Posted by: Stacy | September 20, 2013

Media.

There have been some posts on the Interwebz recently about (for lack of a better term) cultural commodification and white privilege. I would like to address some of these.

First, there is apparently a now-MBA student at UofC who went to Kenya for aid work and “became the first female Masai warrior“. She then published a book about her experience. I can’t comment on the content – and whether it was written in humor – but the concept is a little off-putting. As the Guardian article mentions, Kenyan commenters were not impressed. Becoming a Masai warrior takes years, and then you have to dedicate your life to it; you can’t just up and leave. While you’ll often hear me cite Mark Twain’s quote about travel being the best cure for prejudice, and participating as an observer/anthropologist in cultural ceremonies can do you no intellectual harm, I think trying to inculcate yourself into a culture as serious as this is disingenuous. She has no intention of staying on in Kenya and cultivating the tradition of warriorship. If you’re proposed to – as we were many times in Sudan, usually in jest but sometimes leading to uncomfortable harrassy/leery situations – the best response is something like, “I am here to work, but my home is in England/America/etc. I’m not staying here forever.” The treatment we received as white women – being able to work alongside the men and dancing at their hafla, for instance – marks us as different, as not totally part of their culture. That is not our intent. It would be disrespectful to lay out prayer mats and go lalala, look we’re making just like you! (Although our yoga mats did present a difficult concept to explain, especially after a subtitled Dr Oz-type show featured a segment on “toilet yoga”.) I still think about Mazin and Nahet and we wanted to send them gifts last year to let them know we still think of them (travel circumstances prevented this), but I obviously can’t consider myself a Sudanese villager: I was a foreign worker they graciously fed and interacted with. I also think the issue of trying too hard to belong might be more prevalent in Africa because of racism/colonial legacy/feeling out of place, but I think there’s a right and a wrong way to behave when traveling or working in a foreign place. Recognize that you are different. Recognize that you can not understand every facet of the culture. Recognize that you have the opportunity to up and leave and go back to your comfortable life. Don’t try to be something you’re not, especially if that something is a very important (and ancient) part of a culture that has a history before you and future without you.

UPDATE: Here’s how a Masai woman responded.

Second, white privilege! This student wrote about being white in Uganda. Of course, I had to read it because I wrote a post called “Being white in Sudan“. One commenter mentioned that being stared at for a few months is nothing compared to being stared at for your entire childhood (he says he is Asian and grew up in the South). Yes! I agree! But you can’t learn what it’s like for people to look at you and yell “Hawaja, hawaja!” and run after you and you get really frustrated and want to say, “I’m a real person with feelings, not just a white face!” and then realize – wait, this must be what it’s like to be a minority in any majority-white country! until it’s happened to you. It’s hard to sympathize until you’ve experienced it. There’re also so many different kinds of staring! The staring in Sudan was totally different from the staring in Egypt and the staring in Peru. (It was actually quite friendly, as staring goes.) So maybe she’s a little naive. Hopefully she’ll learn. She does acknowledge that bloggers get shot down for both over- and under-acknowledging race. I am totally aware of cultural imperialism and racism (it’s all in the title, for crying out loud – Orientalist? I hope all you readers know it’s tongue-in-cheek) and I hope my readers would call me out if I ever said anything outrageous. I have to explain biological vs social concepts of race and ethnicity and sex and gender with regard to the skeleton at least once a week, so it’s not like I live in la-la land. Blogs are around to be diaries that people comment on, and a lot of people are getting attacked for writing their experiences when said experiences don’t match up with any number of political, cultural, or intellectual expectations.

Have I made a point? I don’t even know. I guess, dudes, be sensitive to people’s feelings, whether those are the feelings of the Masai or of some student dealing with being Othered for the first time. Right?

UPDATE: I also came across this tumblr, featuring photos of young white women and African children. It’s super critical and feels really insulting, actually. I do have a lot of photos with the kids from Kasura, and you know what? They set us up. They wanted to be photographed. “Africans” (cf Africa is a Country) have agency, you know, because they (surprise!) are also people.  I take pictures of white babies too. I take pictures of all babies. We take pictures to remember experiences. Those pictures of us in tobes? The women in our village dressed us up because they thought it was really funny. They painted on ridonkulous makeup a la Egyptian soap operas and laughed at us, and we laughed at ourselves, because that is how you make friends when you aren’t fluent in each other’s languages. One guy we hardly knew came around the field house one day and took photos of all of us together with him, and then (really kindly, at great personal expense) had them printed so we could take home photos and remember him. I think it’s incredibly unfair to mock people who are actually trying to do something useful with their lives (if that’s what they were doing; I assume most people are on some aid project or other). Taking a photo with a kid is not saying anything overtly negative. Now that I’m angry, let’s all go watch the Radi-Aid video and feel ok.

Posted by: Stacy | February 22, 2013

Terrible Times

Terrible Times

This is why you should never go to a hospital in a place other than your home country, where you know the language and the system (cf also: medicine as ritual; when you’re used to an American patient-oriented model of healthcare and you have no idea what’s happening to you and your body because you can’t understand the doctor, you will most certainly freak out and remain either sick or miserable or both.) This is also why you should support programs like Medecins san Frontieres, which work to improve worldwide healthcare. What this girl dealt with happens to people who aren’t westerners as well.

Fortunately my times in foreign healthcare systems (like with Pericles Pappadopoulos) were not horrifying, merely embarrassing (let’s explain “recurrent yeast infection” with hand signals!)

Posted by: Stacy | February 13, 2013

hahahaha

Too true.

Blogging for the Folks Back Home

Posted by: Stacy | February 6, 2013

Sudan: Well, the sunrises are great.

Can you believe, I wrote this entry almost a year ago and never posted it. Well then – all the better for you, a Sudan surprise!

New Years Eve camping. photo by Anna P.

New Years Eve camping. photo by Anna P.

You, my readers, may be concerned that I haven’t enjoyed Sudan. To some extent this is true. However, the reasons are complex, and I don’t want to waste time complaining (or slandering). Part of the reason is that at least one team member was ill at any given time. Part was because the particular type of illness made squat toilets unpleasant. Part may have been the fact that we had the windiest season in 20 years. But the one entirely redeeming feature was the Sudanese people. Of everywhere I’ve traveled, I have never met a culture so welcoming, hospitable, and friendly. The thing I really enjoy as an archaeologist is getting to travel and “anthropologize”, and here we really got to interact with local people and become friends. I thought I’d do my final post for this expedition on what I’ve observed, and try not to throw in too much theory.

The Government

If you read international papers, you know that the government here is pretty crap. They have complete control of the presses and don’t allow foreign educational materials into the country, which makes progress really hard. They set up checkpoints along the roads, which are a hassle. They are overly religious; I asked our inspector how many Sudanese would drink alcohol if it wasn’t forbidden, and he said everybody! Apparently drinking is not actually forbidden in Islam, but people get overenthusiastic and ban it altogether. Lots of people brew moonshine, and I had a home-brewed beer the British sand expert brought up from Khartoum. Abdul-Majid, the father of our landlord, can generally be found lying on his bed-couch or in our date palm. Someone asked if he lies down because he was old, and the response was that he’s always lying down because he’s always drunk. (No idea how much of this was a joke.) They also smoke strong shisha, which has now been banned in Khartoum because women were starting to do it, and some other marijuana-like drug that I’m sure is also forbidden (although we’re convinced our cook Mohammed was continually stoned). While the government does terrible things like attacking the south while claiming that the war ended 7 years ago (actual quote from yesterday’s newspaper), people in the north are quite happy because with the new president, they now have roads and electricity. So, yes, if you’re in a small village and you never had a fridge or a television or a fan to keep cool, and dangerous roads preventing you from getting anywhere, and suddenly someone comes into power far away and gives you all these things, you’re going to be pretty appreciative.

The gorgeously paved roads. Photo by Anna P.

The gorgeously paved roads. Photo by Anna P. If you click to enlarge, you can even see a small mirage on the road ahead!

-News

Some people have expressed concern for my safety because there are no less than four wars going on in Sudan, as well as riots in Khartoum. That was the first I’d ever heard of these things. The news in the village is who’s picking their foul, who’s getting married, and who’s having a baby. All the village women were gossiping about us, saying that we bought mish (yogurt with cumin and fenugreek) in the shop. This was a complete fabrication, as we had no idea this even existed, but after we heard the news about us eating it we went out and bought some (delicious!). I didn’t see any newspapers in the village (in fact, I didn’t see any reading materials at all). Theoretically, everyone (at least young people – not sure when the law was instituted) is literate because they are all required to attend school. However, it doesn’t look like anyone reads. They all have tv, and Ezu’s shop has a satellite tv, but they seem to only watch Egyptian and Syrian soap operas. (Whether the government allows broadcasts of news about the south or Darfur is unknown, but I suspect the worst.) They must be connected to the outside world because the prices of crops and imported products do fluctuate with gas prices, but nobody ever talked about the news to us. There was also no danger of imminent invasion by anyone other than the biting flies. In a country this big (or, a country formerly very big) with extremely limited internet, news travels sloooow.

-The Military

I have never seen a military or police force less organized. Sometimes the police wore uniforms, but some at the checkpoints could only be identified as police because they were asking for papers at a checkpoint. One checkpoint was a man sitting by the roadblock (made of a tire and two cones) with a camo pickup truck (Toyota Hilux, I presume) with a big machine gun mounted on the bed. Because a lone policeman checking travel permints in the middle of the desert really, really needs a machine gun. Sometimes it seems like they just want to chat. Sometimes one dude waves you on and another puts up his hand to stop you, and you have no idea which one to obey. Sometimes they want to see your license, your registration, or the driver’s travel permit; sometimes they want to see everyone’s travel permit. Fortunately all the times we were stopped the driver was our director. Sarah drove the second Land Rover, and although she has an international driving license, I’m not sure how they’d react to a non-Sudanese document.

We often saw soldiers in Dongola out getting lunch. Really, American soldiers would be embarrassed to be seen in public as they were: boots unlaced, too-big trousers rolled up, shirts open. Carrying machine guns. At least I feel like the 18-year-old machine-gun-toting Israeli and American soldiers (the only ones I’ve seen up close) look professional. These looked like just some kids dressed up in older bro’s clothes. They also sing when they’re marching in public.

-Dancing

There are many different regional styles of Sudanese dance. A great one to see on youtube is the Nubian type, where they leap in the air. I got to see our workmen dancing (Yasser on drum) at the end-of-season party – they do a kind of sideways shuffle-step with one arm in the air and head facing the ground, swaying to the music. Occasionally they will switch and clap in time. I don’t know the restrictions on women dancing with men, but we were invited to join them. (Although as Western women we have a sort of “honorary men” status, especially since we are doing what’s typically men’s work – digging holes. Generally hired workers are all men except in the Nile delta, where women carry the baskets on their heads, according to Anna.) It would have been great to see if women dance differently, but we didn’t get the chance.

Dancing. Photo by Ruth H.

Dancing. Photo by Ruth H.

-Socializing

After a few weeks in town, the workmen started inviting us over for tea. Teatime here is around 7 pm – it’s called “shay maghrib”, sunset tea – and it’s the only time of day when they have milky tea. Instead of English tea with milk added, “shay bi laban” is strong Sudanese tea boiled in milk with lots and lots of sugar. Traditional accompaniments are zellabia, the doughnuts, and little pieces of cake. After Safi’s aunt made us “esh balal”, date bread, word got around that we liked it and soon everybody was making date bread for us. When we go to people’s homes, we get to meet every member of the family. Everyone comes out and shakes our hands, even if they immediately go back to whatever they were doing in another room. Shaking hands and greeting everyone is a BIG thing. If someone is working and has dirty or wet hands, they’ll present their wrist to shake. Even small children will shyly shake your hand when prompted by mothers. It’s freaking adorable.

The really sad thing about the teas is that we never actually wanted to go. We worked from 7:30 (waking up at 6:30) to 2 in the hot sun, then had a long hot drive, lunch, and a short break before more work at 4:30. Anna and I were lucky in that we could only work in natural light because we couldn’t see the bones in the poor fluorescent light, but Ruth and Sarah would do paperwork right up until they fell asleep. When someone invited us for tea, it meant getting changed into appropriate clean clothes (not pajamas or tank tops) and talking to people for at least an hour in another language. There are only so many ways to compliment someone’s home and food and children and ask after their wellbeing with a limited vocabulary. It’s very, very tiring. I only skipped one tea, though, as the desire to be polite and also to check out other people’s houses slightly tipped the scales. (The conclusion: everyone had a nicer house than ours, with clean latrines, new paint, and pressed-earth or tile floors. They all had fridges for their leftovers. They all had fans and screens on the windows. Their doors closed properly. They had nice tiled outdoor sinks instead of just a tap. We were not living like locals, we were living like crap compared to the locals.) I wonder what they thought when they came to visit our place – probably wondering how people can live like that. Crazy Euros! They can’t even mop properly, and the women and men share a shower.

-Male and Female Roles

Compared to Saudi Arabia or Iran, women are living it up. Compared to Western countries, women are stuck in the marriage and family role with no mobility. Our dishwashers were a mother and daughter, Atana and Safa. Atana is looking pretty good for sixty and 17 children and two husbands, both of whom she outlived! Her first husband died after 7 children, an in accordance with tradition she married his brother. This is biblical, and is supposed to be in the widow’s advantage as she’ll have extra support. Her second husband’s support came in the form of 10 more children. Now she basically runs a house full of women, which is pretty cool.

The typical age for marriage is much younger for women than for men. Women get married around 18-25, although some younger and some older. Men don’t marry until at least 30, and some at least 40, because they have to earn money to support the family and build a house first. I was surprised to learn that Gaddafi, who is in his early forties, only has two very young children. Nasser, in his late 30s, works in construction and moved around the country on jobs before moving here, to his cousin’s village, to get married. Marriages can be for love or they can be arranged, but it’s easy to get out of an arranged one. Our director’s wife knows a woman who was engaged to her cousin, off working in Libya. When he returned, she decided to break it off as she didn’t like him that much. Great for women’s rights, but kind of sucks for him, eh.

If women don’t marry young, they can wait a while and work. Safa is in her 30s and unmarried, but she has a job. There is really no such thing as a working mother, as a married woman’s job is to take care of the family (very much like the US and Western Europe until 60, 50, 40, 30 years ago, or even now depending on who you ask). If a family can afford to send their daughter to university, she may get married once she’s finished. When people ask if we are married, we have a pretty good excuse: we are still students (none of this “haven’t met the right one/no one likes me/no one’s good enough/it’s not a good time/I’ve got things to do/queer/random excuse”). Marriage also goes along with having children early and often; childless Western women are a continual source of confusion.

Men and women seem to have very “traditional” responsibilities. Men work on their farms and build things and own shops. Women raise families, clean the house, wash dishes, and sometimes sell produce in the market (and with all that dust, the houses need constant attention). As I wrote before, we see more men than women in restaurants because they have responsibilities that bring them into the public sphere more often. However, it’s good to have women around in public (instead of completely absent, as in Jordan, where I felt very uncomfortable) because you can ask them where the toilet is.

Dress for men is the galabiya – always white – and tobes for women. The restrictions on hair covering are not as strict as in the Saudi-esque countries, and women don’t cover up around male family members or in a group of only women (in the privacy of the home, of course). We were invited to go over to Nahet’s (Mazin’s sister) before the party so they could do hair and makeup and tobe us up on Saturday. Somehow, all the village girls heard and flocked to their house to watch us and state their opinions. They lavished attention on Ruth and Sarah, both of whom have long hair, which they tied in tight ponytails (to balance the top of the tobe on) and tried to curl a bit at the front to stick out. They kind of gave up on me and Anna and just did garish makeup like an Egyptian soap opera. They were all having fun treating us like dolls and having girl time (“Makeoverrrrr!”), and it’s of course rare for them to get four girls with light skin to experiment on. (Considering the lack of the makeup for dark skin available in US/UK, and the fact that most products in Sudan come from China and are dime-store quality: it’s cheap white-people makeup. No subtlety.)

Later, Nahet came over to say goodbye to Ruth, as they’ve hung out more often. And she started weeping and weeping. Ruth and I were discussing it later, both having realized that as sad and narcissistic as it sounds, we are the most exciting thing to happen in that village. If I were a Sudanese author, I’d start a novel with “Every winter the hawajas came to town, bringing sweets for the children and much excitement.” Nahet, who’s my age, bakes bread for us and a few other families, a job that may be compatible with family life as her bread oven is in the house. But her future, Ruth says, is pretty much already written: marriage and children, or living with her family and selling bread. Until cell phones, someone could get married to a cousin in another village and never see or hear from their family again. So it makes sense that she was weeping to see us go: if Ruth doesn’t go back next year, Nahet will literally never hear from her again. There aren’t even addresses to write letters, even if they read the same language.

