Tuesday, December 21, 2010

الحمد لله!

You can apparently say “I no love winter! I like ice in the sky nevertimes!” without ruining your chances completely on the Foreign Service Arabic Exam, because, against all expectations, I seem to have passed. I’m very, very pleased. This time last year, I had just finished the introductory Arabic course at Qalam wa Lawh, a language school in Rabat, Morocco. We used Alif-Baa, a book designed to introduce the Arabic alphabet to English speakers with no background in the language whatsoever. One year, hundreds of hours, and thousands of dollars later, everything has finally paid off and that I will received word that I’ve received my Super Critical Needs Language points.

I’m not sure where that puts me on the hiring lists, but historically, a score above 5.8 on the Econ register has been a fairly sure thing. I’m on the do-not-call list until August - or, more accurately, until I just get too impatient and walk out on the judge. It’ll be hard to sit through this job over the next eight months, which is a shame, because two weeks ago I would have described it as the best job I’ve ever had.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll describe some of the tools I used to prepare for the exam, just in case they’re of any use to anybody going through the same thing. I’ve been keeping track of what worked for me and what didn’t, but I thought it was probably a bit premature to recommend my approach before there was any evidence that it worked. Thanks to everyone, particularly the immensely patient Ms. C, who helped to prepare me for this thing, I really am grateful.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Maybe Ten Years Ago

I was misinformed as to when the State Department would give me my Arabic exam results. It looks like the contractor who runs the tests only provides scores once a week - every Monday morning. Having taken my test on a Monday morning, I’ll have to wait the longest amount of time possible. Fortunately, waiting is a skill I’ve perfected during this whole process.

The wait has also given me a chance to review every piece of my performance over those ten minutes, at least to the extent that I can remember anything that happened at all. I realized that my answer to one of the questions was actually pretty good, given that I understood barely a word of it. I answered “maybe ten years ago...” and then trailed off unintelligibly. That’s actually a reasonable answer to a lot more questions than you’d think, for example:

“Do you exercise or play sports at all?”

“Are you satisfied with your work?”

“How long ago did you begin the process of becoming a foreign service officer?”

The more I think about it, the more convinced I’ve become that I might have nailed that one. Only another few days until I find out. Do you think I can handle the stress?

Maybe, around ten years ago.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Han al-waqt!

I just finished my Modern Standard Arabic test with the people at BEX. What a disaster. I knew my nerves were getting the better of me when in my regular early morning lesson with the folks in Cairo, I could feel my consciousness start to sort of float away. I don’t know whether other people experience this or not: that part of an oral exam where you drift off and spend more time thinking about how you sound saying something than you do about what you’re actually saying? I’ve stress-tested this technique across a wide range of environments, and I can confirm that it’s a guaranteed way to sabotage yourself.

I called about five minutes early, only to have someone pick-up the phone and hang it back up immediately. It’s nice to see that government employees are the same in DC as we are here in the courthouse. We’ll stay late if we have to, but by God we will not start earlier than scheduled. If I’m in before 9:00, it’s because I want to read the newspaper for ten minutes, not to get a head start on serving the public.

I called back a few minutes later. This time, they answered and took down my information before passing me along to the testing team. Now, I won’t go into too much detail about the test’s subject matter - nobody mentioned anything about an NDA during my test, but the notoriously conservative folks on the A-100 Yahoo message board have me so completely terrified that I’m breaking some sort of Foreign Service code just by admitting the existence of the test (or the Yahoo message board, for that matter), that I’m going to hold back a little.

We began with a pretty simple dialogue. There was surprisingly little opportunity to go off-topic on this “interview” portion of the test. Basic questions about the weather would get cut off before I had an opportunity to expand on, say, exactly why I hate winter so much in New York, or whether or not I think the summer here is even worse than winter. I felt like I was cruising along until I hit a question that I just didn’t understand at all. The tester rephrased it three times until I finally sort of understood and I apologized and stammered out an answer. When I asked for that second repetition, I could hear the two or three testers whispering with each other and writing stuff down. It was like a scene in a courtroom drama where the prosecutor has just revealed evidence that’s going to get a man hanged.

Having failed that section, we moved on to open discussion. This is where you’re given a topic and you talk, for at least a couple of minutes, on whatever topic you’ve been given. I think “open” is intended in the same sense that the ocean or a desert are “open.” The subject they give you is your means of survival, and you have no idea what it is or how useful it will be until they toss it to you. If they asked me about, say, my job, than I’ve been given a life-raft. This is because I can happily talk at some length about what I do every day and what I think of it - I can survive the open water with this subject. Now, I wouldn’t say that the topic they gave me was an anchor, exactly, but it sure didn’t float. If this were a desert scene, it would have been a bag of salt.

My answer included an unflattering discussion of the Republican Party. I referred to them as “Hizb Republican” (wherein I say "Republican" in English, but with some bizarre accent that’s meant to convey a certain foreignness). At one point, the tester said, in English “what is 'Republican?'”

I said, in Arabic, “well, there are two principle parties in the United States, the Democrats are liberals, and the Republicans are the opposite.”

She said again in English, “no, that is an English word, what do you mean by ‘Republican?’”

I answered, again in Arabic, “It is a proper name, like my name, Chadha, it is the same in all languages, like Hezbollah.”

She didn’t agree, and really, I was just stalling because I have no idea what they call the Republicans in Arabic countries - they probably consider them left-wing radicals or something. I compromised by turning the Arabic word for “Republic” into an adjective, but I think it was too late by then, as the damage was already done. The test ended directly after this and I’m to call tomorrow to get my results. There’s probably some rule that if the tester has to switch into English, than you automatically fail. One year of studying for twelve minutes of semi-coherent dialogue, trouble with a technicality, and probable failure as a consequence of both. Next time I’ll limit my discussion to the wicked “Hizbashay.”

My greatest hope (and my worse fear) rest on the fact that scoring a two really shouldn’t be so hard. Low bars are the worst though - they don’t let you feel that great if you pass, and you feel that much worse when you fail. The way I feel right now, I’d be very surprised to hear any good news. So I probably would feel pretty fantastic about making it through. And really, let's be honest, they have yet to make a bar so low that I’m not delighted to jump over it. I get a little thrill just crossing the lines sometimes.

When I get the inevitable bad news tomorrow, I don't think I'll feel too badly about facing another six months of hard-out study. The temptation to slack on my studies and lose all of this progress would be too great if I didn’t have a terrifying test to motivate me every waking minute of my life.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Vocabulary Discrimination

A major difference between language learning in a defined setting and language learning on your own, is that when you’re on your own, the size of the universe is pretty much unlimited. If I study at the Foreign Service Institute, on the other hand, I can rest fairly assured that if I simply learn and know everything that I’m presented with (I know, easier said than done), that I stand a good chance of getting to where I need to be. After all, the folks teaching the language are the folks testing the language, and I’m not sure that you can avoid teaching with the test in mind if you’re already familiar at all with its contents.

Self-directed study raises a whole host of other questions. What to focus on? What is relevant? What should I emphasize? As my phone exam draws near, I find myself running a bizarre probability calculation as to what I think is most likely to be on the test. Should I be focusing on political vocabulary? Economics? Media? Particular current events? Is there an Arabic word for “Wikileak”?

I’ve developed an elaborate system of flashcards where words move in and out of various stacks scattered around the apartment, based on my how confident I am that I know how to use them appropriately. The goal for any self-respecting card is to finally make it onto the window-ledge in the spare room, which means I can pretty much ignore it forever. The problem is that some particularly stubborn words who refuse to be learned keep resurfacing - for example, I might be working on a set of new business meeting vocab I’ve thrown together, but because of my stragglers, the set might include the words: delegate, meeting, settlement, rabbit, authority, furry, representative.

To deal with this issue, I’ve had to create a new pile of cards, which is located on the floor between the headboard of my bed and the wall. This pile is for cards with vocabulary that I once thought important enough to learn, but now clearly have no place in an increasingly crowded study regime. “Spokesman” and “salary” can stay, but “zombie-fight” and “aquarium” are out. “Criminal” has to be learned, but “frosting” can wait. “Frisbee” can stay, but only because the Arabic word for that is probably just “frisbee.”

I guess we’ll find out soon enough if I made the right choices. I’m going to be pretty disappointed if the first question is “Candidate, could you please tell me if this is just about the furriest rabbit you have ever seen in your whole life?” I guess the best thing about this test is knowing what to expect when I inevitably have to take it again.

Friday, October 08, 2010

On the Register

Every time I reach the point where it seems appropriate to complain in a public forum, I get what I want just a few days later. Almost immediately after wondering out loud why I hadn't made it onto the register yet, I learned that I had.

What this means in practical terms is that there is no impediment to starting my career as a diplomat - except for all of those other candidates who earned higher scores at the oral assessment, that is. The list is rank ordered based on raw oral assessment score, plus whatever bonuses you might earn from languages skills or military service.

