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I get a lot of grief from my kid sister when I say I don’t like a film, because when I don’t like a film, I don’t like a film. It’s got to be terrible. I mean, full-out, rollicking, blockbuster stereotypes, bad-acting, bad-casting, bad-everything in it. Twilight, for example. Awful. The entire time I kept asking myself “He glitters in the sunlight?” and noticing the lines of badly applied foundation around the characters’ faces. Oh, and cracking up at every single badly delivered line: e.g., “You’re like a drug to me.”

It takes a lot for me to not like a film because, for the most part, I’m willing to leave my assumptions at the door and engage in what Coleridge called “a willing suspension of disbelief.” Of course, good old Samuel Taylor was describing Shakespeare — how when you go to watch Hamlet you can be moved by this very unnatural style of acting. Who speaks in iambic pentameter? What’s with the funny words and British accents? Why are the lines rhyming? Why are the men dressed as women? This is terrible theater! That’s what you think when you forget that you’re at Shakespearean play. In the same vein, I can pretty much get lost in a movie, no matter how terrible, if it creates the appropriate world — this is probably a symptom of growing up with musicals: if you can get yourself to believe that people sing out their feelings and dance combatively with one another, you can pretty much believe anything. The Mummy, with Brendan Fraser? Terrible film for many reasons, but a fun ride. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? Yeah, I loved that. I still pay homage to old Ray Harryhausen epics (stop-action monsters, think the 1980 Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts). But when a movie fails to produce that “world,” I can’t find an excuse to like it.

So, it was with an open mind that I ignored The New Yorker and went to see Prince of Persia.

Expectations: sword-and-sandal epic, awesome scenery, way cool music (think Kingdom of Heaven),  and some seriously beautiful romance. It is Persia, after all — the land of the Nightengale and the Rose, of Shirin and Khosrow. For those of you that don’t know, Iran has some of the most romantic literature in the world.

Alas.

The skinny of the plot: Rebellious adopted son-of-the-king, Dastan (erstwhile ophan) discovers through a series of altogether confusing events that his evil uncle Nizam is plotting to steal his adopted father’s throne using an ancient sect of drug-addicted assassins to acquire a mystical dagger that turns back time. Unbeknownst to Nizam (one of Ben Kingsley’s more disappointing performances, alas), the dagger can only turn back a minute’s worth of time, unless he uses it to pierce the fabled “Sand Glass” beneath the Holy City; also unbeknownst to him, that will cause a Sandocalypse over the whole world and unleash the wrath of the gods, etc.

I’m only slightly exaggerating.

The New Yorker’s (awesome, dead-on, fantastic) review covers this pretty well, I think:

“Prince of Persia” is meant purely as light entertainment, but the way it draws on layers of junk is depressing. It’s based on clichés not only from old paintings but from some of the fruitiest and most swollen nineteen-fifties period spectacles; all this material, after passing through video games, now gets loaded back into a production requiring the wealth of corporate kings. For twenty years, audiences have been noticing the similarity between big action and fantasy movies and video games, but “Prince of Persia” goes beyond similarity; it actually feels like a video game. In order to work the dagger, you press a red jewel on the hilt, which suspiciously resembles a button on a game controller. After a while, backward motion ceases, and life goes forward again. The first time this happens, the effect is rather neat. By the third time, you think that the filmmakers have found a convenient way to avoid the difficulties of constructing a plot that makes emotional sense. Is this the future of screenwriting? The quick reversals that add to the fun of a game make nonsense out of the loyalties and desires of flesh-and-blood characters. At the climax, a good part of the plot is rapidly reversed, and you may find yourself wishing that the filmmakers had wiped out everything after the opening titles.

What’s disturbing to me as an Orientalist is the film’s self-admitted flaws in portrayal. According to the New Yorker, most of the set design is based on 19th century orientalist-school paintings — which is really cool, if you consider the art, but pretty terrible if the movie is going to be the only artistic contact the most people are going to have with anything Persia for the next ten years. Honestly.

