Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Bahariya Oasis – Desert Trip

This is the first post about our trip to the Bahariya Oasis, which yielded all matter of encounters. I’m starting with the second day. After breakfasting on feta, baladi bread, fava beans, and NesCafe in the salmon-walled dining room of the Western Desert hotel, we loaded up in the hotel’s blue jeep and admired the white flames painted on the side. J had requested that awesome jeep from Samir, the manager, and since we were basically the only ones in the hotel, he obliged. We climbed in with Samir and Mahmoud, our driver, who played Arabic music in the car all day and sang nonstop as he whipped around rocks and bumped us through the Western Desert.

Our first stop was an enormous dune not far from town – the culmination of our drive was the jeep picking up speed to make it up to the lower elevation of the dune. A dune is a miraculous thing, but there is not much more I can say except that I collected some beautiful rocks and marveled over the way the sand had smoothed crevices into them.

Next we entered the Black Desert, where the sand was covered with rocks that looked like a layer of pepper from a distance. We stopped at Black Mountain, one of the largest formations, and the rocks here were striking – obviously black, and cut, grooved, shaped by the whims of sand and wind. I climbed about ¾ of the way up the mountain (it wasn’t a big mountain, mind you) until it got too steep for my tennies. J went the other direction, down a path like a spine, picking and tossing rocks.

Again, changes Рscrubby plants and lighter sand. Soon Mahmoud swerved off the main road again, and we bumped around for a bit before a large square tank appeared, water spilling into it from a pipe. Next to the tank was a hut, its walls woven with palm leaves, inside of which were mats and woven baskets. When we went to change clothes, I asked Samir if it would be offensive for me to wear shorts, and he said no, "You are free here." Ah, this is where freedom can be found, in a hot spring in Egypt. I wore a huge tee-shirt, in addition to my sprawling mesh shorts, and still I felt a bit risqu̩ until later when an older woman showed up with a bikini bottom sporting her buttcrack. Still, I felt better in my baggy get-up, especially considering the gaze she got from the men folk.

The hot springs were not as hot as one would imagine and smelled of sulfur, but I cannot downplay the fact that this was my favorite part of the day. Water gushed from the pipe and circulated, emptying into a channel that ran to the side and eventually under the palm leaf wall of the hut and through the hut itself. When we pulled up, an old man on a donkey had stopped near the hut, and the donkey was hauling baskets of green on each side of his belly. People were working in a field in the distance, and there was a small group of homes far off comprising a Bedouin village. As we swam, the bikini-ed woman came and left with her posse of Egyptian men, and a group of American tourists pulled up, looked around, and departed.

Then Samir said they would make us lunch. As we sat on the edge of the tank to dry, two little boys walked up and asked for money. J gave them 50p and they seemed thrilled. I tried to speak a little Arabic to them, and they asked me for a pen, which I didn’t have. Kids want pens here. Bring them if you visit. The oldest boy couldn’t have been more than 6; the other was 4 or 5. This was already something we were used to – the kids, everywhere - a subject for another post. The two of them stared, fascinated, until Samir called us into the hut.

Our lunch was set up on a squat round table painted yellow. We sat on the mat-covered floor and feasted on baladi bread, fava beans in tomato sauce, soft feta mixed with tomatoes and cucumbers, tuna (J ate this), chips, Pepsi, and agua. I love me some food. It was so shady and cool in the hut, with the spring running through the channel and the palm tree foundations. When we were finishing up, Mahmoud brought us Bedouin tea in little mugs shaped like pitchers. Indescribably delicious, this tea, with fresh sprigs of mint. Keep in mind that poor Mahmoud and Samir were sitting there fasting, it still being Ramadan for a couple more days. When we finished, we washed our hands and feet in the part of the spring that ran through the hut – there was a bar of soap nestled in the palm tree closest to the water.

We left this tranquil setting and went on to a military stop, where Mahmoud had to give info about himself and say what nationality we were. We had heard from others that you are bound to get a military or police escort if you are an American tourist, and that this escort is like having a big target on you saying, Hey, Look at the Americans!, but we did not run into such trouble on our trip.

We then crossed into the White Desert, another landscape shift, and almost immediately pulled over to see Crystal Mountain, which is more like a hillock made entirely of – you guessed it – crystal. Slivers lay broken over the mountain, but this was the only site with an environmental protection sign, and you know how I am about rules, so none of you are getting crystals. But you may get a rock if you play your cards right.

