Friday, September 26, 2008

The Maadi Metro supermarket is a little more cramped than the one in Zamalek. More people have driven rather than walked or taken a cab here. At the entrance, a woman begs with two little girls. One of the girls wears a dingy white blouse with lime green, flared pants, her hair short and coiffed by filth, tinged with red, a tangled, stiff helmet.

I watch her through the glass. The man at the register nods and shrugs, looking a little nervous, and the three baggers do the same. The computer is still loading, stalling everyone.

But – I’m in no hurry, I think. Do I look as if I’m in a hurry?

The men are apologetic, anticipating a kind of impatience and disdain. At the Korean restaurant down the street last week, a British man with a handlebar mustache, smoking a cigar, didn’t get his beer fast enough and clapped and snapped in the air and called to the Egyptian male waiter: “Honey!” It's an extravagance -- this impatience, similar to the kind I've displayed in the last few entries. 

The men at the Metro market cash register – in the most Egyptian way possible, which is to say, barely – brace for my impatience. 

People are standing and waiting. We need change and cigarettes and detergent. Blonde, pasty people in shorts, black people in bright garb, Egyptians in designer sunglasses. The oversized cars wait in the street – too small, too strewn with garbage, too full of poor people who position themselves exactly where it is hardest to say no, when we emerge with our bounty of groceries.

Today, most of us say no. It is hard to say why – there is no real explanation or pattern concerning anonymous generosity or lack of it.

The computer is working. The groceries are added up and bagged. We emerge from the market and the girl with the stiff coif is upon us, wanting a pound – one pound, madame, one pound – for a package of tissues. We say no, hailing a cab. “Madame, madame, one pound.” Is this like brushing away a fly with your tail? The cab driver, an old man with prayer beads hanging from his rearview mirror, speaks softly to the little girl as her pleas increase. Peace now, he is telling her. Peace, he is saying as she sticks her arm in the window – “Madame, one pound, madame” – and he drives us off.



Sunday, September 14, 2008

There is a mosque next door, a small mosque, with a passageway equipped with faucets where men clean their feet before prayer. The muezzin has a rich voice, so that even as the call to prayer echoes through our rooms, it’s become part of our everyday. The trickle of water in the passageway is pleasant. Then the sinus clearing begins. That part isn’t so pleasant.

Since returning I’ve focused more on the nuisances of Egypt. It may have to do with adjusting to a new neighborhood and a new campus. It may have to do with this being our third year, and how things that seemed merely foreign and bore some getting used to in the first and second year are now just getting on my nerves. It may be that I am still regulating my clock. It may be the heat.

The new campus is in the desert. It’s going to be beautiful, but right now it is a series of stone buildings with labyrinthine passages, very little shade, and very few working toilets. Those toilets that do work but are still under construction should not be entered. I found this out the hard way when I entered the ladies’ restroom in our department only to find unflushed toilets of the grossest kind and scattered cigarette ashes on the seat and floor. Although there is a men’s restroom just next door, the male workers prefer the ladies’ room, I guess.

Actually, when we were looking for apartments, and we came to our current one, there were men inside doing a few renovations. As we examined the bathroom just off the main bedroom, we found a similar pile of poo and ash. But the dishwasher and kitchen and counter space spoke more loudly, so we took it, and I bleached the hell out of the toilet when we moved in.

Back to the campus – I finally got a chair in my office today because I stole one with the permission of the department chair. This is not a tragedy, of course, but such are my complaints. One of my colleagues came to her office this morning to find moldy bread on the floor and dusty footprints on her chair. And, after an entire week of classes, a few flimsy garbage cans have been made available, though it is more in line with the habits of the students to leave their empty cups and cigarette butts anywhere but in a trash can.

Ah, but in our new apartment, we have yet to run into the zeballeen – the trash men who show up in the wee hours of the morning. You might recall that I became rather petulant with the Zamalek garbageman when he tried to get a bonus for first Christian (which we obliged) and then Muslim holidays – to which I said, “But you’re Christian!” And an argument in patchy Arabic and crystal-clear tones ensued. Yes, I’m a jerk, which is why James was the money man from then on. Here, in the new place, we set our garbage outside the door and the bawaab collects it. I am not sure when, which is problematic because of the cats. This morning, as I was waiting for the elevator, I clicked on the hallway light and found an emaciated orange cat with a gnarl of blood on his shoulder, staring at me. Maybe you are feeling sorry for this cat, and you should. But that cat looked me in the eye this morning, and this is what that look said: “You gonna leave or what? ‘Cause I got some trash to dig through and I will bite you, lady; I’ll bite-cha with my disease.”

But I had more important things to worry about. There is a free shuttle to school – which is great – but the problem is that the shuttle just kind of shows up whenever. So it’s supposed to leave at 7:55, for example, but if the guy shows up at 7:40, then there you go. Apparently, in my anxiety about making the shuttle (a cab ride would be pretty expensive), I missed the dead horse in the street that James would see later. I also was busy dodging cars, as usual. Maadi, created by the British, has roundabouts, and this complicates my understanding of when I should be dodging and where I should be looking.

