Saturday, June 30, 2007: After a group breakfast in the hot and dingy common room at our apartment building, we go by bus to Al Azhar University; there we take written assessments of our Arabic to determine placement in our classes beginning tomorrow morning. We don’t find out anything about our scores at this point. I actually feel that I do quite well; I am surprisingly able to understand and answer most of the questions.
Later the whole group goes by sweltering and ramshackle bus to the huge Carrefour, a sprawling hypermarket operated jointly by Majid al Futtaim and Carrefour France. We all go our separate ways, buying groceries for our apartments for the week ahead. After some wandering, I meet Lisa and find her engrossed in a conversation with a handsome Egyptian named Mahmoud. She tells me later that he approached her in the cheese aisle and told her she has beautiful eyes. Lisa dresses conservatively and wears the hijab and already, within one day in Cairo, she has met a guy! He takes her phone number and later that evening calls and asks her out on a date. She doesn’t waste much time, that girl… 🙂
In the evening, I go with a bunch of my fellow students into Cairo to celebrate Shannon’s birthday. Our group consists of Shannon, Deena, Anita, Rabia, Kevin, Tarik, Amina, Suhala and me. We go directly to Midan Hussein, a square in front of the Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque. This mosque isn’t accessible to non-Muslims, so I am obviously barred. One of the most sacred Islamic sites in the country and the Middle East, the mosque hosts the shrine in which the head of Ibn al-Hussein, the grandson of Muhammed the Prophet, is alleged to have been buried. The present building dates to 1870 and replaces a much earlier 12th century mosque.
We sit at the outdoor Cafe Aboumazen and drink tea and mango juice; some of us eat dinner.
A woman in a striped abaya and pink headscarf comes by offering to do henna tattoos on our hands. She has a huge book full of drawings that we can choose from. Henna, also known as Mehendi, comes in many different shades or colors, ranging from reddish-orange to brown-black, but this woman does her temporary tattoos in black. I choose one I like from her book, as do a number of us, and we sip our tea while she takes turns painting her elaborate drawings on our skin.
Al Hussein square, where we sit at the outdoor cafe, is one of the most convenient access points to the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, Cairo’s giant souq (market). The khan, built in 1382, was originally a hub for traveling traders in the Fatimid era. Today, it’s the most visited tourist market in Egypt. Almost any kind of souvenir can be bought here, but also quality produce is still to be found. We wander through the maze of tight aisles, looking with awe at the Islamic clothes, scarves, belly-dancing equipment, furniture, and water-pipes, as well as gold, silver and jewels.
At one scarf shop, a young guy tells me I have “beautiful eyes” and introduces himself as Mohammed.
He hands me his business card and asks me to call him when I get a phone. Deena, feeling protective, snatches the card away and hides it.
We head back, spread out among several taxis, climbing the long winding road to Muquttam Hill to our grimy apartments.
When I return to our flat, I get an email from R, a man I met in Mexico in May and saw during all of June. I had written him yesterday about my arrival in Egypt, and he writes the following to me today, regarding our time together in New York (before I came to Egypt) and my five weeks away:
Except for my idiotic chocolate flub, I am afloat. Haven’t touched ground since and not likely to for a while. Wow!!
Shocked to hear from you after 8:00 p.m. I mean, wtf. Must have been uber-annoying before such a long flight. Sure wish I had had some ambien. ThG for Valium.
The whole 5 weeks thing just hit me this morning. Sure, it was there in my head, but it just hit my E-system (E for emotional). Crunch. Seems immense. Summer flies, I know; but it seems immense stretching out *a priori*. My phone feels hollow. But I shant wish your adventure time away and will just keep fingers crossed for your safety and success, and return.
From the oh-so-not-out-there,
I’m excited to hear from him, as our time together has been short and there is no commitment between us. But I like him very much and so am pleased to know he misses me and sees my five-week journey as “immense.” I try to sleep and prepare for our first day of school tomorrow at Al Azhar University, the oldest degree-granting university in Egypt.