Thursday, November 15, 2007

A real update!!!

Okay, so here's what's been going on in my life, really.

Going way back in the time machine: unfortunately, a classmate of mine who I was becoming good friends with had to leave Egypt in a hurry, basically because he couldn't stand being in Egypt because his landlady (who he also lived with) was driving him insane. It was a real shame -- she was a great cook (I broke the Ramadan fast at his house a couple of times, and she cooked all the meals for him) but totally مجنونه (magnoona, crazy). She had a very negative viewpoint of things, and this flavored his perception of Egypt. Added to that, he was a devout Muslim and although Egypt is a de facto Muslim country, it's also very secular. As a result, you get a lot of people who are Muslims but aren't very serious about Islam. It's expected really -- a study suggests that spirituality is a genetic, rather than cultural, trait. According hile identical twins tended to have the same spiritual practices as they got older, non-identical twins would diverge in their spiritual practices.

So, in a country of 80 million people, of whom around 90% are Muslims, it would make sense that a lot of Muslims just aren't as into Islam as more observant types. My friend got pretty disheartened at the things her perceived as happening -- dishonesty, greed, theft (his mobile phone was stolen in a mosque of all places).

I still hold that the Egyptian people on a whole are very honest, generous, and rarely if ever will steal from you (yes, my wallet was eventually swiped [although I may also have simply lost it], but after 8 months in a very poor developing country that's pretty good I think -- and there's been many times that I've left money lying around and it's been untouched. Oh, and good luck ever accidentally leaving a slip of paper or a banknote on the ground -- someone will always pick it up and hand it to you, a true blessing to an absentminded person like myself).

After 6 weeks he finally left the apartment but basically at that point Egypt was ruined for him. He was worried about his visa, which scary crazy landlady had procured for him, and also worried that somehow the landlady would do something to him, despite our constant assurances that as an اجنبي (agnabi, foreigner) he was effectively untouchable. He went back to Scotland, where hopefully he is doing well.

Moving forward: okay, so since then there has been around a month or so of Arabic. At this point, I can actually do things like read somewhat complicated sentences. My main problems in Arabic right now are vocabulary, listening comprehension, writing Arabic (especially my lousy handwriting) and reading out loud. So, practically everything. I've definitely improved here in Egypt but I wonder if I was actually enrolled in a University program -- as some of my fellow classmates are -- whether I would be pushing myself a bit harder. Although, I suppose if I was in university I wouldn't also be spending upwards of 15 hours a week doing computer programming work!

The most fun thing about Arabic is that it's a wonderfully logical language (it has a few inconsistencies, but nowhere near as many as in French or Italian). Once you know the جذر (jizr, root) of a word, you can get the meaning from the form it has. For instance, سكر (sukar) means sugar. It's a noun. Well, you can verbify some nouns by putting them in what's called Type II form, which is basically first letter - vowel - second letter, doubled - vowel - third letter. So, to sweeten is سكّر (sakkara). Every verb is conjugated in a specific type, numbered (by "Orientalists") 1-10. If you know one verb, you can learn another based on what changes happen between two types. For example, when you go from type 1 to type 3, you perform that verb with someone else. So رقص (raqasa), to dance, becomes راقص (raaqasa), to dance with. Cool, huh?

Anyway, enough of that.

I promised I'd blog about the desert trip. I'm afraid it was a couple of weeks ago, so I'll try to remember it as best as I can (we'll see how it compares with my return visit this Sunday with my folks). I went with a large groups of fellow students from my school to Baharia. Our guide was Ahmed Ali Ishamy of Craween Tours. It's a pretty fair price, around $100/person for two nights/3 days in the desert, food, transportation in the desert, plus transportation from and to Cairo. Both nights we slept outside on the desert sands. It was very cool, but also very cold. The first night I could barely sleep; the next night I wisely donned socks and all the warm clothing I had on hand. Extra blankets are also probably a good idea. I'm a foodie at heart, so probably my favorite moments from the trip were when I ate ripe plump dates plucked directly from a palm tree in the middle of an oasis that also featured a lime tree and an olive grove (the limes were also tasty. I tried an olive, just to say I had. Uncured olives, even when ripe, are incredibly bitter; the flesh is soft and when squeezed oozes juice that is the color and consistency of milk), and when I hung out with the bedeouins late into the night, munching on fresh فول سداني (ful sudani, literally "Sudanese beans", the Egyptian term for peanuts!) and sweet potates, both roasted by the coals of the campfire.

