czwartek, 20 listopada 2014

Jak sie masz? Dobrze?

Last night I attended something rare for Alexandria, a party with live music by a very good young Egyptian DJ from Cairo - NEOBYRD. The bar - Hooligans - was packed, even though it was a Wednesday, there were many familiar faces (including some of the many fans of our amazing Amy, whose pictures of Alexandria illustrated the set), some unfamiliar ones a well, including quite unexpected doubles of Jay and Silent Bob (even if Silent Bob, in this version,  resembling a neo-nazi Salafi - boasting a shiny bold head and a striking red beard, and both of them on acid, rather then bongo). All in all, it was a very good party and a great success for the organizers. Well done, girls!

After the concert, I exchanged a few words with the DJ, and the conversation went more or less like this:

- Hey, good show!
- Thank you. Are you from Germany?
- Poland.
- Jak sie masz? Dobrze?
- Wow, you had a Polish girlfriend or what?
- Yes. But she was half Polish-half Egyptian. 
- Aha, cool.

So many Egyptians fire this formula at me, once they hear the word "Poland", it's lead me to wonder if there is a secret army of Polish girls roaming the country, teaching Egyptian guys to say "Jak sie masz? Dobrze?!" ... Of course the explanation is probably much less exciting than that. "Jak sie masz? Dobrze?" simply means "How are you? Well?" and there wouldn't be anything especially strange about Egyptian guys knowing how to say it (I guess it's better than what the Americans usually say, anyway: "Kielbasa. Kurwa. Kocham cie.", which translates into "Sausage. Fuck. I love you"), except that this is something that nobody in Poland would normally ever say ... The reason being that such a greeting, while theoretically being proper Polish, in fact, does not exist in the culture or mentality ... And this is something Egyptians would never understand, because in their culture no greeting is complete without an exchange of "how are you" said in at least 3 different ways ...

piątek, 5 września 2014

The City of a Million Mannequins

Many things can be said about Alexandria and it can be described in many different ways. One of these, no doubt, being through the eyes of the millions of mannequins inhabiting the trillions of shop window displays all over town. This is a city of a million mannequins. I am presenting here is a random selection of a few of the types of mannequins found in Alexandria. 

1. First up: the creepy children. 
Just as people usually find children cute, because they are small, innocent and defenseless (I suppose this is why nature created them small and cute - because they are defenseless and need grow-ups to take care of them, rather that abuse and kill them), we somehow find creepy images of children especially disturbing. Looking at these reminds me of "Chucky" from the horror movie about a doll who was killing people. This category comes in many variations, here are just a few examples.

The decapitated heads. Maybe its the angelic golden locks, or maybe its just the fact that they are body-less heads of children? Identical body-less heads?

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Now, maybe its just me, but I find the green skin-toned babies extremely disturbing. Are they dead? Drowned? Choked? Shrek? Zombie babies, maybe? ... 

2. The horror movie.

An old house, slightly passed its prime, but still impressive enough to give an idea of the wealth the family once possessed. A beautiful woman, her youth slowly beginning to fade, but still radiant enough to charm hopeful suitors. What the whole neighborhood is thinking, but nobody says out loud, is why none of the men interested in her have ever been seen again? 

Three beautiful sisters, waiting for a man to wonder into the house never to come out of it again. Maybe he will be a plumber, coming to fix the sink they had broken themselves, maybe a suitor, lured by an insinuating invitation to dinner ... With the eyes of my imagination, I can see the ax one of them is holding behind her back and the little flask of arsenic hidden in another one's bosom ...

3. The zombie attack.

4. The Star Trek.

5. The weird hair.

6. The boys band.

7. The faceless gaze.

8. The sad romantic gaze.

9. The sad romantic gaze, female version.

10. The I'm-sexy-and-I-know-it.

11. The half-head.

12. The Superman. 

13. The Alien.

14. The European type.

15. The macho man.

16. The boobs.

17. Which brings me to the broader category of strippers, prostitutes and victims of human trafficking from Easter Europe ... 

Doesn't she just look like somebody beat her up and took her passport? She can't be older than 15 ... Call the embassy, get help! The only thing missing are white high-heeled boots.

18. The hard-core lingerie. 

I took these pictures on my way to work in a main street. The ladies are behind bars, because this early in the morning the store was still closed. 

I find it fascinating, how a society as violently prude, as the Egyptian, can so lightly separate a feminine mannequin from a woman of flesh and blood. "Real women" are not supposed wear skirts shorter than above the ankles, while window displays in lingerie stores present hard-core sexy outfits for everyone to see. And no one (except me, that is) seems to find it strange to see bare bosoms and pussies, kinky stockings and fish-eye jumpsuits. As if there was no relation at all between "real women" and the sexualized mannequins of women or feminine body parts.

