Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Things I’ll Miss About Egypt #4: Feeling Strange

My brother and certain other people might argue that I’m an odd duck, but one thing I’ve noticed whenever I come back to the U.S. is how invisible I feel. Nobody really looks or seems a bit curious about me in a place where I’m assumed to be like everybody else, whatever that means. I get stared at for pretty obvious reasons in Egypt, and it’s not that I really love it, but there is something to be said for feeling strange.

Today I went with a brown-suited man from my university to a branch of the Ministry of Agriculture in order to get the right paperwork for the cat I will be bringing back to the U.S. I had expected that we would be going to one of the fancy buildings in Cairo that are faux-ancient temples, and I was kind of excited at the prospect of going into these swamps of red tape I’ve heard so much about.

Instead, I found myself in Fustat, one of my favorite areas of Cairo. The old city, the first capital of the Arabs. Here you can find the oldest mosque in Africa and Egypt’s oldest synagogue. But these are just buildings, at least to me. It’s the people and the bustle that are endlessly fascinating. The place we needed was off a gravel/mud/dirt road that curved around garbage, donkeys pulling carts, coffeeshops, and all matter of small enterprises, from the selling of juice to the stacking and binding of feedbags.

I lugged my 80% reformed street cat in his smart and suburban-ridiculous red travel bag into the ministry branch. We sat in a room with a window that looked onto a slum house and listened to a rooster crowing as a farash brought us glass bottles of cold Pepsi and a man behind a desk handwrote a letter to the main Ministry office confirming that the cat was real and healthy. On the wall was a framed and faded poster, the glass cracked, of different cuts of veal. A ceiling fan rotated, scattering my papers across the man's desk. The man left with his letter.

Occasionally, people entered and wondered if there was a dog in the bag, and when I said, “Ota” (cat), they would say, “Kibir!” (Big!). He’s a big tom, but also he’s fed with regularity. He looks like a giant when he goes out on the street to bully his starving compatriots. Compared to the obese cats I've seen in the U.S., though, he's right trim.

Over the hour that we waited for the man to return, Mr. Yasser of the brown suit and I talked. I started with small talk, something I’m terrible at. I told Mr. Yasser I was leaving Egypt and would miss it. And he said to me that the staff would miss me. I was confused. What staff? Staff know me? Most professors don't even know me, some in my own department. I thought he was just exaggerating, which is common around here. He said, “You are too kindly and never make a problem for anyone.” (Often people here say “too” when they mean “so.”) Then he said he remembered me from 4-5 years ago and that it was too bad that I was leaving. "Four years you make no problems," he said, shaking his head.

And I suddenly remembered who Mr. Yasser was. The first time I had to have my annual HIV test (which all foreigners who work in Egypt must have in order to get a work visa) in 2006, it was Mr. Yasser who led me to the certified government worker who would take my blood.

In memory, he wears a black suit and dark sunglasses and looks like a secret service agent. In memory, he scares me a little. In memory, he does not speak to me as he leads me across the street I dread to cross and through the overcrowded medical clinic, and I sit on a dingy chair surrounded by other patients, and there are no lights on in the room, and there are children singing patriotic songs at the French school next door, and I watch a needle go into my arm and then get placed in an open trash can full of used needles. In memory, I am wondering what the hell I am doing in Africa; I have been naively navigating through each initial day, initial week, initial month. In memory, I feel foolish and diffident, not understanding anything anyone is saying and wondering if I will ever get the hang of this place. Everything seems strange, in memory.

Today I talked with Yasser about his children, about the curtain store with the spiral stairway that he enjoys in Old Cairo, about the way he loves this neighborhood, Fustat, because it is the old city, and the people are the old, the real, Egyptians. And the pyramids (the continued revisions to the grounds, the way it’s marketed, etc.), the new university campus in the midst of the desert – none of this feels real to him, and he is grateful that he was able to stay in the few offices left on the old university campus. "At new campus, no one knows me," he said. “It is too far. Where is it? What would you do if the bus broke down from new campus? There is nothing. Nothing. Even men – what would they do?”

