Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Now is the TIme to Visit Egypt

Hamid, the camel, is waiting for you
Can you imagine the Pyramids without tourists?
There weren’t any. 
When we first arrived there was a group of maybe twenty-five Korean Christians.  All in identical red t-shirts with some slogan like “Asians for Jesus” written on them.  Baseball caps.  Comfy athletic shoes. Cameras hanging around their necks.
But they were leaving as we were arriving.  And there was just me and my friend Daniela and a few Egyptians on camels and horses trotting around the site. Girls squealing as the camels snorted. An occasional Frenchman or German walking along snapping photos. Egyptian hawkers selling red green blue silver pyramid momentos. .Papyrus paintings of Isis and Horos.
And silence.  The hiss of wind in our ears.  The pyramids rising out of the little block of desert allocated to them.  The suburban sprawl of Giza, now a part of Cairo, creeping like runaway weeds, spreading their vines to the very border of this antiquity.

And Hamid, the decked-out camel, jaws circling first to the right and then to the left, patiently stands in his festive blanket and dangling pom-poms in front of one of the most historic sights on earth, indifferent to it all.


Cairo was Cairo.  A massive, polluted, over-crowded, traffic disaster.  Life post-revolution the same as life pre-revolution.  Touts touted, taxi-drivers sat in unmoving traffic, the Metro delivered its passengers throughout the city, people shoved their way into the already packed cars.  The ladies of the “ladies only” car adjusted their head scarves. Big-eyed children held their mothers' hands and stared at the strange faces of the tourists.
People hussled to their jobs.  Waited in lines to buy hot rounds of pita bread fresh out of the oven. Lived their lives.                         

But something had changed.
People’s attitudes.
“Welcome to Egypt!” they sang out, smiling.  At Tahrir Square hawkers sold the new red, black, and white flags everywhere. Pins.  Momentos of 25th February when Mubarak fled.  
“We are very proud and happy,” they told me.  Person after person giving a thumbs up sign and saying, “Revolution.”

“It’s going to be good,” said Mohammed, our waiter at a restaurant on the West Bank of Luxor.  “We are free now.  Things are going to improve.  We had our first election in thirty years.  The military here is good.  Not like the police.  The military helps the people.”

In Luxor, Daniela and I sit in spotlights of sunshine, leaning against the massive papyrus-shaped stone pillars in the Great Hypostyle Hall in the Amun Temple at Karnak.  For ten minutes we sit in complete silence.  No one else in sight.  Finally one German couple walks slowly through the pillar forest snapping photos.

And in the dim light of the Sacred Barque Sanctuary, six “new-agers” stand in a circle around the sacred relic.  Their arms at their sides, bent at a forty-five degree angle at their elbows, fingers spread wide, they create an “energy circle” and eyes closed, absorb the ancient mystic rays.     

But what is happening in Egypt is not mystic.  As day after day a country dependent on tourism for 11% of its national income awaits the return of the tourist, the new-found glow of power and joy may soon turn to scowls and empty bellies.

And what was frightening was the information given to me by a Spanish journalist friend who lives in Cairo.
“Fifteen thousand people arrested by the military during the protests have not been released,” Eva said.  “The people think the military is on their side, but two top military officials were reported as saying: ‘We’ll make them (the people) miss Mubarak.’”
In the English language Egyptian Gazette, an article tells me that police security guards have returned to the campus of Alexandria University.  Another article relates that all “strikes have been banned under the new Emergency Act.”
“It’s all temporary,” the new Prime Minister says, smiling and reassuring.

Meanwhile leaders of the revolution attempt to go from protesters to politicians: creating “parties,” establishing platforms, discussing reforms. The “Islamic Brotherhood compaignes among the poor and uneducated. And the military tightens its controls over the people.

What happens next in Egypt cannot be predicted. 
But for sure, if the tourists don’t return, the entire
population will suffer.

The blue Nile continues its path through the desert and palmeries.  White egrets swoop.  Single-sailed feluccas glide gracefully into the sunset.  And the people of Egypt await a new dawn of prosperity and freedom.         

