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.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008


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.