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Monica Dispatch

Learning How To "Walk Like An Egyptian…"

Far from doing the "walk like an Egyptian..." in the streets of downtown Cairo, Abeja and I oftentimes pretend we're superheroes and stride boldly across the street, hoping the multiple minivans, taxis, mopeds, cars, city buses, tour buses, bicycles and donkey carts don't hit us. During our first day in Cairo, it seemed, one of our greatest challenges was crossing the street safely--even when we have the green pedestrian "go" sign, vehicles still zoom through. And here I was thinking it was all desert, camels and pyramids!!!

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Abeja bravely goes where no Trekker has gone before - across a Cairo street!
Although Cairo does have these, metropolitan Cairo, known as Al-Qahira, "The Victorious", since the 9th century, hums with energy. It is a gigantic, lively, vibrant city, estimated at 20 million inhabitants: a quarter of Egypt's population. And all of them seem soooooo friendly. As Ahmed in the internet cafe told us, "Egyptians are very flexible; they might disagree with you, and shout very loudly, but then they want you to come and have tea with them." I guess in a culture five thousand years old; with multiple conquests by the Pharaohs, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, and the Turks; people have learned to be patient interacting with each other. Or at least they're watching out for each other on the roads! We saw a man balancing a huge tray of bread, eysh, as they call it, (eysh also means "life" in Arabic) on his head, while ringing the bell on his bicycle and deftly swerving through traffic. Wow!!

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A birds-eye view of all the brightly colored fruits and veggies!
Speaking of eysh, I've been eating a lot of it lately. You know how much I love different kinds of food. We've already found Ibrahim's lunch shop down the street. Every day we order different sandwiches made of ful; a mix of fava beans that tastes like Mexican refried beans; tahini, a sesame spread that's yummy with lettuce and tomatoes; baba ghanooj, which is mashed eggplant and tahini, and, my favorite: falafel. When we returned to Ibrahim's store for a meal after walking past it a few times, Ibrahim put his hands out with his palms raised and said, "alHamdu lillah (thanks be to God)!" He and his brother always answer our greeting, "es salaem alekum" (peace be on you) with a cheerful "wa alekum es salaem," (and peace upon you) and then heap up our plates with sandwiches and torshi, a pickled mix of carrots, turnips, spicy eggplant and onions. Each sandwich costs 50 piastres: about 17 cents US.

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The lively markets stay open after dark.
We drink freshly squeezed fruit juices to wash down our lunch. These little fruit shops display piles of mango, banana, orange, and pomegranate, where people go to socialize and sip cool drinks. On one of our excursions, the "Abeja Power" shined through: Abeja and I were walking down Sharia Talaat Harb when she did a double take and said, "Monica, come over here." She had seen green and brown glass bottles of lemonade, with an emblem of a honeybee on them (Abeja means "honeybee" in Spanish). We decided to stop for some of these fizzy sodas and were sitting on the plastic chairs inside when all of a sudden a crowd of people seemed to appear, waiting for a frothy, greenish drink served up in big glass mugs. Abeja and I were confused, until two pairs of friendly eyes met ours, and two girls our age motioned for us to try one of the mugs. "Asab sukkar," one of them said, handing a glass to me.

The Arabic language, as I wrote about in my dispatch about Arabic from Morocco does not have a standard way to translate into Latin text like what you're reading here. Because of this, as well as influence from both the French and the British, different names and places will be spelled in our upcoming dispatches in different ways. For example: on maps we've seen the same suburb spelled "Doqqi" and "Dokki," but pronounced Do'i (swallow the middle syllable). I guess the only real way to understand the pronunciation is to learn Arabic! But in the meantime, we will try to get the sounds across to you all.

"Asab sukkar," she repeated. I tasted it and it was sweet, but with a flavor like chlorophyll or wheatgrass juice. I looked in our handy Egyptian Arabic phrasebooks and found out that it was.....Sugarcane juice!!! Behind the counter were stacks of sugarcane that would get squeezed out in large quantities. I found out later that the taste turns bitter if it sits too long, so you have to drink it immediately, which would explain why all of a sudden all the others in the store were also drinking asab sukkar with us.

