Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Super week

I've survived my first week of classes, although it was a close thing for a while ;-) Honestly, though, I notice a significant difference in the level of difficulty between last semester and this semester, particularly in regard to my reading and writing class. We don't use English! I know most of you are thinking, duh, Laura, it's an Arabic class, but given my lack of fluency, I am not yet able to grasp every concept thrown without a bit of English explanation. It makes for an interesting class, as the professor divulges all of her information in Arabic and at least some of us always stare back vacuously until she proceeds to further explain; of course, I do understand the majority of her lesson and am beginning to adapt to an Arabic style of teaching. I've realized that the sooner I accept that Arabic is a losing lifetime battle, the happier I will be. I feel like I've learned at TON during my time here, but then I pick up a random article on social issues in Egypt or watch a program on Al-Jezira not related to violence and war and struggle through each line. I've learned not to be depressed about my lack of Arabic because my life would be a very miserable thing. I take life lesson by lesson and attempt to absorb as much new vocabulary as possible, and it helps to have a roommate and best friend who speak excellent Arabic ;-)
Luckily, though, the first week of classes was not very onerous homework-wise, as several of my elective classes have not started yet. Being in Advanced Arabic, I have two core classes, Media and Reading and Writing, as well as Amia, and Translation and Spoken Amia will commence tomorrow. My schedule is truly glorious this semester, at least compared to the previous one. On Sunday and Thursday, classes begin at 11, on Wednesday at 12:30, and Monday and Tuesday at 9:30. No 8 a.m.s! I am typically in class until 3:30 most days, including Thursday, but I prefer that to dragging myself from bed at the call to morning prayer.
Given the blessed dearth of homework this week, I've been able to conduct a few activites outside of class. On Sunday after school, I arrived home slightly overwhelmed by Arabic but also quite joyous to be back at the uni. I really do love ALI-the people, the professors, the outrageous moments of cross culture hilarity, the atmosphere, and the location. Seeing all of my friends and acquaintances from last semester was wonderful, and I'm still catching up on some of their crazy winter break stories, as we are a different breed and tend to stray off the beaten path for adventure. Backpacking through Palestine, trekking through Bulgaria and Turkey, partying in London, meeting with Hezbollah in Lebanon-Why sit at home when adventure is just an unstable country away?
Anyway, I got home, renewed the tradition of roasting marshmallows and making smores and then decided to see a movie, one we had been wanting to but had simply not yet gotten around to it. Blood Diamond! Deya, Frances, and I went to the theatre across from the Ramses Hilton downtown, bought our tickets, wandered around the mall and pondered gallabayas and hideously tawdry Valentines' gifts, and then took our seats for Blood Diamond, which followed the usual standard of Egyptian management and began a half hour later then scheduled. I really enjoyed the movie, perhaps because I have a thing for Africa, but had to groan when Egypt censored any kissing and sex that would have much lightened the lugubrious nature of the film. Either way, go see it. We came home did a bit of studying, and then it was Super Bowl time! What, you may be asking, why does Laura care about the Super Bowl while in Egypt. A more accurate question would be why does Laura care about it at all, as she has missed the last several in favor of sleep and/or studying. Well, when Laura is in Egypt, a lot of aspects of Americana provide her with a sense of nostalgia about her homeland and so she occasionally endeavors on ludicrous expeditions to engender warm fuzzy notions of home inside of her. In other words, despite the fact that the Super Bowl did not start until 1:30, and, after much research, we discovered it was only being played in very select locations around the city (like casinos), I met up with several friends around midnight in the Metro and headed off to the Nile Hilton for some pre-game fun. Rather than watching the game in a sleazy, smoky casino, one of my friends had the brilliant idea of renting out a room at the Hilton and enjoying it in the comfort of purely American companionship, so around ten of us piled into a room, switched on the TV, and began the tradition of the Super Bowl. You see, the Nile Hilton's satellite gets ESPN Orbit, the seemingly only international channel that plays the game (as you may have gathered, I don't get that). Pizza was ordered in, introductions were made, beer was passed around, and sides were drawn by opening kickoff. I myself ordered room service and large quantities of ice to chill the alcohol and amused myself rooting for the Colts against the assault of Bears fans in the room. The evening was only slightly tempered by the knowledge that I had a 9:30 class the next morning, but I courageously remained awake for the entire game, even through the halftime festivities of Prince, who I now refer to as my homeboy. Unfortunately, ESPN Orbit does not use American affiliates, so our announcers were less than stellar and we had no fun commercials! But it was a hoot, and I left right after the final play at five, collapsed, and arose in a few short hours for class, to which I was only slightly late.
