The Egyptian Revolution

29 January, 2011

The events of the past week have prompted me to break my now inexcusably long absence from blogging. In case you haven’t been following the extraordinary news out of Egypt, massive demonstrations nationwide which started on Jan. 25 reached a tipping point yesterday, prompting the deployment of the army into several Egyptian cities. At least 50 people have been confirmed killed (that number is quickly escalating), several hundred more injured, and most likely thousands arrested. After several days of conspicuous absence on the matter, Hosni Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people at around 2350Z, delivering a Kafka-esque speech in which the basic gist was, “O Egyptian people! I have heard your request for me to step down, and in response, I have fired everyone but myself!” Obviously, this didn’t go over well with the Egyptian people, as the protests have only gained momentum. The army is now on the streets of Cairo, Suez, and our former home, Alexandria.

To say the least, the situation in Egypt is highly dynamic, unstable, and however this pans out, will have profound effects throughout all of Egyptian society, to say nothing of the region at large. Let’s take a look at things from a variety of different perspectives, starting with the street:

  1. The single most important variable at play here is upon whose side the army will intervene. The Egyptian army is a strangely constructed institution- for one, the senior leadership and a large portion of the officer corps is reportedly loyal to Mubarak, because he’s given them any military toy they could ask for. (Usually paid for by our American tax dollars, by the way.) However, as Egypt uses conscription to staff the army, it’s also an institution that almost all Egyptian men have experience serving with. This shared experience could prompt a sympathizing with the protesters. Additionally, people were greeting the Egyptian army throughout the streets- in its nearly sixty year history, the Egyptian army has never opened fire on a crowd of Egyptian protesters. While heretofore the generals have been loyal to Mubarak, it doesn’t take a Patton to know that when the other side has the initiative, it’s time to consider differing tactical alliances. The army will most likely go with whoever looks like they’re going to win.
  2. There’s no way Mubarak can come back from this. His absence on the protests was absolutely laughable, and his silence even as the headquarters of his National Democratic Party burned was telling. It demonstrates a dictator out of touch with the plight of his people, and probably being fed faulty information by sycophantic advisers. The political reforms that he PROMISED to adopt this time around are well and good, but they are the demands made by the opposition YEARS ago. These latest demonstrations aren’t about reform- they’re about Mubarak stepping down. His speech, which rivaled many SNL opening monologues in its comedic value, will not do anything to stop the protests, and will likely make them worse. I especially loved the bit about how it was because of all of Egypt’s political freedom that the demonstrations happened.

Now I’d like to look at things from a “what if Mubarak falls” perspective:

  1. The most preferable outcome would be Mubarak’s peaceful resignation and transit from Egypt, followed by a temporary government until elections can be held to establish a new Peoples’ Assembly and Presidential office. However, this presents numerous other challenges, namely of questions of leadership. Mubarak staffed the most important posts in government with NDP loyalists in a fashion similar to former Tunisian President Ben Ali and Saddam Hussein. Consequently, the Egyptian bureaucracy is dependent on the NDP in order to function. This leads to questions: Who would be the best interim president? An NDP functionary or technocrat? A general? Would the Egyptian people rise up against the NDP in a similar fashion to the anti-RCD backlash after the Tunisian revolution? Will the Egyptian opposition parties be willing to work with an NDP without Mubarak at the helm? These are fairly speculative questions, but they’re important ones to answer if Egypt ousts Papa Hosni.
  2. The salience of the Egyptian opposition is another critical variable. One of the small benefits of being brutally suppressed by a dictator for 30 years is that your role in the opposition doesn’t have to be about what you’re for so much as it’s what you’re against. Egypt’s opposition is unified and defined insofar as they’re all against Mubarak and the NDP, but an actual stated cooperative policy platform is elusive. Will the religious Muslim Brotherhood party be able to get along with the secular parties? How will the opposition react if it now has to govern?
  3. The Muslim Brotherhood’s true attitude towards democratization will be tested. Ostensibly, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood of today is not your father’s Muslim Brotherhood. They’ve seemingly embraced democratic ideals, although many speculate if their attitude towards democracy is contingent on their popularity within Egyptian society and a calculated assessment of how important democracy is to achieving their political objectives. There’s also a conflict between the Old Guard of the Brotherhood, who are often viewed as more radical than its newer and younger members. The Egyptian people have overwhelmingly supported the Muslim Brotherhood because of a widespread religious revival, but also because they took advantage of Mubarak’s neglect of the poor to set up social services and establish patronage. If there’s one thing I want to be absolutely clear about: the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t a resoundingly pro-American or pro-Israeli organization at all, but the modern Brotherhood IS NOT the political wing of Al-Qaeda. There’s differences of several orders of magnitude between today’s Egyptian Islamist movement and the transnational jihadists of Al-Qaeda, but that’s best left for another blog.

If Mubarak doesn’t fall, it’s likely that Egypt is in for some extremely dark days. I would expect the opposition parties to be completely decimated by the arrests and “disappearances” for which the Egyptian mubahis (secret police) are infamous. The international community would likely suspend aid to Egypt in that case, decimating the slowly liberalizing economy even further and leading to an increase in poverty, desperation and making an even more violent showdown inevitable.

And from a regional perspective:

  1. The United States finds itself yet again between a rock and a hard place in the Middle East, having put our support behind a strongman dictator in order to protect regional interests instead of upholding the democratic aspirations of the people. Whether or not our policy decisions have helped more than hurt in a long-term sense is a debate I’d rather not get into here, but the fact of the matter is we’ve supported Mubarak for 30 years as he cracked down on his people, generally ignoring his actions while making watery calls for democracy. Equally telling was the usage of American-made teargas against demonstrators– while we can’t control how people use the weapons we give them, it’s never good PR to have “Made in the USA” printed on the devices you’re using to suppress the populace. The cheapest and most likely strategy for the US to take would be to provide the next Egyptian government with a similar amount of aid that Mubarak enjoyed to keep the peace with Israel, deter religious extremism, and hold credible elections every now and then. Of course, it’d probably be much better if we re-examined our strategic posture in the Middle East in light of recent developments in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Egypt, but that remains unlikely for political reasons here in the US.
  2. Israel’s probably extremely nervous right now. One of the few successes in Mubarak’s otherwise stagnant reign was that Egypt has honored its commitments to peace with Israel, and I’ve often wondered if a truly democratic Egypt would have signed a peace treaty with Israel to begin with. While I don’t anticipate Egypt to start sending tanks across the Suez Canal again regardless of what comes next, I do think that Israel is going to be very cautious in its dealings with any new Egyptian government. Keep in mind that the Egyptian army’s entire battle doctrine is fighting another way with Israel, and they also happen to have one of the best equipped armies in the Middle East next to Israel.

