Cairo on $2 a day

CAIRO — Shobra is a neighborhood of faded glory. Stately building facades, covered by centuries of Sahara sands, cast shadows on the crowded working class streets below. This is the neighborhood of taxi drivers, policemen and waiters.

Al Ahram, Egypt’s leading newspaper, estimates that 50 percent of Egyptians live on $2 a day or less. So when I decided to investigate what living on $2 daily entailed, it made sense to head to Shobra, the “shaabi” heart of Cairo.

I took all the money out of my wallet, save for 11 Egyptian pounds, which is equivalent to $2. I wanted to see if I could get by for a day spending no more than your average Egyptian.

Leaving my apartment in the leafy upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, I waved off a handful of taxi drivers and headed to the metro. The walk was long and inconvenient but I couldn’t afford to take one form of public transportation to get to another.

I paid my 1 pound near Cairo’s impressive opera house and headed out on an overcrowded train, choked with the smell of sweat and cigarette smoke. I considered the Metro fee to be the cost of a commute to work.

I asked the man standing next to me at which stop I should get off. He raised his eyebrows in alarm.

“I haven’t heard of a foreigner going to Shobra before,” he said in Arabic.

At the man’s suggestion, I got off at Ramses Square on the outskirts of Shobra and began to wind my way through the packed streets.

My first order of business was to find lunch. I had skipped breakfast, worried I wouldn’t have enough cash to last me the day, so I looked for a corner sandwich shop — the kind that the working class frequents.

Before I could find one, I passed a Koshari stand. Koshari, a dish made up of macaroni, rice and lentils, is informally referred to as the national dish of Cairo. But at 2 pounds a dish, it was out of my reach.

A few doors down, I found what I was looking for and went in. The men behind the counter gave me the rundown of prices. Liver sandwiches, a local favorite, cost 2 pounds. Cheaper, at 75 piasters (100 piastres = 1 pound) were foul, falafel and French fry sandwiches.

I knew foul, a bean dish akin to refried beans, to be a working class favorite, so I chose it over the falafel balls crackling in a nearby pot of oil. The sandwich guy took a scoop of the foul, stuffed it in a pita, topped it off with a little bit of lettuce and tomato, and handed it to me.

As I walked down the street munching on my lunch, I figured I ought to top the meal off with a bit of fruit. A few blocks down, a man selling tangerines offered me one for 25 piastres. So I began digging through the crate looking for one that wasn’t too soft or full of holes. It wasn’t easy, but I found one that looked palatable enough.

From there I headed to a shisha cafe for a smoke. Shisha is a water pipe used for smoking tobacco, known commonly in the United States as a hookah. Here, shisha is less of a luxury than it is a social obligation. Men from the top to the bottom of the economic food chain gather in cafes daily to smoke and talk.

I found a small spot just off a main road. Some men sat on chairs outside, while others played backgammon inside. I sat down near the counter and ordered a tobacco flavored shisha (this, as opposed to the fruit-flavored tobacco preferred by most foreigners) and a tea.

“Do you want bongo with the shisha,” asked the waiter. Bongo is the popular term here for marijuana.

Never having been asked that before and not sure whether he was kidding, I waved him off with a laugh. But then I heard him engage in a fierce conversation with the other waiter. The only words I picked up were “bongo” and “foreigner.”

Alarmed, I repeated to him that I didn’t want marijuana, which is common among the working classes, and he assured me I’d only be smoking tobacco.

The men next to me were eating lunch, and they promptly asked me to join them. It is a cultural obligation here to offer food to others. In a taxi, the driver might offer his passenger the last bite of a sandwich. Anybody eating on the street will offer what they’re eating to just about anyone who passes by.

It’s courtesy, but it’s also the basis of a social safety net that insures everyone eats and survives despite low wages and high unemployment.

The men ate a salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and a cheese called Old Cheese, which looks (and smells) as the name implies. They had bread and green beans on the side.

Finishing up my smoke, I paid 2 pounds and headed off down the street until I ran into an older man who approached me speaking perfect English.

“Don’t go this way anymore,” he said. “The people here are all right. The ones past the tunnel that way are stupid.”

After thanking him profusely for his advice, I bee-lined in the direction he’d warned me against. After a few blocks, I found myself in a poorer section of Shobra. With the grand, if faded, architecture behind me, I saw only poor concrete structures. Donkey carts ruled there, and many of the smaller side streets were unpaved.

With 7 pounds in my pocket, and one of those dedicated to the return metro ride, I went to find dinner. Inspired by the men sitting next to me at the cafe, I stopped off at a produce market. Two tomatoes and two cucumbers cost me 2 pounds. I found an Old Cheese vendor a few blocks later and paid 2 pounds for half a kilo.

That would be good enough for an evening salad. I rode the metro home with 2 pounds to my name. I was discouraged that my 11 pounds was really only enough to buy the food and drink.

Yet many Egyptians support a family on the same amount.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Egypt:

A crumbling city

In Egypt, the talk is of succession

Face time at the Cairo zoo