Sunday, December 21, 2008

Devotion

I'm reading a book called A History of God, by Karen Armstrong, which covers the major monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I became interested in this book when I started to realize I had few grounds to discuss religion in Egypt, the heart of so much conflict and creation. Today I got to the first Islam chapter, which is the most engaging (though all of it has been fascinating thus far).

Since I've been in an Egypt funk this fall/winter (for no logical reason), I've felt as if all I have observed are the things I consider to be nuisances. Case in point: we live next to a mosque, and each Friday I grow successively more irritated that I cannot escape the loudspeakers. And a little tic has commenced: I walk through the apartment for an hour trying to find something to do that doesn't involve having to think, and a juvenile "SHHHHH!" escapes my lips as the imam's recitation intensifies.  

But you should see the beauty of the prayer rugs spread on our street, a colorful assortment draped over the cracked manhole covers. I look out the window, and the men and boys - the teens texting on their mobiles, the taxi drivers, the shopkeepers and bawaabs of our street, men rushing up who could not get to their regular mosque in time - never seem to look up or see me; they are waiting and listening, readying to prostrate. They do not bother to look at the Asian couple weaving through their ranks or the blonde American with his backpack, standing on the perimeter, uncertain about how to get through this knot of locals filling the street. I am privy to this public devotion as if I'm looking through mashrabeyya, the intricate wooden shutters that created a space for women to look out but not be seen, in those days described by Naguib Mahfouz when women rarely left the home. 

The imam often sings in a rich voice, and you can pick out the repetitions of words. It is the repetition, Armstrong writes, that so many Westerners do not understand. When they try to read the Qu'ran or the Torah in translation, they can get hung up in the repetition and become bored, for in English it doesn't carry the same power. In Arabic, it is an art, conjuring the transformative response we have to poetry. The Hebrew, the Arabic, the languages of this region are known for their beauty. 

Strange to think that before I came here, my experiences with Arabic consisted of translated sound bites from Al-Jazeera, and every word sounded angry. 

I remember watching my grandpa sitting in his rocking chair, thumbing through his well-worn Bible, and the first time I heard a hellfire sermon at the little church in Nason that he attended with my granny. I was brought up Catholic, and I must have looked scared because my mom sent me down to Bible school in the basement, where we learned the story of Zachariah -- acted out with pastel characters on a felt board -- and ate cookies. I loved the stories, but I wondered what was going on up there in the wooden pews, with the painting of Jesus and his flaming heart hanging over the worshippers. I was worried about what it meant when people were saved because the preacher had forecasted that someone was going to come forward that day and accept Jesus. Until my mom sent me downstairs, I was worried that it was going to have to be me. But I also didn't want to miss the harmony of Southern-lilted hymns, my granny's wailing alto, the Old Rugged Cross. 

I remember my grandpa's devotion. It was simultaneously demonstrative and private, as if he knew a secret, and as I watch the men kneeling toward Mecca with their foreheads on the rugs and their feet bare, I do feel as if they have some secret, and whether it is language, or devotion, or some other form of faith, I am able for a moment to comprehend the inescapable and comforting sameness of humans.
A

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Look Behind You

Thanksgiving 08 
T and me

Yesterday we walked through the new campus for the last time with one of our good friends who is leaving to get back to the states to be with his wife. We'll miss him, bunches. As we were almost to the gate, we came upon fake Christmas trees advertising the university Christmas party. (Our university makes use of Muslim, Copt, and Western holidays, as well as Thanksgiving - no complaints here.) T put down the chicken crate that was holding his office supplies and handed J the camera. He posed beside one of the trees. J was snapping away and then giggled. "Look behind you," he said. T swiveled around and snorted.  The tree was in front of a men's bathroom we had never noticed before, which for some reason has many uncovered windows, and it was full of men because the sun was going down and everyone was washing up to pray. We found it funny because we are all rather irreverent, but mostly because it was just another example of poor planning on the new campus. I looked over at a security guard who had been watching us, and he smiled at me and laughed at our realization. I think this is only funny if you know T, but it was a great closing moment.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hers and His

When she was too small to remember, the cross was seared into the inside of her wrist. As she grows, it gets larger, a tattoo that expands and fades. Some Copts have the Cross on the side of their thumb. Recently she heard the screams of a boy receiving his cross, and she wondered if she had sounded like that, too.

He thinks that harassment of women didn't exist before American movies made their way into Egyptian society. Men who are so stifled must find an outlet. He means poor soldiers from the sticks. Over the Eid, he will go to Sharm El Sheikh, where he will drink and ogle the Russians. It doesn't count there, like Las Vegas.

She wears hijab because it says to in the Qu-ran. She is usually color-coordinated from the veil to the shoes to the designer purse. She is firm about the hijab. I give her my standard opinion: "It's just something I can't wrap my mind around." That's an easy answer.

He expresses a hatred for Egyptian women, a hatred laden with class envy and rejection in the tone of a child. Since I am not his wife or future wife, I am related to as a mother or a sister. He doesn’t have to say that out loud for me to understand it. I am his only female friend. He calls me his sister. I accept this for a long while, trying to be culturally sensitive, until, in the height of Ramadan on a hot afternoon of dehydration, his pronouncements get too invasive, as if any time now he might give me a curfew and forbid me from seeing the boy I live with. I realize that I am not sure he has ever heard a word I have said. He is nothing like my brother.

She is willowy, with a fringe of bangs swept to the side that cause her to tilt her head and pass the back of her hand over the hair every once in a while as if to keep it out of her eyes. She believes that only the Prophet's wives wore hijab and that it is a choice. When she presents this view, she can barely get the sentences out before she is interrupted.

He remembers a protest in the nineties after a few gay men were arrested. He was a child. He watched a clip on television. He says he could hear the soldiers' nightsticks hit the protestors' bones and that, if he were there, he would have beaten them too. He is willing to be friends with a gay man if he doesn’t “act like a girl.” I lean in close to him. I tell him he is free to believe whatever he wants, but his opinions, to me, are simply garden-variety homophobia of the kind I can find in my own country. This is a lesson in audience, for both of us.

Then I talk over him, and him, and him. I just keep talking.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Images of Ma'adi


Gaya is our new favorite restaurant. That's J passing by.

The cafe at the end of our block. It says "Green Mill Fish," but I haven't seen fish on the menu. We've only been in the cafe under the green awning - there's a restaurant below that. Good cappucinos.

J pets the resident cat from the antique store around the corner.

J at the head of our block, Green Mill to the left.

A

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Compelling Messages

All semester I’ve been shuffled back and forth to the new campus in “Family Transport” charter busses, wedged in with other faculty, staff, and students. Sometimes it’s like a social experiment on this bus – those who don’t have i-pod buds jammed in their ears can hear complaints about students mingle with whines about assignments, can watch teary-eyed girls fret about GPAs, can observe women saving seats for their friends and telling people the bus is full, can listen to faculty members exchange pedigrees. The conversations are just one part of an eclectic, dissonant ride that features the poor being transported to or from, hopefully, work and the increasing rate of billboards for compounds that feature happy, white, blonde families. This is a blog entry unto itself that I probably won’t write.

All of this becomes relative when the air conditioner breaks. Some of the Egyptian women fret and freak, opening and closing windows, complaining to the driver as he navigates the Ring Road, distracting him from his job of moving us safely through the speeding, no-lane, death-defying traffic. Suddenly everyone on the bus – and let me remind you that all of us live in a desert climate – is a hothouse flower. A couple of people get upset when the green polyester curtains flap outside in the wind. Shut up, please, I think, because I can be a mean old miser about my personal parameters in a public space.

