Friday, September 24, 2010

It used to be that the strangers who looked at me were women, and they did so—what few did so—because they found me worth a lingering glance, perhaps a smile and a hello. Like most men in their early twenties, I completely ate it up. This began to change when I first started graduate school ten years ago. The reasons are partially having to do with meeting the other contributor to this blog. But even my interest in her reflects, in part, a shift I began undergoing as I was first meeting her.

In truth, the waning attentions of young women (and the value I placed upon it) were also caused by weight gain and general disregard for my personal health and appearance, a graduate school-induced downturn which reached its nadir just as I was submitting my insufficient fiction for a drubbing at the conclusion of my MFA. Literally and figuratively, I had taken on baggage.

The shift also had to do with taking on young women as students. The student-teacher relationship was new and strange territory for me in 2000, in terms of being the teacher in that equation. I knew very little about it except for what I gleaned from a crash-course pro-seminar in composition theory and teaching. Still, I understood instinctually that the dynamics I shared with that first group of 26, young men and women alike, were different than anything I had experienced before. I possessed some measure of authority, and I didn’t want to use that authority in petty ways or for personal glory. I recognized this as a generosity in myself that I didn’t know I possessed until I stood before students. I began to think about what I wanted from my interactions with students. It’s like entering graduate school was like going into a giant cement mixer; I emerged, fat and exhausted and confused, four years later. I survived it, lost weight, took better care, read and wrote to tried to right what had become a bewildering pursuit for competency as a writer of fiction. Then I went to Egypt. Four years passed. I think I handled those four years so well in part because of the hardship and confusion of graduate school. I also had time in Egypt to hone my teaching persona and think more about the type of relationships I wanted to have with students. There are many AUC students for whom I feel a genuine warmth and hope for the future, a personable interest in their well-being, their education, their futures. I hope very much that those who wish to pursue writing will continue to do so despite the inevitable disappointments to come. And I want to do nothing to violate what I see as a special relationship between a student and his or her teacher, especially one, like me, with an interest in mentoring.

The reason why I write this now is that, in the two months I have been back home, I have recognized that I crossed some age-related threshold while I was away. To the undergraduates at UCSB, who do not know me as a teacher, I am invisible. I am happy about this, by the way, even as invisibility feels so conspicuous after life in Egypt, where my fair skin and green eyes were the cause of countless stares. Another group of humans stare at me now: older men. I’ve felt them watching me when, as I did today, I walk along a path that runs alongside a dog park. A man sat in the shade and watched at me. In his eyes I saw bewilderment, confusion, memory—where had the time gone? I have seen this expression a lot lately. They were once my age—in the full glow of prime adulthood. This all transpired while I was away, as if in secret. Quite suddenly I find myself not the “mere child” that a dear AUC colleague liked to call me, but a man careening toward middle age.

I had difficulty remembering that time kept passing while I was in Egypt; I didn’t believe the calendar. I believed I was still 30. But it seems that the time passed, after all. A transformation instigated by my entrance into graduate school in 2000 feels, if not complete, then at the end of an act.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Relief Map

I remember standing around a relief globe in some elementary school classroom or other. Aside from outdated textbooks, the relief globe was my portal to the world, the real world, beyond the confines of New Carlisle, Ohio. Was it really confining, did it seem that way to me at the time? I suppose not. I remember the physical symptoms of anxiety and dread I associated with the raw social environment of public elementary school in my small Ohio town, the vice around my throat, the fluttering in my chest when I would awaken and, knowing the walk to school, wonder which portly bully would accost me that day. They never harmed me physically, they just liked to intimidate. I was an easy one to intimidate because I was smart but not a good student, small, not really good at things I had been told I was good at. I found a kind of solace in books, from Time Machine adventures to the Hardy Boys. My parents bought me a Hardy Boys mystery novel for Christmas in 1983 and my father read a chapter every night for 20 nights (each of the 58 original adventures weighs in at 20 chapters, 180 pages). I resolved to read all 58 books and so I did, out of loyalty to the gesture of my parents and because I liked what I was reading. At my peak, I would read in classes, in empty periods, shuttering away the down time that never led anyplace good. I could read a book in a day.

