The Perfume Salesmen of Tahrir Square, 1989

Up on the rooftop, Cairo 1989

In 1989 I quit my relatively secure government job and, with the meager retirement funds accumulated over 10 years, hit the road. The two-month trip took me to professional meetings in Europe and the DRC (then Zaire), to family time in Asia and finally to EGYPT.  I have thought of that trip often in the last few weeks, remembering how much I liked that place and those people—and cheering the Tahrir Square revolutionaries on as they, in turn, now post support for Wisconsin public employees. Viva La Revolution!

In the last years of African travel, I’ve passed through the Cairo airport a number of times, sometimes spending many hours in the wifi-enabled food court, tucked cozily between Starbucks and Cinnabon. In my quest to visit ALL African countries, I have not paused again in Egypt, but now I am very happy to revisit, through old scribbling, those wondrous days in 1989.

 Wednesday, July 5, 1989: Manila to Singapore to Cairo. Singapore Airport. Flight to Cairo 10:30pm. Took a chance—couldn’t get my flights confirmed—and headed for the Manila airport–early. Good thing! The first cab got a flat, the second got stopped by cops and then the engine failed but the third cab finally deposited me in the right place with time to spare. After crazy chaotic Manila, clean and organized Singapore is something of a shock. Lots of Filipino workers on flight out of Manila—they are the workers and caretakers of the world, sending their wages home to sustain their families and the Filipino economy.

a street in Islamic Cairo

Thursday, July 6, 1989. Arrived in Cairo about 6am, taxi to the city through the brown desert and the New Mexico-dry air. Pigeon penthouses top brown apartment blocks—at first I think they are tiny apartments without walls. Can see smog but after Manila it hardly registers. Turns out my hotel has almost no water, a poor whirring blade trying to be a fan and no bedside lamp. But I had room service tea at 2am for 70 pence—about 25 cents! Some streets are wide like Kinshasa, some just narrow lanes between mud-brick almost-hovels. It is a very brown, tan and beige city—but coming from Albuquerque the tones are familiar. The eerily beautiful calls to prayer sound more at home here than they did in Indonesia a few years ago. I thought traveling alone as a woman in a Muslim country might feel awkward but it doesn’t seem that will be so; in fact I feel very comfortable.

In my late morning wanderings I met Hamid at his father’s perfume shop. This is salesmanship carried to the nth degree… ‘you must come to my house tonight and meet my mother’ he repeats endlessly while I, as relentlessly, demur thinking I cannot just go off to a strange Egyptian home on my first day here…and then I’m saying ‘okay, that would be nice.’ Hamid picked me up at dusk and we drove to his family’s 3-story house on a mosquito-rich Nile canal. Dirt yard, lots of trees and openness. There are chairs on the patio but we go inside where plush red-velvet couches line the walls. The family is gracious, the father asks me questions and the mother serves hot sweet tea to the accompaniment of Egyptian pop on the radio—it is lovely and stilted and strange. Hamid suggested we go to meet some of his friends. His family is unperturbed. Is this all the friendliness of the Egyptian people or a sort of closing-the-sale tactic related to a potential next day’s perfume purchase? Or some combination thereof?  In any case it is all perfectly enjoyable.

The best was yet to come though—driving out to the pyramids…Giza City, a huge suburb on the banks of the Nile buried within Cairo proper. Traffic never ends and every vehicle has a working horn, used liberally, honking, beeping, hooting, tooting. It’s dark now with that warm desert softness and no street lights in the housing area we enter but it is gently lit nevertheless by lights from the small brown houses and shops.

Hamid’s friend invites me in to see his simple but comfortable house, puts on tea and brings a blanket into the yard where more young male friends congregate. A man in robes rides past on a small donkey, his feet almost touching the ground—it is a Sunday school picture come to life.  I am served more more more tea and questioned about my life and how it is that I, a single woman, can travel around without a husband.

 A newcomer to the group asks me where I’m from and when I say Albuquerque, New Mexico he leaps to his feet in excitement, makes me promise to stay until he can run to his house and get something to show me!. In moments he returns…with a copy of a page from the Albuquerque Journal! It is an article about a head-on car crash that occurred on Highway 491 just outside of Shiprock; two men were killed…one this man’s brother. He said he always wanted to meet someone who could tell him about the place of his brother’s death. So we sit on the blanket on the hard-packed red dirt of Giza, Egypt where I can see the very top of a pyramid looming over the small neighborhood…and I describe northern New Mexico and the dangerous roads and the ever-present drunk drivers—one of whom had caused his brother’s fatal accident.  

