Wednesday, March 26, 2008

جمهورية مصر العربية

my friend michelle and i originally intended to head to syria for our week's vacation in mid-february (over a month ago! oops.) however, when the visa turned out to be more of a hassle than we'd expected and a cheap flight to cairo turned up, we decided on egypt. michelle studied arabic in college and wanted to go to an arabic-speaking country - unfortunately, the dialect difference turned out to be a big problem - but egypt it was.
km m t
("egypt" in hieroglyphics)

so on february 9th we left snowy bilkent, ankara. . .

. . .for warm, dusty cairo. (notice the pyramids in the distance.)

for the first two nights we stayed with my friend dan from semester at sea who is currently teaching english in the suburb of 6 october. our first-day attempt to get to cairo on a minibus accidentally took us to the sphinx (much smaller than i expected) plopped down immediately next to three pyramids and the sprawling town of giza (not out in the desert at all like my imagined geography had me think.) we paid a chunk of money to climb up inside the biggest pyramid, which involved crawling up a claustrophobic, diagonal coffin-shaped space - squeezing past people going both up and down - only to arrive at a small, musty stone room with nothing inside. the pyramids were certainly different than i'd expected, but seeing such an iconic landmark up close (and the accompanying horrific tourism machine clunking along with it) was still an interesting experience.

dan took us to a great lebanese restaurant in 6 october for falafel, hummus, baba ganouj, nargile (called shisha in egypt) and great seats to watch the televised african cup football match - egypt vs. cameroon - which egypt won 1 - 0. this resulted in CHAOS across the city: male-dominated mayhem in the streets, chanting, singing, and dancing, and impromptu torches made by lighting hairspray cans on fire.

we spent the next few days in cairo going to the egyptian museum (with an amazing mummy collection), eating stuffed pigeons, wandering around Islamic cairo and the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, and having the best shisha & coffee ever at naguib mahfouz's favorite coffee shop (Fishawi.) cairo shocked me: despite the traffic and pollution, i found it much more manageable and pleasant than people/guidebooks suggested.

to my delight, cairo actually reveled itself through rose-colored glasses: valentines day was approaching and stores went all out with pink lights, flowers, and gifts (particularly lingerie stores - an interesting contrast with the mostly covered female population.) michelle and i celebrated by buying each other bags of relatively fancy chocolate which turned out to be awful - coming from me, that's saying a lot. my heart was elsewhere. . .

later, michelle and i took an overnight train to luxor. even though we splurged for the tourist sleeper car, michelle got sick from the food and hung out in our hostel room for the first day. i rented two bicycles (both which immediately got flat tires) and consequently got invited up to an apartment with some curious pre-teen kids. we had a "chip and dance party" (their idea) and i got headscarf-ed and my nails painted. this was fun until i announced i had to leave and an entire apartment full of children (new faces had mysteriously and exponentially arrived) started wailing and following me down the street with my (equally mysteriously repaired) bicycle.

over the next two days we took a falluca boat trip on the nile, hung out with some brits living in syria and americans living in israel, smoked shisha much stronger (and better) than in turkey, and saw a few beautiful moons/sunsets.

despite a dull questioning in the back of my mind regarding the ethics of visiting tombs, we went on a tour of the valley of the kings (and queens) and saw some beautiful paintings and hieroglyphics. photos weren't allowed in the tombs, but below are some shots from a nearby temple.

in the evening, we visited the extremely impressive luxor temple bathed in beautiful sunset-light and relaxed for a while. we unknowingly missed the karnak temple (!!) but by that time were so worn out we had no problem wandering back to the hostel and trying some cups of beans/pasta/meat as suggested by our friend paul.

back in cairo, we went to the beautiful and relaxing coptic neighborhood where we visited some museums and churches and, later, hung out in the bookstores of a foreigner/upscale neighborhood called Zamalek for a while.

two things overriding all other experiences were watching the tourism machine of egypt function (for me, at least, an amazing, depressing, and difficult system to see) and being one half of a young, white, unaccompanied female duo. even though we were pretty well covered up and remained as inconspicuous as possible, michelle and i had some serious issues with harassment from men. it was never a dangerous feeling - more of a nagging, omnipresent sense of objectification - but it really bothered me. i've never really felt like a piece of meat on display before egypt. there was mild harassment in parts of india, tanzania, and brazil, but nothing like what we experienced in egypt. i wonder if this has anything to do with it. . .

finally it was back to turkey, where i spent the rest of the weekend hanging around in the snow/sleet/slush of istanbul with my friend iman before taking an overnight bus to ankara.

right now i'm deep into the third (out of four) course i'm teaching. because the level i'm teaching is lower and includes more repeat students, it's much more difficult than past courses . i'm unfortunately also working more hours this semester; combined with some scheduling problems and worn-out-ness, i'm no longer taking graduate or turkish classes. work is getting increasingly frustrating, but luckily i've spent every other weekend in istanbul - this weekend i have plans to rent a car & visit gallipoli. brie visited & we had a great time. . .john is coming in 3 weeks. . .mallory and jared are coming mid-may. . .and rachelle is most likely coming in june! other than anticipating visitors i'm mostly waiting to hear from grad schools. . .

. . .but it is spring, and that's a great thing. here's my first haft sin table to celebrate nowruz:

happy new year.