Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Kindness of a stranger

This afternoon, I took a minibus from Mohandiseen, where I have Arabic classes, to Midan Dokki, where I catch the Metro to Maadi, the site of Egypt Today’s office. Surprisingly, the bus is not crowded. And there are a few seats in the back. When I sit down, the man to my right begins talking to me. I don’t understand half of what he says, but I smile and nod and say repeatedly “meshee,” which is the Arabic “Ok.”

Soon, I need to get off the bus and the gentleman to my left speaks to me in basic English. He wears glasses, has a beard and is dressed in a sweater. As we get off the bus, he pays for my ride -- half a pound (a dime). I try to put the same amount in his pocket, but he refuses, saying I am his guest. I try a second time. Again, he refuses. He also needs to go to the same Metro station, so we walk together.

As we approach the window to buy our tickets, he walks ahead of me. I suspect he will try to pay for my metro ride, so I cut him off and take out a 10 pound bill, saying I need change, which was true. He says he also needs change. I beat him to it and bought a ticket for him (one pound or 20 cents).

On the train, we talk a little more. He’s traveled to Damascus, Syria and Istanbul, Turkey, but never to Europe or America. He is a lawyer by training and specializes in family and community law. I tell him that lawyers are generally despised in America because they are seen as liars and cheats. He says lawyers have an equally low position in Egyptian society.

After one stop, a seat opens up and he directs me to sit down. I decline as the next stop Sadat station is my transfer point. Another man is ready to sit down, but the lawyer is adamant and blocks the other man from sitting, saying it is for me. I tell him that I will be sitting down for many hours tonight at my office. I thank him and bid him farewell with “Rabina yihaleek” or May God keep you. Egyptians never cease to amaze me with their kind hospitality.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Alexandria: return to antiquity

For a second class seat, the 8:15am train ride from Cairo to the seaside city of Alexandria was quite pleasant: clean, soft pleather seats, and a nice view of endless farm fields. We pass many poor areas, tenements and markets. Most of the roofs are still unfinished, with the rebar sticking out like antennae. It is said that once you finish building your house, then you must pay a type of property tax, so the crafty Egyptians simply leave the roofs unfinished.

When we arrive in Alexandria about 11am, we are greeted by a gentle downpour. Hallah, my friend from Merkaz Fajr and I buy an umbrella at the station. Made in China. Everything in Egypt is made in China. We make our way to the Corniche or boardwalk. We stop by a Brazilian Coffee shop for coffee and hot chocolate to warm ourselves up. When we go upstairs, a waiter tells us that we need to vacate the shop in 10 minutes for prayers. So, we go downstairs again, order our beverages, and imbibe them as we stand and eat our desserts.

When we walk on the corniche, I spot a woman standing on a big rock with a fishing pole. I slowly make my way over to her, wanting to engage her in a conversation with my rudimentary Arabic.
“Is there fish here?” I ask her.
“Yes. A lot.”
The woman is middle-aged and comes once a week with her husband. She cooks the fish at home and tells me that it is “helwa!” or sweet. Her husband is at prayers for the moment, so she is fishing alone for a while.

As we continue to walk on the corniche, we receive many stares for obvious reasons: what is an Asian guy doing with an Egyptian girl? They must be married! So, that was our cover--Hallah became my wife for the day. I didn't even have to buy her any flowers. If only all relationships can be this easy...

We visit the Citadel Fort Qaitbay and then the Catacombs, ancient tombs that have very interesting paintings that mix Greek and Pharaonic imagery.

At most places that we visit, from the restaurant to the shop where I buy a bottle of water, vendors are very curious about us: where do you come from? They ask Hallah if she is Egyptian. If so, is she married to me?

Return to Cairo—lights out!
In the evening, we buy our return tickets to Cairo. However, we sense something is amiss as our tickets only cost LE 6 (about $1.00). Perhaps, this is the super slow train that will arrive at midnight? Once we board the train, we realize why our ticket is so cheap--there are no lights; the entire train is completely dark! Generally, I have a poor sense of smell, but I can detect a very strong stench of fresh urine mixed with shit wafting through the entire car. I tell Hallah to keep moving to the next car.

We finally spot an open seat and sit down. The window is cracked. Perhaps, a big rock hit it some time ago. It is yellow and stained and dusty. It is also half open, allowing a cool breeze to flow in. It doesn’t bother me, but Hallah minds, so she asks if I can close it. Before I get up to do anything, the gentleman next to us closes the window for us. He begins talking to us.

A medical student, Amjad is 21 years old and from the town of Tanta, close to Alexandria. Because it is dark, it is hard for me to describe him except that he has strong features and is very warm. Occasionally, some light from a passing train lights up our car for a few seconds. I catch a glimpse of his face. He has big, round eyes and a strong chin. He is not fat, but could easily be a wrestler. Amjad speaks with competent, but halting English. In about three more years he will become a doctor. He was in Alexandria today to search for a flat to buy. However, there are many cheats in Egypt so that very often, after you buy a flat, two or three others will say they have also bought the same flat, so it goes to court, which will take five years or so to resolve.

Amjad asks me, “What do you think of Egypt?” I seem to get this question a lot lately.
“I love the people. They are kind and warm,” I reply.

“What do you think of hygiene here?” Of course, I complain about the air pollution and trash. Amjad explains that he avoids eating in most restaurants because they are unsanitary. It makes sense, but he speaks like he is a foreign tourist, disdaining the street stall food.

He lives with his mom and brother. His dad is an engineer and mom is a teacher. She is sitting at the end of the car. “My father visited Holland and loved that country. It is so much better there! In America, it is so much better than Egypt, yes? More advanced in technology? Cleaner?” Amjad asks me very direct and leading questions, almost as if he wants me to confirm his opinions.

Hallah again asks me, “Why are there no lights on this train?!”
Amjad replies, “This is Egypt!” He smiles.

He says, “I hate Egypt! Where there are no lights on the train, the windows are cracked and broken.”

He asks, “Is it hard to find job in America?” I tell him there are many, many opportunities.

Amjad says he fell in love with America after he saw the movie “Prison Break” recently on his computer.

He is curious about how the American people view Egypt, especially after the 9/11 attacks. “Do they think we are terrorists?” he adds. I explain that Americans generally think of four things in Egypt: Pyramids, the Nile, Luxor and King Tut. This seems to comfort him a little, at least.

Amjad is also bothered by the ubiquitous pollution. “Leaders in Egypt do not care about the trash. They steal from the people. Egypt is a very rich country: lots of resources, but the leaders steal from the people.”

Amjad strikes me as bright, warm and ambitious. He asks me several times about the process of getting a visa to go to the US to study or work. He says in Egypt, a doctor can only make LE 400 ($80) on average or maybe LE 5,000 depending on experience, intelligence and the office.

He only goes to Cairo once a year or so. He says, “I may never see you again.” Well, I’m in Cairo until end of June, so if you come, call me, I tell him.

“At first, I was reluctant to speak to you. I was afraid,” He confided to me.
“I am glad that you spoke to me. In the future, when you see a foreigner on the train, just approach him and the worst he’ll say is maybe he is tired and doesn’t want to talk. Most of the time, you will have a good experience,” I advise him.

A small group of rowdy men behind us are laughing at us. Perhaps, they are amused by the spectacle of an Egyptian speaking with an Oriental in English. So, Amjad tells me that if they talk to me, I should avoid talking to them. Also, if they ask, that Hallah is my wife, because in Egypt, there are no boyfriends or girlfriends. He tells me this more for our safety than anything else, it seems.

Also, “sometimes in the dark, beware of thieves.” Now, I am a bit nervous.

When Amjad gets off the train, I shake his hand and tell him to contact me by email and phone. If he ever visits Cairo, he has at least one friend.

Come to Tanta!
Before we leave Tanta, a new couple sits in front of us. The young woman is 21 and a Muhigabat, or a woman who wears the hijab, the garment that covers the hair and neck. After a few minutes, they begin talking to Hallah. They, like most Egyptians, are very warm and welcoming. Mohammad is a 19 year student studying science. She studies home economics at Al Ahzar, Cairo’s oldest and most famous religious University. While he speaks a little basic English, she speaks none, so Hallah becomes our “turgamun” or interpreter. She strikes me as very outgoing and gregarious, a trait that I usually do not associate with Egyptian women. (Of course, I’ve not met too many in my one month here).

Beginning with the basics, she asks if I am Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. Wanting to make my background a little more exciting than it really is, I tell her I am from Malaysia and that I am a student.

“Are you Muslim?”
“Yes,” I reply.
“Do you pray?” she inquires.
“Dimon” (always) I reply.
She smiles.
The couple talks with us for the duration of our journey back to Cairo. They invite us to their hometown of Tanta for a small Eid or holiday in January 2008. A kind offer. I don’t know if the invitation is genuine or they are simply being polite to two strangers on the train. Tanta has much culture and many historical sites, she explains. And they have many mosques.

She and Hallah exchange phone numbers. When she asks me for mine, I tell her that I don’t remember my number, and that she can always contact me through Hallah.

After we leave the train station, she and her friend help us to get a cab. Again, she asks for my phone number. Again, I tell her that she can find me through Hallah.

We return home, exhausted after a productive and very memorable day filled with adventures.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Meandering the halls of the Mugamma

I need to upgrade my 30 day tourist visa to a temporary resident visa, so I make a visit to the Mugamma.

Many foreigners fear and dread this place, as the Cairo Practical Guide warns: “This daunting pre-evolutionary monstrosity on the south side of Midan Al-Tahrir strikes terror in the heart of any Kafka fan.” The place has a reputation as the mother of all bureaucracies.

Mugamma contains a long history. For example, the head of the Nile Transport Office, while under investigation on embezzlement charges, jumped out of an 11th- floor balcony to his death. On a lighter note--in 1983, after the manager died, his assistant took over the space, housing his entire family; he was not discovered until two months later, when he explained that his wife had been nagging him about their small and cramped room. In 1994, a similar case was uncovered: this time it was a civil servant, and he had been living in the office since the mid-1970s. (To read more, click here)

I arrive at 8:30am. Already, the place is filled with people. Vendors line the outside selling snacks and drinks. Some people loiter at the bottom of the stairs. They must be the guides who offer newbies advice and paid services in navigating the Mugamma.

Before I arrive, I receive two sets of conflicting directions:
First, SameH from Fajr advised me to take a left after the metal detector, then another left. However, the Cairo Practical Guide advises readers to go to the first floor, then take a right. Well it’s a circular building, so a left or a right will take you to the same set of windows, I later discovered.