My score on the oral assessment wasn't anything flashy, so I'm pretty far down the list. Throughout the summer, the number of candidates waiting on the registers has been growing faster than State has been able to hire them. If this keeps up, I don't like my odds. Luckily, I saw this coming and, round about this time last year, started studying Modern Standard Arabic. The foreign service badly needs Arabic speakers, and to recruit them, offers an enormous register boost to anyone who can pass a phone exam. The effect is big enough that even someone with the lowest possible passing score on the oral exam would be assured an offer if only they pass the Arabic test.

This is essentially where I am now. It's all in my hands - learn the language, and I can rest assured that when my clerkship ends in August, I'll be on my way to Washington. Fail, and I have only myself to blame. This is why I've doubled my tutoring hours to eight hour-long speaking sessions per week. At 7:00 every morning, I'm on the phone with my tutors in Cairo. Same thing, but for two hours, on the weekends. Fridays, thank Jebus, are free. In between lessons, flashcards, podcasts, al Jazeera, halaal carts or anything else that might help. Even Ms. C has started learning the language in a show of support. First try at the test will be at the end of December and then, practically, I'll have one more shot sometime in June before I have to start looking for an alternative, post-clerkship job. I'm already feeling the pressure.

I wonder what might happened if I'd put this kind of energy into any other aspect of my life over the previous thirty years? Never too late to grow up, I guess.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Clearance Granted

What a relief...ish.

After calling every other Friday for about two months, I finally convinced the customer service team at Diplomatic Security to send an email on my behalf to my adjudicator (with whom my file had spent the previous five months). Two emails, actually: the first only uncovered the fact that my adjudicator was in training and unable to process my file, but the second email found its way to his replacement. She almost immediately emailed a couple of easy follow-up questions that had apparently been pending for the better part of a year: "Is Ms. Chadha actually your wife" and "Does Ms. Chadha have a job." Two affirmative replies later, I learned that I had been granted the necessary clearances.

This all unfolded at the start of the months, and since then, I've been waiting to hear that my file has made it through final adjudications and that I've made it onto the hiring register. Unfortunately, not a word from anyone since then. Even the option of calling the customer service folks (who in most cases are only allowed to tell you that nothing has changed) is no longer available. Now that I've cleared the security hurdle, who do I call? I've tried the registrar several times, but she's been avoiding the phone and my emails. This kind of follow-up is not something I enjoy doing, but it's proven to be very necessary in this process. Good thing that chasing up litigants for every bit of paper they're meant to have filed provides the perfect skill set for this sort of thing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Me Talk Pretty - Part I

With apologies to David Sedaris, a continuing series describing things that I find difficult to talk about in Arabic:


As far as I know, Arabic's root system doesn't really accommodate portmanteau words. There is no meal called "fatghada" (brunch) that can be eaten with a "mirhawka" (spork). So I could only describe my post-lesson brunch plans as follows: "it is a chance to eat a very big breakfast with more meat. We eat it after the usual time of lunch. My friends love this because they arise late on Saturdays and Sundays. Because we live in New York, there is a requirement to wait in a long line." I didn't mention the "bottomless Bloody Mary," a discussion which would have been sure to cause offense on many levels.

Desalination Plants

I offered the idea of solar powered desalination plants as a solution to Egypt's growing population/water issues. I described this as a system where "the government steals salt from the water of the ocean and the government is able to do this because the sun in Egypt is very hot and the desert in Egypt is very spacious. There will be a big wall for the sun that is doing these things. Doing this the government does not need very much olive oil!"

Population crisis? Solved.

The Plot of the movie "Inception"

Not easy to do in any language, but the highlight of my attempt was explaining how "a man of business puts a team of idea people into the brain of another, bigger man of business. Inside his brain, they grow a new idea. There are many problems and much quarreling. Also, there is skiing inside the head."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Stuck in Traffic

I've heard the foreign service testing and clearance process described as "a long journey". It's certainly long in temporal terms, but I'm not as sure that much ground is actually covered. I prefer instead to think of it taking a cab in a crowded city with a friendly, mildly drunk driver. There's a general sense of unease, punctuated with terror, exhilaration, and, occasionally, bursts of nauseatingly frenetic activity which leads you to believe that you're getting closer... until your driver once again slams on the breaks and you wind up lying on the floor in the middle of a pile of papers.

The appropriate analogy for adjudications would probably involve a traffic cop who wants to "quickly" make sure that you've never had a serious traffic violation (like aiding and abetting terrorists or forgetting to signal) anytime in the last ten years. I've been pulled over for the last twenty weeks or so while they review my file for whatever red flags were inevitably raised.

Heaven knows that the Chadhas always signal,* so I'm confident we'll ultimately receive a favorable decision. That doesn't stop me from making my bi-weekly update call to the security clearance customer service line. I don't generally like to bother people, but the advice that I've received is that these things sometimes need a gentle nudge. In my case, the real mystery has been over who needs the nudging, since they're having trouble tracking down who my assigned adjudicator is. My calls have prompted a few emails, which I imagine to be equivalent to blowing the car horn a little, and, as everyone who has ever lived in Cairo knows: constant honking is an elegant and efficient solution to intractable traffic issues.

*This is literally true in the case of Ms. Chadha. I have never seen a more conscientious driver in my life. You could set your watch by the position of her hands on the steering wheel, provided that the time was always exactly 10 :10.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Grand Plan

If it's not obvious already, I'm trying to learn Arabic. I'm doing this in part because I have a genuine interest in learning the language - I'd love access to all of those centuries of great literature, so much of which has never made it into translation. In Egypt, everyone who asked me why I'd choose to study Arabic naturally assumed that I was some sort of spy. I'd protest that I was actually joining the State Department, but that was really too fine a distinction for people who associate the word "State" with their own massive security services.

The truth, though, is that a huge motivating factor is all of the tasty bonus points I can earn from Arabic's status as a "Super Critical Needs Language." A score of at least "2" on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale would add an additional 0.5 points to my Oral Assessment score. For people like me with a score on the lower end of the range, the language points mean the difference between hope and the security of choosing a guaranteed start date on our own terms.

I've spent most of the past year studying independently, including stints in Morocco and Egypt. Over the last few months, it's just been me and my tutors at Arab Academy, a program that has led to success on the test before. Unfortunately(ish), I've recently returned to full-time work as a federal judicial clerk (once again practicing law properly!) which has taken a shocking amount of time away from my studies. Still, it's coming along. I'm starting to think I may have some hope of passing is thing, which seems incredible given that this time last year I didn't know my alif from my baa.

Since the requirements of "adulthood" require me to take a break from traveling for a while, I'll have to turn the discussion over to the adventures of learning Arabic. And what an adventure it is. I do miss being on the road, though. I don't mind admitting that hearing the call to prayer in the background during a session with my Cairo-based tutor made me a little nostalgic. I'll find out next week whether waking up for a 7:00 AM tutoring session in any way resembles the unpleasantness of being woken up every day by a blasting sunrise call to prayer.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Signs That It's Time to Go Back to Work - A Short Dialogue

Me: So how late do you have to work tonight?

Barber: 'fraid I'm here 'til 9:00.

Me: On a Friday?! Who gets their hair cut at 9:00 on a Friday night?

Barber: Not many. Lucky for me, today is Tuesday.

Me: Right. That's right. Tuesday

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Back to the Future

I've fallen seriously behind in my posts. My most recent post was nearly two months ago, and even that ancient update was itself narrating events that had happened over a month before. I still enjoy updating this thing, I think I just hate the idea of working through my backlog of scribbles and notes. It's difficult to write with any sort of regularity about things that happened months ago. So, I've decided to resolve the issue as elegantly (and effortlessly) as possible - by skipping the past three or four months and jumping back to the future.

So here we are, again in now.

We're back in Brooklyn. I can finally say "we" because Ms. Chadha has left London to stay with me in New York for good. The long slog to the Foreign Service continues. My security clearance is still pending. My case manager from Diplomatic Security submitted my file sometime in mid-April, and shortly after that, I entered a special hell called "adjudications," where I've burned ever since. Operating under the logic that only a difficult decision could possibly take this long, I've started to believe that this is probably a bad sign.

Oh well, nothing really to do about it. I can't imagine what fatal information Diplomatic Security could have uncovered, so I'm hoping it's just a function of checking up on my frequent globe-trekking (Ms. C has dragged me to some 35 countries over the last five years). There's also always the possibility that Ms. C's nationality is the concern - she's not American, she's a Kiwi, and my country in understandably suspicious of a nation that would field a soccer team that neither won nor lost a single game in the World Cup. How un-American is that?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Convoy to Abu Simbel

Fifteen minutes before we were scheduled to leave, the hotel gave us our wake up call. We climbed into our clothes and stumbled out into the lobby where we joined a handful of equally bleary-eyed guests. We were given a boxed lunch before being led to a spacious minibus. Given the length of the ride, I was pleased to only be sharing the bus with a few other people. Besides our small group, it seemed that the only others making the trip were four Korean tourists who, coincidentally, we had actually already met around a campfire in the White Desert the week before.

