Thursday, August 31, 2006

Earlier this evening, as M and I made our way back from the considerable bustle of 26th July St., where we had procured several mangoes, dates and guavas (all deliciously in season), in addition to a book of stories by Honore de Balzac, who deals directly in naturalist fiction unlike Paul Bowles, who mistakes Arab nomads (or, as I like to call them, people) for forces of nature, which may or may not offend one’s sensibilities, we were walking past the President Hotel near our street. That is when we spied one of the many shoe shiners who populate the city. It is a nifty business venture. The man had a small apparatus upon which you could set the foot being cleaned, under which was a small compartment where he kept the brushes and saddle soap, the balsam and the many towels, all of which served particular purpose. He was in the process of cleaning another man’s shoes, which is another reason why it is a nifty business venture: the job advertises itself. I wonder, now, how much an apparatus like that costs a regular Egyptian man, how large such an investment looms in the fortune of his family.

In my experience previous to Cairo, I had only observed shoe shiners on the streets and in the great transportation hubs of New York and Chicago, and honestly I had not much cared for the clientele of aging businessmen, getting their wingtips shined to a luster. If you know what I mean. I had always classified shoe shining as something for the dressy-poo professional set, whom I suspected perceived the activity as both necessity and symbol of middle class status. It seemed, in either regard, superfluous to a man like myself.

Now I have come home to it. Cairo is a dusty and dirty city in many respects. I don’t think your average American would care for it, and truly, we accept it by force of will and by force of fact. And then, habit struck: I thought to myself that, after all, it is a dusty city, and really my lovely Doc Martens have been looking a bit worse for the wear lately. I should note that these Doc Martens are already the embodiment of considerable good fortune on my part, as I purchased them at Minneapolis’ own Unique Thrift Store for a measly $7. They are the Rosetta Stone of thrift store finds. These shoes were in remarkable condition when I purchased them, and they have been ideal footwear for the cracked, crumbling, holey and otherwise uneven sidewalks and streets of Cairo. And it was my judgment that they needed some lovin’. And some lovin’ they received, courtesy of this man and his lovely work. For just two LE, which is someplace in the neighborhood of forty cents, this man scrubbed, washed, dried, bossed, rubbed and wiped these shoes to a brand-new luster. M said, “Those shoes had never looked better.”

As my shoes continued growing more beautiful before my eyes, I continued revising my tip estimates. Initially I meant to give the man 50 piastres (half a LE), but it became clear as my shoes’ color transformed into a deep, glossy, intricate shade of brown that such a tip was inadequate. In this town, I have money, and as a person with money I am expected to be generous, especially when a service is done for me—and in this case, done well. It was a pound, then. The man had been very intent, serious, as he had done his work. He hadn’t really looked at me when I was looking at him (it’s become common for me to feel the eyes of an Egyptian man upon me, but when I look at him, he is already looking away while wearing a severe expression that I cannot comprehend, though sometimes they look back and I say hello, and they break into a wide, easy grin), but we did make eye contact as I handed him the wadded up payment with tip. He seemed to understand it was a generous tip by local standards, and he smiled. It was a shy, proud smile, and it completely disarmed me.

The rest of the way home, my shoes glimmered darkly in the dusk, and I found that I could not stop myself from looking down at the rounded, shiny toes. They were beautiful, it seemed, through no effort, and at no cost, of my own.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

About the third or fourth day we got here, an American neighbor laughed at us when we said we had to be careful walking on the teetering, debris-filled sidewalks. “You don’t walk on the sidewalks,” she scolded. “Walk in the streets.”

Weaving in and out between the dented black and white taxis, the minibuses, the posh SUVs and Volkswagens, are the people. The people amble in the streets as if there were not cars zooming and honking about them. They seem unconcerned by barreling vehicles; they calmly step aside at the last possible millisecond. While we were at the university yesterday, we watched one man casually shoulder a door-sized pane of glass as several cars, all going the same direction and forming arbitrary lanes, passed either side of him on Muhammed Mahmoud St. I believe he was smoking, too, and enjoying it immensely.

