Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Oh, there was also the swine flu b.s., a load of applications, the production of a scholarly writing sample, an essay about Amy Hempel, a helluva lot of time at the gym, and the usual dance of Cairo, including the horrific thumping of a body against the car of the Metro we were riding in and the subsequent drag and drop of that body. We don't know what happened to that person.
The cats in Maadi are generally in better shape than the ones in our former neighborhood, Zamalek. You see more shopkeepers feeding a few select kitties. They hang in groups, and there's usually one tough boy who heads them. Usually the tough boy has cauliflower jowls from all the scraps he's endured to get his position. Curiously, the big boy in charge of the gang in front of our building has a well-shaped face. He hangs with the regulars - a white gal with a tiny head and enormous, piercing eyes (we call her Ojos Locos), another white guy, and a black and white guy. Here's the tough boy:
He started wooing J pretty quickly this autumn. "Oh, hey, buddy," James says to all animals peeping out from under cars and in garbage piles. J is allergic to cats, but he took to this guy. Or, rather, the cat chose him. He was interested in us. Most animals around here have a blank look of despair, not unlike some of the people. But tough boy was different, and he chose James. Soon, cat food. Eventual inchings of cat into doorway, foyer, dining room carpet. Me saying, "You better not get attached to this nasty cat." Me scolding the cat off the couch when he got too brave.
Me remembering the eleven or twelve cats running around outside when I was a kid, and how I had names for them and loved them all, and would go out on the patio when it was cold at night and gather as many of them onto my lap as I could until my mom made me go back inside. The cats would follow me through the woods in a long line.
I made lots of comments about how I really did not want fleas in the rug. I said, "Hey, disease," whenever the cat tentatively stepped inside. It was hard to explain my ambivalence to J. I was worried about breaking this cat's heart, which would break my heart.
But here he is, just the same. And we decided it was time to adopt him. The cat people in my department were all over this, providing us with doctors' names and numbers, advice about getting the cat to the U.S. (which is relatively easy compared to trying to get a pet into Europe and which doesn't require a quarantine if he's had his shots), and even gift bags of cat toys. We called him Bodie after a character on The Wire. Urban Dictionary will inform you that this name means a guy from the streets who is good with the ladies. We managed to get him his first round of shots, his emasculation, de-worming, and a bath. During this time, I also discovered that de-clawing is an American thing, that it is actually illegal in Europe. Anyway, it was wise not to de-claw him - it would have hurt, and, more to the point, he would have gotten his ass kicked on the first morning we left him to go to work, the day the maid came and let him out. I was devastated. Like an overly zealous new mother, I had called her to make sure the "ota"(cat) was okay. The "ota" was "barra" (outside). "Oh...sa'laam," I muttered. Peace?! My kitty escaped! I was devastated.
"Oh, don't worry," shrugged all the cat people in my department. "He'll be back. He knows where the food is."
We got back at 8pm. By 9, the cat was back, too, but wary. Wary 'til the food was presented. And so the meowing ensued as we shut him back in our apartment. We had a week of break ahead of us, with Thanksgiving and Eid Al-Adha and illogical swine flu extensions. A week of incessant howling each night, sulking and stinkeye, a few pointed poops with our names written in them, and an everlasting smell of cat piss on one of the couches. He really wanted out. After a week, we let him out. I can't explain the relief. We watched from the window as he stepped outside and rubbed against a plant and luxuriously sniffed and trotted about. We saw him periodically cruising about with Ojos Locos. And then, later, he was back. OK, so we would have an arrangement. I didn't know if it was an ethical arrangement. What about if/when we leave? What do we do? I plan to take the cat but not if he hasn't settled in with us. Besides, he hadn't even let us pet him, scratch his chin, though he was playing.
A few weeks later, I was walking down to the ATM and spotted the black and white cat, entrails spilling out in the road. All of the cats on the street were creeping toward it in a slow-motion circle. It had just happened - no doubt he had been run over. Bodie was one of the creeping cats. When he saw me, he ran under a parked car. By the time I came back, someone had scooped the cat over to the side of the road. (In Zamalek, it would have been more likely to rot there for days until it was fully pressed into the pavement). Bodie was trying to get to it, but an orange cat was standing guard over the body. Since he had been emasculated, Bodie was not one to start fights.
