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I love traveling abroad and visiting my family and friends who are scattered around the globe. I love buying them trinkets and gifts from Egypt too, but it can be difficult finding something that doesn’t look cheap, isn’t made in China and is authentic to the country or region. This summer I’m traveling to England to visit family and see a few friends and for the past couple of months I have been racking my brain trying to think of gifts to take. I’m sure that there are many people going through the same dilemma that I am experiencing so, I thought I would give you some insight.
The first time I take something to people, who are not from Egypt or have never visited the country, I take papyrus (paper the ancient Egyptians made) with ancient Egyptian scenes painted on or hieroglyphics. They are really nice when they are framed and hung on the wall.
Silver here is quite cheap, so some times I may buy silver khartooshes as bracelet charms, key chains or necklaces with their names written in hieroglyphics (ancient Egyptian writing). There is also the key of life and evil eye charm that could be bought and put on a chain. They also have a wide selection of Bedouin jewelry too that is very nice. I am a fan of the bracelets and necklaces.  I do need to point out that Egyptian silver tarnishes easily, so you may want to ask the vendor to dip them in platinum or something so that it stays nice and shiny.
Alabaster is a type of stone that is very Egyptian and you can find some small vases and statues made out of the sand colored stone. To test the quality of the alabaster you need to hold it up to the light. If the light shines through the stone and lights it up, then its real alabaster. Don’t buy too much of it, you fortune in access baggage.
In some shops you can find small clay statues of Egyptian men and women selling vegetables, smoking a sheesha (hubbly bubbly), sitting reading the Quraan and other typical scenes you would see while you are here in Egypt. I think they are very cute! I bought a few for myself to have at home.
Leather in Egypt is of good quality. Wallets, shoulder purses, hand bags and Aladdin like shoes are a popular item to buy as gifts. Some people even prefer buying the small leather poof cushions to take back with them.
If baggage isn’t a problem, then you could buy your very own sheesha (they come in all sizes and colors) or a Tableya, a large bras plate that is the top of a table with designs etched in to it and the wooden legs that hold the table up an in place. The Bedouins use these in their tents.

If you are in to smoking Sheesha’s then I strongly recommend that you buy the tobacco for it here, it is highly over priced when you buy it abroad. Plus another advantage is that here we have all the flavors, while back home they don’t have the variety.
While we are on the subject of smoking, I know a lot of people like to burn incense to make their homes smell nice. This is the place to buy it!
If the gifts that I am taking are for kids then I get them little statuettes of pyramids to take for show and tell at school, camels, Bedouin head-dress with the white galabeya (long shirt like dress), belly dancing costume, both are good for Halloween costumes. Then you have the tabla (the drum musicians place under their arms to play) and sagaat (finger castanets that belly dancers wear). In some toy stores you might find Egyptian puppets. There are also the touristy T-shirts with hieroglyphics on them and the death mask of Tutankhamen (the youngest Egyptian Pharaoh). One of my favorite things to get kids is an inexpensive watch where the numbers of the face are in Arabic.
A place to go to buy all the trinkets and souvenir’s your heart could possibly desire is at Khan El Khalili, in Cairo. There you will find every kind, color, shape and price possible. I personally like going there to buy the Bedouin embroidered shirts, linen tops, Bedouin cushion covers and to haggle! In Alexandria, you would want to take a guided tour of Zanet El Sitat. Both are market like places.You have to be a good bargainer. Never settle for the first price they offer you!
The above are some of the typical gifts that people would buy as souvenirs or gifts, but what do you take the next time you go? You can’t keep getting the same things! I am quite creative and I like to put a lot of thought in to the gifts that I buy people. This year I have really racked my brain and kept my eyes peeled for something less touristy and more tasteful. I am happy to inform you that I have been successful.
Carlito’s, jewelry store in Maadi is will make you a bracelet, pendent or even a key chain with your name in Arabic. It is done in Arabic calligraphy, which is very artistic. They will make it to your specification. By that I mean on the size of the pendent, charms for the bracelet and key chain. You also have 3 other choices; all silver, all gold or silver and gold (I like the silver and gold combination). I have had 7 pendants made for necklaces, 1 silver key chain and 1 charm bracelet and they have all come out really well! Another thing that he does which I think is pretty cool, is that he takes the new Egyptian 1 pound coin and makes it in to a necklace too. Why is it cool, because one side of the coin is Arabic writing and on the other side is King Tut.
Zafir in Zamalek is one of my new favorite stores to go to, to buy gifts for friends in Egypt and abroad. They print Egyptian designs on t-shirts that are unique to Egypt. I just bought my cousin a t-shirt that says ‘Shit happens’ but in Arabic writing. They have a few other English sayings written in Arabic as well as famous Egyptian quotes too among other designs too. I will have to pay them a second visit before I am due to leave to get a few more. They are so popular that they go out of stock quickly. .http://zafir-tshirts.com/