We’ve stumbled across the domain of artistic responsibility. The battle-cry of postcolonial studies is generally, “Who has the right?” that question applying, of course, to the act of portrayal. Who has a right to portray another race, another culture, another religion? My answer to that is actually simple — the people who wish to do so responsibly. If you’re going to portray someone, and you’re not one of them, you’d better do some damn good research and err on the side of positive. Kingdom of Heaven, for example, had one hell of a Saladin. I mean, that man was crazy cool in real life, but Ridley Scott sure did an awesome job of making him stellarly cool (I just said that, yes).

But Orientalism is not a source to be raided for movies. Otherwise, you get The Mummy all over again.

I must have got asked about twenty-million times (actual figure) if I was going to live in a pyramid in Egypt — by Americans, of course. If it wasn’t a pyramid, it was a tent — and clearly, I would hitch a ride to work on a camel.

Back when 300 was just exposing its CGI muscles to the world, Iranians  boycotted  the film as slanderous (big surprise there: it was pretty awful and should have been boycotted on its sheer awfulness). But what will they say about this, I wonder?

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You know what’s crazy?

Free, in-flight wireless. Civilization at its finest.

I’m sorry, gentle readers, for putting you on hiatus for so long. I’ve been stateside, speaking English, and drinking in the Americana and the presence of a certain freckled girl from Delaware all week.

In short, I’ve been on vacation.

I confess, I feel a little odd writing this in American environs. A blog about an amateur orientalist’s adventures in Egypt – and misadventures teaching – should best be written by the one in the field. Otherwise, it ends up becoming a mirror for memory, and though I’m all about that, I’m not sure this blog should be about that.

Things I’ve Discovered Are Amazing about Everyday America (and had forgotten about in Egypt)

1. Wall-to-wall carpeting. Honestly: I pretty much died when I realized I could walk around barefoot and not have dirt underfoot from the nasty tile.

2. A distinct and utter lack of dust. If you live in Masr you deal with it. You dust, you sweep, you beat your rugs, but it never is enough. Here, nothing. It’s glorious.

3. Free refills on fountain drinks in restaurants.

4. Root beer floats. For my Egyptian readers, you must try one of these if you ever get stateside (no alcohol involved!)

5. People that leave you alone! No hassle! No harassment!

6. Easy availability of the following products: salad dressings, steak sauce, prosciutto, cheddar, horseradish, ziplock storage bags, and hand-crafted microbrews.

7. DRIVING.

8. Paper towels, NOT tissue paper for drying your hands.

9. No mud.

10. The smell of the clean Vermont air.

11. Hugging in public. Hugging friends of the opposite gender.

12. Being insanely affectionate in public and not being stared at.

13. Reuben sandwiches and amber ale.

14. How awesomely fast and free the internet is everywhere.

15. Rain and mugginess. The weather’s been pleasantly gray for the past week.

16. Stoves that are electric. Ice machines. Garbage disposals. Recycling bins.

17. Putting up your feet in public.

18. Good pipe tobacco (I ran out about two months ago).

19. Standing in lines, NOT gaggles.

And to balance it all out:

Things I Already Miss about Egypt

1. Being able to buy one egg, not twelve. Buying groceries on credit because I forgot my wallet upstairs.

2. Stopping to talk to nearly everyone on my street.

3. Dalia, Vildan, Ingy, Yosra, and Shehenda — Clay Cafe classes and conversations.

4. Ahmed and the walk home down Port Said.

5. Dahab pizzas.

6. The sound the tram makes as it rolls by on a quiet morning. Sometimes, I would mistake it for rain.

7. The giant, fading advertisement for the “al-Ahram” frying pan visible from my window and the porch.

8. Mahmoud.

9. Ali and the Spitfire.

10. The long trek up the big marble staircase.

More to follow. I intend to chronicle my re-entry, so keep your eyes peeled for one last Egypt post (the Zabaliyya!) and future plans for the blog!

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After a long and painful day of recovering from a party down on Falaky Street, Rumi and I decided to go out and live the dream and find Cairo’s last remaining Turkish bath.