But soon we are stuck fast on a curved bridge. After the Minneapolis I-35 bridge collapse (I used to live a few blocks from it), I noticed how many bridges there are in Cairo, how much we rely on this questionable infrastructure. On this curved bridge, we are surrounded by pale-green Izuzu trucks, their beds packed with yams, or crates of tomatoes, or men. Some men nestle for naps into bumpy piles of onions. They would be asleep even if we were moving. There are BMWs, too, inches from Peugeots. Boxes of tissue and the Qu’ran and furry rugs over the dashboards, prayer beads hanging from mirrors, everyone on a cell phone.

I have cultivated a sense of removal from this place, not always consciously. But today I’m pissed. For me, this has become a personal matter. It’s actually the perfect temperature now that the infamous black cloud has faded for the day. I should be enjoying the fresh air and sunshine, considering how everyone else in my family is bundled for winter in the Midwest. I don’t even mind being stuck in traffic; I have a book I can read; I have the visual bombardment of Egypt to entertain me whenever I want it. As we sit here, though, my right eye twitches tightly, just once. Exhaust pipes are leaking blackness, and it’s coming inside. Particles seep in.

I have to admit I’ve been disappointed in my poor attitude since I’ve gotten back from a summer away, and I like to blame it on a minor illness, though I know there is probably more to it than that. I have just begun to get over a sinus problem that I thought would be forever chronic – undoubtedly caused by the pollution of Egypt – hazardous garbage (rotting and burned and piled in the streets), the fumes of leaded gasoline, agricultural burning, and – to a simpler but no less foul-seeming extent at the moment – the occupied forefingers and thumbs of the smoking population. (One of the first of many complaints from students about the new campus was that there wasn’t a cigarette vendor. I mean, apparently McDonald’s and Pepsi and Cilantro are our university’s corporate sponsors, but the cigarettes are where I draw the line. Anyway, I have my own petty complaints.)

This sinus thing has plagued me since the spring. It creeps in me; it has crept; it lurks. The word “sinus” is so sniveling; these are powerful things, I’ve discovered. It’s a pulsing above my left eyebrow, at times so painful it feels like a hole, some festering round button of hurt with jagged edges that can force my left eye to a squint. My eyes shrink; sometimes they look pinched on the sides. Probably only I can see this. I went on and on with doctor visits and decongestants and antihistamines and sprays, and in a week of desperation started having a shot of fine Egyptian “Auld Stag” whiskey (complete with Bambi’s detached father on the label) every night before bed as my otherwise teetotaler grandfather might have prescribed, and then I quit the medications after the associate director of our department, the expert homeopathist in the region, told me first that most pain comes from a psychological stress that I need to identify and then about a natural salt water spray. I considered what psychological stress my sinuses might be alerting me to then I went to the pharmacy and got my salt-water spray. After a few weeks of using the spray, suddenly things started moving. You don’t need to know the details of my mucus except that I was so pleased to find out that I had some in me, as apparently there had been a knotted jam of it up in my forehead. And I had been thinking about sending the homeopathist, a man who looks wiser by virtue of his crisp white Sufi beard, a balloon bouquet.

A couple of men in the truck beside the bus wave their cigarettes and laugh and stare up at the complaining bus inhabitants. People honk viciously. The phrase “lay on the horn” is made for Cairo. Where I come from, people usually start to annoy themselves at some point when laying on the horn, and then they stop. Maybe they get out of the car to see what the holdup is about. Maybe they yell. Maybe they bring out their easily-purchased assault weapon and wave it around. Here, we plague ourselves in addition to others. Sometimes that’s what it seems like. One day James and I saw this woman who had been jammed into a parking space by a double-parker just sit in her car with her hand on the horn until people started coming out of buildings. She never got out of her car, never did anything but lay on that horn. Eventually, a man came out of a building and headed to the car. She did not remove her hand from the horn. She honked even as she drove away.

My eyebrows tense like muscles, warning me not to breathe until I get back home to the air purifier from Radio Shack. I wish I could comply, eyebrows. No one else on this bus seems angry about the quality of the air they are breathing. Is the wavy, stinky, dizzy, almost-blankness I am feeling with each breath a mirage? It must be that I am the hothouse flower. After all, it’s just a sinus problem. All I have to do is take a drive around town to see more than enough people with worse problems, usually associated with poverty – amputated limbs, malnutrition, weird eye and joint issues – all preventable. Shut up, you, I think, and my eyebrows, though skeptical, agree. There are compelling reasons to stay here and compelling reasons not to. The homeopathist is right – my body has sent its own compelling message.

A

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Piles

The only good sidewalk on the way to the bus stop this morning was piled at intervals with manure. The smell reminded me of home. 

On the side of the road, men in green and orange work-suits use straw brooms to collect mounds of sand and dirt, and these, too, are placed at intervals that periodically get trampled or run over or blow away. 

At a gas station by the university, a giant pit waits for a building to fill it. In the meantime, it's a dump for the gas station. 

When Al-Azhar Park (one of the only continuously green spaces in a city where there isn't enough green to fill each inhabitant's foot) was built, it replaced a centuries-old trash heap. Embedded in the heap was a forgotten relic - an ancient wall now celebrated and restored.

A paleontologist told me that the layers of rock representing our era will be nothing but plastic bags. 

Sunday, October 26, 2008

New Campus Note

Desert foxes. Actually, I haven’t seen any, to my disappointment. The university happened to build a desert campus right in the middle of their habitat, though. Apparently, a sighting last week caused “panic” among the student body and has caused security officials to suggest that poison be placed on the perimeter of the university grounds. From what I understand, the desert foxes are comparable to the stray dogs (one of which I saw trotting along with a dead cat in its mouth this morning as I walked to the bus stop) and cats of Cairo – the foxes have adapted to human populations and human waste, and they are glad to scavenge our leftovers as easier pickings than the more difficult hunt. As a naturalist professor pointed out, a part of the mission on the new campus was supposed to be greater attention to the environment and to natural habitats. 

I imagine the desert foxes are less mangy and resemble the fascist bunnies from Watership Down a little less than some of the cats that were on the downtown campus. Still, I miss those cats because on campus I can see a great need for them, which is to keep the mouse population down. The mice I have seen are cute plump balls with large velvety ears, and I don’t really want them to be destroyed, but then again I don’t want them in my office. Last week, one colleague of mine noticed that a little mouse had settled for a nap on his foot. Cats seem a simple solution to the mice, particularly since there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of native wildlife hanging out on our concrete campus at the moment, except for those desert foxes, which I’m sure can take the cats in a brawl unless said cats are of the Watership Down variety. At any rate, I really hope the university doesn’t poison the desert foxes just because some students freaked out.

A

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Gallabeya!

Not much to say now, so here you go – a photo of yours truly. Laugh away, fillies. This is a gift given to me last spring by the maid for my mom. I sense that it is currently neatly folded and not being worn. Plus, it is twenty times bigger than my mom. Not to make fun of the gallabeya or whatever, but this one is atypical. It’s like the ones (except sequined) they try to sell tourists on the cruise ships between Luxor and Aswan, with the price marked up and on the condition that tourists wear it to the “Gallabeya Party,” during which the bowtied Egyptian waiters encourage games and dancing and photos. The party occurs right after they serve you fuul and koshary for Egyptian buffet night.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Something Changed

My as-of-late snarky mood toward Egypt has changed considerably. All it took was to get in a cab last night, the young driver smoking and his forearm flexing as he shifted gears and talked on his mobile. To leave the roundabouts of Maadi and get out on the corniche and watch the part of Cairo that couldn’t afford to go to Sharm El Sheikh for the Eid moseying arm-in-arm in the streets, perching precariously on the bridge to Zamalek. To inch closer to downtown, take the curve that exposes a little park where the headscarved youth of Cairo are said to live some kind of hypocrisy by making out in the grass. To visit our old apartment building, where a friend still lives, and eat koshary, and look out on the skyline and notice that the World Trade Center has a new purple sign and that the bawaab-in-training got glasses and no longer has to squint so painfully to see us.