A colleague of mine had a gorgeous leather bag that she had bought in Maadi from a shop on road 216. It also has very cool arabic caligraphy on the exterior! The price tag on a bag like that is 300LE which is the equivalant of 30 sterling pounds or 60$.

If you have Egyptian female family members abroad and you want to take them something patriotic and elegent, famed and reouned jewelry designer, Azza Fahymy has designed bracelets in honour of #Jan25. The collection is known to many as ‘Anna Masry’, (I am Egyptian). The price tag for each bracelet, I have been told is 250 LE.

 

It’s a small street on 15b Taha Hussein Street.
Zia Candles in Alexandria, in the new extension of Carrefour city center has a stand near Debenhams. If you ask them to make a candle for you and have a name written on it in Arabic Calligraphy, they will do it for you. It will take about 2 weeks for them to get it done, but it is well worth it! We had one made for our cousin and it is so well made and original that we have asked them to make two more for us. They will be bringing their original idea to Cairo soon.

*** Update! Unfortunately due the recent Revolution the owner has closed shop! If they ever re-open I will let you know
There are stands in City Stars and Carrefour that sell soaps and other beauty products along with bath robes and towels. The stall sells things made from natural products grown here in Egypt. The stall in Alexandria is called ‘Nefertari’; I am not sure what the one in Cairo is called. Some of their hand towels have ancient Egyptian symbols stitched on them or the words ‘Ahlan Wesahlan’, which is welcome greeting we say when guests arrive at our house and some times when you meet someone for the first time.
Egypt and the Middle East are known for dates. Some times it’s nice to take back some of or oriental treats for the people back home to try. Quaidar in Cairo makes chocolate covered dates that can be quite addictive. Manna in Alexandria sells an assortment of date treats. We bought 5 boxes last summer and took them to our cousins in Ireland and my Uncle in Canada.
If the person you are buying a gift for is a book-worm or in to photography then I highly recommend ‘Impressions of Alexandria, The Awad Collection’. The pictures in the book show the evolution of Alexandria. Mr. Awad has spent years searching and collecting pictures of the ancient city belonging to Alexander the Great and has compiled his findings in to a book. If you are interested in seeing the collection first hand you will find it on display at the Alexandria Library. There is also a book of Poems and Prose written by an Irish man, Desmond O’Grady, who used to teach at AUC, (The American University of Cairo) and Alexandria University, it is titled ‘My Alexandria’. If your friend is from the region and can read Arabic, a book that has been getting a lot of hype and is said to be very funny is ‘Taxi’, (I just bought it for my Dad’s cousin).
If there’s someone that you know that likes music, Arabic CD’s here are cheap. I would suggest buying Oriental Belly dancing music, it’s just instrumental. If you want to buy a CD of famous singers, the classical ones would be Um Kathoum and Abdel Halim Hafez and Dalida. Modern day Egyptian Pop singers would be Amr Diab, Hisham Abbas, Tamer Hosni, Sherine, Wust El Balad and Hakeem. Other popular Middle Eastern singers are Asala, Elissa, Nancy Ajram, Nawal El Zoghbi, Ragheb Allama just to name a few. One of my favorite CD’s to buy as a gift that can be found at Virgin Record Stores is ‘Belaaks’, (opposite) it’s easy on the ears and the tunes are familiar English classics but sung in Arabic, plus there is a DVD that goes with it too.
I hope these ideas help you if you have found or know of something that would be a great gift to take to family or friends I would REALLY appreciate the input.

I have always been a fan of the arts. As a youngster I used to really enjoy performing on stage in plays, musicals and talent shows, (it’s the family blood line apparently). I would have loved to have tried my luck in the industry, but my father strongly opposed the idea. Many of my teacher’s on the other hand couldn’t imagine me being anything other than an actress or a TV presenter.

