If someone had told me a week ago that one of the most culturally edifying experiences I would have in Egypt would happen at an On the Border in the CityStars mall, I would have first given him an odd look, and then laughed in his face. I shouldn’t have metaphorically reacted so brusquely – one of the many beauties of traveling is that everything is a learning experience, even eating at an American chain restaurant in a megamall.
To explain, the CityStars mall is complex – far bigger than the Mall of America or any other competitor. Within the complex stand three hotels; 266 apartments, duplexes and penthouses; 70,000 square meters of office space; a huge grocery store; and a medical center. We feared that we would be dropped off in the wrong place, but there were no problems.
After doing some shopping, which was also filled with images I’ll never forget (have you ever seen a woman in a burka hold up a tank top?), we decided it was time to eat, seeing how most of the stores were beginning to close for iftar anyway. There isn’t much in the way of authenticity at CityStars (i.e. no 40 cent koushary), so we decided to go all-out and get Mexican food at On the Border.
When we arrived, there were maybe four tables occupied in the entire restaurant, but for some reason we were told that it was full and we couldn’t eat there. “What?” we responded, pointedly noting the dozens of empty tables in front of us. “Reserved,” the man explained apologetically, “for iftar.” Not even caring about the cultural coolness of the fact that no one had arrived even 15 minutes early, we begged the man to let us eat at the bar, and he acquiesced.
The bartenders were pouring drinks by the dozen, and one, Muhammad, gave a girl in our group a glass to try. “Mmm!” she responded, making hand gestures to reinforce the fact that she liked it. Muhammad smiled and nodded, and then distributed the same drink to the rest of us, assuring us that they were “free, free- and refills forever.” I have no idea what it is really called, but it’s a deep red – almost purple – drink, maybe hibiscus, and it sounds like “ker-kadi.” It’s delicious. According to Muhammad, it is often one of the first things you drink when breaking your fast. After refills, they gave us fresh apricot juice, another common iftar drink. And after we ordered our real meal, they distributed us individual plates of three dates! Delicious.
Meanwhile, all of the tables were being set with the same drinks and dates, as well as chips and salsa. The restaurant was beginning to fill up, and the atmosphere was a tense loud. No one had eaten, smoked or had anything to drink since before sunrise, and they were sitting there talking, looking at the delicious food and drink spread out on the table in front of them, and weren’t touching any of it.
Then the coolest thing happened. The TV changed from Arabic cartoons to the call to prayer, and everyone lunged in unison for their drink, food, or cigarette – the atmosphere transformed from tense and anticipatory to smoky and laughter-filled on a dime. If you hadn’t known the background of the scene, you may have thought that everyone had been hypnotized to act in harmony with each other.
There are always benefits to seeing the gritty, “real world” of where you are traveling, but malls and Western restaurants are not “imaginary.” They have impacted the culture just like cars and computers, which you would never scoff at using while traveling. The mixture between traditional religious Muslim values, Mexican food and an American chain restaurant was an experience that will not soon be forgotten.