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People of the Book Tour 2006! (plus grocery shopping)

August 25, 2006

Dina (our RA) had us sign up for a tour of Islamic Cairo, and today (one of the days of the weekend here) we went. Not knowing what to expect or where we were going, I wore my large green tunic and packed a scarf. I thought we might be walking there, but we walked out of the hotel, and a shiny tour bus greeted us.

(Not entirely shiny, as the back sported two decals that looked like dripping blood, which I’m not sure was a sick joke or some sort of reference to bringing us there (blood money?))

Friday is the holy day, and like Boxa told us, the city was a whole like quieter than before. There’s still traffic on the streets and horns honking, but now they are at least spread out instead of being ever present.

As we drove into Islamic Cairo, the city changed around us. No more huge buildings or clothing shops. Little advertisements still dotted the street signs, but the most amazing thing happened. Everything started to look like ruins. Rubble was everywhere, next to shops, in front of houses. To our eyes, it looked like people were living in the ruins of an ancient civilization.

And in the middle of it was Amir Mosque, the oldest mosque in Cairo. This was our first stop, and the girls who brough scarves quickly hurried them out of their bags. Except they must expect Western tourists, as there were full green robes for us to borrow (much like the temporary yarmulukes in synogogues. We also had to take off our shoes before we stepped over the threshold of the mosque, clearly demarcated by a raised step that made you conscious you were stepping into something.

The green robes also did another trick: the big “OUTSIDER” sign was raised again. Not like we would have been better off without them, but the shape of the robes were a bit eerie, as in an another time and place, and with a different color, we could have been making our way to a klan meeting.

I don’t think that was the reference that the people in the mosque would have picked up on though, little boys ran besides us in the courtyard repeating “money, money”. We stepped into a group of women praying and little girls gathered around us behind their mothers. One women came forward and asked where we were from. We did not get past “Ameriikiia” before the other woman spoke to us in English. “Christian?” she asked us. I’m not sure if the girl who replied was, but she said “yes”, as it seemed grotesque to say anything else.

The woman nodded and smiled. Under shariah, Islamic law, Christians and Jews have special protection as opposed to all others as “People of the Book”. Islam includes both the Old and New Testaments as part of their sacred texts (although, ixnay on the Jesus-as-son-of-God-ay) in addition to the Qur’an, which is regarded as most holy. It was clear we were Westerners, so better us be Christians than nothing at all.

The mosque, above everything else, felt peaceful. It was completely open air, we were all barefoot, and aside from the little kids panhandling us, it was quiet and serene, a complete change from downtown Cairo.

It turned out to be the People of the Book tour, though, as our next stops were a Coptic church (an orthodox sect of Christianity from where we get the name Egypt from) and a the Jewish community of Cairo’s synagogue. All had Arab architecture, and looked closer to the initial mosque we had been in rather than churches and synagogue. Throughout the tour, the loudspeakers on every corner played the Friday prayer, an hour-long (I think) extension of the usual call of to prayer we hear twice a day in our apartment.

After our excursion, we went to a market to get food. Twenty American girls shopping inside an Arabic, yet otherwise Western supermarket, is a bit of a trip. We knew where everything was, but we couldn’t read it all (all I could do was tell people if it said “natural” on the side – I remember that word). But the bottled water was cheap, so we stocked up.

Word spread quickly that they took credit cards (the first place in several days) so we all took out our comforting pieces of plastic instead of the confusing paper money we’d be trying to convert into dollars for the past few days.

Back at the hotel, we’ve all gone to our respective corners to take naps and write emails.

(Lots more pictures on in the photostream on the left)

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