Tales from Alexandria


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I'm heading back tomorrow night so I'm using this post as kind of a table of contents about the stuff I've written while I was away.

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Book Reviews

This post was edited by Omar on 5/28/2006 11:17 AM
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Getting into Egypt-Mode

5 years ago, after I graduated from high school I spent a couple of months in Alexandria.  At that time we were renting an apartment in a district called Aagami which is kind of like a summer-house place for wealthy Cairo residents.  I had a great time there, and coming back now it took a few days for me to remember that I have to get into Egypt-mode.  What I mean by that is something very specific, namely, when it comes to food I don't have the same conveniences here that I do back in Canada.  This isn't the fault of Egypt mind you, people here are quite modern with microwaves and such, it's just that when leaving here we don't eat those kind of pre-packaged-ready-to-go-at-a-moment's-notice food stuffs.  Dominion's tagline is "we're fresh-obsessed" but how fresh can you really be when all your fruits and vegetables are imported from thousands of kilometers away?  Here, all the produce is the definition of local.  You walk downstairs and buy your oranges from the son's farmer that picked them from the trees just yesterday.  Go over to the butcher, pick out a chicken that's squaking in its cage, and 5 minutes later it's wrapped up in neat little plastic packages ready to go.  It's good living like this because it's difficult to just start eating when you're bored or have nothing better to do, plus you appreciate the food more when each and every day you actively run out and fetch it.  Plus, there's the BBQed fish the street vendors sell that is absolutely delicious.  I can't wait until the BBQed corn vendors come out as well.
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Arabic hurts my brain

Most people in Alexandria don't speak English, including my relatives that come to visit.  So I sit there and nod my head and smile as my family goes on talking and talking in Arabic.  I can understand a lot of it, about 50%, and if I concentrate it goes up more.  It's like, I can get the basic gist of whatever is being talked about, some guy doing something with some car, or something to do with the sea, but it's the details that elude me (what that something with the car actually is).  The problem for me is that after an hour or so of concentrating my head starts to hurt and I get dead tired.  I think it's because I'm actively translating everything that's said, while they're saying it.  Enter my theory: when babies learn a language watching the people around them speak they form direct relationships between the words they hear and the visuals they see.  In there heads there's no translation going on for mom, it just is.  However, as a 22 year old educated man I've developed a thick and coherent first language, and so learning this third (I took french in school) involves a lot of arabic->english preprocessing before I understand what's being said.  Now, the other problem I have is that I've reached the point where I can't turn this off, so even if I try to zone out, which is quite easy to do when you have absolutely no idea what's being said, my mind is still actively performing this conversion process.  After a few hours of sitting in the same room as my relatives my brain feels like it's going to explode.  I console myself by figuring that I'm probably still learning something even when I'm not concentrating.

Here comes the 13 year old cousin, who incidentally has the same name as me.  Yesterday he graciously spent a couple of hours teaching me some words here and there.  What we did, I think, is something quite novel.  We pretty much flipped through the latest Wired magazine and I pointing things out and told him the English name as he told me what they were in Arabic.  For basic objects like animals, computers, that kind of thing, this point and shoot process works rather well.  And then he tried to get me to know what the word war was in arabic.  Except I didn't know he was trying to tell me that at the time.  Imagine trying to explain the word war with a vocabulary of a dozen completely unrelated words.  Ya, it took us about 10 minutes, but man was it satisfying at the end.  My mother who was in the next room and could hear us perfectly, and is fluent in both languages later told me she was laughing her head off like it was a prestaged comedy routine.

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"1998 Was the Best Year Ever...

...but I was too young to appreciate it" - 3rd year linguist student at the University of Alexandria.  This was said to me after we started listening to the Backstreet Boy's latest album and I explained to the three guys gathered there how BSB was the domain of 15 year old suburban girls back West.  My friend went on to explain "1998 is when BSB's Millennium was released, Titanic came out, Spice Girls was big, Celine Dione was everywhere and Shania Twain as well."  All this coming from a well functioning heterosexual 19 year old male mind you.  And I'm not saying these pieces of mainstream entertainment are bad or anything, well I am but that's my own personal taste, it's more that I doubt you'd find a person in the same demographic in Canada that shares his same sentiments.  Well maybe in Canada because there was quite a bit of Canadian representation in that list, but you get the idea.  I find it fascinating how the entertainment media is transported here and consumed by the people, how is it changed in the process, how do the demographics change, etc.  People outside of western countries have always had access to the music and movies but in the past the media came out many months later and in inferior tape cassette format.  Egyptians have pretty much leapfrogged the CD-era and are moving right into the digital age with mp3s and movie downloads.  This means the delay in time is disappearing, and all the music and movies are available to everyone for a very affordable price (free).  It'll be very interesting to see how this instant access to the latest hits gets transformed and consumed.