19. And, finally - the niqab. 

The shop displays reflect the variety of women's dress codes in the streets. These conservatively-dressed mannequins can be found along side much more revealing big-boobed mannequins in short dresses,

20. Bonus: "Have you prayed on the Prophet today?" 
A campaign in Egypt: the police say that whoever puts this sign on their car is Muslim Brotherhood. So, a series of jokes and pranks followed. Here, the sign is put up on a display of sexy lingerie,

Fot. Source unknown.

czwartek, 21 sierpnia 2014

8 Things You Didn't Know about Egyptians

Lists entitled "12 Things about Egyptians that Give Foreigners Culture Shock" or "50 Things You Never Knew About Egyptians" have been mushrooming lately all over social media. After reading yet another one of these seemingly ground-breaking articles, I have decided to put together my own, random and subjective, list of 8 things you have probably never suspected about Egyptians.

1. Egyptians have a real passion for tapperware.

Me in the Swedish Institute kitchen. (fot. Amy El Shaarawy)

By passion, I mean PASSION. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear a conversation such as the following, take place between two colleagues in an office:

- I was in Carfour the other day and I saw the most amazing tapperware! It had beautiful colors, all green and blue and pink on the inside! Really! And it had all these separators, with a special space for your sandwich and your pasta and even a small container for salad dressing - built in! It was beautiful.
- Oh, I think I saw one like it ... Doesn't our coleeague X have the same one? ....

Or like this:

- Wow, nice tapperware!
- Thank, it was a present. My friend Y got it for me. He told me it reminded him of me! Isn't it fantastic?

The greatest sin a young wife can commit against her mother-in-law is not to stain her silver! Oh no! It is not to return her tapperware on time! "Here is molokheya my mother made us" - a young husband might tell his wife. "Just make sure we don't forget to return the tapperware right away!"

2. Eating pork is a bigger sin than drinking alcohol, taking drugs and cheating on your wife. 

Many hard-core party animals I know here don't eat pork and they will not touch anything which might contain traces of it (like a hot-dog, pate or sausage) but they will not tell you "I don't eat pork because it is haram" (as if all the other things they do wasn't). Most likely, they will tell you "I don't eat it because I don't like it" or "I don't eat it because it is disgusting for me." Some will even try to explain their reasons scientifically, like "It is known that pigs eat everything, and they have parasites extremely dangerous for humans." Explaining, that all untested meat might contain such parasites doesn't seem to have any effect.

A friend explained to me recently that the "I don't eat pork but I drink&fuck around" thing might mean the person in question is struggling with his religiousness and wants to avoid one more sin which does not really affect his life, as in: "I want to go out and drink&fuck, but there's not much sausage lying around, and even if there was, I don't care to try it". 

3. All doctors drink. Heavily.

Doctors drink everywhere in the world (in Poland they say that a surgeon has to drink so his hands don't shake during an operation), but here it's especially visible, as most of the society doesn't drink at all. My theory is that this excessive drinking among doctors in particular goes with a certain "decadence" typical of the upper middle class many of these boys come from.

4. Egyptian men do marry foreign women.

I have been asked many times by my non-Egyptian friends, whether it is true that an Egyptian man will never marry a foreign woman, because for him she is only a toy to play around with before the "real life" starts. Not being a virgin, she could never possibly be taken seriously into consideration as a candidate for a wife. Also, in most cases, she is not Muslim.

The answer is two-fold, as the Egyptian society is multi-layered. Among the higher classes it is acceptable, even fashionable to marry foreigners (for some people this is something of a social-status thing). In the past, in the so-called golden years of this country, cross-national marriages were something normal, praised by romantic literature and cinema. Many Alexandrian families boast Turkish, Lebanese, French, Greek, Italian, Swiss, etc. origins. I know many Egyptian guys married to foreign women and some Egyptian women married to foreign men.

Of course, the situation is radically different amongst the lower classes of society. In certain groups, a foreign girl will never be accepted or treated with respect. But even there, things depend on the education and circumstances of the family. My friend even met a fully-covered Salafi woman who turned out to be from Western Europe.

5. Everything foreign is better than Egyptian.

This point is somehow connected with the previous one. For many Egyptians, anything foreign will always seem better than Egyptian. This refers to objects (such as coffee, fruit, clothes or hair-die), as well as people: teachers (a foreigner, no matter from what country, will teach English better than the best-educated Egyptian), dancers, actors (a Lebanese actress will always be regarded more beautiful than an Egyptian one), hairdressers, etc. A doctor educated abroad will always be better than one who spent all his life in Egypt. The pharmacist will recommend imported Panadol Extra or shampoo over the Egyptian equivalent. Et cetera. 

