Saturday, June 27, 2009

Wedding Bells

This post is brought to you courtesy of "GOAL!" cafe down the street from me. Thank god for their free wireless, because this marks day 3 or 4 that we have had no internet at home. We have started the process of hassling the bawwabs at home, which my friend Mina says may work out in the end providing we continue to get on their case for a few more days. Insha'allah.

My Nile Group review I have decided will just be the official one I give to Gilded Serpent! No need to write two different versions of the same thing it seems like, so I will post a link when it's up...I'm still writing it of course.

What have I been up to since the last update...

The "regular" exploits
Hanging out in the cafe is a norm for us these days. Usually I can be seen at this cafe about once (or twice!) a day or every other day by now, sipping my Lipton tea with a ton of sugar and enjoying the air conditioning. It's a nice little place, with shisha pipes and cute waiters all around who now greet us with smiles and handslaps. It's about half-and-half English and Arabic spoken here as we are near to the Zamalek AUC dorms and many foreign students come here to hang out. Directly behind me right now there are two Egyptian guys speaking heavily accented English with a girl who sounds Australian for example, and there's some platinum blond hair glinting off to the left. Arabic music videos, much to my enjoyment, are played constantly on the big TV when there isn't a soccer game on! I was amused to just hear a pop version of one of my favorite Fayrouz songs, "Zourouni."

When we're joined by my various Egyptian friends (mostly students and their buddies) we usually engage in some backgammon, which results in hilarious bets as they love to up the risk factor a bit, especially since I'm new to the game! My friend Islam just lost the other night to my flatmate Kara, so he has to take us on a dinner cruise tonight with a GOOD belly dancer. We're quite excited--when he lost the whole cafe was staring at us for screaming and carrying on!

On the fly a couple nights ago at the cafe we decided to hop in the car and speed over to the Corniche--the street that fronts The Nile on the downtown side--to catch a felucca and sail the river at 1am! Pictures are forthcoming, but let me tell you that it involved some clambering over cobblestones and then outright rocks by the waters edge in 4" heels on my part! I could only have done with with the gracious help of Islam's friend accompanying us who ensured my impractical footwear didn't lead to my doom. That's what you get when you do things on a whim!

Completely failed regarding going there this week because my friend called me at 8:30 AM (beyond early for Egyptians) and asked if I still wanted to come as he was going to leave 6 October shortly. Needless to say I barely answered the phone with a modicum of grace, having been out until 3am (typical for Egyptians) the night before, and therefore attempted to politely decline as opposed to demanding if he was completely insane.

Will retry an AUC visit on Monday, stay tuned.

Abdu, our gracious friend who picked Kara and I up from the airport two weeks ago (!) now had extended an invite to us for a friend's wedding last week, but I had no idea what a grand affair it would be! We drove out to Heliopolis (near the airport) last night in absolutely crushing rush hour traffic, which was not so fun, as was waiting around for a couple hours because Abdu sometimes forgets that 8:30 in Egyptian time is bound to be more like 10:30, but once things got going it was a total blast!

The zeffa is a traditional part of the wedding party, where drummers and dancers usually put on a special show for guests and to escort the couple into the reception hall. You can see some pictures of zeffa performers here, courtesy of Amina Goodyear and the Aswan dancers. This zeffa was lovely and incorportaed a tannoura, as well as drummers, and saiidi dancers. Once we were IN the hall, a popular singer ("from TV!" as Abdu said) Amina took the stage with a horde of about 20 male backup/go-go dancers to lead us all in some loud, crazy music, dancing, and general revelry. As foreigners we were the center of attention, and Amina pulled Kara up in front of everyone, having her give a mini-interview over the mic! Then we both were pushed into the center of the group to make fools of ourselves with saiidi stick and videos of which I'm sure will be circulating around soon enough! "Silly foreign girls being idiots with sticks," or something like that. We had a complete blast, dancing and carrying on until the huge buffet!

What we were most struck and touched by was how hospitable and welcoming everyone at the wedding was, even in the face of our obvious stand-outishness. On the contrary, because we stood out as foreigners (and because we hadn't brought any fancy clothes to wear) we were even more welcomed and encouraged to participate. The bride was so friendly to us, even having us stand in the big group photos, that how could we not enjoy ourselves? We had a fun evening, and returned home in a great appreciation both for Abdu inviting us and for being treated so well.

Well, if you're still following so far, it is time for me to return to my flat and prepare for the dinner cruise! I'm sure I will have something to say about it, but it will probably have to wait a few days if my internet at the flat still isn't up.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Internet Outtage!

