Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

November 11, 2002:

More letters from Cairo to family and friends

Illustration by Henry Martin ’48

September 21

I took a cab over to the AUC library early this afternoon...as I got in the cab, the driver (burly old man, with yellow eyes and white hair) turned around and said something to me in colloquial Arabic. I said "What?" as I slammed the door shut. The driver turned around and started screaming and cursing at me, trying to strike me with a rolled up newspaper and drive at the same time. Apparently the door was broken, and he had wanted me to close it softly. Oops.

Naturally, I started screaming and trying to get out of the cab, because I thought I was going to be beaten to death. But I couldn't get out the door I had entered, and I couldn't get out the other door because the driver had his seat shoved so far back. So I kept screaming and trying to shield my head with my hands. Anyway, we went past the Pakistani embassy like this and the driver almost took out two pedestrians, so he calmed down. Then he wanted to have a conversation with me.

Driver (in Arabic/English): "I make it up to you. I teach you how to say things in Arabic. Free lesson."

Kate: "I should get a free cab ride."

Driver: "Ho ho ho. Free cab ride. Ho ho ho. American jokester. You are very pretty.

Are you married?"

Kate: "Do I have asthma? What?" (not understanding colloquial Arabic again)

Driver: "Married?"

Kate: "Like this? *Cough cough cough* From the pollution?"

Driver: "My wife is dead, but I have a son and a daughter and grandchildren."

Kate: "Oh, married. Yes. I am married."

September 22

I tried to sign up for AUC's Volunteer Club last week, but it has been filled by students from last year's waiting list and can take no more. I can only guess that there is some social cachet to the Club, and that it must limit its numbers to retain its allure. Kind of like Ivy.

September 28

I got back to the library at about 5, checked out my books, and grabbed a cab back to the dorm. The driver was great. I slammed the door when I got in, and he went into hysterics. Then he suddenly stopped and said it was okay. He said I couldn't close the car door in Egypt the same way I did in my country. I told him that I didn't have a car at home, and that I rode a bicycle everywhere, but that I was afraid to do that in Cairo. He thought that was hilarious and pantomimed swerving the taxi into cyclists, then talked about the people he's almost killed/maimed during his career. We had the most unbelievable Arabic conversation ever; he must have thought I was fluent. Too bad tomorrow it will be gone and I won't be able to say a thing. We talked about Um Kulthum and Feyrouz, two famous Arab singers. He sang Um Kulthum songs in his horrible, screechy voice, and then I sang a Feyrouz song in my horrible, screechy voice. It was great.

September 29

Overheard at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar next to the al-Azhar mosque:

Merchant: "Excuse me, mademoiselle, you dropped something."

Kate: (stupidly stopping and looking): "What?"

Merchant: "My heart."

Merchant: "I've seen you before."

Mehret, my friend from the hostel: "Where have you seen me?"

Merchant: "In my dreams."

Merchant: "Excuse me, miss, if you will buy from me, I will marry you."

Mehret: "I'll pay you not to marry me."

October 4

Fruit store owner: "Eight pounds."

Kate: "That's expensive, isn't it?"

Owner: "Because they're not Egyptian."

Kate: "It's expensive because I'm not Egyptian? (The word for fruit is feminine, and it takes a singular pronoun. Therefore, he could have been saying, "Because she's not Egyptian," referring to me.)"

Owner (doesn't think this is funny. Makes clucking noise.): "The pears are expensive because they are from Lebanon."

Kate (has heard this rationale before): "Is all the fruit here foreign?"

Owner (doesn't think this is funny, either): "No. This is Egyptian, this is Egyptian, this is Egyptian." (points at figs, grapes, a few other things)

I ended up buying two oranges from him as well. The oranges here are weird, kind of like a lemon/orange hybrid, but very good. The owner has a friend in New Jersey. I told him I go to school in New Jersey.

October 7

Some things I forgot to mention about Cairo: My hostel is on the corner of Mohammed Thakeb and Mohammed Maarashili, catty-corner from the Maarashili Church, one of the largest Coptic churches in Cairo. There are services there daily, and weddings every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. After the wedding, the bride and groom speed off in a decorated car, and all the other guests chase after them in their cars through the streets of Cairo. It is absolutely lethal. One of the boys in the hostel got his foot run over while that was going on, and is now wearing a cast. By the way, do you find it strange that the AUC hostel, one of the biggest Coptic churches in Cairo, the Pakistani Embassy, and a brothel are all grouped on the same block? What an explosive combination.

October 8

When I was at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar last week, I noticed they were selling taxidermied rabbits smoking miniature glass sheeshas. Liz desperately wants one for her birthday, but I told her I couldn't possibly send it to her in the mail. Do you think I could wrap it in clothes and sneak it through customs in my suitcase?

October 11

I'm formulating plans for a Near Eastern Studies pub crawl when I get back to Princeton in the spring. The grad students in the department are generally pretty antisocial, but I don't think it's anything that a couple of pints couldn't cure. I don't think Bernard Lewis would show, but we'd pull in a good number of the students.

October 14

No AUC march against war in Iraq. Over the weekend, the Ministry of the Interior revoked the permit on the basis of "security concerns." So we ended up just gathering in the main campus courtyard; a couple of people gave speeches, and a woman sang Iraqi folksongs. Some funny stuff happened, too. The soldiers—who were apparently worried that we'd march illegally—closed off all the streets around the university and parked three troop carriers right in front of the main campus gates, which meant that all the wealthy Egyptian students who have personal drivers to take them to school couldn't get to class. Also, there's a huge stray cat population at AUC, and all the police dogs were lunging and snapping at them and giving the soldiers a hard time.

October 20

Nerida and I went to out for beer and dinner. After that, there was a Sufi dance performance by a Turkish group at AUC. The dancers were great; they wore flowing white robes, which are supposed to represent their burial shrouds, and tall, honey-colored felt hats, which are supposed to represent their tombstones. Six of them danced. They were all good, but one had a particularly fancy dance step and managed to tilt his head in such a way that his cap formed a ninety-degree angle with the floor. He definitely had Bolshoi ambitions.


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu