Category Archives: Muquttum

graduation from al azhar & the unknown soldier memorial

Sunday, July 29: Today we have our graduation from Al Azhar’s intensive 1-month-long Arabic course.  I think I know about as much as I knew the first day I arrived.  My entrance test and my final exam had about the same scores.  Oh well, at least it’s been the adventure of a lifetime.

the group of American women studying through Al Ameen Associates at Al Azhar University

the group of American women studying through Al Ameen Associates at Al Azhar University

another group shot

another group shot

me with Lisa on the terrace overlooking the courtyard at Al Azhar University

me with Lisa on the terrace overlooking the courtyard at Al Azhar University

the "infidels" - Kevin, me, Clint, and Shannon (the only non-Muslims in the group)

the “infidels” – Kevin, me, Clint, and Shannon (the only non-Muslims in the group)

me with my diploma

me with my diploma

Lisa with her diploma

Lisa with her diploma

Lisa and me

Lisa and me

Lisa and me outside in front of Al Azhar

Lisa and me outside in front of Al Azhar

me with my diploma

me with my diploma

On our way home today, we make a stop at the Unknown Soldier Memorial, a pyramid-shaped monument in Nasr City, Cairo. President Anwar Sadat ordered its construction in 1974 in honour of Egyptians who lost their lives in the 1973 October War. It was inaugurated in October 1975. The site was also chosen for the president’s tomb after his assassination in October 1981 (Wikipedia: Unknown Soldier Memorial (Egypt)).

Unknown Soldier Memorial

Unknown Soldier Memorial

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.

fatwā approving the assassination had been obtained from a cleric later convicted in the US for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The assassination was undertaken by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.   Though it has yet to proven, it has also been theorized that Sadat’s Vice-President Hosni Mubarak and Defense Minister Abu Ghazala played in role in planning the assassination. (Wikipedia: Assassination of Anwar Sadat)

me in front of the stands where Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981

me in front of the stands where Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981

me with Lisa at the Unknown Soldier Memorial

me with Lisa at the Unknown Soldier Memorial

When I return home after class, I find this email from R.

C,

Back from a family-sort-of-reunion-thing. People from around the country getting together.  Best part was I got a chance to spend some cool pool time with my granddaughter.  2 is such a cute age.  But I’ve a whole night of grading ahead. What a way to spend a Sat. night.  Would much rather be with you.  But I bought a bottle of Bushmills to
help get me through.  Usually, grades improve as the evening wears on.  Not entirely sure why.

Anyway, I’m not sure how much more you’ll be on-line and I guess it’ll be choppy until you actually get back.  And then maybe choppy until you get settled– whatever that means.  In the meantime, if you can, let me know when you think we might get a chance to get together.  From Aug. 1 on I’m flexible, so let me know.

Can’t wait to see you.

In meantime, stay safe.

Love,
r.

In the evening, Basim comes by to pick me up and we go back to The Virginian at Muquttum Corniche.  It’s so lovely now to spend time with him.  I’ve come to enjoy his company, even though it’s been hit or miss much of the time I’ve been here.  I realize I will miss him when I leave here.

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Filed under Al-Ameen Associates, Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt, Middle East, Muquttum, Muquttum Corniche, Nasr City, The Virginian, Unknown Soldier Memorial

final saturday in cairo: a shopping spree at the far end of road 9

Saturday, July 28: I am almost to the end of my month in Egypt and this is our last weekend day here.  Lisa and I plan to do some shopping later this afternoon.  We also need to study, as our final exams and graduation are tomorrow.

This morning, I send an email to R:

Have you fallen off the face of the earth???  I haven’t heard much from you.  Have you decided to join the “Hate Cathy Club”?  Or are you simply incredibly busy?  Or maybe you are tired of me cluttering your life.

Anyway, I hope all is well with you.  It is so freaking hot here.  All I feel like doing is staying in my apartment with the A/C going full blast.  There is no relief from the heat when you go out.  Taxis, cafes, shops: none of them have air conditioning.  I want to shop more at Khan el Khalili, but don’t know if I can brave the heat.

Study today, maybe shop, who knows what else.  My 3 infidel friends enjoyed the hash last night.  We had a lovely spot with a pool for BBQ and cold beers afterwards.  None of my Egyptian friends were there.  It was fun, nonetheless.