Additionally, the practice of FGM (female genital mutilation, euphemistically and incorrectly called female circumcision) affects 90% of girls and women in Sudan. So everyone is friendly and having a good time, but chances are high that they’ve been subjected to a dangerous and painful procedure that makes giving birth like, a thousand times riskier. This is for a whole ‘nother entry.

-Poverty

The average annual income for this part of Sudan, according to the CIA, is $2400 per capita. Yes, there are only two zeroes. And consider that in most cases, it’s only the men in each family working. In our area, most of the money comes from agriculture – harvesting the foul beans and other vegetables. When they’re working for us, it’s added income as the beans keep growing, but occasionally some men take a few days off to pick beans and send a younger brother in their place. They get the same day wage as we do, which is a significant amount in that area. However, no one is starving. Everyone seems pretty happy. I mean, as an outsider I can’t see whether everyone is really and truly happy, especially since I’m not best friends with anyone here who shares their deepest secrets, but it’s certainly not a UNICEF advert. Everyone in the village eats at least two nutritionally complete meals a day that I see (I bet they have lunch, but we’re too busy eating our own to see), and get meat once a week and cheese more often. Hassan, at my estimate 250 pounds, calls himself “the fat man”. They have families and televisions and bathe more than frequently. They all own shoes, even if they don’t wear them all the time. They definitely have better lives than the refugees we drove by in Khartoum. They’re towards the top of Maslow’s pyramid, is what I’m trying to say. By which I mean: Sudan was different. Very different. But it was great to be here, and wonderful to meet all these new friends, whom I’ll hopefully see again in a couple years.

Photo by Sarah B.

Us and Abdulhai. Photo by Sarah B.

-fin-

Posted by: Stacy | January 28, 2013

Normal Person Visits North Korea

Normal Person Visits North Korea

I don’t think I have ever posted here about another blog. But this one’s my style. 

Posted by: Stacy | February 29, 2012

Being White in Sudan

The Dekalb Farmers Market is my favorite grocery store in Atlanta. It’s a giant warehouse filled with vegetables from all over the world, and is stacked to the ceiling with cans of crazy things and spices in little plastic tubs and is probably the only place in Atlanta where one can buy goat meat. Also, it’s entirely staffed by Ethiopians. Employees’ nametags say what languages they speak, and they are inevitably English and Amharic. I always wonder how there is this little enclave of Ethiopia in the south – it’s a cute little cultural experience for us white middle liberal classers to be surrounded by so many people of a different ethnicity and feed our weekly diversity quotient.

Let’s do an imagination exercise for a minute. In the early 2000s, hundreds of Sudanese refugees, mostly boys, were shipped to the US. There have been books written and documentaries made about this. Imagine what it’s like to be thrown into another culture where you don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs, and – most of all – look completely different. How would that feel? To not know how to flush a toilet? To not know that you don’t haggle in stores? To have people stare at you all the time, not only because you look different but because you have no idea what constitutes normalcy in this culture?

I’ll say first that it’s a very different situation for me, as I am here on a work visa with a British expedition and not a refugee. I don’t have quandaries over whether or not I can afford food and medicine, and I know that in a few days (!!!) I’ll return to the familiarity of my home culture. But the questions still hold. When we first arrived and walked down the street, people stared at us. There are other white people (and Chinese) in Khartoum, but as three girls in Western dress walking down the street, stopping for tea, taking photos of strange new vegetables, and trying to buy groceries, we got a lot of looks. People wanted to know where we were from, what we were doing here, how long we were staying, and do we like the country. One man in a store actually recognized us: he had been on our flight from Cairo. People in the north, to my eyes, look very much like Egyptians with much darker skin, although there are some people, like Omda, who look more central African (and his friends make fun of him for this, calling him a monkey (!!!)). According to Ruth, the northerners don’t think of themselves as “black” (though that’s what box they’d tick on an admission application if they were American) – it’s the southerners who are black. I bet this is data for a whole book, and I really don’t know enough to write about it with confidence. Men wear white galabiyas (or slacks and an Oxford shirt in the cities) and women wear colorful tobes (sort of like a sari?) with another outfit underneath. It seems more like cultural tradition than religious edict to cover their hair, which is worn in small braids or a twist. The other day some children  came up behind me in the National Museum and touched my hair.

The Sudanese word for foreigner is “hawaja”. As I understand it, it has less negative connotations than the Japanese gaijin, and can generally be used in a positive way. Hawaja refers to anyone who doesn’t look Sudanese/Arabic, so it’s used for Asians and South Asians and I assume some Africans as well. In Dongola, there are significantly fewer white people, so we got stared at more often. One man leaned out of a moto-rickshaw and took photos of us with his cell phone. Which is where it started to get strange, as in my culture it’s rude to take pictures of people you don’t know without asking  (hat tip for cultural tourists/polite and considerate humans: ask first). When I wanted to take pictures of the Germans in Germany wearing socks with sandals, I at least had some subtlety, waiting till they turned around or were taking their own photos (also, wearing socks with sandals is a frankly ridiculous custom and I have no shame in saying that). I didn’t yell at them, Hey, weird German dude! I’m gonna take your picture! So it was a little shocking in Sudan. When we drove through small streets in the Land Rover, children would often run up yelling “Hawaja! Hawaja!” Sometimes adults waved at us and yelled it too. Mostly, though, they’d just wave hello. Yesterday, sitting in the car in the Omdurman market near Khartoum, people would come up to the window, look in, and walk away. Today a taxi driver said, “Hawaja! Taxi!” I’m used to it now, but coming from an America that tries to ignore race completely, except for those times when it doesn’t (college admissions, police brutality) and everything is blown out of proportion (or into proportion?), it was strange to have my “foreigner” status pointed out all the time. I do try my best to not stick out like a sore thumb wherever I go, but this is becoming more difficult as I break out of the Northern Europe travel sphere. I can at least act appropriately.

It’s important to note that when people approach us, it’s not in a creepy way. I never feel threatened by the Sudanese. It’s true that the men take more liberties with Western women than with Sudanese women, but this seems to amount to coming up to us and asking where we’re from, what are our names. And then they go away. (We’ve been told it’s more appropriate to ask directions etc from women so as not to seem provocative. As much as this irks my feminist self, I’m part of a team and don’t want to endanger myself or others just to make a point.) We often have conversations with random women on the street. People want to shake our hands, say hello, and ask if we are enjoying Sudan. They tell us to tell everyone how great it is here, how nice the people are, and it’s really true. Although I feel more different here than in other places where I look odd, here I receive the most positive reactions to being different (the other options, which I haven’t experienced here, being suspicion and saccharine smiles, as in Jordan.)

Sarah, me, Ruth, and Anna, after being dressed and made up by the village women. Photo courtesy of Ruth.

Ruth with Nahet, who was in charge of our dollifying.

In Kasura and on the site, I stopped feeling different very quickly. Our workmen were a group of lovely men, all very friendly. They made us feel very much at home despite the language barrier (although I have learned a bunch and can actually convey concepts now!) I think a lot of that is that we were stuck in the same terrible situation – trying to dig holes in extreme wind, only to find them filled up with sand the next morning. We also had some bonding time with the ladies of the village, involving them dressing us up like Egyptian soap opera actors. It’s surprisingly easy to get to know people here despite only a 30-word vocabulary, especially when they are actually such wonderful people. (Note that the excessive makeup was entirely their idea!!!) Ruth had some great henna done as well, except that what they call henna here is actually black hair dye.

As I hope you noticed, I am now back in Khartoum and have only one more “sleep” until the Big P: that is, the plane. I am so overjoyed to be using a real toilet and not having to avoid eating foul at every step. I had an amazing shwarma at the same place we went on the first day, and got hibiscus tea from the side of the street. I am, however, very much looking forward to wearing different clothes (the same T-shirt for three months: it’s very soft now) and having thoroughly clean feet. Our flight is at 4:30 am tomorrow; I arrive in London at noon after a layover in Cairo. I then have an extended (18-hour) layover in London, which is enough time to go into town and buy some hard cheese, which I’ve also been missing. Home again, home again, Friday evening!

Posted by: Stacy | February 19, 2012

Update on the Dig

After scraping the mound with mattocks numerous times, we have
determined that there are “no more graves”. Well, one more that’s been
cleaned and needs to be recorded and excavated, which will result in
Anna or my going to site and spending two hours working and then six
hours sitting around “looking busy”. But don’t take the lack of
evident graves as an indication that we have exhaustively (however
exhaustingly) excavated the entire cemetery mound: Just because we
don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not just a little bit deeper, a
little bit more covered by 4000 years of sand. The only way to find
guaranteed 100% of the graves would be to bulldoze the entire thing
and then check what turns up; however, we don’t have the time or
resources to do this, and it’s pretty destructive and thus a poor
archaeological method (although the British show “Time Team” would beg
to differ). As it is, there’s only a couple woman-hours left for the
physical anthropology work, which means most of this week will be
spent in the house, out of the wind, analyzing skeletons. We have 97
total, and a bunch of commingled remains we need to spend the better
part of a day sorting en mass.

Anna and I have done some preliminary analyses with about 2/3 of the
assemblage. (We use the word “assemblage” to describe an
archaeological collection from one site rather than “population”,
which implies a complete and coherent group. We don’t know if these 97
individuals are representative of the population from which they came,
and they definitely aren’t the totality.) While sitting in my tent one
day, hiding from the wind, I made a mortality profile in my notebook –
the way people did it before Excel made things terribly easy – which
shows the amount of dead individuals from each age group. Age is
difficult to estimate from skeletal remains, but there are some
methods we use that are easy to explain. The first is the appearance
of the pubic symphysis, the point where your pubic bones join. As
individuals age, the outline and texture of the join change. Some
researchers claim they can also use this to tell if a female has given
birth, but this is highly questionable. Another method is analyzing
the auricular surface, which is where your sacrum meets your pelvis.
This, too, experiences often-predictable changes with age. We can also
look for certain age-related diseases like osteoarthritis, the
prevalence of which increases with age. For children, we use dental
development, which is a lot more accurate than the methods used for
adults. Teeth form and erupt on a highly predictable schedule, from
milk teeth emerging at 9 months to wisdom teeth at 15-18. We can also
look at fusion of long bones: the middle of the bone grows separately
from the ends and fuses in the early or late teens (growing pains are
the result of the massive growth that takes place in early puberty
before they finally fuse). Since children experience so many changes
over a relatively short time, they are much easier to age, often to
within 12 or 24 months, and teenagers to within 3-4 years. As adults
are more difficult, we assign them to one of three categories: Young
Adult (20-35 years), Middle Adult (35-50 years), and Older Adult
(50+).

We found that most people in our cemetery assemblage were in the
“Child” and “Young Adult” categories – that is, most people in Kerma
times in this area died when they were 3-7 years old or 20-35. Fewer
people died in the range of 8-16, which is expected since that’s a
pretty healthy time: your immune system is fully developed and you’re
no longer susceptible to fatal childhood illnesses, and girls aren’t
exposed to the dangers of childbirth nor boys to hunting/farming/war
accidents. There were few people dying in the 35-50 group, probably
because they barely squeaked to 35; only one female was over 50, and
she was decked out in over 600 beads. When we analyzed the children
separately, we found that 0-5 was the most dangerous time, with over
half of child deaths occurring then. A mortality curve I made shows
that 83% of infants born into this assemblage could expect to survive
to their first birthday, then 50% to their second, 20% to their third,
down to 4% to their fifth. (However, it should be noted that we often
give ages like “2-3” or “3-5” and have only found two infants under 1
year, so the curve might be overestimating.) These figures fit
perfectly with what one should expect to see in any cemetery anywhere
in the world before 1850, which pleases me and Anna because it implies
we’ve done a pretty good job at determining age. (Sanitation,
pasteurization, and improvements in medicine in the early 19th century
drastically reduced child mortality. With antibiotics in the mid-20th
century, young adult mortality declined as well.) So, if your Kerma
kid made it to 5 years old, he or she could expect to live another 30
years or so, unless they were very lucky. That’s just the way it was.

One of the skeletons (Only Chest Man). Photo by Anna P.

 

Anyway, back to modern times. Yesterday we started packing up the
skeletons into boxes for transport. We pad the boxes with cotton from
old mattresses and then put in the bags of skeletons, with more
padding on the top and sides. We also try to leave air in the bags so
they’re a little cushioned, and always pack them with heavy legs on
the bottom and fragile skulls and teeth at the top. These will be
driven down to the Khartoum National Museum, where we will pack them
into metal trunks and send them air freight back to London. We are
also keeping lists of which skeleton goes into which box so we’ll know
if any disappear en route. Our final week here will be spent packing
up artifacts, counting beads, and closing up the house; we will
probably drive to Khartoum next Monday so we can have a day to unpack
and repack and another day to go to the souk (market) and the museum.
I’m saying now that nobody reading this is receiving any presents from
Sudan as there’s really nothing to buy, but you can will see the
wonderful pictures that my friends have taken, since I lost my
American adapter and my battery died. C’est la vie.

Posted by: Stacy | February 15, 2012

Sudanese Restaurants: Would you like more oil with that?

Me, Anna, Ruth, and Hassan in a restaurant having limun juice.

Every Sunday we have a day off. Mohammed, our cook, uses his day off
to visit his relatives, so we have to fend for ourselves. Sometimes we
go on a trip to see other sites, necessitating a breakfast stop, and
sometimes we just go for breakfast because nobody bothers to cook. As
such, I have now been in a number of Sudanese restaurants and have
taken extremely careful notes, and am now able to reproduce a sample
menu for you. A typical Sudanese restaurant will have:
-Foul (fava bean mixture), eaten with bread and fingers
-Lentils, eaten with bread and fingers
-Fried fish, eaten with fingers
-Tea or coffee

This exhaustive list is only a sample. For instance, there is often
cheese with the foul.

All jokes aside, there are really only three main dishes. I commented
on this to Ruth, who assured me that at least all the food is fresh –
if they run out, that’s it. They only have what’s available, and they
also sell it really cheap: a typical lunch for eight is 35 Sudanese
pounds (6 British pounds / less than $10!). Foul, the national staple, is by far the
most popular. It often comes with jibneh, the sheep cheese, or another
type called “hair cheese” (because of its shape) that’s a bit saltier.
There is also salt, chili sauce, and sometimes a little salad of
cucumbers, herbs, and lime.

The lentils come in two styles, depending on the location. The first,
which I much prefer, is a chunky stew flavored with chili or peanuts.
In Kerma I had a really excellent one that tasted pretty much half
lentil and half peanut. Like foul, it’s served less than hot so you
can eat it with your hands and a piece of bread. The other style is
actually bread soaked in lentil stew. It’s not as good because – as
one might guess – you’re just eating a bunch of soggy bread that
tastes like lentils.

The third dish actually varies between restaurants. A common dish is
fried fish. I am not a fish person, so I have no idea what kind it is.
All I know is that it is an entire fish, about 8 inches long, gutted
and fried. When one eats it, they have to remove every tiny bone,
since they’re all in there. Sometimes the cooks cut up the fish first,
and woe to whoever gets the head since it doesn’t really have any meat
– it’s all bones. One restaurant we go to in Dongola has a dish called
fizik, which looks immensely more appetizing. Fizik is a stew of
pureed fish mixed with peanut sauce. It even lacks the repulsive fishy
smell I hate, but I’m still not willing to risk it. This is served in
a bowl on top of a flatbread – either ghurassa, a puffy pancake-like
bread or kissera, which is more like a crepe. The restaurant in
Dongola appears to be unique in that they usually have fish and meat.
The meat is always a beef stew served on flatbread, which I got really
excited about the first time but have since resigned myself to eating as the place doesn’t make lentils. It’s a beef stock with onions and
lots of chili, which is very tasty, but the only meat to be found is
one big bone in the middle. (There is really very little nutrition in
the beef stew.) Occasionally there are little chunks of what you think
are meat but are actually gristle. It really sucks to think you’re
about to eat a piece of meat and then get gristle. Plus, it’s all
communal bowls, so there’s nowhere to spit unless you have stealthily
removed a tissue from your bag with your greasy right hand and keeping
your left hand thoroughly uninvolved.

Which brings me to how people eat. I have given up on actually eating
the Sudanese way and now bring my LightMyFire, my combination
spoon-fork-knife Swedish utensil, to all our restaurant excursions. As
I wrote earlier, in Sudanese eating the bread is held in the four
fingers, and the entire hand is used to scoop food onto the bread.
Everyone shares the same bowls. This is why Sudanese food is always
served as a stew – so you can scoop it onto bread. Everyone’s right
hand becomes covered in beans or lentils or whatever in some sort or
horror movie made especially for obsessive-compulsives and Miss
Manners. Anna, being celiac, requires her own bowl. (Her being left-handed presents another issue entirely!)

Water is served in restaurants, but we don’t drink it since
it’s not filtered. It’s brought to the table in a plastic bucket with
an empty bowl. The bowl is for drinking: you scoop up some water,
drink a bit, then pour the rest to the ground. It’s quite convenient
that the ground is made of dirt.