Mona, who is 20 years old, and her friend Wafaa were speaking to us in common English phrases. "Hello. How are you? My name is Mona." With the help of our phrasebooks, we then proceeded to introduce ourselves to each other. It was hilarious with all four of us grabbing for the books and trying to find the right words. Right on! Girl Power! Watch for our upcoming dispatches on our Egypt theme: "Gender Roles and Representations," where we'll be meeting other women and girls like our new friends.

After we finished our juices, Mona said to us, "River Nile! Come, river Nile!" Abeja and I looked at each other, shrugged, then grinned. Welcome to Cairo, I thought, as we all linked arms, then headed down a side street towards the Great River that has shaped and created the civilization that is Egypt. While different communities probably arose along the river, just like in the River Niger in Mali the Nile River and its annual summer overflowing of its banks led to "basin irrigation", in about 3400 BC, where teams of villagers would dig irrigation canals to "catch" the water and use it to cultivate crops as the water receded. This kind of steady access to food sources supported larger and larger settlements, leading to the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt, which the king Menes unified into a strong state.

I remembered a saying that some passengers in the Morocco train to Meknes had earlier told Jasmine and me, "One who drinks the waters of the Nile will return to Egypt." Down by the river's banks; which today aren't sandy or grassy, but are instead paved with concrete, surrounded by mega-hotels, buildings, and highways; Mona bargained with a ferry owner for a short trip on one of the boats that go up and down a small stretch of the river. I looked down at the dark-gray, slowly moving water, and thought that maybe I wouldn't drink straight out of the river but would be drinking out of the tap while I'm here--does that count?

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A Kodak moment! My new friends, Mona and Wafaa, joined me for my memorable first voyage on the Nile River
We finally climbed aboard as the sun was setting and set off for our first trip down the Nile, the longest river in the world at 4266 miles. The ancient Egyptians had an image of their country as a lotus flower with the Nile River and its valley as the lotus's stem. In our upcoming dispatches, you must remember that, opposite of the map, the land known as "Upper Egypt" is actually further south, by Sudan, because the Nile originates far, far south, even as far as the big lakes in East Africa. Cairo, where the Nile eventually reaches the Mediterranean Sea, is where "Lower Egypt" ends. Just a tip for further reference!

During our twenty-minute ride; Mona, Wafaa, Abeja and I exchanged addresses and phone numbers; talked briefly about our families back home; and finally decided to have lunch the same day, next week.- all in a mix of Arabic and English!! Usbu=one week. Ghada=lunch. Hidaashar=11 o'clock. "Enta meen," (Where are you from?) they asked, as well as "Eh hiyya mihnetik?" (What is your job?). They pointed to the Arabic script in our books, and we tried to answer as well as we could.

"Ana..." I started out, trying to say "I am..." but then I couldn't find "educational writer for a website for students," so I just said, "mudarrisa" (teacher). In Arabic, the verb "to study" is represented by the letters d-r-s, pronounced "daras". The word "madrassa" (school, like the one I visited in Djenne) and the word "dars," (lesson) all come from this root, as does "mudarrisa," the feminine form of "teacher." Ahhh, it all starts to come together.

After watching different ferries pass by with jangling colored lights strung up on them, as well as loud Egyptian pop music, Abeja and I were glad for the relative peacefulness of our ride and the company of our new friends. As the sun set, we heard the call to prayer as we reached our destination, a platform on the other side of the river. Saying goodbye to our new friends, we set off back to our hostel, glad for such a hospitable welcome from the great city that is Cairo. Perhaps by the end of our stay we really will be "walking like Egyptians!"


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


The Team - Memphis: The Ancient Capital of Egypt
Abeja - Introducing Egypt's Living Dead
Jasmine - One Step at a Time: Egypt's First Pyramid
Kavitha - Many Streams, One River
The Team - Poltics as Usual in Algeria
The Team - U.S.-Libya: A History of Tense Relations
Making a Difference - Just Do It
Making a Difference - The Parthenon

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