Sunday, October 7, 2007

Mentally Iftarded

I feel like I'm doing this too much, but: I apologize for not posting anything. It's been a week since I wrote anything, and so much has happened. The other night especially inspired me to write it all down. But we'll get to that. Warning: this post is obnoxiously long.

First, as for that mysterious trip I mentioned, we have, in fact, bought plane tickets to Beirut. Ten of us will be doing Lebanon for a week. We leave on Tuesday, which (at the time of writing) is only two days away. I won't say anything other than don't worry, it's safe, and I won't be taking public transportation. Or approaching anyone who looks like he's running for a political office.

Last weekend, a big group of us attempted to find a place called the British Club. Basically, it's a semi-secret pub run by British ex-pats, and pretty much its only clientele are American students and Brits. It took forever to find the place, until we literally stumbled upon it. Walking down the street it was supposed to be on, we stopped and asked two guards in front of a completely non-descript, gated house, "British Club?" who pointed right at the building they were guarding. They let us through the gate, and after ringing the doorbell to what looked like an apartment (flat #1, naturally), we were let in. The problem is, you have to be a member, which costs 100 pounds, and then members can get two friends in for 15 pounds each. But when the owner saw 10 American kids, even though we weren't members, dollar - er, pound - signs flashed in his eyes. He waived the membership rule on the condition that we say hello to his mother, and let us in. The bottom floor was populated by, in his words, old farts, so we took over the upstairs pool table. One of the British people from downstairs came up to teach us how to play cricket on a pool table, which was a lot of fun, considering we were betting on it (only one pound each, which is kind of like betting with Monopoly money). I lost that game, but I won the second game. Of course.

The next day, Beckett and I were bored, so we called up Brian and decided to visit the Cairo Zoo. We had heard from people who went to the zoo and supposedly bribed the guards to let them hold baby lions, and who can say no to baby lions? So Beckett and I jumped in a cab. Unfortunately, we found the worst negotiator in the entire city. The following conversation took place (in Arabic):
Him: How much?
Us: 5 pounds.
Him: No, ten pounds.
Us: Okay, ten pounds.
Him: Yes, yes, ten pounds. Twenty?
Us: No! Ten pounds!
Him: Okay, okay, ten pounds. Fifteen?
Us: NO. Ten pounds or stop here.
Him: Wait, wait. Ten pounds.

What an idiot. But he eventually got us there, and we definitely only gave him ten pounds.

The zoo was as depressing as I expected. It's incredibly dirty, the animals look more depressed than usual, and large numbers of animals are crammed into tiny cages. We imagined the "bribing" would be difficult, but all we did was walk in front of the "jungle cat" building, and two guards called us over. They unlocked the back entrance and brought us in, giving us a private tour of the so-called "jungle cats". There was at least one real jungle cat, which snarled through the thin mesh wire at us, but the rest were just white, fluffy housecats. He then opened up a cage door, and before we knew it, he was placing a desert fox in our hands. The little thing was really strange, and shivering like crazy. I felt bad for it, but it was kind of cool holding what looked like a real-life Pokemon. Of course, the second the fox was back, the guard was asking for money.

We continued onto the lion cage, where the guards called us over as well. One let us into this back room, surprising us with two enormous lions in a relatively small cage, with fairly spread-apart bars. It was pretty alarming to see a full-grown male lion at least twice my size (and about ten times my weight), and even moreso when the guard put a chair directly next to the bars, within five inches of the lion's teeth, for us to sit and take pictures on. But what he did next was terrible. He grabbed a stick (once we were safely away from the bars) and started prodding the lion in the face, to provoke it into roaring and attacking the bars for our benefit. We were definitely not okay with it, and told him to stop. But we came here for the babies, so we asked him where they were, and he said he would take us to the next room, where the babies were. Once we got in the second room, though, we realized we were in a tiny space with five cage doors attached to it, each one protecting us from a full-grown female lion. Before we could protest, he whipped open a door, grabbed a lion by the mane, and dragged it out almost onto my feet. It was terrifying. The poor thing seemed abused, because it didn't even put up a fight, and just laid there. But I knelt and pet it on the head, half pitying it and half-scared-out-of-my-mind. With the lion still at his feet, he asked for 20 pounds per picture, and there was no way we could say no to a man with a lion next to him. So we paid up and left. Alas, no babies were seen. We quickly left the zoo.

In happier news, Allyson and I got internships at the Egyptian Museum. Allyson was the one to tell me about it, and I said I'd do it with her. So we went to the museum and simply asked if there was anything we could do there. This completely crazy Egyptian woman (no, seriously, she's crazy - all the employees there agree) said we would be making labels in the King Tut section. Alright, cool. She said to come back the next day and we would get to work. When we showed up the next day, the nicest Egyptian guy in the world led us through the curator's entrance so we didn't have to pay, and instead of taking us to the label-making room, he took us to this American doctor, Dr. Janis, who is currently adding pretty much every artifact ever discovered in Egypt to computer databases and needs all the help she can get. So we set up our laptops and got to work. Our first day was spent entirely on sexual sculptures. So we spent almost three hours staring at ancient, stone genitals. Of course, that part won't show up on any resumes in the future. It's kind of mindless work, but also fairly interesting being surrounded by so much history. Plus, if you're ever working with Egyptian artifacts any time in the future, you'll probably use this database, and there at the bottom of the pages for about several hundred artifacts, you'll see, "Danny Gottleib". Also, most of the books we're transcribing are in French, so all the other interns are 20-something French girls. And most of them are incredibly beautiful. Who would have thought the museum was where they were all hiding?

And now we get to the other night. But first! Three nights ago, Emily and I ran into each other in the grocery store downstairs. When we got to the elevator, this Saudi guy (I don't remember his name exactly, but it sounds kind of like Fawooz I think) got on, and started telling the same joke over and over - "You Saudi? I'm American!" and laughing really hard at it. He stopped at floor eight (I'm on floor nine), and instead of getting out, he talked to us for a couple minutes. His English is very poor, but we caught the word "embassy" a couple times and what sounded like "gays". It was clear we had no idea what he was talking about, so he invited us into his home. Of course, we said yes. Turns out he was trying to say "dates", because he fed us some dates and gave us an entire package as a present. Gross, but thanks. He then showed us all the expensive artifacts in his home, and invited us over the next night for Iftar (breaking of the fast after sundown) dinner. There was no way we could turn that down.

So two nights ago, Emily and I went down to his apartment at 6 PM and joined Fawooz, his wife, his three sons, and their female servant for a huge feast. It was actually pretty delicious, but he kept piling more and more food on my plate, and I was feeling rather sick near the end of the meal. We must have eaten for a good hour straight, without much talking because the entire family spoke about 30 words of Arabic total. But it was still really interesting.

After dinner, we hung out in the living room for a while, playing with his two youngest kids. The youngest, Abdullah, took a liking to me because I fixed his broken racecar, and then spent most of the night smashing it on the ground and bringing it back to me to fix it again.

All of the sudden, some guy was standing at the door, briefcase in hand. Abdullah ran over, grabbed him by the pinky finger, and dragged him into the living room. Upon seeing him, the wife and servant immediately left the room, and Fawooz politely asked Emily if she would join them in the kitchen. He expressly stated that I could stay, because this was his doctor. I knew this wouldn't be good. The second Emily had left, Fawooz tore his clothes off, and sat down on the couch in only his tiny, see-through underwear. The doctor, whose English wasn't too poor, explained that it was acupuncture time. Fantastic! What took place was more like electroshock therapy than acupuncture, however. The doctor stuck two needles into Fawooz's belly, attached clamps and wires to the needles, and proceeded to give him some sort of shocks that looked pretty painful. Every couple of minutes he would change the location of the needles. This whole thing lasted almost thirty minutes. Luckily, the TV was on, so I stared intently at it, pretending like I was laughing at the Arabic sitcoms I couldn't understand, but really laughing at the absurdity of what was happening. Abdullah kept tapping my knee, saying something, and pointing at his dad, but there was no way I was turning my head to see what was going on.

Unfortunately, Fawooz decided to mute the TV so he could ask me questions with the doctor translating, so I had to hold the most awkward conversation of my life, with Fawooz in his underwear and electrified needles sticking out of his stomach. Eventually, the doctor decided the torture was over, shook hands with me (I only touched his hand with the very tips of my fingers - who cares how awkward it looked), and left. And finally Fawooz put his clothes back on. Emily came back in the room, and after playing with the kids (Abdullah put a Saudi flag in the back of his shirt and ran around the room pretending it was a cape, hitting his head several times on the table), we quickly got out of there so I could tell her what happened. Before we left, Fawooz insisted that we were family now (how could we not be after what I witnessed?), and that he would give his "brother" and "sister" anything we needed, including money. He also invited us to Iftar every single night of Ramadan, and for lunch every day after Ramadan until we go home. He has my cell phone number and he knows where we live - directly above him - so I feel like I'll be asked back pretty soon. Needless to say, it was a hilarious experience.

