2019: A Tale of Many Cities

Selina Xu Kaiping 碉楼

滚滚长江东逝水,浪花淘尽英雄。
是非成败转头空。
青山依旧在,几度夕阳红。
白发渔樵江渚上,惯看秋月春风。
一壶浊酒喜相逢。
古今多少事,都付笑谈中。

《三国演义》开篇

Roiling waves of the river flow,
Rippling tides sieve out heroes,
Wins and losses now hollow.
The earth lies here still,
Many sunsets come and go.

A snowy-haired elder perches by,
Seasons ebbing in his eyes.
History’s many tales
All washed down with wine,
Drowning in laughter with old friends.

(my translation)

Romance of Three Kingdoms Wuhou Temple 三国演义武侯寺

The huge stone engraving sits in a courtyard of the Wuhou Temple, carrying the opening verse of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Chengdu. Centuries ago, once the Kingdom of Shu. The Temple memorializes Zhuge Liang, who ought to have been forgotten by time — only a prime minister of a kingdom that lasted 43 years, dating back to close to two millennia ago; not to mention, China was split into three — no one could call himself emperor (帝), only king (王). Being neither king nor emperor, Zhuge Liang has posthumously found outsized fame. When I was a kid, my parents would say, Be as smart as Zhuge Liang. His is one of the first names that come to mind when one thinks of wisdom, strategy, or yin and yang (八卦). Ironically, in this temple named after him lies the tomb of Liu Bei — the King of Shu, who Zhuge Liang had served.

But why? Because of one book.

No one would remember Zhuge Liang, Cao Cao, Liu Bei, or Guan Yu, were it not for Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which, alongside Dream of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West, and Heroes of the Marshes, are deemed as China’s four great literary classics).

The temple is crowded with visitors. Every corridor, every statue, every inch of the bamboo-shrouded red walls are surrounded by bobbing heads and peering faces. Several of the famous generals whose statues loom are, in fact, fictional. So pervasive has been Three Kingdoms that legacies are invented and History reconstructed. Like everyone else chasing the words of the guide, my grandpa, my father, and I are devotees to a book that has grown larger than life — one that reigns over modern Chinese consciousness.

A Western pop cultural parallel that immediately comes to mind is Hamilton, which I caught this summer in New York. It celebrates history in the making and, in a musical spectacle, tears open the sinews of History to show us how it is written, construed, and remade. What captivated me most wasn’t those contemporary bits, but how it seemed that the audience was watching the arches and domes being constructed for a narrative-in-the-making. Letting the music wash over us was to partake in Hamilton‘s version of history; commemorating Zhuge Liang in a temple where a literary overture resides front and center is to blur the line between fiction and history.

You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Selina Xu Chongqing 磁器口

这个冬天,我最后的足迹遍布了各大古镇:从开平的碉楼到顺德的逢简水乡,从成都的宽窄巷子到锦里武侯祠,从重庆的洪崖洞到磁器口再到民国街。中国的大江南北充满了历史残留的韵味与商业化的喧哗。不经意间,我扑捉到了很多很多梦想篇幅的一小边角:阁楼酒吧和茶馆驻唱的歌手、执着于快要失传手艺的老人,还有能写出《三国演义》的罗贯中。我们如此平庸的活着,怀揣着亦伟大亦渺小的梦想,品味着人生百态——不正是舌尖上的人生吗?

在重庆山城里,我扶着爷爷,闻着火锅的味道,淌着长江的风,看着姑姑录抖音。爷爷给我讲了他在文化大革命时候的故事、1966年来看武侯祠时的光景,还有他在十六岁时独闯哈尔滨的孤独与憧憬。我想到了命运的波折和转机,以及上帝神奇的手。我的爷爷出生于浙江,在哈尔滨谋生,在四川成家。他的孙子如今在东京,而孙女风尘仆仆地终于从新加坡飞到了他的身边叽叽喳喳。

在东莞,我握住了年迈的外婆躺在病床上的手,嘴巴里是咸咸的。小时候,我在公园里骑车,外婆总是追在我的后面跑。她是全世界最善良的人,总是为别人着想,为别人流泪。现在,她想吃一颗巧克力,我却不能给她。在医院里,我想到了疾病与死亡,想到了我的青春意味着长辈的衰老,想到了自己的幼稚与无知。怎么这么快我就已经成为了大人呢?