The relief map was different. I could run my fingers over the Himalayas and try to make sense of Nepal, a country-sized cliff. I could see such bizarre countries as Jordan, named perhaps after the basketball star just then ascending, or Niger, which caused my classmates to giggle (and me, too, because I was immature and possessed no spine), or puzzling Chad. We joked about other names that might pass for countries. James. Matt. Jon. Charity. Nighthawk.

I remember actually trying to imagine life in those places, and I remember wanting to see…life, in those places, in all sorts of places, all around. I remember feeling, for the first time, the swelling of the world. It was large; I was a pinprick. I wanted to spread myself around. I remember wanting to live in one of these places—I sensed somehow, without any context I can call my own, that visiting was one thing, and taking up residence completely another. It dawned like I say as a sense, but today I can give words. I wanted to see the day to day, the way things worked in a place like Jordan or Chad, how the people went about their days. Their days must be so different from mine—the world was not New Carlisle, right? And I didn’t and don’t hate where I’m from, I’m not ashamed. But it was confining and constricting. Like a depressed person, I would fake an illness to convince my parents to let me stay home. They weren’t fooled, but often they relented. I loved the mornings alone, before the day aged and I began to feel the tug of company again, the weight of the next day, the obligation to act as though I’d recovered from an upset tummy. I always felt the nagging question of what the world held in its palms between fingers with pinpricked tips.


Friday, July 02, 2010

Where I Was on December 31, 2009

I’ve always been a sucker for anniversaries, key dates, passages through time. Of a certain variety. I can’t tell you when my parents were married or when they divorced. I have a hard time remembering if they split in 1984 or 1985, and, for reasons that probably reveal a lot about me, I’ve never asked either of my parents to clarify.

For me it’s birthdays, New Year’s Eve. The trite rituals of reflection, the year-end People magazine best-ofs, the montage of celebrities dead over the past year, set to a string quartet. These appeal to me. I like my own trite rituals of reflection, the sucker they reveal me to be, the boxed-in, unimaginative thinker attached to a cultural nostalgia he didn’t invent and doesn’t understand. That’s me.

Take New Year’s Eve 2009. I felt connected that night to every other New Year’s Eve I could remember. I thought about the turns and twists and circumstances within and beyond my control that had brought me to the Ace Club in Maadi, Egypt, to the Scotch in my hand, to the tableful of Irish and British acquaintances with whom I was seated, to Amanda, my companion for almost ten years and my constant companion in Egypt (except for the sunset weeks of summer 2010). It’s hard to explain how the Brits of Egypt celebrate milestones, except to say: hard, with lots of sun-seared faces, garish mascara, Asian trophy wives and imported spirits. The air stunk of smoldering woodchips and the hint of gasoline, as it always does around Cairo, but this air was redeemed by the alcoholic smells of perfume, beer, Scotch. We were seated in a darkened corner near the brick wall that separated our party from Midan Victoria and the rest of Maadi; we watched a cat slink along the fence and leap onto the branch of the tree under which we sat. The cat came to rest where the trunk held the branches; he looked like he was caught in an alien’s palm, clutching digits. Across the dark rows of tables, wedged between the toilets and the door to the inner bar, a deejay spun and spotlights transformed a concrete terrace into an impromptu dance floor. Our hosts, Vicki and Neil, were there, dancing slowly, chatting with other dancers as their orbits overlapped in the packed space. The Sudanese men who operated the kitchen and the bar slithered between the revelers, holding aloft trays of drinks. It didn’t worry me that they might graze a dancing couple, that the drinks might topple and crash on the concrete. I have learned in Egypt not to worry about such things; or, if I do worry, to create a new space for that worry, a special burden between the shoulder blades that you can learn to carry without even noticing.

And so I actually felt self-satisfied to be there with Amanda, with our friends, and with a bunch of British folks finding extroversion through alcohol. I enjoyed sitting in the dark and murmuring beneath the music. I liked the subterranean feeling; I wasn’t entirely there. I was thinking 10 years earlier. No act of imagination at that time could have placed me in Egypt, in suburban Cairo, in a nest of drunken, reveling Brits counting down the final minutes of the best decade of my life so far.

At the end of 1999, I was only a year and a half out of college and the ceremony that had branded me “educated.” I remember walking with a now ex-friend on the Wittenberg campus in May 1998, as he proclaimed that we would now and forever have B.A. attached to our names. He liked that sort of stuff, perhaps more so than me, but his observation had resonated, first as a thrill and then as a burden. In that moment I felt a tremendous levity; I was ascendant. I was engaged to be married; I was coming back for a year to work at the campus where I had earned my undergraduate degree; I was going to apply to M.F.A. programs in creative writing and, naively, I felt certain I would be accepted.