Oh wait, I didn’t tell you about the décor? Let me tell you about the
décor. Most buildings around here are mud brick. The walls are all
plastered and painted pretty colors – blue, yellow, pinkish. The
ordering system is kind of like a burger joint where you order at the
counter and then sit; the kitchen is open for all to see, with big
pots bubbling away. And behind them, the walls are stained with grease
and char. The tables and chairs are plastic and can be rearranged in
any combination, but they are usually crowded together. The restaurant
we frequent in Dongola is actually different: it has a back section
made of mud brick and a front “porch” of corrugated metal and blue
tarps with holes in them. (That’s what puzzles me: why do they never
fix the holes? This country isn’t made for the obsessives.) All the waiters – generally young men – wear yellow
smocks. The cooks – slightly older men – also wear the smocks; the
Dongola restaurant has one female cook who just wears regular clothes.

Most of the customers are male, but there are always a few women
around. I’ll write about women later, but they apparently have a lot of
freedom compared to the more religious Muslim countries. As I was told, they don’t go to
restaurants so much because they’re often cooking at home, not because
of any prejudice against them; it’s still almost entirely a “men out of the home/women in the home” spheres of behavior thing. I don’t see many children, but Sunday
is a school day here.

After the meal, we always have tea or coffee. The tea is served with a
bowl of sugar (no milk – milk tea is only for the evening), which it
never needs. If you tell a Sudanese person that you don’t want sugar,
they’ll put in one heaping spoonful. One place in Mushra had at least
3 spoonfuls in a 3-ounce tea glass, and I had to subtly pour it out
under the table. (Thank goodness for dirt floors.)

Time to go – we’re supposed to be finishing up, but we keep finding
more graves! Up to 90 by now, but the end is in sight!

EDIT 3/9/12: I forgot to write the key restaurant experience that gives this post its title! We were sitting in a restaurant with a bowl of foul, and the waiter comes over with a plastic bottle of oil – basically, a water bottle with a hole punched in the lid – and squirts a ton of oil into the foul. No questions. Just more oil.

Like in Cairo, the streets here are disproportionately filled with the
same type of car. In this region of Sudan, there are three forms of
transportation that make up 90% of the private vehicles on the road.
The first is the Toyota Hilux, a white pickup truck with orange and
yellow stripes along each side. I don’t know if these models are
actually from the 1980s or if they have just been casting the same
1980s design for the last 30 years, but they all look like something
from Footloose. The Toyota Hilux can be rigged up in a number of ways:
I’ve seen it loaded with crops, filled with people sitting in the bed,
and tricked out with benches and a cover for use as a professional
minibus. (Apparently it’s mildly inappropriate for strange men and
women to sit together, so men take one side and women take the other –
but I’ve seen exceptions.) The Hilux is mainly used on back roads and
out in the desert, generally for farm work. The second vehicle, more
for family use, is the Kia Vista. It’s a small, roundish sedan from
the 2000s available in many metallic colors – green, silver, pink,
blue – and generally filled with all the family’s children. The Vista
is not as common in the village as the Hilux, but Dongola is
absolutely filled with them. It’s also trendy to attach window decals
all over. These tend to be the kind that you get from gumball vending
machines in the US, with winking smiley faces and flags and hip
slogans, except that none of them make sense. The car owned by the
house katty-corner to us has “YOU CAN SEE ME” stuck underneath a hand
in an OK sign. Looney Tunes characters – in full color or in outline –
are incredibly popular.

But the main method of transport around here is (duh duh duh) the donkey.

That’s right.

The donkey.

Yup.

I bet most people reading this have never seen a donkey up close. Let
me tell you a midrash (a Jewish explanatory tale) about the creation
of the donkey. So, God is handing out features to all the animals in
Eden, right? And he has a few sets of hoofed legs. “The skinny ones go
to the cow,” he says, “because they need all their fat up top. And the
muscular ones go to the horse, so they can run beautifully. And the
short ones go to the goat, so they can scrabble across rocks. And… I
guess I have these kinda knobbly guys left. Donkey, I guess.”
And God is handing out tails: “This long and elegant one goes to the
horse… the prehensile striped one to the lemur… the waggly one to the
dog… and hey, here’s one that’s a combination of a cat and a horse, I
guess donkey can have it.”
And God is handing out noises: “The hyena has to scare people away at
night, so I’ll give them a cackle. The cat needs a bunch of noises, to
signal happiness and contentment and displeasure. And I have this one,
a combination of an asthma attack, a choke, and someone standing on
your toe… donkey’s all that’s left.”
And when Adam was called to review all his animals, he figured the donkey was enough like a horse that he could ride it. Except that its
back was slightly too wide to ride comfortably, so he had to sit
sidesaddle, and when it walked it bounced too much, and when it ran it
didn’t bounce enough. And God had forgotten to tell Adam that he had
had too much stubbornness left over after creation and he just dumped
it all on the donkey. “Aw, man,” said Adam. “AUUUUUgghhuuUUUUUggghh,”
said the donkey.
I hope I have fully conveyed that the donkey is the most awkward,
weird, annoying animal ever. Every night a donkey across the street
(whom we’ve named Bernie) has some sort of fit that sounds like an
asthmatic kid on a roller coaster. It’s awkward to see someone riding
a donkey, because they have to sit not-quite-sidesaddle, but just kind
of hanging off. The donkeys come in two colors: a nice silver coat
that hides the dirt, and a white coat that shows the dirt. When
donkeys aren’t being ridden directly, they are used to pull
two-wheeled carts. These can be loaded up with produce or boxes or
used to seat up to eight people. They go very slowly and have a wide
turning radius, so it’s annoying to get stuck behind them on the road.
They also park at odd angles, taking up valuable pedestrian space.

Our inspector grew up on a farm in the Nuba mountains, and he told us
a story about his childhood: one day, he was asked to go out with the
donkey cart to fetch something. Halfway through, the donkey just
stopped. He yelled and pleaded and hit and it just refused. So he sat
down and started to cry. I don’t know how much this impacted his
decision to become a geologist, but it sounds like a good enough
reason to say, “I’m choosing a career with no donkeys in it.”

I actually got to pet a donkey today, and they have one thing going
for them: incredibly soft ears. However, seeing the ears makes me
think of the scary part in the Disney version of Pinocchio. So there.
All bad.

There are also camels, but these aren’t used for human transport.
People often walk alongside camels loaded with crops, or lead them
while riding a donkey. Apparently there are nomads out in the desert,
but they drive Hiluxes rather than ride camels; I’ve heard that they
still raise camels, though, and often transport them in the bed of the
Hilux.

Between private and public transport are hired cars, used exclusively
by tourists (yup! There are tourists in Sudan); this is a big
Mitsubishi pickup truck, also with yellow and orange stripes. I have
often stated that it’s a Western misconception that one needs a big
car made specifically for off-roading in order to go off-road. I’ve
seen Peruvian bus drivers make turns on dirt roads you wouldn’t
believe, and we certainly went off-road at the pyramids in an old
taxi. While the locals seem to have no trouble crossing the desert in
a Hilux, tourists with hired drivers prefer the souped-up Mitsubishis
with raised wheels and tinted windows. Some excavation teams use these.

As with private vehicles, there are three types of public transport.
First, the taxis. They are all Hyundai Ataz, a car that looks
strikingly similar to the Kia Vista, all painted green. I have not
been in a taxi yet, but I doubt they exceed the quality I experienced
in Cairo (fuzzy dashboard cover included). The taxi drivers are
particularly fond of window decals.

Second, there are the large inter-city buses. Drivers in Sudan usually
go very slowly, which makes up for their overall lack of skill; the
buses are the sole exception, as they speed along at over 100 km/h,
leaving trails of dust to blind anyone following too closely. The
buses are European-style (puppy-dog mirrors instead of elbow mirrors),
but – once again – covered in window decals. We stopped for gas once,
and I was able to observe a bus up close that was covered in Tweety
Bird and tribal design stickers. I’ve heard the buses are quite
comfortable, offering tea and a little cake at least once per journey;
they stop at little shacks in the desert for toilet breaks, which are
only appropriate for men to take. Apparently the Dongola-Khartoum bus
stops in a town with a “not terribly disgusting” women’s toilet. Good
thing I’m not taking the bus.

Third, there are moto-rickshaws. These are absolutely everywhere. The
driver sits in front with a scooter-style steering wheel, and the back
takes up to three passengers; however, the driver may compromise and
take a fourth in the front. They have no doors or windows on the sides
(only on the back, so they can put stickers on them). Today I was the
fourth, and rode about three kilometers half hanging out the side,
clinging on for dear life. They are also by far the most tricked out
of all vehicles here, with decals out the wazoo, foot straps and
handlebars hanging off the sides, tassels everywhere, and – best of
all – some have spikes coming out of each wheel. That’s right: spikes
coming out of each wheel. Clearly there is some late-night rickshaw
drag racing we are not privy to as tourists.

What do we drive, you ask? Well, to accommodate all of us, fourteen
workers, and the equipment, we have two white Land Rovers. The Land
Rover, I’m told, is a “good British car” invented just for this
purpose. I mean driving on uneven and rough terrain, not administering
colonies (although at one point these activities were one and the
same). They were bought new in England but couldn’t be shipped to
Sudan due to the embargo on shipping new cars that can be used for
military purposes, so they were dismantled, fitted an old chassis that
can support a tank, and rebuilt from the ground up: hence, no longer
new Land Rovers. The interior is a car stripped to its bare minimum:
instead of air conditioning, a lever opens a flap to the outside, and
I believe the interiors can be hosed out. They have enormous tires
that still burst quite frequently, and so I have learned to change a
tire here. It’s easier than I expected, but really annoying when you’re smack in the middle of the desert with no shade.

Speaking of the desert, I haven’t mentioned yet that people often get
around in humanity’s oldest way – on foot. I was once on a beach in Crete
when a Pakistani man started chatting up our gang. I asked how he came
to Greece, and he said that he had walked. “You walked?” I asked
incredulously. “Yes,” he said, “I walked to Turkey and then I took a
boat.” That was one of those  moments of incredible realization for
me. When people want things badly enough (in this case, to get out of
Pakistan), they just do it. Walk to Turkey? Sure. There was a big
debate in December about African illegal immigrants to Israel, mostly
from Sudan. How did they get to Israel? They walked. Across the big
desert. Compare that to my recent situation, when I was about 800
meters from the car, across a big plain of sand, and thought I was
going to pass out 300 meters in. Or walking back from the toilet bush
to the site, which is a short 200m, but I found that it’s so hot and
desolate that if I don’t keep my eyes on the site the entire time, I
end up going the wrong way, or in a circle, and when I get there I
take a long sip of water. There are also mirages, which are an awesome
trick of the light in which the sand ahead appears to be a
constantly-receding pool of water, reflecting anything behind it: a
lone palm becomes a beautiful grove.

People walk like this every day.

I am so spoiled by a civilization with cars.

We were driving home one day when we came across a hitchhiker. It’s
quite common and safe to hitchhike here, at least for men (women have
less need to go long distances without accompaniment), and we stopped
and offered him a ride. He looked in the backseat and saw it was full,
looked in the back of the car and saw it was almost full, and asked
where we were going. Here we are, in the middle of the desert, with
only one set of tracks, at least 2 km from anything green, and he
wants to know where we’re going? We all pointed to the tracks ahead.
He shook his head – no, I’m going the other way. I’ll wait for another
car. Since then, we’ve actually seen more people walking across the
desert, the best being two women in a pink and an orange tobe, with
all the extra cloth fanning out behind them.

Now a short update: we have excavated 83 burials, and only have two
more to go! However, this doesn’t mean I’ll get to come home early, as
we still have to process and pack all the bones, and then help finish
up all the other work. This means that I’ll probably be helping Ruth
count beads into the next millennium. I can’t believe how many there
are. One burial I excavated had 268 beads just from a necklace. If
anybody wants to do an experiment, buy some seed beads from Michael’s
and string 268 together. Then tell me how long it is, as we’re anxious
to see! (These are too delicate to restring.) I also found a big, chunky bead carved from red carnelian and a lip plug made of wood or
ivory. The best, though, is to find beads in situ around the wrists or
ankles, so you can imagine how the string would have looked. It’s
lovely to be reminded that these are real people we’re digging up,
individuals who wore beautiful jewelry into the grave.

Posted by: Stacy | February 8, 2012

week eight: cabin fever

Occasionally we have visitors around here. Last weekend we had some
people I knew from the Oriental Institute (where I worked when I was at U of Chicago), although they are both with
other parties now. It was only when they brought us information from
the outside world that we realized how isolated we are – there are
nine of us in the house, eight of whom speak English, and seven of
whom spend all day together; we follow the same routine every day,
Sundays excepted, when we all travel together to visit a site.
As I sat laughing to myself in front of our guests, it occurred to me
that Anna and I have been repeating the same jokes multiple times a
day for seven weeks now. And they weren’t even new jokes – we’ve been
laughing at the same 1-minute youtube video since January.
(It’s the BBC Talking Animals clip, which was the preview for a show where
nature videos were dubbed by comedians, and our favorite ones are
called “Cup of Sugar” and “Nightime/Daytime”. I will describe them for
you below.
1)      Two owls are sitting next to other. One says in a Midlands accent,
“I don’t like that new neighbor of ours,” and the other replies, “Ooh,
yeah, he’s really creepy.” CUT to the big barn owl on a branch, zoom
in on his eyes, Psycho-style, and he goes: “HEELLLLLOOOOOO, can I
trouble you for a cup of sugaaaaaaaar???” We repeat this every time
someone says hello with an elongated pause.
2)      A crane keeps hiding under his feathers and saying
“niiiightiiiime…” and then popping up: “daytime!” He does this a couple
of times until other cranes show up, and he asks if they want to have
a game of nighttime/daytime. The other one responds that he doesn’t
have to play, he has an X-box. We have merged this with a sort of
whack-a-mole in our holes, but it only works when we’re in
shoulder-deep holes. We’ve even taught Omda to play, and have
translated it to “alayl… naha!”
One day, about two weeks ago, a camel died on the route home. Since we
are all very weird and very bored, we took to making a daily “camel
update” where we compare notes on the camel’s decomposition, since we
take two cars and may notice different things. We even named that
stretch of road Rue du Chamel Mort in its honor. It took a few days to
expand with gas, then there was a pop, then various bits of it started
disappearing as it was eaten by various desert creatures. In the last
few days it has stabilized as a pile of bones and fur.

Perhaps you want to know how the excavation is going. Generally things
are good: after the three weeks of severe wind and cold, it got warm
and calm, then warm and windy, and now it is hot without any wind. We
have opened more than sixty graves, but not all of them have been
fully excavated. Our supervisor from the museum, another
bioarchaeologist, arrived here four weeks ago, but is too tall to fit
in the smallest graves, leaving them for me. The workers – Ghazim, the
fat one, in particular – have taken to calling him “Fat Man” because
of the trouble they have holding the ladder for him, to his continual
dismay.

We are all suffering from stomach illnesses. I never want to even
think about a lentil again.

Three weeks to go…

Posted by: Stacy | January 26, 2012

Things Fall Apart: This country is made of mud brick

I haven’t written yet about what Sudan looks like. First, I really
only know what northern Sudan looks like. I heard South Sudan (and the
south of Sudan, as they’re separate now) is mountainous and forested
and generally more “tropical Africa”. Here, it’s the desert. The
Sahara. Khartoum is also in the desert, which makes it similar to
here, although on a much larger scale. There are also much stronger
connections with the Muslim world, while the south is Christian and/or
“traditional African religions”, as Wikipedia told me before I left.
Khartoum, as I explained before, is absolutely confusing to anyone who
doesn’t live there (and also most taxi drivers). Buildings are two to
three stories tall, with the exception of some tall modern buildings
by the Nile, generally built by the Chinese for their company
headquarters. Sudan has a variety of precious metals and oil, and the
Chinese have staked their claim on the mining and on the landscape.

I read a while ago that a significant amount of American roads –
something ridiculous like 60% – are unpaved. I don’t know when this
statistic was recorded, but I have hardly ever driven on an unpaved
public road in the US. Perhaps they are including the thousands of
miles of park service trails through various mountain ranges. Either
way, after the alphabet soup projects of the 1930s and Ike’s Big
Highways, I doubt that number still stands. What we tend to forget,
driving off our highways into our parking lots and suburbs, is that
most of the world doesn’t pave their roads. They don’t have the money
or the infrastructure or the government just doesn’t care, or the
people just don’t care. I know we complain about the poor state of
roads in some places – Chicago after every winter, for instance – but
that’s because cars and tarmac are essential to our American suburban
lives. Or urban lives, as even residents of walking cities like to
have sidewalks. But when you’re a subsistence farmer in a little
village, you don’t need to take a car most places. You don’t need
long, straight sidewalks to get to far away office buildings or gyms
or restaurants, because most things you want are in your village.
Paved roads are a very new thing in Sudan. Khartoum has had paved
roads for a while now, but not all of them are. The house we stayed in
and the Hotel Acropole are both on unpaved roads. The big paved roads
through town are the ones that turn into bridges that cross the Nile;
they’re about two lanes in each direction, but there seems to be an
additional lane on each side that’s made of dirt. On either side of
this are generally large ditches caused by the seasonal monsoons, and
next to those are giant piles of dirt, bricks, and debris from various
construction efforts. I asked why they don’t fill the ditches in with
the debris: the response was, well, they’ll only come back next
summer.

