Friday, January 24, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Solitude and Bombs

Photo source: Al Ahram Mai Shaheen

What – I go out in downtown last night and then there is a bomb? Oh c’mon people. FYI there also seems to be phone/network interruptions as well.

I decided the other day that it had been awhile since I challenged myself, so I chose to step outside of my comfort zone and head out on a Thursday night…alone. It doesn’t sound like that big of a deal because in most of our home countries, going to grab a drink means that you will usually enjoy a game and/or meet new people. However, being a single woman doing it alone in Cairo is – well, almost unheard of (unless you count those in transit sitting at airport hotel bars). According to a Pub 28 patron Ahmed: “No. It doesn’t happen. Women here don’t go out by themselves. Do you drive? You took a taxi? From Maadi to Zamalak? Alone?” Shock.

And there’s a reason for that. If you are a single female, there is almost always hassle involved with unwanted advancements and dare I say, some will even think you are a prostitute. I figured that the worse that could happen was I sit alone the entire night without a soul to talk to and the best was that I would meet new people. Instead of letting my fears get the best of me or what other perceptions might be, I decided to just go for it knowing that it would at least be a blog topic.

So, I grabbed a taxi from the street and made my way an hour in Thursday traffic to Pub 28. My taxi driver, Khaled, had a properly working meter (the ever-growing rigged meter problem or just refusal to use the meter at all is becoming the norm). I took his number for a possible pick-up. Total cost: LE 25 + LE 10 for tip (Thursday traffic).

I got the last seat available at the bar, all the way in the corner basically sitting on top of a couple. They left and I relocated where I met a German woman who was actually early for a business meeting so decided to stop in to the pub for a quick glass of white wine. We began talking and strangely enough, she has lived in Maadi for seven years (1.5 more than me). We exchanged business cards and made plans to get together at one of our favorite restaurants in the neighborhood.

Then came Rana. An Egyptian character who had the strangest accent that was almost as though she tried to portray that she was slightly British mixed with hints of various European undertones and a whole lot of bullsh*t. The best part was when she actively tried to flirt with her two colleagues who are decades younger saying, “Oh but you can bring your spouses to the place one night” and one of the guys responded, “I’m getting a divorce.”

Normally that would be awkward, but not with Rana. She just kept regaling about how she could be married if she chose, but she loves being 1,000-years old and single. “Don’t you think I could have been married by now? I have plenty of people chasing after me and I turn them down all the time.” Bravo Rana, way to bounce back and continue to talk about yourself…for an hour straight. Impressive.

Bathroom break resulted in a creeper. He creeped from the bathroom after saying hello, to the bar a few seats down and after Rana and her grandchildren left, relocated himself right next to me. I pretended not to notice, as you do; however, eventually there is going to be that opening and you aren’t getting out of it. Nope. Never. Unless you’re just rude, but what else did I have going on? Ahmed was born and raised in Zamalak and began his own advertising firm. He handles a plethora of ad sales, including for elections. He said that ad campaigns in total for a presidential election usually run around $20 million and about 20-25% of that goes to printers (banners, fliers). He has voted in each election or referendum and recognizes that Egypt doesn’t have a leader for the short-term but said, “I really hope and believe that in the long-term we will have a better solution and direction.” Hey, creeper turned out to be pretty interesting.

A friend of mine ended up arriving introducing me to another associate: a Canadian female working at an NGO. In Maadi, it’s rare that you meet anyone outside of teaching and oil & gas. Previously living in Oman, she moved to Cairo in October. While she had visited before, she never thought she could live here. I asked her what she thought of it now that she was here and said, “I like it more than I thought I would. It’s actually a good place to live.” Refreshing.

The three of us headed to one of the boats in Zamalak where I ran into another old friend. We ended up talking for an hour or so just catching up and then I grabbed another taxi to head back to Maadi. I went through three road blocks on my way back: one right at the Italian embassy on the Corniche; another close to the Al Salam hospital/justice buildings; and one right at the turn by the Total gas station and Grand CafĂ©. I remember thinking, “I don’t know why they do this considering they don’t stop any car whatsoever passing through. It’s a complete waste of security.” Road 9 was completely blocked off with an army tank stationed at the police station (as per usual) and barbed wire to stop any thru-traffic and a huge water leak had flooded the area.

So coming in right before 4 am, I was definitely disoriented when I woke up to another blast a little past 6 am. It didn’t register with me what happened and unlike the RPG incident, I didn’t hear the army guys screaming at one another in the distance. I fell back asleep only to wake up a couple of hours later to my phone ringing. J.C. knew I’d ventured out downtown alone and was calling to find out if I was alright. FYI it’s always imperative that someone knows where you are in case something happens – there’s solitude and then there’s stupidity. Don’t be the latter.

Just in case you missed it, bombs have [again] erupted throughout Cairo. The detonations were so large (or numerous) that they could even be heard in Maadi (the bomb locations were about 45 minutes away). Local news source Al Ahram said that five people were killed in two separate bomb attacks in Greater Cairo with 87 reported injured. Al Qaeda Sinai spin-off group, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, has claimed the attack. There have been reports that the Muslim Brotherhood supports the new Islamist group, but little information is available on Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. Just remember, the Muslim Brotherhood was the start of every Islamist terrorist organization.

