Category Archives: Travel

Alphabets

So I worked out why I have found it hard to get enthusiastic about Mexico.

My previous travels have almost all been in Europe, America, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. What these areas have in common is their cultures and civilisations have left a mark. They created alphabets, discovered knowledge and propagated themselves in books. They are all profoundly written cultures and as such, their impact can be observed and felt in our contemporary society. I find them interesting because to understand them, is to understand myself and the world about me that little bit better.

Conspicuous by their absence from my travels have been Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa). Whilst pre-Colombian cultures did discover knowledge, writing and were relatively advanced for their time, I cannot see or feel their effect in my own, Western, Judeo-Christian cultural life at all. Wandering around a museum of artifacts spanning two thousand years, not one aspect of Latin American history had any resonance with me other than to impress upon me the fact that it no longer exists in any recognisable form. It pretty much failed absolutely.

I can understand why Latin American, and perhaps even Africa, appeal to people who enjoy carnival, partying and a multi-coloured good life. But, I need intellectual stimulation from my travels. I need to feel a connection with the location and these two continents have yet to make one for me.

The one exception to this is in regards to poverty. We passed by some slum areas on the bus yesterday, and I am appalled, fascinated and impressed by the ability of human beings to survive in extreme, basic conditions. Seeing the corrugated steel roofs over tiny boxes reminded me of how lucky I am to live in the West. I have felt the same thing when travelling in North Africa and wish I could have spent more time looking around the poorer areas of town here in Mexico City, but I have been wary of the crime rate. I am not a poverty tourist, but wish I could meet the people who live in these areas and learn more about their lives. To only experience the history of a city without seeing its present makes a trip incomplete.

DF

I think I had expected Mexico City to be more like Cairo however this potential was quickly dispelled when I saw people spraying the pavements down and sweeping up the litter. With barely a car horn to speak of and the pavements easily navigable, this could instead very easily be a large Spanish or Mediterranean city and the dominant European architecture assists the illusion.

Perhaps my initial impression of the town is coloured by the fact that today is a Saturday. Weekends are never very indicative of a city and the crowds queuing for mass, playing in the large parks and riding the rollercoasters in the city fairground are probably skewing my perception of the city. It all seems very civic orientated and amiable. But dull. I am always suspicious of capital cities which don’t anchor themselves by the coast or by a large river.

The Zocala, not to be confused with the Babylon 5 location, is the natural centre but, but… it is not a Piccadilly Circus, Times Square, Midan Tahrir or Champs Elysee. It all feels very anonymous, no sights which one immediately recognises or is drawn to. The city does sprawl but not in a way which tempts you to one part over after another. I think I need to get out of the central locations of the Zona Rosa, the Condessa and the Paseo de la Reforma and investigate the less salubrious areas which I passed on the way from the airport, but unlike Cairo, crime is an issue here so we shall see.

I think my attitude towards this city is being affected by the fact that I cannot find a copy of the Economist anywhere. There are news stands everywhere but they seem to specialise in car and lad mags and pornography. This seems to reflect a general lack of Anglophony on the street signs and even in the Museums. Not surprising when you have such a dominant Northern neighbour perhaps but it does seem rather petulant and self-defeating.

This is not a cosmopolitan city. I forget how much satisfaction I get from face watching in London and New York but other than the entropic European features of some, the dominant ethnicity seems fairly uniform. It was notable that amongst the trendy (and more expensive) cafes in Condessa, that the European features were more common among the clientele.

The weather, in contrast to New York and Miami, is wonderful. Tomorrow I shall investigate the subway I think.

Damascus Addendum

With 30 minutes to go before leaving the city, I discovered, huddled next to the recently built luxury Four Seasons hotel, a cluster of Western coffee bars: Costa; Segafredo; etc. Protected behind a recessed wall, here were the Syrian youth: pretty, scantily clad and well-toned. Like moths drawn to a light, one feels encouraged to see that a double mochaccino with hazelnut syrup can tempt the young almost anywhere in the world.

Damascus

It would seem that the free speech restrictions in Syria extend to the passing of weather readings to the Met Office in the UK because it was bucketing it down when I arrived in Damascus, in contrast with the sunny forecast the BBC claimed. Evidently it must always be sunny in the last Baathist Republic.

