Sunday, May 2, 2010

Travel Feature: Bits and Pieces of Literary Paris

 Paris April 2010
 In the Parisian Metro, trains have their walls decorated by poems. This carriage has French poet Paul Verlaine’s verses about finding a woman that he loves and who would love him as well.  Springtime in Paris means sunny afternoons, gardens packed with couples, and families but also means it’s the Spring of Poets.  
To discover literature and poetry in Paris and stay in tune with this event organised by the ministry of culture celebrating poetry, Le Musee de la Vie Romantique also known as Hotel Scheffer Renan (16 Rue Chaptal-Metro Saint Georges) has a gallery dedicated to French writer George Sand where her belongings and paintings are exposed. Surrounded by leafy streets, the mansion’s entrance is decorated with little trees and flowers leading to a charming garden where, a grandmother and her granddaughter are reading the newspaper on one of the benches. 
Le Musee de le Vie Romantique is dedicated to the arts and literature of the romantic movement of the 19th century, it is located in the 9th arrondissement in what is called the New Athens an area that used to be inhabited by artists, explains conservator Marie- Claude Sabouret. 
With Frederic Chopin’s melodies playing in the background, an important guest of the hotel, the house has a “writer’s circle” room on the ground floor with a sculpture of Sand’s bust and romantic portraits on the first floor. “The painter Sheffer used to have guests of the literary Paris of the period here.  They all lived in the area and would have debates about literature and politics, which is why the museum and the new Athens were important in those times,” says Sabouret.
After the visit through the museum and the courtyard, a few streets away is Rue Notre Dame de Lorette where Hotel Albion is. The two stars hotel set within typical French apartments has a central location where Boulevard Haussmann and the Opera are only a short walking distance away. The hotel is small but cosy and serves the purpose of sleeping in a clean comfortable room. 
A walk through Boulevard Haussmann along the luxurious Printemps and Galeries Lafayette department stores leads to Place de l’Opera and the Opera Garnier where Place de la Concorde and the Musee du Louvre are also nearby. The whole downtown area of Paris can be easily walked in 30 minutes while passing through these iconic monuments without taking the metro. 
The Road to Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris
Standing in front of the Obelisque, the walk to the Louvre through the leafy Jardin des Tuileries is more enjoyable than in the busy streets and crossings until the glass pyramid entrance of the museum.  After walking through rue Rivoli and Chatelet, the Seine is finally showing with the afternoon’s reflections of the sun. 
Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral is standing on l’Ile de la Cite a footbridge away carrying all its history and its iconic figure from Victor Hugo’s book The Hunchback of Notre Dame revolving around the cathedral that led to its renovation in the 17th century. While standing on the “Parvis” of Notre Dame and contemplating it, the legendary French writer and poet’s words about Paris are echoing, “He who sees Paris thinks he sees the bottom of all history with heaven and constellations in the intervals”.
A few minutes away from Notre Dame passing through the Flower market of the island and the footbridge, is Ile Saint Louis, a smaller island on the Seine. On the corner of the Quai d’Orleans is “Le Flore en Ile” café with an ice cream stand of the famous French Berthillon house of sorbets and ice cream packed with masses of people impatiently waiting to get their share of flavours before they all vanish like the vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. 
With their cones in hands of either Chocolat Blanc or Cassis the few flavours remaining, people walk down the stairs of the bridge to sit along the bank to enjoy a close-up of the river. A woman facing the river is painting the portrait of springtime in Paris on this side of the bank were people are silently watching the flow of the Seine while eating their ice cream a couple of hours before sunset.
When the night starts to fall, the bank empties little by little from people who are heading back home for dinnertime. A metro ride from “Cite” to “Alma Marceau” metro station, reaches Chez Francis, a restaurant set on the corner of the Pont de l’Alma, with a direct view of the lit Tour Eiffel
 Food, Tour Eiffel and Croissants
  The menu is simple and traditionally French with a starter for cheese lovers like the “Soupe Gratinee a L’Oignon” a salty but sweet Onion soup covered by a bed of melted Gruyere cheese and bread croutons.  While waiting for the main dishes, with the window view of the Tour Eiffel lighting up every hour, a couple sitting on the table beside who went for the Royal Seafood platter are slurping their mountain of Oysters, Gambas and all kinds of crustaceous with an embarrassed laugh. 
The very typical French “Steak-Frites” arrives on the table with its juicy meat and chips glowing from the plate accompanied by a soft buttery Béarnaise sauce made of herbs. For dessert, sweet crunchy caramelized custard Crème Brûlée seals the deal for the night.  
Early morning is a good time to experience the traditional Parisian Breakfast along with literature in Café de Flore  in Boulevard Saint Germain,(Metro Saint Germain des Prés) in Saint Germain des Prés in the 6th arrondissement home to the existentialist literary movement  of writers such as Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir who were a known clientele of this café. 
Every year, Café de Flore hosts a ceremony for the Flore literary prize and displays in its windows the last winning book. With a menu looking like a book that has a quote from Sartre, the smell of fresh coffee and crisp buttery croissant reaches the nostrils from the bar of the place.  After a café au lait, the French version of coffee with milk, a crispy buttery croissant and a tartine-confiture, which is a slice of toast bread accompanied with jam, anyone could melt into the setting of this intellectual slightly arrogant place that is typically French.  
When the café starts to get busy, to get more into the literary setting of Saint Germain, a few minutes away from the Boulevard is the Palais and Jardins du Luxembourgwhere the Senat, one of the branches of the French parliament is located.  In one of the lakes of this 23 -hectares garden, some ducks are finishing off a session of what seems to be them taking a bath next to one of the famous statues of the garden of French writers such as George Sand, Gustave Flaubert, and Stendhal but also artists such as Frederic Chopin and Ludwig Beethoven that are spread across the charming pathways with pine trees and weeping willow trees.  
Maison Victor Hugo  
A heart to heart experience with literature and history is a few metro stations away in Bastille where La Maison Victor Hugo is located in Place des Vosges in the Marais district. Hugo lived in this townhouse for 16 years that has been now turned into a museum. 
The visit to the house is set across three periods of the writer before, during and after his exile that was due to his political views and writings. In the rooms of the house, writings and portraits tell the story of the writer of Les Miserables with his affection for his daughter Leopoldine who died at the age of 19. 
After a trip back in history, an afternoon walk down the trendy Marais district sets the time again, with lovely boutiques and bistros across the streets like Les Philosophes café, “the philosophers” ( Rue Vieille du Temple) literary Paris will always be found in the streets even in the café’s names. 

