Category Archives: Travelogue

Egypt’s most overrated band

Last night I had the opportunity to see Wust el-Balad a band that, according to Wikipedia, “is considered to be the most successful rock act in Egypt, and the whole Arab world.” I’m not sure if that claim is true, but they’re certainly very popular and often talked about. But I have to say, at the risk of offending thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of nightclub-loving Egyptians, I thought they kind of sucked.

Wust el-Balad sucks? They’re like a Cairo institution!  Yeah, I guess. But really they sound like Phish. (Sorry Levi, habibi, you know I love you but even when we hang out I want to listen to anything but Phish.)

Rather than playing Arabic melodies in a modern-rock style, Wust el-Balad played pseudo-Latin rhythms that incidentally had Arabic lyrics. They used cheesy “jazz” breakdowns and gratuitous James-Brown-style-“Can-we-count-it-off?”-moments to prove that they are a “tight” band.  The effect, for me at least, was thoroughly unimpressive.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t have a good time.  I saw Wust el-Balad at After 8, a popular Cairo nightclub. And I love dancing on top of broken beer bottles in a smoke-filled room as much as any other Oberlin grad. (Which is not to say that the vibe at After 8 was exactly like 16.5 South Main…) But loving a good dance party didn’t make up for the fact that Wust el-Balad was a totally boring, slightly cringe-inducing band.

I’ll give them another try.  I probably won’t have a choice. They seem like they might be hard to avoid. But next time I go to see live music in this city I’m going to make sure it’s either Arabic folk music or something at least a little bit edgy. Because I don’t want to pay a hundred pound cover to listen to the Egyptian version of Phish.

If you’re skeptical about my assertion that Wust el-Balad sounds like Phish, I suggest that you watch the two YouTube videos below:

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Filed under College, Travelogue

Money troubles

There are three things that really differentiate the way money is used in Egypt from how it is used in United States: bargaining, tipping, and an almost exclusive reliance on cash. All three present a problem for me.

First, I should explain that I really don’t like money. I like having it, of course. But I hate dealing with it. I don’t like to talk about money, I don’t like to make a big deal out of it. I’m the guy who, at a restaurant with a group of people, will throw down an extra fifteen dollars just to avoid a lengthy discussion of the bill. I just want to ignore money as much as I can. That’s not how things work here.

They say that the price of everything in Egypt is negotiable. When most people buy things here they name a price, the vendor names another price, and then the two parties work their way toward a price in the middle. There are plenty of exceptions of course, but with many, many things that’s how it works for everything from taxis to a kilo of cucumbers. I see it happen all the time. When I go to buy something, though, the process is a bit simpler: I say a price, get another price from the seller, and then say, “Um. Well. Okay.”

The next problem I have is with tipping, known in Arabic as baksheesh. I’m a generous tipper at restaurants and bars. I always go with at least twenty percent. But that’s not what baksheesh is. Baksheesh is giving people a little bit of money when they do something for you. It’s supposedly an integral part of the Egyptian economy. (I recently read a story that said that visitors to the Giza zoo give baksheesh to the zookeepers.) The problem is, I have no idea how to do it. Whom am I supposed to tip? When? How much? Furthermore, I don’t like the awkward process of taking bills out of my pocket and handing them to people. I usually end up foregoing baksheesh, which I’m sure is rude and unfair.

Finally, there is the problem of cash. Almost nobody accepts credit cards in Egypt. My paycheck, which I received last week, came in the form of an envelope of cash. Egypt’s is largely a cash economy. There’s nothing wrong with that, except for me because 1) I have very little self control when it comes to money, and 2) I am really, really good at misplacing things. I crumple up twenty dollars bills, shove them in my pockets and then re-discover them a few weeks later after they’ve gone through the washing machine. Then I get excited that I found a free twenty dollars and go spend it on some bullshit. Naturally, a cash economy does not suit me.

Why am I talking about this? What’s my point here? It’s simple: I am a stupid foreigner and will probably go broke in this country and in the process offend hundreds of service industry workers.

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Filed under Egypt, Travelogue

New neighborhood, familiar feeling

At this point I feel pretty familiar with central Cairo and the nearby neighborhoods, since that’s where I’m living, working and hanging out, etc. But I’ve barely seen any of the suburbs. So yesterday I decided to take a trip to Maadi just for the hell of it.

It took about a half an hour on the subway from the station closest to my apartment and when I got off the train I felt like I was in… Park Slope. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. It’s still Egypt and most of the people there are Egyptians—but only barely. Many of Cairo’s expats–embassy people, corporate types, who knows what else–make their home.

What am I talking about? I went to a decent used book store where I almost bought a book of interviews with Woody Allen. Then I walked down the street and saw a place called—no fucking joke!—Jared’s Bagels. As I marched down Road 9 I passed smiling couples with blonde babies in babybjörns. A totally surreal experience.

I’m glad I don’t live there. (Longer post on the discourse of “authentic” and the Western traveler to come later, I promise.) Maybe if I were older and bringing my family to live with me in Cairo Maadi would be my choice. But why the hell would I move halfway around the world to be surrounded by American yuppies? If that’s what I wanted I could have just moved to Brooklyn like so many recent Oberlin grads.

Incidentally, Maadi is also home to the best hamburger in the world, at least according to Time’s Scott MacLeod. I haven’t been yet, but obviously will go. I haven’t been out of the US for half my life like MacLeod has, so I might be coming at the Lucille’s burger with clearer eyes. I will report back, of course.

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Filed under Egypt, Food, Travelogue