I love going to work in the morning.
Not only because I love my job, but because my trip there (only 20 minutes!) is always filled with interesting sightings and people. Whether an especially precarious load atop someone’s head on a bicycle, clothes waving in the wind or half-understood conversations with the neighborhood tawla champ or a fruit-seller, my walk is never dull. The short journey is always filled with waves, smiles and sabah el-khair (good morning).
As I become more comfortable with the sights and sounds, I increasingly notice how beautiful and unexpected things are around every corner.
I feel like I could walk this way my whole life, and something new would draw my attention each time.
Cutting through the alleys, I stall to gaze at an unexpected courtyard, a nursery? with flowers painted on the walls, men polishing elegant furniture, or knots of garlic or bright clothes catching the sunlight.
I talk about Cairo a lot to friends and family across the world. I want to convey my passion, the beauty, the community, the ‘differentness.’ But there’s only so much words can say.
So today, enjoy the walk with me!
My Arabic teacher, Nancy, has asked us to keep our eyes open. You’ll notice all sorts of changes as Ramadan approaches, she said.
From a growing amount of pastries, dried fruit, and special Ramadan lanterns, to clothing vendors shouting something, of which the only word I could decipher was “Ramadan”–Cairenes are seemingly in a frenzy preparing for the month-long holiday.
Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is the holiest month because it’s when Muhammad Hussein, the prophet of Islam, is believed to have revealed the Koran.
Thinking a month long holiday sounds fun?
From what I’ve learned thus far, a theme of the month is discipline.
“In Ramadan, we don’t only abstain from food, drink, smoking, marital sex, but also we abstain form all kinds of immoral acts and obscenity,”Wrote Dr. Muhammad M. Abu Laylah, a professor at Azhar University, on Islamonline.net.
“Our social, religious, charitable acts are combined in our fasting. So, the month of Ramadan is an intensive course in physical and spiritual hygiene.”
Ok. Really think about this. No water in the 100+ heat and no cigarettes for the chain-smoking taxi-drivers. Though just to clarify, “In Ramadan,” refers to the fasting period–sunrise to sunset only. The prophet specifically permits marital sex outside these hours.
While the fast is a personal challenge, in the land of bowabs (doormen) who monitor all comings and goings, neighbors who all know each other and generations of families who live together, or course the holiday is very community oriented.
As fasting is not an option but required of Muslims (there are exceptions for illnesses, travelers, pregnant women, soldiers and young children) it becomes an obligatory social, as well as religious event.
“(Fasting) for a fixed number of days, but if any of you is ill or on a journey, the same number (should be made up) from other days. And as for those who can fast with difficulty, (i.e. an old man, etc.), they have (a choice either to fast or) to feed a poor person (for every day). But whoever does good of his own accord, it is better for him. And that you fast, it is better for you if only you know.” (2:183-84)
The countdown until August 22nd is on.
This is just the teaser
Lately it’s been easy getting caught up in the excitement of now and not take the time to jot moments down.
Work is busy–it’s a small office and the biggest limit to the work I do is my own time and commitment.
Outside of work, often with co-workers, has been busy too.
It is only about to get busier in the next couple days. Today I visited an Arabic language school and tomorrow morning, before work, I’ll try out a class.
There are times when I feel like a hopeless foreigner here. Earlier today a man told me I could follow him across the street today because he thought I was scared to cross. A man in the market tried to charge me double for a watermelon–a boy–presumably his son, laughed when he father named the price. And, I could live here my whole life and passerbys would still smile and say “Welcome to Egypt.”
Despite-maybe partly because of the accustomed normalcy of it, I feel comfortable and really happy here. The constant reminders I am a foreigner seem superficial–part of the same touristy view of Egypt I rejected long ago. Once the guy realized I didn’t need help crossing the street, he talked on and on to me in Arabic, his English was good but he could tell I wanted to practice.
My apartment is quirky and perfect. We have a picture of a dancer which lights up on the wall and a secret stuffed animal in a drawer under the TV (which currently doesn’t work). I’ve already blown out the fuse in the kitchen by plugging in my computer and learned the anatomy of toilet plumbing, thanks to ghetto strings which hold the contraption together and easily fall out of place. Our washing machine has a pipe not attached to anything. The dirty water cascades onto the floor, inevitably flooding AJ’s bathroom each time we want clean clothes.
Sayida Zenab mosque, lit up each night stands out like a carnival among the endless tan buildings. We have air-conditioners in our bedrooms but half the time I don’t t flick the switch.
Breeze blows through our vast windows keeping the apartment relatively comfortable, plus, I love the sound of the traffic, life on the street and call to prayer drifting up 12 stories.
I was going to fill in some of my adventures–a visit to Iraqi friends houses, a very international 4th of July, what it’s like being a woman in the streets–a take on the recent New York Times article.
That, however, will have to wait until another day. As usual, the moment has taken precendee over writing and it is far too late.
