Sunday, February 28, 2010

Pictures from the Citadel

Here are some pictures from The Citadel last weekend, can you spot the one of me in hijab?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Writing and Being Touristy

The title should tell you what I've been up to lately, actually.  School is keeping me fairly busy, as is my social life and work.  Hallah and I have new costume designs we've been casually photographing to get up online and hopefully sell, so I will be posting those pictures up when I get home from AUC this evening or perhaps tomorrow, as well as pictures from the gorgeous Citadel which I finally got around to seeing in the day time!  Unfortunantely it was a very hot day as we're having a small hot snap and the tempuratures are getting up to 80+ during the day.

In the mean time I wanted to share some excerpts from an article I'm working on for Gilded Serpent right now.  I wanted to share with the belly dance community what life is like just living and hanging out here, experiencing Egypt at the human level rather than at a grand tourist scheme of things, so I decided to talk about what I at night over the course of a week.  Here are some excerpts from the unedited piece so far:

I often get asked what life is like in Cairo by everyone from friends to family to strangers who have stumbled across my blog. In a way the blog readers are the luckiest because they can read through various accounts of what I've been up to just on a day to day basis. The beauty of Cairo is often in the every day things, the small things that we wouldn't consider so worthwhile but in fact make up the real substance of what it's like to live here. I don't go to museums or monuments or see famous belly dancers every day, but I am here in Cairo every day and that is special in and of itself.

Arabic class lends itself to group homeworking activities with our Egyptian friends included, so we dove into putting together the Khan al Khalili movie assignment as soon as Jon arrived. Our British friend Dave dropped by after work and we made the executive desicion to hit up an excellent Chinese restaurant around the corner from my house. I love that place to death, because it looks like a tiny, sketchy, hole-in-the-wall place that you would walk right by but in fact has some of the best Chinese food I've ever had. Plus, with the serious lack of truly good Chinese food in Cairo, it has become a hotspot for my group of friends so one of us is usually there every other night. In fact, shortly after we arrived my good friend who is German/Egyptian (she speaks English, Arabic, and German fluently--I am so jealous) showed up with a couple people in tow and we managed to take over the entire four-table restaurant.

I have lots of great memories of fooling around at that place, mostly because a lot of Egyptians have only experienced Chinese food through the lens of Egyptian chefs before. I remember a Chinese-themed buffet got to experience in Hurghada that was just horrible--the spring roll wrappers were basically made from puff-pastry! Finding a good, inexpensive, Chinese restaurant in Cairo around the corner from my house was like finding the Holy Grail. After a lot of dragging their feet I have gotten most of my Egyptian friends to go there, and now they all love it. They agree pretty much unanimously on hating the tea, which I admit is far too weak and subtle by Egyptian standards, but adore the food. To the extent that we are having a very hard time teaching them to learn how to use chopsticks because they give up in the face of hunger and delicious Kung Pao Chicken. I can't blame them though.

I don't get back from the American University in Cairo where I go to school until 9pm on Wednesdays, due to a late seminar and the somewhat sporadic bus schedule. However, I was determined to meet up with my language partner and do some exchange and just hang out, so I grabbed a very fast dinner at home and then ran out the door to grab a taxi to the Metro, Cairo's subway/train system. It's about a 5LE (90 cents) cab ride to the Metro, then you can ride anywhere along the Metro for 1LE (18 cents). The Metro is great as it's fairly clean and runs fast so you never end up stuck in Cairo traffic--the only downside is that it can get pretty crowded at rush hour.

The 'ahwa is such a staple of my life here that it's important to me to talk about what these street cafes are, but unfortunantely it's uncomfortable to get good photos as to label oneself as a tourist or foreigner in an 'ahwa is sort of asking for trouble. Your typical street cafe is compromised of plastic lawn chairs crammed in close together at the edge of the road proper, around parked cars and various other obstacles, with tiny spindly tables rising up in between to prop up games of chess or backgammon and glasses of tea. Shishas are ubiquitous, and clouds of smoke waft up to the palm trees above heads bent in conversation, with laughter punctuating the general dull roar of the crowd. The floor is the street, dirty and trash-strewn with bottle caps that have been flattened by cars and feet into a mosiac of American branding in Arabic, and the walls are of whatever buildings are nearby, painted with various pictures, including ones depicting the kaaba to honor those going on Hajj to Mecca. Wild dogs run around out in the street, fighting only half-seriously over scraps, and street cats of all colors slink underfoot in search of food. The air smells of fruity tobacco and cigarettes, and that special dirty-sandy-polluted-but-pleasant smell of Cairo that feels like home. It's not exotic, it just IS.

