Saturday, March 17, 2007

And now for something completely superficial. A few weeks ago, we got a satellite on top of our apartment building, there to join the bountiful garden of satellites that serve as a status symbol in this town. Two guys knocked on our door around 9pm, climbed on the roof, drilled a hole through our balcony wall, hoisted a long thick cable from a truck on the street to our seventh floor, and, voila, satellite TV on a cute used set with a teeny screen. TV! TV! We’ve moved the furniture in the living room so that it all points toward that charismatic screen.

Here’s some stuff we get on satellite. The length of this list, which is only a sampling of what I watch, makes me ashamed: an Arabic version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire (good language practice), The Comeback, Prison Break, 24, Fat Actress, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, Crocodile Hunter, Boomerang, Cartoon Network, Saturday Night Live, ESPN, the History Channel, Animal Planet…wait a minute, you say, art thou in Egypt? Why, yes, still in Egypt. We also get radio and television stations from every country in the Middle East – besides our English-language channels, there are hundreds of Arabic channels. And hardly any commercials, though one can argue that 24 is one giant commercial anyway.

Before we got the TV up and running, I was buzzing through 2-3 books a week. I’m not trying to brag, I’m just saying now it’s taken me a week and a half to get through my latest read. This gives me a good reason to mention it: Dreams From My Father – Barack Obama’s first book. The thing I like about this guy is that he shows an evolution in the way he thinks. He is complex. He understands other viewpoints even if he disagrees with them. He has visited and lived in some of the poorest parts of the world. He positively impacted the south side of Chicago. And, most importantly, he is a reasonable human being. I think it would be nice to have somebody like this as our President. OK, not just nice. Essential.

Oh, wait. Wasn’t I talking about our TV? OK, finally, for Bryan’s sake, a “bribe” story. It rained on Thursday. The rain came after a week in which we’ve had some mild dust storms – dust in your lungs, grit in your eyes – apparently it can get much worse. Anyway, as it began to rain, the girls at the school across the street screeched and ran about and slammed windows shut. I threw the windows open and, after a few minutes of acidic odor, fresh air poured in, and it felt like spring.

In the meantime, just as I was watching the dumbest flick ever, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (now that I think about it, though, the movie How High, which I saw at a dollar theatre in Ames, is probably much dumber, since the protagonists end up digging up the body of John Quincy Adams and smoking his corpse finger like a joint for plot reasons that are, as you can guess, stupid)…anyway, just as I was watching C.A. and listening to the pouring rain, the satellite went out. Now, it’s true that the satellite went out during a scene in which Cameron Diaz ditzily flings herself around on a mechanical bull while wearing a white fuzzy outfit meant to paste viewers’ eyes to her thigh, and I was cringing at myself and thinking about how it would be better for my soul to continue to read that Obama book. But it was my day off, and I wanted to watch TV. Out it went, though. No signal.

I spent a few hours reading to celebrate my victory over myself. Then I retreated and called Orbit, my Magical Provider of TV. I was instructed to “refresh” the “decoder.” This meant unplug and re-plug the fantastical cable box. Nothing happened. I was told that a technician would call to arrange an appointment. Forgetting that I am in Egypt, I figured that would happen in a few hours. When J came home from work several hours later, he called Orbit. He was told a technician would call on Sunday to arrange the appointment. All those days without TV, and I had just started watching the first season of Prison Break! Alas. J got off the phone all “Uh-uh, no way.” I’m like, “Way!”

J gets back on the phone. I’m sitting there smugly, thinking, Good luck with that. Me? I’ll just read something.

Then he’s talking to the woman who set us up with the satellite in the first place. She had told him that we should call at any time if we needed something, wink, wink – give me some extra cash and you’ll get through the bureaucratic b.s. Sure enough, within an hour, the guy who climbed on our roof in the first place was here and had our precious entertainment up and running, and we paid him about $8. I realize, of course, that there are people for whom this happens in the U.S., but I’ve never been in that position before. I’ve always felt as if I’m at the butthole bottom of bureaucracy when it comes to dealing with companies. But here – have I become that asshole I’ve always hated? Oh, I fear for myself.

