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.




1 comment:

Ellen said...

It's so good to have you back blogging. I missed your keen observations and beautiful phrasings. (And J is no slouch either.) If it's any consolation, Egypt gives you marvelous raw material for writing. Though I understand that living with the rawness has major drawbacks.