My mute taxi driver to the airport didn’t seem to want to talk in either Arabic or French so I was left to stare at the depressing billboards advertising the usual prosaic conferences that seem to always be taking place in the Middle East. I don’t think I saw one advert for anything that didn’t exist in 1970. But you do get to a see an awful lot of signs for Beirut, reminding you that this country still doesn’t really consider that town to be in a different country. Despite the rain, the streets were still crowded once we got into the centre of town making it look similar to Cairo but the lack of cars and the fact that they actually stopped for red lights ended the superficial similarity.

The more modern parts of Arab towns all have a rather generic look and feel about them. I think it is a combination of the brutal, concrete and sand coloured buildings, the lack of eclecticism of the shop wares and the fact that everything is always dirty, everywhere.

After going to sleep in my 1930s hotel to the sound of a somewhat raucous wedding nearby, I woke up to near total silence. It was like the first line in The Day of the Triffids. Fridays in Cairo are marked by discordant shoutings coming from the local mosques and the streets remain as vibrant as ever but looking out of my window, it looked like there was hardly anyone about on the streets.

Syria is a nominally secular state, Baathism being an offshoot of socialism, but Friday here reminds me of Sundays in Spain. Everything is pretty much shut making Syria feel more religious than Cairo.

Walking down to the Old City, the difference in the facial features is immediate. Given the large Kurdish and Turkish genes floating around the population here, aside from the clothing, the people look different to Cairenes. Some could be mistaken for West Europeans whilst others look almost Slavic. If I donned a dirty, striped, long sleeved shirt, I could easily blend in here.

The first building of interest is the terminus for the now derelict Hejaz Railway. The Turks built this line down to Mecca intending to use it for transporting pilgrims during the Haj, but instead used it for transporting troops during the 1917 Arab uprising, causing T.E Lawrence & Co to target it repeatedly. I saw a brief piece of the line down South a few years ago when I was in Jordan, and it must have been an impressive imperial engineering project at the time, with a suitably rococo station to match. But the stations continuing disuse, along with the rest of the line, reminds you how absent even modern railways are in this part of the world.

The main tourist attraction in Damascus is the Old City. Like it’s Jerusalem counterpart, there are 4 main gates into the walled city. The West gate leads directly into a covered market where you can still see the bullet holes in the ceiling, left by the French planes in the 1920s as they tried to put down the Syrian uprising. The market ultimately leads you to the Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the world which holds a shrine to John the Baptist, which allegedly contains his head, as well as the tomb of Saladin. The mosque was pretty busy as the lunchtime prayers approached but it was curious to see quite a few Iranian Shia pilgrims, noticeable from their distinctive turbans, wandering around as well. Shia shrines are almost non-existant in Cairo but Damacus has a larger shia population, including its leader who belongs to a heterodox offshoot, and so holds a few large, functioning Shia mosques.

One Shia in particular, Hibzullah’s leader Nasrallah, was very prominent. His photo seemed to be as common, if not more, than the obligatory posters of Hafez and Bashar Asad which adorn every shop. However, continuing past the mosque into the Christian and (formerly) Jewish Quarters of the Old City, the names on the shop doors change to noticeably non-Islamic names and the dictator aesthetic dropped off in favour of poverty. I was surprised to see the area referred to as the Jewish Quarter in the guidebook so I stopped to ask an old man what the name of the district was. He used lots of different names but none of them were “mintaqa yehud”. He asked me where I come from, a frequent question here. As they don’t think I look British, they always ask me where my father is from. I usually semi-lie and say Romania (do you know what a Romanian looks like?) but he insisted I must be an Arab.

Damascus, like its fellow isolated and time-locked socialist republic Cuba, has some wonderful 1960s era Western cars. huge Buicks and proper Mercedes. Oddly, my taking photos of a particularly beautiful model was the only time I got stopped by a police man who asked to see what I was taking photos of. Yet, some signs of modernity are peaking through here. My guidebook said that there were only 2 or 3 ATMs in the whole city, but there seems to have been an explosion in the 3 years since the book was written. The continuing invasion of the mobile phone doesn’t seem as advanced here as it does in Egypt but you can still see the buds here and there; poverty stricken street sellers arguing with someone on their 1997 era Nokias.