The relationship between pedestrians and vehicles is evident on 26 July St., an area where much of the Zamalek shopping is located and which culminates in a bridge from Zamalek to the rest of Cairo. I walked down this street last night. There are bookshops and magazine stands, green grocers (selling several varieties of mangos, which are in season through September), appliance stores, electronics (in a store selling flat screen TVs, a music video, featuring a pigtailed woman holding a suggestive shepherd’s hook, played – and again, the conventional phrase around here – that Egypt is a land of contrasts – arose as I stepped outside and saw a woman wearing a burka at a juice bar), clubs, restaurants, coffee shops, clothing stores, and a bloody butcher shop next to a window protecting enormous fish laid on ice.

The busy bridge runs above the shopping blocks, shadowing them and giving it all the appearance of a much more confusing downtown Chicago, with incessant honking replacing the racket of the El and small stands with seeds and baladi bread replacing the porters in suits. There is the bridge, and then there is the street below, just as busy with vehicles, it seems. On 26 July St. there are indeed broad, foot-friendly sidewalks, but these seem essential.

At one point, three little boys with bags of limes ran up, wanting me to buy some. When they figured out I wasn’t game, they were gone. As I stood on the corner waiting for a break in traffic (remember the video game Frogger?), one of the little boys approached a car at a stoplight. (Stoplights are few and far between where we live. And the pedestrian light was the first one I have seen, though it goes unheeded.) The driver stared straight ahead with the window up as the little boy, an inch from his face, used his forefinger to tap-tap-tap persistently against the glass. The boy quickly got bored and leaned against the car, still tapping.

In America (or maybe I should say the parts of America which are not destitute), we literally have leashes for our children. We have plastic slides an inch from the ground. There is a depressingly small chance of getting a splinter on a suburban playground. My mother used to heat up sharp needles and dig out my splinters as if they were simply twigs impaling a soft cake. Now my rambunctious two year old nephew has to figure out how to get out of the locks and gates and fences concocted, by law, for his safety before he can meddle with anything.

Maybe this is my point: Last night I was on another corner waiting for traffic to create a small gap when a man crossed. A boy, about two or three years old, walked a few feet behind. The man didn’t hold his hand, nor did he turn around to make sure the boy was still there once they had crossed. The boy, wearing a toddler shirt with pictures of fire engines, looked quite at ease. (On a side note, parents obviously care deeply about their children here as they do most everywhere, and I have witnessed many parents carrying or guiding their children through traffic. This is an isolated example.)

My final stop before making my way home was at a green grocer to get mangoes (mangas). Granny, if you’re reading this, I’m talking about the sweet fruit, not green peppers! The two grocers spoke English and welcomed me profusely, throwing in dates and a guava with my purchase. They told me something I have heard more than once in my brief time here: “The Americans are a great people. It is their government that is terrible. Do you like the Bush?” They held their thumbs up questioningly. (If you know me at all, you can imagine my response.) But I love the way they asked, “the Bush,” for isn’t it true that no matter what we think of our “leaders,” they seem mostly inhuman and immune to our lives and thoughts? Granted, English article usage was a factor here, but humor me. The man who weighed the fruit tugged at his beard and said “this beard” was nothing to be afraid of. Make no mistake that several Egyptians are unhappy with their government, but this is not something I have heard in public conversation.

