Saturday, May 15, 2010


My friend Ehab was an amazing host and did whatever he could to help me feel like an Egyptian :)

So we started with a lesson in how to smoke the water pipe at El Fishawy, one of the oldest coffee houses in Cairo, located in the main bazaar. The tobacco is flavored. I think I tried cantaloupe, mango, guava, grape, apple, coconut, and fruit cocktail. Yeah I smoked my fruit intake for the week.

Ehab is decidedly better at this than I.

Shops in the main bazaar, Khan al Halili, were so colorful.

A stand selling water pipes. Ehab’s family was determined to send me home with one, but my bags will already be so overloaded I managed to protest my way out it! (I can just imagine sitting in a lawn chair smoking that on a sidewalk of Lafayette…!)

At a sidewalk café. Ehab knew all the good foods to order. I must have gained five pounds in a week! That day we had koshari, a mix of pasta, lentils, tomatoes, rice, and tons of garlic sauce (in my case). Enough to make me want to pop cost about a dollar. Another of my favorites was fatir. It’s like a crepe meets pizza.

Props to that kid—I have certainly never carried that much bread on my head.

Inevitable tourism :) The pyramids at Giza, built sometime before 2400 BC!

(I need to leave those pants in Cameroon. I know.)

These things are massive, the largest at roughly 450 feet high.
We even got a special treat at the pyramids that day. Apparently, a crazy dude climbed up to the top of the main pyramid! It is of course strictly forbidden to use the pyramids as your personal jungle gym and so cops were yelling and tried to chase him but he was too fast! The blocks of the pyramids are big, so in addition to being crazy he must have been a stellar athlete! Once he got to the top the only way to reach him was by helicopter—direct ride to prison. Bummer, but it was cool while it lasted.

These pyramids, at Saqqara, are smaller and lesser known, but pre-date the larger pyramids at Giza. The way my guide told it, the first pyramid was built by accident. The pyramids served as tombs and their construction began during the lifetime of the person to be buried there. Since the guy in question for this particular tomb still wasn’t dead yet, and the architect had a lot of extra bricks, he piddled around adding more layers on top of the original building. He decided he wanted the tomb to be tall enough to be seen over the surrounding enclosure… until voila: step pyramid! The guide showed me another pyramid that was somewhere between these step pyramids and the smooth perfectly triangular pyramids at Giza. It was a kinda bungled lopsided triangle, where the classic form had not yet fully evolved!

The mosque of Mohamed Aly, built in the Citadel that overlooks the city of Cairo. The Citadel dates to the 12th century and the mosque was built about 200 years ago.

Inner courtyard of the mosque, where I get to sport my SuperTouristWoman cape. (I was showing a little too much neck for the mosque.) At least at this mosque, the attendant did not insist on dressing me personally in the cape, complete with hood. When they made me put the hood on, I looked about like Gumby. I’m with Ehab’s Uncle Osman, who really took care of us!

Cute kid looking caught at the Citadel.

At a local restaurant, I had a really hard time deciding between my two favorites of the testicles and the forelimbs.

I felt the need to capture this random but telling glimpse into Egyptian culture. I mourned the excessive use of hair gel by most every Egyptian male. There are some good looking guys over there, I just don’t think the average American girl goes for that slick Guido look!

Back to more serious and historical subjects, I spent some quality time in the Egyptian Museum to see the mummies. It was arresting to see the actual skin, bones, and faces of those who lived over 3000 years ago. Here are some highlights from that exhibit:
• When the first round of mummies were brought by boat from their original tombs in the south up to Cairo, customs officials had no label for dead kings. So the mummies were classified in the category of salted fish.
• The mummies brains were removed through their left nostril, dried for 40 days, oiled, and wrapped for 30 more days with the objective of successful travel to the afterlife.
• Like me, many of the mummies have very long skinny toes.
• King Ramses V, who died in about 1145 BC, gets to live on in infamy with this caption, “He also had an enlarged scrotum, suggesting he had a hernia.” He may not have made it to the afterlife, but at least we all know about his scrotum.
• One queen had her baby pet baboon mummied up into a little baboon-like ball and buried with her—it was next to her in the display case.
• Another mummy’s caption: “The face of Henettawy, wife of Pinudjem I, was packed with soda and fat to give it the appearance of life. However, overzealous use of the mixture caused her cheeks to burst open; they have been restored here at the Egyptian Museum.” And yes, you could see where her cheeks exploded. Please just bury me with no captions, friends.

