Monday, September 20, 2010

All That Glitters

Today I went with three of my colleagues to a gold jewelry establishment in Alexandria to buy the quintessential Egyptian gift…the cartouche. For those of you who know your Pharonic history, a cartouche is the section of hieroglyphic drawings found on ancient temples, pyramids, papyrus scrolls and probably bathroom stalls, enclosed in an oblong with a straight line at the bottom which symbolizes the name of some member of the royal family or, in my case, some foreign tourist. Apparently, the idea was first concocted by Pharaoh Sneferu (not to be confused with Pharaoh Snafu whose reign was a total screw-up) who liked to circle his name to make it look bigger and more important than the other words. His wife was opting for the heart shape, but he thought the oblong looked manlier.
The historic importance of cartouches became apparent in 1799, after a bunch of Napoleon’s henchmen tripped over a big rock in Rosetta, Egypt and, since they were not yet into their second bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, said, “Mon dieu, nous avons découvert quelque chose!” They called the shapes cartouches, apparently because they looked a lot like the powder cartridges the soldiers used when they were taking pot shots at the nose of the Sphinx. Of course, this being the Napoleonic Wars and all, the Brits and the French tussled over the stone for a while, with Thomas Young (the Brit) recognizing that some of the hieroglyphic symbols had similarities to the Greek text while Jean-François Champollion (le Français), figured out that everything found in the oblong was a name, with each symbol representing a different letter. And, voila! The world could now read all about that harlot Cleopatra, the boy King Tut, the first cross-dresser Hatshepsut and the Ramses boys. And gold merchants could sell every royalty wannabe a piece of jewelry with their name preserved for time immortal just like the Pharaohs. From here on out, we shall refer to ourselves as Queen Kathryn, Ruler of the Cat Box, Empress of the Email, and Guardian of the Blog.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Diaspora is Complete

Well, the last of the Smiths has made it to the far-flung corners of the globe, with Adrie now ensconced in Edinburgh, Scotland. For those keeping score, that puts us on three continents: Alex and Steph in Asia (Japan and Afghanistan), Adrie in Europe and me in Africa (Egypt). It is actually better now than it was a few weeks ago when it was nearly impossible to find a decent time to Skype anyone. Now I am only a few hours off from Adrie and Steph, and, while still 6hours difference from Alex, it seems manageable.

Of course, the plan here was for me to be closer to Steph in Afghanistan in order for him to make his R&R trips easier and less stressful. On that count, our first attempt at a vacation this side of the Atlantic failed big time. Who knew that Egypt had changed their immigration policy to require a special visa for those traveling with Diplomatic passports? Steph managed to make it to Cairo, only to be denied entry and sent packing on the next plane back to Dubai. Apparently, the Smith charm that we know can open doors, get economy passengers upgraded and into the VIP lounges world wide (and probably cure cancer, if applied correctly) was on a very low ebb that night. Or perhaps it is the justifiable anti-American backlash that we can all expect to encounter when our stateside compatriots give front-row seats to whack-jobs threatening to burn Korans. But, ever resourceful, I managed to book a next-day flight to meet Steph in Dubai.

I started the trip in the Alexandria airport, a small, run-down bus station of an airport, where I was the only Westerner waiting for a flight. I managed to sit down next to a couple of young Egyptian boys (maybe seven years old) who had been given a laptop by their veiled mother in order to keep them quiet. I was surprised by the fact that, although these kids knew little to no English, they were adroitly maneuvering a screen that had no Arabic and playing a knock off of Grand Theft Auto...and I know their mother knew no English or she would have been shocked at the "F-this SH@#" that kept popping up on the screen when they crashed the car! In another creative, yet incongruous use of technology, I watched as another fully veiled woman waiting for her flight chatted with her equally covered, but non-ticketed, thus denied entry, relatives on cell phones through the glass window.

My interim stop was in Doha, Quatar where, as I exited the plane on the tarmac, I could see the ubiquitous golden arches of McDonald's that were juxtaposed in the skyline next to the minaret of the airport mosque. Globalization is here to stay. And then, off to Dubai. A very curious place, Dubai. A cross between Las Vegas (without the glitter or the booze) and Disney world (with all attractions in indoor malls), the city appears to be one of the most soul-less places I have ever been. And why wouldn't it be? It was created whole cloth out of a sandbox that once was populated by pearl divers and camel drivers. They abandoned that life without a second glance back in the early 60's when oil was discovered and everyone became rich. The futuristic city they have managed to create is fascinating on an architectural level (yes, the tallest building in the world is visible from all corners of the city) yet, does not seem to contain anyone native to Dubai. Where they are is anyone's guess, but they are certainly not working anywhere that we might have seen them. The service industry of Dubai appears to hail from the Philippines, Pakistan, India, Egypt, China....but not Dubai. It will be interesting to see what happens when the bottom drops out of the oil well.

So I am now back in Alex (yes, people in the know never call the city by it's full name) and thinking about where to go for the next R&R. One with more of both R&R, I hope!