Sunday, October 28, 2007


I had a lousy night. Went to bed early because I was so exhausted, but got woken up an hour later because some dumbo decided to call me at the indecent hour of 12.30am (Alright, fine I'm the dork here but who cares). Ended up not being able to sleep until 4.45am, so I did some arabic, cooked some asparagus and gave Pookie some company. At around 4.30am, I finally started feeling tired so I turned off the lights and prepared my brain for sleep...But then the adhan for the morning prayer started, and so I stayed up until the 10 minute long cacophony of 15 different mosques within the vicinity finished calling the faithful to prayers.

Now, I love the call to prayer. Sung well, I think it can be incredibly moving and atmospheric. It's an art.

Unfortunately, my experience of muezzins in Egypt has been sour — most of them sound like they have frogs in their throats. At my downtown apartment, the mosque speakers were right next to my window — imagine the nightmare of being woken up by a really bad muezzin at 5am every morning, croaking out on extra loud speakers, pausing in between lines to violently cough out whatever bullshit has accumulated in his throat due to living in downtown Cairo.

So as usual, last night (or rather this morning), I prepared myself for the usual onslaught of ear ache. All of a sudden though, this beautiful voice rang out amidst the relative din — I'd never heard this guy before, but he was good. He sung the adhan in several different octaves, he stretched every note lovingly, he SANG like I've never heard a muezzin in Egypt sing before. I couldn't tell how far away his mosque was from my building, but the quality of his performance actually set his voice apart from the others.

I literally lay there in the dark, still as a mouse, with my eyes wide open for five minutes, stretching my ears as much as I could to listen to this guy. It was over before I knew it. Regretfully, I closed my eyes and fell asleep in peace.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

one year

Wow, I would’ve complete missed this if a good friend hadn’t reminded me.

One year ago today, I left England. October 23rd 2006 was the day my life changed forever. I left behind what had been home for six years, probably the most formative period of my life.

My heart broke that day, in a way much worse than had a man instigated it. I didn’t lose any man, but I did lose my entire life in that city, a life I loved every single day for six years. I spent the day at my sisters, said goodbye to her on Coram Street, sobbing as I got into the taxi, after which my bestfriends accompanied me to the airport. Even the downpour on the city as I hugged my sister goodbye, made me feel like the City was crying with me. (ok fine fine! it rains in London practically everyday). Never have I wept as hard saying goodbye as I did that night in the airport, that goodbye will probably haunt me for the rest of my life.

One year on though, I have to admit, I’m glad I left.

Initially it was a move back to Singapore, something I have dreaded since the very idea of it popped up (by mother dearest). To me, it was like going backwards, and I was terrified (I hated growing up in Singapore). But two weeks into moving back to Singapore, I moved away again, this time to Egypt. And that essentially is what has changed my life.

In the last year, I have come across opportunities I doubt I would ever have found in the UK so early in my career. I’ve been an editor at a monthly magazine for 8 months now, I have written features, I’ve eaten at and slept in five star restaurants and hotels for free and most shockingly, I’ve managed to hold down 9-5, 5 days a week for over six months! (I’m still in shock about that)

I have learnt a kind of independence that I never got to experience in London. I have no family in Cairo to run to in times of need — although my friends here have become my family. In London, I had a sister and half my extended family, and even my parents for awhile. This is the first time I am completely supporting myself, paying my own rent, my own bills, and living in a city as challenging as Cairo. It was also the first time I arrived in a city to live where I didn’t know a soul.

In the last year, I have met some wonderful, fascinating people, I have traveled to some beautiful destinations (No.1 being the Western Desert) and I’m even grateful I adopted my little baby, Pookie.

I learned patience — I learned to live with tons of people and not get annoyed. I learned to sleep with the lights on and the TV blaring. I learned to clean and cook on a daily basis and actually enjoy it. I LOVE my life here, and I’ve realised I LOVE being an expat. It suits me.

I have also learnt to get by on very little sleep [without wanting to murder people].
[Still haven’t managed to cut down on the homicidal tendencies when hungry, however, that might need a move to Sudan next door]

And the most important thing I have learnt is this: Despite living in so many places, moving from Singapore to London, and even Dhaka, this year was the first time in my life where I truly accepted that home is no longer a physical destination. I think I spent a good 22 years feeling a little emptiness in my life, never feeling like Singapore was home, always being a ‘foreigner’ in London, always the ‘beedeshi’ in Dhaka….but after the Cairo stop, I think I have given up on pining for ‘home’. Not because I think I will never find it, but because I don’t think I need to find it.

