All posts by Laura

Travel junkie and former tour leader turned Sustainable International Development student. Currently working on linking tourism and sustainable development in Egypt.

News Sources for Egypt

Tahrir has been going from bad to worse lately, but there’s a limit to how much news reporting and commentary I can do at once. It’s exhausting just to follow current events in Egypt right now, let alone write on them.

So.

In the interest of giving other people the option to see what’s going on in Egypt in real time, here are the main websites that I’ve been using to get my news and information.

First, traditional news sources like the BBC (my favorite news source in general circumstances) and CNN (popular in the US). Articles here tend to be well-written and well-researched, but often late to the party in terms of real-time updates.

Second, Egyptian news sources. Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al Jazeera both update pretty frequently, and being the local news sources they tend to get the stories faster than other networks. In particular the Al Jazeera Egypt Live Blog has been my main source of information for the past few days, because it’s updated in real time.

My main source of information, however, is not a news site at all. It’s twitter.  There are a number of interesting hashtags to follow–mostly I follow #tahrir, as well as some Cairo-based tweeters. @cairowire, @protestwatch, @tahrir_news all post frequently (@tahrir_news posts mostly in Arabic, so google translate is a handy device).

Obviously, not everything on twitter is accurate–but then, not everything on the traditional news source websites is accurate either. On Saturday, Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that Tahrir square had been cleared after “light clashes.” This was a few hours before the shit started to hit the fan. (I would include a link to the article in question, but it’s been taken down).

As my housemate Lorna points out in her blog on this weekend’s events, pretty much every news source is biased in some way, whether towards the police or towards the protesters (though support for the police has been dwindling the more the violence continues).  Consequently, I’ve been a news junkie for the past several days, concurrently following all of the above sources and often several others, trying to get as complete a picture as I can from all sides. Following so many information streams so constantly is exhausting, though, and it’s not something I can keep up indefinitely. So in the interest of spreading access to information more widely, I’m writing this post on sources that others can use if they so wish.

In the meantime, it’s 3am. Tomorrow promises to be just as interesting as today if not more so. Meaning it’s time to get some sleep before another tension-filled day.

 

Tahrir, the US, and Democracy

A lot has happened since my last entry, and it seems that we’re going to need a lot more than wishes on rainy days to keep Egypt peaceful through the upcoming elections.  For those who haven’t been following, protests started in Tahrir this past Thursday, and have continued  up to today, becoming increasingly violent from Saturday on. Yesterday on my way home from a conference I passed near Tahrir, and saw lines of army vehicles on their way into the square, and lines of ambulances waiting outside. I knew, even before getting home and seeing the news, that things had gotten bad. Most recent body count that I can find is 35 for this weekend, with about 1700 injured (including at least 2 who lost their eyes).

I came home to the news of escalating violence after attending a conference on Sustainable Development in North Africa during the day. The conference was fantastic, filled with passionate people trying to help their countries. I met attendees from Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Sudan.  I couldn’t help feeling, with the juxtaposition of the conference and the news, that I was seeing both the absolute best and the absolute worst to be found in Egypt, all in the space of 24 hours. The disconnect made me dizzy.

At the conference, a young man from Ethiopia asked me why I wasn’t in Tahrir, joining the protesters in their struggles. “You’re an American,” he said. “America is the seat of democracy in the world. You should be there, fighting for democracy.”

He was nonplussed when I responded. It wasn’t my country, I said, it wasn’t my fight. I do development work. Aren’t we at a conference for Sustainable Development? I’m trying to build things for when the fighting’s over.

“But it is your fight,” he insisted.  I should be there, helping. As though my very American-ness, if present, would be the key to reversing the military dictatorship and restoring peace, harmony, and citizen rule. The fact that I am Very White, Very Female, Very Non-Arabic-Speaking, Very Obviously Out of Place, and would be Very Much Alone in the midst of tanks and live bullets didn’t seem to occur to him. Or simply might not be relevant, if my Democratic American-ness had the power to trump all.

