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

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Oops, I hope ﺍﻠﻛﺘﺎﺐ* didn't just ruin Nader's political career.

Attention: To all students: Please contact home regarding the Dahab bombing, because many parents have been calling the New York office looking for information. Thank you. - AUC Student Housing Office

I have several posts in queue, waiting to be finished up and posted, but I think I should take a break from our regularly scheduled program to briefly comment on the latest Middle East drama, as per the recommendation of just about every formal body of authority hereabouts.

As a lot of you know, April 24th is my birthday, and I celebrated it heartily (or, not so much) by wading through godawful Arabic drills like the eternal classic fill-in-the-blank: ".ﺭﺍﻠﻒ ﻧﺎﺪﺮ >> ﺃﻣﺭﻴﻛﻲ ﻣﻦ ﺃﺼﻞ ﻋﺮﺒﻲ >>" ...Ralph Nader, American, (is) of (descended from) the Arabs.

It was fairly late in the evening when I received a text message from my friend, Keli. "Do we know anyone who is in Dahab now?" she asked. Ohoho, I thought, that zany Keli has gotten herself stranded somewhere in the Sinai again, but I didn't think I knew anyone there who could give her a lift. I texted her back a negative, and didn't give it a second thought.

The next day I awoke and stumbled sleepily to the bathroom, only to be confronted by a flier, imploring students to let their parents know where they were, as many parents were anxious about the recent bombing in... Dahab.

Life continued on, much as it had before; and, to my knowledge, though it was the end of Spring Break, and though many students had used their free week to travel to and through Dahab, no AUC students were actually in Dahab at the time of the explosions.

Less than 48 hours later, we were informed during a class lecture that yet more bombs had been detonated in the Sinai, and that there were unconfirmed rumors of a shooting or attempted shooting at a police checkpoint somewhere nearby.

I don't feel like I'm well-informed enough to really comment on the political situation involved in this, but I do have to say that having lived here as long as I have (not long, really) and having seen a few other parts of the Middle East (Jordan and Israel, both extremely briefly), I'm not terribly surprised at how much resentment some bear towards Westerners and Israelis. Israel, especially, is an inconvenient anomaly--a tiny pocket of non-Arabs (this was quite startling when we travelled through on our way to Jordan) and comparatively extreme wealth. It's like a little slice of America: the same paranoia (though, really, with more direct threat to them, probably theirs is more justified), the same shopping malls, the same vapid new age "Pure Moods" CDs. In fact, as I think Alycia put it, Israel is America's trust fund baby.

I suppose it could be envy that drives the few and the zealous to want to wreak destruction on us, but we certainly can't exonerate ourselves--little love is lost between the West and Arabs of any kind. In fact, for the most part we seem to treat them with little more than condescension and fear. Can we blame them then for feeling that we are undeserving of our little self-made molehill of superiority?

All violence thus far has occurred very far from ﺍﻠﻗﺎﻫﺮﺓ, al Qahira, Cairo. There should be no immediate danger for any of the students here, in spite of several class trips planned to assorted locales in the Sinai (Mt. Sinai, and two or three monasteries). We, as "tourists" are extremely well guarded, since our comings and goings and travels are carefully supervised by both the university and the heavily armed police escorts they send with us everywhere. I trust the Egyptians to do everything they can to keep us safe--not only do they depend on their good reputation with foreign tourists for the majority of their economy, but every time there is a bombing or any other sort of violence, the Egyptians seem to end up with the short end of the stick, racking up a much higher tally of dead and injured than anyone else for all that they receive the least press.

On another note, enjoy your air while you can. Thanks to our not-so-dear Presidente, you all back in the States may soon have to adapt to the most picturesque sorts of mists we enjoy here in Cairo. Environmental regulations exist for a reason. IMHO, they should be inviolable.

*ﺍﻠﻛﺘﺎﺐ (al Kitaab) means "The Book," aka The Arabic Textbook of Despair.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Alycia, part 2: ﻣﺪﻴﻨﺔ ﺑﺘﺭﺓ (sp?)

