street powers.

“i went through a dowdy phase,” an american woman tells me, poking fun of her early days in cairo. already, i’m able to make some fun of myself, looking back on that morning i sallied forth in a pink veil, having now met dozens of american woman in cairo, none of whom veil themselves. “the veil would just confuse people,” kate points out the obvious: we’re not muslim. sure, dress modestly, i’m told. “no tank tops”: there’s clear consensus on that hard and fast line. what i hear, though, more than any rule, is advice to fret less. they know why i’m wasting time in the mirror, why nothing i put on my body looks like enough. i tense when i step outside because the comments from men seem like an immediate and unfavorable reaction. “it doesn’t matter…” keli tries to teach me. “it doesn’t matter…” kate begins the same speech. “it doesn’t matter…” repeats alex, repeats tori, repeats susan. what comes after the ellipsis is this: no matter what you wear, you will be harassed. “even women in veils get harassed.” i hear this from journalists, teachers, editors, moms, yoga instructors, PhDs. women of all complexions, all body types, all reasons for living in egypt would like me to believe, as they adamantly do, that even a woman in a full niqab, covered from head to toe in black cloth, will get her ass grabbed in this city. why have i heard this seven times? why do we need this to be true? is it really so crucial–the key (or at least a first step towards) making cairo livable: accepting i have no power in how i’m seen and spoken to on the street?

greenwallpassing lady.JPG

this part of the world.

how to talk about egypt’s place in the world. do we call this africa? north africa? the middle east? i try to ask a stupid question without sounding stupid, which would be very easy to do in cairo. the americans i meet here are veterans of the region. they’ve worked in abu dhabi; they compare whatever we eat with lebanese; they’re flying off next week to qatar. everyone and their cat is flying to qatar. i’m trying my best to schedule interviews, but qatar is making that extremely difficult. i circle around my stupid question with more intelligent-sounding questions: what neighboring country is egypt most connected to? “sudan,” one person tells me. “syria?” another admits he’s guessing. “this is an african country that has been invaded by every mediterranean country,” one woman rewinds past the arab conquest. “this isn’t africa,” an american pastor, who grew up in senegal, sounds certain. except when it comes to soccer, he adds. for the purposes of winning the african cup, egypt belongs to her continent. when not in the mood to ask stupid questions, i look for other ways to feel out this part of the world. in this part of the world, saudis have summer homes. in this part of the world, jewish americans talk about israel in code (“disney”). in this part of the world, you hear the word pharonic about three times a week. in this part of the world, the catholic church organizes a road trip to the holy land. in this part of the world, maids are filipino, door men are nubian, and archeologists named nigel and kent chip away at mankind’s oldest monuments, dressed just as you might expect: like indiana jones.



my sister still thinks about a baby elephant she saw on a television show, years ago, running away from its herd. the elephant wouldn’t make it alone, and to this day, katie replays footage of its breakaway in her mind. since i began playing around with a camera last year, i’ve learned how images get lodged in my mind. i think about photographs i didn’t take long after i didn’t take them, either because i was unwilling to pause another person or squeamish about taking out a camera. egypt is not an easy place to take out a camera. you can count on a dozen people watching you shoot and you should be ready for their commentary. “no-no!” a man yelled at me the other day, reaching his hand into the photo i’d bent down to take. “why you take picture?” he wanted me to explain why i was shooting bread, laid out in the sun, beside the train tracks in alexandria. he sounded angry. i was surprised to feel angry. this wasn’t the first time i’d been scolded for taking photos in egypt, and all the other times, i’d been embarrassed and apologized. but i believed in this photo: that the light and the lines made it worth a frame. i had a full day ahead of me in alexandria, and i didn’t want to spend any of it thinking about the bread by the train tracks i’d never get to look at again. there was no hope of explaining that across languages, nor did i believe i owed an explanation. so i told the man with righteousness that sounded like someone else’s: “because I’m a photographer.” i can see i’ll have egypt to thank for that: demanding I call myself a photographer.


i’m working on a certain look. each walk down soliman gohar street is chance to practice. let’s say there’s a cab reversing and a motorcycle weaving and a jackhammer thudding from inside something under construction, and a nearby man shouts while another mutters and a team of teenage boys decides to test out their english in one crude chorus. meanwhile, my bag won’t zip and my camera strap tangles and a fly takes its time walking up my forearm. i’m working on the look that claims none of this bothers me. i’m saying with glassy eyes and no quick movements that i could hold all these things in my mind–fly legs, zipper, strap, shouting, honking, reversing, soliman gohar’s hundreds of small and full-grown men—paying them partial, not full, attention for as long as need be. i’m learning how to stand in a moment and take my time deciding whether to engage with the crowd of people there also. no one seems surprised when i opt out and move foggily on down the street. sometimes, i take out my cell phone and write a make-believe text.