In a way, it was nice to hear the confidence and esteem in which this young man seemed to hold the US, despite the political vagaries of the last decade. But it also made me acutely conscious of how the US has failed to uphold its own standards of First Amendment rights, and very acutely aware of how badly the US police was handling the Occupy movement. At the same time that I had been posting news about Tahrir Square on facebook, my US-based compatriots were posting pictures and news from various Occupy encampments that had turned violent—most recently, pictures of students at UC Davis being sprayed with tear gas, which look remarkably similar to pictures of police attacking protestors at Tahrir.

One of these two pictures comes from “the seat of world democracy.” The other comes from a military dictatorship. Can you tell which is which?

Tear gas in Tahrir
Tear Gas at UC Davis

As though reading my mind, he asked me, “what is this I am seeing on the news from the US? This Occupy thing?” He charged ahead before I could start to explain the movement. (For the record, it’s very difficult to explain OWS to people from developing countries. Materially, most of the 99%ers still have a lot more than the average person from the developing world.). He asked me, with genuine confusion, whether it was true that police were attacking peaceful protesters in America. In his view of the US as the seat of world democracy, pictures like the one above have no place. He was struggling to find a context in his mind for something that shouldn’t exist.

Sadly, I couldn’t answer his question. I don’t  know why First Amendment rights in the US, guaranteeing “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” are being violated. I don’t know why my country, which has claimed since the Constitution was written to hold a moral high ground with regards to citizen’s rights, has suddenly decided that its citizens are such fearsome creatures as to be tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and beaten because they happen to be camping out to make a political point. Egypt has the excuse of being a post-revolutionary state without a government. The US has no such excuse.

So I couldn’t answer, when my new friend asked me all of these pointed, awkward questions. Fortunately, he didn’t expect for me to have all the answers. He just expected me to find them out.

“When you meet President Obama, please ask him these questions for me.”

I will, friend. If and when I meet Obama, I most definitely will.

 

Making Wishes on the Rain in Cairo

Yesterday, for just a few short minutes, it rained.

In many parts of the world, rain is nothing unusual. In Cairo, rain is rare. In a year, the city might see one inch of rain, total. Rain falling here is an event.

In my office, everyone stopped what they were doing to stand on the balcony and watch. We reached out our arms to feel the thin droplets, barely visible through the still-shining sun, and one of my office-mates said to make a wish.

Rain in Cairo is like a falling star.  A singularity. Something to wish on.

We all made our wishes. For the future of the country. For the elections, happening so soon. For a peaceful transition from military power. For Egypt to be able to bloom.

 

Contrasting Neighborhoods of Cairo

Today I went out in search of adventure, in the form of an unmapped wander through  two neighborhoods of Cairo. The city is a study in contrasts, and the juxtaposition of different areas sometimes feels like the juxtaposition of two totally different worlds. Though there are many indicators that show the difference between places, I’ve come to the conclusion that wealth in Cairo is measured in trees and pavement. These two factors alone will tell you everything you need to know.

The morning started in Zamalek, one of the richest neighborhoods of Cairo. Located on an island in the middle of the Nile, it hosts number of foreign embassies, meaning a lot of foreign diplomats and their retinues live here as well. The boulevards are wide, tree-lined, and evenly paved.  The buildings are all modern and mostly soulless. Very little trash is in the street. Boutique shops are full of expensive housewares, and multiple bookstores sell English-language books (hamdulilah!). I was able to take a yoga class today in this expat enclave, my first since arriving in Cairo, and it was wonderful to find something here that was so integral to my life back home.

This is what wealth looks like: broad, tree-lined streets paved with asphalt.

After yoga, I wandered until I felt peckish and found an upscale coffee shop, where my tea and carrot cake cost more than I usually spend on proper meals. Despite the exorbitant prices, the coffeeshop was packed with expats (and wealthy locals), presumably there for the atmosphere of a place that felt like the coffeeshops at home.

