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.