Cairo/Beirut Dispatch القاهرة- بيروت
Cairo Dispatch 8.24.05- More of the Scary Ferry, Movenpick Spa on the Red Sea, Election 1 Week Away!
Left- my friend Charlie Levinson and I sitting in a horse-drawn carriage with Ayman Nour's bodyguards at an opposition protest just before the election. (photo by Nasser Gelby)
, the Red Sea in Egypt has some of the best diving anywhere in the world.)
It boggles the mind, really it does - this life of mine, which seems too crazy to be able to exist for anyone, and about 30% of it is scary and awful, but the other 70% is amazingly good, and you know, that ain’t too bad.
The situation with the boys on the dock got worse. One afternoon, after they followed me and grabbed me en masse, I jumped onto the ferry, when the scariest boy said a few things that made me wish, for the first time here, that I didn’t know as much Arabic as I do. I screamed at the boys that I had a friend who was a high-ranking police captain, blah blah blah, and the boy almost whispered. "Oh, your police captain friend might come once or twice, try to scare us, but I am going to be here every day waiting for you and one day you will be alone and I will get you."
You know, Im no baby, but that was enough for me. I called my landlord Wa'il, an interior ministry official and former police captain, and that very night, he came over with a gaggle of officers and another official from the interior ministry. We discussed, in Fusha- what could be done. The group seemed set that I register a formal complaint requesting a severe sentence but they were street kids, I just wanted them to scare them, tell them not to hang out at the dock, and would it be okay if I did some research to find some vocational training? My explanation in Arabic was significantly less correct than the English here, but the officers understood. Oh, Egypt. Really, one of the most effective interior ministries as these things go, and I do not mean this in a good way either.
And of course, they said, they could not let me go down to the bus station alone after so much drama on the dock. I went do the Red Sea for the weekend. Al Gouna was a beautiful, but very strange place. Even the trash collectors told me "good morning" in English. It barely felt like Egypt and I missed speaking Arabic the whole time I was there.
I was actually quite ill, but could not have picked a much better place to convalesce, and was given a suite just steps from the perfect beach, and every few hours someone would pop by offering bowls of fresh fruit, asking what type of grilled fish I would like for dinner, offering a tour around the resort by its botanist. I sat in my plush white robe on the beach, a glass of fresh pomegranate juice by my side, a copy of Marjane Satrapi's "Embroderies" in my hand, waiting for spa appointments (wha?) and had to wonder, how does life work out like this?
The spa - oh yes, the spa, that's why I had to endure all of this hardship. A Thai girl called Nim did all the spa stuff and then made me tea. I crawled into my bed, skin completely soft, muscles as relaxed as pudding, into the very clean white sheets, the sound of the surf pounding the sand, and could not, for the life of me, fall asleep. It seemed ridiculous, but I longed for the noise and the filth of Cairo. Its in my blood obviously, the need for almost constant noise, the call to prayer, the fights in the street, the snorting of the donkeys, the clang of the man on the bike selling propane, and the distinctly different clang of the man selling cold juice from a metal drum slung over his back.
Back in Cairo, there were more protests. I dread the groping that is a constant feature of, as far as I can tell, most large gatherings where ANY women are present. I and my friend Charlie, from the magazine where I work, walked down to see a march. Ayman Nour’s security detail took us in a horse and carriage where we rode down to the press conference with a bunch of his security men. We arrived at the march. I was wearing a skirt to my ankles and a long-sleeved shirt. We sweated bullets as we stood in the darkening Cairo night, in the middle of a huge throng of humanity. At almost all of the larger government protests in Cairo, women constitute usually less than 1% of the protesters.
My friend Charlie was standing right next to me. This appeared not to matter, since at one turn approximately 15 people grabbed me in the place where girls least like to be grabbed by people they don’t know, at exactly the same time. Such a small percentage of men over here would do this kind of thing, but this percentage seems somehow to always know where I am. In these cases, I've found, the best thing to do is to go find an old woman who everyone appears to know, and stand very close to her and pretend that you are somehow vaguely related.
A bunch of people came over to have drinks on the houseboat last night. We stood on the footbridge, and as we crossed onto land and laughed, under the pressure of this shaking, the bridge halfway collapsed- some of our feet were actually in the water - nothing fell into the Nile except my phone, but I yelled out to Mohammed that the phone had dropped into the Nile, he ran down, dove heroically into the water, dug around the sticky bottom of the river's floor, extracted the muddy appliance from the miasma, and this morning, it actually worked.
