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Letters from Egypt: Short, Cautionary Tales

Hotel bombings and terrorism aside, it’s the daily alien frustrations and local rituals that put the grit into living abroad. Our writer reports from Cairo on the small infuriations that make her city unique.

When I was planning my move to Cairo, people in New York were curious: Why Cairo? One friend jokingly quipped, “Don’t get shot.” Another asks in each email whether I’ve befriended any fundamentalists. When I first arrived, like a good American citizen, I registered with the embassy, giving them my email and local addresses. So far I have received two messages, in regard to Yasser Arafat’s funeral and the hotel bombings on the Sinai Peninsula. In both emails, I was advised to exercise general caution and, in the case of the latter, to stay out of the Sinai Peninsula, and for the former, to avoid heavily trafficked areas where demonstrations might occur, such as a Tahrir Square—two blocks from my apartment and the location of my roommates’ school—and mosques, which are on nearly every block. No one, let alone the embassy, had written with decent instructions on how to brave Cairo’s streets or dinner tables or navigate its apartment buildings, and I have had to fend for myself and encounter some of the city’s more pressing dangers.

Drinking tea

I’m not sure what to compare it to in America—Budweiser or Coke or coffee or bottled water—but tea is everywhere in Cairo. Small, clear, steaming glasses of the loose, dark Egyptian brew sit on street ledges, on all the tables in coffee shops, on medicine counters, in fruit stalls, in every meeting room. The tea itself comes in two forms—either little dark pebbles or a finer grind. The dregs linger at the bottom of the glass cups, often with some undissolved sugar left over from the three or four teaspoonfuls that are often added. Café boys walk down the street, balancing sometimes a dozen glasses on aluminum trays. A friend of mine swears he drinks 20 doses daily. A cup of tea costs about eight cents, and the guy from the café down the block comes into our office all day taking orders. There are other drinks to order, too—tea with fresh mint or with milk; or chamomile tea; or hibiscus tea, an intense purplish drink that is served cold in the summer—but plain old tea is the thing you see served and consumed most. And the word for it in Arabic is great: “shy.”

For my first few nights in Cairo, when I was shell-shocked and caught off guard by my new city, I stayed in a hostel on the roof of a downtown building. My bed was $4 a night, in a private room twice its size. Facing my door was the hostel’s kitchen, where a smiling man dressed in a soiled white galabiyah (a traditional, dress-type garment) prepared drinks for the hostel guests by boiling water, adding about three spoons of sugar for each serving plus one spoon of tea, stirring vigorously, and then pouring it into small cups to serve.

On my second night I found myself sitting for hours around a table with a handful of travelers from all over the world, sharing experiences and drinking tea. When we had emptied our cups, someone would buy another round, and, warmed by the conversation and the drink, I accepted a glass each time. Around three in the morning I found my way to my room, onto the thin sheet that was the only layer between me and an inch-and-a-half-thick sponge mattress. That night, I tossed and turned, wide awake until morning, thinking how buying rounds of Egyptian tea, while much cheaper than buying rounds of beer, might not be the better option if I ever wanted to sleep again.

Not knowing the difference between a doorbell and a light switch

Invariably, at night, I find myself going up to someone’s apartment—often on an upper floor of a large, beautiful downtown building that clearly saw its glory days before the halfway marker of last century. The hallways are always dark, as hall lights here don’t stay on all night, and along the walls are switches that keep the lights on for brief intervals. These switches unfortunately look like doorbells, and most of these apartments often have doorbells, too, so you’re faced with a dark, unfamiliar hallway coated with switches and bells, one of which must trigger the light.

I am of the school that prefers to bumble around in the dark, tentatively feeling for clues as to whether I’m on the right floor or at the right apartment. Apartment numbers are usually unclear, if they exist at all, and then they are sometimes written in modern Arabic numerals, which persist in confusing me.

Considering all these circumstances, I often meet new people when I’m only trying to turn on the lights. And once I’ve finished my visits with the people I intended to see, I use a cigarette lighter as a pathetic flashlight so I don’t trip during my spiraling descent.

Crossing the street

In New York City, I could time my walks so I never needed to wait for a light to change. I could zip quickly between cars, I could sidestep grandmas and tromp my steel-toed boots through puddles—I was the queen of the street, totally unprepared for a Cairene descent into pauperdom.