When  my family and I would travel on holidays my mother would take my sister and I to museums, the theatre, ballet, musicals and galleries. At the time I didn’t realize what a huge appreciation she was instilling in me. Now that I’m older, I am very grateful that she did. I find that being able to enjoy ‘The Art’s’ enables me to look at life differently and see things from different perspectives.

When my family and I moved to Egypt in the early 90’s, the freedom of not being  able to just walk out of my front door and ride my bicycle to the recreation center or just around the neighborhood was something that really irritated me. As well as not being able to go and watch pantomimes. When the Alexandria Library opened and the Sayed Darweesh theater was restored,  I would hear of performances and would save up to buy tickets to go and attend. There is a captivating magic about going to places like that. For a few hours you forget who and where you are. Your troubles can be put aside for some time and then turn your focus back to them once you have returned from your mini mind vacation.

The Alexandria Library, is (in my opinion) becoming the cultural focal point of the city. They have guest speakers, movie screenings, performances by local Egyptian talent, bands like ‘Wust El Balad’ and my favorite event of all was the International Dance Festival. The Sayed Darweesh theater is not only a building built baring the name of a local Alexandrian but it also represents a local history. The theater I believe collaborates with the Cairo Opera House, some if not most of the performances held at the Opera House make their way to the Sayed Darweesh theater.

Another thing that I enjoyed doing whilst I was living and growing up in Alexandria, was going to the different cultural centers. The Russian Cultural Center, offers ballet, exercise sessions and in my day they even had art. The French, Spanish and German offer language courses. The most popular two were the British Council and the American Cultural Center. I believe they still are. If you live in the Roushdy area on Kafr Abdu street. Across from Cilantro there is a fitness center that offers a large array of courses. Tamarin Center is where I took my first jab at salsa dancing. The partners who own the center are amiable, social and helpful women.

When I moved to Cairo, I became spoilt for choice. There are so many places that offer so many things that it is impossible for me to know of all of them. What I can do is tell you about the places I have been to.

If you are really in to listening to live bands playing then you will enjoy going to a restaurant/pub called, The Cairo Jazz Club or After 8. Both places offer live entertainment, with performances by local talent. I am a huge fan of ‘The Riff Band’, ‘Wust El Balad’ and ‘Crash Boom Bang’. Each have their own uniqueness and sound. There are others but if I was to list them, I would be sat here for quite some time. http://www.cairojazzclub.com/ ,   http://www.after8cairo.com/Default.aspx

Then there is the ‘Cultural Wheel’, or otherwise known as Sakia El Sawy. It’s located in Zamalek, (one my favorite places in Cairo) 26th of July street, just below 15 of May bridge. ” El Sawy Cultural wheel is an Egyptian cultural center based on a vision to create an ethical environment that motivates people to develop and strengthen their culture through arts, enlightenment & creativity.”(description taken from their facebook group). It was there when I first went to watch ‘The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour’ and the Cairo Jazz festival. If you want to know what is going on there, join their facebook group. http://www.facebook.com/?sk=2361831622#!/group.php?gid=2243177865&v=info&ref=ts

I am not one who enjoys getting dolled up, I prefer being comfortable and natural,(My mother strongly disproves). There are VERY rare occasions where I will and that is if I’m attending a formal function which requires me to wear war paint (make up), crippling contraptions on my feet (high heels) and the (dreaded) dress! Having said that, I enjoy getting dressed up to go to the Opera. Yes, I realize how geeky this makes me sound, but I love listening to classical music, opera and watching a ballet. There is never a dull month at the Cairo Opera House. I would be quite happy spending all my earnings and going to the Opera House every month. They have their own orchestra, dance troops and they have many foreign companies come to perform too. It was there where I first heard Verdi’s ‘Aida’! http://www.cairoopera.org/

Cairo is littered with historical places to visit and experience. Book yourself a tour with a travel company or buy yourself a travel guide and go on an adventure. There is so much to see and learn. I’ve lived in Egypt for almost 19 years and I still haven’t seen a fifth of the countries treasures.

If you know of any other places, please let me know. I’d love to go and check them out for myself.