Mugamma is like the DMV, but the workers are mostly women in hijabs, who speak Arabic. If you’re lucky, a few do speak some good English. There are no lines. Only crowds and whoever can elbow their way to the window without causing a fight. At moments like this, a return to the Virginia DMV seems pretty good: you walk in, take a number, sit down, and wait to be called.

I first go to window 12 for a form. It’s about twice as big as any government form that I’ve ever seen and in both English and Arabic, it asks for basic info: address, purpose of visa, etc. I leave Religion blank.

The lady, in her 40s, and in good English, directs me to window 42 to buy some stamps costing 61 LE and to make a copy of my passport and the visa page and come back.
At window 42, the lady also speaks some English and sells me some stamps, then directs me downstairs to get a copy of my passport.

Downstairs: a middle-aged gentleman in the hallway asks if I need copies of my passport page. He takes my passport and walks to a small broom closet with some copiers. After only a few seconds, he returns my passport and one copy. I give him 50 piastres (a dime) and tell him, “SareeH” or fast. He smiles. He then asks if I have a photo. I give him my color photo and he staples it neatly onto the page. I give him 50 piastres as baksheesh (tip). His name is Tareeq and he has worked in this broom closet for 30 years. Wow! Imagine that. I’ve switched jobs annually in my former life in the US. Often, I’ve gotten bored of a job just a month or two into it. I cannot possibly imagine working the same job – especially one in such a small space and dealing with the public – for such a long time. He must be a very patient man.

I return upstairs to window 12 and a different lady reviews my application. A younger lady to her right seems to be new and is learning on the job. The first lady is gently teaching her where to write on the visa applications. They tell me I now have to get my application signed. “Fain?” or Where?

“Right next to us” she points somewhere toward over there.
I leave the window and walk slowly, but don’t see anything relevant:
Non-Arab residency. Not me.
Refugee applicants. Not me. Alhamdullilah.
Arab residency.
Long term residency (3-5 years).
Long term work residency (3-5 years).

Hmmm….I walk back and forth. Then, a man who notices that I have the lost look directs me to a desk by the end of the hallway with two men in business suits, but no sign above them. I walk over and hand my papers to them. The man signs and returns it to me without even looking at me.
“shookrun” I say, or Thank you! No response.
“Shookrun” I repeat. Again, no response. He is busy talking to his friend.

When I return to window 12, the lady tells me that I really do not need the 50 LE stamp and gently removes it. She returns it to me and tells me to get a refund, which surprises me. She could easily have pocketed the money. Many Egyptians do. In my weekly visits to the supermarket, the clerks -- as a rule -- always shortchange customers for anything under half a pound (a dime). Most people are too busy and in a hurry to care. While I initially thought they simply did not have the “faka” or change, I’ve now realized that they do, but want to skim off the top. For example, yesterday I had lunch at Hardee’s, which is Carl’s Jr. in Cairo. For a lunch of 16.50I handed the girl a 20 pounder. She should have given me 3.5, but instead gave me 3.25, all in 0.25 increments of very old bills. She probably figured that it would take me a while to count them and by the time I realized the inaccurate amount, it would be too late or I wouldn’t care. She was right. If she does this 10 times daily, she’ll make 2.5 LE, enough to buy two falafels. That’s breakfast.

In my first visit to Egypt in April, I went to the post office to mail some postcards. I bought stamps for 12 LE. I gave the clerk 20 LE. Instead of handing me 8 LE, I got 3.5 in return. In other words, she kept 4.5 LE (about 90 cents) as her user fee. At the time, I didn’t complain, thinking, ”well—she needs it more than me and I’m a tourist here for only two weeks, so…” Now that I’m a resident, I try to be more vigilant with these matters. I’m sure sociologists would have a field day trying to explain this practice. I’ve heard it said that Egypt is such a poor country that people try to make ends meet in whatever way they can. If that means skimming from the top by shortchanging customers, then so be it.

I should return in two hours to Window 38 to pick up my visa. I receive no receipt for my application. Hmmm…

After I return to Merkaz Fajr to take my final exam, Moustafa hands me a copy of the Quran in English. I had asked SameH earlier in the week for one. The men promised me one before I finished my course. I tell them that I will read it and cherish the gift, always.

Return to Mugamma
At Window 38:
The lady simply recognizes me from my passport photo and hands it to me without confirming my identity. Five minutes after I enter the Mugamma, I am finished. I leave with an extended stay until April 2008. Alhamdullilah!

Monday, November 26, 2007

I discover women at Fajr

I’ve never attended an all-boys Catholic school, but Fajr must come close to it. Women are on the 3rd floor, while men are on the 2nd floor. Men teach male students and women teach female students. The only time males and females mix is if they wander into the office with a question for SameH, one of the bearded office workers.

During one of these random office encounters, I meet Hallah, an Egyptian gal born in New York, who is studying Arabic here for the year. However, she studies all day five days a week, including Arabic calligraphy. She, too, feels the effects of isolation and inability to interact with other students. She jokes that she feels like “running away.” Hallah is 18, but going on 25. She has long, straight, black hair and keeps it that way; otherwise, Egyptian women will give her a hard time if she wears a perm or any style that would draw too much attention. She has big, round eyes and a New York attitude about life; that is to say, a resilient attitude. Many aspects of Islam make her apprehensive, especially the strictness that Islam places on female modesty. For example, when she goes into the office to arrange her schedule of classes, the man at the table does not look directly at her. He looks down on the floor or past her or slightly askance so that she is not able to mesmerize him too much. And he definitely can not shake her hand.

We agree to meet about 2pm outside the center for a study session. I arrive about 2:05 pm, but don’t see her. I wait another 10 minutes and then go upstairs to the 3rd floor to find her. The door is unlocked and open an inch or so. However, I find myself reluctant to enter. It feels forbidden, like I’m stepping into the women’s bathroom. After a few minutes, I crack it open…Creeek!!! There’s a large mirror behind the door covering the wall and a hallway, almost like in a bathroom to obscure one’s view of the tenants inside. I don’t actually step into the room. As soon as I crack it open a few inches, I let it close again. I remain outside, nervously waiting…

Finally, I hear footsteps downstairs, peer down and see a young girl walk down. I yell her name, “Hallah!” Outside, she explains, “it’s a good thing you didn’t go inside, because one of the women teachers wears the niqab (the garment that covers the body from head to toe, except the eyes) and she’s exposed inside.” In other words, had I been discovered on the women’s floor, the niqab teacher (ninja lady) would complain to the program director, who would probably reprimand me. Images of Mr. FawteH beating me with a ruler returned to my mind.

As we walk to Midan Dokki and then Midan Galaa, she walks on the streets, whereas I stay on the sidewalks. And it occurs to me that most Egyptians use the streets because the sidewalks here are so dilapidated and full of holes and debris and trash, that it’s much easier and more direct to walk on the street.

Hallah is hungry, even though she ate lunch. Well, a small, meatless sandwich, so I offer her an apple from my bag. After a few bites, a small girl of 5 or 6 with a dusty face and unkempt hair approaches her to ask for a bite. Hallah gives her the remainder of the apple. “Here you go, habibtie (darling).” It is a common sight that I suppose I am getting used to, but still uncomfortable with. The Cairo Practical Guide for expats offers an interesting perspective on begging: “It is one of the Five Pillars of Islam to give alms to the poor, and since a strong streak of fatalism runs through Egyptian society, there is little shame, if any, associated with begging.” A far cry from Dostoyevsky, who once wrote in Crime and Punishment that Beggary is the worst vice. Perhaps, there is a comfortable middle ground between the Russian and the Islamic view? I will have the next seven months to find out.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Who turned off the lights and water?

When I arrived at my apartment lobby, I noticed the lights were out. The doorman sitting outside said the power went out, including the elevators. He directed me to use the stairs. I started climbing—in the dark. As I live on the 5th floor, you’d think it’s a simple thing to climb to the 5th floor to my apartment. Well, this is Egypt, where they like to add a few floors between the ground floor and your floor. So, there are actually two or three additional floors before they start counting “floor one.” I’m glad I actually walked up and down the stairs a couple of times when I first moved in because I would have gotten lost tonight.

A short while after I entered my apartment, the water stopped running. About midnight, it returned—very quickly as the toilets started making noises. About 12:30am, a group of 10 men or so, some still in their business clothes, went around ringing doorbells, including mine. “Hello! The water and electricity was cut tonight because we owe 250 LE ($50) more. Can you pay this now?”

I didn’t know what to say. It sounded very odd. My roommate Alex came to the door, more skeptical than me. She said we would speak with the landlord first and slammed the door. I could still hear their voices as they lingered outside the door, laughing...

How strange—the internet connection tonight is very clear and fast, the first time in a long time, but we are lacking electricity and water.

Welcome to Egypt!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Mooshkayla Bab

The lock in our “bab” (door) began to jam a few days ago. Each day, it would get harder and harder to unlock the door. Last night, it took more than an hour.

I first ask our doorman Mahmoud, who’s my favorite of the three doormen, for help. He always greets me warmly and with a big smile each time he sees me. Mahmoud tries for a few minutes, but fails, so we go back downstairs. I ask if he can talk to the landlord Mr. Sameer for us. “Who’s Mr. Sameer?” he asks me.

He returns to his desk, and says the locksmith can take a look at the “mooshkayla” or problem “bokra, insha’allah” or tomorrow, God Willing. Otherwise, he keeps quiet. It is 9:40pm. At this late hour, a locksmith would cost about 150 LE ($30). After I ask for a phone number, he writes it down for me. I call the landlord and request that Mahmoud speak with him, as I still do not speak fluent Arabic. He agrees. However, the landlord does not answer his phone.

At this point, my phone credit expires. After buying more credit, I go for a schwarma chicken sandwich dinner to stay calm. When I return, our Romanian neighbor Nikol is helping us with the door. He asks me if I have a small card.

I give him my Arlington, Virginia public library card. After a few minutes of jamming it into the door, he returns it to me. He goes to his apartment and returns with a large kitchen knife. He slides it into the side of the door. He returns to his apartment for some pliers. He spends the next 30 minutes performing surgery on the door. At one point, he tries to kick down the door. Boom! Boom! Boom! Nothing. He disappears into his apartment and returns with a small wooden board and uses it as a lever to budge open the door. It opens a little bit. Back to the knife and pliers.

