Thursday, November 15, 2007

Egypt in the eyes of a foreigner: (Part 3) Beginnings…

Swissair provided a comfortable plane. I was sitting next to a German girl and an Egyptian man. I didn’t engage in a conversation with them until shortly before landing. I had a pile of books and a new report by The Economist on global markets and trends and was keen to check them out before I land in Egypt. Bizarre. During the whole trip I was immersed in those reports, numbers and predictions and I also read a chapter of Peter Watson’s “History of Ideas,” a truly fabulous but understandably hard-to-digest mammoth of a book on history from the point of view of emergence, development and exhaustion of ideas. The moment came when all foreigners were given two little forms, a blue and a green, to fill out and return to the air crew. I, like a true Swiss, immediately put myself to work by studiously and rapidly filling out both forms. When I raised my head I saw the Egyptian man who was sitting on the other side of my row looking at me with a sheer amazement. I looked puzzled and he noticed it because he said, “Why are you filling this form? You are an Egyptian of course. You mustn’t fill it out; it is only for foreigners.” He said this after three hours of sitting not even 2 meters away from each other but having exchanged no other word before it. It seemed to him totally obvious that an Egyptian as I was for him, I was totally unaware of required procedures.

I objected. In a somewhat sardonic way I said “I don’t really look Egyptian now, do I?” I don’t think I looked Egyptian then or even now. It was his turn to object. He said I did. So did the German girl who was hitherto busy leafing endlessly through some meaningless girly magazine especially produced for types such as herself sitting in between us. I was astonished. I merely smiled back and took it as a good omen for someone who was coming to Egypt, like so many before him, to find something he thought he knew he was looking for…

The Egyptian man smiled back, produced a business card, a shabby-looking one, from his pocket inside his crumpled suit and handed it to me, saying that I could contact for matters diverse at any time, and that he would be more than glad to help me.

First glimpse of Egyptian culture, that is called. Hospitality.

First feeling. It is hot. A killing sun doesn’t spare a human or an animal. Luckily, we got into a shuttle rather quickly, which took us to a terminal where the passport check was to happen. The moment we went inside I thought I went into an accelerated episode of a rather unpleasant dream. Flocks of people in all colors and strips moved around in a way, compared to which Brownian movement would seem rather regular. I blinked because I didn’t know where to shove myself to have my passport checked and to proceed for luggage. I looked around for good five minutes before deciding to go towards a line full of small kiosks, all of which sported “VISA 15 USD.” It turned out that in order to obtain a visa, one didn't have to undergo all the tenacious security checks and hussle. It sufficed to pay 15 USD and get it in the airport.

I didn’t have time to change any money into Egyptian pounds back in Switzerland. I went closer and stood in what seemed to me to be a line to change some money. 15 minutes passed and I realized I had to push my way through the crowd which gathered around me in that time.

First conclusion. Egyptians have no idea how to stand in the line. They just push and pull till they reach at the desired point where they conduct their affair or buy something or change something regardless of all other people who stand there for the same purpose and try to do exactly the same thing, and regardless of whether these others came before or after. Me, me, me, no one else.

By a miracle perhaps, I found my luggage in hodge-podge of other luggage and was scurried through to the exit door by a police officer who was keen enough to have zero patience for those who decided to just take a breath and stay immobile for a second in the midst of an ever-growing crowd in front of the exit door. I passed through the door and I felt myself transported to a bazaar back in Armenia in the beginning of 1990s when products were scarce and demand was immeasurably higher than the supply. There was an enormous host of grey-black clad masses, more precisely said men, assembled in front of the exit door and all of them shouting names, surnames, names of companies or any other thing that might identify a person. I knew I am to be met by a person who would have my school’s logo and my name in it. I started to frantically look for it. It was not easy. Took me 10 additional minutes to glimpse a yellow-grayish blank carton piece irregularly raised high in the air with something that I thought could be approximated to my surname. I approached to a man who had it. In the deafening noise surrounding us, I made him understand it was me, at which point he directed me with his glance to go and sit behind the mass of people on benches; he continued waving the same carton, having plastered on it something else, some other anme I thought. I did as he asked me to. After yet another 15 minutes he decided that perhaps I was the last one to arrive for today. He asked me “Is someone else?” I gathered he wanted me to tell him if there was someone else with me on the plane from school. I said no. He mumbled something I thought was in English but didn’t even dare to try to translate it. I started thinking of how I would have to make my way alone to Cairo and ainfd a place to sleep.

Then suddenly his phone rang. He picked up and immediately handed it to me. I looked surprised but nevertheless accepted the phone. I just came to the Cairo airport; my flight was slightly late, and apparently I wasn’t expecting to receive a call from anyone at all. I heard a girl’s voice asking me “Who are you and where are you?” I thought this must be a director of the school, for who else would ask me this question upon my arrival. I said ”In the Airport Madame, and I am sorry to be a bit late; my flight was delayed.” She dismissed what I said and added “Where are you exactly in the airport because I am also there but am unable to find the person who was to meet me.” I understood. Yet another stranded student of our school. I gave her directions with whatever bearings I could see around me. 10 minutes later, an attractive Belgian student emerged from the crowd and walked towards us as if she already knew us for long time. She was smiling…. It was Alexandra.

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