Saturday, December 19, 2009

Eshufikou 3la Khair...

So the Middlebury semester has officially come to an end, and I have watched as all my American friends have departed Egypt's shores. It has been sad to say good-bye; we undoubtedly got closer over a trying semester, and I hope to see many of them back state-side. Wednesday night, we celebrated with an amusing talent show accompanied by dinner, plus the remaining people went to a movie the other night. I am not ready for this adventure to end, so I'm glad I have more time here to soak up Alex, Cairo, and my lovely Egyptians. Meanwhile, some observations, comments, ventations, lessons:

1.) This is a man's world. Women are unequivocally inferior, not only in the eyes of men, but as proven by their own belief in this. A woman should be a good mother and wife. If a husband hits his wife, she was unquestionably asking for it. Men own the streets, with their hisses and growls, and they own the mosque, they own the workplace in sheer number, and they own the house when return at the end of the day. Women are the source of all evil (a direct quote from my friend Farahat, after which I told him we better stop talking about the topic because I would hit him and then we wouldn't be friends.) It is heartbreaking to hear girls and women telling me this is how it should be, discussing with me only how many kids she wants and what her wedding will be like. Are women here living in ignorant bliss, or is there a way for them to wake up and struggle for equality with men? Ask me more about this topic when you see me, because I confront it every day.

2.) There is order here in that there is no order. I am often baffled as to how society functions, but it does, in its own dysfunctional way. This chaos is best represented by Egyptian drivers and pedestrians. Egyptian drivers have an unfailing grasp of how big there car is, making them capable of fitting in any space, between any two cars, or gaging their speed and lane-swaying just right so they don't hit the pedestrian ahead of them. I have never understood the phrase "dodging traffic" until now, a feat made easy by Egyptian pedestrians. This goes not only for traffic, but any sort of line, business, or institutions. Similarly, problems here only have temporary solutions. For example, if the tram driver would just learn to shut the doors of the tram as his job requires, Austin may not have had his accident, but somehow, arresting him seemed like a better solution to the police. Another example, when my friend Chelsea was having chest pains and vomiting, the doctor diagnosed that she was "allergic to Egypt." Ah yes, Doctor, thank you for your official and accurate diagnosis that has no treatment. This shows how, despite a semi-operational society, things fail because they are not thought-out.

3.) Egyptians love Egypt and have a very hard time criticizing it. This is either a symptom of apathy, or the cause of their apathy, or both, not sure. Apathy grows from fear, fear of the unknown, of change. Let me explain. About a month ago, Algeria beat Egypt in a qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup, and the violent turnout was absurd. Egyptians absolutely refused to believe that they had done any wrong. Even my most liberal Egyptian friends defend the most irritating and conservative aspects of society here. The notion that "dissent is patriotic" does not exist. The source of this disinterest in changing one's country stems from fear that the status quo could be worse. Egyptians could be living under a dictator like Saddam Hussein who hunted his citizens, rather than a dictator masquerading behind democracy like Mubarak. They could be living with civil war and disease, much like their neighbors to the Sub-Saharan south. So relatively speaking, I guess you could say they have it good enough, so they'll vote with their pocketbook rather than hope.

4.) Jews and Gays are not on Egyptians' radar, and that is intentional. When a chit-chatty taxi driver asks me my religion (a normal introductory question here), Judaism is never an option. If an Egyptian doesn't like Obama, it's because "he likes the Jews". For your average uneducated Egyptian, there is no distinction between being Jewish and being an Israeli and/or Zionist. Israel and Palestine is a very sensitive topic that rouses even the most unpolitical Egyptian. I went to an action film that depicted all the Israelis as pure evil, and when I pointed that out to my Egyptian friends, they said that was normal. There may be a delicate alliance between the countries' governments, but there is nothing delicate about the way Egyptians feel about Israelis. Being gay just doesn't exist, it is that sinful. I would be curious to find out more about that community and what it experiences in a culture like this.

5.) Islam is life. Five times a day, rhythmic voices echo over loudspeakers squeezing into alleyways and reminding me of this. TV commercials display Quranic verses, reminding me of this. Seeing another uncovered woman shocks me, and reminds me of this. In fact, the 2nd Amendment of the Egyptian Constitution states that Islam is the religion of the state! There is something beautiful about a deeply devout society, but on the other hand, I wish Egyptian society could look for other sources of knowledge and enlightenment as well.

