Coptic adventures


The image of streets full of once-beautiful buildings now with crumbling facades overlaid with layers and layers of grime, usually within a hop skip and jump from a river that wends it way placidly northward, ought to make the identification of this city a no-brainer for anyone who has spent more than a day here. But if it doesn’t, might help to recall sounds rather than sight. The cacophony of car horns blaring with scarce thought to the need or usefulness thereof, punctuated by the plaintive tones of the call to prayer some five times a day should be a giveaway. Walk to the banks of the aforementioned river – the Corniche as any road running by it or any other body of water (e.g. the sea) is called – and pay the gray-gowned man for a ride on one of his wind-and-oar powered sailboats and within seconds the sounds of those cars recede. If you happen to have taken the boat from the area that functions as the city’s downtown then across the river you can see the geometrically-shaped domes of the Opera House silhouetted to the west. Depending on the time of day (or night) those domes may appear yellowish or starkly bright…

Of course, anyone who has read pages from this site would recognize the “where” of the above paragraph: Egypt, specifically Cairo, where I happened to at the time of the first Tahrir square uprising of 2011. In this case too it was a writing exercise based on Writing from the Senses, the sense in this case being that of hearing. Although re-reading the passage I find that despite the supposed focus on sounds,  there is more there about the sights. Which just goes to show what visual creatures we humans are for the most part.

But here’s another memory of sound: Imagine it beginning as murmur from a sea of people, gradually growing in volume and fervor as you draw nearer to the source. It had a definite rhythm too, one I can still hear in my head, but only try to replicate in spacing out the syllables (think of it, :in a ba-boom ((1) ba-boom (2) ba boom, (3)ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom

El-sha’ab

Yo-ried

Iskat el ni-zam

I am not fluent enough in Arabic to break the meaning down by individual words, but the overall meaning, loud and clear to anyone hearing them, was crystal clear. “The regime needs to go!”  As indeed it did on the night of February 11, 2011. It was a heady experience to bear witness to this piece of Egyptian history, and, as I have likely said in an earlier post, profoundly moving. For me personally, the signature moment was when a guy in Tahrir Square who was part of a contingent bearing a poster with Mahatma Gandhi’s picture. “Where are you from?” he asked me and when I told him I was Indian he beamed, shook my hand,  directed my attention to the poster and told me: “See that? We want what you have, and one day we’ll be there too.” I nearly wept with the combination of hope, pride and joy–in him, in Egypt and of course in Gandhi.

Well, it’s now nearly 7 years since that “Arab Spring” and pride and joy do not figure high in my list of sentiments right now on much (except when it concerns my darling nieces, but this post is not about them). Certainly  when I felt like weeping on the matter of Egypt, the tears are not of joy. For as everyone knows–the promise of the uprising gave away to chaos and piling problems. But I still have hope, only in tiny sparks mind you but its there. Because I know from history that 7 years is a minuscule drop of time against the backdrop of Egypt’s history. No country has got democracy “right.”–not India which has been at it since the middle of the previous century, and certainly not the good old USA. But at some level, I believe that is the point. Democracy is not static or definable, and really the only truly successful democracy is one that adapts and changes according to need, much like evolution.

But I digress… Am sleepy and losing steam and so will sign off now on this my belated entry for week 5 of my resolution (#48).

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A long time ago by blogosphere standards (8 years), I posted a fantasy about rendering Naguib Mahfouz’s story of the ancient Egyptian Rhadopis of Nubia into a Bollywood film. A recent viewing of the spectacle of Bhajirao Mastani immediately brought back memories of that post because it gave me ideas for those roles – the main characters as it happens – whom I had not fantasy-cast earlier. So …  I stand by my earlier line-up for Amitabh, Amir and Tabu as Sofkhatep, Tahu & the queen, Nitocris (I really do need to re-read those books again, if only I could find them), but with Irfan as a fine almost preferable alternative to Amir.  After watching Bajirao Mastani I want Priyanka Chopra as Rhadobis.. no contest. She’d be playing the opposite character from her BM role come to think of it. I also think that Ranvir Singh would fly as the Pharoah, although if one gives in to Egyptian preferences then the other Khan (Shah Rukh) would work as the Pharoah too as would Kajol as the queen because she really looks exquisite but at the same time older than Priyanka. The innocent Benamun and his physician father? Still uncast in my head though now I’m thinking a shaven Sunkrish (currently  Vikram Singh on Castle who also happens to be my cousin) might fit the bill, since he’s too young to be a Pharaoh to the queens that I’ve chosen. Another alternative is the kid from the Life of Pi. Om Puri would be a super cameo as the father  but the role isn’t meaty enough and any of the others might do (even the venerable ‘mitabachan in a double role).