Take care kind sir,
let me know if you have abandoned me…
C

I hear back from him after a couple of hours:

Not off the face of earth, yet, but flitting around the edges lately and have had a bit of a problem getting to and staying near a computer.  Not in the club.  Can’t even imagine the club.  Quite the contrary.  But, have to dash again. I’ll try to be more complete about my flittings later– they mostly have to do with a flood of papers from two courses and performance evaluations for all the people who work for me, due Tuesday.  I’m just a grading fool.  And no time to be human or to slow down.  Will chat more when I can.

As for my ‘millionnaire’ just as I was going to lay into him, his wife asked me under her breath not to burst his bubble.  Damn.

See you soon!!!

Lisa and I go on a shopping spree at some shops at the far end of Road 9 in Muquttum.  She does more damage than I, but both of us buy a lot of stuff we don’t need.  After we shop, we have a lunch of cucherie and Coca-Cola in a steamy hole-in-the-wall.

me having cucherie and Coca-Cola in Muquttum

me having cucherie and Coca-Cola in Muquttum

Lisa in Muquttum

Lisa in Muquttum

Lisa and me in the tuk-tuk

Lisa and me in the tuk-tuk

Lisa and me after our shopping spree

Lisa and me after our shopping spree

Lisa, me and our spoils

Lisa, me and our spoils

Later, I write back to R:

I know you are swamped and I’m just happy to hear you haven’t joined the club.  I hope you haven’t surreptitiously added your name to the wait list.  Anyway, we will talk more upon my return to the USA after Tuesday.  I am so looking forward to seeing you.  The boys called today and Adam goes to lax camp through Wednesday, so I’m sure I will need to spend some time with him when he returns.  He sounded sad and like he misses me.  Alex seems to be doing fine.  Mike never speaks to me when the boys call.

I will leave you to your paper grading and your performance evaluations.  I have my big Arabic test tomorrow, but instead of studying today, Lisa and I went shopping at the other end of Muquttum.  We actually found it quite nice.  If only we’d discovered it earlier.  We were so dead set against the neighborhood from the start, that we never gave it a chance.  Oh well, that’s life.

So, hold on dear R, and I look forward to seeing you in just several more days.
Love,
C

He responds back:

Love it, loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it.

r

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Filed under Cairo, Egypt, Middle East, Muquttum

a lazy saturday in muquttum and an adventure cooking dinner in our flat

Saturday, July 21:   This morning I wake up early in our Muquttum flat.  I am still feeling angry and upset about last night’s argument with R, and I write him this email.

r,  Of course I hung up when the “female” answered.  What else would I do?  I can’t ask for you, obviously.  Therein is the story of our lives.

I am surprised when you say it was you that answered.  I know your voice and it certainly didn’t sound like you.  All I heard was female and immediately thought: L, or some other woman.

And I didn’t know why you might feel it necessary to lie, especially if you were simply at home.  It just seemed like a totally unnecessary lie, but a lie nonetheless.  And of course there was the thought that if it was a lie, it was likely told to hide something else, such as another woman.  I can certainly understand another woman, seeing as how  you are so “out there,” and so funny, smart, sexy and attractive, but I just think I have the right to know as I have told you everything in that regard on my end.

So, your apologies accepted, although in the end, none are necessary.  Nothing was your fault, just  a mis-hearing, or misunderstanding, on my part.  So, I’m the one who is sorry.  I hope you will forgive me.  Now that you mention it, you have told me before that callers sometimes mistake you for a woman.  I have never heard this before when talking to you, so I am utterly bewildered by how “female” you sounded.  Wow.

I hope you’ll forgive me.  I am terribly sorry. And I will look forward to hearing about your private place.  That is, if you still want to see me when I return.

You didn’t mention at all the thing about Basim, so I have no idea how you feel.  Maybe it doesn’t bother you, maybe it does.  I’m not even sure how I feel about the whole thing.  Monday is a national holiday here, and therefore he asked me to go along.  In Egypt, Egyptians cannot share a room with a person of the opposite sex unless they show marriage papers.  So, I don’t believe you’ll have cause to worry.

My life is in such upheaval right now, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.  Yesterday at the hash, walking through the desert and chatting with a British man I had just met, I started feeling melancholy about my decisions.  I thought to myself, what on earth am I doing?  I have loved my time in Egypt, have loved the sense of freedom and adventure, and have hardly given my old life a thought.  I’ve thought of you and all my adventures here, and that’s about it.  (And Arabic of course).  Maybe it was just strong guilt pangs, who knows.  I didn’t think of turning back, but I just wondered if I am doing the right thing.

