Tuesday, December 25, 2007

It’s Christmas. We write. I watch the Power Puff Girls and trudge through Pale Fire, which is interesting, then not, over and over. We call people at a dollar a minute. Not bad. Or people call us. We say hi; we listen to kids in the background. Kids who are talking, burbling new words and roughhousing, or settling into adolescence. Across the street the girls are in school, in recess. The last sheep in the yard still bleats. Will anyone eat her? We decide to get out. We go to a restaurant with clouded windows called L’Aubergine. I have “trio of crepes” – one mushroom, one spinach, one broccoli – and a Sakkara beer. J has chicken teriyaki and a weak screwdriver. New Age music in the background and colorful walls. Mostly Europeans here, a mishmash of language. The waiter says “Happy Christmas.” Then to the vegetable seller, who has a fresh batch of asparagus and spinach. He is wearing flip-flops too big for his feet. The air is crisp. No Christmas music, no snow, but cheerful out here. Many restaurants have put up little trees and tinsel. The streets are less populated, so we can feel something, maybe something from the past that we wouldn’t recognize. A little boy, maybe four, wears a gallabeya and sits on the hood of a car. The gallabeya puddles around him. He swivels his head and softly says hi and blinks and smiles. We swerve into a store that sells rugs and bedding. An old man in a brown sweater says, “handmade, handmade.” We buy.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Everyone keeps saying they’ve never seen the pollution this bad. Indeed, it’s something I’ve noted more often in my second year here as a palpable sensation in my lungs and sinuses. It’s not just a disturbing black cloud emitted from the public bus anymore. It’s the realization that we are inside of that disturbing cloud all the time, at the bottom of a valley that’s getting less and less fertile, and that what is outside manifests in the body. Yesterday morning it looked as if someone had shaken a sack of flour over the city. It is on days like these that I sense hours of ginger tea and decongestant ahead.

We bought an air purifier the size of a TV from the ubiquitous Radio Shack, and this has helped. The instruction manual says to clean the filters every two months, depending upon where you live. Here? Two weeks is pushing it.

When the wind pushes away the pollution, and the sky comes through, it’s unbelievably beautiful. If you climb the Muqattam hills, you will see the black cloud below that is Cairo, and above and away, all is pristine. People, even our university, are pushing out and out, pulling the Nile with them in sleek new piping – people who can afford it.


Today is the first day of Eid Al-Adha, a Muslim holiday which appreciates Abraham’s (Ibrahim’s) willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Oh, the myriad ways in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians are actually kind of the same…

In the last week, sheep, goats, or cows started appearing on the streets, getting hauled in the backs of trucks, their eyes looking rather dead even as they blinked. The beggars suddenly were holding strangely quiet babies, swaddled in the streets. More carcasses than usual hung in the open air in front of butcher shops, those skinned marbled hunks of meat with still-hairy tails hanging down. Suffice it to say I’ve seen way too many dead buttholes. In the usually empty yard behind our apartment building, three sheep appeared, waking us up a few mornings ago with their bleating. One of them had red wool and a white head. These sheep get fattened before slaughter. Even Alfa, a hodgepodge department store, had a penned goat for sale.

The animals get sacrificed – each family keeps 1/3 of the animal and gives the rest to the poor. Yesterday James stumbled upon the bawaab, makwagis, and various guys who hang out on our street just as they were finishing up the slaughter of a cow on the corner. Bloody street and sidewalk, a sheaf of skin, entrails pulled and squeezed. Our bawaab was wearing tall rubber boots and a sweatsuit rather than his usual gallabeya.

This morning I woke to the sound of a bleat and went to the back porch to watch a man, followed by two little boys, lead the red-wooled sheep away. All three sheep had one front leg tied by rope so that they had to hop; the other two sheep were also tied together, and they bumbled around the dusty yard. I’m sure they could smell what was coming.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

From the novel The Map of Love, by Ahdaf Soueif:

"And yet - I sit here in my room at the Shepheard's Hotel possessed by the strangest feeling that still I am not in Egypt. I have sat on the Pyramid plateau and my eyes have wandered from the lucid blue of the sky through the blanched yellow of the desert to the dark, promising green of the fields. I have marvelled at the lines between blue and yellow and then again between yellow and green - lines drawn as though by design. I have climbed the Pyramids and danced at the Khedive's Ball. I have visited the Bazaar and the Churches and the Mosques and witnessed the procession of the Religious Orders and played croquet at the Club at Ghezirah. I know a few words of the language and I can mark many streets by the houses of people with whom I am now acquainted, but there is something at the heart of it all which eludes me - something - an intimation of which I felt in the paintings, the conversations in England, and which, now that I am here, seems far, far from my grasp."

Friday, November 30, 2007

Last weekend, we finally made our first foray out of Cairo since arriving back in the city in August. And not a moment too soon: as busily as we have been marching toward the end of our 3rd semester here, I have still had time to notice the persistent fog of haze clinging over the city. Is it me, or does it seem worse this fall than it did last year? It didn’t help that hot temperatures lingered into November, packing in the particles. Also not helping: leaded gasoline, the burning of rice fields and garbage, living in a valley.

And yet, what plagues me about life in Cairo implies one of the tremendous benefits of leaving the city. In Egypt, where everything is out of proportion, where most people live on a thin strip of land, leaving the city means leaving behind the stink and the hazy air. Things seem unspoiled. The air is crisp and clear, the sky deep bottomless blue, the sun golden on the craggy, sea-side mountain face. Did I mention the clean air?

Our trip took us a couple of hours out of Cairo, along the Gulf of Suez with its persistent ships approaching or departing the Suez Canal. We visited two very old Christian monasteries, the Monastery of St. Anthony (now with adjoining cave) and the Monastery of St. Paul, the pimped-out Vegas strip of monasteries. These monasteries are still active, populated by many devout and stylish monks who wear black habits and skull caps, and long beards—who also use their BlackBerries to communicate with the outside world and wear fashionable, coordinating sunglasses.

The saints after whom these monasteries are named escaped religious persecution in Cairo and Thebes back in the day, settling in the rugged mountains of the Eastern Desert, a few kilometers from the Red Sea. Following their deaths (of old age), the monasteries were built in their names and have continued to thrive, despite many assaults from Bedouins over the centuries. These monasteries, in fact, have the look of an ancient fortress. Both are protected by high walls, and each has at its center an ancient “keep,” surrounded a moat, where the monks would retreat if their outer walls had been breached.

Today, these active monasteries are protected by the Egyptian government—which I admire, given that the country is now overwhelmingly Islamic. There is one road in to each of these monasteries, and our bus had to stop at a checkpoint, manned as usual by some of Egypt’s finest. The roads extended for miles into the desert, to the foot of mountains where the St. Anthony and St. Paul kept safe in their lifetimes. Inside their walls is a thriving and largely self-sufficient community of Christian monks, giving tours, driving construction equipment, tending gardens, baking bread, splashing unsuspecting agnostics with holy water from the springs that sustained these monasteries for so long.

I have visited some historically significant Christian churches and cathedrals in Europe and America, but I found my sense all things Christian heightened at these places. It was like entering another world, one half-familiar to me. Gone were the minarets, the rounded structures, the open air prayer rooms, of Islamic architecture, which (of course) dominate the landscape throughout Egypt. Instead I saw icons of the saints after whom the monasteries are named, of Jesus himself. I saw it next to Arabic script, as I heard Arabic spoken around me, in the soft, compliant voices of the monks whose homes we were visiting. I sensed, as these monks must have, that these monasteries were safe havens now, protected, their place in Egypt secure. I found myself admiring the monastic life I saw around me, so different from the bustling city just two hours away. Even though the monks buy olive oil from the grocery rather than press their own olives, even though they drive moving equipment and depend upon generators to provide one fundamental of modern life—electricity—their lives are not significantly different than those of monks who have lived at these monasteries for generations dozens of generations. I admire people who live the lives of their convictions, even if I don’t share those convictions myself.

With one caveat—the Monastery of St. Paul. The place itself is ancient, but it is fairly bursting with pilgrims and tourists, much more so than St. Anthony’s. When we pulled up to St. Paul’s, we were confronted with a large but poorly-conceived parking lot built on a hill, which was already half-full with tour buses. As we approached the entrance to the monastery, we passed a roiling gift shop that sold such things as toy machine guns (one little boy had the gall to point and shoot at me, but couldn’t keep firing long enough for me to snap a photograph) and loud religious-esque music blaring from speakers. Inside, we had to squeeze among other tour groups as we visited St. Paul’s relics, gathered into a child-sized coffin covered with a sheet of clear plastic—and the ancient spring, the presence of which our monk guide claimed cannot be explained.