Photos by Randa El Tahawy

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sad Coptic Christmas for Egypt

The recent violent clashes between Muslims and Christian Copts in Egypt are an embarrassment to all of us Egyptians. 

With the killings of 6 Copts on Christmas's eve, it is very sad to see that the spread of the idea that Christians and Muslims cannot coexist is present in our society.

I have seen two bad reasons that have been attributed to this mounting of violence :
  • This shooting in the village of Naga Hamady could be the revenge of the relatives of  a Muslim 12 year old girl who was raped by a Christian in the town in November
  • A video by Al Jazeera says this violence comes from a hidden political agenda for the next elections this year  
The police is also widely criticized for not acting when these kinds of incidents happen. 

In a video on the Guardian newspaper's website, while the shooting was occurring I heard a man screaming "the police are watching and not doing anything!".    

Those are definitely not valid reasons for killing innocents. Is this hatred between the two religious groups in the name of God? 

"There can be no violence in the name of God." Pope Benedict XVI is right it does not make any sense to me that hatred is spread for religious motives. 

Copts in Egypt
 Copts in Egypt are a minority, they make around 10% of the population who is mainly Muslim. 

The truth is that as a minority, they are treated in a marginalized way with a lot of their rights being baffled. A very important problem in the society is the conversion from Muslim to Christian and carrying a Christian ID. 

I find if very hard to understand why in Egypt our religion is written on our identification cards. It is just plain discrimination.  

Those ID cards are just contributing to the split of our society. Many places do not employ Christians or employ only Christians and no Muslims.  

Recently when I was with a friend in the car at a traffic checkpoint the officer stopped us for the usual check of the car's license.  

After checking my friend's ID and of course seeing that he was Muslim, the officer told him "I stopped you because I thought you were Christians" and laughed. 

Contradictory way of thinking

What does this say about our Egypt? When are we going to stop thinking in such a medieval way?

How can we have such double standards. I can't stop but think of how Muslim reacted  to the Swiss ban of Minarets or even to the Prophet's cartoons incident. 

We become angry and say that we Muslims are being discriminated against and called terrorist in the world when we do exactly the same with other religions.  

