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"It is the journey which makes up your life."

Sunday, February 26, 2006


A weird fog has settled across Cairo. It's thick, white, a little dusty, but also... damp. It rained again, which always takes me by surprise because, well, the edge of the Sahara is one of the last places I'd expect such weather.

Mostly though, the air's been strangely dead. There's no wind, but still a fair amount of dust and grit in the air, so there have been confused rumors that this might be the beginning of the Khamseen, the alleged fifty days of sandstorms. (This is a fallacy, Ray says--the Khamseen is more like a 50-day season in which it is more likely that there will be sandstorms, but no guarantee of it, and certainly not fifty straight days of the stuff.)

In any case, the fog has been so thick for the last two days that from the middle of the 26th of July bridge, one cannot see either bank of the river.

Also, there was some kind of massive protest near campus today. A horde of people (mostly men, many in traditional galabeyyas), carrying signs and chanting loudly, strode right down the middle of Kasr al Aini street towards al-Tahrir.

All this happened in the middle of my Arabic class, and the sounds of chanting coming in through the windows made the whole class so agitated that everything ground to a halt so we could crowd together at our fourth-floor room's two tiny windows.

Despite having learned the whole Arabic alphabet as of today, none of us were able to make out the slogans on the banners being carried, and our teacher refused to translate them for us, because she was upset that our hysterics forced her to stop teaching for five minutes.

Other than that, not much to report. Sarah, Monica, Stephanie, and I went to City Stars Mall (gargantuan!) out in Heliopolis and bought ourselves some Amr Diab albums.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Only Pass Feluccas from Behind

Amazingly, I don't have a photo quite appropriate for today's post, so instead you get a Proconsul africanus. Cute, isn't he?

I found out today what the sunrise on the Nile is like. Emphasis on on the Nile, because I have somehow been roped into being the coxswain for the AUC women's crew by all the other Katies, who make up the majority of the team.

Practice was at 6am sharp this morning, so up I was at 5, and in the taxi with Hye Won and a girl named Mary (Mari? that's how the coach pronounces it...) before even the first hint of light from the eastern banks.

The coach took me out in his motorboat for the majority of the time to show me what I am supposed to be doing from now on. I did swap places with the more experienced cox the team has been using (he doesn't speak English which is why they want to replace him with me) for a few minutes at one point, only to quickly realize I had no idea what to do. I asked the coach how to steer, but he wasn't sure, and the other cox (his name was Samy I think?) only made vague hand gestures at me.

I put the boat on a collision course with both a cliff on the eastern bank and, later, one of the giant concrete supports for one of the major bridges just south of al-Gezira (the island with Zamalek on it, where the dorm is). I had followed what I thought were the directions Samy had given me, but I couldn't get the boat to turn at all.

I realized later it was more the fault of the decrepitude of any and all technology in Egypt than my own because on the way back in to the team's boat-house houseboat Samy steered right into a big yacht moored on the west bank.

I fell asleep in both my classes today. I think my sleep schedule is going to require a little reorganizing.

As to the henna, I'm not dead yet, so here's hoping the coast is clear. I swear though, if I get sick one more time, somebody's going to get hurt!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

I'm Screwed!

Tonight was "Girl's Night" in the women's wing of the dorm, and there was tons of too-loud music, dancing, allegedly free food, and henna-making, done by a local woman hired by the dorm.

One of my friends, Hye Won, had just had henna done on her palm when I arrived. The design was very nice, but she expressed concern that it would quickly turn ugly, because a friend of hers had had a similar henna pattern done only to have it turn into an amorphous black blob in a few days. I'd read up on henna a while back, and vaguely recalled something about black henna being made with hair dye, which made it a sketchier substance than regular henna paste. I told Hye Won that it being made with hair dye might be the reason why it got blurry, and she agreed.

Shortly afterwards I got both of my hands done in a symmetrical floral pattern. When I returned to my room, I couldn't do much with my hands without ruining the patterns, which were still drying, so I went online to mehandi.com, which was where I'd researched henna before. Turns out that black henna is a much more malific substance than I realized.

