Thursday, October 30, 2008

Good bye 28B Abd Al-Raheem Basha Sabry St., apartment #1!

So six weeks after I moved into this spaaacious apartment next to the Syrian Embassy, I am moving out, along with my two roommates David, the Buddhist and Carlo, the Italian. The main reason, unfortunately, is bed bugs have taken over the entire apartment. My main reason is that I have found a smaller apartment in downtown with cheaper rent.

Madame Nadia, the Kitchen Kleptomaniac
Tonight, David went to the kitchen with Madame Nadia, who scavenged the remains of his food from the fridge, which was a sensible act of diplomacy considering she still has his LE 3,500 deposit. She also took some cutlery and plates, and one of the saucepans.

David told me that she also wanted to go in and take the fan from my room, but he managed to hold her back, and explained that I would want the fan for myself. Clearly a clever lie, but now that he’s explained my false position, I actually want it. Dave wrote, “So you are welcome to it if you like, but be prepared for a fist fight with a small, rather creased old lady with only three remaining teeth. My money is on you.”

I will not miss Madame Nadia’s constant intrusion into our apartment. It has become so incessant that I asked my roommate last night if he knew the story of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where a young renter murders his landlady. However, as I recall, that killing was for money, not for being a busybody.

I will miss a few things about living here: mainly, my current roommates; the amount of space and the three balconies with a lovely view of the neighboring ficas trees; the proximity to the metro and to my language center. And the daily calls to prayer (all 5) from the “mosque of light” (Masjid Al-Nour) below our apartment. Ironically, while many Westerners would go up the wall with such regular screams of piety, they were reminders to me of the time passing by.

Allahu Akbar!
God is the greatest!

La ilaha ila Allah wa Mohamedu rassolu Allah!
There is no God, but Allah and Mohamed is his messenger!

Hiya Salaah! Hiya Felaah!
Come to Prayer! Come to Success!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Egyptian con artist

As I approached home the other night, an Egyptian man accosted me. “Salaam Aleikoom! Welcome to Egypt. Where are you from?”




“Wonderful. And you speak Arabic. Alhamdulilah!”

He is Ahmed, a 37 year old from Areesh, a border town between Gaza and Egypt. His hair is short, curly and black. He is wearing a short-sleeved shirt, with a checkered pattern that flows over blue jeans and a pair of leather shoes, apricot color. He has a warm smile and a clean look and an unusually upbeat demeanor. He says that he’s been in Cairo for only two days, but that he’s spent that time in a police station. He was in Agouza, the neighboring area when the police arrested him for no reason, beat him and took his money. I notice that we are in the middle of the street, in between the intersections where the police are stationed, out of earshot.

For a man who’s been beaten and suffered from police abuse, there are no visible injuries on his face or neck or hands. He flips his upper lip with both hands and asks me to take a look at his injuries. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to see.
“My bobba died. He’s now in jenna (heaven),” as he both looks up and points above. “Mumma -- she’s old and not in good health. I reeeally need to go home to Areesh,” he explains.

How? By train? Bus?

“There is no train. Only bus.”

The ticket is…he uses his right index finger to trace “55” on the car hood next to us. “You know the trip from Cairo to Alexandria is 30 LE.”

I think back to my trip to Alexandria in December 2007. My ticket was 20LE.

“As you know, prices have increased since the spring!” he justifies his statement.
Ahmed shows me his Egyptian passport, which is oversized and green. Inside is his photo and birthdate. He asks me how much money I can contribute to his return ticket.

I tell him that I am a student and poor, like him. I want to help him, but I have no money to spare.

I ask him, “are you hungry?”

He replies, “yes.”

“Then, come with me!” I command him. “I’ll buy you a sandwich.” We begin walking down the street towards the Cinema on main street.

“Where are we going?” he asks me.

“There’s a restaurant that serves schwarma.”

“And how much is a sandwich there? Five, six pounds?” he inquires.

“Yes. It depends on the size.”

“Mister--Instead of buying me the sandwich, can you just give me the money for my ticket?” he pleads with me. “I really, really need to return home to Areesh to see mumma!”

I stop in the middle of the street and turn to him. “Ya ahm! (Hey Uncle!) Are you hungry?!”