With the city now being covered in a sandstorm, making the sky the same colour as the buildings, I headed over to the National Museum. The entrance to the main building hosts a garden which is littered with Byzantine and pre-Byzantine relics. They are not protected from the elements in any way and even an archaeological no-nothing like myself was someone shocked to see how little attention was paid to them. The lack of care and attention continued into the building, with some of the rooms looking similar to the looted Iraqi Museum covered so frequently on TV back after the war in 2003, though to be fair some of the rooms did have a bit more effort and pride put into them. However, the real surprise was the best preserved and looked after room in the whole museum: a synagogue dating from 2 A.D containing frescos and murals of Moses, Jacob, Mordechai and Abraham. There really was strictly no photography in the darkened room as the guard explained to me the biblical scenes painted on the walls. Judaism, like Islam, isn’t keen on pictorial images of historical figures such as Abraham and Moses which made the scenes unlike any other synagogue I have seen. A large menorah was visible in one of the frames, somewhat in contrast to the modern paintings in the foyer entrance depicting Jews in a slightly different format.

On Saturday morning, the sandstorm having abated and the streets now being filled with people, I headed up to the Abu Rommaneh district, which is supposedly the upmarket part of town. Unlike the upmarket parts of Cairo which could have been transported from America, there were only a few stores which looked modern. Certainly no brand names or chain stores would one identify. The standard police state dictator posters are everywhere here. However, unlike nearby countries which usually just have a photo of the dear ruler, they all seem to carry slogans. My favourite was: “President Asad and the Syrian People bend to no one except God.” And a crippled isolated, economy one feels like adding.

Muscat and Dubai

Muscat is rather different to other capital cities in the Middle East. The city centre is remarkably clean, indeed you can be fined for having a dirty car, and the multicoloured water statues dotted around town look exceptionally well attended. Everything seems aesthetically remarkably well ordered. When you discover that the Sultan has no children and is not married, you may suspect that more than a few Barbara Streisand albums have found their way into the royal palace.

Greater Muscat encompasses a few nondescript strip malls blocks, which would not look out of place in some lower middle class American burg; the walled city of Old Muscat, where one of the Sultan’s palaces is located; and Mutrah, a sleepy coastal district which holds the souq and the nightlife. During the day, Mutrah is like a ghost town. There is the obligatory presence of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis tending their stalls but during the 40 degree day time heat, even they can’t be bothered to hassle you to buy anything. The only person who seemed to have the energy to interact with passing strangers was a large Rasta, perched conspicuously on the Corniche. Given that all Omanis, without exception, wear the white dishdasha with a rather modest fez-like hat, his Jamaica flag coloured beanie and his offers to sell weed made him an unlikely undercover officer for the Muscat police.

At night after the sun has gone down, the city lights come on and the giant incense burner overlooking Mutrah bathes in its multicoloured glory, like a candelabra on Liberace’s piano. The black robed women and the white clad men wonder around the coastal road looking like yin-yang signs, evidently not doing much other than sipping on Pepsi and enjoying not be baked to death by the overwhelming heat.

Indeed, there really isn’t much to do in Muscat in general. When the guide books recommend the French-Omani museum, you realise that really you should just learn to enjoy the sleepy ambience of the place, and reflect that not all capital cities have to feel like Manhattan, before slinking back to your five star hotel.

Whilst the city centre is the bastion of the subcontinentals, the western hotels are ultimately dependent on the Filipinos. Like the US without Mexicans, most of the Gulf relies on them to act as the interface between the Western tourists and the grubby act of providing service. The Filipinos seem to have an incredibly wide ethnic stock, which was confirmed by a fellow called Rail who gave me a Thai massage. He seemed rather surprised that I was bothering to interact with him, asking him questions about Tagalog and Filipino ethnic politics. I got the impression that most guests at the hotel only spoke to him in imperatives. True, it is rather hard to have a conversation whilst someone is digging their knees into your back whilst simultaneously pulling your arms out of their sockets but he did at least describe what it was like to live in Oman. Comfortable but dull was his description. He seemed to hope that he could one day transfer within the hotel group to a branch in Canada. Which is funny as comfortable but dull is how most people describe Canada.

