Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Letters from Egypt: A Foreigner’s Guide to Ramadan

Taken while at a Ramadan tent for police in Heliopolis
We would like to inform you that if you have any business with the Middle East during the next month, please be advised nothing will be accomplished. Ramadan has officially begun. However, after Eid, business should return to normal (which isn't much different).

If this is your first Ramadan, you are in for a treat – ah hem, several frustrations. I remember my first Ramadan, and it was anything but thrilling. I had only moved here about two months prior and I didn’t know anyone. NO ONE can prepare you for what to expect during the Muslim Holy month. I spent most of my afternoons reading at a cafĂ©, and I soon became aware that I had better get there before iftar (meal breaking fast) and give my order. Otherwise, I could be waiting for awhile before remotely seeing a server. Wait, I take that back. You will see your server. He’s usually praying and then sitting at a nearby table eating. If you ask for something, he will probably look at you as though you’re crazy for remotely asking because he hasn’t eaten all day.

You will spend the first week in your office listening to the constant complaints from your colleagues as to how hungry, thirsty and/or how tired they may be (don’t worry, this will continue throughout the month, you just build a tolerance to it). And you’re thinking, “Hold on a minute buddy, often times I’m so busy at work that I don’t have a chance to eat or forget about eating and I’m not always complaining.” Just make sure you don’t voice those thoughts, but be clear – we’re all thinking the same thing.

And there’s something even more about Egypt during Ramadan. The country changes its clocks back an hour – just for Ramadan – so those adhering to the month do not have to go for too lengthy of a time fasting. Yet Muslims around the world do not get that luxury. So that brings up another thought: if the idea to fast is to understand what it is like for the underprivileged, why are special allowances made?

If you do know other people here or if this isn’t your first Ramadan, you’ve been to an iftar. So that also raises yet another question: if the idea to fast is to understand what it is like for the underprivileged, then can you please tell me what poor person wakes up in the morning and says, “I will not eat while the sun is up, but when the sun goes down, I will eat my weight and then some, take a nap, eat more, smoke shisha, and then eat more before I sleep until tomorrow’s sun down.” Just some food for thought.

This is what happens when your friends take you for iftar and refuse to drop you off until after sa7our (4 am-ish)
However, as a foreigner, you might find this time a little trying. So mixed in with some fun activities that I personally like about Ramadan, here is my list of Ramadan Do’s.

•    Carry your passport any time you wish to have alcohol because if you look slightly Arab (ermm brown hair and brown eyes, ha), you will not be served unless you can show proof of another nationality. The places that serve alcohol can be held liable for serving you if you are a local, and could be arrested. This is to protect you and the owner.
•    Get all of your groceries or other shopping done from 13:00-17:00, and then again from 21:00 until closing (although it will be a madhouse at any time). Some places that cater to expats might be open earlier, but note that operating hours change for businesses during this month.
Carrefour during Ramadan 2009
•    If you’re like me and always acquire bruises while venturing to Carrefour to grocery shop, let me tell you – shopping during iftar is one of the best experiences you will ever have (alternatively, you will need a car to at least get from Carrefour because price gauging there is already bad, it gets worse during this time and any attempt to thrwart it will have religious rhetoric immediately thrown your way)
•    The streets are empty, so while it is normally difficult (okay, damn near impossible) to walk/jog in Cairo streets – this is the perfect time to get your fill. So take that stroll around your neighborhood without worrying about getting run down by a microbus, cab, or just a typical Cairo driver.
•    While many bars will be closed, please look below to a list of cool places that in case you want to continue your debaucherous ways, you can still do so (which you need to be thankful for because other countries you would not have such a luxury)
•    It is customary to give those less unfortunate around you a monetary gift (like you would at Christmas), ie your bowab, drivers, etc. What you give them is up to you and a one-time gift will suffice. I don’t usually give money, but I give presents like each year I buy Sha’maa, my sweet office girl, a very nice higab (as I absolutely love this little girl and want her to be the prettiest when she goes to her village near Fayoum for the Eid celebrations) and other new clothing items (or really anything that I can see that she needs).