The next several days were relatively tame in comparison, a few trips to the gym, but no 'exclusive' parties in private rooms at the Hilton, just studying and resting, with one random trip to the bar Monday night for an hour to escape from the pressure of the CASA exam. Several of my friends are applying for a very intensive Arabic program offered by AUC that requires advanced knowledge of Arabic and requires them to complete a rigorous set of examinations, the first of which began today. Anyway, I truly did not have alot of homework this week, because I only have about half of my classes, so on Wednesday night we had some friends over and then Frances' Egyptian friend, Ismaiel, with whom she lived when she visited Cairo a year ago, contacted her. When I say lived with I really mean she stayed with his family and got to know him some, but it sounds more racy the other way ;-) He tends to go out alot, and we tend to stay in more, but that night we were amenable to a few hours of the Cairo Jazz Club with him and his friend, so a group of us piled into their beautiful cars (anything is beautiful after relying on Cairo taxis for transportation) and traversed the bridge into Mohendiseen and used Ismaiel's connections to get us in. We all had a few drinks, and then most everyone departed but Frances, myself, and the two Egyptians, so we loitered for half an hour on the dance floor before even we walked home and left the boys to the night.
After Thursday classes finally let out, I went home, studied (truly, as amazing as it may sound) with Deya, and then walked to L'Aubergine, a restaurant on Zamalek to meet a large group of mostly AUCians for dinner. The only issue was that we were too expansive for the restaurant, as I kept on inviting people to join me; the reservation was for 12, but we exceeded 20. Dean, a friend who organized the event, is luckily both forgiving and unperturbed by changes in plans, so several of us sat in a circle of chairs while the staff found an extra table. Eventually, we were all seated convivially around the long table contentedly munching on the delicious food of the restaurant (I had nachos ;-) and making new friends. I had an early morning the next day, and the group had dissipated rather limpidly, so a few of us returned to my home for smores, made sure everyone was home by her curfew, and then went to bed.
I really do hate early mornings, and Friday was brutal, rising before the sun. Peeking out of my window, I saw pre-dawn grey of morning bleach the typically colorless city with a dreary exhaustion mirroring my own. By the time I was out the door, a weak sun had climbed into the sky, hiding behind a procession of equally dour clouds and the usual haze of pollution. I got of at Medan Tahrir, waited a few minutes until Nicola appeared, and then descended into the stale underground of Cairo to take the Metro to the train station. We had been running a bit late (as usual) and the train was slow in arriving, but eventually we climbed into the women's car and disembarked soon thereafter at Ramses Station. Train stations are chaos in any country, but Cairo's seemed particularly disjointed, forcing us to wander a bit before finding the right window for tickets to Alexandria. As always, there were no signs directing passengers to the proper window, and just a mass of people elbowing and shouting their way to the front, but we eventually purchases tickets for second class, all that was available, for the 8 am train to Alex. I was 7:55. The platform was not clearly labeled on the ticket, and we tried several wrong areas before discerning the right one, then walking down a ways to find our car. Finally, we boarded, found our seats, and settled in for the uneventful ride meandering gently through the Nile Delta. Second class wasn't too horrible, actually, it was quite adequate, with plenty of leg room and decent seats providing enough comfort to sleep a bit after catching up on vacation news and what not with Nicola.
