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. 


Sunday, May 25, 2008


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.


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.”


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. 

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