Greetings from Cairo part IX
Published in Ishtar 1/2008

The Winter Wonderland in the South

Translated from Finnish by Anu Toivonen

During the cold wintertime, northern people longingly think of the southern warmth. Oh, well! For my part, I envy all the Finns. Yes, we do have light here but I’ve never been so cold in my entire life as during my time down here in Egypt: it is cold here!

Most of my local friends ask me every winter if I feel lucky to be away from the Finland’s cold winter. ’They have subzero temperatures there, and ice!’ In Egyptian Arabic, there is only one word for ice and snow, talg, and even in English the difference between the two seems to escape the locals. They know ’ice’, but ’snow’ remains difficult. The discussion usually proceeds along the following lines:
Friend: ’How’s the weather in Finland?’
I: ’Normal for the winter: at this time it’s about minus ten degrees Centigrade.’
F. ’Below zero?’
I: ’Yes. But later on, it will be even colder, about minus twenty.’
F: ’It is better here.’
I: ’No it isn’t - it’s cold here! It’s better there!’
F: ’What? It is better here?’
I: ’No, it is better there, in Finland! It is cold here!’
At this point my friend’s eyes glaze over and the brain seems to switch to idle. So, let’s take it all over again from the beginning.

What makes the Egyptian winter so much harder on a Finn? Geographically we are in warmer latitudes here in Egypt and the sun’s rays give warmth and light even in mid-winter.

At home

The buildings have absolutely no central heating system. It pays to open all the windows and doors in the daytime to let the sun-warmed air in. In the evening, there is a cold draught through all the cracks in them and the stone walls radiate cold. There are portable gas and electric heaters, but they only radiate warmth within a metre or two and then usually only in one direction. The gas heaters are risky and accidents happen frequently. Electricity, on the other hand, is relatively expensive. In practise, the heaters are kept on for a couple of hours in the evening as it is dangerous to leave the gas heaters on for the night and too expensive to let the electric ones to run.

Owning a good duvet is a necessity and a good investment. I am used to sleeping in a multi-layered night clothing under a thick duvet and I still wake up with the tip of my nose freezing cold. In addition to the bed, another favourite place at home is the bathtub. A tub-full of hot water warms you nicely – and in the summer you can take cool baths. My sympathies for those who have no hot water in the house.


In January, the daytime temperatures reach a comfortable 15°C and it is sunny. For a Finn it is strange when what you see is not what you feel: when it is cold it’s supposed to be dark and there’s supposed to be snow. The Egyptian winter looks no different from the summer, with the exception of less warmth in the sun. The birds keep singing and the leaves are still on the trees. And amidst all this constancy, you are freezing.

In Finland, you can escape the cold in many ways. For example, you can pop in a shop if it gets really cold on the streets. In Egypt, many shops have one wall open to the street and, as there is no door, the shop is closed by drawing a metal roller door in front of it. This makes the air in the shop practically the same with the outside air and the shopkeepers are dressed in their overcoats and gloves all day long. Besides, the shops being so small it is impractical to keep loitering in them anyway.

In theory, it is nice to sit in a warm car watching the scenery. However, the Cairene cars tend to be so ancient that the heaters are no longer working. In addition to this, the taxi windows are often wound permanently open, so you really get the maximum cold blast.

The evening wind is really cold. When working on the Nile Boats, I need to wait for my turn on the deck with the musicians. The night-time conditions on the Nile are ruthless, and even the best coat or cover brought from Finland is no use. Luckily, they do take some of the bite out of the wind, but I shudder to think how the musicians are feeling.


I keep wondering how the locals manage in the cold. On the surface, most of the people look the same all the year round and there are no actual out-door garments, except for the coat. Layering is the key in this climate as well. You may be wearing four separate tops: chemise, body, a blouse with long sleeves and a pullover. Under the pants you wear a pair of tights and a couple of pairs of leggings to keep the cold at bay and the same garments work with a galabeya. You finish your outfit with gloves and a scarf around the neck. The old men wearing the galabeya are aware of the basics: the crown of the head radiates heat, so they wind a long woollen scarf around the head – the whole of it may reach 20cm upwards but it does not cover the ears. Clothing materials reach from cotton to synthetic fibres. Warm wool is relatively expensive, so the warm-looking coats may not really be warm at all.

On the inside

The climate here is different and so is the cold. In Finland, the cold comes from the outside: the frost nibbles at your ears and bites at your toes. In Egypt, the cold crawls inside you and keeps radiating there as if your bones had been stored in a freezer for a while – no amount of flesh around them will keep you warm. Mulled wine with a shot of something stronger in it might work.

After all this, the Finns may be grateful for their central heating systems. Please, send me a few warm thoughts to dispel this cold! Thank you!




Photo by Päivi Arvonen

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