Unfortunately, this was only the second of a long series of stops. The empty seats quickly disappeared as we pulled into random alleyways and sidestreets, gathering one or two more tourists each stop. Soon, every seat was filled, but that didn’t stop our imaginative driver from creating more. Our bus had foldaway seats hidden everywhere – under other seats; on the floor; behind ingeniously disguised panels in the bus' walls. If the vehicle hadn’t already been horribly crowded, it might have actually been fun to guess from where the next seat was miraculously going to appear. In the circumstances, however, what had looked like a bargain when we booked was beginning to look even more like a steal, only we had become the victims.

"Well, at LE70 each, that's only about $5.00 each, not too bad for seven hours of transport," I said optimistically.

"It's more like £10.00 sterling, which is what you'd pay for a full-size seat on a National Express bus in England," replied Ms. Chadha with better math and brutal realism.

Awkwardly folded into a seat further down my row was an enormously tall German (he was 7'2", which according to Ms. C. would have made him the tallest man in New Zealand). At the first stop, he asked the only slightly less enormous Korean passenger who sat in relative comfort by the door if he wouldn't mind trading places. Unsurprisingly, the Korean passenger wasn't interested. “But my legs are very long, it would be more comfortable," pleaded the German. The Korean guy thought for a second before defensively replying "I will stay because otherwise I have the same problem." I prepared to watch what would certainly be the tallest smackdown I had ever seen, maybe the tallest ever! I confess to being a little disappointed that nothing came of it.

We settled into our seats, some more happily than others, and waited for the rest of the convoy to gather. Fifty minutes later, it had, and one by one we pulled onto the road to Abu Simbel. I don’t often imagine convoys, but when I do, I imagine something impressive - the word evokes military supply lines, long-haul truckers, ships dodging submarines in the Atlantic. Minibus convoys, on the other hand, are absurd. A lone minibus look vaguely ridiculous, five dozen of them in a row look supremely so. The safety advantages weren’t clear either: attacking a lone bus requires a certain amount of timing and precision. Hitting a chain of buses that is scheduled to pass at a certain time, on the other hand, must be an attractive target for even the laziest, most clumsy terrorist. In any event, the convoy had broken apart within the first twenty kilometres. The only effect the convoy seemed to have was to bring down property values in the neighbourhood where it gathered. What a nasty surprise it must have been for the locals. Imagine: your first night in your new home and you’re woken up by the sounds of forty or fifty minibuses idling outside your window. What would you do when you realized that this was going to happen to you every night for the rest of your life?

Abu Simbel itself is an extraordinary site well worth the three hour drive (especially if you do it in an adult-size bus). The four collosi of Ramses II outside the temple are familiar enough – as a child one of my favorite issues of National Geographic was an article on the relocation of the monument to higher ground as the rising water behind the Aswan dam threatened to innundate it. What I hadn’t known was that the interior of the temple was so extensive. It’s incredible both for the quality of the original work and for its level of preservation. I’d recommend heading straight for the temple interior when you arrive. Most tourists will be stuck listening to their guides’ background lectures just in front of the temple, so even in the middle of such a large crowd, you can steal fifteen minutes of peace inside the temple if you hurry.

There’s plenty of time later to enjoy the exterior views of the temple, where the crowd milling around below only accentuates the size of the monument. The colossal quartet of Ramses II were built to scowl at travellers from the Nubian kingdoms to the south, impressing upon them the power and terror of Pharaonic Egypt. It’s still effective today, though now the monument is set in an artificial mountain overlooking an artificial lake, and the modern oppressors of the Nubians have reverted to more barbaric ways of demonstrating their power.

The hour-and-a-half given to see the site seems like more than enough time, but before long the roar of a thousand minibuses told us that the convoy was reforming. We settled back into our seats and tried to get comfortable as the convoy, united for now, began the long trip back to Aswan.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Down in Upper Egypt

EgyptAir offered us a choice of three afternoon flights, all of which were scheduled to leave within ten minutes of each other. For several hours on either side of this small handful of departures, nothing left at all. Flying planes in a convoy might have seemed strange to me once. Fortunately, I've stopped trying to understand these things and, instead of puzzling over the logic and worrying about the waste, I now just sip my mini can of Pepsi* and enjoy the extra space in my choice of one of three available planes, none of which was even one-third full.

The only disadvantage of a near-empty plane is that it suffers more from the effects of the hoht afternoon air rising off the baking desert beneath us. The same rules of atmospheric thermodynamics that allows birds to gracefully wheel in ever-higher arcs over the desert floor also apply to 747s, but there isn't anything graceful about our flight, which lurches clumsily through the air. I would never have described myself as someone who’s afraid of flying, but I’m going to start avoiding these Saharan flights. They’re nasty.

The Aswan airport is tiny and, on a Sunday, was completely empty. This didn’t mean that I could make it to the bathroom unobserved by the staff, however. As soon as I left the stall, a newly-arrived attendant handed me a paper towel and I handed him back a one-pound note. I could see right away from the polite-but-disgusted look on his face that I had made a mistake. I realized that I’d used my left hand to pass him his baksheesh. This must have been particularly revolting given where I’d just been. I do really try to not make these mistakes, but I’ve found that there’s a difference between knowing the proper etiquette and having the presence of mind to always observe it. This is why whenever I’ve had the opportunity to eat with anyone local, I literally sit on my left hand.

The taxi cartel at Aswan International is unusually disciplined, and my price negotiations weren't impressing anyone, including Ms. Chadha. When my generous counter-offer of LE50 was refused en-masse by the rank of drivers, I was left without any other plan except to sit there until someone crumbled. Someone did, but it was no surprise when that someone was me. Unless you’re a masochist or on a very tight budget, book a hotel transfer.

I’d read that Aswan’s souq was the best outside of Cairo, and since I was still in the market for a backgammon board, we decided to give shopping a try before anything else. Aswan’s municipal government had completely refurbished the market several years ago. Gone are the narrow, twisting streets with shops and vendors of every sort all haphazardly heaped together. Now the uniformly sized shops sit in neat rows on newly paved streets. It feels like you’re in an exotic version of a suburban shopping mall, though admittedly one with a more interesting food court. The main disadvantage is that in these “improved” open streets, the shopkeepers can see you from thirty meters away, and so have time to position themselves as inconveniently as possible – usually with the aim of separating you from whomever you’re walking with. The shopkeepers recognize that it's easier for a group of people to ignore them and have adjusted their strategy accordingly. In Aswan, you have to fight to stay together.

Overall, shopping in any souq is definitely a more pleasant experience when there's actually something you want to buy. However, after seeing thirty versions of the same backgammon board, we gave up and went back to the hotel. I still have hope that I’ll find what I’m looking when we’re back in Cairo. If anyone has any suggestions, please send them my way. I'm probably going to end up getting one on eBay, which would be pretty lame after having lived all of this time in North Africa.

We stayed at the Keylany Hotel, which is a few streets off the Corniche. This means that you lose the river view, but it’s quieter, cleaner, and I’m not sure that the price can be beat. It is a shame about the view, though. When I’d thought about the Nile, the scene from the Corniche is what I’d imagined: a ribbon of blue between dun colored cliffs and mountains of sand, thick stands of palms gathered on either side. It was beautiful and the rooftop of the Keylany would have been the perfect place to take it in – it’s been tastefully decorated with wicker and hundreds of fairy lights** (which looked better than I make it sound).

We decided to have a quick drink before calling it an early night (we had a 2:50 A.M. wake-up call to look forward to), but instead managed to get caught in a conversation with a roof full of backpackers. Trying to extricate yourself from a tipsy pair of chatty South Africans isn't easy, but I felt like I was up to it after an afternoon of practice in Aswan’s markets. Instead of letting myself be suckered into listening to an evening of stories even more exaggerated than mine, I followed my fail-safe souq escape tactics: I smiled, didn’t let them get between Ms. Chadha and me, went for a quick exit while ignoring the usual mix of pleas and insults, and hoped we got away without offending anyone too much. I think I’m getting good at this.

*Pepsi is killing Coke in the Egyptian cola wars. I have no idea why. It's very disheartning.
** I've always just called them "Christmas lights", but that doesn't seem to fit here. I've adopted Ms. C's terminology.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Little Eire in Egypt

My original plan for getting to Upper Egypt involved taking the Abela Sleeper Train from Cairo to Aswan. It sounded romantic in a neo-colonial sort of way and offered the added advantage of being cheap. Exercising an abundance of caution, I visited the reservation office at Ramses Station a full month before my expected travel date, only to be told by a puzzled clerk (who had probably never planned anything a month ahead in his life) that I couldn’t reserve a seat more than two in advance. I returned two weeks later as instructed, and found that the train was completely booked. My advice for anyone interested in travelling on the sleeper train: skip trying to decipher the conflicting instructions of the confused Abela staff. Instruct a local travel agency to get the tickets for you instead.

In the end, we had to fly, but trading a twelve hour train ride for a one-and-a-half hour flight did at least give us an extra night in Cairo. We used it to have dinner with a couple of my old ILI roommates, one of whom convinced me to try Egypt’s most schizophrenic dish: a bowl of Molokheya. I wanted to write “Egypt’s most revolting dish,” but that’s not quite fair, because it actually tastes fine. What’s revolting is the texture, which botanists describe with the appropriately disgusting word “mucilaginous.” Molokheya is the Egyptian term for Jew’s Mallow, which as near as I can tell, has no more politically correct name. When cooked, the stuff turns to slime – a clear, thick slime with the consistency of saliva...after a night of heavy drinking...when you have a sinus infection.