Oh it’s so warm here, I’m ready to move to Beirut. But I love this place, I feel so alive, I’m doing something that interests me, my Arabic is still awful, but I’m trying- and that's all any of us can do when we are involved in anything, just wake up and try and try and try.
Until the next Dispatch,
Cairo Dispatch 8.9.05- Drama on the Ferry, Midnight Ride at the Pyramids, Fayoum
The so-called Fayoum portraits, one of which is to the right, date to the first 3 centuries after the death of Christ, are the largest body of ancient portable paintings to ever have survived. They were very lifelike funery masks illustrated with great detail so that the soul could recognize their body. They are portraits of individuals, believe to have been painted during their lifetimes, sometimes framed and displayed in the homes, and later were sawn to fit inside the sarcophagus where they were placed on top of the face within the mummy wrappings to preserve the memory of the deceased. The interesting thing about the Fayoum Portaits is that reflect some of the artistic standards of the ruling Roman empire, but were used by Egyptians for a quinessentially Egyptian practice- mummifcation.
The Sharm el-Sheikh bombing killed, according to hospital figures, 88 people (initial government total estimated 64).
The municipal ferry that I ride has been the site of a lot of drama as of late. It’s so close to my house, I’m absolutely the only foreigner, I practice my Amaya and I love crossing the Nile by boat every morning. It's crowded, full of people, chickens, baskets of bread, a lot of cigarettes - thus, the best way to ride, in my opinion, is to sit on the front of the boat with the fishermen. The vessel's captain had some reservations about letting me ride outside on the front (seriously, I know how to swim, I told him) But, they let me ride on top now.
I had the first really scary travel experience of my life. And of course, it happened on the ferry too. I went down to catch the ferry as I usually do, and the dock was empty but for half a dozen troublesome teenage boys who began to yell out really inappropriate things to me. I called my boss, who didn’t answer, and just pretended to be having a conversation. Two of the boys came up and pinched me and then ran away. I asked them - "If someone did this to your sister, would that be okay? This is not appropriate, and you know this!" They came back, kept saying really really crude things in Arabic, and looked as if they were going to grab me in earnest. I was saved by the arrival of the ferry - which I jumped on to before it had actually reached the dock. I descended the stairs and took a seat next to the driver, when the scariest of the boys jumped down the stairs, grabbed my arm, leaving several scratches, and seemed intent on pulling me out of the boat. I don’t readily admit this, but I was scared and I screamed, and a huge melee ensued where the old men on the boat fought with the boys. The meanest scariest one had 3 guys sitting on his back. Oh, it gave me bad dreams, and I had many friends offer to beat the crap out of all of the boys, but I went to the ferry the next day, apologized to the driver, and sat there sharpening a steak knife, and told the dock master that the boys were trouble and shouldn’t be allowed to swim off the dock again and I haven’t seen them since. I think I’m now quite infamous in my neighborhood and really I don’t want to be, and jeesh, I wear appropriate clothing every time I walk around Imbaba, and what else am I supposed to do?
Over 105 for the past few days, even humid, I was sitting in my room reading, the pages of my book began to stick together, my chapstick having long ago having melted into an unidentifiable mush. Near midnight, how could humans be expected to bear this for very long? To the pyramids, I thought, for a midnight ride. It was my first time to ride in the darkness, and it would be fine, my friend Ania said - we could steer our course by the light of the moon and the stars! This seemed like a fine and very romantic idea until we actually arrived in the desert and noticed that clouds and drafts of sand had brought the visibility down to a foot or two. Added to this that I was given a huge and quite wily young horse who seemed rather eager to shake me off of him while neighing deafeningly. I didn’t get thrown, but just barely held on using pretty much every muscle I posses, my hands clutching his long black mane, my legs squeezing the horses’ sides for dear life. We trotted through the dark alleys that surround the stables, then past the graveyards and the huge fields of bersim (greens eaten by donkeys and camels), the graceful, arching white-barked willow trees that surround them, then, as we entered the desert, raced through the blackness down mountainous dunes, through valleys and then up inclines of sand, until behind one, the tips of the pyramids came into view, lit up and glowing with the lights of the city far behind them. How I longed to just keep riding far, far into the desert. At the same time, it was rather intense- you couldn’t see a thing, just hear the silence, the howl of the sand blowing around, the plaintive wail of mysterious creatures in the inky darkness. My heart pounded, I felt we would certainly fall off of something, or that the horse would trip on a pile of rocks, but we returned sweaty and uneventfully.
