Monday, February 26, 2007

We’ve mentioned the dangerous intersection near our apartment building, where three streets meet at once – two in a vee-shaped fashion – with no regulation except the older daytime policeman who directs traffic during the busiest times – before and after school. Near misses occur constantly, brakes screech, and cars frequently smack. But here is what’s happening right now. A group of four or five teenaged boys – joined now and then by other boys and adult men – kicks a soccer ball to and fro, up and down, right in the middle of that intersection. Cars and motorcycles honk and swerve around them. The boys play. They whoop. They laugh for joy. At home I would probably think, Idiot young’uns! Get out of the street!

Here, no. Antique Guy (who I’ve mentioned before) dawdles on the crumbling curb before jumping into the fray for a few seconds. The soldiers laugh. Throw down those broken guns and join in! It’s starting to seem simply familiar, this kind of thing, the shape and make of these neighborhood streets. Of course, the green space per person in Cairo is said to be less than the size of your average person’s foot. And boys must play. You have to pay for a park. You have to pay to get to the banks of the Nile in Cairo. Despite all of this, it’s almost as if I am experiencing an old American film set in a city neighborhood – the way people recognize each other, have localized stores, the way boys – even the soldiers with their dopey rifles – seem innocent and…well, adorable. I’m getting nostalgic for no experience I’ve had. Maybe this is just city life. Maybe it’s something I didn’t experience in Minneapolis (the only other city I’ve lived in) because of my proximity to the university. I don’t know. While I would be severely mistaken to view this camaraderie on the streets as indicative of the mood of the people, there is something to be admired about the congeniality of Egyptians. Not the pandering tourist congeniality, no. Boys in the middle of the dangerous street. That’s what I’m talking about.

Above: Shop in Old Cairo

Shops line the streets, many the size of a walk-in closet. Grocers, electricians, antique dealers, makwagis. One night we stopped in a store because we spotted a small reading lamp along the lines of what J had been looking for since we arrived. The lamp was crammed in with ancient alarm clocks, light bulbs, bits of wire with no apparent home, ink pens, batteries, a lonely stuffed bear with “I Love You” on its tummy. Some of this stuff predates Sadat, surely. Anyway, a man sat smoking in the back of the closet-shop, not interested in moving unless we moved from browse-to-buy mode.

James employed the phrase we must all learn: “Bi-kaam?” How much? The man stepped out of the store and into the street. For a minute I thought we had finally offended someone with our Midwestern Arabic. He called over his shoulder, “Minute. One minute.” He returned with a kid in his twenties who wore a yellow sweatshirt and looked as if he may have been napping. This was the first time we realized that there are people who look after the store – that is all they do. The smoking man returned to his post behind the desk and didn’t move again.

J agreed to buy the lamp. OK, great. The kid maneuvers it through the window-hodgepodge. Then he goes over to a socket on the wall. That’s when we notice the lamp doesn’t really have a cord. I mean, it has a little stub of cord, a little longer than my fingernail, and a little fray of wire emerging from that.

(You’ve probably figured out by now that electricity is simply magical for me. Flip the switch! Let there be light! This little piece of writing is by a person who thought the gas oven was going to explode last fall because it was making a crazy rhythmic ticking. The electrician/gas guy I called about the “emergency” arrived and in half a second of observation opened the oven to reveal that yours truly had somehow leaned against the button that starts turning the rotisserie. So you’ll have to forgive my lack of terminology.)

The kid sticks the fray into a socket on the wall. The lamp demonstrates its warm glow. “Tayeb?” he asks. OK?

We both sort of sputter. Um, wire. No wire? Cord? For socket? Plug-in? Plug? J starts a pantomime of plugging a length of cord into a wall. I was ready to leave. Was it a joke? I looked to the window. Nope – the other lamps were in the same state.

The kid opens a dusty cabinet and pulls out a roll of white cord. He holds it up, and we nod yes. He looks surprised that this is what we want, like he never does something like this for a customer. He actually shrugs, which makes me suspicious – is he going to rip us off, acting like this is some kind of big, extra deal – adding something that should have been there in the first place?