Wealth also looks like overpriced tea and carrot cake, plush chairs, and a spotlessly clean shop.

Walking around Zamalek, I heard almost no catcalls. No heckling of any kind. After two months of  near-constant commentary on every moment that I spent outside, it was almost surreal—like I had been transported into  a different universe from the one that I normally inhabited.  The island felt like just that—an island. A tiny, wealthy bubble of Euro-American sensibilities in the midst of the teeming chaos that is Cairo. It was nice, for a while, to have a small break from my normal reality. But after a few hours, it made me feel bored.

One of the things that I love about Cairo is the breath of the unexpected that pervades my experience here. I felt cut off, in Zamalek, from the real spirit of the city, so I decided to go back to the city’s roots. Back to Islamic Cairo, with its lively markets and minarets, with its history and soul. The streets are narrow, unpaved, and treeless. Space is a commodity here, and so is asphalt. Trees are too much of a luxury to grow.

This is what streets look like in Old Islamic Cairo. Narrower, unpaved, no trees.

Though the streets aren’t as nice here, the buildings are infinitely more interesting. I started out at Al-Azhar mosque, which was built in the tenth century and is one of the oldest mosques in Cairo.  It’s a glorious confection of white marble,  a wonderful break from the heat and the dust of outside.

The peaceful courtyard of Al-Azhar mosque

 

 

Details of the architectural confectionery

 

From there, I wandered in a fairly directionless manner, my main priority being to move in the opposite direction of the tourist market and its accompanying touts. I succeeded, moving through neighborhood markets selling produce, local clothing, and basic housewares, passing coffee shops where men sat with shisha pipes for hours at a time. These places were not designed to trap tourists, and so I walked unmolested and mostly un-commented upon until I reached the Mosque of Al-Mu’ayyad, a glorious structure with beautiful interior polychrome designs.

The interior of the Mosque of Al-Mu'ayyad

From there, I went to the neighboring Bab Zuwayla, the southern gate of Medieval Cairo. Above the gate stand two minarets , and I braved the narrow, unlit spiral stairs  to watch the sunset.

Sunset over Cairo

Looking out over the city, glowing under the light of the setting sun, I felt a surge of affection for my adopted city. There’s so much history here, so much life, so many different influences that come together to make the city vibrant. For all their differences, Zamalek and Old Islamic Cairo both have their place, as do all the other disparate neighborhoods here. Despite its many challenges, I’m glad that I can call this city home.

 

The minarets of Cairo's skyline at twilight.

 

 

Eid Mubarak–A Very Expat Holiday in Cairo

Eid is one of the biggest holidays of the Muslim calendar. It commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, and the miracle of having the ram appear to be sacrificed instead. In the Islamic tradition, the sacrificial son was Ishmael, and the prophet Mohammed traces his lineage back to him, just as in the Christian tradition Jesus traces his lineage back to Issac. Eid is celebrated in most Muslim countries by a sacrifice of various animals, usually sheep, sometimes cows and cockerels as well. For the past several days, I’ve seen dazed-looking flocks of sheep lining the Cairo streets, and known that the date of the Great Sacrifice was coming soon.

As a longtime vegetarian, I admit that I looked forward to Eid with no small amount of trepidation.  My memories of Eid in Morocco consisted mainly of trying not to step in puddles of bloody rain in the streets of Rabat, and watching kids play catch with severed goat heads before tossing them onto makesihft bonfires on street corners. I’d been on a train that morning, so I’d missed everything to do with the slaughter and only saw a bit of the aftermath. I was torn, this time around, between the desire to experience an “authentic” Egyptian Eid and the desire to stay as far away from slaughtered animals as humanly possible.