6.) Americans, or any foreigners living here, need to learn to laugh off the small irritating things. This includes not always having hot water, incessant catcalls and stares in the street, and general craziness and noise at all times. A lot of the students I think were unprepared for this, and maybe expected more. I'm not sure how I was able to let go and not care so easily so often. I was able to adapt and remember "When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable." (Clifton Fadiman, stolen from Abe/Chris's blogs.) I also think my having been raised in a multicultural environment allowed me to adapt culturally and socially as well. I feel at ease with the extreme religiousness of my friends here, people's forwardness and honesty, and also their cuddly warmth and loudness. Egyptians remind me of Puerto Ricans a lot: they are always ready to laugh and celebrate something (preferably with noise, music, and food), they are incredibly welcoming and generous, and they are emotional and religious. Many of the American students complained about the homogenous environment here, claiming to be accustomed to America's melting pot. I feel that that was a liberal façade for their own intolerance; most of the program's students come from financially comfortable families in predominately white areas and go to predominately white private colleges. They have never lived or worked closely among true diversity. There was a lot of negativity from a good chunk of the program's students, but I just felt sorry for them, that they weren't able to benefit intellectually and emotionally from the experience as I was.

I do hope that was somewhat coherent and beneficial (my English has been lacking of late.) I have so much more to share with you upon my return. Until then, I'll be hurrying around Egypt to immerse myself in it as much as possible. The other night, I went to a Christmas carol performance in a stunning Coptic church with my professor. I've been spending lots of time with friends here in Alex, going to all my favorite places and laughing with my Egyptian roomies. Also, I am now bringing home a fish (if she makes it past customs), as my peachy roommate Reham thought this was a good idea for a good-bye present. Egyptians have funny thought processes. I get more emotional by the day about leaving here, but with that grows my determination to return. I am also comforted by the fact that I have such wonderful friends and family waiting for me at home.

Los quiero todo un montón,

Gamila جميلة
Some of my best (American) girlfriends and me at the talent show.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fri. Dec. 11th, 2:40am

Imberah my 1-on-1 professor was late. As always, I expect nothing of it, since, let’s be honest, Arab time is a flimsy and malleable thing. But then she phones me and confesses to being laid up in bed with a sore back… meskeena. Of course Veronica and I will find our way to your sha’a so you can sit comfortably while you lecture us. Meshii, eshuf hadratik kamaan showea. So we casually jump into the afternoon zehma, garnering some good stares along the way. We make it to her turf, and proceeded to discuss the strength of Copic nuns and how the overdose of testosterone in men’s brains prevents them from being successful leaders. Women really should rule the world. Can you fathom the challenge of dedicating yourself to dialogue with God, in a cave for decades, at that?! Umne Yirini grew miracles from air, and my Usteza Hiba guides me with her t3leem down an unknown path. There is something about this place, perhaps everyone’s inherent religiousness, that leads me to not only desire God, but to see him in Everything around me.

Dinner includes awkward conversation, liver (a spicy tang), and dead cockroaches. But I like it when those at first cumbersome conversations turn down greener paths; it is so rewarding, so I keep at it, and end up genuinely laughing. I’ll take that.

But sitting down in a bar that would be divey in America but is just classic in Egypt with some good and familiar people is heaven. Chelsea, Amanda, Hima, Chris, later gayeen Dan wi Jon. We let loose about Egypt; even I need to vent, rehash, and we do, passionately. I can barely remember the last time I had a political discussion, so even despite the never-ending frustration that comes with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am intellectually grateful. Then in walk the Arabs themselves, Karim wi Kholy, Bazooka wi Tabaakh. I feign outrage when Hima offers to sell me to Kholy, who then states he doesn’t want me. I shine because I can understand them and they me. I found Faree’ Marwaha, which involves me, Bazooka and Tabaakh pounding fists and whirring. Beer fills my stomach, laughter my mouth, love the rest of my body.

I wake and prepare for some sensory goodness from Amreeka! On the way to breakfast, I am reminded of the lack of personal space in this country when a woman feels Chelsea up on the tram, meaning (in Egyptian) “Let me by”. Breakfast is a clash of kitchens, with pancakes smeared in Nutella and frowla versus Egyptians strewn all about Khalid’s apartment. I cut strawberries and putz around, and Khalid and I beat Semeh wi Farahaat at Dominos: Team Amreeka Fuck Ya 1, Team Welcome in Masr 0.

Elley and I leave, surrendering ourselves to Alex’s streets, reaching the lengths of Mohatta Raml and crossing over into Manshiyya. We undoubtedly feel comfortable in the city, and we look around shamelessly, seeping any last culture it can offer. I lightheartedly banter with shopkeepers, knowing they will ask my name and then “Wa intii fi3lan gamila.” As if it is original for me to hear "And you are actually beautiful" after introducing myself here. I am unphased, even letting them convince me to by an unk made in damn China. Asking for and comprehending directions is one of the most gratifying experiences I will recall here. Alhamdulillah, begad.

