Day 39: Last Day (With Asides About Food)

July 13, 2008

I’m writing now from my sleepy hometown outside Antwerp, Belgium, but since I accounted for every other day in Egypt, I might as well document the last one.

I woke up early in my hostel on Midan Talat Harb (I can’t remember the name, but it was a very nice place, cheap and clean with two-pound Nescafes and a flexible check-out policy) and made sure all my junk was in order and ready to be packed up. I hadn’t really been able to sleep the night before, so as of dawn I was hanging out in the hostel’s breakfast room, futzing on my laptop on their open terrace and watching dowtown Cairo slowly wake up. One of my favorite city sites in Cairo was watching all the men line up around the breakfast vendors that park themselves every hundred feet or so along any major square or road. Their fare usually consists of hard boiled eggs, tamiyas, bread, a big tureen of dark anais-flavored water, another of coffee and maybe a pot of fuul. They all eat standing around the vendor, catching up and relaxing for a moment before heading off to whatever the rest of their days consist of. Since my breakfasts have always been included in the hostels and hotels I’ve been bouncing around in, I’ve rarely gone to join the breakfast lines, but I did love watching the morning ritual.

I realize that, in general, my musings here must have been a bit of a disappointment to my “foody” friends and family. Cairo boasts a wealth of gourmet restaurants, specializing in only the finest Middle Eastern cuisine. But guess what? I didn’t try any of them! Hah! Not a one! I’m sorry Mother, Sister, all of you who like nothing better than an immaculately cooked cut of meat paired with an inventive sauce, I’m so sorry. I know, I kept meaning to make this pilgrimage for you to one of Cairo’s much-touted establishments (and to take at least one picture of a glistening mezze platter, or tajine, or meat grill, or SOMETHING) but when it came down to it, the sacrifice of time and cash just never seemed worth it to me – better to toddle off and spend the hours and moolah to enter one more historic sight, take a belly dance class, or sip beers or mango juice while prying conversation out of my cafe-mates. I can probably count on one hand the total number of sit-down restos I dined at while in Egypt, and they were all out of necessity, not taste or promise of fine dining.  

No, instead, I became a connaisseur of the street food, as I’ve noted – always my first choice as a solo-diner.  Koshari is hands-down one of my favorite dishes of all time. It’s glorious. Once again, it consists of three kinds of pasta (spaghetti, elbow macaroni, thin fried Asian noodles), rice, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, tomato sauce, garlicky vinegar and (if you can handle it – I can’t) hot pepper sauce. All served up in a single tupperware bowl to be eaten with a spoon, two Egyptian pounds for a “small,” five for a “large.” This was my dinner roughly five nights out of seven in Cairo, and I didn’t even get close to sick of it. Now that I’m back, I’m busy comparing online recipes for the garlicky vinegar sauce, and once I find the best one, will make the dish for myself. With the addition of some spinach or chopped-up broccoli or asparagus, I think I could live off of koshari for the rest of my days. Happily. And probably live to be a 100.

Ah, let’s get another glamor shot of my daily bread, shall we?

Another favorite was tamiya – the perfect snack to eat while walking down the street, either plain or in a sandwich. Tamiyas are basically Egyptian falafel, made with flat beans instead of chickpeas, breaded, seasoned, fried, and available at any time of day or night in Cairo for a few pounds for two.

Fuul was my most common lunch-time meal – just a basic flat bean soup with some salt and plenty of bread. It’s not an attractive dish, but it’ll keep you raring to go throughout the day:

And I also enjoyed my fair share of shwarmas (aka “gyros” or “durum”).

 As far as the fresh fruits and vegetables this street-diet afforded me, I must admit they were few and far between – my hotel breakfasts usually came with a large tray of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, and that was the bulk of it for the day. Every day I gulped down at least one fresh-squeezed guava, mango or orange juice, usually with a little carrot thrown in for good measure, from one from one of the many stands pumping them out. Here’s the one nearest the Pharaoh Egypt Hotel in Mohandeseen:

 

My shwarmas often came with a little baggie of pickled carrots, so I ate those too, though I’m not sure how much nutritional value they could possibly have contained.

The best part about Cairo’s smorgasbord of street-food – aside from its ubiquity and affordability – is that it was always available. Always. I’m a bit of a night-owl myself – okay, that’s an understatement, when left to my own devices I become almost completely nocturnal. So it was pure heaven to be able to stay up late writing and reading and wandering around Cairo until four a.m. with the secure knowledge that a cheap and tasty meal was always available whenever I should desire it. Really, this insomniac setup was made for someone like me, and I can’t tell you how fast at home I felt after realizing that Cairo’s eateries basically never close. So far, this has been one of the biggest adjustments of being back in Belgium – actually having to deal with an established schedule for eating, knowing that if I don’t find dinner by 9 p.m. at the latest in this quiet suburb, I’ll just have to go without (to say nothing about everything being closed on Sunday here – ah, what pain! The thought of any eating establishment in Cairo – at least the ones I frequented – closing for an hour, let alone an entire day is unfathomable!).

Anyway, as I watched the early-morning vendors roll everything out, I felt the first of many pangs of sadness for what I would soon be leaving, for having to reenter a land where anyone who’s hungry at 6 a.m. had better have food in his kitchen. Bah!

I loitered on the terrace for awhile and then – a little groggy – went out for my last Cairene nap, in a tiny mosque whose name I never caught in one of the winding streets between Midan Talat Harb and Midan Tehrir.

I headed back to the hostel in the afternoon, showered and – after making sure with the very sweet hostel men that it was okay to leave my bags and junk in their lobby before leaving for the airport at 1 a.m. – headed to the metro. Ah, my last metro ride – uneventful, as they usually were, since – once again – Cairo’s women-only metro cars are perhaps the most relaxed spots I’ve found in the city. I got vaguely misty-eyed – some of my best times in Cairo were on the metro. 

I got off in Zamalek and met up with an expat friend (the Madame of the couple who hosted that ill-fated soiree that ended with my drunken rant about “that bitchy German”) at a bookstore there, and she took me around to some of the area’s more intriguing fair-trade craft stores. Zamalek is the closest Cairo comes to an “expat quarter” – it’s where all the Americans and Europeans I’ve met live and where most of the embassies are located, along with some pretty funky war-era “sporting clubs” for the foreigners to gather and eat bacon and drink hard liquor. Anyway, the area is verdant and affluent and beautiful, and I mostly ignored it during my time in Egypt, figuring I should do my best to keep things “authentic.” But on this last day I realized that was a mistake, as I discovered that Zamalek has just as much “character” and “color” and winding little streets and historical buildings and improbable shops and eateries as the rest of the city. The fact that there also exist here stop lights and trash cans certainly shouldn’t be a mark against the place!

We oohed and aahed over handmade pottery and embroidered cushions and finely-woven silk scarves for awhile, then headed on to a bakery that my friend recommended as having the best baklava in the city. I’d managed to avoid baklava my entire time in Egypt – not on purpose, just because it wasn’t on offer at any of the street stands I haunted. For my sweets, I stuck mostly to the carts selling endless varieties of semolina cake throughout the city, the best of which were in Islamic Cairo.

But I more than made up for this abstinence on my last day, after visiting the incomparable Mandarine Koueider – these people were serious about their baklava, and took obvious pride in their reputation. I found a picture of it online, though it doesn’t do justice to how enticing the place was, with its famed shelves of sticky delicacies and dapper, starched attendants waiting to pile the goodies high into paper boxes.

My friend and I picked up half a kilo (I KNOW!) of assorted baklava and, after a quick stop at the nearby “Drinkies” (the chain stores that are your best bet for beer and wine in Cairo) for some Stellas, headed back to her apartment and proceeded to get drunk with her boyfriend, who had just gotten home from his journo job.

I must have eaten 40 pieces of baklava – really, it felt that way, one for every day I’d missed. I was soon full with honey and pistachio and buttery crust, but I couldn’t stop until I’d tasted every single one… mmm.

My hosts had some other friends stop by, and I must report that one of them was That German Woman who was the source of my rage a few weeks ago. I’m happy to tell you that this meeting was much more enjoyable – I’m not sure if she was more relaxed or if I was, or both, but either way she turned out to be pretty fun. We all laughed and told funny Cairo stories and had a delightful evening, and even managed to touch on politics once or twice without any acrimony.

Finally, thoroughly soused, I bade my farewells and headed back to my hostel, where I think I masked my inebration enough to seem semi-respectable as I gathered my things and headed for the door. At the last minute, the hostel manager ran after me, saying he thought I’d agreed to take the hostel’s “private car” to the airport. I told him I’d never heard of such a thing and was planning to just get a cab on the street. He told me that the hostel’s service only cost 50 pounds. I told him that my guidebook advised paying a taxi 35 pounds. He told me he’d drop the hostel’s car price down to 40 pounds, and we had a deal.

However, I think the “private car” chauffeur (some poor exhausted-looking dude in a beaten-up station wagon) must have been a bit miffed at my bargaining (I can only assume that the driver swallowed the 10 pound difference and that the hostel got to keep their commission), because when we got to the airport he insisted that cars weren’t allowed into the terminal I needed and that I’d have to take a bus. I knew he was lying – I could see cars heading to my terminal – but he refused to take me any further and besides, at that point I was feeling a little guilty knowing that the hostel had screwed him. So I tipped him, heaved my bags out and took the free bus to the terminal with no problem.

And that was that. No problems getting out, no questions about my visa, nothing. I was almost disappointed. My flight took off at 4 a.m. as scheduled, and in the few hours it took us to get to Milan, Italy, my adventure in Egypt was over.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to see what I can do about getting myself back there. Insha’allah, Cairo hasn’t gotten rid of me that easily.

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Day 38: Concluding Thoughts (Pt. 3): About This Hijab Business

July 13, 2008

Ed note: Sorry for the long delay. I wrote this on my last night in Cairo, right before the plane took off. Then I got back to Belgium and basically slept for four days (more than I slept for 40 nights in Cairo… ah, I miss it). Finally, I edited this before publishing (you’re welcome, believe me), and we’re back to the races – I’m planning one or two more “post-mortem” posts still.

Trying to demystify Egyptian womens’ use of head coverings has been a constant, sort of background project while I’ve been here. Whenever I’ve had the chance to speak at length with an Egyptian Muslim woman, I’ve pried as much as possible into her decision to wear it or not. The subject doesn’t seem to be a particularly delicate one – indeed, most ladies I’ve spoken with have been eager to explain their choice and how they view the practice in their lives and in their faith.

But as common as it is in Egypt – I’d guess roughly 80-90% of the women I’ve seen here wear it in some form – and as open as they are about it, I still don’t have a firm grasp on What It Means To Muslim Egyptian Women In General, or what it means precisely to the rest of Egyptian society.

Rather, it seems that there are as many reasons for wearing the hijab as there are women who do.

Covered women are definitely on the rise in Egypt. This was apparent as soon as I landed, though I’d never been to Egypt before – my sister travelled to Cairo in the late 1990s and had told me not to worry about bringing a scarf to wrap myself in, as “none of the younger women wear them, it’s totally Western – you’ll look stupid.” But no, times have clearly changed since Janie’s last visit – Egyptian hijab-wearing has been on a steady incline in recent years, along with general religious sentiment in what is seen as a response to the country’s deteriorating political and economic situation.

A group of middle-class teenage girls I approached on the Cairo subway once, looking like Christmas ornaments with their heads all knotted up in various bright, eye-catching embroidered scarves, said they’d been wearing theirs since puberty, around when all their friends started wrapping up. None considered themselves particularly devout (few prayed five times daily, some had boyfriends) though they were all Muslim. Their hijabs – paired with fetching skirts and dresses over pants, the occasional pair of tight jeans and long-sleeved, high-necked shirts for all – appeared largely an unexamined social-fashion choice, a matter of doing what all their girlfriends were doing. Pious symbolism aside, these lasses – while remaining wholly within the bounds of common Cairene etiquette – were not going out of their way to make themselves look plain.

Indeed, I saw some seriously sexy hijabs while in Cairo (I meant to spend an afternoon photographing these in my last days there, but sadly, Broken Camera made this impossible). There appeared no end to the different ways Egyptian women tied their scarves – some in tight circles around their heads, knotted at the neck like Rana:

Some pinned theirs traditionally (with real pins – ack!) like my friend on the felucca here, looking like what my McHijab is meant to simulate:

Some boasted a bouffant bulge in the back, hinting at some elaborate hairstyle for the voluminous locks that lay underneath, as in this internet image:

My personal favorite, as displayed by many of Cairo’s younger set (the girls on the subway all used this style), was when they’d wrap their heads loosely in several gauzy scarves, so the effect was a sort of fluffy, floating halo of fabric around the face, like on the model below – very fetching, made all the ladies wearing it look like pretty little snowflakes:

[multi-wrap+hijab.jpg]

I saw very few women who let any hair hang out the fronts of their hijabs, as is more common in other parts of the Muslim world:

Hah! Once on the subway, I was approached by a very concerned young woman, who wanted to point out to me that part of my braid was sticking out the back of my hijab. I tucked it away and thanked her, and she nodded, glad to have saved me the shame of having let some hair escape its thin blue lid.

One of the first women I spoke to was middle-aged, and told me that she had gone half her life without wearing the hijab. She told me this was because in her 20s and 30s she worked in a foreign company, with Westerners, so that – even though she had always wanted to cover up – she thought it would make her coworkers uncomfortable. Now that she works in the Cairo stock exchange, where all the women wear the hijab, she can wear it constantly without feeling strange.

Then there is the lovely Rana – the Lebanese divorcee (in her forties, I finally discovered, though she could easily pass for 25 with her hair loose, 30 tops in her hijab) who lives alone in Cairo. Rana has been covering her head for the last eight years – when I asked her outright about this decision, I got the unsatisfying answer that “I don’t know, just I came to start thinking it’s just better.” But as Rana became a close friend over my time in Egypt, I slowly started to understand more of why it seems “just better.” For one thing, living alone in a Mohandeseen apartment (a decent neighborhood, neither very affluent nor very poor, fairly traditional and not swarming with foreigners), Rana says her neighbors already assume she’s some kind of loose woman, and treat her with suspicion and disdain. On top of this, she must deal with Egyptians’ stereotypes about Lebanese people (she says she is instantly recognizable in Cairo as a foreigner, thanks to her complexion and her accent) – namely, that they are all extremely wealthy, and that the women are temptresses. With all this, the hijab is an instantaneous way that Rana can try to signal that, though alone and foreign, she is Not That Kind of Girl. In general, the head covering is heavy with this Nice Girl symbolism, and seems just as important for how it makes Rana feel as how it makes other people feel about her. A week ago, she was very upset, having briefly gone back to the scoundrel boyfriend that she had broken up with only a few days earlier. I received a distraught text-message, threatening that “I think I will just take off hijab, I feel so bad.” We met for juice later that evening – she was a little calmed down, and still wearing her head covering. I asked her what removing her hijab had to do with being angry at herself. She told me that after she’d succumbed to loneliness and had met up with her scuzzy ex-boyfriend, she felt “so dirty and bad that I should just be very bad and not wear hijab.” Basically, since she’d already disrespected herself and done something she felt guilty for (I’m telling you, this guy is a shmu-uck), she might as well go for broke and abandon her outward marker of respectability. I talked her down and told her she’s still a good person and not to dwell on the past and to love herself and blah blah blah, and that and the shisha and mango juice cheered her up. She’s still wearing her hijab, which I’m glad about because for Rana, the black and grey fabric seem to represent her very esteem for herself.

But while wearing the hijab might make life a little smoother for Rana on the streets and with her neighbors, it’s not without its sacrifices. She’s desperate to find work that will sustain her better than her part-time secretarial duties. I suggested that, with her excellent English and refined manners, she should see about working for one of Cairo’s luxury hotels or business centers. But she told me she’d already looked into this and that establishments catering to foreigners in Cairo are loathe to employ Egyptian women in hijab, as – again – they feel it will make the clientele uncomfortable. That was a pretty frustrating conversation – to consider Rana’s choice of either being ostracized from the Egyptian society she lives in, or being excluded from the expat community which she seems otherwise well-poised to enjoy and profit from.

As you may know, I myself went and purchased an easy-on, easy-off head covering – my “McHijab”– and wore it frequently in Egypt. Sometimes it was because I knew I’d be going into a mosque, sometimes because I was in a more traditional part of Cairo and wanted to assimilate as much as possible, sometimes when I was walking alone at night in seedier areas and wanted to give off every impression of piety, and sometimes just because it was fun.  Obviously my wearing it had nothing to do with religion, or any speculation on how one god or another would prefer to have me cover my body. I’ll tell you this much for free, though – “hijab” or “no hijab” has no effect on how much male harassment I encounter on Cairo’s streets. Really, hair-or-no-hair-visible is a total crapshoot as far as the boys are concerned (though I’m certain that if I went around in short sleeves and skirts, I would notice a difference). They stare, hiss, sometimes murmur or call loving or lascivious odes in English or Arabic, and every now and then follow me down the street, regardless of whether or not I’m folded into my light-blue wrapper. If anything, wearing the thing makes me more attractive to Egyptian men, because – as the sandwich-counter-girl at my Arabic school advised me – it makes me seem like more plausible “marriage-material.”  My one consolation to discovering that there is no escape, no matter how hot and uncomfortable I make myself, is that Egyptian women – both covered and non – experience the exact same thing. Somehow it it’s comforting to know that this undignified treatment, which no woman in the world enjoys as far as I know, extends to all ladies young enough to hold a mouthful of their own teeth in Cairo, and not just Western girls.

No, the main social benefit I found to wearing my hijab was rather in how it made the women treat me. I can’t say enough good things about Cairene women – they were all courteous, generous and helpful to me no matter where I was or what I was wearing. But even so I found them to be still warmer and more welcoming when I was wearing the head covering. If I was wearing it on the subway, women would invariably sit near me and strike up conversations, ask to borrow a tissue, inquire about how I was enjoying Egypt, etc. On the street, they seemed much more inclined to stop and help me with directions or other information, and would often insist on walking me to my destination if it was after dark and they were headed in the same direction. Most of the time, if we spoke at any sort of length, I admitted that I wasn’t Muslim, but that didn’t lessen their friendliness at all – they were quick to accept that I was wearing the hijab for the simple reason that everyone else was, and they took this both as a logical move for a Western girl in Cairo and as a decorous show of respect. In short, the hijab was the quickest and best way to locate and activate the Global Sisterhood’s Cairo branch. For that reason alone, it was invaluable.

