Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

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

December 18, 2002:

The final days of Cairo

By Kate Swearengen '04


November 26

I took the subway again today, and I'm going to take it to Islamic Cairo tomorrow afternoon. Last time I was in Islamic Cairo I ran into a group of little boys playing soccer. They kicked the ball at me and I kicked it into a side of a car so it went up in the air, then bounced it off my head. They squealed "Helwa! Helwa!" (Sweet! Sweet!) and danced around. So I'm going to seek out more soccer action tomorrow.

I took a cab back from downtown. I climbed in a few minutes before five, and the driver started unwrapping a date bar (Muslims break the fast with dates). He had the radio on, and the second the Imam began the maghrib prayer, he bit into that bar. Then he gave me a box of apple juice and half an orange, because if you share food with people during break-the-fast you get big Ramadan points. There are people on the street who run around with boxes of dates, frantically offering them to people just before the maghrib prayer. When the taxi dropped me off at the hostel, the front desk clerk was just finishing off his break-the-fast date. The second thing he put in his mouth was a cigarette.

Every night I go to Harris Cafe, which is about three blocks from the hostel. Harris Cafe is lame and Starbucks-esque, but it's open 24 hours a day and has decent iced mochas. I am a pizza and beer kind of girl, and I despise people who talk about frothy caffeinated beverages, but I'll take what I can get. Anyway, Harris Cafe is a great place to work because every night at about 2:30 AM the musaharti walks by, beating with a spoon on a metal pan and shouting in a sing-song "La illah wa allah. La illah wa allah. Al-suhoor ahsan min al-noum." (There is no god but God. There is no god but God. Suhoor [the last meal before sun-up] is better than sleep." He walks all over the neighborhood shouting this, and when he passes the house of someone he knows, he varies his chant: "Ahmed! Ahmed! Get up! Eat suhoor! Get out of bed, Ahmed!"

I just got back from the ISSO field trip to Kerdasa, a small village and tourist trap on the outskirts of Cairo. I bought two 4-foot long strings of tassels, made from thick blue, red, and green wool. They're so cool. Ideally I would like a carpet made from them, but I think that is more an Afghan thing than an Egyptian thing. Tomader, the head of the office for international student affairs, wanted to know what I'm going to use them for. She said: "Do you have a camel?" I said: "No, but they're cool. I'm going to hang them up in my dorm room. Wouldn't you hang these up in your house?" Tomader: "No." Anyway, I'm going to e-mail the Princeton housing director about them and tell him how great they'll look on the walls of my SINGLE DORM ROOM. I already promised him that I'd bring him back a camel if he assigned me to a single in the spring. No dice. He said he'd only do it if I bring him back a piece of the Sphinx.

November 30

I got back from Ain el-Sokhna at 1:00, went to Heliopolis with Zizi (Hany's mom), Cristal, and Iman (the maid) to hang out at their apartment until after iftaar. The traffic was too bad for them to drive me back to the hostel. I told them I'd take a cab back, but they think cabs are dangerous. The family doesn't let Cristal take a cab, or walk anywhere alone. I'm sure glad I'm big and ugly and not engaged to an Egyptian.

Ain el-Sokhna was beautiful. It's on the Red Sea, about a two-hour drive from Hany's parents' apartment, and most of the drive is through barren desert. The Egyptian military was having training out there, so there were a lot of tanks and some tents lined up. Also, there is a camel crossing sign, which I thought was pretty cool. The desert area becomes increasingly industrialized as you approach Ain el-Sokhna. The largest ceramics factory in the Middle East is headquartered out there. It looks like a giant refinery, with a big flame out in front.

Cristal and I went to the beach and swam (I waded as deep as I could with the cast). We found a live sand dollar, lots of crabs, fish. There were huge oil tankers about a mile out from where we were in the water, and we could see the Galala Mountains of the Eastern Desert from the beach. The water was blue and extremely salty, and Cristal got Mick Jagger lips after swimming in it for thirty minutes.

On Thursday night the whole family drove about 30 minutes to the beach house of Hany's dad's friend and his wife. We stayed there for three hours. Cristal and I sat on the couch with the hostess, her baby, and Hany's mom. We watched a videotape of a Carlos Santana concert on their giant flatscreen television. Hany's dad's friend also had a videotape of "The Eagles: Greatest Hits." He was so proud of it. Egyptians have modernized in the worst way possible. And it's our fault for exporting such crummy music.

Hany and his dad went to the beach with us on Friday, then they drove home in the evening. Iman (the maid) and Zizi and Cristal and I watched Egyptian television in the mornings and evenings. The funny thing about music in Egypt is that all the modern Arab singers are just as popular with young people as they are with adults; Zizi and Iman knew all the lyrics. Zizi is a real character. She went out on the balcony of the beach house every night to smoke sheesha—Iman put a lemon in the water to make it smoother—and shouted questions at me through the screen door:

Zizi: Kate, you make diet?

Kate: Huh?

Zizi: First time I saw you, you were fat.

Kate: Uh...

Zizi: Yes. FAT.

December 1

The party at Hany's cousin's house was great. It was in a beautiful apartment, and there were about 25 people there. The food was wonderful: chicken, pasta dishes, little fried triangles filled with beef and onions, desserts from a local bakery that came in white cardboard boxes tied up with ribbon. Hany's family is wonderful; when I ran out of conversation topics, I asked one of the cousins how she was related to Hany, and that set up a good 20-minute explanation of the family tree. I commented on how big the family was, but everyone assured me it was very small by Egyptian standards. After dinner one of the uncles proposed to me. I told him I already had three husbands. Everyone thought that was funny. The party was rounded out by the ubiquitous 100-year-old grandmother and the ubiquitous 11-year-old maid who scrubbed dishes in the kitchen the entire time. And Hany's dad fell asleep in one of the bedrooms, and I had to look at about 2,000 wedding pictures from the cousins' weddings.

December 2

This is the last you'll hear from me until I get back from Beirut. Don't worry — I'll come back with lots of great stories and gaudy souvenirs.


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu