Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Egypt on my Mind

It seems I have a fever.  Egypt keeps calling me back, and I find my thoughts and a vague longing returning, day after day.  Things keep reminding me of Egypt.  Of course, the reason a part of me is also in Egypt could have to do with the fact that I keep reading about Egypt and listening to Egyptian music.  I've been listening lately to a Coptic praise CD I bought in the Hanging Church in Cairo.  I find it beautiful, even though I don't understand a word of it, so I pray in my own way to the music.  Sometimes I find that I can find my heart in music better when there are no lyrics, or when I don't understand them.  The group is called "Better Life Team".  Those three words are in English, but everything else on and in the CD is in Arabic.

The other day I was out for a long walk in the woods with Peter and our dog, Toffee.  In the evening, the bells tolled, reminding people that a church service was about to begin.  The bells sounded lovely, deep and resonant.  This peal resonates deep within my heart.  The sound of church bells is one of the things about Germany that have found their way deep into my heart.  But another sound also resonates, the call to prayer I heard five times a day in Egypt.  It resonates in a similar, but also different way, since the setting is different.

On our very first day in Egypt, on the second trip, I was inspired to jot down a poem about the call to prayer.  I wrote it as if I were an Egyptian returning to my land.  I felt that I could imagine the feeling, and my putting myself in the place of an Egyptian reminded me that we are all connected.  I know very little about Egypt, having only visited twice in my life, and having been a tourist each time.  I don't even speak more than ten words of Arabic.  And yet, something of this culture resonates within me.

There is the longing to unite it all, to make it all connect.  I want to tie loose ends, and I want to harmonize that which will not be harmonized.

I'm reading a fascinating book right now, Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road, by Paul-Gordon Chandler, an Anglican priest who lives in Cairo.  In this book, Chandler discusses the life of Mazhar Mallouhi, a Syrian novelist, a Muslim who is also a follower of Jesus Christ.  He sees no contradiction.  This is the kind of thing I long to reconcile.  If Mallouhi can reconcile it, maybe it can be reconciled.  And the conflict between the Arabs and Jews in Israel can also be reconciled.

The book quotes a letter from Samir, also a Muslim, to his friend Mallouhi.  I'll quote the part about the mosque.

"...It is a bad approach to try to transmit Christ's message to a Muslim by undermining Islam...It is also a bad approach to make him feel that the mosque, which is a powerful spiritual and cultural space, is a negative and adversary place.  It is also a house of God where if he likes he can experience his new relation with Jesus."

A man who's also trying to reconcile it all.  Well, it can be done in the head and in the heart, and that's where everything begins.

Here's my poem.

Call to Prayer

So long it's been
so long away from your call
How did I ever live
to barely survive
without your call
I must have died.

Your call - deep as the unknown sea,
waves of fervent
reminders of your surge
pull, drawing to 
unseen power
lead down fathomless depths

Unknown, yet I do know
your voice, longing, like mine
I will answer
the voice beyond yours and yours
to join and never part again

Sorry, I hear your call
and know I must leave
return to chilly climes
and treble chimes
that call as well but
leave no trace upon my soul

5 February, 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Get Rid of Bad Guy-Good Guy Talk

Who are the good guys?  And who are the bad?  Today I was reminded again of how unfair it has been to Germany to call this a country of "bad guys".  But that's what's been happening again as Germany grows in might, growing so much it now has power to influence the direction of nations such as Greece.   

One of my teaching jobs is at the "Volkshochschule", a wonderful German institution, where adults can take courses all day long in everything from languages like English and French to sports like dancing and pilates.  It's sort of a publicly funded Y, the only comparable American institution I know.   My group today was a group of advanced level senior citizens who want to maintain their English levels.  I have never had such an open-minded, interesting, alert group of students as these.  They are consistently a joy to teach.

Today I mentioned to them, as a sort of starter to the lesson, that I had heard a program on the radio about an exhibition about forced laborers in Germany during World War II.  On the program, the announcer said that forced labor was another policy of the Nazis, similar to the concentration camps, created to exploit and dehumanize what they called the "underclass".  Some of the Jews lucky enough to escape extermination were among the thousands of forced laborers, but so were also Poles and Russians.  The announcer said that conditions were inhumane, perhaps not as bad as in the concentration camps, but nevertheless intended to debase these humans.  She said that the forced laborers were usually made to work on farms, and that these farms were all over the place, right under the noses of normal German citizens.  Farms were not off-limits to the public, as were the concentration camps.  Therefore, no one could claim ignorance about the inhumane treatment these workers were receiving.  Everyone knew, not only about these farms, but also about what was going on there.

As an aside, I want to say that the very fact that there is an exhibition about this aspect of life during the Nazi period, and that it is discussed in the media is something I find really positive about Germany.  I know of no other country that deals with the dark parts of its past as thoroughly, as openly, as does Germany.  I believe that the US would be spared much of the hatred it now receives if there were a sense of collective responsibility for some of the reprehensible things from our past.  Present evils such as the incarceration of people who haven't even been charged with crimes they're supposed to have committed, waning year after year on Guantanamo, would be so much easier to deal with if only politicians would admit and talk candidly about  the things we know to be true.  But no, it seems that my country has great difficulty admitting wrongdoing.  Those who do so, like President Obama, are scorned as being soft if they should admit weakness, or  "European" in their thinking (Mitt Romney accused this of Obama).  If that is what being European were, I say, more of it!  It was good to hear President Obama apologizing profusely for the killing by one soldier of 16 Afghan civilians, and a couple of weeks before that, apologizing for the US troops who inadvertantly burned a couple of copies of Islam's holiest book.  I wish my fellow Americans could be still freer in admitting some of the things they have done wrong. 

Well, back to my students.  I asked them if they knew about the forced laborers in Nazi Germany.  Yes, they all did, and they came out with story after story, some about heroism, others about their own struggles to survive.  Sometimes their stories reminded me of one I heard about my father-in-law, who, defying orders from above,  refused to blow up a bridge and a castle in France, risking his own life.  They are similar to stories I heard about my husband's great-uncle, who was incarcerated in a concentration camp for being a socialist.  These stories show me that there is much that is good about Germany that never gets noticed.  Even the German media, who is doing so well at uncovering Nazi sins, ignores the good that happened.

Marlis talked about her father-in-law, who owned a factory where forced laborers worked.  Some of the laborers were Jewish.  One day the Nazis came to the factory to round up these workers and send them off to the concentration camps.  Her father-in-law saw them coming to the front door and, knowing what their purposes were, sent his Jewish laborers out the back door, where they fled.  Another time he helped a Jewish family escape by buying a valuable rug from them.  They couldn't flee with a rug anyway, and so he bought it, giving them enough money to get out of Germany.

I asked if the Nazis knew how he was helping Jews.  Yes, they did know, but did nothing to harm him because they needed him and his factory to continue producing war materials.

After the war, Germany was divided into military zones.  Marlis's family was living in Leipzig, which was occupied by the Russians.  The Russians were especially vengeful for what the Germans had done to them during the war, and they were merciless, raping and killing civilians wherever they went.  Marlis's father, who had been a soldier, came back from prison camp and was living with his family.  One day the Russians came through, looking for her father.  Her mother quickly shoved him into a wooden chest.  The soldiers searched the entire house, but didn't think of looking into the chest.  The very next day, the family left Leipzig, moving to the Cologne area, where relatives lived.  But the relatives weren't all welcoming to this family from the east.  One in particular didn't like Marlis's father, so refused to let the entire family eat from their food, of which they had plenty in their garden.  Marlis says that she went hungry many days, happily playing from morning till night among the rubble from the fallen buildings, hardly aware that an entire day had passed without a single meal.  Her grandfather would take her family into the garden when his daughter wasn't looking and give them things to eat.      