My Arabic teacher (and Top Quality Lady, whose blog is a must-read for anyone curious about the prescient insights of a scholarly young Muslim Egyptian woman) is the only gal I spoke with who has recently removed her hijab. The decision, she said, was based not on any inconvenience or oppression she felt wearing the thing – indeed, she’s adamant that it was always her choice to do so, and that it never bothered her in the least – but rather on her own studies and her contention that bare-headedness doesn’t make her any less of a Believer. Ironically, she told me that she has actually experienced less harassment in the streets since going about uncovered. She hypothesized that this is because her hair – a luxurious nest of tightly-wound corkscrew curls, the kind we white girls covet – is mundane to most Egyptian men, no different from the unstraightened hair of all their mothers and sisters and aunties (check out her Friday post for a humorous account of her mother trying to convince her to get her hair straightened, which I guess is deemed the only polite way to wear unwrapped hair). While she says her family have been wholly supportive of her move to unpeel her scarves, she has nonetheless raised a lot of eyebrows, both in the neighborhood she grew up in and at work.  She seems to frequently have to defend her decision, particularly to other Muslim women.

One male English journalist here told me he thinks hijab-wearing is a cost-cutting move and nothing more for most working-class Egyptian women, who can’t afford to get their hair straightened every week and would be loathe to go out in public with a headful of kinky coils.

The Quran itself is vague at best on the matter – it seems that nowhere in the book are Muslim women explicitly ordered to cover their heads or faces. The main Koranic justification for the hijab lies – I believe – in Sura 33:53, which states, among other things, “O you who believe, do not enter the prophet’s homes unless you are given permission… If you have to ask his wives for something, ask them from behind a barrier. This is purer for your hearts and their hearts.”

Some take this to mean that all faithful and honorable women should speak to men – or even to non-Muslim women – from behind such a “barrier.” But some argue that the coverings were only to protect the prophet’s wives from insult.

General modesty, however, is urged in the Quran, as it is in the Bible (which, incidentally, explicitly calls on women to cover their heads). Sura 33:59 says “O prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the wives of the believers that they shall lengthen their garments. Thus, they will be recognized (as righteous women) and avoid being insulted.”

It hardly seems that Muslim women have been given an indisputable mandate from God to keep their heads covered. These guys obviously disagree.

My only quibble with the Quranic (and Biblical) reasoning that women should cover up to prevent “insult” and “dishonor” from men who supposedly can’t control themselves – aside from the fact that it doesn’t bloody work – is that this seems a clear case of treating the symptoms of a malady while spreading the disease. If the problem is that men are walking ids and can’t accept that uncovered women aren’t some great passing smorgasbord of sexual delights, theirs and everyone’s to sample and comment on like so many cheeses at a buffet, then it seems obvious that this attitude will only be cemented by having women swaddled from head to toe. In other words, the harder women try to escape this childish entitlement men feel towards their bodies by keeping them out of sight, the more reason for men to treat every inch of visible skin like an invitation to raid the cookie jar. I’ve often found myself thinking that if all the women in Egypt were to suddenly tear off their veils and go around, hair flowing, in the short sleeves and airy skirts that only seem humane in these sweltering summers, the men would eventually get used to the female form and become relatively unphased by it. But it’s a prisoners’ dilemma – I certainly wasn’t ready to start the revolution while in Egypt, but kept myself well-hidden in long sleeves and baggy pants, with or without my hijab. Though it is negative help in combatting the general objectification of women, covering up is the best shot women in Egypt have for going about their business in peace.

Several of the women I spoke with on the subway – women who’ve been wearing the hijab their whole lives, and others who’ve only donned it in recent years – told me simply that they wear it because they’re Muslim. Point finale. While some stated this with the contention that their religion requires them to dress as such, others treated it as a symbol, rather than a requirement, of their faith – like Christians who wear the crucifix, Copts with their crosses tattooed on their inner wrists or Jews with a Star of David hanging from their necks. It seems logical that as religiosity rises in Egypt, so too would the adoption of one of the few outward signs of the country’s dominant faith.

There’s a lot of ink on how Egyptian shows of faith like the hijab have become more political – both a protest against Western influence and support for Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood. Though I’m sure this is true for some, no covered women I spoke with volunteered these reasons.

So, there. I had hoped to leave Cairo with some coherent thesis about what is at the root of the hijab, but no-go. It is a pledge of allegiance to a god who never ordered it. It is a modest covering and an attractive accessory. It is a shield of respectability aimed at a male population which nonetheless overlooks it while making sexual advances. Like the cellophane over the best breads in the Cairene bakery, it is protection for a valuable commodity. It is a link between those who wear it, and a perceived wall against those who don’t.

And it’s hot as hell in June.

Day 37: Concluding Thoughts (Pt. 2): Egypt Is Coptastic (And I Don’t Mean The Jesus-Lovers…)

July 8, 2008

Ah, the police. I know it’s juvenile, but I can’t leave without a short gripe about these guys. “Emergency rule” being what it is, these cops, like the cats, are absolutely everywhere.

This is a bit of a touchy subject – they’re not crazy about having their pictures taken, that’s for sure. I snapped as many of them as I could back in the Good Old Days when I still had a semi-functioning camera, but I was ordered to delete most of my better shots (consisting of sleeping cops, a cop wandering away from a convenience store with an unpaid-for “Bebsi,” cops picking their noses and scratching their junk, cops ogling some woman in the street just trying to get through her day, cops hurling pebbles at a cat dumb enough to eye their shwarma, cops watching idly as two Egyptian men scuffled in a street fight – you know, cops generally keeping us all safe and secure).

Actually, no, wait, I did get to keep one Sleeping Cop (trust me, they’re everywhere) – he’s serving and protecting in his sweet dreams, I’m sure:

Oh! And here’s one getting some free nuts one night on the Corniche el-Nil – he just reached down and took a handful and kept walking! He totally deserves them though, just imagine what catastrophes would befall Mr. Nut-Vendor-Man were this scowling flic not there to watch over him?

They come in many forms, and I’ve yet to discern exactly what their various uniforms and badges and sashes mean – city police? Presidential guards? Tourist police? Traffic police? The overwhelming majority of them are clad in white (and, all bitching aside, I never cease to be impressed by how crisp and clean they all keep these white uniforms, given the sweat and dust and mire and filth that floats so heavily through Cairo’s atmosphere), though the ones with the grimmest expressions, biggest guns and most intimidating-looking lock-up trucks appear in either navy blue or black:

Actually, the traffic cops are hilarious… with about four stop lights in the whole city, no “road rules” to speak of and everyone with functioning peripheral vision racing around in a car or taxi, Cairene traffic is no joke. As a pedestrian, with neither lights nor crosswalks at your disposal, your only recourse is simply to watch closely, plan your attack, run wildly into the street while literally dodging the cars whipping around you and try to make it to the other side intact. Every now and then, though, a member of the “traffic police” will be stationed in the middle of an intersection, gun on his hip and whistle in his mouth, watching it all go down. That’s it really, just watching. Occasionally, I have seen these cops blow their whistles, at which point the cars do actually stop. But of course this doesn’t seem to happen with any sort of logical regularity – it’s not as if a pack of schoolchildren or an old man shows up on the curb and brrrrrrrrroooooot goes the whistle in automatic response –  no no no no no. Rather, it seems to only happen when the traffic cop in question gets bored, or when there is a pretty lady to impress, or simply when he needs a distraction from watching the big yellow sun make its way across the sky.

Basically, like cops almost everywhere with very little violent crime, they all seem to do the same lot of nothing, and are equipped with a healthy artillery of guns and walkie-talkies to do it.

Aside from making me delete my precious pictures (ah, the humanity!) and giving nothing in return for the cigarette-bribes I’ve witnessed, I haven’t seen them do anything awful –al hamdulillah – no beatings, no rapes, nothing like that. Of course, I haven’t seen them do anything particularly useful, either.

And there are so very many of them – leaning against every street corner, strolling every sidewalk, lounging outside every cafe and hanging on every fence like so many truant teenagers. Now, the fact is that I feel safe walking pretty much anywhere in Cairo, even alone and in the middle of the night. But I don’t think that’s because the cops are so brave and hard-working – rather, I’m pretty sure it’s because Egyptians are so overwhelmingly polite and gentle (though I do appreciate the argument to be made for Egyptians’ docility being due to the heavy police presence). Either way, I can no more imagine getting my person or purse grabbed on the streets here than I can picture all of Midan Tahrir breaking out in the Dreidel Song.