Enter medinat Betra, the city of Petra:

We were indeed the first tourists to arrive that morning, as the man at the ticket booth hadn't even bothered to open up his ticket window yet. We bought our tickets and headed on down into the beginning of the as-Siq gorge that acts as the labyrinthine entrance to the ancient city. We passed a massive obelisk-capped tomb carved right from the rock, and a number of strange rock formations that had clearly been modified by the city's ancient inhabitants for some purpose or other.

Petra was built by a group of people called the Nabateans. Apparently they were an ancient Arab tribe who built an empire from south Jordan to Damascus and
the Sinai using the profits derived from the "caravaneering" trade, which is to say, levying tolls and "protecting" caravans of traders travelling through their territory. They were eventually conquered by and absorbed into the Roman empire, which is why you might notice some rather heavy Greco-Roman influences in Petra's architecture.

In any case...

The air was cool in the soft light of the rising sun, but the sky was already a ridiculous shade of blue, portending a toasty afternoon. As we wandered further into the rising walls of the massive gorge, we could hear birds singing everywhere overhead, and the echoing clack-clack of the janitor sweeping up the remains of the previous day just out of sight ahead of us. Otherwise, nothing. It was incredibly beautiful and serene, and you could sense almost tangibly precisely why this site had been considered sacred for so long. It also looked like a great place to bring young kids, as Leah (from Arizona, and the only other person in our little group besides me who had ever been to Disneyland) and I could not stop drawing parallels between the little niches and cavelets in the rock and the awesome "rock" maze on Tom Sawyer Island.

We dawdled along the way in the lull of the first peace and quiet any of us three AUC students had experienced in a very long while and took probably thousands of photos of the rock walls of the gorge soaring up above us. Petra is easily the most beautiful place I've ever been. Seriously. Completely without warning the narrowing gorge made a final twist to the right, and there we were--the Treasury, the most famous site in Petra, and one of the settings in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There were many camels camped out front, awaiting the tourists later in the day who would pay a pretty penny for the dubious privilege of riding them. We took our fill of photos there as well, then wandered farther down into the city (which seemed mostly, at that point, to consist of lots of massive tombs), pausing at a few salesmen's tents along the way to poke around at the items they were selling. Jordan is definitely the place to buy semiprecious stone and silver jewelry.

We went a little further to the massive amphitheater in the middle of the city, and camped out in some niches in the rock across the way from it to eat an early lunch before we headed back out. We clambered into one of the rock-cut chambers there and discovered the rock inside had some of the most amazing colors we'd ever seen. We immediately set out to take ourselves some "glamour shots" in front of it. Handily, my pants were exactly the same color. It was probably 9am by then, and the stone walls that enclosed the city were beginning to echo back the raucous noise of the first ranks of the all-pasty, all-too-short-shots-wearing tourists. We decided it was time to leave.

On the way out we noticed that the masses of people completely destroyed any sense of magic or peace the place had, and decided that we could not possibly get out of there soon enough. We returned to the hostel, finished repacking, and met up with Tarek. We were largely unconscious (again) for the trip back to Aqaba.

The border crossing back through Israel was significantly quicker than we thought it would be, though they detained my passport yet again. I'm starting to think I must be on some kind of CIA international terrorist list. I mean, I always knew I was a bit... left of center, but is this really necessary? I consider Alycia more of an instigator, and she had no problems. Nonetheless, we still ended up at the Taba end of things nearly two hours earlier than we were expecting to.

What to do with all this time we magically had on our hands? Well, on our way to the bus depot, a couple of men in galabeyyas came rushing at us, trying to persuade us to take their taxi service instead of the bus. They claimed it would be the same cost per person as the bus tickets, and that it would be much faster because we could leave right away, and the taxi wouldn't stop in such detours as Nuweiba and Suez as the bus would. We did have a lot of time to kill and I (and maybe one other person) had a midterm the following morning, so we figured it would be best to get back to Cairo as soon as we could in order to get some more studying in.

