Wednesday, June 28, 2006

And so it begins......

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.


Anonymous said...

I can't believe you're in Cairo!! Your first blog was quite entertaining to read and I'm glad you've met some interseting locals, although that dinner sounded less than desirable (at least the meat part...) I'm also so jealous that you will be seeing the pyramids! lucky!! Well I look forward to hearing more about your initial days and good luck with finding an apartment and getting on the good side of crazy cab drivers!!

miss you! love!

Cybermom said...

Dear Teo,

What made you trust Mohammed? I do not think I would have the courage to follow a stranger. The dinner sounds disgusting. Among the first things I would be memorizing is how to order a dinner. I love going to food markets when I travel abroad. I learn the names of different items and I get to see what is in season. When we were in Russia in 1997 there was not much of anything in the Moscow markets.

Anonymous said...

no buffalo in cairo? how about water buffalo. i think you ate the horse of the middle east. it'll go down better with steak sauce next time. i had the same thought as tia, meaning how did you know Mohammed wasn't going to stuff you in a car and shuttle you off to gaza? how careful do you have to be there? on the other hand, if your too cautious, you'd never leave the hilton. so, where's the line.
ask your mother.

Theo May said...

Hey guys,
Thanks so much for your posts. I really appreciate all of it. To answer your question, Tia, about how I knew to trust Mohammed…. I never really understood that the term “police state” is so literal. You do not walk three minutes in this city without seeing a member of the Egyptian military toting a machine gun. Having now interacted with them, asking for directions, etc., they’re quite friendly and eager to help. I’m sure part of the reason they are there is to protect tourists in the city. While I’m not totally sure that they would put their lives on the line to save a westerner, I’m convinced that they act as a strong enough deterrent against crime. So while Mohammed took me farther than he said he would, there was still a significant military presence there. It was only when we went down the small side road that I lost sight of any military men. It was then that I told Mohammed that we needed to get there soon. He told me it was right ahead thirty yards, and he was true to his word. Bottom line is that I got my guard up when we left the sight of the military, but we didn’t go too far from the beaten path.

hector said...

Theo--I guess you might have forgotten leaving the apartment in Recoleta and returned with head drooped wondering why you paid so much for wine down the block?

Stay on the beaten path--if that's even concievable for an American student in Egypt--until you have some grounding, please.

Remember, again Buenos Aires, where you were hard to miss: the American. You were even called that, no?

So you need more than senses and intuition here: reason and conservative judgments are essential.

You're not on Madison Avenue!


I disagree with you, hector. Muhammed was nothing more than an Egyptian "Theo May" walking around. Theo correctly assumed that Muhammed was "safe" and his experience is richer for it. Extreme caution and reservation will disallow Theodore to shed his image as "the American."