On the way home, to grab an already-occupied cab and hear the gentle conversation of the driver and his front-seat passenger. To see people leave the Ahly arena and watch fireworks bloom on the sky and listen to the driver and his front-seat passenger say, “Gameel.” Beautiful. To see people smiling, pushing into the street. To see people, rather than just desert and the suspicious scaffolding of “development.” To see the middle class, out and about, and the poor, celebrating. To be in the center. Back on the corniche, almost to Maadi, we got a flat tire just as a mini-bus – crammed so full that a teenage girl’s back, butt, and left arm were hanging from the window –  passed us. The driver wouldn’t admit it was a flat until he had pulled over in the middle of the devil-may-care traffic three times. “Five minutes,” he said that third time. “Only five minutes,” said the front-seat passenger, lighting a cigarette. To know that it wouldn’t be five minutes. To pay the guy anyway and tell him to have a good holiday and get into a different cab with its own personal rattling and leaking tires. To feel it all again. And then to return to the new street, so quiet, and to like it, too.

A

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Maadi Metro supermarket is a little more cramped than the one in Zamalek. More people have driven rather than walked or taken a cab here. At the entrance, a woman begs with two little girls. One of the girls wears a dingy white blouse with lime green, flared pants, her hair short and coiffed by filth, tinged with red, a tangled, stiff helmet.

I watch her through the glass. The man at the register nods and shrugs, looking a little nervous, and the three baggers do the same. The computer is still loading, stalling everyone.

But – I’m in no hurry, I think. Do I look as if I’m in a hurry?

The men are apologetic, anticipating a kind of impatience and disdain. At the Korean restaurant down the street last week, a British man with a handlebar mustache, smoking a cigar, didn’t get his beer fast enough and clapped and snapped in the air and called to the Egyptian male waiter: “Honey!” It's an extravagance -- this impatience, similar to the kind I've displayed in the last few entries. 

The men at the Metro market cash register – in the most Egyptian way possible, which is to say, barely – brace for my impatience. 

People are standing and waiting. We need change and cigarettes and detergent. Blonde, pasty people in shorts, black people in bright garb, Egyptians in designer sunglasses. The oversized cars wait in the street – too small, too strewn with garbage, too full of poor people who position themselves exactly where it is hardest to say no, when we emerge with our bounty of groceries.

Today, most of us say no. It is hard to say why – there is no real explanation or pattern concerning anonymous generosity or lack of it.

The computer is working. The groceries are added up and bagged. We emerge from the market and the girl with the stiff coif is upon us, wanting a pound – one pound, madame, one pound – for a package of tissues. We say no, hailing a cab. “Madame, madame, one pound.” Is this like brushing away a fly with your tail? The cab driver, an old man with prayer beads hanging from his rearview mirror, speaks softly to the little girl as her pleas increase. Peace now, he is telling her. Peace, he is saying as she sticks her arm in the window – “Madame, one pound, madame” – and he drives us off.

A

            

Sunday, September 14, 2008

There is a mosque next door, a small mosque, with a passageway equipped with faucets where men clean their feet before prayer. The muezzin has a rich voice, so that even as the call to prayer echoes through our rooms, it’s become part of our everyday. The trickle of water in the passageway is pleasant. Then the sinus clearing begins. That part isn’t so pleasant.

Since returning I’ve focused more on the nuisances of Egypt. It may have to do with adjusting to a new neighborhood and a new campus. It may have to do with this being our third year, and how things that seemed merely foreign and bore some getting used to in the first and second year are now just getting on my nerves. It may be that I am still regulating my clock. It may be the heat.

The new campus is in the desert. It’s going to be beautiful, but right now it is a series of stone buildings with labyrinthine passages, very little shade, and very few working toilets. Those toilets that do work but are still under construction should not be entered. I found this out the hard way when I entered the ladies’ restroom in our department only to find unflushed toilets of the grossest kind and scattered cigarette ashes on the seat and floor. Although there is a men’s restroom just next door, the male workers prefer the ladies’ room, I guess.

Actually, when we were looking for apartments, and we came to our current one, there were men inside doing a few renovations. As we examined the bathroom just off the main bedroom, we found a similar pile of poo and ash. But the dishwasher and kitchen and counter space spoke more loudly, so we took it, and I bleached the hell out of the toilet when we moved in.

Back to the campus – I finally got a chair in my office today because I stole one with the permission of the department chair. This is not a tragedy, of course, but such are my complaints. One of my colleagues came to her office this morning to find moldy bread on the floor and dusty footprints on her chair. And, after an entire week of classes, a few flimsy garbage cans have been made available, though it is more in line with the habits of the students to leave their empty cups and cigarette butts anywhere but in a trash can.

Ah, but in our new apartment, we have yet to run into the zeballeen – the trash men who show up in the wee hours of the morning. You might recall that I became rather petulant with the Zamalek garbageman when he tried to get a bonus for first Christian (which we obliged) and then Muslim holidays – to which I said, “But you’re Christian!” And an argument in patchy Arabic and crystal-clear tones ensued. Yes, I’m a jerk, which is why James was the money man from then on. Here, in the new place, we set our garbage outside the door and the bawaab collects it. I am not sure when, which is problematic because of the cats. This morning, as I was waiting for the elevator, I clicked on the hallway light and found an emaciated orange cat with a gnarl of blood on his shoulder, staring at me. Maybe you are feeling sorry for this cat, and you should. But that cat looked me in the eye this morning, and this is what that look said: “You gonna leave or what? ‘Cause I got some trash to dig through and I will bite you, lady; I’ll bite-cha with my disease.”

But I had more important things to worry about. There is a free shuttle to school – which is great – but the problem is that the shuttle just kind of shows up whenever. So it’s supposed to leave at 7:55, for example, but if the guy shows up at 7:40, then there you go. Apparently, in my anxiety about making the shuttle (a cab ride would be pretty expensive), I missed the dead horse in the street that James would see later. I also was busy dodging cars, as usual. Maadi, created by the British, has roundabouts, and this complicates my understanding of when I should be dodging and where I should be looking.

The ride on the shuttle takes you out of Maadi, past sand and more sand and gated communities that are half-built – some more complete than others, some already like ghost towns. All extravagant, at least in the planning. There are other universities – one looks like a spaceship in the sand and is called Future University. Beyond these, desolation – the desert. Not the pretty Sahara – the dug-in Sahara, the uprooted sand, the desert on the cusp of pollution, the desert grasping trash. The shuttle has itchy orange curtains that you pull open and shut depending on the position of the sun. It is the sun, above all else, that I feel I am fighting when I go to work. It’s just always there, and the palm groves have been planted only on the outer edges of the campus, and there is never enough to drink, and it makes me realize how utterly unsuited I am to the desert, to any form of dehydration, and how pale I am, and how much the sun wants to chew me up and spit me out. 

There is going to be a turning point for me, I know, when I’ll remember the things I appreciate about Egypt. Not to worry. Just not today.