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Networking

Egypt is a poor country, make no mistake about it.  The average wage here is about 1000 Egyptian pounds a month, or $200US.  Much of the life is scaled accordingly; with a hamburger costing 20 cents and so on, which makes it absolutely amazing for vacationing, but some things cost the same as they do in Canada.  Sometimes there are things that are even more expensive.  When I was here 5 years ago, the cost of a computer was about thrice that in Canada, factor in the difference in income, and only the absolute richest of the rich were able to afford one.  5 years later the prices have become far more reasonable and affordable, so now upper middle class families can have their own personal computers.

Then comes the issue of the Internet.

First, a little background.  In Egypt, because of the low income levels, people have taken very novel ways to spread and share what they're given.  Pretty much everything is shared, reused and recycled here.  A lot of the pop drinks are consumed out of glass bottles that are cleaned and reused over and over again, just like we used to do many years ago.  The other really neat aspect of the sharing comes with the public transportation.  Very few people can afford their own cars here, so the public transportation system is incredibly active and vibrant.  In most Western cities there are three types of intra-city public transit: subway/trams, buses, taxis.  Alexandria has those three but expanded and mishmahsed together.  There are various levels of buses that travel around the city all catering to different income levels.  There's the expensive and fancy bus that has curtains on the windows and air conditioning, then the medium level that forgoes the air condition but still offers comfortable seats, and then there's the lowest level which costs almost nothing and provides only the most functional of transportation needs.  As for taxis, there's really only one level and they're everywhere, maybe not as common as in a city like New York city, but comparable to most major metropolitan centers I'd imagine. 

Now, there's a class of transportation that is completely unique to this area. I don't know in how many other countries this kind of transit exists, it could really just be western countries that don't have these things, since my experience is limited, anyway, they're great!  They're kind of a mix between a taxi and a bus, with the mode of transport being those old 60s scooby doo vans.  I think they're considered closer to a bus as they have predetermined routes, but the routes are more flexible and they'll stop anywhere to pick people up or drop them off.  The other really cool thing about the system here is how people pay.  Obviously these vans aren't going to have some kind of ticketing system or automatic payment system or anything like that, even the real buses don't.  And the pace of life is far too hectic to have to wait for people entering the vehicle to take out the money and pay.  Instead the system works much like baseball vendors.  You go and sit down as the bus takes off, and then pay while travelling, you just hand the money to the person in front of you, and eventually the money will make its way to the driver.  Trust plays a very big role in all of this, and it all just works.

Ok, that wasn't really a little background, but whatever.  So now looking at this concept of sharing, the Internet is the same thing.  Internet cafes are very plentiful, and now with affordable home pcs people are getting the Internet to their homes.  But instead of getting a line directly to their house from the ISP, they instead rent bandwidth from a net cafe that runs an ethernet cord to the apartment.  What happens is that you get dozens of computers all networked together.  While this provides quite a bit of inconvenience as most lines are in the 1-2Mbit level, so sharing this much produces quite a hit on the bandwidth, there's a cool effect that comes about from a LAN.  As anybody that has lived in a dorm before, 100Mbp LAN connections are quite powerful.  What I'm trying to get people here to do is start running some kind of LAN sharing software so they can all share the media they download without having to go to the outside (read: slow) Internet.  Instead of everybody downloading the latest BSB album, only one person has to, and then it just spreads across the network in a few minutes.  If the people here could setup something like UWGo (people from Western University will know what I'm talking about) they'd be way ahead of many western countries.  I know some cities in Eastern Europe have set up a similar system and it works quite well for them.  Anyway, fortunately for the citizens here, the very high population density makes rolling out network infrastructure a very efficient process.  I imagine that within 5 years time the network here will be more advanced than that in the US and Canada.