From here we went off road, eventually coming upon the breathtaking panorama of a valley marking the beginning of the most interesting parts of the White Desert. We stopped here and gazed at the chalklike minerals, rippled like snowdrifts, against the side of the mountains. Then we entered the valley. Some parts of the floor were sheer rock, and Mahmoud took the jeep nearly sideways at the base of formations to stay out of the rock. We entered another large open patch with a white rock floor on which were scattered “flower rocks,” black and round with bulbous protrusions. We stopped here, and Mahmoud, having noticed my penchant for collecting the details of the earth, kept handing me rocks, each one stranger than the next.

The landscape changed again, this time scattered with shrubs and palms, many of them fallen over or dead. Samir said the Bedouins used to live here “200 or 300 years ago.” Samir was a great person to have around, but he was no historian. I soon learned to curb my questions about the history of places and just enjoy them for what I saw. What was clear was that the groves had outlived their usefulness – no water, no human life. We kept passing these old groves and turned onto a rockier landscape, the jeep shuddering as we dodged boulders. Suddenly a real oasis appeared, a small grove of palms with a natural spring. Mahmoud stopped to put water in the jeep. Someone had hung plastic bags of sugar, salt, and flour from the palm trees, which were loaded with colorful bunches of small dates.

Finally, we reached the most eerie and famous formations of the White Desert – mounds at first, like swollen thumbs dipped in salt and sugar. The first stop: “Ice Cream Valley,” consisting of scooped and swirled formations. Eventually, we came to “The Chicken,” which is two formations – one that looks like a flower or a mushroom, and the other shaped like a small hen clucking up at the flower. Both are situated on a round pedestal of rock as if they had deliberately been put on display.

Indeed, that’s the amazing thing about all of these formations – they look as if they, like the Sphinx, were purposely created and sculpted – lions, profiles of human faces, etc. – when the miracle is that they were simply made from erosion, deposits, wind – the whims of minerals and air. I guess a further miracle is that what we tend to see in these formations is ourselves.

The other day I was thinking about this tendency to see ourselves in inert objects and came upon a passage in a book called The Botany of Desire, in which Michael Pollan quotes Emerson: “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” In classical rhetoric, “colors” refer to tropes [this trope info was also revealed to me by Pollan], meaning that we cannot see or experience without preconceived notions, past experiences, or expectations coloring what we see. We think these formations in the White Desert imitate us rather than that we imitate them, or perhaps it goes deeper than imitation. The smallest crevice delights us only in that it seems to resemble ourselves and what we know. Sure, the desert was eerie, but the shapes were us – they could only be us.

All of this (with respect to Emerson, Pollan, DeLillo, and everyone else who has had thoughts such as this a million times before, of course) struck me when we pulled up to a formation and Samir said: “The Horse.” Even though I nodded my head in agreement, I could see nothing like a horse. I saw a large base and a smaller craggy bit jutting from the top. Meanwhile, J scrambled up a formation that seemed a bit big for his britches; nonetheless, he made it and paused like Superman surveying his heroics, chalk smattering his jeans. Then I peered at the horse and saw its long neck and its mane, exactly where I had been looking for it.

At this point, I must flash forward to the next day, when we watched the sun setting from English Mountain, a cliff with a crumbling rock house where some Brit used to live. The cliff offers a magnificent view of Bawiti and the sun, pink and dropping until it plops out of sight. We took a few pics before the sun actually set but then just watched the splendor, hands wrapped around our knees. As the sun sank, a woman behind us loudly lamented the faulty lighting of her camera, totally disregarding the miracle of the present because she couldn’t record it as a moment in the past.

Let’s go back to The White Desert, though, where the sun is beginning to set just as we pull up to a formation called “The Mushroom,” which I sit under like Alice, watching the way other formations seem to change with the light, surfacing and submerging. Iftar comes, so Mahmoud and Samir chow. Then back to Bawiti and the hotel – a two hour drive.