When he came in later that evening, he started rubbing against us, and all of a sudden he wanted a head rub, a chin scratch. I have to admit I think that the dead cat traumatized him because all of a sudden he was a lot more needy, particularly toward his buddy James. We got a vet who does housecalls, and Bodie got his second round of shots. He won't stay in all the time, but he spends more and more hours inside, and we even leave him in the apartment when we go somewhere. I am not sure what will become of this cat. But, as J reminds me, every hour he is with us is an hour of comfort for him. I don't think he has ever had such good naps, for sure, with nothing to worry about, no toms picking fights, and food at the ready.
We haven't written much lately. Part of it is that we do not have the same narrative wonder that we used to have. I could tell you about the books I have read this semester, the tedium and joys of teaching and departmental work, my waning relationship with my novel. But Bodie's really the only thing I've found worth writing about.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Coptic Cairo is its own little district, made clean just for tourists. It shows me that Egyptians can keep things Western-style clean when they feel like it, although it is also a protected district and spared the ravages of incessant foot traffic. I take some comfort in the familiar parts of the Coptic iconography and architecture around here. It reminds me of home a little bit, even though Coptic Christianity is different from most versions of the religion practiced stateside. But I can't deny that it is more familiar and I take a measure of comfort in that, strangely enough. That said, the eeriness of Coptic images is compelling and unlike anything I see at home. In the Church of St. George, for example, there is a scene of a man who resembles the Joker spearing a dragon from atop a horse. I saw this scene countless times--in reprinted paintings, mostly, but also embodied in a kitschy statue wrapped in silver tinsel. It's a little bit cartoonish, true enough, but all the same it is serious business to visiting Copts, who show their devotion by touching the glass panes protecting reprinted images of their saints. I'm also unnerved by the commonness of these faces--of the saints, the virgin, the apostles, Jesus himself. Christianity is a religion of faces. Islam has no images of its prophet, and I have not seen many (if any) images inside mosques, where the space is devoted primarily to prayer (and sleep). All the faces of Christianty are eerie, especially when you are looking at 6th or 7th century artwork where the faces are strikingly similar from one image to the next--the round, expressionless faces and eyes, the full, puckered lips, the squared shoulders. No perspective, little variation, just these unblinking chestnut eyes staring out at you, one church after another, one room after another.
Also, along eerie lines, there was this:
Otherwise, I enjoyed the subterranean passages that took you to various churches and a well-preserved synagogue, which was a bizarro mix of Jewish gear with Islamic architecture. Apparently one of the most ancient Torahs was found at that synagogue, printed on gazelle hide. Gazelle hide! I'd have taken pictures but they weren't permitted in the synagogue. At least I could get inside. There is a synagogue nearby us in Maadi that is under police watch at all times. One day, I approached and roused the police into action, which meant they waved their hands and said no, then bade me good day with sleepy smiles. I saw enough of the synagogue to realize that the grounds were being kept (behind a thick iron fence, natuarlly), so I wondered if it was active. Perhaps this is where the Israeli ambassador goes to do his religious duties.
Then there was the hot, dark Coptic Museum. Truly, sometimes I couldn't really make out the artwork, and the still air made me sleepy. There were also 3 or 4 fire extinguishers per room, and yet no staff anywhere in the museum--except for the entrance, where a gaggle of men enjoyed tea and were having a boisterous conversation that followed us all over the museum. I guess it would have been left to us to save the art if a sudden fire broke out. We were impressed by the woodwork of the mashrabiya and the ceiling and would gladly have snapped photographs...but our cameras were barred from the museum. At least we didn't have to tip the staff to get them back when we were finished.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Friday, September 18, 2009
Friday, September 11, 2009
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
Monday, September 07, 2009
It’s time for our annual HIV test, which we have to take with a government official in order to get our work visas renewed. The blood is tapped; the passports are taken. Three to four weeks later, we get our passports back.
To get our visas renewed, we need passport-sized photos, and we had run out. So, in the midst of preparing for a class I am teaching with a theme about beauty and appearance, we headed to a photo shop down the street. It was a hot day. I wore an oversized green tee-shirt, and my unwashed hair was pulled back into a ponytail. I took this approach because I don’t think anything could match the horror that is my current passport photo, which is worse than the family passports in National Lampoon’s European Vacation.