We bargained down the price a bit, accepted their offer and climbed into their minibus. The apparent lead guy told us it would just be a few minutes and went off to confer with some of his comrades. Fifteen minutes later we still hadn't left, and Mr. Lead Guy seemed to be trawling for more tourists to pack into the bus with us. This should already have been a tip-off, that they weren't following through with their stated intent to leave immediately, but we decided we'd get things done if we threw our weight around, and started to get out of the van. Mr. LG saw us immediately and ran over, desperate to not lose our money. He assured us that yes, yes we would be able to leave right away, but then noted that if we did, the four of us would have to take a different minibus (which was a serious junker) and pay an extra 25LE apiece. That TOO should have tipped us off, but we really wanted to shave off the alleged three hours they told us we would save, not to mention that being exposed to near-constant sketchy situations for the last few months had somewhat desensitized us, so we decided to go along with it anyway.

We got in the van and off we went. Hyewon and Leah took turns sleeping, and Alycia and I chatted as we zoomed precariously through the desert. It was getting dark when our driver pulled over into a gas station and informed us that he would not be driving us all the way back to Cairo as promised. Startled, we demanded to know why. He refused to say, instead assuring us that there was another driver, "his friend," who would take us the rest of the way. He promised us that he would pay "his friend" the proper share of our money so that we wouldn't have to pay any more money than we were already going to. Being four young females completely alone in the middle of the Sinai, we didn't have much choice but to warily agree with this arrangement. We drove on a little further until we reached a town (Suez, to be precise, so that's yet another promise they didn't follow through with) that had a large taxi depot. Our driver pulled in and began asking around. Finally he found "his friend," aka the first random taxi driver that was willing to accept Driver A's offer.

We made sure he paid Driver B, then paid our share to Driver A. We piled into Driver B's even junkier taxi, and off we went, again. By now it was fully dark. As we sped along, Alycia and I saw Driver B fiddling around with some weird mechanism where his stereo should have been, that turned out to be a mini TV screen. Were we to have "in-flight entertainment," then, we wondered? Well, not exactly. Not only did the driver blatantly not watch the dark road (with no headlights, I should mention) as he fiddled, but once he got it working, the logo "WWF Championship: Women's Division" came onscreen. Now, WWF is torment enough as it is, but this "Women's Division" consisted of nothing more than a pair of busty, scantily clad bleach-blondes squealing and tearing off each others' clothes while a horde of rednecks whooped it up in the background. Essentially, it was as close to porn as one could legally get in Egypt. That's right. Here we were, the four of us huddled in the back of a barely-running cab, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, more or less completely at the mercy of this strange man who spoke virtually no English, and he decides it's a great idea to watch PORN. I think this was the singular most degrading experience I've ever had as a woman.

Leah pretended to sleep, Hyewon pleaded with him to turn it off, or at least to turn down the volume, and I glowered at him in the rearview mirror for the entire rest of the ride. Alycia cracked jokes to me, en Español, about me being the Godfather.

We began, finally, to approach the glimmering lights of civilization. We'd just barely reached the outskirts of wherever-the-heck-we-were when Driver B pulled into yet another gas station and popped his hood (that's right, his hood) to have his gas tank filled. He returned a few minutes later and told us that he wasn't going to drive us any further as promised since he allegedly lived in the area and just wanted to go home. Of course, he told us, he would get "his friend" to drive us the rest of the way. We were pretty riled up by this point, and even moreso when he returned from trying to find us a willing cabbie and told us that he'd only found one, and that this guy was demanding that we pay an extra 50LE. We piled out of the cab as quick as we could and started arguing with Driver B. The agreement had been, after all, that we would be delivered where we wanted to go in Cairo, without paying any extra money. Driver C got involved in this also. He spoke even less English than Driver B, and was somehow convinced that he wasn't going to get any money at all. All of the gas station attendants decided that this argument would be the most excitement they'd have all night, so they all crowded around and joined in, with our argument by this point involving almost fifteen people and devolving into practically a shouting match with massive misunderstanding all around.

Eventually we managed to work out a deal wherein we would only pay 7LE extra for Driver C to take us to Zamalek instead of Ramses Square, since that's what the total extra fare should have been. The fight broke up, and the four of us got into Driver C's cab. It was about as junky as Driver B's, but much smaller. We were pretty relieved to no longer be in the presence of the dirty old man anymore though, so we were relatively satisfied with the way this had worked out.

