Monday, November 28, 2011

My piece in Salon on Egyptians' views of Tahrir

Since my flurry of updates last week, fighting in downtown Cairo tapered off, the protests in Tahrir weakened, and my computer's hard drive crashed. Oh, and the first round of Egyptian parliamentary elections started today—more on that later.

As Egyptians made last-minute decisions about who they'd vote for, I was working on a piece for Salon on the growing divide between the protesters in Tahrir and the rest of the Egyptian populace, most of whom prefer stability to continued demonstrations and a strong economy to violent clashes. I visited Boulaq ad-Dakrur, a working-class Cairo neighborhood, to provide a glimpse into the mood in Egypt as elections begin.

Check out my article here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

'In Tahrir Square, it's January again'

My day today consisted of frantically following Twitter from the moment I woke up until now, around 1 a.m. in Cairo. My classes took place at the same location they did yesterday, in a leafy neighborhood called Zamalek located on an island in the Nile River only about a 10 minute drive from Tahrir Square. I felt worlds away from the fighting, as people went about their daily lives and relaxed in the community's chic cafes.

Clashes in downtown Cairo, though, and specifically right near the American University in Cairo campus where my classes are normally held, continued full steam as protesters kept up their fight against police on a street off of Tahrir. About 45 minutes before my last class was scheduled to end, the director of my program knocked on our door and told us to head home ahead of a citywide curfew called for 3 p.m. It turns out that curfew was just a rumor, but they also dismissed us so we could avoid anticipated traffic congestion linked to the "million-man" march/sit-in planned for earlier this evening.

Just as we arrived in our neighborhood, a large group of school kids marched by in the direction of Tahrir. Chanting slogans and singing, the kids had smiles on their faces and waved Egyptian flags. "Join us!" one urged.

I sat with friends at home most of the afternoon and evening glued to Twitter and the television. We saw one or two more marches go by with young people headed downtown.

Around sunset, we decided to check out the view from the roof of a hotel closer to the square, on the bottom of the same island that is home to Zamalek. On our way, we walked near a much larger march of a couple hundred people on their way across the last bridge to Tahrir. Cries of "Freedom!" and "The people want the fall of the field marshall" filled the air. Egyptians young and old streamed past us in the other direction, their eyes teary and faces covered with yeast, which the protesters have been using to counteract the tear gas's effects; many wore face masks, and some had gas masks hanging around their necks.

Throughout the evening, I learned that many of my Egyptian friends and acquaintances made their way downtown, including one friend who's hardly interested in politics. On Twitter and in person, Egyptians explained how today's Tahrir felt like the Tahrir of the uprising in January and February, when the square looked less like a traffic circle and more like a sea of people packed shoulder to shoulder. Newspapers this week certainly shared that view.

Nearly every Egyptian friend we spoke to urged us Americans to stay home. Xenophobia is on the rise in post-Mubarak Egypt—conspiracy theories about foreign intereference are ubiquitous in the Arab world in general—and the last thing many protesters want is for foreigners to come to Tahrir and play into the storyline that the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) is selling, that "foreign hands" and foreign elements are behind the current unrest. News that three American undergraduate students studying abroad at AUC were arrested in Tahrir only served to discourage us more from going down.

As thousands and thousands of Egyptians continued to pour into Tahrir, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the SCAF and the effective ruler of Egypt, gave a rare televised address. Using language reminiscent of Mubarak's speeches during the uprising earlier this year, Tantawi praised the army's role in society, said it never fired on civilians, and decried the media and the gloomy economy. He also promised the SCAF would submit to a referendum on immediately giving up its power, if the people call for it, and agreed to fully transfer power to a civilian president before July 2012. Parliamentary elections will still start next Tuesday, he said. Wrap your head around that one.

It remains to be seen how Egyptians will react to Tantawi's speech and concessions. Since the speech, fighting in the streets near Tahrir has only intensified, with some tear gas entering the square itself and a number of protestors complaining that the gas used feels stronger than the norm. Clashes are taking place in Alexandria, too, and I've heard reports of demonstrations in other Egyptians cities.

I'm off to bed, but please continue to join me on Twitter @bgittleson, and let me know if you have any questions. We'll see how Egypt—and Tahrir—react to developments throughout the day tomorrow.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tahrir protests, political uncertainty grow

One day later, the protests are not just continuing but have gotten larger. Throughout the day today, the casualties figures creeped higher and higher, and I've seen and heard reports of at least 44 killed and 1,500 wounded. Remarkably, the fighting itself remains concentrated in a few square blocks right by the American University in Cairo campus and the nearby Ministry of the Interior.