So we got our passport photos, and, as a free gift, framed five-by-sevens of said sweaty photos. Do you want a sweaty photo of my face, with the crazy-eyed look I’ve developed whenever I try to look natural? Because I’ve got one, framed, just for you.
When we returned, I read an email from one of my colleagues informing me that if there was any photoshopping done on passport photos, the government wouldn’t accept them. I recalled the nice woman who had taken my photo. Yes, she had been messing with it, making the background whiter. I think she erased a few frizzy strands from my scalp.
Damn. We headed back to the shop to see if we could get the untainted versions.
The man at the photo shop assured us that he knew what he was doing, that it wasn’t going to be a problem with the stern Egyptian official wearing a suit who will take my blood tomorrow. He said the only thing that was different was the whiter background, and this was a requirement for a visa photo. He assured us that he knew what he was doing.
J circled his face with his hand. “So, none of this was changed?”
The man gestured at our skin, and then he looked puzzled.
“Why?" he asked. "You are already white.”
Sunday, September 06, 2009
Saturday, May 23, 2009
When I was a kid, I had a book with me everywhere I went. I read from the moment I shut the car door until my parents pulled into the parking lot or driveway of wherever we were going. Reluctantly, I would leave my book in the backseat of the car as we headed into Mass, or to my brother’s baseball game, or to the grocery store. If we were visiting a relative's house, I brought the book in, which seems rude in hindsight but felt as essential as breathing at the time. I read all day on the farm as if I were some privileged lady in a grimy tee-shirt and shorts, sitting in the air conditioning with my grandmother while my father and grandfather worked outside. I still have a book on hand almost everywhere I go, just in case, even if I know there won’t be a moment to read. Maybe it’s my safety blanket. It’s not as if I were a precocious child – I was far from that – my favorite books befit my age. But there was one major problem with this childhood habit, and I understood it when I received my driver’s license and couldn’t find my way around Galesburg. The only road I knew was the self-explanatory set of roads that got me to town. Throw in blocks and intersections, and nothing made sense. I had spent all that time reading, not looking out the window, not paying attention to anything but the voices in my head.
Now I find myself in a mode that reminds me of the embarrassment that came with my driving privileges. For the first year that we were in Egypt, I felt myself eagerly taking in the things I experienced, wide-eyed and astonished, constantly comparing the things I found in this new place to the things I knew and understood in my home culture, my home country. I tried to understand why people did the things they did, tried to politely respect these decisions of others if I could not wrap my mind around them. There were things that bothered me and still do, and I was not a model of politeness or anything, but I think I was more willing to bend my perceptions then. Never an optimist, I was surprised and pleased by my capacity to adapt.
I think there is a danger in refusing to look.
I remember our trip back from the Sinai. We had to have been going over 100 mph on an unkempt desert road with no concept of lanes, even around curves, with a dude who, with no prompting, offered to become J’s personal hash dealer and wanted to know if I was J’s sister. We bumped and swerved in the heat, and I slept like a baby, unbuckled, in the back of the van. This was a prelude to my current ability to read a book anywhere in Egypt – on the speeding bus, in a taxi, pressed against others in the Metro.
I was pretty impressed with myself until I realized that reading in these situations makes me miss things, things I would have felt were important to witness and consider earlier in our stay here. In some ways I have begun to shield myself from Egypt. It is easy to do these days, having moved to a neighborhood that is so expatriate (or American?)-friendly that we have a Subway (you know, the place with “sandwich artists”) down the street and a clean, techno-booming gym. And, while our university campus had always been a bubble in the middle of downtown Cairo, its new location does nothing but confirm its otherworldly status in Egypt. At least at the old campus, you could walk a block away and find a donkey and a ragged old woman selling tissues.
