Tag Archives: eid

On Touring When You’re Not a Tourist

23 Nov

This week was Eid-al-Kabeer, literally, the Big Holiday for Muslims.  So, we had the week off from school!  Because the whole program had time off, Flagship planned a trip for us down to Upper Egypt, about 500 miles south of Alexandria.  When the Pharaohs were around, this area was the religious center of their society, so it’s where you can still visit a lot of tombs, temples, and monuments from thousands and thousands of years ago.

It was an awesome trip!  We visited Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple on the East Bank of the Nile in Luxor:

The Valley of the Kings!!!  They didn’t allow cameras in the valley at all, so I’ll just tell you that it was incredible.  Huge austere mountains with tombs of 67 Pharaohs and nobles hidden between crevices and crags.  Looooooong staircases and passageways down into the mountains brought us to burial chambers covered with hieroglyphics and scenes from the ancient kings’ lives and afterlives.  We conjectured and postulated about what different animals and gestures symbolized, and drew from our memories of elementary education the names of gods and goddesses and mythology of Ancient Egypt.  We got to visit three tombs, those of Thutmose III, Ramses IX, and Ramses IV.  A few of us bought a special ticket to see King Tut’s tomb, the only one that was discovered in tact.  His body and sarcophagus are still kept inside, so we got to pay our respects to the boy king in his original resting place.  A little creepy.  Who are we to be fronting cash to visit dead people in their graves?  Regardless, it was very cool.

We also visited Hatshepsut’s Temple on the West Bank.  She was the only female king of Egypt.  She wore the traditional beard of the Pharaoh, called herself King and not Queen, and was the only woman buried in the Valley of the Kings, not in this temple, which was designed and built for her by her lover.:

And the Collosi of Memnon.  These guys were out in the middle of nowhere, and HUGE!

In Aswan, we visited the High Dam, which regulates the flow of the Nile, and produces tons of electricity for Egypt.  It also had a lot of controversy surrounding its construction because it displaced about 50,000 Nubian people whose villages were flooded, and also flooded a LOT of ancient monuments which ended up being MOVED…how do you move a temple!?

We also visited Philae Temple, which was one of the temples that was moved to higher  ground.   Piece by Piece.   Pretty darn impressive.

Masquerading as tourists in Egypt for a week prompted a lot of thought on my part about why I’m here, and made for a lot of discussions among the group about why we’re all here, and what we want out of our time in Egypt.  We all were of course awed and impressed by the temples and tombs and monuments, and I personally have been wanting to visit these places since I was in First Grade and made my Mom spend an entire year studying Ancient Egypt.  But none of us was comfortable spending the entire trip being shuttled around in tour buses, and eating at every McDonald’s we passed.  I’m not living as a tourist in Alexandria, so it was weird to be put back on that level when we were in Luxor and Aswan.   We all were much more interested in meeting the locals, and seeing how they live and what they eat and where they work.

Luckily for us, we have an awesome mix of people in this year’s Flagship program, including a few who have quite a talent for finding the real Egypt, even in the most touristy places.  So, on our first night in Luxor, everyone went out together with Charlie and Jordan to the sha3by area of the souq (marketplace), and all sat down at the first promising-looking ahwa (street cafe with shisha and tea) that we came to.   This is something that, if we had gone as a group of just girls, we would NEVER have been able to do.  It’s not that anything bad would happen to us, but we would probably be looked at as inappropriate and ignorant.

Even with Charlie and Jordan, they always take the time to talk to the owners of the ahwa to make sure it’s ok that they bring all of their friends, male and female.  And the two of them are just so friendly that they always end up becoming best buds with the guys and owners of the ahwa immediately, opening up the door for even the girls to join in the conversations without seeming inappropriate.  At this ahwa we met Assam and Mousa, who talked and laughed with us for hours, and offered to take us to their cousin’s wedding the next day!  After our tourist stint the next day, we had dinner and got changed, not really knowing what to expect.  What do you wear to a street wedding?  Charlie and Boy Jordan of course wore Galabiyya, the traditional Egyptian men’s garment, and Girl Jordan wore an Abayya, the traditional garment worn by many women in Egypt.

The wedding was held on the street between two apartment buildings.  Colorful flashing lights were strung up between the apartments on either side, forming a canopy of color and light.  The street was filled with benches, where men sat smoking cigarettes and shisha, and clapping along to the music.  At the end of the street was a platform where a singer and a band were playing, and welcoming guests, including us Americans!  We sat and drank some tea, and smoked some shisha, and took in the loud music and colorful lights, and clapped and cheered as our friends took to the dance floor.  I wondered where all of the women were, until I spotted them….watching the festivities from the balconies about the street.  We waved to them, and they giggled and waved back, and beckoned for us to come up to them!  Ok, we figured, I guess this is a much more appropriate place for us to be as women anyway.   So Assam showed us the way up into the apartments where the women were all sitting together.  We were immediately welcomed into their circle, and 10 or 15 of us sat in the little room, talking, dancing, and playing with all of the women’s cute little kids.  We learned that the Sa3edy (Upper Egypt) wedding is three days long.  This was the first day, when the bride and groom’s families have separate parties, with the men separate from the women.  The second day is the Henna ceremony for the bride, and the families of bride and groom drive around the entire town to announce that the couple is getting married.  The third day is the big party with both families, when the bride comes down in her white dress and they start their married life!

The rest of the night we scurried around from apartment to apartment, meeting all the women of the family, and the bride too!  Her name was Nisma, and she was beautiful, quiet, and sweet.  It was an incredible experience, and one that we don’t usually get to have.  When you’re walking around the streets of Egypt, you can barely go a block without seeing a group of men sitting around drinking tea, ahwa, and shisha and talking.  And it’s not that women don’t have these same sorts of gatherings…they just happen in the bounded private spaces like the home rather than in the public streets and marketplaces of the city.   So as foreigners to this society and city, the spaces that are immediately open to us are the ahwas and cafes, spaces that have to be broached before we can access the corresponding women’s spheres in society.  In a way we’re lucky as foreign women to be able to experience, albeit maybe a little inappropriately, the men’s sphere as well as the women’s.  For the foreign boys of our program to intrude into the women’s circles would be a whole different level of unacceptable.  It’s these kinds of nights and experiences that make me appreciate being a woman here, at the same time that I am thankful that we have such great guy friends who can broach the men’s circles for us.  Maybe we’ll even be able to do the same for our guys someday, who knows.

The reason we were able to take this great trip was because of the holiday, Eid al Adha, or Eid al Kabeer, the Muslim holiday that celebrates Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael in obedience to Allah.  The Egyptians who I’ve asked about how they celebrate the holiday for the most part say they “Eat a lot of meat!”  Families who afford it will purchase a sheep or maybe even a cow to sacrifice, and then feast on the meat for the four days of the Eid, sharing parts with friends and relatives and with the poor.  On the first day of Eid, I woke up at the crack of dawn to go to a prayer service with some Muslim friends.  It was held outdoors in the square next to Luxor temple, so the prayers were held with the sunrise and birds flying ahead and the ancient temple behind.

It was great to be able to share with my friends in the celebration of Eid, just as it was great to celebrate a Shabbas dinner with Monica a few weeks ago, and I’m excited to share some traditions of my own as we get closer to Advent and Christmas.