The Vortex

10 08 2009

I’m sitting here with butterflies in my stomach. You’d think I was the one starting middle school this year. I wonder how Juniper is doing. Is she walking tall? Is she smiling? Is she happy? Did she remember to hang that magnetic mirror I bought for her locker?

The woman speaking at the orientation didn’t do much to assuage, though I’m sure that was her intention. She said several times, “We will take care of your sixth-grade babies.” Babies. That’s right, though something in me didn’t completely believe her.  She went on to recount how terrified she was when she had to drop her child off at middle school for the first time. And then she said–get this–that after that day, a series of changes took place until her kid emerged from middle school, by then a totally different person.

She told us that at times we wouldn’t recognize our kids anymore, and that they wouldn’t want us around, and that they’ll think we’re the dumbest people on earth. Was this her idea of a pep talk? Did she run this by anyone before she decided to go with this?

The truth is, these are the things most frightening about Juniper going to middle school, because I know I complain about how she is joined at my hip and never stops talking or asking or hanging around. But the truth is, I enjoy her being here. I love her curiosity, I love making her laugh, I love that she enjoys my company, because I know it won’t last.

Good luck, Junes. Have a great year. Oh and Roofie, if you just get through the year without driving your teacher mad, I’ll be so proud.


It’s a cruel, cruel summer

4 08 2009

Just yesterday I was a little melancholy that summer was ending. This is huge for me, because the last few years I’d spent the final two weeks of summer counting down the days till school would start. Begging for school to start. What does it  mean? That I actually ENJOYED my summer with the kids for once? That I managed to keep a few assignments rolling along steadily, thus avoiding  insanity and feeling utterly useless? That I (gasp) am finally falling in step with the rhythm of my new life?

They all sound about right. Well I’ll be damned.

Two Convos

22 07 2009

Oh so good to be back home. My bed, my shower, my car staying in lane, and not a single honk.

Now onto two brief conversations. The first one between Juniper and I:

J: So did you have a good today?

Me: Yeah.

J: What’d you do?

Me: I worked my butt off, that’s what I did.

J: So how is that good?

Me: It feels great to work.

Jenna: Would it feel great to work in a gas station?

The second, a phone conversation my sister and I just had.

S: You know, I’m starting to like that show of yours, “30 Rock”.

Me: Really? (surprised because my movie recommendations to her always fall flat)

S: Yeah, especially that Baldwin…what’s his name?

Me: Alec.

S: Right, right, Alec. He reminds me of me.

Me (brightening): Yeah that’s right, he is you.

S: Yes–controlling, uncaring.

Me: YES.

S: And that Tina Fey character is you.

Me: ___

S: You know, self-deprecating, self-conscious.

Me: ___

Cinema Rules

16 07 2009

Egyptians crowd outside the movie theater at Green Plaza Mall in Alexandria

Egyptians crowd outside the movie theater at Green Plaza Mall in Alexandria

We went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince tonight at Green Plaza Mall in Alexandria. The theater was packed. And as with so many other things in Egypt, going to the movies is an exercise in patience.

Some ground rules:

Turning off cell phones is optional. In fact, it’s not encouraged at all. Keep your ringer turned up high to show off that adorable ring tone.

When you do get a call during the film, by all means, answer it. Be sure to wait at least three rings before picking up. Speak to the caller at normal volumes, even if it’s  during a quiet scene with tricky dialogue. Thinking of cutting the call short because you’re in a movie theater? Don’t be ridiculous.

Let’s say you’re sick of rude disruptions. There’s just one thing to do: shush loudly and repeatedly, some good, spit-spraying shushes. If the offender ignores your shushing, which surely he will, suck your teeth and huff. Results may vary.

Hee Haw

15 07 2009

Headache, sore throat, congestion. Also the feeling I’ve been run over by a pair of cage-circling motorcycles a few dozen times. I’m under the weather. Daddy Yankee has taken to calling me “H1N1”, as in, “Don’t touch my pillow, H1N1,” or “I’m not sharing my fork with you, H1N1.”

