Change in the Air

Suddenly, Alexandria was cold. The weather had been keeping a perfectly respectable mid 70’s pace, with light, occasionally gusty breezes that suited me just fine. Then, sitting in the Middlebury apartment working on final projects and exams, I was nearly thrown from my chair by a thunderous bang that split the air. Winter, it appeared, had just come in with a bang.

After the big bang the weather quickly went from bad to worse; serious rain ensued, flooding the drain-less streets, accompanied by hail that Egyptians call thelg, which incidentally also means snow. Since they never experience the latter no distinction is needed, although these icy pellets are a far cry from the friendly white powder Americans sing about come Christmas.

The most prominent agent of destruction recently assaulting Alexandria has been wind. Every door slams: taxi doors, front doors, even hallway doors in the dorms, creaking under the weight of changing air pressure. I woke up three times one night to close my windows, which kept flying open despite two layers of covers and clasps. In the morning, my entire path to school was strewn with fallen trees, forcing me to walk directly through the enormous puddles that flooded street and sidewalk. Wet feet are one of my least favorite sensations, but one I never expected to have to deal with in Alexandria, Egypt, where all the moisture has tended to stay in the humidity-laden air. But pernicious winds had rung out the air and drenched the streets, and the shocked Egyptians and Egyptianized Americans ran for cover.

And then it was over as soon as it began. Within two days the weather dried up and warmed up, as Egyptians might have predicted but I, with my Boston 5 month winter mentality, did not. As I headed out for one last outing with my roommate yesterday I insisted on bringing a jacket but she insisted on not bringing one. I ended up carrying my coat all day, the sun glinting off the calm ocean, teasing me. Winter had apparently decided that Egypt didn’t suit its style. I decided I knew very little about and Egypt, even after four months of living here.

Of course there is so much I do know. I know that the first call to prayer is around 5 in the morning and that the Library of Alexandria is only open from 3 to 7 on Fridays. I know how to pack five people into the back seat of a cab, how to give cab drivers directions to the girls dorms, how to decipher whether the cab driver will be good to talk to, creepy, or sullen. I know how to order fish grilled, fried or Egyptian-style, and I know a really good restaurant for fish.

But now I am leaving, and these acquired knowledges will fall by the wayside on my path to new countries. People are always leaving, moving on, picking up knowledge and putting it down. Having left over knowledge from a past place, phase, or age is part of the human experience. So what does one do with vestigial knowledge?  Store it? Toss it? File it neatly in a memory bin to be dusted off by some jarringly familiar smell or sound?

Moving tends to wreak confusion over my memory and rob it of a sense of time, which is a very crucial thing for memory. If I return to a well-worn memory of home, one I have often recalled, I feel as though time is a small pile I have just hopped over. But then a very particular memory from early in the semester will appear and stretch time, filling it with pasts and presents so it grows skinny and sags like silly-putty.

The anchors of the time spent are in the awkwardness of my English, newly freed from the language pledge, when I say things like “get off the car” and insert the Arabic pause word, ya’ani, rather than like into my speech. The anchors of time are in my clothes, worn and torn from the terrors of highly chlorinated water in washing machines. The anchors are on the bottoms of my callused feet, the skin gone elephantine from days of pounding the earth in dust ridden sandals. But my memory can’t seem to settle, tossing like a boat in the Alexandrian “winter” waters. Surely I have changed, but it will take another change of scene to tell just how, and how much.

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Get Well Soon

My roommate Haidy has a hot pot to boil water, and every day I make tea at least once. I have many types of tea in my room, Chamomile, a favorite from home, Peppermint, which my Tufts roommate Emily taught me to love, Lemon and Ginger, which I thought would be tasty but isn’t, and Cinnamon, one of several common Egyptian teas that include Hibiscus, Licorice and Lipton “Yellow label.” When I came home from two days in Cairo honking and coughing worse than I had when I left, I went straight for the tea pot. With honey, of course, on mother’s orders.

But it wasn’t only on her orders that I forced down several mugs-full upon arrival.  Haidy, having just graduated from the college of Medicine at Alexandria University, heard me hacking and asked, “What can you take? What have you taken?”

“Nothing,” I said resignedly, “there’s nothing that does much for a cold. Besides vitamin C, which I’ve taken and hasn’t done much.”

“Well, tonight we’ll have to get some lemon from the restaurant,” she said resolutely, as if this were decidedly the answer.

Though honey had always been an important addition to an ill-person’s tea in my family, and I often add lemon to my water, I had never heard of using lemon in tea to soothe a sore throat. That evening, at a delicious Syrian restaurant in Alex that Haidy and I were finally getting to after talking about it all semester, we nearly forgot the lemon. My plate of Jasmine rice with shwarma-style chicken (there was no vegetarian option), arrived on the table with a lemon garnish. I set it aside to pack up later but forgot about it, and just as the waiter began to gather it into the disposal heap Haidy tapped me, “No! Tell him you want the lemon!”