Chongqing Peijie Hotpot 珮姐老火锅

In 2019…

I turned 21.

In 2019…

I draw a map of cities. I embraced the new year with fireworks in Taiwan, visited startups in Beijing and Shanghai, scaled the insides of a pyramid in Egypt, watched 9 Broadway shows in one New York summer, turned 21 in Los Angeles, crossed the deserts to Vegas, cried over a book in Halong Bay. The final days of the year are spent in a roundabout of cities — the frigid winds by the Yangtze River and the misty fog of Chongqing, laced with the smell of hotpot; in bamboo-shrouded temples and dirt mounds masquerading as kingly mausoleums; by moss-covered bridges and dusty ancestral shrines.

Despite milestones and numbers, 2019 does not strike me like a circle, or a period, or a threshold. I think of the year as a phase, a transition, a map of footprints, another collection of stories to catalog in the library of my life. I think of growth — uncomfortable, alienating, redemptive, then hopeful. I feel the surge of days, the flipping pages of years. I see the new decade open before me, first like a horizon, then like a ravine. The minutes tick like I’m standing at the edge of an unfurling abyss, on the precipice of the untold. My hair rustles in the face of time’s inexorable pull. A quiver, and we free fall into the roaring twenties.

Thank you, 2019, for your blessings, lessons, wonders, adventures, and growth. Thank you, God, for showing me life’s difficult questions and inspiring me with the faith and strength to shoulder them. ❤️❤️❤️

Hello 2020!

Selina Xu Hongyadong 洪崖洞

May 2020 treat you each with love, ❤️

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Overheard in New York

Thank you, New York. Many things you were, but boring you were not. I will miss you. x

Finished typing this list as I was standing in line at JFK — it’s surreal how fast these two months passed (although there were patches when the days felt meandering and Mondays when I could not get up), but there’s something intensely liberating and restless about living in Manhattan by yourself, a certain je ne sais quoi.

A list of anecdotes.

***

1. (Walking down Times Square with two finance girls behind me talking about Type A guys.)
If some guy is going to reject me just because I make less than $200K a year, then I’m out, one of them says.
Well, that’s what all guys are thinking, her friend says, some are just better at articulating.

2. Everyone, after meeting me, asks within three sentences: Where are you from? 

3. When she hands the Phantom his mask, I say solemnly to Z, she is handing him his dignity.

4. I’m walking down the street and some guy keeps yelling behind me, Jesus is coming for you with a sword!
What kind of sword?
a man passing by shouts back.

5. A friend and I have an in-depth discussion about the statistical possibility of true love on dating apps. We conclude that it’s very low.
But the next day I meet E, who used to teach me physics. She has moved in with her boyfriend and it’s getting serious.
You and your boyfriend are so cute, I say, how did you guys meet?
She tells me with a shoulder shrug, Coffee Meets Bagel. 

6. I believe God has a plan for all of us.  And I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet, croons Elder Price.

7. People seem to think entertainment should be paid for, but that news should be free, we discuss at the bar over meatballs.

Do you have a Spotify subscription but still refuse to pay for the New York Times?

… You’re right.

8. The stock markets are going to crash in 2021, the man tells me on a cab, silhouetted against the streetlamp light outside the car window.
That’s the year I graduate, I murmur.

9. Climate change. Climate crisis.

10. But first, here’s my take, says Fareed Zakaria.

11. The girl walks out of her room in a bright pink bathrobe and closes in on me, asking while she holds out her phone, Have you seriously never listened to a BTS song?

12. The one and only day I had to wear a suit, he said, gesturing wildly, happened to be Pride Day. And here I am, standing on the subway with my suit and tie, and everyone else is in suspenders or wearing nothing or in every single color ever invented. Goddammit!

13. (I actually talk to a neighbor. Surprisingly rare in a sprawling apartment in Midtown of Manhattan.)

We stand in awkward silence in the elevator.

Do you happen to know if it’s raining outside? the neighbor suddenly turns to me and asks.

