28 April 2008

Egyptian Culture and Stuff

A guide to Egyptian cultural stuff for the typical Westerner who doesn't know much more than what's in the newspaper:

The kind of Arabic they teach in foreign universities, the kind found in the Koran, is called fusha. It's completely different from the regional dialects, including Egyptian Arabic. They're sort of mutually intelligible. Sort of. You see, the idea is that God (a.k.a. Allah) dictated the Koran to Muhammed, and he dictated it in fusha. Therefore, fusha is God's language, and it's the only form of Arabic that can be written. The dialects are seen as a sort of dirty language, a corrupted form of the divine tongue. It must be horrible to think that your native language is wrong!

Arabic Numbers
It's funny, because we use a set of numerals (0, 1, 2, 3, etc.) that we call "Arabic numerals." But the Arabs use a different set, the Arabic-Indic numerals.

Just like there are churches around every corner in Europe, there are mosques all over the place in Egypt. Most have several domes, and they all have minarets, which are really big towers. The call to prayer happens five times a day, where speakers on the minarets let everyone know that it's time to drop everything and pray. It's really really loud, since the speakers blast from every direction. When we were at the pyramids, quite far away from Cairo and moderately far away from downtown Giza, we could hear it.

Most women have their heads covered. And they do get treated a lot better than women who are unveiled! Those who have "hard-core veils" (not the technical term) that cover everything but their eyes, or everything including their eyes, are almost revered. Technically, the veil is supposed to be optional, a personal choice. In practice, rich people may choose not to wear it, but anybody who isn't loaded will cover up.
Lori and I carried scarves (and long-sleeved shirts) so that we could go into mosques if we wanted to, but we were uncovered. Which was a little awkward, even though it was totally natural for us.

Class issues:
You find "classes" like beggars, workers, middle-class folk and rich people in any country. But in Egypt, you marry within your social class, and it plays a bigger role in life than we'd like to think it should.

The Status of Women:
While I was chatting with some of Lori's friends, they explained a bit about the problems with women's rights in Egypt. A woman becomes an adult at 21, but she can't travel (among other things) without her father's permission until she's 25. When she gets married, her husband is her legal guardian, and she has the rights of a child again. At 45, she regains the rights of an adult.
A man can divorce his wife without much problem, but it's a challenge for a woman to divorce her husband, even though she has this right in the Koran. In Egypt, a woman has only been legally allowed to divorce her husband for about five years. However, he'll get custody of the children, and their home, and she has virtually no power to change it.

It was quite hot! While I was there, it was around 90°F every day. It did, however, get chilly at night-- into the 70°s, which is enough of a change that it made it seem quite cold. Egypt has a short rainy season in November and December (the beginning of the short winter), and it may rain once or twice the rest of the year. In the desert, it doesn't rain at all.

Prices are much lower than in Western (strange term, since Egypt is in the same time zone as Europe) countries. However, this corresponds to much lower wages. Museums meant for Westerners seem reasonably priced, but when you think that a museum ticket could buy ten koshri dinners, that puts it into perspective. There was recently a scandal because bread prices tripled: what seems a pittance by European/American standards became unreachable for poor Egyptians.

The day I arrived in Egypt, the New York Times came out with an article about how noisy Cairo is. And every bit of it is true: people really do yell to talk to each other, from a mixture of speaking over the noise and having poorer hearing. Cars really do honk all the time and the call to prayer really is deafening. The normal volume of life in Cairo is like standing fifteen feet away from a freight train... all the time.

Traffic and Horns:
Traffic is fascinating and terrifying. Lane markers, if present, are ignored. A four lane street easily fits six cars across. Even at moderately high speeds, traffic is close to bumper-to-bumper. There seems to be no rule about who gets the right of way: taxis, private cars, buses, bikes, carts pulled by donkeys or horses, and pedestrians all fill the streets and fight to get to their destination. There are few crosswalks, so people dash across the street whenever they see an opportunity.
Horns are the general traffic signal. Since you pass from an infinitesimal distance, cars behind you wouldn't be able to see the signal. Therefore, horns do the job. Two or three honks generally indicates that you're about to change lanes or pass, but it could just warn other drivers that you're going to speed up, or warn a pedestrian of your presence, or serve as a wave for some reason... the list goes on. Single honks seem to be more of a method of letting people know of your presence, even if there's no need to. Most drivers (I am not making this up) honk at regular intervals, just as a matter of course. The short honks are usually about thirty seconds in between, and happen regardless of how many other cars are on the street. Imagine anything you do in a car: turn signal, speed up, slow down, change lanes... everything is accompanied by a honk in Egypt. I wish I were exaggerating, but I'm not.

