Sunday, January 31, 2010

Small Things

Death by Lada

I've heard (and told) a story about the Japanese traffic engineers who were commissioned to study the Cairo traffic system and, based on their findings, to prepare a report detailing what could be done to modernize it. After more than a year of dutiful observation, they issue their report - a single sentence - which reads: "There is no traffic system and it cannot be improved."

This rings true - in two hours of walking today, I saw one stop-light, which you couldn't see from the road because it had been wrapped in an Egyptian flag to celebrate the Pharaohs win over the Algerian side in the African Cup of Nations semifinal. Crossing the street is an act of faith - I always try to improve my chances by crossing down-traffic from someone braver than me.

The Pharaohs

Worst name for a soccer team ever. Terrible

Oh! The horns!

Imagine you are in Rome and the Italian soccer team has just beaten France in the World Cup. Between the horns, flags, firecrackers and shouting, the chaos could be a little overwhelming. This is apparently what Mohandiseen is like on any given day of the week - even at midnight.

It reminds me of something a Moroccan friend said about the horn being the most (and only) critical part of a car. A North African driver might think nothing of hurtling down the road in an ancient Mercedes; a wheel missing; its doors lashed shut with a length of bicycle tubing. Break the horn, though, and the car is rendered impossibly unsafe. Without a horn to serve simultaneously as a threat, a promise, a warning and a prayer, you couldn't negotiate the "inventive disorder" that characterizes city traffic.

My street is relatively quiet. At a mere ten meters wide, it can only accommodate eight lanes of traffic.

The School

Seems to run pretty efficiently and the testing was painless enough. It looks like I'm a 2/10 in Egyptian and a 3/10 in MSA (which we're going to call "FusHa" from now on). That sounds about right to me, but we'll see when classes start tomorrow. I'm most excited about colloquial - it'll finally give me the opportunity to use the language on the street. In Morocco, the gulf between the colloquial (Moroccan is called "Dareeja") and FusHa was so large that even very good FusHa wouldn't get you very far.

During registration I ran into a guy who was studying in Rabat at the same time as me. He's sort of an Arabic rock star - speaking FusHa as well as a number of local dialects. We're unlikely to be in the same class. I wish more than ever that I had taken a full year to study. Four months in each of Syria, Egypt and Morocco would have done perfectly. It also would have been much cheaper than maintaining an apartment in Brooklyn.

200 Pound Notes

These are what the airport ATM dispenses. They might as well give you a bar of gold. In a neighborhood where a bottle of water costs maybe 2 EGP, it's impossible for anyone to make change out of a 200 EGP note. I spent my day walking around and buying thing in places that I hoped might be able to pull it off. That means my first meal was at a Hardees, instead of the much more interesting shawarma stand. I did learn that in Cairo, all the big fast food places deliver. Egypt is living in the future!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

More Like the Womb Than She Wanted

I flew into Cairo this afternoon. North Africa, which is generally supposed to have nice weather, has now provided me with two genuinely terrifying landings. The first while flying into Tunis during a monsoon. Today, people actually spilled coffee on the ceiling. I'm generally pretty good with a little bit of turbulence, but this time I really had to fight off the nausea. My real concern wasn't for safety, even though several overhead bins had opened and heavy bags were crashing into the aisles, but rather that I would stagger off the plane looking completely ill. When I was in Morocco last November, they were worried enough about H1N1 to have used temperature scanning equipment and healthcare workers to weed out the sickly. I wasn't about to start this trip by getting thrown into quarantine.

My seatmate, who has perfect timing, made a dash for the toilet just as things started to get rough. She told me before she left that she had always found it useful to close her eyes and pretend like she was in the womb during turbulence. Anyway, she was in the toilet for the first big drop, and is almost certainly going to die from typhus or diphtheria or whooping lung or whatever it is you catch from direct contact with human waste. Unless her mother kick-boxed while she was carrying this girl, I think "the womb" was a pretty poor comparison - or at least not good for the reasons she suggested.

I've come to Egypt for a two month intensive Arabic course - Egyptian Colloquial in the morning and Modern Standard Arabic in the afternoon. After a placement exam scheduled for tomorrow morning, I'll find out into which of ten or so courses I'll be placed. I've done some studying on my own and took a beginners course in Rabat at the end of last year. My only goal for tomorrow is to start from somewhere beyond scratch -- that, and to walk over to the Nile, because how cool is that? The Nile!

Finally, I'll apologize right now for the the silly heading of this blog. This is the kind of magic you can expect with a google image search for "egypt banner," thirty seconds with a font called "papyrus," no fear of cliche, and no sense of quality control. I also understand that blog etiquette demands that the first post always be in the form of an apology, but in the age of twitter, I don't think we're meant to feel sorry about our narcissism anymore. So here goes.