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Journal to Alexandria

Part III

6 July 2003
Cairo, ~2:10pm Tulip 34

Approaching an understanding of Egypt from rather wide nescience, I note today how I search for books on various aspects to read, and find myself surprised and glad by the really decent English language bookshop in the American University of Cairo; but I note how seeing the large number of books – “popular” and academic – how the academic books to me bear the presence of a cemetery, worse than Dante’s hopeless hell in ways. (It is not so orderly and tres-passable as the 9-levels (+) of the Inferno, but it is rather like some noetic-necropolis, and one will rather die in exhaustion and tedium of details and minutiae (“bad infinity”).) Egypt is alive around me, but to keep it so I must try to avoid it being killed by objective “science” and academic agnosticism (agnausia). The Western intellectual world is an arid, dark, spider-webbed world of rarefied, erudite but deadly specters. Beware – it kills the enthusiastic soul. Enlightening; but deadening.

~3:30 pm

Even a cemetery – to continue the thought after a nap in the AC-ed room – is less dead than – or less deadening – than much academic “scholarship” and minutiae.
My lunch was $1 in price, since I ate at a main street, small Egyptian “pita” shop to which Hossam had taken me yesterday. (He needed to go home early for his family today, so we parted ~12, rather than 2:00 pm. Quite ok with me, as I can read, shop {books, and…} write, be alone till 8pm.)
We went this morning to a set of Coptic churches. Thoughtfully planned as it is, we went there at a Sunday service time. First we visited the well-kept Egyptian Coptic museum – the building itself to which is attractive in Islamic style, esp. the roofs, and see-through windows. I don’t much like museums out of in situ, but I got some images of objects, structures, designs, etc. It was interesting to see the Arabic-written gospels, and Coptic church related books and texts. Hossam – in addition to stories he, in relation to what he perceives to be the misinformed, ignorant or malicious writings on how the Christians (and there are more Copts he notes) and Muslims of Egypt do not get along, somewhat defensively spoke of how this was also a good example of how these two religious communities lived together well side by side now (and often, if not always, in the past). Another example is his Christian friends. The first Coptic Church, the “Hanging Church”, we saw was smallish, but old. I saw some 10 minutes of the service, though I was not “hit” by any of the “holy-water” thrown by the old priest amidst all of the 100 or so men, and 100 or so women who had gathered near the central (of three) aisles for this. Upon entering I espied a nice place in the back to the right to stand (Hossam – who did not enter – felt it perfectly natural that I – though I myself hesitated qua tourist and observer – to go into the service, which I did) moving to the unoccupied place to the right, with a good view too. Inside the “sanctum(?)”, I noted how all the persons in the church were women. Until I looked to the left and saw that all the persons in the church were men, to which appropriate side I quickly moved.
People dressed perhaps only a bit better than otherwise. Lots of women with exposed hair. Casual dress really. And chatting. One chewing gum. Certainly not silent reverence. Perhaps the whir of the several needed fans of the wooden roofed interior superstructure also added to the mixture of sounds with the priest’s “chanting” – reading – to make the church alive with noise. Probably the most Egyptian women I had seen without head-scarves hiding their hair. Some attractive faces too. But all were what one would understand to be those who are believers, by tradition, need, desire, disposition, or whatever. Security at these state-supported museums, of their national heritage was rather earnest. The museum we saw alone with a museum man who spoke simple English naming the displays contents. Only as we left were others entering. Our trip through the museum was quick and superficial – but thus I did not get tired – as I usually find I do in museums.
And then…
We walked to the nearby, larger circular church – which I later confirmed to be the Church of St. George. (Mir girgis). Hossam almost entered, but retreated when he saw people making the sign of the cross (a few young people; others did nothing; chatting, touching the glass of the icons). He was quite firm about what to do, or not. And retreated calmly and decisively to wait outside.
I entered expecting little, and after my eyes adjusted [to the dark from the bright daylight] found myself looking up to a cupolad ceiling of a color I had never seen in a church before, and which I soon saw to be a color with which I sympathized, especially as I further noted the dark rose stone-marble columns, 8 (holding the main cupola of Christ the Savior). The Church was not well lit. Was the large central hanging candelabra lit? I don’t recall now. But the deep green-blue (azure?) etc color (with stars and a few winged angels) and columns and walls and shadows presented me with the first church I can ever recall really liking. I realized this was perhaps the first “church” the colors (especially) and harmonious, symmetrical, circular design of which I felt “mine”. Serious, solemn, silent, somber. There were few people there, and we were permitted to only enter a small area near the door of this church. I plan to return there.
Last night we went to one of the oldest areas of Cairo – Megharbeleen. There we walked through the crowded, rather poor shopping area of rather old buildings. 1400s. Hossam said time and again, how there was continual living there for centuries. A sign which I read – “We love tourists and refuse terrorism” which I noticed as we sat in a fully Egyptian coffee area (smokers, etc, there), led to a small talk with the small shop owner, who spoke good colonial-British English. He said that Bush may, due to his stupidity, bring down the American empire, as the Roman, French and British had been. He turned out, on my asking the source of his good English, to have been a professor of history at the university, who had been forced out. [These signs, he told me, had been put up, in English and Arabic, all along this bazaar’s lanes in Cairo by the (often poor) shop owners, after the killing of the tourists in Luxor in 1997 by Islamic militants apparently financed by Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden.]
I am off now via the Metro to that church again.

