22 September 2018

Today’s adventure was going to the eye doctor.  I’d gotten an email from the school a couple of weeks ago telling us our youngest didn’t do too great on his eye exam.  So we found an eye clinic a few minutes from our house and went today.

You really never have any idea what it will be like going to a medical provider for the first time in another country.  I’ve mostly been to broken foot doctors and orthodontists overseas and we still need to get an ortho lined up here (and please, let this be the last country where we need one) but I have no intention of needing a broken foot doctor every again.  But I haven’t been to eye doctors outside the US since those visits can easily be done during the summer.  So I can’t compare today’s experience to Mexico or Kyrgyzstan or Saudi except generally.

We arrived, checked in, paid, and sat down to wait. The appointment cost 250 geneh, or 14 dollars to get the eye exam and prescription.  There were lots of people there so the appointments were sort of assembly line style.  They’d call people back to get the air puff test done, then you’d go to the waiting room again.  Then you would see the eye  doctor who chatted a bit to find out why you were there.  Then he sent us back to the waiting room until we went to the third room where they had the woman who checked his eyes and wrote out the prescription.  The whole thing took about 90 minutes which was long but we both had books to read so neither of us minded.  And we couldn’t complain when it cost so little and was so close to home.  It really worked out very well and we made it home just in time to meet a friend who was coming over to play games.

20 September 2018

After griping for months about being able to go grocery shopping just once a week in Riyadh, I'm now having a hard time readjusting to shopping daily here.  I am getting closer though, and it will be even better when my rolling cart arrives, but that's still a long time away.

The biggest hangup has been finding the time to get out in my neighborhood and just explore.  There are lots of not-food stores right by my house that I have looked through, but I need to focus on food now.  I did go to most of the grocery stores in the area right at the beginning, but I don't really want to shop at those.  I need to adjust to going out in the middle of the morning each day and buying what we need for dinner.  And I need to get used to the prices and remember the names of all the produce we eat so I can get what I want.

My list of potential meals is shorter here than in Riyadh.  Really, Lulu was an amazing store and I could cook so many things because of it.  I've also been disappointed with the selection of greens I've found here.  But I will get this figured out.

As always, I'm curious to see the seasonal variation here.  There wasn't much in Riyadh, although there was a little.  But here there will be a lot more, especially in the smaller markets rather than the grocery stores.

Also, I will be very happy to see my kitchen appliances again someday.  Even some decent pots would be nice.  I am very glad I've hauled a cast iron pan everywhere this summer because the pots that are currently in this kitchen are so thin that they pop and crackle whenever I put them on the stove.  And I might hug the instant pot when I see it again.  And the blender and wheat grinder and bread mixer.  I am ready for my own bread and for tamales and a potato masher and a tortilla press and everything else.  But it's still likely to be at least another 6 weeks before I see anything.

19 September 2018

Food Prices, Round One

Since I find the cost of food to be endlessly fascinating no matter where I live, it’s time for a first post on the subject for Egypt.  These prices are from a Metro, a small grocery store near me.  It has a bit of a produce section, a cheese/meat counter, and some frozen and dairy products, but it’s mostly a convenience store.  I get milk there often because it’s the closest place for it and is open earlier than any other place, and produce if I change dinner plans in the afternoon and need something else. I usually get eggs here too because it’s convenient.  The feta I got today was a test.  I bought some there last week that was in sorry shape and had to be tossed.  The price for the feta is so very low that it makes me think it can’t taste good.  This all cost a little less than eight dollars because I got two milks. The cucumbers are the good Middle Eastern ones, not the sorry American monsters with thick skins.

30 brown eggs $2.80
900 ml skim milk 96 cents
1/3 kilo red peppers $1
850 ml cucumbers 92 cents
1/2 kilo feta  75 cents





18 September 2018

The Giza Complex

We did a quick trip here last week, because one should visit the pyramids when one lives in Cairo.  I plan to go back many times, but when it's cooler.   It's a large complex and you can walk all over the place, and you really should.

