Coptic and Old Cairo

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Hello everybody,

Please forgive the fact that this is a bulk e-mail. I hate sending bulk mails, but the form is most conducive to the situation. I promise to respond individually to anyone who writes me.

For those of you who do not yet know, I am currently in Egypt for a vacation (two weeks). I find that I like writing these little travel dialogs, and thought that you, as friends of mine, might like to read them. If you wish to be deleted from the list, please tell me. So, lets see, yesterday. I managed to get a full night’s sleep (though I was wide awake from about 5-6--logical since my body thought it was about noon), and slept in till close to 11. I fed myself French bread and oranges, and got ready for the day. My attire consisted of fully covering clothing and a hijab (head scarf).

I find myself taking great interest in Egyptian women's fashion. It is not all billowing and shapeless. Actually, the majority of it is quite modern and sleek (though still fully covering). The hijab that is worn is always carefully color coordinated with the outfit, and can be worn in a variety of styles. I plan to go out and get myself some nice cloths today (ones that I will also wear in America--sans the hijab).

I think dressing like a Muslim woman is defiantly helping my maneuverability. Yesterday I was, quite gratefully, left more or less alone. I seem to confuse people here though. Both men and women ask me if I am Egyptian, but they ask because I obviously don't look the part (tall and about 10 shades more pasty white). Then they ask me if I am Muslim. Most of the time I lie and say yes, because saying no (that I am trying to respect their culture, etc.) just obfuscates the situation more. Anyway, I digress. Back to the day.

I went directly to Old and Coptic Cairo. I got there via the subway. The subway was, believe it or not, a pleasant experience, and much reminiscent of home. It thankfully got me away from the insanity of the street, and it is pretty easy to navigate. The first car is reserved for women only, and I have to admit, despite my feminist leanings, it was rather nice to be in a "women only" car. We were packed in there like sardines (especially when compared to the spacious adjacent male car), but despite the crammed conditions, the ladies were very friendly. They seemed to look out for each other’s welfare, and even made sure to point out to me the grievous flaw in my attire (my shirt had a split in the side with allowed a glimpse of my flesh). It was funny to compare myself physically against them. At 5'10", I hovered well over all of them. A giant among women I guess you could say.

But I am on yet another tangent. Coptic Cairo was first on the list. This is an ancient quarter concentrated with Christians. A number of lovely old churches grace the place, and the old cemetery and garden were a peaceful haven through which to amble. I was intrigued to see that most writing was in Greek. I had academically known, but never had demonstrated, the fact that the Russian language (or at least alphabet) is based off of Greek. I pleasantly surprised by this little linguistic twist when I found myself by reading the word "patriarch." Cool!

Coptic Cairo was overridden with tourists (mostly European it looked). I was aghast to see women and men alike striding around in shorts and tank tops. How disrespectful! I thought these foreigners would have encountered problems, but there must be safety in numbers. Besides, upon leaving they were hearded onto a fancy tour bus and carted away directly to their next destination (the subway had no other obvious foreigner that I noticed by the way).

After relaxing with a little bit of chai (which I was over charged for, but it was a tourist cafe, so what was there to do?), I clambered across the overpass and plunged into Old Cairo. More about Old Cairo later, because first I made my way straight to the Nile River.

Ah, the Nile! Upon first seeing it I was seduced by images of Pharaonic Egypt. I could visualize the long boats with sails and/or oarsmen skimming across the surface of the waters. Actually, there are still oarsmen, but in the form of crew boats or small rowboats. The river is additionally trafficked by cruse ships, dinner ships, cargo ships, and clunkers that look barely sea worthy. There are unfortunately oil slicks galore, but this does not seem to dissuade the patient fishermen who hang their poles off bridges.

I ended up perching on a railing pillar to further my contemplations. After a short while of silent cogitation I heard a sweet little voice say, "Anisa?" I looked down and there was the most darling little girl of about 5yrs offering me a yellow flower. I thanked her with the most grateful "shukran" I could verbalize. She smiled and scampered off about 20 yards to her father. She must have seen me sitting afar, picked the flower, and purposefully came over to give it to me. It filled my heart with warmth, and kept me smiling the rest of the evening.

After this I made my way back to Old Cairo. Fascinating place. The crowded filthy conditions lent themselves to a range of smells wafting thought the air. Dark doorways led to even darker narrow stairs that would take those who traversed them to tiny rooms. Trash lined the streets provided meals for the plethora of cats and dogs.

Poor things. These feral animals were all dirty as could be. Many were obviously starving and disease ridden. My heart went out to them. The cats were mostly white with calico markings. I am forced to wonder if they are "import" tabbies, or if they are the true decedents of Pharaonic cats. I was also very glad to be vegetarian after seeing the state of the animals they had for sale. The poultry were crammed in never cleaned cages, and many of them were half naked from disease/poor treatment--but I guess that makes them easier to pluck for dinner, right?

I wandered the streets for I don't know how long—well after dark. Yes, after dark. For those who are over protective of me, you can't yell at me because I am too far away. Ha ha! To be honest I felt very safe there. I was thankfully left alone. There were of course looks, from both women and men, but that is understandable because I obviously was not of that local. To assuage some of your fears, I made sure to keep to the well-populated streets and allies.

People were everywhere. Women hung out in doorways, children played in the streets, men congregated in cafes (where they would smoke sheeshas and play dominoes/backgammon/chess--I wish I could have joined them, but that would have been totally unacceptable of me as a woman). There was even a lively soccer game at the far end of a street. I don’t know if this was a faux pas since I never saw a woman near a soccer ball, but the ball went sailing my way (quite a distance), and I kicked it back to them. No one said anything, so I guess they appreciated me being nice.

Well, that is it for now, and this is quite egregiously long as it is. More at another time. Hope you enjoyed. I wish everyone well.