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Education from the Streets of Giza

A Street in Giza, Egypt
A street in Giza at dusk

"Where do you live, Hannah?" I asked.

"I live in Zamalek, but drop me off when we get to Sudan Street, if you don't mind." I translated her request so the driver would understand. Moments later, the last student from the day's excursion hopped out of the van and disappeared into the thick Cairo dusk. As the driver and I rode back to Haram, the sprawling district of Giza where we lived, I paid him and stuck the rest of the money in my pocket. In a friendly, conversational tone, the driver asked me a question that had been on his mind all day: "Why did you come to Egypt?" Of course, there were plenty of reasons, but I always hated that question. I assured him it was not to be a tour guide; I only did that to keep my finances afloat.

As we approached the intersection of Salah Hamza and Pyramids Street, I decided I wanted to walk for the last remaining bit to stretch my legs. Bidding farewell, I poured out of the van, legs weak from hours on the road, and checked my pockets to make sure I did not leave anything behind. Feeling the wad of cash in my left pocket reminded me how fruitful the day had been. A cool breeze picked up as I walked, and I breathed deeply. The day's earnings lent me a sense of relief; I should be set for another month, I thought.

With a bit more spring in my step, I crossed the street and entered the juice shop on the corner.

"Assab?" the vendor asked automatically. No, I did not feel like sugar cane tonight.

"Romon, low samaht," I responded. Tonight, I preferred pomegranate juice. Sugar cane would be around all year, but with winter approaching, pomegranates would soon give way to the warm, spicy, salsa-like Hummus Esham drink. The vendor slid a tall glass in my direction and a spoon to scoop the seeds. I scarfed the seeds, dropped a half-pound on the counter, thanked the man, and sauntered out onto the street, satisfied.

Teleteeni Street, though narrow, unpaved, and ridden with potholes, hosts the neighborhood market. One can safely assume that, at nearly any point during the day or night, there will be a traffic jam involving donkey-pulled carts, tuck-tucks (auto-rickshaws), bikers, pedestrians, and a Fiat or Peugeot. Surprisingly, this well-known fact does not avert traffic or entice pedestrians and motorists to use any of the numerous connecting streets; Egyptians are too social and never seem to avoid a crowd. I, too, enjoyed the commotion because the sensory overload exhausted me and ensured that I would sleep soundly.

Passing the local grill, where one could obtain delectable liver sandwiches prepared in the Alexandrian fashion served with pickled vegetables, I ran into one of the neighborhood kids to whom I tutored English. He was a bright and rather precocious fifth-grader. Yet, he cared more about passing the challenging standardized English exams than gaining proficiency in the language.

"Are you coming to my brother's wedding tomorrow night?" he queried. I assured him I would see him there. Then he asked if I watched Ahly play tonight and laughed. He knew that Ahly, Cairo's premier soccer team, won the evening's match, to my chagrin. My team lost as little Ahmed stood before me, relishing in my misery.

"Get out of here!" I barked in English and laughed. He grinned broadly, beaming with satisfaction as he pedaled off on his well-worn bike. He did not understand the words, but I knew he got the message.

Ambling down the street, I passed a fruit stand and a spice stand and bid peace to the two vendors sitting in front of a small, black-and-white TV, watching highlights from the night's game and sipping dust black tea. "Salaam wa baraketoh," the fruit vendor responded sincerely. Further down the street, I passed between a bakery and a café, walking slowly to devour the mélange of scents ruminating from baking bread and cakes, strong Turkish coffee, and the sweet mixture of molasses and tobacco smoked from water pipes. The aromas lingered in sweet harmony like the meandering melodies plucked from Hamza El-Din's oud.

A few yards further and to my right, the stench of decomposing trash and feral animal carcasses heaped in a mountain and left to rot waylaid me. I had been here awhile, though, and could withstand such manifestations of the cutting contrasts that characterize Egypt. I soon reached the end of a dead-end dirt street, and before entering the apartment building to my right, I stuck my head through the small hole in the brick wall to catch a glimpse of the Great Pyramids. The light of the bold half-moon reflected off the thick, ubiquitous smog that ensconced the jutting tombs, cast an iridescent luminescence that accentuated the pyramids' ethereal quality. Peeling my eyes away after a few moments, I entered the building and rang the flat's doorbell.

"Missaa ennour," Aya chirped in her welcoming, singsong voice. Though my host family gave me a key to the flat, I rang the doorbell during waking hours to warn the mother and sister that I had returned so they would have ample time to don their hijabs or some other article that would completely hide their hair. In public, Aml, the mother, wore a niqab, gloves, and other traditional Islamic clothing that completely veiled her hair and skin and obscured her figure. They considered me family by now and allowed me to see the married woman's face. Yet, I was always on guard against impropriety and took excessive precautions to avoid faux pas in a culture to which I was still fairly new.

