on returning home from egypt in 2007

It was a July of seeing Egypt through through lavender-hued glasses; a July where all my pictures turned out purplish-pink and where my view of the world expanded exponentially.

A July of studying Arabic at Al-Azhar University and trying to survive days of scant air conditioning in a classroom that looked like it was something out of a ghetto, with broken desks, dilapidated tables, junk scattered in corners, a chalkboard made from a table turned on its side, and dry erase markers that didn’t fully erase, leaving ghostly jumbles of scribbles. During our breaks at Al Azhar, a lady sold coffee that she brewed on a large brick with a heating element in it.

A July of studying Arabic lessons from 8:30-12:30 on Sundays-Thursdays.  After an hour break, we studied Tajweed (meaning “to improve”) from 1:30-3:00. Tajweed of the Holy Qur’an is the knowledge and application of the rules of recitation, the goal being to read the Qur’an as the Prophet Muhammad recited it.

A July where I resisted Tajweed because I wasn’t a Muslim and I didn’t realize I’d signed up to recite the Qur’an. The saving grace in our small class was my hilarious friend and roommate, Lisa, a Pennsylvania ESL teacher who had converted to Islam, wore the hijab, and who had spent some of her past years belly-dancing in Egypt.  Lisa spoke Arabic quite well but couldn’t read a word.  I, on the other hand, was pathetic at speaking but could read the alphabet and many words. Our teacher, Ustatha Mona, who spoke little English, called me “Cassie.”  Mona tried unflinchingly to get me to make the proper sounds and I botched them every time.  Then she’d say, “Relax, relax.”  When I did, the sounds came out right! Poor Mona was a saint putting up with Lisa and me.

A July being demoted from the advanced to intermediate class because, even though I scored high on the written placement test, it was obvious I couldn’t understand spoken Arabic. I also seemed to have very limited speaking ability.

A July of wearing a headscarf to my classes because I was told the university was ultra-conservative. I looked horrible in a head scarf because it emphasized my jowly face, which I usually covered with my hair. Besides, wearing the head scarf only exacerbated my discomfort in the July heat. My Muslim classmates jokingly dubbed me, along with my three classmates, Shannon, Clint and Kevin, as “infidels.”

A July of wearing only the short sleeve shirts I brought. We had been advised by Al-Ameen Associates, before we came, only that we shouldn’t have exposed shoulders.  I quickly found I was the only one who wasn’t covered to my wrists. One day at the university, a random woman, a total stranger, came up to me and tugged at my scarf so that it covered my front. I had a v-neck t-shirt on so you could see my neck and the top of my chest. She pulled my scarf down to cover my skin, jabbed her finger at my bare arms and said, “Harram, harram.” She was visibly upset with me. Harram means forbidden — this is forbidden in Islam. I said, “Ana la musleema” (I am not Muslim) to explain my wayward attire, but she wasn’t satisfied by this. Apparently since I was at Al-Azhar, I should have been non-harram.  I wished I’d been properly advised.

And finally, a July where we managed to graduate from Al Azhar’s intensive 1-month-long Arabic course.  I figured I knew about as much as I knew the first day I arrived.  My entrance test and my final exam had about the same scores.

Al-Azhar University was founded in 970~972 as a madrasa and the chief center of Arabic literature and Islamic learning in the world.

A July of staying in an apartment on Road 9 in Muqattum, a suburb of Cairo atop Muqattum Mountain, known for its quarries of limestone used to build the Great Pyramids of Giza.  It was considered by Egyptians to be a lower middle class neighborhood. Later, I found that Muqattum was famous for being the main garbage dump in Cairo; apparently, it housed most of the people who collected Cairo’s trash and recycled it in creative ways.  The apartment was stuck on a dirt road in a run-down neighborhood directly across from the Futures Language School.

A July living in an apartment that was dirty, sparsely furnished and had a disgusting kitchen. A 24-hour guard kept watch at the door. I shared an apartment with Lisa, who turned out to be the best thing about my time in Egypt, and another roommate, Souhaila, who was not so great.

A July where my first impression was that this place was in the hinterlands of hell. Nevertheless, I was determined to try to make the best of it and have a good time. When the power went out on the first night, I thought I might get on the quickest flight back home.