The parking lot at St. Anthony’s, on the other hand, was virtually empty. When we climbed the modern stairwell up the mountainside, ascending to the cave where St. Anthony retreated from persecution, I had to stop a few times, calves burning, lungs belching forth the sediment of three uninterrupted months in Cairo. After reaching the top and squeezing into the narrow cave where the man had lived, after collapsing on the rocks and breathing in the fresh, thin air, I looked over the precipice where we all sat and, for the life of me, I couldn’t see another living soul:


Friday, November 09, 2007

Props for Sari

Hey, guess what? We're still in Africa. In honor of that, you should go to this selection from Brevity, an excellent journal of short nonfiction and a spin-off of Creative Nonfiction, and both of these mags are primo to get into. Anyway, indulge with this great piece of Sari's, which I've always loved:



Sunday, November 04, 2007

Another meme – this time from Kate at www.motherswhowrite.blogspot.com. I’m supposed to put down five writing strengths. As a result, this is more like a note to myself, or an affirmation.

1. I try to treat characters fairly and realistically, whether they are fictitious or real.
2. I’m good at describing the region I’m from without sounding totally sentimental.
3. Like Kate, I’m not married to my sentences. I love to cut, edit, and revise. I get a kick out of putting a big X through a whole page. Revision is discovery.
4. Rejection (of the literary journal brand & otherwise) has made me a better writer. One beautiful morning, writer Verlyn Klinkenborg edited every sentence of the eight-page piece I had submitted. I had been hoping to dazzle him into inviting me to write for the New York Times. However, he informed me that I had no idea how to write a sentence. I was in an MFA program, pursuing my second English degree. But he was right. It wasn't personal, either, because he proceeded to say the same thing to all the other MFA students who got to meet with him. Klinkenborg, you pissed people off, but I love you!
5. I don’t get in a hurry about finishing a piece of writing. A lot of books I read feel rushed, as if the heady, ephemeral whiff of publication were the only thing driving the writing.

Tagged: James! Bryan! Stephanie (www.vidadepalabras.blogspot.com)! Sari!


Friday, November 02, 2007

Yesterday, Anne Lamott, author of Bird By Bird (a book about writing), novels, and memoirs, visited the university. J and I were invited to a roundtable discussion with her in the afternoon, and we got to invite some of our students, too. Lamott is an intriguing woman – just look up any biographical information about her and you’ll begin to see the multifaceted nature of her persona.

Last night, she gave a lecture in Oriental Hall. As Lamott was escorted in, she whipped out a disposable camera and began to take pictures of the beautiful room. She proclaimed that she wanted to live there, in that room, for the rest of her life. Me too. Oriental Hall is indeed impressive and lavish, so indescribable that I refuse to try.

She began by speaking about all the things that had baffled her upon arrival in Cairo, the kinds of things J and I were writing about in our earliest posts. It was fun to hear the raw response of someone who had just arrived. Also, it was wonderful to listen to a writer speak, to listen to a writer tell her audience of budding readers and writers all about the joys and heartbreak of writing, to tell them some of the things J and I have come to understand and some of the things we have not fully experienced but have already heard much about (like the fact that publication is not really a ticket to anywhere, even if your book is successful). But we hadn’t heard stuff like this for a long time. This was the kind of thing we had constant access to at home, but here, not so much. This lack of access is both a relief and a loss. For me, yesterday, it was enough to watch some of my students see an aspect of the literary world for the first time. I remember that feeling, and I did catch my breath when dreadlocked Lamott walked into the discussion room that afternoon.

There were questions at the end of the lecture last night. The final question was from a young Jordanian woman who said she had known all her life that she wanted to write, but that she was afraid to work on the novel she had had brewing in her head for some time. She was afraid of failure; she was afraid that she would never do it. Lamott asked her about the novel – if she knew where it was set, the characters, etc. The young woman had specific answers. Lamott looked at the young woman, really looked right at her, as if they were having a private conversation, and told her to go home after this and write for an hour. She told her that if she didn’t do that, tonight, she would never write this book. She joked that she would be watching her.

I don’t know why this moved me so much, but it did. The delivery of Lamott’s words, of course, greatly mattered – her style is casual and kooky and seemingly a ramble, though it is clear she knows where she is headed as she makes her points. The effect she creates is that she is human and fallible and not always certain about her writing and her life. So I think that the reason Lamott so often has a packed house when she goes on tour or lectures is not so much her practical advice but her attitude in presenting that advice. She is eccentric and warm. She is proud of her accomplishments without sounding like a big jerk – for instance, she said she had a “gift with words” more than once yesterday, and, though this sort of thing usually makes me ill, from her it sounded just fine. She looks people in the eye. And she listens to them talk about their own love of writing or reading – she listens to them publicly speak about the 300 pages of their first novels, and she listens to us neophytes try to publicly piece together and declare our penchant for writing – without giving even a whiff that she has heard this so many millions of times before that she could scream and that her writing is eminently more important, thank you very much. Also, her particular sense of humor eschews the kind of irony so popular these days from a literary world that feels threatened by waning public interest. She just doesn’t do any of that crap. I’ve only met a couple of writers like that. Charles Baxter (who is not at all like Lamott) gets the big golden trophy for it, of course.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Oct. 29 Podcast: an excerpt and discussion of my story:


Thursday, October 18, 2007

The scrumptious mango. Its season is pretty much over. The photo does this mango no justice. It's ready to go because sugar-encrusted juice is dripping down its hind end. The mango encourages sloppy eating, stained arms and lips. It's indescribable. Somehow the cafes in Cairo will have access to really delicious mango juice all year, but for us pedestrians, it's over.

Funeral flowers or cauliflower? Oh, methinks it's a big load of cauliflower! We were in motion, so the photo isn't the greatest, but I think you get the idea. You might also note that there are lines painted on the road, and it appears that drivers are staying within the lines in that frozen moment in time. Don't you dare be fooled by that. Be assured that a split-second later we were almost breathing cauliflower.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

And now for another angle on this issue of power. I suppose I’ve touched upon it already in my entry regarding the zeballeen (who, incidentally, I haven’t seen since paying him 20 LE about six weeks ago. Wait. We did see him, walking down our street, as we observed from the balcony eight stories up). M has talked about the various ways that power in Egypt (and Cairo especially) is gendered, how sometimes the entire country seems like a guy’s locker room while the women make due in the corners and shadows, seen—but only slightly—rarely heard. Their domain is the household, and within the household they are the nurturers. And, depending upon the class, their roles as nurturers can involve presiding over the nannies and maids who tend to the less pleasant aspects of child rearing.

Of course, Western women are more assertive because they don’t belong here. They function largely beyond the grasp of the culture. Part of this function involves enduring some unbelievable misconceptions about their morality. Some of these misconceptions are funny, some disturbing.

Still, it’s the trade off that the culture makes: we won’t enforce cultural and religious standards of dress and behavior on you, but in exchange, you have to put up with some incorrect assumptions and, occasionally, inappropriate public reactions.

I mention this as a “trade-off” because I want to say something about the larger role of our empowerment in this society. We have it in abundance—both of us, as well as every educated Westerner we know.

One of the most obvious forms this power takes is in our ability to function outside the culture. This is due in part to our ignorance of its finer points. But we also have no direct claim on cultural standards or national or regional concerns. We are always a plane ride away from Amsterdam if the shit hits the fan. We will someday return home. And while we are here, we enjoy elevated status. We live in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city and teach at a university that is, by far, the nicest in the region. The support staff at the university behaves deferentially toward us—and it’s no surprise that the faculty is largely white, whereas the staff are mostly Egyptian. That deference says something about how powerful is the color of our skin. Thing is, it’s always been that way. But you can count on Cairo for one thing, and that is to put you in close proximity with these facts that have been staring at you all along.

This power plies its trade in strange and, often, uncomfortable ways. There is a relationship between the color of our skin, our elevated status as residents of Zamalek, our access to the finest of what Egypt has to offer, and the fact that we are correctly perceived as rich—especially once we are discovered to be Americans. Because America is freakin’ rich beyond belief. Your modest middle class family in America far outstrips 99% of Egyptians. It’s not even close.

Perhaps an example will suffice as illustration. Last week I hopped a taxi for the 15-minute ride to school and found myself talking to a man, my driver, who claimed that he had one baby, maybe two or three babies, in the “moustashfa,” or hospital, with cancer ravaging their bodies. He gestured toward his arms, his torso, saying “cancer” and “moustashfa” and “bebe.” His voice shook with desperation and sadness, the helpless wails of a father. He held in his hands several fifty pound notes, and through his poor English and my poor Arabic, I surmised that he wanted me to give him 300 LE. I looked at his sad eyes and his frowning eyebrows, and they were the eyes of a sad man, and though he emitted the unsteady wails of a man in tears, his eyes were completely dry.

Through this experience, I tried to cultivate a posture of sympathy while at the same time refusing his pleas for money. Frankly, I didn’t know whether to believe him or not, but even if he had been telling the truth, I would not have given him that money. It seemed somehow inappropriate for a taxi driver to hit up his American fare for what is, by Egyptian standards, a large sum of money (meanwhile, I had dropped that much on an air purifier for our bedroom). But that sense of inappropriateness is mitigated by the fact that, while this man may have been lying to me, this is a city where millions of it inhabitants are in desperate straits. I sympathize as much as I can, but as I function largely beyond the reach of this society, my ability to sympathize is seriously compromised. It’s because I can land in this developing country and be identified—correctly—with wealth and influence. And I’m not rich in the United States. I’m of modest means. Still, you take a salary of $40,000 a year and place it here, and you’re well off.