Ah, but why linger? Surely there’s something good on TV right now.
Happy St. Patrick's Day!


Monday, March 12, 2007

I was leaving the Flamenco Bakery just now, loaf of multi-grain bread in hand, when I had another of those moments I still have with regularity. The moment went something like this. I exited the bakery and turned right. To my left, across the congested city street, was the Nile. Beyond that, standing in contrast to the half-razed concrete structures, was a mosque, white and proud. The air felt surprisingly light and the breeze refreshed me and sent me almost-skipping along the way. And I thought: I live in freakin’ Egypt. How did this happen?

It does seem like a dream sometimes, and in one respect I suppose it is. When I was a kid, I often kicked around the idea of living in a foreign country. When we did geography in class, I looked at the strange shape and names of countries like Jordan, Niger and Chad. (For some reason I was drawn to Africa.) I wanted to live somewhere really different, if I did it—I had this dawning realization that the planet was very large and that life is lived in a lot of different ways, and it seemed to me that I would be missing out if I didn’t see some other version of life for myself. This may be owing to the fact that I grew up in a small town, nice enough but lacking in the diversity I sensed from the world beyond my home. I understood implicitly that I didn’t have much in common with those around me, not most of them anyway, and in that respect growing up was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole—I could hold in my hand the number of people in my hometown who would willingly live in Africa, in the Middle East, surrounded by several million Muslims. Anyway, it was important then and it is important now that I not be afraid, especially given that most fear is a product of ignorance.

Now I am here. Truth is, I don’t love Egypt, don’t love Cairo. But it’s never been necessary for me to love it. Even that childhood wish to live abroad, I never needed a place to love—the idea never entered my mind. I wanted to *like* the place, I wanted it to interest me and show me some other way that life is lived—not because I wanted tolive in that way, but because I was curious. In these ways, Egypt is a raging success so far. There is no love to perpetually maintain or justify. But something interesting happens even while I am walking down the street. I really really like that.


We went to the Citadel on Saturday. It’s a fortress dating back to medieval times, but which shows the influence of the Ottomans who ruled over Egypt for several hundred years. It hangs out close to the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, which we visited on a trip to Islamic Cairo back in December. At the end of this post, I’ll provide a link to a website that gives some history and provides some nice pics. I’ll also include some of my own pics, of course. Note the very blue sky—this was the clearest day I can remember in Cairo, and it transformed the city.

A few highlights. First, the Citadel’s prison, where they held Sadat’s assassins in 1981. As you can see, the doors are heavily fortified—so no escape. Everyone in the group looked inside a cell and each time we came away with a bit of a fright…

Another highlight was the Police Museum, which was actually just a few rooms of framed photographs and drawings of famous criminals either arrested or killed by Egyptian authorities over the years. They even had the gun used in the attempted assassination of President Nasr! This was one of the strangest thins I have ever seen.

After that, I stopped off at the Citadel’s restaurant, which does not date back to medieval times, for a cappuccino. When the guys learned I was American, they asked if I liked Al Pacino. To which I replied that yes, yes I do, but my mother is the real fan in the family, given that she owns a framed portrait of Pacino, Godfather-era, which she hangs proudly in her home. Okay, I didn’t tell the guys about the portrait.

Then there was the nice old man at the Turkish mosque who let us into the mausoleum area. I’m not sure if he was “supposed” to do it or not, but I discreetly slipped him 2LE and he became my friend. At the tomb (of whom I do not know), which is above-ground and bizarrely covered with colorful curtain-like things, the walls had been painted. He showed me. “Istanbul,” he said. And then, turning to the painting you see below, he said, proudly, “Cairo.”



Wednesday, March 07, 2007

This is going to be a mass of generalizations, so if you can’t handle that kind of thing, best to let this entry go. Or just look at the above picture, an Arabic movie poster we found at the same store where we got the pretty green lamp that lacked a proper cord. The guy with the pegleg sealed the deal on that poster-purchase.