I am still alive in fact, the internet at my flat is just down! I will be online via the local cafe off and on, so stay tuned for updates, I promise there will be a big one soon!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Non-Nile Group Update

I can't update everyone on Nile Group just yet, because I feel it warrants it's own post, and I've been up to too much stuff! However, Nile Group is finishing up tonight, so I plan to get a review and breakdown up in the next few days. I've now been in Cairo over a week, and probably haven't done/seen as much as possible, but I'm here for a year and trying not to strain myself!

There have been some fun times over the last couple days, and many moments of exasperation either in workshops or because of the HEAT. Cairo has been hovering in the upper 90 degrees (farenheight) which is enough to keep everyone (well ok, maybe just me) perpetually sweaty and smelly. I'm trying to keep the amount of showering down, but we still have been jumping in and out at least twice a day as we just get dirty and nasty, especially dancing three hours plus a day.

One amazing place I have visited, and do intend to go back to is the infamous shop of Mahmoud Ghaffar, Al-Wikalah in the Khan Al Khalili. Here's a few teaser shots, but I think it deserves a post all to itself, as does the Khan, so stay tuned in the future as I will absolutely go back and attempt to give directions to Mahmoud's and some impressions of The Khan. Khan Al Khalili, for those who are completely lost with this post, is the most gigantic, crazy, famous suuq or market/bazaar in Cairo. Anyone who has been can give you a hint of the definite impression it leaves...but I will be writing more on that topic later!

The real treat I got to experience was due to my good friend Leyla Lanty taking me out to a local cafe in the Khan the other night. I will not disclose where this place is, because it is very near and dear to her heart, and now mine, and it would be a very different place if foreigners showed up in droves. If you ask me, I can probably take you, but I don't want the information online.

On that note, let me tell you about the evening! I met up with Leyla and several of her friends at the Pyramisa where Nile Group is taking place and we all piled into her friend Ahmed's car as well as a taxi and headed off with much joking and fanfare. We arrived at the Khan maybe 10pm give or take, and headed to the "Egyptian Pancake" shop to grab a bite and some juice before the cafe. We ate something like a combination between flatbread and a quesidilla, sort of like naan with cheese, green peppers, and tomatos baked in the center. It was tasty, but greasy and we ended up feeding the leftovers to the cats running around everywhere underfoot in the Khan. A certain group of ginger triplets were lurking around our table in particular, throwing pathetic looks.

After that it was on to the cafe, where the band was just starting up. Tonight we had a keyboardist, three or four percussionists (switching off between deff, doumbek, sagat, and smoking), and a violinist playing with a cigarette firmly grasped between the fingers of his bowing hand. We took our seats amid the regulars who have their own particular special spots, and spotted the very fabulous and famous Aida Nour sitting in front next to the band in a bright red headscarf. Star dancer sighting! It was like a sauna in the place even with multiple fans battling the heat and flies, so I had to step out into the street a couple times, but once she started to sing with the band I was glued to my chair. I didn't even know she sang, but it was lovely and she did quite well!

Aida Nour finished singing, and then it was time to start pulling up foreigners from our little group to dance! I think just between Leyla's friends we managed to represent Spain, Italy, and a couple part of the US. Actually, since Egypt had just won over Italy in soccer the day before they got the Italian lady up first, even before Aida Nour sang! She had a fun time dancing and did a good job, very sociable but restrained enough for the setting. Once Aida Nour had finished and another singer took the floor, it was then apparently MY turn to dance! I went a bit pale I think when the owner and Ahmed both motioned for me to get up, get up! Me? Dance in a cafe in front of Egyptians AND Aida Nour? Well...okay. The first time I danced shyly and sweetly since I wasn't sure what the rule was for doing the more risque moves we all often use, and since of course I'm American and don't want to create a worse impression. I think they really liked it actually, as I got pulled up to dance by the owner no less than three times over the course of the evening...and Aida Nour smiled at me which definitely nearly made me faint! By the third time I was dancing there was some sort of Shaabi style song happening and the singer was incorporating the words, "Amreeka, Amreeka," which I was expecting (the little-white-chick effect) but then in the middle of the song, what did I hear? "Obama, Obama!" Apparently they're big on him here after his speech at AUC awhile back!

Over the course of the evening several others got up to dance a bit, including one of Aida Nours proteges who showed up who was quite good. Other than that there were a couple of really Shaabi city girls who were not professional dancers, but just having fun. They were totally out there and a little vulger, but lots of fun to watch! One lady next to us was a bit more demure, but was using her large silver purse as a prop--a new "folkloric" style in the making for us in the US? Near the end Leyla Lanty danced a bit to great fanfare and enthusiasm, since they know her at this cafe and she is quite popular!

Tipping for this show went on throughout the evening, with the tip collector interrupting the singer in the middle of or between songs to announce who had given a gift and encourage more tipping. Our friend Ahmed handled the tipping, doling out small amounts throughout the evening and then gesturing to the tip collecter (who was also a singer) to recognize all of us nice white ladies sitting in the back as we sipped our tea and sweated, which he either did by name or country, "Italia, Leyla, Amreeka..." it went on and on all night during the music. By the time we decided to head home it was about 3am, and I was totally out of it, but happy that my first dance experience in Cairo was well-recieved! Indeed as we walked to the car, another car drove by us with cafe patrons who waved at me and went, "Amreeka, Amreeka!" You can bet I will be visiting that cafe again in the future! Leyla tells me that when Morocco of New York visited she said, "this place is REAL," which I couldn't agree more with.

Still, Cairo is up and down, and Saturday night was not nearly as fun as Friday. However, that is to be spoken of in the coming post which will be a review of Nile Group!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Doorbells and Dancers

It's been a handful of days now since I hit town, and a big dance festival, Nile Group is starting up, so I'm about due for a blog update!

Here are more views from our flat, just to give an idea of what it's like being here. Egyptians are masters of parallel parking! The major news in the last hour is that my flatmate Kara figured out that the sound (among all the other sounds) that I thought was a loudish bird is actually the doorbell. In this case it was also a rather miffed electrician guy with a bill so I had to use my very limited Arabic to sort out with the bawwabs that the lady we're subletting for had left money for the bill with a friend who was supposed to give it to one of the bawwabs. In the end, it all got sorted. Luckily I know the words for "friend", "money", and "has," but still had to repeat myself several times to get the point across!

Nile Group is a big dance festival that happens here in Cairo a few times a year (I think it's recently increased to four) at the Pyramisa hotel in Dokki. A piece of advice--if going by taxi and the driver doesn't know the Pyramisa, just keep saying Do'ii and then when you get to Midan al Gal'a, which is a giant roundabout look for the biiig Pyramisa sign atop the hotel and then point frantically! I'm not sure of a better way, but that's what we did today. Yesterday when I dropped by to register the taxi driver knew the hotel but dropped me off at the back entrance, so it's all hit and miss really.

The dance festival is fun in that there are people from literally all corners of the world. Chinese dancers are here, as well as girls from Scotland to Brazil. It's an amazingly multi-cultural event, but makes for a bit of a hassle when it comes to registering because the staff speak Arabic with varying levels of English mixed in. Everyone was in pretty good spirits though, since we're here to partake in workshops from the masters of belly dance who are all but legendary no matter where you're from.

Speaking of which, my first workshop was today with Mahmoud Reda, who is extremely venerated and respected in the dance community as one of the fathers of oriental dance and as someone who has presented Egyptian folkloric dances to the international community for the better part of a century. His Reda Troupe is beyond famous and many prominent dancers here are originally Reda-trained. This includes a lovely male dance Kazafy (picture at right)who was kind enough to be demonstrating in the workshop today (along with no less than three other female dancers) for Reda as the man is over 70! Never the less, Reda was definitely still up and about demonstrating the marking for the choreography we learned to the very generically-named song, "Warda" by god knows who. Didn't sound like the singer Warda herself to me! Kazafy and the other dancers were a definite pleasure to watch though, as a ballroom full of over probably 100 foreigners struggled to keep up with the intense series of moves and not bash into eachother. After a 3 hour Reda workshop, let me just say my legs want to go quietly die somewhere dark and cold and I had several other people's sweat on me. It was a lot of fun though, and very enjoyable to get a taste of the Reda style, even though it was oriental and not so folkloric.

Afterwards I stumbled out of the Pyramisa, and walked the requisite block away before catching a taxi to avoid being ripped off. Definitely best to stay away from those drivers waiting right out front of 5-star hotels, as they will charge you AT LEAST twice as much as you should be paying! Do NOT tell the doorman you need a taxi, just walk a block or two away and hail one yourself. Hailing a cab in Cairo is as easy as just standing at the edge of the street and looking interested (or lost)!

Yesterday I also went back out to 6 of October to watch the Egyptian soccer team play Brazil. Everyone was joking that Egypt had no chance and would lose like 3-0, but they actually BARELY lost 4-3. In the last two minutes of the game there was a penalty kick for Brazil, otherwise it probably would have been a tie! What a fun match, and I had a blast watching it in the cafe with all these guys around screaming and yelling and jumping around. Apparently in the city you could hear people cheering for the goals from the street. I think I was one of like two women in the place though, and certainly the only westerner so that was interesting. It was lots of fun though, even though twice the power went out and everyone freaked out because we were missing the game. Here's more pics of 6 October just to give you an idea:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

1st Day in Cairo

Actually today I begin my 2nd full day in Cairo, but my last day and a half in Cairo was an adventure!

Luckily, all my flights worked out just fine and I made my connections in Portland and then Frankfurt smoothly. I have to say the airport at Frankfurt was not fun--confusing, hot, sweaty, and cramped. Still, I made my flight to Cairo on time and connected with my driver Abdu at the airport who was waiting for me just as planned.

Then I got to experience Cairo driving and traffic for the first time. I arrived as chance would have it at about 4pm, just in time to run into rush hour! I've heard about Cairo driving, but hearing and experiencing are two different things! There is no such thing as "cutting someone off," it's just what you do, and cars whiz around missing each other by scant inches! It's exciting and terrifying at the same time--I'm just glad I wasn't the one doing the driving! It's not a quiet activity either as everyone honks all the time for any number of reasons. It's communicative unlike in the US, meaning a lot of things from, "I'm here, don't merge into my lane!" and "Hey lady on the curb, need a taxi?" In addition, people walk in the street a lot because the sidewalks are challenging in terms of curb height and levelness. So in addition, you have cars sweeping around people by scant inches, and being a pedestrian is an adventure all unto itself. I still haven't managed to cross a major road by myself, but it's only my second morning here!

Of course when I got to the flat and tried to get my phone working it didn't. This is what I'm starting to call the "welcome to Egypt," experience where things don't exactly work like they're supposed to and you just have to figure it out. Abdu lent me an extra sim card and now I have my cell working once again! We ran around to get some groceries and food and then I collapsed at the end of my first few hours in Cairo.

Yesterday, a friend from AUC called me and we decided to have lunch out in 6th October where he lives because some cafes in Zamalek where I'm living were shut down because of the swine flu scare in the AUC dorms here. I hear there were a few cases, but the dorm was succesfully quarantined and everyone is pretty much recovered now. The extra screening in the airport when I got here was a bit disconcerting though! Especially since I got motion sick on the plane as we were flying in over the delta and the city since I was so excited. I was afraid I would throw up and get quarantined for having a suspected flu case!

In any case, yesterday I got to go for an early morning walk in the neighborhood before getting ready to go out to 6th October, which was lovely. Cairo is refreshing in the early morning before things get too hot and sweaty and everyone is still asleep or waking up. My flat is right across from the Nile, so it was very pleasant to stroll along the tree-lined streets. Zamalek is very green as you can see from this photo off my flat balcony!

6 October was really interesting to visit, as it's to the west of Cairo about 25 min in good traffic. The drive out was gorgous, and I was suprised to look out the taxi window and see the pyramids through the haze in the distance over the green agricultural fields just outside the city proper. I must get out to Giza soon, that gorgeous view was just enough to tease! I couldn't get a picture from the taxi, but it was beautiful.

The suburb city (yes, it is it's own city now) of 6 October rises up when you drive in like a crop of huge villas rising out of the desert. A new development, it is clean and modern looking, but a bit sterile, lacking the character of the city. My friend and I ate in an Italian cafe that actually served very Italian food that was delicious--I can see why it's one of his favorite places! We smoked some shisha, drank tea, and discussed the ins-and-outs of AUC including the new campus which we'll be visiting on Monday. The new campus is in another new development (New Cairo/Rehab) out in the desert to the East so it should be interesting to check out.

After the drive back, looking at the pyramids from the right-hand window this time, I caught my mother on Skype for a couple hours. Skype is truly an awesome program...even with my iffy internet here at the flat with it's low connectivity I was able to see and hear her pretty well for our 2 hour chat. I also caught my friend in New York this morning on Skype too. I would definitely get it! It's free, easy, and works better than other ways of communicating!

Other random notes:
-There are many cats around, and they have been trying to sneak into my flat via the balcony, but are too shy to actually do it!
-You can smoke shisha anywhere and everywhere.
-In the Zamalek area I'd say about 75% of women have their hair covered, but in general people seem to dress less modestly than I expected.
-It's fiercly dusty here...more on all this stuff later

Friday, June 12, 2009


I arrived, all in one piece! Just a quick message to say hi and I'm here before I sleep! I promise an update on my first day in Cairo when I get up tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Going, Going...