When we will stop preventing Christians and any other religions from practicing in Egypt, and stop thinking that being Nazis is good because Jews deserve to die, this is when it will make sense to speak up against Islamophobia. 

Until then, we should shut up and  try to learn the concept of "Practice what you preach".  

(Photo by Randa El Tahawy)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Stop Harassing us!

Middle Eastern men need to understand that women are not sexual objects and will not remain silent. Sexual harassment whether it is physical or verbal has to stop.

Sexual Harassment in the Arab World and especially in Egypt is a redundant topic because until today it is still not resolved.

Until men governed by their filthy sexual instincts understand that women do not deserve to suffer their frustrations, we will keep fighting.

I have reached a level where I cannot possibly tolerate this anymore and any women should not stay silent because it is not normal to be called names or looked at like a piece of flesh.

Unfortunately, any Arab woman who lives in a Middle Eastern patriarchal society uncounsciously becomes acostumed to this treatment by men.

The walk down the streets
After living in Cairo for more than 15 years, when I walk in the street it is becoming a routine for me to be called names and be followed by men and cars. When it gets physical, this is when it is too much.

Still, now that I am not in Egypt anymore it keeps hunting me. I often get messages by men on Facebook flirting and call requests on Skype.

Most of the times they are really stupid and entertaining, but when I reject a call from a man and he sends me a message insulting me with unspeakable offensive words I refuse to stay silent and passive.

 Who gives men the right to treat us this way? What can we possibly have done to make them think that they have the right to refer to us as dirty sexual objects for their pleasure?

Egyptian activist Nehad Abul Kosman is right, " We are facing a phenomena that is limiting women's right to move...and is threatening women's participation in all walks of life."

 A disease in the society

 An article by the Associated Press says that because women do not take a stand and report any abuse, this on-going disease remains in the society.

Also, laws in the countries do not criminalize those abuses and the constant idea that it is the woman's fault because of her appearance is a common belief.

The Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR) gives the figures of Egypt:
  • 83% of Egyptian women experience sexual harassment
  • 62% of men admitted harrassing women
  • 53% of men blame women for it 
 On the bright side, many women in Egypt have been reacting to this with groups and campaigns like Community Times Magazine's campaign "Stand up to Sexual Harasment".

Let's all hope that the proposed laws in Egypt to criminalize it will succeed so that we finally teach those men a lesson : Respect

(Photos by Randa El Tahawy)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Only in Egypt: Funny anecdotes

In Egypt, a lot of unusual situations may happen to you and be striking if you are not used to this country's way of functioning: The Egybtian way!

As tourism is one of the most important sources of income for the country, many work in the industry and for that, a strong command of languages is a must especially in touristic areas.

English is the most popular language in Egypt and many Egyptians do know how to speak it but might struggle a lot with pronunciation and especially spellings.

The funny thing is to find those mistakes in the most touristic places of the country like this picture of a restaurant's menu.

Although the food was delicious the first impression was not promising.

See, in Egypt the pronounciation is slightly different than the normal English

  • The "P" doesn't exist in Arabic, Egyptians will transform every P with a B (Egybtians, Botetos stands for Potatoes) 
  • You will also find the other way around, people using the P for words with B to show that they know that they are 2 letters, a Mopile is a Mobile phone and Crap sandwich is Crab sandwich
  •  Also some words combined together do not make a lot of sense even though the terms do exist but not exactly put that way (See Picture)
The President and the Traffic
Everyone should know that the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak plays a very special role in the functioning of traffic.

If by unfortunate circumstances you end up in one of the major roads of Cairo and apparently Sharm El Sheikh as well, do not worry if the traffic suddenly stops from one side : Mubarak has something to do with it.

Ask around and people will tell you "someone is passing" or "he is passing".

Yes, in Egypt, when the president decides to move around, the roads are closed before he even gets ready to move until he comes through.

You can be stuck in the traffic for more than an hour and if you are walking in the streets you will not be able to move unless the President has passed.

Speeding Tickets
In many developing countries money speaks louder than anything else. Bribery is always a must if you want to get away with endless bureaucratic procedures or get away with anything.

Recently, traffic laws have changed in Egypt and if your caught crossing the speed limit you will get a speeding ticket and pay the fine like every one else.

But what happens when the officer's checkbook has no paper anymore?

He will just tell the officers to let everyone go through the traffic checkpoint without being stopped for speeding.

