Sunday, August 31, 2008

Where's Ahmed?

Today was one of those days in Egypt that seemed long and busy only because the few tasks that my flatmate and I actually embarked upon ended up being hopelessly involved and time-consuming.
Actually, I should be rather thankful as I was merely tagging along as Ross tried to find a mysterious Ahmed Ali (of which there are several employed at AUC) who signed, two weeks ago, for a UPS package containing a credit card. We got nothing but fruitless suggestions leading us from office to office in various buildings at different downtown campuses (there are at least three: Main Campus, Greek Campus, and Falaky Campus and we visited them all).
Prior to all of this, I had a little victory: I am now registered for three graduate courses. They are, mercifully, all located downtown, but at three different locations: the previously mentioned Main Campus and Greek Campus as well as a building in Garden City. In keeping with the theme of a varied triad, I have a professor of a different nationality for each of my classes: for Migration and Refugee Movements in North Africa and the Middle East, I have a Frenchman, for my Introducation to Forced Migration and Refugee Studies, an Egyptian, and for International Refugee Law, an American. These (likely quite challenging) courses start next Sunday with times adjusted for the Ramadan schedule. The secretary in the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies (CMRS) was extremely helpful during the registration process. I've found in Egypt, people are often very willing to help and asking the right questions and explaining yourself in a few different ways enables them to do so more easily. For example, inquiring about receiving mail through the Graduate Studies Office (through which Ross was supposed to have received the now infamous UPS package) yielded an offer from the secretary for me to be able to receive mail directly through my program office downtown. Therefore, to those who've been asking for an address to send letters and such, I should have it within a week, insha'Allah.
After talking to three different Ahmed Alis in three different buildings (the theme of three continues, eat your hearts out numerologists!) Ross and I dragged ourselves to the nearby koshary joint where I mustered up enough courage to have a basic, short conversation in Arabic with the guy who kisses his handing before shaking Ross's, then mine every time we come in now. He's convivial and welcoming which gives him a leg up on the cheaper but less inviting koshary restaurant down the road.
No sooner had we returned to the apartment, ready to rest our weary selves for a while, than I received a reply to an email inquiry I'd sent to Better World NGO. There was a "recruitment" meeting on the Greek Campus in an hour. I almost didn't go, but I forced myself and ended up being glad I did. However, after the walk to the Social Sciences gate of the Greek Campus, I was met a set of eyes peering through the bars on the outside of two tall, solid wooden doors. After explaining (in at least three different ways) that I had a meeting and should, indeed, be let in, the guard relented and allowed me entry. It turned out that there was a rather loud audiovisual equipment-heavy AUC-authorized or -sponsored party for what seemed like teeming throngs of Egyptian freshman in the courtyard of the Greek Campus and, at another gate, they were patting down guests who were dressed as if they were attending a red carpet premiere. I didn't ask, but instead trekked up a flight of steps to the second floor only to end up at a door bearing a sign telling me that, though I was on the right floor, the door was mysteriously closed and I needed to take a different set of steps. I finally made it to the meeting, which went well. The founder of the organization was, in fact, an ambassadorial scholar to Montréal. We swapped Rotary stories and phone numbers and plan to get together soon. I also signed up to volunteer. If everything goes according to plan, I'll be teaching English (or possibly French) to underprivileged Egyptian public university students and graduates for a couple of hours each week. Better World aims to offer language, computer, managerial, and leadership skills to students who, because of deficiencies in the overburdened public universities, are not as competitive on the job market as their counterparts at a private school like AUC.
After returning home for a while for the meeting, I mustered up the energy to go back out into the streets once again, this time for dinner with Ross. As has been a problem before, the café we'd picked to go to was inexplicably closed. We ended up getting take-away from a place nearby. I opted to get a salad, and I can only hope I luck out. You see, I've read in various places that salads in Cairo are to be avoided because of the risk of contamination. Being a bit OCD and prone to overuse of my trusty bottle of hand sanitizer, this was either an uncharacteristically brave or uncharacteristically imprudent depending on whether or not I come down with a parasite over the next couple of days. Strangely, though, thus far I have had absolutely none of the stomach problems that inevitably plague tourists and expats in the days or weeks following their arrival. I've got quite a bit of time (and, no doubt, quite a few more sketchy salads) between now and my return to the States though.
I wanted to make sure to mention, to those of you who are tenacious enough to read this lengthy entries, that I would be more than happy to answer any questions you might have about Egypt or my time here. I don't claim to be an expert on the country, but I could probably find one or a hundred in the neighborhood.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Lessors, Lessees, and Lots of Livres égyptiennes

