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!

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