We walked through the back alleys back toward the main road when a family invited us in for tea. The grandfather, parents, children and children's children all sat out on the porch of the quite large house near the sphinx. The wife, an Egyptologist for the national museum, and her daughter, 15, wore sleeveless mid-calf grazing sundresses and bare heads. This is rare to see in Cairo. The family was shocked that Ania and I were not married, and agreed to find husbands for us. We laughed and laughed, but this was a great and clearly very noble family and the patriarch was quite adamant. He said that they would do it in the Egyptian way, and since we didn't have family over here, the wives would manage the selection and he would do the blessing and throw the big party and the rest. We had an interesting discussion about "required traits in a potential mate."
We talked and talked for hours and I felt terrible, but I began to yawn and I couldn’t help it. I was covered in sand and horse-sweat, I smelled not dissimilar to the camels around us, it was near 4am and I am still not used to staying up all night. A young granddaughter asked me, in Amaya, what time I went to bed. What I think is a quite respectable, 2:30am, was met with laughs from the family, who judged that I wasn’t quite as Egyptianized as I thought I was, was I? The grandfather gave me a great compliment, though. About a hundred times a day, people tell me that I speak very, very good Arabic, which is something beyond an exxageration, its desperate highly flawed babbling. The old man looked at me solemnly and barely whispered "Your Arabic is...okay."
A combination of factors, including something which must be a close relative of dysentery, caused me to lose 12 pounds in 10 days, I'm better now but cue the fuul and tamiya, min fadlak.
One of boys I work with at the magazine and I decided to embark on an adventure the next day - perhaps, we thought, we would head to Memphis, ancient capital of Egypt, site of the largest cemetery in the entire world, less than an hour away. After a morning spent in a burning, steaming hot, very dusty bus station with no sign of any busses to Memphis, we just jumped on the first bus we saw - to Fayoum, an oasis several hours away. It was beautiful, to leave the craziness of Cairo, first to be in the desert for hours, drive past a stunning cemetery in the desert that was dozens of miles long, and then to happen upon the oasis, thousands of palm trees, green fields, donkeys, mango trees, no tourists. Not thinking that we were going to wind up at an inland lake, we had not brought bathing suits. We went to a beach club, and I befriended a family who invited us out on a boating trip for the sunset. The water was rough - at some point, we lost an oar momentarily and the young mothers looked at me, quite frightened as the boat listed precariously. "Do you know how to swim?" they asked. "Yes," I replied and they handed me a small baby. I realized their point - not only did they not know how to swim, but their huge black veils could have drowned even the best of swimmers. As is always the case, we got back okay, a little drenched, a little bit scared, but all intact.
On the way back to Cairo, we sat in the back of a small covered truck, two benches on either side of the back, an oil lamp revealing the faces of a dozen women, young and old, who were from Fayoum, and thus quite excited to be able to talk with a foreigner. Henri, the boy who was with me, does not speak much Arabic, so it was fun to practice my Amaya with the women and make up a fun story that Henri would not be able to understand. "No, he is not my husband, he is my brother. He is married to a Mongolian woman," I said. "She is very pretty." "Does he have children," they asked, "And where is his ring?" "He lost his ring in the lake here in Fayoum. Every week, we return here to try to find it. Since he lost the ring, he has become crazy. His wife wants to leave him. He is also impotent, and that is the reason that they can’t have children. My poor, poor brother." I felt pretty bad - the women were genuinely concerned for him. I patted his hand and shook my head with feigned sadness. I didn’t tell Henri what I had said until we got off the bus. He was not amused, but I will be laughing for weeks. Arabic is so much fun.
Until the next Dispatch,
Cairo Dispatch 7.22.05 Lamb Slaughter in My Garden, and I Finally Swim in the Nile
(Yes, the Nile is polluted. No, I am not too scared to swim there.)
The other morning, as I sat in my garden under the palm trees next to the Nile with my tutor Said, discussing classical Arabic grammar and eating ripe plums in the shade, a fluffy white lamb sauntered by. What? A lamb? I yelled out for the boab.
(Digression for the sake of explaining Egyptian culture- There is a boab in almost every building in Cairo. He is almost always a man who lives under your stairs, but my boab, Mohammed has a little shack behind the palm trees in my garden. In a way that seems entirely strange given my American upbringing, Mohammed is practically a full-time servant. He does everything from running to the store for groceries, to standing at the edge of my dock to tie and untie the ropes before and after my daily row. Many of my female friends here agree that Mohammed is the hottest boab in Cairo.
