Capoeira…in Cairo?

People looked at me funny when I said that I hoped to find a capoeira group in Cairo. To be honest, I was not quite sure that I would find a group practicing this blend martial arts, dance and live music, but it seems that I underestimated Cairo’s cosmopolitan side. Not only did I find a group practicing this Brazilian art, I found one with a French instructor, referred to me by an Egyptian!

She said she would let me know when a beginner’s section was starting and a few weeks later gave me a call saying that there was a four-hour workshop planned on Friday if I was interested. Having only heard stories of what a class could be like from a good friend in NYC, I was not quite sure what I was getting into when I set off to find the studio using the address she texted me.

This was not as simple a task as it might have been in the States. I have found that asking for directions in Cairo is its own adventure as everyone seems to “know” the exact location of the place you are going but each person will confidently give you a different set of directions from the last person. We once spent 45 minutes following different sets of conflicting directions to locate a store selling landline phones only to find upon walking back, that there was one across the street from where we started! It does not help that buildings are numbered very sporadically. You might walk 10 blocks and see just that number of marked buildings.

Luckily the studio’s address had a number and I left early to make sure I got there in time. The room slowly started to fill until about twenty people and an odd assortment of instruments cluttered the room. To my surprise, it turns out that capoeira is centered around music played and sung by the capoeiristas themselves. Although I have lots of work to do on these skills, as I can hardly clap to a rhythm and sing at the same time, it does create an incredible energy in the room with a circle of people clapping, singing, drumming, led by someone playing an instrument called a berimbau which looks as though a bored archer tied a gourd to his bow and started a band.

The workshop was organized especially for a capoeira teacher coming in from Sharm Al-Sheikh and after a short musical introduction, we started on our warm up and learning a number of moves from his specific style. The basic movement in capoeira is the ginga, which keeps you in constant movement to the beat of the music, shifting your feet and keeping your hands up for protection. The moves that I was able to learn demonstrated the incredible fusion of dance and martial arts in which both of those “playing” have to move with the other person so that their kicks, ducks and rolls flow in and out of each other.

The culmination of the workshop was the roda. Everyone in the room created a large circle with all of the instruments on one side. The berimbau would start the rhythm and would be slowly joined by the other instruments. The teacher would then begin singing a call and response song in Portuguese while all those without instruments started a steady clap. Then two people from the circle who were crouching in front of the instruments would enter the center (usually by a cartwheel or other acrobatics) and begin to “play” to the rhythm of the music. After 20 or 30 seconds, someone from the circle would enter and jog around the two in the center before cutting in and continuing the dance/sparring with one of the two.  The roda was a flow of kicks, rolls, grabs and what seemed to be break dancing moves (handstands, headstands, and cartwheels oh my!) and combined with the music and singing, the energy of the room was incredible!

After the four hours of this new martial art/sport/dance I was beat. That was not the end however, as most of the people from the workshop then went out to a rooftop to learn maculele. I tagged along and found myself with two foot-and-a-half long bamboo sticks in my hands, beating them together, on the ground and against the sticks of my partner in a rhythm and movement very similar way to the capoeira class an hour earlier. It seems that learning capoeira is about learning not just the art it self but the culture that goes with it as well.

Although my sore muscles made it hard getting out of bed and walking up stairs for the next three days, I so glad to have found the group. It is clear though that I will have lots to practice, even if it is just clapping and singing at the same time.


Siwa Oasis – Part 2

They must have been wearing the same shoes...

The next day brought us out into the western desert on a 4×4 safari, stopping along the way to see a two million year-old footprint left by our small-footed ancestors.

Cruising through the desert in the 4×4 trucks felt like a cross between a roller coaster ride and a Land Rover commercial. It was comforting to know that the vehicles’ were supposedly designed to do this, but I cannot imagine the engineer in Detroit had the Sahara in mind when he was creating the vehicle.

We had no difficulty with the flat portions, but it was when we started going up the dunes, and back down them, that our hearts started beating faster. We would see the truck in front of us tip down at what seemed to be a ridiculous angle before plunging out of sight, leaving us to follow. Just like a roller coaster, the truck always seemed to pause for just a second at the top of the dune, giving us time to grab something/someone and say a quick prayer to reach the bottom right side up!

Flying down the opposite side of the dune might have been more bearable if the truck did not always start to turn slightly as we descended, causing everyone in the car to hold on harder to whatever surface/person they could find.


Note the angle...


When we reached the bottom of a particularly steep hill seconds/years later, the driver, who up until this time was silent, would turn to us and ask in Arabic, “afraid?” Our hearts racing and our hands still in white-knuckled grips on the door handles, we responded with a shaky, “pssssh, this is normal. We do this every day back in Cairo…”

Many dunes later, we reached a small lake that seemed to suddenly appear in front of us, its glistening surface and green banks surreally surrounded by mountains of sand. Swimming in the middle of the desert is a dreamlike experience I kept expecting to wake up from, like being sucked into a sidewalk painting in a Middle Eastern version of Mary Poppins.

As if that was not enough, we then went from cold water to a natural hot spring, located in its own surprising oasis five minutes away. We shared the pool with a group of locals who seemed to have driven out for a picnic, as they were starting to cook up a meal as we left to catch the sunset.

We ended the day with a tent-covered meal in a small camp between the dunes, after which a troupe of local musicians serenaded us in a traditional Siwa style with flutes, drums and singing.

We rode back with some of the musicians, who kindly let Caity and I play their drums (Caity actually playing and me just whacking the drum without any beat or rhythm). Our traveling concert was sadly brought to an end once we reached the edge of town, the musicians telling us that they don’t play music in Siwa except in the cultural center or in hotels for tourists.

We awoke early the next day and boarded the buses for another grueling ten-hour bus trip back home.  We left with a sun tan, wet swim suits, suitcases weighed down with local dates and olive oil and our pants and hair filled with the desert sand.

Siwa Oasis – Part 1

After the incredible orientation, we had high expectations for the trip to the Siwa Oasis. We were not disappointed in the least.

Siwa is a small oasis town located about 350 miles west of Cairo known for its rich history, tasty dates and delicious olive oil. Unfortunately those 350 miles translate into a ten-hour bus ride through the western Egyptian desert, a vast expanse of sand and rock devoid of any real variation except for the odd house or truck stop. We arrived sore and exhausted, but managed to hold on just long enough for a quick dip in the hotel’s pool before passing out in our room.

The next day began with a visit to a castle located on one of the few small rock hills that surround Siwa, giving it a commanding view of the city.  Unfortunately, the complex is largely destroyed, leaving the hill looking more like a moonscape than a fortress. We were told that the building was constructed out of a combination of mud, solid salt and palm wood. This might have seemed like a good idea in the beginning (no rain in the desert right?) but the large rainstorms that come every thirty years or so clearly demonstrated the flaw in the architect’s logic.

The highlight of the morning however, was the Temple of the Oracle. Located on top of another hill, this temple is famous as the spot where Alexander the Great was told that he was truly the son of Zeus-Ammon and therefore the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt. It appeared that there was a main room in the temple where the seekers asked their questions of the Oracle and then received answers from the high priest hidden in a side room. Perhaps the high priest received some type of signs, which he interpreted to provide the sought after answers or this was just an elaborate charade to bring ancient tourists to Siwa, still successful 1700 years.

The basket I dreamed of weaving

After a leisurely lunch, we arrived at the house of a Siwan family, which a previous Fulbrighter had married into after meeting one of the sons during her research. We split up and the women went to learn traditional sewing and the men basket weaving. Although we did not come close to making our own baskets, we did learn how to weave the palm fronts together and also had a chance to sample raw palm heart, which tastes what you might expect wood to taste like if you could eat it.

We cut the visit short in order to take a trip out to watch the sunset over one of the salt lakes that borders Siwa. Our mode of transportation was a “Siwa taxi”, known in other cities as a donkey cart, with different phrases written on the sides such as “4×4”, “Most Eco-friendly Taxi” or “Toyota”. Our donkey, Ali Baba, was nice, but at times seemed as though he had a death wish as he would run straight toward the drop-off at the edge of the road, only to be narrowly stopped by the driver and pulled back on course. The ride turned out to be more interesting than the clouded sunset but we were entertained by another harrowing trip back to town in our unusual caravan.

That night we were treated to a discussion on the culture and history of Siwa, presented by one of the local English teachers. The most prominent thing that we learned from Siwa was how conservative it is: once married, women wear the full body facial covering, and being caught talking with a man outside of the family without it is tantamount to adultery and grounds for divorce.

He also spoke about the tribal system. Siwa has a number of main tribes, each headed by a sheikh who settles the larger disputes as well as providing guidance for the tribe. This even includes designating who should be voted for in local elections. Everyone has a tribe in Siwa and without one, not only would you be bereft of a community and economic safety net, you would not be able to work in local politics or have access to a number of other city services that are also run through the tribes.

