I finally found a book that is keeping my interest piqued, which means that I don’t fall asleep every time I open it. It means that I only fall asleep while reading it occasionally, and only when I get to a good stopping point. My body is just craving sleep like nothing else and it figures that if I have time to lounge around and read I have time to take a nap. It’s the hardest feeling to fight off.
Mommy Wars, The Israel Lobby, The Audacity of Hope, and Vanity Fair have all failed to maintain my interest and I was finding myself doze off every few words, which is unfortunate. That means I haven’t finished a book in ages.
Then AUC had a book sale and Andrew brought home a bunch of highly discounted books. While we were on vacation at Ain Sokhna, I picked up Cairo: The City Victorious and read a whole chapter and a half before I conked out. Miraculous, I know.
So the whole reading process is still a little slow going, but the book is so beautifully written and fully encapsulates the love-hate relationship I have with Cairo.
I always knew that the city was crowded, but I’m pretty spoiled and we live in a green neighbourhood with quite a lot of space for its residences, relatively speaking…so when I read what Rodenbeck had to say about overcrowding, I was quite shocked.
Cairo is, according to the United Nations, the most densely populated large urban area in the world. Overall, this city packs 70,000 people into each of its 200 square miles, confining its citizens more tightly than does the bristly little island of Manhattan. In central districts like Muski and Bab al-Sha’riyya the density is 300,000 per square mile, a figure that soars in some back streets to a crushing 700,000. By and large these numbers throng not tower blocks but alleyfuls of low-rise tenements…with three and sometimes five people to a tiny room, families take turns to eat and sleep….
…There are precious few green spaces. Until a recent crash programme the city had only five square inches of parkland per inhabitant, which is to say less than the area covered by the sole of one adult foot. Rather than standing like flamingos, Cairenes take to the streets. They turn sidewalks and roadways into zones of commerce and entertainment….The street is were some 40,000 homeless children sleep, and where all the people of Cairo engage in combat with the city’s million motor vehicles and 5,000 donkey carts.
--Max Rodenbeck in Cairo: The City Victorious, pg. 16-17*
Today we headed out to Al-Azhar Park, which plays a very big role in that “crash program” to increase park space in Cairo. I don’t think it’s possible to fully realize how important greenery is until you uproot and move to the middle of a huge city in a sweltering desert. You should see Rachel’s face when she sees the “grass” here. She just lights up, and then demands to be let loose so she can run free.
My friend just put a picture up on Facebook of her recently-returned missionary brother face down on their front lawn. He missed grass that much. I think we might, too, so don’t be surprised if, when we come home next year, you see us all face down in the grass. We’re a little repressed here.
The grass that they do have here isn’t really grassy. The church yard is covered in some clover-like substance that Rachel calls “flowers.” Al-Azhar is covered with that short, waxy, deserty grass that, while nice, isn’t exactly what we’re used to.
But we take what we can get and since we’d sometimes rather not stand like flamingos or combat speeding cars for space (also because Andrew’s been banned from going to school until next week due to swine flu and his trip to the embassy this morning was much shorter than expected) we decided to visit the park this afternoon.
Our taxi driver took the wrong way to Al-Azhar Park and tried to drop us on the opposite side of the street, which would have been fine except that we were on Salah Salem, a divided “highway” of sorts that has anywhere from 8 to 12 lanes of traffic to cross (there are no “lanes” here, just directions, so it’s hard to know how many lanes you’re actually confronting at any given moment). And Rodenbeck had it right when he said that people on the streets “engage in combat” with the millions of cars whizzing by. I was in no mood to play Frogger across such a busy street so I scoffed audibly and Andrew had wits enough to notice my thoughts on the matter and asked the driver to keep going until he could turn around and drop us off at the gate.
I’ve never been very good at Frogger.
So we got to the park, paid the entrance fee, which has recently been reduced to 3 LE per adult, and went inside. The place was crawling with people. There wasn’t an available bench in a shady spot as far as the eye could see. We trekked off to the playground, which Rachel usually loves…but which she didn’t love today.
Today everything was “staiwsy.” Scary boy. Scary sand. Scary slide. Scary girl. Scary this. Scary that. Scary everything.
She finally stopped freaking out for a minute and asked to ride on a little Noah’s Ark bouncy toy. She wouldn’t ride on the horse because it was scary. When I asked why she said it was because it would be hot. Boats, on the other hand, are cold. She was perfectly content and bouncing away when she was swarmed with children again.
When we had sufficiently calmed her down from that she decided she wanted to try out the swings. She had noticed some older children on them and thought they looked like fun.
We sat in the shade and waited patiently for her turn. Not that turns actually exist here, but since Rachel’s a blond-girl she didn’t have to wait long. Children were clamoring to give up their swings for her in exchange for a boosa (kiss). She didn’t kiss anyone but she still got a swing and bravely sat on it. We kind of forgot that she hasn’t really been on a swing since we moved away from the States back in August last year and the whole experience kind of shocked her.
