For me, it’s Dahab. That place where the world ceases to turn, where life slows to a gentle amble along the seashore, where the waves laugh against the rocks, where the smell of incense, sheesha, and fresh seafood waft through the air, where palms cast sifting shadows on the sand. It’s a place that is both imperfect and idyllic, a place where I can sit and tilt my head back, let the breeze tangle my hair, and know tranquility. I realize it sounds a bit clichéd, a bit corny, but every time I come to this place, every time my bus passes through the final checkpoint of the Sinai, I feel, well, exhaustion after the 9 hour bus ride, but also a lightness of being and a glow of inexplicable joy. In reality, it is only a rocky beach, a few shoreside cafes that serve overpriced food, jellyfish-prone waters, and tempering breezes, but it is happiness.
So, I’m writing this at 2 am, coming home after a night of dance clubs and French fry snacks, a day of sunshine and saltwater. Everyone else has retired, and the garden of my Bedouin camp is bathed in shadows and quietude, the bathroom light providing the only means of illumination. The dreadlocked hippies next door have put aside their hashish and Jack Johnson for the night; the wild dogs howling outside and the man snoring in the tent a few feet away remind me that I am not the only soul in this starlit world.
Well, I wrote the above two paragraphs, glanced at the clock and bolted off to bed. Nights are lovely, but daytime is the best part of Dahab. Right now I’m sitting in the Funny Mummy restaurant, the Red Sea drifting calmly a few meters away. Saudi looms on the horizon, dark mountains towering esoterically, turning golden in the sunshine. The water is so calm I feel like I could step of the edge of Egypt and glide my way across its sunlit surface, peering down at the brilliant coral and lurking barracuda, sinuous eels and the translucent jellyfish.
I just bopped a kitty on nose, and it stretched languorously onto its back, paws stuck comically in the air, yawning profusely. The splash of hooves against the rocky shore precedes a beautiful bay horse walking past, its rider eliciting business. Next time, perhaps. Alas that my weekend of leisure will end in a few hours and I will be crammed on a mini bus back to the chaos of Cairo.
Not that I don’t love Cairo, of course. But, with every lover, little tiffs interpret the gentle flow of affection, usually assuaged soon thereafter. So it is with my current home. I love its markets and its vibrancy, the fact that I can go dancing in the Four Seasons and then, at 3 am, walk a few blocks away and buy a 50 cent meal. Horseback riding under a moonless night, when the pyramids surge into view after cantering up a sand dune. The sensual markets of luscious peaches, voluptuous melons, tangy berries, bright red tomatoes, smooth cucumbers, rotund eggplant, and crisp apples.
But, rawr, certain moments try one’s patience. I was walking through Maadi one night, after a class ran late, to the main artery of my neighborhood, Road 9, where one can find somewhat reasonably priced groceries at the local end. I took a shortcut, as is my wont, and was almost to my destination when I heard a car screech behind me. Zift (Crap). Car harassment is a common occurrence everywhere in the world; men really never change. But Cairo men seem to not understand that women don’t actually respond to catcalls, honks, and other such techniques.
Well, I found one of the very persistent types that night. A car door slammed behind me and I heard the slap of shoes against the pavement. I quickened my pace and saw the cheerful glow of Road 9 ahead. “Hello, long walk. My name is Mohammed. Come into our car.”
I turned onto Road 9 and walked down it swiftly, resolutely ignoring the man shouldering his way down the road next to me. “Come on, what’s your name? Why are you ignoring me? Don’t be scared.”
I risked a quick glance in his direction. Uh-oh. I, in my baggy sweatpants and a tee-shirt, had attracted one of the tallest Egyptian males in the country. Most are scrawny, underfed and/or malnourished, and short. Mohammed reached out and grabbed me. “Come on, be nice.” His friends drove past slowly in their car, leering. I stepped onto the sidewalk; he followed me, blocking my way. He reached towards my face and snatched my glasses. I screeched, literally, at him in Arabic only, shouting and threatening to call the police. “But I am the police.” He pulls something out of his wallet, ostensibly a form of police id. “ Come on, I don’t rape girls.” And then I lost it, darted past him and his friends and rushed into the nearest supermarket, where the workers stood lookout until Mohammed and his friends finally tired of their games and left.
