Saturday, November 29, 2008
Thursday, November 27, 2008
This is the url: http://egypt.foreignpolicyblogs.com/. My first post is titled : Egypt's Exporting of Gas to Israel not Likely to Change.
Gulf Arabs come to vacation in Egypt quite often, and I have yet to hear an explanation of this phenomenon other than the one I am about to share. Mohammed told me that Gulf Arabs, especially the more convervative Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, come to Egypt to "go out with women." This means everything from just speaking to women to sleeping with them. In these countries, Mohammed explained, the women are all covered, most often wearing niqab. I wanted to question this stereoptype as I hear it often and I think it's generally useful to do so, so I asked Mohammed if he was sure that this was really the reason people from the Gulf come to Egypt. He said, "well yesterday when I was speaking with him he asked me the best place to fine women in Cairo, so yes, I am sure."
He added that to Gulf Arabs, Egypt is known as "أمريكا العرب." "The America of the Arabs."
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Saturday, November 22, 2008
I was curious about Mohammed's socio-economic status, as I do not know much about Somalia and was interested to know what type of family Mohammed comes from. My roommate said from what he understood, Mohammed is from a "middle class" Somali family, whatever that means. Not dirt poor but not wealthy on any level, either. So I asked what Mohammed's parents do for work. Guess what? His whole family is dead. His mother, his father, and his brothers and sisters. Killed in the current conflict in Somalia. Mohammed is here alone studying English, Arabic, and Islam, and shares an apartment with a few other guys living in Cairo.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
During the discussion, the lawyer offered her personal opinion on the case. She said that Suzanne Tamim deserved what she got for behaving in such an immoral manner. Yes, that she deserved to be murdered and have her throat slit because she was sleeping around. She said that a Muslim, Arab, proper girl should not behave this way. It was really that simple. The lawyer emphasized that this was her personal opinion and not that of the law.
My Egyptian professors were just as astonished as my classmates and I were, and I would not say this is representative of Egyptians as a whole, but this type of thinking certainly does exist here. And to be fair, I am sure there are people in the US who would feel the same way. In addition, how does this impact the effectiveness of the law? How do lawyers and judges who are mandated to uphold the law no matter their personal opinions deal with cases like this? This is probably a question for my uncle…
As usual, we also discussed the issue of sexual harassment in Egypt, which I know I talk a lot about but is hard to avoid when I constantly hear stories from my classmates about being harassed. This woman is an Egyptian, educated lawyer, and she flat out told us that she has never seen someone being sexually harassed in Egypt and that she does not consider it to be a problem. Furthermore, she explained that when it does happen, it is because the individual who commits the act cannot make a proper moral decision about what is right and wrong. That is, she does not think that sexual harassment is a societal problem but rather that it happens on a case by case basis involving people who just do not know any better. By that logic then, she is claiming that two-thirds of the male population in Egypt cannot figure out that you should not grab women’s private parts on the street. I don’t buy that. In my opinion, she is trying to place the blame on the individual in an attempt to deny that there are real problems in Egypt’s sexual culture.
I have heard all of this before and frankly I am getting a little sick of it. We have these meetings with prominent, influential Egyptians who are educated and who are doing good for their country, and for some reason, whether it is because they don’t want to paint a bad picture of Egypt in front of foreigners, or they actually think that there are no real problems here, they just keep feeding us bullshit.
I spoke with my professor about this later and she a made a good point which is that I should not get too upset or be so surprised when someone does not deliver the response I expect from them. Just because this woman is a lawyer, etc. does not mean that I should expect certain ideas or opinions from her. And vice versa, I might be surprised to hear what a less educated person has to say, as well.
And for the record, we have plenty of societal and cultural problems in America, too, so don’t think that I am picking on anybody. I just happened to be living in and studying Egyptian society and culture.
I have heard a lot of people say (and seen a lot of Facebook status messages) that they are "proud to be American for the first time" now that Barack Obama has been elected President of the United States. I understand that people have been incredibly unhappy the past eight years under the Bush administration, but does that mean one still cannot be proud to be American? I was proud when firefighters rushed into the burning World Trade Centers, knowingly giving their lives for their country and their countrymen. I was proud of the US olympic team while watching from a restaurant in Morocco. And I was proud to see Americans stand up and make their voices heard, regardless of the result.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
1. Where are you from?
2. What is your religion?
3. What is your name?
4. What do you think of Obama?
5. What do you think of Israel?
6. What do you think of Bush?
7. What do you think about the invasion of Iraq?
8. Can you teach me English?
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Monday, November 17, 2008
A few choice quotes from the article:
"The whole intention is to make Abu Dhabi the hub of culture in the Middle East, and a cultural destination for the world. It's going brilliantly," she says.
