Saturday, March 21, 2009

Romantic Cairo Nights

Behind the trees that line the sidewalk around Cairo Zoo, away from the street lights and the cars, guys and girls lean against the zoo wall in the evenings and speak with soft voices and look into each other's eyes.

Along Kornish el Nil, the walk that runs along the Nile in downtown Cairo, couples walk slowly and stop for tea or chickpeas or roasted sweet potatoes.

On the bridges, they sit on plastic chairs or stand leaning against the rail, close, close together. As close as they can possibly get without breaking the law. You can't kiss on the streets. You can't embrace. But you can hold hands, stand so close so that your bodies touch. You can whisper things in each other's ears, and you can look dreamily into each other's eyes.

I'm one half of such a couple. We walk from el Gezira to Wust el Balad. Down Kornish el Nil. Stand on one of the bridges. Which one is it? It doesn't really matter. A boy walks up to us and offers pink, red and white carnations threaded on white string. Special price for married couples, he says and winks at us. My Cairo date takes it as a sign, gives the boy two pounds and hangs the carnations around my neck.

They smell sweet and fresh.

We go down from the bridge, zigzag our way between the cars and cross the street, walk passed an old lady hectoring people helping her into a taxi, go down to a feluka place and rent one of those small boats with a huge triangular shaped sail. He holds my hand.

I don't know. Cairo is innocent, romantic, crazy, loud, crowded, sweet and safe.

The feluka guy tells my date he can't put his arm around me. We sit with proper distance in between us, feeling cold in the chilly night air. Five minutes later the feluka guy offers hasheesh.

We float slowly, slowly on the black surface of the river Nile. Other felukas with engines speed past us. There's loud music from the shore. Honking cars. Winking lights and dusty Cairo air. Somehow the Nile eats up all the stress, all the noise, and leaves you with a feeling of perfect peace and calm.

I meet him first at Cilantro in Mohandeseen, by the way. He orders a cappuccino that comes out like this. Another sign, I'm sure.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sharm el Sheikh

Sharm el Sheikh is all about late nights, shisha and fresh guava juice.

Shopping, Quran recitation, Amr Diab's new songs, and gardeners that listen to Sherine on their mobile phones while they work.

Lazy days by the sea, public beaches, private beaches, men that sneak pictures of you in your bikini.
Gorgeous mountains, unnatturally green irrigated lawns, lush flowers and palm trees.

Misspelled signs.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Cairo Cairo Cairo

The streets are jammed with cars. Some shiny and new; lots old, almost falling apart. Black and white taxis with drivers that call you "ya bett" and donkey pulled carts driven by old men that call out for old fridges and washing machines. Or for junk in general.

"Rubibeckia, beckia!"

Skinny guys on bicycles balancing huge trays of fresh bread. Boys on motorcycles playing Arabic pop songs. KFC, Pizza King, Cook Door delivery bikes.

I've been staying in Faysal, which is in Haram, the area where the Pyramids are. This is an area in which I feel enough at home to be comfortable, but not enough to feel at home, if that makes sense. I mean, it's close enough to my cultural background so that I can easily adjust as long as I get to be the foreign girl who can get away with coming home a little later and wearing a little less clothes than the others. But not close enough for me to feel at home.

I'm different. I walk down the little street that leads out to the main road, pulling my bag along, trying to avoid the biggest bumps and sandiest parts. It's 24 degrees Celsius, perhaps, and I'm wearing blue jeans, a white t-shirt, a light cardigan and a scarf around my neck that is partly just an accessory and partly something to cover up so that my white bra doesn't shine through my t-shirt. People look at me. I walk past a group of veiled women on their way home from shopping. Nobody really says anything. I feel too white, too scantily dressed, and too dolled up. All eyes are on me. I concentrate on avoiding the puddles of car wash water and walk out to the nearest taxi on Faysal Street.

"Mohandeseen?" I ask the taxi driver. The area where I feel enough at home to feel at home, but enough away from home to feel that I fit in. Which also doesn't make sense, perhaps. But this is the thing... when you never really fit in in the culture you grow up in, then you have to look for the place that is different enough so that it feels more at home than home... which is a little confusing, and also the reason why I haven't really figured out exactly where I belong. Mohandeseen comes close, but I have a feeling there might be other places that are even more at home for me, it's just that I haven't found them yet.

Or at least, that's what I hope.

In any event, the taxi driver nods and gets out of his car to open the trunk. I make a motion to lift up my bag into the trunk of his car.

"Seebha ya bett," he goes, and takes the bag from my hand and puts it in the trunk. "Let go of the bag, girl." Naturally, I'm not supposed to lift it. I already dragged it all the way out to the road, which is odd for anybody in a country where there's always help to get for everything, and especially odd for a girl. Because girls are basically spoiled rotten when it comes to certain things in this country. If I wanted to, I could take advantage of it and live like a princess.

I don't.

I sit in the back of the taxi, and look out on the other cars, the people, read the signs above the shops. I read fast enough these days and I can make out most names going past them. I remember when these were just squiggly lines and little dots to me. I hold my hair so that it doesn't blow into my face as we drive with all windows down.

"Feen fe el Mohandeseen?" the taxi driver goes. "Where in Mohandeseen."

I answer in Arabic and think to myself that I clearly fit in enough, even here in Faysal, so that the taxi driver takes for granted that I speak Arabic. I could be from Mohandeseen, where girls dress more like me.

Mohandeseen. I used to live here. Now I'm just staying at a friend's house, sitting in his studio, waiting for the hours to pass until our bus leaves for Sharm el Sheikh. He will come with me for a short vacation, some sun and some time away from his music.

Moustaphaaaaaaa. He's sleeping on the studio floor.