At this point, the night shift doorman visits. He’s an older man, in his 50s, with a receding hairline and walks with a slouch. As he arrives at our door, his phone rings. He answers and talks while he picks up the knife with his left hand. He inserts it into the door crack and moves it back and forth a few times, without much effort. When he hangs up, he disappears into the elevator, but doesn’t return.

After we finally open the door, the next day, I find myself stuck in the apartment. I tell Regib, our daytime doorman, about our problem. He is also in his 50s and speaks some English; he graduated from Cairo University in 1976 with a degree in English translation. As soon as he examines our door, he says, “you must change. Helas!” or this lock is done. He says he can fix the lock for only 100LE or less than $20. He lives by the pyramids, so it’ll take him an hour or so to go home to get his equipment.

He returns in one hour and fixes the door with remarkable speed. He hammers the nails back into place and tells me, “nails not good. Made in Egypt!”

“Where are the good nails?” I inquire.
“Made in China,” he smiles. He also explains the glue he uses is Egyptian.

Ahmed, our roving doorman, tags along, but doesn’t do much more than pass a few screws to Regib. Although the repair is really a one-man job, somehow in Egypt, it always takes two or more men. When Regib finishes repairing the lock, I slip him a small baksheesh (tip) that will allow him to buy five falafels. The custom here is to tip for nearly every service. I give Ahmed nothing.

To sum up, lessons I’ve learned about life in Egypt so far:

1. Everything breaks down in Egypt
2. Good help is hard to find, especially in Cairo
3. Most doormen are useless
4. Try to have a Romanian neighbor who knows how to open a stuck door

A final note—my new favorite doorman is now Regib. Alhamdullilah!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Teaching Sudanese Refugees: a preview

I visited St. Andrews yesterday to meet with Abigail, the new Director of the Adult Education Program. The office is on the second floor, which sits on top of a small property with one main teaching classroom and a bungalow on the playground. Some children are kicking around a soccer ball.

A petite lady in her mid-20s with fair skin and brownish hair, Abigail studied in Cairo for a semester in 2004 while at the University of Virginia (UVA). This is now her second rotation in the Egyptian capital. She has scheduled me to teach one class twice a week for a total of three hours. My students will probably be more advanced speakers.

The school has eight paid teachers serving 600 adults and 200 children. Most of them are Sudanese Refugees; however, the school also welcomes refugees from Somalia and Eritrea. Abigail says they “turn no one away.” Some students need to learn Arabic besides English to function in Cairo. Like the previous school I taught at in China, St. Andrews emphasizes English and computer skills; however, unlike my Chinese students, these students don’t have cars and drivers to shuttle them home for the weekend at nice condos in the city.

While we talk in the office, a skinny, young boy comes in asking for bus money home. Abigail prepares to give him one Egyptian Pound (about 20 cents), but he asks for 2 LE to include his “uktee” or sister. Abigail pulls out the bus fare from her purse and hands it to him.

A while later, a young girl enters the office with a scraped knee. Abigail tends to the small wound with some disinfectant spray, warning her young patient, “ok…this will hurt a little.” Spray. Spray. She covers it with a band-aid and the operation is complete.

After I leave St. Andrews, I spot an Egyptian man pissing into a fence next to the Nasser Metro Station. Maybe he really has to go. Despite his precarious situation, he is fairly discreet. No one seems to notice him. Once he finishes his business, he calmly zips up and walks away. The last time I saw public urination in broad daylight was in China during my teaching year. Egypt reminds me so much of China. Both are crowded and polluted, but have so much potential. Both countries operate with authoritarian political systems trying to find ways to improve their futures. Both have young men who like to piss at or through fences in public.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tutor to the jeweler

I have found myself gainful part-time employment as a tutor to a diamond and gold jeweler named Barsoum. I first speak to his wife Manal, who has very fluent English. She tells me her husband is in need of conversational English practice for two hours a week. She doesn’t tell me much else except that they live by the Pyramids.

When I arrive at the compound, Barsoum meets me at the gate. He is a youthful looking gentleman with short hair and a mustache and a warm smile. He guides me into his house, which is a lovely mansion-like home. His wife serves me tea as we sit down at the coffee table. A large plasma TV screen sits on the shelf, below the DVD player. Barsoum has studied English for many years, but has not used it much outside the classroom.

He’s traveled all around the world, from the U.S. and Canada to Hong Kong to Europe to Bangkok, Thailand. He visits Dubai every three months and has been there more than 30 times altogether. He likes Hong Kong, but found the taxi drivers hard to communicate with as they speak little to no English. Barsoum speaks with confidence and much energy. He tells me that he wants to focus on speaking, listening and business vocabulary. In his line of work, he often deals with foreign businessmen, especially in Hong Kong and Thailand, who tend to be very indirect.

After nearly an hour of chatting, we move to the dining table, where Barsoum and his wife serve me a light snack of flat bread, salad, a thin omelette and cheese. I compliment her on the delicious food. I want to compliment on her cooking, but see that she has a maid in the kitchen.

Barsoum wants to meet with me weekly on Sunday mornings for two hours. He wants to take me to dinner Thursday in Dokki, by his shop, which is just a few minutes away from my language school.

The couple has two children in a private British-run high school, the “best in Egypt”. (Best means expensive). Even better than Al Alsson, the other famous international school. He wants about six children, but explains that his wife doesn’t want more. “It’s a real problem,” he jokes. They are Coptic Christians, and explain that in Egypt, unfortunately, the Muslims like to convert foreigners or any non-Muslims. I explain that I noticed that every conversation with a taxi driver usually turns into religion. “I feel like a fish and the Muslims are out to catch me,” I tell them. They laugh.

When our tutorial ends, they briefly show me around the Villa. “It is very quiet here,” they remark as we walk to the swimming pool. Many foreigners rent out the houses here. The couple lives in what would be called a “gated community” in the U.S. They hail a cab for me and I bid them Ma-esalama or see ya later.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Registration at Fajr Center: week two in Cairo

I’m now taking classes with my tutor Helid five days a week from two to five hours daily. He is perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s. Sometimes, Egyptian men are like Chinese men: their appearance belies their true age. Helid is very good, but he speaks almost no English. He understands basic English and even reads English, but cannot speak more than a few words. On the second day, our lesson is interrupted twice by prayer. He excuses himself for about 10 minutes each time to pray at the neighboring mosque.

Fajr Center is on the second floor of a non-descript building on a small street next to the TNT Post Office. A cab driver dropped me off at the Midan Dokki or traffic circle and it took me another 15 minutes to find it by asking a few people every block or so. Fajr has a reputation of being Islamic; that is, all the men grow beards and are devout. I tell the Fajr staff that my friend Andrew highly recommended them to me. They remember him well. They serve me a glass of mango juice before we proceed to find the right level and schedule of classes. Later, one of the men gives me two booklets on Islam: The True Religion of GOD and A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam.

Mr. FawteH evaluates me
Mr. FawteH is an avuncular and humorous man. I ask him how many children he has. He puts up both his hands with palms facing me: 10 kids. He proceeds to name them. He speaks little to no English, but through gestures he tells me of the consequences of not doing well in the class: he takes my right hand and turns the palm up and indicates that he would beat me with a ruler. Furthermore, if I continue to slack off, then more draconian punishments would be in store. Four men would come to the classroom and, now with both his hands balled in fists, Mr. FawteH motions toward me that they would beat me to a pulp repeatedly. He laughs excitedly. Like a sadist. I know he is kidding. Right?

Romeo learns English
His given name is Ramadan, but he goes by Romeo. He is a stocky fellow with a gentle demeanor. He works as a helper at Fajr. At 27, he speaks very little English, but is taking classes a few hours a week with an Egyptian English teacher. Romeo complains that the teacher is too fast and when he asks students if they understand the material, many nod, even though they really do not understand. I spend about 30 minutes teaching him how to tell time. Romeo offers me sweet tea and calls me “sadeekey” or “my friend.”

Cab drivers
My roommate Alex tells me that I’ll get the local prices for cab fare if I speak Arabic, so I always, always try to speak Arabic to cab drivers. My first Arabic teacher in DC, a middle-aged Jordanian who despised Egyptian Arabic, told me once that most cab drivers in Egypt are paid informants or secret police. If true, this would be a brilliant network of eyes and ears listening throughout the city for dissidents and plotters against the government.

This morning, like usual, I hail a cab to Dokki to visit Fajr. The cab driver does not speak English, but through my limited child-like Arabic, I communicate to him that I’ve only been here one week, but will stay for 8 months to study Arabic. I was born in China, but grew up in the US. He smiles with a mouthful of brown teeth that must’ve taken in many cups of sweet tea and smoked tens of thousands of cigarettes. He is a kind soul and has a very liberal view of religion. “All the people have religion; whether you’re Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, we all believe in one God. We all get along together.”

He inquires if I am a Chinese Muslim. I tell him no, but Ana bihab Muslimun, Mohamed wa Allah or “I love Muslims, Mohamed and Allah.” He is overjoyed to hear my praise. I’ve found this particular phrase to be quite useful. When I first visited Cairo in April, I used this phrase at a falafel shop. Five people stood in front of me. Two of them wore crisp, white uniforms with a black belt, indicating their status as police officers. I waited my turn and placed my falafel order in basic Arabic: “One falafel, please. Thank you.” The falafel man asked me whether I am Muslim. I told him no, but Ana bihab Muslimun, Mohamed wa Allah. Within a minute, I received my falafel before the other five. I was pleasantly surprised, but also amazed by the power of my words. Was it my lucky day? Did I happen to meet a kind and devout man who liked what I said? Or was this particular phrase the magic keys to the kingdom?

Breaking bread with the Fajr men
On Tuesday, I pay for my classes at Fajr. When I step into the office, the men are having breakfast. They kindly invite me to join them. Although I ate an orange already, I am glad to partake with them. They sit inside the kitchen area, which is a tight space of perhaps four by six feet. They eat from several small plates, which sit on top of a large tray. They hand me some aish or Egyptian flat bread, which is used to dip into fool or mashed beans. They also hand me a plate of peppers and one green onion. I tell them that since I am from Hunan Province in China, that I am used to eating peppers.

Moustapha asks me about my travels and in particular where I have been around the world. I list the few places in Europe and Asia. He then asks me for a memorable aspect of each country. Finally, he asks me for both the positives and the negatives of Egypt. While I tell him that I see the people as the best resource of Egypt, I have a hard time giving him any negatives. I have only been here a week, so I tell him, “ask me again in three months or so and I should have a better idea.” His questions are smart and indicate a genuine curiosity about the outside world. I feel so welcome at this place.

