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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

One recent Saturday, the Binational Fulbright Commission Egypt sponsored a walking tour of Islamic Cairo for Fulbrighters and their families. Our tour guide was Dr. Tarek Sweilam, a native Egyptian, who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University in the history, art, and architecture of Egypt and the Middle East.

Our day started with a tour of the Ibn Tulun Mosque, generally considered the oldest mosque in Cairo, having been completed in 879 AD. The minaret is unusual in that it features an external circular staircase. While the mosque has been restored several times over the years, it retains much of its original form. The courtyard is still the largest in terms of area of any mosque in Cairo.

We then proceeded to Bab al Futuh, a gate at the north end of the wall that surrounds Old City, and the entrance to Shari al-Muezz  (Muezz Street). This is one of the oldest streets in Cairo and the remaining sites on our tour are located along its path. It is a narrow meandering street along which we see towering minarets, arched entryways to old stone buildings, and merchants selling everything from fresh fish to hookahs for smoking shisha.

Bayt al-Suhaymi is the restored Ottoman-period private home of a wealthy Egyptian. Its high ceilings allowed warm air to rise and winds scoops built into the upper walls brought fresh air in to cool the rooms. Central courtyard gardens and marble floors added to the cooling features of the house. There were few, if any, functionally dedicated rooms (e.g. living room, dining room, bedroom). Rooms were used for what was needed at the time.

The Sultan Barquq Complex included not just a mosque, but also a khanqah for pilgrims to stay in, a madrasa (school) for the study of the Quran, and a mausoleum. Built in the 14th century, the impressive entryway consists of a black and white marble arch over a large bronze plated door.

The last mosque on the tour was the Sultan Qalawun Complex, which dates from the late 13th century and also includes a madrasa and mausoleum. The impressive interior features stained glass windows.

I hope these photos provide some indication of the exceptional art, craftsmanship, and architecture characteristic of Islamic Cairo. We were so very fortunate to have an expert like Dr. Sweilam to point out the architectural detail and explain the various influences of the Sufis, the Mamluks, and others.

Our day ended with a late afternoon lunch at Al-Azhar Park, with a commanding view of the Cairo skyline, the Citadel and the spires of Mohamed Ali Mosque.

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Western Christmas

As I stated in my Thanksgiving post, traditional western holidays here are little more than a date on a calendar and our memories. Christmas, though, was quite a bit more.

Since the population of this country is about 90 percent Muslim, there is little observation of Christmas on December 25. Nonetheless, the international community and the local Coptic Christian populations of Cairo and Alexandria seem large enough to justify economic recognition.

A handful of stores sell Christmas decorations; small artificial Christmas trees and non-religious items like stars, reindeer, snowmen, and Santas. The pastry shops have chocolate Santas, reindeer and snowmen and some really fancy cakes. (As an aside, there are a lot of patisseries here, perhaps a lasting relic of the days many French expats lived in Egypt.) I saw live Christmas trees for sale, but they were cedars, not pines. I have no idea what the selling price was. Finally, some shops, usually clothing stores, had a winter or Christmas theme in their store windows. Actually, it seemed more geared toward their winter sales. It is winter here and some days the temperature might not even crack 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Overnight lows are in the 50s and occasionally high 40s. So, winter clothing is big – boots, parkas, and neck scarves. Evidently, observing the secular aspects of Christmas is a convenient marketing theme.

San Stefano Mall (http://sanstefanograndplaza.com/index.html) was decked out in a winter/Christmas theme with traditional, but secular, Christmas music piped in – Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole. Mary Ann and I had dinner at a nice restaurant one night and couldn’t help but smile at the piped in music – “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” The decorations didn’t materialize until maybe a week before December 25, so there wasn’t a long “season” here. Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7.

We walked through the Four Seasons Hotel and noticed that their Christmas trees were real pine trees. They also had a giant gingerbread house near their third floor restaurants. We treated ourselves to brunch there Christmas morning; interestingly, there was no Christmas theme. There was however, a flyer promoting a Coptic Christmas buffet as well as special New Year’s meals.

On a personal level, however, acquaintances of ours would make it a point to wish us a “Merry Christmas.”

Mary Ann got together with three German AFS high school exchange students to host a Christmas cookie party. Our friend Sarah, a Fulbright student, offered to help and to bake some cookies. They invited all the folks associated with AFS here: the current exchange students, the returnees, the host parents, and all the AFS volunteers. We managed to scare up items from a variety of places to give the house a Christmas look. I discovered a small artificial Christmas tree wrapped up in a bag on the top shelf of our closet. Once it had been decorated with a string of small white lights and some homemade ornaments, it looked quite nice. Another string of lights and a brightly lit folded paper star guaranteed that our balcony appeared festive among the darkened balconies of our neighbors.

