Saturday, November 15, 2008

Scotty's Egypt

In Scotty's Egypt, there is a fire station, a hotel, a factory where people work, a garage and a sea food restaurant.

The hotel has a pool and a diving board (with ladder) and the town has a lake with a dock to stand on to fish and seaweed, because that is where the fish hide. It has a soccer field, roads that curve, on bridge and two trees.

Of course it has pyramids made from beach blocks found on the beach of Lake Erie. But the cool part is the mountains you can see in the distance. That's Arizona. Two smoke stacks made from old bottle necks, buildings of odd legos and roades made from construction paper. The factory is a happy dancing place with a parking lot and a sign that says work, work. Somehow, since Ws are Ms in Scotty's Egypt, this doesn't sound as bossy as one might think.

Considering all Scotty got from Egypt is a T shirt, I think his five-year-old vision is pretty comprehensive.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Words on Walls

In Egypt the hieroglyphics are like, everywhere. I mean the Ancient Egyptians had a lot to say. After someone stumbled on the Rosetta Stone, 20th century scholars could translate these pictures into Greek. Since I can’t read hieroglyphics or Greek, I took to making up my own translations and decided each of these series of pictures could be read like a poem. And everyone knows a poem is open to interpretation, right?

Like, I think this one is advocating fitness. Read from left to right, you want to lay off the punch bowl, walk, read, eat like a bird, play a little golf, climb some mountains, eat like a bird and swim with the ducks. Watch out for yo yo dieting. A precursor to the women’s magazine section in the check out line. In fact, considering all the food stuffs pictured on the walls, this poem fits right in.

Although, doubtful the ancients needed a prescribed workout routine since their favorite pastime in the off season was rolling 1-2 ton blocks of limestone and granite up steep slopes of mud brick to insane heights and righting obelisks the size and weight of four story buildings with ropes, pulleys -- all powered by sweat.

After taking roughly 4000 pictures of these pre-phonemic awareness context clues, I noticed that none appeared to be about hearts or romance. This one seems to document the fact that we need bees to pollunate the grain. Important reminder to a modern age.

Apparently those sentiments didn’t begin to be recorded until the Greeks. Despite what their hearts may have been telling them, the Ancient Egyptian royalty were seriously into marrying their brothers, sisters and first cousins, thereby compounding sibling rivalry with marital discord. Just imagine the slammed 48 foot doors caused by those arrangements.

In fact the only hearts we saw carved in stone (this one an enhanced image of graffiti on the pyramids) were from later visitors. Since there have been thousands of years of visitors, the graffiti is ubiquitous and varied. The first to deface some of the tombs were succeeding monarchs who took exception to their followers worshiping their predecessors, so they chipped away at their faces. After the decline, between 300-600AD the Christians lived in many of these tombs and temples, hiding out from the Romans, leaving their graffiti, smoke damage and hook holes in and on the walls. Apparently some of the faces of the gods freaked them out so they chipped their eyes out so they could rest easier. Imagine kids trying to get to sleep with Horus the Falcon Head hovering.

Sand, as anyone who has ever been to the beach can attest, goes EVERYwhere. In your bed, your shoes, your knickers and your suitcase. Living here could not have been pleasant. Somewhere along the line, folks stopped keeping house and the tombs got so filled up with sand that they disappeared. Then some time in the 18th century, an adventurer tripped over the capital of a forty foot column thinking it was a rock (imagine his surprise) and as soon as he started digging, he started with the graffiti all over again. People do love to leave their marks on walls, an early version of self publishing.

Fact is, today if groundskeepers didn’t sweep these awe inspiring places out on a regular basis, in 50 years they’d be all buried again. Good for the tombs, bad for tourism, which now accounts for 60% of the income of the entire country.

While the Egyptians were inventing calendars, compasses and keystones, the Europeans were still wrapping themselves in animal skins (according to my social studies texts) and living in homes dug in the ground. The advanced achievements of this society are beyond amazing and it is a crime that so many of the images have been defaced. But left behind are stories written in their mysterious language in the forms of little heads, staffs, squiggles, ducks, serpents, bees and you name it.

More than anything else I saw in Egypt, these spoke to me, even if I can't be sure exactly what they are saying.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Cruising the Nile

In the summers as a kid, I went to Bible school. Weeks at a time. One summer in particular, I went to Bible school five times, once at Granny’s, at my maternal grandmother’s, at Aunt Sophie’s and at home. Twice. It was an amazing race from one Methodist to the next Presbyterian church. An entire summer of cutting out little pictures of baby Moses and pasting him in the green construction paper rushes.