None of that happened. By the end of 1999, I was renting a room in a house in a village outside my hometown. Grad schools that year wouldn’t have me. One school had taken the extra measure of personally phoning in my rejection. This experience had engendered the suspicion that I was a pretender, a writer of some consequence for a few years in college, but nothing more. I was learning a hard truth. I was being weeded out. I would become one of the legions of undergraduate writers who abandon the enterprise after college—and I can say, twelve years after graduation, that a lot of artist friends have fallen by the wayside for one reason or another. I used to hold their choices in low regard, seeing them as defections, but anymore I don’t do that. Everybody makes choices; I’ve made mine and they bring their own risks.

There had been other spectacular flame-outs that year. There had been a disappointment in love, so to speak, and so I was single. I had flailed around looking for purpose, leading to a botched journey to England on a work visa. I traveled all the way to Ambleside, thinking what I needed was the Lake District’s idyll to salve my wounds, to recover and rebrand and return home with shaggy hair, a beard, confidence restored, a one man Peace Corps operation. Unfortunately I ran out of money. And so I returned home and had to ask my father to borrow his rickety Dodge Caravan, powder-blue with wood paneling and a non-functional heater. This is the car I would drive throughout the winter from my waiter job in Yellow Springs to my rented room in North Hampton, shivering beneath an insufficient coat. For this privilege I had to submit to a berating lecture from my father, who also did not quite know what I was doing with myself. And anyway he had problems of his own. I felt keenly his lack of confidence in me, for it combined with my own lack of confidence, compounding into something near panic. My ex had moved on, and in a few months she would marry someone else, begin a real career. She just seemed so together, so composed. And I seemed so fractured, disassembled. How had this happened, and with such speed? I don’t compare myself to her very often, but at the time I saw all this as evidence that our split had been a great development for her and a disaster for me.

What I remember thinking on December 31, 1999 was trying to come about, to steady myself. I would reapply to grad school, but with an adjustment, adding a couple of M.A. programs. The ex-friend from earlier spoke highly of his current program in Ames, Iowa, and so I would apply there and be admitted and eventually earn my M.A. from Iowa State University. And this choice would bring with it a fresh round of disappointments, of a different variety: the disappointments associated with getting what you want. But it would also transform my life in incalculable ways. I would make new friends, work with a writer I admired, know my own limitations in starker ways than I knew them in 1999. But I did not know that then. I knew that I would apply to grad schools. I did not know that the parents of my roommate, the Boop family of North Hampton, would generously allow me to enter their home when it was empty in the afternoons so I could write, and print, and prepare my applications. The actions had seemed so futile at the time, signifying nothing, without possibility. I falsely believed that this was no legitimate path. If I learned anything in 10 years, I learned that I know how to blaze a path and I learned about the power of small generosity. But I did not know that on December 31, 1999; I did not know that yet! It’s hard for me to conceive now what I did not know then, how nascent I was. It’s almost an embarrassment to admit, until I remember that generosity can extend to the self and keep you from feeling shame and disappointment all over again, and that you can forgive your past selves for having been so dumb.

On December 31, 1999, I made a few basic decisions. I remember pacing around the North Hampton house, spelling them out. In a year, I would be in a better location, one that believed in the things I believed in, that had a literary community that I could join, that gave me a chance to make my way. A friend had offered to share his Portland hovel with me, to help me relocate on the cheap, and I was going. If I got into grad school, then I would go. But I was not going to wait until April or May, until admissions committees had made up their minds about me, again. I would be in a better place a year from now. I would set up shop in Portland, if necessary, and make my way from there.