“Ma Esalama! Good bye!” I turn away from him and head back home. About 10 feet later, I turn back again and say “Rabina Ma’ak! May God be with you. Or Good Luck!” Another 20 feet later, I turn back again and he’s still standing there in the darkness. Finally, another 50 feet or so later, I turn back. He’s gone.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A day at the golf course

Tom Olson, the editor in chief of the magazine Golf in Egypt drives me to the golf course on a beautiful Friday morning. Originally a Minnesota native, Tom has lived the expat life in Cairo for 14 years. He is two years shy of 70 and has a tuft of white hair. A gregarious gentleman, he shares some of his numerous tales with me, including surviving a plane crash over Syria; witnessing a man drive over 100 mph to his death about 5 feet away on the highway; living through a civil war in Beirut, Lebanon. We arrive about 30 minutes later east of downtown Cairo.

Katameya is an oasis in the desert. A pleasant patch of green palm trees and grass surrounded by brown, it is home to 1500 avid golf aficionados. A moderate wind blows from the North. Bunches of yellow dates hang from date-palm trees. The scene is idyllic and a perfect backdrop for the 2008 BMW golf tournament, which played host to amateur golfers from around the world. It is here that I catch up with Sophie and Farid Issa, a golfing couple who have garnered attention for their recent successes in the Vodafone Tournament. I am here to interview them for a profile in the upcoming issue of Golf in Egypt.

The Issas sit comfortably on a couch in the Katameya Resort lounge for our interview. Sunlight floods the common area. Every so often, a friend or colleague stops by to greet the couple. Farid is very orange today: orange shorts, a T-shirt with orange and white stripes and tanned legs. He speaks with a soft, but clear voice, the result of a British education and a few years in the states. His salt and pepper hair is trimmed neatly. His wife Sophie sports a black T-shirt with an emblem of the Egyptian flag over her heart, perhaps a testament to the many decades she has spent living in the country. She speaks with a French lilt and punctuates her sentences with a gentle laugh. Sunglasses sit on top of her head. She wears shoulder-length blonde hair, with thin eyebrows above sleepy eyes and radiates a sunny glow. The arms of a white sweater criss-cross her shoulders.

Golf beginnings
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sophie left the land of gauchos, beef and red wine when she was only a few months old. Her father was a manager of the car company Renault, located in the Western suburbs of Paris. A traveler all her life, she eventually settled in Egypt. She started playing golf when her parents began taking up the game in Egypt. While her brothers and sisters also took lessons, she was the only one who really persisted with the sport. Later, when the Katameya Heights Golf and Tennis Resort opened, Sophie began to pursue the sport seriously. “Katameya made me play golf and that’s when I really started playing.”

Than, a Burmese gentleman, has a very dark complexion and big smile. He picked up golf in West Africa, when he was working in Ghana and Cameroon. He now consults for the Cairo Metro train system. He became friends with the Burmese Ambassador to Egypt a few years ago and says the diplomat always cheats. Mr. Ambassador sent his wife home and asked for the golf clubs to be sent to Egypt, instead.

At the end of our visit, Tom drives me back to Cairo. In downtown, he makes the wrong turn and so asks me if I want to join him at the Marriott for a drink. We spend the next 3 hours at the outdoor café chatting.

Perhaps, I will become a sports writer specializing in golf. And why not? Stranger things have happened.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Searching for a new roommate

Our American roommate is returning to the states in a few days, so we're interviewing for a new roommate. So far, a few people have stopped by:

Nick: an American who just arrived and is working in Cairo for a year. He called a few days ago to tell us he’s found something already.

Norveen: an Iranian lady who’s lived in Cairo for many years, but David already disqualified her because she’s the modern incarnation of Helen of Troy. She would be too great a distraction.

Carlo: an Italian who works in cement. A bit suspicious? Although, perhaps, he might have access to some Italian women.

It's down to Carlo and a Swedish man who's coming by in 2 days. Perhaps the Swede might have access to some Swedish women? David tells me that most Swedish women are lesbians. A Belgian came by today. He is a young fellow of perhaps 22, and fresh out of school. With six languages under his belt, he's now shooting for #7 with Arabic. He had a strange handshake; he pumped David's hand like it was a water pump. And he seemed very serious. I asked him if he brought any beer or chocolates. He had none. David and I both decided that he's out of contention.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Dinner with a Wahabi

Yehia Khalif teaches English and Arabic at the Berlitz language school. At 25, Yehia has a thin frame and speaks softly, but confidently. Born in Saudi Arabia, he came to Cairo 7 years ago to study at Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s premier religious institution that dates back to more than 1,000 years. His parents and family still reside in the Saudi Kingdom. He is now expecting his new baby girl next month.

