Friday, June 21, 2013

Egypt: The Good, the Bad, and the Beledi Part IV

This month we are featuring a special series - our first ever guest blogger.  The lovely Malia shares with us a four part series on her recent trip to Egypt.  This week's post is Part IV and the finale.  You can also go back and read Part I, Part II, and Part III.
The time spent in Cairo is all a bit fuzzy for me (see previous sections about lack-of-sleep, immense stress, sleeping pills).
We spent time in Khan el Khalili and I got to witness what a true barter looks like.  Ali was a force to be reckoned with.  He had the vendors yelling words, in fits, but always got us a good price.

For lunch we had Koshary, the Egyptian version of Mac n Cheese (without the cheese).  It’s my favorite Egyptian dish.  Pasta and something crunchy with some strange spices.  Whatever it is, it’s yummy and I highly recommend it.

We visited Muhammed Ali Street, once a great place full of famous belly dancers, now run down.  Fortunately Khamis Henkesh’s store still stands, a tiny, closet-sized place filled with the most beautiful drums.  Khamis passed away earlier in the year, but we did get to meet his sons Ahmed and Reda. They drummed for us while we danced.  Amaya and I walked away with a new tabla each and I also bought a riqq that I don’t know how to play.
To be honest, the rest of Cairo is a blur.  I know we ate some more food.  We did some more sightseeing.  We got to see where Ali’s father lives and say hi to him. 

The feeling on Cairo was one of heavy-heartedness.  We did not see many smiles.  There were not many people hanging around and having a good time.  Cafes and restaurants were sparsely occupied.  It all felt very somber.  One of our lunch destinations had the news on.  As soon as it began speaking of the protests and our heads turned to pay attention, the owner turned it off.  People definitely tried to make us feel that Egypt is a wonderful place, and everyone wanted us to invite our friends and family to visit.  They wanted us to ignore the bad; Egypt needs tourism to boost its economy.   Many Egyptian men I spoke to are unhappy with the President and want him removed.  They worry about the Brotherhood taking over and making Egypt even more conservative and oppressive than its current state.  They worry for their children’s futures.  I worry for their children’s futures.

Abu Sir
That night, our last night in Egypt, Amar wanted to take us back to Abu Sir and show us his town and a local belly dancer.  As Ali drove to the hotel that Amar was to pick us up at (on the cusp of Cairo and Abu Sir), he kept saying “Oh this is a dangerous place.  I do not like this place; it’s not safe.”  Ali picked us up in a car that had been in his family for over 20 years.  He kept remarking about Cairo “Oh this is a dangerous place.  I don’t like this place and it is not safe for you.”  City boys versus country boys; I think they are the same anywhere you go.
We first had dinner with Amar and his mama.  We ate until we were full then Mama said “Eat! Eat!” so we ate more.  Then a little more.  I was stuffed but she really makes amazing food so I took a few more bites.  Lots of vegetables, bread, rice, potatoes, and a delicious fresh tomato salad.  After dinner we headed upstairs to meet Amar’s wife and newborn son, both beautiful.

Amar took us to the Internet Café that he owns.  On the way, he let both Amaya and myself try to drive his car.  It is stick-shift and we are on a narrow road next to a ditch.  That made for unique entertainment.
In Abu Sir, the buildings you see are all laid brick-by-brick by the family themselves.  This Internet café had a pool table, a bar, shisha, and a Jolly Roger flag.  It had a lot of personality and I loved it.

Afterwards we set out to find a local club with music and belly dancing.  The first placed we arrived at was really cute but alas, no dancer.  Amar drove along looking for an open place until we see one with stringed Christmas lights out front and a flashing sign.  We enter and head upstairs where we are seated at a table by the stage.  There is one other table with two men drinking a lot of beer.  Up to this point, we have not seen a single person in Egypt drink alcohol.
Amaya and I order a beer and shisha; Amar says his dad will kill him if he drinks.  The waitress brings two boxes of tissue to our table and begins a very intricate routine of cleaning each glass with several pieces of tissue paper.  She folds yet more tissues to lay in front of us, then angles the box of tissues just so.  It was a very meticulous and interesting thing to watch. 

Our waitress is the first woman in Abu Sir I have seen that is not covering her hair and she continually hits on Amar throughout the evening.  She is also wearing tight black jeans and a skin-tight Sponge Bob Square Pants shirt.  There are a few other women in the club dressed in similar fashion with lots of make-up and eyes marked by drug use.  They were extremely wonderful hostesses and attended to our every need.  Despite their hospitality I was concerned about being in a Cabaret and kept thinking “my belly dance teacher would not approve!” At one point Leilani excuses herself to the loo, only to come back a few minutes later and inform us that there was a woman in there with a very long silver knife.  I must admit that at this point, I’m a little scared to be there.

Eventually the band arrived and played music for us, and they tried to get us up to dance.  We declined, though looking back now I wish I hadn’t.  Our waitress belly danced for us and she was amazing.  She wasn’t quite beledi and wasn’t quite orientale.  I feel like her style of dance, and perhaps the class of cabaret dancers that she represents, could be a missing link between the two styles I know so well.  Her movements were fluid, internal, and gooey with sharp quick accents.  She danced very flat-footed and without much arm movement.  When she didn’t like what the band did, she’d shoot them a glare and they would change.  She was amazing and inspiring.  I learned more in the 15 minutes watching her dance than the entire 6 hours of training I had paid for.  If I go back to Egypt, I would like to return and dance with her.
Finally we head back to the hotel and say goodbye to our friend Amar.  He and his family are amazing people not soon forgotten.  I hope our paths cross again.

Goodbye Egypt
The next day we pack our things and make our goodbyes to Marissa and Victor, who are staying a few more days to explore.  We say goodbye to Ali and head to the airport.
Leilani and I travel together to Vienna for a one-night stay.  Vienna is such a culture shock.  Everyone is in stilettos, fur, and has perfect hair.  The taxi cabs are brand new Mercedes.  Our 3-star hotel is immaculate and the water is hot.
Though exhausted, we head downtown to the Hotel Sacher for their famous Sacher Torte and a capuccino. The coffee was delicious; the torte disappointing. 

The next day we fly to NY.  You would think my story ended here but not quite.  We are homesick, exhausted, jet-lagged, and still trying to make sense of our ‘retreat.’ As we enter JFK, the room is blasted with news of the Sandyhook shootings.  Welcome to America.
I have a layover and stay with Amaya that night.  The next morning I pack my bags and head to the airport, only to realize I’ve missed my flight.  I have a full-on breakdown, in the middle of the airport, complete with sobbing that involves a lot of snot.  I was a hot mess and I just wanted to see my husband and children.  I cannot express the depth of my emotional distraught.
Because I had booked my Seattle-NY flights on rewards travel, I would have had to wait another two days to get on a flight.  I bit the bullet and bought a new ticket, then headed to the bar.  The waitress gave me a double of Patron on the house.
I landed in Seattle and found my husband and children waiting for me.  Once again, a breakdown ensues.  I had never wanted to see someone so badly.  The smell of my children and the arms of my man were all I needed to feel safe again.  It’s good to be home.
It has been 5 months since that trip.  As of today, I am not inclined to visit Egypt anytime soon.  The political situation is unsteady and the country is hurt.  I saw women walking around town with black eyes, I spoke to several Egyptian men that want the Brotherhood gone, and I felt like the death-culture of Ancient Egypt was all around us.  The infrastructure is non-existent and the people are suffering.
That being said, there were many beautiful things about this trip.  Meeting the farmer in Fayoum, the palace guards dancing Saidi, the local sewing women, breadmaking, and especially the cabaret dancer.  The government may be in turmoil but the culture is fighting to survive.  Though this experience was nothing like what I expected, it has taught me so much and I’m grateful for the lessons.  It was an adventure.
Malia is a dancer, instructor, and troupe director from Bothell, Washington. Specializing in Oriental and Egyptian folkloric dance, she enjoys the self-expression and community that belly dance creates. Malia is married with two children.

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