Helmut grew up in Wesseling, near Cologne.  After Cologne was bombed in the war, his family fled to Saxony.  After the war, Saxony was in the feared Russian zone, so the family once again fled, this time to Göttingen in the West.  A family of seven was forced to live in one little room.  They had no food at all, so the children resorted to stealing apples and other things from the farmers.  Sometimes, in order to get food, he and other children would hop onto trains as stowaways, off to farmlands in the French zone near the French border.  He saw one of his playmates killed as he fell off the train, trying to climb on.  Once they managed to steal enough food from the farmers, they had the problem of getting back home with their bounty.  There was a checkpoint at the border of the French zone into the British, where they lived.  So they walked long distances to get to a farm on the border, where they could crawl through high fields of grain until they reached the British sector.

My students talked about Cardinal Frings, who declared that stealing coal from trains was not a sin, as long as one took no more than one needed.

Renate talked about her father, who managed a soap factory.  Her family didn't starve after the war because her father bartered soap for food.

Inge didn't starve because her family bartered things like cigarettes, jewelry and watches for food.  She knew about the forced labor, but she was five when the war ended.  Her parents condemned it as inhumane, but what could they do?

The one group all my students had praise for was the Americans, for the handsome, healthy, good-natured soldiers who gave so freely of their cigarettes, chocolate, and nylon stockings so that people could buy a meal.  For the faceless Americans back in the States, who sent CARE packages to strangers so that their former enemies wouldn't starve.

Not all the Germans were bad.  The good the Americans did then seems to be forgotten now.  Let us not forget about the evils of war.  This is the thing every student of mine wants to uphold - a resolve that their nation should never start a war again.  I was inspired to remember the good that people did back then, and to acknowledge the good that  many people, even the "ugly Americans" and "those Germans" are doing now.  I hope more and more of us can get rid of "bad guy-good guy" thinking, and instead strive to do good ourselves, remembering the good even people who were considered the enemy in the past did, recognizing the good they are still doing.  I wonder if there would be an enemy at all if we were able to think this way.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Conclusion

 Now comes the hard part - leaving Egypt.  This time though, when we leave the airplane and walk down the gate, entering Germany again, I don't cry.  I remember what Mahmoud said to us that day on the sailboat, "If you've drunk from the waters of the Nile, you'll be back."  This thought continues to comfort me.  I trust that someday I will be back. 

I created this blog to explore themes I encounter in my life journey.  After all, it's a blog about personal growth as much as it's about travel.  And I, a middle-aged adult on the way to becoming a senior citizen, am still in the process of growing up.  I am a masterpiece in progress.  

During the first trip, I was pleasantly disoriented by all the male attention I received.  I think I became a bit more adjusted in dealing with this newfound attention this time, but it was still a challenge, as was the pleasant discovery that I am still attractive to some men besides my husband! 

The main challenges this time had to do with giving myself permission to follow some of my inner urges, no matter what those little voices inside my head were telling me, even if I thought my urge was not exactly acceptable in society, even if this sometimes caused discomfort to my husband.  But experiencing these things together and talking about them turned out to be a great thing for our marriage.  If it was likely to help me to understand the culture, I asked my questions, and Peter found the information almost as interesting as I did.  Then there was the challenge of venturing further into a foreign culture, this time sometimes without the benefit of a tour guide.  Dealing with this together strengthened our bond as well.

I was challenged about how I live my Christian beliefs.  My knowledge about America’s role in international affairs was challenged. I was left utterly confused several times about what I was hearing in the news.  In other words, some of my assumptions were challenged.   
During my first trip, I was thrown into a male public culture, discovering that Egyptian men treated me differently than German and American men.  I enjoyed the special attention I received, but I also felt like an awkward teenager in a post-menopausal body.  This time around, I spent the two weeks still getting used to admiring eyes (I had thought that was all decades behind me!), but I was also able to enjoy the newness of discovering my femininity.  It's a very different feeling from being a twenty-five-year-old trying to stave off cat calls and improper propositions.  At that age, I was so busy trying to deal with horny men and my own sexuality, I had no time to sit back and enjoy it.  Now, I marvel that men could still find me attractive, but I am enjoying the marveling as well as the attention. 

If I had been able to relax with the cat calls in my youth, if I had had a ready response to the propositions, I probably wouldn't be moved by attention today.  I was recently talking with another woman my age (someone I consider beautiful) who also went to Egypt with her husband.  She hated all the attention, all the touching.  One man joked with her husband, "How many camels do you want for her?" and she felt insulted.  I would probably laugh along with the man and my husband, seeing it as a compliment.  Is this attention improper?  In the West, certainly.  In my case, sometimes it was on the edge.  But I'm increasingly enjoying being on the edge.  Life on the edge is stimulating, as long as you don't fall off.    

Is it good to look young when you're not?  Why is youth so revered?  This is a dilemma for us women.  We want to be valued for who we are, but we also want to be admired for how we look.   

I'm starting to get used to the idea of enjoying having relationships with men other than my husband, trusting myself in the boundaries I define.  When I think about other women I know who have always felt comfortable with male attention, I feel a sense of shame, like a country hick in the city.  I'm such a late developer in this area!  But - so what.  Better late than never.  Might as well enjoy the growing pains.  It's good to have growing pains about men while being happily married.  I know where my boundaries are, so I can learn to relax more within them.

Another theme during my first trip was my attitude towards Germans.  During this trip, I had only one German to contend with - my husband.  In some ways, he is a typical German, but in other ways, he's way off the charts.  He's careful, cautious, and private - German traits.  Sometimes I feel limited by these traits, especially in his need for privacy.  But these traits can also be safety ropes, ready to pull me back, just in case I go too far as I allow myself to spend more time on the edges of what his - or any culture allows.  We stayed away from a Nubian wedding Mahmoud invited us to because Peter said that in that setting we'd be captive, with no way to get back to our hotel.  We couldn’t simply hail a taxi, far away from other tourists.  He was right.  It would probably have turned out fine, but you never know. 

The amazing thing is, while possessing these very constraining traits, Peter wants me to be free to live outside of his limits.  This is something I marvel at, since my childhood was anything but free.  This is one way he loves me, and I'm learning to enjoy swimming in deeper waters than he.  I used to stop myself from doing certain things I really wanted to do, thinking he wouldn't approve, or that he would try and stop me.  But over the years, as I've ventured more and more into freedom, he's always backed me up.  And he did the same this time. 

One of my posts in this series is about the hour Peter and I spent in Mahmoud’s living room, after I had invited myself there to pray for his mother.  Peter just about died, sitting there with me, surrounded by all of Mahmoud’s family and neighbors.  Germans don't invite themselves into other people's homes, especially not when you meet them on vacation!  Americans don't either, for that matter.  Peter made the best of the situation, praying silently for Mahmoud's mother with me.  During our drive from Alexandria to Cairo, when I asked Mohammed if he'd consider taking his friend as a second wife, Peter felt like crawling out of the car.  Instead  he laughed, freeing Mohammed to laugh as well, as he said, "Watch out!  My wife's questions can get you into trouble."

Germans don't ask personal questions.  They have a saying for this, in fact:  "Man macht das nicht,"  which means, "You can't do that."  There are all sorts of conventions about things Germans can't do.  Peter's conventional side has to put up with a lot of rule-breaking on my part.  I'm breaking more and more of the rules these days, which is stretching him, but I'm confident we'll stretch together. 

My growing into freedom, something I find I really need for myself, turns out to be good for our marriage.  It was my initiative that allowed us to meet the Casper family, to venture into the hinterlands of Cairo on the Metro, living for a few moments like the Egyptians.  It felt great to cross the Nile on a bridge all by ourselves, like young lovers, surrounded by Egyptians.  We shared a new experience as we discovered a delicious new dish - koshary -  in a fast food restaurant, when we had no idea what we had just ordered. 

What a reward for all this to find those beautiful postcards on the bed.  "I am sure I would never have ventured to Egypt without you," Peter wrote.  "You bring out the best in me."  How wonderful, that Peter valued my daring to be adventurous.   
Another challenge in daring to be who I am is in the area of faith, and in having the courage to talk openly about it.  I have never made a secret of the fact that I am a Christian or that I pray, but up to this point, I had never offered to pray for someone in their presence, at least not when I was with Peter.  I have also rarely mentioned the name, "Jesus," when talking about my faith.  It sounds so, so - what?  Narrow, perhaps.  Out of step with the times.  Religious.  I don't think it's considered cool to be religious, and definitely not cool to be so open about it.  Still, on this trip, I allowed myself to be seen as religious, even while belonging to a different religion than the majority of those I was with.  I wanted to be authentic in showing who I am.  And, when I thought about my actions, I could see that the main reason I was in Egypt this time was to pray for the land. 

In some ways, it's easy to be a believer in Egypt, because in Egypt it's easy to be a person of faith.  It's all around, from the calls to worship five times a day, to sights of people prostrating themselves in front of everybody else, to hearing repeated phrases like "If God wills," to clothing attire.  It is a common sight to see people reading their Koran or working their prayer beads on the Metro.  Religion is a public thing in Egypt.  I agree with Muslims that our religion has a visible side, and I think it’s good to allow what you are to be visible to others.  For that reason, I am opposed to separation of church and state.  You can't keep religion out of state, because religion is also expressed in things of state.  In a democracy like in the United States or Germany, freedom attracts people of other religions, resulting in a plurality of religions.  Instead of no prayer in the classroom in school, I would like to see prayer as a natural part of the school day, a time when people of all religions, or those of none, can have a moment to reflect, if that's what the majority want.  Instead of no Christmas, I would like to see Christmas, and Hannukah, and Ramadan, and whatever else is important to the people in that setting being a part of public life.  Religion is part of daily life, so why hide it?  In our Western culture, we have been conditioned to believe that religion is a private matter.  I don’t know how it is in the States anymore, but in Europe, talking about or demonstrating one's religion is a taboo - and I chose to break it.

I believe in the power of prayer in the name of Jesus, and so I dared, in the end, to offer it to Mahmoud's mother.  I'm glad I did.  I had the opportunity to show this family who I really am, and they were open to this.

My insight about prayer necessitating action had consequences, even after our return to Germany.  Mahmoud had my cell phone number to make arrangements with us while we were in Aswan.  One day after our return, my cell phone rang.  It was Mahmoud.  "My mother was operated on today," he said.  "I'm in Cairo.  The doctor says she needs to be flown back to Aswan, that she is not strong enough to travel by train, but I don't have enough money for a ticket.  Could you lend me money for the ticket?"  I ended up sending him rather large sums of money - twice, because his situation seemed so desperate.  I could have turned him down, but I chose, after making a phone call to someone in Aswan to check on what he was saying, to trust him.  Peter and I decided this together, but again, he had an added challenge because of my openness.  I don’t know if we’ll ever receive this money back, but that doesn’t really matter to me.  It felt good to be able to help, and it was good to find out that Mahmoud was not greedy for more.  I think I've found another person in Egypt I can trust, who is truthful, who is genuinely thankful.  I think we have made a new friend in Mahmoud.

It felt good, even if a little scary, to be so open about some of the practices of my faith.  I love openness, and don't like hiding important bits of myself.  Because of my openness, I had some priceless encounters with people like Mahmoud, Gabriel, and Mohammed's friend.  We were able get to know and value Mohammed in a much deeper way.

The Christians in Egypt were a challenge to my faith as well.  Here in the West you can say, "I'm a Christian", and the statement is acknowledged with no further questions.  In Egypt, the statement seems to come across as shallow.  At least twice I heard people say when talking about their Christian faith, "I love Jesus."  Now that goes a bit deeper.  Once, when I told a woman I was a Christian, she wasn't satisfied with my answer.  "Do you love Jesus?" was her response.  A challenge.  Do I love Jesus?  One would think that a Christian would love Jesus.  But faith seems to be more remote here in the West, even with respect to the founder of my own religion.  Now that I'm back, I'm working on my relationship with Jesus.  After all, people in Egypt have been killed for loving Jesus.  This is a sobering thought.

Another area where I felt challenged was in responding to the constant pressure and manipulation to buy.  I wanted to be myself, also in this area, to treat each person as someone of value, but not to let them take advantage of me.  This has always been one of my problems.  How can you be friendly and yet turn someone down?  In our Aswan hotel, the owner of a shoe store was a real pest.  If I avoided him, I would invariably run into him later and he would say, "Why you not come into my shop?  You promised."  I did buy a beautiful lavender leather handbag from him, but he wanted more - he wanted Peter to try on shoes he pushed on me.  "Just let him try them.  He doesn't have to buy."  I wasn't strong enough to resist his pressure that time.  When I returned to the store with the shoes, he made a crestfallen face.  "Why he not like my shoes?"  When I made it clear that he was not going to buy the shoes, he tried to push a belt on me.  Finally, I found the courage to say what I really thought, pushing through politeness to get real.

"Look," I said.  "You keep pushing so many things on me.  We in the West don't like this.  We buy what we need.  We don't think we have to buy something just because it's nice.  And we want to think about what to buy.  We need the freedom not to buy."  And then he did something that amazed me.

"I understand, sister," he said, and shook my hand.  "We're friends now."  We broke through!  He appreciated my honesty, giving me the highest title I could imagine - sister. 

I think Egyptians respond to honesty.  But it seemed especially hard sometimes to know whether the stories I was hearing were true, whether they had to do with the political situation in Egypt, America’s role in it, or whether Mahmoud or shopkeepers were being truthful with me.  I found most of them to be pushy and manipulative.  They would not hesitate to use my weaknesses or torment my conscience if it would help them make a sale.  I was told that the shoe salesman was wealthy and that he owned five shops.  Yet, he pled poverty.  Another told me that I was his first customer of the day - at three in the afternoon.  This lack of clarity seemed to be everywhere.  I am told that shopkeepers are like that all over the developing world, but I experienced this phenomenon in Egypt.  And yet, there was a positive side to this as well - Egyptian shopkeepers helped me be more forthright, more honest in my own reactions to them. They have helped me to grow up.

Since returning to Germany and to the West, I have started reexamining what I hear in the news here.  There has been a scandal surrounding the former German president, who has just been replaced.  Christian Wulff, the previous president, is said to have been taking favors in illegal ways, but he declares he has done nothing illegal.  Since my return to the West, an American soldier has killed sixteen Afghan civilians.  He was flown back almost immediately to the United States for trial, although Afghans believe he should stand trial there.  The same thing has happened with the American and German NGO workers who were being detained in Egypt.  They’re back in the States and in Germany, and will almost certainly not stand trial in Egypt.  Of course, the U.S. needs to abide by its own laws regarding extradition of crime suspects overseas, but I am starting to question things like partiality more than I used to.  I wonder if America has a different standard for its own citizens than it has for others.  Egyptians think so.  I have always tended to take news stories like these at face value, not questioning how much truthfulness I am hearing from the people in power in my country or in Germany.  Now, I see that wherever I look, there is a lack of clarity.  It’s not just in Egypt.  But I long, more than ever, to live in an atmosphere where truthfulness is valued.  I think this tendency to not question what we hear in the news is typical in America, but also in Germany. 