On a personal note, I received news via Facebook this evening that a nice young man I met in Tahrir Square a couple months ago was killed yesterday in the clashes. Shehab Ahmad was 25 years old, and I had hung out with him and talked politics once or twice in Tahrir. I hardly knew him, but it was chilling checking out his Facebook profile after I learned of his death: Someone had posted a photo of a pile of corpses in Tahrir—and had tagged him in it. I've uploaded the photo (it's graphic) to my Twitter feed. He appears to be wearing the same shirt he had on when I took this photo of him back in September.

Also this evening, I accompanied two friends who wanted to donate blood to a hospital a few kilometers south of Tahrir. The blood bank received a relatively steady stream of people while we were there—mainly Egyptians but some foreigners, too—but it definitely wasn't overwhelmed by donors. A worker at the hospital, called Qasr El Aini Hospital, told me they had received some injured people from the clashes.

It's difficult to discern the potential effects of the fighting, since developments are rapidly unfolding. Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and his cabinet reportedly submitted their resignation tonight, but the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) apparently rejected it. Parliamentary elections are still scheduled to begin a week from today, although I seriously doubt that'll happen. It's hard to believe that Egypt will be able to hold credible elections when the very police that are supposed to guard the polling stations are currently fighting Egyptians in downtown Cairo.

What'll happen in the next few hours and the following few days remains to seen, but my guess is that the police (if they're smart, which they have yet to prove) will pull back from directly fighting the protesters, while the SCAF will make some larger concession about a timetable for relinquishing power sometime in 2012. Then things will die down in and around Tahrir, and the average Egyptian will be happy that a degree of stability will have once again descended on Egypt. Most Egyptians I've talked to, by the way, are confused and angry about the violence but don't necessarily agree with the concept of continued protests, as they just hope for a return to stability and more prosperous economic conditions. Elections might still take place on time, but with decreased turnout because of fears of election-day violence.

Or everything could spiral out of control. All it takes is an iconic image of a child killed by the army in Tahrir, or a particularly bloody day of clashes, to sway public opinion in favor of the demonstrators. We'll see.

One last note: I've said this before, but it's absolutely incredible how localized the fighting is. I live five minutes away, but all the stores are open and people are out and about. Life goes on unless you're right downtown. Even a few blocks away, I hear, you often can't really tell that anything unusual is taking place right down the street—that is, unless the winds shift and a cloud of tear gas floats your way.

As always, for updates, follow me on Twitter @bgittleson, and check back here for updates.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cairo clashes continue into second night

Tahrir Square off in the distance at around 2:30 p.m. today, as seen from across the Nile.

Fighting in Tahrir Square and the surrounding neighborhoods is continuing into its second night this evening, as violence between protesters and police has reportedly left over 1,000 injured and two or more dead. I'm sitting at home in my apartment in Dokki, a neighborhood on the other side of the Nile about a five-minute drive or 25 minute walk from Tahrir.

These clashes appear to have started when police moved into the square yesterday afternoon to clear out a couple hundred protesters who tried to start a sit-in there after a massive, peaceful demonstration on Friday. Yesterday and today, rocks were thrown, tear gas was lobbed, and the police reportedly fired rubber bullets and birdshot at demonstrators.

The violence has largely centered around the gate to the American University in Cairo's Tahrir campus, where my classes take place. It's been surreal to see clouds of tear gas waft up into the air above campus, bloodied protesters being carted down the sidewalk I walk on twice daily, and riot police form a wall by the Hardee's and McDonald's branches I pass every morning and afternoon. The president of AUC said in an email today that campus guards reported groups of armed infiltrators on campus—which was closed today indefinitely—and that students said they saw people on campus throwing tear-gas canisters toward protesters outside AUC's walls.

About an hour ago, as my friends and I stood on my roof overlooking the bridge toward Tahrir, we suddenly saw dozens of protesters on the bridge sprint in our direction and then scatter when they arrived at the square near our apartment building, which borders a police station. It was difficult to see if the police were out there fighting the demonstrators, but a couple Molotov cocktails lit up the air nearby, and the street lights on the bridge went out.

The situation here eventually calmed down, and the protesters headed back in the direction of Tahrir. The Russians playing volleyball in a walled-in schoolyard no more than 100 feet away seemed unfazed. The strange thing about Cairo protests in general is how localized they can be, and how life can go on as normal a few blocks down the road.

These clashes are different from the other couple flare-ups we saw over the summer and in the fall, in that they've lasted significantly longer and are occurring only eight days before parliamentary elections are scheduled to kick off. They also seem to be building into this evening, as more and more people head downtown. It's been quite confusing trying to figure out what the security force's or military rulers' intentions are in all of this, or even if they intended for the situation to get out of control to the extent that it has.

Here in Dokki, I'm flagrantly putting off homework and watching the news unfold online. For updates, follow me on Twitter @bgittleson.

