Thursday, July 12: Today is our last day of class at Al-Azhar. I’m so happy to have the weekend before me. When I get home from class, I waste more time on emails, until I get a call from Mohammed, a shopkeeper from Khan al Khalili.
Mohammed has been after me since I met him two weeks ago. Sometimes, I am way too adventurous for my own good, but I agree to meet him at Al Azhar Hospital. I’m on a grand adventure at this point in my life, and if I’m not going to be adventurous, then what’s the point?
No matter. I feel totally safe in public in Cairo because the society is so chaste that no one can get away with anything untoward. I meet him at the hospital and he walks with me up to Al Azhar Park. It’s a beautiful oasis on a hilltop in the center of Cairo. There’s a lovely breeze, and the park is well-manicured and clean, unlike the rest of filthy Cairo. We walk and walk and sit and sit for several hours.
According to Wikipedia: Al-Azhar Park: In 1984, Aga Khan IV was visiting Cairo on a conference. From his hotel balcony, he could see Al-Darassa hill with its mounds of rubbish amassed during 500 years. He offered the city of his ancestors the much-needed gift of an oasis in this urban desert. The sum of 30 million dollars was allocated to the project and put in the qualified hand of a local architecture and urbanism office: Sites International. The site posed several technical challenges; half a millennium of debris was at hand. Works of excavation, grading and replacement with appropriate fill began in 1992.
The designers integrated traditional Islamic landscape traditions in both their design and choice of greenery. Tradition and historical legacy were preserved: This legacy can be seen in a variety of styles from different periods and different regions. The Nile, symbol of Egypt and Cairo, feeds the water ponds in the park. Several tests were done at the American University of Cairo that offered its nursery for propagating the flora of the park to make sure that adequate choices for the climate were being made. Opened to the public in 2005, the gardens of al-Azhar are reminiscent of historical Islamic gardens, with a blend of modern and traditional elements.
During our conversation, I find out Mohammed is 25 years old! He guesses that I’m 35, and I don’t correct him even though, of course, I’m MUCH older. Sometimes I wonder if these young Egyptian guys are insane. He tells me my age doesn’t matter; he’s very attracted to me. He has a stocky build and kind eyes. He tells me he loves his job at Khan al Khalili. He says he really likes me and his heart is with me.
He holds my hand and tells me he wants to kiss me. His hands are rough and dry. I think he says he wants to do even more, but I can hardly understand half of what he says. He keeps saying, “I canna do this, I canna do that.” I keep asking him: “Do you mean you can do this? Or you cannot do that?” It doesn’t help that my Arabic is more pathetic than his English. It’s a tough conversation. He is very sweet and handsome though.
While we’re sitting on the bench talking, an Egyptian couple walks by. The young man has his arm around his girlfriend’s waist. The park police approach him and yell at him about touching his girlfriend in public. He makes the mistake of arguing with the police and continuing to defiantly touch his girlfriend. More police appear, in droves. As we watch the drama unfold, 8-10 police arrive on the scene. By the time we walk out of the gate of the park, the police are taking away the guy. I don’t have any idea what they do with the girl. I am enthralled by the whole thing, as if I’m watching some kind of soap opera.
Mohammed tries to explain what is going on; he’s seen this thing too often. He tells me he’s incredibly frustrated by the society and its taboos.
We walk back down to Al Hussein Square where he treats me to mango juice, water and ice cream. Then he sets me up in a taxi to Muquttum. After all the talk about kisses, there are no kisses at all. There is no way to get away with such things in the public places of Cairo.