Once Upon the Nile

Ok, so I’ve finally decided to actually post about my super awesome trip with my mom and crew. Seriously ya’ll that was the best trip of my life. It was so good in fact that I have pretty much been in denial until… now, that it was actually over. *sigh*

I’m also stuck at home (still too weak to go out) and super bored.

So my mom and Maria arrived in Egypt on the 2nd of January (holy peanut butter that was a long time ago already) and we had rented a car for the whole two weeks. It was so nice to have a car, but I digress. We went to the airport to pick them up, got promptly and thoroughly lost, ended up having to pick up an aiport worker who moved some barriers so we cross a road divide, had us drive the wrong way up a road and the wrong way through a ticket gate and some police check points before we actually got to the correct arrival gate. I was so terrified that my mom had already arrived and was standing somewhere terrified and unable to call me and that we would somehow lose her.

In fact we had arrived right on time as the flight had been delayed by 20 minutes so I was standing, distraught, when I saw her come through the gate. I’ll admit that I cried when I first saw her because I had missed her so much, but it was only for like 2 minutes. Only.

After this we drove home, dropped off the luggage and walked over to Road Nine for a later dinner. Unforunately the food at the restaurant- which had previously been pretty good- was sub-par and no one really enjoyed it, but it was so nice to be together.

Day Two: Islamic and Coptic Old Cairo

The next morning we started out early (or at least early by Egyptian standards) so that we could spend the whole day exploring the Islamic and Coptic history of Cairo. It was awesome. We visited the Mohamed Ali mosque and a bunch of others I’m forgetting the names of… you know… all of those mosques on the Arabic side of the Egyptian pounds notes. One of them was the Sultan Hassan mosque which was run down but uber-cool because there are four-sections to the mosque- one for each of the maddhabs (Islamic schools of thought and jurisprudence) for the students who used to study there during the height of the Islamic civilization. Cairo, believe it or not, was one of the biggest centers of education in the world.

We also set out to explore Khan el Khalili which was its usual jumble of crammed shops and over-eager salesmen. Poor Maria, who is of Korean descent, had “Konnichiwa” yelled at her more times than I could count. Considering that she was adopted as a baby and only speaks English, I cringed every time. But Maria, being the sweet and kind-hearted person that she is never wavered and I actually don’t think she even heard them (not having ever had ‘konichiwa’ yelled in her direction before.) But that was later.

After the Islamic history we explored the Coptic history of Cairo, which is really varied as well. Most people think of Egypt only as a Muslim country, which it technically is a secular government, but its so Muslim-majority that one could assume it was a Muslim country. But there is a very long and rich history of Christianity as well that is often left un-explored.

For people who are sensitive about religion, especially Christianity in Egypt, I would suggest that they skip this section because I’m going to make some generalizations that may offend. I am not setting out to be offensive, but I am going to write about my impressions of the places I visited.

For those of you who know the geography of Cairo, we were in the section that has the Saint Barbara church and the other two or three churches right around there. I never did catch the name of the barrio, so maybe someone could help me out.

Around this little collection of churches was a massive Christian graveyard which looked super cool. I love graveyards- is that morbid? I just think they are the most fascinating collections and examples of local culture, tradition, and history and should be explored. Maybe its my inner anthropologist (I wanted to be a paelo-cultural archaeologist when I was young.) Unfortunately we were not able to explore the graveyard but we did go into the churches. Now, the two main branches of Christianity here are Orthodox and Coptic (sometimes interchangeable) and I have to be honest: Orthodox churches creep me OUT. Even when I was Catholic. I think its the style of painting icons: the big eyes, the tilted heads, the Russian-ness of it. But, they’re creepy. While in the churches I was both fascinated and skeeved out; I wanted to explore and yet I wanted to run like a little girl. Especially when I got to the places where they had the bodies of saints. In Saint Barbara I think Yaseen (our tour guide and Mr. MM’s best friend) said that there were like 25 saints buried/ on display. Yes, on display. Ok not that you could actually see them but there was a place where there were saints bodies buried with effigies on top, and then there was the creepiest section of all: a little alcove with a number of silver cylinders. I asked him what the cylinders were (since they weren’t big enough for whole bodies) and he responded: “oh no, they took the bodies and ground them up.” He also did a little grinding motion with his hands which only further grossed me out. I dunno.