Though I’d heard that there might be a parade in the morning, the guy who invited me to watch with him never got back to me. So I spent the night before Eid at home with my new flatmates and took their advice: the best way to spend Eid morning is to get so drunk the night before that you sleep through the sounds of the animals screaming. (Don’t worry, mom. I didn’t actually get that drunk).

I did sleep through the morning slaughter, but was awakened by the steady pounding sound of cow cadavers being hacked to pieces in the building directly opposite my window. I was relieved to discover, on looking outside, that while the activity was audible it was not visible, and there was no blood running down the road as I remembered from Maroc. The only visible signs of the slaughter from my vantage point were carts of bloody sheepskins driving down the street. A butcher-shop smell was in the air.

I went out for lunch with an Egyptian friend, who told me he didn’t like the  smell of blood or the taste of sheep meat either, and so didn’t really celebrate the Eid.   Like disaffected 20-somethings everywhere, he found spending too much time with his parents at home “boring,” and so we were two of many young adults in the restaurant-cafe, presumably all taking a break from awkward familial conversations at home. It reminded me of nothing so much as the inevitable, desperate cafe run with friends that accompanies almost any holiday visit home in the US, when you’re sick of being asked what you’re doing with your life. Young adults everywhere are the same.

In the evening, Lorna and Ellie invited a handful of friends for a small house party–their own take on the celebration of Eid.  It was very non-Muslim, in that there were large quantities of alcohol, and no real link to any Eid traditions. Just a few expat women and their spouses (some foreign, some Egyptian), with cocktails and conversation and bellydance tv.

All in all, it was the kind of holiday celebrated everywhere by people without their families nearby, or by people faced with huge cultural holidays that are not their own.  We find friends and gather, not out of any kind of tradition, but out of a need for companionship and solidarity. That when everyone around us is celebrating in  a way that we can’t join, at least we are not alone.

 

 

 

An almost-night of bellydance

I’m back in Cairo, after many adventures, and I promise I’ll get around to blogging about my time in the desert at some point fairly soon. In the meantime, starting off again in media res…

This evening, my new flatmates and I were  supposed to go out to experience Egyptian Cabaret in all its sleazy glory.  I’m living with the incomparable Cairo-based artists Lorna of Cairo and Ellie of London, and there’s nothing better for a flat full of artists than to go out and experience other forms of art, wherever and however they might be found.

So.

We took a cab into downtown, near Tahrir, to look for a certain dive that Lorna knew of. When we arrived, however, we experienced a shock. All the shops, normally closed well before midnight, were open. Lights were blazing, the streets were full, and everyone walked around in pre-holiday excitement in preparation for Eid. This meant two things. First, Lorna couldn’t find the cabaret, because every other time she’s been there the shops have been closed. With everything open and all the lights on, the usual landmarks didn’t work. Second, when we finally did find the place, it turned out that the cabaret was closed–because drinking booze and watching girls shimmy is apparently haram (forbidden) before Eid.

Like any enterprising women, then, we decided to figure out Plan B. We could go shopping, since the stores were all open, but we wanted to relax. Cup of tea in a local coffeeshop, then…with bellydancers on the TV. Many, many bellydancers. A whole channel full, in fact. And they were better dancers than we’d have been likely to see at the live cabaret, which as mentioned before is fun largely because of the level of sleaze, rather than the talent of the dancers.

Lorna and Ellie decided, after several dances, that it was imperative that we find this channel on the TV at home, in the interest of having access to 24-hour a day bellydance. The name of the channel that we needed to search for?

…wait for it…

“El Tit”

And yes. That means exactly what you think.

 

Into the Desert I Go

This post is a quick update–I’m leaving Luxor for the Western Desert early tomorrow morning. I’ll be doing a circuit of  the major oases: Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra, Bahariya, and Siwa. There will be dunes, there will be palm trees, there will be camping out under the crescent moon…it will be many layers of awesome.

I don’t expect to have much (if any) access to the internet while I’m out there, so I will probably be conspicuously absent from this blog space for the next ten days or so.

