Tuesday, August 22, 2006

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.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

James, I'm sure you've read "A Distant Episode" by Paul Bowles. If not, read it now, and please understand that on this blog, I don't want to read anything like that story.
-Aaron

American_in_Cairo said...

Dear Aaron, I have read it, and, of course, I promise not to report any such episodes on this blog. James

Kim said...

Those Soprano characters seem to show up all over the place!

I don't know if this is the same sort of thing, but, while in Turkey, primarily large cities, the air was permeated with pollution mostly from very cheap coal being burned for heating and cooking. The smell was distinct - like a buiding that had been smoldering for a bit. It often burned the lining of my throat and nose, and stung my eyes.

One thing that I hadn't expected when we were in an Islamic country was how uncomfortable I felt walking about freely and uncovered. So many men sitting and standing around and hardly any women. I felt like i was wearing a neon bikini or something - exposed and uncomfortable and very American. There were times i longed for my head scarf so i could be more anonymous or blended. After reading Mandy's post and yours i was wondering how she felt about this part of the experience. Very different for our American way of life.

xo - k