This blog is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are of the author as a private citizen and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the US Department of State.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Family Visit, Part I

It's great to have out-of-town quests and give them a glimpse of our life in Lebanon--the neighborhood, the food, the friends, the weather, the quirks and challenges of daily life in the Middle East. My sister Anna and my mom and dad arrived late Thursday evening, a night that both the Prime Minister and the Hezbollah leader were to give public addresses about the current crisis in Lebanon's shaky government. A peaceful evening, hamdilah, and a peaceful weekend too. We met them at the airport and, aside from one missing bag, the flights passed without a hitch.

Friday, Nicole went to work and when I awoke I quickly realized what pros these three are. No jetlag, little residual "blah" from the long flights, and loads of good cheer. They've got Nicole and I beat in the fly-across-the-world department. So we dove into Beirut, taking a walk around Hamra and AUB, strolling through campus (down the LONG flight of stairs to the lower campus, the corniche, and the sea). After people-watching and Mediterranean-watching, we hopped on one of the buses along the Corniche and made our way to the Adlieh/Museum area, where Nicole's office is. After saying hi, we walked up the street to the National Museum to see the Phoenician, Roman, Greek, Muslim, and Ottoman artifacts there. Note to visitors to Beirut: this is a nice activity for day one, because you get a quick orientation to the history of Lebanon. The diversity of art and architecture displays graphically the fact that the nation's history is a history of colonialism. Plus, the stuff is priceless and really wonderful.

Back on the city bus. To their credit, everyone liked the bus, which is a good thing, since it only costs 500LL (about 30 cents in American currency). But it's definitely not a quick or luxurious way to travel. On the plus side, you avoid feeling too touristy. We got back to Hamra and, once Nicole got home from work, enjoyed dinner at La Tabhka, right around the corner from us. A bit pricey, but La Tabhka has great cold mezze, a buffet of vegetarian, light dishes, all served cold: Potato kibbe, hindbeh, eggplant, breads with kishk, etc.

Saturday we hit the City Center and once again walked. My parents can really put on their walking shoes when they want to. The full-sized city buses don't go downtown, so we had to take the "mini bus," rickety vans that drive around with their sliding doors open. Again, the price is right. Downtown, we took in the mosques and churches, the roman ruins, the green line that separated east and west during the civil war here, and the big Rolex clock tower in the central square. Nicole had to duck away for a presentation at the office, and Nicole and I were scheduled to go to our tutoring program for the Palestinian schoolkids, so we got my parents back to the apartment, and Anna decided she'd join us for tutoring (in case Nicole's presentation went long and also to check out the program). Turns out Nicole made it in plenty of time, but Anna had a good experience anyway. I worked with my group and Anna and Nicole partnered with Nicole's group. I told the four in my group that my sister was visiting and at the end of the session, one said "Show her to us," I guess a signal they wanted to meet her, so we made introductions and had a good chat. Several of the girls congratulated Anna for wearing a hijab--they really liked her. I had cooked a big pot of biryani rice (tossed in all kinds of nuts, dried fruits, some chunks of chicken, and various spices) in the morning, so a couple man'oushe jibnee (cheese pies from the bakery on our block) were all we needed that night.

Sunday, our friend Karine, with whom Nicole works at the NGO, met us in Hamra and we caught the bus to the south, intent on visiting Saida, the old Phoenician city along the sea, made famous in the Bible, as the place where the Hebrew Kings traded for cedar wood to build the original temple in Jerusalem, and also a site where Jesus and early apostles preached. We had a great day there, a highlight of the trip so far. Another of Nicole's office pals, Nancy, met us in Saida, as her village is just outside of the city, and we all spent the day walking around and enjoying the sea. We ate fish at a place along the sea where you go into the market, pick your pick, and they cook it and bring it to you under a tent outside. Enjoyed a lot of the historical ruins, including the "sea castle," an old crusader fortress from the 1200s, and an important one, too, given how close Jerusalem is. There's also a great old khan where traders used to their horses and then rest in little cells in the stone structure. The city has turned the khan into a cultural center with historical displays. Highlight of Saida for the family was probably the souks, the endless rows of labyrenthine markets, mostly outdoor, where vendors sell produce, fabric, soaps, handmade items, meat, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Huge thanks to Nancy and Karine, whose language skills got everybody some good deals. And of course Nancy, as somebody who grew up in Saida, knew all the best nooks and crannies to visit.

Finally, we were able to exhaust my folks! Not that we had that as a goal or anything, but the walking finally wore them out a little bit. We said farewell to Nancy and took one of the evening's last buses back to Beirut. I whipped up a quick kibbe al rahab with lots of mint and onions and everybody hit the sack. Happily, today's the official "day of rest" at casa DeGenaro. Well, Nicole and I are both at work, but the family's resting today, hanging around the apartment, maybe taking a short Hamra walk but that's about it. Good times so far. More to come, insha'Allah.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Bus Part Deux

Taking a lunchbreak from today's work (coding research data for the project on cross-cultural academic literacy), munching on leftover kibbe el raheb--vegetarian kibbe or "kibbe of the monks"--I realize that I said very little yesterday about the joys of the Lebanese buses.

As I mentioned, Nicole and I took the bus down to Saida yesterday, usually known in English as "Sidon," a seaside city in the south dating back (at least) to Phoenician times. Most of south Lebanon is primarily Shia and, due to proximity to the border and the presence of Hezbolah there, has been the site of fighting with Israel in recent, well, decades. But the south boasts beautiful views of the Mediterranean; delicious fresh fish, falafel, sweets, and ice cream; and biblical, Roman, Crusader, and Islamic history and architecture. The south is Nicole's favorite part of Lebanon.

