Monday, May 24, 2010

First impressions are important

I arrived in Cairo and managed the entry process no problem; I was glad that I had obtained my visa in advance because that certainly seemed to simplify the process. No questions asked, no money to pay. I was met by Muhammad who announced that he was my driver for the 3 hour trip to Alexandria. It was clear right from the start that just because we were heading out at 1 a.m. did not mean the streets would be vacant and all would be smooth sailing. During the next three hours I experienced Egyptian driving to its fullest down the desert highway, although I tried to avert my eyes from the road so I couldn’t see what was happening. I thought it wise that Muhammad’s car has some sort of annoying alarm that went off whenever he hit 120 km/hr (which it did frequently – but it did assure me that he was awake when he immediately slowed down every time). It was clear, too, that not everyone had that same limitation, despite the posted speed limits, the absence of taillights on a disconcerting large number of cars and trucks, and the tendency of people to  park on the inside lane of the highway. Given the way the road was constructed, it seems likely that  it was constantly under the process of development, with us sometimes enjoying four lanes of well-paved road followed by speed bumps and  then a stretch of two-lane corduroy.

When we started our trip from the airport, Muhammad decided to have the radio (I think) tuned to Qur’an recitations. When we left the bedlam of Cairo he changed the station, seemingly to a talk show, but then I caught some of the conversation and realized that this was a religious program, an insight confirmed when it too transitioned into recitation. I quite enjoy listening to the Qur’an recited so no problem there, but I did come to appreciate that this surely was the modern Egyptian equivalent to the St. Christopher medallion of my own childhood car rides, as well as protection that was sorely needed, not only in the environs of Cairo itself but probably on every road in Egypt. What can I say? I got to my hotel safely.

The first impressions of Alexandria -- informed mainly by the view from my hotel-on-the-beach but also from a short walk -- appears to be composed of a narrow strip of poorly constructed (with lots in that Mediterranean-style partially constructed state) and ugly apartment buildings right along the Corniche. I found it somewhat oppressive to walk along the street, the noise of the traffic reverberating against the tall structures and seemingly pushing me into the sea. Not that such a fate would be so bad because the water looked quite appealing with some nice waves to make kayaking just interesting enough.

What has been commonly reported – and what is certainly quite different from when I was in Egypt in the 1980s – is that most of the women walking down the street are hijabis, although, as anyone can determine through casual observation, there clearly is a lot more to the phenomenon than simply increased religiosity. That most of the younger women manage to cover their hair but, at the same time, fit into incredibly tight jeans as well as form-fitting tops definitely conveys a strong fashion sense than is jarring to Canadian assumptions, to say the least. Who would have thought that hair could be understood as an apparent major marker of sexual appeal? (I suppose the story of Samson might be read that way…). Wearing a hijab here is also clearly a class thing: one only needs to compare those who are staying in this hotel to those who are working in it to appreciate that wearing a hijab in Egypt should likely be understood as an urban statement of sophistication.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lounging around

I have almost 7 hours to wile away in Heathrow, waiting for my flight to Cairo. So, I'm in the lounge again, trying to resist eating too much and just having lots of tea and coffee. Given that beer, wine and hard liquor are available just for the taking, it surprises me somewhat that there don't seem to be many people taking serious advantage of it. But that's good because it does mean that the lounge is a nice, quiet place to hang out, certainly better than in general departure area -- and undoubtedly calmer than the bedlam that awaits me in the Cairo airport.

It's a gorgeous day here -- totally sunny (no sign of ash-filled air) and a temperature of 21 degrees or so. But airports, of course, are places from which you can only look outside and not venture out, so it seems something of a waste to see blue sky but not be able to enjoy it. I haven't been in Terminal 5 before but it feels little different from the other cavernous buildings here to which I have become accustomed from previous trips. A bit more glass and more industrial in design, perhaps, but the stores are the same and the available goods identical -- I'd be hard pushed to find anything worthy of taking home as a souvenir from here. One unique thing I did notice was a Gordon Ramsey restaurant "Plane Food". That hardly seems like a winning name to me although I acknowledge its pun-ish character.

I do like puns and other plays with language. To pass the time here, I have checked out the available reading material in the lounge. It's not as interesting a selection as in the Air Canada lounges (maybe because most of it is just "too British" for my tastes these days) but I did come across a cartoon that played nicely on the cliche of "Happiness comes from living today like it's the last day of your life". It had the character saying "I'm dying, I'm dying -- funny, I don't feel any overwhelming sense of happiness." That reminded me of a cartoon in my office that has a man pointing at his cat sitting next to a litter box, saying: "Never, ever, think outside the box". I like both of those because they emphasize the ridiculousness of taking things literally -- or, more precisely, it makes me ponder the fact that it's seldom that we really use language in a literal way, that fundamentally all language is metaphorical because words are not, by themselves, the "things" we are talking about. But, of course, lots of people like to claim they are dealing with things "literally" but really they are just making a rhetorical move in order to claim authority for their own interpretation while dismissing the validity of everyone else's. But literalism can produce some amusement -- although I'm not sure Gordon Ramsey's will prove commercially wise. Maybe there's something in that to ponder too.

Hmmm. No word yet on how I might be getting home from Cairo. No pun or play there.

PS: I forgot to mention that I only watched one film between Vancouver and London: it was (naturally, if you think about it) “Up in the Air” – not that I’m being displaced from my position at work, but rather because my strong desire to accumulate points so as to access these lounges dominates everything!!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Slogging down to Egypt

A friend (and colleague) suggested that those of us who have blogs but rarely seem to manage to update them should call the genre "slogs" rather than "blogs". Given that the only occasion I seem to write "creatively" these days is when I'm travelling, I should, by all rights, be able to produce something during my current expedition. Still, it may prove a "slog" anyway, but perhaps for unexpected reasons.

I'm off to Alexandria to participate in a conference at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. I think I'm one of four "keynotes" but I'm not really feeling up to that billing. I may try to keep a low profile. I haven't lectured much in the Muslim world during my career -- in the mid-80s in India (okay, so I'm even having to take a broad definition of the "Muslim" world) and once in Carthage in the mid-90s. The latter, a gathering celebrating an esteemed French colleague to which I was honoured to be invited, was a difficult event due to my inability to lecture in either Arabic or French (I was told by a young man afterwards that it was very "impolite" of me to have used English). This gathering in Alexandria is definitely in English (and Arabic, I imagine) so that's not so much the issue this time as it is that I will be talking about the Qur'an from a historical and scholarly perspective (which is what I was asked to do). I am uncertain how it will be received. Watch this space for an update in a few days!

But that's hardly the biggest issue facing me about this trip, although I admit it is a rather mundane factor that's currently troubling me. I'm flying British Airways (and enjoying the BA Lounge while I write this -- unlimited booze [not that I'm drinking] and snacks) and there just happens to be a cabin-crew strike starting 40 minutes before I land in Cairo. Okay, so maybe they will be charitable and prepare the plane for landing before we get there, but I can only imagine that the crew will be grumpy at best (surly at worst, let's hope) not only as we get to Cairo but likely on the way to Heathrow too. I've already been told not to expect my special meal. But again, that's only a minor issue, really. It's more the fact that my return flights have already been cancelled due to the strike. So, I'm flying to Cairo not really knowing how or when I will get back. My hosts booked my tickets (Business class, if you must know; thus the lounge) and it seems they must make the necessary adjustments. And that can't be done until Sunday -- when I'll already be in London.

So, like I say, this could be a slog. But it might just provide some time for writing.