Rhetoric and Ritual, Particularly Death

Of all the tombs I visited in Egypt, the “Bent Pyramid,” featured above, was my favorite. Pulling up to the monument, we parked in a barren lot beside a single guard listening to his radio and sipping tea. He approached with a gentle wave before turning back to his small hut. A cyan blue sky arched above, trimmed with a gentle haze to the north, and the Sahara’s dusty gray skin withdrew into flat horizon lines, warbled with gentle hills. Wind kicked up sand, disturbing the silence.

The Bent Pyramid likely marks the transition between the early step-pyramid approach of some rulers and the more recognizable models, like the Great Pyramids at Giza, a design also shared by the Red Pyramid nearby. Archeologists guess that the initial incline proved untenable, requiring a last-minute shift toward the tip.

But I remember the isolation of the pyramid most of all. While the Great Pyramid accompanies the throaty calls of merchants selling overpriced trinkets and Coca Cola to tourists, themselves snapping pictures and gawking at the monuments in a range of languages, the Bent Pyramid–perhaps from its crooked birthmark–remains isolated. And while Giza, itself sprawling from Cairo, continues to fill the desert around Khufu’s great tomb, the Bent Pyramid stands largely alone.

P5040661.jpg
Obligatory Great Pyramid pic, Giza

Outside the tomb, my fellow teacher Dea and I sat underneath a rocky archway, overwhelmed by the silence. I listened to the “heartbeat” of the desert, as I then wrote.

But throughout my time in Egypt, I experienced many tombs. Going to and from Cairo, our taxi passed “The City of the Dead,” a nickname given to a still-used necropolis of Muslim tombs inhabited and cared for by poorer families. A series of road- webbed grids, walls, tarps, and low-slung rooftops spilled into the distance, pierced by the spires of the occasional mosque. At sunset, the haze-infused orange of the setting sun timed with the muezzin’s call proved overwhelming.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
A “neighborhood” in the city of the dead, Cairo

I also experienced the quiet, bleached streets of Coptic Cairo, where churches held the relics and clothed caskets of saints and religious figures, icons of St. George covered walls, and fans spun slowly from high ceilings over long rows. In Cairo, the bodies of Muslim royalty remained concealed behind the arabesque of mosques, while in Alexandria we wandered the Roman-Egyptian catacombs of Kom al-Shoqafa. In the deserts, beyond the pyramids and their localized buildings, we walked inside the boxy tombs that housed non-royal figures and stood atop the ruined Greek town of Karanis, now little more than blanched stone under a relentless sun.

Outside Egypt, I’ve always been interested in death, from the Roman mummy masks that I perused while lingering in Oxford’s Ashmolean, to the various graveyards and grave sites in Europe in America. But I’ve never thought about the rhetorical power of ritual and death.

Continue reading “Rhetoric and Ritual, Particularly Death”

Advertisements

Birth of a Francophile

An older piece that used to be another blog that is, alas, no more. I found it again today, made some edits, and decided to post it, being an old favorite of mine. Enjoy:

I sat around reading warning labels as a kid. Maybe some kids played basketball or kickball. Nope. Not me. That’s where I first learned French.

The words were musical. Though they burbled from my lips in coagulated lumps of mangled forms, I sensed the potential for improvement. For lush vowels and fluid links. Of course I had no idea what they meant, either.  Attention! I said to my dad. Regardez! Gonflable! The last one means airbags, in case you’re wondering.

I started taking French in middle school. My teacher was a lean woman with a face like Edith Piaf and frenetic red hair that never changed, as is suspended in perpetual clothes-folding static. A lyricist of French grammar, she sang songs about the imperfect tense to the tune of jingle bells, and if we misbehaved, she swore in Greek under her breath.

Continue reading “Birth of a Francophile”

Stoicism at the Airport

airport-security-line
[image from “theotherhubby.com”]
Flying is stressful. Flying during the winter is even more stressful. Last week, the winter storm “Hercules” hit the northeast United States, dumping feet of snow. Now, an Arctic chill creeps eastward across the northern midwest, chilling the air in some places to negative 65 degrees Fahrenheit (with windchill), as further storms hit. Coming at the end of the holiday season, the timing couldn’t be worse. U.S. Airlines canceled over 2,300 flights last Thursday and about 1,500 flights early Friday, according to the New York Daily News, and the trend continued, with over 6,000 flights canceled yesterday.