Steam dreams of luxurious relaxation

Turkish baths once dotted the medieval city aplenty: an Ottoman take on what was a Greco-Roman practice that has been described as “the wet version of a sauna.” Bathers move from progressively hotter rooms together, sweating out the dirt from their pores before being scrubbed down violently with a loofah, massaged, and then rinsed with cold water. In the past, every neighborhood in Cairo had a hammaam (please note the double m) and the fires that were used to heat the baths also cooked the neighborhood fuul in giant tin pots. Steam baths were a social activity that was completely gender segregated, and as a consequence, social taboos were generally removed. People spoke freely, and the women’s bath was an oft-discussed subject of orientalists’ speculations.

Presently, however, the hammaam has fallen into disrepute. Rendered unnecessary by modern plumbing, the steam bath has become the whispered haunt of (gasp!) homosexuals, who are supposed to meet in dark liasons to rub each other with various oils. This, not too long ago, was actually kind of true, as Flaubert writes:

It’s at the baths that such things take place. You reserve a bath for yourself (five francs including masseurs, pipe, coffee, sheet and towel) and you skewer your lad in one of the rooms…

Thought I doubt that Egyptians stay away from the last bath in Egypt because of Flaubert (what a reason that would be!), I suppose the reputation has stuck. Friends have had some rather rude encounters with gay men who were more than a little too pushy in a couple of places, and as a result, the bathhouse is something to be a little cautious of (besides, who knows what would happen to your wallet while you soaked up the steam). Either way, Rumi and I were determined not to face the bath alone (just in case things turned out seedier and more unpleasant than we were expecting); always good to have a friend around when you find yourself in unknown environs wearing only a thin cotton towel.

To get to the last operating bathhouse in Cairo (known as 7ammaam al-Malatili), walk down al-Mu3izz Street on the northern side on the way to the mosque of al-Hakim, past Bayn al-Qasrayn, until Amir al-Gyushi Street, which opens up on the left. About a hundred yards down on the left side is the bath, which is not much more than a hole in the wall about several steps down from the street level. All the locals know where it is, though, and it’s not difficult to find.

But it’s a dump.

Brightly painted on the inside, with light coming in dimly from glass-laminated holes in the roof, the reception room is manned by the hunched Muhammad Ali, who gives you a winding sheet and a pair of plastic slippers, points you to the changing room, and guards your phones, wallets, and watches. Once you strip and wrap yourself up in the sheet, you shuffle down a cracked, soggy corridor to a waiting room on a dais, presumably for the steam room to be vacated, and watch the cockroaches scuttle. Not for the faint of heart.

The floors are cracked, mildewy marble that has clearly seen better days, and there’s a faint sucking sound like that of a drain as water, dripping everywhere, seems to flow down to the narrow slots in the floor.

The steam room is a tiny compartment, filled mainly by a little pool of scalding water. You attempt to sit beside it in a modest fashion, and soon give up. It’s heady and the air is thick, though certainly not fragrant, and you begin to soon sweat profusely. Flaubert goes on:

I was alone in the hot room, watching the daylight fade through the great circles of glass in the dome. Hot water was flowing everywhere; stretched out indolently I though of a quantity of things as my pores tranquilly dilated. It is very voluptuous and sweetly melancholy to take a bath quite alone, lost in those dim rooms where the slightest noise reverberates like a cannon shot, while the naked kellaks call out to one another as they massage you, turning you over like embalmers preparing you for the tomb. (From The Letters of Gustave Flaubert)

After about twenty minutes, your eyes start to get heavy.

At that point, a crooked-jawed man in ratty pants and a wet flannel shirt motioned us out one at a time with his loofah to the central room with an octagonal fountain in the center (not running, and black), motioned for me to lie on my stomach, and proceeded to rough me up with a smelly loofah mitt and soap. He flips you over. Repeat. He flicks his cigarette against the wall, and motions toward the cold shower in the corner. I rinse. Rumi goes next. Soaking wet, and wrapped in wet sheets, we return to the dressing rooms, where Muhammad Ali tosses us giant, rough towels, and we dry off. We pay, collect our things, and are off.

Not exactly Flaubert (NOT what I was hoping for, either), but you couldn’t help but want to ask, “Serious? That’s it?” A pleasant massage. A room filled with gossiping men and incense. Perhaps tea. Music. An oud player, even? Orientalist, yes; but perhaps that’s my soft spot for the occasional indulgence taking over. Instead, it was all rather matter-of-fact.

Despite the smelly loofah, we both felt quite clean.