“Um, sorry… can I just get that lemon back from you?” I directed at the amused waiter.

I had no idea this lemon was so important. Meanwhile, Haidy’s friend, a doctor doing his post-internship masters in Pulmonology, grilled me about how long I had been coughing and whether there had been phlegm, (a thoroughly appetizing pre-dinner conversation), and promptly scribbled no less than five medicines I had never heard of on the corner of my paper placemat. He ripped it expertly and instructed me to head to a pharmacy right away.

“You have to get well before you leave Egypt! It won’t do to send you off like this,” he said.

The next day, on my way between class and the pharmacy I stopped to buy an orange for lunch. The fruit seller, furrowing his brow at my pervasive cough, asked, “Are you sick?” I confirmed the obvious, and he promptly reached over and picked off two leaves from a guava fruit.

“You must take these,” he said, adding them to the pile with my oversized orange.

“That’s alright, I don’t want a guava.”

“No, no, not the guava, the leaves! Wash them carefully and put them in your tea.”

“What?”

“It’s very helpful for the cough, to get rid of the cold,” he said. I supposed it wouldn’t hurt to try.

I returned to my room and boiled a pot of water. I’d never felt so clearly that I was doing something aptly described by the English phrase, “fixing” a cup of tea. It was like I was in a Jane Austen novel, or Little Women. I placed the scrubbed leaves in the cup, poured the hot water, squeezed in a few drops of lemon, and drizzled in honey as a finishing touch. It was perhaps the most elaborate and unusual hot drink I’d ever consumed, and I’ve had Starbucks lattes.

The result was a somewhat unrecognizable flavor, sour-sweet with a distinctively plant-like aroma, but now, in the time it has taken me to drink the tea and write about it, I have stopped coughing.

I wonder, who’d have thought a simple pot of water could compete with modern medicine? And more importantly, where can I get free guava leaves in the States?

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Americans in Cairo: We No Sleep in that Bed

Arrival

As I stood among the cab drivers and baby-toting families that were crowding at the mouth of the Cairo airport Arrivals gate, I sent my mother a message.

“Mom I know I’m going to be soso excited to see you but let’s try not to scream when we do, ok?”

I was already being sized up by the locals for being a white, hijab-less woman standing alone in the terminal, and I could just picture my parents striding out with their oversized bags, fresh off an AirFrance flight from Paris, my mother squealing loudly and turning bright red as she usually does when we first see each other after a long time. A woman with a carful of babies asked me where my husband was, and her frown at my response turned to a bewildered smile as my parents bowled down the other passengers and swept me into an ostentatious, squealing hug. Later, in the hotel, my mother would check her phone and say that she would definitely try not to scream, next time.

Since arriving in Egypt I have thought about the time when my parents would come to visit. Almost every day as I walked down the street I would think, I wonder how they will look walking down this street? If I took to inhabiting a particular spot I would vow to show it to them, if I discovered a new type of food I liked I would imagine us eating it together. In one sense this was probably my brain trying to figure out how the American in me was reacting to new experiences, but in another sense I was just missing home and excited for their November visit. Plus, it was sometimes funny; I might walk down a street populated entirely by hijab-wearing women, and picturing my mother’s curly red hair bouncing through down the road proved good for a laugh.

But I was also apprehensive. A friend’s parents had come to visit a few weeks before and she reported that while in Cairo they pretty much decided to stay in their hotel. I knew my parents were adventurous and did not shy from adversity, but I also knew that they probably had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

When they began to pack for the trip I sent them an email explaining the appropriate attire, especially for women—long skirts, scarves, cap sleeves or longer. No shorts for men. As I did so I tried to also provide some cultural context, (to which they replied that I should’ve written that in a blog). I tried to impress upon them that they were coming to the Arab world, the third world, a world unlike most they had ever seen before. Indeed, as they were first introduced to Cairo my mother kept commenting that this place reminded her of Puerto Rico or Mexico. She said it was because of the tropical temperatures, but I knew it was because those places were the closest to the developing world she’d ever visited. They had no schema to build this in to.

That fact hit us right as we exited the airport. My father had insisted that it wasn’t necessary for me to come pick them up, but I knew better. Not only did I want to be there to receive them, I knew they could never navigate the exasperating cab system that assaults the arrival terminal. After an impatient twenty minutes in which I tried to find a cab that wouldn’t rip us off, guiding my confused parents around the maze of cabs and their unshakable drivers, we loaded into a car and I immediately alerted my parents to the fact that driving was not quite the same here.

This was somewhat of an understatement: my mother clung to my father’s arm as she does on planes or during tense sporting events as the car lurched through traffic, riding along the white lane lines, using his horn rather than his signal to pass other cars and, worst of all, dodging pedestrians who cross whenever they see a two-second traffic gap. Such were my New York parents shoved head first into the Middle East.

