Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ramadan and daggers!

Well, it's Sunday afternoon and I'm taking a break from studying the ubiquitious vocab to write this. As I look across the street to the Hotel Flamenco, I cannot help but covet those lovely, thick curtains that provide privacy and security. You see, the other night, while I was hiding in Cilantro, by owner removed the current curtains and rod, told me he would return around 11 or 12 to put up new ones, but didn't knock again until after 1. Of course, his drill had broken, and he was going to his house in the Suez for the weekend, so he could not bring new curtains until Sunday. Perhaps I should have protested, but I was exhausted, and there was little I could do to amend the situation. So I'm sitting in my room curtainless, with a wonderfully expansive view of the Nile. I just hope I haven't frightened the Flamenco guests too much ;-)
Ramadan starts tomorrow, and the entire city of Cairo seems to be cloaked in a blanket of anticipation for the Ramadan festivities. I went to Al Abd a few days ago for some ice cream, and I have never seen the store so crammed! Everyone was stocking up on sweets, dried fruits, and nuts with which to cook to iftaar meal. I even did a little of my own cooking, lol. Well, I bought peanuts, almonds, walnuts, white raisins, coconut flakes, and M&Ms at the Metro and mixed them all together into a delicious homemade trail mix. Another Ramadan staple, Qmer Adeen, is apricot juice prepared by stirring rolls of apricot paste in water for a while. Well, I've discovered that the apricot 'paste' tastes just like a fruit rollup and is so much cheaper.
It's so difficult to describe Ramadan to anyone unfamiliar with Islamic traditions (mind you, I'm not that familiar, but I'm getting a few crash courses in the subject). The closest thing Christians have is Christmas, but Ramadan is so much more than that. It is a month of fasting, feasting, praying, philantrophy, parties, and gathering with friends and family. From sunrise till sunset, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, sex, and any other indulgent activities. Right at sundown, the fast is broken, and the iftaar meal is taken. This is a giant feast of every food imaginable, well almost any food. No alcohol is allowed during Ramadan, at least for pious Muslims, but sex is allowed after sundown. Apparently, it was just too difficult for some members of society to wait a whole month ;-) Anyway, for most people, nights turn into a giant party, and the ideal schedule is to sleep most of the day and then wake up in the evening to gorge and party. Of course, most people work during the day, so sleep is one of those non-essential staples that gets ignored. All of Egypt turns upside down for Ramadan; work usually doesn't get done, mosques serve free food during iftaar, and the pace of things slows waaaaaay down. Traffic is going to be horrendous, I'm told. Everyone decorates with neon lights (not Christmas lights), usually shaped like a fenoos, or latern. These are the proverbial symbol of Ramadan, bright, garishly colored laterns strung from every storefront and many balconies, many with scenes of mosques of other Islamic art. We have three in our apartment, and I bought my roommmates two candy-filled cloth ones as presents.
Yesterday, Frances and I went horseback riding by the pyramids. These was a bit of difficulty directing the taxi driver to the right stables, and then he wanted 30 LE, but he eventually left with only the correct 20 LE in hand and we mounted our valiant steeds with Ali as our guide. I rode Abu Dahab again, and he was so much fun! We galloped through the desert again, leaving everyone else far behind. I think Ali finds me rather amusing, because he knows anytime he asks if I want to go fast, I get this ridiculous grin on my face, give Abu a nudge with my heels, and shout "Ya Allah!", and of we gallop. Much fun! Of course, we can't gallop all of the time, as Abu would become too enervated, so we also get to enjoy the breathtaking views of the pyramids, not too horrible of a compromise ;-) I think my thighs are getting stronger, as the soreness factor is steadily decreasing after every ride. All told, with the guide's tip, 1.75 hour ride, and cabs there and back, I spent 120 LE, about 25 dollars.
After we returned home and washed the cloying musk of horse off, we went to Medan Hussein, and, you guessed it, the Khan El Khalili. We gorged ourselves on a wonderful meal overlooking the square, watching and being watched by the multitudes that pass through here. As Frances said, Medan Hussein is the Times Square of Cairo, although more like a medieval square, as it is bordered by the Al-Hussein mosque, the national mosque of Cairo and the epicenter of Ramadan activites. It was bustling when we arrived, and the atmosphere was already far more electric than I'd ever witnessed. I can't even imagine what it would be like during a weekend over Ramadan. Anyway, Cairo has an issue with stray cats, and it is an extremely unnerving feeling to feel them dart under your table, step on your feet, and flee between your legs. Because our restaurant was outside, we received our fair share of cat encounters. We also encountered a group of guys from the AUC, who piled into a table next door to us and a beautiful young Muslim woman who took a few pictures of us with her cell phone (because Frances and I are sooo exotic ;-) and then exchanged mobile numbers with Frances. Then, we wandered into the bazaar again, which is always such a sensory overload. I found one of my favorite purchases of the trip last night at an antiques, brass, and other random items store. Daggers! No, really, they are very cool! The hilts are animal horn, I think cow, and the sheathes are slightly worn leather with a few engravings and patterns with a loop to attach them to your belt. The blades themselves are some sort of metal, probably iron, with a few crude Xs carved into them. One blade has a slightly suspicious red blotch on the end that is not rust. The hilt and blade are attached by a leather thong tightly wrapped around them both, and the fastening is as sturdy as steel. I don't know how old they are, or if they are authentic antiques, but they're so COOL! The blades aren't sharp (although, if I really tried, I could probably stab someone, in self-defense, of course(, and I considered getting them sharpened, but then remembered that I have to return to the US at some point, and sharp knives might look suspicious, especially with the large Egypt Student Visa stamped in my passport. So, I now own two entirely intimidating daggers,which aren't a horrible trade-off for not scuba diving.

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