Wednesday, 16 September 2009
Today was business. After breakfast in the hotel (same fare; no variation) I head off for the Fulbright office two blocks away to the south (I’m getting my bearings,,,). Ranya Rashid, the office manager, arrives at almost the same time as I and smoothes my way past the guard’s station (I don’t yet have my Fulbright ID card…). In her office, we get down to the financial and logistical details of my move to Alexandria tomorrow. I’m given my medical insurance card, my Fulbright ID and sign a couple of forms. A handy backpack and baseball cap (more gifts from American taxpayers) complete my interview with her. It’s decided that because I am not going to be “working” at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (in other words I don’t have an official “lectureship” like the Fulbrighters at AUC), I won’t need a work visa and won’t have to submit to another HIV test (looks like another good day…). Ibrahim, the man who will also be driving me to Alexandria, stops in to make arrangements for meeting tomorrow and I’m issued a cell phone for use in Egypt. I’m then escorted up to the financial officer, Fazy Attia, who hands me a check for my first two months’ stipend. We say our goodbyes I head directly off to the HSBC branch just around the corner from the Fulbright office to open my bank account. My stipend payments are henceforth to be deposited directly into that account. I ask to speak to Mai Sallam, whose name has been given me by Fazy. She hands me off to her colleague Ahmad Farid, who does the actual work. I’m asked for the usual personal information and my passport is photocopied. There’s a bit of a problem since I’ll be accessing my account from Alexandria; we have to decide which of the bank’s branches is nearest to my apartment. My ATM card is to be issued from that branch, and I don’t want to go halfway across town to get it. Well, Ahmad doesn’t know the location of the street that my apartment is on so we first ask some of Ahmad’s colleagues. No one knows. In a moment of inspiration, I suggest that Ahmad call the Fulbright office and see if someone there knows. Lines all busy. Finally, Ahmad tells me I can phone him with the information. Do I have a mobile phone number? No, not yet. A phone but no number and no minutes, but I’m on my way to get one. He says fine. Let him know the number when I have it. Will do.
Another HSBC employee stops by and starts asking me questions about Alexandria; I tell him I’ve not yet been there. He wants to know where Iowa is. He thinks it’s a state with lots of snakes. I tell him no. Just corn. The colleague offers to expedite the opening of my account and takes my check to the cashiers’ station. In five minutes he’s back to tell me that the signature on the check appears to be invalid. Great. Back to the Fulbright office, past the guard’s station (easy now, with my ID) and up to Fazy’s office. He takes the check and comes straight back with it, now bearing Ranya’s signature in addition to his. Back to the bank (the guard at the door and I are now on a first name basis by now) and the same guy with whom I dealt earlier sees me and takes the check. He asks if I want to make a withdrawal and I say yes and tell him how much. In five minutes, I have my cash and am out the door.
I set off for the Vodaphone store on Dokki Street to buy a SIM card and minutes. Locate the store, order what I want from the two young men in charge and am back out on the street in ten minutes. I hustle back to the hotel and stash the cash in the safe box in my hotel room. I feel better now. I try to call Ranya to tell her what my new number is, but she’s not answering. I call Ahmad at the bank and give him the information and then make some other phone calls to wrap things up for now.
I spend the rest of the day in the hotel using the computer and watching Egyptian television. Drivel seems to have gone viral and global. Game shows, more soaps than you can imagine (Ranya was complaining during our talk this morning that Egyptians seem to spend all of Ramadan watching this crap instead of working. I despair…) The variety of channels I find interesting. Lots of stuff in English, Spanish, German, and French. Lots of fifties-vintage Egyptian movies, too. The actor from the recent Egyptian film, The Yaacobian Building, seems to have been in nearly every Egyptian production since the early sixties. Weird watching him age forty years in a single afternoon. There’s even a glimpse of Omar Sharif, post-Dr. Zhivago.
I work at the computer for a while and after the sun has been down for a while, I head down to the ground floor and find their restaurant. The hotel brochure says there are three of them, each with a different cuisine: one Italian, one vaguely Middle Eastern, and the third a sushi restaurant, of all things. Well, why not. I sit outside on a patio raised a few feet above the street level. The young waitress who seats me can’t stop giggling once I begin to speak to her in Arabic. It’s a little unnerving when this happens (infrequently, by the way) because I never know if it’s just the unexpectedness of a westerner, specifically an American, speaking their language, or whether I’m making a complete mess of the attempt and they can’t believe someone could speak it so badly.
I order something to drink and seafood fettucine. “Frutti di mare” sounds and looks odd in Arabic: Fawakih al-bahr. Well, eating Italian food in Egypt is strange already, maybe. While I wait, I watch an older guy a couple of tables away, attired in a business suit, order a water pipe and smoke it while he drinks a soft drink from a can. Something else you wouldn’t have seen half a century ago. The drink would have been really sweet tea and the suit would have been a “galabiyah,” the floor-length shirt worn by men which one sees less and less these days.
The waitress with the laughter control problem returns to tell me that the restaurant is out of seafood, so would I like to change my order. Rats. I had my heart set on that dish. Well, I ask if they’re doing sushi still and, to my puzzlement, she says “yes.” Okay, that’s fine. Apparently they have the right kind of ocean fruit for sushi, but not for the pasta dish. Well, it’s Egypt. I get my meal and eat at a leisurely pace, watching the foot traffic on the street next to the patio. Lots of young people, particularly groups of young women in varying grades of “hijab.” Some are in jeans and heels and just covering their hair; others are dressed in long robes and have the lower halves of their faces covered, too. Couples, men and women, are rarer, but not totally absent. I even see some playful slapping and pushing going on among these last pairings, but for the most part such two-gender parties comport themselves more demurely.
Meal finished; sushi not bad, after all. I pay my bill and go off to bed. Tomorrow is moving day. I finally get to unpack.