On Cups of Tea

After a little bit of travel in Jordan at the conclusion of last semester, I packed up and headed down to the land of the Pharaohs, or as I am more concerned with, the home of the Fatimid Empire; I truly lament not having a better background in pharaonic history and I feel as though I’ve cheated some of you who are budding Egyptologists.

In any case, I was left in awe by the vivid colors in the tombs at Luxor, expecting to see the same tan sandstone of the temples and I stood before the pyramids agape for a while pondering the magnitude of the structures.  I think that the combination of scope and intricacy struck me most when thinking about the three different types of structures.  For each of the three structures – all relating to the afterlife – there seemed to be one aspect which made me stop to ponder the capacity for its creation some 3-4000 years ago.  At the temples in Luxor, the first place I visited, the extensive floor plan and rooms filled with hundreds of carved columns standing 40ish meters in height left me considering the time and skill necessary for constructing such immaculately precise columns, obelisks, and ornate walls.  Even the differences between reigns became apparent in the transition in carvings between the temple at Karnak and that of Medhat Hudu across the Nile.  The tombs in both the Valley of the Kings and that of the Queens were covered in breathtaking illustrations of the lives and beliefs of the once-interred pharaohs.  The colors from which these eternal reminders were produced shone vividly, despite being thousands of years old; contrasting the preservation and availability of such illustrations to the period I study – far closer temporally – indeed left me a little jealous.  After those, the pyramids at Giza provided a third humbling moment by means of sheer magnitude.  The quantity of labor which produced the megaliths is simply mind-numbing while one stares up in the direction of the point from somewhere along the base.  What will be the relics and ruins of this age? 

Egypt is quite different than Jordan, far moreso than I had imagined and for reasons I hadn’t particularly considered before traveling.  From the consideration of my studies, I look at Egypt as the origin of pan-Islamism and then Arab nationalism which certainly was the case at the beginning of the 20th century.  The country is home to the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Azhar, a new and an old element of significant Muslim intellectual and political development; the Shi’a Fatamid state ruled from Egypt during the period I study and the country is currently the prominent source of reemergent Muslim conservative identity, despite being the forefront of anti-colonial prestige during the last century.  What I expected from this understanding and what I experienced were quite different.  With Luxor as an unfortunately apt example, the primary (or perhaps almost sole) income for the city is tourism; the poverty level shifts the daily communication that I am accustomed to in Jordan from “Hello and welcome” to “Hey, you give money.”  Bakshish, a type of tip for almost any action, becomes quickly the going language of communication, ranging from a local directing you around a corner at a temple for a nice picture to the random person demanding bakshish after walking next to you unwanted down the souq (market street) and trying to coax you into a shop.  That said, the temples are awe-inspiring.

Concerning Cairo, and my general take on travel as a rule, I avoid planning as much as possible and greatly prefer to travel as the wind carries.  Before I arrived in the city, as I do while traveling anywhere in Europe, I simply checked a hostel reservation website to see if there seemed as though beds might be scarce and a reservation a good idea.  Seeing plenty of space at all of the places listed online, I took my handy directions and walked from the station to the first hostel where I argued for 30 minutes because the owner wouldn’t rent a dorm without an earlier reservation – though he certainly had the really expensive single to offer.  A little annoyed, I left and made my way to another hostel and went through the same thing.  After the fourth hostel, which listed open dorm beds as all the others, I ended up in an overpriced but reasonable single in a hostel not listed online.  Since I wanted to save my pennies, I went to the internet café and promptly made my reservation at what seemed to be the best deal, with wireless in room, a single for a great price and a decent-looking place in general.  The next day when I arrived, I was told that the price listed online was actually only half the price of the room, there was no internet and that the reservation payment that is made on the website isn’t subtracted from the actual cost of the hostel (the website policy states otherwise and that’s always been the case).  I ended up spending almost two hours arguing with the owner about whether it was his responsibility or that of the website for the improper price listing and what my reservation was for and almost an hour specifically arguing about whether the amount I paid should be figured into the cost.  I was not in a culturally sensitive mood and it got me nowhere.  Two parts that I specifically remember coming to mind were that his efforts were geared around shifting responsibility away from himself – to the website and to me, since I “should have known that such a room would cost more, since [he] rents the facility and the rent is almost as much as the price listed on the website and [he has] spent a great deal of money furnishing the room so nicely.”  I ended up paying more than the price of my reservation for the night, but not the full price after being vehemently told that the manager was trying to be as helpful as possible.  When I walked down to another hostel that night, inquired about availability for the following day and was told not to worry, that I couldn’t make a payment, nor that I should run down to the internet café and make a reservation, but that the manager gave me his word that I would have a bed there for the following night.  Though exceedingly skeptical, I went with it and it ended up being a great place.  When in Rome…

After having been in Egypt for a week between my time in Luxor and the first few days in Cairo, I was absolutely prepared to head back to Jordan and hadn’t particularly enjoyed my time, which I had planned out and walked through my list of places that I simply had to see in the country.  That morning, I was switched between rooms in my hostel and found myself talking to Daniel, an American who had joined the Foreign Legion at 20, deserted, met his first wife (a Swede) in Nepal, divorced and met his second wife (a Dane) in India and now lives in Denmark where he teaches Arab immigrant kids English, for a few minutes – with a story like that, how could I not?  According to my plan, I was going to go to Alexandria that day and then start the return trip to Amman the following day, making it back in time for New Years.  The breakfast conversation turned into a lunch and tea conversation, which turned into a dinner and then tour of the locals’ bars.  The following day I went with him to the mosque across from al-Azhar (Daniel is Shi’a) and watched old sufi men stick their hands between the bars of the shrine enclosure and physically grasp the baraka then put it in their pockets.  Pointing out a small office across from the Mosque, he casually mentioned that if I wanted to get into al-Azhar –or Mecca -(non-Muslims distinctly forbidden) that the office was the place where one is officially recognized as a Muslim by reciting the shahhada and providing a Muslim name.  Enter crazy huge ethical issue, making me wish I didn’t have a strong sense of intellectual ethics.  Anyway, he travels back to Egypt every year over the holiday season and has done so for the last 10 years.  The next day he led me back to the same places and introduced me to the managers of the little café’s and we spent the day smoking and talking; now I have a tiny bit of street wasta in Cairo and, if nothing else, paid local prices (roughly 1/5th or less) for the next 4 days while in the city after he’d left.  This all from a conversation while packing a bag and then a cup of tea.