Thursday, December 13, 2007


I went to the Reg today to get fun books, including one book called Libraries of photos by Candida Hofer with a funny introductory essay by Umberto Eco. I guess it's only funny if you're into that kind of thing, but I am.

The pictures are beautiful, and make me almost want to do research just so I can go spend more time in Harper or the oft-neglected Eckhart math library. Many of these libraries are in Europe and look like cathedrals.

I missed libraries very much while I was in Egypt, as there was simply no good place to study. Coffee shops are ridiculously loud with hovering waiters, public places are way too public, and my flat was generally cold and quiet. I did sneak my way into the AUC Special Collections library, housed in an old colonial mansion. I had to fake an AUC student number, but no one checked up on me. It is a lovely and silent old building (reading room pictured), with a few quiet students and a lovely green yard out back. I only went there once (the fact that I wasn't authorized to be there was a bit of a deterrent) but it was a great place to catch my breath after the exhaustion of downtown. I liked the AUC courtyard and bookstore a lot, and had no trouble getting in there, but while it was a nice place to sit or to meet friends, it was no library. One day I went to the public library deep in Zamalek. It is in a huge 4 story mansion, backing up to the Nile on the east side of the island, almost to the north tip of the island. I only found it because it was listed on my AUC map book as "Great Cairo Library." By the time I got there it was almost closed, but I told the guy at the desk that I just wanted to look around. It didn't seem to have a lot of books, but it had a labyrinth of tiny study rooms, towers, and back staircases. It was exactly what I was looking for, but it closed at 4. How ridiculous. Another day, I convinced Monty, the Australian who was always in the ILI computer lab with me after class, to come with me to the British Consulate library. It is a smooth and modern facility, with glorious English-language books and magazines, and even free computer access. But again you need membership, which costs a lot. We talked our way in for the first time, and spent a lovely hour or so on a rainy afternoon luxuriating in its warm, literary familiarity.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


Tomorrow it isn't supposed to get over 30 degrees, with a constant windchill of about 10 degrees. This is really not ok with me, so I am going to the greenhouse at Lincoln Park Zoo to pretend that I am in the tropics, or South Carolina. I think greenhouses are going to become a major coping strategy this winter. I am afraid of this winter, because it is my first Chicago winter without radiators to curl up to. It snowed yesterday, which I was pretty excited about. I keep ending sentences with prepositions. So why don't I start one with a conjunction, and get back to studying for tomorrow morning's Islamic Civ final ?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Last Day of Classes and Work

Today Lila and I celebrated our last day of college classes by jumping around the kitchen and shrieking before breakfast. I victoriously concluded my day by writing notes to myself during African Civ and giggling to Kim during Islamic Civ. High fives all around.

Last night, John K was so kind as to drive me up to Andersonville so I could go to the quarterly dinner held by Kim, the Norwegian teacher. I played with her kid and her dogs, ate some very tasty food, and hung out with the death metal kids. I was surprised at the number of people there who were also taking ancient Near Eastern languages--Rob and Ryan, the death metal kids from my old class, are taking Hittite, a grad student was taking whatever it is that Zorastrian texts were written in, someone else was taking hieroglyphics. There seemed to be a lot of overlap between people drawn to Norwegian and people interested in the ancient Middle East. Very strange. Perhaps we can just conclude that people who take Norwegian are fascinating people with great linguistic capacities.

Today was also my last day of work at the Blue Gargoyle. The kids were touchingly sad to find that out, even though Arion sulked for quite awhile after I had to take her outside and give her the "you WILL listen to us when we tell you not to do something" talk. Today we talked about what year we were born. I was shocked that some of them were born in 2001. That seems absurdly recent, and it is especially impressive that in such a short time they had developed very distinct personalities. I know it sounds obvious, but for some reason it seems remarkable how much kids achieve in 6 years or so. I mean, 6 years ago I was more or less the same size I am now, and Arion, for example, was an infant! Such progress!

After we went outside we played chicken fights, and by "we" I mean, Keith started it. We each had a kid on our backs, and would sortof run at each other, the kids' legs kicking away. Probably not the most responsible idea ever, but really fun. No one got hurt anyway, and hopefully they won't tell their parents.

I'm kindof sad to be leaving. They are so interesting. Although I won't miss having to yell at them, and the noise and chaos, and a distinct lack of respect for authority (ahem, Danasha, Kenija, Rikaya, Kamariah), whining, sulking, and throwing fits. I will miss the constant comments on my hair length ("you cut your hair!"), my sticking-up eyebrows, and my imaginary relationship with any male tutor("ew, you drank off the same drink! are you dating?"). I might not miss Taylor launching herself on me or picking me up against my will (the kid is 9 and can carry me around), but I will miss all the hugs. Today we determined, to the astonishment of all, that my hands are the same size as the 9-year-olds Muhibat and Taylor. Jamie is clingy but it's kindof sweet, until you have to practically sit on her to make her do her homework. The era of me obsessing over their personalities and waking up with disciplinary ideas is over. I told them I'd be back to visit, and I think I'll probably volunteer as a private tutor.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Today I thought I'd resurrect this blog, because some of my friends have lovely blogs I'd like to figure out how to link to, and because it's been almost a year since I left for Egypt and I'm feeling the wanderlust again.

I know that lust is bad, according to the church, but what about wanderlust? I know it's a cute and stupid pun, but think about it: I want what I can't have, isn't that coveting? Moving to a new and exciting place every few months, as I've done for the past year, is a way to escape from my problems and relationships. I freely admit that I went to Wyoming to get away from people. I can reinvent myself in every place, leading to a lack of honesty with myself and the temptation to do bad things that I wouldn't ordinarily just for the "experience." I wouldn't subject a family to this many moves, so it's not a long-term solution. I tend to lose touch with people more quickly, thus weakening my ability to create meaningful relationships. But, I love it. I'm not planning to stop traveling, although I do plan to stay in Chicago at least for this academic year. I'm just sayin.

Today I had a very encouraging meeting with my college adviser, so encouraging that I may never have to talk to her again. She cleared me for taking a leave of absence for winter and spring, confirmed that I've completed all graduation requirements, and asked about future plans. She seemed impressed by the Wyoming story, and she said that it was one of the experiences I'll probably remember forever and generally a more excellent way to spend my summer than some "career-minded" internship that I wouldn't enjoy. She said that the fact that I don't know what I'll do next year is totally fine, and the fact that I am ok with not knowing shows maturity. She also seemed relieved that I did not stress about picking my major (when asked how I got on track with my major so quickly, I told her that I realized that I was half-way there during my second year and decided just to finish) and about getting honors. It seemed to me that she was fed up with uptight UofC students who obsess over everything, and was happy to find someone who thinks like she does. She says that, especially for me, who is not applying to grad school, most of these things don't really matter. I'll probably have many jobs and do many things, perhaps I'll even decide to go to grad school later, perhaps I won't. I might not get a job in my field, and that's fine. I won't remember my GPA or my grades a few years from now. It was nice to hear this affirmation of my general assumption that freaking out about all this is completely unnecessary. Added bonus: she grew up in Columbia, SC. And, she called her husband who might have an opening in his firm where I could perhaps work in the winter.

It was especially nice to have this conversation at a time when everyone I know is completely beserk over post-graduation options. Grad school, no grad school, where to live, where to work, paying back loans, health insurance! I suppose some people are more relaxed, and realize that things will work themselves out, but I think a lot of people are dazzled by the options spread before them. Fortunately, I feel less pressure than even choosing a college, because whatever I choose now can be changed if I don't like it, with less hassle and emotional trouble than transferring colleges. And also college is so formative, and I knew that wherever I chose would significantly shape my interests, my perceptions, my options, and my perspective.

But it's not like I'm not thinking about it. It's hard not to, when the first thing any relative said to me when I went home for Thanksgiving was "what are you doing next year?" Today (in class, shame on me) I made a list of "cool things to do next quarter," the blessed quarter when I am not taking classes. It's mostly dream options, but also a way for me to think of what I would like to do, not what I think I should do. The UofC says I should want to do something really intense, high-powered, and important. Or at least something in my field. I've thought about those things too--journalism, international NGOs like Human Rights Watch, some sort of Middle East analyst/consultant/professional thinker, the CIA, even law school. But, the more I think about it, the less attractive those sound, although I don't want to rule them out for the future. Unfortunately for me and my student loans, what sounds most attractive does not involve a lot of money, at least not at first.

And now, off to my old Norwegian teacher's house in Andersonville for dinner.

Monday, March 12, 2007

About to Leave

To anyone who is still tenaciously checking this blog: I haven't written much because my life here started to be normal and not something that I needed to update anyone about. Also, I felt awkward telling about people that I met here, it seemed a bit like an invasion of privacy.

But, I am going home in 5 days !! and I'm actually quite nervous about it. I think I am not ready for some of the changes at home, and I feel this pressure to do so much here before I leave, especially because if/when I come back, almost all my friends here will be gone. I don't the fact that now that I've gotten all nice and settled, its time to leave. On Friday I'll be going to Athens to meet my cousin for a few days and then to Al Ain in the Emirates to stay with some of my parent's friends for a few days, and then back to Chicago. I get to register for classes today (Monday), which I'm pretty excited about, but I'm not looking forward to having to do real school instead of just chilling with my tutor.