Roads: Not just for driving

As we drove out of Khartoum, the buildings began to spread out, and
there seemed to be more and more piles of dirt. The houses became
smaller, and fewer were plastered, leaving red bricks exposed. At a
certain point, we crossed straight from “clearly inhabited place” to
“desert”. There were no more buildings, only shrubs and sand.
Occasionally we’d see a little mud brick building, or a group of
camels hanging out. Northern Sudan, like Egypt, is really a vast
desert with a tiny strip of arable land alongside the Nile. Khartoum
can only be as big as it is because it’s at the confluence of two
branches. (Yes, the US puts cities smack in the middle of the desert –
ahem, Vegas – but it’s harder to do when you have severely limited
resources.) I think all buildings outside Khartoum are made of
mudbrick, with the rare exception of some made of cement. This was
generally the state of things until we got to Dongola. Fortunately, we
were able to drive the entire 700 kilometers on a paved two-way road
built as recently as five years ago. Prior to that, the main highway
north was a dirt track. We were also able to cross from Dongola to
Kasura on the new (3-year-old) bridge built by the Chinese; before,
one could wait up to 3 hours for a ferry. (I heard the Sudanese
attempted a bridge twice, but each time it fell into the river.)
Shortly after crossing, we pulled off onto the dirt road through the
village. Kasura is laid out in a grid, with blocks of about 80 by 80
feet, each of which is a single home. The roads are at least 20 feet
wide – but you can’t drive on all of them. Our daily route is
circuitous because we have to avoid big shade trees, piles of bricks,
dirt, and rocks, holes in the road, and people lounging. It’s common
to see children playing in the street, donkeys on the loose, and on
Fridays, men in clean white galabiyas lying on a blanket chatting. I
guess it’s a neutral place, and open to anyone rather than enclosed in
someone’s yard.

The houses here are each surrounded by a 7-foot wall. I think this is
not so much for security, as there seem to be no locked doors and the
walls are easy to climb over with a chair, but to create privacy and
keep the animals in. Each house has one exterior metal door, often
with wrought iron over a metal sheet. The walls are all made of mud
brick; some are plastered and painted, and others are left bare. I
think the plastered ones hold up better, since they seem to have less
breaks, although they may have just been kept up better. When mud
brick gets wet, it starts to crack and melt, making many buildings
here look not unlike drippy sandcastles at the beach. Some clearly had
little turrets made out of stacked bricks that have since melted into
triangles. The painted walls are quite pretty: many are white, but
some are dark green with white patterns, and I’ve also seen aqua,
orange, peach, and alternating lime and kelly green. (Mosques are also
painted in patterns, generally with an aqua base and white and orange
trim.) Inside, houses rarely are more than one storey, but have high
ceilings. The ceilings are made of corrugated metal sheets held up by
pipes or small I-beams, but fancier rooms will have the pipes wrapped
in raffia and the ceiling covered in palm sheets. The general house
layout is a courtyard entry with shade trees and a tap for washing
hands and feet, and then a public section with rooms for entertaining.
The kitchen may be attached or a separate outbuilding. They don’t have
sofas here, but they seem to have an abundance of beds; they are all
the traditional Sudanese style, which is a single-size metal frame
laced with rope or plastic lanyard. The beds are arranged as if they
were backless sofas, but are all made up as if someone were to sleep
in them. Entertaining rooms alternate beds and chairs (with the same
strung rope bottom and back); if having tea, there will be little
stools for tea trays. Behind the entertaining house is another little
courtyard and then the women’s quarters. From what I’ve seen this
doesn’t differ in style from the entertaining area, only more private.
(Although there appears to be social segregation, it’s not terribly
strict: our director came with us to move things from a women’s
quarters, and women are certainly welcome in the outer area. I really
think it’s like the outer wall, more for privacy than anything else.)
Our house, and I suppose many others, has a small date palm grove in
an additional courtyard.

Until yesterday, I was surprised at how little decoration there was
apart from the few houses I’ve seen. There are no plants that aren’t
crops or shade trees, and everything is kind of grungy. There are no
paintings on the walls or decorative features. It turns out I’ve just
been in homes that have none, as people everywhere differ in their
tastes (and it’s not good to generalize a culture from two houses
owned by the same person). We were invited to tea by our youngest
worker, Safi. We don’t know who he’s subbing for, but he just showed up
one day last week and said he was fifteen. I highly doubt that. Later
he said he was sixteen. I doubt that even more. Either way, he enjoys
being there, hanging out with the big boys, carrying bags of sand and
telling jokes, and is generally a nice kid. Apparently our director’s
wife knew his mother, but she died a few years ago from malaria;
presumably his father is also deceased as he was treated as the man of
the house. He has at least one younger sister and numerous aunts and
uncles and cousins. His house is absolutely beautiful. In the outer
courtyard is a giant tree, bigger than ours; after passing it, there’s
a second courtyard with a bush grown into an overhang to shade some
small benches. The walls were green with white painted flowers, and
inside the floors were tiled and the beds were set in a reasonably
non-gaudy pattern (nobody in developing countries likes plain sheets,
I think). On the walls were artificial flowers in bunches and small
wooden plaques. Safi greeted us in a clean galabiya and black vest,
which did make him look more grown-up than in his work clothes, but he
still has a round boyish face and a very, very high voice. The house
had a doorsill to keep out the dust and a ceiling fan, which he
proudly turned on despite the chill. His aunts brought in shai me
laban, tea boiled with milk and sugar, zellabia, fried doughnuts with
sugar, and dry bread with dates in it. We sat and chatted and met more
and more of his family, and kept standing to shake everyone’s hand and
sitting down to stuff ourselves with more doughnuts (it’s incredibly
rude not to eat when offered, especially homemade food).

A particularly well-decorated house.

After a while, a woman with severe spinal osteporosis and a leg
problem limped in and sat down, and we all went over to her to shake
hands. She turned out to be the loudest of the aunts, and was very
inquisitive; from her I learned how Sudanese women wrap their hair
into little buns. They all wanted to know where we are from and if we
are married. Safi was very excited when he found out I am single, so
I’ll have to learn to say “I’m waaaay too old for you” in Arabic. When
I said that I’m American, ana Amriki, his face lit up. “Amrika!” he
exclaimed, and everyone repeated it. “Obama,” someone else said, and
everyone repeated it. Someone said that they wished Obama would drop
the embargo on Sudan, and that was the end of the conversation. I’ve
mentioned to other people that I’m American, and they all have the
same opinion: they seem to hold it in high regard and wish the embargo
would end. Today while practicing her Arabic, Ruth found out from Safi
that he knows the names of two American presidents, Barack Obama and
George Bush, but that I would make a much better president than either
of them.

I wish I could post some photos, but the internet is way too slow
here. Expect a photo post in about six weeks!

This is the wall that suddenly collapsed during dinner.

This is the wall that suddenly collapsed during dinner. Mohammed is slightly confused.

Posted by: Stacy | January 20, 2012

Living with Filth

The Wellcome Collection in London recently had an exhibition called
“Dirt”. It explored all the facets of what we (Western, modern people)
think of as dirty: disease, pests, garbage, effluence, human waste. I
will use this exhibit as a loose guideline for this entry, and
contrast the ideal “clean” with my day-to-day living here. As Western,
modern people, who use indoor toilets and Windex and own two different
types of vacuum (hand and motor), there is acceptable and unacceptable
dirt. We associate cleanliness with Civilization (with a capital C), a
connection shared by many cultures. Sudan does keep clean – it’s just
different from American clean.
Watch out, this gets gross.

Part I: Trash
There is no central landfill here. As in Cairo, people take their
trash out to the desert and burn it. I thought there was no organized
rubbish removal service, but I was proven wrong: every two weeks, two
men come to remove the various shopping bags of food wrappers and
tissues and Q-tips we have accumulated as well as the large basket of
kitchen trash. (Some of the compostable kitchen trash goes to feed the
dishwashing lady’s chickens.) Until the men came, this was kept in the
date palm grove adjacent to our courtyard. I’d say we produce a lot
less trash here than at home despite there being eight of us, as most
foods don’t come in packaging. One does occasionally find trash in the
street, but the problem is much less significant than in any large
city. Rather than being filled with trash, streets are filled with
overflow from houses. Making mud bricks and don’t want to mess your
courtyard? Use the street! Need to keep a giant pile of dirt? The
street! Firewood? Rebar? Your donkey? Well, I guess that one makes
sense as it’s transportation, and there’s no in-home parking.
The main thing we have to remove, all day every day, is dirt; more
specifically, sand.

Part II: Sand, the Bane of Our Existence
Sand is a horrible, horrible thing. In the course of one day of
excavation, I’d say we move over one hundred pounds of sand out of the
ground and into piles away from the site. It’s in every
archaeologist’s job description to come home filthy. You might be
thinking, “But Stacy likes to hike and camp and stuff – isn’t that
dirty too?” No, actually, it’s not. It’s sweaty. When I would go
backpacking, my hands and face and hair would get dirty, and I’d wash
them in a stream, and then come home and have a big shower and feel
nice and clean. Here, there is no such thing as clean. Below the sand
is ancient alluvium, both of which are very fine and can get into
every nook, cranny, and orifice. We sit in holes up to two meters deep
surrounded by this alluvium, and when we dig it flies up in the air as
a fine mist. Additionally, we frequently dig during sandstorms so bad
that we have to wear safety goggles and surgical masks like some kind
of biohazard unit. I’ve barely used my sunscreen because I am so
covered in shirts and scarves. None of these measures prevents sand
from intruding. Below I list the instances when sand is a nuisance or
worse, in no particular order.
1.      Sand gums up machinery. I have no idea how the Land Rovers still
work after six weeks of desert driving, but often the doors and
seatbelts stick. When we stop to fix a puncture (flat tire), the jack requires
copious amounts of WD-40. Tupperware doesn’t close properly. Zippers
stop zipping. When I finally tugged hard enough to close the zip on my
backpack, a huge puff of sand came out. I have to attempt the zipper
on my jacket at least six times per morning, and I’ve given up on the
pockets. The zipper on my suitcase has started to stick, and it’s
never even been outside. My watch still works, but it’s waterproof to
30 meters so I presume all its bits are sealed.
2.      I have to empty all my pants pockets before I wash them. There were
two tablespoons of dirt in a single back pocket this week.
3.      Sand gets under your nails and never comes out. Every Sunday we
have a mani-pedi session focused on removing sand from the skin and
nails using a pumice stone and cutting our nails really short. It
doesn’t matter how short they go – the sand still gets in. The skin on
my hands is so dry that I no longer have cuticles: the skin just stops
and the nail starts. I actually thought my thumb nail was falling off
last week because I cut it too short and dirt got into the quick.
4.      The inside edges of my index fingers is stained with dirt. The skin
there becomes very rough and the dirt and sand just sort of stick in
the cracks. No amount of washing removes this.
5.      I wash my face with a washcloth and an exfoliating scrub every day.
When I dry my face, more dirt comes off onto the clean towel.
6.      I wash my hair more than once per shower, and I often wake up with
sand on my pillow.
7.      I scrub behind and inside my ears every day. Afterwards, the Q-tip
I use is dirty. Every day.
8.      I only sit on or lie in my bed when I am fully clean, and I only
put clean clothes on the end of the bed. I wipe my feet off before I
get in. Every day, there is dirt inside AND underneath my sleeping
bag.
9.      I bang the sand out of my sneakers as soon as I take them off, and
have started a ritual called “the Smashing of the Socks” to try to
beat the daily dirt out of them. When we all do bucket laundry on
Sundays, we frequently have to rinse the socks three times after they
have been washed, and then just give up because the water is still
black. I wait as long as possible in the morning to put on my shoes
and socks because I know they are still full of sand.
10.     And at the end of the day, there is dirt caked between my toes.
11.     Sand gets in our eyes and scratches them. We constantly have red,
itchy eyes. At the end of the day, the gunk in the corners of our eyes
is black and crusty.
12.     Dirt gets in our noses. Today, chunks of dirt came out of my nose
without any snot to hold it together. Just huge clumps of collected
dirt. The tissues we use turn black.
13.     The floors in the kitchen and dining room are made of dirt. The
courtyard is similarly unpaved. Our room is two steps up on a cement
ledge, but the door doesn’t close properly and the windows have no
glass.
14.     I get sand down my pants every day. Because of the cold, I
frequently wear four shirts plus a jacket, and I tuck them in in
certain ways to avoid sand getting down my pants. Today, in the
sandstorm, I had on long underwear and army pants, a camisole pulled
over the long underwear, a long-sleeve shirt over the camisole, a long
tank top pulled over the army pants, an Oxford shirt with the collar
popped, and a puff jacket. I tied a scarf around my head and neck. I
thought I was safe. At about 8:30, I sat back against the north wall
of my grave to avoid the sand blowing in from the south (the north
half was covered by a corrugated zinc sheet). I happened to sit by a
crack that led straight to the surface. Sand poured in over my head,
and the very, very fine sand went straight down my back and directly
into my underwear. When I shook out my underwear, it only fell into my
long underwear and pooled at my knees. (And all this is besides the
regular sand/dust/dirt layer that covers our face, neck, and arms.)
Oddly, the cleanest part of my body is often my armpits.

Part III: Pests
By far the cutest pests are the little sparrows that hang around the
courtyard. They sit on the electric wire chirping, and occasionally
fly into the bedrooms. Which is adorable, except when they poo on
things. They also offer an auto-cleaning service for the earthen
kitchen floor, picking up little scraps. One brave sparrow hops up
onto the counter and picks nuts out of the bowl. I don’t know if they
carry diseases.
We also have flies, the terror of the world. These aren’t tsetse flies
or anything dangerous, just your normal, everyday annoying flies. They
show up at the end of meals trying to land on things. I’ve given up on
keeping them out of the bread bowl. Around 1:30, the flies show up on
site. Each person generally attracts a single fly that sticks around
until the end of the day, buzzing between ears, eyes, nose, and mouth
in the most frustrating possible way, only landing when you’ve just
started brushing a very fragile piece of bone that needs utmost
concentration.
And there are nimiti, the biting flies. Again, these don’t carry
diseases – they just bug the hell out of everyone. They are tiny, tiny
insects that buzz around, landing frequently and biting often. They’re
pretty easy to kill, but their bites swell up into red lumps and itch
like mad. One bit me on my finger four weeks ago, and it looked like
someone had injected a pea between my knuckle and nail. As of last
week it was only down to half a pea, and it is currently slightly
raised. Fortunately Ruth seems to attract them all away from the rest
of us.
There are also sand flies, whose bites turn into giant wounds. Safa,
our dishwasher, was bitten this week in the courtyard. Hopefully it
was a one-time incident.

Part IV: The Toilet
There are two things you need to know before I tell you about the
toilet. The first is that while Europe has been steadily progressing
towards the indoor, climate-controlled, power flushing toilet for the
last 2500 years, the rest of the world (Japan and its Washlet
excepted) has maintained the squat toilet. If you’re traveling outside
Europe, the Americas, or most former British colonies, unless you only
use the fancy hotel toilets, you are going to encounter the squat
toilet. In Beijing, I opened a stall door in one of the Olympic venues
to find a porcelain urinal turned sideways. Fortunately, it had a
flusher and toilet paper. These countries have a culture of squatting
like we have a culture of sitting – if I were waiting for a bucket to
fill, I’d stand or sit for a brief time, but here they do a
flat-footed squat. They squat in the fields, they squat when they eat
breakfast, and they squat when they use the toilet. Unlike Americans,
who will squat with heels lifted, the rest of the world uses a
flat-footed squat with the knees up by the elbows. I can’t say this is
super-comfortable, but I’m better at it than the others. I see how
it’s fine if you’ve grown up squatting, but I like a comfy rest when
I’m on the toilet. A moment to sit. That’s what Americans like – a
restroom.

The second thing to keep in mind is that Muslim countries generally do
not use toilet paper. If it is provided, it’s meant for tourists.
Islam strongly recommends frequent washing – note how clean and
groomed the Egyptians are – and there is a certain way to wash (the
hands three times, the arms three times, the face three times, etc)
before prayer. Thus fancy Muslim establishments use bidets. Sometimes
the bidet is a separate unit, sometimes it’s an extra squirter in the
toilet bowl, and sometimes it’s a small hose like a detachable
showerhead. Here in the country, it’s a little water jug you carry
with you to the toilet.