A

 

 

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Top Questions I Get At Home and the Answers I Would Prefer To Give

  1. Do you have to cover your face/hair? No. Foreigners get away with a lot here; foreigners are often coddled. We get a free pass. It’s telling that I found it much more difficult to communicate in France than I do in Egypt. However, you have to cultivate a sensibility about how you want to dress and what sort of confidence you have in your clothing choices. In some cases, covering your hair is seen as a matter of respect, as when entering a mosque. I haven’t covered my hair when entering a mosque. I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. I’ll think about this choice. I do, however, remove my shoes. It’s all pretty confusing still. I’m in the phase where I have learned about the gender equality espoused in the Qu’ran, something I guess I missed in the Bible. I recommend the book Scheherazade Goes West if you are a Western feminist who hasn’t delved into Islamic feminism. Anyway, we just moved to Maadi, and people walk around in shorts here, and harassment is minimal. Even though Zamalek is a rich neighborhood, shorts were a rarity and leering was not uncommon. Around the corner from our apartment is a gym with TV’s attached to the treadmills and the cleanest showers I have ever seen. Welcome to suburbia. My parameters are changing. I miss Zamalek. I guess I will just have to drown my sorrows in the freshly-made tofu I can get down the street at the Korean restaurant.
  2. Are Egyptian men hotties? This question is so weird to me, but I get it a lot from strangers. The word "hotties" makes me giggle uncomfortably. I didn’t go to Egypt looking for hotties, but I would say that the ratio of good-looking to bad-looking men is about the same as everywhere.
  3. Do you feel safe? In a car? No. I’ve learned how to absorb myself in reading while being whipped around in a cab because there just isn’t much I can do about whether or not I get in a crash. I also fear getting hit while I am walking down the street. Yet, walking down most streets in Cairo, beyond the vehicles, I absolutely feel safe. I have been met with nothing but kindness and generosity. I have been lost in back alleys piled in poverty and people have led me out and been offended when I have offered them money. The only conflicts I usually get into are about money, and these arguments are usually with melodramatic cabdrivers.
  4. Do they like us? Do they hate us? Who knows?  I think when you are living in any foreign country you are constantly met with generalizations and are constantly formulating your own. Here’s one: Egyptians constantly tell me what Egyptians are like. After a while, if I’m not careful, I believe it. Sometimes I find myself then talking about how generous and hospitable Egyptians are, for example. And they are. But I’m also constantly told that they are. By them. Egyptians often say they love Americans. To me. The comedians grin and say they love the American dollar. All in all, what I really believe is that many Egyptians are more willing to give foreigners a chance than Americans can be despite America’s foundations in immigration and equality, and they know more about America’s political status and history than Americans know about Egypt. That said, I’ve heard some pretty offensive things from Egyptians about Israelis and Asians that don’t always support the idea of hospitality. What is springing to my mind now is the multiracial diversity of the American athletes I saw in the Olympics. I felt a swell of pride about it, despite my anger at the way the women’s beach volleyball teams wore wedgy-producing bikinis while the men wore comfy tees and shorts as bikini-clad cheerleaders or dancers or something lined up around the men’s volleyball court. Anyway, when you look at these athletes beyond our obvious gender issues, it’s hard to understand why Americans could be hesitant about somebody like Barack Obama becoming our President, if this hesitation has anything to do with race. This diversity should be a source of pride, a symbol of the ideals that Americans should want people to remember about us. I actually read an opinion piece in the Galesburg Register-Mail before I left the U.S. in which some jerk from Arizona targeted Obama’s middle name (yet again) and then proceeded to say that electing Obama would be akin to electing someone with a Japanese name during World War II. I would hope that most readers would immediately catch the idiocy of that analogy on both ends. When people at home ask me about Egyptians, I give canned responses about how nice the people are, etc. I do this because I want people to know there is nothing to be afraid of, that the Middle East is not some cesspool of violence and hatred, that the Middle East is the root of so much of our ideals about democracy and "civilization." I come back here this third year more confused than ever, though. An Egyptian friend told me the other day that Michelle Obama was bringing down Barack's chances because she "isn't pretty" and Sarah Palin is "pretty." This is the same friend who hopes to have blonde, blue-eyed children one day. I don't really know what to do with comments such as this except become defensive and more confused. I hope to articulate part of this confusion in coming entries. --A--

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I had been warned about the Metro, which is Cairo’s light rail, subway, tube, what-have-you. I had been warned that there would be so much staring, pushing, insults – that it was “survival of the fittest.” People would undoubtedly sleep standing up, breast-feed babies, sell cosmetics, push each other, and generally be unpleasant. And that was just in the women’s car. Apparently, the mixed gender car would be worse in that one’s chances of getting pinched and grabbed and harassed were much higher. I have heard stories of women taunting each other for the tint of their skin, of women in niqab shouting about Allah and how young women need to cover themselves. I’ve heard, too, that everyone stinks.

Yet I’ve ridden the Metro for two days, ever since we moved from Zamalek to Maadi, and the only creepy, unpleasant thing that has happened to me occurred just outside the Metro this afternoon. As I was walking under the street through a long corridor splattered with the same ubiquitous Pepsi ad, I could see someone walking next to me. OK, so we were walking the same pace. Fine by me. But the corridor is quite wide, and there was plenty of room. OK, fine, people have different space thresholds than me in this country. But this person was very close to me.

I adjusted my pace, and this person (a man, I could sense, though I was staring straight ahead), stayed with me. Finally, I looked over, thinking, Geez, maybe it’s just James being weird again. Alas, it wasn’t the face I wanted it to be. A man in a Tony Soprano shirt smiled and asked if I was Egyptian. I said no and stared ahead.

Had he said it in any other way, had I noticed kind eyes or simply an inquisitive expression, believe me, I would have talked to him. But I knew right away that this was a creepy man.

Creeps transcend nationality.

He spoke to me in Arabic, and I ignored him. He then said in English, “Can I talk to you?” “No,” I said. Then I heard him say “Sorry” quietly as he backed away. I kind of felt bad about that as I sent my ticket through the slot and pushed through the turnstile.

I stood on the edge of the platform next to where several women had accumulated, an indication of the approximate position of the women’s cars, which are marked in red and have a painted lady with a triangle skirt as you would see on a bathroom door. I stood there about five minutes. Sure, people stared at me, but I was the only one nursing a bottle of water and one of the only ones who wasn’t veiled. It’s kind of like when I see a veiled lady in Galesburg, IL, or, for that matter, any foreigner. It’s just hard not to stare when something is an anomaly in a given place.

So the metro came barreling toward the Sadat stop, and I got on, made my way down the middle of a row of women, and found a metal bar to hold onto. Then I looked out the window.

And there was Mr. Creep, just outside, blowing me a kiss as if I were his wife and we were briefly parting. GROSS. That artifice of familiarity instantly irritated me. I curled my lip in an ugly way that I have and looked away. I guess he had been standing there, behind me, the whole time. If something like this happened at home, I would feel a bit threatened, but in this case I knew that if I would have needed help, every other woman and man in that place would have beat that guy to the ground. Such is the trust I put in Egyptians. This sort of trust, unfortunately, doesn’t transcend nationality. This sort of security is something I expect much less in the U.S.

Safe is how I felt this morning, as I boarded the Metro during one of the busiest of times. It was strange to feel safe in that situation. All kinds of women boarded with me, and I learned the meaning of being packed like a sardine. There was no need to hold onto anything – we were like books on a shelf, carrying each other’s gravity. Indeed, you did have to push your way in, to toss yourself onto the Metro and somehow slip into the throng. At each stop, more women forced their way in, and I would think, There’s no way another person can cram in here, and then it happened anyway – we managed to become sandwiched just a little bit more.

At one point a short young woman in a black niqab, her eyes large and looming behind the mask, had her gloved hands pressed against my chest. Really, it was the only place her hands could have gone. I could smell her breath, and I imagine she could smell mine. I would find my hands and legs in strange positions that I couldn’t adjust. At one morbid moment, I thought, Gee whiz, I might be squeezed to death this morning. Mumkin (possible), as they say.

Yet it was quite bearable. For a while I stood there thinking, Wow, I could really freak out about this. Claustrophobia is for the privileged. I was only taking the Metro because it’s 1 LE each way – about nineteen cents – and it’s so much easier than taking a taxi from Maadi, which could potentially end in many hand gestures and surliness when the driver and I cannot agree upon a fair price.

While the Metro might be taken by more diverse classes of people than the terrible public buses, the majority of riders seem quite conservative and solidly lower middle to lower class. There were many women headed to low-paying jobs in the public sector and many young girls headed to school – and not to AUC, either. Few of the young girls wore their hair free; I suspect that they do not rationalize “taking the veil” as something that happens when they are “ready,” which is something I have heard a lot of my students say. Rather, they probably do it because it is time to do it, and that is that. All in all, though many of the AUC kids are more loaded than anyone I’ve ever met, I was sitting pretty in the Metro.

