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

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