copy Excellent Adventures in Egypt

Enter here to share Joni's adventures living and working in Cairo courtesy of the U.S. Fulbright cultural exchange program. Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilization. - Mahatma Ghandi


September 4, 2004

Dateline Saturday, September 4, 5 pm. I am being held hostage in my flat by the washing machine. I had the great idea to run some of my mushed up clothing through a rinse cycle, then hang it out on my convenient balcony-side solar dryer to get the wrinkles out. Everything seemed to be going well: I converted Celsius to Fahrenheit and selected a suitable cycle, stuffed the clothes in the machine’s maw, pushed the button and – presto, it merrily churned and jiggled itself along through filling and draining and spinning…then it stopped and wouldn’t give me my clothes back. I tried running other cycles, I tried begging and whining and pounding on its little metal sides – nothing could convince it to open the door and disgorge the clothes. After four hours I started knocking up the neighbors and finally found a lovely young woman (trailed by an adorable moppet with a headful of Shirley Temple curls) who took time to explain to this crazy American that “if you just wait ten minutes the door will open.” I waited ten minutes – nothing. I ran another cycle and waited ten minutes. Nothing. I went across the street to the Menatel phone booth to make some calls, thinking maybe this was ten minutes Egyptian time. (I haven’t mastered the inside phone yet – very complicated, even in English). You guessed it. Finally, in desperation, I went to the bawaab – that’s the elderly gentleman who sits by the door all day, keeping an eye on goings and comings in the building. He’s a lovely, courteous gentleman in a gallabiyah and prayer cap who speaks no English whatsoever – and my Arabic is limited to the “izzayak?” variety. (That’s “how ya doin’?” to those of you unitiated into the mysteries of ‘arabiy.) I somehow managed to make myself understood, and – in due course – the bawaab ascended the lift to my fourth floor flat and processed into the bathroom to pull on the washer door…confirming that it was, indeed, locked in place and not likely to surrender its bounty of clothing any time soon. He mumbled something incomprehensible in Arabic and descended again to the lower floor, leaving me to chew my lower lip and wonder about household gods and sacrifices required of new tenants. So I decided to take all this like a true Cairene. I shrugged, said en sha’allah a time or two and am now perched on a chair on my little verandah, enjoying the lively people traffic on the street below and the even lovelier Nile view beyond. Yes, dear friends, I have a Nile view – not your high rise, high rent views-all-the-way-to-Giza kind of view, but a respectable slice of satin-sheen water, modewstly framed by the buildings at the end of the street. My apartment is in Zamalek, on the island of Gezira, which is right in the middle of Central Cairo and the Nile. (Think I’le de Cite in Paris.) My building is located at the extreme northern tip of the island just around the corner from the Corniche and the Colonel’s chicken – no reason to be homesick for those of you coming to visit. (For those of you with Cairo maps look for Mohammed Mazhar street, right next to Andrea’s restaurant.) Great location! And great apartment – roomy and comfortable, with two big bedrooms and sunny windows that catch the Nile breeze – a good thing, since I find it to be hot even though the locals say it’s cooling. There is a fine sheen of dust on everything, except where that fine sheen looks more like a fleece coat wrapped around the tree leaves. It’s hot and dusty with a hint of changing seasons in the air. Cairo stays pretty sleepy until late afternoon (people holed up inside to stay out of the heat) then gradually comes alive as the sun sinks into the west. By sunset, the streets are full of kids with bikes and balls, couples and herds of young people strolling, men chatting in little groups, women sitting on doorsteps as they keep an eye on the littlest ones. Most shops haven’t been open in the afternoon – it’s the weekend here – but I have found a few dedicated vendors as I’ve undertaken various quests for essential goods. Fortunately, Egyptians are courteous and patient and only too willing to be entertained by a crazy foreigner mangling the language, helping me along with finding shaanun duseH (file folders), kilibsaat waraﺀ (paper clips) and seluteep (sound it out). With the help of my new life-long friend Ahmed the electrical purveyor, I am even the proud owner of a bedside reading lamp. Now if I can only find a fattaa’a (can opener)… Tonight, bolstered with plunder from my successful forays into the teeming streets, I cooked for the first time in my own tiny little kitchen. Last night I declined the tempting neon sign marked KFC and dined instead at the aforementioned Andrea’s, a lovely terrace restaurant perched below the Corniche on the banks of the river. The menu was standard Masri (grilled chicken, chicken kebob, kafta, mixed grill) and excellently done. My dining companion was a dapper young gentlemen decked out in grey tiger stripes- very mannerly and quite sophisticated in the mores of Cairene dining. He fixed those luminous green eyes on me and never said a word, just waited patiently for his share of the chicken. He politely polished the flesh from a bone, washed his face and sauntered off, leaving me with more chicken to unload. Fortunately, his younger and less sophisticated little brother – gray and white puffs with an extraordinarily long tail – appeared shortly thereafter and was persuaded to indulge despite his skittish manners. Unfortunately, upon my return to the flat I was introduced to the Building Cat, who was not at all pleased with my offering of milk and cheese when she could smell chicken on my fingers – may the can of friskies on my counter soon atone. It was a lovely evening by the Nile: golden streamers of light reaching across the black water, soft ripples as boats drifted past. Friday is wedding night in Cairo, and every few minutes a procession of cars would trail by on the western shore, hooting a rhythmic beep-beep-bip-bip in honor of the bride and groom (said hoots not to be confused with the arrhythmic, uncoordinated beeping that is the backdrop to the cacophony of modern el-qahiyra.) A few passenger ferries roared by, all gussied up with colored lights and blaring pop music for the benefit of tourists on board. (Newsflash: This is not a city to come for peace and quiet.) And so to close – time to join those Cairenes on the street as I continue my project of finding my way round the neighborhood. FYI, I will try to set up a website or blog in the near future so I can post these missives and just send y’all a link, thereby freeing up mailboxes for important messages. Stay cool and ma es’salaama! – Joni PS: The bawaab has returned, with a younger man in tow. Said younger man is equipped with many screwdrivers and a pair of plyers. He has fiddled with the back of the beast, taken off its top, ticked its innards and convinced it to cough up the clothes. And all at the cost of only one button off my best pair of pants. Sigh – en sha’allah!


At 3:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi Joni
I'm Ahmed from Egypt ,I saw your blog's really good , you know I saw things I didn't see in my countery ;like places in Alexandria and the sight seeings,I didn't expect that you will read this comment, but I just sent it.
this is my mail if you read it and want to be connect with me
bye for now
sincerly yours
from Egypt

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