We met other vehicles occasionally, which each time involved a conversation of lights flicking on and off: Are you there? Yes, I’m here. Do you see me? Yes, I do. Are you sure? You betcha. And one last flicker upon passing. I might add that no one seemed to have taillights. As soon as Samir fell asleep in the front, Mahmoud lit a cigarette. Later, when he tried it again, Samir woke and made him put it out. Their relationship all day was quite fun to watch – Samir telling Mahmoud how to drive, how to do things, Mahmoud talking back – both like biddies, which is the way many men interact in Egypt.

Back in Bawiti, the town bustled post-Iftar – children racing about, men smoking sheesha in open-air coffee shops, grocers selling fruit and spices and opened bags of grain, covered women leading children by the hand. Dusty and crazy, it was a bit much for me after the surreal day, so I headed to the room to shower and sleep. The shower was a head hanging from the wall, basically, so the whole bathroom got wet, but a drain in the floor made it more efficient than it looked.

Anyway, before that, I asked J to get me a lemon soda and some TP from Samir. He did this on his way out to dinner at the Popular Restaurant (worthy of its own post). A few minutes later, Samir and one of the other hotel guys come knocking on the door with a silver tray holding my can of lemon soda, a smudged glass, and a roll of TP. You don’t get THAT from the Hilton, now, do you? Then to bed for me, on the mattress with the red brick foundation, surprisingly comfy after a day in the desert.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Back From Bahariya

This is only a quickie. We've returned from Bahariya Oasis and we had a fabulous time. These are only a few pictures of the startling, bizzaro realm of the oasis and parts south. There are many, many more of these and plenty of stories to come. Later. For now, enjoy these.

Sand Dune Outside the Town of Bawiti

The Black Desert

The White Desert--just one part of the surreal landscape

Sunset on Some Other Planet

Friday, October 20, 2006

Over the past week, the weather has started to cool. It’s breezier, too, and at night, the wind contains the faintest hint of a genuine chill. Everything is less oppressive; even the sunlight, halogen-like during our initial weeks, has softened, bronze during the day, golden in the evenings. The skies are much clearer now that they have finished burning off the rice fields around the city, and my recent struggles with sore throats and mild sinus infections have disappeared. If this is a taste of winter in Cairo, I’ll have two helpings, please.

Some nights I’ll return late from campus on the Zamalek shuttle, which lets off at the dormitory, a five minute walk from our apartment. I walk up Marashli St. and turn right onto Bahgat Ali, past the Chinese Embassy and the guards who know my face by now. From above, there comes wailing laughter, a high-pitched, mocking call that begins someplace behind me and zooms past, over my head and on down Bahgat Ali. Even though it’s dark, I look up, because I look up when I hear the call of a bird, any bird, much less the chilling cry of this particular bird, which, like many birds here in North Africa, I have not seen or heard before (although the House Sparrow is exactly the same here as one I’ve seen at birdfeeders in Iowa, California, Minnesota and Ohio). But it is dark and the bird flies safely past, mocking the entire way down the block and past earshot, without my seeing it, and I am left to gaze at the wondrous maze of tree branches that meet above the road. They form a thick nexus; the trees themselves emerge from the sidewalks on both sides, leaning out slightly over the road and over me. I think it’s a beautiful sight, but when I first encountered this stretch of Bahgat Ali St., something else tugged at me…a faint recognition, a memory. A likeness to these trees elsewhere. At some point—while falling asleep or waking up, showering, teaching, perhaps during a student conference or a grade-norming session—the memory emerges from behind whatever boulder I have situated in front of it, and I am transported into a brown sedan—although, perhaps my memory does not serve the facts specifically, and I am superimposing my grandfather’s brown sedan from another memory, possibly those times when I would wake for school and he would be there, having risen at his customary 4 am and driven two hours on state routes to have coffee with my mother. His brown sedan in our driveway. What I know is that I am in a car, and he is there, and so is my grandmother. This memory is dislodged from any context and it occurs to me as perfectly distilled. There is nothing in my adult perspective to sully it or diminish it, and isn’t that so often the price of adulthood? There is no past or future action that connects this memory to any other thing. We are driving along a narrow, curvy country road in Kentucky. I know it’s Kentucky because we have crossed the Ohio River into Maysville and left that little city behind. We are surrounded on all sides by a great forest. It is vast. The trees are unlike the trees on Bahgat Ali—they are large, overgrown, wild and untamed. Occasionally a gap will appear in them, and I can look out to one side at the world I have been shielded from, and what I see is empty space. It’s easy to forget the embankment leading down to the Ohio River is just a few dozen feet from the edge of the road. Manchester blinks its blackened eye at us—and is gone. And I forgot about Manchester, just like I forget about the world. All is green and I am protected—from what I don’t know. That’s what I would like to remember. Safety implies danger. Why did I feel so safe?