Anyway, I hope you have a great weekend.  I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.  And I’m sorry if I am causing you any pain.  I don’t want to do that.  You should know I’m in pain myself right now, and feeling more than a little lost and confused.

I hold you close in my heart and wish your complete and utter happiness.

Love,  C

I go back to sleep in our flat for a couple of hours.  I guess I need the sleep, because I’ve been going nonstop the whole time I’ve been in Cairo.  When I wake up, I find two short messages from R, and then I respond.

C,  A quick reply.  More later.  I’ve decided to try to always answer the phone with my name.  the female thing happens way too often (about 40% of the time actually).  As for Basim, I’m mixed as I’ve explained before.  I have a hard time when imagining (and trying not to imagine) you with another man.  And yet I want you and expect you to live life to the fullest.  I built that into my expectations as you walked into the airport terminal and have kept them in my mind since.  As for needing two hotel rooms, I’m old but I think I could come up with some creative ways to overcome that.

You can share what you like and keep private what you like; I’ll never ask and I’ll never refuse to listen; and I like to think my feelings for you will not be fundamentally altered by it.  All I ask is that you bring nothing home to share.

More later, I’m on a terrible time crunch now and so can’t write all I’d like to.  Stay well
r

Then another message:

Btw, don’t ever let us miss an opportunity to talk just cuz I’m doing my female impersonation, or even if a real female answers.  I get lots of calls from lots of people.  If you just ask for Professor R, or Mr. R, or that damn deadbeat, no one will think a second thought about it.  Happens all the time.  But I’ll try to remember to answer the phone by name.

There.  Another completely inane email just for the sake of typing and watching words appear for no reason other than that they go to you. In Cairo.  Or wherever your hanging out.

MU.

Love,
r.

After reading both of R’s emails, I write him back:

Hello,  I’ve been sleeping away my entire Saturday.  I wrote the earlier e-mail to you hours ago, then I slept for another couple of hours.  I came down to see if you had written me back, then I re-read all your latest e-mails.  There’s a warm breeze flowing through this room and I feel mellow and warm toward you and your words.  I feel so bad for being so angry at you last night, especially since you didn’t do anything wrong.  And here I have been subjecting you to details of my life here that certainly must be hurtful.  My dearest R, I hope you will forgive me.

I am so afraid you will be gone from me upon my return.  I wonder if I haven’t been pushing you away in preparation for that certain event.  Here again, my lack of self-confidence is rearing its ugly head.  I don’t believe that anyone could really care for me and in addition wait an entire month for me.  A month can sometimes be an eternity.

I am sad and miss you so much.  I adore being in your company, with no shortage of things to talk about.  I wish I could sit across from you and hold your hand and lean across the table to kiss you.  I want you so desperately.  This is true, truer than you can ever know.  I wish for you to be happy, even if it means you leave me.  And I can certainly understand if you do.

Take care and have a nice weekend.  Today is officially the last day of our weekend.  We have class Sunday and the holiday Monday.  If I go with Basim tomorrow I’ll miss class and be on Dr. Jones’s shit list.  The other 3 non-Muslims and Tarik went for a self-created 4-day weekend to Mt. Sinai to ride camels with the Bedouins up the mountain, camp out overnight and then return.  They may also go to Sharm el Sheik.  Dr. Jones was furious that they decided to miss Sunday.  If I miss it, I’ll be joining the ranks of the troublemakers.

I feel nothing but warm tender feelings for you.  Is it love?  I don’t know, but it seems likely.  Extremely likely.  I miss you so much and wish you were here to take a nap with me.  And everything else I can think of.

Love,  C

I get one more message from R in the evening,

C,

This is likely the last message until you get back.  Nothing to say really, nothing special going on, but wanted to share even that with you.  Months are long, until they’re over.  Then they seem short.  I have so much nothing to talk to you about and I can’t wait.  Stay safe and well.  And, Carpe Diem.

r

In the afternoon and evening, I study Arabic, relax and try to cook some dinner in our horrible kitchen.  I don’t cook much in this flat.  You can see why by looking at the picture.

me cooking in our horrible Muquttum kitchen in a frying pan with a broken handle ~ priceless :-)

me cooking in our horrible Muquttum kitchen in a frying pan with a broken handle ~ priceless 🙂

As Basim has invited me to accompany him to Alexandria on Sunday and Monday, I pack tonight and prepare to play hooky tomorrow.  Monday, July 23 is Revolution Day and a public holiday; it is the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution of  1952.  It is the biggest secular public holiday in Egypt.