Last night, I had a few people over and we made borscht and potato latkes, and salad and fruit salad and iced coffee and it was much fun, a little Russia in Cairo. This week I have made plans for almost every part of every day, to see all the people I've been meaning to hang out with, but suddenly it has become urgent. But "making plans" is a very fluid thing here. I went to Sudanese church yesterday with my friend Eman. She said, church starts at 12, so meet me around 12:30 and we'll go over. I showed up at 1 (whoops) and she had guests, so I went with her husband around 2 and she showed up around 2:30 when it was over. But, I wish I was Sudanese.

And, I'm running late.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Boring Details and New Friends

I'm back in the school's computer lab, and its raining outside! It's rained twice now in the past couple days, which seems special to me since Egypt is supposedly a desert and all that. I also like it because after it rains the air is clear and pretty, as opposed to before the rain, when it is overcast and smoggy. We've all been complaining about the cold, but then realizing that we are being babies, when we compare what we wear here to the amount of cold-insulating clothing that most of us wear at home. I've met a lot of midwesterners here, suprisingly, and the Brits know a bit about cold too.

In other boring news, I'm sick. I got a cold, and I feel like I'm underwater. Its nasty.

But I got it from some cool people. In my last post I mentioned that I was going with a Swedish guy to Khan al-Khalili. We had a pretty good time, although I don't like the touristy-ness, and I really hate getting badgered to buy things while I'm walking down the street. I bought a rat trap and had one side taken off, and then rigged it up with a wire coat hanger to hang in my shower as a holder for shampoo and stuff. The various guys who were a part of this process thought I was nuts. I had some sugarcane juice, its pretty good stuff. Then Edward the Swede got a call from a friend inviting him to dinner, so we went to his friend's flat where he made us a ton of food. I learned how to play backgammon (boring) and ate with Gazy (the Texan-of-Palestinian-descent who can cook), Edward, and Graham (aka Harvard--he goes to Harvard and hates it, so I make fun of him). Then Sarah came (a friend of Gazy and Graham, an American also), and we all went to some guy's party, where there were a lot of AUC guys, and maybe 2 other girls. A bit awkward. Sarah and I were going home, but she had forgotten her key, so she stayed in my apartment. It was very convenient since my roommate was out of town for a long weekend and I get lonely. She's really cool, I felt very quickly at ease with her.

The next day I woke up with a nasty stomachace, plus I was really tired from having stayed up til 3 the night before. So, I went back to sleep. After awhile I got my lazy self moving and went to meet Kezia, and we went to Maadi to teach English. It was the first class I taught by myself, and only my second time going. English is a very confusing language, I realize. And the different accents don't help at all. My students don't like that I say "a pencil" like "uh pencil" and Kezia says it with a long a. We have fun though. The lessons are kindof silly sometimes: "Is this your hair? No, this is my hair?" There are about 15 of them, mostly men, all Sudanese refugees. The textbook we use has some awkward situations, like having the teacher ask the class if they have a CD player, a pager, an electronic address book, etc. I had to explain what a lot of those meant, as none of us have them. I don't think there is a book "English for Refugees". I find it a bit uncomfortable that they introduce themselves as a refugee. It sounds like such a desperate word, but it is just life. A lot of them have been in Cairo for years. A few that I talked to are waiting for a visa to Australia or other "western" countries. I haven't talked to anyone who's planning on going back to Sudan. The class is organized by Refuge Egypt, which is run by the Episcopal Church in Zamalek, All Saints. Its a really cool place on the church grounds: there is a sortof cafe outside, there are people and kids everywhere, and it just seems very welcoming and happy. There's African music playing in the office where Kezia works. Refuge Egypt has a self-sustaining handicrafts business, Tukul Crafts. Its very successful, and I want to go check out some of their products tomorrow when I go to the church to pick up Kezia. Here is the website for Tukul Crafts, and I'm sure you can find more info about Refuge Egypt if you look around the site:

I also learned from my roommate about a similar program in Mokattam, the slum that I visited last summer. She (Lauren, my roommate) and some friends go visit a family there every week, and there is a business that provides jobs for kids. They make all sorts of products, mostly out of reclaimed fabric, I think. I want to check that out too.

On Friday I went to church in Maadi and had an excellent hamburger at a restaurant with Marie (my roommate from the first week), her friend Roxanna, and Kezia. We are planning a movie night. Back at home, I went to a coffee shop with Graham, Sarah, Gazy, and some of their friends, but I was really tired and zoned out. So I went back and took a nap. That night we went over to Sarah's flat and had Shabbat-she's Jewish. It was very tasty, pasta and garlic bread and fruit and cheese and wine and salad and chocolate. Then, after much debate, we went to Gazy's and watched an old Egyptian movie. We looked out his window and saw the same building as shown in the film, only now its much dirtier. Cairo in the 70s was apparantly very clean and modern, it didn't look very crowded, and women wore short skirts. So much has changed (except the buildings and cabs, they've just gotten older). Then we watched Syriana. The problem was that parts of the movie are in Arabic and Urdu (I think) but we only had Arabic subtitles, so we picked out what we could and were in a bit of a fog. It didn't help that it finished at 4:30. We were tired, and Gazy offered to let Sarah and I sleep in his bed while he moved to the couch, but he didn't have enough blankets and we felt bad about this situation, plus, it would be a pain to explain to the bowab (doorman and general busybody) in the morning why two girls had spent the night, so we went home. So, again, Sarah spent the night, and I went to bed late. Sarah and Gazy had been sick, and I think it was them that gave me my cold. But, I had a lot of fun.

Saturday I went to the supermarket, and to my friendly neighborhood fruit stand and tiny grocery store, and practiced Arabic, and improved my apartment. It is pretty awesome, Sarah says that after visiting it she became a bit dissatisfied with her own (huge, but sortof lonely) apartment. She says mine is "bohemian, in a leaky bathroom sort of way." Its kindof small, but it doesn't seem cramped. My roommate, Lauren, is very cool, although I haven't seen a lot of her. She was in Siwa for a long weekend, and just left again for Israel/Palestine. She went to a Christian college in the states, and now she is taking Arabic and working for a non-profit while she figures out what she wants to do with her life (besides becoming a "rad" old woman eventually and opening a hostel in the south of France). She is also very easy to get along with, and I feel is one of the answers to prayer for a roommate that can also be a good friend. Christine, from the old apartment, also became a friend. I saw her the other day as I was walking past her house, and we made plans: borscht night, going to the 2.50 LE store (like the Dollar Store, but less than 50 cents), going to see the scandalous/dark play her friend wrote.

Anyway, the flat has its issues (sketchy electricity in the living room, plumbing issues that are being fixed, some ants that I have dealt with, a toilet seat disconnect that I also fixed, and a few other things that took some getting used to). But on the whole, I like it a lot. K&G apartments have got nothing on Cairo in terms of quirkiness. It has heat, and hot water in the kitchen, which are improvements on the old place. It also can handle it if you flush toilet paper, which I understand is not a given. But the outlets in the living room shut off occasionally and have to be reset with a switch in the wall, there is hardly any kitchen storage (we keep pans and food items and bowls and stuff in the hutch in the living room), the shower leaks (but its getting fixed on Saturday), and the elevator door only shuts if you give it a bit of help (only on our floor, though, and only one of the elevators--there are 2, but only one works at a time). Its nice to have the lift, since I'm on the 9th floor. My room has an amazing view, east towards the river. The sun comes pouring in in the mornings. I can see Cairo tower, some buildings downtown, some palm trees directly below, and Mokattam hill in the distance. There are very pretty sunrises, and its fairly quiet becuase we are so high up. I like it a lot.

Saturday evening I went on a felucca ride on the Nile with Busayo and her friends. The boats are pretty small, it was just the 7 of us. They sail you up and down the river for an hour for a very reasonable price, once you bargain a little bit. It was a very nice time, we ate some Nigerian chicken and rice, along with lots of other food, and huddled under blankets, and looked at the city lights from the river. They are a lot of fun. Then we went to the flat of a guy that one of them had met, and I looked at his pictures of North Carolina mountains, which was nice.