Tonight, as I rode the shuttle bus home, a pair of American exchange students behind me spent the entire twenty-minute ride complaining about the ineptitude of some professor. There is a particular whiny, know-it-all way that American kids complain about their teachers, and I’ve certainly been a part of this when I was a student, even through grad school. I won’t recreate the dialogue because if you’ve been in school, you can guess. What was important to me is that I realized I have never heard an Egyptian student speak that way about a teacher.

I’ve taught at two state universities in the Midwest. Unfortunately, it was not a rarity to walk into a class on the first day, not having spoken a word yet, and have a couple of students already sulking and sullen in the back as if I were forcing them to be there. It’s rough sometimes when you’re unloved from the beginning.

For the most part, my Egyptian students are eager to learn. Sure, there are lots of things that get on my nerves (“Oh, you wanted a hard copy of the paper? Really? But – I couldn’t print it. I slept at my grandmother’s last night. She doesn’t have a computer!” – the sort of excuse that is so naively transparent that even as I am firm in class I find it adorable later), and I’m not pretending I haven’t pissed off a few Egyptian students, but a lot of these kids are glad to be here, a much higher percentage than I’ve perceived in other places. Many of them have been educated so far through rote memorization and the Qu’ran. This university, where discussions happen, where students are responsible for managing their own time, is elite in this kind of place.

Last week one of my students, Ashraf, came early to class. I asked how it was going in his first year, and he said he loved it. He said he felt so free. He said other schools in Egypt were not like this.

AUC is a place where someone from the Muslim Brotherhood, a shunned party, can give a public lecture, which happened last semester. It’s kind of freaky, actually, how different AUC feels from just two blocks away from campus – remember, this is the same country that just arrested a young Egyptian blogger for critiquing its religion and its interminable president. But that’s not my point. My point is that Ashraf is exuberant about the opportunity. I will miss that when I return to America.

So I find my students to be fascinating. They are growing up with Western values that are connected to materialism and its artificial links to freedom, while, at the same time, many are growing up with a religion that, in the last few years in Egypt, has become more conservative. Their parents grew up in a different time, a time when women were taking off the headscarves. Now the veils have made a comeback. More about “taking the veil” some other time. Most of these students live in the suburbs, where there is more room, and it sometimes looks creepily like California, and there is a mall called City Stars that is bigger than the Mall of America and has a TGI Friday’s. Their drivers take them to school and pick them up. But still, they live in a developing country, a country that has not found a really satisfactory way of pushing the poor into separate corners quite like America has. The poor are squatting in the suburbs, too – that’s how many of them there are.

If you know me, you’ve heard this story. When I first moved to Minneapolis, I would walk around the Mississippi. The St. Anthony Main/Hennepin/Nicollet area is beautiful. In 2002, I saw a fair amount of the homeless sitting on the benches by the river. Over the next few years, as more condos went up, the river restaurant scene got busier, the Guthrie theatre got rebuilt to resemble an IKEA (though it was pictured in the Smithsonian for its beauty, that theatre, so don’t trust my opinion - I'm sure a couple of my MN friends are going to disagree on this one), and it was reported that more people were finally moving in from the suburbs than sprawling out -- after all of these things, the homeless vanished. Really. Where did they go? Did they find homes? The aura of the river changed in that short amount of time. The F-You graffiti was scrubbed from the Stone Arch Bridge.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. It’s just that, even though I have always had a deep-seated, rather inexplicable aversion to "the rich," and these students are richer than I’ll probably ever be, their lives are complex. Egyptian youth are at an intriguing crossroads. This country has to change. Doesn’t it? One would hope. If you read the NY Times article I mentioned in the last entry, then you know that most people in Cairo are poor and that most feel absolutely no connection to the government. I’m not talking about your average “I don’t care about politics” baloney. Some neighborhoods in Cairo have had to develop their own sewage systems after weeks of watching it run by in the street with no help from their government. Yeah. That kind of disconnection. Maybe this is why these kids, even the ones who never remove the Chanel sunglasses from their heads, continue to fascinate me. I don’t know if their money makes them powerful or not. I’m just interested in seeing what they do with it.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Today's New York Times online has a lead story about the poor in Cairo, as well as a video of Cairo. You can sign up with them for free to view their articles.