Any takers-on for this project?

P.S. Om Puri died since I wrote this post, so there’s that fantasy gone with the wind or the khamsin…

 

The following is an expansion of a book review I wrote for Amazon and I thought it apt for this blog, which has been untouched for many a month (or is that years?) now. The book in question is John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels about Venice. (I’ve indented the part from the Amazon review and then reverted to my own ramblings):

Two may be a small sample size to make a fair generalization but I sense a pattern to Berendt’s books. First, find a city with character, whether by accident or design. In very different ways and for vastly different reasons Savannah, GA and Venice both certainly fit that first requirement. Any place with character has its fair share of characters (of the human variety) and so, the second thing to do then, is to find them, talk to them and get to know their stories. For Berendt, a career writer and editor, that would be second nature. Finally, loosely weave the personalities and stories you find around some central event that is/was important to the city. In Savannah it was a murder and its aftermath. In Venice it was a murder (maybe?) of a different sort. Fire – negligence or arson the jury is still sort of out – was the form this murder took and the victim was La Fenice, Venice’s opera house. Voila! you have an interesting mosaic of vignettes and profiles that makes for a charming & quirky book.

Berendt pulled it off both times, I think. I have visited both cities more than once, but in both cases before reading his books about them. I think I would enjoy going back with his book in hand (disguised in my Kindle no one need ever know!) and scope out some of the locations he’s mentioned. Then maybe one day I can write a following-in-his-footsteps sort of book.

Interestingly – and here I take off on a Berendt-esque tangent – one factoid the author didn’t mention in his book or if he did I missed it, was the metaphoric significance of La Fenice’s name. Fenice is Italian (unlike Venice which isn’t but is rather the Anglicization of Venezia)… but I digress again. Fenice means phoenix, that legendary bird which dies by fire and is reborn time and again from its own ashes – and how apropos is that for this opera house which has been resurrected from it ashes more than once in its history?

Another thing Berendt failed to mention is Venice’s title of La Serenisima, something I picked up from my avid reading of Donna Leon’s Brunetti books. Leon is another absentee despite the fact that the book is chock full of expat personalities (maybe Leon is not enough of of personality as she too busy creating others for paper).  But these are minor quibbles about an otherwise immensely enjoyable read. It’s also a read that has inspired me to read Henry James, who is also mentioned frequently by Leon as the protagonist’s wife’s hero. And Berendt mentioned one of James’ shorter works, The Aspern Papers which apparently bears some uncanny parallels to the real life story of Ezra Pound’s papers and his lifelong love-not wife-Olga.

As to my my own literary aspirations? What city would I pick if I had to write a Berendt-style profile? Well Cairo obviously comes to mind with its glorious character and accompanying caste of characters, many of whom I am delighted to call my friends. But then again that’s the very reason I couldn’t write this book because pinning them down in print as it were might be such an awful invasion of their privacy. But yet, Cairo is the place, as I described to a non-Cairene friend of mine, where the people i knew and sat and enjoyed coffee or other libations with, are literally characters you would read about in books! Only they’re real. Salima, John Swanson and Hoath come to mind immediately from those near and dear to me, but also a few others who are larger than life and twice as natural, personality wise. And then there are those to whom I have positive antipathy – in code now so as to avoid slander charges, but friends in the know will be able to guess – include the ubiquitous A (a.k.a. Big Ears), the slimy dead-ringer for KFC’s Colonel Sanders and how can I forget the equally slimy wannabe-bitten Meatloaf wannabe? But ‘nuf said…

