Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Still alive... somehow.

The other day was... well... interesting. Let's just say I'm glad to be healthy, alive, and in Maadi where it's

My friend Kelly (studying Arabic in the same program) called me on Monday and asked if I wanted to go with her to her Egyptian friend's house for dinner. She had hung out with her several times and assured me that she trusted her and her family and that it would be awesome... plus, I need to get at least two hours of solid Arabic speaking in every day, and I knew it would be a great opportunity. I consented, and off we went.

We rode the metro from Maadi (see below... 10 stops from the bottom - red line) all the way up to Ain Shams (third from the top... about a 45 minute ride).

(FYI I live right between the Maadi and Hadayeq El-Maadi stops)

To be fair, I don't think Kelly knew quite how far away this was... We got off the metro and I realized right then that we shouldn't have gone all the way out there alone (without a guy). Had we known the area we actually wouldn't have even gone with a guy. I'm pretty sure no tourists EVER go there, and I'm thinking it's very rare that they see any Americans, judging by the way they were looking at us.

We were waiting for Aisha to come pick us up, and I asked Kelly if she knew what social class Aisha belonged to. I know, a weird question. There's totally class-distinction here and it's a little weird, but it tells you a lot about a person if you know. I had assumed she was really wealthy since she would be picking us up from the station... I assumed that meant a car. She said she thought Aisha was really upper-class. We would soon learn the opposite.

Anyway, we waited at this SUPER sketchy train station for about half an hour. It was so crowded, but hardly any women, which isn't a good sign. Just tons of young guys who were not discreet about checking out the foreign girls. Luckily two local girls walked by, noticed the group of guys talking about us, and when the guys finally approached us, the girls came over and told them to "Imshii!" (get lost). There were a few older people watching out for us too, some shop-keepers and things, but I'm pretty sure if our program director knew where we went, he would not have been happy. But, since we were there, we decided we'd make the most of it.

Aisha finally came and walked us through this extremely poor village, full of donkeys and children playing in the dirt. She finally helped us on to a minibus. Now, we have actually been advised not to ride these mini buses, since they don't stop. You need to just kind of tuck and roll to get off. We really had no choice since it was that or a donkey, or walking for who knows how long, so we boarded, and lived to tell about it.

(FYI, a minibus is a dirty little van with no doors, and about 15 people inside, and 6 or so hanging on for dear life outside. It's driven by a skilled young man, usually has loud Arabic music playing, is filled with cigarette smoke and sometimes has a pretty decorative little fringe around the ceiling).

We rode that little demon for about 15 minutes. At this point I had no idea where we were. We were somewhere in the belly of Cairo and our phones lost reception. We walked along a dirt road lined with abandoned-looking buildings until we got to one that looked particularly empty. Aisha banged on the door, and yelled "Ahmed!" I looked up, cause she was looking up, and there was a little basket being lowered on a rope. Aisha gabbed it, smiled and said, "al-muftah!" (the key!) and the basket went back up. She unlocked the heavy iron door and told me to go in. I went in and it was pitch black. No lights. There were stairs so I went up two levels where Ahmed (her brother) was waiting at an open door.

At this point I was basically thinking we were doomed.We had no idea where we were, we didn't know our way back home and there wasn't a taxi in sight. Not even a car. Some families here will try to marry you off to their sons, and if you go into their home they'll keep you there till 3 am, so, needless to say, I was nervous. Aisha led us into their humble apartment and I just got more nervous, this time about my physical health. These people were so poor. We walked into the bare room and there was Aisha's father in a dirty dark brown galabiya (egyptian man-dress) and a small white scarf wrapped around his head. He was sitting on the floor with his two sons eating dinner off of a big tray with their hands. There was nothing in the room except for a threadbare rug - Concrete floor and walls.

We went and waited for them to finish eating in another small dark room. Eventually Aisha's mom came in with another huge tray full of food for us.

This was third world at it's finest. I wish I had my camera, but not really, cause I would have felt guilty having it around these people.

I was SO nervous to eat any of the food, but it was all really hot, so that helped to calm my nerves. We had chicken with "salt" (reddish spicy powder with a little salt...) rice cooked inside a variety of things: grape leaves, little squashes, peppers, and eggplants. Then there were pitas, which I couldn't make myself eat. It looked good, but on the way to their place I had seen someone selling pitas. They sell them out in the open air, just sitting out on a table all day. There's usually flies all around (cause of all the donkeys...) and I had seen a bunch of pitas fall into the dirt (and donkey poo), and the owner of the stand just picked them up, and set them back in the pile. With that in mind, I left the pita where it was. Then there was this...soup? I don't even know. It was oil, and melted chicken fat, with some green stuff... maybe parsley, and other random chunks. The consistency was just slimy. I took one spoonful, and I felt as though I had just ingested someone else's saliva or the stuff that slugs and snails are covered in. Like seriously goopy. Just disgusting. Worst texture ever. I thought I was going to throw up. I asked what was in it, and one of the ingredients (that I understood the Arabic word for) was garlic. I faked a garlic allergy, and said I would get really sick if I ate anymore. That part was actually true.

