Monday, September 29, 2008

Away for A While

I'm off to the Red Sea and don't have time to catch up the blog. I'll be away from the 'net until Saturday, most likely.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Lazy Day

I managed to get my reading done for Refugee Law, but I don't recall what else became of the last ten hours that I've been puttering around the apartment. I did dash outside wearing a Swiss flag shirt to drop some postcards in a postbox just down the street. I couldn't help but wonder if wearing a bright red shirt with a large white cross in the middle was something of a statement in the (ever-transfixed) Egyptian eyes that were on me as I ran my errand. Then again, those eyes are always on me. People aren't exactly discreet with their staring here.
Oh! And I also made dinner. It was a variation on the most recent homemade dinner's theme: veggies, lentils, tomato sauce, and pasta. It was, if I do say so myself, quite delicious. With a bit of sea salt and ground black pepper it would've been fit for serving normal people.
I managed to watching the entire debate last night on Al-Jazeera English. The whole thing seemed to be a lot of bluster and very little substance. Due to my current whereabouts, I was interested on the candidates' positions on the Middle East and I fear that John McCain's approach would further isolate our country and alienate potential partners for peace and cooperation. Obama's responses seemed measured and calm, though he's naturally a better public speaker (which is why I think a lot of people are unthinkingly entranced by him). McCain's blood seems always to be on the verge of boiling, like something rash and offensive is waiting to burst from his mouth. His smarmy, patronizing demeanor didn't help lighten the ink filling the box next to Obama's name on my absentee ballot, that's for certain. Anyway, pardon my opinion and allow me to reiterate that this is my blog alone and the opinions contained herein in no way represent those of Rotary, a non-partisan, non-sectarian service organization. ;) And for that very reason, I'll continue on just a bit more to say that I'm highly disappointed that I didn't receive a response from the Schock campaign to an email inquiry I made hoping to clarify the candidates positions on a number of issues.
Anyway, ostensibly this blog is meant to be about Egypt, so here's some news:

Faulty wiring again blamed as more of Cairo up in flames (not so very far from where I live, but far enough that I only know about it from the news online)
Sexual harrassment, Egypt's ever-present and glaringly obvious social ill
The blog entry of a friend who's experienced and observed such harrassment herself-she highlights clearly AUC's woeful negligence in helping young women deal with this issue and, in fact, claims the university actually places them in vulnerable positions
Somali pirates free Egyptian ship and crew
Egyptian prisoners being allowed to order in, kebab and pizza being the most popular choices
Media and morality in the Middle East

Tasty Thai and a Late Debate

While more insomnia caused me to sleep in until two again, I managed to enjoyed my Friday quite thoroughly. After blogging, emailing, catching up on the news, and the like, I headed to Beano's where I had my first "dinner" with Natalie and some other classmates (Mike and Claudia) and a friend of Natalie's named Emmanuel. We discussed the ethical considerations of doing research on refugee communities (as Natalie does and Claudia will also be doing) and how involved one should be in helping refugees. Are they strictly research subjects or are they human beings in need of help? The consensus among our young and idealistic crowd was to err toward the latter, though it's clear there needs to be some distance because you simply cannot help every single person you come into contact with.
Natalie happened to be going to Zamalek, so I shared a cab with her and ended up grabbing a few things at Metro Market before meeting Erin. She'd invited me to get Thai with a friend she'd made who's working at the International Organization for Migration named Amanda. Amanda, in turn brought along a girl from our Refugee Studies program. The four of us, eager for Thai, were disappointed to discover that Erin's usually haunt had abruptly declared that it would be closed for two weeks. I therefore suggested Bird Cage, where we ended up having what I thought was quite a tasty meal. The conversation was good and I found out that Erin's originally from a town right next to where my house in Minnesota is.
Well, clearly I'm descending into the banal details of my evening that only the most devoted readers (hi, Mom and Dad) would care to take in, so I'll refrain from continuing. I'm staying up (because, let's not kid ourselves, I probably won't fall asleep until 5 AM again) to watch the presidential debate or at least Al-Jazeera English's coverage of it.

News of Egypt:
Journalist arrested in Alexandria
Shifts in Egyptian entertainment appetite
Egypt and Pakistan only countries in BBC World with majority non-negative views of Al-Qaeda
Egypt's first female marriage registrar appointed
Ramadan from the perspective of a foreigner who joined in

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Morning of Somnambulence and a Marvellous So7or

Because of my awful insomnia, I didn't fall asleep until 6 AM following the posting of my last entry. This might not have been an issue if I could've slept in until the early afternoon as usual, but nooo, the AUC office responsible for liaising with the appropriate government bureaucrats vis-à-vis visas shutters up at noon. Noon! What 5-6 AM is to normal working people (just a bit too early), noon is now to me. So, I awoke at 10:45 or thereabouts, though woke is a relative term. One might suggest I sleepwalked through the entire process of arriving at the main downtown campus, dragging myself up the fire escape to the top floor of the main building, and heaving myself before the desk of Dr Enass Maghreby only to render my passport and a fee, mention my upcoming travel plans and the resultant need to have my passport back in a timely fashion, and leave. So that my zombie-like experience was not entirely in vain, I stopped by the post office and bought stamps (they close at 2 during Ramadan). I stumbled sleepily down the hallway and threw myself into bed where I remained until nearly 4 PM, only to find out that the world moves on without me. I had five text messages to attended to, one of which told me that Mitchell, with whom I was to jointly lead class discussion yesterday, had hoped to meet up at 3 PM. Ma3lish!
Once I finally met up with Mitchell, we crafted questions and discussed our readings for Intro to Forced Migration and Refugee Studies. We subsequently joined Natalie in her office to chat and relax before class. Our class discussion on categories of forced migrants and displaced persons other than refugees went well enough and classtime passed by mercifully quickly. Immediately thereafter, I was in a cab to Mohandaseen with a driver who was intent on making conversation. Everyone in Egypt wants to know what one's father does. Because mine has rather a multi-faceted role in his company, to those whose second language is English I respond simply with "engineer." For cabbies, I suspect this means they think they can extract more money out of me for the ride. Joke's on them! I've discontinued my previous policy of setting a price for rides before getting in. I decide what I'm going to pay (and in fact, it's often a couple pounds over what one should pay), get the money out, get out of the vehicle, hand the sum to the driver, and walk away. It works pretty well and I've never been hassled.
Anyway, my loquacious cabby ended up being rather attentive, finding me the exact building I was looking for. At the door, I was greeted in Arabic by a woman who clearly wanted to know what I was up to. I smiled and shook my headed until she understood that me understanding her wasn't in the cards. She called over a resident to ask who in the building I was looking for. It occurred to me that I didn't remember the surname of the couple whose so7or I was attending. Thankfully "Ghada wa Amr" (their first names) did the trick. The invitation was for 10:30 PM. Because my class ended at 10, I didn't get there until 10:35 PM which had me fretting about being late. Ha! I was the first one there and no one else showed up for at least another quarter to half of an hour.
My hosts and I made small talk but as the other guests showed up, I worried that this would be another of those evenings where I was plied with delicious food, but deprived of stimulating conversation. It was, indeed, like that for a while, but eventually I feel into some good conversations: the Rotary club president brought her daughter, a college student. We carried on in French and in English about school, travel, and the food (which was, as anticipated, quite good). After feasting on stuffed grape leaves, fetteh, quiche, broccoli and carrots (more of a delicacy than you'd think), apricots, tabouleh, and caesar salad, a man named Sherif struck up a conversation with me. He's led quite the life, traveling extensively as a consultant. He grew up in Ma'adi, a suburb of sorts south of Cairo where a lot of expats live, but then ended up in Europe (based in Germany). He's currently a German citizen and has only been back in Egypt for a couple of years. We discussed life in Cairo, but also Mohammad Abdu (who I've mentioned before) and Germany. He also told me that his father started the Egyptology department at AUC. Earlier in the evening, another German-speaker, Osama the investment banker, explained to me (in English) that the financial crisis in the States made for one hell of a week in Egypt's markets. Omaima, a woman I'd met at the fundraiser, explained to me that her son, living in Houston, had weathed Hurricane Ike all right and his electricity, water, and the like were all back on but his work (I believe it's something to do with petroleum) is or was suspended for a week.
On the way home, business cards in my pocket, riding along in the car of an AUC professor and his wife who I'd met at the first so7or, I saw ten-thousand different things that reminded me I should be bringing my cameras more places more often. The same feeling of contentment, too, that I'd felt while wandering Downtown, welled up inside again. I'm just worried that admitting I like Cairo and being in Egypt rather a lot might jinx the whole thing.
Well, as I was trying to fall asleep last night, I made a list in my head of things I need to accomplish today. I'm off to make some purchases, read for Refugee Law, and explore Cairo!