i’ve been trying to take a picture that tells you what it’s like to cross a street in cairo. i’ve tried to do this on medians, on overpasses, in a couple moving taxis. the result is about seventy blurry and boring photos that say diddly about crossing a street in cairo. so lets hear instead from the expats who’ve made crossing the street their game in cairo. “it’s sort of like playing chicken,” sid tells me. sid’s game of chicken goes like this: pedestrian steps into oncoming traffic, looking sure he will not die. the oncoming taxis don’t slow, looking sure they will not kill. for the game of chicken to work, neither player can flinch. that is, neither can moderate their speed. sid recommends not looking taxi drivers in the eye, not seeking any permission. i’m going to skip over the part about how/why this functions, because i don’t know that part. “it’s just like playing frogger,” claims ben. ben’s game of frogger goes like this: pedestrian steps into oncoming traffic, knowing he can’t make it all the way across; he’ll have to take one lane at a time. the space between passing cars are like logs on a river; he, frog-like, hops from one to the next. hop, wait; hop, wait.  having now played frogger a couple times, i can tell you what happens to your breath between logs, while a cab passes at your back and a bus flies by in front of your nose. your breath stops. sid calls it chicken; ben calls it frogger; i call it a trust fall, the key being to trust that despite appearances and breathing shortages my life is not about to come to an abrupt end in cairo. i need to quit looking for a gap in traffic and accept that the denser the cars, the safer the crossing. if cairo traffic is a river, then rush hour has the laziest current. lazier than the nile’s three miles per hour. when a street looks like what you see above, it’s actually prime time for frog to draw a breath and hop.

decision, part I

“are you a movie star yet?” an american in cairo teases me. i’ve been asking every american i meet in cairo for help breaking into the film industry. within a week, there’s a lead: a director named ahmed. we email; he’s busy shooting, but could meet—maybe thursday? thursday comes and I try to look nice. attractive, that is, under the bag of clothes and scarves and elastic sleeves I heap over my body in cairo. attractive in a peasant blouse and the same jeans i compact every day with more dust. thursday’s ending and i’m getting impatient. i’ve been carrying around my glamour shots all day. i text ahmed to say let’s do this; let’s meet. “how about the mcdonalds in tahrir square?” he replies. strange, I think, but confirm anyways. as landmarks go, golden arches beat abandoned mansions. as soon as i step out of my cab, i know something’s wrong. what exactly, i’m not sure, but it has to do with the man standing on the curb, neatly dressed and sweating, because i recognize him and should not. this is the eager gentleman who found me on a park bench the first day i explored cairo. the first time this eager entleman called me, i plugged his name into my phone as a note to self: don’t answer this person’s calls again. the name I plugged in was ahmed. cairo requires quick thinking, not only between lanes three and four of oncoming traffic, but on the brink of the many things you, as a newcomer, mess up: oblige this eager gentleman who thinks you propositioned him, via text message, or turn right around and re-hail your taxi? what would you do? if this were a choose-your-own-adventure-book, would you stand up the wrong ahmed or go on a date to egyptian mcdonalds? too late. too much thinking. taxi’s gone. ahmed waved. turn the page and welcome to mcdonalds.

decision, part II.

ahmed points me towards a booth by the window and goes off to order ice cream sundaes. the scene at mcdonalds–young couples flirting over unwrapped burgers and piles of fries—is the very same scene I walked into recently at another mcdonalds in mohandisen, in search of a bathroom. all the way to the ladies’ room, i felt like i was interrupting intimate moments, winding through a maze of lovers’ alcoves, dimly lit, flirtation nooks for the youth of egypt. i doubted anyone was there for the quarter pounders. i doubted also that this layout was accidental; ronald knows even his muslim clientele. ahmed appears with two ice cream sundaes. i try to think of a few things to say to my date while i spoon through a chocolate sundae and he spoons through a strawberry sundae and sweats like a 19-year-old on a first date. ahmed could very well be 19-years-old. tonight may very well be his first date. which explains why this all feels very 1950’s and also which helps me calm down: realizing i’m in a place where it’s perfectly okay to conduct myself like a woman in a poodle skirt. betty with a curfew. i’ll get out of this soon, and without any trouble. besides, it’s easy to make ahmed smile. whenever I smile, he smiles. he even stops sweating. mcdonald’s is air-conditioned, so that helps and so does asking questions about cairo. when in doubt on this adventure, this stranger-by-the-nano-second adventure, ask questions about cairo. i ask the most pressing question i have about cairo, the one that bears down as soon as I step outside and realize I’m outnumbered, 14 to 1, or 46 to 1, by men. i ask ahmed where the women in cairo are hiding. at home, he says. home, ahmed explains, is the woman’s kingdom. “the woman’s kingdom?” i repeat. my date nods. the woman’s kingdom. having reached the bottom of my chocolate sundae, i tell him i have to get home. i’m taking the subway, but so is he: same direction. i realize this is my chance to ride the co-ed car. i have an escort now. escorted, I’m entitled to stand in the space I would never stand alone. these are rules no one tells you, that you don’t need to be told, because the space itself and the stares sent through it and the sudden sense of legitimacy you feel alongside a man tell you so much of what you need to know about a woman’s place in egypt. i’ve been on the move in this city all week but standing here now on the man’s car, smiling modestly in the direction of a modest man, i’m the most comfortable i’ve felt in public. like nobody, now, can question my place. as the train brakes near dokki, my stop, ahmed offers to walk me home. i smile brightly and with many onlookers at his back say thanks, that’s nice. but i don’t need any more help. i know the way back to my kingdom.


the mosque next door.

i promised myself not to write about the call to prayer. i didn’t want to be that western blogger in the middle east. but i’m a light-sleeper and there’s a mosque next door and at 4:50 am the mosque next door tells me to wake up. or rather: it tells me i’m in egypt, which remains a rousing fact. the people i’m interviewing have lived in egypt for years or decades, nothing rousing left in that. “it’s just part of the acoustic landscape,” owen says of the call to prayer. i asked one american if there was any place in egypt where you couldn’t hear the call to prayer. “the desert,” she replied. of course, 96 percent of egypt: desert. but in the 4 percent where we all choose to crowd, there’s bound to be a mosque next door. how strange it is to sit in the parlors of americans in cairo, listening to life stories in new york accents or texan accents or (to my ears) non-accents, and in wafts the afternoon call to prayer, sounding just as i hear it alone at dawn: like an old man dying, bullhorn in hand. we don’t acknowledge it. and i sort of wish we could, just as we might mention an ambulance siren or a fruit vendor’s call or some loud wind. so instead i just think: cairo. i take my reminder that once this life story ties up and the narrator goes back to life as usual, i’ll open a door and there will be cairo. how easy, indoors, to forget that. finally, the other day, i met an american who wanted to talk about the call to prayer. brittney, a chicago native and convert to islam, was visiting cairo with her sudanese husband. aside from the brown henna covering her hands, she looked like the girl next door. she’d been wearing a headscarf all week and felt happy. they planned to move here soon. “at home, my husband and i have the call to prayer on our laptops,” she told me, “but it’s not the same.” not the same as walking through a landscape with the acoustics built in. 


if you’re me, and you’ve been in cairo one week, this is the photo you take of the protest on qasr el-aini street: faraway and out of focus. if you’re abby, however, and you’ve been reporting in the middle east since college, you walk straight into four lanes of traffic until you’re right on the police line. before i met abby in cairo, i’d gotten used to routing my walks around this protest and all the nearby paddy wagons. the protesters slept on the sidewalk and looked more grizzly every day. i stole this quick photo, then kept my distance. but the day abby asked to “check it out” en route to lunch,  i said sure (figuring i could tell her later that nothing in cairo intimidated me more than an intimate look at a mob of men chanting) and followed abby directly into rush hour traffic. you’d never guess from the way abby crosses the street that she was once hit by a car in cairo. and i bet you’d never guess from this anecdote that she is tiny. a petite brunette with cherub cheeks. maybe that’s why this scene is so imprinted in my memory: abby, standing with utter nonchalance and entitlement, while five egyptian men surrounded her in a ring, one because he wanted her press credentials, the other four because they wanted to overhear and tower. i don’t think i raised my gaze far past abby’s shoulders. i don’t think i asked abby, over lunch, where she got those superpowers, but i wondered. i wondered all day. i’m introducing abby not only because she was my first hero in cairo, not only because she was my first helper (i never left home without the post-it note with her scribble in arabic: i live across from the agouza police station), not even because the hardest i laughed in cairo was when abby turned to a pair of boys that hissed at us and, like an actress doing her best angry-leopard, hissed back, but because of the way abby replied to a pie-in-the-sky idea i voiced one day in a cab. we were riding back from islamic cairo, climbing up a overpass that lent us view of the city’s skyline just before sunset, and i said wouldn’t it be amazing, just amazing, at this hour, to take photos from the tops of those buildings. “we should,” said the american who checks out protests en route to lunch. that’s when i knew i’d found the perfect person to pal around with in cairo. soon begins the magic hour photo series.

