Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ramadan Kareem: Happy Ramadan!

Zoo Visit with Ahmed and Tatiana
With a seven hour layover in Frankfurt, I am picked up at the airport by Ahmed, the brother of Hazem, my friend and language exchange partner. At 24, Ahmed recently immigrated to Germany to be with his German wife and newborn daughter. He says there are more opportunities here than in Egypt. They drive me to the zoo for an afternoon visit. Tatiana, Ahmed’s wife, a friendly woman, spent six years studying Islam before she converted. They give me a bag of new clothes for Hazem.

Arrival in Egypt
As our Czech Airlines flight lands in Cairo, a woman’s voice welcomes us to Kay-row, where it is about 2:15 AM. As we touch ground, the passengers clap spontaneously. My friend Yehia greets me at the arrivals hall. I met with Yehia for weekly language exchange in the Spring. At 24, he is a fresh graduate of Cairo University intent on becoming a lawyer and translator. He is still taking classes at the American University in Cairo (AUC) to hone his translation skills. Despite his training and impressive English skills, he cannot find a job. It is said that his situation is typical of Egyptian University graduates. His father owns a few grocery and furniture stores.

Yehia pushes my luggage into the parking lot, where we find a taxi driver half asleep. I ask him if he goes to Dokki. He nods. Yehia asks me if I should negotiate the fare with him before we take off. I explain that to do so would invite a long, drawn-out argument over the price. Better to just get in and pay him the standard fare of 50LE ($9). After all, that’s what the locals do. We race through the empty highways and streets for the next 30 minutes.

We pass the Syrian Embassy and the Wafd Party Headquarters until we see David, my British roommate, at the door. A freelance journalist, David is a Buddhist who lived in Tibet for a few months. At 37, he has a smooth baby face and the look of a writer. Our other roommate is Cassandra, an American Ph.D student who is studying folklore in Luxor. She’s lived in Egypt off and on for five years and speaks Arabic like a native.

After we sit down for a few minutes, I tell Yehia that I have a book for him. Then I realize that my two plastic bags of books are not with me. Did we leave them in the taxi? Or worse yet, are they still in the luggage cart in the parking lot? Yehia and I decide to try our luck by returning to the airport.

445AM: We wait at the bus station. It’s quiet and still dark. The clerks are still asleep in their plastic chairs. Only a few people wait with us. A street cleaner passes by. Yehia gives him a few pounds and explains that Sa-da-kah, or giving to charity, is always a good thing to do, especially so in Ramadan. The airport bus arrives. At the airport, we first ask one maintenance worker next to a truck with old cans and cardboard boxes if he’s seen anything.

Nothing. Sorry. Try the trash bin over there! Good luck.

We talk to a few other workers who round up carts. Nothing. They direct us to the inside of the airport. The police stop us and recommend that we stay in the parking lot and ask around. It is unlikely that the lost bags would be moved inside, they say.

So, we return to the parking lot and eventually the police station on the side. Inside, the first police officer is asleep. In the second office, the desk is empty and a man is asleep inside the jail cell, with the door open. Is he police or a prisoner?

Yehia knocks gently on the door to wake him. Nothing.
We leave the police station and walk around the parking lot again and ask other workers. Each of them directs us to the trash bin or “over there.” We peer into trash bins, but see nothing.

I’m about to give up, but Yehia insists on trying one last time. We return to the arrivals hall, where the police stop us again. Yehia explains that we’ve talked to everyone, but have been unsuccessful. Can we please try the information desk or the lost and found inside? Mr. Police officer suggests that we call over to the police station, talk to a Mahmoud, say “salaam alaykoum” or peace upon you. And “SabaH Alkheir” or Good morning and try to give some baksheesh (tip) if necessary. Someone, somewhere must have seen these two bags.

We proceed to the information desk, where a man in a red jacket and a walkie-talkie tries to help us. He asks us a few questions, but suggests we return to the parking lot and continue to talk to the workers. We thank him and decide that the bags are long gone.

* * *

On the street by my apartment sits a one-legged beggar. He has a salt and pepper beard and a scruffy face. He perches on a rolling block of wood with wheels. Dressed in a white galabeeyah, the flowing robe of Egyptian men, he pleads with passers-by for spare change. This being Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar, many strangers stop to press into his palm a guinay ($0.20) or two.
“Shookran!” Thank You!

With a bag of bananas dangling from my fingers, I stop by and tear off two for the beggar. He refuses me, “Asif. Ba’ad el magreb.” Sorry, after magreb prayer.
Does he want money instead of food? I quickly realize that he cannot eat my bananas; as an observant Muslim, he is fasting during the day.

His name is Sabry. He lost his leg as a child to a debilitating disease. Polio? He receives a 100 LE pension ($18) each month, but this is not enough. His parents are both dead and he has no other family members who can support him. Originally from Upper Egypt, he now lives in the Dokki neighborhood. Despite his difficult circumstances, Sabry speaks with a smile and radiates optimism.

“The government doesn’t help the people. They are corrupt, but Allah will deal with them.”

I tell him that I am a student and today is my first day. He compliments me and thanks me for stopping by to talk to him. I leave one pound with him before I return home. We shake hands and I tell him that perhaps, God Willing, I will see him later.

Iftar with Yehia and David
For Iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast, Yehia returns with a humongous package of pasta beschamel, flat bread and baked potatoes. His mother usually bakes the entrée. My roommate David joins us in the Iftar meal.

I step out momentarily to look for some juice. Many shops are closed, but I spot one on the side. The vendor and his two friends are eating their Iftar meal on the floor. He invites me to partake. I thank him, “Allah yihaleek!” May God keep you!

“Andi Iftar fee beytee.” I have Iftar at home.

He asks if I am Muslim. “Insha’ Allah.” God Willing.

When I return to the apartment, I have trouble unlocking the front door. Dave had warned me of the tricky key. So, we spend about five minutes trying to open the door. Meanwhile, Nadia, the landlady’s sister, quickly swoops down from her perch upstairs to assist us. She is perhaps in her 50s and considered a “busybody.” She usually lets herself into the apartment to look around. She once entered the bedroom of the previous tenant, whose Sudanese girlfriend was staying overnight with him. Her excuse was that she needed to get something from the room. After we open the door, Nadia leaves.

David and Yehia discuss the relationship between men and women. Yehia asserts that women are always more emotional than men; whereas, men tend to rely more on reason and logic than emotions. David strongly disagrees and points to countless times when he has seen taxi drivers explode and yell at each other or passengers. Yehia then asserts that women are weaker than men, physically and mentally. Again, David disagrees strongly and offers the example of a woman CEO who he interviewed this week. David politely tells Yehia that he has very outdated and traditional beliefs toward men and women.

Toenail trauma
After dinner, I visit the bathroom, but stub my left toe on the threshold. It stings a bit, but when I look down I see that the injury is more serious than I realized. The nail has flipped up like the front hood of a car after an accident. Blood drips from the side. I try to press the nail back down, but to no avail. After Yehia leaves, David tends to my wound. As he is an ex-Medic with the Royal Military, he cleans up the wound, clips the nail and then dresses it. He says I will live.
So, day one passes with some excitement. I look forward to a quiet week before classes resume.

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