Friday, September 12, 2008

What’s the happening in Alex?

I’ve settled into the slower pace of Alex(andria) quite nicely… Getting away from those horrible touts in Cairo has had enormous benefits. (In case you missed it: a tout is a person, 99.9% of the time a guy, who tries to get you to do something you don’t really want to do, like come into their store “just to look” or to take their hyper-expensive taxi cab, or come stay at their “very nice” hotel.)
I spent a few hours at the Naitonal Museum of Alexandria, which is a former consulate building that was turned into a museum about five years ago. While the exhibit descriptions were the best I’ve seen, all of it was lit in a very moody, dark manner, making things hard to see. But I’m sure the museum director thought it was compelling.
I continue to try and comprehend the scale of history here: the periods, the dynasties and all of the conquering. At one time or another, nearly everyone seems to have had their hands in the Egyptian pie, including the French and the Brits. During the time of Jesus, Alex was considered the intellectual and cultural capital of the world, yet they also say that the glory days here were really in the 12th to the 15th centuries!
It’s always hard being an editor tho, because I’m always wanting to correct those English grammatical errors. The guide pamphlet to Alex was so bad that I asked if I could take a whack at editing it, making sure I wasn’t offending anyone. They seemed thrilled that I would do that for me, and I spent a few hours trying to make a few “adjustments” for the next printing.
The other challenge in Egypt, anywhere, is crossing the street. Cars, buses and trucks always have the right of way, and pedestrians seem expendable. That said, I’ve never seen anyone get hit, but it has to happen! The technique I’ve devised is to sort of wait until someone else is heading out, and then use them as my “shield,” although I don’t think they see it the same way. It often happens that you get out into the street and a car speeds up, meaning you need to stand there and hope to hell you don’t get hit. So far, so good. I don’t detect that they’re “after” the foreigners, either.
In fact, feeling safe is something I’m starting to take for granted, at least in Alex. Maybe because it’s Ramadan, and people are holier and kinder at this time of year, but I’d like to think it’s that they just don’t look to harm others anytime. But I walk around at night and never feel any sense of danger or impending doom, which is quite a nice feeling.
I think I’ve said before that it’s common for men to walk around arm in arm. It’s not a sexual thing in the least, and they’re certainly not gay. Rather it’s just a mark of friendship between men, and sometimes women (although not as often it seems). I was walking the other night with Mohammed and he said “give me your arm” and we walked that way for awhile. It felt a little awkward, but then he said that only “best friends” walk arm-in-arm, and that was a nice feeling that he considered me such a friend.
Omar Sharif is in town, too! I can’t tell you the name of the show, but the poster shows him and another guy, with handcuffs on their wrists and looking forlorn. Of course, it’s all in Arabic, and I’ve tried to ask but no one seems to know what the show is about.
In fact, I’m not seeing that there’s a lot of support for the performing arts here. Last night, I went to see an Arabic choir perform. It was actually two choirs, one children and the other adults. The kids, all adorable, sang first, then there was an intermission and the adults took over. Much of the Arab music sounds redundant to western ears, and it seemed to my somewhat untrained ear that everything was in two parts, male and female (vs. four parts of soprano, alto, tenor and bass). The choirs would sing as a whole, and then one or three (never two) soloists would come out into the spotlight. I’ve never seen such emotion in singers! Luckily, I sat next to a guy who spoke some English and he would give me the briefest explanation of what the songs were about: “this is about the sun” or “they sing about their mothers.” That helped, of course, but mostly it was just a pleasure to see the amount of energy and rehearsals that went into it. All of the people talking throughout the show was a bit of a distraction… and the show ended with the conductor singing a short solo!
After the show, which last over two and a half hours, I strolled back to the hotel. Even though it was midnight, you would think that it was the afternoon: there were so many lights on, so many families and kids out shopping or walking. There was a street carnival, for lack of a better word, with rides like bumper cars, a small ferris wheel and spinning cups. Of course, all I could think was “these kids should be in bed!” Further down the street, all the men were of course happily sitting at their favorite café, drinking coffee, talking and smoking shisha (the water pipe). Another night in Alex.
Three more quick things: I love how a prayer to Allah starts playing every time that the elevator door closes at my hotel. It’s a seven-story ride in a somewhat rickety lift, but I somehow don’t think it was anyone’s idea of a joke…
And the names of the stores are always amusing: My favorites so far are Just… (that’s the name, just Just…), Marilyn Monroe and Tommy XXL.
And finally, for some reason, Egyptians love things LOUD. Especially their television shows. If it's in a store, or in the hotel lobby or, worst of the all, the hotel room next to you, they love it, or need it, at the highest volumn possible. Mh theory, of course, is that the whole country is so loud due to traffic and horns honking, that they're all going deaf!
I’m still planning on leaving this weekend for the Sinai… but we’ll chat about that later.
In the Muslim world, Friday is their Sunday, so take it easy today!

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