But here’s the thing that floored me ya’ll: I swear to you by all that good and holy if you had removed the crosses and saints the churches could have passed for mosques. All of them. Why do I say that? In every one of them there was the exact same type of mosaic tiling and arabic calligraphy around the doorways and tops of the walls that one would find in a mosque. Also everyone who has been in a original mosque knows the little staircase and podium that the imama climb to give the Friday sermons- well the churches had them! Ok, sure its a novel idea for being above the congregants for talking but they looked the same! Plus while we were in St B’s they were piping in the recording of someone reciting in Arabic. Of course it was most likely the Bible but the guy was reciting with the exact same sing-songy recitation as someone reciting Quran. If I had not been in a church I would have thought it was Quran. It was really freaky.

It was my first chance to be inside any church here in Egypt, but it wasn’t to be our last.

Next to that fortress/monastary/graveyard area was another famous mosque, that of Amr ibn el-‘As that was actually- if I am remembering correctly- the first mosque built in Africa but we didn’t get a chance to go inside; mostly because by this point we were exhausted. I’m so going to go again, inshAllah cuz it looks absolutely awesome. Also I just love the fatimidi mosques because of their style, although this mosque was built long before the Fatimids, it was redone during that time and has the characteristic serated-triangle adornments around the edge. A quick historical note here: you will find that serated triangle motif throughout Spanish art and in all southwestern-American architecture- which is Spanish in roots- because Spain was a Muslim territory for a huge chunk of its history. The mosques kind of remind me of Arizona so I like them, plus they have fabulous inner courtyards which again remind me of Spanish-influenced architecture.

But I digress. BTW, this is going to be a super-long post. Uber-long. I’ve got two whole weeks to post about and we’re only at the end of day number 2. You might want to find a comfortable chair, get some tea, and settle in. Hm, I think I should make chapters. Let me do that. Ok, done. On to day three.

Day Three: I don’t remember…

Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to write this. I think day three was a day of rest because my poor mom and Maria had been travelling and running around for more than 48 hours. We hung out, went to the souk, oh we went shopping for things my mom decided that I greatly needed- like a space heater- because it was so cold. The whole trip she complained about being cold, and I had warned her but no one ever believes me that it gets cold here. Anyways the space heater has made a huge difference in the comfort here (thanks mom!) and we had a true adventure at the downtown Omar Effendi (never again ya’ll.)

Day Four: On the Road

This is where we drove to Hurghada. Man that was a long trip but beautiful, once we hit the red sea, and we really enjoyed it. Halfway there we stumbled across the huge and historic monastary of St. Paul (Deir Mar Boulos) that we entered so mom and Maria could look around. It had real monks and everything. Again there was a ton of the Orthodox iconography that creeps me bleep out so I voted to stay in the car, plus I was being eyed kind of funky by the monks that were wandering around. We made it to Hurghada kind of late, checked into the hotel too late to go swimming in the pool, but slept really well in the comfy beds.

Day Five and Six: Hurghada

Hurghada is beautiful you guys, seriously. The red sea is gorgeous. Mostly we did a lot of laying around the pool, laying around the beach, and relaxing in our hotel rooms which was what all of us needed. But on day six we went on a “safari” which was really a lot of fun but definitely not what I thought a safari would be. Mama Mona hooked us up because her husband is a big guy in that area and because she rocks, thanks honeybunch!

Now the safari was broken up into groups: Russians and everyone else. Now Russia I guess is one of the few countries to have not been hit by the economic depression so Egypt and Hurghada (which has kind of always been a target getaway for Russians anyway) has been playing up to them with special trip deals to promote tourism which has been hit hard by the world money woes. I’d have to say that 85% of the tourists I saw were Russian, and wow are they rude. Wooooooooooow. Anyways.