One of the first things Yehia tells me is “do not judge Islam based on Egypt or Egyptian Muslims.” It seems he does not think too much of the Egyptian form of Islam. His ideal Islam is that practiced in the Saudi Kingdom. While I never asked him, I believe it is fair to call my new friend a follower of Wahabism, the strict form of Islam that the House of Saud embraces. It is a bit hard for me to believe this, as he has no big beard and does not speak in a strident voice.

Yehia picks me up at the Al-Tahrir Cinema by my apartment. I buy some Ramadan pastries from the store as a housewarming gift. The clerk invariably asks me where I am from. I say Hawaii. In America.

Hawaii is an island, yes? Close to Alaska?

No, very far away. Half Kilo of these cookies and half kilo of those, please.

We drive around the corner to pickup Hassan, Yehia’s friend. As we wait, Yehia steps out of the car to buy some water and juice. When he returns, I fight my instinct to open the juice. It is about 5:45pm, about 5 minutes before Magreb prayer (Sunset), when the fast is broken. I started the day by eating the Suhoor, or the morning meal before Fajr (4:20am) and did not eat or drink anything. Only a few more minutes to go…Yehia thanks me for waiting with him.

The car is old. Very old. It is a LADA. Russian. It used to belong to his father, but he has inherited it. The radio still works fine, as he showed me. The rear view mirror is unusually long, about the width of a man’s forearm.

Once Hassan arrives, we drive off to his home. I tell Yehia that I want to pray with him this evening. He is delighted. His small apartment is by the Shooting Club, where the Egyptian Military likes to have its target practice. It is common for him to hear bullets in the evenings.

The living room is well-furnished, with a beautiful chandelier that boasts six bright fluorescent bulbs. New carpets line the floor and the couch and armchairs seem to come from a Victorian Era with gold edges and cushions with green tassels. We wash the Wudoo and prostrate ourselves before Allah.

Yehia leads the prayer: Allahu Akbar! (God is the greatest!) Head touches carpet.
Allahu Akbar! Head touches carpet.

Stand. Right hand over left hand over heart. Bend forward, hands on knees. Straighten again and head touches carpet. Allahu Akbar!

After prayer, we begin dinner: “a simple meal” as our host describes it. It is anything but simple. It is food prepared only for guests. A beautiful Saudi Arabian dish with raisins and grilled onions resting on a bed of Basmati rice, half of which is marinated in Safron. Baked Chicken thighs. MaHshee or rice stuffed into squash and eggplant. A risotto soup in chicken broth. Salad.

Yehia’s wife is in the background. She is not introduced to us and does not dine with us. I know better than to ask. As this is my third meal at a Muslim house, I have grown accustomed to not having the woman of the house join the men for the meal. Perhaps, once Yehia and I become good friends later on, it would be more appropriate for her to join us, but not on the first night, as a dinner guest.

I tell Yehia about my Arabic studies and my interest in Islam.

Why Islam?

Well, the religion is connected to the culture and the people. I don’t know much about Islam, so I am here to learn.

Yehia gives me a hardback Qur’an with both English and Arabic. It is sturdy and similar to the type I’ve seen used in mosques. “Here, this is for you to keep.” I am reluctant to accept such a wonderful gift, but he insists.

About an hour into our meal, we hear the Ithaan or call to prayer for Aisha’ the fifth prayer. Hassan and Yehia are nearly finished, but I am only halfway through with my plate. Yehia tells me that I can take my time. “The Prophet Mohammed (Peace be Upon Him) said that if you are still eating while you hear the call to prayer, then finish your meal before you pray.” Once I finish, I wash again before we pray.

We retire to the couch, where Yehia brings out a huge plate of fruit. Grapes. Apples. Guava. Dates. Hassan stays silent while Yehia and I exchange our thoughts. His pace is deliberate and steady. Pregnant pauses punctuate the conversation every few minutes.

Before I depart for the evening, I tell him that I hope to be able to finish reading the Qur’an before I leave Egypt. Yehia responds that he hopes that we can meet many more times to discuss the Qur’an. I am told by friends that if a Muslim converts a non-believer like me to Islam, then he and 7 generations of his family will have secured a spot in Aljenna or heaven. A wonderful reward, indeed.