My friend Jeff commented that this blog often focuses on "getting there." True. How else could it be when you are encountering the unknown? Let me say that we walked to the Cola "station" in Beirut yesterday, which took like ninety minutes, mainly because we didn't know what we were doing. Though Beirut taxi drivers love to stalk pedestrians, honking their horns to offer/"push" their services, I love walking in the city, and Nicole was a good sport about the long march to Cola. Cola's not really a station, more like a long underpass where buses headed to the south park.

Dodgy cardboard signs (in Arabic only) on the windshields tell you where buses are headed, the first but not the last similarity between the "scene" at Cola and the early scene in "Romancing the Stone" where Joan Wilder, who just arrived in Columbia, tries to find the bus to Cartagena. Nicole, currently taking Arabic, was able to read the signs. Kudos. But even if you don't read Arabic, the drivers send minions around Cola yelling the name of the destination of their buses and pointing. "SOUR! SOUR! SOUR!" OR, "SAIDA! SAIDA!"

We were the first to board yesterday and I thought maybe we'd have the bus to ourselves. But drivers try to fill the bus. I can't blame them. How profitable can the operation be when fare is one dollar? The buses don't seem terribly popular with tourists, as they are smokey and crowded. We started making our way down the coast, with the door of the bus hanging open. When somebody wants off, they just yell for the driver to stop or at least come to an almost-stop, and hand the drive 1500 Lebanese Lira as they jump out. Likewise, one can stand along the road to the south--basically a little two-lane highway along the sea (think the PCH in California)--and bus drivers will stop and pick you up. Only the start and end points of routes are official. To call the bus a sardine can is an insult to sardines. Extra seats fold out into the aisle. No passenger is turned away and many of them smoke.

But on the other hand, you get gorgeous views of the sea. And people-watching, too, as Lebanese love to strike up what seem like heated conversations with strangers, reminding me of what one of my AUB students said on the first day of the term: "Is it true that Americans try not to discuss religion and politics? Because that's all that we talk about."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Weekend Wrap-Up

Two big activities this weekend. Nicole and I have started spending part of our Saturday afternoons tutoring kids from one of the Palestinian refugee camps, so that was yesterday's activity. We each work with four high school juniors getting ready for SATs. Then, today, we took the bus down to Sidon ("Saida") for the afternoon. Mostly we strolled around the souks and enjoyed the view of the sea. Getting there was half the fun, though, courtesy of the Lebanese bus system--crowded and a bit smokey, but only 1500 Lebanese Lira. That's one dollar U.S. for a ride all the way to southern Lebanon.

Only four days until my parents and my sister Anna get to Lebanon for a visit. My semester ends in a few short days (yes, it's still "Fall 2010" at AUB) so I'll have plenty of time to spend with them too. Can't wait. Experiencing the Middle East has been so rewarding and I'm glad Nicole and I can share that experience with some of our family at least.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Government Falls

In just a few short weeks, three major events have grabbed my attention. The terrorist attacks on a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt. The shootings at a political rally in Tucson, Arizona. And, most recently, the collapse of the Lebanese government. In one way or another, each event felt close. The attacks in Alexandria because Nicole and I happened to be in Cairo at the time. The shootings in Tucson because Nicole and I used to live there and still have friends in Arizona. And of course the fall of the current Lebanese administration because we live in Lebanon. I wish I had something profound to say but I don't. Each event humbles me as I see people continue to live their lives despite unrest. Each event reminds me that while sometimes 'government' (forgive me for using this abstraction in such a monolithic way) lifts people up and promotes justice, other times politics alienates and hinders.

U.S. President Obama gave a great speech yesterday. I wish my internet connection was good enough to stream his talk, but even reading the transcripts proved a moving experience.

In the meantime, the Lebanese government has fallen. What does this mean? I got a few worried messages yesterday, as the headlines hit the international press. So far, all is peaceful in Beirut, lham'dilah. This is a "political development," not a "security development." In fact, you might call it political theater, staged to coincide with a meeting between the Lebanese Prime Minister (constitutionally a Sunni, and part of the western- and Saudi-backed coalition of parties) and President Obama. Eleven members of the Prime Minister's cabinet (mostly part of the Hezbolah-backed coalition of "opposition" parties) stepped down, thereby causing a constitutional crisis. A new cabinet, and likely a new Prime Minister, must now be agreed upon by the powerful sects in the country. This represents a change in leadershipand is a sign of instability but, once again, has not resulted in any kind of public demonstrations as of yet. Some people here feel tense, but many feel unaffected. Nicole and I attended a book club discussion at a cafe near our apartment last night, and some joked about the developments while most took it in stride. Instability is part of life here. Right now, peace is too, and we are all hoping that remains true.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Only tangentially related to Lebanon and cross-posted on facebook...

Experiencing a national trauma from abroad is pretty much like experiencing a national trauma at home. On Saturday night I watched the BBC World News channel on tv, read the New York Times webpage, and of course monitored facebook as more information about the shootings in Arizona became available. Despite the fact that I was sitting in Beirut, I felt close to the tragedy, maybe because I lived in Tucson for four years, love the place, and have friends scattered around Arizona.

On facebook opinions flow as quickly as information. After a few days of reading both and following the news somewhat obsessively, I realize I apparently disagree with many fellow liberals about the degree to which the shootings are a referendum on the state of civic discourse in the U.S.