I’m there now, in that world. I’m standing in the middle of the street and just an instant has passed. I don’t have any declarations to make. I’d like to sit in the back seat with myself while my grandparents drive us through the Kentucky woods and tell myself, whisper it, really, that it’s not so bad. It’s even a good thing, out there beyond the canopy of trees spanning from one side of the road to the other.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Today I was awoken by the Friday call to prayer. It was almost noon. I listened to the chanting and singing, the loudspeaker reverberating between buildings – at times, monotonous, at times lilting. I opened the back door and stood on the balcony, collecting laundry off the line, and the strange voice swelled and withdrew. It is still hot here, hotter than usual for this time of year. Yesterday it was 95 degrees in Cairo, while, in Illinois, my parents woke to 30 degrees and snow. Today it is 88, and the skies do not hold those dark clouds from the burning rice fields that have hovered the last few days. This week I finally put long-sleeved cotton shirts to the test. And I was no hotter than usual. See, it means something that I have been brazenly wearing my short-sleeved shirts and plastering my arms with 50 spf. Each time I look in the closet, I think about what my clothing will say about me when I step outside.

I don’t find the clothing issue too oppressive since I am a foreigner; therefore, it seems that I have more power to do what I want. If I am seen as a loose Western woman, there is little I can do to deter that, and if I were to cover my head, I would be a complete poser. But it’s weird to be a girl here. OK, foreign girl. I am almost thirty, but I must use the term “girl.” Anyway, the kinds of looks and words you get from men here have no relation to your age and are in no way to be taken as a badly-planned compliment or offensive forms of flattery because it doesn’t matter what you look like. If you are a woman, fat or skinny, flat-chested or big-breasted, you will get looked up and down and all around like you have never been looked at before.

After coming here, I met a couple of American women who said they suffer endless harassment. They said it tires them; they said they are on the verge of a nervous breakdown; they said they cannot respect this facet of this culture – the obvious inequalities between men and women. I did not quite see their point of view in the sense that I did not have such a strong reaction (which surprises me, but I think not having a strong reaction to a lot around here has kept me sane and laughing), though I wondered about it because both of them dress much more conservatively than I do. I do not dress provocatively (which goes without saying, folks), but I do not purposefully cover my arms and sometimes feel okay wearing capri-style pants and my American tennies that stick out like sore thumbs. And I usually don’t get harassment, only looks, and they really didn’t seem all that bad for a while – simply looks. I was feeling pretty good, actually, like I must look like a respectable lady and the feelings these American women were talking about were just overreactions. I generally walk with confidence and as if I have a busy sense of purpose, and this seemed to be working well for me. (Of course, the fact that I acquiesced to looking down when I walked so as to avoid catching the eye of a man – as that might seem an invitation of some sort – and the way I would defer to J doing the talking even though sometimes I was able to understand something in Arabic that he wasn’t, is in itself self-imposed harassment.) Sure, some soldiers mumbled things when I went by, and I do recall hearing a couple of hisses from men seated in front of embassies, but no one was running out and grabbing my rear or anything, and no one seemed vicious.

Then one morning J and I were looking for a taxi when a man on a bike passed us, turned around, cupped his hand against his man-breast as he looked at me, then pointed at J and gave him the thumbs-up. He also said something in Arabic that was obviously dirty, probably “Nice melons” or something equally repulsive. He kept repeating the cupping motion and his thumbs-up. Why was J getting props for MY assets? Huh? Shouldn’t my great-grandma Glasco, beautifully buxom, get credit for this? I gaped in disbelief while J sternly told the man in Arabic to get the hell away. The only thing that would have made this incident into a good story is if that man would have run his bike into a parked car, flipped over the car, then been pummeled by stray cats. As it was, I was at first astonished that this was happening at 10 in the morning, then, as we finally hailed a cab and the driver spoke pleasantly in English to us, I felt humiliated.