This adventure was offered to me no doubt because school was out, I was bored, and Bible school was cheaper than a baby sitter or anger management classes for mom. In my teen years I sang in three choirs for the express purpose of getting away from the parents who had parked me in Bible school all those summer. There I learned the fourth and fifth verses of countless hymns, how to construct a speech with an intro, three ideas, and a conclusion (Dr, Kirkman was a master at the 5 paragraph theme) and how to squint my eyes while looking at the stained glass until the colors began to kaleidoscope in mad circles that made me dizzy. An early lesson in how and what kids take away from learning opportunities.

Back to Moses. Every year of Sunday or Bible school kicked off with the original water baby, Moses, afloat in rushes. So, today, as we cruise down the Nile with cattle, donkeys, and farmers in fluid blue robes that catch the morning breeze it is as if those cartoonish pictures from our Bible school newsprint books have come to life. Unlike the pictures of the North Pole workshop and Dino, the Flintstones’ pet dinosaur, turns out that this place – a river with rushes and desert on either side – is real.

And let me tell you, in the countryside along side the Nile, some things haven't changed. Donkeys are still used for transportation, rice paddies are being tended by hand, fishermen are slapping the waters with sticks to chase fish into nets and laundry is still being washed by hand. And though the water is more polluted, the floods have been contained and the crocodiles are snatching fewer humans, which is change we can all believe in.

I never received or sought much religious instruction beyond the paste pot and memorized verses and hymns, this ancient, generous river seems sacred to me – a path of life that has enriched the land and people for all time.

Traveling through Egypt with Rambo

Rambo! The vendors lingering in doorways, trying to get us to stop to look at their products (all free, best price, come see, one minute) call out to Michael as we walk down the street. Rambo! Compared to most of the stick figure Nubians, he is quite bulky in the shoulders. People in the countryside south (Up River) of Cairo are thin – like they have not been sitting around after dinner watching TV, eating potato chips and sucking down sodas.

a. sodas are expensive
b. ditto on the chips
c. few TVs
d. maybe no dinner

It is a dusty struggle for day to day necessities here, the vendors are more urgent, the horses and donkeys skeletal, the clothing less colorful.

One night our cruise docked in a village called Esna, where at 9:30PM we are the only westerners on the dirty, rocky road. We were immediately approached by offers for carriage rides and requests to buy coca cola, scarf please, maybe later, on your way back.

A small, dark girl with large eyes comes up to me to try and sell me a scarf stretched across her arm. “La shakra,” I say, “No, thank you.” She continues to walk with us, barefoot on the rocky, littered road. When she puts the scarf back on her head I realize she has tried to sell us her own headscarf. She is talking a mile a minute. “Where you from? America? Welcome to Alaska!” Her English knows no fear.

“What is your name?” She asks and I tell her and ask hers.
“Hanna,” she says walking fast, tapping her chest. She asks me if I am married and checks out my hand for a ring. “Rambo.” She points to Michael. “He is papa familia?” Yes, I tell her, we are a family.

Earlier in the day a handsome young Egyptian, a waiter from the boat joined our tour of the tomb. He too asked me if I am married and how old I am. When I tell him my age, he switched gears. Do I have daughters? Are they married? Then, smiling he told me, he needed a girlfriend. An American girlfriend. He wants to come to America and he needs a girlfriend in order for him to get a job. I tell him, I can’t help him there. Maybe I have a friend? he smiles. I smile, too. But I don’t laugh at him. I have seen enough of the countryside to have seen the prospects for this tall, well spoken young man and beyond the cruise ship work, they are not good.

I slip Hanna a few Egyptian pounds, about equal to one dollar and ask her to show us to the Souk (marketplace). She leads the way and we turn left down a descending, rocky alley. No cars racing through this marketplace, just an occasional motorbike. Hanna has told me that she is 13 years old and she has no mama. She walks with quick sure strides in her bare feet, one of which has twisted toes. But that’s no impediment to her darting from shop to shop – trading shouts with shop keepers. She runs up to one open window selling cigarettes and small food items and I think she hides her money. Her hands are quick as a squirrel peeling acorns, so it’s hard to tell.

“Buy clothes for mama, here. Pharmacia. Clothes for Bebe. Telephono," she’s back at our elbows pointing out each shop with authority. The shopkeepers here are less outgoing, more suspicious of Rambo and his family, but they do smile back when we smile first. And when they see our guide is Hanna, they laugh and break into grins. Everyone seems to know her. She walks along shouting greetings and what appear to be joking insults at people. At one point an older man chastises her for not wearing shoes.

