Sunday, April 15, 2007

Egypt - A Sweet Memory

We went to visit the Citadel and the mosque of Mohammed Ali. It was a holiday of sorts and there were a lot of school groups around. I mentioned in an earlier message that they had found that over 80% of Egyptian children had never seen important parts of Egypt's cultural heritage. Since then, there has been a great effort expended in taking kids to visit these monuments and see the artifacts.

Our guide explained that many of the school groups there came from the countryside and that they would be curious about us, because many had never seen tourists before.

So, we walked from the bus stop up to the entrance of the citadel, encompassed by a crowd of both tourists and school children. At the entrance, we took off our shoes and carried them with us. If the people at the door thought anyone wasn't sufficiently covered up, they were given a grass green cape with ties to put on. Two members of our group of 16 were given a cape to wear.

The first place we saw was a courtyard with a large fountain in the middle. This is the place where you are supposed to cleanse yourself. The fountain wasn't actually in operation, as far as I could tell, but was being used for pictures and shade.

Off to the side of the courtyard was the entrance to the mosque. As is befitting a Muslim mosque, it was elegantly symmetrical and elaborately decorated throughout. The carpet, though worn, is the original carpeting.

We sat in a circle around our guide, while he explained the history, the layout, and the activities going on in the mosque. Many people stood around our circle and listened to the guide, as he delivered his explanations.

I was sitting a little outside the circle and pretty soon a group of school girls came up behind us. They were intrigued by the guide speaking English and by us, the foreigners. One young lady, probably about 12 or 13 years old, sat down next to me and tried to practice her English. She asked me my name - and I told her. Then she related what I said to all of her friends who furiously whispered the news around them. They then suggested the next question she should ask, "Where are you from?" My response again was greeted with furious whispering, as the news was spread throughout her small group. This continued for several rounds. They were so eager to find out more about us - and I must admit, as a teacher, I was eager to interact more with them. The enthusiasm and simple pleasure of the whispered conversation was joyous. But before I could get my chance to reciprocate their questions, their leader gathered them and took them away. Still, it was a precious moment for me.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Egypt - Style of Dress

One of the things that was interesting to me was the customary dress of the local people. Men seem to wear a wide variety of clothes, from shorts and short sleeved tops to long galabiyas, which are long sleeved, full-length dress-like garments, which are worn on top of t-shirts and often ankle length pants - linen or denim or plain cotton. It was amazing to me that, in the, to me, oppressive heat, there were lots of people wearing sweaters, jackets, and even parkas. I guess it is a matter of getting used to it, but it is still amazing to see.

The guide said that the only edicts from Islam about dress specify only that people must dress modestly. There is nothing any more specific than that, according to him.

The dress of the women is also interesting. Although it is acceptable for women not to wear a hijab (a head scarf, worn to cover most of the hair) in Egypt, probably a slight majority of women do wear one. One of the reasons seems to be that women wearing a hijab are less frequently the target of unwanted male attention. Many young women wear conservative clothing to protect their reputations and the reputations of their families. It is almost a way of saying, "Leave me alone; I am not interested." The most severe form of dress for women is the complete covering. Burqas are not seen in Egypt, but there are women who cover up everything except their eyes, even wearing gloves and socks to cover hands and feet. On the other hand, at the mall, we saw quite a few young women wearing hijabs, flamboyant face makeup, tight-fitting tops, and skin-tight jeans.

As tourists, we were very frequently the target of repeated, and annoying economic harassment. My daughter, who is living in Egypt this year while attending the American University in Cairo, said that verbal harassment is quite common, and it sometimes gets a bit more physical than that. We never felt endangered, but it is irritating. But, apparently, there is no real defense against it. Egyptians do not like to see foreigners imitating their customs either, i.e., it doesn't help for the American tourist to wear a scarf.

I don't really blame them. Much of the verbal harassment is designed to get the foreign tourist to look at the wares they are selling. The cost of the items is frequently fairly small for tourists, but that is their income and it is vital. Still, it does get tiring to have to be constantly on the alert against unwanted attention. If you look their way when you are passing their shops, you are accosted, "Take a look - no hassle!" If you reply and say, "No, thank you," that is the prompt for them to escalate their verbal assault. There is constant pressure to look at their wares, to stay there even when it is apparent that they do not have what you want, to buy even after you have decided not to, and then to suffer their scorn when you walk away ("Oh my GOD!" is the frequent parting remark.). It was uncomfortable for me. If you try to be polite, it is considered a sign of weakness. There were even many occasions on which I would probably have purchased more from the vendors if they had simply left me alone to look.

Egypt Trip - Early Observations

On the grounds of the very upscale Mena House Garden Hotel, a woman cooks bread for dinner. Interesting contrast - fancy hotel and more traditional cooking method. I even got a free sample. Yum!

Yes, here I am, in front of the pyramids. I really was there. Amazing.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Back from Egypt - Taxis and Taxing

This was also posted on GT-Talk.

The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel where the tour began
was interesting in several respects. The first one was the taxi
itself. Since I was staying in a relatively expensive hotel, the
taxi contracted to take me to the hotel was upscale from the
average taxi. Nevertheless, it was a wild ride. Egyptian drivers
seem to think that lane line markers are for wimps - they are totally
irrelevant for the normal flow of traffic and are obeyed basically
by busses only. The cars weave in and out of lanes as if they
weren't marked at all. A street that is supposed to be 2 lanes
can have as many as 4 cars driving in parallel along it. Stop
lights are virtually non-existent in most of the city and where they
do appear, they are frequently not working. Red lights, in my
experience meant, though, that the taxi driver DID at least slow
down. And the drivers do usually obey the policemen who
preside over some of the busier intersections.

Surprisingly, though, there aren't that many accidents - at least
in the city. The frequent use of the horn meant that drivers
usually weren't blind-sided. At night, the cars often do not turn
on their headlights, but they do flash their lights in place of the
honking that they do during the day. But outside of Cairo is
evidently much different. The accident rate in Egypt is one of
the highest in the world. And few vehicles are insured, since
the cost of insurance is too high for most vehicle owners to be
able to afford.

Pedestrians, though, have it even more difficult. Trying to cross
a busy street is not a task to be undertaken lightly by either the
inexperienced or the infirm. I think the drivers enjoy using the
pedestrians for target practice. We missed hitting many pedestrians
and many other taxis by mere inches (or centimeters).

Taxis are not expensive, though. A ride across Cairo, from the
Nile to the airport generally costs around $10 (American dollars).

Another interesting thing about that first taxi ride was the first
impression I got of the city: it is very brown and looks like it has
been bombed out. The brownness might be expected - after all
the raw materials for building - rock, dirt, and sand - are all various
shades of brown. But the bombed out look is due to an interesting
feature of their tax law.

When Cairo began to grow rapidly many years ago now, there
was a severe lack of housing. To encourage people to build
new apartment buildings, the government decided not to tax
buildings while they were under construction. Well, it worked.
Most of the buildings, probably 90% of them, are still under
construction. Even though the lower floors of a building are
inhabited, the roof is virtually never finished. There are usually
partially finished floors at the top of every building. It gives the
city an impoverished look that isn't entirely deserved.

I discussed this tax law with our guide who seemed to feel that
there should be a time cap on building - after 5 years a building
should be taxed no matter what. I told him that the way it worked
on our property in Alaska was that assessors checked on the
value of the land and any buildings on it by comparing them to
other land and buildings in the neighborhood. Then, finished or
not, they were assessed according to their current value. He
seemed to think that was a good idea, but that it had little chance
of being implemented, as the people like not being taxed for their
"unfinished" apartments.