But even as the niqab woman pressed her gloved hands against my chest, and even as I, grappling for a handhold behind me, accidentally grabbed another woman’s breast or stomach or something fleshy like that, I felt fine. First of all, nobody stunk, for god’s sake. It’s like this – when it gets hot, people stink. I stink. You stink. Etc. But it was morning, and we may all have been as fresh as daisies, for all I could tell. I can't speak for the car with all the men in it, however. Second, a woman in a lime-colored hijab leaned to me and said, “Welcome.” When I responded in Arabic, a few women around me softened and gave kind glances.

As we neared Sadat station, a young woman tapped my shoulder to let me know it was time to start shoving toward the door. She assumed I was getting off there, and she was right. She and the “welcome” woman gave me a nod, and I tried to stick with them as we pushed through women – women staying, women going, and women trying to get on before others had a chance to get off. A Sudanese girl who was staying in the car got spun in a circle as easily as a rack of clothes, her braids flying, as we passed.

A sea of women – we crested then toppled out the door, gripping each other, pressing our hands against each other’s backs, patting each other in that womanly empathy that has become so familiar to me in Egypt. I can’t understand how I didn’t fall on my face, how I wasn’t trampled. And all the while, women were laughing. I was laughing. We had this in common. 

A

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Maadi-ville

First impressions of Maadi? One: what are all these Asian people doing here? Seriously, on our street I see as many Asians as Arabs. And here I was thinking, all this time, that no Asians really lived in Egypt, except for the lovely crew at the Chinese embassy adjacent to our old digs in Zamalek. We would occasionally witness little ladies walking poodles and short, trim-waisted men marching down the sidewalk, making way for nobody, or presiding over the building projects taking place within the embassy, coolly watching as a gaggle of sweaty Egyptians hammered away at some cement or tried to operate a mixer.

Still, beyond the embassy? Nobody. I assumed this was no place for Asians. I was wrong. They’re all in Maadi.

Impression one.

The other impression? It’s quiet. In a city where noise is part of the ethos, the absence of noise is itself an obtuse presence, insinuating itself on everything. Granted, a man in the street was shouting—shouting—into his mobile the other day, for no good reason but to annoy me. And our new bowaab—goodbye, Neghi—argued with a man who drove the wrong way down our narrow street and refused to back off. And there is the mosque next door. Still, even the musical wailing of the call to prayer seems lonesome. In Zamalek, the closest mosque simply joined in with others, who together stitched a ghostly layer of keening that spread throughout and beyond the neighborhood. Here, just a single call, no accompaniment, no backup—no Jordanaires. Within a couple minutes, the call is over and silence rules again. Nothing withstands it for very long.

I’m also impressed by the restaurants on our street and scattered throught Maadi, the clean and efficient Metro market, the more liberal dress code. I wore shorts outside tonight, and nobody stared, unless to take a gander at my birthmark. Many women were dressed as they would be back home, and no lecherous street cop so much as batted an eyelash. I am also impressed, in a different way, by the metro I took into Cairo today, and will take all week. It’s another interesting segment of society here, a new addition to the adventure, another set of principles for considering. And so I will. In September.

James

Thursday, May 22, 2008


I feel a bit anxious. Everything is actually great. But in two days we are moving to Maadi. In Zamalek there are these lovely trees flowering in red that I haven’t yet learned the name of in English or Arabic. They flower beside the girls’ school, surround the Chinese embassy with its newly installed, old-fashioned barbed wire discouragement. On this Thursday evening, the elevator goes up and down, and we on the top floor hear its two-tone announcement each time it reaches its destination, and we hear its telltale creak when someone is coming to our door. A satellite dish, caked in dirt, perches in the dining room. We had no idea we were buying that dish when it was installed. The spiders on the porch still watch me write, still materialize from behind the glass door that leads to the porch, the porch that I will miss though I rarely sit there. There came a point this spring when I was in a taxi, and I finally had the notion – as I easily read a book while the taxi jerked about, as the driver honked and lit a cigarette and cranked up the Quran on the radio, as the offending exhaust from every other car seeped in the open window, as kids in tight jeans and glittering shirts roughhoused within inches of murderous vehicles, as a traffic cop plunked his glass of tea onto the hood of a parked Hyundai – on that spring morning, I had the notion, the feeling: “This is normal.”

A



Thursday, May 15, 2008

The video below is of the apartment, currently being renovated, that we'll be moving to the weekend after this. Maadi, our new neighborhood, is closer to the new campus. We're going to miss Zamalek but figured if we remained we would spend most of our time each day trying to get to and from school. It's pretty exciting to anticipate another space next year, another part of Cairo we can get to know, and a dishwasher. If you stick around with that video long enough, you will see me all business and "bossy-britches," as Bryan so kindheartedly pointed out, as well as the view of the mosque loudspeaker next door. 
A

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Here is video of our new flat in Maadi. It's unfinished, so no, the mattresses do not belong on the dining room table and the huge kitchen will look better once all the excesses are removed.

It's here twice, unsure why. But now I guess you can watch it twice.

Enjoy! James

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Here is the link to A's photos:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2001768&l=e566b&id=1207531504

Monday, April 28, 2008

Touching down in Jordan and traveling throughout the country had all these strange, personal connections for me. I remember being intrigued by the country when I was a kid in the 1980’s, when the word “Jordan” evoked the world’s most famous athlete and not the present-day Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I remember a group of us huddled around a battered globe in my fifth grade class, looking at countries on the far side of the planet. What countries did we notice? Chad, Niger, Jordan. For some reason we were focused on Africa and the Middle East, perhaps because the names were difficult and hard to pronounce, easy fodder for making fun. Jordan stood out, too, not just for its name but for its strange shape. It looks like key support for a weight-bearing wall.

Of course, our journey to Petra, courtesy of Jordan’s own Frankie Valli, our airport taxi driver on the Desert Highway, dreamy blue-eyed driver who stopped twice for breaks in a two-hour drive (and was angling for a third stop: if only I smoked!), was replete with allusions to my younger days, as well. The ultimate scene in 1989’s Indiana Jones movie makes prominent use of The Treasury at Petra. That movie, it turns out, represented a landmark in Mr. J’s own adolescence, as he attended said movie with a young lass we’ll call, I don’t know, Sunshine, his first girlfriend at the age of 13. (Sidenote: I now have two nieces aged 13.) Long before Indy emerges from As-Siq to stand before the ancient grandeur of The Treasury, somewhere in Italy when Indy is chasing some severe-looking Arabs through the water-roads of Venice? Big boats turbine’s chopping Indy’s small boat? A landmark moment emerged from the tumult on the screen, with Harrison Ford and Alison Doody as my witnesses.

These little connections were nagging at me throughout my stay, never really in the foreground of anything, but playing at low volume in a corner: a small noise always for accounting. At Petra, I was consistently awed by its grandeur and artistry—even the unintended artistry of half-completed facades that bleed back into the rock. I spent a lot of time hopping up and down rocks, sometimes with M, sometimes not (she usually preferred the stairs, and sometimes I went bounding over steep rocks or tried inching my way across a rock face suspended ten feet above ground, amateur rock climber all the sudden). The city of Petra is so different from sites in Egypt in that it appears to be largely secular and that it was intended to be hidden from the world. There is no deliberate grandeur here like the pyramids at Giza or Sakkara. There are no messages to the gods, no elaborately furnished tombs like Sakkara, Beni Hassan near Minya—no messages for the higher powers. No, the loving attention given the sites in Petra appear to be for secular appreciation and purposes. Even in the rebuilt Great Temple we see a small theatre in the round used for drama: of the courtroom and of the stage. Imagine one place serving both purposes, in a temple no less.