A July where I was baffled by the half-finished buildings all over Cairo. In the building across the “street” from our flat, the middle floor had glass panes and curtains in the windows. The top floor had empty gaping holes instead of windows. I saw buildings EVERYWHERE with one flat finished, and all the other flats in the building unfinished.

A July of sweltering heat. People had led me to believe that it would be hot but dry, but it felt as humid as anything I had experienced on the east coast of the U.S.  Our daily bus to and from the university felt much like you would imagine a metal box that has been closed up under the overbearing sun all day to feel.  It was an oven.  The seats were filthy and rickety.  We tried to open windows but were told the air conditioning was on and would cool us eventually.  So we closed the windows and baked, almost until we got to our apartment, when finally we could feel a cool breeze eking out of the vents.

A July in Cairo’s giant souq (market), the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, wandering through its maze of tight aisles, looking with awe at the Islamic clothes, scarves, belly-dancing accoutrements, furniture, and water-pipes, as well as gold, silver and jewels. The Khan, built in 1382, was originally a hub for traveling traders in the Fatimid era. At Khan Al Khalili, I bought two scarves, a perfume bottle and a silver ring with lapis stones.  Later, I bought gifts: several pairs of earrings for my daughter and hookahs for each of my sons.

A July of weekly grocery shopping in Carrefour, where Lisa met a handsome Egyptian man who she ended up seeing every night during the month.  A July of buying three black and white photos, which captured an old romantic version of Cairo, from a shop in Coptic Cairo. A July of shopping sprees with Lisa at shops at the far end of Road 9 in Muquttum.

A July of drinking tea and mango juice at Cafe Aboumazen at Midan Hussein, a square in front of the Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque, where an Egyptian woman did henna tattoos on our hands. I enjoyed delicious sea bass at Mena House after visiting the pyramids. I paid fifteen Egyptian pounds for an American-style dinner of meatballs, mashed potatoes, and carrots made by a local Egyptian woman in our apartment building.

A July of eating kushari (Egyptian pasta, rice and lentils with tomato sauce and crispy fried onions; it’s often thought of as the Egyptian national dish) at a café called Abu Tarik.  Lisa and I ate kushari with Coca-Cola at a steamy hole in the wall after our shopping spree in Muqattum.

A July of drinking Stella beers, eating fried shrimps on pita bread, and smoking apple-flavored shisha in Ma’adi at the Grand Cafe on the Nile, a charming open-air café, with hanging lanterns, strings of tiny white lights, and terra-cotta walls. There, fashionable and lively Egyptians and foreigners partook in shisha, mezze, grilled platters & fresh fruit juices. A large screen showed Egyptian singers in an Arab version of MTV.

A July of drinking banana juice and cardamom tea at a plastic table at the Muqattum Corniche, which are cliffs looking out over Cairo.  A jumble of cars honked incessantly, a gang of motorcycles revved engines, and heated battles erupted over limited parking in the narrow lot.   When I realized there was no place to put my tea bag, I said, “In America, we have plates to put our tea bags.”  I was told, “Yes, but we’re in Egypt, so we put them here on the table.”

A July of avoiding cooking in our disgusting kitchen whenever possible. I took to eating chick peas out of a can, with a little olive oil, salt and pepper tossed in. Either that, or I went out to eat.  For breakfast, I often had Foul Medammas, or Fava Beans with Cumin, right out of the can.

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Lisa, me and Shannon at the Grand Cafe

A July running with the Ma’adi Runners, a running club introduced to me by my Reston Runners friend Jerry, who used to work for CARE in Egypt. Reston Runners was the running club in Virginia that I had belonged to for a couple of years. Jerry met his friend Mohsen in Egypt and they ran marathons together all over the world. Mohsen was one of the founders of Ma’adi Runners, a running club with both Egyptian and expat runners.

Ma’adi was the least densely populated neighborhood in Greater Cairo, and much of the town was inhabited by well-to-do Egyptians, as well as expats, many of whom were connected with embassies, ambassadorial residences and international corporations located in Ma’adi. The Cairo office for USAID (United States Agency for International Development) was also located in this suburb. Mohsen’s company was a contractor for USAID and other international agencies.

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Ma’adi Runners. Ahmed Seddik, the Eygptologist, is standing. I’m in the blue top sweating. Mohsen is in the yellow tank top.

