18 March, 2010


I was kidnapped this evening, not by extremists but by a tiny old man. I'd waded back into Khan Khalili to try to find a few specific mosques and historic sites and ended up wandering the tight back streets south of al-Azhar, where I'd walked around a few days ago. Didn't have a destination in mind, but all of a sudden a wiry little man appeared at my side and sputtered quickly in broken in English that he would show me the way out, his name is Fatih, the fact that his photo was published in a guidebook, that he has friends all over the world, that I would come with him because he was going my way to mosque and would I like tea or coffee. That he managed to cram all this information into about five seconds time was impressive. He insisted, insisted, I let him show me the way "out". "I not guide," he said, "no money. No money!" I knew this meant a sales pitch for something was inevitable. We were nowhere near the souq and on a rather dirty little back alley, so I figured he couldn't be selling anything, or at least not much. I kept insisting that I knew where I was going and was just out for a walk, but he would have none of it, ever so sweetly insisting I have a rest and some tea with him. He walked at a rapid shuffle of a pace and quickly arrived at a worn wooden door, which he unlocked with great flourish to reveal a downmarket Ali Baba's cave the size of a bathroom stall stuffed with old brassware, old found items and some inlaid boxes. He insisted I sit and ran off to fetch tea for us. I figured I'd sit for a minute and move on. I was wrong. As soon as he returned with a glass of dark tea, he launched into a sales pitch for the inlay work he, his father and grandfather had all produced (the few remains of which he indicated were all he had left to sell). He also seemed to be recruiting me, asking me at various moments to bring him a new version of the guidebook to Egypt, a camera phone for his daughter and more customers when I return to Egypt. All of this was delivered in his breathless, rapid-fire manner of speech while I just sat and listened and tried to figure out how to leave. He pulled out a few of the tiny boxes and just as quickly explained their merits while I tried to explain I hadn't intended to shop and didn't bring much money, that I'm just a student and I really was not in the market for anything. Of course that was just another form of engagement and he somehow interpreted this to mean the duel was on. With every protest from me, he lowered his price until he was willing to give me the little box and "you pay next time you come back." No matter what I tried he just smiled and continued his one way haggling mixed with questions about my family, studies and work. He kept gesturing to the collection of photos of himself with foreigners over the decades and business cards from around the world to emphasize his claims of fairness. It made for an interesting conversation but for the fact he didn't listen to a thing I said. It was getting late and I realized I wasn't going to win this one. I even tried explaining in Arabic that taking something without paying or paying such a low price made me feel shameful. No dice. With great flourish he finally stated that he would only take what I felt fair. In the interest of ever leaving the place, I paid him about 1$, more for the tea and conversation then for the little box. I am no expert in inlay, so for I know it'll be like the tourist items I saw in Istanbul and the stickers will fall off in a week. With that he jumped up and grabbed an old copper bowl, green with age and full of junk - buttons, scrap bits of inlay work, beads, coins... He declared he must give me some gifts to go in the box and quickly picked out a few choice items, put them in the box and wrapped it tightly in newspaper. And just as quickly we were off down the alleys, which actually made for an interesting tour. He showed me a few graves of principal early figures in Islam along the way and introduced me to the butcher, backer and lattice work maker along the way, again all at lightening-shuffle speed. He left me with an energetic handshake and many thanks at the old gates and I was left to drift back towards downtown through the souq and ponder what had just happened. Sure, I felt taken advantage of, but somehow Fatih managed to do it so I didn't much mind.

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.

16 March, 2010

Quick Cuts

Meetings going well. Invited by the director of a human rights organization to visit a village near Cairo they work with on Thursday. A good bit of prep work required on my part to pull my limited Ama together. Two women from one of the partner villages were at the office when I arrived and we cobbled together a very funny conversation between their dialect and my fusha. Meeting with an international migration organization and some academics tomorrow. Keep trying to make it to the AUC's social research library, but their hours are right when people want to meet. Definitely realizing the need for much more language study, at least more vocabulary in addition to the dialect. I can get by alright, but you certainly can't work with people that way, as patient as they may be.

Visited the synagogue across from my hotel today, a bold, neo-Pharonic structure subtly named The Gates of Heaven. The front is lined with these striking art deco palm trees in relief. Unfortunately, security is extremely tight after an incendiary device was thrown at it not long ago. Had to show my passport, register twice and answer several questions. Worse, no photography allowed, which is truly a shame because the interior features some lovely art nouveau touches since it was completed in 1905. Worth it, though, because it's a lovely building and an interesting bit of history. Supposedly the Jewish community here numbers about 100 and the synagogue is only used for high holy days. Trying to visit the Coptic quarter after morning meetings tomorrow and hope to weasel my way into the recently restored Maimonides synagogue. Due to the closures imposed on Palestinians by the Israelis this week, the Antiquities Department canceled a scheduled opening ceremony.

Had a very good talk with the staff at Fair Trade Egypt, the only such organization in the country. Might be working with them informally when I (hopefully) return this summer. They work with about 40 communities around the country and their small HQ in Zamalek features really a nice shop that's nowhere near as expensive as the rest of Zamalek. Be ware of any neighborhood where the restaurants charge a cover.

Most amazingly, I had my first cab driver have and offer to use a meter! The price ended up half the price I was told I should bargain for. I had to ask him about three times, much to his amusement. And he turned up the football match so I could listen in.

Sorry, Egypt, but I'm not digging your version of felafel. But though I never previously would have considered broad beans to be sandwich filling, I'm a bit besotted with ful & egg sandwiches. And aish merahrah is a close rival in my heart to the hearty bled(country) bread I loved in Morocco. Could have stayed and had mint tea after mint tea with the bookbinders all afternoon.

Just when I think I've got the city center figured out, I try to take an ever so slightly different way and end up all turned around, but not too far off the trail. I suppose everyplace is like this to an extent - Istanbul certainly is - but I feel you could live here all your life and still find something new, surprising, whatever, each day. I do feel a bit more a part of the flow, as much as one can in just two weeks.

Have to get some work time in for tomorrow's meetings and those in Istanbul. Looking forward to seeing friends. Can be a bit lonely at times on the road...Hard to think about going back the the U.S. again, though.