If it is true that the first step in understanding a country is to smell it, then I am making some progress here.
Cairo is filled with many wonderful and exotic (to my nose) scents. Musky incense burning in the tiny, almost cave-like shops that dot the streets. Rich spices like cardamom, bay leaves, cinnamon, cumin and nutmeg simmering in a pots of koshari or baked into an infinite variety of plentiful phillo-based pastries. Fresh mint in mugs of sweet hot tea. Juicy oranges, ripe bananas and tiny local lemons at the corner market or peddled from a basket on a bicycle.
But mostly Cairo smells like dust. And, for our first week here, inexplicably of fish.
O, who must get his keen sense of smell from me, said it first while we made our inaugural tour through our new apartment. “Why does our hotel smell like fish?” (without our stuff and with Fifi making our beds, it does feel a bit like a hotel ...) Fair question, given that there was none now or recently in our apartment. Perhaps it wafted in from another flat or on the evening breeze that makes Cairo so pleasant during its brief winter? We turned off the lights and went to sleep and the fish smell blew away.
The next day, as I was reconfiguring furniture in our living room, the fish smell was suddenly there again. It hovered above the sofa so heavy that I actually removed the pillows and cushions expecting to find a fillet amongst the stray crumbs and loose change. Not finding a forgotten fish, I shut off the lights and moved on to something else.
And again, reading in the evening. Watching Disney shows with Greek subtitles from the satellite. The real and really stinky stench of fish making us ever queasier and more curious.
Several days later we met an American woman, the friend of a friend who had actually lived in our exact apartment two years earlier. We queried each other with the standard expat questions – where are you from, are you with an oil company or the embassy, how long have you been here, how long will you stay here, when did you get here, where do you live here? She immediately recognized our address as our mutual friend’s former apartment.
“Have you found the Fish Lights,” she asked? I apologized for not having much Arabic yet and asked her to explain these "fishlights" of which she spoke. “The sconces, in your living room, that smell like fish when you turn them on.” Apparently, she became acquainted with our ill-smelling illumination during a belly dancing class that my friend hosted weekly in our apartment’s large living room (or dance floor, as A now calls it). Mystery solved.
With an ever-present back note of dust.
For more pictures, check out my Our Apartment set on Flickr.
/lkm in Cairo