Saturday, August 30, 2008

there are no diamonds in the mine

I decided to go on one last walk through Maadi tonight.  I'm planning to move to my new place tomorrow.  I promise to write up the rest of my apartment search soon.

I left my building and looked for my kittens.  None of them were there.  There's usually a black car parked outside whose tires they like to hide behind, but it was too dark for me to see underneath.  So I climbed the stairs and crossed the green cigarette-strewn footbridge over the tracks to Sakanet el Maadi.  This area of town tries very hard to be American, but it never quite succeeds.  From half a block away, I could hear Pizza Hut still throbbing with the bass of some third-rate techno song.  Right after I walked by, a moped with KFC painted in bright red on the rear sped past me and smashed into a slow-moving black-and-white taxi.  No one seemed hurt, but the driver got out of his cab to yell at the delivery man and the delivery man got off his moped to yell at the driver.  A man on a bike with a massive plate of bread balanced on his head rode through the altercation.  I was worried that he would fall; and the plate did tip precariously, with all of the bread sliding and piling up against one side; but somehow he made it through without dropping a single piece.

I turned down a side street and saw a group of boys playing soccer with a tan mud-caked ball.  They were very good.  Some of them seemed to be showing off, bouncing the ball off of their knees and head before going in to score.  A little boy in a red Spiderman shirt sat on the curb, watching them play.  As I got closer, I noticed a crutch propped against the wall beside him.  A few minutes after walking by, I thought (but I wasn't quite sure) that he may have been the boy I saw on the metro on my way home earlier.  This boy threaded his way through the crowds of people on the train car, somehow avoiding hitting anyone with his crutch.  He would stop and prop himself on his good leg and hold out tiny ziploc bags of black and blue and red bic pens, selling them for only one pound.  But I didn't see him get many takers.

Eventually I crossed under the bridge into el Maadi.  Here the McDonald's fade into nameless open-air koshari shops with flies buzzing around the food and groups of men smoking Cleopatra cigarettes out front.  It's far enough into the city that the sky is totally black, without even the few stars that I can see from my balcony back in Sakanet.  There are three men here that sell shoddy electrical appliances (mostly lamps) with shops side-by-side.  A few days ago I played them off one another to save a few pounds on a fan.  Tonight two of the shops were closed, with rusty iron bars lowered in front of the doors and windows.  The three men were in front of the third shop.  They were kneeling on a red rug with gold embroidery, praying.

The traffic was much louder here.  Cars kept honking their horns for no reason that I could know.  I had to turn my ipod up (Leonard Cohen - Songs of Love and Hate).  I get enough stares for being foreign, but using my ipod seems double them.  I try not to do it often, but tonight I made an exception.  I suppose that maybe some of these people have never seen an ipod before.

A group of women wearing full black jilbab were setting up lanterns in preparation for Ramadan.  One woman stood at the top of a tall wooden ladder while two stood below her.  The wind would gust and the two women would grasp the ladder to steady it, but it still seemed to sway more than was safe.  A few of the lanterns were already lit, casting a soft yellow glow on the scene.  It illuminated (very slightly) a nearby rubbish heap.  A group of brown dogs with fox ears stood on one side of the heap, snarling at a group of grey and black and spotted dogs on the other side.

I turned around and walked back by the lamp shops.  The men were done praying and the shops were open again.  All of the lamps outside were turned on, big faux-gold ones and tiny plastic ones with supposed hieroglyphs painted slipshod around the base and lots of Ramadan lanterns.  In the center of it all was a rainbow disco ball; it didn't spin so much as cast all of its colors onto a nearby tree before slowly rotating halfway around its axis and then immediately jolting its lights back to the tree.  Above it all, a pair of ovals joined together like eyeglasses were mounted to the upper wall.  They flashed green, which I thought was a little ironic.

When I returned to my building one of my kittens (the white one with little black and brown spots) was lying in the road.  She wasn't moving.  I panicked more than I probably should have.  I ran into a shop across the road, trying to puzzle out in my mind how to ask for a vet in Arabic.  But when I left the shop, she was gone.  I guess she was just sleeping.