Is he worried that the new Arab investors will be calling the shots?
Years of western culture and tradition are being transplanted to the desert, where the Emiratis are greedily slaking their thirst for these new experiences.
There's so much money around, so much appetite to bring new things to the Middle East that it can't be long before Abu Dhabi rivals Paris, Venice or Los Angeles - certainly that is the ambition.
This brought a couple of things to mind, I'll share after I finish listening to Ala Nasiya, insha Allah.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Anyway, the point is that Egyptians get a lot of their ideas about America from our movies. Movies are very popular here, and most Egyptians do not read books. They read newspapers, but that's about it. I can talk more about this later, but let me just quote a statistic from my professor who is an Arabic literature critic. He said that the greatest number of books sold in Egypt in one year written by Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian and possibly the most well-known Arab writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was 3000 copies.
Many Egyptian movies are pointed expressions of Egyptian society. For example, we just finished watching a movie starring Adel Imam, one of the most famous Egyptian actors, in which he plays a business man who at one point buys some poems, releases a book of these poems under his own name, buys all the copies of the book, and then pays some people off to win Egypt's best poet award. The film of course deals with corruption.
So when Egyptians see American movies, they often think they are a direct reflection of American society. Needless to say I told Mohammed that the mafia and gangs are not really the biggest problems facing American society these days, and that although people do not help each other enough, its not as if it never happens.
I'm not sure he was convinced, but he loves Sly Stallone.
Friday, November 14, 2008
A couple of guys in the gym asked me today what I thought of Obama. I won’t go through it here but I basically said that I like him although I do not think he is perfect (unlike some other people I know). Anyway, I asked them what they thought. One guy, pointing to his skin, said that Obama being elected was a big deal because brown people in the United States usually cannot be in higher jobs than white people. I explained that although there is racism in the US, we have Black, White, Asian, Arab, etc. presidents of companies, universities, etc. etc. I agreed however that having a Black president is a big deal.
Their biggest complaint about Obama was that they 1. “think that he is going to do things just for the Jews” and 2. “heard that he is biased towards Israel.” One of them mentioned Rahm Emanuel’s appointment in passing. I’ll be honest, the music was really loud, and one guy had a speech impediment, so I didn’t catch everything they were saying. From what I could tell though, they didn’t really go into much detail about their opinion or what they heard. I would venture to guess this is because they don’t really know why they think that Obama is biased towards Israel, and if he is why that might be. These guys are not dumb, but they don’t read The New York Times every day either (that is not a shot at The New York Times, it’s just an example).
I asked what they thought about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general. They said what I hear most Egyptians say, which is that it will never end. We continued talking and they told me that there are good Israelis and bad Israelis just like there are good Egyptians and bad Egyptians, but that the governments are the ones that cause all of the problems because they say one thing and do another. In addition, they agreed with a two state solution.
I am not sure where the idea about race relations in the US came from, but I sure know where the ideas about Obama came from, because as many people have pointed out, the whole Arab world is distraught over Rahm Emanuel’s appointment. They see it as a death sentence for a Palestinian state. And the majority of news and opinion I hear here completely disregard anything else about Emanuel’s personality, experience, or qualification for the job.
I understand people’s concerns vis-à-vis Emanuel and Israel, but I do not think there is evidence that he is going to be bad for the Arab side. He played an important role at Oslo. And as I have said many times before, just because someone is pro-Israel does not mean that he does not believe in a Palestinian state.
The fixation with everything Israel and Zionist in the Arab media gets really frustrating. I have no problem with reporting on the closure of Gaza or on Israeli raids into the West Bank or whatever. These are things that are happening and they are important to people in this region. But the constant discussion of these issues at the expense of sometimes more important ones and the lack of balance in the sharing of opinions is really tiring.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
One thing I like about Abu Aardvark is his focus on the importance of public diplomacy and strategic communication, two things with which I have a bit of experience and the importance of which I think is often overlooked.
Here is the clip from Youtube.
November 12, 2008
In a week that has seen everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to Drew Barrymore speak out against California’s passing of Prop. 8 -- the ban on same-sex marriage -- MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann issued a passionate commentary on the passing of Prop. 8, asking supporters, “Why does this matter to you?”
Olbermann promised last week that he would be issuing a "special comment" on the passing of Prop. 8. Staying true to his word, on his show last night, he prefaced his report by saying that he has no personal stake in the issue of same-sex marriage. He said he was even hard-pressed to find one family member who is gay.
“To me, this vote is horrible…horrible,” Olbermann said. “Because this isn’t about yelling and this isn’t about politics. This is about the human heart, and if that sounds corny, so be it.”
Later in his report, Olbermann pointed to the many times throughout history in which America has had to redefine marriage in accordance with achieving civil rights.
“I keep hearing this term ‘redefining marriage.’ If this country hadn’t redefined marriage, black people still couldn’t marry white people. Sixteen states had laws on the books which made that illegal in 1967... 1967. The parents of the president-elect of the United States could not have married in nearly one third of the states in the country their son grew up to lead.”
Since Prop. 8 passed by a narrow majority last Tuesday, rallies have been held around the state protesting the voters’ decision. On Saturday some 12,500 people marched through Los Angeles's Silver Lake district protesting the same-sex marriage ban. (The Advocate)
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Monday, November 10, 2008
I know of the DAM guys first and foremost through a friend, Sameh, “the Arabic beatbox,” who often collaborates with them. Sameh stayed at my house for a weekend when I was in high school with a program called Friends of Open House. I haven’t really kept up with the friendships I made in the program or with the program itself, but the idea is to bring together Israeli and Palestinian children who live in Ramle, a mixed Israeli-Arab town in Israel, to talk about the issues.
Anyway, the concert was great and there was a lot of energy. Of course, DAM is a political group and politics are part of their songs and their concerts. I cringed during one of their most famous songs called “Who is a Terrorist? (Min Irhabi?).” The chorus goes like this:
Who's a terrorist?
I'm a terrorist?
How I am a terrorist
When you've taken my land?!
Who's a terrorist?
You're the terrorist!
You've taken everything I own
While I'm living in my homeland
This is a very strong message. But I think it is important to hear what people are saying and try to understand what they are feeling. They called Bush a terrorist, and they called “the occupation” a terrorist. I thought that was interesting. Instead of saying Israel is a terrorist state or the Jews are terrorists, they attacked the occupation. I think that says something. At the end of the show, they lifted their arms and made the peace sign. The group has collaborated with Israeli artists in order to bridge the gaps between Israeli and Palestinian youth through music.
I may not like or agree with everything these guys say, and their message is not always the most positive, but instead of blowing themselves up, instead of firing rockets, they are rapping and making music.
Here is another interesting article on DAM and their relationship with Israeli rapper Subliminal.
Abdel Aziz began by giving us an interesting history of the Judges Club. He talked about when it was formed, how it works, and how it has historically dealt judicially with Egyptian politics, through times of both relative freedom and of intense political oppression. He was supposed to also speak to us about women’s issues in Egypt, but after giving the history of the Club, instead opened the floor up to questions. A student asked about the relationship between Egyptian law and Islamic law, called Sharia. A very good and fair question, as Egypt’s law is commonly known to be a mix of French civil law as a result of France’s colonization of Egypt, and elements of Sharia law, as Egypt is a Muslim country. Apparently the common knowledge in this case is wrong, as the judge explained that Sharia has nothing to do with Egyptian law. This is plainly false. Even my professor was surprised by this answer.
The judge then went on, frankly to an astonished audience, explaining how although Egypt does not follow Sharia law, it is the best and most advanced type of judicial system and, yes I am serious, would even be a good system for the United States to adopt. He explained that the Jews failed morally under laws given to them in the Torah, and hence God sent another messenger to his people, Jesus, to give them new laws to follow. The Christians, of course, failed in this respect as well, leading God to send the Prophet Muhammad with the laws of the Quran. His proof of this was that it says in the Quran that Muhammad is the last messenger of God, bringing God’s final and complete message.
Slightly shocked, I thought I might change the subject and ask him about something we were supposed to be discussing. My question was “Do you have a comment on the recent ruling regarding the sexual harassment case, and what do you think is the future of this issue in Egypt politically, culturally, and socially?” I received a two part answer. The first part was that yes, there is a problem with sexual harassment in Egypt, but there are these same problems all across the world. In fact, there is an international phenomenon of moral decline, which is causing this problem. Even in America you have these problems. Next, he told me that if I go up to a woman on the street in Egypt and say something to her such as “oooh, you are so pretty,” or hiss at her, then I will get thrown in jail for a week because that is Egyptian law. Sexual Harassment in Egypt really deserves its own post, in fact, one could write an encyclopedia about it, but let me just say that it is sometimes the police officers here who are doing the harassing, and when my classmate got spit on the other day, and my other classmate got her crotch grabbed multiple times in broad daylight, no one went to jail.
So unfortunately, what could have been an incredibly rewarding discussion on the challenges to the judicial system in Egypt turned out to be, for lack of a better term, complete and utter bullshit. My classmates and I were not only disappointed, but angry as well.