I continued along the road, shakily, until I arrived at my favorite fruit stand that was just closing at 1 am, run by a woman and her young daughter. Greeted with a gap-toothed grin and an ahlan, I selected my peaches and apples and paid a paltry sum. Maa salaama, ya gamila! Cackled the woman as I shuffled off, and I turned to smile. Like any city, Cairo brings out both the best and the worst of humanity, and one can take an experience like that night and allow it to mar this place. I choose to learn from my experiences, at least as much as a (very, thanks to the beach) blonde me can; why should I consider Cairo any safer than any major world capital its size? Foreigners, at times, get lulled into a bubble of false superiority, that because some Egyptians treat us with sugary obsequiousness, that because our jobs pay more in a month than many locals make in a year, we are omnipotent. Most of my female friends, despite the verbal harassment, will say they feel safer in Cairo than in any other large metropolis, that the Arab sense of hospitality will extricate them from any situation that escalates beyond the norm. To be honest, I used to belong to the same camp when I had only just arrived to the Middle East, when I saw the superficial veneer of chivalry and was yet unable to chip away at its shallow surface.
Bollocks, I now say. Of course, our Arab neighbors and friends would react indignantly, would defend us under the duress of harassment, just as I would similarly expect neighbors and friends to in most of our homelands. But, complete strangers? A few, to be certain, like anywhere in the world. The world is full of nice people and mean people. But would the entire street rush to our succor, compelled to do so by the purported generosity and hospitality somehow unique in the Arab world? Hell no. And, it’s good I’ve been learning that lesson this year; it spirits away quite a few disillusions and is facilitating a necessary change in behavior and mentality.
But the Middle East will always surprise you. About a month ago, I unfurled myself from a long night’s slumber and cranked Jazy-Z and Taylor Swift over the Friday morning sermon filtering in through my window. Christal bopped her head into my room. “Morning, sunshine!”
“Morning, gorgeous! Hey, are you up to anything today?”
“No. No plans whatsoever.”
“Wanna go to the zoo?”
And so we went. The concept of ‘zoo’ is fundamentally different in Cairo. Interaction between guest and animal is strictly forbidden in America and Europe; we are there as observers, as visitors to gaze from afar at animals in a simulation of their natural habitat. The Giza Zoo has a different take; after walking from the Metro stop in Doqqi past the usual collection of jumbled stores selling spices and incense and shoes and whole goat carcasses and Mercedes and fresh orange juice and tight clothing, we wound our way around several green parks (Cairo never ceases to surprise me; I think I know it all, but then I discover a neighborhood full of flower gardens and giant palms amidst the choking traffic of Giza) full of families picnicking and finally encountered the formidable gates of the Zoo.
We pushed our way to the front of the ticket line, purchased the 20 LE tickets, and jostled our way through the crunch of Egyptians exiting and entering through a narrow outlet. Within 10 seconds, we began to be accosted by hawkers selling food, drinks, souvenirs, lion pettings…Wait, lion pettings? “Christal, wait a sec?” I stumbled through negotiations until Christal intervened and, together, we agreed on a price. 30 LE, including a photograph. Christal opted to merely watch, slightly appalled, I think, at the exploitation of the zoo’s animals. Happily, I harbor no such qualms.
The photographer strode off purposefully towards the lion enclosures, passing bushy-maned lions roaring in their cages, stalking back and forth as the crowds milled. “Big or little?” The photographer asked, in Arabic. “Big?” I asked, in question, but he took it as my response and led me through a door that held several bored-looking lions flopped down in a cage. The keeper smiled toothlessly at me and rattled their cage. The males leapt to their feet, padded to the bars of the cage, and growled, shaking their manes. Cuddling with pissed-off, agitated, and who-knows-how-hungry adult lions? “Small!”
