Hee Haw

15 07 2009

Headache, sore throat, congestion. Also the feeling I’ve been run over by a pair of cage-circling motorcycles a few dozen times. I’m under the weather. Daddy Yankee has taken to calling me “H1N1”, as in, “Don’t touch my pillow, H1N1,” or “I’m not sharing my fork with you, H1N1.”

Don’t think I haven’t been careful. I was paranoid on the flight over here–airplanes are some of the worst places to contract illness, just ask Joe Biden–but I thought I’d made out OK.

When we arrived at the Cairo airport 11 days ago, six surgi-masked health workers screened us for swine flu. One woman in her 20’s asked me to step up to a yellow line. I thought I was being photographed, like at the DMV, so I smiled big. Turns out it was an infrared scan to check for fever. I got the all clear.

Knowing what hypochondriacs Egyptians tend to be, I’d bet I can clear out a cafe if I so much as sniffled in one. In fact, Alexandria, the city vacationing Egyptians clog every summer, is noticeably quieter this year. No circling around for 20 minutes to find a parking spot. No adolescents bumping into you in the pool. No huge lines at the legendary Mohammed Ahmed falafel place. Among the theories as to why this is: people are avoiding crowds in hopes they won’t contract swine flu.

Speaking of swine, much of our conversation with the natives here has consisted of questionable meat stories. This whole thing about restaurants being caught serving meat other than poultry, beef or lamb has become a big deal around here. What do they serve instead? Donkey. That’s the word on the street, at least. And in the movies.

I caught part of a comedy on TV the other day where there was a scene with a father and son. The father says to the son, “I used to take your mother here whenever I wanted to make her happy.” And the son, gnawing at a rib longer than his arm, says, “I’ve never seen ribs this big!”

Then right away you see restaurant inspectors hauling a live donkey out of the kitchen.

Last year I met a journalist here who told me she went undercover for several weeks (what is this, “21 Jump Street”?) and wrote an expose about a restaurant that served donkey meat when the menu clearly said “beef.” Supposedly lots of restaurants have been shut down for violations of this sort, some substituting pork for beef. I’m not sure what’s worse in the Islamic world–donkey or pig– but I’m guessing the pig.

The other day my mother and I were leaving the San Stefano Mall in Alexandria, and she had a craving for a chopped liver sandwich. This is supposed to be an Alexandria specialty. So we went out in search of one, and as luck would have it, a shop across the street, Abu Awad, made them. We ordered four.

They were dirt cheap, less than 4 Egyptian Pounds each, or 80 cents. Mom ran in to use the restroom while I waited for the sandwiches. It works like this: you stand in front of a tall counter, and behind the glass, the man makes your sandwich, sort of like they do at Subway. But the glass was painted black, so you can see your little sandwich maker toiling away at the shoulders, but you can’t see below that, even if you stood up on your toes. This made me a little uneasy. For all I could tell, he was filling my sandwich with armpit hair and snot. But the workers were playing a cheerful song turned up loud in the kitchen, and the man seemed to be in good spirits, so when he handed me the chopped liver sandwiches, I took them without questioning and dug right in. And guess what? It tasted great.

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