I think the state of civic discourse is bad. But the biggest problem isn’t that the discourse is violent (though it is), it’s that the discourse is bad. It’s weak, reductive, excludes dissenting voices, and oversimplifies complex issues. We need to put a broader spectrum of ideologies in heavy circulation and we need to have more knowledgeable analysts put events in their various contexts.

But know why I object to Sarah Palin? Because 1) I disagree with virtually all of her political positions, and 2) I think she lacks intellect, wisdom, civic commitment, and curiosity. Not because she has used metaphors like “let’s reload” or an info-graphic that looked like a rifle scope. (Also, not because she’s the mother of a single parent, engages in leisure activities that don’t interest me, or works outside the home…all of which have been used against her and most of which are rooted in sexism and classism.)

Agonism and satire are among the many rhetorical postures that have long been used by both individuals and social movements—sometimes in vitriolic and divisive ways. And, yes, by members of many different political ideologies. Not always the best way to build consensus, persuade people who disagree, or promote peace—if those are indeed the goals—but let’s acknowledge that these tropes and strategies have long, long histories and diverse practitioners.

The fist as a symbol of black nationalism. The rifle scope in the artwork of the great hip hop band Public Enemy. Caricatures of Sarah Palin’s children.

I mean, are we really pointing to Keith Olbermann as the savior of civil discourse? He’s an entertaining guy, but, come on!

The debate about whether “both sides” use violent rhetoric is going nowhere and plays right into the oversimplification game anyhow: our side doesn’t do this, our side does this less than the other side, our side did this in the past but now now, our side doesn’t have a body count.

Certainly political discourse didn’t cause that madman to kill people in Arizona. And I’m suspicious of the notion that political discourse “created the climate” for him to kill people. By most accounts he seems to be mentally ill, likely schizophrenic. Yes, but Rush Limbaugh et al should be responsible and know that unstable people might hear their inflammatory rhetoric and act out. Okay, then Ozzy Osborne should never have released the song “Suicide Solution,” hip hop artists should never have created any inflammatory lyrics about police brutality, that Iraqi journalist shouldn’t have thrown his shoe at George Bush, Swift should never have written the barbaric “Modest Proposal,” Thomas Paine shouldn’t have been so reckless as to publish Common Sense, oh and Scorcese shouldn’t have made Taxi Driver, which had violent imagery and an incendiary plot and created a climate in which Hinckley could attempt to assassinate the president.

Yes, but those examples conflate pop culture, art, politics and news media. You bet they do. How can you separate those realms? They all contribute to the climate, they all circulate images and representations, they all have some degree of influence. And people accuse all of them of creating a toxic culture. I never bought into the idea that punk rock music (which I love) creates a toxic culture and I have trouble buying into the notion that inflammatory right-wing political speech (which I don’t love) creates a toxic culture. It creates a lousy public sphere, but not a toxic culture and not a climate for murder.

Part of the problem is that I don’t know what “creates a climate” means. And in the context of these events in Tucson, I don’t know what phrases like “rhetoric matters” and “rhetoric has consequences” mean either. I have a PhD in rhetoric and I don’t know what these things mean exactly. These all strike me as vague statements, meant to establish some kind of tenuous correlation. Imagine that the shooter in Arizona had his bedroom walls plastered with images of Glen Beck. What then? What would we as a society be obligated to do with that information?

We should absolutely analyze this tragedy from every angle. Yes, we should analyze the rhetoric that circulated in the shooter’s worlds. But in the rush to critique the political climate, we neglect other matters like the gun (purchased, carried, and concealed legally) and the mental illness (untreated despite frightened neighbors and dismissal from college). Now that’s toxic.

Friday, January 7, 2011

As I Organize Files

Friday evening and still I sit in my campus office. Nicole is going out with her co-workers after they punch out, so no hurry to get back to the apartment. Today I finished grading research papers and then took some time to put files in order. In the process, I realized that I have amassed a decent amount of research data during my first four months in Beirut. Margaret (my colleague back at my home institution in the U.S.) and I have taught our linked writing courses and assembled electronic datbases of the literacy narratives/profiles our students wrote--we already have one lecture scheduled to discuss the research, so the analysis of that student work starts immediately. Also, I've observed about 36 hours of Night School, the student-run literacy program, and interviewed all but six of the student-volunteers who teach the courses. I've also interviewed the administrator who directs the Civic Engagement initiative and gathered various in-house and public documents (audits, articles, etc.) connected to the service learning atmosphere here. I've gathered mission statements of sixteen student organizations that have as part or all of their mission doing volunteer, advocacy, or activist work. In the coming months, I plan to continue observing Night School, interview the remaining student-teachers, gather the rest of the organization mission statements and talk to the respective leaders of those groups about their work, and continue trying to understanding the culture of civic engagement on this campus. One of the themes that has been especially interesting, so far, has been the complicated and ambivalent attitudes of students toward sectarianism. Some of the service work and advocacy that happens here is relatively independent of party or sect, but much has some connection to broader Lebanese politics (e.g., a student organization sponsored by a political party). By looking at mission statements and other documents and talking to as many people as possible, I'm trying to understand these issues.

Last night, the family of another one of Nicole's co-workers invited us to a very nice dinner party at their home in Babda, a suburb of Beirut. We had a great time and appreciate the hospitality and warmth that is ubiquitous in Lebanon. I don't think we ate dinner until well after 10:00, which is not uncommon for such gatherings.

