the Long's Strange Trip

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Questing into the unknown...
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~  Muslim Extremist or Salesman? ~
May 10 through May 16, 2000
$1 U.S. = 3.4 Egyptian pounds
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Cairo, Egypt
May 10 through May 16, 2000

(ccl)  Of all the foreign languages I've been inundated with during my traveling career (that's what I'm calling it now, since I don't have a job), I don't think there's another language that I'm as desperate to understand as Arabic.  I know some Spanish, and that means I can pick up a few words in most French conversations, plus I can figure out a few Italian words.  I probably shouldn't eavesdrop on other people's conversations, but the Moroccans and the Egyptians make that next to impossible, because they talk so loud.  And that's part of the reason that I'm so curious, I guess.  More often than not, someone is shouting at someone else, and they're shouting right back, usually at the same time.  Just when you think they're about to go at one another, they laugh and walk away.

Part of it has to do with your attitude towards these people, I think.  We don't realize the opinions we're constantly forming about people, based on what we hear them saying.  This hit me full force when I had to come back to Atlanta to get a new computer.  I was riding MARTA from the airport, now in full shock to be back in American culture, and there was a group of tourists who were from Minnesota on the train with me.  They were conversing loudly and quite animatedly, obviously excited to be out of Minnesota in late February for a few days.  If you've ever been on MARTA you know that nobody says much of anything, so these people were hard to ignore.  I began to be annoyed at their constant meaningless drivel about what sites they were going to see, where they were going to stay, etc., when I realized that for a month, I hadn't understood much of anything anyone was saying around me, and that it was quite pleasant.  It's kind of like being deaf, I suppose, not that being deaf would be pleasant, but it was a relief not to be burdened with listening to and understanding what others are concerned with.

So now, two and a half months later, apparently I'm DYING of curiosity to know, "What ARE these people saying??".  In lieu of being able to decipher it, because be assured that just being in an Arab-speaking country for a month does not familiarize you with the language, I've begun to form hypotheses about just what it is that people are saying.  For example, in Marrakech, Wiley and I were at the main mosque just as Friday afternoon prayer services were letting out.  Men were milling about the square outside the mosque, chatting with one another, and we were sitting a respectable distance away, enjoying watching their movements.  We noticed a crowd beginning to form around one man who was shouting, raising his fists in the air, quite excitedly.  Many men were gathered around him to listen.  Was this someone railing against the sermon just given in the mosque?  Was he inciting the crowd to riot over some fundamentalist issue?  As the only non-Muslims around, were we about to be taken hostage, our haggard faces to be displayed on the covers of "Time" and "Newsweek"?

Turns out, the guy was selling suits.  Apparently, these were great suits at great prices, because everybody was really excited, and he was doing a booming business.   Another gentle reminder to keep an open mind and get all the facts before you make judgments on people and situations.  It's one of the goals I have for myself on this trip, and as you can see, I still have work to do.

So here we are in Egypt, in many ways much like Morocco, but also vastly different.  I had my guard up in Morocco, because so many people were trying to sell us something, or give us a guided tour of something, and I'm starting to let that down.  Some of the same pressures exist in Egypt, as wherever there are tourists, there will be people who are trying to take advantage of them, but most people seem to be genuinely friendly and helpful.

We arrived in Cairo at 4:30 A.M.  Not the greatest flight schedule, but when you're dealing with the liquidators, you take the cheapest fares.  I was worried that we might run into trouble getting our visas at the airport, since we had elected to wait and get them when we landed, on the advice of a rather surly woman at the Egyptian embassy in Washington.  Usually, getting a visa requires filling out a form, sending in a couple of passport pictures and your passport, and waiting several days while they process your application.  Turns out, getting a visa in Cairo is easier than putting on your shoes.  Just pay the man at the money exchange $15, get your stamps, and paste them into your passport.  We were on our way in 15 minutes.

We had been warned about the taxi drivers at the Cairo airport.  A small riot broke out in front of the airport as we bargained with them over who would take us.  We settled on 30 pounds with one driver and headed off to our hotel.  On the way there, the scam started.  He had to stop for gas, so he asked us for money.  I gave him the 30 pounds and told him that was all he was getting.  Back on the road, he told us that he meant 30 pounds EACH, not for both.  We told him too bad, we didn't have much money, and that was all he was getting.  He tried one final time when we got to the hotel by telling us that his boss makes him charge 35 pounds, couldn't we please give him a tip?  We were tired, dirty, and ruthless, and we told him no and goodbye.  Don't mess with someone who's just spent the night on a plane.

Hanging out over the Nile  Cairo...what a city.  All at once grimy, congested, noisy, but also full of life, extremely friendly, and cram-packed with amazing things to see.  First on our agenda was the Egyptian Museum, where the treasures of the Tutankamun pyramid and other great works of art and architecture are housed. 

Tut's burial mask  I'm not sure that anything can quite prepare you for the moment when you're standing face to face with that famous gold burial mask.  You've been through room after room of furniture and jewelry and sarcophagi (nine in all!), and finally, there it is.  It's so incredibly beautiful, and you can't help but think that if they went to this much trouble for a guy who ruled less than ten years and never reached the age of 20, imagine what the tombs of the great pharoahs, like Cheops and Ramses II must have been like!  Sadly, we will never know, as these tombs were looted far before modern day archaeologists opened them.

