1001 Nights - Stories of Traditional Handcrafts from Egypt

History of Garagos Pottery and more ……….

Posts for Tag: cairo

Saturday 7th April 2012 - Exciting New Development in Research for the Garagos Book!

Peter and I have been planning to write a book about the village of Garagos for about 6 months. Garagos is a village 25 kilometres north of Luxor in Upper Egypt and the place where Peter's family have lived for generations.

Our most recent visit in particular has thrown up some very interesting stories about the village and has inspired us even more to put pen to paper (words to computer). However, the main problem lays with anecdotal evidence is that there is a lot of conflicting information especially as there is very little information documented.

During our visit in March we explored rafts of photographs which did shed a little light on the situation, however, we have known for some time that the source of this more 'valid' information lies in Cairo with the Jesuits priests - more than likely at Le College de Saint Famille in Fagalla, Cairo. Peter's father did tell us that there was a Dutch Jesuit priest called Father Khalil who had recently visited Garagos and was also writing a book about the village but he couldn't give us more information that this.

The lives of most villagers - most certainly the Christians in Garagos have been shaped in one form or another through the interventions of the Jesuits who came to live in Garagos. From the establishment of a dispensary, schools and also a the pottery that Garagos has become known for, the Jesuits have changed the circumstance of many people.

I have tried contacting a number of organisations that I thought may be able to help ascertain information around the names and dates of service for the Jesuits that came to Garagos. Extensive internet research has led us in various directions but we now know that a lot of the information that has been published in English, Arabic and French is in fact incorrect.

It feels like we've spent months hammering away at the internet - trying numerous spellings of Garagos such as Geragos, Garagus, Garagosse, Jarajos - me in English and then Peter in Arabic. Emailing any contact that we thought might be able to help us. We took this information with us to Garagos to either confirm or deny, the information we had found. I think we came back really none the wiser regarding dates of service for the priests.

Once back home and again enthused with the stories we had been told I tried a few leads we had been given and also a few more searches through Google. I thought I needed to spread the net a bit wider than Egypt and searched for other Jesuit organisations in Europe.

I came across the website for an organisation called Jesuitica in Belgium. I outlined the nature of my enquiry in an email, attaching a photograph that was taken in the home of Peters family. The photograph featured Father de Montgolfier, a Jesuit that served in Garagos in 1947, Peter's mother and father and grandmother and other family members. In the photograph is also a baby of about 6 months of age – the baby being Peter.

Almost immediately I received a response from Father Rob Faesen. Father Faesen told me that information relating to the Jesuits in Egypt could be found in the archives of the Jesuit Province of the Near East. He told me that the archivist a Father Charles Libois was in 2006 residing in St Josephs University in Beirut but this information may be out of date. He gave me the email addresses for the Assistant to the European Provincial Superior and also to the webmaster of the website for the European Provinces. He said that if I didn't get any joy from these sources to come back to him and he would investigate further contacts.

I forwarded my enquiry again to the email addresses provided and almost immediately I received a response from the Assistant to the EP, Father Dermot O'Connor. Father O'Connor confirmed that the Jesuits in the Near East were administered in the one province in Beirut. He gave me the email address for the Assistant to the Provincial – a Father Bassili. He also gave me the email address for Father Charles Libois who was now residing in Le College de Saint Famille in Cairo, also with a note that Father Libois was now around 84 years of age.

I emailed my enquiry once again, attaching the same photograph taken with Peter's family and Father de Montgolfier. I again received a very quick response – firstly from Father Bassili who asks me if I can understand French. Although he can write in English, he is far more fluent in French and will be able to describe the information in more detail using this language. He also tells me that he showed the photograph to a fellow priest living in the same community in Beirut. He tells me that he is 31 years of age and comes from Garagos. He showed him the photograph and he immediately recognised the people in it. He finishes his letter saying that if he is able to write to me in French he will write to me about Garagos “more and more”.

I showed Peter this email.  He tells me that he is sure that the Jesuit Priest Father Basilli mentions is Father Mario - a member of his extended family.

Within hours of receiving this email I also received one from Father Charles Libois. Addressed to Madame Stephanie, Father Libois asks me a series of questions – as with Father Basilli, whether I can read French as most of what is written about Garagos is in French. He also points out that St Verena was not in fact born in Garagos but near by in Thebes (modern day Luxor). I felt rather frustrated that such a magnificent claim such as Garagos being the birth place of St Verena can be wrong – but I guess that's the nature of the internet! Father Libois asks me what is Peter's full name i.e. Peter followed by the name of his father, grandfather, great grandfather. Also whether Peter is from the Orthodox Church or Catholic Church in Garagos. He also asks whether he recognises Zaki Muhareb and Labib the tailor in the photograph – or is it Naguib his brother?

My heart jumped like you can't imagine. Father Libois knows the family members so it is likely that he knows Garagos itself and has maybe even spent time here! Any deflation I felt after finding out about St Verena is more than made up for now.  I wondered if he knew Abouna Khalil, the priest that had visited just one month ago and seems to have some connection to the village and Peter's family.

I excitedly put together a response, replying to each of Father Libois's questions in order. I also attach further photographs of the visit that Father de Montgolfier made in 1979 and send the email off into the ether immediately.

When I arrived home from work the following day, another email from Father Libois was waiting for me in my inbox.

He says that he just has one question for now. He asks if Peter's father is the brother of Mathilde, the wife of Labib the tailor, finishing by telling me that he visited them about one month ago.  Again this information excites me. This does begin to confirm that Father Libois knows the family quite well.

I reply immediately to Father Libois confirming that yes, Peter's father is the brother of Mathilde and brother in law of Mr Labib the tailor. I also mention to him that we were also in Garagos – exactly one month ago.

Yesterday was Good Friday. Waiting in my inbox was another email from Father Libois. In it he provides me with some very interesting information about Father de Montgolfier and Father Henry Habib Ayrout – or rather corrects some information I had about the two priests. He explains that Father de Montgolfier was a foreigner and “insisted on social amelioration” whereas Father Ayrout was Egyptian, a man of the country and swore by the development of schools. He tells me that much separated the two men who could both be very stubborn and at times their visions clashed.

Father Libois ends his email by telling me that he served in Garagos for three years between 1964 and 1967. He says that although his name is French, he is fact Dutch, and that the villagers of Garagos will know him as Abouna Khalil!  

As fate would have it, and as Peter's father had told us, Abouna Khalil AKA Father Charles Libois had been in the village one month ago but had left days before we arrived.  

Since then, very interesting email discussions with Abouna Khalil and we hope one day to meet with him on one of his return visits to Garagos or in Cairo.

28th September 2011 - Luxor

Last night we didn’t even get chance to wash the Cairo dust out of our hair – we just collapsed into bed.  In the morning I wake up with a start – no noise, no uninvited alarm calls.  I just had a sense that it was late and we might miss breakfast.  It was 10.10am and breakfast is served until 10.30am.  We decide to chance it and just throw on some clothes, give hair a quick brush and wipe off the remaining residue of yesterday’s makeup (my makeup not Peters).

We make it, and relish in the luxury of having breakfast on tap.  Eptisam looks after us and makes sure that are cups are filled with tea until we leave.

We go back up to the room, shower and then begin to unpack our bags from Cairo.  We both need to charge our iphones but can’t seem to find the charger.  Peter automatically thinks it’s been stolen – I tell him to phone the Sheraton and see if anyone found it in the room.  As I go through my things I notice that a video camera is also missing.  Peter is now convinced they’ve been stolen.  I remember Peter was very meticulous about checking all of the drawers and the rest of the suite before we left so now I was thinking the same.

Peter phones the Sheraton and he is told to phone back in 15 minutes as the room service manager isn’t available.  Now the next bit is a bit of a palaver so I will make it brief.