I checked the weather app and it shouldn’t be. And I didn’t bring my umbrella, I answer truthfully.

Yeah, it’s a hassle sometimes.

Exactly, I’m going grocery shopping so… I make a gesture of carrying heavy bags with two hands (belatedly, I realize as I’m motioning that it makes me look like a 🦍).

He laughs. If it rains, he says, you can always take an Uber.

That’s the plan!

You mean, Uber there and Uber back?

I shake my head. I walk there, I emphasize the word ‘walk’, and Uber back.

Oh, Trader Joe’s pretty far.

A beat. Yes! I’m going to Trader Joe’s!

The elevator door opens. We amble.

Wish there was a Trader Joe’s closer to us, he says.

Well, I just finished dinner so it’s good to walk.

As I speak, he is wrapping up his umbrella like peeling lettuce. It’s done. He hands it to me.

You want it? he asks.

I’m strangely moved but I say, No, but thank you, thank you.

14. We’ve been looking a lot at China — Do they want to be a superpower? What’s on their agenda? — but we should also look at us. Regardless of China’s ambitions, they will become rich and powerful. So the question we need to ask ourselves is: are we comfortable with another country being rich and powerful, and one day as rich and powerful as us?

I find myself nodding.

15. I tried to be famous on Twitter, but it was too much effort, he said, thick brows furrowed.
How long did you try? I mumbled, chewing a matcha beignet.
Quite a while, he said, almost begrudgingly, like two weeks.

16. There is another kind of math that kids in the US study – Singapore math, he said, chewing a fry.

Oh, I said, Wait. WHAT.

17. My stomach is colonized by cookies.

18. I feel like we are all collectively held captive by the MTA, she said into my ear.

***

Goodbye, my New York summer! You’ve been good to me. ❤️🗽🌉🍕👩🏻‍💻✨🎧🚕

Lots of love from Singapore,

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From A Foodie: California Dreamin’

Read other From A Foodie installments:
From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit 
🍙
From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely 
🍹

Before you start reading this post, first play this song: California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & the Papas.

Looking for, you guessed it, good food.

Los Angeles is like an idea. There’s Hollywood and its entire edifice (Disney franchises, Universal Pictures, Walk of Fame, the Academy Awards, and all that celebrity fanfare). And then the films I associate with all that: The Mummy, The Sound of Music, La La Land, Pretty Woman… The list goes on.

LA is supposedly the city of stars. The idea, I think, is lived out better in the imagination than in the concrete. The real Hollywood Boulevard is like a backwater town, with dusty streets and gaggles of tourists. The Dolby Theatre — without the red carpet, flashing lights, and yelling paparazzi — looks rather nondescript. The most powerful part of Hollywood is not what I can touch. It lies in its promise, which has had a hold on the global imagination for generations.

Selina Xu Hollywood Walk of Fame

Some of that creativity can be found in the food. On my last day in LA, my family wandered over to The Broad art museum from the Grand Central Market. On my first day in LA, we went to another food festival, Smorgasburg. The former had some tourists and the latter was almost filled with local crowds. Full of local vendors selling food presented with unique artistic flair, both were melting pots (side note: I can never use this phrase non-ironically since reading Israel Zangwill’s eponymous play) of cultures and cuisines all in one bustling place.

The Broad also featured some of the most famous and trendy names in contemporary art like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and the one and only Yayoi Kusama (I remember when Kusama’s exhibition came to Singapore and suddenly her polka dots and yellow pumpkins were all over my feed; I ended up skipping her work this time since there was a two-hour wait).

So, here’s a look at some of the most interesting local foods I tasted in LA, interspersed with some cool art. 

Shrimp Daddy (Smorgasburg LA)

Hawaiian garlic butter shrimp inside a bright pineapple boat with macaroni and rice. Tasted good, but not as good as it looked. Sadly, since the pineapple was hollowed out, I couldn’t eat it. There was a tiny serving of some pineapple chunks at the head of the boat, which lightened the palate between bites of the crispy, heavy shrimp.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg Shrimp Daddy

Lobsterdamus (Smorgasburg LA)

A whole lobster YUM! My mom and I cleaned it off every last scrap of meat. Grilled on the spot with Cajun sauce, it was hot and chewy just like good lobster meat. For my mom, who enjoys eating from the shell instead of prepared meat, the experience itself was a plus. Very fresh.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg Lobsterdamus

Blue Plate Oysterette (Santa Monica Pier)

Two lobster rolls, one with fries, one with macaroni and cheese. Fried calamari. Very good crab cake! SUPER FRESH SEAFOOD. Which made sense. That’s honestly all one asks for at a restaurant by the beach.