Just days before 2009 was coming to an end, two of my work colleagues decided to come to Alexandria for a day trip. There trip was to just get out of Cairo to have a change of scenery, see something new, have a fish meal and visit me. I truly enjoy it when colleagues, family or friends make a trip to Alexandria, it gives me the chance to be a host and their guide in the city that I have fallen in love with. I try to show them the hidden beauty of what is buried beneath the modern Alexandria of today.

Mariam and Radwa wanted to go some where ‘authentic’, I racked my brain and finally came up with a place that has a lot of history and was probably where the elite of foreign society used to have tea. Delice still know for its bakery and view of Saad Zaghlool square and the sea is where I decided to take them. My sister and I love to go there and buy their giant-sized macaroons and mini meringues. My elderly neighbour ,Mme Yamna Souccar  who used to live on the floor above my parents flat, loved their jam biscuits and when ever I could, I would go and buy her a box when I would go and visit her. My friends really liked the place because it had an air to it and it’s noticable in its fading decor. I bet it was  a spectacular place back in its glory days. The three of us ate our brunch, caught up on each others news and discussed where we were going to go next.

The Biblioteca Alexandrina was our next destination. We decided to leave the car in the parking area across from Delice and walk along the Corniche (sea) to the Library to work off brunch and to breath in the sea air, (plus, parking near the Library is a nightmare!) Along the promenade I pointed out some landmarks and told them stories that had been told to me and they in turn shared their experiences and memories of Alexandria.

We bought our full pass tickets to enter the Library, turned in our bags with our cell phones got our number and began our journey back in time. The first museum that we went in to is below the planetarium to the right. It was one I had never been to before and I have been to the Library many times, (that’s what I love about the place, no matter how many times I visit, I always see something I hadn’t seen the time before). The first was of Egypt’s assassinated President Anwar El Sadat (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/515786/Anwar-el-Sadat), looking at the items in the display cases and reading the explanations of what things were for and what he did and accomplished, I but feel sad. We as a nation lost someone great, some one with a vision and direction for the future of Egypt.

* One of my great Uncles from the El Shindy side of the family was a politician and before Sadat came to be president,  he and Sadat were imprisoned together, (I’m not sure why). It’s strange to think that members of my family were and apart of the Royal family and others worked alongside the president. That personal history is lost because some greedy putts sold a tapestry of our family tree and now  we have no chance of ever being able to retrace our lineage or ancestry. The only thing we have are the stories passed down from generation to generation. The problem with that is that they facts changes.

As we continued through the library and visited other exhibits, we came to my favorite. The Awad collection of maps and pictures of Alexandria. Looking at the framed maps and pictures deepened my sadness the city was breath-taking. No wonder so many people chose to leave their homelands to come and live here. It had a mange of European and Oriental feel to it. Now the city as well as the country is in shambles if I was to compare it to what it used to be like,’ The pearl of the Middle East’. You would think that with all our technology and education that we as a race or society of people would have advanced and improved, but I honestly think that we are moving backwards.

I have  been to Saudi Arabia & Jordan and I am ashamed to admit it, but they have more pride in their country and make an effort to keep it clean. Egypt compared to them and to what it used to be like is a garbage dump. The streets are littered with trash because people throw their tissues, crisp packets, wrappers and cans from their car windows as they drive by. The garbage cans are over flowing and no one seems to care! WHY??? Don’t give me crap about it’s because our country isn’t governed by a sovereignty, what’s that got to do with being clean?  Islam promotes cleanliness of self and home….then surly that should also include our country too.

I have no idea how this problem can be rectified. I don’t know if campaigning would work. I think reprogramming peoples brains maybe the only solution.

Please don’t mis-understand me. I am not against Egypt. I am very proud of my heritage and where I come from, but I find it so frustrating that we were once ‘the it spot’ in the Middle East and Mediterranean and now we aren’t when we very easily could be! I guess you could say I am just venting!

Wednesday, 23rd of December 2009 ,The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was hosting an interview with one of the most legendary and revolutionary Hollywood film directors, screen writers and actors of our time,  Martin Scorsese. When I first saw the event on facebook I had my doubts that he would actually be in attendance especially when the date was so close to Christmas. Never the less I checked myself off as attending. If it was to take place I didn’t want to miss out on the very rare and privileged occasion. How often is Alexandria graced by the presence of a director of his caliber?