In fact, if anything does make me nervous on the streets, it’s these police. Not because I’m doing anything that should attract their censure, but because – again, not unlike cops in other parts of the world (New Jersey cops spring immediately to mind) – they behave so much worse than the average man on the street. Far more often than other men here – who of course aren’t empowered by firearms and the backing of an autocratic regime – the cops will be the ones to hiss lasciviously, make lewd kissy-noises or utter something throaty in Arabic that I’m glad I can’t understand as I make my way to the metro station. If I’m lost and stop to ask directions, I’ve learned that the police are the last people I want to approach for help. Not only do they rarely seem to know, but before they tell me as such (or, better yet, give me flat-out wrong directions), they’ll really take their time about it (wasting mine) – they’ll look me up and down, lick their lips, scratch at their chins and generally make the whole encounter thoroughly disgusting. This rarely, if ever, happens with Cairo’s civilian men – at least not nearly so blatantly.

I can’t say I understand why Mubarak’s regime feels the need to maintain its stranglehold on Egyptian society – from what I’ve seen, the people here are kind, honest, devout and much quicker to help their fellow man than to harm him. His stated rationale for prolonging the emergency rule is that it’s needed to keep a lid on terrorism in the country. Well. I’m sure there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than I’m aware of, but the idea that these good-for-nothing delinquents parading around the streets, behaving like spoiled bullies with the biggest sticks in the playground, are actually keeping their eyes peeled for suspicious plots is so laughable that it’s almost painful.

If there “must” be uniformed gun-wielders punctuating every street in the country, they could at least behave with some dignity, if not humanity.

Days 36, 37: Concluding Thoughts (Pt. 1): About These Cats

July 7, 2008

I’m back in Cairo safe and sound. The overnight bus ride back from the Sinai Peninsula was completely uneventful, al hamdullilah– the bus didn’t even break down (tsk – what’s a girl to blog about??). The one moment of color came at about 4 a.m. when – as the bus’s TV screen blared some Egyptian soap opera at full volume (just like on the way over), some irate Australian backpacker-girl called out, “Kin’t we turn thees off plays? Eet’s the middle of the nawyt, eet’s tawym fah sleep, demnit!” She was completely ignored.

Back in the glorious “Mother of the Earth,” I crammed in one last wander through Islamic Cairo this morning – it was as frantic and fevered and impossibly old as when I’d left it (no, I guess they don’t pave roads or renovate buildings in the space of a week and a half – thank goodness!). I enjoyed my smorgasbord of street-semolina cakes for breakfast as I perched on the edge of a crumbling Fatimid City wall, and then took a nap in the tiny but cool, curtained-off womens’ section of the Al Sultan El Ashraf Barsbay Mosque (ohh, I’m going to miss these mosque-naps so much…). This time, I managed to wake up before getting recruited to the prayer lines.

I’d hoped to get in some time to hit the Egyptian Museum before my plane leaves (I feel quite guilty that I haven’t seen it yet, it’s supposed to be fantastic) but with several “last-coffee-and-chat” dates scheduled with some of the buddies I’ve made while in Egypt, I suppose it will just have to wait till the next time I’m lucky enough to come to this outstanding city.

Anyway, with Camera dead as ever, I thought I might put together some posts using pictures I took before the pixels went dark, and head them under “Concluding Thoughts.” Given that I promised Rana I wouldn’t be late for our mango-juice-and-shisha rendezvous, I will proceed with the fluffiest of the lot – a roundup of the Cat Situation here in Cairo (and in all of Egypt that I’ve seen, really).

In short, they’re everywhere. But, ev-er-ee-where. Lining the streets,  skulking for food both inside and out of cafes and restaurants, doorways, mosques, dumpsters, and snoozing anywhere they can get some shade.

No matter where you are – how wealthy or shabby the neighborhood, anytime of day or night – they will be there. Gazing at you resentfully, shuffling around in the trash, staring shell-shocked out into the night, holding still for a few moments before dodging the next racing car.

They are the country’s most populous beggars, and its most accomplished thieves. Just today, as I was enjoying a nice Greek salad at an outdoor lunch spot in downtown Cairo where my hostel is located, a rangy calico thing started darting in and around the legs of my table, mewing plaintively. I threw her a healthy chunk of pita, thinking that would keep her busy for awhile. No luck. She scarfed that, and then kept trying to hop up on the table to help herself to more. I kept shooing her away (cats here don’t “shoo” properly – they just come back after a few seconds – they’re not even afraid of moisture! I dumped some cold water on this cat today, thinking that would surely send her flying, but she just sat there and lapped it up from her fur – quel freako…). Then, when I heard some yelling down the road (not uncommon – people don’t seem too shy about public confrontation here), I turned away for less than two seconds and in that time the damn beast was able to leap onto my table, snatch a long sliver of cucumber in her maw and dart off.

There are a lot of cities and countries in the world where cats are just as ubiquitous – my parents tell me the situation was dire in Hydra, at least in the 1970s. But what makes these hordes and hordes of homeless felines so fascinating here in Egypt is that this is the very place where cats were first domesticated. Indeed, the Ancient Egyptians revered and literally worshipped felines, and had built a whole cult around them. They were cared for and even mummified just as the highest nobility were, and those who nurtured them were said to be blessed.

Oh, how times have changed, eh fella?

I haven’t heard of a single Cairene or other Egyptian who actually considers a cat a pet. Rather, they belong to the streets – mangy, dull-eyed, frantic-looking, doing their eating, pooping, loving and fighting all over the city like so many wild bums. Most of them seem undersized, about the height and width of a six-month-old kitten – I suppose that’s normal if you live on trash.

Most of them are fairly neutral towards humans, though even more neurotic than your average Western house cat. They appear basically unconcerned with the human world, aside from seeing what food they can get from you. Some of them are just downright scary, though:

It’s so strange to see cats eating trash like common muts – I mean, I realize that’s their life here, and a stray is a stray is a stray is a stray, but – come on, they’re cats! They’ve just always seemed to me to be too haughty and particular to stoop so low, no matter how overcrowded and undercared-for they are.

All that said, life could be worse for them. They can’t be doing too badly if there are still so many of them! A few weeks ago I did happen upon one kind soul taking pity on a pack of homeless kittens, feeding them breadcrumbs as they padded around his feet:

I can see why no one would want to adopt the diseased, spitting, crack-shake, ferile adult cats that fill Cairo’s streets, but these guys? If I lived here, I wouldn’t be able to resist pulling on a pair of inch-thick hazmat gloves, scooping up one of these helpless little babies, dunking it in a bucket of bleach, hauling it off to the vet to be vaccinated and spayed and then taking it home and naming it Nefertiti or something stupid.

I have no idea just how many stray cats there are in Egypt, or even in Cairo. Suffice it to say there are a lot – A. Lot. Enough for every little Egyptian boy and girl to take home two for free after a walk in the park if he or she wanted to.

So, given that, would someone please tell me what on Earth is the point of (and the demand for) this?

Day 35: Time Is For Amateurs

July 5, 2008

It seems my personal technological meltdown (not to mention “Dahabification”) is officially complete, as today, during my early-morning snorkel session, my “waterproof” Timex clapped out and refused to restart.

So, for those keeping score, that makes: Camera down; laptop down (at least for Dahab-internet-use – otherwise it’s fine); timekeeping device down.

Hah! You can’t catch me, modern technology – I’ll get away one way or the other, I will!

Ffft. And I’ll tell you right now, I’ve failed in my efforts to score a borrowed underwater camera with which to share the wonders of my little snorkeling expeditions.

Here, picture this – but multiply it over and over and over for as far as the goggles can see, going down deep deep into where the ocean goes navy-blue and then black, down to what looks like at least 40 feet from the refracted sunlight I use up near the surface where I float. Also, add a few zebra fish, some flat, electric-blue and neon-yellow swimmers, and one somewhat intimidating, long, thin, gray fellow with a nose like a meat skewer. Oh! And throw in several of those really sketchy black sea-urchin types (Janie, I think these are the “vana” that the surfer crowd in Hawaii would speak of wide-eyed with terror) spiking out from between the coral, with long onyx needles that I’m certain would sting like the dickens should I make the mistake of grazing against them. There, all that, plus this:

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Worth the damn watch, I say.

Actually, timelessness notwithstanding, today’s snorkeling was enhanced by a random act of kindness by the man who rents me my goggles and snorkel every day for a whopping five Egyptian pounds a pop (less than a dollar). Today he took a look at my hacked-up feet and insisted that I also take a free pair of those dorky “reef-walker” shoes that my sister and I would never have been caught dead in on the beach growing up: Hot pink, rubber, tire-treaded slip-ons that are as geeky as geeky can be, but which definitely allowed me to be a lot more intrepid in my reef-explorations today. And gratis, because, according to the kind snorkel-rental man, I have “a nice Egyptian smile.” Well, gosh. Thanks, sir – you too.

Other than that, not much to report. While sipping Stellas last night at the beachside Neptune Cafe with a handful of backpackers and local hotel-workers, I had the great displeasure of watching some poor she-cat get gang-banged by what appeared to be Dahab’s entire male feline population… poor thing – she certainly didn’t seem to want it. Of course, cats being cats, the real displeasure was not so much in the watching as in the hearing… oy oy oy.

Tomorrow night it’s back to Cairo, on the red-eye bus, to arrive early Monday morning. I’ll probably be in the water right up until the bus pulls out of the station, so I’m not sure I’ll make time to post.

