Sunday, July 5, 2009
Two Fridays ago began for me later than I had wished. I had planned on making the hour long walk to Souq Goma’ (the Friday market), but did not wake up until 1 and could not coax myself into walking through the midday sun to get there. Angry at myself for doing this again—this is the second time I slept in instead of going to the market, I decided to walk downtown and sit in an air conditioned cafe, get some coffee, and study Arabic. As I walked downtown I was hassled twice by “tourist bazaar” owners. I guess I brought it on myself, I was walking with headphones on, my camera bag that had my notebooks in it, and was wearing a light T-shirt like all tourists wear. One of them said to me in English “You look Egyptian. Are you Egyptian?” So I replied in English, “If you think I’m Egyptian, why don’t you ask me in Arabic?” and then continued walking. It’s not that I am not use to hearing lines like this when I’m Downtown, the main areas that tourists tend to be, it is just that I had spent that week thinking about how I am going live here as I plan to some day and live with the daily hassling I face from people like the ones that live off of the tourist industry. This guy just happened to get my wrath because of how his use of language and identity rubbed me the wrong way.
After this I arrived at Costas and sat down to study and have some coffee. I stayed there for a bit and continued dwelling on not getting out and using the language enough. I also had been quite bored that week. Besides going to see a group that performs Zar music, which I highly recommend, I hadn’t done much besides going to my Arabic lessons. As I sat there looking at my chart of verbs, I decided I was going to take a walk to Mohandessin and see if I street vender who sold magnets with Gaddafi on them was still there. I use to pass this guy when I was going to As-Salaam Hospital for some minor surgery last time I was in Egypt. So once again I threw on my headphones and started walking.
I walked across Kobri Sitta October, then cut up Zamalak, and then across Kobri Saba wa Ashrin Youlyoo. Now that I had completed a walk that I had done so many times before, I decided I was going to abandon my headphones. My habbit of listening to music when I walk has in many ways deprived me of listening to Arabic. I guess I could listen to my Pimsler Arabic Mp3s, but they just don’t do it for me when I’m walking. As I walked down The Street of the Arab League I listened in on conversations. It’s funny how I can understand what people are saying to me when they aren’t talking to me. I guess I just clench up a bit when I have to speak because my accent sucks, and I dislike the language barrier. It was an enjoyable walk to get to where the magnet man use to be, but when I arrived I found out that he was no longer there. I decided to sit down for a break.
Once I reached Sudan St. I heard a woman walking with two young kids say something to me. I almost ignored her thinking that it was someone asking for money. Then I heard “Losamaht, shar’a Shehaab fein?” (excuse me, where is Shehaab St. I pointed down the road I had just come down and said “a’la tool”(straight ahead). She then went on her way walking her children in the direction I had pointed and I started heading south on Sudan St. As I continued walking I felt really good with what had just happened. When I leave the Downtown area I often get asked directions, but I normally cannot help out. I am sure this woman knew I was not Egyptian, especially after the first syllable came out of my mouth, but it was the fact that she made no discernable reaction to the fact made me feel good. It is a relief to get away from a place that can’t let you forget that you are a foreigner or make the assumption you have disposable income because of your passport.
As I walked along the mural that runs along part of Sudan St. I thought about this. Sudan st. is an interesting place to walk because it splits and you are left walking on a narrow side walk with a mural on one side of you and a yellow sheet metal divider on the other, and almost no people walking down it. From over the yellow divider you can see a complex being built by the Ministry of Tourism. From the sign that was above it, it looked as though they are building a super-resort right next to this busy road. If ever completed (it looked like construction had halted) it will also overlook a poor neighborhood. All and all it doesn’t seem like a place that tourists would pay good money to see.
I exited Sudan St. as it turned into an overpass. As I stood under it and another over pass I noticed a lone fares wheel next to a mosque. I was separated from it by a wall that separated this part of town from the nicer part of town. Earlier I had noticed how that part of town was separated by the metro tracks. This made me think about how this was definitely a place that would be considered the “wrong side of the tracks.” What’s wrong about that side of town? Is it an eye sore? Is that why the construction of that resort looks like it was halted? Are the people dangerous? I don’t believe so. I have walked through neighborhoods like that before and have met plenty of nice people. Last Friday, when I finally made it to Souq Goma’, as I walked to the City of the Dead to go to get to the market the people were much more interested in talking to me when I asked for directions then any one Downtown would be. What a horrible term we use to describe these places cut off by tracks and highways and then walls to hide both the people and the vehicles we force to place next to them.
I think the reason I really like walking through these areas is that I never see any other foreigners in these areas. I get satisfaction from being able to have interacting at a day to day level with people. Satisfaction that as soon as I was done taking pictures of the fares wheel, a second person asked me for directions and I was able to give it to them. Yet this lack of foreigners is a double edge sword. It gives this false impression that everyone in Egypt is trying to rip you off, or if someone has never been here, they think about the dangerous, terror ridden middle east. Few people ever see the complexity of Egyptian society. It is something I am only beginning to figure out; something that goes way beyond pyramids, papyrus, and taxi rides. It is something that takes immersion, thought, and re-immersion to begin to grasp. It also takes the knowledge that just like there is more than on United States there exists more than one Egypt. The flower seller on the side of the road is not the same as the tourist bazaar clerk, and both are not the kid who sits in Costa’s Coffee studying every day. That is what makes Egypt of today so interesting. While history tends to paint themes on era’s and dynasties, it is much easier today to take notice of the complexities of the time we live in, if you just take a long walk.