The situation in Egypt is amazing to watch. My time there convinced me of the plight of everyday Egyptians as they struggled in a stagnating system of institutional neglect, corruption, and authoritarianism. If ever there were a people that deserved to be free, it is the Egyptians. The outcome of this event is far from clear, although it certainly seems to be trending in a certain direction. I, for one, stand with the Egyptian people and hope that a new, democratic government representative of the people is formed quickly. Although the coming days and weeks bring some huge challenges, the potential rewards for Egypt are too great to be ignored.

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Welcome Back In America!

17 September, 2010

I’m writing this from Gate 14 at JFK International’s Terminal 5. In about an hour and a half, I’ll board a plane back to Long Beach, California, and our journey will be officially complete.  Set’s ended yesterday when her parents picked her up after our 13-hour flight, and mine will end when mine pick me up after my 6-hour flight.

I don’t think I can top Set’s last beautifully written entry, but I can add one thing to the list of “Things We Will/Will Not Miss About Egypt.” I’m personally amazed that she didn’t mention driving/transit. Who would ever miss nearly dying every time you try to cross the street and arguing with cab drivers? Who has an affinity for frantically trying to buckle a non-functional seatbelt as your cab driver weaves in out of crowded street lanes, honking and flashing his brights whilst doing 120km/h and blasting Islamic prayer songs? Who would hold a fond place in their heart for the crowded mashrouas (microbuses), jammed with more people flinging money around than the floor of the NYSE, or have fond memories of watching hundreds of Egyptians literally trying to beat the train to the tracks as it inches out of the station?

Well, me, for one.

Egypt, by and large, is a land of contradictions, cognitive dissonance in the form of a nation state. It’s these contradictions that make one want to off themselves, yet eventually, it’s these contradictions that make you fall in love with the place. Everything that I hated about Egypt is going to be something that I look back upon and laugh about with a twinge of fondness. Everything I loved about the country will be the things I carry with me and never forget.

Set covered our last day in Egypt pretty well. We had a lovely dinner with our friends at Ibn-al Balad (Literally, the Son of the Country) and then hung out with our friends until it was time to go. At 4am, we were picked up by Osama, our driver, and had an uneventful drive to Cairo. Aside from seeing two people get in shouting matches in line to board the plane, our flight home isn’t worth writing about.

However, our arrival back in America was slightly more exciting. After disembarking at JFK, Set and I approached our first Customs checkpoints. After handing in the little Customs declarations cards to the agents working there, Set blazed right through when my agent decided to ask me a few questions. “What were you doing in Egypt?” He asked.

“Studying Arabic and teaching English,” I said.

“Ah, okay. I see.” And with that, he smiled, crossed out my customs declaration, took my passport, and beckoned me to follow him. I ended up in a small area filled with Arab and Pakistani men, none of whom spoke English very well. I would spend the next 2.5 hours waiting in this area as the ICE/Department of Homeland Security guys apparently examined every crinkle, crease and fold of every passport in front of them- of which there were many. Finally, it was my turn to be questioned.

It started off with pretty much the same questions I’d been asked at the first checkpoint. In my incandescent rage at being detained without explanation for the past 2.5 hours, I’d been coming up with all kinds of pithy responses to the questions I thought I’d be asked, but I decided I’d just play it straight forward lest I find myself in a beachfront cell at Camp X-Ray. It took about ten minutes, and pretty much ran the gamut from “Where did you stay/where did you work” to “Did you receive any specialized military training over there.” Aside from the hand-to-hand combat that I’d mastered after working the Young Learner’s Program for three weeks, no.

With that, my passport was finally stamped and I was let out of Diplomatic Limbo America and into Real America. On my way out, I asked the agent what the reason was for my detainment and questioning. He said, “It’s a completely random screening” as he looked past me and at all of the Arab men and Pakistani guys in their shalwar kameezes. Despite what may seem like some pretty blatant profiling, I should temper my exasperation by mentioning that the DHS employees were very professional and polite with everyone they were talking to.

And now, after an all too brief visit with some great friends, I’m back at the airport, waiting to fly back to California. I’m so excited to be back that I think I’m probably going to land about 20 minutes before the plane actually does. Reading back through the entries we’ve written over the past year has been a serious trip, and I’d like to thank you, our dear readers, for your comments and for sticking with us and our ramblings. As Set mentioned, these certainly won’t be our last entries in this blog.

!مسلاما يا أصحابي

(Goodbye, friends!)

Alif Shukr ya Misr

15 September, 2010

Translation: a thousand thanks, Egypt.

It’s our last full day in Egypt. It hasn’t really hit us yet that we’re going to start our journey back to the US in less than 12 hours. We’re doing the motions to leave but everything just seems really calm and oddly normal. Today was very productive. We closed our bank accounts, had our last Arabic lesson and said goodbye to our wonderful boss and our workplace. We anticipated a lot of hassle at the bank trying to close our accounts, but it went really smoothly. It took 10x longer for me to break up with Bank of Amreeka.

Last week we went to Nuweiba to experience a week of paradise to unwind after our final and most hectic term at Amideast. Although the last two times we went to Nuweiba were amazing, this time was extra special because we were able to do all the amazing outdoor activities that the town has to offer. We swam in the sea, climbed the mountains, went snorkeling, jumped off docks and slept under the stars. Now I can actually come home to America with a proper tan from a hot country. woo!

So now that we are entering a new phase in our lives, I thought I’d make a list of things I’ll miss and things I won’t miss about living in Egypt.

Let’s start with the things I won’t miss:

1. Getting stared at and yelled at wherever I go. I think this is an obvious one here. I moved here from NYC where everyone is too self absorbed to notice an ethnic girl walking down the street. American style anonymity will be much appreciated after being continuously starepunched by Egypt.

2. No one believing me when I say that I’m American. Whenever we take cabs, order food, or do something wherein we have to interact with people for more then 5 seconds, people ask us where we are from, which is fine. What is not so fine and dandy is when they give me a look of complete disbelief when I tell them that I’m from America. The person always points to Kenny and says: “he is American, you are not. You are Chinese!” Yes, America is a nation full of Kennys running around and waving American flags. The world should be so lucky.

3. Lack of ubiquitous Americanized ethnic food. I think this is just a sign of homesickness. I miss Americanized Chinese/Mexican/Thai food. There are international options here and there but something just isn’t the same. Maybe it’s the lack of corn derived products, lard and MSG. yum. barf. yum.

4. Grading things. I felt like I went on a red pen genocide for the past few months. Also, I can only handle so much bad English in a lifetime.

5. Our apartment. Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. I definitely won’t miss the ants, the lack of sunshine or the crappy laundry machine.

6. Egyptian whiskey/gin/beer/vodka. oof.

Well, I could go on and on (or could I?) but I’d actually like to move on to the things that I will miss about Egypt. Overall we had a great experience in Egypt. Even the moments when we wanted to throw blind punches into a crowd of children eventually all turned into laughable moments. For example: there was a 2 week stretch when we were getting harassed by street kids every time we left work. They would start off by yelling the usual phrases “whass yorr name?” “howaaarrr yuuu” but after we cruised by them, tired and not in the mood to engage, they decided to up the ante and started yelling English profanity at us. I won’t go into details as this is a PG-13 blog, but if you would like to hear what they yelled at us, we’d be happy to tell you in a less permanent forum, perhaps over a beer. Anyways, Kenny decided that after a few days of this that enough was enough. KHALAS! He stomped after the kids, sending them scattering off into alleyways and dark corners, laughing maniacally as they did so. A couple of older boys claiming to be the brothers of the hooligans approached Kenny and apologized for their reptilian siblings. Kenny gave the brothers a stern word of caution, advising them to watch over the little hellions lest they be thrown at a gaggle of hungry rabid trashcats. Something like that. Well, whatever Kenny said must have led to quite the fingerwagging shame-on-you session because the next day I was approached with a peace offering. Three of the boys came up to me as I was walking alone. They apologized for their behavior. I asked them if they were serious or if they were just doing this because they thought it was funny. They insisted that they were sincere and presented a gift of three firecrackers to show how earnest they really were. They haven’t bothered us since. hamdilulah (thanks be to god… or kenny’s stern words).

So a lot of the negative things that we often complained about turned into positive or at least laughable events. There are many other things that were just awesome to begin with, and these are definitely the memories that we will hold onto when we come back to Americastan.

1. The people. Short street interactions aside, 99% of the people that we met in Egypt were amazing, kind, sincere, fun and had a delightful sense of humor. Our students were (for the most part) really eager to learn and talk about a lot of different things and were excited to see us, especially if we were done teaching them. The people we got to know in the various shops and restaurants were always eager to make new jokes with us or laugh at our intro level Arabic. And the various families that invited us into their homes showed that Egyptian hospitality is no joke. We were lucky enough to be able to attend daylong lunches, a wedding, an engagement party and other family events where we were treated as if we were part of the family. I even got to go to a Henna night, which is the Egyptian equivalent to a bachelorette party.

2. The food: Even though I can’t possibly eat Egyptian food everyday, I’m still gonna miss it. One thing that I’ll miss is Molokheyya. Molokheyya in English is Jews Mallow. WHAT? Mallow, not marrow. Many people made that confusion when they first came here. Anyway, molokheyya is a green leafy herb (also the name of the completed dish) chopped into tiny pieces using a mezzaluna, one of those semicircular knives with two handles. The chopped leaves are then cooked in a broth with garlic, tomato sauce and other spices. The texture is something you need to get used to, as it resembles really slimy and runny snot, but once you get past the initial shock of putting slimy green goo in your mouth, you realize that this is pretty tasty. Mark, our Egyptian Italian friend from Australia got me a Mezzaluna so I could make molokheyya back in the states. See, even the half Egyptians are awesome.

3. Abu rabia. I know, it can be so gross if you eat it a lot, but the idea of getting a Middle Eastern feast for two for under $3 is just awesome.

4. The Adhan aka the call to prayer. Some people might not like the idea of hearing religious things projected at them 5 times a day but it really is a hauntingly beautiful sound that I will miss when I’m sitting around in silent suburbia.

5. Using Arabic all the time. When we came to Egypt, we were completely helpless, illiterate goobers that had no idea how to say anything aside from hello (salam aleikum) and enough (khalas). Now we can hold semi-decent conversations and read things. Our Arabic teacher had a lot to do with this, as he was a great instructor and wonderful person in general, but it also helped that we were forced to use Arabic in everyday situations.

6. Nuweiba. Ohhhhh how I love Nuweiba.

So there is much more that I could definitely but I still have some packing to do before we go out to one last dinner with our friends so I will end the list here.

This past year has been absolutely amazing and has taught me a lot about the world and myself. I can only hope that this experience will not only help me personally but in my career as well. The next step for the both of us will be to move to DC so we can find jobs utilizing our politics degrees. I also know that this won’t be our last time in the Middle East. I hate saying goodbye to people and places I’ve grown to love, so I’d much rather just say “see you later!”

I know that this blog is centered around the idea of two Americans living in Egypt, but we both intend on continuing the blog after we come back. We’re both anticipating a bit of reverse culture shock, so we’ll include our musings on that. We’ll also write about how our experiences in Egypt continues to affect us in the states. We’re also going to continue practicing Arabic so I’m sure we’ll have many more interesting stories for our beloved readers. 🙂

Bye bye Egypt, we’ll miss you and your craziness! ma’salema ya Misr w nashufik urayyib, inshallah! (byebye Egypt and we’ll see you soon, hopefully!)

Ramadan Kareem!

8 September, 2010

(“Ramadan Kareem” means “Generous Ramadan” in Arabic. The typical response would be “Allahu Akhram” or “God is most generous.”)

If you’re going to invest any amount of time and effort beyond quick sightseeing in the Middle East, it’s worth it to stick around for Ramadan. This is the holiest month in Islam, wherein people avoid eating, drinking, and smoking from sunrise to sundown. It’s meant for people to engage in empathy with the poor and those who don’t have enough to eat, and to inspire charitable deeds in an effort to reconnect with God.

I kind of think of Ramadan as a month-long hybrid version of Christmas and Thanksgiving: add religious aspirations to incredible displays of consumerism, and mix with an inordinate amount of food. Preparations for Ramadan started in earnest: we started seeing signs advertising Ramadan a few weeks before it actually started, such as this ad for a café:

(note the lack of food on the tables)

Also, a few days before the start, the supermarkets were jammed with people buying cart after cart of food even until the early hours of the morning. Were it not for the large, decorative Ramadan lamps suspended over Metro Market’s displays, one would think that a hurricane or some other Biblical (Quranic?) level affliction were about to descend upon Alexandria.

The typical modus operandi for Ramadan is that people will avoid any kind of physical activity or exertion during the daylight hours, instead choosing to sleep or cook in preparation for the iftar (breaking of the fast.) Then, the second after the Maghreb (evening call to prayer) sounds, restaurants and kitchens come to life. The streets become absolutely empty, and pretty much all that can be heard throughout the city is the clinking of forks against plates.

As you can imagine, the entire character of the country changes pretty much over night. Much like lapsed Catholics running to Midnight Mass, even the most secularly minded Egyptians seem to become devout. People line up outside of the masjids to collect free food handed out by imams, and traffic becomes even more incomprehensible as people take to the streets to throw out packets of dates into cars as they drive by. Almost every shop plays nasheeds (the acapella religious songs) instead of European and Arab techno.