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

My Flat Mates

My Flat Mates

I live with a Turkish couple in an old conservative neighborhood called Tepebasi, where the women all cover their heads.  The rents here are cheap and it’s a real neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else, gossips about everyone else, but also will go to great lengths to help everyone else.  I’m the Yabanci (foreigner).  In the summer, the old lady from across the street is always asking me when I’m going to sit on the yellow traffic barrier with her and eat sunflower seeds and pass the time
Actually it’s wrong to say I live with a “Turkish” couple.  The woman, Nefle (which means four-leaf-clover) is not Turkish, but hails from the south, an area on the border with Syria called “Antakya,” or the “Hatay.” Her people are Arabic.  And they are Shi’a Muslims, while Turks are Sunni.  

Photos of her family hang on the wall of the apartment.  Her father, an Iman or reverend, is shown in a long white beard hanging down his chest, a white skull cap, and a severe expression.  Her mother, who I met when she came to Istanbul for the wedding of Nefle’s youngest brother, wears a white scarf with little embroidered balls dangling over her forehead.  The mother doesn’t smile.  After a lifetime in which celebration was considered “sin,” a lifetime of being continually commanded by her husband, “There’s work to do, woman!” she gazes out of sad blue eyes. 

Nefle tells me women are like donkeys in Antakia.  Only there to serve men.  Men come first in the South.  “It’s in the Koran,” they say.  They sit twirling their prayer beads, shouting to their wives, “I’m thirsty.  Where’s my tea?  I’m hungry.  Where’s my food?”  The women wait on the men and eat the leftovers. 
Nefle comes from a family of nine siblings.  Every morning she awoke to the yells of her father:  “Get up you lazy good-for-nothings!  There’s work to be done in the garden!”
Meanwhile her mother retreated further and further into a land in which no tyrants ordered her around.  When she retreated too far, they sent her at different intervals to the “special” hospital.

Nefle kneading dough for manti
Nefle was lucky.  One of her older brothers, a documentary film maker, moved to Istanbul and the family allowed her to come and visit.  She was initiated into the bohemian life of Istanbul.  She never moved back.  Because she loved to cook, knew how to make the regional specialties of her area, she found work cooking at the restaurant of some crazy Black Sea sisters.  It was there she met Mustapha.

A one hundred and eighty degree opposite of Nefle’s father, Mustapha was a shy, soft-spoken, modern Turk who believed in equality of sexes.  Mustapha’s mother left his mean-spirited father (a rash and uncommon act in those days) and Mustapha’s father refused to allow him to ever see her.  The father put the young child in the care of his Aunt and Uncle who treated him more like an indentured servant than a son.  When he came of age, Mustapha ran off and joined the Merchant Marines.  For ten years he sailed the seas and worked in the steaming hulls of ships.  Spending docked time in Angola, China, New Orleans, he savored new experiences and glimpses of other worlds and cultures. And as sailors tend to do, drank himself senseless at every port.

Mustapha once told me: “Outside of Nefle, I have never loved another woman.”  He said this when I asked for an example of how to use the Turkish word disharda (outside.)
An unusual couple, they cook together, clean together, opened a restaurant and ran it together until the stress became too great.
Now Musti (as his close friends call him) plays the part of Gepetto in the children’s play Pinochio, and tours all over Turkey. Nefle makes manti Turkish ravioli and sells it to various restaurants.  At home, Musti and I watch Slavas Snow Show, clowns from Poland, whose video he found, and then for days afterward we go around repeating their miming and comic routines. Sometimes he asks if I want to watch a Beckett play he’s downloaded from the internet.  Nefle and I bellydance to classic Turkish music, and we all stoop and peer into the spinning washing machine, then turn to each other and say: “Wow!” Repeating this several times until we tire of the game.   

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

first snow

March 8.
Today was the coldest day of the winter and the first snow.  Icy wind whipped across the Golden Horn. Tiny specks of snow swooshed past my window blowing sideways, to the left.  The wind changed. The snow flurries changed direction and hurled themselves to the right.  Then a lull.  An updraft.  Suddenly the flakes began to drift upwards, toward the gray-white sky, riding some unseen current.
Tell me, do snowflakes float upwards in other places, or is it only in the mad chaos of Istanbul that the world goes topsy turvy and snow flies up instead of falling down?
I leave the house in my long black coat, hood tied tight, scarf wrapped snugly around my neck.
 Fierce gusts of wind wrench umbrellas inside out.  They lie discarded on the slushy ground like the skeleton remains of prehistoric flying reptiles.  Ragged wings flapping in the wind.
Everyone battles the wind, heads bent against the frenzied attack of snow.  The red tram gleams-- a spark of brilliant color on the bleak street.