Another point of interest is that it is more difficult to haggle during this time. Price gauging will increase exponentially. So be prepared.

Some of my favorite Ramadan treats:

Om Ali:

An Egyptian dessert that is cooked pieces of puff pastry combined with nuts, raisins, and coconut covered in hot, sweetened milk. It is said that Om Ali was the first wife of Sultan Ezz El Din Aybek, and when the sultan died, his second wife had a dispute with Om Ali. The argument resulted in the second wife’s death and to celebrate, Om Ali made this dessert and distributed it throughout the country.

Hummus Esham:
If you like bloody mary’s or spicy V8 juice, you’re going to love love LOVE this drink (if it’s made correctly). It is like a warm, spicy, perhaps salsa-like drink made with tomato juice with whole chick peas and spices.

Now onto the Don’ts which are VERY IMPORTANT

•    Be mindful that those around you are fasting which means during daylight, NO FOOD, NO DRINK (including water), and NO CIGARETTES. Do not – no matter how frustrated you will get – throw it in others’ faces so to speak.
•    Do NOT smoke on the streets
•    Females – dress EXTRA conservative as there is no sex during this time either, so if you thought harassment was bad before, let me assure you it can be even worse. I disagree with others who say this culture is sexually deprived because I have NEVER seen a culture that thrives more on sexual activity. To put it bluntly, the French ain’t got nothing on Egypt! So for them to refrain from sexual activity for a month is probably harder than the food/water bit. To me, dressing more conservatively is probably the BIGGEST piece of advice I can offer you.
•    Try NOT to get a cab right before iftar. More accidents happen right before iftar as many are rushing to get home and with a lack of food and sleep makes this venture a very dangerous path. Just when you thought the drivers here could not get worse, oh but they can. 5elibelik (take care)

Places to Go for the Expats

Alcohol is still allowed for those of us carrying a foreign passport (remember to place it in your bag before leaving your apartment), but there aren’t as many options during this time. Here are a few that can help you out:

•    Hotel bars sans the Grand Hyatt (the Hyatt is owned by a Sheikh and is one of the only hotels in which you will not be able to have an alcoholic beverage, and no, although Hard Rock is located on the premises, that means those pretty colorful beverages will only be a tease during this month)
•    The Odeon – Downtown near Tahrir Sq, off of Talaat Harb Street
•    Nomads – rooftop bar located in Dokki at the Kings Hotel near the cinema
•    BCA – Heliopolis, Mohandaseen and now Maadi
•    Ace Club – Medan Victoria, Maadi
•    The Greek Club – unfortunately due to its secrecy, I don’t know the exact location except that it’s downtown. Rumor had it that you must be Greek or be with a Greek to enter – not true.

FYI – Drinkies will be closed. If you would like to have alcohol at home, purchase from the Ace Club and rumor also has it that you may obtain some goodies from The Deli (Rd 216 in Maadi). I’m unsure if the BCA sells alcohol, but I would assume so. Granted, all of these are going to come at a hefty price, more than usual.

Yes, you’re going to be increasingly frustrated with many things here during this next month, particularly if you are working here and/or require work to be done for you. However, there are also some cool things to do and if you get a chance to go to an iftar, I highly recommend it. So set back and get geared because it’s Ramadan. Besides, it’s all about the Egyptian experience and it’s up to you to make it enjoyable.

With friends enjoying sa7our (last meal before fast begins)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Angels and Demons

Father Makary Younan, performer of exorcisms in Egypt
While this blog has a decent amount of posts on Islam, there was a thread recently mentioned on Cairo Scholars about exorcisms performed in a part of Cairo (Moqattam). As I have heard there are also Islamic exorcisms, I will not delve into that subject matter as I am unsure what it entails, reportedly Christian exorcisms are conducted in the place where I recently visited (please refer to the Medinaat ez-Zabaleen post titled Channeling Indian Jones).