My parents, meanwhile, struggled to navigate the Kafkaesque airline industry to reroute, cancel, or reschedule flights for their long-ago-planned anniversary trip to San Francisco and Sonoma. They didn’t have much luck. Saturday, I spent an hour and a half with my dad waiting in a line stocked with people with canceled and delayed flights–some of them trying their luck for days–only to be told we couldn’t do anything in a flat, minute-long answer. Sunday, United Air canceled their flight, and they canceled their trip.

On both days, when we called, a pre-recorded message said the company was too flooded with calls to help. The others in line had the same problem, one man insisting he waited on hold for six hours before giving up and driving an hour to the airport to meet with someone. Others told similar tales.

Meanwhile, indignant flyers hammer employees at desk with questions, as their machines occasionally froze and their administration sorted through the swath of situations.

From a large perspective, airport stress is insignificant. It is, as the internet memes say, “a first-world problem,” and seems a minor cost to pay for the ability to hop in a metal machine and fly around the world in relative comfort at record speeds, going from New York City to Cairo in 12 hours. Compared to the Silk Road, the bandit-laced treks of merchants in the Middle Ages, and the tenuous crossing of the Atlantic on cramped wooden ships by early settlers, flying is easy.

But in the midst of it, airport travel is a difficult endeavor and that stress requires serious effort to overcome. Fortunately, stoicism provide a few helpful tips.

Continue reading “Stoicism at the Airport”

Egypt: a reaction

When I first read Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out–“ about a boy getting killed in a chainsaw accident, I cringed at the final sentence: “And they, since they/ Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

Egypt, street scene

How could they be so calloused? I thought. That boy just died, and they “turned to their affairs”?

I now understand that we must often turn to our affairs despite tragedy or else nothing would get done. Held down, scarred over, and silenced with whiteout, our memories remain, but we move on. There’s even a sort of stoic courage there.

Egypt has resurfaced in the news as the violence worsens. As of this writing, the mainstream media has confirmed over 800 people dead since unrest began. That doesn’t count the thousands of injured. The burned churches. The torched and dismantled government buildings. The barricades. The shattered lives. The unconfirmed dead. The fear.

Another teacher I worked with reported on a blog how a priest she knows was riding in car when a man with a knife started chasing him. The fast-thinking driver saved the priest’s life.

“Today this same priest told me that priests in Egypt fear being led like sheep to the slaughter,” the teacher wrote.  

It’s one image in a complicated mosaic.

“It was a hell,” a doctor said about the violence a few weeks ago. I can’t imagine what he’d say now, with hundreds dying and motorcycles carrying bodies back from front lines to makeshift morgues in mosques.

I, too, worry about the friends I made, the places I saw, the people I shook hands with. They are more than statistics. The grease and dust from their hands has washed off, but I still feel it. I still hear their stories, remember their smiles. Every update makes me think of them.

I want to mourn or fight, but I must “turn to my affairs”–so says that voice inside my head, that voice that points to all the practical, at-hand problems I must deal with: loans, money, drivers’ tests, GRE exams, messy kitchens.

I’m getting them done, but my mind is still in Egypt.

Continue reading “Egypt: a reaction”

Back home

I’ve been home for about three days now after surviving over 24 hours traveling, sustained by Cliff Bars, airline food, and caffeine. My mom barely held her tears in as she squeezed me near the baggage counter in the echoing spaces of the near-empty airport. The rest of the flight pooled around the carousel, frayed and wrinkled.

“It’s good to be home,” I said.

And it was. Four days before, June 30th arrived after weeks of warnings, anticipation, and scattered protests. Like a ruptured pipe, millions pooled into the squares and streets across Egypt. Tamarod, the grass-roots movement that organized the opposition, flaunted 22 million signatures to throw out Morsi while Tagarod, the pro-Morsi opposition, organized sit-ins.