According to my parents, who each took care of a lobster roll, the bread was very delicious (and more unforgettable than the lobster meat?!).

Selina Xu Blue Plate Oysterette

But, most of all, phenomenal key lime pie!!! However, I’m biased because I love lime/lemon-flavored desserts. Still, the BEST key lime pie I’ve eaten.

Selina Xu Blue Plate Oysterette Key Lime Pie

When I was looking at the Jeff Koons pieces at The Broad, which included huge balloon dogs that were made from stainless steel and then coated in translucent colors, I thought about his famous Lobster.

Jeff Koons Lobster.jpg

He said:

I’ve always enjoyed balloon animals because they’re like us. We’re balloons. You take a breath and you inhale, it’s an optimism. You exhale, and it’s kind of a symbol of death.

Isn’t that sort of like the entire affair of eating? The tension between interior life and exterior life, like an energy, like a dialogue. Open up two palms towards the sky: on one hand is what we consume; on the other hand, how long we’ve got to live.

Sari Sari Store (Grand Central Market)

A Filipino concept store. In Filipino, sari sari translates into ‘whatever.’ Out of the various savory rice bowls (silog) on the menu, I ordered the Pinoy BBQ bowl which features garlic pork ribs, garlic rice, atsara (pickled papaya), and a runny fried egg. The rice was SO GOOD. Almost as good as the Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, but not quite yet. So simple, but so filling. 😇

Selina Xu Sari Sari

Glad that the egg I ate was not the ones in the painting below. Presenting to you: Joe, who seems to be frying eggs innocuously. But, look at his eye sockets. What a startling resemblance. 👀

Eyes and Eggs JEAN‐MICHEL BASQUIAT

Eyes and Eggs by JEAN‐MICHEL BASQUIAT.

I ended up seeing a lot of references to food hanging on the walls of the museum. (Possibly because I was hungry.)

Campbell's Soup Can ANDY WARHOL

Campbell’s Soup Can by ANDY WARHOL

Happiness Capsule by The Base (Smorgasburg LA)

Blueberry charcoal base with cold brewed tea in a huge jar that reads Bee Free (not a spelling mistake). No artificial sweeteners, so I was expecting something quite light. First sip and that was the case. After shaking the jar and almost dropping it, the drink got much more even in its sweetness. Would happily drink this every day.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg The Base Happiness Capsule

Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner

On the road back to LA from Las Vegas, we turned off the freeway into Yermo — a town in the Mojave Desert — to stop by a small, 1950s-style diner with American classics such as meatloaf & chicken-fried steak on the menu. The waitresses were all dressed in turquoise and pink with vintage-looking white hats; there were a bunch of men in uniform munching on huge burgers at the table beside us; the walls were plastered with photos of Elvis (who also had a life-sized doll in a fortune-teller glass box). Definitely worth a stop if you’re looking for a roadside diner near the Interstate 15.

Selina Xu Peggy Sue's 50's Diner

More interesting than the food was the nostalgic interior. The food was quite forgettable (I got cheeseburger and fries), so I didn’t even bother taking a photo. Loved the quirkiness, however. For instance, guess who I saw in the women’s bathroom? : )

Selina Xu Peggy Sue's Women's Bathroom

James Dean, how dare you!?

***

Out of everything I ate over my seven days in LA/Las Vegas/in between, these are some of the most curious or memorable. They light up my memories of Southern California. Therein lies the magic of good food. They soften your eyes in reminiscence, sharpen some hazy outline of a feeling, or illuminate an ordinary day with a silver lining. They are interwoven with the fabric of the city and how I taste the contours of its syllables on my tongue.

Finally, ending with this.

Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls, And Fountains TAKASHI MURAKAMI

Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls, And Fountains by TAKASHI MURAKAMI.

