Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Let's take a break from the only standing Wonder of the Ancient World left. Yes, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the only and oldest of the seven ancient wonders. The Arab proverb goes: "Man fears Time, yet Time fears the Pyramids." We were at the foot of that, people. Holy crap.

But let's talk about the everyday. Today I have thoroughly enjoyed washing my clothes. We’ve finally purchased a washing machine (make sure you get a good look at the pinkness of our bathroom in the pic). I just did two loads of clothes and hung them on the lines off our back balcony. Here the clothes, turned inside out, will flap against the sandy building and accumulate Cairo odors. They’ll dry quickly in the afternoon sun.

I am proud of my clothesline! A month ago I was dubious about the thought of hanging my clothes seven stories up. How could my jeans get blown around and stay put with only a flimsy plastic clothespin? I learned how, though, from UmmNadia. UmmNadia is our maid.

Yes, I said it. Maid. Go ahead and flinch. Roll your eyes. Gasp that we have hired a maid.

It seems that everyone (who can afford it) has a maid in Cairo. For one, keeping up with the dust is a fulltime job.

Egyptians, or at least the ones I have observed, are incredibly fastidious about cleanliness. If you look at the photographs of apartment buildings from the outside, they may appear dumpy or dirty. Inside, these apartments are spotless. Not ours, really, since I am guilty of a lot of paper piling. Nonetheless: don’t bring the outside to the inside – this is the reigning idea.

[This is an extreme aside, but I can't help it. Last week as I watched an old white man leaning against a post by the pyramids, and I stared at his sun-reddened belly which he had bared, a belly around which a bright yellow shirt served as an open curtain, a belly on which a round gold chain and mobster pendant dangled, I couldn’t help but momentarily appreciate the way Egyptians cover themselves as a sign of respect.]

There is also the idea that one is actually doing good by employing an Egyptian since the unemployment rate is extremely high. In addition, the Egyptian maid does not consider her job “demeaning” – that’s the word on the street. One of my rich students (they’re all rich, remember), who is the daughter of a member of the Egyptian parliament, informed me yesterday that I should not feel bad about employing a maid. It was hard to swallow this, coming from a politician’s daughter.

Regardless, I fight with myself thinking about whether or not it is OK for me to have a maid here. And it's true that all of the arguments I have against it have to do with the following value -- do it yourself, lazyass. Not that I've ever truly had to work a day in my life, but still -- that ideal is embedded. They say you can spot an American tourist immediately because he will be the only one carrying his own luggage. I don't know how accurate that is. But when we rolled into the airport and people handled my luggage all the way to the apartment, my eyes stayed glued to my stuff. Point? The way Egyptians wrap their minds around the concept of the maid is inevitably different than the way I see it, I believe. I’ve heard, also, that Americans are sought-after employers because we pay more and abuse less. Plus, when we leave here and “fire” our maid, we are expected to give her two months pay beyond the last month she works for us, so that she has a chance to look for another employer.

OK, whatever. So we have a maid. It is still a bit weird after a month. I feel bad sitting in my chair prepping for class and having someone clean all around me. I felt bad the day UmmNadia brought in laundry detergent and proceeded to wash my, er, intimates by hand. I tried to protest, making a repulsed face at my underwear and waving my hands, and she basically pushed me aside and said, Nothin’ doin’. Well, actually, she said something in Arabic that I did not understand, but I got the gist from her spot-on hand signals. We do a lot of pantomiming and giggling at each other. She does make an effort to teach me the Arabic words for certain objects, and then I tell her what they are in English, and we nod and smile and forget the words in five minutes. James started giving her the thumbs-up a lot when she asked something, so now she employs that gesture frequently.

UmmNadia’s name means “mother of Nadia.” So, here, my mom would be UmmAmanda. UmmNadia comes twice a week and spends 3-4 hours in our apartment. When we are here, she says good morning and calls us “doctor” and “doctora.” She starts in the kitchen and washes every dish. She sweeps and mops every floor. She scrubs the bathrooms. She dusts. She wipes down the balcony windows, picks up the rugs and shakes them out, takes out the trash, and moves certain things around if it’s clear we don’t know where we should put them. She picks up and folds errant clothes.

Whenever someone from the university comes to fix something (which seems to be happening a lot: for instance, a funky smell protrudes from one of our toilets at intervals, and they say they fix it, and then the next morning there that stench is, wafting about again, and you have to start asking yourself if it’s just you), she watches them like a hawk. She scolds them if they seem to be dirtying anything or aren’t being careful of the furnishings. A lot of clucking between servicemen and maid goes on. Today I realized that she was telling them that the doctora doesn’t understand Arabic well.

I like having her here when other people are in the apartment. I know this seems weird coming from me, but the service guys prefer to have UmmNadia here too. They are obviously uncomfortable coming into the house without James being present, and that discomfort just displaces itself onto me.

After her first day of working in our apartment, UmmNadia told the dean of our school that James and I “are her children.” I need stuff like that. Yes, indeed, we have a maid.


