Bookstores and mummy toes

I embarked on another adventure yesterday – continuing in my quest to stretch my comfort zone. I took the shuttle in to the embassy around noon, unfortunately hitting horrendous traffic and the typical 20-25 minute ride took over an hour. I took the opportunity to practice my Arabic by trying to read signs we passed (though I have to add that Arabic is difficult enough for me, without compounding matters with the issue of graphic font choices, so some letters remained a mystery). I indicated one store and asked the driver if I was correct in assuming that they sold only nuts, as I saw large containers piled high with what looked like cashews, almonds, peanuts, etc. He confirmed it was a nut store. How delightful! In one block I can get a bag of nuts, then a fresh lemon juice, then a wicker basket and finally a wheelchair at the “canes and wheelchairs” store. It may mean for more walking, but there’s something kind of fun about the specialty stores, versus a mega-mall.

We made it to the embassy and I met my dear husband for a quick lunch at the cafeteria where I tried a new Egyptian dish, Molokheia. It’s a spinach dish, tasty and savory and kind of soupy. Apparently it should be served over rice, but we asked for “just a taste” and were handed a full soup bowl. I’d try it again, but this time with rice as the only negative thing was it was a tad slimy and I think the rice might counteract that (who knew I wasn’t a fan of “slimy” food?).

Ron tottered off back to work and I made my way through the labyrinth of the basement and found the US Post Office, where I mailed our birthday gift to Max in Tokyo, and then over to the Community Liaison Office (CLO). I needed a little help finding the CLO, but luckily two men behind me kept telling me which turn to make and I eventually just followed them (once in a while I rely on my “blondeness,” just to hone the skill).

I had examined the city map that morning and had decided to wander a bit, with possible intentions of seeing the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the Egyptian Museum. These were all purely dependent on my ability to not get too lost. Luck was on my side and after a few turns, and lots of ups and downs on the buns-of-steel curbs, I found AUC. I wandered around the tall iron fence until I saw an entrance into a building. Figuring it would have an exit to the inner campus somewhere, I approached the guard and metal detector (these are very common throughout Cairo in many buildings (museums, hotels, etc.)). However, after waiting futilely for the guard to finish his conversation, plus I wanted to ask where the bookstore was, I finally just walked through, set off the beep, and kept going. I’m not entirely sure the concept of the metal detectors has been fully explained here.

I wandered the campus, perused a craft fair put on by Sudanese exiles, and finally found the bookstore. Great find! I spent a while checking everything out, found a great book on Egyptian and Middle Eastern birds, got two books on Arabic for me, and found lots of others I would have loved. But I held back, knowing we’d be coming here frequently. One thing I noticed, further breaking me out of my American-centric haze, was the range of new authors. Yes, they had the typical American top-sellers, but there were piles of new ones, too. So exciting!!

I left AUC and headed over to Tahrir Square, where the metro’s Sadat Station exits and the Egyptian Museum is just across the street. As I turned the corner onto Tahrir, the wind picked up and I saw all the merchants with their wares displayed on low tables or sheets on the ground, scurry to make sure the plastic combs, beautiful scarves, books and bags of vegetables didn’t get carried off. I did half consider buying some vegetables, but figured I didn’t want to carry them around, along with the books.

When I used to visit my father in NYC in my pre-teens, he taught me to always walk with a purpose, regardless of whether you know where you’re going or not. Makes you less of a target for unscrupulous folk. (He also told me to turn my rings around on my hand to a) not show any gems or jewels, and b) to better scratch someone’s face with. Keep in mind this was in the 80’s when NYC had yet to go through its clean-up phase.) I have utilized these lessons throughout my life to date, though mostly the walk-with-a-purpose one, and found myself doing this as I walked through Tahrir Square staring at the insane traffic that stood between me and the Egyptian Museum. Crud, I’m going to have to play Frogger. But then I caught sight of a sign (in English, thank goodness) that indicated I could get to the Museum by going down through Sadat Station, which I did – never breaking stride, because I intended to do that all along, of course.