Peter phoned back and the room service manager puts him through to lost property.  Lost property tells him to phone back again whilst they check.  Peter phoned lost property back again.  They say they have found the charger and the video camera but they don’t have the key to the safe.  They tell Peter that he needs to send someone for the items the day after tomorrow.

I think Peter is dumbstruck.  This is supposed to be a 5 star hotel and the only person with the key to lost property is off work.  Things don’t seem right.  Thinking back I don’t remember seeing the iphone charger or the video camera for the last few days of the Cairo Trip – we agree that skulduggery is afoot.  Peter says he is going to do a write up about this on Trip Advisor. 

After this pantomime we decide to go to the pool.  Later that evening we are going to dinner with friends Tony and Nasreen which could be a late night so we make the most of what’s left of the day.

We stay by the pool until about 5.30, just before the sun begins to set.  We go up to the room, shower and sit on the balcony and drink a glass of red wine.  From the balcony we see a line of people carrying things down to the pontoon.  A DJ greets the staff with handshakes and kisses and carries what looks like speakers.  Chef’s carry trays of food on their shoulders.  A local woman dressed in black carries a basket of bread on her head.  We see them take the steps down to the Nile and Peter notices that a large tent has been erected on the island further down the river.  They must be having an Egyptian night with belly dancers and musicians.

An hour or so later we are ready to go to Tony’s.  We leave the hotel and are deluged by calls for taxi’s.  We take one go over to Sawagi. As we approach Tony’s flat we can hear loud wedding music coming from the street behind.  We are greeted by Tony and Nasreen.  Their two young daughters Hannah and Jenna play.  We chat for a while – the music from the wedding can still be hear.  We go out onto the balcony and above the music we hear gun shots.  Tony tells us that it is very common nowadays to hear guns being shot at weddings.  Firecrackers are usually lit to celebrate a marriage but on this particular night we can hear a handgun and also an automatic rifle.  Tony says that he didn’t know whether it was safe for us to come to his flat as there are a lot of guns being carried by local people since the lack of police on the streets.

Peter had already told Tony about our things that need to be collected at the Sheraton in Cairo.  Tony had already contacted one of the drivers who works for the same tour company.  He was currently in Hurghada but was to pick someone up from Cairo and bring them back to Luxor.  He would collect our things from the hotel and bring them back for us.

Nasreen has cooked a large meal for us.  Rice, salad and 2 plates piled high with what looks like chicken – like chicken but the meat looks like a different colour.  Peter tells me that it’s pigeon stuffed with freek.  http://www.whats4eats.com/poultry/hamam-mahshi-recipe There is also kofta and potatoes and bread – so much food!

After the meal we drink tea and mangoes, apples and pears are eaten.  Hannah (two and a half year old) entertains us with some belly dancing.  It’s a lovely evening but we don’t stay too long as we still need to catch up on sleep after the Cairo trip. 

Reflecting on the evening I remember noticing how Nasreen kept feeding Hannah at every opportunity – even after we had left the dining table.  I remember Tony telling me that Hannah was quite poorly when she was little and they didn’t think she would survive.  As I’ve discovered on my many trips to Egypt and especially when visiting the family – feeding people is a given.  I don’t think that it’s just about hospitality (although this is important) – not when it’s your own children.  More of a desire to ensure the children are well fed and therefore healthy – even if they are from a middle class family.

Having suffered with bad stomachs on my trips to Egypt I find it difficult when I am presented with piles of food.  The heat really supresses my appetite and I also become over faced with the amount of food placed in front of me.  You know there are always eyes on you – especially from whoever’s cooked the food seeking approval by seeing you tuck in.  The bad stomachs don’t come from the food – I honestly believe it comes from the heat but it is always best to be careful about what you eat.


27th September 2011 - Last day in Cairo - Adventures in the Khan el Khalili

The Cairo traffic alarm clock wakes us at 6.00am again – always so reliable. We finish the last few bits of packing.  Peter meticulously checks that we haven't left anything in draws and cupboards (even though we didn't use them).  We mooch around the suite, take in the last arial views of Cairo from the balcony and then go to check out.   At the reception desk Peter asks the member of staff if he knew what the shooting was yesterday morning.  He tells us that somebody had tried to steal a car.  The police response to me seemed incredibly heavy handed as we must have counted over 20 police at the scene of the crime.

We leave our luggage at the hotel as we still have a few visits to make. We had spotted Abdul in the hotel car park earlier so again escape out of the back of the hotel through the coffee shop. We get a taxi back to the Khan – one and half hours certainly wasn’t long enough before. This time we seem to have been dropped off at a different entrance to the Khan.  We are now in a maze of narrow alleyways and can’t quite get out barings. Nothing to lose – we just found ourselves meandering along the streets taking in everything this wonderful scene has to offer.


We have found ourselves in Wikala el Ghuria – the northern quarter of the bazaar. We stop briefly to read a sign that is promoting a workshop – craftsmen and women can be seen producing local handcrafts such as tapestry and inlay work. Whilst we read the sign Peter notices a young man in the spice shop next door watching us. Peter asks him about the workshop and we are told that it won’t be open for another two months. Peter strikes up conversation with him. He tells us his name is Mohamed and that if we want to see crafts being produced he will take us. We have no real itinerary so decide to take him up on his offer.

Mohammed tells us that this area was inhabited by many Turks. Turks came to trade here in the courtyard of the Wikala - his own father is Turkish and his mother is Egyptian. He asks us what crafts we would like to see in particular and told him lantern making as we hadn’t seen this yet. Peter and I had had great trouble trying to make contact with lantern makers directly – there are plenty of agents acting on behalf of the manufacturers but this wasn’t going to enable us to see the crafts being produced first hand and also find out about the crafts people themselves. He says he can take us but the lantern maker won’t be open until 1.00pm. In the meantime he takes us to an inlay workshop.

We follow him through the maze of alleyways. We go deep into the Khan until we come into a tiny courtyard and the entrance to the workshop. This feels like a secret place – a place where tourists are unlikely to stumble. We are away from the madness of the Khan – everything is silent. We are introduced to Mahmoud who invites us in. The workshop is tiny – no bigger than 3 metres by 3 metres. Every inch of the workshop is fully utilised with high shelves stacked with plain wooden frames and the carcases of jewellery boxes waiting to be decorated. In the corner a worker sits at a small bench carefully placing small bits of mother pearl into an already etched out design. Next to him is a pot of animal glue – a smell that takes me back to college in the 1970’s where I studied upholstery and cabinet making.

We are shown the shells, how they are cut and then how each inlaid piece is sanded down and lacquered to produce a high sheen finish. Hanging on every spare inch of the walls are inlaid picture frames, tambourines, shelves – all covered in a thick layer of dust – probably from the sanding process. On the wall is a small glass fronted cabinet. Mahmoud opens the cabinet which reveals a display of jewellery boxes. He takes a couple out and asks us if we know which ones are fake. Peter and I begin to examine them and tell him that we can’t see any difference. He takes a knife and starts to scrape the bottom of one – and then another. He tells us “you see, one is plastic and the other is camel bone”. He was referring to the frame on the bottom of the jewellery box. He then went on to tell us that they make the fake ones for the Khan and the real ones with camel bone for hotels and expensive shops in the city. I think at that point both Peter and I felt we're trying to be taken in with smoke and mirrors! He showed us one of the ‘real’ jewellery boxes and told us how the internal frame of the box was made from one piece of wood – not jointed. How it was lined very well and finished to a high standard and that the black wood was real ebony.

I look at a couple of the jewellery boxes and select one and ask how much. He tells us 75le. I suspect this is more than the true value but we agree on 75le and also buy a small picture frame for the same price. Poor Peter has haggling exhaustion plus he doesn’t like haggling when I’m with him – man’s work I think! We are invited into the courtyard to drink tea. Mahmoud smokes shisha and Mohammed joins us. The courtyard has a real charm.  These are ancient buildings and their history, the families that have lived in them – the essence of the lives and loves of generations of people, permeate the walls.