Taxis, Buses and Minibuses
After class ends, I’ve been trying to find a cheaper way of getting home. Usually, I walk about 15 minutes to the large traffic circle by the Nile to wait for a bus home. Sidewalks are dilapidated and in need of repair, forcing me to walk on the streets, along with other pedestrians. Life zooms by me. It flows all around me. Women selling flatbread. A man selling sweet potatoes from an old, rusty cart. Traffic. Honking. Children letting out of school. A man holding another man’s hands. A donkey cart trotting by. A group of people waiting for a cab. For a bus. For a minibus. For time to pass. A blind beggar with a long, wooden staff in one hand and his other hand outstretched. Honking. Honking. The smell of deep-fried fish. Flies buzzing around half a cow hanging from a hook, its skin peeled away. A group of women wearing the niqab, the black outfit that covers their entire body, only revealing the eyes. Sadat once belittled them as “tents” and banned them from Universities. (Expats call them “Ninja women”).

Welcome to Egypt!
Children walking by. One student greets me with “hi!” I respond, “izayak!” or “hello” in Egyptian dialect. He asks, “what’s your name?” I respond, “Ismee Andy” or my name is Andy. Soon, about four students gather to talk to me. They are about 7 and 8 years old. The questions are the same: what’s your name? Where are you from? Welcome to Egypt! Soon, a swarm of kids surround me. I meet a Mohamed. Ahmed. Ibrahim. Moustafa. Mohamed. Sharif. Omar. Mohamed. Osman. Khaled. Ibrahim. Ahmed. Mohamed. I feel like a politician at a political rally. Everyone wants to shake my hand. One young boy gives me a small bag of popcorn, still wrapped in clear plastic. I reciprocate and give him the remainder of my cookies from my bag. He seems dumbfounded, as if he did not expect anything from me. Another student takes my right hand and tugs at it. Hard. He wants to pull me somewhere. I resist. He pulls harder. More students come to me and continue with the barrage of questions. Soon, a man with a plastic stick arrives to shoo the kids away. I tell him it’s ok. They are “asdahkaw” or friends. I tell them “hashufak bokra, insha’allah” or “I will see you tomorrow, hopefully.”

So, the first day, I wait for a minibus, which drops me a few hundred yards away from the bridge that connects Dokki and Zamalek. The second day at the same bus stop, I meet a gentleman named Ralph, a German who’s been working here about six months. We both board the bus, which deposits us under the bridge. Yesterday, when I see the public bus again, I get on and squeeze my way to the back. The man behind me speaks some basic English and tells me the fare is 1.10 LE. Soon, the entire bus tells the bus driver to stop under the bridge so I can get out. “Shookran” bus driver! Thank you. Egyptians are the Midwesterners of the Middle East, if that’s not too confusing to comprehend.

Friday, November 09, 2007

I've started smoking a pack a day

An Environmental Make-Over for an Ancient Industry
By Leslie-Ann Boctor

CAIRO, Oct 19 (IPS/IFEJ) - Air pollution is so bad in Cairo that living in the sprawling city of 18 million residents is said to be akin to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. According to the World Health Organisation, the average Cairene ingests more than 20 times the acceptable level of air pollution a day.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dining with Darwin and Mohamed

An email from Russell, an Egyptian, on the listserv CairoScholars invites those interested in learning more about Islam to come to a dinner on Friday at his house. I respond and rsvp for dinner.

At the elevator, I meet another dinner guest--Peter, a German student studying Medicine and Arabic. He will be here for a semester, maybe more. Perhaps in his late 20s, Peter carries a backpack and wears glasses.

As soon as we arrive at Russell’s apartment, we accompany him and his friend Mohamed to the nearby mosque for the evening prayer. We dodge traffic (this is an Egyptian skill that I believe I must master to survive here for the next 8 months). It is very similar to wading a river, while avoiding the big rocks and logs that come by every now and then to sweep you away. I make sure to walk to the left of the rest of the group, so that they form a buffer in case we misjudge and are swept into the river of metal and tires.

Before we enter the Mosque, we remove our shoes. The name “Allah” is inscribed in beautiful calligraphy over the entrance. Peter and I sit on plastic lawn chairs in the back, while Russell leads the prayers. About a dozen men line up to pray in the direction of Mecca.

After prayers, we return to the house for discussion.

The Imam is a dignified gentleman of 35, but looks much older. Dressed in a grey galabiyeh--the flowing robes of Egyptian men--and sandals, he is quiet and does not speak much English. His skin has a cappuchino color. As soon as I speak a few sentences to him in Arabic, he offers to tutor me in Arabic for a fee.

The living room is a rectangular space with a carpet and a chair in each corner. We each sit in our respective chairs. There is no Television set or coffee table.

Russell wears a prominent beard and has large round eyes. He may be in his early 30s. Born in California, he also lived in Boston for a couple of years. As an auditor for Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), he has traveled to Tripoli, Libya for the past year to conduct audits of Middle Eastern Companies. He told me not to believe everything I read or watch on CNN about Libya. Russell is an amiable host and sits comfortably in his chair, with his left foot tucked underneath his right knee. His right hand covers his mouth in a pensive mood. His wife prepares dinner in the dining room and walks back and forth from the kitchen, but she is never introduced to us.

Mohamed is a young man of 25 who tutors some foreigners in Arabic. His English is superb. He takes out a notebook and writes some notes as Peter and Russell begin their talk about Islam and Darwin.

I can hear a child running around in the adjacent rooms. Occasionally, a small baby screams.

Peter and Russell discuss evolution and the role of the Fatwa in Islam.

Russell states, “Islam rejects evolution.”

It appears that Russell does not truly understand Darwin, evolution or the Survival of the Fittest theory as he believes that Darwin says we are descended from monkeys.

Peter explains that in his discussions with Muslims in Egypt, many have never heard of Darwin. He finds this troubling, as evolution is so central to Medicine and Science.

Russell declares, “you cannot combine Islam with evolution because God created man in his image, in the best shape.”

When dinner is prepared, the wife disappears into the background, perhaps in her room with the children. Could this be a typical Muslim custom? For the woman to be with the children when the men are around to discuss serious topics such as religion and politics?

We are treated to a wonderful dinner of salad, pasta casserole with ground beef, potatoes with parsley, Dolma (grape leaves with rice and beef), corn with tuna, and cow intestine sausages. Russell warns me that I may not like this particular dish. I explain to him the Chinese proverb that we “eat anything with legs, except a table; anything with wings except an airplane.” He laughs.

At dinner, the discussion lightens up and we move to less serious topics. Mohamed tells me that there is a great interest in China these days. Many Egyptian students are taking up Chinese. One of his friends has been studying for four months and many of his classmates have dropped out after only a few months, finding the Chinese language much too difficult. He asks me if I would be interested in language exchange with his friend. I say yes.

About 7pm, Peter has to leave for a wedding. Russell, Mohamed and the Imam pray again in the living room. Peter and I watch attentively.

Mohamed and I walk to a nearby tea house that’s very famous. It is also known for its liberal policy of allowing women to mix with men at the tables. As I look around, I notice a few women here and there, which is an odd sight at a café, still the exclusive domain of men. We sit and enjoy our shai or tea for the next two hours. He is a gregarious sort, telling me about the Muslim Brotherhood, fanatical debates over Islamic doctrine and practice, and his recent breakup with his fiancée. Every so often, our talk is interrupted by a beggar or a passing street vendor selling tissue or flowers.

Mohamed impresses me with his intelligence and independence. He recently declined a job offer with a good Egyptian company after interviewing with them four times and passing several tests. He explained that he’s not yet willing to work at a desk job.

After our talk, I bid Mohamed farewell and take a cab back to my refuge in Zamalek.

Friday, November 02, 2007

On the road again: week one in Cairo

DC Weather delayed my flight to Newark, so I missed the connection to Frankfurt, which meant a missed connection to Prague and to Cairo.

No Room at the Inn
I spend the night in Newark, New Jersey. I am bussed to a “HoJo” or Howard Johnson Hotel. They still exist! The manager reports they are full. Some of the Indian travelers suspect that they refuse to take our $55 vouchers from Continental, hoping for regular customers who will pay $100 or more for a room. One man is racing to Mumbai, India to see his 89 year-old mom, who is on her death bed. He was not there when his father passed. He has now lived in Ohio for 40 years. We are then bussed to the Radisson, a much bigger hotel. When we arrive, they also have no room. Finally, we are bussed to a Sheraton, where we find refuge.

Frankfurt layover
Since I miss my Czech Airlines flight, I have to spend the night in Frankfurt.

From a Lonely Planet Europe guidebook at the airport bookstore, I find a youth hostel in downtown for about 20 Euros. The fellow at the next phone booth overhears my conversation with the receptionist at the youth hostel, so asks me to book one more bed for him, too. His name is Patrick and he sounds like he’s from Ireland or Scotland, but he’s actually Belgian and speaks Dutch. At 48, Patrick has a slight build, is going bald and is very thin. He is delayed on his way to Taiwan for vacation. He joins me as we take the train to downtown. To my delight, the hostel comes with a free breakfast and a free spaghetti dinner on Saturday nights.

Patrick has to leave on a morning flight, so asks for a 5:30 AM wake up call. Sure enough, the next day, he receives the wake up call—in person. The receptionist first knocks on the door, then comes in and asks, “So, someone wanted a wake up call?” I point to Patrick, whose bed is by the door.

Free to look!
As I walk around the youth hostel to explore the neighborhood in the few hours before my flight to Cairo, I discover that we are right next to an entire street of sex shops. This called for some exploring on my part. It felt like the Time Square of pre-Giuliani days. As I walk past one corner, a middle-aged lady yells to me, “Hi! Come in. Free to look!” I kept walking. Soon, she grabs my arm and abducts me. She sits me down in her empty shop and hands me a drink menu.
“I don’t drink” I tell her.
She responds, “Then buy me a drink!”
“Isn’t it early to drink?” I look at my watch. It’s not yet noon.
“It’s not the time, it’s the quality.”
“I’m a very bad customer for you,” I tell her.
“I get paid for the number of drinks I sell,” she explains.
She takes my right hand, almost to warm it up. It is fairly cold at about 50 degrees. She leads me to a private room with a TV with a video playing of a woman sitting on a man.

I get up to leave.

“It’s ok. I explain to you what you get!” Another woman, also in her 50s, but with a haggard look, proceeds to close the curtains.
I leave and thank them for their hospitality.