MEN. Men are everywhere. I have never seen so many men. In the morning, I step outside our apartment building. There is the bawaab, squatting against the wall reading a newspaper, or smoking (when it isn’t Ramadan), or washing tenants’ cars, or hosing down the sidewalk, or helping to move paper products from a truck into a dark garage space (we have no idea what the deal is with the paper). Sometimes he pulls my mail out of his pocket. He always says hello.

But he never looks directly at me. This is supposed to be a sign of respect, but for me it is often hard to feel respected when I feel invisible. (Look at J's entry about going into the Ramadan tent and seeing the men cooking. I was there. I was there the whole time. The men welcomed J heartily, shook his hand. I stood on the periphery, and they nodded politely at me and said “welcome,” but it was clear they were uncomfortable and did not want to shake my hand. After all, it was close to prayer time and they cannot go into prayer sullied by a woman’s touch. Later when J took the pictures, I was there, too, and I watched how one man sternly waved away the camera and looked at his wife. Don’t look at her. Don’t photograph her.) But my bawaab, a man with an enormous prayer mark on his forehead, thinks I’m an ok gal.

Keep walking with me, though, past the other bawaabs, past the men lounging in chairs, past the makwagi and green grocer, past the silver-haired policeman who directs traffic at our corner where the street splits oddly, past the soldier leaning against a pole with his gun strapped carelessly on his back, past the next soldier, and the next one, and the man who sits in a chair in front of the Chinese Embassy wearing a suit. Turn the corner, and there is a mass of parked cars, and it seems that they have all been put into neutral so that policemen and soldiers can move them when someone wants to get out. They push each car back, and the cars bump against one another until there is space enough to leave. In front of the student hostel is the shuttle bus. Here are the university guards, in blue, standing clumped on the corner with a husky panting and chained on the sidewalk. All the while, vehicles pass by, men slow, men look. These men are looking at me, many of them. As I pass by the men in front of their businesses, the policemen, the soldiers, the boys on their bikes, the taxi drivers, the deliverymen on their puttering motorcycles, the men wearing Western-style suits, I am keenly aware that they are looking at me, though I usually do not look back. I can feel it. I am every woman on the street.

When I read Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, I was mortified by the fact that one of the main female characters is not allowed to leave her house. Every once in a while, her husband takes her, completely covered, to see her mother. That is it. She does not have friends; she does not go anywhere to pray though she is devoutly religious; her only purpose in life is to serve her husband and children, but mostly her husband. As I was reading, I was aware that the book was set in the early twentieth century, and I remember reminding myself not to think that this was an accurate representation of the Egyptian society I see.

There is an image, though, that I cannot shake, something I saw not long ago near Tahrir Square: a woman completely covered in black, in 100 degree desert heat – only her eyes showing. Her hands were gloved in black. Everything was covered. Everything. She was walking next to her husband, who was wearing a Nike basketball jersey and loose jogging pants. The husband was joyously bouncing their toddler son on his shoulders. They were a young couple.

There is no justice in this. There is no virtue. I’m sorry. There just isn’t.

Most of the women I see here are not covered so drastically. None of my students are. Many of them wear headscarves, quite beautiful, actually, and very stylish. But, even though I see women around me, they sometimes feel invisible.

We are high enough in our apartment building to see into the courtyard and classrooms of the girls’ school across from us. The older girls in the school wear pink uniforms and white headscarves, and the younger ones wear blue and will not be covered until they reach puberty and then decide whether to take the veil, which has all sorts of complicated implications I do not know enough about to discuss. At intervals, the younger girls stand in lines in the courtyard and cheerfully shout the national anthem to the beat of a drum. As they chant, the older girls sit at long tables and work. The windows are always open, even at night. The first morning I heard this chanting, I thought it sounded like a riot had erupted in the streets. Imagine my surprise when I looked down just in time to see the girls be released from the courtyard and run streaming, like ants, back to their classrooms.

Then I saw a young girl trip. Picking herself back up, she held her nose, then started jumping up and down, flapping her hands like little kids do when they don’t know how to deal with sudden, unexpected pain. In no time, she was surrounded by all the other little girls. They were touching her face, consoling her, patting her, hugging her. They never stopped touching her, and they didn’t think to go get an adult to take care of the situation. There was so much care there, so much love. I wanted those little girls to pour into the street with their love.

Where are these little girls most of the time? Where do they go when school is over? Their male peers are dodging traffic in the streets, playing their versions of stickball, hugging each other, being rowdy and sweet.

