Tonight we went to Manshia, an area closer to downtown Alexandria, where we saw loads and loads of shops selling everything from huge natural loofahs to cured legs of lamb to gold necklaces to neon-flashing shot glasses to Miley Cyrus backpacks. Walking around was overwhelming because in every possible direction there was constantly something new to see. Even after dark there are lots of people out on the streets, buying and selling and meeting each other. Somehow I think I am still not able to take it all in, as I am adjusting to life in such a foreign place, especially since we were walking rather quickly to keep up with traffic. Insha’allah we’ll come back and I’ll be able to absorb it all a bit more.
Next we walked along the Corniche, the road that goes past the harbor for the length of the city, to get to a cafe favored by our guide, Farouk Cafe (named after the controversial former king). The history of this place wasn’t entirely clear, but suffice it to say it has been around almost 100 years. We received a warm welcome from some of the waiters because they knew our guide, but we were the only women in the entire place. Men of all ages sat at tables talking, drinking coffee, smoking sheesha (hookah), and playing dominoes. We ordered drinks (hibiscus juice and sweetened coffee),cantaloupe-flavored sheesha and a dominoes set. Our guide, Moataz, made an honorable effort to teach us the ins and outs of dominoes, playing game after game. We got the hang of it pretty well and Hannah had an excellent winning streak. At least for me, though, the strategy is something I’ll have to work on. The point is that of any given number, there are only seven tiles with that number. This means that if you keep track of what you have on your deck, what is down on the table already, who laid it down and what has not been put down yet, you can guess with some accuracy what sort of hand your opponents have. If you play with any measurable skill and/or strategy, you might block other players from laying tiles or force other players to lay only a certain number. It was confounding how fast the tiles were clacking down at other tables, since players have to think about what tiles they have and guess at what other players have while matching one of two possible numbered tiles at every turn. If I master this by the end of my time here, able to play in only Arabic and up to speed with the rest, I’ll consider myself truly assimilated!
At least the coffee and sheesha were delicious. I had my coffee (‘ahwa) with sugar–and it came with a great deal of sugar!–which made it taste like a thick, dark hot chocolate. Thoroughly satisfying, if a little hard to get down until I realized I was trying to swallow the dregs, too. The sheesha was just like I’d had at Pitt, just in a new, very yummy cantaloupe flavor. I can blow smoke rings if I really concentrate and there isn’t a crossbreeze, but Moataz was trying to teach me how to blow smoke out my nose like a dragon. I haven’t managed to make it look convincingly dragon-like.
Looking around Farouk Cafe, you can start to see how the cultural concept of gender is shaped in this country. Men are the main customers in places like this, so much so that this place did not have a restroom that women might use! It is certainly acceptable for women to be there, but they are almost always accompanied by men and might feel uncomfortable. For women, there is no element of tradition in a place like this and only recently have they been more able to go to some sheesha bars without the company of men. As our guide said, men might be brought to these places as adolescents and continue going to the same place or few places until they are much older. Thus the cafe is a traditional fixture of the social life of the men in the community, where one might meet friends and exchange news and opinion. A large group of adolescents eyed our table and our stumbling dominoes game with amusement, while the older, grayer men talked amongst themselves, barely paying us any attention. It’s difficult to imagine an equivalent in the U.S., a place that is such a common cultural fixture and at the same time an “old boys club” in the truest sense.
Here’s a bit of a video I sneaked. Notice the call to prayer playing throughout and the sound of dominoes.
Off to Rosetta tomorrow!