Whilst the varied Filipino faces are entertainingly curious to look at, the identikit Omani dress code is creepy and oppressive, despite it looking superficially practical and comfortable. Without exception, they all dress the same and I have never seen such a chronic lack of individuality. Mao would surely approve but I would hate to be a dry cleaner sorting out different customers’ clothes.

Arriving at 2am, Dubai airport was still a scene of utter chaos. Outside the arrival gate, throngs of Subcontinentals waited for their families or new workers to arrive. Luckily Mel had arranged for a transfer to the hotel and so we were guided through the multicoloured sacks of clothing that pass for luggage outside the West, to a waiting Lincoln Town Car. An aptly decadent vehicle for Dubai, its epic leg room heralding the fact that if you have money, you need not suffer any inconvenience, least of all the annoyance of not being able to stretch your legs.

Like the airport, the streets were also still crowded with cars, but fairly soon we hit the iconic 2×7 lane highway that cuts through the skyscraper lined avenue that leads to the Jumeirah district. The strip feels like a mix between Las Vegas with its shiny neon and Flash Gordon with its futuristic rocket tipped skyscrapers. But when you realise that the buildings are only one street deep it begins to feel more like a Hollywood film set, where only the veneer of construction and activity needs to be passed off to be able to sustain the illusion of a city. The frequently described statistic that 25% of the world’s cranes are in Dubai seemed credible even at night, as white dotted lines apparently hovered in the middle of the air all around us. This turned into a Close Encounters style light display as we hit Jumeirah Beach proper. To say that the hotel was in the middle of a construction site does not convey the carnage of building work going on at 2am in the morning as we arrived at our hotel. It is not for nothing that all the hotels room are fitted with extensive double glazing, at no insignificant cost, to keep out the noise. Thank god it works.

In the light of the day, the extent of the work was even more extraordinary. An area the size of lower Manhattan seemed to be trying to will itself into existence in one go with about 100 cranes visible to the eye in any 90 degree view. The subcontinentals in their blue overalls were out in such numbers that one got a glimpse of what is must have been like to watch the pyramids built. As the posters says, it is amazing what you can achieve with an unlimited amount of cheap labour.

Taking up the national sport, the first thing we did was go shopping in one of the malls. The Mall of Emirates sticks out amongst the other buildings due to one noticeable architectural feature. It has a ski slope inside it. If the incongruity of seeing chador clad women queueing next to Russian girls wearing less clothing than a topless bather is a jarring image, then sitting in shorts and a t-shirt watching people shivering at the bottom of a ski slope on the other side of a window is perhaps more so.

If the ultra-Western environment of the new malls and hotels, where Muslim sensibility elides with Western tastes, represents what Dubai has become, then Deira, the old downtown, still shows what Dubai was. Countless dhows were still unloading their Asian products onto the wharf, only now they were mostly electronic goods, showing that a large amount of consumer goods still get moved around the world by sea. The creek that cuts through Deira, where the dhows are moored, is crossed by small boats called Abras, which act as water taxis ferrying 15 or people across the creek each time. Sitting on one, surrounded by mostly subcontinentals workers, you get a chance to see both sides of the creek, which in contrast to the new Downtown and Jumeirah area, is populated mostly by old, colonial era stone buildings and the souqs. With the late afternoon sun reflecting off the roofs and the only real noise being the glugging of the abra’s diesel engine, the relative tranquility of Deira is something that the Dubai marketing department seem to gloss over in its effects to focus attention on ever taller skyscrapers being built.

It is a cliche to say that people want to come back to Dubai in 2, 5 and 10 years to see what it looks like, but aside from the Sim City sensation, it is a fascinating experiment in building a new global city with all of the cultural and ethnic questions that it raises. Either the current soullessness of its new districts with their empty buildings will be occupied and a new city-state will spring into existence or it will prove to be a massive folly dreamt up by a tribal family in their attempts to gamble on a legacy o
nce the oil runs out.