Monday, September 25, 2006

Early in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jack Gladney and friend take a drive to visit the world’s most photographed barn. Along the way, they travel a narrow country road overrun with tour buses. When they arrive, they are beset by hoards of tourists, cameras at the ready, snapping photographs. Jack’s friend observes the scene and says, and I paraphrase, that they can no longer see the barn. His point, and it is a good one, is that the barn can only remind them of the photographs they have seen, and not the other way around. The barn itself, awash in the popular culture of tourism, signifies its own image.

I must say that I was plagued by a certain air of familiarity when we visited the pyramids at Giza yesterday. I felt very much as though I had seen them before. This was not such a big problem for me, though, as I was still awed by the sheer immensity of the structures themselves, and by the absolutely crazy sight of Egyptian hawkers and vendors racing across the rocky desert floor, trying to make a few LE off the rich foreigners.

The grounds of the pyramids are large enough for several parking lots, each large enough for a few dozen tour buses. From one bus you might witness the emergence of a stunned gaggle of geriatric Americans, the old ladies wearing flower-patterned denim hats with a little bow up front, so cute. From another bus might come an extremely enthusiastic group of Asian tourists, hopping gaily across the sandy embankments, posing proudly before the Great Pyramid or the Sphinx, laughing heartily as they view their photographs. You might also see an odd assortment of Europeans ranging from Italian to German to Spanish, clearly distinguished by their garish and scant clothing.

These tourists begin their trek from the bus to the pyramid itself, a trek of perhaps a hundred yards. They are met by a phalanx of vendors, converging from all directions, selling everything from little glass pyramids to plush camels to books of postcards. Their favorite ploy, I soon discovered, was to hand you something and say it was free, a gift for visiting their country. Then, so engaged, they might ask you where you’re from. America? Well then, hi-ho silver it is. No, really, keep the pendant, it is free. Would you like a photograph? Here, give me your camera and I will take. Free!

In one case, a man handed M and I pendants for a necklace, insisted they were free, then wrapped a red and white turban over my head. “You look like Arafat,” he said, at which point I made the mistake of laughing, which encouraged him. He got M to take my picture, then he wrapped the same disgusting, sweaty turban around M’s head, and she, annoyed, also submitted for a photograph. Then he asked for money. No money, I said. “Give me back pendants,” he said, and off he went across the desert with my free gift.

In another case, a police officer, clearly dedicated to his solemn duty, also took my photograph, then wanted money. I said I had none, so he very quickly zeroed in on the Uniball pen in my pocket. So long, Uniball!

Sometimes children would approach, smile cutely, and open like an accordion a booklet of postcards, all connected at the perforated edges. One little girl did this for me. “No thanks,” I say, and she’s gone. Behind me I hear her mutter, “Worthless American.”

It’s worth reiterating that this is not an orderly procession of vendors and hagglers. They have apparently paid a fee and have full access to the site. They appear with little to no warning, striking just as you begin to live your fantasy of quiet, contemplative reflection before the tattered grandeur of the pyramids. That isn’t happening. You have to say no at least three times, and you must be ruthless—they prey on politeness, on our obligation to respond when spoken to. When one is gone, another one will approach, usually from another angle. Sometimes they offer free camel rides—without saying that they will charge 50LE to help you get off the animal, or that they will trek you far into the desert and charge you a bundle to be guided back to civilization.

I don’t really consider the tourist trade much of a detraction from the experience. I actually think it enhanced it. On the ground you have aggressive Egyptians, coaxing money from the pockets of unsuspecting tourists. And all around, you have one of the most fascinating sights one can ever see. The proximity of these juxtaposing situations has quickly become a trademark of Egypt for me. Grandeur and kitsch can be neighbors in the same building.

* * *

As for the pyramids. They are truly stunning, even if you have to do some brainwork for their full gravity to render. Each stone in a pyramid weighs, on average, 2.5 tons, although some of them weigh 15 tons. This means that the largest pyramid at Giza can weigh six million tons. And it’s a marvel of engineering, too: the weight of the structure presses either inward or downward, stabilizing it. One must also remember that it took peasants perhaps twenty years of hard labor to build these structures, which is a testament to tenacity and longevity and purpose. These are startling facts—I remember reading about them in some history class or another. But, for me, the immensity of these facts, these feats, registered fully only when I stood before one of these wonders.