By the way, this blog is jointly written by 8 Egyptians who're in the States sharing they're reactions to and reflections on the elections. Might be something interesting to check out!

News of Egypt:
Part of ancient Ramses II statue uncovered
Kidnapped tourists have been moved to Libya
Palestinians killed in cross-border tunnel collapse
An article about a couple of the bloggers contributing to the above-mentioned blog

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Delicious Dinner and Discovering (More of) Downtown

Before heading to a seminar on migrants to Cairo from sub-Saharan Africa that turned out to provoke lots of questions and positive, critical thought processes in my mind about how I view refugees and the international refugee régime, I crafted a rather delicious dinner at home.
This ad hoc creation began with lentils that were, after much simmering, joined by frozen peas. I cooked some fusilli and then tossed in my lentil and pea "stew" to which I added the rest of the contents of a jar of Barilla arrabbiata sauce (the only ingredient of my meal to come from outside of Egypt). The final result was surprising tasty, very filling, and presumably rather healthy. Hooray! This capped off a moderately productive series of daylight hours filled with reading for class and reading more Brothers Karamazov, downloading music, and rifling through my things in my room in a cursory attempt to "settle in" a bit more.
The point brought up by the man whose seminar I attended that I found most salient was that refugees must not be thought of as statistics or helpless recipients of aid with no agency, but rather as people. Not only this, but refugees (and would-be refugees) aren't saintly. Some swindle, cheat, steal, and murder just like people who don't carry a UN-defined label. Others are truly desperate people who need protection and assistance after fleeing abominable conditions of persecution. Some fit into both or neither category. Labeling is messy just like being a human is messy. So though my gut reaction when hearing about a person that might otherwise be considered an economic migrant (and thus not be entitled to UNHCR assistance) lied about his family being murdered in Sudan to portray himself as a refugee was one of repugnance, I eventually let the reality of the situation sink in. Refugees, would-be refugees, asylum-seekers, and the like are all humans. They're not stupid or uncivilized or any other nasty adjective any more or any less than other groups of people. On the contrary, many realize the absurdity of the "game" but know they have to jump through hoops to achieve their ends. Shattering the convenient perceptions on both sides of the coin--of vicious opportunists and helpless dependants--makes the situation infinitely more complex. I'm still trying to process it all.
Anyway, following important discussions, I joined Natalie and her friend Yasr, himself a Sudanese refugee. We chatted for a while before the latter split off from our Odeon-bound trajectory. Once on the airy rooftop with a couple of Stellas, Natalie and I continued our conversation and were soon joined by Simon and Karim, AMERA volunteers who are Swiss and Egyptian respectively. Thoughts about the seminar were shared until we were joined by a few more, a Canadian AMERA volunteer and a couple of Midwesterners affiliated with AUC. One of them, Jesse, who coincidentally grew up in my native town of St Paul, Minnesota, is working with the Sociology/Anthropology department, assessing the impact of AUC's move from downtown Cairo to what is essentially the desert. I stayed until a quarter 'til two and then called it a night, as I am meant to get up at 10:30 or so and head over to the main campus to see if I can get my tourist visa extended while the government takes its sweet time approving my student visa.
Having been caught up in gabbing during the walk to Odeon, I didn't take clear note of my surroundings and thus ended up a bit turned around on the walk home. This, however, was a blessing in disguise. The calmness of 2 AM was broken up here and there by shopkeepers closing up or shisha bars still quite open for business. I practiced my rudimentary Arabic on a half-dozen different policemen. "Low samaht! Fayn al-Midan Falaki?" I would get what I assume was a clear and acceptable answer, only I'd only understand a tenth of it. Words like "shari3", street (the number 3 is used in informal transliteration to represent the letter ayin) or "yemeen", right were islands of clarity in a sea of incomprehensibility. Everyone was polite though, and I was thoroughly content being partially lost. I took away a much broader perception of downtown and even Cairo itself. Hundreds of mannequins filled the display windows of so many clothes shops that one could hardly be blamed for guessing that each Egyptian had at least ten closets. I wove in and out of brightly coloured plastic chairs and the glowing shisha coals being brought to the men sitting in them as the Ramadan lights and the occassional fanoos lent a festive air. Glowing bright, fluorescent green was a nearby mosque that I shall use as a point of orientation should I ever find myself a bit of course again. It's near Hoda Sharawi St., home of Felfela and Le Bistro. It was, this evening, the seen of a minor auto accident to which the reaction of nearby police officers was suprisingly blasé. By the time I passed the scene, the cars had driven off and the yelling was over. Broken glass was the only evidence that remained. A pack of dogs was noisily barking at a bird in one of the street's few trees and I could've sworn that the biggest one, entirely white in color, was the skiddish friend I'd made over on Mohammad Mahmoud a while back. Dogs aren't all that uncommon, and cats are downright prolific, but just as my mind was filled with positive, happy thoughts about Cairo as I trotted down a quiet, dimly-lit alley, my first Cairene rat darted across my path. Delightful. The only other animal I saw that evening was a dolphin screenprinted onto the side of a suspicious fish restaurant I'd never noticed before.
By the time I reached the heavy door to my apartment building, I felt that something had changed inside me. Not only have I come to tolerate Cairo, but I'm really starting to like it. Go figure.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Reading, Writing, and Refugees

I spent most of today finishing up a paper, doing a bit of reading, and then attending my class on migration and refugee movements in the Middle East and North Africa. My paper was on Palestinians who fled first to Iraq in the wake of the initial stages of the Arab-Israeli conflict and then those and their descendants who were, in turn, forced out of Iraq by the current conflict. My reading, for a different class in which I'm leading discussion on Thursday, treated those who do not fit the legal definition of refugee but are still forcibly displaced. This group includes IDPs, "environmental refugees", some economic migrants, and others.
After class, Mitchell, a friend I've probably mentioned before, went with me to Bon Appetit to grab some grub. We had a great conversation on our reasons for being here, the challenges of adjusting not only to life in Egypt but in a new situation with new people whatever their culture. It really is like reconstructing yourself when you move away from your "normal" life for any significant period of time. We also got some ice cream afterwards. My two chestnut-flavored scoops added yet more to the evening's cholesterol intake (I had an omelet and fries doused in Heinz ketchup whose Egyptian recipe still somehow seems deliciously superior to what's back in the States).
On my way home, walking down a (relatively) quiet street, I saw someone wave at me out of the corner of my eye. I thought it was someone being goofy, but it turned out to be my friend Ahmad, of all people. He doesn't live in the immediate vicinity, so it was quite a coincidence to run into one another.
Upon my return home, I called my dad via SkypeOut since we'd not communicated viva voce since I quit New York and then talked to my mom, grandfather, and little brother via video chat for what seems like almost an hour. It's strange just how close you feel with these sorts of technological innovations. In reality, we're thousands and thousands of miles apart. I regretted this tonight especially because my mom was baking chocolate chip cookies!
Anyway, I've little profound to share this evening, but I'll include some links to the news of Egypt, as usual:

Kidnapped tourists apparently still alive and well
Egypt supposedly one of the world's most corrupt countries
Ramadan's impact on the restaurant biz