The man from the ministry returned with a small pink square of paper. Mr. Yasser put it into a folder with my passport and the cat’s records, and he said that without this slip of paper he would never be able to get this done at the Ministry. (I should probably mention that this is one of the perks I have with this job – people wade through bureaucracy for me for a small sum, which is why someone else has my passport now.)

We left with our paperwork. Mr. Yasser would be headed to the Ministry, and I would be headed la-de-da back to my big flat. There weren’t any empty taxis coming down the dirt road, so Mr. Yasser and I walked back the way we had come. Past men in coffeeshops, smoking sheesha, playing backgammon, observing the street, laughing, chatting. Past women buying and selling vegetables, walking with arms interlocked, sometimes pausing to look at me and smile. Past platters of homemade potato chips on steel counters. Past mounds of garbage and a burned-out car straight out of Mad Max. Flies plagued all of us.

I realized the red bag on my shoulder with the intermittently struggling cat was conspicuous. Yet somehow this relaxed me. I felt a contradictory sense of belonging on this street, walking beside this man in the brown suit on a dusty road, feeling the other men look at me, feeling their curious glances, hearing the tinny recordings of Qu'ran out various windows and radios. Maybe it was a feeling that at least I was somehow in on the joke (this is the question, though, isn’t it – can an expat ever be in on the joke?). My point is that in this situation I felt just fine, and I felt like conveying to Mr. Yasser the reason for this feeling. So I said, “I must look pretty strange walking down the street with a cat in a bag."

He laughed gleefully and said, “Yes! It is too strange!”

We walked down the street and laughed together, and I smiled at any person who was looking at me.

“I guess I’m used to feeling strange by now,” I said, and shook his hand, and hailed a cab.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Things I Will Miss About Egypt #3: Perceptions about Language

I’ve seen a lot of complaints on facebook from my American brethren about things like having to “press 1 for English.” This is usually followed by some sort of rant about how “in America, we speak English.” Most egregiously misuse English grammar and sentence structure as they smugly defend the language.

After four years of working with kids who are fluent in a minimum of three languages as an expectation of their culture and class, I'm sad I wasn't exposed to more languages as a child. I admire those who are brave enough to come to the U.S., where they can actually be ridiculed for not knowing English or for having an unfamiliar accent. When I attempted to learn Arabic in Egypt, I was met with kindness and tolerance. I experienced language as an exchange of cultures, as a potential bridge. I can only hope to practice that kind of tolerance when I return to the U.S. Though I understand that language is a complicated subject, that it is no less complicated in Egypt than it is in the U.S., and that in some ways I simplify the situation here, this feeling of open exchange and diversity is what I learned from "foreigners" while being a "foreigner" myself.


Thursday, June 03, 2010

Things I’ll Miss About Egypt #2: Days Like This

We went for a day out – L – an Egyptian, and E, an American expat. First to the Smart Village, a satellite world of modern buildings and kempt grass. Even the mosque was futuristic.

In the Smart Village you’ll find something called CultNat, a project working to archive all matter of information about Egypt. They produce CDs – for instance, you can buy a CD that pulls up a map of several parts of Cairo. You can click on different buildings and get the architectural context of each, zoom in on various attributes of the building, look at it in 3-D, and see various drawings and photos of the building. If you’ve been to downtown Cairo, you can see the influence of all matter of architectural styles, and even an idiot like me can appreciate this. Geography? Wildlife? Tombs at Giza? Medicinal herbs of Egypt? They’ve got it at CultNat. Another room featured a fantastic film about ancient Egypt on nine screens, and another offered an array of 3-D photos. Still another room contains working replicas of such things as the first clock to run on water.

From the strange Smart Village in the desert, we headed to Giza for lunch at the exorbitantly priced Mena House hotel (http://www.oberoihotels.com/oberoi_menahouse/index.asp). It took us a while to get there; we could see the pyramids from the Alex Desert Road, calling out to us across the brilliant green farmland, but, alas, there were no exits. Eventually we found one but still didn’t know how to get to the pyramids.

