Monday, May 24, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Channeling Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones to Belloq: "You want to talk to God? Let's go see him together. I've got nothing better to do."

I have this side of me that likes to pretend I was Indiana Jones in a former life and I like to channel him. Most people know that I absolutely abhor going to touristic places, and while I would have to be a psycho not to want to see the pyramids, I’m more interested in the off-beaten path. Unfortunately, it is rather difficult to find someone that will be my companion on my “Indiana Jones adventures.”

And I’ll also be the first to admit that earlier, I was held back because I was too scared to venture out alone. Therefore, I waited for others to go with me. However, as I learned from my escapades in NYC, if you wait around for others, you’ll probably be waiting around for the rest of your life. So, I get tired of waiting and decided that Friday I would go on an adventure alone.

I went to Medinaat ez-Zabaleen (Garbage City) located in Moqattam – where, if you remember – had the landslide killing many people in 2008 shortly after I arrived to Egypt.

Garbage City is mainly comprised of Coptic Christians as they (the ‘zabaleen’ or trash people) are the only ones that will do the work having to deal with Cairo’s pits and the “haram” sale/distribution of pigs. You may also recall that when the Egyptian government decided to slaughter all the pigs, this community was heavily affected (and it is speculated by many as the government’s way of getting back at the Christian community).

Medinaat ez-Zabaleen is where they hand-separate each piece of trash as a method of recycling.

At the end of this post, you’ll find a volunteer gig that I recommend to those of you that might be short on time. During the Baby Wash, I met another woman who gave me excellent directions to the area. However, I still asked many people directions, how to explain to a cab driver, etc. My Arabic is limited, but I can speak and understand enough to get around.

So I took off at 8:30 am and walked through Garbage City. I snapped photos of the children, of women sorting the trash and just anything else that I found interesting (ie goats wandering around). Then I walked up the mountain to St. Simon’s monastery. There are cave churches – carved into the mountain – with carvings of different Biblical passages. I walked into St. Simon’s with the help of a Coptic Christian family that saw me wandering around. They walked me in and we prayed together, then they walked me to the rest of the cave churches. By the way, did I mention that they didn’t speak a word of English? Let’s just say that thank God I have some Arabic.

They invited me to their house for lunch, which I declined. Instead, we had coke and crackers in a meeting place and they insisted on paying. These people don’t have much, but they were so excited to show me around. I tried to give them money, but they wouldn’t accept it. They walked me back down the mountain to get a cab, and although they took my phone number and vice versa, I cannot communicate with them as I am nowhere near fluent enough to carry on any type of conversation other than arguing with a cab driver.

It took awhile to get a cab as each driver tried to overcharge me, but the third time is a charm. Before I left, the son and daughter ran and got me a bouquet of flowers. I had a really sweet cab driver on the way back to Maadi and I wanted to say that this is one of those experiences that make me excited that I’m able to see such a place. While I can tell you about all the frustrations that I face here (and yes, I know frustrations exist everywhere), these are things that make me appreciate this country.

Looking to Volunteer?
I wanted to do something else in my nearly non-existent free time, so I began volunteering for St. Andrew’s Refugee Services which has various centers throughout Cairo for Sudanese refugees. I was tutoring English twice a week, which was a bit difficult with my crazy work schedule. And I’ll go ahead and be honest, not everyone is a teacher and I felt like a complete failure.

I’d heard about the Baby Wash for the past year, but have been unable to locate who is in charge of it. The Baby Wash is once a week (Monday mornings) meeting at CSA at 8:15 in Maadi and heading to Harem in Giza. You spend a couple of hours as mothers bring their newborns in to get properly cleaned and checked (between one and four week old infants).

So listen, I am not a mother nor am I near children often – in fact, I haven’t been near a newborn since my niece and nephew (approx. 14 years ago). I was so nervous – they’re so TINY (except one big boy I had…he was a chunk). The other women were so helpful and nice – and also, one of them even helped give me the idea for my weekend adventure (Thanks Deb). They will be breaking for the summer and will start up again in August.

If you are interested in this activity or volunteering for St. Andrews, you may send me an email directly and I will give you the proper contact information.


Monday, May 17, 2010

Letters from Egypt: What NOT to Discuss

You are taught from an early age – or at least should have been taught – that two major topics to never discuss are religion and politics. Well, in Egypt, you can add another one to that list: the Holocaust.

I took a spontaneous road trip this weekend to Sharm el-Sheikh. When I returned and began checking my emails, I went to my Cairo Scholars message folder. Inundated with the same subject line were what seemed like tons of messages (How to Handle: Holocaust Deniers). As I will not disclose what those emails contained, for listserv privacy purposes, I will say that this is a common problem you will face in this region.

Personally, I only know of one person who denies that the Holocaust ever occurred and I have avoided any type of conversation regarding the subject as I like the person and don’t want to end on a bad foot. You will hear every excuse in the book as to how and why the Holocaust never occurred. Whether it be something as outlandish as pictures being digitally altered by Hollywood Zionists or politically-motivated US officials moving against Palestine. The reasoning behind such ideology is never ending.