Don’t think I haven’t been careful. I was paranoid on the flight over here–airplanes are some of the worst places to contract illness, just ask Joe Biden–but I thought I’d made out OK.

When we arrived at the Cairo airport 11 days ago, six surgi-masked health workers screened us for swine flu. One woman in her 20’s asked me to step up to a yellow line. I thought I was being photographed, like at the DMV, so I smiled big. Turns out it was an infrared scan to check for fever. I got the all clear.

Knowing what hypochondriacs Egyptians tend to be, I’d bet I can clear out a cafe if I so much as sniffled in one. In fact, Alexandria, the city vacationing Egyptians clog every summer, is noticeably quieter this year. No circling around for 20 minutes to find a parking spot. No adolescents bumping into you in the pool. No huge lines at the legendary Mohammed Ahmed falafel place. Among the theories as to why this is: people are avoiding crowds in hopes they won’t contract swine flu.

Speaking of swine, much of our conversation with the natives here has consisted of questionable meat stories. This whole thing about restaurants being caught serving meat other than poultry, beef or lamb has become a big deal around here. What do they serve instead? Donkey. That’s the word on the street, at least. And in the movies.

I caught part of a comedy on TV the other day where there was a scene with a father and son. The father says to the son, “I used to take your mother here whenever I wanted to make her happy.” And the son, gnawing at a rib longer than his arm, says, “I’ve never seen ribs this big!”

Then right away you see restaurant inspectors hauling a live donkey out of the kitchen.

Last year I met a journalist here who told me she went undercover for several weeks (what is this, “21 Jump Street”?) and wrote an expose about a restaurant that served donkey meat when the menu clearly said “beef.” Supposedly lots of restaurants have been shut down for violations of this sort, some substituting pork for beef. I’m not sure what’s worse in the Islamic world–donkey or pig– but I’m guessing the pig.

The other day my mother and I were leaving the San Stefano Mall in Alexandria, and she had a craving for a chopped liver sandwich. This is supposed to be an Alexandria specialty. So we went out in search of one, and as luck would have it, a shop across the street, Abu Awad, made them. We ordered four.

They were dirt cheap, less than 4 Egyptian Pounds each, or 80 cents. Mom ran in to use the restroom while I waited for the sandwiches. It works like this: you stand in front of a tall counter, and behind the glass, the man makes your sandwich, sort of like they do at Subway. But the glass was painted black, so you can see your little sandwich maker toiling away at the shoulders, but you can’t see below that, even if you stood up on your toes. This made me a little uneasy. For all I could tell, he was filling my sandwich with armpit hair and snot. But the workers were playing a cheerful song turned up loud in the kitchen, and the man seemed to be in good spirits, so when he handed me the chopped liver sandwiches, I took them without questioning and dug right in. And guess what? It tasted great.

Come Sail Away

13 07 2009

I know I’m ready to come home when I’m scanning radio stations in the car and I am nothing short of ecstatic that Styx’s “Come Sail Away” is on, just because it reminds me of America.

Blind Boys of Alexandria

12 07 2009

The sea smells fishy. Well it’s the sea, you say, it’s supposed to smell that way. Could be that it’s been especially hot and humid lately. It’s three-showers-a-day humid. There’s a constant, sticky mask of sweat on my face. I can feel it if I smile. Hard to do, though, when the building elevator is out AGAIN. Our place is on the ninth floor. And going up a dark stairwell littered with open trash bags containing dirty diapers and crushed Pepsi cans gets old. The optimist in me can appreciate the workout.

But last night–oh last night. We went to another outdoor library music performance, this one featuring a Spanish guitarist, Fernando Perez, with Mohamed Antar, who is blind and plays the lute. (Here’s Perez in another performance) There were two percussionists, one of whom also was blind and played the accordion as well. They played flamenco, music from Andalusia, from Turkey, Morocco, India, Egypt. When you hear it all come together you feel like you’re floating away. It’s another kind of soul. You’re moved on a whole different level. Powerful stuff.

