Travel Tales 2 - Cairo

Travel Tales
by Sherry Reardon
copyright 1996


We arrived in Cairo around midnight. We were whisked through passport control by an amazingly efficient fellow, and as we boarded the bus to our hotel we were handed roses by his innocuous cohort, Magdi, who would turn out to be the "facilitator" for our trip. I don't know what the right term is... but Egpyt is the first place I've encountered someone in this role.

In Turkey, and the (admittedly not extensive) other places I've been to, there was a guide, who would take us everywhere and tell us about what were we seeing. Magdi's role was to take us places and make sure everything was set up OK, but he wasn't the one who was going to tell us about what we were seeing (which was good because his English wasn't very good)... we ended up with a different person who was to serve as our guide... but we wouldn't meet her for a couple of days.

They say that Egypt has a firmly-entrenched bureaucracy because it's the oldest bureaucracy in the world, and this "extra" person was evidence of it, I guess.

Our hotel was the Cairo Marriott, which is just a wonderful place. It used to be a palace, built in the 1800s for Queen Eugenie of France for the opening of the Suez Canal. It was fun to just wander around (or "wonder around" as the hotel info in the room suggested) and check out the marvelous architecture and furnishings. It was a good thing we did Egypt second, because although there was nothing wrong with the hotel in Turkey, it seemed shabby next to this Marriott. The breakfasts here were great too... a full buffet, including omelets made to order and custom- blended fruit juice (every tried pomegranate juice?)

Anyway, again our first day was scheduled with the belly dancer in mind. Ali had arranged for Madame Abla, the top custom costume maker in Cairo, to come to the hotel in the morning to show off her sample wares and to take orders. Again, we all had fun trying on costumes and looking through design books and photo albums... and a bunch of us ended up ordering costumes. (Note: Ali sells Mme. Abla costumes in the US for the same price she sells them for over there.)

In the afternoon we had a dance class with Mme. Dawlat, who was Nagua Fouad's choreographer. She was an unimposing woman, short and round, but what spirit! What a wonderful feeling for the music! And she had some interesting funky moves too. Also, the Haberdashery costume shop brought some of its goodies over to the class to sell, so we could do some shopping here too.


After class, we came back to the hotel to nap, so we would be ready to go out at midnight for first dinner show in Cairo. Actually we stayed in--this show was in our own hotel. As is pretty standard format for these shows, there were going to be a couple of singers on before the dancer, the main act. The dancer would be coming on about 2:30 am. Yes, it's late, but if you're going to Cairo and you want to see the dancers, you need to be prepared for this late schedule because that's just when they go on. They do not, in general, have early shows.

So here we were, eating dinner at midnight (choice of chicken, sea bass, or mixed grill, of course). The first solo singer was a young woman who actually did a few bellydance moves in the instrumental breaks. It was neat to watch, it was like her body just *had* to do it. Then there was a guy singer, then the dancer... Amani, a young (only about 19) protege of Ragia Hassan's. Her photo, and a brief description, was in the most recent *Arabesque* magazine, but she wasn't dressed so funkily this evening. She was a fine dancer, put on a very nice show (in the typical Egyptian fashion: dancing for about a full hour, with a costume change). My only negative comment is that she didn't seem to show the depth of feeling I so enjoy seeing in older dancers.

So around 3:30 we head back to our rooms, with the plan to be up at 9:30 for breakfast to be ready for our sightseeing day to see old Memphis, Sakkara (where the Step Pyramid is) and the Pyramids and Sphinx. This turned out to be one of those days when Murphy's Law struck big, and the lack of sleep probably made everyone extra irritable. Rather than bore you with every little detail about what went wrong, I'll just summarize: because of a schedule screwup caused by our "facilitator", Magdi, we got started much later than planned with a guide who was pissed off; we then ended too late to spend much time at the Pyramids and almost none at all at the Sphinx; we got herded into 3 "factory" stores; and neither Ali nor Cassandra was with us to assure all was on the up-and-up. Naturally, Ali heard all about it when we got back that evening... and he was able to work it our so that we got another trip (free) to the Pyramids and Sphinx for those who wanted more time there... at the insistance of some of the group, he also replaced our guide, but I think the one they really wanted to get rid of was Magdi, but they had said "guide" so we got a new guide. The new guide was a nice enough woman, but English was only her 3rd language, and she occasionally seemed to have some difficulty with it, so we may have ended up worse off. We'd been warned about the philosophy of "Inshallah" (God willing) and "Ma'alesh" (It doesn't matter) and we all might have been better off if everyone had taken these attitudes a bit more to heart.

Some people cancelled their going to a dinner show that evening out of spite for Magdi's presumed commission... and that was really too bad, because it was fun.


So, some of us went out that night on the floating restaurant "Humphris". This is a boat that floats up and down the Nile while you have a "gourmet" buffet dinner and watch a show. The show had a lot of variety. A band and singer started off, as usual. The dancer, whose name was Fifi Fouad, also had 3 male dancers who performed with her. The show included a "whirling Dervish" number; the guys dressed up like a dancing horse, going around nuzzling the patrons; some tahtib; and of course lots of Fifi dancing, in two different costumes. I thought it very enjoyable.