Most of today was dedicated to signing the lease for the apartment across the hall, which Ross and I are moving into next week, insha'Allah. This has been the plan from the beginning, as both bedrooms are back away from the street in that apartment, unlike our current abode in which I sleep (when the honking subsides) streetside.
How does signing a lease take all day you ask? Well, it began when we went to an ATM to withdraw funds. I needed to get out 4-5000 LE (Livres égyptiennes, French for Egyptian pounds) and, upon trying to do so at the first location, found out that the limit was 2000 LE (about $373). It was 1500 LE at the next, 2000 LE at the following one, then two ATMs simply didn't work. Finally, we found ourselves at a hotel on the Nile that had a BNP Paribas ATM that graciously permitted me to take out 4000. Initially worried that we'd miss our landlord who said he'd come at noon, we immediately remembered that this is Egypt and that time is a much more flexible concept. Indeed our hunch was correct and he showed up two or three hours later. Once Ahmed did arrive, he had armfuls of kitchen supplies to be moved into the neighboring apartment along with us. This was a relief as the utensils and dishes are quite sparse. The landlord's a very strange, brusk, and somewhat scatterbrained man, but he doesn't seem as if he's out to get anyone. Nevertheless, I questioned him as to why my joining Ross in the apartment caused a 300 LE/month increase in rent as none of the associated rises in utilties usage could have merited this. He blustered, rambling on about something in the UK and then taxes. I politely and firmly reminded him we weren't in the UK and moved on to the question of price. He said that Ross had already agreed to pay the same price for the neighboring apartment as we were paying for this one and when we pointed out that the other didn't have a half-bath, he tried to shrug it off. In the end, negotiations were mildly fruitful. He tried to play hardball and tell us we could just stay in the apartment where we are, but I persisted and we ended up getting 100LE/month off the total. After I scrutinized the lease, crossing and editing it in duplicate, we (Ross, Ahmed, and I) all signed it. Then, he pulled out another one in Arabic, assuring us that it was merely a formality and that the one we'd just completed in English was binding. Nevertheless, Ross checked it over after we discovered half of it was in English, made some editions, and then we signed that too. He wasn't even going to give us a copy, but I requested one, so I think all is well. Though he'd been rather conversational (complaining about inflation and rising costs and how things were done in the UK), as soon as we'd signed the Arabic leases, he said goodbye and left abruptly.
Other than that, little of note happened. We dined at Felfela again and only after I came home to consult the Internet did I discover that we should be tipping people at restaurants a couple-few pounds on top of the tax and included gratuity. Who knew? I hope they don't hate us now. I also realized I've been eating fried things quite often. This should be shocking to anyone back at home who knows me. Felafel (ta'ammiyya) is so plentiful though, that it's become something of a staple in my diet. It's a task to try to figure out how to eat healthily here, but hopefully I'll strike a balance soon.
An encouraging note from my father last night and an email confirming that I could register for classes tomorrow and meet with my advisor brightened my inbox yesterday and today. All in all, things are going very well and I'm satisfied with my little Egyptian life.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Zamalek and Falling Back

Much of my day was spent in Zamalek, a leafy, rather well-heeled neighborhood of Cairo located on an island in the Nile. It's the home of several embassies, the Cairo Opera, Cairo Tower, and the Cairo Marriott, though my first destination on the isle was a bit less prestigious.
After Ross and I lunched at a fatatri (a fiteer restaurant) on Tahrir St. towards Tahrir Square, we crossed the famous Qasr al-Nil bridge and headed toward the Metro Market on Isma'il Mohammad Street. Along the way, we took refuge from the sun under the trees of which there are so few in our own neighborhood. We stopped in the mercifully air-conditioned Cairo Marriott, home to Harry's Pub where, during my first trip to Egypt, I endured my friend and host's rendition of "Build Me Up Buttercup". After that, we wound our way through streets lined with the embassies of Norway, Germany, Algeria, Spain, Colombia, Brazil, etc., stopping to ask directions as I'd become a bit turned around. Ross saved the day by understanding what was being said in Arabic and we finally got to the supermarket making only one more stop along the way–the Harley Davidson store. See, Cairo's more cosmopolitan that you might think. You can even buy t-shirts of a mummy riding a "hog" (forgive my rusty biker terminology if that's not the term I'm looking for).
At the entrance to the supermarket, there were "Ramadan bags" for sale. These bags contained basic foodstuffs and are meant to be purchased to give to the poor, a major element of the holy month here in the Islamic world. I am told that I will see, everyday around sunset, long tables in the streets withs throngs of people at them being fed at the expense of wealthy Egyptians or charities. Another impact of Ramadan on Egypt has already occurred: last night, I got back the hour that those of you in the States won't get back until October. Without daylight savings, sunset comes "earlier" in the day, allowing hungry Egyptians who have been without food, drink, and cigarettes to break the fast with iftar, the evening meal (that's something of a party with great family and social significance).
Anyway, we replenished our stock of bread and water at the store, and I got some more labna and a mango yogurt drink. Not in the mood to walk back burdened with victuals, we hailed a cab, or rather several. You see, our pasty white skin and light eyes scream "overcharge me" to just about every cabbie in Egypt. The cab ride should cost about 5-6 LE (about $1), but one guy had the nerve to try and charge us 20 LE. After waving on three or four cabs, we finally settled on 8 LE with a more reasonable driver and headed back home.
My second stint in Zamalek was much more agreeable from a transport perspective. This was because my newly assigned host counselor, Sherif Bakir from the Qasr al-Nil Rotary club, picked me up and conveyed me to Abu al-Sid, a comfortable and elegant restaurant serving Egyptian cuisine where he treated me to dinner. The president of Qasr al-Nil RC's affiliated Rotaract Club, Hesham, joined us later. Conversation ranged from Rotary, Rotaract, and the intention behind ambassadorial and cultural scholarships, ways for me to get involved (I hope to be joining Hesham and other Rotaracters in the distribution of Ramadan bags to the poor over in Mohandaseen) to US politics, energy policy, and Egyptian singers, food, and tradition. In addition to tahina, aish, and a shrimp tajine, things all familiar to me, I discovered kishk for the first time and washed it all down with delicious aseer 'asab, which is sugarcane juice, another new treat. By the time Sherif dropped me back off at home, I'd been invited to all sorts of things (a couple of iftars included) and made to feel that I now have a network of people whom I can rely up on if in trouble or just want to connect with Egyptians. It's a great feeling and the unique component of the Rotary scholarship that I was looking for.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Forget Pharaoh, ID Card Chaos, and AUC's Desert Digs