A recent thread posting on Cairo Scholars had someone inquiring as to where these exorcisms take place, followed by many responses wanting to conduct a “field trip” as though this were a touristic attraction. I have to admit that I was a bit offended by the lackadaisical responses with very little regard to the religious context. For instance, would you consider going to a mosque during Friday prayer snapping pictures, laughing uncontrollably, and talking throughout the prayer? If so, then you clearly have no respect for others’ religious beliefs because I, too, find that very disrespectful.

Father Makary Younan, an Orthadox priest preaching in Morkosia Church in Azbakia, performs regular exorcisms, or the practice of evicting demons or other spiritual entities from a person. He received his B.SC of Science and Pedagogy in 1957 (although his website does not mention from what institution), Diploma in High Studies in 1964, B.SC of Clerical Faculty in 1974 and was ordained on July 18, 1976.

While I have not personally witnessed an exorcism, nor do I ever hope to, I want to point out that I do not recommend anyone either basing their exorcism knowledge on the Exorcist movies and/or going for touristic purposes. I grew up in a very religious area/household and would consider myself to still hold true to the core fundamentals of what I have been taught (minus the theatrical aspects that are prevalent in many religious institutions). And while I am not here to give you my personal beliefs, I will tell you that the mere idea of an exorcism frightens me.

I also want to state that the Catholic Church rarely authorizes exorcisms as it is seen as very dangerous, and the Church even revised the Rite of Exorcism in January 1999. Accordingly, the ritual assumes that the possessed person may retain their free will, but a demon may hold control over the physical body. I also want to state that many exorcisms are performed by overly zealous individuals without strong proof that the devil may, in fact, exist within the person. While many stories exists on exorcisms gone wrong so to speak,  here is a recent story of a 10-year old Malaysian girl tortured in an exorcism rite.
Paul and Jan Crouch of regularly disputed TBN
I was quite surprised to find that Father Younan had a website that was available in English and in Arabic. While I am uncertain if Father Younan is taking monetary donations and cannot personally account for his religious work, I do want to point out that I am leery of anyone who broadcasts exorcisms, not to mention how many he appears to conduct so freely. Anyone familiar with Paul and Jan Crouch, creators of the TBN network (a religious cable channel)? They hold continuous fundraisers in order to place a new satellite somewhere in Africa to allow live feed to come into these poor communities (never does TBN state how many tvs are available in said communities to actually receive transmission, but I digress). Please note how much plastic surgery, undoubtedly financed by monetary donations received, that Jan has clearly had – not to mention the estate they live on in Texas.

Whether or not you believe in God, the devil, or religious text is clearly your right, but exercise respect in knowing that this is not a tourist attraction but a religious belief that while you might not share it, others do. And in saying that, do not disregard their beliefs as something to scoff at.
“Where God has His church, the devil will have his chapel” ~Spanish Proverb

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Riding Solo

I love being classified as a strong, independent woman; however, I’d be lying if I said that there are certain times when riding solo is no bueno and last week was the epitome of that feeling.

First story takes place with what you might think was a near death experience. As I saw the bright light and wondered if that buzzing was Gabriel’s trumpet,  I realized that no, it was just an Egyptian electrician that decided to cut through the wall outside my apartment that carried valuable wires for electricity access to my flat. Instead of rectifying the problem, clearly it was a far better move to just throw the cut wires back into the wall and cover them with plaster.


I walk in and think, “Wow, it’s bright in here.” Then I just figure that my eyes hadn’t adjusted since I was in a dark hallway. Open up my fridge and I tell you what, I felt like the sun was directly coming out. Call some friends to confirm what the issue could be and I’m told that perhaps it’s a power surge. I do what any reasonably intelligent person would do and flip my breaker – three times. I call my neighbor to see if she has the same issue – no, but she informs me our internet is down. I check the router. I check the tv. The cable box. Of course I check the power strip. Then check another power strip in its place. Still no luck.

