Monday, December 24, 2007

Light Blooded Egyptians

All photographs in this post copyright Yasir Khan 2007

As we drove by the presidential palace a few days ago, my taxi driver pointed to the large, treed compound that was surrounded by guards, and smiled.

"Look mister! Look all ze security!"

"Zey keep zem here to protect us from our president."

If good humour comes from great pain, then Egyptians have got to be some of the funniest people in the world. This is a country where things are just barely bearable. Just barely.

And just enough effort is made by the powers to keep it that way - if there's too much prosperity, people no longer depend on the government, and bureaucracies become irrelevant; too much poverty, and you will have a revolution on your hands.

There's virtually no middle class here. Just the very rich, and the very poor. About 44% of Egypt's 80 million people live on $2 a day. Every year, Egypt's free universities churn out thousands of graduates who can't find work. Engineers make about $300 a month, and usually have second jobs. The police force and most government institutions are make-work projects so unemployment won't spiral out of control.

They call it ad-damm khafif, or "light blood". It's the Egyptian term for a sense of humour. Every day, I see Egyptians' light, acidic blood work its magic. And they love to turn it upon themselves.

Take for example, the local english language music channel here. It's called Melody Tunes. They play the usual MTV/VH-1/BET fare, and are fairly up to date.

The best part of watching the channel, though, are their promo videos - hilarious 30-second spots where ordinary Egyptians make complete fools of themselves with popular western songs in everyday scenarios. And they sing them in their heavy Egyptian accents:

Sometimes I'll watch Melody Tunes only for these.

There are a few more on youtube.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Putting the "G" in Sovereignty

I'm sorry I've neglected Khan-un-Drum lately. Final exam season just ended here. I've been busy.

I stand accused of keeping this blog only for the purpose of impressing my wife while she was away from Cairo. This charge is spurious. I categorically deny it. On with the show:

A few weeks ago, my friend Mr. Yosri Fouda invited Suf and me to dinner. Post meal, we went to the uber-posh Garden City Club for drinks, and ran into an animated conversation:

"But it's ours! Why should we not use it? Leih??" The woman's bejeweled fingers made a questioning gesture. Her fingers on the other hand flicked a cigarette.

"Ya'ni I know that," said the man in the dark suit, shelling a pistachio. "But people will get confused."

The argument was about geem - Egyptians pronounce the "J" (the arabic letter "jeem") as a "G" ("geem"). So, Jamal becomes Gamal. Jezira (island) becomes Gezira.

Sometimes, the geem finds its way into english. The result can be comical. Take a look at the restaurant menu in the picture.

The woman was arguing with two TV journalists that Egyptian broadcasters ought to pronounce the geem on air, as they would normally, when talking to fellow Egyptians.

Egypt is the Hollywood of the Arab world. Egyptian movies, sitcoms, and news shows are watched by millions from Morocco to Muscat. Egyptian arabic, then, is the most well-known dialect. No matter where an Egyptian goes in this part of the world, everyone will understand him. He, on the other hand, will have no clue what they're saying.

Regardless, Egyptian broadcasters will switch to modern standard arabic, when they're on air, and a jeem will no longer become a geem.

The guys at Garden City Club thought that pronouncing the geem on television would alienate their pan-Arab audience.

"Bas, the geem is ours. We should be proud of it!" ranted the woman whose country receives the largest amount of US foreign aid after Israel.

"It's a question of Egyptian sovereignty!"

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Monks & Mountains

All photographs in this post copyright Yasir Khan 2007

Suf and I took a university trip out to the eastern desert this weekend. We hung out in Ain Sokhna, by the Red Sea, and checked out a couple of monasteries. Here's the evidence:

Saint Anthony: The monastery is at the foot of what I think is the world's tallest mountain - at least that's what it felt like while I was climbing it.

After visiting the monastery, a group of us dared the over-600-metre climb to Saint Anthony's cave. It's basically a slit in the rock face, that leads to a dark, damp womb. I was the last one out of all of us to make it up there. The reward - Tiffany's German chocolate. Benny, please make her a saint.

Saint Paul: He's the one on the left, raisin' the roof in the picture above. Paul is said to have been an absolute hermit, with a much more austere lifestyle than Anthony - he made his own clothes from palm leaves. If you ask me, he had the better cave. And when he died, he was buried by lions.
Now that's gangsta!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Me Read Arabic Kwayyis

This photograph copyright Yasir Khan 2007

This sign says "manhole", even in arabic. I found it at the construction site of the university's new campus in the middle of the Egyptian desert.

I've been reading arabic quite fluently since I was a boy - result of a religious upbringing, wherein I was taught the Qur'an. It's the speaking part that I'm trying to get a handle on now.