Expats, Locals, and the Space in Between

In these last few days, I’ve met several expats living and working in Egypt. Some of them, like me, are doing development work, or are trying to give back to the communities in which they live. This, on the face of it, is good. Wanting to give back and help people is an admirable inclination. Not everyone shares it. In general, I very much approve of the impulse to do good.

And yet.

When you go out into the world to “help people,” you need to be careful. If your purpose is simply to pat your own back about how good a person you are, it shows. And if you consider the people that you are helping to be fundamentally different from or inferior to you, that shows also.

Yesterday, I went into a fair trade gallery with an Egyptian colleague. The expat lady who owns the shop immediately, on hearing about my project in Egypt, exclaimed “that’s wonderful!” and proceeded to tell me how nice and rewarding it is to work with Egyptians, and they’re so lovely, and so grateful, and it makes you feel so good to know that you’re doing something good for them…in the tones you might use to talk about working with multiply disabled children. The main difference being that the people I know who actually do work with multiply disabled children don’t talk about them that way. She mostly ignored my colleague, who has a degree in Egyptology and speaks fluent English. Every now and then she would include him in her conversation in the way that one might invite a child to contribute a few words in a group of adults.  And she spoke so much and so fast that I could barely get a word in edgewise to even things out.

My colleague is a quiet man. When I asked later what he thought of this woman, he said only that she had been helpful, which was entirely true. She gave me contact information for several other organizations in the area that might be good for my organization to work with.  And her work in fair trade is truly exemplary. She provides women in inaccessible villages around Egypt with a source of income by helping them design things to be sold in her shop, and her shop has some of the highest quality and most unique souvenirs I have seen. She is helping people, and doing it well. But the way she spoke to my colleague, and to her Egyptian employee, was so paternalistic that it really put me off, and I’m sure that my distaste showed to some degree though I did my best to hide it.

Interactions like this one (sadly, this incident is not isolated) make me incredibly angry. How do you manage to speak condescendingly about intelligent adults, in their own presence, as though they were not there? As if they didn’t understand your words? How do you do it, and how do you think it’s okay?

I have to believe, or at least I choose to believe, that people who speak and act in this manner do so unconsciously. That the bias is subconscious and the paternalism is unwitting. That if they actually realized they were causing offense, that they would behave differently. But it’s hard to speak to people about bias, about the ways in which they’re getting things wrong, particularly when there are a number of things that they’re doing right. No one wants to be told they’re being condescending and possibly racist.  It’s hard to raise the issue without creating offense or alienation.  It’s difficult to know what to do. What to say.

I was raised to believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity. I try to behave towards people in a way that reflects this. I am absolutely certain that I do not always succeed, that there are times and places and people that bring out the worst in my character and bring the biases that I have tried hard to overcome into the foreground. But I try to make these instances few and far between, and I try to be aware of them, at least, when they occur.  I try to treat all people with respect. (Friends who are reading this, please do let me know if and when I fail. I won’t like hearing it, and I’ll probably hate myself a little, but it’s something I need to know).

Expathood is difficult. You’re miles from home and anything familiar, the people have different customs and culture from your own.  You’re bound to notice these differences and form opinions on them. But “different” does not mean “less than.” It does not mean “wrong.” And it’s never alright to treat someone badly, just because they’re not similar to you.

 

 

 

A Long Overdue Update from Luxor

Hello everyone,

It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated this blog. Experiences in Egypt have come thick and fast, and it’s been nearly impossible to find the time to process it all, let alone blog about it. I’m going to make an attempt tonight, and hopefully work backwards over the course of the next month or so to write about everything I’ve been doing lately that’s made me too busy to write.

