This blog was originally designed to keep me sane as I began learning Arabic. It morphed into a blog of musings about Arabic, the Middle East, and the Islamic World, as well as book reviews about those topics. Then, the blog became a place to keep my family and friends updated on my adventures while I was living abroad. During May and June of 2012, I had a 6-week long internship in Cairo, Egypt through a international student organization called AIESEC. I taught English at the Awladi Orphanage in Cairo, home to several hundred children. I lived in an apartment in Nasr City before moving to Maadi (each is a distinct area of Cairo). I experienced President Mursi's election, camped in the western desert, rode camels by the pyramids, and had countless other experiences. I have since moved past this blog, on towards new endeavors, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment! Enjoy!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Day 31, 32, 33


Today we went to the Saqqara and Dahshur pyramids. They were really awesome, especially because of their historical significance. They were the first ones ever built, and they represent the first things ever built out of stone. How crazy is it to think that buildings were once built purely out of grasses and wood? Anyways, it was a nice day trip. I loved the Bent Pyramid of Sneferu the best. It was so interesting! They started to build it at a 55 degree angle before realizing that it was not stable, so they had to change to 44 degrees halfway up. It still has its limestone casing on it, so you can tell what it (and the other pyramids) must have once looked like. It took about an hour to get there from Cairo, which seemed like nothing after all of the long trips we’ve taken lately.
Tonight, we are having people over for dinner. We’re spending as much time with our friends as possible, because Shubhi is leaving on Monday.
I’m sorry for the spotty posting, but my internet has been a little weird lately. The rest of this post is extra long, so that should make up for it! I hoped to post it yesterday, which is why everything below this line is written from yesterday afternoon’s perspective.
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Today has been blessedly uneventful. We woke, went to work, came home, took a three-hour nap, and had a snack.
This is in stark contrast to our day yesterday.
Yesterday morning, we woke to meet Victor at the metro station and ride to Sadat Station (the one directly under Tahrir). We went to the ministry again to pick up our visas. We found that we had to drop off our passports for two hours so that the visas could be stamped inside. Thus, we decided to take a walk around Tahrir and look at the revolution graffiti. This turned out to be even more interesting than we expected. There is graffiti spread all over the walls of Tahrir, but the area around the Interior Ministry (the building that was burned by the Mubarak’s government in the final days of his presidency to destroy the incriminating evidence held inside. This was blamed, of course, on the protestors) has some of the more interesting stuff. There are concrete barriers blocking off all side streets that lead towards the ministry, so we photographed the graffiti on them, but we could not make it through to the other side. We kept walking, block after block, Victor and I trying to figure out how large of an area they had blocked off and if we would be able to see the Interior Ministry building at all. We turned right at the first street we could, walking through an area that seemed to not have seen any foreigners in weeks. We turned right, passing through police barricades with the locals, curious to see the area. We walked all of the way back towards Tahrir, but found that the exit on that side was blocked with more concrete bricks. (Obviously, from this side, there was no graffiti on the concrete blocks). We met a man who I assumed to be an AUC professor (based on his good English, nice clothes, and our proximity to campus). He directed us back to the right, showing us where we could go out. We passed many, many soldiers, large tanks, guns, and black trucks. It was all very ominous and cool looking, but I dared not take any photos. I think the reason they didn’t question us was because we looked enough like clueless students/tourists (we had Sherin with us, flopping along with her broken flip-flop and carrying her Mickey Mouse backpack). I’m not sure what they would have done had I pulled out a large camera and started snapping photos. I would have loved to have taken some and submitted them to a news outlet. There have been stories of how Cairo has been de-militarized, but that was definitely not true in this area. After walking back around, we were able to pass through another barbed wire/ metal bar barricade.
This is one of many experiences with the new government in Egypt (like the police stops in Dahab) that I will file away for future reference. I don’t think that I will appreciate a lot of the things I’ve seen until after I get home.
After we finished at the ministry, Victor left for work, and Sherin and I took a taxi to Ibn Tulun mosque. Or, so we thought. This is where the day gets weird. We were taken about 2/3 of the way to the mosque, paying 22 pounds to be driven through traffic downtown and taken next to the Citadel. He told us that Ibn Tulun was just around the corner. There was a cluster of mosques just down the road, so we walked down to them, taking photos of the beautiful architecture. Unfortunately, none of them were Abn Tulun, the oldest mosque in Egypt. Also, Sherin’s flip-flop was completely a flippy-floppy mess at that point. It was hardly wearable. A nice man stopped and offered to fix it, using a shoelace to loop through the top and tie it onto her foot (remember him, in a bizarre twist of events, he comes back into the story later). This held things together for a while, and we started down the road towards Ibn Tulun.