As the January 25 Police/Revolution Day approaches, security is on high alert and undoubtedly many of you living here are going to be placed under travel restrictions. If things worsen, there will also likely be another round of evacuations.

It’s a shame that such a random, yet fun night was marred by these two bomb incidents. And yet it’s horrible to think that another curfew is going to be imposed and for how long this time?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Chinook in the Sky

Picture Source: Boeing/Egyptian Air Force
If you’re in Cairo (and I’m also assuming Alexandria as well as other designated areas), chances are you heard large aircrafts patrolling the skies throughout the day. If you stepped outside, chances are you saw military plane(s) hovering overhead.

The bus-like aircraft, Chinook or Boeing CH-47, is an American twin engine helicopter first developed in 1962. Egypt currently has 18 CH-47D, and in August, announced it was interested in purchasing six more from the US Army (although it doesn’t have the money to actually purchase six more). Its primary mission is to “move troops, artillery, ammunition, fuel, water, barrier materials, supplies and equipment on the battlefield.”

As voting on a draft constitution began today, Egypt heightened security. Officials said that 250,000 police and military would be deployed to protect the referendum and I was told that the aircraft could transport around 30 troops – maybe more. So far the only incident reported is an explosion at a courthouse in Giza’s Imbaba neighborhood, but thankfully there were no casualties. Polling stations are open throughout the country for 12 hours, from 9 am to 9 pm, today and tomorrow.

As I said on the previous blog posting, military leader and defense minister, General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, also announced that he would run for president if the referendum was approved by large margins. I guarantee he would run for president even if it wasn’t approved by “large margins”.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Expat Bubble Norms

Normal in Egypt: being unfazed when the lights go out during dinner

Happy New Year!

It’s that time of year again when some of you are arriving to Egypt for your first overseas experience and others are saying their final goodbyes. Foreigners are becoming few and far in between these parts lately, but I guess that’s to be expected.

No matter if you’re coming or going, there are a few things that you are going to face especially for you abroad newbies. A college friend living in Korea shared an article, “The Expat Bubble: Things I Now View as Normal that Probably Aren’t” that although was mostly related to life in Asia, still had some valid points.

Brian M. Williams began the article discussing the expat bubble listing various sub-sections. I’m not black and living in Asia, but I am blonde and pale living in an Arab country. I can identify when he said, “I wonder how I’ll react when no one pays me any attention at all as I go about my day. Will I feel like a washed-up child actor, or will I appreciate the anonymity?” I wonder the same, but I’m so far in a bubble now that I don’t even pay it any attention when someone is staring at me or even if they’re taking photos. It’s just become the norm (hence his blog title). I went to Chili’s this Friday when A.M. looked at me and said, “It’s really amazing how where ever we go, people stare you up and down.” I said, “Really, I didn’t notice.”

Most of our expat conversations revolve around traveling (and neighborhood gossip, to be fair). One night I was sitting at a BBQ and everyone began regaling the worst thing they’ve ever eaten (mine was jellyfish in Shanghai – Dear China, you are nasty). Yet when I go back to the US, I actively try not to discuss many of these things. Why? Williams hits the nail on the head: “In America, talking about travel excessively or even too casually is about the quickest way to become labeled a pretentious prick.” It’s a balancing act. At first everyone wants to hear your stories, but they quickly grow tired of them. They think that you’re bragging, but in actuality, that’s your life. You don’t have anything else to discuss. And as a female, many times other women will ask you where you got your shoes, bag or jewelry. It isn’t bragging in your head to say that it came from a little village in Turkey or your shoes came from Dubai – that’s just where those items came from. As soon as it leaves your mouth, you see their faces and you know that when you take that bathroom break, they will say: “OMG can she just have a normal conversation without bringing up her travels?”

In the article, he mentioned cultural diversity; I would add that being around so many different cultures on a daily basis gives you a different viewpoint on current affairs – one that isn’t so common when you return to the US. My piece of advice to any of you returning or just visiting – never and I mean NEVER get involved in a political discussion. No one is going to agree with you, and that’s okay. But you’re going to get frustrated so it’s just best to steer clear.

And that’s where the similarities stop. Williams makes a note about overseas life isn’t so materialistic, but that isn’t the case for Egypt or the UAE – in my experience. In fact, I’d venture to say that it becomes an even greater issue. There is the pressure here to have the latest Android or iPhone, clothes, etc. Brand names are so popular. You should have seen the travesty that was the Ikea opening. Okay – it wasn’t as bad as I expected, but it was pretty funny. I think that this Ikea opening had to be the first that didn’t make a profit since Egyptians were breaking things left and right. What I found most interesting is that locals were buying things that were already available here at Carrefour and other stores; however, they wanted to get it from Ikea simply because…it’s Ikea.

While you’re not going to gain a “fear of old women” and no – the party scene here is in no way comparable to the amazing shindigs that happen throughout Asia (and Europe), you will find your own expat bubble norms possibly without even realizing.

“State of the Union” Update:
For a quick update on the political arena in Egypt: Morsi’s trial is set to begin on January 28, only three days after the Police Day/January 25 Revolution holiday. And in a move that was to be expected, military leader General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has announced that he would run for president at the request of the people. I really don’t know why anyone would remotely be shocked at that announcement.