Workforce for the next life  Of all the stuff they pulled out of his tomb, the things I found most interesting were the hundreds of clay figures of Egyptian workers.  This whole burial ritual the ancient Egyptians went through was to provide the pharaohs with the "stuff" they would need in the next life.  There were boats, chairs, beds, mummified pets, food, jewelry - and also these clay figures that the Egyptians theorized would provide the pharaoh with manual labor to perform necessary tasks in the after world. 

Another interesting museum we visited in Cairo is the Coptic Museum in a part of Cairo known as "Old Cairo".  Coptic Christianity was founded in Egypt in the 4th century, when St. Mark came here to preach.  There is still a (relatively, for a Muslim country) large Christian community in Egypt, and 10% of the population lists Christianity as their religion.  The Copts differ from the rest of us Christians because they believe that Jesus was divine, and not human AND divine.  Actually, I'm not sure I even knew that's what we believed.  Anyways, the Copts broke off from the Catholics, and now they essentially have their own church, with their own governing body and pope.  

The Copts did made quite a few advancements in the area of paper production and writing.  There were some beautiful old manuscripts in the museum, including an amazingly well-preserved text from the 8th century.  The Copts have their own language, which closely resembles Greek, and we contemplated going to a church service, until we found out that it started at 7 A.M. and went on for three hours.  

There is an annoying custom in Egypt called "baksheesh".  Giving baksheesh basically means tipping someone, and most of the time it's for doing very little.  Like when we got to the airport in Cairo, and we were claiming our bags.  I was digging through my daypack for the baggage receipts when the attendant said, "Don't worry.  No problem.".  I said great, OK, and started to move on, and he said, "Baksheesh.", which meant I had to tip him for this gesture.  Usually it's only about 50 cents or so, but it's still a little irritating.

The attendants in the museums have a way of following you around the displays, and muttering the few English words they know as you look at the objects, like, "Eighth century", which is completely superfluous, since all of the displays are in English.  You nod, and smile, and say, "Yes, eighth century.".  In the end, they expect baksheesh for this invaluable help.

Minarets of Al-Ahzar  We were at the Al-Azhar Mosque in the Islamic section of Cairo one day, taking a tour of this beautiful and historic old mosque.  The Muslims claim that Al-Azhar is the oldest active university in the world, having been founded in 970 and still holding classes, although at other locations around Egypt.  Unlike Morocco, Egypt welcomes non-Muslims into its mosques, but not during the daily prayer sessions.  At this very holy place I was required to cover my head with one of the mosque-supplied covers.  It was kelly green, and I felt like the guy who shows up for dinner at an expensive restaurant with no jacket and has to wear the loaner, which is polyester and two sizes too small.

Inside a mosque  Our guide at Al-Azhar spoke very little English, but he took us through a few rooms there, pointing out various things.  Then he told us that the tour was over, if we wanted to go further, we would have to give him 20 pounds.  We talked him down to 10, and continued the tour.  The mosque was such a peaceful place, and it was very interesting to see how Muslims use their place of worship.  There's no furniture, only beautiful, thick carpets, so people were lounging on the floors, some sleeping, others talking quietly and sharing a meal, and others studying schoolwork or the Koran.  It was not only being used as a place of worship, but as a gathering place for the community. 

After turning down our guide's offer for a trip up the minaret for a little baksheesh, we visited more of Islamic Cairo.  There are over 800 monuments in an area of about 10 square blocks, so there's no way to see it all, but it's a fascinating place.  Everywhere we walked people shouted, "Hello!" and "Welcome to Egypt!".  We could not have felt more at home.  Several times when we were stopped at street corners looking at our guidebook, trying to figure out where we were and where we were going, and people stopped to offer help.  Try to remember the last time you did something like that for someone visiting your city.  I can't say that I made it a habit in Atlanta.

Whirling dervish  One of the most memorable events of our time in Cairo has been an outing to see Sufi dancers at the Mausoleum of al-Ghouri.  Sufis comprise a particular sect of Islam, and they believe that by whirling around and around, they can get closer to God.  The spinning induces somewhat of an altered state, and as they whirl faster and faster you can see the ecstasy on their faces.  There were two dancers who wore multi-layered, brightly colored skirts, that they removed one by one and spun over their heads.  The dancers were accompanied by an excellent band made up of tambourines, drums, flutes, a raia (a reed instrument similar to an oboe - think snake charmer), and a singer/chanter.  The performers seemed to have cared less that their was a huge audience watching their performance - their faces reflected a tranquility and happiness that they were close to God.  It was really something to see, and something I will not soon forget.

A man and his water pipe  In Morocco it seemed like every man smoked, and they all seemed to buy their cigarettes one at a time from guys who occupied every street corner with a carton of Marlboros (or fake Marlboros, we were told).  In Egypt, all the guys in the coffee shops smoke out of a sheesha, which is a tall water pipe with a long hose that is held to the mouth constantly and puffed on.  Wiley ordered one while we were having a beer, and he fit right in with the other Egyptian men.  I puffed on it a little myself, and it wasn't unpleasant.  The tobacco was mild and fruity-tasting.

Now we've been in Egypt for one week, and we're settling in.  Cairo is big and dirty, but the monuments are incredible, and we're enjoying the sightseeing.  Today we're splurging at the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, which is way out of our budget, but if you lay on your back in the pool, you can look at the Great Pyramid.  Such is life...  Until next time, peace, and good travels. 

Click here to continue in Egypt with "7000 Years of History" 






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