I am less naïve in this area than before, thanks to my time in Egypt.   I am also more interested in what is going on, even if I often feel powerless.  Who knows, maybe I can do some tiny thing for the cause of truthfulness, for the cause of freedom, of tolerance.  Reading between the lines and trying to understand one newspaper article more, one more analysis, will be a start, adding to the trickle of truth, just as I believe my trickles of prayer contribute to the stream of blessing.


In this blog series I have changed the names of the people I wrote about, if they are not public figures, to protect their identity.  I have also changed or blurred some locations for the same reason.


Friday, March 16, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day Fourteen

This is our last full day in Egypt. Tomorrow we'll be flying back to Germany. It's a bittersweet feeling. This has been such an intense experience, it feels in some ways we've been gone a year. But Peter's got a bad cold, and I think there isn't much more I can take in. It's time to go back home and resume our old life. But until then, we'll experience as much as we can today.

At breakfast I see two women who couldn't be more different. One of them is a blonde - a European? She is accompanied by two men, and is wearing a very low-cut top showing much of her ample breasts. She is dressed in a very short skirt. My eyes feel almost assaulted by the sight. Is it more of this that we'll be going back to? At least it's winter, when people cover more of their bodies for warmth. I know I'm quite conservative about clothing. I don't wear low-cut tops in Germany, even though some of my Christian friends are very generous when it comes to offering glimpses of the upper parts of their bodies. I feel offended, but say nothing. We live in a free country, and I value freedom even more than modest attire.

There is another woman who almost takes my breath away. Her beauty strikes me as something almost otherworldly, entirely different from that of Mohammed's archaeologist friend. Her eyes are large, open and warm. She moves with modesty and grace. She is dressed in a long, straight, brown and beige gown with a long matching scarf covering her head. She seems to float through the room. She has two handsome boys and a distinguished looking husband. The males are all dressed in Western casual attire. I noticed her yesterday, and longed to know at least where they come from. Today I muster up courage, despite Peter's protests about my invading their privacy. I walk up to their table, ask if they speak English, and they say yes. I tell her I love her clothes, and ask where they're from. "Pakistan," her husband says. When they have finished their meal, on their way out of the restaurant, the entire family walks up to us, shakes our hands and wishes us a good day.

As I leave the hotel, I spontaneously decide to cover my head with my scarf.  We buy some water for the day at a kiosk, and an Egyptian woman, also waiting to buy something, notices my scarf and smiles at me in approval. I like the feeling of having my head covered. I wouldn't want it forced on me, but I feel somehow more lady-like this way. We pass a mosque just before prayer time. A man stops me and says, "I know you have Egyptian blood, but you should wait until the service is over to go into the mosque." After a while, I let the scarf fall down to my shoulders again. I am touched in surprising ways as this by this culture, but I am still a Westerner.

We take the Metro to Old Cairo. We know what we're doing now, and grin at each other because we have the same thought - we can get around Cairo on our own!

Woodwork in the Hanging Church
We return to the Hanging Church, which we saw on Sunday. It is so beautiful, we want another look. This time we sit and meditate a while. A group of young people is practicing some worship songs back in another room somewhere. Despite the Arabic-style accompaniment, we recognize one of the songs as one we also sing. We feel united with them.

Interior of St. Barbara Church
We peek into St. Barbara, another of the oldest Coptic churches of Cairo. It has more of that beautiful woodwork which originated with the Copts. This technique uses a combination of ivory, ebony and bone as inlay for the wood. This technique was incorporated into Muslim art and later spread all over the Muslim world.

Interior of Ben Ezra Synagogue
We see the same woodwork in the oldest synagogue in Cairo, Ben Ezra, just a few steps away from St. Barbara. This synagogue, originally a church, was purchased in 882 A.D. by Abraham ibn Ezra of Jerusalem, and beautifully restored. Here we see more of the woodwork we've seen in the churches and mosques. According to tradition, this is the very spot Moses was supposed to have been found as a baby in a basket in the bulrushes. This symbolically significant location is practically next door to another one - the site, now the crypt of St. Sergius Church, where Mary and Joseph are said to have fled with baby Jesus. Ben Ezra was once an important synagogue for Cairo. Maimonedes, one of the most famous of Jews in history, worshipped here. Cairo had 60,000 Jewish inhabitants until 1947, when Jews began to be evicted en masse from Egypt. Now there are only about 100 Jews left in Cairo, and this synagogue is a museum.  How sad!  Cairo and Alexandria have had the same fate - losing that wonderful blend of cultures because people let their fear, prejudice, and excessive patriotism turn into hegemony.  They are all the poorer for it.  This country, as other Arab nations I have read about and Germany, which I know first-hand, has suffered from the consequences of bigotry and antisemitism.  But, unlike in Germany, it seems as though the need to rise from hundreds of years of subjugation by countries such as Turkey, France and Britain, leaves no room for exploration of one's own part in a guilty past.  Hubris leads to its own fall, and all that follows is impoverishment.   

We shop on the ancient "book mall" street, finding several excellent books in English, which we buy. There are also many in French and German. This is our last chance to buy books - the airport will only have the same old travel books. It's a good thing the books are covered in plastic - it's raining! A rare occurrance for Cairo.

Exterior of Coptic Museum
Our next stop is the Coptic Museum, also just a few steps away from the synagogue and the ancient Coptic churches of Cairo. The museum is interesting, but dimly lit, making it impossible to read some of the explanations of objects on display, but providing great atmosphere. The museum itself is the most beautiful building we have seen yet, and we've seen several amazing structures, all in this neighborhood. The oldest part of the building was built in 1908, so this is a "new" building, but has all the old architectural elements - gorgeous woodwork, carved wooden ceilings, stained glass windows and galleries looking down onto courtyards.

We learn some interesting things about Christianity here. We learn that the transition to complete Christianity in Egypt was gradual. We see gravestones with both a cross and the ancient Egyptian god Anubis. There are lots of Greek mythological sculptures, sometimes mixed with ancient Egyptian motifs, and others with Christian symbols. The dominant religion of Egypt was Christian, from the time of the inception of the Church until about 900 AD, when Islam slowly took over. Now Egypt is 90% Muslim, with only 10% being Coptic. Since the revolution in January 2011, around 100,000 Copts have left Egypt. I wonder if the same thing will happen to them as happened to the Jews. I hope and pray not.

We see one of the first ever bound books, from about 800 AD, I think. There are also some of the gnostic writings found in Nag Hamadi, on display.

In the afternoon, on our way back to the hotel, Peter, weakened by his cold, really needs to eat. We walk by a fast-food restaurant. "Koshary Restaurant," it says. We have no idea what koshary is, but we decide to enter anyway, looking forward to an adventure. It turns out to be a concoction of two types of noodles, lentils, tomato sauce, topped with fried onions. It is spicy, a little bit vinegary, and delicious. It costs only about a euro to get full on this delicious meal.

We rest for the rest of the afternoon, and then take a taxi to the restaurant where we will eat our last dinner in Cairo - at the Sabaya, the Lebanese restaurant in the Semiramis Hotel. Even before you walk inside, it is inviting, with decorated wrought iron lamps giving off a dim light.