Despite sidewalks by most roads, I, along with most other people here, usually stroll the street.
I’ll often start with the intention of keeping to the sidewalk. Moments later I’ll find myself walking in the road. The transition generally happens so naturally I don’t remember making the switch.
Besides some nice stretches along the corniche, sidewalks in Cairo are all kinds of impossible to walk on.
Though usually a good foot above the road, cars still obstruct them, vendors crowd them, cracks and jagged rocks complicate them.
Furthermore, driveways constantly interrupt the flow. A large step down and hop up is required every few paces.
Cars also make use of these driveways– driving in and out and parking in the way of pedestrians.
Streets stopping, starting and intersecting each other at odd angles add to the ups and downs.
When I first noticed I was walking in the streets all the time, I made a conscious effort to return to the sidewalks.
I always found myself back in the street moments later.
My case rests– I choose the streets.
Pictures of sidewalks coming…
Bikem means, “how much,” and is a vital phrase for any foreigner hoping to pay near-local prices or just demonstrate a little knowledge of Arabic and awareness of the local culture.
While each of our American dollars brings in 5.6 Egyptian pounds, I believe most of us have developed more complex ways of thinking about money than simple conversation rates. Considering prices here is a constant juxtaposition of how much we’re paying in American dollars, comparative prices in the United States, what else we could buy in Egyptian pounds, and most interesting to me, how accessible the prices would be to average Egyptians.
What do I mean? I don’t think of a cappuccino (9-20 EGP) costing $1.5-3.5, rather 7-15 falafels sandwiches or two cab rides downtown and back.
Aisha, the Egyptian word for “bread” in Arabic, also means “life.” For many poor in Egypt the connection is quite literal. On any given day people form lines at government stands throughout the city to collect rations of pita bread. Along fuul (beans served heated with spices) bread is probably the cheapest substance. Even in the overpriced markets near our hotel a hearty pack of whole wheat pita sells for 2-4 EGP.
While some might advise foreigners to avoid “street food,” in Egypt avoidance is missing out on Egyptian culture, casual opportunities to practice Arabic, save money and of course, delicious classics.
Falafel stands are also profuse and cheap. Seconds outside our hotel (fondouc in Arabic) we pay 1.50 EGP–(around 30 cents) for half a pita stuffed with two falafel balls, salad and a white spread. At Koshari shops (an Egyptian specialty with rice, pasta, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and red sauce) we drop 5-9 EGP in exchange for bowls filled with more carbs than we can possibly eat. On the higher end of this cheap fair are shawarma stands boasting lamb, chicken and beef (it is against Sha’ria law to eat pigs). Meat, served by default in American style white subway sandwich rolls but usually available in Syrian bread (a thin wrap) go for 7 to 15 EGP at stands.
Now want a pasta, fetir (Egyptian style pizza), salad, kofta a place to sit down or, especially vital for our group, internet and outlets?
Most casual cafes in our area range from 15 EGP to 40 EGP for a plate of food. Throughout our expat-populated island, Zamalek, these joints are never bare of other foreigners and often well-dressed Egyptian youth chilling with friends or studying. Places like this that offer sheesha (hookah– (usually) flavored water pipe smoking) seem more popular with locals.
Also profuse are outdoor cafes with rickety to comfortable chairs filled with men smoking sheesha and playing checkers, backgammon or lounging at all hours. Drinks–juice, karkday (hibiscus) tea, sahlab here can be as little as 3EGP.
Where is America’s mark here? After a night in a downtown cafe a group of my American peers and Karim–the son of Abdu (Denis’s “Egyptian twin” who beyond coordinating everything for us, befriends us and invites us to his house for dinner) set off for late night koshari. When the shop was closed we headed for the one place Karim knew was open. McDonald’s.
Our contribution to the world. Great. We joked as those who could bear it shoveled greasy fries into their mouths.
McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Hardee’s and Baskin Robin’s are scattered everywhere. I avoid these places with a passion-no different than my conduct in the U.S. Prices are comparable to lower-end cafes. McDonald’s boasts a 5EGP menu in imitation of their $1 menu in the U.S.
Water bottles (izaza maya) our most essential and frequent purchase, since none of us have braved the tap, cost less than 2 falafels.
I’ve concentrated mostly on food because this topic could consume your and my time for quite a while. But don’t be fooled. Clothes and shoes, makeup, cab rides, haircuts, baksheesh (tips) postcards tissues sold by elderly and children on the street all tell stories here. What is essential for life? Who is buying it? Do the people who sell it speak English?
Because Western-style products and services of all types are common here it is easy to forgot how much of Cairo’s population cannot afford or access them. The United Nations reported the Egypt’s gross domestic capital per capita as $1769.6 U.S. In 2007. In a popular Egyptian novel Midaq Alley written by Naguib Mafhouz in the 1940s, a young woman describes the rush of riding in a cab for the first time. Though outdated, it remains relevant. Our lifestyles as foreigners, the realities we see and live with are drastically different from the average Egyptian.
