Anti-coup march, Behooth St.

I happened upon an anti-coup march down Behooth St. in Dokki, Cairo this afternoon.  Here’s a short clip.

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Nile Dry Cleen

Dokki, near the corniche. I’ve noticed a number of dry cleaners in Cairo with aesthetically pleasing signs. This one reminds me of Coney Island or something.

Dry Cleen

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Whale shark!

Seen last Sunday from the boat near El Gouna on the way to a scuba dive (my new–very new–passion).  The Dive Master has been working in the Red Sea for seven years and had never seen one before, so there was lots of excitement on the boat. These fish can get up to 13 meters long (they’re the largest fish in the ocean), but this was a baby, about five meters long.  They’re gentle, plankton-eating creatures and folks were swimming with it.  I, however, was late into the water and had a leaky mask, so I missed out on perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

gouna 014 gouna 011

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Is Egypt safe for tourists?

Taking a break from my Iran-blogging to respond to travel writer Matthew Teller’s post, “Is Egypt safe for tourists?.”  I agree that Egypt is more or less safe for tourists and that Cairo is “no scarier than any other big city and less scary than many,” but I disagree with a number of other things he says in his post, particularly this:

“Police are extra-vigilant now around tourists. The local tourism industry knows it can’t afford to be even a tiny bit complacent. Nobody is taking any chances. Egypt, in some ways, is safer now for tourists than it was before 2011.”

Say what? This is demonstrably false.  Neither I nor anyone I know has observed this to be the case, and it’s spectacularly disproved by an incident to which Teller himself refers in his post:  The attack on the Semiramis InterContinental in downtown Cairo on January 29th this year.  New York Times blog “The Lede” summed up the events in a post titled “Under Attack, Cairo Hotel Tweets an S O S.”  Do read this stunning indictment of police/Ministry of Interior indifference to the safety of that hotel’s workers and guests and, by extension, Egypt’s entire tourism industry.  The reason that the staff of the Semiramis–one of Cairo’s most luxurious hotels–tweeted an SOS was that frantic calls to the police “went unanswered.”

But the lesson Teller derives from this incident is not that police can’t even be relied on to protect one of the main sources of desperately-needed hard currency, it’s that the areas in and around Tahrir Square are dodgy.  This is certainly true to some extent, but he focuses on the dodginess of downtown at the expense of other areas of the city.  He says that outside Tahrir “normality reigns,” and advises skittish tourists to stay in Dokki or Zamalek instead of downtown.  Dokki is where I was assaulted outside my apartment building in early 2012, and Dokki and Zamalek were where I witnessed two incidents of mob vigilante payback in the space of one week last year.  Yes, Jack Shenker of the Guardian was robbed at knifepoint this month in Garden City, but I have heard of similar incidents in the last couple weeks in Zamalek.  Indeed, crime is up all over, as detailed in this article in the Financial Times.  It’s true that the situation perhaps seems more disastrous than it actually is because there was virtually zero crime pre-revolution.  On the other hand, my intuition is that the official numbers are low, because I would bet that some people, knowing full well how useless the police are, don’t file reports.

(I also don’t agree that first-time visitors should skip Tahrir. First of all, many people who visit Egypt don’t just want to see the pharaonic and Islamic sites–they also followed the revolution at home on TV and the Internet and have an interest in the country’s contemporary history.  Construction site or no, closed Nile Hilton or no, Tahrir is a place imbued with world-historical significance now, and many people want to see it in person. Personally, one of the things I most like to show visitors is the stunningly beautiful, poignant, hilarious and touching revolutionary graffiti that lines Muhammad Mahmoud Street, just off Tahrir Square.  And while I agree with Teller that “the shops and cafes along the square’s eastern frontage are distinctly ordinary,” my favorite souvenir shop, Umm El Dounia, is just steps from the Square on Talaat Harb Street.  Though I suppose you could make the trek down to their Maadi branch.)

Painting of Mina Daniel, Muhammad Mahmoud Street.  Really, would you want to miss this?

Painting of Mina Daniel, Muhammad Mahmoud Street. Really, would you want to miss this?