It’s extremely interesting to watch the transformation, but it also presents some severe challenges when it comes to working. I read an article that said that worker production goes down a significant percentage while spending on food tends to skyrocket, which has economic side effects that ripple throughout the region. At Amideast, our teaching schedules changed from working from 4:30-9:30 every night to 2:00-4:30, then 8:30-11. Also, Egypt was the one Muslim country that instituted a time change for Ramadan- by setting the clocks back an hour, it makes the sun rise and set an hour earlier. We also had to deal with the intense heat of the summer, and these factors all added up in a kind of unholy combination. We quickly grew used to seeing our students come in at 2:00 bright-eyed and bushy tailed, and be damn near comatose by the time class was done. Then, the same thing would happen- after a day of fasting, the gigantic feast prepared at night would cause a food coma of a nearly terminal level, so we had to contend with slack-jawed, heavy-lidded students who couldn’t wait to crawl back home, fix another ample plate of leftovers, and drag themselves into bed before their stomachs burst. Because so many teachers were on vacation during this month, the remaining staff were saddled with 4 classes each, meaning we had to adjust our schedules to keep up with the needs of our many, many students.

Ramadan also had less pleasant side effects- the lack of food, water and cigarettes in a country in which 50% of the male population smokes led to some EPIC levels of crankiness during the day. Similarly, we got used to hearing Ramadan as an excuse for everything: “Ahmed, you weren’t in class the other day and we had a quiz. What happened?” “Ramadan.” “Mohamed, the water’s been off for 12 hours. What happened to the work crew?” “Ramadan.” “Rania, why do you never participate in class activities?” “Ramadan.” “Mohamed, the water’s back on but it’s been a week and the hole still hasn’t been filled yet. People are throwing their garbage in it. What’s going on?” “Ramadan.”

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to overcome was the unfortunate discovery that all three of the bars in Alexandria were closed for the entire month of Ramadan, therefore decimating the expatriate community. Any shop that sold alcohol shuttered its doors. The one exception was a small kiosk located on a very conservative street we called “Stare-a-dise Alley” for the amount of attention we usually get when we walk down it. The owner, a Christian, hid his stock behind sodas in the refrigerator, and would disguise any order within several recycled cigarette cartons to prevent the clinking of bottles. Buying a beer suddenly felt like taking a trip back into 1920’s-era Chicago, complete with all the trickery and sleight of hand.

That being said, Ramadan is something that one simply has to experience if you want to understand the Middle East and how important religion is to its inhabitants. Listening to the calls to prayer resonate as the sunset traced elongated shadows on the buildings as people rush home to eat and the sight of the crowds of people praying in unison in front of the mosques were powerful, interesting experiences that far outweighed the frustrations of dealing with a fasting populace or having to work into the late hours of night.

Ramadan ends on the 11th, and we head back to America on the 16th. We finished our last terms teaching at Amideast, graded our last finals, signed our grade sheets, and boarded the 6am train to Cairo. Ten hours later, we arrived at Soft Beach Camp in Nuweiba, our favorite little beach town in the Sinai. As I write this, the sound of the wind chimes in a gentle breeze are dueling with the sounds of waves lapping up on the sand.

Last night, Set and I slept under the stars on the beach, and she woke up at 5am to find three stray camels wandering around the camp. It’s a great way to end Ramadan, and a wonderful end to our time in Egypt.

We’ll probably upload another entry or two as the week goes on, but for now, here I am, hollering at you from the top of Mount Bekya:

The Trashcats of Egypt

25 July, 2010

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve made frequent references to “trashcats” without really ever explaining what they were.

To the untrained eye, the trashcat may simply appear to be a quasi-feral Felus Catus, but I maintain that they’re actually an entirely different species. Cats generally look like this:

But the trashcat looks like this:

It’s not really much of a secret that I came over here with a dislike of cats. I’ve never really liked them much- to me, they’re anti-social, Machiavellian little creatures that make my eyes turn red and clog up my sinuses. However, after having spent a year in Egypt, I’ve developed such a fiery, burning hatred towards these animals that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at a friend’s housecat in the same way. Here’s why:

1. I didn’t pull the name trashcat out of thin air. When we first moved to Agami, my apartment was directly parallel from the neighborhood trash cans. Garbage wasn’t collected regularly, but when it was, the suddenly empty trash cans had a habit of regularly collecting feral kittens. These cats would smell the olfactory abominations that were these cans, and decide to go exploring.  I would then get woken up at like 4 am by the yowling, screeching and frantic meowing of cats trying to scratch up the slick sides of the trash cans, and have to go down to tip the garbage cans over to let them out.  The first time it happened, I laid eyes on what I thought was a poor little fuzzball and thought, “Oh, you poor thing.” After I tipped the trashcan over, it hissed and took a swipe at me. So much for gratitude, right? Within the first two weeks of arriving in Egypt, I’d rescued at least six cats from the cans. By the end of my time in that apartment, it was less out of mercy and more in the hopes that the liberated trashcat would find its way into the open jaws of a neighborhood dog so I could get some sleep.

2. Any time you walk by a trash can or one of the enormous corner trash heaps, you can expect to see cats writhing, wriggling, and snorting their way through leftover foul, rotten produce, and other unmentionable things. Generally speaking, they only tend to make their presence known to you when it’s late, you’re tired and high strung from teaching at night, and all you want to do is eat your falafel and pass out. They’re also fiercely territorial, and will defend their adopted domiciles with the ferocity of miniature lions should you walk within fifty feet of one.

3. Equally disturbing is the time when the trashcats “get married” as one of my sweetly naive students once said. Then, the usual nightly soundtrack of cat fights turns into low wails that seem to match the exact cadence of  the “Hey sailorrrrr….” calls heard in Oceanside bars during Fleet Week. The message is the same: soon, there will be more trashcats roaming the street. One time, Set and I heard an awful noise while we were trying to lesson plan, and we opened our office window to see two cats, well, “consummating their marriage” as my student would say. They had picked a romantic spot amidst pizza boxes, cigarette butts and other trash thrown out windows inside of what appeared to have once been a bathroom from some long-ago apartment that got built over.

4. One of the most infuriating things about the trashcat scenario is that their behavior is both largely sanctioned and denounced by the people here. I’ve had conversations with my students where they’ve talked about how much they hate the cats as well, and yet, I’ve seen so many people throwing out chicken bones, mostly empty cans of tuna fish and other quasi-edible morsels to the cats. This morning, I heard a godawful, pained yowling coming from outside. When we left our apartment later today, I saw it was a freakish looking white cat with a pile of half-eaten scraps in front of it. Then, a guy came out of nowhere and fed more trash to the cat. This is the same cat that I’ve caught sneaking into our building before, and the likely culprit of the trash-bag ripping incident that left our hallway covered in garbage for nearly two days. Similar to tiger sharks, zombies, and other apex predators, once a trashcat has identified a food source, it will seldom leave until all resources have been consumed.

So, there you have it. These are some of the reasons why I hate cats now.I understand that we have a lot of friends who love and cherish cats, and that’s cool. I can differentiate between your precious feline and the demonic entities that have plagued me for the past year. Just please don’t ask either one of us to catsit.

This entry was originally going to be about dumb things that I’ve seen cats do here, but space was limited.