Entering the living room, I greeted the family, who was engrossed in an Egyptian soap opera, except for the mother in the kitchen. They welcomed me, and Fathy asked if I was hungry and then if I had had a good trip and made lots of money. I was grateful to him for the idea of organizing day trips for the international students at my Arabic school.

At first, I was nervous about leading the trips because it put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. Many destinations I would take tour groups were as new to me as they were to them. Also, suppose I could not entice one classmate to come home with me to meet my host family and eat an authentic Egyptian meal, as was the case. How could I convince them to spend a day or weekend under my guidance in the desert or at an oasis hundreds of miles away? Quickly, it turned out, so long as I maintained the illusion of confidence. Ultimately, the arrangement worked out for everyone because I could stay in Egypt and study longer, Fathy could continue to draw rent from me, and the students could enjoy hassle-free sightseeing under the direction of a seemingly adept guide. Still, I did not understand the aversion that so many foreign friends had to venture across town into the buzzing banlieue of south Giza. Soon, I realized that many were fearful to tread in the impoverished and very un-Western suburbs where I lived because, unlike the affluent districts of Cairo where the international students lived, the English language and other foreigners were not to be found in this part of town. The irony of traveling to a country to understand the culture and language, only to live and commune with other foreigners rather than natives, perplexed me. Besides, I felt safer in the vigilante suburbs of Giza than I did in most American cities. My lack of sympathy for the unfounded fears of my fellow students estranged me from them. Still, that attitude also served me well, as witnessed by the fact that, after six months, I was studying Arabic in classes alongside those who had been looking there for two years. Facing my initial fears of the unknown early proved to aid my cultural and linguistic education far more than I could have foreseen. It had not been easy, but as I thought of the family and friends I had made here, I was thankful for having found the strength to jump into the heart of a culture and country alien to me.

Before dinner, I sat next to Fathy on a cushion on the floor. I read a newspaper article aloud while he corrected my mispronunciations. Shortly after that, Aml set dishes of camel and peas in a tomato-garlic sauce and pita-like bread on a section of the floor covered with newspapers. Fathy sat on the floor stiffly and asked, "Do you remember, this was the first meal you ever ate with us?" Indeed, I remembered. I met Fathy on the street the second day I was in Cairo while walking around with a tourist guidebook, searching for the big square, Midan Tahrir. Fathy approached to help because I was clearly lost, and he informed me that I was actually standing in the middle of the Midan Tahrir. He showed me around downtown and invited me for lunch with his family the next day. I accepted and soon discovered the family had an extra room in their flat. They asked me to live with them, and though I was skeptical at first, Fathy's happy family lent him significant credibility (much more than his pious Islamic rhetoric, sincere though it was) and allayed my fears to the point that I agreed to stay for a month and, if satisfied after that, to keep up an entire year. Never have they given me a reason to want to leave them.

After dinner, as we were drinking tea, Fathy asked in an uncharacteristically diffident tone, "You will go to the farah with Adel tomorrow?" I had already told him we were going to the wedding party together. "Just take care of yourself," he warned.

I understood his concern about my close friendship with his boisterous nephew. Nevertheless, Fathy equally understood that Adel taught me more about Egypt's street life and colloquial language than any school or other individual. Only nine months earlier, I had left a plane alone and practically helpless.

Francis Bacon once wrote that travelers who have no entrance into the language of the country they are visiting go as students rather than as travelers. Yet, I felt more like an infant than a student. Facets of life that I considered mundane in America resurfaced as considerable obstacles in Egypt. Given the absence of crosswalks and stoplights on eight-lane roads, I could not cross the street. Nor could I speak or read one word of Arabic. In a country with a tourist economy, no price tags, and no meters in taxis, one could lose a lot of money if they cannot haggle, and one cannot haggle if they cannot speak Arabic. Thus, I wasted a lot of money at the beginning. I also did not know what I could or could not eat, what water I could drink, or what was in any of the dishes I came across. Nor had it been easy to live in silence for months with a group of peers with whom I could not communicate. Eventually, though, I managed to break through the language barrier, and suddenly, it was all worth it. I had Adel to thank, in large part, for my success.

