The Four Seasons in the Land of Goshen
A captivating recollection of the four seasons in Cairo
by Joe Rossano
How many of you still remember how the winters in Cairo could be sometime quite cold, a damp and penetrating cold? As a matter of fact, it used to be warmer outside the house than inside. It was quite common to go to a cafe, club, garden, or to simply visit the ones among us fortunate enough to have a balcony with western exposure. We simply called that "prendre du soleil" while keeping up with the latest gossip. There was something comfortable about sitting with friends, catching the warm sun's rays, having a shoeshine, munching on mandarins, and sipping coffee while talking treason about some mutual friends.
Do you remember the few drops of rain we used to get during the pre- Aswan Dam years? How could just a few sprinkles create such havoc? A few daring men could be observed dashing across the streets with their cri de guerre "El salla al Nabi." The wearers of gallabiahs with long john underwear pulled their gallabiahs over their heads. Those without the long underwear ran with the front seam of their gallabiahs between their teeth.
Spring starts in earnest with preparations for the up-coming Pessah holiday, followed by Cham el Nessim, and planning for the summer vacation to start at the beginning of the school recess. In between, the not-so-pleasant winds of the "khamsin" (sandstorms) had to be endured. No one with a hairpiece, a hat, or brilliantine on their hair dared to go out during this period, that certainly would have given the impression that you just got back from a sandy beach after standing on your head. If one decided to munch on a falafel sandwich al fresco, he would have found the falafel extra crunchy. Depending on one's habit, such as breathing with one's mouth open or talking up- wind, the wind could serve as a good expectorant.The dilemma was what to wear? We had to adhere to the old incongruous adage "Avril pas un fil, Mai fais ce qui te plait" regardless of the searing hot temperature.
We all remember how hot it was in summer. Do you recall trying to concentrate on your ice-cream while walking and bumping into other sidewalk lizards? Quite a feat. The tongue action rivaled that of a reptile, trying to catch the drips on all side of the cone at the same time. Of course, a less messy method would have been to use a straw. This certainly would avoid the unpleasant sensation of a sticky handshake. "Un secret de Polichinelle (not a well guarded secret)," was that it was quite easy to recognize your friend's favorite flavor because the spots on the tip of his nose, upper lip, side of the mouth, or shirt were a sure give a way.
The Cairenes enjoyed the evening breeze at the Mokatam, a few hours sailing at night with friends on a felucca, or just crossing the Kasr el Nil bridge and walking in the gardens (a popular assembly point was Issaievitch, his daughter was in the separate picture). Another activity was teasing lady luck at the Dokki's Club de Chasse. They also delighted in a double feature at one of the numerous cinemas plein air, dining on a semit, gebna we beid, and to boot, a greasy bag of potato chips fried according to the traditional recipe in the "specialite de la maison" mazout oil.
The Alexandrins, after a day at the beach, enjoyed a night stroll with friends by the corniche, munching on "Colouria or Shtangel," and sipping one of the short-lived beverages such as "Chinotto" or "Zimba Cola." (A happy stomach would often bring out hidden singing talents that were best left undisturbed.) Perhaps they savored some refreshments at the Silsela (Club the Chasse), brasserie Calithea, or other popular taverna. In summer, the roof of the Rio was converted into a cinema plein air, which was very popular. In addition, there was the Chatby "la Citee des Attractions (Midway)". For some thrill seekers, the evening could be spiced up jumping from a moving tramway.
The days got shorter and in later years, the afternoon black-outs become more frequent. It was time to go back to school and reunite with old classmates. This was the time of the high holidays, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simhat Torah. For the youngsters, these occasions provided an opportunity to dress up and make new friends at the Goute de lait, Ismailia, or other Temples. Fall was also the beginning of a new season of cultural events, such as concerts, stage musicals, operas, operettas, Comedie Francaise, ballets, circus (Medrano) etc. The time of visiting famous International Soccer teams. The yearly inter-schools swimming competition taking place usually at the TTC (Tewfikieh Tennis Club). Were you there?
Joe Rossano (aka la Gargoulette)