As some graffiti said, “January 25 and June 30, our Revolution continues.”

Flags, fireworks, clenched fists, posters, and red cards colored the crowds. Couples, children, and friends held cards reading “Leave.” In a country with notorious disregard for timeliness, organization, and teamwork, millions gathered with a single purpose.

“It is the biggest protest in Egypt’s history,” one official told Agence France-Presse.

Continue reading “Back home”

Egypt, week 3

-1-

This past week, I’ve found my niche back in Egypt, after some uneven footing. On mornings when I don’t teach, I sometimes walk, sticking to the shady side of the street, saying hellos to those who meet my gaze, and finding shops to nose through when I reach the main road.

I like exploring bookshops the best. They’re usually air-conditioned and contain hours of entertainment. Also, many of the people who work there speak English.

In one, I met a young man name Ahmed, with the typical slicked-back hair, tight button-down shirt, and blue jeans. The store was empty, and he got me a coffee as I was looking at memoirs to burn away my 14-hour flight home next week.

“You like books?” he asked.

Well, I was in a bookstore, but I decided to be polite. “Yes,” I said.

“What kinds?”

“Many kinds,” I said.

Ahmed flashed me the seemingly universal you-can-trust-me (even when you can’t) Egyptian smile and handed me my coffee.

“I like philosophy, essays, and memoirs,” I said.

“Philosophy is very interesting,” he said.

I sat down, and welcomed him to sit nearby.

“Yes it is,” I continued. “What do you like to read?”

In alternating moments of coy reticence and loquacious openness—replete with dramatic Egyptian hand movements—Ahmed listed a few books, ranging from Arabic pop lit to the classics that sat on his parent’s bookshelf at home.

“I love The Great Gatsby,” he said.

We had more in common than I thought.

Ahmed had just finished his studies in computer science at The American University in Cairo and practiced his English as often as he could. Savvy and driven, he wanted to work for an American corporation, like IBM, and hopefully use it as leverage to move to America.

“At least, you know, at least for a time,” he said. “Until things get better.”

“Any luck with jobs?” I asked.

He held up his arms, showing the bookstore.

Ahmed’s position is normal—perhaps even a little lucky—for many young men in Egypt. Two years ago, the grim job market and the influx of unemployed college-educated helped spur the Jane. 25 Revolution. Now, the same young men face a similar job market: 13 percent unemployment.  If anything, the continued stagnation has only worsened the situation.

A recent college grad myself, I’m always thinking about jobs. Society forces me to. Everyone wants to know what I’m doing, what my plans are. Now what?

Sitting across from Ahmed I couldn’t help but realize how different our worlds were. Random births, karma, or fate—whatever you believe—had flung us in utterly different circumstances. A recent grand, he’s a lot like me, but his options are diminished, and in a few days, another revolution may rupture his country once again.

Eventually, we finished talking. Ahmed took my cup, empty long ago, and I went back to the seminary for lunch. But I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

As I walked back, I took in the mangled sidewalks, the widows begging for lose change, the skinny cats picking at garbage, and the dusty, dented cars that dotted the road.

After a while, it all becomes background. But now and then, something hits you. Like Ahmed.

Continue reading “Egypt, week 3”

Egypt, Week Two

The setting sun tints the Cairo train station like a sepia-toned photograph as we pull away. Through the smudged train window I watch an old man in a frayed linen jacket search through his old army bag as he leans against a smog-stained pillar. Friends take photographs in front of low concrete benches, and a woman hoists a bag of rice on her head, trailing her three children behind.

The train gains speed as Cairo’s unfinished block housing gradually gives way to broad fields, dotted with a few workers: the Egyptian countryside. Between the fields stand buildings like unfinished shelves, piled and cramped together, with the rebar poking out like lose whiskers.

Dea, Micheal, and I are on our way to Alexandria, Alexander the Great’s famous capital, where Cleopatra once saw Mark Antony and Eratosthenes invented modern geography over 2,000 years ago.

