food / travel
September 14, 2017
CAIRO — There is something tempting, even captivating, about the opportunity to temporarily experience being someone different, someone perhaps more interesting. Though this might be intimidating ordinarily, there is no need to worry in this instance, as it's only for a couple of hours, and your friends can be with you. You won't encounter any physical violence and no one will mention your mother.
All the torture devices you see are purely for decoration, so are the blood stains on the walls. You can take as many pictures as you like to celebrate a friend's birthday and publicly exhibit this surreal experience. Oh, and you won't go hungry; on the contrary, this is the main activity during your two-hour inmate impersonation. You'll have incomparably better food and still get to call it "jail food" as you play prisoner.
Though well intentioned (at least so they say), the restaurant "Garemt Akl" (eating crime), is a naïve attempt to tap into a trending curiosity about incarceration among the Egyptian public, like when Mohamed Diab's 2016 film Clash offered to virtually place audiences in the back of a police van. The restaurant promises a full fledged prison food experience, through which co-owner Mohamed Hammad promises "to keep impressing guests … in good spirit and humor."
The idea and the experience have apparently "taken Cairo by storm," according to one news report. But why is it so popular? Do its customers contemplate what is beyond this superficial experience in Nasr City?
What this restaurant, and the trend in general, lacks is the essence of the experience it promises: it is prison food without the prison. Not only is this absurd, it is incredibly insensitive — analogous to the festive embrace of advocated violence in the The Hunger Games trilogy. Like citizens of the Capitol, guests can feast as they overlook the very distant, surreal, arena of violence. Better yet, they can dine inside the empty arena, and pretend to be tributes. Problematic? Sure. Insensitive? Definitely. All in the name of good spirit, appetite and fun.
Hammad considers the design of the physical space a work of art. Due to difficulty sourcing handcuffs, ankle chains and hanging ropes in Cairo, he and his team had these items custom made for their bloody masterpiece. Speaking of blood, it is splattered all over the walls of the restaurant, almost like a visual appetizer. The only thing missing, although I'm sure it could be custom ordered is Rue"s body.
The sight of fake blood doesn't appear to put people off. Some customer reviews, like the one here, describe the décor as "a beautiful, cool, new idea that whets appetites."
As for the general atmosphere, another customer describes it as "simple and soothing."
Some of the meal names are outrageous: "Precedent" is so small that it costs LE9 (50 cents), while a "life sentence" costs five times as much. If you order an "execution," it will set you back LE90 ($5). "You're lucky if you get an execution — your stomach must have prayed for you," another customer writes.
Just in case you're wondering, death row inmates in Egypt do not have last meal requests, let alone last meals. The amount of food their families are allowed to bring them actually decreases until, in the words of one family member of a death row detainee, they are not even allowed to put food on plastic or foam plates — the only food family members are allowed to bring as they visit is a spoonful of rice in a plastic bag.
The whole experience is captured in the restaurant's built-in photo booth, which, according to Hammad, is "the bit that many of our visitors enjoy the most." Apparently the best thing about these mug shots is the props — handcuffs and sentences.
Where are the critics of such ill-conceived initiatives? Most reviews on the Garemt Akl Facebook page complain about the quality of the food or service. In contrast, 192 three to five-star reviews praise the whole experience.
The trend in macabre reality-as-entertainment restaurants did not start with Garemt Akl. Prison-themed restaurants existed in 19th century France, where waiters dressed as convicts walked with ankle chains in Café du Bagne, and cells and dungeons were features of Chateau d'If". Later examples include The Jail Cafe in Los Angeles, where customers had to crouch to walk down a long corridor to reach their cell-tables, escorted by black waiters dressed as convicts. When two bandits walked in and ordered everyone to put their hands up in 1926, the customers thought it was part of the experience, before realizing they were actually being robbed. This incident, however, did not prevent the restaurant from earning its place among the "Seven Wonders of Hollywood" three years later.
None of these experiences go beyond the superficiality of blood-stained walls and drama, and merely serve to reinforce the divide between the restaurant goers and actual inmates. It is an experience predicated on festivity, liminality and distancing, where the closest one gets to the real thing is by scratching the surface of the surreal.
It is also a troubling reinforcement of the injustices of the prison system. In the Egyptian context, where there is absolutely no public access to official information regarding incarceration (or pretty much anything), prisons occupy abstract, distant and mysterious parts of the public imagination. Films and television are generally the only way to visualize the inside of a jail cell, making the opportunity to experience anything dubbed "prison" tempting for some.
Perhaps prison-themed restaurants are so popular because they serve to actually reinforce existing societal separations by way of distancing. It makes sense for people to desire this kind of exoticized experience as spectators or Capitol-customers, as a form of entertainment or voyeurism, if the entire experience is reduced to a matter of alter-reality. In other words, if there is absolutely no personal connection to the prison setting, the restaurant experience provides enough distance for the consumer, to the extent that reality itself becomes suspended. The experience becomes a virtual game, a performance that is anything but real.
I imagine the news of Garemt Akl's existence reaching prisoners, or their families, and this makes me shudder. While the restaurant is an unapologetically capitalistic venture, it cannot be dismissed as mere ‘harmless entertainment." It distorts the conception of prisons and inmates even further in the imaginations of some, at a time when Egypt's prisons are full of political dissidents and 19 new prisons are being built to hold them.
Watching tributes fight as you dine in front of the TV screen is not comparable to actually being in the arena: hot, threatened, hungry, scared, humiliated and alone, with spectators rejoicing in your suffering and the inevitable proximity of your death. Nor is receiving an "execution" in a themed restaurant in any way comparable to experiencing the horrors of prison in Egypt.
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food / travel
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson
October 26, 2021
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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