Forget Pharaoh
When I came to Egypt the first time, I came to understand the Egyptians more fully and in an new light, certainly one that contrasts with the conventional perception of Egyptians. During a lecture entitled "Egypt and the Egyptians" that Ross and I attended, this came up again. The lecturer referenced Charlton Heston films, Anglo-American fascination with Egyptology in the 19th Century, etc. to paint a picture of how many in the West think of Egypt. Pyramids, papyrus, hieroglyphs, and mummies are doubtless some of the first things that spring to mind when an American thinks of Egypt. This is largely the extent of what we learn about this cultural crossroads and largest Arab country in the world during our years of primary and secondary school. The reality here is something else entirely. The lecturer mentioned that tour groups he's spoken to are often flabbergasted by what appears to be the Egyptians lack of interest in their "own history". Indeed, you won't see many Egyptians flocking to the pyramids or to the Egyptian Museum (incidentally, a very short walk from my apartment), but that doesn't mean they're not proud of who they are. More important to them though are their currently cultural identities as Egyptians--both Muslim and Copt. The best analogy I can come up with has to do with the pyramids themselves: Originally, the pyramids were encased in highly-polished white limestone, very little of which is visible today because the bulk of them were carted away to be used in the construction of mosques and palaces in the area following the Arab invasion. In much the same way, parts of the past have been taken and incorporated into something new, forming a synthesis. So for me, while I plan to visit the pyramids again at least once and am also fascinated by the ancient Egyptians, my primary cultural focus here is the vibrant, complex, and modern Egyptian culture; Sunni Islam and Coptic Christianity; Arabic; post-colonial progress and social realities; and the people I meet on the street. A last comparison to my own life: while I find things like Stonehenge (built roughly the same time as the Great Pyramid) and am interested in what my remote ancestors the ancient Celts, or Germanic peoples or Romans did, I would be a bit confused if someone trying to get to know European and European-American culture stopped at that. So I say, forget Pharaoh for a while and read about Hosni Mubarak's long and storied place at the helm of the county and the political realities here, listen to some Amr Diab, challenge yourself to see whether you know all five pillars of Islam, and if you've never heard of the contribution of Egyptians to Christianity, read up on the Copts.

ID Card Chaos
Forgive yet another installment in "Wow, now this is efficient...not," but really. Today was the day I finally set about getting my AUC identification card. The scene: a dedicated building for "student services." Inside are three different areas 1, 2, and 3. Just inside the door there is a man who's sole task it is to print out numbers for people--the kind one takes from a red dispenser when waiting to order a cut of meat, for example. Thankfully, because Ross told me that going to counter 1 was worthless (it's apparently an information counter where you're directed to return to the number man to get a number for section 2 and wait all over again), I knew to ask the man for a number for section 2, the "cashier", who's sole duty in my case was to stamp a receipt. Not listening to anything I said, the man foisted off on me a number for line was. I politely told him I was there for my ID and needed to get to the cashier. He proceded to tell me that the ID section would be down until two. Why on earth he felt the urge to lie through his teeth when I could see people progressing through the ID line and being issued their IDs, I have no idea. I ignore him, went straight to the cashier without a number and had my tuition receipt stamped. I then came back and said "I need a number for the ID line." Again, he told me it was down. To my exasperation, Ross came up right after me and asked him for a number and he gave him one, which he gave me in turn. Once at the ID section, I had to wait for who knows how long as an elderly gentleman hunt and pecked his way across the keyboard, yelling crossly in Arabic at giddy Egyptian undergraduates. When a number in the possession of someone who'd given up long ago would flash on the screen, the man would wait and probably would've waited for all eternity if not for the polite insistence of the people in the waiting area that he should skip to the next number. After what seemed like (and what may literally have been) hours, I got my ID. This would've taken no more than fifteen minutes at Bradley. Patience is a virtue they say.