Mohammed said that my landlord Wa'il, a high-ranking interior ministry official, would hold a slaughter two days later in my backyard. Of course I was invited for the barbecue that would follow. The next day just around sunrise as I lay under my mosquito net, I was awoken - for the lamb had come into my room and "baahed" only a few inches from my face. I don’t know if I have ever been awoken in quite such a startling way, but I calmed myself with the knowledge that I was not the first person to be woken up by a lamb, nor would I be the last. Said lamb shat in my doorway and moved on to other lamb things. I told Mohammed that we should call the lamb Naguib (in reality, I first suggested that we give the lamb the time-honored name of Mohammed, which is when I found out that Muslims name people, but not farm animals after the prophet Mohammed (PBUH)), and that we should at least be nice to him while he sat in death row among the jacaranda trees, even if he had crapped on my floor.
I avoided Signore God’s calls all week, but I did go out with him a few days ago. It was just so very warm on the awema
, and how I longed for an interesting talk and air conditioning. I told him about how awful I felt for the lamb who I now felt so much affection for. Did I want to keep him as a pet? Just say the word; he would talk with my landlord.
There is a lot of action on the street these days. Every Thursday near sunset, the Kifaya (Enough!) government opposition movement stages a protest downtown. At Cairo Magazine, we head down to the protest and afterward, dozens of journalists head down for a communal dinner at the Greek Embassy Club. Sometimes, the attendees at dinner will show off fragments of police shields that have been smashed in (relatively minor) clashes with government forces, or on rare occasions, there is a splash of blood on someone's shirt. In the 1990's Mubarak's government came to my neighborhood sending between 14,000 and 15,000 troops when Islamists claimed that the area was now an autonomous region called the "Islamic Republic of Imbaba." The mosques were cleared out, hundreds were arrested and dozens were killed.
Days went by, and Naguib the lamb remained among the bushes. "You don’t want the lamb to die, do you?" Mohammed said and I nodded in assent. I described, in Amaya, how it might be nice to have a lamb in the garden, just to run around and play and leave if he wanted to. That evening near sunset, as I sat on my balcony and read, Mohammed came and beckoned me to the garden, where a tall and ancient man with a gallabiya and turban stood, surrounded by half a dozen baby lambs who galloped around the garden awkwardly. "Which one would you like?" the man asked me. I was embarrassed- I hadn’t meant that I actually wanted a lamb, and I wouldn’t take one anyway, since I was leaving for Beirut in a month (this was one of the times I learned that in this region, I should be careful what I ask for, because people will always take it literally and bring you ANYTHING.) The man wrapped the smallest baby lamb around his neck, and had the group follow him up the stairs where they solemnly filed out. “Oh, but they are beautiful lambs,” I yelled out, feeling awful that the man had led the lambs for over a mile in order to bring them to me.
Naguib was entering his final hours. I brought some hideously expensive French salad greens and with great sadness poured them out on the ground in front of him, but he ignored them and munched on the dirty grass instead. The next day, Naguib was killed and I couldn’t bring myself to eat him. My tutor, Said, was so affected by the plight of Naguib that he said he has stopped eating any meat. When he told me this, I marveled. Said is now an agnostic, vegetarian Egyptian poet, and I joked to him that he might be the only one.
Cairo is around 110F and often more right now and I don’t have air conditioning. It's a character-building exercise, I keep telling myself. The incredible heat often leads me to seriously contemplate jumping off the balcony into the Nile. This morning, suffering from the highest temperatures I’ve seen so far, combined with the effects of a rather late and cocktail-heavy evening prior, I walked into the living room and convinced 2 of my roommates to jump in with me. Bilharzia
be damned. It's hot and I live on a river – how can I NOT swim? We did – it could not have felt any better and as I swam in the strong current, I tried to block out the mental picture of the dead, bloated camels I had seen floating along it’s course. The fish were plentiful and I figured, if a little fish can survive in the Nile, so can the Ria.
I’m riding more now, and I can post almost competently and I was offered a job at a stable, which seemed like a good idea for about 5 minutes. The other day, as my horse ran at full speed near the Sphinx, my friends and I saw the members of the Ahly soccer team – Egypt’s most successful – running up and down the dunes in the unbelievable, unbelievable heat. And I don’t think anywhere, anywhere feels as free as riding through the desert at full speed on a horse, with no sound and no people – it still gives me the chills every time I go! And what else in my life can I say that about?
Until the next Dispatch,
Bilharzia (schistosomiasis) is a parasite that you can contract from swimming in infected bodies of water. Long after you contract the disease, you can succumb to liver failure as a result of the parasites. Centers for Disease Control Fact Sheet – schistosomiasis/bilharzia-http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dpd/parasites/schistosomiasis/factsht_schistosomiasis.htm#what
Labels: boab, Imbaba, islamic slaughter, Kifaya, Lamb Adoption, Signore God