Thursday, February 4, 2010

La Vida Cairo


My first full week in Cairo is over and the weekend (Friday and Saturday here) is underway. I've been trying to take it all in to answer as best as possible the general questions I've been asked via Twitter, Fb, GChat, etc. So here are the answers to your questions thus far:

How is Cairo?

I believe the best way to describe Cairo is both underwhelming and overwhelming at the same time. I chose to live in Downtown Cairo instead of the suburbs of Zamelek or "New Cairo" an hour away in the desert where most of the ex-pats and rich, Western educated Egyptians live. I wanted to get an authentic Egyptian experience in order to practice my Arabic and, quite frankly, avoid drunk American co-eds as much as possible.

Cairo seems to have been frozen in time, maybe in the 1950s, at the cusp of modernity but never quite reaching it.There is something about it that says it could be more than it is now and someone had intended for it to be. From a Western perspective, Cairo is simply dirty. I thought long and hard but I can not find a more appropriate euphemism for it. Trash piles are littered at every sidewalk, every street, because the city has no trash collection service or even trash cans. Stray dogs and cats, especially stray cats, are everywhere shifting through the trash. Some areas are simply poor while others live in squalor that would make the worst neighborhood in the US look like an oasis. EVERYTHING is covered in a layer of dirt to the point that, at first glance, I assumed that every building and sidewalk was grey and colorless. At all hours of the day, men of all ages line the streets chatting or sit at hookah bars watching soap operas and children dodge in and out of traffic.

Traffic...There are very few traffic lights operating in the city which lends itself to traffic jams,reckless driving, and general chaos. The few that do work are treated as mere suggestions by the drivers. At certain intersections or roundabouts, cops will try their best to regulate traffic.I just hope not to get hit by a car while I'm here. Some guy tried to parallel park on me the other day while I stood on the curb waiting to cross the street!

In contrast, the suburbs are like desert Versace homes-high walled, security clad, and sand colored ornate homes. Everything is lined with palm trees and Western restaurants and stores, Construction of gated communities everywhere to keep the rest of Cairo out.

However, the most significant sound in the city is the city-wide Call to Prayer 5 times a day. The first night I was awakened at 5am by the first call to prayer launched over a loud speaker at a nearby mosque. It is truly a humbling sound to hear for the first time, moving in it's spirituality and tradition.

How is the food?
Cairo isn't really known for being a culinary hub so forgive me for not being able to properly answer this question yet. I've had Yemeni and Sudanese food since I've been here. Although many street vendors and small shops and smaller restaurants line the streets around my apartment, I haven't ventured out to most of them and will probably wait until i'm in the suburbs for fine dining reviews.

Cairo has a wonderful service called where you can have food from any restaurant in the area delivered to you.The best meal I've had thus far was ordered from Ataturk. It was the called mixed grilled portions and I still dont know what all the different grilled meats were.

What do you wear? Do you cover your hair?
I tried to pack "modest" clothing for this trip, or at least a Miami girl's version of modest clothing. I brought loose fitting jeans, long sleeve shirts, sundresses, pants, sweaters, loose fitting T's. I also brought a few scarves with me. I attend Arabic classes at AUC which is also in the suburbs. On campus, the Egyptian girls are always well dressed with their hair flowing. The dress code is also more relaxed in the suburbs. Lots of skinny jeans, Louis Vuitton purses, and Chanel shades.Very few cover their hair. In contrast, in Cairo most of the women cover their hair (hijabs), the older women wear long skirts or pants and long-sleeve shirts,very few completely covered (burqas or niqabs).

In Cairo,I do cover my hair loosely at times (as if I'm wearing a shawl). I do it causally so as not to stand out or just b/c it's a little chilly during January here and not routinely.I've realized dressing modestly refers to covering your hair,arms, and legs. With the current 60-70 degree weather that's not an issue but I'll let you know how I feel about this in the summer lol...

...Sexual Harassment?
In relation to dressing modestly,Sexual Harassment, is widespread and casual here. It's a good idea to blend in otherwise the Egyptian men will grope you, rub up on you, or make lewd comments and gestures. I have yet to experience any physical sexual harassment (it only take a few Memorial Days in Miami to learn how to avoid crowds of leering, sexually frustrated men). I have had both the PoPo and a few men on the streets make lewd sexual gestures and say things I'd rather not understand but no one's tried to touch me. Various forms of scammers and perverts have tried to talk my ear off and get me to come with them somewhere. I just walk off as if I don't understand or walk into a store. It's best to first assume that no man is being a good Samaritan when they approach you here. I'd like to add that I have yet to take public transportation, where most of the groping and grabbing happens b/c you cant avoid being in a crowd. Also, white women, regardless of how they are dressed, are grabbed more frequently. My roommate is groped all the time and she ALWAYS covers her hair and body when she leaves the house.

I was told that the Egyptian government has attempted to have PSA's teaching young men that grouping foreigners on public is wrong but clearly they failed.

...Hair care?
Yup,this is a big deal for black women lol. I brought with me EVERYTHING I need to take care of my hair while here,literally a suitcase full of products alone for my personal hair regimen thanks to Hairlista lol. I do occasionally relax my hair so I was overjoyed to find several kinds of Dark and Lovely relaxers at the pharmacy near my house. My roommate also told me that the Sudanese here do it all-relaxers, wash and set, braids, and weaves. I haven't been able to access their level of skill since most are also Muslim and wear hijabs though. For the time being I'm stretching and 1 month post-relaxer, I keep my hair in a bun to protect it from the dirt and pollution in the air and also to keep people from touching it (something that's happened to me frequently abroad...and in the US). Thus far, I've had no trouble taking care of it myself even though I am a novice.


Pascale DELaSoul said...

lol at the segment on hair care and hairlista, didnt realize so many women were part of the hair site

Frenchie said...

it's been a lifeline for me! my hair always suffered when i traveled so it was good to learn to take care of it myself!

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