Tuesday, December 25, 2007

It’s Christmas. We write. I watch the Power Puff Girls and trudge through Pale Fire, which is interesting, then not, over and over. We call people at a dollar a minute. Not bad. Or people call us. We say hi; we listen to kids in the background. Kids who are talking, burbling new words and roughhousing, or settling into adolescence. Across the street the girls are in school, in recess. The last sheep in the yard still bleats. Will anyone eat her? We decide to get out. We go to a restaurant with clouded windows called L’Aubergine. I have “trio of crepes” – one mushroom, one spinach, one broccoli – and a Sakkara beer. J has chicken teriyaki and a weak screwdriver. New Age music in the background and colorful walls. Mostly Europeans here, a mishmash of language. The waiter says “Happy Christmas.” Then to the vegetable seller, who has a fresh batch of asparagus and spinach. He is wearing flip-flops too big for his feet. The air is crisp. No Christmas music, no snow, but cheerful out here. Many restaurants have put up little trees and tinsel. The streets are less populated, so we can feel something, maybe something from the past that we wouldn’t recognize. A little boy, maybe four, wears a gallabeya and sits on the hood of a car. The gallabeya puddles around him. He swivels his head and softly says hi and blinks and smiles. We swerve into a store that sells rugs and bedding. An old man in a brown sweater says, “handmade, handmade.” We buy.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Everyone keeps saying they’ve never seen the pollution this bad. Indeed, it’s something I’ve noted more often in my second year here as a palpable sensation in my lungs and sinuses. It’s not just a disturbing black cloud emitted from the public bus anymore. It’s the realization that we are inside of that disturbing cloud all the time, at the bottom of a valley that’s getting less and less fertile, and that what is outside manifests in the body. Yesterday morning it looked as if someone had shaken a sack of flour over the city. It is on days like these that I sense hours of ginger tea and decongestant ahead.

We bought an air purifier the size of a TV from the ubiquitous Radio Shack, and this has helped. The instruction manual says to clean the filters every two months, depending upon where you live. Here? Two weeks is pushing it.

When the wind pushes away the pollution, and the sky comes through, it’s unbelievably beautiful. If you climb the Muqattam hills, you will see the black cloud below that is Cairo, and above and away, all is pristine. People, even our university, are pushing out and out, pulling the Nile with them in sleek new piping – people who can afford it.


Today is the first day of Eid Al-Adha, a Muslim holiday which appreciates Abraham’s (Ibrahim’s) willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Oh, the myriad ways in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians are actually kind of the same…

In the last week, sheep, goats, or cows started appearing on the streets, getting hauled in the backs of trucks, their eyes looking rather dead even as they blinked. The beggars suddenly were holding strangely quiet babies, swaddled in the streets. More carcasses than usual hung in the open air in front of butcher shops, those skinned marbled hunks of meat with still-hairy tails hanging down. Suffice it to say I’ve seen way too many dead buttholes. In the usually empty yard behind our apartment building, three sheep appeared, waking us up a few mornings ago with their bleating. One of them had red wool and a white head. These sheep get fattened before slaughter. Even Alfa, a hodgepodge department store, had a penned goat for sale.

The animals get sacrificed – each family keeps 1/3 of the animal and gives the rest to the poor. Yesterday James stumbled upon the bawaab, makwagis, and various guys who hang out on our street just as they were finishing up the slaughter of a cow on the corner. Bloody street and sidewalk, a sheaf of skin, entrails pulled and squeezed. Our bawaab was wearing tall rubber boots and a sweatsuit rather than his usual gallabeya.

This morning I woke to the sound of a bleat and went to the back porch to watch a man, followed by two little boys, lead the red-wooled sheep away. All three sheep had one front leg tied by rope so that they had to hop; the other two sheep were also tied together, and they bumbled around the dusty yard. I’m sure they could smell what was coming.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

From the novel The Map of Love, by Ahdaf Soueif:

"And yet - I sit here in my room at the Shepheard's Hotel possessed by the strangest feeling that still I am not in Egypt. I have sat on the Pyramid plateau and my eyes have wandered from the lucid blue of the sky through the blanched yellow of the desert to the dark, promising green of the fields. I have marvelled at the lines between blue and yellow and then again between yellow and green - lines drawn as though by design. I have climbed the Pyramids and danced at the Khedive's Ball. I have visited the Bazaar and the Churches and the Mosques and witnessed the procession of the Religious Orders and played croquet at the Club at Ghezirah. I know a few words of the language and I can mark many streets by the houses of people with whom I am now acquainted, but there is something at the heart of it all which eludes me - something - an intimation of which I felt in the paintings, the conversations in England, and which, now that I am here, seems far, far from my grasp."