Ramadan Kareem


It’s about 5:30 and I know I am on a fool’s errand. I want to find a school notebook and some index cards so I can rewrite the notes from today’s Arabic class and make flash cards to learn my numbers.

But during Ramadan at this time of day, you can see the lights going off and the shop doors closing as folks dash home for iftar, the first meal of the evening to break the fast many have observed since dawn.

As I turn a corner, a policeman pauses from directing traffic, points to his wrist and asks issa’a kam? I’m only two days into my Arabic class, so I can’t even say “the big hand’s on the…” Instead, I walk up to him and show him my watch (a handsome Seiko diving watch, I might add, with a gleaming orange face… a very nice going-away gift from my pal Jeff). The cop seems relieved – it’s 5:45. In just five minutes he can eat again.

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The Truman Show: Cairo Edition

Some of you have heard me talk lately about my suspicion that I’m the main character on some kind of Truman Show. You may remember the 1998 Jim Carrey movie, where a man’s entire life, from birth, is a reality television soap opera and everyone he knows is just an actor on the series.

I had dozens of Truman moments in the past year in New York; times when I’d be walking in a neighborhood I rarely visited and would see three or four people I knew from different parts of the city, all in the span of half an hour. It’s a phenomenon that kept me fearful during my bout of computer dating, because I was absolutely certain that no matter which restaurant I chose for a date, sitting at another table would be the woman I had gone out with the week before.

I know it’s a small world, but give me a break.

So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that although I’ve only met half a dozen people in Cairo (outside of AUC), I keep running into them everywhere. In Radio Shack, in the AUC faculty lounge and, today, at the language school where I took my first intensive Arabic class.

I slid a little piece of news into the last graf… Yes, I’m taking intensive Arabic for four weeks: two hours a day, five days a week. The class I was set to teach at AUC had zero enrollment, so I don’t have a consistent commitment there, at least not until later in the semester. I’ll be doing guest lectures in various classes, which has already been a lot of fun. And until the end of Ramadan four weeks from now, it’s doubtful I’ll be able to get much traction in setting up workshops with working journalists.

So, immersed in the language I’ll be. The casting directors of The Truman Show: Cairo Edition have selected a diverse and eclectic group of fellow language students (from places as far flung as Iceland, Hungary, France and Spain as well as half a dozen Yanks). And I’m sure I’ll be running into all of them at random spots around town in the coming weeks.

Dodging a Mullet in Cairo

For the near-sighted, getting a haircut is often an act of faith. Once the glasses come off, you are at the mercy of the guy with the scissors and clippers as you gaze hopefully into your own fuzzy visage in the mirror. Add language and cultural barriers, and you end up in your own Lasik surgery commercial: “This is what used to happen to me before I went 20/20.”

There have been probably a dozen times while traveling when I sat in the chair and hoped the combination of pantomime, a few simple words and fingers showing “about half an inch” was enough to avoid a catastrophic coif. After that, it’s a total act of submission. And I’ve been burned more than once.

I was totally scalped in Geneva, had a lopsided fright in Peru and a mullet in Kuwait.

And I’ve been dreading the idea of my first haircut in Cairo.

But I needed one. A quick look in the mirror put me somewhere between a monochrome Paulie Walnuts and a pre-rug Robin Gibb. As much as I dreaded going to the barber, I thought it might slough off the ennui I’ve been feeling – a combination of culture shock and fighting a bout of Cairo belly that’s had my intestinal flora overrun by intestinal fauna.
But, as I believe the Marquis de Sade once said, there’s nothing like letting a grown man touch your head for a while to shake you out of a funk.

So I went on a search in my neighborhood. The closest place is Salon Osama. Even though I’d like to tell people (particularly my family in Ohio and Texas) that a guy named Osama is my barber, the place didn’t feel right. A little too, er, rustic for my taste.