On Sunday I went shopping for a little bit with Lauren, who needed sweaters for Israel, but then I went to the Cairo International Book Fair with Marissa. I met her outside the Mugamma downtown, which is this huge Soviet-bloc building full of terrifying beurocracy. I'll have to go in a few days to renew my visa, which I am not looking forward to. The book fair is like the state fair, only dirtier, and devoted to selling books (and random crap). I heard there would be cheap English books, but either we couldn't find them or there weren't very many. I did get some cool posters (farm animals in Arabic, anyone?). I used the nastiest bathroom I have ever used, which is saying quite a bit. The UofC bookworm in me was thrilled to see that the main attraction was halls and halls and halls of books. I also got interviewed randomly for Nile TV (stupid questions, and even stupider answers), but I didn't see it aired. Getting back was a bit of a hassle, we took a bus to downtown on the directions of a helpful guy (wow, an Egyptian guy who offers directions and doesn't offer any harrassment in addition!), and met an Egyptian man who had been living in Canada on the bus. He was equally nice, and tried to help us find a microbus back to our nieghborhood. But there was no direct one, so we took a cab. We still saved a good bit of money, and would have saved more had the taxi driver not cheated us. Getting off the bus we had to squeeze past 2 guys who were getting in a fight over something (read: nothing). That seems to be a fairly common occurance--generally everyone is polite, so that life in such a dense city can go smoothly, but every once in awhile there is a pointless, and very public, violent fight that everyone enjoys watching. When I got back, Lauren had a bunch of friends over, including Barrett and Andrew, who introduced me to her. I hadn't seen them since I had met them at a small group for church over a week ago, although Andrew and I had made plans that fell through several times. It was actually very amazing that I met them (and thus Lauren), since they don't go to that group often, and it was my first time too, as well as Andrew's. We were going to watch the Super Bowl, but it started at 1 am and I think the sports cafe they were thinking of going to actually didn't show it. I started to feel sicker, so I went to bed early, but I hear the Bears lost. Too bad, Chicago. One of my goals here is to know more about real futbol. The Nigerians know all about the current standings in the African cup, and I was completely in the dark.

Anyway, they're kicking me out of the lab. Ma salaama!

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Africa is Not a Country

I need to keep this short becuase I'm supposed to meet some Swedish guy in Zamalek in 45 minutes to go to the old Islamic quarter, where the tourist market Khan al-Kalili is, and a bunch of mosques. He wanted to go to a coffee shop, but I thought that might be a little awkward, and I so far haven't found anyone else to go to Islamic Cairo with me.

In short, I went to see Happy Feet with a bunch of Nigerians, I started teaching English to Sudanese refugees, I hung out with an Eritrean guy and others at the African Diplomat Club (largely for African diplomats, unsurpisingly), and I met some American guys and went out with their friends. I learned to smoke sheesha, I went to KFC by myself at midnight, I watched lots of truly outrageous Egyptian music videos, I got sick and my roommate made me miso soup, and I found myself walking down the street carrying heavy chains with Sudanese people, and I lived mostly off of tea and sweets for two days. I took a microbus alone, I went to a huge western-style mall, I walked 45 minutes across the bridges to downtown to buy postcards, and I started taking Egyptian Arabic. I have new teachers, new classmates, a new roommate, a new flat, a new routine, and a new (unpaid) job. I wish I could explain this in more detail, and perhaps I will later.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Sketchy and Non- : Weekend Adventuring

I'm having trouble writing. On the one hand, a lot has happened--I decided on a new flat, I went to Alexandria, I went out with friends, I saw new things and had a lot of interesting conversations, but on the other hand, things are starting to feel fairly normal and not necessarily worth writing about. I take note of less things that I see, because they are starting to seem normal. Today I walked to school and thought about other things almost the whole way (usually I'm thinking, "wow, look at that! I hope that guy doesn't try to talk to me. Why are there so many cars? Why are men here so obnoxious? I'm about to get run over. etc."). But I am still taking notes. I feel a little bit like I am just writing things down that give you "local color"--i.e.-things that are different here and at home--but what I really notice most is the similarities, and what really matters to me is not that exciting to write about--I'm making friends, I sat in a cafe and had a nice time and relaxed, etc.

So, on Thursday I did something not too exciting. I invited myself along with my newly chosen future roommate, Mariam, and her current roommate, Nicole. We went to the AUC bookstore (English books! Oh, the temptation!) and I bought Anna Karenina. Nicole will be going to AUC, so we helped her with some registration. We wandered around downtown, bought apricots from a corner store. There are a lot of shops with big boxes of seeds, and then barrels and bags and and big glass fish-bowls of dates and nuts and other stuff like that. It was kindof frustrating, becuase we didn't have much of an aim in walking, but we finally went back to Beano's (my favorite of the American-style coffee shops) and had a snack and tea. I was overly self-concious that perhaps they did not want me along, but it was a nice time anyway. It was funny to tell Miriam, who's from London, that I live in Hyde Park--in Chicago. I considered going over the weekend to the Western Desert with Kevin and other people from ILI, but I decided not to. I wanted to go to church on Friday, and I didn't want to pay. I also was a bit wary of being out in the desert with a bunch of college kids who just wanted to get drunk. I had a laugh in the kitchen with my roommates... oh the French. We learned of the teachers' lunch conversation at the French school... oooh la la. When I was getting ready for bed, my friend Marissa texted me to come out with her and some other people from school, but I just went to sleep.

On Friday, I went to church in Maadi again. Afterwards, I had lunch with Marie and a friend of hers. It was nice to talk to them, and nice to see Kezzia and my first roommates (the ones that let me crash on their couch for a week) at church. Then, as we were walking towards the Metro, Kezzia was coming. She and I had plans for dinner, but she had unexpected extra time, so I walked with her in Maadi to a bookstore. They are supposed to call me when they find Siddhartha, but I haven't gotten anything yet. Anyway, Kezzia and I went to her flat, which isn't far from mine, and talked a lot and made crepes. We ate them with strawberries, bananas, honey, and pistachios. It was delicious. She's working at a refugee center at a big church in Zamalek. It is one of the largest refugee centers in the city. Right now she's a secretary, but she'll be doing other stuff soon. It took her a long time to get started there, so she took classes at ILI, where I am, until last month. So she's really nice, I had a good time talking with her. It was nice to get her perspective on ILI too. We talked about gossip, and how difficult it is to draw the line in saying negative things about other people. Ideally, I think, I would only notice the good in people. If I notice negative things, then I feel the compulsion sometimes to see if I am alone in noticing this, and that's why I want to gossip. But at the same time, maybe it is not ideal to take a completely trusting and positive view of people, becuase, as we know, you can't trust everyone. I would like to think, though, that if I were like that (like Alyosha!) then I could also be wise, as well as innocent and trusting and seeing only the good in people. And then I would only have good for other people to see as well.

Anyway, digression! On to Egyptian things! On Saturday, I hung out with my roommate Christine. I got to know her a lot better, and I like her a lot. She's a very happy person. She showed me around Zamalek, which is the posh neighborhood on the Island. I went to a very nice bookstore and bought another book, about Zipporah, the wife of Moses. It was pretty cool to read about the slaves in ancient Egypt while seeing modern Egypt. I've already finished it, it was a pretty short and a bit silly of a book, but interesting. We went out again a bit later, back to the Culture Wheel, where I had seen the crazy concert, to watch a free Iranian film. It was in a little room, on a projector from a computer. The sound was terrible, and the picture would get stuck sometimes. It took place entirely in a woman's car. I didn't figure out until after we had left that it was a home movie, a documentary of sorts, although everything in the movie should have made that obvious. I just thought it was a bad artsy film. It was interesting afterwards to talk to Christine and her boyfriend about rights to privacy that were raised by the way it was filmed. It was obvious that the people in her car-her son, friends, strangers--didn't know they were being filmed, and they talked about very personal things. It was centered around women's rights, divorce, and women's power in relationship in Iran. If you want to see it, its called Ten. Try to ignore the loud traffic background noise (Christine said she tuned it out, but she's been living in Cairo for awhile.)

The next day, I curled up on the couch watching BBC World with my big blanket and a cup of tea. We were waiting for Hany, Christine's boyfriend, to pick us up to go to Alexandria! She had asked me to come, so I was happy to be invited. I was worried about being a third wheel, but it worked out very well. Couples in Egypt aren't very couple-y in public anyway. We took the train, which is suprisingly comfy, even in 2nd class. It was really cool to see the Delta. The bright green fields are such a change from Cairo! We passed groves of orange trees, little towns with dirt streets, shaggy donkeys loaded with impossibly big spheres of green plants, farmers in the fields, old men on horses and little kids on bikes, half-flooded fields, holstein cows, half-finished buildings, and straw huts. We rolled into Alex around 1:30, and walked down to the Cornishe (the road along the sea). At first I thought the city felt like Spain--the architecture is a bit more European, and the air is so clean and the sun is so bright. It was nice to walk along the water, and that's mostly all we did. There's not a lot of beach, as it's mostly concrete blocks piled up (much like the Point in Hyde Park). There's a part where you can climb down from beside the road and walk down there where all the fishermen are. They don't seem to be catching much, but someone is, becuase the seafood restaurant was amazing. Hany and I went and picked (ok, Hany picked) our fish from a display of whole fish, and then they came to us, cooked, but still whole, in addition to a huge spread of appetizers (mezze, its called--a lot of tahina, baba ganoush, salads, eggplant stuff, etc.), and seafood soup--with crab legs and shells sticking out of it. It was a feast. And the guy at the table behind us had the most amazing combover I've ever seen, he looked like he was on Star Trek--just two strands painted on his head from his ears up to form a widow's peak. We had a talk about FGM--not really good dinnertable conversation, but it was interesting to hear an Egyptian male's perspective. Christine and I have both heard several sources claiming that it is about 90% of Egyptian women in some form or another, but the men she's asked have all claimed its more like 20%, and only in backward rural areas (the south, where people are crazy). She and I talk a lot about women and Islam. We are trying to check out the Koran for what it says about the rights of women. Remember the English woman whose flat I looked at who converted to Islam? She had told me that she liked in Islam that women are respected. She talked about how people in a Muslim country would be ashamed to hurt a woman. But at the same time, I can see a lot of contradictions to this point. For example, even though I am a foriegner, I am still a woman, and yet the comments I get on the street don't show much respect. This isn't even getting into issues of domestic violence, FGM, the emphasis on virginity (and the double standard there), and even Islamic modesty. I know that some of these exist in Western society (especially the double standard), but to say that Islam solves these problems is, to me, not true.