I feel comfortable knowing I will leave this city behind someday, that maybe I will never see a lot of people I’ve met here ever again. I understand now that those who have mattered will stay in my life, even if not physically on a day-to-day basis. I accept that when I do move on to my next destination, I will have to start all over again, but this time, I’m not scared anymore.

So now, the most amazing thing is, I’m no longer terrified about moving back to Singapore, when I do move back. I know that things will be different, and I am now armed with the confidence that I can start from scratch, over and over again, without losing myself, or what I have known and loved for 23 years.

Be in this world as if you are a traveller,
a passer-by, with your clothes and shoes full of dust.
Sometimes you sit under the shade of a tree,
sometimes you walk in the desert.
Be always a passer-by, for this is not home.
- Hadith

Tuesday, October 16, 2007



I was supposed to be in Jerusalem but sadly it didn't work out. The Egyptians decided I have been here on one too many tourist visas and that its time I got residency. Which takes 5 days to process and seeing as how we planned the trip on Tuesday, I went to renew my visa on Thursday and it was the Eid weekend...there was no way this trip was going to happen.

So Eid in Cairo it is. Zamalek at the moment feels like a ghost town. My street is usually brimming with people: all the bowebs (doormen) huddled in a group whiling away the hours, the worshippers going in and out of the mosque next door, the shop keeper boys eyeing every lady walking past (me). Today the street is empty and dimly lit. All of Cairo has got up and left to celebrate Eid with their families, especially the working class who mostly come from outside the capital. It almost has me suspecting that my street, despite being in Zamalek, is composed purely of bowebs. Even my building's boweb is off in Aswan, leaving my bloody lift broken and with noone to fix it.

In spirit of Eid in Egypt, my friends and I stayed up all night last night, and headed for Old Cairo at 4 am. People here literally stay up all night on Eid, shopping, eating, hanging out on streets doing nothing in particular. One peculiar practice is that of numerous groups of young men loitering about on streets or driving about ferociously to nowhere in particular — we can't figure out what it is about Eid that brings them outdoors like this, displaying more-than-usual aggressiveness. I understand the concept of jobless men loitering about and I recognise its a day off — but what do they do the rest of the year? Weekends?

Talaat Harb was blindingly white, with masses of people everywhere — one wouldn't imagine it being 3.45am. Got to Islamic Cairo and had feteer at the amazing Khan El Khalili Egyptian Pancakes joint (try the banana and cream, Tom describes it as 'transcendental'). We did a mini mosque hop from Hussein to Al-Azhar to Sultan Hassan. We were told from before that Hussein is the scene of some-quarter-of-a-million worshippers on Eid morning, but at about 5.30am, it seemed like these worshippers had decided to give Eid prayers a miss this year. Walked across the street to find them in Al-Azhar instead — droves of people continuously swept into the big courtyard of this mosque for at least 45 minutes. People were still making their way in as prayers started, and I ended up not even having enough space to prostrate fully. I just about managed to touch the floor with the tips of my fingers.

If you've been to Islamic Cairo before, you'll know what a human jam it is. This morning though, it was peacefully beautiful. A sharp contrast to the Old Cairo walk I did just a week before, right before iftar broke (which I will get around to blogging about later). The market leading up to the tentmakers bazaar was empty, not a single stall in sight. Everything was bathed in the haze of dawn. Buildings, mosques and streets I've seen a hundred times before looked incredibly poetic.

We ended my first Eid morning in Cairo with some tea near Sultan Hassan, listening to the ranting of a crazy old lady next to us. Eid Mubarak dear world.

Monday, October 15, 2007

shoot me

We took Harrison to pierce his ears in Mohandiseen today. They do it in gold shops here, although I was a little surprised that the guy didn't use any alcohol whatsoever to clean Harry's ears, nor wore gloves. Just a small (almost toy-like) gun.

Both Sarah and I were very proud of our boy. After the first bang on the right ear, we asked him how he was feeling, to which he responded with a calm voice and contained smile, "Just tell him to hurry up and finish the other ear so I can go out and scream," he said as one eye twitched, giving his agony away.

