Sunday, October 28, 2012

Letters from Egypt: From the Bride

Anthony and Natalie on their wedding day

I hear often that I never write about positive stories in Egypt, particularly relationships. However, last July I featured a love story that unfolded right in Heliopolis from the groom’s perspective (A Love Story). And for the couple’s one-year anniversary, I decided that it would be nice to hear from the bride.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Natalie in person, but I’m still hopeful that we’ll all meet up again. That’s the luxury in being an expat, no matter where you go, you can always be assured there is someone from your travels nearby. Natalie arrived in Egypt in August 2006 after working in the UK as a teacher for a number of years and decided to take an offer to teach in Cairo. She said, “I wanted sun and fun for a couple of years before returning to Australia.”

Prior to meeting Anthony, the Aussie had briefly dated an expat and then an Egyptian for about a year. She said, “I realized that he was never going to take us seriously and just liked the idea of a foreign girlfriend.” Natalie admitted that she even seriously contemplated converting to Islam in hopes of making the relationship work. She added, “In the end, I just felt angry and used like many foreign women who have experiences with Egyptian men.”

And then entered Anthony:

“When I met Anthony - I was not looking for anything - I thought he was charming, although he was drunk and I was drinking diet coke, but I figured giving everything a chance at least once. We met at a trivia night at the BCA in Heliopolis. It was a friend’s birthday party, one of those ones you don't want to go to but feel you have to. I had only been there about 10 minutes I remember him staring at me and talking to someone I knew. Every time I looked his way he was just staring. At one point I went to get a drink and he came over, introduced himself and sat at my table. After about five minutes he had his number in my phone and that was it. I did give him a handshake goodbye which his friends thought was hilarious!”

Anthony told me that when he went to ask her out, she said: “Okay, but don’t ask me what I want to do, you decide and if I like it, I’ll go on a second date with you.” She told me that she just didn’t want any hassle telling him, “Just name a time and a place and I promise not to complain.” He took her dune buggying at the pyramids, sushi and then ice cream (Anthony – how impressive, got any friends?). The date didn’t stop there when they got lost, got a flat tire and then drove over a snake (apparently Anthony’s “greatest phobia”). She said, “So all in all, it was a pretty entertaining day.”

“He got a kiss and we had a second date the next day, and have never really been apart since. I guess we both knew pretty quickly that it was serious,” she added.

And then things started moving fast. They met in March, she was going to leave in July and by the end of April, he’d asked her to stay with him in Egypt. “He helped me find a new job and a place to live and the following Christmas, he proposed.”

The couple since wed in October 2011 in Australia, and recently moved to Kazakhstan. And all of that, I’m sure Egypt will remain significant to both of them as it was the place that brought them together.

Natalie said:  “Egypt - well it will always be special. I don’t think I will ever go as far as Alicia keys and call one of my children Egypt or Cairo.”

But the sad truth is that Egypt has changed from what Natalie knew upon her first arrival. “I have really seen a change in the people and the country – they were once so giving and honest and generous. Now I feel so many of them battle day to day to survive. It is getting more expensive to live there, and that is for an expat. In 2006 or 2007, you would never have dreamt of being mugged or attacked – now it’s a factor in daily life. I have to say I was happy to leave when we did (August 2012).”

Although, she admitted: “I will miss the sun, the beaches and the good people as there were many of them.”

Happy Anniversary to the both of you and I wish you many more years of happiness (I also hope to go dune buggying on a first date one day too - see if you can help expedite this adventure *wink*)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Letters from Egypt: Segregation by Choice

I remember when I first arrived here thinking how horrible it was that women were forced to alienate themselves from the male population. The longer I’ve remained in Egypt, the more I find myself separating from the co-ed population simply because I can’t tolerate the men and their disrespectful behaviors.

You’re probably thinking I’m talking about groping, fondling or any of the other situations that your mind immediately jumps to whether it be subconscious or not. And while all of those situations can occur, what I find extremely daunting is constantly enduring the never-ending attention. Before you begin to think that my head has reached the clouds, read the rest of the post.

My gym offers various branches: regular gym facility, dance and fitness studio and a Ladies Only branch. I began at the regular co-ed gym facility. What always seems to amaze me is veiled women working out at this branch instead of the female only (their veils remain on the entire duration of their workouts – I’m sweating bullets just thinking about it).

Going to the gym in Egypt is like a social experiment.

Annoying Egyptian Gym Experience #1
Egyptians standing on machines where the only workout happening is their mouth…on the phone…the ENTIRE TIME.

Annoying Egyptian Gym Experience #2
People going to find their significant others.

While I don’t understand veiled women working out at the co-ed gym when an all female facility is nearby, I definitely don’t understand such pious women having male Egyptian personal trainers, allowing them to touch them (despite the veil indicator) and failing epically in their attempt to flirt with said personal trainer. Oh, all the while they take two and three mats per person and just sit joking with the trainer. Because there are so many mats (which there aren’t).

