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.

Suffer Any Wrong That Can Be Done You, Rather Than Come Here

Mugamma is a monumental 1940's era building designed to serve as a clearing house for all interaction between the Egyptian government and her people. Some decentralization notwithstanding, it still is. This is the place you go to record a deed, register a car, or replace a birth certificate. It is monstrous. It is also where you go to extend a tourist visa.

Six days a week, the building buzzes with bewildered tourists, frustrated locals, indifferent civil servants and bemused security. Mugamma's insanity has long epitomized the impenetrability of the Egyptian bureaucracy. There is nothing about the building or its services that is at all intuitive. So, as a public service to anyone who needs to know how to renew an Egyptian tourist visa - this is how it's done.

Proceed through security, where you'll have to surrender your camera. I doubt that this building could be much harmed by a bomb, either structurally or aesthetically, but the government is keen to prevent anyone from trying all the same.

You'll need a passport photo and a photocopy of the cover page of your passport and of your entry visa. People will compete ferociously for the right to direct you to these services even though there is only one place in the building that provides them. In this way, three men struggle with each other to do the job of a sign.

Everyone says that photos and copies can be had for less money outside of Mugamma, which is probably true, but a set of eight photos costs $3.00 and the two copies another $0.20. I'd say that's worth the convenience, but if you already have these things, so much the better.

Copies and photos in hand, walk up the stairs to the next floor. Foreign national visa services are to your left, down a long hall lined with open doors. Through the doors, terrified civil servants peer at you much like rabbits in a hutch would peer at a fox. Happily for all, you don't have to disturb them with work. You're looking for windows 12-14, where you'll ask for and receive a visa extension application. It should be free so don't pay a charge. You're asked your religious affiliation. I usually put Christian, but I don't mean it.

After completing the application, return it along with your passport, a passport photo and the relevant photocopied pages to the same windows. You'll be given a chit with some numbers scribbled on it.

Take your chit to window 42, where after paying LE 11.50, you will receive four small adhesive stamps.

Take the stamps back to windows 12-14 where they will be applied to your application.

Find something to do for two hours.

Don't go to the Hardees across the street like I did. In fact, don't go to Hardees anywhere in the world.

After lunch, I watched a woman set up a tea stand in Mugamma's courtyard. She walked over to a bush and miraculously returned with two-dozen glasses and a strainer. Then, from under a bench on the other side of the park, she pulled out a butane tank. Rather than lug things around, she had apparently hidden all the necessary components of her businesss all over the courtyard! Either that or she was just very lucky and managed to randomly stumble on everything she needed to run a viable tea outfit. This wouldn't be impossibe in Cairo.

Having filled your two hours enjoying the great bazaar that is Cairo, proceed to window 38. Gathered around the window will be dozens of people just like you. There is a large pile of processed passports and they are distributed to the crowd like this: the woman behind the counter shows everyone an application with a tiny photo of the applicant stapled to the front. The crowd squints at it, but if nobody makes a claim, she moves on to the next application. Every now and then someone's eyes light up and they lunge at the window. When this happens, she sends the lucky applicant away with their prize and starts the whole process over from the beginning of the pile which is constantly being refreshed with new applications. This means that if yours happens to be on the bottom, you will need every single application to go unclaimed before it is reached. That will never happen. Mine was right near the top, so my fist pump was accompanied by an envious "quelle bonne chance!" from the French couple next to me.

Insh'allah, at the end if this, you'll have a new visa which allows you to stay in the country for another four months. I understand that you can request a period of up to a year. The application is open ended and asks only how long you'd like to stay.

I can think of a few ways to make this process more efficient, but in a country where you have to deal with three people to buy a sandwich, I don't think anyone will listen.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Big Move

At the end of last week, I moved from Mohandiseen to the Meramees Hotel just off Midan Talat Harb in downtown Cairo. What a change! Downtown Cairo is so much more interesting, more walkable, more lively, more of everything, really, and really not any louder. Why was I in Mohandiseen again? My roommates and I had spent hours trying to figure out what makes that neighborhood so unpleasant. My best guess is that living in a big city normally involves certain trade-offs: in the city you give up calm, quiet and privacy, but in return you get liveliness, culture, convenience and fun. Mohandiseen forces you to surrender all of those things, and in return gives you slightly cheaper Koshari. I'm very happy to be here.

The room itself, on the other hand, is a major step down from my school provided apartment. This new room is most charitably described as "monastic," except that this place focuses less on quiet and cleanliness than you'd imagine a monastery might. It also has a very strange smell which, for better or for worse, I am used to. There's a good chance that I'll just spend the money and move to a hotel. Still, it's hard to mind too much when the neighborhood is so much better and the price is so much less. I have been eying the minaret of the neighboring mosque with some concern, since my room's balcony is twenty feet from the minaret's speakers. I'd better get used to waking up at 5:00 A.M. sharp.

My move was prompted by a change in schools. I've dropped out of the program at the International Language Institute. The classes were just too big - at one point, my class had as many as sixteen people, and you don't learn a language by sitting in a class with sixteen other people. So tomorrow at noon, I'll began working with a private tutor supplied by "Arabic4U." The name doesn't inspire much confidence - I can't imagine why anyone would want their educational institution to sound like a text message sent by a twelve year-old girl. Still, my hope is that in a one-on-one situation, the speaking opportunities will outweigh any issues that might arise by going to a school with a name that makes "Hooked on Phonics" sound Ivy League.

As I write this in the lobby of the hostel, I realize that the biggest advantage of this place might be the lack of internet access in my room. I'll have no choice but to study because I'm not going to sit out here all day with the backpacking set. I'm not sure when it happened (probably sometime during law school) but I've become the old guy. Yes, definitely time for the old guy to move to a hotel; preferably one where the toilet and the shower are served by different holes in the floor.