Monday, November 27, 2006

To get to the university I take the Zamalek shuttle, which departs each half hour from the dormitory, a good five-minute walk from our building. Some days the shuttle gets to the university in little more than ten minutes, but many times there is some significant delay. A taxi, for instance, has stopped his car on a main thoroughfare. He’s talking to a man on the side of the road—perhaps about a fare. Or perhaps the main is his cousin, or his sister’s husband. Their animated discussion could be about most anything. It’s also likely that we will meet some traffic problems at the “stoplights” at the European-styled roundabouts, which usually do little more than flash yellow, yellow, yellow, while a team of police officers give the signals—which amount to little more than curt gestures I still do not understand. Sometimes the traffic police are chatting with one another and forget the deft timing it requires to keep traffic flowing, but motorists are happy to honk and remind them.

And then there is the sheer audacity of the number of cars. It amazes me that this city moves at all, since routinely there are disorganized masses of vehicles trying to fit into increasingly tight bottlenecks, honking their horns (though not necessarily in anger…there is a complex code to honking, such that a honk can come to mean anything from “Fuck you” to “I will see you tonight and yes, yes, I will bring the Balady bread and you shall bring the tea. And peace be to you! To everybody! I love this life!”). I’ve learned since being here that lanes are a luxury—every inch of road space is needed here.

This is what happens when a head of state passes through town.

To give you an image of Tahrir Square, you can call it a poor man’s (I do despise the aptness of that cliché) Times Square. It’s the unofficial center of Cairo, with the famed Egyptian Antiquities Museum, the Arab League offices, the AUC, an always-busy mosque, and a Hardee’s, along with a lot of super-sized advertisements displayed on the roofs of the apartment buildings overlooking the square. There is a large, tiled area populated with park benches, across the street from the university, and a few lame green patches, also decorated with park benches. There is apparently a subterranean parking garage that has been full, with a lineup of vehicles waiting, every time I have passed by it. There are also always some conspicuous tank-looking vehicles that house military police, who are present in and around Tahrir Square because this is the site of many demonstrations, and when demonstrations occur around here, the military gets involved, with the government’s blessing. Such is the nerve center of Cairo.

Now, imagine that all of it has been eliminated. Well, almost all of it. No cars, no pedestrians, no traffic, no honking or Arabic cursing, and, strangely, almost no noise. The square was populated with people, to be sure, but they all spoke in hushed tones, seated at the benches or huddled close to one another. Along all the many streets that converge at Tahrir Square, lined up equidistant from one another, were black-uniformed military officers. Interestingly, they were facing away from the street, facing away from the road that “The Hons,” a.k.a. President Hosni Mubarak, would momentarily be passing through.

I hopped off the Zamalek shuttle and tried to cut across the square and make it to an 11:30 meeting with a student, but I was blocked by an officer, and told by a plainclothesman—there are many here in Egypt (I saw one just today, strutting down the street, a revolver tucked into the back of his pants)--to back off, Jack. So I waited with the whispering Egyptians. They all seemed a little bit nervous. I drank in the beautiful, not-so-polluted-as-usual day, listened to the wind flapping the flags of Egypt that had been placed, I now noticed, at several intervals throughout the square.

For all of this, the president’s passing through was uneventful--which is, I imagine, the purpose of all this hullabaloo. Still, I was struck by the intimodating display of military presence as a sign of respect to the president—or an expression of his power (after all, everybody seemed nervous). A few motorcycles came through, then a convoy of SUVs, then a few more cars, and it was over. Traffic resumed. Almost immediately, the honking started.
* * *
The other night, as M and I were settling in to watch Lord of War on this very same computer I’m now typing into, our viewing was interrupted by some severe honking down below, on the street. Honking is not unusual in Cairo, but we have become accustomed to its particular rhythms and cadences—it’s a confusing code we don’t actually understand, but we understand the noises of that code. What we were hearing was your basic frustrated honking. Naturally, we paused Nicolas Cage in the middle of another dryly delivered line, and opened our windows, and looked down.

Our street is narrow, and at night cars are typically double-parked, so it’s difficult for cars traveling in opposite directions to pass one another. I believe I have written before of the artistry of it. On this night, no artistry to be found. We had two cars facing one another, not enough space on either side for them to steer around one another. Neither car was moving. The car to the left was traveling in the direction least often traveled on our road—though, to some extent, all roads here are equal opportunity roads. But there were no cars behind this car. He was alone. He seemed to be causing trouble for all the cars going in the other direction, not only those cars who wanted to continue on down Bahgat Aly St., but who wanted to make turns at the convoluted and dangerous intersection at the end of our block. None of this was possible. Unfortunately, the ancient police officer whose charge it is to direct traffic at this intersection, or to nap, was long gone. And the guard at the Chinese Embassy, who we watched observing this action, was not interested in involving himself.