I’m in Luxor right now, in Upper or Southern Egypt.  Upper Egypt is called so because of its elevation, because it is the area from which the Nile flows, towards the low lands and the Mediterranean to the North.  It is my third day here. I arrived by felucca  (small traditional sailboat) from Aswan, and saw the glories of the Karnak and Luxor temples on my first day. The second day, I got up at crazy o’clock in the morning and went for my first-ever hot air balloon ride, watching the sun rise over the horizon from above the Nile and the many temples down below. After the balloon ride, I went to the valley of the kings, where I saw  the tombs of Ramses I, Ramses III, and Sety II on my regular ticket. Then I paid the extra to see the tombs of Tutankhamen and Ramses VI (it’s worth the extra cost). After the kings, we saw the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the only woman to ever rule Egypt as a Pharaoh, and the Colossi of Memnon (yes, they’re big).  After all that, the group that I had joined briefly to get from Aswan to Luxor departed for Cairo, and I was here on my own.

I’ve had a couple of meetings with people about projects in the area, though I haven’t seen any yet.  The people I’ve met individually through recommendations of other contacts have been lovely. But what I’ve discovered about Luxor is that it lives and breathes by tourism alone, and it’s bleeding its tourists dry. It is impossible to walk alone here without being harassed. In Cairo and Aswan, the harassment is limited to just a few areas—the main tourist areas, if you will. In Luxor, the town has nothing besides tourist areas. Which means no place is safe from harassment, if you’re female and alone.

Take this afternoon. My agenda as I planned it:

  1. Go to the bookstore.
  2. Stop at a jewelry shop.
  3. Take a walk for some fresh air and exercise.
  4. Stop by a café to do some work and relax.

My afternoon as it actually happened?

  1. Start walking to the bookstore.
  2. Refuse the advances of multiple taxi and caleche drivers who alternately ask where I’m going, offer to take me wherever they think I’m going, tell me how beautiful I am, tell me they’re single,  and after about ten iterations of “no, no thank you, no, I’m not interested, no, no, and no,” they leave with a hopeful, “maybe later,” that indicates that they’ll remember me for the next time they see me walking and harass me again.
  3. Go to the bookstore. No hassle here, because they know they have things that foreigners want and will buy without convincing. Spend a very pleasant time and buy a new journal and a pocket phrasebook.
  4. Stop by the jewelry shop next door. Ascertain that I don’t see anything I want in about 2 minutes, stick around for another 5 minutes convincing the shopkeeper that I really are going to leave without buying anything because I really don’t see anything I like.
  5. Start to take a walk.
  6. Feel elated after 3 minutes with only a few minor comments to herald my passage.
  7. Get approached out of nowhere by a guy asking me what I think of Luxor, who does not appreciate the irony with which I say, “It would be a great town without the hassle.” He starts walking beside me down the street (without any invitation on my part).
  8. Face the dilemma: let him follow me down the road and be annoyed by his talk, or lose him with difficulty and risk (almost inevitably) being followed by someone worse? Either way I lose.
  9.  Choose the lesser of two evils—he hasn’t said anything overtly sexual yet, and if he follows me at least he’ll keep the other guys away.
  10. Skip the coffee shop (because then he will want to come in  and keep talking) and go back to the hotel (a good place to ditch someone–now he knows where I live, but at least he can’t get inside).

So.

Afternoons like this one are really pretty mild. No one groped me, proposed marriage to me, made indecent sexual advances to me, or ripped me off. All in all, I can count the afternoon as a relative success, since at least I got what I wanted at the bookstore.

That said, afternoons like this one are indicative of a larger problem. People come to Egypt for the pyramids and temples, for the desert and the Nile and the experience of being someplace exotic and new. But very few people, having been to Egypt once, have any desire to go back, and it’s largely due to the  harassment. The first time I traveled to Egypt, I had no intention of ever returning. The pyramids and the Nile were nice, but I’d been groped, harassed, and propositioned so many times during my 7-day visit that I couldn’t wait to leave.  I like Egypt much better the second time around because I’m not always in the touristy areas where these occurrences are common. But the fact that these things happen often to tourists is an enormous shame.