We met up with a friend of Mohamed Ali's, a Chinese boy named Josh who is staying with an Egyptian family as part of an International study program. He was there with two Egyptian guys, soft-spoken tall and skinny types one of whom speaks English enthusiastically and is eager to chat with a new foreigner, and the other of whom was a bit more shy and reserved. They were both fluent in English though, yet again reminding me that my Arabic is still embarassingly underdeveloped. Mohamed greeted everyone like old friends, before laughingly admitting that he had just met the 3 guys in this cafe a few days once before. We chatted quite a bit about Egypt as Josh has only been in town for a few weeks, which is as good as being almost brand-new here, so he still has lots to talk about and remark on and that brings out in me some of the same. At some point Mohamed Ali and I headed around the corner to buy some grilled kofta off a small stall restaurant where the man grabbed the skewer straight off the coals, removed the steaming meat into some flatbread, wrapped it in paper and forked the huge sandwich over, dripping and delicious. I indulged in some Ruz Bilaban (rice pudding) too, my possibly my favorite Egyptian dessert.

Sherif, the enthusiastic guy, revealed that he lived in Indonesia for three years, and is fluent in Indonesian, so then we started in on an extensive 3-way comparison of Egypt, the US, and Indonesia just as my friends Alex and Ibrahim arrived. Alex is Malaysian but lives in America so he and Sherif immediately started in on a language comparison and began to chit-chat in various combinations of languages. Mohamed Ali and I gave up at that point and began to drill my Arabic vocabulary for class on Thursday; finally getting down to business around 11pm. He's also learning Spanish from a Mexican family living in Cairo so the group began to have a Tower of Babel moment when the various languages are shooting around--it didn't help that at some point Sherif and Alex switched to German, which Alex can only swear in rather than anything useful.

As the night wore on people stopped complaining about being tired in a joking way and started talking earnest about going home, so we all set down the shisha hoses, grabbed our bags and snagged one of the guys running around with trays of tea to pay and get out. Trudging down the back streets downtown at midnight conversation was no less animated, but showing the strain of the day. Alex and I joke that we're always tired in Cairo because once you get out for the evening you can't stop until the night is done or you can't move--even if you do have class the next day!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Slice of Fashion

As the news is traveling around the world, some readers may have heard that my favorite designer Alexander McQueen died a few days ago.  I was so saddened to hear of this loss to the fashion community and to the global community in general.  I loved McQueen’s work because it was outside the box, unusual, challenging, and made the fashion world just that bit more interesting and special.  I remember watching his Spring 2010 line on the label website, curious to see more of the weird shoes that were cropping up all over the internet and hear the original debut of Lady Gag’s “Bad Romance” single.  I thought it would be interesting or maybe amusing to see more.  As the show unfolded I found myself completely sucked in.  The dresses, the setting, the creepy music had me from a minute in and I think I became an instant McQueen fan.  Those CLOTHES–I couldn’t look away.  Go find it on the internet if you can, it used to be streaming from the McQueen site which is now on hold in light of what has happened.

I bring up fashion because of Alexander McQueen, and because it has been on my mind here in Egypt as the seasons are starting to change.  Cairo has an uncanny problem of seasons tending to smack right up against each other, for example it was about mid-60s last week, and the last few days have been in the 80s and people are beginning to get worried that it’s going to get hot again.  Grab the kids, run for cover, get out of the way, because the distant rumbles of summer are starting to appear!

Clothes are a bit of a constant ex-pat problem here in my mind.  When I was packing to come back from the US this second time I found myself kind of at a loss.  I need to have clubbing clothes which should be just the right amount of sexy, school clothes which look okay next to the AUC kids’ designer outfits, but aren’t so nice that I feel bad about ruining them running around Cairo, bikinis for the Red Sea, but also thin sweaters to cover my arms, heels for going out dancing, but flats to run around in every day that I am ok with throwing away in a month because they will be trashed.  Not only that but washers here have a tendency to eat clothes, or just chew them up and spit them back out bedraggled and faded, so you need tougher clothes that you are ok with fading a bit and sweating copiously in when things get hot (which they will!). Phew, talk about a wardrobe issue.  Somehow I’ve managed to compromise by having not enough clothes–instead of too much I seem to have brought too little, which brings us to the next problem:  shopping in Cairo.