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My First sandstorm

Happened a few days ago, but I haven't spent too much online to write up the experience.  The weather in the morning that day was quite strange, much colder than usual at this time of year (according to my mom anyway, I have no idea), and the wind was coming from the south.  If you look at a map of Egypt, you'll see that to the south of Alexandria is a nice big desert, so... that should've been the first sign that trouble was a brewing.

And then, around midday we look south and see this big ominous dark cloud approaching.  At this point it was like 'awww crap'.  Slowly, hour by hour the cloud got closer, and finally dominated the entire sky.  Then, almost imperceptibly an orange haze started to permeate the air and tint the colour of everything around.  The sandstorm had hit us.  This one wasn't like what you see in the movies with crazy blistering winds, though the winds were pretty strong, and people getting buried alive in 5 seconds or anything like that.  But there was definitely a lot of sand in the air.  It was all rather eerie like an orange fog that appeared with a significant decrease in visibility.

And by the morning there was quite a bit of the sand that was left behind.  It was literally everywhere, a thin millimeter thick layer that covered the tops of everything.  The floor, the chairs, balcony, books, etc.  Even inside with the shutters and windows closed and everything, the sand was so fine that it somehow squeeked through and managed to get on the bedding.  Not a whole layer or anything like that, but enough to be noticeable and require some dusting/cleaning.

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Out Alone in the Big City

Yesterday was a long long day, but quite interesting and a great learning experience.  I spent the first part of the day in the incredible Bibliotecha Alexandria, that is the Alexandria Library.  A little history, the Alexandria Library in ancient times was the center of learning and knowledge for the entire world for many years.  Thinkings, scientists, philosophers, all intellectuals came to the library to read and talk and distribute their knowledge.  That all ended when the thing got burned down, but that's what happens when stupid people do stupid things.  Fast forward a many hundreds of years and enter a modern Egypt that wants to increase tourism and capture some of the ancient splendor it calls its heritage. 

The current library is built in a similar overall architectural style to the one of old but obviously enhanced with all the nice technological marvels and enhancements we have today.  I love the super high ceilings and all the natural light that streams into the building through the roof/window setup they have.  I spent the first little while just walking around the different floors and checking out the layout.  Then I decided I might as well pick up a book and do some reading, it is a library after all.  It was great just sitting in this great library spending hours just reading and learning.  The one snag that I ran into was that I didn't know how to turn on the light at my desk.  And when I asked someone else, they didn't know how to either.  I must have spent a good 10 minutes trying to figure it out, and I'm sure it was something simple that I was missing, but I just couldn't find the switch mechanism.  Fortunately, the aforementioned natural light was more than enough for comfortable reading.

It took a few hours but I finally started to get hungry, I knew the restaurant for tourists inside the library would be very overpriced, though I didn't actually look to confirm, plus I wanted to start on my long walk home, so off I went.  45 minutes later I finally found a food shop.  It was really friggin annoying too because around my place there are little sandwich, felafel and shiwerma stands everywhere, but I couldn't find one.  I used my hunt as an opportunity to take a better look at the city cause I've never really walked through it by myself before.  It still hasn't sunk in how huge the city is and how many people live here.  I'm sure it's like all super-cities in the world with millions of people calling them home, but coming from a town with less than 100 thousand people, the sheer scale of everything is very shocking.  The number of large apartments just extends long into the horizon and there's people constantly walking, driving, carting and biking on every street everywhere you look.

When I finally reached the restaurant I knew exactly what I wanted to get, 2 delicious shiwermas.  So I walk on over to the cashier (usually you pay first, and then hand the cook your ticket) and asked for 2 shiwermas.  It must have been my accent, or the way I looked, but somehow I think she got the idea that I wasn't a true native, far from it.  Her being the saavy business-women she is decided to offer me an upgrade on my meal.  This took the form of her saying a lot of arabic really fast, I think I heard the word combo said a few times, and me kind of nodding my head and trying really friggin hard to understand what the hell she was saying.  At the end of it, I decided not to ask any questions and just go for the path of least resistence and shook my head and agreed with her suggestion.

Fortunately for me!

I ended up getting this double-decker sandwich of awesomeness.  I don't know how they do it, but the meat here is so damn delicious.  They put in all of these amazing spices that are so flavourful and fill the mouth with a most satisfying taste.  It's not just one spice, it's a combination of many spices, each one with it's own kind of delicious all fusing into an ultimate deliciousness inside your mouth.  I was kind of nervous about the quality of the food and if I'd get sick or anything, but I can very happily say that I'm as healthy as a horse with no complications or problems.  I don't know if this is an indication of good food quality here as it could be my stomach getting tougher and being able to handle more... unsanitary conditions.