I washed it down with half a bottle of Omar Khayam, which as noted before, has the useful property of acting as a general anaesthetic in situations like this. This time it also had the unfortunate side-effect of causing me to suggest to Ms. C. that we should go to Harry’s Pub for a couple post-dinner drinks in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. I blame the Omar Khayam, because in sober circumstances I dislike St. Patrick’s day and I hate Harry’s Pub. I can’t imagine a situation where I'd like either of them better when combined.

Harry’s is a faux Irish pub attached to the Marriot Hotel in Zamalek (or maybe it’s the Sheraton – I can never remember, which has irritated more than one cab driver). Harry’s is popular with older (mostly English) ex-pats, local alcoholics, itinerant students, and prostitutes. Unfortunately, this is more or less the exact same demographic that is attracted to St. Patrick’s day, which doubled the potential obnoxiousness of the crowd. Luckily for us, in my enthusiasm I had failed to notice that we’d already missed the holiday, which was the day before.*

St. Patrick’s day may have passed, but there was still one night left for the Irish band that the hotel had flown in from Dublin for a four-night stand. The crowd, many of whom were probably still nursing hangovers cultivated the night before, was more subdued too. Everyone’s enthusiasm had been dampened just to the point where an old crank like me could enjoy himself, and enjoy myself I did. Probably as a consequence of my father’s collection of Dubliners cassettes, I love traditional Irish music. I was delighted anytime they pulled out one of the classics. They have so much energy to them that half the time I don’t realize how ridiculously depressing the lyrics are, which reminds me of a few of my favorite lines from G. K. Chesteron:

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad

Very true, G.K., very true. We didn’t hear anything as conspicuously mournful as “Danny Boy,” but even the upbeat, sing-along numbers like “Whisky in the Jar,” and “Irish Rover,” (which are about a double-crossing lover and the annihilation of a ship’s crew, respectively) are actually quite sad. Some of the poignancy of bleak Irish songs is relieved, however, by the recognition that nobody living in whatever Irish backwater is the subject of a song like “Dirty Old Town” has it nearly as bad as the dozens of poor Sudanese and sub-Saharan prostitutes who frequent places like Harry’s. You would have to take Ireland’s gloomiest songwriter off his anti-depressants for months before he could write a song that could even come close to capturing how terrible that job must be.

We settled the bill just as the band started on to a series of Journey covers. It was definitely the right time to leave Harry's and probably also a good time to leave Cairo for a while, too. I’ve found that a good rule of thumb is that by the time a person starts frequenting fake Irish pubs (which exist everywhere on earth), either they’ve run out of ideas to explore or the town has run out of options to offer. In either case, it was a good time to take to the road for a bit, or, as the Irish appear to say: “mush-a ring dum-a do dum-a da, wack fall the daddy-o.”

*St. Patrick's Day was a month ago, which shows just how many posts behind I actually am on this thing. They're all there, they just need typing.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Cairo and the Egyptian Museum

The next morning, we drove almost directly back to Cairo from the White Desert – I say almost, because we took a few off-road detours to avoid the police checkpoints scattered along the route. I asked Waleed and Hamid about this, but they just laughed and muttered something about the highway being bad for the jeep. The main road that we exited was without question the best we’d had and the stony, shattered trail we used instead was one of the worst, but I shared our guides’ distrust of the police and didn’t ask any more questions. Besides, driving across the desert to avoid the law made me feel like I was part of the Monkey Wrench Gang.

We returned to the Windsor Hotel, which for the money has the nicest hotel bar in Cairo. The quality of the rooms, on the other hand, is less predictable. Some of them (ours) were simple affairs, while others (not ours) looked amazingly comfortable. I couldn’t see any significant price differences, so I suspect that what’s required for an upgrade is a bit of baksheesh. This meant that Ms. C. had to forego a large room with a bath for one with a tiny shower and a chair that collapsed the first time I sat on it. Four months in North Africa and I still don’t have any idea how this baksheesh thing is done.

The room did at least have a nice balcony overlooking the coffee and tea shops surrounding the Windsor. This meant that we could see (without being seen) the mobs of unemployed men who frequent these places – smoking sheeshas, drinking tea, leering and now and then shouting something moderately filthy at Ms. Chadha. This was the biggest difference between wandering around Cairo alone and travelling with a partner – the unwanted attention of Egyptian men.

A surprising number of Egyptian men have the sexual maturity of teenage boys, with whom they share a great deal in common: both groups are sexually frustrated, neither have any idea what to do when confronted with a woman, and neither have any better use of their time other than demonstrating the first two of these commonalities over and over again. It is very obnoxious and is far worse than in any other North African or Middle Eastern city I have visited.

It’s the kind of thing that, if you can’t find a way to adjust to or avoid, can spoil your trip. Not Ms. Chadha, though. We were soon on the streets again and I was able to demonstrate to Ms. C’s satisfaction that kushari truly is the king of cheap street foods. It seems she and her workmates had read my earlier post on the subject and couldn’t believe that something of that description could possibly taste good. I’m happy to confirm to the employees of the Insolvency Service that she agrees that it’s great.

Our time in Cairo was limited, so we decided to spend the bulk of the day at the Egyptian Museum, which matched every expectation of it. The collection is massive and amazing, but it looks like it was collected by an eccentric English gentleman who put everything on display just as his Alzheimer’s started to set in. Most things aren’t labelled, and what labels exist are often only yellowed cards, typed up in the 19th century either in bad English or bad French. The labels usually describe something completely different from what’s in front of you. Thankfully, most of what you’re looking at is impressive even when you have no idea what it is – in particular, the Tutankhamen artefacts are incredible. Still, if you’re a learner-type, buy a book to tote along. I wish I had.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The White Desert

At the border of the White Desert National Park our driver impatiently honked his horn while the police searched the vehicles in front of us. I couldn't imagine behaving like this in the U.S., and our police have smaller guns and more respect for civil rights. I also couldn't imagine lying to the police when asked a direct question, which is exacly what Waleed did when the officer requested the nationalities of his passengers. "Ithnayn New Zealandi," he replied, "two New Zealanders." Ms. Chadha was visibly delighted and continues to remind me of my two days of grace long after I'd returned to being an American again.

We learned from Waleed that no guide worth his tip will allow his clients from the U.S. or the U.K. to admit their nationality. This is because safety regulations require that the police provide American and British tourists with armed escorts while in the desert. "Not because they don't like you," Waleed reassured me, "but because they like you very, very much." I had no interest in sharing the solitude of the desert with a truck full of soldiers, so I humbly submitted to this affront to my national dignity.

Waleed, it should be mentioned, was a completely different person now that circumstances no longer compelled him to invent trivia for our amusement. When his guiding responsibilities were limited to taking us to places he knew were beautiful and letting us enjoy them, he relaxed and we appreciated him much more. He became less a guide and more just good company (good company who also did all of the cooking and cleaning and who expected a tip in return, but still, good company).

Pointing out extraordinary scenery was easy in the White Desert, where the elements had almost entirely eroded away a thick bed of chalk, leaving only scattered outcrops which the wind had worn into fantasic shapes. The desert floor is littered with ancient shells and millions upon millions of small iron nodules, left behind after the stone that had held them was reduced to sand.

That there were seashells lying in the sand hundreds of miles from the sea was only one of Waleed's "mysteries of the desert." He had forsaken "or something like this" as his stock phrase and instead described everything as being a "mystery of the desert." "See that palm tree," he would ask, "how does it grow in the desert with no water? Impossible to know! It is a mystery of the desert..."

Camp was a simple affair: a screen to block the wind, a few rugs, a low table and a campfire. It was simple, but very comfortable - other than a time we stayed at a tent camp in Kenya (where the 'tents' had polished wood floors and stone baths), this was as pampered as I've ever been out in the wild.

We shared a chicken cooked over an open fire and served with rice and a vegetable and potato stew. This was the third time we'd eaten this exact meal in two days, but it was without question the best interpretation of the theme. We were pleasantly surprised at its taste because we had seen the same chicken fermenting in its plastic shopping bag all day. I was also concerned that the meat might be dry, because during the cooking process Hamid kept savagely crushing the poor bird onto the grill with a pot lid. Maybe it was a function of the law that all food is good food when camping, maybe it was just another mystery of the desert, but it was delicious and we loved it.

Throughout dinner, we could hear dums and singing, and I was dreading the moment that we would be invited to participate in one of the staged "Bedouin parties" that the tour groups like to put on. Sure enough, shortly after dinner, Waleed marched us towards a camp about a half-kilometer away which was the source of the sound. We arrived to find a half-dozen of the guides (who soon claimed Waleed as one of their number) sitting around a campfire singing to the accompaniment of a single drum.

