Sunday, October 31, 2004

Cairo : A city beyound pyramids

This is my fourth visit to Cairo in current year and I am still unable to feel the pulse of this country. Geographically being part of Africa, culturally part of Middle Eastern and economically similar to India makes Egypt and in particular Cairo an interesting place to visit.

Often story of Cairo begins and ends with Pyramid. I didn’t find Pyramid that glamorous on first visit. Perhaps I was overburdened with great expectations. My image of Pyramid was that of being in the middle of desert in hostile environment with an ambience and opulence as that of movie “sphinx”. It is incongruous to see this magnificent creation of man at stones throw from brick-laid stacked up houses, crowded street with loads of vehicles. But this is what it is. Pyramids are in Giza and Giza is part of Cairo. You can practically make a visit to Pyramid every day. A mere look at Pyramids doesn’t give the magnitude of human endeavor till you hear story of thousands of laborers bringing unchisseled rocks over river Nile and cutting them in cubicle form weighing almost two ton each. Then process of mounting on top of eachother – not hundred or thousands – but millions and this go on for 40 years. This stupendous effort alone deserves a place in history of mankind. Seeing the ruins of graveyard of workers next to Pyramids who have laid down their lives while making this creation adds new dimension to this site.

Museum is another place one should not miss. This crimson colored dome shaped building in the middle of downtown, houses some of the spectacular archives of King Tutankhamen, Queen Neferreti and their entourage. Seeing mummies under glass housed coffins makes one wonder about forensic technology that must have been is use to preserve every physical aspect of human body.

Two things which make an impression of modern Cairo. One is 13-km flyover that has been built from one end of the city till Giza with exists at every major junction. This flyover built by Egyptian Company can match the standard of any developed country. Second: sheer number of buildings that span the city. This city is not meant for claustrophobic people. The city has very little open space and is jungle of buildings belonging to pre and postcolonial era. Down-town is so similar to Calcutta with yellow colored buildings with huge green striped windows. The ride over big flyover makes you admire some of the colonial buildings at arms length. When you are grounded on street, you have no choice but to be hapless spectator amidst honking cars and hoards of people like in Mumbai or Delhi.

Khan El Khalili is unique place to sample Egyptian culture. This place houses fabulously designed Hussein mosque with shops and eatery joints all over. Islam in Egypt is more tolerant. Woman can visit mosque and have their separate sections... It’s amazing that Cairo has more than 1,100 mosques and many of them depict European /Byzantine architecture with multiple domes. However amidst all these Islamic monuments, a sight of wonderfully crafted Temple in Heliopolis – uptown of Cairo – but under barbed wires and graffiti posted plywood covering every entrance and porch makes difficult to fathom the insensitivity of current generation of Egyptians of this great civilized country. Similar is the monument of Jew Synagogue – under high security – but that is understandable. But exception is Christian Churches of different denomination – catholic, Coptic - which are prevalent in immaculate condition.

Nile gives a new dimension to Cairo. Staying at high rise Intercontinental or any other good hotel property along the side of river Nile acts as soothing balm to stressful life of the city. Nile is always flowing. I wonder how much the landscape of Ahmedabad and Delhi would change if they have flowing river all round the year.

Most Indians may not be aware of huge fan following Amitabh Bacchan has in Egypt. Every time, you mention being an Indian the swift response is by one word ‘Amitabh Bacchan’. He is so hugely popular that often local people say if were to contest next presidential election, he would win hands down!!

Monday, October 18, 2004

Sanaa: takes my breath away

I often wondered what it must be like being in 16th century and talking a walk on Chaandni Chowk amidst backdrop of Red Fort, Jama Masjid and being part of the Islamic milieu. I got this chance when I visited San’a–Yemen last week.

Old San’a city takes you backward travel of many centuries. Just take out automobiles, mobile phones, electric gadgets and you have in front of you a piece of history. Not many people would know that San'a is one of the first sites of human settlement and still inhabited in every inch. Now UN has now taken over the old city under its patronage with no owner allowed to neither make any modifications nor sales transactions. This old city is walled from outside has tarred road embankment from all sides. This turn into canal during heavy downpour. Old ancient city is the attraction for all tourists. The gate to the city is known Bab Al-Yemen. The houses inside the sof the old city are several stories high with nicely ornamented from the outside.They all line narrow lanes with shops all along selling spices, Jwellery, leather but most noticeable are raisins and dates.

The most striking part of Yemen is its architecture. Wherever you glance – you see houses made up of mud but conspicuous is the absence of any paint, glass or steel. The outer shell of building is in form of matchbox. Even the balcony is not protruding outwards. So all long you can see cluster of matchbox shaped houses with semi-circular arches on top of windows with embellished floral design from lime chalk. Even new houses are copy of the old ones, the only differences being the use of concrete or bricks instead of mud, the blue color of the iron gates and the advertising signboards.

I had an opportunity to visit few of these houses. The internal layout of these houses is very unique. The most spacious room is “Majlis” - a place for meeting friends, talking, smoking and chewing 'Qat'. Majlis ceiling walls are plastered with delicate carvings often from Quranic verses. The windows are topped with stained colored glass. The Majlis has cushioned seats all along the room allowing guests, to sit and enjoy the party.

There are two emblems of Yemeni life. People wearing Khanjar (dagger) around his naval and chewing of Qat. Qat is a light drug obtained from the leaves of a cultivated and irrigated tree. Sight of woman is often restricted to an inch above and below eyes. Women are covered with black silky abaya. But irony is that woman study, work, drive cars and even manage business unlike in Saudi.

The best place to relish Yemeni cuisine is Shiben’s restaurant. At Rial 1,500 (app.US$8.00) you can have whole tandoored Gash fish(almost the size of King Fish), lamb chops along with Salta- stew of lamb or chicken with lentils, beans, chickpeas, coriander and spices served on rice and bread- which is 20 times that of Indian roti. Plus you have Shurba, a combination of soup and a stew that has a base of lentils, lamb or fenugreek. This is followed by shay which is similar to Indian Masala Chay. It’s still not over. You get fresh banana and honey and you need to devour bananas by dipping them in fresh honey to bolster your aphrodisiac power.As a finale, comes basket of fresh fruits. If there is any place after Egypt for sumptuous food it has to be Yemen.

The sight of elevator is only at few hotels. Most buildings have steep stairs. My first few days in San’a gave me fright as I was gasping for breath after climbing 12-15 steps. I concluded this as a sure sign of Ischemic heart disease till I found that in San’a you are at about 7000 ft above sea level. San’a does take ones breath away while gasping at the marvel of housing architecture.