The Trashcats of Egypt

25 July, 2010

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve made frequent references to “trashcats” without really ever explaining what they were.

To the untrained eye, the trashcat may simply appear to be a quasi-feral Felus Catus, but I maintain that they’re actually an entirely different species. Cats generally look like this:

But the trashcat looks like this:

It’s not really much of a secret that I came over here with a dislike of cats. I’ve never really liked them much- to me, they’re anti-social, Machiavellian little creatures that make my eyes turn red and clog up my sinuses. However, after having spent a year in Egypt, I’ve developed such a fiery, burning hatred towards these animals that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at a friend’s housecat in the same way. Here’s why:

1. I didn’t pull the name trashcat out of thin air. When we first moved to Agami, my apartment was directly parallel from the neighborhood trash cans. Garbage wasn’t collected regularly, but when it was, the suddenly empty trash cans had a habit of regularly collecting feral kittens. These cats would smell the olfactory abominations that were these cans, and decide to go exploring.  I would then get woken up at like 4 am by the yowling, screeching and frantic meowing of cats trying to scratch up the slick sides of the trash cans, and have to go down to tip the garbage cans over to let them out.  The first time it happened, I laid eyes on what I thought was a poor little fuzzball and thought, “Oh, you poor thing.” After I tipped the trashcan over, it hissed and took a swipe at me. So much for gratitude, right? Within the first two weeks of arriving in Egypt, I’d rescued at least six cats from the cans. By the end of my time in that apartment, it was less out of mercy and more in the hopes that the liberated trashcat would find its way into the open jaws of a neighborhood dog so I could get some sleep.

2. Any time you walk by a trash can or one of the enormous corner trash heaps, you can expect to see cats writhing, wriggling, and snorting their way through leftover foul, rotten produce, and other unmentionable things. Generally speaking, they only tend to make their presence known to you when it’s late, you’re tired and high strung from teaching at night, and all you want to do is eat your falafel and pass out. They’re also fiercely territorial, and will defend their adopted domiciles with the ferocity of miniature lions should you walk within fifty feet of one.

3. Equally disturbing is the time when the trashcats “get married” as one of my sweetly naive students once said. Then, the usual nightly soundtrack of cat fights turns into low wails that seem to match the exact cadence of  the “Hey sailorrrrr….” calls heard in Oceanside bars during Fleet Week. The message is the same: soon, there will be more trashcats roaming the street. One time, Set and I heard an awful noise while we were trying to lesson plan, and we opened our office window to see two cats, well, “consummating their marriage” as my student would say. They had picked a romantic spot amidst pizza boxes, cigarette butts and other trash thrown out windows inside of what appeared to have once been a bathroom from some long-ago apartment that got built over.

4. One of the most infuriating things about the trashcat scenario is that their behavior is both largely sanctioned and denounced by the people here. I’ve had conversations with my students where they’ve talked about how much they hate the cats as well, and yet, I’ve seen so many people throwing out chicken bones, mostly empty cans of tuna fish and other quasi-edible morsels to the cats. This morning, I heard a godawful, pained yowling coming from outside. When we left our apartment later today, I saw it was a freakish looking white cat with a pile of half-eaten scraps in front of it. Then, a guy came out of nowhere and fed more trash to the cat. This is the same cat that I’ve caught sneaking into our building before, and the likely culprit of the trash-bag ripping incident that left our hallway covered in garbage for nearly two days. Similar to tiger sharks, zombies, and other apex predators, once a trashcat has identified a food source, it will seldom leave until all resources have been consumed.

So, there you have it. These are some of the reasons why I hate cats now.I understand that we have a lot of friends who love and cherish cats, and that’s cool. I can differentiate between your precious feline and the demonic entities that have plagued me for the past year. Just please don’t ask either one of us to catsit.

This entry was originally going to be about dumb things that I’ve seen cats do here, but space was limited.

Throughout our time here, we’ve been telling you about our awesome trips to Lebanon and Nuweiba, the horrific stories from working with children and questionable institutions, but we haven’t really talked much about the food situation in our current lives. Mothers beware, this might make you want to send us a gift basket of avocados, quality sushi and infant sized burritos. Hint hint.

Our regular diet consists of random meals that we make at home. They’re usually fairly nutritious and tasty as we make some kind of pasta, stir fry or Thai curry rife with vegetables. However, sometimes we decide not to eat at home, either because of exhaustion driven laziness or the mutual desire to try something else for a change. We’ve realized in our time here that as plentiful as the options are, sometimes we really can’t wait to get back to America where we can eat burritos, General Tso’s tofu and other awesome Americanized ethnic foods that the nation’s numerous metropolises have to offer.

The food that we eat the most is very true to the heart Egyptian food; Abu Rabia. We frequent this place as it is close to our work, our home, uber cheap, filling and pretty tasty. You can get a satisfying meal with a fair amount of leftovers for about 12 Egyptian pounds, which is about two dollars and a quarter. Here’s what we usually get:

Gini Falafel – Gini is the Egyptian word for the currency here (Egyptian pound). With this we get One Egyptian pound worth of falafel (5 small pieces).

Gini aaysh – Aaysh is the word for Bread. The type of bread we get is like small soft pita bread. It’s pretty bland unless you eat it with something. Aaysh Balady (Bread Local – Literally) is government subsidized flavorless pita like bread. Add a few sourdough baguettes to the gift basket, good bread is not very commonplace in Egypt.

