Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fun fact: Practically everyone living outside the United States that I have met/seen in Egypt is terrified that they are going to die of Swine Flu and whenever you walk by tourists at monuments or sites, they will shamelessly shield their faces so that Americans will not cough in their faces instantly killing them on the spot - or something.

Thus, my university has been ordered by the Egyptian government to shut down the school until October 2nd starting tomorrow. We have this Friday-Tuesday off already for Eid al-Fatr to celebrate the end of the Ramadan, so that gives us two and a half weeks off altogether. This means perhaps another trip is in order? Nimisha's Swine Flu Tour '09? 

To top off this most fortuitous day, my Arabic professor rescheduled our Arabic quiz that I probably would have failed anyway, and I'm eating the most delicious falafel sandwich from an Egyptian take-out place on campus that I paid 2.75 Egyptian pounds for, or .55 American cents. 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I don't care for swimming or beaches in particular, but I wanted to go to Alexandria in order to see the Mediterranean sea again. I can't even remember how long ago it was when I saw it in Greece, but it obviously stuck with me. I'm on the claustrophobic balcony of our 5th floor room in a 3-star hotel. I'm terrified of using the bathroom. But up here I can see a tiny sliver of the beach and the sea. There is a lone fishing boat that wandered away from the port nearby, and from the limited viewpoint from here it looks like we're on the edge of the world and everything else lying between me and the infinity beyond is just cerulean water. What was here, what was under those waters, what may still be under those waters, I don't know about. But I really wish that I did. 

I had absolutely no luck getting into the linguistic anthropology class, but I did manage to enroll in the Egyptology class on Egyptian history during the Graeco-Roman era. So all my classes, school field trips, and weekend getaways all seem to be revolving around each other. 

The sight of old Arab men fishing on the docks is slightly comforting in a way. Surrounding them are veiled mothers watching their frolicking children, some of them sheepishly wading in after them - veil and all - to cool off from the day. The sea looks so inviting - I keep catching myself thinking how appealing it would be to rent a boat and just sail out to nowhere. There are tentative plans to open an underwater museum (which in arabic is, mathaf taht al-bahr, and I think is really fun to say) in Alexandria and I really hope it happens in my lifetime at some point. We were introduced to the city first by visiting the site of the library of Alexandria - the largest and most famous library of the ancient world. Unfortunately, it was just the modern commemoration to it, since the original - which is said to have at one time held over 500,000 scrolls about all kinds of things and served as an academic place of learning for people like Euclid and other famous dudes of that nature - was burnt down and destroyed after several sieges. We then went to the Citadel of Qaitbay, a 15th-century fortress. I feel like all the citadels I've seen are just dry repeats built along the years, but Qaitbay seemed different. I could appreciate its architecture, simple though it is, and at the very top there are two giant windows overlooking the sea port, the rest of the city, and the far horizon. Looking miniscule while I sat several feet above the ground against the base of the stone window, I could hear murmurs from the docks and see the sun sparkling off the turquoise waves. 

There's a huge fish market here, so after our sight-seeing we were served a delicious whole fish (head and all) and Turkish coffee. I'm pretty sure I've gained fifty pounds in the past few weeks just from stuffing my face with manoushi, kofta, and rice pudding. And I have yet to get sick, even after eating the most delicious lamb I have ever tasted from a shady back-alley restaurant downtown.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I'm having a difficult time trying to remind myself that this is not a vacation, and that I actually have homework to do and classes to go to. And when you're going to Alexandria for a weekend getaway, a Nile cruise the week after that, surrounded by palm trees and a completely clear sky in 80-90 degree weather... it's not an easy task. 

My schedule is as follows:
Sundays & Mondays
Intermediate Arabic 8:30 (ugh) - 9:35
Arabic of the News Media 11:00-12:05
Art & Architecture of Ancient Egypt 2:30-3:30
Mondays & Thursdays
Intermediate Arabic 8:30-9:35
Classical Arabic Literature 2:30-3:30

I'm still trying to beg a professor to let me into an anthropology class about languages and their form and function across cultures, so hopefully by tomorrow I'll have a fifth class and won't be killed by the brutal lady in charge of add/drop registration. This schedule is actually tentative and only for Ramadan - the Islamic month of fasting in which participating Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and indulging in anything that is in excess or ill-natured from dawn until sunset. So not only do we have a different class schedule during Ramadan, but stores/businesses have different hours, meaning you cannot possibly get anything done when you want it done. On the subject of coffeehouses and nightclubs, my fellow Arab students earnestly say with a wink, "Once Ramadan is over, I'll take you to all the great places in the city." It's like they're all talking about a speak-easy during Prohibition. I'm half-expecting all of Cairo to completely transform overnight after September 22nd (Eid al-Fatr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan when Muslims party it up after their month of fasting) and turn into a city-wide rave or something. It will definitely be an interesting experience to see the city shake off its spiritual slumber and awaken once again. 

