Sunday, February 15, 2009

And he said you ...Walk like an Eqyptian

The plane touched down in Cairo and I was not sure if I was ready for the adventure that was waiting for me.

On the ground I purchased my Egyptian visa easily before getting in the line for passport control. It seemed I had picked the wrong one (as I always do) and the people in front of me were screaming and raising their voices about something. Eventually i got to the front and I was greeted by a very strange looking man...had I stepped onto the set of Frankenstein instead of the tarmac at Cairo Airport?

The man who stood before me was tall, very tall, with deep dark sunken eyes. Most disturbing was the horrible open wound in the middle of his forehead- a gaping whole, with skin upturned and peeling away to reveal a massive egg shaped bump. I could not concentrate. It took me a while to work out that the wound on his head was probably and most likely a result of a particularly vigorous call to prayer session.

Soon after i was meet my Mustafa- the 26 year old owner of my hotel. Mustafa was keen to start some chit chat with me and we talked all the way to center of town. As he drove i watched the road and said silent prayers for our lives- the traffic was insane and it was 1:00am. Whilst there appears to be marked lanes on the roads- cars seem to ignore them and weave in and out and then to the center to try and fit 3 lanes in a space built only for 2.

When i was not hanging on for dear life, Mustafa used the time to give me a free Arabic lesson but i quickly discovered (as most foreigners do) that there is just not enough phelm in my throat to pronounce the words correctly.

In the morning, i ate breakfast (half a stale bread roll with jam)and set off in search of cash and the Egyptian museum. Being a Friday, the streets were almost empty and i discovered that in the Arabic world Friday is thought of like a western Saturday and everything is closed, deserted.

After a while of walking, I noticed a large group of men sitting on a rather large outdoor carpet praying in unison with some loud speakers (apparently the mosques are so full on Saturdays that lots of people pray outside), aside from that the streets were quiet and a perfect place to take in the City.

With my map in hand i set upon navigation to check i was walking in the right direction and stumbled across my first middle eastern problem- nearly all the street signs are in Arabic making it impossible to navigate with out asking someone what the street sign actually says...

Out of the distance, i noticed a large, imposing colonial style building painted a shocking shade of what was once gleaming bright pink- muted to a more subdued garish shade- it was the Egyptian museum.

After getting eyed up by what seemed like 1000 police who waved, smiled, hissed and probably called me rude names i was in.

Inside this once grand building I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the collection-objects are everywhere. The building dwarfs me and i don't know where to start first.

The tiles are old worn grey lino and the display cases look if they were built 100 years ago (they probably were)- the state of the building is depressing and i wish i had with me a magic wand to brighten the place up.

There are few signs to follow so i decide to stalk an American tour group until i start getting funny looks... i replaced them with another group and then decided just to wader aimlessly and look at what catched my eyes.

I noticed a couple of cabinets with 3000 year old mummies in them that have broken glass sides which have been replaced with polystyrene. Thankfully the decay of the building does not detract from the collection of some of the worlds most valuable artifacts. To give you an idea of size, they say that if you spent 1 minute looking at every piece in the museum it would take you 9 months.

With only a few hours before museum fatigue would set in- i made sure I saw what was buried in Tuten Karmen's tomb and the mummies (which are really creepy).

Next stop, a wander through Cairo's streets. Walking around I felt small, anyone would. The city is enormous- bigger than big. When I arrived Mustafa said there were 25 million people living in the city (although a quick google search says there are only about 15 million but i did find out it is the densest populated place in the world). There are an infinite number of cars, people and the noise level is unbelievable- a car honking symphony is the cities sound track.

It seems as though the whole city is in muted colour- a palette of browns, khaki and burnt orange colour everything and it feels as though the city is in desperate need of a good wash. Everything is dusty, old, dirty and colourless. The streets here are rammed with people- men mainly stand on corners in groups or drive around. Men must out number the women here by 100 to 1 out on the streets and my auburn hair insures i am in the minority.

The roads are full to the brim with cars- often there are so many that stand still that it looks like a car park. Crossing the road feels dangerous- slow purposely and with intent is my strategy. Sometimes i shadow a Cairene and walk closely to them.One man commented on my style... 'you walk like an Egyptian' and the song stuck in my head for most of the day.

Arabic music can be heard sometimes above the car horns and the smell of the shisha wafts above me, at other times all you Can smell is rubbish and piss.

As i walk, my eyes are down cast- i dress devoid of sexuality and look like a prude... my hair is tied back in a bun, i wear an over sized shapeless shirt and baggy long pants.

I caught the metro in the ladies carriage and am amazed at how people(women) push and shove to get in... i am also amazed at the fashion- men women and children are all dressed like it is a UK winters day, scarves, gloves and winter coats are in Vogue even though it is pushing 25 degrees. I am sweltering.

For lunch i stop at a popular kebab house and watch a women in a burka style outfit eat... i catch myself staring and remind myself that it is rude... but it is fascinating. It appears to be a delicate procedure- first she cuts up her food into the tiniest bite sized chunk imaginable before turning her head slightly and lifting her veil so quickly with out showing any skin- it is elegant and you could blink and miss it.

I get frustrated when at the train station people push in front of me to out fox me...they crowd me and talk about me. I hate feeling claustrophobic and this city certainly is at times... the suffocation makes me want to cry but i don't. Instead i lift my down cast eyes and walk tall ... for a second.

Hot tired and with a sore arm (see London entry... that i will write below)- i find the hotel and head there for some quiet time... it takes me 10 minutes walking up and down the street to locate. Everything looks the same and it feels like there are thousands of people all on the street at the same time.

I chat to Mustafa and arrange to go to the pyramids... i also tell him that i want to see some belly dancing and he arranges for his young brother Karem to accompany me- i am unsure why this happens but it is nice to be in the company of a local... i try and teach him some English. He is pleasant, generous and nice. He also ensures i catch the right cab home.

Before the belly dancers come on we are warmed up by some Sufi dancers (if you call what Sufi's do dancing). the first to get up is a midget and it is weird. Dressed in a white shirt with large over sized skirts he stands and spins and makes his skirt go up... the crowd love it but i an indifferent.

Next we have a taller Sufi dancer who fans and lifts his skirt high above his head. He lifts his skirt right off his body and spins it as if it were pizza dough.

Finally the star belly dancer gets onto the stage, she is dressed to kill in a lethal jeweled bikini top and skirt with the highest split i have ever seen. She moves gracefully and the men ogle her, i ogle her. It seems that you cant help looking at her. I wonder if her parents know what she does for a living? Is it acceptable here or is she thought of like a stripper?


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