In Khartoum, the French archaeologist’s house had Western toilets. For
some reason, perhaps because I was not informed otherwise, I expected
this would be the case for the entire season. I was wrong. We made a
stop at the National Museum and tried to use their toilets – not only
were they squat, but they were broken and had not been cleaned in what
seemed like years. There was filth of all kinds everywhere. Thank
goodness I brought tissues because there was only a bucket of dirty
water and a cup for washing. The water was turned off, so neither the
flushers nor the sinks worked. The hand sanitizer made its first
appearance.

Our first toilet experience in Kasura was the night we arrived, at
Salim’s house. I asked where it was and was directed to a building
detached from the house. I presumed that since the plumbing was
outside, there would also be a flushing toilet outside. I opened a
metal door and was almost blown backward by the stink. It was a small
enclosed cubicle with a latrine hole in the floor, and it would have
stunk to high heaven if it had a ceiling. Having learned
from the museum experience, I had my tissues, but they got stuck in
the hole and I couldn’t figure out how to get them down. Only later
was I told that I needed to bring the small pitcher of water that had
been sitting by the tap (I assumed it was for the plants). The smell
got so bad overnight that we could barely go in without vomiting, and
were all looking forward to using a real toilet at the dig house.

As you might have expected, this was not to be. Our toilet is also a
latrine hole, situated across a small date palm grove from the house.
Fortunately, it’s open to the sky, so the smell isn’t so bad (except
in the afternoons, in the heat). It also has no door, so we use a palm
frond as a sign: crossed over means it’s occupied. Having examined the
latrine (it’s all for you, readers, giving you the best info), it
appears to be about 25 feet deep. The hole is eight inches in
diameter, so we’ve all gotten really good at aiming. We really want to
know how long it takes to fill one up, and what happens when it’s
filled. Do they dig a new one? Empty it out? Close it up? Do they
re-use the cement hole?

Anna and I have been wondering how the water-pitcher system actually
works. We have to bring one for propriety’s sake to the toilet –
otherwise visitors who don’t use toilet paper might be shocked at our
lack of hygiene – and it’s a useful signal to everyone that it’s
occupied without having to cross the grove. But without using toilet
paper after washing, how do they get truly clean? And do they pull
their pants back up with a wet crotch?

On Sunday I asked our director how it works. (I find that it’s easy to
ask embarrassing questions if you do it with a very straight face.)
Perhaps you were wondering earlier about people eating with only their
right hands. This is why: the left is for wiping. I thought that
meant, the left is for pouring the water. No. Holding the pitcher with
the right hand, one wets the left hand, pours down the crack, and
wipes until clean.

This is how the world works.

Our question about the wet butt went unanswered.

I should follow up that in our house here, use of the toilet is
followed by vigorous hand washing at the tap with soap, so we’re all
clean. I’m not sure it works the same elsewhere, although there is a
very strong social incentive to wash.

I would leave you with that, but let me remind you to look out the
next time you’re in a public restroom. How many people wash their
hands there? Probably a lot less than here. And they’ve touched the
door handles and flushers as well. Without that, I feel like there are
actually less germs here. Surprising, eh?


Posted by: Stacy | January 14, 2012

Learning Arabic

I spend most of my day down in a pit, alone. This does not foster personal interaction, which is usually what helps one learn a language. However, I do manage to communicate, using the following list of words. (For any Arabic speakers: note that pronunciation and certain words here are very different from Classical or basically any other Arabic dialect. There’s a lot of African influence on the language.) Tamam – OK, all right, fine. A-salaam aleikum – the traditional greeting. The response is wa-aleikum salaam. This is often shortened to a-salaam. Al-hamdel’allah – Thanks to God. You can put these together into the typical greeting around here: A: A-salaam! Tamam?             B: Tamam!             A: Al-hamdel’allah! Instead of (or in addition to) tamam in the response, you can say mia-mia (100%) or aybu igri, Walid’s favorite sarcastic/over exaggerated Nubian phrase meaning “I am weeping”. You can also say good morning, sabach il-khayr, which literally means “morning light”. The response is sabach in-noor, “beautiful morning”. While you are tamaming, you must shake hands. Everyone shakes hands, and everyone is greeted; I believe it is impolite to skip someone, so Safa will often come back across the yard if she notices she’s missed someone. Children will also shake hands with each guest. There is no restriction of male-female touching in greeting. I learned that hugging is the traditional greeting in South Sudan, but here it is only for people who are very close. If you want to emphatically greet someone, you hit their shoulder with your left hand while shaking with your right. If you are meeting someone for the forst time, you can ask their name: ma ismak? And you can introduce yourself: ismi Stacy. Afterwards you can say tasarafna (nice to meet you) or Al-hamdel’allah, or tamam, or some combination of these. Away is yes and la is no. To negate something, however, the word is mish, which gets confusing since mish  is also a type of cumin-garlic yogurt and a peach. What if you don’t want yogurt? Mish mish. No peaches? Also mish mish. Kwais is good. To compliment Mohammed’s food, I point and say kwais! To tell the workers something they’ve done is not good, I say mish kwais. I have also learned a lengthy list of archaeological words, such as: Ramla – sand Mushtarin – trowel Korek – shovel Kis – bag (which is confusing as it refers to both the sugar sacks for removing sand and the small plastic bags for storing artifacts) Silim – ladder Adom – bones (this is of African origin and unrelated to the Semitic root a-d-m אדמ) Hina – here (this is related to Hebrew hinei) Sibu alle kidde/hina – leave it like that/here Hawa – wind. We don’t like wind, it makes us aybu igri. We especially don’t like when it’s hawa kitir, strong wind, or when hawa is accompanied by od, cold (in Nubian). Mumkin – maybe Yimkin – possibly Shukran is thank you; people don’t say please here, they suggest – Walid, mumkin kis hina, shukran is a typical request (asking Walid to bring a sack to me). Bukra – tomorrow. Has a similar connotation to mañana in Spanish. It’ll happen, sometime. If you ask someone mumkin bukra? The answer is yimkin, meaning “never gonna happen.” Similarly, one can askwer insh’allah, “if God wills it” – but God doesn’t often will it. It is also important to be able to count, mostly to ask for certain numbers of items or to tell time. I can count to five: wahed, itneen, talata, arba, hamsa; I can also say the tens: ashra, eshrin, talatin, etc.  100 is mia. Another useful phrase is wahed-wahed, meaning “I’m coming/ just one minute”, which is similar to shweya-shweya, “slowly, relax”. If the workmen point at my wrist, I can say wahed-talatin, shweya-shweya! At the end we can say halas, “finished.” So for today halas!

Posted by: Stacy | January 11, 2012

The Workmen (and others)

UPDATE: We have now excavated 50 graves!

At the beginning of the season (three weeks ago), the director hired
14 workmen. Every day 14 workmen arrive. These are not, however, the
same ones we started with. Workmen here look at a job as sort of a
family post – if you can’t come, send your younger brother. This is
completely antithetical to Western work habits: you might be perfectly
qualified for your job as a  Digging Technician, but no way would your
lazy bum of a business associate brother be qualified to tell a human
bone from a rock. But that’s not how it works in Sudan, at least in
the villages. If you can’t plow your field because you have to take
your donkey to market, of course your brother can do it! Although they
were told not to send substitutes more than one or two times in the
season, they already have done so many times – all you have to do is
dig holes, right? I have more important things to do!

This is not to say that they’re just slacking off for the sake of it.
Nasser and Salla haven’t been in all week because they’re helping
Salla’s brother Ezu build an addition to his shop. I learned since
writing the last entry that although some of them do go to the mosque
on Fridays, some do catch-up work on their farms. We were also told
that they “take unnecessary breaks, spend too long in the toilet [that
is, behind a bush], and take too long carrying sand away.” I haven’t
found these to be true; when your job is to dig holes 8 hours a day,
it’s nice to walk eeeeeextra slowly to the toilet, enjoying standing
upright for a bit. I know I do it after being crouched in a hole. They
are actually very conscientious and friendly and enjoy being helpful –
they don’t treat the job as a drudgery. (Maybe it helps that it’s
different what they do the rest of the year, and also get a nice
salary – there isn’t really a “salary” in farm work, so it’s a bunch
of extra cash.)

I don’t know everyone’s names since they keep switching out, but here are a few:
Omda – everyone’s favorite since he’s really patient and excellent at
cleaning bones. Really, I wish I had his skills. He’s pretty young,
maybe early 20s, and has been on site every day; it’s likely he’s the
youngest in his family. He listens to music on his cellphone with a
shared pair of headphones, which inspired me to bring my ipod out. He
also has ridiculously prehensile toes, managing to grab things out of
deep trenches without using the ladder. Everyone knows he’s the
favorite and the other men sometimes call him Omda Habibi.

Said – Omda-in-training. He told us he was twenty, but can’t be more
than 17. He’s quite good at cleaning bones and often gets his own tent
to work in. We pointed out all the skeleton parts, and he corrected me
the other day. In my defense, he was right in the hole and I was six
feet away.

Walid – This is actually his second income; his other job is as one of
the “tourist police” at Kawa, the biggest archaeological site in the
area. I’m not sure who guards it while he’s with us.Since he’s sort of
in charge of things, he’s the only one allowed to answer his cellphone
on site. He’s 26 and very sweet: he sees that we don’t get paid every
Thursday, and actually offers us his salary. We tried to explain that
we are paid at the end, but he still tries since we just sit around
while everyone else is counting their bills. To site, he wears
trousers and a collared shirt under a blue wool overcoat and faux
snakeskin loafers. Walid is very loud, and likes to sing and listen to
Akon on his phone in the car; he can often be heard shouting across
the site, typically “aybu igri!” which is Nubian for “I am weeping!” –
sarcastically, of course, since he’s usually lying on the ground
helping Anna move handfuls of dirt from the deep pit or relaxing in an
empty wheelbarrow.

Abdul Aziz – Possibly the oldest of the lot, he may be in his 60s. He
was clearly very handsome in his youth, and commands the respect of
the younger guys. He always gets the window seat in the car.

Nasser – A lovely gentleman in his 30s. He speaks English shyly and
apparently reads English books. I was told that everyone learns
English in school (and everyone goes to school from age 6-13) but that
he really works at it. He wears a talit as a scarf, which I’ve been
told people here like because of the pattern (and are unaware of its
significance). He is kind and helpful and quiet but unfortunately has
been off building Ezu’s store for the last week.

Yasser – I wish I could write a Goofus & Gallant about Nasser and
Yasser. Yasser is without a doubt the most annoying human being on
earth. While everyone else wears white galabiyas or men’s work
clothes, he wears pink women’s sweatpants and a towel as a scarf. He
never works when told, and when he decides to work he messes things
up. He is incredibly loud and will sing off-key all day. When we asked
the director why he hires him year after year despite his obvious
ineptitude, he answered, “Well, he’s consistent, and he plays the
drums at the party. You can’t fire the drummer.” All bands ever beg to
disagree.

Saddam – A young guy who speaks a little English. He’s one of the
substitutes, and is only interesting because he comes on the same days
as…

Gaddafi – To complete the Arab Leaders quad. He speaks English a
little bit, but manages to effectively communicate. When I was in the
tent he was emptying my bags of sand, and he said, “In here I not see
you. If need me, telephone,” indicating that I should call for him.

Shekadin – The village’s mechanic. Appropriately, he wears his
mechanic’s jumpsuit every day and helped with the numerous punctures (flat tires)
we’ve had.

Back at the house, we have a few women who come to wash dishes twice
daily. I know one is Safa, who is looking for a foreign husband and is
consistently disappointed by our all-female troupe, and one is her
mother; I haven’t caught the names of the other two. They come dressed
in bright floral tobes and sit on a low stool to scrub the plates and
pots (with soap! I found the soap! It exists!)

Mohammed, our cook, owns a restaurant in Karima, which is south of
here. Cooking is usually the role of women, but I guess it’s ok since
he’s paid. He’s quite good, although the food here is generally
would-you-like-some-oil-with-your-oil? Since yesterday we’ve had
pumpkin stew, rigla (lentils with local untranslatable herbs), lentil
soup, and potato and pea curry. He also makes really good falafel,
which are called tami’a here.

Next time: Speaking Arabic, mostly in hand gestures

Posted by: Stacy | January 6, 2012

About the Excavation

Since I’ve been digging here three weeks already, I can finally tell
you about the excavation. I will introduce our crew:
Anna, my Italian friend, the other bioarchaeologist; Ruth, an English
archaeologist and PhD student looking at Nubian pottery; Sarah, a
Belgian archaeologist who grew up in Africa; our director, who looks a
bit like Asterix; and his wife, who studies the pottery from Kawa,
another big site nearby. We also have a cook, Mohammed, and an
inspector from the Antiquities department. Every Monday through
Thursday and Saturday we go to the site with 14 workmen from the village,
one of whom speaks English. Friday is their day off, as it’s the
Muslim Shabbat and some of them go to the mosque. (We go to the site without the workmen on Fridays).

Our director has been digging in this area for over 20 years, trying
to put together a picture of ancient Nubia. I only know about one
period of Nubian prehistory (it’s “prehistory” up to about 800 BCE
since they didn’t have a writing system), Kerma, which just happens to
be what we’re digging up. Kerma is divided into four time periods:
Ancient, Classical, Middle, and Recent. There aren’t specific dates
for each period, but Ancient Kerma starts at 3000 BCE and Recent Kerma
ends at 1500 BCE, when the capital city of Kerma was attacked and the
people became subject to the Egyptian conquest. The city of Kerma is
known in Egyptian texts as Kush, and I believe I’ve heard this word
somewhere in Hebrew as well. Further south was the land of Punt
(Ethiopia), where the Biblical Queen of Sheba came from. We don’t
really know too much about the Kerma people except that they fought
with the Egyptians; the Egyptians believed that naming your enemy gave
them power, so they were left out of historical texts (history is
written by the winners, after all). However, we know that Egypt
definitely traded with Kerma – evidence for this is found all over
Egypt, in the gold, ostrich shells, and animal hides that were traded
for Egyptian wheat and pottery and luxury items (as is the case now,
materials were taken out of Africa, processed elsewhere, and sold back
to them.)

Archaeology is of particular importance when a culture doesn’t have a
writing system. We use the artifacts of people’s daily lives and the
way they treated their dead to understand their lives and beliefs. The
Egyptians (who had a complex writing system), for example, made it
pretty clear what they wanted from death: a smooth entry into the
afterlife, which was filled with offerings to the gods and reunion
with family, and also a monument so that future generations can
remember their grandeur. Others are less simple. For an exercise,
think about your own culture’s burial practices. 20th-century America
has a tradition of elaborate lead coffins, marble headstones, and no
grave goods. Jews, on the other hand, prefer simple coffins and
undecorated headstones. Does this imply a difference in belief? In
social class? In how the individual was viewed by the community? In
belief in the soul, life after death, and the physical body? In recent
years, some poorer young Americans have been buried with modern grave
goods – in many cases, electronics such as an iPod or cellphone. Does
this mean they are more materialistic? Or that they are more connected
to their friends or their passions? The sad fact about analyzing
ancient burials is that we ask the same questions but can barely begin
to answer them. The people in our cemetery were buried in a leather
shroud colored with ochre, sometimes accompanied by a ceramic pot, and
sometimes wearing jewelry. Does this mean they were all equals in
life? Or did the community believe in the equality of death? Graves
from the city of Kerma suggest a social hierarchy, since there are
huge multi-chambered burials, where one “big man” is buried with
sometimes hundreds of other people. Were they his family, deciding to
die along with him? Were they servants, killed at the funeral? What we
glean from this is that the main man must have been some sort of king
or chief who commanded enough respect (or fear) that he could take
hundreds of people to the grave with him.
And here’s where Anna and I come in. We are bioarchaeologists, which
means that we look at bones to assess features of culture that aren’t
visible any other way. When there’s no DNA left, we can look at the
bumps on people’s teeth to see how related they are; we can compare
heights in a population to compare childhood nutrition; and we can
examine a whole cemetery to compose a profile of the population (among
other things). For my thesis, I examined the tibias (shin bones) of
two groups – one Kerma and one Meroitic – to find any differences in
activity, and found that the legs of Kerma men and women were similar
to each other, but Meroitic legs diverged between sexes, indicating
that the Meroitic men were doing a lot more walking/running/jumping
than Meroitic women, but Kermans were more equal.