I was particularly thankful for the quality of effective engineering when I made my trek into the Pyramid of Chephren. Not for the claustrophobic at heart. First, you pay 20 LE for a ticket inside. Then, the man by the entrance takes your camera because you can’t photograph the inside (when you depart, the man will return the camera but request, with a sly smile, a tip). For some reason, I expected the entrance to be upwards, where I saw some tourists climbing. In reality, the entrance emerges at the bottom of the pyramid, and you must take a steep causeway to the base of the pyramid. And then you must crouch, and enter. As you may know, everybody, I am not a tall man, but even so the close quarters of the tunnel gave me a moment’s cloying panic. You continue traveling down, down, at the same steep angle at which you entered. I’d say this goes on for fifty yards, and then the tunnel opens into a room that smells of piss. You can stand up and stretch, but because it is so smelly and, suddenly, so humid—the limestone walls are damp, and so are your forearms—you hurry on through and reach another tight tunnel, this time an incline. And you travel another fifty yards. At this point, you might recall the six million tons of rock, arranged just-so above your head. And then the tunnel opens into a large, vaulted room. The walls are graffitied by some British asshole who first discovered this tomb in the 1800’s. On the far end of the room is a stone coffin. It’s open and empty, of course. And the humidity is upon you. A few minutes later, when you finally emerge from the pyramid, the Sahara Desert will feel like a relief in contrast.

My final note is regarding the Sphinx. Perhaps M will add her own impressions. This was the most difficult for me to “see.” I felt very much like I was looking at a photograph; even the photographs I did take look like postcards or pictures from a textbook. This may be owed to the fact that we got very close to the Sphinx, which is not as large as I thought it would be, and that the viewing site is largely devoid of the hawkers and vendors that gave the Great Pyramids, shall we say, a modern flair. It may also be that the great Sphinx of the ancient world looks down upon a Kentucky Fried Chicken, just a few hundred yards away.

Ramadan is upon us.


Sunday, September 24, 2006

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Make sure to check out J’s pics and writing for today (below). I think we must have both been writing an entry at the same time!

Last Saturday we went on a university-sponsored bus trip around Cairo. The city is literally a maze, with narrow winding alleys containing entire functioning communities. Much of the city is designed in wheel configurations, so that neighborhoods are confusing zigzag spokes.

We began in the heart of downtown at the university and traversed various parts of the city. Of great interest to me in this first bit were the Ezbekiya Gardens and a street called Palace Walk, since I have been reading Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy.

I could continue with this patchwork of details, but I think I can narrow this tour down into a few parts that continue to stick in my memory. The first was the City of the Dead, a series of square buildings that are family tombs. You would not know these buildings held the dead unless you were told. It seems that some people live among these tombs, too. Across the road from the main part of the City of the Dead (which is a foreigner’s term, like most of the names we give here) is a vast ring where about nine percent of Cairo’s population lives. Many of these people have come to the city for opportunities that they cannot find at home in the more agrarian parts of Egypt. Most of the people who live here are the garbage collectors. They work in the wee hours of the morning, hauling carts themselves or taking a donkey-pulled cart all the way into Cairo. Before most other people have awakened, the garbage collectors have returned home and are burning the trash that cannot be reused. If you were to awaken very early in the morning, you would experience the acrid smell of Cairo’s burning trash. In October, this burning and the burning of the rice fields, in addition to the general pollution, will produce a dark cloud overhead. Earlier, Prof. Tour Guide had informed us that the more satellite dishes on the roofs of apartment buildings (and I have yet to see a “house”), the richer the people are. There were only a few satellite dishes here. Multiple families spring for one so they can get the public channels.

Indeed, in the first half of our trip, trash and poverty were the themes of the day. Before we passed the City of the Dead, there was a children’s theme park called Cairo Land. Prof. Tour Guide informed us that the park is built on top of an old garbage dump. It is a beautiful park, but at times strange things bubble up from the ground.

Then we began a steep climb into limestone cliffs (called Muqattam Cliffs) that have been quarried for the decorative properties of the rock. Somewhere I read that this limestone was used in either one of the Pyramids of Giza or the Sphinx, but that was in a book with small print, so don't quote me or fault my lack of research right now. I think it was the Sphinx. Let's go with that.

We passed a medieval citadel, and Prof. Tour Guide remarked that this was likely the place where Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman were imprisoned during the Crusades. As we climbed, we looked down on abandoned government housing for the poor – it was closed down because the poor could not be persuaded to move all the way out there and the government ran out of funds. This area was called Muqattam City. Now, about a decade later, there is a new Muqattam City, fittingly built in the hills overlooking the abandoned government housing. The buildings, many of them as yet unfinished, are among the most lavish in Cairo. (By the way, “new” and “old” in Cairo terms is much different than the way we would see something in youthful America – something considered new here could be a hundred or more years old.)

We drove past Muqattam City to the top of the cliffs so that we could get a view of Cairo. See, downtown Cairo, right near where we live, is at the bottom of a huge valley that used to be covered in swamp and water. On a good day, said Prof. Tour Guide, we would be able to see across Cairo all the way to the pyramids. The last good day he knew of, he said, was in 1989. A gigantic haze covered Cairo. We could make out the buildings close to us and could barely see the downtown. I think I’ll appreciate the biting cold air of IL in January. In J’s photo entries, you can see this haze.

Oh, but here’s the great part – we saw this ant scurrying about that had a weird high rear. At this point, I think J was having a better time than me – as I listened faithfully to Prof. Tour Guide, J was hanging out with two little boys who scampered into the group. Their photo is also in his batch.