Update (11:45 p.m.): After a few more hours of on-and-off clashes downtown, I'm heading to bed. Based on Twitter and online news coverage—as well as some firsthand reports from friends who made their way to Tahrir this evening—it's still pretty tense. Videos show policemen dragging dead bodies, and for a while we heard nonstop sirens from ambulances speeding in the direction of downtown. I'm still probably going to have classes tomorrow, though; it sounds like they'll be held in a different location off of the Tahrir campus. Good night, and rubina yustur (may G-d protect us)!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chillin' at the ahwa

Ali Abbas, a man I met a few weeks ago near an outdoor market, relaxes at an ahwa (coffeehouse) in a poorer, shaabi (authentic) neighborhood of Cairo. Many older men pass the day at neighborhood ahwa's, sipping tea and smoking hookah, which is known locally as shisha.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The middle of nowhere

Apologies for the long gap in posts, but I did a bit of traveling within Egypt during a vacation for Eid Al-Adha, or the Festival of the Sacrifice, a Muslim holiday that commemorates Abraham's obedience to G-d when he nearly sacrificed his son. Before the father of all monotheistic religions was able to carry out the dirty deed, the big man in the sky had him slaughter a sheep instead. In that vein, Egyptians sacrifice thousands upon thousands of sheep every year to celebrate. The streets in some cities and villages supposedly run red with blood, although that wasn't the case where I was.

Just where was I, then? Well, to get there, hop on an overnight bus from Cairo, fall asleep as you drive for five hours away from the capital, wake up to screams and smoke in the bus after a wheel blows out, wait on the side of the highway for 45 minutes, pay a microbus driver to take you the rest of the way, then hurtle 185 miles (300 km.) straight into the desert with literally nothing to be seen for hundreds of miles around you. Twelve and a half hours after leaving Cairo, you will have arrived in the enchanting desert oasis of Siwa, only 30 miles (50 km.) from the Libyan border.

A small mosque at a rest stop on our return trip to Cairo.

The small town of Siwa gives off a distinctly prehistoric air, mainly because it's so far removed from the rest of civilization and because many of its 20,000+ ethnically Berber residents live in mud huts and adhere to centuries-old customs long untouched by outside influences. Located in a depression in the Libyan Desert, Siwa sits close to the water table and boasts an abundance of arable land and springs that themselves boast an abundance of hairy Arab male tourists. The waters allow for date and olive farming—the dates in particular are delicious—and are the source of much of Egypt's bottled drinking water.

Dusk over Siwa's salt flats.

Siwa is so isolated that its residents, who converted to Islam back in the 12th century or so, speak their own language and maintain a set of customs distinct from the rest of the country. The first paved road to reach Siwa was only built in the 1980s. Before that, according to a Siwan I met, journeying in a truck across the desert to the nearest town took three days and depended on the stars for direction.

Donkey carts seem to vastly outnumber cars in the desert oasis, and youths speed around on "tuk tuks," the local version of which consists of a metal cart attached to a motorcycle. Most village women only leave the house covered entirely from head to toe, including a black net completely concealing their face. Everyone knows everyone in the tiny town.

A marauding band of children on a tuk tuk whizzes past a woman. Note the five-year-old behind the wheel.

But Siwa's rugged isolation didn't preclude it playing host to some important visitors over the years. Alexander the Great stopped by in the 4th century BCE on a quest to visit the village's ancient oracle. So did the Germans, Italians, and British during World War II, as fighting raged in and around the oasis. How random.

Anyway, whatever reason past travelers came to Siwa, today the oasis attracts Egyptians and foreigners alike to its slow-moving, unique way of life, 4x4 camping trips in the desert, and cold and hot springs. We rode bikes around town, sipped tea with the locals (per Lonely Planet tradition), and feasted on delicious, cheap meat and bean dishes. Oh, and we went sandboarding and slept out in the desert. Even though tourism is central to the local economy, the town as a whole remains remarkably low-key and without large resorts, with most locals coexisting beside foreigners whose presence they hardly even acknowledge.

Like snowboarding, minus the snow and the annoying snowboarders.
(Photo credit: Jill Lyon)

In short, Siwa is different. Wandering around an ancient mud-hut fortress destroyed in three days of rain in 1926—the last time it rained in the village—my friend Jill and I met Moussa Aissa Moussa, a 14 year-old Siwan whose name translates as "Moses Jesus Moses" (he is Muslim). As he and his friend guided us up a hill dotted with ancient caves, he taught us the Siwi words for "sun," "rock," and "mountain," as well as the super useful phrases, "You are crazy!" (Anta kharfata!) and "I want to marry you" (Ana ayiz anjaf). It turned out that Moussa's father, whose name is Aissa Moussa, is a musician who plays a traditional wind instrument; every Siwan we asked in the next couple days seemed to know who he was.

