Posts Tagged ‘ pyramids

Two Kingdoms

I won’t fool myself into thinking I can come close to capturing what was a whirlwind 36 hours in Egypt. But I’ll share with you some impressions before they fade from my mind, while I’m still worn out and dazed from the experience.

Cairo is like no place I’ve been. It’s hot and bustling like New York, sans the expectation that everyone be provided a red carpet; people adjust and make the best of the present. The taxi meters don’t work? Everyone knows what a fair price should be. (Now THAT’S capitalism). Door on the train doesn’t work? You’d have to be an idiot to hang out there while the train is running anyway. The smog is visible and people often hock up half of what they breathe in. Crossing the road means sucking it up and jumping in front of a bus. Many people drive without their headlights at night for fear that their hand-me-down-from-Europe cars will burn out, but they’ll flash their brights to let you know you can cross (whilst they’re still speeding towards you). I didn’t feel my life was in my hands, however, until I tried the other side of the windshield, riding in a white mini-bus, whisking around highways that whiz past the city’s humongous mosques and cathedral.Traffic is terrifying, but I saw no anger or road rage. My taxi driver decided to make a third lane where there once were two; the other cars on the road followed and adjusted appropriately. Instead, as my friend Dan described it, the constant honking is echolocation, letting the others know, “I’m bearing down on you, don’t hit me!”

I took a tour bus with the crew down to Cairo from Alexandria. Our tour guide, a woman named Noaa had a laugh that could blow over trees. With the tourists of the crew in touristy spots, we were badgered with useless crafts, but the minute I split off from the others with a willingness to see the country on its own terms, I was bathed in the generosity of countless Egyptians eager just to communicate, to meet an American. Trading what few words we could muster in Arabic and English, the enthusiasm to reach out and meet a fellow human was unmistakable. Just about every person I met was eager to share something; this one studied Arabic literature; this one lived in Brooklyn for 10 years; this one worked as a pastry chef, on a ship and then in Italy– and then produced a handful of photographs of his life to prove it!

My companion on the train was a kind man who shared that he and his son were both pilots. He told me about the many places he had travelled, including to Israel on Sadat’s historical 1977 visit there (which resulted in the alliance of Egypt and Israel, as it stands today). “It’s beautiful there,” he reminisced, “green everywhere.” I asked him if he saw Israelis as friends of the Egyptian people. He responded affirmitavely. “As-salaam”, he said, “kwoyis li-kulam”: peace is good for everyone. I shared with him that I am Jewish and he reflected that our peoples are cousins. We exchanged numbers and kind words, warmth and a window into another life.Just about everyone showed an enthusiasm for American popular culture, and many a desire to live there. An exchange with a friend from the ship still makes me cringe. My friend uncomfortably told two Egyptians chaperoning our tour that he came from America. “U.S.A.!” they responded heartily. “Don’t do that,” said my friend. “You know you don’t like us.”

It concerns me deeply– distracts me while I’m working and walking by my way– that one particular American shown outward kindness by two strangers in their country reacts with hostility. Confronted with a living, breathing person showing him warmth, he saw only his prejudices, the images and propaganda that flash constantly on American TV. He is a good friend of mine, someone I respect for being genuine– but he left me deeply unsettled.

Along with their love of American pop culture, Egyptians expressed a distaste for George Bush (who supports their president, Hosni Mubarak). I didn’t pry into strangers’ opinions on their government, but Dan had observed a great deal of unhappiness with it. I have read analyses that posit anti-Americanism in Egypt is an expression of dissatisfaction with their own government when outward criticism would be banned.I estimate that 70% of the women I saw in Egypt wore some sort of hijab, headscarf, though it varied greatly in form, from flashy scarves matching tight clothes to fully-covered women with only their spectacles hovering outside their burka. I sensed here and in Turkey that many women choose to wear a headscarf as a way of claiming their own personal space. Stewardesses (stewardae?) dressed to attract attention received leers, but women dressed modestly commanded respect.

I’ve never before seen desert that stretches out as it does from the pyramids. The oft-repeated statistic is that 95% of Egypt’s population lives on 5% of the land, hanging onto the artery that is the Nile. On the train back to Alexandria, I watched people bent over in the sun, heaving to draw some bit of sustenance from that land. For the first time I comprehend what it takes for humans to settle down into societies; the precarious cusp on the sides of which lie a surplus of time and resources or a famine. Oxen stood idly by with skin stretched taut over jutting frames, like mummies with blackened skin, about to crumble back to dust. I wondered if in some remote corner of this wide land there remains an untouched pocket still speaking Coptic, the descendant of the ancient Egyptian language that was gradually replaced by Arabic after the conquests 1300 years ago.

Even just one night spent off the ship made me realize the energy that is missing on the ship, the static electricity of millions of people and ambitions bouncing off of each other all day. Returning to work, I feel like a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit. I can still feel the air in my lungs, a concoction of sweat and smog and desert sand not present in the sterile environment on board. It’s a nice little tanning-bed of a time capsule here, a fantastic chance to window-shop different countries and cultures– but I’m ready to jump back into the water.

You can see some more photos from the last couple weeks here:

-Justin
P.S…. For those to whom I’ve reflected on New York as a falling Rome, here’s a funny collumn from the NYT: “Num Roma sumus?