There are always solutions for everything and this is the Egybtian way of life!
(Photos by Randa El Tahawy)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Snow Day for Westminster's Students

The Harrow Campus of the University of Westminster was shut today due to heavy snow throughout the whole day. 

The campus located in the northwest of London  was functioning during the morning but had to close around 12pm because of the heavy snow announced for the day.

Students were asked to leave in the middle of their classes ensuring they go back home before the whole area shuts down including the transportations.

Many schools and businesses were shut today in the area and are likely to remain closed Thursday said the Harrow Times Online newspaper.

Despite the disruption of classes and work, many students were out enjoying a Snow day, playing and creating snowmen.

Coldest Winter

This is the coldest winter the UK has faced says an article published by the Guardian. 

The BBC and the Daily Telegraph also refer to it as the longest cold snap for almost 30 years.
Media reports many road disruption for cars, but also airports closing down and flights cancelled or delayed.

Some hospitals have been forced to suspend their operations says the Daily Telegraph article while others implemented emergency plans to deal with the severe conditions. 

Stephen Davenport Senior meteorologist at MeteoGroup was quoted in the Guardian saying "the way the conditions are set at the moment I think the cold weather is not going to change for some time."

Striking Temperatures around the Globe

People on one side of the globe are struggling through icy conditions while others are lying down on the beach struggling with sunburns. 

  • Some of the temperatures recored across the UK are striking like -18 degrees in Aberdeenshire or -14 degrees in Aviemore. 
  • Europe also faces severe weather conditions with, -22 in Poland,  -14 in Stockholm and -4 in Glasgow
  • The Middle East on the other hand is facing warm weather with sunny summer days in cities like Luxor (Egypt) with temperatures ranging from 27 to 30 degrees

(Photos by Randa El Tahawy)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sunny Holidays in Sharm El Sheikh

Sharm El Sheikh is one of the top holidays destinations for tourists and locals in Egypt. It combines all the right ingredients for a perfect vacation with an Egyptian touch. 

Located in South Sinai, Sharm El Sheikh is five hours away from Cairo. It has an international airport  with flights serving many cities around the globe.

 What's the fuss all about?

Sharm El Sheikh, or Sharm for locals is not only the City of Peace, where President Mubarak holds his talks and conferences .

It is the Egyptian Las Vegas with much more like:

  •  The Red Sea.  Forget about all the beaches you visited, the Red Sea is one of the best in the world. Ayman Taher a pioneer in underwater photography says in his book that the Red Sea is the Mecca of underwater photographers.
  • Water Activities, with the best Diving and Snorkeling. You have an open live Aquarium available all for yourself
  • Sun, Sun and Sun, it is always Sunny in Sharm (I got a tan in December)
  • Food, Egyptians do love food so you have a wide choice
  • Party all night long, wild crazy nights happen all day

Naama Bay where it all happens

Naama Bay is the hot spot of Sharm with all the hotels, restaurants,shops, pubs and clubs. You will find all kinds of hotels there from three to five stars usually fully booked.

In Naama after soaking the sun on the pool or the beach you can have a nice walk along the pathways with many shops then have a Shisha at Tche Tche coffeshop. At night you could go for dinner and late night clubbing.

 For an experience of good dancing, I recommend Pacha , the renowned club for a wild night of fun although its crowd can be a little weird. Little Buddha is also one of the top-notch clubs there, a bit pricey but worth the quality and the good atmosphere.

If you're not up for a wild night, a very good place to go is Camel Bar at the Camel Hotel. They have good live entertainment, screening of football games and one of the best burgers in town.

You will find Naama Bay as the busiest around Sharm El Sheikh, it has all the activities and can be sometimes overcrowded. People from all over the world come there but also a lot of Egyptians who leave the stress of the city to go wild.

Chill and Fun
 Sharm El Sheikh is this city where you go only to have fun and explore the wonders of Sinai and the Red Sea. This is why five days around would be enough for you to chill and relax.

For Egyptians, it is a city where everything can happen. Apart from the many foreigners, you will find lots of Egyptian locals working there in the tourism industry, upper middle class people looking for fun and honeymooners.

Other than Naama Bay, you can also find nice activities around the Hadaba and a new spot called Soho Square  with shops, restaurants and bars.

Sharm El Sheikh is surely a top holiday destination with its peak season all year long but the busiest is in December and April-May. The best times to go there are in June and July although the weather will be extremely hot.

(Photos by Randa El Tahawy)