Monday, April 19, 2010

LETTER XXIII: If it's Thursday it must be Cairo

March 27, 2010

If you go to the pyramids and your camera deletes all of your photos, did you really see the Sphinx? Those great gimmicky shots from far enough away so it looks like you are holding Cheops by the tip, or blowing a kiss at the big, human-headed cat. And the shots we took in the deep dark recesses of the Queen’s tomb where “No Photographs” is prominently displayed … A smooth few Egyptian pounds to the guy guarding the door makes that all possible. Maybe an offended Queen cursed the flash drive? Or was she jealous of that buff, big man of Memphis, Ramses II?

We were mighty sad to lose those photos but not at all disappointed with our Egyptian experience (except for missing our friends Neil and Trudie Prior there by about 10 hours!). Sufia Lodhi and Yasir Khan (his name is Khan and he is not a terrorist; he is broadcast journalist and involuntary comedian) welcomed us to the guest room in their lovely Maadi apartment. Katie and I had the honor of being the last guests there before they move to Doha, Qatar, where Yasir is starts a new job with Al Jazeera. After he worked on my “Inside Mecca” team, Yasir took a position at the American University of Cairo. Lucky students. Sing to the class if you’re late. Cell phones confiscated if used. Failing grades given as deserved. And a hell-of-an education in production.

Day One was Giza, Memphis, the Saqqara “step” pyramid, and as touristy a lunch as I’ve ever had. But for the lunch the day was fascinating. The tourists at the restaurant were boring. Seen one, seen ‘em all. To be among them eating elementary Egyptian food was hard to swallow but chalked now up to experience. I am deeply privileged to have traveled as a reporter or as family. The world looks differently when you are greeted with an authentic smile of greeting or a deeply skeptical grimace, when you have the back roads to trek and small alleys to shop. No matter how you see them, though, the pyramids are incomparable: still gasp-worthy after all these years. New for me was the hunk Ramses II, especially in his Memphis museum (not as in the photo here). Lying on his back, as the granite statue was found, his muscular shoulders look ready to hunt or hug; his nose is smooth and proud, chin authoritative, eyes gentle, beard coiffed, legs and calves toned to perfection. The loincloth was too heavy to peek underneath.

Recently renovated Fatimid, Mamluke and Ottoman mosques not far from Al Azhar and Khan Khalili are open again; lining a street we nicknamed “Islamic Cairo,” but of course much of Cairo is “Islamic,” and its mosques and monuments pierce the skyline from the Citadel with not-the-boxer-Muhammad Ali-mosque, to the many inhabited shrines of the City of the Dead. Although the architecture of these particular mosques was far from Nabatean, I saw shades of Petra on this bustling, shaded, beautifully sculpted street. It was the patrons and tombs. “Remember me!” booms from the statues of Ramses, from Petra’s Khaznah or “Treasury,” and from the finely adorned, inlaid and filigreed walls and ceilings of these exquisitely restored mosques. Today patrons tend to prefer performing arts centers and sports stadiums – places of the living to anoint their posterity. But for centuries humans raised and praised the dead.

Katie, Sufia and I prayed ‘Asr at Al Azhar that Friday. ‘Asr is the afternoon prayer, not the big crowded congregational prayer that so often is filmed for news reports to fill in video during stories about acts of violence committed by Muslims. The women’s section at Al Azhar was crowded but not stifling. Most importantly, Katie and Sufia talked about religion and faith and the inconsistencies of the twain and practice. Sufia was banished from Islamic “Sunday school” in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, for asking too many questions; Katie keeps her mouth shut and is getting “A”s in her religion class at Modern American School. But they have the same concerns, mostly to do with hypocrisy, priority, patriarchy, and complacency. I am glad Katie has another adult to hear her. She is blindingly brave, innocently courageous, subjecting herself to the contrary lessons of theoretical Islam and its manifestations. One day she will see, insha Allah, how this experience sharpened her wit and wisdom; meantime she either suffers in silence or has transcendent moments with people like Sufia or her English teacher, Ms. Aisha. Ms. Aisha is Welsh. She told me, “If I’d come to Jordan before embracing Islam I’d never have become Muslim.”

Somewhere between the Mamlukes and Azharis is a bronze souk. I am now determined to buy a bronze minaret cap for our Maplewood garden. (See photo above.)

March 27 is another birthday for my mother. Tonight, as we enjoy Egyptian take out with friends, mom, Pete Bolton, and Janna dine at the Rose Tatoo in Philadelphia. Peter joins board members of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the second annual trustee dinner at Bob and Buena Chilstrom’s home, celebrating also the arrival of twins to our great education director Brian Crowe and his partner Walt.

God bless them all.