So, having steps one and two of the Berendt formula, what of the third? Some central event around which to build the book. Well for most people that would be the no brainer right? After all, I lived in Cairo right through the Tahrir-square demonstrations (and still have an unfinished “revolutionary diary” post that may yet see the light of day!) But here’s the thing about that. The revolution (for lack of a better word) is still ongoing and is a serious story, not one for amusing and whimsical vignettes, though Cairo is a source of the latter in spades! Also given my laxity over this and other blogs, is it ever likely that I’ll get a non-work related book to a publisher? Fat chance! Meanwhile though here’s a snapshot that distills the essence of that Cairo for me:

One year after the resignation of Mubarak I went back to Cairo for a short visit. For part of the time I was staying at the the apartment of my dearest friends there, right downtown on Sherif Street. One of his balconies overlooks the Ministry of the Interior, where one could see tear gas and men in uniform lined up with shields to protect the place from (justifiably) angry mobs. Looking out the wall of windows on the other side (90 degrees from the to give a sense of orientation) one sees a part of the city with pedestrian alleys lines with tables where local men and tourists used to stop for aahwah (coffee) and shisha. Well, but for the tourists the place was still the same! regular still sat around table smoking shishas and sipping coffee like the world wasn’t falling apart just a few corner away!

(I put crumbling rather than falling there first, but then realized, crumbling facades are very much a part of Cairo’s natural landscape and thus nothing for the shisha smokers to think much less worry about). So there it is, the heart of what makes Cairo live up to her name of El Kaahira, The Undefeated. No matter how much things change, there is a core to her that will endure, much like her pyramids!

Sunday, Feb 13… Reading my last post, I can’t believe how the moment determines the mood. I was so elated then to have gotten the job, that the reality of leaving Egypt never hit me. Especially since I had known coming in that AUC was a terminal 3-year gig. But 3 became 4 (which I confess I regarded as a personal defeat albeit one with perks) and then 4 cut down to 3-1/2 because of the offer from Yonsei. And now reality is biting big time! I am sitting in the airport with this giant lump in my throat, unable to cry but feeling oh so blue! …

Feb 19th…

Well, I interrupted my lament for pleasanter activities such as chatting with friends and boom! It’s a week later and  I’m in Seoul after a 2 day detour in Istanbul which was instructive and interesting and may prove yet to be fruitful. Seoul is freezing cold, in comparison to both Istanbul (which was plenty cold in its own right) and Cairo naturally. 3 full days in (I arrived Wednesday eve.. nearly night) I’ve fought jet lag, discovered many small and inexpensive places with great eats, paid a brief visit to the main campus of my new employers – where I will NOT be teaching – and lets see… what else? met a few of my new and very pleasant colleagues.

Am missing Egypt like crazy still, and I daresay the intensity will pass, but really I need to chronicle the last few weeks there before the immediacy of those memories fade. A blow-by-blow account of the revolution which I was privileged to witness is certainly in order and I will write about it. What a time to have left. But at least I listened to my inner voice and delayed the departure until the 13th for which I’m sooo…. grateful. Not only did I get a few last extra days with everyone (and if start naming them I will start blubbering…), but I also got to experience first hand, the stepping down of Mubarak. Talk about a (nearly) bloodless coup! I am proud, so proud of the Egyptians for what they’ve achieved and in such exemplary fashion. I’m truly privileged to have been a part of it albeit as a sympathetic foreigner.  And be it on vacation or insh’allah in the capacity of a visiting scholar in the years to come, I will, to quote Schwarzanegger, be back.

 

… as opposed to back biting, is a perfectly legitimate activity. Especially when the subject in question issued the invitation to “Bite me” in the first place. Uh.. no thanks, I’ll pass.

Believe it or not, “Bite me,” is actually the title of a new food column in The Caravan, AUC’s weekly student-run newspaper. In and of itself the title wouldn’t be offensive or more than just mildly  ribald, since it’s a student paper and one assumes that its staff is peopled with college kids: freshmen, sophomores and the rest. So the humor in it will be understandably enough, sophomoric in nature. The title “Bite me,” with its mild sexual innuendos is sophomoric. But the column is being written by a faculty member. One of my colleagues at AUC, whose name, I shall for various and obvious reasons, leave blank. And that changes the tenor of things somewhat, in my opinion (or imho as some people would prefer to say).

