The Groove of Routine

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A Travelogue in Five Parts By Nicholas Kulish

Nicholas Kulish spent more than half a decade tracing the path of Aribert Heim, a Nazi concentration camp doctor who fled postwar justice in Germany. The research for his book on Heim, The Eternal Nazico-authored with Souad Mekhennet, led him to Denmark, Austria, Egypt, Morocco, and across Germany. This week on the Logger we’ll be posting five entries from his travels. Catch up with Part I. 

II. Cairo, Egypt

If you wanted to eat well in Cairo, really well, you had to go to Chelsea’s. Nagi was adamant about this. I was intrigued. Was it called that because it was New York style, I quizzed him, like the neighborhood Chelsea? He didn’t know. Did an American or an Englishwoman named Chelsea start it? Possibly, but he was unsure. Had they dubbed it in honor of Bill Clinton’s daughter? Again, he couldn’t say. These weren’t the sorts of questions that occupied Nagi. He was all about the food. Chelsea’s wasn’t in the guidebook, nor could I Google it. Most likely it had an unusual spelling we didn’t know or was such a small neighborhood place that you could only find it if you passed it.

To say that Nagi was the driver in Egypt for my coauthor Souad Mekhennet and me would accurately describe the invoice but somehow miss the point entirely. Guide, advisor, local historian, hilarious friend and cranky uncle: all would be closer to the mark. When we were stuck in traffic—and more often than not we were stuck in traffic—he would use the license plate of the car in front of us to quiz me on my Arabic numbers. I would practice expressions from the Berlitz course on my iPod, “Is this the way to the airport?” and he would chortle merrily at my hopeless pronunciation. He smoothed over small misunderstandings, chatted up employees at hospitals and graveyards. He was indispensible.

Nagi also loved to eat, as often as six times a day. Within an hour or two of breakfast I would find myself sharing several ta’amiya sandwiches from a street vendor or a corner shop tucked into a downtown alley. When we went out for dinner in Nasr City with Mahmoud Doma, one of Heim’s closest confidantes in Egypt, Nagi polished off my leftover stuffed pigeon, then asked to have Souad’s wrapped up for takeaway. In the afternoon we would tell him we needed a quick stop for something to eat and find ourselves impatiently wading through a five-course lunch, the day slipping away from us as Nagi sipped lentil soup and nibbled delicately on pickled vegetables.

To save money we stayed at the apartments of friends and acquaintances. As much as we could we cooked to cut down on costs. When I was writing my first never-published novel after college I waged a war of attrition against the Goya company’s black bean reserves. Every day for months I ate frijoles negros and rice with a side of nothing. I revived the tradition in Egypt but with a local twist, attempting to perfect the local fava bean stew known as ful.

One afternoon after many practice batches I invited Nagi for a lunchtime bowl of ful at the apartment where we were staying. He sampled it like the king’s royal taster or, probably more accurately, the king himself, and declared it good, surprisingly good even. Then with a mocking sneer he suggested that, should the writing profession not work out for me, I could peddle vats of ful to commuters on the streets of Cairo. He chuckled his deep chuckle.

As a traditional Egyptian, a grandfather already, Nagi found it hard to reconcile himself to the idea of a man cooking. He understood that customs were different where I came from but why didn’t I leave the kitchen matters to Souad? Her fresh baba ghanoush was admittedly better than anything I had ever prepared for him. These questions were among his preoccupations at the time. We learned that his wife had passed away recently and Nagi had never lived without a woman, transitioning from his mother’s care to his wife’s as a young man. He did not have the first idea how to prepare anything for himself. He usually ate with one of his children, got carryout or simply didn’t eat when he was home alone. He was considering remarrying, barely a month after his wife’s death. His children thought it was too soon but there was a widow who needed a husband and it was becoming clearer to us by the day that he was having trouble taking care of himself.

We learned that he was diabetic. His son asked us if we could try to steer his father toward healthier food. We thought back guiltily to our recent lunch in Alexandria. We had driven up along the path of the Nile, into the fertile delta and all the way to the ancient city of Cleopatra. There, overlooking the Mediterranean with its millennia-old dining tradition of olives and fish plucked straight from the sea, we were sharing a family-sized coleslaw at the KFC. A few ice crystals still crunched between the grated cabbage and carrots with each mostly unfrozen bite. It had been Nagi’s turn to choose and he picked the Colonel’s chicken. We understood his son’s concerns but it was difficult to tell a man old enough to be our father that his son wanted us to restrict his diet.

We vowed that we would not make the same mistake again. A hardline diet of vegetables and steamed fish was planned. We strategized ways to steer him away from processed fats and corn syrup and meaty dishes. We still carried all these good intentions the next afternoon as the traffic in Cairo groaned to the kind of exhaust-choked halt that turned entire districts into grumbling, sputtering parking lots. Rather than risk the car overheating we asked Nagi if he knew anywhere good to eat in the neighborhood. This was, in fact, our lucky day. We were around the corner from Chelsea’s! We celebrated our good luck and encouraged him to take us there immediately. Pilot us, good sir, straight to Chelsea’s. The gleam in his eye spoke of anticipation, promised delicacies.

He turned into the parking lot of a Chili’s restaurant, clearly one of his famous traffic-beating shortcuts. Except instead of popping out the other side of the lot the car lurched into a space. Nagi switched off the ignition and hopped out of the car.

“We’re going to Chili’s, aren’t we?” I asked Souad.

“Kulish, it looks that way,” she replied.

“We can’t let him eat here,” I said. She agreed.

But he was already sitting down when we caught up to him on the outdoor patio. One hand swept toward the open seats in a wide welcoming arc, the other already held the plastic menu with the little red pepper instead of the apostrophe in the word Chili’s. It was a special day and this was his treat, he said with some satisfaction.

“What’s good here?” I asked.

“Everything,” he answered.

See Part I. Part IIPart IIIPart IV.

Nicholas Kulish is the East Africa correspondent for the New York Times. His latest book is The Eternal NaziFollow him @nkulish.