March 2008


I know I only got back from a 12 hour bus-ride on Sunday, which was enough for me to have sworn off buses for many a week if not life, but the prospect of fresh air was too tempting. And besides, I’m never willing to miss out on any of the faculty trips that Louise organizes if I can help it. And so there I was, bright and early, walking to campus with a full backpack, ready to board a bus again. Not just a bus. The bus, the selfsame one that had me so tired earlier in the week.

This time the trip was shorter. Just 2 1/2 hours or so out to AUC’s Desert Development Center (DDC). Everything anyone ever wanted to know about the DDC is on the AUC website for it so check it out:

AUC Desert Development Center

I just have a few images to share. First, this one:

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So, I know there’s nothing remarkable about a bunch of people in the woods or a forest, but people remember, We’re in EGYPT! Desert are the norm here, and maybe oases with date palms and the like. But a pine forest? But that’s the beauty of a research center I guess. You create forests in the desert (if you peer through trees carefully you may actually discern it in the distance. It actually felt like a real pine forest in there, cool and shady, with the right quality of green. Normal nosmic people (as opposed to my anosmic self) said it smelled like wet earth.

calves.jpgThe second photograph, is again, probably not remarkable to you all, but these two calves were so cute, I just had to put in a note about them. They are barely 3 days old. Just beginning to walk and wobbly on their feet. If my first cell phone had not gotten lost I could have (tried) to do a short film to show their baby steps. Their knees are still knobbly and they are still white in color, with an almost slick sheen to their hides. They are still fed by their Mommy cows, thought said cows were nowhere in sight at the time, being that they were off stuffing their own faces. The better to feed you with my dear! Moo

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Egyptians are Bollywood crazy. Specifically, and by far, they are obsessed with Amitabh Bachchan. He’s their first reference to anything Indian. My very first independent, non-school outing in Cairo, to a corner grocery in Garden City, enlightened me to this fact.

Where are you from? the rather young — teenager maybe, twenties tops — guy behind the counter asked me.

India, I replied, (as I always do to keep things simple).

The inevitable Welcome, welcome in Egypt later, he went on to say, Very nice people in India. And before I could respond to that remark, he followed up with, Do you know mitabachan?

The word (it was said as one) sounded vaguely familiar, but I dismissed the thought – after all why would a non Hindi-speaking young man in Egypt ask about an aging Indian filmstar who is (well lets face it) somewhat past his prime now? Granted I had loved him in my teen years – wept for him in Sholay and with him in Deewar and Milli and Anand, sighed over him in Abhiman and Silsila and Kabhi Kabhi, delighted in Amar Akbar Anthony, Don, and countless other like roles, and oh sung along with songs that featured him, but all that had been in the seventies and eighties.

But indeed that’s who was meant. Amitabh Bachchan. We love Indian cinema in Egypt, the grocery boy told me. Especially mitabachan. Sholay. At that point he may have hummed a few bars of some song or another — Yeh Dosti … or something. I was too stunned to respond. Just grinned nodded collected stuff and left.

A few days later, it happened again. This time I was getting a massage and it was my masseuse. Again, a bit younger than I expect Bachchan fans to be these days. After all in India, its Abhishek, Amitabh’s son (and Aishwarya Rai’s husband) who is the hearthrob these days. But these Egyptians know the real article evidently, for she asked me the same question: Do you know Amitabachan?

Her pronounciation was slightly better — there was actually an ‘A’ at the beginning though it was still said as one word. Well not exactly…but I used to watch his movies, was my weak attempt at humor. Which was totally lost on her.

I LOVE that man, she said with a dopey look in her eyes and much emphasis on the word love. Evidently many Egyptian ladies feel the same way. I hear that traffic was blocked for hours all around the airport, the one time he visited Cairo.

Bollywood mania doesn’t end with the Big B. Oddly enough the next most frequent reference I’ve heard is the movie Sangam. Which is even older — I’ve heard that it was the first movie my parents went to as a couple. There are also questions – this bit is hearsay – about Shah Rukh Khan and from the guys, about the blue-eyed beauty Aishwarya Rai. But no one has reached the state of superstardom as Bachchan ji. Which, I must confess, is how I think things should be.

My Arabic tutor, Nagla, who also works as a subtitler, though not for Hindi movies, asked me about Bollywood as well. She asked about Sangam first, but then of course about Amitabh as well. The next bit was even more of a shocker — you know there is one movie, she told me, I forget its name but it had three brothers.. they got separated…

Surely she didn’t mean…but yes… she did. Of the hundreds of Amitabh flicks (no that’s not an exaggeration) she asks about one of the two DVDs that I had actually brought with me here. A-A-A. Featuring Anthony Gonsalves himself. The next class I took it in for her, and 2 days later she had already seem it — the whole 3 hours in one sitting and in the company of her daughter-in-law.