Every day we leave at 6:50 am for the site. We drive through the
village, across some small farms, and then out into the desert. It’s
too dark to read in the car in the morning, but I really like to watch
the scenery as the sun comes up. I’ve figured out that on the days
with the most colorful sunrises, it’s going to be particularly windy –
it’s the dust in the air that makes sunrises so beautiful! We always
pass a series of sand dunes at about 7:30, which means we’re getting
close to the site. It’s really just desert out there, no trees, no
bushes, no goats. The site, a mound about 2 meters high and 20 by 20
meters square, suddenly pops up out of nowhere.(1 meter = 3 feet)

The Nile used to have multiple branches in this area, and what is now
desert used to be lush islands. You can still see the dried-up
riverbeds as dips in the desert, and there is still water underground;
all you need to do to have a nice little farm is sink a well. There
are, in fact, two such wells (installed by the government) within 100
meters of the site, which puts it in danger of becoming farmland in
the near future. Under a thin layer of sand is alluvial soil, which is
rich for farming (and makes us very dirty). The mound didn’t used to
be a mound, either – it was ground level! Once the Nile branch dried
up, the wind swept away the alluvial soil to places as far away as
England and placed the sand on top. Since the cemetery was covered in
rocks, the soil was weighted down and didn’t blow away. There were a
few lovely sandstone rings over large graves when we arrived, some
with the stones still standing upright. (Imagine a five-inch tall
Stonehenge.) Unfortunately, I accidentally kicked over some of them
when I wasn’t being very careful. The first few days involved a lot of
drawing, measuring, and clearing away rocks. The workers cleared the
top-sand and Ruth and Sarah jumped in to identify cuts into the soil,
which are softer and a slightly lighter color. I couldn’t find one if
I tried, but they saw them all. Each is circular or oval in shape and
about a meter in diameter. Then the workers began to dig, with the
archaeologists moving around the site identifying more and more pits.
When the workers found bones, they’d stop and let the two really good
ones, Omda and Said, clean the bones. Anna and I spent a very boring
first week measuring rocks before we actually got to go into a burial.
They range from less than 20 cm (10 inches) to over 2.2 m (6+ feet) deep, with the average around a meter and a half. Since the edges are fragile and could
collapse if you get too close, we drop a ladder and climb in. This has
recently become an adventure as the sides on some of the bigger pits
collapse more easily, especially when there are mouse holes near them,
so we sort of have to jump onto the ladder, tools in hand.

So now you’re in a deep pit and the ladder’s been removed. What next?
Although the average pit is about a meter wide, some are less. Much
less. And don’t forget that there’s a skeleton to contend with (that
is, not step on, and very carefully sketch, analyze, and remove).The skeletons are buried crouching! The smallest grave I’ve been in was that of a juvenile (age 8-16), and
it was about 70 cm in diameter. That’s enough room to squat with your
back against the side, but you have to keep raising the clipboard in
order to see it to draw. And then to brush it, you have to stand up
and bend at the waist (Paddotanasana, if you’re into yoga). And what
about soil removal? You take one scoop, stand up, and hand it to
someone outside, who empties it and gives you back the hand shovel. It
takes a looong time. In some you have room to kneel just on one knee
until that foot goes numb – I’m sure it must be bad for circulation to
have your feet go numb this many times in a day. On the other hand,
the more spacious ones are really quite delightful. I was in a 2 m
deep pit the other day that was 1.5m wide by 1.7m long, and I had
enough space behind the skeleton to sit cross-legged. Since it was
windy and the skeleton was very delicate, we put a tent over the top.
I sat there bathed in blue light counting and measuring, listening to
music, and relaxing. (When I had finished, Omda asked me why I wanted
to come out instead of taking a nap in the hole.) We put the bones and
any associated pottery or beads (lots of beads!) into well-labeled
bags and then climb out. Later we brush them clean and do a secondary
analysis, and another will be done when they’re back at the museum.
Then we begin to answer some of the above questions – who was buried
here? How old were they when they died? Who was buried with what
artifacts? How is it similar to (or dissimilar from) other Kerma
cemeteries? The answers are never 100% certain, but that doesn’t
prevent anyone writing books on the matter…

Posted by: Stacy | December 31, 2011

What do they eat in Sudan?

This question is better asked as a “how” rather than a “what”, and the
answer is communally. The first meal we were given was lunch on the
long drive here. We stopped at a small roadside restaurant that would
make the filthiest, oldest, broken-toiletest McDonalds in the US look
like heaven. It was a tent, permanently erected over the sand, with a
mud brick kitchen on one side and a mud brick “café” (selling Pepsi)
on the other. More tents flanked the sides. There were young boys in
dirty white galabiyas and all the same ill-fitting foam sandals
hanging around, chatting and glancing at us. The floor was sand. The
chairs and tables, broken long ago and repaired many times, sat
awkwardly on the uneven surface. And then they brought out the food.
Oh dear. I may have mentioned foul (or fool) before – it’s basically
fava beans mushed and cooked in excessive amounts of oil. A single
large bowl is placed on the table, and everyone is given bread. There
are also small bowls of chili powder (shata), cumin, salt, and white
goat cheese (jibneh). What I thought one was expected to do is to
break off a piece of bread, scoop up the beans, and then add the
seasonings and cheese. I was wrong: one was expected to season their
own “portion” of foul still in the bowl, only with the right hand,
break off a piece of bread, and then scoop off the foul and
seasonings. Also, the way to do this is not to make a small “bread
sandwich” thing, but to use the bread and one thumb to hold it all
together.
I tried. I felt ill. The bread and cheese were redeeming. I tried to
act as if I were scooping, while only getting the bare minimum of oil
on top of the beans. Beans make me feel sick under any circumstances,
and now I have to have them touched by everyone at my table, and who
knows how clean the kitchen is. Oh lord. Apparently last year they ate
foul nonstop. I considered running away – apparently hitchhiking is
not uncommon. We asked where the toilet was and received a smile, so
instead we got back in the Land Rovers and drove five minutes down the
road to an empty stretch with some bushes. Nice and clean, the desert.
We stopped again for some tea. The Sudanese drink a lot of tea, black
with sugar. It comes in small glasses and is steeped in the kettle
while it’s boiling. Glasses are brought out upside down on a tray and
everyone pours for themselves; when one finishes, the glass is
replaced on the tray right-side up.  If there’s any concern as to
whether the water has been filtered, tea is an appropriate replacement
as the water’s been boiled. I still wonder about the little bits of
wash water in the bottom of the glasses, though no one else seems
concerned.
Once in the village, we were informed that we were not going straight
to the project’s house but would stay in another house 250 meters
away. (A point of contention between the archaeologists and the
directors is the lack of information, like why we were staying there,
or the fact that we should have kept our sleeping bags out.) I found
out later that our house was filthy after a year of being uninhabited,
and that the other house belongs to Salim, who also owns our house. We
sat down at a table in what appeared to be a combination entrance
hall/guest bedroom and a gaggle of women set out food and then
disappeared. To no one’s surprise by my own, it was foul(fava beans). Fortunately
there was also salad and some kind of vegetable thing that I can’t
remember now. However, before this meal everyone made a big deal of
following Salim out to the tap in the yard and washing hands. No soap,
but at least the gesture was there. After that, everyone continued to
eat in the same communal manner.
Ok, I know I’m supposed to have my anthropologist hat on all the time,
but I really can’t get over some things. Like the lack of soap in all
the washing. A lady comes here once a day to wash our dishes and uses
only a sponge after they’ve been sitting out in the sun and dirt.
Nobody washes with soap before cooking or eating. They use a little
watering can in the “toilet” which I guess pseudo-eliminates the need
for washing your hands since you don’t touch anything, but… it’s just
not ok. I know the Global Soap Project exists to send soap to Africa,
but clearly that’s not an issue in this particular place because they
sell it in the village shop and it’s quite cheap. Some Sudanese brush
their teeth, with actual toothpaste. Soap is just not a thing. And my
anthropologist hat can not deal with that. (I’ll write more about this
in a later post, as this one is supposed to be about food.)
Anyway, the foul was presented, and I did my best to try to eat, to my
stomach’s dismay. There were also falafel, which hardly ever agree
with me. This was the start of a long stomach illness, I was to find.
The next morning we moved into our house and began a massive cleaning
project. I spent hours sweeping, including a futile 20 minutes
sweeping the kitchen only to find that it has an earthen floor. When
lunch came, we were all starving, and it was foul once again. I
thought I might cry. Fortunately by this time I had the evidence to
back up my claim of “beans make my tummy bad” so I was able to eat
just the bread with the jibneh (which is delicious, by the way). I was
promised different food for dinner. At that point, our cook, Mohammed,
was just setting up the kitchen. Cooking in Sudan is a female
responsibility, but Mohammed owns a restaurant so it’s ok. For dinner
we had spiced lentil soup flavored with coriander and shata, and I was
very happy. When we eat as a team (instead of as guests) we each get our
own tin bowl, spoon, and cup. Forks and knives are not used here,
which I find a little odd as each meal is accompanied by salad.
The rest of our meals soon fell into place. At 6:30am we have tea and
biscuits before heading out to the dig site. Breakfast is at 10:30,
and we have bread stuffed with various things. The first one I was
sure was meat, but turned out to be egg; after violently vomiting
following the next three egg meals, I was able to get plain bread for
breakfast and supplement it with my stash of Luna bars. (Thank you,
Luna Company (subsidiary of ClifBar) for providing entertainment as
well as protein. But your whey protein bar tastes like sand, for
serious.) Breakfast is accompanied by tea and fruit. (I heard amazing
things about the fruit here, but so far we have only been presented
with flavorless oranges and mushy bananas.) Lunch is at 3, back at the
house, and is the biggest meal of the day. It’s usually some sort of
vegetable stew or curry or stuffed vegetables. The food here is
flavorful, but the flavors mostly consist of cumin, coriander, and
chili. One of Mohammed’s best is a pumpkin-potato-onion stew that
definitely has some kind of curry powder in it; I’ve looked in the
kitchen, but none of his jars are labeled. We eat the vegetables with
a spoon or sop them up with bread. There’s always a salad with
cucumber, tomato, carrot, dill, and some kind of Sudanese parsley.
It’s a good combination but would benefit from some dressing. After
lunch is tea and cigarettes, so I drink my tea quickly and go have the
first shower while everyone sits around smoking. Dinner at 8 is some
kind of lentil-based meal – soup or chili – along with leftovers from
lunch, which have been kept unrefrigerated for hours as we have no
fridge. We had meat for the first time this Friday, as Friday is
slaughtering day and it has to be eaten fresh. It was beef cut into
fatty chunks and stir-fried, served with a beef broth that made my
chapped lips feel great (yay for animal fat). After dinner there is
sometimes custard, which everyone avoids, and then more tea, which I
avoid so I can sleep. We were also invited out for a big lunch meal on
Friday at Salim’s. We were told to arrive at 3:30, which we did, and
then sat around awkwardly for another 45 minutes since none of his
guests spoke English or had any intention of talking to us. Some men
lounged shoeless on a big mat on the floor. Suddenly the food arrived
and everyone on the mat jumped off; a big tray was placed in the
middle and a man threw breads onto the floor where everyone’s dirty
feet had just been. Everyone followed Salim to wash hands. We all sat
by a piece of bread while women delivered the food, which consisted
of:
-two salads of cucumber, lemon, and Sudanese rocket (lettuce)
-two chickens stuffed with yellow rice
-beef kofta shaped like little sausages
-bamia, an okra stew
-curried potatoes with beef fat
-eggplant stuffed with rice
-chili sauce (incredibly spicy)
-cumin, shata, and salt to taste
Again, the method was to break of a piece of bread and plunge it into
a dish to get the food, using the thumb as a pincer. Nobody has
individual plates. There are no utensils. Only the right hand is used
(the left is for “wiping” although this really means for washing with
the little pitcher). This presented a problem with the chicken;
apparently the method is for two people to work together to break
pieces off and then share them. At the end, everyone had a perfectly
clean left hand and a filthy, greasy right one, and we all proceeded
to wash again. The meal concluded, as always, with tea and also some
fruit. Bananas and oranges.

(We are going camping in the desert for New Years. Will keep you posted.)

Happy new Year!

Saturday in Cairo. Ramya and I set out early (early like SEVEN AM) for
the metro and headed towards Giza. Since Alex was staying home to
work, we decided to ride the women’s car. Apparently male children up
to puberty can also ride, as can male beggars, but overall it was
mostly female persons I the car. Since there isn’t a crosstown line
yet (as in Athens for the first 12 years of the Metro)  we had to
ride 20 minutes north and again 20 minutes south on the other line.
However, when we stepped off the train, we were super close to the
pyramids. The city literally goes to within a few kilometers of them.
After struggling to exit the station (as it contained no exit signs)
we found a taxi rank and one insistent driver persuaded us to get into
his cab. Unfortunately, the cab seemed to be parked in, and we waited
while the driver went to find the owner of the other car. Failing
this, he gathered a bunch of his taxi driver friends together and they
pushed the car partly out of the way. However, that cab was also
parked in, so our driver backed us onto the sidewalk, turned the car
around, and maneuvered out through the limited exit space. (I am
continually impressed with the ability of non-US drivers to negotiate
small spaces. We think that because we have big cars we need lots of
room, but this is a complete lie.)

Once out, we headed for the pyramids ( el-ahram in Arabic, but
popularly called the “byramids” due to Arabic’s lack of the p sound),
which were surprisingly another 20-minute highway drive away. Our
driver also didn’t know the name of the stables we were heading to
(the directions included “turn left at the KFC”) so we had to call
them multiple times and have them speak to the driver. Eventually we
made it and were offered tea while we waited for our horses. We had
decided to use this one, FB Stables, as they have a reputation for
being a little bit pricier but actually feeding their horses. We saw
some of the horses from other stables walking around with ribs and hip
bones sticking out, and it was one of the saddest things I’ve ever
seen. They had sores where the saddles rubbed and their coats lacked
luster, and their eyes were exhausted. I’m used to seeing fat,
muscular American horses, and this was pretty shocking. Our horses
were still not fat, but at least they weren’t skin and bones like the
others. (This stable also gives the horses regular malaria treatments
and medical check-ups). We decided to ride down to the Saqqara
pyramids, about three hours south, and then ride back to see the Giza
pyramids later in the day.

It took a while to get used to riding in the sand, but soon we were
galloping through the desert, clenching our bums to stay on. I’m
repeating common knowledge here, but horses are really intelligent
animals and I believe they have emotions and likes and dislikes. And
let me tell you – those horses LOVE running through the desert. It’s
like they were born for it. Our guide, Ashraf, told us that he
completed a 300-mile desert race to Hurghada, which sounds amazing.
Ramya’s horse got a little overexcited at one point and took off
without her agreeing, stopping just long enough to allow her to gently
roll off the side; Ashraf had to chase him down and corner him in a
little grove. Eventually we got to their rest station at Saqqara and
stopped for a little snack, which was delicious bread and white goat
cheese called jibneh. I could have sat and eaten all day, it was so
good. We got a driver to take us to the pyramids and wait there.

Saqqara is an older set of pyramids that the ones at Giza, built
around 3000 BCE. One of them, the step pyramid, is the oldest known
pyramid. It has a statued colonnade leading up to it and then a large
forecourt. The burial chamber was closed, but we could peer down the
large hole to its entrance. We walked up some steps to get a different
angle for photos and saw some camels. Uh-oh, I thought. It’s the
please-ride-my-camel guys. In every Arab country, I feel, there are
men who wait at tourist sites with their camels and try to trick you
into riding their camels and then paying for the privilege. It’s not
that I don’t like camels. I love camels. I think they’re adorable,
with their big eyes and long eyelashes and soft furry feet. I just
hate the extortion of being forced to interact with them by some dudes
who won’t take no for an answer. (This happened in Jordan, and
eventually I gave in and rode the camel for 5 dinars.) The man in a
turban approached us. “Please,” he said, “take a picture with my
camel?” No, I replied. I don’t want to take a picture. “Please,” he
continued, “do not be afraid. She is a nice camel.” I don’t think so,
I replied. We wandered over to the edge, facing away from man and
camel, where we could take pictures of a giant triangular pile of mush
that used to be a pyramid. “This the Sahara,” he said. “very big
desert. This Sahara. Take a picture of Sahara with my camel?” We tried
to escape, we really did. But before we knew it he had handed my
camera to his friend and we were sitting on the camel trying to look
happy and oh, the camel was standing up and this man was going to
kidnap us on his camel. The camel sat down and he handed the cameras
back. “Very nice, very nice. Now something for me and my camel?” I
handed him 10 pounds (£1), all I had left. Ramya did the same. “And
something for my friend the cameraman?” What was this now? We had to
pay his friend too? I shook my head. No more money. He held out his
hand in the begging position: “Please, for my friend.” I opened my
wallet to show him, look, nothing else, and we walked away quickly.
More people approached us like this, offering their postcards or their
guiding services. Near the pyramids was a whole complex of noble tombs
with magnificent hieroglyphic inscriptions and drawings, but the whole
experience was marred by men coming up and pointing, “this hieroglyph
for life, this pharaoh as mummy, this pharaoh wife” and expecting to
be paid. We feigned ignorance and claimed not to speak English. The
experience was made slightly better/worse/more amusing when we saw a
pack of Japanese tourists being surrounded by a pack of wild dogs in
the parking lot.

Back at the stables, we realized that we could hardly walk and that it
pained us to get back on the horses. Our bums and legs ached with a
fury. We had figured it would take less time to get back since we were
now better riders (compared to that morning), but we were very wrong.
We did take a slightly different route though, because of one detail:
the horse body dump. As we were riding out – not half an hour past the
stables – there came a terrible smell. Suddenly there was garbage
everywhere. In Egypt there are apparently no landfills – trash is
dumped in the desert just outside the city and burned. (Or inside the
city, in the streets.) And our route took us through this dump. After
a minute there was an even worse smell coming from almost the middle
of the trail. It belonged to a large dead horse with its gut spilling
out. I thought it was very sad, perhaps it had just keeled over and
died and the owners couldn’t move it. But then I saw another, and
another. It was like a World War I film or something, all these dead
horses, some reduced to bones and fur and others freshly dead, guts
turned green and exploded everywhere from gas buildup and wild dogs.
It was horrific, carnage everywhere, and clearly our horses were
agitated. Ashraf explained (in Arabic, to Ramya) that the stables in
the valley across the road were not so kind to the horses and took
them out here to die (I’m not sure if he meant to starve or to be
killed), he said sadly. FB stables takes care of their horses into old
age and buries them in the desert, he explained. We asked if we could
go a different route back. So, on the way back, we went a different
way that skirted not only the body dump but also most of the burning
trash! Which really makes me wonder: in a country where so much of the
economy is based on tourism and tourism is currently so low, why show
tourists this? Why not show everything Egypt has to offer, a scenic
desert ride, full of ancient history and free from rotting carcasses?
It was like the poorly cut marble all over again: they have the
capacity to succeed, but not the will.

Anna recently told me a joke: a British man, a Chinese man, and an
Egyptian sign up for an experiment where they are each put into
separate small white rooms with no windows and no furniture and each
given two rubber balls. After three days, the scientists open the
doors to see what they’ve done. The Brit is bouncing his balls at the
wall, Great Escape-style, waiting to be released. The Chinese man is
juggling both balls while standing on his head, practicing some
complicated acrobatic maneuvers. The Egyptian, however, is just
sitting there looking bored (and probably smoking a Cleopatra
cigarette). “Why aren’t you doing anything?” the scientists ask.
“Where are the balls?”
The Egyptian looks at them and shrugs. “One is broken and the other’s
lost,” he says.

After all this, we arrived back at the stables too late to get into
Giza. So I saw it from 500 meters away, from the “party roof deck” of
the stables which was unfinished and had bits of rebar and splintery
wood everywhere. Pictures of me with distant pyramids and of said
party roof deck can be viewed on Facebook.

Now I’m in Sudan, which has its own pyramids. The kingdom of Meroe,
which arose in the 3rd  century BCE, built its own pyramids north of
what is now Khartoum. They look different from the Egyptian ones –
shorter but pointier, as if they’re been shrunk to different aspect
ratio. As we were driving the 8 hours from Khartoum to our little
village, we suddenly looked up and saw some pyramids. In the scheme of
things, we practically tripped over them, they were so close to the
road. Was definitely not expecting that, but I took some nice photos
out the car window. Yesterday we went to see a Kushite cemetery that
had the bases of some small pyramids, but the rest had been robbed
away. These were shoddily constructed, with reused blocks of
sandstone and inexact construction. But still – perhaps the universe
is trying to have me stumble onto a whole bunch of others since I
missed the big ones.

And if you’re interested, I don’t want to ride horses for quite a long
while, as Ramya and I could hardly walk for the next three days! She
had giant blisters where her bare feet rubbed the stirrups, and I had
bruises from each swollen instep up the calf from the stirrup straps.
We hobbled back like two old ladies, but managed to still go out for
dinner and see a display of Whirling Dervishes. More later.

Posted by: Stacy | December 22, 2011

Why you don’t need to visit Khartoum

1.      There is nothing to do in Khartoum. Khartoum (which is pronounced
with the ch in challah, not the k in king) has one museum, which I’ve
heard takes a good half-hour to see. There are some European-style
cafes and restaurants, visited by the expat community (who appear to
be mostly German, Indian, Egyptian, and Chinese). But really, there is
nothing to do, and less to see. There are tea ladies wearing colorful
tobes (which is kind of like a cotton sari) who sell tiny glass cups
of ginger tea on the side of the street. We had hibiscus tea (shai)
with ginger (zinzibel), sugar (zukr), and a number of other
unidentified spices, which was delicious – but between your tea and
your dinner? Nothing.
2.      There is nothing to buy in Khartoum. Nobody I know has ever bought
anything unnecessary, whimsical, or gifty in Khartoum, because there
are no good shops, and the shops sell nothing nice. Apparently the
ladies with the best tobes buy them in London. I heard from our
friendly government inspector that China sends the cheapest and most
defective products to Africa because the Africans have no other
options, which is the saddest economic fact I’ve ever heard. The
chairs have one short leg and the plastic buckets have sharp edges;
all the tools are slightly dented or haphazardly assembled. It really
sucks to have these things as your only option.
3.      If there were anything to do, you wouldn’t be able to get there. I
arrived in Khartoum with the other archaeologists at about 3 am. We
were collected by the dig directors and taken not to the hotel, but to
the home of another archaeologist, Claude, who was already out in the
field. Unfortunately, he also had a night watchman (or gefiya) who had
decided to put a padlock on the front door, which was the only one for
which we had a key. After an hour of ringing the bell and banging on
the door, we finally reached the wayward archaeologist; it turned out
he didn’t have the gefiya’s number, but he knew someone who did, and
he would call them. Eventually we were let in and discovered that the
house was stocked with tea and breakfast and Pepsi (bebsi), and the
directors told us that we had the day off, and we should take a look
around and try to see the National Museum, but remember to get our
bearings first so we could direct the taxi driver back. The next
morning (day, really) we woke up after 1 and had a long, slow
breakfast. We eventually decided to go out to what looked like the
main street and figure out where we were. But: in Khartoum, there are
no street names. I mean, I’m sure some of the streets have names, but
they sure as hell aren’t written on handy signs at the corners, and
nobody you ask knows what they are. Not in Arabic, not in English, not
in Chinese. Houses rarely have numbers. And this is a big city. I
thought it would be some little African town, but then I googled it:
the centers of a bunch of mining companies are here, and some
pharmaceuticals, and there are at least a few million people in the
metro area. And the houses don’t have numbers. So we walked down the
street, remembering landmarks by taking photos, stopping for tea,
testing out the fruit in shops (good fruit, but left in the sun too
long), and getting acquainted with the place. 4:30 rolls around, and
we still have absolutely no idea where we are. The roads so far have
been dirt, and we finally reached a paved street, but next to it is
this enormous ditch, because there are monsoons in the summer and
everybody figures it’s too much work to fill in the ditch year after
year. We thought the Nile might be to the right, so maybe we should
head that way and orient ourselves from the direction of the water,
and walked another 10 minutes. No sign of the Nile. We turn back.
There was a cute restaurant on the corner where we had turned, so we
decided to go in and have a bite. The ordering system was a bit
chaotic, but the menu had some English and I ended up with a delicious
beef shwarma in a laffa. Afterwards we decided that we would just go
to the house and hang out and forget the museum. Just then I got a
text from Anna saying that George, the owner of her hotel (where
everybody else was staying), knew were this Claude dude lived and
could send a taxi. An hour later, we were en route to a lovely juice
bar (as in Egypt, no alcohol, but they are much stricter here). The
catch was that we had to pay the taxi by the hour since George had
told him directions when he left, and nobody else would be able to
find the house. It only ended up being £20 for four hours though.
4.      Everything you own will be covered in dust. Most roads are made of
dirt. The ones actually tarred have big piles of dirt at the sides.
Cars have no air conditioning, so the windows are always open. There
is no escape.

Notes:
The currency here is SDG, or Sudanese pounds. If I want to say British
pounds, I’ll use the £. There are 5 SDG to the £, which sounds like
it’s strong except that it’s something called a fixed internal
currency, which I would describe in detail if I only had wikipedia
available. The internet is dastardly slow here.
I will try to write smaller, more frequent “cultural articles”,
because if I were to write what we do every day, it would get very
boring for you to read. Dig, dig, avoid getting dust in eyes, move
rocks. I also would prefer not to give exact details of who’s here,
since things can always be sensitive with governments and important
institutions. For now, I’ll say that I am here because I was invited
by an Eminent Museum and its Directors.
My address: as you may have inferred from #3 above, I don’t have one.
Our village is called Kusara (I think) and is near Dongola. You can
google the latter to get weather reports (sunny and hot) and even find
me on a map (hopefully). If you do, please let me know where I am,
because I have absolutely no idea. The internet loads too slowly to do
any real research. Also, please send me any interesting news articles
or blog posts or things you find online, but cut and paste the text
into the email, otherwise it will never load.
Until later, stay dusty.

Posted by: Stacy | December 18, 2011

Cairo continued

SO I have now been out of Cairo for over a month. But don’t worry! I have pictures to remind me of everything! I will even post some here.

After Mohammed left, I went to a Cilantro Cafe to meet Ramya. I was slightly disappointed to go to a chain that’s in London, but I was assured it’s where all the students go as it’s near American University and Tahrir. To my surprise, it turns out to be a Cairo-based chain, the first to bring a Western-style espresso cafe to Egypt, and an answer to the ahwas (traditional coffee shops) that serve mostly men. However, it has the now-very non-European custom of indoor smoking. I sat and read and Ramya arrived shortly after. We discovered an adorable sofa that was circular and set into the wall, which seemed to confuse the waiter as he kept thinking we were leaving (it was our third table choice). Eventually Alex showed up as well, and we all had more tea, and then we decided to go to Khan el-Khalili, the street market. Every guide book assures travelers that this is a terrible place, where people will force their products upon you with such vigor that you will throw money at them and run away, so we were prepared for the worst. We still had Isem, so we didn’t have to worry about hiring a taxi; unfortunately, some roads were blocked because of a protest. It wasn’t violent (at that time), but a dude climbed a statue and there was banner-waving and everything. It was right by Groppi’s, which I had read about in The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit – in the 50s it was the hippest joint in town, with fancy pastries and dancing and all that fancy. I heard it is now disappointing and has retained none of its colonial heritage.

We arrived at Khan el-Khalili soon after, and stopped at the first stand to look at general things (ahem, inlaid boxes). The proprietor, Mohammed, very quickly introduced himself. We pretended not to speak English for at least five minutes until we realized that he was not trying to push items on us and just wanted to chat (sales probably being the eventual goal though) and we admitted to being American. He started talking about how much he liked Americans, and how Egypt really needed tourists, and the economy is so bad since the revolution. And what did the revolution do? Nothing. Except scare away tourists.

[the following was written without access to the first few paragraphs, and has been kindly posted by Ruth] :

 Khan el-Khalili was emptier than I expected – probably because there were no tourists in it. I appeared to be the only non-Egyptian there, and I guess I didn’t count as I was following along “Egyptians” (Ramya counts as Egyptian since she looks enough like one, apparently). There is a part of the market for tourists and a part of the market for locals, but it was so big we just wandered around looking at everything. The basic things sold in the market were hookahs, jewelry, scarves, and little model pyramids, but eventually we found a galabiya shop. We hadn’t had any trouble with hassling to that point, but they wouldn’t accept my low offer – I feel like whenever I go to a haggling culture, I always get stuck with the one guy who hates haggling. They offered me tea and I said yes, then we went “upstairs”, which was apparently just the extra five feet below the ceiling with a rickety spiral staircase installed haphazardly. Ramya and Alex started looking at these nice tapestries, talking among ourselves as they were really expensive for the location. We were there for probably 20 minutes, continually asking them to discount things, but to no avail. I finally decided to buy the galabiya I wanted for the “lower” price they’d offered, and when we were leaving they reminded us that we still had not had tea, and the owner sent some kid running to find tea, at which point we escaped.
We went to find a sugar cane juice stand before dinner. The city is full of little juice shops and coffee parlors since 90% of the population doesn’t drink alcohol due to Muslim laws. (Only Copts, or Egyptian Christians, can own liquor shops; I presume there are some Muslims who drink, but not in public.) All the fruit is really fresh, and all grown around Egypt – oranges, guavas, mangos, and cane. Near Luxor there is a big sugar refinery, and most of the land along the river seems devoted to cane. The juice stands have a cane crusher into which they feed a couple stalks, spitting out a grassy-smelling clear liquid. We could even tell which stands had fresher cane based on its grassiness. I think the juice culture is quite refreshing, especially on a hot evening, much more so than a beer (my dislike for beer aside). We also had some kind of warm bread thing with salt and cheese; I can’t remember its name, but they were sold from a little cart for about 50 piastres. For dinner we went to a big restaurant by the road called “India-Orient” that had Casbah-themed décor and had a menu that was – unsurprisingly – Indian food on one side and Middle Eastern food on the other. We ordered a bunch of mezze dishes, all of which were excellent. Afterwards we walked around the market again and got to experience the “hissing”, which is common to all Egypt: instead of saying “coming through!” or “out of the way!” men carrying heavy sacks or pushing carts will go pssssss pssssss psssss psssss. I was almost run over a number of times as I thought someone was talking to a cat, not trying to push through a crowded street.
During our wanderings, I decided I should use the toilet before we left as it’s a long drive back to Maadi, the suburb where Ramya and Alex live. We went back to the restaurant and found it unfortunately closed, so we asked a local-looking guy where we could find a toilet. The word for toilet in Arabic is “hammam” (the same we use to describe a Turkish bath), but the dude misheard us a started flapping his hands at his shoulder. A very confused conversation followed; the Arabic for pigeon is “hamam” and he thought we wanted a restaurant that served it. After recognizing the misunderstanding, he directed us to a pay toilet around a corner and down some steps. Once there, we encountered a little boy who grabbed my arm and pulled me down the stairs, where I was handed off to an old man, who pushed me into the bathroom. I have honestly never been in a more disgusting place that calls itself a public utility. The water on the floor was at least an inch deep in places, and there were a variety of men milling about watching me. The old man pulled me to the last stall, which he opened with an allen key and threw me inside. The toilet had no seat, so I squatted. Then I couldn’t find the flusher – not on the back, not on the wall, not hanging from the ceiling. There was one knob which I decided to turn in the hope that it would produce some water effect: and produce it did. Egyptian toilets are usually fitted with an auto-bidet – usually a small metal pipe sticking up in the direction of one’s seated bum. This is because most Muslim countries wash rather than using toilet paper (which I had cleverly brought myself). Anyway, I was squirted with a stream of hopefully clean water before I could turn it off and unlock my stall door with the allen key. The old man was waiting for me, and he pulled me towards a sink and forced my hands under the tap; he then poured laundry detergent onto my palms and watched as I scrubbed. Cleanliness is very important to Egyptians, and the man next to me was performing his Muslim ritual washing. I just wonder why they had to be so rough about it! I tried to walk out, but the man and the boy should their heads and held out their hands. I gave them 1 pound, and they shook their heads. 2 pounds? No. 3 pounds (Egyptian) it cost me for the most terrible bathroom experience in my life. I emerged wet and miserable and seriously questioning the Egyptian toilet industry.
Friday in Cairo was my birthday! We had a particularly late morning, with tea and breads and fruit, and then headed to Old Cairo. For this we had to take the Metro, which I have heard described by a number of people as the only system in Cairo that works exactly as it’s supposed to. We had to take a taxi to the station though, and then bought single-journey tickets for 2 pounds. The trains are clean, modern, and actually come much more frequently than the trains in Athens. They even have women’s’ cars for ladies riding alone. Our first stop was the Ben Ezra synagogue, which is kind of in the back of Old Cairo, behind the churches. We got to stop in cute little wooden doorways and tiny convents and go down curving alleyways. The synagogue had three security guards who were just standing around and a metal detector that didn’t work. The inside was fabulous – the entire space was like the inlay boxes from Khan el-Khalili, with mother of pearl inlaid into dark wood in the shapes of Hebrew letters and stars and swirls. No one actually knows when it was built, or if it was a church before, or the extent of the 19th-century renovations. It was the home of the Cairo genizah, or holy papers repository, for at least 800 years; from this we know quite a lot about the medieval Levantine Jewish world. The synagogue is no longer in use, as there are probably less than 100 Jews living in Cairo today. No photos were allowed inside, but the guards decided to be friendly and let us take some of the exterior. They also showed us a palm tree by a well around the back of the building, where supposedly baby Moses was found in the rushes. This is patently untrue as Cairo is an early-medieval city with no history of occupation before the Islamic conquest.
We wandered around Old Cairo for a bit, then decided to see the Citadel. Cairo is the English corruption of Al-Kahira (sp?), which means “the fortress”, after this building. To get there, we walked through a street full of sheep being prepared for the upcoming slaughtering festival and then had to take a minibus. I can now thank my friends for putting me in one of the more dangerous situations of my life, I believe. The Cairo minibuses are little 1980s Honda death traps on wheels, made to seat 10 with no seatbelts and hardly any remaining bounce in the seat. The way to pick up a minibus is to stand in a place where you think they might be passing and wave your hand. It will then pull over on the side of the highway or wherever and you ask if it’s going in a certain direction. If it is, you can hop on and pay anywhere between 1 and 3 pounds, which you hand forward until it reaches the driver. When you want to stop, you are similarly dropped off and left to fend for yourself on whatever busy street you have to cross. I was always the only non-Egyptian, and I’m pretty sure a woman with small children was giggling at me – what is she doing HERE of all places??? I held on for dear life as we bumped and jolted across the city. Then we got out and took another one. When we got to the Citadel, it was 4:15; although the guidebook said it closes at 5, it didn’t list a last-entry time, which a guard informed us was 4. Seeing how dejected we looked, he let us go up the main gate and take some photos. Around this time the muezzins started going off. We were right in the center of the City of 1000 Muezzins, all calling the city to prayer in a beautiful cacophony. Amid the din we headed back towards Khan el-Khalili to hang out before dinner.
The long walk and the heat and pollution exhausted me, so I decided that we must go into the first cafe, or ahwa, we saw. It wasn’t a big famous one, but it was built in 1927 and still had all of its original décor (slightly in disrepair though). Alex had a coffee, Ramya had a mint tea, and I had a mango juice. Here’s the thing: The mint tea came with a mint plant in a pot so you could pick the freshest mint. My juice was basically a chilled mango blended up, with no additions. We also had a hookah, and sat around enjoying the full ahwa experience. Afterwards, we caught another minibus to the Metro station. The highway that passes Khan el-Khalili seems to have been placed directly over a two-lane street but at the third-story height, and hurtling through the tall buildings in the dark felt a little like flying through the city.
We went for dinner in a fancy neighborhood called Garden City, where they keep the embassies and nice houses and things. The strange thing was that there was trash dumped in the streets, and some buildings looked recently deserted. I commented that it would be a really beautiful area – large shade trees, wide streets, big white buildings – if it didn’t have the feel of a wartime video game (complete with armed soldiers at the embassies). The restaurant was Lebanese, and it was excellent. We met up with Julia, a college friend of ours who is learning Arabic through a state department grant, and with Alex’s aunt, who lived in New York for a while before moving back to Cairo. We had a bunch of mezze dishes, tabbouleh, fatoush, little spicy sausages, and delicious bread. I learned that Egypt doesn’t really have any Egyptian restaurants – if anyone wants to “eat Egyptian”, they just cook or get little takeout dishes of foul (cooked fava beans) and some kind of fried eggplant. Apparently Alex’s other aunt in Alexandria is an excellent cook. The complaint visitors usually have is that Egyptian food has no spice. This is so, so true. When Egyptians want a fancy meal out, they eat some non-Egyptian cuisine. As per birthday custom, dessert with candles was delivered to the table: it was crispy sweet cheese. Although not the usual red velvet cake, it was incredibly delicious.
Afterwards we went home, since we had to wake up early to see the pyramids!
Posted by: Stacy | October 19, 2011