What the judge talked about is indicative of a lot of social and cultural problems in Egypt. First, the view that Islam is the be all and end all, that is has the answers to everything, and that one is silly not to embrace it, is manifested in a myriad of contexts and as this educated, influential judge has proven, at all levels of society. Second is the lack of responsibility in Egyptian culture. Even in the Egyptian dialect, one does not say “I missed the bus.” The actual translation would be “the bus missed me.” The judge, who of all people should be willing to take responsibility and admit that Egypt has a problem with sexual harassment, blamed it on the rest of the world and of course, which brings me to my final point, brought the US into the discussion. I realize that because I am American, Egyptians may whole-heartedly want to discuss America with me, or relate what they are saying to the US because they think it might be useful for me or help elucidate a point. But even though the sex that Egyptians see in US movies certainly has an effect on their sexual behavior, it really is not an excuse for the terrible sexual harassment problems in Egypt.
It is a sad state of affairs in my opinion when the man who should be representing rule of law, accountability, and the democratic process refuses to deal with important issues facing his country and preaches his religion in place of a constructive discussion on the role of the judiciary. Not to mention he didn’t answer my question.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
"Teen is Acquitted of Double Murder"
I don't know if this kid is guilty or not. Neither does my uncle. The point is that in the United States of America one has the right to a fair trial and is innocent until proven guilty. No matter if your bloody fingerprints are at the scene of the crime.
I am proud of my uncle for doing what he does. To me, this is a great example of what being an American is all about. Serving your country, fighting for justice, and doing what is right, no matter the circumstances.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
On that note, and the real reason I began writing this post, is because I wanted to share something that happened in the classroom today. I hope to write more on this later, but of course Obama talk is very prevalent at AUC and around Cairo these days, and my professor was asking us if we were happy that Obama was elected. Of course the class was unanimously thrilled. However, one student, who is a very nice woman though she and I disagree on a lot of things, decided to add "yes, but he offered Rahm Emanuel the job of chief of staff, and he is a little too Zionist, so that is not good."
Now, now. We are all entitled to our opinions. However, I was upset by this comment. First of all, I found it ironic that this same woman who was literally jumping up and down with excitement the day of the election in anticipation of Obama's win, who did not come to school the day after because she stayed up all night watching the results, who told me that anyone who would vote for McCain is "retarded," is already criticizing Obama's decision making skills. I thought he was supposed to be perfect? I support Obama, but I was never under the illusion (or delusion) that he is perfect or that once he was elected, all of America's problems were going to just disappear into thin air.
More importantly, the discussion of Rahm Emanuel's politics, history regarding Israel, his father, etc, and being upset about these things I have no problem with. However, to me, the comment made in class served no purpose and was out of context of the discussion, unnecessary, and inciting. Personally, I try not make comments that I think could be inciting or might offend other people even if such a sentiment might be warranted based on my opinion. Especially in a classroom, especially when we are not really talking about politics, and especially when I know there are other people around who might disagree with it and/or find it offensive.
Not to mention the fact the Emanuel is the fourth ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, and by that logic is qualified for the job. Israel is not the only issue he will be dealing with and hence should not be qualified or disqualified for the job solely based on that criteria.
Anyway, these are the types of comments I hear often in Middle East studies academic circles.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Living abroad in Egypt has obviously made me think about the United States and what it means to be American. People here are amazed that the President only serves two terms, and consider Americans lucky that they can not only afford to take the time out of their workdays to vote, but that their vote will actually be counted. America is not perfect. She will never be. The Founding Fathers realized soon after America was born that the struggle for freedom is never ending. This is our challenge as Americans, to always strive for freedom. We owe this to the people who built our nation, and we owe it to ourselves.
I am so proud to an American.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Friday, October 24, 2008
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Egyptian Sexual Harasser Jailed
The BBC and Reuters reported a few months ago on polling that was done in which over two-thirds of Egyptian men admitted to sexual harassing women in the streets. This harassment is both verbal and physical.
Just to give you more of an idea, I'll share a few stories:
1. A girl on my program almost went home for good after she was constantly harassed near her home. In one incident a man grabbed her and wrapped his arms around her, and in another a man touched her crotch.
2. My roommate's girlfriend is constantly glared at, whistled at, and told things like "sexy, so sexy," often even while he is with her.
3. My professor told us that a few years ago she would find holes in her pants from men spraying hydrochloric acid out of syringes at her while she walked by them on the street. The men were eventually arrested and justified their actions by saying that my professor was inappropriately dressed in her slacks.