We share some traditional Christmas treats with our guests: various holiday cookies, fudge, candies, a German stollen, and an Italian panettone Christmas bread. Mary Ann asked the German exchange students to talk about their family Christmas traditions and gave the Egyptian AFS returnees a chance to talk about their American Christmas memories.  Our 20 or so guests seemed to enjoy our American – German Christmas party.

New Year’s Observation

There were New Year’s Eve parties at some hotel restaurants, but other than that, there seemed to be little evidence of formal observation of the new year. We dined at a nice restaurant relatively early in the evening and then rang in the new year in our apartment, watching observations around the globe from our laptops. As midnight approached, fireworks started appearing in the sky coming from several locations in our neighborhood. For the next half-hour, we watched the informal fireworks display. We were reminded of the informal fireworks displays in Oshkosh on the Fourth of July that would go on sporadically for hours after the formal display ended. The difference here is that there were no official fireworks.

Coptic Christmas

We ventured out in a new direction on January 7, Coptic Christmas. The Green Plaza is a large mall, (http://www.ragabgroup.com/greenplaza/) anchored by a Hilton Hotel and a Carrefours grocery store. It includes a large cinema complex and two stories of small shops around an open courtyard. The mall seemed extremely crowded that night with many families and groups of young people enjoying the open spaces. What struck us was that most of the women were not wearing head coverings, unlike what we usually observed in most of Alexandria. Instead, many of them wore necklaces with crosses. Given that the mall was really packed, our conclusion was that it was popular among young Copts to spend Christmas night at the mall. I’d like to think the mall isn’t always that crowded.


Our Apartment decorated for Christmas


Christmas Party

Decorations on the balcony

Four Seasons Christmas tree and gingerbread house

Another Christmas tree in the Four Seasons

And yet another tree

Yes, a Halloween hat, No, I don't know why

Fireworks from the balcony

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Silence of the Lambs

(Warning: graphic photos)

The Muslim feast Eid al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son. In Egypt this year, it began at sundown on Sunday, November 6.  As you all may recall from your Comparative Theology courses, God intervened and offered a ram to be sacrificed instead.

This feast is observed in a number of ways, including how one dresses and prays. It is also celebrated by a reenactment of that sacrifice. Those who can afford to are expected to sacrifice their best domestic animal. The tradition is that one third of the meat is kept, one third given to friends and family, and one third given to the poor. In large cities, of course, where most people live in apartments, domestic animals are scarce. Although, as an aside, for a large city, I do see a surprising number of live rabbits and sundry poultry available at street markets.  So the practice, at least here in Alexandria, is to buy an animal and have it slaughtered.

I was aware of the feast because, well, there’s no school that week. But, I was also familiar with the feast from the Muslim students who lived with us in Oshkosh. About two weeks prior to the feast, I was told me that this is a holyday when they sacrifice animals. So I thought it would maybe be like Thanksgiving where everyone has a turkey (except, of course, for those of us who are vegetarians). I suddenly started to see small flocks of sheep tucked here and there in the local market areas, not just here in Alexandria, but also in Cairo, even in Zamalek, the neighborhood where most of the embassies are located.

I don’t know where most of the slaughtering takes place, but at least some of it happens right there on the street. We had searched out a baker in one of the market areas the other night because we liked his croissants. As I looked across the street, I noticed a lamb carcass being skinned. In another market area, I noticed a beef critter of some type lying on the sidewalk, blood being washed away and young boys gathering around to watch. At this time of year there are many shops that have the cleaned and butchered carcasses hanging out front. So, at least some of the butchering takes place on the sidewalk in the market areas for all to see. This is an aspect of the feast that we hadn’t been aware of. So, we were careful about where we walked until after the feast, although, even then, we noticed carts with stacks of fleece being sold, some of it still a little bloody.

The feast, as I understand it, formally lasts for four days, but it seems like most people take a week’s vacation. I did. The feast is very much a family gathering that reminds me of Thanksgiving. Some Muslim friends, knowing we were vegetarians and that the traditional meal is very meat-heavy, let us know that we’d be welcome to join them, if we were up to it.

A more secular manifestation of the holiday sees masses of people going out on the town for an evening. This results in very crowded streets, a phenomenon we learned about the hard way.  As we finished a day of touring elsewhere, we walked from the fortress (Citadel of Qaitbay) on the western tip of the shore to the nearest downtown tram station. The streets and sidewalks were both congested and the very crowded tram was standing room only.

Street view of sheep in market area in Alexandria

Sheep in an empty "storefront" in Alexandria before Eid al-Adha

Sheep in Cairo during Eid al-Adha

Beef critter being butchered on sidewalk in Alexandria

Butcher shop in Alexandria prior to Eid al-Adha

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