As blissful as Dahab is, I have to say I’m excited to get back to the big bad city for these last two days before I fly back to Brussky on Wednesday morning. It’ll mean a return to long sleeves and pants in the 37-degree heat, choking on the fumes of a thousand cigarettes and exhaust pipes all aimed in my direction, getting rammed by crowds on packed sidewalks, feeling my heart jump into my throat as kamikaze taxi-cabs miss me by an inch and going deaf from too many competing car horns, shouting voices and Arabic pop tunes streaming out of shop windows, but… well… I’ve missed it all. Cairo’s a rough lover, but a good one.

Days 33, 34: Activity, Huh? Wellllll…

July 4, 2008

Pardon my silence, but the fact is that there is very little action to report here in Dahab. I’ve officially entered the Super Relaxation Portion of my trip to Egypt, and the last two days have been spent lazing around the ocean, swimming, snorkeling, reading, sipping Stellas while propped against a Bedouin cushion under an umbrella on the beach and gazing out across the Gulf of Aqaba to the mountains of Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t get much better, and I still have two days left before I head back to Cairo late Sunday night.

Actually, the snorkeling has been pretty eventful – one doesn’t have to go out too far here to get a gander at some incredible coral reefs, countless brightly colored fish, eels, sea-snails and all manner of other undersea wonders.

I’ve been harassing random vacationers to take pictures of me in and around Dahab and have given them all my email address so they might send me these photos, but so far none have come through. It would seem a little uncouth to pressure them for automatic transmission, given how blissed-out and carefree everyone is (and given the one stress-point of this glorious little backpacker-beach-town – the extreme pain and annoyance involved in getting oneself online… indeed, I’ve had to befriend a fairly tedious Canadian hippy to use his laptop and pen this post, since my own machine seems totally oblivious to the spotty WiFi present in parts of Dahab. Don’t get me wrong, I’m most grateful to this shiftless Canuck, and have expressed this by sponsoring the Stella he consumes currently. But even as I write, he drones on and on in my ear – he’s not so bad, though his constant use of the non-word “anyhoo” is somewhat grating), so I’ll just have to cross my fingers and wait.

AnyWAY, I’ve seen some tourists swinging around – it boggles the mind – underwater digital cameras (“wow,” right?), so tomorrow I’ll see if I can’t finagle my way into borrowing or renting one of these wonders of modern technology, and if at all possible I’ll post some shots of the teeming undersea population that I’m being treated to.

In the meantime, here’s a generic internet image of the Dahab coast, though it really doesn’t do any justice to just how idyllic this spot is.

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Right! I must run now and get back to my very important agenda of Doing Almost Exactly Nothing – can’t get behind, you know.

Day 32: Scaling Mt. Sinai: Just Like Moses (Minus The Cause And The Following)

July 2, 2008

The microbus for St. Catherine’s Protectorate collected me at 11 p.m. Tuesday night in Dahab. I was the last of our 12-member group to be picked up, so I sat up front next to our driver, a middle-aged Bedouin man named Abou Ali. Everyone else in the minivan promptly fell asleep, but since I very much wanted Abou Ali to stay alert on the two-and-a-half-hour drive through the black emptyness of the Sinai desert, I figured I’d best stay awake myself and keep him company. After some aborted attempts to engage him with the Arabic pleasantries I’d learned in Cairo (Abou Ali, a meditative sort to begin with, quickly fell silent after he realized that my conversation couldn’t go much further than these pleasantries), I decided instead to try and make him laugh. Like almost all the Sinai Bedouins we came across today, Abou Ali wore a solid-colored keffiyeh of soft mauve. So, about 20 minutes into the drive, I reached into my backpack and pulled out the purple scarf I’d brought along for the mountain-top. The windows of the un-air-conditioned microbus were all wide open, so I wrapped the scarf around my braids to protect them from the wind. I then turned to Abou Ali and beamed, “Look, Abou Ali – I’m just like you!”

He looked and said nothing. I don’t think he was terribly impressed  (I really shouldn’t ever try to be funny – I only wind up saying the dumbest things).

We rode on in silence. I read my book with my flashlight, and surreptitiously observed the way Abou Ali dealt with the cops and soldiers at the security checkpoints we passed.

Before we set off, Abou Ali had passed a notepad around the microbus and had us all list our names, nationalities and passport numbers so he wouldn’t have to wake everyone up to procure our papers every time we came to a checkpoint (which, just as on the bus from Luxor earlier that day, was about every half-hour to forty-five minutes). Nonetheless, this wasn’t enough for most of the fuzz who stopped us. Every time, Abou Ali would hand over the list, telling them he had a “cock-tell” of nationalities in his vehicle. Almost invariably, Mubarak’s bacon would then shake their heads and make like they needed to see all of our passports on top of the list. At this point Abou Ali would reach into the folds of his white robe, extract his pack of Cleopatra Golden King “American Blend” cigarettes and offer one up to the heat leaning through his window. Without fail, they accepted. Most of the time, this was all it took for them to let us go on our way. A few times though, the popo would just take the cigarettes and insist that Abou Ali procure our passports anyway.

Either way, I watched the poor guy go through about a quarter pack of his own cigarettes just to get through one drive. I doubt the added expense is covered by the drivers’ salary he gets from the tour company.

So, when we stopped for gas near the end of the drive, I hopped out and fetched a fresh pack of Cleopatra Golden Kings at the desert convenience store and handed them to him. I told him these were for the “dhobbit (police) baksheesh” fund. For the rest of the ride Abou Ali was very smiley with me, and we chattered away as best we could in pidgin-English-Arabic. Of course he also insisted I smoke one of the damn things, and let me tell you they were utterly foul.

When we reached the parking lot of the protectorate at about 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, Abou Ali hopped out and went to go find our appointed guide for the hike. I took this opportunity to tell my freshly-awakened hiking companions about my camera predicament (for non-regular readers: my camera broke a few days ago, woe has been me since) and implore their assistance. The first to volunteer to take pictures of me on the mountain and send me their shots were a pair of American fourth-grade school teachers (travelling in Egypt as part of some summer fellowship to “tour the Arab world to better explain contemporary issues of conflict and peace” to nine-year-olds) and a Mexican backpacker by the name of Jorge. So naturally, I decided these would be my Buddies for the next several hours and stuck mostly with them (note: as of press time, the teachers have yet to send me their pictures, so all the shots in this post are thanks to El Senor Muy Simpatico Jorge).

Soon Abou Ali returned, and passed us off to our mountain guide, Muhammad. Here he is, later on in the daylight – for some reason Jorge’s pictures make his keffiyeh look sky-blue, but it was really a soft mauve color, just like Abou Ali’s and everyone else’s in St. Catherine’s:

Muhammad, small, wiry and seeming to bristle with a sort of electric hyperactivity, gave us all a cursory glance, a nod and, with a few brisk “Yella!”‘s (“Come on!”), began to trot up the 7,500-foot mountain in nothing more substantial than his worn leather ship-ship (flip-flops). It quickly became apparent that Muhammad spoke barely a word of English. Occasionally, when members of our group would fall behind or someone wanted to ask him a question or he wanted to tell us to watch out for something, things got a little hairy. It turned out that I spoke the best Arabic of anyone in our group (which, I must underline, is saying painfully little), so Muhammad fast began to rely on me as his “translator” – HAH! Thinking back on this absurd circumstance, it’s a wonder we made it up there and back alive…

Anyway, thanks to this development, Muhammad was quite chuffed with me. At one point on the way up, he took my hand as if to hold it, but I quickly took it back, pointed to the wedding ring my mother equipped me with before leaving for Egypt and muttered briefly about my “gozzi” (husband) back in Dahab who would rather scuba dive than hike (he’s quite the lovable cad, this recurrent imaginary husband of mine). That settled matters just fine, and Muhammad and I proceeded to form a most convivial platonic bond:

The hike up took about three hours and was a bit grueling at times, though by no means an activity that should be restricted to the super-athletic (I’m certainly not) – indeed, I’d strongly recommend it to anyone with well-functioning knees and a taste for the trudge. One of the most challenging aspects of the slog was the fact that we ascended in the dead of night, which (even with the flashflights we’d all been instructed to bring along – Muhammad relied solely on the glow from his mobile phone, and only needed to yank that out during the trickiest bits) meant that finding and keeping our footing on the jagged red granite of Mt. Sinai was a real trial. The first two hours of the hike kept us on a steep, winding path, somewhat groomed in parts and little more than a line of uneven rocks in others. The last hour took us up a set of roughly-hewn, totally non-uniform steps, and this was without a doubt the most difficult chunk of our climb. Exerting though the going was, we soon got high enough for the air to grow chilly, and I was very happy with the extra shirts and hoodie I’d brought along. What extra clothing I didn’t need was quickly passed around to my hiking mates, who all seemed to need an extra scarf or long-sleeved undershirt by the second half of our journey.

Really my biggest test throughout the night proved to be one of the fourth-grade schoolteachers, Katie. A very sweet, spunky woman, the poor thing was making the pilgrimage having had foot surgery only six months earlier. She still walks on normal terrain with a slight limp and a cane, so it’s obvious that getting up Mt. Sinai while keeping pace with Muhammad and the rest of us was not really within her powers. Of course – relishing the climb and fancying myself a bit of a goat-girl to begin with – I wanted to be trotting up near the front of the group. But because I also wanted to ensure Katie’s good favor and, hence, her pictures, I made a point of spending much of the walk near the back making sure she didn’t fall too far behind and get lost.