4. Someone spit in my classmate's face last week while she was boarding the metro.
5. An American-Egyptian classmate from 2006 told me a story about a security guard who chased her down the street and threatened to throw her in jail if she did not kiss him after he saw her hug a male classmate in the street.
6. In 2006 and more recently last month mobs of young men have physically harassed women in the street, groping them and ripping their clothes.
I could go on and on. The arrest and subsequent sentencing of the man in this case has caused an uproar in Egypt and will hopefully bring this issue to the forefront of the public sphere. One of the biggest problems regarding this phenomenon is the social taboo on Egyptian women dealing with anything sexual. It is a big deal that this woman actually reported that she was harassed because most of these things go unreported for fear of social repercussions.
For Foreign Students, AUC is Not What it Used to Be
Sunday, October 19, 2008
He asked what I thought of Al-Jazeera's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I gave him my usual spiel, and noted that what I object to about Al-Jazeera in this regard is that they give mostly favorable coverage to the Palestinian side and have mostly stories covering the plight of the Palestinians, while ignoring those Palestinians and Palestinian groups which commit wanton acts of violence, terrorism, and are actively trying to stop any peace process. In addition, I think Al-Jazeera only covers Israeli news which relates to the conflict, and if it is supposed to be a "Middle East focused" news station, it should treat Israel in this regard like it does all other countries in the Middle East.
In any case, he told me that I have to see Al-Jazeera's coverage of the conflict in a context of occupation and resistance. This of course is a prevailing notion here among others explaining causation for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I agree is part of the issue but not all of it. I told him that in that context I understand, from the Palestinian side, that when someone kills an Israeli soldier in the West Bank, that is seen as "resistance." Fine. Obviously, I am very upset when that happens, but if you are going to try to understand the other side, this is a point of view which can be backed up by logical arguments about occupation and resistance. However, I explained, when Palestinians shoot rockets from Gaza into Israel proper, or when suicide bombers blow themselves up on buses or gunman shoot students in schools, this is not resistance. This is terrorism. And when Al-Jazeera does not make that clear, and calls the people who commit these acts "martyrs," that is completely unacceptable.
At that point I was ready to get out, and he either did not have a response or had had enough. Regardless, it was a very friendly conversation, and we both parted with smiles on our faces.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
So far, I have empathized with Al-Farisi's yearning to be close to God, and have noticed that despite the plot of the book, religion in those times seemed to play a different role in people's lives. In the United States, and possibly in the Western world as a whole, people to me seem less defined by their religion as they are by their citizenships, their jobs, or their personalities. Back then, it seems, one's nation and one's religion were all that mattered. Al-Farisi, at this point in the story, is defined solely as a Persian and as a Christian.
Maybe in Western society, and I realize I am making generalizations here, we do not usually define ourselves this way because it is 2008 and we have Ipods and mortgages and all that other globalized, consumption, modernity, "one world" jazz. There is nothing wrong with this, and to me it is just the way it is and people are free to make their own choices about whom they want to be.
In Egypt, however, and I would venture to say other places in the Middle East and quite possibly around the world, though I don't have the experience to say so, nationality and religion are still defining aspects of one's identity. I have spoken before about how common it is for Egyptians to ask a person if they are Muslim upon first meeting them. I do not mean to insult here by saying that Egypt or the Middle East today is lost in a 7th century mentality. However, there is something to be said of that, and although this mentality can have obvious negative consequences which I won't touch on now, it has positive ones as well.
Personally, I feel something calming about the simplicity of this way of forming one's identity and it often makes me stop and think about who and what I really am.
Friday, October 17, 2008
We asked him questions about his personal interests, about being a journalist, and mostly about media censorship in Egypt, which is always a hot topic. A number of journalists have been put in jail recently for "slandering," "threatening national security," etc., and I think Americans are especially interested in media censorship because of the large degree of freedom of expression in the United States. So, when asked if there is censorship of the media in Egypt, our guest flatly responded "no." He then explained that there are three lines the media does not cross in Egypt. They are:
1. Criticism of the president
2. Criticism of judges
3. Criticism of the army
To me, of course, this sounds like plain old censorship. In addition, criticism of religious officials, such as the Mufti of Al-Azhar, is also not acceptable, as journalists have been put in jail for criticizing him as well.
What I thought was especially interesting was that he explained that the real censorship in Egypt is societal. People censor themselves for political, religious, or cultural reasons. This makes a lot of sense, as the effects of the political status quo here and the consequences for altering it are established to the extent that people usually do not need to be told when to shut up. They know because it has been this way for a long time. (As a side note, Egypt has been under "Emergency Law" since former President Sadat was assassinated in 1981). In addition, there is cultural and religious self-censorship as Egypt is a culturally intense and religiously conservative society. As an example, many women do not report when they have been sexually assaulted as it is seen as shameful for the family.