More recently, I went on yet another iteration of my "famous" Islamic Cairo tour. It actually works pretty well, assuming you don't get lost. Basically, you start at Saida Zeinab, make your way east (optionally towards Mida al Qala, where you can get a great looking-up view of the Citadel and several other large, impressive mosques) and then north towards Sharia Qala (also known as Sharia Mohammed Ali) before turning right into a narrow street market lined with vegetable stalls, a menagerie of animals waiting (sadly) to be eaten, a couple of fresh juice shops, a couple of barbershops [
I went into one for a hair cut in July, and received a cup of tea along with an invitation to his marriage in August. He refused payment for the haircut, and I showed up for his wedding in August with a simple wedding present of a thermos with two integrated mugs. No one else brought a present, but I found out later that in Egyptian culture it's customary to visit the bride and groom in their new home later on, and to give them the presents at that point. I was away from Islamic Cairo for a long time, when I stopped by on this most recent visit, I stopped by to say hello. He recognized me and asked if I wanted to stay to talk, but unfortunately since I was leading a few other people through Cairo I had to say no. I will have to stop by to see him properly next chance I get
, a video arcade, and stores for pretty much everything under the sun (from plastic kitchen goods to gold jewelry). At the end of the market, you transition straight into the Tentmakers Market, where you can buy hand-quilted pillow covers and wall hangings (some intricate, some simple, all fairly colorful) as well as scarves, all for prices around half what you'd pay in the Khan. Continuing northwards, you go through Bab Zwela and through a giant clothing [and cotton! bags and bags of cotton, all stuffed to the brim, looking for all the world like giant cottonballs] market that wraps itself around and nearly obscures a number of beautiful mosques. Finally you emerge on Sharia Al Azhar, just steps away from the fmaous Khan al Khallili market, and several big-name mosques (including Al Azhar Mosque). This time I had more people than usual, which made it a bit difficult. It was also complicated by the fact that we visited the Ibn Tuluun Mosque, which I had never been before, started out relatively late (so it was getting dark), and this time I sort-of had to compete with another "guide"--my friend Samir from Helwan, who occasionally took it upon himself to lead the group around, for better or worse. Still it was really fun and the girls (it was three female friends from my school) all ended up buying a number of scarves at the Tentmaker's Market.

Tuesday I went for another visit to Samir in Helwan, and I met up with him again last night; he invited me to a special celebration of the 36th anniversary of the papacy of Pope Shenouda II, the Coptic Pope. There was a massive crowd, the giant cathedral was packed with people. There were also a couple of small markets (similar to craft fairs, I guess, although mostly manufactured goods were being sold, although a few monasteries were selling cooked goods). It was the first clothing I'd bought in Egypt apart from underwear: three nice Egyptian cotton shirts, together costing me 90£E (around $17). In the service, a crowd of young people started chanting بلطول بلعرض، البابا زاي الورد (biTool, bil'ard, il Baba zey el ward) which literally translates to "far, wide, Baba (the pope) is like a flower!" but my friend Samir informed me that this really meant that no matter what happened to the Pope, he remained in good health (and he is pretty healthy for an Egyptian in his mid 80s).

So that takes us up to the present. My brother is coming in a couple of hours, and the rest of my family in a few days. I can't wait. I imagine I'll be too busy to write anything, but really, what's new?

PS: This is why I can't write blog updates. I don't make blog entries, I make blog explosions!