They say that Cairo is the city of a thousand minarets, and I think we saw half of them before we got there. We went into two different ones, both times the men inside telling us “oh, this is Ibn Tulun,” before we got to the real Ibn Tulun. Both of the false Ibn Tuluns were little hole-in-the-wall mosques in comparison to the real deal. However, we still had to pay baksheesh to get into the first two and check them out before realizing that we were not in the right place. At the second one, we even went in and sat down, realizing only after we looked at my guidebook picture that we were definitely in the wrong spot. We should have known that a little, dirty mosque filled with bird droppings was not the famous mosque. No thanks to any of the men we asked along the way (but much thanks to the nice young girl we met on the street), we got to Ibn Tulun.
The mosque was very old and nice. We were the only people there, and we napped inside for a little bit; mosques are nice places to lie down and think. Ibn Tulun has the only open minaret in Cairo, so that was interesting to see. One thing that we disliked was that the ground in the mosque was rough stone, not smooth marble like in some of the newer ones. Obviously, this is due to the age of the mosque. It was built in the 9th century, so they couldn’t have asked our opinions on the flooring choice.
After leaving the mosque, we went to the Gayer-Anderson Museum next door.
Getting into the Museum was a story within itself: The cost for students to get in is half of the regular price. We felt that the student price was reasonable, and the regular price was too much to pay. So if we didn’t get in as students, we wouldn’t go. However, Sherin does not have a student I.D. with her, so she always tries to pass off her driver’s license as one. This works only if the I.D. checker has lousy English and doesn’t catch her bluff. Yesterday, I decided to see if I could make him believe us.
I handed him the money and the two I.D.s (hers and mine). He looked at the two I.D.’s, peering at the words. He first asked about mine, asking to see where it said “University.” At the top, in small letters, under the word “ILLINOIS,” there is a line that says “University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.” This worked for him. He then turned to her driver’s license. To us, it looks nothing like a university I.D., and anyone with good English would know it was not. However, it also has the word “ILLINOIS” in large print across the top. I pointed this out to him, not mentioning the fact that “University” was not printed on it. I told him that hers was “old” and that’s why it looked different than mine. At first, I thought this was a mistake, because he pushed it away, saying “old, no good.” Then, I pointed to the expiration dates. My university I.D. expires in 2016. Her license expires in 2014. Clearly, I reasoned, she is an older student than I am.
I still can’t believe it worked. I was golden.
It was a cool museum; it was really interesting to see how a wealthy, western man would have lived in Cairo during the turn of the century. The house itself was very traditional, with summer and winter rooms for both men and women. There was such a mix of classic Islamic style with very British touches (like the rooms that were themed based on different parts of the world, something that was popular among rich people in Europe at that time). The James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me was filmed in the house, so that added an interesting aspect to the tour. Now Sherin and I both need to see the movie!
After the tour, we left and started walking back towards the Citadel where we were dropped off.
We stopped for some fruit juice, both ordering small glasses of strawberry. Mid-order, I upgraded us to larges. We both love strawberry juice, so why not treat ourselves? When the drinks came, we each took one drink and looked each other like “what is this?” We sat down, trying to figure out what was different. It didn’t taste bad, just not what either of us were expecting. After a couple of drinks, we had decided that we didn’t like it, and that it definitely wasn’t strawberry. The pieces in the drink were not strawberry in texture. I said “it’s apple!” and after that, we were convinced that he’d served us the wrong thing. Sherin told him so, indignant that he had tried to pass off something so different as being what we ordered. He denied it at first, and then started smiling at her accusations. We asked that he give us orange juice instead, so we sat and watched him squish 2.5 oranges into each of our new cups. That time, the juice was good, but we still couldn’t believe he would have tried to cheat like that. Strawberries are expensive, so sometimes the shops aren’t serving them. However, the fact that he thought we wouldn’t notice if he gave us something different really blew our minds.
