Friday, September 25, 2009


I slipped into the door of the Metro, immediately engulfed in the laden air of the car- heat, moisture from breathing and perspiring bodies, unwashed skin, strong perfume, and general air pollution combined into a soupy mélange during the heat of the day. A grey gallabeyia and brown sandals flew along the pavement behind me, a man running past the women’s cars to find the first door on a mixed gender car. With a rattle, the doors slammed shut and the train rolled down the tracks, surprisingly efficient as a means of Cairo transportation. And, at 1 ginea, or Egyptian pound (L.E.), I can’t beat the price. A taxi to downtown costs about 15 gineas.
Sitting down on the bench along the window, I tilted back my head to catch the faintest of breezes sneaking through the aperture. A black shadow sat across from me, garbed in flowing sable robes from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. Only her eyes peeked forth, studying me with curiosity. Colorful veils protected the modesty of most of the other women, neon pink and bright green head scarves highlighting tight, long-sleeved shirts and skinny jeans. Other women wore loose, floor-length black dresses, some decorated with bright embroidery. One or two other women sat unveiled, chatting on their mobiles or staring at the grey apartments whizzing past the windows.
At the Sadat station, I transferred lines, heading to Dokki. With my eyes closed, my mind drifted pleasantly, unaware of the general babble around me…
About a week and a half ago, my door creaked open as a cross breeze blustered through the apartment. An unfamiliar female voice echoed in the hallway, and the telltale wheels of her suitcase rumbled over the tiles. I lifted my head weakly, but then succumbed to the lethargy of my nap and rolled over, unwilling to engage the 5th roommate in conversation. Bright pink, Hawaiian-flowered suitcases filled my dreams.
I met the owner of the suitcase later that evening, a cute brunette opening the door to her spacious chamber ( her room’s about twice as big as mine). The promise she showed in her suitcase taste was reflected in her bright smile and lilting voice. We chatted, and she laughed when I told her I taught classes every day at 8:30 am. “We’ll probably never see each other,” she said, “I am an absolute night owl.” Two days later, AUC closed, and pushed me into her ranks of insomnia and flitting home at 5 in the morning.
Dare I say it? Nay, I shall whisper it, to not destroy the karma of our flat. We get along well. Our discordant lives somehow shift and meld into a harmonious existence. A poli sci major, an English teacher, an anthropology student, a Bohemian currently facing reality as a nursery teacher, and an artist. That is either the opening to a cheesy horror flick or an epic adventure. For our sakes, I hope it is the latter.
…My metro stop was fast approaching, so I lurched from my seat and stepped onto the platform in Dokki, somewhat bemused by the bright, 70’s-style tile walls creating an undeniably unique atmosphere. Trudging up the stairs, I squinted in the blinding, late afternoon Cairo sunlight as I emerged into the happy chaos of Dokki. Dokki is shabbily quaint, not pretentious like Zamalek or Maadi, not as stiflingly crowded as Sayed al-Zeineb, but worn around the edges. Middle to upper middle class. More transportation awaited me. I purchased some water at a kiosk (kishk in Arabic) and hailed a taxi, grinning as one of the archaic black and white dinosaurs putted over to the curb…
There is a castle in Maadi. Not a historic relic from the Crusades, but a modern monstrosity constructed to cater to the ostentatious proclivities of the upper classes. Someday, perhaps I will take a photo of it, but imagine a soaring, Gothic-meets-Shakespeare fortress surrounded by a small moat. Sarah happened to be house-sitting for a friend who lives in the top flat of the building. As we ascended the spiraling staircase, surrounded by iron roses and vines trailing upwards, the word neo-colonialism popped into my mind. But then, we entered the flat, and I was too overwhelmed to really ponder the delicacies of presiding in a castle over the common folk of Egypt. It soared, with enough space to house the General Assembly of the U.N. comfortably, two floors of vast emptiness, echoing marble floors, a grand staircase, a sumptuous kitchen, multiple bedrooms, wall niches and alcoves, indoor balconies, and several whirlpool tubs. “Really, quite homey,” I sighed, sinking into the bean bag chair in front of the big screen tv with satisfaction.
My two male roommates, Cole and Sam, both utter sweethearts, were ‘mildly’ impressed I knew someone who resided in the Castle. “What! You’ve been in there?! And come back alive?” Cole spent his birthday curled up in the cozy arm chair, watching trashy American television and ordering greasy food to the lacy iron-encased door. He spent that evening in the desert by the pyramids, listening to throbbing techo music while sprawled in the grass between Sam and me. Lauren had been invited to a concert by her ‘people’ and invited the three of us along. We shrugged. “Why not?” With the four of us wedged into the backseat of a small sedan (one gets to know one’s roommates very well by the end of the trip), we drove from Maadi to Giza and the labyrinth of streets snaking behind the pyramids. Due to our combined weight, we walked up the final hill rather than bog down the car in sand.
Thank goodness I have never revealed a talent or interest in the entertainment business. I am not one to schmooze or flatter wantonly. We left Lauren to perform her requisite rounds of smiles and feigned interest while the three of us parked ourselves on a grassy hillside lit by glowing lanterns and played word games for the next several hours. It was the first disco I visited that did not serve alcohol and permitted children to arrive at midnight; though perhaps this is why the dance floor crowd was thin. Eventually, we left the neon-lit palm trees and reed cabanas of that club for one 5 minutes down the road. At the entrance lay the stables, and Lauren and I could not help ourselves, cooing at all the pretty horses while Sam and Cole waited somewhat patiently outside. I sense riding in my near future.
Nabil, her manager of sorts, winked at me (of course). “Up there, the pyramids, most amazing sight, you won’t believe it.” I pulled my camera out and trudged up the sandy incline excitedly. Finally! As I crested the shifting hill, I squinted into the mercurial darkness in front of me. Two faint triangles stood dimly against the midnight blue of the surrounding sky, intense pollution granting everything a nebulous nature. “Wow,” Cole muttered at my side. “I don’t know what to say. My jaw hurts from hitting the floor.” We endured another half hour of plastered smiles and shaking hands before the three of us departed. It was after 2 in the morning….
My cab passed from Dokki to Mohendiseen, the buildings sporting colorful electronic signs, the cars bearing fewer signs of age, and the store names appearing in English as well as Arabic. “Sharia Shehab, min fudlik.” And my driver turned down a familiar street, passing by the haunts of older days and lighter times. ‘There’s the internet store, and Etam, where I spent waaay too much money…’
When restlessness struck, I found myself in Zamalek, strolling the streets of a previous life. Not because I am particularly nostalgic, but the only bar in town, Pub 28, still open during Ramadan, happens to be in Zamalek. We tried several other drinking establishments in Zamalek, but, alas, all were shut down but the venerable institution of Pub 28, so we slid into a booth and split a pitcher of Sangria. I suppose some might consider us irreverent of the culture, or might even boldly state that we should be able to give up at least alcohol for Ramadan, as the Muslims give up food, drink, smoking, etc. I say, most of the clientele in Pub 28 was Egyptian, not foreign.
Hamdulilah, I need no longer fret about proper mores during the holy month. Ramadan ended with a palpable sigh of relief around Egypt as the final fast was broken at iftaar on Saturday. Though certainly not fasting, I decided that I wanted to spend the last iftaar in a place where many Egyptians eat to break their fast. I went to McDonald’s. Indeed, my friends and I were the only foreigners in a restaurant full of Egyptians who waited with the acquired patience of Ramadan until the sun finally slipped below the horizon. Thank goodness the McFlurry and perfected French Fry are a universal indulgence….
My cab passed by Club Aldo, and I blinked. “Hina kwayis!” I hopped out, handed him 6 L.E. and called Aya, my new language partner. “Wait me there,” she directed, and I admired the brazen high heels taunting me from the store window. I’ll take my natural height and hobbit-sized feet any day.
What would be a perfect ending to this rambling narrative? How about a new friend, a tall, bubbly, beautiful girl who wants to teach me Arabic if I will teach her English? How about a languid afternoon in Grand Café, lounging in chairs along the Nile, eating and drinking for the novelty of it? Life on the Nile slipping past languorously, billowing sails powering small feluccas, flat barges laden with cargo, two-person row boats casting lines to catch the evening’s meal, not unlike a scene from 5000 years ago. When the light shifts, and the relentless rays transmute into a soft glow, and the sparkling blue of the Nile burns molten orange, and the sky flares with smoldering brilliance, and the reeds along the Nile rustle in a sudden breeze, and the palm fronds sway, you know, for a blinding moment, this is the most beautiful place on Earth.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Unexpected

Something unexpected happened the other day. No, I’m not pregnant, Mother. Not yet, anyways. I found this revelation to be pregnant with another variety of news- swine flu. If you wish to be politically correct, you may call it the H1N1 virus. I will stick to the Arabic translation of the malady, which is influenza al-khanazeer- flu of the pigs. Perhaps the reason why it is so feared in the Middle East, given that pork is a wholly vilified meat. Which is sad, because pork is a succulent, juicy, yummy…I digress.