Afterward, we trotted off to the Arabic Oud House behind the Hussein Mosque for a concert. Free.

These towers can be seen built on top of apartment buildings, offices, and slums alike: all to house the Egyptian country squire's delicacy: the noble and tasty pigeon.

Later, in the spirit of the Arabic jathr, or trilateral root, we decided to have hamaam (please note the single m) for dinner. Supposedly a pharaonic dish, pigeon is considered one of the finer Egyptian foods. My assessment: frustrating. Pigeons have remarkably little meat and are destroyed in the process of eating them (forget the knife and fork). The Gad restaurant by al-Azhar serves up a ma7shi variety, stuffed with cinnamon-spiced buckwheat rice and the head of the humble bird still attached. It’s a little disconcerting, but once over the initial shock, not entirely unpleasant.

Hammaam (a bath) and hamaam (pigeon). Quite a night.

Last night in Egyptland tonight.

 

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After an incredibly relaxing day in Rumi and Andrea’s flat — interestingly labeled “el-Faradaws,” the word for Paradise — I decided by Day 2 in Cairo that it was time to get out.

The goal was to walk down south from Bab Zwayla, the southern gates of the 11th century Fatimid city, through the quarter known as Darb al-A7mar, or “the Red Road.”

By now you know I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and here’s one of the many reasons I love Cairo: the city is still marked and known by these same elements of nostalgia. Going to the camel market? Good luck: nine-tenths of all cab drivers will bring you to Shaar3a sou5 al-gamal, on the way to Imbaba, where the camel market has been for centuries (and before the present government relocated it to the tiny village of Birqash some time ago) or Shaar3a Sudani, where camels were driven up from the south from the Sudan. Much of the city is marked in very much the same manner, and the names alone are rather evocative, even if the markets have changed: the area between the complexes of al-Azhar and al-Ghuriyya (called Butneya), is pocketed with what are still called “stitches” (ghorza in Arabic), tiny blind pockets where hashish was smoked and illegal business transacted. Nowadays, it’s where the men retreat for their sheeshas.

The word darb is actually a pretty neat one, I think, and I always get excited when I see it on a street sign. There are a couple names for roads in Arabic, and all of them have specific connotations, the most commonplace one being  the word for street, shaar3a, (which incidentally, linguists, carries the same root as the word for Islamic law, shar3ia). Darb, however, is a path cut specifically across desert — a camel road — and you almost exclusively hear it out in the desert when locals are describing unpaved paths that connect oasis towns with one another. The Darb al-A7mar was one such road, leading from the southern gates of the old Fatimid city past the southern City of the Dead to join up with trade routes to the south. Though not entirely devoid of tourists, the quarter is enough of a network of labyrinthine alleyways and medieval staircases that you usually lose the aganib with the cameras and big hats sometime around Bab Zwayla.

It’s been blazing hot in Cairo, and yesterday was dusty in particular. I caught a cab to the Ghuriyya complex, which has a stunning, high covered entrance and is about a couple hundred yards before al-Azhar. Most of the complex is original and currently rented out to local artists as studios (but God: it’s hot in there). Ghuriyya lies in the exact center of Shaar3a al Muizz,one of the central points of interest in downtown Cairo. Most of the really spectacular stuff is more towards the Coppersmiths’ Bazaar (see what I mean about names? How evocative is that!). It runs about half a mile from the Northern Gates (or the “Open Gate”) near the mosque of al-Hakim (more on him later) and continues until the Tentmakers’ Market.

Entrance to the Ghuriyya caravanseri and palace: formerly, the whole street behind was covered and was the haunt of cloth merchants and thieves.

You turn left from Bab Zwayla onto Darb al-Ahmar, which has three names, depending on what part of the quarter you’re in: Tabbana Street, Bab al-Wazir, and the so-named Darb.

I’ve come to regard mosque-hopping as something of a hobby — back in the States, I’d stop into Catholic churches on long drives just to get out and stretch and have myself a little prayer, look at the statues. I kind of find mosques a nice place to relax: invariably, they are beautiful, cozy, and no one really bothers you if you look like you’re just there to take a load off.

