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Every summer, many Egyptians take leave of the hot and dusty interior cities and head to the beach. They swarm cities like Alexandria and populate the numerous resorts that have grown up along the Red Sea. To celebrate our two-year wedding anniversary (hooray!!) we decided to follow the crowd and spend a few days basking in the sun and swimming in turquoise waters.

We chose to go to Moon Beach, a spot more popular among foreigners. It was liberating to change into our swimsuits, finally being able to wear clothing that provides some reprieve from the heat, as compared with the pants and longer sleeves that are the cultural norm in Egypt. Although we felt self-conscious at first, seeing other beach goers calming walking around in bikinis helped to assuage our worries.

The beach was gorgeous. Thatched umbrellas spotted the beach and looked out over the brilliant blue waters, where you could just make out the mountains on the other side of the Red Sea. The other sunbathers must have come from all over, as we heard five or six different languages being spoken, and sometimes many among the same family! There were also a number of Egyptian families as well, some of whom happily soaked up the rays in bikinis while others swam while still wearing a headscarf and longs leaves.

We spent most of our time sitting in the sun and reading (Caity with her Kindle and me with an old fashioned non-ebook), as unfortunately much of the coral that normally draws snorkeling enthusiasts has died out in the last few decades. We were told that this is due to ships illegally dumping their bilge (sewage etc accumulated from their voyage) before the reach the Suez Canal in an attempt to save same money, as the ships are charged by weight. When roughly 18,000 ships pass through the canal each year, this is not an insignificant issue. I tried not to think about it as we splashed and swam about in the cool waters.

Caity Windsurfing

Although there was no snorkeling, there was definitely windsurfing. Moon beach is known for its constant wind and smooth waters, making it windsurfing central. There were always five or six people out on the water, mostly beginners slowly and ponderously cruising along but other more advanced surfers zipped across the water and even doing 360s, spinning the massive board and sail in a movement that looked like water acrobatics from the shore!

My 30 foot epic voyage!

Although this looked easy enough from the shore (not including the spins of course!) it turned out to be much more difficult in practice. Larger than a normal surfboard, a windsurfing board is big enough to allow to you crawl on top and stand up without sinking. That however, is the easy part. You have to then pull (maybe hoist is the proper sea term? :P) the huge sail up off the water while remaining balanced on the board. If you pull too hard, you fall over backward with the sail on top of you and too much to one side or the other and you loose balance and flop off the board. After about five minutes of graceless flopping, I finally managed to catch the wind and go a good thirty feet, giving me a newfound appreciation for the sport and the incredible amount of skill needed to turn the thing, much less spin it!

We spent the last night out under the stars, which, unlike Cairo, were brilliantly visible. It was even clear enough that we could easily make out the Milky Way spilled across the dark night sky. Living in a city of twenty million, it is easy to forget how tiny we are compared to the vastness of the universe and the wondrous mysteries of creation. We are rarely afforded true darkness or silence in Cairo and being alone with only the sounds of the wind and waves was a treat.

More importantly however, the trip was a wonderful way to mark our two years of marriage. We have had an incredible second year together, traveling across the Middle East, experiencing a revolution, living two months as evacuees in Kenya and Uganda and now spending the last months in Cairo. I certainly feel blessed, and I think we are both looking forward to diving into year three!

I was not flying in for a traditional academic conference. I did not bring a paper to present or intend to leave a few days later with a new line on my resume. Instead, my suitcase was filled with a sketchpad, drawing pencils, a glue stick, an object from my childhood and ten close-up photos of natural objects. It was going to be an interesting week indeed.

My trip was a bit unconventional before I even got to the airport. Two days before my flight took off I had no idea where I was staying. A friend in Barcelona was helping me with accommodations but in addition to the difficulty of asking friends to host a total stranger for a week, things in Spain happen on their own schedule, one not so concerned with my imminent arrival. Luckily, I ended up staying with Montse, a sweet Catalunya native who worked as an educator helping people recover from drug addiction.