AUC's Desert Digs
Ross and I ate koshary for a late lunch and then headed home to get our belongings and check email before returning to AUC's old campus. Once there, we boarded buses that would take us far into the desert, to the dazzling new campus for a vaguely explained "welcome event." This turned out to be rather poorly organized as well, with no one giving the herds of American students instructions on where to go or what even would be happening. The positives included getting a complimentary galabeya (though I'll never be caught dead in it, it'll make a good gift for someone at home), delicious Egyptian food (including fiteer, which is like calzone but lighter and flakier), chatting with some other students, and sneaking off and wandering the unfinished campus. The whole thing is rather behind schedule, but it's quite beautiful. Considering how gaudy the other buildings are that one sees on the desert road along the way, this place is truly a tasteful feat of aesthetics. Photos on the website don't do it justice, but you can't really convey via pixels a beautifully breezy desert evening with dragonflies buzzing past as the sun sinks behind the sandy horizon. Unfortunately, this was interrupted by obnoxious music at first. Indicative of the Egyptian perception the Americans are lascivious and sex-crazed, inappropriate (and at times even explicit) music blared from a stage set up at a lovely outdoor amphitheater surrounded by palm trees. I wondered to myself whether they chose this aural pollution to make us feel more at home or if this was simply the unimpressive musical taste of the unfortunately acroynymed SOLs (Student Orientation Leaders). Mercifully, a Nubian band and dance group took over. I really enjoyed the music, but I do think the Nubian dancers made a mistake in inviting to the "dance floor" the newly-minted international AUCians now donning galabayas en masse. It degenerated into some kind of strange desert dance party which I left after a while, embarking with my flatmate upon the aforementioned exploration of the campus. A DJ later took over from the Nubians and it soon became clear that what was scheduled to be a five hour event had little form or focus. No speakers, no campus tour (we weren't even allowed through the gates that led to the rest of the campus), and no information. It came as no surprise that when it was announced that some of the buses were leaving an hour early for those that wanted to return to Cairo in advance of the formal end of the event, nearly everyone if not everyone made a mad dash. On my bus were none of the semi-helpful SOLs that had at least given us water on the first ride. We thus had no idea that this bus was heading to Zamalek (rather than the AUC old campus we'd departed from) and didn't realize it until we had already gone through Tahrir Square (the location of the Egyptian Museum, down the street from "home".) I made my way to the front after a couple of other irate students had asked the bus driver to pull over and asked where the bus was going. "Zamalek," he said. "La," I said and moved to get off. He told the people in front of me that they couldn't disembark there, but we all new we had to get off there and did so anyway. Perhaps a dozen people streamed off the bus, to the consternation of the driver. More excellent organization and communication. Ma'alish, I say though. It doesn't really bother me. The evening was, on the whole, enjoyable, and I grow to love Egypt more and more everyday. The best thing, I've learned in my week here so far, is to expect chaos and be thankful when even the slightest semblance of organization shines through.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tea, Politics, and a Great Big Mall

