30 November 2012

Life in Cairo: Imbaba/Agouza

Let's see...it's been quite a long time since I started my adventure in Egypt, and it's been a long time since you've heard from me about what I was doing there! After Leaving Iraq, I wanted to work on improving my Arabic language skills, while I still had the time to focus solely on that. I signed up for classes at the Arabeya Language Center in Cairo. They teach in small, semi-private, and private classes. Because of my timing, and most people are already gone for fall classes at their unis, my classes were private. 

The first day was hard. Really hard. Like, so hard, that I couldn't even DO the placement test. Oh Rosetta Stone, you've failed me! Seriously, I knew many words in Arabic, I could kind of read, and I also knew how to say many things in the Iraqi dialect. None of these things were apparently helpful for this test. Did I know how to negate? No. Could I conjugate? No. But hey, I knew lots of nouns (not that that was much help)!

I arrived in Cairo, just after the Eid holiday weekend. The decorations were still up, and people were happy again following a month of fasting during daytime hours. The streets were incredibly busy, and the school's director met me at the airport. We dropped my bags off at our apartment (which was a HUGE disappointment), and we took off to find some food, a sim card for my phone, and so that I'd know the neighborhood a bit better. 

He took me to the mostly tourist area of the Mohandisseen neighborhood, so at first I thought that it couldn't possibly be so bad. there was a shwarma place nearby (too bad it tasted awful!), and anything that I might need (or so I thought!). But even before the light of the next morning, what I saw what quite a bit different. As we walked back to the flat, I felt someone on a motorbike getting really close to me, in that moment, I gripped my purse, and shifted it to the other side, just as I felt someone trying to knock it out of my hands! Lucky for me, I maintained constant control of my belongings, and I won that round, and was so lucky, since the wallet I had contained ALL of my cash, IDs, and credit cards, yikes. Welcome to Cairo!

This was NOT our kitchen, btw
The kitchen was woefully inadequate. Even by student standards. It was a mismash of things cobbled together over the years - leftover eggs (how old were they?), pasta, rice, dairy products, and a giant pile of plastic shopping bags. Mind you, this was student housing, with no desks - only a big table surrounded by broken couches where 2-3 people might be able to uncomfortably sit. First day's task: get a chair...and a table to study.

Every day basically began the same. One of those cars down there would start around 6 or 6:30 in the morning. Well...sort of. They would TRY to start it for about 10 minutes before it would actually turn over. This was every single day. Even Friday (the equivalent to our Sunday, when people are supposed to be off)

The view of our street
The kiosk just 10 meters from our flat

To say the least, it took some time to get settled. We got the school housekeeper to come and clean the carpets (never cleaned); someone to fix the washing machine(broken); bring a couple of chairs and tables for adequate study(we didn't have any!); and we started to find our way around the neighborhood. What we found was something far different from what was advertised to us.  This was not the western shopping district that we expected to see. Rather, it was a VERY conservative neighborhood. I wasn't expecting to be the only woman on the street not covered. I found it to be surprisingly unnerving. It was hot and the streets were filthy in our neighborhood, and I'd just discovered that I really couldn't communicate in Arabic at this point. At least, my fus'ha standard Arabic mixed with some Iraqi dialect was NOT working with the Egyptian dialect. Awesome. Okay, pointing and hand gestures it is! Hurray!

Apparently, caveat emptor was at play when it came to the housing service I was buying from the school. Then again, buyer beware is ALWAYS at play when traveling, actually. I needed to remind myself that I MUST stay sensible about this, and enjoy the opportunity while I had it! I don't want to give only a negative impression to the neighborhood, because what my roommates and I found were some really beautiful opportunities, and some fantastic neighborhood gems! We learned that our neighborhood, Imbaba/Agouza, used to be the final destination for the Sudanese camels to be sold at the market in Cairo. We even managed to find the place where the market used to be (it has since been moved) in the depths of the souk of our neighborhood. We took one Friday to get totally lost together, and buy local produce. It was a brilliant weekly practice. We got to know our neighborhood as well as our neighbors. 

Our Local Fruit and snack kiosk

We also found the corner kiosk and fruit stand. One of the streets behind our apartment was loaded down with stands bursting with fresh grapes, figs, oranges, apples, bananas, limes, pomegranates, mangoes of all sorts, snacks, drinks, and more that I can't even remember! I think this is where my red grape addiction began. These were likely the sweetest, juiciest grapes on the face of the planet. I was going through more than a kilo a week by myself, plus bananas, oranges, and fresh lemons! Also imagine that there are fresh juice stands, too! Fresh mango juice is definitely my favorite. Though, sobiyeh also comes in at a nailbiting second place.

One of the kiosk owner's children or grandchildren. He was biting all of the mangoes.
The more we got to know our neighborhood, the more I started to feel like, if I'd been allowed to experience life in Baghdad, this is what some of the neighborhoods might have felt like - a confluence of old and new, but completely and totally alive and bustling with cars, donkeys, carts, chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats, tuk-tuks, trucks, mopeds, bikes, and pedestrians. Here's a quick video of our walk home one of the last nights.

One our neighbors, an older Libyan gentleman went out of his way to make friends with us. After the 9/11 protests in Cairo, I definitely appreciated this. As a group, we'd stumbled on (crashed?) a couple of weekend wedding celebrations around our area (not on purpose!), but our neighbor across the street made sure that we came to his party one Friday night. I don't think it was a wedding (we never saw a bride or groom), but the music was loud, and people were dancing and having fun. It was nice to cut loose with our neighbors!

The girls dancing in the courtyard

Neighbors watching the fun

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