Yes, the swine flu is the root of my current and future indolence. The Ministry of Education, in an attempt to curb outbreaks of swine in Egypt, took the iniative to bar any educational institution in Egypt from operating until October 4th. This includes my venerable and hallowed halls of learning, AUC. No, there have been no reported cases at AUC this fall, but, of course, what are a few fewer weeks of education for burgeoning young minds? To be honest, as residents of Egypt, we would never know if the swine flu had infected every last village and household of Egypt, as the government has an unfortunate tendency to keep information from the populace. I have heard rumors from “every hospital in Cairo is overwhelmed with swine flu patients” to “there have been few reported incidents” to “because Egypt never actually eradicated the bird flu, they fear that the two might mutate and form some worldwide epidemic.” Meh. All I can do is sit in my happy little flat in Maadi and bemoan my unexpected vacation.
What?!? Laura, protesting vacation? Well, yes. For one, money is usually required to jet off to exotic locales. Money which is sadly absent from my bank account. Two, immediacy of the announcement did not allow me ANY time to plan. Third, I will now have to make up the missed lessons on my free days from campus. Sarah and I are trying to wrangle some free beach lodging out of a friend who has a chalet on the North Coast (i.e. the Med). Enshalla.
I started writing this desultory little missive as dawn pierced the pall of Cairo’s pollution with a hint of orange, and the acrid scent of burning garbage wafted through the streets, merely contributing, of course, to that pollution. Now, the garbage collectors have extinguished their nightly fires, and only the occasional, smouldering dumpster remains. Eid Mubarek. Happy Eid! Yes, Ramadan is, alhamdulilah, done done done. For my debaucherous Western ways, this means that I can eat and drink in public again and, more importantly, the bars and clubs in Cairo will, once again, open. As the Dixie Chicks rather aptly put it, “some days you gotta dance.”
You will learn more about my life at AUC (if it ever returns) in future blogs, but I was sitting in my office on Wednesday, blearily reading my textbook for Applied Linguistics when, through my open door, an abrupt increase in the chatter of voices incited mild curiosity. To be fair, an ant crawling in the hallway would probably have been sufficient distraction. Regardless, I arose, peeked around the doorframe and saw all of my professors and a number of my peers standing around, discussing swine flu and school closing in loud voices. “Tom, what’s happening?” I asked the director of my program, the Intensive English Program. I have never seen Tom look unharried; indeed, he seems to rush through the halls of AUC in a state of perpetual mild panic. Given the disorganization of AUC, however, this is not very surprising.
“I think school’s cancelled for the next two weeks.” “Whoa, what?” and the administrator for my Fellowship, Maida, bopped out of her office, 5 feet of charmingly accented English and pink accessories. “Yes, it is true,” she affirmed. “So this means, what?” I asked Tom, who, for once, did not seem to be in a hurry to return to his office and certain mayhem. Sometimes avoidance of looming disaster is best. “Do we have to make up the days we lost?” “I don’t know,” he said in a tired voice, “classes on Saturdays, Tuesdays. We do have to make up the time, of course, this is an American university.”
Tom eventually left to confront the barrage of confusion from students and staff. I called Sarah. “Hey, guess what? School’s cancelled until October 4th.” My Fellowship requires that I teach a class to incoming freshmen every day. I was priviledged enough to received the 8:30 am teaching slot, meaning I leave Maadi on the 7:30 bus, meaning sleep is a pleasant fantasy most days. I taught Wednesday morning, blissfully mindless of the impending suspension of school. Unfortunately, it also meant my 15 bright-eyed and 17 year-old Egyptian students had no warning, either. I couldn’t show them how to do their next internet assignment or how to draft an outline or write a citations page. I e-mailed them all, of course, and most have responded back…”Ms. Laura, I have received your e-mail , This my topic, swine flu. Best…”
But I am finding it is very difficult to teach a class about oral presentations and listening comprehension when my only method of communication is via typed words on a computer. We shall see. From a remarked dearth of any free time, to an unwanted plethora of it…that balance I was trying to seek is slow in coming. Well, I am off to shower (Cairo’s hot and induces a somewhat appalling amount sweat) and then wring out my laundry (my machine, though ‘automatic’ in theory, doesn’t actually drain, meaning I open the door to a deluge of water, which I squeegee down the drain, and then squeeze out my clothes) and then visit the castle that Sarah is currently inhabiting. Yes, the two floor flat she is house-sitting (it’s occupants have the means to jet away when school is cancelled) contains a grand staircase, iron trellises, marble floors, carved wall niches for cherub-like statues, indoor (and outdoor) balconies, enough space to comfortably host the U.N. general assembly, and an air of the generally outlandish that characterizes the wealthy of Maadi. The building has a moat. Adieu for now, my dears!