As one tends, as a rule, not to get to sleep too early in Egypt, Ross and I headed back out into the night after I typed up my last blog entry to restock our water supply. For this event, I took along my Kroger bag–keeping up my feeble attempts at environmentally friendly living even in Egypt and plugging Kroger in the Arab world.
Upon returning to our building, bags full of bottles of water, we were exuberantly greeted by Tamer who works in the contact lens shop that occupies the ground floor. Before we'd gone out, he'd invited us in for tea and we agreed to come back after our errand.
Good, Egyptian tea is apparently quite caffeinated and chock full of sugar and ended up keeping me awake 'til nearly five in the morning. It was worth it though to be able to converse with a local about a variety of issues from the recent burning of the parliament building and politics, to Ramadan, Arabic, and ants. The term "converse" is here liberally applied due to the fact that it was entirely in Arabic. I was happy to be able to understand the gist of things here and there and find that I'm picking up the language (relatively) quickly.
The following day (yesterday) Ross and I went to the AUC for a graduate orientation. This nearly three hour long event was unnecessarily long and drawn out, much like the process of getting anything accomplished around here. I did, at least, have the chance to meet a few students from the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies. Two of them had been working at a refugee camp in Kenya prior to coming here, all of them were older than me. Rather than be intimidated or feel inadequate, I'm grateful that I'll be able to learn even from my peers who, if this small group is any indication, have invaluable experience and wisdom to impart.
Upon arriving home and checking my email, I found that I have finally been assigned a host Rotary club: Kasr el Nil RC! I have yet to hear anything from them, but at least I have a name.
Quitting the apartment, we left for what was my first experience on Cairo's surprisingly clean metro. Despite the cleanliness (arguably cleaner than Paris and New York's homologous underground stations,) the cars are frightfully overcrowded. The diminished sense of personal space further compounds the problem. Somehow, we made it to Al-Zaitoon, in the northeast of Cairo, in one piece only to have to wait outside the station for my friend Maged to arrive. In the mean time, Ross snapped what promise to be some great shots of a fruitseller and the general hubbub outside. A girl, younger than us, dressed in pink from headscarf to toe kept glancing at us furtively and, finally garnered up the courage to practice her English on us. "What is your name?" she blurted out without a greeting. "Uh...Carl. Wa enti (Arabic for 'and you?' when talking to a female)" "Marwa!" Then she was off again to muster some more courage upon the finding of which she returned to ask, "Where?" "Where what? Where am I from?" "Yes, where from?" "Amreeka." (America in Arabic, as you might've guessed). She went on to tell me that she had an uncle in America, thus exhausting, I think, all of her English at which point she went away satisfied with her foreigner adventure.
As I may've mentioned, I make an effort to respond to people, even when it's tentative or seemingly frivolous conversation. More often than not, someone wants to sell me something or have me get in their taxi, but there're no small number of people who are simply curious. I find that kids (like the one who works or at least spends lots of time in the koshary place two doors down from us) are the most curious or at least the most unabashedly curious. They love shouting out "hello" and waiting for some kind of reaction. Of course, that's often the only word they know, so I get it coming and going to mean hello, goodbye, and anything in between.
Anyway, our point in taking the metro was to meet up with Maged to go to "City Stars" mall. Despite our Egyptian friends insistence that it was bigger and better than anything we'd seen in America, the mall itself is smaller than the Mall of America in my native Minnesota. It's part of a bigger complex, though, of hotels and residences. A monstrosity, in my opinion. Megamalls and suburban development have never sat well with me. Nonetheless, Maged was excited to take us to one of his favorite hangouts. The place reminded me more of the States than anything I've seen here, though with a bit more dust and a little more slapdash. Skeptical as I was when I saw a food court with Burger King, McDonald's, Sbarro, Panda House, and more, I was delighted to hear that there was a Wagamama in the mall. This had become a favorite of many of us Bradley May term abroad students in 2006 in London. Though the quality wasn't quite what it was in the UK, it was delicious and I was able to get veggies I'd been craving. Ross and I also had fun teaching Maged how to use chopsticks. We got done with dinner quite late and then made a mad dash through Spinneys before Maged's parents fetched us at probably half past midnight (the mall closes at 1 AM as do many things around here). We had anticipated a long and expensive taxi ride home, so it was a pleasant surprise to be driven all the way home. Egyptian hospitality is reknowned: during our car ride we were invited to dine with them in the future and the next day, we received a message saying that the family wanted us to go to their beach house sometime. During the carride itself, my attempts at Arabic were laughed at (good-naturedly of course) and Maged's parents teased one another about their English. We whizzed past the location of Anwar Sadat's assassination and his monument adjacent to it in Maged's father's Mercedes.
I bring up the car because, while waiting back at the mall, I'd asked Maged what car to look for and whether or not it would be the same black SUV as the one in which I was picked up from the airport. "No," he said "Dad is rich, it's a Mercedes." He laughed and I wondered uneasily at his candor before reminding myself that, even if his statement was a little gauche, finances and how one talks about them are thought of much differently in Egypt. Egyptians expect to be able to ask someone how much they pay in rent (and indeed Ross and I were asked how that and how much our tuition was in the carride home) without any kind of discomfort.
Well, it's already mid-afternoon and Ross and I might try to do a tour of Cairo this evening, so I ought to get my act together before much more of the day gets away from me.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Cheap Gets Cheaper