Eating the sandwich was a great experience in itself as I took the time to walk over to the sea and sat with the entire mediterranean stretched before me as I munched on the food.  I don't think I can eat any other way now, I'm gonna have to have a beautiful sea-side view with every meal from now on.  It just makes the whole thing so much better.

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Hey Omar!  I enjoy your little stories about Alexandria.  They provide a nice break from my work!  Plus you're hilarious and picturing you in some of these stituations (ie, learning the word for war) makes me laugh.  Don't you have a digital camera?  If so you should post pictures to go along with your stories.  I'd be interested in seeing some of the stuff you're talking about....Santi (sorry I was too lazy to login!)

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Hey Santi!  Glad to see your enjoying these.  My damn digital camera broke, so I haven't been able to take any new pictures.  I have some pictures of Alex and Athens on my flickr account so you can check those out here.  My brother is coming up this weekend, and with it his digital camera so I should be posting more pictures then.  And maybe my camera will spring back to life?  It's happened before.
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Egyptian Quirks

So are people in different countries really that different?  No, of course not.  Everybody cries, laughs, watches 24... sometimes all at the same time.  But for the rest of the day there are little things that pop up that I definitely don't see in Canada.  First off, everybody here is nocturnal.  And I don't mean just young adults, everybody here stays up late.  The last time I was here 5 years ago I remember getting off my flight that came in at 3AM.  We were driving along and came up to the seaside highway (which they call the seaway, or corniche: pronounced corn-ay-sh)  and there were thousands upon thousands of people sitting along the side hanging out.  Old people, young people, families with children and babies.  I asked if there was some kind of celebration going on, and it turned out that it's normally like this every night in the summer.

My schedule this time hasn't been so late-night accessible so this fact of Egyptian life hasn't really hit me again.  However, last night I went to the biggest and best mall in Alexandria, and it was the same thing.  It was midnight and the mall was absolutely packed like it was boxing day.  My cousins couldn't believe it that stores in Canada close at 9PM and especially in a town like Waterloo where you're lucky to see more than 5 cars past midnight.  Correctly, they quickly realized that such a town would be incredibly boring to be in, and felt very good about living in Alexandria.

And then came the ketchup.

But first, the seemingly homosexual tendencies of the average Egyptian male.  Not that there are a lot of gay people here of course, this is the Middle East after all, but when you look at what these a lot of these guys are doing it's definitely flaming from a Canadian perspective.  The first time I was here I went to the University of Alexandria with my dad to take in the sights.  After about 5 minutes I turned to my dad in a very low voice and confusingly asked "hey... uh... hey dad, uh.. there seems to be a lot of gay people here eh?"  He had a very hearty laugh and explained how in Egyptian when friends walk together they usually link their arms together.  I've seen this kind of behaviour in asian girls at my University, but I've never seen guys do this before outside of a romantic couple, so you can see where I was coming from.  Then there was the dancing!  People here belly dance, and they're very very good at it, and it's really cool to see.  What's not so cool is that the guys belly dance too, and do it the same way that the women do, and try to act all seductively.  I know it's difficult to picture, but just try imagining two young men on a dance floor belly dancing as they look into each other's eyes.  And they're totally straight.

Ok, back to the ketchup. It makes sense when you think about it, but when you first see it happen, it's once again kind of a eyebrow raising moment.  We get a nice large pizza and everybody takes their slices.  And like it's the most natural thing in the world they all take their ketchup packets and lay down a nice layer of the red stuff on their pizzas.  It makes sense because tomato sauce is tomatos, and ketchup is well, tomatos as well, but I've never seen that done in Canada. Ever.  We've just recently moved to ranch dipping sauces and the like.   That really brings a question to my mind, is ketchup the natural evolution of this new dipping craze? Since Heinz's miracle liquid really is the ultimate in dipping substances, are the Egyptians just really far ahead of us on this one?  Personally, as someone who would rather see the Heinz's empire fall and be replaced by Diane's BBQ goodness, I hope this isn't the case.  But maybe I'm bringing my own doom by introducing this technique to Canada where it will catch like wildfire, and we'll see Pizza Hut come out with a new thing that has ketchup inside the friggin crust.

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