Mule at the maul

Cairo’s summers offer few attractions to those without the financial means to escape its relentless mixture of pollution and heat. It does however compensate for the daytime agony in the appearance of a whole new world at night, when pavements fill with people seeking relief in the milder evening air and those of us with nocturnal tendencies can revel in the day turned inside out.

In celebration of this I went to el Ga7sh restaurant on Saturday, in Sayyida Zeinab. Ga7sh is famous for its legendary foul and ta3meyya, allegedly superior to that of any other eating establishment in Cairo. Its unique status is surely also in part due to its name, which means mule, and which is the bonkers surname of the family which opened up the restaurant.

Sayyida itself is a feast for the senses, if you like your Cairo busy and dirty and noisy, as I do. Ga7sh lies on a main thoroughfare behind the mosque which gives the area its name and is a confusion of animals, cars and people. The classical architecture of the older buildings mingles with the newer, squatter, edifices housing food joints, men’s cafes, mechanics’ garages and shops. I hesitate about using the word vibrancy because people in polo necks tend to use it as a synonym for poor and overcrowded, but there is a definite positive liveliness to this area.

I like looking at things and people, and once Sharshar had parked and I had got out I didn’t know where to look first such were the visual feasts on display: the black kitten sitting on a shop counter being stroked by a teenager as the man next to him watched the street, the rows of men in a café staring up at the TV showing WWF wrestling with their arms crossed and their mouths hanging open, a black goat wandering around between cars, the shop display in which there was a single ski-boot, the hopeful men twenty metres down from Ga7sh selling ta3meyya and attempting to lure in customers by banging ladles on pots.

I eventually and unwillingly sat down with the others at a table which is technically in the middle of the road but which has been appropriated by Ga7sh. The external limits of this area are marked by parked cars. The tables are makeshift affairs upon which sheets of newspaper serve as tablecloths, the ground underneath them slightly uneven and littered with rubble and rubbish. The newspaper is kept from blowing away with a pot of salt, and the patrons’ elbows, and eventually a proliferation of dishes. The waiter was a tall, tired looking man with half moon bags under his eyes and one of the best voices I have ever heard: a rich bass which rumbled through the many varieties of fool available. He took our order. I asked whether I could have my ta3meyya sandwiches in Shami bread. From my two eyes, he said.

Umm Nakad talked shop with a mutual lawyer friend of ours who lives in Sayyida while I surveyed the scene. One younger waiter brought us a stack of baladi loaves before returning two minutes later with a stack of chairs – business was brisk that night, and necessitated the expansion of seating arrangements. Another employee carrying a plastic tub briskly sprayed cups of water on the ground in order to neutralise the dust rising from the ground baked hard in the sun. Our waiter mopped tables, a half-smoked fag in his mouth, before covering the table with newspaper. He interrupted this only to bark orders at the younger chair-carrying waiter. When the latter did something which displeased him the older man would contract his brow in a frown, close his eyes and tut, leaving his mouth open while he thrust his upturned hands in front of him in a beautiful symphony of disgust.

Ga7sh itself is on a corner, and lies next to a mechanics’ garage marked by the inevitable artificial tree of exhaust pipes which, if it was in the Tate Modern, would be worth half a mil and represent the oppression of women in the Middle East. While we were waiting for our order a gorgeous black Porsche rolled up, cutting its way through the street with the incongruous sound of the beep beep of the emergency service siren which some ordinary cars have installed here. It parked directly next to Ga7sh, and seeing its sleek elegance underneath the shop sign bearing a cartoon of two mules kissing, and a picture of el 7ag Ga7sh and the words (in English) ‘I love you’ made for a typically Egyptian moment of wonderful oddness.

The diners at Ga7sh didn’t give a toss about the Porsche of course – and why should they, when they were stuffing their faces with the food before them. What was even more remarkable was that they barely acknowledged an enormous noisy street fight which broke out some 100 metres behind them, stopping only to deliver the most cursory of glances before returning to the business of shovelling food into their mouths. Half-moon waiter briefly went to inspect the beef, tray in one hand, cigarette in the other, before returning to the restaurant and attending to the never ending job of spreading newspaper tablecloths down.

The fight eventually died down, only to flare up again spectacularly as it advanced steadily towards us. As I chewed on my ta3meyya I thought how this experience must feel like having a picnic in the middle of rioting football hooligans. A bunch of kids eventually broke out of the fight and noisily marched down the road outside Ga7sh before half-moon waiter reprimanded them, delivering one of his spectacular looks of disgust.

Mutual lawyer friend commented that this fight was nothing, and didn’t compare to the time that he, his wife and his daughter were walking down a narrow street when they were suddenly confronted with a warring group of men armed with two-foot long swords: they sought sanctuary in a block of flats until things cooled down. His blasé attitude towards the war occurring behind his head as he ate seemed to confirm his assertion that Sayyeda was no longer the most dangerous, feared area in all of Cairo which it had once been: word on the street is that Dar el Salaam now has the dubious honour of boasting this title, apparently.

After we paid and left we returned to Sharshar’s car in front of which a crowd of twenty or so people involved in the street fight were still dissecting and debriefing, as a woman nearby watched from her ground-floor window, and a boy swung on an ancient-looking fairground swing still on the back of the trailer presumably used to transport it, and which had been dumped on a street corner. The residential areas in Sayyida are fantastic, with narrow winding lanes and old buildings. Despite being a low-income area, property in Sayyida is apparently becoming increasingly more expensive, due to the charm of its architecture (and possibly because it is no longer a well ‘ard area): mutual lawyer friend’s family had just valued a tiny flat which had belonged to his grandmother at nearly 100,000 LE. If Sayyida was in London it would be gradually gentrified, local people priced out of the area and a bistro selling raw juice for 50 LE replace Ga7sh. Unlikely to happen in Sayyida given that the super hot place to buy property these days is in the conurbations springing up everywhere in the desert like modern-day spiritual retreats.

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