Arrival in Cairo
After three days of travel and delays, I arrive safely in Cairo early Monday morning, Alhamdulillah! (Thanks be to God). This is one of the most common and useful phrases in the Arabic language. When you greet someone, he will respond with Good, Alhamdulillah! When you say, “It’s a beautiful day.” Yes, Alhamdulillah!

Some cab drivers approach me. They all want 70 ($14) LE for the 30 minute ride to Zamalek. I ask for 50 LE ($10), knowing that’s the basic price. One agrees to 60 LE and I’m about to accept when a police officer approaches him to reprimand him for something. Perhaps, he’s not supposed to pick up passengers here? I’m out of luck. So, I continue to look. I wait about 15 minutes. I push my cart down to the departures section. No taxis. I push it back up to the arrivals. I finally agree to a taxi for 65 LE. It is now about 3 AM and I’m too tired to bargain over one dollar. We speed through the empty highways and streets of Cairo toward the Flamenco Hotel.

At the apartment lobby, Mamdooah, a security guard helps me with my bags. I tip him 10LE, which will buy 10 falafel breakfasts. He is perhaps in his 30s and very amiable.

I am settled into my new apartment on Zamalek, on the Nile and it is very nice! It comes with a Buxom, Blonde Swede who is also very nice. Alex is a reporter covering the human rights beat and has been living here for more than a year. In her mid 20s, she speaks with an American accent. A graduate of USC, she’s a fan of the Trojans.

There’s a puddle of soy sauce on the kitchen floor. Alex dropped it the day before, so tells me to be careful around the accident scene as the cleaning lady will take care of it later in the week. We have a cleaning lady? And a doorman? This will take some getting used to.

I wake to honking. Incessant honking. And birds chirping. They take turns. It is an urban orchestra. Otherwise, it is sunny and warm, but not hot. Alhamdulillah! While I don’t exactly have a view of the Nile like I did during my first visit with Chris, I have a panoramic view of the neighboring landscape, with scores of satellite dishes on the roofs. It is mostly brown. Many decaying buildings. And a curtain of smog.

The first morning, I heard the morning call to prayer. I don’t hear it anymore. Could I have gotten used to it so quickly?

A neighborhood walk
I decide to go for a walk around the neighborhood to get a better feel for the area. On my way back, I decide to take the opposite street. Surprisingly, I bump into Johan, a DC friend of a friend. He is in his 5th week of a two month assignment here consulting for the Egyptian Government on IT issues. Johan is actually from Sweden, but studied at SAIS, Johns Hopkins. We agree to meet up for drinks next week. Small world, isn’t it? The Spanish say, “El mundo es un panuelo” or the world is a napkin. I wonder what the Arabs say. I suppose, I will find out soon enough, insha’allah!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Democracy ya-shee-ay!

As I approach the Burmese Embassy north of Dupont Circle, I hear some loud voices coming from the noon protest.

“Burma Burma must be free!
Freedom, Justice, Democracy!”

Initially, I see only a few dozen protesters in a sea of red to show support for the monks. Three police officers stand nearby, calmly watching the peaceful protesters.
One person with the bullhorn declares, “Free Free Burma! Free Free Aun Saan Su Kyi!”
The chorus of protesters repeats.

Some monks begin chanting.

This is my first protest. Ever. Since I heard last night, I considered it important to participate.

Addressing the Burmese Embassy, a man in a suit and tie speaks in an impassioned voice as he calls them a “Ruthless, brainless military government.” He says he speaks on behalf of the Burmese people, who cannot speak for themselves. I discover later that he is the Foreign Minister of the Exile Government in Thailand.

Priya, an Indian gentleman wears a hand-made sign with the world “Peace” in Arabic and Hindi. He’s been here 10 years now and is here to support the Burmese people.

As we leave for the Chinese Embassy, the police escort us. I head toward the front, where a couple of monks lead the group. The man with the bullhorn bellows forth his slogans:
“Democracy ya-shee-ay!” which means “obtain Democracy” but translates into roughly “Democracy Now!”

Another shouts: “Free Free Burma! Free Free Aung San Suu Kyi!” the Burmese leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1990s, but is now under house arrest.

For a few moments, I take the bullhorn and lead the group:

“Democracy ya-shee-ay!”

“Democracy ya-shee-ay!”

I feel exhilaration and energy from the crowd.

As we approach the Chinese Embassy, we stop momentarily at the Serbian Embassy. One protest leader addresses the crowd: “The Serbians sells arms to the Burmese Government!”

Immediately, the crowd yells, “Shame on you!”
“Shame on you!”

At the Chinese Embassy, the crowd has now swelled to more than 100 people. Cars pass by and honk in support of the group. One protester has a sign in Chinese that says, “Shame on you China. Free the Burmese People.”

A quick thought crosses my mind: if I were to do this in Burma, chances are that we would all be shot on site or taken away and beaten and then shot.

Democracy ya-shee-ay!

Friday, September 14, 2007

A visit to Egypt and the Holy Land

April 26 - May 21, 2007
Misr Uma Dunia: Egypt is Mother of the World
Cairo or Al Qahira is Arabic for “the vanquisher” or “the exhausted.” In other words, it is such an exhausting experience for visitors that the name serves as a stern warning to any foolhardy visitor. Since my high school friend Chris has been teaching at an international high school since fall 2006, this was my excuse to go visit him.

Cairo has the heat of Phoenix, AZ and the traffic of Los Angeles. It is dirty, polluted and crowded with 16 million people. A city of incessant honking, Cairo’s traffic flows like a river. Its air quality makes Los Angeles air seem tame. When you return home after a day in the streets, your shirt collar will be black. (I arrived with a stuffy nose and a slight cold. It took me more than a week to recover.) I arrive on a Friday, the day of rest for Muslims in Egypt. My friend Chris advised me to look for the Fondooq (Hotel) Flamenco or “Fun duck” if I got lost. Fortunately, he greets me at the airport and quickly negotiates for a cab to take us to his apartment on the island of Zamalek, which is known as the foreigners‘ neighborhood.

The first thing the traveler learns about Cairo is the cab fare system: cabs do not use meters. One must never ask the cabbie how much the fare is; instead, you pay what you think the trip is worth and then walk away. Furthermore, you must first step out of the car, close the door and then pay through the window. It is a power dynamic. This way, you don’t argue with the driver. If he asks for more money, then you can give him one or two more pounds. If he persists, then you walk away. However, if he continues to protest, then the secret police is always around the corner. Any argument between a cabbie and a foreigner usually results in the foreigner winning.

Armwrestling with Egyptian kids
I take the subway to get a feel for the city. For such a dirty city, Cairo has a surprisingly clean subway system. I crowd into the train. While foreign visitors generally stay away from the subway system, I don’t attract too much attention. After a few stops, I decide to step off, but find myself wedged among the people. I realize that I must push my way out the train or I‘ll wind up at the end of the line. I finally get off at Dar El Salaam, which means House of Peace. I sit down on a bench. A few students pass me by and greet me with “hello.” I reply with "Asalam Alaykum" or Peace Upon You.

At the end of the platform, not far away from me is a group forming around two teenagers facing each other. Each of their friends tries to hold them back. They look like they are ready for a fight. While I can’t hear what they say, they most certainly could be saying, “want a piece of me?” The crowd moves along the platform, then up the stairs.

At this point, I cross over to the other side of the tracks to catch the train back to Nasser station, my starting point. I sit down on a seat and it seems school is letting out. Large groups of students pass me. One group greets me with some Arabic, some English. I utter the few Arabic words that I learned in my 10 week Arabic course in DC: “Ana Andy. Ana min Washington, DC fee Amreeka.” I am Andy. I am from DC in America.” After speaking with a few students, suddenly, about a dozen surround me and each one shoots off a question:

-Where are you from?
-Where you live?
-What do you do?
-Do you have moe-bile?

I respond as quickly as I can: “Made in China.” One student named Almosfra responds, “Made in Egypt” while placing his right hand on his heart. My Arabic is as good as their English, which is to say terrible.

I give out my business card to a student and write my phone number on the back along with email. Soon, every student in the group asks for my card and phone number.

Two police officers in white uniforms approach us to check on the commotion, perhaps to break up the group, afraid that they are harassing me. I say to them “Sadeek” or friend in Arabic and point to all of them. The police smile and quickly understand. They return to their posts.

After speaking -- or more accurately -- trying to make conversation with these kids, I shake hands. Lots of them. I say “tesharafna” repeatedly, or good to meet you. One of them suggests that I arm wrestle him. I do and they ask for a picture. Then a group picture. We move down the platform. One student extends his right arm akimbo and hooks my left arm and escorts me a few feet away.

Another student takes my bag, almost to hold it for safekeeping. When the train arrives, we board. They ask me where I need to go. “Nasser,” I respond.

Onboard the train, we continue in broken English and Arabic. Fellow passengers stare at us, amused that a Japanese tourist is carrying on with students. The students ask me about Jackie Chan. And ask if I know kung fu. Almosfra proposes that we arm wrestle again at Nasser. If he wins, then he keeps my watch. I agreed. I suggested that if I win, then I keep his army hat. It was a deal.

At Nasser station, we make the motions of warming up for a few minutes. I ask for two out of three tries. I win. So, as soon as I reach for his cap, Almosfra’s smile becomes a frown. He looks like he’s about to cry. I open my bag and pull out my brand new orange cap from the DC Chinatown Community Cultural Center. Chinese characters adorn the front and the English phrase “Washington, DC” is on the side. I hand him the hat and say “this is for you” as I take his army cap. His smile quickly returns.

We take a few more pictures. He asks me, “football? Bokra inshalla hina sa’at ithnan”
Tomorrow, God willing, 2pm, here. I agreed.

We shake hands and he gives me a traditional Middle Eastern greeting of a kiss on each cheek. “Don’t forget us,” he exclaimed as he boards the train. I wave goodbye.

I really wanted to return to the platform at 2pm the next day, but I wound up going to Khan Al Khalili market with Eleni, the Greek.

Sabri, the Khan Al Khalili vendor
Sabri is 24 years old, tall, and wears an orange shirt and jeans. His hair is shaved close to the skin. A fast talker with very fluent English, Sabri escorts us around after the glass purchase. Eleni tells Sabri she needs perfume, so Sabri takes us to a perfume shop that is slightly bigger than a broom closet. Eleni then tells Sabri that she wants to buy her father a shirt. So, Sabri takes us to another corner of the market. He spends nearly two hours with us.

After his parents divorced, his dad told him, “Sabri, come to the US where it’s free--you have cars, house, swimming pool.” However, he chose to stay with his mother in Cairo.

