I walk out the door, into the street.
Five or six young men are leaning against cars and a tall metal house-gate they all face toward a tree, around which candles, posters and flowers rest. Most candles, including the three my friends and I left last nice are long burned-out. I wonder if the young mens’ eyes are red from lack of sleep or crying.
In an attempt not to interrupt, I walk on the grass as I pass.
“Is this your car,” one boy asks me, thinking the car he leans on is my off-center destination.
“No, you’re fine.”
“Why you walk around like that?” a young man questions, from across the sidewalk.
“I didn’t want to interrupt….I’m really sorry about your friend.”
I stare at the picture of their murdered friend. Probably a couple of years younger than me, black, dreadlocks, smiling….I don’t know more to the story. Just that he died because of gang violence and a couple of his friends were also shot.
“Where you going,” the young man snaps me into the present.
“Starbucks?” He prompts
“No, I’m going to class.”
He mumbles something I can’t distinguish.
“Down the street?”
“No, downtown, National Louis.”
“So you’re taking the train, what stop you getting off at?”
“I’m going South…It’s in the loop.”
“I guess that’s where all the tall buildings are,” he says, shrugging. “What’s your name?”
“Lily. What’s yours?”
“You can call me T.”
“Nice to meet you T, who are your friends?”
A couple tell me what they go by, another couple have earphones in their ears and do not answer.
I wonder how long they’ll stand there. How long they’ve been in their gang. If they’re afraid. If they’re angry.
I wonder why I didn’t simply say “good morning,” as I walked by.
Artificial barriers–the unknown, fear, lack of education on all sides.
As I walk toward the L, T calls after me. “I like your purple shirt.”
Though true to the hype, Egypt is mostly desert–only 3 percent of land is arable–when you open your eyes to it, Cairo has a pretty hopping fruit and veggie scene going back to ancient times.
“Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” is a phrase you might remember from history class, a tour book or even thrown in conversation. Historically, agriculture was Egypt’s greatest economic commodity. In 2000 agriculture accounted for approximately 11 percent of Egypt’s GDP and over 1/3 of the population was employed in agriculture.
The majority of produce is grown in the Delta, an area north of Cairo bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The rest is grown along the Nile, between Cairo and Aswan, just south of the High Dam, which controls the once annual Nile floods and ensures reliable water distribution throughout the year.
Living here temporarily, eating at cafes, restaurants and street vendors, it’s easy to believe the country is largely devoid of all produce except oil drenched eggplants, taamiya (falafel but with fava beans) salad and plentiful fresh juices. Adding to the desert theme, population locations i.e. the pyramids, temples, ruins, desert oases and beaches on the north coast and in Sinai are naturally sand-prone
Since settling down in an apartment with a kitchen and spending more time with Egyptians and Iraqis who cook, I have discovered an inspiring world of fruits and veggies throughout the megalopolis.
A market behind Sayidda Zeinab mosque and one surrounding the Saad Zagloul metro stop, both within a five minute walk of my flat, are where I usually shop.
I never had a fresh fig until a couple months ago a coworker bought a bag while taking a walk from work. Sweet, with a unique texture, they have quickly become one of my favorite fruits.
Guavas are another I never had fresh until living here. Though I drank the juice previously, I had pictured Guavas as papayas and thought the guavas on the streets were pares. When Syonara served me a plate of sliced guavas I learned they were something entirely different. Now I cannot quite imagine my life, let alone breakfasts, without them.
I first spied a couple lonely pomegranates at a small fruit stand across my street about a month ago. Being one of my all-time favorites, and an apparent anomaly in Egypt, I snatched them up. Though completely unripe, they were a promise of what has come. Since, sweet, juicy, pink pomegranates have matriculated to many fruits stands, living up to pomegranate lovers desires and costing around $1 USD a kilo.
Though I haven’t found dates as good as Mahmoud’s to date, I’ve been entranced by the many varieties. The traditional way to break fast for Ramadan, dates –dried, fresh, unripe, overripe, yellow, red and purple are profuse.
The other day I dashed home from work at 2:00 p.m. to grab a forgotten computer cord. I was shocked to see my neighborhood market more bustling than ever. Not only was it the hottest part of the day, but most Egyptians are fasting for Ramadan. The hours shift slightly each day with the sunrise and set–no food, water, cigarettes, sex etc, from approximately 4:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
It seems shopping for food might be one way the fasters distract themselves until the moment of consumption.
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
A couple days ago an Egyptian friend told me the infamous Moulid at Saayida Zeinab mosque was cancelled because of the hoorah over swine flu.
They don’t want big crowds, he said.
Camping out, as hundreds of thousands supposedly do in the weeks leading up to the big day, was declared illegal by the Egyptian authorities.