When a skirt on an outside rack catches my eye, we stop and ask the price. She runs to get a merchant from across the way to translate. Michael bargains and the price drops from 70 to 50 lbs. (from about $12 to $9) and everyone is happy. We walk away and she agrees, 50 lbs. “most. No more.” As we turn down another street we are in a different century. Except for electric lights, this is a crowded, dusty market from another time. The fruits and vegetables are not piled as high as in the city and people are all thin. In the USA, poor people tend to be overweight, here, no.
We see three trucks top heavy with young people – two trucks of boys and one of girls rocking around corners and heading out of town. They are happy and singing. Our guide tells us later this was most probably a wedding party. They wave and shout, “Hello,” in English.

A young man drops into our group to chat up Michael as we walk. He is rather well dressed in a windbreaker and jeans. Hanna whispers to me that he is a pick pocket. To watch Michael’s pocket. She is practically frantic. One time she saw this man take $400lb off of someone. I casually mention this to M and the young man drifts away, but not without giving Hanna the stink eye.

A well-groomed man in a caftan brushes by Hanna and makes a “phish” noise and I see her slip him the money we had given her and he banks into an alley. A little later I say to her, “That man took your money.” “Yes.” She is matter of fact. “I have no mama.” She holds both hands flat against her cheek, the universal sign of sleeping, “I sleep.”

After maybe 30 minutes of exploring this market NOT designed for tourists, it’s time to return to the ship. Most of the shops are closing at 9:30 on a Saturday night, but many people are still working. With raw tobacco piled high and treadle sewing machines in the clothing and shoe shops that smell of raw leather, donkey drawn carts driven by men and boys, we look around. Hanna guesses what we want, “go back to boat, this way.” And she points down a twisting alley. Frankly, it’s a little scary. But then, I’m game. After all, I’m traveling with Rambo, right? I jab Michael and he says, “I’m not so sure about this.” Neither one of us wants to be lead down a blind alley. But Hanna is reassuring, “this way to boat.”

We pass a collection of children on in a whitewashed doorway. Michael takes their picture while I make big smiles with a stern looking woman in an abaya across the path. She finally smiles. Cute kids. Who can resist? We both shrug. I wonder if it is an orphanage. All those toddlers together. Adoption is not considered proper in a Muslim country.

Another turn and we are on the river road, the boat a few football fields away. Time to bid good bye to Hanna and I press a 20lb ($4) note in her hand. To give a child like this too much money would be dangerous for her. 20 lbs may buy her a few nights sleep or meals for her and her friends, more than that and someone could break her like a twig to take it from her.

At first I had assumed the “no mama” line was a ruse, but now I’m thinking maybe it is true. What Muslim mama would let her precious daughter with the bright mind and gorgeous black eyes out in the marketplace to hang out alone with strangers from another country on Saturday night? Girls start to wear headscarves when they begin having their periods. At thirteen Hanna has a scarf, but whether it is her inexperience with the thing or the fact that it is the cheapest of polyester, it won’t stay put. With no mama to make sure her family apartment’s balcony is brightly painted to signify that a marriageable girl is living there, her dark skin and her twisted toes, Hanna’s marriage prospects may not be the best. What she has going for her is spunk and intelligence. I don’t understand the culture well enough to know if those are blessings or curses for a young woman of 13.

This picture of a painted balcony was taken from the boat. It is from a different, more properous village. The properity of the area is directly tied to how many tourist attracting ruins are around.

“This money is for you. You spend it on you. Do not give to that man.” I say as I press the bill into her palm. She nods. “For you.” I say. Our eyes lock. As I walk away, I can only hope that she is able to spend at least some of it before Fagan puts a clamp on her tip. Later our guide tells us that children like this are not allowed to work the streets alone, they all have to give 2/3 of what they collect to their bosses, a kind of local mafia.

But that night the reason I can’t sleep is not because of Hanna. Tonight at least, she has a place to sleep. The reason I can’t sleep is the face of the old man with skin the color and toughness of his dusty, fleshless horse. No teeth, his head in a sweat stained white turban who asked “please, please, one hour only,” for us to ride in his carriage and I said, no thank you. He was gaunt, his horse showing every bone. I can’t sleep wondering if he and the horse went to bed hungry and how much I really did not need that skirt.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Cairo American College

WHAT an experience. First of all, I can’t say enough nice things about the kids and the learning atmosphere. Everyone was engaged. Many thanks to Seamus and Therasa Marriott for inviting us. We are following him around the world, first Shanghai and now Cairo. The evening on his patio was a perfectly pleasant opportunity to get to know the elementary staff and share poems and stories. We owe him such a debt of gratitude not only for inviting us, but for helping us put together our cruise on the Nile.