The view from our hotel in Cairo

When we arrived at our beautiful hotel with its breathtaking view of the Nile, I was worried that my parents would want to stay there for the rest of the trip. To my relief, they wanted no such thing, despite the unnerving introduction to the world they’d entered. The alarm went off bright an early the next morning and up they popped, guide book and camera at the ready. As we toured the Pyramids, museums, mosques and churches of Cairo they kept their eyes and minds open, trying not to squint in the sun or cough in the smog. They admired the Nile, which sparkled and welcomed us as we sailed down in with a toothless felucca driver named Mohammed. Still, Cairo is not a very lovable city; you won’t find any I ♥ Cairo shirts here. Most Egyptians that I’ve asked prefer not to live in Cairo, although so many do. As we drove through the outskirts of the city towards the pyramids on the first day, my mother had already formed her opinion.

“I said to Dad, if there were one thing I would change about Paris, it’d be the smoking. And if there were one thing I’d change about Cairo, what would it be?

“The trash?”

“Exactly.”

Truly, it’s impossible not to notice overpopulated Cairo’s most populous population, outnumbering people and cats: garbage. It lines every street and piles in every corner. But garbage was not the only thing to sully the streets on this somewhat unfortunately timed visit.

Tip Toe through the Lamb’s Blood

My parents arrived on the very first day of Eid al’Adha, a holiday that celebrates the time of Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, in the Muslim calendar. The visit was planned this way because that was when I had a break from classes. I did not, however, consider the cultural practices of this holiday when planning their visit. Eid al’Adha brings not only throngs of people to the city (who disappear completely into their homes and hotels during the day) but cattle to the streets. To be slaughtered. On Eid al’Adha every family sacrifices a sheep or goat, or even a cow to give thanks for their blessings, and then 1/3 of the meat goes to charity, 1/3 to extended family and friends (who are probably also slaughtered their own animal), and the rest to the family themselves. The idea of sharing is wonderful, in my opinion, but slaughtering in the streets is rather hard to stomach. Cattle go by in herds and on cars, live, for days, and you look into their pathetic, watery eyes and wonder whether they know what’s in store. My parents were really good about walking in trash strewn streets without comment, but when we found ourselves walking through a sticky red section of street between mosque visits, we hailed a cab.

Nubia on the Nile

After two days, we abandoned Cairo for Luxor and Aswan. I had insisted we fly to the south of Egypt despite our limited time, and after our Cairo experience we weren’t sorry we’d planned to leave. The air in Luxor was immediately cleaner. The people were immediately friendlier. But my mother was immediately sick. In my pre-trip email I had mentioned that my parents should anticipate illness, that an upset stomach in Egypt was as common as a full one on Thanksgiving. Almost no one in our Middlebury group has avoided indigestion at one point or another, and for many it is a recurring phenomenon. Still, I had hoped it wouldn’t happen to my parents.

Ever the trooper, my mother insisted on coming out with us to tour but it quickly became clear she could not sustain the oppressive sand and sun in her state, and reverted back to the hotel. A part of me felt guilty for having brought my parents to such a precarious place, where car rides, culture shock and illness threatened them at every turn. They kept saying they never would have come here except to see me. But part of me felt that, well, since they came to see what my life was like here, then this was just part of that package. I told them that a mantra I had come to live by was one a girl on the program shared at the beginning: There is no growth in comfort, and there is no comfort in growth. I really hoped that this would be a growing experience for my parents, like it’s been for me, as it certainly wasn’t a comfortable one.

A felucca ride on the NileOf course, there were many pretty parts of the Egyptian package, too. The Nile, for one, which I don’t see much of in my Medteranean Sea-side home town, sparkled at every point we met it. Although the Pagan system in which Egyptians used to worship the Nile has long gone out of fashion, the inhabitants of its banks have never ceased to respect the river, and its banks and waters are always refreshingly free of filth. We met the river in the supposed spot that bore Moses to shore, in the place where Joseph may have lived, in the north and the south and on the east and west banks, and in every place it struck me as, somewhat ironically, the cleanest and prettiest river I’d ever seen.

There was also treasure buried in cultural exchange. My inquisitive parents always had me translate political and sociological questions into Arabic, and responses into English during cab rides, delving into topics such as why everyone who heard we were American said “Obama!” with a big grin (because he is not Bush), or whether the upcoming elections would bring positive change to the country, (they didn’t think so).

In Aswan we were delighted by the welcoming attitude and intriguing traditions of Nubian culture, as my father had, with considerable difficulty, booked us a hotel in a small village outside Aswan that was something of a homestay. They served us tasty home-cooked food and included us in the evenings “show”, filling the night with drum beats and the low, river-like ramble of men singing in unison. At one point they brought the three of us up to “volunteer” and a man in a grass skirt and African beads made us parrot high pitched trills and clucks and clown-like dance motions. I almost collapsed laughing as my dad imitated the man’s chicken dance and squeaky “beeeeebabaweeeeeewa!”, realizing simultaneously that trying to act like an Egyptian was almost as ridiculous and foreign an act for him. When the performer finally released us we collapsed into couches by the side of the Nile, wishing never to move again.

