Thursday, September 2, 2010

tomato, tomahto

In Egypt, you never want to mistake a tomato for a cat. According to my survival Arabic teacher, this is an easy mistake to make, so she took the time to make sure we were safe. Today we learned our fruits and vegetables, and the long lists of produce were so overwhelming that no one in the class, not even me, bothered to say anything when a tomato was listed as a vegetable. But I digress.
In Arabic, tomato is oo-tah. Cat, on the other hand, is o-tah. They're very close, only spelled one letter differently, and sound almost identical to a non-native speaker. This is, I guess, the reason why one of my teacher's former students once told her that in America, we eat cat all the time. She was surprised, and luckily asked for clarification before assuming that all Americans went around eating their pets. After hearing this story, no one asked whether cats were eaten in Egypt. No one wanted to know.
Also in Arabic class today, we learned of a small miracle of Egyptian cooking. In Egypt, there is no vegetable that cannot be stuffed. 'What about carrots?' I asked. 'Can you stuff those?' 'Yes,' she replied. 'In Egypt, we can stuff everything. Except okra. It is too small.' That answer was fine with me, though. Why would anyone want to stuff okra?
An hour later, we were discussing the abundance of juice stands in Egypt. They can be found on almost every street at night, once the fast has been broken, and the juice is made fresh, served in a glass cup, and is drunk while standing on the street. I have yet to try it, but my teacher gave it such a glowing review that I'm sure I will. 'What kinds of fruit juices are there?' 'All kinds,' she answered. 'Even batikh (watermelon) ? Even moz (banana)? Wouldn't it be lumpy?' 'Yes, all these. Any kind of fruit. Even sugar cane.' I was impressed. Maybe next time I'm out on the street I'll buy an asiir moz and find out for myself.
During my break from class today, I reserved my spot on the school-sponsored trip to Luxor and Aswan. At 2000 Egyptian pounds (about 300 dollars), I had originally thought it was too expensive and not worth my while. However, I talked to my teacher, and she was shocked at how low the cost was for the trip, especially during Eid al-Fitr, the coming holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. She encouraged me to reserve my space, and I did. Hopefully I won't be disappointed, although since I'll definitely get to see monuments in Karnak and Luxor that I've dreamed about seeing my entire life, how bad could it be?
Tonight, my friends and I ventured into the city by taxi for the first time. It wasn't as bad as I thought it might be, although the traffic was horrible. We were heading to Khan el-Khalili, a famous bazaar that stood as the entrance to Cairo hundreds of years ago. Now it is in the middle of the city, surrounded on all sides by tall buildings and freeways, but it still seems magical. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures to post, since the entire experience was completely overwhelming, but I will take some next time I visit.
This trip, we mainly stuck to one row, and were constantly accosted on both sides by people selling their tourist trap wares. If we had ventured farther, I think we would have hit upon the main market where more quality wares are sold for realistic prices.
I didn't end up buying anything, but I have plenty of time. My friends, who are all here for only a semester, went ahead and haggled their way into some pretty nice souvenirs for fairly good prices. No one we dealt with was too insistent, and the only people making us feel uncomfortable were ourselves, and we got over that pretty quickly.
We were quick to find a place to eat, and bought our first street food - pita and falafel sandwiches, which were delicious. I surprised myself by stepping up and being the speaker for the group, although my Arabic was far from fluent. Literally, I think I asked for 'One that. One that please? How much?'
Our biggest problem was guaranteeing that the food didn't contain sesame seeds, since one of my friends is highly allergic. We crossed that hurdle though, and everything turned out fine. (And as a side note, our dinners cost four pounds each - less than one dollar for a filling meal.)
After our shopping was complete, our total haul consisting of an inlaid box, two sets of pyramids, an Anubis figurine, a cat figurine, and a set of four canopic jars, nothing of which was mine, we caught a cab back to Zamalek.
Our cabbie was very confident up until a certain point, when we reached the island, and he started asking us for directions, and then began pulling over periodically to shout the address at passers-by with very little luck. We found it eventually, though, once we recognized the Harley-Davidson shop, and he dropped us off right by the front steps of the beit-toliba (dorms).
All in all, it was a satisfactory, if very long, day. Hopefully, tomorrow will be even better. After all, how wrong can a trip to the pyramids go?

1 comment:

  1. behind as i am im catching up!
    i gotta say i really enjoy reading these!

    have you tried the fruit drinks yet?
    - Mags