We left the shop and continued on up the road. Our plan at that point (it was 3 p.m.) was to go to Khan el-Khalili, have dinner, meet up with our friends, shop, and go see the famous Dervishes perform. How laughably simple that seems now...
We got to the top of the hill and looked around for a cab to take us to Khan el-Khalili. We couldn’t find any empty ones there, and men kept coming up to us, trying to talk. I will save you explanations of all the extremely odd people we met, but just know that throughout the entire time that Sherin and I were walking alone during this day, we met a heck of a lot of random people. We got in one white cab (the white ones use meters, the black ones don’t) and started off towards the market. I quickly realized that he did not have the meter on, and I told him to turn it on. He said, “no, 20 pounds,” and I demanded he let us out. I had been told that from Ibn Tulun, it should only take about 10 pounds to get there, so I would not pay so much (in hindsight, we should have just taken this offer and gone straight there).
As we got out, we continued up the road in the direction we had been driving. We ran into a guy who told us we were going the wrong direction, but we did not trust him, because we thought he was trying to make us ride with him. (Turns out, he was correct. We were walking towards the City of the Dead, a place that I would like to visit at some point, but not as two women walking alone). This is where we ran into the man that fixed Sherin’s shoe earlier. He was, again, very nice, and told us we were going in the wrong direction. He said we needed to go back down around the other way, and he said his house was that way, so he’d walk us a bit. We followed him down the road, past the mosques from earlier. On that road, we ran into a bunch of his neighbors. One of them turned out to be a shoe maker, and he offered to fix Sherin’s sandal (which, again, was basically a flip-flop flopping all over the place at this point). We couldn’t say no to this, because there was no way she could keep walking in it. So, thanks to a lot of Arab hospitality, we sat down next to the road with these neighbors and waited until her shoe was fixed. The men were very nice, and, in a mixture of Arabic and English, we had a short conversation. The nice man who was showing us around (I’ll call him Ahmed, because I don’t remember his name, and I basically have a 1/3 chance that it’s right) was talking about how great his neighbors were and the great love and friendship they share. It was nice to sit there and feel part of the neighborhood for a bit.
Sherin’s shoe came back: sole glued, toe thong in place, good as new. We were very happy about this, and offered to pay the man. He would have gladly taken it, but Ahmed told him in Arabic that he must show us the good Arab hospitality. The shoe-maker wanted then to sell us shoes from his shop, but we were not interested in them. Since they would not take the pounds we were offering for having fixed the shoe, we went on our way, Ahmed directing us towards the market. We walked through an old area of Islamic Cairo, thankful that he was accompanying us. He told us about his wife and newborn daughter, how he is an Arabic teacher for 10 and 11 year-olds. His English was quite good, so we knew he was pretty well educated.
The area we walked through was poor and full of furniture makers. There was wood everywhere, and lots of newly formed, ornate chairs. I remember Ellie explaining to us once that each area of Islamic Cairo specializes in a certain trade (later that night, we went through the fabric area). It was interesting to see these people at work. Ahmed said he would show us to the Blue Mosque, show us the direction to Khan el-Khalili, and then be on his way home. This was fine with us, and we decided that since he had helped Sherin fix her shoe, we could go see his mosque and Imam. The mosque turned out to be really interesting, because there were trees growing inside! It almost looked like a building out of the Jungle Book movie, because the old stones were mixed with trees. The Imam gave us a short tour and then they showed us the box. Each mosque has one of these for donation money to the poor. Unlike in churches, donated money does not go to the mosque at all. As per the teaching of Islam, it is taken directly to people in need. We were told that it was ten pounds a piece for students to go up in the minaret and twenty for regular visitors, so I gave him a fifty for both of us, needing thirty pounds in change back. It wasn’t until later that I realized he had only given me ten back. (This was technically dishonest of him, but he could have easily said that he didn’t know we were students. Sherin and I felt we had paid way too much to go up in the minaret, however, we later reasoned that the extra twenty pounds were worth the fixed shoe).
We climbed all of the way up into the minaret, up to the tippy top. It was very, very cool! We could see Cairo from all sides, and, as it was late in the afternoon, all of our pictures have a nice golden glow to them.
Once we got down, Ahmed departed from us. At the last minute, he said, “if only I had something to get my new daughter a cake…” I gave him five pounds (less than a dollar) for the trouble he had taken in showing us around. However, since I despise the baksheesh system in this country (where they expect to be paid for little things), I didn’t think of giving more. That and the money we paid to the Imam left a sour taste in our mouths. So much for “Arab Hospitality.” However, I suspect that my idea of hospitality isn’t quite the same as theirs.
