Egypt: Trying to understand 8,000 years of history in one week, what could go wrong?
And so I embark on a week in a country that spans Asia and Africa; that can trace its history back to the 6th millennium BC; that has the highest population in North Africa, the Middle East or the Arab world; and that has the only remaining example of the seven wonders of the world. It is such a key player on the world stage that the French and British fought over it for centuries and its 1952 revolution escalated decolonialisation and the ramifications are still being felt today. It is the aftermath of this revolution that sets the scene of this week’s book and film the Yacoubian building, which interweaves a cross section of Egyptian stories into one tale with the titular building at its heart. They story opens a window to the lives of Egypt’s rich and poor, gay and straight, oppressed and oppressors. Its “cultural rainbow” style helped change attitudes to homosexuality across the Arab world. As soon as I finished reading I wanted to read more by Alaa al Aswany, but I’ve no idea how I will find the time.
This weeks’ second film aims to follow in Aswany’s footsteps and change cultural attitudes to people who are HIV+. Asmaa is the story of a downtrodden HIV+ single mother and her desperate attempts to get the medical treatment she deserves. She faces stigma everywhere she goes as even doctors are too scared to operate on her for fear of catching the virus. It doesn’t have the depth of the Yacoubian building and tries to turn a real life tragedy into a feel-good film. None-the-less, it was worth watching to remind myself of why education, science and a free, honest media are so important.
When it comes to music, there is clearly quite the scene going on in Egypt! There are bands like Eek and Islam Chipsy who aren’t afraid to go beyond what seems feasible in terms of beats per minute, and who seem to do so by playing actual rather than electronic drums. I could have happily devoted the whole week to virtually crate digging for more unusual ArabBeat, but you are going to have to make do with this tiny playlist of the best things I found.
But all of this joy paled into comparison to the varied tastes of the savoury food, like fuul, babaganoush, shakshouka, falafel, houmous and more fuul. And what made this week even better was that I could buy most of it ready prepared in two of my favourite local restaurants Damascena and Tabule Kitchen. Neither describes themselves as Egyptian, but both sell many of the things that the internet (presumably reliably) tells me are essential parts of the Egyptian diet. Fuul Medames (an amazing bean mash) is the national dish, fatayer is an incredible pasty thing, baba ganoush is smoked aubergines, and baklava is its sweet, sweet desert. Much of it either is or can be vegan.
The national drink is tea, sweet tangy tea poured for some unknown reason (perhaps to cool it) from a high height into a tiny glass. Sometimes all that separates peoples of the world is the use of a mug!
And so we say farewell to a giant of African culture and head to the tiny South American country of El Salvador!