Throughout our time here, we’ve been telling you about our awesome trips to Lebanon and Nuweiba, the horrific stories from working with children and questionable institutions, but we haven’t really talked much about the food situation in our current lives. Mothers beware, this might make you want to send us a gift basket of avocados, quality sushi and infant sized burritos. Hint hint.

Our regular diet consists of random meals that we make at home. They’re usually fairly nutritious and tasty as we make some kind of pasta, stir fry or Thai curry rife with vegetables. However, sometimes we decide not to eat at home, either because of exhaustion driven laziness or the mutual desire to try something else for a change. We’ve realized in our time here that as plentiful as the options are, sometimes we really can’t wait to get back to America where we can eat burritos, General Tso’s tofu and other awesome Americanized ethnic foods that the nation’s numerous metropolises have to offer.

The food that we eat the most is very true to the heart Egyptian food; Abu Rabia. We frequent this place as it is close to our work, our home, uber cheap, filling and pretty tasty. You can get a satisfying meal with a fair amount of leftovers for about 12 Egyptian pounds, which is about two dollars and a quarter. Here’s what we usually get:

Gini Falafel – Gini is the Egyptian word for the currency here (Egyptian pound). With this we get One Egyptian pound worth of falafel (5 small pieces).

Gini aaysh – Aaysh is the word for Bread. The type of bread we get is like small soft pita bread. It’s pretty bland unless you eat it with something. Aaysh Balady (Bread Local – Literally) is government subsidized flavorless pita like bread. Add a few sourdough baguettes to the gift basket, good bread is not very commonplace in Egypt.

Masa’aaaah – Make sure you emphasize the “aaaaah” at the end, every time I order this, no matter where I go, people make fun of me for trying to speak Arabic and failing. In Modern Standard Arabic (the Arabic of Al jazeera and other Arabic publications) it’s pronounced Masaqah, which you may know more commonly as Musakka, the Greek eggplant dish. I’m not sure of the specifics of how to make Greek Musakka but Egyptian Masa’aaaaah is really tasty. It consists of eggplant cooked in a savory tomato based sauce with hot peppers. So oily, but oh so tasty.

Hummus – For my classes this term, I made my students debate the pros and cons of globalization. Very 90’s I know, but it led for a lot of good (and sometimes depressing) debates. Why depressing? One student basically said that all developing countries will only see the negative effects of globalization while the industrialized countries will only get richer. I wanted to send him in a time machine to the WTO demonstrations in Seattle, maybe he would have thrown a Molotov cocktail that changed the world. Anyways, I made them a handout explaining the general principles of globalization and gave them a few pros and cons that they could work with. On this sheet I wrote “Globalization is the reason why there is McDonalds in Kuwait and Hummus sold everywhere in the United States.” MY students were so confused when they saw the word “hummus” even though it’s a common dish in Egypt. It took them two minutes to realize that I was actually talking about what they call “HOM-MOSSS.” Chickpeas tahini and lemon juice, pulvierized. Next.

Baba – Short for Babaganoush or Baba ganouj – whatever its transliterated as. They only understand when I say baba. Roasted eggplant, tahini, lemon juice, pulverized. Yum.

Taboulleh – Taboulleh in Egypt is a big fat lie. It resembles Pico de gallo more than the tasty awesome green parsley filled salad that we had in Lebanon. They should just start calling it pico, because that’s what Kenny and I call it as soon as we finish ordering.

Fool – yes, Egypt is full of fool. What is fool? It’s usually spelled “foul” whenever I see it anywhere else, but I can’t help but think of the proper pronunciation of that word whenever I see it that way. Fool is the Egyptian word for fava beans. Everyone loves beans. Egyptians are no exception. They eat fool for breakfast off the side of a cart, they eat fool sandwiches when running after the tram, they eat fool when they’re trying to lesson plan… oh wait… we’re not Egyptian. In Egypt, when you order a general fool dish, you’re going to get fava beans in some kind of mushy or oily state. We usually get the mushy fool. I have no idea what it’s actually called, I usually point over in the direction of the big pot of refried beans and say “fool da” (that fool).

That’s generally it. We order a few random dips, bread, falafel and go on our way to eat and be merry. Whenever we’ve had friends visit us, we usually take them to Abu rabia, the vast selection and chaos is always exciting to someone who’s never experienced Abu Rabia, but sometimes it can be a bit too much to handle. Oof.

Next door to Aburabia, there’s a place called Abu Mazen. They sell pizza, fateer and Koshary.

Egyptian pizza is like chuck E cheese pizza with no tomato sauce. They always give you ketchup with the pizza. And their Margarita pizza has tomatoes and pepper on it. I told my students that they’ve been lied to their entire lives.

Fateer is kind of like a crepe, but greasier. They take what looks like pizza dough, and spread it out so its wafer thin and wrap a bunch of … well.. whatever you want inside. They have savory ones like cheese and vegetables, meaty ones with hot dog chunks and they also have sweet ones that have honey and sugar in them. It’s pretty awesome to eat, but I think it’s even cooler to watch them make it.

Koshary, Kenny hates it, I still like it. This is something we’ll never agree on. It’s very carby and filling, but it’s also pretty tasty. I took a picture of it in one of the first blogs that we wrote. It’s pasta topped with seasoned lentils, chidkpeas and fried onions. You top it off with hot sauce and a garlic vinegar sauce. Katie and Gabe (One of Kenny’s super cool best friends from high school and her awesome husband) got to taste some of it when they visited and liked it. I think Kenny got sick of it after we ate it way too many times when we lived in Agami. I can’t really blame him for that, but it’s so cheap and tasty that in my mind it’s still somewhere on my list of foods I enjoy.

Abu mazen also has really friendly people that work at the counter. Often times they’ve helped us with Arabic homework and have been patient with us as we deciphered the menu, which is written completely in Arabic.

This place and Abu Rabia are two places that we frequent when work has rendered us incapable of cooking. They’re probably the reason why we haven’t dropped dead yet.

If we feel like going a bit fancy, we’ll go to the steakhouse close to our neighborhood for a burger or fajitas. I don’t think I ever had fajitas until I came to Egypt. I also don’t think I’d ever eaten so much meat until I came to Egypt.

Occasionally, we get invited to have dinner at someone’s place and we get treated to a special Egyptian feast of magnificent proportions. Pasta dishes, stuffed pigeon, salads, mashi (vegetables stuffed with other vegetables, rice and seasoning), molokhaya (minced mallow leaves cooked in chicken broth) and more are impressively laid out on the table while we gawk in amazement. Egyptian Hospitality is no joke, they will hospitalize you with the amount of awesome food they pile on your plate.