After this aerial view of Cairo, we drove through Heliopolis, Nasr City, and a string of newer suburbs. (In Nasr City, Prof. Tour Guide, continuing the trash theme, pointed to an unfinished apt. building and told us that it used to be the dumping site of the Cairo University hospital. A man who helped dig the foundation for this building said that what he dug up was terrifying.) The flats got nicer and nicer the further out we went. Yet the city had not succeeded in banishing the poor from these new places. I saw the homeless sleeping on the shady concrete floors of flats that were not yet fully constructed. I saw children in ragged clothes hanging out in the median of the highway, which had begun to look more like the western U.S., with a few Shell and Mobil stations, gleaming with snack shops and car washes, dotted at intervals in the sand. It is the gleaming part that is startling to me now, not the ragged children or the sand. Suddenly there was the costly notion of grass. Foreign greenery. Flat sidewalks. Spraining one’s ankle here would simply be a sign of clumsiness and not an inevitable result.

Then we arrived at the new campus of American University, due to open in 2008, just after the end of our stay in Egypt. The campus is literally on the edge of populated Cairo in a spot called New Cairo, though every new spot in Cairo is called this until it is more officially named. We were given a light lunch and shown a model of the finished campus before heading out onto the 260 acre property. Although the campus tour was as lengthy as the bus ride through parts of Cairo, it was interesting, if only for the fact that we collected the Sahara on our shoes and got to wear hardhats, which were AWESOME. We were also told about the ways in which the campus has been designed so that natural light enters all the buildings. They have made sure to structure the buildings so that there is a lot of natural shade in the open areas and the buildings will throw shade on each other. All of this will of course save on electricity. One skeptic asked, “Yeah, but where are you getting water from?” Ah yes, the Nile. Like the Colorado River, it will make living in the desert hundreds of miles away possible.(J has another photo of palm trees – these line the entryway of the new campus.)

Then we were told about the new faculty housing. We were told about the ways that moving out here would be good for everyone’s health, that it would be safer due to the pedestrian walkways (as opposed to the risk of crossing the street, which we’ve already covered in previous entries), that all the buildings fit North American codes, etc. A lot of faculty members have been dubious about moving out here – some claim that it is as if the university is fleeing Cairo’s infrastructure problems. Sure, it’s safer, healthier, and quieter. (I mean, every class I teach is underscored by fifty minutes of honking). But…we wouldn’t really be experiencing Cairo if we moved out here, would we? Dunno. About this time, J made the observation that the whole trip seemed to have been planned to get faculty out to the campus and convinced about how great it is. Don’t misunderstand me – it is a great campus. The environmental strategies and the fact that the whole thing is being built at once in a massive 300 million dollar effort are undoubtedly impressive.

On our return trip, we drove through Maadi, a richer neighborhood in Cairo that houses a lot of Americans and Brits. Here I caught a glimpse of two of the pyramids of Giza in the distance. This Saturday, as J mentioned earlier, we’ll get a closer look.


This weekend we took a guided (and extremely narrated) bus tour of Cairo. We ended up out in the desert at the new campus that is being built, all at once, to the tune of $300 million. I'll write more on this soon, but I wanted to post a few pictures from our journey.

This weekend: pyramids.


Monday, September 18, 2006

One thing you’ll notice very quickly in Cairo is the visible police presence. So far, I have been able to distinguish two types of police presence, according to uniform. The first, and most common, are presently wearing their summer whites, head to toe. The shirts of these uniforms are decorated with a sash and other official-looking regalia vaguely reminiscent of Gopher from Love Boat. Apparently, once the weather changes to winter cool, these men will trade in their whites for a different color, and that will be a sad day for me. I like my white-uniformed po-po.

These men appear to be “common” police. Sometimes they perform helpful functions like helping direct traffic—there are very few traffic lights in this city, and those that do operate at, say, Midan Tehrir, do very little to stem the tide of drivers who are intent only on driving to their destination with as little delay as possible. But there is not a necessity for traffic police at every corner, and so most of these police sit around, looking, among other things, bored. You don’t go more than a few blocks without seeing a gaggle of them, arms flung over the rickety iron barrier demarcating their domain, watching the Western women walk by. They hiss at women or they nap. They are boys, they are old men. They fling their arms over their rifles as they wander about their appointed zone, unwittingly pointing the barrel of the gun at disconcerted passers-by (like me). As in the case of one particularly bored young officer, who looked straight down the barrel of his rifle, one eye at a time, these officers might invent new time-consuming activities to quench their thirsty boredom.

The second type of police are the embassy guards, or military police. I’ve been trying to figure out if these guards enjoy an elevated status among their peers. They wear navy uniforms, pants tucked into black boots, and navy berets. As with the “common” police, these uniforms are time-worn, you can tell, faded at the seams and the creases of the pockets. Regardless, these uniforms effectively convey the appearance of military; they also carry old automatic rifles that may or may not be stocked with live rounds, depending upon whom you ask. These young men will most often stare at M as she passes by (but will not attempt to get her attention if I am with her) and will smile at me and say, “Aloo,” when I look at them. These men generally stand at their post outside their assigned embassy—in the case of our most immediate surroundings on Bahgat Aly, that would be China, Serbia, and Oman. Sometimes they are joined by middle-aged men who wear suits all the blazing day long. Occasionally one is sent as a gopher for water.