We each order a menu - fish for me and grilled meat for Peter. Everything is exquisite, absolutely beautiful to look at and delicious. I loved the cold karkadé tea, and could swear there is cardamom and cinnamon, maybe also cloves mixed in, but the manager says it is only the hibiscus. I get the feeling that Lebanese must be to the Arabic cuisine what the French is to the European. Egyptian food is similar to Lebanese, it appears, but the Lebanese seem to have a way of refining it all. We must go to Beirut some day and find out for ourselves.  I am ecstatic about everything we eat, from the mezze to dessert. At the end of the meal, the manager brings us a treat - a Lebanese tea, which I think is heated rosewater, in lovely crystal cups with the metal handle at the bottom, like a tea glass. He's so pleased with my compliments, he asks if we could write an honest report of the meal. The only negative thing there is to say is that the waiter didn't ask which dessert we wanted, so in the end we got both kinds, including the mahalabiya, which I've been wanting to try. What a way to end our trip to Egypt!

We end the evening with a romantic stroll on the bridge next to the Semiramis Hotel. We hear Arabic music in the distance. It's coming from one of those boats I read about in Coctails and Camels - we see the legs of dancers moving to the rhythm of the music. And ahead of us, a car is parked right on the bridge, slowing down the traffic. People do things like that in this crazy city. People stand next to the car, enjoying the Nile at night. Our last night on the Nile.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day Thirteen

We're on our own again, feeling like little kids alone in the big city. But we're not little kids anymore. We did pretty well all by ourselves in Aswan, give or take a couple hundred euros, and we'll be fine in Cairo.

Last night we ate dinner in one of the hotel restaurants. Our waiter was a nice, rather shy young man. Each time he came to our table, I was struck by a mark on his right hand. It reminded me of a disco stamp, but smaller. Emboldened by my personal questions earlier in the day, which were rewarded by honest answers, I decided to ask him about his stamp.

"What is that on your hand?" I asked him as we were preparing to pay for the meal. "Is that a tattoo?"

"Yes. I am a Copt. I love Jesus, and this is the sign." He lifted his hand for me to look more closely. Now I could see. It was the shape of a Coptic cross, tattooed onto his hand.

I swallowed and let it out. "We love Jesus too," I said, hoping that I was being truthful, at least for myself. I have suffered so much because of the church! But not because of Jesus. Yes, I do love Jesus, and I will not be ashamed to admit this any more.

"I have three tattoos. Would you like to see?" He lifted his shirt sleeve, pointing to two other crosses.

This was the first time I had heard of this custom. It seemed barbarian to me, but it also showed amazing identification with Jesus. What impressed me most was his simple statement, "I love Jesus."


It's morning, I'm still in bed, and I'm thinking about those conversations with Mohammed and his friend. I'm perplexed, even shocked about myself. How could I ever find any sympathy for the idea of those two marrying? Have I planted an idea in their heads? I certainly hope not. Have I lost my mind? Or my morals? What has gotten into me? Sometimes in this country, I feel like I'm on another planet, but I must admit, life on this planet has its own sort of logic.

I'm a firm believer in monogamy and would never want to share my husband with anyone, and I can't imagine anyone wanting to share Mohammed. And yet, the idea of polygamy doesn't seem so shocking, now that I'm here. It's at least conceivable. Would I feel the same way if I were parachuted into a fundamentalist Mormon sister-wife family? None of what happened yesterday would have happened if we'd all have been in Germany. No one would have asked me such a bold question as his friend, and I would have been far too tactful to ask questions about attraction and marriage. Has something taken me over?

I've been reading a book I bought in Aswan - Khul-Khaal, by Nayra Atiya. In this nonfiction book, five Egyptian women tell their stories. In almost every story, there is a man with at least two wives. Reading their accounts, I see these women as victims of this system. No one seems to really like it this way. No one wants to be the one to have to share her husband. Sometimes the consequences of living in a plural marriage are even tragic. In one story, the first wife almost succeeded in killing the second wife's son. This seems to be a very unhealthy institution.

I believe in people working to make their monogamous marriages successful, and if they're single, to find happiness in that state. I suppose the same kind of work, the same kind of mutual commitment could make a polygamous marriage work, but it seems to me that the entire motivation for such a marriage stems from either amorous feelings of a man, or a desire for children that the first wife can't fulfill.  I believe that we are given divine help when we commit ourselves to the well-being of our partners. When I got married, I vowed "For better, for worse", and I still believe in this, twenty-seven years later. I enjoy my married life in the better times, and I grow in character as I accept and learn from the difficult times. This has been my experience, one that I would recommend to anyone. I do hope that Mohammed and his wife can continue to succeed in their marriage.

Today we're going to check out bookstores with books in English. After that, we'll go to the Egyptian Museum and look more closely at the ancient treasures we saw in November, when Mohammed inspired us so much we wanted to come back.

Peter and I head into the center of the biggest city we've ever spent any time in. The day is pleasant, if a little chilly. But Peter isn't feeling well. The cold, windy air of Alexandria was too much. I hope he's not catching a cold. Walking with Peter, I think about the man I married. I have Peter's undivided love, all these years later. I like - no, more - I love being the only love of Peter's life. There is peace in that knowledge, and at this moment, I feel blessed.

We find the bookstores we were looking for, both near Tahrir Square, and buy some books to add even more weight to our suitcases. We have to buy them - they're books you probably can't get through Amazon.

Dwarf Seneb and family
Then we visit the Egyptian Museum once again. This time Peter is my guide. We revisit some of our favorite things from the last visit - generally married couples. We look at a sculpture of the dwarf Seneb, his wife and children. How nice to see that a woman of normal size would marry a dwarf and bear his children. The entire family is honored here in this sculpture that was found in his tomb.

Meidum geese
I find the painting of the Egyptian Meidum geese, just like the ones we saw in Aswan, except these are over 3,000 years old. We spend a long time in the Amarna room. There is a fresco there that was found in Amarna, where the Pharaoh Akhenatun and his beautiful queen Nefertiti lived. On the fresco, in lovely pastel greens and browns, are water scenes with lotus plants and reeds, with geese flying overhead. I love its naturalness.

Pharaoh Akhenatun and family
 We look at the frieze of the Pharaoh Akhenatun and his family. Nefertiti is his equal. He's kissing his daughter, while the rays of Atun, the one God, shine over this family in the midst of domesticity.

Amarna tablet
Peter's cold is weakening him, and he's about ready to leave me in the museum, when I discover some small engraved clay tablets just outside the Amarna room. These are the Amarna letters. One of these letters indicates a possible connection with the Hebrews, which could explain Akhenatun's unbreakable loyalty to the one God he called "Atun". We are surprised at how small the tablets are, only about three inches (five centimers) square. The cuneiform inscriptions are many and tiny. 

I continue on my own, this time to see the famous mummies. Here, the most remarkable thing is the fact that I'm standing so close to real, ancient human bodies. Some of them have hair! One of the mummies is Queen Hatchepsut, the famous female Pharaoh who engaged in trade instead of war. Her mummy is 3500 years old. Her identity was verified by a mere tooth, but experts are sure they have their lady. The sign says she was obese and had diabetes. Too much rich food. Her mummy was found only a few years ago in the Valley of the Kings.

King Tutankhamun and wife
I revisit the King Tutankhamun exhibit, gazing once more at the glorious throne showing his wife caressing her beloved husband, while the sun shines brilliantly over them, blessing them.