Naps, therefore, are a big thing on such excursions. Because everyone takes off their shoes, the carpets are prime targets for a snooze, and most of the locals oblige themselves in the afternoon.

Inside the mosque of al-Maridani

Old men with the right idea.

I also like mosques in particular for their facilities: in contrast to most lavatories in Cairo, bathrooms are at a premium in Islamic Cairo, at least for men. Not only can you find yourself a clean toilet, but practically take a bath for free due to the ablutions fountains everywhere. And truth be told, there’s something to the practice of wudu5, which is incredibly refreshing after a jaunt through the dustiest of quarters.

“Have you prayed the 3asr?”

No, sorry, I’m not Muslim.

Ah! You are American?

I said I wasn’t Muslim. Not that I didn’t speak Arabic.

This was how I met Gamal, who is the supervisor for three of the local mosques in Darb al-A7mar. Not only did he get me up into minarets, but the man opened the door to the still-being-renovated Qasr al-Azraq, the Blue Palace of Sultain Qait Bey.

Inside, stained glass windows and mashrabiyya inserts.

Tunnel that led to the Citadel; sultans flee underground, Da Vinci style!

The palace formerly known as Blue.

Courtyard, funded by American grants. In background, the crumbling ruins of the third wife's wing, and what it used to look like. From the roof.

Inside Qajmas al-Ishaqi, first mosque on the Darb al-A7mar.

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Last Alexandria post.

I’ve been thinking in this manner since two days ago:

Last time I will buy vegetables from Ali.

Last Mass at San Katrine.

Last time Marwan at the Basha will harass me about fitting into my suitcase to go to “Amrika.”

Last subiyya at Mekka Juices.

Last time one of the clerks will hand over a pound change for my fiver, and legerdemain it away somehow before I pick it up. Last time I’ll fall for it.

Last ride on the little tin tram.

Last time I’ll buy a newspaper from Hassan on the corner.

Last day of work.

Last Dahab.

Last walk home with Ahmed.

Last banana that Ayman will give me on my way to work.

Last coffee I’ll drink on my balcony.

Last sheesha on the Mediterranean.

Last walk on the Corniche.

Last time Abu Ahmed will act grumpy and respond “Mish dawa3” (Something like: “It’s not your business!” or “Who asked you?”) when I ask him how much eggs are today.

Last trip to the Spitfire.

Last mashru3a ride from Manshaya. Last time I’ll shout “Al-nafa5 li’gay, usta!” (Next underpass, driver!)

I had actually anticipated leaving yesterday, but I got so depressed thinking like this that I couldn’t really take it anymore: I had to have one more day in Alex. And then I was no longer depressed. Until these became the second-to-last times I would do these things.

How do you talk about memory?

This has been one of the things I’ve been running over in my mind since I’ve gotten here. In college, it’s easy, but you realize it altogether too late: the place is yours for a few years — you are the owners, the veterans — until you pass through it, move on, and the place is possessed by someone else. Is it any less yours? No: memory has rooted there, somehow.

And I’ve been wondering the same about my Alexandria. Was it ever really mine? My feet know the city, and the difference between most foreigners and me is that I came back. I returned. Of all the cities, I chose her to come back to when I needed a time to think, to write, to practice. You could have been Cairo, Amman, Adan, Marrakech; instead, you were Alexandria.

My colleagues (and occasionally I) have expressed a kind of scorn for the often overdone Egyptian sentiment of “Never forget me!” People you just meet or might have a light, passing acquaintance with will often charge you “to remember me always,” and the effect on someone who is used to change and separation is often one of severe annoyance. Our entire lives in America are accustomed to separation, to change; our schools are divided into elementary, middle, and high — graduations mark the passages and the changes and the need to move on beyond the old friends and into the new opportunities. The student that goes back to his old high school, that talks to his old teachers, that writes letters to old friends and tries to rekindle old friendships is looked on as too nostalgic, too backward thinking.

My father has often rebuked me for such things. I can understand why; attachment is a dangerous thing, and there is only so much of your soul to spread around. We can only have so many friends before we end up being a bad friend ourselves.