Instead, others got involved. A trapped cab driver got out of his car and walked up to the car at the left, who was apparently the one causing all this trouble. But the driver of that car was not to be moved—unless it be forward, we assumed. It was the only answer that made any sense at all. In any event, the taxi driver gave up trying to reason with the driver of the car and went back to his cab, and we didn’t see him again.

Others felt the need to involve themselves. The protégé of our bowaab, a young man who is a bowaab-in-training (we think), tried to reason with him, even trying to move parked cars (they’re usually in neutral, so people can move them as necessary) to accommodate what must have been the driver’s demand for a primo parking spot. But the space in front of our building was not primo enough, it seemed. Some other unhappy drivers left their cars, and in a manner that became increasingly animated, pleaded with the man to move. After all, I could imagine them saying, you are now making life miserable for the occupants of some twenty vehicles. Why not back up and let us through?

Not to be. In fact, the passenger of the car took the liberty of lighting a cigarette and, I imagine, smarting off to one of the increasingly upset people standing all around the car—so, naturally, the man who had been the recipient of the smart comment smacked the cigarette out of the hand of the passenger. The man in the vehicle must have responded with angry, and not smart, words, for the man in the street leaned into the car and began punching the passenger. So the driver finally emerges, ready for action...and promptly finds himself on the ground getting kicked and punched by a couple of other men. I must say that I found this little bit of violence somewhat satisfactory, since, although M and I had been laughing at the complete inanity of the situation, I was also annoyed that somebody would be so hard-headed as to insist on not moving, thus inconveniencing a great many motorists, and delaying my viewing of Lord of War.

I can say that I found the fisticuffs satisfactory because it all turned out to be harmless. As soon as the fighting started, the main perpetrator of the violence ran away—after getting in one more good punch on the passenger—and a bunch of other men—drivers, passers-by, our bowaab-in-training, did all that they could to diminish the violence, calling for peace. Initially, this didn’t work, as the driver returned to his car only long enough to move it diagonally across the road, which served as a symbolic fuck-you to…I don’t know for whom. But whomever it was intended for, there you go. But the man who had kicked him and punched his friend was gone, and the driver was now a fool, and he had no option but to do what he had been urged to do all along. He returned to his car, backed up, and disappeared down the street. Two minutes later, traffic was back to normal. It was like nothing had happened in the first place.
* * *
So sorry to those of you who have checked When in Cairo faithfully these past two weeks, only to find no update. M has offered to write an entry, but it’s been my turn to write, and I haven’t, so all that big heap of blame can go right here. Since the Eid, it has been busier at school, and I have been fighting off another sinus infection (vanquished now, it seems). Anyway, we will do all we can to post a few more times before making our way West for the long holiday to come.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

This just sent from Bryan:

Sunday, November 12, 2006

For a little over a month, I’ve been learning Arabic twice a week through a university tutor. I thought I was just going to be learning to get by – some daily phrases that would help me barter and say hello and carry on a basic conversation. But no! We will learn to write before we can learn to speak! Then you can sound out words, even if you have no idea what they mean! I looked at the traditional alphabet that first day of tutoring and knew there was no hope. A little over a month later, I have made it through 70 pages of my study book and have just learned my first Arabic verb. My ambition to be speaking sentences by December has been doused by reality. I am truly humbled by the difficulty of this language. I feel like a baby, barely literate, being coddled by the nice women in the Arabic department who hold my hands and sugar me up when I am assigned to say something simple to them at the end of my lesson.

Many of the words are gendered. The words go from right to left. The possessive form is as difficult for English speakers as articles are for those learning English. The letters look different depending upon where they appear in the word, and some of them can connect to letters from the right but will not connect with letters coming after. When I make the mistake of trying to connect these letters, my tutor sternly says, “I told you! No link!” He is a stern man who answers his cell phone when I am sounding out words. The impromptu “No link!” has become part of our household lexicon.

I am humbled when my tutor shakes his head and says, “You didn’t study!” after I have spent hours the night before trying to understand my homework. But it is true that I can read now. It takes me twenty minutes to read a sentence, but I can read!

