Monday, July 14, 2008

24 Hour Cairo

My conundrum: how to lead both a professional lifestyle and an Egyptian one, too. Side note: doesn't it say something that leading a professional lifestyle in Egypt is practically mutually exclusive from following an Egyptian way of life?
This thought came to me today on the way home from work during a triumphant cab ride where I found myself, for once, galloping a breakneck speeds down the thoroughfare on the way home from work, the car's five hundred nuts and bolts rattling violently. As we hit 30mph and I thought the 20 year-old cab might literally fall apart right there on the road (similar feeling to when I flew Yemenia Airlines), I achieved a moment of clarity. I was straddling two lifestyles, which together are wholly unsustainable. First, the professional way of life. It's not too dissimilar to the way a working person in New York might behave. I wake up at 8:30, throw a pot of water on the stove, and hop in the shower. After showering, and with water on the stove at a boil, I make myself a cup of instant 3-in-1 Egyptian coffee (yeah, that's right, one packet contains coffee, powdered milk, and sugar), and gulp it down as I pick through my clothes to find the least sweaty, least gritty button-down in my closet. A quick read of the overnight headlines and a brief check of my email, and I'm ready to go.
I hop a cab, paying 5 pounds (roughly 90 cents) for the fifteen minute hop across the river to my office in Dokki, not far from where I lived when I first moved to Egypt two years ago. The office is a quiet one on the fourth floor of a modern-ish building, and I set my MacBook up and get to work on my latest assignment. I spend woefully little time reporting and writing, and am instead obliged to pass the balance of my time bouncing around from person to person on the phone, trying, sometimes in vain, to find someone at a given government ministry or private firm to talk with me. Such is life for a reporter who has yet to establish a thick Rolodex of contacts. Yesterday, for example, I spoke with four people at the Foreign ministry, two at the Ministry of Trade, one at the Libyan Embassy, and six at the ministry of Petroleum before finding one person who'd give me an interview. I then supplement my interviews with as much research as I can muster (yesterday it was on Libyan-Egyptian trade relations) and get to writing. When the writing process starts, I throw a little Springsteen on the iPod and get at it. Some hours later, I wrap up the story, email it to my editor, wait to see if she has any comments, and hit the road. 
Once back home, I spend the balance of the afternoon and evening plugging away at various ABC assignments and freelance aspirations. A quick dinner (I've learned to cook pasta) and beer (Saqqara, named after a pyramid south of Cairo, is the best local stuff), and I'm all done.
It's only then, though, that my determination to lead the Egyptian lifestyle kicks in. The shisha cafes, a ritual stop for me, don't get hopping until midnight, at best. Say I'm feeling lazy and unwilling to go far afield, I'll cobble together a group of friends and head down the block to Goal, a cafe on the Nile with acceptable peach flavored shisha and an apathetic wait staff. Lingering over my shisha and a glass of water (note: broke reporter on a budget), I usually play a game of backgammon or two, pay the check, and leave. If I have any interest in heading to see the downtown scene, where thousands of Egyptians nightly hit the streets on the prowl for a bargain on a pair of pants, sunglasses, etc., 1am is usually a good time. On any given work night, the downtown social scene stretches deep into the night as people adjust their schedules to beat the heat. I visited one of Egypt's slums, called Imbaba, the other night at 2am with a taxi driver from the area, and the markets were hitting their peak just as I was leaving an hour later. 
Basic services also stretch late into the night. Imagine my frustration when, with a 10am interview, I searched unsuccessfully for one of the clothes ironing stands. 9:30am, and not a one to be found. Instead, I caught up with my local ironer at 1:30 that night and he worked on my clothes for an hour afterward and was still open for me to pick them up. Last night, I picked up my dry cleaning just after midnight and then poked my head into Osama's barbershop to find out his hours but didn't return for a trim since he planned to close at 1, and I had another engagement until then.
With these two worlds in Cairo, that collectively stretch practically around the clock, I find it difficult to squeeze in a few hours for sleep. Unwilling to sacrifice either my job or the world of Cairo that I've come to love, I live in perpetually sleep-deprived haze. At this point, I'm starting to get used to the way of life, and lack of sleep has become more of an annoyance than a problem. I can't complain, though, because it's the life that I've chosen and it's a hell of a lot of fun.


kktm said...

i enjoyed this post on cairo nightlife. question: how much alcohol is available in cairo?

Peggy said...

Theo, this sounds just like Vermont! :)

Hope you can keep up this pace of reflection--it's been great reading. Just what is it that you are doing for ABC?