Cairo: Crave

Zamalek is part of an island that sits in the middle of the Nile, west of downtown, and was in the pre-Nasser days, the Manhattan of Cairo – the area which was most popular with Europeans and featured the best night life. Home to most of the embassies, it still has a reputation for being one of the nicer parts of Cairo, being home to more Western style establishments. As with other parts of Cairo though, it is common to find a stylish, trendy restaurant, as lifted from a scene from Sex and the City, sitting alongside large rubbish tips in the middle of the street with stray cats roaming over them.

S, the journalist whom Fatma introduced me to, invited me for dinner with some of her friends with whom she worked on the student newspaper at her university. T was the instantly recognisable, Westernised Egyptian, sporting a Bart Simpson t-shirt and an easy going manner such that I knew I could insult him freely about working in finance and he would take it with good humour, which he did. We were shortly joined by a quiet, well dressed, though tie-less, fellow called I, who had the neat cropped beard and bruised forehead of a religious muslim. I explains that he is currently working for a management consultant firm so that he can learn about business before he wants to return to AUC to study political Islam.

As ever, politics comes up. In fact, it is usually me who brings it up, but I’ve yet to find anyone who tries to veer away from the topic, and as they were all journalists at university, we discussed the press freedoms and trends in Egyptian journalism. I then ask the standard question: what happens after Mubarak?

I, otherwise somewhat reserved, becomes passionate and discusses the unlikely succession chances of Gamal Mubarak and the role of the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood. More than that, he speaks with great detail about them. I quiz him about the fuzziness of the Ikwhan’s election platform and he admits that the party heads are inexperienced and bad communicators, something that he berates them for personally. But more than that he also feels that it is hard to come up with an election platform which has detail, specifically on economic matters, when there are no details about the economy, or when the few details that do exist require security clearance. I ask him about the Ikhwan’s commitment to democracy. If they won, would they stand down if they lost an election? Would they actually even win in a free contest?

I said he believes that under a free democracy, where there might be a chance for other parties to develop momentum, the vote would perhaps be more split than it is currently, given that he recognises that some people vote for the Ikhwan purely as a protest against the government. But should they win, and then lose, yes, they are committed to democracy, for do they not accept pluralism internally? Democracy, he continued, in the west has secularism, capitalism and liberalism as its foundations, people vote on self-interest. The Ikhwan want to mobilise popular involvement in democracy based on the interest of the ummah.

Cairo: Moths

Approaching the Adli Synagogue this evening, the flashing blue lights and large blue metal container trucks, which are used to ferry Egyptian policemen, were visible from the end of the road. I had noticed the synagogue a few days back, on a taxi drive back from the oriental cliche souq of Khan Al Khalili, its prominent star of Davids visible on the front of the building, with two armed soldiers standing lazily underneath them. I had marvelled at such a large Jewish building continuing to occupy a position on prime downtown shopping street.

I had an excuse to visit the building this evening after Emily, a Jewish-American girl from the school, made contact with Carmen Weinstein, the ageing bewigged leader of the Cairo Jewish community, and discovered there was a Purim service being held tonight. This time more than two soldiers were on hand to guard the synagogue, this time aided by metal barriers and guard dogs. Approaching the security barrier, Emily and I were momentarily stunned to have the man at the gate greet and ask us some questions in Hebrew with an Israeli accent. Hebrew, let alone an Israeli accent, is not something one is expecting to hear in Cairo and the soft smiling Israeli dressed in typical casual clothing made a stark contrast to the grim faced, armed functionary to his left.

Inside the shul, chaos reigned. There were about 40 people inside the mammoth shul but the cavernous acoustics of the building made it sound like there were three times as many, aided by the 10-12 vocal children at the far end of the main synagogue floor, running around whilst dressed in Halloween style costumes.

Instinctively I asked for a yamulke. Despite being a secular fellow, I was interested to find I couldn’t be inside a synagogue without wearing one. Eventually one was found and after a greeting by the American accented fellow on the bima, the service started. Not that this stopped anyone talking or the children from running around. Emily and I sat and watched as, if anything, the volume level increased.