I remembered seeing a few different places on 26th of July Street, the main drag of Zamalek, my Nile island hood. I crossed the four lanes of traffic and saw the sign for “Coiffeur Lux — Coiffeurs Pour Hommes.” And I thought, hmmm, très chic. But before I could walk away to debate it, I made eye contact with Adel. He had an artsy kind of cut himself, though dangerously close to a curly mullet. But I thought he might work with me. Adel also has a little soul patch below his lip. A “thinker,” as my friend Deena – who used to cut my hair in Atlanta – dubbed the little sub-labial tuft she carved out of my beard one time. I kept that little thing for years. And a thinker is just what it was for me… I’d tug on it while I thought. Heck, I’d tug on it even when I wasn’t thinking at all.

So I sat in Adel’s chair and handed him my glasses. Here goes, I thought. And what I would witness, in a blur, was a 45-minute act of performance art. I lost count of the number of combs, brushes and razors the guy used. I was astounded at how many implements a guy can use on a balding head. He started off with a dry cut with scissors, and pulled out a straight razor to trim around my ears. Then he used threads in his mouth and hands to trim hair from my ears, brows and cheeks. After that, he wet my hair and used the straight razor with a comb to continue the haircut.

And all the while he never touched the few strands on the top of my head. It’s hilarious to me how careful and deferential some barbers are with the remnants of a guy’s pate. He handled every top hair like a holy relic, moving each individually to its place to make the few nearly invisible threads fit in with the cut.

Nearly finished, he got me a Pepsi and handed me my glasses. Mullet-free. Nicely done.

And then he tipped my head back for the straight razor shave. My first.

I laughed to myself as an old dirty joke that involves a straight razor flashed in my mind. I can’t retell it on a family-friendly blog, but the punchline is the old man saying to his wife, as he demonstrates, scrunching his mouth to one side: “honey, make like-a this.”

The Obligatory, Yet Extraordinary, Pyramid Trip


Thursday night, as the driver brought me home from a shopping spree at the French supermarket Carrefour, we drove from the eastern outskirts of Cairo toward the sunset and the area of Giza. With the sun dipping below the horizon, the orange light silhouetted the great pyramids, making them visible through the city’s haze. It was my first sighting of them since I arrived in Cairo three weeks ago.

I’d been to the site three years ago, when I shot for a documentary about theft in the antiquities trade. That shoot was a brisk couple of hours, gathering quick shots before the guards threw us out so they could get home early during the month of Ramadan. Today, I went on a bus with other new faculty, led by an expert guide, who explained a great deal about the pyramids, the volume of their girth and the length of their construction, with a little bit of ancient Egyptian mythology thrown in.

We also saw the amazing Solar Boat, discovered in the 1950s in a tomb next to the largest of the pyramids (for the pharoah Cheops). The reassembled boat lies in a museum building created specifically for its display.



cheops pyramid pyramidpanorama SolarBoat

Old Cairo and the New Campus

Yesterday, I went on a tour of greater Cairo with other new AUC faculty members. The bus meandered through the streets of various Cairo neighborhoods, with a running commentary provided by Associate Provost John Swanson. Here’s the view from the cliffs overlooking Cairo. Swanson says on a clear day you can see the pyramids. But given the air pollution in Cairo, the clear days are few and far between.

overlooking Cairo

The tour also included a view of the new campus the American University in Cairo is building about 20 miles from the city center. The $350 million project is scheduled for completion in 2008. The University made the decision to move to this area in the Sahara desert — an area city planners are calling “New Cairo” — because, given the density and congestion in downtown Cairo, there is no room to expand and parking is atrocious. The target demographic of New Cairo is upper income residents who want to escape the congested inner city. The area already has a golf course (kept green by water pumped in from the Nile river, the source of all water in Cairo) and this new suburb will quickly become urban; it’s estimated to house some 2.5 million people when it’s fully built. Here are some of the highlights of the new campus’s 260-acre contruction site:


angled shot
WS Campus construction

Library Construction campus arches

At Least the Cats are Curious

In my nearly two weeks at The American University, I’ve noticed something about the campus:  The place is full of cats.  I think the cat to student ratio rivals the faculty-to-student ratio by a wide margin.  

