Tuesday, December 12, 2006
On Saturday, we took a university-sponsored trip to Islamic Cairo. I know what you're thinking: "Really, isn't it all Islamic Cairo?" And that would be true, from a certain point of view. But Cairo is a very ancient city, and each neighborhood embodies some sort of historical period. Zamalek, for instance, is not only the "exclusive" part of town, but it's also one of the most recent: Gezira Island only firmed up enough to become inhabitable in the 19th century. Islamic Cairo, which is in reality on 5 or 10 miles from where I currently sit, was once the ancient center of town and the center of Muslim life in the city. We walked down a narrow and boisterous street that was once the main street of the city, running from north to south (the city didn't actually approach the banks of the Nile until more recent times). Today there is barely one lane, even though it is apparently a two-lane road, given the traffic in both direction. Trucks, motorcycles, horse and donkey carts--you name it.
The first and largest thing we did was visit the Mosque of Sultan Hasan. I don;t now much about the guy, but his story has an interesting end. Apparently, he constructed the grand mosque that bears his name. Unfortunately, poor Hasan was never buried in his own mosque. He was murdered while out in the desert and his body was hidden, and to this day nobody knows where he is buried. To this day, Muslims use the story as a fable to warn their children against greed and hubris.
Two of the pictures direcly above this section of the post are pics from the mosque. I was struck by the absolute quiet of the place (excepting the children who had tagged along), the hushed reverence of a group. It reminded me of visiting grand cathedrals in England: Canterbury Cathedral comes to mind. Also Stonehenge. I'm not a religious fellow, but certain places have a shine to them, and big old churches and mosques have that kind of presence for me.
One difference between a church and a mosque--and there are many--was the amount of open-air space in the mosque. Churches generally are closed structures. Mosques seem to revel in the open air, especially as a place for worship. You can see this in one of the pictures above, as well.
A lot of the professors who went on the trip have children, and these children were our constant companions throughout the day. Most parents let their children traipse freely among us. Only one parent felt compelled to scold her child, but she was only mad because he did something that got his hands dirrty. "You wonder why you keep getting these diseases!" she said.
The little girl above was quite the ham. She skirted that delicate line between charming and annoying, never quite tipping the scales into annoying. At least for me. She wanted her picture taken, a lot. I never could figure out who she belonged to. I finally acquiesced to taking her picture when she picked up a colleagues backpack. Little girl! Oversized backpack! (Containing expensive computer equipment.) How cute.
And finally, you see me. I actually felt a lot worse than I look in this picture. Notice two things. First, I am wearing a new shirt I had purchased a few days earlier at a shop on 26th July St. The shop is named Dandy. The tiny place was staffed by three nice men who asked M if I was her brother when I retired to the changing rooms to try the shirts. I don't think they meant any harm. It's just normal (see: green card). Second, see the woman with the cell phone? She was like that all day. The damn thing kept going off. I think I was trying to look pensive in the picture, but as I look at it again, I can't help think I was just annoyed at her.