They chat in Arabic – Peter occasionally gives a translation for me – I’ll have to sack him as a translator I think! Mahmoud brings out a plastic wallet which is full of photographs. They are photographs of the pieces of work they have decorated from jewellery boxes to the most amazing pieces of furniture. Mahmoud is particularly proud of a Regency style seat that was commissioned by the French Ambassador. He explains to us that the cabinet makers in the Khan produce the wooden furniture frames. Glass makers in the Khan hand make any glassware for example on a glass fronted cabinet. Metal workers in the Khan will produce the handles and hinges and eventually the inlay workers will decorate and finish the pieces ready for delivery. Also in the Khan there may be a specialist to pack the pieces and also an export agency to ship it to wherever it needs to go. This truly is a co-operative approach to business – a network of tradesmen working together towards an end goal. I found myself reflecting on how different things were back in Garagos. A lone pottery in an isolated village – any contacts to pack and ship would have to be made in Luxor or maybe even in Cairo. We take a couple of photographs and say goodbye to Mahmoud. Peter tells me later that he thinks Mahmoud and Mohammed are related. I imagine generations of the same families have remained in the Khan for centuries.  

Mohammed takes us to the lantern maker whose workshop is now open. Again another tiny little workshop. Mohammed introduces us to the owner Hani who has a table outside where he is finishing the copper pieces. Inside another Mohammed shows us how he solders the copper panels together.  I only take a few photos and videos before the camera battery dies. I look around (standing on the same spot). Lanterns hang from the ceiling and are also stacked up on the floor – taking up three quarters of the floor space. There is also a shelf with small lanterns and candle holders.

Hani the owner shows us that some of the designs are based around traditional Islamic patterns and others represent the Coptic cross. The design he showed us of the Coptic cross had 12 points or sides which he tells us represent the 12 desciples.  


Although the lanterns here have a certain charm, they are not the quality that I am looking for – the copper/brass is very thin and I doubt that some of them are copper or brass at all. We thank Hani for his time and leave.

Mohammed invites us back to his workshop for a drink – hibiscus tea. He picks up a handful of hibiscus petals and then summons a boy from the street to go and make the tea. Peter asks Mohammed if he can do a spice mix for us – Ras el Hanout in Morocco – Mixed spices in Egypt! After we receive our bag of spice Mohammed shows us his saffron. He produces two tins and he asks us to guess which is the good one and which is the bad one – oh heck – another yarn again! We’re not worried – Mohammed has been a fantastic guide around the area we have already decided to buy some saffron from him. Neither is real saffron but we play along with him anyway and then make the purchase.

The boy arrives with the hibiscus tea and we sit down and drink. Mohammed tells us that his father is a professional Tanoura (Sufi dancer) – otherwise known as a Whirling Dervish. He would be dancing in Wikala the following night. This is such a shame – I would love to have seen the show. We have seen many Sufi dancers in Luxor – they traipse from hotel to hotel and cruise boat to cruise boat doing the same show night in and night out. It is an amazing spectacle, very hypnotic to watch – and I would imagine even more so with a professional dancer.


Mohammed tells us that he will get the key to his house which is above the spice shop. "Wikala was built in 1504 A.D. by Sultan Qunsuwah Al Ghouri, late during the reign of Mamelukes. Wakalat El-Ghouri was originally designed as an inn for accommodating traders coming from all parts of the globe as well as a marketplace for trading goods and a venue for making trade deals. Before the discovery of the Route of Good Hope, Egypt had been the hub of overland trade caravans from east and west …………"


Two minutes later Mohammed comes back and invites us to enter a large wooden doorway around the corner from his spice shop. We climb up four or five floors – I lose count – the heat is oppressive and I’m totally out of shape! We reach the roof of the building. Mohammed and Peter continue to climb over the rooftops – I stay and take some photographs – just absolutely wonderful views over the Khan and also of Cairo. This is just fantastic - we can see all the way over to the Citadel.

Peter and Mohammed return. We go back to the spice shop where we say our goodbyes. I’d love to come back and see Mohammed – he has been an excellent (unofficial) guide and has been a key to helping us unlock some of the secret treasures held within the Khan.

We cross a small bridge that takes us to the middle of the Khan – the part we are more familiar with. We decide to make another attempt to find Midak Alley. We wander up and down the streets we know – relying on our barings to guide us to this small area. We end up doubling back on ourselves a couple of times and then we eventually give and decide to go to the Naguib Mahfouz Café to eat. As we make our way there we pass a lantern bazaar. I notice a lantern in the same design that I have at home, hanging at the front of the stall. The owner – another Mohammed comes to talk to us. I ask him how much the lantern is and he says 180le. This was cheaper than what we had paid for it in a local shop in Luxor. I liked the fact that Mohammed hadn’t tried to haggle with us and start with some ridiculous price. He tells us that his family have a factory that produce the lanterns. We talk for a while – he shows us some lovely silver plated and copper coffee pots. We exchange details and tell him that we will contact him when we’re back in England.

We arrive at the café and order tea and a mezze to share. Babaganoush, tiny cheese pies, tahini, yoghurt dip, tameya, nice fresh bread – gorgeous! We sit and watch life go by for a while. Khan is a carnival full of lively characters. Everything is a show and I’m always entertained by the interaction between the locals and tourists. Some tourists are up for playing the game – others run the length of the alley, keeping their heads down and trying not to make eye contact with any of the vendors. Walking in the Khan definitely feels a little more 'full on'– from the vendors that is. It’s still friendly but just a little more 'in your face' than what I’ve experienced in the past. It’s definitely a much more comfortable experience than in the Souk’s of Marrakesh but business is bad here – 9 months into a revolution and everyone is desperate for the business. It’s now 4pm and we leave the café and the Khan and catch a taxi over to El Daher to visit Peter’s aunt Aziz and cousin Ayman.

We arrive at the apartment. Cake and tea await us. When I say I don’t have sugar in my tea this is met with great surprise. I now remember that every time I have been offered tea by Peter’s family and I say I don’t take sugar – it’s always met with a look of shock. Sugar although not expensive is a treat and a treat that is offered as part of their hospitality. Ayman is an account manager in a tour company in Cairo. Most young people seem to have employment connected to tourism in one way or another. We spend an hour or so – Peter and Ayman talking about politics and how bad the revolution has been for ordinary people so far. We now have to go and pick up our luggage from the hotel. Before we go to the airport we have one more family visit to make. Ayman walks us out.

We get a taxi easily outside on the street – the driver is a young guy called Mina. Back onto the crazy freeways of Cairo. Traffic over the island is still congested and the beeping relentless. I begin to worry that Abdul will be outside the hotel. We will have to pull up to the front of the hotel to pick up the luggage. Peter tells me not to worry – he has been speaking to Mina and if Abdul is there he will explain that Mina is his cousin and has been driving us around Cairo for the last couple of days to visit the family. Sorted.

Luggage is picked up, doorman tipped and we say goodbye to crazy Cairo city. We drive out to Heliopolis. Although the traffic is still very heavy, the streets become wider, tree lined and we can definitely sense we are driving into a more affluent area. Peter makes several phone calls to his Aunt Alice and Uncle Michel for directions to their apartment. We drive past St Georges Church where a wedding seems to be taking place. Peter tells me that this is the church where is cousin got married so we must be close to his aunt and uncles home. Eventually we find it. As we get out of Mina’s car both Michel and Alice are standing on the balcony waving to us. We walk down a driveway lined with potted cacti and enter the building at the side. We climb the stairs and are greeted with warm handshakes and four kisses on cheeks. We are invited to take a seat out on the balcony as it is cooler.