This next picture is from my colleague Tiffany Vora. She found it while shopping for moisturizer. I hear this product is popular with those of us who are here without our significant others.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Bis-mil-lah no! This smoke has got to go!

A great day. Big Islam is finally weighing in on clean air.

Every year, from September to November, Cairo is plagued by something called the Black Cloud - a thick blanket of smoke that hangs over the city, and makes the sky, well a little more hazy than it normally is. The cause - farmers burning plant refuse on their rice farms to prepare the soil for next year's crop. The result - breathing in Cairo is no longer equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. You're now smoking 40.
So the beards and turbans at the so called House of Fatwa (I have dibs on that name for my band) - an outfit linked to Egypt's Chief Mufti - have issued a, well, fatwa: "The Koran forbids such acts that are considered a social nuisance."

Thank you, House of Fatwa. You've hit upon the one and only reason why Cairo's air is unbreathable - farmers burning hay for 2 months. The rest of the year, we're fine.

An aside: Ever get the sneaky suspicion that there are just too many fatwas flying around? You're not alone. Read more.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Za Bollywood & Za Beoble

I have no idea how fast my taxi was moving this morning. The speedometer was stuck at 120 km/h even when we were still. But, at times, we were flying.
The driver glanced at me in all of his 8 rear view mirrors as we hurtled across the Qasr El Nil bridge, towards downtown Cairo, and asked the inevitable question:

CABBIE: Anta min-ein? (Where are you from?)
ME: Min al hind. (from India)

I've stopped telling random people that I'm from Canada, because ultimately I'll have to tell them that I'm originally Indian. So why bother?

CABBIE: Ah! Hindi! Naas kwayyis. (Indians are good people)
ME: Shukran. (Thanks)
CABBIE: Mitabbitshan? (????)
ME: Effendim? (excuse me?)
CABBIE: Mitabbitshan! Mitabbitshan! (WTF??????)
ME: Aasif. Ana mish-fahim. (sorry, I don't understand)

At 120 km/h (or whatever the real speed was) the man let go of the steering wheel and started to punch the air.

CABBIE: Mitabbitshan! HA! HA! HAAAAA!
His arms were flailing by now.

CABBIE: Aflam hindi! (Indian films!)

Of course! He was talking about "Amitabh Bachchan", the small "g" god of bollywood cinema! I'd heard that Egyptians love Indian films. They've even hired bollywood actress Celina Jaitley to be "the face of Egypt." When Bachchan visited Egypt in the '90s, it was pandemonium. Kids skipped school, people skipped work. Everyone lined the streets to get a glimpse of him.

ME: Aiwa... Amitabh Bachchan! Ta'arif hu? (do you know who he is?)
CABBIE: Tab'an! Ragl halwa 'awi! (Of course! Great man!)

Our brief Bachchan love-in ended as I paid, got out of the cab, and walked in to my office. There was a notice on my desk about the university's Desert Development Center (they research desert agriculture, among other things). They had fresh honey for sale at their kiosk, and I thought I'd check it out.

ME: Izzayak? (how are you?)
HONEY MAN: Alhamdulillah. Ayyi Khidmah? (Thanks to god. What can I do for you?)
ME: Endak 'asl taaza? (do you have fresh honey?)
Honey Man looks up at me as he's packing my jar of honey.
HONEY MAN: Hadratak min ein? (where are you from, sir?)

Oh brother...

ME: Min al Hind...
HONEY MAN (smiles): Min al Hind? Mitabbitshan?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Over the Bridge Downtown

This picture is from Lonely Planet. I'll change it as soon as I get a better one myself.

Steve Franklin
was a Knight Fellow at the university. I never met him - he left before I got here. But I find his business cards all over my office.
I've been reading his blog lately. The other day, I found something on it that I had to steal.
See, it gets dark here around 5 these days. As I cross the Qasr el Nil bridge over the Nile, on my way home, I witness a scene that you can write novels about (people here have).
Back in August, Steve quoted an article from the LA Times (by Jeffrey Fleischman) about this scene, on his blog. Here's an excerpt:

CAIRO — The lovers and the fishermen, the street kids and the cops, the veiled girls and the flower sellers, they all come at dusk to the bridge over the Nile, stealing kisses and tugging their lines, escaping the heat and hoping for magic, the boys whispering promises bigger than their pockets as moonlit boats glide beneath them.

Hotel lights glow along the corniche in the distance and somehow Cairo’s grit and poverty are gone; night makes everything pure. That’s when dreams and memories unfold on the bridge.

Ibrahim Adel, a waiter, tells his fiancee, yes, he will one day own a restaurant. Yehia Helmi, a barber, lifts his grandson to the railing and points to a sail flickering in the darkness. Samir Shawki skitters with his buddies through the traffic. And Ali Mohammed Hussein, a sturdy man with a bent nose, sells wilted roses in cellophane.