Right. In Alex, I saw a girl from school, Angelica. She's German, I had looked at her flat first, but didn't like it. It was cool to see someone I knew, in a totally different city. Apparantly a couple small groups of ILI students went to Alex over the weekend. I felt pretty cool for having other friends, and one of them Egyptian, at that. Oh, about Hany. At first I was wary, as I am of all Egyptian men. But he is really nice, and not at all sketchy. He's a Copt, and makes wittier jokes in English than I can. I think maybe he went to school outside Egypt? I like him a lot. He and I tease Christine becuase she is always telling us scary stories "Don't touch the posts with wires coming out. I got electrocuted once, and people have died that way. Don't swim in the sea near Alex, people have died. People have died in the waves outside the Blue Hole in Dahab. " He also does a good ridiculous French accent. And he's got light eyes, and lightish skin, so he is often mistaken for a tourist, especially with Christine. But then he speaks Arabic, and they back off. Sometimes people say "hakuna matata!" to Christine, or go "Sineeya! (Chinese!)" First, that's Swahili, which is not even Asian, and she's Vietnamese. Or rather, Vietnamese-American. Its pretty funny.

Today, after class (in which I had trouble staying awake, even after 8 hours of sleep), Marissa and I went downtown, and we ran her errands, and met with a totally sketchy tour guide about a trip she wants to take to Luxor and Aswan. But then he said he doesn't deal with Chinese, Russians, Jews, or Israelis. So, that made her mad, and me uncomfortable, and we left as politely as possible. He says that they are too demanding and want everything for cheaper than is possible. I thought he was horrible. He was like a shady used-car salesmen, with stained teeth and cigarette smoke coming out of his nostrils. He would overly justify certain costs, and emphasize sale points that Marissa clearly didn't care about. He would convert everything to US dollars, even though she told him she understood Egyptian Pounds. He didn't have any documentation of prices, but quoted them to her from memory. I was thoroughly sketched out, and happy to get out of there. At least I had a cup of tea, which woke me up a little. She made friends with the guy who owned the shop (a perfume shop) when he called her in on her first day here. Apparantly they also know Marie, the woman I talked about earlier who has been here for 16 years, and that's how they had the connection to Mr. Sketchy Anti-Semite. We bought cheap foul and ta'amiya at a lunch counter, and taxied home, where I have been monopolizing her computer ever since!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Lenny Kravitz and the Teeny-Tiny Tush

Yesterday afternoon I went to check out a flat that a friend from school told me about. It was pretty far away, in Faysal, which is a neighborhood about halfway between here and the pyramids. (Life here is seeming more and more normal by the day, but its still fun for me when "the pyramids" is a normal point of reference). Two British women live there. The neighborhood has hardly any foriegners, and its very colorful and vibrant. I really liked it, but the flat was too expensive, too far from school, the empty room was dark, and both the roommates smoked. We hung out for awhile though, drank tea, and talked about modern Egypt.

We talked first about Mubarak. They say that he is keeping the people in poverty so that Egypt will continue to recieve foriegn aid, which he uses to line his pockets and keep his family in power. They also said that he wanted Egypt to join the EU, which I had never heard. There is apparantly some 3-year plan, but it seems impossible for Egypt to meet EU standards in such a short time. Also it seems bizarre (Egypt is by no means European) and also at odds with this idea that it helps Mubarak to keep the country poor. I also did not know that the EU has standards extending to all areas of life--minimum wage, price levels, quality of produce, automobile quality, etc.

According to them, the country runs on "baksheesh"--tips. They both work in tourism, and so they're used to dispensing payoffs and small bribes to do anything. Some wierd people apparantly want to spend the night meditating inside the pyramids, and you can pay the guards a lot and they'll let you. Apparantly with enough money, anything is possible. I have no idea why you'd want to do that. Also they say that all the guidebooks, even the "insider opinion" types, are heavily influence by payoffs. One of them wrote honest reviews for something like Lonely Planet and they were edited in the States and came back completely changed. They say that the "recommended" restaurants and shops, even in publications like "Cairo Guide" (published by American University in Cairo-- AUC--Press, and seemingly a trustworthy guide for foriegners living in Cairo) are just businesses that paid for a good recommendation. The older of the two offered to take me shopping, to avoid ripoffs. They told me about certain ripoffs that I had heard of, but not known any alternatives other than what was listed in my guidebook and Cairo Guide. So, I will probably take her up on that if I go shopping for something like gold jewelry or perfume (both of which are apparantly a big deal here and a good buy IF you can do it right, and don't get it diluted or something). She told me that shopkeepers will often pay off people who bring tourist customers in to their shops to buy something, and that even my "so-called Egyptian friends" would probably take these tips. This offended me slightly, since she claims she doesn't take tips on "principle." Well. I wasn't sure what to make of all this, but she seems to know what she's talking about. She's lived here for 16 years, and converted to Islam. We talked about that too, but I pretty much kept my mouth shut. There are all sorts of foriegners here. Her sort is the type I call "I am more Egyptian than you, but I'll help you out, and maybe in a few years you will know as much as I do."

She and I shared a taxi back to near my house (I definately give her credit for not overpaying taxis) and then I walked down a street that seems like a giant shopping mall to meet the guy who had my journal. I must admit, I had kindof hoped to become friends with this guy, but he wasn't having any of it. He handed it over, I thanked him, he said "you're welcome," and turned to leave. He was very polite, but, well, I guess I can't be friends with everyone.

I went home and got my phone, and waited for a friend from school to call. I had made plans with a couple people at lunch to go to some "modern Egyptian music" concert at the "culture wheel" concert center. We had no idea what it would be like. Once these friends of mine finally got their act together, I walked across the bridge to Zamalek (a super-posh, foriegners neighborhood in the island in the middle of the Nile). I couldn't find the stairs so I walked on the curb on the off-ramp, which was a bit scary. The concert center turns out to be almost under the bridge. It reminded me of some of the small theatres at school. At first the singer was kindof like a Norah Jones in Arabic, which I really liked. I thought about buying a CD. Then, she starts bringing on stage like everyone she's ever met---her sister, her brother, about 6 friends, and finally, on the last song, her little brother (dressed in an oversized argyle sweater and tight jeans and huge curly hair). The music was good, but I enjoyed it especially becuase everyone on stage seemed to be having a really good time and very passionate about what they did. They also had amazing singing voices. There was one guy who kindof looked like Lenny Kravitz who was my favorite. I was there with a bunch of ILI people, it turned out, but near the end all of them left except me and the guy who had invited me, Kevin. But they all missed out, becuase shortly thereafter, Lenny Kravitz and the skinny, 15-year-old looking drummer get up and start beatboxing to "In the Summertime when the Living is Easy." And it was so amazing, I couldn't believe it. Lenny is has the most astonishing voice. All throughout the concert, we kept laughing, because stuff would happen that we never would have been ready for. For example, the bald-headed cool-looking brother starts crooning, in English, a really cheesy love song. And then the sister sings a love song to God. And then some Arab harp accompanies the electric guitar. It was a lot of fun, and afterwards we got a free CD! I don't know if it has the more amazing stuff on it, becuase there were so many random people onstage, but I hope so.

Afterwards, me and Kevin went to Cilantros, a very American coffee-shop, but only for 10 mintues, becuase he got a call from a friend who had left early who had, for the second time that night, locked herself out of her apartment. But by the time we got to her place, the doorman had taken the lock off for her and let her in. So we sat in her (incredibly nice) apartment and watched English Al-Jezeera and talked about how much bad stuff is in the world and what a good news program Al-jezeera is. They really are amazing. Their world-wide coverage is truly impressive, as is the lack of discernable bias. Both Kevin and this girl live in high-rises in Zamalek. The view from her room is very impressive. I'd like to go there and take pictures. She lives alone in a 3 bedroom flat, and Kevin has a roommate (a girl), but lived alone for a month. I was blown away by how much they pay (it is like 10 times what I pay). But it is also really nice--which I realized when I got back and noticed that my hips might be bruised becuase my bed is so hard. And they have heat. In my flat, I sleep in long underwear, socks, wool socks, scrubs, 2 long sleeve shirts and a sweatshirt. Cairo is suprisingly cold. But, a good time was had by all, and I got to see yet another side of life in Egypt, this time for the young American with money.

This morning I was feeling very good about living here, until I got my first hiss. The guys here tend to hiss at me (or foriegn girls in general). It makes me angry. I also got the comment yesterday, "nice teeny-tiny tush." I swear I did not make that up. So, Egypt is great if you like ignoring comments like that all the time, dodging buses and carts and cars and trucks and minibuses constantly, walking in the street (inches from traffic) since the sidewalks are not user-friendly and involve a lot of high curbs and are often blocked by cars and trucks, dodging water thrown on cars being washed, avoiding piles of trash, weaving in and out of carts and fruit stands, and ignoring stares and whispers. So, I like it, but not always. Walking around can get annoying. Fortunately, there are no parking or traffic rules, so there is often a convenient space between cars double-parked along the street, and you don't have to wait for any kind of signal to cross streets (just whenever you feel brave enough).