Tomorrow, Nicole and I are spending our first day tutoring kids from one of the refugee camps in town who are preparing for SATs. We're both hoping to learn more about the Palestinian situation in the country; what we've learned so far has been quite distressing.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Egypt, Part IV

Part I
Part II
Part III

Back in Cairo, with internet access at last, we scanned the news and posted a quick "we're okay" message on facebook. Say what you will about facebook, it's a great way to stay in touch while abroad. Same goes for skype. A bus accident had killed a group of Americans in Upper Egypt earlier that week, so Nicole and I definitely wanted to drop by facebook before hitting the town. For a special New Year's Eve dniner, we returned to Dido's, unable to pass up good pasta and great prices, and then had plenty of time to walk around the Zamalek area of Cairo. Passing a newsstand, I almost bought a paper, but the best English-language offering was a four-day-old USA Today. Pass.

We ended up at a great bookstore called Al Diwan and got a couple Egyptian cookbooks and a really useful book called What Every American Needs to Know about the Middle East, which I'm now halfway through. Some of the material is familiar (I've already read lots of stuff on Lebanon, for instance, and the neoconservative agenda for the region is old news) but the book is filling in some of the many gaps in my own knowledge of Egypt, the gulf, and the ins and outs of European colonialism throughout this entire part of the world. The latter, a subject for another post or two on this blog, gets uglier and uglier the more you read. Winston Churchill, not always the most honest guy at the table.

Anyway, an early Italian dinner, an evening in bookstores, maybe not the most exciting New Year's Eve ever, but we get points just for being in Cairo, right? Nicole and I did a lot of walking that night, enjoying the moderate weather, enough walking that we were ready to go back to our hotel (Meena had hooked us up with a suite!) and veg out with a little BBC World News, where we learned of freezing temperatures in...Phoenix. Maybe the world did stop turning during our media fast.

On January 1, we spent part of the day at the National Museum in Cairo, which claims to have the most priceless collection of any museum in the world. That claim might just be true. Naturally, King Tut's collection stands out as a highlight. The iconic gold mask. The gigantic Anubis, the jackal god (remarkable resemblance to Smokey) and god of mummification who ushered dead pharaos to the afterlife. The rooms and rooms of jewels. The stacking gold boxes, like Russian dolls, that housed the actual mummy. Amazing, as is the sheer volume of stuff that the folowers of the kings stuffed into those tombs. Like I said earlier, when you descend into the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, you encounter emptiness. At the National Museum, you realize those tombs were once like massive, efficiently packed storage spaces. The big anthropod coffins are a highlight, too, as are the boxes in which organs were placed during the mummificatin process. You can look into one of the organ boxes, divided into chambers, and see the dusty and dehrydated remains. Disgusting stuff.

By far my favorite thing in Cairo--maybe in all of Egypt--was the Coptic community. Our guide on New Year's Day, Michael, was a devout Copt. I had mentioned to our main guide Meena earlier in the week that I wanted to learn and see all I could of Coptic Cairo, so I think he hooked us up with Michael deliberately. The Copts are Christians who believe Jesus was fully divine, but not fully human. Roman Catholics, Maronites, and Greek Orthodox all believe in the dual nature of Christ ("fully human, fully divine"--thanks seventeen years of Catholic school!), and this is the main reason the Copts split. They venerate the holy family's journey in Egypt and tell stories about miraculous events that followed Jesus and his family during this period after the birth in Bethelehem and the settling down--once the King was no longer mandating the deaths of male children--in Nazareth. One story says a scorcerer, fearing Jesus, pushed a boulder off a cliff to fall on the holy family but the toddler Jesus reached up a hand and stopped the rock. The rock, Copts believe, still bears a tiny handprint. A lot of these stories emphasize Jesus' miraculous power, even as a child, stories that support the theology of total divinity.

Sadly, no photos allowed in the Coptic churches, so we picked up many postcards depicting the icons and architecture of this beautiful area. The "hanging" church, so-called because it's raised to avoid the flooding waters of the Nile, has a dual dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St. Dimiana, and has three altars side-by-side at the front of the chruch. Icons COVER the walls, incidentally in the same way that hieroglyphics COVER the walls of tombs and temples from ancient times. In the hanging church, you see many representations of St. Stephen, St. Anthony (the early monk, not the Paduan beloved by Italians), the holy family, the flight through Egypt, St. Dimiana, St. Mark, St. Thecla, and St. George--a lot of the same saints revered by Greek Orthodox and revered throughout the Christian Middle East). They also have an odd icon I've never seen before that shows Mary holding a large crucifix--not just a cross, but a cross with the body of Jesus still on it. Never saw that before. We also went to the chruch of Sts. Sarguis and Bacchus, early martyrs; "Sargius" is built over a crypt where the Holy Family supposedly hid during part of their time in Egypt. Needless to say, my dad would love it here.

Tragic postscript to our time in Coptic Cairo: a bombing the night before at a Coptic cathedral in Alexandria (home of the great, ancient library, an Egyptian city even farther to the north) had killed 21 and wounded many more. The bomb targeted Christians who were ringing in the new year by praying. As I'm writing this, the investigation has only begun, but many accounts suggest this was part of the same network targeting Christians in Iraq in recent months. Needless to say, tragic and awful. Strange to be at these churches only nine hours or so after the bombing up in Alexandria (just to be totally clear: we were nowhere near the church that was bombed) and you could see the increased security, as well as some of the anger and sadness. Our guide for the day, for instance, being a devout Copt, was so knowledgable and taught Nicole and I so much about the history and theology of the community, but his frustration over the bombing also informed the experience. I think he assumed we were Christian (we definitely are) and of the same opinion as him about Islam (we definitely are not). The comments started off subtle but eventually progressed to something like, "That is who Muslims are, that is how they spread their religion."