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

From Zamalek to Sayyeda Zeinab

If this video uploads correctly [it didn't, but I'll try to put it on in the future], you'll have a peak into the little cultural shindig that was jointly organized by French and German cultural entities in Cairo. There were whirling dervishes and giant-headed marionettes twice or three times the size of people. This all took place in Gezira Garden, at the foot of Qasr al-Nil Bridge on the Zamalek side. This was my second jaunt over to Zamalek, the first was to the glorious Alfa Market where I got groceries with Ross and Catherine. Joining me were a new Egyptian friend, Ahmad, who hails from Minya, a city about four hours to the south, Catherine, and a French girl of Italo-Spanish-Australian extraction named Melissa. Ahmad is a pharmacist, Catherine, as I've mentioned is volunteering for AMERA, and Melissa is studying law at Cairo University in English and Arabic while interning at a place that assists Iraqi refugees. Prior to this, she was a legal intern in Palestine. While our conversations did drift to refugees and Palestine, we also enjoyed the breezy, suprisingly temperate evening by the Nile watching the aforementioned acts. After the girls headed home, Ahmad invited me out with his friends, two of whom I'd met before, to an area of town called Sayyeda Zaynab named for the mosque there (see the photo; the lights are for Ramadan) which is, in turn, named for a granddaughter of Mohammad. Our convivial little group grew to 8 as we headed toward a very baladi (local, "authentic", etc.) restaurant where I overcame my finicky food fears and indulged in some delicious tameyya and tahina. I was the only American in the crowd and Ahmad, the only Egyptian. Roberto and Danny are the Italian and Syro-Lebanese that I dined with before and the other four were an Italian-German guy and an Italian girl, both interns for McKinsey and an Iraqi-Canadian girl and a Canadian guy, both journalists.
This part of town is different even from downtown. The traffic was worse and the pace seemed even quicker. People seemed just a bit more suspicious of us, but altogether thankful for patronage, handouts, and the like as the case may be.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Tourist Kidnappings

As I'm sure you'll hear, eleven European tourists were kidnapped in southern Egypt; that's the only reason I'm posting "early". The kidnapping of tourists is a comparatively rare occurrence so, why'll I'm sure people back home will be worried, try not to do so in excess.
As for the tourists they are presumably all still alive and a ransom is being negotiated. Here are some links on the developing story:

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday: Voting and Loving Law Class

On my way to International Refugee Law today, I stopped by the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies office and collected my absentee ballot. I gleefully tore into the envelope to see what candidates are running for which offices, though, being a well-informed voter, I recognized the majority. Apart from the presidential race, I haven't quite decided who my candidates are. I'll do a bit of research before sending the ballot back to the States. I do wish Aaron Schock and Colleen Callahan had a bit more about their views online. I also think Aaron Schock should appoint me his foreign policy adviser. Aaron?
Class today was really interesting and I feel like it's all clicking. I really like the case studies and articles we read and, crise cardiaque, the following thought actually crossed my mind today, "Why are we stuck having measly two-hour classes during Ramadan, aren't they supposed to be two and a half?" Yes, folks, he who was all too often guilty of Facebooking in class during his undergraduate studies is craving longer class periods. Well, in this class alone; the other two, so far, I could take or leave. This leaves me wondering about my future plans. Thoughts about whether or not to expand my post-graduate diploma into a Master's here in Egypt, check into attending law school in the States, or looking for some work experience in Europe or a large American city joined in with the infamous rooster in keeping me awake.
Well, I better get to writing a reflection paper for my Migration in the Middle East and North Africa class!

News of Egypt and beyond:
Egyptian government condemns terrorist attack in Islamabad, Pakistan
A boat headed for Greece with 83 would-be illegal immigrants on board has disappeared
The film I commented on in an earlier entry is causing controversy in the States and abroad
Would-be Israeli terrorist at center of 1950s bomb plots against Western interests in Egypt dead at 89

Friday, September 19, 2008

Rotary Fundraiser on the Nile & Ramadan Packs

After having dinner at a tiny, delicious pasta place in northern Zamalek, I struck out on my own, wandering southward toward my destination for the evening: the Moon Deck of the Blue Nile, a riverboat. My walk there was time-consuming, as I'd meant to try and find a café where I could do some of my class readings. Instead, I stumbled across a grocery store with much nicer variety than the one I usually go to. As is my wont in grocery stores, I spent a lot of time staring and comparing and buying very little. My prizes for the evening were imported German müsli and Barilla arrabbiata pasta sauce since Heinz tomato paste isn't the most appetizing complement for farfalle in its own right.
Anyway, I eventually found my way to the riverboat and joined Kasr el-Nile RC president, Laila Hussein, offering to help set up for their Right to Sight event. The first part of the evening, I spent chatting with Rotarians and their spouses again. One woman who I'd not met last time and who was fluent in French and English explained to me that she didn't believe in democracy and that, in her view, Egypt needed a fair dictator to make things run smoothly. I wondered if she meant Mubarak himself, but apparently she was speaking of an ideal and not the current political realities. She also shared a widely held suspicion that 9/11 wasn't carried out by Muslims (extremist or otherwise). I politely disagreed and ask her who it was she thought carried out the attacks? "I don't know, but it was just too organized." This seeming admission of inefficiency in the Arab world would've almost elicited a chuckle if I didn't express a troubling trend in Arab public opinion and popular beliefs about Islamic terrorism, especially when subsequent foreign policy and actions on the part of the US are viewed through this skewed lens. (Then again, the lens seems skewed both ways) Ironically, this woman is employed by the Egyptian government.
I spent the latter part of my breezy, Nile riverboat evening with Rotaractors. The conversations were less forced and more convivial and, happily, our time together coincided with a vasty array of food being served. Many of the Egyptian treats I've had before were there. While chatting, I received an invitation to join Rotaract Kasr-el Nile in preparing Ramadan packages for the breaking of the fast at iftar. So it was that today, I spent a number of hours in Mohandeseen stuffing sacks with dates, bread and cheese, juice, and filled croissants all donated by corporate sponsors. Though I enjoyed myself and had some worthwhile conversations about Egyptian culture, my inclusion felt very haphazard and secondary. Incidentally, this is the way I've felt at the Rotary events I've attended as well. People are broadly nice, perhaps, and feed me (about which I'll certainly never complain!) but their interest seems to be fleeting and spotty and I get lost in the shuffle even when I make an effort. Anyway, after some two-thousand packages were prepared, I ended up in a car with Tariq who happens to speak fluent French and is heading to France in a couple of weeks to try and get admitted to an orthodontic school. We headed out to Sudan St. into an area where the wealthier and middle-class homes fade into a neighborhood where there're many poor Cairenes. The experience was both fun and sad: in the busyness of trying to hand everything out before Maghrib (sunset, the moment when Muslims are meant to break the fast) no one really explained to me very clearly to whom I should be handing the packs and to whom not. Apparently, that's a really science. No more than one pack a person, they said; avoid kids because they're not fasting anyway; taxis and other passing cars are easier because you don't have to deal with lingering pedestrians begging for more. One woman had a baby on her shoulder and another kid with her looking like something off of one of those awful TV commercials. I didn't know what to do, I'd already given her one and she was asking for another. I pointed to my nearest Egyptian colleague but she was insistent. I waited for Tariq to come over and, after trying to send her away, he exasperatedly gave her a second one. Even know, I can't quite figure out the politics of discerning who's worth to have this minimal bit of food that, in fact, isn't meant to be a charitable meal so much as to tide people over who haven't made it home in time to break the fast with their families. There are other organizations and inviduals who prepare meals for individuals in the streets and still others who prepare full Ramadan bags of basic ingredients and some things special to Ramadan (apricot paste, etc.)
After the whole ordeal, I returned home to make dinner: Barilla noodles with Barilla arrabbiata pasta sauce that I diluted with Heinz tomato paste to make the slightly pricy Italian import last. Some peas and water finished off my spartan but delicious repast. Having purchased none of the ingredients today and not having eaten out, I spent zero Egyptian pounds today. How frugal of me.
I'm back to reading refugee law cases and articles. The experience from earlier and a discussion of who is deserving of refugee status based on persecution, violations of human rights, and the like have my head spinning a bit. There is so much grey; infinitely more than international and domestic law would have you think. It seems to me that people hide behind legal provisions and insist on semantics when they are either unwilling to help those in need. This gives them some kind of feeling of legitimacy, as though they're doing the right thing even when they choose to do what might otherwise be considered morally wrong. Though there are often times where helping people to a sufficient degree is materially impossible, a lot of it has to do with people and the governments representing them not being willing to sacrifice. I will not claim the moral high ground here--I often ask myself how much I would be willing to give up to meaningfully enhance the lives of others.