J chooses a length, and the kid goes to work. I don’t watch this part – an older man in a green suit has come in wanting a particular set of light bulbs, and I listen carefully to the exchange, plucking out meaning. I remember how conversations begin and end with pleasantries threaded to religious praise, and wonder how J and I come off when we forget these staples. By the time the man has left, the kid has finished. For this extra service, all he wants is LE 3.

Since then we’ve bought one other lamp, at a store that sells handmade stuff from local artists and craftspeople. It’s where we got the Egyptian shawls for some of the womenfolk we know. The same cord/wire/plug-in/doodad situation applied. For that, J went right back to his friend in the yellow sweatshirt. Here's a photo – ain’t it cute?

By the way: Happy birthday, Dad!!


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Wake Up and Smell the Bird Flu

Last week we took yet another university-led trip into Islamic Cairo. This took us more deeply into what seemed like the interior of the ancient parts of the city, even though I have no idea if this area was in fact considered more interior, or not. Space was even more cramped on the sidewalks, our cracker-ness was even more evident and was cause for people on the street to pause and gape at us. Many times, we had to dive into semi-packed alleyways so that our guide could tell us about a mosque we had seen, or the historical significance of one building or another. While we stood there, listening to her, Egyptians would start collecting around us. Sometimes, they also listened to the speaking woman, although they clearly did not understand a lick of English. I would stand there, listening until my mind wandered, as it so often does, and when I would snap back to attention, a young boy or a couple of older women would have appeared next to me, craning their necks to see the speaker—or, in some cases, talking amongst themselves about us.

The sons of a librarian who often brings his family on these trips have the misfortune of having red hair. And not just red hair, either, but we’re talking about two beautiful carrot tops—deeply orange hair, like I have never seen before. When these boys are walking down the streets of Cairo, they do me the favor of being a lot more conspicuous than me, and by being just tall enough that any adult can reach out his hand and pat their beautiful red manes as they pass by. I saw one old man do that, in a perfectly natural way, as if one pats the red hair of strange boys on the street all the time. His expression was one a man might give to his own grandchild.

We had seen some parts of this area when we had visited the Khan in December, and gone off the tourist reservation, wandering through areas less frequented by tourists. This is where we encountered men on motorcycles driving into crowds (who casually parted in the nick of time), and herders with their sheep, being led off to a date with a January Eid. This time, while we waited on a couple women who had wandered away from the group, to the consternation of Louise, whose job it is to arrange these outings and chaperone them (and to make sure we all get back in one piece), this time, a young man serenaded me by singing a couple verses from Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” I am not joking. This ranks up there with the soldier on the corner who, last week, asked me to give him one of the bunch of flowers I was brining home to help decorate for the party. Also not a joke.

There were two other highlights to the day’s trip. First, we visited an old mosque that had been restored and was officially part of the tourist line—things people see when they come to this part of the city. We climbed up to its roof, where I took one of the photographs you see—that the Citadel off to the left, in the haze. We’re taking a trip there very soon. This gave us some amazing views of the ancient city, as well as the interesting realization that a lot of buildings in Islamic Cairo don’t have roofs, and that wherever there is a roof, there is garbage. Then we climbed a minaret, which is the very narrow tower you often see rising from mosques. We were probably only another fifty or sixty feet higher, but the sensation of vertigo was severe when we emerged from the dark, narrow winding staircase and stood on a small balcony that encircled the minaret.

The second most notable thing was walking down a street lined with markets and butcheries. We’re talking about butcheries where they keep the poultry and, yes, the rabbits in cages just outside the shop itself. A customer can peruse the selection, choose whatever bunny or chicken he might like, and wait as it is removed from the wooden cage, taken inside and slaughtered, skinned, and otherwise prepared according to the customer’s specifications. I found myself really curios about these places and kept hanging around them, hoping I’d get to see a chicken get its head whacked off. I think I wanted to see it because I eat meat and it seems unfair to ignore the process that brings a steaming plate of General Tso’s chicken to my dinner table—you know? It’s like I have no right to be grossed out, since my demand helps create places like butcheries. Then again, I did hear a bunny squealing as it was about to get the Big Chop, and it was no pleasant sound, so maybe I’m glad I missed all the beheadings going on around me.