Interestingly, these blue-uniformed guards appear to be conscripted. How do I know that? you ask. Here is how I know. At various places throughout the city are some beefy-looking paddy wagons. They are blue, armored, with spacious and enclosed beds. The beds are adorned with small, boxy windows covered with a thick grate, behind which you can see the faces of the military police. These seemingly imprisoned military police are guarded by other military police, who also supply them with bread and water. This curious scene confused me for a few weeks before I was informed that young men in Egypt participate in compulsory military service, I don’t know for how long. Young men in Cairo are often sent out of the city, to other places in Egypt—which is, after all, a sizable country—while the country folk are sent here, to Cairo, to perform their service. They are maintained, it seems, in these armored paddy wagons, awaiting their “shift” at whatever spot, embassy or otherwise, they’ve been assigned to. I’m still trying to figure out if they are so kept in order to protect them from what must be the overwhelming sensory delight of Cairo—lots of trouble to be found, even among devout Muslims—or to keep them from running away, lost in the city or back to their rural homes. Their faces in the grilled windows look bored, eager, curious, apprehensive, all at once, complicated by the crossing shadow-pattern of the grill. That certainly doesn’t help me figure out what they think of what they see and hear all around them.


Friday, September 15, 2006

I know it's not my turn to post, but J will certainly forgive me.
This is a shout-out to my daddy, who, when I called the Midwest last night, calmly asked me in Arabic if I understood English. Turns out you can go to the Pimsleur's site and get a sample first lesson of all their language CDs.
Yo, Dad!
Here's your shout-out!


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Yesterday morning as we left for school, the bawaab greeted James with a hearty handshake and sort of sideways greeted me, something I am getting used to as the lady of the family. Then the bawaab peppered off a sentence in Arabic to James, and both of us got that dumbstruck feeling that has become familiar.

But a magical thing happened! The bawaab repeated his sentence, and I recognized one word, then two, then the whole assortment of words! He was saying, “You’re going to the university now?” And I said the word for “yes” and translated for James! And rainbows and puppies and Smurfs shone and leapt and sang on Bahgat Aly!

Nah, what really happened is that Pimsleur’s Egyptian Arabic CDs had finally done something for me. As the day progressed and I polished up my newfound confidence, I found myself picking out more scraps of words from people’s conversations. For this day, at least, I did not run away from the language in embarrassment.

So anyway, we were on our way to the university because now both of us are teaching there and not just Mr. James (or Mr. Games, as they call him on his Drinkies receipts). The university is located in Tahrir Square, in downtown Cairo, very near the Egyptian Antiquities Museum where dear Tut could be found if he weren’t in Chicago right now. When we go to Tahrir Square via taxi, we are dropped off, oh, wherever there is a spot in the middle of the aggressive wedges and loops of traffic. Yesterday it was next to a gate with a barely described bit of curb. We walked on the street, weaving around two motorcycles, a bus, and several armed policemen to get to a place where we could actually cross from one curb to the next, and Hello, McDonald’s, home of the McRoyale! We shielded our eyes from the hideous ketchup and mustard colors and crossed again because two army trucks full of men forced into service were parked by the sidewalk, and no woman can escape their hissing and hooting.

Another beautiful thing occurred as we made our way to Falaki, where the Writing Program is housed. The old woman who sits against a dingy wall and sells Arabic candies and Ho-Hos caught my eye, brought her hand to her mouth, and gave me a genuine kissy sign. I felt a spring in my step after that, I tell you.

The above photograph, by the way, is of James in front of The Palace, a university building facing Tahrir Square. This building was originally built in the 1870s for a minister of education, though it is rumored that the Khedive Ismail actually built it for one of the women in his harem. The latter idea is more appealing, especially since the building is now the home of university administration. Once you enter The Palace, you traverse up the marble Presidential Staircase. Each step slants downward enough that I am waiting for the day when someone pulls a lever and all of the steps flatten out so that I slide on my belly to the bottom. Alas. A series of portraits of university presidents (very much like the portraits of priests in the basement of Corpus Christi church in Galesburg) can be found at the top of the staircase. One of the former presidents looks like Johnny Carson. If only. Anyway, that day of the photograph was the first time we came to the university, the first time we took a taxi, the first day, perhaps, that we didn’t feel waterlogged. Maybe the first day that our persistent fight against dehydration ensued.

Yesterday was my second day of teaching. I handed back a short paper my students wrote in the previous class. I had written a few comments on the papers but nothing heavy. After each of my classes yesterday afternoon, a couple of students hung back to ask me, “Was it good?” They had a sincere pleading look that I never got from my Cyclones or my Golden Gophers. “Were there any mistakes?” Coming from the school of checking content or global issues over grammatical or local issues, I tried to explain that I did not “correct” the papers, but if I noticed a consistent error I would be sure to tell them. This seemed a bit of an unsatisfactory response. (Wherever I am, though, I sometimes feel as if teaching students to be self-critical and self-aware is often dependent on my ability to be pleasantly evasive, which has an unintentional negative ring to it.)

