Eid Al-Adha – Counting Sheep

The alarm went off of 5:00 am and we dressed quickly as the first rays of light filtered through our window. It was the first day of Eid Al-Adha and we had decided to watch the morning prayers and following festivities at the Amr Ibn Al-As Mosque, famous as the first mosque built in Egypt.

The metro was filled with people of all ages from small sleepy children to old men and women walking with the assistance of family members. As foreigners, we did not fit in with the crowd and attracted a number of stares which seemed to say, “what are you doing up this early?” We just smiled and acted like we always get up to ride the subway at 5:30 in the morning.

We followed the masses to the mosque itself and sat down at a café to watch the morning prayers. The scene was oddly reminiscent of a picnic. The long street in front of the mosque was covered with large green carpets spread out like grass with families milling about and men winding their way through the crowds selling balloons from floating towers and what looked to be metallic space blankets, whose use we could not quite discern. The balloon men were joined by teen girls dressed in blue uniforms and carrying large wooden boxes marked for zakat, donations to the poor and charities.

The prayers began just as the sun peaked over the walls of the mosque. The thousands of gathered people prayed in unison, raising their hands, bowing and touching their heads to the ground in movements directed by the calls of the Imam, magnified over loud speakers. Although it was beautiful to see the collective prayer and supplication, the enormous political banners draped across the street, advertising candidates for the upcoming elections, distracted me from the spiritual atmosphere.

When the prayers finished, we decided to continue walking in hopes of witnessing one of the more famous sides of Eid Al-Adha, the mass sacrifice of sheep, goats and cows. Eid Al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ismael (Isaac in the Judeo-Christian tradition) as a demonstration of obedience to God, after which God provided a ram to be sacrificed in Ismael’s place. The meat is then divided into thirds, with the family taking one third, relatives, friends and neighbors given another share and the last third given to the poor and needy.

The weeks leading up to the Eid held ominous signs of the coming slaughter, with the streets being increasingly filled with goats and sheep (at times even cows) who lived in makeshift pens, seemingly unaware of their impending end. The sacrifice itself is done in local butchers shops, which I imagine must do 25% of their year’s work in the three days that make up the Eid.

As a lifelong vegetarian, I was not going to watch the sacrifices because I wanted to see them but more because I felt that I should see them. Not only because it is a significant part of Islamic culture but also because there is such a gap in the US between the food that we eat and its source (meat seems to come from clean plastic packages and not animals) and I wanted to rectify that view, if only for myself.

My ignorance was quickly dispatched as we joined a crowd that had gathered around a local butchers shop. As we were not your standard onlookers, one of the children watching took it upon himself to describe the process in dramatic motions, slowly drawing his hand across his neck multiple times, as if we could not see the sheep behind him writhing on the floor of the butchers shop.

Although I appreciated the cultural and religious significance of the process, after ten or fifteen minutes, we decided to head home, walking through the crowds of balloon-and-mysterious-space-blanket-carrying families. It is an event that everyone should see once, but next time I think I might sleep in and try hard not to think about counting sheep.



Post Office Purgatory

It started innocently enough. Caity and I asked my parents to send us a care package and a week later my mom let us know that she had just shipped off two boxes. We were waiting in eager anticipation when I got a letter from the Egyptian Post Office informing me that a package had arrived but I needed to go out to the customs office at the airport to get it.

The letter also said that if I did not come fifteen days from when the package arrived, it would be either sent back or destroyed, which meant I had to go before Eid Al-Adha next week.  I called the number on the letter around eight a.m. Wednesday morning and had a confused conversation with a man who, when I asked about a package there, told me “ma feesh (there are none)”.  Utterly bewildered, I asked the secretary of our language school if she could call and although she called all day, she got not response. It seems that I would just have to go on Thursday, the last day before the long weekend.

I woke up early and caught a cab to the airport so that I could arrive at eight a.m., giving myself an hour in the post office and an hour to get back before my Arabic class at ten a.m. When I arrived at the office however, the guard outside asked me what I was doing. “All government offices open at nine,” he told me as if I should have known.  I could not go back home so he directed me up to a large waiting room filled with old, cracked leather chairs with one wall covered in a mural of President Mubarak’s face created by pictures of Egyptian stamps.