We drove on for awhile longer, and I began to recognize some of the landmarks of Cairo's afueras from the various field trips I'd been on. 40 minutes later we were back in Zamalek, safe and sound if a little shaken and nearly two hours later than we would have been if we'd just taken the bus.

No more intercontinental taxis for me. Ick.

Alycia, part 1: ﺃﻫﻼ ﻭ ﺳﻬﻼ ﻣﻥ ﺍﻷﺮﺪﻦ

Ahlan wa Sahlan min al Urudaan (assuming that's grammatically correct), Hello and welcome, from Jordan! Sorry for the delay, but things have been busy busy busy around here. I don't think there's any way to make a "short version" of recent happenings, so I'll try to tackle the catching up one bit at a time.
Alycia dropped by for a visit, so the instant her plane landed, we (we being myself, Hyewon, and Leah, both from crew) whisked her away for a sunny holiday skipping across three countries and two continents twice in two days.

Alycia's arrival was in of itself a bit of an adventure, since her plane arrived from a layover in France nearly three hours late, meaning our little band missed our bus out from midan Ramsis to the border of Israel at Taba. I discovered while making my way to pick Alycia up, that when the ancient Egyptians said that souls that were condemned in the afterlife, they weren't actually eaten by the Devourer, they were damned to a much worse fate--to be lost forever in Cairo International Airport, the ultimate in purgatories. Even with the assistance of a native taxi driver, who parked and accompanied me to the terminal, we still got lost in the airport for a good two hours, before finding the arrival gate Alycia was supposed to magically appear at.
I discovered during the lengthy wait for Alycia's monstrously late plane one of the major infrastructure problems of Egypt--they don't like admitting when things go wrong! Which is to say, on the screens in the terminal where flight arrivals and departures are supposed to be displayed, her flight was not listed as delayed... in fact, it was not listed at all. It was completely wiped from the list and reinserted three hours later as being "on time." To be fair, however, Alycia reported that the airport in Paris did exactly the same thing.

In any case, with a bit of finagling, we managed to reschedule our trip to Petra for very early the following morning. The bus station at Ramses square was probably the sketchiest place I've found myself in the entirety of my stay here, and one of the staff members tried to put us on the wrong bus even though he knew our destination was Taba, and knew that that particular bus did not go to Taba.

We did eventually end up in the right place, however, and off we went. The majority of the people on the bus (including us) were blessedly unconscious for most of the 6 hour ride, and arrived finally at Taba, not really refreshed, but ready to get a move on, in any case.
We'd had to switch buses part way through the trip, as the particular bus we were on actually headed farther down the Red Sea coast to Nuweiba where the ferry departed from, and during this confused, barely-conscious migration, we caught sight of "the guy in the green shirt," who would later inadvertantly give us some very valuable Middle Eastern travelling tips.

We finally exited the bus at the border station at Taba and confusedly tried to figure out the schedule of buses departing Taba for Cairo for the following day. At this point, Enter Travis, "the guy in the green shirt," an American backpacker of unknown origin and only vague inclination towards motives. He'd been on the bus with us the whole time, but the bus was crowded enough that we hadn't had the opportunity to meet him. He was, however, the only other person there who was travelling to the Israeli border, so we quickly joined up with him, and headed off on foot to the border crossing. We made it to the border quickly enough, and crossed over with no problem. The border crossing entrance point to Israel, however, was a completely different story.

At the Israeli security checkpoint, a young, slender, hard-eyed woman with close-cropped dark hair stopped us and asked us why we wanted to enter Israel. We answered her quickly that we were only passing through on our way to Jordan. She let us pass, but it was not so easy for Travis. We waited for him just beyond the security point so we could all go through customs together, but it was not meant to be--Travis made the mistake of telling the hard-eyed woman that he didn't have a set itinerary for his travels in Israel... he thought he might as well go to Jerusalem first, but after that was anyone's guess. After nearly 15 minutes of interrogation, our little group was prompted onwards to the baggage check, forcing us to leave Travis behind.