Moussa's friend looks out over Siwa. The washed-out Shali Fortress, top left, towers over the town.

As we followed Moussa down the crumbling hillside, where modern-day Siwans live alongside caves from the time of the pharaohs, our new friend told us to jump in a tuk tuk that would take us to the town's main square. As we puttered back toward our friends, we asked our young-looking driver how old he was. "Thirteen!" he said, with a smile on his face.

Oh man, oh man, we thought. Turns out that far-flung place wasn't too unlike the rest of Egypt after all: Shabaab (youths) recklessly driving motor vehicles had made their way all the way to Siwa!

Moussa, the boy holding the cell phone, chills on a tuk tuk. (If you can't see the video, click here.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Egyptian freedom of speech: Same old red lines

Egypt's media has recently come under increased pressure from the ruling military government, with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) utilizing Mubarak-era methods to repress freedom of speech. The past few months have seen a television station's offices raided, newspapers confiscated, and private television stations pressured to such a degree that popular talk-show hosts have been fired or have voluntarily taken a hiatus. International rights groups have condemned the crackdown on journalists and media outlets.

Self-censorship appears to have reached a level unprecedented in post-Mubarak Egypt, and certain red lines cannot be crossed. First and foremost: No direct criticism of the military—and particularly of the ruling generals.

I authored a post on this topic for Fikra Forum, a bilingual blog run by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank in D.C. It's available in English here and Arabic here (translated by someone else, alas).

Enjoy, and please let me know what you think!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Man maid


Update (Oct. 16, 2011): After my mom told me she had no idea why I posted the above photo, I guess it requires explanation. As is common in the non-English-speaking-yet-desperately-striving-to-learn-English world, Egyptians often use the English language in daily life and marketing in well-intentioned yet tragically hilarious ways. This phenomenon was certainly common in Amman, practiced most admirably by the burgeoning ridiculous-notebook industry.

Egypt takes it to a new level, though. Usually, missing letters and mistranslated expressions serve as the basis for some good laughs. They're enough to get any English-speaking expat through the day, chuckling all the way. But sometimes, literal translations unintentionally challenge gender roles in this very conservative society, as the above coffee cup attests. Other times, a simple misspelling can make unintended social statements...

Such a shaggy car. Or saggy car?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Egyptian reflections on last night's violence

Egyptian newspapers from today. Left: "Egypt," dripping blood.
Right: "Egypt bleeds at Maspero," the site of last night's clashes.

Last night marked the deadliest incident of violence in Egypt since February's uprising, and throughout it all I sat gripped to my computer screen safe and sound in my apartment about a mile or two away from the fighting. Needless to say, I kind of gave up on homework.

Believe it or not, though, my classes started on time this morning, despite the fact that a curfew for my campus's downtown neighborhood had only expired two hours before. Talk of the clashes predictably took place throughout the day, particularly since many of the professors and administrators in my program are Copts, or Egyptian Christians. I wanted to share a few exchanges I had today about the violence; these views are by no means a representative sample of Egyptian society as a whole, but they do reflect a few different slices of the population.

Right off the bat this morning, my Egyptian colloquial Arabic professor, who is a Coptic Christian, seemed a bit anxious as we began class. He described the clashes in the greater context of the systemic discrimination Copts face every day. Shutting the door so passers-by wouldn't overhear, he told us he had heard two people on the subway discussing the violence. How did they characterize it? he asked rhetorically. "They said that there were Christian people who provoked it all."

My professor's young daughters, who attend school near the epicenter of the clashes, stayed home from classes today. "Are you afraid for your personal safety?" I asked. His reply came immediately: "I'm not scared—I'm angry."

But in a time when sectarian tensions could rise rapidly, there are rays of hope. Two classes and one eggplant sandwich after that first conversation, my Muslim professor sat down before us and apologized for not having prepared a formal lesson plan. At around 8 p.m. last night, he explained, just after the fighting broke out, his Christian friend instant messaged him with the news. Troubled by what they heard, the two jumped into a taxi to head downtown. No can do, said the cabbie, it's chaos down there. So they asked him to take them to the Coptic hospital, to which he obliged. "By the way," my professor added, "the taxi driver had been listening to Qur'anic verses on the radio at the time."

At the hospital, though, my professor and his friend encountered kids no more than 10 years old running with wooden sticks in their hands. Discouraged and concerned that the scene could deteriorate, they turned back.

So, visibly effected by what he had witnessed and heard the day before, my professor led us through an analysis of how state television had biased its coverage against the Christians, and of the prime minister's late-night statement about the clashes. At the end of class, he rushed out so he could make it to the funerals of the Copts who died yesterday, which were just getting underway.