Natural henna is made up of the ground up plant Lawsonia inermis, as well as a few other harmless substances like lemon juice, tea, and tea tree oil. As a paste and powder it's greenish in appearance, smells like cut grass or hay, and leaves an orange or reddish stain. "Black henna", on the other hand, is not actually henna at all, or, at best, is mixed with a bit of henna to give it the right consistency for applying designs. Black henna is given its color by the chemical para-phenylendiamine (PPD), which "Is a strong sensitizer [it can cause severe allergic reactions very quickly], transdermal toxin, and potential carcinogen," according to mehandi.com and most other websites that pop up on google when searching for "black henna."

Incredibly helpfully, not a single site listed symptoms to look out for for allergic reactions (except for posting alarmist images of huge bleeding open sores), possible treatments or ways to alleviate symptoms (besides "Go to a doctor!!!" which I'm not sure would be too helpful here, based on the experiences of myself and other non-Arabic speaking students at the local hospitals and clinics), or statistics on how many people end up having severe reactions. One site even more helpfully told the story of a mother her took her son to a doctor after having a reaction to a black henna "tattoo," and listed the various kinds of medication the doctor recommended only to blank them out with something to the effect of "the name of this product is being ommitted."

I'm not really sure what to expect now, because none of the Egyptian girls seemed at all fazed by the henna-related goings-on, so I assume that whatever was involved seemed normal to them (but then, how often do they get "henna" done? do they realize actual henna is a different color?), and that none of them have had horrific past experiences, or else they wouldn't have been having so much "henna" put on themselves as well. On the other hand, my wrists were starting to get a bit itchy while I waited for the stuff to dry, so maybe it's the beginning of something worse.

Hindsight is really a terrible thing. It would almost be better if I had no idea that I could potentially sustain severe liver damage, an autoimmune disorder, or get chemical burns and be scarred for life thanks to this crap on my hands. Then I would be able to tell if I actually have symptoms, separate from the general low-level malaise I constantly have anyway, and don't risk giving myself psychosomatic symptoms from my lovely paranoia.

I guess you'll all get some updates from me in the coming few days (it sounds like the beginning of manifestation for the really bad types of symptoms occurs within 3-4 days) regarding yet another illness for me. Boo.

Why does everything I do in this country result in me potentially getting sick? I can't drink the water, eat the food, breathe the air, visit the markets (avian flu), or practically talk to people. Maybe I should just hole up in my room and eat chocolate digestives for the rest of my time here. At least then I know I won't die.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Coolest Job EVER.

I had an appointment today at the Supreme Council of Antiquities. You know, the one where Zahi Hawass works. Yep, THE Zahi Hawass. I got to hang out in the ante-Zahi-office office, which is to say, the office of Dr. Janice Kamren--an egyptologist not nearly as widely known as Zahi, but probably at least as important (she's his lackey, and lackeys do all the dirty work, right?).

The reason for this appointment (there were maybe 10 other people there too, so unfortunately I'm not that special) was because thanks to my Theories and Methods of Archaeology class with the famed Dr. Salima Ikram, I have an opportunity to become her lackey and volunteer to grub around in the Egyptian Museum catalogues.

It won't be glorious work, clearly, since they're trying to finally build an actual database for the items they have there, and the grubbing will mostly consist of data entry and cross checking the data between the several current cataloguing systems to make note of any anomalies. This will be especially challenging because there are over 120,000 objects in the museum, fewer than 10k of which have been catalogued properly. This 120k also represents a mere fraction of what exists in the museum's basement, most of which is of unknown origin and type.

Heck, the museum itself is not in all that great shape. Though, on the plus side, Janice says this means that if we're extra good little minions (meaning we basically give over our entire lives and school time to data entry) and she decides she trusts our English, she'll let us help write some of the labels for the museum exhibits! Yay.

If Scripps doesn't let me count this Theories and Methods of Archaeology class as one of my upper-level HEP anthro classes (i.e. in lieu of, ahem, "Theory and Method in Archaeology"), I will be sad. But I don't think this is much of a risk. The head of the department is Sheryl, after all. A jollier woman never lived. :D

More later. I get the database software from the curator's office tomorrow!