But I will leave you with this. One night J and I were walking home from the grocery. The streets are dark at night here, and the soldiers stand in the shadows with their guns. Cars flick their headlights on and off just to let you know they are coming. The men are still perched outside on their chairs, or standing in clumps, or walking arm-in-arm together and smoking. I fear none of these men. I am not afraid of the soldiers or their guns. The thing I fear is being hit by a car.

I used to walk down the relatively quiet streets of Minneapolis at night with my keys stuck between my fingers and my hands balled into fists, ready to poke out the eye and scrotum of any man who might emerge suddenly from a bush. I knew that if I screamed, no one would do anything. Too often we sit and wonder if we should do something, or whether what we hear is an actual emergency or just the sounds of the city. We sit so long that it no longer matters. For God's sake, we are told to yell "Fire" instead of "Rape." Let me tell you that in Cairo, one of the largest cities in the world – in Cairo, with its poverty, with its pollution – people will stop and help you. People will hear you scream. They say that you should hold your tongue against verbal harassment because if you raise a ruckus at some hissing man, people on the street will come to your aid. At the very least, they will publicly shame him. If two parties argue in the streets, passersby interrupt their walks to crowd around and convince the two to be at peace with each other, to forgive. They clamor around, like those little girls in the courtyard. They don’t call for the police.

Back to the street, where J and I were walking that night. An older man was crossing past us.

He bent his head and said, “You are welcome here.”

He said it quickly and continued on, waiting for no response.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Hello from a major holiday in Egypt. October 6 is the anniversary of a military victory in the Egypt-Israel war of the 1970s, which brought the Sinai back under Egyptian control—or, as our office mate Ahmed says, back “home.” There is a street named 6th of October St., and even a new suburb near the pyramids called 6th of October City. Can you imagine a town named 4th of July City?

Yesterday afternoon, M and I were on our way to the Alfa Mart when we were waylaid by two—count them, two—letters, both for M, one from her mother, the other from her grandmother. They were sitting on a ledge in the foyer, which I guess counts as our mailbox. We sat down on the front steps to read them, which gave our bawaab the time to sense our presence and motion to us furiously from down the block. As usual, I engaged in a series of gestures meant to pantomime my ignorance. Mission accomplished: bawaab makes the universal “sign of the camera” with thumb and forefinger, then motioned to the sidewalk charity tents that had been erected for Ramadan, just across the street next to the all-girls’ school. Back up the rickety elevator I go to our apartment, where I grab the camera—M is still reading kinds words from Betty—and hurry back downstairs. And bawaab ushers us inside this tent, onto the sidewalk where tables and chairs have been arranged. Such public dining halls are common throughout Ramadan, as they are for the poor who cannot afford a proper meal at Iftar—that magical time of the day when Muslims break their fasts. This also means that there are people cooking these meals, which is generous under normal circumstances, but Herculean when one considers that the cooks are all fasting. Bawaab leads me to a tented enclosure within the larger tent, where a group of men are cooking chicken and fuul (pronounced “fool”) and rice. These are some friendly and, as you can see, photogenic older men, glad, it seems, for the recognition.

Throughout this experience, and the ones to follow, I kept wondering why our bawaab has brought me here. Had he been looking for me all day, or had the idea occurred to him only after he saw us on the front steps? Why does he want me to document this in photographs? M thinks that some Muslims want Westerners to see their religion and its traditions in positive ways. At the very least, I have sensed that many Egyptians feel that their religion has been misappropriated by a violent minority, to serve purposes most Muslims also find abhorrent. Is this what our bawaab is thinking as he guides us “behind the scenes” at the charity tent? Probably not in those words.

Anyway, we return from Alfa Mart just before the Iftar. I can hear on the city-wide loudspeakers the haunting music and low, male singing that represents, I think, anticipation of the moment itself—the blaring voice commencing Iftar. One of the other bawaabs, an older man who wears a security uniform, and who I have never seen standing, waves at us to come down, to eat. Once more, I pantomime: I point to our groceries, point up, point at myself, and then, after pausing, point at him. Then we race upstairs to put away our food, race back down with two bottles of water; we give one of these to the old, seated bawaab, and leave the other inside the charity tent, which is now full with people waiting to break their fast.