Then, later this evening, my two taxi drivers shared their thoughts on the clashes, which they said were undoubtedly bad for Egypt. Both expressed frustration with events that seemed out of their control. Why can't protests occur peacefully, with no destruction? one pondered.

The other driver offered a rather fitting analogy. "Our government is like a fireman," he said. "They only put water on the flames after the fire starts—they don't do anything to prevent it."

Saturday, October 8, 2011

F16s fly in formation over Tahrir, make lots of noise

It takes a lot of noise to make Cairenes break from their day-to-day routines and turn their attention elsewhere, as this city's daily dose of honking, shouting, braying, falafel-munching, etc. rivals the decibel level of a rock concert. But pause and gaze skyward a lot of Egyptians in central Cairo did on Tuesday and Wednesday, as fighter jets flew in formation over the city in a show of force and celebration ahead of Thursday's Armed Forces Day.

Observed annually on October 6, the national holiday marks the anniversary of Egypt's victory in the first couple days of its 1973 war with Israel. What the military leaves out is October 9 to 25, when Egyptian forces fared somewhat less successfully. Put it this way: It's kind of like if Japan commemorated the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor as the day they beat the United States in World War II.

But the holiday is just as much about demonstrating the current power of the armed forces as it is about selectively ignoring history, and there's no doubt that last week's display had particular relevance as a council of generals continues to hold on to power in Egypt. With extensive economic holdings, strong ties to Egyptian political leaders over the last 60 years, and a compulsory draft of most young Egyptian men, the military remains a major pillar of the Egyptian state. Military leaders are intent on keeping it that way even as protestors more often and more pointedly direct their anger at the ruling generals themselves.

If only they didn't have to show off their prowess as I attempt to cross the street in downtown Cairo. Do you know how hard it is to avoid getting hit by a bus as you try to take a photo of a F16 soaring overhead?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Lions and tigers and really sad bears. Oh my...

The Giza zoo was just as depressing as I had expected it to be. Based on the uncaring way the average Egyptian treats street cats and dogs here—and the lack of pets in most Egyptian homes—I didn't hold out much hope for my trip to the city zoo last week, and disappoint the zoo did not.

Cairo is, in fact, located in Africa, so we're a bit closer to the source of all the cool game that is part and parcel of the zoo experience in the United States: hippos, tigers, and sweet African antelope, to name a few. The Giza zoo had all of the above with a splash of urban fauna, like the wild street cats darting in and out of enclosures, or the German shepherd exhibit for which it appeared that random dogs had been plucked off the street and placed in cages.

Despite its exotic pull, though, the zoo was pretty sad. Great black bears continuously circled cages not much larger than a couple rooms in my apartment, striving to break free; smoking zoo workers sat by enclosures with lettuce and sticks in hand, encouraging little kids to feed the animals in exchange for some bakshish (a tip) from their parents; and kids stuck their hands through cages, trying to pet the animals.

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

For a couple of the only foreign tourists in the entire place, it was almost more fascinating observing the Egyptian zoo-goers in their natural habitat than checking out the animals. Picture enormous families whipping out blankets, hookahs, full meals, and more, setting up camp anywhere they could find free space and some shade. Kids ran crazily from exhibit to exhibit, there was face painting at every turn, and women in niqabs dodged soccer balls flying through the air.

And I got to hold a baby lion cub! For only $3.50, you can take photos with a baby lion and have a cool story for friends. Or so we thought. The lion cubs were actually, as we should have expected, pretty malnourished looking and probably drugged so they wouldn't munch on our hands. Afterward, my friend Tyler and I walked away trying to justify to ourselves that what we had just done was OK. "We had to do it. I feel dirty... but we had to do it! We won't tell anyone or put the pictures online, though." It was like we had just killed someone and were trying to justify the murder to ourselves.

I kind of feel the same way post-zoo. I had to do it, but feel a little dirty afterward. I guess that feeling of disgust is included in the ticket price.

I saw literally every one of these rules repeatedly broken, save for the ban on fishing—which should have probably gone without saying anyway AT A ZOO. For example:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Snail down! Repeat, snail down!

Beads of sweat dripped from the tip of my nose, whizzed through the air, and hit the sizzling cobblestone with a splash. I wiped my brow with a red, yellow, and blue bandana, decorated with a picture of an intimidating snail on the front. I watched my perspiration vaporize upon hitting the ground.

That morning, we had boarded a bus chuck-full of Australian backpackers looking for exactly what we were: a medieval, violent, Bacchanalian horserace that we had no hope of fully comprehending. Four hours later, it seemed like we might evaporate ourselves before witnessing the most majestic equine-friendly tradition Tuscany has ever known.

The Palio, a 355 year-old horserace steeped in complex medieval pageantry and partying, pits 10 of Siena's 14 neighborhoods, or contrade, against each other in a three-lap, bareback contest circling the city's central square. Twice each summer, the neighborhoods undergo days of preparation and feasting, with generally good-natured rivalries coming to a head on the day of the race.