As for me, though, I’ve had a year to think about it, and I disagree. We do not preserve memory: memory preserves us. There is a simple wisdom in the knowledge that someone knows you, halfway around the world, and likes you for who you are, and how you laugh. There is a kind of purity in keeping the image of a love-long past, long-mourned, long done with preserved from its moments, not because you are the secret kept, but they are. Perhaps that is why the greatest commandment of Christ is to love, to forgive; because love knows and keeps the good memory of others.

I’m waxing a little bit mushy.

Is it real? Is the city real? Durrell said it was, but so many have disagreed with him, and said that what he wrote never existed. I’m not sure I ever will be able to write it “real” for the page, but memory is what makes it real to me. Leaving and returning. Remembering and forgetting. On the eve of the departure, I suppose I’m committing that unforgivable sin of sheer and utter colonialism: I’m calling it my Alexandria. I — an outsider — am saying I know her (and yes, postcolonialists, this is a her. Linguistically.) I know her secrets — the secrets even Egyptians have forgotten, that Egyptians don’t know — and declare that she is a city of secrets. I wish I had someone to pass them on to — and I wonder if I will ever meet someone who knows the same secrets I do, one day.

Maybe.

I’m just sad to leave her.

Good-bye, Alexandria. City of Memory.

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Can’t believe I forgot this one.

The other night, John suggested going out to the movies to see a good, old-fashioned Egyptian film.

Perhaps not old-fashioned.

We had heard quite a bit in the past few months about Ahasees (“Feelings”) and the controversy that its caused post-release. Ahmed declared that when he went to see it on the Eid al-Adha break that it was like watching a pornography in the middle of a crowded theater.

From what I gathered, apparently the main heroine had an affair with a man seven years prior and, after marrying and having two children, feels shame but also longing for her old lover, and is unable to resolve her guilt. This is exacerbated by her other friends relationships, who also seem to be cheating or have cheating husbands in some form or another. For subject matter and several scenes, it was stamped “Adults Only” by the censors.

Good lord; this was probably the worst film I’ve ever seen.

Meedan’s followed the controversy now for some months, and (expectedly) there have been denunciations of all sorts; the movie breaks Egyptian cultural taboos by depicting adultery or extramarital sex in a sympathetic light, that it talks about women’s sexuality in ways not previously discussed, even that it portrays Egypt and Egyptian morality in a negative light.

I’m left at a frustrated impasse. While I like things that generally do all of those things — and especially when they cause controversy — I’m irritated at the form and the presentation.

From the get-go you realize it’s going to be bad. It’s like an hour-and-a-half film school project, in which the director was required to use certain techniques, the most heinous of which:

1. Triple-takes, Dr. No, style. Opening scene is a woman in a bikini coming out of the water, but shot in black-and-white with colorized bits (her swimsuit) like those cheesy b&w photos of the kids with the red roses. Only it fades into a repetition of the same scene. God, it was awful.

2. Long, extended takes of the couple making out. Like, waaaay too long. Uncomfortable long.

3. Long, extended takes of the couple making out, but from the perspective of the ground they’re making out on. I think what they did was have the actors lie on top of a piece of plate glass, make out, and then shoot from under them. Ick.

4. The piece de resistance: a whole dialogue scene with a revolving camera — The Bodyguard-style. You know that scene where Whitney Houston is kissing Kevin Costner, and the camera spins around them? Imagine that for five minutes. I wanted to vomit.

This also says nothing of the reception of the audience, which was actually exclusively male, and nonstop with cries of “Ya ragl!” (“Oh, man!”) and similar exclamations. Oooo, sex! It’s so naughty. It would be one thing if sex were a taboo topic and taken seriously, but it was like watching the movie with eleven-year olds: ridiculous, unpleasant, and an exercise in human stupidity.

Clerics will point to the immodest dress of women as causing earthquakes, and how the West is decadent in its standards regarding women. Usually the argument for the headscarf goes one of two ways: it’s a command from God OR that a woman’s beauty is precious and should not be seen by all — the metaphor is usually that “she is like a pearl and must be guarded.”

Why then, is there rampant sexual harassment throughout Egypt?

I’m not saying that there isn’t sexual harassment in the West. There is. Quite a lot, actually. But the idea of a woman being groped on the street….and the man not arrested…man. There might be something to the whole “protection” thing that people argue, but I think for the wrong reasons. Here, it is almost more necessary; without it, you’ll get hassled more. Perhaps they’re mistaking the result for the cause. After all, women in the West aren’t hassled for exposing their upper arms and legs, but here they are. Perhaps they are forgetting the standard and assume that it’s the same elsewhere.

John’s mentioned one of his professors has looked into certain aspects of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) about the hijab and if it were permissible to remove it in countries where it isn’t required for a woman’s modesty. Isn’t modesty something culturally local, I wonder?

Something to think about a little more, I suppose.

The consoling part of the night was going across the street to the side room of the Assteria bar, which, unbeknown to us prior to that night, served alcohol. The salon looked a bit like a Soviet bus station, and the waiters were  mysteriously nonpresent most moments, but the company was good and the beer cold.

Sigh. Way too much sexual frustration pent up in this country sometimes.

I don’t think I’ll be seeing the other movie that’s been causing just as much controversy (Rasa’il al-Ba7r, “Letters from the Sea”) any time soon.

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According to Tammam, I look Turkish.

Well, that’s what we’re telling the police, anyway.

I’m a Turk whose family lives in the Kafr Susa district of Damascus, here in Egypt studying Arabic and teaching English. At least, that’s what Tammam came up with when we visited the castle of Qait Bey yesterday.

Why Turkish, Tammam?

“Because that explains your funny accent, and then no one will ask questions.”

When you go to any “touristic monuments” in Egypt, there’s a sign for the prices, usually above the ticket window. It looks innocent enough.

In English it says something like:
Adults: LE 50
Students: LE 25

On the opposite side, written in Arabic, is presumably the translation. At least, that’s what people who don’t read Arabic end up thinking. In reality, it says this:

Egyptians and Arab Nationals: LE 2
Egyptian and Arab Students:    LE 1

The numbers are written in the Eastern-Arabic numerical system, thus rendering the deception hidden to the eye of the foreigner with no knowledge of Arabic.

Interestingly, if there is no sign, you get asked where you’re from for the same reason.

I’ve told  a number of Egyptians that I think this is pretty racist; I’ve gotten into some pretty heated arguments over the cost of a ticket with vendors.

The response is one usually of entitlement: either foreigners should pay more (we have more money, I suppose), or that the Egyptian government has “paid” for Egyptians to see their own monuments. I honestly don’t understand that one: that the government “subsidizes” the cost of entrance fees to national monuments for Egyptian citizens? Also: what about the whole “Arab national” thing?

If we put a sign in front of the Statue of Liberty or the Lincoln Memorial saying, “Native-born Americans $1; Naturalized Citizens $2; Resident Aliens $5; Foreign Tourists $10,” there would be an absolute outcry. Nobody would go. It’s absolutely, totally, one-hundred percent ridiculous.

And thank you, very much, I don’t get paid in dollars, so I’m pretty much at your income level, dude.

I was telling this to Ahmed and Oliver the other day in Younani, and they were telling me that out in Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada (resort towns) the opposite is often true. You can see signs that read “Welcome Foreigners!” in English, but “Egyptian Entrance Fee LE 20” in Arabic

Seriously.

The press puts forward a lot of effort into projecting the image of Egypt as being a welcoming place for foreigners. My theory is a little different. Never once have I felt unwelcome, but as a resident khawaga, I have never felt entirely part of the country itself. As a foreigner, you are treated as a guest in the fullest meaning of the word — everywhere. No matter where you go. No matter how long you’ve lived here. You’re the foreigner, and oh? You speak Arabic? How nice! When are you leaving? When are you going back? It is nearly impossible to pay for dinner when you go out with Egyptian friends (which, I confess, is kind of nice, but annoying in a way that really gets to my pride). I almost feel like it’s a bit of a condescension; they won’t let you in on the secret: there is a different way of acting, and different price, and a different place for you because you are not, in fact, Egyptian.

In such moments, I am grateful for Americana. Anyone who is anyone who wants to be an American can become an American. And no one can debate that with him. He/She doesn’t have to be X religion or eat X or even live in X — it’s almost as if he/she just has o agree that you can just as easily build your identity as you can claim it.