A July of Friday evenings with the Cairo Hash House Harriers (CHHH).  The worldwide HHH is known by members as “a drinking club with a running problem,” indicating that the social element of an event is as important, if not more so, than any athleticism involved. Beer is an integral part of a hash. After walking, our group formed a circle and the “down-down” began. People were called into the circle for recognition or harassment.  Since we were newcomers, we were asked to consume our beers without pause or risk pouring the remaining contents on our heads.

A July of walking with the Hash at the Wadi Degla Desert Protectorate, a beautiful quiet canyon noted for its limestone and mud formations which are rich in aquatic fossils. One Friday, the Cairo Hash met at the Sakkara Country Club, where some of us started out by taking a dip in the pool before a run/walk in the desert.  It was sweltering hot on the sand, with not a bit of shade in sight. After our walk, we headed back to the green grass on the edge of the desert to do the “down-down,” drink beer, sing crazy songs, and enjoy the camels walking along the edge of the desert. A cool breeze danced through our little party, quite a pleasant surprise after our sweltering walk earlier. On our last Friday, I invited Shannon, Clint, and Kevin (my classmates) to accompany me to our last Cairo Hash.  We started in an Egyptian neighborhood at a big unfinished villa.  The pool was finished and quite lovely, but the house was a shell, like many houses throughout Cairo.  That time we hiked out in the relentless heat of the desert in complete misery.

A July of attempting to speak my elementary Arabic with people I met at the Hash. I kept saying to people: “Dusharufna,” which I learned in my Arabic classes means “Pleased to meet you.” The Egyptians in the group got a hoot out of this because they told me it was a very formal way of speaking, as if in English I was saying “I’m so honored to make thou acquaintance.”

A July of exploring Cairo by taking a felucca on the Nile at sunset with Clint, Kevin, Tarik, Lisa, and Shannon.  There was a lovely breeze, peace and quiet, and wonderful views.

A July of exploring the Pyramids of Giza with Ahmed Seddick, an Egyptologist from the American University of Cairo, who I’d met at Ma’adi Runners and at the Hash. I paid him for his tour. Ahmed told me the history of ancient Egypt, including details of all the dynasties. He was fluent in too many languages to count, and told me all about word origins.  We visited Khafre’s Valley Temple and the Giza Solar Boat Museum, where Ahmed introduced me to the Khufu ship. We admired the Great Sphinx, which lies to the south of the Great Pyramid near Khafre’s valley temple. We rode a camel around the pyramids.

The Pyramids of Giza are three 4th dynasty pyramids built on the west bank of the Nile River in northern Egypt.  The names of the pyramids—Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure—correspond to the kings for whom they were built.

The Khufu ship, is an intact full-size vessel from ancient Egypt that was sealed into a pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza around 2500 BC.  The ship was almost certainly built for Khufu (King Cheops).

Carved out of limestone, the Great Sphinx has the facial features of a man but the body of a recumbent lion.

A July of hiking through Islamic Cairo, and past Al Azhar Mosque, one of Cairo’s earliest mosques and the world’s oldest surviving university, through the medieval thoroughfare of Khan al Khalili, home to clusters of Mamluk-era mosques, madrassas and caravanserais.

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square around Al Azhar Mosque

A July of strolling through Al Azhar Park, a beautiful oasis on a hilltop in the center of Cairo.  There’s was lovely breeze, and the park was well-manicured and clean, unlike the rest of filthy Cairo.  While sitting on a bench, I watched an Egyptian couple walk by. The young man had his arm around his girlfriend’s waist. The park police approached him and yelled at him about touching his girlfriend in public. He made the mistake of arguing with the police and he defiantly continued to touch his girlfriend. As I watched the drama unfold, 8-10 police arrived on the scene and took the guy away. I didn’t have any idea what they did with the girl. I was enthralled by the whole thing, as if I were watching some kind of soap opera.

A July of exploring Coptic Cairo, part of Old Cairo.

Coptic Cairo was once known as Babylon and was in existence before the coming of Islam.  Today it is the seat of the Coptic Christian community. Coptic Cairo was a stronghold for Christianity in Egypt until the Islamic era, though most of the current buildings of the churches in Coptic Cairo were built after the Muslim conquest of Egypt. The Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church is supposed to mark one of the resting places of the Holy Family on its escape from King Herod.

