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.