We dip bangar in tahina, wrap our fuul in a3eesh, top off our palette with gibn almost sweet. The simple joy of food at Mohammad Ahmed calls for silence as we compete to finish as much as we can as fast as we can. And all for $2! That will never get old. I feel strangely Egyptian as I lean against a car licking ice cream from Halwiyaat Masr afterward; if only I wasn’t laughing in public while my uncovered hair billowed in the Mediterranean winter wind.

I depart my girlies, heading south to meet Hima & Khalid for our tegriba sakafiyya. The concert turns out to not be classical Egyptian music, but rather your average classical music, although strung by some very good-looking Egyptians. M3lihsh, I was surrounded by good company. Afterward we let the cold night push us around Mohatta Raml, glancing up and around, chit-chatting. We buy popcorn and TinTin adventures in Arabic while staring at the enigma that is an Egyptian wedding. While narkab-ing the tram, Khalid guards my innocence from a gross and inappropriate man; InShaAllah Hima took note and will be a savior to some girls next semester. I allow myself to be unaffected by it as I have been almost all semester; is this dangerous complacency or analytical acceptance?

Tabaakh and Karim and Bazooka are waiting for me, much to the conservative dismay of the soldier guarding the Medina. Haraam, akeed. Damn, I can laugh with those boys, and they can so easily become my boys. Time with them pulls my steps back from leaving Masr’s shore, makes me want to waste nights in ‘ehwas with them. I confess to Karim how much I’ve missed him, that I never stopped caring, that I hate hearing about his moods vicariously. I adore him, for all is irritating idiosyncrasies that somehow make me dramatic, too. I think I slithered into the everest green of his eyes, bypassing the gray he covers himself with. I promise them all I will come back.

I know they will all be waiting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

مدغستش من مصر

Ay el-helwa di?! Habibis, Azizis, besos y abrazos de Masr! Just wanted to share a couple happy days with you...

This past Thursday night, a week after the actual date... drumroll... I celebrated Turkey Day in Egypt. Can cross that off my list! One of the best holidays ever, with some of the yummiest food, and some of the ishta-ist people. Many of us spent the day running around Alex searching for ingredients, carrying pots and pans from one apartment to another and battling with shitty Egyptian stoves. The day's toils culminated in a successful feast, AlHamduLillah! Almost impossibly, we ate turkey, cranberry sauce, green beans, sweet and mashed potatoes, corn bread, pumpkin and apple pie!! The group before gorging:
After the yumminess, some girlfriends and I decided, since it was officially Christmas month, it was now appropriate to cuddle up on two beds pushed together and watch Love Actually. We "aawweed" a lot and squealed.

Funny thing: Friday morning, I was elatedly listening to Christmas music (de Puerto Rico, claro), when the call to prayer ricocheted through my open window, drowning out José González. I chuckled out loud at the slight clash of civilizations.

I met up with Lizz & Eric midday at the dorms, and we headed out on our touristy adventure. Our first stop was the cemetery of a Coptic church, a stone maze of Celtic-like crosses draped with Arabic calligraphy and flowers of mourning. We wondered through the tombs, trying to decipher inscriptions, appreciating the non-Muslim side of Alex we had come across. Islam is so prevalent in daily life here, that I sometimes forget there can be anything else like the saints prevalent in Coptic foundations. We were graciously welcomed into the exquisite church's sanctuary, where we admired the Coptic-style icons infused with more European style artwork. Truly beautiful:
We then trammed westwards to explore the only Roman amphitheater in Egypt, as well as the baths and other excavations surrounding it. We ran into our dear friend Doctor Matta, who accompanied us on this goofy historical tour. Excavations are still being done on this site, which looks like a pile of rubble at the moment, but apparently underneath it are Muslim tombs, and some houses and schools. There wasn't a ton to see, but we made the most of our exploration, entering every nook and posing with sphinxes dredged from the Alexandrian harbor (there are possible plans to make an underwater museum of all the ruins there!) Check out more recent photos to narrate, but here's ya girl:
I topped off my day by watching some awesome American & Egyptian boys play soccer. Lying in bed later that night, I was overwhelmed by pure euphoria. My base line here has always been happiness, so tangible and honest, and then it comes welling out of me after extraordinary days. I love my life here. Today, I used that energy to write 3 short essays for an application to a government-funded language program called CLS. I will come back here next summer, in whatever capacity.

Despite my infatuation with this place, I still get thrilling jitters every time I think of going home. I am looking forward to the simple pleasures: lazing around with la familia, fires in Goshen, bundling up and walking downtown Northampton, vegetables. You all better be missing me lots!