We are nearing the end of our third year here, and I am not pleased with the things that I see missing from my experience. I am building a cocoon. Small things nag at me, such as leaving my Arabic lessons. Just when I had begun to comprehend the rhythm of the language, to pick out a few simple phrases here and there that enlightened me to some basic meanings, I quit. Once I realized I would have to start studying, I said it was too much to do. I keep telling myself I’ll pick it up again, but will I? In our new neighborhood this year, when I try to say some small, simple thing in Arabic, my tongue sticks, and it is clear that the neighborhood Egyptians we have met – the fruit and veg guy, various vendors and shopkeepers, etc. – believe that I am just now tentatively stepping about with random phrases, that I may eventually improve but that I must have only just gotten here. I am now at the same comprehension level as J, who never took Arabic lessons but who is suddenly quicker than me at understanding numbers, for instance.
Yesterday was Friday prayer-time. The men line up on our street and spread the rugs diagonally toward Mecca and slip off their shoes. They fill up the outdoor foyer of the apartment building across from us. At one point during the hour-long session, I glanced outside to see a worried-looking Asian man standing with his briefcase just in front of one line of men and boys who were praying. He was trying to get into the building across the street. You could look at this two ways – first, the man didn’t need to stand right in front of them and keep glancing at his watch with a pained look on his face. He should have known that on Friday, mid-day, you’re bound to run into a cluster of Egyptian men meditating with God since mosques are ubiquitous. He should have known that, while Egypt is moderate in comparison with other Arab countries, this type of devotion is one thing that will not change. But the men were blocking the front entrance to the building – the Asian man would have had to step between them, on their prayer mats with his shoes on, to get through. Perhaps the assumption made by those blocking the entrance was that everybody should be praying right now. Who would need to get in? Focused on praising God, it was as if they couldn’t even see that man, who only wanted to get through.
Friday, May 08, 2009
Saturday, May 02, 2009
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Before we went to Athens a few weeks ago, we had read about the volatile traffic and pollution. These days, most of the travel guidebooks we pick up are geared toward the expectations of people who are no longer us, people who might get horrified, for instance, with the idea of a rickety donkey cart toddling down a highway along with buses spewing black – no, really, black – exhaust and racing BMWs and men in gallabeyas perching on the median before plunging out into the road…to get to the other side and men sitting on the tailgates of speeding, swerving trucks as if the trucks are at a full stop in some pleasant farmer’s driveway in Iowa.
When we got to Athens, the air seemed pretty damned fresh, the traffic downright reasonable. Everyone stopped at the stoplights and colored within the lines. They just drove fast. I was so calmed by it that I almost got run over once.
I know there are far worse places for traffic and for nearly everything that bugs me about Cairo, so I don’t mean to sound as if I think I am worldly or have seen the worst shit there is to see. Of course not. But I thought of the surprisingly logical traffic of Athens today for two reasons. First, this morning, as J and I commuted to school, the bus suddenly slowed. Peering over the broken-down median to the other side of the road, we began spotting wrecked car after wrecked car. I don’t know how many there were, but they seemed to stretch half a mile or more as the bus crept along. The term “wrecked” or even the word “totaled” doesn’t suffice for what we saw, actually. Some of the cars were only grotesque twists of metal and dust and shattered glass, and, because they had been shoved onto the sandy roadside next to the skeletons of hasty construction sites, looked as if they had been abandoned years ago. They hadn’t. One of those buses that spews black exhaust had been part of the pile-up, and it had a disintegrated front. Worse, the side of the bus was gone, peeled off, to reveal a set of empty olive-green and pink seats.
Everyone was rubbernecking, but no one looked really horrified (or, rather, no one was pretending to be horrified with hands over mouths for the benefit of other rubberneckers). Some kids on my bus even looked rather amused. I don’t know how to explain that. On the way home, as we passed the same horrific metal clumps, an exchange student whipped out his camera and flung open the dingy blue curtains of our bus, proceeding to gratuitously snap. For a few seconds, the bed of a truck, yellowed with bananas, got in the kid’s way, and he held his camera with an irritated poise. It’s not that I blame him – I wished at that moment that I had a camera, too. But it wouldn’t have sufficed to take a picture, just as it doesn’t suffice to explain it here. Besides, why would I want to scare the bejabbers out of my mom any more than I do? That’s how I’m beginning to feel about so much of my time here, and it’s not as if my experiences have been that unique. There are a ton of expatriates here, and you can bet we are not the only people self-congratulatory enough to feel as if we should write about this place. I am being too harsh, I think.