We tried asking the other guy in the shop, the owner, how Harry should maintain his new ear-holes, when he could take them off etc etc, but I guess the guy thought hygiene wasn't an urgent priority because he slapped his hands angrily to imply "khalas", saying, "After five days, take them off and never put them back on."

Oh yes, we forgot Egyptians don't take too kindly to men who pierce their ears. Of course, the geezer had no problem taking LE 60 off us for it, while he rushed his employee to give us our money quickly so we would get the hell out of his shop.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Pookie minus 1 tooth

"If your cat was a human being, he would be an abusive boyfriend." — Yassir Bhai

I came home today and found this on my bed.

The mind boggles as to how this came out of his mouth. Do kitties naturally shed their milk teeth and grow new ones like us? Did he have an especially enthusiastic battle with my blanket fibres and lost a tooth in the process?

Whatever the case, the little devil will be getting a visit from the Kitty Tooth Fairy tonight. Who knows what he will find — a can of premium beef leftovers or a lifetime ticket to gnaw on my left toe?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cairo Champion

It's a hot, polluted day here in Cairo — the Black Smoke is in town, its that time of the year when the farmers, factories and garbage guys burn everything in their possession, from the stubble from rice and cotton harvests, to tyres. The taxi ride home is taking especially long today — traffic here in Cairo is so unpredictable. There's no certain time or street where you know there wont be traffic.

And everyone is fasting. It's been 28 days since Ramadan started and as it gets closer to iftar time, tempers are peaking, patience is wearing thin everywhere. Except, it seems, in the case of my taxi driver:

1) While on the road, cars start moving and very promptly, our taxi bumps into the pickup truck in front. It's the other guys fault mind you, he shouldn't have stopped as suddenly as he did. Minor bump but you hear my taxi's headlights get smashed. My cabbie gets out, and instead of smashing the doofus's head in (as we were secretly hoping he would) he hardly says a word to the guy, merely examines his headlights, picks up the broken glass from the road, gets back into his seat and drives off.

2) Fast forward to 25 minutes later. Stuck in traffic near Midan Tahrir, we're rounding a corner, and some loser, with painfully slow precision, gloriously scrapes the side of my taxi (My poor taxi driver, it just wasn't his day). The taxi halts to a stop. The other guy drives off. My cabbie examines the scrape, no angry mutterings, no flailing fists in the air, only — and would you believe this — only a smile at a passing taxi, when his colleague on the road makes a comment about the scraping.

After getting his car screwed TWICE in half an hour, this guy smiles.

Now that's what I call a Cairo Champion.

Note: Before feeling alarmed at the extreme laxness of handling traffic mishaps, readers should be aware that most vehicles (in particular, taxis) on Cairo roads are so beat-up and ancient that a scratch and a bump here and there doesn't really make much difference to the overall exterior of most cars.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Filastin beckons

It's funny. Living here, sometimes, I feel so inexperienced and wide-eyed at times. I constantly meet people who are doing way more interesting things than I have, who have lived in far more cities than I have, who have travelled to far more destinations and far flung places than I have. A lot of my friends here are older, many are journalists, people working in human rights, development — and everyone has such fascinating stories to tell. I now know several people who have lived and worked in Palestine (someone was just telling me about getting shot at by Israeli soldiers), and suddenly being a journalist in Cairo just sounds pussy.

But then I remember that, this is Cairo. This is where all the interesting people come to. This is where interesting things exist to be DONE. Back home (wherever that is) I'm practically the only person in my friends circle who isn't working in a bank or in law school, let alone being a journalist. I remember that nearly everyone back home is still living in the city they were born in, or went to college in. I remember that a lot of people's idea of traveling is a run to New York or to some random Turkish beach.

So in the normal world, where normal people live — I'm a little exotic, well-travelled and wild. But here in Cairo, I've met my match and beyond. But isn't that what life's all about? Traveling far and beyond to constantly CHALLENGE yourself. To not sit around and be comfortable and assured, that Oh, I'm so exotic and experienced. To go away from home and to feel vulnerable, to feel dumb, and to constantly learn to keep up with higher and higher standards of experiencing what the world has to offer?

So I think I'm glad that sometimes I feel like a bimbo. Or that I feel like I haven't really done anything with my life. Because thats when you realise how much more there is to discover.

Thursday I take the road to Palestine myself. I will head to Jerusalem, then to Ramallah, Bethlehem and back. Pray for me.