At the xray machine, the security checkers took Hyewon's passport and rubbed it down with a cloth to check it for traces of undesirable chemicals--probably explosives and drugs. We were asked many, many times whether all of our luggage items belonged to us, and whether or not anyone had asked us to take anything to deliver to Israel. We were all told to open up our bags for close inspection, but after the near-constant bag searching at all university locales in Cairo, it wasn't much of a big deal. By the time we'd all finished and moved on to the line where our passports would be examined and stamped, Travis had finally been let through by the hard-eyed woman, and was undergoing rigorous examination by the baggage checkers. He was forced to remove every item he owned from every bag or container it was in and spread it all out on the table. At this point we lost sight of him.
We handed over our passports to be stamped. When it was my turn, the woman behind the desk asked me bemusedly whether I really have four names, and asked me to confirm what they all were. She then told me that there was a problem, and that they were going to have to send my passport "down to the office" to be checked out.

They had me waiting for nearly 30 minutes, maybe more. In that time I found myself perched on an airport-style bench next to an Israeli woman who was acting as tour guide for a massive group of Nigerians who had gone to Egypt to climb Mt. Sinai. I talked with her for a little while. She said it was shameful of me to travel through Israel without seeing the sights, and decided to hold me personally accountable for the horrors of poverty in the U.S., though other than that she was perfectly affable.

After Ms. Israel took off with her horde of Nigerians, I settled in with Alycia to wait for my passport to be returned to me while Hyewon and Leah went off to exchange some currency to pay for our cab from the Taba border crossing to the Aqaba crossing into Jordan. As we waited, Travis made his way finally to the front of the passport stamp line. As with me they decided to detain his passport, but as he was such a shady character, they took him along with his passport into a back room, and we never saw him again.

The crossing through Israel all the way through to Jordan was fairly uneventful, though we paused just long enough to be awed by the prefab restroom units at the Israel crossing in Taba. They were absolutely the nicest bathrooms we'd seen in months. We even took a souvenier photo, though it was on Hyewon's camera, so I don't at the moment have a copy. We mostly slept during the 2-hour taxi ride between the Aqaba border crossing into Jordan and Wadi Mousa, the village near Petra.

We made it finally, and brokered a deal with our taxi driver, Tarek, to come back and pick us up the next day. We arrived at our hostel--The Orient Gate Hotel--quite late in the day. We made immediate friends with the desk guy at the hostel (as Alycia said, "The manager/front desk attendant at our hostel, the Orient Gate Hotel, has to be one of my favorite people. Clearly, I can bond with a guy who mentions, as we walk in, that he just got up.") He was a friendly guy in an Average Joe gruff sort of way, and tried to coerce us into practicing our meager Arabic skills with him. He enlightened us somewhat as to the interrelations between the various countries in the Middle East, saying that we shouldn't learn Egyptian Colloquial Arabic because everyone outside of Egypt thinks the Egyptian accent is hilarious and laughs at them behind their backs. He also told us that Jordan is a more culturally and morally liberal country than Egypt, and also a more respectful one--for example, he said, he himself would be perfectly willing to drink a few beers, but he would more than willingly refrain if he happened to be in the presence of someone religious. It might have been nationalistic claptrap, but it's true that Jordan seemed, from what I saw of it, like a much cleaner, rockier version of Egypt, with more goats.

Our new buddy advised us that it was too late in the day to visit Petra, as we had originally planned, and that we should head down early early the next day. He even offered to pack us lunches (for a fee, of course, but what are hostels for?). We were a bit worried about seeing Petra the next morning because we'd agreed to meet Tarek at 11am the next morning for our trip back to Egypt so we would be in time to catch the bus back to Cairo. We resolved to be at the Petra ticket office immediately at opening time at 6:30am, and instead spent our evening wandering Wadi Mousa, studying in the hostel's common room, and badgering our new buddy (I wish I could remember his name) to follow through with the sales pitch on the hostel's business card which advertised that they showed Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade every night.

The next morning at daybreak we packed up our gear for the morning and picked up our lunches and headed off down the hill past the massive tourist resorts to the entrance of Petra, the Rose Red City.

(To Be Continued...)