Erica in Cairo

Erica is a junior majoring in art history in Meadows School of the Arts and international studies in Dedman College, with a minor in Italian. She also is a Hatton W. Sumners Scholar. In fall 2010, Erica will be taking classes in Egyptology and Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Cairo with SMU-in-Cairo. She hopes to learn as much Arabic as possible while traveling throughout the region.

On the border

cairo5.jpgIf someone had told me a week ago that one of the most culturally edifying experiences I would have in Egypt would happen at an On the Border in the CityStars mall, I would have first given him an odd look, and then laughed in his face. I shouldn’t have metaphorically reacted so brusquely – one of the many beauties of traveling is that everything is a learning experience, even eating at an American chain restaurant in a megamall.

To explain, the CityStars mall is complex – far bigger than the Mall of America or any other competitor. Within the complex stand three hotels; 266 apartments, duplexes and penthouses; 70,000 square meters of office space; a huge grocery store; and a medical center. We feared that we would be dropped off in the wrong place, but there were no problems.

After doing some shopping, which was also filled with images I’ll never forget (have you ever seen a woman in a burka hold up a tank top?), we decided it was time to eat, seeing how most of the stores were beginning to close for iftar anyway. There isn’t much in the way of authenticity at CityStars (i.e. no 40 cent koushary), so we decided to go all-out and get Mexican food at On the Border.

cairo6.jpgWhen we arrived, there were maybe four tables occupied in the entire restaurant, but for some reason we were told that it was full and we couldn’t eat there. “What?” we responded, pointedly noting the dozens of empty tables in front of us. “Reserved,” the man explained apologetically, “for iftar.” Not even caring about the cultural coolness of the fact that no one had arrived even 15 minutes early, we begged the man to let us eat at the bar, and he acquiesced.

The bartenders were pouring drinks by the dozen, and one, Muhammad, gave a girl in our group a glass to try. “Mmm!” she responded, making hand gestures to reinforce the fact that she liked it. Muhammad smiled and nodded, and then distributed the same drink to the rest of us, assuring us that they were “free, free- and refills forever.” I have no idea what it is really called, but it’s a deep red – almost purple – drink, maybe hibiscus, and it sounds like “ker-kadi.” It’s delicious. According to Muhammad, it is often one of the first things you drink when breaking your fast. After refills, they gave us fresh apricot juice, another common iftar drink. And after we ordered our real meal, they distributed us individual plates of three dates! Delicious.

cairo7.jpgMeanwhile, all of the tables were being set with the same drinks and dates, as well as chips and salsa. The restaurant was beginning to fill up, and the atmosphere was a tense loud. No one had eaten, smoked or had anything to drink since before sunrise, and they were sitting there talking, looking at the delicious food and drink spread out on the table in front of them, and weren’t touching any of it.

Then the coolest thing happened. The TV changed from Arabic cartoons to the call to prayer, and everyone lunged in unison for their drink, food, or cigarette – the atmosphere transformed from tense and anticipatory to smoky and laughter-filled on a dime. If you hadn’t known the background of the scene, you may have thought that everyone had been hypnotized to act in harmony with each other.

There are always benefits to seeing the gritty, “real world” of where you are traveling, but malls and Western restaurants are not “imaginary.” They have impacted the culture just like cars and computers, which you would never scoff at using while traveling. The mixture between traditional religious Muslim values, Mexican food and an American chain restaurant was an experience that will not soon be forgotten.

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Rowdy Ramadan

cairo4.jpg Since last writing, I have partaken in two trips of note. The first was a Nile cruise (with air conditioning) for iftar, and the second was a Bedouin Night suhoor.

DSC00087_3.jpg For those of you who aren’t familiar with meals during Ramadan – I certainly wasn’t until several days ago – iftar is the meal right after sunset when Muslims feast after a day without food or water, and suhoor is the meal they eat pre-dawn to sustain them until iftar. Again, this is all during Ramadan.

The two trips could not have been more different, and they demonstrate that miracles really can occur when people are hungry. For the iftar trip, we met at 4 p.m. for a 6:30 meal. We were on the bus at 4:01 and en route by 4:10.