Since it’s Thursday night, everyone is ready for a party,  I’ll be the first to admit that I was looking forward to a couple of adult bevs. So no one really wants to come out and check the problem. Luckily, my neighbor called her driver who picked up an electrician. I looked outside my flat and noticed that some kind of work had been done earlier that day. Then I noticed that someone had gone into the wall outside my apartment (once again, it was recovered with puddy so it wasn’t immediately noticeable).

Electrician comes and gives me the problem: apparently Egypt’s best and brightest drilled through the wall – although with the nearby cable boxes, it’s a no-brainer that there were WIRES located inside – and cut major wires which caused a direct current to flood my apartment ruining all of my electronics. I proceed to get my bowab involved, who tells the electrician not to tell me it is the building’s fault so that I will take care of the damages without having to go to the building manager. Then he begins to say how the building manager was the one that hired the electrician, made the decision and doesn’t want to take responsibility.
This is after the repairs had been made, but all of those lines had been severed
Long story short(er), I flip. I’m not one for patience anyway, besides, patience is over-rated (although I do eventually hope to acquire more of that attribute). It took over two hours to convey that there was a problem with my power although everyone repeatedly denied it. Six hours later, I have found the location of the building manager, brought him downstairs to see the mess that is my apartment, and then began arguing over his choosing of an electrician because CLEARLY his first choice was horrid, why would I want his next choice?
Electricity is now at normal currents, but the tv, cable box, internet router (extremely important for work), and iPod stereo are all destroyed. And that’s all I’ve found now, but I think everything else is alright since I don’t keep that many things plugged in.

My main point to this story is that while I relish in being independent, this was an undertaking that did not necessarily go in my favor and if it did, it took several hours later. Had I been with a man, maybe a husband, this process I’m sure would’ve been much easier. I have gone to visit the building manager almost every day in regards to the replacement of my items, although I’m rather pessimistic. Apparently, the building sent an electrician to inspect my items last night. Naturally they didn’t tell me in advance and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t just at home waiting for them.

Which brings me to story number two: Wisdom tooth extraction

I’m assuming that most developed countries follow this practice, but usually in the US, to get your wisdom teeth extracted, you are put to sleep as it is considered a small surgery. Ummm, not so much in Egypt. I’ve had problems with my wisdom tooth for so long that I just couldn’t take it anymore. After making an emergency dental appointment before my fun-filled weekend in Hurghada last week, I said this was the last infection I was going to put up with.

I called the dentist and informed him my mouth was still in pain and he scheduled me for an appointment – yesterday. I wasn’t too clear on what the appointment entailed, was the tooth getting pulled or was this just a consultation? So I go alone. He begins to tell me that he can do either, and I decide that it’s now or never. So I go through with it.

Confession – I’m shaking up a storm. I mean, let’s be honest here, NO ONE likes going to the dentist. So after about an hour of making sure my mouth is completely dead, he begins (he put on Season 7 of Friends though, if that makes it any better). I want to preface that I would definitely recommend this dentist, I also want to say that I guess I just wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

I have my eyes closed and he tells me to open them for reasons I do not know. At which time, I see all the tools going into my mouth, feel the pressure of cutting open my gum, pressure of moving the tooth around and then the yank. No, I didn’t feel pain as my mouth was deadened, I have to say that I in no way, shape or form wanted to see a ginormous tooth being yanked out of my own mouth. Of course, mine split, so there was tooth “shrapnel” left behind which caused the procedure to be even longer. I am forever scarred. I hope and pray to Sweet Baby Jesus that I never have to go through that again. I didn’t stop shaking uncontrollably until I finally popped a Vicodin.

Word to the wise, the doctor didn’t prescribe me Vicodin. Instead – all doctors prescribe here are things like Ibuprofen 600 and maybe 800 if you’re lucky. When he said that to me, I looked at him with this “You gotta be effing kiddin me” face. 

Here’s another rule for all of you that need some strong meds: BRING THEM FROM HOME because it is damn near impossible to get proper things here.

So in other words, sometimes riding and/or flying solo is not good, particularly in Egypt.