I was a stranger to their land, but wanted to blend in. I wore the hijab, long pants and matching long sleeves. I had the tawny complexion and exotic features, but no matter how hard I tried, there was no way to fade into this crowd: throngs of Egyptians walking the streets of Cairo.
Was it my mannerisms that gave me away?
Or did I wear my excitement and awe of exploring this new culture on my long, linen sleeves?
Perhaps, it was how I spoke Arabic (just a beginner) or the fact that I was always lost (most definitely!)?
Either way, my month long stay in Egypt was life-defining, enriching and one that I’ll never forget. From exploring the Giza pyramids on horseback, to living like a Bedouin nomad in the White Desert, Egypt always provided me with new and perspective-changing experiences!
So when I had the opportunity to visit Little Egypt in Astoria, Queens, my heart raced with excitement! I looked forward to comparing and contrasting (blame the researcher in me- I’m hard wired for this kind of thinking) the Egypt I visited over a decade ago with several blocks along Steinway Street (between 28th Avenue and Astoria Blvd) in Astoria referred to as Little Egypt.
So what did my research uncover?
Right off the bat, I noticed an overarching theme in Little Egypt that I don’t remember dominating Cario, Egypt: hookah, hookah and more hookah!
Hookah is an instrument used throughout the Middle East to smoke vaporized, flavored tobacco. In Little Egypt, almost every storefront had hookahs advertised for sale and almost every restaurant featured a hookah bar. So if you’re fuming over the smoking ban in NYC restaurants, then you’ll likely find your fix at any of Little Egypt’s dozen or so hookah bars. But you’ll want to visit soon as a ban on hookah is being discussed.
After previewing the area that thousands of Egyptians call home in NYC, I headed to Sabry’s Seafood Restaurant for a lunch date. When you think of Egyptian food, what comes to mind? Pita, gyros and kebabs…well what about seafood? Sabry’s Seafood restaurant turns any Egyptian food lover’s perspective on its head by featuring southern Egyptian specialities in the form of grilled seafood dishes, barbecued fish entrees and seafood taojine.
I had the Grilled Bronzeiny with a side salad, and my friend, a deletable seafood soup. The food tasted great and the service was good also (restaurant owner helped identify a parking spot for my friend ). The only downer? The bill (I know a big issue, can’t downplay money). We noticed discrepancies on our bill and after some back and forth, Sabry’s made things right, so I’ll give them credit for that. Interestingly, during my research of the area restaurants, I came across this article by WookieHut Neighborhood Reviews which mentions having similar pricing issues.
Next stop on our Tour of Little Egypt, Laziza of New York’s Pastry Shop. This iconic pastry shop definitely earns it’s title. The pastries are amazing, reasonably priced and customer service is fantastic! My favorite dessert: cheese kanefah. Don’t let the orange candied Wheetabix sprinkled atop cheese scare you off like it almost did to me! This dessert is delicious and properly teeters between sweet and savory.
One of our last stops was to America’s first hookah lounge: the Egyptian Coffee House and Hookah Bar. We needed to recharge after our Little Eygpt marathon and settled in for a cup of Turkish coffee. Now, to experience this place as an all female duo requires some guts. When my friend and I first walked into the shop, we were greeted to a dark (literally) hole in the wall packed with an all male band of hookah smokers watching Arabic television…talk about intimidating! But, nevertheless, we pressed on to the outdoor back room visible from the entryway as there was more light in this area.
Walking into a dark hookah bar full of men as two lone women? Risky.
Having Turkish coffee at The Egyptian Coffee House in Astoria? Priceless.
Despite the scene, I never felt threatened or significantly uncomfortable. My friend and I were treated respectfully and politely. I felt at home at this place and actually, the decor in the back (or lack there of) kind of reminded me of some of the great hole in the wall establishments I frequented while in Egypt.
Before leaving, what at this point felt like my community after being there for 5 hours, we checked out a few Middle Eastern grocery stores and then departed ways. During my train ride home, I was able to reflect on my “staycation” to Little Egypt and cracked a smile. Where else can you be transported half way across the globe locally?
New York is such an incredible place!
Egypt at home
My Egypt at home experience was great; no complaints here. I enjoyed eating the koshari, though making it was a different experience (4 different pots/pans!??). At first glance, I wasn’t excited to eat koshari because of it’s bland colors. Think beige on beige on brown, but after first bite, I was hooked again and reminded of why this dish was my favorite in Egypt!
And for the movie suggestion: Scheherazade Tell Me a Story ? A must see if you have any interest in exploring feminism in Egypt. The movie is engaging while entertaining; not an easy feat. Scheheazade is an Egyptian talk show host who, in an effort to bolster her husband’s highly politicized career, redirects the focus of her show to something more apolitical. She finds herself interviewing women, long disgraced and ostracized in their communities, as the show’s feature. Before long, addressing the feminist viewpoint in Egypt touches a nerve in the political arena that Scheherazade sought to avoid and further complicates her relations with her spouse and some viewers. I like this movie as it lifts the veil, so to speak, on issues facing Egyptian and Muslim women.
How you been to Little Egypt? What was your experience?
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