Anyway, I arrived home quite proud of myself for having read the Zamalek map and acquiring a bag of fruit in the process (Yes, I’m lame!). I also discovered that the bawaab (doorman; literally, gatekeeper) will make sure I get to my flat if I come home in the evening by myself, something he does not do with James. He is very keen on teaching us Arabic words and insists on talking to us in Arabic as if we understand him. One day I hope we can actually converse. In fairness to my ego, James and I went down a few minutes later to a corner store to get a Sprite (the sugar helps with dehydration), and, when the man opened the bottle, handed it to me, and said nothing, I mentioned an Arabic number (itneen, which is two), and the man agreed that this was the cost. James told me he has been paying fifty piasters to a pound more to this man when he gets a soda. So, did I bargain? Let’s say yes. More likely is that I got “ripped off” less than James. The fact, though, is that if a taxi driver “rips me off” by charging me LE 8 instead of the LE 5 it should be from Midan Tahrir to Zamalek, I am paying about 50 cents more. 50 cents. What does that 50 cents mean to me? What does it mean to the taxi driver? During our time here, I’m sure these will be enduring, complicated questions.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Cairo has cats. Thousands of cats, perhaps tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of cats. They roam the streets and the sidewalks, twitching skittishly at loud noises—car horns, the buzz of delivery motorcycles, calls to prayer. There are so many noises on the streets, even in this relatively quiet neighborhood.

These are not like the cats back home. Domestic cats in America are fluffy and plump. They blink in slow comfort. They sleep away three-fourths of their lives. Cats in Cairo seem always to be awake, stalking the ground wearily, or summoning energy to climb a tree, all in search of food. They will meow at you and it is the low, grating noise of fatigue. This is what fatigue is meant to sound like. These cats have gaunt, desperate, hungry faces. They look more like the faces of starving people than the fluffy faces of cats back in America. When they see you have no food for them, they will drop their head and continue. It’s not a show of pity. They are just tired.

In a singular way, these cats resemble American cats: they are territorial. The same group of cats hangs around outside our apartment building, lounging on the crumbling sidewalks, sleeping underneath parked cars, against tires. They sleep on the roofs of the shaded cars, in little depressions made just for them, it seems. Sometimes they are not asleep, they are just laying there, and they look at you, yes wide and slow. Other cats aren’t welcome here, and when they do pass through, for one reason or another, I can hear the growling and the hissing and the fighting through our closed windows, seven stories up. Today at the university, we ate lunch at an outdoor cafeteria, and the same three or four cats were there the entire time, walking among the tables, stopping at each one to beg. Their manner suggested politeness, but their eyes, huge in their heads, watched as we transported food from our plates to our mouths. The little white guy above was one of those cats. See the nick in his ear, the dirty white fur? I gave him a morsel and nearly caused a catfight at my feet.


Saturday, August 26, 2006

Friday, August 25, 2006

Ah, a can of beer, which James procured for us at a place called Drinkies. That’s not a misspelling. Steeeellllaaa! (the brand) I took a picture of James because he looked so creepily satisfied with his beer. Really, now. Picture to come when the faster connection does.

We just got back from a neighbors’ flat downstairs, someone else who teaches at the university. (Yes, I’m going to say “flat” as if I am cosmopolitan or something.) She happened to have two Egyptian visitors there at the same time and thus ensued our first real encounter in conversing in English with Egyptians. Our neighbor let us know how to do the garbage, how much to give the doorman, and how she doesn’t even do dishes anymore because of the housekeeper that we apparently must have. It’s strange to come from a country where you just expect to do it yourself or spend an arm and a leg paying someone else to do it if you’re such a richie-rich as to have the Merry Maids come in and move dirt around. For example, in regard to the ants I was at battle with the other day – twice we have waged war, and I have won the battle if not the destruction of their abodes. I’ve created rigid rules in the kitchen due to my foes. Even the cereal is in the fridge, which perhaps reveals more about me than anyone should know. I mentioned the Ant Party to our neighbor, and she told me that the landlords would take care of it promptly. (I pause now to recall all of the leases I’ve ever had, which have stated clearly that I am responsible for decimating critters unless they are too large or vicious to handle personally.) Our neighbor said that the landlords would change lightbulbs, even. I’m trying to imagine how put upon I will feel upon returning to America if I start having people change my lightbulbs for me here.

Everyone delivers goods here, and people are trusted. Imagine that. Today James went to buy some flowers and he thought they were going to cost less than they did, so he didn’t have quite enough. The flower guy, who we don’t know, said James could pay him later. Come again?

