Thursday, November 26, 2009

Aid al-Shukr عيد الشكر

كل سنة و انتو طيبين!! عيد سعيد من مصر يا حلوين
Every year and may you all be well! Happy Thanksgiving from Egypt, my sweet ones. And Happy Aid al-Adha to any Muslims reading! Yesterday started the 3-day holiday celebrating Ibrahim's sacrifice of his son Ishmael (or Isaac) to God. The butcher shop down the street from my dorm has had a herd of sheep stinking up the block for the last week, and in the last couple days, most of them have been killed. Yesterday, I greeted a dumb-looking cow in the morning, and later that afternoon, I saw him get beheaded! On the sidewalk, no gloves, in the middle of a 5-million person city. I am all for being in touch with our food sources, but come on, can we have some hygienic sensitivity please? During Aid al-Adha, people with the means to do so should buy this meat to share with their neighbors and the poor. Everyone should wear new clothes and be with family and pray. Everything is closed, so Alex is uncharacteristically haadi, calm. The dorms are also empty صمت في كل مكان silence everywhere.

One thing I love about this experience is the fact that I am not merely a visitor to Egypt... I live here. That is not to say I am a resident, but I do more than see the sites, I see the culture and its people and their ways. I want to remember more than the epic monuments and landscapes I've seen; I want to recollect the butcher shop down the street, tram rides to go shopping in Ibrahamiyya, the morning walk to the kulia, cruising to techno in Karim's car, giggling with the Masriaat roommates, not understanding a word of my professors' lectures on Arab literary figures or Muslim ways of governance.

I live in the University of Alexandria dorms in the neighborhood of Shatby, which is pretty central to the city. My roommate is named Reham, and she like most of the other girls here, is from the "countryside", al-reef, anywhere from 1-2 hours out of the city. I love all of the Egyptian girls very much, and they love me. They help us with Arabic homework, go out with us to movies and shopping, give us cultural advice, and have giggle fests with us. Of course, there are some levels on which we can't interact; I would never tell them about the details of my social life in America, and all the sex, drugs, and rock & roll it includes. A sample conversation with one of them, upon leaving the cinema one night:

Her: It's good we're leaving now, all the couples start coming.
Me: What's wrong with that?
Her: Well, they're not married.
Me: Oh. That's weird. In America, dating like that is normal. I fell in love and started dating when I was 15, and 6 years later, I am with a different man who I also love.
*Short silence in which I fear she will either damn me to hell or try to convert me to Islam*
Her: That's interesting. Okay.
Me: Do you think less of me now?
Her: No, I just wouldn't live my life that way.

Okay! Good conversation: no war, slight clash of civilizations, and we're still friends! The rest of the world should follow our example. But truly, they know and accept that we aren't Muslim and so live our lives differently. I am often very frank with the girls, pushing their zones of comfort with sometimes inappropriate jokes and challenging their conservatism in religious discussions. They still love me. I've had some eye-opening discussions about Islam and spirituality, cultural divides, and even love. I have also giggled with them to the verge of tears. Leaving these girls will be one of the hardest things about returning to America. They are already making me promise to come back next summer, saying they'll be waiting.
Those are my friends in the Medina (the dorms). Then there are Karim & Kholy. These boys are from the city itself, meaning they come from more money. They are Muslims, too, but more internally, as they drink and go to clubs and the like. حرام عليهم Haram upon them! They also hang out with us, Western females, whereas the Egyptian boys who live in the boys' dorms get awkward and nervous around us. Karim and Kholy and their friends all speak English pretty well, maybe went to private school, and generally know more about Western culture. I have become very close with both Karim & Kholy. My "two sets of friends" is very representative of how class is structured here in Egypt.

Weeks here are from Sunday to Wednesday, and the center (al-merkez) we take classes in on the Univ. Alex campus is a 10-minute walk from the dorms. All our professors are Arabs from Univ. Alex, so classes are... well... different from your American liberal arts private school education. Arabs like to lecture and not encourage student participation, leaving them sitting on their intellectual high horses. They don't like handing back corrected homework or getting student evaluations. Needless to say, this leaves many of us frustrated, but I have still managed to take something from my 5 classes. Also, I didn't come to Egypt to do homework, that is to say, the academic experiences comes second to the cultural/linguistic immersion one.