News of Egypt:
A New York Times article on the aftermath of the rockslides

Cairo Sunrise

I'd never have imagined during my 7:30-10 PM Intro to Forced Migration and Refugee Studies class during which the fluorescent light seemed to be boring into my soul and amplifying my rooster-induced fatigue that I would not get to bed until the following morning at 6 AM. However, receiving a couple of different invitations that later, happily congealed into one, I ended up at a rooftop bar in Doqqi with some friends from class as well as some friends of my TA. Things winding down there, but all of us still thoroughly enjoying the good conversation and laughter of the evening, we headed back downtown to Odeon which was packed with expats and Egyptians alike. By the time the sun came up, I'd interacted with Americans, Egyptians, Canadians, a Burdundian, an Italian, a Swiss guy, a Dutch classmate, a Slovakian, a German, an Austrian, a half-Brazilian-half-Egyptian, a Brit, and Heaven knows what else. The fascinating conversations I get to have with people from around the world are worth my being here in and of themselves.
While it may have been evident in earlier blogs when I hadn't gotten into the swing of things that I was a bit lonely in Cairo, I was suprised at how many people I knew and chanced to bump into (the expat community is rather tight-knit). I was getting phone numbers, invites to upcoming cultural events, and assorted shindigs left and right. Now to remember to balance my new-found social life with hitting the books. I plan to do so quite heavily between now and when I head to Zamalek to meet Hany, the found of Better World.
I know I previously mentioned it, but I found it telling that both of the founders of the NGOs through which I'm teaching English were former Rotary Scholars. Rotary has a knack for choosing driven and innovative young folks to represent them around the world. I only hope I'm up to the task as well! Tonight, also in Zamalek, I have a Rotary fundraiser to attend, as I mentioned previously. I'll report back on how that goes either tonight if I return home at a reasonable hour or tomorrow morning.

On a slightly less pleasant note, I heard this morning on the news that in swing states, there are DVDs of the documentary movie "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West". I hope to God that those of you reading this from central Illinois aren't finding these in copies of the Journal Star. This movie has more to do with scaring voters into voting on security issues than about informing them about the threats of extremism. These threats are very real, I won't deny that, but they should be addressed rationally and without villyfing Islam. It is precisely efforts like these that aim to "inform" the American people that foster distrust between us and the Islamic world. This distrust can ferment into something far more nefarious, which is why I am so thankful that Rotary and other organizations have programs to promote international and cross-cultural understanding. If any of you has questions about Islam or the way it's practiced where I'm living, please email me. If I can't answer your question, I'll find someone who can.

News of and Information on Egypt:
A fantastic description of Cairo and its attractions by British newspaper, The Times
Russo-Egyptian relations becoming firmer?
The story of a Rotarian who traveled to Cairo and his commitment to the fight against Polio
Egypt to be a guest at the next G8 Summit

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dinner in Zamalek, Drinks at Odeon

Today, I had a fantastic, albeit it academically unproductive, day. My first outing out of the apartment was dinner in Zamalek with Mitchell, Erin, and Cynthia (friends from my classes) and Cynthia's Norwegian friend Ben. Erin and I got the same line-up: farfalle with tomato sauce and mushrooms, some hummus and bread, and a very rich chocolate fondant for dessert. The hot cab ride back Downtown was nearly unbearable with such full stomachs.
On the Greek Campus, Erin, Cynthia, and I took in Dr Ray Jureidini's seminar on female domestic workers in Egypt, which was really interesting. It talked about the informal status of domestic workers and how this left them in quite a vulnerable position vis-à-vis underpayment, abuses, and the like. He compared different nationalities with one another and how woman with each fared in Egyptian housholds.
The TA from my intro class, Natalie, with whom I lunched and gabbed at Beano's the other day, was at the seminar as well and so was Catherine from across the hall. Natalie, after the seminar, invited me along to have drinks with her and a couple friends at the Odeon Palace Hotel's rooftop bar. So it was that I ended up whiling away the evening with an Iraqi refugee who's ex-wife and son are still in Baghdad, a Lebanese-American girl who studied at Georgetown, and Natalie. It was absolutely fantastic. Now that I'm meeting people, my "good Egypt days" seem to outnumber my bad ones.
Tomorrow is class, the following day is a Rotary fundraiser, and in a couple of weeks, I'm going with Maged and his family to their Red Sea villa! Things are really picking up.
Things I miss from home: rain, pumpkin pie, apple butter, cranberries, oat bran, oh, and my friends and family
Things I love here: meeting people, halawa, aish, aseer 'asab, stuffed grape leaves, Mon Cherry juice

News of Egypt and the Middle East:
US Embassy attacked in Yemen, no Americans killed
Debate over nicotine patch use to help abstain from smoking during Ramadan
Still more members of the Muslim Brotherhood arrested yesterday
Driving in Cairo

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Somali Discovery and Dinner at Om al-Dahab

As you may recall from an early entry, I sad that each of my professor's was of a different nationality. I was correct, but that's only part of it. Mulki al-Sharmani, who I'd thought was Egyptian, is actually Somali. Coincidentally, she did work in Minneapolis, or so Natalie tells me. What a small world!
I slept in again today; I'm really going to have to find some effective remedy against that rooster who keeps me up at night. My first real outing of the day was dinner, though I'd been productive and done some of my reading for this evening's class beforehand. I met up with a girl who has a paid internship with the International Organization Migration and her friends: one each from Egypt, Italy, and Syria. We were initially going to sit down to one of the iftar tables where free dinner is offered as a charitable act for Ramadan, but, in the end, took nothing more than dates to break the fast (though most of us weren't fasting) at sundown and then headed to a restaurant at the end of an alley. Though it didn't have a single letter of the Roman alphabet, it did have some pretty tasty food. The price was right too-only about 15 LE a person. How daring of me to be led off the beaten path.
Class afterwards was pretty uneventful, but I made plans with some classmates to get dinner tomorrow night before heading tout ensemble to a Center for Migration and Refugee studies seminar at the Greek Campus. It should be interesting!
Oh, and I forgot to mention that, after class this evening, I undertook the manly task of lugging home a 12 1.5-liter bottle box of water. The very act made me want to give up drinking water so that I don't have to do it again. Ha!

News of Egypt:
Concerns about Ramadan becoming too commercial mirror Christmas trends elsewhere
A former AUC professors and now political exile lectures in Indiana
Media battle over where to place blame in wake of rock slide disaster

Monday, September 15, 2008

Cafés and Refugees

I'm taking a break from reading (more about the Maghreb) and waiting for my anise tea to steep. Today was markedly better than its predecessors. I woke up sometime after noon and got up and ready for the day. Just as I was going out to meet Natalie, the TA for my Intro to FMRS class at a nearby café, an Egyptian man showed up at my door motioning to his cell phone. Neither of us speaking Arabic, he called my landlord who explained to me he was there to address the problem of our inadequate shower head. I let the man in and, without my prompting, he charged down the hall and into our bathroom, threw off his sandals and jumped up into the tub, removed the shower head, uttereed a string of sentences in Arabic which I made clear I didn't understand in the slightest, and then left. "Hmm," I thought, "I wonder where our shower head's gone." Non-plussed, I left for the café where I would end up spending nearly three hours talking with Natalie and later, Danna, another student in my class who happens to be from the Chicago area, about graduate school, our lives, and the NGO Natalie started that works with Sudanese gangs in Cairo, attempting to prevent violence. We all ended up having a late lunch and staying much longer than we'd anticipated as our topics of conversation were stimulating and it was nearing iftar, so everything else was closed down anyway. Developing from this visit was an opportunity with the NGO to teach English to the refugees that Natalie works with. I may do this instead of going through the student group that AUC has organized.
I returned from the café, exchanging numbers with Natalie and making plans to hang out sometime, her assuring me that Egypt takes some getting used to, but she's managed to do it. She's also a former multi-year ambassadorial scholar--funny how many of the young movers and shakers I've met end up having been affiliated with Rotary. I've also made a few other contacts and suspect that my down time will be reduced by more reading, new volunteering opportunities, and new friendships. Today was a "good Egypt day".