He’s been at the glass shop for a few years now. When he needs to step away for errands, his “boys” or friends keep an eye on it. His girlfriend was Italian, but “I hate Italy and Greece” even though he’s never visited. “I’ve done sex twice only with my Italian girlfriend,” he confides in me.

I ask Sabri about prayers and if he can recommend a mosque to me. He tells me to call him on Friday morning and he will take me to a mosque.

A visit to the Mosque
I meet him after noon and we talk a little. Before we walk over to the mosque, he takes me to a little corner where a small, unofficial prayer area was set up—a washing station with a plastic green floor.

I set my bag down and follow his move: he washes his hands using tap water. I copy him. He washes his arms, face and behind the ears and neck. I remove my glasses and do the same. We then walk to the prayer area, remove our shoes and he chants some prayers. He prostrates himself. I do the same. After a few minutes, he tells me the correct way to pray. When prostrate, the nose and forehead are touching the floor or rug. The hands are flat, but not the entire forearm. On the wall hangs a large poster explaining the correct and incorrect prayer positions. It looks like a golf manual: feet apart, but not too far apart and not too close together.
-Hands on the knees with fingers spread. Sabri rubs some perfume on his hands and face.
-Left hand on the chest, right hand covering left hand, but not in a mummy position

After this “practice session,” we walk over to the mosque, a big edifice with several dozen men inside. An imam climbs to the top of the stairs of a big platform. He is dressed in a white skullcap and galabiyeh, the flowing robe of Egyptian men. We pray five times and sit for the service. I understand nothing except for “Mohammed” and “Allah,” which the imam used frequently in his fiery sermon. (As I write, there’s another call to prayer)

The Imam must be in his early 50s. He looks like a very devout and earnest man. He gesticulates with his arms: first, his right hand with fingers outstretched slices the air, conductor style. Then his left arm, with finger in the air. With eyes wide open, he screams and his voice dances. He could very well be a Southern Baptist preacher. Whatever he said, he was emphatic and animated. He punctuated a few sentences with “Allaaaah!” After 30-45 minutes or so, everyone stood up and prayed in unison. A cantor repeated a few prayer lines, sang and the audience responded with “Ehhhh-mean” or the equivalent of “Amen.” Finally, “Assalam Alaykoom” or “peace upon you” and we shook hands with our neighbors. We put our shoes on again and as we left, some men by the exit passed out round buns made of sweet bean paste. It reminded me of Chinese buns.

We return to the shop and for the next three hours, I just sit there with Sabri and enjoy tea and fateer bread (like crepes). Sabri has been working for eight years in the store. He served in the Egyptian Army for one year. He calls it the “black year” because whereas he was used to perfume and friendly, polite people, he was subjected to rude, coarse, uneducated Egyptian men. He trained in the desert and then learned a bit of computer programming. His uncle has opened a store in New York City for nine years now, but has not returned to Egypt. His other uncle has been in the US for nearly a year in DC.

Sabri had an Italian girlfriend for nearly two years. She studied in Egypt and was not religious. Sabri says he does not push his religion on anyone.

He introduces me to his friend Mohammed, but goes by Mido, a nickname for a famous soccer player. Mido is a virgin. Once, he met some Japanese girls at the market. They invited him to their hotel room for Champagne, but something came up at the last moment, so he had to cancel. He’s regretted it ever since. “That was my one chance!” he exclaimed with a big smile.

The tea man comes to collect my tea glass, even though I only drank half. Sabri complains to him and then chases after him. Sabri gives him a swift kick in the ass. He explains that the tea man has a bad habit of collecting the tea glasses before customers even finish.

His friends ask me to write their names in Chinese, so I spend the next hour or so doing this. It occurs to me that the Egyptians are quite fond of Chinese people and their writing.

Sabri invites me for a game of soccer the same evening. I tell him I am no good. “Don’t worry. Neither are we.” He and his buddies meet once a week to play a game. Sabri tells me to return about 9:30pm. “Bring a camera, wear good shoes and a white T-shirt,” he advises me.

I return about 9:40pm. I am afraid that they may have left without me. However, when I get to the shop, they are still there. They begin to close the shop and warm up for the game. I meet Zayman, Sabri’s friend who has an Ipod and is swaying to some Hip Hop music. They ask me how many pushups I can do. They then take out some Hashish joints and offer them to me. I politely refuse. They explain that it is custom to smoke before a soccer game. It is the Egyptian way.

I am tempted, but think of a future confirmation hearing when a senator may be asking me about my previous drug use. Would I respond by saying, well, “I’ve never knowingly broken the laws of my country. And that one time, well, I didn’t inhale.” Better safe than sorry. They pass the joint around and then blow some smoke into my face. Cough. Cough. Cough. Laughter. We leave for the soccer field about 10:30pm.

We walk through the narrow alleyways of the market. All the tourists have gone. Vendors are cleaning up. Eating a late dinner. Mido offers his right arm and I loop my left arm in his. He tells me that “even though I’ve only known you for a few hours, I feel like I’ve known you a long time.” We turn and twist through the walkways. I catch a glimpse of some men and women dancing on a rug to the tune of music. Sufi mystics, perhaps? Mido explains to me that after hours, the market is very different. These vendors are more relaxed and feel like they can dance in the comfort of their shops.

We reach the soccer fields and divide up the group. I play for about 15 minutes, then Sabri sends me to the sidelines, where I stay for the rest of the game. We win 7-2.

After the game, the winners drink Coke, Pepsi and Sprite. The losers drink water. It is now about midnight. Sabri asks me, “It is late. Maybe you want to return to your friends and rest? If you want, you can come to our neighborhood and drink with us.” By drinking, Sabri meant chocolate, yoghurt, more Sprite and Coke.

At a local café, we enjoy hookah and watch American music pop videos with Jayzee, Beyonce’ and Shakira. No women are in the Café, which are still the domain of men. It is now about 1:30am and Sabri and Mido hail a cab for me. They pay for my cab fare in advance. I thank them and bid them “Maesalama!” or Good-bye.

The driver, like most Egyptian cab drivers, is extremely friendly, but has very limited English. He tells me that he’s visited the US before. He was part of a tour group that went to New York, New Jersey, Washington, DC and Tennessee. He then turns toward me and raises his right thumb while saying “Bush. Yeah!” He has a big smile. I am shocked and do not know whether he is serious. I reciprocate, raise my right thumb and say, “Hosni. Hosni Mubarak. Yeah!”

When we arrive at my apartment, I pay the cab fare again. The driver is silent. I bid him a good night.

A visit to El Alsson International High School
Chris and I catch the 7:05 am school bus, which is a 30 minute ride to the International High School. The students come from rich Egyptian families who can afford the annual 30,000 Egyptian Pounds (LE) tuition. To give you an idea of how much this is, the average Egyptian family makes about 300 LE a month.

I sit next to Hanan, a quiet little girl, who later asks Chris about me: “Is he married? Is he teaching at the school? He‘s so nice.”

In class, I give a short presentation on the 2008 Presidential race. I begin with a short anecdote about Mitt Romney‘s leadership. I discuss the importance of fundraising and ask the students for some ways of raising money. One student recommends “steal money.” I ask him, “so, you’re entering politics, yes?”

On the way home from school, the kids on the bus pepper me with questions:

-Have you ever eaten Monkey?
-Do you know Kung Fu?
-Why do they kill babies in China?
One girl asks me, “In China, parents make their kids stay up on New Year’s eve for good luck, right? According to the book of traditions.” I tell her that this is news to me.

Yehia, a precocious nine year old Egyptian boy with a big smile tells me, “in Australia, if you use counterfeit money, you go to jail.” Born in the US, he came to Egypt when he was four years old. He proudly explained, “We have three villas in the US. Whenever I visit America , I stay in one of two villas or the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.”

The kids want me to write their names in Chinese, so I spend the rest of the bus ride writing as many names as possible. I promise to return next week to finish writing names.

The Great Pyramids of Giza
The climb inside the Great Pyramid has been described as claustrophobic. As I climb, I grip both wooden handrails. Wooden slats about a foot apart on top of the stones help visitors to climb. I can only imagine in ancient times that the pyramid builders would enter with slaves in front carrying a torch and slaves behind them with a torch, while they used ropes to climb. After about 10 minutes of climbing, at the very top, I bend down and squat to cross a 15-20 foot space to enter the chamber. It is dark and musty. Two phosphorescent lights hang on the wall. A few tourists are inside, but they are impatient and leave quickly. An empty sarcophagus lies at the end of the room. I don’t know when I will return, if ever, so I stay a while and try to absorb everything around me, to rest and enjoy the quiet.

A few moments later, a group of four Frenchies arrive. The man – in his late 40s, climbs into the sarcophagus for a few minutes to rest. Once he gets out, the others follow. The woman, standing against the wall, stretches out her arms like she is at a church service, ready to receive the holy spirit. The gentleman begins to sing a French song. He has a very beautiful voice that sounds quite professional. His voice reverberates around the room, which, surprisingly has good acoustics.

Reny, backstreet boy of the Pyramids
We begin to make our way to the Sun Boat Museum, dedicated to the boat that would take the dead to the underworld. Soon, a young boy begins shadowing us about 20 feet away.
“Hello! Where are you from?” he greets us in a loud and friendly voice.
“Alaska,” I reply, trying to alternate my answers. I was tired of telling people I am from CA.
He introduces himself as Reny, a student. “I will enter the faculty soon,” he adds enigmatically.
He wears a black T-shirt and jeans. His skin is dark chocolate.
He carries with him a spiral notebook and pen. From a small town three hours away, he rode three buses to get to the pyramids.
“I am also a singer, dancer and painter, but my parents don’t know.” He lists the songs he liked and offers to sing a backstreet boys song.

When we arrive at the Sun Boat Museum, I take out my cash, wanting to give him a one pound tip for singing us his backstreet boys song. He refuses.
“If you love me, you won’t give money to me,” He objects.
I try a second, and a third time. He refuses. I put my money away.
Chris and I buy our tickets and thought that Reny would leave.
Instead, he follows us. “Please wait me!” he pleads, as he goes to the counter and pays his two pound ticket. We pay 40 pounds each.

Inside, Chris, a bit annoyed, walks ahead of us. Reny tells me that if the police see him talking to me, they will “beat me and take my credit card.” He pleads with me not to turn him into the police, “Please don’t give up me.” I promise him I would not.

He opens his notebook and shows me all the email addresses he’s collected from tourists in the past months. The other pages of the book are reserved for verbs and vocabulary.

