Monday, December 7, 2009

The 'Real' Egypt (part 3 of 6)

“Boom Boom! Bambali booloo booloo! Boom Boom! Bambali naga naga!”

Those aren’t Arabic words (I don’t think) but a phonetic description of the chorus to a song our bus driver, Sofwat, is singing along to on the radio. We’re going to drive around Cairo and then off to the Pyramids. Sofwat snaps both sets of fingers over his head at once and somehow manages to shift lanes on a major thoroughfare of Cairo. I laugh at his devil may care attitude; he makes Chicago cabbies seem like old lady drivers. In fact all traffic in Egypt makes America look tame. There are four lanes painted on the road, but there are at least six lanes of traffic. Buses, dump trucks, cars, donkey carts, lots of bicycles, and even a few scooters vie to shift lanes to reach their destinations. Directionals are optional.

Sofwat toots his horn and swerves into the next lane. “Where the hell do these people learn to drive?” mutters a student named Alf. His name’s not really Alf. Everyone on the tour calls him that because he sort of looks like the sitcom alien. I look back out the window, slightly bothered by his negativity. Although we’ve traveled a good distance, I haven’t seen a single accident or near accident. Despite the lack of order, everything moves and nobody crashes. For a moment, I wonder if it’s the rules that create the accidents back home. Or maybe, I’m so used to the rules that I never even thought traffic could be handled in a different way.

We get out, walk around, shop at Khan Khallili, and tour a papyrus art dealer’s establishment. All fantastic stuff, but the thing I remember most about this day is something rather unremarkable on the surface. Dr. Rifai announces his intention to pray at a nearby mosque and asks if anyone wants to go. Most of the students are tired and hungry and decline. I vote to go with Dr. Rifai, as I’m impatient to see “the real Egypt.” Another student named Jean also decides to go.

I’m disappointed that we end up only a block from the tour bus, but the smell of Cairo - a pungent mix of horses, sand, and garbage - is stronger here. Jean isn’t allowed into the mosque because she’s a woman and we don’t want to leave her alone, so I stay outside with her. We’re both disappointed, but sitting outside doesn’t turn out to be so bad. We enjoy taking a load off without being on the bus. We people watch. We get some odd stares; people probably wonder why two white people, obviously tourists, are sitting here.

Suddenly an old man wrapped in a ragged set of white and brown cloth storms up to us. He’s not fierce looking, other than the massive dirty turban wound over his head, but he’s clearly upset about something. He starts chewing us out in Arabic.

“I’m sorry,” I say with a wide-eyed look and a shrug, “I don’t understand.”

The man rolls his eyes and look about ready to burst a blood vessel. He rags on us even more loudly. He points to the sky. I look up but there’s nothing over us. I shake my head in confusion.

“I’m sorry I don’t understand what you mean.”

“I’d better get Dr. Rifai,” Jean says.

“You can’t go in there, and I don’t think we should split up.”

She agrees but the man is getting angrier than ever, jabbing his index finger up at the sky like he’s trying to poke a hole in the air. Some people stop to watch.

Thankfully, Dr. Rifai emerges from the mosque at that moment and rushes up to us. He has a few words with the old man. Jean and I do not exist anymore. Within a few moments, both are smiling but the old man glares at us before he grabs his rickety bike, points at the sky yet again, and wheels away like Elvira Gulch in a turban.

“What was that all about?” I ask in amazement.

Dr. Rifai waves his hand in disgust. “He’s devout and he didn’t like that you were sitting in front of a mosque with an unmarried woman.” Jean and I looked at one another and burst out laughing. The idea of being in a foreign country was suddenly concrete. I had given offense without having the slightest idea why. Sure, this man was the Islamic version of some nutty Christian sect like Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it was clear I lacked the ability to know whether what I said or did was rude or not. The common sense rules were different – and unknown.

End Part 3...I'll be posting a part a day for the next week.

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