For those of you who are not familiar with what Scorsese does or his work, he is the founder of the World Cinema Foundation (http://worldcinemafoundation.net/),  to help preserve American cinema and to also help developing countries preserve theirs. Scorsese has also received AFI’s Life Time Achievement award as well as the prestigious BAFTA, Golden Globe, Director Guild Of America and most recently an Oscar for ‘Departed’.

I left my house an hour before the event was due to commence, I wanted to make sure that I would get there early enough to find a decent seat, where I could see and hear him speak. I got there half an hour early and everyone seemed to have had the same idea as I did. People swarmed in to the large hall and descended upon the seats like a swarm of bees. I was lucky enough to get a seat not too close or too far from the stage, I had an excellent  and clear view from where I was sat.

People continued to file in to the hall, in the midst of the buzz you could hear talk about Scorsese’s achievements, awards and movies as well as friendly chit chat whilst they waited for the guest of honor to arrive. The hall was filled with people of all ages and fields of expertise eagerly awaiting the interview  to begin.

Promptly at 5pm an entourage of some of Egypt’s well-known films stars and directors entered the hall, as they made their way to their seats, flashes from cameras heightened their entrance and the audience burst in to applause and cheers. Yosra, Hussein Fahmy, Kahled Abul Naga and a few more responded to the crowd with big smiles of appreciation and waved back at their adoring fans. Moments after their entrance the Library’s director, Dr. Ismail Serageldin entered with the man we had all gathered to come and hear speak. The applause, cheers, whistles of the crowd were deafening as they gave the story-teller a standing ovation.

Serageldin didn’t need to introduce the master we were all familiar with his work. My personal favorites are ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Casino’, ‘Aviator’ and ‘Gangs Of New York’. I have yet to see ‘Departed’ and ‘Shine A Light’.

Dr.Serageldin did a formidable job interviewing Scorsese. He was well versed and knew a lot about the movies that Scorsese had made as well as the history of the era’s that some of the films were about. The interview was intellectually stimulating, interesting and often humorous as times. From solely having attended and witnessed the interview Serageldin is the man to have as the director of the modern-day Alexandria Library. I’m sure my great Uncle, Mohamed El Bashir El Shindy would be proud, he was at one time the head of the old Alexandria Library. (so, I have been told by family members).

 In the interview we learned about Scorsese’s family, who were Italian immigrants, he also spoke of the Sicilian quarter of the Italian neighborhood that he grew up in, in New York, which is where many of the ideas and characters for his movies came from. If Scorsese hadn’t been asthmatic as a child and taken to the cinema to watch films and hadn’t figured out that he didn’t have the vocation to devote his life to God and people, cinema today would be very different.

 Scorsese spoke openly and candidly about his many mentors (priest, teachers and fellow directors), as well as his old-time friend and Hollywood superstar Robert DeNiro, (who grew up in the same area as he did, but didn’t meet until years later).

 What intrigued me about the man speaking on stage is that he wasn’t only familiar with movies from his part of the world, but he had seen and knew a lot of international movies such as our very own Youssef Shaine. Scorsese had also personally taken the restoration of renowned Egyptian director, Shadi Abdel Salaam’s famous master piece ‘The Mummy’ under his wing.  (http://www.dailystaregypt.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=7343)

 What fascinated me was even after over 3 decades of working in the industry, this mans passion for cinema is still strong and flowing deep within his pulsating veins. “I still have an obsession of watching one image being put next to the other.’’ He had said during his interview.

 While the interview was going on, people were writing down questions to ask the director and ushers came to collect them. When the time came for Serageldin to ask a few of the selected questions from the captivated audience, there were two that were that stood out in my memory.

 1-      Would you ever consider making a movie here in Egypt? 

Apparently as a young child Scorsese used to draw picture books of the ancient world and it has been a dream of his to make a movie around the time of the pharaohs.

 2-      With all the negative attention the Middle East is getting could cinema help break the ice or bridge the gap between the West and the Middle East?

 “ I Think it could be a useful tool.’’

With that the interview came to an end.

It happened, it wasn’t a farce! THE, Martin Scorsese was a guest speaker at the Alexandria Library. The hall was close to busting and the people in attendance were of all ages and from different fields of expertise. The director of the Library was sterling in his interviewing and discussion skills. The material was stimulating as well as intellectual. Scorsese was a willing and gracious participant and seemed to enjoy himself. I took pages of notes on the discussion, so I will write a more in-depth report on the event later.