News of Egypt:
Another fatal accident illustrating the horrendously unsafe driving conditions in Egypt
An article about Qasr al-Nile bridge, a short walk from my apartment (I may've already posted an article about it)
Economic choices for Egypt in hard times
Various articles in Egypt Today's September issue
Though rooster crowing and the AC kept me awake far longer than I'd have liked, I slept in until nearly one. My International Refugee Law class, which had been at 8 PM last week was moved to 3:15 PM to accomodate everyone's schedules better. "Ugh, my class is too early," I complained teasingly to Ross who'd come back from the new campus where he'd had class at 8 AM. He has to wake up much earlier than that just to catch the bus that takes him out there.
I met up with Mallory to walk to class, which I enjoyed, but not as much as last time only because the weight of Egypt was bearing down heavily. I was suppose to go to church tonight but Maged, in what seems to be true Egyptian fashion, capriciously cancelled our plans. I didn't feel like going alone, so I returned home to mope instead of read, like I should be doing. A couple of hours passed by and I resolved to stop torturing myself. Ross having already made himself dinner, I went across the hall to ask Catherine if she wanted to accompany me in my outing to get take away. I got a salad and a tuna sandwich from Costa and the cashier did a tiny little kind thing that touched off a brightening of my whole evening. In Egypt, it's rare to find any denominations of piastres (the units into which pounds are divided, along the lines of cents being the division of dollars) smaller than 25 and usually 50 is the smallest if not a whole pound. It's hard to make change and easy to get ripped off a handful of piastres that way. Anyway, my bill was something like 30.20LE and I gave her 40. In return she gave me a 10 LE note. With a gleeful "shokran" and a smile that expressed my disproportionate happiness about this 3 penny victory, I was off back into the night to El Shabrawy, a restaurant on Nubar where Catherine was able to get some more authentically Egyptian cuisine. The cashier there was a 21-year-old Egyptian kid who was amicable and very eager to use his English on us. He thought that Catherine, who's got naturally light blonde hair and light eyes, and I were Dutch. Ha. During our lively chat, a guy who lives down the street that's in my class (that Catherine also happens to be auditing since she's working at AMERA) walked in. It was quite the little social our on Nubar.
Catherine and I headed back to our building and I ended up taking my food over to her place where we chatted for literally hours about life and religion. We compared how our impressions of Christianity have evolved over time and what it means to us. While our thoughts about the Bible diverge, it still felt nice to share a certain solidarity as people who claim the Christian faith. My social evening mitigated the frustration and loneliness I've been feeling as I wait to fall into a routine and a niche here in Cairo.

News of Egypt:
The story of an Iraqi oud-player in Cairo
Residents of the area affected by the rockslides clash with security forces over bulldozing of site
Kites in Cairo

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dining In

Tonight, after venturing out to Metro Market with Ross and our new friend across the hall, Catherine, I made dinner at the apartment! It was a sort of impromptu creation-organic semolina pasta made in Egypt, tomato paste, and some labna. Of course, I tossed in some peas for good measure. The ting of self-sufficiency to my evening merited celebration: anise tea and more McVitie's ginger nuts.

Here're some more links for the potentially interested:

An NPR report on the American University in Cairo's new campus in the desert
Another NPR report, this one on Coptic Christians

More Migration and a Meal with Maged

Thankfully, the migrating wasn't me to another apartment. No, I've finished all my reading for International Refugee Law and have moved on to the course packet for Migration and Refugee Movements in the Middle East and North Africa. I'm currently reading about migration between the Maghreb and western Europe.
I was supposed to meet Maged, my young Egyptian friend who met me at the airport the day I arrived, for lunch at one. He overslept, apparently, and didn't call me until half past two, further stoking my ire at the Egyptian conception of time and punctuality. In the end though, when I'm in my right mind and feeling "ambassadorial" I'm able to remind myself that it was I who elected to come and live here, knowing full well the standard operating procedure and that lateness is not intended as disrespect or even thought of as being disrespectful in the same way as in the States. Maged and I ended up lunching anyway. My deference to his palate and his fondness for American fast food coupled with our options being limited by Ramadan left us eating at Pizza Hut. Yes, shame on me again. That's the second time I've been there since I've been in Egypt. Ma'alish. I had a small garlic pizza to which I added ketchup (I'm practically a local in this practice). Trying to battle my recent frustrations with Egypt, I asked Maged what his favorite things were about the country. Initially he told me he didn't like Egypt and would emigrate when he could, but admitted that the social dynamic here (the near obsession with not being alone) was something he didn't feel he could find outside of Egypt. Where did he want to move, I asked. The States or Australia. Some playful banter in which we made fun of one another's pronunciations of words in the native tongue of the other punctuation our discussions of culture and government. I also gave him a CD with some of my favorite music on it to see what he thinks of it; I already convinced him to try Asian food and won him over. Tomorrow evening, if things pan out (oh no, I feel like I could've substited insha'Allah there), we're going to the Evangelical mega-churchesqe institution right downtown. It should be an experience.
On the walk home, glad to have gotten out of my apartment and hung out with someone, I grudgingly admitted to myself that, despite the numerous inconveniences of Ramadan, it's nice to see the array of tables and chairs set up for the poor to come and have iftar. The preparations, the cooking food, the juice vendors--all of it is rather nice, really.
Tonight will involve a run to Metro Market in Zamalek with Ross to refresh our stock of groceries and, you guessed it, more reading.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A New Tenant, the Terrible Landlord, and Thai Food

Today, Ross and I became acquainted with the young American woman who's renting our former apartment from Ahmed. She's just out of law school and is volunteering with AMERA an organization with many connections to my program at AUC. In fact, she's auditing my favorite class. Apparently, Ahmed (aka the landlord) picked her up from the airport and even bought her some food. This nice side is something I haven't seen and am likely to see even less since, after realizing that Ross and I had switched out the mattresses in the apartment we moved into with the ones we'd been sleeping on he began complaining to Ross, listing a list of grievances he apparently has against me–the mattresses, he doesn't like the tone of my emails or something, etc.
I found all this out after having spent a lovely evening with some classmate from my Intro to Forced Migration and Refugee Studies course.
It was thus that one of my better "hey, I don't mind this whole Egypt thing" days melted into frustration and worry. I was livid that the landlord, who's "lower" level of dishonesty may make him a relatively good landlord here, but would get him into a lot of trouble in the states, should be angry with me when he was deceitful about pricing, the amenities of the apartment, and so forth. While he had been fairly proactive in attending to things that need to be fixed or addressed, he has now left us with a kitchen whose cabinets are rusty and need liners at the very least if not replacing, a bathroom with a vanity so small as to be unusable and a wee little bathtub to compliment it which is serviced by a showerhead that sprays out instead of down which wouldn't be so problematic if he'd ever invested in a shower curtain. The place was filthy when we moved in–the floors and furniture covered in dust and grime, garbage from the previous tenants under the beds, etc. After his bluster about upping the rate from 3600LE to 3950LE being fashioned after an apparent UK policy in which an extra ten percent is tacked on per tenant, it's interesting that he would think it ok not to follow UK norms in any other arena of the lessor-lessee relationship. After I asked Ahmed to lower the price because of the absence of a half-bath before we'd had a chance to look at the apartment, our rate that we're locked into in the current lease became 3850 LE. To add insult to injury, he's now renting our old place out for 3800 LE. This place had a better bathroom and a half-bath to boot. Thank God we at least made off with the mattresses–the others are disgusting, worn, and had literally not been replaced since probably the 1970s. If I were staying in a hostel and paying next to nothing, that's one thing, but I know very well he's overcharging us already. Anyway, I wrote him an email expressing my disappointment at our "miscommunication" (referring to the tones he apparently picked up from my emails) and haven't heard back since. It's such an unnerving feeling to have conflict with someone so fundamentally involved in your sense of security and personal space! Even worse is that the building is owned by his family. His brother's company has an office on the second floor, his uncle, apparently formerly involved in Egyptian intelligence, lives above us; his cousin also lives somewhere in the building. Heaven knows what on earth he's told them about me. Exacerbating all this is the fact that I'm the kind of person who blames myself internally, even if I maintain an exterior of resolve. When others are mad or upset with me, even illegitimately, it really throws me off and makes me anxious. Well, enough about all that. I just had to get it off my chest. I'm sure at least some portion of it is cultural, especially when it comes to the expectations on both sides of what's appropriate. It's for that reason that I included the saga in the blog and not in my private journal.