When I ask bikem or consider a price here, I am also asking who accesses, how and why it’s that price. In cafes I think about how those around me fit into this society. At the falafel stand I wonder how many the man sells to support his family. When I pay less than $2 to drive downtown in crowded traffic I wonder about how much the gas has cost.
Cairo as I’ve said before and will again is always far more complex than one glance, or trip, in my case.
“Nice car Karim,” I said sliding into the back seat with two other American friends. Before I was fully seated I caught my error. “Whoops, I forgot we’re not supposed to compliment people’s possessions.”
Despite one past trip to Cairo on my record, living in Cairo often feels like learning an entirely new system of human interaction. The other day on our way to Abdu and Hayam’s (good friends of Professor Sullivans) house, Carlene warned us not to compliment people things. They’ll think you covert it,” she warned. Complimenting houses and children are especially treacherous errors, believed to bring bad luck.
These episodes pop up all the time.
Sometimes it’s hard to figure them out at all. Did the chef at the shawrma stand Baraka tell us too many students come here to learn Arabic? What did he mean by that?
Last night a group Northeastern students and I ate dinner and enjoyed (some less than others) some funky music at the Cairo Jazz Club–a restaurant, lounge and bar primarily aimed at a western crowd. I was eager for my new American friends to meet my favorite Egyptians from last year and vice-versa.
At one point I popped my gum. Is that rude? I yelled through the music to my Egyptian friend sitting next to me. He told me to stop worrying about things like that. I tried to explain it’s not a questioned of “worried” rather wanting to be in tune with the culture.
After a while the girlfriends I came with grabbed cabs to our hotel Flamenco–blogging and beds called. The rest of us left for a quieter location where are jumble of “Arablish” had a chance of making sense.
”There aren’t any woman here,” I pointed out before taking a seat at the outdoor cafe we chose. The guys didn’t see a problem with it. While I don’t inherently, I want to experience the culture here–not live like I was in the United States.
Walking home at 2 a.m. with one American guy I was aware how taboo this would be if I were an Egyptian women.
Vendors on either side come out to meet us as we walk down the narrow uneven sidewalks of the Souk (market). They solicit their goods, pleading with us to just enter their stores and take a look.
Their approaches vary drastically. Some spit out English words they must think we want to hear–”Hey spice girls,” “Awww….beautiful! Two-million camels for you.” Others are raunchier–”I like your body,” “I”m free tonight,” Others play on insecurities. “No hassle here.” Others smile and ask where we’re from–”American, English, French?”
Some give up easily. My favorite is when they smile and reply “afwan,” (you’re welcome) or “marhaba” (welcome) to my “la’a shukran” (no thank you). The bolder keep stride pleading with us to visit their shop, telling us they know what we want or yelling after us to smile because we’re in Egypt.
Our last night in Luxor I proposed that we eat at a restaurant, Amoun located a ways into the souk. Three other young women and I ventured off in search of authentic tasty Egyptian classics and vegetables my guidebook promised.
After dinner, at a different place–plans change quickly in Egypt–a shopping detour ensued. Rachel found a cute shop with hair barrettes and I set about replacing my beloved flip flops, which I’ve literally worn through the bottom in the last week.
Haggling done, new shoes in hand, a young girl rushes into the shop and yells something in Arabic. I think she’s upset because the police made the children stop playing kickball in the street, Asha suggests.
Rachel puts down the shirt she’s eyeing. Yella? (let’s go).
In the street it is instantly apparent something more than halting children’s games is underway.
Vendors, who moments earlier watched our every move, now hardly see us in their frantic hurry to dismantle their shops. A second man I haggled with for my shoes is moving scrambling toward us carrying the entire display of shoes which attracted me to his shop. He distracted takes the money I hand him as he rushes toward his shop.
“We have to clear the streets,” he answers my obvious question. A group of tourist police have clustered where the alleys intersect. They are yelling amongst each other and with vendors
We walk past, reluctantly staring backward and reaching for cameras.
Vendors pull down metal doors to hide their wares and brashly use poles to dismantle mannequins in sequined covered dresses. A couple vendors half- heartedly urge us to take a look but most hardly see us in their rush to close shop.
“Why are you closing your shops?” I ask a boy who is pulling a metal door over his entire shop. A nearby man interrupts and tells me because it’s 10:00 p.m.–the time when the markets close. We know this isn’t the case–many shops stay open most of the night. The rush and panic also tell another story.
“How often does this happen?” I continue. He tells me every me not often, “just once every two or three months.”
I took video I will upload when I have a capable internet connection and speed. In the meantime, anyone have any insights into this? There must be some kind of laws police intermittently enforce. The whole thing was bizarre. Since tourism comprises 85 percent of the economy in Luxor, at least according to my Rough Guide, it’s hard to believe the police would be too harsh on vendors earning a living. I’ll be interested to look into the laws and how these people get permits to sell.