Tuesday, September 29, 2009

you knew it was coming...

when my mom was growing up in Cairo in the 50's, the pyramids were still in the desert. the city has grown exponentially since then, and it has crept up to their very doorstep. urban neighborhoods stretch along two sides of the site, and you'll find a fleet of tour buses parked at the foot of Cheops' pyramid. and you can't climb them like you could in my mom's day. development definitely comes with a price. that being said, they still have the power to capture your imagination if you let them.

3 Egyptian obsessions

tea. typically with lots of sugar. served anytime, day or night, and with incredible hospitality. last time i was in Egypt, i remember our taxi driver serving me and Alex a cup of tea brewed in the parking lot outside the Mohammed Ali mosque. he seemed in no rush to get anywhere, and shared the moment with us. and told me that my sweet tooth meant i drank tea like a true Egyptian.

shisha. flavored tobacco smoked with religious frequency from water pipes in street side cafes throughout the country. you've got your apple, your watermelon, your peach, your honey, you name it. once the purview of men (at least in public), you find more and more women smoking shisha in cafes. we even recently saw a shisha girl (the person who prepares and brings you your pipe) at a cafe near Al Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo.

backgammon. also a staple of cafe life. Shams taught me his version, and never once managed to beat me.


i have to admit that i've been a bit spoiled since arriving in Egypt. first, Mohammed loaned me his apartment and ushered me around town for two weeks. most recently i was treated to a wonderfully relaxing vacation in the Red Sea coastal town of Dahab. the month of Ramadan ends with the three-day Eid Al Fitr festival, and many Cairenes take this opportunity to head out of town for a quick escape from the slightly maddening bustle of the city.

my friend Meghan has a standing invitation from a friend who owns a hotel in Dahab (here's the restaurant, located just a couple feet above the Gulf of Aqaba and looking across at the mountains of Saudi Arabia). his name is Shams and he is a living breathing example of the famed Egyptian hospitality. i don't think i've ever encountered such generosity. we stayed in his hotel with a friend of Meghan's from India for four nights and he refused to allow us to pay a piaster. we had to resort to trickery and friendly bullying to be allowed to pay even for our meals.

in addition to putting us up for free, he drove us around this beautiful area of the Sinai Peninsula, where rocky mountains and sandy desert meet the sea. the diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea is supposed to be amongst the best in the world, and the surrounding desert scenery is stunning.

here's Meghan and Shams and Meghan and Adi, doing what we did best in Dahab. Sharm El Sheikh to the south has a reputation of being the vacation destination for those who prefer the resort life. but Dahab, with its more laid back atmosphere and seaside boardwalk is perfect for those of us who like to relax without being walled in. we spent our hours indulging in the quintessentially Egyptian pastimes of backgammon, tea and shisha, and debating the relative strengths, weaknesses and quirks of our respective countries of egypt, india, canada and the u.s.

and then... the time came to head back to home and reality. across the stunning Sinai, past the turnoff to St. Catherine's monastery and Mt. Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the 10 Commandments. through a tunnel under the Suez Canal and back to the hectic city...

a strange sort of reality hit home, though, before we even left Dahab. i realize that traveling with an American passport has always given me an ease of movement that many in the world don't enjoy. the guards at the checkpoints that are littered throughout Sinai never gave my passport a second look. but it also got us a personal "security" escort all the way back to Cairo. apparently the Egyptian government isn't taking any chances with American tourists, and so we were issued with a guard who accompanied us on the 8 hour journey home. i'd honestly have been much more comfortable without, but i'm not sure my opinion mattered much.

Cairo by day

living in Belize, i often had a hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that the population of the entire country didn't even reach 300,000 people. now i find myself in a city at least 50 times that size. estimates put the population of Cairo between 15 and 25 million, depending partially on the time of day (many commute here for work). some views from the 40th floor of the Grand Hyatt in Garden City...

i'm taking this picture from Garden City, on the east bank of the Nile, where you also find downtown, and the Islamic and Coptic "quarters". directly ahead is Zamalek, the island in the middle of the river (and the city) that has long been home to much of Cairo's international expat community, as well as the green garden oasis of the Gezira sporting club, playground of the well-heeled. to the left of the picture are the west bank communities of Giza, Dokki, Agouza and Mohandiseen.

the river Nile, it goes without saying, has always been the heart of the city. as the majority of Egypt's landscape is pretty much inhospitable, somewhere around 98% of the country's population lives along the banks of the river or in the delta region. my Survival Arabic teacher told us that there's even a color in Egyptian colloquial Arabic called Neeli - for the Nile-colored mixture of blue, green and brown.

rescue operation

it was a week or so ago, and my roommate Aleya was sitting in our living room surfing the internet when she heard a kitten crying from somewhere around the environs of our building. three days of incessant crying and she couldn't handle it anymore. she identified the window where the noise was coming from, and we went on an adventure through the bowels of our building. in broken arabic, she tried to explain to our bowwab (doorman) that we were trying to find the source of the cries. finally understanding what she was getting at, he led us up a largely unused metal staircase to the fourth floor, where we found this little thing...

she has since taken up residence in our apartment, and has proven herself to be an irritatingly masterful climber. an adorable handful. and one of a million egyptian street cats, who are as common here as stray dogs in Belize.