In high school, Egyptian students are mainly asked to memorize, so the idea of “critical thinking” which is so lauded in English departments in America is new to many of them, and they are eager to learn it. They (and of course I am always generalizing but bear with this necessity) seem to believe that American students are highly critical. For now, let’s let them believe that.

I was reluctant about taking this job since I was looking forward to a teaching break, and it’s difficult to get used to the writing system at this university because they rely on so many little details and the appearance (deceiving) of less teacher autonomy. But getting away from the typical agonies of English departments everywhere and simply being in the classroom has opened my heart. Escape bureaucracy, and you have the students.

So they call me Mrs. Amanda or Dr. Amanda, and I think it would be wise to not insist that they simply call me “Amanda,” for it seems that this would make most of them uncomfortable. So far they are courteous and respectful, except for the part where they are ridiculously late to class, an acceptable trait in Egyptian culture that the professors at the American style university must be emphatic about deeming unacceptable. No problem here – I laid down the law Amanda-style. We’ll see on Thursday if that actually worked. But many of them are not used to even coming to class. It is common practice here for high school teachers to teach quite poorly so that students stop attending and hire private tutors, who are often the teachers themselves. The teachers can then make more money. So a decent percentage of students here (who come from families who can afford private tutors and the hefty tuition of the university) must train themselves to be students of the classroom again. Ah, if only the poorly paid teachers of America could devise a similar plan.

It is important to note that the tuition at this university is equal to what a middle class Egyptian family would make in a year. Most of this country is poor, so you might guess what sort of kids make up the population of American University. Scholarships and financial aid, you say? Well, from what I hear, two kids from each of the 25 Governorates in Egypt are chosen to attend this university on scholarship. These kids are presumably unable to afford to attend the university. One of the kids must be a boy, and one must be a girl.

Well, here is my entry. Not as exciting as I had hoped but lengthy. This weekend we’ll be going on a guided tour of Cairo, so there should be something more exciting to talk about than the old news of teaching.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

The city is overpopulated. There are too many people, buildings, stray cats and dogs, too much dust and dirt, too many vehicles. The city does ban trucks in city streets during daylight hours, but this only avoids total infrastructural collapse. Every fourth or fifth car is a cab, painted black and white, and (most disconcertingly) sporting several fresh or rusted scrapes, some of which traverse the length of the vehicle, or a wiry stump where the side view mirror used to live. Some day I will share the very particular experience of riding in a cab on the streets of Cairo, but perhaps I will wait until a cabbie proposes marriage or rendezvous to M, which we hear is bound to happen sooner or later.

I would say that the streets are overwhelmed, but it appears that overpopulated does not mean overwhelmed. Not exactly. Things continue moving. Cars double or triple park, pedestrians negotiate a narrow strip next to these parked cars, carriages drawn by gaunt horses click past, cars whiz down the middle of the road. Traffic laws are obeyed when situationally permissible.

You might assume this would lead to complete bedlam, but instead it creates a kind of improvisational street logic that must play thousands of times every day in Cairo. We’ve witnessed this from our seventh-story window; when we are not skittish about the African bats swooping across the semi-darkness of the city, jaggedly flapping their distinct shapes into the haze and into our night terrors—yes, when we can belay thoughts of their terrible bat-faces, we will look down to the streets. Very soon there is a confluence: a group of boys walking arm in arm in one direction, a horse drawn carriage in another, a Fiat driving with no headlights (or, politely, with blue headlights). In a situation where there quite simply isn’t enough space, nobody gets too bent out of shape, nobody stops moving. Cars pull aside just enough, the pedestrians tuck in their arms, the horse slows, a delivery motorcycle careens onto the scene and zooms into a narrow path. From above this looks like a knot untying itself. That’s a characterizing image. It’s a beautiful sight.


On our way to Maadi on Friday, to the provost’s palatial villa, our air conditioned van contributed its own blue-gray plumes of exhaust to the breathable air. It was near dusk, and the streets, sidewalks, alleyways, were packed—mostly with men, smoking sheesha, hanging out in front of buildings, or, most unusually, tending to their herds of lamb and cattle. Right in the streets, among the vehicles (both operational and junked out) and the children, these animals awaited placidly the onset of Ramadan, when they will be ritually slaughtered and the streets will run red with their blood. No kidding.

I had a moment’s insight into the intensity of the population, of the sheer numbers. Zamalek is spacious by Cairo standards; the road to Maadi was what I will assume is more typical of Cairo. I can’t do this immensity justice, since I’m still trying to grapple with its image in my head. It wasn’t squalor, as one might think when they think of poverty in Africa. It looked like a dramatization of the brink of exhaustion—one more person, one more set of needs and desires, hopes, ambitions, disappointments, one more person striving in this immensity, and the city might cave in. Some people strode with great purpose, faces serious; others laughed with friends, unconcerned; others appeared very much to wish they were elsewhere; and still others seemed dumbstruck by something I did not understand.

