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An Evening at the Souk

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Some of everyday politics is to be found in the market. Today was my day off. I went to have a dinner at an expatriate restaurant at the local market with a university colleague. The market, or souk, is the heartbeat of the community. If politics are going smoothly, as they are today, all the shops are open well into the evening. The market bustles. Men outdoors gather around a large-screen TV to watch the latest soccer match. Women and children buy groceries and pick through the gorgeous vegetables displayed on the sidewalk. Music plays. Young women pass by in hijab, tight jeans, and high heels, modest, yet provocative at the same time. My colleague and I walkto a small stand, and inhale one of the most delicious glasses of lemonade I have ever drunk. “Ishta,” I say, with a thumbs-up sign. “Shukran.” Delicious, thanks. The proprietor smiles broadly.

I did not see any tanks on the way to the souk, but inside the souk was a large truck with an open canvas back filled with soldiers in camoflauge. On the whole, I suppose their presence represents security, but in a country that is actually ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, their presence also highlights the absence of democracy, and the utter absence of the pro-Mubarak police forces.

I remember the worst days of the Egyptian Revolution, probably February 2 and 3, when I huddled in a Sudanese neighbor’s house with my three children. My children loved this tense time, playing with Samira and Hamid’s five children, ranging in ages from 12 to six months. The parents hunched worriedly around BBC World, trying to determine what was going on in this, our host country. The next day, I moved my children to Kenya, where they remain today, to their grandma and a bit of safety.

A bit over a month ago it was then. A phone call was impossible, and the souk, which today seemed so vibrant, was nearly closed, with only a few bread stores open, and lines stretching around the block for provisions. My thoughts lie with the Libyans who must be experiencing terrible food shortages.

At the end of the evening, my taxi driver, Emad Ghoneem, takes me to a neighbouring area called Tagamoo. We pay some money inside of a nondescript-looking corner store, and get back into the taxi to wait. The proprieter George brings me the desired contraband, a bottle of white wine. I return to my beautiful apartment, and pour the much anticipated glass of wine; it is dry, and delicious, but leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste. Like the Egyptian Revolution, it has not yet matured

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About Warigia Bowman

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Warigia –

    That is a beautiful article!

    All too often we are so concerned about the big questions, the oh-so-important values that are supposed to be our guides in this life…

    …and sometimes we forget that even in turbulent times, life goes on day after day, and people do their best to protect what’s truly important – the children. And after those bad times are done, life still goes on. The bad times aren’t forgotten, but lessons are learned, and one finds out which friends are really true.

    Again, a truly beautiful article!

  • Glenn, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Wrote this while high on that wine I wrote about. My kids are still in Kenya. I pick them up this week. It has been a really rough time. My husband comes in May. It is interesting to see people just trying to make it day to day in a war zone. I just have no idea what the Libyans are going through. It must be terrifying.


  • I’ve lived in Israel for about a decade – I’ve seen what people do to get by in a war zone and hear about it all the time in various ways. One of them is denial. A Pashtun woman I know is traveling in Cairo now and said in Arabic, “I am a Pathán from Pakistan, near Afghanistan.” The cabbie simply said, “I love Indian movies.” Cabbies around here speak a lot more freely. I have looked at the shouk (Hebrew for souk) a lot more carefully since reading your article – as it is a reflection of the political life around us, whether we realize it or not. So, thank you for this fine article…

    I am glad that your children were safe during what appeared to be the most dangerous times. But I must warn you that times may get far more dangerous.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Rigia –

    I’ve visited Mombasa a couple times and spent a day in Nairobi (almost twenty years ago), and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it’s not as bad as most Americans think. As with most other places, as long as one is in a safe neighborhood, there’s not so much to be worried about.

    But I had to chuckle when I saw someone actually bring live chickens on the jet from Mombasa to Nairobi….

  • @Ruvy. Ha ha re denial. I have been there! Actually, it is a good strategy! I think they call it compartmentalizing. How cool that Hebrew is Shouk. I think things are going to be okay. If the soldiers start firing, I will let you know!
    @Glenn, yes Mombasa is lovely. Nairobi went down hill for a while, but they have really spruced it up since 2002. We keep a house there (we rent) because we have a business there. It is in a middle class but not posh area. The live chickens sounds awesome. I have seen those on Matatu, but not on the plane.


  • Glenn Contrarian

    Rigia –

    The ‘souk’. It sounds so…exotic to most Americans, doesn’t it?

    You reminded me of the single most talked-about destination whenever my ship pulled into Dubai – the ‘gold souk’. The sailors would ooh and aah and look forward so eagerly to The One Place where we’d surely buy gold more cheaply than anywhere else while on deployment (though personally, I felt I got better deals in Singapore). We’d take the bus or taxi from the port to Dubai, find our way down to the riverfront, and take a dhow (loaded with people staring at us since this was just after the first Gulf War) across the river to where the Gold Souk was. When I finally got there, I have to say I wasn’t really impressed – it was just a small alleyway with a bunch of small stores selling gold trinkets, watches, and whatever at decent prices. But the fact that it was 22K (like in Singapore) when most gold we get stateside is only 14K made it more special, I guess.