Cairo by night

New Yorkers may claim theirs as the city that never sleeps, but they've got nothing on the Cairenes. maybe it's the intense heat that makes a person just want to sleep away the daytime hours, but this place comes alive at night. i routinely look up from whatever i'm doing to find that it's reached 2am without my noticing. the streets start filling up at about 10, and don't empty till the wee hours. and it's completely understandable - Cairo is beautiful by night. and the cool Nile breezes add immeasurably to the atmosphere.

my friend Meghan and i joined the Cairo Walking Group for a walking tour from Tahrir Square downtown to Khan El Khalili, the famed bazaar in the middle of Islamic Cairo. after hibiscus juice at a cafe in the Khan we did some more wandering through the narrow streets of the walled section of Fatimid Cairo. this area is a quiet haven smack in the middle of a hectic city, and boasts architecture from the Fatimid and Mamluk eras. narrow cobblestone streets, intricately carved wooden mashrabiya windows, and egypt's only mosque where men and women are allowed to pray side by side.

and the ubiquitous streetside backgammon game, accompanied by shisha and copious glasses of sugary tea...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

what was i thinking???

it's after 11pm and i just got home from class (have i mentioned that my Ramadan schedule is insane?). i'm pretty sure that Intro to International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law is going to kick my ass. i'm also sure it will be fascinating. as long as i can get past the weekly papers and timed writing assignments, decide on a research topic, like, yesterday, and figure out how in the world blue booking is anything other than a medieval torture device. whoever invented the legalese citation method is watching all of us first timers from somewhere, giggling maniacally.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

first pix

ok, for those of you who are visual learners, here are my first images from Cairo. they're all inside my apartment, as i haven't ventured out with my camera as of yet. still, here's where i'm living...

here's my street - Sharia Dokki. this is a view from our living room window. crossing this street is the sort of experience that can make a person reflect on her mortality. who knew getting groceries could turn into a life or death scenario?

my room. somehow i ended up with two beds, though i wouldn't recommend trying to sleep on the one on the far wall. the fan is an absolute necessity, as i don't have any air conditioning in my room. and though it's the end of summer, it's still pretty freaking hot here. i've been leaving my windows open at night to let in the cooler air, the tradeoff of which is the fact that it also lets in the sounds of this all-night city. glad i invested in some earplugs...

as in Belize, clothes here are dried on the line. don't have a drying rack yet, so i'm resorting to using hangers. these are the french doors in my room. i've got a little balcony that looks out over the alley in the back of the building. it's a great place for catching the evening breeze and for indulging in a bit of voyeurism. there's a group of three or so men who set out a small carpet on the ground every evening to have their dinner. they bring out cushions and blankets and a tv on a chair, and hang out until the wee hours in what's more or less the alley between two buildings.

here's the view from the dining room. pretty much all the buildings in Cairo sport this same shade of brown. they're mostly concrete (Egypt is a big exporter of the stuff), and there's really no way to avoid the dirt and sand that blows in from the surrounding desert. it coats every conceivable surface. but the breeze is essential for those of us without AC, and it blows constantly through all our amazingly wide windows. i'm definitely not hurting for natural light in this place.

and here's my favorite one so far. Mohamed bought me this fanoos on one of my first nights in town. these are traditional Ramadan lanterns, and you find them strung in front of shops and restaurants all around the city. they add a beautifully festive ambience to the nighttime streets.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

a new life begins

well, it's been nearly two weeks since i touched down in Cairo, and tonight i find myself sitting in a cafe not far from my new apartment. i'll be living in Dokki, a neighborhood smack in the middle of this city of 20 or so million, in a fourth floor apartment in a huge building on a major city thoroughfare. it's a far cry from my little house on a quiet street in Cayo. the traffic on my street - both human and vehicular - is astounding. Cairo is teeming. and this city truly never sleeps. i don't know if it's a strategy for living in extreme heat, but everything here starts later than i'm accustomed to. a friend of mine was invited to dinner the other night at midnight. i've routinely seen entire families complete with small children having a nice stroll past brightly lit shops at 2 and 3 in the morning. and the sounds of traffic and street conversations never end. and from what i understand, i've only seen the tip of the iceberg. i arrived a day after the start of Ramadan, during which life in Cairo tends to slow down (comparatively speaking, of course). the notoriously clogged streets are nearly empty for the couple hours surrounding iftar. everyone rushes home to eat with their families after a day of abstaining from all food, drink and nicotine. Ramadan is a celebratory time, but people can also get a bit testy. whether your pleasure be food, caffeine or nicotine, going without can definitely affect one's mood. but driving around the streets you also find great generosity. men with trays of drinks and boxes of sweets stand in the middle of the street just before sunset, bestowing their gifts on passing drivers. and in what i understand to be a particularly Egyptian tradition, large banquet tables are set up throughout the city where the poor gather to eat a free iftar meal. you'll find these feasts set up wherever room can be found - in alleys and under bridges. space is limited, so people start gathering a couple hours before sunset. and everywhere you find store fronts hung with colorful lanterns called fanooses.

it's been an education already, and i've only just begun. i've gotten a taste of mind boggling Egyptian bureaucracy while trying to negotiate my way through the mine field of school orientation. it doesn't help that it's Ramadan, and all offices close at 2 for the duration of the month. i've stumbled through five four-hour days of Survival Arabic class. the words are floating around there somewhere, i'm just not sure i've got the correct translations attached to them. i've found an apartment and made a few friends and even taken a day trip to Alexandria. i've learned to recognize a few landmarks, though the scope of this city is absolutely overwhelming. tomorrow is a day off, and i have no more ambitious plan than to unpack and wander the streets of my new neighborhood. then monday i start school in earnest with Intro to Forced Migration and Refugee Studies. only in Egypt would my classes run from 8-10:30 at night. where exactly have i landed? can't wait to find out...