Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cairo Snippets

I'm still out of sync with politics, so here's a portrait of the Egypt life I've been living for the last few months.  Enjoy!

Ventured out briefly today to meet Cairo.  She returned my call by dumping sweat down my back, although she wasn’t as noisy and crowded as usual.  There was no running commentary, no hisses or honking or stares.  Ramadan gives me a special moral shield to walk around with.  With it, I fend off shameful stares and comments, forcing them back into their owners’ minds.  It’s not my shield, in actuality, it belongs to their Allah and the holy month of fasting and refraining.  Either way, I feel a little  more comfortable in Cairo’s streets.  She is often daunting and sometimes cruel, so her subdued demeanor is much appreciated.

It’s sometimes hard to muster the courage to descend from my 10th floor haven, but it is always rewarding when I do, tonight being a smashing example.  The festival we discovered is exactly what Egypt needs more of.  Young people in colorful clothes meandered stalls of books and grassroots organizations.  Children and adults alike painted a mural with bright paint while various musical acts performed for an enthusiastic crowd.  It was a place and atmosphere promoting creativity and acceptance, both of which this society could use more of. 
My friends and I then made our way to the shaby (folky, local, popular) hood of Imbaba, where we sat down for liver - the camel’s was chewy - and rice pudding!  Despite the undying noise and trash littering the air and roads, the place had character.  A multitude of weddings passed by our meal, and men crowded ‘ahwas (cafes) for the Egypt-Tunis match.  On our way back home, we stopped for mugs of freshly squeezed juice and sweet milkshakes, which has become a mainstay of my friends’ and my Egypt experience.
I’m glad I went out into the Cairene night.

These Cairo days accumulate a pattern, or I have inclined them to do so at least.  My sleep is always late, nowhere before 2am, and sometimes with the sun’s greeting.  I sit on the balcony after the sun has set, looking south and west at the concrete slabs encircling for miles, peaking into neighbor’s florescent-lit windows, pondering things, absentmindedly patting away Cairo dust.  
Sunset from my balcony
During the week, I have succumbed to the Arabic workload, evening managing to enjoy myself.  I do more interesting things on the weekend, plus some vegging out, and I’ve begun to insert exercise into my schedule.  The adjustment since Turkey has certainly been more challenging than I expected it to be, and I feel somewhat as though my initial infatuation with Egypt has worn off.  I have a much shorter fuse when it comes to stares and comments in the streets; in fact, I fight back a slew of stereotypes in my mind each time I face that. I imagine it will be more difficult to maintain the giddy enthusiasm that has often reigned over my Egypt life, but I’m up for the challenge.

My apartment has secured a special place in my heart, as many of my settling places tend to do.  I am unequivocally drawn to the spaces I inhabit, and I have a natural instinct to care for them, clean them, and make them welcoming.  I enjoy taking the creaky elevator up to my flat, closing the humidity-lain door with a bang on the trash-ridden hallway and entering the royal air-conditioned living room.  I don’t even mind the discomfort of my armchair, or my bed, although the cold showers will get old now that summer’s heat has burned off.  I adore our miniature stove and our gargantuan refrigerator, and our balcony has quickly become to me what my Alexandrian dorms’ rooftop once was, though the view is not quite as extraordinary here.  Of course, Nour the kitten makes it all the more my home.
Nour (light) of my life

My dinner with Ahmed Tuesday night reminded me why Egyptians have made such an impression on me.  We never run out of topics to talk about, because we are both so genuinely curious about each other’s culture.  We discussed politics, pop culture, love, and all the while, I felt at ease.  He feels like my Egyptian brother.