Here, in the middle of an Arabic country, like moths drawn to the sun, the expat community of American Jews and Israelis had come to give support and affirm the ties of community with the local Jewish community. Yet even amongst us huddled masses, protected as we were by our Arabic soldiers, we had to engage in what we do best: argue with each other.

The perennial tragi-comedy of Jewish people everywhere was played out, as the Israelis started doing their *own* reading from their *own* scroll right next to the guest Rabbi from America who was reading from his. This naturally invited a request from the American Rabbi, in Hebrew, to be quiet and let him read to the congregation.

“Lo,” comes the reply. No.

An argument ensues, the natural habitat of modern Hebrew. The rabbi comes down from the bima and raised voices ring around the stone building, marking a disagreement over how the service should be conducted. The Israelis want a more traditional reading. The arguing goes on for 5 minutes, until in a huff, the entire delegation of Israelis grab their mewling kids and leave, whilst arguing with each other.
Perhaps the Egyptian army are there to protect us from each other rather than from Islamic terrorists?

The service, in relative quiet, continues.

I couldn’t help but laugh. We are all the bloody same the world over.

Later, at a kiddush held after the service, I get to find out who the people that attended and remained at the service are. One fellow, Terry from Stanmore noch, is heading up an office that is part of a Tel Aviv/New York firm of consultants who are assisting Egyptian-Israeli companies do business; Larry, is a PhD student from UCLA doing a thesis on Egyptian foreign policy, having spent some time in San’a in Yemen, where he also made contact with the local peyot clad Jewish community; Sariel is a Professor from the Weizman Institute heading up an Academic Centre which helps Egyptian and Israeli academics to share and develop research together. He invites me to his centre to see an example of “humanism” at work and he regrets having to leave Cairo to head back to Israel for financial reasons in 6 months time

One of the Israelis tells me he was embarrassed by those Israelis who left:

“They are not even the civil servants. They are the assistants to the civil servants. I dislike this type of Israeli. They get invited to someones house for dinner and tell their host what food to serve. It is a trend in Israeli society I don’t like. At least the vice consul and the consul had the education to stay behind.”

Terry meanwhile tells me how most businessmen are more than happy to business with Israel. The example of the Israeli-Jordan trade agreement is proof that a rapid increase in trade is possible even under a cold peace. He tells me most of the businesses he deals with are in textiles.

“You’ve come to Cairo and ended up in the shmattes business,” I tell him.

Emily, Larry and I grab some food before sitting in Cilantro, the local equivalent of Starbucks, for a coffee and tea. We sit and discuss politics and history in a style which I can’t but help notice as being so very Jewish, our interaction so easily transportable to a coffee shop in New York or North London.

Argument and debate. A very Jewish evening.

Cairo: New City

My friends Fatma and Omar have bought two plots of land in an area called New Cairo which is being built north east of Cairo. In area which was desert a few years back, New Cairo is the Dubai of Egypt, a mega construction site spread over a vast tract of land, where everything is new. Townhouses, apartment blocks, villas and a new campus for the American University lie in discrete islands amidst the desert, connected by brand new roads whose pot hole free surface is currently only enjoyed by the massive trucks and lorries.

Fatma and Omar's plot of land
Fatma and Omar's new town

A new gated compound of the distinctly American variety, now hosts the top 1% of Egyptian society, ironically protected by a surrounding wall with security check points located at judicious locations for which only the correct ID or license plate will allow you entrance. My boss believes the trend in the world is for those that have to protect themselves and ring themselves off from those that do not have, and the gated compounds, of which my friends hope to belong to in a few years when their house is finished, are a clear sign of this.