And it’s true. We live well here. Very well. We send out our clothes to be ironed. Seriously! We have all manner of items delivered—water, beer, Indian, pizza, Chinese, groceries (all of them), toilet paper, paper towels. I had an external hard drive delivered to our front door last week. We also employ a maid who would cook for us if we paid her a bit more every week. All these people who serve us are Egyptian. We spent a day last month proctoring language proficiency examinations and pulled down 3200 LE between us. Those paying top dollar to take the test? Egyptians.

This is power beyond even our ability to comprehend, just as our apartment, while large, is even larger given the space-starved city where it exists. It’s a complex mix of ethnicity, race, culture, country, but it all expresses great power. It’s a power that we wear, that shows on our faces and in our green eyes, in our red and brown hair, in our freckles and our straight white teeth. We glow with it. We wear it with all the authority of our Western features, which is a remarkable authority even if we don’t think we’re wearing it well at all. We wear it when we walk down the street and Amanda is ogled.

We wear it, we wear it, we wear it.

I gave the taxi driver 10 LE for fare—double the normal fare.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

I got memed by www.moonlightambulette.blogspot.com, one of my former colleagues who's gotten all Brooklyn-ed out and has a reading/writing blog and is getting her first novel published soon! These are the questions, which I just realized I was probably supposed to post on my blog instead of on her blog comments. Anyway, this has nothing to do with Cairo. Except I'll say we have an extended weekend because the university decided that 6 Oct's Armed Forces day would be celebrated on Sunday, the first day of our workweek. Three day weekend!

1. Hardcover or paperback, and why?
Paperback in my hands, hardcover on the shelf. I like to bend books, curl their spines in my fists.

2. If I were to own a book shop I would call it…
Dude, I can’t even title my stories.

3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is…
I keep a little reading book of nice sentences. Here is something. It’s not a quotable quote, but whatever:

“In the wilds, each season has its wonders, but always, unchangingly, there is that immense heavy sound of heaven and earth, the sense of being surrounded on all sides, the darkness of the forest, the kindliness of the trees. All is heavy and soft, no thought is impossible there.” From Knut Hamsun’s novel, Growth of the Soil

4. The author (alive or diseased) I would love to have lunch with would be …
That diseased thing is really in poor taste. Alice Munro. If she’s busy, Iris Murdoch.

5. If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except from the SAS survival guide, it would be…
Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. Seems like I would be feeling pretty lonesome, and that book would crystallize that feeling, maybe make that feeling seem somehow beautiful, or maybe it would just help me off myself more quickly.

6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that…
I want something that temporarily sucks in the jacket of the hardcover book while I’m reading it, like into the spine of the book or something, which I always remove because it’s probably as uncomfortable for a book as a shawl seems to me. I mean, if we’re getting all goofy about books breathing and stuff. Actually, I take off the jacket because it gets in my way.

7. The smell of an old book reminds me of…
the bedroom in my grandmother’s house that contained all the books from my aunt’s college English major

8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be…
Ramona Quimby, of the series. Because I really wanted to pull other little girls’ curly springy hair.

9. The most overestimated book of all time is…
Um…maybe The Unbearable Lightness of Being? (This is what I said in the original post. But then another memed friend (motherswhowrite.blogspot.com) mentioned The Corrections, and I have to agree that this was one bad book. And not bad like Michael Jackson. I mean, before he was really bad. Or something.)

10. I hate it when a book…
doesn’t have characters that live on the page.

OK! So now I have to meme someone else! I'll go first to the only two other blogs I know of that haven't been memed by ambulette: 1) el apuro es mi negocio! 2) vidadepalabras! And the rest of you can comment here or email me: Jean Anne! Sari! Bryan!

Oh, wait! James!

Friday, September 28, 2007


I’ve been dressing a little more like I want to these days. I’ve never cared much for fashion, but I did buy a few skirts at home this summer that I’ve been sporting on the streets of Cairo. I’ve been wearing shirts that bare more arm, more skin below the neck. I’ve been wearing sandals. Oooooh! To be honest, I’ve been less frumpy than I’ve been in years. Even James looks a bit flummoxed when I put on a skirt. I was wondering how this would play out for me – if I would get looked up and down more, or less. Or if I would actually begin to get harassed in the way that many white women say they are harassed in Cairo. Last year I remember seeing women dressed this way and thinking: Oh, she’s green. She just got here. She doesn’t know.

All in all, my public experience is the same as ever. Actually, it’s a little better. I think it’s because I know where I’m going and have cultivated a look of confidence. Maybe the stares blend into white noise with the honking. I don’t dart my eyes away from men. I keep my pupils cool, my gaze nonplussed. None of this is going to stop the next little boy’s hands from picking at my chest in a crowded street or the next hooting man on a bike from making obscene fruit-like gestures with his hands. Sure. This is going to happen. It’s repulsive that a little boy or a little man thinks this is all right. And I really do think that the next time a twelve year old decides he’s going to grab me for the edification of his buddies, I’m going to smack his face. And I really do plan on staying away from crowds of men when possible. Nonetheless, things have been better. It’s hot out. So I wear a skirt. The sun gifts me with freckled arms. At the end of the day, I don’t stink quite so much. And I haven’t seen anyone get too worked up about it.

Granted, I live in Zamalek and teach at the rich-kid university, and there is a specific cultural feel here. Foreigners are common, and you must have some serious means to live in Zamalek (or, in our case, have a rent-free experience), and class blatantly determines your dress code. Gamal, the president's son and one of the richest people in Egypt, supposedly just moved here, and now the routes of the taxi drivers have mysteriously changed and certain streets are gated up. Truth be told, there are things about Zamalek that I don’t get. There are Cairene attitudes about Zamalek that won’t ever sink into my consciousness. Zamalek is the best version of Manhattan that Cairo has. And I will never live in Manhattan, so there you go. It’s true that I would rather not wear a skirt in Old or Islamic or Coptic Cairo, though even in these places I would not anticipate some sort of riot courtesy of my bared calves. But people stare. And women I know keep getting harassed. And even though the government denies it, I'm pretty convinced that at Eid last year, right next to the university, a bunch of young men assaulted women. Do you see how this is getting complicated?

Still, over the last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about my beliefs. I think of myself as a liberal, sure. That’s not going to change. Like the Republicans, though, I have been experiencing a bit of party disruption. I’ve been meeting some really intolerant liberals. Of course, it is foolish to believe that liberalism will breed tolerance. The inflexible belief that one is open-minded can cause one to be more conservative and intolerant than the people one criticizes. I’m not claiming I haven’t ever been like this. Sure I have. Sure I am.

Yet in the case of Egypt, foreign women’s complaints about how much they get harassed are getting old. I’ve gotten to the point where the looks don’t bother me much, where I don’t consider the looks to be harassment. While it was a different experience this summer to walk down a U.S. street and have no one bat an eye at me or my legs, it’s not as if people in the U.S. don’t ever emit salacious stares. It’s not as if I haven’t had my caboose lasciviously checked out in the U.S. Frankly, the fact that people so often tend to ignore each other in the U.S. is a bit creepy after living in a place where almost everyone, in tripping over almost everyone else, feels compelled to connect with strangers.

When foreign women (Americans, mainly) in Cairo tell me stories about being harassed, I’m not sure what they want in return. They close their stories and look in my eyes and wait. Do they want me to hate Egyptian men? Do they want me to agree that this is some foul place? Do they want me to regale them with my own stories of harassment, with my own experiences? Are they thinking that my experiences have somehow curdled into generalized hatred?

Sometimes I just nod and wonder what time it is. Sometimes I say, “You know, I just don’t get that a lot,” and I laughingly add something self-deprecating about my physique or say something about how I have always cultivated a public attitude of asexuality. In these cases, I am glad for my “Midwestern” ability to cloud my feelings. What good would it do to point out the bald inconsistency in claiming to have so much understanding and tolerance while masochistically despising a country of people, or one whole gender within one country? Really. There is this weird gleam in some women’s eyes when they talk about how terrible the harassment is here – as J said recently, it’s like they’re taking a big bubble bath in it. Listen, white lady. I think I feel much sorrier for the Sudanese refugee who takes a maid job and is abused by her Egyptian employer. Just a bit.

I guess my lack of empathy with these women is also selfish. I do get the sense that some women think I am in self-denial about harassment in Cairo. Certainly, here I am pointing out my feelings on the internet, another way to confront something slantways instead of just insisting upon my point of view in person, which I have been conditioned to feel is rude and confrontational. You can always leave a blog entry. So I sit and listen to the complaints. I must be boring company. You know, I’ve got that Midwestern reserve. I like to mull it over. I like to wait. I’m not always sure that the throw-up of my contemplation needs to be puddled in someone’s lap. I do like to avoid a misstep. I’ve been at the butt end of remarks about Midwesterners, but I find that the kind of reserve inculcated in me in the abdomen of America has actually helped me in being, as James, another Midwesterner, said recently, “not just OK in Egypt, but fine.” Happy. I certainly don’t think that the Midwest is infallible, and I definitely don’t think Egypt is. But pollution, of any sort, doesn’t have to blind you.