We find our bawaab scampering energetically a bit further down the block, out in front of the makwagi shop, where I have my clothes ironed. Our bawaab often scampers energetically, by the way. At this time, he’s busily setting a table that has been put on the sidewalk outside the makwagi. First, the surface is covered in old newspaper. Then, from the bowels of the makwagi shop, among the ironing boards, there appears as if by magic a heaping bowl of rice, a huge plate of beef—a true delicacy here in Egypt—and smaller plates of raw and cooked vegetables. Bawaab and others produce used Aquafina bottles of ice water, soaked all day in lemon—this not only makes them tasty, but also ensures certain death for any roaming bacteria. We take our seats; I’m across from the old makwagi himself, who very intently stares down at the food and waits for the signal. Other than the old man, M and myself, the others (all men) are standing by the table. Just before the Iftar commences, our bawaab places balady bread beside our plates. Balady bread, for those of you who do not know, is like pita bread, only more bittersweet.

Dig-in time is just that: the speakers blared the voice announcing the onset of Iftar, and the men around us poured cups full with lemon water and downed them in a single gulp. Then they tore the balady bread and used it to grab a hunk of meat, or some vegetables, or a handful of rice, and—gulp—disappeared. The makwagi kept motioning to M that she should eat some meat, and we tried, rather sneakily, a technique we learned in the Culture Shock book—M takes the meat, along with other items she will eat, and tries, inconspicuously, to “forget” her meat—or, when the makwagi continually insisted she eat meat (again, any meat is a delicacy in Egypt, very expensive for the average Egyptian, and it’s a matter of pride to not only have meat at one’s dinner table, but to have it in excess), she find a way to pass it off to me. In this way, M got her fill of okra in tomato sauce, rice with vermicelli and vegetable salad, while I consumed a lot of beef and bread. A lot.

From where we sat, we saw no prayers to Mohamed, nothing more than a silent consumption of mass quantities of food, drink and water in a short period of time—quenching the various hungers that had grown throughout the day. Across the street, the charity tent was at capacity; a cab driver stopped his car in the middle of the road and went into the tent for his Iftar meal. Another man appeared from an alleyway, familiar with our bawaab and the makwagi, and grabbed some of the bread by my plate, and dug in. He returned a moment later, smoking a cigarette, which began a ripple effect of smoking. One of the young men produced matches from his front pockets, and before he could open the box, others were already grabbing for it, or pleading for him to hurry. Moments later, after those around us puffed in satisfaction—no smoking during the day at Ramadan—our bawaab scampered up and began to reach into the pockets of his young man, looking for the matches. A moment he later he was among the satisfied smokers.

And then he took us again into the charity tent. Now, it was full with Muslims breaking their fasts. Of course, most everybody was male. There were some girls and a man’s wife in the corner, and bawaab wanted me to take their photographs, but it was clear that these women did not want to have their pictures taken, so, despite our bawaab’s attempts to convince them, I respected their wishes.

I felt odd roaming among these people, expensive camera in hand, photographing the Iftar meal. I wish I’d had the language capacity to explain to them that I wasn’t a tourist from the nearby President Hotel. I wish I could have told them that I live here, at least for awhile, that I am curious about their home and their religion, if only because there is so much talk about it by people back home, people misinformed or ignorant or both. This part of the world is indeed troubled, buckling under the weights of religion, economics and the West. But they do seem like a generous and warm people, effusive and affectionate. It’s not what you’re taught to anticipate. Look at these pictures. They’re only a glimpse of the glimpse we witnessed. What do you see?


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

NOTE: Sideways pic fixed. J

We haven't written in a few days, so I thought I would post some pics from the pyramid trip. This is James and the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

The first pic is when the guy with the pendants was hassling us (see J's previous entry) and wrapped a sweaty turban around my head. My friend Bryan says I look like a New York fashionista in this picture. Yeah. I would say more like a buffoon. It's probably those cataract glasses I got from my eye doctor to wear over my spectacles. Shearn can see the saddlebag purse she gave me before she moved to Brooklyn. You can see my irritation at the man who took this blurry picture, I hope; you can see my finger bent with the message, "Take the damned picture." If you know me, you have probably experienced this look from me. My deepest apologies. But do appreciate the swift and tidy wrap I was given against my will. You know I deserved it.