I love getting lost in Cairo. No, really. Because I am never driving when this happens. So – feast for the senses. Men selling watermelons from a donkey cart by the side of the road. A woman with a stand of drinks in metal containers reflecting the sun. Boys and men on motorcycles. Children tapping on cars in traffic jams. Frankly, I wasn’t a help to L because I enjoyed being lost so much. It’s true, though, that I had spotted the “pyramids” sign on the highway. Of course, I don’t think I was the only one in the car that spotted it – just the only one to be so proud of myself for seeing it.

We arrived at the intersection where the Pyramid of Khufu stands loud and proud.

There, we were accosted by men creating triangles with their hands and pointing, as if we couldn’t see the ancient being before us. One man knocked on the car from front to back. When L rolled her window a crack to ask them the quickest way to get to the Mena House (that we weren’t interested in the pyramids), they ignored her. Though the Mena House is lovely, it was not the main attraction. What we came for was a view of the Great Pyramid from a quiet space.

During lunch, L had decided that the watchbands on both of her guests for this outing were unacceptable. Before she would agree to drop us off on the Corniche so we could catch a cab back to Ma’adi, we had to get new watchbands. She knew where we could get them for twelve Egyptian pounds. Sure enough, soon we double-parked on a Cairo street somewhere near Mohandisseen, and L disappeared. She came back moments later with her fists full of watchbands. E quickly chose one. I, picky, insisted upon going back in with L while E’s watchband was replaced. The store was one of those pantry-sized affairs you commonly find in Cairo. Its main purpose seemed to be the selling of electronic accessories such as phone covers, and behind a counter sat three young men, too many for the size of the store. In one corner sat the watchband guy. Two boxes held a jumble of bands. To my delight, I found one. My watch was admired. The band was set.

On to the Corniche, said L. But, first, let’s drive by Manial Palace. E – who, like me, is leaving Egypt – had wanted to go there for quite some time, but it had been closed for restoration ever since she had arrived in Egypt three years before. At least you can see the outside of it one more time, said L. When we pulled onto the street, L engaged a policeman whose belly was hanging out of his white shirt, which wasn’t tucked into his pants. His belt, its buckle coming undone, was strapped haphazardly over his belly, and he waved a cigarette as they spoke in Arabic. My guess was that they were arguing over whether she could go that way down the street, but when L parked and got out, I discovered that she had been coaxing her way onto the palace grounds. Once inside, we ran into a gaggle of workers who vigorously protested our presence while L smiled and maintained her ground with her firm, charismatic tone. Finally, a man with a conspicuous grey toupee and grey moustache came out from a tent. He protested for a while, and L kept smiling and insisting. I laughed nervously, as is my wont in such situations. E said, “Oh, she’s going to get us in. Just watch.”

Soon we were following the big-bellied policeman, a self-appointed tour guide with an everlasting cigarette, and the tour guide’s friend, who helpfully gestured and served lookout since he knew there would be an inevitable tip at the end of this journey. We peered into a room with solid gold pillars. We rounded a corner, then, to the vast gardens that make up most of the grounds. The centerpiece of these gardens is the “mother tree,” a banyan that birthed all other banyans in the place.

The guide showed us how the aerial prop roots of each tree eventually droop to the ground and plant themselves, growing into trunks that look the same as the original trunk. Older trees can spread across large tracts of land. All the banyans on the grounds, then, are connected, and the mother banyan was the largest of them all.

Earlier, the guide had gestured toward the house of Muhammad Ali, Jr. It was closed, he said. As we passed an open doorway, however, the jaunty sidekick suggested we go in. Quick, they said, glancing around for...someone who doesn't allow rule-breaking in Egypt? Good luck, friends. Anyway, one of them stood lookout as we entered. The inside was covered with tiling and alabaster that looked very much like the Harem of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. So – amazing. We tipped our three guides and headed to the Corniche.

Days like this. Familiar and unfamiliar. I’ll miss the peculiar way I feel this in Egypt.