The tickets cost 120 pounds for the complex and 60 for students (so it was about $20 for our family of four to go in).  I'm writing that because it's always hard to figure out what the current prices are. There are additional tickets to go inside the bigger pyramids, and also for the boat museum.  It seems that I did the boat museum sometime but we didn't this time.  We also didn't pay to go inside the pyramids.  I did that once and it was rather hot and stuffy and a bit difficult to crawl through for not much reward, except knowing that you're inside a pyramid which is cool.  If you want to go in a pyramid, the smaller pyramids on the east side of the great pyramid are open and you can go in there and get the experience without quite so much crawling.

There are still plenty of people trying to sell you things or take you for a ride on a camel.  We declined, but it wasn't annoying.  They'll take you to go spots for photos if you want some of the iconic ones that you see in everyone's pyramid photos.  We ended up going further east beyond the three smaller pyramids I mentioned above and found a great spot for photos that was much easier to get to than the popular spot, and you could see seven pyramids from it, including four in descending order.

In addition to the smaller pyramids, your ticket will also get you into other open tombs around the site.  Go in those too.  Also, remember than there are two entrances so unless you have to get back to a bus or car at one entrance, you can go in one and out the other.  The main entrance is by the great pyramid and the other is by the Sphinx.  I think you can only buy tickets for the extra things at the main entrance, so you'd have to go there if you need those.

You'll see the now-famous Pizza Hut across from the Sphinx entrance if you use that one.  But what most English sites don't mention is that there's an Abou Shakra (Shaqra or Sha'ra is a better transliteration) next door with the same view and more interesting food.

Basically, there are tons of distractions here and people taking tours and feeling like this place is complicated.  Just go do your thing and have a fun time exploring.  You can do a tour if you like, but you can have a great time by doing your own reading about the place and walking around on your own.






17 September 2018

One thing I am loving about living in Cairo is that my days aren't all the same.  In Riyadh, the highlight of the week half the year was going to the grocery store.  Here, I have so many choices and I get to decide what I want to do every day.  And most of them involve Arabic so I get some interesting practice in addition to studying at home.  My main focus this year, or at least right now, is working on Arabic and getting to know Cairo.  Both of those things will make the following three years even better.  I laughed silently when a family we met said they'd visited Egypt recently before they knew they were moving here and thought they'd already done all the touring about there was to do in Egypt. 

The family is getting more settled.  School is going fine, work might be getting there, and the volunteering for the other son starts soon.  I imagine it will take a bit of time for him to be comfortable with it, but I'm hopeful it will be a very good thing for him. 

I really like our apartment.  After living in large houses with far too many bathrooms and more space than we could use, it's nice to be in a smaller apartment with just three bathrooms.  It's still larger than we need, but it's manageable.  Today I took apart the dishwasher and discovered why it wasn't cleaning very well since half of the spray holes were clogged up so that small irritation might be gone soon too.  And the laundry room is by the kitchen!  In Mexico it was in the basement and I had to walk out the front door with the laundry to get down there which was less than convenient.  I couldn't even get there when my foot was broken.  In Riyadh it was on the third floor of a house with very high ceilings and it was quite a hike up there, although I could get there with Riyadh's broken foot.  But here it's right by everything and so much better.  And the apartment is up several flights of stairs so I still get the stair climbing several times a day.

Also, the apartment is in a great location.  It's in the noisiest part of the quietest part of Cairo which is a nice combination and I can easily walk to lots of interesting places that aren't just upscale Cairo.  It's easy to get to from other parts of the city which is nice when you're trying to get home from something.  I still haven't even come close to exploring everything, even within a couple of blocks, because there is just so much here. 

We went to the pyramids this weekend, the pyramids everyone things of when they think of Egypt even though there are far more pyramids than those.  It was just a short visit since it will be cooler later on for walking all over the complex, but we did have a good time.  The youngest was sure he'd already seen enough pyramids to last a lifetime and didn't want to go, but when we arrived, he actually posed for some photos which communicated more than anything he could have said.   I'm looking forward to going back many times.

16 September 2018

Qayt Bay Complex

This building is, in my opinion, reason enough to come to the Qarafa, and it's far from the only reason. It is also a building any tourist to Cairo should see, but very few ever do.  I love the way the light changes inside.  It's a beautiful place. If you're having trouble identifying it, pull out a one geneh bill and look for the building pictured on it. 

