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.

1 comment:

Jill said...

I remember our busdriver to Cairo only putting on his headlights when he thought someone was approaching from the other you say, best not to look and recite insha'allah! As to the hijab...did you see some stray bangs as well? Very cosmopolitan, daring look in the UAE.