Once I arrived in Spain and met Montse the morning before my first session, I found out that we had opposite schedules. My workshop started in the morning and ended at 1:30pm, right at the time she left for work, only to get home after ten. The first morning we went together and made a copy of the house keys, but when I returned from the workshop ready to take a much-needed siesta, one of the keys didn’t work! As I had no cell phone and no idea where Montse worked, I decided to wander the city until she got back. Luckily, in Barcelona, that is a great plan B.

And this is a normal building...

The city is built along the coast and a cool breeze off the ocean makes the temperature just perfect for a stroll or spending the afternoon eating tapas at one of the many street-side cafes. Barcelona is also filled with public art and was the home of the famous artist Antoni Gaudi, whose incredible mosaics and flowing nature-inspired style can be seen on buildings and parks throughout the city. But even those buildings not designed by an artist seem to be works of art in themselves, coming from a time when buildings were dignified structure made to last. Every building has its own personality, with different windows, ancient doors and stylized metal railings on the small balconies. It was easy to see why this was chosen as the location for a workshop on creativity!

Our hosts/teachers for the workshop were Shelley Berc, an accomplished playwright and author and Alejandro Fogel, a talented visual artist. Both have spent a lifetime working in the arts and reflecting about creativity and its inspiration. Throughout the five days, they guided us through a host of different writing and drawing activities meant to free us from our minds and help us let go from any mental obstacles that would keep us from tapping into the creative side of our nature.

We recounted childhood stories, drew maps of our heart and mind, interviewed another participant and presented ourselves to the group as them, did visualizations and lots of automatic writing and drawing, letting our hand outpace our mind. One of my favorite activities was trying to make a story using ten random objects chosen by another of the participants. I ended up being given a rubber ducky and a bunch of small necklace pendants and fashioned an epic tale of friendship, loss and triumph!

In a sense, it was to help us be more like children, getting in touch with the fun, energetic side of ourselves, one that is not stifled by shame, self-consciousness or an overly-critical mind. When a child sees a performer on stage doing an amazing dance or song, they immediately want to join, and might even have to be stopped from climbing up on stage themselves! Most adults on the other hand, see the performance and say to themselves, “I could never do that. I would make such a fool out of myself if I even tried.”

One of my realizations throughout the workshop concerned the importance of creativity in our education. Before coming to Barcelona, I thought of creativity as something mainly useful for artists, whether visual or performing. It became clear however, that creativity is less a skill and more a way of thought, of opening ourselves to inspiration and learning not to listen to the more critical side of our nature.

This is important because creativity is a significant part of who we are as people and how we understand the world. In the US, we are told that the primary part of our identity is that of a consumer; that we take in what others create. If our purpose is to consume however, we do not create, losing that wonderful force that makes life so interesting and ultimately drives our society forward. This reflection made me think differently about the fact that when a school has budget problems, it is the art department that gets cut first. This is not just a loss to those students who are artistically inclined but to all students, who are being deprived of the chance to develop a new way of thinking about the world. Schools should not kill creativity but foster it.

It would be nice to say that having finished the workshop, I am now creative. Unfortunately it does not seem to work that way. :) Shelley and Alejandro gave us a number of different seeds, but it is now up to us to plant and nurture them and see what grows.

We were definitely lost. We had been driving around the Cairo neighborhood for about twenty minutes, barely sliding past other cars on crooked streets not meant to hold two lanes of traffic. At least we knew that we were in the right place. There was trash everywhere. Not strewn about the streets haphazardly, but stuffed in massive sacks and piled ten feet high on trucks or stacked in warehouses. Every doorway seemed to lead to a room filled with trash; either newly arrived or in the process of being sorted and separated.

This was “Garbage City”, one of the communities of zaballeen, or garbage people, and we had come for a tour by a local. After many concerned phone calls and confused directions, we eventually met our guide Hanna. He had grown up here and started by telling us how everything began.

The community started with a couple of poor farming families who saw that they could make a living by collecting a portion of Cairo’s garbage and recycling it. They went out at night with donkey carts, hauling the garbage back to their homes for processing. Soon they invited other family members, slowly bought trucks and after thirty years the fledgling communities around Cairo had grown to host over 60,000 people who have set up their own power and water lines and live in multistory concrete buildings.

