The Beauty and Danger of Omar Khayyam

Since tonight is my night to cook, I will be subjecting my roommates to Gwyneth’s Grilled Tuna Rolls, whether they like it or not. We’ll see how it goes! I’m cautiously optimistic. But seeing as I won’t have anything to report until tomorrow, this means today you are forced to endure my random, completely tangential musings. My friends are surely going to shout, “Off-topic, off-topic!” at me, but I make the Blog Rules around here. And today, I’m thinking we should talk wine.

More specifically, Omar Khayyam, the crown jewel of Egypt’s wine industry. You see, four years ago, I spend the first half of my Junior year of college studying abroad in Cairo, Egypt. As you can imagine, a great deal of stories came out of that trip — as well as five life-long friends — and it remains undoubtedly the greatest four months of my entire life. (Word of advice to any college or high school kids reading this: Study abroad. And do it somewhere you’ll be completely out of your element. It’ll be kind of awful and more than a little uncomfortable and possibly even life-threatening, but it’s absolutely worth it.) To cope with the absolute, indescribable insanity of Cairo, my friends and I often turned to our old friend Omar.

Omar Khayyam is owned by a company called Gianaclis, which is itself owned by Heineken. Virtually all of the alcohol in Egypt falls under the Heineken umbrella, whether you’re having a glass of Omar or a bottle of Stella, the national beer (no relation to Stella Artois). Wine-making obviously has a rich history in Egypt (as does virtually everything else), extending back thousands and thousands of years. So, naturally, these guys would have to be pretty good at it, right? Oh, god, absolutely fucking not.

Omar is almost undrinkable. It is unanimously reviled, and you will get a strange look from a waiter if you order a bottle for your table at a restaurant. A big reason for this is because most Egyptians don’t drink alcohol, since the majority of the country is Muslim, so there’s really no need for a healthy, vibrant wine industry to exist in the country. As proof that no one actually likes Omar, I point you to this hilarious article from the New York Times, in which one of the actual executives of the company that MAKES Omar says, “I don’t let it in my house.”

Not only does it taste terrible, but it also comes with the added risk of danger. Since the only people who really drink in Egypt tend to be foreigners, the alcohol industry can be quite shady. We were warned profusely before arriving in Cairo to be very, very cautious with alcohol. My school flat-out told me not to drink at all, filling my head with horrific stories of students returning from Cairo without their vision. Losing one’s sight to a faulty batch of alcohol in Cairo is surprisingly more common than you would think (although it thankfully didn’t happen to anyone in my program), as evidenced by the following fantastic quote from that same NY Times article: “Things were especially bad after President Mubarak’s pilot drank our whisky and went blind. But the truth is, Egyptian wine is better than French wine.”

The idea of not drinking while on what was more or less a four-month vacation was unthinkable to us students, of course, so we just went ahead and risked it. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with my friend Beckett (we actually moved out of the dorms and rented the apartment the second week of the program, which is a very entertaining story in its own right, but this is neither the time nor the place for that) on the island of Zamalek, a “higher-class” area (comparatively) of Cairo, smack in the middle of the Nile river.

When we’d have our friends over, we’d often order alcohol from the only liquor store on the island, the helpfully named Drinkie’s. To meet the minimum required order for delivery, we’d often order four bottles of Omar and then just tell them to throw cans of Stella into a garbage bag until we hit the minimum. We were very, very classy.

An unfortunate problem we encountered was the absolute lack of corkscrews in the country. We spent four months there, and I don’t ever recall seeing a corkscrew even once. As a result, we were forced to improvise our bottle-opening techniques, and we eventually invented a very efficient system, which we came to grow quite fond of, and which I am now revealing to the world. To properly open a bottle of Omar Khayyam, simply follow these steps:

  1. Get a butter knife and a frying pan.
  2. Stab the butter knife down into the top of the cork.
  3. Smack the butter knife with the bottom of the frying pan, until it pops into the bottle. Some spillover may occur with the addition of the cork’s extra volume to the bottle, so you may need to stop and periodically drain some wine to make room for the cork. Do not waste a drop of Omar Khayyam.
  4. When the cork and butter knife are fully immersed in the wine, pour yourself a glass. You’ve earned it!
  5. Upon finishing the bottle, tip upside-down and pull the knife back out from the neck of the bottle.
  6. Repeat as necessary, until your teeth are horrifically purple and you are no longer bothered by non-stop honking car horns, sweltering heat and stifling sandstorms, and/or strange men pinching your ass on street corners.

This method was achieved through painful trial-and-error, so you may need to experiment with it a bit to figure out what’s best for yourself. An important thing to keep in mind is that you will probably lose several knives, as well as completely ruining your frying pan. By the end of our four months, our frying pan looked more like a miniature sombrero, as the bottom had been completely dented upwards. But it was a necessary casualty.