The structures themselves did not appear to serve the purpose of a message to God/gods, but to impress the living with its grandeur. That seems contemporary until I consider that Petra was supposed to be concealed, hidden. It’s as though the grandeur and the simple workmanship of the city carved from rock was intended for a very select audience. Then there is what happens once you enter these structures: nothing. In Indy, he walks into The Treasury and finds elaborate traps, an invisible bridge, an undead guardian and the fountain of youth. In reality? In The Treasury, The Monastery, all along the Street if Facades and the Noble Tombs, there are just single rooms. Some of them are quite large, have a few wings attached, but they are not elaborately designed. These are not the long subterranean tombs at the Valley of the Kings—the artwork might have been pre-modern, but loving attention was given over to these tombs, which were, at the time, supposed to be sealed away forever, seen by not another living soul. The facades at the valley of the Kings were virtually non-existent. At Petra, the artistry is much more modern but focused primarily on facades: they could have dressed up in the interiors if they had wanted—interiors meant to be accessed by people—but they elected not to. It’s strange to see this lack of depth in a place supposedly concealed from the outside world.

Rather than post some pics on here, I thought this time I’d give you access to my Facebook photo album, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=37590&l=181ee&id=784484609

Perhaps M can do the same with her own pics, once she gets on the ball and does an album (and stops losing entire days to Scrabulous).

Next up: the Dead Sea.

James

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

One of my students had an i-pod bud stuck in an ear before class this morning.
I asked what she was listening to.
"English," she replied.
A

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Tonight I drink a rum and coke. Cubano rum. Imported from Canada. World-famous for rum. Right? I feel all right having a rum and coke because I canceled classes tomorrow. Why, you ask? It appears that the food strike is happening tomorrow. And our fair university sits right next to Midan Tahrir, where demonstrations are quelled before they are fully birthed, where a human chain of soldiers will keep foreigners moving happily along and use batons and guns for the smallest of offenses. Indeed, this government has been quelling the idea of the strike (which originated with textile workers who want a fairly basic wage increase so they can afford some fairly basic food) since at least Thursday, having already stationed a heavy military presence in and around the textile factories. It was unlikely that many of my students would come to class, but I was a little nervous to be in the vicinity anyway. It seems to me that when people are unable to get basic food, you've got a big problem on your hands. Another reminder of the place we live. We are often insulated from the vast poverty of Egypt (or it also may be that it gets harder to look it in the eye the longer we are here). I sit here (with my imported liquor, let me remind you) agape at the thought that people aren't allowed to hold a demonstration.
A

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sometimes you feel as if you've run out of things to say. I have written two posts about the grocery store, for God's sake, and nothing else is inspiring me. There's a dust storm today, fine. Yesterday I flung myself out of a taxi when the driver started bitching about a fare before we had even arrived at my destination, and some old dude's jaw dropped as he stood on the street corner and watched me. And I am reading student papers and trying to shake the tics and flubs of nonnative English from the writer part of my brain. This is a difficult task. None of this is especially new. There is much to write about Egypt, of course, but none of it's in this here head. I'm sure we'll go somewhere for spring break, though, and at the very least there will be a picture.
Anyway, if you're looking for some entertainment, Bryan sent this link a while ago:
http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com/
He sent it to me because of #85 and #21.
Because I LOVE THE WIRE. Except that whole newspaper thing in the final season was pretty one-note. But other than that, I LOVE THE WIRE. It's Shakespeare. No kidding.
I wonder if "making fun of themselves" is on that list.
Anyway, if it's not your cup of tea, and you can just tell by the title of the blog that it isn't, don't torture yourself by going there, and please refrain from sassing me. But if you're in the mood to giggle self-interestedly, by all means, go.

A

Friday, March 07, 2008

The woman in front of the grocery store, the one with the little boy and sometimes with the placid-eyed baby, stretches out her hand again. I shake my head and tell her “peace.” There’s this old woman on one of the side streets at the university – she’s the one I give money to and buy tissue from. I’ve got a reason, see? I’ve picked one person, you know? Sure.

After I pass, she curses me, finally and loudly, this woman who lets the little boy wander in front of cars, who shoves him out in front of her at passersby, who turns up her nose at bread and shoves it in his little hand. She curses my stinginess, whatever I have, whatever reasoning I’ve cooked up.

Suddenly, something makes sense in Egypt.

Everything in the grocery store is stacked so that it could fall at the slightest whiff of movement. This is something that doesn’t make sense. As I pull a bottle of balsamic vinegar off the shelf – a 27 LE bottle, the cost of which could buy the beggar outside 324 pieces of baladi bread – a bottle of cider vinegar crashes to the floor, the liquid soaking my hand.

I go to the meat counter and point to my mess. The man behind the meat counter yells across the store, and soon the security guard, an older manager-type, a cashier in a red and white striped shirt, and a boy in an apron and a pie-shaped hat meet in the aisle. The security and management give me disapproving looks but say nothing as I apologize. The other young men smile and say, “No problem.” Then they all close in around the vinegar and glass shining under the fluorescent lights. They talk and point. The boy laughs. They seem to argue.

I leave the aisle. My hands stink. Five minutes later, I return for olive oil. They’re all still there – talking, laughing, debating. They haven’t decided what to do.

“Irv, clean-up on aisle seven!”

But there isn’t an Irv, see?

It’s so small, but I think of moments like this as evidence of the ways I could never make sense of the culture, of ways that, ultimately, I could not belong in this place.

A
(Bonus points for identifying the movie reference.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

You pass a fine chocolate shop, a Costa coffee, a garage, a seemingly abandoned building opened for today to reveal the spillover from Seoudi grocery, a rusted sign for a dentist posted on the side of an apartment building, cats and kittens crossing and huddling and scampering and limping away from tires and feet and casting a cold eye, a mostly-dead eye at you if you cluck your tongue or say “kitty-kitty.” They are feral. They are dependent. They are ready to spring. A few of them gather around a styrofoam container filled with water, next to a rotund man in a gallabeya, arms crossed in a chair. You go back and forth from the sidewalk to the road, depending upon the inches between your toes and tires, holes, abandoned piles of brick. There are villas, large and abandoned by everything but vines and small creatures. One old villa is a school, but you can’t see over the yellow wall. There is a bawaab who looks like a gnarled fairy tale tree, and he doesn’t recognize you today, and you don’t think he will ever agree to recognize you.

The men at the green grocer’s are sharing a piece of fruit. The old father figure shows you newly-delivered, enormous radishes, heaves from his chair, stoops, offers them, waits for your nod, then twists off the leaves of one bunch. The rest is tied with palm. Out on the street the first wave of kids is getting out of school, and they buy junk food just like any kids with some change in their pockets, or they buy yams wrapped in newspaper from the guy who pushes his oven around on a cart all day. Little boys dart in front of cars and laugh. Teens kick a soccer ball to each other, back and forth across a street lined with honking cars. The ball smacks against the door of a BMW, once, twice. The driver stares at the car in front of him.

A few minutes later you cross another street, coming out from behind a truck, and nearly get hit by a boy on a bike. He swerves left, then right, whichever way you swerve.

A

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The weather was like spring today. The sweater-sporting Egyptians might not say that, but, as I rode back to Zamalek this afternoon in the duct-taped back seat of a cab, I could see the blue sky and smell something...fresh? I walked to Metro, the Western-style grocery store located in the basement of an otherwise dilapidated mall. On the way, I said hi to a bawaab who perpetually parks it in a chair in front of his building. A woman in an abaya was walking in the street. Her companion was a toddler in a torn green sweater who appeared to be too far from her grasp. The boy swerved in front of a car, which slowed before it could hit him. The woman chastised the boy and yanked him closer, then promptly let him go as another string of cars passed.

Across the street from Metro is a new Cinnabon cafe.

I got a chunk of cheddar from the Metro deli. The deli guy who grabbed the block of cheese was being watched by another man in a pin-striped shirt. Deli Guy kept switching his plastic gloves under the critical eye of Pin-Stripe. It's getting a little too clean in there - there have of late been several managerial types lingering and analyzing the situation in the store. Thankfully, a fly egregiously sipped at another wheel of cheese, and no one seemed to mind, and that seemed much better than the thought of ever entering the Cinnabon across the street. You know it's time to flee when the Cinnabon comes to roost.