Alice makes us tea and again is surprised when I say I don’t take sugar. She asks me if I will have just a little sugar – Peter and I laugh. Michel and Alice are about to go to Austalia to visit their son Maged. He and his family have been in Australia for 5 years where he works in a managerial position in a bank. They have been going to Australia to stay for 6 months of the year for the last few years – now they are retired they can live between Australia and Egypt quite easily. As I look out from the balcony across the tree lined street I can see other families doing the same, drinking tea and relishing in the warm gentle breeze, far less polluted than central Cairo. We take some photos of us together – now having to use my iphone as the battery on my cameras has exhausted itself. Mina is still waiting for us. We say goodbye, wave goodbye to Alice and Michel who are again standing on the balcony.

Off we go to the airport. It’s now nearly 10.00pm and the flight leaves at 11.00pm. It’s a good job that we didn’t make it to Egyptair to get an earlier flight as we’ve really squeezed every minute into these four days. We leave Cairo. As we take off I think about how the city below is just beginning to come alive.

An hour later we land back in Luxor. Again Bob has arranged for one of his drivers to pick us up from the airport and take us back to the hotel. Just as Cairo is swinging into action, Luxor is going to sleep. The streets are empty and all is silent – not even one beeping car.

26th September 2011 - Cairo - A very busy day

I wake up early again to the sound of beeping horns – I think I’m almost beginning to expect it like my morning alarm call for work each morning.  I open the balcony doors and sit on the sofa writing up my notes for the blog.  Peter wakes up and takes a shower.  As he comes back into the room we hear two loud bangs from below - they definitely sounded like gunshots.  Peter goes onto the balcony to look.  After a minute or two he tells me that the place is swarming with police – I can hear multiple sirens in the distance.  I tentatively make my way onto the balcony and pluck up enough courage to look down.  There are 3 large police trucks and at least another 3 police cars on the roundabout next to the hotel.  We both take turns in videoing the spectacle below.  I imagine it was an attempted bank robbery as the police seemed to be concentrated around the Faisal Islamic Bank.  The furore dies down and we decide to get our act together and get ready to go out. 

Once we’re ready Peter calls me from the balcony.  He tells me that he can see Abdul waiting outside the hotel.  I feel bad but we decide to go out via the coffee shop at the back of the hotel.  Maybe we should at least have told Abdul that he hadn’t been fair with his prices but on the other hand both Peter and I felt let down by him and taken advantage of.  We had known him for over four years and he was even a witness at our marriage.  Abdul is from a relatively middle class family and all of his family are in good jobs so we make the assumption that he is pushing the limits as he would with any other tourist.  Anyway, that is probably the last time we will see Abdul as we are told that the Sheraton is due to close shortly for refurbishment.  This particular Sheraton we’re told is owned by the Libyan Government.  Not sure where we got that nugget from so I’m unable to verify it.

Once out of the back and onto the street it isn’t long before we pick up a taxi.  Our first stop today is Al Ain Gallery in Dokki not far from the hotel.  Taxi fare 10le.  The gallery is owned by Randa Fahmy a master metalwork designer who showcases her own designs and also that of other local craftsmen.  This is a beautiful gallery.  For sale are Randa’s own metal work designs, beautiful copper lanterns that take their influence from the traditional designs.  But Randa gives a modern twist to her work.  There were also substantial pieces of wooden furniture that were deeply carved and adorned with arabesque features.  We also saw pottery from Fayoum, embroidered wall hangings and charming cloth dolls from Siwa.  A section of the gallery houses a jewellery collection by her sister, acclaimed jewellery designer Azza Fahmy.  We buy  a couple of pieces of pottery and as we leave this beautiful gallery I try to take mental pictures of the way the products are displayed.  http://www.randafahmy.com/index.php

We are out on the street again hailing a taxi.  We are now going back to Zamalek to the Alef Gallery that we failed to find a few days earlier.  The traffic over onto the island as usual is hideous but it isn’t long before we arrive at our destination – cost 15le.  This again is an absolutely beautiful gallery.  It is made up of themed rooms that display the most beautiful products – all handcrafted, all based on traditional styles but again with a modern twist.  One room displays fabric, fabric made of cotton and silk and really exquisite patterns.  We are told that the gallery has been open for 20 years and that they employ all of the craftsmen who produce the work.  This gallery is very well located to benefit from the wealthy residents in Zamalek.  Definitely worth a visit – even just to admire the wonderful handcrafts.  http://alefgallery.com/

We leave the gallery and decide to walk down the street.  I’d read that there was a shop that sold handmade products from Siwa around the corner.  We had timed this with the end of school – clearly a private school.  Children emptied out onto the quiet street into waiting cars and mini buses.  Groups of children approached us trying out their English with “hello””how are you?” “I love you”.  We find the shop and take a look around.  Again another beautifully designed shop.  The walls are decorated with panels of rock salt mined from Siwa itself.  The shop has a range of lovely embroidered cotton tunics, shoes and handmade jewellery.  Children knock on the shop window to try and attract my attention.  We say our goodbyes and make our way to a Costa Coffee that we’d noticed earlier – again another opportunity to take a bathroom break in surroundings that you know will meet a minimum standard.  After tea and chocolate gateau we go out and find another taxi.  Here we meet Sami the taxi driver who we actually spend the rest of the day with.  We ask him to take us to the Abdeen Pottery in El Fostat village, Old Cairo.  I’ve got my bearings a little scewed but if I’m right we’re not far from Coptic Cairo.  Sami tells that we are in a local area, an area where tourists don’t come too often and that everyone in the neighbourhood looks out for each other.  As we drive into the Fostat village we can see that the style of the houses is different to what we’ve seen anywhere else.  The buildings look as though they would be more at home in a coastal village somewhere.  Many of the houses are decorated with tiles – very charming.  All seem to be in the business of making pottery as huge pots and jars are piled up in front of each house.  We are looking specifically one pottery that we read about in Cairo 360 – a what’s on guide for Cairo.

We are greeted by the brother of the owner of the pottery.  We are shown around the pottery and get to see the artisans at work.  One man does the hand painting, he is currently decorating tiles in a traditional Turkish design. 

We then go through to another room which is set up with several potters wheels and a couple of finishing benches.  We watch one artisan throwing tiny perfume pots.  These are made by piling up a tower of clay about 15 inches high and then working the top section into a small perfume bottle.  We have several of these bottles at home already though the contain holy oil from the church and not perfume. 

We are then taken to an artisan who is cutting patterns out of clay lanterns which are then left to dry before firing in the kiln. 

We are then left to browse the products which are displayed in various parts of the pottery.  We select 4 pieces to buy – a tile and a ceramic plate decorated in a Turkish design and a tables protector for a teapot and a soap dish.  We don’t ask the prices of anything – Peter goes to pay.  We say goodbye and are back in the taxi with Sami.  I ask Peter how much it cost for the products and he told me 200le.  This was way over the true value of it.  They knew we were looking for suppliers of handcrafted items and yet they still overcharged us – perhaps Peter should have haggled a bit – after all he is Egytian!  

As we leave Fostat village we stop at the Amr ibn aas mosque to take a few photos. Sami asks us if we would like to see a crystal factory.  We didn’t have anything else planned so we agreed and then left it to Sami to drive us there.  I think I was expecting to be taken to another small workshop where everything is made by hand.  I could see that the area we were approaching was getting more and more industrial.  One and a half hours later we arrived at the factory of Crystal Asfour one of the worlds largest crystal making factories.  This particular branch employs 28,000 people – there is another factory in Cairo which is even bigger.  I wasn’t sure what type of place we were coming to.  As we walked into the building we walked up some steps and then found ourselves in a massive showroom adorned with crystal from floor to ceiling.  There must have been hundreds of chandeliers hanging from the ceiling – some so huge they could only be designed for large hotels or palaces.  We spent about forty five minutes walking around looking at the crystal – I’m not actually a fan of crystal and the only thing that I bought was a crystal bracelet.  Peter tells me that when he went to pay he was given a discount – without asking!  Excellent! 