In the distance, the misty pyramids loomed, mirage-like, suggesting grandeur.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Here are some more pictures from last Friday's felucca ride on the Nile--thanks to the campus-wide fast wireless connection, I can finally upload more than one picture at a time.

More soon. Meantime, enjoy.

Monday, September 04, 2006

We have been here almost two weeks, and in that time an enormous statue of Ramses II was ceremoniously transported from Cairo Square to a spot near the pyramids. The statue was moved due to concerns that pollution was making its lungs itch.

Then Naguib Mahfouz, famed writer, who won a belated Nobel Prize for his Cairo Trilogy, died. He was known as the “Balzac of Egypt,” by the way.

And J has had the time of his life getting plucked and shined.

In this city, the momentous never stops happening, it would seem.

It is a city where the enormous discrepancies between rich and poor are very much evident. Each morning when I peer from our balcony to the street, I see. Obviously, me, straight from crackerville and bowled-over by my newly-discovered wealth – looking down from the literal heights with my MFA degree, useless in America, tucked proudly under my arm. The street is full of parked cars, often double-parked. Everything from BMWs to jeeps to dented sedans. (By the way, I saw a giant powder-blue ‘70s car today, pimping slowly down the street, and it was the greatest thing ever. It reminds me of the fact that everyone has a mobile phone here with a kickin’ ring, like the one set to the song “Big Pimpin’.)

Back to the street. This morning our bawaab was rinsing and toweling a Mercedes, which was parked just next to the spot in the sidewalk where ripped-open garbage bags are constantly tossed.

Down there, so much happens. In the span of a few seconds, you might see the following:

The bawaab, wearing a light green gallabiya, lifts the wipers of the Mercedes as he towels the windshield. A dingy white cat pilfers the scattered rubbish on the walk. A couple of taxis barrel down the street, and another car comes in reverse straight toward the taxis, as a buggy, led by a skinny horse and featuring tinny music, makes no bones about its intentions to plow through this path. Add to this an old woman in black dress wandering in the road, sobbing a story with her palms outstretched. A truck full of copy paper, parked across from the car-washing bawaab, takes up necessary street inches. Clumps of pedestrians between and around all described vehicles. Now a delivery moped whizzes up, spurting a stream of bluish exhaust (the people who deliver – for the restaurants, for the grocer, for Drinkies, for almost anywhere – seem fearless).

Yet all of it works itself out in a matter of seconds through a series of well-timed honks, swerves, and subtle movements. In other words, no one gets their panties in a bunch. The pedestrians move so that the passing cars only just rustle their sleeves. The horse leans slightly to the side, the car in reverse keeps going, the taxis create three lanes where there should clearly only be one, the deliveryman zips like a ping pong ball, and the old woman goes on as if she were the only one in the street. The bawaab towels down the tires. The cats rummage.

Upstairs, I find that my panties have bunched. Down below, all is right.

A few minutes later, perhaps, a short white truck with a square front pulls up, and a man in a blue suit with neon yellow stripes across the back jumps out of the truck bed which is already filled with tree branches and rubbish. Are these the garbagemen, the “sanitation workers?” I’m not sure. We set our garbage in the hallway whenever we want to and it magically disappears within a day. We’ll meet the garbagemen when they knock on the door for the LE 10 we’re supposed to give them every month.

There are other people who collect garbage, whole families. They have carts that they load up and pull through the city. The carts have long handles like hooks that go over the shoulders and curl under the hands. I’m sure there is a name for this cart that I am ignorant about, but it looks like a rubbish-filled chariot. In a part of the city that we have not yet seen, the collectors sort the trash, and this sorting, while unhealthy, to say the least, for these families, is apparently an extremely efficient method of recycling. These are among the poorest people, we are told. There is a philanthropic organization here that seeks to help educate the children of these families, we are told. All of this prompts me to separate and rinse plastic bottles and cans before setting out the garbage, which certainly doesn’t settle my, er, discomfort at knowing what will be happening to my discarded peels, my wadded up tissues, my wrappers, my boxes, my clumps of hair, the ant-infested sugar I covered with Raid. Here, I have to know these momentous things.


P.S. Upon further investigation, I’ve learned from the wily and unpredictable internet that the garbage I see across the street may in fact be mine. People retrieve the garbage from my doorstep, rummage through it, leave it for the cats, then – a man comes along later in the evening and picks through the rest, carting it off. Meanwhile, Mr. Mercedes parks his car wherever it will fit, even if it is straight into a pile of trash that has seeped into the street. Makes sense to me.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

More words and pics on the felucca ride very soon. But first, this.