It was a small decision, but I remember the shift in thinking, the moving ahead with plans and not waiting. I remember how dispossessed I felt and how my choices seemed to lack consequence. I feared that they didn’t matter. I feared that I was not at the right platform and that, because of this, the choices I made were not going to matter. But they did matter, for I went to Portland in March, taking the Greyhound to Portland via Charlotte and St. Louis, to visit friends. And in Charlotte a friend was having his own difficulties, and in St. Louis I said goodbye to a certain way I had been friends with another person—and then I went to Portland where I slept for ten weeks on an air mattress and worked 38 hours a week at a Plaid Pantry convenience store, at a location where a cashier had been murdered the year before, right where I stood for all those hours, alone and unguarded and worth $6.50 an hour. And then I came back to Ohio, because I was admitted to Iowa State and I needed the summer to move. And I went to a bar near campus with a new friend who had taught me a kind of aggressive generosity of spirit, and I remember feeling, if not restored, then relieved. As I told him then, all I wanted was a chance. And now I had the chance.

I didn’t know that on December 31, 1999, but I remembered it on December 31, 2009, as I drank in the sordid air and watched Neil take the microphone and count down the final seconds of the decade. I was among strangers, in a strange place, well beyond any setting I could have imagined for myself a decade earlier. How unlikely, I thought. So I kept close to Amanda, experienced the satisfied warmth in my mouth and my belly from the Scotch, mulled over it. At heart I’m very much a golly-gee Midwestern rube, mouth agape in wonder when I encounter strangeness, a sense of being far away. My childhood voice had the soft edges of Appalachia like my parents, but now the soft edges have been ground out. They return in modest ways when I go home, and, on a night like tonight, when I am half-drunk and warm and glad and happy and relieved, thinking of ten years ago to the day and the years of mediation between, I find myself thinking in that voice, dropping my g’s, compressing my sentences by a half-breath, like an accordion player practicing a provincial anthem, getting it wrong, trying again.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Things I’ll Miss About Egypt #4: Feeling Strange

My brother and certain other people might argue that I’m an odd duck, but one thing I’ve noticed whenever I come back to the U.S. is how invisible I feel. Nobody really looks or seems a bit curious about me in a place where I’m assumed to be like everybody else, whatever that means. I get stared at for pretty obvious reasons in Egypt, and it’s not that I really love it, but there is something to be said for feeling strange.

Today I went with a brown-suited man from my university to a branch of the Ministry of Agriculture in order to get the right paperwork for the cat I will be bringing back to the U.S. I had expected that we would be going to one of the fancy buildings in Cairo that are faux-ancient temples, and I was kind of excited at the prospect of going into these swamps of red tape I’ve heard so much about.

Instead, I found myself in Fustat, one of my favorite areas of Cairo. The old city, the first capital of the Arabs. Here you can find the oldest mosque in Africa and Egypt’s oldest synagogue. But these are just buildings, at least to me. It’s the people and the bustle that are endlessly fascinating. The place we needed was off a gravel/mud/dirt road that curved around garbage, donkeys pulling carts, coffeeshops, and all matter of small enterprises, from the selling of juice to the stacking and binding of feedbags.

I lugged my 80% reformed street cat in his smart and suburban-ridiculous red travel bag into the ministry branch. We sat in a room with a window that looked onto a slum house and listened to a rooster crowing as a farash brought us glass bottles of cold Pepsi and a man behind a desk handwrote a letter to the main Ministry office confirming that the cat was real and healthy. On the wall was a framed and faded poster, the glass cracked, of different cuts of veal. A ceiling fan rotated, scattering my papers across the man's desk. The man left with his letter.

Occasionally, people entered and wondered if there was a dog in the bag, and when I said, “Ota” (cat), they would say, “Kibir!” (Big!). He’s a big tom, but also he’s fed with regularity. He looks like a giant when he goes out on the street to bully his starving compatriots. Compared to the obese cats I've seen in the U.S., though, he's right trim.

Over the hour that we waited for the man to return, Mr. Yasser of the brown suit and I talked. I started with small talk, something I’m terrible at. I told Mr. Yasser I was leaving Egypt and would miss it. And he said to me that the staff would miss me. I was confused. What staff? Staff know me? Most professors don't even know me, some in my own department. I thought he was just exaggerating, which is common around here. He said, “You are too kindly and never make a problem for anyone.” (Often people here say “too” when they mean “so.”) Then he said he remembered me from 4-5 years ago and that it was too bad that I was leaving. "Four years you make no problems," he said, shaking his head.

And I suddenly remembered who Mr. Yasser was. The first time I had to have my annual HIV test (which all foreigners who work in Egypt must have in order to get a work visa) in 2006, it was Mr. Yasser who led me to the certified government worker who would take my blood.