What do you say? I mean, the guy's community was just attacked, which doesn't excuse his words but certainly shapes his mindset at that moment. I asked him if we could just not talk about the subject and stick to Coptic history since we have loved ones who are both Christian and Muslim. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut, but maybe, despite the rawness of the post-Alexandria moment, it was one of those occasions where "saying something" is exactly the right thing to do--the refusal to sit idly by while people speak and act in a way that just keeps that cycle going. He later tried to spin the whole conversation as a misunderstanding--he was referring to the irrefutable, very old history of spreading Islam by military might. "You were referring to something that happened nine hours ago, not to 'very old history,'" I replied, pretty much my last words on the subject, even as he got in some later digs. Speak your peace, but then let it go. Would it accomplish anything to bring up the crusades, the KKK, violence in Ireland, and argue that no single religion has the monopoly on extremism or using God to justify violence?

Also went to Kahn Al Kalily, maybe the most crowded place on Earth. The Kahn holds Cairo's souks and markets and touristy souks (with scarves, gallabias, etc.) sit right alongside practical souks (butcher shops, fabrics and textiles, produce), so everybody is right there, walking the crowded aisles of the market distrcit. Vendors wheeling carts through the souk make a loud, hissing sound as they race through the aisles, a multi-lingual way of saying "excuse me," I suppose. You can't leave Cairo without seeing this spectacle, although Nicole and I focused on breathing and not getting separated, and we didn't actually buy a thing there.

A strange last day in Egypt. I can honestly say that we learned something. Any good teacher will tell you that sometimes tension is necessary in order for learning to take place. We had a fabulous experience in Egypt and I'm immensely thankful for the week Nicole and I spent there. An event like what happened in Alexandria makes riding on camels and dancing at a gallabia party seem pretty frivolous. It certainly makes reading, eating cheap Italian food, and grading papers seem mundane. But the contrasts among gravity, frivolity, and the everyday charecterize so much of life in the middle east. There are complex problems. Tragedies occur. But people eat, go to work, party, pray, and live. We took a late-night flight from Cairo to Beirut and got back to Hamra around 2:00 a.m., the same time we left the Viccini building eight days ago.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Egypt, Part III

Part I
Part II

After two days in Luxor, we sailed most of the night to reach Edfu, more or less a midpoint between Luxor and Aswan. We were heading south, toward Upper Egypt, i.e., further from where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean Sea. We ate an early breakfast--the ship had fresh lebneh that was as good as my sister's, i.e., really delicious--and then headed ashore for the Temple of Horus (falcon god), the best preserved of the temples. The Greek rulers built Horus, the first Ptolemy (a general of Alexander the Great) started the temple and Cleopatra's father finished the job a couple hundred years later, so the building's construction spans the beginning of Greek rule to almost the beginning of Roman rule. Horus Temple has three levels of courtyards, the first for commoners, the second for nobles, and the third, the one closest to the falcon god's sanctuary, for kings. The crowds, as well as the architecture, overwhelm you in Edfu, another reminder of the need for tighter regulation on tourism. The Lonely Planet guide suggests that some Egyptian monuments won't be around in another two centuries, due to the constant volume of bodies inevitably bumping and brushing the walls for instance.

Back to the boat. Today was a sailing day, thus the early visit to Edfu. We returned well before lunchtime so the boat could make its way toward Kom Ombo, which means "stacks of gold." Some light rain fell, but nobody seemed to care. A man on shore waded into the water, holding a pair of underwear above his head with one hand and bunching up his gallabia around his chest with the other, presumably to use the facilities, i.e., the Nile itself. We reached Kom Ombo and docked four or five boats away from the shore, necessitating the hop-across-multiple-ships-to-get-to-shore process. We didn't hop quickly enough because by the time we had almost reached the shore, the boat closest to land had departed. Like the rain, this minor setback didn't bother anybody much. The boat on which we were stuck made its way to the shore and we walked the plank to Kom Ombo.

The temple there is dedicated to two gods, Horus (the falcon god and patron of Edfu's temple as well) and Sobek (the crocodile god). Like Edfu, Kom Ombo was also built during Greek hegemony, so the columns are less adorned. Two highlights. One, an engraved representation of the impressive Egyptian calendar, an elaborate chart counting the year's regular 360 days and five feasts. Two, a graph of surgical instruments. The Egyptians performed many surgeries, including, many believe, organ transplants. Probably not successful ones.

The night ended with the gallabia party, a pretty standard happening on Nile cruises (though curiously absent from the novel and movie versions of "Death on the Nile"--probably canceled when people started to get murdered). At gallabia parties, most everybody dresses up in gallabias, Egyptian dresses that both men and women wear. Nicole and I, the day prior, had bought gallabias from a man in a rowboat who rowed up next to our cabin window selling various goods. Nicole got a black gallabia with gold trim and I got a plain grey dishdasha (the less elaborate version common in other parts of the Middle East, and also Dearborn, Michigan, though to a lesser degree), so we dressed up for the party. The camel ride three days earlier had pretty much opened the door to cheesy fun, so we figured why not. You'd be amazed at how many people dress up for these parties. Maybe 3/4 of the cruisers (fairly diverse: Lebanese, Spanish, American, Canadian, Kuwaiti) showed up in full regalia, some even wearing heavy eyeshadow a la Cleopatra. Talk about campy. So we danced, took pictures, drank 7-Up. The group on the boat from Lebanon did some belly-dancing to the catchiest song ever written, Shik Shak Shok.

