October 11, 2011

Cairo: A B-student

Everything you’ve heard about Egypt is half-true, more than true, or a complete lie. I guess it’s cliché to say that a desert country is like a mirage, but I feel like that’s the most apt simile: things I read in the news, things I heard from archaeologists, and things I read in my guidebook are either entirely misleading or underwhelming in their descriptions. Or perhaps it’s like the three blind men describing an elephant. One sees the pyramids and says it’s a land of mystic and ancient beauty, one sees the vendors and says it’s full of hassling Arabs, and one sees the revolution and calls it a land of democratic promise offset by fifty years of tyranny. It’s none of these, and all of these, and more besides.

I arrived in Cairo on Wednesday night. The airport was absolutely gorgeous – made of granite so polished that a “CAUTION WET FLOOR” sign would not save you a broken back in the slightest. I have tried to dress conservatively, but I was still one of many women with uncovered hair and trousers. I was met by a hired driver named Isem, who took me on one of the scariest drives of my life. Cairo Airport is surrounded by a few kilometers of desert before you reach the main highway. Suddenly we were going close to 200 km/h with absolutely no warning before a giant traffic jam appeared. We sat in traffic for a good 20 minutes before coming to the funnel point: Isem pointed right and said, “accident.” Three cars had collided and were upside down at 20-meter intervals. This seemed to have occurred hours ago, as they were all moved off the road and only a few people were standing by with some police, the injured presumably having been removed from the scene. Yes: this was a four-lane traffic jam of rubberneckers. Practically as soon as Isem had made his diagnosis, we were back at 200, no lessons learned.

Cairo is a huge city, much bigger than I expected. A quarter of the Arab population lives in Egypt, and most of Egypt lives in Cairo, a city of 20 million. The friends with whom I was staying, Ramya and Alex, live in a district called Maadi about a 20-minute drive from “downtown”, although I was never clear where we were on a map as the city doesn’t readily provide them. Wednesday night they took me out for late dinner to have kushary, which is Cairo’s favorite fast food. Kushary is a mixture of short pasta tubes, rice, vermicelli, lentils, chickpeas, and crisped onions over which one pours tomato sauce and can add optional lemon-vinegar or chili sauce. A large bowl costs 7 Egyptian pounds (about $1.17). It was delicious.

Thursday Ramya and Alex had to work, so I had hired a guide to see the Egyptian Museum. We took the highway, which appeared to have no painted lines, and turned off onto a street we shared with taxis, minivans, a selection of Japanese sedans, and donkey carts. I thought at first the donkey cart was a single, lone donkey, lost in a sea of vehicles; I was mistaken. It is clearly an official mode of transit, and they always get right of way because they stop slower. I noticed a number of things about Egyptian cars besides that they’re mostly Japanese (Toyota, Daihatsu, Honda, and the like, not a Chevy to be seen): they’re all old and filthy. I’d place 90% of the cars on the road as pre-1990, and I doubt any have been washed since then. (Considering their age, the engines must be kept remarkably clean in order to run.) Everything in the city builds up a layer of grime from the pollution, which hangs over the city like a ratty blanket, and the encroaching desert. If you sweep, it just comes back the next day. Anyway, the one very popular non-Japanese car is actually a Soviet model, the Fiat Lada. All old-style Cairo taxis are Ladas, which ceased production in 1979. In addition to the taxis, which are painted white with a blue stripe, there are thousands of privately owned Ladas in all colors and states of repair. Actually, I’m pretty sure I saw a Yugo as well, but I can’t be sure. Additionally, some people try to soup up their Ladas or Hondas or whatever by adding an Audi decal right above the real logo. This isn’t fooling anyone, but is a good explanation for what happened to the decal stolen off my dad’s BMW a few years ago. Later I saw a truck with “Kaweseki” painted on it in the exact style of the Kawasaki name. Really, though – if you’re going to pick a brand to fake, why not just go for Ferrari? Low ambitions in that field, apparently.

