Friday, April 20, 2007

Cairo Ramblings





I am such a fool; truly, I am! It took me until almost my departure to discover the most beautiful part of Cairo, Al-Azhar Park. This morning, after a glorious night of sleep (I think I got almost eight hours!), I rolled out of bed at 11:30 and wandered into Frannie's room, where I found here busily e-mailing away. She cast me a quizzical look, and inquired about my plans, and, they being nothing, invited me on a 'stroll' through Cairo, from Zamalek to Al-Azhar Park and then a swim at the Nile Hilton. Having never been to the hadiqa (that's garden in Arabic), I accepted, and we desended about an hour later to begin our walk. You see, the two of us have decided, now that the weather in Cairo is divine bordering on hot, that we should do more walking around the city-walking to school, walking to the gym, etc. in order to save money and burn calories. Our implementation of the plan has been fairly successful thus far, and today was a rousing victory.
Marching (at a pace swifter than the Nile's placid waters) through Zamalek during the Friday sermon, we found the streets fairly deserted and calm, a rarity indeed along the main thoroughfare 26th of July, really only encontering other human beings near the mosques, when the overflowing masses of male humanity spread themselves on green mats across the sidewalks and alleyways. Eventually, we crossed the 26th of July bridge onto the mainland, recalling our first trip over that span many months ago the night we had first signed our apartment lease (oh how innocent we were!)-the stifling heat, the base odors, the jostling crowds, the laybrinyth of Cairo streets. In the daylight, on a languid Friday afternoon, we laughed at our previous tremulousness and trepidation. Cairo is so compact and not so intimidating once you realize the general layout, so we strolled along the corniche, the walk that borders the river, commenting on the cool breeze of the river and wavering shade of the palm trees lining the walk. It was quite pleasant along the Nile, observing the sweethearts walking hand in hand and giggling, the families with young children skipping ahead and shouting hello, the tourists seated on benched and clutching their bags in perenniel fear of thievery, the roving bads of adolescent boys directing mild harassment at you, the juice sellers and bread sellers balancing impossible weights on their shoulders as they manouvered through traffic.
Too soon, we turned off the Corniche and towards Medan Tahrir and Talat Harb street, stoically abjuring the attempts by various individuals to entice us from our path and into a shop or who knows where. We received several new lines to add to our tome of Cairo harassment lines-go take a shower; you have a big bum; oh, the cold shoulder (well, this one at least was accurate, as we did indeed brush brusquely past an accosting man) , etc. interspersed with the rather mundane, mowza (meaning babe or hottie in Arabic), ya jameela (hey beautiful) or other putative and overused expressions that just no longer make an impression. So, we reached the end of Talaat Harb and pondered briefly our next course, left or right? I left the decision to Frannie, as I had little idea of the correct way, so we turned left and began down a path we had not yet traversed, past little neighborhood shops hawking everything from cell phones to clothes to vegetables to cheap liquour to shoes, always shoes! At some point, glancing around us at the unfamiliar government buildings, we had to admit we were lost, but we really weren't concerned; eventually we'd come to a known landmark, or, if no aid availed us, we'd hop in a taxi to the gardens. However, we soon encountered Ramses Station, the main station of Cairo, and struck off in a direction that seemed vaguely plausible, entering a neighborhood that became increasingly shabi the further we penetrated. Now, when I say shabi, I guess I mean poor, more lower class, more ramshackle, but I do not mean unsafe. We may well have been the first foreigners, certainly the first blondes, the set foot upon those streets, but we never felt unwelcome or the gaze of hostility fall upon us; no, most people greeted us with genuine hospitality, or at least candid curiousity at our presence in their humble quarter.
I had read that Cairo is really nothing more than a series of interlocking small villages forming a pleasing concinnity that comprises much of the city, but I had not explored enough to truly understand this concept. However, we entered an area where cars but seldom putter past; where horse and donkey carts are far more common; where flowering trees occasionally sprout from abandoned lots and crumbling buildings sprout laundry lines and flower pots, where women walk fully veiled through the streets with their burden balanced on their heads, where men sit in cafes and sip tea and shisha, where ancient mosques dating back hundreds of years still call the faithful to prayer, where streets have no name, no status on a map, but are nonetheless the scene of a human drama for millions of people scratching a living from dust and pollution of Cairo. This is where we walked, through villages and neighborhoods where serenity reigned and birds twittered happily in the air. At some point, we emerged from this place still untouched my time onto a main avenue, followed it for a bit, came to a central square, and got our bearings.
Actually, despite the detour, we were indeed on the right track, and only needed to continue along to reach the Khan, and, eventually, the gardens, so we pushed our way through the cacaphony of cars and street people along the road until we reached the beginnings of the Khan, saw white tourists again, and knew we had reached our destination. Instead of heading straight to the Khan, we hit up one of our favorite stores behind Al-Azhar Mosque, Al-Khatoun, disguised so completely beyond narrow alleyways and twisting paths that only the intiated can find it, bought a few things, and took a cab rather than endure the 20 minute uphill walk to the gardens. And what gardens they were! I had heard their acclaim promulgated from the lips of my friends for many long months, but I had basely considered it an exaggeration. Not so, from the minute we paid the minimal entrance fee and passed through the gates, we had stepped into a different world, this one paved with cool marble and stone flagstones, graced with murmuring streams and splashing fountains and blue-tiled waterways coursing in every direction, shaded with leafy tree arbours, perfumed by roses and other coloured blooms, commanded over by the scintillating reflections of a small lake, and endowed with acres of green lawn and rolling hills providing breathtaking views of the Citadel, city, and old Absayyid walls, which are being restored.