Egypt has much to offer a traveler.  It’s an amazing, beautiful, and unique country with the potential to do truly great things. But this one unavoidable inconvenience repels repeat business and keeps people away. Egypt needs its tourists–they’re the basis of the entire economy. It needs to treat them well when they arrive.

 

 

 

 

The Alexandria Fish Market

It’s not often that a restaurant meal is the central focus of my day, but today was an unusual day. I woke up early to take the public bus from Cairo to Alexandria, and arrived at my hotel a little after noon.  I hadn’t slept much and was ravenous, so I decided to dive into my Alexandria experience by heading to the Fish Market, a place that had come highly recommended by multiple Egyptian friends.

Based on my time in Morocco, I expected a place with a name like “fish market” to be informal: an outdoor extravaganza by the docks where the fish jumps pretty much directly from the boats onto your plate, hitting the grill and some lemon along the way. Noisy, chaotic, full of life and character…this was my expectation.

Imagine my surprise, then, after a long, hot walk to get there, that the Fish Market was a formal restaurant, with blue and white tablecloths and big plate glass windows that looked out over the Mediterranean. My first instinct was to go elsewhere: I’d been looking for cheap and local, not formal. But I was hungry, and I’d just walked for half an hour in the hot sun…I sat down. The waiters ushered me to a corner table, set for six, next to huge plate-glass windows with a spectacular view of the sea.

The view from the restaurant window

Though there was a menu at the Fish Market, it was mostly symbolic. Though it wasn’t the chaotic boatside restaurant of my imagination, it did have the most important similarity:  a large display counter, where different kinds of fish and seafood  sat half-buried in ice. You could choose your own fish and its method of preparation, and they would bring it to your table made to order.

I had a small crisis at the fish counter. Next to each fish was a small sign indicating the price, but said signs were incomplete. Sea bass was 92 Egyptian pounds (about $15). Was this per fish? Per pound? I hadn’t been planning on spending much money, and no helpful English-speakers were in sight, either in terms of staff or other patrons. This meal looked like it might end up being way more than I could really afford for an ordinary lunch. I finally chose a sea bass that looked like it weighed about a pound, figuring that at least that way I would know the approximate price regardless of the system. I didn’t order any side dishes at the fish counter, because I wasn’t sure how much they’d cost, and I didn’t want to end up paying $30 for my meal.

When I got back to my table I found a bottle of water and a lavish display of mezze, which I hadn’t ordered.  It looked beautiful, but I inwardly sighed. I could already see how this whole meal was going to go–amazing food that I couldn’t refuse at a price I didn’t want to pay. I was tired, I was starving, and I’d been walking in the sun for half an hour after a 3 hour bus ride…I was an easy mark and I knew it. But the mezze looked delicious, and I was too tired to argue and too hungry to think about anything else, so I decided to make the most of my unplanned extravagance and dig in.

Mezze

The mezze were excellent, hummus, baba ganoush, a green salad with tomato, and two dishes I’d never seen before, one made from pureed garlic, the other from fava bean paste. Then my fish came, spanning the length of my plate, and though it needed salt and lemon it was very well prepared.

Grilled Sea Bass

Finally, the bill came. I had already resigned myself to an inflated price, so was incredibly, pleasantly surprised when the total for the fish, mezze, and bottle of water came to just under 70 Egyptian pounds (about $12).  The price of the fish was per kilo, not per pound–remember where you are, Laura! The fabulous mezze were only 10 pounds ($2).  I felt like an idiot, both for failing to remember the local measurement system, and for being so negative and suspicious  that the place was going to rip me off.

Every now and then, my jaded traveler expectations are wrong. This was one of those times.

So thank you, Fish Market, for exceeding my expectations, and for providing a really excellent meal at a reasonable price. I’m here in Alexandria for several days yet…I will be back.

The brutal aftermath...