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.

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