Maybe one of the blessings of being a good singer is that everyone is so enthralled by the singer's voice that people assume the singer must enjoy using it. The guides in this case had pleasant enough voices and the performance was a lot of fun, but what was even more remarkable was that the guides seemed to enjoy singing even more than the guests enjoyed listening to it (the possible exception among the guests being a few older German tourists, who didn't seem too pleased to find that their camp had been selected as the site for the evening's performance). Waleed in particular was an active participant - at one point overturning a storage bin to use as an additional drum. It was great.

Walking back, Waleed told us not to worry if we get lost because he is a Bedouin man and he knows how to sleep in the desert. Apparently, you dig a hole and bury yourself in the sand, leaving only your head exposed. This will keep you warm, but not perfectly safe, since "maybe a fox will come around and play and maybe sometimes he will make a baby on your face. Do not sleep with mouth open."

We made it back to camp, and disregarding the warnings about frisky foxes, chose to sleep under the stars. I've heard the night sky described as a "dome" of stars, but I've realized that I had no idea what that meant until I was in the desert on a cloudless day, 200 miles away from the nearest artificial light source. We saw stars touching the horizon in every direction. It must have been the first time I've ever seen stars without needing to raise my eyes at all. It was the most magical, mysterious thing we had seen in the desert. It was also the one thing that Waleed was content to show us without comment at all.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Road to Farafra

Our departure the next morning was later than planned because our new driver (who replaced Mohammed) hadn't returned yet from his previous trip. The drivers and guides work in short cycles - completing one trip, restocking, and heading out on another. Because of the delay, we combined the 'restocking' and the 'heading out' bits, which was actually quite a fun little shopping trip through town. Our last stop was at a butcher, where Waheed offered a man in a blood-soaked apron a few notes, which led to his extracting a chicken by its wings from its coop and disappearing with it just out of view. We never saw the chicken intact again, only freshly plucked and cleaned quarters of it as they sailed through the air from the chopping block to a bath of water near the door. Waleed returned to the truck holding the aftermath: a bloody shopping bag full of raw chicken which he put, unrefrigerated, into the back of the truck.

Our new driver, Hamid, was older, more mature and consequently lacked Mohammed's perverse leer. In fact, his only real obsession seemed to be his mobile phone, into which he was usually talking or watching videos. He did share one thing in common with Mohammed, which was that he took real pleasure in trying to terrify Ms. Chadha with unnecessarily dangerous driving. Whenever he was in the middle of doing something particularly frightening, he would let out a shrill ululation in what was meant to be an imitation of Ms. C's screams who, to her credit, has never made any noise of the sort.

As on the previous day, we broke up the drive with stops at different points of interest along the highway. For example, we spent fifteen minutes examining a moderately interesting ridge of quartz crystals. The wind had really began to blow, so it was difficult to examine the several really large pieces of quartz because of the thousands of small pieces that constantly blew in our eyes. Waleed gave Ms C. a small piece of translucent quartz as a "souvenir of the desert" that she, as a conscientious tourist, returned to the site as soon as his back was turned. You can't convince a Kiwi to despoil the environment for anything.

Shortly after crystal mountain, we turned east off the main highway onto a dirt road that led up a narrow canyon and ultimately to one of the most incredible vistas I've ever seen in my life. I'm sorry to say that I'm simply not good enough a photographer (or writer) to capture the scene, but from our perch in a saddle of sandstone, we saw the desert stretch for miles, broken only by massive pink and white pinnacles and buttes rising from the sea of red sand. It reminded me of the first time I saw Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border, only this had a softer, less harsh quality to it.

It also benefited from being totally unexpected, or at least unexpected by me: Waleed and Hamid simultaneously let out an exaggerated "ohhhhh my gaaaaaawd" right as we drove over the summit of the saddle and got our first glimpse of the valley, echoing what they've no doubt heard a hundred times from other customers also confronted with this scene. For Hamid, this would be his first and only complete sentence in English, and he made the most of it.

We stopped for a while to take in the view. Hamid wandered off. Waleed sat by himself and smoked. I sat and talked with Ms. C., reminding her that she would just be getting into the office were she still back in London. Suddenly, I was lying on my back in the sand. Hamid had snuck up behind me and pushed me over. I started to get up and he pushed me over again. I understand that this sort of thing is done in Egypt and that you're supposed to take it with good grace, but I have no idea how. I was reminded - not for the first time on this trip - that I have grown into a grumpy middle-aged man. I've become the kind of person whose dignity is offended by being pushed into the sand. But what do you do? My approach was to just get flustered until Hamid tired of playing with me and moved on.

I've had some time to think it over since then and just want to warn the guides of Egypt that while I know it's all in good fun, if anyone ever tries that again, I'm going to have to break his knees.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bahariya Oasis

Compared to the epic twelve hour bus ride to Siwa, the four hour drive by private mini-bus to Bahariya Oasis was very manageable. The only possible complaint was that our bus had been equipped with a warning alarm that emitted a loud, obnoxious beep at any speed over 120 kmph, so of course the driver did his best to maintain a constant speed of 123 kmph; fast enough to fill the bus with relentless noise for the duration of the trip, but not fast enough to shorten it by much.

After a quick lunch, we met our guides. Waleed wore a form-fitting, wide-collared shirt tucked into a pair of tight indigo jeans which were elaborately embroidered and embedded with sparkling rhinestones. Except for his moustache and mullet, he could have been Italian. Our driver, Mohammed, with his ratty jeans, t-shirt and flip-flops, had nothing at all in common with the Italians except for a near constant leer, which he usually directed at Ms. Chadha.

We began our tour with a visit to the Bahariya Antiquities and Archaeological Center, a crumbling cinderblock building which had the look and feel of an abandoned hospital. That the place was full of mummies (including those of children who are the worst kind of mummy) didn't improve the creepy atmosphere much.

We were informed that the Golden Mummies of Bahariya had been discovered in exactly the same way as the catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa; by a donkey falling into a hole. I've heard this sort of "lucky archaeologist/unlucky donkey" story enough times now that I've started to doubt whether all of them could possibly be true. Whether the initial discover was an unfortunate donkey or not, the archaeologists have been quite pleased with the outcome. Subsequent exploration has revealed the largest cache of mummies ever discovered - as many as 10,000 spread over a necropolis covering ten square kilometers.

I started to grow increasingly suspicious of the information Waleed provided about them as it became more and more improbably specific. It didn't help that he had the curious habit of adding "or something like that" to the end of half of his sentences. This made even his accurate information sound completely invented. He directed our attention to a decaying mummy, which he told us was once a doctor, probably a surgeon, and that a nearby mummy was his friend and had probably helped him with the surgeries. This seemed to be more than anyone else in the world knew about these things and we began to suspect that Waleed was just playing a macabre form of house - as if these corpses were no more than life-sized, elaborately decorated dolls.

Our next stop was a visit to the tombs of Zad-Amun ef-Ankh and his son Bannentiu. Both tombs require a ten-meter descent down steep staircases before ducking through low portals into the main halls. The murals in each were painted in vivid yellow and blues that looked as bright as they must have been 2,500 years ago. Neither tomb was nearly so colorful, however, as Waleed's interpretation of the events depicted on them. In one scene showing the falcon-headed god Horus standing near the ibis-headed Thoth, Waleed explained his theory that they were probably the same god: "some people say they are different, but I think maybe they are the same style guy." This was almost exactly the same way he described his view of the differences between Japanese and Chinese tourists, which he shared with us the following day when we met a group of people who I think were most-likely Korean.

One scene depicted Bannentiu (Waleed pronounced this as "Bennington," which I will use also) flanked by rows of baboons and frogs. Waleed told us that this was to show that he is happy in the afterlife, "because baboons live in trees and eat bananas and that is nice. Frogs sing like making music by the water and this is nice too. We see that Bennington is happy to be dead and not go to the fire, or something like this."

By the time we visited the Temple of Alexander, about 3km further down the road. Waleed had given up any pretense of trying to provide useful information. The temple's primary hall was lined with a procession of gods which Waleed recklessly tried to name. He made it through Anubis, Horus and Osiris, but then things begn to get a little foggy: "Isis, Amun Ra, Seti, Meti, Teti, Feti, Beti..." he was just rhyming the same word and still had half the wall yet to get through. The old Bedouin caretaker wasn't having any of it and cut him off. The caretaker than started over from the beginning, announcing every god clearly with a throaty growl which is exactly how I want my voice to develop over the next thirty years.

Whenever we'd return to the landcruiser after one of these visits, we'd find Mohammed relaxing to Arabic music on the radio. He would quickly turn it off as soon as he saw us, but having grown tired of the interruptions, Mohammed asked us if we wouldn't mind listening to something. We didn't mind at all, but Waleed whispered to him in Arabic to please make sure that it was English music, so we sped along the dirt road absolutely blasting a Toni Braxton album.

Soon we came ten-meter cliff which Mohammed pretended to want to drive over. Growing up in Utah, I've been on a lot of jeep trails over the years, but never, ever, anything so steep as this. I thought he was only teasing Ms. Chadha (the desire to tease Ms. C seems to be the only cultural constant in this world) but soon, with "Unbreak My Heart" blaring in the background, he slipped over the edge and brought the landcruiser to about an 80 degree angle to the canyon floor below. Everything loose in the truck was resting on the inside of the windshield before we finally leveled off and drove up the sandy bank of the opposite side. I was worried that Ms. C. wasn't going to take this stunt well, but after she caught her breath following a long bout of manic laughter, she managed to indicate that she had enjoyed it very much.

