Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Pretty much, my whole autumn and winter have been taken up by a cat.

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). "'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

One of Those Days

It started with James almost getting run over. Nothing new. Only it was just a little closer than usual, so close that the woman in the passenger seat even smacked the driver.
The bus to school was closer than usual to a truck hauling propane tanks.
3 students out of 30 had their papers in hand. When I told them I was extending the deadline, they shrugged like, "Whatever, lady."
Someone failed a government official's daughter. They were told to change the grade.
As I was walking to my 5:00 class, a group of students laughed at a small fire they had produced on some stairs.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

4 stops north of here

Yesterday, A & I took a day trip up to Coptic Cairo. It's just off the Metro's Mar Girgis stop--literally. I have taken the Metro north to Sadat station dozens of times, and each time I have seen the domed Church of St. George looming over the stop. First things first, though: here is a video of the Metro ride. Careful, my camera buzzes for no reason while taking videos in things that are moving.

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


1. Apparently, no one in Egypt may educate or be educated until at least Oct. 4 due to fears of the swine flu spreading. Rumor (a freakishly powerful thing in Egypt) has it that if one percent of the population gets it, schools could be shut down for the year. People are suggesting that the airport should be the thing that gets shut down.

2. The NY Times published an article today discussing the trash problems caused by the killing of all the Copts' pigs back in the spring (a response to the fear of swine flu). The Egyptian gov't is sort of admitting that idea lacked foresight. Or logic.

3. We opened the seal on a bottle of delivered wine tonight, and ants came boiling up out of the cork.


Friday, September 18, 2009


In one of my classes last week, we read Langston Hughes' "Salvation." It's a great piece for any class, but I like teaching it in Egypt because many of the students are unfamiliar with Christian revivals as we know them in the U.S., and sometimes they end up being a little creeped out by them in ways that U.S. Christians sometimes claim to be creeped out by the religious rituals of others.
So I read the piece out loud, asking the students to first describe what had happened in the piece.
Someone said it was about a revival, pointing to the word in the text.
"What's a revival?" I asked.
Most of them shrugged.
Then one student asked, "Is that like what happened in Borat?"


Friday, September 11, 2009


It's a hot day. The curtains help block the heat of the white sun. The sky is blue, unusually blue, January-in-Egypt blue. We woke up this morning and talked about political rhetoric, about narrative truth, as we sipped coffee. We listened to the imam next door, first praising then shouting then dropping to a soft prostrating lull. We did this as we watched 24, second season. We talked about the way that season reflected an American attitude toward the Middle East at that time, one that has changed in significant ways. I finished reading Wise Blood. J left to run an errand, and I sat in front of the computer, intending to work on a short story I have been working on since 2000. I procrastinated. I checked facebook. It's morning in the U.S. - people are just starting to rise and go to work. I was puzzled by status updates about praying for people, about not forgetting. I felt panic rising in me, and I wondered if something had happened again. It took me a few minutes to realize my mistake.

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?”

“No, no.”

The man gestured at our skin, and then he looked puzzled.

“Why?" he asked. "You are already white.”


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Saturday Night

Last night, as I chopped garlic and onions, I was belting out Ned's Atomic Dustbin's version of "Saturday Night." But it just doesn't work out so well in a country where Sunday is considered to be the first day of the workweek.

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


You can find one of A's pieces about Cairo in the new issue of Brevity 30, along with other pieces about departure and arrival:

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Spring Tree

James thinks this is an appropriate metaphor for our feelings about Egypt.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

You Stop For Us!

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

A Week of Endings

This past week, I would rather have been at home. It’s not that my vague desire to return home, which is always with me, suddenly welled up to form something more concrete or resolute. It’s not that anything in particular happened here that was bad—just the usual garden-variety stuff for a fairly garden-variety semester. In fact, things are good. My job is going well. I enjoy a flexible schedule that most people my age would love to have. Reading and writing comprise huge chunks of my life, just as I always wanted them to. I work out a lot and I’m getting into pretty good shape. Even my psoriasis is in recession.

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


A man holds a sack, its edges rolled. Next to him, boys scoop kernels of corn into piles and sweep those piles into their hands. They drop them into the sack. Corn and dust and sand and cigarette butts. Tires, slowed by other tires, pass those small brown hands. Somehow, this corn spilled. It probably fell from a truck. In a city of many spilled things, this corn is gathered.

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

Don't Open the Door

In class yesterday, we were covering logical fallacies. I had been using a thin slip of paper as a bookmark for my text. On it were several depictions of hand signals accompanied by Arabic. This is not the first time I have seen this paper. A few times a year, J answers the door to a deaf man who passes these out and indicates that, for this public duty, he should be tipped.

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

Dear Taxi Driver

Dear Taxi Driver,

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,

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I Like Egypt

The guy who drove us back from the airport last night didn't know where he was going. He skidded between vehicles, all going too fast, and neglected to slow for speed bumps. My jolted spine was encouraging the old habit (formed last fall) of Egypt-fatigue; I had the thought once again that I had made it all the way from the Midwest just to get into a horrible car accident with no reason other than the complete disregard for others on the road. I've made up my mind that this attitude, though, is going to end. After being home, I saw that the recession is not quite as bad as everyone acts like it is (in terms of the majority of people still having plenty of excess that they can expunge before they are truly in dire straits - if you want to view dire straits, come to my neck of the woods), but I can see how it is going to get worse in the U.S. I can see that I have many reasons to be grateful for my situation and to appreciate this place. 