Maybe freedom of identity is the greatest freedom of all. The freedom to be adopt a town, to live wherever, to travel and let your life story be different from the background you grew up in. I get shocked looks from some of my students sometimes when I tell them that I went through a roller coaster of religious development — from idea to philosophy to religion to idea, and so on. The Quest as a narrative seems almost entirely different here; instead, its the idea of acceptance, dealing with one’s Fate — a submission which sometimes to me seems far too much like the resignation I’ve tried to avoid in my own life.

These are my observations: a person here is defined by where they are from, what religion they practice, their job. Yet all these things are determined by the chaotic arrangement of one’s birth: if you are born poor, you can’t work yourself up into the university system because you can’t afford tutors; you can’t get a good job because you don’t have a wasta (middleman-intercessor); even your religion is dictated for you because the community and your family will not tolerate the change and your freedom to do so. You will be born poor, remain the religion you are born, do a job very close to your father’s, and bear children into the space you will vacate. If you are born into a better standing, you use the resources that are available to you in that standing, but nothing can push you up. You can only go down. And this, ladies and gentleman, is qadarak: your fate. Accept it as the will of God, and do what you can with it.

A number of chapters in the books we use at the Center talk about travel and a (somewhat flawed) idea of the gap year. Kids running off to college to maybe succeed, maybe fail out, maybe learn how to live quasi-independently. The vast majority of students are baffled. It seems like such a waste of money to them; and if not, like an incredibly dangerous situation (if you look at if from a religious perspective, college was indeed a veritable cauldron of sin to sing around your ears). But it imprints the value of independence and (ideally) self-reliance. You must not be a burden to anyone else.

It’s not entirely the opposite in Egyptian society, but I think it’s a little more focused on the idea of interdependence. Everyone has their noses in everyone’s business, and no one has to be entirely independent — in fact, it’s nearly impossible. Nearly every Egyptian shab I know makes only about LE 500/month at the most, and at that salary, no one can afford to live alone, except in the most dire of hovels on the outskirts of Kubri Namoos. You have to live with your family, and forget the idea of moving away to go to college. Almost no one can do that. The cost of living alone is insane. Even the quest of one’s life is posed as one which combats solitude: marriage itself is an institution that is opposed to celibacy. Most (Muslim) Egyptians are absolutely shocked when I tell them that at one point I wanted to be a Catholic priest; “Didn’t you want to marry?” is always the reply. There is a hadith about “Marriage being half one’s religion,” that is oft-quoted. It doesn’t surprise me, then, to expect that the society values interdependence over solitude.

As a consequence, though, I think that the result is one of exclusion of outsiders, hence the upped entrance fee outside national monuments. Naturally, you are not of us, so you should pay more. Not to any xenophobic extent, but one in which lifelong membership is something you are born into and leave by dying. Neighborhoods are tight, churches and mosque communities tighter; families almost impenetrable, except by marriage. You can’t earn admission except by becoming a part of the family. Adoption here is illegal, and the way that Muslim conversion to Christianity was described to me by Fr. Andrea almost sounded more like it was regarded as a kind of adultery more than it was a betrayal of personal belief. Americans come from a country in which adoption, revision, self-invention are part of the territory. Here, I would almost call them foreign novelties. Americans change their religious beliefs, their political beliefs, their personal beliefs almost routinely sometimes. Here, they are a product of who you are. Change your religious beliefs in your own personal quest, you are betraying the community. You have committed adultery and must be purged from the community.

It is interesting, however, to note that foreigners do not apply to this category. No one would dream of trying to convert my Coptic students to Islam (this is too personal an issue); I, however, am a prime target. Perhaps they haven’t thought that that, too, would be a betrayal of my own community?

Even if you lived here for years on years on years, people you met in the street would still treat you like the next foreigner tourist here on holiday, clicking pictures of the Pyramids away for Shutterfly. You can never, ever, ever be Egyptian — or even Egyptianized. In some ways, I’m glad.

But the next time someone asks, I’m a Turco-Syrian. I’m from the Kafr Susa district of Damascus, here in Egypt to study Arabic and teach English. At least, that’s what Tammam and I are telling the tourist police these days.

Because I sure as hell ain’t payin’ no LE 50 to get into anywhere.

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