In memory, he wears a black suit and dark sunglasses and looks like a secret service agent. In memory, he scares me a little. In memory, he does not speak to me as he leads me across the street I dread to cross and through the overcrowded medical clinic, and I sit on a dingy chair surrounded by other patients, and there are no lights on in the room, and there are children singing patriotic songs at the French school next door, and I watch a needle go into my arm and then get placed in an open trash can full of used needles. In memory, I am wondering what the hell I am doing in Africa; I have been naively navigating through each initial day, initial week, initial month. In memory, I feel foolish and diffident, not understanding anything anyone is saying and wondering if I will ever get the hang of this place. Everything seems strange, in memory.

Today I talked with Yasser about his children, about the curtain store with the spiral stairway that he enjoys in Old Cairo, about the way he loves this neighborhood, Fustat, because it is the old city, and the people are the old, the real, Egyptians. And the pyramids (the continued revisions to the grounds, the way it’s marketed, etc.), the new university campus in the midst of the desert – none of this feels real to him, and he is grateful that he was able to stay in the few offices left on the old university campus. "At new campus, no one knows me," he said. “It is too far. Where is it? What would you do if the bus broke down from new campus? There is nothing. Nothing. Even men – what would they do?”

The man from the ministry returned with a small pink square of paper. Mr. Yasser put it into a folder with my passport and the cat’s records, and he said that without this slip of paper he would never be able to get this done at the Ministry. (I should probably mention that this is one of the perks I have with this job – people wade through bureaucracy for me for a small sum, which is why someone else has my passport now.)

We left with our paperwork. Mr. Yasser would be headed to the Ministry, and I would be headed la-de-da back to my big flat. There weren’t any empty taxis coming down the dirt road, so Mr. Yasser and I walked back the way we had come. Past men in coffeeshops, smoking sheesha, playing backgammon, observing the street, laughing, chatting. Past women buying and selling vegetables, walking with arms interlocked, sometimes pausing to look at me and smile. Past platters of homemade potato chips on steel counters. Past mounds of garbage and a burned-out car straight out of Mad Max. Flies plagued all of us.

I realized the red bag on my shoulder with the intermittently struggling cat was conspicuous. Yet somehow this relaxed me. I felt a contradictory sense of belonging on this street, walking beside this man in the brown suit on a dusty road, feeling the other men look at me, feeling their curious glances, hearing the tinny recordings of Qu'ran out various windows and radios. Maybe it was a feeling that at least I was somehow in on the joke (this is the question, though, isn’t it – can an expat ever be in on the joke?). My point is that in this situation I felt just fine, and I felt like conveying to Mr. Yasser the reason for this feeling. So I said, “I must look pretty strange walking down the street with a cat in a bag."

He laughed gleefully and said, “Yes! It is too strange!”

We walked down the street and laughed together, and I smiled at any person who was looking at me.

“I guess I’m used to feeling strange by now,” I said, and shook his hand, and hailed a cab.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Things I Will Miss About Egypt #3: Perceptions about Language

I’ve seen a lot of complaints on facebook from my American brethren about things like having to “press 1 for English.” This is usually followed by some sort of rant about how “in America, we speak English.” Most egregiously misuse English grammar and sentence structure as they smugly defend the language.

After four years of working with kids who are fluent in a minimum of three languages as an expectation of their culture and class, I'm sad I wasn't exposed to more languages as a child. I admire those who are brave enough to come to the U.S., where they can actually be ridiculed for not knowing English or for having an unfamiliar accent. When I attempted to learn Arabic in Egypt, I was met with kindness and tolerance. I experienced language as an exchange of cultures, as a potential bridge. I can only hope to practice that kind of tolerance when I return to the U.S. Though I understand that language is a complicated subject, that it is no less complicated in Egypt than it is in the U.S., and that in some ways I simplify the situation here, this feeling of open exchange and diversity is what I learned from "foreigners" while being a "foreigner" myself.


Thursday, June 03, 2010

Things I’ll Miss About Egypt #2: Days Like This

We went for a day out – L – an Egyptian, and E, an American expat. First to the Smart Village, a satellite world of modern buildings and kempt grass. Even the mosque was futuristic.