So the first part of the safari was a dune-buggy and four-wheeler excursion. Basically we climbed into dune-buggies and drove single-file around in circles in a massively huge plateau of nothing but rocks and sand. Then we got out and switched to four-wheelers where we then drove single-file around in circles in the same huge plateau. Once we were covered in sand from head to toe and all the crevices in between and had eaten enough dust to satisfy our guides they herded us into buck-board jeeps and drove us straight back into the mountains. Now this drive actually took like 45 minutes of bouncing, jostling, and hitting bone-crunching rocks and gravel-pits. Plus it was boring because it looked like the surface of the moon. Once we were inside the mountains, which was actually a really cool part because I had wanted to see what it was like inside the mountains, we were taken to a “bedouin village” which really was not an actual village but was staffed with real bedouins. From there we were placed onto camels led by burqa-clad bedouin women and girls who took us on a single turn that lasted maybe three minutes tops and reminded me painfully of the elephant rides offered at the rennaissance festival. Then we went around and saw how the bedouins hand make the goods that they were selling for exorbitant amounts of money (and which were most likely not made by them.) In one section was a bedouin grandmother who was grinding semolina by one hand and holding a cute baby goat by the other. After explaining that this was how bedouins grind their flour the tourists were allowed to each take a turn and get a picture (and give a tip of course) but the most hilarious thing was that the lady handed the goat the every single person as if it were not possible to grind flour unless you were simultaneously holding a baby goat. I took a turn mostly because I wanted to hold the baby goat and because Mr. MM wanted to take a picture, I’m sure to one day use as black-mail. We were then herded into the weirdest part of the safari: the zoo. Yes, a zoo. With ostriches and other animals kept in disgusting conditions and a snake room filled with snakes that are in no way actually native to Egypt. Snakes give me the heebie jeebies but what made me leave the building was the complete and utter absurdity of it: boa constrictors? pythons? I’m not a bleedin’ moron, what does this have to do with bedouins?

I sat and watched the breath-taking sunset and the first stars come into the sky and then Mr. MM and I went to pray in the mosque in the fake bedouin village, possibly the only “real” structure besides the animal pens. While everyone else was getting a chance to buy “real natural herbal remedies made and used by the bedouins” he and I prayed in what I believe to be the only mosque I’ve ever prayed in that is anything like the mosques the Prophet (saaws) prayed in: a single rectibule with white-washed half-walls, a thatched roof, and thin hand-woven carpet over a bed of smooth pebbles. With the first stars beginning to sparkle in the sky, the cool air, and the breath-taking mountains around us I felt as close to God as I ever have in my life. The whole experience was worth it just for that. We were herded back into the torture mobiles and jostled all the way back into the safari base and fed a traditional egyptian meal (which was actually decent food) while were were entertained by, in succesion, a belly dancer (who sucked), a whirling dervish, and then some guy who swallowed swords and could lay on a bed of nails while some skinny-ass Russian girls sat on his chest. We were actually able to volunteer Mr. MM for helping and the guy tried to have him swallow a sword which Mr. MM could not do and who later swore revenge on me when I least expect it. Again I failed to see what the strong-man act had to do with Egyptian culture, but I guess its about the entertainment not actually sticking to culture.

After the safari I went and met Mama Mona, which was awesome! She’s such a gorgeous personality with really great kids and I wish we lived closer to each other. She cooked us some yummy brownies and we had a good chat. Unfortunately I had been dealing with some major allergies and took a benedryl (stupidly) right before going to visit and so about half-way through I began to swim in my own consciousness and had to cut it short before I fell unconscious into the tea I was drinking. I’m so mad at myself because I wanted to stay longer with her.