Beckett and Allyson attempting to open Omar, in the era we’ll call Pre-Frying Pan.

When you finally get a taste of Omar, you’ll probably wonder what all the fuss was about, and why you just ruined your frying pan for this. It simply can’t be described. It’s awful. As a bunch of 20-year-old kids, we knew next to nothing about wine, but even we could tell that it was possibly the worst wine in the entire world. Ridiculously dry, almost painfully so, it tasted a bit like dirt. Elizabeth and I were fond of the red, while Beckett and Allyson would usually buy the rose. Elizabeth and I would quickly gulp down our two bottles (Christ, this may make us sound terrible, on second consideration), while Beckett and Allyson would slowly sip their rose like a couple of adults. Elizabeth and I would then greedily snatch up their bottle and help ourselves to some of the unfinished rose, complaining the entire time, as if one variety of Omar is any better than another. It was all garbage, but we were garbage snobs.

Emily, Beckett, Megan, myself, and Allyson, most likely sporting purple-stained teeth.

Needless to say, Omar Khayyam fostered some of the most enjoyable times of my life, and even though it is most likely the worst wine anyone could ever ingest, it truly is my favorite wine on the planet. It may make me sound like an alcoholic to say it, but I have an actual, legitimate emotional reaction when I think about Omar, which is more than I can say for any other beverage. And I’m not the only one. Take a look at this recent conversation between Elizabeth and I:

Elizabeth:  check your phone

(I check my phone and see that Elizabeth has sent me the following image:)

Elizabeth:  my teacher brought back a bottle when she visited me
and we drank it last month
me:  Ffffffuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.
Elizabeth:  we were afraid to try it
me:  Oh my god, barf it up right now please.
Elizabeth:  right before we took our first sips i was like, “should we leave a note?”
i honestly think it got better
me:  I am livid with jealousy.
My body has a chemical addiction to Omar that apparently never fades over the years.
Elizabeth:  godddd
me:  What was it LIKE? Did you cry/see God?
Elizabeth:  it resembled wine
we started off poorly, because my teacher opened it with a corkscrew
i just stood there shaking my head
she wouldnt let me use her frying pans
me:  Ugh, amateur.
Elizabeth:  it was very very mellow
i think the grapes kinda wimped out
but it tasted the same

As you can see, for some of us Omar remains the most sanctified of wines. Like an old friend, it was there during many of our more outrageous moments abroad, and helped fuse the six of us into a solid group that, four years later, frequently stays in touch with each other and often plans ways to meet up as much as possible. Omar Khayyam stands as a perfect metaphor for Cairo, and it embodies everything we came to love about that city: it’s dirty and comes with a terrible reputation, it has an astonishingly long and sordid history that ultimately leads to corruption and abuse, it’s almost impossible to crack into and understand, and it guarantees you some of the best memories of your life. I guess in that respect, Egyptian wine truly is better than French wine. As long as you don’t go blind.



Filed under Non-Gwyneth

8 responses to “The Beauty and Danger of Omar Khayyam

  1. Betsy

    Blindness is a small price to pay for a night of fun, no?

  2. rbelrbel

    Sounds like someone went to AUC — I went for my study abroad junior year about 5 years ago. That first pic looks like it was taken at Hureya’s. I laughed out loud when I saw it. 🙂 Definitely spent many happy hours there…I think.

    • YES. We’re the last of the old, good AUC breed. Not the new school, which I hear is overrun with desert rats and has filing cabinets too small to fit actual files.

  3. JT

    I have a similar experience with cheap foreign wine but mine was in Argentina where a 50-cent bottle actually tastes great (thank you, awesome exchange rate). As a genius bunch of early 20-somethings, we mixed it with Sprite; I’m not sure why – maybe because we were classy like that. Malbec and lemon/lime drinks still make me nostalgic for all things Argentine. I’ve also run up against the lack of corkscrew dilemma, but one of my friends actually knew how to open the bottle by beating the bottom of the bottle hard against a wall until the cork pops out. It worked (and left a lovely gash in the wall).

  4. Amy

    Sounds like my experiences with Boones Farm Strawberry Hill in high school! Except my evenings usually ended in the back of an El Camino making regretful choices. Never mind ~ sounds nothing like Cairo.

  5. lbs30

    I can’t believe it’s been 4 years since you went to Egypt.

  6. chick110

    No naked Fawooz mentions? Oh, I forgot people are coming here for DINING stories…

  7. elizabeth

    Glory days, friend. I think we only broke a bottle once, and of course played it safe by just taking small sips and picking out the larger chunks of glass.

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