Ehab and I also overloaded ourselves on religious museums. The Coptic Christians lived in Egypt before the islamisization of the country in the 7th century. According to the Coptic museum, Coptic Christians were largely responsible for the advent of monasteries and monastic living. Who knew? I’d never associated Egypt and Christianity. Old Cairo was a fascinating mix of churches: the Coptic Christian churches, a synagogue, ancient huge mosques. I’ve never seen all three of these religions sitting side by side, so peacefully. And in the Coptic churches, the imagery was so similar to that of the Catholicism I grew up in, it was eerie and cool at the same time.

We also headed toward the coast, to the second largest city of Alexandria. We went to the library there, which has been around since the 3rd century BC. In a museum in the library is the military suit Anwar el-Sadat was wearing when he was assassinated in ‘81, after the signing of the Camp David Accords. We’d driven past the spot of his assassination several times, but seeing the blood-spattered suit was sobering.

We were further spoiled in Alexandria by more of Ehab’s cousins. I want Ehab to come back to Louisiana with me so he can tell everyone our Peace Corps war stories. He presents them so much better than I do, and they inevitably leave his family in awe, and overwhelmed with the need to pamper and spoil us, as recompense for our “suffering.” :) Sure, I’ll have some more tahini.

Alexandria by night. We stumbled into a park at the foot of a mosque. I loved watching the old guys in the back relaxing and smoking their water pipe.

What you get before entering a museum in Alexandria.

A last look at Alexandria. I think crossing an Egyptian street is classifiable as a national sport. It is terrifying!!!! The Mediterranean is in the background. (A far cry from that bustling metropolis that is Alexandria, Louisiana, home of some of my esteemed ancestors.)

On a more personal level, getting to hang out with Ehab’s family was so enjoyable. I attended his cousin Reem’s wedding, and her bachelorette party! It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. When Ehab and I arrived at the apartment for the bachelorette party, the door was opened only a crack and Ehab was shooed away; I was to be retrieved several hours later. As the other invitees trickled in, I noticed that they arrived in full cover, long sleeves and head wraps. They ducked into a back room and emerged transformed: short tight skirts, sexy heels, hair loose and flowing. They were stunning! The music pounded for hours and although I couldn’t understand anything, it was hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm, rhythm, and dancing. Someone gave me a pair of traditional finger cymbals, which kept me entertained for longer than I should admit. Reem and her cousins were lovely and hospitable, and made sure several times I felt included in the fun. As the night wore down, some men came to the apartment to pick up the rented sound equipment. “Girls, in the back!” an adult cried and all us girls went scuttling into a back room, out of sight and safe from wandering male eyes. Before each girl left for the night, she ducked back into the back room, to reemerge cloaked and covered in black, ready to head outdoors and into the public eye. It was eye-opening for me and I felt fortunate that I’d seen these very personal and familial glimpses into private Egyptian life. As for the gender relations, I laughed as I thought how sloppy I would look if I were showing up for a girls-only night in the States. With no one to impress you can bet I’d be in my frumpy brown pants with messy hair. I would probably only make serious efforts to look appealing if I were going out around members of the opposite sex.

Having some interesting talks with Ehab’s cousins and friends about boys, girls, sex, etc. made me wonder if there’s some happy middle ground between our customs in the States and what by American standards is the conservatism of Egypt. Sex is still mostly taboo and referred to with giggles as a “mistake” if the context is anything but within marriage. But the friendships between guys and girls there seem genuine and unambiguous, less clouded with sexual tension, as they can be in the States. Another remarkable trait about the Egyptians was their sense of humor. Almost every night Ehab and I went out with his cousins and friends to smoke water pipe and drink mango juice. (And no, I did not bring out my whiskey sachets as usual.) I loved the relaxed atmosphere of going out and just chatting, no alcohol required. Where it seems like Americans would more often be drinking, the Egyptians were content and having a great time. Again it made me wonder, where is a happy middle ground in the States? I have never gone out with a big group of friends just for juice or a Coke—too bad!

Below, friends and cousins at the wedding. (Although she’s not pictured here, I should note the dear Heba, who took it upon herself personally to make sure I had a wonderful time. We pre-gamed at McDonalds, then she took me to get my hair done, and carted me to her grandmother’s house to do my makeup!! If not for her, I would have looked scrubby indeed and I loved just getting to hang out with her!)

I’m hugely grateful to Ehab and his extended family for such a one-of-a-kind vacation! Next stop: Ethiopia, where I am even less likely to be confused as a local.

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