S t e l l a s !
The last time I remember it was really hard to buy beer was my senior year in high school. My friends and I had finally turned eighteen and wanted to be good citizens by exercising our new right to drink, legally. For us, drinking illegally was passe. Anybody could do it. We wanted to walk into a liquor store with our own ID's and our heads held high. The problem was that Illinois, where we lived, had cynically raised the drinking age to twenty-one. This obvious infringement of our civil rights (we had to register for a potential draft but couldn't drink?) forced us to drive an hour north to the great state of Wisconsin to do our civic duty and get our case of Shlitz, Milwaukee's Best, or Pabst Blue Ribbon, whichever was cheapest. After buying beer legally for the first time in a little mini-mart near Kenosha, I thought I'd never again feel the Prohibition like thrill of the illicit drink. That was until I traveled to Egypt this summer. !Egypt is full of contrasts and contradictions. The lush green Nile delta struggles to resist the endless and unforgiving Sahara desert. Rooftops are crowded with satellite dishes pointing to MTV-land above. Streets, sidewalks, and parks are crowded with bowed men praying in the direction of Mecca below. Frescoes, thousands of years old in nearly perfect condition, await visitors in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings outside Luxor, while back in town, a million tourist trinkets based on those frescoes are made far away in China to last, at best, one human lifetime. Along the trendy Red Sea coast, women beach goers, some nude and others covered from head to toe with only the ovals of their faces showing, swim in the salty waters side by side. And in the land where beer may have first been brewed thousands of years ago, finding a couple cold ones in southern Egypt had the clandestine feel of buying bathtub gin from a back room bootlegger. The trip began in Cairo, but now we (three Australians, two Americans, one Brit, and one Pole) had just arrived in the southern city of Aswan after a lumbering sixteen hour overnight train ride. Our first day in Aswan was filled with thirst inducing activities, from a two hour camel ride through the Sahara to a tour of the Nubian island village of Sohail, and when we finally made it back to the Hotel Cleopatra we wanted beer. We were aware from our pre-trip cultural training that alcohol is hard to find in the south of Egypt, so two of the Aussies, Mark and Amanda, and I volunteered to go on a search for cold Stellas (not the currently hip Stella Artois, but the Egyptian brewed lager). !We weren't surprised to find that the Cleopatra was dry, although clerks at the reception desk said that they knew a place, "not far," to find what we were looking for. "Go to the Nubian Hotel a few blocks away near the market," they told us. "There, they have many Stellas." So we ventured out into the bustling and dusty evening, the last smears of a sunset fading behind the silhouettes of a thousand rooftop satellite dishes interrupted now and then by the elegant point of a mosque's minaret. Lack of street signs or posted addresses forces tourists in Aswan into the kind of social interaction that would paralyze most American men, but Mark, a self-confident man from 'down under', had no problem asking directions when we got lost five minutes into our quest. He ducked into an open air coffee shop, where men (only men ) were playing dominoes and smoking sheesha pipes, and by using a combination of universal hand gestures for 'beer' and 'hotel' asked where we could find the Nubian. With a crudely drawn map we continued. Then, up ahead I saw an unlikely sight. A bar. Egyptian men (only men) were packed around small outdoor tables drinking frothy beverages from large glass mugs. "Hey Amanda," I said "Mark. Look. Beer." One glance and Amanda, who had been living in Egypt for a few months, let out a sigh, "It's sugarcane juice. It's got a kick if you can stomach it, but, well, it's probably not what you'd expect." This is why you need a guide in Egypt. Without Amanda, I would have muscled right up to that 'bar', ordered a cold one, and slammed a warm sugar slurry expecting a cold beer. Undeterred, we turned up the street towards the market, alive in the evening cool, and crowded with with donkey carts, knick-knack shops, the scent of mangoes, and apple flavored tobacco, and a hundred young street sellers asking the same questions over and over."Hey, friend. Where are you from? Australia? England? France? Espana? Italia?" (They never asked if we were from the States.) "I have what you want. Come, come. Look see. One pound. All, one