Arriving in Alexandria aroun 10:30, we emerged from the train station into a light drizzle and pulled out our guide books, trying to locate our current placement in relation to the rest of the city. Eventually, we just decided to take a cab to the library and start from there, but remembered to buy return tickets (always a good thing!) before leaving the station. Despite the rain, Alexandria appeared fresh, fecund, and airy after Cairo, and we soon spotted the Mediterranean straight ahead and the infamous harbor concealing the remains of sultry palaces and ancient wrecks. Despite my limited knowledge of history, I too do remember my adolescent fantasies of Cleopatra's court and her chain of lovers, the wondrous lighthouse that once stood vigilant over Alexandria and safely guided ships into her waters, and the city's founding under Alexander the Great on his conquest to conquer the world. Climbing out of the cab, this illustrious history escaped me as I examined the harbor spit devoid of any great wonder, the paved corniche stretching along the shoreline, the lines of traffic snaking alongside it, and the modern apartments jostling one another for position along the water. It was difficult to imagine any queen reclined sumptuously on the shoreline with her pet leopard and lover in tow or the haughty figure of Alexander riding gallantly on his white steed to the water and claiming the future city as his own.
The Library of Alexandria was once the largest in the known world, and scholars descended upon it to ponder the ancient scrolls and discourse over medicine, philosophy, and religion, but it burned down long ago with priceless knowledge lost forever to the ravenous flame. A very modern library has been built on the spot, I think within about the last ten years, whose goal is to regain the acclaim of its former occupant by sheer size of collection. As Nicola said, someone sure had fun in architecture class, though the building is decent enough, and certainly large enough, with script from every written language of the world inscribed on an outside wall. According to the guard, visiting hours were not until later, so we snapped some pictures and strolled down to the corniche to find some food, as both of us were starving! Around that time, the sun burst from a shroud of clouds and sparkled on the Mediterranean in glittering sapphire and aquamarine, making the entire trip worth the ocean air and unfiltered sunshine. Alex is polluted, but somehow being next to the sea makes the whole experience far more enjoyable than a walk along the Nile in Cairo. The Nile Valley just traps every carcinogen and pollutant in its bowl and slowly, with premeditated iniquity, chokes your lungs and gives you either a racking cough, stuffy nose, or, at best, a weakened immune system suseptible to these symptoms. So, Alex was nice ;-)
We walked for about an hour, watching marathon runners with numbers on their backs occasionally huff past and occasionally harass us, amusing us to no end at their apparent lack of motivation. We found a large compound harboring the Fish Market, a decently classy restaurant with fresh seafood laid out on mounds of ice for us to choose. Nicola and I sat for about 10 minutes, wondering what to do, as the staff was still waking up and preparing the restuarant for clients, until we saw someone else walk up to the semik (fish) and talk to the dude. Being Friday, the mosque that backed the restaurant dutifully provided a rousing sermon during the meal, but I have long since learned to tune out the didactic teachings of imams, so he chose our fish and then enjoyed a small feast of salad-in Egypt, bread, fresh veggies, smoked fish, 5 different dips, potatoes, etc. The fish turned out very well, and, when we got the bill, were pleasantly surprised to see the total under 100 LE. The prices listed by the fish were per kg, not per fish, so we only spent about 1/3 of what was expected. We bought some sweets in a nearby bakery, ice cream for myself and basboosa for Nicola, ate it on the corniche wall, met an adorable family enjoying the day, spoke with the children and their family, and then consulted the guidebook on what to do next. Although Alexandria is a Greco-Roman city, few vestiges of that time remain, one notable exception being the catacombs located inland a bit.
Rather than be boring and take a taxi, Nicola and I decided a calishe, or carriage, would be much more exciting, so we found a driver quickly, agreed on a price (or so we thought) and clippity-clopped our way down the street and into the heart of the city. On the way there, we passed through the shabbiy part of town, or working class area, including a teeming souk selling everything from rabbits to chickens to underwear to cutlery. Watching the gaggles of geese and groups of chickens squalling and flapping their wings, and the numerous customers handle them, all I could think was bird flu! If it truly becomes an epidemic, than areas like these will be hit first, as the contact with birds is so frequent.