After leaving Metro, I saw the toddler with the torn green sweater sitting against the wall of the building and chewing on a hunk of bread too big for his mouth. The woman in the abaya was there, too, and a strangely quiet baby had materialized in her arms, and she held out her hands and pleaded for money. A corner store had exploded onto the curb with a giant pink gorilla on top of a stack of...pink stuff. Happy Valentine's Day, everybody! I nodded to the bawaab, still sitting in his chair. He tapped a folded newspaper against his shoulder.
A

Thursday, February 07, 2008

I just bought a bunch of strawberries, spinach, bell peppers, leafy lettuce, oranges, lemons, apples, green beans, and broccoli for nine bucks! Here's a photo from Midan Hussein, near Khan-il-Khalili. That guy's carrying baladi bread. And that other guy looks to be sneezing...
A

Thursday, January 24, 2008

"The Palestinians left us with nothing. It's true, they are dear to us, but today, they were like locusts." – Jan. 24 BBC quote from an Egyptian

We saw the soldiers out yesterday - lined up, bulletproof vests, rifles, headgear. But everyone else was proceeding as normal – selling produce, begging, crossing streets with briefcases and ties, honking and gesturing, smiling as we ordered koshary. You wouldn't have known that just a few short hours previously a bunch of Muslim Brotherhood members had staged a nonviolent protest in support of the Palestinians breaching the Gaza border to get simple supplies from Egypt, having had electricity and water cut off by Israel, being punished for the isolated actions of a political group. You wouldn't have known that the Egyptian protestors were chased down the streets, arrested, that batons and tear gas were used. We were at Khan-il-Khalili while this was going on, and we came downtown in the aftermath.

Oh, it's nothing, I said to my parents as we crossed Tahrir Square, as we got redirected through the underground Metro tunnel by a few cheerful policemen so that we wouldn’t exit near the Arab League building, as I asked a vest-wearing soldier if we could walk on the sidewalk, as we boarded a boat and took in the strange quiet of the Nile and passed under bridges brim-full of traffic. Probably just the president passing through, I said. Shows you how used to soldiers I’ve become, even when they’re dressed in the accoutrements of riot suppression.

The season of guests is officially over. I slept until 4pm today after an early morning of seeing off my parents as they continue their journey - a few days in London before returning home. They were not at all like locusts, but they are dear to us.

You'll find photos below of our day at the pyramids (Tuesday), which was rainy. I was disappointed at first, thinking how the photos would not show the beautiful blue sky against the structures, but it actually made the pyramids seem more mystical than usual. Also, we managed to see a bunch of those guys who drive the horses and carts go a little nutty - they were racing around the site whipping the hell out of the horses. The tourist police stopped them, and there was arguing, and one guy got his horse taken away. I think it was a slow day at the pyramids, so they figured - hey, why not race?

That day concluded with a visit to the Museum of Antiquities. From the pyramids, we climbed into a cab seeing its last legs and listened to the driver grumble for an hour and spit mucus, deep from his lungs, out the window. He fell asleep in a long moment of stuck traffic. His window wouldn’t go up, and rain and wind dripped in, and the streets, unprepared for rain, puddled with dirty water. Despite what may seem like a complaint, I was thrilled because it felt like true autumn, a season I really miss. My mom, on the other hand, experienced something I have stopped thinking about, which is how when you are in a grimy cab like that one, you feel as if even your lips need a good scrubbing.

The museum is chock-full of stuff from pyramids and tombs, so full that the extras stored in the basement are literally sinking into the ground and will have to be excavated when the museum moves from downtown to the Cairo exurbs. As the rain poured on the building, we saw it dripping on stairs and leaking on ancient statues. The whole place feels outdated, which is charming. It is badly-lit, and many of the typed, yellowing descriptions neglect to identify the time period of the exhibit. The best part of the museum (and I'm counting the beautiful gold sarcophagi of Tut) is the mummified animal exhibit, where you will see a gigantic crocodile and a monster fish, among other animals – birds, dogs, cats, baboons, and even scarab beetles. Honestly, you feel as if Indiana Jones will come around a corner at any moment, particularly on that dank rainy day.

I'm worried that they'll make the new museum too flashy. I'm worried that, in the quest to entertain and indulge waning attention spans, we will lose a musty feeling of discovery, in favor of flashing lights and touch screens and interactivity. I felt that way upon hearing that the Bell Museum in Minneapolis, with its beautiful and under-lit and sometimes misrepresented dioramas, was going to be moved and some of its exhibits thrown out.

Sure, I would like the statues of Ramses to be protected from the leaky ceiling. But I don't need Ramses to speak to me via computer or something. You sense strangeness and greatness in the Museum of Antiquities without either outdated or updated placards. When you have to squint and bend to the floor as you peer into a dark glass case, you feel like maybe you're the first one to notice the badly wrapped foot of one of the mummies in the Fayoum portrait room. Even the better-lit Tut room lacks order – you push and shove past Russians and Japanese to the sarcophagi and have to read small print upside down to understand which of the two in the room held the mummy.

Anyway, enjoy the photos below. The last one is my favorite.

A











Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Karen & Gene - Mediterranean Sea - Alexandria



View of the Mediterranean from the Metropole Hotel



Metropole Salon



Harbor



Little Boy wants his picture - K, A, & J



Fort Qaitbey, site of the Pharos lighthouse, one of the Ancient Wonders of the World



Biblioteca Alexandria - Outer Wall



Biblioteca Alexandria - Karen - planetarium in the distance

Friday, January 18, 2008

My mom and dad are in town! Here's some of what we did today. -A

Bab Zuweila minaret - J & A



Mom & Dad - Al Azhar Park - View of Islamic Cairo



K & A - Al Azhar Park



J, A, & K - Al Azhar Park view of Cities of the Dead



Crow at Al Azhar Park

Monday, January 14, 2008

So, last week we took this cruise from Aswan to Luxor, and it was really magnificent. The first day was spent with the boat docked in Aswan, awaiting the newest influx of cruise guests. We had an early flight, so we got to hang out all day. Aswan is pretty! We walked a bit around town, finding the souk. B & Ad bought saffron, as you can see below. I’m going to refer to Bryan and Adriana as B & Ad to avoid confusion but also because if you put it together it equals “Bad,” which they are, in the way Michael Jackson meant it back in the day.

View from the ship in Aswan




B & Ad haggle for saffron



That afternoon we went on a felucca ride with two young crewmen, one of whom was so high it looked like his eyes were bleeding. But he was very happy. And not shy about it. We’ve discovered that Upper Egypt and the Sinai are a little more…relaxed. Many of the felucca guys were smoking joints the size of their little fingers, and J was offered some “marijuana,” hard emphasis on the “j.” As usual, the felucca ride was beautiful. We stopped at a place called Kitchener’s Island, which has been turned into a botanical garden. Curiously, they were keeping well-fed cats among the precious birds and plants. B and Ad dipped their hands in the Nile and didn’t get bilharzia.

The sun was traveling ever down as we circled Elephantine Island. A boy, paddling a tiny boat with two pieces of cardboard, called out to us. The side of the boat was painted in blue with “BOOB 2008.” We’ll just assume that meant “Boy of the Observant Brain.” He wanted to know where we were from. After he made a few wrong guesses, I said “Amrikka,” and he started singing “Yippy-yi-yay!” as he maneuvered himself to the back of the felucca and clung on. Then he paddled away.

The next day we visited Lake Nasser and Philae Temple. Then we got corralled into a “special” stop at a perfume factory, where we had to listen to some dude present to us every kind of natural perfume they sold and then offer a special price with some bottles thrown in for “only 75 LE,” the kind of bottles you can get at Khan-il-Khalili for 5 LE. It was stinky in there.