7 July 2003
4:14 pm, Cairo, Tulip 34

I am not feeling fully well physically – but whether it is due to the heat, or lunching too late after a modest breakfast of bread/butter and jam, or – as is certainly related – something I did or didn’t eat, so that…
Anyway, I have a long rest till 9:00.
Last night we went – at my choice of two – up the Cairo Tower (1961–) for view and a soda (alcohol is not served in the Moslim country, especially to Egyptians!) We went on the open observation deck for a few minutes – I correctly found the location of our hotel before Hossam – who in fact made an error which I just let pass – till I finally showed him the Tahrir [Sadat] Square, then where my place must be. Descending one level to the cafe area, we sat rotating around while talking about how an Egyptian/Muslim (~) man finds a wife. Two hours talking. Maybe 4 revolutions, all that I heard was informative and interesting. And I have had some thought-insights as to “social man” – who is carried, as are 99% of the people I see here, by tradition and culture. Islamic mores. Not very liberal with the women indeed. Of course, these people could not be other than they are, as they were born here – though the Christian people seem to have greater freedom, especially for females?, than in the Muslim tradition.
Hossam swears that there is no street robbery by knife or gun here!? This does not compare well with the USA. Hossam comes indeed from a poor family. Normal, but poor. His brother is a “seamster”. I pay him 2x his monthly income. (Things are rather cheap. Lunch of fish – pike – calamari, salads, rice, water, cokes for 2: $6.) I am not sure whether he can “get ahead” – as he must at least be a manager for this, and his family has no connections in this way. I believe some of my friends or others shall also have him as a guide someday. His commentary is not pushy – but he is proud of all things Egyptian. He has never traveled, though he does have acquaintances from other countries. He is a good Muslim – if a quiet one, and I estimate not very strict. Muslim tradition seems rather conservative, and ethically unambiguous concerning most life questions and affairs. And ‘the Koran is from God, not Mohammad’ of course.
I had occasion to mention my father’s death in the crash – he made no further query – but said it was “Allah’s will”. Here I hear in Cairo in 2003, what I heard in 1965 in Mobile, Alabama. The first, earlier, from a Methodist; the later from a Muslim. “God” – “Allah” is our personal human meaningfullness. Hossam would not write “God Willing” in Arabic on a piece of paper, if I would throw the paper away.
I spend several hours each afternoon in my modest two-bed “cell”, which I AC [air-conditioned] in this time.
Today we went to the Abdeen Palace – where alone we walked through the museum with no other visitors. An Egyptian general (retired?) adopted us, and escorted us, surprisingly striking with his hand the well-kept, well-laid exhibits and displays which were related to the USA – of which there were a good number – amidst that of the other major countries – near and European. It was a sort of prestige Egyptian museum – with space, in my view, wasted on commemorative plagues, and things, to remember some meeting, visit, conference, project, etc. The weapons in the museum – esp. the “guns” were surprisingly interesting – but these rooms of commemorative plagues, I just pretended to find interesting. I was the only guest, and American at that, so I tried to be a good ambassador, or perhaps an ambassador of the good, since I also find much of American foreign policy and activities, reprehensible and self-interestedly imperial. The general seems to have thought at first sight that I was a famous Egyptian actor who had a beard and moustache for a movie. He was friendly to me, honoring to us “VIPs”, and I tried to be well-behaved, in spite of my short pants, to all the museum staff.
I see that not only in Russia, but here too in Egypt, my personality, face, deportment, etc, bring me good reception and perception.
Check email daily after lunch. 3 Egyptian pounds per Ѕ hour [about $0.50]. From N and LT in Moscow; PA in Hamburg; JB in Washington, DC.
Standing on the Nile Palace bridge last night ~ 11:00, with the delightful breeze blowing, amidst the summer eve-holiday crowds, watching the lit and unlit boats coming and going – esp. the feluccas – with their sails, was a pleasant moment.
Need to jog, but layed awake to late.

By Stephen Lapeyrouse