would be a good ideology, at least in certain situations.

This tower is the assumed alexandrine pharos lighthouse replica. It has been built around the same time the original has been built, between 285 and 246 BC.

It was dark inside, with narrow steps going up. It started off with stone steps, but then turned into wooden ones that creaked eerily under my feet as I ascended. After a few dark and dangerous flights, I finally found Mardy, standing on top of the lighthouse, with a cheeky smile on his face. As soon as I came up and looked around, my jaw dropped open. I could see everything. The salt beds, the sea, the villages, the resorts, the roads, and the temple. The view was humbling.

The first few steps in the lighthouse were strong and reliable, and part of the original stonework. The more recently placed wooden stairs that climb up to the top had a more perilous feel to them, being narrow and flimsy.

The temple enclosure was a magnificent sight to behold from the top of the lighthouse.

We sat on the ancient stonework, and looked all around us. The sun was setting in the distance behind the clouds. It was the same sun that I have seen set thousands of times, over many years and many landscapes. The sunset this time though was different. With all that I have seen in just a few hours, I felt a touch of disappointment knowing I wouldn't be seeing it again, at least not very soon. It would be hard for me to explain the feeling that washed over me throughout the experience, but I suppose that the state I was in, was a state of awe.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Pause Cairo: Play El-Sahel (Part 1 - Taposiris Magna)

Visiting El-Sahel El-Shamaly (The North Coast) has been a relatively new tradition that Cairenes have adopted. Over the last 30 years, the Mediterranean Coast near Alexandria has seen one pilgrimage after another of families from Cairo hitting the resort towns and beaches during the summer. Leaving behind the cramped apartments and stuffy streets, and opting for sandy beaches and summer breezes, they find it to be quite relaxing. Personally though, I was never really fond of being part of the city hoards that eat up the North Coast every summer. I feel a certain type of guilt watching Al-Arab or the Bedouin people of the coast taking up jobs like gardening or sanitation and giving up their previous way of living.

The turquoise waters and sandy beaches are the main reasons Cairenes flock to the North Coast in the summer.

Nevertheless, here I am, enjoying the breeze (albeit, with a hint of reluctance) and typing away, ready to share some of the experience.

There are many things to do here; you can hit the beach or swimming pools and share the waters with the old paunched men in colourful trunks, or relax on the sands, perhaps try to get a tan, and share the sun with their bikini-clad jailbait daughters. Personally, I prefer going for a swim in the most remote part of the beach available, and at an early hour while everyone else is asleep (sleeping hours are from 5am to 5pm on the North Coast, so an early hour could be noon if you wish).

Wild grass growing in an untended garden in a resort - The greenery on the North Coast is mostly grown rather than wild, but is a delight to Cairenes who have been surrounded most of the year by concrete and asphalt.

This morning, I decided to visit an archaeological site close to the resort I am staying in.  In Abusir, a small village near Alexandria, bordering on Lake Mariut, the remains of an ancient town are strewn on the landscape. Taposiris Magna was built during the Ptolemy era, with not much left of it except for a temple dedicated to Osiris, as well as an ancient replica of the Alexandrine Pharos lighthouse, built by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. There isn't much of the temple itself standing, with only the walls of it's enclosure towering high around it. However, the site has been used for centuries after it has been built, with evidence of a Byzantine Church, as well as ladders leading to the top of the walls that Romans have used as a fort.

A view of the Alexandrine Pharos lighthouse replica from within the enclosure of the temple. The high walls have been restored to some degree by the expedition working on the site. The low walls in the foreground are the remains of the Byzantine era Church.

I parked my car at the foot of the hill on which the enclosure was located. I walked out into the glaring sun and looked around. There wasn't anyone around, but a faint rustling from a small makeshift building caught my attention. A small girl with frizzy brown hair peaked out at me from behind the door before running back inside. 

Two men came out, one large and burly, sporting a short beard, and the other younger and skinny. I asked them if it was possible to take a look inside and snap a few photos. The larger one asked me suspiciously who I was working for, and I jokingly said I worked for the government. They didn't seem to find it funny. Judging from the accents and demeanor, it was clear they were settled Bedouins. Soon enough though, they found my intention to be pure, and the younger one accompanied me up the hill to guide me. He told me I wasn't allowed to take photos from the inside, but could take a few from outside, and at certain points inside. I asked him why, and he told me that the archaeologists (led by our own Zahi (Not-Again) Hawass and Kathleen Martinez from the Dominican Republic) wouldn't want people taking photos of their 'discoveries' without their permission*.

This section of the wall enclosure shows the various stages of change it has gone through. At the very top is some of the original stone wall as it has been discovered. On the left, the darker stones are some of the early restoration efforts, using local materials. On the right are patches of the lighter stones imported from Giza during recent restoration efforts.

We walked  through the temple, and instead of finding squared off archaeology tape, I was surprised to find cigarette butts and soft drink cans lying around the edges. It was a bit better deeper inside though, with piles of ancient pottery shards waiting for examination and classification on display, as well as the well preserved remnants of pylons and columns strewn about. Faint outlines showed different chambers, with my personal guide describing their presumed history. We came onto a deep shaft, where Zahi Hawass got stuck earlier while descending in a faulty device that looked more like a big red birdcage. The device was actually still there. I smiled mischievously as I played out the incident in my head. Apparently they did find something in the shaft; two skeletons and a few gold items.

There are rumors going about that Queen Cleopatra and her lover Mark Anthony may be buried at Taposiris Magna. It is speculated that they were likely to be buried in a deep shaft like the one Zahi got stuck in. Although their tomb hasn't been found, a bust of Cleopatra as well as a few gold coins with her face on it were found. Looking back at the place, it seems like there's a lot of ground still to be uncovered, even though they have been working at it since 2005. Just two months ago, a man-sized headless statue of Ptolemy IV was discovered there - It made me wonder why it took five years to discover it. Every layer that they dig up however contains a new set of discoveries, and judging by the ground I trod on, as well as the large holes that have been excavated, I know there's still a lot more work to be done. Perhaps some day they will find Cleopatra and her lover.

*Without wanting to seem rude, I'm not a really big fan of Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian 'Master' Archaeologist. I believe he's got too much of his nose dug into Egypt's ancient past, with his face plastered across every new discovery. There's also his tendency to explain how he does all that he does for 'Egypt', but somehow most Egyptians are extremely uninformed of Egypt's history, let alone daily discoveries, with most expeditions representing experts from outside of Egypt, and a general lack of education and skill in the field locally. I'm not saying he's incapable - I'm just saying I'd rather see more faces describing Egypt's discoveries, with a more communal rather than monopolizing approach to our history.