Anyway, we passed Ptolmey's pillar and the two sphinxes, the only intact monuments left from the Greco-Roman period and proceeded a bit further to the entrance to the catacombs. At the entrance gate, we learned they did not allow cameras inside the grounds, which annoyed us greatly, so we left ours with the staff. I'm learning that moments of these is where bribes should occur, but was also not sure who to bribe, as there were several officials and I sure as heck am not going to give all of them money. I was peeved and irked by their behavior, but then I began my desent into the catacombs and left my irritation above. We first entered a grand hall, underground, of course, where the relatives of the dead held a final feast and from which branched off innumerable crypts and passageways. We explored them all of course, commiting sacrilege against the dead by climbing on their tombs and laughing eerily in the deserted corridors at a particularly creepy tomb. They seemed to have a flooding issue, and several of the lower crypts were flooded with clear, stagnant water that extended down into unknown depths of hell; I could just imagine a horror film in the crypts, where a bunch of dumb Americans drunkily stumble through there on holiday with little reverence for the deadand suddenly, a beast slithers out of the water, dripping with scum and decay in the amorphous shape of a dead human. Gripping one of the students, it slides back into the water with its prey slowly succumbing to the deathly grasp. Then they all start to shriek, and the hot, scantily clad blonde clings to one of the abnormally attractive men, and the entrance is blocked by an sudden earthquake, and the light slowly filters away from the catacombs until they are left in Stygian blackness relieved only by the small flashlights they thought to carry. All around them, the dank tombs slither to life as the dead emerge from their long slumber to bring back companionship for their eternal sleep beneath the glassy waters...We made it out safely, without any earthquakes and with plenty of artifical lighting to guide our way. On our way out, we happened to notice a plethora of Asian, I think Japanese, tourists all happily using their cameras inside. Well, that really, verily annoyed me; to be candid, it pissed me off, so I went back, retrieved my camera, and yelled at the guards for several minutes at their corrupt practices and brought my camera back into the compound, even though their was really nothing I wanted to photograph above ground. It was rather ridiculous, when they followed us and pleaded with us to return while the Asians were still leisurely taking photos. So, the guards acted as if they had no knowledge of the other group's cameras and told them to stop taking photos. After awhile, we left discontented but satisfied that we had created a fitna taifia among the staff. It was actually wonderful to release the spasms of restrained fury at some form of authority in Egypt, it was just unlucky for the tourist police that they received the brunt of it. Our calishe driver waited for us, so we rode back to the cornishe and over to the fort that crowns one end of the road, paid him and left despite his protests that the price he quoted us was only for one person. The fort, an impressive fortress of stolid sandstone walls, paraphets, and grand gates, was closed, so we instead visited a papier-mache 'aquarium' nearby and laughed at the ridiculous attempts at emulating ocean life, observed the people strolling along the water, purchased some amazing ice cream for an entire 1.5 LE, bought a few more snacks further down the road, and went to investigate a gorgeous collection of mosques we had seen earlier.
As we were entering, the call to prayer was blasted from the minaret, so we followed the stream of women entering the harem area, removed our shoes, and sat on benches to observe the evening prayer in the woman's quarter shrouded behind wooden screens. Although I've heard the call to prayer countless times, I had never actually watched anyone pray until now, and it was fascinating to watch everyone move as one in their kneeling, bending, and chanting. To imagine performing this ritual 5 times a day is difficult, as I can hardly get myself to pray once before I go to bed at night, and that requires no supplication. Afterwards, Nicola asked if it was allowed to take pictures, and it was, but only from inside the harem, as women are not allowed in the rest of the mosque. While she snapped away, I sat down on the carpet to observe the beautiful carved stone ceiling until an older woman came up from behind and scolded me for exposing myself in the temple of God. Apparently, as I sat down, a sliver of skin peeked out from between my shirt and pants and gravely offended her. I stood up, a little sheepish, and then we soon left to catch a taxi back to the train station for the ride back to Cairo.
I took a cab home from the chaos of Ramses, promptly arrived in the apartment and went upstairs to a friend's birthday party, returning around two for a shower and blessed sleep. As you can imagine, I slept in today, lolled around, studied, went shopping with Frances to celebrate the completement of her exam, managing to find two truly special taxis-the first one had an exposed wire that began smoking profusely until the driver twisted it, and the return one's car broke down in the middle of Medan Tahrir so we had to find another one. What fun!