Sunday, November 16, 2008

Random Thoughts From Recent Trip to Cairo

The Sufi's say that under every loss is hidden a gain and under every gain is hidden a loss, and I witnessed that belief in action recently when events beyond my control conspired to cause me to miss my originally scheduled overnight flight to Cairo. I ended up having to spend the night at the JFK Ramada after having wasted 7 hours at DCA waiting for clearance to head to New York due to inclement weather. My initial reaction was normal; strong disappointment and frustration at losing one whole day of my already short one week vacation, and the subsequent loss of time with my Egyptian friend Ahmed, who was the whole reason for the trip. Enter Khaled, an Egyptian guy who was on the same flights as I was, who had been in the US on business for a month and was looking forward to getting home to his pregnant wife, their two children and the family business. We struck up a conversation after debarking the airplane in NY (I initiated it, trying some of my really bad Arabic on him since I heard him on his cell and knew he was Egyptian) and we ended up really hitting it off. We spent that evening getting to know each other over dinner at the airport hotel, the next morning at breakfast and all throughout the long day at JFK waiting for that evening's flight to Cairo. I'm not the kind of person who usually feels immediately at ease with new people, but Khaled was one of those rare exceptions who comes along in my life maybe every five years or so. And so we hung out, discussed many different topics: politics, relationships, business, psychology, family. We had someone take a picture of us in line at Immigration in Cairo. We exchanged contact info. He asked me to email the picture of us to him, which I did, and which was returned to me via an "Undeliverable: No such address" email. And that's cool, because the short time I spent with him was perfect just as it was, and I'll always remember him even though our paths will probably never cross again.

I eventually did make it to Cairo, and had a nice week hanging out with Ahmed. Some other memories/thoughts/observations from the trip in no particular order:

Egyptians don't like to walk on the sidewalk. Each city I've been to in Egypt so far (Alexandria, Sharm el Sheikh, Cairo and Tanta) seem to have perfectly adequate sidewalks, but most of the people seem to prefer to walk in the street. Given that the traffic in Cairo is, bar none, the worst I've seen anywhere, and that the drivers there possess what I can only describe as suicidal tendencies, I don't understand this. However, I have yet to see anyone get run over, so maybe they know something I don't. Although I did get to witness a guy reaching into a car and attempting to strangle its driver at the end of a traffic jam. Hope they sorted it out.

We met a fascinating woman while listening to some local musicians at the Naguib Mahfouz cafe in Khan el Khalili. I would have guessed her Egyptian based upon her appearance and seeming familiarity with the musicians and others in the cafe, but it turns out she's Canadian of Sudanese descent and is just one of those people who immediately makes friends with everyone around her. She was spending a brief holiday in Cairo with her adult children before going to Sudan for her annual excursion into the desert near the sea to live in a tent by herself for five months. I had to ask her a couple of times to clarify, just so I was sure I understood. "Wait, so you are going to live in a tent...will you be in a camp with others?". No. "Okay, so how far will you be from civilization during this time? Will you have access to food and medical supplies?" No, she would be taking only the barest of essentials with her, and she will catch fish for her food. She said that she usually loses quite a bit of weight before the five months is over. "So what will you do to fill the time?" She will meditate, read and swim a lot. I consider myself a fairly adventurous person, and could see doing what she does for two weeks perhaps, but 5 months? Anyway, more power to her. What really struck me about her is that she didn't seem weird. She seemed like a perfectly well adjusted, western woman in her late 50's. And not a hippy.

Egyptian women really know how to accessorize with their headgear. I know that there are some strongly differing political views on the headscarf, and I'll keep mine to myself here, but I was really struck by how good they manage to make it all look, with the matching color scheme and trendy accouterments. It made me almost want to try it myself, but I know I'd end up looking like some stunted creature from The Lord of the Rings if I tried.

I was happy to learn that the Hyatt we were staying in had somewhat relaxed it's "no alcohol" policy, so I was able to get a glass of wine in the revolving lounge there. Ahmed told me the story behind the "ban", which is that the manager of the hotel is a Saudi guy who broke with religious tradition and got really, really drunk one night. Upon awakening the next morning, his guilt was so overwhelming that he had his staff smash every wine glass in the hotel's numerous restaurants and dump every ounce of liquor down the drain. Apparently Hyatt wasn't on board with his solution, they've been "negotiating" a lot since then, and it looks like there's been some concession.

There's a song by the Refreshments called Banditos, and my favorite part of the song goes "So give your ID card to the border guard, yeah your alias says that you're Jean-Luc Picard of the United Federation of Planets, 'cause they won't speak English anyway. Everybody knows, that the world is full of stupid people..." Egypt has a law that says that unmarried couples can't have sex, or share a residence of any kind.'s a law. So without going into details that might incriminate myself, let me just say that yes, the world is full of stupid people. And stupid laws. And that a little creativity can enable two consenting unmarried adults to share a hotel room for a week. And gain a foreigner admittance to tourist sites at local prices. Take that, stupid laws.

My relationship with Ahmed has consisted of three visits to Egypt and many, many romantic emails. It has been wonderful in so many ways...he is passionate and respectful in a way that I don't find common (or even existent) in western men. I believe that this is a product of his culture, a culture that tries to protect women, that glorifies the idea of true love, and that tries to suppress the natural inclinations of men and women. The illicit nature of our relationship is surely a rush for the both of us. He can not be honest with his family about me, and I think that it will ultimately be the undoing of our relationship. This culture has introduced me to someone who makes me feel, for the first time in my life, like a princess. A princess in exile.

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