Thursday, February 08, 2007

inside ibn tulun

We entered the mosque of Ibn Tulun, named for a governor of Egypt sent from Iraq to rule the province in 868. He decided when he arrived in Egypt to declare it independent and began buliding the vast mosque that covers approximately six acres and still stands today. It is a very early mosque, and its design is simple and elegant. Although it is mainly a tourist attraction now, there were several worshippers praying when we visited, and we climbed the unusual minaret just in time to hear the midday call to prayer echoing throughout the city.

khan el-khalili

The Khan el-Khalili has been a Cairo shopping center for ages. With its winding mazes of very narrow alleys lined with stalls, it is an intoxicating and sometimes overstimulating experience. In the tourist areas it can be irritating to fend off the constant "where you from?" and "free to look, come inside," that many shopkeepers resort to in order to compete with other shops selling the exact same wares. Tucked away at one end, though, is the part of the Khan that most tourists never see. My mother and I ventured into the area where only the locals shop, and made some wonderful finds with very little haggling. In the distance is the tower at Bab Zweyla, a medieval gate to the city that we later climbed to get a view of Islamic Cairo.

cairo cab drivers

One of the most colorful experiences in Cairo is riding in a taxi. It seems like such a common thing to do, but there is an art to hailing a cab (and getting away afterwards!). Unlike in New York, where the fares are digital and the same for everyone, in Cairo you must pay according to whether you are a tourist, native, or expatriate. The fares may even differ from driver to driver, so sometimes there is a big argument after you reach your destination about what the rate should be (you never pay until after you step out of the cab). The more Arabic you speak, the less likely you are to have to pay a high rate.

Another strange fact about Cairo's taxis is that very few are newer than the 1970s (80s at the latest!) and seem to be mostly Russian. I don't know much about cars, but they seem to be lacking something like a catalytic converter, because most of them nearly suffocate you with exhaust fumes. It is truly like being two feet from a tailpipe, and the exhaust seems to pump directly through the vents. For this reason, they always have the front windows down. Some, like this one, are decorated with blankets, prayer beads, and passages from the Qu'ran.

Monday, February 05, 2007

St George

We visited a beautiful circular church at the Monastery of St. George, an Orthodox monastery in the heart of Coptic Cairo. It was lovely watching religious pilgrims touch the altars and kiss their fingers, leaving prayers scribbled on notes for their favorite saints. The church itself felt so ancient, very dark and tall inside with domes reaching far above and tiny hints of light peeking through stained glass. Most Egyptians (something like 95%) are Muslim, but the remaining 5% are almost entirely Coptic, an ancient sect of Christianity with its own Pope and distinct saints. Having developed as an island in a sea of Islam for centuries, Coptic Christianity has a slightly different doctrine from Catholicism or Protestantism, and my first impression of it was that it was like Christianity in a parallel universe, which in a way it sort of is. The Coptic Bible is different from the Latin, and its services are conducted in Arabic and an old Coptic language that is derived from the ancient Egyptian. The Copts are considered to be purer descendants of the ancient Egyptians than their Muslim Arab counterparts, but there have been infusions of Nubian, Greek, and Jewish blood over the years as well. As the minority in Egypt, the Copts have been at a disadvantage, and some of the most impoverished areas I have visited were the Christian neighborhoods.

veiled woman

I photographed this woman leaning against a wall using a technique I learned from my friend Nicole, who accompanied me on my last trip to Egypt. By holding the camera at your waist and looking around like a tourist, you can get sly shots of people who are (hopefully) unaware of what you are doing. I have found myself very preoccupied with the condition of women's lives here. Besides being self-conscious about being one of the few women who have their hair exposed, I am acutely aware that in being born American, I have had so many opportunities that women here never get. Very deep beliefs stand in the way for women to advance here at all. I don't think I truly appreciated my lot in life until I had to ride in the Women's Car on the subway or realized that I would not be welcomed in certain cafes because of my gender.

egypt at last

After many more hours in airports than I care to count, I finally arrived in Cairo on Saturday evening. I didn't get to leave the airport right away, though, since the passport control computers were down. With as little logic and order as I have come to expect in Egypt, the officers confiscated the passports of several hundred passengers who all had arrived within an hour and left us all standing in a large room, waiting to hear our names called out one at a time in a strong Egyptian accent. It wasn't at all as orderly as it sounds...three different officers would be shouting at once, moving to different parts of the room, and waiting for the officers in the back office to thumb through stacks of log books to see if our names were on "the list." Not wanting my name to be shouted to hundreds of people, followed by "AMERICA!" (definitely not a good idea to advertise that here), I waited just behind an officer and took my passport back just before he called my name. All in all, a fairly humorous experience. As my mother says, if it's not a good time, it's a good story.

Because of the delay, I was not able to get any good reference, as the sun was setting as we left the airport for a terrifying cab ride to mom's flat. We finally ventured out yesterday morning to the Coptic neighborhood of Cairo, which has a definite appeal for me. This image is from a winding subterranean alley that led through the complex to the church of St. Barbara, who (so it is said) was beheaded by her own father.