    I have a different memory of the gold souk, though. Once I was done browsing – I couldn’t afford to buy any gold – I started making my way back to the U.S. military’s bus stop. I was by myself – I’ve always enjoyed exploring more by myself than with others – and I stopped by a street vendor selling shwarmas. Now I’d never had a shwarma before, but it smelled so very good, so I bought one…and it was outstanding, one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. So I bought ten more and brought them with me and eventually found my way back to the ship.

    Well, I’m not sure what they call Montezuma’s Revenge in the Middle East, but I had the worst case of diarrhea I’ve ever had – 33 times in 24 hours, and YES, I kept count (this was in the days before that wonderful stuff called ‘Immodium AD’). And ever since that day, I’ve had a bout of diarrhea on average once a month…so I suspect I’ve got a ‘leetle friend’ swimming around in my gut, but the docs haven’t found any evidence of such.

    While in Dubai I learned to love the local cuisine – most of which was Indian in proportion with the local population. But I’ve got a sweet spot for shwarmas, hummus with pita bread, and tabbouleh. A couple months ago I finally found a shwarma as good as the ones I had in Dubai – on a side street in Vancouver B.C., of all places, where I had the opportunity to turn my youngest son on to Middle East cuisine.

  • Dear Glenn

    The Gold Souk in Dubai is nice these days. I went and was impressed. I have some lovely earrings from there. I got a critter and got rid of it. Just ask your doctor.

    You are a riot, you say you are from the deep south. I have been teaching at Ole Miss. where are you from?


  • Glenn Contrarian

    Ole Miss!

    I grew up about 11 miles outside of Indianola down in the Delta. I remember listening on the radio cheering for the Rebels when Archie Manning was there! I went for a year to MSU so I can’t root for Ole Miss anymore (unless it’s against somebody other than MSU). I remember my mother and grandmother driving around the hills maybe fifteen, twenty miles from Oxford showing me some old, broken-down antebellum houses that our family had lived in, and there’s a cemetery not far from my house where my family line is buried all the way from Civil War days till now. I’ll be the first in my line since the War to be buried outside that cemetery.

    I have to ask – you’re half-Kenyan, so how easily were you accepted at Ole Miss? I mean, I’ve written often how I grew up at ground zero for racism in America (here’s an example)…but then I remember how those who were half-black/half-white were usually accepted…but more easily by the black community than the white. The blacks would consider a half-breed as “one of us”, whereas the whites would without exception consider a half-breed “one of them”.

    My youngest son – a half-breed (Filipino and white) – has adjusted quite well to his duality, as it were…but he never had to grow up in the South, either. And come to think of it – no political assumptions here (but I’m quite liberal) – but you must be somewhat amused at the American politics right now with the birthers (51% of Republicans are birthers now).

  • Clavos

    I have to ask – you’re half-Kenyan, so how easily were you accepted at Ole Miss? I mean, I’ve written often how I grew up at ground zero for racism in America (here’s an example)…but then I remember how those who were half-black/half-white were usually accepted…

    Bad assumption there, Glenn. There are lots of white Kenyans; I had a secretary once whose in laws had been Kenyans for several generations — since the colonial days; white as the driven snow. He told me (and Wikipedia confirms) that there were about 30 thousand white Kenyans who have been there for generations, plus another 30 thousand who have arrived more recently.

  • Dear Glenn and Clavos

    I teach at Ole Miss. At 42, I do not worry too much about being accepted, I just get on with it. I really do not like the term “half-breed,” nor do I like “half-caste” no offense. I know you meant it in the best way. I prefer mixed, although that phrase also has theoretical limitations. Barely have time to follow the birthers.

    Clavos, yes there is a significant white former colonial population in Kenya. However, they really keep to themselves. I have lived and worked in Kenya for years, but barely interact with them. The newer, younger expatriates do pop up from time to time. Of course, Kenya has 30 million people, so the 60,000 are not many. There is a great restaurant I like called Osteria del Chianti, and that is where the young expats hang. Also, at village market and Nakumatt Junction.

    My mother was a Black African Kikuyu, my husband is also Kikuyu, but by way of Mombasa, and very urbane, speaks French and Spanish.

    Cheers, Rigia

  • Clavos

    With all due respect,Warigia, the people of whom I spoke are not “expats.” Their families have been in Kenya for generations, and they are very much Kenyans who, significantly, chose to remain in their country when it ceased to be a British colony because they are Kenyans, as were their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.

    A small point, but important to them.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Warigia –

    My apologies for using the word ‘half-breed’. I was having a serious case of writer’s block then and I couldn’t think of the word ‘biracial’…and that’s why I used the word to refer to my youngest son, because I knew that it can be seen as an offensive word so I included my son to hopefully indicate that no offense was meant. Again, please accept my apology.

  • Glenn

    No worries. You and I are obviously kindred spirits.

    Clavos, of course the group you refer to are Kenyans. I meant the younger ones are expats. As I mentioned in my post, I have almost no interaction with the White Kenyans. They keep to themselves and have their own society, which does not include people like me!

    Cheers, Warigia