By now, without access to the internet or any other media, I didn't really know what day it was. Life goes on, even when you don't check the New York Times website every three hours. While we danced at the gallabia party, the boat sailed south to Aswan, our southernmost destination. On the last full day of the cruise, we spent the day in Upper Egypt, in and around Aswan, home of the High Dam and Lake Nasser. Whereas the last three days focused on temples and other monuments of ancient Egypt, Aswan allowed us to learn some things about contemporary Egypt, and (at last!) to enjoy the Nile up close. Among other things, this closer proximity to the water meant Nicole worried about parasites. Have you seen these news stories about parasites in the Nile? Allegedly, they can literally jump onto your body from the river. We remained parasite free, hamdil'Allah and insha'Allah. We started the morning with a felluca (old sailboat) ride around the islands of Aswan. The Nile is wide here and sites like Elephantine Island, for example, are quite beautiful, as you can see many egrets and other birds. Many in Aswan--farther south and closer to Sudan--are of Nubian descent so they look less Arab and more African. Little wind, so at one point, our felluca driver waved over a motorboat and tied on. The felluca driver also insisted we learn a Nubian song and spend part of our time dancing around the center of the felluca. This was easily the most relaxing part of our week in Egypt.

Until, inevitably, company showed up. You're seemingly never too far from someone trying to make a sale or earn some baksheesh. A young kid, maybe twelve, rowed up next to us, grabbed the side of our felluca, and began to sing. He assumed our group was American (though one woman was Palestinian-Lebanese, one family was mixed race Vietnamese/British but living in Kuwait, and one family was Nigerian-Canadian) but he didn't speak English or really seem to know the words to any English-language songs, so he sang "Row Row Row Your Boat" and "Macarena" with gibberish lyrics. Another rowboat also latched on to our felluca with the inevitable souvenirs. One kid in our group bought a dinky little stringed musical instrument (the kind of cheap item you see in border towns and tourist areas in developing countries) and proceeded to tune it, quite effectively, using an i-phone app.

We transferred to a motorboat and headed farther south, passing a couple camel caravans and a herd of water buffalo. Akhmed, our guide, took us to a little African village inhabited by a Nubian community who were displaced when the High Dam was built. In yet another example of the attempts to get the tourist economy to trickle down, villagers there open their semi-open-air homes to tourists. On one hand, it's vaguely exploitative. On the other, it's a rare opportunity for income in a country whose economy is tanking. I don't know how well the tour companies compensate the villages (I'm sure it's not great), but at least something manages to trickle down. The family served us hibiscus tea, dark bread in big round loaves, a molasses-like honey, and mish (a thick, fermented cheese for dipping the bread) and showed off their crocodiles. I figured that people in the village keep crocodiles in the house strictly to entertain tourists, but Akhmed told us that crocs are popular pets among Nubians. They have pits dug into the sand floors of the house, covered with bars of course, and then the young ones are in glass tanks so you can access them. I held a little cute one, Nicole declined due to the salmonella threat.

We also toured a little Islamic school in the village. The school teachers three- to five-year-olds and one of the teachers hosted us, taking us into a classroom and teaching us to count to ten in Nubian. He also took us into one of the live classrooms where a group of kids sang a song. Again, I had mixed feelings about the ethics of this visit. On one hand, they're using schoolkids as entertainment, which certainly has an exploitative dimension. On the other hand, the income from visitors is much-needed and the visits genuinely teach you something--hence, there's some amount of reciprocity. And seeing the kids was tough. I didn't see any other schools in the village and wondered if the kids end their schooling after age five (I didn't want to ask our host for fear the question would sound accusatory). And the flies seemed to be flocking to the face of one little boy in particular. Again, good that something is trickling down, but you'd think, with hundreds of thousands of priveleged tourists from across the globe only a few kilometers away from this village, that a better system could be created. Maybe it's the fault of the government in Egypt, maybe the tour companies who don't come up with more sustainable, community-building business practices, maybe the tourists themselves.

That afternoon, we visited the Aswan High Dam, whose construction led to the relocation of that Nubian village. The dam also prevents flooding, which used to happen annually throughout most of the country. On some monuments and old buildings, you can even see the line representing how high the water used to rise. Up in Cairo a few days later, we even visited a centuries-old Coptic "hanging church," built off the ground to avoid the floods. The Egyptian government doesn't allow video cameras at the dam, and you're not even permitted to use the zoom feature on still cameras. But visiting the dam affords nice views of the structure itself, as well as Lake Nasser, created by the dam's construction, notable as the largest human-made lake in the world. Gorgeous, and I would have liked to have stayed until sunset, but we were off to the last of the many temples we would visit in Egypt: the Temple of Philae.

Yet another motorboat, this one to get out to the island that houses the temple. Boat drivers clunk into one another, competing for a spot on the dock where visitors to the temple wait for a ride. Sean, my AUB colleague who was in our group, was nearly knocked over while boarding as rival boats nosed their way to the dock. The temple is beautiful, though the structure is less remarkable than the island itself. Crosses and Christian altars inside show how the facility was used during the Christian era in Egypt. Fitting that the walls, in only some spots, have been scratched out and re-written with a new belief system and new practices. Egypt's like that, a place that, at least for now, preserves the ancient all the while re-writing new histories, some good, some not-so-good.

We exchanged contact information with most everybody from our group, and got some invitations to visit Kuwait. Who knows? Maybe before our year in the Mideast is over, we'll go there. Also got invited to visit the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, which we definitely hope to do. That night, would have been December 30, the ship hosted a belly dancer, a bit of a letdown after the more interactive gallabia party the night before. And since we didn't leave for the Aswan airport until lunchtime, we had the morning of December 31 to stroll around Aswan and do a bit of shopping. You know, I always said that a cruise had zero appeal to me (and I can't imagine ever doing one in the U.S.), but the Nile Cruise was educational and just completely different from anything I've ever done before. By mid-afternoon, we were flying from Aswan to Cairo, 2010 was nearing its end, and so was our trip to Egypt.

