Saturday, August 18, 2018
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Today in Cairo, the word ‘hammam’ may just mean the washroom in your house, but eleven centuries or so earlier and for a long time thereafter, a hammam meant a place where people went to luxuriate in steam baths, to get therapeutic massages for their aches and pains and to catch up on the local gossip.
Surprisingly, for a city that boasted one hammam for every single day of the year, there are only around six functioning hammams today and their decaying condition requires urgent action to save the ruins and restore the beauty of these monumental witnesses of Cairo’s glorious past.
|this is the slab of stone in Hammam El Arbaa, where you will be given a scrub down|
I traverse the narrow lanes behind the Boulaq market, dodging splatters of horse-dung, on my way to Hammam El Talat and Hammam El Arbaa.The neighborhood looks poor, neglected and nostalgic...much like the people who frequent the hammams of today. But the owners of El Arbaa-Um Azza and her husband Mohamed el Mesry, aka Okal- insist that their hammam is patronized by people from all walks of life, including people from “high levels’, ‘classy’ women and even actors, though curiously, they cannot remember any names.
|Entrance to Hammam El Arbaa...the owner is obviously not coy!|
He does not feel threatened by the mushrooming of spas all over the city and says that a spa can never offer what a hammam does. “The hammam is not built randomly; we are two meters below the ground and the labyrinthine corridors of the hammam are built in such a way that the body cools gradually as one comes out of the hot steam bath.”
Agreeing with him, May Telmissany, co-author of the book “The Last Hammams of Cairo,” says that “the new spas do not provide the beautiful old environment of the hammams, where relaxation and meditation is still possible. The settings on one hand and the type of services offered on the other hand help the client reach this sort of beatitude and serenity that the spa rarely provides.”
But could the growing popularity of the spas be the reason for the decline of the hammams? Telmissany disagrees and says that the type of clients for each facility is completely different and “the transformation of the hammams into spas will ruin the beautiful and specific traditions of the hammams and once again will prevent the poor from the benefits of the establishment.” Okal compares a spa to a fancy restaurant where one has to eat with knives and forks and a hammam to a home where one eats with hands. “A hammam is ‘baladi’, where people are at ease,” says Okal.
|the reception foyer of the Hammam|
Obviously, these countries have been successful in looking after their heritage. Egypt is indecisive about what it wants to do with its rich legacy of hammams; but the scales seem to be tilted towards its complete oblivion. Okal and Mishmish, with their business acumen have added features to their hammam, more suited to the current times but without preserving the aesthetic simplicity that once characterized the Egyptian baths. The government restores the old hammams- only to convert them into government offices and museums. An indifferent population considers the hammams as very unhygienic and debauched places.
So, is the restoration and preservation of the hammams a battle worth fighting for? Especially, in terms of the costs involved, relevance to the present times and impact on the environment? Telmissany has an emphatic ‘yes’ as answer to the question. “The relevance of the hammams is social and historical. They might not generate large income, but they certainly can in the future if they are renovated and re-opened to the public. Their renovation should take into account environmental issues such as pollution and waste disposal, which might be neglected at the time being because of the scarce income they generate.”
She might have a point; after all, Abu Sir, an early Arab historian once said "Your town is only a perfect town when there is a bath in it."
Hammam El Arbaa: 5 Ansary Street, Boulaq Abul Ela, Downtown
Telephone: 0105790760, 29860588
Open: 9AM-5PM for women; 6 PM to 6AM for men
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
|set of water pipes|
In Egypt, smoking shisha is intricately woven into the social and the cultural fabric. Politics, sports, domestic and economic woes, are all discussed, over puffs of the water pipe. Shisha joints are ubiquituous in Cairo and each of them provides a different shisha experience. Try these out!
Go for the ambience!
Go for the flavours!
Nile Zamalek Hotel
The rooftop of the hotel, overlooking the River Nile offers the perfect opportunity to enjoy a drink with your shisha. It can be chilly in evenings on the rooftop and the combination of a drink with shisha is sure to give you warmth.
Located in Garden City, this place has excellent Lebanese food to complement the shisha. So also, the place serves wine, which can make the an outing to this resturant a complete shisha experience.
Go for the baladi experience!
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
At the last crossing just before the Abdeen Palace, in a poor and unassuming neighborhood in downtown Cairo, is the Tanbura Hall that hosts the last-known exponent of Rango every Thursday evening.
Rango is a musical instrument and its music was brought to Egypt by the Sudanese people- first when they came in as conscripts into the Egyptian army in the 1820s and then later by those who were brought in to work on the cotton plantations in the 1860s. These reluctant exiles settled in the cities of Alexandria, Cairo and Ismailia, bringing their folk melodies and instruments with them, and sought solace from the loneliness and the harshness of their lives in music.
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Also in Zamalek is The Cairo Opera House, the premier performance venue in Cairo. It comprises of a Main Hall, a Small Hall and an Open Air Theatre. The Cairo Opera Company and the Cairo Symphony put up regular performances during the season. The hallowed halls are graced by a number of visiting ballet and contemporary dance troupes. The Main Hall of the Opera is the place to head to if you are in the mood for dressing up-a jacket and a tie are a must to attend performances here. (http://www.cairoopera.org/index.aspx).
Performances that cannot be accommodated at the Cairo Opera House find a platform at the Ghoumariya Theatre in downtown. Also managed by the Cairo Opera House, the Ghoumariya theatre plays host to foreign dance troupes and more recently was the venue for performances under the auspices of the India Culture Week.
The Al Genenina (garden) theatre is a 500- seat open air amphitheatre inside the Al Azhar Park on Salah Salem road. The ambience lends to the charm of the wide range of musical performances that are put up here. Go early before the performance starts to catch the sun setting over Cairo. Admission to the performances is usually free.
Apart from this, many of the nightclubs like Cairo Jazz Club, After Eight etc also feature live performances, albeit their music is western-influenced. The Whirling Dervishes or the Tannura dancers at the Al Ghouri caravansaray, near the Al Azhar mosque, are mesmerizing to watch. The explosion of colours, the rhythmic music and the passion of the performers leaves you entranced as does the beautiful architecture of the venue Wilkalet al Ghouri is Cairo's best preserved example of a medieval hotel (Wikala in Arabic). At dusk, the lights come on; the lighting only enhances the performance. Entrance is free and the seats fill up fast. But it is worth going early to occupy front row seats.
Movie buffs have never had it so good. Many cultural centers regularly screen foreign films series. They are not always subtitled in English, though. The French Cultural Center (http://www.cfcc-eg.org/), the Cervantes Institute in Cairo (http://elcairo.cervantes.es/es/default.shtm), the Goethe Institute and the Italian Cultural Institute are the most prolific. The Indian Cultural Institute, screens enjoyable Bollywood movies, popular amongst the locals. Most of these screenings are free. Another reason for the movie goers to cheer is the Cairo Film Festival, which takes place around the end of every year. Several theaters participate in this weeklong festival that screens uncensored versions of the films.
Another culturally wealthy area in Cairo is Zamalek, which has a high concentration of galleries tucked away in the narrow alleys, all within walking distance of each other. The Zamalek Art Gallery (http://www.zamalekartgallery.com/index.php), the Gezeira Art Centre and the Islamic Ceramic museum showcase some noteworthy stuff.
Darb 1718, a non-profit contemporary art gallery, located in the heart of Old Cairo has managed to carve a name for itself as one of the bastions of independent art. The venue is best known for hosting unique art exhibitions and art installations. (http://www.darb1718.com/Pages/ShowPage.aspx?pageid=1).
Dina Cantina does not have an outlet but its website (http://www.dinacantina.com/) offers the opportunity to create your own cupcake. Orders can be placed only through the internet, but the response is very fast, once you have placed the order. Dina Cantina’s cupcakes earn some serious brownie points on presentation; they almost look too good to eat. However, Dina Cantina does not sell cupcakes by the piece; an order of a dozen cupcakes has to be made and they also charge a steep delivery charge of LE 25.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
In the middle of nowhere, two hours’ drive out of Cairo is the Anafora Retreat Center. Intended as a place of prayer and silent reflection, this Retreat on the Cairo-Alex Desert Highway offers the perfect sanctuary and haven from the hustle and bustle of life. Anafora is run by the Coptic Orthodox Church and welcomes people from all over the world within its tree dappled precincts.
As soon as you enter, there is the Anamnesis building at the entrance, which serves the day visitors to the Retreat. Some distance away is the main building called ‘Anafora’, which means ‘sacrifice’. Here you can enjoy a cup of tea before going onto the terrace for beautiful views across the Retreat.
All visitors are offered free lunch, which is a simple fare of rice, beans, raw vegetables, freshly baked bread and a dip. The visitors have the run of the place and can either spend time in the mediation center or wander around the vast farm. A blue concrete moat runs around the Retreat and surrounds the chapel. Sometimes, the moat is filled with water from the underground springs, lending a charm and coolness to the place. This water is then pumped out and used to irrigate the vast rows of fruit trees and other crops, like the mango and date orchards and the geranium and the hibiscus trees.
Monday, August 8, 2011
It was fascinating to talk to its Executive Director, Rania Fahmy, who took me through the starting up of the NGO and the expansions and developments that it has seen. Particularly interesting was to hear about the challenges that they face in convincing the parents of the street girls to let them live at the facility, rather than put them on the street.
You can read the whole story here.