Everyone thinks shopping in Cairo is going to be awesome, because things are supposed to be cheaper in the 3rd world.  I have news for you all, cheaper prices also means cheaper make here.  We’re not talking an American lower-quality thing where you can wear it and make it work without that much difficulty–I’m talking about lower quality everything, from the strength and weave of denim to the surface stitching on  a blouse.  Things that make a garment have a much shorter life, which means running out shopping every few weeks and feeling like your clothes are always falling apart, which means spending more money.  To get good-quality clothes here means they are either imported–thus ridiculously expensive–or sold in a more affluent part of town and therefore are also ridiculously expensive.

Add to that the strangeness of Cairene women’s fashion and suddenly I’m not in a very good position if I don’t want to go around nude. I don’t really understand why everything has to be a strange color with trim in a different color that completely grates on the eye while simultaneously fitting in a matronly way and incorporating a gross usage of sewn-on plastic jewelery.  Somehow the Egyptian girls pull it off–I cannot.  Can a poor American girl just get a long-sleeve cotton shirt?  Apparently not.

Clothes may seem like a very superficial thing to be blogging about, but this gives you a snapshot of daily Cairo life.  Not everything is grandiose revelations about life, beautiful tombs, and magical moments in Egypt.  Sometimes life is just trying to put together an outfit in the morning.

 X-Posted to

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dancing Pics

Here's all of us at the Nile Maxim out salsa dancing since people were asking, enjoy!

Back to School

Here I am at AUC again, and currently I have a long break between classes so I figured I would hope online and write a blog entry!  There's some new stuff up at but I wanted to write something different here on a more dance/personal note.  It's been a crazy few weeks since I returned to Egypt, quite the rollercoaster of emotions, and has made me reassess what I want in my next six months of being here.

School is going okay, I'm figuring out what I want to do and which class I will drop as I want to hit the minimum credit hours to still be full time.  Let's just say my priorities lie outside AUC at this point.  People ask me about school all the time, are so curious what is up with being an American student at an Egyptian college.  The fact of the matter is though that AUC is the AMERICAN University in Cairo.  The curriculum is set up like a liberal arts college, not the usual standard here in Egypt, and the students who go here are not your average Egyptian by any means.  Usually in Egypt, your exit test scores for high school determine what faculty or department you will go into, what you will study in college, and thus what your life path will be.  The highest scorers go into medicine, engineering, and law, while the other faculties lie in various positions below that, art being one of the lowest priorities of the educaitonal system.

However, here at AUC there is the freedom to choose your major just like at an American college.  There's flexibility in the curriculum, a focus on core classes as well as specialization classes, and the departments are set up like any other American institution.  The difference?  The Egyptian kids that go here are filthy rich.  It didn't exactly hit me until I was in a Macroecon course last semester (in which I was one of two foreign students) and the professor mentioned while giving an example that, "all of you here are probably in the top 5% income bracket."  I glanced around, feeling weirded out because I am not wealthy person by US standards, and sort of looking to see if anyone else was shaking their heads like, "ha ha, yeah right."  No reaction, vague nodding.  I am sitting around amongst the richest kids in Egypt apparently, so then evidentially if you can afford to go to AUC, you can afford freedom of choice about your life path and career.

When the campus moved from Tahrir (smack-dab in the middle of downtown) out to Al-Rehab (smack dab in the middle of the desert, a 45 minute drive in non-Cairo traffic from downtown) I remember reading an article back at home while I was going through my study abroad application process.  The article discussed not the beautiful new campus, nor the expansion of the school, not even the new technology involved in designing the campus.  The article I read focused on the income gap in Egypt, and how by moving the school to such an isolated location the college was isolating itself from the real Egyptian populace.  Having just paid about 15 minutes ago over $300 for a bus pass for the semester, I can understand in a very concrete way what they mean. 1740LE is more than many people probably make in Cairo per month, or two months, or possibly even a year.  There is a lot of poverty here, and a lot of people living on practically nothing, so this amount simply to GET to school becomes insurmountable simply because of shifting the campus.