As we walk around the great boat, Reny points to the photos on the wall and tries to explain a few of them. I point out some misspellings in the captions.
Reny asks me, “Where’s your friend?”
“He’s in the bathroom,” I reply. “Where are your friends?” I inquire.
“I haven’t any friends,” he explains. “I am very happy to meet you today.”
Reny usually comes to the Pyramids once a year, but this year he’s visited 10 times.

Outside, as we walk, camel drivers accost us for rides in the desert. I tell them that I want to eat camel, not ride them.

Reny sings us some more songs, including one in Arabic. He has a decent voice.
A tourism police officer on a camel approaches us and yells at him not to bother me. I respond that he’s a “sadeek” or friend.

We approach the exit road and at this point, I take out five pounds and offer it to him. He refuses three times. I insist. He says, “the police will see you.”
So, I turn my back to the police and give it to him. He reluctantly accepts it.
He still follows us as we walk down the road.
I take out my water bottle and offer it to him. He refuses. I insist and he finally takes a few sips.
I am amazed by how tough he is—to be able to talk so much, sing several songs, yet not carry any water. I tell Reny to keep the bottle of water.

Reny asks me, “do you go to zoo?”
I have not. He asks me if I want to accompany him to the zoo tomorrow. I ask him to email me. I learn later that at the Egyptian Zoo, one can pet the animals.

We shake hands and get into our cab to go back home. I checked my email later, but Reny never contacts me.

Cairo vs. Luxor
Luxor and Cairo are cities where the fruit at kiosks are presented in a beautiful way. They hang their bananas one bunch above the next on one pole or line—almost like it’s growing naturally on a tree.

It is a common occurrence that I am greeted with English ie “Hello. Where are you from?” I try to respond in basic Arabic.

The minibuses and vans that circle the city for locals never close their doors. Perhaps, they are kept open to cool the car and to facilitate the boarding and exiting of the bus?

Men shout. Boys shout. Women shout. Old Women shout. Everybody shouts. They shout to greet each other. Men in galabiyehs shout to their friends. It may sound like they’re fighting, but they’re not. They are just having a friendly chat.

Bus trip to Gebel Mousa or Mt. Sinai
My original plan was to fly to Israel; however, my friend Monica, who visited Egypt 25 years ago, advised me to take the bus. I would see more of the country, she explained. Besides, it would be much more interesting. Heeding her advice, I bought a bus ticket to Mt. Sinai, on my way to the Israeli border.

The six hour bus trip would become a nine hour bus trip. Along the way, our bus driver stops a few times for ½ an hour each to smoke some hookah (water pipe). A couple of times, we stop in random parking lots just to rest for 10 minutes or so. We pick up Bedouins. Lots of them. We cross through a series of checkpoints, about five total. Each time, a stern-looking man--sometimes in uniform, sometimes not--boards the bus to examine our IDs.

Arrival in St. Katherine City
It is 7:45pm when we pull into a traffic circle in St. Katherine City. The last rays of sunshine disappear. A few others and I get off. Two men pull up in a white van. They want to take me to a Bedouin camp. I thank them, but refuse.

I see two men in running gear jogging toward me. They speak a little English and direct me to the restaurant area. They reassure me that this is a very safe area. I walk for a few minutes. Suddenly, the white van pulls up again. The same two men offer me a piece of cookie and want to take me to a Bedouin camp. I take their cookie and swallow it quickly. It’s very sweet. Their camp is just across the way. After a few minutes of talking, I get into the van and they whisk me off to their desert oasis.

At the Foxcamp Bedouin Camp or Youth Hostel, I meet Hillary, an English woman in her early 40s. She’s been in the Sinai 2.5 years, working with Bedouins. Ali, another British guest is about 24. He sports a buzz haircut and is dressed in a galabiyeh, the Egyptian robe. He’s been traveling for 6 months following the trail of Alexander the Great. Ali has been studying Arabic for four years at Exeter University. Of 35 students who began the Arabic class with him, only he and one other student are still pursuing the language.

A small group of Bedouin well-diggers are also staying at the camp. I try to talk with them with Ali serving as the interpreter. They travel the Sinai helping people to dig wells or deepen existing wells. Their group leader is an amiable man with calloused, but warm hands. He speaks only a few English words. I offer him my help in their efforts. “I am not very strong and only have a few hours to help you tomorrow. I may work like a woman, but please tell me how I can help,” I explain to him. He responds that I can simply bring him water in the morning.

Climbing Mt. Sinai: following camels in the dark
Mt. Sinai is known as Gebel Mousa in Arabic or Moses Mountain. After dinner and chatting with Abdul, the cook, I leave the camp about 2 am and begin walking toward the mountain. It is dark. As I walk along the road, buses pass by. I reach the security check point where hundreds of pilgrims are ready to ascend the holy mountain.
Mr. Security: “No bomb, ey?”
I reply, “I love Egypt and Egyptians, so no bomb.”
As I continue along, I see and hear Koreans, Egyptians, and languages from all over the world. A flurry of flashlights and torches lights up the ground.
I hear an Italian group and strike up a conversation. They are from Venice. Maria tells me that she, her sister and friends are here with a tour group. She has studied Arabic and wants to visit more Arabic countries.

Bedouins are lined up at key parts of the trail by the coffee and tea stations and accost the pilgrims. “Camel? Want a camel? Camelo? Ciao!” The prices for camel rides decrease proportionally the higher you ascend.

Maria responds, “La-shookrun,” or no, thank you.
I walk with Maria and her sister until 5:30am when we approach the summit. I take a rest and meet a Chinese Indonesian family. Daylight arrives about 5:40am. The view is panoramic and breathtaking.

One group of Philipino Catholics gathers in a circle, hold hands and pray and sing.
Most other pilgrims snap away with their digital cameras.

It is wonderful to see so many people from all over the world gather in one place that links them all.

The next day, I miss my bus, so after one more day, I catch the bus to NuWeiba. When I get off, I see no connecting buses. A cab driver offers to take me to the border for 100 LE (about $20). I bargain him down to 90 LE. He speaks no English except for numbers.

We pick up two men. The first one asks me about my religion. I try to explain that I am “mish deanee” or not religious. He doesn’t understand. He asks me, “do you have gift for me?” as he smiles. I give him my business card.

The driver asks me if I am a Muslim. I reply no, but I “bihab Muslim wa Mohammed wa Allah.” I like Muslims and Mohammed and Allah.” He needed no further prompting. He turns off the regular music and puts in a cassette tape of Koranic chants for the next hour as we approach the border. Once we arrive, he asks me for a $3 tip. I refuse, saying, “you’ve done nothing to earn the tip.” Instead, I give him a US flag pin. He accepts it and in turn gives me his business card, asking me to call him again when I return the following week.

Interrogation at Taba Border crossing on Shabbat
Israeli security layer #1:
“Hello. Why are you coming to Israel?”
“Who do you know?”
No one.
“Where have you been?”
Cairo, Egypt
“Where do you work?”
At a PR firm.

Israeli security layer #2: x-ray machines
Israeli security layer #3: Two female border agents question me. The first one is in her late 20s, blonde and pale. She has a very serious demeanor. A silver star rests on her left breast. The second one, a brunette, wears heavy mascara, but has a slight smile.
“Who do you know in Jerusalem?” the blonde begins her questioning.
No one, but I have a few contacts.
“Can I see your contacts?”
I flip open my notebook to show them my contacts and phone numbers. They are in the same notebook that I use for my Arabic class.
“So you are studying Arabic? Why?”

“Do you have an itinerary? Can we see it?”
I show them my e-ticket printout.
“Where have you been?”
Alexandria, Luxor, Sinai.
“Where are you staying in Israel?
I show her the two youth hostels that I found on the internet.

“Why do you travel alone? Why don’t you travel with a friend?”
I’m very independent and it’s hard to coordinate with a friend who can take off this much time.
“How much money do you have with you?”
1600 Shekels. (about $400)
“Can we see your shekels?”
I place the money on the counter.
“That’s a LOT of shekels for one week,” she commented, with a hint of suspicion in her voice.

At this point, the group behind me urged the border agents to hurry up as sunset was approaching, marking the beginning of Shabbat or the Sabbath, the holy day for Jews. The border agent did not seem to be concerned at all.

“Do you have any other payment besides cash?”
Yes, a credit card. I show her my Chase visa.

“Do you intend to visit any Palestinian-controlled areas like Gaza?”
“Why not?”
I don’t want to die.
They release me and I enter Israel.

Eilat, Israel
Eilat is the most famous resort city in Southern Israel. After two weeks in Egypt, where most of the women are covered, it is quite a pleasant shock to the system to see so many scantily clad women with their navels (and more) exposed. The cab driver deposits me at the Red Sea Hotel.

“Isn’t getting laid the best thing to do on trips abroad?” Yitzhak, the 67 year old manager of the Red Sea Hotel asks me with a broad smile. Originally from the Pittsburgh area, Yitzhak has lived in Israel for well over 40 years. An engineer by training, he tells his life story to me over a beer. He is a serial smoker: with a cigarette in his left hand, he is unshaven, balding, and very skinny. He coughs occasionally.

“My problem is chasing women. In two weeks, my girlfriend returns.”
“So, you’ll have two weeks of freedom?” I inquired.
“No, I’ve had three months of freedom,” he corrected me.
“Best thing to do is to date married women because they usually keep it quiet.” He advised me.
“You’re a hedonist!” I declared.
“I like alcohol, sex and basketball. My fantasy is to have a glass of whiskey in one hand, for her to blow me, and watching the MaCabees win by one point with a three point throw, so we’ve had lots of practice!” He said matter of factly. But, this happened only once.

On prostitution: once a week or so, “if a guy comes to me and asks for a whore, I call her and she comes and for 250 Shekels, he has a good time.” She tips the guy at the counter 50 shekels. At this point, he clarifies the legal definition of pandering.

The next day, I take the four hour Egged bus to Jerusalem.

The Old City
Jerusalem’s Old City is a place where you feel the large stones of the narrow alleyways with every step you take. It is a place where the vendors know your nationality before you open your mouth. Where as soon as you respond to the “hello—where you from?” you are one step closer to buying from them.

