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Ancientophilia

One of the most fundamental sources of difference between my home and this new place is in how people relate to their cultural past. In Egypt, ancient history seems to be everywhere, displayed in sterile glass cases in countless museums, and on maps that spill out from tour agencies. Just as the pyramids rise up out of the suburban sprawl of government housing developments, the grandeur of ancient death cults exerts an unmistakable allure for Egyptians and outsiders alike, interlaced in daily life and yet representative of people’s inability to grapple with a belief system so primitive and archaic and yet so present in their landscape.

Ancient history weighs heavily upon many Egyptians. The tourism industry uses foreign fascination with ancient Egypt as a support for the modern economy. Hotels claim artifacts for lobby decorations and men on the street hawk mock papyrus wall hangings. Even cell phone stores have statuettes in their display cases, juxtaposing the spiritually mysterious with the electronically advanced. Sometimes one feels like Egyptians on the street are consigned to their roles in Indiana Jones and The Mummy: brokers for a culture not really their own that ceased to be thousands of years before them.

But I’m unable to choke up this “ancientophilia to fundraising alone. The Citadel of Qaitbay in Alexandria, where the entrance fee is three dollars for foreigners and seventeen cents for Egyptians, is swarmed daily with hundreds of domestic tourists. Egyptology is a reasonably popular subject of study for university students here, and Pharoanic influence is seen everywhere from the modernist sculptures of Mohamed Mokhtar to Coptic Christian liturgy, which claims affinities with the traditions of the pharoahs.

Several people have made sure to explain that the military coup of the early 1950’s was the first time since before the ancient Romans that Egypt had been ruled by ethnic Egyptians. The many foreign rulers that governed Egypt represent a cherished set of influences, some Egyptians say, but nothing is as important as “self-rule.” Egypt is thus defined as both worldy and proudly nationalistic, with many finding an awkward fit in between.

Walking around the antiquities museum below the Alexandria library this became clear when a tour guide showed us the oversized bust of Augustus and proudly declared that “we hate the Romans here; Ancient Greece respected our religion, but the Romans just abused us.” My Palestinian friend Yacoub quickly interjected: “but I think the Romans had a pretty impressive civilization too!,” a comment that illicited frustration from the guide, who quickly retorted “yes but look how they ruined Egypt!” I wasn’t sure what exactly to “look” at.

I quickly realized just how ambivalent this Ancient history is for some in the modern Middle East who care to engage with it. The guide, clad in a hijab, was clearly Muslim and not a believer in ancient Egyptian mythology, and yet she could not help but highlight the ideas of “respect” and “glory” attached to her affinity for her perceived ancient ancestors.

I then tried to find common ground, but then I remembered that not even colonial-era America, only a bit past two hundred years ago, elicits any sort of antagonism against the British of that era. We may glorify our ancestors and their fight against outsiders, but at the end of the day we don’t really care that much about it.

For Egyptians, even if they don’t think about these issues, they have to confront the fact that many outsiders see their home more as an archaeological dig site than a modern nation. Their collective “glory” is in the deep recesses of the past, ancient, Islamic, colonial or otherwise, and this can’t be an easy situation to inhabit. 

Three Moments

In 2009, I am guessing that most Americans who travel to a “distant” or “exotic” country are initially disappointed by the lack of real difference from their home. They can pull money out of foreign ATM’s with their American cards, speak to foreign taxi-drivers who know English, and eat familiar food at “foreign” Pizza Huts. 

Egypt, with its flourishing tourism industry and Westernized elite class certainly fits the pattern. Since I arrived, my experiences have been less defined by the ever-fleeting fantasy of “immersion” than by a constant side step between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the old and the new.

Sometimes, my familiar instincts lead to familiar experiences. Several nights ago, a friend and I went to a benefit concert and art exhibit to raise money for hospitals in Gaza. The space was the Townhouse Gallery (notably untitled in Arabic), a random assortment of attached warehouses tucked between rusty garages and rustier coffee shops. The ticket-taker explained that the event had been organized simply by a group a friends, who seemed to be a mix of American and Palestinian expat’s and Egyptian 20-something’s.

It was far from the image of Egyptian rage over Gaza that is common on CNN, with burning flags, hundreds of shouting faces, and Bush-as-Satan posters and it was exactly the sort of upper-class “benefit” we would have held in America for Darfur or New Orleans. In the audience I met Germans, Spaniards, and other international tourists, who had simply seen the signs posted all over downtown and paid the 20 pounds (4 dollars) to sit in a massive warehouse and look at art and listen to a band that deftly mixed Arabic and Latin rhythms, swaying to the beat and drinking tea from the stand outside.