No doubt, the society in Egypt follows a double-standard. There are apartment buildings where flats are rented only to foreigners, or such where Egyptians must show an ID to enter. There are hostels, which only allow foreigners. 

6. Christians are just as conservative, as Muslims.

In some cases, maybe more. Yes, they do drink alcohol openly, eat pork, and wear revealing clothes (in public places everyone follows the general rules or not-too-much-flesh), but in other respects their lives don't differ all that much from the lives of their Muslim compatriots. No sex without marriage, no marriage with non-Christians, curfew for women, etc. The men like to wear giant golden crosses (it is not usual for Muslim men to wear gold) and flashy colors (such as pink swimming trunks). Apart from that, its all tradition, much less religion. 

7. Egyptians love cake.

Fot. Paulina Raduchowska

The colorful, spongy, American-style kind, all smothered with whipped cream. They love it so much, they will always find an occasion worth celebrating with it, almost as if a day without cake was a day wasted. When I first arrived to Egypt, I was genuinely shocked - at the office we were having colorful cake at least once a week! Yesterday was this one's birthday, and tomorrow that one's. This one is leaving, that one just arrived, and the other one got promoted ... Any reason is good to get cake!

8. A pate is a pastry with cheese.

I'm not joking. Check any Egyptian pastry shop's offer! A pate is a pastry! And has nothing what so ever to do with the baked (usually) meat paste popular in the rest of the world (this does not exist in the popular Egyptian consciousness at all).

I suppose this is just an example of a French word which meaning got shifted and, over time, changed completely. There are many borrowed words in common use here, most of them French (also Italian, German and English). Some popular examples would include: "asanseer" for elevator, "quafor" for hair dresser, "tsheeder" for cheddar-like cheese, or "robabikia", which comes from the Italian "roba vecchia", meaning "old stuff" and is used by the guys who walk the streets with their little carts, buying anything old anyone might want to sell. Pants are "pantalon", a shirt is "chemise" and a tie is "cravat". It is also quite common for people to say "merci" instead of "shokran" for thank you.

czwartek, 10 lipca 2014

Time Change, Ramadan and the World Cup

First: time change. Egyptian style.

A typical conversation with my mother, who lives in South Africa, may look something like this:

M: Let's meet on Skype tonight at 7.
Me: At 7 ... Wait, what time is it where you are now?
M: Let me see .. It's 4:30.
P: Same here. OK. See you at 7.

Why all the confusion? Isn't Egypt and South Africa supposed to be in the same time zone? Well, yes, of course it is. The tricky part is, Egypt's time change policy. Since the Revolution of 2011, Egypt stopped applying time change. This was fine, as generally most people are not particularly fond of it anyway. But this year, the officials decided to re-introduce Summer time in order to save energy, as the country is suffering huge energy shortages (we experience power cuts a few times per day, and it gets visibly worse in the Summer months, when everyone is using A/C). Fine, but what about Ramadan? People will not want to fast for 16 hours. Well, the solution was simple - for the month of Ramadan, Egypt will go back to observing Winter time again. So here we are. And next month we will be back to Summer time again ... And then it will be Winter ... Btw, South Africa doesn't observe time change. So, this part, at least, is easy when it comes to Skype appointments.

(For those who are not antiquated with the concept of Ramadan fasting: in short, during the Holy Month of Ramadan Muslims refrain completely from eating, drinking, smoking, engaging in sexual intercourse, etc. From dawn 'till dusk. At dusk, the fast is broken with iftar - lit. "breakfast". After that, everyone is free to drink, eat, smoke, etc. until suhur, which is the last meal taken before sunrise. And the whole procedure is repeated for 30 days. Ramadan is the "holy month" because, according to Q'ranic tradition, during this time Muslims received the Holy Book of Q'ran.) 

Second: the World Cup. In Ramadan.

Iftar is at around 7:15pm. This gives the people enough time to drink, smoke, eat and rest, before going out to watch the World Cup matches in coffee  shops (qahwa) around town. It so happens, that almost everyone I know who watches the games, gathers in one place - a cafe called Abo Rageb in the Maht Raml area. This little traditional inexpensive qahwa, which serves shisha and drinks, such as coffee, tea, fresh juice and yoghurt with fruit, located in an alley just off of a side street, is famous all over Alexandria, and functions as something of a cultural center gathering people of all ages, professions and social backgrounds. On World Cup evenings, Abo Rageb easily accommodates around a hundred people, squeezed one next to the other on plastic chairs, which seem to pop up out of thin air and multiply every time a new customer comes around. The owners and staff run around in between the crowds of guests at the speed of light, carrying drinks, spoons of sugar, chairs, tables, shisha and hot coals. A soccer player during an important game, covers the distance of around 9-15 km on the field. This means that he runs a half-marathon every day. Wonder how many kilometers the guys from Abo Rageb cover on a busy night ...

