It’s a Hard Rock life

12 October, 2009

If you’ve ever wondered what life is really like in Egypt, I’m sure it won’t take a genius to realize that it’s not all about pyramids, falafel and walking with angular elbows.  Tonight I got a glimpse into what our friend Megan refers to as the “real Egypt.” Kenny, Amanda, Megan and I were taken to a market in Agami where we were promptly escorted through the penetrating stares of the crowd, up some narrow and lumpy stairs into the various rooms that made up our friend Said’s family’s humble abode. I suppose I should backtrack so I can give you a little context on how I ended up in a room with 5 women and 2 men who spoke no English aside from “welcome” and “what’s your name”.

A few nights ago, Kenny, his roommate Lachlan and I went out for dinner at a neighborhood restaurant called “Grouchos.” Hungry and in search of some foodstuffs we opted for a place where we could actually read the sign. Have I mentioned that I’m getting a little sick of being illiterate? Hopefully that’ll be remedied soon enough. Anyways, the place looked abandoned when we walked in, but there were a few guys hanging out smoking cigarettes in the front by the bushes. One of them motioned us to go in and rang a doorbell and he motioned us to go up some stairs so we could turn right at the top and go back down the stairs into a huge open air backyard area. On the way to the back I saw some posters of some ladies scantily clad in anti-conservative bikini wear, so a little part of me thought that I had stumbled upon the only strip club in Agami. Alas, my friends it was not a strip club but a chilled out café which sold beer (huray!), pizza (nom) and gave us the saltiest peanuts in the world (bleh).  Staring at the giant framed picture of Celine Dion and enjoying mushroom pizza under the partly cloudy light pollution was great and all, but we decided to saunter back to the TEFL compounds so we could hang with the security guard with the off color sense of humor and get some rest before our big trip to Cairo!

While we were walking back on al Bitash (the main street in Agami), we found our friend Megan hanging out at Hard Rock, the local jewelry and doodad boutique. I’ve walked past this store plenty of times before but I always wondered if the store was a front for some shady business as they seem to be replete with scrunchies, fairly tacky and cheap  jewelry from China, Winnie the Pooh picture frames and other things that looked like they’ve lost their market value. It was also right across from the Koshari place so Kenny and I have remarked on how funny it was that there was a place called Hard Rock. Megan had befriended Said (Sa-yeed), one of the employees there and was teaching him words in English. Megan, a native of Minnesota, has studied Arabic for quite some time and has a habibi (aka boyfriend) in Luxor (a city in Southern Egypt) so she’s fluent enough to be able to communicate and joke around in Arabic. We stood around the store and traded English words for Arabic ones and would cheer every time Said remembered something.  He often had difficulty differentiating Ps and Bs which I had learned in my phonetics class as a common mistake amongst native Arabic speakers. Our friend Deborah has an Egyptian friend that calls her “Deporah” and Said kept saying “Burse” instead of “purse.” After a while Kenny got sleepy and departed, but I decided to stay as I was really enjoying being surrounded by Arabic speakers and picking out random words that I understood. As the next day we were going to Cairo at 7 in the morning, Lachlan Megan and I decided to retire around midnight but we were super excited about meeting Said, using a bit of Arabic and hanging out in the Hard Rock knick knack boutique.

Insert intermission montage here of: driving 3 hours to Cairo, gawking at the pyramids, punching the sphinx, eating at the Hard Rock Café Cairo, getting charged 24 pounds for a soda, making papyrus, running around the national museum, smelling essence of lotus flowers, running away from hustler shop owners at the Khan al Khalili market, 3 hour drive back to Agami, sleep, waking up to my ceiling being pounded in by construction workers, going to the beach, swimming in silt, eating rice pudding, sleep, waking up to my ceiling being pounded in by construction workers, van ride to school, learning about learning, coming back to Agami and Kenny and I walking to the Vodafone shop so I could activate my Egyptian phone line.

“AH DANGIT , it’s closed!”

Starting up my Egyptian phone number is apparently going to be a 3 day process. I kind of felt bad dragging Kenny all the way to the Vodafone shop, a whole 5 minute walk away from the compound, since he seemed pretty keen on finishing up his Cairo blog, but I just generally have a better time walking around with someone rather than alone, as I’m not the biggest fan of being stared at wherever I walk.  Being engaged in conversation with someone helps me ignore the fact that people are probably yelling things at me in Arabic that would generally make me throw punches in English. Thanks Kenny, you’re far too patient with me.

As we were turning around to head back, Megan and Amanda spotted us from across the street where they were hanging out at Le Hard Rock boutique of earthly delights. They were hanging out with Said and a couple of his friends, one who spoke a little bit of English, and the other with a really prominent unibrow. Megan asked me if I was interested in seeing an interesting market in Agami, to which I replied “of course, when do you want to go?”

“Right now!”

“Woah, what?”

According to Megan, the market was merely a five minute ride away and since we were with locals we would take the public transportation system. I have been wanting to take the public transportation for a while now, since it’s merely one pound per ride as opposed to 10 – 25 pounds if you take a taxi.  From my understanding there are two forms of public transportation in Agami, the bus and the mashrouas. The mashrouas are nondescript minivans supposedly marked with some sign indicating where they are going.  I personally can’t tell the difference between the minibuses and regular ol’ football mom vans, but Said et al seemed to know their way around and eventually stopped a shabby little navy van that perfectly fit our entire group.  What we thought was going to be a 5 minute ride turned into more of a 15 – 20 minute ride which followed the exact path we take to get to school.  Amanda and I got a little worried that we were actually tricked into going to school so we could spend some precious nocturnal hours learning about learning. Lucky for us, we were wrong. The van stopped and we climbed out into an area with lumpy sidewalks and tan square buildings hovering over the narrow streets, laundry draped out the window and tinsel crisscrossing over our heads.  We started walking through the main drag of the market, on either side of us there were pastry shops, produce stands, phone accessory stores and crowds of people all staring at us and yelling one thing or another in a tone of extreme excitement.  I kept hearing Said’s name being shouted all around us which made me believe that either he was a local celebrity, or everyone in the neighborhood just knows each other. We walked down for about five minutes and turned into one dimly lit alleyway after another.  Every time we turned or went in front of a store people kept rubbernecking towards us like we were either a horrid car accident or a celebrity entourage. We even had a throng of children chasing us, yelling “What’s your name,” “hello,” “welcome.” Though I felt a little uncomfortable to do so, Kenny took out his camera and was taking pictures of the street and sometimes the children would run up to him yelling “picture, picture” and giving their cutest smile before running back to the gaggle of accumulated followers. I initially thought we were going to just wander around the area so I became a little curious when I realized that we seemed to be purposefully walking through these alleyways. I asked Megan what the plan was and she told us that Said’s family lived close by and wanted to meet us! The gaggle of curious kids pretty much followed us to his doorway until they got the hint and ran back to whatever they were doing before.

There were some women standing by the doorway smiling brightly at us as we walked by. I assumed these were some of Said’s relatives so I smiled and greeted several of them with a smile and a “salam malekum” and shook some of their hands but Said and Megan kept motioning for us to go up the narrow stairwell until we were on the fourth floor and we got escorted into a small room, half the size of my room now, but double the size of my room in Brooklyn.  Somehow we were able to fit all of us and his family members into the room and we all sat around looking at each other with fondness and curiosity. After a few minutes Said made us all stand up and get out of the room so we could go upstairs into a bigger room. When we sat down there, some of the relatives followed us but most of them just kind of hovered by the door. Said, who is apparently either really antsy or excited about showing us rooms made us get back up again and move into the backroom where we were left with the company with which we came. Said’s sister kept glancing in the room and he kept yelling at her to leave and slammed the door. Sibling relations has always been something slightly beyond me (as I’m an only child), but it was kind of funny to see that antagonistic behavior towards the prying eyes of siblings was a cross cultural phenomenon. Said’s sister later entered the room with a tray full of Pepsi (bebsi), donning a veil now as there were men aside from her brother in the room. She seemed really sweet, I would have loved to talk to her.

Amanda and I decided it would be fun / funny to regurgitate all of the words we have retained in our 3 days of intensive Arabic and our 2 weeks living in Egypt. Here are some example words and phrases.

  • Flip flop – ship ship
  • Pepper – fil fil
  • Bag – Shanta
  • Cup – Kubaiya
  • I don’t know – Mish Fahim
  • Chicken – Frekh
  • And more!

Kenny later jokingly (I think) accused me of being culturally insensitive for basically sounding like a schizophrenic to the Arabic speakers but I think they got a kick out of it. Also their jaws apparently dropped when Amanda and I busted out our Swahili which we learned in a dialogue development class a week or so ago. Culturally insensitive? Nah. I’d like to think that we’re just embracing the world with our ability to flaunt our language retention skills.

We drank our soda and bantered about, speaking to each other in broken Arabic and intermediate English. We left soon after, making the journey back down the dark and cavernous stairs, everyone on the way down opening their doors when we passed so they could either get a glimpse of us or invite us in for some tea.

Trying to avoid causing a community wide commotion once again, Said decided to take us back towards the main street through the back alleys. Some areas were definitely a little dodgy, but being with Said we knew that no one would harm us, unless it was in the form of verbal harassment. When we walked past what could have been a barbershop, 3 or 4 men that were sitting around jumped up at the sight of us and started yelling something in the same tone that everyone else had been using, but this time they said something that was extremely unfavorable to Megan and she became instantly furious and started yelling at the guys and telling Said to say something back to them.  I later found out that what they yelled was something that men would only say to prostitutes in the streets, which would most likely warrant an automatic beat down in some places, but is considered somewhat normal behavior from Egyptian men, so it was best to let it slide.

I had thought that Egyptians were more mild mannered than men in some other countries in the sense that they weren’t outright yelling country names or “ni hao” whenever they caught sight of me, but I’m starting to realize that they may be saying all that kind of stuff at me, but I just haven’t learned the racist jargon in Arabic yet.  It’ll be interesting to see whether my opinion on Egypt and Egyptians (the men specifically) will go up or down depending on my increasing level of language competency.

The other girls in the program and I have often found ourselves a bit perplexed as to how some of these grown men decide that it’s okay to blatantly stare, cat call and proposition women that are obviously from another country. Do they grow up in a household where their parents tell them that all foreign women are lascivious lushes looking for a quick romp in the Egyptian boudoir?  Sometimes the childish behavior of men like this absolutely astounds me to a point where I sometimes want to shake them and tell them “YOUR METHOD SUCKS, FIND A NEW ONE THAT DOESN’T MAKE YOU SEEM LIKE SUCH A MYSOGINIST BREEDER.” Is it just a cultural misunderstanding? Should I not be offended when some random strange man comes up to me and asks “How much?” or says “Ni Hao?” Is it poor parenting skills? Is it the lack of community support systems able to teach kids that following people for miles is not only awkward and creepy but rude? When we left Said’s place despite taking the back streets of the marketplace, we were still trailed by 3 or 4 kids who were staring at Amanda and Megan like a groper fish on a high dose of tranquilizers. They stuck by our side until we got on the bus about 30 minutes later and even then I felt as though their prying eyes were still on me, maturing slowly into the piercing eyes of the older men who would later be standing on street corners ogling at women going about their business as if they were an animal in the zoo. My interim conclusion on this matter is that someone wrought with ennui will find ways to kill the mood for others.  Get a hobby before you get creepy.

Upon our return to Agami, we found a wedding reception going on in the alley next to our favorite juice bar. Kenny had his fancy camera out and ready when a man grabbed him by the arm and said “PICTURE PICTURE PICTURE PICTURE!” and pushed Kenny into the center of the matrimonial hoopla so he could take pictures of the men singing at the newlyweds in the doorway. We ended up hanging around the juice bar for a bit, sipping on mango juice and taking pictures of little kids fascinated by Kenny’s camera.

Good end to a fun night I suppose. 🙂


I have an Egyptian phoneline! I didn’t wake up to soul pounding construction today! I’m co-teaching a group of children with a Brazilian tomorrow! The new Converge album is amazing!  So are these egyptian sweets! yum yum!

Zalabia: Fried dough balls marinated in honey! So good!

Zalabia: Fried dough balls marinated in honey! So good!


9 Responses to “It’s a Hard Rock life”

  1. laura nisbet said

    Well, I guess sisters are sisters and rude men are rude men where ever you are in the world. I wish I were there!!

    • Setters said

      Come visit! I can’t guarantee any Grey Goose martinis, but we can shower you with more honey soaked sweets than you can shake a stick at!

  2. Brianna said

    Hey SET!!! i have been following you secretly via this blog! I am OUT! Egypt is a fucking trip! i am so excited for the extreme adventure. Still in Nepal doing my Master’s master. SO FUN!! Hey a quick comment on men and the cross cultural pervertedness. First at least in this part of Asia I would contribute the type of “western girl” they see in media and in video. Have you seen a Britney spears video lately? naked rubbering herself all over everybody and everything. Sure in America its fine..we see that kinda stuff all the one point I did that kinda stuff (well kinda..but you get my drift). I would also attribute the fact that no type of sexual behavior is shown or performed in public. The traffic literally stops when I hug my Nepali boyfriend. HUG! There is no such thing as a PDA…We (western women) are then associated with an object or picture..western women aren’t women but glossy moving images of sexed up Britney spears video. Good luck…and carry a pocket knife or a brick!!!
    (oh and i heard that Nepal and Egypt aren’t too far away from each other…hmmmmm)

    • Setters said

      hey lady,

      I’d love love love to visit nepal if funds allowed. Who knows, maybe i’ll have a job that’ll whisk me away to your region one day. Carrying a brick sounds like a great idea. haha. Send me one from nepal! xo.

  3. Danni said

    Hey hey,

    Sounds like you guys are having a great time! Two thoughts, one you should see the mummy room at the museum, I don’t even like mummies and i thought it was cool. Second, rude is in the eye of the custom…for example in China and Taiwan it is completely acceptable to stare, point and make comments (not just at westerners) it is also ok to ask someone how much their shoes/jacket/book/car etc costs to their face, and grunting is an acceptable response to any question in Taiwan (I kinda miss that one actually:) I recommend a wedding ring. I wore one in Egypt, made my life easier, you don’t get as many whore remarks and the potential for groping is seriously reduced as well.
    Keep havin fun!! And eat more of those honey soaked dough balls, they look amazing!

    Danni 🙂

    • Setters said

      By the time we got to the museum we were so out of it and tired that all we wanted to do was sit down and drink water. That being said, seeing the mummified animals were AWESOME. I loved seeing the crocodile with the little baby croc they found in its mouth. The mummified cats looked like bowling pins. Maybe I should get Kenny a bowling ball for christmas. Kitty bowling! oh wait you like cats….eep! xo.

  4. yo-jin said

    every time i hear the word “sibling” i try hard not to laugh. the other day, er night, a coworker blurted out “men without younger siblings are dangerous. he is a dangerous man.” (it made total sense when she explained it at 3 am after working 11 hours straight followed by lots of free booze.)

    and i think the staring thing is also because they have never seen people who look different in real life so it’s just so intriguing to them. i don’t like kids, but when the really teeny ones speak a language that i don’t, i think it is so adorable and i dunno but it might be a little creepy for their parents?

  5. yo-jin said

    oh and your adventures sound pretty awesome. i remember when some guy led me and my friend back into some alley ways in chefchaouen, morocco because he wanted us to meet his family or someone or something like that. um, he just wanted to sell us carpet but it didn’t get sketchier than that.

    • Setters said

      haha. I had a similar experience in Tunisia where some guy was gonna show me some carpets, which i did see, but he also showed me some miserable looking berber slaves. it was one of the more depressing things i’ve seen. needless to say I didn’t buy a carpet.

      It’s funny to see the difference in reaction that I get when i’m with and without Kenny. When i’m with Kenny I get a whole bunch of people saying “hello, welcome, how are you” and when i’m alone or with other girls, I get dudes screaming in my general direction, whistling and a whole lotta “ni hao”s. I think kenny looks like he’d give them a job, whereas I look like i’m gonna … give them a handout of sorts. I haven’t really gotten the worst it though. There is a woman in my group who was being groped by a strange man when she was coming back from grocery shopping. Another girl had her butt grabbed twice by the same guy in a fish market, and this same girl saw a dude getting his rocks off while he was following her in a car.

      All I know is, I have my keys handy on my beltloop, I wear boots with a heel and I know how to throw punches. Don’t tread on me!

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