Today we had to wake up early to beat the rush hour and get our visas renewed at the office in downtown Cairo. The idea was easy, but waking up was challenging as we had just gone to sleep a few hours prior. Finally, after finding the will, I got out of bed and within forty-five minutes we were in a taxi making the speedy journey to our destination.
They say traffic in Cairo is there 24/7 and trying to get anywhere takes hours, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw a traffic jam 15 minutes into our journey. Going past a stationary truck in the middle lane I realised that it wasn’t a jam but a police officer who stopped the van to check his ID. In the process causing the build up of a queue!
The taxi ground to a halt outside the building but swiftly drove off with the driver muttering something about getting caught by a police officer. The Mugamma sat frog like in the middle of a busy roundabout surrounded by the only bit of greenery for miles around. It was a monstrous gigantic grey edifice still stuck in time from the 60’s. It must have been quite striking when it was first built, but now it had unfortunately lost its impressive structure due to wear and lack of care.
There was already a rush of people entering through the doors so we hurried through the faded entrance hall and were taken back in time to an era of mini skirts and groovy clothes. We ascended the stairs to the first floor, turned right and wound through the maze of hallways, finally coming across a long corridor like room. Along both sides of the room were counters ranging from numbers 1-50, catering to those who wanted tourist visas, permanent residency or simply reporting a missing passport.
The room was a mass hysterical movement of people rushing to claim their visas. The situation is exactly the same in every public place in Cairo. When I went shopping in our local supermarket the scene you are confronted with is bodies grabbing at everything and anything that they can see. Special promotions only encourage them more to swarm down in their masses and god forbid you should be in the shop at that time.
After some confusion on where to go, we got the forms for our visa applications and started the short but slow filling in process. Next to me stood a tall slim gentleman who had a frail body but thoughtful face. He kept looking over at us and finally it seemed like he mustered up the courage and asked in Arabic if we could fill out his application for him in English as he could neither write, read or speak the language. He was a Sudanese Christian refugee born on the 1st january in the 50’s (He had made up the date as many years ago in the villages no one knew their birth date. My Grandma and Granddad didn’t know theirs either so they both decided to register the same birthdate) and I wondered what dangers he was seeking shelter from. Right now in Sudan there’s a war between the Christians and Muslims, where more people than I dare say have been slaughtered. And for what? After his form was completed he smiled and disappeared into the crowd, and I still to this day wonder what happened to him.
Filling out the application was the easiest bit, but getting the form processed wasnt as easy as you would like it to be. I queue up and already someone tries to push through. But I can say nothing as the woman is elderly and therefore worthy of pushing past the long line and getting served first. What you need to realize is that queues in Egypt don’t actually exist. The person behind you will have no hesitation in confidently pushing in front of you. One Egyptian girl told me that someone who does this actually thinks that they are being clever because instead of waiting a long time to get served they can just push in and be seen first. I experienced this first hand at a supermarket queue when an old man pushed in saying he just wanted to pay for one item for his grand-daughter.
The room by now was sweltering as the clock turned 11am. The lack of air condition, only flimsy fans made the smell of sweat unbearable as people talked, hassled and bargained their way for a visa.
It is common knowledge that jobs are rare here and to get one would be a good thing. But then you end up having three people doing the role which one person could comfortably do. You have the not needed toilet attendant who uses his finger to push the button of the soap machine and another pulling the lever of the towel dispenser and ripping a few sheets of paper for you to dry your hands on. Even more hysterical is the fact that when going to pizza Hut we saw four employees opening the door for customers! With having so many people working you would think the job would get done quicker but that’s not necessarily true. In the visa office, once again there were too many people claiming to be working. Instead they lounged around gossiping amidst mountains of untouched paperwork and empty cups of tea.
I finally gave my application to the lady at the counter, but was then told to go to a particular window (down the other end of the room) to get stamps. Behind the counter was a stern looking lady who was talking in Arabic which I had trouble understanding and she refused to give me the stamps. I had no idea why! It all became clear when we realized that my husbands visa had expired and he had to pay a fine by purchasing more stamps for his application. Two hours later we returned into the quieter room and pickup our passports with visas valid for 6 months.
While we were waiting for our visas we went to the Al -Azhar mosque in the heart of Islamic Cairo. Al Azhar sits next to the lively district of Khan Al Khalili and was founded in AD 970 as part of the new Fatimid city. The mosque once housed a Madrassa and the second oldest educational institution in the world after the University of Kairaouine in Fez. Although the Al-Azhar university has now moved to Naser City, the mosque is still one of the most prestigious places to study Theology and Islamic Studies.
What strikes you most about the mosque is its large solid brown walls that seem to go into oblivion when you look up. The main doorway has geometrical patterns carved into wood which leads you on to the main courtyard where marbled floors welcome you. All around the courtyard is shady arched enclaves, a welcoming respite from the burning midday sun. The minarets and dome sit proudly almost admiring the view from above. I spot the twin minaret and admire its originality and intricate carved design imagining the labourer chiseling away bit by bit and smoothing the stone with his rough yet delicate hands.
A group of western tourist sit at the end of the courtyard listening attentively to their guide explain the history of the mosque and its function today. I follow their eyes as they admire the awe and grandeur of a building that is still modest in decoration but not beauty.
At the far end of the mosque, through the opening of a door, I hear a man communicating in Arabic. He is surrounded by many students sitting crossed legged in what seems to be a lesson. I walked around the criss cross pattern of the screened wall from the light of the sun and into the cool, dark room. Groups of men sit in front and women at the back, attentively listening to the teacher explain from a book. A cat walks dreamily into the room moving from side to side hunting for the best spot to lay. He finds it under a chair and with one big yawn drops onto his side and is fast asleep.
After the lesson I got into a conversation with an Indonesian girl in Arabic. I must confess that i think my Arabic has improved a great deal. Before i’ve always been scared to have a conversation in Arabic for fear of embarrassing myself. Then the voice of my language teacher would ring in my ears reminding me not be shy. You have to keep talking as that’s how you make mistakes and learn from them.
The other day I went to a talk in the AUC (American University in Cairo) campus downtown in Tahrir. It was concerning a book called Graffiti Art which contains a series of pictures taken by the photographer Mia Grondahl. After my Arabic lesson I rushed out 15 minutes early to catch a bus downtown. I thought about getting a taxi but its a bit pricey getting to the place and I would rather catch one home so I hopped onto a mini bus.
The bus waited five minutes to fill up and then with a few cries of “yalla ya austa” (come on driver) we were on our way. The driver pulled out of the tiny make shift bus station situated in Midan Al-Arab and onto the open road. After ten minutes we were stuck in a huge traffic jam and the pace was slow. The weather in Cairo has now dropped and it is no longer burning hot where you find yourself sweating just by doing something effortless as breathing. The temperature inside of the microbus was tolerable and I was kept entertained by life outside. Drivers swerved in and out of the traffic, children dressed in their uniforms walked home from school, fruit and vegetable sellers lined the busy roads with their colourful produce.
After forty five minutes I shouted to the driver “ala gambi lo samat” (to the side please) and dismounted. After praying the sunset prayer I quickly made my way to the hall where the talk was to be held. At the security gate the sober guard asked for my invitation to the event. I, not being aware you had to have one, said that I didn’t possess an invite and so he wouldnt let me in. I insisted saying I had come from far and he told me to wait. Another man approached but replied that i still couldnt come in without an invite.
Annoyed I left and on my way out I saw an Egyptian girl and just out of curiosity asked her how she got her invite. She told me that she got it from the AUC bookshop and to quickly go now as it shuts in ten minutes. The bookshop was next door so I picked up the invite and quickly went back to the event. The guard looked bemused to see me again and the fact that I actually had an invite this time!
The small foyer was abuzz with people mingling, and helping themselves to chilled drinks on the refreshments table. Past the crowd was the hall where the talk was to be held. Upon entering the room rows of folded chairs are neatly lined, resembling a theatre with a large stage situated at the front. I sat near the front and thirty minutes later it finally started.
The event was held in collaboration with AUC and the Swedish Embassy. There were five people on the panel; 2 Swedish journalists, the Author of the book, a Palestinian journalist, and the Chairwoman who was Egyptian. After a short introduction by the Author regarding her book and why she decided on the project the floor was open for questions.
When one question was asked to the Palestinian journalist on what effect has the occupation had on Palestinians he said a really silly comment that got a few smirks. He replied that the occupation affects people on all levels including personally. The occupation controls what you eat and wear in your life because they decide (the Israeli occupiers) that corriander is banned (I think now its taken off the list of banned food stuff). Because of the ban you are unable to cook and consume certain food such as falafel. He then went on to say that if he wants to “sleep with my wife” he cant do so as they may be no electricity so he cant see anything and then there is no hot water to have a shower. Majority of the people just cringed and the chairwoman quickly changed the subject.
After the question and answer session, a few poems were recited and songs sang from the Gaza Mono-logues by the Ashtar Theatre in Palestine. A letter that Rachel Corrie wrote to her parents was read out and it was so beautiful and raw that I instantly felt touched by her words. More so than by anyone who was present in the room that day.
After, I went for a nice relaxing stroll down the Nile. Well when I say relaxing I mean walking beside an ugly highway full with traffic and getting dust blown in my face. This is the real Egypt not the scene you see on postcards. But you know what, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Oh, and I tried to get a taxi home and told him my destination but the driver saying something in Ameeya (Egyptian dialect) that i didn’t understand. After a few minutes of asking if he understood where I wanted to go I got frustrated and walked out. In that time the taxi had only moved 10 feet but the meter said 1.25 LE. The driver sternly shouted to me “Guine wa nus” (1.50 Le) which I just ignored and quickly hopped into another taxi. The journey home was long as he chose to go through the little side streets that are always busy at night. Smoke from burning rubbish mixed with car fumes was drifting into my lung,s causing me to cough deeply.
Tomorrow I have to go to Mugamma in downtown to renew my visa. I’m not looking forward to it as i’ve heard many stories referring to the building as a nightmare. I’ll let you know whether it lives up to it’s reputation or not.
I enjoy throwing my balcony doors open and standing outside whilst I hang the washing up. The tedious nature of this chore gives me plenty of the time to catch up on the neighbourhood gossip. I suspend a pair of striped socks on the washing line and watch as the water quickly drips onto the floor below.
I peer over the balcony and view what is happening further down. The Bawab (doorman) from across my building is sitting on the outside wall with his young son who looks to be one years old. He seems lost in thought, thinking about something out of his reach. In the mean time the jovial baby is balancing on the thin ledge of the wall and laughing. The man awakes from his daydreaming and starts to smile. With one swoop he lifts his son up with ease and playfully puts him on the other side of the wall. The baby starts to cry trying to reach out to his dad. In that moment the mans eyes look up and meet mine, and we both start to laugh.