It was now about 7.30 and it had already turned dark ages ago.  We were now going to visit Peter’s Uncle Samaan in Ain Shams – Sami takes us there.  We have been with Sami for half a day and we are charged 100le – Peter gives him 120le.  When we arrive in the street Uncle Samaan is already waiting for us on the street.  After introductions we are taken to their flat on the first floor of an apartment block.  The wall between their flat and the neighbours is smeared with the red brown bloody handprints.  This Islamic custom is carried out as a form of celebration  for weddings, new baby, graduation, new car.  A lamb is usually brought to the door of the house/flat and slaughtered - either by the butcher or the woman of the house.  Blood is imprinted on the doorstep or doors or near to the entrance of a house and is a sign of protection for whatever change has happened.  

Uncle Samaan and his family have a lovely apartment, decorated in bright blue with carefully co-ordinated sofa’s and drapes.  The walls are adorned with Christian pictures and statues of Mary sit in display cabinets and on sideboards.  I am introduced to his wife Agabi and daughters Monica and Veronica.  Monica is at university studying German and English so she temporarily takes over from Peter’s translation duties.  We talk about lots of things.  We talk about the traffic in Cairo and how taxi’s are a law untothemselves.  They tell me that both Samaan and Monica go by taxi everywhere – Samaan because he is a lawyer and needs to get to different parts of the city quickly and Monica because it is unsafe for her on public transport.  I ask why it is unsafe for her.  Agabi tells me that since the revolution, some boys think they are given the right to behave how they want to.  On public transport they grab at girls and make inappropriate comments – it isn’t safe for girls to go on public transport in Cairo.  Freedom they tell me, for some people means freedom to behave badly - I recall this isn't the first time I have heard this comment.  I tell Monica that in England it can also sometimes be unsafe for women travelling alone – I tell her about the pink taxi’s for women only – maybe they need  pink buses for women only in Cairo.

It isn’t long before we are invited to eat.  Agabi apologies that she hasn’t cooked a home meal for us but she was unsure when we would be visiting.  She brings out a selection of bread, cheeses, fried chicken and salad. It was exactly what we needed.  Samaan left to pick up some cola from the shop below.  I noticed that everytime he popped out of the flat the door was locked immediately after him.  I got the sense that this was a family that didn’t feel too safe at home but I didn’t want to ask why.  It is now 10.00pm and it is time for us to go.  We say goodbye as we leave we are told that we must visit again and next time a special meal will be prepared for us.  Uncle Samaan walks us down and waits with us until we find a taxi.  We arrive back at the hotel exhausted.  Tomorrow is our last day so we pack and then go to bed.



25th September 2011 - Another day in Cairo - trip to Nasr City to copper lantern supplier

I’m woken at around 6.00am by the collective sound of a thousand cars beeping.  Again there is a thick layer of smog floating over the river Nile.  Peter is still asleep so I make an attempt to start writing up the blog.  It’s almost impossible to keep up with on a daily basis.  I decide to just write manual notes and then will type it all up when I get a chance – more than likely when I get home to England.  I download some of the photo’s I’ve taken so far just in case anything happens to the camera when we’re out and about.

We had said that we would meet Abdul for breakfast but decided just to have a cup of tea in one of the hotel’s café’s.  It’s midday before we go out to see Abdul.  Our first appointment of the day is over in Nasr City – an hour or so outside of central Cairo.  We had arranged to meet with a supplier of copper lanterns.  The journey there was horrendous – the traffic in the suburbs of Cairo is just as bad as central Cairo.  We had to phone our contact a couple of times once in Nasr City to find the office.  We did eventually find it and was met outside by the owner of the company.  Although they didn’t have a show room they had arranged to bring a selection of lanterns to their office for us to look at along with some mother of pearl inlaid mirrors.  We took photos and we were very pleased with the quality of the lanterns.  We were invited to drink tea and we had the opportunity to ask a range of questions first hand.  We asked about the packing, the shipping, the timescales etc. 

We didn’t stay long – very short time compared to the length of the journey there.  We now had to face that same journey back to central Cairo.  We skirt past City Stars – a fantastic shopping mall I had previously visited with my friend Jane who lives in Luxor.  City Stars is huge - almost a city within a city!                   http://www.citystars.com.eg/citystars/index.asp

Back in central Cairo we ask Abdul to drop us at the Khan el Khalili.  This is one of my favourite places in Cairo and where I could easily spend days wandering around it’s maze of alleyways and ancient bazaars.  It was known as the Turkish Bazaar during the Ottoman period – now generally know as Khan.  http://www.touregypt.net/khan.htm    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khan_el-Khalili

The ancient Islamic architecture gives you a real sense of another time a time when the merchants from afar used to come and pedal their wares.  My guide book tells me that “The souq dates back to 1382, when Emir Djaharks el-Khalili built a big caravanserai (or khan) right here.  A caravanseri was a sort of hotel for traders, and usually the focal point for economic activity for any surrounding area. This caravanserai is still there, you just ask for the narrow street of Sikka Khan el-Khalili and Badestan.”

My fondest memory of the Khan el Khalili was during my trip with my friend Jane.  I love the novels of Naguib Mahfouz and had recently read Zuqak al Midak which was based in the Khan.  We decided to go and seek out the alley where this story took place.  We had great fun with map in one hand and limited Arabic between us trying to find this elusive place.  Eventually we found it.  I was shocked.  The alley was tiny.  At the end of the short alley stones steps took us up past entrances to a large house divided into flats.  It didn’t match what I had imagined the alley to look like.  So many characters with so many trauma’s, hardships, love affairs, Kirsha’s café where men went to smoke shisha, listen to the story tellers – all taking place in this tiny little alleyway.  At the time of this particular visit there still stood a little coffee shop called Kirsha’s.  The coffee shop had no more than 6 small tables where locals came to drink tea and smoke shisha.  The wall was adorned with photo’s of Naguib Mahfouz himself.  We were told by the proprietor that Naguib Mahfouz used to sit in this very coffee shop to pen his stories.  Also on the wall is a rather imposing picture of a man dressed in traditional garb.  We asked who this was.  The proprietor told us that this was Kirsha himself, his own grandfather.  Experience tells me to take this story with a pinch of salt.  However, I really wanted to believe that I really was in Kirsha’s Café, the very one that Naguib Mahfouz wrote about and that we were experiencing a little bit of Egyptian history and culture.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naguib_Mahfouz     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midaq_Alley_(novel)

Back to today. Peter and sit in a coffee shop on the edge of the Khan – absolutely parched.  As soon as we sit down we have various pedlars approaching us with sun glasses, jewellery and scarves.  I show no interest but Peter purchases some jewellery for a 'very cheap price' (and also very cheap in quality) but all I can think is that Peter sees it as a benevolent act to help his fellow countrymen!

I ask Peter to investigate the toilets whilst he goes to pay.  He comes back and says he wouldn’t recommend the toilets so we leave and make our way to the Naguib Mahfouz Café where I know the toilets are absolutely immaculate. (This is not the cafe mentioned earlier in Zuqak al Midak) We order more tea.  I catch sight of one of the staff that I had my photograph taken with 3 years ago on my trip with Jane.  Great memories!

We venture forth again working our way through the bazaar sellers presenting their wares to us as we pass.  It’s almost like running the gauntlet – too scared to stop and look at any products or we might find ourselves trapped.  As we move to another area – a bit quieter, I stop to take some photographs.  2 men sit on  chairs outside a shop.  One who speaks very good English suggests a good spot for me to capture the picture I was after.  He moves his chair so I can get a good shot.  He then politely asks us to look at his hand blown glass – especially the Christmas decorations.  Now, this is a much better selling technique.  Why oh why doesn’t everyone else realise that the more aggressive you are the less likely people are to buy?