In any case, our guest does work for Al-Ahram, and certainly knows the limits on his freedom of speech, so I understand his self-censorship and unwillingness to admit that this country censors its media.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Most Egyptians I have spoken to believe that Americans have a very negative view of Arabs and Muslims (can I just write A/M for now if I am refering to both?) . Some of them do. But just like some Americans have stereotypes about Arabs or Muslims, Americans shouldn't all be stereotyped either.
Tonight in the gym, the Captain asked me why I was studying Arabic. I told him the usual, which I actually think I have explained to him before, the crux of which being that for whatever study or work I am going to be doing in the future, understanding Arabic will be crucial to understanding the politics, religion, culture, and people of the Middle East. With Ahmed, Walid, Mario (Mahmoud), and the Captain (whose name is also Mahmoud), we continued the conversation and spoke about Americans' ideas about people in the Middle East. Of course I get very worked up about this topic and although I talked a lot, which I know I normally do in these situations, I thought we had a good conversation and in the end, I think we all learned something and for the most part agreed with each other. I wish I had a transcript of it so as not to miss anything, but I'll share what I can remember write now.
Ahmed said that Americans believe stereotypes about A/M because of American media. This is interesting, because I having been watching more Al-Jazeera lately and although I think it is a good news channel, it is no doubt biased. So I explained that I think all news and every person has biases, and that the challenge is to gather as much information as possible and then sort it out for oneself. Fox News vs. Al-Jazeera. Neither are perfect, but I learn from both. Ahmed seemed to agree. I explained that part of the reason I am here in Egypt is, in this sense, to get as much information as possible and then go home and try to help Americans understand this region better.
You know what? I realize I sound pompous with some of this and frankly I am sick of writing about this stuff. What I really want to say in this post is how awesome it is and how lucky I am to be able to joke around, talk politics, and make friends with a bunch of Egyptian guys my age in a "ghetto" gym in the middle of Cairo. For me, that is such an important part of what this experience is about. That is the learning that takes place outside of the classroom.
For Foreign Students, AUC is Not What it Used to Be
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Of course, there are lots of wonderful things about Egypt and Egyptians, and the Middle East and everything that relates to it as a whole, and I will make more of an effort to post these positive experiences to paint a fuller picture.
Students in my program get a monthly stipend, and the end of last month also happened to be Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. Because of this, the University was closed for about a week, and the director of my program mentioned to her friend that she was concerned because students would not be able to pick up their stipends and would be left without money at the end of the month to pay rent, etc. So her friend went to the bank and withdrew 1000 Egyptian pounds for each student. That is 30,000 Egyptian pounds, almost 5,500 US dollars, that a random Egyptian loaned to a bunch of American students trying to learn Arabic in Cairo. Pretty amazing, I think.
We are reading a book in class called Taxi, by Khaled Khamisi. Khamisi recorded his conversations with taxi drivers in Egypt over the span of about two years and compiled them into short stories in this book. It is very interesting and fun to read. Depending on how tired I am and how confident I am feeling with my Arabic, I like to talk with taxi drivers, too, as they really get around Cairo and usually have a lot to say. Sometimes I think I should write my own version of Taxi.
This conversation started with the usual pleasantries and when I told the driver, Ahmed, that I was from America, he was very happy and said "ah, Bush, Bush." I asked him whether he likes Obama or McCain, as Bush's term is almost up. He told me he liked Clinton. I asked him why, and he said because he was a good guy. I reminded him of what happened with Monica Lewinsky and he told me that it wasn't Clinton's fault. "What would you do if there was an attractive woman dressing and acting that way in front of you?" Anyway, he said, Israel put her in the White House to sabotage Clinton and his administration. I asked him to explain, and he said that the White House and American businesses are controlled by Israel. "People think that the US controls Israel, but it is actually Israel that controls the US," he said. He told me that because Clinton was not kowtowing to Israel enough they brought him down, and that Bush is not good because he is controlled by Israel.
Ahmed actually mentioned that Israel and the Jews control the White House and America's economy, which is important to note. Many people here do not make a distinction between Israelis and Jews. However, Ahmed also told me that no matter what you are, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, as long as you are a "just" person, he doesn't have a problem.
When I pressed him on who he likes in November, he said McCain, because he is a good guy. He didn't seem to have any interest in Obama.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Guy eating taamiya sandwich: Please, have some (referring to his sandwich)
Me: No, thank you. Is it I good though?
Guy eating taamiya sandwich: Yes, very good. Are you Muslim?