We have Monday off for the holiday, but not Sunday, which means I only have to make excuses for one day.  I’m sure Dr. Jones will not be pleased.  Oh well. 🙂

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our muquttum neighborhood & our horrible flat

Thursday, July 19:  Today is class as usual at Al Azhar.  After class, I take some pictures of some activity going on at the house across the street.  The man of the house is cutting his son’s hair at a kind of outdoor room overgrown with vines.

I apologize that all my photos have a pink tinge to them.  I don’t know the explanation for this.  As all my Egypt photos seem to have a pink glow, I can only guess that I’m seeing Cairo through rose-colored glasses.

an outdoor haircut in the house across from our flat

an outdoor haircut in the house across from our flat

Notice in the house across the “street” from our flat, the middle floor has glass panes and curtains in the windows.  The top floor does not.  This is the case all through Cairo.  I see buildings EVERYWHERE with one flat finished, and all the other flats in the building unfinished.  It’s very bizarre that only one family would live in a building with a bunch of empty shells for neighbors.

the house across the street

the house across the street

looking down the "street" to the left

looking down the “street” to the left

Here’s our lovely living room.  There’s not really much room for three roommates to sit comfortably.

our living room

our living room

Neither is the dining area very practical for three people.

our dining room

our dining room

I love how the refrigerator is stuck halfway between the dining room and living room.

the refrigerator in the living/dining room

the refrigerator in the living/dining room

And the kitchen is really something, isn’t it?  It’s really so disgusting that I never want to cook here.  I’ve taken to eating chick peas out of a can, with a little olive oil, salt and pepper tossed in.  Either that, or I go out to eat.

our lovely kitchen

our lovely kitchen

more of the kitchen

more of the kitchen

Here’s our roommate Souhaila’s room.  Rather a mess.  I’m usually a really tidy person, but what’s the point in this dive of a place?

Souhaila's bedroom

Souhaila’s bedroom

Today, Lisa plays hookey from school.  She needs to get some kind of business taken care of so I’m supposed to cover for her and tell Dr. Jones that she’s sick.

I call Robert today to warn him about an email I am sending him.  I no longer have the email I sent, but I imagine I tell him how much I care for him.  In addition, I probably discuss the hopelessness of our situation, as he is already entangled.  I think I tell him I don’t know what to do because I know there is no future for us and I’m afraid of the eventual consequence: a broken heart.

Cathy,

It was so special speaking to you.  And so very special of you to call just to warn me.  But by far the most special of all was to hear your laugh.  It was like suddenly hearing a very dear song from long ago; one that fills you with warm memories.  In the midst of an emotionally draining day, it was a like a kiss.  It made the dreariness fade away and sustained me on a private high for hours. Even yet, it rings in my ear and I feel so very, very lucky to have it.

I’m back in my office trying to catch up.  I have performances to evaluate, lack of performance (mine) to hide or explain away, papers to grade, more papers to grade, a desk piled high with paper to clean, papers to edit for publication, a book to write, and yet… and yet, all I can bring myself to do is write to you.

I tried not to get online.  But I just couldn’t help myself.  I do apologize.  I tried not to read your email.  But when I saw the first three words I was tugged so strongly that I could stop myself.  I apologize again.   I am so thrilled by what you say.  And I am so stricken by what you say.  I won’t even pretend to offer answers.  I can’t read the future.  I have enough trouble understanding the present. But, it is more painful each day to have a present that you are not in.  And it is more painful yet to contemplate a future that does not include you.  My future, ineluctably, has pain written all over it.  There is no getting around that, and the only person I can talk to about it is half-way around the world.

All in all, it’s been a long and draining day.  And I’ve only a few minutes of your laughter to make up for it.  It’s just not quite enough for a day like this.  I’m sorry to end on such a note, but, well, the day is ending and so is my energy.

Stay well.

Love always,
r

I write back to R:

BTW, if the computer dies on me, I will have to stop.  I have spent a good 45 minutes just opening your email and writing what I have written.  Not only will it shut down, but it is unbelievably slow.

So… I just have to tell you that your emails and calls mean more to me than I can possibly describe.  With each one, my heart grows fonder and fonder of you.  I am getting irretrievably attached.  I miss you so much.  I so wish you could be here with me for a long weekend to explore this wild insane place.

I am falling for you, so beware.  Careful…. fragile heart (as Jewel says).
Love,  C

Later I get this email from R:

C,  I’m pulling out early (of my office:) and will be telecommuting from a secluded and lonely place all day tomorrow to try actually to get some stuff done.  It’s possible I’ll not figure out email and so may be incommunicado all Friday.  Please read nothing into this but that I’m IT illiterate.