On the way home at 3am or so we stopped for a tiny lamb sandwich and an orange soda. How could I not love Egypt with a first day like this!

The River Nile

Friday and Saturday, July 7 & 8, 1989. I’ve moved. Now I’m in a Garden City hotel. The American University is nearby and this is really a student hostel.  I love it…hard bed, no AC or TV, fan, edible meals AND my balcony looks over the RIVER NILE. There’s just something about the world’s major rivers—they are more meaningful and powerful than any other famous sights/sites. The Nile looks big and slow and brown and ancient flowing gracefully through the center of this place and these lives.

There’s always a hot or cool breeze here in this room on the Nile. My large always open window overlooks the juncture of two main streets, large coke sign, underpass. Nile flows on. People walk about. Can always see people, can always see date palms. The traffic is ceaseless; drivers communicate their intentions with those talky horns and blinks of headlights—which are always off except when approaching another vehicle. Ah yes, national differences still exist. About $11 a night for all of this.

Never barks!

King Tut exhibit

Yesterday morning I went to the National Museum, mid-morning sitting on the steps, smoking a cigarette, a group of tourists spill out of a large tour bus. Among the first few coming towards me is a very robust blonde woman. Wearing a halter and shorts. This is a true fact—in conservative Islamic Egypt! I stare and think please god of travelers do not let this be an ‘ugly American.’  Phew!  I hear her talk—she’s German!

Jesse Jackson, Cairo 1989

Jesse Jackson visit, back to the limo

Next a small cavalcade of black limousines drives up. I was waiting excitedly for President Mubarak (yeah, he was already well into his reign in 1989!) or at least a Saudi prince to step out when who should emerge but Jesse Jackson. I never identify myself to other Americans when I travel so instead of screaming ‘Hi Jesse I’m from New Mexico’ I shot a lot of photos and continued trying to decide if I liked him or not.

Pretty exciting here on the steps.

Then to FelFela’s for lunch. Ran into Trevor, an Aussie whom I met at the airport. We went back to the Museum and looked some more at King Tut memorabilia, then sat in the park restaurant all afternoon, funny overgrown place, all dust and trees and scraggly grass and old wicker furniture from colonial days and Turkish “sweet mud” coffee. Trevor is a traveler also. Really nice person, a sort of loner, bit shy but not so after he talks awhile.


Sunday, July 9, 1989. Today I feel surly, wanted to lie in bed and read all day.  Must not. Went to the Pyramids instead. Met another perfume “friend” who says he’s Bedouin. My notes say we visited the Mayor’s house (but I can’t remember what that was) and then I bought some Sweet Pea perfume for mom. Finally I managed to fight off the guides and just roamed around sort of by myself—as much as that’s possible in Cairo. Pyramids are a stark place. Stark and hot. And dusty. Sort of anti-climatic. Too many photos already exist of them, why would I take more? I’m increasingly thinking about getting home and the agony of looking for a job! Oh well, tomorrow I’ll go walking with Trevor in the old city.

   Monday and Tuesday, July 10 & 11, 1989. Walked around the streets of Islamic Cairo with Trevor and then more by myself. Dry. Dust. Sand. Earth. The ever-present sheep and their woolly-lanolin smell—the large red dot on some of their backs must mean they’ve been selected for slaughter (just discovered I like lamb which we never ate on the farm because all of the baby lambs became our pets!)—and donkeys and water pipes and incredibly handsome men and the smells of pita bread baking, honey-saturated baklava almost melting in the sun, rotisseries slowly turning, their meaty juices sizzling, smoke from cooking fires, pipes, cigarettes, candles flavors the air too. The dark little shops have different specialties on each street. Here furniture everywhere. Sawing and hammering noises, wood smells. Almost no women out and about. Just men, men, men everywhere. Their long robes drag, swing in the dust. From every angle you can see the top of a mosque or fortress or tower. The rich brown of apartment buildings are enlivened by dashes of color from bright-green painted front walls or doors, gold shutters. Maybe some red and blue and orange and purple clothes hanging out to dry.  Garbage carts with small horses. And those mysterious looking dark cafes, all the beautiful men (only) smoking their pipes.  I’d like to rent one (the pipe) for a smoke but I’m chicken.

Just before they’re rotisseried!