The scariest part of the night was dessert. The sweet mother made us juice out of melons, but it was made with Egyptian water... who knows where it came from, or what was in it. No one drinks the tap water here, but these people did... and so did we. They're SO into welcoming people and being hospitable that there's no way to turn them down. It's so awkward, and so hard, especially when they're so poor. It was a big cup, and one of the only two cups they owned. I don't think she washed it after she drank out of it at dinner.

Once we had started eating, I changed my mentality completely. I decided to just enjoy myself. After the first bite of chicken I realized that I would likely get sick, and I might as well just go for it whole-heartedly. I relaxed a little and just enjoyed the conversation. None of them spoke english, and I'm really grateful that my Arabic is getting to the point where that really doesn't matter. It's so cool to be able to communicate with someone so different from yourself in their language. It was so funny too, they asked if I knew the Surat al-Fatiha (the first chapter of the Quran, which I happen to have memorized in Arabic). I recited it for them, and it was seriously so cool. When I memorized it I didn't even know the words I was saying, but I could see as I said the words that it meant so much to them.

We only stayed two hours, and made up some story about a curfew and having to rush home. It was still hard to leave, but finally their dad was like, "it's dark, this area isn't safe! they need to go!" I was grateful for his insistence. I have to say, despite all the strangeness of the night, they were the sweetest family in the world. I would trust them with my life after that night. They're amazing people. We talked a lot about religion and how we differed in our beliefs, but then they automatically went off on how all of us believed in God and Adam and Eve, and they just continued to find every similarity they could between us. In the end, Ahmed said, "Ihna Ikhwaan - entu ikhwaati " (we are siblings - you are my sisters).

Luckily, Aisha and her brother Ahmed walked us back/took us on the minibus (and paid for us! hey refused to let me pay - even though it was only nine cents I think). They walked us all the way to the door of the metro. Oh, and on the way there Ahmed even stopped and bought us Twinkies.... and proceeded to try to get our phone numbers... haha.


On the metro, I saw two little kids all alone. I smiled, waved, and then threw a twinkie at each of them. Not at them, but to them. Haha. They refused to take them for about 10 minutes. I finally showed them that we had more, and insisted that they eat them. They looked so happy, and ate them so slowly. The girl motioned for us to come sit next to her. We went over and talked with them for the whole ride home. They were so cute. They had school books, so Muhammad, the little boy, and I went through his book together. He would read a sentence out loud, but he was still learning to read, so I would read it with him, and then he would correct my pronunciation. It was so fun. He was precious.

The whole night ended up being a great experience, but I'm very content in Maadi at the Maadi Club and Shariy3a Tisa3a (more on those next time - they're quite the opposite). Ain Shams shall never see my face again.

(Oh, and I didn't even get sick! Prayers are answered! Seriously, that's a miracle if ever I've seen one.)


  1. WHAT A STORY! I am so glad that you are OK. This is a story that you will definitely have to share in person when you get back!

  2. amazing! what a story is right. what an experience! i can't wait to talk to you!

  3. i can't believe all the crazy experiences you are having. prayers are answered! stay safe, and keep sharing your stories, i'm totally captivated.

  4. Wow. I'm glad you're safe. Take care.

  5. Wow! What an entertaining read. Stay safe - we want to hear all these stories in person one day :)

  6. Hey Beth, have you seen the movie Ajami? This kind of reminded me of that (dangerous neighborhoods in Arabic speaking places). It's in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles, and set in Tel Aviv. You'd probably like it.

  7. Wow! What a host of emotions you had (and I'm having) - fear, relief, gratitude, etc.
    I'll constantly thrilled for you and your new adventures, but please be safe!
    And come home! Love, Dad

  8. Perhaps I should not have read this...

  9. Oh my, I just read this and thought I would catch up on your latest adventure. Adventure is an understatement. You make my life seem so mundane and predictable. (Which has it's advantages)
    Gosh there is so much to say and yet so little to really say except that you are so totally lucky to be in Maadi and having it all. So far your stories are beyond amazing.I carry a prayer in my heart for you. I am so glad you didn't get sick!! Big blessing.

  10. I'm going to assume the soup was maybe a mulukhia of sorts. If it truly was like snot going down...yeah, I'm going to assume it was mulukhia.


    And you went to China?! So jealous. *sigh*

  11. Wow Bethany!

    I love reading any and all updates, so keep posting!
    You are one brave woman.
    (..and cute twinkie story.)

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  13. You could make a film with the stories you'll come home with. For some reason I think of the movie Rendition when I'm reading about your adventures, not sure how accurate the setting is. Anyways, again, be safe!