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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Foreign Types with the Hookah Pipes

One of the great things about vocally, perhaps pathologically hating cilantro is people are constantly offering cilantro anecdotes, testimonies, periodical features of interest. Many of these tidbits aren't SO interesting after all, but some of them are.

My dear friend (I was going to call her "best friend" but didn't want to step on any toes cuz for real I have several "best" friends. Then I thought "BFF" because it's amusing as hell to me but I thought something in the intended tone might be lost on my audience: many of you I know like cilantro, and we all know what that means about your IQ.) and roommate has just moved to Rome/Cairo. She's been in Cairo a few weeks now and one of the first things she tells me is she is surrounded by Cilantro. No, not the herb, the fucking cafe.

I know. As if. Well, apparently this chain of cafes is as ubiquitous in Cairo as suicidal cab drivers. The cafes, Dear Friend tells me, have internet connections, nice amenities, a quiet, relaxed ambiance and, you know, allow women. In other words, this is a Western-style chain standing in direct opposition to the segregated, loud, cheap and dirty ahwas, traditional Egyptian coffee shops.

It goes without saying that this is an outrage, but alas, Cilantro Cafe is but one of many businesses masquerading as restaurants with the audacity (or I'm sure what they all think of as hip, or edgy or just plain clever idea) to bear the name "Cilantro." It's not surprising with all the restaurants in the world some are bound to be named Cilantro; naming restaurants after food is pretty common (and stupid, if you ask me -- thanks for asking) and cilantro, as we've established many times over, is everywhere.

What's upsetting is that the biggest chain of coffee shops in all of Cairo is named after my nemesis. Or is it? I mean, is it really a term of distinction to be a coffee shop chain? Is it really so awesome to be the very Egyptian icon of Westernization and cultural atrophy? Dear Friend tells me she'd never spend any time there, that she'd really prefer to hang at the ahwas, but damnit, honky needs her wireless connection and the ice cubes next door might make her sick. Then there's also the issue that she isn't really allowed in those "realer" places, having tits and all. So, on that front Cilantro represents progress, of the good sort that creates the eponymous noun liberals prefer to call themselves; they allow women.

I have a tremendous amount of patience for other cultures, mostly because I recognize after 25 years in the US of America one I don't know that culture is the kind of thing one can ever understand, but more to the point, I don't like to be too judgmental -- do whatever you want, please don't kill my dog (I don't have a dog). I have serious problems with religion, but, that's with all of them, not a particular one. Most of my problems are rooted in the fact that people do irrational things that are objectively bad for themselves and everyone around them in the name of a god or spirit or faith that they don't know exists. Yeah. That sounds a lot like a judgment to me too. Anyway, some of the worst forms of what I don't like about religion involve violences and injustices against women, a group I'm (on the whole) pretty fond of. Genital mutilation (ha, you thought you were reading a cilantro blog), anti-birth control policies and a general limitation of that great word W loves to throw around -- freedom -- are but a few nuisances women have had to endure at the hands of "their" religions. Exclusion from public cafes would be another.

So, while I'm down with dirt and noise and all those authentic things Western travelers like to tell themselves they like so they can have authentic experiences, in the end I value the kind of progress that allows a woman to order a fucking cup of coffee. And if that kind of place goes by the name Cilantro.... Point for cilantro.


Jessica said...

Ah, the struggle of the "authentic" experience. My Dear Cilantro-Hating Friend has hit on a point, in a word, that I myself go back and forth with much these days... As far as Cilantro Cafe goes, can I really hate having a place for a decent café latte round the corner, even if it is cultural atrophy in cup? Or better yet, can I feel guilty every time I have them deliver this cup of joe for a mere dollar extra? Am I denying myself the "real" Cairo by depending on coffee delivery from a poorly named chain?

I wonder a lot if my experience in Egypt would feel more Egyptian if I grew some balls (pun intended...) and ventured into one of these all male, all authentic, coffeeshop establishments. I inquired about this from a very nice man juicing oranges. He said that I could, if I wanted, go into the ahwas, and it would only illicit a few uncomfortable stares, (but I must be used to that, after all I am a woman...). I asked innocently, but sir, I really don't see many women in these places. He clarified for me that it is Egyptian women who are really discouraged from the mud-like turkish coffee, male conversation, and sheesha smoke. As a foreigner, I can do as I want (I do love Egypt for its tolerance).

And I was reminded of this cilantro post because, is Cilantro Cafe a victory for women? Is my ability to smoke with the men also a victory for all? Or is it less the growing female empowerment, but much more the ever-present western entitlement (read: money, education, power?) that gives me these "freedoms". Not to down-play the feminists... I do recognize that it was my western muff-bearing counterparts who originally lassoed these freedoms with the very umbilical cords that held them to their young; it was their efforts that have enabled me to practice entitlement worldwide surely. I just wonder how many Egyptian women are enjoying their café latte delivery service, from the comforts of their terrace... Probably more than I think, but still... As an American, and a woman, I guess I better come to terms with the idea that comforts like Cilantro, are a part, not all, but an undeniable part of my authentic Cairo experience. I mean, what would I do without a cappuccino a phone call away?

Erin Hollingsworth said...

I hope Dear Friend is doing some creative writing in her non-existent spare time. Girlfriend can put a sentence together.

You leave me nothing to argue with, I agree completely. Every once in awhile, this happens.

Jessica said...

Hmmm I think I will start a "Written from Cafe Cilantro" blog... I wonder if that will compete with you on your SEO index, or whatever you call it...

In my reread I noticed mix-up with illicit vs. elicit, but maybe the use of illicit was to emphasize the forbidden nature of my ahwa going inquiries??

Love from Cairo...