Hope you have another exhilarating day (while I slave away in my salt mine).  Can’t wait to see you.  Warmest to Basim.

your sm
r.

Siiggg!!!

Later in the evening, I get another email from R.

Cathy,

Just got back from dinner downtown with some professor buddies from out-of-town.  Super nice guys and we had a lovely time.  Walked around a bit pulling on cigars and solving the world’s trade problems. I occasionally found myself thinking what it would be like to walk around with no where special to go in Cairo, with you.  But then some pointed question would drag me back to DC.  Nothing exciting, no ‘rides of death,’ no one to haggle with, no one to tell about.  Just a bit of something different in my humdrum life.  And I thought I would share it, mostly because it makes me feel better, and closer, while I’m typing away.

Isn’t it odd how a block of words seem to take on a personality? I seem to anthropomorphize them into the person who wrote them or the person for whom they are written.  I re-read and re-read words that I know so well because it feels like I’m touching that person.  It’s not the information being relayed, the words themselves become like the being they portray.  And it is comforting to see them; like holding them. They feel warm and full of life, almost like their breathing.  It’s a substitute, but a comforting one and very special.  Maybe it’s just the next step in losing my mind. Maybe my mind is just trying to join my heart.

Sorry to meander.  Just wanted to say goodnight and wish you well.  MUSM.

Love,
r

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a poolside meeting & a hectic drive to ma’adi

Monday, July 16:  Another day of classes at Al Azhar.  It’s the usual:  a sweltering day in the shabby classrooms suffering through Arabic and Tajweed classes.  During the day, I hear from Mohsen for the first time in 10 days, and he asks if I’d like to get together this evening.  I agree to meet him and we set a time for early evening.

When I get back to Muquttum this afternoon, I find an email from R.

C,  Great to hear from you, and your adventures.  Not so exciting as compared to my mowing, hedging, cleaning, but what can you do?  But I did get the workout and bike ride in (no one answered).  Now I’m paying the price as I’ve been pleasantly sore since Sunday. [Pleasant because of my ‘no pain, no gain’ sort of mentality]

Rested in part by watching the new Harry Potter movie.  If you’re a fan, you’ll really like this.  Quite good and fabulous special effects.  Drifted off last night watching a discovery channel piece on the step pyramid, Saqqara and Imotep.  Made me melancholy.  As usual, I got a fitful few hours and then back to the grind.

But a good day today.  Much doings and a neat guest speaker.  Drinking afterwards and probably a night at the office (easier than driving home).

Regrettably, there is no more to report.  Such is the life of we vicarious-livers.  So, please, keep me up on doings.  And stay safe and well.

By the way, I don’t mean to be too forward, but I was wondering if you would mind greatly if I might try to help make arrangements for your return to Washington?  If you could give me your ETA into the states, perhaps I could assist in logistics to facilitate the re-entry.  I surely don’t want to impose and could keep any arrangements flexible based on your own pre-existing plans and, of course, on your state of mind at that point in your adventure.  But I did want to offer up any assistance I might be able to provide.

Yours most sincerely,
rar

I write back to R:

Uh-oh.  Methinks you may be sounding a little formal and stand-offish.  Maybe I’m giving a few too many details.  I should stop.

Finally heard from Mohsen and will get together with him tonight.  Maybe I’ll be able to tell you an expanded story when it’s all said and done.

Sounds like you had a good weekend.  and no, I’m not a big Harry Potter fan.  I’m generally not fond of fantasy, preferring real life stories instead.

I’m sending this now…

I take a taxi to Ma’adi, where I meet Mohsen in his office.  Since I haven’t seen or heard from him in 10 days, I look forward to seeing him again.  However, when I arrive at his office, he tells me he only has a little time tonight as he needs to be somewhere for another meeting.  Of course, I am irritated by this as I wonder why on earth he has made arrangements with me if he has other plans.

He asks if I’d like to go back to his holiday home for a couple of drinks and a light meal poolside.  I agree and we go to his home and sit and talk and drink a glass of wine or two.  It’s a lovely time as Mohsen is great company and we laugh a lot together.  He’s got a great sense of humor.

