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Published: January 4th 2006
After five weeks in Egypt, on December 22 I flew from Cairo to Amman, Jordan with the hope of making it to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in time for Christmas.
Cairo is a place you either love or hate, depending on the day. On some days, the chaos, hustle and bustle, and people-watching are great. You revel in the cars and donkey carts vying for position in the streets, haggling over prices and making sure you're not getting ripped off, and listening to heated arguments and discussions emanating from the coffeehouses. You find yourself thinking Where else could I experience all of this?
On other days, the noise, overcrowding, and pollution are too much and you crave just one moment of complete silence or a few breaths of clean air. So while I had a good time in Egypt, I have to say I was looking forward to moving on and seeing someplace new (and quieter and cleaner).
One final anecdote from Cairo: my last day there, a taxi driver pulled up to me and shouted "How do I get to Midan Lubnan?" His passenger looked equally lost and bewildered. As that is where I lived in Cairo, I was able to give him the necessary directions. This experience was noteworthy because (1) it took place completely in Egyptian Arabic (a nice ego boost for me), and (2) I was able to provide a Cairene taxi driver with directions. Yes! Many taxi drivers in Cairo have other jobs, and driving taxis is just a way to supplement their income, so you can't expect every taxi driver to know every street and square in Cairo, but still... it's the little victories.
My EgyptAir flight to Amman was surprisingly painless. I had heard horror stories about EgyptAir (particularly with respect to overbooking flights), but I had no problems whatsoever. I sat next to a Palestinian woman on her way back to Palestine. We started chatting in Arabic, and right away I ran into problems speaking my Egyptian colloquial and trying to understand her Palestinian dialect. The "Arabic" language is a bit of a misnomer, as there are many variants:
- Modern Standard Arabic: used in the mass media (e.g., Al Jazeera), political speeches and so on. No one speaks MSA as their native tongue; it must be studied by Arabic speakers (usually in high school) just as foreigners must study it (though Arabic speakers obviously have a huge advantage, as there is overlap between MSA and the colloquial dialects).
- "Classical" Arabic: the language of the Qur'aan. Difficult sometimes even for native speakers to understand.
- Colloquial dialects: just about every Arab country has its own dialect, and numerous sub-dialects within the country. The dialects can vary widely; a Moroccan, for instance, may have trouble understanding an Iraqi.
Here's just one example: the word "ay" means "what" in Egyptian colloquial, but "yes" in Levantine colluquial (Syria, Lebanon, etc.) leading to all kinds of potentially confusing situations. Luckily the Palestinian woman on the plane spoke some English as well, as my primitive Egyptian colloquial was not up to the task of handling her Palestinian dialect.
Upon arrival in the Amman airport, the various lines in Passport Control weren't marked, so I just got in a line that had other foreigners in it. Imagine my surprise when I got up to the officer and he asked "When are you going to Iraq?" I had chosen the line for people going on to Iraq! I hurriedly explained that I had no intention of going to Iraq, I was just a tourist, etc. Luckily he processed my passport anyway without making me go to the end of another line and waiting all over again.
I spent all of 12 hours in Amman before I headed out for Israel and Palestine, but in my brief time there (I would return again at the end of my trip), several things struck me right away. First off, the temperature was much cooler than Cairo. Second, the air was much cleaner, the traffic not as bad, and everything appeared modern and generally more affluent than Egypt. And finally, everyone was very friendly. "Welcome to Jordan!" became a constant refrain I heard whenever I was in Jordan.
I checked in to my hotel, and tried to get some sleep. The next day I planned to try and cross over to Israel and Palestine.
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