Sunday, December 6, 2020

Off the Beaten Path in Cairo, Egypt: Gabal Asfar

There's this little pocket in Cairo that you have probably never heard of.  I don't think there's a single guidebook out there that mentions this area of Egypt.  I am not surprised, as it's quite a bit away from the big tourist attractions of Cairo.  There are no museums, pyramids, or huge seemingly-ancient markets here.  Yet, if you were to visit Gabal Asfar, you would see a part of the real Egypt that many tourists never encounter.

How did I end up in Gabal Asfar you ask?  Well, to be honest, I lived there.  How you ask?  Well, it's quite simple, actually:  I volunteered at a boarding school in this part of Cairo for one amazing challenge-filled year.  It (obviously) goes without saying that living in Gabal Asfar was like no other experience I have ever had.  


There are still a few walled farms in this rapidly-growing area of Cairo.

The day begins with the rising sun moving high above the red brick buildings and minarets.  It ascends over cornfields and date plantations.  The sound of the adhan (call to prayer) plays from dozens of mosques scattered across the land.  Outside, Ibis, Egret, and a host of other birds hunt for their food in the cool of the morning.  Mist rises over the pockets of irrigated greenery.  Soon the engulfing heat will come.  In a little while the sky will turn hazy.  Yet for now, the city is quiet.  Mornings in Gabal Asfar are not a lively time.  The excitement, and the hustle and buslet will come later.  The roads are quiet.  Apart from the sometimes ominous call to prayer, it's almost silent.  Few people walk up and down Gabal Asfar's main road.  The markets are still closed.  

As the day grows hotter and as people begin to start their daily work, this part of the city begins to get louder.  Now, large trucks are moving slowly through traffic that consists of donkey carts, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, and white taxi vans.  The barrage of honking can be heard, echoing against the large unfinished red brick and grey concrete buildings that stand in mass, seemingly never-ending.  It is a loud place, yet in the back alleys, it becomes quiet once more.

As you move through the side streets and alleyways of this city, you see people going to and fro from their homes to the various shops and marketplaces.  There are side streets where people sell all sorts of household items and food.  As you walk, you see stands with caged chickens, mangos and bananas, and plastic shoes.  Above these stalls are rows of windows from the apartments above.  Motorcycles with trailers full of gas canisters inch their way through the throngs of people.  Women dressed in abayas and men in shorts and t-shirts dart back and forth.  Dust is kicked in the air.  The shadows of the buildings block out the sun's harsh rays.  If you are not from this area, you will be noticed.  Young children from the local schools rush towards you, holding up their phones and asking for a selfie.  Market owners smile at you, beckoning you into their shops.  A man pushing a cart, selling erk soos (a strong licorice extract drink), grins as you try this strange yet delicious drink.  

Children playing in the back roads and alleyways of Gabal Asfar.
The main road through Gabal Asfar is quiet in the early hours, but gets loud and busy later on.

After passing through the maze of alleys you once again arrive at one of the main streets.  Now the noise level increases.  The puttering of tuk-tuks and the piercing blare of the horns threatens to deafen you once more.  You must move quickly now, as the traffic will overtake you if you stop for even a minute.  There are no sidewalks.  You move in line with the people and traffic.  The only respite from it all is in the shops and restaurants that serve falafel, foul, pizza, crepes, and pastries.  Speaking of pastries, the Egyptian bakeries are worth a look.  Inside you will see the most beautifully decorated assortment of cakes, cookies, and chocolate goods.  Typical Egyptian sweets such as basbousa, harissa, om ali, and rice pudding all appear to tantalize. 

Like much of Egypt, it is night when this area comes truly alive.  This is especially true during Ramadan, which is an absolutely amazing time to be in Egypt.  After the bright red sun descends across the land, turning the sky a brilliant crimson color, the night is when the air cools and the city lights up.  It's still loud and noisy, but the atmosphere is completely different.  You will see many families outside, adult men smoking shisha pipes at the small cafes, and food stands loaded with hungry customers.

This is the real Egypt.  This is the part of Cairo that almost no tourists get to see.  It is a world different than the city center or the area around Khan el-Khalili.  This is a place full of friendly people and new sensations to fill your mind.  It is an experience you will never forget.  I believe that no trip to any country is complete without seeing how the people actually live.  If you are looking for something authentic in Egypt, I recommend this part of the city.

Ramadan in Gabal Asfar is probably the most interesting time to visit.
Egypt has some of the sweetest, most delicious strawberries.

If you want to learn more about my year in Gabal Asfar, check out my book Nile Union Academy: a Memoir.  I taught at a boarding school in the center of this pocket of greater Cairo and it was a life-changing experience.  


The El-Marg subway station can be a bit busy!
As Egypt grows, trash problems are a part of life.  This is a part of the local struggle.

Getting here is half the fun, and it's quite an adventure:
•From central Cairo (Sadat), take the blue line to El-Marg (the last stop on the train).
•At El-Marg take a city bus or tuk-tuk to the New El-Marg bus stop (it's under the bridge)
•At New El-Mart, change to a white taxi bus and continue north until you reach Gabal Asfar.  


The koshary is delicious!

•Enjoy walking around the neighborhood, getting lost in the back alleys.  
•Buy some delicious Egyptian mangos, try some crepes or koshary at the local shops. 
•Pop into one of the bakeries and try some Egyptian style snacks and cakes.  The prices are very reasonable.
•Visit the markets deep within the maze of buildings.  
•Spend a couple of hours exploring and getting to know what Egypt really is like for those who live there.
•Pop into the local Halal Market grocery store and see how the locals shop.  

There are likely no places to spend the night in this area, and there is no need to spend more than a while here.  If you want to experience Egyptian public transit, the subway, and local buses, this is a great little adventure to take.  As there is a large boarding school with an international workforce in the area, it's a place you can feel safe visiting.  

Even with the pollution that you will encounter, Gabal Asfar is a wonderful place to visit and will leave you with a far more complete idea of what life in Egypt is like.  

Pollution is often a problem in much of Egypt.  Scenes like this are quite common.

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