Because somehow, I find the idea of a teacher inviting students to ‘bite me’ just a tad inappropriate. Even if it was meant as a joke, it is inappropriate. Okay, so I’ve worked for newspapers and know that the writer isn’t the one who necessarily comes with the the headlines or titles. But I also know that the writer has input. And the very fact that a faculty member is writing for a student paper means that he can have a say in the title of his column. As it is, the title to me suggests that the writer is trying too hard to fit in with the audience. I suppose that means he’s trying to be sophomoric, and if that was his intent, kudos. He managed it with flying colors. On the other hand, it is just a little bit pathetic.

In more ways than one actually. Two installments of the column have been published and both show the author taking cheap shots at someone else. In the first the target was Omar Sherif’s son, for buying and successfully running a restaurant where the author owned and operated one of his own and ran it to the ground. Two of them as a matter of fact, though the author didn’t mention that little factoid in his column. What he did say was that the son of OS is successful where Man Kai, his own restaurant failed,  was because he panders to the crowd and shows no imagination in the menu and spends all the money on decor. Man Kai was too avant-garde, according to its former owner, Japanese-Italian cuisine with offerings like miso pasta apparently too out there for Egyptian diners. It diverted all its money to the food and kitchen, he claims, and nothing on decor (except perhaps, as he let slip in a momentary slip of self-contradiction, its bathrooms). I would have sympathized on that point, because I like culinary innovation and twists on themes as much if not more than the next person and don’t think that decor should get higher play, but according to some of other colleagues who were reading the paper last week, it was a patently false claim. The main reason the earlier restaurant failed was that the food was exorbitantly priced, said more than reader of the column, most of whom joined me in alternately hooting with laughter and cringing in embarrassment as they read their way through the piece.

One could say that success is the best revenge against petty pot shots, in which case the owner of Trattoria (as the new restaurant on the premises of the restaurant formerly known as Man Kai  and then as Sand) can read this article with a smirk, for his place is doing quite well. Ever the contrarian, I visited the place a few nights ago, when it came up as a choice of eateries, in a complete act of coincidence not long after I’d read this article. I thought it was okay as Italian restaurants go outside of Italy. Nothing spectacular, granted, but quite nice really. Certainly not deserving  of the disparagement our columnist has dished out. And what’s more the experience did not empty my pockets.

I’m not so sure if the target of the cheap shots from the second article would smirking if he read the piece on koshari, but then again, why would anyone outside of the AUC community be reading The Caravan at all? And even if he read it, would he care that a former colleague actually organized his schedule to avoid  him just because he ate koshari by himself. (I didn’t get that – if anybody else reads the column and can explain the connection between the solo eating of koshari and the lack of friends, please enlighten me). The only thing that was suggested as a possible reasons for avoiding someone after koshari was related to flatulence, but why would flatulence be experienced only eating it alone as opposed to eating in with company?? As I said, do enlighten me if you have any ideas.

On the matter of avant-garde food I feel as a foodie I must interject my reaction – that Japanese-Italian doesn’t seem quite that innovative to me. Sure, it could give rise to interesting combinations, but really why such a specific pair of ethnicities? If one were adventurous for real then surely the mixing and matching should have drawn from a larger pool of possible cuisines? After all there’s nothing specific about the stuff we get here that lends itself to Japanese cuisine, over say, Thai, Chinese, Indian or even Brazilian or Mexican? When I commented on this fact to my friends who have been here longer than I have, I learned that it was the ethnicity of the talent (read hired help) that was determining the menu. So much for being imaginative!

Back to the issue of embarrassment, cheap shots, lies, and sophomoric humor aside, there are other causes for it in this endeavor (i.e. the food column) that I could point out. Sloppy editing for one. And inaccuracies for another, opinions stated as fact.  And oh! Just in case I forgot, references to food porn. Apparently a carb overload of the type provided by koshari is food porn. Or if it it is not he doesn’t know what is. Now, that was a comment I found about as outlandish as his claim that falling in love is a group activity. Say what ??? Yes you read right. The author of “Bite Me” claims that falling in love is something to be done in groups.

