17 March, 2010


Sitting in the lobby, having tea and eating the last of the little, round loaf of bread some Copts gave me today when I visited the Christian district. I've loved these little loaves and the tradition of giving them to the congregation since the Coptic fathers in Jerusalem gave me a stack at Gethsemane.

Tomorrow is my last day in Cairo before heading to Istanbul for a week. Then it's back to the U.S. and a very busy end of the semester. I'm more than a little worried about getting back on the wagon with my courses. The larger issue is just not wanting to go back to the U.S.

The visit to the village scheduled for tomorrow was pushed back, so I'll not be able to go this trip. The organization assured me they'll expect to see me when I return in May or June, insha'allah. A few meetings fell through, but overall I think it was a good way to start getting a feel for the place and the work being done here. Spent a productive hour with several staffers from an intergovernmental organization this morning. Decided to hit the library Thursday morning and instead walked along the Corniche to enjoy the cool weather, from my meeting in Maadi to the Coptic churches. Of course the enjoyment of the walk was somewhat tempered by the fact that I was walking beside a six-lane highway, but it was pleasant none the less. The Coptic quarter is a bit odd because it's essentially an enclosed area. Not that there are not churches elsewhere in the city, but this little cluster of historic churches unfortunately ends up feeling a bit Disney-ish with everyone herded together. Still there are some lovely details to be seen and as there are active congregations meeting in these churches, some while I was there, it provides a nice glimpse into a different and often overlooked element of Arab culture. By the way, for those who don't know, the service is (obviously) conducted in Arabic, which means reference is made to Allah. Yes, God is God, no matter how you say it. Visited Ben Ezra synagogue, but again, no photography is allowed.

So, tomorrow I'll hit the library for a bit when it opens and see if that bear fruit. I'll likely spend the rest of the day kicking around the old city. Somehow, calling it "Islamic Cairo" seems a bit silly and redundant. I may even brave the Khan again. There are a few sites I've missed, but mostly I just like kicking around that part of town. I'm certainly not as anonymous as I am downtown, but I get along just fine. Other than non-threatening stares and the random English word - usually "Welcome." and "Hello."- the only "harassment" I've received so far has been the throngs of school girls who have mobbed me at every site I've visited, wanting to talk and have me pose for photos with them. They've been surprised and amused that I speak Arabic, even if only Fusha, and it's never a chore to blow some stereotypes. They've also been quick to steer me away from school boys, who they typically describe as "stupid" and "dirty" though they seem fine to me, if a bit hyper. Always funny to see universality of "boys are gross". At the citadel, some of middle schoolers I'd talked to inside spotted me on my way out as they were getting ready to board their school bus and shouted me over to introduce me to even more of their friends. Their teachers were a but mystified, but gracious.

Also gracious was the older woman on the metro women's car who, after exchanging only a few words with me when we got on the train, ended up finding a seat and somehow making space for both of us and insisting that I sit with her. And then there was the woman who let me share a tiny both with her and her daughter at the koshary place I popped into this evening at rush hour. The little girl might be kindergarten age and spent the rest of our meal staring at me while her mom tried to get her to finish her meal. The girl and I finally gave up the fight to finish at the same time and my teasing agreement and gestures that there was simply no space left in us to stuff koshary met with a big smile and giggles.

When I moved to Syria in 2006, I'd actually considered going to Cairo instead. I'm glad I didn't. I feel like, for me, I made it here at the right time. I like it here, am getting my bearings, and will be glad to come back, though the summer heat will undoubtedly be a major challenge (to say the least). Yes, the place is mental, but it's somehow manageable. Yes, it's dirty and sometimes smelly, but it's somehow - even at it's worst - what I might call lush. It's a city of sensory overload. You smell dust, frying oil, bread in the oven, shit, exhaust, the damp of the river, the stink of the river, grilling meat, sweets, mint, incense, diesel, sweat...sometimes in sequence, sometimes all at once.

Unless it all collapses tomorrow and I have some horrid experience to radically alter my opinion, I've found people here to be generous, kind and helpful. They are also very blunt at times. Some may be rude, like the angry man in the ticket office at the pyramids who chewed me out about trying to use my school I.D. for a discount instead of an international student I.D. (though my card was accepted everywhere else), but those folks are not endemic to Egypt. Walking the Corniche today, I was rather sure I was close to the Coptic quarter and stopped to ask directions from an elderly man sitting in the gateway to one of the lovely gardens along the Nile. He said I was indeed close and gave me the brief directions I needed. As I stepped off the curb to run the gauntlet of traffic, he called me back and asked several times if I'd like him to walk me there and insisted he didn't mind. I declined with profuse thanks and he reiterated the directions before asking if I was certain I would be alright and waving me off.

The place is a good lesson in going with the flow, or as I've been joking to myself, going with the crazy.
So, one more day of floating in the current and sometimes swimming for an eddy.

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