Matching her slugging pace wouldn’t have been so bad had it not been for the merciless treatment she received from the Bedouin camel-herders who keep vigil along the trail, renting their beasts to exhausted trekkers who can’t take any more of the Mount’s punishment. Needless to say, Katie would have made things a lot easier on herself and on poor Muhammad – quite flustered by the way she kept falling off in the shadows behind some cliff as the group churned ahead – if she had just swallowed her pride and hired a camel. But she was determined to make it up on her own steam. And, you know, more power to her – it was a pain in the neck for everyone, but one has to admire her spirit. Naturally though, the camel-herders could smell Katie from a mile away, and immediately zeroed in on her as a prime target for their service. So not only did she receive the brunt of the “Camel, Miss? I give you good camel – I give you Egyptian price – this very good camel!” but they actually began to follow her up the mountain, like vultures waiting for her to collapse on her bum foot. On and on, they haunted her, always only a step behind, reminding her, “Still four kilometers to go, Miss, you look very tired – take this camel, good camel, you feel better, you don’t make it otherwise.” I was not only mortified for her, but also – as one of her self-appointed babysitters (again, due largely to my selfish motivation of acquiring pictures for the ol’ blog) – was myself feeling quite suffocated by them. Thankfully, by the time we reached the step-portion of the hike, where the camels could not tread, they finally fell off and Katie was able to hobble the rest of the way in peace.

Whenever things seemed too exhausting or spirits waned, all we had to do was look up. It was dark enough that even once our eyes adjusted, the mountains around us appeared as little more than great looming shadows. But the sky above was riddled with more stars than I remember ever seeing in my life (I think the closest I’d witnessed before to such a sky would be that over the shores of Hale’iwa on an exceptionally clear night, and I’m not sure if even that is as pockmarked with glittering celestial bodies as the scene I witnessed over the Sinai Mountain Range). It took my breath away again and again.

Along the way, every 500 meters or so, Bedouins had set up little stands where they were selling water, coffee, juice, soft drinks and candy bars at grossly-inflated prices (well duh – it’s not like there’s a Seven-Eleven up there to compete with them). These were tempting, and despite the koshari I’d scarfed before leaving Dahab, I could have murdered a Snickers by about halfway through the hike. In the end though, my penny-pinching won out (instead, I waited till we got to the bottom, where I enjoyed a slightly-less-but-still-grossly-inflated ice-cream sandwich – the breakfast of champions, dontcha know).

We reached the summit at 5 a.m., just in time for the sunrise:

What a view. What a feeling. What a life.

There were about forty others who’d made the pre-dawn trek. It seemed a roughly half-and-half split between non-religious adventure-seekers and devout folk – Christians and Muslims from what I could see – who had come to where (the Story goes) God presented Moses with the Ten Commandments and thus the world’s three largest monotheistic religions were born. Old women in burkas had made the climb, and with their brothers and sisters bowed and prayed to Mecca while still gasping for breath. Christian families from all over the world also immediately knelt to pray upon reaching the top – I even spied a priest who’d huffed up there and was blessing several of his sons and daughters with a bottle of holy water.

It was indeed awe-inspiring, and even this woofty, quasi-“spiritual” agnostic felt moved to utter a brief “Thank you Whoever, Whatever, Wherever.” 

Along with Bedouins renting out blankets to guard against the high winds, and still others selling Sinai quartz and postcards depicting the Mount, a small chapel and a smaller mosque sit atop the summit. These carry no signs or markings other than a cross and a crescent, respectively, so I have no idea how old they are. I looked, but saw no trace of a synagogue (though I deeply regret telling you that I eyed a graffitied swastika on the side of one of the cliffs falling from the summit).

As the light grew stronger, the vastness of the mountain range soon became evident. Only 40 days and nights, Mo’? (He must have been speed-wandering…)

All in all, I was pretty pleased with myself and Things In General. Most of all I felt incredibly lucky.

We started to head down around 7 a.m., when the heat was already strong. Muhammad and I chatted for a bit about my fake husband and his presumably real family, and he showed me pictures of his two sons, Abdullah (4) and Ali (2), on his mobile phone. Very cute.

The clamber back proved even rougher-going for poor Katie than the way up. With no specific goals about making it down Mt. Sinai on her own (getting up there was the only hurdle she’d set for herself), she caved and rented a camel. But after only a few steps on the gangly, snorting creature, she quickly freaked out and begged to be let down again – she said it just felt too precarious and strange, and preferred to suffer on her own two feet. I can’t say I blame her – I must say I find camels oddly frightening – they’re just so strange-looking, as if all their features were thrown together while their creator was on some wild drunken binge. Plus, every time I try to pet one, they make like they’re going to bite me:

That’s not to say that I didn’t feel pretty sorry for these Sinai camels (and pretty much all camels – is there any part of the world where they’re not used exclusively as beasts of great burden?). These guys all moaned loudly in no uncertain protest every time some new tourist was hoisted onto their backs, and they all seemed wholly wretched. It was nice whenever I’d catch one getting to relax and take a snooze:

Once we reached the bottom, around 9 a.m., we went for a tour of St. Catherine’s Monastery, also known as the Monastery of the Burning Bush and the Monastery of the Transfiguration. The oldest continuously-inhabited monastery in the world, the Greek Orthodox St. Catherine’s is thought to date back to the 3rd century and is believed to have been built around the site where God spoke to Moses through a burning bush (indeed, many believe this same bush grows still at the center of the monastery’s grounds, closed to the public). The monastery is fascinating architecturally, as it is surrounded by a fortified wall built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century to guard the sacred grounds. The monastery has a long history of being shielded from harm by the rulers of the day, and among the many relics housed within its walls is a document the monastery claims is signed by the Muslim prophet Muhammad himself, granting the monastery’s inhabitants special protections and freedoms. In return for this, the monastery converted one of its inner chapels to a mosque, which is still used on occasion by local Muslims.

We headed back to Abou Ali’s microbus at 10 a.m. and were back in Dahab by 12:30 p.m. Wednesday – this time, figuring Abou Ali had gotten some sleep, nothing could stop me from snoozing the whole way.

The day was everything I’d hoped and more, and once again I must thank the good Jorge for his fine pictures – have fun in Jordan, amigo, and for heaven’s sakes stop playing “catch” with your beautiful cameras.

 

Days 30, 31: Getting To Dahab (Or “Aren’t We Still In The Same Country?”)

July 1, 2008

I made it to Dahab!

Weren’t no easy going, though.

I left Luxor at about 5 p.m. on Monday on a large East Delta Travel bus. Boarding with a few Australian backpackers, one couple hailing from Grenoble and a handful of Egyptian families, I managed to snag my own seat and didn’t have to share with anyone – though this was up in the air for a bit: I plonked myself down near the front of the bus at the beginning of the trip, when the vehicle was still about half-empty. As the bus barreled on and made some stops between Luxor and Hurghada, we picked up more passengers and eventually an Egyptian woman and her two small children took the seat next to me – no problem there (though later on, halfway through the ride I observed one of these otherwise charming ayyileen barfing all over the place, so in retrospect I’m very lucky in the way things turned out). At this point, apropos of nothing, the driver – who had already proven himself an excitable sort, having evicted two male passengers on the side of the desert after a short but hysterical screaming match that I understood not one word of – came along and told me to get up and move to another seat. With no explanation, he indicated a still-empty siege nearer the back of the bus. Fearing his wrath, I did as I was told. Before the bus started moving again, though, a sweaty, mustachioed fellow leaned in over me and made like he wanted to sit next to me (I was sitting in the aisle seat, so this would have required my compliance). Well, I didn’t like the looks (or the smell) of him, so – though I wasn’t wearing my hijab – I refused, once more going through my prissy-hissy-fit routine of “Mish with rajool (man) alone! La la la!” Rather than get angry, the driver nodded his head brusquely, as if my refusal was only proper, and propelled me to yet another empty set of seats – surely the last left on the bus – and there I remained for the rest of the ride. So I have no idea what all that was about, but with the luxury of a whole siege to myself, I certainly have nothing to complain about.

The bus ride itself – which Guidebook predicted would last between 14 and 16 hours – in fact took no less than 18 hours. We stopped every three hours or so to refuel and go to the bathroom, and though we mostly rode in the middle of the night, I kept hopping off the bus to look around at these surreal desert truck-stops we kept finding ourselves in – just gas stations, maybe a convenience store with a few insomniac drivers outside smoking shisha, and then – as far as I could tell in the pitch-black – miles and miles of Nothing and Nowhere.

Throughout the ride, the little TV screen mounted in the bus showed a mix of WWF wrestling, Egyptian soap operas and some fantastically bad American movie that seemed to involve zombie Vietnam-era soldiers being used by the U.S. government for various and assorted No Goodery (it was in English with Arabic subtitles, but the sound quality was terrible so – mercifully, I think – I wasn’t able to follow it too closely). Anyway, between that, the stops and the fact that our bus broke down – I kid you not – three separate times (whereupon, each time, we all unloaded our chattel and waited around on the side of the road for another East Delta Travel bus to appear from nowhere and pick us up) I didn’t get much sleep.