Never in a million years, would I have guessed that Amitabh Bachchan and not a purple rose would be my icebreaker in the marketplaces of Cairo! Live and learn. Or as it might be in Bollywood-ese: Abe bachchu, jiyo aur seekho!

I figure it’s time I uploaded pictures of what it is that most of us come to Egypt to see … the pyramids. Granted I’ve put one photograph in my header, but still, it’s high time I gave them more attention.

First, Giza.- the original wonder of the world, an impressive pile of granite rubble that’s perhaps the world’s earliest recorded tourist attraction. As a historian of science I should know. Herodotus wrote about them in his Histories. He, by the way was the ancient world’s Bill Bryson. A traveler and a hell of a good storyteller. Try him out sometime. Actually if you haven’t yet, try them both out. It’s no longer possible to gaze at the pyramids while one is barging, sailing or otherwise traveling along the Nile, (if I could I’d warble out the tune right now but I’ve still not figured how to upload music) but if you could this hazy image below is probably what you’d see. Wherever you see them from, they are every bit as impressive as I had hoped. Time has not robbed them of their beauty nor etc. etc.

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Now, I know I’ve said this to various people at various times, but I’ll put it down here for the record. The pyramids of Giza were at least as far removed from Cleopatra in time as she is from us!!!! Amazing isn’t it? The fact hits me anew every time I see them. My first sight of them was actually during a car ride to the Carrefoure on a very very hot day in August. I remember having a beastly headache from the heat (not even the sun actually) but the moment I saw the pyramids silhouetted– first 2 of them and then the third, little one — was was the first time I felt that I had really come to Egypt. Until then I was just in a hot dusty city that reminded me a lot of Delhi, but without its peculiar perks (chaat and Fab India being the top of the list of the latter). The second time I saw the pyramids was also from a distance. This time it was the top of the Muqattam cliffs, on what many Egyptians declared was the “clearest day in 10 years.” That was also the day I saw the pyramids of Saqara for the first time, also from a distance. Dashour was not visible.

The actual visit to Giza was – as so many of my experiences here in Cairo have tended to be – a faculty trip organized by Louise. The weather was still beastly hot but that didn’t really matter – I couldn’t go in anyway, though I certainly would have if I could have.

02.jpgThe biggest of them all, although it doesn’t necessarily look so in the picture that I put on the header, is the tomb of Cheops or Khufu (I prefer the latter name because that’s what Mahfouz used in his title). It’s the pyramid with the conical tip blunted, but despite that it is still dauntingly and impressively HUGE. It really is hard to wrap my mind around the fact that it was constructed some 5000 years ago, by sheer human labor. And for what? To ensure that some ruler immortality? To quote the commentator from my Mahfouz volume about the same Pharaoh,

Hubris surely never matched.

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A few weeks ago, I went out again to Giza with my Dad for the sound and light show (a hokey experience in many ways but visually quite impressive) in which they projected an outline of Westminster Abbey drawn to scale on the Great Pyramid just to give some idea of the magnitude of this structure. Nothing like a good comparison to drive a point home. Here are some of my attempts at imparting some sense of scale.

For instance, a friend is standing at the base of this picture, the top of which did not even reach a third of total height of the pyramid:

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^^^^^^^

 

 

I call this next one “Asterix and Obelix,” which comic books by the way, have my point of reference for all things Egyptian since I got here. To my mind Asterix and Cleopatra is the best one of them all — of a very fine set of all, I might add. Anyhow, here are my pals whom I’ve labeled after my favorite comic-book characters. Be sure to notice the scale. Obelix there (to NOT give him his real name) cuts quite an impressive figure in person, but even he looks pint-sized against the backdrop of these boulders.

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Here’s one of the whitetop — whitetop.jpg the white (alabaster? limestone?) is said to have once covered the entire pyramid, but was scavenged by successive generations of looters for their own use. This pyramid was built for Khufu’s son and successor, whose name escapes me, but which I’m’ sure either Joschka (Bruce’s son, now in Iran) or William & August (Courtney & Jenni’s kids) supply at a moment’s notice.

No real pictures of the little one I’m afraid, just the one up above to give a contrast to the bigger ones.

To finish up the pictorial tour of Giza, here are some images of the Sphinx, a figure that always stirred my romantic imagination. The idea that centuries together most of this figure was buried under the sand and all that was visible above the sand was a huge head, always gives me a shiver of excitement. The painting by the one guy,with that very image, is one of my favorites. The pics here provide a pan of the Sphinx so to speak. Photo of the Sphinx’s ass provided courtesy of friend and colleague, Yasir Khan.


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Imagine stumbling upon that when you’re wandering in the hot desert sands. This patch of blue and green was several miles away from the the town of Siwa, and completely surrounded by sand as far as the eye could see in all directions. Any wonder that people thought oases were just a product of their fevered imaginations, sent by the devil to exacerbate their thirst and desperation? I have a whole new appreciation for, and not limited to their humor, Thompson and Thomson of the Tintin comic books to whom I’ve paid tribute in the title of this post, when they were arguing about whether or not they beheld a mirage or the real deal…

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The previous post describes the first stop during our Easter-weekend trip to the Siwa oasis. It’s been a long time since I’ve consciously written a poem, in rhyme or out of it, partly because of late it just felt too affected to write that way. But in the case of the El Alamein cemetery, it was spontaneous. I had composed the poem with the photos (or at least the lupine photo) in mind while I was still walking there. So coming back and typing it out was just closure.

As for the trip itself — It was a getaway for AUC-ians organized by Louise, our faculty services person without whom I don’t know how we would function. Siwa, our weekend destination, is an oasis in the Western desert well west and somewhat south of Cairo. It lies in what at is called the Qattar depression (deepration in the unique Egyptian-spelt version of the word). Actually Siwa is closer to the Libyan border (within 20 miles) than to any city within Egypt itself, and has its own distinct language (more similar to Berber from Morocco than to Arabic) and culture. It has Greco-Roman tombs, temples etc and some spectacular desert scenery, and the very interesting ruins of an old city on a hill. To get to it (road is the only way as far as I know) It’s about a 10 hour bus journey through the desert. We first head North to the coast to a town called Marsa Matrouh which functioned (and still does I suppose) as the Mediterranean gateway to the Qattar depression.

Given the huge distance, Louise had very wisely broken the journey out into two legs. The first day we only went as far as Marsa Matrouh and had the later afternoon/early evening to chill by the sea. The sea being the Bahr Abyath as the Mediterranean is called in Arabic, which translates as the “white sea” as I learned the just last week in my Arabic class.

On our way to Marsa Matrouh some 3 hours or so after leaving the outer limits of Giza, we stopped at El Alamein, where my Arabic lesson was corroborated at the local military museum. A very strange museum it was, rather hokey actually with life-size wax figurines of soldier forming a huge part of the display but also newspaper announcements, armaments, army equipment and outdoors (thought I didn’t bother to check them out) tanks and other desert vehicles. The exhibit legends were interesting, not so much for the information they imparted, as much as the anthropological and linguistic interpretations they offered. It was here, by the way, that I learned the word deepration.

At Marsa Matrouh there was a nice hotel with a private beach where the water was bracing (okay, so that’s just a euphemism for icy!) with a million grades of the colour blue — enough to rival the attention the word gets in an Aussie dictionary! — ranging from the misty greyish hues to the deepest midnight shades (which, as I learned from Elissa, is called Copenhagen) to the shades of teal and turquoise (both green and blue turquoise) all of which are commonplace to the seas but never fail to please my eye. The one blue that was missing was the Tutankhamun blue (the color on his coffins) but no matter. The aforementioned Elissa’s toenails were painted that colour. This is the beach where we had the episode of the whale calling the porpoise blubber!

An indifferent dinner, a very nice walk and some cups of tea later I was ready for bed, with my roommate for the trip — Phyllis, an ELI teacher and one of UCSC’s earliest graduates, which makes her a fellow banana slug. Next morning we boarded the bus for Siwa, by which time we had established that Ryan was a Scrabble fan and since I’d had the forethought or blind luck to bring my travel version along, three of us had a game en route. Elissa the supposed beginner in the trio creamed the two of us. In Siwa by lunchtime, we visited the oracular temple after lunch and had some grand views of the oasis and surrounding hills. Too hot for much else, I spent the evening, after a brief dip in our icy-bracing pool at the lodge, sleeping the sleep of the innocent and exhausted, and resuming said rest after a brief waking for dinner. Oh and I bought dates and olive oil — different varieties of each — when I went out into town (a block away from our Paradise safari hotel) for a brief pre-dinner run of the town.

More about Siwa town itself later, including pictures, but I should say that it has a fascinating history and geography. The next morning was a special sunrise drive.A fraction of us on the trip woke up before the crack of dawn and while it was yet dark drove out with our driver across the dunes to watch the sun rise and the moon set. The sights over the desert were well worth a view, but the real point of the drive was really the ride itself. Like a sand-based roller coaster only better. Up and down the dunes we went in those four wheel-drives, with no discernible landmarks as far as I could make out. The slopes were step enough to seem almost vertical at times and we’d go speeding down these things like we were so many crazy teens. The scariest moments were not when we went but those when I saw our companion vehicle behind or ahead of us! “Wait a second? I was that a minute ago????”

The rest of day 3 was just as busy. Returning after sunrise and those crazy roller coaster rides in the dunes, we set off to visit various sights –the mostly-melted city (I’ll explain the word melted one of these days) of Shaali, a carpet factory and the mound of the dead. The afternoon took us to the “springs”, which seems to be the local lingo for pools. Not the famous, if misnamed, Cleopatra’s bath, misnamed because the Cleopatras may never have actually been in Siwa, but another pool several miles out of town. Shy (who me?) at first, or rather, self conscious about changing in a male-dominated landscape — until we arrived at the springs there was nary a woman in sight — I first followed my colleagues’ suit and dipped my legs in the water. Heavenly cool – not cold – it was especially in contrast to the heat of the day. I was jealous right then of all the male of the species who could strip and dunk with impunity. The gaggle of schoolboys who were cannon-balling in and out of the spring really had me turning algal green with envy. But then Elissa brave soul, literally took the plunge, and so happily I too followed suit. Very quickly removed my outer layers of clothes and got into the water. Sheer bliss. Later I learned that this action by the ladies — Mia joined us too — elicited some semi-creepy reactions from some of the other folks in the area. Photos were taken, and I suspect that one of these days I may appear with grafted parts and what not in some Egyptian porn flick or rag. Oh well! The water was heaven, and therefore worth the uncertain price, methinks.

Despite the exhausting day (we had climbed a fairly steep mound in the blazing sun earlier) I felt no need to sleep this afternoon. Lolled around with a cup of tea and after dinner went back into town. The ruins of Shaalli looked beautiful by night. A few small things later (scarves and a carpet-bag or sorts) we checked out this out-of-the-way tea house called Nour-something-or-the-other (thank you Mia & Rashid for this discovery and recommendation) where I sat back pasha-style in Arabesque cushions in their veranda and sampled a date milkshake. A lovely finale to a nice day full of new experiences.

This past weekend we visited

the WWII memorial grave-site for the Commonwealth soldiers

at El Alamein.

And curiously enough, despite my usual reaction to such monuments —

a blasé distaste for the glorification of what I think of as mostly pointless violence and killing

I’m usually more sympathetic to such anti-war statements as Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” —

I found myself touched when we visited this place.

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Perhaps it was because these men had been so young.

It felt sad to think that they had all died before they had reached

the point in life that I’m at now (and I’m nowhere near old yet)

At their age they should have been in college worrying about mundane little things…

What to eat for breakfast or whether to shower or sleep in before work.

They should not have been fighting in an alien land – hot harsh and unforgiving –

when they died.

Perhaps also, it was the fact that this memorial did not tout any one country over others, but was for all soldiers en mass.

Most of the dead had belonged to England and many to France,


(There was a moment there when the familiar cynicism about war kicked in when I read the inscription that said something about the British Empire but even that feeling bleached and faded away in the sun)

But I also saw a headstone for a Polish soldier and for one from South Africa

Didn’t see any Indian names in the rows that I glanced at, but surely there was at least one?

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Amid the rows of headstones I saw two things that especially touched me

One was a lone flower by the gravestone of a young private named Day.

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Somehow the sight of this lone blossom

(I call it the lone lupine, though I may be wrong about the flower)

flapping in the desert breeze under the harsh unrelenting sun

brought to mind the word valiant.

Yes, it was the sight of that valiant blossom struggling against all odds in the desert

that touched me most about El Alamein

It seemed such a fitting metaphor and tribute all in one for the soldiers buried there.

Metaphor did I say?

Not quite, for while the soldiers did not survive the odds

the lupine may, and I hope it does.

 

~~~~~~~

The other sight, equally touching and at the same time uplifting was that of a crooked tree.

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Planted somewhere between the rows of headstones,

it was bent over so completely to one side

that it appeared almost as if it had bent over

for the express purpose of offering its shade to the three soldiers who were buried there.

And that gesture of kindness touched me, for I can think of nothing so desolate

as the feeling of being alone and friendless and thirsty and hot in an unfamiliar land.

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