1.) FusHa, also known as Modern Standard Arabic. Very proper and correct Arabic, used for televised and published news, the language of the Quran, and spoken among literary and academic geniuses. You will get laughed at if you try to speak this in the street. In that sense, seemingly useless. As is my FusHa professor! Rab yir-bereku, may God bless him, but that man's lack of a teaching ability could be the death of my love for this language.
2.) Amiyya, colloquial, Masriyya. A light workload (sometimes too light), an important topic. We unlearn proper grammar and pick up street expressions. My teacher is fabulous, regularly taking us out to ice cream.
3.) Islamic Politics. Very interesting and complex topic combining all the religious and social and political aspects of this society. I just wish the teacher would encourage discussion more. The readings are very challenging in Arabic, but it's good for building vocab.
4.) Arabic Literature. We've read some good stuff, (the classics: Naguib Mahfouz, Mahmoud Darwish), and learned about some other figures. Same problem, in that he just lectures away, we don't analyze much. Check my friend's blog for some Arabic poems eloquently translated into English.
5.) Gender Studies. This is my one-on-one course, which I split 3 hours between 2 incredible professors. One of them is a liberal Muslim woman named Shadia, the other a liberal Coptic Christian woman named Hiba. This has been the best academic part of the program. Both women have shared some very interesting (and challenging!) commentary on women's issues in the region, in the form of novels, articles, movies, and conversations. My friend Veronica (the other student) and I have watched a couple movies with Shadia, a great one being Four Women of Egypt, another about the lives of female servants in Tunisia.

A couple days ago, Hiba took Veronica and I to a Coptic monastery outside of Alex. It was an incredibly calming and peaceful, a beautifully manicured enclosure set in the desert against the ocean shore. The nuns welcomed us like sisters and fed us like orphans. We toured the compound, and then our professor gave us a little lecture on Copts, particularly the life in the dir, or the monastery. They pray, do their daily duties, and translate religious texts into various languages. We learned about the different celebrated saints, and various founders of the nunnery life, from Saint Mercurius to Saint Antonius. It was a spiritually rich experience, made all the more so by my professor's deep faith, visible in the way she spoke of the miracle around her. On our way back to Alex, between singing Christmas carols in a variety of languages, I couldn't help but be critical. If a God from an institutionalized religion finds me and leads me down that sort of path, I need to be part of a religion that gives back God's bounty to those who aren't as lucky. Service will always be part of my life, and so it was hard to understand these women enclosing themselves in a monastery to pray. Kislaya reminded me that these people "indisputably generate positive energy that is a catalyst for change and benefits us all, even without our awareness." I guess I will have to be happy with that, and let each of God's children find their own way.

What else are my days made up of? Sometimes tourism: tombs, fortresses, today, the Alexandria Museum. Sometimes just hanging out at friends' houses, just like in the states (well, less alcohol.) Last night we celebrated Aid at my friend Khalid's house, a nice group of people, playing Dominos and Scrabble (in Arabic.) A couple days ago, the director's father gave an interesting lecture on translating the Quran (not an easy task), and then we all went out to dinner على حساب البرنامج on the program's bill! A few nights ago Karim and I went out to a club for its salsa night! Invariably, outings revolve around food, which is fine with me, as I think I could eat kufta (spiced meat), tahina, and stuffed pigeon (hemmem mehshee) forever.

Do you see why my heart breaks a little bit when I think about leaving this place? The above are all the reasons I have to come back as soon as I can. Nonetheless, I know I will be happy when I return home, because I find happiness wherever I am in life. Please eat lots of leftovers for me (particularly cranberry sauce), as I have yet to have a legitimate Turkey Day meal; a friend and I made chicken, green beans and mashed potatoes. I gave thanks for having the means to experience Egypt (¡Gracias, Mami & Papi!) And I will be so thankful, mutashukra (متشكرة) when I come back home to all your loving!