I asked myself if Cairo is dirty or not, and I'm stuck. It's dirty in a way, because of the desert dust that covers everything. However, the waste control is excellent, and the streets aren't dirty in that sense. The exteriors of buildings are also kept clean. So it's a dirty city, but it's an inherent "dirtiness" that comes from the environment, one that can't really be controlled.

Cairo is a city where, if you see a "no smoking" sign, you'll likely see someone smoking next to it. There are very few non-smoking places, because it seems that all Egyptians smoke about two packs of cigarettes a day. As an Egyptian girl told me, "The city is so polluted, smoking doesn't change anything. At least this way it's my choice to put it in my lungs!" Our taxi drivers often chain smoked as they drove, and some offered us cigarettes.

Where are you from?
I mixed things up: sometimes I told people I was from France, sometimes I said I was from America. People usually reacted positively, especially once I confirmed that I liked Egypt and that it was my first time there. People were happy to have a chance to practice some English (I only found one who spoke French, and he seemed happy as well). The strangest thing, though, is what Egyptian vendors and taxi drivers and tourist police and... well, everyone... seems to think is a very funny joke. They ask you where you're from, and when you say America, they respond, "Welcome to Alaska!" It was barely funny the first time, and I heard it at least five or six times in my short stay. I wonder where it came from!

Sand and Rocks:
Sand is all over the place. And yellow.
Egyptian rocks are incredibly porous. Like a magnification of normal porous rocks, with fist-sized holes throughout the spongy-style rock.

Speaking of rocks, it's not actually certain that the pyramids were built by slaves, as most people think. Anthropologists think that that was a myth perpetuated by the Ancient Greeks. There are workers' cemeteries and records that suggest that the workforce was about half skilled laborers, and half unskilled, but paid, workers.

I'd mentioned before that you can sort of tell how much money is worth in a country based on how big of coins or how small of bills they have. Switzerland was frightening because coins worth five dollars are pocket change. In Egypt, there are bills worth five cents. That's encouraging. You get a lot more for your money in Egypt.

Gas prices:
I wanted to convert the current gas prices into dollars per gallon, but all the stations we passed had blank signs. They just don't post the prices on their signs, I suppose. Perhaps that means that gas is cheap enough not to care about, but perhaps it's just not usual to advertise the price on a big sign.

Stray cats galore, horses and donkeys still used for labor in the city, and a relatively small number of pigeons.

Cairo smells like a mixture of things: cigarette smoke, car exhaust, spices from things cooking, body odor since it's hot. Like all smells, once it's been noticed, it seems to disappear. They're not particularly pleasant smells, but they're somehow not unpleasant.

Pyramid Innards
Some people were curious if I went inside a pyramid: I didn't. I'm six feet tall, and the passages are half my height. Crawling around short tunnels packed with tourists didn't seem too appealing. Besides, only a limited number of people are allowed in the Great Pyramid each day, and that's the one that would be most comfortable to walk around in!

A Final Image:
The Egyptian Museum is to your right, a modern building made of rose-colored brick. Behind you is a busy street, full of honking taxis. Street vendors have their wares spread out on blankets on the wide sidewalks: most sell kitchy souvenirs like pyramid statues, but one sells wind-up toys and another sells hair trinkets. Three patches of bright green grass turn this cement area into a sort of oasis. The grass on one patch is short, on one it is long, and the third is in the process of being cut: a man sits in the middle, methodically pulling up handfuls of grass. Behind him, the grass looks neatly trimmed; he slides to his left to continue hand-trimming the lawn. He is halfway done with this patch.

That's Cairo.


Jakob said...


Kristen said...

I am simultaneously insanely jealous and EXTREMELY happy for you. Talk about a cool experience!

Next time bring me, OK?