beige out.

first trick to walking down soliman gohar street: think about something other than walking down soliman gohar street. think about the color of the cloth umbrellas. think about the color of the cloth umbrellas until you’ve got them, red, green, beige, like a note. think about the shine on the rinds of watermelons. think about the scrawny cats around piles of fish. think about the enormity of artichokes. think about the boys on the curb: how you see them without seeing them, how you can gauge who’s readying to taunt. how good you’ve gotten at gauging from behind eyes like glass. think about the american woman who called this “beiging out.” think about the american woman who called this her “tunnel.” think about the scottish woman who recommended wearing “blinders.” think about the journalist and her “100-yard stare,” the yoga teacher and her “i’m-on-a-mission walk,” the rancher and her “prickly aura.” think about camels and how they manage to see during sandstorms. think about that extra eyelid. that translucent cap. that way we beige out, and still see what we need to see.


the egyptologists won’t talk to me. they ignore my emails, claim they’re having dinner when i cold-call, re-direct me to friends in the field who redirect me to other friends in the field. everyone’s remiss in luxor. dig, dig, digging. i whine, over tea, in cairo: i’ve heard enough from ESL teachers. i’m up to here with oil workers. find me someone who can name every pharaoh! get me an american who works 9-5 in a tomb! i’m dead set on egyptologists because their motives for moving abroad–the study of ancient egypt–sound so pure, so timeless, and fine, a wee bit romantic. but people in cairo encourage me to give up; egyptologists are busy; egyptologists are stuffy; egyptologists all hate each other and maybe that extends to journalists who cold-call. disheartened, i’m wandering through an expat library one day when i spot THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO EGYPTOLOGY. the author, a PhD in egyptology, warns his idiot readers that the study of ancient egypt is not as sexy as they may think: “to the average person, it sounds all like intrigue and adventure.”  if we’re thinking indiana you-know-who, we’d better think again. and by the way, the chances of us average people breaking into egyptology are pretty much nil. so good luck with that. there’s no idiot’s guide to hieroglyphics.

maryanne I

before I actually see maryanne, i see the seventeen dogs at maryanne’s feet. it’s dim inside her house, but dog eyes reflect what little light there is. i assume i’ve arrived at the farm during a feeding hour; why else would so many hounds crowd around her? but maryanne has no kibble in hand. wherever she goes, at least ten of the seventeen terriers follow, pausing wherever she pauses, standing still and panting. i’ve met plenty of americans in cairo who adopted street cats; i’m used to fending off wild kitties during house calls. maryanne, though, could fill a noah’s arc with her dogs, her chickens, her donkeys, her parrots, her geese, her doves, her giant wild turkey. i learn their names (stella, amira, molly) because maryanne’s good about introductions, but also because she banters with them (telling pixel to pipe down, scolding grey the parrot for feeding tom the turkey) all through our interview. “raising horses in stables is like raising kids in cupboards,” maryanne tells me en route to the horse pasture, pointing out which mares are scared of the desert, which mares are scared of everything, which mares used to cart tourists around the pyramids, before maryanne took them in. her farm is just south of giza in the saqqara desert, where you’ll find older pyramids, fewer tourists, and (with some digging) extensive pet cemeteries. ancient egyptians loved their pets so much they mummified them. there are some 200 million bird mummies in saqqara. i’d planned to spend just a couple hours out here—at least that’s what I told her driver, mahmoud—but as soon as i settle into a wicker chair by the bird cages and listen to this hardy, witty, blunt american woman talk about life in egypt, i want to stay the entire day. just me and seventeen terriers, at the feet of a bedouin farmer in crocs and sweatpants.