The next day, Allyson and I set off on another stupid field trip. Actually, this one wasn't nearly as bad as the Alexandria one. At first we were apprehensive, since our teacher had said, without a trace of irony, "Most classes take you to big, impressive sights. But we're going to places where you have to use your imagination!" However, we visited a few smaller, but still impressive, pyramids, a couple ancient towns, and went into some extremely well-preserved temples dedicated to Sobek, the crocodilian god. It was actually very interesting.

Out in the middle of the desert, there's this ancient home with this ancient bath that still has fragments of painted tiles on the wall. History nerds like me find this stuff unbelievably exciting.

Last night, Allyson, Beckett and I went out for pizza with these two Egyptian guys Allyson met somehow. Since our luck with meeting nice Egyptian students actually willing to be friends with Americans has been virtually nil, I was a little skeptical about these guys. But they turned out to be awesome. I can't for the life of me remember either of their names, which isn't good because we hung out with them for about 7 hours and they want to do a lot more stuff with us in the future. But they're two best friends who make a hilarious pair: one is a huge, Russian-looking Egyptian who spends all his time bodybuilding and doing all sorts of martial arts that make him really intimidating, while the other is a tiny, goofy little guy who actually reminds me a lot of myself. After eating pizza, we went to a cafe to smoke shisha. Allyson decided to go home to sleep, so the four of us decided we wanted to play pool, so we set off in the bigger guy's $200,000 car. Seriously. Granted, it's only that much because they have to pay extremely high taxes on any cars - they're rarely under $100,000 - but that still says a lot about how wealthy these guys are. First they were nice enough to go extremely out of the way to drive Allyson home rather than having her take a cab by herself, and then we went to a pool club, where I lost five times in a row to the little guy while Beckett and the other one (I really need to find out their names) played Playstation. It was a really awesome night, and I'm so happy to have Egyptian friends that are not only actually willing to be friends with you, but who have such hilarious personalities. We can't wait to hang out with them again.

And now tonight we just had Iftar with Fawooz again. This time it was only him, and he invited us to a French restaurant downstairs. He said to bring six friends, but we only brought Beckett and Laura. We were joined by his friend, a security guard (not the lame U.S. version - the security guards here have huge machine guns), and enjoyed a really nice meal. Fawooz was hilarious as ever, and even though he didn't strip down this time, he was full of jokes that we half-understood but laughed at nonetheless, and he acted just like a grandfather to me. When he found out we were going to Lebanon in a couple days, he immediately offered to pay for us to have limo service to and from the airport, and throughout the meal he kept tapping my elbow and muttering, "Do you need money?" and practically refusing to accept a no from me. He really is one of the most generous people I've ever met. We decided that we'd let him help us out a little bit, since he obviously really wanted to do something, so we mentioned our internet problems, and he made a couple phone calls and insists someone who speaks English will be here in an hour or so to set up internet. I'm still skeptical, since it's Egypt, but if Fawooz can't do it, no one can. The meal was added to by the sheer amount of languages spoken. Beckett is practically fluent in French, and the French woman who owns the restaurant was there with us, so we used her to translate. Fawooz told some joke about wanting only French girls to serve us at the restaurant rather than Egyptian men, and to relate the joke to us, a form of international telephone was played: Fawooz in Arabic to a waiter, the waiter in French to the owner, the owner in French to Beckett, and Beckett in English to us. It was a truly enjoyable evening with Fawooz, and he insists he's going to give us two boxes of beer once Ramadan is over, because Emily told him I sleep a lot, which he apparently took to mean that I'm an alcoholic. What a guy.

I probably won't post anything until we get back from Beirut, since I leave in a good 36 hours. So have yourselves a good week, and expect an enormous post around the 16th of October, with all sorts of entertaining stories. Unless nothing interesting happens in Lebanon. And, let's face it, nothing interesting ever happens there. Salaam.


Non-Wandering Jew Dad said...

Always interesting. Makes me feel so much better to know that you are dining with guys with machine guns. Have a great SAFE trip to Lebanon. Not sure I thought I'd ever be typing any of those words. Love ya.

geoff said...

I miss the times we used to hang out in your basement judging movies and people sarcastically. Those were the days. Now, you are in Egypt and I am moving back to Appleton for a while. What a cruel world this is! Just kidding. I look forward to continue reading your posts and being my half-Jew friend. When you get back home, let me know.