Day Seven: Driving to Luxor

We said goodbye to beautiful Hurghada and struck out for Luxor and the start of our Upper Egypt Adventure. Driving through the mountains was awesome, they were beautiful and we were actually able to see the bedouin encampments along the highway and see actual bedouins hanging out. When we stopped for a bathroom break at one of the super nice rest areas built for tourists (and populated by guys selling tourist knick knacks and food and beverages at kick-in-the-gut prices) we were surrounded by adorable bedouin kids ironically carrying around cute baby goats (it must be a selling point for tourists?) They were fascinated by me (an American Muslim) and my mom who was a woman and was *gasp* driving. They were so completely fascinated that they forgot to beg. They were absolutely adorable and we gave them some money anyways, yeah yeah I know.

We left the arid desert behind and descended into the verdant green Nile valley and the heart of Upper Egypt near Qina where I was completely bowled over by the lush green, the peace, and the beauty of Egypt. Maybe the people in the villages lack the ammenities of big cities, and are very poor, but they are rich in beauty and peace. We stopped along the road and called a young boy over to ask him for a stalk of sugar cane. He pulled like three huge stalks off of his father’s load and handed them to us with a smile and a refusal to take money. We only took one stalk and made him take the money we offered. I peeled the outer layer off and gnawed on the juicy core and through the rest of the drive we all snacked on fresh sugar cane. At every police checkpoint (of which there are so freaking many) the police officers and the villagers laughed to see me chewing on the end of a huge stalk and spitting out the fibers. I’m sure I looked silly and in fact mom took pictures of me to prove it.

We arrived in Luxor and met with one of my father-in-law’s best friends, a lawyer of similar age and rank as baba. There he took our rental car and kept an eye on it for us while we were on our Nile cruise. Since the cruise began in Aswan and ended in Luxor we needed to leave the car somewhere safe and he gave us a place to do it. He was a sweet man who, oddly enough, reminded me a lot of my fil. From Luxor we caught a train to Aswan where we bedded for the night in a hotel right on the Nile, preparing to catch our Nile cruise the next morning.

Aswan, oh Aswan. It is a jewel of Egypt.

But I will talk more about that in my next installment of “Once Upon the Nile.”

*cheesey theme music*

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8 responses to “Once Upon the Nile

  1. Sounds like you had such a great time! First thing I did when I went to Egypt the first time was the whole Muhammad Ali mosque area and khan el khalili. đŸ™‚ Good memories to read your account.

  2. What a great sounding trip. I’ve never driven between Hurghurda and Luxor, but would really love to. You’ve inspired me to get myself organised and arranged it!

    Did you go to the synagogue in Coptic Cairo? It has the same carved wood paneling (with the star of David), script written around the walls and a similar ‘imama podium’. Seems Islamic culture took it from Coptic which took it from the Jewish..I thought it was interesting to see such a clear visual connection between the three religions in such a small geographical area.

  3. Sounds like a great trip. any pictures? :-p

  4. Aw it was great meeting you too! My sister took that cruise and told me there were these ridiculous guys in canoes selling things to people on the cruise by throwing the stuff! She showed me pictures it was unreal…Did you see them?

  5. Mezba- we have a bunch up on facebook, its really hrd to load up onto flickr because our laptop has gotten so ancient it takes forever. add me on facebook and you can see some.

    Mona- There were no guys on canoes for us, but we did have some crazy ass polish octogenarians who liked to roam around in bikinis and do the titty shake for the poor villagers sitting on the banks as we cruised by.

    Those guys on the canoes have got to be straight stupid, once you throw the stuff you can kiss it goodbye. I always hate the guys who get onto the metro and drop something into your lap and expect you to want to buy it. I’d pocket it if I didn’t think stealing was wrong.

  6. you know, my last post on my blog is how much im going to miss egypt since my egy husband and i just divorced. i loved reading about your adventures and felt a bit homesick.

    but i had to laugh at the egyptians yelling that out to your korean friend because here in the states, everyone would speak spanish to my arabic speaking husband..automatically assuming he was mexican!!! he hated it.

    great read.

  7. HAHA – Mr. B told me how the “guard” at the Cairo airport only successfully got them lost like 5 times trying to get to his terminal. You’re not the only one, dude.

  8. wow sounds like an amazing time!

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