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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Searching for Mohammed - Part 1

One of Linda's project for this winter was to try and locate a student who had spent a few weeks with us in the fall of 1983. This should be no problem since Egypt only has a population of a bit over 80,000,000 and we know that the student's name is Mohammed.

Actually, we had a few more clues.  We also knew his family name, his hometown and Linda had looked up his family there once before in 1984.

The town where Mohammed grew up is Shanawan.  I pictured us strolling up to a house in a tiny desert village.  It turns out that Shanawan is located about 40 miles North of Cairo in the fertile Nile delta country.  It is the center of a large vegetable producing area and has a population of about 360,000 nearby.

We enlisted the help of our good friend, Goma, to help us find both Shanawan and Mohammed.  Goma arrived at our apartment to pick us up a bit before 10 a.m. yesterday and soon eased his white 1977 Mercedes out into the traffic. It turns out that all three of us had some notion of how we might get to Shanawan but they weren't exactly compatible.  Let's look at the geography.

Alexandria lies on the Mediterranian, about 120 mile Northwest of Cairo.  Shanawan is about a third of the way in between these two large cities.

There are two routes to Alexandria.  The first, to the west is the "Alexandria Desert Road.  This is a major high speed toll road currently becoming about four official lanes in each direction.  Let's call it the "red" road.  The other route is the "agricultural" highway.  Let's call it the "blue" road.

The obvious route to follow is to take the "blue" road for about thirty miles and then "hang a left."

Now a word or two about navigating in Egypt.  The only people with maps are the tourists.  I have never seen an Egyptian with one.  GPS?  Egypt was one of three countries in the world that banned them until last April.

So, the popular method of navigation is what I call "Ask and Average."  Drivers stop and ask for directions.  A taxi driver might pull up to a man standing at a bus stop and ask.  Or ask a trucker.  Or ask just about any man on the street.  (Women need not fear being asked!)  Now one thing that no Egyptian man can ever say is, "I don't know!"  So the driver will always get some directions.  The key is knowing which directions to follow.  Ask. Judge credibility.  Build a consensus.  Driving here is tough work!  We spent the better part of two hours in a taxi recently looking for a small street in the relatively small Zamalek area of Cairo.

Well, to make this part of the long story short, we should have followed the blue line on this map but followed the red one instead.

That wavy part of the red line represents a lengthy series of changes in direction that generally resulted from directions to go "just a few kilometers in that direction."  The double-back portion of the red line at the bottom?  Oh, thats the time when some of the people in the car were no longer speaking to others about directions.

We finally arrived in Shanawan about four hours after our departure.  I later heard Shanawan described as 45 minutes from Cairo.

On the plus side, we got to see some interesting fruit orchards, both oranges and bananas.  The cabbage and tarot plants looked very healthy.  We saw a lot of tractors and a lot of workers in the fields.

Our friend, Goma, got us to our destination (he always does) by picking up an off-duty policeman at Sadat City along the Alexandria Desert Road and taking him home.  Goma had also had the foresight to call a friend who lived in the city of Shibin El Kom, population 630,000.  Shibin El Kom is just a few miles north of Shanawan.

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