The next day, I finally made the trek out to the pyramids, and just as I had been prepared for, American-style free enterprise has hit this wonder of the ancient world hard. From the entrance gates to the foot of the Sphinx, everywhere the shouts and invasions of personal space abound. “Postcards only one dollar!” “Do you want to ride a camel? A horse? A donkey,” or more transparently, “spend your money here!” and “Baksheesh,” the word which means “tip” but with the slightest connotation of a bribe.

The pyramids were themselves, of course, exactly the awe-inspiring monuments they are cracked up to be. My cynicism vanished as I simply stared up at these massive structures, notably chiseled by the centuries, but all the more timeless for it. I remembered that for how much our leaders seem supernatural in the popular imagination, the people buried deep in these tombs were quite literally viewed as such. Thousands of years later, power is still mystifying as we ponder how anyone could have organized this kind of labor power in honor of his own death. It’s chilling, really.

The return to the familiar was crystallized in my settling in to the residences of the American University in Cairo (AUC), a place whose name says more about it than I could sum up in three words. Located in Zamalek, the posh garden neighborhood on an island in the Nile that is riddled with embassies and expensive restaurants, the AUC housing is a truly bizarre conflagration of the two cultures it claims to bring together. The feeling of money and privilege is everywhere, from the complimentarily changed sheets to the glossy neo-Pharoanic and Islamic architecture to the “Englarabic” that is tossed between the Egyptians and Palestinians who live here. At the same time, the more conservative Egyptian-Muslim cultural values dominate. Men and women’s rooms are separated by heavy and imposing wooden doors (as I have heard is true in some privately owned apartments as well). Guards are everywhere checking bags and ID cards, and housecleaners are routinely searched to make sure they do not steal. The AUC housing is at once a bubble for the young elite and their Western counterparts, and a reminder that the outside still has a cultural stake here. Walking around the neighborhood one could be in Europe or the cosmopolitan areas of New York or L.A., but the moment one hits the AUC building, words like “haram” hang in the air with the vaguest feeling of authority close by.            

And so I have three moments who show the constant flip that defines Cairo not so much as different, but as a constant, never clear excercise in negotiating between the known and the unknown. In truth, it is the flux that is more exciting.

 

M

 

PS

The New York Times Magazine had an interesting take on globalization. Increasingly, it seems as though websites like Facebook are being used to challenge the government in a country where to do so is to invite calamity. Read here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25bloggers-t.html

I will generally try to avoid snapshot-style reports from Cairo, but in my first three days, the city has presented itself as an intensely chaotic wave of sensory experiences, that really can’t be described with any continuity. Without having my feet on the ground, this sense of flux is at once a lonely confusion and an exhilarating adventure.

At times Cairo feels like it has curled in on itself, as there is no point from which you can’t see literally every element of the city: touristy, poverty-stricken, opulent, historic, mundane. From inside the Aberdeen Palace, the ritualistic home to many former Egyptian leaders, I wandered through mock-British gardens and rooms filled with ceremonial weaponry to look up and see decrepit apartment buildings just outside the walls, laundry hanging out of their windows. Hypermodern shoe-stores with hundreds of items displayed in blindingly bright windows sit on the ground floor of imposing British colonial architecture, their neon lighting indistinguishable from the glow of mosque minarets nearby.

Sounds are no less of a barrage. The melodies that cut through ceaseless honks of traffic could just as readily be the sacred call to prayer or the secular news report from an unseen radio or television. Silence becomes a truly relative term as traffic noise recedes to a rumble but never entirely goes away.

Through all of this overload, tourists seem caught between competing images of Egypt. The countless souvenir shops hawking pharoanic statues and papyrus wall hangings sit uncomfortably beneath clashing Islamic and Western architecture, which symbolize competing and intermingling forces in the contemporary city that are far from the facade of ancient glory.