This type of exchange is very common in Cairo. People are very friendly, and if you express any interest in something they have, they will often offer it to you, whether it be the food they are eating or the shirt they are wearing. When people offer you food, and they are eating a bag of chips for example, you can take a chip. My roommate, however, once took a sandwich from his taxi driver. You are not really supposed to do that. You also obviously don’t take the shirt.
Your religion is also public knowledge here. Unlike in the United States, the first or second thing people here might ask you when they meet you for the first time is if you are a Muslim.
I don't know anything about the book yet other than the fact that the guy in the store told me it is very popular. I asked him if he thought Saddam was still alive, and when I asked where he thought he might be, he gave me an answer along the lines of "Saddam surrendered Iraq to America...he is under American protection."
I then went next door to buy my food staples, which by the way include whole wheat bread, cheddar cheese, orange juice, Ritz crackers, ice cream, and bad Egytian potato chips. I also make salad sometimes, so don't worry.
I showed the cashier my newly purchased literary masterpiece and he said "yes, Saddam was not killed. Saddam is good. America made Saddam, and then he stood up to them." He wouldn't really get into it any further than that, but as I walked outside, my roommate was finishing a conversation which apparently began with one of the grocery store workers telling my roommate that he had a German-Jewish friend. Neither of us are sure where that information came from, but regardless it led to him telling us how all people are the same, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jew, and that we all go through the same things in life. For example, America was nothing, and now it is powerful. Egypt, too, was nothing, and then it was powerful, and now it is nothing again. He was very nice, and we couldn't really disagree with him, and despite the fact that I sometimes wonder how genuine these kumbaya street discussions are, it left me with a good feeling. We wished him a happy Ramadan and walked home.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
1. Walk over to your local government run general store.
2. Tell the salesman what color pillow case you want
3. Tell him that you don't want one with flowers on it, you just want a plain blue one
4. Sit tight while he writes out a full page ticket explaining that you are buying a plain, blue pillow case
5. Take the ticket over to the cashier two floors below and pay for your item with the exact change because they do not have any change in the store
6. Take your ticket to a different salesman who has put the pillow case in an over-sized bag for you.
A model of Egyptian efficiency, beautiful.
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Friday, September 5, 2008
Her family was of course very nice and she has two married daughters, only one of whom we met, who like most upper class Egyptians her age is well educated and fluent in English. The food, shown below, was completely home cooked and delicious. And as usual in Egypt, they pretty much forced us to keep eating. I had 3 bowls of soup and 1 and a half plates of everything else and now I feel sick. It was well worth it, though.
We also had an interesting conversation with our landlady's daughter, Pakinam, and her husband, Ahmed, who is also well educated and fluent in English and who does advertising for Coca-Cola. Our landlady's grandmother was Turkish, and she gave her kids, Pakinam and Ingi, Turkish names. Pakinam asked us what we thought of Egyptian culture, on which I happened to have many opinions, so we all got into a discussion about it and it was very interesting. I won't go through the whole discussion now, but I wanted to share Ahmed's thoughts about American culture as he has lived and done business there. Ahmed said that Americans are generally very straight forward and helpful and they are willing to help strangers unless they are given a reason to mistrust them. I asked him for some negative impressions and he brought up an issue which I often hear Egyptians talk about which is Americans' ignorance regarding world affairs.
I think this is a fair criticism of American culture as there are way too many Americans in my opinion who know nothing about what is going on in the world and yes, who do not know where Iraq and South Africa are and whatever it is that woman said. However, what I do object to, and I don't think Ahmed really meant it this way, is when people from other countries call Americans ignorant as if they are more ignorant on average than people from other countries. That is ridiculous. Just because way too many Americans do not know where China is on a map does not mean that fewer Americans than say, Azerbaijanis, do not know, for instance, the square root of sixteen. It seems to me that Americans are often chastised for their lack of geographical knowledge. This is no excuse, but in the Middle East for example, geo-political issues are much more domestically salient than they are in the United States. It makes more sense that the average person in Beirut would know something about what is going on in Amman, for example, than an average person in Salt Lake City would know about what is going on in Guatemala City. What is happening in Amman is more likely to have an effect on someone in Beirut than what is happening in Guatemala City would have on someone in Salt Lake City.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
1. "Hello! How are you?"
2. "Move!" (to a pedestrian)
3. "Move!" (to another vehicle)
4. "Look out! I am next to you!"
5. For celebrations (often weddings, the beeping which goes: "daaah daaah dah dah dah!")
5. "I am coming through an intersection but will not slow down" (so I am going to beep my horn instead)
6. "Do you need a taxi?" (especially if you look like you are a Westerner)
7. "That woman over there pleases me"
I am sure many of you have read this article about the noise in Cairo from the New York Times, and I cannot stress enough how true this is.