A July of getting overwhelmed in the Egyptian Museum, with over 100,000 relics from nearly every period of ancient Egyptian history. There were so many antiquities in this museum, all poorly marked and crowded into a tight and stuffy space.  It wasn’t pleasant to walk through, as one thing looked much like another and there was so much of  it all!

The Tutankhamun Galleries contained around 1,700 items from the treasure of the “young and comparatively insignificant” King Tut, who ruled for only 9 years (Lonely Planet Middle East).

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Egyptian Museum

A July exploring Alexandria, where I visited the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a boldly modern library that can hold up to eight million books; it is the 20th-century replacement for the legendary library of ancient Alexandria.

I walked along 26th of July Street which lay on the corniche along the Eastern Harbor. It was extremely hot and humid and I was miserably dripping with sweat. I drank a cold mango juice in the shade at an outdoor cafe along the corniche.  I also visited Fort Qaitbey, Montazah Palace and walked past the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque.

Alexandria was established in 332 BC by Alexander the Great.  It became a major trade center and a focal point for learning for the entire Mediterranean world.  Under the Roman Empire, the city continued as capital of Egypt and the Byzantine Empire, and was quite cosmopolitan.  From the 4th century on, the city declined.

The original Bibliotheca Alexandrina was founded in the late 3rd century BC and was considered a classical center of learning.  This modern library is an angled discus with giant letters, hieroglyphs and symbols from every known alphabet engraved on its exterior walls.  The main rotunda is all windows.

Fort Qaitbey was built in 1480 to protect the city from crusaders who attacked the city by sea. Montazah Palace, originally the Salamlek Palace, was built in 1892 and used as a hunting lodge. The larger Al-Haramlik Palace and royal gardens were added to the Montaza Palace grounds, built by King Fuad I in 1932 as a summer palace. The Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque is an historic mosque. It was built primarily in 1775 over the tomb of a Spanish scholar and saint, Abu El Abbas El Mursi (1219-86).

A July of making a lot of expat and Egyptian friends.  One evening, I met my friend Ahmed the Egyptologist for a drink at the Grand Hyatt Cairo.  I’d heard this was a great place to get martinis, accompanied by a great view of the Nile.  Ahmed didn’t drink, but he agreed to meet me so I didn’t have to go by myself.

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me at the Grand Hyatt Cairo

A July of stopping at the Unknown Soldier Memorial, a pyramid-shaped monument in Nasr City, Cairo, and seeing the spot where Anwar Sadat was assassinated.

President Anwar Sadat ordered construction of the Unknown Soldier Memorial in 1974 in honour of Egyptians who lost their lives in the 1973 October War. Across from the memorial are the stands where Anwar Sadat was assassinated on 6 October 1981. An annual victory parade was being held in Cairo to celebrate Egypt’s crossing of the Suez Canal. Sadat was protected by four layers of security and eight bodyguards, and the army parade should have been safe due to ammunition-seizure rules. As Egyptian Air Force Mirage jets flew overhead, distracting the crowd, Egyptian army soldiers and troop trucks paraded. One troop truck contained the assassination squad, led by Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli. As the truck passed, the assassins dismounted, and Islambouli approached Sadat. Sadat stood to receive his salute, whereupon, Islambouli threw three grenades at Sadat, only one of which exploded, and additional assassins rose from the truck, firing assault rifles into the stands. After Sadat was hit and fell to the ground, people threw chairs around him to protect him from the hail of bullets.  The site was chosen for the president’s tomb after his assassination.

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Unknown Soldier Memorial

A July of immersion in chaos and poverty.  It was so out of the realm of things I knew, that I loved all of it, in its filth, chaos, beauty and discomforts. There seemed no rhyme or reason to anything.  People drove on roads like there were no rules at all.  Lines on the roads meant nothing.  People drove the wrong way down one-way streets and honked the entire time.  With Egyptians there was a veritable cacophony of honks ricocheting through the air.

It was a July, where on my first night, we had a maniac taxi driver who squeezed between two cars at 80mph in the tunnel under the Nile, holding a cigarette with one hand and speaking in Arabic with Latif, one of my classmates. He was using wild hand gestures and looking at Latif while careening along in this tunnel and into Cairo. I thought, This is it! I’m going to die my first night in Cairo. And not from terrorists, as everyone back home was afraid of. From a gruesome car accident in a tunnel under the Nile.