P.S. The photos are from the Egyptian Museum. The Supreme Council of Antiquities building is more of a drab rectangle. A rectangle with a fence.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Field Trip #1

Today we headed off on a very special field trip for Theories and Methods of Archaeology. Our destination was the pyramid field at Saqqara, home of the stepped pyramid of Khufu. The pyramids, however, were not our intended focus. We were there to look at a number of tombs that were in fact in the process of being excavated, analyzed, and to some extent reconstructed for possible future tourist access.

Just over the hill from the Khufu's pyramid complex we found the Dutch excavation underway (for some reason the egyptology professors never mention who exactly is excavating anything, they just refer to them by country, like, "The Germans this, the Germans that." I'm not sure if this means that there is only one archaeological team allowed from each country or what--I will have to ask.) the morning we arrived they had uncovered a set of four ushabtis, which they had lined up on a table near the area where the prototypical workmen were scooping up sand in their plastic-bag-patched baskets and lugging it out to a convenient nearby dune, where they unceremoniously dumped it.

There were potsherds literally everywhere, all dynasties mixed together, and even a number of bones sticking out from the various hillocks and depressions in the ever-shifting sand. Dr. Ikram pointed out that they were human in origin. I didn't believe her at first, since all I could see were a few tips of longbones emerging from the sand in a few clusters. We moved on to a different part of the area, however, and came upon the right cheek of a definitely human skull with the bicuspids and a molar or two still attached.

We visited the tombs of a man named Maya and his wife Tiya, as well as a man named Meri-Neith, and that of one other important woman, all of which were locked up behind big metal grates. A lot of Egyptian history was spouted at us rapid-fire, but I don't think most of us absorbed very much due to the howling winds and accompanying pelting of grit that we had to endure. One tidbit I remember was that the egyptologists discovered Meri-Neith lived contemporaneously with Akhenaten's reign, and in fact had outlived him because "Neith" was an old religion goddess, and with the rise of the monotheist king, Meri-Neith had been forced to change his name to Meri-Re, to include the name of the sun god that Akhenaten liked so much. You could see this on the tomb because everywhere that Meri-Neith's name appeared in the tomb, a sun disk had been carved over the glyph for "Neith," and the long, curling ends of the Neith glyph had been filled in with plaster. It was also obvious that Meri-Neith had outlived Akhenaten because the plaster had at some point been removed and the hieroglyph for Neith was reinscribed. Also, all the images of the Pharaoh Akhenaten had been chiseled away, as Egyptians were wont to do when somebody they didn't like died.

Cruelly, my camera decided that its batteries would be dead this day, so I experienced an artistic crisis on the bus on the way to Saqqara because the countryside and bits of the city we passed were exceedingly picturesque, with technicolor murals of sinuous snake-like images and pink camels on all the houses.

I also attended a show at the local opera house with Bob. They played a double feature of Pagliacci and Cavelleria Rusticana, both of which (I don't know why I found this surprising) they had altered somewhat to allow them to be set in Egypt, even though the program still read "a Calabrian town" and "a Sicilian Village". The Egyptians have an interesting sense of stage costume. The chorus women were wearing gingham muu-muus and florescent orange scarves. The chorus men wore street clothes, and in both of the operas the male protagonists and antagonists were both cast with men with similar builds, similar facial structures, and... practically the same clothes. Despite having seen Pagliacci before, I had a hard time telling what the heck was going on, especially since the surtitles were in Arabic only. Still, decent show.

Ay Caramba.

Por algún razón, no podía acceder ningún website de blogger hasta tres o cuatro días. No sé porqúe, pero es un problema muy molesto. Ahora misma, cuando quizas es posible, pruebo aprender a fijar a este blog usando el servicio "blog-by-mail." Me deseen buena suerte.

También, cuando puedo fijar por otra vez, tengo algúnos correos (no sé si "correos" es la palabra correcta) para unos días pasados que voy a fijar.

Hasta...nadie sabe. La futura.

Monday, February 13, 2006

"Izzayik? Mish Kuwayisa." --A vignette.

