Busiest day yet!

Trip Start Aug 20, 2005
Trip End Jun 2006

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Today was interesting and stimulating. I actually did a lot (by Egyptian standards and maybe even by American, over-booked college student standards). In the morning, I went w/ some Georgetown ppl (Alice, Aliza, Ryan, Erin D) and Stina, a Norwegian girl who lives in my building, to al-Alzhar Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the world (and also the oldest continuously running university in the world, by some accounts, altho it's an Islamic clerical unvirsity and pretty extreme... as in I'm not sure its teachings have even changed much since it was founded in c. 1000 AD. very intriguing place nonetheless) and Khan al-Khalili, a GIANT outdoor market/bazaar in central Cairo, right next to Al-Azhar. First of all, the contrast between the 2 places couldn't be more stark.
Entering Al-Azhar, we had to take off our shoes and (for women) wear a head covering (they actually had veils available that we could wear, but I had brought a sarong/scarf of my own that sufficed). The whole place, a building that had been added onto over the centuries and was made of marble, sandstone (from the looks of it), Lebanese cedar, ivory and more (all in different places, of course) had a sort of serene stillness to it, a definitely slightly eerie atmosphere. There were not as many ppl there as I had expected; I know it was probably not a popular day and time for devout prayer, but there were really only a handful of Muslims in the mosque, and no other tourists aside from us. Some of the ppl there were praying, others sitting in small rooms off to the side of the main prayer room and outdoor courtyard and reading aloud the Qu'ran, young and old, women (tho women must pray in a seperate room) and men. A few ppl were actually sleeping in the mosque, and others were bent in really weird positions to pray, others seemed to be just kinda hanging around inside. One man's cell phone went off (eeek!!!) and he actually answered it! (my professor for survival Arabic answered his phone in the middle of class the other day... that must not be considered as rude here...)
Anyway, at the end of our tour through ancient walls, courtyards and ceilings, all extensively decorated w/ beautiful carvings and designs (but none of faces of ppl of course -- this is prohibited in Islam), Mohamed our tour guide let us go up one of the minarets (this is like a tower). This involved a long walk up a very dusty, old old old winding staircase. At several points along the way, there was not even any light on our way! On the way down I thought to shine my cell phone flashlight during the dark parts, but even that didn't project much light! The view from the top, however, was astounding. It was basically a 360 degree view of Cairo. really very cool. It was amazing to look down and see the city where I've spent the past 4+ days and will be spending the next 8+ months... I'll definitely be putting some pictures up when I get the chance (maybe today, maybe tomorrow...)

Anyway, our next destination was Khan al-Khalili, a crazy Egyptian marketplace... It was BUSSTLING w/ ppl and everything... SOOO busy and crazy and such a huge contrast from the eerie stillness of al-Azhar. There were ppl selling all sorts of things, ranging from spices in burlap sacks to belly dance outfits to beautiful scarves to baked potatoes fresh from some sort of movable oven-type contraption. There were lots of ppl carrying things around on their heads there... I tried to take a picture of this little kid carrying a huge wooden rack of pita bread on his head, but he said (in English) "no! money!" and by the time I would've negotiated the price (charging me to take his picture...? weird, kinda...) and gotten the money out, friends would've gone on ahead and gotten lost in the crowds, so I declined. Then, this little boy kept accosting me and Aliza, calling us "seniorita" and trying to make conversation... It was annoying, but also kinda cute (the boy couldn't have been more than 9), so part of me felt bad ignoring him, altho that's generally what's advised here, esp for Western women at Khan al-Khalili. I tend to be a trusting person, so having to go against this and be wary of everyone here (for safety reasons and b/c there are sooo many language issues and cultural things I just don't know and can't even assume) is something that I'll definitely have to get used to. At one point this same young boy tried to put his arm around Aliza, and this was just too weird... Then later on, Ryan (I think) said that he saw some guy grab the boy away from our group and beat him up... poor kid...

After Khan al-Khalili -- where I didn't buy anything, basically b/c I was sooo over stimulated by so many new sights and sounds, and there was just too much I could have bought... plus I figured I'd def. be bk there -- we went to the Egyptian McDonalds near AUC before Survival Arabic class. I was quite surprised at the amount of Egyptians that were eating there... and seeming to enjoy it. 'Not what I would have expected (but then anything, what are expectations? and is anything what we expect? how are we even to know?). I also bought a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance for the US equivalent of $2 (not quite thrift store prices, but close) at a small used bookstore next to the McDonalds. I figure I need a good book to read for pleasure while here.

Then, after class, Laura and I went shopping in Zamalek. We went to the cell phone place, since Laura needed to get a phone, where the men behind the desk tried to ask us out (and more... sketchy as ever!). Between Laura asking questions abt cell phone plans, and them trying to explain this to her in broken English, and me, in broken Arabic, trying to get them to clarify things, and all the while them trying to ask us out and ask if we were married... well, it was a rather weird time, believe me. Interesting and kinda amusing, but weird too. At one point one guy even pulled out a poster of Hosni Mubarak and showed it to us. I have no clue why. Then I discovered that telling them "Lee SaHb" -- I have a boyfriend -- shut them up well. I also discovered that the cell phone I had gotten there yesterday didn't have half as many minutes as I thought it did... :-( so i'm kinda mad abt that, and will have to brush up on my Arabic and perhaps bring a guy w/ me tomorrow when I go bk in there to ask the guys for clarification abt that. After the cell phone incident, Laura and I got lost on our way to Alpha Market, this huge grocery store/department store that I really doubt many Egyptians actually shop at (it's Western-brand central!). It has all the essentials, though, and Laura hadn't been there yet and needed to get groceries (I went there yesterday w/ Aliza and Alice, so we went. On our way we stopped to ask some ppl on the street for directions, and this one man offered to show us the way there. He began leading us on the msot roundabout route, down roads that I knew from yesterday the store was not near... So I yelled at him in Arabic abt that (I just said something like, "I went to Alpha Market yesturday, it's near the AUC dorm, here is not near the dorm" in a snappy tone, nothing too impressive, altho I remembered to pronounce the word for near in the Egyptian dialect), and whatever I said seemed to work, b/c he then led us down another street that came out right in front of the store. No problems there. I have yet to understand how the streets work here... literally NONE of them are straight or parallel, and you can't assume anything. It's totally possible -- and we've done it before! -- to get lost w/in what would be one block if you miss one sidestreet... it's crazy... I guess you just can't take anything for granted; you have to clear all your assumptions. That's the neat part abt being abroad, I guess. When else are we forced to clear/revamp a lifetime of culturally/socially-accumulated assumptions and expectations and truly re-fresh our minds?

Anyhoo, it's really getting late here, and I should get to sleep. I'll post a few pictures tonight; more will come tomorrow, inch'allah. I'll write/reflect more later.

ma'salaama y'all.
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