However, New Cairo is not merely a gated compound, it is a gated town, comparable in size to some British towns. Even the clean, quiet air of the area seems to have been specially reserved for those that can afford it, the halo of smog still visible in the distance over Cairo to remind the lucky few of what they have escaped. As if to underline the mission statement of the area, porters already are in attendance outside areas where buildings have yet to take root on their empty plot of land, their families huddled into small one room brick shacks, no doubt to be moved on once people move into the area. Despite the embryonic status of the site, some families have even appeared to have moved into their new dream homes, a testament to desperation or the robust ability of people to build a life for themselves even when there is none around them.

view of construction
university colloseum

Less than 3km from New Cairo, with its clear aspiration of hope for a new life, is one of the many Necropolis’, or City of the Dead, that Cairo has. Unlike the flat, tombstone dotted graveyards of Europe, Cairo builds entire towns for its dead; towns with roads, junctions, dead ends and city blocks, taking up huge areas, where what would otherwise be houses instead feature tombs. In common with New Cairo, for the moment, these Necropolis’ are totally silent. As the tombs are defacto rooms, with walls and doors, the feeling of a ghost town is overwhelming. The construction implies that there should be life here where there is not, the cities having clear main avenues or main streets which run the length of the towns but there is no traffic of any kind. Yet amongst these cities, people do in fact live. Some urban poor decide to live amongst these cities, hanging out their washing lines across the streets, living amongst the tombs, surrounded by the dead members of their families. As I turned one corner, I found three men washing their hair in a trough of water, next to a large open tomb. Their reaction to me suggested that seeing living people walking down the street was not that common an occurrence, though they still had the default reaction of a Cairene in responding formally to my greeting to them in Arabic.

city of the dead high street
city of dead

Omar could not understand my fascination with the cities of the dead but accustomed as I am to the discreet, unassuming green fields of European graveyards, where an oversized or florid tombstone still stands out for criticism, building such expansive spaces for the dead amidst an overcrowded city provides, yet another, sharp contrast with the narrow, cluttered streets where the living live. One can’t but ponder on a city which gives as much comfort and space to its dead as it does to its living.

Cairo: Academics

My flatmate is a medieval European historian, who reads original sources in Latin and he is usually accompanied by a Greek-Italian Egyptologist that he befriended at the school who lives nearby and can read, naturally, hieroglyphics.

Our dinner conversation this evening consisted of discussions on:
– the extent of Tamurlane’s empire and his brutality
– Charlemagne’s empire and his attempts to impose a uniform currency
– the comparative longevity of world empires
– just how much Lawrence disliked the Arabs
– the ages and development of Semitic languages
– the dominance of Franco-Teutonic epics in European history
– the utility of Farsi for writing poetry
– quotes from Team America
– the use of dialects in dubbing English speaking films for European audiences
– the varying use of Greek dialects in Homer’s writing

It is interesting to note that the topics of conversation amongst academics is not that much different than with geeks, other than the people contributing to the conversation have read much of the body of knowledge about various topics in the language of first hand sources rather than from Wikipedia.

Cairo: Spice

Getting into a conversation about politics or culture is as easy as getting tooted by a taxi here. Like the fine layer of dust and sand that coats every surface, politics and culture permeate every aspect of day to day living and all introductions, all personal histories, all observations about life in Cairo or the Middle East, come back to politics and culture.

In the past 3 days I’ve had an American, who has gone native and gained an Egyptian accent after 20 years living here, impress upon me the importance of the army in the post-Mubarak Egypt at a birthday party full of Germans I didn’t know, a South African freelance writer harangue me with 9/11 conspiracy theories 2 minutes after meeting me in a cafe, a hejab clad reporter for the Herald Tribune discuss modern Islamic thinking in Egypt in a restaurant in the leafy suburb of Ma’adi and Anglo-Egyptians girls relating endless tails of “concrete-headed” obstinacy exhibited by Arab males over cups of tea in one of the many Cairene coffee shops.

Everyone complains; everyone gets frustrated by the lack of logic and Kafka-esque thinking and everyone finishes a discussion about politics or economics or business by shrugging their shoulders and asking “How do you change a culture?” That Egyptian culture is broken, inefficient and hobbles along with a poor work ethic is obvious to them all. Twice I’ve heard the zen joke about the scorpion riding on the fox’s back in a river, as a fatalistic example of why things can’t be changed here.

Yet they all stay out here in this dirty, polluted and noisy city, living amidst a stalled culture when they don’t have to. It is a testament to the gravitational pull that the energy of the city has and the ripeness for change that the Middle East has pent up inside it that everyone is aware of.