9/24, Alexandria
Cairo hasn’t won me over like Alex did.  Alex forever has a piece of my heart, most notably for being the first city I lived in outside of the US.  I feel acutely nostalgic when I roam her horizontal streets, remembering a time where everything was new and I was fueled by curiosity. 
There are the blaring comparisons to Cairo, like how I can actually affirm that the sky is blue, and indeed not grey, here, or how I can breathe soundly without wanting to vomit my insides out.  Tonight, as I walked back to my friend’s apartment, things were calm, not too much noise, few cars, but Alex still manages to retain an energy that makes her come abuzz.  It’s the late-nighters, men preparing for the next day’s load, the young people going to and fro from ritzy cafes.  It’s the Mediterranean, washing up years of history into Alex’s bosom and spraying her dwellers with refreshing mists.  Then there’s the proximity to nature, despite being in a city.  The ocean makes this place who she is, and every time I let my thoughts wander to sunsets on the Corniche, my chest fills up with a passionate sort of pain that makes me want nothing more than to return to Alex and never leave.  Like I said to my friend Mahmoud today, when I see the sun set behind the Alexandrian harbor, I have no doubt that there is a God.
Of course, part of my love affair with Alexandria is that when I lived here, I was surrounded by a community of both Americans and Egyptians with whom I shared everything: evenings spent driving aimlessly listening to techno, food outings, hardships, trips around Egypt, discoveries.  I sorely miss that, and would instantly trade the happening life in Cairo for it.

Rosh Hashana and birthday cakes in an open apartment hugged by the Cairene breeze.  Party full of internationals in an unreal Garden City apartment and improv-ing on its royal balcony.  Last night was a reel from a well-soundtracked film about living the exotic abroad life.
Wust al-Balad, Downtown Cairo

Got lost in a couple books today, one finely decorated with Arabic curls, the others mere distractions from my homework.  I was relieved that our weekend novel was not dealing with the tired Egyptian themes of sexual tension and the clash between east and west.  I felt oddly drawn to this novel, The American Granddaughter, about an Iraqi girl turned American citizen who goes back to Iraq to do translating for the US military in 2003; themes of identity crisis and twists in relationships with the military - that’s my thing!  It fell somewhat short, seeing as the main character didn’t really change the way I wanted her to, but it was an exhilarating read nonetheless (albeit at a turtle’s pace - imagine 200 pages of Arabic in 3 days!)  I love the way I can read through a full page and create a picture with time and place, even I if there are certain words whose meaning I don’t fully grasp.  It is incredibly rewarding, for all the daily frustrations this language presents me with.

I slipped on my flip-flops, asking my roommates if they needed anything from the pharmacy or corner store, yelling that I’d be back in 5 minutes.  Little did I know that an attempt to buy toothpaste would turn into an hour-long conversation with the Coptic pharmacist about the proclaimed impossibility of love before marriage, the Bible, the 5-10% of Muslims he claimed were good people, and the events of October 9th, Bloody Sunday, where the Egyptian army ran over Coptic protesters with tanks.  I returned to my apartment beaming at my new friendship and the new opportunity to practice my colloquial. 
Last night, I went down to pick up some medicine for the kitty, this time prepared for a marathon talk session.  Nabil was thrilled to see me, and I didn’t refuse his offer of tea.  We passed the time discussing parliamentary elections in Tunis and Egypt, Qaddhafi’s death, and the history of Puerto Rico.  A stream of different neighborhood characters popped through for various reasons, introducing themselves to me, marveling at the fact that I spoke Arabic (and laughing raucously when I proved I could even write it), and teaching me nonsensical Egyptian proverbs.  I feel remarkably at ease in my corner pharmacy, a safe nook where I can inquire and explore.  This weekend, I will go to church with Nabil, his wife, and their four children.  It promises to be quite the occasion.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Yammi -- Nouri, the corner drugstore, and language -- elements of making yourself a home in Egypt that is not Alexandria. The counterbalance to revolutionary struggle, frustration as the power balance shows its contours- the military was quite willing to sacrifice Musharaf's control, but not their own, eh? The video in your last post was great; but the picture of you in Nabil's pharmacy with the neighborhood characters popping in and out was even better. Wish you could sketch them -- You have many rare and precious gifts, among them an uncanny sense of people and an ability to go quickly beyond the superficial and speak the common language of their souls. Thank you -- Mama U