I passed my time reading until nine, with some others joining me in the waiting room and employees slowly starting to filter in, chatting over tea and cigarettes. At nine, I asked whom I should be waiting for and was pointed toward an empty office. Along with two or three others, I stood across from the office, eagerly looking at every person who entered, hoping they were the promised employee.

At nine thirty, a man entered the office and we clustered around him, desperately shoving our papers in his direction. After some difficulty opening the room’s safe (which looked a century old) he brought out some disorganized stacks of paper and two worn old binders and started to process our papers. He sipped his tea and partially filled out the front of a sheet, asking for ninety Egyptian Pounds, perhaps for taxes or customs fees.

Form in hand I was told to talk with Waseem. I excitedly left the office thinking that I was close to achieving my goal and might only be 30-40 minutes late for my Arabic class. I was given the odd description that Waseem was the man in the office surrounded by women. Entering, I found that Waseem was a very, very large and frustrated man sitting at a desk with a female assistant standing at each elbow. I handed him my form and he looked it over, trying to read the customs slip filled out in English.

“You know that seeds are prohibited right?” he asked me looking quizzically at the item labeled “Grapefruit Seed Extract”. I tried vainly to explain that it was actually a natural liquid we use for washing vegetables and he cut me off saying, “we will see when we look at it.” Part way through my form he got up in an irritated huff, muttering something about aganib (foreigners) and went back to the first office to voice what sounded to be a frustrated complaint. Another employee, perhaps used to doing damage control for Waseem, quickly told me, “no, no, no, foreigners are great!”

Waseem returned and told me he would come and get me when he finished my form. I sat down, finally acknowledging that I had missed my first Arabic class but holding on to the hope that I would make the second one at twelve. The building was filling up now and two things struck me. First, the office seemed to run on a steady stream of tea, coffee and cigarettes, brought out by two men whose job it was to keep both the employees and the customers fully supplied, as if employees were paid in tea, coffee and cigarettes. Second, I had not seen one computer in the whole office. All of the work was done in hard copies and every desk was covered in massive binders and stacks of paper, with forms spilling out of drawers onto the floor. It appeared I was in for a long wait.

The large room beside the waiting room proved to be the customs office, where packages were hauled out, dumped on the ground, cut open, their contents examined and then resealed, all of it involving lots of forms, cigarettes and frustrated conversations. The entrance to the room was guarded by what looked like a metal detector that produced constant irritating beeps, all of which were ignored by the guard. Adding to the cacophony, every fifteen minutes a bench blocking the room’s entrance would be screechingly drawn aside to let a cart through. This apparently could not be done by lifting the bench, nor could they just put the bench aside. Many of those waiting just watched the chaos. I tried to relax, listening to lectures on Buddhism and getting into a zen state as I waited for Waseem.



A souvenir...as if I will ever forget!

After three hours, I was at my wits end. I could not focus to study, ran out of things to read and fell asleep when I tried to listen to lectures. In desperation, I decided to pray. I repeated over and over a short prayer known as the “Remover of difficulties”, detaching myself from all the smoke, noise and frustration of the office. After ten minutes, and feeling much better, I looked up and one of Waseem’s assistants handed me my paperwork!

I nearly collapsed in relief but guessing this was not over, asked where I had to go next. I was directed to an office where I paid yet anther fee of eighty-six pounds, taking the receipt and returning again to Waseem, who had become the center of my universe, as all things rotated around him. He then gave me a red form, which I had to take to another office down the hall.

The employees there were nice and asked me where I was from. When I said the States, they asked if we had a system like this in the US. By this time I had been waiting over four hours, missed both my Arabic classes and paid over 200 pounds as part of this process. I told them simply that it is a bit more organized in the US and the man nodded his understanding and asked me to pay twenty-three pounds.

