This week, we had Wednesday off of school because it’s ‘Armed Forces’ day here in Egypt. I honestly have no idea what that means (everyone just seems to take the free day and run with it), but trusty old Wikipedia says it’s “the date on which the October War of 1973 began with the Egyptian Army’s successful crossing of the Suez Canal that culminated in the capture of the Bar Lev Line.” There’s a major bridge that crosses from Old Cairo into Zamalek that’s literally named the “6th of October Bridge”, and apparently that’s the name of a district here too. There’s also a “26th of July” street, but it looks like I’ll be spending that holiday back in the states.
It’s been quite a busy past few days. We had school on Sunday and Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday free, and I had one class on Thursday- the other two were canceled. A good number of my classmates decided to take advantage of the small break and take trips to Dahab, Alexandria, and Luxor, among other places. My friends and I briefly considered a trip to Luxor and/or Aswan before realizing that I had a mandatory field trip on Tuesday, and a few of us had papers due on Thursday. Oh well! It’ll be a good chance to continue exploring the local sights.
On Monday night, we had dinner at the Cairo Jazz Club. The place came highly recommended by other friends and my Egypt guide book, so we decided to check it out. First off, its name is a little misleading. The place never actually plays jazz, for one thing. It also doesn’t serve any traditional Egyptian food- we had salmon bread dip, calamari, and chicken with pesto sauce, among other dishes. As we ate, we listened to a band playing classic rock, including Metallica and The Who. It was a strange mix, but fun nonetheless. The club has a different band or DJ each night, so we’ll definitely be back to see how the atmosphere adjusts to Latin beats and techno mash-ups.
Early Tuesday morning, I woke up to catch a bus to yet another field trip, but this time it was for my Architecture class- the one that’s composed of Egyptians. Let’s just say it was a little bit different from the trip to Tanis that I took last week with my Egyptology class. There was no set schedule, food, or papers to refer to, and the explanations were mostly in Arabic. We were supposed to meet on campus at 8:30 AM, which means that I was there at 8:25 and sat on the bus for 30 minutes waiting for everyone else to show up. I was expecting to have a terrible time just because of my experiences in class, but despite the usual trend of being unproductive, it actually wasn’t too bad! Once I accepted the fact that I just had to go with the flow, it was manageable. We drove for about an hour to Saqqara (a.k.a. Sakkara), the site of the step pyramid and the Imhotep museum. The museum was great- not crowded, clean, and air conditioned. Our professor had us draw a sketch of different architectural elements, which was a really interesting way to make use of the museum. There was no photography allowed, but I still have my drawings as a souvenir of what I saw there. It was really cool!
After the museum, we bused up to the actual pyramid, which is currently undergoing renovations. Our professor pointed out how you could see the different layers that had been built onto the pyramid to make it wider and taller over the years, and explained the different solid temples that were surrounding us. We had time for a few more sketches of the temples and pyramids, and I had the opportunity to chat with some of my classmates. Most of them are architecture or art majors, and are second-year students. I’m obviously the odd man out in the group, and I’m sure they all think I’m a little weird, but it’s okay. I’m glad I get to see what a class full of Egyptians is like. It’s also strange to think about the fact that these sites are part of their national history, which is thousands of years long and composed of dynasties of pharaohs. One student remarked that they’d much rather learn American history because it’s so short.
After drawing a few more sketches, we hopped back on the bus and traveled to our last destination, the Ramses Wissa Wassef Museum. This ended up being one of my favorite places that I’ve visited so far. Ramses was an architect who decided to build his own oasis about 60 years ago. The site still has his original buildings, pottery studios, and woven tapestries. We were the only visitors there, but the place was beautiful. All of the buildings are made out of mud brick and lit by natural light. They’re completely organic and environmentally friendly. Their basic structure is beautiful- Ramses made use of domed ceilings, pointed archways, and Nubian brick designs in the windows. Unfortunately, they have been badly affected by rain and hailstorms, so they’ve been undergoing restoration as well. There were also women there weaving huge tapestries. The site uses one of the buildings as a museum for these tapestries, and they’re all beautifully made with images of plants, animals, and entire villages within them. I would love to go back! You can read about the Ramses’ philosophy and see some pictures of the site at http://www.wissawassef.com.
The professor came and sat near me on the bus ride back. He asked about my reasons for taking the class (honestly, I just needed to fulfill one art credit, but I added in how I do have some interest in architecture, which is also true!) and we discussed how architecture programs vary between the US and Egypt. Apparently, the Architecture major at AUC is much more comprehensive than similar programs in the country because the school must be certified under American standards as well as Egyptian ones. All in all, he made an effort to make sure that I got as much out of the trip as the Egyptian students did. At many of the various stops, the tour guides would only speak in Arabic, and the professor took the time to translate just for me, even though the translations were usually only a sentence or two after a guide had been speaking in Arabic for about 10 minutes. Oh well! I also finally figured out who this professor reminds me of- picture ‘Scar’ from The Lion King. (Just not as mean.)
