The Missing Day

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

[Chronologically, this post should be read after the first one] Tuesday morning. Awake after about four hours of sleep. Morning ablutions and then down to breakfast on the hotel mezzanine. An indifferent selection of pastries, cold cereal, breads of various kinds, jams and jellies, orange juice (thankfully), cold meats and cheese. Even a few pieces of sushi—rice and cucumber rolled in dried seaweed—but I pass on that. I hang out at the hotel for a while, read the English language newspaper that has been dropped outside my door—the Egyptian Mail (“The Middle East’s oldest English language weekly” says the caption under the paper’s name…) and around 10 head out to locate the Fulbright Center so I know how to orient myself for Wednesday’s official visit. The sun is bright and glaring in the smog as I walk to the corner where two taxi drivers ask if I need their service. I decline and turn right onto Amer Street. Half a block down is an HSBC bank branch where I enter to change some money. There is a Cairo cop outside the door, dressed in the standard white uniform with black boots, belt and beret. He glances up at me: “obviously an American,” he thinks; “no trouble.” Inside the door is a bank security person whom I greet in Arabic and he responds. Up a circular staircase to the second floor where two guys at a desk hand me a chit with the number 22 printed on it. There is a counter with three bank employees behind it and about eight or ten men sitting in chairs, waiting. A little illuminated sign tells me that number 16 is now being served, so I figure I have to wait a bit. I find a seat and watch the proceedings. Many of those waiting seem to know each other and quiet conversations are being held here and there. A young woman in dark clothing with her hair covered in a black cloth comes out from an office area and begins mopping the floor at the top of the stairs, She then works her way down the staircase. “Number 18” calls out the electronic female voice. There’s a minor disturbance at the top of the stairs, a verbal altercation between a customer and one of the bank employees. Everyone turns to watch and when the situation calms down, everyone has an opinion about what happened. Laughter seems to be the most common reaction. I’m glad that I decided to take care of the currency conversion early; the pace of service is agonizingly slow. Some customers have to return to the counter twice to complete their business. “Twenty.” Only one person in front of me now. It’s cool and pleasant in the bank and I’m in no hurry to face the heat of the street. Finally, “twenty-two” and I go and take care of my business. I pull out my American currency and the teller goes on auto-pilot. He pulls a form out of his desk, notes the amount I hand him, checks the bills to make sure they’re not counterfeit and shows me where to sign my name on the form. SO much easier than the States where banks treat customers who want to exchange currency like criminals: “Where’s your passport? Do you have an account here? No, we don’t take travelers’ checks.” No wonder the world thinks we’re arrogant. I thank the teller and take the stairs back down and out to the street. Across the way I notice an official-looking building with two more cops outside the gate. Thinking that that must be the Fulbright office, I cross over and immediately see lettering on the white wall identifying the place as the Center for German Studies in Cairo. An interesting discovery, but not what I’m looking for. I approach the two cops who are speaking with a traditionally dressed woman. All look up as I come near; I remove my sunglasses—a courtesy to people in the Middle East, who like to look you in the eye—and say hello in Arabic. I then ask for the street address I want. They point behind me and tell me to follow a street that runs perpendicular to the one we’re standing on. “On the right about halfway down,” one of the cops says. I thank them all and walk away. I find the building where I was told I would. It’s tucked away behind a fence and between two taller buildings. I make a mental note of landmarks and begin to walk back to the hotel. Just then my driver Ibrahim appears from behind the fence. We greet each other and shake hands. He asks if I’m coming in; I reply no, I’m just making sure where I need to go tomorrow. He tells me he’ll see me on Thursday for our drive to Alexandria. I say I’m looking forward to it and we say goodbye. Just before noon I’m back on the street corner ready to do business with the taxi drivers. There are two and the one who speaks first gets my business. He asks where I want to go and I give him the address. The American Embassy in the Garden City section of Cairo. I give him the street address. We hop in; it’s an old car, black and white, a Japanese product showing lots of urban wear and tear. Although there’s a meter, it isn’t