Long Night’s Journey into Alex

But move we did, after one heartbreakingly short day in Aswan, to Alexandria. In the cab ride there I sighed, “We have a long journey ahead of us.” We took a car to the tiny Aswan airport, where we phoned a driver we knew to later take us to the train station. My father gave my mother sedatives before the plane to Cairo. We enjoyed a mercifully smooth flight, but it all went down hill from there; the airport lost one of our bags and kept us waiting for over an hour, causing us to anger the delayed driver who then attempted to massively rip us off once we were packed into his cab, thereby delivering us very late to the train station, where we found that, as it happened to be the last day of Eid, the next train was sold out, and while debating whether to take a train leaving in two hours, it sold out too.

Stuck but not yet panicked, we asked the kindly policeman that had been following us, the harrowed looking tourists, whether he knew of any drivers who could take us to Alexandria. He led us to a tourist bureau where another policeman claimed that he could have a driver for us in five minutes. An hour of constantly-prompting-the-policeman-where-the-driver-was-later, we got in the car for a three hour ride to the hotel, where the concierge promptly discovered that we had three and not two people, and called for a spare bed. Having waited for our bag, waited for a car, and waded through the mess and muddle of non-American transportation, our mood rocketed from mad to madder. My mother, coming off the sedatives and never the most patient of New York women, did not hesitate to pick up the phone and let reception know how she felt about waiting for the bed, about every five minutes.  Then, just moments before a bed finally arrived, (not a cot on wheels but a full fledged mattress and frame which they had carried from a proximal hotel), my mother was found hollering into the phone for the umpteenth time, “Forget it. No send bed. We no sleep in bed. We sleep on floor!”

At that moment a harassed looking porter struggled into the room under the weight of an enormous mattress, and I, in my pajamas, was indeed on the floor—in a pile of hysterics.

In circumstances like those of living in Egypt, you often have to be there to get it. That being the case, I am thankful this Thanksgiving that my incredibly giving and infallible parents came to visit me in this foreign locus of learning. And surely, this Thanksgiving, they are more thankful than ever to be living in the United States.

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Morocco: An Exercise in Saturated Sensation

Mohamed calls it green but I’d say it’s more like turquoise. I don’t know how to say turquoise in Arabic, nor can I describe the most of the hues of the mosque’s zelij pattern. Navy and seafoam, off-white and azure. Tall and stately and a splendid sight for travel-weary eyes, the qa’abeh of the Hassan II mosque stands far above the remainder of  Casablanca. With only an hour or two to while away before out bus ride, we hail a cab to take us where our guidebookless sensibilities direct us– the place we can find without a guidebook. Mohamed is our cab driver’s name, and with a warm snaggle-toothed smile he agrees to chauffer us to the mosque and then the bus station. He even throws in his personal tour.

Enormous swells rise from their ocean bed and collapse like thunder, spraying visitors of the former King’s seaside legacy. Mohamed takes our picture and tells us the mosque can and has held 100,000 worshipers. The size is impressive, but I am more taken with colors that weave their way through intricate zelij, Moroccan style mosaic that clings to columns, arches, fountains and floors. Navy and seafoam, off-white and azure. They bewitch and enchant me. I decide I like Morocco.

Corbet on Wheels

As our bus rolls north into the countryside, the colors graduate into a pastoral palette, and I feel as though I am driving through the Gustave Corbet painting “Stone Breakers,” gone African. The walls of the hills, cut open unwillingly to pave roadways, reveal their raw innermost red. It’s a saturated brick color that I associate with native American pottery and rural Rwandan roads. Grass of various milky browns colonize the vibrant soil, as do trees whose olive green leaves betray their likely fruit. Donkeys of deep brackish brown and black shade themselves beside walls of white stucco; cows graze amidst tall verdant stalks with golden feather tips. In and out of consciousness I watch children with cinnamon skin and Spiderman backpacks (the hero seems to have cultivated quite a following in the Arab world) wander home from school past men chatting in gray cafes. I fall asleep watching murky clumps of sheep draw patterns across a surface that mimics their hue like a chameleon.

Darkness descends, dragging the bus up a winding mountain path that causes a woman in the seat across from me to vomit into a plastic bag. Brianna’s face turns sickly pale under her red hair. A few yellow lights dot the distant horizon, illuminating the way to Chefchaouen.

Impossibly entangled alleyways stretch before us in this small town, a product of the medieval sensibility that continues to reign here. We are so taken with the sight that we sit in our taxi in the center of town for a good five minutes before the driver wonders cheerily in Arabic, “Are you going to stay with me for the night, then, or do you prefer a hotel?”

I’m in Morocco! Thrilled with this realization I purchase a celebratory guidebook, even though we’ve already purchased the necessary chapters online. Allie buys two sandwiches for a portly old woman who begs by the entrance of the medina. She lights up and wipes her hands on her red and white striped skirt, lays the sandwiches beside her and continues to beg.