I keep thinking about Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s visit to Columbia University last week. Why invite someone to your university in the first place if you are going to ridicule him before he has a chance to speak? Let the little man hang himself with his ignorant and hateful remarks, as he undoubtedly would have anyway – why preempt that with your own brand of idiocy? Everybody the media focused on looked like an ass. It was like they were all at a Little League game. Here were all these little bright ideas – these important and breathing ideas waiting to be molded into something decent, sitting in the dugout, handling the ball, swinging and missing, swinging and hitting, sliding up a cloud, staring at grass, accumulating dirt necklaces and blurry green stains and bands of sweat – here was the beauty of all these ideas mucking around with each other – yet a bunch of adults wrestled separately on the bleachers, in their own game of words and misunderstandings and inflexible beliefs and haunted, sullied pasts. Behind the bleachers were the smirking adults who thought they were above it all. They couldn’t even see the game. Irony, which is perhaps a key myth of the liberal psyche, is over-schlepped. It’s confused with detachment and, at times, with humor. And it is too often connected to the ideals of liberalism, which are easily overcooked, just like any ideal placed in a human fist. Sincerity, on the other hand, is too often mocked, a dusty book from childhood relegated to the shelf.

When I walk out the door in Cairo, I am ever conscious of being female and, as a result, knowing that whole parts of my personality are as nothing, are severed. This is not a pleasant feeling. It’s not something I think is okay. I really resent that James can have a completely different experience than me, that his maleness so blatantly asserts power, possession. Icky-poo. (James begs to differ in some respects, and I hope he tells you about it sometime). I am ever conscious that the way I choose to act can be perceived as some foreign stereotype, that the conversations I engage in with taxi drivers while baring a leg can be misconstrued. None of this will change. Last May, when I wanted to hug my real-live male Egyptian friend goodbye before departing Egypt, even I understood that we should go upstairs to the apartment in order to avoid freaking out the dudes on my street, who were already peering suspiciously at my audacious appearance with a male friend sans the Keeper-Man, James. I don’t always defy that assumption – sometimes it’s easier. Without a doubt, I find typical Egyptian attitudes about women, even the attitudes of some of the male Egyptians I know and like, to be unacceptable. I can’t fathom, for instance, why any woman should cover herself in heavy black fabric in the desert heat. This is of course the woman's attitude as well. Some of my Egyptian friends have heard about my feelings, and they will continue to hear about it. There sure are lots of sexists in America, too. But to view these attitudes as wholly reflective of the humanity of a person, of a culture, of a region, of a country sometimes exposes much more about your own ugly flaws. I gotta say I’m kinda sick-a that. I really hope I don't do it too much.


Monday, September 24, 2007

When we first arrived last year, Neghi was ringing our doorbell at 9 am on the first morning. How did he know we had arrived? A few days later, a member of Cairo’s permanent underclass, known as the zeballeen, visited us. The zeballeen are garbage men by trade—it’s a family tradition that goes back for generations. You’ll see the families walking along the crowded streets, the father bent at the waist, arms contorted around the twisted straps of an ENOURMOUS SACK OF GARBAGE, which is balanced somehow on his back. The sizes of the sack and the man are dramatically out of proportion in relation to one another. The kids, if they have come along that day, are sometimes walking alongside. If the zeballeen is particularly industrious, well-off, resourceful or just lucky, he’ll be pedaling down the street aboard a kind of centaur-like creation, half-bicycle, half-cart, full of other people’s garbage.

Where do they take the garbage? We’ve heard it’s off to the edge of town, where they sort out the plastic and glass bottles, which can be returned for some money, and they burn the rest of the garbage. Given the size of this city, I can only image the size and depth of these burning pits. They must be vast…and stinky. In fact, depending upon which way the breeze blows in the Nile Valley, some of that smoldering stink can waft back over the city, which already has problems with pollution.

I’d like to provide a detailed summary of the typical day of the zeballeen, but I don’t know enough to give a faithful telling of their particular tale. But I know enough—the heavy sacks full of garbage, for instance—to have an inkling. Which brings us back to the zeballeen who visited us last year, in the first week of our stay in Egypt. Apparently, without my entirely knowing it, I engaged in some sort of contract with him regarding the disposal of our refuse—even though the building has an “official” garbage man to whom we pay 10 LE per month. We had been told about this guy, the “official” guy, but the zeballeen fellow, who I meant to politely decline, instead begins to knock on our door to collect our garbage. And I find myself sorting out the bottles for him, so he won’t have to, and shelling out another 10 LE per month (not to mention “bonuses” at the post-Ramadan Eid and Christmas) for his services, which really aren’t necessary, if the truth be told, since we have the official guy.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about this zeballeen fellow and why I haven’t fired him. I find that I don’t have the stomach for it, to fire a man so I can save less than $2 per month. I also think that reason reveals an attitude of pitying condescension on my part; my good intentions and well-meaning attitude only underscores what is an indescribably dramatic difference in the conditions of life for the zeballeen and me. Even my thirteen year-old nieces have $2 of disposable income.

Am I just handing out charity? No. I give charity to the old woman who begs on Falaki St. near campus, even though her panhandling is dressed up as a legitimate business—packets of tissues in exchange for charity (truth be told, tissues are in high demand here). For the zeballeen, I am supposed to charge a fee in exchange for a service. The man has professional pride, after all, as an independent businessman of sorts. But the truth is that I don’t really need his service, and he did engage in the rather “unctuous grace that qualifies as deference in the Middle East” in order to secure my monthly fee—he knew that I didn’t understand exactly what I was agreeing to—and he will let me twist in the wind of my ignorance of the language as he attempts to extract extra money for both Muslim and Christian holidays. But I think I know why he does these things. He does them because 10 LE per month is in fact a lot of money and he is willing to hump a month’s worth of garbage to the edge of town and light it on fire in order to get it. He is willing to pretend he missed me while I was away this summer. It’s the same reason why the taxi drivers will sometimes get worked up over another 2 LE they perceive to deserve (the taxis have meters, but none of them work). It’s the reason why the vendors at the pyramids will offer “free” camel rides then charge 50 LE to help you off the moody beasts. It’s because they need the money. They need it. I think I understand very little about such Egyptians, the vast classes of the economically depressed, but this much I know for sure. They need it to live. And so I’ll pay more for a cab and tip our gopher 10 LE each week, just for bringing a case of beer and some bottled water into our kitchen. I’ll pay the zeballeen 10 LE every month and I will resist the feeling that he is taking advantage, which wells up in me sometimes, usually when I am idly reading or watching satellite TV or looking at the dead potted plant he still hasn’t taken away.

After all, I know I’d do the same in his situation. Work for the money to live, and cling to it, and get a bit more here and there when I can. Wouldn’t you?


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Desert Pups, Minya, April '07

Friday, September 07, 2007

An Egyptian friend called us when we were in the U.S. When I mentioned to him that for some reason overly hyped Christianity was getting on my nerves (see J’s July 18, '07 post to see what I mean) and that it was weird, but I didn’t feel quite so overwhelmed by Islam in Egypt, he said, “Maybe it’s because you aren’t part of the culture.” Yes. DUH! It’s easy enough to shut it off when it’s not your Thang. It’s easy enough to walk past a soldier, his head to the prayer rug he’s unrolled on the sidewalk, and just to keep talking and swigging my bottled water. It’s easy to ignore the niqab when every other woman isn’t even veiled and she’s on the arm of a gentleman in an Italian suit. It’s easy to shrug your shoulders at the loudspeaker that projects Friday’s shouting imam right into your bedroom when you can’t understand what he’s saying. Most of all, as my friend suggested (or as I interpreted for my own purposes), it’s easy to accept something that is running parallel but not intertwined in any concrete way with your life, and to then be able to see it as less of an intrusion than a rhythm that’s there in your experience, in that one singular experience you are having in a place that is foreign to you.

Next Thursday, Ramadan, which is celebrated at a different time every year, commences. The Egyptian government has already made us fall back an hour so as to prepare for shorter days and keep Ramadan more bearable. This year it will be hotter than the previous Ramadan, so I imagine it will be more miserable to go without water, food, and all vices (cigarettes, sex, sometimes even looking at a woman) the whole day than it was last year. I teach an 8:00 class this semester, but the Ramadan schedule has me teaching at 7:30 in the morning. I don’t think it matters – the students will be tired no matter what time of day it is. I like this because with my other classes I’ll be done about 1pm, and traffic around 2 or 3 stays in one honking place during Ramadan.

When I was in college and stupider than at present, I went through a semester or so where I fasted each Monday. I don’t really remember the rationale, just that it had something to do with the gluttonous nature of college weekends and some stupid shit about “purifying” myself and the constant, unoriginal, and false belief that I was a fatty. Simply put, after scarfing down a frozen pizza and a bag of Cadbury eggs with one of my friends at 4 in the morning, I decided to embark upon fasting. I relive this embarrassing situation only to point out that, after a day and night of fasting, the next time I ate was a miserable experience culminating in body meltdown. (I’ve heard there are “good” ways of fasting, but I was 19.)