In other, happier news, Ross and I are meeting with a former Rotary ambassadorial scholar soon. Hany, who I may have mentioned as the founder of Better World (the link's in the sidebar), is an Egyptian who spent a year in Montréal, Québec. Speaking of Better World, I begin teaching English class next week and have also signed up with STAR to teach classes to refugees downtown. On the 19th, I plan to attend a fundraiser my host Rotary club is having to offset the costs of vision-saving surgeries for children whose parents can't afford them.

Tonight, raising my spirits immensely was dinner at the Semiramis Intercontinental. For only about the equivalent of ten dollars, tax and tip included, I had a delicious meal at Bird Cage, the hotel's upscale Thai restaurant. Ross and I got to know Catherine, the new tenant across the hall, a bit. We talked about our backgrounds, Egypt, American politics, and religion among other things. I'd say the net outcome of the day was a positive one. Prior to dinner, I spent a while reading more of my course packet for International Refugee Law. Tomorrow will be more reading and perhaps grocery-shopping and laundry.

News in Egypt:
[Update: Annnnd now the water has been mysteriously shut off entirely and the landlord is unreachable by phone and doesn't have voicemail. Guess I won't be showering tonight.]

Thursday, September 11, 2008

An "Early" Morning

After going to bed following the previous entry, I squeezed in something like seven hours of sleep, waking up in time to head to the AUC business support office (why they call their visa processing assistance office that, I have no idea). I was all prepared with my passport, a photo, and the fee to get my student visa. For their part, AUC had processed my enrollment certificate. Too good to be true, everything's falling into place! Oh, expect for the government. The Ministry of Education or some other ministry hasn't yet given "student approval" or something to that effect. The lady assisting me suggested I get a three month tourist visa for 12LE. I said, "So I'll have to pay 12LE on top of the 62.10LE simply because the government isn't processing everything in a timely manner?" Not technically, I found out; or at least, not yet. I have until the end of September or so until my current visa expires, so I declined to throw more money (no matter how little) at the government than I have too.
Anyway, I should return to the previous topic of my last entry. The conversations I had were wonderful. The elections came up, of course. One Rotarian told me how he found it interest that, in his view, CNN and FoxNews swayed the American people so much. He said that the American election, like an unfolding drama, was the source of endless entertainment and intrigue.
With another Rotarian who'd lived in France as a child, I discussed, in French, the role of religion in Egypt. She explained that, in her view, Egyptians are very religious of their own accord, insisting that society didn't constrain them, but they believe as fervently as they do out of individual sincerity. We also discussed the affinity between Christians and Muslims as theists in the face of atheism, agnosticism, and secularism. I think many American Evangelicals would find they have a lot more in common than they expect with Muslims (and indeed, some have). On the ride home, religion was brought up again. We talked about Mohammad Abdu and the comparisons he drew between European Englightenment principles and Islam. Also discussed was the idea, central to Islam, that the Qur'an is only the Qur'an when it appears in Arabic–everything else is just a translation. Interestingly, my interlocutor admitted that he struggled with this since the Qur'an itself explains at great lengths that Islam is meant to be for all people. Other conversations touch on just how social Egyptians are and how this was affected and affecting Egypt's drive toward development. Egyptians who become high-powered businessmen and -women are unwilling to sacrifice their social lives and so get by on less sleep. A wife of one Rotarian who'd lived for many years in the States explained that she preferred living in Egypt because when Stateside, she didn't find the level of social interaction she was accustomed to: her American friends were busy with their jobs and their kids' afterschool activities during the week and were thus only available weekends. Unheard of in Egypt! Here, you make time stop for you and leave other things undone so as to be with friends. Alone time isn't valued much here either. I told Laila that my friend Maged called me one night when his parents were out of town (in Alex) and wanted Ross and I to come spend the night or hang out because he didn't want to be alone. She said she thought Egyptian men were "spoiled" in that way, always expecting to have someone around. Women, though not liking to be alone, were more equipped for it than men, according to Laila. Of course, these are often generalizations, but fairly reasonable ones, I find.
Just as stimulating as the conversation was the delicious food! New things I tried include 'amr al-deen, a drink made from sheets of apricot; mahamra, a spicy sauce made with peppers and walnuts; and konafah, a dessert served primarily during Ramadan made with shredded filo dough. Also, and I'm warning my vegetarian/pescetarian comrades not to read on, I had my first shawarma in Egypt. I'd had them in Denmark (of all places) and in the States, but not here this time. By the way, if you're hankering for a shawarma and you're in Peoria there're several places to get them. Nearly Bradley, there's Haddad's and in North Peoria, there's Pita's Mediterranean Wraps.
Oh, and all this talk of food reminds me of another topics of conversation–fasting. One Rotarian joked that all of the indulgence of iftar and sohour kind of negated (or at least made up for) fasting during the day. Some of the desserts are so rich that they appear primarily during Ramadan and much less frequently throughout the rest of the year. Not that I subscribe to the idea of fasting during Ramadan for any religious reason, but to try and understand what's going on around me, I'm going to try it for today. I refuse, however, to go without water, as the Muslims must.
So, instead of eating, I'll be reading (all day!) until my 8 PM Intro to Migration and Refugee Studies course.

Ramadan Kareem!

It's after 3 in the morning here in Cairo and I've just returned from suhour finally having seen why Muslims actually enjoy Ramadan. Kasr el-Nile RC's president, Laila, picked me up and drove me out to 6th of October City, technically in Giza, but a suburb of Cairo. Along the way, we chatted in English and in French (Laila studied in a French school) about her Rotary club, their service projects, her family, my time so far in Egypt, etc. She told me to think of my host club as my host family and not to hesitate to contact her should I need anything. That's such a reassuring feeling in a foreign country, let me tell you!
Our destination was one of the Rotarians' house in a compound-like neighborhood called "Beverly Hills". Unlike my shabby apartment downtown, this house was tastefully decorated, had a well-groomed lawn (in the desert, no less), and gracious hosts. I met Rotarians from various backgrounds: Vodafone management, a leadership training professional, a teacher, a professor, an investment banker, the CEO of an investment start-up, etc. The one thing they all had in common besides an elevated social status was a typically Egyptian effervescence and sociability.
Because it's so late and I'm quite tired, and because the evening/early morning deserves a fully entry, I'll take up the cause tomorrow after attempting to submit documents for my student visa.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Reading by Day, Suhour by Night

I've spent most of the day reading for my International Refugee Law class, though I ventured out to the copy shop near get more to read for a different class. Another chunk of the day was lost to switching apartments. We're now across the hall from our old place. It's something of an upgrade, save for the fluorescent lights that make the kitchen look like an operating room and numerous deficiencies in the bathroom.
Anyway, just after chowing down on a mediocre sandwich from Costa Coffee (one of those European/American-style cafés that serve food at reasonable hours during Ramadan) I received a phone call from the president of my host Rotary club. I am invited to suhur at the home of one of the members (at least I think so, I couldn't hear Laila very well over the phone in the noisy café). I'm quite excited to get out of my apartment and go somewhere, but I wish I'd have known about a half an hour earlier so as to avoided filling myself with carbs and cheese. Ma'alish! Should be fun.
I should probably to try and make it look like I haven't been studying and moving all day, but then again, they've been fasting all day, so I probably don't have it so bad.

