Sunday, September 27, 2009

4 stops north of here

Yesterday, A & I took a day trip up to Coptic Cairo. It's just off the Metro's Mar Girgis stop--literally. I have taken the Metro north to Sadat station dozens of times, and each time I have seen the domed Church of St. George looming over the stop. First things first, though: here is a video of the Metro ride. Careful, my camera buzzes for no reason while taking videos in things that are moving.

Coptic Cairo is its own little district, made clean just for tourists. It shows me that Egyptians can keep things Western-style clean when they feel like it, although it is also a protected district and spared the ravages of incessant foot traffic. I take some comfort in the familiar parts of the Coptic iconography and architecture around here. It reminds me of home a little bit, even though Coptic Christianity is different from most versions of the religion practiced stateside. But I can't deny that it is more familiar and I take a measure of comfort in that, strangely enough. That said, the eeriness of Coptic images is compelling and unlike anything I see at home. In the Church of St. George, for example, there is a scene of a man who resembles the Joker spearing a dragon from atop a horse. I saw this scene countless times--in reprinted paintings, mostly, but also embodied in a kitschy statue wrapped in silver tinsel. It's a little bit cartoonish, true enough, but all the same it is serious business to visiting Copts, who show their devotion by touching the glass panes protecting reprinted images of their saints. I'm also unnerved by the commonness of these faces--of the saints, the virgin, the apostles, Jesus himself. Christianity is a religion of faces. Islam has no images of its prophet, and I have not seen many (if any) images inside mosques, where the space is devoted primarily to prayer (and sleep). All the faces of Christianty are eerie, especially when you are looking at 6th or 7th century artwork where the faces are strikingly similar from one image to the next--the round, expressionless faces and eyes, the full, puckered lips, the squared shoulders. No perspective, little variation, just these unblinking chestnut eyes staring out at you, one church after another, one room after another.

Also, along eerie lines, there was this:

Otherwise, I enjoyed the subterranean passages that took you to various churches and a well-preserved synagogue, which was a bizarro mix of Jewish gear with Islamic architecture. Apparently one of the most ancient Torahs was found at that synagogue, printed on gazelle hide. Gazelle hide! I'd have taken pictures but they weren't permitted in the synagogue. At least I could get inside. There is a synagogue nearby us in Maadi that is under police watch at all times. One day, I approached and roused the police into action, which meant they waved their hands and said no, then bade me good day with sleepy smiles. I saw enough of the synagogue to realize that the grounds were being kept (behind a thick iron fence, natuarlly), so I wondered if it was active. Perhaps this is where the Israeli ambassador goes to do his religious duties.

Then there was the hot, dark Coptic Museum. Truly, sometimes I couldn't really make out the artwork, and the still air made me sleepy. There were also 3 or 4 fire extinguishers per room, and yet no staff anywhere in the museum--except for the entrance, where a gaggle of men enjoyed tea and were having a boisterous conversation that followed us all over the museum. I guess it would have been left to us to save the art if a sudden fire broke out. We were impressed by the woodwork of the mashrabiya and the ceiling and would gladly have snapped photographs...but our cameras were barred from the museum. At least we didn't have to tip the staff to get them back when we were finished.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009


1. Apparently, no one in Egypt may educate or be educated until at least Oct. 4 due to fears of the swine flu spreading. Rumor (a freakishly powerful thing in Egypt) has it that if one percent of the population gets it, schools could be shut down for the year. People are suggesting that the airport should be the thing that gets shut down.

2. The NY Times published an article today discussing the trash problems caused by the killing of all the Copts' pigs back in the spring (a response to the fear of swine flu). The Egyptian gov't is sort of admitting that idea lacked foresight. Or logic.

3. We opened the seal on a bottle of delivered wine tonight, and ants came boiling up out of the cork.


Friday, September 18, 2009


In one of my classes last week, we read Langston Hughes' "Salvation." It's a great piece for any class, but I like teaching it in Egypt because many of the students are unfamiliar with Christian revivals as we know them in the U.S., and sometimes they end up being a little creeped out by them in ways that U.S. Christians sometimes claim to be creeped out by the religious rituals of others.
So I read the piece out loud, asking the students to first describe what had happened in the piece.
Someone said it was about a revival, pointing to the word in the text.
"What's a revival?" I asked.
Most of them shrugged.
Then one student asked, "Is that like what happened in Borat?"


Friday, September 11, 2009


It's a hot day. The curtains help block the heat of the white sun. The sky is blue, unusually blue, January-in-Egypt blue. We woke up this morning and talked about political rhetoric, about narrative truth, as we sipped coffee. We listened to the imam next door, first praising then shouting then dropping to a soft prostrating lull. We did this as we watched 24, second season. We talked about the way that season reflected an American attitude toward the Middle East at that time, one that has changed in significant ways. I finished reading Wise Blood. J left to run an errand, and I sat in front of the computer, intending to work on a short story I have been working on since 2000. I procrastinated. I checked facebook. It's morning in the U.S. - people are just starting to rise and go to work. I was puzzled by status updates about praying for people, about not forgetting. I felt panic rising in me, and I wondered if something had happened again. It took me a few minutes to realize my mistake.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Monday, September 07, 2009


It’s time for our annual HIV test, which we have to take with a government official in order to get our work visas renewed. The blood is tapped; the passports are taken. Three to four weeks later, we get our passports back.

To get our visas renewed, we need passport-sized photos, and we had run out. So, in the midst of preparing for a class I am teaching with a theme about beauty and appearance, we headed to a photo shop down the street. It was a hot day. I wore an oversized green tee-shirt, and my unwashed hair was pulled back into a ponytail. I took this approach because I don’t think anything could match the horror that is my current passport photo, which is worse than the family passports in National Lampoon’s European Vacation.

So we got our passport photos, and, as a free gift, framed five-by-sevens of said sweaty photos. Do you want a sweaty photo of my face, with the crazy-eyed look I’ve developed whenever I try to look natural? Because I’ve got one, framed, just for you.

When we returned, I read an email from one of my colleagues informing me that if there was any photoshopping done on passport photos, the government wouldn’t accept them. I recalled the nice woman who had taken my photo. Yes, she had been messing with it, making the background whiter. I think she erased a few frizzy strands from my scalp.

Damn. We headed back to the shop to see if we could get the untainted versions.

The man at the photo shop assured us that he knew what he was doing, that it wasn’t going to be a problem with the stern Egyptian official wearing a suit who will take my blood tomorrow. He said the only thing that was different was the whiter background, and this was a requirement for a visa photo. He assured us that he knew what he was doing.

J circled his face with his hand. “So, none of this was changed?”

“No, no.”

The man gestured at our skin, and then he looked puzzled.

“Why?" he asked. "You are already white.”


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Saturday Night

Last night, as I chopped garlic and onions, I was belting out Ned's Atomic Dustbin's version of "Saturday Night." But it just doesn't work out so well in a country where Sunday is considered to be the first day of the workweek.