The last time I see Mohsen in Egypt

The last time I see Mohsen in Egypt

While I’m at Mohsen’s, I get a text from Basim asking if I’d like to meet him at the Grand Cafe on the Nile in Ma’adi.  I know that Mohsen has other plans for later, so I agree to meet him at 9:00.  I tell Mohsen that I need to be back in Ma’adi by 9:00.  After we talk a while longer, have lots of laughs and swim for a bit in the pool, I tell him I need to go.  We have about a half an hour and I think that is plenty of time to get to Ma’adi.

As Mohsen is driving me to Ma’adi, I keep looking at my watch and wondering why he is driving so slowly.  I say, “Can you please go faster; you’re so slow!  You’re driving like an old man!”  I’m irritated at him for barely squeezing me into his busy schedule and by this time I don’t care what I say to him.  The traffic is horrible and at one point, when he gets off on a ramp, there is a donkey pulling a cart in front of us.  I yell, “Go around him!  You’re going so slow!!”  As he pulls out to go around him, we almost run into a big truck.  I’m shaking from the near accident and the stress of driving in Cairo, especially with Mohsen at the wheel and myself as the back-seat driver!

By the time we finally arrive in Ma’adi, I’m nearly an hour late.  Surprisingly, Basim is still waiting for me, but I can tell he’s quite irritated.  After a few awkward minutes, we actually leave the Grand Cafe and drive directly to the Muquttum Corniche where we sit at an outdoor restaurant called The Virginian.  I find it serendipitous that the place is called The Virginian, since I’m a Virginian.  Here, we drink some fruit juice and watch Arabic singers performing on a huge screen.  There’s a slightly cool breeze atop Muquttum Mountain and it ends up being truly a lovely evening.  However, there are still no opportunities for kissing. This is becoming increasingly frustrating. 🙂

When I arrive back in Muquttum, I find this email from R in response to my email above, sent earlier this evening:

Methinks you doth think too much.  Stand-offish?  Me?  Hardly.  I
still love the details and love hearing about your exploits.  Just not
much here to report.  I’ll call tomorrow.  Be well,

Love,
R

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Filed under Cairo, Egypt, Grand Cafe, Ma'adi, Middle East, Muquttum, Muquttum Corniche, The Virginian

a tabletop chalkboard, back to city stars and an evening at muquttum corniche

Sunday, July 8: The facilities at Al Azhar University are horrible.  The classroom has an air conditioner, but it barely works.  The teacher uses an upturned table as a chalkboard.  The entire room, including our tables and chairs, is decrepit and dirty.  On top of that, all women are required to wear the hijab while at the university, which makes the heat doubly uncomfortable.  I just count the seconds to get through the day.  I am learning some Arabic, but the teacher speaks English so it is not a full immersion, which is what I expected it would be.

our teacher and her tabletop white board

our teacher and her tabletop white board

Lisa plays “sick” today because she needs to go to the American Embassy for some kind of documentation over a claim she is making against an Egyptian with whom she was involved in the past.  So, I am stuck in Tajweed today alone with Mona.  It’s horrible without Lisa there. 😦

Once I get out of class, I take a taxi immediately to City Stars Mall, where I bought my phone yesterday.  I can’t make calls on the phone, so I want to get them to help me with it.  They do, and when I finish I take a taxi back to Muquttum.

I am finally able to text Mohsen my number, after which I do some laundry and eat a dinner I prepare on our disgusting stove.

Basim, the brain surgeon, calls and we go to the Muquttum Corniche, which are really cliffs looking out over Cairo.   There is quite a lively commotion in the narrow parking area with a jumble of cars honking, a gang of motorcycles revving engines, and battles over limited parking.  Basim finally parks his old Mercedes and we sit at a plastic table and drink banana juice and cardamom tea.  When I realize there is no place to put my tea bag, I say, “In America, we have plates to put our tea bags.”  He says, “Yes, but we’re in Egypt, so we put them here on the table.”

I say, “I’m older than you, you know.”  He says, “I know you’re older.  I figure you’re about 40.”  I don’t say a word to refute that, even though I’m actually 51. I ask him his age and he tells me he’s 34.  Hmm.

I tell him about my marriage and my children and our separation and I don’t know what he thinks about that as he’s a conservative Muslim and doesn’t drink or do anything improper.

We have a lot of laughs as he tells me a hilarious story of taking a bus in Houston (which now I sadly don’t remember) and I tell him the story of Lisa and Mahmoud and their free Presidential Cruise on the Nile.