In the Smart Village you’ll find something called CultNat, a project working to archive all matter of information about Egypt. They produce CDs – for instance, you can buy a CD that pulls up a map of several parts of Cairo. You can click on different buildings and get the architectural context of each, zoom in on various attributes of the building, look at it in 3-D, and see various drawings and photos of the building. If you’ve been to downtown Cairo, you can see the influence of all matter of architectural styles, and even an idiot like me can appreciate this. Geography? Wildlife? Tombs at Giza? Medicinal herbs of Egypt? They’ve got it at CultNat. Another room featured a fantastic film about ancient Egypt on nine screens, and another offered an array of 3-D photos. Still another room contains working replicas of such things as the first clock to run on water.

From the strange Smart Village in the desert, we headed to Giza for lunch at the exorbitantly priced Mena House hotel ( It took us a while to get there; we could see the pyramids from the Alex Desert Road, calling out to us across the brilliant green farmland, but, alas, there were no exits. Eventually we found one but still didn’t know how to get to the pyramids.

I love getting lost in Cairo. No, really. Because I am never driving when this happens. So – feast for the senses. Men selling watermelons from a donkey cart by the side of the road. A woman with a stand of drinks in metal containers reflecting the sun. Boys and men on motorcycles. Children tapping on cars in traffic jams. Frankly, I wasn’t a help to L because I enjoyed being lost so much. It’s true, though, that I had spotted the “pyramids” sign on the highway. Of course, I don’t think I was the only one in the car that spotted it – just the only one to be so proud of myself for seeing it.

We arrived at the intersection where the Pyramid of Khufu stands loud and proud.

There, we were accosted by men creating triangles with their hands and pointing, as if we couldn’t see the ancient being before us. One man knocked on the car from front to back. When L rolled her window a crack to ask them the quickest way to get to the Mena House (that we weren’t interested in the pyramids), they ignored her. Though the Mena House is lovely, it was not the main attraction. What we came for was a view of the Great Pyramid from a quiet space.

During lunch, L had decided that the watchbands on both of her guests for this outing were unacceptable. Before she would agree to drop us off on the Corniche so we could catch a cab back to Ma’adi, we had to get new watchbands. She knew where we could get them for twelve Egyptian pounds. Sure enough, soon we double-parked on a Cairo street somewhere near Mohandisseen, and L disappeared. She came back moments later with her fists full of watchbands. E quickly chose one. I, picky, insisted upon going back in with L while E’s watchband was replaced. The store was one of those pantry-sized affairs you commonly find in Cairo. Its main purpose seemed to be the selling of electronic accessories such as phone covers, and behind a counter sat three young men, too many for the size of the store. In one corner sat the watchband guy. Two boxes held a jumble of bands. To my delight, I found one. My watch was admired. The band was set.

On to the Corniche, said L. But, first, let’s drive by Manial Palace. E – who, like me, is leaving Egypt – had wanted to go there for quite some time, but it had been closed for restoration ever since she had arrived in Egypt three years before. At least you can see the outside of it one more time, said L. When we pulled onto the street, L engaged a policeman whose belly was hanging out of his white shirt, which wasn’t tucked into his pants. His belt, its buckle coming undone, was strapped haphazardly over his belly, and he waved a cigarette as they spoke in Arabic. My guess was that they were arguing over whether she could go that way down the street, but when L parked and got out, I discovered that she had been coaxing her way onto the palace grounds. Once inside, we ran into a gaggle of workers who vigorously protested our presence while L smiled and maintained her ground with her firm, charismatic tone. Finally, a man with a conspicuous grey toupee and grey moustache came out from a tent. He protested for a while, and L kept smiling and insisting. I laughed nervously, as is my wont in such situations. E said, “Oh, she’s going to get us in. Just watch.”

Soon we were following the big-bellied policeman, a self-appointed tour guide with an everlasting cigarette, and the tour guide’s friend, who helpfully gestured and served lookout since he knew there would be an inevitable tip at the end of this journey. We peered into a room with solid gold pillars. We rounded a corner, then, to the vast gardens that make up most of the grounds. The centerpiece of these gardens is the “mother tree,” a banyan that birthed all other banyans in the place.

The guide showed us how the aerial prop roots of each tree eventually droop to the ground and plant themselves, growing into trunks that look the same as the original trunk. Older trees can spread across large tracts of land. All the banyans on the grounds, then, are connected, and the mother banyan was the largest of them all.