The ride on the shuttle takes you out of Maadi, past sand and more sand and gated communities that are half-built – some more complete than others, some already like ghost towns. All extravagant, at least in the planning. There are other universities – one looks like a spaceship in the sand and is called Future University. Beyond these, desolation – the desert. Not the pretty Sahara – the dug-in Sahara, the uprooted sand, the desert on the cusp of pollution, the desert grasping trash. The shuttle has itchy orange curtains that you pull open and shut depending on the position of the sun. It is the sun, above all else, that I feel I am fighting when I go to work. It’s just always there, and the palm groves have been planted only on the outer edges of the campus, and there is never enough to drink, and it makes me realize how utterly unsuited I am to the desert, to any form of dehydration, and how pale I am, and how much the sun wants to chew me up and spit me out. 

There is going to be a turning point for me, I know, when I’ll remember the things I appreciate about Egypt. Not to worry. Just not today.




Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Top Questions I Get At Home and the Answers I Would Prefer To Give

  1. Do you have to cover your face/hair? No. Foreigners get away with a lot here; foreigners are often coddled. We get a free pass. It’s telling that I found it much more difficult to communicate in France than I do in Egypt. However, you have to cultivate a sensibility about how you want to dress and what sort of confidence you have in your clothing choices. In some cases, covering your hair is seen as a matter of respect, as when entering a mosque. I haven’t covered my hair when entering a mosque. I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. I’ll think about this choice. I do, however, remove my shoes. It’s all pretty confusing still. I’m in the phase where I have learned about the gender equality espoused in the Qu’ran, something I guess I missed in the Bible. I recommend the book Scheherazade Goes West if you are a Western feminist who hasn’t delved into Islamic feminism. Anyway, we just moved to Maadi, and people walk around in shorts here, and harassment is minimal. Even though Zamalek is a rich neighborhood, shorts were a rarity and leering was not uncommon. Around the corner from our apartment is a gym with TV’s attached to the treadmills and the cleanest showers I have ever seen. Welcome to suburbia. My parameters are changing. I miss Zamalek. I guess I will just have to drown my sorrows in the freshly-made tofu I can get down the street at the Korean restaurant.
  2. Are Egyptian men hotties? This question is so weird to me, but I get it a lot from strangers. The word "hotties" makes me giggle uncomfortably. I didn’t go to Egypt looking for hotties, but I would say that the ratio of good-looking to bad-looking men is about the same as everywhere.
  3. Do you feel safe? In a car? No. I’ve learned how to absorb myself in reading while being whipped around in a cab because there just isn’t much I can do about whether or not I get in a crash. I also fear getting hit while I am walking down the street. Yet, walking down most streets in Cairo, beyond the vehicles, I absolutely feel safe. I have been met with nothing but kindness and generosity. I have been lost in back alleys piled in poverty and people have led me out and been offended when I have offered them money. The only conflicts I usually get into are about money, and these arguments are usually with melodramatic cabdrivers.
  4. Do they like us? Do they hate us? Who knows?  I think when you are living in any foreign country you are constantly met with generalizations and are constantly formulating your own. Here’s one: Egyptians constantly tell me what Egyptians are like. After a while, if I’m not careful, I believe it. Sometimes I find myself then talking about how generous and hospitable Egyptians are, for example. And they are. But I’m also constantly told that they are. By them. Egyptians often say they love Americans. To me. The comedians grin and say they love the American dollar. All in all, what I really believe is that many Egyptians are more willing to give foreigners a chance than Americans can be despite America’s foundations in immigration and equality, and they know more about America’s political status and history than Americans know about Egypt. That said, I’ve heard some pretty offensive things from Egyptians about Israelis and Asians that don’t always support the idea of hospitality. What is springing to my mind now is the multiracial diversity of the American athletes I saw in the Olympics. I felt a swell of pride about it, despite my anger at the way the women’s beach volleyball teams wore wedgy-producing bikinis while the men wore comfy tees and shorts as bikini-clad cheerleaders or dancers or something lined up around the men’s volleyball court. Anyway, when you look at these athletes beyond our obvious gender issues, it’s hard to understand why Americans could be hesitant about somebody like Barack Obama becoming our President, if this hesitation has anything to do with race. This diversity should be a source of pride, a symbol of the ideals that Americans should want people to remember about us. I actually read an opinion piece in the Galesburg Register-Mail before I left the U.S. in which some jerk from Arizona targeted Obama’s middle name (yet again) and then proceeded to say that electing Obama would be akin to electing someone with a Japanese name during World War II. I would hope that most readers would immediately catch the idiocy of that analogy on both ends. When people at home ask me about Egyptians, I give canned responses about how nice the people are, etc. I do this because I want people to know there is nothing to be afraid of, that the Middle East is not some cesspool of violence and hatred, that the Middle East is the root of so much of our ideals about democracy and "civilization." I come back here this third year more confused than ever, though. An Egyptian friend told me the other day that Michelle Obama was bringing down Barack's chances because she "isn't pretty" and Sarah Palin is "pretty." This is the same friend who hopes to have blonde, blue-eyed children one day. I don't really know what to do with comments such as this except become defensive and more confused. I hope to articulate part of this confusion in coming entries. --A--