Cairo Diary

By Ben Shedlock

I’m in Cairo, sitting in the campus courtyard. I’m only in my third full day here (really my fourth, but I slept away the first one), and already I’m noticing all those little things that make Egypt, Egypt. Out of the protective cocoon of the group from Drew’s service learning project that accompanied me last time, I’m finding myself in certain authentic situations that were only hypothetical before.

I took my first trip to Tahrir Koshary on Friday, two days after arriving. It’s a popular restaurant at the American University in Cairo. For four pounds, about 80 cents, you can buy a gigantic bowl of the best koshary—a very tasty dish made with macaroni, lentils and rice—in the city. I got a table downstairs by the mirror and ordered a bowl, complete with tomato sauce, garlic sauce and whatever that really spicy stuff was. I never quite can get it distributed on the spoon properly, so each bite alternates between bland and sinus busting.

When I arrived in Cairo early Wednesday morning, I got taxied to my dorm, so I wasn’t paying attention to where I was being driven. When I woke up the next afternoon, the order of priorities was: shower, food, map. That night, walking around downtown with several roommates, I popped my head into bookshops and asked, “Fii khariita?” (“Do you have a map?”) At the first shop in Talaat Harb, a main square in downtown Cairo, I was shown maps that didn’t include my out-of-the-way residential district.

I walked across Talaat Harb to another bookstore and asked again, “Fii khariita?” This provoked bits of laughter from the salesmen. “Ayiiz map,” one said. Apparently, “I want a map,” would have been correct. So I repeated after him, and he directed me to the same useless maps.

Third store of the night: “Ayiiz map,” I started. A confused stare. “Map?” I repeated. Nothing. “Fii khariita?” I asked.

“Aaaahh! Map!” Unfortunately, that store had the same selection.

The next morning at orientation, we all found a detailed map of greater Cairo in our packets. It had everything I needed.

Current location: campus
Current mood: busy
Current music: none

September 7
How Ben Saved His Weekend

Sitting in the shuttle in bottlenecked traffic after my first day of classes, meeting the gazes of young Cairo children and old Cairo men, I felt for the first time unintimidated. Finally, I was studying abroad. In this city with so little room for people with nothing to offer, I occupied a productive and important space. But sitting in my room on a Friday night, alone, I was unsatisfied. I was studying abroad, but I wasn’t living abroad. I decided to create my first real adventure.

I headed to Tahrir Square, the center of the city, and plopped down in an ´ahwa (café) called Naadii Waadii en-Niil, or the Nile Waadii Club. (A waadii is a dry riverbed or valley.) I peeled my bag from my sweaty shoulder and ordered a mint tea and an apple shiisha—a shiisha is a water pipe, or hookah, and the tobacco comes in many flavors—because that’s what you do at 11 p.m. on Friday in Cairo.

“Hey, could I ask you a question?” A young Egyptian man in his late 20s hailed me from the next table.

“Sure,” I said.

This is the social format of the country. If you’re in an ´ahwa, anyone, especially someone sitting alone, is fair game for conversation. “What do you call this?” the man said, tugging at his collar.

“A collar,” I tentatively offered.

“A color?”

“No, a co-ll-ar. C-O-L-L-A-R.”

“And this?” He reached his hand into his “pahkit.” We repeated the dance. “Are you in a hurry?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I’ve got nowhere to be tonight.”

So, I sat with the man who initiated the conversation, Ahmed Zidane, and his companion, Magdy, the one who really wanted to know the words for parts of clothing. Magdy had a job interview the next day with a tailor and wanted to make sure his English was top-notch. Ahmed made me order another tea and smoke one of his cigarettes. That’s what happens when Arabs catch you in their net of hospitality. You accept what they offer, lest you insult them and end the meeting on a sour note.

Ahmed wanted to know what I was doing here, and how I liked it. Magdy, married with three kids, wanted to know why I was still single. The conversation flowed back and forth from Arabic to English. Are all Americans rich? Are all Egyptians? Egyptians are not welcome in their own country, only Americans with money. We had a conversation about Sadat and Nasser that boiled down to a complex political version of who-would-win-in-a-fight. The conclusion was, “Not Mubarak.”

For two hours I engaged in all manner of conversation with two Egyptian men who only wanted to share experiences and pay my café bills. I was lit up by apple shiisha, mint tea and incredible conversation, fascinating insights into another world as well as my own—all because I explained how how to say collar in English, and because for once in my life I wasn’t in a hurry.