Many drivers in Cairo don’t use headlights at night. Most one-way roads operate both ways, and there are as many traffic lights as churches—very few. Beyond the most basic regards to order, such as waiting for a traffic cop’s whistle to proceed, anything goes for drivers here. And there are so many of them, driving every kind of vehicle imaginable, since inspections and emissions-control are little regarded here. Initially this gave me a huge shock. I would stand for minutes at the side of the road, watching the cars zip by: an unending procession of decked-out SUVs and pickups piled with everything from stacks of café chairs to near-dead cows, sedans with tinted windows, crowded buses, and black-lit taxis with shag-covered dashes. Eventually my wait would turn into a trance: I’d find myself staring into space, meditating on where exactly all these people came from and where it was they were so passionately going.

Then one day, a miracle came to pass; I crossed Tahrir Square in under 20 seconds. Tahrir Square, home to skyscraper hotels, the Egyptian Museum, the American University, and numerous juice shops, bookstores, fast-food places, and street vendors, is a tangle of interlocking loops that serve as the convergence for about six major streets. Directly across a dozen lanes of traffic sits the Mugamma—a Kafka-esque monolith with offices for every imaginable form of bureaucratic torture, and my destination as I completed the process of obtaining my one-year visa.

I had been to the Mugamma before, but had—cleverly, I thought—found a secret way to avoid traffic, by navigating through dizzying passages of underground pedestrian tunnels to reach the other side. For this visit, I had a friend with me, someone also new to Cairo, but as I led her underground, my navigation went off-kilter and, after walking and making a few turns and coming up again, we found ourselves only a few steps from where we started.

Ignoring my protests, my friend began to cross the square. I followed reluctantly, learning in those few life-threatening seconds all the rules I would need to cross any Cairo street: 1) If you want to get across a street, chances are a car will be coming at you; 2) If you are already on your way across the street and you realize a car is coming at you, don’t go back, don’t speed up, but make a subtle hand gesture, sustain eye contact with the driver, and continue to cross; and 3) If all else fails, find a local who is crossing the street and shadow him to the other side.

Since then, things have been going much more smoothly. It’s still not quite like New York, but sometimes I almost feel like the princess of the street.

Being invited to an Egyptian home for dinner

When I was first invited to an Egyptian family’s home for dinner, I worried about how I should dress and what I should say, and whether it was OK to bring flowers for the hostess, as opposed to sweets, as everyone else does. I really should have been worried about dinner itself. The meal always starts with a little bit of everything—some salad, an eggplant dish, a beef stew, some stuffed cabbage—but then it becomes a game of how much the host can get on my plate. While I’m eating, he offers more, though when I ask for more salad, I’m told that salad is not real food, that I am too skinny. When I say I’m through, I’m questioned as to whether I liked the food. “Of course I liked it,” I say, “I’m just full.” “How can you be full? You ate nothing!”

So I shut up and smile and brace myself for dessert. Since I’m a glutton for punishment, and trying to be polite, I usually end up eating too much and feeling sick.

Scariest thing is, I found myself pulling similar stunts on a friend I had over for dinner the other night. I was a little subtler, though, not directly putting stuff on his plate but moving certain dishes toward him, suggestively. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Nothing,” I said. “OK…” he said, obviously not convinced. “Don’t you like my food?” I asked, severely.

Being told “you have to meet my friend from the States”

I miss America—to no end. I miss Mexican food and the Village Voice and the sweet guy who sold me bad 50-cent coffee every morning from the cart outside my office building. I miss rock shows and pints of hard-to-pronounce beer and Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Chunk. I miss people and I miss places. When an acquaintance told me, “You’ve got to meet my friend coming in from the States. You guys would have a lot to talk about,” I was excited, mostly because he was from America, and his work was in my area of interest and expertise: He was a writer working on a novel at a grad program in the Northeast, and I used to work in publishing in New York.

I guess I forgot that meeting an American is like meeting anybody: Sometimes it’s normal and fine, and then sometimes it’s a surreal experience where the person goes on and on about themselves and their genius, and I sit there wondering if I might be able to get another drink. That night, as I listened to the writer wax on about how he had decided that the written word was his calling and how he could not, under any circumstances, divulge what his novel was about, I appreciated for the first time the true appeal of whiskey on the rocks—the layers of flavor and scent, the simplicity, the elegance.

The most interesting thing the writer told me was that during his layover in Paris, he met a soldier, on his way back to Iraq. This young man had spent months in a bunker that would shake at night from nearby explosions and had gotten used to it to the point where he would just roll over upon being woken by the blasts. Apparently, when he heard the writer was on his way to Cairo, he was shocked. With concern, he asked, “Isn’t it dangerous there?”