From New York with Love,

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The Big 21

On May 31, 2019, I turned 21.

bsh

Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner 

The big 21 is sundrenched in Californian heat, pulsing in road trip vibes, and peppered with desert sand and surrealist tree-like cacti with muscled arms (think: the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter). Outside of the window are lonely gas stations, abandoned houses, and then a humongous pink ice cream rupturing the barren, earthy landscape. Glitzy outlets in deserts. 50’s diners in ghost towns. A candy factory by the highway. Wasteland dotted in green thorns.

The big 21 is 1,500km over three days. Being on the car for hours at an end, with my legs up on the seat in front, light filtering through the windows, my fingers shuffling songs on Spotify, basking in the shadow of mountains. Highways nestled in endless expanses of land. So much land that my dad says, America must be blessed. There’s so much history — historical injustice — and circumstance wrapped up in that statement, but as the land whizzes past, it seems true.

The big 21 is perching on a hot, red rock at Grand Canyon West’s Guano Point, wind ruffling my hair, and sun in my eyes. It’s gazing into the canyon abyss on a glass skywalk. It’s the glory of nature’s hand, so close to mankind’s own feats, but those pale in comparison.

rptnb

The big 21 is returning from that display of nature to the haven of capitalist excess. It’s being surrounded by temptations in the desert oasis that’s Las Vegas. It’s weaving in and out of the glittering sprawl of casinos, amidst the intensely colored slot machines making cute sounds. It’s marveling at the incredible, gravity-defying feats of Cirque du Soleil acrobats at KÀ (which had multiple VERTICAL combat scenes?! and people strewing rose petals as they make an arc over the air). It’s learning the danger of unchecked desires. It’s beginning to make new principles.

rbsh

The big 21 is spending the day at Universal Studios Hollywood (it’s really becoming a tradition! my 20th was at Universal Studios Japan 🥳). It’s licking cotton candy (shaped like Marge’s hair from The Simpsons) off my fingertips, drinking Butterbeer at Hogsmeade, taking my favorite Revenge of The Mummy ride (which I almost know by heart now), seeing the Bates Motel set from Psycho, wearing a bright blue birthday badge and hearing birthday wishes from buoyant voices all day long. It’s feeling like a kid still, and acutely aware and grateful that I’m 21 but always my parents’ baby.  

The big 21 is feeling grateful for all the love and wishes from friends, old and new. Growing up is realizing that some people might only stay with you for a short station in life’s journey but that some people do stay, for a very long time. Time and distance can change things, and somehow I am further apart from friends geographically unlike younger days when we all lived within twenty minutes’ drive. For the friendships that last, I am immensely grateful. For the friends who I’ve met at Harvard, I’m so thankful that college life has been spent by your sides. To everyone who remembered, very blessed to have you in my lives. ❤

The big 21 is about family. Parents who will fly eighteen hours with me across the Pacific to celebrate my birthday. Parents who tolerate my childishness (even when I’m now legally an adult T_T) while treating me like an equal in many matters; who educate me when I make mistakes while always growing and reflecting alongside me; who give me the freedom to fly far away and explore to my heart’s content while opening their arms in wide, warm embrace each time I return to their harbor. 爸比妈咪,我爱您们!💕💕💕

rptnbbsh

The big 21 is realizing God’s hand in guiding my life in the smallest, most moving details. At so many points on the West Coast, I’ve realized His wisdom only in retrospect. Thank you, God, for carrying me on Your shoulders. I hope to keep growing into a better version of myself under Your love and to do You proud.

The big 21 is also about this blog, where I pen these thoughts down. I started this in 2017. Now, this is my 57th post. Over 30,000 of you have visited, and many of you have kept reading. My last wish here is to keep growing alongside more of you, to keep writing, and to tell life’s magic in stories that can stay. Thank you for reading the story of my life. ❤

Wishing you, dear reader, all the love and happiness in the world,

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Selina Xu Birthday Cake

Oh, Cairo

Returning from Cairo, Egypt is like waking up from some hot, hazy dream. These first few days after spring break I fall asleep each night as though I’m drugged. My skin feels like papyrus, my eyes are always heavy. There is a residual kiss of the city on my forearm — dark brown tendrils, an exploding sunflower fading from the touch of water and soap. Some kind of spell — an experience that cannot be easily shed, thick and sticky as it is — made from the concoction of heat, civilization, dust, camels, kofta, sand, golden brown mummies, and the blue Nile lingers and weighs.