Sometime just after sunrise (which was spectacularly gorgeous, as promised full of blazing technicolor light bouncing off the desert sand and saffron cliffs) we hit the Sinai Peninsula. Once we did, and through the rest of our journey, our bus was halted roughly every forty-five minutes at police and military checkpoints, when we were all asked to show our passports and visas again and again. Even given the embattled history of the Sinai Peninsula and recent terrorism here, this seemed excessive – we were still in the same country, after all, and it’s not like they were asking to search our bags for weapons or explosives. But, when the uniformed Egyptian man with the machine gun comes a’callin’, one answers promptly, no?

These maps should help a little to describe my travels over the last few days – again, I started out in Cairo on Friday, took the 12-hour train down to Luxor, the 18-hour bus up to Dahab on Monday night into Tuesday (on the Western coast of the peninsula, just across from the Saudi Arabian coast) and early this coming Monday morning will take the bus – advertised to take about eight hours, which should make it at least 10 – from Dahab back to Cairo:

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Tonight, at 11 p.m., I’ll set off with the tour bus I just booked (don’t worry Mom, I’m not trying to go it alone) to St. Catherine’s Protectorate (should take about two hours from Dahab), from whence I’ll proceed to hike up Mt. Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb and Jebel Musa or “Mountain of Moses”) to hit the peak at sunrise. Here’s a closer look:

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When the tour bus heads back to Dahab late Wednesday morning, we should get a good gander at the Blue Desert, which I’m also pretty excited about.

And now I have about eight hours to kill in Dahab, which – as advertised – is pure heaven. All royal blue ocean, moderately-priced little backpacker hotels and hostels right on the rocky beach (I’ve chosen the Penguin Village Hotel for my stay – the 20-pound-per-night rooms which Guidebook speaks of don’t seem to exist, but 35-pounds-per-night still seems pretty fair considering the ideal location, clean bathrooms and helpful staff), and the most relaxed atmosphere I’ve encountered since landing in Egypt. Though Dahab is almost exclusively a backpacker and tourist town, the locals so far all seem incredibly laid-back about garnering our business – none of this following-travelers-down-the-street garbage that might have driven me mad in Luxor were it not for Bicycle. For the first time in a month, I’m walking down the street in a tank top – and no one is blinking an eye – and tourists and locals alike are enjoying Stellas and cocktails on restaurant patios with not an ounce of shame or stigma.

Right! Time to go snooze on the beach for a bit to rest up for tonight’s adventure. If anyone has a message for one god or another that I might pass on, let me know – I understand Yahweh is wont to frequent the Mount on occasion…

Day 29: Tomb, Tomb-Tomb-Tomb, Toooooomb (A Speed-Post)!

June 29, 2008

I regret to inform you that Camera remains as kaput as kaput can be, so all the pictures in this post – and probably all to follow – are culled from various public websites, and don’t necessarily reflect my personal experiences and point of view. This is a bummer not only because – I feel – it lowers the quality of my humble blog, but also because so far, my pictures have been instrumental in my writing: Every day, I’ve wandered around, snapping pictures quite indiscriminately, and then, upon getting home and perusing them all, have used them to decide just how to tell the day’s story. So among the other hardships that a broken camera brings, I’m afraid it’s also left me fairly disoriented, as far as recounting coherent tales of my travels in Egypt. But, we soldier on!

I should also note that I write today’s post from the most inviting King’s Head Pub in Luxor, while enjoying an ice-cold Stella. The pub’s internet connection is swift and faultless, but a little sign over the computer mandates that online sessions must not exceed 30 minutes per user. As there is already a line of English tourists growing behind me, I have no choice but to respect the rule and so am afraid that this post will be markedly more abrupt than my others (which generally take several hours to pen).

So, snel, snel, snel!

I woke up early this morning, rented my bike for another day from the lovely chaps at the Oasis Hotel, and made my way to the Luxor city ferry boat where I was allowed to take my bike on board to cross the Nile over to Luxor’s West Bank. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to have this bike – as delightful as Luxor is, the tourist hustlers really are a little suffocating, and being able to just zip right by them on this bicycle makes everything a lot more pleasant.

Upon disembarking the ferry and riding towards my first stop, I had to keep pausing just to look around and take in the incredible landscape – all emerald-green hills, lush sugarcane fields, small, winding irrigation canals and clusters of small, colorful houses. I can’t tell you how lucky I felt.

Soon I arrived at the Valley of the Kings, also known as “The Great Necropolis of Millions of Years of Pharaohs” and “The Place of Truth”. This incredible site is guarded by the Colossi of Memnon, the first monument one sees upon stepping onto the West Bank. Massive as they are, Guidebook says these were in fact originally part of Amenhotep III’s memorial temple – now all but destroyed – which once covered an area larger than all of Karnak:

The sprawling Valley of the Kings is home to no less than 63 royal tombs, ranging from 1550 BC to 1069 BC. They’re extremely spread out, and, following Guidebook’s advice, I picked only the three that most intrigued me. Suffice it to say that I could easily have spent this entire month wandering through nowhere but this site, and wouldn’t have gotten bored once.

The first tomb I hit was that of Tuthmosis III (1479-1425 BC), which sits shrouded between two limestone cliffs. I had to leave my bike at the start of a narrow staircase that crosses a steep ravine and walk down to the tomb – a true testament to the lengths the ancient pharaohs went to in their attempts to evade tomb-robbers. Tuthmosis III, sometimes called the “Napoleon of ancient Egypt” for his innovations and military exploits, was one of the first to build his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and set the standard for picking the most improbable, inaccessible but breathtaking sites for burial grounds:

Like most of the tombs here, Tuthmosis III’s mummy and what riches have not been plundered by thieves over the centuries reside in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but the ancient burial ground was a feast for my imagination nonetheless.

Next it was on to the tomb of Ramses II (1279-1213 BC), one of the largest in the valley.  The entrance was closed, since the tomb’s location at a low point in the valley left it vulnerable to flash-floods and pounds of debris there are currently being cleared away, but the decorations on the outside alone were worth the price of admission:

Finally I saw the tomb of Amenhotep II (1427-1400 BC). I can’t find any satisfactory pictures of it online, but let me assure you that it is spectacular. Surely thanks to its being carved deep into the valley (again, I had to leave Bicycle at the steps of a gangway before descending a set of steep stairs), the insides of the tomb are incredibly well-preserved. The ceiling of the massive burial chamber is covered in stars, and its walls feature text from the ancient Egyptian Book of Amduat (meaning literally “That Which Is In The Afterworld,” the book tells the story of Ra the Sun God travelling through the underworld between the time the sun sets and rises – each of the twelve hours in this time was thought to carry different enemies and allies for Ra to encounter. It was believed that the dead pharaohs all made this same journey, so that they might ultimately unify with Ra and become immortal).

Ahh! The English are coming, the English are coming! Yella, yella, yella (come on, hurry)!

Curses.

Next I went to the Tombs of the Nobles, where I saw the tombs of Khonsu, Userhet and Benia. These were breathtaking and fairly deserted of other tourists. All very well-preserved and nothing short of awe-inspiring, my favorite was Khonsu’s tomb, where the inside of the first chamber depicts scenes from the Montu festival which honored the ancient Egyptian God of War.

Okay okay okay, I’m almost finished!

I rode my bike back to the ferry, crossed back over the Nile and enjoyed the beautiful dusk over the Theban hills. I took Guidebook’s advice and, for 20 Egyptian pounds, cooled off in the rooftop pool of the Arabesque Hotel.

I then made my way to the King’s Head Pub for Stellas and Internet-use (rushed though it is – ahem!) and the rest is history.

Tomorrow afternoon, I will embark on the 16-hour bus ride to the Sinai Peninsula’s beach-town of Dahab. I’ll arrive sometime in the late morning on Tuesday, and then, after dumping my bags at whatever hostel I settle on, will – insha’allah– set off on the three-hour bus ride to St. Katherine’s Protectorate in time to make the dawn hike up Mt. Sinai (!!!). I’m not counting on being able to post again until I get back to Dahab on Wednesday afternoon, but am very hopeful (not sure why, it’s just the way I’m wired, I suppose) that I’ll be able to post a few pictures of myself at Mt. Sinai’s summit that I will have wheedled out of fellow travellers.

Excited as I am for all this, I must say I’m quite sad to be leaving Luxor so soon – as I said, I could have dedicated my entire stay in Egypt to exploring this town’s wealth of tangible history, but at least now I know that any future visit to Egypt must set aside at least a week for the wonders of Thebes.

Days 27, 28: Getting To Luxor, Tragedy At The Temple

June 28, 2008

At the last minute I decided to shun the bus and get myself to Luxor from Cairo via train, having read Guidebook a little closer to discover that this would be marginally cheaper. The train – though it got me here all right, alhamdulillah – was, however, not nearly so easy to negotiate as other forms of public transport in and around Cairo (it was also singularly filthy, by the way, and as I write this I’ve half a mind to next go find a place to burn the clothes I was wearing during the journey, so that they don’t infect my hostel room and other belongings with whatever parasites they picked up over the last 24 hours…).