Now imagine that fasting is not only a month-long religious obligation, but at the moment of breaking fast (Iftar), you are plied with ridiculous mounds of glorious food. Then, a couple of hours later, you and your sluggish body are expected to go back to school for your rescheduled Ramadan night class. Not fun for you or for your teacher, which was me when I got stuck with the night shift last year.

Anyway, just a note, I guess, that Ramadan is about to begin. Everything shifts – daily schedules, general moods, the nature of student excuses, and your ability to complete anything bureaucratic. Oh, yes – now this is something I notice. The other stuff, the more important spiritual stuff, is what I’ll try to remember and acknowledge, rather than just my petty annoyance.


Sunday, September 02, 2007

I’m certainly no design maven, but Amsterdam’s airport was impressive – clean, modern lines, sort of like whatever a high-end secret IKEA devotee would put together. Yeah, IKEA. (By the way, Europe's airports are so much more accommodating to international travelers. O'Hare's international section sucks. Even Cairo's airport beats the crap out of it.) The airport has a casino, an art museum, a meditation room, plenty of overpriced “duty-free” shops, lounges, and a food court. And lots of natural light, telling us that yes, indeed, there was an outside world. And we had a 13-hour layover, so we went to it. Passport control consisted of a nod and a stamp, no questions. Just like in December when we were stuck in London, we re-discovered the sad little exchange rate between Euro-cash and Ameri-cash as we purchased our train tickets, which translated to about $20 apiece for a ten minute ride to downtown. We had plans, see? The Van Gogh museum, Madame Tussaud’s, a healthy bite to eat, a glimpse of the Red Light district. Couldn’t wait! On the train beside us sat some American boys who were complaining about how the world looks the same everywhere. Shut up.

We burst into a world of bicycles, pedestrians, and canals.

It was eight in the morning, so the street cleaners were just coming out to take care of the previous night’s refuse. There were cats hanging around in front of the shops, but most had collars with bells and Pantene Pro-V coats. Aw, kitties. Madame Tussaud’s wax museum sat on one side of the city square. A waxen Christina Aguilera preened behind glass. Impressive enough, we said, as we parked ourselves on a pigeon-covered bench in lieu of standing in the winding line to the museum. Musicians played in the square, and a man in a skintight blue suit covered with metal (meant to suggest that he had spent a little too much time in brine) sat on a bucket, which was decorated the same as he was, and slowly put a mask over his head. I think he was Neptune or Poseidon, but I have no idea. He had a trident. Some little kids tried to talk to him, and he shooed them away when they wouldn’t dispense money into a little hat he left on the sidewalk. He was really adamant about people giving him money, like he would come over and stomp your camera if you dare try not to pay him for the privilege. J totally got his picture taken with Neptune. You know it's true. But neither one of us likes to have our jetlagged faces advertised.

Once we realized that our butts would be planted to the benches if we didn’t get moving, we quickly came upon the infamous coffee shops, where you can enjoy your hash in public and in peace. Because of the strange nature of jetlag, in which you feel at times quite lucid while simultaneously as if your muscles have atrophied even as you continue to walk around, we didn’t need the hash. Plus, who wants to walk into Egypt reeking of pot? Not me. On the street, people ate paper cones of French fries slathered – no, gooped – with mayonnaise. Because I like to eat, I gravitated toward the restaurant menus posted on windows. A few Indian restaurants looked good, but they appeared to be advertising services that went beyond the food. That’s because hand in hand with the coffee shops we were passing were the sex shops, which gave onto the Red Light district. Plate glass windows lined the street, some covered with red velvet curtains, and others opened to reveal bikini-clad ladies ready for business. They would eyeball us with the gaze we see in the most supposedly benign of TV, ads, films. None of them were the same, though. At least they all had a persona. I never saw a man hawking his wares, but maybe I didn’t search long enough.

Lots of things in that spot struck me, but the most interesting was that this section of the city was not physically cut off from the rest. Men and women pushed strollers down the street and held toddlers’ hands. Lovely apartments spilled flowers from windowboxes just above many prostitutes’ working spaces. On corners, construction workers unearthed pavement. Suitcases were rolled down the street. Shopkeepers washed windows. Shiny cats flicked their tails as they peered at the canal water. In front of one shop, a group of tourists scratched their chins at the seed selections. In the next window over from a glaring prostitute’s space, a placid man painted a wall.

Later, we found ourselves in front of Rembrandt’s house, a small museum of exorbitant price. We eschewed the museum for its next-door tourist bar, Rembrandt Corner, where I got a yogurt, honey, and granola breakfast. The ceiling fans were on a rotating pulley system, and the food served by the surly waitress emerged from a dumbwaiter.

It had been about 5 hours. I dealt out the idea of the Van Gogh museum, and we looked at each other, and we shook our heads, and we made our way back through a street fair (where one used-ware shop was selling a "Let's Roll!" plate), onto the train, and into the airport, where we skimmed by passport control and promptly found the lounge with the reclining chairs. I began my week of Poor Decisions About Sleeping or Not Sleeping by nodding off about 45 minutes, waking up, envying J’s slackened jaw, and heading to the airport museum, where I learned something about minor Dutch artists from the 1700s. I didn’t sleep on the plane, either, because Babel is a good film. Brad Pitt probably should have been nominated for that. But I’ve found out a little something about the arbitrary nature of the Oscars, after tearing through all the old issues of Entertainment Weekly that J’s mom sent back with me. I love that magazine. I would like to say it’s because they review quality books, which they do, but I love me a fashion do and don’t, which I got in the Oscar issue. Of course, I’m sitting here wearing a pink shirt with a longhorn on it that says: “Tough as…Texas.” My gift from J’s summer jaunt into the Lone Star state.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

It’s not so much that I enjoy the experience of jet lag so much as I appreciate the license it gives me to be a lazy bum, which pretty much describes me since returning to Cairo. The journey from the US to Egypt seems a little shorter each time we make it, the adjustment to life here just that much smoother. Our descent into a mostly non-stinky Cairo night was smooth and easy, which characterized both of our flights this time around. My only complaint is that I didn’t have the attention span to watch all of Chinatown, which was in the on-demand library of movies accessible on the TV in the back of the seat in front of me. But the plane had a lot of empty seats, so it was easy to spread out and relax, and the wine flowed freely, and for free.

Our pal Ahmed was waiting for us on the other side of passport control, hopping up and down happily, grinning widely. He was the first of many to receive us so gladly. He even hugged M in public, much to the interest of a couple Arab guys who were warily eyeballing the whole situation. He lives with his family in Heliopolis, a suburb beside the airport, and he had come at 2 am to bring our house keys. He was doing this because our bathrooms were remodeled over the summer, the locks changed after the work was done. Plus he was eager to see us, and we were eager to see him. And what a change to have a familiar face awaiting us on the end of our journey! Just another way that our arrival into Cairo was markedly different than a year ago.

And then it was off along the flyover road that sweeps you in rollicking fashion over the dark immensity of the packed neighborhoods and past the giant advertisement for CSI. Hey there, Gil Grissom. What are you doing in this part of the world? Our driver was the same one who had taken us to Zamalek a year ago, and as M noted, he had seemed gruff at the time. Now he was just a guy doing his job, probably a little bit tired, but somehow somewhat gentle. He gave us the ol’ Hamdulillah after I found my passport a moment after misplacing it. He drove a Jeep. He avoided all the cars that had parked, inexplicably, along the narrow shoulder of the freeway, including one car whose tire had blown. A group of women in burkas stood beside the open trunk as a man lay on the freeway underneath the car, surveying the damage. A couple of girls dressed in white played near the bumper. We zoomed past. Just before we hit Zamalek, the driver served to avoid a microbus that had stopped in the middle of a busy street to pick up a passenger, who ran into the street and climbed aboard. A moment later, the driver deftly avoided a car driving along the same busy street in reverse. M and I shared a grin over that one.

Moments later we were back. We woke up the poor, sleepy young bowaab who sleeps in the “office” (really just a closet underneath the steps). He was polite as always, just with bedhead!

It was a welcome sight to return home. That’s strange to say, since I am reminded of my whiteness and my foreignness every time I walk out the front door. But, it’s home, as well. Our apartment is still huge—and is even larger than it seems to our eyes, given the pervasive lack of space in this city—and now it features two sweetly remodeled bathrooms. These bathrooms make me smile each time I visit them or simply pass by them. As you can imagine, I’m smiling a lot, even if I’m a little sheepish about being so happy about such a thing. Another thing I’ve enjoyed is the happy reception we’ve received from Neghi, who received his digital watch two days ago, UmmNadia, from the good folks at the Euro Deli, from the man who cleans my shoes (he gave me a hug), and a much longer cast of characters who hang out in our neighborhood and who have helped to make this a friendly place to live and to return to.

Next time: Amsterdam. Here’s a preview.


