48 Hours in Cairo – Part II. Bonus: What I Love About Egypt.

Friday morning I awoke late from an excellent night’s sleep in my extremely comfy bed in Cairo. I headed down to the hotel’s pool to attempt to swim some laps, but gave up after about 25 lengths because I had forgotten my goggles and the chlorine was beginning to burn my eyes.

After breakfast, the rest of the group headed off to see the Pyramids while Barb and I headed to Coptic Cairo to look at some churches. We walked outside of the hotel and had only made it about 50 feet when a cab driver accosted us and asked us if we needed a cab. His initial offer for a trip from Giza to Coptic Cairo was 60 pounds, and we argued with him until he lowered the fare to 35 (insha’allah my haggling skills are improving with all this practice) — probably still a rip off, but it’s $5 in American terms, which is a pretty good deal for a half hour cab ride. The driver was pretty chatty and we talked to him in a bizarre conglomeration of English and Arabic — Barb, who speaks Spanish, even threw in a little of that.

We arrived in Coptic Cairo to find the neighborhood almost completely dead. It seemed everyone was either at church or the mosque, and it was amazing to think that 12 hours ago we had been in cramped Khan al Khalili, where you can walk five steps without treading on someone’s toes. We walked around a bit looking for the Kaneesa Qadeesa Barbara (Church of  Saint Barbara) and wound up stumbling upon another very small church instead. The church was inside a walled complex and we wandered through alleyways flanked by dozens of small buildings (which turned out to be tombs) before reaching the church at its center. The building’s first story housed a cafe and about three dozen men, women (without head scarves!) and children sat outside drinking tea and soda and eating ful sandwiches. We walked up a flight of stairs to the church itself and sat in the pews for a little while, admiring its cozy atmosphere and highly decorated interior. Pretty soon several people came up to us and introduced themselves, including a man who insisted on showing us the church’s relics. It turned out to be the Church of St Luke, and he gave each of us a small card with a picture of St Luke and a vial full of holy water. Then he asked us if we had eaten breakfast, and if he could buy us tea. We declined, because we still needed to go to the Church of Saint Barbara and were due at our friend’s parents house for lunch at 12, but he wouldn’t let us leave. “Please, let me buy you a Pepsi,” he insisted, and we accepted. He gave us each a soda from the cafe downstairs, and then pulled us inside to meet the Church’s priest. We introduced ourselves and shook hands with the priest and he smiled vigorously at us. In the process, at least three other people came up and asked us where we were from, and if we had eaten, and could they please buy us tea? I have never seen such incredible friendliness or generosity directed towards complete strangers. This tiny community in a dusty corner of Cairo was willing to feed us, talk with us in a broken mixture of Arabic and English, and invite them into their church, which I imagine is probably a very precious and protected place in a city that doesn’t exactly embrace its Christian communities.

This is what I was talking about when I wrote last time that there are things about Egypt that compensate for the heat, the conservatism, the name calling, and the lack of fresh vegetables. The people here are so friendly, so welcoming, so enthusiastic about their lives and sharing them with you. It’s not just a Christian thing, it’s an Egyptian thing. Almost every Egyptian I’ve met, from the language partners to the hotel staff, the professors at the TAFL center to fellow patrons at Mohammed Ahmed (our favorite restaurant), are so curious about us  and eager to make sure that we are all enjoying our time in Egypt. I know that any one of the language partners would drop anything if I called them and said I needed help finding my way somewhere in Alex. The hotel staff all greet us with a friendly “Sabah al Kheyr” every morning, and Ahmed, who serves us breakfast, has made note of the fact that I drink coffee every day and always has it ready for me. Despite the problems their country has, and the simmering resentment towards America that exists in some places (Hillary Clinton got a lot of protests when she came to visit last weekend), the majority of Egyptians are far more positive and open minded than many people in the U.S When people stare at us in the street, I often remind myself that a group of women in abayas in an American city that isn’t used to seeing tourists would draw just as much unwanted attention, if not more. And for all the 20-something shabaab (young guys) with greased hair and tight jeans who shout “kiss me!” (and worse) at us girls as we walked to school, there are people who introduced themselves to us by saying “Welcome to Egypt” and really, truly meaning it. Just a few days ago I was buying ice cream at a shop near my hotel, and when I asked for a small scoop of hazelnut in Arabic, the face of the man behind the counter lit up. “You speak Arabic!” he said. I nodded, and he proceeded to ask me where I was from, and what I was doing in Alexandria. When he found out I was American, he said “Amreeka! Obama! AlBeyt alAbyad (the White House)!” I smiled. “Did you vote for Obama?” he asked, and when I said yes, he gave me a thumbs up. That kind of experience makes up for all the negative ones, and its what makes me want to come back here again, when my Arabic is better and I can repay people for their kindness by speaking to them in their own language without mangling it.

Alright, enough rambling about how much I want to come live in Egypt. I’m sure my parents are cringing as they read this.

After finally extricating ourselves from the overwhelming friendliness at the Church of Saint Luke, we got directions to the Kaneesa Barbara and continued on our way. The second church was less eventful — a children’s choir was practicing, which was nice, but no one tried to make us stay for tea. We also stumbled upon a synagogue, which depressingly was surrounded by a 10 foot wall and had an armed guard. But we were running late to a lunch at our friend Avanti’s house (she’s Indian, but her parents have been living in Cairo for the past two years). Avanti’s mom made a delicious (and vegetarian!) Indian meal and her dad, who works for Nestle, insisted that we try the company’s newest product. The product, called Maxibon, was part ice cream sandwich, part vanilla ice cream coated in chocolate. It was pretty delicious, but I don’t think they’re sold in the States.

After lunch Avanti’s mom took us back to our hotel, where we met up with the rest of the group and then boarded the bus back to Alex. I napped for most of the ride back and then set immediately to work when we’d returned to the hotel. The school week went by pretty quickly, and now here I am back at the start of another weekend. I have plans to go to the naadi and a souq tomorrow, and Friday marks the start of Ramadan, which should be quite an experience. I’m going to try fasting at least once — it’ll be hard to get food during the daytime anyway, and I think it would improve my experience of what Ramadan is really like for Egyptians.

That’s all for now. Masa’ al Kheyr (good night) and Ramadan Kareem (good Ramadan) from Alexandria!

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One comment on “48 Hours in Cairo – Part II. Bonus: What I Love About Egypt.

  1. Shoshana Akabas says:

    (Sorry for the delayed comment) I love the story from the ice cream shop. I think the fact that you speak the language is probably a big factor – the fact that you show interest in the country and the culture allows them to open up, which is fantastic. Sounds like you’re meeting all kinds of interesting people. Great post!

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