As far as the classes are so far, Arabic is kicking me in the face but I'm definitely not going to go down a level so that it'll be too easy for me. I'm very excited for my art & architecture class - we have (free!) scheduled field trips every two weeks or so to Cairo museum, back to Giza again, Saqqara, Dashur, and more. 

Campus is intriguing. Besides being relatively small enough to navigate and fountains everywhere the eye can see, the Arab students literally just stand around most of the morning/afternoon to just... talk. It's like they don't have anywhere else to be or classes to go to, though they're all carrying bags or books. From 8:30 to 3:00, there are massive hoards of people just chilling out in various places along the open campus, neglecting to let other people who actually have things to do pass by. The library is the worst - apparently nobody goes there to actually work or utilize the resources there. Guys go there to chat up girls and ask what their plans are for the following night. Really? The library? That's my sacred place. I don't want it violated with flirtation and obnoxiously loud hums of conversation and giggles echoing across the stacks and periodicals section. 

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A few of us heard about a "Bedouin night" out in the desert last Thursday, so we hopped a bus and took the ride. Through the window you could see the soft shadows of the Giza pyramids on the horizon and I had to stare at them for a bit longer to make sure they were real. We got out, only to arrive in front of a rave dance party scene and glance around in confusion. Apparently what we thought was going to be a majestic evening in the middle of the desert in the eye of the pyramids where Bedouin people invited us to come sit and share their humble but delicious feast while they sang and danced, was actually just a hot spot for Arab dudes to bring their lady friends to dance horribly on a front stage and cuddle up in dim corners on the rugs and cushions on the sandy platform. I don't know why we even expected anything different. But it certainly was a painful reminder of how modernized even a place like the pyramids is. 

The one memorable occasion, besides the pompous guy who thought his robot moves were the greatest thing since sliced bread, was the horseback ride through a desert path. Sure it was contrived, and I was skeptical from the beginning, but once my horse and I got out by ourselves I felt a little less judgmental about it all. There are still things to enjoy amidst the glaring Westernized establishments. Like the fact that the mere moon itself lit up the entire desert ahead of us and revealed the pyramids that seemed close enough to just walk over and touch, bathing the sand in blues and purples. 

Friday was hot even at ten in the morning. It seemed like the afternoon was going to be miserable, but I endeavored against it, because nothing was going to ruin the excitement of seeing the pyramids in Giza. It bothers me that I can't come up with enough words to correctly describe just how magical they are in person, but I'll try. You have to drive up a steep way in order to get to the entrance, and you're so busy staring at the giant monuments in front of you that you almost forget to look behind you at the completely panoramic view of the city. The minarets from the nearby mosque echoed with the call to prayer as we entered - a dramatic difference between what faith in Ancient Egypt was then and what it is now. We roamed around the 2nd pyramid, the one that still had part of its limestone casing at the top (the pyramids were encased with pink granite, limestone, and grey granite - respectively - back in the day) and I really loved the view of the birds that would swoop around the top and perch on some of the ancient stones before taking flight again against the desert winds. There were of course many peddlers trying to sell people camel rides or stupid little trinkets but it was easy to ignore them as we were all too busy imagining what the pyramids must have looked like in their prime, the sunrise glinting off from the top and making them all look like gold. Cameras weren't allowed inside the actual pyramid - which was narrow in every direction and from a moment's glance looked like one wrong step would kill you for sure - but I didn't listen and sweet-talked my way into getting the watchman to let me take a picture standing inside the actual stone tomb that held the sarcophagus of a dead Pharaoh. I'm the kind of person that would love to be in The Mummy. Alas, me disturbing the final resting place of Khafra didn't seem to do much of anything, but it was still pretty cool. The final visiting place was of the Sphinx, and though there was a hotel and a KFC/Pizza Hut right across from it, it was still very ethereal. It all just makes me wish that I could somehow go back in time just to watch everything happen - not to change anything, just to watch. There must be so much that we don't know and so much that we think we know but have gotten completely wrong. Lost knowledge makes me very sad. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Last night a group of us went to Khan-al-Khalili, one of the most famous marketplaces in Cairo. From the overpass I caught a glimpse of the ocean of people, Egyptians and tourists alike, and felt discouraged. I wanted to walk the market without having my personal space invaded, have some tea, and leave. I read about how crowded it always is and as we walked down the cobblestone path towards the Khan I took a deep breath, decided to suck it up and take the plunge. And I'll be forever grateful that I did. We passed by stands selling lanterns, scarves, musical instruments, apricots, and spices. Sellers shimmy over to you from every direction, insisting you look around their stores. "Just look. Looking is free!" Every single one of your senses is assaulted with something around you and it's wonderful. 