It's been under construction for years and there is still construction debris and scaffolding.  The main part you go in, the madrasa/mosque, is mostly finished and usable so it's easy to see the lantern over it, although it's not the original and I'm not sure when the restoration was done.  There are still pigeons living inside which can add a bit to the mess, but not much.  I like the birds.

You should also ask to go into the mausoleum through the door opposite the main entrance (be ready to tip, maybe as much as 50 pounds). It's quite messy back there but if you can overlook the pigeons (the only tourist we saw when we were there last week spent most of his time complaining), it's a very lovely spot. 

We asked to go up the minaret but weren't able to this time.  We'll try again next time.  If you can go up, you'll see the dome much closer, along with the minaret.  Each one is one of the nicest examples of a dome and minaret in Cairo. 

More of this complex is still visible than many others.  You can see the apartment building (for Sufis), water trough, fountain, gate, and maqad (there's not a decent English translation for this space - basically, it's a covered hall that overlooked the inner courtyard of the complex where someone could sit and watch what was going on, but in this case the maqad is more closed off than usual).  There's also a smaller mausoleum under a lovely dome to the west that was used later by a Sufi shaykh.  The entire complex, including the apartments, were surrounded by a wall.  You can also see how much the street level has risen, especially in the photos below of the gate to the complex or the entrance to the apartment complex.

Qayt Bay ruled for about 30 years which was incredibly long for a Mamluk. He built all kinds of interesting buildings around the Middle East, including a dome on the Haram al Sharif in Jerusalem.

In my opinion, the best thing to do here is to sit for a while and watch the light as it moves through the colored glass windows and shifts around the lantern.  It's a quiet and peaceful place.













13 September 2018

Barsbay Complex

This was one of the few places we went inside this week.  This was built in 1432.  The minaret is an Ottoman replacement and looks it.  You can see the dome and minaret below (with Barsbay's dome a little hidden behind the plain dome).  This is the first example of a dome with a carved star pattern, along with the domes on the neighboring buildings.  Zigzags were popular before, and ribbed domes like Tashtimur's before that.

Most of this complex is ruined or completely gone so you're mostly just going into the prayer hall. You can also see out into a courtyard where there more more tombs and a dome.  But there's plenty to see inside, from the ceiling to the minbar.





12 September 2018

Tashtimur

This is one of the oldest existing tomb in Qarafa al-Kubra/al-Qarafa al-Sharqiyya.  We are particularly fond of this one for reasons that will be obvious to people who know us in real life.  The Mamluks extended the cemetery north from the citadel.  This tomb is very familiar after being in Uzbekistan with the ribbed dome and the blue tiles you can see from the north side.

Fun fact: a lot of Egpytian rulers had local nicknames.  Tashtimur's was Hummus Akhdar, or green garbanzo beans.  And that reminds me of this.

You have to go down two separate streets to see both sides of this one, and the smaller street is the more interesting side.  It wasn't open when we were there so many it all connects if you can go inside.  The main road (which is just called the Sultan Ahmad branch) is paved but it's the boring side.  Instead, walk down the road just north of Qayt Bay's gate and keep going west till you see the dome.  The first photo is from that side were you can see the remains of the tiles.

Fair warning that Google Maps is not as reliable as it should be in the Qarafa.  Roads are missing or they don't look like they connect, so be ready to explore on your own if you prefer to not go with a guide.  Also, the directions I'm giving above aren't exactly north and west, but tilted about 30 degrees east since the Qarafa is oriented that way. 

I love Cairo so much.  I especially like being back here after spending time in other Muslim countries that influenced Cairo's architecture.



11 September 2018

Al Qarafa

We are being completely random with our Cairo exploring so far.  Today we decided to go to the northern Qarafa, the City of the Dead. All of my memories of Cairo are 20 years old, since I was last here in 1997 (so it was weird thinking that some of the little kids we saw then could be the parents of some of the little children we saw today), but the Qarafa made a big impression on me and I've been looking forward to going back, especially to Qaytbay.

As always, I did lots of checking on the internet before we went, and I mostly saw negative reviews or people talking about only going with a guide or dismissing the place as entirely dirty and worthless.  And yes, it's dirty, even in this relatively dirty city.  I remember getting flea bites while walking around before and there is a lot of garbage there because there are fewer city services here.  There are also plenty of people who want to make the entire area a bit, or more than a bit, macabre, but I don't think that is fair either.  A lot of the Qarafa was built to house people - Qaytbay built an apartment building next to his mosque/madrassa and sufis lived here for centuries.  No one really knows how many people live in the cemeteries. They're huge and the government isn't keeping track of them.  There could be as few as 50,000 people and as many as half a million.  More people have moved here since 2011 when they couldn't afford to live in other parts of the city.