turned on. We’ve been told that this is common practice and therefore we should negotiate a fare before we get in. I want to be on time for my appointment, so I skip that detail. We cross the river going east with the driver pointing out landmarks and making small talk. Very small, since my Arabic is rudimentary at best. We get to Garden City in about fifteen minutes but he obviously doesn’t know the area because he can’t find the street. He asks a couple of people who don’t know either but finally a cop points him in the right direction. He finds the street (I can’t make out the street sign amidst all the business signs on the building walls) and stops the car. The one landmark I have been told to look for—an Avis sign—is visible and I just hope it’s the RIGHT Avis sign; I’m sure there’s more than one in Cairo… “How much?” I ask. “Thirty Guineas” (Egyptian Pounds) he responds. About six bucks American; I hand him a 100 Egyptian pound note and get 50 in change. Oh yeah. These guys don’t carry small bills; we were told to expect that, so I walk away about ten dollars wiser, I hope. Our meeting is supposed to begin at 12:30 PM; I have several minutes to wait, but I begin to get a bit nervous when no one else seems to be stopping under the Avis sign. Just as I’m about to ask someone if that is indeed the American embassy just behind the barriers in the street, I see two sort-of-familiar faces. They walk toward the barrier and I overhear them asking about the Fulbright meeting. Okay. I feel better now. I run up and say “hello.” They remember me and now they look even more familiar. We head to the embassy gate and meet up with everyone else. The afternoon is spent getting oriented by various people. The American ambassador, a career foreign service officer (and NOT, thank goodness, a wealthy political donor) who has a long record of service in the Middle East, and was appointed to the post last Spring. Good move, Barack. Four hours later, we’re done and climb aboard a bus for a celebratory “Iftar,” the ceremonial fast-breaking meal taken after the sun sets each day during Ramadan. It has been arranged that we enjoy this feast at a restaurant in the citadel of Salah al-Din, the Ayyubid (Kurdish/Turkish) Muslim leader who is most famous for kicking the Christians out of Jerusalem in 1187 AD. We head east through the slums on the city’s eastern edge toward the Muqattam Hills, the highest geographical feature, anywhere near Cairo, composed of limestone and perfect for quarrying building stone. The sun is about a hand’s width above the horizon when we arrive, and we stand at a railing overlooking the Cairo skyline and the setting sun through a thick veil of smog and dust. The lights come on as we stand and talk; the wind freshens from the south and whips our hair. Along a wide esplanade paved with stone, waiters are busy laying tablecloths on tables, long ones to hold the buffet dishes and round ones where groups of six will sit and eat. The sun is still above the horizon, only barely, when we are called to the buffet line. We claim chairs for ourselves, pairing off and grouping up, and then load out plates. There are dishes that I recognize and dishes I don’t. Mezzeh, the Arabic antipasto is there: hummus (chickpeas ground finely and mixed with cumin, garlic and sesame sauce, tabbouleh (a salad made with cold cooked wheat kernels, onions, tomatoes and parsley) baba ghanoush (roasted mashed eggplant also mixed with garlic, sesame sauce and other spices), grape leaves rolled around cooked and spiced rice), kibbeh (ground lamb rolled in little sausage shapes and hiding pine nuts in the middle; these are grilled), and triangular puff pastries filled with mashed potatoes and then baked. All this is best eaten with generous amounts of pita bread—a pile of frisbee-shaped loaves sits in the middle of each table. It’s apparently traditional to begin the meal with a soup, and two are on offer. One is a vegetable soup and the other a cream type. There are rice dishes, more eggplant, a casserole that reminds me of Greek moussaka, I pick and choose; a little of most things, just to try. The wind blows strongly, flapping the edges of the tablecloth up over the dishes on the table. Hard to eat through linen. Booming in the distance makes us think it’s going to rain, but no doubt it’s the sound of cannons being fired to mark the REAL sunset and the breaking of the fast. Looks like we cheated a little. At our table are two Egyptian women who don’t speak English, but as the meal progresses, we engage them a bit with our limited Arabic; they are pleased to be able to tell us the names of some of the foods we are eating. Two Fulbright students, who I innocently observe seem to be working on similar projects, get into an increasingly tense disagreement about methodology. It’s beginning to make all of us (at least the Americans, anyway) a bit uncomfortable. I try to referee but one of the disputants talks