At the neighbor’s flat, we also got into a political discussion, a thing that those pesky guidebooks warned us never to do. I’m beginning to see that the guidebooks are not to be followed to the letter. We also discussed the spiritual cleansing of Ramadan. People do not even drink water during the day in the month of Ramadan. I can’t imagine, being a water bottle coddler myself.

This is running long, so I’ll close with the following: -- a currency exchange site. It’s a source of endless fascination for me at the moment, especially without TV and only three books ‘til the shipment comes in. We have to buy a washer since they don’t have laundromats. A new washer costs around LE 2,000 (Egyptian pounds). Go see how much that is in U.S. dollars if you’re curious. Also, it should cost you LE 5 at the most to get from the university to Zamalek by taxi. Have fun!


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Here is a picture of M, holding a bottle of Pepsi. T least, that’s what the ubiquitous Pepsi symbol tells me—I assume the Arabic writing translates, roughly, to “Pepsi.” I have several pictures I’d like to post, but at present we are subsisting on a faint, but free, wireless signal, which emanates from someplace nearby. We should have a faster DSL connection in a week or two, and then the pics will start flowing. Anyway, this picture is for M’s parents, and for my father, who still pines for the days when Pepsi was sold in a glass bottle. Come to Egypt, and have all the glass bottles you like. Click on pics to enlarge them.

Things have steadily become easier, though, to tell the truth, it hasn’t been exactly rough. The most potentially harrowing aspects of our arrival were expertly cared for by AUC staff, as already narrated. We had a day yesterday—we got out into this world a bit more. We were picked up in the morning and driven to AUC, which is a few “blocks” from the Nile, just off the island where we live, and close to Midan Tehir, the center roundabout of the city and the epicenter for horrible traffic. We met Louise, who oversees faculty services, and she helped us register our address with the Ministry of the Interior. Then we walked to the library to get our ID cards, and—bam!—we found ourselves right in the middle of a gaggle of American undergraduates, who were also getting their ID cards. Turns out M got an ID card, too, as my “spouse.” I’m glad, because this means she has access to as much as I do. I also got my office key and we went into my building and unlocked my office, which I will apparently share with 3 others, all of whom have covered the door and walls with black-and-white photos of the British Royal Family and cartoons poking fun at Hitler, Colonel Goebbels and the rest of the Nazis. So, it may be that I won’t have much say in the aesthetics of my office. We’ll see.

The real highlight was the taxi ride home. We were told that taxi drivers went by landmark, not street address, and we were told, at different points, to say “Zamalek, kinessa Marashi” (church on Marashli St., near our house), or just to say “Zamalek, American University.” We went with the latter when I lost the handwritten translation of the former, which had been so nicely scripted or us by Louise. We made the rookie mistake of getting into the taxi before settling on a price, although, to be honest, the driver did not clarify himself until we were in his grasp. He held up 8 LE (Egyptian pounds), which qualifies as a rip-off, but only a 50-cent rip-off. We went with it and we were off—through the epicenter for horrible traffic, squeezing into unbelievably tight spots, inches to spare between us and oncoming traffic. Our driver cut across several lanes of traffic. Interestingly nobody seemed angry. Egyptians seem bold and unabashed in certain circumstance, but also polite, deferential in others. I have noticed this several times already.

