Midnight Dinner in the Suburbs of Cairo

Last night stands as the highlight of the trip. After a two-hour con from Adam, an older man who gave us tea, a Marlboro, and fresh juice, I’m glad that something nice happened here in Cairo.

After all those pleasantries yesterday, Adam took us shopping. He bought us dry teas, natural mosquito repellent, and a box of sweets. Whenever he bought something for us, he made us stand outside so he could get the “Egyptian price.” Though warning flags went up, Laura and I really wanted to trust the amiable gentlemen who said he was an artist.

He said he’d draw us something that included our names in Arabic. He took us on back streets where everybody knew him and talked about the history of Cairo. The whole time, Laura and I kept having aside conversations that revolved around trusting Adam. He seemed to have his heart in the right place, didn’t act like he needed money, and only seemed like he wanted to be helpful for us (and to practice his English).

He waited until he had to leave “for church” to tell us how much we owed him. He was vague about the amount of sweets he bought, and they where tied up in a gift box. We didn’t even know what they looked like as we paid him for it all. After photos in front of a mosque, we left Adam with a promise of “music tomorrow” and only on the way to the hotel did we start to suspect that he’d taken us for about $10, a huge amount in Egypt.

We got the sweets because we where going to Saadia’s house to meet her family and have dinner with them. Our guide book said to bring something, but I was taught to do that anyway. After a bit of translation problems with the address to Saadia’s house (the hotel desk person cleared it up for us by taking directions over the phone and writing them down in Arabic) and a lost taxi driver, we finally made it to Saadia’s apartment (near, we found out later, the stadium where Anwar Sadat was assassinated).

When our ring was answered, I saw the apartment through the open door. The left wall of the apartment was lined with cushioned couches and chairs. Beyond that was a door leading out to a balcony, and to the right sat a chair with the phone, next to the TV. Beyond that was a small room full of a large dining table. Football (soccer) was on as we greeted Saadia and met her extended family.

We met her brother, a man who was connected to the Sudanese government via a more moderate platform, along with her sisters, nieces, and nephews. Throughout the night, neighbors called, visited, dropped in and said hello. A friend of the family, a Sudanese cabinet minister, came in, watched himself on TV during Sudanese news (they had a Sudanese satellite channel) along with Saadia’s brother in the audience, and then went to bed.

I can’t begin to touch on all the conversations we had on the couches, between watching TV, but many revolved around the plight of the Middle East, the Sunni and Shia problem, and the mess in Sudan and it’s troubled region of Darfur.

Saadia grew up in a powerful, moderate Muslim family in Sudan. Her grandfather helped gain independence from the British and they all lived on a huge family compound, thinking critically and trying to correct the maladies that came from being a former colony. When the Muslim government took over about 15 years ago, Saadia said that they fired all the working women, telling them that home was where they belonged. The government then started forcing the women to where conservative dress, publicly beating those who didn’t cover their heads or wear sanctioned clothing.

Saadia said that the women’s movement was strong in Sudan, and her family began to speak out about the growing atrocities. The government started arresting protesters and activists who where trying to tell the world about the human rights abuses that where happening. Before Darfur blew up (there’s also a fault of distrust between the Northern and Southern regions of the country thanks to the British), Saadia and her family, along with about two million other Sudanese, had left their country for fear of persecution and suffering.

Many ended up in Cairo and Egypt, so Saadia and her family began to work with the United Nations to have these displaced Sudanese receive refugee status so the community could get jobs in their host countries. Egypt refused to let the UN handle it, and instead gave some rights to the Sudanese, basically making the second class Egyptians.

Talk like this, mostly with Saadia, continued well past midnight. Always on in the background, the TV channels flipped across the spectrum of Middle Eastern media. We watched protests against Bush in Uruguay, and blushed at embarrassing video footage of George and Laura Bush and Condi in Brazil. George played a shaker with a samba band while Laura and Condi danced horribly to the music. We watched Saadia’s family friend, the Secretary of Human Rights for Sudan, give a press conference in Cairo. We watched football playoffs and even a bit of the Matrix with Arabic subtitles.

At one point, right before our amazing Sudanese midnight dinner, Saadia’s neighbor Mohammed expressed to us his fears and trepidation at taking his family of six to Rochester, New York where he hoped to become a practicing MD. As he expressed himself, honestly and from-the-heart, he almost cried a few times. Mohammed was concerned about several things: keeping his family and culture intact, providing for them as he worked to pass the AMA boards, the fears of the Middle Eastern vision of the United States as “individualistic” and full of guns, murder, drugs, and crime, and finally his fears of being a black Muslim in a white Christian country.

Laura, Saadia, and myself all tried to be honest, supportive, positive, and encouraging. With several points, I relieved his stress when I told him that I grew up in a tight family unit that went back to the early 1800s. I also told him that the United States’ largest minority, Latinos, firmly embrace their tight family values and hold on to their culture. We all told him that the US is what you make it out to be, and many other parts of the world have similar problems that Americans face.

These talks with Mohammed bridged cultural gaps and made me feel like I had family here in Cairo. Thousands of miles away from San Francisco, my friends and family, I was making a heart connection with a man I didn’t know. I told him that if he visited me in the US, it would be as cousins, because that’s how my family taught me to treat kind and thoughtful guests. We ended the talk for dinner with smiles, deep breaths, and a new feeling of being connected in the world.

Why did we have a midnight dinner? Because of Saadia’s time difference via Oakland, her whole family shifted their schedule to be in sync with her sleeping patterns (she is the matriarch of the family)! Every night she was in Cairo, her family drank tea and soda, received friends, talked and watched TV until 6AM. So the night we where there, they where just in their normal routine.

Laura and I brought the sweets that Adam got for us. Though we got scammed for the price, they looked amazing (baklava shaped like a bird’s nest for starters) and tasted just as good. I ate extra as the time flew, thinking that we had missed dinner. By 11:30, I began to hint to Laura that we should leave soon so we could eat before bed.

Then Saadia’s sister announced that dinner was ready. Mezze (appetizer) dishes included a fava bean stew, fried chicken, a ground meat and potato stew, salad, Egyptian (pita) bread, and a few other dishes. Topping these off with homemade spicy dip, I was in heaven. Saadia was surprised to see me eat with my fingers, and I told her that I had learned years ago from watching a Hindu eat in an Indian restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, at 12:30AM, I was stuffed from an amazing meal made with honor and love. With the food gone, we retired to the couches again and sipped soda and talked until 3AM.

Laura needs to keep a decent sleep schedule, so we had to tear away from the comforts of our new home and head back to the hotel. We where planning on going to Giza to see the pyramids later that day, so any amount of sleep was a good amount. Saadia’s family are such kind people. So kind, many of them walked down to the street with us to help us hail a taxi. They made sure that we got a good price, told the cabbie where to take us, and then insisted on paying for it!

Throughout the night, my proper Southern manners made me insist on helping out, and they would never let me. So, after warm hugs, handshakes, and goodbyes, Saadia gently batted my hand away as I tried to insist on paying. And, as we drove away back to our Downtown room, a smile settled on my face.

“We just met the most honest and loving people in Cairo!” I told Laura.

We both agreed that tonight was a highlight of the trip. We couldn’t wait to see them again, and that would be soon. We had plans to meet Saadia at the souq (bazar) on Monday, and couldn’t wait to spend more time with her, talk more, and get the real “Egyptian price” for gifts.