Friday, August 17, 2007

Simply Newsy Unless, Perhaps, You Belong to my Family

A week left in the U.S.
Together James and I have covered much of the nation. After flying in from Dayton, J helped a friend move from Portland to Houston, and this week he helped another friend move to D.C. I think he’s ready for a nap.

As for me – MN, KS, much of IL, IA, and OH have been covered in the Midwestern Tour of 2007. However, I’ve had plenty of naps, sometimes with babies and toddlers snoozing on me, and other times on the 13 hour train ride from Dodge City to Galesburg, by which time I could have been in Africa, but dang it if those train seats aren’t way more comfy than a plane’s. My new niece is a sweaty-headed little cutie, and my nephew is an utter and hilarious joy. Visited the twins, a pair of nieces about to walk, in IA; saw MN buddies, J’s OH family, my southern IL family, etc. Below, you will see my favorite little boy on his first fishing trip courtesy of Grandpa. He couldn't sit still yet managed to catch three bass.

Deer in my parents' yard:

Last weekend Mom and I went to Granny’s 80th birthday bash. Aunt Tammy, the caterer, had a cake made with an edible replica of Granny as a 16 year old and had put together a photo collage of Granny, all of her children, and each of her eleven grandkids.

Nobody seemed willing to eat the part of the cake where Granny’s face was:

My dear granny glowed with happiness, and there was the usual grinning and laughter of the women in the bunch, in addition to the witty repartee of Ashtyn, my cousin Jamie’s oldest kid, who was wearing a chic pair of Hot Wheels sunglasses and was highly interested in the bubble-gum pink punch. Cousins Kelly and Jamie, sisters, are super-cutely-pregnant. And I got to see my “baby” cousins, all grown up now and the cutest (and probably nicest) guys ever. Below are three generations - Granny is 25 years older than Mom, who is 25 years older than me, a fun and symmetrical coincidence that I broke when I leapt beyond 25.

This week I headed to Springfield to do research at the Abraham Lincoln presidential library, which is right across the street from the new museum. The museum is awesome – so awesome it was covered in the Smithsonian magazine when it opened a couple of years ago. If you don’t count my silly fear of the ubiquitous lifelike replicas of Lincoln located at every turn, I had a super time. Recommended. Because of a technical dilemma, the hotel upgraded me to their "Governor's Suite." I seriously doubt if Blagojevich has stayed in that room, but the whirlpool and adjoining meeting room were nice. If only I had had a Power Point presentation to show to my imaginary friends. Downtown Springfield is quite beautiful, but I was sad that I didn’t run into Barack Obama. That ranks right up there with not seeing Dave Chapelle when J and I were in Yellow Springs, OH. I only visited the presidential library, the A. Lincoln museum, and the Old State Capitol, but I've already got some vivid memories of sweltering days and the yellow school bus that transported me and other whiny kids to Lincoln's tomb back in the days of Room Mothers and soggy sandwiches. One day in Springfield I had lunch at a place called The Garden of Eatin’ and was enjoying the music in the café when I realized it was the same kind of music I hear all the time in Egypt. I asked one of the girls at the front counter about it, and she said, “I don’t know” and yelled back to the kitchen, “Hey, Habib, what are we listening to?” “It’s Persian,” Habib yelled back. Oh, Arabia – we’ll see you soon.

We’re looking forward to going back to Egypt for several reasons, but one of the most superficial is that we’re sick of traveling. (I know – BOO-freaking-HOO, and get a real job, right?). One of the things I was most concerned about before moving overseas was not spending quality time with family. Yet I think I spent more time with my nephew (and his new little sis) this past year than I would have had I still been in Minneapolis. Something about being far away can make you more thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the people at home. Plus, it can sure as hell guilt people into prioritizing you when you’re here. Anyway, I’m grateful to everybody who gave up time to hang out and glad for the Q-time with all family and friends willing and able to spend it with me. Come visit us in Egypt, and we’ll treat you up right.


Saturday, August 04, 2007

It’s not really unique for me to identify myself as one of the former U of MN people who lived in Minneapolis, a quarter of a mile from the I-35 bridge. I lived there for four years before moving last year to Cairo. I knew that area – I walked and drove around, under, and over that bridge almost every day. I drove over that bridge multiple times this June. But if you live in Minneapolis, you have driven over that bridge.

When I am horrified by or grieving about something, I stiffly clutch my jaw with my palm, as if somehow holding my face up can keep me cool. I sat there like that in front of CNN after J called me from L.A. to let me know about the bridge collapse. I called people – one friend had simply decided to take 94 instead of 35 that day because he had a craving for a sweet shop called Diana’s Bananas. “Diana’s Bananas saved me,” he said, downplaying it Minnesota-edly, even though he’s from Arkansas. Once I thought I had everyone covered, I would think of one more person. And then I would think about people I’ve lost touch with. My former colleagues. Even people I disliked – oh, please, let them be all right. My former students. And so on.

In Egypt, it was about 1 am when the bridge collapsed. Even so, I received an email from one of my Egyptian friends just a few hours after the incident. He knew I had lived in Minneapolis, and he wanted to send his sympathy for my family and friends and make sure everyone was all right.

On September 11th, I remember clutching my jaw. I had been eating some granola that morning in Ames, Iowa, before I found out. I woke up J and snapped on the TV like everyone else. Hours later, I looked down at the bowl of granola, lumped in soymilk, in my lap. I didn’t cancel my classes the next day like many instructors – instead, my students and I tried to talk about it. What a mess that discussion probably was.

My Egyptian friend has a September 11th story too. Once he heard the news, he ran to find his brother in a café, which was eerily silent except for the TV. The men in the café were stunned. “No one was rejoicing,” he said sternly, when I claimed that this was indeed different than some of the images I remember CNN broadcasting – for instance, the image of Arabs joyfully burning an American flag. In 2001 I could not have told you what country that image was from.

Despite the nice time I am having in Egypt, there is this sadness, a beaten-down kind of sadness that comes when one’s social and economic life, due to the stagnant politics of the country, are not really free. Many taxi drivers in Cairo have PhD’s in fields such as engineering, medicine, and law – and they are stuck there, where there aren’t jobs, and often barred entrance from places like the U.S. Yet so many of these people mourned for those killed on September 11th. And my friend, across an ocean and a continent, heard about Minneapolis, a city nowhere close to the population of Cairo and in a tragedy – yes, I think it’s a tragedy, so don’t misunderstand – that claimed comparatively few lives, and he sent his regrets.
More often than not, I have received a surprised response when I say that the Egyptian people are the nicest I have ever met.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bye Bye, Egypt

The night we left Egypt, we were met at the front entrance to our apartment by university driver Hossam, the same young man who had whisked us away to the Western Desert in the waning days of last fall’s Ramadan. “Hossam!” I said, and he smiled back at me. I’m not sure if he recognized me or simply thought, “Look, a whitey.” In any event, he was as affable as our language barrier would allow for, even saying “bye bye, Egypt,” as we sped away from Zamalek and downtown and began the fast and winding drive to Heliopolis and the airport, where we were deposited, for the first time, at Terminal 1, the much more modern facility that was constructed, naturally, after Terminal 2. This terminal was strange because, well, it was a full-on modern facility, cavernous, windowed, the floors shiny, organized lines of people shuffling through the security line to the ticket counter, where they expertly got my bags sent to Dublin and M’s to Chicago, even though we were checking in at the same time and departing on the same flight to Amsterdam. Another odd thing: at this point it’s around 2:30 in the morning and, but for a late afternoon nap, I had been awake since ten in the morning. This wouldn’t be my first all-nighter.

We departed Egypt around 4:30 am. M fell asleep before the plane even took off and remained that way, slack-jawed, for most of the flight. Me, I had burst through that unfortunate boundary where fatigue turns to bleary-eyed wakefulness, so I sat there with my eyes half-closed for half the flight, watching a Diane Keaton movie on the screen. And damn, those KLM 747’s haven’t changed much since I flew on them in the late 1990’s. Even the stewardesses’ electric blue flight uniforms haven’t changed a lick.

Something else that kept we awake was the rollicking travel over continental Europe. Takeoff was fine and dandy, but as soon as I saw the first glimmerings of the horizon through the windows to my left, we also entered a thick soup of fog that reached up to our 41,000 feet of altitude and made for a rollicking adventure. So I spent a lot of time watching the horizon dip below and rise above the wing, and being pissed that I couldn’t get my speakers to work, so I had no idea what Diane Keaton was teaching Mandy Moore about life and such. When we landed, some armed security guards checked everybody’s passport before allowing us into the airport. They only gave ours a cursory glance, but the Arabs sure got a lot of attention. Isn’t that strange?

We said goodbye to one another in that suddenly hasty way that seems specific to airports: we trudge through the very long airport at Amsterdam, arrive at my gate, find it boarding, M realizes her flight to Chicago will board in another 10-15 minutes…and suddenly there are public hugs and kisses, which seemed strange to me after a year in Egypt, where we didn’t even hold hands in public. Then I was aboard the much smaller and green plane taking me to Dublin. It was aboard this plane that I was reminded of the friendliness of the Irish, thanks to a guy named Patty, who had spent the weekend in Amsterdam playing in a football league and was returning to Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, where he lived with his four children. Beside Patty was Dublin Ken, who ordered two cans of Heineken about twenty minutes into the hour-long flight and managed to finish them both, although I don’t actually remember him taking a drink. WE descended into Dublin on a partly cloudy day, but to me the sky was brilliantly blue, the waters or the Irish Sea as we coasted over it pristine, the shoreline lush, so so green, and the air clearer than it ever is in Cairo. Patty tried grumbling about this, I believe because the Irish are still attached to their downtrodden identity of not-so-long-ago. The truth is that Ireland is thriving these days and a bunch of ugly, soulless, pre-fab buildings are replacing the cool older ones that help make Ireland such an appealing destination in the first place.

I caught the bus to Monaghan town an hour after passing through passport control, and I only 90 minutes I was in CO. Monaghan, the northernmost county in the Republic of Ireland. That fast, to go from east coast to northernmost! That’s like traveling from the Atlantic seaboard to Minnesota in the same period of time. I spent the night in Monaghan town, at the Hillgrove Hotel, where I napped heavily, enjoyed their pool, steam room, sauna and hot tub, and hung out with my pasty-skinned brethren. It was curious to hang with people who look so much like me. Where I live, I am conspicuous. Nobody looks at me and thinks (in Arabaic), “That is one light-skinned Egyptian.” In Ireland, everybody assumed I was Irish until I opened my mouth and spoke. The typical response: “You’re not from around here?” No, I say, and then I explain how I am from America but I had started that morning in Egypt, my country of residence. This got their attention. Question: “Is it safe there?” To which I say, in one way or another: I’m as white as you are, and nothing bad has happened to me yet.

The next morning I arrived at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, an artist’s retreat in rural Co. Monaghan, about 5 miles from the nearest village of Newbliss. What can I say of the place? I had a remarkable time. I found myself slipping into an insular, quiet life, hardly social (and even this small place had its modest social society), days built around writing my 1,000 daily words, walking the grounds and encountering friendly dogs who became my closest pals for 4 weeks, napping (a lot), reading, cycling to Newbliss for groceries, beer and the butcher: salmon and chicken every day. I was still plagued by the strange feeling that I was not doing enough writing, since, after all, I found plenty of time to nap, drink beer, and watching movies and TV shows stored on my laptop. Why not two large per day, or three? I also found myself thinking about taking photography classes, which I have long meant to do but never had the time. I thought about owning a dog of my own some day, or learning how to cycle, really and truly learning about it, the strategies and the best way to use the gear shifts…all these small things leaked into my life, looming large. I spent a sunny afternoon photographing the exotic flowers and thought I should learn to identify them (I kept myself plenty busy identifying all the birds). I think this is what happens when you push teaching aside, push aside your personal life as you know it. All these small things you might have momentarily considered learning, perhaps late at night of during a particularly restful weekend, when spaces emerge and respites seem best filled with some activity that will turn you into the more-interesting person you still envision yourself becoming, someday. Anyway, four relatively carefree weeks passed in this way, and lonesomeness did not really bother me until that last week, which was also my least-productive week of writing.

This was followed by two days in Dublin. Perhaps more on this another time.

Bye bye, Ireland.

Then I came back here, to America. On the flight in, Tom Ridge appeared on our television sets to tell the foreigners on the flight how happy the US is to welcome them in, but we’ll need their fingerprints, an optic scan and a vial of still-warm blood to make sure they don’t want to do a jihad on us. He also listed the number of countries whose citizens can enter the US without benefit of a visa. I noticed, unhappily, that most of these countries are predominantly white. Isn’t that funny?

Since I’ve been back, I find that I have taken a lot of interest in things American. Visiting the Waffle House seems like a cultural experience. So, too, does taking in a baseball game on July 4. Here you see me taking a picture of Ken Griffey Jr. as he lines a foul ball down the right field line.

Otherwise, it’s interesting to be back in the land of Jesus Christ. In Egypt and in all Muslim countries, it’s against Islam to depict images of the Prophet Mohammed, since an image is considered an imitation, and why imitate that who is transcendent? America is a little different. You can’t spit without hitting an image of our handome, European-looking religious transcendent. Sometimes you can’t even drive down I-75 without seeing a 62-foot high scultpture of Him reaching up from the man-made lake before the Solid Rock Church. Sometimes.


Monday, June 18, 2007


My short story, "Boiler Room," is now on the shelves in the summer issue of the Indiana Review, 29.1.

"On the shelves" actually means: You can do one of three things: 1) Order it via the handy printable order form on the IR website. 2) See the "list of bookstores" link on the IR website, where you might find a store near you. 3) Get it from the library or do an interlibrary loan.


Thanks for your support,

Sunday, May 27, 2007

So Long, See You Tomorrow

A few evenings ago, M and I were standing at the window, looking down at out street. It’s a view I’ve become quite accustomed to and which I’ve taken pains to describe more than once on this blog. “It seems like we’ve been here forever,” I said, and she agreed.

My father likes to describe the giddy feeling of displacement he gets after traveling by plane—how, in a just a few hours, you can take off in Los Angeles and land in Dayton. It’s a feeling I’ve had a lot this year, and I’ve usually had it standing firmly on the ground (or on the deck of a yacht). I seem to have left Minneapolis longer than 11 months ago. Even summer camp and all its heated dramas seems like a distant memory. Perhaps the most distant of all recent memories is our first arrival into Cairo—the bleary-eyed arrival into the hazy, primordial stink of summer nights here. The ride into Zamalek from Heliopolis, with an equally exhausted colleague chatting in my ear. The dark and narrow streets of the island, that sense of finally being about as lost as I care to be. Everything was so new to us and that newness registers in my memory as a kind of stain on oak, or the feeling of an antique gift being unwrapped. It’s familiar to me now, but I can remember the newness. I remember our bawaab awakening us the next day (after noon), to introduce himself. I had no idea what he was saying to me, but somehow I knew he was the bawaab. I remember our first foray out into the street, the sensory overload of what is really about the most benign street in the most benign neighborhood in the city. I remember my whiteness pulsing, and I remember telling myself that I’d get used to it.

I wanted to get used to it. I think sometimes we put a premium on newness for its own sake, and that as soon as we begin to feel accustomed, then the shine has come off our original purpose in doing the new thing. I wanted very much to come here and be a good young professional, make no doubt about that. It’s a subject for another post. What I also wanted was to come to a place like Egypt and see for myself what life is like, what people are like, what happens when an American lives in the Middle East and walks down the street and does, in some measure, represent his country to those who live in this country. I wanted to be from the America of George W. Bush and the Iraq War and to walk down the street anyway. I wanted to be an American who can think and act with respect toward others—indeed, when appropriate, in deference to others. I wanted to give a different image, and I wanted to see a truer image than I had been shown.

This is what I’ve seen:


Saturday, May 26, 2007

In a short time, we're leaving Egypt for the summer. Today, on our way out for a walk, Neghi (the bawaab) informed us he wanted a Casio watch from America. The old man who guards another building came over and tried to translate, because I thought Neghi wanted to know what time we were leaving on Monday, since the word for "time" is the same as the word for "watch," even though when I think back on it, he was clearly saying, "I want a watch." Neghi kept giving me a disapproving look every time I told him we were leaving at one in the morning.

Suddenly, as happens here, we were surrounded by well-meaning Egyptians trying to get Neghi's message across. (This unabashed friendliness is what I will miss the most when I am in America.)

Finally, we understood what he wanted.

Then the old man said Neghi wanted the numbers in Arabic. I mimed something like, "In America? Pshaw!"

Neghi shook his head furiously and pretended he was going to fight the old man as he pointed at his watch.

"Numbers in English," the old man said. Mafish mish queda, we agreed.

Also, there are two lizards on our porch. The enclosed porch. They probably got in through that hole the satellite guy put in our wall. I walked in there to do something and hightailed it out when I caught a glimpse of scaly movement over my head. If you are my mother - thanks a lot - you've done a superb job instilling the heebie-jeebies in me. :)

Last night we watched the lizards get aggressive as they stared at us with bulgy eyes, and we listened to their small chirps - a sound we had all year mistaken for bats or an eerie brand of mockingbird we had just never seen.

I always liked the lizards when they were on the outside porch. I always thought they were really beautiful. We call one of the outside guys Little Jack Bauer after Kiefer's swift yet cunning character on that sort of anti-Middle East show, 24. Aww, we say, as we hang out the wet clothes. So cute!

Inside? Not so much. They're really fast. In the meantime, we leave them be, and they can eat the spiders and roaches and ants that will make their way to the abandoned abode. Eat up! Maybe they'll be fat lounging lizards when we get back, chilling in front of the TV.

I imagine that some memories of our first year in Cairo will become sharper with distance. Or, at least, we will look at them sideways and articulate them with a different kind of clarity. So there will probably be some blog entries. In the meantime, see you later, Cairo!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Goodbye, Pink Bathroom

On Wednesday I collect papers, and by Memorial Day I should be in Chicago unless for some reason I get stuck on the runway at the Cairo airport for 6 hours again and then Amsterdam has a giant fog issue the likes of London’s December ’06. J leaves me at Amsterdam for a month-long writing residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland, for which he got a grant, I am proud to say.

