Saturday, May 29, 2010


Nearly getting run down is a daily part of a pedestrian's life in Cairo. Maybe that's why so few people walk. A week or so ago, J and I were headed home after work. We were crossing a median with a rare area for parking near the Shell Building in Ma'adi. Teenagers often hang out in this area near the Shell Shop, an American-looking convenience store sans gas station. As we crossed, a grey car filled with three teenaged boys swerved into the median, stopping just short of flattening J, who moved out of the way in enough time to only receive a tap on the leg.

I don't know...had it been a long day? J slammed his hand down on the car. I flew to the driver's window, and J raced to the passenger side. J was yelling at a kid with fighter-pilot sunglasses who was getting out of the car, but I don't know what they were saying because I was shouting. I pointed my finger in the driver's face, waved my arms, said something in elderly-lady fashion about controlling oneself, and eventually flipped the bird as I might have done in high school. All of this resulted in getting called "habibti" (rough translation: my honey).

Did I mention that all three of these boys were dressed like it was 1987? Another boy with frosted jeans and a white sweatband pushing up his gelled hair emerged and pulled Fighter-pilot Sunglasses away from J and me.

A tag-team onslaught like this occurred on a recent vacation to Istanbul, when, at the end of our stay, we were charged the equivalent of $100 for two local phone calls. From two sides we simultaneously raged and delivered our personal forms of logic. For the first time, I seemed to be the impetus for a nervous sweat as the bald manager at reception held the bill with shaking hands and mustered a discount. This kind of multilateral attack is a new development for J and me, who aren't very aggressive. But it seems to be effective. In fact, I am not really sure why I am writing about it. But it seems important. I do know I am more likely to stand up for myself in public spaces than I was four years ago. I think I can thank Cairenes for that.

On second thought, I have been thinking a lot lately about the squeaky wheel getting the grease. It's something I've always hated - watching people who surface only long enough to complain somehow get what they want. You see this a lot in academia. It's not something I strive for in my job - that much of my Midwestern work ethic stays intact. But I've seen it in one form or another at every university I've been to.

I don't think the episode with the teens is comparable to the squeaky wheel. It's sticking in my head, I think, because there are these moments in Egypt where we just don't have a sense of humor anymore. I went through a persistent Egypt funk last year, and it was full of moments like these. J has noted that there are some days when I am likely to step out into traffic just to make a point (logical? smart? No.), and the encounter with the teenagers was one of those days.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Things I Will Miss About Egypt #1 The Call to Prayer?

We're going to be leaving Egypt sooner than we can wrap our minds around. On facebook, I've been listing as status updates the things I think I will miss. But the status updates of facebook get lost in the scroll. Isn't it strange how a blog seems more permanent?

I'm sure there will be unanticipated things about Egypt that I will find myself missing in the coming years. I understood this one night this week as I read a novel. I've instituted reading sessions at night, forbidding myself from turning on the computer when I get home at 8pm from work.

It was quiet that night. J was in his office; Bodie was sprawled on the cool wooden floor. Then came the call to prayer.

For the last two years, we have lived right next to a mosque with some mighty fine loudspeakers. We have a front-row seat to heavenward encouragement five times a day, and this includes not only the chanting of the muezzin but also the trickling of water and throat and nostril clearing from the ablutions hall adjacent to our apartment building. Some days it seems louder than other days. On Fridays, the imam's temper can be measured like a Baptist preacher's - you don't have to understand what he's saying - you only have to listen to tone. Barking and biting. Soothing. Chastising. Praising. Joyous. Preachers the world over are not so distinctive from each other as we would like to think.

Often, when I mention the call to prayer to someone who does not live in a country dominated by Islam, I get a sigh of wonder. People just love that call to prayer. It's so...mysterious? My cynical reply is to get back to me when you've lived next to a mosque.

But I have a feeling that I might miss it. That night, I had been reading a novel about the lonely lives of Americans (James Salter's Light Years). Salter's writing is pristine, but I was pretty tired of the characters and their existential concerns.

Enter the call to prayer.

As "Allahuakhbar" threaded the heavy air, I thought about silence. Nothing is ever really silent. My parents' house in the evening is the quietest place I know, and still there is the thrumming of crickets, furnace, coyotes, distant trains. Still there is your pulse, beating in your throat, your ears. But there is a difference between this and the call to prayer. I admit I've gotten into the nasty habit of perceiving the call to prayer as an intrusion. The other night, though, I remembered. I remembered I was in Cairo, Egypt, and that every time the call to prayer rings out, I know that there are uncountable souls around me, pulsing life. For me, the invocation is less about God than human beings. We exist. I wonder if I can find an analog in the next place, something that will thread the air like this. I hope it is something as unexpected as the call to prayer.