Besos y abrazos,

Yamila جميلة

PS- A normal evening along the Corniche. AlhamduLillah!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Moon 14

ازيكوا يا حلوين؟ كله تمام هنة في مصر، بس محتاجة استراحة من المذاكرة
Screw reading about the collective religious consciousness in Egypt! Salaam min Masr, the mother of the world! How are the spacious skies and amber waves of grain over in Amreeka? I miss it. My first meal when I get back? French toast drenched in maple syrup, BACON, a fresh fruit salad, and Puerto Rican coffee. By the way, for any who were fearing, I have decided not to stay the whole year here, although this was a distinct possibility, and the decision was a hard one, as the thought of leaving Egypt tugs at my heart. I dream to come back this very summer, equipped with a senior thesis and hopefully some grant money.

Some pictures & thoughts from our latest trip to Upper Egypt (really Southern Egypt, reached by an 18-hour train ride through increasingly drier and hotter weather):

"On the River Nile. The sun just descended behind the sandy rock plateaus to the west. The Egyptians' party felucca with its claps and drumbeats reverberates across the still water. Pink and golden hues sweetly grace the surface, quickly disappearing into deep blues, and soon, darkness. My comrades play Monopoly behind me, cards in the nearby boats. My feet are draped over the edge of the boat. We stop for dinner on the shore."
So went my 2 days on a felucca cruising northward on the bounteous Nile! Days were packed with nothingness, some Dominos and some epiphanies, and nights with rounds of Mafia and conversations on the stern of our felucca. One word to sum it up: Salaam. I wrote a lot, so here were 3 things I've learned about myself this semester so far:
1.) I'm adaptable to new places and their people.
2.) I believe in God and have a deeper spirituality than I thought.
3,) People are drawn to me for my positive energy, openness, realness and humor.

The two big cities in Upper Egypt are Aswan and Luxor. We hit up Aswan first, where we ate stuffed pigeon, perused its great sou' (market) and I learned to dominate at Dominos. I liked that Aswan is not stereotypical Egypt. Nubians and their rich history are littered across Aswan, with some great museums & ruins, as well as a little village plopped on an island in the river center. Although these distinct people contributed pharaonic greatness to Egypt, their villages were the first to go when Lake Nasser was created; as you can see, their past and present are sometimes at odds with modern Egypt. I also visited my first Coptic church here, opening my eyes to the 10% of Egyptians who are not Muslims. I was quickly reminded of my deepening respect for religion as I sat in peace in the balcony overlooking mass, the strange iconic faces painted on the walls and the Arabic chanting sending me into a time warp.