As a result, my first 48 hours in Cairo have been punctuated by very brief moments where a single surrounding dominates. These moments of escape have been both relaxing in their pause and unnerving in their uniqueness. The first was in the Shar Hashamayim Synagogue, a few blocks from my hotel, which is one of the only remnants of Cairo’s Jewish community left. After negotiating my way through a group of intimidating, well-armed Egyptian guards (who clearly realize the delicacy of the political situation right now), I walked into the quiet space to be greeted by an old woman and young man. Between the two of them, they could cobble together enough simple Arabic, French, and English such that I could basically understand that their job is to receive visitors. I quickly got the feeling that there were more guards outside than daily visitors inside and that the beautifully ornate interior functioned more as a hidden shrine than a public symbol.

The guarding of this synagoge was my only clue to popular political sentiments in Cairo, a subject almost everyone I talked to before leaving made sure to mention or inquire about. Indeed, it was hard not to entertain the dramatic image of massive,  CNN-worthy rallies greeting me as I boarded the airplane. These were, of course, just fantasies, and it is hard to imagine how anything would be different were Gaza not only a few hours away. At the end of the day, people usually just go about their business everywhere, no matter the mediatized political situations nearby.

The same feeling (or to be more exact, lack of feeling) was present in Israel, where I spent two days on the way here. Walking through Tel Aviv, the usual throngs of American tourists and endless variety of Israelis gave one no sense that, even with the Gaza situation, anything is terribly different for the average Israeli, Egyptian, or American.

“How many states are there in the U.S.?” asked the first Egyptian man to offer me directions, watching my poort attempt to hide my guidebook. “50″ I offered, wondering if, as I had been warned about, he was trying to sell me something. “No! 52…the 51st is Israel and the 52nd is Egypt” he smugly responded. I smiled, but felt a little guilty, knowing that I have traversed three nations in the past week with the greatest ease, and that there are many people famously trapped between two of them, with the sympathy of some and the derision of others, who have no such ability.

Initial Thoughts

This coming spring, I’m travelling to Cairo for four months to study at the American University in Cairo. This blog will serve as a collection of thoughts, ideas, and experiences from the four months I am there. Ideally, it will be a balance of the big and the small, the transformative and the everyday, the bombastic and the routine.

To begin, I should explain some of the reasons I’m going, of which there are many. Although my father is from Syria originally, and much of my family lives in Israel, I wasn’t fascinated by the Middle East until my freshman year at Cornell, when I took a Music class in which I had to pick a part of the world and present its music to the other students. Because of the vaguest memories of my father dancing to Syrian songs and Arabic singing wafting through the house as I grew up, I settled on the Middle East, and ever since I’ve been continually entrenched in an interest both cultural and political.

This interest has also coincided, and I truly think it is coincidental, with a broader American fascination with the region. I never had to dig particularly deep in the news media for stories from the Middle East. Yet, this has been a blessing and a curse as constant information is accompanied by constant problems. It is no great claim to say that assumptions about the region, its religions, and people of Arab and Jewish descent seem to push American conversations away from understanding and towards terms like “terrorism” “hatred” and, most regrettably, “Islamofascism.” It would be silly for me to claim that my writing about Cairo is an attempt to work against these conceptions (I have no such pretensions), but I hope to do my part in the smallest way, writing about daily life and my experiences with Egyptian life that is anything but “fundamentalist.”

This coming semester, I’ll be taking classes at the American University in Cairo, studying Arabic and History and doing research for my senior thesis, which is about, put simply, how people talk about the sounds that make up their city. Increasingly called “the loudest city in the world,” Cairo is marked by a constant barrage of industrial noise, Islamic sounds like the call to prayer and Friday sermons, and other yet to be discovered sources, and I want to explore how these different aspects of the “soundscape” are viewed (or heard) by the people who inhabit it. Thus, in addition to the pictures I’ll be posting, I will be putting up sound recordings of Cairo, from the call to prayer that rings through the urban landscape five times a day, to musical events I enjoy, to general street noise that will communicate my experience of Cairo more than just visually.

I am also partial towards talking about politics. This doesn’t entail ranting, but rather looking for the political implications of different experiences rather than just their immediate consequences. In any given moment, what does it mean for me to be an American reflecting on the experiences I’m having?

Please feel free to post comments and start conversations. I’ll always do my best to clarify and add to my explanations of my experiences wherever it is interesting for a reader. Also, please check out the other bloggers, as I figure many interesting aspects of these “study abroad” experiences will arise from the act of comparison.

Finally, you can find previous blogging, from an arguably much more contentious region, from my blog on being in Israel and Palestine last summer. The address is www.mauricetravels.blogspot.com.

Thanks,

Maurice

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