pound." If you don't respond to these guys, they'll actually stand in your path and occasionally grab your arm trying to pull you into their shop. Western women, were always greeted like a construction worker whistling at a working girl, with the complement, "Hey, Shakira" Whereas men, if they were with a 'Shakira', were addressed as 'Casanovas.' Somehow not knowing it was a potential insult, these anxious sellers would always make a final pitch to the men before they got away and whisper, "You need viagra, Casanova?" After shaking off the salesmen, by chance we spotted a small sign above a falafel stand that marked the entrance to the Nubian Hotel. We started up the stairs only to be stopped by a knot of kids who immediately demanded baksheesh (somewhere between a tip and a bribe) for passage to the hotel lobby. We paid our toll and made it to the hotel where a surprised bellboy met us halfway across the room. "Do you have Stellas?" we asked. The clerk stepped back behind the reception desk and conferred with a fellow employee in Arabic. Then he disappeared into a back room. We were optimistic. A minute later he returned carrying a case of stella beer in cans. The clerk handed the case to Amanda and said "S t e l l a s!" like a magician who had just produced a litter of rabbits out of a hat. But, there was a problem. The beers were room temperature, which meant about 100 degrees. The three of us huddled in the middle of the lobby. As much as we wanted to bring the beers back to our friends at the Cleopatra and claim our mission a success, we really wanted cold beers we could actually drink. Feeling our indecision, the hotel clerk jumped in and said "five minutes, five minutes-cold" while pointing at a dorm room size refrigerator coughing in the corner. Amanda set the case down and shifted her eyes back and forth in a 'let's get out of here' motion. We followed her lead, and as we backed out of the lobby, mangled a late thank you in broken Arabic / English. Back on the street empty handed and thirsty, we started shuffling back towards the Cleopatra. Then, like finally spying Waldo in a circus crowd comic, I thought I glimpsed deep in the cool neon-lit confines of a soda cooler, the unmistakable combination of typeface and label design that signified beer. I tugged on Amanda's sleeve keeping my eyes on the cooler so the beers wouldn't vanish, like a mirage in the desert. "Yeah, I know. It's not.", she said. " You'd do better buying cough syrup. Those are 'malt beverages', no alcohol included." We must have looked like jonesing addicts, because no sooner had we started for home, than a couple of young Egyptian guys in tunics and sandals sashayed over and bisected our path. "What do you need?" "What do you look for, my friend?", they asked. Stellas, we answered flatly. There was a pause. "Beer. Stella beer," we clarified. "Ah ,Stellas. Yes. Wait right here, my friend. I get you Stellas." And immediately off one of them strode, looking over his shoulder waving a wait-a-minute finger. When he was just out of earshot, his competition, who introduced himself as Mustafa, ushered us out of the street and into one of the dozens of curio shops just out of the main path of the market. The owner stood at the back of the shop, tall and gaunt with heavy eyelids and a pencil thin mustache. A cigarette dangled from his lip a like film noir wise guy, while he rearranged kitschy ceramic miniature fountains on a glass countertop. Mustafa motioned us forward, and presented us to the shop owner as if we had been captured in the wild. He prompted us to make our request again in front of his boss. We did, and added with emphasis, "COLD." The shop owner nodded without stopping his work and gave a look to Mustafa as if to say " Keep it on the down-low". Mustafa understood. This wasn't the first time. On blind faith and fatigue, we agreed to the deal, handed over 120 pounds (about twelve dollars), and watched the wheels of the Aswan black market begin to turn. While the shop owner played look-out, Mustafa ducked behind the glass counter at the back of the room. Kneeling down with a hammer and screw driver he pried a hidden square panel out of the back wall that opened into a dark crawl space. Then he crawled in, leaving only his feet and ankles visible. There was the clink of glass, and he re-emerged with a canvas bag full of empty green Stella bottles. "Wait here," he said walking towards the door, "just a minute", and he disappeared into the night. "Just a minute" meant an 'Egyptian minute' which you learn quickly there is a psychological measurement of time. It can last five minutes or five hours depending on your state of mind. If