Not all is fun and games, though, as townspeople have a history of drugging each other's horses or beating up jockeys just before the competition. Pushing, shoving, and smacking throughout the race itselfwith jockeys making alliances to assure the defeat of rivalselevates the Palio and its boisterous awesomeness to a league of its own.

After trial runs in the lead-up to the big day, townspeople from the different contrade, sporting symbols like dragons, the forest, or a she-wolf, don medieval garb and march through the town's circuitous streets. Singing children and flag-bearers lead their neighborhood's parade to a church, where a priest blesses the contrada's horse and wishes it good luck.

The benediction of the horse is seriously serious—"a particularly delicate and sensitive moment," our tourist pamphlet warned with not hint of sarcasm. "[D]uring the presence of the horse in the church, ABSOLUTE QUIET IS REQUIRED." Images of a drunken Australian mounting a sanctified steed flashed through my mind.

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

Back in the main square, an absurdly long pageant complete with gratuitous amounts of flag tossing ended when 10 horses, 10 jockeys, and zero saddles emerged on the clay-covered course and trotted up to the starting line. I readjusted my sweat-covered bandana and looked down at the picture of the long-necked, determined snail staring back at me.

The second we had seen the snail earlier that day, we knew that that contrada was our contrada. Come on, a snail competing in a test of speed? Taking cues from a Chinese restaurant placemat, our pamphlet had informed us the snail's enemy was the no-less-ironic tortoise.

"Go snail!" we screamed among 30,000 tourists and locals packing the square, leaning forward and sweating on each other with bated breath.

And then... there were about a billion false starts. And then... they were off!

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

While the race lasted less than 90 seconds, the course's two straight-up 90 degree turns did not disappoint. On the last lap, a two- or three-horse pileup sent jockeys flying everywhere, and a couple horses finished the race without a human on top (completely allowed). But looking closer, we discovered—oh no!—the snail horse had crashed!

The Palio hooligans left us no time to sulk, however, as throngs of young and old Sienese rushed the course, picked fights with each other, and mobbed the winning jockey, who hailed from the giraffe contrada. Stupid giraffe.

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

Our day witnessing living history ended with a night of raucous party-crashing, pizza-eating, and piazza-storming as we wandered the serpentine Sienese alleyways (ok, maybe more pizza-ing than partying...).

Throughout the day and into the evening, the seriousness with which the Sienese approached the Palio kept throwing us for a loop. At one point after the race, Justin swore he saw a teenage boy sitting on the side of the road in the elephant contrada, slumped over and crying into his hands. A sense of defeat enveloped people in a nearby bar, where Italian television broadcast footage of the race on repeat.

Meanwhile, the giraffe contrada was livin' it up. Bells rang loud, kids rapped on drums, and the prize of the Palio—a giant silk banner—hung in the neighborhood's main church.

Good for them. There's always next year, though. Or the 353 years after that.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Adventures in Italy, Part II (abridged)

I originally typed up a longer post about the rest of the Italian half of my summer trip, but (1) I accidentally deleted it; (2) I have lots of homework now; (3) a long post about my stereotypical European vacation is probably not super engaging anyway; and (4) speaking Arabic all the time is slowly eating away at my ability to communicate lucidly in English. So instead of rewriting that lost post, I'm going to take a page from the notebook of my sister Amanda, who signs her blog posts with a few words or phrases that are on her mind at the time. Enjoy!

Palermo (Sicily): Spur of the moment flight to Sicily, mob bosses, mob hats, fried swordfish, gritty streets.

Grill, salt, olive oil, serve.

Siracusa (Sicily): Ancient, empty Greek and Roman ruins, fried-eggplant hostel cooking, random beach with locals.

The locals used to sacrifice animals and other locals here.

Catania (Sicily): Fish market, transvestite prostitutes, Justin's wallet stolen.

Catania train station

Justin on the phone with Canada, post-theft

"This money belt thingamajig could prove useful!"

Overnight bus to Naples: Ferry, sleep, window seat.

Naples: Heavenly pizza, trash piles on the street (they've got nothing on Cairo's trash piles), extremely sketchy, crime-invested.

Naples in a nutshell (sans pizza)

Pompeii: Unbelievably vast site, ceramic casts of dead Pompeians, incredibly well preserved.

Rome: Tango by the Trevi Fountain, almost getting kicked out of a sovereign state (i.e. the Vatican), bargaining with Bangladeshis for roses, Sistine Chapel, Segways, LOTS of awesome ruins.