Blue this town and Everybody Around

We wake up in blue. It is our hotel walls, the view out the window and  everything we could not quite see during our dusk arrival. There is hardly a horizon between sky and buildings. The constant flow of color is interrupted only by the starchy green mountains that dare to peak through this soliloquy of blue.

At 7 AM we descend the hotel steps to capture the light most flattering to our resident color, grabbing hungrily at the morning shades with our camera lenses. Robed figures with pointy hoods scurry past amidst morning errands, as do uniformed children and teens with books in tow. I chase after colors until I find that I have done so at the expense of staying with my fellow photographers. I am suddenly alone in a strange town. The blue darkens and grows sinister.

Breathing to collect the calm I have dropped, I gather my composure into a basket of hopes for time alone. As I start to search for my lost comrades, adrift in a sea of blue alleys and wrong turns, my calls of American names drown in unfamiliar ears. I ask a woman with light eyes and a pink night-gown like dress if she has seen two American girls taking pictures. Her response is only confusion, probably caused principally by the sound of a white American girl speaking the unspoken Standard Arabic, then she reconsiders and points towards a downward sloping road. I follow it, finding a window-sized door that opens onto a one room doughnut shop, where people break the night’s fast with sizzling oil drenched pastries. I try to remain cheery as I attempt to decipher the chef’s response to my repeated question about the Americans. The same woman from earlier points be further down the road.

Now on the main street, car-less in this early hour, I recognize the book store where I purchased my guide the night before. Alhamdulilah! I know my way back to the hotel from here, where the others must no doubt be waiting worriedly. Yes, all I have to do is head up a street right in front of it… but something tells me the only street there is in front of it is the wrong one. I buy a pan au chocolat to temporarily relieve my lost-ness and commence to walk up and down the same street four or five times, bewildered. The woman at the bottom of the street who is counting out olive branches hardly looks up from her tasks as she shakes her head in response to my query about the Americans. In desperation I approach a cab driver with the card that holds my hotel’s address, and when he shakes his head I am about to give up, remembering that New York Times Column I read whose concept is “getting lost.” I wonder why anyone would want to write a column about getting lost, as the frustration is far from inspirational or interesting, until, can it be? The cab’s fare knows the hotel and points to a tunnel burrowed in the side of the wall, which in the day light, I didn’t recognize as the entrance to the medina. Panic releases its constricting grip and I decide that perhaps getting lost was actually kinda fun. The blue cracks a smile, shaking its head knowingly at yet another tourist that has fallen under its spell.

Wake up and smell the sights, touch the taste, hear the sensations

The rest of the day is spent wandering through minor destinations in constant presence of picture-perfect scenes, which we of course take pictures of. Sensual experiences bombard our every sensor: piles of pure color—the powdery paint base that’s responsible for the town’s hue, henna on our hands that makes our irritated skin feel like stretched canvasses, steaming heaps of vegetables over yellow couscous and under yellow raisins, a creaking wooden staircase that leads to a mecca of soap with rich scents of all the best and strangest kinds, mint and rose and curry. I bargain with a man who has on display a collection of bills from around the world. I get the price of silver earrings down to half the quoted price, then switch targets at the last minute and pay the first quote on a pair of candle sticks, and elemental error that I continue to beat myself up for after miles of blue walls.

The sun sighs and begins to set, turning blue into deep periwinkle. We search for a waterfall we read about in lonely planet, but it turns out to be more of a trickle than a fall, all of which is guided down a serious of damns that serve as the town laundry machine and who knows what else. Not surprised, (Lonely Planet, to which Allie is a dogmatic devotee, has repeatedly disappointed in this town), we wander irresolutely up the mountain past a door to nowhere, that is of course painted blue. I photograph the door and imagine it to open onto another town like this one, only purple, or to have once opened to a family home where the people only wore blue and had a blue cat, or to be un-openable, pinned shut by the varicose thorns of a miserly cactus. The possibilities linger in my imagination as a goatherd clucks his goats up the hill, and they scurry past the sun as it yawns and tucks into its blue bed.

 

*Due to internet troubles I could not upload photos to this post, but if you want to see pictures you can look at my album on facebook: http://on.fb.me/dBEEPo

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Fish

the "after" picture at Urs al-Bahr

Some of my favorite memories are of food, and some of my favorite food-memories are of fish.

My favorite fish memory is this: One day in Puerto Rico my father and I followed our tingling taste buds towards a restaurant we’d heard served delicious fresh fish. The place was not so much a restaurant as a shack with some picnic tables that served as a direct flight for fish from hook to fork. Next to a pier where fisherman combed calm waves was a closet sized hole with three counters, where the latest catch was laid. Puerto Ricans in loud colors and loud accents lined up to choose their favorite fish, and the delicacy of choice would then be grilled in the open ocean air and flipped onto a paper plate. The entire process, from choice to consumption, took about three hours. My father and I ate at a picnic table shaded by a roof of thatched palm branches, watching the fisherman and trying not to mind our fish’s grilled eyeball. The fish was cooked with skin and bones and butter.  It was delicious.

