It’s been a busy week!
In addition to studying Egyptian Colloquial Arabic (ECA), I’m also taking Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is taught predominantly through MSA itself, but also through ECA and English. It’s an odd combination. The word for “word,” for example, is kalima in MSA and kilma in ECA. It’s stressful, and you can become easily confused.
In order to relax, and practice our ECA (the language they speak on the streets), myself and my fellow students go out to eat, or for coffee, in different parts of the city each night. It’s shockingly cheap to eat out, even in the upscale restaurants, and generally of a high quality.
On Wednesday, we decided to go to Zamalek, the most affluent area of Cairo. And just as we were finishing our food (for those interested: bread with hummus, baba ganoush, and kofta to start, a half chicken with rice and mixed vegetables, potatoes, and tomatoes, all for about €4), one of the girls heard shouting. Then it started to get louder. Yet another incident on the roads of Cairo, we thought, blown beyond all proportions, as per usual. Then there was screaming. Yep, definitely screaming. Then we noticed people running from something. As the only guy, I decided I’d go and have a look. People were closing their shops and restaurants in a serious hurry. We asked a local what was happening.
“Nothing,” he said, “it’s a stupid fight, please, go back to your meals.”
So we did. A couple of minutes later, we saw him running faster than a gazelle. Then our waiter and his manager started closing the restaurant, by which I mean throwing our plates into a bin and slamming the shutters, then legging it down the road, all in under one minute. We hear a commotion. It’s not a fight, it’s some sort of mass brawl. We decide we should probably start running in the opposite direction. So, without paying, we start jogging down the street. One or two minutes later, two Americans run past us screaming “they’ve got knives!” OK, I thought, bloody Americans and their exaggerations, but they insisted they had seen a couple of people, not with knives, but with machetes. I take a look back. There must be 50 or 60 people. Then I see glass bottles being thrown. People are screaming and running in all directions. So we pick up the pace.
Eventually, when we get to a safe distance, we get chatting to a couple of Egyptians. They’re telling us they’ve never seen the likes of it, not in Zamalek! One or two gun shots later, it looks calm. We decide to stroll back in the direction of the restaurant. All looks well. Then I notice a guy with an axe chatting to a chap with a metal chain. We pass by, they seem easy-going. We get close to the restaurant, and then I see the people with knives. The American was right, they weren’t so much knives as giant machetes, or small swords. One of them approaches us slowly. We’re a bit nervous.
“Hello,” he says, in perfect English, “I think you should leave here and go that way, it’s not safe.” He pointed to the street to his right.
We thanked the man with the sword.
As we turned, we realised that we had been standing between the two armed groups, in the bloody middle. Like a couple of absolute gobshites. The words “stupid tourist” don’t even cover it.
The next day, no-one would believe that this happened in Zamalek. But it did. Later, the incident was widely reported in the newspapers.
It turns out that it was all part of the whole Al-Masry/Al Ahly football rivalry which, in January, resulted in the trial and sentencing to death of several people arising from riots in the stadium in Port Said in 2012. Port Said itself remains in a state of emergency, with the central government unable to regain full control.
Ahlan wa sahlan fi Masr!
In exploring the history and culture of Egypt, I decided to start at the beginning. Well, almost, I’ll be going to Saqqara in a couple of weeks. But the pyramids at Giza are the best-known pyramids in all the world. It had to be done:
The one on the left — the Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops in Greek) — is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the biggest of the pyramids in Giza. It was built by the Pharoah Khufu around 2560 BCE. The middle one — the Pyramid of Khafre — was built by Khufu’s son Khafre around about 2530 BCE. He built it on higher ground, to out-do his father, so it looks bigger in this photo. The last one, on the right — the Pyramid of Menkaure — is of uncertain age, but likely also built in the 26th century BCE.
The only thing that can spoil a sight like the one above is the traders, selling t-shirts, postcards, and other assorted trinkets. They are everywhere, and extremely persistent. You just have to ignore them, or they will follow you relentlessly. This is because the number of tourists visiting Egypt has fallen dramatically. The industry has essentially collapsed. So the people who depend upon tourism for their livelihoods are really struggling. And it shows. However, they’re still good-natured, and there’s never any real trouble.
Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to visit Dahshur this morning, where there are no traders, and the pyramids are older than those at Giza. In fact, the famous Bent Pyramid, built by Sneferu, is thought to be a transitional form between step pyramids, such as those at Saqqara, and smooth pyramids, such as those at Giza.
Lastly, feeling like I hadn’t done enough, we decided to visit the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, probably the oldest mosque in Cairo, and certainly the biggest, though no longer in use. It was commissioned by the Abbassid Governor of Cairo in the 9th century BCE. The view from the minaret is fabulous, but there’s not much to see. The courtyard, on the other hand, is amazing:
Lots more to follow….Pyramids, Mosques, Coptic Churches, the Citadel, etc…..