Since I am usually in Zamalek or at the university, I am around people who will answer in English even if I try to speak to them in Arabic. When we went to Bahariya, Samir was the only one we knew who could speak passable English. We also met a little girl who was very good with English. Other than that, with no alternatives, I found myself understanding and speaking more than I actually thought I had retained. Immersion. Of course.

There was one other man in Bawiti who knew enough English to draw a tourist crowd. Bayoumi was the owner of the Popular Restaurant, located across the street from our hotel. The restaurant consists of a latticed area holding the kitchen and one dining table in a building that looks like a cheery machinery shed. Outside are two long tables with colorful plastic chairs. The town of Bawiti is quite dusty, but the tables were impressively clean. The restaurant cooks a set meal a day. You get a pile of bread and several dishes – noodle soup, pickled lemons (an acquired taste) and olives, rice with vermicelli, stewed beans, potatoes, stewed peppers, eggplant, chicken, etc. The Popular Restaurant is also one of the only places in town that serves beer – Sakkara Gold for LE 15. We ate at the restaurant on our first night, and I managed to tell Bayoumi in Arabic that I was a vegetarian. His response gave me enough courage to keep trying out the language.

Everyone in town gravitated past this spot, where Bayoumi held court, drinking Bedouin tea, smooching children, and shouting to everyone he knew. He immediately made friends with J and greeted us loudly each morning when we came outside. He would say, “You come here for dinner? Hotel food no good!” One day as we came back from a walk around town, he sprang from behind a parked truck trying to scare us. Another day, when we had stopped in for a drink, he walked by and smacked us both on the foreheads. When I later asked Samir what the slap on the forehead meant, he said, “It’s OK,” his refrain, so I still don’t know if that old man was being affectionate or really just thought he could get away with smacking a couple of Americans on the head.

Every time Bayoumi saw us, he would yell, “Bush! No good!” and proceed to make a spurty noise to accompany a vigorous thumbs-down. Then he would say, “Americans! Good!” One night he and James ran through a lengthy list of American presidents, and Bayoumi gave his spurt or his thumbs-up. Kennedy! Good! James then listed off the Egyptian presidents he knew, and Bayoumi had nothing but praise. Later, Bayoumi leaned over to me and said secretively, “The American dollar. Very good.” Bayoumi’s photo is below. What you don’t see is that he is holding my hand, and it is very cute.

I have strayed from the main topic, but when I think of Bayoumi I think of the language – he had command over enough English and I had command over enough Arabic for us to have a good time, for us to avoid sitting uncomfortably in silence.

Now I have become addicted to learning Arabic, despite my slow learning curve. I am starting to hear words separated out when people speak around me. Signs and conversations are no longer indecipherable blurs but threads peppered with understandable notions.

I’ll close with a story about getting lost in Cairo this morning. You see, I had to have a blood test and other stuff to get my work visa, and today I was wandering about looking for the lab that turned out to be in a nameless building and in a clinic that made me yearn for the sealed buckets of needles in doctor’s offices at home and for the flawless blood-taking ability of Sonita, a nurse who works with my mom. But I walked right past this clinic without seeing it, just a few blocks from the university, and stepped into another realm. Donkeys, and men smoking sheesha, and more completely covered women.

As I walked by what seemed to be a school, I looked over to an alcove which opened onto a courtyard. Several men were standing around, as usual. When they spotted me, they shouted welcome and ran out to get me and brought me into the courtyard. Clearly, I had looked lost. One of them said, “I can understand you!” in English and then when I started to speak he said he could only speak French but he would take me to the man who spoke English. The man who spoke English looked like a promising fellow, with spectacles and a newspaper, but he too could not understand what I was saying about finding a lab. All of the men were speaking and jostling, and for a moment I remembered the stories about women getting harassed after Ramadan by herds of men. After all, they had brought me in this strange space, and the last woman I had seen was at least a block away. But, seriously, they were wearing old man trousers, and I never felt freaked out. Anyway, suddenly I spoke some Arabic to them, and a little more, and a little more. Each time I said something in Arabic, they cheered. I have never been to a country where attempting to learn the language is so highly praised at the slightest word. Turns out it did me no good because they only understood that I wanted to go to the university and not the university lab. Guy Who Speaks French jauntily put out his arm for me to take and led me toward the university, right back where I had started.