Upon delivering myself to Cairo’s Ramses Station and stating my needs at the first-class ticket office (having already been told that the second-class cars to Luxor leaving that day were full), the man behind the window quoted me a price almost twice as much as Guidebook had predicted. There was a line growing behind me, and – not sure what to do – I simply kept shaking my head furiously and pointing to the page in Guidebook where I was told to expect to pay about 80 Egyptian pounds for the ride, not 150. Finally the crowd behind me had had enough (who can blame them) and, with one great surge forward, thrust me aside. With nowhere else to go, and despite feeling rather a fool, I got back in the line. Thankfully, by the time I reached the front of the line, the attendants had changed shifts and I was now faced with a very sweet lady who agreed with me that 80 was the correct price to pay for the ride. I bought my ticket with no further hassle.

My train wasn’t scheduled to leave for another eight hours. Suitcase and backpack in tow, I decided to amble through the area directly surrounding the train station to see if I couldn’t find a nice cafe or coffeeshop at which to plonk myself for the rest of the day. Well, I’ll tell you right now, if you ever consider doing the same, the area is a complete wasteland. Just lots of highway on-ramps, grim-looking, squalid residential neighborhoods and plenty of old mens’ shisha bars which – despite my surprisingly pleasant experience with one a few days earlier – contained one too many hissing, kissy-noise-making gents to lure me in. I finally hauled myself back to the train station, where I spent a relatively fine afternoon and evening sipping endless Nescafes and reading by the side of the tracks.

Once my train pulled into the station, I boarded to find that the first class cars were arranged in closed-off little cabins of six. My assigned cabin, as I approached it, was empty save for one man. It was immediately evident that this fellow was not at all used to interacting with women he’s not married or otherwise related to, and definitely not one-on-one. Upon seeing me appear in the doorway of his cabin, a wide, mooney grin appeared on his face – he’d struck gold! – and he leaned forward and patted the seat beside him. There was nothing scary or intimidating about him, but I knew I needed nothing so much as a good nights’ sleep and wasn’t going to get it with Ogley McCreepyson there watching my every toss and turn. Clad for my journey in my hijab and keeping in mind the fairly consistent gender-segregation present in the rest of Egyptian society, I therefore felt quite justified in turning to the nearest train attendant, pointing to the man still gazing at me with that delighted, amazed smile, then pointing to myself – a single, ostensibly-pious woman travelling alone late at night – and saying firmly “La (no). Ana wa’inmara, mish with rajool alone – la la la.”

The attendant saw my point pretty quickly, but wasn’t sure what to do about it. Women don’t tend to travel alone all that often through this country, it seems, and definitely not late at night – so, sympathetic though he was, it really wouldn’t have been Standard Operating Procedure for him to go ask some other passenger to move so that I could be in a cabin with at least one other woman.

Feeling fairly desperate but not willing to give in – empowered surely by the hijab circled tightly around my head – I told the attendant that I would wait in the hallway of the train until the whole car was boarded, in the hopes that there might still be one empty seat in a more acceptable car. I’d rather spend the whole ride standing in the corridors, I told him, than to ride the 12 hours to Luxor with That Man (I know it all sounds awfully hysterical, and I’m sure my implacability was compounded by the fact that I was exhausted at that point, but trust me when I say that this dude seemed more than a little lascivious, and the obvious relish with which he was anticipating 12 hours alone in a car with me just made me feel icky all over).

ANYWAY. Thank goodness it didn’t come to that, as shortly after I’d taken my stand, a mother, an aunty and two teenage daughters boarded and entered the cabin in question.

The train attendant gave me a look that said, “Now are you satisfied?”

I nodded primly and said, “Kowaiyes.”

The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful. The man whose presence had gotten me in such a tizzy slept most of the way, though several times in his “sleep,” his right hand would drift over to graze the cloaked thigh of one of the teenage girls sitting next to him. This stopped promptly after his third attempt, when Momma – a heaving slab of a woman – punched him hard in the arm from across the aisle. Gosh I was happy they were there.

I arrived in Luxor late morning, and after exiting the train station was greeted with a swarm of tour operators, touts and hustlers – precisely what I’d feared I’d encounter at the Pyramids but didn’t – that made me briefly consider turning around and boarding the first train back to Cairo. I fought my way through them to the taxi stand though, and was shortly delivered to the Oasis Hotel. True to the description given by Guidebook, the place is extremely cheap, very clean and most friendly (though the advertised Internet connection, sadly, is a no-go).

I hadn’t slept much on the train (one too any Nescafes, I suspect) so when I arrived, after a quick shower in the shared bathroom, I fell onto my rock-hard but surprisingly cozy little bed and slept for two hours. I awoke refreshed and, after renting a bicycle for 10 pounds from the fine folks at the Oasis, ready to explore Luxor.

My ride through Luxor, despite the ever-present tourist-hustlers and the fact that the city has about as many unpaved roads as paved, was very enjoyable. The city – perhaps more recognizable by its ancient name, Thebes – is a wonderful mix of contradictions, with its booming tourist industry but still fairly unspoiled and rugged landscape. Horse-drawn carriages almost outnumber cars on the streets and local living seems, in many ways, not to have been affected by the busloads of visitors carted in daily from Cairo and Alexandria.

On my way to my first stop, the Temples at Karnak, I passed what I can only guess was a funeral procession: roughly 40 men, dressed in long cotton dishdashas, marching down Sharia Salah ad-Din, chanting and carrying a long wooden box draped in turquoise cloth over their heads.

Unfortunately, I got no pictures of this, or anything else. On my way to the temples, I found that my camera had suddenly decided to stop taking pictures – I couldn’t even turn it off. Removing the battery did nothing, and further inspection has revealed that it refuses to upload to my computer, which means that all the clicking I did from the window of the train and in my first few hours in Luxor are probably lost. Obviously, this bodes extremely ill for this blog being anything more than a lot of blather, though I will post some generic Internet images of the sites I’ve visited here, to give you some idea. Needless to say this is all a little heartbreaking, and the thought of not getting a shot of myself at the top of Mt. Sinai in a few days really tears me apart (hopefully I can get another hiker to take a picture of me and email it to my account). I’ve put Camera to sleep in the fan-cooled sanctuary of my room at the Oasis, so with any luck it’ll be revived tomorrow. If not, I’m very sorry – but when Camera quits, Camera quits!

Regardless, please take my word for it that the Temples at Karnak are truly astounding – better yet, see what Touregypt.net’s photo gallery has to show:

Built on a 2 square km site, the sanctuaries, kiosks, pylons and obelisks dedicated to the Theban gods were built over a 1500-year period, starting in 1965 BC, as pharaoh after pharaoh tried to outdo his successor with shrines to the divine. The place is an absolute wonder.

The Temple of Amun – Thebes’ “God of Air,” “Creator” and “Father of the Gods” – dominates the site. According to Guidebook, it is the largest religious structure ever built. The Southern Axis of the temple features the very well-kept Eighth Pylon, built by Queen Hatsheput. Here, there is carved a text which she falsely claimed was Tuthmosis I’s justification of her taking the throne of Egypt. East of this is the “sacred lake,”  where according to Herodotus, the priests of Amun bathed twice daily and nightly. On the northwestern side of this is part of the Fallen Obelisk of Hatsheput, which shows her coronation, and a giant scarab dedicated to sun god Khepri by Amenhotep II.

Here’s an Internet shot of the Temple of Amun, though gosh it’s unsatisfying to not be able to post the images of every site I gawked over, one by one:

From there, I followed more rows of the sphinxes which hold sentry over the entire site:

 I checked out the Mut Temple enclosure, built to honor Amun’s wife, also by Amenhotep III. The entrance to the temple is very well-preserved, though the sanctuary inside is really so much rubble, and even her sphinxes have been decapitated:

The Temple of Khonsu, “God of the Moon” and son of Amun and Mut, was built mostly by Ramses III. It lies north of the main avenue of sphinxes and is very impressive to behold – most awe-inspiring were the eight columns inside, carved with figures of Ramses XI and Herihor – they were clear enough as if completed last week.

From Karnak, I rode my bike back into Luxor proper and visited the Luxor Temple, built mostly by Amenhotep III between 1380 and 1352 BC and Ramses II between 1279 and 1213 BC. Plonked right in the center of town, the temple, also known as the Southern Sanctuary, was constructed mainly for the Opet celebration, when the statues of Amun, Mut and Khonsu were brought together once a year during the second month of the Nile flood. The ceremony was meant to underline the pharaohs’ authority and his close ties with Amun.

Oh dear. It looks like the internet cafe from whence I write is about to close. Those have been the highlights of my last 48 hours, though of course I wish I could sit here and tell more about the countless idiosyncrasies of Luxor that so far have me gripped (because the Egyptian name for “Cairo” is the same as the Egyptian name for “Egypt” – “Misr” for both – it’s easy to think that Cairo is representative of the rest of the country – it’s not, not at all… Indeed it seems so far that Cairo and its mad, hyper-active rush is the exception in Egypt, or at least far from the rule). Tomorrow, though, insha’allah – and, who knows, maybe by then I’ll even be able to shoot and post original pictures again (though frankly I really do think that only divine intervention could sort that out…).