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Update: Letter from Cairo

Egyptian cuisine is also on the move, thanks to Lebanese-born Nicha Sursock, Raouf Lofty, and Marod Sami, who own Abou el-Sid, one of the rare upscale restaurants in Cairo to specialize in Egyptian food. It is almost always packed with Egyptians, which turns out to be a delicate balancing act. "If you're serving Egyptian food," Sursock explains, "the Egyptians won't eat it because it's almost like they're insulting their mother or wife by not eating at home. So we have food mostly for the foreigners, and the bar is mostly for Egyptians. And there's a very Oriental atmosphere, which everyone likes."

It's a richly visual place--low tables, large pillows, a range of golds and browns, and of course the large water pipes, making this one of the few places in Cairo where young women can smoke shisha, flavored tobacco, without getting strange looks from men.

So if an Oriental atmosphere means pieces from all over the East in one room, postmodern design means Islamic and Japanese and Indian all in one piece, as in a chair and desk I saw at Alamein, a furniture design store in Zamalek. A few blocks away, another design store popular with both locals and expats, especially those in the embassies, is Beit Sherif, located in an amazing four-story villa with a newly completed attic based on descriptions in one of the classics of Oriental literature, The Thousand and One Nights.

Shisha pipes, The Thousand and One Nights—these seem like clichés of Orientalism even to a tourist come expressly to find them. To Egyptians they are aspects of Egypt, why they like being Egyptian. And Egyptians like the West enough not to feel self-conscious about being Oriental. They want to show you Haroun al-Rashid's palace in Old Cairo, where much of The Thousand and One Nights is set. Like Cairo, that anthology of different stories resists an ending, renewing itself repeatedly with whatever it finds at hand.

Lee Smith is currently living in Cairo and writing a book about Arab culture for Scribner.

The Facts

Diwan Books 159 26th of July St., Zamalek; 20-2/736-2578.
La Bodega 157 26th of July St., Zamalek; 20-2/735-6761; dinner for two $55.
Townhouse Gallery 10 Nabrawy St., off Champollion St.; 20-2/576-8600.
Abou el-Sid 157 26th of July St., Zamalek; 20-2/735-9640; dinner for two $30.
Alamein 15 Ahmed Heshmat St., Zamalek; 20-2/735-9987.
Beit Sherif 3A Baghat Ali St., Zamalek; 20-2/736-5689.

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