12 June 2005

i am back from egypt. in fact, i have been back from egypt since wednesday night, and it is now sunday. unfortunately, i am lame and cannot be bothered to make anything very coherent out of my egypt-impressions. i will begin by saying that egypt is physically vast, experientially extreme and altogether overwhelming for a non-arabic-speaking person, where by "person" i mean specifically "feminist sort of woman hailing from the american midwest."

cairo, home base for all of the various excursions, was the loudest, dirtiest, busiest, most crowded city i have ever seen. i say that with only love in my heart. [perhaps mostly because cairo was not the scene of the most energy-sapping stomach bug ever experienced by a human. but more on that later.] paul, whose advance work for this trip was insanely formidable and who deserves some sort of medal or at least a heap of money for his organizational efforts, showed us everything we could have wished to see. particular highlights for me included qaitbey mosque (where you can climb the minaret and look out over the scary chromatic uniformity that is the city of the dead), the mosque of sultan hassan (inexplicably beautiful) and a seventeenth-century merchant home with some of the most beautiful latticework (mashrabiya) i have ever seen.

lowlights include painfully dirty air and the constant stream of sales pitches and random comments to which i was subjected (see "feminist sort of woman" above) while walking down the street.

there is a lot to say about my reactions to the role(s) of women in egyptian society, but i'll skip most of it because -- really, i try not to kid myself too much -- i can't claim anything approaching a knowledgeable, or even realistic, opinion. what did i personally witness? i personally witnessed a noisy, gregarious society where the noise and gregariousness seems to the be the province of men. women are not publicly invisible, but they often seem publicly silent. maybe it was just me -- my unveiled head or my eyebrow ring or my dirty, dirty feet -- but it seemed to me that even in women-only spaces (the front car of the subway being the prime example) things were...hushed. women did not meet each other's eyes.

outside of cairo, there were two major excursions: two days in the white desert and five days traveling between aswan and luxor. the white desert was unlike anything i have ever seen -- light sand and perfectly white rock outcroppings and, at night, more stars than i have seen since i was a teenager. waking up just a little bit cold in the wee hours, shuffling blankets and staring at the sky rather than the land, reminded me of nothing so much as north dakota.

the trip to upper egypt -- aswan, kom ombo, esna, edfu, luxor -- involved a very nice boat, a whole slew of immense temples, and some relatively severe gastrointestinal distress. [you will pardon the following digression: the stomach stuff was bad enough, though not all that awful, but there were a couple of days there when i was so wiped out that i didn't really get out of bed. at all. holy SHIT, what is it with the water, or whatever it was, in this country?! daaaaamn! but paul was very nice and went and got me sprite. which is all one can ask for in such a situation.] all the wulfsbergs forbore my whining very impressively, and i dragged myself out of bed for the valley of the kings, which was so worth it, oh my Lord, wow, was that ever worth it. the volume of manual labor involved in creating such things is mind-boggling; that these tombs (like many of the pharaonic sites) are still around says something very grand about human capacities. and then again, the fact that these sacred spaces have been cleared out and are now open for a fee to tourists with sunburned necks and inappropriate clothing -- i'm not sure what that has to say about humanity, or history, but i certainly found it jarring.

back from the boat, our last-few-days itinerary involved the sound and light show at the pyramids (the sphinx speaking high german! trippy!), a day trip to paul's host family in abu sir, and, i shit you not, lots of mormons. in fact, the very last thing that i did before heading to the airport was to accidentally sit in on paul's friend melanie's bible study group. to be honest, i was thrilled. i have missed church the past few weeks.

speaking of which: paul and paul's friends, yeah, they are totally awesome. paul is more modest than most people, so he's not going to write this on his blog, but i feel free to write it on mine -- he is a superstar. i felt so lucky to be able to attend his graduation dinner and to hear what people had to say about him, which is basically: khalid is a machine. khalid is social glue. khalid makes things happen. khalid's arabic is nigh on perfect. go, khalid, go! did i mention he was named outstanding student? did i mention that i am his friend who has known him for years and years?

so three cheers. three cheers, as well, for lovely and generous people who put me up: rana, and housemate amina, and later melanie, and housemate christa. these women offered great conversation and comfortable beds and, what's more, comprehensible toilets, and the trip would have been impossible without them.

there is, of course, much more to say. i think there is a little essay brewing here about the experience of being a tourist in a place that is desperately poor, and why i found it so unsettling -- but since this entry is marathon-length already, i will stop. i will stop, and i will return to reading political psychology.