We ended the tour by driving through a narrow, winding canyon to the top of Jebel Ingleezi (English Mountain). The valley where we parked looked almost lunar - I didn't see a single living plant growing out of the black basalt on the short walk to the top. The view from the summit of the Oasis and the surrounding valley, however, was very good, which led the English to build several stone shelters here during one of the world wars (Waleed wasn't sure which and appeared surprised to learn that there had been as many as two). He told us only that "the English were very scared that the people come to find them and so... English Mountain!" After this explanation, he told us he was very hungry and asked us if we could get back to the landcruiser by ourselves. We told him we could and he set off for something to eat, leaving us to take photos and enjoy the view. Poor Waleed, I got the impression that he'd had a rough day, even though I don't think we could have been the most difficult clients. We didn't trust anything he was telling us, so we almost never asked him to expand on anything. I suppose in some ways, that might be more difficult for a guide.

Back at the bottom of the mountain, a few other groups had arrived and their guides had gathered around our jeep to share a pot of tea. They invited us for a cup from the second pot. The first pot tends to be stronger and more bitter, while the weakness of the second cup is compensated for by piling in the sugar and mint. I prefer the second cup - it reminds me of the sugary mint tea I got hooked on in Morocco.

Back at the hotel, Waleed informed us that he would also be our guide through the White Desert and that he would give us a wake-up call at 9:00 the next morning. We went to bed confident that the next morning we could rely on our guide to safely lead us through one of the world's great deserts while also providing useful and accurate information, or something like that.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

On the Road

Or more accurately, on the river. Apologies for the sporadic posting. We've been off the grid: camping in out in the desert, in Aswan and now will be heading down the river to Luxor this afternoon. I haven't had much luck with internet access, so my posts will remain confined to a notebook for now. They will eventually go up - though it may be some time before I have the technology to make it happen.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Pyramids of Saqqara and Giza

Ms. Chadha arrived last night, which promises to improve life in hundreds of different ways, most of which are too sappy to share here. One change is that I can now visit all of the major monuments that I'd put off seeing (on Ms. C's instructions) while I awaited her arrival. The most obvious and convenient of these was a trip to the pyramids, so, the following morning, this is exactly what we did.

We wanted see more than just the Giza pyramids, so we decided to hire a guide and a driver for the day. Private, organized trips really aren't much more expensive than trying to arrange everything for yourself and if you're a particularly poor negotiator like me, may even cost less.

Private tours also provide a number of pleasant perks like a hotel pick-up (a convenience which is worth the difference in price alone), a car with air-conditioning, lunch, and a driver who actually knows how to get to the places you've asked to see. What you won't always get is a guide who is able to offer anything like reliable information about the monuments on the day's itinerary.

Our guide, a pleasant, chatty woman named Hana, had undermined her credibility before we even left downtown Cairo. As part of a bizarre, impromptu lecture on Egyptian military history, Hana explained how The country had never, in either ancient or modern history, initiated a war of agression. The only reason her country lost its [entirely defensive] war with Israel in 1948 was because unreliable allies had supplied it with defective tanks, artillery and rifles. Happily, Egypt was able to restore its national honor by defeating the combined armies of France, Great Britain and Israel during the 1956 Suez Crisis. No mention at all of the twin devastation threatened by the United States (economic) and the Soviet Union (nuclear) if the allies didn't withdraw. It was indeed a great victory, but it wasn't a military victory and I'm not sure how much credit Egypt deserves for it.

Luckily, the pyramids are impressive even if your guide believes that Colonel Nasser had them built just to irritate NATO. The Nile pyramids are so old that their true construction dates hardly register. To put their age in context, the first momument we visited, Zoser's step pyramid in Saqqara, was already considered ancient by the Greeks to described it. By the time Herodotus mentioned them some 2,500 years ago, the pyramids were already more than 2,000 years old.

The extraordinary size of the Giza pyramids is as difficult to appreciate as their age. With nothing nearby to compare them against, it's difficult to get a sense of scale - you see only row upon row of limestone blocks. Only when you approach the base of the pyramid do you realize that each block is 4'-5' tall. Of course, once you're near enough to recognize the size of an individual row of blocks, you're too close to see the number of levels or the pyramid's overall height. The Giza pyramids are so massive that it's difficult to find a vantage point from which you can appreciate just how enormous they really are.

We didn't linger too long. The temperature was already over 100 degrees and the touts, while not nearly as bad as I had heard, were still fairly aggressive. So, missing yet another opportunity to sit on an angry, abused camel, we drove on to the Sphinx.

You can't wander around the Sphinx the way I'd imagined. It's surrounded by the bedrock from which it was carved, so you're packed together with hordes of other tourists on a series of viewing platforms to the west of the monument. From the platform, you could see that what remained of the Spinx's face was crawling with pigeons. You can't look imposing with a face full of pigeons.

Quick language note: "sphinx" is pronounced as "sphink-ess" locally, because Arabic abhors both dipthongs and triple consonants. 'Sphinx' is transliterated as 'sphinks' in Arabic, and that 'nks' just won't do, so an extra 'e' is inserted before the final letter. You can hear the same thing with words like "thank-ess" or "rust-ess," the latter of which was printed on an ad for a car wash in Mohandiseen.

On the way back to the hotel, Hana asked if we would like to stop at the Papyrus Museum. We had already turned down a tour of one of the carpet "schools" in Saqqara, so we agreed to quickly stop by whatever "museum" our guide had affiliated herself with. I like this tactic of tarting up your souvenir shop by appending words like "museum" or "school" to the name. I look forward to visiting the "Polytechnical Institute of Spice" and the "National Center for the Advancement of Sheesha Sciences" before this trip is through. We at least knew what we were in for, and the fact that the museum passed out order forms at the door (just like at MOMA!) confirmed our suspicions. The presentation on papyrus manufacturing was interesting enough and besides the look of disappointment shared between our guide and the salesman when we asked to leave, there wasn't much pressure to buy. Not that we were much tempted to buy: the only items on offer were garish King Tuts and Queen Nefertitis which would have looked equally at home airbrushed onto the side of a 1984 Astrovan.

Back at a restaurant near the hotel, as I made my way through a plate of fatah (my new favorite food) I was happy to reflect on the fact that we had now 'done' the pyramids and could check it off our list. This was the first time I had felt anything like this in my two months here. I suppose it's because the pyramids are something you must see, but doing so can really be a bit of a hassle. The perfect metaphor for the whole experience was provided by an eight year old Bedouin girl sitting near the viewing platform exit. Having grown bored of the daily hustle, she was now monitoring the tourist flow and when anyone's ass was big enough to merit it, she would yell "heeeey Shakira!" and give it a good spank. We made it through unmolested, but a fair number of the members of an Alaskan tour group weren't so lucky. I'm sure that they were generally pleased to have made the visit, but something about the process must have struck them as undignified.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Serious Tourism

I've flirted around with visiting the sites of Egypt, but now that Ms. Chadha is here, it's time to get serious. For the next month, we'll be on the road, from Jordan to the border of Sudan, Sinai to the Great Sand Sea. The first stop is the Pyramids this Sunday. The forecast is 101 degrees and sunny. Better bring a hat.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Learning FusHa is a lot like doing a crossword puzzle. They're both highly structured, require you to think for ten minutes before guessing at the correct word, and jotting down a total of sixty words after a day of excruciating work is considered a success. The rewards for doing well in both are also similar: hardly anybody cares except maybe your romantic partner, who is probably only being nice.

Speaking a dialect, on the other hand, gives the pleasure of real communication. And when it comes to learning modern languages, isn't being able to communicate really the entire point? People say that you can speak to people in FusHa, it's the classical root of all Arabic after all! No, you can't. Especially since it's the common transactional speech, the everyday stuff, that has deviated the most from the classical language. Compare these:

FusHa: Ureedu an ashtaree al shateerati ma'a dajaj, min fadlak.

Ameyya: Ana ayz sandweech firack.

Both are intended to get you a chicken sandwhich, and both might, but the first one will get you a chicken sandwich with a side of vicious teasing. Maybe because it's the equivalent I saying something like: "Good sir, if thou would be so gracious, I beg of thee to bestow upon me the carved flesh of the cock of the morn!"

Actually, it's nothing like that, because all of that is perfectly understandable English with one or two archaic words sprinkled here and thither. You still at least get the idea, even if the speaker sounds like a jackass.

When it comes to actual communication, the difference between FusHa and Ameyya is the difference between a Shakespeare comedy and 30 Rock - one is taught in school as something that is funny and the other is something that actually is.

I've just thought of another way FusHa is like doing the crossword puzzle: by the time the Thursday edition rolls around, it's become too hard and I give up.

This rant courtesy of the realization that I can say in FusHa that "the generous-hearted man descended from the snowy peaks to the fertile plains" but I can't ask for a kushari to go in the colloquial.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Intensive Arabic - The Week in Review


Fatima tells me of how when she was a new FusHa student, her teacher wouldn't let her eat until she could ask to go to lunch in perfectly articulated fully-cased fusHa. After finishing her story she says, as if this kind of discouraging story is what I wanted to hear, "and this is why I hate FusHa also!" Note for instructors: stories commiserating with your students about the impossibility of learning this language are not helpful.


I am told that I should never, ever speak FusHa on the street. This is distressing, because the only reason I'm studying in Egypt is so I can practice with people on the street. Fatima at least qualifies this by saying "well, with you, people will be happy that you even try to speak any kind of Arabic, but if I speak FusHa, they won't understand me and they will akhhhh..." She draws her fingers across her throat like a knife, rolls her eyes, and falls back into her seat, dead. I resolve not to risk talking to anyone in the street.


"Misr jumhurriya" (Egypt is a republic) Fatima proudly tells me. I want to reply with "but is it really? Don't you think it's interesting that Morocco, which is unapologetically a monarchy, and Egypt, which is supposedly a democratic republic, have both had only three rulers over the last sixty years? Don't you also think it's interesting that just as in Morocco, the only way an Egyptian leader ever leaves office is by dying in it? Even when that finally happens, he's immediately replaced by his handpicked heir. Do you really think this is a true republic?" I translated this as best I could and tell her: "this is the thing: Morocco has king-king and Egypt has president-king. I think this is a thing, you think also?" I will make an excellent diplomat.


Today's lesson includes a selection of news clips from Al Jazeera which describe atrocities committed by the Isreali army in Gaza last year. For better or for worse, this kind of politically charged material doesn't usually make it into language instruction courses in the U.S. From a more practical standpoint, I'm concerned that the vocabulary I'm learning in these exercises might be too specialized for everyday use. If this keeps up, next time I go into a restaurant I'll only be able to say that my occupation force would like a table for two and, if possible, we would like to form our perimeter in the non-smoking section. Rather than ask for the check, I'll have to request "the tragic toll of this encounter." I can see how the word "atrocity" might be useful, but only in relation to fuul, which is the one traditional Egyptian food whose flanking maneuver I cannot support with rocket attacks.


Another harrowing news clip, this time ending with the sentence: "Muna, who clings to her dead mother's blood-soaked skirts with the same despair and hopelessness shared by all of her people, can only wait for justice." The screen fades to black. After fifteen seconds or so, Fatima breaks the heavy silence by asking cheerfully: "so, you must like cartoons?" We then watch ten minutes of something called Barbi Arabiyya. I long for some sort of happy medium.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Harassment of the Sexual Kind

There is nothing I can say about the harassment women suffer in Egypt beyond what others have already said. I've witnessed first-hand some shocking behavior. Many of the stories can't be told on a family blog (especially now that I know that my very sweet grandmother is a reader) but I will quickly say this: taxi drivers are a filthy bunch.

Men are also sometimes harassed, but I understand that it usually doesn't go beyond being called someone's "mishmish" (apricot). Whether the victim is male or female though, the perp is almost always a man. Egyptian women have a repuation for being more reserved and I think that generally, that's probably pretty accurate. Generally.

My first experience to the contrary took place about a month ago, I was sitting on a park bench reading a book. By "bench" of course I mean "overturned washing machine" and by "park" I mean "the underpass beneath the Tahrir Bridge." I was genuinely reading a book, but more specifically, I was reading the map inside the book because I was hopelessly lost.

So I was sorting my directions out when a pair of girls in hijab walk by and one of them catches my attention by making that hissing noise peculiar to this part of the world. When I look up, she makes what I can only describe as a graphically violent kiss in my direction.

I know that from my description, it sounds like I was probably in a seedy part of town and that these might have been prostitutes or something, but I really don't think this was the case. At home, the simple and reliable formula is that the more home appliances you see rusting in the street, the less desirable the neighborhood. That just doesn't hold true here.

Even at Mugamma, that great symbol of Orwellian order, most office balconies are overflowing with junk. I can't imagine the same thing being allowed to happen at any of the buildings leased by my former employers in New York or London. One of the partners would have come to me and said: "Chadha, we think you are doing fine work, but the committee has been talking. We've noticed that you're storing the engine block of a 1974 Lada in your office window. Now, we don't mind the odd rust-eaten sewing machine or a half-dozen bicycle frames here and there, but the car parts just don't fit the image this firm is trying to project."

Actually, now that I've written that, I realize that the most unbelievable part of the story is that I ever would have had an office with a balcony in New York or London. I also can't imagine ever receiving constructive feedback from a partner.

Anyway, as I was saying, industrial junk in the streets doesn't necessarily tell you anything about the neighborhood. This particular street was perfectly safe and sanitary. I have no idea about the girls, but they looked like respectable, middle-class teens and they didn't slow down to solicit anything or indicate that I should follow them - just kept right on walking without another look.

That my experience wasn't just a consequence of my stunning good looks is supported by my friend's experience. He was in Garden City, a pleasant, embassy-spangled neighborhood near downtown, where he was walking with a female Egyptian friend. Suddenly, a middle-aged woman swooped over, made the same kind of fighting kiss, grabbed his ass and darted away. My friend's Egyptian companion didn't say a word (she was probably thinking to herself 'uh huh, let's see how you like it').

Before this, I was not aware of a lone, sober, middle-aged woman having ever done anything like this anywhere in the history of the world. It's not like this sort of thing is an everyday occurrence here either, but unwelcome groping by both genders still happens more in Egypt than anywhere else I have ever lived. The more minor stuff - catcalls, hissing and blown kisses - those happen all the time. I'm not sure whether to put this in my 'like' or 'dislike' column. I think I'll file it under 'like,' at least until this kind of mentality lowers my relative income or makes it practically impossible for me to become President of the United States.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Hotel Bars and Hotel Booze

I expected that the Hotel Lotus would be a bit past its prime, but I couldn't understand why the stylish art deco building shown on the website looked so different from the place where I had just agreed to spend the next week. When I went back to the website for a closer look, I saw that the hotel in the picture was surrounded by huge American cars with chrome fins. It was the same place, but the photo had been taken more than fifty years ago. Very clever, Hotel Lotus.

From what I've seen in Cairo, the only real difference between a budget hotel and a hostel is the latter has an extra "s." So I was pleased that the Lotus, while no longer anything like the place advertised on its homepage, actually feels like a hotel.

In practical terms this means two things: that my toilet is en suite and that the hotel has a bar. Other than the bartender, who napped quietly at his post, the grandly named 'Polo Bar' was empty for my first visit. I dropped by again the following day and was rewarded with a much livelier scene. I was barely through the door before a friendly Canadian couple bought me a beer and gave me a Winter Olympics update, which unsurprisingly didn't get a lot of coverage here. That they wanted to talk to an American at all told me all I needed to know about the hockey results.

A visit to the Polo Bar has since become my late afternoon habit. I normally have a shot of the local rum mixed generously with Pepsi. In this case, two wrongs do make a right, and I like the drink much more than I'd have thought given how little I like either of its components. I've since realized that they carry Coke too, but I've got it in my head that substituting one of the ingredients will throw off the calculus of the mix and then I'll have to go back to beer. In Egypt, this means the ubiquitous Stella, which shouldn't be confused with the Stella that's sold everywhere else in the world. Egyptian Stella is conceived, brewed, bottled and sold only here and so long as it's freezing cold, is not half bad. At room temperature it's a different animal and is completely intolerable. Nights out will end because the place serving drinks has run out of icy Stella and has started serving only cool Stella.

Speaking of intolerable, let me tell you about Omar Khayam, the most popular (and usually the only) wine option. This stuff is awful and I say this as someone who will never be accused of being a wine snob. I firmly believe that the only reason anyone has ever been able to finish an entire bottle is because the senses, in an act of self preservation, shut down at the first mouthful. All you feel when you drink Omar Khayam is a slight sensation of warmth in your lower back, which you'd think would be more terrifying than it is. It's unbelievably bad, but it's also unnecessarily bad. The Coptic population drinks wine and so do millions upon millions of annual tourists. Why doesn't someone fill this niche? Tunisia manages to produce a few bottles of decent wine and for a much smaller drinking population. Ugh, this stuff is so bad that I want to bring a case home to silence the doubters.

Really, what I'd prefer is a nice whisky, but the few bottles on the Polo Bar's shelf have cracked and peeled labels that have yellowed with age. Somehow, despite being obviously ancient, their contents don't lessen no matter how much people drink. I don't want to slander my hotel, but my math tells me that a bottle of scotch can't still be full after thirty years of pouring two glasses a day from it. My guess is that it isn't Dewar's that's going into the Dewar's bottle every night. Sometimes it's wisest to stick with the simple beer you know, rather than the clever scotch who won't say who he really is.

I'm not sure how this became a discussion on alcohol, but here we are. I've just changed the title of the post to make it look intentional.