We had a lovely time checking out the street art, especially the Hajj art since the Hajj just ended.  This feels like the Cairo I remember, not the restored Cairo we saw in Muizz Street.  We saw one other foreigner there who talked more about the dirt than anything else in the short time we were in the saw room, but then he trotted off after his guide so we didn't have to listen to his complaints anymore.  My good mornings were even returned with mornings of jasmine and mornings of cream, instead of the more typical good morning or morning of light.

There are lots of traditional craftspeople working in the northern Qarafa.  Most were closed this morning since we were there early and it's a holiday, but you can find glassblowers, jewelers, carpenters, silver workers, and much more.  Check out http://www.undeadcrafts.com/ for more on that.

We had a lovely morning.  I choose to bring along a scarf/shawl when I go to older parts of Cairo that I can use to cover my hair with if I need to in a mosque but so far no one has asked me to.  I do wear it over my arms though because I don't have anything that is long-sleeved in my suitcase.  You also need to bring either small coins or something small like pencils to give to the children you'll see.  Almost none asked for anything this morning, but there was plenty of curiosity about us walking through there.  Also bring smaller bills so you can tip people in the buildings.  This is the old way to enter a building where there aren't tickets but you tip the person there, depending on how much they do.  I still haven't hit on the right amounts yet.  I feel like 10 pounds is reasonable for letting us in and watching our shoes, with a bit more if they open up other sections of the building for you.  For some perspective, the ride from the Qarafa to our house cost 50 pounds.  Do ask before taking a photo of any person, and don't go into anyone's personal living space.  I would hope this is obvious, but maybe it's not. 

I'll do separate posts on Qaytbay and Barsbay and the other sites we stopped at, but these are more general Qarafa photos.  I expect we'll go back often, partly because there is a lot left to explore, and partly because it's just an interesting and important part of the city.









10 September 2018

Happy New Year

Yesterday I remembered that I wanted to keep track of the Coptic calendar while we’re here, so I looked it up and realized that the new year would be starting on the 11th (tomorrow).  And then I had to look up Coptic New Year and discovered that it’s called Nayrouz in a very happy coincidence of Arabic speakers confusing the Coptic name for the holiday with the Persian word for new year.  Those are three completely unrelated languages.  (Sham al Nessim had a similar history with its name but I’ll talk about that in the spring).

So now we can see how a different Nayrouz is celebrated.  Apparently red dates are the thing to eat.  I think we’ll walk over to our neighborhood Coptic Church tomorrow since, in another very happy coincidence that happens pretty much never, it’s also the Muslim New Year tomorrow so it’s a holiday.  And don’t forgot that it’s also Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

One other interesting thing about the Coptic calendar is that it’s also the agricultural calendar for Egypt since it’s the ancient Egyptian calendar. It’s a solar calendar with 12 30-day months, plus an extra month with five days (today is the 5th day of that month).  It has six days in a leap year, so next September it will have 6 days and Nayrouz will be on September 12. Ethiopia uses the same calendar, both in the Ethiopian churches and secularly but the names of the months are different. So tomorrow is also Ethiopian New Year. And Eritrean too, of course, for the half of the population that is Christian.

07 September 2018

Al Aqmar Mosque

This mosque was on the north side of the Eastern Palace (so it's Fatimid) and was built in 1125.  As in any old city, the street level has risen a lot over nearly 1000 years, but the mosque was actually built over a first story of waqf shops that are now buried.  You have to go down stairs from the street level now to get to the "second" story of this building.  Aqmar means moonlit which is a lovely name for a mosque.

The Dawoodi Bohras restored this mosque.  They're an Ismaili sect (so Shia, and more specifically Seveners, but they're separate from the Nizari who are led by the Aga Khan - many of the divisions among Ismailis are the result of disagreements over succession during Fatimid - they were Ismaili - rule in Egypt) who continued in Yemen and India after the end of Fatimid rule in Egypt.  They mostly live in Gujarat and Karachi now, but they've restored a reasonable number of Fatimid sites in Cairo.  