In that spirit, these are a few of my favorite things:

1. The Eats. The fruits and vegetables of Egypt are marvelous. My dad loved the fruit juice. It's hard for him to enjoy the waxen, tasteless, preservative-laden fruit of the U.S. now that he has had fruit from the Nile Valley. U.S. organic stuff doesn't compare, either.

2. Generosity and Trust. I have frequently had experiences with kindheartedness from strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike. Once an Egyptian family has you over to their house, you are treated like family and always welcome. In Jordan, we were invited to tea upon passing people's homes. This is not unusual in the Middle East. The guys on our old street in Zamalek would often offer us a bite or drink of whatever they were consuming at the time. You can trust people -- if a guy doesn't have change, he will bring it to you eventually. At the same time, if you don't have enough money, storekeepers will often tell you to just bring it when you have it - that happened to J the first week we moved here, when he bought some flowers. The guy didn't know J but told him to come back whenever he had the money. When you are treated with trust in this way, you tend to start acting the same way. We couldn't afford a desert trip when we went to the Bahariya Oasis, and, after we had talked him down on the price anyway, the dude from the hotel told us we could pay him when he came to Cairo a few weeks later. It was a verbal deal. I also remember the time Bryan and Adriana visited and we were lost in the streets near Bab Zuwayla. A guy carrying a heavy piece of lumber showed us the way out of the labyrinth of alleyways we had gotten into. When I tried to give him money (as people here often hint they want when providing a service, even giving directions), he seemed offended. When you get off the tourist path, the generosity of Egyptians (particularly the poor ones) is striking.

3. Everybody Knows Your Name. If you go to a store once, buy something, and return months later, chances are the shopkeeper will remember you. At the university, there are a few students who have failed my classes who certainly dislike me, but I'm amazed by how many of my Egyptian students (even ones who have failed) are glad to see me when I pass on campus, shaking my hand and stopping by my office and showing continued interest in me long after I am done teaching and evaluating them. I know it's not just my otherness; I see Egyptians treating each other the same way. I just don't get that feeling of personal interest from many people in the U.S.; in fact, it seems customary at times where I am from to pretend as if you don't know or see people you are perfectly familiar with. It is a shame that, at home, people are often treated with suspicion until they prove otherwise. I don't think it was always that way.

4. Specialized Work. In most neighborhoods in Cairo, there are several types of specialized shops, many the size of a pantry. People, particularly in the poorer parts of the city, know how to DO things - I saw a man one day walking down our street, a spinning wheel tied to his back and two children holding his hands. He was calling up to the buildings, seeking some business. There is a shop next to a butcher in Zamalek, where a portly man sits on a tilted chair all day mending clothes, which are piled in the shop and spill into the street.

5. Insha'allah. If God wills it. I usually talk about this Islamic phrase in the context of something irritating me (such as when my students attribute the completion of a paper to God rather than personal responsibility), but it reflects a sense of submission to the possible chaos of life that is admirable when sincere. 

6. No Winter Doldrums! I didn't realize I used to get the winter doldrums until I moved to a place where I don't get depressed around late January-February. We just returned to Egypt, and already I have a feeling of lightness and contentment that ice and snow do not inspire. Mind you, I love the seasons and am always irritated by those in no-season locales who don't appreciate my Midwest. I especially miss autumn.

7. Il-hamdulillah. God be praised. It doesn't matter what Egyptians feel like, they will usually end their greetings and discussions with "God be praised." It's another Islamic phrase but is often used by Egyptians of other faiths. There is a communal feeling to Islam and a sense of submission (see Insha'allah, above) that, in the right context, displays the heart and intentions of religion. 

8. Devotion to Cleanliness Amidst Dirt. The desert is dirty. Sandstorms, windstorms, and duststorms are at the worst end of the daily, mundane battle with dust. People hose down roads and sidewalks to keep down the dust. I have seen people sweeping sidewalks (which will be dusty again five minutes later) with makeshift brooms, with paper or a few bits of straw. It bothers me when people think that the dirt of Egypt reflects a lack of hygiene. The infrastructure is horrible here -- there are too many people, and it is a governmental failure that the garbage cannot be dealt with properly. This cultivates an attitude that garbage can be thrown anywhere. When people have the means to keep things clean here, though, they usually do. For the amount of dust that can collect inside a home in just a day, it is amazing how sparkling the insides of apartments can be. The buildings often look dirty on the outside, but the apartments themselves are often gorgeous. It's interesting, too, that cleanliness before prayer is so strictly observed. 

9. The Rent-Free Deal. J gets a free apartment with this job, and we're never going to live in an apartment this nice again. I'm not one for extravagance, but it's amazing to have my own room where I can write and work. This is an important thing to keep in mind when I think I want to move back to the U.S. We can't afford a place like this in a city at home, not even before the recession. I was paying $550 a month for a studio in Minneapolis and $920 for a two-bedroom. I know in other cities this is cheap, but seriously.