When we leave the Corniche, we have to fight to untangle ourselves from the knot of honking cars in the parking area.  He yells at the other drivers and the other drivers yell at him.  What a noisy ending to a lovely night. 🙂

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Filed under Al-Azhar University, Cairo, City Stars Mall, Egypt, Middle East, Muquttum, Muquttum Corniche

muqattum… cairo’s limestone mountain

Friday, June 29, 2007:  We arrive from all over the United States, 25 of us in all converging on Cairo.  I have flown in on Egypt Air.  Only 4 of our group are non-Muslim, the other 21 are American Muslims.  We have come here for a 1-month intensive Arabic class at Al-Azhar University under the auspices of a group in America called Al-Ameen Associates.  At this point, on our arrival date, I don’t know a single soul.  But I’m excited to finally be in the Middle East after completing the first year of my studies at George Mason University for a Master’s degree in International Commerce & Policy.  During this first year, I have come to form in my mind the dream of eventually working in the Middle East.  When my Master’s degree is complete that is.  My dream is to get a job working on economic or human development issues, especially human rights and freedom of the press.

Arrival in Cairo on Egypt Air, June 29, 2007

Arrival in Cairo on Egypt Air, June 29, 2007

According to the Al-Ameen website “Al-Ameen Associates was established by Dr. James E. Jones and Matiniah Yahya M.Ed. in 1994 to provide high-quality consultation, education and counseling services.”  Also, according to their website: “Dr. Jones is a professor of Comparative Religion at The Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences and an Associate Professor of World Religion at Manhattanville College. He has a M.A. from Yale Divinity School and a D.Min. from Hartford Seminary. Dr. Jones is the Director of the Al-Azhar Arabic Summer Immersion Program. Matiniah Yahya is a certified teacher with a Masters in elementary education and over two decades of experience as an educator.”  I will tell more about them later.

waiting with our group at the cairo airport

waiting with our group at the cairo airport

We wait in the airport until everyone has arrived and then we get into a sweltering and dilapidated bus to go to our apartment building in Muqattum.  It is July in Egypt and the heat is more than uncomfortable.  People have led me to believe that it will be hot but dry.  That is not the case at all.  It feels as humid as anything I have experienced on the east coast of the U.S.  The bus is even more sweltering, much like you would imagine a metal box that has been closed up under the overbearing sun all day to feel.  It’s an oven.  The seats are filthy and rickety.  We try to open windows but we’re told the air conditioning is on (hmmm!) and will cool us eventually.  So we close the windows and bake some more, almost until we get to our apartment at least 45 minutes from the airport, when finally we can feel a cool breeze eeking out of the vents.

first scenes of cairo out the bus window

first scenes of cairo out the bus window

It’s so strange when you go to a foreign country. Your imagination prepares a picture of what to expect, your surroundings, the place you’ll stay, the people.  All I had to go on was the description of Muqattum from the Al-Ameen website:  “Housing is located in Muqattum which is outside downtown Cairo in a residential area. The area is quiet and it sits on a mountain. There is a breeze that is felt when there is no breeze any other place in the area. They say it is at least 5-10 degrees cooler than at the bottom of the mountain.

street scenes ~ Cairo

street scenes ~ Cairo

The building has four floors and we rent about half the building for our stay. On the first floor as you walk in, there is an open reception hall and security booth with 24-hour building security. There is a large gathering room, computer room and a room that will be used as a dining room. There is also an elevator for our use. There are small apartments on each floor. These apartments include: a living room area, equipped kitchen, 1- 2 bedrooms with storage space/closet and most have a balcony.

a mosque in cairo

a mosque in cairo

All apartments will have 2 people to a room which means apartments will house 2 to 4 people. Married couples will be placed in 2 person apartments first (these are limited) and the other students will be placed in same gender apartments. All rooms have air conditioning.”

our apartment in Muqattum

our apartment in Muqattum

So, based on the above description, I imagine a kind of oasis, if you will, at the top of a mountain.  Now, nowhere in the above description does it say there is greenery, yet somehow in my mind, the “Muqattum oasis” is filled with a sparse amount of green trees, some grass, some nice flowers swaying in the aforementioned breeze.  I imagine the suburbs of America except with less greenery.  My picture is so badly misinformed and misguided that Muqattum is in fact like visiting a foreign planet.  More like Mars than Earth.

looking down the road to the left of our apartment

looking down the road to the left of our apartment

We drive through some outskirts of Cairo, passing a huge open air cemetery, which is like a great walled house with no roof and many different rooms.  People say that the really poor in society live in this cemetery.  It sprawls over acres and acres in the middle of the desert.

looking down the road to the right of the apartment building

looking down the road to the right of the apartment building

We climb a winding road up the Muqattum Mountain, twisting and curving and chugging in our decrepit bus.  Egyptians consider Muqattum Mountain the only mountain in Cairo, though at 400-500 feet, most of us would actually consider it a hill.  Muqattum is known for its quarries of limestone which were used to build the Great Pyramids of Giza.  It is also considered by Egyptians to be possibly a lower middle class neighborhood.