Fifi Fouad and a couple of tour members on the Humphris. Photo by Jeffrey Valentine.

The next day we went to the Khan El Khalili, the big bazaar in Cairo, to appease our shopping needs. Cassandra and Ali first showed us the Haberdashery, which would serve as our "focal point" in the bazaar. Then they set us loose. Of course, most people stayed in the Haberdashery for quite a while... they have "off-the-rack" costumes, fringe, butt wraps, "Everything for the Dancer" as their ad says. And prices were cheap--about 1/2 to 1/3 of prices from vendors here. Wandering the rest of the bazaar was a trip. You could bargain for all kinds of goodies: jewelry (silver, gold, and costume), caftans, dresses, T-shirts, scarves, knick-knacks, etc. And English was pretty common.

In the Haberdashery. Photo by Terry Stoleson.

The bus that was supposed to pick at 5:00 hadn't showed by 5:30 (perhaps it was stuck in traffic, which was awful), so with Cassandra's advice and guidance, we all took cabs back the hotel, so we could grab a nap before the evening show.

We left at midnight to go to the Sheraton Gezira for another dinner/show, this one featuring Fifi Abdou. Fifi was nothing short of amazing! She danced for almost an hour and a half, with 5 costume changes. First she wore a bra/belt set for 4 or 5 numbers. Then she came back in a Spanish gypsy sort of outfit, with a black leotard top, a full black skirt with gold and red embroidery, and a coordinating black scarf. She did one Spanish flavored number in this, then (after adding a few extra more folkloric musicians in galabeyas) came out in a Hagallah dress for a few Saidi styled numbers, including a cane dance. She introduced the next section as "Muhammed Ali" style before coming back in this totally over-the-top costume in gold lame--an enormously full dress with a bustle and a cummerbund, her hair pulled up, a tiara. She looked like a queen... but this being Muhammed Ali style, of course she didn't act like one! (In case you're not familiar, Muhammed Ali street is where all the musicians- and dancers-for-hire hang out.. the dancers from that area are not exactly what one would call "classy".) She came out smoking on one of those waterpipe things... and had a fellow following her around carrying the waterpipe. She had this "schtick" where she'd blow the smoke out each nostril. Then she sat down on a chair (legs apart, of course) and traded jokes (in Arabic, of course) with the band between puffs. Then she danced a couple of numbers in that outfit... I was amazed she could even move in it. Then she went off, came back again looking elegant, in a lovely dress, her hair down and flowing, and danced several more numbers, some of which were really pretty spiritual. Her dancing was great, and what an entertainer!


The next day Ali had arranged for another trip to the Sphinx and Pyramids, for anyone who felt they didn't have enough time there on the earlier day when we got started late. Personally, I chose to sleep late (especially nice after getting in after 4am!) and wander around the hotel a bit.

In the afternoon we had an optional tour to the Pharonic Village, which most of the group went on. It's a "living re-creation" of the times of the pharoahs, but it was rather disappointing... The buildings and the village itself were kinda cool, but the costumes were real cheap-looking and the teenagers they had playing the roles looked totally bored with what they were doing. The one really good thing about going there was they served this really fabulous garlic spread at lunch (the only place I've had garlic spread like it is at the Beirut in Minneapolis/St. Paul). Oh, and there was one couple on the tour who'd brought along a can of Spam to use as a photographic prop, and we decided this was the perfect place to use it.

About 8 of us had appointments that evening for a fitting at Madame Abla's. (Recall she came to us at the hotel for the inital orders.) They sent a car over, and of course the car was late (Arabic time), and of course we couldn't fit all 8 of us in one car, so some of us followed in a cab on a wild ride through Cairo's pretty wild traffic. The area around Mme. Abla's is like the plumbing district--most of the nearby shops seem to be displaying toilets. We hopped out of the cab, ducked into an alleyway, were led up a flight of stairs to an unimposing doorway that read "Fantastic Oriental Costumes". There again, we waited a while, and finally I was first to be called in. I had ordered a dress, which was all sewn already. I tried it on, and it fit almost perfect. Mme. Abla (who speaks very minimal English) saw a problem with the sleeve, pointed it out, said "No good", adjusted it, said "Good", to which I nodded and said "Good". And that was it for my fitting. They took a new one of us every few minutes... so after a while, 4 of us who were done decided to go ahead and take a cab back to the hotel rather than wait for a ride that we knew we couldn't all fit in anyway. Mme. Abla's is presumbly only a short distance from Mohammed Ali street, the street of the dancers and musicians, but it was nighttime and we had no idea where we were and none of us really cared to go exploring at this time.

As it was, we got back to the hotel at a reasonable hour, which was good because then we could get to bed at a reasonable hour (for once), which was good because we had to get up about 6:00am the next morning to get ready to fly to Aswan where we would start our Nile cruise.

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Last Modified: 9 Aug 1997