Day 6

We are at Khan el-Khalili, a labyrinthine bazaar. We wind through alleyways drawn with shadows and glitter, under the fraying canopies and corrugated metal roofs overhead, and past the heaps of gleaming silverware by our feet and gilded lanterns by our faces. There are pyramids as small as the size of my palm, papyrus that lies in sorry stacks, and sequined dresses and ‘I ❤ Egypt’ T-shirts fluttering in the breeze.

The guide points out the famous El Fishawy Café — Perhaps the most famous café of the Arab world, he says. Lazy, hooded eyes stare at me through the veil of vapors from the shishas. I watch myself — slightly tanner, wearing a white “H” hat, eyes shining from under the visor — in the giant mirrors that decorate the exterior of the café on both sides of the alley. This was where the Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz wrote frequently (also apparently the setting of Midaq Alley). I picture myself writing here for a moment, surrounded by battered mirror frames, bubbling water pipes, and fresh glasses of mint tea. The promise is so great that I can almost taste it, like apricots with tobacco on my tongue. The thought dissipates when we emerge from under the archway, the swirls of smoke behind us.

We are showered in sunlight. It’s like walking through a living vignette.

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Day 4

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We have lunch on a terrace overlooking the expansive lush greenery of the Al-Azhar Park — now an urban oasis full of fountains, boulevards, and greenery, where it used to be a sea of garbage and rubble. Before lunch, when we are walking up a slope, Professor Asani says a name as though I should recognize it.

Aga Khan? I repeat, bewildered.

He’s the current Imam, believed to be a direct descendant of Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, Professor Asani tells me. Still alive. The park is his gift to Cairo.

After lunch, we get onto golf carts. They zoom down the smoothly-paved concourse and the park roads running alongside the 12th-century Ayyubid wall (which used to wall off the old city dumpster, i.e. in the Park’s previous reincarnation), before gliding out of the vehicle gates —

We are down a congested alleyway, lined with workrooms, construction sites, teetering shacks, and breathtaking medieval architecture. We hop off twice to see the mosques, both still in different stages of restoration by the Aga Khan Cultural Services. The mosques stand like epitaphs amidst the biographies of poverty. The reality is that the beautiful park is in the middle of slums — one of Cairo’s poorest districts.

Later, when the carts retrace the path back to the park, the children wave at us from the windows that look over the wall.

Do they come here often? I ask the professor.

Yes, they do. There is another entrance, not the main entrance, but it’s much closer to the Darb al-Ahmar (the slums). It’s very convenient, he tells me.

I think of ruddy cheeks and grimy hands frolicking in the grass. It almost seems perfect, but somehow it’s not.

old city wall

DAY 3

The bus is winding through the streets of Old Cairo. We are on our way to the American University in Cairo. Outside the glass, the downtown colonial-style buildings recede. Wide bridges soar over open bazaar squares full of umbrellas that sprout like mushrooms. Amidst the colorful stalls is the Al Hussein Mosque with its towering minarets. That too disappears from view. Soon, I see an endless sea of half-constructed buildings baking under the sun. Receding past us are floors without roofs, rooms without walls, windows without sills — abandoned brick and mortar Lego lands. There is the sky on the other end, dotted by rippling clotheslines of clean colors amidst the rubble. Someone is climbing from one room to another, grasping jutting concrete, in full view. I glimpse their lives, half-enclosed, in mid-sentence. After a while, the view seems perennial. 

But, a swerve, a turn, and we are down another road. There are now swaying palms, multiple cars parked before gated mansions — Victorian, Versailles, Mediterranean, Greek Revival, Art Deco, you name it, they have it. The roads are eerily empty. In the last few minutes before we pull up in front of a very American-looking campus, the bus passes Dunkin’ Donuts, H&M, and strip malls with familiar logos.