For those of us who weren’t fasting, that meant we had almost two hours to watch the beautiful view and sunset from the top of the cruise boat. For those who were fasting, it meant that the second the sun set, they could run downstairs and dig in.

cairo2.jpg The food was incredible. We each had a chicken the size of my head, in addition to cinnamon-spiced rice, two fried mystery items, and three delicious desserts (nicknamed honey, butter and nut, respectively). This was just on our plates – there were appetizers as far as the eye could see lining every free inch of the table!

DSC00123.jpg By contrast, Bedouin night could have been organized by the Italians. We were told to meet at 9 p.m. (after iftar had been eaten), and our bus didn’t end up leaving until after 11. We arrived around midnight, after passing the pyramids, to find blaring oriental music, sheesha and couches all over the floor. We were given delicious rice and the boniest meat I have ever eaten. (I’m convinced that it was whatever malnourished bird flew past the kitchen that morning.) And then the real action began.

IMG_0380.jpg The most “haram” (sinful, forbidden) belly-dancer I have ever seen began twirling herself around with the craziest figures I could ever imagine. Men on stilts, men in weird little midget costumes teeter-tottering with their arms out, and three men in a giant horse costume all began dancing to really loud music. I had just ordered a wildly expensive fresh-squeezed lemonade (15 Egyptian pounds – about $3), and when I turned around I thought I had stepped into some twisted form of Bedouin “Alice in Wonderland”. Also, a clearly drugged lion appeared, with which we were encouraged to take pictures for 75 Egyptian pounds. La’a shukran. (No thanks.)

After that madness, which we were invited to join, somehow David Guetta started playing, and it just turned into a dance party in odd surroundings. There was lots of jumping and clapping, though.

All in all, the night was a testament to how much food influences your actions. When no one has eaten or had anything to drink all day, even Africa can mobilize itself to be not only on time, but early! However, once food has been eaten and there is no longer any rush, life continues at its usual unhurried pace.

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The insanity that is the Egyptian Museum

Cairo is a city of breathtaking contrasts and irreconcilable harmony. Aside from the obvious desert and Nile River comparisons, the most poignant and illuminating contrast in my mind is the famous Egyptian Museum, which exemplifies so much of Egypt. The museum displays some 136,000 artifacts, and Lord knows how many more lie undocumented in basement storerooms. The museum has been in its current location, Tahrir Square, since 1902.

DSC00025.jpg First off – the outside of the building is absolutely mesmerizing. The neoclassical style against the blue desert sky, slightly modified to Egyptian tastes, is unforgettable. It sits gated off, still and immovable, against the absolute chaos and constant motion right outside. You begin to notice that the museum is not quite as professional as the exterior would lead you to believe at the security checkpoint. When we presented our student IDs to the guards in order to purchase our tickets at half price, they passed them around for nearly ten minutes making jokes, questioning their veracity, our choice of clothing in the picture, when our hair looked better …

It was upon entering the museum itself that we were forced to determine that all was not as it seemed. We had all been tempted to wear jeans that day, thinking that we would be shuffling around in a cold museum all day long. Not only was it not cold, the place wasn’t even air conditioned! All of the doors and windows were flung open, admitting 100+ degree Cairo dust and pollution. Few of the artifacts were protected in any way whatsoever; there was not even a little rope or sign asking patrons to keep a respectful distance. Objects were placed hodgepodge everywhere that they could fit. Those artifacts that were covered looked like they could have been opened with a strong flick of the wrist, and, obviously, were neither temperature nor humidity controlled like most other major museums of the world.

Arabs wrapped in layers of clothing stood next to half naked Europeans, both emitting odors offensive to my person. If it is respect that some Arabs feel they don’t get from America, I take umbrage. I have seen hundreds of foreigners since being here, and I have never seen an American in anything less than completely impractical, modest attire. Europeans, on the other hand, walk around in booty shorts and tube tops. I saw a roughly eight-year-old girl in braids and no shirt whatsoever, and a 45-year-old man comporting himself in the same curious fashion (minus the braids). Whatever issues some may have with us, at least in Egypt, I have seen Americans go to all extremes not to offend. Hopefully it’s not some form of modern attire appeasement.