Dad has always been a music lover, and he enjoyed the performance. Mom seemed bored at times, talking loudly well into the performance. A couple beside her–the woman looked foreign, and the man looked Egyptian–switched seats to move several rows back when she shouted “Bravo!” after the first piece. She also clapped early during one piece–way early– and repeatedly turned around to ask if I wanted any pumpkin seeds. Roofie was able to more quietly entertain himself than she.

After the performance, we saw Fernando Perez walk toward the road. We caught up with him on the side of the road while he waited for a taxi, holding his two huge guitar cases. I rolled down my window and told him what a wonderful performance it was, and thanked him. He seemed flattered. My dad has been on an unending quest for a good Internet connection, thinking this will improve his Vonage phone quality. He’s trying to get work done while on vacation here, so I took him to Starbucks. We had trouble connecting to their wireless network, so an employee named Sherif offered us technical support.

He saw my cell phone and asked where I got it.

“From America,” I said.

“Oh!” he said. “I used to live in Philly.”

Turns out this guy is married to an Irish gal whom he met in Lancaster, PA. They lived there for awhile (good country, he said, good place to raise the kids), but eventually ended up back in Alexandria. He said his wife now goes out to the market and haggles better than anyone he knows. She is fluent in Arabic. They’re happy here. But from where I sit, it’s tough to find happiness here. Maybe because it’s such a leap from what I’m used to. There’s trash in the streets, constant honking, cars that won’t think twice before hitting a pedestrian, air conditioners leaking on your head if you DO find a sidewalk. And elevators that make the case for living on the ground floor.

If every day were a concert

10 07 2009
Azraq Samawy

Azraq Samawy

There are times, few as they are, that I find myself thinking, you know, Egypt could be a nice place to live. Take last night, for example. My friend Laila and I took the kids to see an open-air concert at the Bibliotheca Alexandria. It was out on the plaza, two bands I’d never heard of before. And it was the perfect summer concert–laid back, warm and breezy, intimate. The first band, Azraq Samawy (Sky Blue) played a sort of Arabic rock. “Asalamalaikum,” the lead vocalist said to the small crowd when they first came out.

“This doesn’t bode well,” Laila said.

The guy never took off his sunglasses, even when the sun  set. The overweight bassist with the heavy eyelids seemed to be chewing not a piece of gum, but an entire pack at once, through their set. Judging by his girth, we all assumed at first it must have been food, a meal cut short that he’d decided to finish on stage. They were all in t-shirts and jeans or khakis, and they rocked out.



The second band, Miraya, or Mirror, was a bigger operation–maybe seven band members. A few of them looked like they could be in middle school, Greg Hefley bodies and all. They played a sort of Egyptian/Nubian/Reggae/Rock fusion. At times I could hear a little Carlos Santana in the guitar riffs. There were bongo drums and a guy on oud. They sang harmonies that would put any boy band to shame, and they smiled and swayed to their own tunes. You don’t appreciate a smile until you’ve been in a country where a lot of people don’t do it anymore, at least not among strangers.

We’re planning to hit the next concert tonight. Alexandria has more in store than I thought.

Bicycles and Cinema

7 07 2009

It never ends well, but like a battered wife, I go back to the bike rentals in Egypt again and again. I know someone is going to end up hurt, but what else is there to do? It’s not like they have parks or Barnes & Noble with a cozy little kids section on every corner. So we rent bikes.

Actually this time, Roofie wanted to rent a four-seat contraption, that was part  paddle boat, part bicycle and part tractor. The end result was something that looked like Fred Flintstone’s car.

We got in, Daddy Yankee and Roofie in the front, Juniper and I in the back. It was a bumpy ride, but everyone seemed to be having fun. And then a quick swerve to avoid what could generously be called a pothole, and Juniper’s foot got caught between the pedals and the ground. Her flip flop toreflipflop and her foot was blackened by the chain grease, except for where it was bleeding near the ankle. I took her in to the pharmacy (there is one on every corner) and asked for some hydrogen peroxide and cotton. I cleaned her up, and 30 minutes later, it was time for us to go see a movie.