Restoring/conserving/maintaining buildings in Cairo is, not surprisingly, complicated, and there are lots of different people who want to get involved.  The last time I was in Cairo was in 1997, just before major renovation projects started.  The Aga Khan has been very much involved and doing good work, as you'd expect. They build al Azhar park and have done a lot of work to maintain communities around the buildings they're restoring.  The Bohra restorations weren't as good, but their work was far better than doing nothing.  The last time a major restoration project had happened was in the late 1800s.  But nearly all of the restoration focus has been on specific buildings, which I think is short-sighted.  The grand buildings are certainly wonderful, but buildings don't exist without their people, and in Cairo, their people aren't foreign scholars and tourists, but the residents of the neighborhood.

Anyway.  This is the first mosque in Cairo to have a decorated stone facade and there are other firsts for Cairo here.  There are Shia designs too, especially with Ali's name being used. The Bohras rebuilt the right side of the mosque (see this photo for what it looked like before, and there are more to see there). 






06 September 2018

I've only been here two weeks but I am loving Cairo.   Some of it is just being here, after wanting to live here with my family for so long.  Some of it is knowing I don't have to move again any time soon.  And some of it is just not being in Riyadh.  I feel like I have time to get settled but also to explore.  I can speak the language.  I can GET THINGS DONE outside of my house all by myself.  I can stand to be outside in early September.  There's a place around the corner that sells cracked wheat koshary.  I love the history and there are so many good books about Cairo.  We have time to dig in here.  I wake up excited for the day with all kinds of interesting options.  

I do reserve the right to gripe about some things.  I'm still living with rats.  But it is just so nice to be here and I hope that feeling never leaves.

05 September 2018

Qalawun Complex

Our very first visit to Cairo was to Muizz Street, especially Bayn al Qasrayn and the Qalawun complex.  My husband is a bit fanatic about square kufic and there are some great examples in the mausoleum. This is not a mosque, but a qubba (mausoleum) and a madrassa (school). 

Since you're going to have to learn some Cairo history if you want to keep reading this blog, you can start now.  Here's your basic outline of the last 200 years of people living at the head of the delta.

Roman/Christian- until the Arab conquest
Arab conquest- 640, Umayyads rule
Abbasids (except for the Tulunids in at the end of the 9th century) 750
Fatamids- 968
Ayyubids- 1171
Mamluks- 1279 (Bahris first, then Burjis)
Ottomans- 1517

Qalawun was the first Mamluk, ending Ayyub rule.  Mamluks were Turkic/Caucasian/other slave  mercenaries under the Ayyubids who ended up ruling Egypt for 250 years.  Mamluk means slave or property in Arabic, but these mamluks had more rights than typical slaves and sometimes had a great deal of power.

Since Mamluks were foreign, often spoke Turkish, kept themselves separate from the local Egyptian population, and continued to import foreign slaves for their entire rule, they brought a lot of foreign influence to Egypt, something the Gulf didn't experience like Egypt and the Levant (and you can see the results of this still today).  Bahri Mamluks were mostly Turkic and Burji Mamluks were mostly Circassian.

There's obviously way more to this, but this is a good beginning.  There will be a test. :)

Till the Fatamids, Cairo was mostly based further south, near where the Romans built the Babylon Fortress and Fustat (part of this is known as Coptic Cairo now).  The Fatimids added in a lot more land, including what is now known as Fatimid Cairo, or a variety of other names like Islamic Cairo or medieval Cairo.  The Fatimids built an eastern and western palace along what is now Muizz Street, and the Qalawun complex replaced part of the western palace.  That section of Muizz Street is still known as Bayn al Qasrayn, or Between the Palaces, or Palace Walk, if you've read Naguib Mahfouz, while is a much nicer-sounding translation.  As you walk along this street, you're passing 1000 years of history.   There's only some woodwork left from the palaces that you can see in the Museum of Islamic Art, including beams that had been in the Qalawun complex.

