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.



Sari said...

The desert. The palm trees. You must read The English Patient--if you haven't already. I know, I'm a bit obsessed with one M. Ondaatje. So what are you missing in Minnesota besides cold weather? Well, perhaps this gem of an insight from one of my students: Poets who consider their audience might be on the path to "fame and fortune," but they're sell outs.

moonlight ambulette said...

beautiful, amanda. sounds just like brooklyn. um.

seriously, i can't get enough of this crap. keep it up! more! more!

ginger said...

I love your blog Amanda. It's so very cool and awesome. Keep on keeping it real.

Mandy said...

Hm, I only know one Ginger, and that was my junior high P.E. teacher who gave me a detention once. Is this that Ginger? :) Thanks!

Mandy said...

Hm, I only know one Ginger, and that was my junior high P.E. teacher who gave me a detention once. Is this that Ginger? :)

Ginger said...

Oh Mandy,

So funny. You know who I am. BTW, Tom says hi.

Mandy said...

Ah ha! Unmasked, Ginger!