I’ll leave you with a photo from my workbook. You can see my freakish writing next to the neat printed Arabic.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Note on J's post below: For some reason comments aren't being allowed on that post, but it looks as if you could leave a comment here if you want.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Our first evening in Bahariya, Samir and Mahmoud drove us all over the depression, out to Pyramid Mountain, to a stinky salt lake whose shoreline was caked with sulfur-smelling salt deposits, through a grove of date palms (Mahmoud stopped the vehicle, hopped out and grabbed us some dates…which are, incidentally, perhaps the only fruit M does not like). Then we arrived at the part of our journey where we rode camels. All day, Samir had been mentioning this camel ride, intermittently and vaguely, seeming to oscillate between promising us an adventure and telling us that it would be “okay.” Samir’s English is good, but not so good that he could answer our questions about how long we would be on said camels, and where we were going on them. “It’s okay,” he said, and we shrugged and said to ourselves, “He’s the expert. It’s okay!”

We stopped at a small grove in the oasis, where some Bedouins tended a small herd of camels. We saw camels grazing on the grass that grew, improbably, from the sandy dirt. I will say that camels generally are possessed of a facial expression that conveys bemusement. In truth, they are grumpy sons of bitches.

M was, shall we say, skittish about riding a camel; I took this as an opportunity to put her at ease. I think I shrugged my shoulders and made a strange, lippy frown, and said how everything would be “fine.”

Some of you reading this may recall the ill-begotten horse trail ride trough the mountains of Colorado many years ago. This may have been the final vacation for the nuclear family unit into which I was born, and excepting this horse trail ride, it was quite nice. But the horse trail ride was a nightmare; I was a shrimpy, knobby-kneed, hyperactive child, given dominion over his own horse. We got a couple hours into the mountain trail when it began to hail and we decided to return to the stables. This did not stop each of us from taking quite a beating, to get very wet, and for my horse to get so freaked out that it started walking backwards.

I have never felt the comfort of a hotel bed as keenly as I did that evening.

Back in Bahariya, M initially attempts to convince me to take the camel that has been brought for her. It turns out that this camel is just cranky in the way all camels are cranky, and once she climbs aboard, it behaves very well. My camel is a different story. My camel would rather be grazing with its buddies, and it makes every attempt to wrangle free of the rope that is tied around its head, which my Bedouin guide uses to pull the poor fellow away from his buddies (who are now being shepherded into the stable), and out into a desert flat in the direction of Pyramid Mountain.

Here are things I am observing as the camel waddles its grumpy ass across the desert floor. First, the camel saddle is different than the horse saddle. It makes generous room for the emergence of the camel’s giant, hairy hump, which was pressing uncomfortably into my ass. Second, M’s camel is farting a lot. Also, my camel keeps trying to wrangle free of its ties, and every so often it will release a deep, angry bellow and twist its head, its mouth wide open—full with a green foam and pieces of grass. Then, I look to the left. Before us is a large, empty expanse of the desert floor. The day had been overcast—perhaps our first overcast day in Egypt—but now the clouds have thinned just as the sun reaches a mid-point in the sky, halfway between its noontime apex and the horizon. The clouds were indistinct, just a thin, translucent sheet. The sun spread against this gray sheet, widening, brightening—until there was no sun at all, just an ethereal white light. I suppose I now know why and how those trudging through the desert in Egypt could come to believe in such a thing as heaven.

Such were my thoughts when my camel—remember him?—had had enough of my burden and set about, I’m certain, getting me off his back. For those of you who don’t know, the camel sits in the following manner. There is a moment’s hesitation, a warning, as the camel stops what he is doing and prepares to do…something. For me, the quick onset of the realization that something was about to happen was as strong as the nasty breath and flatulence of the camels themselves. Then, abruptly, the camel bent his front legs and dropped to his knees. This put me quickly at a 45-degree angle in reference to sweet, sweet Planet Earth, which loomed, dangerously now, directly in front of me. Seriously, if I hadn’t been holding tightly onto the saddle, forearms bulging and glistening with sweat, I probably would have been tossed, or met with some other equally embarrassing fate. Fortunately, said forearms were indeed pumping, and I me with nothing worse than rope burn on my palms. And a delightful view of the ground. Then the camel sat down the rest of the way, folding its rear legs underneath, and steadfastly refused to move until our Bedouin guide “encouraged” him by slapping him on his long neck with a pole. So, the camel stood again, reversing the process I just described, and pranced all the way to the drop-off point, with Bedouin guide poking him on the haunches with a long wooden stick. Of course, none of this is quite as good as M’s camel refusing to sit at the end of the ride. She had to jump off.