As for Luxor and Aswan, Teller says that “group bookings are way down – which means independent travellers can reckon on quieter excursions and more rewarding encounters.”  My experience in Upper Egypt last December was that the decline in tourism in fact resulted in a palpable air of desperation, as people in the tourism industry aggressively tried to rip us off.  This is merely unpleasant, but it can shade into something more frightening, as described in this article from the Associated Press last December:  “In the southern city of Aswan, tour operator Ashraf Ibrahim was recently taking a group to a historic mosque when a mob of angry horse carriage drivers trapped them inside, trying to force them to take rides. The drivers told Ibrahim to steer business their way in the future or else they’d burn his tourist buses, he said.”

In short:  Egypt’s more or less safe for tourists, though distinctly less safe than it used to be.  But I actually believe that the relevant metric for gauging whether you should go is not safety, but pleasantness.  If you really want to see the pharaonic stuff with no hassle, maybe a tour is the best way; otherwise prepared to be hassled within an inch of your life by unscrupulous and aggressive touts.  However, Egypt has much more to offer than temples and tombs.  I recently hosted an independent traveler who told me she totally could have done without the Pyramids and Luxor; by contrast, she enjoyed the oases, and loved being showed around Cairo and Alex by people who lived there.  She’s even thinking about coming back.

Dakhla Oasis. Give me this over the Pyramids any day.

Dakhla Oasis. Give me this over the Pyramids any day.

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More on zor khaneh…

…from an academic perspective. I have a book called Being Modern in Iran, which I bought at the Cairo Book Fair this year; I was leafing through it the other day and happened upon this quotation:

In some ways, the importance of physical activities in Iranian society is not entirely new.  Imam Ali, the subject of devotion for all Shia Muslim believers, himself excelled in vigour and good looks.  He remains the model par excellence for all sportspeople, and it is his name that they shout during a contest….  In former times the ‘houses of strength’ (zur-khâneh), where people practised a form of martial art, was a central place for sociability, the special area for the javânmard, who might either be skilled in the sport himself or, in his later yeas, a sponsor of it.  Today, the tradition of the zur-khâneh has lost much of its lustre.  Many ‘houses of strength’ have disappeared or been turned into sports centres.  It is true that others have been started recently, but they are hardly visible at all, being submerged in the boom of modern sports.  Most of them tend to become quaintly traditional, having ceased to be places of references in the neighbourhood or the bazaar; as zur-khâneh adepts say, they have hardly any ‘authenticity’ now, having sacrificed too much to the needs of public events and competition.  Above all, that ‘ancient sport’ (vazesh-e bâstâni) cannot rival the attendance at mass sports such as football, even though it is an integral part of Iran’s cultural heritage and in international competitions Iran only does well in sports derived from the ancient one–weight lifting and wrestling–although the latter are only very modestly funded.

From “Looking After Number One:  A Competitive Society” in Being Modern in Iran by Fariba Adelkhah, translated from the French by Jonathan Derrick (Hurst & Company, London, 1999).

 

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Couchsurfing

I’ve been a member of couchsurfing.org for a couple of years.  I’ve hosted people and been hosted, but mostly I used it to meet people in new cities–particularly in Tunis and Cairo, where most members don’t host travelers, but instead attend social events.  I’ve met people in various countries who are downright evangelical about the site and say things like “it changed my life!”, and indeed, for people who don’t have the wherewithal to travel but want to have some connection to the world outside their country, it can be truly wonderful.  But personally, I have mixed feelings about couchsurfing, both the practice and the site. 

The Good Being able to show up in a new city and stay at a stranger’s house is, for the most part, pretty rad. Your host will probably be excited to meet you and curious about your life, and you get the opportunity to see how people live–a wonderful thing in a place like Iran, where oppressive religious dictates have pushed most socializing into private spaces. A local can give good advice about tourist sites, foods to try, etc.  There’s of course also the cost savings, though that for me is only incidental. Hosting is nice too because it feels good to share with others, and I like to do what I can to help people (women in particular) navigate this big crazy city.  I had a guest here in Cairo pretty recently, and it did me a bit of good because as soon as I returned from Iran I plunged into depression and anxiety, due in part to my relationship with Cairo.  But taking her around and seeing things through her eyes helped me reconnect–if just a little–with some of the features that made me love Cairo in the first place (viz., the general good humor of the people, the availability of quality vegetarian food, the vibrant street life).

I was able to show my guest this, my favorite downtown graffito, which is tucked in a hard-to-find place.

I was able to show my guest this, my favorite downtown graffito, which is tucked in a hard-to-find place.

The Not-So-Good:

It’s exhausting If you’re an introvert like me, it can be grueling to stay with someone because you can’t just waltz into the house, make a beeline for your bedroom and shut the door, which is sometimes what I want more than anything else. In Iran I had to balance my desire to get to know people on a deeper level and my desperate need for alone time, so I ended up staying with people about 25% of the time, for two or three days at a time. It so happened that all my hosts were off work while I was staying with them–either because they worked sporadically or because it was Norooz–which meant that they went sightseeing with me all day.  It may sound like a contradiction when I say that in almost all cases I enjoyed their company and at the same time was anxious and tense, but I contain multitudes.

The site’s feedback system is well-nigh useless How do you judge whether you can trust a potential host or guest? You parse the profile and read the feedback that other guests/hosts have left for them.  The problem is that most feedback is blandly, inoffensively positive, because no one wants retaliatory negative feedback.  (I think the site should have a system whereby feedback only shows up once both members have written their blurb and is undeletable–that way, you can’t tailor what you say based on what they said about you.)  So most of the comments come off as insincere to some degree, and unless someone was beyond horrible to share space with, you probably won’t find out about it. Not all feedback is positive, though.  When I was surfing for hosts in Isfahan I checked out the profile of a doofus with an Ali-G-style shtick that no doubt would wear very thin after a while.  His profile contained a lot of references to hip-hop and getting drunk. He had over 10 positive reviews and one negative one, written by a European woman who had stayed with him the previous week. She claimed that he started talking about whores and blow jobs as soon as she arrived, and despite her better judgment, they got drunk.  In her account, he propositioned her, she refused, and “after a blackout” she found herself shoeless and hijabless in the street, where she was picked up by the police and, she says, interrogated for two days (but she says she didn’t give up doofus’s name, because she didn’t want him to get in trouble). The account is very weird, and is silent on the nature of this “blackout” and how exactly she ended up in the street with no shoes or hijab (did she leave her luggage behind too?).  It could be true, and his profile certainly struck me as douchey.  But if this guy truly is a menace, no one will know about it because about a week later he deleted his profile, created a new one, and enlisted his friends to write positive feedback. (I should note that all my hosts were nice and took good care of me, and I felt fairly confident about all of them before meeting.  And couchsurfing in Iran anyway is a big enough phenomenon that a solo woman traveler doesn’t really need to stay with a single guy–there are plenty of families and married couples that host.)

Some dudes treat it like a dating site… …which is why today I got two unsolicited messages from local guys wanting to meet, for no stated reason. Well, maybe that’s not strictly true, since the one guy’s message was, in its entirety, “You look Amazing , i think you are amazing , request immediate meeting.”  He describes himself in his profile as “A Handsome white ,Intellectual type with many interests and skills.I am tolerant, modest…”.  He also prefers to host females as opposed to males, a clear warning sign of creepiness.  The other guy addressed me as “princess” and gave me his skype address so we can “talk more.”

In sum: Positive, as my fondest memories of Iran involve the people who shared their time and their homes with me. On the other hand, the site itself has its limitations.  And my maximum limit for company is two days in a row, at which point I need a couple days at least of minimal social interaction.

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Urmia and Tabriz

Some photos from Urmia and an afternoon in Tabriz.

Tiny Christian chapel on the outskirts of Urmia.  Ironically, this was the first place I visited in the Islamic Republic.

Tiny Christian chapel on the outskirts of Urmia. Ironically, this was the first place I visited in the Islamic Republic.

View of the city of Urmia

View of the city of Urmia

Springtime.  Lots of trees in blossom

Springtime. Lots of trees in blossom

 

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Zoroastrian fire temple, Urmia. (Apologies for the horrible blue cast to the photo.)

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Tabriz, Khaqani Park

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Blue Mosque, Tabriz. Severely damaged by (what else?) an earthquake in the 18th century.

 

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