Monday, January 15, 2007

A New Flat!

On Saturday, I was sitting around Melissa and Marie and Liz's flat, reading Brothers K, when Melissa came to talk to me about finding a new place. We had talked a lot since I had stayed there the first night, at first it seemed I could stay semi-indefinately, and then like I needed to leave after 2 nights, and then that I should feel free to stay, but that it would be nice if I moved asap. She suggested that I ask the 2 teachers with the Agouza flat (who had wanted someone long-term) if I could stay with them until the beginning of February, when I would find another flat. I thought this was a good idea. Through some text-messaging, they agreed, and I moved, immediately. I thanked the girls, told them that the flowers I had bought a few days ago and taken home on the Metro were for them--what a way to get stared at! Not only was I too tall and blonde, but I was carrying huge flowers!) I took a taxi over to Agouza, which is right on the river near Mohandiseen. The flat is about a 25 minute walk from school. Its nice, I have a little room with a lot of cabinets, and a little tiny monk-ish bed. It was nice to unpack my stuff, and to have a desk. Most flats here are furnished in a very ornate style, its kindof fussy, but I like it. There are a lot of mirrors, a lot of gilt, a lot of curly carving. They call it Louis Farouk, after the last king of Egypt before the revolution. It's all very well-worn, but it adds a level of luxury to life. Living in a K&G apartment has definately been good training for the zen required in dealing with stuff falling apart and only sometimes working in most Cairo flats. And in overlooking the constant dirt in the corners that doesn't go away, no matter how much you clean it.

Shortly after moving in, I took a walk around the neighborhood, to get my bearings and buy stuff. I made friends with the old guy who owns the electronics/junk/random dusty stuff shop across the street. His name is Farouk and he has travelled all over Europe and his English is pretty good. He gave me some nails, to hang up my map, and taught me some Arabic words. Now I go to him first for directions to anywhere. I was supposed to find a laundromat or something to wash my blankets, as they "smell used" in the words of one of my roommates, Christine, who gave them to me. So I looked a long time, but they don't seem to have laundromats, per se, here, but a few drycleaners, and these little storefronts where there are men with ironing boards and maybe a few washing machines back there in the darkness? So I keep meaning to take my blankets to one of them, but I couldn't be without them for a night, or I'd freeze. So I figure, they can't be that dirty. (I know, I'm gross.) I also was greatly intimidated by grocery shopping. Across from my flat are 2 little groceries, and on the corner a bigger one, but no one has peanut butter, and the refrigerators don't seem very cold. I am too sketched out to buy meat there, although I did buy dairy products. Also, prices aren't often marked, and you are expected to tell the guys working there what you want, and they get it for you, and keep all your stuff in a little pile, even though I am perfectly capable of grabbing and holding it myself and don't know the words for what I want in Arabic anyway. At first it was unnerving--hey, give me back my yogurt!--but I'm getting used to it. Then, I hear, I could bargain with them for prices, but I haven't. Stuff is so cheap, anyway. I only raise a fuss if I can tell I'm being ripped off a lot.

My flat is near the Nile, on the west side of the river. Along the Nile is the Cornishe, which is a big road with a sidewalk so you can walk kindof along the river, and there are a lot of big restaurant barges and felucca docks and stuff along there. There's a lot of neon. On the other side, near my house, is the British Consulate. The streets near the Cornishe are wider and cleaner, but the further back I wandered (my flat is about 2 blocks back) they get more and more mazelike. I walked in the evening, looking for bread, but apparantly the bread-dudes go home after dark. I did buy some roasted sweet potatoes for dinner, they were delicious. It was a bit scary, becuase it was dark, and I was lost. There were cats everywhere (there's always cats everywhere) and piles of trash, and lots of sidewalk cafes, and tiny shops. It felt very different very quickly. But I finally found my way back. The shopping quest continues every day, as I get used to what I can buy where, and for how much.

My roommates, like I said, are teachers. Christine is Vietnamese-American, she's spent her last 3 years living and travelling all around the world. She came here to learn belly-dancing, but dropped that, picked up playing some instrument (I forgot the name, she says versions of it exist all over the 'Orient' and that this is Egypt's version) and took a teaching job so she could stay here. Amelie is French, she teaches at a French school for Egyptian kids. I don't know much about her except she buys roses and goes horseback riding with Christine out in the desert past the pyramids sometimes and is good at it. They both work a lot, so I haven't seen them much.

My new routine is pretty cushy. I sleep wayyy in since school doesn't start until 11:30. I walk to school, which means I go through my neighborhood and to a major road. I have to cross near what seems to be a highway off-ramp, which is terrifying. Its a fun adrenaline rush every morning. I usually get behind someone else, and follow them. Then down another major road, where I sometimes stop to buy bread from the dudes that sell it on big carts. This road has all the normal traffic, plus a lot of donkey-pulled carts with bread, potted plants, fruit, etc. Sometimes there are also dudes on bikes with big wooden baskets full of bread balanced on their heads. I'm in awe of them, but too embarrased to take a picture. I'm only just now feeling like I have a right to be here, and not to hide my blond hair, and to see some of the same people every day. So to pull out a camera would be hard. I need to go with a friend, I think I might feel more freedom then. The other day I was buying bread (its flat bread, you get about 7 circles for 2 pounds, which is... oh, 30-40 cents). He gave me my change, but I was distracted talking to this foriegner guy who I had passed earlier on the street and came back to ask me where I was from. I was pretty intrigued by this guy, and had just told him that I was sorry I couldn't go to lunch with him and his cousin becuase I had to get to class, when I realized the bread guy had shortchanged me. So I had to go back and make a scene. Everyone was watching me try to convince the guy to give me 5 more pounds back, a bystander came over and helped. It was satisfying, I feel more established.

In the afternoons after class, I come here to the computer lab to check email and write. I learned yesterday that they kick us out at 4:20. I don't have a computer in my flat, and neither do my flatmates, so this is my only chance, unless I go to a friend's house. I've been checking out other flats in the afternoon, since I have to move out of the one I'm in at the end of the month. I went to one with some girls I'd talked to at school, and its pretty nice. Its kindof expensive and a little musty, but its close to school and has a heater and comfy beds. Its a little shaky as to if we will find a 3rd person, but its really nice to live with other students. Its very friendly. Another one I looked at was very nice and big, and it was decorated with little postcards and pictures and wall hangings, which I really like, and the girl was very nice (another teacher) but she and I have almost opposite schedules, and it is even further from school than I already am.

I went yesterday to look at one downtown. It was a long, trafficy taxi ride, and then the taxi driver couldn't find the street, so we circled around a lot. When we finally found it and I got out, I got halfway up the stairs, reached into my bag to find my notebook where I had written the floor number, and couldn't find it! I had left my notebook in the taxi. Just the day before I had been telling Christine how vital the notebook is to me. It has journal entries, Arabic words I am learning, directions, phone numbers, info about all the flats I've been looking at, shopping lists and lists of things to do, and everything. The girl with the downtown flat was very nice, but it seemed that there wasn't much hope. But I remembered that I had written my name, address in the States, and email in the front, and my phone number on the last page I had written on (just the day before, for reference). So I prayed, but generally, if you lose something in a taxi, you can kiss it goodbye. I liked the flat, and it was very cheap, bu she said that the roommates were always quiet, and rarely had people over. It would be ok for me if I decided I really needed money. Its only 450 pounds a month, which is... like $80. And she had painted it in funky colors, which is nice. But I saw an ashtray (Amelie smokes, and while it isn't a big deal, it made sitting on the sofa less appetizing. I've heard two perspectives--there's so much pollution in Cairo so its best to keep it out of the house, and there's so much pollution/smoke in Cairo so what does a little more matter?), and there was almost no furniture in the common area, and the bathroom and kitchen were kinda depressing. Plus, it would be a hassle, and about an extra 8-10 pounds a day, to get back and forth to school. So I probably won't take it.

I left the flat, praying that God would return my notebook to me, but recognizing that if it didn't happen, I would have to be ok with that. I called a friend of a friend from Chicago (Busayo, Ronke's friend), who is apparantly the daughter of someone in the Nigerian embassy. She was really nice, and hopefully we can hang out after she is done with her exams. I had heard of a bakery with good cheap croissants, so I found it, and bought 3. Next door is Beano's, like a Starbucks. I had a nice evening with a tea latte, a tasty crostini sandwhich, and a Vogue magazine. It was overpriced, but totally worth it. It was escapist of me, I admit. The waiters spoke English, it felt like America, almost. But I had a good time. And, I hadn't been there 20 minutes when my cell rang! It was an American guy, who was in the taxi I had just left and had my notebook! Apparantly the driver had asked him if he read English and he had found my number and called me! I was ecstatic, but really, not all that surprised. I feel that I have been supernaturally looked out for. I thanked the guy a lot, and the taxi driver, and the guy, Eric, is going to meet me this evening to give it back to me. I just hope he hasn't read my whole journal...

So I took another taxi home (looking very carefully after my belongings), read Brothers K (its so exciting!) did my Arabic homework (and more, I was very motivated) and went to bed. Today, after class, I went with Marissa from my class and bought kofta on the street. It was tasty, and i even managed to get it for 3 pounds instead of the 4 he quoted me. Anyway, I'm going to look at 2 more flats (all of a sudden I have tons of options, and keep hearing of more) and meet Eric and get my notebook back. Praise God!

Friday: Day of Foriegners

We don't have class Friday, Sat, and Sunday. But church is on Friday, and I went with Melissa, Marie, and another of their friends to an international church in Maadi. Maadi is a suburb with a TON of foriegners. We saw them everywhere! It was bizzare. It was also covered in smog/humidity (although how it was humid, I can't figure out), I could barely see. And where we were, not very dense, and quite green. I hear you can live in Maadi and barely know you are in Egypt. The American consulate is there. The church was the same mix of bizzare-American-transplant and comforting-familiarity. I liked it quite a bit. It is kindof in a tent outside, but with a full sound system and everything. I signed up for a small group that meets in Mohandisseen, the neighborhood where my school is.

I unwittingly sat next to Kezzia, a British girl that Melissa had been telling me about, she went to ILI awhile ago and might have been looking for a flatmate (but she's not anymore). So I met her somewhat by chance too, and she's very nice. I called her and we are going to the opera (the one I heard about from the Opera singer in the taxi) tonight. So, that should be fun.

All in all, my first few days and nights here were sometimes terrifying, but things are looking better. I tend to write emails when I'm feeling good, but there has been some times when I feel very alone here. Its a huge city, and being stared at for looking so foriegn and not knowing the language is quite isolating. But, I am starting to get connected. I still am staying with Melissa and friends. I asked Marissa (from my Arabic class) if I could crash with her for awhile, and she said she'd ask her roommates, but I haven't heard back. I am also considering asking Kezzia, since her flatmate is away for the next week or two. Housing is still shaky, but in terms of friends, there are lots of possibilities--at school, church, random connections from friends back home, friends of Sally's, my current hosts, etc. Plus AUC starts in a couple weeks, so even more English-speakers will be back then. I'd love to be friends with someone in Arabic, but its not good enough to get past the very basics, so that will have to wait. Right now the power in the flat is only working in certain places, so I am sitting in the dark. Hopefully we can get that fixed tonight. Apparantly, even in nice places, slightly sketchy power is the norm. I've heard that in Cairo, "if its not broken yet, just wait a few days."

Kezzia and I did in fact go to the Opera. There is a very fancy new-looking arts complex in Gazira, which is this garden-like island in the middle of the Nile. Its where Sally's fancy club is, as well as a lot of clubs, and a posh neighborhood. The opera was admittedly a bit bizarre. It was based on a Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt's most famous author, winner of the Nobel Prize) novel, Miramar, and performed in colloquial Egyptian Arabic. It was more like a play, sung, than an all-out opera (not that I've ever seen a real one, but this seemed more subdued). I saw my taxi friend, she wasn't a major character but she was a good one. Very tragic, it was really depressing actually. We had a good time, though, especially as we couldn't find our way out of the Opera house complex when it was over, and wandered in a circle a lot. Kezzia lost her keys, and when we got them again (she had left them at security upon entering) the guy said, "you are very beautiful girls." Egypt is pretty bad for one's vanity, you get used to all these compliments, and to being stared at like some sort of celebrity. Some guy followed us as we walked down a street more or less void of other pedestrians, bothering us and trying to get money. He kept calling me, "lady! white!" but even though it was a bit funny it was also a bit scary.

So Kezzia took a taxi home and I took the Metro. I saw 3 blond people waiting for the Metro. I was a bit nervous not to take the women's car (there was one guy with them) but I was more curious to find out who they were so I waited with them and talked with them. Turns out they were Mennonites, volunteering in Cairo, and also getting off at my stop. The ride was pretty harrowing, there was no space at all, we were like sardines. And all the guys around us kept asking us questions. I ignored them, rather rudely, but one girl didn't and they wouldn't leave us alone. They wanted our mobile numbers, they told us we were beautiful. When we got off the train we had to push and shove to get to the door and finally got pushed out. "Its like being birthed!" said the Mennonite guy. They were friendly, but not really. They seemed too busy to want to be my friend, so I let them go. I took a taxi home and continued my obsession, which is reading Brothers Karamozov. I find a Russian novel to be extremely applicable to my life in Egypt, for some reason.

Out with My Egyptian Friend

Thursday (first day the 5:30 call to prayer doesn't wake me up) was more class, and more wondering about apartments. I'm still with Melissa and Liz and Marie. I especially get along with Marie, we had a couple really good talks. They're very encouraging since they've done the "woman alone in Cairo" thing before. They're good for cultural advice, more so than some poeple at school who don't really care how thier lifestyle looks to their Egyptian neighbors.

Also, I went out with my friend Sally,who is Egyptian, who I had met when I was here before and corresponded with on email for awhile. She's recently engaged to Mahmoud. She is studying French lit at AinShams University, and he works for GE out in Heliopolis. Her English is pretty good, her French is great, and his English is really good. So, she picked me up where I was waiting for her outside AUC (she drives, in Cairo, which is impressive in and of itself, although she isn't a very good driver and has no sense of direction--not that I'd do any better) and we dropped her best friend and two random girls that "we dont' like at all" off somewhere else downtown. She wears a headscarf now that she is engaged (because her hair is now only for her husband to see, not other men) but she hates it and its always falling down. But it was her choice, she says.

We went to the "sporting club" that her family belongs to--there are a lot of these in Cairo, where there is usually a pool, and sports fields, and places to relax. I think hers--Nedi Ahli ("the club of the century") is one of the nicest. We sat on this very nice terrace and talked about boys, our families, my experience coming here, etc. She says she wants to travel, to live in the States, where there is more "liberte" and life isn't so "complicated." Hm. Anyway, she's way cool. Then her fiancee came. As I got to talk to him, and since he spoke good English and works with a lot of foriegners, it was nice to be able to be friends with and trust an Egyptian male, as so far I have been avoiding them.

The 3 of us went to her grandma's house, in an old part of downtown. Her parents grew up across the street from each other. I watched her and Mahmoud flirt, learned a ton of colloquial Arabic, was fed so much Egyptian food I almost burst, talked and tried to understand what was going on in Arabic, and had a good time. Then it was 9:30 and her mom and 5-year-old cousin came, and we went across the street to the Other grandmother's, where there was the weekly "family meeting." Which means they all come to grandma's once a week and eat a lot and the men smoke a lot and everyone talks. These are quite little, dark apartments,the 2nd grandma's living room had light-up framed pictures of Mecca and Medina. We also bought the 5-year-old, Mahmoud (called, hilariously, DooDoo) a light-up Spiderman at the shopfront around the corner. He was adorable,and loved Sally. There were a ton of relatives, and grandma #2, called Cookie, forced me to eat even more sweets. Which I managed.

Everyone has these cute nicknames. Its like they pick one or two consonants from their name and add a sing-song vowel sound. DooDi, Cookie, Nini, etc. Even Amy is a common nickname--for Iman. Sally and her cousin played with thier cell phones, downloading songs. They listen to the absolute worst of American pop, along with lots of romantic Arabic hits. Mahmoud found an English-language radio station in the car for me, it was kindof comforting. Its funny to see girls in head-scarves sing along to songs like, "get your body on the floor," and Shakira and the like. I tried to tell them that not all American music is like that. I also told them what "doodoo" means in America, and Mahmoud (the fiancee, also nicknamed Doodoo) demanded that he not be called that anymore. Anyway, I had a great time, and they dropped me off at the Metro after making further plans--I might go to Alexandria with thier family, and lots of other around-Cairo plans.

On the Metro I didn't make it to the women's car, so it was a bit awkward with everyone staring at me, but I successfully ignored it and no one bothered me. Then in the taxi for the last jaunt of my voyage, I saw an Opera program in the bag of the woman next to me (the taxis put in as many people as possible going to similar destinations), and it turns out she is an opera singer, and she told me to go to the performance. So I was kindof star-struck, but I made plans to go on Sunday, if I could find someone to go with. And then I stayed up late, reading. Most of my anxiety is gone, meeting Sally and her family and friends was amazing, and I feel much more comfortable now.

Life Gets A Little More Normal

The next day I was too late to go to class at ILI, but I worked on my housing situation. I looked at a flat in Dokki (and took my first microbus--a crazy experience--everyone packs in and it costs like 5 cents and people hang off the doors yelling its destination) with this German girl, but it was really dark and run-down-ish and kindof lonely and there was no shower curtain, so the next day I told her no. I went back to AUC (american university in cairo) to copy down ads of people looking for flatmates, and started calling them. I also bought Cairo maps and a Egyptian phrase-book, which has been very helpful.