Sometimes, when we have friends in town that aren’t devout vegetarians (which is surprisingly rare), we take them out to seafood in the Bahari neighborhood. Bahari is the fisherman neighborhood which is actually supposed to be pretty dangerous if you go too far inland. Our favorite is a place called “Aroos el Bahr” which means “bird of the sea.” They have a big boat of dead fish, shrimp, squid and other tasty seafood delights that we get to pick out, have them cooked (fried or grilled) and brought out to our table with a generous assortment of side dishes and dips.

Anyways, that’s enough for our food situation. What I want to know is, when are you going to visit us? We’re leaving Egypt in September, so you better make it soon!

Unexcused Absence

14 June, 2010

It’s getting to be old hat by now, but once again, I’ll open this entry with yet another profuse apology for our absence. To say the least, we’ve been extremely, extremely busy as of late. Our friend Jake says that photo blogs are much better than long, verbose entries. Therefore, I’ll summarize what’s been going on with as of late:

1. Beirut was awesome, wonderful, amazing and absolutely incredible. Words simply can’t describe how hard and fast we fell for this marvelous city. Set and I aren’t exactly novice travelers (she’s running out of pages in her passport) but Beirut managed to catapult itself straight to the very top of my “Favorite Cities in the World” list. Here’s why:

The food.

When one thinks of the healthy and satisfying Mediterranean diet, they’re thinking of Lebanese/Syrian food. Fresh tabouleh, wonderful salads, falafel, amazing shwarma, and red wine with every meal. On our first full day in Lebanon, we ate at a French cafe in Gemmayzeh called Le Rouge. Apparently, we were savoring every bite a little too much,  because the waitress came over and asked us why we were eating so slowly. We explained we’d been in Egypt for the past eight months. She nodded knowingly, and the next thing we knew, a gigantic piece of chocolate cake appeared in front of us, gratis.
The city

In direct contrast to CNN’s latest piece of yellow journalism (which declared Beirut to be among the most dangerous cities in the world), we found Beirut to be one of the most friendly and cosmopolitan places we’ve visited. After days of wandering the wide, heavily-trafficked Corniche to the sprawling grounds of the American University of Beirut, we never once felt the need to assume a protective posture. That’s not to say that there aren’t tragic reminders of Lebanon’s fifteen year long civil war and sporadic episodes of strife (you’d be hard pressed to find a wall that hasn’t met the business end of 7.62mm), but the vibrant city life here doesn’t exactly evoke downtown Baghdad or Peshawar. For two history/international relations wonks such as ourselves, a city where you can see a Virgin Megastore, one of the largest and most ornate mosques in the Muslim world and a bullet-ridden statue all within the same field of view provides a profound appreciation for the character of the Lebanese people and a wider appreciation for the world at large.

The countryside

Just 50km outside of Beirut lies an entirely different world. One day, we hired a taxi to take us from Cola Station through the villages of Bettedyne and Barouk to the Chouf Mountain Reserve. Barely an hour and a half outside of Beirut, we found ourselves wandering amongst the cedars that give Lebanon its distinctive flag.

The people

One night, we wandered around Achrafiyeh in search of a Mexican place we’d heard about. Outside of a restaurant, we overheard a conversation in which the participants freely switched between Spanish, French, English, and Arabic.  Our Egyptian Arabic got us smirks and bemused grins- every day, we were greeted with a hearty “izzayukum!” from one of the guys who worked at the hostel we stayed at. (Note: “izzayak” is a greeting distinct to Egyptian Arabic, most other Arabic speakers would say “keif aleik” instead) Also, the Lebanese literally are the most alarmingly beautiful people in the world- let’s just say that a great diet and access to a very well established plastic surgery scene certainly helps.

The bar scene

We had our first margaritas in eight months. Enough said.

We also stocked up on enough books and magazines to outfit a small army of librarians, and overall, gave ourselves a much needed recharge. Overall, Lebanon is a jewel, and a place that I’d happily return to any day.

2. Reunions- Directly after our return to Egypt, our indomitable friend Amanda paid us a visit. She got the best of both worlds- the touristy experience of visiting Egypt as well as a good representation of what Set and I have been going through since we got here. This includes eating enough food to feed a family of four for less than 2 US dollars, getting stuck in Cairo traffic and taking nearly 12 hours to travel 120 miles, visiting the Qaitbay Citadel and Library of Alexandria as well as riding in a mashroua (the ubiquitous minivans that act as semi-official transportation), dealing with the broken lock to our apartment building in the early hours of the morning and meeting our crazy friends.  Coming off our trip to Beirut and meeting an old friend made for our best break yet.

3. All Work and No Play Make Kenny and Set Go Crazy- last term, although lighter in our teaching load, was by far the most taxing we’ve had yet. Set had the idea of starting a student newspaper, which was truly a labor of love straight out of the story of Sisyphus. We dealt with rampant plagiarism, the hassles of laying out nearly 20 pages worth of content, and extreme technical difficulties to put out a seventeen page issue that saw distribution amongst the upper levels here at Amideast. It took a couple of Iron Maiden and Turkish coffee fueled all-nighters, but we’re proud of the final product and happy that we got a chance to give our students a voice in a country where speaking loudly isn’t encouraged.

4. Exit Strategy- Unlike the Bush administration, British and French, we entered the Middle East with clear goals and an exit strategy. As it stands right now, we’re planning on returning to America at some point in September. While we’ve enjoyed our jobs, teaching English isn’t exactly what we aspired to when we got our master’s degrees. We’re applying for jobs that are more in line with our interests and qualifications, and decided not to go anywhere for this break so we could work on our job hunt and figure things out.

In short, we’ve been extremely busy, and now marks the first real time that either one of us has been able to invest the time in writing. So, dear friends, to set the record straight-  we weren’t kidnapped by Hezbollah in Lebanon and we haven’t thrown ourselves out of a window yet (although it was tempting when our toilet sprung a leak and we had to choose between having no water or a flooded bathroom)- we’ve just been horrifically busy.

Now, onto pictures.

We hope to have another entry up ASAP, but for now, thanks for your patience.

Hello everyone,

We’ve returned from Beirut, Lebanon. It was an amazing, outstanding experience, and we have many photos and stories that we’ll be posting shortly. While we’re working on that, check out a bunch of photos from the past five months that we’ve been meaning to post.

*Note: I’m attaching a bunch of photos in this post, click on the pictures for bigger ones.

I woke up extremely disoriented and a stiff neck with a thin layer of sand coating my nose. I sat up and looked around- the tourist bus that we had been on was stalled in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cars, buses and trucks in every direction and a thin orange haze obscuring everything. A quick inquiry revealed that we’d been stuck on the outlying edge of a sizable sandstorm for the past hour, and there was no end in sight as to when we’d be moving again.

It was less than 12 hours since my last student handed in their final exam, and I was en route to the run-down paradise of Nuweiba with Set, our friends and fellow teachers Jake and Sara and the unofficial mayor of Nuweiba, Stevie. We’d been planning our trip for some time, and had decided to have an all-night grading marathon in order to board the 7am train to Cairo. From there, we would take a frantic taxi ride through Cairo’s jammed streets to the bus station, and take a seven hour long bus ride right to Nuweiba.