Where Israeli Military patrols come through hourly. Where school kids pass by with a guardian in front and a protector in the rear with a rifle strapped onto the shoulder. Where groups of Israeli soldiers, all with their side arms, lounge for tea or lunch next to tourists. It is a place both enchanting and overwhelming. Where everyone sells the others’ religious symbols. That is to say, Muslim vendors hawk Catholic prayer beads and crosses; Christian vendors hawk Torah scrolls and key chains. Jewish vendors hawk postcards of Dome of the Rock, where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Where Observant Jews touch the Mezuzah on the side of Jaffa Gate as they enter the Old City as a reminder of the role of the 10 Commandments in their lives. Where a trio of Orthodox Jewish men, with black hats and black coats walk by, speaking Hebrew or Yiddish. Where the Russian tourist strolls by, with her belly button winking at you.

Into the Judea Desert
I sign up for a day tour to Masada, the Dead Sea and Jericho. As we enter the Judea Desert outside Jerusalem, our Palestinian Christian tour guide explains that the old name was “Valley of the Shadows.” And for good reason. In Roman Times, our guide continued, “rubbers would kill you for your donkey.” He repeated himself. Now, of course, the area is much safer.

We stop for a few minutes and get out of the van. The guide points to a distant spot on the horizon. “That’s Nabit Mousa—the site where Muslims believe Moses died and was taken to heaven by angels.” Now, the site is used for a drug addiction recovery center. It is ideal since it is very hard to find narcotics in the desert.

Juliana, a Brazilian gal forgot her passport. Our guide advises her to speak only Portuguese and the security guards will leave her alone.

A Visit to Masada Fortress
We take the cable car to the top. A hardy group of five and I decide to walk down the mountain. The panoramic view is spectacular.

About 70 CE, the Jewish people, fed up with occupation, rise up against the Romans, who in turn, send in the troops to crush the rebellion. Their slaughter of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and surrounding areas was thorough, as chronicled by the famous Jewish-Roman Historian Josephus Flavius: “They piled mounds of corpses in the street and drenched the city with so much blood that in many places blood extinguished the flames.”

It took the Romans a few years to crush the rebellion. Toward the end, Josephus wrote, “And no one shed a tear at the tragedy and no one eulogized the dead, because hunger had subdued all of their human emotions.” After the city was conquered, there was one place that still held out against the Romans: Masada, or “Fortress” in Hebrew. It had become a focal point for rebels in the desert and the die-hards fighting the Romans.

Here’s the basic story, according to the Let’s Go Israel 2003 guide book:

Masada became a refuge for surviving Zealots…With years’ worth supply of food, water, and military supplies, the 967 men, women, and children held off 15,000 Roman legionnaires through a five-month siege. The Romans called in their best engineers to construct a wall and camps in a ring around the mount…they built an enormous stone and gravel ramp up the side of the cliff, using Jewish slaves as laborers in order to prevent the Zealots from shooting them.

When the defenders realized that the Romans would break through their walls the next morning, the community leaders decided that it would be better to die. Their leader Eleazar said, “unenslaved by enemies, and leave this world as free men in company with wives and children” rather than be captured by the Romans. Because Jewish law forbids suicide, ten men were chosen to slay the others, and one chosen to kill the other nine before falling on his own sword…The following morning, when the triumphant Romans burst in, they encountered only smoking ruins and deathly silence. The only survivors, two women and five children, told the story of the Zealots’ last days to Josephus.

Understandably, new recruits to the Israeli Defense Forces are sworn in at Masada with this pledge, “Masada shall not fall again!”

Dead Sea
We visit the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi for one hour. It is the only place along the Dead Sea that has no entry fee. Our tour guide explains that Queen Cleopatra used products from the Dead Sea for her cosmetic needs. She had to look good for Mark Antony, after all.

Before we enter the sea, we are advised not to stay in for more than 15 minutes at a time or we’ll turn into raisins. Every few minutes, I hear a loud scream after some hapless floater swallows some salt water or it enters their nose or eyes. The future of the sea is not promising as it is slowly losing water each year. Our guide adds, “We don’t want to lose the Dead Sea as it’s very important to us.”

As the birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem means "House of Meat" in Arabic or "House of bread" in Hebrew. Either way, it means food. I walk from the military checkpoint to the Church of Nativity, and got lost in the marketplace. At one point, I ask five Palestinian Policemen with very big guns for directions. After I utter the magic words "Asalam Alaykum" smiles appear on their faces and they gladly help me.

The Arabs are so much more colorful in their greetings than we are.
I offer them the morning greeting: “Sabah Al kheir.”
The policeman responds, “Sabah Al Nur” or “A morning of light to you.”
I respond, “Sabah al full” or “A morning of flowers to you.”
He responds, “Sabah al ishta“ or “A morning of cream to you.”
I finish with “Sabah al yasmin“ or “A morning of jasmine to you.”

Shabbat dinner with the Rabbi
At my youth hostel, I meet David, a Catholic pilgrim from Austin, TX who is on his seventh trip to the Holy Land. He is a Mexican-American in his early 40s and currently lives in Utah. Married with three children, he is a firm believer and likes to come for three weeks annually to “reconnect and to renew” his faith and spirituality. David invites me to a Sabbath Dinner or “kid-dooosh.” He pronounces the Hebrew word “kiddush” (the breaking of the Chala bread and drinking of the Kaddim wine after prayers) with a strong southern twang. We first go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred site in Christendom. It is said that Jesus was buried here and rose three days later.

David serves as my tour guide; he shows me the marble slab that Jesus lay on after the crucifixion. He kneels and kisses it. Next, we view the rock that Jesus sat on when he was crowned with thorns; the hole in which his cross rested in; the tomb of Constantine’s mother; the rock which cracked after the earthquake following the crucifixion.

We walk over to the Western Wall. It is a warm afternoon sun. Pilgrims fill the plaza. We meet Rabbi Mordechai and a few others who are finishing up their prayers. The Rabbi is from Chicago and has lived in Jerusalem with his family for more than 20 years. A jolly man, perhaps in his 50s, he wears a long white beard and a solemn black outfit, in the tradition of Orthodox Rabbis. The group begins the Kiddush and shares with us grape juice, cookies and nuts. They sing some songs. One gentleman in particular is a robust cantor. He seems to be the unofficial cheerleader of the group. After 15 minutes or so, the Rabbi announces to his minions that “I’m having a Shabbat meal at my house. Anyone is welcome to join me.” We follow our host and start walking toward Damascus Gate.

After nearly 30 minutes of a brisk walk, we arrive at his home in a quiet suburb. It is about 2pm. I count at least 40 people waiting for him in his dining room. Everyone is seated at narrow, thin tables. Somehow, we manage to make room for another 10 guests. Every 10 minutes or so, another few guests would arrive at the door. The Rabbi does not turn them away. Instead, he cheerfully welcomes them and says, “Come on in! We’ll just set another table. We have plenty of room.” In total, perhaps 70 people or more crowded into the dining room, which was designed for only 20 or 25 people at the most.

The Rabbi is a generous host. His waiters – most likely his family – prepared lots of food, which float on trays above our heads. Chicken. Roast Beef. Tuna. Salad. Fruit. Pie. The generous servings are punctuated with abundant singing, prayers and announcements. If there were room, I’m confident the attendees would dance. By about 4:30pm, the Rabbi announces that some people have to leave, so he requests that we “be respectful of others and leave quietly.” However, dinner would begin at 7pm, so he encourages us to return at that time, or stay as we begin reading the entire book of Psalms. David and I look at each other and take this as our hint to leave. We thank the Rabbi for his hospitality and depart.

Final day in the Holy Land and return to Cairo
Sunday morning 6am. I catch mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with David. I then sprint to the Western Wall to pray and to leave my message for God: “Give me the strength to believe.” I search for a crack in which to leave my message.

Since the wall fills quickly with messages from pilgrims and worshippers, they are cleaned out weekly and buried. The idea is from the earth we come, back to it we return. Since the name of God is on those messages, it cannot be destroyed. It is now 7:30am. I walk up the ramp to the Temple Mount. I am greeted by five security men with very big guns. I greet the groundskeeper. “Asalam Alaykum!” His face lights up with a smile.

I make my way up the stairs past the arches, circle the mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Muslims believe this is where Mohammed ascended to Heaven in 621 AD for a night journey. Built in the 7th century by the 9th Caliph, it is visible for miles.

Border crossing at Taba
Ana* (I never got her name, so I’ve given her this name for this travelogue), a Jewish woman living in Australia is on travel by herself. In her mid to late 40s, she has dark shoulder length hair and pale skin. She has been waiting for six hours at the border crossing. Her travel agent told her the bus would arrive about 1pm, so she’s been here since noon without any food. During her six hours here, she received special treatment from very lonely, bored and horny Egyptian border agents who rarely ever come this close to foreign women. They asked her questions like, “So, what is your favorite position in bed? Do you like to be on top?” Those were the tame questions.

While we wait for our passports to be stamped, Mike, a New York lawyer currently teaching law in Jerusalem, tells me that our tour guide Moustaffa Mohammed wants him to bring over a can of coffee and $1500 in cash to the Egyptian side. Mike feels very uncomfortable about the request, so refuses.

After an hour of processing our passports, we finally make it to the Egyptian side and prepare to depart for Cairo. However, Moustaffa motions for Ana to come over to him. Could it be visa problems? She disappears for 20 more minutes. When she returns, she carries with her two big plastic bags of cigarette cartons. Our dear tour guide forgot to buy them earlier, so asked her to go back through the border to purchase them at the duty-free shop. The rest of the group sighs.

We arrive in Cairo about 1:30am. My ticket agent told me to expect an 11pm or midnight arrival, so I was not too disappointed. However, she informed the rest of the group that they would arrive about 7 or 8pm. So, naturally, they are livid. Shortly before we arrive at the Sheraton Hotel, Moustaffa pulls out an envelope and explains, “Can you kindly give a baksheesh (tip) of 10 LE each? This is the custom of Egypt. Thank you.” When the envelope returns to him, he receives only about 20 LE.

Outside the bus, he asks me to intervene. “You seem to have a good rapport with the group. Can you please tell them to give a tip? That’s the way we do things in Egypt.”
I explain to him the group is angry. Very angry. Especially at him. At this point, the group disperses. Most hail cabs to their hotels for the night.

When the driver hands me my bag, I give him a 10 LE bill, knowing that it is not his fault that we are late. I return to the apartment on Zamalek, pack my bags and depart for the airport.

The writer Nawal El Saadawi says of Cairo in her autobiography Walking Through Fire, “The moment that I arrive there from a journey abroad, I want to leave again. The moment that I am ready to depart, have climbed into the plane, I feel like jumping out and running back.” Now that I’ve spent some time there, I truly understand this odd sentiment. And I hope one day you will, too. Insha’ allah!