Adel had a huge heart, an empty wallet, an uncommon vivacity, a taste for liquor, and a love of hashish. At first, I tried to admonish Adel about his reckless lifestyle, enthralling as it was. Still, I refrained from judging him too harshly because I had not walked a mile in his shoes. Within a year preceding my arrival, Adel had lost his mother and his oldest, closest brother. Therefore, according to the dictate of custom, he married his deceased brother's widow, and they raised the late brother's child together. Adel also had to care for his father, who was elderly and in poor health. Also, they all lived in the same small flat because they had no money. Before this, Adel had served three years of compulsory military service, wherein he earned a negligible salary and spent more than half of his tour in jail for refusing to stand guard at the Egyptian-Israeli border. At some earlier point, he had also been driving drunk and killed a pedestrian. This is surprisingly common in Cairo, and though his legal punishment was not severe, the memory haunted him relentlessly.

As the following night settled in, I set out to meet Adel and his posse before heading uptown to the wedding party. Adel, Fady, and Mezzen were standing next to Mezzen's brother's shop, just outside of the dim light cast from the single street lamp on that block, passing around a couple of hand-rolled cigarettes and laughing at a punch line to a joke I missed. Approaching, I greeted them with the customary kiss on both cheeks and the derogatory euphemisms that set the youth apart from their elders. Friends were very close here and always happy to be in one another's company.

As we headed to Pyramids Street, where we would catch a taxi uptown, I struggled to keep up with Adel's long stride. Still, I managed, nonetheless, to articulate a string of disparate words I had heard throughout the day and required a translation. Adel, eternally patient, attempted to explain the meaning of every word with his limited English and started every explanation with the exact phrase: "Well, actually, there is no translation, but…" He would explain the meaning until I understood or clouded it with bewilderment.

Approaching the main avenue, we hailed a taxi and set off. We stopped at a liquor store on the way uptown, but before Adel jumped out, he instructed the driver to stay out of reach of the shop window. Everyone knew if the vendor saw me, a pale foreigner, he would double or triple the price of the bottle.

As soon as we pulled away, Adel cracked open the bottle of whiskey, took a hearty gulp, and passed the bottle over to the driver. We passed it around and shared it equally. Fifteen minutes later, I handed the nearly empty bottle to the driver who finished the last bit and chucked it out of his window onto the median while careening through heavy traffic. Abominable, perhaps, but I had to laugh at the other side of “cultural immersion”. "Smile," the old mantra goes, "you are in Egypt."

Pulling up to Menam Street, we jumped out, and Adel paid the driver with a brown substance resembling a Tootsie Roll that he had hidden in his mouth. Together, we stumbled through a maze of dirt streets until arriving at the bright, colorful lights and booming Arabic dance music that is the trademark of Egyptian wedding parties. I detected something faintly familiar about the area.

The party was beautiful, and the mood was exuberant. Those involved had blocked off the street, filled it with sand because of the numerous mud puddles, and crafted intricate sand sculptures that the entranced dancers promptly destroyed. Men danced together in one circle; next to them, women danced in another. An elderly lady passed around bottled soft drinks while two men tossed and twirled swords around another man who wielded a lighter and a can of hair spray.

My friends were occupied with other acquaintances, so I grabbed a seat across the table from an elderly man donning a traditional gallabeyah and a calm expression. The man smiled but did not speak, so I greeted him in Arabic, and his face illuminated.

"I have seen you before but I did not know you spoke our language." At this, I suddenly realized why the place looked familiar. A few months earlier, I had attended a funeral on this same block. 

"Last time I had little opportunity or inclination to socialize," I responded.

"How is this occasion different?" the man asked. Had I understood the question correctly?

"A wedding is a celebration, a joyous occasion," I reasoned.

"Is a funeral not a celebration of life?" he countered. I had not thought of it that way before.

He went on, "True, that boy died young, but life, no matter how long, is a blessing." He paused, then continued, "You have been blessed with two lives." What was he trying to say?

"When you were young you learned to walk, to speak, and to function within the culture that surrounded you," he explained, "Did you not have to relearn the same basic skills in this country? And has the arduous process of adaptation not augmented your wisdom?" The old man hunched over and continued softly, "Rejoice, you have grown up twice and still have your youth. Do with this opportunity what you can and, when the time comes, give those who survive you reason to celebrate your life. Your wisdom will assuredly outlast your youth." As I listened, it dawned upon me that this perfect stranger had succinctly answered the question for which I could never find a suitable response:

"Why did you come to Egypt?" I leaned back and absorbed the scene: families and neighbors dancing together, friends carrying on as usual, excited but nervous newlyweds with their parents who were even more excited and nervous, and a sagacious new friend seated across from me. Even the parents of the deceased boy looked on with a comforting air of serenity. How such harmonious elements comprise the chaos that is Cairo! Clearly, I beheld the reason I came to Egypt.

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