News of Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East & North Africa:
Egyptian police kill another Sudanese migrant trying to cross into Israel
Death toll rises in Cairene district devasted by a rockslide
Egypt making progress in market reform
A Moroccan blogger was imprisoned after criticizing the king of Morocco

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Volunteering and Vexing Electronics

I woke up "early" today. That is to say, 9:45. In Egypt, especially during Ramadan, what one would consider college hours are kept by a large majority of the populace. I am no exception, staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning and sleeping until 11.
Meeting up with other volunteers, I hopped on the metro and headed to volunteer again grading English exams. I won't be doing any actual teaching until later this month at the earliest. Five and a half hours later, bleary-eyed and my stomach suffering from Egyptian generosity (they'd plied us with greasy pizza from Pizza King), I returned home. The noble intention I'd had of reading for my Int'l Refugee Law course evaporated as I curled up for a nap. Before long, it was time to head to my 8 PM Migration and Refugee Movements in the Middle East and North Africa course. While I enjoyed the professor, a Frenchman, the classroom was shoddy and uncomfortable for hosting a 2½ hour class. Furthermore, AUC's inefficiency seeped in. The CMRS office had neglected to tell us we had a packet of readings for today and, on top of that, the copy shop didn't even have them available. A bunch of us went there after class to place orders for the second week's readings which Dr Fargues had assured us would be there. No dice.
It's this aspect of living in Egypt--the struggle for the simplest of things--that I've mentioned before that weighs on me the most. Dealing with my archaic laundry machine whose intstructions are entirely in Arabic, drying my t-shirts outside on a drying rack of sorts only to realize that the drying rack is filthy and has left stripes of dust across my theretofore clean clothes, taking a shower and constantly having to adjust the hot and cold water because the hot water tank is insufficient, being taken by surprise when, for the same reason, hot water trickles, then explodes out of a faucet, soaking everything within a three-foot radius, finding dependable neighborhood restaurants only to have them close during normal dinner hours during Ramdan, leaving me scouring the neighborhood for options which are usually limited to fast food chains or American-style cafés who are more often than not out of half of the food on the menu, having to prepare myself to haggle with a cabdriver coming and going just to go to get groceries, being bounced around from one office at AUC to another and another ad infinitum, etc. etc. etc. A lot of these are little things, mostly inconsequential alone. However, when they join forces to wrangle with my mental health, they're successful more often than not. Now, with the responsibility of reading for classes and writing papers, I don't have time to be stressed out about the little things. Unfortunately, the little things don't quite understand they're meant to resolve themselves. In fact, I swear they just attract other problems: my computer, for example, to which I would write love poems and elegies if it weren't inanimate because of its important position in my life, has now decided it's not going to load Windows without me first starting it in Safe Mode and then restarting from there. Maybe it was one of those nefarious ants who nibble away at a file. In any event, Dell's already frustrating customer service is unlikely to be very helpful or easily accessible from the African continent.
And so it is that the period of my having been exuberantly joyful about being in Egypt (convincing myself I wanted to stay a second year and get my Master's) faded and was followed by my "Dear God, please send some more of those plagues of old on the Egyptians again" which in turn has been replaced by some bizarre synthesis of the two. The ups and downs are all within single days now. Whatever happens, I've no doubt that these challenges will cause me to be more self-sufficient!
Terribly sorry to those who were looking for a less self-indulgent entry. Hopefully I'll do something marvelously touristy (not likely with all this reading) or have some striking cultural insight or fun factoid the next time I write.

Egyptian opinions of the US, 9/11, and more
Journalists to be interrogated by the Egyptian government for violating publishing ban

Grad School = Lots of Reading. Who knew?

This entry is going to be about as brief as the list of important things I did today.  I picked up my first course packet (of four, I think) for International Refugee Law and began reading it.  The amount of reading involved for my classes is going to be rather weighty, just like I'd been forewarned.  On the bright side, it's interesting!  I have little trouble staying motivated while reading it (at least this course packet for this class).

Tomorrow, I'm off to volunteer with Better World again and then I have a class at 8 PM.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Ants in the Morning, Roosters in the Evening

So I awoke this morning, still a little disgruntled with the world. To my utter horror, things only got worse when I opened my laptop: overnight, a smallish colony of ants had decided that my speakers, fan vents, and keyboard would be a perfect place for a luxury vacation. They crawled out one or two at a time for hours. Thankfully, they didn't do any damage. Angry and dejected, I didn't even leave the apartment. I, of course, blamed the infestation of the single-most important personal item I've brought with me to Egypt on the country itself and its people. I read the news over and over again, listened to music, chatted with people, and whiled away the time ignoring the occasional six-legged nightmare. I had my comfort food--oat bran and dried cranberries. Later, I took photos out of our dining room window of the street below. That was the closest I got to leaving the apartment until after 6 in the evening. Ross and I ventured over to an American-style café near AUC's downtown campus and had some lentil soup. I also had a nice hibiscus and lime ice-blended drink. My spirits started to lift a bit, and by the time I met up with a new friend from my program, Mallory, I decided I didn't absolutely loathe Egypt. We chanced upon my friend Dina along our route to the Cairo Capital Club, and chatted with her a bit. She'll be in my class on Thursday.
It was at the CCC, on the 15th floor, that I had my first graduate class. All of my fears and apprehensions melted away as I enjoyed one of the best first classes I've ever had. Two and a half hours sped by without me losing interest or feeling overwhelmed. The professor's great and a lot of the other students (who come from the States, Egypt, Australia, the UK, Cameroon, Ghana, and elsewhere) have really interesting backgrounds and experience. If this is what all law classes are like, sign me up for law school. I'm picking up the reading packet tomorrow which, though heavy on court decisions, promises to be interesting and stimulating. Perhaps symbolically, the last beastly creature to scurry out from under my keys was during the class.
Afterwards, a small group of us headed back from the direction we came and stopped at the copy shop that prepares course packets. We got to chatting and made plans to meet up later in Zamalek at a café. It ended up being Mallory, me, Evan who I'd met through Better World when we went to grade English exams, and Mitch, a guy here on Fulbright who'd worked at a refugee camp in Kenya. We hung out well into the early morning, the cab Mallory and I shared back downtown dropping us off somewhere around half past two. During the short walk home, Egypt seemed infinitely more bearable than it had just a few hours before. Not only bearable, but a little wonderful too.
It's getting late now, but the rooster outside the apartment is blissfully unaware of what time it is as he's crowing madly. With the honking and white noise of the air conditioner becoming part of my routine, I'm sure I'll fall asleep anyway.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Alex and Back

Unexpectedly, I was without Internet during my brief Alexandrian getaway. This is, of course, akin to being without my left arm (I'm left-handed). I survived, though! Survival is what Egypt's all about. As was discernible in my last entry, I'm being rocked here and there by little waves of culture shock. This was entirely expected, but no less unpleasant.
I've been going through a few days of semi-satisfying (but fruitless) Egypt-denigrating in which I make sweeping generalizations about the country based on negative experiences and assumptions. Don't try this at home! While the transition to life in Egypt is more intense, a lot what I learned from living in France for a year is coming in handy: it's fine to indulge in some moments of "in America we're so much better at [fill in the blank]; thank God I'm American!" but overall, it's best to try and adapt, realizing that Egypt's far more likely to change me than I am it.
Despite the terribly poor organization of the International Students Association trip to Alex, I rather enjoyed it. It was a nice escape from the pollution of Cairo to the breezy, seaside city with a lot of history (but little to show for it). Palaces, lighthouses, and libraries have all fallen by the wayside here. Most have been lost and, every so often, are uncovered again during construction projects. The Catacombs of Kom al-Shuqafa and the Roman amphitheater we visited are two examples of this. We also toured the fort of Qait Bey a later structure (but one older than America).
Our last visit was to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, an attempt at recreating, at least in spirit, the original library of Alexandria. Unfortunately, it seems more money was put into the construction than in building the library's collections.
More interesting than the places we visited were the people we met along the way. Three of the "leaders" helping to herd our group of 140+ students from place to place were Francophones. One was half-French, half-Egyptian and grew up in France and another was from Mauritius. I got some time to chat with each of them in French. Ross and I hung out with a girl in between us in age who had just gotten out of the army after five years. She speaks fluent Pashto and has Modern Standard Arabic skills as well. Having gone into the army at 18, she plans to do her undergraduate Egypt.
At one point, a bunch of us ended up walking to the Four Seasons. It was everything a Four Seasons usually is--the opulence is hard to reconcile with a nation that has so many in poverty. We were reminded of this while walking around Alex, with little kids being sent to sell useless things to tourists or empty-handed to beg for money.
Coming back to Cairo was a strange feeling, a realization that I now have a little niche here downtown. It was "coming home" in some small way. Even if I complain about this temporary home, it's nice to have a place to come back to where there's some consistency and stability amidst the chaos.
Tomorrow I start graduate school. My first class, International Refugee Law, seems as intimidating as it does interesting. I'm not really sure what to expect, but I hope I'm up to the challenge. Until then, I'm enjoying the spoils of my trip to the Metro Market in Zamalek. The cab rides both there and back were pleasant, surprisingly so. The cab drivers were mercifully kind and reasonable. Al-hamdulileh!