There are many benefits to being a “Dip,” not the least of which is getting discount rates on in-country travel and hotels, and getting into museums for free. So I flashed my “Wife-of-a-Diplomat” card, and breezed right through. Now, I’ve been in museums all over the U.S., in the U.K. and throughout Europe, and Ron had forewarned me that there would be people coming up and offering to “guide” you through the museum for a small backshish. He suggested I skip this and instead use an illustrated guide we had (which I had been carrying with me all day, despite it’s weight of approximately 4 lbs). I scuttled through the crowds, past the groups who were being “guided” and found myself in a large open room filled with enormous stone statues.

Upon first glance I will admit that the museum is, well, grubby, and not up to the pristine standards westerners are used to. There’s no air-conditioning, so windows are open, and it’s advised to not visit in the height of summer (I can only imagine that the smell might induce fainting). Exhibits are overcrowded with jumbles of pieces (though it’s been said that the ancient Egyptians lived this way, with their temples and houses filled, no space left unwanting – having read this, Ron tried to claim that this fact validated his penchant for living amongst piles, I disagreed and pointed out that no matter how he tried to spin it, Pig Pen was no Pharaoh). Due to the over-crowding, an amazing amount of the objects could be readily touched by any visitor wanting to touch something 3,000 years old! Several of the displays were just simple wooden frames and the majority of items had very few signs (hence the need for a guide or guidebook). Having said all my criticisms, the museum does have an astonishing collection.

It was opened in 1902, and exhibits over 150,000 artifacts, with apparently 30,000 more in storage. According to the guidebook, “The treasures of the museum represent one of the world’s oldest known civilizations, dating back as early as four thousands years B.C.” (My brain is still processing that fact.)

A few of the impressive exhibits include Tutankhamen’s funerary mask and sarcophaguses (sarcophagi?), from ~1300’s B.C., limestone statues of Amenhotep II and Queen Tiy (known as “Colossi of Memnon”) measuring over 22’ tall from ~1350 B.C., amazing jewelry and hieroglyphs depicting such detail as the legs on a bee or the glare of a falcon and of course the mummies.

There are two separate mummy exhibits. Both displaying mummies found in the late 1800’s in the Valley of the Kings and Deir al-Bahari, in Egypt. It’s known that these were not the initial burial sites, but were sites used by Theban priests who moved and hid the bodies from a rash of tomb raiders in order to preserve them. There’s a separate fee to enter the mummy exhibits and Ron wasn’t sure if my Dip card would allow me access, but I figured I’d try. There are many inequalities in life as a woman, however once in a while being female is a benefit, such as getting headlight blubs replaced for free, or getting access to the mummy exhibit (though I’d still opt for equal-work-equal-pay). The guard examined my Dip card thoroughly, then chatted on his radio and finally allowed me entrance. He then continued to walk with me, commenting on “bee-yoo-tiful Americans” with “bee-yoo-tiful eyes.” I kept thanking him as I continued walking along, but when he asked how old I was, I responded with a smile, “I’m married” and quickly entered the air-conditioned room with the mummies.

The mummies ranged from 1500 B.C. to 1200 B.C. and were displayed in plexiglass cases, so you could see them clearly. Which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. I learned that mummy toes creep me out. I was amazed to see that some mummies had bits of hair, most had their teeth, some had fingernails, none had eyes but some had been replaced with painted stones. Considering their age, their condition was really mind-boggling. There’s no question that the ancient Egyptians knew what they were doing in the mummification process.

By this point, after a few hours in the museum, my mouth was feeling a little mummified and I headed back towards the embassy. I settled in the SemiRamis hotel café, ordered a Perrier and a fresh lemon juice and read a little while I waited for Ron to join me. I can see now why people recommend doing the museum in little chunks. There’s so much to absorb, locate, and learn about. I learn one thing and it leads to more questions, which requires more learning. I fear it may be a never-ending cycle.

Ron finally joined me and we walked over the bridge to Zamalek, then over another bridge to Dokki, where we ate dinner and browsed a bookshop (not unlike our date-nights back in Baltimore).

TAXI TALE: The ride home from Dokki was relatively uneventful. Though Ron did find that his seat in front was not functioning perfectly and he spent the ride leaning back halfway into my lap. I spent the ride trying to figure out how the driver got the box of tissues stuck to the ceiling, but ascertained that there was a wire contraption aiding it. I also determined this was one of the oldest taxis we’d seen, so I spent some time figuring out where the door handle was so I could exit, quickly if needed. I found the rusty metal lever and was delighted when it actually worked. See, completely uneventful.