My fieldwork has taken a backseat the past couple of days. I’ve been very busy – going to the mall, going to the movies, going to see a comedy show, going on a guided tour of various historical sites of Egypt.
Let’s start with the mall, eh? There are a lot of different places to shop in Cairo, not just the famous and mostly touristic bazaar Khan el Khalili. You can buy vegetables and bread from donkey carts on streetcorners, fabric from a place called the Street of the Tentmakers, and there’s a used auto parts store somewhere in every neighborhood, mufflers and fans and whatnot hanging out front like freshly-killed chickens (you can get those too!)
You can also go to the giant mall City Starz which is right on the edge of town, where the desert begins. I’m not sure how large the place is but it must rival the Mall of America for size. It’s also one of the few places that young ladies can appropriately go to spend time with their friends unaccompanied by chaperons (is that really the right spelling?!) Consequently, just like the malls in America, it’s the place where all the teenagers go to make googly eyes at each other. I’m not sure if anybody even buys anything there. They just hang out in the hallways in big packs of boys or girls trying to get each other’s numbers – not mixed groups, usually, though they will flit over and speak to each other for a little while before retreating, giggling, to regroup and analyze what just happened.
Anyway, I was there with my friend Allison to go to the movies at the fancy movie theater. This theater has fully reclining seats and table-side service with a menu from the fancy hotel that’s attached to the mall. I think it’s a Sofitel or something. We had ice cream and popcorn and fresh strawberry juice, but we could’ve just as easily gotten chicken wings or a burger if they appealed (not such good foods to eat reclining, I find!) We went to see The Women, not a terribly inspiring film in my opinion, but I’m now spoiled for life in terms of movie theater amenities. Nothing else will ever be as good. I’ll just have to fly to Cairo every time I want to see a film!
The next night I went to the Arabs Gone Wild comedy tour; unfortunately I can’t find a website for the tour otherwise I’d put a link. It’s by some of the same people who did the Axis of Evil comedy tour a few years ago. Parts of the show were in Arabic; I only wish my Arabic were better because I basically had to twiddle my thumbs through that. But, just as I thought I was being extraordinarily lazy because I wasn’t actually doing any fieldwork…one of the comedians began dancing! He was doing a joke about how not to look like an idiot when you don’t know the words to a song, which involved miming dancing at a hip-hop club. The crowd went nuts when he started dancing, clapping along to the beat and refusing to stop clapping after the music was cut. So that proves it: my fieldwork is completely inescapable. Egyptians love dancing. Period. (Maybe I should just submit those two sentences as my thesis…)
After my pop-culture indulgences yesterday I tried to make it up by going on an intellectual guided tour to Saqqara, Memphis and Wissa Wassef.
Saqqara is one of the ancient burial sites of Egypt. In addition to some underground flat-top tombs it has one magnificent stepped pyramid and a couple of not-so-well built smaller pyramids that have now crumbled into piles of rubble. Our tour guide explained that some kings built really nice tombs but other guys just didn’t care as much, or didn’t have as much money, so they basically did a sham job of building the insides and then just covered the outside with finishing stones, so at the time they would’ve looked just as magnificent as the ones that are still standing but now that thousands of years have passed the shoddy workmanship really shows. There’s also an excellent view from Saqqara to the Bent Pyramid further south, which was my favorite discovery of the day. I don’t think the photos really came out, because it was difficult to capture the contrast in the light.
Speaking of contrasts one of the things that I find striking every time I see it is the shocking divide betwen the verdant fertility of the Nile valley with its abundant crops and trees, and the sudden – BOOM! – transition to the sandy desert plain. This is what it’s like: trees, trees, trees, cabbage fields, date palms, water buffalo, donkeys, fellahin (farmers), trees, trees, trees – DESERT! It really is that sudden!
Memphis, unfortunately, is just not very exciting. Actually the most interesting thing about going there was wondering how a city in Tenessee came to be named after such a tiny and archaeologically uninteresting site. The guide did tell us that Memphis was once the capital of Egypt but unfortunately they’ve been unable to unearth most of the artefacts one would expect to find for such a large and important site. It’s suspected that at some point the Nile changed its course and much of the ancient city is now buried under layers of mud, so they just haven’t found it yet. What we did see in Memphis was a huuuuuuuuge statue of Ramses the Second laid on its back and broken off below the knees. I vaguely remember from the guide’s talk that originally it was one of the largest pieces of stone statuary carved from a single block in all Egypt. The guide also told us that many of the other relics kept in the Memphis compound were not discovered there but carted from elsewhere in Egypt and dropped into what looked like a big and sadly uninspiring sculpture garden. It’s kind of like the auxiliary storeroom where they keep all the not-so-amazing archeological discoveries. But now I can say I’ve been to Memphis…the original!
Finally we stopped at the Wissa Wassef arts collective. I won’t tell you their story because the website provides a moving quote by the founder to explain the reasons why he started the place. I will say that they make woven carpets, batik fabrics, and pottery. The grounds and buildings are beautifully laid out; the whole place exudes an air of peaceful calm and soothing cool air in the afternoon sun. I would gladly have stayed there for hours watching the weavers and dyers work. I had the feeling that I’d stumbled into a landscape I remembered from a dream.
I’m glad that’s how we finished our day, because the memory of the serenity at Wissa Wassef stayed with me throughout the evening.