Annoying Egyptian Gym Experience #3
Egyptian male personal trainers

And this is where my decision to attend the all women’s branch comes in. It is increasingly difficult for a male, not to mention an Egyptian male, to separate business from pleasure. All male Egyptian trainers have at some point dated a client. And thank you ladies for making MY LIFE more difficult because of it.

I can’t discuss gyms in the US because honestly, I didn’t go to one until Egypt. Sure I used my university’s facilities, but that didn’t really count. Whether I go early in the morning (and I do mean EARLY), in the afternoon or at night, my gym has one constant. Let’s call him Pain-in –my-A** or PIMA.

PIMA began training a friend of mine, and he also started using his opportunistic charm to get her committed to a relationship. Mind you, it didn’t take him long to cross from business to personal. I’d say about three weeks max. Even after my friend thwarted PIMA’s advances – and she even MOVED to another country – he continued to hassle her.

It didn’t stop there. He knew that we were friends, thus PIMA became MY royal pain. In the early mornings he would speak to me because the gym was more or less empty. I don’t mind a “Hey, how are you” but to continue on and try to force me into taking lessons from you despite my repeated “no’s” is a bit much. Then after I refuse lessons, you come up with some other reason to hinder my workout. Let’s not forget about the early-morning Arabic lesson that he insisted I have until I yelled at him. Or the next day when I’m doing crunches coming over to sit next to me, apologizing for the day before and INSISTING again that he teach me Arabic.

How many different languages can I express NO for him to get the point and LEAVE. ME. ALONE?

And I realized that knowing myself, one day he’s going to catch me on the wrong side and I’m going to explode therefore making my gym time awkward. See, I’m not the best looking person at the gym – far from it. I’m not a head-turner but the only reason I turn his head in this situation is that I’m a US passport holder.

I get it, you want a better life. Newsflash, I’m not your ticket out. In fact, the sight of you makes my skin crawl. I don’t hate people, but you’re testing my limit. I’ve tried to handle this situation in a respectful manner, but you don’t seem to take the hint. Much like the business contact I met that continues to call me for dinner despite me telling him I am married. It’s exhausting! I shouldn’t leave the gym angrier than when I arrive. It’s supposed to be ME TIME not a date.

And for all of you ladies out there that hook up with your trainers – think before you act. It’s great if someone pushes your limits and makes you want to feel better about yourself, but at the end of the day, your actions hurt those of us that simply want to be left alone.

Besides ladies – it’s not such a bad thing to be single. You can cook whatever you want without the constant gripes, “Oh I don’t like tomatoes” or “Can you make rice without the vegetables in it?” How about the incessant, “Why didn’t you call me to let me know you made it home?” or “Where were you?” You can wear what you want without someone saying, “No, I don’t like that. It shows too much.” And quite honestly, you can just be free to do whatever you want without having to take care of a grown child.

 Please, if you seek companionship, try to maintain the separation between business and personal. It will do you a world of good and not to mention, help me :)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Letters from Egypt: Starting a Reading Program for Underprivileged Youth

Source: Texas A&M

I loved reading as a child and for the Americans, you remember the NBC commercials “The More You Know…” and “Reading is Fundamental.” And reading is the very basic step in furthering your education.

In Egypt, education and literacy is far below average. Everyone blames the government, but I feel there are basic steps that we could all take in helping this situation. So I contacted Diwan bookstores to propose a reading program for underprivileged youth in Cairo.

As some of you know, I buy books here and there to give to my office girl (age 14) and I also buy classic literature for someone working at my office. Public schools do not provide tools to help free thinking and did you know that even reading something as simplistic as Nancy Drew when you are 11-years old helps you pay attention to detail (the clues to solve the mystery), encourages questions (interviewing potential suspects) and expands vocabulary?

Diwan responded and is more than willing to help start such a program, but I need help. No, I’m not asking for money (you know how I am completely against giving money to any charity because most of the time the money is not allocated properly) – I need ideas to help hone in this program.

The bookstore gets free books as samples or that may be used for promotions from international publishing houses. Diwan is willing to donate these books for this reading project. I need help on how to get the target children (ie bowab children, certain areas and ages).

I cannot have children that can’t read at all, so I would prefer to start with 8-year olds. My Arabic is not good enough to help someone learn how to read. The books will be in Arabic and I’ve requested from Diwan that nothing be based on religion.

Also, I know I have friends in the Publishing industry. Would your company like to help with this program by also donating books? For you teachers, I need your expertise as well. Anyone that has worked at an NGO or other volunteer activities, please throw your advice my way. And above all, if anyone wants to help me – please, the more the merrier.

One way to combat the lack of education is to target children and get them reading. From there, they could be like the 14-year old Malawian who was forced to quit school to help his family farm for money. He went to the library, read about wind turbines and created a wind turbine from trash that helped irrigate his family’s farm. He’s now studying at Dartmouth.

Please share and if you would like to help or just offer advice, please contact me directly.