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!

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