I realize that my last couple of entries were a bit lengthy, so I'll try to up the brevity in the future.
This morning, Ross and I headed back to AUC to visit the bookstore; I was hoping to find an Arabic phrasebook. It was, however, closed for inventory--something not mentioned anywhere else. Ma'alish! My diminutive Arabic vocabulary has been slowly but surely expanding as I listen and interact (and get some help from Ross and other friends. I'm sure he's tired of me practicing my ayin, which I'm convinced I'll never figure out how to pronounce. Egyptians are amused and more friendly when I thank them or ask a question in their language, so I figure, despite the minor embarrassment involved, it's good to practice.
We had koshary for lunch again, this time at a place Ross has eaten at before a couple of doors down from our place. The waiter, enthused at our arrival, was jovial and engaging but insisted on pouring the spicy chili sauce himself onto our meals. My germophobic little eyes widened as the condiment streamed out of an open container theretofore sitting on the table for God knows how long under his dirty thumb held over the opening. I cringed, but proceeded to gobble most of the delicious dish down. Ma'alish.
We returned to our apartment in time to hear a tinny rendition of happy birthday ring out (our awful doorbell, not a festive party) announcing that yet another man had come to collect on an electric bill that wasn't ours. That's how electricity is paid for here, to someone that comes door-to-door. A call to Ahmed our landlord whom Ross put on the phone with our guest seemed to fix things, to our relief.
Not a whole lot was accomplish in the day between this and dinner, but I did hear back from a Rotarian here in Egypt that I emailed back in July. Ross also received assurances from our scholarship coordinator that he was contacting someone. We'll see what comes of it.
For dinner, we wandered northward, a direction we'd yet to explore. En route, we were the only Westerners to be seen, save for the advertisements and mannequins defining for Egyptians some ersatz aesthetic ideal in which they would be just a little more beautiful if they looked a little less Egyptian. This kind of dangerous colonial holdover leads to whitening creams both here and in sub-Saharan Africa and has been blamed for cosmetic eye surgery in Asian populations in Asia and abroad.
Arriving at our destination, we found a surprisingly clean and tastefully-tiled restaurant serving food yet cheaper than Felfela where we'd dined the previous two nights. I bit the bullet and had a tomato and cucumber salad (despite being told something about not eating fruits and veggies you can't peel). We'll see if I'm dying of dysentery tomorrow, if not, it'll be a small victory. I also had spicy stuffed eggplant, some kind of soft Egyptian cheese with tomato, and baba ghanoug which is known also sometimes as mutabbal in Lebanon and thus at Haddad's on Main in Peoria where I enjoyed it from time to time in college. Elsewhere in the Arab world it's called baba ghanoush or ganuj–the Egyptian dialect of Arabic has the peculiarity of replacing the j sound with a hard g. Thus jamil (beatiful) becomes gamil, etc. All this, with bread, water, tax, and tip only cost me the equivalent of $1.58. I'm telling you, if you're worried about the rising cost of food in the states, I have just the place for you.
Anyway, soon we'll be heading back out into the night (it's 11:35 PM) to get some bottled water. Places open later and stay open later here, many until 1 AM. That's a welcome change from France where things always seemed to be closing too early for my taste.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Can you get me a visa?

I realize I just published a post, but I thought I'd add a second one more geared toward people I've encountered. As an "ambassador of goodwill" as my Rotary mandate calls me to be, I often think about my comportment in the street and how I might be coming off to Egyptians. Even though I've only been here a few days, how I perceive the people here has shifted enormously. I'll admit that despite considering myself an open-minded, worldly type of guy, I had and continue to have my fair share of stubbornly ingrained prejudices. Tense, nervous, and worried about getting ripped off is an approach that I foresee melting away (though slowly) as I begin to reinterpret quirks and nuances of the Egyptian people that I haven't grasped right off. I've begun replying, smiling to children and teens who find great novelty in saying hello in English to a tow-headed, blue-eyed foreigner and, to my great relief, more often than not, they're not asking for money. Whether they're laughing at me or just nervously (or both) I don't know and don't really care.
Very often taxi drivers are pushy (many will slow down, but not stop, honk ceaselessly at you, and gesture wildly for you to get into their dilapidated, most likely only partially functional vehicle in hopes you'll desire their services). In light of this, I have taken to ignoring them (often the best course of action,) but today when asked if I wanted a taxi by drivers outside of their cars, I said "no, thank you" as politely as possible in my limited Arabic and found, to my amazement, that some took no for an answer. So they do have ears! This isn't an apologetic for all cabbies in Egypt, indeed many are rudely persistent, but it goes to show that one mustn't generalize. When you actually do hop in a taxi, it becomes about not getting taken advantage of. When leaving Al-Azhar, I told Ross we should try to get a cab for 5-6 LE (Egyptian Pounds; from the French Livres égyptiens) if possible. The first cabdriver we came across asked for 10 or 12 pounds and, when we declined, he drove off in disgust. The second asked for ten and I said "la" (no in Arabic) and began to walk off. We had told him we'd pay six and he said that ten was a good price. In a moment, the woman who'd just gotten out of the vehicle told us to come back, that the cab drive had agreed to our price. As we got in, he quoted us a new price of eight. Defeated, I rolled my eyes and hopped in the backseat anyway. "Good brice, good brice," laughed the driver, "Americans are rich!"
"LA, LA, LA," I retorted, "we're students." As the drive went on though, Ross, who's much more proficient in Arabic than I am, exchanged some words with what turned out to be a good-natured and kind-seeming man. He pointed out various landmarks to us, taught us some words in Arabic, and--the kicker--knew where the heck he was going (sometimes hard to find in a taxi-driver here). We were suckered, of course, by his charm and, without him even asking, we gave him 10 LE. That's about $1.86 for a five and a half mile cab we weren't too much worse for the wear.