When we arrived in Zamalek, it became clear that our driver had taken on our fare without knowing where in the neighborhood we’d like to go. Intrepid M helped a great deal by mentioning the Italian restaurant on our block (didn’t help) and then our street. The first time the driver stopped to ask for help—a practice that is apparently common among the better taxi drivers in Cairo—I mentioned the Chinese Embassy, just the next block over from our apartment. We eventually stopped four or five times, with our driver usually appealing to a bored-looking police officer (you don’t go more than three or four blocks without seeing a group of them). And in this way we arrived at Bahgat-Aly Street. I handed the driver his 8 LE wadded up, as is custom, and out we went. Later we went to the grocery, finally, and we were done by 2 pm, when many places shut down for the brutally hot afternoon hours. Our reward for this day? We slept 11 hours last night.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I’m sitting on our front balcony from which, in the daylight, you can see the Chinese embassy (I think) and a zigzag of streets. The call to prayer is just ending, and horns are honking intermittently, but otherwise the sounds of Cairo are drowned out by the four air conditioners in the flat. We get our electricity paid for. I know that’s not a good enough reason to be burning energy like the stinking Americans we are. But then there’s the city smell – sort of ashy, both subdued and sharp. Not a bad smell. Definitely not as bad as Decatur, IL, home of Staley’s and ADM, two very stinky factories. Oh, yeah, and it’s hot here. And not as dry as we had imagined it would be. The August humidity is quite familiar to these Midwesterners.

Below, James will be detailing part of our journey to this place, so I’ll get back to the zigzag of streets. Today we decided to walk around the neighborhood. I kept my eyes to the ground, not only to keep from spraining my ankle on the ever-changing sidewalk-scape, but also because I just wasn’t sure who I should look at and how. A junior high self-consciousness came over me, and I followed James submissively, tried to cultivate the not-smile, not-frown that the guidebooks told me about, and searched for the memory of what Culture Shock! Egypt discussed about being a foreign woman in Egypt. My first experience: all the men who aided us in getting home last night did everything they could to avoid talking to me beyond a greeting.

On the street, there were mainly men about, sitting in chairs in front of stores, or guarding buildings with guns hung from their shoulders, or zipping by on motorcycles and in cars. A few of them welcomed us but most stared. I don’t know if “stare” is the right word because it sounds as if they were being rude, and I don’t believe they were. But we were certainly noticeable. Was it my denim capris?
It must have been. Those damned capris.
Stray cats, coveting little piles of garbage on the street, eyed us too. I don’t think those strays have ever been kitties.

By the time we had gotten to the end of the block, we were a bit lost. What I mean is that if you had asked me then, I couldn’t have picked out the front of our building.
Anyway, the men who greeted us at our flat last night had food ready for us – a bag of sugar, rice, pasta, eggs, a block of feta, vegetable oil, salt and pepper, milk, juice, bread, honey, butter, chicken, etc. It really was unbelievable how much was there to make us feel comfortable. Good thing, too, because I had planned on buying food on our first outing and I don’t think I could have. My body has been screaming for some fruits and vegetables, but down on the street – it was enough to just walk around. It’s hard to describe – that just getting out of the flat was a somewhat daunting adventure. Am I that lame?

Meanwhile, back in our flat, a stream of ants found the sugar that Phil Leotardo (see below) presented to us last night and were having an ant party. I pulverized them with the provided Raid and my thumbs and felt no pity.
Ah, jet lag. All in all, our move has been comfortable and smooth. Our flat is lovely and enormous, and the university has been quite helpful. Looking forward to tomorrow’s jaunt.

Last night, as we descended, we saw the infamous haze of pollution hanging over the city. It gives the city a particular odor, what exactly it is I can’t say. But it isn’t the odor of cleanliness.

Already I have been witness to a thousand or two notable things. We landed, walked out…I was expecting to feel an enormous sense of gravity, or fear, or trepidation, but that didn’t happen, not until today. But that comes later. I do remember seeing an old Egyptian man sitting down near where we walked. He was smoking a cigarette and I caught its scent. I haven’t lost it since…everybody smokes.

Fortunately, all went as AUC said. An older man with two bottom teeth was holding up a sign with my name. He helped us through the customs checkpoint, then helped us get our bags, then told us to wait outside. Along the way we passed a gauntlet of pushy, yet somehow polite, cab drivers. I was able to tell them la, which means no. At the curb the older man gave me an envelope stuffed with cash. I counted it and initialed a piece of paper. Then he introduced us to the driver and went on his way. We climbed aboard a bus to get to his van, where we chatted with a fellow named Tim, who will also be teaching in the Writing Program like me. Off the bus, we were met by some guys who lifted our bags then, when the driver went away, asked for tips. They were also pushy—or, let’s say, unabashed—yet polite. Moments later we were speeding through the darkened streets of Cairo.