The Qasr el Nil Bridge carries tens of thousands of cars a day, but at night its wide sidewalks are shoulder to shoulder with Egyptians. There is no sweeter spot for a cheap date, a refuge from big families and crowded apartments. A brush of the hand, a smile, all the subtle rituals of Muslim romance play out in tiny dramas amid the call to prayer and the river breeze.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Shanghai Hardcore

Few things are more daunting than an audience of forty 18-year olds. That's my 2nd year Mass Communication class at the university. I teach them for an hour every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and it's probably the most labour intensive part of my job.
I am probably the only professor they have who is not their parents' age. And every class, I put on a performance. I show up with things I want to put in their heads.
They stare, listen, and occasionally doze off.
Sometimes, their eyes light up. That's when I talk to them about hip-hop. This is house and techno country (besides the local pop scene), but quite a few people do listen to hip-hop.
I brought up Kanye and Fifty, when I talked to them about the power of mass media, and more recently when Rolling Stone had those two on the cover.
The initial reaction was hesitant giggling, almost as if to say,
"are we supposed to talk about this in class?"
Next came a talk on advertising and product placement. Ludacris was the example: Cadillac grills, Cadilac bills... I think they liked it.
Pretty soon, I was being asked about my favourite songs on the new Kanye record.
Next week, we'll be dealing with the recording industry, and of course, hip-hop. Check out what I found while I was researching for it:
That's the Iron Mic '07 - an annual Chinese rap battle in... wait for it... Shanghai!
Who started it? A 32-year old black Muslim dude from Detroit.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


All text & photographs in this post copyright Yasir Khan 2007.

"Have you been out of Cairo yet?" My friend Ameena's tone was more insistent than curious. Yes, Ameena, I have. And here are the pictures to prove it.
Lake Qarun - Egypt's own Dead Sea - lies about 80 kilometres away from Cairo. A short distance from it is the Fayoum - a large patch of ultra fertile land on the bank of the Nile, said to be the birthplace of agriculture.
Went out there with my colleague John Swanson and his Greco-Roman archaeology class, which was a treat. We completely bypassed the modern city of Fayoum , and hit the salty lake, some tiny villages, and wonderful ruins of old Greek towns that date back to just after Alexander's conquest of Egypt.

The great thing about going to these places with John is that he tells you stories. Among the ruins, he read a letter that was written thousands of years ago in that very town. It was from a rich Greek man, addressing King Ptolemy. The man complained about an Egyptian woman who had emptied a chamberpot of urine on him. When he protested, she cursed him, spat in his face, and ripped his toga. There were a lot of witnesses.

"Punish her," he fumed, reminding Ptolemy that he was Greek, while she, a mere Egyptian.
Thousands of years later, many expats' attitudes haven't changed. They still expect to be treated better than the locals. More on that later.
For now, here are some pictures of the heavy security that accompanies us expats on such trips. The Egyptian government takes no chances after some crazies shot up a tourist bus 10 years ago, and again in 2005.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Short, Short Man

Not everyone can say they know someone in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Back in 2002, my friend Tharanga Ramanayake was a producer/editor at Much Music. He created the world's shortest TV commercial.
It just went up on youtube:

And I have no idea who that host guy is. I hear he don't work at Much no more. Somebody should give him a job.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ramadan Blues

All pictures in this post copyright Yasir Khan 2007.

The sun sets. You eat. And then you talk about the fast. Out pours a day's worth of lamentation, and wisdom cooked in the depths of empty stomachs:
"You know, I swear, it's harder this year!"
"Why are we not allowed to drink water? Your body needs water! Surely, god understands that."
"The prophet said this religion is supposed to be easy. It's not supposed to be torture."

And there are the sheepish admissions:
"I'm just pretending now. I go to work, skip lunch, and nobody knows."
"My assistant was so energetic the other day. I asked her, 'Are you skipping the fast too?' And she started to giggle."

Among elites and expats in Cairo, this is the great Ramadan Conspiracy. And a tremendous source of Ramadan Guilt.
At recent iftar in a posh neighbourhood, our non-Muslim expat host held court on his balcony. He needed a drink. But he was surrounded by Muslims who had just broken their "fast." And Muslims who do normally drink, tend to give it up during Ramadan.
So, we talked. Conversation about global and regional politics raged until it came to a logical end. A few seconds of silence, and then...
... "Alright, who would like a drink? We've got juices, water. We also have some gin, and wine."
Silence... hesitant looks...
"Ya'ni, it's Ramadan... er... but sure I'll have some wine."

Saturday, October 6, 2007

To Serve & Protect

All pictures in this post copyright Yasir Khan 2007.