Current location: 11th floor, Marwa Palace, Dokki
Current mood: accomplished
Current music: Center of Attention, by I-Rocc

September 21

The moment I walked into Al-Azhar Park, a smile leapt to my dry-sweat-caked face. I charged up the stairs to the observation deck, arriving at the top out of breath, my heart pounding. I turned and took in a panorama of the city. Against the broad night sky, the Mohammed Ali Mosque, the highest point in the city, commanded my attention. I let my eyes slip around the skyline and steal glances at its other marvels. To the right were a dozen or so other mosques of various periods, with domes tall and squat, smooth and textured, bastions of peace in a city of tumult. They stood in stark contrast to the boxy, brown apartment buildings that haphazardly filled the spaces around them. I wondered how people could live in such unflattering homes when the mosques were so beautiful. I think it’s a strong commentary on the value of community in the Arab world.

Not even the neighboring pyramids could match Cairo’s magnificence tonight. Even I—a decided atheist of Catholic background—was moved to declare, if under my breath, Subhaan Allah.

Current location: 17th floor, Marwa
Current mood: sublime
Current music: soundtrack to Brazil

September 25
Wednesdays and Saturdays

The school in el-Matariyyah where I teach English to a class of predominantly Sudanese refugees has several small rooms, a kitchen and plumbing. Graffiti is scrawled on all the doors. A group of Ugandans also teaches here, college students on government-sponsored scholarships to study in Cairo. Colonialism being what it was, their first language is heavily accented English.

The historical baggage that comes with being a white teacher in front of a room of black Africans in Egypt is sometimes hard to deal with. They call me “teacher,” even the 45-year-old, and there is a strong sense of discipline in the room that I did nothing to instill. I remind myself that I’m there to help, that I’m a volunteer, that the skills I’m imparting might help them go to school or get jobs, especially if they return to Sudan.

When I finally release the class, everyone stands in unison and rushes toward the door. I fall into the nearest chair to pack my bags. The mental and psychological effort involved in teaching the class is matched by the physical. I have to bend down and hold the badly attached chalkboard to the wall. I have to snake through the packed chairs in the cramped room to point to something in a book. I have to act out words. Then I walk to the subway, yawning a white flag of surrender on my long ride back to the dorm.

Current location: the Pottery Café, across from campus
Current mood: recovering
Current music: a cappella songs from Drew

October 2
What They Don’t Tell You

Some days it dawns on you that you are where you are. You plot maps in your head and realize, “Holy crap, I’m in Africa.” You notice the mosques surrounding you and the sheer drop of the desert’s cliff walls, and you can’t believe how exciting your circumstances are. But you do homework. You read e-mails. You get ripped off. You break a shoelace. Whatever it is, you realize that once you’ve gotten the “resident” stamp in your passport, you’re not on vacation anymore.

In less than two weeks I’ll be exploring Jordan, and I hope some of that spirit will return. In three and a half weeks I’ll either be in the Sinai or in the Western Desert. But in between, I might have to work harder to find something to write home about. This is the part they don’t tell you about in brochures.

Current location: same as usual
Current mood: really?!

October 7
(How much?)

Let’s talk about the cost of travel in Egypt, baby. Last Friday, before I left for Mount Sinai, I took 500 Egyptian pounds in travel money and 150 pounds for food: 650 pounds—about $130.

We took the East Delta Bus Company out to Dahab. Imagine Greyhound with bad Arab movies. From there I traveled with three other guys to Mount Sinai (or Gebel Mousaa, “Mountain of Moses”), a two hour drive each way. We hired a private mini-bus, and because we got on late, paid a bit too much. There were four or five checkpoints between Dahab and Mount Sinai. This is typical of travel in Egypt. I don’t really know what they’re looking for, except to make sure Egyptians are traveling legitimately. Tourism is to Egypt what oil is to Saudia Arabia. Locals say it’s easier for foreigners to travel in Egypt than it is for Egyptians.

You’re required to take a guide up Mount Sinai. That’s how the Bedouins make their money, and if you try to challenge it, there’s a security guard there to enforce it. Between eight of us, we hired what must have been a 14-year-old kid, Akhmed, for 50 pounds, of which I contributed 10.

All told, for two days and three nights of travel, I spent about $75 to climb one of the world’s most storied mountains, to watch the sun rise and set over the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen, to experience the trials and tribulations of hiring transport in Egypt, to flash my visa and claim residency, to see more stars in the sky than there are people in Cairo, to make three new friends and to have enough memories to last a lifetime.

And I’ll do it again next weekend.

Current location: Cairo!!
Current mood: miserly, damn proud

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