“you can make plans,” maryanne begins our conversation, speaking in broad terms about what egypt teaches westerners, “but you can’t predict outcomes.” maryanne never predicted a life for herself in egypt. in college, she fell in love with an egyptian named diaa. they married soon after. diaa was “a serial entrepreneur” whose ventures kept him traveling constantly to cairo. one day, after maryanne overheard their young daughter tell someone that ‘daddy lives in egypt,’ she told diaa it was time they rooted the family in one place. that meant cairo: raising two kids in cairo, a city that maryanne sees as “teetering on the brink of disaster every day.” nonetheless, she adjusted well to life in the megacity–so well, in fact, that the local expat center put maryanne in charge of the “customs and culture” talks at orientations. i ask maryanne what kernel of wisdom she tried to impart on newcomers to egypt. “life,” maryanne repeats, “is really not controllable.” nothing, in her opinion, is harder for americans to accept than their powerlessness in this city of  24 million people, one million cars, 5,000 donkey carts, and few rules. one day, more than a decade after she’d moved to egypt, maryanne got dreaded news–dreaded, because her husband owned and flew a small plane, and the spouses of small-plane pilots live in dread of phone calls that begin, “mrs. —–?” diaa was flying back to egypt from germany when his wing tip hit a palm tree. “mrs. gabbani?” suddenly a widow, maryanne soon found out that her husband’s largest company was 250 million dollars in debt. the bank (one of egypt’s largest, now at risk of going under) made sure mrs. gabbani knew she was accountable. “people thought i’d end up in jail or have to flee the country,” she recalls. instead, at age 51, maryanne rolled up her sleeves and opened the company records. she didn’t rest until the debt was settled, then bought a pepper field outside of cairo. “control is a complete illusion. that’s why everyone here says, inshallah.” even americans in egypt, i notice, the ones who’ve lived here for years, say inshallah. the plans i make over the phone with strangers are punctuated so often with inshallahs. “see you tomorrow, inshallah.” it means “god willing” in arabic but sounds in english contexts, among non-muslims, like we’re tinkering with the verb, changing “we will”  into “let’s try.” let’s try our best and just see.

by the time maryanne and I finish our chat, our farm tour, our feast of fried cauliflower and sautéed eggplant, it’s nearly four o’clock and i owe her driver a small fortune. “that’s okay,” she keeps me calm; mahmoud’s a good man. besides, i’ll probably need his services again. “there’s nothing wrong,” she tells me, “with hiring a babysitter.” such a comment, coming from any one but maryanne gabbani, would instantly piss me off. in fact, the day i bought my plane ticket to cairo i also happened to attend a happy hour in DC where an older american gentleman told me, “you can’t go to a muslim country alone as a woman.” my cheeks got so red when i opened my mouth to inform him that i could in fact (and would very soon) go to a muslim country alone as a woman, that my sister had to intervene and break up the conversation. “what’s he suggesting?” i huffed to molly by the coat check. “that I bring a babysitter?” we decided (or, rather, i decided and molly let me simmer) that this gentleman still lived in 1910. fast-forward two weeks and zoom in on the saqqara desert: “there’s nothing wrong,” a woman, a farmer, an american assures me, “with hiring a babysitter.” i’m ready, now, to hear this. it helps that cairo has beaten me down–that i have literal and figurative bruises from traveling the megalopolis alone. it helps also that maryanne has listened to the long list of things i plan to do in cairo (see the northern cemeteries, wander the camel market, dress for a day in full niqab) and that she wants, tells me she hopes, i can make all those things happen. our lives overlap for one day, but i know this woman’s on my side. and so while I leave the desert considerably poorer, i’ve gotten some help accepting that paying an egyptian man to take me places (and perhaps walk around them with me) is not such bad a solution after all. mahmoud is nice; she’s right. he calls me madame. madame colleen. the dynamic, if anything, feels colonial, not belittling. on the ride home, i even ask mahmoud to pull over so I can take a photo of a globe statue. the photo turns out terribly and i get yelled at while taking it, but at least i’ve found some nerve i didn’t have this morning. we drive down pyramids road in easy silence and i remember something maryannne said about her egyptian neighbors. she’d managed to keep good relations, playing by the cultural rules (ie. you can scold a misbehaving kid, but better to bring the misbehavior to the attention of village elders). there was one matter, however, that still raised their eyebrows. “the thing that totally flips people out,” she said, “is that I live alone.” i looked at maryanne; we’d been talking for an entire day and this was the first time she’d sounded at all stumped. “with 17 dogs,” she raised her voice, “who the hell is going to come in here?”