If the mansions weren’t clear enough of a sign, these malls are. We are in ‘New Cairo’ — Egypt’s new capital, still in construction and yet to be named.

DAY 1

I am strangely awake despite the exhaustion of flying fifteen hours the previous day, the jet lag of having slept only 2 hours this morning before waking up at 6:45AM, and the sheer heat from my baffling choice of dressing in all-black, long-sleeve.

Our local guide Yashar’s voice booms from the front of the bus through a mic, as we pull up at the Pyramids of Giza. He tells us three ‘must-knows’:

  1. Egyptians are very friendly (the type of friendly that entails inviting you to their house so that they can learn English or insisting, as I would later witness at Khan el-Khalili, that I have waited my whole life for you — said to a group of us by a vendor).
  2. ‘Free’ means ‘you need to pay.’
  3. You need a little baksheesh (tips) for everything.

The bus roars with laughter.

With these three things in mind, it was easy to ignore the vendors trying to sell scarves, guidebooks, and bookmarks with hieroglyphs at Giza.

At Saqqara (where the oldest complete stone building complex known in history was built — Djoser’s Step Pyramid — in the 27th century BC by his vizier, Imhotep, who happens to be the title character of The Mummy!!!), a few hours later, I try to find the public bathroom. It takes me fifteen minutes wandering through the parked tour buses before I find a desolate-looking sign at the edge of some steps leading steeply downwards.

When I reach the bottom, there is a man cleaning the entrance. I am about to walk right past him when he rubs his thumb, index, and middle fingers together in front of my face. Behold, the universal sign for baksheesh.

I groan internally, as my wallet is locked in the bus. We stare at each other for a brief moment before I wordlessly turn to go. But he stops me and graciously lets me through. In a few seconds, I emerge again.

No toilet paper, I tell him.

He shrugs and it occurs to me he might not understand English but then he unlocks a cabinet to hand me a roll.

Shukran, I say.

He stretches out a hand. I shake it.

Kiss hand? he asks. When I widen my eyes and says no, he smiles and shrugs again.

OK, he says.

It’s both the strangest and most effusive public bathroom encounter I’ve ever had. The truth in our guide’s words resound.

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***

Religion is a multi-sensory experience.

Professor Ali Asani tells us this at least three times each day on the trip.

The sentence seems to be intuitively right, but I only begin to grasp it when the days wore on.

Cairo is full of sounds. Different cadences of the Adhaan (the Muslim Call to Prayer) play from minarets, a few seconds apart. They cloak you for a few solid moments, so viscous that your mind goes blank. Then, the shroud lifts and life resumes.

In Cairo, you see the soundscape mattering as much as the landscape does (recitations of the Quran! Sufi music! the Adhaan!). Symbols and space cannot do without one another.

There is something quite wondrous and unexpected about the ambiguity between the Prophet and the Poet; perhaps, both one and the same. The divine that is embedded within the text of the Quran is one that is not only read but also listened to.

When the Quran is so much of an oral and a visual text, stylized and recited, what does it mean to read?

There’s a quote by a Persian poet, Saadi of Shiraz, which Professor Asani shared with us:

Every leaf of the tree becomes a page of the sacred scripture once the soul learns how to read. 

The book of nature — the scripture that is all around us. It’s a beautiful thought.

The Prophet once said, the professor tells me gently when we are standing in the desert under the unimpeded glare of the sun, that God is beautiful and He loves beauty.

What about the violence and ugliness in the name of God’s beauty? I ask.

That’s not religion. That happens when religion becomes increasingly secularized, he says.

Immediately, it sounds oxymoronic. But, as he explains, I understand. Religion used to be about the transcendent. Yet, now it’s about politics — to govern people, to create wars, to carve territory, and to kill enemies.

The religion I witnessed on the streets of Cairo and in its astounding mosques is not that religion that we hear of so often in the media — wrapped up tightly in the political lexicon of coups and democracies, the numbing statistics of casualties, or the heated debates over accessories in the West. There has always been a visceral fear, fanned by one side, seeded by another. But, in Cairo, Islam may be chaotic, Islam may seem contradictory, but it’s really just about grasping transcendence in the seemingly ordinary moments of transience, of beauty, of listening.