Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bedouins, Palm Trees, Sand

سلام عليكم من مصر! ايه اخبار؟

It has been a dark day here in Egypt, despite the ever-shining sun glinting on the sea. I could use a written escape back to the Siwa Oasis, a gathering of palm trees and mud buildings plopped in the middle of the vast Western Sahara.

The first day of our program-sponsored trip was spent touring the sites via the courtesy of our local guide Himeda. First was Gebel El-Mawt, the Roman-era mountain necropolis. I didn't really pay attention to the narration as I was somewhat distracted by the view, which was the coolest thing about this pile of sand and stone:

Then we went to another pile of sand and stone, this one called Amon, where Alexander reportedly visited to consult its famous oracle. He wanted to double-check that he was a son of the Gods (inshaallah). Rumor has it he requested to be buried there, but archaeologists' best bets are that he now lies somewhere under the streets of the very city I am living in. Anyway, more nice views from up there. Next stop was Cleopatra's Bath, an antique natural spring that she probably never swam in. The water was beautiful, as were the hours of lounging spent in a pillowed restaurant next to it. Learned Egyptian Backgammon and laughed. Then we rented bikes and hauled ass out of the little town to Fatnas Island, a palm-treed peninsula on a salt-lake with an expansive view of plateaus, Libya, and the neverending desert.

Evening was spent lying on more pillows eating more food with good company (a favorite pastime in this country.) I also visited Shali that night, the old walled fortress ruins where the Siwans barricaded themselves against enemies, pictured behind me.

Next day I wondered through the square, perusing the traditional handcrafts and bartering with friendly shopkeepers. The people are more Bedouin than Egyptian, speaking their own language, blending Islam with a sort of geographic traditionalism, and making their living by dates, olives, basketry, silverwork, and now tourism.

In the afternoon, we contributed to that booming business by hiring a group of badass Bedouins to show us the desert in their Landcruisers (driving down vertical dunes is heartstopping.) What can I say about the desert... no, the Sahara? My first thought is that it is perfect. The cascading, lilting sand forms impeccable shapes. If tire tracks mar it, the wind just lends a helping gust, and perfection reigns once more. Ah, but of course, it hides so much menace! What a mirage every view seemed to be. We were thrilled. Especially when we stopped in a spring smack dab in the rolling dunes! I. Swam. In. A. Pond. In. The. Sahara. Desert. In. Egypt. Some situations are too outrageously surreal to fathom without feeling drunk on life! Thus, I often find myself repeating various situations outloud to myself in order to believe them. Then we watched the sun set from the highest dune to be seen. I am a sucker for dramatic skies, so my heart melted a bit with this colorful poem. No words can do it justice, please look at photos (

After successfully navigating down this big dune on a snowboard (same concept, different climate!), I was led to the Bedouin camp. We waited for dinner around a big fire listening to traditional Siwan music drummed by our guides and now friends Himeda & Co. Our chicken dinner was cooked in an under-the-sand oven, and it was lezeez owee. After kidnapping our friend Ahmed and burying him in the sand (Egypt makes you do strange things), a bunch of us trekked out into the night with nothing but a guitar. The next hours were spent beneath the universe. We sang and jammed to shooting stars, double-tailed ones, green and red ones. We fell asleep there, and woke up with the sun scratching the end of our dune-bed with its golden tendrils. I have never been more aware of the earth's rotation: the sun said good-bye to me, the moon rose and fell back into the sand, Orion stood up and sat down, and the shemss returned to greet groggy me. What a night.

And once again, I take you back to Alex. So why the darkness now? A friend is hurt, bad, and I am sad, the whole program is sad. He will live, alhamdulillah. But I keep asking myself Why. I am okay, and I will be; you know me - strong and adaptable! Trying situations are made all the more challenging here because a.) we are out of our comfort zone, aka away from America and loved ones and b.) because this country only seeks temporary solutions to its problems, never prevention. The road ahead is harder. Heart and mind with Austin.

I miss all of you a lot, and wish you were all surrounding me right now.

Yamila جميلة

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

ام الدنيا Mother of the World

Habibis! Izzayakou? Wahashtoonee.

I spent last weekend in Cairo, also just called Egypt, or the Mother of the World. The trip was a little too boggled to be able to do the ancient city justice, but I of course must share. Cairo is hard to wrap your mind around. It's huge, both geographically (it took us over an hour to drive across it) and population-wise (20 million), so it's just hard to conceptualize in words, or even feelings. Its many neighborhoods, each with a story, dialect, and stench, don't seem to form one city. I didn't like that; even in New York, where each neighborhood has a distinct character, it feels like one city. There is just so damn much to see in Cairo that it's a little overwhelming, I guess, especially topped off with the smog that makes your boogers black, the trash and crowds lining the street, and the scantily-clad foreigners. I have to admit that I welcomed Alex's peaceful confidence upon returning.

The first day, I went to the pyramids with my team, which included our Egyptian driver and good friend Karim, and my girls Amanda and Chelsea from Middlebury. The pyramids are as magnificent as you imagine, I promise. Nothing could detract from their glory. I kept imagining Africans in the Pharaonic times piling those ginormous stones on their backs and lumbering higher and higher until before them loomed a masterpiece. Standing on the base of one of them was a surreal moment that I am still not sure actually happened.

Then the Egyptian police who get paid to sit on their asses and guard places started yelling at me to get down, then I was offered a ride on a camel named Michael Jordan for "very special price", and then I remembered I was in Egypt in 2009. We saw the sphinx, too, which despite a broken nose, was still wondrous. Everyone I was with was generally in a great mood, how couldn't we have been?!