every email from my mother closes with the same question: “have you been to the pyramids yet?” every reply i send my mother ignores her question because I’m putting off the pyramids for two reasons. 1: i’ve been warned that giza is a letdown. visiting the pyramids, sources say, is a sweaty, three-hour battle against souvenir hawkers and pushy camel renters. 2. i hate seeing things because i’m told I must. i resent the must-sees of travel, the way they make me feel suckered and also herded and usually ripped off.  “you haven’t mentioned the pyramids in your emails…” if i must, simply must, go to the pyramids, then i’m going to get crafty. i’m going to find a fresh way to approach them. you know: like, on a pogo stick. or dressed like herodotus. fine, I have no fresh ideas. there’s no such thing as fresh ideas with regards to the pyramids because suckers like me have been herded to the pyramids for thousands of years and even herodotus himself was duped by pyramid guides (who didn’t tell him the tombs inside were raided) and even the witty essay about not wanting to go to the pyramids and ultimately going to the pyramids was written in 2000 by rolf potts. “…aren’t you planning to go?” the answer, dear mother, is yes and no. of course i’ll go. you know i’ll go. i have no more choice in the matter than the age-old march of travelers. but I have to be that person who doesn’t plan for pyramids, who pretends there’s nothing in the world she must do, and you know that, too.

treasure & trash

the line between antiques and rubbish is anyone’s guess here. if we’re stepping through merchandise, does that make it trash? If there’s no one collecting money by the piles we pick through, are we now in a dump? i’ll feel similar confusion weeks later, in luxor, while passing a field where men bulldoze in the dust. i squint at what might be ruins and might be rubble: clumps of a torn-down building or just the latest sphinx. these are distinctions that foreigners care more about than egyptians. to be egyptian is to live on top or alongside 1/3 of the world’s oldest things. we call them antiquities. “you dig, you find antiquities,” an expert in the field told me. when tori and i decide we need a break from the souq and turn down an aisle that looks quiet, we end up in a maze of gated courtyards, some with rusty padlocks, others wide open. we wander and wind until we finally realize we’re in the city of the dead. that’s what foreigners call the cemetery where some 50,000 egyptians live in tombs.

cairo scholars

a surefire way to reach americans in egypt is a listserve called “cairo scholars.” everyone told me this: join cairo scholars! reach 3,000 archeology buffs, intensive arabic students, and assorted smart people in one fell swoop. i tried. i filled out the application, took pains to explain my background and purpose, but i was denied by a professor in texas named samer. this was, i realize now, fair warning about the expat community in cairo. i can’t make it through a happy hour in this city without explaining the premise of my book. “what’s your argument?” cairo scholars want a slant, an angle, a thesis, a position. the great cliche among expats in egypt is that cairo is a place you love or you loathe. do the cairo scholars want to know whose side i’m writing on? a heads-up on who i plan to villainize (“talked to any oilies yet?”). i miss communities where it’s okay to portray. i miss poets and essayists and people who sound like space cadets when pressed to define what it is they do. i miss the certainty that a book about americans outside of america can show you what they’re like, where they settle, what it feels like in their homes. but on these days when i’m vetted by cairo’s scholars, i walk off so calmly into photography. if i can’t offer enough in words, if i’m not cut out to join this argument, then how about you just look at my pictures.

cement bags

i continue to take oddball pictures. egyptians continue to stare at me like the tourist who got turned around. the other day when i crouched down in front of these cement bags, spectators and commentators of all ages and one gender appeared. it’s moments like these (more than traffic jams) that i curse the population density of cairo. i’ve come up with a protocol, though, to get me through oddball photo shoots. the first step is to approach my subject with conviction: stare hard at the cement bags like they’ve summoned me down the street. and i see why. next, when it comes time to crouch and tilt in directions that might result in falling, the challenge is to look serious. like this is my job. someone dispatched me across the atlantic and into backstreets of dokki with clear orders: find the cement bags. looking unrushed helps, too. sometimes i go ahead and putz away time, clicking through all the mediocre shots of cement bags i’ve just taken, before taking a whole bunch more. this way, spectators bore. little boys spot other chances to tease. the stream of arabic words passes by and i stop wondering what it meant. every odd ball photo, i’ve learned, stirs some sort of maelstrom in cairo, and if i can weather that maelstrom without rushing, blushing, losing my balance, or giving up on something i see, then i feel cairo grumble, fine, oddball, fine. take the stupid cement bags you found on the corner.