Dome of St. Peter's Basilica

 The Map Room, the Vatican Museums

 Near the Pantheon

The Ara Pacis Museum 

 Cruising around the Villa Borghese park

The Vatican Museums

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Egypt on alert after rioters storm Israeli embassy

After a long Ramadan of somewhat lackluster protests that were particularly hampered by the violent breakup of the Tahrir Square sit-in in early August, demonstrators returned to the square yesterday under the slogan "Correcting the Path." I stopped by the rally in the late afternoon and was surprised at the decent turnout, particularly after conversations with Egyptians over the last week or two had revealed a sense of weariness with continued protests.

This time, though, tons of hardcore soccer fans bolstered the demonstrators' numbers; violent clashes between fans and police after a game this week had spurred the fans on to participate yesterday. The hooligans, if you will, are called "Ultras," and they creatively turned some of their well-known chants and songs into anti-Ministry of Interior and anti-Mubarak chants.

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

A little later at dinner in a quiet neighborhood a few blocks away from Tahrir, my Egyptian friend got a call informing him that another protest in front of the Israeli embassy a couple miles away had turned ugly, as police started beating back protestors who tore down part of a newly built concrete security barrier around the residential building that houses the Israeli embassy. On our walk back to Tahrir, we passed groups of young people clad in Egyptian flags hailing cabs to "assifara alisra'iliya"the Israeli embassy.

The embassy back in June. It occupies the top floors of a residential building overlooking the Nile.

Egyptians have been demonstrating outside the embassy for weeks now in respsonse to Israel killing five Egyptian soldiers while pursuing gunmen across the border following a terror attack in southern Israel that left eight people dead. Among their demands are that the Israeli ambassador leave the country and the embassy shut down.

Back at home on my awesome roof above the streets of Dokkia neighborhood kind of between Tahrir and the embassywe saw dark smoke rising against the night sky, coming from the direction of the Israeli mission and a nearby police station we heard was on fire. The sound of sirens filled the air, and we began to see protestors running down a street near our building in the direction of the embassy.

But the protestors seemed to have been turned back at some point, and all of the sudden we saw 50 to 100 black-clad riot policemen marching down the street. We live right by a relatively quiet police station, and it looked like that was where they came from. The policemen banged loudly on their shields as they made their way toward the embassy. It was an eery sight.

Next, we heard from friends who live a bit closer to the embassy that they inhaled some tear gas as they stood on their balcony listening to Molotov cocktails explode from a few blocks away. I fell asleep following the developments on Twitter.

All in all, reports said the riot at the embassy left a few people dead and hundreds injured. About 30 protestors reportedly made it up into one of the lower floors of the embassy itself, throwing down hundreds of documents in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The falling white documents reminded me of my first snow day in Cairo.

Israel ended up evacuating nearly all of its 80 diplomatic staff in Egypt, including the ambassador and his family, according to reports. Egypt declared a state of alert, and the prime minister and his cabinet might tender his resignation this afternoon.

It's amazing how quickly things can blow up. While I doubt popular anger at Israel will translate into another uprising, last night's events leave one to wonder what type of incident could actually set off a new set of mass protests in Egypt, igniting the tinder box of popular discontent at the ever-deteriorating economy and political process.

As Egyptians are fond of saying, "Rabbina yestoorna"may God protect us.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Adventures in Italy, Part I

After our epic adventure in the Pyrenees, Justin and I were ready for a good three weeks of world-class museums, humongous churches, and mouth-watering pizza, maybe with a few canals thrown in on the side. We weren’t exactly sure where to go, but then someone suggested Italy and we were set. Some highlights:

Before leaving España, we visited the capital of Catalonia. We wandered across the city exploring bizarrely playful and curvy buildings and parks designed by Antoni Gaudí, including his masterpiece cathedral, the Sagrada Família. After eating dinner by the beach, we stayed out clubbing until we had to leave for the airport at 4 a.m. for an early-morning flight.

The interior of the Sagrada Família

The cathedral's trippy Nativity Facade

Ahh! Seafood at the Boqueria Market

After a funny train ride sandwiched between an Italian DJ and his Harley Davidson-riding, silver-capped teeth-sporting, football-playing friend, we attended Friday night services in a grand, ornate synagogue in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto and then ate a free dinner with tons of tourists at the local Chabad’s restaurant. Fun fact: The word "ghetto" is derived from the Italian for "foundry," as there were a bunch of foundries in the Venetian neighborhood where they moved all the Jews. Fun fact #2: The Venetian Ghetto is the oldest in the world, dating from 1516. At the also really old synagogue, the rabbi delivered the sermon in Italian and Hebrew, simultaneously translating every couple sentences.

We wandered around canals and alleyways the next day, then on Sunday attended Mass at the famous San Marco’s Bacilica. It’s way more interesting to see people use old religious buildings than it is to quickly shuffle in and out of them with no understanding of their original purpose.

Venice was spectacular, but it was approximately 99.3 percent tourists and 0.7 percent Venetians who worked in the tourism industry. It reminded us of Disneyworld.

Outside St. Mark's Basilica (if you can't see the video, click here)

Michelangelo’s David wowed usthey really nailed the lightingthe Uffizi art gallery overwhelmed us, and one massive, juicy, perfect Florentine steak stuffed us. The Duomo, one of the largest cathedral domes in the world, would have probably been spectacular had we not repeatedly arrived at the church doors only to find it was closed.

Me and Machiavelli

One and a half kilos of goodness

Cinque Terre
Probably my favorite stop during our five-week trip, Cinque Terre consists of five fishing villages squished between perilous cliffs on the western coast of Italy. Visitors can hike between the towns on paths along the coasts or take trains and ferries from one to another.

My Cinque Terre memories include accidentally hiking down to a beautiful nude beachand jumping right in, if you willand doing yoga for the first time ever, early in the morning on a rock alongside crystal-clear water lapping against a cliff. Our hostel room was about 20 feet from the water, and you could actually see its door in postcard photos of the town we stayed in.

Our room, center right.

After a fleetingly short time in Cinque Terre, we spent an even less time in Pisa. Snapped some classic photos and peaced:

 Strike a pose!

To be continued…

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Torla, or the time we almost froze to death

Ever since Justin saw a photo of Torla in the Spain Lonely Planet back in Toronto, he had his sights set on reaching the tiny medieval village in a valley in the Pyrenees and exploring the natural beauty surrounding it. The snow-capped peaks of the mountains that form the town's backdrop and make up the famous Parque Nacional de Ordesa draw scores of Spanish and French tourists but few English speakers, making the locale even more alluring.

Two months after that travel guide book photo caught Justin's eyeand a few bus rides away from civilizationwe found ourselves in Torla gazing up in wonderment at a sight more beautiful than the pictures. They really nailed it with their church:

We checked in to a refugio, or a very small, basic hotel primarily for hikers. A nearby bar doubled as the check-in counter. After dinner, we visited some grocery and camping stores and began to make plans to climb to another more rustic, spartan refugio in the mountains, with the goal of eventually summiting the nearby, 11,000 ft. (3,355 m.) Monte Perdido.

The refugio was booked months in advance, though, so we rented a tent. A guy at the camping store looked at us increduously when we told him we didn't have sleeping bags or sleeping pads; he said it'd get cold up in the mountains and suggested we purchase fleeces and then take blankets from the refugio.

We set out the next day on a beautiful four-hour hike that passed tons of waterfalls and wildflowers. The views were spectacular. A couple different Europeans we met remarked that the scenery probably looked like that in American national parks, effectively making them way less exotic and cool in our minds. Lame.

We eventually rose up above the tree line, passed a point where most day-hikers turn back, scaled a cliff with the help of bolts and ropes permanently tied to the rocks, and finally made it to Refugio de Goríz. Located above a valley at 7,200 ft. (2,200 m.), it was officially the most incredible place I have ever pitched a tent.

The weather was warm and so were the people. Or so we assumedthey didn't really speak English. A herd of 1,000 sheep and a toothless Spanish shepherd wandered by:

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

As night set in and the sun began to descend, the temperature started to drop. Frenchmen whipped out down jackets. "Oh, crap," we thought.

Turns out the fleeces weren't enough, and sleeping on the ground with no padding or sleeping bag is not the most pleasant experience either. Unsurprisingly, covering ourselves with random things from our backpacks didn't help too much. We asked at the refugio if we could borrow blankets. "Nope," they replied.

When our fingers still worked well enough to take photos.

After drifting in and out of sleep, wondering whether various appendages had succumbed to frostbite, we glanced at the thermometer: 8 degrees Celsius, or about 46 Fahrenheit. A plan was hatched, and we unzipped our tent and stealthily disappeared into the night.

Tiptoeing into the silent, dark refugio, we made our way to the dorm rooms on the second floor. Justin swiped two blankets, and we made a break for it. Glancing up, I noticed there were more stars in the sky than I had ever seen beforea magnificent, awe-inspiring sight. "Cool," I thought for about one tenth of a second before diving into the tent and under blankets.

I've never before stolen for survival, but I believe we did just that that night. I felt absolutely no remorse. Too bad it didn't really work. Still freezing cold, we hardly slept under the thin blankets and had to abandon our plan to climb Monte Perdido the next day.

Instead, defeated, we marched into the refugio in the morning, dumped the blankets on the ground, and then walked back down to Torla.

But not before we vowed to one day return to that godforsaken refugio and climb the elusive Monte Perdido. I think we'll bring some winter gear next time. Or reserve a space inside.

Thawing out in the refugio the next morning. Note the matching fleeces.