Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Midterms, khalaas!

Ahhh, midterms, finally khalaas, i.e. finished. I feel that as my Arabic improves, my English deteriorates, but I sense that if I don't write soon, certain peoples will complain. Besides, I have a reason for not scribing my thoughts more swiftly-my computer sucks. Seriously, the battery only works about half of the time, and, fortunately, now is one of those times. Thus, I will expound on my adventures beginning last Saturday, right where I left off.
I was so productive! Even though I went to bed rather late on Friday, I was up by 6:30 am on Saturday, had an excellent workout at the gym (all alone, for once!), showered and caught the 9 am ALI tour. As you've discerned, ALI conducts weekly tours around Cairo, and last weekend we visited the Nilometer, Al-Amr mosque, and the remains of Fustad. Before I launch into my history lesson, I should mention the guide for these tours, Dr. Chahindra (sp.), an art history professor at AUC. She is absolutely amazing! Patient and incredibly knowledgeable about anything related to Cairo and history in general, she went with us to Siwa, is going with us on the Nile Cruise (my Thanksgiving dinner is going to, dare I say it, be eaten on a cruise boat drifting down the Nile), and has led every ALI tour thus far. I have rarely heard here repudiate or be unable to answer a question that any of us have asked, and that's saying something, considering our inquistive minds inquire about anything from the Pharonic times to the Mamluks to the modern era to Islam in general, and our requests range from religion to daily life to arcitecture to dynastic inheritance to whatever crossed our minds. What can I say, most of us (me excluded) are 2--somethings studying in Egypt. We're all a little crazy!
The Nilometer was actually more impressive than I had originally envisioned. Once used to measure the Nile yearly innudation, it is a large, ornate well with doors on three walls to measure the Nile's annual ebb. Of course, with the introduction of dams to the Nile, it no longer floods, and the Nilometer is obsolete, but it does contain, around the rim, the oldest script preserved on a building in Cairo. Classical Arabic unfortunately did not feel the need to use the teksheefs so useful in Arabic. What are these, you ask? Well, if you've ever seen Arabic script, they are the dots and lines above and below the letters; in other words, the distinguishing elements of the script. I cannot imagine trying to decipher Arabic without these. Saab owee (very difficult!). The Nilometer was constucted in, I believe, the Abasaad era of Cairo, whose rulers reigned from Baghdad (yes, once Iraq was the cultural mecca of the Middle East). As the Nile rose, celebrations commenced to welcome the flood, and, the caretaker of the Nilometer would climb into the rising wonders and purify it with incense and perfumes. Imagining anyone bathing in the Nile is a horrifying thought, but then, Cairo was not a city of 20 million then, either, and the Nile may actually have been relatively pure. Nowadays, you can descend to the bottom of the well, peer into dank tunnels hopefully blocked at the other end, and climb out.
After the Nilometer, we visited the Al-Amr mosque the oldest mosque in Cairo, although, unfortunately, it has been rebuilt a number of times. A few vestiges of the old mosque remain, though, and it's disquieting to sit quiescently on the carpeted floor and gaze up a wooden beams dating to the 800's and imagine that Cairo was once renowned for its forethought, intellectuals, and architecture, that once this city was at the forefront of modernity with indoor plumbing and streets perfumed by the redolence of jasmine. Rebuilt several times because it was too small, the mosque once pioneered several elements now common in all mosques, including the 'gate' in the wall facing Mecca; the last time it was rebuilt was only a few years ago after an earthquake damaged some of the columns. Our tour group was extremely small, around 12 students, as most people are too sensible to be up at 9 on a Saturday morning, and we sat on the floor of the mosque and listened to a brief history of Islam. During our time there, a funeral took place, which was much simpler than Christian funerals, with the mourners gathered around the body and repeating several verses after Imam (I think he led it, anyway). There were no eulogies or sermons, just a few words said over the body and then a procession the the graveyard. Bodies should be interred as swiftly as possible in Islam for religious and practical reasons, so the person probably had only died a day or so ago.
