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.