The beeping is really quite loud.
On another topic, we trekked down to the new AUC campus today, which was not too much of a trek actually, because the bus, which was comfortable and air conditioned, picked us up not too far from our apartment and it only took an hour each way. I was happy to say that the experience was much better than I thought it would be and I am more optimistic now about the move and the new campus in general. The campus is quite beautiful, modern with an Egyptian touch, though it still does not look to me like it will be ready by next week, but hey, I am not a professional contractor. The CASA offices, for example, are half plastered, and have construction materials all over the floors. The library looks like a comfortable place to study.
So far, there is a Jared's Bagels, a Cilantro, and a Cinnabon on campus. There will be some other restaurants, including a McDonald's. I am not sure I will get the same Egyptian experience at the new campus that I was getting eating at the 1 Egyptian pound a sandwich hole in the wall ful (baked beans) and taamiya (falafel) place near the old campus in downtown Cairo. Also, the campus also has a very "campusy" feel, which is weird for me not having been in school for a couple of years. The undergrads are young (not that I am that old, but there is a big difference between myself and 18 year olds) and we talked to some graduate students today, who also happened to be very young.
We are thinking of staying at school until late during the weeknights to maximize our studying time. If we go to school, then take a 1 hour bus home, then try to eat, work out, and then study, we won't get anything done because it will be 9 o'clock before we ever get started. I think if we can schedule ourselves well we will be able to make good use of the new facilities, if they ever actually open. However, a 2 hour commute, class, and studying is a long and tiring day, so we'll see.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
I asked the Captain and his friends how they are able to lift weights without drinking any water, and he responded by saying "because Islam is strong." "Good answer," I thought to myself. They then preceded to speak in Arabic (Egyptian dialect, or "amiyya" to be exact) which I am supposed to be able to understand, but since these guys are not the most educated of sorts their Arabic is hard to comprehend, especially when they are speaking fast, and not to me. I picked up that they were continuing their discussion of the topic and I heard "American" and "Israel" in the mix. I asked what they were discussing and one of them responded by asking "Why is America always with Israel (these are loose translations, mind you)?" I responded by saying (and yes this is not a direct answer) by saying that America is with Israel just like it is with the Palestinians and other Arabs (and yes, there is a difference, but you will see where I took it in a minute). I said that the US gives Israel money, yes, but it gives Palestinians and other Arab countries like Egypt plenty of money as well. And I did not even go into the Saudi thing.
The Captain's friend said that the Egyptian people do not see any of this money, and that they don't need it and don't want it. There wasn't much I can say to this because frankly, he was right. I asked him, "whose fault is it that Egyptians don't see any of this money? Isn't it because of the Egyptian government?" He responded yes, and because of America, too. Fair enough.
I asked the Captain that if the Israelis and Palestinians make an agreement that they both think is fair, would that be acceptable in his opinion? He pretty much said that the problem will never end and it will never be acceptable, and that Israel really has to go. I asked him why Israel has to go. He said "Do you like blood?" I responded "no," and he said "then Israel has to go." That doesn't make much sense to me.
The conversation continued with another gym goer who told me that one of the problems with Israel is that it was built on a Palestinian state. Yes, he used the term "dawla," so in my mind that means "state." I corrected by telling him that there has never been a Palestinian state and that the Palestinians historically considered themselves to be part of what was called "Greater Syria," which includes what is now Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories. For the record, this to me does not mean that Palestinians are not a unique people with a shared identity and do not deserve to have a state. However, Palestinian Arab nationalism is a relatively new concept and should not be treated as if it has been around since the beginning of time. So I understand his argument (and have heard it before and I think that it is a valid one,. Yes, there were Arab Palestinians living in what is now Israel and the Territories before Israel was created, and yes, there were more of them living there than there were Jews) but I reminded him that the UN did vote to create a State of Israel and a Palestinian state (which the Arabs, as a whole, rejected) and that although the situation was unfortunate for the Palestinians and should be reconciled in some way, no one is ever going to be 100% pleased.
I asked him who was in Egypt before the Muslims and the Arabs, and he said with a smile, "the Ancient Egyptians," and I added "and the Copts (who are still here and who have had some issues, to say the least, with the Muslim population. A movie called "Hassan and Marqos starring two of the most famous Egyptian actors, Omar Shariff and Adel Imam, talks about Christian-Muslim tensions in Egypt). After that, he turned around and said "who started this discussion anyway?" and walked away, which I thought was funny. Actually, he said literally in Arabic "who opened this topic?"
So there is me engaging with Egyptians on salient political issues.