Greasing the Wheels of Egypt's Underground Bacon Trade
In the third-floor office of the Egyptian newspaper I used to work for in Cairo, there was a little hallway just outside the newsroom that was good for taking calls, having a cigarette, or finishing an important game of Angry Birds. One day, my British colleague called me and the two other expat journalists out into that hall for something far more pressing. At first, I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about, but it quickly became clear from the awkward silence that this was a matter of grave importance.
“Close the door,” my colleague said.
Had someone been arrested? Were we finally staging a mass strike? Was it my birthday?
“So, I’m meeting my guy Sunday,” he said. “I’ll take the orders now, and you can pay me later. What do you guys want?”
Oh, drugs, I thought. Except it wasn’t drugs.
It did, however, involve a dealer—one you found by word of mouth, met on a street corner with handfuls of black bags, and who sought to ease the suffering of those in serious withdrawal from his product: bacon.
You may have heard of it, those chewy, salty strips of pig meat that crackle in their own grease, whose aroma wafts through kitchens and diners on Sunday morning. In the US, you’ll find bacon strips tossed into bloody marys, made into footballs, and wrapped around 99 percent of all foods at some point. Its unofficial motto in the US is “Add it because you can.”
In Egypt, though, the motto is more like “Where the hell is the bacon?”
It’s true that in some Middle Eastern countries pork is straight-up illegal, but this isn’t the case in Egypt, where 10 percent of the population are Coptic Christians who have been eating pork for centuries. Instead, it’s more a question of scarcity and quality.
Pork is rarely served at restaurants in Egypt; there are pork substitutes, but they rarely stack up. Speaking from experience, there are few disappointments in life quite as smile-sagging as ordering a bacon cheeseburger in Cairo only to realize that you’re chewing on the woody mediocrity that is turkey or beef bacon. And if you’re planning to snag a pack of the stuff at the local supermarket, you’ll be treated to a fleeting moment of hope when you see the bacon-shaped packets on refrigerated shelves, only to find more imitations inside.
Egyptians told me that before 2009, pork was easier to come by, even in supermarkets. So what happened that year? Apart from Kanye’s “I’mma let you finish” debacle and the Balloon Boy hoax, there was also a global scare over the H1N1 virus, with fears particularly pronounced in Egypt. That disease was better known by another name: swine flu. It was a moniker the Egyptian government approached very literally. Despite a lack of reported cases in Egypt, and against the advice of the World Health Organization, the country ordered the slaughter of of 300,000 pigs. It took years for the pig population to recover to even 50,000, with prices at local butchers rising from 20 Egyptian pounds ($3.50) per kilo in 2009 to 70 pounds ($10) per kilo in 2013.
For years, the pork supply was even scarcer than normal. In such times, it helps to know a guy, like my colleague Joel’s pork dealer.
“It’s a friend of a friend of a friend operation,” Joel said. “I think that’s how it got around. He would say, ‘How about your friends, does anyone else want anything?’ If you wanted it done really well, you’d go to this guy; he had his stuff together… It did always feel a little illicit, though.”
Every Sunday, the dealer would hang out at the street corner outside the Catholic Church in the upper-middle-class Zamalek neighborhood, waiting for customers. There, in Arabic or English, he would take new orders and fulfill those from previous weeks, handing over the goods in black bags like those used to mask purchases in liquor stores.
He had a wide selection that rotated from week to week, ranging from breakfast bacon, pork belly, and Serrano ham to bigger cuts like ribs, and the occasional WTF option, like deer.
This black-bag bacon would run you 160 Egyptian pounds—about $25 at the time—for 500 grams. An average 16-ounce (453-gram) packet of Oscar Mayer bacon in the US goes for only $5.
For those without a pork dealer, Cairo offers other fixes. There are pork butchers scattered throughout the city, especially in areas with large Christian populations. You can get your hands on locally processed pork there, but it has mixed reviews on flavor. As one friend who tried some pointed out, “The point of bacon is that it's delicious... If it tastes funny, you're just eating a fatty pile of crap.”
Many pork-friendly shops and restaurants rely more on imports and charge a premium, but they’re still a shade cheaper than the dealers. There’s German Star, which, true to its name, sources all its pork from Germany and touts its selection of sausages and bratwurst. There’s a British social club that gets its pork mostly from Brazil. There's Uno Ambrogio, a liquor store in Zamalek that has a deli counter in the back with ham, mortadella, and other cuts. And there’s a spot near the Italian consulate where, to get a decent slice of prosciutto, you have to walk down a dark side street and sign a guest book.
Pork also holds value as a currency for sweetening deals. In one expat message board, a poster was urgently seeking to borrow a vacuum cleaner. She offered to pay with a piece of Italian bacon.
It can also be a social draw: You might think twice about going to a party you’d otherwise skip if you knew there’d be bacon there. Given the price, however, it was a treat for special occasions. No matter how you slice it, though—whether gotten by pork dealer or upscale butcher—bringing home the literal bacon is something of an accomplishment in of itself.
“I bought a ham from [the pork dealer] for about 800 pounds [$120] for ham at Christmas,” recalled a former colleague. “It was so, so expensive. But I was a hero.”