In the end, the presenter said that Siwa’s culture, with its unique language, history and customs were different enough from the rest of Egypt that he considers other Egyptians more like cousins, but hastened to add that they are brothers in Islam.

The Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx too!

Being one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the pyramids have a reputation that has drawn tourists for centuries. As the current American Ambassador to Egypt commented, they are “Egypt’s greatest infrastructure investment”, as they continue to provide for Egypt’s economy 4,000 years after their construction.

Millennia of tourism have also created an industry of guides, translators and hawkers selling everything from cheap pyramid and sphinx statues to camel and horse rides around the complex. Having heard a number of unfortunate stories of people being swindled in some fashion (such led out into the desert by camel for two hours and then asked to pay almost $500 for a ride they thought was going to last 30 minutes) we were on our guard as we got into the taxi for the short ride over.

Although one might romantically imagine the pyramids of Giza and the sphinx surrounded by an endless sea of dunes stretching far into the distance, that image is sadly a mirage. Cairo has gradually expanded right up to the edge of the pyramids themselves, with only a long wall barring continued building and preserving some of the “desert” feel for those visiting.

We had only just seen the top of the Great Pyramid of Cheops majestically rising up above the buildings in front of us when a man walked out of a group on the side of the road holding his hand out and crossed slowly in front of us. At first, I thought he was just trying to get himself killed crossing the street so slowly but then he stopped in front of our car and hit the windshield with his hand to make the driver stop. The driver cracked the window open and the man very loudly and insistently offered his translation services but at our urging the driver closed the window and continued onward.

We were accosted a second time just before the hill leading up to the entrance when a man forced the driver to stop and open the window. He told us that taxies were not permitted to enter the road ahead and we should rent horses to take us up to the top. We refused him a number of times and upon actually seeing other taxies drive up the “forbidden” road, we told the man we did not need horses and continued to the top.

We bought our entrance tickets but had not even made it out the door of the security building before a man in plain clothes asked us to see them. We were warned of such tricks however (our Arabic teacher even taught us phrases such as “show me your ID” and “you know I am a foreigner but how do I know you are an official?”) and proceeded right past him and up to the first pyramid.

The Great Pyramid of Cheops makes you simply stop and stare, imagining how in the world such a structure could have been built over 4,000 years ago! The author Max Rodenbeck describes it best:

“Imagine the builders’ panic when the heard the contract specifications: stack 2.3 million stone blocks of an average weight of 2.5 tons to a height of 480 feet upon a 13-acre base whose squareness and levelness must be accurate to within a thumb’s width.”

In fact, we still cannot figure out how the structure was completed in the 30 years of Cheops’ reign, a time span which means they had to lay one block every two minutes!

We climbed up to the entrance of the pyramid, marveling at how closely all the blocks fit together. At the base, one of our traveling companions, Shaheen, was stopped by someone selling small pyramid statues. When Shaheen did not respond to English, the man tried other languages: German, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and a couple we could not identify. Shaheen then responded in Persian, which was apparently not one of the ten languages the man knew because he thought Shaheen was just speaking jibberish and responded by stringing random sounds together! We continued on to the next pyramid without a tiny statue, refusing camel rides along the way.

The second pyramid still has a smooth cap remaining from what must have been the outer covering and is almost as impressive as the first. Four or five men (none in uniforms) were standing at the entrance with a security guard lounging beside them. We had tickets to enter but were told that we were not permitted to take our cameras inside. We reluctantly left our large camera with the security guard and climbed down the cramped angular shaft for about fifty feet until we reached a corridor about ten feet tall with a few rooms that branched off from it. It was incredibly humid inside and the main burial room was empty except for a spot where the sarcophagus once was and one seemingly random Egyptian man.

We were at first hesitant to take pictures with the small cameras our friends had hidden in their pockets but then he motioned to us and said in a conspiratorial voice “pictures, pictures, quickly”, even motioning that we should take pictures of people posing inside the recessed stone pit that once held the sarcophagus! We took some pictures, but as we turned to leave he stuck out his hand, asking for baksheesh because he “let” us take the forbidden photographs. It was not hard to guess that he was probably working with the men at the entrance and they took turns inside the pyramid.

We crawled out and collected our camera, which was thankfully still with the guard, and headed down the road to the sphinx. It is an impressive statue even at a distance and may even be older than the pyramids themselves. The sphinx is also famously missing its nose, an act for which many people are blamed, including the Mamluks, Napolean and the Nazis. However, it seems that it was actually the work of a Sufi sheikh in the late 1300s, who attacked the statue in a fit of iconoclastic zeal. Even without the details of the face, the sphinx is incredible and a clear result the priorities of the ancient Egyptians, who ranked stonemasonry as important an invention as writing.