I started class on Wednesday, which was nice. There is an American girl in my class, a few years older than me (Marissa), an American old man who is here with his wife before they go to Sudan (David), and an old Irish man who makes me think of Sean Connery every time he talks (Mike), who seems to have a suspiciously sketchy relationship with Marissa. On my questions, he told me he "has a lot of girlfriends, but no wife." My teacher Heba is Egyptian, and funny. There is also Sayid, a Japenese guy who is very quiet, misses class a lot,and doesn't pay attention. We dont' know why he's here. My Arabic is really rusty, but it is improving fast. I was pleased to have homework--it was familiar, and took my mind off my worries. You know you're a UofC student when--in an unfamiliar situation, staying up late to work on homework calms you down like nothing else.

Also that day after class I went to Marissa's house, which is just around the corner from school, and checked email, read a British tabloid, and called around apartments. I went to see one in Agouza, which I really liked. It is much cheaper than the one in Dokki, and much nicer and cleaner and brighter. I really like it,and the French and American girls that live there (both teachers) but I am still waiting to hear back from them, since someone looked at it this morning and I think they want someone who can stay longer than a few months. Melissa also knows of someone who is looking for a flatmate, but I haven't heard back from here either.

On my own, and finding Melissa

So, I overslept, called Lydia in confusion, and decided to take a taxi to ILI, instead of Kalimat or the Catholic school. I figured I would check them out later if I didn't like ILI, since I had only heard good things about ILI. I paid too much for the taxi, but oh well. I didn't know, then, what taxis are worth, and if the cabbie thinks he can charge you more then he will. The meters don't mean anything. So at ILI I took a lot of placement tests, to see what class I would be in. After 3 hours of taking tests -- I am going to be in level 3 probably-- and conferring with teachers, directors, front desk folk, and the like, I stumble out, having committed nothing but to return their books the next day. People are very trusting... It was freezing in the school, and I had eaten one piece of bread and one egg in the past almost 48 hours, so I was kindof dazed.

Then I approached 2 women leaving the school, and went to lunch with them. I could barely eat even then. we had foul and ta'amiya, and i only ate the ta'amiya. Its like felafel with veggies in a tiny pita. foul is kinda like tahini, bean paste in a pita. for 2 little sandwiches, it was only 1.50 LE (egyptian pounds) which is like, 20 cents. Its amazing. So, slightly revived and a bit reassured (the girls I went to lunch with seemed not nearly as scared as me, although one was older and had already been there for 3 weeks and was half-Egyptian anyway and staying with family, and the one was a fearless 24-year-old journalist who says "if you can't go somewhere alone, you can't go at all," whatever that means I disagree!). Then back to ILI for the computer lab, ah, such reassuring contact with home. I had felt so cut off in my flat, with no phone, internet, telephone...

So I decide to go look for a phone. I ask for directions at the front desk, and make my way down a Major Road, weaving in and out of traffic, like the skillful one that I am. But, my skilll vaporizes in the cell phone shop, where a girl who looks oddly chinese is yelling at the shop guy in arabic, and I cannot communicate. So i say, i need to find someone who speaks arabic, and leave. I call my friend Lydia (the airport pickup, and first night's stay). She says, call her back after 7. I also tell her of my desire to stay with someone, anyone, not alone in the flat.

So, then I decide to find stamps, envelopes, an egyptian arabic phrasebook, a decent map of cairo. I know I can find these things at the AUC (american university in Cairo) bookstore, which is downtown. So I ask random people how to get there, in broken arablish. It fails. They all give different directions, all of which involve a taxi. i am reluctant to take a taxi, but realize it may be my only hope. I sit down on a wall next to some girls selling tarmis, which are these little yellow beans. They rip me off, and I hold thier friend's baby Abdul, and they freak out over my hair and eyes, and we try to communicate, and it was fun. They are not much help, but walk me across the street to get a taxi. He also rips me off (so did the first guy. apparantly even egyptians think taxi drivers are thieves. my new host says, "the only way to get a fair deal is to make a scene"). But I get dropped off at AUC, which is closed. Well, well. They won't even let me in to go to the bathroom. So I walk down some rather dark and deserted streets (but I see other westerners! I try not to act too excited), trying not to feel creeped out, follow the light, find a very nice modern American bathroom in a British coffeeshop, stop in a stationary store to buy envelopes, and finally find Midan Tahrir/Sadat (apparantly most things have 2 names...) which was near where I lived last time. Its a huge loud traffic circle right downtown, near the Nile, the big hotels, a lot of stores, etc. It is insane. You can go under it through Metro tunnels, otherwise you will surely die (not really, I've done it above ground. once. with a group leading me.)

FINDING MELISSA: So I decide, I'll take the Metro. But I have no idea where I'm going. I ask a zillion people, no one makes sense. Finally me and some guy talk it out (in French, bits of Arabic, and bits of English), and I get a direction and a stop. But when I get on the train, the stop doesn't exist. So I ask the woman next to me. She speaks English! I show her where I am trying to go. Its near her house! My flat and hers are like 4 minutes apart. She's from California. Plus, she knows Lydia! In Egypt, as everywhere, who you know is very important. So, we get off at the same spot, and she calls a taxi, and it takes me near my house. I return the cell charger that I had borrowed from the nice woman at the electronics shop on the corner, and my new friend, Melissa, says that she has a phone (I had asked her to help me buy one, since her Arabic is much better than mine.) It was left over from her brother in-law's travel. My phone won't take a SIM card, which is apparantly how these things work here. Whatever. So, we go to her flat. She finds the phone. I almost cry, I am so happy that I've found a friend, who is helping me, and is so nice as to give me a phone (at the store, new, they are 400 LE--about $75 I think). Plus her flat is soooo much nicer than mine, and she has roommates (2) and little plants and pictures and Bible verses on the fridge and I feel very at home. So, I call Lydia to find out if she had found anyone i could stay with, to avoid the loneliness of the flat of solitude. No dice, she cannot find anyone for me to stay with. I tell my new friend Melissa my predicament. We go down to a few shops, where she helps me set up the phone. Its very complicated, the system is not at all like an American cell phone plan.

Then, she says she has texted her roommates and they say I can stay with them. I met them both and they are very nice--Liz and Marie. They are American Christians, Liz and Marie are teachers, I think, and Melissa is a nurse. So, we go to "my" flat, and get my stuff, and bring it over here, and I met Marie who is letting me use her computer, and it is lovely, and they say I can stay as long as I need to. So it is also nice becuase I can get my money back from Lydia for the Flat of Loneliness. But I hoped to find a permanent place quickly in Mohandiseen, becuase it is a long trek to school from here. Melissa gave me directions of how to get to school (it takes an hour, and involves 2 taxis and the Metro) that is much cheaper than taking one taxi. But I feel like a pro, because Marie said that she didn't take a taxi alone until she'd been here maybe a month. So, this long and complicated commute is a pain, but its not so bad. It also seems warmer in here than in the old flat. So, I have a nice place to stay for awhile, a school, and a phone... such progress from this afternoon! I am infinitely reassured just to have other people in the flat.

Day One and the Lonely Night

When I woke up, Lydia and Nahamia had bad news--they strongly did NOT recommend Kalimat, the language school I had planned on going to. Someone they know had a very bad experience there. Also, they were having guests and I would have to leave that evening. They knew someone who had a hotel downtown, but it was full. It turns out thier company had an empty flat in the area, so they would put me there. A Korean guy in their company came over and told me about his Arabic school, a Catholic one. Since I had been too freaked out to speak Arabic to anyone much yet, Lydia and Nahamia assumed I didn't know anything. So they recommended I take a private tutor at this Catholic school, and stay in the dorm behind a church nearby the school, but this did not sound very good to me. They had lots of connections, which was helpful, but this new opening up of options was rather stressful for me. So, they took me to the flat, which was very lonely. I spent a night writing letters and reading a Peanuts comic book I found on the bookshelf in the flat, and to be honest, worrying. Lydia and Nahamia knew someone who lived near the 'guest' flat where I was staying who went to the Catholic school, and she was going to meet me at 7 in the morning.

THE LONELY NIGHT: So, that night I was concerned about setting an alarm. My old phone gets no signal, but it does have an alarm, but it was dying, and my charger needed an adaptor (the plugs are different here). So I went to the little dusty electronics kiosk in the market square on the corner behind the mosque, behind the butcher. This is an insane little market, the ground is all wet and the walls are dirty and graffitied, but in non-sinister way. There are giant dead animals hanging, and tons of guys baking bread in an old brick oven. I think one of them, um, exposed himself to me. But I only saw the aftermath (the zipup, the giggles from the other guys). Yeah, Egypt. There is also the convenience-store-type booth where I bought phone cards and called my parents from the street corner pay phone. And a bunch of other little kiosks -- I got 2 apples, and 2 pieces of bread (only .50 LE--that's like... nothing! 5 cents?) but I was too scared to eat when I got back. I tried the new adaptor, and it worked, but then i found a space heater, and plugged it into that same outlet. When I tried to replug in the charger, nothing happened. It wouldn't charge. And then, the space heater died! What the crap! I searched the whole apartment for another way to get an alarm, but no dice.

I go back to the electronics booth lady (by electronics, I mean lightbulbs, cell phone covers, and converters, and nothing else discernable). She was super nice, and somehow we figured out my charger had blown, and that she was going to let me borrow her charger (which sortof fit in my phone) if i brought it back the next day. I have no clue how this was communicated, since she spoke no english. Her booth is only enclosed on 3 sides so she was keeping warm over a gas flame. it was crazy to see men with the traditional scarves and gallibiya on--they seem to break out the elaborate scarves more in the winter to stay warm (there were a bunch of them bundled up outside the airport). Anyway, I take it home, and have a moment of panic when it doesn't work, but then i realized it had to be plugged into the right outlet (one didn't work) and only half-way plugged into my phone, and angled correctly to stay in contact. So. I set my alarm, I try to sleep, but I wake up a lot. But I still overslept, becuase I messed up my am and pm. But never fear, it all turned out alright!

Arrival in Cairo

After all this shopping at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, I went back to the airport hours early, to take a nap and buy some overpriced tea. My flight was at 11 pm, and I was so wired despite the jetlag (I think it was this theme of drinking caffenated tea). I was pretty nervous coming into Cairo; I started having the "What am I doing here? I can't spend 3 months here! What was I thinking?" panicky thoughts. I lied a lot on the entry card--I am here for study, but I declared it tourism so I can get a cheaper visa, and I am in fact not staying in the hotel of the person sitting next to me on the plane, nor the hotel of the American family I met coming off the plane that I listed on the immigration health card. The airport was a bit of a hassle (I didn't have money for the visa, had to be escorted past passport control and back, had to go to the bathroom the whole time...) but I finally got there, my luggage came out just as I walked up to the kiosk, and I made my way out into the line of Egyptian men (90%men, for real) waiting either for relatives or for unsuspecting tourists to rip off. And I don't see my friends. I walk around the circle, heading outside... turning down lots of "do you need a taxi? are you alone?" as well as one man who went "sexy?" like it was a question. I got rather nervous, having almost completed a full circle, when I hear a woman call my name and I see Lydia and Nahamia and thier 2 daughters, all of whom came out to pick me up at 2 in the morning. I knew them from when I was here before, although not well. They usher me onto the shuttlebus, and I have to admit to them that I have no place to stay. They let me stay at their house, in a guest room. I could barely get to sleep, I was so nervous, but then I slept for 14 hours; I woke up at 4 pm.



So on the way here (about a week ago) I had an 11 hour layover in Istanbul. So I bought a visa and left the airport, with a little bit of a plan. Someone had given me directions for how to get to the main tourist area, so I didn't have much problem. Istanbul is a crazy place, but it seems normal compared to Cairo looking back on it. From my stop off the Metro, I could see the Aya Sofia (Hagia Sophia--used to be a church, then a mosque, now a museum) and the Blue Mosque, but I didn't know which was which. I was walking through a park towards them when a guy came up to me and said "Can I harrass you?" but I thought he said "can I help you?" so I didn't say no as emphatically as I should have and he followed me for awhile asking questions and being annoying until I told him to go away and leave me alone. And he said "fine, I'll leave you alone, and someone else will come harrass you, its what you deserve."So this shook me up a little, so instead of stopping at the Aya Sofia I kept walking and wandering, and finally ended up on a bench in the same park.

Eventually I got my nerve back and went to the Aya Sofia. I met a Canadian couple outside, I went up to talk to them becuase I heard them speaking English. They had been living in Geneva for the last 2 years, they were very kind, I spent most of my day with them. It was really nice not to be alone, and since Turkish is completely incomprehensible to me, it was helpful to talk to someone. The Aya Sofia is stunning--all these shafts of dusty light coming in through the windows, beautiful old mosaics from the building's Christian years and huge circles of Arabic calligraphy from the mosque years. Giant chandeliers hang from the ceiling really low,I almost hit my head. I think its the most beautiful builiding I've ever been in. We went for lunch (shwarma on the street) and to the Blue Mosque's courtyard, but couldn't get in becuase it was prayer time. So we went to my new friends' hotel, and went up on their roof, where we could see the Bosporus on one side and the spires of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia on the other. We were up there during the call to prayer and it was kindof haunting but very cool to hear the sounds coming from mosques around the city (including across the street). Then we went back to the Blue Mosque and got to go inside, there is a lot of intricate and beautiful tile-work but other than that it struck me as a lovely and huge mosque, and that's about all. We went to get tea by my suggestion in a rather nice, although very smoky, restaurant (everyone in Istanbul seems to smoke like chimneys).

Then I saw them to the Metro stop and went on my way to the Grand Bazaar. I was over my initial timidity and loneliness, and felt very confident. I got a cup of tea from a shop owner, and bought a box of apple tea from him. The Grand Bazaar is a huge labyrinthe of tourist kiosks, jewelry shops, antiques, fabric, and what appears to be rip-off designer brand stuff. Its fun to get lost in, although the male shopkeepers can be kindof rude to women alone.I got in a bit of a yelling fight with a guy selling lanterns--I thought I wanted one, but decided I didn't have enough money right when he started to wrap it up. He kept going, and when he finally caught on that I wasn't going to buy, he got mad at me. So I left, yelling back "I tried to tell you!" and he shouted some more in Turkish, and I was kindof perversely pleased. Its terrible, I know. I also got a ring for free--I was looking for a very old style and had to dig around in the box they didn't keep on display becuase they were so old and he finally gave it to me for free "becuase I like your look- very simple." but probably becuase he couldn't sell it to anyone else. I also got a changepurse for free, becuase I looked at it, asked the price, and walked away, so he called me back and said "for you, free. A gift." So, I, always one to take free stuff, said thanks.

Random Reflections

And now, some random things I've noticed in Cairo since I got here:
  • Sometimes you think it looks like its going to rain, but then you realize its just the pollution.
  • About 90% of Muslim women in Cairo veil now, by my estimate (pretty rough), up from my (much rougher) estimate of 70% a year and a half ago. This is apparantly part of a greater trend towards orthodoxy and Islamism in Egypt. It was one of the most liberal Arab states 15 years ago, but the trend is reversing.
  • Gallibayas are awesome.
  • If you (a woman) go outside with your hair wet, it is like advertising you just had sex.
  • If you have an unmarried man over to your house, people will assume you are having sex (because you are a foreigner and considered of loose morals. exceptions: wealthy, educated upper classes are more open-minded, and in certain large groups it is acceptable)
  • If you (a woman) look men in the eye, they may think that you are interested in them. Eye contact is a no-no. Also, if you respond to cat-calls, hissing, low dirty comments, loud admirations of your beauty or sex appeal, or marriage proposals, even with a negative comeback, this is considered encouragement. That said, you can throw a fit if they touch you, and people will help you.
  • Be friendly, but not too friendly. You can talk to male shopkeepers, ask for directions (although asking females is preferred) or talk to male cabbies (I haven't seen a female cabbie ever, but I hear they exist), but not too much. Don't ask me what this bit of advice is supposed to mean.
  • The front car of the Metro (subway--and the front 2 cars during rush hours) is reserved for women. It is a great relief, and I love it.
  • Every blonde I have seen portrayed in the media--billboards and TV mostly--is a ho.
  • When you get off the subway at the Sadat stop downtown, an awesome techno version of the James Bond theme blares from the TVs,and it fits very nicely with all the veiled women and men in gallibiyas rushing around. Sometimes there is also a bizarre TV ad where a village of American Indians (who look suspiciously Egyptian) are being raided by T-rexes, and scenes of schools of swimming fish are randomly interspersed.
  • Egyptian Coptic (orthodox) Christians (about 5%? maybe?) have little square crosses tatooed on the inside of their wrists.
  • Alcohol is forbidden and generally frowned upon, but there are still billboards for Heiniken. The beer of Egypt is called Stella.
  • As far as I understand, "respectable" women do not smoke, or smoke hookah. There are, as always, exceptions for the upper classes, and foriegners.
  • Women also do not go to the sidewalk cafes where the men sit around and play chess (or something like that) and smoke and talk.Which is a shame, becuase it looks really fun.
  • PDA is quite frowned upon. Also, dating is not really the way to go. Engagements are more frequently broken off here than in the US, and are kindof modern Egypt's answer to dating. Young couples often go to a neighborhood away from where everyone knows them to have dates. One girl (Sally) told me that while she had dated her now-fiancee for years, she didn't meet his family until right before they got engaged, and that was the norm. But I've also heard that to date like that is not the norm, but she's pretty rich.
  • I've noticed more black people ("real" Africans, I guess) than I did a year and a half ago. Maybe I'm more observant now,but also I think that there are a lot more Sudanese refugees, and immigrants from nearby countries, and the number continues to grow. A lot of Sudanese come to Cairo to escape trouble at home, and get stuck here, whether becuase of poverty or beurocracy, and their lives kinda suck. But also there seem to be more well-off immigrants. And in some neighborhoods (richer ones, I'm guessing), they mix with Egyptians, but sometimes not. Also, some of the younger guys dress like they're from the South Side, which makes me smile and miss Chicago.

Try to take my mass generalizations with a grain of salt. I am not trying to be racist or anything, and I am aware that there are always exceptions. Its just to give you an idea of what life is like here, and to give me an outlet for everything I've been wanting to say.