She insisted it was “Mommy’s turn” so I hopped on the swing and pulled her onto my lap. Daddy had to push us because the swing was so close to the ground that I couldn’t bend my legs. He pushed us so high that I thought I was going to throw up the baby, but Rachel enjoyed herself. She likes going fast…when she’s securely seated on Mommy’s lap.
Wherever we went, though, we were being followed around by hordes of children (and grownups alike) and they were making Rachel really nervous. Besides which, the playground is trashed. There are missing parts and so many broken things that it’s hardly fun. The sand is covered in cigarette butts and sunflower seed shells. It’s unfortunate because it used to be a beautiful playground.
We left and sat by the fountain at the main gate for a while and amazingly enough, people left us alone. That is probably due, in part, to the ill-tempered security guards standing around, enforcing rules arbitrarily.
One security guard, who happened to be hanging from a tree (very against the rules), stopped us from sitting on the grass. Seriously. Andrew told him that everyone else was sitting on the grass and he said that he knew that, and that the problem was out of control, and that he couldn’t do anything about the other people sitting on the grass…but he could keep us from sitting on the grass.
If he didn’t have the power to kick us out of the park at will we probably would have pressed the issue, but since he holds that power we decided to let it go and move on.
We ended up on some vacant benches by the fountain, that people were repeatedly told not to touch by grouchy guards, while Rachel calmed down and got her wiggles out.
Randomly, I wore a pink shirt and black capris today…and Andrew took a picture of another lady wearing almost the exact same outfit. It was kind of creepy when I saw her in the picture, because I know she’s not me…but if you look quick, it kind of looks like me. (She's walking through the metal detector beyond the fountain).
(This next picture is specifically for Uncle Jacob). We eventually made our way down to the lake where we happened to meet up with Hogar’s family again. They gave Rachel chips and cake and played Ring-Around-the-Rosie with her. She was so friendly and happy to be around Hogar and her sisters, it was like she wasn’t the same child we brought to the playground earlier that day. She was running off, far away, and letting them carry her and pass her around. We were just happy that she was happy.
We blew bubbles, went on airplane rides, and in general had a great time until the sun started setting and a breeze came up, which cooled things off nicely and carried a little mist from the fountain on the lake over to us.
Then I sat (on the grass, even) with Rachel on my lap, enjoying the sunset, and talking to Hogar and her sisters while they stuffed Rachel with chips and other treats. And then some more girls joined us. And then some more girls. And then some more girls. Andrew thinks we had at least 10 girls around us, firing off questions in Arabic. I was doing my best to keep up with the conversation and Andrew was just laughing, not so much about my feeble attempt, but because of the huge crowd of girls growing around me like vultures circiling around their deceased prey.
Hogar kept insisting that I spoke Arabic well and discouraged everyone from using English with me. She felt it was important that I learn as much Arabic as I could from our conversation. And she was very patient with me, which was nice. I like talking to children for that reason.
I could have stayed longer than we did, but a security guard came and broke up our “gathering.” Gathering without permission is against the rules of the park. (Balls are also against the rules. Next week maybe they’ll ban fun). All the girls scattered and we were free to leave without being forced to make up some wild excuse. Rachel wouldn’t have wanted to leave, except that we told her we were going to ride in a taxi.
Also, we conceded to all her birthday party whims. She was watching a party develop with verifiable interest (you can see the party starting in the picture of me and Rachel twirling). She knows her birthday is coming up and she already knows a lot about birthday parties thanks to a certain Clifford book we read on a regular basis.**
Watching the party was very hard for her to do, and cued a few tears when I told her she wasn’t allowed to go. For her birthday party, just in case you were wondering, she wants a red cake (it will probably end up being pink because making red icing is too hard), red balloons (they will probably end up being multi-colored because we already have a package and it contains more than just red balloons), clapping (Arabs can’t sing without clapping, apparently, and they clapped all through their rendition of Happy Birthday), party hats (this is from Clifford), and a “special” shirt (her idea, I don’t know what “special” entails but it should be doable). I think we can pull off a party like that.
Of course, earlier this week all she wanted was a birthday cake (she ordered it while we were “talking” on the “phone” with each other), so her list has grown considerably and her birthday is still over a month away. If her wishes keep multiplying at the rate they have been we might just have to break her heart.
But since we didn’t want to drag her kicking and screaming away from the park, we told her she could have everything she told us she wanted. She was happy with that, so we said farewell to the green grass and returned to the chaos of Cairene urbanity. Back to being packed like sardines in the metro, back to dodging traffic, back to heat and smog and noise…everything that Rachel has grown up associating with normalcy.
*Rodenbeck, Max. Cairo: The City Victorious. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1999.
**I think it’s a stupid story, by the way, but Rachel likes it. They get all ready for the party and then no friends show up…instead they all go to the park to play together, without Clifford. Why? Because they didn’t think their presents were good enough. The moral of the book ends up being that family and friends are the best presents of all, but STILL! Does Bridwell want us to think that Clifford’s friends are totally lame-o?