The well-fed felines lounge on chairs and hang out below tables and munch on the piles of cat food dumped on the walkways by someone on the kitchen staff. 

The cats look at me with a bored detachment as I walk by, and I’m reminded of comic Brian Malow’s observations on feline existentialism: “Me, ow.”

And at least they seem curious (no matter how perilous that may be for their species). 

Which is more than I can say for the student body here, since no one — not a dang soul — signed up for the class I was supposed to teach.  And here I was prepared to tell them everything they’d need to know to become successful 21st century journalists.  If they only knew what they’re missing!

Needless to say, my class didn’t take.  So now I’ll fill in when other professors are away.  I’ll give some lectures on multimedia journalism and documentary filmmaking.  And I’ll begin reaching out to working journalists here in Egypt.

And given the number of journalists (both local and expat) working in this town, all I have to do is pick up one of those campus cats, swing it by the tail and I’m bound to hit a reporter.

The American University in Cairo Campus

Here are a few images of the place where I’ll be teaching (that is, if any students enroll in my class — see post below):

             AUC fountain courtyard

The courtyard outside the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism.

            islamic building

The Islamic architecture of the administration building.

hazardous trees

 A warning sign in the garden outside the classroom where I’ll be teaching.


And the editing lab where my classes will be held.

First Day of Classes at the American University

Today was to be my first day of classes at the American University in Cairo, but I had no students.  I’m told it’s because I’m an unknown quantity, teaching an elective course that’s never been taught before.  Since students had no idea who I am or the strange subject I’m teaching — just what is “convergence” journalism anyway? — we had no takers.  So we posted flyers on campus, tarting up my bio to lure students with the names of the fancy places I’ve worked and the trophies I’ve won.  It’s a little like sitting at the soda fountain in a short skirt waiting to be discovered.

The good folks at the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at AUC have assured me that many classes don’t have much enrollment in the first week until the end of the add/drop period, which ends next Tuesday.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to report next week that I have a half dozen or more bright-eyed and energertic students eager to learn new things and telling the whole campus the definition of “convergence.” 

In the meantime, here are some photos of my new palatial digs (it looks bigger in person):

 apartment1  apartment3  apartment2

And here’s the view from the balcony (and the forest of satellite dishes on the rooftop of the building next door):

                         The view from the balcony

Oh, by the way, my fifth bag arrived.  With all of its contents. The travel angels continue to watch over me.

Dateline: Cairo

I arrived in Cairo this morning at 2:00 am along with four of my five bags.

My apartment is as big as Brooklyn: fully furnished, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, two balconies.  But I need to get something to put on the bare walls. 

I’ll post details and photos soon.  Right now it’s time to shake off the jet lag.

En Route to Cairo

I’m off and running…

I’m writing this post from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport after spending a day in this city visiting a friend and taking unexpected naps (particularly during a canal boat tour of the town).

I’m kind of wiped out.  I guess I underestimated how much I was getting myself into when I decided to give up my apartment, move everything into storage and jump on a plane to Cairo.  But as I sit here on an extended layover, I’m thinking that moving makes me realize a few things:

– Your apartment looks a lot bigger without all that stuff in it.

– Your apartment looks a lot filthier without all that stuff in it.

– Now that all that stuff is gone, you have to ask yourself if you’d really miss it if the truck just headed for Mexico and was never seen again.

I wish I was one of those minimalists.  You know the type.  Their entire apartment decor is a zen-inspired emptiness, with only a futon and a few pebbles.  The kind who only touch a piece of paper once before it’s in a file folder or trash bin.  That’s not me.  I can’t help it; I was raised by pack rats.

I’ll write more from Cairo, but here are a couple of photos from the going away party, taken by photographer Jeff Moore:

point and shoota toast