With the pyramids looming in the background, it is hard not to see the paved street filled with dusty cars, small shops and restaurants as evanescent, just one breath in the life of this city. Coming from the US where “historical buildings” can be 100 years old, Cairo redefines historical with thousands of years of successive dynasties filling the city with mosques, citadels and tombs. The list of places to visit when exploring these various layers of history is incredibly long, but the pyramids were a good place to start.

Fulbright Orientation

Three weeks after we arrived in Cairo, all of the Fulbrighters met for an orientation at the American Embassy. There are roughly three different groups of us: the students (like me) who are here after their undergrad to work on a single research project, the scholars who are furthering their PhD work and the English Teaching Assistants who are part of a new program to assist in Egyptian classrooms.

We met outside the embassy gate and after a screening that is far more thorough than any airport. We were led into a conference room and welcomed by the US Ambassador, a former Fulbrighter herself.

She was followed by the man in charge of providing assistance to the 35,000 American’s living in Egypt. His presentation was short but interesting, filled with anecdotes to illustrate his points on how his office can help us, but also general pointers about life here. One such story began with him walking home late at night and hearing someone running up behind him. He turned to find a man out of breath and asking for help, telling a story in broken English that had something to do with blood, mother and two hours. As he was deciding whether or not to go with the man, he had the very distinct image of himself lying in a bathtub without a kidney and decided it might be best to go home. Sitting in front of us with both kidneys intact, he said the moral of the story was to trust your intuition.

Then came the man in charge of security for the personnel working at the Embassy. In contrast to the presentation that we had in DC on the same topic (where the speaker, who seemed to us to be former CIA, left us paranoid and thinking that we had to vary our schedule daily because of a time where someone tried to assassinate him) this man was much more down to earth and actually quite funny. When addressing terrorism, which is luckily not a huge problem in Egypt, he said that we should use common sense. Such as: if we see a person drop off a package and start running, run with them! The same goes for people who emerge out of large petrol trucks running. It turns out that the most dangerous thing in Egypt is not terrorism, robbery or disease, but crossing the street. Interestingly enough, one of the main objects of people’s frustration here, the terrible traffic, makes Cairo much safer because most accidents happen at low speeds.

The final presentation was from the woman in charge of health at the Embassy and she left us fearing for our lives, imagining that we would get tuberculosis from smoking sheesha, amoebas from street food and needed to wash all our vegetables in Clorox.

Hoping that our lunch had not given us a deadly disease, we headed up to the Citadel for the entertainment part of the orientation. Originally built by Saladin in the 1100s, the complex has walls 10 meters high, an inexhaustible well and a commanding view of downtown Cairo. It served as the seat of governance for the next 700 years, with each ruler or dynasty adding their own buildings, gates and walls.

One of these additions, the mosque built by Muhammad Ali, stands out far above the rest. Sent by the Ottomans in the early 1800s to govern Egypt, Muhammed Ali implemented many significant reforms in the country and funded a number of building projects. This mosque is large and gorgeous, standing out on the skyline of downtown Cairo. It is built in an Ottoman style, complete with two typical pencil minaret’s that one sees all over Turkey but no where else in Cairo.

After touring the mosque, we went to dinner at the restaurant in the Citadel, which allowed us to appreciate one of the upsides of the pollution in Cairo, beautiful sunsets. After what turned out to be a fantastic buffet, we were asked to sit in front of a small stage, where we sipped tea and watched a performance by an incredible singer and band performing songs from the great Abdel Halim Hafiz.

Sitting on the small couches, drinking tea and watching the show with the Muhammad Ali mosque lit up in the background seemed like a fitting end to the night. However,when the band finished, there was a short pause and then a man walked out in front of the stage dressed in multiple brightly colored “skirts” that were layered on top of each other. Music began and as he started to spin, the weights in the end of the skirts caused them to lift up and spin around him like discs.

To our amazement he then slowly detached one after the other and pulled them off and spun them over his head, with one layer even lit with strings of LED lights! He ended the show by first pulling a string of women and then men to try on one of the skirts and spin. Both Caity and I spun for just a few seconds, leaving us tripping over ourselves from dizziness and yet he did it for a half hour!

That was the final act of the night, leaving us all to pile on buses and head home. It was a great day and the orientation left me looking forward to the other trips planned for us this year. As long as I can keep both my kidneys, cross the street safely and avoid getting amoebas, I am going to have a great time in Cairo.