I’ve wanted to see Alexandria since I was a child. The Lighthouse and the Library represent one of the peaks of human civilization, and some of history’s greatest thinkers walked in their shadows. 

Mindful of Alexandria’s epic history, I also recall Egypt’s current issues. The unemployment rate remains over 13%, tourism declines, and the Egyptian pound continues to fall. Rebels block roads around Cairo, intercepting commuters to deliver political statements. Hard-line Salafis attack shrines for Sufi mystics. A recent hotel on the Red Sea celebrated its opening by smashing alcohol bottles on camera. Basic necessities, like bread, fuel, and electricity, remain threatened. Crime is at an all-time high…

Things do not look good for Egypt.

All this occurs as Morsi wrestles to assert Egypt’s water rights against the Renaissance Dam that the Ethiopian parliament voted unanimously to build last week. He cut ties with Syria’s Assad, spurring controversy, and he picked a man named Adel Mohammed Al-Khayat with alleged ties to a terrorist group responsible for an attack that killed 58 tourists last Nov. 1997. Egypt’s tourist minister resigned from the appointment.

Things do not look good for Morsi.

I think of what one student told me the night before. “Before the revolution, we did not have freedom, but we had safety. Now, we have freedom, but no safety. Soon, we won’t have freedom either.”

His words capture the sentiment of many Egyptians. A recent poll by the Arab American Institute puts Morsi supporters at 28 percent–and falling.

A group named Tamarad, “Rebel” in Arabic, hopes to capitalize on this discontent for Jun. 30 demonstrations. Each day, Tamarad gains support: politicians, like Mohamed El-Baradie; disillusioned youth; lawyers; writers; and everyday workers ousted from a job.

Tamarad has already gotten over 13 million signatures for a petition to cut short Morsi’s term and have a new election–almost 15 percent of Egypt’s population.

And things do not look good for tourism. As my time here continues, I consider that this may be my last time in Egypt, at least for a long time. Travel cannot flourish in a broken, unsafe region.

My thoughts swirl as I watch the sun–a bright orange bead on the horizon–set. The train rattles; food carts and hawkers come and go as they sell humus, tea, and sesame treats. Smokestacks silhouetted against the sky smolder like snuffed candles. The fields of sugarcane pass by until they’re too dark to see.

Sometimes at such moments, something opens up inside me: all my years collide into a single moment. One of my friend calls it “the abyss opening up.” I can’t explain it. I can only feel it.

I wonder how I got here. Looking back at my life, I remember when I tried learning hieroglyphics in ninth grade. Around the same time,  I made my own Rosetta stone from wet clay. I also collected papyrus scrolls from novelty shops, pouring over them with a magnifying glass.

Freshmen year in college, I took an Islamic art course and witnessed a new world of geometry and arabesque opening up, embedded with traditions recited hundreds of years ago: the alleged dictations of God. 

One by one, the moments gather, as Beckett’s characters say in Endgames: “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.” After years of disjointed hours you’re on a train bound for Alexandria and can’t explain why.

I suppose the same could be said for Egypt. One by one, the eons accrue, layered like scar tissue as time ticks forward. Some problems never leave. New ones arise. The people live on. Then, one day, you have an “impossible heap” of problems. Someone must take stock and unravel it, but it’s to big and convoluted to make any sense.

Writing in my notebook, thinking of Egypt, and trying to pin down how I feel, the train rolls on.

***

The next day, we begin our tour, wary after a taxi driver tried to overcharge us the night before. John, a quiet guide with a goatee and a Coptic cross on his wrist greets us in the hotel lobby. After a small stop at the august Opera House, we reach our first major site: the Kom al-Shoqafa, catacombs started in the second century AD. Lost for hundreds of years, a citizen found them in 1900 after his donkey broke through the ground.

We descend a spiral staircase where people once carried the dead bodies to be buried. At the bottom, we enter a low low space that smells of wet clay. Marks of picks and chisels etch the limestone walls, feathered and numerous, like snow disturbed by wind.