Yesterday brought about the early death of my beloved Vidal Sassoon hair clippers, through which I estimate I have saved hundreds of dollars in haircut costs since my initial experimentations with tres-short hair eight years ago. I plugged the clippers into the plug adapter and the adapter into the wall outlet, switched them on, and began to cut my hair. Very quickly the entire machine became hot, too hot, and a distinct odor of burning metal caught my nose. So, only a few swipes into my haircut, I switched off the clippers to allow their overloaded innards a chance to cool.

Some context: electrical outlets in America emit a standard, steady voltage of 110. Here in Egypt, the voltage can vary from 110 up to 220. For a piece of machinery configured for American voltage, the varying and surging voltage here can wreak havoc. And so it did when I, foolishly, once more plugged in my Vidal Sassoon clippers and thought, “I’ll do this very quickly.” Seconds later there was a hollow explosion inside the clippers. This noise was followed by a weak vibration against my hand, something akin to a death throe. I expected something painful to happen to me—perhaps the bright, supernova implosion of my clippers into a blackened lump of plastic and gnarled metal, seared into my palm. But all that had happened was that my clippers had died. Kaput. Did I mention that I had only partially mowed my hair?

I resolved to sojourn out into the city for a pair of new hair clippers. In order to make this feasible, I tied around my deformed head M’s blue bandana, which she so thoughtfully packed before our departure. I will say that bandanas are not common here in North Africa, and that the armed young men who guard the nearby embassies found my headgear stare-worthy. In fact, most people found the bandana a worthy focus for their undivided attention as I walked the streets of Zamalek.

Off I went to Alfa Mart, which contains not only groceries, but many appliances foreigners might like to have. Here you can find the American-style coffee maker, blender, coffee bean grinder, hair curler, food processor, lady shaver (very expensive). But no hair clipper. I kept thinking, surely, this item must be available for purchase, and that I am in a foreign country and these wily Egyptians are probably displaying this item in a place that would not naturally occur to my American sensibilities. I searched all three floors, looking everywhere from computer equipment to housewares, until I finally had to admit, with some discomfort, that I would not find clippers on that day.

This is how I came to meet Adel. He is a barber who keeps his shop on 26th July St., a small shop with two large, windowed doors that allow the casual passer-by to look inside and observe Adel at his work. So it was for me, as I walked down one of Cairo’s busiest streets, still sporting conspicuous blue bandana. Adel caught me looking at him, and he smiled quickly before returning his attention to the hair of the man sitting before him. When I stepped down to reach the recessed entrance to his shop, I was able to ascertain through my usual repertoire of idiotic pantomiming and poor language skills that I could be next on the chair if I so wished.

After the man left, I assumed my position on Adel’s chair and removed the bandana. He laughed. It was a funny sight, my poor head, and I laughed too. This would not be the last time I laughed while under Adel’s care. The sight of my head explained, in a way I was not capable through language, exactly what kind of cut I wished for. To be sure, I pointed at his hair clippers. Then I stroked my beard to indicate that I’d like that trimmed, as well.

What matters here is not that Adel cut my hair and trimmed my beard. He did that, and well enough for the 30LE charge. It’s what happened next. Apparently, barbers here in Arabia are skilled in a vast array of grooming services and techniques. While I waited, perhaps nervously, Adel first produced a straight razor and proceeded to shave the little hairs on the back of my neck and just below my shirt line. He shaved the tiny trail of hairs that connect my beard to my neck hair. I remember during this time a sense of duration, of wondering when I could get up and pay and leave. I felt this way even though I felt no particular sense of discomfort, and Adel seemed like a very nice man who could be trusted with a straight razor at my neck. It’s just that I wasn’t exactly sure what would happen next.

And then Adel put away the straight razor and produced a long, white string from plastic packaging. Headline: AMERICAN GARROTTED IN MIDDLE EAST. Adel bent over a bit and managed somehow to wrap this long string around his hand and arm in a bizarre Cat’s Cradle-like configuration. He tilted back my seat and then he was there, looming over me, holding this string in his fingers like a puppet master. Who was the puppet?

I watched this happen in the mirror. Adel had arranged this string into a series of small loops, which he could pull taut with a quick movement of some part of his hand. He proceeded to do this as he moved the string across my face, first at my eyebrows, then at my forehead and ears, everywhere where unsightly man-hair might be present. He would catch a strand or two of protruding hair in a loop, then he would tighten this loop with surprising alacrity and strength, and catch the hair, and then pull. This was happening dozens of times per minute; in the mirror, I saw him move over me with impresario skill, his trained hands moving quickly but with great measure and strength across the surface of my face.

I laughed in my utter surprise, despite the constant prickling pains emerging all over my face. I laughed like I was being tickled which, in a way, I was. What you see in the picture is my new and improved visage. Look how handsome. Thank you, Adel.


Friday, September 01, 2006

Today we took a felucca ride on the Nile. That there in the photo is a felucca. At first, five feluccas were roped together and we bobbed along and ate. Eventually, each boat was freed from the rest. We glided until the sun set and the call to prayer was finished.


(If you click on the photo, it'll get bigger, and it's awfully purty that way.)