I don’t find out until later that Muqattum is famous for being the main garbage dump in Cairo and it also houses most of the people who collect Cairo’s trash!  These people have actually become quite adept at making a living out of the garbage and recycling it in very creative ways.

Anyway, we go up and up this mountain, or overblown hill, and then down the long Road 9, until finally we pull up to an apartment building stuck on a dirt road in a run-down neighborhood directly across from the Futures Language School.  I feel panic set in.  What the heck, I think.  Why are we stopping here?  We CAN’T possibly be staying in this godforsaken place.
directly across the street from our apartment ~ the Futures Language School

directly across the street from our apartment ~ the Futures Language School

But.  We are told to get off the bus, collect our belongings and go into the building.  Unbelievable.   We check in with the receptionist and are finally given our rooms.  It turns out that my roommates are Lisa and Suhala.  Both are American Muslims who wear the full hijab.  Lisa immediately begins to complain about how horrible the apartment is.  She has friends in Egypt from when she lived here before, so she calls them to see if they can put her up for the month.  It’s a big rigamarole.

The apartment is quite horrible.  The kitchen looks like it was cobbled together with rusty appliances from a junk yard.  Everything is filthy.  The bathroom is the most disgusting of all, with a perpetual raw sewage smell and a bathtub caked in grime.  Lisa and I have a common ground in our complaints, so we strike up a friendship right away.  She is quite hilarious in her vocal expressions of our discontent.  Suhala meanwhile is trying to make the best of it and is going to be a very serious student, it’s obvious.  She’s here to be serious about Islam.  Lisa is also serious about Islam, but she has a great sense of humor and knows how to have a good time.

I go downstairs to try to send emails and find a steamy room with two computers that are extremely slow and barely functional!  I let people know that I arrived safely in Egypt and that the place is difficult.  I say I don’t know how I will survive here for an entire month.

the Egyptian tailors and Kevin ~ our first night in Cairo

the Egyptian tailors and Kevin ~ our first night in Cairo

This place is hell and that’s an understatement.  Nevertheless, I am determined to try to make the best of it and have a good time. After settling in to our room a bit, unpacking some of our stuff, the power goes out.  It is getting dark.  Dr. Jones, Matiniah & company have prepared a meal for us this first night, and we eat by candlelight in a warm and stuffy common room.  I’m thinking I may get on a flight back home.

This trip cost me $2,000, which included flight, accommodation for one month, textbooks and our lessons at Al-Azhar.  I guess you get what you pay for.  Our accommodations are absolutely horrible and our location is in the hinterlands of hell.

After dinner, there is nothing to do out here in this suburb 30 minutes on the outskirts of Cairo.  I am sitting in this hell hole in the dark with no air conditioning.  The power has been out now for a couple of hours and the rooms are getting unbearably stuffy.  Most of the people in our group go to bed early because of the lack of light, but I am determined not to get too depressed. I talk 3 guys, Kevin, Tarek and Latif,  into going into Cairo.

the streets of Cairo on our first night

the streets of Cairo on our first night

The taxi driver is an absolute maniac, squeezing between two cars in the tunnel under the Nile at 80 mph, holding a cigarette with one hand and speaking in Arabic with Latif.  He is using wild hand gestures and looking at Latif while careening along in this tunnel and into Cairo.  I think, 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.

The taxi driver drops us at some random place in the city (whew!) and we wander around checking out tailor shops for the guys who will want to have suits made eventually.  We joke around and take pictures with some of the young Egyptian guys in the tailor shop.  We go to a sort of mall with an open air food court, and eat some dinner.  We have a great time out in the city, just wandering the streets and watching the people and the sights.  Then, we head back to Muqattum to sleep in our grungy quarters and settle in for the long month ahead.

having a snack and drinks at a little cafe (with air conditioning!)

having a snack and drinks at a little cafe (with air conditioning!)

To find information about Al-Ameen Associates see: Al Ameen Associates

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Filed under Al-Ameen Associates, Al-Azhar University, Arabic language, Cairo, Egypt, Middle East, Muquttum