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.”
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.