His name is Gabr and he tells us that he used to live in England.  He also had a friend who used to work in Harrods and that this friend used to import glass products to Harrods.  After we enter he brings out a big selection of glass decorations.  We had already been speaking to various other suppliers and manufacturers so knew what the prices were.  He wasn’t willing to give what we call a good price for a single purchase.  We told him we would be interested in purchasing a large number but we would have to negotiate on price.  He told us that he had a friend in America with a website of all his products.  If we looked at this and then told him what items we were interested in we could then discuss prices – either by fax or phone.  This seems a bit too long winded for me.  Without an email address the communication process can be very lengthy.  Add to that the difference in concept of time – we needed a speedier mode of working.  However, we have nice sample to take back to England and to help us decide whether this is something we should add to our range.  It is easy to feel a little deflated when you realise that business transactions can be such a long drawn out process.  Small enterprises like this could reach out to a wider range of customers if they utilised the internet and email.  But I also need to learn to accept other ways of working - regardless of how long they take.

We say our goodbyes.  This is a short trip to the Khan – only one and a half hours.  We phone Abdul who is still waiting for us and ask him to drive us to El Quba Garden – Garden of the Domes.  We are going to visit some of Peter's family.  The area is famous for having two residences previously belonging to King Farouk – one of palaces being the largest in Egypt.  We arrive at the flat and I leave Peter to pay Abdul.  Abdul asks for 300le which again is way over the going price.  We leave it until we get back to the hotel to discuss this further but I think we have already decided not to use Abdul again.

I am introduced to Peter’s mother’s sister, Akhlas and her husband Mourid.  Also Peter’s cousin Shareen who is married to Raymond and their daughter Molly and also cousin Christine.  Such a warm welcome.  We sit and talk and it isn’t long before we are invited to sit and eat dinner.  Again we are presented with very generous plates of food.  Very delicious and most welcome after such a busy day.  After dinner we move to one of the bedrooms to sit where there is air conditioning.  Molly attends a private French school and excitedly gets out her text books to show Peter.  Peter begins to read from the books and Molly takes great delight in correcting his French pronounciation.  Later Mourid brings through some photographs that had been taken in Garagos in the 1930’s.  He tells us this was part of a much bigger album that had contained photographs of local people in Garagos and how they lived at the time – how they dressed, where they worked and what they looked like.  Photographs were taken in profile and face forward - a bit like mug shots. I can imagine that if a study like this was done nowadays people would find it rather intrusive.   Mourid says that over the years he has given various bits of the album away and only these few pages remain.  This is a shame – Peter and I would love to have seen more.

I tell Mourid about an academic paper I came across on the internet.  It is a study that was done in 1999 on the impact of the conversion of Copts to Catholicism in Garagos.  The website only gives a synopsis of the paper but it can be purchased in full.  However, it is written in French.  Mourid who used to work for the French Embassy in Cairo before retiring speaks fluent French and said that he would be interested in seeing the paper and between them all they would be happy to translate it.  Time moved quickly.  Its 9.00pm and Raymond needs to leave for Hurgada – a 7 hour drive from Cairo.  He tells us that as soon as he arrives he will start work without any sleep.  This already is becoming a common theme where well educated men are leaving their families to go and work on the Red Sea coast where tourism is booming.  This must be so difficult for the family.

We spend the rest of the evening chatting and we laugh as Molly continues to try and deliver a French lesson to Peter.  At 11.00pm we also say our goodbyes.  We are told that next time we must stay with them in their home and not stay in a hotel.  We go out to the street to find a taxi and it’s only minutes before we find one.  Now we may have already decided not to use Abdul again but I think after this particular journey I can certainly appreciate what a safe driver he is.  I think we just climbed into the Taxi from Hell!  Peter is very good at striking up conversation with people but the driver didn’t speak – just grunted responses.  He drove like an absolute lunatic and after routing around on the backseat discovered that there weren’t any seatbelts in the back.  He drive at high speed in very congested traffic, weaving and dodging other cars, beeping his horn at every opportunity.  This can only be described as a white knuckle ride.  I kept praying that soon I would catch sight of the Cairo Tower and would then be confident that this ordeal would shortly be over.  We hit some congestion in and around Tahrir Square where I thought if we crash at least it will be at a lower speed.  As we approached Dokki via one of the bridges I could see how heaving the city was.  It seemed busier at midnight than it did during the day – both with pedestrians and traffic.

We eventually arrived back – in one piece thankfully.  Peter and I sat on the balcony (well I’m more half in and half out of the room).  We watch the busy metropolis come to life and try to think about what the following day will bring.

24th September 2011 - Arrival in Cairo

What a day!  It started at 4.30am – we had already packed for Cairo and now had one hour to get ready before Bob came to pick us up for the airport.  All done – at 5.30 Bob arrives and we make the 15 minute journey to the airport.  We say our goodbyes to Bob who will be leaving Luxor later this day to start his new business venture in Hurghada.  We wish him the very best. 

We check in – everything is on time and we board a rather packed plane to Cairo.  This is my fifth trip to Cairo and in the past have flown on rather spacious planes that usually had many empty seats.  Our original flight had been cancelled and changed to an hour later (which was better) but it seems that the luxury of flying on half empty planes is over.

After a short wait in the lounge we board the plane.  The safety instructionsare relayed in both Arabic and English and the plane takes off.  As the plane increases in altitude we can see the landscape below change immediately from the green irrigated land to the soft undulating sandstone terrain.  Dried up river beds snake along the valley floor and the repeating scene of the desert below feels hypnotic .  We follow the River Nile north towards Cairo.

It’s a nice short flight to Cairo – 1 hour.  We begin to feel a drop in altitude.  As I look out of the window the terrain below begins to change again.  Instead of the instant change from green irrigated land to desert, the view below goes immediately from desert to densely populated metropolis.  Tower blocks poke out through a thick layer of smog.  (always more visible in Cairo in the early morning when the temperature is a little lower).  It’s only once in Cairo that you realize the source of all the smog  – the traffic here is like nothing else on earth.  I remember the first time I came to Cairo on an organized trip – our tour guide told us “We don’t have rush hour in Cairo – we have rush day”.

Abdul is waiting for us as arranged.  It has been 3 and a bit years since we were in Cairo and the same since we saw Abdul.  Peter and I were in Cairo to get married – that’s another story!

As we drove from the airport to downtown Cairo, Abdul asked us if we noticed anything different.  Looking out of the car window at the broad tree-lined freeway everything seemed quite familiar.  As we drive through affluent Heliopolis we pass Baron Empain’s Hindu style Palace - it’s unusual architecture still looks out of place – but also perfectly at home.  http://curious-places.blogspot.com/2011/03/baron-empain-palace-cairo-egypt.html   

I couldn’t think what Abdul was referring to.

“No pictures of Mubarak!” says Peter.  That’s right, Mubarak’s face used to be on hoardings all along the airport road.  I wonder what other changes we will notice during our trip. 

 I can feel how much cooler it is in Cairo than Luxor – by cooler I mean 27 degrees instead of the 40 in Luxor.

We drive through Ramsis, Tahrir, over the Kasr e Nile bridge where the Egyptian revolution first began.  T shirts saying “Free Egypt” “I love Egypt” “25th January, Tahrir Square” line the roadside railings.  All seems peaceful now.