Anyway, right now I prefer to talk about the impending destruction of the bathrooms. Because we have ancient pipes that continue to be problematic (to have a perspective, we at least have a method to dispose of our sewage), the university is replacing them. OK, we said. No problem. Mafish mish queda, to put it in local terms. The guy in charge of all things plumbing and tile, Ahmed, says, OK, so one day I’ll come get you to go pick out tile. No, really. He said that.

Today was that day. I cannot explain to you the importance of tile in this town. I thought we already had nice tile. I was wrong. Ahmed tsk-tsked that it’s completely outdated.

So this afternoon I’m walking through a tile store with J, after getting to ride in my first pickup truck since coming to Egypt. People are giving us tea in glasses – because that’s what they do here, place scalding glasses of tea in your hands. We shuffle through pattern after pattern, all displayed on hinged doorway-type things (what is the term?) stacked against each other. Tiles are not just tiles here – they have flair. A bunch of tiles, all just one color? No, my friend. There must be decorative tiles, smattered in with the rest. I present to you our current decorative tiles so you understand what I mean:

We know a history professor who has Venus as part of her decorative tile in her bathroom. Today, we actually got away with requesting multi-colored tiles with no decoration.

I’m beginning to understand why people moan and groan so much about the decisions they make when renovating their homes. I don’t even have a stake in these bathrooms, even though for some odd reason I was trusted to pick out their design, which is hilarious since I can’t even dress myself fashionably. I think the only other thing I’ve selected from a group of hinged doorways was a Tiffany poster. Back in the day, it was the red hair that made her win out over Debbie Gibson.

To be honest, J has a better eye than me. But every time he stated his opinion, the tile guys gave him a funny look and then looked at me like: Why isn’t he clearing this with you, woman? And I looked back all: Oh, he thinks he’s in control but has no idea he’s not!

Oh, I’ve engaged in that kind of interaction before, and it wasn’t in Egypt.

Wait a minute, though. We picked out some beauties, perhaps to be photographed and included in the fall when we return to Cairo. But – we have a pink toilet and a sort of puke beige toilet, I say to Ahmed. That’s not gonna look too good with these tiles. Mafish mish queda, Ahmed says – we’ll replace it all.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

It's so weird when the forecast is sand...

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Known as the Bride of Upper Egypt based on its Nile Valley location, Minya (though technically in Middle Egypt) has been a difficult place to get to since Islamic militants launched terrorist attacks in the 1990s and were then systematically obliterated by the Egyptian government. Minya is located near the tombs of Beni Hassan, Deir al-Adhra (the Church of the Virgin, founded in 328 AD by Constantine’s mother), the ruins of Hermopolis, Tuna al-Gabel, the Frazer tombs, and Tell el-Amarna. We saw these sites, but there are many others.

Remember the Pharaoh Akenhaten and Queen Nefertiti? Tell el-Amarna was their realm. Akenhaten enforced the idea that there was one god instead of many, and, on the surface anyway, people pretty much went along with that until he died, after which the people returned to multiple gods and set about defacing every image they could find of Akenhaten and Nefertiti, including those in the tombs we visited, where you could see depictions of his body, but his head and any written form of his name had been completely rubbed out. The belief was that if you rubbed out every image and word about someone, you would erase that person from history forever. Worked out well, didn’t it? You should really research this and find out more, OK?

We (a bunch of AUC faculty) set out from Cairo in a huge charter bus. What should have been a 3-4 hour trip turned into 6 hours because the original plan to take the Western Desert Road was foiled by police who forbid the bus to go any further after dark. This police protection would become a pattern. The bus and the group were not allowed to go anywhere without a smiling police escort in a Nissan truck or a blue Peugeot leading the way. We had to stop every once in a while as they radioed ahead for replacement shifts and drank tea. Hello, tourists! Anyway, we were diverted through Fayoum, an oasis, and our route was much more interesting than the other (which is, as its name suggests, simply desert) since we went through many villages. Conspicuously, as it were. Everywhere we went in that ludicrous bus, people stared, emphatically waved, nodded, shouted, jokingly offered drags from sheesha pipes, narrowed their eyes. Hundreds of children waved wildly and chased the bus. Only a couple threw rocks.

In Minya, we stayed at the Aton Hotel, a series of bungalows on the Nile. It was beautiful. There were soap and towels in the bathroom, and I didn’t have to throw toilet paper in the trash basket, and someone came in and made the beds while we were gone! Oh, how standards have changed. Actually, it was quite nice – clean and beautiful and quiet. Right on the Nile, where I finally dipped my hands. Across the way was an island with a small hut, cows and goats wandering nearby. On the terrace that looked out over the river, we had Sakkara beer, served with a plate of chickpeas and fresh lime juice. Recommended!

To get to our first set of tombs on the first day, we had to take a ferry from a small village. As the unwieldy bus was maneuvered into a parking position, children gravitated toward us, holding baskets and necklaces woven from fresh palm fronds. The necklaces were a gift unless you got one with a small lime creatively woven in, in which case they were a pound. Both kinds of necklaces smelled great. Of course a pound makes the kids smile, and they were relentless about asking us our names and trying to sell us things. We had to wait a few minutes before the ferry came across the Nile to retrieve our group, and every time I looked over, J was surrounded by children and goats. Par for the course.

Ferry Crossing, Nile River

As the ferry floated away from the shore, two pick-up trucks pulled up, full of villagers who were singing and playing instruments and waving. Along with two boys in gallabeyas handling a donkey cart, and the ever-present police truck, we were crammed on the ferry with some of the kids who had snuck on to continue their sales pitches, ducking the swipes of scolding adults. (Honestly, the only time I have seen a kid dragged out of somewhere by the ear that wasn’t in a film has been in Egypt.)

When we crossed on the way back, we had the added pleasure of standing next to flimsy crates with an assortment of sickly, overheated ducks, rabbits, hens, roosters, and one fairly staid turkey who seemed all right lounging in the same crate with rabbits who had clearly lost the will to live. Anyway, as hay and feathers flew, yet another little boy sidled next to J and regarded the birds and then us, and I swear it seemed as if he were trying to imagine what it was we thought we were seeing. There was one particularly gorged crate of hens from which a small brown egg suddenly emerged, pressed against the side of the crate. I pointed at it, and J marveled. “Yes,” he said. “Those chickens have been in there so long that one of them has laid an egg.” That sweet boy took J’s interest to mean that J wanted the egg, so he set to work. Eventually, he broke one of the wooden bars (and I, watching him, imagined a great but ultimately futile escape), retrieved the egg, and immediately brought it over to J, who found a graceful way to deny it and give the boy “filoos” (money) anyway. I’m pretty sure that J’s rejection was bird flu-based, since he had said, “Hey, bird flu!” the moment we found ourselves staring into the wounded eyes of the poultry.

The View from Deir al-Adhra

Later: Tuna el-Gabel. We stopped at a resthouse for lunch before heading to another couple of tombs, an ancient waterwheel, and the mummy of Isadora, a young woman drowned in the Nile. This was one of the only mummies around, it seems, most having been carted to museums. I’ve found I’m not a big fan of mummies. In general, I think it’s gross to stare at somebody’s corpse. And then to dig it up and put it on display? Hm. But let me tell you, the mummy of Isadora was pretty gross compared to all others I’ve seen. Of course, the mummies in Egypt have been in very un-British Museum-like conditions. (No, we haven’t been to the Antiquities Museum yet!). We saw the “Golden Mummies” in Bawiti, in a dank room with cracked glass cases, and I’ll never forget the head of one of them, cracked open and spilling dust from the back, and the feet covered over with thick new cotton “because of the smell,” according to our fairly uninformed guide. And Isadora, whose condition I won’t describe. I had to leave almost as soon as I saw poor Isadora – I was totally creeped out and people were making weird uncomfortable jokes. Things got better, though. We entered the catacombs where baboons and ibises, considered sacred, were mummified. Mummified animals? Fascinating! There weren’t really any left, though. A slippery stairway led us to a room with a shrine of a baboon skeleton that may as well have leapt off a Grateful Dead T-shirt. The rest of the place was a series of corridors that for some reason we were left to wander with no guidance and almost no lights. There were all these dark alcoves. In one we saw a pile of discarded ibis mummies thrown in with sand and pottery. Would Arnold Vosloo show up? Sadly, no.

Near the Tombs of Beni Hassan
Sugar factory pollution

Regarding Minya, the tombs and all that were nice, but for me the real pleasure was in the lush farmland, the people at work, the multitude of goats, cows, camels. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have stupidly quaint visions of squatting in a field all day in the blazing heat, pulling onions, or scolding my donkey, or grinding my own corn. Don’t forget that I grew up on a farm, even though I was spared the hard work and there was machinery. I can be sentimental, but not in that way. As you can see from some of the pictures, though, the only things really spoiling the beauty were the haze created from a single sugar factory and our enormous charter bus.