Masa’aaaah – Make sure you emphasize the “aaaaah” at the end, every time I order this, no matter where I go, people make fun of me for trying to speak Arabic and failing. In Modern Standard Arabic (the Arabic of Al jazeera and other Arabic publications) it’s pronounced Masaqah, which you may know more commonly as Musakka, the Greek eggplant dish. I’m not sure of the specifics of how to make Greek Musakka but Egyptian Masa’aaaaah is really tasty. It consists of eggplant cooked in a savory tomato based sauce with hot peppers. So oily, but oh so tasty.

Hummus – For my classes this term, I made my students debate the pros and cons of globalization. Very 90’s I know, but it led for a lot of good (and sometimes depressing) debates. Why depressing? One student basically said that all developing countries will only see the negative effects of globalization while the industrialized countries will only get richer. I wanted to send him in a time machine to the WTO demonstrations in Seattle, maybe he would have thrown a Molotov cocktail that changed the world. Anyways, I made them a handout explaining the general principles of globalization and gave them a few pros and cons that they could work with. On this sheet I wrote “Globalization is the reason why there is McDonalds in Kuwait and Hummus sold everywhere in the United States.” MY students were so confused when they saw the word “hummus” even though it’s a common dish in Egypt. It took them two minutes to realize that I was actually talking about what they call “HOM-MOSSS.” Chickpeas tahini and lemon juice, pulvierized. Next.

Baba – Short for Babaganoush or Baba ganouj – whatever its transliterated as. They only understand when I say baba. Roasted eggplant, tahini, lemon juice, pulverized. Yum.

Taboulleh – Taboulleh in Egypt is a big fat lie. It resembles Pico de gallo more than the tasty awesome green parsley filled salad that we had in Lebanon. They should just start calling it pico, because that’s what Kenny and I call it as soon as we finish ordering.

Fool – yes, Egypt is full of fool. What is fool? It’s usually spelled “foul” whenever I see it anywhere else, but I can’t help but think of the proper pronunciation of that word whenever I see it that way. Fool is the Egyptian word for fava beans. Everyone loves beans. Egyptians are no exception. They eat fool for breakfast off the side of a cart, they eat fool sandwiches when running after the tram, they eat fool when they’re trying to lesson plan… oh wait… we’re not Egyptian. In Egypt, when you order a general fool dish, you’re going to get fava beans in some kind of mushy or oily state. We usually get the mushy fool. I have no idea what it’s actually called, I usually point over in the direction of the big pot of refried beans and say “fool da” (that fool).

That’s generally it. We order a few random dips, bread, falafel and go on our way to eat and be merry. Whenever we’ve had friends visit us, we usually take them to Abu rabia, the vast selection and chaos is always exciting to someone who’s never experienced Abu Rabia, but sometimes it can be a bit too much to handle. Oof.

Next door to Aburabia, there’s a place called Abu Mazen. They sell pizza, fateer and Koshary.

Egyptian pizza is like chuck E cheese pizza with no tomato sauce. They always give you ketchup with the pizza. And their Margarita pizza has tomatoes and pepper on it. I told my students that they’ve been lied to their entire lives.

Fateer is kind of like a crepe, but greasier. They take what looks like pizza dough, and spread it out so its wafer thin and wrap a bunch of … well.. whatever you want inside. They have savory ones like cheese and vegetables, meaty ones with hot dog chunks and they also have sweet ones that have honey and sugar in them. It’s pretty awesome to eat, but I think it’s even cooler to watch them make it.

Koshary, Kenny hates it, I still like it. This is something we’ll never agree on. It’s very carby and filling, but it’s also pretty tasty. I took a picture of it in one of the first blogs that we wrote. It’s pasta topped with seasoned lentils, chidkpeas and fried onions. You top it off with hot sauce and a garlic vinegar sauce. Katie and Gabe (One of Kenny’s super cool best friends from high school and her awesome husband) got to taste some of it when they visited and liked it. I think Kenny got sick of it after we ate it way too many times when we lived in Agami. I can’t really blame him for that, but it’s so cheap and tasty that in my mind it’s still somewhere on my list of foods I enjoy.

Abu mazen also has really friendly people that work at the counter. Often times they’ve helped us with Arabic homework and have been patient with us as we deciphered the menu, which is written completely in Arabic.

This place and Abu Rabia are two places that we frequent when work has rendered us incapable of cooking. They’re probably the reason why we haven’t dropped dead yet.

If we feel like going a bit fancy, we’ll go to the steakhouse close to our neighborhood for a burger or fajitas. I don’t think I ever had fajitas until I came to Egypt. I also don’t think I’d ever eaten so much meat until I came to Egypt.

Occasionally, we get invited to have dinner at someone’s place and we get treated to a special Egyptian feast of magnificent proportions. Pasta dishes, stuffed pigeon, salads, mashi (vegetables stuffed with other vegetables, rice and seasoning), molokhaya (minced mallow leaves cooked in chicken broth) and more are impressively laid out on the table while we gawk in amazement. Egyptian Hospitality is no joke, they will hospitalize you with the amount of awesome food they pile on your plate.

Sometimes, when we have friends in town that aren’t devout vegetarians (which is surprisingly rare), we take them out to seafood in the Bahari neighborhood. Bahari is the fisherman neighborhood which is actually supposed to be pretty dangerous if you go too far inland. Our favorite is a place called “Aroos el Bahr” which means “bird of the sea.” They have a big boat of dead fish, shrimp, squid and other tasty seafood delights that we get to pick out, have them cooked (fried or grilled) and brought out to our table with a generous assortment of side dishes and dips.

Anyways, that’s enough for our food situation. What I want to know is, when are you going to visit us? We’re leaving Egypt in September, so you better make it soon!