Friday, August 29, 2008

i know pizza hut, and this is no pizza hut

I lived on Pizza Hut the first couple of days I was in town.  It wasn't quite as bad of an idea as it might sound--the pizza is a bit better than it is in America, and a small only costs about $2.  But eventually I eased into Egyptian food, and I never really looked back at old Pizza Hut.  Until I felt a craving a few days ago.  I walked in, ordered my food, and sat down to wait.  And then the music started.  Loud blaring eurotrash techno.  The bass was pounding my brain hard enough that I couldn't hear myself think, let alone talk to the guy next to me.  And then Barney the dinosaur came waltzing up the stairs.  That green dinosaur followed closely behind, and right behind it came the yellow one.  They started hopping (or maybe it was dancing?) around the restaurant, and a room full of children shrieked in either joy or terror (it was very hard to tell).  This continued the entire time I was there.  Having a poorly put-together green dinosaur gyrating right in front of your face to an electro remix of Hips Don't Lie doesn't really do much to stir the appetite.

I was ready to write this all off as a bad dream until I felt another Pizza Hut craving today.  I walked in to see a bright red something-or-other spinning around on a table while an Egyptian rip-off of Bust a Move made the entire room rattle.  When a pink pig with a rainbow vest and child molester eyes walked up the stairs, I wanted very badly to leave.

Monday, August 25, 2008

let's find a flat

I have a flat now.  Two of them, actually.  I've got another couple weeks in my current one, and last night I signed the contract for a new place.  I'll probably move in Friday.  Not that there's anything wrong with where I'm staying now.  I like it quite a lot, actually.  I'm sharing it with a British journalist, mid-20's.  He spends most evenings playing a cheap Egyptian guitar (the climate has destroyed its strings).  After dinners we share a little scotch for desert and he tells me stories about Cairo, sometimes.  Other times he goes off on spirited rants about his job in an impressively heavy accent.  He's a good guy.  The flat is good, too.  I'll put pictures up whenever my internet decides to be cooperative.  It's on a quiet street in Maadi with more cats than people.  A family of palm-sized white-and-brown kittens live just outside.  We feed them our leftovers.

There's only one flaw to the place: it's really far from everywhere I need to be.  So a few days ago I contacted a guy to find me a new place.  His name is Mohamed (everyone here is named Mohamed).  He came with the highest recommendations from cairoscholars.  A few days ago, we met very late in the evening near the big red KFC sign in Midan Tahrir.  We took a cab to Nasr City with a chain-smoking driver who liked to blare Arab pop through the speakers and sing along.  He couldn't sing very well.  Mohamed sang too.  He was much better.

Our destination was a tiny open-air office beside a gas station.  It was full of overstuffed green chairs crowded around a beaten brown coffee table sitting on a faded red Persian rug.  An off-yellow conch shell sat on the table, used as an ash tray.  The semsar told us that the landlord would be ready soon.  We waited, and everyone lit cigarettes, and we waited, and a boy brought us bottles of Pepsi, and we waited some more.  Mohamed took this opportunity to tell me his life story.

There's one thing you ought to know about Mohamed.  Mohamed is a pop star.  At least, Mohamed very much thinks that he ought to be a pop star.  He told me that he cut an album two years ago.  When we were riding in a cab earlier, he pointed at a billboard.  "That man!  You see that man!?"  "The one advertising shampoo?"  "Yes, that man!  You know who that man is?"  "No."  "That man is (some Arab name, probably Mohamed).  He is very famous."  "Oh, really?"  "Yes, very very famous.  When I made my album, he sang backup in my choir.  Now he is famous and I am not."  "Oh, that doesn't seem fair..."  "No, but I will be famous one day, insha'allah."  "I bet you will, Mohamed."

While we were still waiting, Mohamed introduced me to his partner Noor.  Noor was a pop composer.  One of his songs was featured on an Egyptian TV show.  He was very proud of it.  Noor confided in me, as if it were some great secret, that he dreamed of writing a song for Amr Diab one day.  Mohamed and Noor told me that one day they will throw a big party where their band will play; and if I am still in Egypt, they will invite me.  Based on how often they brought it up, I suspect that they may have been serious.

We waited some more.  Noor whispered that the owner was one of the long-beards, so he might be praying.  Whatever he was doing, he finally showed after close to an hour.  All of us, me and Mohamed and Noor and the owner and a couple of miscellaneous bored Egyptians, walked down the street to the building.  It was a nice street, lots of people and lots of little shops but not much traffic.  We climbed two flights of stairs to the flat.  It was massive: three bedrooms, an entry room, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a big balcony overlooking an open-air produce market.  The furniture was a little shabby and the beds (all five of them) weren't terribly comfortable, but all-in-all it was rather nice.  The owner was very proud of the view of the garden from the windows on the other side of the flat.  The garden was a charming patch of dirt featuring a few half-dug holes.  If it's ever completed, I suppose it might look very nice.  I decided to take a day or two to think about the flat.

To be continued.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

please let's not get arrested, ok?

