Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Metro and the Pens

The Metro is one of my favorite places in Cairo.  As I mentioned in another blog entry, I was so happy to read in the guide books, and find out for myself once I got here, that the Cairo Metro is a wonderful way to get to many parts of the city.  It is clean, safe, has a lot of nice art, is faster (and safer) than going many places in a car, and it costs only one Eygptian pound.  Today's exchange rate is 5.74 Egyptian pounds to one dollar, so the metro costs about 17 cents per trip.  Here are some photos of the metro at the Opera Metro Station on the island of Zamalek which is in the middle of the Nile in Cairo.  There are normally a lot of people around at the metro, but I tried to take these photos when there was a break in the pedestrian traffic.

One of the main reasons I love taking the metro is because it is so interesting.  There are so many different kinds of people and they are almost always very kind and welcoming to us as foreigners.  In fact no one has ever treated me less than friendly and gracious on the metro.  And I don't just mean people smile at you.  Almost every time I ride the metro, someone offers me their seat.  This doesn't just happen as a form of chivalry in the cars that are mixed gender.  It happens often when I'm travelling by myself in the 'Ladies Only' car.  Some kind Egyptian lady, sometimes my age or younger and sometimes older, offers me their seat.  I tried politely nodding and motion that they didn't need to do this, but quickly learned that they really wanted to do this.  I feared they might be offended if I didn't accept, so now I graciously accept and smile and say Shocron (pronounced Show Crawn), which means thank you.  (The first time or two that this happened, I couldn't help wondering if I really looked that old and tired that people thought I always needed to be offered a seat, but I see it is just that they see I am a foreigner and they want me to feel welcome and as comfortable as possible while I am here.  People will literally call out to me in the street, "Welcome!" as I'm walking by when I greet them or nod to them.)

When I ride in the mixed gender cars with Cameron and Jeff, we regularly get many smiles.  Egyptians love children and Cameron is an immediate ice-breaker.  People will say 'hi' to him, tap him on the head, ask him how he likes Egypt, and generally just be happy with us because we're with him... (that's partly a joke, but not entirely!)  Egyptians really like families and can immediately see we are one.

There are so many stories I could tell about the Metro even though I've only been here less than a month.  One thing I love about the metro is that it's just life and everything basic and fundamental about it.  Even though I don't understand Arabic, I can watch and understand a lot of what happens.  During our first metro ride, an older, frail-looking woman, dressed all in black with her head covered and maybe a veil too, went up and down our car handing out slips of paper to each person (though not to us) and quickly moving to the next person.  There was something written on the paper, but I didn't know what.  I watched to see what would happen.  Before the next stop, she collected all the pieces of paper and I noticed one man put a pound note into the folded slip of paper before handing it back to her.  So I learned this was how some people politely asked for donations.  We gave her some money when we got off.

We quickly learned that this method of handing things out to everyone on the train is also a way of selling things.  During the last week of Ramadan, a boy got on the train a few different times when I was riding and handed out a little bag of heart-shaped balloons in clear plastic to everyone on the train, including me.  He said it was Hamza (five pounds).  A couple women bought the bags from him.  The rest he collected.  The last time I saw him (almost at the end of Ramadan), he tried to coax me to buy a bag telling me something in Arabic that I didn't understand.  I smiled politely and shook my head no.  He went on his way,... many more customers to reach in the few minutes between train stops.  At the time, I thought he would be a regular every week on the train and thought it was odd that he had chosen to be a balloon salesman for his teen business.  But on the last night of Ramadan when we were in a part of town that was well-decorated, I saw there were a lot of balloons and the nightly news showed a lot of Egyptian kids celebrating with balloons.  So I realized that this teen had a Ramadan business:  that's why he was selling the balloons, that's why many people were buying them and that's why he took an extra few moments to try to convince me to buy a bag on the last train ride I took before Ramadan ended... probably he was telling me that Ramadan was almost over and it was almost the Eid celebration (the final feasting holiday once Ramadan ended) and that I should definitely have balloons for my kids!

Today the salesman on the metro car handed out English/Arabic phrase books to every passenger, including us, then collected them at the end.  I might have bought one except that the English sentences had only the arabic writing next to them and nothing to tell me how to actually pronounce the words.  (This is why the Arabic language is so challenging.  Since I can't read the arabic words and don't even know what sounds each letter represents, let alone the different arabic word for each English word, it's challenging to learn.)

One time on the metro when I was in the Ladies Car, I saw a woman just get on the train before the door closed only to find her daughter wasn't with her.  She was still on the platform as the train was pulling away.  She looked to be about 10 years old.   I didn't need to speak Arabic to take one look at the mother and a quick look back at the daughter to understand the impact of what had just happened.  The woman signaled something to the girl that looked like waving her on to take the next train.  Everyone looked a little worried and several women on the train were talking to the woman whose daughter got left.  Fortunately, before the train was out of sight of the station, the woman pulled out her cell phone and was calling the girl (--- Thank goodness for cell phones!!)  Everyone looked relieved.  The fortunate thing was that Cairo is probably the safest city on the planet to have this happen.  There is almost no crime here.  I once talked to a woman who was American by birth but had lived here for 20 years and had a 6 year old son.  She talked about how once her son played hide and seek in a big department store and she couldn't find him for 10 minutes.  (I could empathize with this since I've had to chat with Cameron about this several times since he loves to play hide and seek and doesn't understand the risks.)  The woman said during the 10 minutes when she was trying to find her son, it never occurred to her that anyone might have taken him.  It is simply not a part of the culture here.   Similarly, violent street crime is not a part of this culture.  Consequently, we are probably safer here in Cairo than in almost any U.S. city.

But I digress.  You might be wondering why I mentioned 'pens' in the title.  Here's why.  A couple weeks ago, I was on the train coming home from my night class at the downtown campus of the university.  I sat across from a woman about my age, dressed in the traditional covered way with a headscarf.  She was admiring a box of two pens she'd bought.  They came in a box that had a built-in ribbon so it was clearly meant as a gift.  I smiled at her and was trying to make conversation and told her that was a nice gift.  She then handed it to me.  I quickly, but too late, remembered that the guide book had warned that one shouldn't compliment people on anything in their possession because they will feel compelled to give it to you.  This is the custom.  According to the guidebook, 'excessive admiration attracts the evil eye and puts the owner in the position of having to follow the Egyptian custom of offering the item to the admirer with a gracious, "Here, take it."  And that is just what happened.  I tried to say no and the woman insisted that I take the gift.  Fortunately, she showed me that she had a large bag full of these gift boxes of pens so she conveyed it would be fine for me to have one. (Thank goodness I didn't admire an expensive piece of jewelry!)  We talked for a little while after that until my stop came.  I wished her a Happy Ramadan and she, again graciously, told me she was Christian so didn't celebrate Ramadan.  She said she taught church school and the pens were gifts for the children as they started up school.  She was very nice and we parted ways as friends for that moment, though I expect I'll never see her again.  But I'll always remember her and the pens.  Here they are:

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