The garden itself is one of the success stories that provides a small inkling of hope for the world. Once an unseemly garbage dump presiding over Cairo, the garden was funded by coffers from the U.N., Al-Azhar mosque, and other sources, transforming the toxic and unusable land into a garden of Eden and oasis of greenery offering a welcome respite to the aggrevations of Cairo. Enthralled, enraptured, entranced, and consummately enamoured, Frances and I wandered through the paths and eventually ended up at the small lake, where we dined at one of the little cafes scattered throughout the park, reveling in the magnificent views and watching the citizens enjoy the beauty of the park. After completing our meal, we walked a bit more, laughing at the small train that offers rides to anyone who cannot summon the energy to wander unaided through the leafy haven, climbed to the top of a small hill, smelled the blossoms, watched the reconstruction of the old wall, observed a band setting up stage, and begrudgingly left to fulfill our responsibilities to the real world. Frances went to the gym; I, to home, where I gratefully showered the sweat and labour of the day, otlobed some food in, and cuddled up in my bed to read the night away. And here I am this morning, furiously writing before the day begins and Deya calls and homework beckons and life's cycle is again renewed on the waters of the Nile...
I know, that last bit was fairly hideous, but I'm in the middle of a trashy historical epic about Egypt, and the waters of the Nile are always shimmering with a haze cloaked in mystery and adumbrating about the next coming of the pharoah, you know, stuff like that.
However, I have been back in Cairo for a week and a half; our plane arrived late, of course, nothing in Egypt operates on time, so most of us slept in through school, although I was suffused with this fulminating energy that kept me up until about 10; actually, it may well have been a combination of jet lag and knowledge that the maid would come and disturb me anyways that kept me up, plus the incessant drilling and pounding that occasionally rings from the apartment above us that happened to resonate resoundingly that morning and prevent my from the natural cycles of my sleep. Thus, even when I finally bedded down at 10 am, the pounding disturbed me and the maid still knocked on my door around 12 to inquire if she should clean my room. In a sleepy haze and fumbling Arabic, I told her I'd just returned and the room was still clean, so she left and I feigned sleep for a few hours, resigned myself, and got out of bed. Returning to classes the next day was quite enjoyable; I got caught up on my friends' spring break stories (we're an odd bunch, ALI, our idea of a good time is flying to Beirut and clubbing and exploring the Hezbollah territory, weaseling our way into Syria, chilling on the beach in Dahab, or, if you're normal, maybe visiting Greece and watching a yacht slowly sink in the water as international TV crews film it). Oh, yeah, and I bought a new cell phone. I'm on my fourth, now, in case you're counting, and you shouldn't be, because it's rather embarassing. Relaxation was key that weekend; I visited a great steakhouse in Cairo that weekend, Charwood's, attempted, and finally succeeded, to pay the internet bill, as our service had been cut off, shared vacation pictures with some friends, and readjusted myself to Cairo life, the call the prayer (which is echoing through my room as I write this, Alllaaaaah akbaaar) and the chaos and noise.
During the last week, I managed to visit the Khan twice to pick up various orders I had made in the Tentmaker's market and perfumes that I needed;-) Mother's beautiful, truly sumptuous quilt that I had custom-ordered, selected the colors and dimensions, chose a pattern, and waited for two weeks while it was hand-stitched, was ready the day I got back, so I braved the Khan and picked up the quilt, only to return a few days later to the same area. Usually, when men confront you on the streets and tell you they've seen you before, it is a hoax to entice you to follow them or for them to scam you, but, unfortunately, in my case they do actually see me too often, as I recognize their same pitiful lines every time I enter the market. Anyway, hopefully the quilt is en route to Minnesota right now, as I sent it home with Colin to ship it from the States rather than entrust so precious a package to the Egyptian post.
Cab drivers, they never cease to amaze me. Riding with one one afternoon, I struck up a conversation with the man and, as he learned I was from America, unfolded his life story before my imagination; officer in the army, worker in America, now cab driver in Cairo. Then he handed me some photos of his son, now 11, in America, and the letter from a woman, the mother of his child and maybe his wife, who also resides in America. Written in beautiful English, the letter made me feel slightly guilty as she eloquently professed her love to him and entreated him to come back and visit and see his son grow up. It was bizarre, to read such an intimate part of a stranger's life at his beckoning, but it's Cairo, and I have long learned not concern myself with the logic of life here.
In four days (and counting!) I'm jetting off with Colin for six days to Jordan to celebrate Sinai Liberation Day and a few extra ones in Wadi Rum, Amman, Petra, several Crusader castles, the Dead Sea, and the Ma'in hot springs. I've never planned a trip so last minute before, and I still need to book our Amman room, but I'm nonetheless quite excited. Colin, however, should learn never to leave the hotel details to me, because I tend to prefer the Movenpick over the backpacker haven in town. Oh, well...

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