Philae Temple



J at Kom Ombo Temple



We saw some beautiful temples set in picturesque places. You could still see spots of color in some of the engravings and imagine how loud and proud these were in their prime. We visited one temple, Kom Ombo, at night, and we had our first experience docking next to about seven other boats and having to walk through the foyer of each one to get to the dock. We began to see how lavish you can get on these cruises, as each foyer got nicer and nicer, with marble floors or chandeliers.

Ours was pretty neat, too. Witness the crocodile that the guy who cleaned our rooms made from our bedcovers and towels. Actually, B & Ad’s was better because he propped B’s sunglasses on its snout.



We also had quite a few glimpses of the toll the 400 cruise ships on this route are taking on the Nile as they spew exhaust, their oily deposits skimming the surface. Regardless, as B commented upon in the last entry, the Nile remains ever blue.

The final stop before Luxor was the Temple of Horus near Esna. We then docked for the rest of the day at Esna, waiting our turn to cross the locks, which we weren’t allowed to do until around midnight, owing to the plethora of cruise ships wanting to pass through. We got to relax on the top of the boat, where a miniscule swimming pool and a bunch of deck chairs were located. Little kids would call out to us – two girls convinced me to give them shampoo, and, when I left the boat to give it to them, they told me how their parents were sleeping and pointed to the sky. It was a well-rehearsed speech. Whether or not it was true is not important. In the meantime, B and Ad ventured out into the town, and B got offered a number of camels for Ad.

That night was the Gallabeya Party on the boat, where guests were pressured to buy gallabeyas, the likes of which I’ve never seen any Egyptian wear, and engage in weird dancing games. J and I hung out and watched the lock approach, glancing back at the sequined men and women. I had been really excited about the process and then I remembered how long it takes. So I went to bed as the gallabeyas danced on.

We got up and checked out nice and early for the final day at Luxor and our last day with the tour guide. He was a nice young man but not too interested in questions or in people’s eyes wandering away from his presentation. He dubbed our group “Isis,” and he would constantly call out this name. It was a little confusing when we were at the Kom Ombo temple at night and Ad and I started following the sound of “Isis” in the distance and found ourselves near a group of entirely different Isis people than we had thought we were with. Whenever our multi-national group congregated, he would shout," Where's the Indian family?" He also kept asking me if I could get a discount for him at the AUC bookstore, and when I said I didn't have that kind of power, he would say, "You have that power?" This actually reflects something about many of my conversations with Egyptian men, in which they only hear what they want to hear (and often J will say the exact same thing and he is completely heard.) I know that's a stereotype, but it's been bugging me lately.

There was a moment on the bus to the Valley of the Kings where the microphone stopped working. B & Ad, J and I, and an older British woman and her son were all sitting in the middle back of the sparsely populated bus. Everybody else was crammed up front. It didn’t matter – the guide didn’t need the microphone – he was pretty loud.

Then came a typical statement from our guide: “Isis, can you hear me? I don’t know if you can hear me!”

“We can hear you,” I called. We had been hearing him for three days.

“Isis, I don’t know if you can hear me!”

Then he tries to get the middle-back people to move closer.

“We can hear you,” said the Brit woman.

Since I am a rule-follower, my muscles twitched, ready to get up. Nobody else was moving, though, not even the nice elderly British woman, who as good as folded her arms and shook her head. I mouthed, “Should we move?” to J, and he gave me a blank face. Ad's face was all: "No can do." And B wouldn't look at me. This went on for a few more uncomfortable moments. Then the guide gave up. I think I am telling this story because it reveals how tired all of us were of being passively-aggressively asked if we were paying attention. Ad, actually, had developed a temporary hatred of the guy. Sometimes we would hiss “Isis!” at each other.

So we pulled into the Valley of the Kings, and I was prepared to be disappointed, if only because I had been looking at ancient Egyptian stuff for days now and it was all beginning to look the same: engravings of people smiting other people, people offering various goods, gods weighing hearts, etc. You feel bad about that, but it’s all part of the overload. It’s like when we went to the Antiquities Museum and everything you’ve ever seen only in small stolen exhibits in other countries was crammed into one place and then some. By the time we got to Tut’s goods, which are lovely, we were kind of over it. Sad but true. And frankly I am at times a little weirded out by all this plundering of tombs and the women with fanny packs who pay to see it.

Back to the Valley – tombs literally carved into a mountain with lengthy chambers. We didn’t see the mummy Tut, who was recently unveiled there. Basically, our guide said we could see it if we wanted to purchase an extra ticket but we probably didn’t want to see it because it was really nasty because Howard Carter didn’t do a real bang-up job preserving the boy king. Honestly, we didn’t care too much. We especially didn’t care whether or not we saw another mummy when we entered the first tomb and observed the full glory of what we could only imagine when we had noted spots of color at the temples. Almost all of the color in these tombs had been preserved, and it was rich, and detailed, and everywhere. This goes down as the most impressive “ancient Egypt” site I’ve seen. The only thing that was ruining the moment for me in that first tomb was the guy behind me unabashedly clicking his camera, click-ed-y-click, so busy taking pictures illegally that there was no way he could be appreciating what we were seeing. In an ancient tomb in Egypt, I shot him my own little follow-the-rules passive-aggressive look. The moment became brighter when the security guy who had been at the entrance came in and took the camera away and deleted every one of the tomb pictures he had taken. Heh-heh. Look! Just look! You don’t need a picture, little mustached man!

WOW. You just have to see it.

After that, we were taken on another “special” trip to a stone factory or something, and I got a free necklace from a guy who said I had pretty eyes and kept asking me where my “husband” was because Egyptian men often become baffled if J and I don’t stay together in one place once they learn we are buddies. I kept pushing the necklace back because I was certain it wasn’t free. In the end, it actually was. Golly. We saw the displaced homes of people who have been in this area forever – there are tombs beneath their homes that the Egyptian government wants to excavate. There was a big story in Life about this. Then to Hatshepsut’s Temple, much of which has been restored, and a literally five minute stop "for photos" at the Colossi of Memnon.

We spent the rest of our Luxor day on the boat relaxing and awaiting our evening flight. I know we should have been out and about and visiting more temples and stuff, but we had experienced a whole lot of hassling, and this wears you down. (After B & Ad left, I decided I needed some time away from Egypt, which involved two days sitting in my apartment watching my satellite and the first season of Huff and speaking no Arabic except every once in a while proclaiming to myself, “Oh, you live in Egypt? I give you special Egyptian price!”)

At one point, some boys in a rowboat with crude oars came up and begged for money, wanting me to throw it over the side. It was an interesting moment because I was only speaking Arabic to them and told them I couldn’t speak English and they couldn’t seem to figure out where I was from, although they were playing a game with me as much as I was playing with them so who knows what they thought. I held up an orange and one of the little boys held out his gallabeya to catch it, and that was that. They made kissy faces and lewd comments and sang as they rowed away, meeting up with a few other boys in boats.



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Friday, January 11, 2008

Maybe some stories later, but for now I'm feeling a bit lazy. Below are some choice pics from the visit of Bryan and Adriana, Minnesota friends. So nice to see them!! So, so nice!! All friends: consider coming. I think we had a great time: Islamic Cairo, Al Azhar Park, the tentmakers, Museum of Antiquities, AUC, Sakkara, Dashur, Wissa Wassef Art Centre, Giza pyramids, and a Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor, during which we saw Lake Nasser, the Philae Temple, Kom Ombo, Temple of Horus, Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut Temple, the Collossi of Memnon, and ate a bunch of food. We made them try koshary, which Adriana liked and Bryan didn't, but only because it involved some lentils and chickpeas. We finished the last day bargaining at Khan-il-Khalili.

J, Adriana, and Bryan at Bab Zuweila in Islamic Cairo



Bryan and me at the Great Pyramid



Bryan and Adriana's America's Next Top Model Audition - Pyramids of Giza



View from Philae Temple near Aswan



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