Notable: some cars drive at night without headlights. Also, cars honk their horns when they’re about to pass you. They also pass at will, and straddle and switch lanes. I saw a family on a small motorcycle, the man driving, the woman on back, the little girl around the waist by her mother. She seemed to be sitting on her mother’s knee and she faced sideways. Her face was slack, as if she was somewhere else entirely, thinking peaceful kid thoughts.

Eventually we made our way onto the large island where Zamalek is located, and immediately we turned off the main street and descended into a darkened neighborhood of narrow streets covered by trees. We saw a few men in uniform, armed, surely much younger than us, protecting an embassy. Outside 26A, Bahgat-Aly St., a group of men waited for us. One of them, the main guy, resembles Phil Leotardo on The Sopranos, minus the gray hair. That Mediterranean look. The driver took his leave and then we went inside, up an elevator with no inside door, to the top floor, number seven. To the left, Apt 15, our apartment. It greatly resembles pictures we saw of a different apartment in the same building, which some of you saw earlier this year. I’ll put some pictures of the place, and the view out the front (from our enclosed patio) and the back (back porch).

We spent much of today 1) sleeping, and 2) unpacking. A man woke me up in the morning, knocking on our door. I believe this was our doorman, or bawwaab, but I was sleepy, and besides, he and I were speaking different languages. In the afternoon, Phil Leotardo stopped by to have me initial the inventory form. Also: a contact at the university called today to welcome us to Cairo and to AUC. Tomorrow she will pick us up and take us to the university, where we will register our passports with an office there, who will then register us with the Ministry of the Interior. Also I will get my first look at the university.

We also walked around our neighborhood. How can I describe this? We were looking for a dorm operated by AUC, which is supposedly very close by, but we had absolutely no idea how to find it. This became apparent when we stepped outside our apartment. The street was what I think an Egyptian would call “quiet,” just after prayers. Men sat outside their stores, smoking and talking. Some men were working. Almost every man we encountered stared at us. There were very few women about, and those that were did not look me in the eye, as expected. Some of the men stared and then said “welcome” or “hello,” but it is possible that they wanted Mandy to look at them so they could look at her. More armed guards. Side walks intermittently torn up. I’m not doing a very good job of describing this experience. I do truly feel that we have landed in a new world, I do know that.

We did see the Nile. A man wanted to take us on a felucca cruise, which eventually we will do. Then we saw a donkey standing on the sidewalk. Then we saw a stack of newspapers on fire at the curb. Then we saw a group of women wearing burkas, which I believe is rare around here—and to be fair, we also saw a woman wearing jeans and walking with her daughter, who was wearing a jean skirt. There really does seem to be all types.

A good start.
We're here! And tired. More soon. But do know that we were well-cared for upon our arrival. Plenty to say already, starting with this beautiful apartment.

J and A

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

This is a picture of an open window in Cairo. I didn't take this photograph as we have not yet departed for Cairo (I am currently in my mother's living room, she's yelling at her dogs, my stepfather is narrating his search through the Tivo catalogue…whoa! I just got licked in my "kneepit" by mother's dog, Captain Jack). Anyway. It's an open window and that seems like an appropriate, if trite, metaphor. It means...opportunity, an "opening," a new "room," if you will. With a window!We hope to avoid triteness here, though, admittedly, I have already acquiesced to it in this opening post. I'll try harder, promise. I despise overuse. What I hope is that we look upon Egypt with wonder, at the sediments of time and history with curiosity, with wide-open eyes. I hope some of what we discover will find its way into the words we write and share with you, and we hope you’ll visit this blog often for pictures and other updates.