I feel blessed, too, as I leave the museum. Now I am completely alone in Tahrir Square. Not even Peter is there to protect me, but he trusts in my ability to take care of myself. I want to go to a church service at the church we attended on Sunday, Kasr Doubara, but the service doesn't begin until 7 pm, and now it's only about 4:30. I decide to look for somewhere to eat Egyptian pastry and drink tea.

The only scary thing is crossing the thoroughfare at Tahrir Square, now croweded with rush hour traffic. I stand there, hesitating, fearful of crossing all this traffic. A young man walks up to me. "Do you want me to walk with you?" Yes, I say. "Then you must hold my hand." No, thank you. I will risk this on my own. I dash across the road as soon as there is a slight gap. The cars slow down for me - I'm not going to get killed here, in this spot where so many protestors have been killed or injured by the police who are supposed to protect them.

I feel a wave of relief when I reach the other side. There is a pastry restaurant I want to visit, but the challenge is much too great. There are no street signs, no way for me to know where I'm going. If I were with Peter, my map expert, I could get there. But I'm not taking any chances here in this city. I look up and see the Semiramis Hotel, just a few feet away. They should have a tea room - and probably a good one. This may be Cairo's best hotel. I find a lovely tea room overlooking the Nile. I sit down, drink tea and eat delicious Egyptian pastries as the sun sets over the Nile. Our trip is nearly over, and I feel a glow of peace. I am thankful for the rich experiences we have had, for the protection we have enjoyed.

The church is packed with young Egyptians, and the only language around me is Arabic. I listen to a worship band lead the congregation in praise songs. I recognize one of them, an old favorite of mine taken from the Psalms, "As the deer pants for the water." I sing along in English. The church sings one beautiful song after another, all in Arabic. A young man volunteers to translate for me into English, so I am able to understand the sermon, taken from Psalm 89. It is about having hearts that thirst after God. He says we need to have a desire like a romantic love for God. Those are the hearts that are like David's, the ones that can receive God's blessing. I am surprised to hear desire for God being compared to romantic love. But then, what kind of feeling could be more intense, more lavish? How Egyptian, how full of passion. We sing a song the man translates for me: "I love you, I love you, I love you. You are my master. You are the rock of my salvation. Your streams of living water flow endlessly."

After the service I meet the Korean woman I talked with after the Sunday service. I learn that she is working with missionaries in Egypt. She used to work with disabled children who live in the garbage pits. Now she is working with prisoners. It's wonderful work, she says. She loves her work, she loves Egypt, and would like to stay here forever. I tell her I would love to come back and see her work. "You will be back," she says. "You know the saying - 'If you have drunk from the water of the Nile, you'll be back.' We'll see each other again here."
I arrive "home" safely, back with Peter at the hotel. I find picture postcards for me on the bed - one of King Tut and his wife, and the other of the dwarf Seneb, his wife and children. Peter has written me love letters. God is blessing us in our everyday lives, shining rays of love and blessing on us, even at this moment. Although it is night, I fall asleep soaking in bright rays of love and peace.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day Twelve

The sun is shining over the city today in all its splendor, just as Alexander the Great must have brought light to the city he founded 2,000 years ago. The city is almost sparkling. A brisk, chilly wind is whipping frothy little waves in the sea. It's so much easier to imagine this as a beautiful city a couple thousand years ago, even a few decades ago, than it is now, as I try to see past the grimy buildings. But, if you stand a bit away from some of the buildings along the shoreline, the city is luminescent. This is a magnificent bay. Alexandria, with a bit of renovation and a big paint job, would be resplendent in no time.

Today is Mohammed's last day with us, which leaves me with a bittersweet feeling. We're getting more and more comfortable with each other. Will we ever see him again? But we won't think about that now. There are too many questions to ask him.

Alexandria tram
Noreen on the Alexandria tram
First on the agenda is to ride the tram. Peter has been reading about the tram, which featured in all the books and old chançons about Alexandria, and he wants to ride it, even if only for a few stops. Waiting for the tram, we see an old man walking along the tracks with a big plastic bag in his hands. He's picking up garbage! He must be doing it out of love for his city. Mohammed puts his hand on my arm, as he always does when he wants to point me to or clarify something. I look over to Peter as he explains. He's touching Peter's arm as well, with his other hand. "This building is from the turn of the century. See the nice archictectural devices with the brickwork. It's the same architect who built the building our hotel is in." I'm relieved that it's not only my arm which is being touched. It's nothing personal with him. Mohammed simply likes to touch the people he's talking to. I find that endearing. It even helps me listen better. I should have grown up in the Mediterranean culture. It would be so much easier to be the open person I am in that environment.

The tram arrives and we climb aboard.  These must be the very same trams that people were riding sixty years ago!  It appears that nothing has changed except for the effects of aging.

Mohammed so obviously loves this city. The guide books are full of its more recent history. Monty's Bar, for example, at the Cecil Hotel, is where General Montgomery met with other British officers to plan the battle that ousted the Nazis out of Egypt. We had coffee last night in a café the poet Cavafy spent hours in. Thinking about the many traces of thousands of ghosts once living here, I ask Mohammed if he feels a sense of nostalgia when looking at the buildings. I'm thinking of all the expats who once populated this city.

I've started reading a lively, amusing book I bought about the Alexandria of the 1930s and 1940s, Coctails and Camels, by Jacqueline Carol. Ms. Carol, like so many of the inhabitants of Alexandria in that day, is of Lebanese descent. She describes life among her privileged class of people. The Lebanese, French, Greeks, Jews and the English all lived in a world separate from the Egyptians, whom they used as their servants. Every summer the immigrants would all leave Alexandria, escaping to Europe, to get away from the thousands of Egyptians who came in hordes as soon as it got hot, taking over "their" beaches.

"What does nostalgia mean?" Mohammed asks.

"A longing for a time long past that can never come again."

"Oh, yes! I feel such nostalgia for my childhood when I'm here," says Mohammed. "My family used to come here every summer when I was a child. I have many happy memories from those times."

His idea of nostalgia is purely Egyptian, something completely different from that of the Westerners who left Alexandria en masse forever in the 1950s.

After a quick stop at the library to buy more books for Peter, we meet our driver, who takes us to the home of Constantine Kavafy, who is considered one of the finest Greek poets. He lived in Alexandria most of his life and until his death in 1933. He is now known as a hero of Greek culture. Peter likes his poetry, some of which has turned up in song texts. Leonard Cohen, for instance, used "The God Abandons Antony" to write his song "Alexandra Leaving". As I read the poem, a shudder runs through me. Did Cavafy know that thousands of people like him would end up leaving Alexandria, never to return? Here is the poem:

The God Abandons Antony
At midnight, when suddenly you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don't mourn your luck that's failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive - don't mourn them uselessly:
as one long prepared, and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
Above all, don't fool yourself, don't say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don't degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and full of courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen - your final pleasure - to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Cavafy's house.  
Inside Cavafy's apartment
Cavafy's home is a roomy, elegant apartment occupying the entire floor of an apartment building. He obviously lived very comfortably, as do so many expats living abroad, as I did when our family lived in Brussels.   While studying the letters in the display case and admiring the furniture, I hear a rooster crowing from outside. I look out the window - and am shocked. A large extended family lives in the sandy courtyard. There is no sign of any beds, or bathrooms, or a roof over the shed in the corner. There are only pieces of fabric and crates piled up, car parts, plastic bottles and garbage strewn about. Chickens, roosters and a goose are running around with people of all ages. How can people live like that?