Food related memories are often more concerned with the circumstance in which the food was eaten than the food itself; the people with whom the food was eaten, the particularly punchy presentation, the trying journey to reach the site of the meal, a very good, or perhaps a very bad reaction to something eaten. Details of flavor and texture may drown in the soup of memory without of a firm foundation of circumstance to cling to. I once ate a fish in a restaurant that was entirely white: walls and floors and ceilings and rugs and tables and cutlery and waiters’ uniforms, all was white except for the flamboyant paintings that besmirched the walls. But I remember that the fish was a dark, gravelly black, because it was entirely covered in pepper, “blackened,” if you will. Eating such a dark food in such a white restaurant felt like trespassing. But eat it I did. And it was delicious.

In my humble culinary experience meals involving fish have been some of the most memorable. Perhaps this is why fish is one of my favorite food groups. (It was also the only “meat” I continued to eat after becoming a “vegetarian” or a “pesce-tarian” or whatever.) And this is all very well because I am now, (wait, here comes the point of all this lead up), located in a city whose culinary specialty is maritime.

In my family it is generally believed that when abroad one should always take the advice of “the locals,” in terms of food. If one finds oneself in a restaurant with lots of people who are not carrying maps and cameras, this is an initial indication of success. Fortunately I did not have to wait to turn up in such a restaurant, as my roommate Haidy took me to one. On one of my first nights here she turned to me with bright eyes and said, “Do you like fish?” (in arabic, of course), and I obviously replied enthusiastically that I did. “Well then I have to take you to this restaurant, it’s so good, my friend and I are going next week and you have to come.” We went that week, and again with the same friend and a cousin the following week. At 40 to 50 LE a meal, about 8 or 10 dollars, I am not loathe to make this a tradition.

“Urs al-bahr,” the bride of the sea, fills its tables with locals several times a day, and, if they are lucky, a few camera toting tourists as well. The fringes of the restaurant are prowled by a host of cats, who occasionally penetrate the barriers and slither through table legs to search for scraps of dropped fish. Incidentally, cats here prefer fish to mice, and who can blame them? Everywhere there are fish there are cats, perched on shingles ready to pounce or mewing with noses upturned.

Cats always seem to head seaward, which is where Urs al-Bahr, fittingly, is located. Then again, that is true of the entire city, which is literally spread like a necklace along the coast. As with many informal restaurants here, at Urs al-Bahr you choose and pay for your food before you receive and eat it. By the cash register there is a literal boat filled with ice and iced with fish. Neat rows of Buri and shrimp stare blankly at you from their beds, offering up their meat. You grin back at them, reveling in your power to choose the finest, then order the manner of their murder; will they be grilled (mashwi), fried (maqli), or in a broth with tomatoes and onions (tagen)?  And then choose side dishes. In a short time your table with groan under the weight of countless salads, stacks of fresh pita, tureens of tahini, cakes of rice and of course, fish. You waiter may have to stack some of the dishes for lack of space. You will squeeze a lemon over the charred flesh and eat it with the bones, skin, and head as witnesses. You will become a carnivorous beast and sniff out any morsel left clinging to the skeleton, tearing at it with your knife, fork and hands. You will wipe up the remains with pita. You will pat your stomach and feel incredibly satiated and at peace.

This is the stuff of good memories.

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Kol Nidrei Est Le Plus Important— B’gad!

Cairo Synagogue, Adly Street, 1997

Alexandria lives in a cloud of Islam. (As does most of the Middle East and North Africa, for that matter.) Five times a day the air ignites with the call to prayer that booms through every street like thunder. Moisture from the cloud makes it necessary for almost every resident woman to cover her head and arms, and sometimes face and fingers, while out of doors. It tints perceptions and expressions and architecture. It is sometimes heavy and sometimes light. It is beautiful and intricate to the eye that can see its particles. And in this city, it is all encompassing.

That is why I did not expect there to be high holiday services at the Alexandria synagogue. The other Jewish students and I joke that our 9½ strong presence has increased the Jewish quotient by at least 200 percent, but it is not really a joke. Though once the comfortable home of a vibrant Sephardic community, Egypt has been all but void of an active Jewish community since, oh, around 1948. There are Muslims and there are some Christians, and if there are Atheists or Agnostics or Buddhists or Hindus, they keep it to themselves.

But Jewish holidays wait for no man or woman to settle into a new land, or try to get to Israel, so after a week in Egypt I boarded a train to Cairo to scrounge for Judaism. Fortunately some of the other Jews were willing to come along, so it was five of us wandering down a darkened Cairene street, unable to ask for directions to a place of Jewish worship. After several moments of scowling frustration with the lack of building numbers or street names, we spotted it standing above and apart from the other buildings.

It was surrounded. A full legion of police offers had come to celebrate the Jewish New Year, as had several conspicuous Israeli shin bets with curled chords behind their ears. My friend felt nervous by the presence of guns, but I, whispering to her that a bomb-clad backpack had once been unsuccessfully planted, felt safe.