Moulids, meaning birthdays, are Suffi traditions celebrated all over Egypt.
Not specified in the Koran many Muslims do not know, partake or condone the practice.
This one in particular celebrates Saayida Zeinab, who is the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammed, and therefore must occur only at her mosque.
When my roommate AJ announced it was today and he was covering it (he’s a journalist), I repeated what my friend said and stared out the window, wondering where all the people were.
While the huge crowds might have stayed home, Saayida’s birthday, was not a total bust.
Standing in front of the mosque, with an Egyptian friend, Amr, crowds swarmed around us.
He pointed out the frequency of galabyias–the long loose dresses men wear. It’s a different style than how we dress in Cairo, he said, explaining most of the worshippers are from rural regions of upper and lower Egypt.
A guy wearing a shirt reading, “I’m Noisy” with Elmo and white girl bearing arms, we drew attention from the crowd and the interest of a cop.
Do you want to go in the mosque? Amr asked me. The women go in that way–he pointed to an entrance where a mob of women fought to descend a couple steps into the mosque.
Yeah definitely! Can I…I asked? Our new buddy, the cop, said I could if I covered my arms and hair.
Putting on my veil, I spotted a women, standing with two friends, snapping my picture.
One of the friends came over.
Are you here to see this? She asked in Arabic, which Amr translated.
I live down the street, I told her. But yeah, I’m here now to check it out.
Are you scared of getting swine flu because of the big crowd.
Everywhere in Cairo is crowded, I answered. Plus I’m American, don’t you think I already have it? (Swine flu has been a huge deal here, especially since cases were found among American University students. Co-workers say people have moved away from them on subways out of fear of catching the bug.)
As she began to ask another questions, I became suspicious.
Her questions were well thought out, targeted for a specific angle…her friend snapped another picture and she held, what I’d thought was an iPod in her hand.
She was dressed differently, looked better kept and more focused than the many milling around the area.
Are you a journalist? I asked her in Arabic.
Are you recording this?
She said she wasn’t.
She asked if I was going to go in. I said I was, half hoping she’d join.
She didn’t seem to have any intention.
Her friend snapped another picture as I put on my headscarf and Amr and I headed to the entrance.
I relinquished my shoes to a guy at the door was pushed forward by the masses of woman vying to enter.
Think of the most crowded concert you’ve attended and those lines of people forcibly pushing their way to the front or out. Now imagine there is not one destination, people are sitting on the floor, praying begging for money, eating, holding babies, yelling and grabbing your clothes.
From all sides I was shoved deeper into the congregation.
Eyes ahead, overwhelmed by the masses of praying before me, I felt a slap on my shoulder. An elderly woman was whacking me with some clothe.
Apparently she didn’t approve of my dress. Khalas–”enough” I yelled at her. Another woman tried to help by forcefully rearranging my shawl.
In the deepest room women touched and prayed toward a wall and snapped pictures with their cell phone.
All the incentive I needed, I pulled out my camera and snatched a couple shots.
Out in the street, Cairo air never felt so fresh and clear.
Change is my favorite. Today I returned to Cairo from Alexandria and tomorrow a new adventure begins.
The remaining Northeastern students will return to the United States (I’ll miss you guys =/ ) and I’ll begin my internship at the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in downtown Cairo.
I’m able to spend 6 months working in Cairo because of NU’s co-ops program.
The idea is students get real world experience and build their resumes while remaining full-times students.
While last year I took advantage of NU’s vast job database and enjoyed working at the New England Council in Washington, DC–this time around I decided to do my own thing.
Thanks to the advice, flexibility and patience of my co-op advisors, Lisa Worsh, Cynthia Sweet and Ketty Rosenfeld, among other professors and contacts, I’ve settled.
The aim of RLAP is to help refugees prepare testimony for the United Nations Refugee Agency and the International Migration Organization, in charge of resettlement.
I’ll be working with refugees already approved for resettlement to prepare them for life in new lands–usually the U.S.
I’ll find out more tomorrow, but this involves everything from assisting with housing, jobs, education and language to discussing cultural norms and expectations. After a bit, I might work on the legal side of things too—interviewing and preparing for testimony.
The project was originally specifically for Iraqi refugees and they continue to make up the bulk of the clients. For obvious reasons, the U.S. is accepting more Iraqi refugees than any others.
What kind of things are happening with projects of this sort now? Here’s one perspective.
I’m excited to begin this new phase.
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…
Qatar at night is breath-taking.
Tall buildings in all shapes and sizes light the gulf sky-line.
From our 24th floor room at the Movenpick hotel we look down on a sea of lights and a sparkling grandness.