Anyway, the second reason I was reminded of the seeming ease of Athens traffic: I get off the bus at a place called Midan Victoria. “Midan” means square. I think you know that Victoria was a queen, and our neighborhood this year is very British in its labyrinthine roundabouts (“Look, kids! Big Ben! Parliament!”). It’s a fairly busy roundabout. Today there was no pause in traffic. None. So I started across, holding out my palm. Some people muttered their irritation to me as they drove past. One car came to a stop but not before pushing into my hand. Another taxi driver wanted to know if I needed a ride. Another managed to expertly maneuver his car and be lecherous at the same time. As I made it across in one piece and reflected on my good luck, a fat man standing on the curb looked me up and down and made smarmy comments. Sometimes I feel like punching every Egyptian man I see and shaking every woman – no matter what her nationality – until she joins me with her own fists. That makes me sound intolerant, I know, and sometimes I feel exactly that way.
A few weeks ago I was crossing Midan Victoria with a more hardened and much taller expatriate, and he whipped into the street as a cab sped up (People often speed up here when they see a pedestrian. It’s not an exaggeration.), and he stopped in front of the car and pointed his finger at the surprised driver, who brought his car to a halt.
My normally calm friend then yelled: “NO! You stop for us! You stop for US!”
After we crossed, my friend fumed, and I giggled, as I almost always do when someone surprises me with volatility. When it comes to volatility, most members of my family barely have a pulse, and we like it that way, and we’ll keep it all inside until we take our bitter vengeance on you without you noticing, thank you very much. However, since living here, I have been more forthcoming about my feelings. You can ask the teenaged boys who screeched to a halt in their souped-up car one day in order to make inappropriate comments about my body and who got an earful of my best American expletives and universal gestures of rage. The poor man who was sweeping the street next to the curb wasn’t sure what to do with himself. Moments such as that result from an abnormal amount of suppression that bubbles up every once in a while with an overreaction. Most of the time I walk down the street with a “don’t fuck with me” frown but keep my eyes downcast. It takes a while to shake that off whenever I leave Egypt. It takes a while for me to feel normal around male strangers again, to feel as if I can look at them plainly without sending the message that I am willing to have their babies. It’s a relief to only be looked at appraisingly on occasion; it’s a relief to feel invisible, normal-looking, just a person walking down the street. Men and women have a lot of work to do in all parts of the world – witness the hateful criticism of Hillary Clinton’s outfits rather than her policies or beliefs, or the interchangeable blonde anchors on Fox. But, really, the gender crap here is…too much to go on about at the moment. I’ve written before that I don’t entirely approve of foreign women who go on and on about harassment here to the point of obsession, who respond by egregiously covering themselves and acting fearful (perverts feed off fear) and staying inside all the time and sometimes feeling as if their lily white skin is very precious and exotic indeed when, all the while, veiled Egyptians are harassed as much as they are. But I do understand. I understand how my daily decisions, my small adjustments to my manner of walking and speaking and wearing simple articles of clothing could be insidious. They are habits even now.
I complain about these things knowing full well that my foreignness offers a measure of safety (some of which is simply psychological) that an Egyptian woman, veiled or not, probably doesn’t feel. I complain about these things knowing how little I have to complain about.
But I started this entry thinking about those desolate cars. They have surfaced for me throughout the day, as they will continue to do. So many cars, and what happened to all of those people? How many are dead?
Once we got past the rubbernecking point, our bus driver and the guy with the truck full of propane tanks and every vehicle on our side of the road floored it. Not your version of “flooring it,” I’ll wager. The Egyptian version. You just had to be there.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
But, well, there are times when I feel a tangible tug to be at home—to stand in solidarity with others in honoring a mentor, or in mourning an uncle. That was this week. I learned last Sunday that my uncle had died of pneumonia. He was 41 and suffered from a fairly severe form of Down’s syndrome. He had been living in a group home for many years now—I only remember him from my childhood, when my family would make the begrudging trek down south to visit my grandmother. At that age, I was scared of my uncle. He was unable to speak, but he made grunting noises mixed with high-pitched squeals. He was almost 9 years older than me, a lot larger, and he didn’t know his own strength. More than once had I been caught in his smothering, forceful embrace, as he squeezed more tightly, refusing to let me go until my grandmother or my father forced his arms away.
Still, when I heard the news of his death, I felt the loss. My family was one person less than it had been. I called my father and roused him from Xanax-enhanced dreams, and he told me that he and another of my uncles, Tom, had been in the room when Kelly had died in his sleep. There was no bucking, no death rattles. He just stopped breathing, the end result of his final illness. My father was…sad, in a way that is difficult to characterize. He clearly felt a loss, too, even though Down’s syndrome had rendered my uncle Kelly unable to maintain familial relationships in the conventional sense—although his mother, my grandmother, visited him every Sunday, took him to Ponderosa, and let him wander the aisles of Wal-Mart before returning him to the group home. None of us really knew him because he was locked inside Down’s syndrome, and yet it was clearly a blow to my father, who had lost his half-brother, to my uncle Tom, to my aunt Darlene, and most of all to my grandmother, for whom my father felt genuine sympathy—remarkable if you knew anything about the history of their relationship.
When I talked to my father, I told him I wished I could attend my uncle’s funeral. I felt wrong carrying on with the business of work while my father’s side of the family gathered en masse to mourn, and just like when a childhood friend died in 2006, I spent the day wishing I was at home. I felt the stirrings of a kind of solidarity that have taken root only since I moved here.
In other news, in another stratosphere of life, one of my mentors is retiring at the end of the school year, and yesterday was her surprise party. She is the director of Wittenberg’s Writing Center, has been for nearly 30 years, and writing tutors from all eras descended upon campus yesterday to surprise her with a show of support and appreciation. I was not there. This bothered me a great deal because, well, Maureen was one of the first people to take me seriously. She did so without ceremony, without any of the bluster you see in corny teacher-changed-my-life movies: no howling Morgan Freeman, no streetwise Michelle Pfeiffer. I think this is one of the most important things a mentor can do for a student: you can take that student seriously. Too many teachers are self-absorbed, or burnt-out, or otherwise ill-suited to this aspect of the profession, but Maureen, she was selfless. There was nothing grandiose or self-serving in her taking me seriously. I think she saw a young man—a boy of 18, really—who wanted to be taken seriously. She recognized what it was even before I recognized it myself, although, in looking back over old essays from freshman year, I see a boy trying on words too large for him, striving to show he belonged. Maureen had at least an inkling of this, and that alone is more than you get from most teachers. It’s something I’ve been mindful of lately, in my own teaching: only this week I encountered work from a student who clearly wants to be taken seriously, and I tried to follow Maureen’s lead, by giving this student’s work serious, rigorous and fair treatment. I think this is one of the ways you take a student seriously—you reciprocate that seriousness in your approach to their work, without assailing their rookie mistakes, lack of perspective, or adolescent bluster. These things, one hopes, will pass on their own. My job is to show them another path, just as I was shown. I only needed somebody to recognize that I was searching for that other path, and Maureen was among the first.
This is something I would have liked to tell Maureen in person yesterday. Instead, I am left to deposit this missive ruminating on her and on my dead uncle, shouting at them both from a far distance (in the case of my uncle, a far, far distance). This is something about life abroad I hadn’t considered, the curious immobility of being away. It’s the opposite of conventional wisdom, that life abroad is the ultimate independence. Sometimes it’s about being on the run, or taking refuge, or starting anew after one thread in life has run its course or been ruined. I’ve seen such things in the expatriates here. All of these paths begin with an impulse toward liberation, but they have their own deterministic pitfalls. Me? I can feel the constraints of the ex-pat life this week, keenly. And I know I would have to go on living with these constraints if I were to stay here much longer.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
The boys are on the outer curve of this bridge, and our bus hugs the inner curve. A segment of railing is missing from the inner curve of the ramp. Below us, traffic merges. A row of shops and battered buildings presses against a median, on which a toddler stands. In front of a garage, a man sleeps on a chair with unsteady legs. Adolescents in grease-splattered T-shirts heave tires and plunge themselves elbow-deep into the guts of cars and trucks. When the pollution eases, the Giza pyramids are visible from here.
When I was small, my father would warn me against entering the corncrib – there was the possibility of snakes and mice, but, more importantly, a slippery pile of corn could suffocate, cover, kill anyone, especially a small child. Corn was as potent as sand. From afar, it seemed uniform. Close up, you could see its pink-tinted, disfigured kernels.
One of the university students climbs to the highest walkway on campus. He puts his hands behind his ears and closes his eyes and delivers the call to prayer.
There is a photograph of him in the student newspaper. He does this every day because the new campus is perhaps the only place in Cairo where you cannot hear the muezzin’s calls. Many students express admiration for what he is doing; a few find it disturbing. He mentions in the newspaper article that he disapproves of certain aspects of the university, such as the way males and females feel they are allowed to interact or the fact that courses such as philosophy are required.
In a makeshift mosque on the new campus, someone keeps hanging signs that say such things as “Lower your gaze before women” and “Why aren’t you veiled?”.
I remember that student, the one who stands in the photograph with his palms cupped behind his ears and his eyes squeezed shut. I was his teacher during my first semester in Egypt. Each time I returned an essay, he caught the pages with two fingers placed as far from my fingers as they could get.
He recoiled from me. I cannot allow for a softer verb than that.
Thursday, March 05, 2009
Over the course of discussing fallacies, I had busied my hands with this paper. It was one of those days where too many students were actually whiny – whiny as if they were children, whiny to a depth I hadn’t seen since my five-year old nephew and I tried to sort out our differences when he wanted to whisk down the street from me on his bike and I insisted he stay close. I suppose my hands were responding to the voices of these young adults when my fingers ripped the paper in half. But because I am also rather juvenile, I gasped. This caused my students to ask what was wrong. I explained what had happened. It didn’t matter that the paper was torn – I had abandoned my Arabic lessons when I got to the verbs (which took nearly a year to get to), so I would have needed the intelligence of Helen Keller to connect the rather small, depicted gestures with their Arabic meanings.
Nonetheless, my students, in the spirit of distraction and boredom that we all felt at that moment, erupted.
“Professor, doctor, don’t open the door to those men!” they implored.
Students here call you “doctor” and “professor” even if you don’t have the proper degree. My degree is terminal but hardly doctoral. I was not under the impression that my students were concerned about me – I fully understood that this explosive chatter had more to do with putting off the educational process than saving my life. As a result, I tried to calm their pleas and said: “I’m glad you’re so concerned about my safety, but let’s get back to logical fallacies.”
Before my declaration, though, my students had told me about a woman who answered her door to one of these men. He pushed past her, stabbed her, and robbed her apartment. They all seemed to know some version of this story, and, had I let it go on much longer, it may have taken on Headless Horseman proportions.
I have never answered the door when the deaf man has visited, so I can only imagine him, a shadowy presence in the dark hallway, catching a whiff of cats and garbage as he waits for some well-to-do foreigner to open the door. J, our resident well-to-do, opens the door, greets the man, hands over a couple of pounds, takes the paper.
We answer the door all the time. Sometimes we hand bills to delivery-people for which they do not have the right change, and they tell us they will be back. They always come back. Once, I was charged eight pounds too much at a grocery store in Zamalek. The overcharge was less than two dollars, but an hour after I had returned home, an employee of the store showed up with eight pounds that I did not realize I had lost. A man comes to check the gas meter; the bawaab might deliver mail. In Zamalek an Asian woman would come by sometimes with garbage bags full of clothes, and once I let her in and she laid out the clothes on our dining room table, urging me to buy. We hear the bell far more in Egypt than we do at home, and here it rarely occurs to us to peek suspiciously through the hole before opening it.
But I wondered, as I rode home on the bus, where I do most of my reflecting these days, how the students had reached these conclusions about this apparent army of deaf men taking pounds for their informative slips of paper. I had dismissed the students’ comments, partially to get the class back on track and partially because their alarmist response seemed too familiar.
I thought about the balance that I’ve never achieved here but which I strive for. You have to open your door and keep it closed; you have to know your context. There are some things in Egypt that I will never understand, absorb, or accept. But I tolerate a lot here in my daily life that I would not in the U.S. And it’s a matter of determining which things I should accept and which things I should push back against. Finding a middle ground between being completely submissive to another culture and being a belligerent expatriate prick. I’ve seen both ways, and neither appeals to me. It’s a matter of deciding when to open the door and when to keep it shut.