And we were led to another door that held half-grown lions, adorable little furballs that blinked sleepily as I approached and let me hug them and kiss them. Probably drugged. Of course, the photographer attempted to charge us more, claiming that he took two pictures, and therefore they would cost twice as much, and I think I paid him 4 extra LE and shooed him away.
Almost every exhibit allowed the guest to interact with the animal in some form, for a bit of baksheesh, of course. All of the antelope-type critters had keepers standing beside them, holding hay that guests could hold over the edge of the cage. The monkeys, aside from being fed by food thrown in by guests, were also attended by keepers that had fruit on long poles they allowed visitors to poke through the cage. The black bears reared on their hind legs and swatted massive paws through the cage bars as their handlers walked around the edge of enclosure, occasionally feeding bits of meat. Wisely, they didn’t let visitors get too close.
At the hippo pools, I walked up to the edge of the cage, plucked some greens from the handler’s cart, and stuck my hand in a hippo’s mouth; you never realize quite how massive those jaws are until your hand is dwarfed by the sheer size of the tongue and stubby teeth. Leaning against the rails of the elephant pen, Christal and I found little pieces of apple thrust into our hand by the keeper, and then an inquisitive, grey nose, attached to a long trunk, pluck it from our hands and place it delicately in its mouth. The elephant made its round of the crowd, delighting the children and adults alike as it nosed its way into their hearts (no pun intended, of course).
Zoos are problematic to begin with; anytime you confine a wild animal to a limited habitat, its quality of life decreases. This may sound rather arrogant, but I’ve seen several of these animals roaming in the wild, elephant herds crossing the plains of Botswana, lions loping through the Serengeti, and zoos are woefully inadequate in terms of space. Does that mean they shouldn’t exist? Not necessarily.
Cairo could certainly improve its zoo; the cages could be larger, cleaner, better organized, less harassment, the keepers better paid. But the animals were stimulated! In the wild, animals remain engaged from the environment around them- predators and prey, weather, fellow species. But, normally, zoos confine separate species to individual cages and leave them to graze laconically or sprawl across the grass. I’ve never seen animals so animated as in Egypt.
And the people watching was nearly as fantastic as the lion petting and hippo feeding and elephant nosing. Families from the villages encountering the animal world for the first time, wrinkled old crones exclaiming over the monkeys and blonde-haired foreigners, families lunching on the grass, gangs of boys making lewd comments toward me, young couples shyly holding hands; truly a menagerie.
I don’t consider myself a snob in most respects. I will squat over a squalid hole and pee with the best of them, but the Cairo Zoo defeated me. I paid the bathroom attendant a pound to use the bathroom, entered the ladies’ side, and found myself crushed in an unwashed horde of aggressive women vying for three toilets. As one person squeezed into the door and shut it, three more pushed forward and formed a formidable barrier in front of it, knocking repeatedly, cracking the door open and checking the occupant’s progress. And the stench was slightly nauseating, even by my Egyptian-acclimated standards.
I confess I fled back to Christal and we proceeded towards the exit, walked back to Doqqi, and passed the Sheraton.
“Hmmmm, Christal, bathroom stop?”
Foreigners who complain about Cairo have a few valid points; but our status as ‘wealthy’ white people allows us access into venues unavailable to the average Egyptian. I emptied my bladder in 5 star luxury, wiped my behind with American toilet tissue, dried my hands on freshly laundered towels, all because I look the part of Western. It’s quite unfair, really, but I didn’t complain that day. We exited the marble-encased Sheraton and had a lunch of greasy finger food at a local joint for 2 dollars and then paid 20 cents for our Metro ride home.
And now I’m back in Maadi, having typed and dozed my way through the Sinai, still awed by the beauty of the sheer cliffs and glittering lagoons and moon-washed mountains, by the lights of 4 nations shining in a Red Sea night. The indolence of the last 3 days must cease; school and work clamor for my time, wonderful roommates poke their head into my messy room (“So, how was it?” “Interesting. Dahab is always lovely; it’s one’s companions that add fodder for my future memoirs), and sleep murmurs my name. So, good night, my dears, may peace find you, wherever in this wide world you are. A-salaam alayikum.