Monday, September 22, 2008

Salaam alaykum

“Is salaam ‘alaykum!,” we’re greeted at the train station in Alexandria. The man who says it, Mohammad Abdallah, was born and raised in the Sudan but lives in Egypt and holds a U.S. passport.

In the early 1990’s, when he was a young immigrant studying in America, he lived with my friends’ family in Broomfield, Colo., and when he discovered we are in Egypt, he invited us to stay with him, his wife and their three daughters, ages 9 months through 9 years.

We’ve been spending the past few days at his apartment in Alexandria, a coastal city bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

Outside the famed Library of Alexandria, we met an Egyptian-born guy from Los Angeles named Mustafa and his crew of Egyptian “homies” – twentysomethings with sideways baseball caps who listen to hip-hop all day and stay bored because its cool. We’ve spent the past two afternoons hanging out with them by the sea. They smoke cigarettes, rap Ludacris and Bizzy Bone lyrics, and complain about how none of the Egyptian girls will get naked for them.

All day long, we’re hot and hungry. We sleep late into the afternoon – it’s too hot to move much while the sun is out – and stay awake late into the night, when the temperature cools. We’re usually still awake by the 4 a.m. morning Call to Prayer.

At night, the city erupts with characteristic craziness. Horses pull wagons piled with eggplants down narrow, trash-strewn streets. Children ride tricycles past sheep and goats tied outside butcher shops. Men weld chicken cages as the animals cluck inside. Pedestrians dance around microbuses driving within an inch of bodies.

After breaking fast with Mohammad at sunset, we ventured out to buy a watermelon from a midnight melon cart. Someone had carved “Allah Akbar” – “God is Great” – into the melon skin.

My friend, who studied Arabic in college, read aloud from the watermelon rind. I practiced reading the Arabic numbers on license plates passing by. We began to sweat in the smoggy night humidity.

We're going to Siwa tomorrow, a small oasis town at Egypt's western border, next to Libya. More than a dozen tourists were kidnapped at the Egypt-Libya border a few days ago, but that was in the south. We're heading to the north, which (fingers crossed!) will be safe.

“Is salaam ‘alaykum!” – peace be with you.