News in Egypt:
A landslide killed some thirty people and many more are missing in a Cairo shantytown
The saga of an Egyptian businessman alleged to be involved in the death of a Lebanese performer continues

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Bit Weary

Tomorrow will mark two weeks that I've been in Cairo, and I think the brief getaway to Alexandria will be a welcome reprieve. The heat, pollution, inefficiency, Ramadan, the constant stares and obnoxious comments from Egyptians, the honking, and so on are outweighing the delicious Egyptian food (that I can't find in all our normal places during Ramadan) and the friendliness of Egyptian friends (though I just found out I'm going to be in a class with my friend of five years that I lunched with the other day, which is great). I was told that you have to fight for everything here, and whoever it was that said that was spot on. AUC's New York office just sent its North American graduate students an invoice for $15 on top of the $7000-9000+ most of us have already paid. Something vague about a fee increase and a trite apology about the "inconvenience" was included in the lower left hand corner. To me that seems unethical--adding a fee after I'm already enrolled and registered. It's like the Cairene cabbie trying to squeeze more money out of you after you've already agreed on the fare at the beginning of the cab ride.
Dinner at Café Tabasco in Zamalek was about the only redeeming part of the day. During my walk there, the beauty of the palms and the banyan tree by Cairo Tower and the other greenery was sullied by trash and the locked gates and chains that prevented anyone getting near them. The corpse of a recently deceased cat in a pile of trash along a main road didn't score any points either.
No, I haven't crashed and no I absolutely do not hate Egypt. I'm just tired of everything, every little thing, being so taxing. From my landlord to the friendly, seemingly harmless kid on the Qasr al-Nil bridge, to the cab driver, to AUC--everyone seems to want money. And those that end up with my money want more. Egypt would be a lot easier to deal with if I was just settled and the harassment let up.

Coincidentally, a good article about Coptic Cairo came out today
Inflation is impacting Ramadan
An Egyptian's comic strip-style take on life in Egypt

Coptic Cairo and Volunteering

I know I said before I was aiming to be a bit less wordy to make my entries more readable, and I haven't really succeeded in past entries, but I'll try again. :)
Disgruntled at myself for not having gotten out more, I resolved to leave the apartment on a wee adventure. Coptic Cairo was my destination, though I'd visited a couple of the churches there last time I was in Egypt. I headed, determined, for the metro feeling self-sufficient and self-motivated. Only Egypt's inefficiency, I thought, could derail me now. Nope, it was my own dumb forgetfulness that, after trekking all the way to the metro station, left me without small bills/coins to purchase a ticket. I returned to my flat, dispirited but still resolved to get to Coptic Cairo. Taking a handful of 1 pound coins out of the pants pocket of the jeans I wore the day before, I returned to the metro, earphones piping in an episode of This American Life from my iPod to block out the incessant, excessive honking and the tiresome "Welcome in Egypt"s which more often than sincere sentiments indicate either a desire to whisk you into a taxi or someone's cousin's shop or are exclaimed as a novelty by Egyptians who then snicker at you and make not-so-hushed comments in Arabic.
Anyway, I navigated the metro with little problem and arrived at the Mar Girgis (Saint George in English) stop where I got off and headed to the Hanging Church. Among Christians, I was able to have a drink of water out of my water bottle without offending those fasting for Ramadan. I honestly have no idea how the Muslim population manages in this heat. I found myself in a bastian of calm and relative quite, though the call to prayer from a nearby minaret invaded the sanctity of the place and reminded me of the sometimes precarious position of the Coptic church in Islamic Egypt. To be fair, though, there have been times of great cooperation between the two groups. If anyone is interested, Sana Hassan's book, Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt, is an interesting insight. I read it when taking one of Dr Jason Zaborowski's classes at Bradley. I relaxed, took in the intricate designs, listened to some music, and thought about faith (both in Egypt and my own).
Later in the day, I met up with some other Better World volunteers. We headed up to what the NGO has optimistically named the "International Center for Technology". It is, in reality, the bottom floor of an old building full of big dreams and good ideas. It will, insha'Allah, one day live up to it's name. In the meantime, our little crew of Americans was put to work grading English language tests, essays, and administering oral exams. It was fun and reminded me of just how difficult language acquisition is. (Something I'm keenly aware of living in a country, for the first time, where I don't speak the language).
I came back toward midnight to meet yet another Rotary ambassadorial scholar, Nathan Swanson, from district #6000. He's freshly arrived from Syria, where he undertook a month of Arabic language study and is staying with us until he finds digs of his own.
Ross, Nathan, and I, as well as a girl named Mallory who volunteers with Better World went out into the night in search of dinner. Because of Ramadan, we were forced to settle on Pizza Hut (to those who know me, this is of course shocking). I was at least pleased to find on the bottle of Heinz ketchup (don't ask me why there was a bottle of ketchup at the Pizza Hut or why I was reading it) that, in its exclusion of high-fructose corn syrup, it seemed to be a little "healthier" than it's American counterpart. Well, enough of my dietary OCD. I hope all's well in the States. Tomorrow, I head for Alexandria with a school group. It's time to be a real tourist--yikes.

Monday, September 1, 2008


Today was the first day of Ramadan here in Egypt. I'd thought it was going to start tomorrow, and for Shi'ites it is. Here, however, and in the States, Indonesia, and most other countries with significant Muslim populations, it coincided with the beginning of September.
Rather antithetical to the holy month's focus on fasting, my first order of the day was to join an Egyptian friend that I hadn't seen in five years for lunch. Being of a Coptic Orthodox and Catholic background she wasn't breaking any rules about abstaining from food and drink. We spent I don't know how long catching up (she's gotten a graduate degree, gotten married, and become an American citizen since I first met her at a GYLC conference in DC and New York). Having spent a lot of time in the States during her teen years and then for college, she talked about how she felt at home in both Egypt and the States, but also a little alienated from both cultures at times. She didn't quite feel comfortable with how college guys and girls interact in the States, but also had criticisms of how men treat women in Egypt. She valued the organization and efficiency in America, but took pride in the long and storied history of the Egyptian people. Hopefully we'll have many more friendly and lively conversations about cultures, religion and politics. She's invited me to come to Heliopolis, where she lives, to show me the sights.
My later meal was complicated by Ramadan. Most of our normal restaurant choices seemed to be off limits--the koshary place near our house newly devoid of the large vessels in which the various ingredients necessary for the famous dish (macaroni, lentils, fried onions, etc.) are prepared had guys laying on a carpet on the floor in the dark. We ended up wandering to an Italian place at the Nile Hilton. My linguine all'arrabbiata was far from a local dish, but wasn't outrageously expensive, so that was a perk. I should probably figure out whether the restaurants just open later, or whether they're closed for the month.
The landlord's meant to be over tonight to get the apartment across the hall in order now that our neighbors are moving out. That means we'll be moving soon, insha'Allah.
Tomorow I'm going to meet up with other volunteers from Better World to go over some English papers apparently, and for oral placement exams. Hopefully it'll get me into the swing of things before our training sessions.
Other than that, Alexandria is coming up soon. We're leaving sometime on Thursday and will be back on Saturday, the day before classes begin. My refugee law class on Sunday is, again, because of Ramadan, from 8-10:30 PM. Yikes.

News in Egypt:
Egyptian-Palestinian border crossing opened briefly
Egypt attempting to mediate internal conflict in Palestine
Determining the beginning of Ramadan in Egypt