In that classroom, my students’ voices didn’t sound like their own. I often get this sensation from college students and know that it was true about me when I was an undergraduate – the beliefs I first was asked to explain to others expressed themselves in the voices of my parents and the community I came from. It takes time to develop voice – this is one reason I like to teach writing; this is one reason I gravitate toward writing nonfiction. As my students warned me about the knife-wielding army of deaf men stabbing one innocent woman at a time instead of entertaining the possibility that he was spreading awareness in a country that has little infrastructure for disabilities, I could hear something else in their voices, something that wasn’t them. It was rumor and innuendo and gossip. It was class, for the class system in Egypt is so blatant it’s hard to look at sometimes. It’s quite possible it was a story from their parents. Stay on the right side of the tracks. Don’t take candy from strangers. Fear the unfamiliar. Don’t open the door. Build a compound in the desert and grow grass there, far from the cesspool of the ghetto.
But it was the voices from my home, too – the voices of white flight, the voices of gated communities, the voices of simple ignorance, the voices of blindness and barriers and buffers and shields. My students are from a much higher social class than me, and their identities are so different than mine, but in this case, we seemed frighteningly similar.
After I had written the first half of this entry, I picked up Dave Eggers’ What is the What. It’s a nonfiction novel of sorts; Eggers tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan. The story opens with Valentino, in America, answering the door to his apartment. A woman enters and asks to use his phone. When he says yes, she runs back to his bedroom and slams the door. He begins to follow her only to hear a voice at his back; a man has accompanied the woman, and they are in the process of robbing Valentino. Through the scene, Valentino reflects upon how he got here, the horrors he has seen, experienced, and inflicted. Here is a passage about the robbery from p.4:
I sit now and he shows me the handle of the gun. He has been holding it all along, and I was supposed to know. But I know nothing; I never know the things I am supposed to know. I do know, now, that I am being robbed, and that I want to be elsewhere.
It is a strange thing, I realize, but what I think at this moment is that I want to be back in Kakuma. In Kakuma there was no rain, the winds blew nine months a year, and eighty thousand war refugees from Sudan and elsewhere lived on one meal a day. But at this moment, when the woman is in my bedroom and the man is guarding me with his gun, I want to be in Kakuma, where I lived in a hut of plastic and sandbags and owned one pair of pants. I am not sure there was evil of this kind in the Kakuma refugee camp, and I want to return.
During this scene we learn that, in Sudan,Valentino watched other boys being eaten by lions, observed two boys weakened by hunger fighting over some scraps (an incident that resulted in the weaker one’s accidental death), and, perhaps most chillingly, was running away with two other boys from Ethiopian soldiers when a woman beckoned the boys to come to her. They ran toward her, and she shot the other two boys; she was an Ethiopian soldier, too, who had called upon the power of a maternal voice to murder these children. Valentino is thinking about all of this in the face of some punk who is stealing all worthwhile secondhand material from him – a camera, an old TV, his roommate's laptop. And he is helpless to it. When he tries to defend himself, he is pistol-whipped.
Those students who were paying attention yesterday might tell you that I am headed toward the rather repugnant fallacy of false analogy. I am not trying to do that, at least not in the case of Valentino. It seems that he finds much to fear in America, a kind of pernicious evil that he can’t compare to the horror in his past. My story and the stories of my students hold nothing like this.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
If I need a cab ride, I will be sure to hail you. In the meantime, it is not necessary to announce your presence by incessantly honking your horn the moment you see me walking down the street. You also need not slow beside me and query, “Taxi? Taxi?” while all the drivers behind you honk. Further, it is unnecessary to flash your lights at me to let me know you are coming. I see you. Even if I didn’t see you, I suspect it wouldn’t matter, because it is clear that you are not going to slow down. You don’t slow down for ancient people with canes; you don’t slow down for babies and children. We pedestrians understand that we must be on the defense. I suspect, in fact, that were I to trip before your car, we would find ourselves in a predicament known as vehicular homicide in another part of the world. To conclude, you must believe me when I tell you that I will let you know if I need a ride.
Thank you, Mr. Taxi Driver,