Recently featured in an award winning documentary, Garbage Dreams, this vibrant community is now one of several that lives off recycling the 14,000 tons of garbage produced by Cairo every day. Hanna estimates that every ton of garbage supports about seven jobs: two to pick it up, three to sort it and two more to process the materials before they are resold.

What makes these communities stand out is that they are able to recycle about 80% of the garbage that they collect, more than triple the rate of most Western companies! Plastics, paper, aluminum cans, pipes, bags, just about everything is sorted and either reprocessed into another usable material or resold to factories around Cairo.

In the past, organic waste was fed to the community’s large pig population, which would then be sold for a profit. As Muslims are religiously forbidden from breeding or eating pigs, the zaballeen, who are 90% Coptic Christians, have been given a largely uncontested spot as the city’s garbage collectors. This was a major part of their livelihood. All this changed in April 2009 however, when the Egyptian Parliament ordered the culling of over 300,000 pigs amidst fears of the H1N1 virus. This decision was a huge financial blow to the zaballeen and largely criticized in the international community, as there was general agreement that pigs do not transmit H1N1.

Despite this setback, the zeballeen continue their work. We were first shown to a center that trains the women of the neighborhood how to make paper and rugs from recycled materials. I was under the apparently naive impression that you could only use old paper to make new paper, but it soon became clear that is not the case, as jeans and even onions were added into the mix to give the new paper a unique texture and color. The result is beautiful handmade cards, bags, books and lampshades, some pressed with flowers and decorated as well.

For the cloth, rugs are made out of discarded clothing on huge looms and women are also trained to sew beautiful quilts from other fabric, work they can do at home, allowing them to make an income while still watching their children. Similar schools exist for boys as well, both providing a recycling based-income and tangible skills for those living in the neighborhood.

Hanna then took us to the mountain churches, which are literally carved out of the rock, the largest of which can hold over 10,000 people. Along the walls of the cliff are various pictures and writings chiseled into the rock face by one dedicated Polish sculptor who has worked there for the past twenty-five years!

Most interesting of all however, were the projects Hanna himself was working on. Although he had grown up sorting and cleaning trash that was brought in, he had the opportunity to work with an inspired American PhD student who dreamt of bringing solar power and biogas to Garbage City. Working together Hanna and Thomas started to build small systems out of the recycled material that could provide nearly free hot water and natural cooking gas to the receiving family.

Although since Thomas moved to Germany for a teaching job, Hanna has remained inspired. He took us up to his roof where he had installed a solar water heater and a biogas drum that used organic waste from his house and produces enough methane in a day to fuel a standard stove for two hours! He pointed out the other installations across the neighborhood and told us his dream to make Garbage City “a model for green energy in Egypt.”

The example set by Garbage City is even more incredible when we look closer at what happens in our own borders. New York City produces about four pounds of waste per person per day, more than any other city in the world. This comes out to over 16,000 tons per day, more than Cairo, which is twice its size! And yet the US itself only recycles about 11% of its waste, preferring to send most of it to landfills instead. Although it might not be easy to admit, we could learn a lot from Cairo’s zaballeen.

Tabla Classes

 “You don’t want to look like a machine when you play, sticking your arms out at odd angles. Yes, you want it to sound right, but you want it to look good too! No, you have to bend your wrist like this! Imagine that you are holding an orange in this hand, now hit the drum!”

Although I am able to pick up some new skills quickly, such as sports or card games, this is definitely not the case with music. In fact, I think that I would put myself in the category of “musically challenged”, some of the indicators of which include being unable to hold any beat for more than ten seconds and having little or no inability to distinguish when a note is out of tune. This comes in sharp contrast to my wife Caity, who not only has a beautiful voice and a great musical ear, but also rocks the jembe and can somehow make clapping sound like music and not just someone following the beat.

For the last two months however, we have been taking classes to play the tabla, one of the most common musical instruments in Egypt, with its beats accompanying most singers and featuring prominently in many orchestras. Egyptians grow up listening to the tabla and many can sit down and play at least one quick rhythm. This is sort of like Americans with the guitar, except our ability to play often only extends to the air guitar! :P

It certainly has lots of character

When we decided to take lessons, we went out and bought a used drum off an expat leaving the country. It turned out to be a very used drum and although covered with a beautiful mother-of-pearl design, some of the coating has started to flake off. This is especially comical when a small piece of your drum shoots off across the room when playing a particularly fast rhythm.

I have never seriously taken music lessons before and I quickly found out that even the simplest hits were a lot harder than expected. The tabla has three main ways to strike the drum and all, predictably, are named after the sound they make: the dum reverberates deeply through the drum, the tak is a flat sounding strike right in the center of the drum and the iss is the sharp high sound that comes from hitting the rim of the drum’s face. At first it seemed like it would be easy, but I ended up spending the whole first class endlessly repeating one of the three hits, striving to get the sound and the form just right.

After mastering the first beats, you find out that there are in fact many, many other types of hits, and even multiple ways of making the same sound. This gets confusing quite quickly as few of the new hits get different names and so you end up with three different taks and four different dums. When I try and write down the different rhythms I am then forced to make up my own words for each new hit so that even Caity has to ask me to translate! This must come from the learning style that is not based on sheet music, but instead watching the teacher and then repeating, recording each new rhythm in your head instead of a songbook.

Our teacher, Bassem, was born in a small town but luckily received a music scholarship that allowed him to visit the main town in the region and take lessons in tabla and other instruments. This eventually culminated in a spot in a musical group in Cairo where he was even given the opportunity to teach the tabla abroad in France as part of a music exchange. He is now struggling to make it as a musician in Cairo, a task that is certainly challenging.

With each new rhythm he teaches us, we seem to be moving geographically around Egypt. For example, one is called the felaHi, or peasant’s rhythm, which takes you out of the city and into the fields that run up the Nile valley.  Another, the sa’idi, is from the Said region in southern Egypt and brings to mind the more serious turbaned men of that region with their long galabiyya robes. Each rhythm also has its own special introductory beat that announces to all those listening, “get ready, here comes the new rhythm!”

The later classes are thankfully getting easier, as Caity and I slowly learn one simple rhythm after the next. It also becomes clear that there is a significant and humbling gap between my “musically challenged” ability and Caity’s effortless musical grace. After each lesson, I studiously practice every day until the next week’s lesson only to find that Caity, who just warms up a little bit before each new lesson, is miraculously at my newly acquired level!

This has provided a good opportunity for reflection. It seems that the older we get, the fewer completely new skills we attempt to acquire. Having stuck with activities that I am already competent at for the last couple years, I have forgotten how hard it is to learn something from scratch. I am not accustomed to making endless mistakes and working very hard for seemingly little gain. This process of starting anew is a great test for the ego, which certainly does not enjoy the struggle and feeling “bad” or “incompetent” at something.

The best way to deal with this test seems to be laughter, which means I end up laughing a lot in class. Slowly however, the flat hits and off beats sound less like judgment and more like progress. Besides, my Dad always told me that, “a man who can laugh at himself will never cease to be amused.”

Who knows, maybe with enough practice I may eventually be able to hold a beat a beat for more than ten seconds and look like I am holding an orange at the same time.

Baptism by Fire

It is 100 degrees outside. I started sweating before I even got out of the subway and drank half a liter of water before our entire group had arrived. We clustered in groups under the shade of stunted trees planted in the middle of the sidewalk. Anything to get out of Cairo’s baking June sun.

But we had a good reason to leave the sanctuary of our air-conditioned apartments. Today is Cairo’s first batizado. For those of you who do not know Portuguese (I certainly don’t), batizado means baptism, which in capoeira means that today is the day that we earn our first belts. Our capoeira teacher in Cairo invited professors from France, Oman and Sharm al-Sheikh to fly in for our initiation ceremony followed by two days of workshops.

I had been eagerly and nervously looking forward to today since I got back to Cairo but I had not thought about the weather when I saw the date was set for mid-June. But despite the heat, about thirty of us gathered in the courtyard of a French school waiting for the professors to arrive. Luckily it is only 80 or 90 in the shade, by Egyptian standards, completely normal.

The music really began when the professors arrived. Two large drums pounded out a deep rhythm of bap boom bap, bap boom bap which was followed by ten tambourines, a bell and ten others clapping along. At the heart of the music was the unique twang of the barimbau and the rise and fall of the professor’s voice as he led us through a number of call and response songs in Portuguese. I am sure that the nuns who still lived at the school were wondering what the heck was going on in their courtyard.

We then split up into two groups, each making up one half of our large circle, with those earning the green (first level) belts on one side and those earning the green-yellow belts (second level) on the other. While the music continued, we would then pair off, one beginner playing with one advanced student in the middle of the circle, finishing to let the next pair begin. The kicks, cartwheels and handstands, timed to the rhythm of the music, warmed us up for the peak of the batizado. It was time to get our belts.

I have never seriously practiced any other martial art but I appreciated our professor’s perspective on the belts. “Do not get caught up with them,” one told us, “you cannot throw your belt into the ring and expect it to fight for you. They are markers of your ability but they should not be your limits. It is much better to have someone see you play and think, ‘wow, they only have that belt,’ instead of getting a belt and going no higher because you think you are so good.” Be humble and play well they told us, you are much more important than your belt.

But it was time. Those earning green belts (myself included) went first. Each person would play with a professor who would enter the roda (circle) with the student’s new belt tied around their arm, leg, chest or head as if saying, “here it is. Come and get it!”

The interaction between two people in the roda is called “playing” and I think that is the best way to describe it. Each person is not only moving along with the music, but also dancing with their partner, weaving in and out of their kicks or mirroring their cartwheels. Above all, everyone has fun. You can tell the professors pretty easily because they often have the biggest smiles on their faces. :)

When it was my turn, I faced the professor (who had my belt tied around his forehead) in front of the main group of instruments. We started by both cartwheeling into the center and then began the familiar swaying steps of the jenga. We traded spins and kicks, with the professor pressing me but also allowing me room to show off a little of what I had learned. At the end however, he deftly swept my feet out from under me in mid-kick, landing me on the ground and ending our match. Each round ended this way, with the professor finding some way to humble the newly graduated student. It is a ceremony that seemed to say at once, “congratulations on your belt, but you still have much to learn.”

The students earning the next level belt were much more interesting to watch with both students and professors kicking faster, ducking quicker and performing much more impressive acrobatics. As a surprise, our teacher in Cairo also obtained his next belt, but he had to earn it by playing with each one of the foreign professors in an incredible show of skill that at times caused me to stop and stare, missing the beat of the music.

The day ended with a final open roda where everyone freely played, all sporting their new belts. At the end of the day, the main professor spoke to us and said, “I am delighted to be here and I thank you all for coming and for inviting us. The students are the most important thing in capoeira, without them, we teachers are nothing.”

And with that, four hours and at least three liters of water later, the batizado ended. I spent so much of the time clapping to the music and I was actually sore from it the next day. I didn’t even know it was possible to be sore from clapping!

But we had earned our first belts. We were tired, sore and drenched in sweat, but it was worth it. If we are lucky, maybe the next batizado in Cairo will have air conditioning. :P

A few years ago an Egyptian author named Khalid al-Khamissi wrote a book entitled “Taxi”, a fascinating collection of conversations with Egyptian taxi drivers about their lives and perspectives on social problems in Egypt. The book was a huge success, not only because it was well written and tackles many important issues in Egyptian society, but perhaps also because almost everyone who lives here also has a taxi story. If I were to contribute a story to al-Khamissi’s compilation, it would certainly be my taxi ride last Sunday.

It was about 11:45 pm and I had just left a farewell dinner for a friend going home for the summer. Since the subway in Cairo closes at midnight (a very weird concept to those from New York City) I decided to catch a cab home instead. I asked the first taxi that stopped to take me back along the corniche, but he said we could not go that way because of a protest. He offered instead to take me by a different route. I agreed and got in the car.

The driver (Ashraf, as he later introduced himself) seemed a little worked up, so I asked him about the protests he mentioned earlier. In a clearly frustrated tone, he pointed to a large crack running down the center of his windshield and said, “You see this? This is from the protesters! There were people jumping up and down on my roof!” I had never heard of people literally attacking cars before, especially so late, but I agreed that it was definitely best for us to take another road to my apartment.

As we started along our new route, it became clear that the new crack in his windshield was not the only thing distressing him that night. “I have not eaten or drank anything in two days,” he told me in a pained voice. Confused, I asked him what the problem was and his story spilled out of him in a fast and frustrated torrent of words.

“You understand Arabic right? Ok, I need to go to the hospital for a cleaning. I have to go three times a week and it costs 360 Gineh [about $60] per cleaning. How can I pay for that? This car is not even mine! I am renting it and now there’s this damned crack in the windshield! I have to pay 1000 Gineh a week and I have three children to send to school on top of rent and food! Its impossible!”

The more he spoke, the more emotional he became, gesturing wildly and driving dangerously close to cars as we flew past them. I said a quick prayer in the hopes that an accident would not end his problems, and our lives, prematurely.

He continued. “Two days ago I went to the hospital because I needed a cleaning but I only had 120 Gineh. It was not enough so they threw me out! This was a State hospital and they would not treat me! You know, one of my kidneys does not work and the other is only working at 50 percent so I have to go into the hospital three times a week to have my blood cleaned. If I don’t have it cleaned then I cannot eat or drink because it will make problems with my blood sugar. So I have not eaten or drank anything for two days and wont until I get the money for a cleaning.” He ended with the exasperated remark, “All a want to do is drink some water and have a little food.”

He was beyond frustrated. He was speaking like a man trying to carry a burden too great for him to bear and instead of finding help, has only met rejection wherever he turned for assistance. He finished his story by slamming his hand against his steering wheel shouting, “Egypt is trash! Trash!”

I was shocked by his final words. Since coming back after the revolution, I have only heard words of hope, people happy with what had been accomplished and looking towards the future with a—at times cautious—optimism. The driver’s story drove home the point that the Egyptian Revolution did not bring an end to the problems that plagued the country under Mubarak, it only brought the possibility for improvement. Millions are still living in poverty or unemployed and public infrastructure is deteriorating. To put it another way, Mubarak leaving did not make it any easier for Ashraf to get his weekly dialysis treatment.

Throughout the conversation, I was wrestling with how much I should help Ashraf through what was clearly a very trying predicament. Obviously this was not a problem solved by just a generous tip. I decided I would give him all the money in my wallet, around 150 Gineh or five times the trip fare.

As we came closer to my apartment, Ashraf turned around in his seat and sincerely asked if I would help him. I realize now that if I were being truly generous, he would not have had to ask. I should have told him as soon as I decided to help and saved him stressful and embarrassing act of asking a complete stranger for financial assistance.

When we arrived at my apartment I handed over all the money I had with me. He counted it quickly and then turned back to me, desperately asking if I had more, as this would not cover the treatment he urgently needed. I asked him to wait and went up to my apartment and got all the money I had, another 300 Gineh, and came back down to give it to him. He thanked me profusely, but it was clear that this was only a temporary solution.

I helped Ashraf get this treatment, but I worry about what he will do for the next week and the one after. He should not have to rely on the generosity of complete strangers and it is not his fault that he is forced to ask. This is the result of decades of a government putting itself before the people, where those in charge spent more time pursuing personal wealth than improving the lives of those they were “elected” to serve.

Ashraf was not asking for extravagance or anything more than he needed. He was looking for a government and a society that respected him as a person and did not reject him based on the money in his pocket. He was looking for a just society.

Often words like justice can loose their meaning as they are adopted as vague political slogans or continually repeated by pundits on television. Justice is more than an abstract concept. It is a profound belief that should underlay the foundations of our actions, our society and our government. If that were the case, stories like Ashraf’s would not exist. We would be beyond them.

 “There can be no doubt whatever that if the day star of justice, which the clouds of tyranny have obscured, were to shed its light upon men, the face of the earth would be completely transformed.”