Cairo: a B-student

Everything you’ve heard about Egypt is half-true, more than true, or a complete lie. I guess it’s cliché to say that a desert country is like a mirage, but I feel like that’s the most apt simile: things I read in the news, things I heard from archaeologists, and things I read in my guidebook are either entirely misleading or underwhelming in their descriptions. Or perhaps it’s like the three blind men describing an elephant. One sees the pyramids and says it’s a land of mystic and ancient beauty, one sees the vendors and says it’s full of hassling Arabs, and one sees the revolution and calls it a land of democratic promise offset by fifty years of tyranny. It’s none of these, and all of these, and more besides.

I arrived in Cairo on Wednesday night. The airport was absolutely gorgeous – made of granite so polished that a “CAUTION WET FLOOR” sign would not save you a broken back in the slightest. I have tried to dress conservatively, but I was still one of many women with uncovered hair and trousers. I was met by a hired driver named Isem, who took me on one of the scariest drives of my life. Cairo Airport is surrounded by a few kilometers of desert before you reach the main highway. Suddenly we were going close to 200 km/h with absolutely no warning before a giant traffic jam appeared. We sat in traffic for a good 20 minutes before coming to the funnel point: Isem pointed right and said, “accident.” Three cars had collided and were upside down at 20-meter intervals. This seemed to have occurred hours ago, as they were all moved off the road and only a few people were standing by with some police, the injured presumably having been removed from the scene. Yes: this was a four-lane traffic jam of rubberneckers. Practically as soon as Isem had made his diagnosis, we were back at 200, no lessons learned.

Cairo is a huge city, much bigger than I expected. A quarter of the Arab population lives in Egypt, and most of Egypt lives in Cairo, a city of 20 million. The friends with whom I was staying, Ramya and Alex, live in a district called Maadi about a 20-minute drive from “downtown”, although I was never clear where we were on a map as the city doesn’t readily provide them. Wednesday night they took me out for late dinner to have kushary, which is Cairo’s favorite fast food. Kushary is a mixture of short pasta tubes, rice, vermicelli, lentils, chickpeas, and crisped onions over which one pours tomato sauce and can add optional lemon-vinegar or chili sauce. A large bowl costs 7 Egyptian pounds (about $1.17). It was delicious.

Thursday Ramya and Alex had to work, so I had hired a guide to see the Egyptian Museum. We took the highway, which appeared to have no painted lines, and turned off onto a street we shared with taxis, minivans, a selection of Japanese sedans, and donkey carts. I thought at first the donkey cart was a single, lone donkey, lost in a sea of vehicles; I was mistaken. It is clearly an official mode of transit, and they always get right of way because they stop slower. I noticed a number of things about Egyptian cars besides that they’re mostly Japanese (Toyota, Daihatsu, Honda, and the like, not a Chevy to be seen): they’re all old and filthy. I’d place 90% of the cars on the road as pre-1990, and I doubt any have been washed since then. Everything in the city builds up a layer of grime from the pollution, which hangs over the city like a ratty blanket, and the encroaching desert. If you sweep, it just comes back the next day. Anyway, the one very popular non-Japanese car is actually a Soviet model, the Fiat Lada. All old-style Cairo taxis are Ladas, which ceased production in 1979. In addition to the taxis, which are painted white with a blue stripe, there are thousands of privately owned Ladas in all colors and states of repair. Actually, I’m pretty sure I saw a Yugo as well, but I can’t be sure. Additionally, some people try to soup up their Ladas or Hondas or whatever by adding an Audi decal right above the real logo. This isn’t fooling anyone, but is a good explanation for what happened to the decal stolen off my dad’s BMW a few years ago. Later I saw a truck with “Kaweseki” painted on it in the exact style of the Kawasaki name. Really, though – if you’re going to pick a brand to fake, why not just go for Ferrari? Low ambitions in that field, apparently.

A Fiat Lada from WikiCommons. Imagine a city of millions of these.

My guide in the Egyptian Museum (also known as the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, The Egypt Museum, and the Cairo Museum, depending whom you ask) was Mohammed, a nice young guy who studied hieroglyphics. We saw the first floor, all statuary, first. The objects most worthy of note are the Narmer palette, an Old Kingdom piece of carved green schist with scenes of Narmer defeating his enemies, and a wooden statue of a priest with eyes that follow you. Seriously. Every Egyptian statue I’ve seen has painted or carved eyes. This one had irises made of polished stone, sort of a glass marble effect. They looked completely normal until Mohammed shined his cell phone’s light on them and then it was CREEPY. Upstairs were the mummy galleries, which required an extra ticket. They were really well preserved, and all the famous ones – Hatshepsut, Ramses II, all the other Ramses, etc. They displayed them very respectfully, with only the heads and feet shown – sort of a nap-time mummy. The room was cool and dim, and each mummy was in a temp-checked glass case on a pedestal with a small informational plaque.  For the most part, they all had hair, ears, nails, and eyelids; it was quite a darling habit of the New Kingdom that they wrapped each mummy toe individually instead of all together. (If anyone is interested, ancient Egyptians all had the second toe longer than the first.) Another room contained animal mummies, the most impressive of which was a 4-meter Nile crocodile. This was found with babies in its mouth – they live in there until they’re big enough not to be eaten if they swim independently – so they think it’s a female. Accompanying it was a tiny mummy baby croc, no bigger than a house lizard.

Two wings of the second floor were filled with things from the tomb of Tutankhamun. To put it in perspective: the Egyptian Museum is maybe ¾ the size of the British Museum’s main buildings, laid out in a square with a central courtyard. Two entire sides of the square had Tut stuff. Sadly, some of it was looted in the January revolution, at which Mohammed shook his head sadly. (“National treasures,” he says. “Some of my favorite objects.”) There was Tut’s walking sticks and Tut’s thrones and Tut’s senet board; Tut’s jewelry and Tut’s statuettes and Tut’s makeup palettes. A textile gallery displayed Tut’s shirts, dresses, shawls, socks, gloves, and underwear (yes, underwear). There was Tut’s sedan chair and his umbrella. Then there were four huge gold rooms – rooms! – that nested inside each other, the innermost of which held his coffin. Having seen these and having seen the actual tomb, I’m really unsure how they actually fit inside, as it’s rather small. Or, on the modern end, how they got them out! There was a room with additional security where they kept all the “special” things, which you may have seen in the “Tut’s Tomb” traveling exhibition. I saw it at the Field Museum – his sarcophagus, and the famous gold and lapis lazuli mask, and all the jewelry and amulets. The most interesting thing there, though, was a collection of gift shop boxes from the Met along with a sign saying “These objects repatriated from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York March 2011.” A few pieces of jewelry were haphazardly strewn about. But really? Still in boxes? From the gift shop?

Underwear as Tut would have had it. From Underwear: A Brief History.

Speaking of which, the Egyptian Museum no longer has a gift shop. It was looted in January and never bothered to reopen. Apparently a lot of jewelry was stolen, so it would be expensive to replace it all.

For lunch, Mohammed asked where I wanted to eat. When I said I wanted Egyptian food, he was slightly confused. He thought there was some place over by the Nile… clearly this was not a question many tourists ask, as they seem happy enough to sit in the museum café, which charges exorbitant prices for bottled water and American-style food. I asked if he liked kushary, and his face lit up. “You like kushary! I will take you to Kushary al-Tahrir!” Then I learned how to cross the street, Cairo-style. He grabbed my hand, placing me downstream of the traffic. We waited for a decent break in the first lane, then ambled across to the second. A car went by, then another, then finally we moved slowly to the third, making eye contact with each driver, then finally scuttled to the other side. We had to do this three more times to circle Tahrir Square to get to the restaurant. Apparently it’s less like in the US, where a quick run does the trick, but more like a river crossing downstream of a pack of mother hippos. They can run at you terribly fast unless you stare them down and show no fear. After lunch we went to the Hanging Gardens, the oldest Coptic church in Cairo. The Coptic church is most like Greek Orthodox, with lots and lots of icons against an iconostasis, and heavy fumes of incense. Everything was beautiful inside – this country does inlaid wood like Britain does model Big Bens. There was not a single surface without excessive pearl and ivory inlays. The church seated probably 100 people, and there happened to be a service going on. They were chanting, probably in Coptic – actually the language of Ptolemaic Egypt written with mostly Greek letters.

Afterwards, we went to the oldest mosque in Africa, built in 642. This was so soon after the hejira that Ramya couldn’t believe it until I showed her the guidebook. It was very peaceful, with an open marble courtyard surrounded by prayer areas on four sides and an inlaid Qublah. It was not the most beautiful of mosques, but I guess being really old counts for a lot. I later learned this is the “unofficial” mosque of the Muslim Brotherhood. Outside, I had my first experience with the tissue salesmen. Ramya had warned me: this country has a weird obsession with tissues. Everybody loves tissues. Toilet paper in public bathrooms is not common, and paper towels are almost impossible to find, but tissues are available en masse. Beggars sell tissue packs in little trays outside mosques, on the side of the street, and in the middle of roads, like the sock salesman at the corner of Garfield and the Dan Ryan. If you sneeze, people come at you with tissues. I asked Mohammed why they weren’t selling cigarettes or bottled water, and he replied, “Not everybody smokes, and if you are fasting you can not have water… everyone can use tissues.” Which I guess is as good an answer as any. And people buy them too, not like the dude’s socks for sale. Speaking of which, I expected a lot more people to be smoking. True, there was smoking in restaurants, but it wasn’t like everyone was lighting up every second, as Anna led me to believe. In fact, the only people I actually saw smoking were French tourists, unless you count the hookahs.

Now, another thing I expected was that all men would wear galabiyas (sort of like a floor-length tunic-robe) and all women would wear hijabs (that’s the one wrapped around the hair and chin). How utterly wrong of me. Women generally dressed conservatively – shoulders covered, and long skirt or pants – but many had uncovered hair. Many more had a stylish hijab and wore a skintight long-sleeve shirt under a regular shirt and pants. Fewer wore a chador, sort of like the veil in Persepolis, and a small but visible minority wore a burkha, complete with black gloves, only the eyes showing; these are only the types of veils I know the names of, but the variety is endless. However, all women, no matter they were wearing, matched impeccably. You know how hard it is to match a bag and shoes to a dress? How about matching a bag, shoes, hijab, and fancy scarf? And then women going out on Saturday night – imagine a regular long, strapless party gown, but super sparkly. Now, under it is a white sparkly skintight shirt. And a white hijab with fluffy flowery decorations, bits of lace stuck in to make shapes, and white face powder. It’s practically Marie Antoinette. Somehow, despite the pollution, everyone manages to have beautiful skin. Men, too, have a dress code of sorts. Many men – maybe 30% of those I saw – wear the galabiya in brown, grey, tan, dark blue, or other colors in the Eddie Bauer mens’ collection with leather sandals. The rest all wear colorful collared shirts. Older mean wear short-sleeve collared shirts with slacks; young men wear short- or long-sleeve collared shirts with jeans or dress pants. They all seem to wear nice shoes. Another thing clearly noticeable is their impeccable grooming (maybe the tissues are related to this?). Short, manicured nails are a necessity for “a certain class” – that is, anyone above laborers, who still had nice nails for the most part. Egyptians have fabulous dark hair, in some state of curl from a light wave to ringlet curls; the “Sammy Davis Jr.” hairstyle seems to be popular. All hair must be gelled and styled. Moustaches are big, both in size and popularity. The “Freddie Mercury” was seen on a number of individuals. They must trim and brush their moustaches daily, as I did not see a single facial hair out of place, no matter the class. Speaking of which, Ramya and Alex pointed out that Egypt is one of the few places we (collectively) have seen in which the laboring class is the same ethnicity (race) as the middle and upper classes, however one wishes to divide them. Egyptians come in all shapes and colors, from European-light to Sudanese-dark. (I actually think they’re united by their beautiful hair.) There are Egyptians of all colors driving donkey carts and driving taxis and riding in the backseat of hired cars. I don’t know what this says for national unity, but it’s certainly interesting to notice the variety, as I’m sure everyone pictures a stereotypical Arab when you hear the word “Egyptian”. Ramya has also seen six albino Egyptians, once when she was with me.

Another note on Cairo: as I drove along the highway with Isem, I noticed that many buildings were in a state of near-completion. They were brick, with people clearly occupying the lower levels, but the top would just be left open. There were piles of rebar and brick sitting around, waiting to be used; one building even had wallpaper on it top level, but no roof. It’s as if someone plans to build an 8-story apartment building, gets to level 6, and gives up, like when I play video games. The kushary restaurant we went to the first night was entirely made of white polished marble, from the walls down to the outdoor patio. It was beautiful. But at the edges, the marble wasn’t cut to form a proper curb but rather kind of chiseled off, like they had gotten to the last day of work and just went “eh” *shoulder shrug*. The city is full of gorgeous colonial buildings badly in need of a wash. They aren’t short of water as they steal it all from Africa, but each and every building is in dire need of a good hosing. Streets in Garden City, the district with stately homes and foreign embassies, has trash littering every block. Nice neighborhoods are interspersed with piles of construction dirt and equipment, and sidewalks (when they exist) are in complete disrepair. You can’t even blame the revolution for decreasing governance or building standards, as this stuff was clearly a problem before. But that’s the thing: it isn’t enough of a problem to fix. What we decided is thus: Cairo is a smart B-student. Clearly it has potential. It has such a good history, and it has all the skills to succeed. Maybe it has problems at home, maybe it’s afraid to apply itself, maybe it’s just too darn lazy. But it needs to get its act together to really be world-class.

Coming up: Street markets, camels, and Luxor!

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