Finally, after the mosque, we visited the ruins of Fustad, the ancient city that proceed Cairo, or, I guess, founded it. For once, the day had dawned dreary and overcast, and the ruins only empasized the atmosphere of decay, as they were covered in sticky mud, crumbling columns, suddenly sheer wells once filled with sweet liquid but now harbouring a foul soup of sludge (we managed to avoid falling in those!), and foundations of the grand mansions which once climbed four stories into the sky. The site has only been elementarily escavated, and we wandered through the still stolid foundations (see pic above), sometimes encountering a beautifully preserved paraquet floor or sewer pipe, and wondered about the people who lived there. We know they had two wells for each house, once which provided clean water through a series of pipes to even the upper floors, and the other which drained the used water into wells and covered sewage ditches. Before we left, a few friends and I managed to pilfer a few shards of pottery lying on the ground, managing the evade the guards whose keen eyes linger on anyone who appears too interested in the ground (I felt a little guilty, until our guide told us that before there were guards, she and her university friends used to come out there and collect all kinds of stuff). After that, a nap! And then I went to the Coffee Bean to study Arabic and encountered a nice Arab man in line (I know what all you are thinking, so don't laugh to hard at the rest of the story). I was mentally reciting my list of over 200 Arab media words for the midterm on Monday, and, after I sat down, he came and sat down next to me, as there were no other tables open in the cafe. Of course, he employed that convenient Arab concept of hospitality and offered to help me study, and, believe it or not, he did. He corrected me on pronounciation, and, during our tutoring session, we discussed many things. For instance, I learned that he is pilot for Egypt Air, his nickname is Timo, he's 35, and some other things. His flirtations were quite amusing; for instance, as he was teaching me the word for towards, he 'cleverly' said, in Arabic, that he has feelings 'towards' me, that I dress nicely, and, when he asked whether I resemble my mom or my dad more (I said both), he said they must be very attractive (see, you'd like him, Mom, he thinks you're beautiful; ;-). Anyway, I ducked out about two hours later, accepted his phone number, and went home. For an Arab man, he was very polite, he didn't push for my number too much and spoke English perfectly, and he was rather cute. Until I have a desire for an amorous tutor (which will, happily, be never), I will not call him.
And then the school week came, and with it that onerous Media midterm; I'm going to gripe, so please excuse me; it was a two day affair, with one day concentrating strictly on vocab and reading comprenhension, and the other day on vocab and listening comprehension to BBCArabic and transcribing what we heard, word for word, and answering questions on it. It was difficult, but I think I did alright. And for those of you who think I'm just being modest, I'm definitely not, thus far, pulling straight As in my classes. Of course, this may be because I've become a bit more social than I was in Minnesota. In ALI, there are still so few students that it is hard not to make friends, especially since I spent about 4-6 hours a day with the same 7 people.
I honestly think some of the teachers give so much homework that they expect you to turn it in late, as, sometimes, they (well, Delal anyways) will say the homework for the next day is to turn in anything you're behind on.
My roommates and I are planning to host a big Thanksgiving dinner on the 22nd in our apartment, and so many of the evenings have been spent discussing that and discussing how big it should be, as the apartment simply can only hold so many students. I'll write more about it after the actual event, but it should be a wonderful event! We're in the process of sending out e-vites to friends and finding out where in Cairo to buy a turkey and cranberries, a far more daunting propostion in a country that really could care less about pilgrims and Indians and American holidays in general. And, of course, a few hours after the guest have left the party, Frances, I, and about 60 other students will be boarding planes for the flight to Aswan and the Nile Cruise. And I won't miss this flight, I promise!
Ahh, finally the weekend came around yesterday, and after I finished class at 11 am, one of my classmates, Daia, and I, had coffee with a friend and hung out on campus for about 4 hours, basking in the afterglow of completed midterms. The week of classes was quite fascinating, actually, as the elections occured on Tuesday and the campus was abuzz about who would win and even the teachers discussed the intekhbaats in class, in Arabic, of course. I couldn't gloat this time, like in 2004, but at least Pawlenty won, and Minnesota's still in good hands ;-) My tutor, Ahmed, and I, also discussed politics, and somehow we got on the subject of the Clintons, and he, like many other men I've questioned, actually like Hillary because she supported her husband throughout the sex scandal and stood by his side. Uggh! Hillary.
It's also fascinating to talk to Egyptians who haven't been raised in Egypt and who are more educated than most of the Arab world. This is a generalization, but so many of them are more disgusted with Egyptian culture than foreigners and don't like to be associated with Egypt. Many of the females are far more sheltered than I am, and never take taxis or walk outside alone. I still reign supreme in crossing the street; just stare those cars down that come barreling towards you at 60 mph ;-)
As I've mentioned earlier in the blog, I used to live in the Cairo Khan dorm/hotel in downtown, and I still have alot of friends from there, naturally, since they're all great girls! One of my former roommates, Annie, receives laundry priviledges from me for her underclothes, as they have to send all of their laundry to a cleaner, and, honestly, who wants some random person fondling her underwear? Daia, Annie, and I returned to Zamalek, Annie washed her clothes, we visited Metro and started to watch the Aristocats, but were interrupted because my computer is stupid and decided to lose power halfway through. As girls always will, we chatted, well, gossiped, and the conversation led to copious topics, including the rape incident on Talaat Harb over Eid, very near the Cairo Khan dorm. I learned that Annie and some friends were visiting the rooftop bar/restaurant on top of the Odion, right next the the Metro movie theatre where all of the abuses occured, that selfsame day. How comforting to learn that no one, particularly AUC, thought to warn their students of the prudence of avoiding that area.
I'll stop griping again and finish this blog. It ends rather spectacularly, mind you. I walked Daia home, took a cab to the Nile Hilton and worked out, and then walked over to campus to meet some friends to go horseback riding. Yay! Moonlit riding by the pyramids. Well, it was that, and more. My two friends, Tonetta and Jon, and I took a cab to the stables that I have ridden at previously, D I stables. When the car pulled up, the office was suffused in blackness and the gate was padlocked. The cab driver got out, nudged a pile of blankets, produced a young man, and then left. Hmm, I was thinking, this is a little more sketchy than before. Well, we waited in the office while the boy tacked up the horses; as he greeted us, I learned, to my dismay, that he spoke not a word of English and rattled off in Amia for long minutes, discoursing on subjects that I knew were important, yet could not entirely divine. After a brief discussion on saddles, we mounted up and rode off down the road and into the alleyways that eventually empty out into the sands. I felt slightly uncomfortable riding into absymal blackness, but the guide trotted right past me first, so I followed. We finally achieved the desert, and tension in my body eased somewhat, as the buildings fell away and the sand shone dimly in the filtered moonlight. Now, I say filtered because the pollution was particularly bad yesterday, and the sunight that reached Cairo was muted and hazy, and the moonlight was softly orange and pale. Our guide, named noor, had a slightly annoying habit of stopping to chat with various folk along the way and trotting up behind your horse, shouting ummpha, and slapping it on the rear end. On the way out, this treatment had little effect on the horses, because, as hard as Jon and I tried (and he's a much better rider than I am), the horses only affected a half-hearted gallop before quickly dropping into a jarring trot and then a slow amble.
Climbing (slowly) to a summit, all of the pyramids came into full view, and the sight was breathtaking, I'll admit, with the glow of their spotlights illuminating them in a halo of smoke and shadow. Noor, alright, the boy annoyed me, had a horrible tendency to laugh at everything, even when it really wasn't appropriate, laughed as he asked if I wanted a photo (see above, the pryamids really are out there, I promise), laughed as he took them, and laughed as he handed me my camera. Now, we were not alone in the desert, as their were many groups, mainly Egyptians, also enjoying the night on horseback, and there were several gathered around a campfire. Noor wished to stop, as he was cold (well, I figured he shouldn't have been attired in a t-shirt), but the rest of us wanted to return, so we turned around and headed back to the stables. Horses always know when they're going home, and these were no different, and the gait was much perkier down the hillock. At the bottom, Noor laughed (of course), asked, I think, if we wanted to gallop, and so Jon and I took off pleasantly, veering slightly off course but still in control. Tonetta didn't want to gallop, so she followed slowly, which was fine, except Noor pulled up next to me, began a lengthy tirade about...something...and then sent Jon and I galloping again. Cool, I thought, but then something went wrong, maybe it was Noor passing me, maybe it was me, but my horse decided that a little buck while galloping would be mumtaz.
Ahhh, the sensation of your body leaving the saddle, the flash of a snorting horse next to you, the unpleasant thud of your impact on the sand, the thunder of hooves avoiding your head, and the blessed silence as the horse gallops away triumphantly. I popped up swiftly, found the horse, and mounted again with obdurate determination. Noor laughs, asks if I'm good (I was just thrown by your horse, dude, how do you think I'm doing), and then walks for a bit. For much of the trip, he was telling me about other riding options the stable offers, like sunrise rides and trips to Saqaara. Now, when I do those, it will be with the guide I used previously, Ali, who spoke decent English and was more instructive and generally amiable than Noor, whose attitude grated on my nerves. Perhaps it was because I was expecting Ali...After a bit of a walk, I want to gallop again to do it right this time, so I start going, maybe too brashly, but I settled into a nice gait, watched Jon pass me and Noor charge after him, and then I sensed a change in my horse, felt its back arch, flew out of the saddle, and...but I've already described it once, twice would be redundant. I picked myself off the ground, absolutely furious with myself for falling off, twice, and waited until Noor came out of the gloom with my horse, chatting abashedly with Tonetta while I waited. Returning to the stables with no further incidents, although I assidiously watched my horse's ears flatten and his neck nip a number of times, we paid the boy 40 LE a piece, got into the cab, and returned to the university. Of course, before I can actually get in the cab, I have to be harassed by Noor who, like all ignorant Egpytian men, find my blonde hair magnetic and must flirt with me. Uggh, despite the falling off, it was fun (truly), and I'll do it again, but I'll make sure it's with a different guide/stable. It's almost 7 here, and I'm rather hungry, so, until next time, peace.