Planning our visit with students at the elementary was the kind and cheerful Ann Coster and at the HS, Paul Bartos. I really feel like we made friends. The felluca sail on the Nile was such a relaxing respite. Special thanks to Ann for guiding me around shopping in her off hours, answering my cultural background questions and keeping me supplied with diet coke, a habit I really AM going to break one of these days. From changing our money to managing the parade of children to talking us down from the election, thanks to both of them for perfectly orchestrating the visit.

Thanks to all the moms who ran the book fair. Wow. I loved talking to all of you! Each and every one. Thank you for all your hard work.

And special thanks to Peter Duckett, who gamely escorted us to several dinners and market excursions, explaining the menus, the customs, the history and the bargaining. He walked us to school each morning and led our tired selves back to the apartment at night. He appointed the apartment with an impressive collection of books on Egypt from his private library, which helped fill our off hours (few) with more background on this ancient, dynamic society. AND he had a bottomless coffee pot going in the office at all times, a lifeline for the travel weary. Thanks to Peter and to his assistant, Shaima. She made sure we had some genuine Egyptian food for lunch and took care of all the details. Lots of details. Spreadsheets full of details. Thank you. Shakron. I'll be posting pictures later.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Cairo reflections

This is Cairo, its minarets, shops, horse drawn carts, bumper car traffic and children. Songs beckoning the faithful to prayer echo one another, each offering a different melodious voice. I never visited Baghdad before it was destroyed and tonight I wonder if it looked anything like this. Too much negative propaganda has been spread about the Muslim people. Here we are treated with routine respect, kindness, and smiles. Yes, the shop keepers want to take our money, some are pretty aggressive about it – just like tourist shops from New York to LA, but no where do people give change by slapping it on the counter or act rudely. People do their best to speak our language and everywhere, smiles.

No place is perfect and certainly Egypt is not. There are no safety nets here for children, people or animals. There is a lot of poverty, too few jobs. But one thing I wish everyone at home could see is that Muslims and Arabs are not at all evil – no way. At no time did I feel unsafe. Sentiments in the USA have become so twisted that even a checkered scarf on the cook-next-door Rachel Ray got the commercial pulled. Prejudice run crazy. That late night philosopher Bill Maher says that they don’t hate our freedom in the Middle East, they hate our cluster bombs. Too true. And who could blame anyone for that?

At 5:30AM on November 5 we heard horns honking and even a few shouts rang out as the election results were announced in the US. All through Cairo, when we were recognized as Americans, people say, “Obama!” with a thumbs up. The shop keepers whisper the name to us and smile. Obama. The name is like a password to instant friendship. Obama. Obama. Big smile.

Everyone is jubilant to see Bush & Co. step down. He does not understand, Shiama, a friend and secretary at the school, explains. Bush doesn’t realize how many innocent children and families he has killed looking for the few bad ones. Homes and lives destroyed. Neighborhoods just like the one I am looking out at from this balcony. People in Egypt are hopeful the new president will better understand.

This is another post 911 moment for us, I believe. Today the world is once again on our side. Waiting to see what the transition in government will bring. For now, the election has brought smiles, which seems like a good place to start.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The whole world is watching

The population of Cairo is 19 million at night and 23 million during the day -- it is a city on the move. We are half a world away from the US, but all anyone is talking about is the election. CNN is a different animal overseas -- truly world news. And tonight it is all the US election all the time. It will be 5AM here when the polls close in the USA -- so we will go to bed and wake up (hopefully) to a clear cut victory.

But today at school it was all about poetry for the students of Cairo American College. I got to talk to the elementary in two assemblies today, watch a first grade class perform a reader's theater rap, wrote with some middle schoolers, and Michael and I put on a model poetry slam outside for the HS.

Only in an international school do I have the privilege to talk to kids in pre-school through HS all in the same day. A student who interviewed me for the yearbook asked me what I like about my job today and I answered THAT is it -- I love the variety.

After school the elementary librarian Anne took me out to do some shopping and then we kicked back for an hour before joining elementary principal Seamus Marriott and his staff for elegant snacks and cold drinks on his spacious balcony overlooking the lights of Cairo. As we have from the first day we arrived, the conductor orchestrating our visit has been Peter Duckett. It was simply a beautiful day.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Monday is Tuesday

Well, since Sunday is the start of the school week in Cairo, today seemed like Tuesday, except it was Monday. Not another Manic Monday, but a smooth school day, take a cruise on the Nile, have a relaxing dinner Monday. A fifth grader asked me today, "what enthusiated you to write poetry?" What a great word. He is learning English in addition to his native tongue and when his classmates were quick tp point out his mistake, he just shrugged it off with an "oh, you know what I mean." And of course we all did. Everyone here is learning another language of some kind. We are learning please and thank you in Arabic and trying to get everyone thinking in the language of poetry.

The days are twirling, honking, smiling as we get to know people. I'm so tired I can't even think straight. I suggest you check out Michael's site for pictures of our sail and Frank's blog for pictures of his day at the school for Sudanese refugees.

As soon as we learn something new, another question pops up. Like did you ever wonder where those rag rugs in the store come from" These folks were working away at 9PM on a Sat. night on rag rugs. No 9-5 here.

In the same market, we saw long black abayas displayed right across the narrow market road from bare midriff belly dancing outfits. Kind on makes you wonder what's under those things, doesn't it? And some of the Egyptian teen-aged girls on the street who were dressed in long black robes (few are) have very tight T shirts in bright colors pulled on over the abaya. You just KNOW they didn't leave the house that way. Kind of the equivalent of rolling your skirt up after you left home and turned the corner when I was in HS. But overall, the teen dressing is MUCH more modest here, on the street, with girls dressing in long skirts or dresses over pants -- lots of creativity in the way they pull it all together as opposed to the classic uniform of jeans and sweatshirts. Whew -- time for bed!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sphinx and surrounds

Here she is. Cairo cat, tail curling under her lion's body. She's not flawless. And she has not, as they say, had work done. Not on her face anyway. They have rebuilt her paws, only practical. But in fact, no make up artist in the world could fix the damage to her noble face -- and yet people come from all over the world to look at her in awe. Stately. Knowing. She has seen it all. And looking at her, I want to ask thousands of questions, one for each year she has had her eyes trained on the desert. If history is prologue, do we dig into it simply for understanding? As in, whose shoulders are under us on which we are standing? Or there a hint of the future in studying the past?

The pyramids -- there are over 100.  Big. Huge.  School kids around the globe make models of these four sided wonders.  But how were the originals made without forklifts?  Without tractors?  Some say they built the sand up around them and rolled the 2-7 ton stones in place.  Some say it was aliens.  How many died in their construction we can only guess.  

The picture of the man whose task it is to guard the entry of the empty tomb puts the size of the stones in perspective. These were mined from a quarry across the Nile, brought by barge and rolled on logs into positions over decades to erect the pyramid. Beside the great pyramid are smaller ones for several of the Pharaoh's wives. Below are Michael, Frank and me posing in the mummification temple located at beside the pyramid.

Outside the entry (I did not go in, asthma and a twinge of claustrophopia) instead opting to take pictures of Frank and Michael as they join a school group on their steep descent into the empty tomb. Beside the pyramids were the usual collection of vendors hawking small models and stuffed camels. One man gently caught my elbow as I walked past. I am used to shaking off vendors, so I kept walking until he said, "Obama." I looked down. I was wearing a campaign button. He put a thumbs up. "Obama." I replied. "Barook Obama." He said smiling. "Barrack." I said. "No Jack," he said. "Obama." We were in agreement. Egypt is the strongest democracy in the Middle East, a long standing ally of the US. Here, as all over the world, people are watching our election process carefully. The peaceful transition of power. The history of yesterday and the history that is being made on Tuesday all coming together as two strangers touch hands and exchange smiles.

The final photo is of Michael sitting outside the Museum of Antiquities in front of another Sphinx. Turns out there are lots of them. This is not a model, though smaller than her sister in the desert, this ol' girl is also thousands of years old.  

Saturday, November 01, 2008


The trip was seamless -- Cleveland to Newark to Rome to Cairo.  Just like we knew the way by heart.  We were greeted at the airport by smiles and a welcome sign and then wisked off to (can you believe it?) to a Halloween festival at the school.  Today we toured the great pyramids and Sphinx and Cairo museum followed by a winding, wild ride through Cairo marketplace.  Frank almost became a hood ornament, but other than that, it was all fascinating.  

I have so much to write about, but it is later than I want to think about and we get to meet the students first thing in the morning, which is the most exciting of all. So, a couple more pictures and off to wash the dust off and to bed.