A 4-hour drive south of Aswan, maybe some 15 miles from the Sudanese border, is Abu Simbel in all its greatness. You may recognize what I mean:
Ramses II knew how to build himself a temple, that's for shit sure. Typical of any egotistical male ruler, he was honoring his own glory in battles and trying to intimidate enemies. The 4 figures outside are all Ramses himself, with his wife and children at his feet. The inside of the temple is carved full of ornate depictions of offerings to gods like Osiris, god of the underworld, and Amun, one of the era's main divinities. Next to Ramses' temple was his wife's, Nefertari, also dedicated to the goddess Hathor, figure of fertility and life. In the 60's, as the Aswan High Dam was being built, it became clear Abu Simbel would drown. So began the UNESCO-led engineering feat of man to move this relic to safer ground. Between 1964-1968, it was cut into ginormous pieces, and indeed, saved by moving it to higher ground, where it now sits on the edge of man-made Lake Nasser. Check here for more photos, but honestly, go see it yourself:
Wanna hear some more ancient history? I heard my favorite story as we visited the Philae, an island south of Abu Simbel on which lies the Temple of Isis. Isis is my girl. She was married to her brother Osiris (don't judge), and they ruled the world happily & justly together (aaww), but their brother Seth was jealous, so he killed Osiris and chopped him into little pieces. Isis was a badass woman, so despite her grief, she used her power to locate his body parts and revive him long enough for them to make a child together. Osiris become the god of the underworld, and so was born Horus, whose sole purpose was to avenge his father. He spent his life training to fight Uncle Seth, which he eventually did, but he wouldn't have won had it not been for Big Mama Isis. Horus is represented by the falcon, and was later seen as a symbol of kingliness by pharaohs.
After Aswan came the feluccas, which led us (slowly) northward to Luxor. Best part of Luxor (besides using a real bathroom and not the Nile shore)? Bikes & Karnak. One day, about half the group and I rented squeaking break-less bikes, crossed the Nile to the West Bank, and set out. We saw the Valley of the Kings, where over 63 kings and their families built ostentatious and glorious tombs for themselves. We saw Hetshepsut's Temple, a great queen who gave real meaning to "Girl Power". We did this all by bike under the roaring desert heat, but it was well worth it, especially after collapsing in a family's shaded backyard for some traditional Egyptian food. After rejuvenation, we hit up the Karnak Temple. EPIC. Ya Allahi! The largest ancient religious site in the world, Karnak was added to by many a ruler honoring many a god, and this is visible by its sheer size. I tried to soak up everything I could. I will always remember standing in the Hypostyle Hall, dwarfed by 134 hieroglyphic-ed pillars representing a papyrus forest. I lost myself to time as the sun set on this spiritual fortress.Before we return to modern Egypt up north, some favorites:1.) Phallic symbols at every m3bed (temple) we went to. I had a running tally. 2.) Dinosaur faces/sounds with Elley. Friends in general.3.) Eating a McFlurry while touring Luxor's temple (are you seeing a temple theme here?!)
Oh, but the adventure did not end! Yullah! About 15 of us climbed back on the train for another 10 hours. This is the part of the story where I discover the "Twilight" series, leading me to sorely desire a vampire habibi... alas. Anyway, this train took us to Cairo, where we were met by 10 of the Egyptian boys from Alex. We then headed to a Mohammad Mounir/Chab Khaled concert, an Egyptian & Algerian singer who got together to celebrate the World Cup qualifier match (which ended quite badly.) Surrounded by our army of Masreen Gemideen (strong Egyptian men), we amusedly watched thousands of Egyptians smoke hashish, wave flags, and chant along to the music!
Needless to say, Iskandriyya welcomed me with open arms as our bus pulled in to the Mediterranean's shoulder at 6am the next morning. And here I am, still sorting through Egyptian paradoxes, still loving Egyptian warmth, still living large. I love this city's calm yet confident energy. A few days ago I went tomb raiding with my Egyptian friend Kholy, but I'm no Angelina, as I fell into 2 feet of tomb water. This evening, I watched an Egyptian movie at one of my professor's house. This week begins Aid al-Adha, celebrating Ibrahim's sacrifice of Ismael to God. Many sheeps will be slaughtered (a sight I have grown surprisingly accustomed to walking by), and everyone will be with family. All the program's students are traveling the region, but I will use the opportunity to soak up Alex, and hopefully will find some Americans, a turkey, and ideally some cranberry sauce, to share Aid el-Shukr (Holiday of Thanks) with.
I will be thankful for all of you next time I see God in the sunset over the sea. I can't wait to see you.
PS- What does Moon 14 mean? Sounds better in Arabic: " 'Amr arba3t-a3shr"... it means you are as sweet and wonderful as the moon is 14 days into the month... when it is full! I love this language...PPS- A happy picture of some friends on a felucca:

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Ooohhhhh Maasssrrraauuuwwwwiiiii!!! Salaam min Masr, kulne mabsooteen owee hina! Masr just impossibly won a qualifier match against Algeria to get them that much closer to going to the World Cup. I just got back from watching the match in an energy-packed coffeehouse, and will do the same for the final match between them on Wednesday. I returned to my dorm to find 30 Masreaat celebrating with ululations and ruckus dancing and screaming in the common room. There are red, white and black flags streaming from every car, horns and hollers filling the streets, facepaint, and excited Egyptians everywhere. We are all Egyptians today!
I am now lying in my bed attempting to recover, but I think I'm coming down with a cold. I thought I'd use the lazy opportunity to inform you all of what it means to be a woman here. This has been one of the foremost topics on my mind since I arrived, since it is a challenge I face every day, and because my one-on-one course is about Gender Studies. It has been the ultimate example of mixing my personal experiences with an intellectual angle. Here goes, as I try to consolidate my emotions, religion, society, economic factors and history into a meaningful explanation.

