Sunday, August 22, 2010

Prepare for Takeoff

As predicted, my determination to blog every week or so collapsed soon after I landed here in Cairo. Now I'm faced with the task of representing all of the past few months in a few brief paragraphs. It's a daunting challenge.

The funny thing that I'm conscious of just how little of Egypt I've actually seen. It's is not a large country compared to the United States, but out of all the places I potentially could have gone - Mount Sinai, Dahab, Siwa, Luxor, and many a good beach besides - I've only left town to see Alexandria.

At least I can report that the Alexandria was fantastic. I went for a three day excursion with a few of the boys and girls from my Arabic class. Good times were had by all. Our first stop was Mamoura, a gated beach community about 17 km from Alexandria ("Askanderia" in the vernacular). We were told that we had a house reserved for us right next to the water - this building would be our base of operations for the next few days. Unfortunately our "reservation" was actually just the say so of a local, who actually was in no position to guarantee that the apartment would be free. As it turned out we were competing for the place along with all of Egypt, since the Alexandria beach was a vacation destination. Somehow we were able to finagle an apartment in Mamoura for the same price - after, of course, assuring our host that all of us were married.

It took a long time to figure our sleeping situation out - the better part of the afternoon actually - so we decided just to spend the rest of our time at the beach. It was crowded. The spot we bought might have been no more than 10 meters or so from the water, but we couldn't see it but for the throng of Egyptians, umbrellas, and tables between ourselves and the ocean. Once we got to it though, the water was divine; pleasantly warm and refreshing. Big breakers crashed over our heads. For a person who grew up with the chill and relatively tame water of inner Cape Cod, it was a wonderful experience.

Unfortunately, we hadn't quite done all of our homework about Mamoura. My guidebook cautioned women to "cover up" and wear shorts and a tee shirt over their swim outfit. That advice could even have been taken further - my two friends from Germany and Austria wrapped themselves in a sarong and still had were hassled by Egyptian men. One fellow came up to Katrin in the water and held out hands to shake. Embarrassed, she complied, and then had to forcefully detach herself when the man wouldn't let go until I swam up and signaled for him to please stop touching my "wife". Our friend Tamara fared worse - she was knocked over by a breaker and a man "helped her up," grabbing her breast in the process. Judging from the complete lack of uncovered women at this beach, we should have perhaps been more conscious of local customs and mores, and come better prepared with longer clothes and spare tee-shirts for our girls. Egyptians are a wonderfully kind people, but for some reason - maybe the lack of sex in their own culture before marriage, or their perception of western women as promiscuous - some of these men felt comfortable in grabbing and touching our friends in a way that they would have never done to one of their own.

Luckily the rest of the beach day was fantastic. A group of locals challenged us to a game of beach football (soccer) and we had a wonderful time. I flatter myself that I was the principle striker on our team - three goals scored! Sadly I did not live up to form as a goalie. Afterwards many people came up to us and asked for their pictures to be taken with us. One even handed his baby over to my "wife" Dania and me... somewhere on an Egyptian camera somewhere there is an image of a tall, sandy and sunburned American with a short brownhaired girl, holding what appears to be our little brown love child. What a funny world.

As the sun was setting I spoke to an Egyptian who came up to me and started speaking in slow, but clear English. We agreed that Askanderia was a beautiful place and the sunset was fantastic - but then he said something else that struck me. "Egyptians love America, love France, and Europe," he said. "But the rest of the world, they don't like us." By us, I understood that he wasn't just talking about Egyptians but also Arabs and Muslims. I tried to answer as simply and as honestly as I could. I said that people were afraid of the Middle East because they didn't know much about it, and what they did know they misunderstood. But I assured him that in my group at least, there were five westerners (and one Korean!) who appreciated his country very much. He didn't really seem convinced.

Shew. I barely scratched the Alexandria trip but I've already run out of space (by which I mean drive) to continue on in this sitting. Makes me wish I had been keeping up with this blog all along - it would have been much easier to keep up with events.

Here's hoping I can squeeze more in. If the next article is about some political issue... well, my biographers are going to need another source for the Egypt chapter! Ta.