Cairo is a strange place. It's a massive, bustling city, teeming with millions upon millions of people, and yet somehow, everybody knows you. You can visit a random little shop one day and be entreated by the owner to "Come back tomorrow, no problem," on your way out. You can completely forget about said shop for weeks and weeks, then walk by it again completely by chance. It doesn't matter if the shop sells tameyya or anubis-headed lighters, it doesn't matter that you are wearing different clothes, walking with different people, or even speaking a different language (I've conducted a number of transactions here in español, suprisingly), the shopkeeper will recognize you.

"Come in to my shop, my sister," he will say. "I just give you my business card, no funny business. You like perfume? No problem." And what do you do? Well, unless you particularly enjoy spending twice as much money as you might have to at Khan al-Khalili for perfume you don't want anyway... you flee.

It's almost worse on campus. For no reason that I can yet define, it's embarrassing and irritating to be recognized, even if there's nothing but sincere pleasantry behind it, like overtures of friendliness from Achmed, who is the head of the Egyptology club and "The Guy in the Peach Pants," as Bob describes him. Or the shy smile and the mumbled "Happy Valentine's Day" from the security guard at the campus book shop who knows me as that weirdly-dressed, clumsy crazy girl who comes into the book shop at least 10 times a day because she forgets things.

Of all the things I miss most about the U.S. so far, it's not Mexican food, or even potable tap water--it's being anonymous, or at least being allowed to pretend like I am.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Psh, Superbowl? What Superbowl?

Pork rinds? Beer? Cheesy commercials? Scuzzy, overweight, doped-up men in padded spandex crashing into each other? I think not. The American "pastime" may be pigging out and yelling at a TV, but the Egyptian one is much more involved. Heck, get a load of this Consulate Warden message:
The Africa Cup of Nations soccer (football) tournament concludes on the evening of Friday, February 10, when Egypt plays Cote d'Ivoire in the finals at Cairo International Stadium in Nasser City. While the Embassy wishes the host team all the best in their run for the cup, it would like to remind American citizens in Egypt that large groups of passionate sports fans always have the potential to become unruly. Americans should be especially vigilant -- on Friday evening and into Saturday morning -- to the possibility that they could be mistaken for supporters of the opposing team. Americans should avoid large crowds of football fans gathered to view the game at locations throughout Cairo. In addition, Americans should be aware of potentially heavy traffic at Ramses Square, the vicinity of Heliopolis and main routes to Cairo International Airport on Friday evening. They should be especially alert to exuberant fans joyriding in vehicles before and after the match.

Feh, you might think, all sports fans are a little off in the head sometimes. Not in Egypt. In Egypt-- well, let's put it this way. On the day of the final game, a few friends and I headed down to the Khan (Khan al-Khalili, open-air market and tourist trap extraordinaire). The weekend before my friend Sarah had attempted to get to Khan only to be deterred by rioting over that touchy Danish issue. That riot eventually quelled itself without intervention. This weekend however, in light of the upcoming game, there were more than 600 riot police lining the streets near Khan. Also, in the stampede to buy tickets for the game, several bystanders were trampled to death.

So, which issue do you think is more important in Egypt?

In the hours leading up to the game, young boys ran up and down the sides of major streets selling Egyptian flags on bits of PVC for people to hang out their car windows, or just wave around. Every second or third car (in Mohandiseen, anyway) honked out the rhythms of popular go-team cheers as they drove along. Girls made up special hijabs of layered cloth so they could sport the Egyptian colors.

They set up a huge projector screen in the lobby of the dorm, and every Egyptian student in the area crowded in to watch. After nearly an hour of impassioned screaming and near-orgasmic cries of "yalla! yalla!" (the Arabic equivalent of "git yo' ass in gear!") the game was still tied. After a round of overtime, still not a single goal had been scored. Finally it ended up in a shootout, and Egypt won on the very last kick. Intense.

Immediately afterwards, the entire city took to the streets, cheering, playing drums, setting off fire crackers, and, indeed, joyriding.

Caught up in the overwhelming electric joy of the city around us, Sarah and I went skipping, dancing, and shrieking up and down the streets, while our two other companions, Stephanie and Monica, tried to keep up. We returned to the dorm just in time to witness a "honk-off" by two cars piled up with chanting Egyptians. As former bandos, Sarah and I found this to be a fitting end to the night.

As you may notice from the photos (Monica took them), not even Egyptians are immune to funny hats.