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.

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