Last spotted in San Francisco, USA on March 28, 2003, 1:23 pm
Who is he? Where is he going? Where has he been? David Barrett / Quinthar
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Perhaps my favorite truly Egyptian (well, truly Islamic) aspect of Egypt is the mosques calling the faithful to prayer. Starting at 4am and repeating perhaps every six hours thereafter, grotesquely beautiful, tortured cries pour from the minarets in an intricate and, to my ear, incredibly foreign song of prayer. Now these words I use are generally reserved for terrible moments of intense pain and sadness, but that's the only way I can describe something so completely unusual to me. The tones, the tempos, the words - nothing matches anything that I've been conditioned to recognize, though this does not diminish the complete peace the songs inspire.

Now, it's widely known that Muslims pray several times a day (four, I think). I naturally assumed that everyone was supposed to pray when the called from the minarets. However, this is not the case. Rather, the minarets divide the day into periods during which prayers must be performed, giving a great deal of flexibility to the individual to choose precisely when to pray. Furthermore, I generally assumed that mosques were reserved for a special day (such as Sunday in Christianity, though Friday is the big Islamic day), and that prayers on other days were done from anywhere. However, prayers outside the mosque are generally only done when it's not possible to go (in the field, on a boat, traveling) - if you can arrange to be at a mosque, that's where you should go. Thankfully there are mosques in great supply, and as far as I can tell there doesn't appear to be much variation between one another: the prayers are more or less fixed depending on the day and time.

But, most of this is just pieced together from fragments I picked up from different people, so I may be way off. There are other aspects that I simply do not get at all. For example, some nights (and not necessarily just on Friday) they assemble these giant outdoor rooms out of metal tubing, huge carpets and tapestries, and ornate silver lamps. Generally (though not always) placed next to a mosque, they hold a number of seats in four columns, almost as if it's a waiting room to see the man at the very front, whose prayers are magnified to incredible volumes by their microphones and speakers. It's an intensely colorful affair, but one that eludes my understanding.

One nice thing about Egypt is that tea is in vast and ready supply. Every city seems to have a coffeeshop or two stuck back in every alley to satisfy the thirsty patron's tea and hashish needs. Egyptian tea is strong and generally drunk with two or three spoonfuls of sugar, though I generally shock other patrons by drinking it straight. Plus, as I learned the hard way when finishing the last drops of my first glass, the tea leaves are left to lurk at the bottom. I'd recommend not drinking them.
Not only are coffeeshops in an unbelievable supply, but everyone drinks tea everywhere else as well. Merchants set up tea stands in the souks and alleys, and large shops seem to brew their own tea in the back for customers and employees alike. And for those not able to supply their own, boys can be constantly seen running to and fro with silver platters covered in cups of tea and Turkish coffee (exceptionally strong and served from a distinctive long-handled pot). Being a big fan of tea, this all sits ... [more]
In a scene perhaps identical to as appeared a thousand years prior, the Nile's setting sun silhouettes two feluccas tied up for the night.
Other fun aspects of Egyptian cities are the pervasive markets, called "souks". Basically a combination of flea market and shopping mall, they're the place to buy your fruits, vegetables, spices, carpets, and souvenirs. Absolutely everything can be found, and all the prices are negotiable. Being of few needs, I didn't get much practice in haggling, explaining why I was gouged the few times I actually needed something. Thankfully Egypt is relatively cheap (but not very), so it all balanced out in the end.
One thing I found surprising about the souks were there permanence: elsewhere, street markets felt slapped-together in the dead of night (often taken back apart in the morning). However, the souks seemed very established, with shops more or less having fixed positions enclosed in the building-bases.

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