Then I toured the neighborhood of Zamalek, with its European feels and many foreign consulates. Hip neighborhood, don't know much about it. Then I went off to watch the sunset on the River Nile... no big deal. For 7 guinea each, my closest friends and I sat on pillows on a felucca on the sooty river, with the pollution mixing with florescents to give us a show for the end of the day. And I fell more in love with Egypt.
Then followed dinner at a stellar Lebanese restaurant. As long as it's not at my dorm, I love eating in this country. Tablespread of appetizers, hummus, falafel, tabouleh, baba genoug, pita, other things I can't name, and just arms reaching, mouths stuffing, MMMM!!

My only other legitimate cultural experience for the next two days was a visit to the old souk Khan al-Khalili, with narrow alleyways of shops and their keepers yelling "Kashmir scarf, you look Egyptian, you want to buy?!" It felt very authentic, especially after eating hemmem, a little pigeon stuffed with rice.

What did I do for the rest of the time? Let's just say it included clubs called Latex and Ritmo, techno, beer, smoke, Egyptian party boys, drunk Egyptian party boy getting hit by car, third-world hospitals, and sleeping. Needless to say, I need to return to Cairo to taste more of its cultural and religious flavor, get a better feel for its people and attitude, and maybe hit up one more club (what, it's hard to party in a Muslim country!)


Meanwhile, I continue to be outrageously happy in general. It is fascinating to mix my intellectual curiosity with my personal/emotional experiences here. I am stimulated daily by conversations in Arabic about gender relations and Islam here. I laugh every day with the loving people around me who I am smitten with, or at the ridiculous paradoxes sometimes found here. I am about to get on a 9-hour busride that will leave me in the Siwa Oasis on the Libyan border for 2 days. More to come about that, as well as a more serious post about being a woman here.

Get your passports and wallets out, and come be with me. Yullah!

مشي، مع سلامة
Yamila جميلة

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pictures, Fotos, صور

Check this link for the most recent photos from my Egyptian cooking class and day at the citadel:

Check this link for photos from the beginning of my time in Alex and our trip to Sinai:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Mabsoota Owee

Amidst a sort of "angsty" time here in Egypt, I had a great day yesterday. I am in the awkward phase right after being ecstatic to get here and right before feeling comfortable living here. It's most frequent thoughts are "What do I do with myself now?" and "Oh, I'm in Egypt." Degrees of homesickness and tears vary depending on if I have enough cell phone credit to hear Papi's voice on the answering machine, or if I'm watching Finding Nemo. So yesterday, I woke up in my crater-like bed after an emotional night. The day would heal, الحمد لله al-hamdu-lillah.

I took the tram a few stops to Ibrahimiyya, a neighborhood full of shops and souks. Elley (my new friend from Tufts) and I perused the shops, and I brought a pair of sandals from a man who proudly told us he'd been smoking cigarettes for 50 years. I guess if you're a Muslim with no sex and alcohol, you gotta have one vice, right?

After shopping, plenty of stares, and a 30-cent tram tride, we met up with a group of friends back at the Medina, the student housing complex. This group included myself, Elley, our sweet حلو friends Molly, Abe, and Chelsea from Middlebury, Chelsea's parents, "Doctor" Mata, an American studying here, and Karim, our Egyptian friend. It has become a theme for our group to pile anywhere from 6-9 people in Karim's car while listening to techno at outrageous decibels, so we did just that all the way to the Citadel, the fortress on the tip of the Corniche guarding the city. It was built by a Mamluk named Qaitbay, and has weathered many a storm, unlike its former neighbor, the Pharos lighthouse, one of the 7 Wonders of the World.
It is mostly just cool for its stature; there's not much inside of it. It officially closed before we had the chance to walk the ramparts, so we pretended to be foolish tourists who didn't know any better. This ended up paying off, as we sweet talked/bribed some policemen to let us tour the outside. Ah, the (occasional) joys of corruption and selfishness. Anyway, that was a humorous treat, and the view of Alex and el-bahr (the sea) was well worth it.

We then sat on the water in a nearby cafe, looking out at the fleet of fishing ships and the pink hue of the sky over the citadel. Dinner was next. And how interesting it was! Karim exchanged words with the waiter, and after some initial confusion, we were led to a room to "choose our dinner". Eating fish in Egypt!! I was prepared for my experience this time and was grossly curious about the array of dead fish, crabs and squid laid before us. We decided on 2 large fish, who looked pretty displeased with the whole situation, and then we ate them. They were damn good, in fact, the best fish I've ever had. I share with you Fish #1 cooked, but check Facebook for more graphic photos.
After dinner, we ditched the rents and headed to The Mermaid, one of the few places where it is appropriate for sexes to mingle, alcohol to be drank, and booties to be shaken. And we did all of those things, almost all 35 of us from the program. There were a bunch of our Egyptian friends with us, too, and it was amusing to show them that youthful and lusty side of American culture. We laughed and sweated hard. It was a perfect end to an extremely pleasing day.

Today, I woke up with a sore back, and 24 pages of reading about Islam's clash with modernity. In Arabic. FML. 12 hours later, my back still hurts, and 5 pages of laborious reading have made my brain like the mush we eat in the dorm's cafeteria. لكن بكرة يوم جديد But tomorrow is a new day, lekin bukra yowm gadeed.

و انا في مصر. And I'm in Egypt. Ana fee Masr.

جميلة Yamila/Gameela