I love watching soccer games in such places. The atmosphere, the anticipation, comments exchanged between friends and between strangers, the cheers of happiness and the disappointment when the other team scores and, most of all the feeling of doing something together - all these elements, for me, are part of the game. If I try to watch a match at home, I just fall asleep. In Abo Rageb, over sweet tea and shisha, surrounded with friends and random people, I feel that I am part of something amazing.

środa, 11 czerwca 2014


Picture this: You are in a mashrua on your way home from work. You have not slept enough because you spent the night traveling, therefore your mind is not focused and your body is tired. It is a warm, sunny Summer afternoon. The sky is blue, the sea is quite dark and calm, and there is a breeze. You look out the window and suddenly you see an apparition - a group of little white sailing yachts glides across the bay softly breaking the delicate waves. You know very well that these are kids from the Yacht Club learning how to sail in little one-sail boats – the kind they used to call “bathtubs” back home. The June sun paints the waves golden and this sharp reflection causes your tired eyes to ache. But you don’t look away. Suddenly, there is no mashrua and you are floating lightly on a cloud of peace and harmony. The little white boats seem suspended in time and space and looking at them fills your heart with calm and happiness. You let go and the moment takes you away from the traffic on the Corniche, the smoking co-passenger, the unrest in the country, the street noise, and you are no longer tired. The moment lasts, and you understand that the world is beautiful.

wtorek, 3 czerwca 2014

Introducing Egypt's New First Family

Today, the Electoral Committee is supposed to announce the official results of the Presidential Elections. This morning, when I was walking to work, the Corniche was empty. Deserted. Now it's crowded again, getting more crowded by the hour, as the city prepares for tonight's celebrations. We have been told to expect trouble with the Internet connection in the upcoming hours. My colleague told me that the last time they announced something like that, it took them 3 days to fix the problem. Naturally, conspiracy theories are immediately popping up all around - are they trying to control terrorist activity? does this have anything to do with limiting opposition comments on social media? A rumor has been going around lately, that Facebook and Twitter are going to be controlled .. Should we expect a second Erdogan in Egypt? I am writing this post quickly, in case we do get cut off today ... 

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, without further delay, let me introduce to you Egypt's next First Family: the x-field marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, his wife Entissar Amer and daughter Aya al-Sisi. There are also three sons: Mustafa, Mahmoud and Hassan, but so far not much information about them has been shared in the media.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and wife, Entissar Amer, during an army gala in February 2014 (photo courtesy: Twitter, via Al Arabya).

Aya al-Sisi (far right) - not confirmed officially to be Sisi's daughter. (Photo courtesy: Twitter, via Al Arabya.)

Entissar Amer (her husband's maternal cousin), who made her first public appearance by her husband's side in February, shortly before Sisi's official decision to participate in the electoral run, caused some controversy because she wears the hijab, a popular version of the veil, worn by many Egyptian women. Prior to this first public appearance, some suspected that she might be fully-covered, wearing the niqab (a very conservative Muslim female dress, normally not particularly welcome in the army circles). She is said to be polite, humble and focused on her family, leaving "big politics" to her husband.

It is worth noting that the wife of the former president, Naglaaa Ali Mahmoud Morsy, was also veiled and much more conservative than Mrs. Sisi. It was through her, that the Western World got their first  peek into the status of gender roles in the so-called "New Egypt". She was also something of an ambassador for the Muslim Brotherhood, a vivid picture of their preferred role of the woman in society. 

Naglaa Ali Mahmoud Morsy (photo: source unknown, via Forbes).

"First Families" in all countries of the world are posed as examples or role models for the societies to follow and most likely the case will  not be any different in Sisi's Egypt. I agree that we should not be judged by our physical appearance, but in reality we are and the way the president of a nation and his (or her) family dress is of certain significance, especially in a country where the type of veil worn may often determine one's lifestyle, beliefs and the status in society. I would only like to hope that we are not  judged by our looks alone.

Meanwhile, the popular satirist Bassem Youssef, has oficially ended his talk-show "El Bernameg" ("The Program") stating that he is tired of worrying about his life and the safety of his family, and that the show has run it's course. Bassem's popular TV show, bringing millions of Egyptians in front of the receivers every week has suffered numerous repressions (including blocking it from being broadcast on air) and the presenter himself has been accused of offending the country, its government and public officials. He was arrested and has received death threats. 

Further reading: