Pictures and Pyramids

I’ve arrived in Alexandria! I have a room, a roommate, a reliable wi-fi connection and a view of the harbor:

But first, a promised recap of the past three days. On Monday, after using the internet in Zamelek, Sarah took me back downtown to show me some of the revolutionary graffiti that has cropped up in the past year and a half. Graffiti is kind of an unfair term for it — it was art, really. Huge murals spanned the walls along one side of the street for more than two blocks. According to Sarah, these were painted by established artists, each with a specific style and intent. My favorite was a series depicting mothers of martyrs, painted larger than life with black hijabs and huge sad eyes. More amateur artists layered their own work on top of the murals — stencils of revolutionaries’ faces, or strings of Arabic script cursing out SCAF.

For dinner, Sarah and I met up with an acquaintance of hers to get Sudanese food at a tiny hole-in-the-wall place on the opposite side of the Nile (I don’t remember the name of the neighborhood). The acquaintance brought about 15 of his own acquaintances, so the group of us took up practically the entire restaurant. There were students from everywhere, doing everything. A South Korean girl taking Arabic at AUC this spring, a half-Egyptian half-Irish girl living with her family while studying with a private Arabic tutor, an American who had been living in Cairo on and off since 2008, is writing a thesis about the revolution, and is now prohibited from leaving the country because he’d gotten in trouble with the Egyptian police earlier this year (something about helping a foreign journalist interview one of the revolutionaries), and a Palestinian who looked much older than the rest of us and seemed to be there just for the fun of it. We were never handed menus, but food was delivered to our table without our asking, and we fell upon it like animals, not really knowing exactly what we were eating, as long as it tasted good. I listened to the conversations going on around me, a little overwhelmed. I marveled at how interconnected the ex-pat community is here. How did all these random people find each other?

The next morning I met up with Barb, a girl from Georgetown who is also in the Alexandria program (who actually turned out to be my roommate!), to go see the pyramids. She was staying at a Coptic seminary in Maa’di, and two Americans who were teaching English to the seminarians — a middle-aged professor and a student from St. Bonneventure University — came with us. The professor, Dea, had arranged for a driver and a guide to take us to and around the pyramids, which wound up being expensive but worth it, since it was kind of nice to have everything explained in English (and an air conditioned cab to boot!)

Giza is only about a 30 minute drive from central Cairo, though it took us an hour and a half because of the insane traffic. There had been an accident on one of the main bridges heading out of Cairo earlier that morning and it nearly every motorist within a mile radius had gotten out of their car to take a look. Egyptians do like a spectacle. You always imagine the pyramids as towering, lonely monuments in the middle of an empty desert, surrounded on all sides by swirling sand. But it’s kind of crazy to see how close the pyramids are to the city — these wonders of the ancient world silhouetted against the hazy, dirty backdrop of Cairo’s suburbs. If you peer at the skyline in my picture, you can see how close Giza is to the city. It’s pretty wild.

Of course, just like in Khan al Khalili and anywhere else in Cairo, there were dozens of vendors and guides at the pyramids eager to rip you off — Bedouins trying to get you to ride their camels, vendors peddling plastic sphinx replicas and cheap scarves. We and our guide brushed them off with a curt “La, shukran” (No thank you) and moved on. After walking around the big pyramid, we walked over to a subsidiary one which had enclosed the burial chamber of one of [Tk’s] queens. We were able to go inside, carefully crawling down a ramp into the cramped dark chamber. The grave had been robbed ages ago, so it was up to us to imagine what it must have looked like with a mummy and her burial jewels inside. I’m not sure whether it was the cool air within the chamber or the idea that this was someone’s grave that sent shivers up my arms.

Next we visited the Museum of the Boat, a huge air-conditioned building next to the big pyramid. The 40 foot long boat had been found in the 1950s buried next to the pyramid. It was deconstructed, but each perfectly-preserved piece of cedar wood was marked with instructions as to how to put it back together. Supposedly the boat would carry the dead Pharaoh to the next world. It was a pretty impressive specimen, especially considering the fact that it had been in the ground for over 4,000 years.

After the boat museum we drove up to a lookout point to snap some more photographs with the pyramids in the background. Then we headed down to see the valley temple and the sphinx. The sphinx was a lot smaller than I had imagined — it doesn’t look like the one in Aladdin, at any rate — but hearing the history of the temple was fascinating. The temple’s walls, floors and pillars had once consisted of polished white and red marble, and when the building was covered (the ceiling was now long gone), light would stream in through tiny windows near the roof and glint off the marble, filling the temple with an eerie glow. Rubbing my hand against a smooth section of one of the now-exposed pillars, I again found myself imagining what it would have looked like in ancient times, and shivered.

After our drive back to Maa’di I got a late lunch with Barb, Dea and Brett (the student who was teaching at the seminary) and then set out alone to wander around the neighborhood until Sarah got off work. We met up with an intimidatingly successful friend of hers who interns for UNHCR and speaks rapid-fire Arabic. Cairo is full of all kinds of brilliant, adventurous people — like the guy from the Sudanese restaurant who was arrested for interviewing revolutionaries for his thesis, or this girl, who’s working to help a Sudanese family petition for refugee status and knows Egyptian politics like the back of her hand. I felt kind of inadequate by comparison — safely ensconced in Georgetown’s program in Alexandria, incapable of even ordering a meal on my own in Arabic, let alone interviewing revolutionaries or refugees.

On our way back from dinner, Sarah got a text from saying that Mubarak had died (which turns out not to be the case … possibly), so we went to that bar near her apartment and wound up talking to the Norwegian and Syrian guys I wrote about in my last post. The next morning, both of us spent a lot of time on our computers reading the news and trying to figure out what exactly was going on. We had lunch at Café Riche, a pretty famous restaurant that has been in downtown Cairo since the turn of the century and was apparently one of the chief headquarters for planning the revolution. I had lentil fatta — bits of pita bread in a creamy sauce made of pureed lentils. Then Sarah shipped me off to Zamalek again to wander around while she worked. Wander I most certainly did — and I got pretty lost as well. But I successfully asked for directions in Arabic — remembering to say “fein” instead of “ayna” for “where?” — and I found my way back to Sarah okay.

I was so exhausted that night that after buying a pita pocket of falafel (called “tamiyya” in Egypt) for dinner I headed back to Sarah’s apartment and collapsed into bed. I woke up early the next morning and read for a little while, waiting for Sarah to wake up. She slept late, so I went downstairs to buy ful — pita stuffed with mashed beans — a classic Egyptian breakfast. I walked around the neighborhood for a while, but soon it was time to head to Ramses Station to catch my train to Alexandria. My seat was next to a bunch of Egyptian army guys, which was a little intimidating until I saw that the man sitting next to me was listening to Evanescence on his iPod. The trip was only 3 hours, and my cab ride to the hotel a short one. After getting my room key and putting my stuff away, I sat in the lobby and watched as other Georgetown kids trickled in. A group of us went out for dinner — we got massive amounts of ful, hummus, falafel and baba ganoush for 6 pounds (about a dollar) each. Then we walked along the Corniche, the walkway that rings Alexandria’s harbor, for a while before heading back to the hotel. That’s where I am now, typing this post in my air conditioned room and enjoying the glorious feeling of being cool for the first time since leaving Brooklyn.


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