Things had started off pretty well. I got all my grades in earlier than I thought (around 2:30am) and was able to pack my gear and clean our apartment before we departed. Alexandria is a frantic, bustling city at most times during the day, but walking the streets at 6 am presented a wholly different experience. There were no people on the streets and few cars, and all you could hear was a distant adhan echoing off the buildings. (Fun fact: my favorite part of the morning call to prayer is the line that says “Prayer is better than sleep.”To me, this is thoroughly debatable, but hey, to each their own.)

Stevie, Set and myself walked to the train station and met up with Jake and Sara. We spent a half-hour waiting for our first-class train to Cairo watching dilapidated train after dilapidated train pull in, and blast off 2 minutes after they frantically unloaded their cargo. We watched a woman grab several heavy bags of something and place them on top of her head prior to scrambling across the tracks and depositing her cargo on the other side. She made five trips, racing against time before the next train would pull in, and got her last load across just before another rusted train took over the tracks. As one train prepared to depart, a massive crowd of people were swarming to the station’s exit- even as the train was beginning to move and blaring its horn. The last people made it across with inches to spare, and I saw one woman’s abaya brush against the front of the train. Her only response was to shoot a quick glance back to make sure she wasn’t caught on the train’s grill.

The train station’s demographics were extremely stark. There were sleepy bankers, lawyers and military officers with briefcases preparing to commute to Cairo bumping shoulders with galabeya-clad peasant men and women with their burlap sacks of things. I thought about taking my camera out and taking some shots, but given the police presence and the fact that I was one of four foreigners on the entire platform convinced me to do otherwise.

The actual train ride to Cairo was uneventful, as I slept most of the way. Arranging a taxi from the train station to the bus station was the exquisite dance of a thousand daggers we’ve come to expect, and finally we found a rickety cab to take us to the station. We arrived at the bus station in time to catch our bus, and I promptly got into a one-way shouting match with the bus driver about taking my backpack on the bus. My Arabic isn’t at the level where I can easily respond to a hirsute bus driver bellowing at me, so I was thankful for Sara’s fluency in Arabic in helping to defuse the situation and getting my backpack under my seat. After settling in, we pulled out our travel pillows and racked out on our seats with expectations of waking up right in front of Soft Beach Camp.

So, you can imagine the surprise and frustration we felt when we woke up to find ourselves mired in a sandstorm at a military checkpoint. The road was closed for another 2 hours as road crews blew sand off the roads with water cannons, so I got off the bus and walked around a bit with my camera.

In the back, you see a bit of the enormous traffic jam caused by the sandstorm. This guy’s exasperated-but-resigned demeanor was a common sight.

And for scale’s sake,  a panoramic shot that shows some more traffic and a weird yellow haze.

After what seemed like a short eternity, we were moving again. I promptly fell asleep, and woke up to the pinkish hues of the sun setting behind the Sinai mountains. We were less than 20 minutes out from Nuweiba, so we hurriedly stashed our travel pillows, books and iPods into our packs. Finally, we pulled up in front of Soft Beach, and began our walk to the camp.

Soft Beach Camp is a little compound situated right on the beach. It is composed of a series of small one or two-person bungalows, pictured here:

The entire camp would be considered spartan by those who are used to hotels and resorts- the bungalows are small and lit by a single light bulb, and consist of a single bed and mosquito net. Infrastructure in the Sinai is fickle, so the tap water (when it works) tastes of sea salt and chemicals. Getting the hot water to work in the shower is more complicated than operating the Large Hadron Collider, and each shower shares a space with a toilet. However, for those of us fortunate to escape from the frenetic metropolises of Egypt, it’s a paradise beyond measure and offers authentic relaxation for a fraction of the cost of the more pricey hotels in Dahab or Tabaa.

The main social area of the place is the thatched-roofed building that makes up the main restaurant and administrative office. It’s adorned with with a bunch of seating areas that can each accommodate anywhere from 1 to 10 people- or for five people to sprawl out and relax on the Bedouin-style cushions that make up the seats.

Here’s a poorly-lit picture of one of the seating areas.

Upon arrival, we threw our bags into our bungalows and retired to the seating areas. Nothing soothes the frazzled nerves of frantic traveler than a Greek salad, margarita pizza, and a large Stella (note: not Stella Artois, but Stella- the indigenous Egyptian beer of surprisingly better quality than one might expect), so we dined and promptly passed out in our bungalows.

We awoke to warm temperatures around 7:30 the next day. The sun was bearing down on us already, and Set and I were gleeful- the last time we were in Nuweiba, frigid winds and a constant cloud cover dashed any ideas of swimming in the Gulf’s waters. After breakfast, I donned my “uniform” of board shorts and went for a swim. The lack of any real surf action meant that it was merely waist deep 200′ off shore, so it was perfectly mellow and easy to stroll around with your thoughts. Rather than try to shower, taking several dips in the sea a day became my preferred method of bathing.

Jake and Sara had never been to Nuweiba before, so Stevie (the unofficial Mayor) took them on a tour. We strolled past many shuttered shops until we reached town, and decided to pay a visit to Stevie’s good friend: Dr. Schish-Kebab.

While I doubt the good doctor’s qualifications to practice medicine, he does make a good asir limon (lemon juice) topped with mint leaves.

Afterward, we walked along the beach, picking up worn pieces of sea glass and pretty shells. Even though we’d walked up and down the beach before during our last visit, it was hard not to gawk at the sheer number of cabanas and bungalows that lay vacant and ruined after years of neglect. In the past, Dahab/Taba/Nuweiba were magnets for tourists from Israel (due in no small part to Israel’s occupation of the Sinai until the early 80’s- Nuweiba originally had the Hebrew name of Neviot) but a spate of terrorist bombings earlier in the decade all but killed tourism in the area. As a result, many of the formerly bustling resorts and beach camps were abandoned, and tourism- the lifeblood of the local economy- ground to a halt. Although the Egyptian government brought down its iron fist on the suspected perpetrators (some disaffected local Bedouins and a previously unheard of radical group), the area has yet to recover in the four years since the last attack. Some of the local Bedouin turned to drug smuggling, and the majority went back to the way things were for time immemorial: raising herds of goats, and eking out a living through whatever means necessary. Walking through the dilapidated sections of town reminded me of my experiences in New Orlean’s post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward two years ago- although here, the disaster had nothing to do with nature and more with mankind’s infinite capacity to visit cruelty on others.

Reminders of Nuweiba’s untapped potential lay everywhere. Later that afternoon, we walked down the other side of the beach to visit one of Stevie’s friend’s bakery. Many shops were completely closed or simply abandoned with their wares still displayed outside, such as this one:

Here’s a weathered, abandoned pool table, never again to feel the weight of a cue ball:

The few shops that had managed to survive were always fully stocked, with shopkeepers who would typically all hang out together at someone else’s place, drinking tea and chain-smoking until they heard the flip-flops of tourists padding down the dusty road. Then, they would sprint– not walk- back to their shop and begin their pitch, which uniformly went like this:

“Hello, my friend, would you like to have a minute to come into my shop? Maybe drink some tea with me?”