After returning back to campus, I took a much needed nap before heading out for dinner. Alex, Gwen, and I decided to explore somewhere new: Maadi, which is a nice area about 45 minutes away where a lot of expats live. We took the bus there and met up with one of our Egyptian friends from our trip to Sharm al-Sheikh, Wafa’i. (His name is actually Ahmed, but literally everyone here is named Hassan, Ahmed, Mohammad, or Tarek, so we usually resort to last names.) Wafa’i’s family has an flat in Maadi, so he showed us the area and took us to dinner at a place called Spectra. We ended up going out for tea and shisha afterwards at a secret spot up on a hill that overlooks all of Cairo. Apparently, the tea cafe actually operates out of a building next to the hill, so they’re not actually allowed to profit off of people sitting outside. Every once in a while you’ll hear police sirens coming up the hill to check it out. When this happens, everyone grabs their chairs and tables and runs across the street to the actual cafe. While we were there, a huge caravan of cars pulled up blasting music and horns. It turned out to be an engagement party, and Alex and I caught a glimpse of a girl in a beautiful purple dress in one of the cars. It was cool!
On Wednesday, the actual 6th of October, we ended up going to Khan al-Khalili, which is probably the most well-known bazaar (or souk, as they’re called here) in Egypt. It’s notoriety has come at a price- there are literally busloads of tourists dropped off constantly- but it has managed to maintain some of its original atmosphere. You can buy anything from spices and jewelry to hookahs and ouds there. Gwen, Alex, Kjrstin, and I walked around for a bit taking pictures and checking out the different shops before doing a little shopping. I refrained from buying everything that I wanted, and kept having to remind myself that I’ll have plenty of opportunities to get these things. There’s no use in lugging things around for a year while I’m here. Kjrstin and I ended up buying some beautiful prayer beads before settling down at El-Fishawy for tea and shisha. El-Fishawy is known as the oldest coffeeshop in Egypt, and it’s great for people-watching. The shop is covered in huge antique mirrors, and is surrounded by shops selling stained glass lanterns and jewelry. We sat ‘outside’, which meant on a couch on the walkway in the middle of the bazaar. The presence of hookahs (complete with hot coals) in a crowded walkway made me a little nervous, but we made it through the day without any major accidents. The four of us lounged there for awhile, drinking mint tea and shooing away the millions of vendors offering us odds and ends.
We were soon approached by a woman doing henna tattoos (the kind that only last for a week or so), who assured us that she knew exactly what we wanted before grabbing our hands and beginning to work on a design. Her fingers were black from the dye in the henna paste, and we ran into her multiple times over the course of our day there. Each time, we had to ward her off by showing her our already-tattooed hands. I love henna, but in this case, getting henna at Khan al-Khalili is equivalent to writing ‘TOURIST’ on your forehead. Oh well- you have to do it once. After El-Fishawy, we wandered around for a bit before grabbing dinner. We ate koushary (a mix of lentils, rice, pasta, and onions, usually) and tahina (a dip for bread similar to hummus) at an outdoor restaurant on the outskirts of the souk, right in between two huge mosques. As we ate, we were approached by dozens of stray cats, and even more vendors, including small children and grown men. Alex got the usual, “Two wives? Lucky man!” and we were greeted with everything from “Hola!” to “Bonjour”.
I soon realized that the mosque that we had been sitting next to was actually the Al-Hussein Mosque that was pictured in my Arabic textbook from UC Santa Barbara. I was able to recognize it by the huge metal umbrellas that were situated in front of it, used to provide shade for the overflow of people who go there to pray. My excitement quadrupled when the mosque began playing the call to prayer while we were eating dinner. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Looking back on that page in my textbook, I never in a million years expected that I would dine right next to the Al-Hussein Mosque, let alone hear its call to prayer.
After dinner, we climbed into a taxi and headed back to campus. We were lucky enough to get in the nicest car I’ve been in so far- it was clean, had a functioning meter and stereo, and the driver even spoke pretty good English. This time, we only got lost for about 15 minutes on the way to New Cairo, which is a dramatic improvement from the last time that we tried to get there from that highway (see my blog on taxis and our trip home from the pyramids). The driver was refreshingly good-tempered throughout the ordeal, and actually pulled over before asking for directions! All in all, it was a great 6th of October- we even got to drive on the 6th of October bridge in celebration.
On Thursday, I did some homework and went to my one class that wasn’t canceled before going out to dinner at CityStars, the large shopping mall about 30 minutes away from campus, in Heliopolis. Today, Wafa’i and his friend Saiid taught me some more basic Salsa dancing steps (I’ll blend in at Salsa night before you know it!) before I went out to dinner at Meeting Point with some friends. It ended up being a great week- I got to check out some new places and had a great time doing it. Now, it’s back to the real world (well… the Egyptian world, at least), and onto another week of classes.