This, however, was the last bit of paperwork I needed. I went back to Waseem and he told me to wait while he got my package. He returned twenty minutes later carrying one box and handed it to me. Elated, I took the package, leaving the office a full five hours after I had entered it that morning.

My joy knew no bounds as I sat in the taxi coming back. That is, until I realized that my mom had actually sent two packages and yet only one sat in the seat behind me!

The City of the Dead

Friday is the first day of the weekend in Cairo and on a whim, Caity and I decided to leave our homework at home and go out to explore Cairo. We chose the tombs of the City of the Dead as our day’s destination.

Dating back to the time of the pharaohs, the people of Cairo have had a fascination with the dead, one that has continued until today. In fact, ancient Cairo was known for its parallel city filled with tombs constructed like houses with walls, gates, plants and occasionally elaborately carved domes. The city is filled with famous tombs and they were, in the late 1300s, the most popular tourist destination in Egypt, meriting numerous ancient guidebooks!

The dead have not remained the sole inhabitants of the tombs however. Estimates of the area’s current population range from 50,000 to 500,000, including families who have lived there as paid guardians for generations as well as those forced by poverty to move in. The area is much more of a neighborhood than a cemetery now, complete with electric lines, all manner of shops and multistory houses.

We took a taxi from the nearest metro stop, heading towards the complex built by the Sultan Barkuk in the middle of the City of the Dead. Stuck in traffic (which I might as well just call driving in Cairo) our driver kindly offered me a cigarette. I politely refused, and he responded, “Good, these things are terrible for you,” and then proceeded to light his own, blowing the smoke out the open window. He looked to be in his mid or late twenties and when I asked him how long he had be smoking, he smiled and told me “at least ten years.”

As we arrived at the complex and following a cultural norm, our driver insisted that we did not have to pay for the ride, telling us that we “illumine the city of Cairo.” This is odd to someone coming from New York, where if someone says that something is free, which rarely ever happens, they mean it and you don’t press any farther and get out of the car/shop, rejoicing at your good fortune. In Cairo however, we responded with, “no the city is illumined by its people” and “may God increase your fortune,” pushing the money into his hand despite his smiles and polite protests.

We then entered the complex itself and were quickly pounced on by three or four children smiling and asking us to take pictures of them. They were shooed away by and older man who, without being asked, offered us tea and then began to tell us about the history and architecture of the complex, which housed a mosque and used to be a center for the study of Islamic law. We asked him if anyone still lives here and he smiled and replied, “I do.” Jobs are very hard to come by in Cairo and it became apparent that he was a self-appointed tour guide of the complex and we paid him a small fee for his service when we left.

We then walked down a main street studded with shops and tombs, on our way to the Qaitbey Mosque, one of the other main attractions in the area. We stopped to watch a few of the local boys playing soccer in a side street and a couple came to talk with us, as we were obviously not from the area. They were surprised that we spoke Arabic and one asked us where we were from. A couple of years ago we might have responded “Canada,” ending our sentence with “aye” and hoping he didn’t press farther. After Obama was elected however, it has become much less of a bad thing in the Middle East to say that you are American, so we responded truthfully. “So you like Israel?” was his immediate response. It seems that a new president does not change everything.

Leaving the boys, we continued down the street until finally reaching the Qaitbey Mosque. We walked up to the entrance and saw a few tourists coming out, accompanied by a guard. When we asked if we could go in however, we were told that it was under renovation. The guard continued to stand in front of us, obviously waiting for a little baksheesh to guide us through the mosque. Disliking this practice, we turned back and found ourselves in front of a glass factory.

The aging owner was sitting out front in a plastic chair that looked as old as he was and we started speaking with his son, who also works blowing glass in the factory. He told us that this is one of the few factories remaining in the world where the glass is hand-blown and not made with machines. Unfortunately we could not see the process as Friday was the oven’s day off too but we bought a beautiful blue bowl and promised to return and watch him work.

We then slowly made our way out of the city and just caught the sunset over the lower half of the cemetery, lighting up the scattered domes and courtyards built for those who no long watch the sun set. We will come back to the City of the Dead, but next time to visit the living.