To visit Qalawun complex, you'll need a Muizz Street ticket.  It costs 100 pounds for foreigners and 50 for residents and gets you in to all the sites along this street.  The easiest way to visit is to start at either the north or south end of the street, at Bab al Futuh on the north or the Tentmakers Suq on the south end on al Azhar.  Then just walk along that street.  There is a lot to see, so you can try to get to everything at once on the same ticket or just do what you can and come back another day.

This complex was restored about 10 years ago, along with several other buildings along Bayn al Qasrayn.  There are still some ruined areas in the back, but between the madrasa and qubba, there's plenty to see.  There's also an attached hospital.  It's currently an eye hospital and there has been a functioning hospital on this site for over 700 years. 

This is the first major Mamluk building, and it truly does have a new style with significant Syrian architectural influence.  The entire complex was planned well with plenty of water and an excellent hospital for the time.  The mashribiyya door leading to the qubba is one of the earliest mashribiyya examples. The columns inside the qubba are from an Ayyubid palace on Roda Island.  Salih al Ayyub brought in lots of mamluks which led to the eventual overthrow of the dynasty, so maybe it's a bit fitting that columns from his palace ended up in the first Mamluk mausoleum.

The square kufic designs here are wonderful and unique. One panel that is repeated four times manages to fit in Muhammad, Ali, part of the shahada, and more that I can't even remember. 

This really is one of the most beautiful spaces in Cairo, especially now that it has been restored.  There are colored glass windows, wonderful ceilings, mashribiyya screens, lots of history, and more.  It's definitely worth a visit, even if you're here for a short time.










04 September 2018

Church of Virgin Mary, Maadi

We'd just arrived in Cairo and I knew the following week or two wouldn't leave much time for exploring anything religious or historical, so when we had some free time our first day here, we went to this church since it is close and interesting.  It's a traditional Mary and Jesus site since, as the story goes, this was a ferry crossing or stopping point on the Nile for a very long time.  We heard both a crossing and a point to sail south to Upper Egypt.  Maadi means ferries in Arabic.

It's a lovely little church with a well that was used in case of attack if people needed to take refuge inside, and some stairs that are supposed to be very old ones leading to the ferry pickup, plus a bookstore and some food stands.  It's right along the Nile, as you'd expect, and a nice place to see the Nile when a lot of the riverbank is lined with restaurants.

There are also some relics, including a Bible that was found floating on the Nile about 40 years ago opened to a certain passage in Isaiah.





03 September 2018

Cairo

We finally made it to Cairo about 10 days ago after months of bouncing around.  It hasn't all been easy - we have rats in the apartment and I've already been spit on - but I am so happy to be here in spite of that.  Cairo is just as big and chaotic as I remembered, but it's also so green and cool in comparison to Riyadh.  It's nice to have green trees rather than the ubiquitous dusty palm trees of Riyadh, and it's even nicer to be able to get out of the house and do things. I feel like I've spoken more Arabic in a few days in Cairo than the entire time I was in Riyadh.  

It will be a long time before we have a car here, but it doesn't really matter.  I don't really want to have to park anywhere, and I can walk to everything I need.  And there's Uber and Kareem.  My husband and I were picked up yesterday at Bab al-Futuuh by an Uber driver.  So much easier than haggling over the correct price with a taxi driver.  And Uber drivers are as willing as any other Egyptian taxi driver to practice Arabic.  Plus, it's so very inexpensive.  Even a 30 minute ride is just a couple of dollars.  

Lots of other things are very inexpensive too.  A dollar is worth almost 18 pounds, so it's almost the same as a peso which makes it easier to remember.  But most things cost less here than they do in Mexico, especially if they're produced locally.  Our neighborhood is more expensive than most, but it still feels like nearly everything is very cheap. But that also make imported things feel really expensive, even when they cost about the same as the US or even a little less.  

I've been to so many grocery stores to explore what is available.  Lulu is here but a long drive, and it wasn't enough better than closer larger stores to make it worth going out there very often.  I was hoping for a good produce section, but it wasn't anything like Lulu in Riyadh.  More like regular grocery stores in Riyadh.  

I did discover a real neighborhood near our house though, complete with flatbread, goats, and men playing backgammon.  There are plenty of produce stands there and I still need to spend some time exploring the streets really close to my house now that I've decided the grocery stores are mostly boring.  And there are places further away to find.  There's supposed to be Uyghur naan and Hui lamian.  I mostly need to find markets that sell greens because that's what I am missing most.