Movenpick is a luxurious five-star hotel and I’m pretty sure you would be hard-pressed to find a lower scale one in the area.
In the morning things were not quite as appealing.
A gaping construction hole lurked below our window and I counted 22 cranes between the nearby buildings. The outside of our window is so covered in grime from the construction pictures come out poorly.
The building opposite us, beautiful at night with intricate dome tops, has porches facing us on every floor. I haven’t seen a single person out on one and no colorful clothing decorates the balconies, drying in the sun.
On our first night we ran downstairs, eager to explore the city and grab a late dinner, after our day of traveling.
Everything is already closed, Denis told us, second hand from the receptionist. It was around 11pm. They said the souk was open until 12pm but not worth the cab ride at this hour.
Other hotels were the only other option.
I met a Lebanese man in our hotel today who has lived in the United States, currently works out of Dubai and has traveled as much as I dream to. People come here to work, he said.
I met a Lebanese man in our hotel today who has lived in the United States, currently works out of Dubai and has traveled as much as I dream to. People come here to work, he said.
Everyone on this trip who has walked with me will tell you I’ve led them astray at least once. My favorite companions, many times. I think my sense of confidence fools people.
I just walk, whether I know the way or not.
First, I believe “lost” is usually just a state of mind. I might not be where I want, but I’m usually somewhere interesting and I’ve met such great people through wondering.
Second, I have confidence that I’ll figure out where we are or how to get where we want around the next bend. (Really annoying to companions who think we’re lost.)
Third there’s a safety net in the cities we’re in. Almost always, there are taxis I could jump in and say my destination or people nearby I could ask.
The following anecdotes are in honor of going where you don’t know the way.
Today we arrived in Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, north of the capital, Damascus.
After ditching my bags, I rushed out of our hotel in search of a water bottle. Usually sold at every street corner and food stand, I expected this to be a quick errand.
I walked past store after store peering in coolers and asking. One guy poured me a glass of Seven-Up, and another filled an ancient looking bottle with tap water. Both I apologetically refused (It’s really rude to refuse drinks when someone offers here).
A boy on a bicycle stopped to shake my hand and held on until I pulled my hand away.
Though occasionally awkward, when someone offers me their hand politely or curiously, I alway shake it. So often when we, as Americans, walk down the street here, however conservatively we’re dressed, we’re a spectacle. A handshake is an easy way to communicate, level, assure and offer respect. Valuable in a part of the world we have screwed up relations pretty badly.
After many attempts, a man told me in English to walk down a street a little further.
At the next stand I stopped at the vendor handed over what I coveted. It took the form of a dirty bottle of Canadian Dry brand water. Despite the dirt on the bottle, the top was sealed. I happily paid 25 Syrian pounds–about 50 cents, for the 1.5 liter bottle.
I remembered my way back because each stand I passed, each old building, each group of men hanging outside, was memoriable.
I traced my way back through the maze of winding streets, some so small no cars could pass. A group of girls I passed minutes before ran to me, asked my name and one by one shook my hand, telling me theirs. A veiled woman who looked about my age looked on from a doorway and smiled.
Another man pointed to me–I thought he wanted me to take a picture–he was holding a box, he opened it and a bird popped its head out. His friend made the universal money gesture–sorry I’m not buying your bird guys.
A man cooking meat who I had asked for water waved and smiled kindly, asking where I was from. He handed me a purple drink over the counter.
Tired of refusing things and not wanting to be rude, I took it and sipped. It was delicious fresh mulberry.
We talked for a few minutes as he cooked customers meet on demand.
He said he loved America, asked where I was from and of course mentioned Obama. (They really believe in him hear guys–let’s not disappoint!)
I thanked him for the drink he wanted no payment for and wandered back to the hotel.
Later I wondered to the souk (market).
I ate the best ice cream of my life and asked for directions.
Five minutes later, down the road, the same man checked up on me–shoes this way, clothes that, he told me.
A few minutes later I ducked in a bookstore because a young tourist police, also eating ice cream, who offered to “be my brother” was tailing me a little too obviously.
I would have been concerned, but since it’s Syria, I was just amused.
Successfully in the souk, vendors of Aleppo were not like any others I’ve encountered here or Egypt.
The prices they offered were so low I didn’t haggle. The people were relaxed, talked and smiled.
Most I talked to were Armenian–many fled here in 1915 during the genocide in Serbia.
Back at the hotel, another student said it was because it’s because in Syria it’s illegal for the vendors to solicit tourists.
And, I found my way back easily by running into Nick grabbing falafel–he knew just how to return to the hotel. Which was right around the corner. I walked in a huge loop.
“Not all those who wander are lost.” -J. R. R. Tolkien