10. Love for Children. You can take candy from strangers here.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009


On the day Barack Hussein Obama was elected, I walked into a classroom. My students were beaming. My Egyptian students. You have a history, I thought. You have such a rich history. You are ancient Egypt. You are the bearers, the inventors of so much. My students were looking at me. "Are you happy?" asked one. I looked back at them, the current inhabitants of a sham democracy, who know better than me that even they, the elite, don't have a choice, that to make change they will have to go through far more troubling and violent times than you or I when we ticked our ballots. "I hope someday you can experience this feeling, too," I said, wishing I had the power of voice, the power to transform, the power to give them hope.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

How Cold Is It?

I'm wincing thinking about posting this to a blog, where I could be subjected to hateful commentary. But sometimes I'm too soft, too worried about rejection. During our first year of blogging, someone in the ether commented on a benign entry in which I had described the landscape, saying that if I didn't like Egypt, why didn't I just leave and that people like me made her want to puke. I felt shamed.

It's a measure of the hypnotic power of the internet that such a comment (made anonymously and therefore offering strength to the person who made it) would affect me so personally. I deleted the comment but thought long and hard about what I could have said to offend someone. I had been careful about my entries; I had been careful to describe and to give the new people and place a chance, to try not to judge them or to sound as if I hadn't thought enough about the situations I wrote about. I still try to be, even though I am surprised when anyone but my parents appears to be reading this blog.

Although I focused on nonfiction writing in graduate school, nonfiction scares me - you can't take back what you write once you let it go. You throw it out there and don't know what you could get in return. You have to come to terms with the idea that your perspective will evolve and that something you wrote about a few months ago might not be valid for you now. It's not a safe genre if you're honest about what you write. It's not safe if you acknowledge the complexity of life.

So. All of a sudden people are asking me if I am worried about Palestine and Israel in terms of personal endangerment. I'm not, but this wouldn't be a surprise to anyone in Egypt. It's geographically close to Egypt, so it seems dangerous to someone who doesn't live in the Middle East. But living closer to the conflict certainly makes it more prominent in my mind. So I try to explain Egypt's role as begrudging peacemaker. It's harder to explain that I don't wholeheartedly believe in either side's fight. Bringing this up in Egypt is about as effective as hitting yourself in the face with a cast-iron skillet.

The conflict is more complicated than any of us with mere opinions can say. Israel just happened to reshape its borders, for instance, so that it encompasses the main water supply. So it's pretty easy to withhold that resource from the Palestinians. Many of the olive tree fields that belonged to Arabs in Israel, as part of their livelihood, were razed, and the evergreen tree, that ubiquitous sign and a plant that produces nothing to eat, took the place of the olive trees. It's hard to understand why this had to be done and why Arabs were then forced into ghettos. On the other hand, Israelis are under the constant threat of being atomized should anyone get a hold of the proper weaponry, which would make anyone a little twitchy. And I have heard some of the most ludicrous things about Israel while in Egypt. When people tell you they think the Israelis were responsible for JFK's assassination, it's time to leave the room.

Lately, I have had requests for my electronic support. Groups on facebook dedicated to anti-semitism in the guise of an X over an Israeli flag. Emails in which I am supposed to "vote" for either Israel or Palestine. Too many of these groups feel like just another way to spread hatred. It seems to me that when you are joining a group called "I Hate Israel" (one of the least offensively-named ones) or when you are part of a group that believes Israel is unfairly treated by the media, you might be lacking some perspective. Semester after semester, I am charged with teaching perspective. Too often I have noticed that there are few examples for my students to follow, particularly in the sphere of the internet. No wonder my students don't believe me.

Real people exist in this conflict; human beings exist who are actually enduring this conflict. They exist on both sides and in between. We are all victims of greed and the idiocy that ensues when people feel they alone have some special right, especially when "god-given," concerning land. We are all in some way the conquered and the conquerors. Muslims, Christians, Jews: they have complicated histories and are part of the same family of religion. Each has killed the other. Each has pillaged the other. Each has extorted from the other. Maybe we are too afraid to admit that everybody might be mistaken, that crazies exist in all walks of life, and that it's up to the rest of us not to align ourselves as devotees with notions we haven't investigated with an open eye to all existing sides. 

For instance, there are many people on both sides who are trying to organize for peace. Where are those people? Could we please hear about them? Could we please show them some respectful acknowledgment and question them about how they've arrived at their views? Musing over Joe the Plumber and laughing guiltily at Ahmed the Terrorist is easier. It's too easy, too, to make the claim that you don't have the right to talk about something because you're not experiencing it. But I think most of us can say that we have experienced the lash of simple hate, that we have been guilty of simplifying a situation because it's much easier than confronting the notion that we might have done something wrong, too (or that our ancestors might have done something wrong, or that we have actually forgotten who cast the first stone), and that most people aren't evil, that most people want peace. It's hard to let one's sense of personal peace and comfort and solid opinions go when feeling this peace becomes a way of not seeing complexity. I think we all know this well enough.