It is about 7 PM here on the Midan el Messaha (alMsaha) in the Dokki neighborhood of Giza, across the Nile from Cairo. Here is the view out my window from earlier today.
The sounds out the window are continual, with traffic pulling by, el adhan (the call to prayer) in the distance, some kind of band beating drums on the street (not a regular occurrence, mind you), people greeting each other or generally yelling, and the honking of horns.
Traffic is insane here. Not only is the sheer volume of cars massive, but as one of the student service coordinators, Sara, put it, there is little concept of lanes here except sometimes on major highways. You have people going fast and slow and not yielding and yielding too much, and the continual sound of honking. Crossing the street, even, is an experience. Cars don’t seem to yield to pedestrians often, and when they do, the people behind them will honk. Thankfully, I have always been in a larger group and have had the double advantages of strength in numbers and being with someone familiar with the art Egypt pedestrianism. Honking, even, is different here. You don’t hear a lot of prolonged honks, just short beeps from everywhere. In the States, I feel that people (especially in suburbia) practice honk-conservation, except for the most serious situations. You could go driving for months and never have the need to honk. This could also be a result of the tighter enforcement of traffic laws and a lower number of vehicles in general, but I don’t know.
One of the first things I noticed, even before touching down in Cairo, is the shift in colors here. In Pennsylvania, we’re used to vibrant color, even if we don’t realize it: deep green forest in summer, green grass, flowers, and a dramatic abundance of reds, yellows, browns, maroons, even pinks in fall. From the plane, Cairo looked almost like a sepia-toned photograph of a city rising out of the sand. The sun seems brighter here, but on the outside everything assumes a similar taupe appearance from a distance. Out on the street, the people are often dressed colorfully while most of the buildings on the square have a grayish hue, with the exception of the Goethe Institute building (white) and the Libyan embassy (light blue on the outside). There are spots of vegetation, like the palm trees in the middle of the square, but their colors seem different, too.
Here is a photograph of the Midaan (square) where we are staying.
Yesterday, we started orientation at the IFSA center across the square. There was a general introduction by the resident director, wherein he welcomed us and talked about Egyptian identity, opinions on America, Egyptian social values, and guidelines for how we should behave. Then, we had a presentation on health issues by a doctor from Ain Shams University: don’t drink the tap water, take your health seriously. Then, two students from Ain Shams’ English department came to give us a peer talk. They talked about the Egyptian education system, how it is changing after the Revolution, body language, and what they do for fun. We asked about their experiences during the Revolution and they described the drama and the fear they felt during that time. One of the students had been out on the street at times, trying to see what was going on and had seen the thuggery and harshness of the government forces for himself. The other student described having to stay inside for long stretches at a time. They both said that everywhere they heard random gunfire, which added to the drama, even though neither of them had personally seen or knew anyone injured or killed. After the peer discussion, we (me, the other girl in the program, an American IFSA employee, and the two Egyptian students) went to lunch at Cilantro, a café somewhat like Panera.
Following lunch, we had a crash-course in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. Then, we went exploring around the neighborhood, stopping at two different supermarkets and going to buy cell phones. It took some time to find something that could work in France, too. The salesclerk, Mariam, spoke some English, and for really technical things, our guide translated. Somehow, she brought up something in German and I jumped at the opportunity. Now sharing a common language, both of us relaxed a little, free from the three-person linguistic jitterbug from before. It turned out that her brother lived near Munich and that she had studied at the Goethe Institut down the street. I laughed and told her that I never expected to be chatting in German in Cairo. She smiled and told me that I’d be surprised.
That night, we ate shwarma and koshari, both delicious, at the apartment of our guide. He joked a lot, especially since Hannah (the other girl in the program) and I didn’t eat much. He kept repeating, “Complete your eat! Complete your eat!” and we all laughed.
This morning both of us got a bit sick, but we decided to brave class anyway. I ended up having to go home to recuperate around noon and missed out on a tour of the Oum Kalthoum museum, the Khan el Khalili, an ancient and famous market, and Ghori palace, where we were going to see the Whirling dervishes and hear Nubian drums. I’ll make it back to Cairo at some point during the next 3 months and those three will be at the top of my sight-seeing list. At least I slept for a good while and took it easy. Tomorrow we go to the pyramids at Giza, for which I really want to be in good shape.