First Day

It’s hard to believe I’ve only been in Egypt for a little over 24 hours. Leaving Brooklyn, writing my last blog post in JFK — even my layover in the Zurich airport — seems like a lifetime ago. I’m in practically a whole different world now.

The first day in Cairo was overwhelming. My friend Sarah, whom I’m staying with until I leave for Alexandria later this week, picked me up from the airport and helped me get cash out of the ATM machine. We then emerged into the brain-deadening 100 degree heat that is the norm for Cairo in June. This heat has substance; it hits you like a wall. It reminded me of a line from a West Wing episode about the conflicts in the Middle East: “No wonder there’s so much violence there — they’re all cranky from the heat.”

Sarah haggled with a cab driver on a fare to take us to her apartment in downtown Cairo. There was no meter. That’s another thing about Egypt — there are very few rules (except the one about dressing like a nun), and what few rules do exist can always be negotiated. She got him down to 65 pounds — about 10 dollars — and we loaded into his ramshackle cab and set off careening through the dusty streets of Cairo.

Sarah’s apartment is pretty spacious, but dark and sparse. Her bedroom consists of a mattress on the floor and a single fan to attempt to stir the heavy, hot air. I put down my luggage and washed my face, and then we headed to a ahwah (coffee shop) for something to drink. The streets were pretty empty — people had the day off for the elections — but I felt the eyes of the few passers-by on me as we walked. It sounds like a cliche, but I have never been so aware of the fact that I am a white girl.

Sarah ordered drinks for us — lemonade with mint, which the Egyptians make tooth-achingly sweet — and explained a bit about Cairo. First off, the Arabic that is actually spoken here is a world away from the fusHa we learn in class. I want is not ureed, but aayza. Water is not maa’, but something more like maaya. So far the words I’ve used most have been shukran (thank you) and qalilan (a little) — typically employed in response to the question “Taarif alarabiya?” (Do you know Arabic?)

While we sat, a woman came up to us peddling packets of tissues. Sarah bought one for each of us, pressing two pound coins into her hand. The woman kissed Sarah and looked at me. I just blushed and murmured, “shukran.” Sarah later explained that it’s good to keep tissues on you, since few places have toilet paper in their bathrooms. Duly noted. A few minutes later another tissue-seller came by, whom Sarah ignored. That’s the way it works in Egypt — there’s poverty everywhere, and eventually you have to pick and choose whom you’re willing to help. I looked down at my feet, the same as I do in New York when a homeless person walks the length of the car, asking for money. Poverty makes you ashamed of your privilege.

Next we headed to Islamic Cairo to look into a mosque and walk around the Khan alKalili, Cairo’s big outdoor market. At the mosque we deposited our shoes in a cubby and borrowed scarves to wrap around our heads. A man in a brown galabiya came up to us and started giving us a tour of the mosque. Most of it was in rapid-fire Arabic, which he simply repeated several times in hopes that perhaps we would catch on. The only words I caught were “Fatamid” and “Mamluk” — caliphates, referring to the periods when different parts of the mosque were built. Afterwards, he wanted baksheesh, or a tip. Sarah said 5 pounds, he wanted 20. I only had a 20 pound note, so we didn’t have a whole lot of leverage to negotiate downward. If he wasn’t going to give change, we wouldn’t be paying anything less than 20 pounds. “Hatha beyt aldin, mish beyt alfaloos!” (This a house of religion, not a house of money!) Sarah argued, trying to shame him into accepting less. Looking angry, he shrugged and said that he would allow this to cover the cost of getting our shoes back as well. My first Egyptian rip-off.

Next we walked around the khan. Imagine a huge, dark maze filled with tiny shops selling model pyramids and brightly colored scarves, add trash and mud to the streets and toss in packs of eager shopkeepers calling for your attention and skinny stray cats prowling the entire area, and that is the Khan alKalili. Everywhere we walked, men would call out and try to lure in hapless foreigners. Shouts of “habibti!” and “beautiful!” were incessant. I was simultaneously awed and uncomfortable. We stopped in at a shop selling camel saddles, which Sarah is considering buying for her father. She just wanted to ask questions, but the shopkeeper was relentless. He sat her down and, after ordering his co-worker to get us each a soda, began explaining why his saddles were the best to be had in Cairo. I merely watched, struggling to follow the conversation. Sarah didn’t buy anything, but promised to come back on Friday, insha’allah. That word, which means “God willing,” is everywhere in Egypt. Possibly because the country is so unpredictable that every promise must be modified. Sarah said she had a professor who used to say, “See you tomorrow, insha’allah” at the end of every class. It can mean “hopefully,” as in “At the end of this summer I will be proficient in Arabic, insha’allah,” or “not going to happen,” which I think was how Sarah meant it.

We stopped in another shop for tea. A little girl selling tissue packs came over. We smiled at her apologetically and said, “Ana asifa” (I’m sorry), but she lingered. She reached over and touched Sarah’s shoulder, clung to her arm. They bantered in Arabic for a while, and finally Sarah slipped her a coin and took a packet from her. Next a woman walked up to us offering henna. We accepted — a decision I came to regret, because it was sloppily done and got on my only, all-purpose denim button-up shirt. For dinner, we got Syrian food  — I ate lentil soup and stuffed grape leaves, but realized that being a vegetarian in Egypt is going to become very difficult very quickly — and then stopped by the AUC (American University in Cairo) dorms so I could use their internet to talk to my dad, since the internet in Sarah’s apartment barely works. At that point it was about 9:30 and I was dead on my feet. We headed back to Sarah’s, showered, and then dropped into bed. Even with the noise and the oppressive heat, I fell asleep immediately.

I was awake by 8:45 the next morning. I washed up and read for a while until Sarah woke up about an hour later. Then we took a cab to zamelek, the island in the middle of the Nile where the AUC dorms are. It’s a little less conservative and more touristy, because of all the students. We got a late breakfast at a cafe with wi-fi, so we could check our emails and the news. We were both eager to find out the results of the presidential elections. Sarah helped me get a phone before heading to work, leaving me to wander around zamelek. I walked up and down the streets for a while, looking in at bookshops and clothing stores and trying not to get lost. I felt fine, until a man pointed at my chest and gave me a dirty look. Apparently the neckline of my dress was too low. It took all my willpower not to immediately put my hand over my chest, but I looked forward and kept walking. As soon as I was past him, though, I buttoned my sweater over my dress. I glanced at my reflection in a store window, and thought, “This is too low.” I felt self conscious for the rest of my walk, like I was naked. (For the record, Sarah later assured me that the dress was fine, and the guy was probably the kind of person who takes offense to women in general.) Then I wandered until I came to the edge of the island, and stood for a few minutes looking out at the Nile and enjoying the moderately cooler breeze coming off the river. My stomach had started feeling kind of achey  and I was sticky with sweat, so I found my way back to the cafe where Sarah and I had eaten breakfast so I could sit down and enjoy the air conditioning. That’s where I am now, sipping sparkling water, browsing the internet and typing this post.

Speaking of the internet, it looks like Morsi, the Islamist candidate who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the presidential race. It’s unclear what exactly that means, though, because the military council also just issued its own constitution, which takes away a  lot of the president’s authority. You wouldn’t know any of this though, walking in the streets. There are no huge protests or celebrations. The streets are mostly quiet. Granted, Zamelek is a far cry from chaotic downtown Cairo, but still. The Egypt I read about on the New York Times website is totally different from the one I’m living in right now. That Egypt is tense and unpredictable and politically charged. This Egypt seems mostly tired, mostly waiting. Everywhere I walked today there were men standing in doorways and around kiosks, chatting. They don’t have anything else to do, it seems.

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One comment on “First Day

  1. Shoshana Akabas says:

    This is amazing. It sounds so different but also fascinating! Your language skills are certainly going to be taxed, but the best way to learn is to be immersed! I’m sure you’ll pick it up quickly. Such a treat to be reading your personal writing again after three years. Can’t wait to read/hear more about Cairo! Enjoy!

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