We’d respond, “No thanks, some other time. We’re on our way to our friend’s place.”

“Okay. I’ll be waiting for you.”

To me, it was akin to the bedraggled beggars I’ve seen in Alexandria who hang around outside of mosques during prayer time, plaintively stretching out their hands for alms or anything to help them make it to the next day. Although I felt bad, I’m not in the habit of buying touristy stuff for the sake of it. However, I’ll admit that I bought a damn fine checkered scarf the last time I visited- one that I still wear frequently.

Unfortunately, the weather reverted to windy and chilly after the end of our first day. Any ideas that we had about sunbathing for hours on end and sleeping on the beach were quickly snuffed. However, this didn’t deter us from still having a great time. Our days were mostly spent lounging around the main area, sipping sage-infused pots of Bedouin tea, playing half-court games of soccer, and playing blackjack. Jake brought a deck of cards and Set and I brought a set of dominoes (one of the many random treasures we’ve discovered in this black hole of an apartment), so we created a 5-person casino with sea glass, dominoes, and sea shells as our gambling chips. The daily blackjack matches were great- we’d pull out a table and chairs to an area sheltered from the wind, and bask in the sun while bellowing and cursing at whoever happened to be the dealer.

In her last entry, Set briefly mentioned Charlie Farley, the “one-eyed chocolate Lab with no self-control” and his girlfriend, Charlene. Charlie is a completely crazy yet adorable dog, and Charlene is far more reserved and intense than her beau. Here’s a picture from the last time we were here that accurately portrays this.

Here, we have Charlie eating a crab, while Charlene gazes on.

Anyhow,  given the… ahem, erotic… performances that these two would put on (usually in front of French or German tourists eating their dinners), it was no surprise to us that Charlene was now pregnant. Her demeanor had changed- she was now more protective of not only Charlie, but of the other people staying at Soft Beach and her territory in general.

This was really driven home one day after we’d gone for yet another walk up the beach.  We had stopped to visit Stevie’s friend Yasir (a man with four wives- not kidding), and while Set and Sara tried on Bedouin jewelry, I befriended a small, pretty white dog who I named Snowy. When we left the camp, Snowy had decided that she wanted to adopt me, so she followed us as we took the long way back through town. Here’s a picture of her waiting for us outside of a shop.

And here’s another one of her guiding us home.

When we crossed back onto the beach, Charlie and one of the other dogs in his pack were strolling around the shoreline. When they noticed Snowy, it was barking and a lot of feigned growls, but Snowy held her own. Eventually, Charlie decided he liked her, and Snowy crossed into camp unmolested.

Until Charlene saw her.

All of a sudden, there was barking and snarling as Charlene and four other dogs attacked Snowy. She yelped and moved faster than I’d ever seen any dog move before, and I thought for a fleeting second that little Snowy was about to get torn to pieces in front of Soft Beach Camp. This compelled me to pick up a palm frond from the beach and run headlong into the fray, bellowing and waving the leaf over my head in order to disperse the dogs. Set recalls my performance as something like a rabid bear encountering a Boy Scout troop, but in any event, the dogs left Snowy alone- for then. Snowy basically became my shadow for the next few hours, sitting next to me in the cabana areas and occasionally softly pawing at my leg to ask for a tummy rub or a head pat. Charlene even came over and sat down on the other side of us, and regarded the newcomer cautiously, but seemingly receptively.

That is until Charlie came over and started paying Snowy too much attention for Charlene’s liking, and the barking and snarling commenced again until Snowy was driven away from Soft Beach. We saw her again a few more times, and each time, she followed us back to camp, only to be met with a receptive Charlie Farley and an enraged Charlene who promptly drove her back.

Dogs in the Sinai don’t exactly have an easy life, and if it were the right time in my life and if I had the means to care for her, I probably would have adopted Snowy and taken her back to Alex with us.

We also paid many visits to the Baked Shop, the bakery run by Stevie’s friend Jack. Jack, an American expatriate, is a thin and wiry kind of guy who seems like he’s got a lot of stories- and trust me, he does. He runs the Baked Shop with his wife Marcia, who teaches at a language school in a nearby town. They offer an amazing selection of excellent food, but the general consensus is that there’s a few dishes that simply can’t be missed:

1. The cheesecake. Cheesecake may be a complicated dessert to prepare, but Jack makes it with the skill of a master. The filling and crust each have their own distinct flavor- both of which compliment the other.

2. Olive bread. Spread some feta on it, and profit.

3. The ginger and carrot bread/cake. There’s some debate as to whether or not these loaves classify as bread or cake. They’re sweet, but not so sweet as to be overwhelming.

Jack also has American-style drip coffee, which can be refreshing after weeks of drinking ahwa turki (Turkish coffee) or Nescafe all the time.

Other highlights of the trip included:

Seeing the pelican Set mentioned in her Nuweiba entry out of its “shed.” The hotel’s manager brought him out, and we watched him strut about as pelicans seem to do so well. He also “attacked” a few people by opening and closing his massive beak on their legs.

Here, the erstwhile pelican attacks the Bedouin friend of the manager. Hilarity ensues.

And finally, our new South African friend and blackjack cardshark Anton, leaning in for a smooch from the bird. As my mother commented on my Facebook page, this truly seems like a great way to lose an eye, but it makes for some compelling photography.

Sadly, all vacations have to end someday. After nearly a week of relaxation, good times and good company, we boarded the bus back to Cairo, and the subsequent trip back to Alexandria was uneventful.

There are several upcoming things that we’ll be blogging about- this Friday (2 April) is Orphan’s Day. Some of the other teachers and ourselves have volunteered to spend the day playing with orphans in a park, and we plan on extensively documenting the day’s events. On Saturday night, we’ll be attending Sara’s cousin’s wedding- our first Egyptian wedding.

Looming on the horizon is a long break, and we’re planning our first sojourn out of Egypt. It looks like we’re going to Lebanon for hopefully a week and arriving in time for the arrival of Amanda, one of Set and I’s dear friends from our Brooklyn days. In short, we have a lot to look forward to, but for now, I’ll leave you with a composite photograph I took in Nuweiba- a half-hour long time lapse that shows the movement of the stars.

Back in Alex!

23 March, 2010

We made it back from Nuweiba safe and sound.

Kenny will write the blog on Nuweiba, I have some other things I’ll write about. For now, enjoy this semi-old picture of us hanging out by the pyramids.

Pyramid schemers!

Also, here’s a picture of a sign that was on the bathroom door at the Hard Rock Cafe in Cairo.

Amenable to the Hard Rock rulers

kaboom!