After this, we started walking in the direction he had pointed out. We walked and walked, realizing just how easy it was to be lost in a large city with small, winding streets. We began asking for directions again, just as we had all day. After having taken directions from men for most of the day, I had an epiphany. The men would tell us that we were going in the right direction, regardless of what it was. They would tell us “al-atool” (straight ahead), and confirm whatever we thought. From then on, Sherin and I decided only to ask other young women for directions.
The girl that helped us was fourteen, but she looked twenty-five. She was very nice and when Sherin asked where Khan el-Khalili was, she said, “Not here.” Which, as it turns out, was very, very accurate. She walked us out of the winding streets and onto a main road. She bid us adieu at the nearest intersection, and we crossed the street to the median. We were standing in front of the Museum of Islamic Art, something that I recognized from my guidebook, but did not know anything else about. We stood there as I called Ibrahim, sheepishly telling him that we really didn’t know where to go from where we were. As I was on the phone, leaning on the rail, the guards at the intersection were making eyes at us in typical Egyptian guy-fashion, but they were apparently also telling us we shouldn’t really lean on the railings. I thought they were just flirting, so I ignored them as I was on the phone. Sherin knew what they were saying, but ignored them just to make a point. Once we crossed the street completely to sit on the steps of the museum, we realized why they had warned us. Our arms were covered in dust. We sat there and laughed at ourselves, both for the dirty arms and for the rest of the messy day.
As we sat on the steps, guys came up to talk to us, not understanding that once the conversation lulls into an awkward silence, it’s time to walk away. So many of those conversations (both on the steps and throughout the rest of the day) center around the fact that we’re Americans (or whatever western nationality we tell them) and how they want to visit our country/ visit us/ marry us. Talking to them reminds me of something that my suitemate back in Nasr City said about men here. She said they want three things: sex, money, or a passport. In that order. I would say that many of them just want out of Egypt. 
Regardless, just so that I am not getting chided later for talking to so many strange people, you have to understand the culture here. People are very, very friendly, and it is totally normal for them to approach you on the street and talk to you. We label all of those people as being weird, because we are not used to it in the U.S. However, for Egyptians, the fact that they would come up and talk to us, offer help, or make sure that we weren’t lost isn’t creepy at all. It’s actually weird to them that we’d be so rude as to ignore them (which we do much of the time, just because we don’t want ten minute conversations and to be new best friends with everyone we pass). They will gladly hand out their phone number after a few minutes of talking. Sherin and I at first thought that this was just something they did to pretty young women, but we soon realized that it’s something they do to everyone. There have been many times where Victor starts chatting with some Egyptian guys while they are out for a cigarette, and he comes back with several new phone numbers. They are always trying to make connections and meet new people. It’s something that I feel I really need to learn how to do better: network.
Anyways, Ibrahim told us to stay where we were so he could come get us. He showed up and we practically pounced on him in happiness. He took us to Khan el-Khalili in one of the micro-buses, and we met up with our other friends.
We got huge chicken shawarmas from Gad, so happy to be eating for the first time since our Nutella sandwiches and yoghurt in the morning. We went straight from there to see the dervishes.
The show was so awesome! We were very tired by that point, but I really enjoyed seeing the performance. The music and dancing was really cool. One of the men was twirling for a good 45 minutes or so. Sherin said he must’ve been in a trance. It was amazing!
After the show, we went with everyone to a nice restaurant. I didn’t order anything, but it was nice to sit on the couches with everyone and talk. The way their restaurants are set up is perfect for large groups, because they just have low tables all around with couches so that you can eat and chat. The best part about staying out with them (I had wanted to go home after the show) was that we got to see an Egyptian wedding! They had fireworks, music, and everything was colorful! They danced the entire time we were there, and I’m sure it continued through the night.
Anyways, it was a long day. I saw a lot, but I was happy to have today to re-coop and relax. 

2 comments:

  1. Ashley, your adventure is amazing. I love reading your daily quips and learning about the culture. This experience will be invaluable as you go through your life. I'm so glad you are enjoying every moment.

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  2. Loved this post; very interesting! Sounds like one crazy/exhausting day. So glad you're learning so much!

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