My shining moment was successfully haggling with a shopkeeper and using my feminine wiles to get him to lower his prices for my friends buying shawls, completely in Arabic, understanding everything. He asked if I was Egyptian, I said that I was Indian and he insisted that I had some Egyptian in me - that I "am Cleopatra, queen of not Egypt, not India, but of the world." Saying no in Arabic to keep away the sellers and the beggars came so naturally as we dodged popcorn and peanut carts and pointedly ignored the "Half price for the pretty ladies!" comments. Sellers here are all very interested in ethnicities - and I think that they must have different techniques for the variety of customers they get. Throughout the course of the night I got, "Are you Japanese?" (which I was very confused about) "Enti Masriyeh? Are you Egyptian?" (to which I responded, "La'a, no" and he replied, "You are! Don't lie!") and "Hey, Indian lady! Look at my golden slippers!" 

We then unwound at Al-Fishawi, the oldest and usually most crowded coffee shop in Cairo that has supposedly been continuously open since the 1700s. After a few lefts and a right we found it, located literally in the middle of a narrow alley surrounded with ornate mirrors of different sizes and shapes. We all shared traditional mint tea, pomegranate juice, and strawberry shisha at a table outside under the moon while sellers of all ages waved jewelry and papyrus that was probably fake in our directions as they walked by. I didn't want to leave, but we eventually had to and the drive back to campus was suddenly so much more enjoyable than before. The short but eventful trip made me fall even more in love with Cairo. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

We decided to head down to the gym and sports complex last night - the campus' current bright and shining star - and ended up playing a pick-up game of basketball with one other American guy against a bunch of Egyptian guys. The moral of that game was that Egyptians take pick-up games of anything very, very seriously. There were cuts, burns, scratches, and lots of yelling. I think they're so competitive because the only thing that they get first place in is highest pollution producing country in the world. 

After assessing our battle wounds and showering, we tagged along with a group of the RA's on campus to a hookah cafè in downtown Cairo an hour or so away. It was my first real experience with the chaos that is driving on the highway in Egypt. The only rules are that you try not to hit anyone and that the driver has his or her seat belt on at the occasional police check-points. Blasting music and speeding down the highway past giant billboards, Ramadan holiday lights, and decorated mosque minarets with the windows down was a fun rollercoaster through the city. You can't truly comprehend those pictures from space that show the amount of light coming from major cities around the world until you're in one of those cities that never does sleep, like Cairo. Being around the table of twenty-something-year-old Arabs, most of them guys, bantering and joking about things I only half understood was amusing. We all ordered mint, cherry, and apple shisha (or hookah) around the table. Arabs say "senashrab shisha", literally meaning "we'll drink shisha", which I think is beautiful. Not smoking, but "drinking" it. I'm still rusty at it for a beginner, but I'll get plenty of practice in while I'm here. I had some cinnamon-honey coffee to accompany the mint shisha. The loud conversations at our table and the open windows around us seemed ironically peaceful, as waiters would dotingly come around to refill the coals in our shisha, asking us "Ai shey, ya pasha?", or "anything else, my lord?" Even though the youth in this region listen to Akon and wear designer brand names, they still hang out at hookah cafès and uphold all these traditions. We got back to campus in the wee hours of the morning, some of us contemplating the possibility of just staying up until sunrise. But the serenity of the dark campus led us back to our beds instead. 

As far as cuisine goes, I've been constantly eating this little nutella-filled croissant snack food that are popular here, as well as zataar and lebna manoush (a wrap of olive oil, yogurt, cheese, cucumber, and olives rolled into a baked dough).

I unfortunately forgot my camera USB at home, so I can't upload pictures as of yet. But I'm sure I'll eventually get my hands on it in order to post some.