Thursday, June 29, 2006

Illiterate in Arabic

We've been trying to figure out meaningful ways to spend our lengthening time in Cairo. One thing we’ve been doing is putting renewed effort into Arabic study. Individually, we listen to the Pimsleur CD Arabic course, an oral course that aims to give you tools to function daily in colloquial Arabic. I’m finding that every day I can add a bit more to what I can say to shopkeepers and taxi drivers—and yesterday I even understood something I overheard on the street (“It’s here”). As a group (well, actually, it’s mostly the kids while I baby-wrangle and wash out laundry in the bathroom sink), we sit on the floor in front of the laptop with notebooks and textbook and use the Alif Baa Classical Arabic program to work on reading and writing (as well as understanding spoken) classical Arabic. We’re not yet to the point that we can look at any word in Arabic and pronounce it, but we can find letters in almost any word that we know. With the Roman alphabet, typefaces are almost transparent to me—I have no problem telling the letter “A” whether it is in Helvetica, Times New Roman, or Edwardian Script. With the Arabic alphabet, though, different typefaces confuse me. Do I really recognize an alif in this word or is it merely a typographical flourish? Makes me wonder when I first learned to manage the Roman alphabet so facilely—I have no memory of being confused by typeface (other than cursive vs. manuscript).

Our other idea was to find a way to volunteer while we’re in Cairo. We found online information about charitable programs run from All Saints’ Cathedral in Cairo, so a couple of days ago, we made our way there. It’s not terribly far from our hotel, on an island in the Nile, Zamalek, that is known as the leafy-green expat quarter and the site of an exclusive Cairo country club. While not far, the walk there proved slightly hair-raising, involving crossing roads with speed-fixated drivers. We made it safely, though, and quickly found the cathedral. We learned that most of their charitable operation has shut down for a week and a half while they attend a conference, but they did have a gift shop open. It’s filled with items made by Sudanese refugees and by students at Cairo’s blind and deaf schools and goes to support them.

Yesterday, Lucy and Ed and Isaac and Nora and I got up early to head into Zamalek to take Isaac to a music/dance class for pre-schoolers that we had seen on the bulletin board at All Saints’ Cathedral. Remembering our hair-raising walk, we took a taxi. Unfortunately, while the taxi driver understood “Zamalek,” he didn’t understand “All Saints’ Cathedral” and we got left in an unfamiliar part of the island. Nobody that we stopped to ask directions understood “All Saints’ Cathedral” either and I knew only the English name of the street it was on (26th of July street) and I had absolutely no idea how to translate into Arabic (even the sign over the church had been in English!). We wandered for half an hour, but eventually we found the place. And the wandering wasn’t unpleasant. Zamalek really is tree-filled and shady, and while the country club is surrounded by high fences, you can see and enjoy the foliage as you walk around it.

We had missed the pre-school dance class, but the sign on the gift shop door said it should have opened five minutes before. We sat down to wait in the cathedral courtyard and finally, after twenty minutes, decided to ask the concierge at the front gate if it was going to be opening. He said it would be another hour—the elastic definition of time is something I’m going to have to get used to in Africa, I think.

So, we took a walk around the neighbourhood. Bought water and cookies at a grocery store. Spent some time in a wonderful mostly-English bookstore. It had a picture book called, “Good-night Cairo” with the narrator saying good-night to distinctively Cairene things, the Pyramids and Sphinx, cats prowling in the souk, and—my favourite—to the dented-up cars. After I read that, I started noticing that every car I see on the streets here is dented. I think I’ve seen maybe 2 cars without dents since I started looking!

When we went back to the gift shop, it was open. Lucy picked out three sets of earrings, each about 1 Euro, and Ed picked out a silk-screened tote bag the right size for a CD player and CDs. I, however, was on the troll for toys. Isaac has been remarkably patient with our unsettled and shrunken situation. He and Ed make and fly paper airplanes. He cuts paper until it’s lacy. He plays hide and seek relentlessly (in our one fairly bare hotel room!). And he has heard the picture books we have along so often that he now insists on reading them to us or reciting them as we walk along the streets (not an unwelcome development—I’m glad he is absorbing interesting and beautiful language with all its rhythms and playfulness). The hardest time of the day for him is when the big kids are all studying Arabic and he wants somebody to play with. So I decided that, despite our airline-dictated weight constraints, I would buy him some toys even if we have to abandon them at the airport. And what could be better than buying toys and supporting refugees at the same time?

We bought a wooden trailer truck, driven by 2 wooden peg people (dubbed Fred and Lifesaver by Isaac--!) and filled with blocks. It’s a wonderful toy with lots of play possibilities—the drivers issue stentorian orders as they take their load around the hotel room. The blocks themselves, of course, are great playthings, and have been built into, so far, towers, airplanes, and mosques. But the thing that surprised me is that one of Isaac’s very favourite things to do, and the most time-consuming, is to put the blocks away. They exactly fill the truck’s trailer. You don’t have to put them in in any particular order, but you do have to make sure that you put them in snugly without gaps. Our little puzzle-lover Isaac works and works at it until not even one extra piece is left.

We took a taxi back to the hotel without any problem. Whenever we get in a taxi now, the first thing Isaac asks is, “Does this guy know where he’s going?” A question we all wonder about.

The kids and I talked about the possibility of going somewhere else in Egypt, but to my surprise, they’re very happy here and appreciate the familiarity (instead of being driven up a wall by it). So, we’re becoming Cairo experts. One thing that all of them had expressed interest in was going swimming, a very welcome idea on these hot, hot days. I can’t find a public swimming pool, so I had started calling hotels to see if they allow day use. First I called the big hotels, but I was staggered by he prices they quoted me—fifty US dollars a person (and this in inexpensive Egypt!), but yesterday I had the brainstorm of looking for other hotels with pools online. I got phone numbers and Ruth and I went to the pay phone outside the bakery on the corner to make phone calls. One hotel I called put me on hold for a very long time, letting me listen to their looped music tape which was playing “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

We found a hotel in the city that would let us swim for about 5 US dollars apiece (I was very proud of my sleuthing work in finding it!), so we took a taxi there (successfully! And I even gave the initial directions completely in Arabic). It’s in a part of town we’d never been before. I think it’s a mostly residential area, though its traffic was just as noisy and its buildings just as high as this neighbourhood. The swimming pool was on the 13th floor with some great views across Cairo. It wasn’t big, but it was big enough. Eleanor wasn’t sure about the whole swimming thing—she burst into tears the first 2 times we put her in the pool—but everyone else loved it. The kids are great with Isaac, and he had a lot of fun. I took him out for a while, too, and they played Marco Polo and jumped in and played other swimming games. We had a fun afternoon.

It took time for us to make our way back to the hotel, and by the time we got there, Sam and Ed and Lucy were all feeling headachy and sick. Ruth, who reads Runner’s World religiously, told us about an article she had read that said you had a one hour window after vigorous exercise in which to rehydrate and refuel. Her assessment was that we had missed the window with the three of them. Sure enough, later in the evening, after resting and eating, all three were fine. Chalk one up for Runner’s World!

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