Going back in time to our visit to Al-Azhar: Ross and I stopped a couple of times to buy maya (water in Arabic) from guys at Nestlé (nest-luh, as it's pronounced here according to my venerable roommate) carts selling ice cream, soda, and water. The second guy was jovial and chatty and tried to get me to give him a US dollar "for to remember" and, after I refused, he then surprised us by producing an American dollar from a wad of money and tried to sell it to me! We joked and laugh and then he inquired, "Can I ask you a question? Is it true visa on internet or is it liar?" Ross and I assured him that there were countless e-scams out there pretending to be able to procure legal passage to the States for non-Americans. He asked "Then how can I visit America? Can you help me visit America?" We laughed and told him he'd have to visit the embassy. It occurred to me though that he'll probably never get to experience my country as I am his. The restrictions on his entry into the States, for one, are prohibitive. Secondly, the financial gap between the average American and the average Egyptian is such that even middle class Americans can romp all around the globe if they wish (though it may take some planning and wise financial decisions) whereas only the wealthiest Egyptians could ever hope to get to the US. It saddened me to think that my newfound chum, Hassan, would be "stuck" in Egypt, while I was allowed to come and go as I pleased.

Cheap Cuisine Continued (and Smoggy Sunsets)

I'll pick up where I left off, which was right before getting to the other reason for the title of the last post: Ross, Glenn, and I had an absolutely fantastic meal last night of tahina, aish, and taamia (Egyptian falafel), and ful with onions and parsley, at a place called Felfela. The restaurant was not too far from our dinner location the previous night (at Le Bistro). Stuffing ourselves with Egyptian cuisine (and not having eaten a single dinner in) is something one might find excessive, but I assure you, doing so is the epitome of frugality. Splitting the check three ways, each of us paid, with tax and tip, the equivalent of $2.99. Wow!
One might be little surprised that Ross and I were there yet again tonight, though we had ful with tahina mixed in, taamia in a sort of omelette, and "lemonade" this time. We splurged on dessert, getting an Egyptian favorite, om ali.
We definitely earned the dessert: after a morning of Kafkaesque office-hopping at AUC (sans breakfast because the inane registration procedures for orientation prevented us getting one) and only some lentil soup (albeit delicious lentil soup) and ice-blended drinks (mine was anise-flavored) to pass for lunch, we dragged ourselves home. I indulged in a piece of toasted aish with some Tanners Orchard apple butter slathered on for a taste of home, but had nothing else as we set out on a 5.5 mile journey east and north past Abdeen Palace and the Museum of Islamic Art up Port Said Street, over on Al-Azhar Street to the Khan al-Khalili (which wasn't as lively as usual, because most of its shops are closed on Sunday; Friday, however is the holy day in Egypt) and finally to Al-Azhar Park. Rather than ramble on about it, I'll include a photo I took there at sunset:Then again, as you can see, the sun's a bit high in the sky, so perhaps it was the hazy layer of smog hanging in the air in Cairo that softened the sun's rays. Whatever the effect on my lungs, the effect on my eyes was wonderful.

Slow Going and Cheap Cuisine

My first full day in Egypt was rather slow, which was fine since, as I mentioned in my last blog, jet-lag's my close companion these days. I did, however, take the important step (with the help of my roommate) of procuring a cellphone. About 400 minutes set me back less than the equivalent of than $20. We did some other wandering around, had grand ideas about going to Carrefour, a hypermarket (kind of like a Wal-Mart), but ended up wandering our neighborhood--Bab el Louq. In the evening, we went to a French-esque place called Le Bistro where I conversed with the waiter in French. Blaring through the speakers were the stylings of French and American crooners and, of all people, Cat Stevens. Perhaps he's found admiration anew in Muslim countries because of his conversion.
This afternoon, we had quite a different and much more authentically Egypt lunch with another Rotary ambassadorial scholar, Ambereen Shaffie. Representing District #5710, she and I had met back in late February/early March at the outbound orientation session. The lunch was at a koshary place in Tahrir Square. Koshary is a cheap and delicious meal...and I mean cheap. For the equivalent of $0.94 one gets a "medium" bowl of the concoction of pasta, lentils, chick peas, etc. I myself couldn't even finish it. It's a great source of nutrition (especially protein) for vegetarians or partial veggies (like myself).
I went with Ambereen to Zamalek, where she's living in the AUC dorms. Let's just say that the island in the Nile is quite a different neighborhood than Bab el Louq. There're trees, more and more clearly visible street signs, Westerners milling about, and Western-style cafés. In one such café I gobbled down a gingerbread man (who knew you could find such a thing in the Middle East) that cost more than my entire lunch. Ambereen and I chatted about Rotary and the kind of service opportunities we're each hoping to find here. Because my graduate studies will focus on refugees, I naturally hope to find some avenue (and there are countless here) to volunteer with them.
My next Zamalek stop was yet another café where I met up with a guy formerly with the Red Cross in Washington, D.C. who is now studying Arabic here. We chatted (over "lemonade" which is, in fact, made exclusively with limes in Egypt) and I dragged him along to help me navigate a nearby grocery store. I came away with lots of juices, remember how plentiful, inexpensive, and delicious the various varieties were here last time, some aish baladi (the Egyptian answer to pita), hummus, labneh, lentils, and more. I was tempted to buy the Ramadan bag--full of goodies for the month full of fasting and feasting that I'll surely be talking more about soon, but wasn't sure what to prepare with the ingredients inside or how to prepare them.
Well, Ross and I have orientation tomorrow, so further descriptions (and photos!) of my neighborhood will be up tomorrow.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Carl in Cairo

