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.



Karen said...

J -- this post is hilarious.

Anonymous said...

Took me back to the vague recollection of my Mother butchering chickens--the unpleasant smell of wet/scorched feathers--and the spattering of blood made sick, but I never skipped a Sunday meal of my Mom's great fried chicken--and have never had chicken that good since!
Got a "bunny" story too--another time. karen

A said...

Dear anonymous/Mom,

I wanna hear the bunny story. That chicken thing was good.