Maybe he has experience in these matters? As far as I know or have experienced falling in love involves 2. One person falling for one other. Even one more than that makes a crowd. But not according to the wannabe-bitten author, who even as he issues his invitation to bite, is fondly playing his fingers over a knife. I kid you not. In case the words didn’t tell you enough, there’s the picture to add a thousand more to your experience. Readers beware, like all good columns, this one comes with a photo of the author. Only his is more than the standard mugshot. Fondling a knife resting on his lap, he beams benignly (or so one hopes), bestowing his good wishes to the world at large. If you can stomach it, more power to you. Bite him, not me.

No, this is not the title for a spin-off for Vikram Seth’s wonderful novel A Suitable Boy, though it could be. And maybe should be. Maybe some day? Meanwhile, here’s the story that set off this post:

images-1

Out shopping at the spice market last week, I needed to get some dried coconut. Now, although I’ve been here for three years, I have to sheepishly admit that my Arabic is not very good and though I’m able to get by at the markets, I rely a lot on visual communication, body language, pointing, hand-waving and even pure guesswork to get the items I need. In my defense, once I do find the item, I always ask the guys for the Arabic word for it. Invariably I’ve forgotten it by the next visit and I have to enact the entire pantomime again, but some of the words do stick and over the years through tiny, very tiny increments my vocabulary has grown. In this instance it was the Indian husband. Which is the literal translation of the Arabic word (or at least the of Egyptian dialect, Ameya)  for coconut, Goz el-Hind. Hah! the next time someone asks me why I’m not married (and believe me, even now some people seem to think that such intrusive personal questions are fair game if you’re Indian and single) I should probably tell them I already have an Indian husband at home. After all I wouldn’t be lying would I?  I usually do keep a stock of dried coconut at home… in my freezer.

Jokes aside, this is a great mnemonic because coconuts do feature prominently in wedding ceremonies back home. In fact, as I remember, a coconut is even used as the proxy for the man in certain ceremonies if the guy for whatever reason can’t be there. Coincidence, or does this tradition (or the perception of it) lie at the foundation for the Arabic word? Maybe a factoid worth researching, but that’s a subject for the Rhetoric and Composition class I am teaching this semester.

p.s. Coconut photos courtesy of downloads from Google Images

It’s how I’m feeling these days.

For those of you who haven’t been keeping track of time, this is my sixth and hence, last semester in Egypt. Yep that’s right – I arrived here in August 2007 on a 3-year contract which is coming to its end. And am I ever in a state of panic since I still have virtually no clue as to where I’ll be come September! So far out of the gazillion applications I’ve had tons of outright rejects, one campus visit (in Pune, about which I’m not precisely clear what’s happening) and one first round interview – I won’t say where but if I get it .. OH MY GOD!!!.. it would be fantastic – and few pending ones a new round of applications that I’ve begun in desperation.

Actually  it was completing one of those applications (I’ve spent the better part of today on it but got it off just in the nick of time (hopefully – and grammar police note that I mean I am hopeful) that promoted this post. This application was not a letter – which is somewhat simpler if annoying – but required a 2000 word project proposal as well a sample syllabus for a course that I could potentially teach based on my research. A lot of work which actually turned out to be very interesting, which fact bodes well in a way, because it means I will actually enjoy working on the project should I ever get going. Which vindicates my choice of the unattractive-to-potential-employers history of science as the area in which to pursue a Ph.D.

But I can’t enjoy myself on an empty stomach — as all off my fellow foodie friends will attest to heartily – and there are days here I’m waking in a panic wondering what the hell I’m going to do if I don’t land a job for next year. Any job, I’d say except the prospect of another stint in an Oh Where-like place is almost more daunting than having no job. So friends and well wishers send your good feelings my way… and even though I’m not a believer in The Secret, I will bless you all and treat you all to a good meal when that dream job is mine.

More venting later. Have to go shower now

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