The guide points out the mingling of Greek, Egyptian, and Roman symbolism that fills the tomb. In one corner, Anubis wears a Roman centurion uniform. In another, Greek garlands surround scenes with Isis and Ra. The site began as a tomb for a rich family, but gradually expanded into a public cemetery that housed over 300 bodies.

I picture the workers carving the stone, the families hoisting the dead through tunnels, and the mourners grieving in thin beams of light.

Next, we visit to the National Museum. Built in 2003, the museum is an air-conditioned collection of history from Egypt’s Old Kingdom, over 6,000 years ago, to the present day. We pass mummies, statues, and mottled ruins hoisted from the harbor from the time of the Light House and the Library over 2,200 years ago.

Used to a country born in the late 1700s, a 6,000-year-old statue of a scribe is impossible to really comprehend.

We end our tour with the Library, a vast modern structure designed to incorporate ancient design elements–like the lotus flower–with modern materials and a modern aesthetic. A 32-meter-high glass-paneled roof rises from a broad reflecting pool. It’s meant to mimic the sun rising from the sea. The walls are of gray Aswan granite, etched with characters from 120 different human scripts.

Inside, the library hosts museums and a sprawling reading room with millions of books in multiple languages. The library also has millions of ebooks, always gathering more.

It’s a beautiful space, and the library guide–a well dressed women with the voice of a recording–rattles off stirring statistics. Still, I wonder what Egypt’s impoverished population can do with a $220 million dollar project that costs students alone 30 pounds for a year-long subscription.

After the library, we eat lunch at the Fish Market, a popular restaurant where you pick your meal from a display of fish on ice, eating it alongside Mezze and fresh-baked bread. The guide calls his mother and asks her how she makes pickled lemons.

After this, we split up. Dea continues on the tour, while Michael and I opt to walk along the shore. Away from the touristy Fish Market–with its clean tables and gentle piano music–a new world surfaces.

Children run into the water, liberated from thin beaches packed inch-by-inch with folding chairs. An old woman swaddled in black veils works at a public wire to steal electricity. Cabbies and buggies stop along the sidewalk, calling us.

“Welcome to Egypt! You want ride? Very, very cheap!” they say, as if on repeat.

The stench of garbage mingles with the smell of sea water, but farther out, the water is surprisingly crisp and blue, with fishing ships flashing in the sun as they bob. Bright flags ripple with the steady wind. Cars honk alongside us like a pack of dogs. On rocky shorelines beyond the beach, people try to catch fish with long, tapered poles.

On our way back to the hotel, we pass a boy trying to fly a piece of paper attached to a string. He isn’t having much luck, so Michael takes apart a nearby basket and fits two sticks in a cross-like pattern on the paper.

“Kite!” the boy says.

We exchange mutual smiles and continue.

Nearby, we pass through a kids’ carnival outside of a mosque. Two young boys race down a hill on ramshackle scooters, almost running over Michael and I.

“Habibii akbar!” one screams, “my great beloved!” He banks left to avoid a crash, knees tucked up to his sholdiers.

After about two hours, we reach the hotel. Dea meets us there. We go out to eat at the palatial Four Seasons–including a bottle of wine. After that, we visit some of the shops of cheap shoes and misspelled T-shirts with things like “Honeymoon Nightmare [incompresnsible word]” airbrushed on in distressed letters. The crowd of young people surges around us, scoping out bargains and enjoying the cool air.

The next day, we leave the hotel and  find our train in the maze of the Alexandria station. The station master tells us one platform, then a passenger yells out another as his train carries him away. The passenger is the right one.

On the bleached old train again, hearing the door clatter as people use the bathroom and vendors race along the aisle, I look out the window. I got what I came for: a taste of a city I’ve always wanted to visit. I also got to visit the ocean that Camus loved so much, walking among the packed beaches, drenched in noonday sun. I could almost see a young Camus among the other children, kicking the soccer ball or swimming through the water, his strong arms cutting through the pale blue.

Phrases of his writing circled in my head the whole trip.

Returning to Cairo, I understand better why he loved the sunlight and the sea–the “wealth of poverty” as he sometimes called it. I guess that was another grain that piled up, spurring my trip.