After what was perhaps the most glorious and satisfying shower of my life, I got dressed and plopped down on an overstuffed armchair in my new (to me, otherwise, quite old) rather kitschy living room to write up this entry.
Arriving yesterday into Cairo International from New York via Frankfurt, I enjoyed a very easy entry into Egypt: no delays at passport or customs and no lost luggage. My ride, the grandson of the cousin of the father of a friend of friends (al-hamdulillah for obscure connections), arrived in typical Egyptian fashion: late but full of hospitality and goodwill. In Egypt, the concept of time is vastly different than our efficiency-driven American paradigm. The wave of Cairene heat hit me as I left the building and headed for the the black SUV that was to convey me through the treacherous streets of Cairo and to my apartment (eventually). "Not as hot as I remember," I thought optimistically myself, reflecting on my last visit to the country in late July, 2005.
Though infinitely thankful not to be taking a taxi, I had to laugh (nervously) to myself as my friend's driver stopped half a dozen times to try and ascertain where exactly we were going. He deftly dodged other cars, cyclists, and fearless pedestrians as we made our way into downtown Cairo, which we promptly left, ending up driving through Zamalek (a neighborhood/island in the Nile) and to the wrong side of the river into a quarter called al-Doqqi. Amazingly, I remembered the layout of the city from last time, and was able to explain that I was pretty sure we were going the wrong way. Of course, the driver didn't listen to me at first, but later relented and ended up bringing me to my new home on Tahrir Street, not too far from AUC's old campus.
My roommate, Ross, a Rotary ambassadorial scholar from District #5810 in Texas has turned out to be a godsend--he lined up the apartment before arriving and has been here for a while already, enabling him to show me the ropes and work out kinks with the landlord. Though fading fast from lack of sleep and the time change, I managed to have lively conversation with Maged, the young man who'd come to meet me at the airport, Ross, and our neighbor Karyn until it was time for us to get some grub. We wandered through the crowded, dirty streets to, of all things, a Swiss restaurant. Now, when something is "Swiss" or "Italian" or anything else exotic in Cairo, it's not quite authentic. In fact, I was able to enjoy moussaka, a Mediterranean dish, though the Egyptian take on röschti might've been interesting.
Though I'll readily admit that Egypt is overwhelming and quite intimidating, as pre-dinner and dinner conversation turned to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the idiosyncrasies of Egypt, Islam on the very first night, I knew that I'd made the right decision and that this year, though hugely challenging, will be fantastic. As one might expect, Ross and I have a lot in common in terms of interest. In fact, we found out that we both interned in the same section (Diplomatic Security) in our respective embassies (Lima, Peru for him, Paris for me). Ross has already made connections with a Young Diplomats club and I have friends in the area from a Global Young Leaders Conference I did in high school as well as other connections that should be a good start to our meeting friends and serving as ambassadors of goodwill and understanding. Hopefully we'll soon hear from our scholarship coordinator at Rotary HQ about being assigned clubs, but no word on that yet.
Though I got a relatively good night's sleep, jet leg is keeping me a bit groggy, so I'll leave off blogging for now!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

From New York with...Nervous Anticipation

I'm sitting in my father's apartment in Midtown Manhattan, going through a mental checklist of everything I need to remember for tomorrow when I hop on a Lufthansa flight from JFK headed for Frankfurt, Germany. From there, I'll be on my way to Cairo at last!
Though I still have not been assigned a host Rotary Club and have no Egyptian Rotary contacts, I was able to get in touch with another Rotary scholar (from Texas) also studying at AUC who had lined up an apartment and was in need of a roommate. The apartment, not far from AUC's Old Campus in downtown Cairo, seems to be conveniently located and, mostly importantly has the two fundamental elements of life: air conditioning and wireless internet.
Unable to make it up to the Egyptian consulate in Chicago for my visa, I went to the one here in New York to get that important aspect of my journey taken care of. Last time I visited Cairo, I simply gave them $15 at the airport in cash and was given a visa in return. I didn't want to chance it this time around though.
So, I have clothes, medicine, toiletries, snacks, two Qur'ans (one in French and Arabic and the other in English--it's interesting on which points the translations differ in tone and wording), a Lonely Planet guide to Egypt, my passport, some power adapters and a converter, a journal, my laptop, and a whole lot of butterflies in my stomach!
I will be landing in Cairo at 2:15 PM local time on Thursday the 21st (6:15 AM Peoria time) insha'Allah (which means God willing-quite a common phrase in Egypt and in the rest of the Muslim world.)