Five Jews and a Synagogue

Contrary to my expectations, a few other people had shown up to services. The congregation consisted of a Minyan’s worth of Egyptian women, hunched with age, speaking Arabic inflected French, brought over annually by their hijab wearing daughters. There were some Egyptian men, I think, one of whom was confusedly trying to figure out what books we had taken from the glass cabinet and another who was handing out tissues to combat the heat. There was a rabbi who was flown in from France. There were a considerable number of expats, including a several English teachers, a journalist, and a Brown student who knows one of my best friends. After a fifteen minute, fairly rushed and generally unrecognizable service the whole lot retired to a delicious pot luck dinner that unfortunately did not include apples and honey.

The next day four of us took the metro to the synagogue. Among the dusty car’s passengers were several men reading the Qur’an, fitting in the morning’s prayers. Descending into the lovely ex-pat neighborhood of Maa’di we again worried about asking for directions, but were soon clued in by the conspicuous presence of guards, Egyptian and Israeli.

Though we were running on Jewish time, meaning late, we were the first ones there, aside from the French rabbi and the journalist we had conversed with at dinner the evening before. Slowly and painfully a minyan (counting only the men) filled out. Later on several Israeli looking women and a few mothers of kippah clad children noisily appeared. And just as we were about to leave, after the shofar but before the end, a girl looked right at me and smiled. She didn’t know my name but she knew my face from the Jewish Day School I attended in Maryland. She had been a student there too. The Jewish world is ridiculously small.

I returned to Alexandria uplifted by this bubble of belonging. After having to hide, or at least omit, this part of my identity among the Muslim mist it felt good to be open and in touch. But after ten days back under my protective umbrella of secrecy, I felt uncertain of what Yom Kippur would be like in Alexandria. Still, for the first time ever I was the least optimistic one in a group of Jews, and so I tagged along to the synagogue with a scarf on my shoulders and a siddur in my bag.

The entrance to this synagogue was not so conspicuous. But it was still armed. Tucked in a bustling, cosmopolitan part of the city called Mahat Ramal, we were only able to find the alley that led to the entrance gate because someone had spotted it on the scavenger hunt we participated in a few days prior. There was a van in the mouth of the alley, and through the window I could see twenty squished soldiers watching us. I felt extremely self conscious. It was the first time in Egypt that strangers on the street knew for sure I was Jewish.

After passing the test of a decidedly-not-fooling-around guard we turned right back around to eat our pre-fast meal. We scurried to the nearest Mohammed Ahmed, a chain restaurant whose name is appropriate in a city where one is hard put to find a man not named one of the two. We feasted on falafel, ful, omletes, a myriad of salads and endless baskets of pita, all for less than two American dollars. The others were insistently optimistic that there would be a service to follow. Han’shuf, I said. We’ll see.

The legacy of Alexandria's Jewish community

A older man with a thick white mustache and a page-boy cap smiled and welcomed us in Arabic. The synagogue was the most beautiful of the three, built in the 19th century with towering Corinthian marble columns and two levels full of carved wooden benches commemorating members past.  Evening sunlight smiled down at the velvet bima through lavender and green stained glass. But most beautiful aspect were the Jews; actual, practicing, breathing Jews in the pews! And they were Alexandrian! At least, they were, once. Now they were Israeli, living in Bat Yam, coming back for Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur and Pesach to wake the giant religious home of their youth from its slumber.

They were happy to speak to us in Arabic, though among themselves they spoke a delightful mixture of French, Arabic and Hebrew, often in the same sentence. There was no rabbi, but there was a scholarly looking congregant who was thrilled to find that with our addition of three men we stretched to an actual minyan. He sang one unbroken torrent of prayer, not stopping to change pages or breaths or tune. At one point my friend realized that we had never said the Kol Nidrei, the most famous and essential prayer of the service. She casually mentioned this in Arabic to a man sitting next to her, (the only man in the women’s section… worn out Orthodox Judaism is an odd beast). In anguish he stood up and started shout-whispering to the other women, “Kol Nidrei se le plus important! La’a, b’gad! T’srichim lihagid lo!” (Kol Nidrei is really important, no really! We have to tell him!) With my shards of French, rusty Hebrew and functional Arabic, I understood his frustration but could hardly stifle the laugh summoned by this curious dialect. For the duration of the service my friend and I giggled and whispered “se le plus important, b’gad!”

We returned the next morning, and again in the evening. How could we not after they

A sumptuous french/egyptian banquet to relieve the day's hunger

beamed at us so, asking us umpteen times whether we’d return tomorrow, and for Pesach, and the next year, too? The sun simmered out through the stained glass, its eventual setting heralded by a chorus of “blow the shofar already! We’re hungry!” in many languages. In the vestigial administrative building next door, among plates of French pastries and Middle Eastern fruits, the Jews of Alexandria sang Hava Neglia, Oseh Shalom, and Hinei Ma Tov, feeling how truly nice it was to be sitting together as brothers.