And just after…

Would have loved to join him…

Men look, comment, stare; they’re friendly, not threatening, just ever present. Remember in Museum yesterday. Good looking Arab from south of here I think. Two kids in regular kid outfits and three wives and a grandmother totally covered in black—shrouded. The old woman’s face was bare, only the eyes were uncovered in three other women. Their body language, posture wasn’t happy. Anyone who says it’s their way of life, their traditions and they like it is in denial.

Actually it can be exhausting being a single woman here. If I sit down to have a coffee young men sit down with me and ask endless questions about me and life in the states. When I finally said I just wanted to read they said ‘oh please talk to us, we never get to talk to women just easily like this.’  Yesterday at the Museum again. A little elegant man kept passing me and whispering ‘I love you.’ This isn’t such a bad thing, just a little odd to be noticed so much when one is neither a raving beauty nor famous . There are worse things I suppose!

Say you’re a women in one of the really oppressive fundamentalist societies—Islamic—but same could be said for Mormons certainly or Hasidic Jews probably. You are maybe a bit educated but always in a sheltered guarded environment. You cannot get a job. Can’t even go out and apply. You are selected, married off. How do you escape with no money? Do you have a passport to leave the country? Hell no. Can you get on a plane or bus, no money, no passport? Can you go to a woman’s shelter? Are there women or men (fat chance) who will help?

Being in North Africa/Middle East remains this conundrum for me. It is one of a few place of truly ancient history, people are dignified and welcoming, the cuisine is delectable and I can love all of this. But then the issue of women and the ownership and abuse thereof rears its ugly head and I am so angry.

Wednesday, July 12, 1989. Yesterday was excellent. So why do I have a headache this morning? Because I ate a lot of fig pastries before I went to bed. Because the fan went off. Because I dreamed George Bush was the grandfather of one of my grandchildren, because I didn’t have coffee all day.

I shopped for books by Mahfouz and toothpaste and made a friend through my embassy contacts. Favia, who is anything but reticent about absolutely everything in her life. She’s 51 and gorgeous, teaches dance, is married to an older man who gave up sex a long time ago, so she is having an affair with her dentist. Egyptians, at least westernized ones, are certainly more open than the French or Brits…more like Americans…blah blah blah. She says it is getting more conservative here all of the time. But out in the suburbs life goes on with liquor and dancing and pool parties and affairs.

Thursday, July 13, 1989. It is 7:05am; I suppose they are killing the sheep all over the Arab world right now. To celebrate by feasting the return from Mecca. It seems barbarous. Favia said the whole city reeks of blood but I can’t smell it up here on my balcony. Hear the prayers. I like the sound of the prayers. Wish they weren’t prayers. Actually I like Cairo a lot. By 7:30am the sheep will all be dead. Wonder if they do it swiftly and cleanly, hopefully yes. It’s making me feel queasy. Like living next door to a packing house I suppose.

A final note about food, not so not heavy and greasy, more light and dry like the desert.  Or thick and sweet like OmAli, the world’s best dessert.

Om Ali

From NANCY GIRGIS on Allrecipes website:  2011.

“It’s an Egyptian dessert that contains phyllo dough or puff pastry, milk and nuts. Use any kind of nuts that you would like and eat it with a spoon. Legend has it that Om Ali was the first wife of the sultan Ezz El Din Aybek. When the sultan died, his second wife had a dispute with Om Ali, resulting in the second wife’s death. To celebrate, Om Ali made this dessert and distributed it among the people of the land.” Here’s the recipe:


  • 1 (17.5 ounce) package frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 cup chopped hazelnuts
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup flaked coconut
  • 1 1/4 cups white sugar, divided
  • 4 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Butter a 9×13 inch baking dish.
  2. Place the pastry sheets in the baking dish and place the dish in the oven. Watch it closely. When the top layer turns crunchy and golden, remove it from the oven. Continue until all the sheets are cooked.
  3. Preheat the oven broiler.
  4. In a bowl, combine walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, raisins, coconut and 1/4 cup sugar. Break cooked pastry into pieces and stir into nut mixture. Spread mixture evenly in 9×13 inch dish.
  5. Bring milk and 1/2 cup sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Pour over nut mixture.
  6. Beat the heavy cream with the remaining 1/2 cup sugar until stiff peaks form. Spread evenly over nut mixture in dish.
  7. Place dessert under oven broiler until top is golden brown, about 10 minutes. Serve hot.


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