Earlier, the guide had gestured toward the house of Muhammad Ali, Jr. It was closed, he said. As we passed an open doorway, however, the jaunty sidekick suggested we go in. Quick, they said, glancing around for...someone who doesn't allow rule-breaking in Egypt? Good luck, friends. Anyway, one of them stood lookout as we entered. The inside was covered with tiling and alabaster that looked very much like the Harem of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. So – amazing. We tipped our three guides and headed to the Corniche.

Days like this. Familiar and unfamiliar. I’ll miss the peculiar way I feel this in Egypt.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Nearly getting run down is a daily part of a pedestrian's life in Cairo. Maybe that's why so few people walk. A week or so ago, J and I were headed home after work. We were crossing a median with a rare area for parking near the Shell Building in Ma'adi. Teenagers often hang out in this area near the Shell Shop, an American-looking convenience store sans gas station. As we crossed, a grey car filled with three teenaged boys swerved into the median, stopping just short of flattening J, who moved out of the way in enough time to only receive a tap on the leg.

I don't know...had it been a long day? J slammed his hand down on the car. I flew to the driver's window, and J raced to the passenger side. J was yelling at a kid with fighter-pilot sunglasses who was getting out of the car, but I don't know what they were saying because I was shouting. I pointed my finger in the driver's face, waved my arms, said something in elderly-lady fashion about controlling oneself, and eventually flipped the bird as I might have done in high school. All of this resulted in getting called "habibti" (rough translation: my honey).

Did I mention that all three of these boys were dressed like it was 1987? Another boy with frosted jeans and a white sweatband pushing up his gelled hair emerged and pulled Fighter-pilot Sunglasses away from J and me.

A tag-team onslaught like this occurred on a recent vacation to Istanbul, when, at the end of our stay, we were charged the equivalent of $100 for two local phone calls. From two sides we simultaneously raged and delivered our personal forms of logic. For the first time, I seemed to be the impetus for a nervous sweat as the bald manager at reception held the bill with shaking hands and mustered a discount. This kind of multilateral attack is a new development for J and me, who aren't very aggressive. But it seems to be effective. In fact, I am not really sure why I am writing about it. But it seems important. I do know I am more likely to stand up for myself in public spaces than I was four years ago. I think I can thank Cairenes for that.

On second thought, I have been thinking a lot lately about the squeaky wheel getting the grease. It's something I've always hated - watching people who surface only long enough to complain somehow get what they want. You see this a lot in academia. It's not something I strive for in my job - that much of my Midwestern work ethic stays intact. But I've seen it in one form or another at every university I've been to.

I don't think the episode with the teens is comparable to the squeaky wheel. It's sticking in my head, I think, because there are these moments in Egypt where we just don't have a sense of humor anymore. I went through a persistent Egypt funk last year, and it was full of moments like these. J has noted that there are some days when I am likely to step out into traffic just to make a point (logical? smart? No.), and the encounter with the teenagers was one of those days.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Things I Will Miss About Egypt #1 The Call to Prayer?

We're going to be leaving Egypt sooner than we can wrap our minds around. On facebook, I've been listing as status updates the things I think I will miss. But the status updates of facebook get lost in the scroll. Isn't it strange how a blog seems more permanent?

I'm sure there will be unanticipated things about Egypt that I will find myself missing in the coming years. I understood this one night this week as I read a novel. I've instituted reading sessions at night, forbidding myself from turning on the computer when I get home at 8pm from work.

It was quiet that night. J was in his office; Bodie was sprawled on the cool wooden floor. Then came the call to prayer.

For the last two years, we have lived right next to a mosque with some mighty fine loudspeakers. We have a front-row seat to heavenward encouragement five times a day, and this includes not only the chanting of the muezzin but also the trickling of water and throat and nostril clearing from the ablutions hall adjacent to our apartment building. Some days it seems louder than other days. On Fridays, the imam's temper can be measured like a Baptist preacher's - you don't have to understand what he's saying - you only have to listen to tone. Barking and biting. Soothing. Chastising. Praising. Joyous. Preachers the world over are not so distinctive from each other as we would like to think.

Often, when I mention the call to prayer to someone who does not live in a country dominated by Islam, I get a sigh of wonder. People just love that call to prayer. It's so...mysterious? My cynical reply is to get back to me when you've lived next to a mosque.