Anyway, what I meant to say is that I'm generally pretty pleased with the place. In anticipation of Ms. Chadha's arrival at the end of the week, I'm moving to the Lotus's sister-hotel, the more upscale Windsor. If it's nicer than this place, it ought to be pretty adequate indeed. It will be interesting to judge just how far my standards have fallen by comparing the looks on our faces when they take us to our room.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sexy-Time Study Break

Waking up at 8:00 on a Saturday morning for a tutoring session is not how I wanted to spend my vacation. It is only by reminding myself that this was never meant to be a vacation that I can drag myself out of bed. Vacation. As if I have anything in my life from which I need to take a break.

As of last week, I'm doing five hours of one-on-one Arabic study every day, seven days a week. When combined with another five or six hours of review at home, the routine has quickly become monotonous, but even in the two-meter by three-meter room where I meet with my tutor, routine sometimes gets disrupted.

Today provides a good example. Ten minutes into the lesson, my attention had already begun to wander. I glanced over Fatima's shoulder at the computer monitor just behind her. There on the monitor, in front of a word.doc listing the object pronouns, was a pop-up window showing a live-stream of a scene that started out innocent enough (don't they always?) but was quickly turning into remarkably graphic amateur porn.

So what is the tactful thing to do in a situation like this? I couldn't just ignore it (who ever can?), but I also didn't want to embarass Fatima by drawing her attention to the seriously nasty business taking place behind her. I was sure that it was most definitely not hers, if there's one thing I've gathered from working with her, it's that she is a sheltered young thing. She still lives at home, says she doesn't understand the kids these days and tells me she likes most of the same things as her parents. She is an innocent.

Drawing on the skills that have carried me this far in the Foreign Service Officer process, I decided that the best approach would be to discreetly warn her about the now competely implausible acts happening onscreen while I modestly look away. I carried out this plan by gazing at my shoes and saying "Ya Aisha! kombutooruki mumtann!" She looked at the computer, nearly fainted, shut it off and ran out of the room.

While I waited for her to compose herself, I reviewed my vocab lists and saw that I had just said "Oh Aisha! Your computer is very thankful!" The word I was looking for was "maksoor" meaning "broken" though that might actually be incorrect in this context too. I was embarassed, but had already prepared a defense based on the premises that 1) Arabic is hard; 2) both words were on the same page so it was an easy mistake to make; and 3) it wasn't my porn to begin with, so why am I the bad guy here?

She returned a few minutes later and I didn't need to mount any defense at all. The poor thing was so embarassed. She kept saying "it is not mine! It is not mine!" I told her that I believed her and made up a story about how in law school, everyone had laptops and the same thing happened to all of us almost every single day. That helped, but now she must believe that American law schools are awash with sin.

Poor Fatima. It took an hour for her to pull herself back together. It was a nice break for me though. These five-hour tutoring sessions are killing me.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Coptic Cairo

"Jesus loves you, he loves all of us!" the almost evangelical Coptic cab driver told us. He was speaking to two atheists, a Swiss convert to Islam, and a very high-church Anglican. Seeing westerners though, his natural assumption was that we were all practicing Christians with no significant differences in belief. In Egypt, you are either Christian, Muslim or, rare as it is here, Jewish. There isn't room for anything else: athesism is unimaginable; other religions, unspeakable. The religion we were expected to asume didn't even reduce the cab fare, but in this case, it did at least curb the taxi driver's natural instict to gouge.

Prior to coming to Egypt, my exposure to the Copts had been limited. I knew that they were the original Christians in Egypt and were some of the earliest Christians anywhere in the world, but that was really about it. I recall seeing a letter on display at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, written by no less a personality than the Prophet Muhammad, which strongly suggested that Egypt's Copts should consider converting to Islam. The Copts crossed my radar again when I read that the Egyptian government, in a bizarre reaction to the swine flu pandemic, ordered the massacre of all of the country's pigs. Not unlike Brookyln, pork is "haraam" for much of the population, meaning that only the Christian Copts were affected by the order. As a consequence of the slaughter, garbage that had formerly been collected by the Copts (to feed their pigs) began to pile up in the streets. The people began to complain, and the government recognized its mistake. I've been reading a memoir written by a turn of the century Anglo-Egyptian official who describes the Copts as "consistently paranoid," but you're not paranoid if they actually are out to get you.

The Egyptian government, when not busy literally butchering the Copt's livelihoods, is nervous for them too. The police presence along Sharia Mari Girgis (the main street of Coptic Cairo) is not subtle. Teams of heavily armored police guard both approaches to the neighborhood. On either end, a soldier stands behind a blast shield, ready to pull the cable on an accordian style caltrop. The caltrop is designed to stretch across the width of the road and shred the tires of any wheeled vehicle with its spikes. I've seen these used on C.O.P.S. And can confirm that they are awesome.

Coptic Museum

After I made it past the police (who always make me nervous even though I've never been seriously bothered by a cop in my life) I stopped at the Coptic Museum. The museum is surrounded by peaceful courtyards and is housed in a beautiful building that alone is worth the price of admission. The collection is intelligently and effectively displayed which makes up for the fact that some of the exhibits are not very compelling. I've heard that the Egyptian Antiquities Museum has the opposite problem: an amazing collection which is crudely displayed. I hope not, but we'll find out next week.

The highlight of the collection was definitely the cell frescoes recovered from the Monastery of Apa Apollo. Desert air is great for preserving color - or at least for color not exposed to 360 days-a-year desert sun. The vibrancy of the color could lead you to think that the frescoes were relatively modern. I couldn't believe that they were early 5th century. I'd go to the museum again just to see these. A bit of trivia: the Copts gave Europe the idea of monastic communities. The Franciscans, Dominicans and Benedictines all owe their existence to these early monasteries.

Church of St. George

Even more trivia: The Church of St. George is the only round church in all of Egypt. Beyond that, there's not a great deal to say about it, but beneath the church are warrens of rooms built into the circular Roman tower from which the church takes its shape. In one of the claustrophobic rooms are relics of St. George, including a length of chain you can wrap around yourself if you like - doing so is meant to remind us of the persecutions the saint suffered at the hands of the Romans.

The Hanging Church

The "Hanging Church" is the final major site in Coptic Cairo. It takes its name from the fact that it was built near an enormous chasm over which it literally hangs. This isn't obvious from the approach to the church, so they've cut a hole in the middle of one of the chapel floors to prove just how high you really are. While it's true that you're very high, the cutaway also reveals that the only thing keeping you alive are ancient wooden beams that barely look like they would have been up to the job when they were new, which was more than 1,000 years ago. This must be what faith is.

One of my favorite non-architectural details of the Hanging Church are the beeswax votive candles, which crackle and sputter like they're doing their very best to make all of your prayers come true. I also liked the giftshop where you can buy postcards featuring various Coptic popes, who all look like Rasputin might have if he put less energy into grooming and more into wearing outrageous costumes. The only picture I could find online doesn't really show what I'm talking about, but it gives a sense. Hipsters: behold a true beard.

The Coptic display of faith appears to be much more tactile than that with which I'm familiar. They wrap themselves in chains and crawl into dark, cramped crypts. The paintings of the saints are meant to be touched. In the crypt of the Church of St. Sergius, built where the Holy Family are believed to have stayed, people actually bathe in the crypt's font. I like it! I've always said that if I ever came down with an incurable case of religion, I hope I'm lucky enough to fall into something with a little drama. There are limits, however. Not too far from the center of Coptic Cairo is a column with a groove that has literally been licked into it. The idea is that in the hope of curing whatever disease, pilgrims (I didn't see any myself) come to lick that particular spot on the column, and they continue to lick until their tongues bleed because that's how you know it's working. This may actually be a Sufi ritual rather than a Christian one, but to be honest, from an outsider's perspective, all religions blend together at their mystical fringes.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

An End to Photos

I brought an old laptop to Egypt under the impression that I could afford to lose it. That impression has been put to the test, because it's gone.

It doesn't look like the poor old girl was up to handling the vagaries of the Egyptian electrical system. Probable cause of death: a rogue power surge.

I'll still be able to update through my iPhone, but won't be able to upload any photos until I'm back in Brooklyn this April. This will change the quality of the blog in the following ways:

1) It won't be as pretty;

2) I will spell things incorrectly more often; and

3) I will exaggerate even more outlandishly to compensate for number 1 above.

Tonight, I'm off to learn how to play 'tawla' at a cafe in Zamalek. I'm not sure whether tawla is just the Arabic name for backgammon or if they are completely different games altogether. I don't the rules of either of them, so it doesn't really matter. I've been wanting to buy one of the beautiful inlaid backgammon/tawla boards I've seen in shop windows, and understanding the game that's played on one makes a purchase much easier to justify.

I do know at some point during the night that I'll have to pour one out for my defunct Acer Aspire S100. We took the bar exam together, you know. It broke down that day too.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Hostel Name

One of the entrepreneurial employees at the place where I'm staying has just asked my advice on what to name a new hostel he is considering opening. His first suggestion was "Backstreet Hostel," which I wasn't in love with - I think it sounds a bit like a knifing.

Seeing as I'm sending this from an internet shop called the "Virus Cafe," I can only applaud his willingness to ask for input and would like to give him some good ideas. Please comment or email any ideas you might have! Ms. Chadha has already suggested "Kiwihouse," but I think that might draw the wrong kind of crowd.