Roman amphitheater
We leave to explore the more distant past. Coming from the States, I would say Cologne, where I live, is ancient, having been founded by the Romans. But Alexandria is even older than Cologne - it was founded by Alexander the Great - a Greek. In Egypt though, you can go even farther back, one of the cool things about this country. Compared to Luxor, for example, where the Pharaohs lived, Alexandria is young! Yet, it has Roman ruins worth looking at, and Peter would like to see them, so we drive to have a look at the amphitheater.  It reminds me of Roman ruins I've seen in Germany and Italy. 

We then do the part I chose to do - we drive along the coast a while, until we find a fast food restaurant where we can have falafel. On the way, Mohammed tells us about a friend of his who lives in Alexandria.

"She's twenty-seven," he says, "and her parents are getting nervous about her finding a husband. She and I took some courses together. She's highly educated, and it's hard for her to find a man she could imagine marrying. She's turned several down already, and now both she and her parents are getting a bit desperate about it." I feel sorry for her. Twenty-seven and over the hill already in her culture.

During lunch, Mohammed talks on his cell phone to a few people, and then we drive to the other end of the bay to Fort Qaitbey, a stunning citadel built at the edge of the sea in the 1480s by Sultan Qaitbey - on the same site as a famous Pharos Lighthouse that is now considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Divers are continually finding parts of the lighthouse under the water. The citadel forms an impressive backdrop against the sea. It once protected Egypt from invaders from overseas. If you gaze across the water, there is nothing but water.  The nearest country is Turkey, hundreds of miles away.

Fort Qaitbey.  A stranger seems to be trying to pick up his mood.
"My friend may join us at the citadel," Mohammed announces. There she is, waiting for us, as we arrive.

"Let's leave them some time alone," says Peter to me, taking my arm as we walk away. I look over to them and see what he means. They are deep in conversation, and from the way they walk, it doesn't look like they're talking about archaeology. Peter and I enjoy the sound of water lapping the land and the absence of cars honking. The air smells clean here, of the sea. The sun is almost warm, but Alexandria is much cooler and windier than Cairo. After about a half hour, we return to Mohammed and his friend.

"Sit down," she says, motioning to chairs. She and Mohammed are seated close to one another at a table. As soon as we are seated, she looks at me and asks,

"Do you like Mr. Mohammed as a man?" She has a knowing smile on her face. She's a woman. We both know this feeling.

"Yes," I answer without hesitation. "And so do you, don't you?" I love this freedom to say what I think! Thank you for also being so frank. This is going to be interesting. And now we're exactly where I had hoped to go in this relationship. Mohammed is a nice man who finds me attractive, but I'm nothing special for him, and that is a relief.  I don't want any complications, and I don't want any competition for Peter.

She smiles and caresses Mohammed's arm for a second or two.

"You know what I think?" I say to her. "Mohammed likes women, and that feels good to a woman."

Looking at the two of them, I like the way they look together. She is really something. She's perfectly made up, and her clothes all match. I wish I could ask her how she does her eye makeup. But there's another question I want to ask more.

"May I ask you a personal question?" I ask.

"Go ahead."

"Could you imagine being a second wife to Mohammed?"

She laughs. "No, he's too old." She gently strokes his cheek with her beautifully manicured fingers, a half-smile on her face. "You need a shave," she must be saying to him in Arabic. She turns back to me. "My parents would never allow it."

So this is the one her heart is yearning for, I think, but do not say. It makes so much sense. They would make a very attractive couple. I think she could be happy with him. But would they be happy? What about his wife? Their children? 

I'm burning to know more. Thinking about all this, imagining Mohammed having her as a second wife, on one level, in this culture, it makes perfect sense to me.  She can't find a suitable husband, and she needs to be married. So why not get married to Mohammed, since it's allowed?

It's time to drive back to Cairo. As we leave Alexandria, we see young people picking up garbage from along the sides of the road.

"University students do this as a public service," says Mohammed. He's so full of interesting information. But as soon as we're outside Alexandria, I ask him,

"Mohammed, can I ask you a personal question?" Silence for a moment.

"All right."

"Could you imagine taking your friend as a second wife?" I glance over at Peter. He's squirming in his seat, and has turned his face to the window. The marshy Lake Mariut must be fascinating.

"Naw," he waves his hand. "Well, yes, I suppose so," he continues, "if I didn't have so many children and had more money."

This sounds serious! But that's kind of how it looked to me out there. "What would your wife think, though? Do you think your wife would like it?"

"Definitely not."

"Would your friend like sharing you with your wife?"

"No, that would be another problem. But she's only a friend, anyway. She's got a fantastic sense of humor.  Sometimes she calls me and we chat.  She tells me her problems. I'm more like a father or an older brother for her."

Perhaps, but more than that too.

"No - you're more than that to her. I can see that."

I think Mohammed is enjoying hearing my perspective on this friendship, and I'm enjoying giving it, even though my husband is slowly dying in the corner of the car.

We talk now about all sorts of personal things - something one of his tourists predicted about his future career, about his effect on women.

"But I like men, too," he protests. Yes, and that makes him all the more desirable to women. He genuinely likes people - all sorts of people.

I think I know now why he asked us about Mormons the other day. I wish I could meet his wife. And his children. I feel sure I would like them. I hope, for everyone's sake, that Mohammed never makes enough money to marry his archaeologist friend. But that he makes plenty of money to support the family he has. I hope he can go to Alexandria and enjoy some occasional light-hearted flirting with his friend, staying in his role as older brother-father figure, until she finds a good, suitable husband. In fact, I've started praying for that. I don't want Mohammed's wife to have to live with jealousy or insecurity. I don't want Mohammed to have to live in poverty, pulled between two women he has to support. And I want the archaeologist to be able to find a good man and keep him all to herself.  I can imagine God wanting this too, so I pray for this, trusting that I am praying in God's will.  "Thy will be done," Jesus taught us to pray.  This is one of the ways I pray for God to bless Egypt.  A trickle at a time.

Our driver drops Mohammed off. We don't get to meet his wife. We say farewell, and drive on to our hotel.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day Eleven

Ah, yes.  Today is Valentine's Day, and signs of it are all around us. The hotel lobby is filled with red valentines. The flower shops have heart-shaped floral arrangements, and you see heart-shaped balloons in shop windows. "It's only a gimmick of the florists to make more money," Mohammed explained yesterday.  I find it sweet - a bit of my heritage, here in Egypt.

We've been gone from home so long and experienced so much, it feels like we've been here a year. And it feels like we've known Mohammed for at least that long. Peter and I have discussed this "du" and "Sie" business and decided, since it bothers me so much to say "Sie", I might as well offer the familiar form to Mohammed. Besides, I'm the oldest one here anyway, and the woman. In Germany, the older person or the woman offers the "du" form to the younger.

Today we're driving to Alexandria. Mohammed meets us in the morning, as usual. For the blog I've been calling him "Mohammed", but that's just the name I've given him for the sake of anonymity. Offline, we've been calling him by another name, which for the blog I'll call "Herr Seliman".

As soon as we're all in the car, I tell him, "Look - I don't feel comfortable with this 'Noreen', 'Peter', or calling you 'Herr Seliman' one minute and 'Mohammed' the next. No more 'Sie', 'Du', 'Euch' and 'Ihnen', please."

