It is July 2 2012, I have marked all of our itinerary in my ipad calender and also logged places and restaurants to go to..the project manager in me is hard to let go of and often spills over into my family life much to the chagrin of my long suffering husband Jeff.
It is now 7pm, and although we have spent much of the past 24 hours travelling, I rouse my two boys from a deep sleep, prod Jeff and barrel us towards the concierge in the lobby of our hotel in Giza just minutes from the pyramids that await us tomorrow, to step into the waiting taxi.
The driver, an older Egyptian man with a wide smile says what will become the familiar refrain..
Welcome to Egypt! Where are you from?
Ana min Australia, I say in halting bad Arabic, clutching my one page phrase sheet given to us hours earlier by Ahmed our drop dead gorgeous tour guide.
Aha Australia, I love Australia, I have a cousin there..in Sydney?
Awya..I think desperately how do you pronounce this..for yes..is it ay-wa, eye wa…whatever
Awya! he exclaims.
Ah..bikaem da, to Abu el Sid, Zamelek
Ah, Abu el Sid, good choice!
Bikaem da is a phrase I first learnt off by heart it in Australia, it means ‘how much’ in Arabic and it is the most important phrase to get right.
However his English is clearly better than my Arabic so I give up at this point.
Ahh..let me see, it will take about 30 minutes in the traffic..100 pounds.
100 pounds! I feign horror, which is the practiced bartering response I use regardless of the country I am in.
Awya he smiles.
I am too tired to argue and nod and we all clamour in.
We have only 10 days on this grand tour of Egypt and I am determined to enjoy and pack as much in as possible into each day, however the 2 boys aged 10 and 12 are dead tired and jetlagged, but I am hoping they will perk up in the taxi on the way.
Cairo at night is a heaving bustling seriously loud city with many shades of light and dark; we pass along a major highway dotted with palm trees illuminated between garish neon signs not out of place in Las Vegas advertising Nestle, fast food, all manner of Western goods in an incongruous mix against the backdrop of ancient mosques and terrace housing that lines the highway, along with the ever present road side markets and stalls filled with the local people shopping at all hours of the night.
At 7pm Cairo is just starting to come alive, and as the taxi driver speaks with Jeff and I hold the boys up from slumping over into a jetlagged stupor, I get a heady sense of being in a place that is far beyond my control, just the sheer size and scale of the population, some 23 million, the poverty mixed with wealth…
Yes wealth…the taxi driver skilfully dodges and weaves in and out of chaotic bumper to bumper cacophony of traffic, horns blare incessantly, and the boys look out the window to a dizzying mix of neon, shops, hordes of people, beggars coming up to the windows when we stop, which is frequent.. Cairo traffic at any hour is a Westerner’s nightmare, small children dirt poor try to clutch onto the window as the driver yells at them in Arabic emshee – basically get the hell away…
After what seems like an age, he pulls into some back streets and I notice the buildings become more elaborate, architecturally magnificent, further from the main streets and into a quiet clearly well heeled private residential area of Cairo.
We all fall quiet as he pulls up outside a discreet residential street, and I just see the sign emerge ..Abu El Sid.
I pay him as I already have the money ready, and he opens the doors to walk with us to the towering ornate wood carved door that presents.
This he says dramatically as if unveiling a wonder of the world.. is Abu El Sid! Enjoy your evening, would you like me to wait for you, or I come back in an hour, two hours?
I look at Jeff, whose eyes are bloodshot and he’s beyond tired.
Come back in an hour, shokran.
I feel a surge of excitement as we pass through the doors into a hidden world…wooden tables some huge and circular others small rectangles crammed into corners…ornate brocade light fittings from another era of Egypt in the wealthy times but there is a cool vibe of lots of young beautiful women and men dining out together..unheard of generally..the waiter welcomes us in English and glides us to a table in the middle of a large space..there is a bustling bar and it is so strange to see alcohol in what I thought was a Muslim country where it is frowned upon.
The boys slump into their seats exhausted and complaining; I see a disapporoving look from our waiter at dragging them out at 9pm so clearly tired. Jeff examines the menu with some interest and I feel a wave of adrenaline..this is everything I imagined.. I look at the impossibly high ceilings, we are surrounded by ornately crafted woodwork interiors and colours are muted purples, oranges..deep colours, we sit in some darkness, there is a sense of privacy…
I pour over the menu with Jeff, the boys are completely disinterested, and we quickly order a series of dishes to share, along with a glass of wine for me and a beer for him.
I remember how I poured over all the top restaurants in Lonely Planet guide in Cairo and settled on this one, much to our guide’s amusement. When I said we wanted to get a taxi tonight to Abu El Sid he was both impressed at my choice but bemused that jetlagged I would want to haul my family across town late at night into Cairo sans guide…but I guess that’s just me..
Lonely Planet described it as:
Cairo’s first hipster Egyptian restaurant Abou El Sid is as popular with tourists as it is with upper-class natives. You can get better molokhiyya (garlicky leaf soup) elsewhere, but here you wash it down with a wine or beer and lounge on kitschy gilt ‘Louis Farouk’ furniture.
The entrance is down a street off 26th of July, on the west side of the Baehler’s Mansions complex; look for the tall wooden doors. Reservations are a good idea.
Another blogger wrote, which seemed to encapsulate others experience:
Incredibly atmospheric bohemian Egyptian restaurant. Supposedly loved by Omar Sharif. Definitely upscale but drips with atmosphere.
I look across at a huge circular table next to us, and see clearly senior Egyptian dignitaries there, dressed formally in suits, with a woman who is clearly well respected..
I feel the sense of power of potentially the military as I know they have connections to many businesses and industry in an incongruous mix with young people including Westerners and hip Egyptians out to enjoy a secluded special night out.
The food comes out and it is authentic Egptian..the boys hardly touch it, too tired, but Jeff and I wolf it down then quickly settle the bill with a hefty tip and scuttle back into the night down a dark alley to see our waiting driver. An exciting adventure out, and I feel a sense of anticipation as we climb into the taxi and we head back to our hotel through the neon filled darkness and Cairo surging and heaving and car horns blare constantly, with music at full pitch at midnight on a Saturday, ready for our tour of the pyramids early tomorrow morning. I can’t wait..