I woke up and I went to talk to James and he asked me what I needed and I said a cell phone.  So he gave me the simplest directions possible to find a mobile phone shop (take a left, cross the footbridge, take a right, you're there).  And filled with confidence that I was going to get myself a brand new Egyptian cell phone, I left the flat and took a right.  And I found myself in some sort of desolate railroad wasteland.  A group of very angry-looking Egyptian men were staring very intently at a very slightly discolored patch of sand.  I wasn't sure if they were going to mug me or maybe eat my flesh, but I needed to ask someone for directions.

I asked.  They smiled and one of them began escort me out of the home for old trains, asking me what I needed.  I spoke broken Arabic and he spoke broken English and we both gestured madly, and eventually I pulled out my now-no-signal-receiving old phone and pointed at it.  My Egyptian friend (hereafter referred to as Mohamed), pulled out his phone, smiled, and said "you make call."  I tried to tell him that I wanted to buy a phone, but Mohamed just smiled and shoved his phone into my hand.  "No.  No worry.  You make call."  Repeat a few half-dozen times.

Eventually we came to an agreement that I did, in fact, want to buy a phone.  Mohamed took to his new task with enthusiasm.  He smiled and took off on a mad dash down the street while I struggled to follow him.  He ran into a run-down green metro station and waited for me to catch up.  Then he hopped a turnstile.  I stood there staring.  He gestured at me to come with him and, not having a clue what else to do, I figured I may as well.  So I hopped.  He took off on a sprint through a crowd of Egyptians waiting for the train, and again I followed.

We reached a dirty sun-stained ramp going up.  As we ascended a little yellow motorcycle sped past us.  I stopped.  Mohamed didn't; he just turned his head, smiled, and gestured at me to get going.  Then a big red motorcycle sped past us and I decided he had the right idea.

We ran through another crowd of Egyptians and reached another set of turnstiles.  These had a small crowd of policemen in crisp white uniforms and black berets standing just outside.  Right in front of them, Mohamed hopped the turnstile.  I gestured at the police.  Mohamed smiled and held down the turnstile a little so it would be easier to jump.  I couldn't go back without facing motorcycley death, so I waved at the cops and hopped Mohamed's turnstile.

Another mad dash down the street (no police reaction whatsoever) and Mohamed pointed out a crumbling stone building.  "Phone here."  I said thank you a quarter-thousand times.  He smiled and walked off, shouting goodbyes behind him as he went.  I think I like Egyptians.

i do not like long flights, no i don't

The title says it all, really.  It took 19 hours to get from DFW to Cairo.  The first leg was a three hour flight to DC.  I fell asleep before takeoff and didn't wake until we were landing.  I bummed around Dulles for a couple of hours until my next flight.  I probably got something to eat but I couldn't tell you for sure--I was still in a very dreamy sort of haze.

For the flight to Frankfurt, I sat between a German girl and a nice old man.  Nice, but more than a little senile.  He was endlessly fascinated by everything going on around him and endlessly unable to figure any of it out (no sir, that's a sucker she has in her mouth, not a cigarette.  no, that doesn't mean you can smoke.  really.  that boy over there?  he's watching a movie on his ipod.  ipod... i-p-o-d.  it's like a walkman.  no, it isn't a walkman, i said it plays music like a walkman.  yes sir, he's watching a movie on his walkman.  sigh).  The German girl was perfectly pleasant to me, but she kept getting in shouting matches with the family behind us for reasons that I could never quite pin down.  Eventually everyone fell asleep.

I woke when we arrived in Frankfurt.  I got a chance to practice my German and, more importantly, visit the airport bar.  The beer I had there may have been the most delicious drink I've ever tasted, although coming off a seven-
hour flight just might have had something to do with it.  That, or the Germans just really know their stuff.

I sat by a very talkative lady on my flight to Cairo.  She recommended some sort of expatriate club in Maadi to me.  It sounded like the type of place where ladies gossip over the sewing circle and bluehairs play bridge.  When I couldn't take anymore I fell asleep.

After a quick trip to the duty-free and an even quicker trip through customs, I took an overpriced and overlong cab ride to my flat.  My new flatmate James poured me a beer and he got very excited when I told him I brought scotch.  It was a bonding experience, I guess.  Then I fell asleep.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

i went downtown and it burned up

Testing 1 2 3

I meant to set this up a week ago, but I'd been too busy/tired.  I'll try to write up the past few days soon.

I went downtown for the first time today.  After emerging from the metro I was greeted by this.  See the smoke?  That's the Shura Council building, the high house of Egypt's parliament, on fire.  I hope this isn't an omen.