My guide in the Egyptian Museum (also known as the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, The Egypt Museum, and the Cairo Museum, depending whom you ask) was Mohammed, a nice young guy who studied hieroglyphics. We saw the first floor, all statuary, first. The objects most worthy of note are the Narmer palette, an Old Kingdom piece of carved green schist with scenes of Narmer defeating his enemies, and a wooden statue of a priest with eyes that follow you. Seriously. Every Egyptian statue I’ve seen has painted or carved eyes. This one had irises made of polished stone, sort of a glass marble effect. They looked completely normal until Mohammed shined his cell phone’s light on them and then it was CREEPY. Upstairs were the mummy galleries, which required an extra ticket. They were really well preserved, and all the famous ones – Hatshepsut, Ramses II, all the other Ramses, etc. They displayed them very respectfully, with only the heads and feet shown – sort of a nap-time mummy. The room was cool and dim, and each mummy was in a temp-checked glass case on a pedestal with a small informational plaque.  For the most part, they all had hair, ears, nails, and eyelids; it was quite a darling habit of the New Kingdom that they wrapped each mummy toe individually instead of all together. (If anyone is interested, ancient Egyptians all had the second toe longer than the first.) Another room contained animal mummies, the most impressive of which was a 4-meter Nile crocodile. This was found with babies in its mouth – they live in there until they’re big enough not to be eaten if they swim independently – so they think it’s a female. Accompanying it was a tiny mummy baby croc, no bigger than a house lizard.

Two wings of the second floor were filled with things from the tomb of Tutankhamun. To put it in perspective: the Egyptian Museum is maybe ¾ the size of the British Museum’s main buildings, laid out in a square with a central courtyard. Two entire sides of the square had Tut stuff. Sadly, some of it was looted in the January revolution, at which Mohammed shook his head sadly. (“National treasures,” he says. “Some of my favorite objects.”) There was Tut’s walking sticks and Tut’s thrones and Tut’s senet board; Tut’s jewelry and Tut’s statuettes and Tut’s makeup palettes. A textile gallery displayed Tut’s shirts, dresses, shawls, socks, gloves, and underwear (yes, underwear). There was Tut’s sedan chair and his umbrella. Then there were four huge gold rooms – rooms! – that nested inside each other, the innermost of which held his coffin. Having seen these and having seen the actual tomb, I’m really unsure how they actually fit inside, as it’s rather small. Or, on the modern end, how they got them out! There was a room with additional security where they kept all the “special” things, which you may have seen in the “Tut’s Tomb” traveling exhibition. I saw it at the Field Museum – his sarcophagus, and the famous gold and lapis lazuli mask, and all the jewellery and amulets. The most interesting thing there, though, was a collection of gift shop boxes from the Met along with a sign saying “These objects repatriated from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York March 2011.” A few pieces of jewellery were haphazardly strewn about. But really? Still in boxes? From the gift shop?

Speaking of which, the Egyptian Museum no longer has a gift shop. It was looted in January and never reopened. Apparently a lot of jewellery was stolen, so it would be expensive to replace it all.

For lunch, Mohammed asked where I wanted to eat. When I said I wanted Egyptian food, he was slightly confused. He thought there was some place over by the Nile… clearly this was not a question many tourists ask, as they seem happy enough to sit in the museum café, which charges exorbitant prices for bottled water and American-style food. I asked if he liked kushary, and his face lit up. “You like kushary! I will take you to Kushary al-Tahrir!” Then I learned how to cross the street, Cairo-style. He grabbed my hand, placing me downstream of the traffic. We waited for a decent break in the first lane, then ambled across to the second. A car went by, then another, then finally we moved slowly to the third, making eye contact with each driver, then finally scuttled to the other side. We had to do this three more times to circle Tahrir Square to get to the restaurant. Apparently it’s less like in the US, where a quick run does the trick, but more like a river crossing downstream of a pack of mother hippos. They can run at you terribly fast unless you stare them down and show no fear. After lunch we went to the Hanging Gardens, the oldest Coptic church in Cairo. The Coptic church is most like Greek Orthodox, with lots and lots of icons against an iconostasis, and heavy fumes of incense. Everything was beautiful inside – this country does inlaid wood like Britain does model Big Bens. There was not a single surface without excessive pearl and ivory inlays. The church seated probably 100 people, and there happened to be a service going on. They were chanting, probably in Coptic – actually the language of Ptolemaic Egypt written with mostly Greek letters.

Afterwards, we went to the oldest mosque in Africa, built in 642. This was so soon after the hejira that Ramya couldn’t believe it until I showed her the guidebook. It was very peaceful, with an open marble courtyard surrounded by prayer areas on four sides and an inlaid Qublah. It was not the most beautiful of mosques, but I guess being really old counts for a lot. I later learned this is the “unofficial” mosque of the Muslim Brotherhood. Outside, I had my first experience with the tissue salesmen. Ramya had warned me: this country has a weird obsession with tissues. Everybody loves tissues. Toilet paper in public bathrooms is not common, and paper towels are almost impossible to find, but tissues are available en masse. Beggars sell tissue packs in little trays outside mosques, on the side of the street, and in the middle of roads, like the sock salesman at the corner of Garfield and the Dan Ryan. If you sneeze, people come at you with tissues. I asked Mohammed why they weren’t selling cigarettes or bottled water, and he replied, “Not everybody smokes, and if you are fasting you can not have water… everyone can use tissues.” Which I guess is as good an answer as any. And people buy them too, not like the dude’s socks for sale. Speaking of which, I expected a lot more people to be smoking. True, there was smoking in restaurants, but it wasn’t like everyone was lighting up every second, as Anna led me to believe. In fact, the only people I actually saw smoking were French tourists, unless you count the hookahs.