That said, I’m not sure that I would ever eat a chicken purchased from such a place. They are not exactly clean—the tiled walls were speckled with blood, you can see the bloody knives resting on dirty tabletops, and so on. Plus, there is bird flu in the country—yet, interestingly, the poultry industry is in no danger. For all its lack of sterility, it’s still not dirty enough for the virus to fester among the birds, much less transmitting it to humans. The real danger comes to poultry farmers, mostly outside Cairo, who live among their poultry in fetid conditions.

One final note. One of my favorite things to do here is wonder what friends and family back home would think of this place, and what the place would think of them. I’ve finally figured out what Egypt would think of my stepfather. One of our colleagues has a husband who, in reality, looks nothing like Dan, except that he has a bushy goatee, long, pony-tailed hair (we call this guy Pony Tail), and that he wears some version of the straw cowboy hats my stepfather so enjoys wearing atop his noggin in the summer months. These similarities alone are enough. As we are walking back to catch the bus to Zamalek, some Egyptian men call out to this guy, “Hey man, where’s your horse?” His wife explains: “Oh, he gets that all the time. It’s the hat. They think he’s a cowboy.”

There you go.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Man on a roof in Old Cairo. Click for a closer view.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

All of a sudden today, Cairo turned red. Hearts. Flowers. Taffeta. Even the pet shop, with its sickly animals, became a den of love, selling bouquets and stuffed bears holding stuffed hearts.
I said to one of my classes, "What's the deal? You celebrate Valentine's here?"
"Only in the last few years," one student said, rolling her eyes. "It's SO commercialized."


Thursday, February 08, 2007

It was comforting to return to Egypt, to hear “hamdillah-a-salaama” (the way you say “welcome back,” which means, almost literally, Thank God for safety) and to have a momentary pause, courtesy of not hearing a word of Arabic for 5 weeks, before replying, “Allah-yi-salaam-ak” (God keeps you safe).

You cannot escape God in Egypt unless you want to never speak to others or look at anything. Besides, the ubiquitous floral phrases that might seem a burden when translated into everyday English are lovely in Arabic. Admit it – the name Allah has a much better ring to it than God. (I cannot say this about the call to prayer. We live close to a set of loudspeakers that infiltrates every room in the apartment, so I stopped having notions about the ethereal nature of this daily occurrence.)

Yes, yes, this is my apartment, and this is my neighborhood, and these are the guys who hang out on the street, and there’s that stern traffic cop with the hoary mustache, his hands wrapped behind his back, who will not speak to a lady. When I could be awoken from my jetlagged hibernation, we took walks back out into Cairo, relearning the bumpy landscape with its unpredictable holes, bumbling into the dust-laden streets, laughing at the cars and motorcycles fluttering our clothes through proximity. On our walks, J cheerily hallooed any leering soldiers, which has the effect of making them forget about staring at me and becoming sweet chummy boys with J. Even the shoeshine guy in front of the President Hotel profusely greeted us.

We witnessed a car accident with a certain amount of comfort, too, watching the men get out of their cars, discuss/argue, and honk, as onlookers stared in no simple rubberneck fashion but with obvious enjoyment at the narrative unfolding before them. I don’t want to start proselytizing, but (here I go) there is a certain part of the Egyptian culture that seems to believe in accepting whatever life decides to pile on its collective lap and on finding ways to enjoy whatever can be even minutely enjoyed. Maybe this has to do with religious belief. Maybe it has to do with the seemingly unbreakable schism between classes. I'm not suggesting this is a better way to live one's life. I can’t pinpoint any of this because I am a classic worrywart, an anal retentive, as we like to say, and I am from the planet of “Amrikka.” When I’m out in the world in Cairo, though, I find that I worry less. When I was in the U.S., relaxing before a television and a fireplace and mesmerized by commercials, I still managed to get that old stress ache in my back, that one that, honest to Allah, I have lost in Egypt. There’s something in the air, and it’s not just a veil of pollution.