With all the echoes of past years following me through the city I felt like I was on some pilgrimage. It was just a feeling, but I couldn’t ignore it.

Perhaps, like Chaucer’s pilgrims, we endure the road because we have something sacred at the end of it. Not something religious, but a dream we’ve always wanted to flourish or a place we’ve always wanted to see. The images of a photograph or the words of a particular writer in our younger years become myth-like, and we long to visit their source, like Dorothy longing for “someplace over the rainbow.” Such places feel like they can’t exist in real life. They’re too magical.

But they do.

Whenever I talk about Egypt, people always tell me that they can’t imagine seeing the Pyramids. One can’t. They feel like dragons plopped in the midst of everyday life, something remarkable transcending the mundane.

Alexandria was similar. The name itself evokes hundreds of fantasies and has for thousands of years, culling travelers from all over the world. I feel blessed that I was able to hear its siren song, endure the road, and reach it. I won’t forget what I saw or what I felt. And I hope that other travelers–kids who collected papyrus, read Camus, or pursued their own passions–set foot on their own pilgrimages and that their holy sites remain intact and beautiful.

Egypt, week one

I started traveling last Thursday at 5:15 a.m. Since then, life has been hectic: teaching, traveling, and finding my niche again in a completely different culture. Writing has been difficult. I’ve kept a journal, but little else.

I’ve been waiting to really pull and dig at travels so far and sort through the anxieties and joys.

I guess this is the first chance I’ve gotten to do so.

Last week, I traveled with two others on a hot, stuffy plane for eleven hours–the typical airplane annoyances. After our breakfast of three different breads and a thin layer of yogurt in a tray, the three of us landed, got our bags at the Egypt Air terminal, and bought our visas for $15, as an overly helpful man offered us taxis that we didn’t need.

A driver and a former student picked us up from airport to take us to the seminary where we’re staying–the same one as last year. We drove past the same rock-strewn strip of highway that led into Cairo.

Arabic pop crooned through the radio of our squat Suzuki as we raced along the road. The city sailed past, its beat-up apartments colored by drying clothes streaming on the lines. Billboards promised new malls and city centers. The hot air blew on my face, and cars honked as people dashed across the road.

I felt a surge of joy—a sense of homecoming, even—and swallowed back a few tears as I stared out the window. For the past year since I’ve been away, Cairo has followed me. It dug under my skin last summer, and especially on warm evenings, when I walked home after class, I missed it. I’m not sure what I missed exactly—the changed rhythms of everyday life, the people, the weather, the age, the chance to be away. I suppose that’s the main reason I’ve come back: to articulate what hit me so hard last summer and try to find it again.

So far, it remains a mystery.

Continue reading “Egypt, week one”

Thoughts on the Real World

My life continues to truck forward, as long-term projects gain roots. I’m not a very

Looking through a traditional mashrabiya, photo by Brett
Looking through a traditional mashrabiya, photo by Brett

exciting person. On a scale from one to ten, I crop up somewhere in the middle. Right now, I’m living at home–yawn–researching philosophy PhD programs–super yawn–and brushing up on personal finance and fitness as I set out to join the “real world” with whatever jobs and internships can sustain me for a year–asleep yet?

But one week from today, I drive to the airport, battle through the baggage lines, and hit the air, sandwiched on a stuffy plane, on my second trip to Egypt to teach English.

I’m both nervous and excited.

Continue reading “Thoughts on the Real World”

Feeling “at home”

I spent the last three days traveling to Boston with an old friend and his girlfriend, House picturescouting for apartments. They’ll both be PhD candidates in the fall–one at B.U. and the other at MIT. My old friend called me about a month ago to catch up, and we decided it may be neat for me to move in with them.

I didn’t get into the MFA programs I applied to last winter, and the prospect of a gap year living with my parents at home as I applied to other programs didn’t seem pleasant. My friend agreed. Boston would have plenty of people, schools, and opportunities to explore. I’d be out of the house, living in the world.

The plan was to find a two-bedroom in Cambridge area for a reasonable price. Turns out, it wasn’t that simple.

Continue reading “Feeling “at home””