Now, another thing I expected was that all men would wear galabiyas (sort of like a floor-length tunic-robe) and all women would wear hijabs (that’s the one wrapped around the hair and chin). How utterly wrong of me. Women generally dressed conservatively – shoulders covered, and long skirt or pants – but many had uncovered hair. Many more had a stylish hijab and wore a skintight long-sleeve shirt under a regular shirt and pants. Fewer wore a chador, sort of like the veil in Persepolis, and a small but visible minority wore a burkha, complete with black gloves, only the eyes showing; these are only the types of veils I know the names of, but the variety is endless. However, all women, no matter they were wearing, matched impeccably. You know how hard it is to match a bag and shoes to a dress? How about matching a bag, shoes, hijab, and fancy scarf? And then women going out on Saturday night – imagine a regular long, strapless party gown, but super sparkly. Now, under it is a white sparkly skintight shirt. And a white hijab with fluffy flowery decorations, bits of lace stuck in to make shapes, and white face powder. It’s practically Marie Antoinette. Somehow, despite the pollution, everyone manages to have beautiful skin. Men, too, have a dress code of sorts. Many men – maybe 30% of those I saw – wear the galabiya in brown, grey, tan, dark blue, or other colors in the Eddie Bauer mens’ collection with leather sandals. The rest all wear colorful collared shirts. Older mean wear short-sleeve collared shirts with slacks; young men wear short- or long-sleeve collared shirts with jeans or dress pants. They all seem to wear nice shoes. Another thing clearly noticeable is their impeccable grooming (maybe the tissues are related to this?). Short, manicured nails are a necessity for “a certain class” – that is, anyone above laborers, who still had nice nails for the most part. Egyptians have fabulous dark hair, in some state of curl from a light wave to ringlet curls; the “Sammy Davis Jr.” hairstyle seems to be popular. All hair must be gelled and styled. Moustaches are big, both in size and popularity. The “Freddie Mercury” was seen on a number of individuals. They must trim and brush their moustaches daily, as I did not see a single facial hair out of place, no matter the apparent class. Speaking of which, Ramya and Alex pointed out that Egypt is one of the few places we (collectively) have seen in which the laboring class is the same ethnicity as the middle and upper classes, however one wishes to divide them. Egyptians come in all shapes and colors, from European-light to Sudanese-dark. (I actually think they’re united by beautiful hair.) There are Egyptians of all skin tones driving donkey carts and driving taxis and riding in the backseat of hired cars. I don’t know what this says for national unity, but it’s certainly interesting to notice the variety, as I’m sure everyone pictures a stereotypical Arab when you hear the word “Egyptian”. Ramya has also seen six albino Egyptians, once when she was with me.

Another note on Cairo: as I drove along the highway with Isem, I noticed that many buildings were in a state of near-completion. They were brick, with people clearly occupying the lower levels, but the top would just be left open. There were piles of rebar and brick sitting around, waiting to be used; one building even had wallpaper on it top level, but no roof. It’s as if someone plans to build an 8-story apartment building, gets to level 6, and gives up, like when I play video games. The kushary restaurant we went to the first night was entirely made of white polished marble, from the walls down to the outdoor patio. It was beautiful. But at the edges, the marble wasn’t cut to form a proper curb but rather kind of chiseled off, like they had gotten to the last day of work and just went “eh” *shoulder shrug*. The city is full of gorgeous colonial buildings badly in need of a wash. They aren’t short of water as they get it all from downstream, but each and every building is in dire need of a good hosing. Streets in Garden City, the district with stately homes and foreign embassies, has trash littering every block. Nice neighborhoods are interspersed with piles of construction dirt and equipment, and sidewalks (when they exist) are in complete disrepair. You can’t even blame the revolution for decreasing governance or building standards, as this stuff was clearly a problem before. But that’s the thing: it isn’t enough of a problem to fix. What we decided is thus: Cairo is a smart B-student. Clearly it has potential. It has such a good history, and it has all the skills to succeed. Maybe it has problems at home, maybe it’s afraid to apply itself, maybe it’s just too darn lazy. But it needs to get its act together to really be world-class.

Coming up: Street markets, camels, and Luxor!

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