Even though this picture is from my apartment in Oakland, it's my last night in Seattle, and the US! I've dragged myself home from college, packed/repacked my bags, made all the appropriately excited and sort of sad phone calls, done the obligatory partying plus some, and am now going to be underway. My favorite call was when I had to pick up the phone all excited in the middle of a grocery store and catch my breath because I was super excited about the caller as well as the leaving thing! I've been telling myself to breathe all day, but keep wanting to shriek and generally freak out.

This has been my dream for years, and I've spent so long talking about it in the future tense, "I'm going to be in Cairo next year," or "I'll be studying in Cairo one day!" It makes me so thrilled and chilled and bothered to be able to say, "I will be there on Thursday." A little shiver runs up my spine when I think about being able to say, "I'm in Cairo." That is a sentence I am beyond looking forward to saying!

When I'm about to leave on a major, life-changing period of travel, time seems to billow and stretch out before me and behind me. All the stuff that went into the creation of this trip, like learning to belly dance, ending up at my college, learning Arabic, I'm very aware of, as well as what's coming ahead. I know it's not all going to be good, or bad, but that's ok, because that's real life and I'm not leaving expecting some sort of perfect "vacation." I'm going to study, and get my hands dirty, and learn some Arabic, among other things. I can also feel in my core that this is not going to be some sort of "light" experience, or easy to just traipse through. This is going to end up being a major chapter in my life, and I'm going to come back different. Maybe in subtle ways I'm not aware of, or in big ways that are so loud everyone notices right away. I don't know yet, but it will be fun to find out!

Tomorrow, I embark on a small journey within my large journey. It will begin with me grimacing at my alarm clock in bed in Seattle, involve countless hours of flying, lines, tickets, bags, reading, and hopefully end with me settling into bed in my flat in Cairo on Thursday smiling.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Countdown Continues

It's 4 days now before I hop on a plane to Portland, then Frankfurt, then Cairo. I've gone through all kinds of emotions over the past weeks, and am now reaching the point of just wanting to be there already! I've gone back and forth from disbelief, to fear, to excitement, to depression and lethargy, to happiness--it's already an emotional roller coaster and I haven't even left the country!

The Emotional Stuff:
I don't feel this all-over-the-place emotional state is uncommon for college students when we leave to study abroad, especially when we take the time to trek back to our home towns before we jet off across the globe. It's a big transition, because before the extreme stress of finals has time to wear off we get booted out of our comfy campus homes and networks of friends that we've settled into and shipped right back on to the next place. Speaking for women from my college, it is exhausting for us. Our finals are rough, and those of us who are preparing to leave the country during them don't exactly do ourselves a favor by celebrating and partying like crazy with people we won't see for a long time. I may be speaking just for myself though!

In any case, I think the best thing to do in weird transitional times is to spend time with family as well as being alone. Especially before a lengthy study abroad, because we won't get to see our parents for a long time! Being alone is also important before going through a life-changing experience too, because it gives one time to reflect on who you are. I find myself too often soaking up other people's personalities and tastes, which is fun and not necessarily bad, but taking the time to go back to myself and strip away the rest is something I find necessary before a big move or transition.

Footsteps to Follow:
I recently posted on (my favorite belly dance networking and costume-buying site!), shamelessly promoting this blog and asking for Cairo advice. I got a couple interesting and informative responses back from some lovely dancers, which I'm very grateful for. You can view their responses by clicking the link above, but two ladies in particular I want to talk about:

Outi of Cairo responded to me with a link to her website. There are some great articles on her website which cover a variety of topics from food to fashion and even what happens in the recording studio. She's an engaging writer and I'm not ashamed to say I hungrily read all of these articles in one sitting!

Zulaika, a dancer based out of the Seattle area (my hometown!) also contacted me and generously offered up her own advice too. She has had some awesome experiences living and visting in Cairo, where she studied Arabic earlier this year, which you can read about on her blog. Her blog gives you a snapshot of what Cairo life is like for international students, something I really engaged with and enjoyed reading! We've been emailing back and forth and she said this about dressing in Cairo, which I wanted to share since people are curious about the topic:

"I did wear a scarf a lot because I am blond and it kept my hair clean. I did get treated with more respect even if I just tossed it loosely over my head. If you wear jeans, wear a top or sweater long enough to cover your crotch. I even wore long skirts and jumpers and sleeves at least 3/4 length. What is acceptable to wear on campus, or on the street, or in the nightclub can vary greatly as you will see. It also varies on who you are with- other females or guys. If you hear a strange sucking sound- you are being "whistled" at by Egyptian men (usually the young ones), but that and comments are usually the only hassle you have to deal with. If it bothers you, dress more conservatively."

Thanks, Bhuz ladies and everyone else who has been contacting me with advice and phone numbers of helpful people! I'm so blessed to be part of such a giving community!