Sunday, May 27, 2007

So Long, See You Tomorrow

A few evenings ago, M and I were standing at the window, looking down at out street. It’s a view I’ve become quite accustomed to and which I’ve taken pains to describe more than once on this blog. “It seems like we’ve been here forever,” I said, and she agreed.

My father likes to describe the giddy feeling of displacement he gets after traveling by plane—how, in a just a few hours, you can take off in Los Angeles and land in Dayton. It’s a feeling I’ve had a lot this year, and I’ve usually had it standing firmly on the ground (or on the deck of a yacht). I seem to have left Minneapolis longer than 11 months ago. Even summer camp and all its heated dramas seems like a distant memory. Perhaps the most distant of all recent memories is our first arrival into Cairo—the bleary-eyed arrival into the hazy, primordial stink of summer nights here. The ride into Zamalek from Heliopolis, with an equally exhausted colleague chatting in my ear. The dark and narrow streets of the island, that sense of finally being about as lost as I care to be. Everything was so new to us and that newness registers in my memory as a kind of stain on oak, or the feeling of an antique gift being unwrapped. It’s familiar to me now, but I can remember the newness. I remember our bawaab awakening us the next day (after noon), to introduce himself. I had no idea what he was saying to me, but somehow I knew he was the bawaab. I remember our first foray out into the street, the sensory overload of what is really about the most benign street in the most benign neighborhood in the city. I remember my whiteness pulsing, and I remember telling myself that I’d get used to it.

I wanted to get used to it. I think sometimes we put a premium on newness for its own sake, and that as soon as we begin to feel accustomed, then the shine has come off our original purpose in doing the new thing. I wanted very much to come here and be a good young professional, make no doubt about that. It’s a subject for another post. What I also wanted was to come to a place like Egypt and see for myself what life is like, what people are like, what happens when an American lives in the Middle East and walks down the street and does, in some measure, represent his country to those who live in this country. I wanted to be from the America of George W. Bush and the Iraq War and to walk down the street anyway. I wanted to be an American who can think and act with respect toward others—indeed, when appropriate, in deference to others. I wanted to give a different image, and I wanted to see a truer image than I had been shown.

This is what I’ve seen:


Saturday, May 26, 2007

In a short time, we're leaving Egypt for the summer. Today, on our way out for a walk, Neghi (the bawaab) informed us he wanted a Casio watch from America. The old man who guards another building came over and tried to translate, because I thought Neghi wanted to know what time we were leaving on Monday, since the word for "time" is the same as the word for "watch," even though when I think back on it, he was clearly saying, "I want a watch." Neghi kept giving me a disapproving look every time I told him we were leaving at one in the morning.

Suddenly, as happens here, we were surrounded by well-meaning Egyptians trying to get Neghi's message across. (This unabashed friendliness is what I will miss the most when I am in America.)

Finally, we understood what he wanted.

Then the old man said Neghi wanted the numbers in Arabic. I mimed something like, "In America? Pshaw!"

Neghi shook his head furiously and pretended he was going to fight the old man as he pointed at his watch.

"Numbers in English," the old man said. Mafish mish queda, we agreed.

Also, there are two lizards on our porch. The enclosed porch. They probably got in through that hole the satellite guy put in our wall. I walked in there to do something and hightailed it out when I caught a glimpse of scaly movement over my head. If you are my mother - thanks a lot - you've done a superb job instilling the heebie-jeebies in me. :)

Last night we watched the lizards get aggressive as they stared at us with bulgy eyes, and we listened to their small chirps - a sound we had all year mistaken for bats or an eerie brand of mockingbird we had just never seen.

I always liked the lizards when they were on the outside porch. I always thought they were really beautiful. We call one of the outside guys Little Jack Bauer after Kiefer's swift yet cunning character on that sort of anti-Middle East show, 24. Aww, we say, as we hang out the wet clothes. So cute!

Inside? Not so much. They're really fast. In the meantime, we leave them be, and they can eat the spiders and roaches and ants that will make their way to the abandoned abode. Eat up! Maybe they'll be fat lounging lizards when we get back, chilling in front of the TV.

I imagine that some memories of our first year in Cairo will become sharper with distance. Or, at least, we will look at them sideways and articulate them with a different kind of clarity. So there will probably be some blog entries. In the meantime, see you later, Cairo!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Goodbye, Pink Bathroom

On Wednesday I collect papers, and by Memorial Day I should be in Chicago unless for some reason I get stuck on the runway at the Cairo airport for 6 hours again and then Amsterdam has a giant fog issue the likes of London’s December ’06. J leaves me at Amsterdam for a month-long writing residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland, for which he got a grant, I am proud to say.

Anyway, right now I prefer to talk about the impending destruction of the bathrooms. Because we have ancient pipes that continue to be problematic (to have a perspective, we at least have a method to dispose of our sewage), the university is replacing them. OK, we said. No problem. Mafish mish queda, to put it in local terms. The guy in charge of all things plumbing and tile, Ahmed, says, OK, so one day I’ll come get you to go pick out tile. No, really. He said that.

Today was that day. I cannot explain to you the importance of tile in this town. I thought we already had nice tile. I was wrong. Ahmed tsk-tsked that it’s completely outdated.

So this afternoon I’m walking through a tile store with J, after getting to ride in my first pickup truck since coming to Egypt. People are giving us tea in glasses – because that’s what they do here, place scalding glasses of tea in your hands. We shuffle through pattern after pattern, all displayed on hinged doorway-type things (what is the term?) stacked against each other. Tiles are not just tiles here – they have flair. A bunch of tiles, all just one color? No, my friend. There must be decorative tiles, smattered in with the rest. I present to you our current decorative tiles so you understand what I mean:

We know a history professor who has Venus as part of her decorative tile in her bathroom. Today, we actually got away with requesting multi-colored tiles with no decoration.

I’m beginning to understand why people moan and groan so much about the decisions they make when renovating their homes. I don’t even have a stake in these bathrooms, even though for some odd reason I was trusted to pick out their design, which is hilarious since I can’t even dress myself fashionably. I think the only other thing I’ve selected from a group of hinged doorways was a Tiffany poster. Back in the day, it was the red hair that made her win out over Debbie Gibson.

To be honest, J has a better eye than me. But every time he stated his opinion, the tile guys gave him a funny look and then looked at me like: Why isn’t he clearing this with you, woman? And I looked back all: Oh, he thinks he’s in control but has no idea he’s not!

Oh, I’ve engaged in that kind of interaction before, and it wasn’t in Egypt.

Wait a minute, though. We picked out some beauties, perhaps to be photographed and included in the fall when we return to Cairo. But – we have a pink toilet and a sort of puke beige toilet, I say to Ahmed. That’s not gonna look too good with these tiles. Mafish mish queda, Ahmed says – we’ll replace it all.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

It's so weird when the forecast is sand...