The other night I was walking home from the grocery and came upon our bawaab standing with the guy who sells antiques and parks cars in front of our building, the young muscular bawaab-in-training, and an old man (“haag”: which sounds bad at first but is a respectful term meaning one who is old and wise enough to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, In’sha’allah or God willing) whose only role I know of is hanging out. Neghi (our bawaab) extended his hand to me. I had greeted Neghi about an hour before on my way out, but I had rushed past at the time, just saying “Izzayak” (how are you) and moving on without really waiting for a reply. What was I up to? Oh, just going out to buy some bread. Not on a schedule in the least.

As I returned with my bread and a bag of carrots, Neghi stepped forward as if he were about to tell me something important. I shook his hand. (This is something he used to reserve for J – that loose shake-slap between Egyptian men.) He said very slowly, “Inti quayesa?” and I froze. You are well? It was the most basic of Arabic phrases, but I couldn’t think of a reply for a couple of embarrassing seconds. Antique Guy sipped at his glass of loose tea, and young muscular bawaab-in-training lit a cigarette, leaning against the potted plant Antique Guy uses to reserve parking spaces. Haag grinned.

When I did respond, Neghi laughed. “Sabah-il-xeer,” he said, again very slowly, holding up his palm. Since it was early evening, and he had just told me “good morning,” I realized we were having an Arabic lesson and replied, “Sabah-in-noor.” Antique Guy joined in then, he and Neghi teaching me more words than I could absorb, and I jumped up and down proudly whenever I got something right.

I’m sure that this was simply amusement for those guys, since they giggled cutely as a group when I said goodbye and walked into the building. But, really, Neghi made me slow down: Welcome back, Amrikkeya. What’s the freaking hurry?

The next afternoon when I came home, I saw Neghi squatted against the wall. This time I stopped. It was not all that impressive, what I did – good afternoon, you are well?, Allah be praised, goodbye – but I felt a different cadence take hold of me just then, as I looked Neghi in the eye, and we smiled at each other. Yes, he really was well, and so was I, God be praised.


Saturday, February 03, 2007

I was waiting at O'Hare for the plane to London when I sat next to a group of undergraduates about to catch the same plane and embark upon their Semester Abroad. Funny, I thought. These kids were probably juniors in school, which is downright grown-up by the strange, hyper-aging logic of the university, where you’re a doe-eyed freshman one year and an “experienced” adult just 24 months later. And I can’t say I had much in common with the kids in question, who were reading Teen Beat or some such and talking about American Idol (the latter of which, as you all know, is so very beneath me). It matters because I was the one heading out on my Semester Abroad, 10 years ago almost to the day. My destination had been Liverpool, not London, and my US layover had occurred in Newark, not Chicago. And like the kids waiting to board the plane with me, I had bonded with a few of my Wittenberg peers who were catching the same flight, and together we had dragged our jet-lagged asses to the campus of Liverpool Hope University.

My journey to the UK was, in fact, full of reminders of past journeys and other times and places in my life. I took the train to Liverpool and met up at Lime St. with my old buddy Mark, who was a 25 year-old university freshman ten years ago. His classmates called him Grandad. Now he is a schoolteacher in Liverpool. He lives in a flat above Otto’s Pizza and beside Steve’s Chip Shop. Throughout my two stints in Liverpool this time, I: 1) ate heavily at pubs, 2) slept a lot, 3) drank a lot of Carlsberg and Carling and 4) had a strange craving for chocolate. Mark drove me in his sweet Ford Focus station wagon over to the campus, which he told me is in a neighborhood called Allerton, which he informed me is full of Jewish people. I had not known that. We drove past the campus and I saw for myself that lovely old Sherwin House, the dormitory where I made my first foreign friends, had been razed and a more contemporary suite-style dormitory was being erected in its place. This also has thematic connections to other buildings from my academic past that have been, or soon will be, eliminated. Wittenberg built a beautiful new humanities building after my graduation, tore down half the old humanities building, and farmed out the remaining half to the computer nerds of the Solution Center. And my dear hometown public schools will all soon be replaced, each and every one of them. Their replacements are already functioning, in some cases, and looming in others. My old elementary and middle schools are now defunct, I believe, replaced by shiny new schools that my niece and nephew now attend. My high school, named Tecumseh High School after the rich Native American heritage of my hometown, is growing a malignant tumor off it backside. They have elected to keep the gymnasium from which I graduated and the auditorium where my sister performed in the theater and I first got all teary-eyed watching a grown woman perform an interpretive dance to “The Rose.” As for the rest of the building, as well as the adjacent Oscar T. Hawke building, it will soon meet with the wrecking ball. What might the fine campuses of Iowa State and the University of California have in store for me next?