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Walk (and try to talk) Like an Egyptian

Alexandria, Egypt

To walk like an Egyptian is to walk with dirty feet and a swiveling head. In the first few days of my Alexandrian existence, I noticed that my feet acquired an amount of dirt consistent with the distance I had traveled. Each time I leave beit a-tallibat, the female students’ dorm at Alexandria University, my feet enter an obstacle course of wind-strewn sand, stinking puddles, shisha ashes and can-less garbage. Each evening when I remove my sandals I always find my skin patterned in the shape of my sandal straps.

In every city there is a language of movement. The Alexandrian swagger has a grammatical structure that choreographs for the hands, the feet, the hips and the head. Hands here move with emphatic emotion, like Italian hands. I have occasionally found myself beginning to speak Arabic with an Italian accent, as my Italian accent appears whenever my gesticulations gain speed. Cheeks here are always kissed at least once in greeting, (between men and between women), and kisses are usually accompanied by a hug and a pat for women or a hand grasp and chest bump for men. Often these hand grasps continue after the greeting: a westerner may be surprised to see how many platonic male friends hold hands here. (My friend Elsa surmised that males may feel more at ease with physical affection here because homosexuality is considered non-existent, and thus the threat of “seeming gay” is not imminent.)

Lips smile with ease here, at friend or foe or stranger. Never have I known a more friendly culture. During the Eid al Fitr break (end of Ramadan holiday) group of students from the program and I rented a villa in Marina, a beautiful stretch of

Marina, Egypt

sea where the Egyptian upper class retire. It felt inappropriate to stand in bikinis before niqab clad women so my friend Elsa and I swam in shorts and t-shirts, noting that since modesty standards are reversed here women actually wear considerably more clothing than men on the beach. When we emerged from the aqua marine water we asked someone to take a picture of us before it. What we non-Egyptians failed to realize was that we had just made ourselves available for a long conversation with an entire family. After half an hour I finally returned to my chair, abandoning the walk in favor of a moment of privacy, but it was not to be. Within five minutes a girl came over and introduced herself, surprising me with a kiss on each cheek. Such intimacy is distinctively Mediterranean, rarely found on the beaches of the Atlantic.

In Egypt such easy familiarity is far from rare. The night before our trip to marina, Elsa, our friend Daniel and I had been greeted and then followed by a rambunctious group of teens all named Mohammed, Ahmed, or Mustafa who insisted that they were our “younger brothers.” A young man who was familiar with our entourage soon invited us to escape their eager questions and join his friends for the evening. We proceeded to traverse the city with them into the wee hours. (During Eid people of all ages stay out through the night; daylight finds the streets almost unnervingly quiet.)

Ask a stranger for directions in Egypt and he or she will probably walk you to your destination; enter a cab and with little more than a week’s Arabic skills and you may be entitled to the driver’s life story.  Such is the saqafa Masri, the Egyptian culture.

But there is a catch: while Egyptians encourage and almost demand openness, they only accept the realities of a select few. When the beachside family asked where we were from Elsa said we were both Mexican, (she actually is), so that we might avoid pledge-breaking English, and when they asked about our religion I said I was Christian, so that I might avoid having to defend Israel in Arabic. This left me with little to say, and the family wondered aloud why I was so quiet—soon after which I decided to return to my chair. If you are a middle or upper class Christian or Muslim white male in Egypt your identity is yours to keep. If you are not, compromises must be made.

Alexandrian skirts do not sway too much: a woman in this city must try not to attract attention to herself, for by virtue of her gender she is already the subject of visual interest. Female heads do not swivel as suddenly as men’s, as she must look straight ahead purposefully in order to block astringent male stares. Still, the most important rule of gestural grammar is survival, and the biggest threat is crossing the streets.

The main street in Alexandria is called the Cornish (pronounced kohr-neesh). It has five lanes of constant movement on both sides and tunnels burrowing underneath it through which pedestrians change sides. You have to be crazy, an expert, or desperate to cross over that Cornish—but all other streets are fair game.

Frogger, an apt simulation of Alexandrian life

The system of crossing is not unlike the old Gameboy game called Frogger, in which one must narrowly navigate between constantly busy lanes of traffic with hop-like motions. The aim of the game, like Frogger, is not to be squashed.

Initially, I was not as shocked by the Egyptian roads as some of my American colleagues were because I had been to India. I had seen streets with two painted lanes interpreted as four-lane roads, had seen people and animals cross inches before moving cars that would swerve only slightly to accommodate. But while in Mumbai these roads were a foreign phenomenon to be gawked at, in Alexandria they are a condition to be mastered, a home to call my own. I must adopt the swagger of the Egyptians, swivel my head to make up for the fact that I have only two eyes, and direct my feet brazenly into the road without stoplights. Thus far, I have managed to adopt the walk of the Alexandrian Egyptian. But a greater challenge looms: I must now learn to talk like one.

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