Coming Up: he gave his life for tourism.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Egypt, Part II

Read Part I here.

I moved a chair in front of the window in our cabin and watched the bank of the Nile. Women washed clothes in the river. Kids played and waved at the boats. Donkies, goats, and water buffalo drank or relaxed under palm trees. Mosques in the distance, so far away that you can only see the minarets in some cases.

Nile cruises work something like this: a) you get on a boat in Luxor and work your way south to Aswan, moving from lower Egypt to upper Egypt, or b) you get on a boat in Aswan and go north to Luxor, moving from upper Egypt to lower Egypt. Yes, you read that right: the northern part of the country is called lower Egypt and the southern part of the country is called upper Egypt. We did the former, starting in Luxor.

When not watching the banks of the Nile, Nicole and I followed Akhmed, our guide, to the many monuments that fill both banks. The first day we focused on the east bank, where you'll find the Temple of Karnak and the Temple of Luxor. Karnak's a massive complex, full of obelisks, great halls, columns, a purification pool--all of it awe-inspiring. Images of the gods and various glyphs cover the walls of the monuments. No space is left uncovered. The walls are as busy as the temple itself, where masses of tourists from all over the world shuffle in and out. The Egyptian economy is a mess and tourism represents one of the few sources of revenue, so it's doubtful the country will do anything to regulate historic preservation. A shame, because the sheer volume of people (brushing up against columns, for instance) certainly jeopardizes the monuments.

Karnak Temple is the largest of the temples, but nearby Luxor Temple looks pretty amazing after dark, when the lights give the place a kind of spooky appeal. You can find spots where Christians tried to plaster over images of the gods, but for the most part, the scenes on the temple walls remain intact.

The next day, we focused on the west bank of Luxor, more interesting in some ways. The west bank was the city of the dead, or Necropolis, where kings and nobles were buried. The afterlife was so central to the lives and beliefs of the ancient Egyptians that they devoted half the city to matters related to death. In the Valley of the Kings, a network of tombs for dead pharaos, you can climb down steep stairs into the empty resting places of Ramses I-IV, King Tut, et al. Why empty? Treasure hunters sacked and looted most of the tombs over a century ago. Quite a few of the tombs' treasures are at the National Museum in Cairo (which we visited later in the trip), where you can witness how packed the tombs once were. They were like storage spaces, every nook filled with items both practical and lush. So you walk down stairs, some as much as sixty meters underground, and see how the artists and designers who worked for pharaos adorned the walls. Being underground, even the colors remain intact. Anubis and the other gods--all in living color, including bright blues in some cases. Scenes like the final judgment and the funereal boatride to the afterlife.

Near the Necropolis, the Temple of Hatshepsut, Nicole's favorite. Unlike the east bank's larger temples, Hatshepsut's digs are dug into the side of a mountain, so the structure appears to be part of the natural desert landscape. Holes mark the mountain walls next to the temple, each one either a tomb for one of the nobles (who didn't get as lush a resting place as the pharaos in the nearby underground crypts) or a human-made cave dug out to serve as a break room for workers building the temple. Hatshepsut Temple was also a Christian monastery for several centuries (remember when people recycled instead of always insisting on a new thing?) and still bears the name of its Christian iteration: Al Deir Al Bahari.

Back to the boat and after two days in Luxor, it was time to move south. We read on the upper deck for part of the time--nice, because you can catch views of both banks at once--and ate meals with a couple of friendly families who were part of our group. Five or six other groups were also on the boat, all more or less following similar itineraries, one group from Lebanon, I think two separate groups from Spain. As we moved south, young guys in rowboats, rowing quickly enough to keep with a ship, came up on the sides of the ship, lassoed onto tie-ons on the ship, and began yelling for cruisers to open their windows. One guy tied on right next to our window, balanced on the back of his boat, and began offering us various items--scarves, tablecloths, gallabias/dishdashas. They know that the boats have gallabia (Egyptian gowns for both men and women) parties and really try to push fancy wear for the on-boat soirees. I asked the guy if he had another dishdasha like the one he was wearing and, of course, he did, so I bought a plain, grey-colored one, and Nicole bought a black with gold-colored trim one for her. Pretty good deals and an odd way to buy. The guy tosses items into your window, lets you try them on, tells you how good you look. If you like, he'll toss you a bag to put money in. If you don't like, you just toss the item back to him.

Overnight, we kept on sailing south, working our way toward Edfu, more or less in the middle of Luxor and Aswan. Still to come: gallabia party, the high dam, the return to Cairo, and, hey why not, more temples.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Egypt, Part I

We left our apartment at 2:00 a.m., 26 December, for an almost-red-eye out of Beirut. At the airport, young British honeymooners fought with their ticketing agent because they couldn't present the credit card they used to buy their tickets and were thus being denied boarding passes. Travel nightmare. Uneventful, sleepy flight, followed by a cold tarmac in Cairo. Our first experience of Africa ... freezing cold temperatures! We bought entry visas, passed through customs, by now accustomed to the region-wide disregard for lines, and met our guide Meena, who claimed our luggage and ushered us quickly out of the airport, through Cairo, to our hotel. All before 7:30 a.m.

