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.

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