Friday, October 14, 2005

I added some links....

So I figured out what that weird jingle is that I keep hearing everywhere, like an irritating ring-tone. It plays from the back of every taxi in Cairo every time the brake light goes on. What gives?

On Monday I'm off to Damascus. I'll be in Syria for two weeks, during which I'll be visiting the excavation of Tell Sabi Abyad under the auspices of the Syrian Department of Antiquities and the Department of Higher Education. My official reason is that I'm researching the Late Bronze Age history of the Assyrian and Hittite Empires for a possible book on the subject.

Visiting this site is actually what sparked the whole idea of moving to Cairo, because strangely, the only place in the world you can get a Syrian visa, outside of your home country, is Cairo. So in their own funny way, things are proceeding according to plan.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

I'm almost ashamed to say - ok, I am ashamed to say - I found Dan Levine's interview with Michael Stipe quite entertaining.
Does anybody know where I can buy a sleeping bag in Cairo?

UPDATE: Nevermind. Turns out there's a huge store ("Sports Mall") right around the corner from me that serves all my sporting and outdoor needs. Right next to a sheep pen. (Come on, that's funny!)

(Note: If you read the online description it says something about a bowling alley and fitness center. I didn't notice anything like that. I seem to find that happening quite a bit these days, the actual business not quite living up to the way it's described on the Internet.)
Drinking in Cairo during Ramadan is not so hard, really. You just have to find the beer.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

I'm getting into all sorts of new TV shows of which I'd previously only heard tell, like "Malcolm in the Middle."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Because my best days are clearly behind me, I decided to fish around in my archives and make a list of some old posts (see right). Some are funny, some are just random, and some are certainly dumb. I'll take requests, both for inclusion and exclusion. And when I feel moved, I'll post a new list of noteworthy blogs and blogs that link to this one.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Sometimes a change of environment can make all the difference.

You know, for a long time I've been sort of attached to the lo-fi early-Blogger retro feel of my previous blog design, which has served me well from the beginning. (I left it on the archives, for the time being.) But tonight I watched this TV show (yeah, an American TV show in English) where these two families switch housewives. (There was nothing sexy about it, thank god -- you never saw the bedroom.) The messy, free-spirited, touchy-feely mom with 25 pets switches places with the hard-ass disciplinarian with the awful '80s hairdo. And they spent two weeks in switched roles, "fixing" what they think the other has done wrong, and the families have to live with it. And everybody learns something from the experience. And, well, that show just really got me thinking.

Tomorrow I'll try to bring back the old comments.
Kozeny set to lose his Irish citizenship.

I had no idea the Irish Justice Ministry could act with such haste.
There were some echoes of a quote from Mark Twain running through my head for a couple days, and I finally found it:

Mark Twain at Bayreuth, on seeing "Tristan and Isolde":

"I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the sane person in a community of the mad; sometimes I feel like the one blind man where all others see; the one groping savage in the college of the learned, and always, during service, I feel like a heretic in heaven. But by no means do I ever overlook or minify the fact that this is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life."

I like the part about the groping savage.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Last night I had the pleasure of having beers (on the famous Marriott garden promenade in Zamalek, no less) with the Arabic literature specialist Raymond Stock - you can read a good interview with him here - who translates the Nobel-prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. Raymond told me he would be happy to introduce me to Naguib Bey (who turns 94 in December) provided I, er, read some of his stuff first.

Today I experienced the Mugamma for the first time. The Mugamma is the Egyptian Ministry of something awful; it looms over Midan Tahrir, downtown Cairo's traffic-congested main square, as though it were architecturally designed to make you feel small and insignificant. Just the word "Mugamma" -- go ahead, say it out loud -- is obviously meant to inspire exisential dread.

Well, here's the thing, folks. Once you get past the facade and walk up the main flight of stairs, it's really not so bad. Sure, it's total chaos, and not much is written in English, but I managed to find what I was looking for (the Residence section), get the form, fill it out, buy the correct number of stamps at window #43, have some photocopies of my passport made, and file my application a time span that didn't feel much longer than 30 minutes. Tomorrow, at 10am, at window #38, inshallah, I'll get my residence stamp.

The one thing that makes all the difference in the world is that the people behind the windows are actually very polite and helpful. This is not the case in some -- ahem -- some other places in the world I've dealt with. (Yes, the Czech comparisons will peter off at some point, but this one was just a bit too obvious.)

UPDATE: I spoke to soon. I did indeed get my stamp at window #38, but it was so hellish I don't really want to talk about it. Good news, though: It looks like I'm going to Syria next week.
My recent article for Slate: "No U.S. Visa for You! But How About a Nice Trip to Iraq? Why America loves Poland's soldiers but not her tourists." In which I try to explain America's problem with Polish plumbers.

You have to hand it to the Poles: There is something positively endearing about their loyalty to America. The war in Iraq is unpopular there, but Poland has nonetheless given a sweeping majority to a center-right government that will reconsider the departing coalition's decision to pull Polish troops out of Iraq. But don't let anybody tell you the Polish election was a ringing endorsement of President Bush's Iraq policy, because there's a catch...
I can't actually take credit for the hamburger quip at the end, although I did embellish the thing about the special sauce and the pickle.

As I explained to my editor, if I were to break it down crudely, the argument might go something like this: You have is a party of ex-commies that's all corrupt and slimy thinking, "OK, America's invading Iraq, so let's get a piece of the action, because America's always right and -- OOPS! Let's get outta here!" Then you have the center-right opposition, saying, "Hey, did you guys ever think about what's actually good for Poland? Yes, let's stand alongside America, but have some self-respect, man!" *SLAP* (Maybe that's being overly generous to Poland's right. I'm frankly not sure.) Of course I can't come right out and say all these things because they're only vaguely true in a big, dumb, broad-strokes, Tom Friedman kind of way.

For whatever it's worth, I think the right-wing Czech president opposed the Iraq war not out of principle (I don't think he has any sense of the concept) but because he's a Putinesque creep.

Anyway, sometimes I click on the "read comments" button at the bottom of my Slate articles to see how the teeming masses have reacted. I noticed one guy took issue with the following sentence:

Differences over Iraq notwithstanding, few Poles would question the country's alliance with the United States.
For the record, I retract this. It's not strictly true, for one thing: if I tried really hard, I'm sure I could fill a small auditorium with Poles would question the country's alliance with the United States, which, depending on how you look at things, is more than a few. More to the point, words like "few" and "many" are fudge words when used in journalism and should generally be avoided. (Even "some" is tricky, because it usually means "One guy I talked to.") I'll try to do better next time.