The other issue is symbolic.  Al-Rehab is a place that my middle-class Egyptian friends think of as "a slice of heaven" and my American friends squirm and feel uncomfortable about.  It's a cushy, palatial wonderland of unreality.  The villas with their gilded columns, the BMWs in the's not the Cairo I know.  It's green, because the water is always running, to the point where you will see artificial waterfalls and ponds at the tip of an fake oasis in the desert.  Yet, as soon as a patch goes unwatered for a few days, it starts to slowly go brown, a reminder that this place exists merely through the labor of people too poor to ever live there. It somehow looks so fake, such an man-made fantasy concocted of concrete, delusion, and a willingness to ignore the intense poverty a 30-minute drive away.

The facade is not finished yet though, and so we can all still see the dirty sweat and labor holding up those ridiculous fantastical creations.  Most of the people coming in and out of Al-Rehab right are workers, toiling all day on homes they will never have the slightest hope of moving into, and who spend their days watering or constructing.  Going in and out of AUC via the bus we see them on the side of the road every day, this strange community of hard workers in cheap jeans and jackets, waiting for the microbus or their friend in his beat up old car to drive up so they can cram in to an already overloaded car heading back to civilization.  It feels strange because we are not supposed to see these people, we are supposed to look at the final product and go "wow, this is beautiful! I want to buy a house here!"  Seeing these people ruins the fantasy, which I find good because I don't understand why these housing projects and developments are even happening.  Yes, Cairo needs room to expand--it's more than overcrowded, but what is needed is affordable housing for the middle and lower classes to get out of the city too, not just the rich.  At the moment though, it's the rich that get the option to leave Cairo, leave the real Egypt, and live in a fantasyland.

By moving AUC out into this strange new world, is the college deserting the real spirit of Egypt?  Is it placing itself firmly into the realm of the elite, to the exclusion of everyone else?  That doesn't seem like something an American college would strive for, in my opinion.

Planning Ahead
I have this scholarship now, which gives me the ability to do some traveling, so I think I will definitely see Luxor and Aswan now.  I wanted to before, but lacked the finances to say for sure it would happen.  That's great, so now I have to figure out whom I'm going to travel with, because it can be beyond exasperating to travel here alone as a foreign female.  I'm also hesitant to use a tour company, that may be the way to go.  On the other hand I could just go to Sharm and party for spring break, which is tempting.  Definitely I will be going to Alexandria soon--probably this month--because I hear it's great in the winter and it's only a quick trip away by bus or microbus.  I'm finding myself missing the white, sandy beaches there, and  I realize the first time I was too busy just enjoying my time to see much of what makes Alexandria famous and special.

It's definitely easy to think of beaches when the weather is this cold, I thought I would never say it, but I can't wait for the weather to get warmer again.  The problem is that most  buildings here (except of course AUC) don't have indoor central heat, so you basically spend your time in a concrete icebox.  Today is beautiful and sunny, thank god, so it's not so bad.  People are out there in jackets lounging on the unfurled grass put down last semester and carefully tended to, and others sun themselves on the plaza while eating the overpriced, fattening food that is offered here.

Well, after this point I actually had a great post drafted up about how Cairo is so beautiful and contradictory, and looks so different to me this time around, but blogspot ate it somehow.  Very sad, as that was actually a good piece of writing, but hopefully I will generate something again soon of that ilk.  It's rare I'm inspired to write in an artistic sense, so I'm sad the post got eaten by cyberspace before anyone could see it.

Dance Stuff
I need to start belly dancing more again, it's not doing it for me to just dabble right now and be a dilettante in other forms of dance, so I'm striving for a way to get all hard-core on it again.  I'm a racehorse when it comes to dance, if I don't get pushed and challenged to keep going and given things to learn I start to lose my mind.  I need to find a couple teachers I can really get into and access on a regular basis.  I need to get back on it really bad, because I'm doing all new technique work right now while neglecting things I already understand and need to work on like musical interpretation, combinations, over all performance.  I'm focusing so hard on isolating muscle groups and learning how to do the same moves in different ways that I'm starting to lose the bigger picture, and I'm freaked out that the next time I end up on stage I will be woefully underprepared.  It wouldn't scare me so much except that I was once upon a time quite seasoned and comfortable in front of an audience, so I feel like I've lost something.

I think I also need to diversify my teachers.  When I get into a teacher's style or way of teaching I tend to narrow my focus down to them and concentrate on mastering the style they want me to do, and the things they think I should be doing.  At this point in my career I should be looking to the bigger picture and fusing different elements from different teachers to create a style and technique that incorporates everything I have learned.  Also, in Egypt I need to start taking from everyone--as long as they're good!