you're relaxed and occupied in conversation or a demanding daydream, an Egyptian minute will pass quickly, but if you are agitated and anxious with an eye always on the clock, an Egyptian minute can be interminable. "Would you like tea?" the shop owner, who introduced himself as Akmed, asked (meaning sit down, relax you're going to be here awhile). "Sure, sure, yes, thanks", we said. Akmed walked out to get the tea leaving us alone in the shop, a shop full of coveted Egyptian tourist treasures. Miniature mummy bottle openers, pressed tin Tutankhamun ashtrays, blue ceramic scarab magnets, paintings on dried banana leaves (marketed as papyrus), and of course, the lost leader in every tourist market, 'real' Rolex watches. Akmed returned with a tray of short glasses filled with scarlet red hibiscus tea. Kindly, he didn't put on the hard sell while he had us captive. Since we didn't have to haggle, we scanned walls for something to spark conversation. High above the shelves of merchandise was a fading portrait of the Pope, but not the one from the Vatican. No, this was the Coptic Christian Pope. From what I could gather the Coptic Pope differs from the Catholic in two important ways. First, the Coptic Pope has a long well manicured beard, and second, he wears a uniquely shaped black hat totally different from the Catholic Pope's traditional miter. The Coptic hat when combined with the beard and the Pope's determined look gives the impression of a human exclamation point, or put another way the Coptic Pope looks like the kind of guilt inducing religious figure you'd expect to find throwing lightening bolts down from heaven. Mark, voicing a realization as it came to him, pointed at the portrait of the Pope as he shot a glance over at Akmed, and blurted out "You're Coptic and Mustafa's Muslim," as if he had just discovered a solution to the intractable religious troubles in the Middle East. Akmed nodded, took a long drag from his cigarette and waved us over as he cut through an exhaled ribbon of smoke, to look at something taped to underside of the glass counter next to the cash register. There were two photos of a dead man in a velvet lined coffin. The top photo was old and faded, the bottom crisp and new. Akmed told us that this was the same man, his great grandfather, at his funeral 40 years ago in the top picture and just last year when his coffin was reopened in the bottom. He pulled us in closer and pointed out how little his relative's body had deteriorated, how good he looked for being dead forty years. "See. See his face, the skin and hair." We acted rightly impressed but didn't know what to say that wouldn't be inappropriate, "You look a lot alike" at best, and blasphemous "He looks just like the mummies" at worst. Before we blundered, Mustafa burst in, sweating and out of breath, with the canvas bag hanging heavily over his shoulder.To conceal its true contents, he had stuffed crumpled newspapers into the bag over the contraband. The bag was soaked at the bottom and dripping on the floor. Inside there were twelve Stellas sweating away their coldness. Mustafa was in control of the situation now, so before he handed over the goods, he recounted his perilous and costly journey to secure our items. Whether the tale of vicious dogs, bribe demanding tourist police, and near arrest was true or not wasn't the point. Mustafa wanted baksheesh for his efforts. "100 pounds from your good hearts", Mustafa said looking up at us with imploring eyes. After some animated haggling, we agreed to pay an extra twenty so we could keep the bag to carry the beer. Mustafa followed us out into the street waving pictures of his extended family, trying to squeeze a little more from our 'good hearts', but the beer would only stay cold so long and after we said "shokran" (thank you) in unison, we didn't look back. !A short time later on the roof of the Cleopatra, we shared our catch with the rest of our groggy group who'd been waiting for nearly two hours. Nothing tastes better than food or drink you grow, cook, or track down yourself. Stella may not be John Brown from the Brewery, but it tasted good that night. Ten stories up the air was cooler and cleaner. To the east, we looked over the city of Aswan and to the west over the Nile where the following afternoon we would begin a three day felucca boat journey, north to the home of Stella's only competition in the Egyptian beer market, Luxor. : http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/loewenstein/camel.jpg : http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/loewenstein/stella.jpg : http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/loewenstein/luxor.jpg