-Baha’u’llah

Alexandria

Now Egypt’s second largest city, it is a hard to believe that Alexandria was once only a tiny fishing village. Then came Alexander the Great. Fresh from his recent conquest of Jerusalem and Gaza, he swept into Egypt, greeted as a liberator. Before setting off for further victories to the East (you have to conquer more than just a couple countries to be known as “the Great”) Alexander founded Alexandria, envisioning it as the link between Greece and the fertile Nile valley. One of the perks to being so Great it seems is the ability to decree “build!” and then leave while others turn your words into reality.

And a great city it became. In less than a century it had transformed into one of the largest cities in the world, for centuries second only to Rome. It was an international trade hub for its easy access to the Red Sea as well as a port for the very lucrative trade of Egyptian cotton. As the centuries passed however, Alexandria’s prominence waned, as battles and natural disasters reduced the city to a fraction of its previous size. It was only in the mid 1800s, when Muhammad Ali rebuilt the city, that it regained a remnant of its former glory.

Now it is just a short two-and-a-half hour train ride from Cairo, which would have been quite comfortable if the air conditioning had not failed. Although I arrived uncomfortably overheated from the trip, the cool Mediterranean breeze was refreshing and the seventy degree weather made me quickly start to wonder why I chose to live in Cairo and not here.

After celebrating a wonderful triple birthday the previous night with some of the other Egypt Fulbrighters, a few of us set off to explore the city. We began with the recently rebuilt Library of Alexandria.

Alexander’s successors in Egypt established the ancient library shortly after his departure and it became the first known library to collect books from beyond its country’s borders. It pursued its mission of “collecting all the world’s knowledge” by well-funded visits to famous book fairs as well as a “knowledge tax” where they copied the books off of every ship that came to port in Alexandria, quickly amassing over 700,000 manuscripts!

Unfortunately, this temple of knowledge was destroyed in one of the later battles over the city, with one possible incident occurring when Julius Ceasar set fire to his own ships in a desperate battle and the fire spread, ravaging other parts of the city. The ruins of the library are now underwater, but not forgotten, as the new library clearly seeks to revive Alexandria’s reputation as a center for learning and knowledge.

Clearly channeling the spirit of its predecessor, the new $355 million dollar construction is a sight to behold. The library itself is contained in a massive tilted disk, whose outer stone walls are covered in the writings of over 100 languages. Its interior was just as impressive, with multiple floors holding shelves upon shelves of books in individually lit cases, giving off the distinct impression that the books themselves are giving off the light.

The library’s also houses a museum, which has a number of fascinating permanent collections. The collection of rare manuscripts was incredible. Not only did they have a number of religious texts that were over a thousand years old, but also great works including Euclid and a number of Islamic scholars who revolutionized the study of optics and medicine. They even had the only surviving manuscript from the ancient library, a document pieced together from twenty separate fragments whose Greek writing was almost illegible. Sadly, we were informed that this was only a copy, with the real manuscript in Vienna, bringing to mind the vast number of Egyptian treasures that reside outside the countries borders.

The museum also held a collection on Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s third president. Although it was interesting to see the gifts presented to Sadat (including, oddly enough, a key to the city of Pittsburg…) as well as his old pipes and pajamas, the highlight of the collection was the last uniform he ever wore. It was still stained with his blood and you could see where the bullets tore the fabric in his 1981 assassination!

We left the library to explore the city’s famous catacombs, once again diving back into ancient history. Discovered when a donkey just fell through the ground in 1900, the tombs were one of the last major works dedicated to the religion of ancient Egypt. They extend twenty meters into the ground and after over 300 years of construction, contained a number of passages and alcoves, and even a banqueting hall! Although the art was an interesting combination of Greek and Egyptian styles, walking across the old wooden planks in the basement makes one feel much more like Indiana Jones than an ancient Greek nobleman.

Although we did not have time to wander the rest of the city, we did get to see almost all of the corniche along the ocean, but only because our taxi driver misinterpreted our directions and took us to the wrong part of the city :P

I boarded a train the next day, taking the short but scenic ride back to Cairo. Although I was not looking forward to returning to the heat of the capital, at least the air conditioning on the train worked this time :)