Cairo has a population of 25 million and most streets seem to bear the names of significant dates from the short 1973 war with Israel. "Baksheesh" is the first thing any visitor to Egypt needs to understand. The word refers to an elaborate, annoying system of tipping. In cities and deltas alike, Egyptians surround you and want to provide for-pay services like selling you a souvenir, singing for you, taking your photo, giving directions, or holding a door open. Baksheesh means that constantly someone is asking you for either money or a "gift" like a pen or one of your t-shirts. When we entered our hotel room, a broken television was turned on and the bellhop began to apologize. Later, while Nicole and I took a catnap with the "do not disturb" sign posted, he returned with another tv. This whole process was a baksheesh routine, a situation created in order to provide a service/get a tip.

Meena let us "rest." I.E., he gave us an hour to settle in, shower, and nap before meeting Sobhy, the Egyptologist who took us to Giza, essentially a populous suburb containing the plateau on which the Sphinx and Great Pyramids reside. The plateau represents the eastern edge of the Sahara but the plateau sits just a few meters from the midst of busy and bustling metropolitan Cairo. One guidebook calls the pyramids a massive, ancient, bureaucratic job scheme. Egyptian and Nubian workers (not slaves--the Great Pyramids pre-date Israelite slaves in Egypt by centuries) from all along the Nile built the humongous structures, the largest made of over two million blocks each weighing over two tons.

Sobhy, a cool guy and master practitioner of baksheesh, indulged our desire to take loads of pictures, fed us lots of facts, and introduced us to his favorite camel driver. We paid way too much baksheesh--too tired to negotiate to our full potential--but had a blast riding camels around the pyramids. The drivers take you around the whole plateau, which affords great views not only of the three Great Pyramids (each a tomb for a king), but also the smaller pyramids built for their wives. Our camel driver, leading the animals through the desert, told us how much he loves America and how young we look several times. "I'll make you happy now," he said to me, "and later you can make me happy in private," which would have sounded odd anywhere but in Egypt. By "in private," he meant not in front of Sobhy or the camel owner, who would likely be entitled to a cut of the action. Oh, and of course by "make me happy," he meant "pay me." Giving the animals a short rest when we reached the farthest point from the pyramids, the driver had Nicole and I hold hands, kiss, and pose for various shots from high atop our respective camels. It's definitely one of the cornier things we've done in the mideast, but I recommend the camel ride, the best way to get gorgesous views of every angle of the pyramids.

The Sphinx looks small once you get close, likely because the massive pyramids tower over her. Sobhy told us various legends about who rubbed away the Sphnix's nose (some blame Napoleon, some blame conquering Muslims who don't believe in artistic representations of human--or, apparently, part-human--figures) and we snapped more pictures, thinking that Giza, like the Grand Canyon, lives up to the hype.

We earned a nap late that afternoon, still catching up from our 2:00 a.m. departure from Hamra, followed by a stroll around Zamalek, the Cairo neighborhood where we stayed, essentially an island in the wide vein of the Nile that runs through the city. Cool area after sundown, when you can stroll and see guys smoking sheesha with neighbors, and congregating outside mosques drinking coffee. We ate dinner at Dido's, a great Italian place frequented by American University of Cairo students who apparently go to Dido's for cheap eats (I had a big bowl of penne arrabbiata for less three U.S. dollars!) and the American hip hop they play on the stereo.

We woke up at 3:45 the next a.m. for another early flight, this one from Cairo to Luxor. Meena gave us box breakfasts, shuttled us through "lines" at the airport, and wished us happy Nile cruising. No guide awaited us in Luxor although one guy was walking around with a "William Orthman" sign. He saw my double-take and asked, "Are you Mr. William?" Why yes, I guess I am. This guy was no Meena, but he assured us he must be our guide, despite the name mix-up. He fussed with his cell phones (most guides have at least two) and had some tense conversations, informing us that our driver was stuck at security and unable to enter the airport. He went over to another driver and after an approximately ten-second conversation, said we should go with him. Now, between the William Orthman signage and our being outsourced to another driver, I grew doubtful we would make it to the right boat.

We drove through Luxor and down to the Nile bank where cruise ships docked next to one another, parallel with the shore, five or six deep. This means that if your boat is the fourth one out, you walk a plank to the first boat, walk through the lobby of that boat and step gingerly onto the second boat, through that boat's lobby, onto the next boat, etc. Basically, you must hop from boat to boat until you reach your destination. A guy who seemed to be in a uniform of some type opened the doors of the van we were in, grabbed our suitcases, and quickly headed down the plank carrying both of our bags. Our driver nodded, which seemed to indicate "have a nice day" and/or "give me baksheesh." Disoriented, I gave him a few guineas and Nicole and I began to chase the guy with our bags. Can you picture Nicole and I running after a very tall Egyptian man? How does this guy know which boat is ours? How does he know who we are? Especially given that we were not in the vehicle we were supposed to be in.

Unable to keep up, we lost the guy with our luggage. By then, we didn't know what boat we were on, whether our luggage had been scammed and stolen, or if we even had been driven to the right place. For all I knew, I was on William Orthman's boat, without the bags of neither Bill Orthman nor Bill DeGenaro. I went up to the desk in whatever ship I was on and said something like "Some guy has our bags!" The guy shrugged his shoulders. We raced to the next boat, then the next one, scanning for our bags. Finally, we saw them in the lobby of one of the boats and were assured that, yes, we were in the right place. Jittery, we sipped grape juice in a lounge (not unlike the one in "Death on the Nile" thank you very much), and saw that one of my AUB colleagues, Sean, and his wife, Lina, were on the same boat. Talk about coincidence. Soon, Akhmed, our guide during the cruise, joined us in the lounge, explained that our cabin was ready, and apologized for any confusion.

Next: temples, tombs, and a baby crocodile.