We arrive at the Sheraton and check in.  It will be 45 minutes before the room is ready so we decide to head straight out to our first appointment of the trip, to the Mamluk Glass Factory next to Qaitbay Mosque.  We were to phone Kamal before we set off which we did.  He wasn’t in the factory so we would pick him up on the way.  Off we set with Abdul.  The traffic in Cairo is notorious.  There is an order to the road system but also what appears to be absolute chaos – cars cutting across each other within centimetres to spare.  It can be quite a terrifying experience for first timers in Cairo.  At first the constant beeping of horns can be interpreted as a ‘telling off’ – much like we’d use car horns at home.  However, the horns are a subsystem – a language between drivers (and pedestrians) that interspersed with various hand gestures is completely understood here.

We pull off the freeway into a short dusty side street along Cairo’s Eastern Cemetery or City of the Dead.  (The cemeteries are yet another story for another day).  Peter phones Kamal and we meet him at the bottom of the street and then proceed onto the factory.

I think the word factory conjures up an up an image of a large industrial unit.  The Mamluk Glass Factory is a small enterprise but none the less a very productive one.  Kamal takes us in.  The walls are lined with shelves full of various glass products – not an inch of space goes unused. 

The factory is no longer than 10 metres and about 3 metres wide.  At the bottom is a furnace and one of the glass blowers at work.  However much I had been relishing the cooler temperatures of Cairo it all went to pot upon entering the factory – the heat from the furnace was incredible.  The worker had just two electric fans to keep the temperature bearable!  We watch with great interest at the skill deployed to produce a glass jar with a water spout with a twist of glass relief around its body.  I‘m invited by the craftsman to have a go at blowing some glass. I’m handed the metal tube that has a blob of molten glass on the end.  As I blow into the tube it is turned for me (it weighs a ton!) and a large glass balloon is produced.  Certainly nothing usable so it is knocked off the end of the tube to be melted back and used again.   By now my face felt like it had melted.  Any benefit of the cooler Cairo climate and Abdul’s air conditioned car was now truly lost!

Kamal invites us to drink tea outside.  Kamal tells us that this is the fifth generation of his family to have this factory.  A picture of his father blowing glass hangs over the factory entrance.  Kamal brings us a selection of books and magazines that have articles about the glass factory – one of only five in Cairo.  As we drink tea and look through the books I read an article that says Kamal is an engineer.  I point out this section of the article to him and he says he works as an engineer in the morning and comes to the factory in the afternoon.  He says it needs his generation to maintain the family tradition or the business and the skills will be lost forever.  All of his family work in the workshop – all also university educated.  The females in the family sort the glass and decorate the finished pieces and the men are involved in all other aspects of the business.  I ask Kamal where the glass comes from.  He tells us it comes from the Zabaleen.  Zabaleen translates directly as Garbage Collectors.  They are a large Christian community living in the foothills of Maqattam in Cairo.  They go out into the city collecting all manner of garbage which they bring back to their homes and sort by type, ready to sell to recycling companies.  Peter and I visited the church of St Samaan on a previous trip to Cairo and drove through the area where the Zabaleen live.  We can talk about this another time as this visit left quite an impact on us.  You can find out more information about this fascinating community through Google and also a very good (award winning) docu/film called Garbage Dreams.  http://www.garbagedreams.com/

A little later we are joined by Kamal’s father Hassan, a fine figure of a man with an imposing presence.  We shake hands and Mr Hassan offers us further drinks.  Someone goes to fetch coca cola. 

Peter talks about the Garagos pottery and how the business has been affected by lack of tourism.  Kamal tells us that since the uprising the government say that the glass factory isn’t in a suitable place for tourists to come.  He says this isn’t the case.  The area is safe and being one if Cairo’s oldest areas should be considered as a key tourist destination.  The Qaitbey Mosque itself is 700 years old.  They feel that the government don’t support local businesses such as this even though they are traditional trades in danger of being lost.

We have another look around at the products.  There is such a good range here and we tell Kamal that we would initially be interested in purchasing some hand blown Christmas decorations.  We don’t discuss price here.  It’s not the time or place.  We ask to purchase one of the glass hand painted Christmas decorations but Kamal will accept no money – we must take it as a gift.  .

We say our goodbyes and Abdul takes us back to the hotel to finish checking in and to freshen up. We are given a room on the 17th floor of the Sheraton.  We have amazing views over the city and the river Nile.  The island (Gezira) sits in the middle of the Nile.  Directly in front of us Cairo Tower located on Gezira seems like a stones throw away.  I can’t venture very far out onto the balcony before vertigo begins to set in.  But I can’t resist straining my body from the patio doors to look at the amazing view below and across Cairo.  The noise of the beeping is relentless but fades down to background noise after a period of adjustment.

We freshen up and go out to Abdul who is still waiting for us.  He is one of the taxi drivers for the Sheraton and business is bad so we know he will still be available for us.  We drive over onto the island and head over to leafy Zamalek.  This is home to some of the foreign embassy’s and also several private schools.  Zamalek is like a little oasis compared to the rest of the city and the wealth of it’s residents is quite apparent.  Tree lined streets and high walls provide privacy to large colonial style villas, a legacy of the French and British occupations.  http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/zamalek.htm

We head off first to a great bookshop called Diwan.  It’s a must visit shop when I’m in Cairo and have picked up a good selection of Naguib Mafhouz books and Yousef Chahine films.  We also search for a couple of the books that Kamal showed us earlier as one of them although in Arabic had a feature on the Garagos pottery.  We don’t find the books we want but staff suggest we try the Cairo University bookshop – which we do.  We find at least one of the books on our list so go away happy.  We then go in search of a gallery called Alef.  I came across this gallery on the internet before we left home and it sells a fantastic selection of handcrafted items – clearly to the wealthy residents on Zamalek!  I don’t have the address with me and after driving around for a while we decide to leave it for another day.

We invite Abdul to join us for ice cream at Groppi’s in downtown Cairo.  After Peter and I go married three and a half years ago in Cairo we went to celebrate in Groppi’s before leaving for Alexandria for our honeymoon.  Abdul was with us then.  He had been an absolute star in driving us everywhere we needed to go to get permissions from one ministry, official stamps from another.  Also driving us out to Heliopolis to get permissions from the office of theCoptic Catholic Patriarch. We hadn’t know at the time we needed this permission as we already had permissions from the priest in Garagos and the priest in Luxor – what a palaver that was!  It delayed the marriage (ceremony is the wrong word) for a day but we got there in the end with the help of Abdul.


 Here the three of us were - sitting in Groppi’s three and a half years later.  We all asked the question – where does time go?  We had ice cream and drank tea.  Abdul phoned his wife and son Mohammed and put them on to speak to us.  Again we agreed time goes by so quickly.  Abdul invites to his house for dinner.  It is my birthday today and we had planned to eat out in a nice restaurant downtown but it seemed rude to refuse.  We accepted the invitation an after trying a few more bookshops we set off to Abduls home the other side of Imbaba in Warak.

Imbaba had seen violent clashes between Muslims and Christians in May this year.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13325448 Imbaba and Warak are local neighbourhoods (as Peter describes it).  He means areas where tourists don’t usually venture.  I vaguely recollect this journey from last time we came to have dinner with Abdul and his family.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking photographs in this kind of area – it seems almost voyeuristic and I’m sure wouldn’t be well received by the local people.

We turn into some tight alleyways, go past small shops that sell items ranging from spare parts for cars to live poultry.  We arrive at Abdul’s flat and are greeted by his wife.  I remember her telling me that she is 'quite high up' in the Ministry of Agriculture.  This is apparent upon entering the flat which is clearly the home of Cairo’s middle classes.  Their sons Mohammed and Mahmoud aren’t at home – they are currently working but Mohammed phones and tells us he hopes to catch up with us before we leave Cairo.  We are invited to the dining table where plates upon plates of food are brought to the table.  A large plate of roasted duck, another of roasted chicken.  A large tourine of soup, a bowl of rice, a plate of bread, a dish of sliced,roasted potatoes in a tomato sauce.