On a day to day basis, life has become much easier to deal with as a female here. At the beginning, I couldn't stand the stares I got from every Egyptian. This includes women, which was even more infuriating, as I expected some solidarity, but as a Western woman showing skin and hair, I am a walking sin. I quickly learned that wearing skirts above the ankle would attract more stares, adjusted my clothing a bit, and learned to take it. I can't go into certain cafes, and at a place like the concert I went to in Cairo a couple nights ago, I am often one of the few females. I have a good street face: I don't look at anyone, just straight ahead with a tough "don't mess with this Gringa" look. It doesn't bother me as much anymore, although I of course find some men to be hypocritical dogs who deserve to be punched.

Some people back home were surprised when I told them virtually every woman is covered here, as they remembered traveling the region and not seeing as much higab before. This is due to a greater Islamization of society occurring after the 1967 war with Israel, when high aspirations of Arab nationalism came tumbling down. Nasser had failed and Jerusalem was lost. Why? Their answer was because they had been bad Muslims, straying too far toward Western immorality. Radio programs, books and pamphlets with Islamic encouragement started to be published, and the higab and the beard became more common in the streets.

Why do women even wear the higab, or the niqab (the one with only an eye slit)? Ah, the never-answered question. Here is my fuzzy comprehension. Now, I have not read the Quran Kareem, but I have been told it does not explicitly demand a woman cover her head; it suggests she cover up in vague language. My clearest understanding of the phenomenon comes from an intense conversation about religion with one of the Egyptian girls (a Muslim, I escaped conversion though) here in the dorms (in Arabic, thank you very much.) She explained to me how alcohol is forbidden in Islam because it clouds a believer's mind, makes them forget the righteous path and their faith in Allah. Sexual temptation does the same thing, and seeing a woman's hair, body, or even face, tempts men. So at this point you are all thinking what I am: why is it a woman's responsibility to reinforce a man's faith?! Mish 3adl, not fair, but it's all I have to offer.

This is not to say that women have no presence or role in this society! It is just less than we are used to back West. It also depends on class, as it would anywhere. More well-off Egyptians tend to be more liberal, practicing Islam less or more inwardly. On the other hand, if an Egyptian girl comes from a poor family, she will be married as soon as possible to relieve the burden to her father, exemplifying the cycle from uneducated daughter to housewife. And that is not to diminish the role of mother or wife, as many of you admirable women know are some of the hardest jobs in the world. But the idea that a woman is only good for those roles is the danger in this society. Thankfully, I know many impressive women here: the Egyptian girls I live with are getting educated, many of them to be nurses and doctors in this country's deplorable health system. My professors are powerhouses who are nurturing change and growth. These women don't need to be saved from the higab, or from the harassment on the streets, nor do they want to be. They make their choices because they love Islam, or Egypt, or both. If they create their own paths, I respect them.

I have learned about some outstanding Egyptian women in my course, which is taught by 2 similarly impressive doctors, both of whom I deeply admire. In terms of Masr's history, in the times of British influence and during the rule of Mohammed Ali and Saad Zaghloul (first couple decades of 20th century), Hedy Showrii founded the first female union in Egypt and the Middle East, helped run a female committee on the Wafd party (around before Nasser), and wrote about and for women. Nebwiyya Musy was the first woman to get her high school diploma in Egypt, and went on to found a very successful school for girls and publish curricula for the Ministry of Education, along with other influential writing.

Want to know a little more? The following 2 links are to recent goings-on in terms of harassment and popular Islamic culture here in Egypt:

This article is about Muslim women speaking for themselves, rather than asking the West to:

This is a longer article that was in the NYT Magazine over the summer detailing how women are the world's solution to its problems:

I hope this has shed some light on the woman's role here in Egyptian society. It is a constant struggle full of paradoxes! It is often hard to wrap my head around my emotional and intellectual reactions, but I know I am both fascinated and moved, confused and frustrated. I want to return to Egypt this summer and do thesis research on women here, with the help of my 2 professors here, InShaAllah.

Chew on that! Lighter blog entry about Upper Egypt soon to come, my heloweens (sweet ones).