Friday, June 8, 2012

Lost and found and light and hope

Joining in the dance (the groom-to-be is at center in white).

Give me a story about selfishness and bigotry and I’ll give you two or three about beauty and the goodness of human beings.  The first one will be in tomorrow’s paper, the others will not.

Two weeks ago, while wandering Old Cairo, one of our students, Fardosa, found that her wallet was missing.  Stolen? Dropped?  She was philosophical about it and took it in stride. Now, back in Cairo, our friend Nada, returned to the shop where we had ordered juices that day, and asked the owner about the wallet.  He had it, had kept it, and it still had her driver’s license, credit card, and $75 in cash in it.  To all the cynics in the house, worried about crime and bemoaning the greediness of the world, put that in your hookah and smoke it.

We met Nada and several of our new friends in Old Cairo, and she led us to the Wikala al-Ghouri (a 16th Century commercial center with lovely inner courtyard) near Al Ahzar where the El Nour Wal Amal (Light and Hope) Orchestra was performing.  They are a group of around 25 women, all blind, all dressed identically with head scarves and long skirts, who played wonderful music for us.  It was a mix of classical Egyptian pieces, Viennese waltzes, Bizet, and my favorit, Nino Rota’s Passerella from Fellini’s 8 ½.  The sight of these lovely women, gently smiling as we applauded their performance, was enough to restore whatever sense of hope I might have lost in following the election results or machinations of entrenched power here.
Omar Samr (in yellow) talking about his vision for eco-tourism.  His wife Marwa is on the left.
 Earlier in the day we had gone to visit another example of the great groups on our tour—this one called Wild Guanabana (after a “green, exotic, and memorable” fruit native to Central America).  They are an eco-tourist company leading carbon neutral camping and hiking trips around the globe.  The owner, Omar Samr is a quiet ex-investment banker who decided he would rather be happy than rich.  In the corporate world he felt he had lost his soul, and in traveling the world he felt he found it again.  His wife and business partner Marwa—a stunning beauty—had just returned from a two-week trip with 11 Saudi women to the base camp on Everest, the first such trip of its kind.  They lead trips up Kilimanjaro for people with mental disabilities, and for others who would not normally get access to the wild.  People come up with all sorts of crazy, wonderful ideas and make them happen.

After the concert, we wandered through the narrow curving streets with vendors who greeted us warmly.  A man with one leg, passed us on crutches as he cheerfully chided a young boy that was tagging along with him.  He seemed the happiest person on the street.   We ended up at a coffee shop and sheisha place in Old Cairo, tucked away in a courtyard constructed sometime during the rule of the Mamluks.  There couples and groups relaxed in the open air, or on an open balcony with shai (tea), mango juice, or one of the hookahs in which are smoked a variety of flavored tobaccos (apple seems to be a favorite).  As we sat talking about the upcoming exams, the elections and constituent assembly, and the concert, an engagement party gathered in the room next door.  The lovely couple and their families had gathered and were soon dancing, clapping, and inviting us to join them.  About half the people in the place filed into the cramped room where they were celebrated, and joined them on the dance floor.  I made the mistake of venturing in to take some pictures of the students, and was dragged onto the floor as well, where I was surrounded by some of the happiest and sweatiest men with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of “cutting the rug.”  After five minutes, in which I obliged the crowd with my infamous “camel dance” I had been baptized in the sweat of the groom’s party and once embraced so enthusiastically I began to fear somewhat for my life.

The camel in action.

We are one big family here, with a fierce embrace of life, and nothing between us but the veneer of differences imposed by those who fear what they do not understand.  Strip that away and we all just part of a wild dance, in a room with strangers with whom we share nothing more than a common humanity.
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