I struggle to eat in the heat.  My appetite decreases when it’s hot and we’ve just been to Groppi’s for ice cream.  I am given a bowl of soup, a duck leg and a chicken breast.  Shortly after my plate is piled high with rice, potatoes and bread and yet more meat.  I have to keep insisting that I can’t eat any more but we make a good attempt at it.

We retire to the living room and fresh mangoes are brought in with tea.  Again discussions are had about the revolution and how the country is in a terrible state. (The conversation is in Arabic and Peter translates). Mahmoud has put in an application for a visa to America. The cost of living has increased and it’s no longer safe to walk the streets. It seems that it is everyone’s dream to leave Egypt and it’s current chaotic state.  After a while we make a move.  It’s 9.00pm and Abdul drives us back to the Sheraton.  As we go through Imbaba we see a fight outside one of the coffee shops and we also clearly see a man wielding a knife.  It’s a bit of a shock to see this first hand but this is now normal as there is no longer any significant police presence on the steets.

We arrive back at the hotel and ask Abdul to wait whilst Peter goes to fetch some small gifts we brought over for them – an England mug for the men and some Belgian chocolates for Mrs Abdul.  Small gifts but with so many family to buy for we have to prioritise.

I stay in the hotel room whilst Peter takes the gifts out to Abdul and also pay him for his driving services for the day.  When Peter comes back he has an odd look on his face.  I ask him what is wrong and he tells me he is a bit taken aback.  I ask him at what and he tells me his is shocked at the amount of money Abdul has charged for driving us for the day.  We know what the going rate is.  Peter has colleagues who arrange drivers for tourists through travel agencies and also friends who own tourists cars.  A days hire for a car in Cairo is about 150le.  We had had Abdul for around 12 hours so counted that as 2 days so expected him to charge around 300le.  He had asked Peter for 600le.  Peter had paid it but he felt that Abdul had taken advantage of us.  We had used Abdul on 2 previous trips to Cairo and money had never been a problem. – his prices had always been fair. After a bit of deliberation we decided to use Abdul the following day but to see what his costs would be.

We sit inside the suite with the balcony door open.  It’s 10.00pm and Cairo hasn’t even begun to come alive yet.  The traffic is still incessant (and the beeping of the cars) and there is a hive of activity along the water front.  Café’s are heaving and steams of people stand along the railings on the bridges that cross the Nile.  Tourist boats sail up and down and the next shift of street sellers pedal their wares.  I read in the in-flight magazine with Egyptair that Cairo is ranked number 3 in the world in the table of 24 hour cities!  I’m exhausted! 



21st September 2011 - Garagos

Today more people come to say hello. Conversations drift towards the uprising.  Many feel despondent and feel the country has no leadership and is becoming more and more lawless.  “Egyptians don’t know what freedom is – they see it as an excuse for bad behaviour and taking the law into their own hands”.

Peter’s mother and sister Margreet are preparing a special meal for us – one of their chickens and a variety of vegetables from the land. Sara and Susanna are a delight and entertain us with the usual antics of two and a half year olds.  

Throughout the day several members of the family come to us to express their concern about us going to Cairo at the weekend.  We had planned our trip to avoid being there on Friday when most protests take place. The week before we left for Luxor protestors had tried to tear down the security wall of the Israeli Embassy, resulting in the Israeli Ambassador leaving the country. We also heard this morning on one of the Egyptian news channels that there had been an attack on the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Cairo. However, we have a carefully planned trip and will travel by taxi instead of the metro.  We have made arrangements for Abdul to pick us up from the airport and be our driver throughout our visit.  Abdul was born and bred in Cairo, is an ex policeman and someone who knows the City like the back of his hand (or as much as anyone can).  We had spoken to Abdul and his son Mohamed before leaving the UK and they told us everything is OK in Cairo - the odd protest but these can be avoided if you have your bearings right. Despite our reassurances, little can be said to put Peter's family's minds at rest - I just hope they don't catch today's news.

We return to the hotel later that evening.  I had intentions to write some more on the blog but was too exhausted.  It will have to wait until tomorrow.

19th September 2011 - Arrival in Luxor

Peter and I travelled to Egypt on Monday 19th September. We flew from Manchester Airport where we arrive at 6.00am with 2 suitcases crammed with presents for the immediate family members and the children – including 12 colouring book packs. These have probably ended up being the most expensive colouring books ever thanks to Monarch’s very strict luggage weight rules. Between us we were 6 kilos overweight and the very ‘surly’ check in assistant charged us £120 – no negotiation! Not a great start to the holiday but I can safely say this is the first and the last time I fly with Monarch!

A very busy itinerary is planned with 4 days in Cairo and of course time with the family in Luxor, Garagos and Cairo. If possible we will also try and squeeze in a day or two by the pool!

As we arrive in the airport terminal in Luxor we are greeted by various airport staff and tour reps in the hall – colleagues that Peter knows from his previous job as a tour rep. Peter’s good friend Bob has arranged for one of his cars to pick us up from the airport. Before we exit the airport we pay a visit to the duty free shop - whisky is always a welcome gift! We make our way out of the airport terminal to the car park, trying to resist the offers from porters to carry our bags - eventually one takes our trolley and pushes it for the remaining ten yards to the car.

The first thing we noticed upon arriving in Luxor is how quiet the place is. Michael who is an accountant at the hotel where we stay tells us that the hotel is currently at 15% occupancy rate – eighty guests where full capacity is six hundred. The uprising has affected tourism dramatically. We are told us how difficult things are for all businesses here as Luxor is very reliant on tourism. Many of the hotel staff have been given reduced hours working half a month on and half a month off. Although the high level of customer service at this hotel is what brings us back each time, upon arrival we can already see how standards have definitely been cranked up a notch. We are thinking about how we can allocate tips fairly!

It’s so good to be back. We have a lovely Nile view room with Jacuzzi bath. A basket of fruit awaits us on the coffee table.

The moment I look forward to more than anything is opening the balcony doors to a most magnificent view. A view that really defies adequate description and a view that my description could never do justice to.

The River Nile flows slowly northwards - from where I'm standing that's left to right. The odd boat passes by and green footed egrets paddle along the shallow edge of the river. Opposite, on the West bank of the Nile, water buffalo and the odd camel graze the green land. I can just about make out several galabeyaed workers hoeing the land and tending the animals. The magnificent backdrop to this scene is the Theban mountains, standing proud with a frill of date palms and banana trees at its feet. It's not a particularly huge range of mountains but what is housed within those unassuming hills still makes me shake my head in disbelief.

Most famous is The Valley of the Kings, home to the tomb of Tutankhamun and great pharaohs like Ramses the third. Also within the mountains is the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Nobles. From my balcony I can make out the remains of Old Qurna village and the exposed entrances to a row of tombs located in the Valley of the Nobles. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurna


If you ever get the chance to sail down the Nile on a cruiser or a felucca, you won’t have to imagine too hard what it would have been like in pharaonic times – the landscape has hardly changed. You will see clusters of mud brick houses along the banks of the Nile. Some painted in traditional Nubian colours of turquoise blue but over the years have accumulated layers of desert dust.

Also from the balcony I’m hit by a familiar smell – smell of burning fires. On most evenings you will see smoke rising from small fires on the agricultural West Bank. I think farmers could be burning stubble from recently harvested sugar cane – but can’t be sure. There’s also another smell – a smell that resonates from the heat rising from the land. I can’t describe this smell. All I know is if it could be captured in a bottle, it would be that smell and that smell alone that takes me back to Luxor and this view across the Nile.

The sun begins to set behind the mountains. As the red sky turns indigo blue, the only sound remaining is the faint engine of a boat crossing the Nile and the echo of birds ‘whooping’ as they soar across the Valley. The Theban Mountains are now illuminated. I try to imagine what adventures will befall us during this visit and how quickly two weeks will disappear.

Until tomorrow.