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chaotic Cairo seen from a taxi

A July laughing with Lisa over all her hilarious stories and over Lisa’s doll. As an ESL teacher, Lisa brought a doll she made, which she photographed in various locations, such as in front of the Pyramids and other landmarks. Our roommate, Souhaila, was a serious Muslim who believed the doll was harram, or sinful.  Every time she saw Lisa’s doll lying around the apartment, she turned it face down or she asked Lisa to remove it. Lisa was Muslim too, but she didn’t see it this way.  She saw it as a plaything for children, something they enjoyed, especially when she brought back pictures of it in front of landmarks throughout the world. I was a bystander in this disagreement between two Muslims, but I had to say, I found Lisa’s take much more moderate and reasonable. Besides Lisa had a fabulous sense of humor and I couldn’t help but laugh as she decided, on our last morning in Cairo, to take pictures of the doll in various places throughout the flat, including on Souhaila’s bed.

This July in Cairo was my first visit to an Arab country, and my first visit where I went to live without anyone I knew, although I was part of a group studying Arabic. It was so strange to go to what seemed such an alien country. My imagination prepared a picture of what to expect — my surroundings, the place I would stay, the people. My picture was so badly misinformed and misguided that Cairo was in fact like visiting a distant planet. More like Mars than Earth.

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After I returned home from Egypt, I moved out of my house into a house in Arlington, VA with one of my classmates from my Master’s program. I would stay there a year while I finished my Master’s, graduating in May 2008.  After an exhaustive and unsuccessful job search, I moved back into my house, although my husband and I remained separated.  It wasn’t until February of 2010 that I got a job in South Korea teaching ESL and moved out for long periods while I went to teach there and later in Oman.

Later, I revised sections of my novel after spending a month in Cairo:

The sounds from the Cairo streets clanked through the windows. Ahmed stood up and looked out the window at the vendors on the sidewalks, the rickety pavement, the chaotic traffic, the pervasive dirt. The world outside the window was a million shades of brown. A fly landed on his cheek and he brushed it away. Several others buzzed around the window. What a place this was. It was his whole life in a nutshell, the rank disorder. No wonder his life had turned into a replica of his childhood city. It was part of his very blood. There was no escaping the ruins within him.

Later, walking through the streets of Cairo, he was assaulted by the smells of cardamom and rancid oil and desert sand. Hurrying pedestrians in the market areas continually jostled him, and the sound of Arabic, both musical and guttural, filled the air. He looked for the once-familiar pomegranate stand run by his old friend Haman, but he couldn’t find the spot. He wanted something familiar and nostalgic, but he knew Haman was long dead. Everything was so changed now. Dirtier and more gaudy somehow and more confusing. People were dressed in hijab and traditional djellabas and jeans and Western suits. Men wore fezzes or baseball caps. The streets were teeming with confusion, a people grasping for their identity. In the midst of all those people, he felt incredibly lost and alone.

My time in Cairo was one of the most eye-opening experiences I’d had in my life, and because of that, I would forever be changed. After feeling deadened by life for so long, I felt immensely alive, present to every moment.  It had taken me far out of the life I had always known and immersed me into another whole reality, which made me considerably more self-confident, resilient and knowledgeable about the larger world.

*Friday, June 29, 2007 to Wednesday, August 1, 2007*

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“ON RETURNING HOME” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about returning home from one particular destination or, alternately, from a long journey encompassing many stops.  How do you linger over your wanderings and create something from them?  How have you changed? Did the place live up to its hype, or was it disappointing? Feel free to address any aspect of your journey and how it influences you upon your return. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.

For some ideas on this, you can check out the original post about this subject: on returning home.

Include the link in the comments below by Sunday, August 4 at 1:00 p.m. EST.  When I write my post in response to this challenge on Monday, August 5, I’ll include your links in that post.

This will be an ongoing invitation on the first Monday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂

the ~ wander.essence ~ community

I invite you all to settle in and read a few posts from our wandering community.  I promise, you’ll be inspired!

Thanks to all of you who wrote returning home posts following intentions you set for yourself. 🙂