Now, my mother has bragged about this movie theater for three years, since it opened in her subdivision. It is not much to brag about, except that once you pass the popcorn stand and go through a lobby, it is an open-air theater. So during boring stretches in the film, you can look up and gaze at the stars.

The movie was called Bobos, named after a severely obese boy who had a small role in the film. It starred a well-known Egyptian actor, Adel Emam, and one of the early scenes showed the 69-year-old at an outdoor party where, of course, a bellydancer was the main entertainment. And Adel Emam was smitten with her huge breasts and her legs, one of which a hip-high slit exposed in its entirety.

Cut to the next scene with the two of them in bed. As in most Egyptian movies, what they were doing in bed is implicit, but then the cops bust in, about a dozen of them, saying Emam’s character owes someone $10 million for some business transaction gone awry. He promises to comply, but first needs one of the officers to hand him the “G-string.” After picking up several objects in the room–a bottle with a long neck, a pink ball with an elongated tip–he finally comes to the red, lacy panties and hands them over, expressionless. Emam takes them and then asks for the “boxers.” The same confusion ensues, and finally when he gets it right, Emam shuffles out flanked by two officers wearing boxers wedged up his behind.

How this is funny is beyond me, but the crowd found it amusing. A couple of scenes later showed a business man on discovering  he’s just lost millions in the stock market,  shooting himself in the mouth, blood splattering in the back of his head. At that point I took Roofie and we walked out. We’ll hold out for the Harry Potter movie that comes out in theaters here in a week.

Michael “Mohammed” Jackson

5 07 2009

Our trip to Egypt involved three airplanes, the worst part being that I lost an earring that was irridescent blue. I blame that plush neck pillow (the one that looks like an inflated toilet seat) for pushing it out of my ear during an eight-hour slumber (thanks, Ambien!). On a trip when so many things can go wrong, that having been the worst of it is OK by me.

At the airport before we hit customs, we went through a screening for swine flu by people wearing surgical masks. A woman asked me to walk up to a yellow line, and proceeded to adjust a camera. I smiled big. Turns out she wasn’t taking my picture, just training an infrared device on my face to reveal my temperature. If I’d had a fever, they would’ve detained me.

The drive to my sister-in-law’s house took an hour and 10 minutes, though with a normal driver it would have taken 90. My sister-in-law, an excellent cook, gorged us on stuffed white eggplant, roasted chicken, rice with chopped liver and mouloukheya, a green, earthy soup that is slightly slimy in consistency but has a tender sweetness to it.

We awoke before dawn to the call to prayer, the athan booming in a staggering echo from several mosques nearby. It felt hot in the room, so that with jetlag made it tough to fall back asleep right away.

Daddy Yankee’s childhood best friend dropped in to visit. He is married with four kids. I remember his wife in a prior visit saying she got pregnant twice with an IUD in place. Doesn’t say much for Egyptian birth control. After he left, my nephew mentioned that his eldest son had fallen in with an ultra-conservative crowd who had convinced him that going to school was haraam, or forbidden. This was hard on his father, a high school teacher. The boy soon dropped out of school and went to work among some bushy-bearded fellows at a deli. My nephew claims to have beat him up, and the boy hasn’t been seen in town since.

Among the other discussion topics:

-My sister-in-law’s father-in-law, who is struggling with diabetes, Alzheimer’s and various stroke complications, says he wants to come to America to die. Even if the chance of his frail 80-year-old frame of surviving any kind of surgery are slim, he’d rather be abroad. He has no use of his hands or feet anymore. In his salad days, he had a reputation from traveling Europe chasing women. That booming voice he once had has been replaced by a tiny high-pitched mumble, barely understandable.

-Michael Jackson converted to Islam before his death and is demanded in his will to be buried according to Islamic law. My mother-in-law insists this is true. “He invited young boys into his bed,” I told her. She came back with a quick reply: “Who knows, maybe he repented before God!”