A friend of mine is a history teacher in an American school, so I posed the question to her asking how her students received their lesson on WWII. I had heard rumors that in some schools, the lesson on WWII is skipped entirely. My friend said that since it is an American curriculum, they go over it but she has students who debate and deny it in class.

You might think that most of these non-believers are lower-class, uneducated Egyptians, but that simply isn’t true. As I’ve said, I have never experienced any kind of rhetoric based on this subject matter because I came into this region knowing how sensitive it is and my suggestion to all of you is to avoid it at all cost – at least if you want to keep friends.

Whether or not you support Israel or Palestine, it is important to remember that you will never have the same views as someone else and tackling such sensitive material can cause an unnecessary argument which could be anything but a respectful debate.

Another point of interest is that no matter what country you are from, you have studied different material in school. There is even a difference among states in the US and their curriculum. For instance, I grew up in the South and a major part of our history is the Civil War. However, friends that grew up outside the South didn’t focus nearly as much time on the civil war. WWI and WWII differ greatly from British recorded data and US lessons. It could be said this is just propaganda in order to continue loyalty toward one’s native country because let’s be honest, if we all knew the complete truth of actions taken by our own countries, we would be less than pleased on all accounts.

Coming soon…

In other news, I took on a new volunteer gig as I was previously volunteering to teach English at a center for Sudanese refugees and decided to take on a new activity: baby washing. Once I get the pictures, I will post information for any of you that have some spare time and would like to help out in the community.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Behind Every Great Man…

Egyptian women gathered in front of a polling station after they were denied entry. 
Photo taken by the New York Times

“Behind every great man, there is a great woman.”

And whether you believe that statement or not is your personal opinion, but as I continue living my life in Egypt, I am constantly faced with a belief that because I was born with certain genitalia that am the weaker sex.

As Egypt progressively grows more conservative – in addition to the rest of the MidEast – I want to highlight Hoda Sha’rawi who began fighting for female rights in Egypt before 1919.

To put things into perspective, the US gave females the right to vote via the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920. However, the famous “bra-burning” movement in the US didn’t occur until the 1960s. And the feminist war continued to wage in the US with a new wave of feminism in the 1990s. Truth be told, it will persist. As recently as 3.5 years ago I was started off at a job making significantly less than my male colleague – whom started only a month prior to my arrival – doing the same job (and no, it didn’t require physical strength).

The argument could be waged that he was simply better than I was at the job; however, that argument is null as the US law would be that by performing the same tasks with identical titles, we should begin at the same salary. Depending on your performance, a pay raise may be implemented and up to the employer’s discretion.

So while this debate will always be prevalent, one woman kick-started things in Egypt. Although present-day Egypt would allow you to think that all of Sha’rawi’s (with the help of others) efforts have been forgotten.

Sha’rawi led the first demonstrations for women in Egypt in 1919 and also founded the Egyptian Women’s Union. Other notable actions include advocating female education and equal opportunities for women in education and employment which led to the opening of As-Saniyva Secondary School for girls in 1924. These efforts also resulted in a law that increased the marriage age to 16 for females and 18 for males. And in 1945, she represented Egypt with Siza Nabarawi and Esmat Assem calling for the prevention of nuclear weapons after the Hiroshima bombing.

In May 4, 1923, Hoda Sha’rawi, Nabawiya Moussa and Ceza Nabarawi left for Rome to represent Egypt in the International Feminist Conference. The first Egyptian woman to obtain a baccalaureate degree, Moussa wrote to Al-Ahram newspaper that the flag that the Egyptian delegation carried to Rome had been questioned. Sha’rawi responded that the flag – featuring a crescent with a cross in the center – was a symbol of the 1919 feminist revolution. The conference chairwoman was impressed by Egypt’s tolerance. Moussa commented in the paper, “Apparently, they had believed that Egyptians were given to religious intolerance. We found proof of this in the fact that when one of the conference participants approached to speak with us, her first question was, 'What is the difference between Copts and Muslims in Egypt?' We told her that the Copts believe in Christianity and the Muslims believe in Islam, that both Copts and Muslims are free in the practice of their beliefs, but that all are bound by a common loyalty to their country."

Upon return to Egypt, an Al-Ahram reader wrote praising Sha’rawi and her colleagues for their courage saying, “May God spare Egypt the evils of obstinacy and mental stagnation, the ills that plague all efforts at reform.”

It’s a shame that those efforts have become forgotten in today’s society.

 Photo from BBC

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Difficulty in Simplicity

Today I learned how to change a light bulb.

 This light fixture has live wires exposed.  

“Wow, what a moron” is probably what you’re thinking, at least that’s what I would be thinking as I read that opening line. And while I spend a significant time discussing the realizations I’ve come to by living in the sandpit, I have warned you that the simplest tasks are made more difficult and for what reason?

Hence, back to my light bulb escapades.

I began a month ago trying to change out the blown bulbs, but to no avail. How many people does it take to unscrew a light bulb? Well, in Egypt, apparently two. First of all, the light fixtures are cheap implementations that are so jerry-rigged that you don’t know how to get your hand in there. Please note Exhibit A:

It would appear as though you can just put your hand through the top. Not true. Then you begin unscrewing the bulb, only to find that the bottom also moves around. As glass shatters in your hand, you’re thinking WTF. Perhaps that was just one bulb, let’s move on to the next. After four more tries, I finally realized that each fixture/bulb is much of the same. And then, I encountered a new problem.

People will tell you that Egyptians are so crafty and that they can fix anything. Yes, perhaps they can temporarily fix problems with a simple procedure that entails taping and throwing things back into the wall. Next thing you know, you have live wires exposed throughout your humble abode. And yet, the electricians wonder why they get shocked so often (ah hem, they also fail to turn off the breaker because that takes brain power and more energy).

This simplistic operation is not uncommon. As I’ve also previously mentioned, you will find many taxis that have parts fall out while in motion only for the driver to continue on his way until the car is no longer operable. When the car put puts to a stop, then the driver returns to get that apparently much needed part. At which time, he just throws it back in hoping that the car will work.

I have finally changed all the light bulbs in my apartment, well, almost all of them with the exception of the live wire exposed bulb. We’ll just leave that be and hope that an electrical fire doesn’t ensue in the near future (or at all for that matter).

Place of the Week:


N&B Stables

If you’ve been to the pyramids in hopes of horseback riding and/or camel riding, then you know what an extremely difficult and exhausting experience that can be. First of all, you encounter solicitors that will just NEVER leave you alone. Then you get hit up for ENORMOUSLY OUTRAGEOUS prices (if you do the conversion, you might think they’re reasonable, but they are NOT). And finally, you will come across many stables/owners that do not take care of their animals and you will see some in such horrendous shape that there is no way you can enjoy what is supposed to be a great experience.

I’ve been through all of those scenarios, so I’m happy to report that I’ve found a stable that is reasonable, takes good care of their animals and is just a pleasure to work with. A friend of mine has her own horse here, so she shared this secret with our group and I thought the rest of you could use some help.

Welcome to N&B Riding Stables. In case you can see the phone number, please phone ahead to Nasser himself at 010.889.5364 and the landline at 3 3820435

You will be given exact instructions on how to get to the stable with the option of riding past the pyramids or simply just around their property. We paid 100LE to ride for a couple of hours. If you want to go into the pyramids, that’s an extra 60LE for a ticket (or if you have a college student ID then 30LE – hey, my college ID no longer looks anything like me, but I still use it). After the ride, Nasser even sent someone to get us a couple of beers as we just sat around. They have food like foul and tamaya as well as soda, water and tea.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Misconceptions

Photo: the
It’s about that time of year again, one that I like to refer to as “Gulfie Season.” This is in reference to the influx of Arabs from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE. They come to Egypt and wreak havoc on all its inhabitants, throwing their money around at any given chance.

Egyptian television begins their yearly campaign in an effort to teach manners and etiquette by placing strategic ads. One of the commercials last year showed a man returning  to his parked car only to find that it had been hit with no culprit in sight. As is the norm here, he begins yelling and asking others nearby if they saw anything. Then he finds a note on his car with the number to the person responsible for his new dent (probably one of many considering the driving techniques or lack there of embedded in every Egyptian). While this ad was undoubtedly also to teach fellow Egyptians about proper actions after such a situation, it is notable that it appears right before and during Gulfie Season gets underway.

I have always had a dim view of Gulfies, particularly Saudis (as I loved being grabbed in appropriately while trying to smoke a cigarette in the airport by a Saudi, whom pretended to be blind, but carried out his actions in front of a group of people). The women have no concept of personal space, nor do they have an issue knocking you out of their way.

However, I recently read Princess: The True Story of Life Behind the Veil. I agree with one comment I saw posted about the book: it is not for the faint of heart. It was taken from a Saudi Princess’ memoirs, written by American writer Jean Sasson. Not only did the entire book make me angry, but what really upset me was every reference to the Saudis coming to Egypt and actions that they would carry out. One such passage describes a lower class woman selling females as young as eight years old to these male royals around the age of thirteen or fourteen. The male royals raped the girls repeatedly – taking their virginity – and just throwing them back out into the street.

I will admit that I cannot speak on such actions as I have not been personally witness to any of them – thank God – but this book did something else for me. I pride myself in being open-minded, but perhaps I’m not. After reading this book, I felt horrible at all the preconceived notions I had regarding Saudi women. I assumed they were happy, with tons of money to spare, and little regard for anyone else. How close-minded I found myself to be. How could I have prejudged an entire group of people based on only a handful of personal incidents and a magnitude of heresy?

As I’ve admitted in previous posts, discovering this about myself is disappointing.

I was sitting at my favorite restaurant, Taboula, with a couple of friends about two weeks ago. A group of about eight Saudi women came and sat at the table next to us. I was immediately put off by their constant stares. I – once again – assumed they were staring because of the way I was dressed and my table drinking a couple of bottles of wine plus beer. Then a little girl they had with them got on the table and began to belly dance (about as much belly dancing as a two-year old can do) and we all started smiling. Next thing I know, a beautiful cake was brought out and the women promptly sent two pieces over to my table. How quick I’d jumped to conclusions when the stares could have possibly just been in wonderment.