It's supposed to be autumn/fall here. As far as I'm concerned, it's still summer: 35 celsius during the day!
So, going out into the desert, to see pyramids, temples, etc., is a high-temperature proposition.
But imagine having to do that day after day.
That's the job of the "tourist police" here - to be out in the sun, and protect us tourists from things like terrorism, falling boulders, and accidental demands for freedom of speech, expression and movement.

As you can see, it's a pretty tough gig. They do it for less than minimum wage, plus some baksheesh.

Moving Rock

All pictures in this post copyright Yasir Khan 2007.

I thought I'd remain a pyramid virgin until Suf got here. I thought it would be special if we both saw them for the first time, together.
But everybody I know is going now. So, in the last couple of weeks, I crumbled under peer pressure... and went to see a lot of pyramids:

That's a lot of rock. And I've been reading that the more rock a king moved to build a pyramid, the greater he was thought to be.
The Ontario provincial election happens in about 5 days.
And the Pakistanis go to the polls today.
I hope we hold our leaders to higher standards than moving rock.

Sunday, September 30, 2007


Suf and her colleague Brad have been listening to the new Kanye on the way to work. That cleared up my Nickelback-related anxieties a little. And my anxieties about the Ontario Liberals (have you heard the music they play at their rallies?). Thank god at least a handful of them are paying attention to some good tunes.

It will be a while before the music channels here start playing Kanye. Right now, they're obsessed with curvy, Chanel-clad, tone deaf, eye candy like Haifa Wehbe, or the perpetually yearning Nick Carter.

And, of course, lots of religious music.

Well, here's some real religion:

Monday, September 24, 2007

Cleopatra is for commoners

Bassel, my TA, was horrified today. He discovered I am smoking Cleopatras - the local brand.
Like most other things here, they're cheap (about $1 a pack), and they do the job.
Foreign brands cost twice as much - a whopping $2.
"But why?" asked a wide-eyed, perplexed Bassel.
"I just wanted to try them."
Now I was perplexed. What's the big deal with Cleopatras?
So I asked one of the guys who helps us around the office.
"He's right, doctoor," said the smiling, gentle, Egyptian man.
"Cleopatras are for the lower class people."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ramzan & the Khan

All pictures in this post copyright Yasir Khan 2007.

Ramzan (ramadan to many of you) turns Cairo upside down.
You sleep when it's time to eat, eat when you're supposed to sleep, work when you normally go home, and go home during work hours.
Traffic takes a break too. Normally, by 6pm, all roads here become exhaust-filled parking lots.
But not tonight, when Ahson and I decide to check out ramzan in Khan-al-khalili (aka the Khan).
We drive through a dead city, to a dead market.
It's iftar: time to break the fast. So everybody's either eating, praying, or waiting for the post-iftar stampede.

Ahson and I make our way to the Al Fishawy cafe.
I've read that Naguib Mahfouz would come here to write.

As we smoke shisha, and sip mint tea, the post-iftar stampede begins.
Traffic, touts, temper tantrums.
A girl tries to sell Ahson keychains, while balancing a newborn.
A Somali dude named "Mark" shares his Chapelle's Show DVD.

Monday, September 17, 2007


Suf writes to me today and tells me a deep, dark secret (well, not so deep, dark, or secret anymore):
"I like a Nickelback song... and the video."
I question my marriage in my head, and ask her where we went wrong.
Should we have moved to Barrie instead of Cairo?
Not so fast, she says. Take a look at it.
So, I youtube the bloody song, and against my better judgment, I actually like what I see and hear!
I am so ashamed of myself.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Baghdad Needs Banksy

The American plan for stemming sectarian violence in Iraq is to now build walls between Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods. It's worked in one way - Shias and Sunnis are actually protesting against it... together.

The Yanks are call it a "concrete caterpillar". It is already 2km long, and is intended to protect a Sunni neighbourhood from attacks by Shia militia.

Here's the kicker, though: AFP's reporting that the Baghdad city council is hiring artists to paint "calming landscapes and scenes" on the wall, "depicting Iraq's natural beauty."

Shia leader Moqtada Al Sadr, meanwhile, has other ideas: "Draw magnificent tableaux that depict... sedition, car bombings, blood that (the US) has brought upon Iraqis."

Where the hell is Banksy when you need him? He did a heck of a job with the Israeli wall.
Photographs from

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bargain Basement Sociology

All pictures in this post copyright Yasir Khan 2007.

A colleague at the university recently told me that you can tell the socio-economic status of a Cairene neighbourhood by looking at the roofs of buildings.
The more satellite dishes you see, the more affluent the residents.
Poorer neighbourhoods usually have one or two dishes per building.
These are pictures from my balcony.
Does this mean my neighbours are rich?