Mark asked me what I might like to do when I was in Liverpool, and I mentioned, half-seriously, that I might take a ferry around the River Mersey. It’s a regret of mine that I did not spend more time around the river in 1997, when I had the run of Liverpool. After all, I like rivers. They figure prominently in my fiction. Alas, it wasn’t to be. I suffered through some hellacious wind walking down to the river. I had chosen a day of particularly high winds across all of Europe. All I got was a lot of salt water in my beard, and this:

My next stop was at the Lake District, the site of a particularly difficult past failure. I hadn’t been there since 1999, when I was little more than an unemployed 23 year-old with a bachelor’s degree and not enough money to survive. I had taken a job at a restaurant, decided I didn’t like the tight slacks or the Hawaiian shirt they required, and ditched, but not before brooding at Churchill’s pub, writing letters home while drinking a Heineken. This time I stopped at Churchill’s only once, on the first day of my arrival, to write postcards and drink a Beck’s vier. That’s what it said on the glass. Is that even German?

My real hangout this time was The White Lion, a hotel and pub that employed a fetching young woman who looked like a cross between Sara Robinson and my sister Aleana. Who could have known? It was there that I reached the terminal stages of nerdiness, by: 1) drinking alone, 2) writing in my journal, and worst of all, 3) reading a science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov, which I had discovered at the hostel. Really! And it wasn’t even a good novel. I was disappointed because he was supposed to be up there with Ray Bradbury as King Shit of science fiction.

Throughout my stay in Ambleside, I had to fight the specter of the bad memories at each turn (it’s a small town). Here is the restaurant I ditched, here is the crappy flat I would have lived in, here is the street where I froze my ass off walking around and trying to figure out what to do. That said, it was nice to return under favorable circumstances.

My highlight was the walk to Grasmere, where one William Wordsworth is buried. Did you know he had at least two homes in the vicinity? There is Dove Cottage and there is the home at Rydal Mount, which is situated at the dead-end of a steep road that gives way to the walking path where hikers can continue on up the Mount. Me, I just broke into Wordsworth’s back yard. You’ll have to forgive me. I saw no armed guards so I figured it was okay. This is part of the way I live in Egypt. If it’s guarded by armed soldiers, I’d best avoid it. If not…

Besides, Wordsworth’s yard wasn’t even locked. There was simply a gate that read CLOSED in big block letters. But the gate also had a latch that opened quite easily when I tried it. And literally there was nobody about, so I spent a few minutes walking around the beautiful back yard, peering into the picture windows of the house, and sitting on a back bench that looked out over what I believe was Derwent Water.

The walk to Grasmere was marked by a beautiful stretch along a stream, a smiling, posing sheep, a brief hail storm, and spots of sunshine, two of which I have decided to share. The gravestones are close to the Wordsworth family’s (they have a modestly sized but fenced-in plot complete with a tree they planted, apparently in their own honor). When I was aiming the camera, it was cloudy. And then, as I pressed the button, the sun emerged and seemed to shine only at the place where I was taking my photograph. I don’t extrapolate anything spiritual into that, since I am just some asshole taking a picture of some graves, but it made for an eerie photograph, I thought.

Then it was back to Liverpool for two nights before finishing my journey in London. The River Mersey was much calmer this time, but I was too broke for the ferry. Instead, Mark and I ate fish and chips and got a serious jones for some chocolate. This is how it ended for me, the two of us scouring the aisles of Tesco, indecisivly weighing the various advantages and disadvantages of dark over milk chocolate, Minstrels over M&M’s, Galaxy bars over Lion bars, our mouths watering as we sought our fix.

Not a bad trip.