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!