Without a pause, he pops out his first name, "Mohammed". Great! Now we're friends, on a "du" basis, just what the relationship feels like, at least for me. I feel much better with this, but I know I cause Peter to cringe sometimes because of my openness. He'd be happy to stay with "Sie".  But how can I say "Sie" and talk about personal things? I do want to get to know Mohammed better. Egypt isn't just a land to be discovered through books for me, and he's a fine, interesting person, able to articulate about himself, his values, and his country. Still, I know Peter's much more comfortable maintaining a distance - he's much more reserved than I. Oh well, one of the reasons he married me was because of my openness. He's always said he loves how I can get people to talk. I also think Peter secretly likes the conversations I initiate. He often tells me how interesting life is with me. I feel the same with Peter. He knows more than anyone I know, and he's well informed about hundreds of subjects.  He reads voraciously. We have wonderful discussions - he supplies the information and I supply the opinions. 

We drive along the desert highway to Alexandria, first passing through 6 October City.  6 October City is named after the 6 October War, also known as the Yom Kippur War, which took place in 1973, when Egypt and Syria declared war on Israel to reclaim land lost in the 1967 war. The initial attack took place on 6 October, the same day as Yom Kippur, a Jewish high holiday. It was also in the middle of Ramadan that year. Egypt and Syria lost the war, but it was still a proud time for Egypt because its soldiers fought so well and valiantly.

Mohammed tells us that this city has over a million inhabitants, and is growing. It is a mega-sprawling suburban city, divided into one planned community, or compound, as they call it, after another. Each planned community has apartment buildings no higher than six stories, and villas. Each building is almost exactly the same as its neighbor, and this goes on for hundreds of meters. The houses are also practically identical in one community. The neighboring community has a different style for the villas, but each of these is, in turn, identical. We pass a community called "Dreamland" and notice that it has an amusement park. In the amusement park there are American hotels like the Hilton and fast food restaurants like McDonald's. Each community has its own sports center, and many of them have shopping malls. He shows us one in another community that has over 400 shops, including a giant superstore. I can imagine preferring living here to the chaos and pollution of Cairo, but now this strikes me as a community constructed by Disneyland.

I keep waiting for the desert to show up, expecting to see nothing but sand, but we see only fruit orchards, pine tree farms, farms and vineyards almost all the way to Alexandria, about a three-hour drive north from Cairo.  Mohammed tells us that wells which can be over hundreds of meters deep have been dug, right in the desert. Some of the water is brought up to the surface, creating cisterns. Hoses are connected to the cisterns, which run along the orchard or farm. These hoses have tiny holes in them to give the tree roots, or plants, just a few drops of water at a time. Tomato plants and cucumbers are watered in the same way. The plants are covered with plastic, creating long white rows of plastic. We see pink blossoming trees that we later learn are peach trees. It seems that almost anything can grow in this way. These orchards, farms and tree farms extend at least 70 kilometers from the highway in either direction.

We stop at a rest stop not that much different from one in Europe. But all along the road there is the occasional speed bump or traffic control, where we have to stop. At these stop areas, people have set up improvised stands selling Coke, toys, and chocolate, or fruit. The stands are constructed of tawdry strips of fabric sloppily attached to wooden frames. Sometimes there's nothing more than a bunch of crates stacked up in a receding pile.

We arrive in the outskirts of Alexandria. Mohammed has been raving about this city, so we're keen to see it. "It has a different atmosphere from Cairo. I love it! In the past, I used to come here on my own on the fast train, just to pick up the seaside city atmsphere, and I would walk for hours along the shore, or stroll through the city." Even now, he sometimes comes to Alexandria in the summer with his family for a beach holiday.

What we initially see is a huge tenement city of almost 8 million inhabitants, on a par with New York City, at least with the number of inhabitants it has. It is a madhouse, full of honking cars emitting stinky fumes all the way up to the coastline, which they call the Corniche, where our hotel is, and all along the coastline. The Corniche is one stinky, loud road extending all along the bay, turning what could be exquisitely beautiful into something stinky, polluted and noisy. It's cloudy and cold today.  Mohammed says, "You'd get a much better impression if the sun were shining."  I think, this is not a good place to recover from sinusitis.  It's a good thing my sinuses are basically back to normal again.

Even in the city center, the buildings are almost all gray and crumbling, making it feel like a city in the Communist bloc just after the change. Even the beautiful art deco ones, including the one we stay in, which has beautiful architecture from about 1900, with mosaics, and alternating brick and stone, hasn't been touched on the outside in over fifty years. And the streets are teeming with traffic and loud honking.

The Corniche - Alexandria
Alexandria is one of the major port cities on the Mediterranean.  It has a gorgeous bay. In the past, it attracted people from all the surrounding countries and beyond. All throughout history, it was a city populated by foreigners and native Egyptians living together, creating a vibrant mix. There were Jews, Italians, French, British, Lebanese, and Greeks all calling Alexandria their home. Then in the 1950s, Nasser expelled the French, the British, and many of the Jews from Egypt. Within a few years, the entire character of Alexandria had changed from a bustling international community to a purely Egyptian city.

When we comment about the crumbling, decayed buildings, Mohammed repeats what he had already told our group in Cairo in October. President Nasser, infatuated with many socialist ideas, decided to introduce rent control. This affected all the buildings in Cairo and Alexandria. Landlords were forced to stablilize the rents in perpetuity. This meant that their profits were soon nonexistent, and they had no income to invest in building improvements.

The Alexandria library
But first of all we visit the library. It is magnificent! Once an equally magnificent ancient library was here, but it burnt down over 2,000 years ago.  It's been rebuilt, and is a truly amazing building.  It is beautiful to look at, built in the shape of a disk, seven stories high. There is special stone or special holes built into the stone on the inside to absorb much of the sound. And the library is seven stories high, each story receding a bit. There's a huge computer area where people can hook in their laptops or use theirs, to do research. We look at the people working, and it is very quiet.

The bibliotheca is a complex of buildings, including a planetarium. We have a guided tour in English, but Mohammed also points out things like the facade of the building, which contains script carved into the stone. Every known written language of the world is represented.

We enter a room with exhibits of the film maker, Shadi Abdel Salam.  He made costumes, sets for films and even directed several movies, including "The Night of Counting the Years" (the original "The Mummy"). Mohammed says we have to try and see it.

Our hotel - really a pension on the third floor
Then onto our hotel. The building is faded glory, now old and dusty. But the hotel, on the third floor, is attractive. Our room has a bathroom built into the room with a threshhold and sliding doors.

In the afternoon, Peter takes a nap, Mohammed is off visiting an archaeological site, and I go exploring, venturing out on my own. As I walk, I try to imagine an Alexandria sixty years ago, but it is difficult. Signs are practically nonexistent. Still, I find the fabled "Delices" cafe, famous for its pastries, and treat myself to delicious chocolate mousse cake and tea. I also find a bookstore Peter is interested in, and buy him a newspaper. I feel proud of myself, getting around an Egyptian city entirely alone now, as a woman. It feels OK - I think it's not seen as improper for a woman to be out on her own during the day.

In the evening, we drive to Kadoura, a wonderful seafood restaurant. I don't know if I've ever had better fish, all caught locally, from the Mediterranean. The Egyptian way to eat fish in a restaurant is to go to the fish display, where everything is on ice, and pick out the fish you want to eat. We eat the biggest jumbo shrimp I've ever seen, a shrimp-eating fish called red mullet, and more.  Mohammed says that the red mullet is pink because it eats so much shrimp.  There's lots of garlic and lemon in the fish, and everything is served with fried rice with onions.

We have cofee at the Athinos café, full of the old style, and then walk around, windowshopping. The shops are still open at 11 pm. Yes, at night Alexandria is really charming. The city is full of life.   I see what Mohammed means.  There is a certain romance about it.

When we return, Peter finds a Valentine's card on the bed.  Giving Valentine's cards is a habit I brought from America to Germany, so it's natural for me to remember romance here in Egypt.