Moving on. The museum reminded me of a research project I conducted last summer regarding the repatriation of controversial museum artifacts, the Nefertiti bust included. The Germans have the bust, and just about every other artifact, in a sterile temperature and humidity controlled case, with UV shades drawn, and security cameras at every corner. Furthermore, they go out of their way to educate their patrons, which is, presumably why they frequent museums in the first place.

The Egyptian Museum, contrastingly, was filthy and stinky – I thought I was going to pass out after only an hour and a half, and I would gladly set up residence in any number of museums. There were hundreds of artifacts of immeasurable historical value, lacking even a name to identify it so the patron could do research independently. Nothing was labeled, and if it was, it was in indecipherable Arabic.

Aside from the illegality of imposing a law after the fact, I am convinced that, while the Egyptians would obviously love to have Nefertiti back, and there would be national pride and many other fuzzy sentiments aroused, they simply cannot take care of her, or any of the hundreds of thousands of artifacts they are currently housing. The place was APPALLING.

I have come to realize that much of Egypt is a contrast – the outside of a building is often misleading. From the conversations I have had and classes I have taken, I have come to learn that much of this part of the world embodies such traits in their personalities. Integrity and character mean much less than one’s appearance. It is more important to be perceived as important and respected than to actually be important and respected. Losing face is to be avoided at almost all costs.

DSC00043.jpg But strangely the old and new of Cairo seem to support one another. Ancient buildings not only stand strong against the constant onslaught of 17 million inhabitants in one of the densest cities in the world, they seem to provide a refuge and a sense of identity. Desert and river, ancient and modern, conservative and nudist all seem to have a place – I can imagine it no other way.

(In photo: Felluca boats grace the modern Cairo skyline.)

P.S. Except for the artifacts in the museums. I would like to see those properly taken care of.

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Day one in Cairo!

Whew! What a whirlwind!

DSC00019.jpg As I write this, I am finally lying on my bed in beautiful Zamalek, Cairo. The only downfall is that the room smells. However, after a significant amount of time with both the window open (hot, hot, hot!), and the air conditioning on full blast, I think I may have freshened up the place a little! Aside from the stink, the room is quite amazing. It’s huge, because three of us live here – though neither of my roommates has arrived yet – and very well laid out. Each of us has her own desk and ample closet space. (In photos: My room and view from dorm.)

cairo1.jpgAll of my flights were easy and quick – though unfortunately I didn’t sleep at all! On my first flight, from Minneapolis to Chicago, I sat next to a boy visiting from France. On my flight from Chicago to Frankfurt, I originally had all three seats to myself, but the boy sitting across the aisle ended up moving to sit by me. He’s studying abroad in Russia this semester, and we played games for the better part of seven hours. On my last flight, from Frankfurt to Cairo, I sat next to a really interesting girl from Luxembourg, who speaks about a thousand languages.

The only thing that surprised me about the trip was the airports! Frankfurt – which I would have expected to be orderly and neat in the usual German style – was a wreck! Aside from the construction, the “departures” screen often only displays your terminal, not your gate. Each terminal has its own wing; there is a line down the middle, and then terminals branching off in straight lines like veins in a leaf.

However, every so often a terminal’s security is divided in two. Thus, if all you know is that you are in terminal C, and gates C1-C30 have a different security line than C30-C60, and you go through the wrong one…sorry, Jack. My ticket said B25, so after maneuvering through construction and crowds of all sorts, I made it, only to be told B62 was my gate. B62 was in the basement, so to speak. Basically, it was a mess.

DSC00013.jpg The Cairo airport (photo, right), on the other hand, which I had expected to be frenzied, was beautiful – open, clean and practically empty. The man who picked us up was hilarious, always addressing us as if we were his little chickens and he was our impatient mother. “Yalla! Let’s go!” Followed by a melodious and perpetual, “AUC! AUC!”

After a bus ride that would have impressed circus performers (which is the act where a thousand people tumble out of a car? Ours was a thousand suitcases), we were able to relax in Zamalek for several hours. At 8:30 p.m. we all went to get phones and then dinner. (Ramadan made the late hour necessary.)

It’s been such an adventure already!

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