There are lots of mangoes right now.  They're not super cheap, but they're cheaper than in the US or Riyadh.  I always bought the Egyptian mangoes the first year in Riyadh, but then they were banned so it's nice to have them again.  Strawberry season will start pretty soon too.  They were also banned the second year in Saudi.  

Our first day here we walked to a Coptic Church on the Nile (I love being so close to the Nile), but since then, we've been busy trying to get daily life organized.  Yesterday we finally went to Bayn al-Qasrayn.  More on that in another post.

School is going fine for the youngest, I think.  I hope so.  It's nice to have a much shorter school commute.  Church is also surprisingly good.  A huge number of new American and Canadian families moved in this summer, plus several from South Sudan.  There are 19 youth in the branch right now and plenty in primary.  The branch has been much smaller since 2011 so maybe it's recovering a bit.

Mostly, it's just so nice to be able to get things done on my own here.  Even though it's hot in the afternoon, you can stand to be outside, or you can wait a bit for it to cool off in the evening.  I've wanted to come back to Cairo ever since I left and live here, but spending 2 years in Riyadh right before makes it even better.  

There's more to write and I'm planning to post much more here than I did in Riyadh.

04 August 2018

We went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture this week.  I had to get tickets months ago because they still are requiring timed passes, nearly two years after the museum opened, because there is still so much demand to visit.  It's worth any hassle you need to go through to get there.

I knew we wouldn't have time to see everything, and unfortunately I've had a cold and was feeling pretty run down that day so I didn't have the energy to stay longer even though the boys were happy to metro home without me.  It's also not an emotionally easy place to visit, and that was made worse by being tired.  

So we only saw the history section, below ground.  We didn't even touch the culture section which is in the main part of the building.  I'd read a little about the layout before we went so I knew we needed to go down as soon as we got there.  You ride an elevator down several floors to 1400 in Africa and Europe at the very beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and then you walk up three floors through history.  No escalators, almost no places to sit, no restrooms, no other way out  You couldn't get away from the images of slavery or segregation.  Yes, I am certain that was intentional. I know there are people who don't like the design of the museum, but I like it when even the architecture of a place contributes to the history.

There is a ton of information presented.  Even in three hours, I didn't have anywhere near enough time to take in everything in the history section.  Maybe all day for that part and another full day for the rest of the museum?  There are also disturbing images and parts that are hard to deal with.  Most of the time I was walking through with my 10-year-old and I didn't realize that red-rimmed images were a warning, so he saw some hard things.  But we also talked about some important things as a result.

My son visibly recoiled in some parts.  Not just photos of lynchings (where I told him to look at the faces of the people witnessing the lynchings - sometimes laughing, sometimes with children (who brings a child to a lynching?)) but also the dolls and puppets and caricatures of African Americans.  We talked for a while before going in to see Emmett Till's casket.  For me, it was the tiny shackles that a child would have been forced to wear while crossing the Atlantic.  Again, who does that?  How do you take a child from their parents and sell them to the highest bidder?  (And how do you take a child from their parents and then deport the parents?)

Sometimes everything felt a bit jumbled, but that's how history really is, and real life.  You can be reading something fairly benign and then come up on a Klan hood.  Again, the idea came through clearly to me that you can't get away from this, and that this is history for all Americans, not just African Americans.

The museum is more political than any other Smithsonian.  I would imagine its presentation of history would irritate some people.  It's not the history I heard in school, which glossed over so much but co-opted the Underground Railroad and only ever talked about Rosa Parks. Any museum has its story to tell and this one is no exception.  To me, the way the museum chooses to tell the story tells you as much as the story itself.  This is American history, not told by white people.  And I would hope that anyone who goes here understands why that is important.

The history section ends with Obama's election, on an optimistic note.  But it also talks about Black Lives Matter.  And when you finish, you know what happened a few months after the museum opened, and then the next summer in Charlottesville where white supremacists waved Confederate and Nazi flags and were rewarded with being called good people by the new president. Those images fit the dark side of the history in this museum.

We ate lunch in the cafeteria, which is sort of a must since you can't re-enter the museum.  The food was delicious even though it was expensive.  But I never mind paying more for food at a free museum, especially one as huge as a Smithsonian.

