Culture in Cairo

“Visiting a new town is like having a conversation. Places ask questions of you just as searchingly as you question them. And, as in any conversation, it helps to listen with an open mind, so you can be led somewhere unexpected. The more you leave assumptions at home, I’ve found, the better you can hear whatever it is that a destination is trying to say to you.”  Pico Iyer

It feels like a lifetime since November, when I spent a little over a week in Cairo, Egypt. Cairo is known for the ancient pyramids and the night of the museum style of the National Egyptian Museum which holds more than you can ever imagine or hope to see in one visit. The large statues of Pharaohs, colorfully painted objects, and room after room of history made me feel the overwhelming life of the past. I experienced the pyramids of Giza and Sphinx knowing I could never really understand their full greatness. Their was also a lack of sacredness I felt walking among them. There is a hunger for tourists in Egypt, for the money they bring. The young Egyptian students on a field trip were more interested in taking a picture with a blue-eyed foreigner than experiencing the structures of old. The man demanding more money while I was on his camel, the push to buy souvenirs, and those little things caused my awareness to live in the present and not the glory of the pyramids’ past. I did have a brief moment of walking in the midday heat wandering off in the distance by myself to get a desert landscape shot, not the shot of me holding a pyramid in my hands, or kissing the sphinx. When I am among these types of ancient places, I personally want to wander and imagine the ancient life they held or just how much life has change from the time they were made.

I found my time in Cairo to, yes provide me with a glimpse of the past, but more it gifted me with a look at the present and future. I was visiting my two wonderful friends Nelly and Emma. I met both Nelly and Emma in Finland, where we were all taking a summer school course called The Myth and Realities of the Finnish Education System. They are both Egyptian educators, working at a private elementary school, a little ways beyond the center of Cairo. There are people you meet in life and you click with them, feeling an instant sense of friendship. This was my experience with Nelly and Emma. Both are super creative, independent, and dynamic women. They have a group of friends, many who I met and hung out with in my time in Cairo who are also amazing women. They are women who can’t help but live vibrant lives, even if culturally they seem like they are pushing the envelope.

I have never been to the Middle East. All the biases and imagines projected onto me over the years from a Western culture, I made sure to bring into my awareness. I started to notice small details of things I felt were out of place or to me noticeably different. Just my plane ride from Italy to Egypt, the small subtleties made me aware I was headed into more of an unknown place. At the last minute the airline attendant decided to weigh my carrying on and told me my bag was too heavy. After a moment of back and forth, she decided it was fine and I could bring it on without taking anything out of it. This became a common exchange for me in Egypt a sense of rules to be followed and an assertion of power, but rules never seemed to be followed anyway and power a needed illusion. Standing around waiting for the plane to board I was aware of the basic differences of dress, language, and appearance of who was getting on the plane. Besides some other mostly female tourists the majority of folks who got on the plane were men. Men who later before the plane took off would get up and spread themselves around to empty rows and seats on the plane, another example of rule breaking. I often felt like there was no order to things in Egypt, knowing that is from my own outsider Western perspective. The lack of lines drove me crazy, funny how something so simple can make one feel so uncomfortable. No matter were I went I got attention, it made me feel like I wasn’t so invisible. I didn’t feel the ease of snapping photos on the street in this anonymous fashion, I instead called attention to myself for just being in Cairo. I felt an huge sense of relief and gratitude for having my friends who shared with me their time and beautiful city.

I shared in the wonderful cultural events happening in Cairo in the moment I was there, because of my friends. We attended the 11th Panorama of European Film watching the difficult to get through In the Aisles and the extraordinary Cold War. We even hit up the film festivals rooftop after party. We attended Tashweesh , a feminist festival with voices from the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. There I heard talks, poetry, and a play. A festival I would never have known of or thought to attend if it hadn’t been for my friends.

I also spent a day at a pottery workshop building with the soft earthy clay of Egypt. One night we watched the sunset while riding a brightly lite felucca down the Nile. We drove to Alexandria one day getting their by dusk and before the library was closing. By the end of my time in Cairo I was ready to take a nap, we did so much in the short time I was there. I ate the best Lebanese food, which I have to say I preferred over the Egyptian. I am a lover of hummus what can I say.

I spent multiple days at the school where my friends teach. I did a couple of read alouds with my friend Nelly’s 4th grade class. We had a lesson on learning languages. They taught me Arabic and I taught them some Spanish, English was our common language. I could say a lot about the school, the struggle with the leadership, or other observations, but I prefer to focus on the early childhood space. I spent a day in the preschool/kindergarten art room with Basma, a small, but full of energy, joyful primary art teacher. Whatever the children imagined she helped them bring to life in color, recycled materials, and with their own handiwork. I could have stayed in that room forever. The adult, but even teacher to students ratio in the early childhood classrooms at the school were 1 to 10. Students could make their own choices about where they wanted to spend time. Rooms and teachers had specific focuses such as art, math, reading, and such. I don’t think I ever saw the students have to stand in a line or waste time practicing standing in a line. They had the opportunity to be children. It was my favorite part of the school.

The dusty and daily differences of Cairo were an adjustments for me, but nothing I couldn’t have gotten over with more time. The crossing of the streets, still after traveling to all the other countries and cities I did, hands down is the scariest and most dangerous in Cairo. The cars literally never stop. A street cleaner felt the need to help me across one day near Tahrir Square because I stood too long watching the traffic go by. The police presence is more in your face than I have experienced in other countries. My friend Nelly lives nearby the U.S. Embassy and the protective barriers, men in uniforms sitting in armored cars with their guns, and dogs sniffing cars would make our current U.S. President salivate. I would never be able to drive in Cairo, I couldn’t function under all the honking and aggressive maneuvering. Egypt really hadn’t been on my radar, if it hadn’t been for the lovely people I wanted to visit I probably would have passed over the country. But I think there is a life and culture growing in Cairo that shouldn’t be overlooked, and really I feel blessed to have enjoyed. I do want to go back to see the southern part of the country, where I was told often by everyone to go. Get out of the city they would say, see how beautiful our country is in the south. I would love to return and hope to someday see the desert oasis in the land of Egypt again and all the lovely people who thrive there.

شكرا Shukraan Cario.

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