It’s about three hours before I’d ever go to bed in the States, but jet lag has made sure that I’m wide awake at 6am Cairo time! I arrived at 5pm yesterday, and already I can add two people to what I’m sure will become a fascinating cast of characters.
First, let me tell you about my cab driver, Ramadan. Ramadan introduced himself to me at the airport saying with a grin, “Hello! I am Ramadan. That means holiday!” He whisked me from the crush of the airport and away towards downtown.
In the cab, Ramadan said to me, “So, you from Europe?” When I told him that I was actually American, he went silent. When I tried to ask him a question about some building we were passing, he quipped, “I no speak English.” This was somewhat frustrating, and we sat in silence for a while.
It soon occurred to me what I needed to do. I took a deep breath and began talking in my broken traditional Arabic, telling him that I was happy to be here and that I was going to be studying in Cairo for the next six months. When I was done, still more silence. My attempt to ingratiate myself had failed.
But then, about two minutes later, Ramadan offered me a cigarette. Ah, the ultimate form of acceptance! I was almost tempted to smoke it just to get in good with him, but I declined politely. Ramadan then, in English, began to set up all the trips that he and I would take together around Egypt in the next week. “So tomorrow, I drive you to the pyramids. I show you the pyramids! Later, I take you to museums. I take you around all week. Very reasonable price!” When I told him that I wasn’t sure about his schedule but that I’d like to ride with him, he gave me three different phone numbers to reach him.
Further, he called his friend and had me talk to his friend who assured me that he could find me apartments anywhere in the city. After that discussion, Ramadan tried to persuade me to go look for apartments right then. I had to insist that my hotel was waiting for me to check in.
I have photos of my cab ride in, but this connection is not letting me post them. I will do it as soon as I can.
The other person that I need to tell you about is a man named Muhammed. After a quick nap at the hotel, I set out looking for dinner. Drawing hundreds of odd, but not hostile stares as I wandered around the overwhelmingly Arab neighborhood outside my hotel, I looked like a fish out of water. Suddenly a well dressed man with minimal English approached me and asked, “You lost?” I told him that I was looking for dinner. He told me to follow him, that he was meeting friends in half an hour, but that he’d like to show me where to find dinner. I was too tired to want to talk to anyone, but I agreed, mostly following my stomach.
We walked and walked and walked. And then we left the beaten path. I began to get a little nervous because Muhammed had told me that there was a square just down the road with restaurants. That proved false, but we eventually arrived to the restaurant, mere moments before I would have turned around.
To call it a restaurant may be overstating the point. It was, in fact, a few tables in an open stall. We were the only diners there. The whole way over to the restaurant, Muhammed had been telling me that he was going to have me eat chicken kebabs. He kept telling me that the chicken kebabs we delicious and that I would love them. When we arrived at the restaurant, Muhammed ordered in Arabic (no menus) and the food arrived a few minutes later: chicken, tahini sauce, pita, and salad. When I told him how delicious I found the chicken, he said to me, “What chicken?! Are you crazy. We no eat chicken in Egypt. Too much disease.” In my disbelief, I asked him what the meat was. “Buffalo!” he exclaimed. Now, as far as I know, buffalo is not an animal that lives outside of the western United States. Bottom line is that I didn’t push my luck any further. I guess I will never know what it was I ate.
We were joined at dinner by half a dozen stray cats, two of which took the other two empty seats at the table. The four of us discussed politics, culture, and religion for the next half an hour, though the cats contributed little to the conversation. After a while, Muhammed excused himself because he had to go meet friends, and I finished my mystery-meat dinner, making sparse and un-reciprocated conversation with the cats before heading back to the hotel and going to sleep.