But I have a feeling that I might miss it. That night, I had been reading a novel about the lonely lives of Americans (James Salter's Light Years). Salter's writing is pristine, but I was pretty tired of the characters and their existential concerns.

Enter the call to prayer.

As "Allahuakhbar" threaded the heavy air, I thought about silence. Nothing is ever really silent. My parents' house in the evening is the quietest place I know, and still there is the thrumming of crickets, furnace, coyotes, distant trains. Still there is your pulse, beating in your throat, your ears. But there is a difference between this and the call to prayer. I admit I've gotten into the nasty habit of perceiving the call to prayer as an intrusion. The other night, though, I remembered. I remembered I was in Cairo, Egypt, and that every time the call to prayer rings out, I know that there are uncountable souls around me, pulsing life. For me, the invocation is less about God than human beings. We exist. I wonder if I can find an analog in the next place, something that will thread the air like this. I hope it is something as unexpected as the call to prayer.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Lady Doctor

I was going to the lady doctor. The doctor for ladies.

I grabbed a taxi and buried my nose in a Murakami novel while the driver, turning onto the corniche, slung us around every car in his path, honking and yelling and gesturing and nearly running us into another taxi that balanced un-tethered oriental rugs on its luggage rack. Even the Egyptian drivers were angry at my taxi driver. A ten minute ride was five - I saw the pink monstrosity of the Nile Badrawi hospital before I had gotten through two pages of the novel. The driver screeched across three lanes of traffic and braked next to a traffic cop on the road to the hospital. I got out and gave the guy 10LE, which was more than fair. As I walked away, I heard, "HEY!" in all its shining American rudeness. It was the taxi driver. Disdainfully, he held out my 10LE with one hand and gave me the thumb and first two fingers gesture I have come to know can mean many things here in Egypt. It can mean "Wait." It can mean "Settle down here everybody; there ain't no reason to fight." It can mean "Get the eff outta my way because I'm gonna keep driving whether you stop or not." One night I watched two men in a heated argument. They were standing on either side of a car, and they both made that gesture at each other, reaching over the roof, hands frozen in that position, until their knuckles touched. Their hands slightly shook as they held them there, as if someone had glued them together. Eventually they broke free, exhausted as if they had actually had a fight. That's one thing about this place. I am so sick of people asking me if I'm scared to be here, if I'm scared of the people. The way I've seen people fight here looks like West Side Story. Does that scare you? The only time you should be scared is when the Egyptians lose a soccer match and you happen to be staying in the embassy of the country that just beat them.

But back to my driver. "HEY!" he yelled. Then, "Xamas-taashar!" in Arabic. He wanted 15LE for a 5LE ride. I gave him the gesture right back and yelled, "WHAT? FOR FIVE MINUTES?" And I yelled some other things before walking away.

I entered the hospital, a maze. I had already been there three times, and I had never seen a foreigner in there. By and large, I was also the only woman wearing pants and wearing my hair free besides my doctor.

In a narrow hallway, I waited for the elevator that would take me to the tenth floor. As it came creeping down, three men and two women crammed themselves into the hallway. The elder woman backed her abeya-slung rear into my stomach, slowly pushing me against the gold, cylindrical, full ashtray. As is my custom in public when not being accosted by angry taxi drivers, I looked downward and sort of shrugged to myself and politely waited for her butt to depart from my gut. "Mafeesh mish queda" (no problem), I said when they all stepped ahead of me in a 3x3 elevator, which contained an old operator on a metal stool, and invited me to join them.

In the lady clinic, most of the women in the waiting room were accompanied by men, most were pregnant, and nearly everyone was in traditional dress. The family that had crammed me into the ashtray was there. A high percentage of women in niqab filled the place. A male doctor walked through the waiting room, smoking a pipe and gesturing for a pregnant woman to follow him. The chairs were blue and attached together as in an airport. An awards show in Arabic showed interviews with Arab celebrities wearing sparkling gowns and a ton of makeup. We were all rapt.

Another family was getting off the elevator as I left the clinic. A young man was holding a baby carrier, and I looked, but it was empty. He swung it toward me and said something I couldn't understand. Then I caught enough words and enough of his gestures to understand he was offering to impregnate me. Or, if we want to give him the benefit of the doubt, he might have been asking me if I was pregnant. I don't think he was. I shook my head at him while the women looked at the floor.