Monday, January 18, 2010

Bustan al-Hayawanat (The Zoo) from The Agoraphobic's Guide to Cairo

Samia with her baby, and her daughter in the yellow Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle shirt.

Bustan al-Hayawanat The Zoo
[Oct 1993]

I learned quickly that it was not unusual to speak English with Arabs I met in Cairo. What was unusual, however, was to speak Arabic with anybody in Cairo. Apart from my professors, the only Arabs I had really met so far were the cab drivers that took me to and from school each day. Since their daily living depended upon being able to communicate with tourists from all corners of the world, and since everyone in Egypt began learning English in primary school, even when I began a conversation in Arabic, the driver would respond in English. It was great that I was meeting and talking to new people, but since I was trying to get a Masters' degree in the language, I really needed to do it in Arabic. I could see I was going to have to resort to deception.

Being blond-haired, blue-eyed, and light-skinned, pretending to be an Arab was out of the question. (Speaking Arabic with the skill of a preschooler might have been a tip-off, as well.) So one day as I climbed into a cab I turned to my ancestry for a little assistance. I decided to pretend I was German. Brilliant plan. As it turns out, eleven out of ten tourists in Cairo just happen to be German. So when I responded to my cabbie’s conversational English in Arabic, explaining that I was German and spoke no English, he didn’t even pause—he simply switched to conversing in German. Now I was stuck trying to recall my remedial college German to avoid blowing my cover. By the time we reached my destination—which took roughly three years—I had convinced my driver I was unable to communicate in just about any language. Poor little mentally challenged tourist, I could see him thinking as he pulled away.

The next time I jumped in a taxi, I chose a different branch of the family tree. I went Norwegian. I finally had this guy right where I wanted him. It was all Arabic, all the way. Thank God I never ran into one that actually spoke Norwegian, because I sure as hell don’t. After a few weeks of impersonating Europeans I realized I just might be ready to expand my social circle beyond the world of taxi drivers.
As we entered the month of October, we entered the blessed month of gratuitous national holidays in Egypt. October 6 is Armed Forces Day, during which Egypt celebrates landing one short-lived blow on Israel’s nose in 1973. Effective or no, it earned us all a 5-day weekend from the university. With my roommate Emily sequestered by a migraine, I decided to check out the Cairo Zoological Gardens on my own. The zoo was described fondly in my tourist bible, “The Real Guide: Egypt” by Dan Richardson and Karen O’Brien. The entry I read before leaving the house that day read, “Check out the Cairo Zoo—regarded as the finest in the world when it was founded in 1890.” Two sentences later, a distance I neglected to travel before I left, it added, “Try to avoid Fridays, weekends, or public holidays, when the zoo is packed with picnicking families.”

This was something of an understatement. If you are an Egyptian family wishing to enjoy a holiday, there is only one destination—the Cairo Zoo. Thanks to the holiday, admission was free, and the animals were outnumbered at least a thousand to one by vacation-hungry Egyptians. It was a real struggle to work your way up the edge of the exhibits. I barely caught a glimpse of the hairless polar bear, who was suffering from what looked like a pretty uncomfortable skin condition. The brown and black bears had hair, but clearly looked as though they would have been willing to forego it in the October heat. As an added treat—for the animals and the visitors—it cost only a few piasters (about a dime) to feed small children to the wild animals.

Actually, I managed to misunderstand this custom initially. In fact, parents were letting their children approach the bars of the cages to feed little canned weenies to the bears, giraffes, and elephants—with the assistance of some weary-looking zookeepers. The inmates seemed grateful to have something to do, and it seemed to me that more than one of them eyed wistfully the bite-sized people behind the canned weenies. I watched one excited little boy in blue jeans and a red and white striped shirt reach into the open mouth of a hippopotamus with a small twist of hay. It was all I could do to keep myself from running to the front of the cage and throwing myself between the boy and the hippo. Remarkably, he lived. Maybe they only hand-feed the blind and arthritic hippos, I thought to myself.

But for the thousands of locals who turned out that day, the most popular exhibit turned out to be Homo Sapien Americanica. From what I could see, I was the one and only US tourist who had decided that this would be a great day to explore a popular family park. (Apparently everyone else read the entire entry in the guide book.) Conservatively dressed (in my opinion), I wore long khaki pants and a men’s light blue, loose-fitting button-down shirt. I had even made a weak attempt to conceal my light-colored hair under a dark blue baseball cap. I had no way of knowing that by dressing like a man and wearing a baseball cap, I was also wearing a neon flashing sign that screamed AMERICAN TOURIST.

Inexplicably (to me at that time) I was afforded the same level of attention one might give a porcupine wandering loose among the exhibits. The attention was at first amusing, then unsettling, then downright annoying. Later I would feel like a fool for taking it personally that people didn’t know what to make of an American loose in an Egyptian zoo.

As I strolled self-consciously from display to display, I was repeatedly approached by giggling groups of children. What’s your name? Hello, hello, welcome to Egypt! Where are you from? Most of them clearly just wanted to be able to tell their friends later that they had talked to a foreigner and lived to tell the tale. Their mothers always stood apart, watching me with obvious distrust and waiting, no doubt, for me to pounce upon their children and devour them whole. When they saw for themselves that I did no such thing, they would relax a little. As the children ran back to their mothers and assured them I was harmless, my smile was always returned—from afar. I had never suspected I would have this hard a time meeting Arab women. I started to suspect I had chosen a poor location for my first social adventure.

During one in a series of such encounters, one of the mothers grew bold enough to approach me when she overheard me speaking broken Arabic to her children. She wore a long-sleeve black and white patterned blouse and a black, mid-calf skirt. Her dark brown hair strayed out from under a traditional white scarf that reached down past her shoulders. She was carrying an infant on her left hip and dragging her reluctant friends (most of them younger, with hair uncovered) behind her. Her kids called out to her as she approached, “She speaks Arabic! She speaks Arabic!” This was something she had to hear to believe. After a few tentative exchanges between us, during which I tried my best not to scare her away accidentally, she demanded (much to her friends’ initial alarm) that I join her family and friends for a picnic lunch. I agreed, and she put her right arm through mine and led me away. I was beginning to feel a little less like a leper.

Samia led me to a shady stretch of grass nearby where several families had already gathered. As soon as we arrived, the two or three men sitting among them were reluctantly ejected. Within seconds, the crowd of women and children, emboldened by their leader, surrounded me. It was pretty clear who was to be the main course of this meal. All around me I heard the question “What’s your name?” which seemed to be the extent of my new friends’ English skills. I had wanted Arabic, and I got it. Samia proved to be infectiously charming and sarcastically witty, and I soon understood why the others all wished to be near her. I could see she was torn between arranging the cheese sandwiches she had brought along for the occasion, and representing me to the crowd like an enthusiastic Hollywood agent. I had been transformed from social outcast to celebrity in the blink of an eye. To make absolutely sure that no one in the crowd proved to be an undercover English major, I offered no English myself. (Samia would ask me later if I actually knew any. She probably thought I was actually Norwegian. Happens all the time.)

Samia quieted everyone to fulfill the necessary social obligations before the actual interrogation could begin. I was introduced to Samia’s eighteen-month old daughter, and then to so many other children and young women that I soon lost track of every name but Samia’s herself. Samia herself appeared to be about thirty years of age, and had four children—three of which had accompanied her to the park. Both her ten year-old son and her eight year-old daughter wore yellow ninja turtle t-shirts. Her daughter wore a matching yellow headband. It seemed as though every child within twenty feet of me was wearing ninja turtle sneakers. Samia never set down her infant daughter, who wore a lilac-patterned dress and a permanent pacifier. She was about six or seven months pregnant, and her unbridled energy was astounding. Having been properly introduced, Samia and her friends at last allowed themselves to satisfy their curiosity.
My interrogators

Arabic was suddenly flying everywhere, and most of it kept going right over my head. My exposure to the spoken Arabic of Egypt (a far, far cry from the classical Arabic I had studied in the States) had begun scarcely a month earlier. To make sure I was following their friendly line of questioning, certain questions were repeated time and time again.

Why are you here? Where are you from? Are you living here? Where do you live? Do you live here alone? Are you married? Do you have kids? How did you learn Arabic? How long will you be here? What does your family think of your living here? Often times, one woman would ask me something, see my utterly confused look, and another would re-phrase the question in the hopes that I would understand it better. Soon enough, we were all more or less communicating.

I told them I had moved to Cairo to see the country and study Arabic. I would probably be here for a year or two. They were amazed to hear I had learned the little Arabic I knew in such faraway places as Seattle and Vermont. I told them I was from a small town named Madison, WI, located in the middle of the United States, and that my family was all there worrying about me as we spoke. Samia grew concerned when I told her the Cairene neighborhood I lived in: she suspecting immediately that it was terribly over-priced for foreigners. She was probably right. In comparison, she and her family paid less than one-quarter of the rent my roommates and I were paying. They also lived more than forty-five minutes outside the city center, up in the winding cliffs called Moqattam Hills. I told them I lived with fellow students from the States, and then I lied to them.

Everybody is so anxious to give advice when they hear you are preparing to move to a foreign land, with a foreign culture. I was very anxious to do and say the right things, so as to not alienate anyone I met when I got there. The main thing I heard from former travelers was that it was considered highly unusual—and fairly risqué—for a single American woman to be traveling on her own in a Middle Eastern country. That may have been true had I moved to Saudi Arabia, or had been traveling in the 18th century, but it was nowhere near the issue it was made out to be when living in a modern city like Cairo. I was still learning this, so before I had left to go the zoo that morning I had borrowed a cheap ring from Emily, along with a story of a fictitious husband still working in the States. I proceeded to tell Samia and her friends that yes, I was married, hoping this would boost any suspect respectability in their eyes. The moment I had said it I regretted it, realizing it would have made no difference to Samia whether I was married or single. I wish I could say it would be the last time I underestimated a new acquaintance, but it was not. I now realize that Samia was probably not fooled (except for the Norwegian thing). It is to her credit that she appeared to think no less of me.

They asked, “Is your marriage on paper (i.e., legal) or just ‘between you two’?” I now wanted to take it all back, but the fabrication rapidly snowballed out of my control. One of the women asked me, “Aren’t you dying to hold him?” Considering how long it had been since I had a serious boyfriend, this time I could honestly say yes, I was! “Do you have any children?” Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to not make up any children, but felt terrible just the same. “May God bless you with many,” I heard several women say. I told them I lived with two kittens, and this shocked them almost as much as my being in Cairo without my husband. “You have cats that live in the house?!” Turns out that was a bigger taboo in Cairo than living abroad as a single woman. I hadn’t caught that in any of my tourist books, and made a mental note to write to the editor as soon as I got home.

In Egypt, pets are considered unclean, and you must be clean to pray five times a day as a devout Muslim. Some Christians have dogs, but cats are different. In a city with no formal garbage pick-up system (there is—or was at the time—a lower caste who survived on collecting and sorting said trash) not once did I see a rat, not even in the poorest areas where garbage piles were taller than I am. That is because the city is completely filled with feral cats. They came in all flavors and colors, and some of the older Toms looked like they could take down a weak tourist, so I avoided those. Locals were not only frightened of them (as disease-ridden) but disgusted by them. So it took some time to explain that you could both bathe and domesticate the little beasts. To an extent, anyway. I left the topic as quickly as I could.

After more than an hour of answering questions and eating crusty hot-dog buns filled with stale cheese, Samia had made it clear that I could use some serious work in the weight department. I had only been in Egypt a month so I had only had diarrhea about that long, but I told her my mother would probably agree with her that I was a little on the light side. I don’t know how many children went hungry due to the overfeeding I endured that afternoon, but it had to be several.

After all the food and questioning, I was ready to collapse right there under the hibiscus trees for long nap. Samia saw me fading and brought an end to the interview, suggesting that we all get up and walk off our lunch in the park. Walking arm-in-arm with Samia and about ten of the children, I felt at home for the first time since arriving. The perceived barriers between us disappeared as we strolled among the exhibits and watched the children play. More than three hours after being adopted by them all, I reluctantly kissed Samia on both cheeks and headed back to my apartment, exhausted but happy. I had to promise repeatedly that I would soon visit her family’s home. Everyone in the group had insisted upon being photographed when they found my camera, and it was up to me to make sure everyone received their own record of our unexpected picnic. Samia wrote directions to her home on a piece of paper for me, which I prayed I’d be able to decipher later. I gave her my phone number, only to learn she had no phone. She gave me the number of her younger sister, Hanna, who lived and worked in the city, and we went our separate ways.

I was too tired to play word games with my cab driver, and nodded off several times in the short distance home. My roommate and my Siamese met me at the door with a thousand more questions, most of which were still floating through my head as I fell fast asleep on the sofa.

A new friend takes a pic of me, Samia, her toddler, and her son in the yellow Ninja shirt (with the matching Ninja attitude.)


Anonymous said...

Absolutely brilliant post guys, been following your blog for 3 days now and i should say i am starting to like your post. and now how do i subscribe to your blog?

Nancy Dietrich said...

Thank you for the compliment, but I do most of the blogging. The dogs don't even help with research!

To subscribe, scroll about halfway down the page and look for a white box on the right that says "Follow." You will see a few other profile pics of people that follow my blog.

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