Something else I noticed?  There were far, far more African Americans at this museum than any other Smithsonian I've been to, including Anacostia.  I also didn't hear other languages spoken very often, as I usually would in a Smithsonian.  I don't doubt that having to plan ahead to get timed passes makes it much less likely that international visitors would come.  But when Washington DC's population is half African American, it was good to finally see a museum in Washington that tells a new, American story.

It will be years before I'm able to go back, but I will be back.

24 July 2018

I wrote this before we left Riyadh but never posted it.

I’m writing this a few hours before our plane leaves.  By some miracle, I got everything ready to go with six hours to spare.  We need to find a way to eat dinner, and my husband still has to pack his suitcases (and, I fear, he’ll need to go out and buy another suitcase for all of his stuff).  But I am done.

Saudi has not been a place I have much liked living, which is very disappointing since there is a lot to love in this country.  I am leaving with at least as many regrets as good memories, which isn’t ever what I want in any country.  But I couldn’t do anything about it.  I am so ready to move to a place where I am allowed to live my life again.  Saudi sucked almost all of the enjoyment out of the many things I love about living overseas.

I hate the inequality here.  I felt bombarded with stories about friends being accused of crimes they didn’t commit, friends living far from their families, friends leaving the country because of Saudization.   I’m constantly discriminated against.  It’s always very polite, but it’s always, always there.  

The heat is oppressive.  I know, I know, it’s a dry heat, but a heat index of 102 does not beat an actual temperature of 113.  It’s not even close.  And it’s hot here for month.  You get used to it in many ways, but it’s still oppressive.  Like so many other things here.  

So yes, I’m more than ready to leave.  The abaya is in the trash can.  We’ve said goodbye to all of our friends and I hope to see them again someday.  We did end up having to get another suitcase, but it’s manageable.  And maybe someday I can live here again when it’s allowed to be me.

06 June 2018

Last Trip to the Escarpment

From the very first time I rode down the Jabal Tuwaiq in September of 2016 until now, this is my favorite place to be in all of Saudi Arabia.  This isn't our usual spot since the road is blocked off right now, and it was much too hot on Saturday to be out, but I needed to go once more before we leave.  I never felt like we got a really good photo anywhere along the escarpment, but I hope some of them will be enough to remind me.  

You get here by driving through Amaaria and then continuing on the road you can see on Google maps or Google earth that goes almost out to the edge.  The last bit is dirt roads.


Most people go to the top of Camel Trail 1 or to the Edge of the World, both of which are good spots to go.  But what I really loved was exploring anywhere we could that people didn't go

The first time we went to the top of the escarpment rather than driving down the Mecca road, I was trying to get us to Camel Trail 2.  It seemed like a doable thing and we found a road that seemed to work.  We didn't actually find the trail, but we both knew there was a lot more to see there.  We got a fire pit and telescope for Christmas and started to go out whenever we could when it was cool.  I think those are the favorite memories of Saudi Arabia for the entire family.  We'd pick different outcroppings to roast hot dogs on, sling stones off the edge, and once we took a pack of teenage boys who launched flaming balls over the side.  We looked at the stars and ate s'mores and kebabs and sometimes convinced friends to drive their cars out there with us.  




One day we drove to the escarpment down a long wadi I found on Google maps. I had no idea if that wadi would actually get us all the way there and it certainly wasn't a road, but we made it.  We ended up a little north of where the power lines go down.



Another day we started at the bottom of the escarpment and drove up an interesting looking road I'd found on Google maps.  It went up right up the escarpment and  looked like it was graded which is a major improvement over driving down a wadi.  You obviously can't drive up the escarpment in most places because it's a cliff, but this was a lovely and interesting drive.  After getting closer to Riyadh and seeing more signs, we realized it was the Aramco natural gas pipeline road.



After the road we had been using to get to our close spot was closed, we tried a couple of different options.  This road went down Wadi Laban and took a long time to get there, but we loved the sunset over the wadi.  This is the quickest way to our usual spots, but it takes over an hour to get there and the road isn't as good as the paved road further north.  It's probably better not to do this one in the dark.



We did end up finding a different way into our spot that worked for a few months, but that's closed now too. 



Goodbye, Jabal Tuwaiq.