right through me. Oh, I think, I’ve been here less than twenty-four hours and already created trouble. Great diplomatic skills. Finally, I do get in a word edgewise and suggest that everybody chill. Then apologies are offered and accepted and the meal winds down. We’re about to change the subject when one of the Fulbright office people interrupts to request that we move to another set of chairs grouped near the far end of the esplanade. A musical group, seven men and three women, has set up and are ready to play: violin, bass viol, tableh (Arab drum), qanun (zither), oud (like nothing so much as a pregnant guitar or a mandolin with a beer gut), electronic keyboard and four vocalists. For an hour and a quarter the group, Qithara Troupe, plays and sings. The leader, on the violin, is a well-known Egyptian musician who has developed a new sound which combines elements of “eastern” and “western” music. Much of the Arabic influence is still heard and generally dominates, but, as the violinist tells us in a brief interlude, he plays with major and minor chords and chromatic music to develop a new style, a fusion of many musical traditions. Indeed, at various times the music sounds like gypsy music, an Israeli folk song, a Broadway theme, a torch song, and even jazz. Interesting for that and for the fact that during the performance one hears conversations being carried on throughout the audience. Music is a social lubricant here and the etiquette is therefore different from your average big city American philharmonic event. The musicians finally stand and receive our warm applause. As they pack their instruments and quickly move off stage, their place is taken by a strikingly tall man dressed in an elaborate costume composed of knee-length black leather boots, a black shirt embroidered with white piping, black billowy trousers over which he wears a heavy ankle length skirt (also embroidered in white). Two scarves, one black, one white, are wound around his head. He is carrying a number of round, flat objects that look like tambourines. These, too carry the white on black motif . As the dancer approaches the middle of the open space, a new sort of music blasts from two shoulder-high speakers on either side of the audience. Electronic. Disco tempo. A chest thumping bass line with a high, reed flute, snake-charming melody wailing above it. Hypnotic and insistent. The dancer—his name is Ehab El Masry—begins to move, spinning up to a constant number of revolutions per minute. His skirt flies out parallel with the ground, his feet moving heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe in time to the beat. The edges of the skirt show white against the black of his trousers and shirt, rippling slightly in the wind, held straight out by the force of his spinning. With his hands, he moves the tambourines to form different configurations: a line of circles running up one arm; a triangular shape held against the center of his chest; five of them, a triangle on his abdomen topped by a single column covering his neck and face; another single row stretching across his chest from fingertip to fingertip. How many tambourines does he have? I thought three, but then five and now he is holding seven. He tilts his upper body to one side and an asymmetric design running up one of his arms appears. Five minutes pass and he continues to move, changing the patterns of the tambourines again and again, never the same one twice. A change now; he deftly gathers the tambourines and deposits them on the ground in a neat pile, never breaking his movement; never losing the beat. He spins on, booted feet moving to the beat. Suddenly, the skirt is released at the waist and part of it is lifted above his head, revealing colorful stripes. The dancer lifts part of the skirt above his head so that he looks like a wildly spinning oversized psychedelic hourglass. The music pounds away. He moves again and releases one layer of the skirt from his waist, raising the bright colors above his head, twirling it like a cowboy’s lariat on one arm. He twists the garment into a barber’s pole of stripes and holds it at an angle before dropping it to the ground. Another layer of skirt is revealed and he uses this to create yet more patterns. He has been spinning now for nearly fifteen minutes; the music driving him to keep moving. The audience is riveted to this dervish version of the dance of the seven veils. Everyone has the same thought uppermost in their minds: how can he do this without falling down, puking with dizziness? With one last flourish the dance ends; the dancer halts on cue, bows and walks off from under the lights. In a straight line. Amazing. Everyone applauds enthusiastically. Our first evening together as Fulbrighters in Egypt comes to an end. We walk back through the shadows and light to the bus, are driven back to the office, and find our ways home.

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