Saturday, October 4, 2008

...aaaand we're back!

I'm a bit jittery from taking some Excedrin Migraine to fend off a headache that set in while I was laden with my belongings and crowded into a hot subway car after riding back in a shabby charter bus from the Sinai, so if I sound a little crazy, do forgive me.
My stay in Ras Sudr was quite the cultural event, let me tell you! I began but didn't finish an entry on the 30th of September and couldn't publish it until now due to the lack of internet. It'll have to be good enough for now and perhaps I'll write more tomorrow if I get time. It reads as follows:
30 September 2008

Though quite tired, I’m up for the day and making the best of some down time before breakfast here at the “chalet” of my Egyptian friend Maged and his family. Located in a compound of sorts on the Red Sea, their condo is bustling with the family’s friends, relatives, and relatives of friends. With most of them, I can communicate only in smiles, a smattering of quite basic Arabic phrases, and blank looks. As I type, another ten are joining these ranks.
Our journey here began yesterday after I met up with Maged in Zaytoon, an area of Cairo about a half an hour north via the metro. [Breakfast and the Red Sea took me away from my entry, so it’s now about 3:45 in the afternoon but I’ll pick up from where I left off:] I was exhausted by the time I arrived because Maged asked me to be there by 3:30. As you may recall, I’ve developed the nasty habit of sleeping in until between 1:30 and 2, so I got up a bit “early” after a terrible morning’s sleep. My insomnia is fueled these days largely by worries about what do with my life, increasingly excited and happy reflections on how things are progressing here in Egypt and speculation on where they may lead, or, most often, a combination of all these things. It’s all worse when I know I have to get up at a specific time, because I wake up every couple of hours or so in anticipation. To exacerbate the situation throw in a rooster, a cheap mattress (shokran ya Ahmed), and an absolutely fantastic previous day that lasted past sunrise as follows:
-I was actually able to pick up my passport containing my visa extension with no complications (though suspiciously, the extension runs for about three months from when I arrived, not from the application for the extension itself). Given the bureaucratic nightmare yielded by the equation of AUC + government, this truly is noteworthy.
-I grabbed a granola, fruit, and yogurt parfait from Beano’s and headed to the law library, where I got the Internet key from some very suspicious staff before proceeding to International Refugee Law which was fantastic as usual.
-I walked home with Melissa, the French girl who’s temporarily living across the hall in our old apartment with Catherine and Camilla (the Dane) and discovered something truly miraculous along the way: the koshary restaurant two doors down had reopened, emerging like a (terribly delicious) Phoenix from the ashes of Ramadan.
-Sharing the above good news with Ross, we were soon consuming the sublime lentily, pasta-y, tomato-y goodness of koshary for dinner for the first time in literally weeks. The cost? A mere 5 LE (less than a dollar) for mine.
-The next stop, Mohandaseen to Amanda’s apartment. She works for the International Organization for Migration—I mentioned her before when recounting my most recent Thai dinner, I believe. We formed a fierce, two-person team of Minnesota natives and vanquished British and Egyptian competitors in a game of Trivial Pursuit. Though an unexpected 40 LE minimum charge at a mediocre faux-Italian café briefly put a damper on things, my love of board games and the excellent company kept me happy.
-Natalie, whom I often mention, was leaving for the States yesterday for a little while. This, of course was the perfect occasion to go to Odeon. So, after staying out in Mohandaseen ‘til after midnight, I cabbed over to our favorite haunt and stayed until sunrise chatting at length with an Ethiopian refugee about his experiences in Egypt. Although in my head it doesn’t seem so strange, I found it very interesting to learn that his family back in Ethiopia are relatively well-to-do. He was a journalist and had to seek refuge in Egypt because of his writing. Here for the past three years, he decided after the first that he would try and understand the experiences and hardships of fellow Ethiopians who were leagues apart from him socioeconomically. He rented an apartment in a poorer part of town and has, for two years, dealt with challenges that have been the hallmark of what he surprisingly calls the best time of his life. Having only a handful of years on me, he’s already extremely wise and seen quite a lot. After Emmanuel left, I spoke to a friend of Crysta (the Canadian teacher I’ve previously talked about) called Rania who’s British, but the daughter of Egyptian parents. She came back nearly a decade ago to begin teaching here and had lots to say about how difficult it was for her to adapt to the culture, even with fluent Arabic and insights into Egypt born of her parents’ origins. Two other Brits joined our table later on, sharing their experiences teaching English here. One is also apparently quite the chef—a good person to know when I tire of tameyya, fuul, and koshary (never!) Cynthia, a classmate and friend that I’ve hung out with in Zamalek and elsewhere before also joined us; she’s putting to use a background in violence prevention by helping Natalie in her work with the Sudanese. As the deceptively clean-looking morning light began to wash over Cairo, I made my way home for the fitful morning of non-sleep described above.
As I said, Maged wanted me to meet him at 3:30. He also told me, a bit frantically, that coming earlier would be even better. When I told him before 2 PM that I hadn’t packed, he insisted that I needed to get a move on, because it takes an hour to get up to Zaytoon en métro. “I just don’t want you to be late,” said the person who has not once been on time to hang out. My reply: “I’m not Egyptian.” Though this probably sounds awful, my snarky retort underlies a very real aspect of Egyptian culture—their concept of time. It’s vastly different than ours (in the States) and it’s not necessarily good or bad objectively (though I’ll make no bones about telling you it drives me nuts), but it’s undeniable. Second-guessing myself—something I generally shouldn’t do, especially vis-à-vis Maged, I’ve learned—I began frantically packing and rushing around. I dragged Ross to an ATM to be able to pull out money to pass on to him for rent and then headed straight to the metro. I was waiting for the train by 2:30 on the dot so that I could make it “in an hour.” Of course, I knew better and arrived in 28 minutes only to find no trace of Maged who showed up late. He then preceded to tell me that we’d not be leaving until after four, but he just wanted to make sure we were ready to go well in advance. I refrained from throwing the son of a family who are showing me such hospitality out of the nearest window as thoughts of things I’d left undone in my haste began to collect in my mind. Another observation about Egyptians that was highlighted by this was the stating of guesses or even wishes as absolute certainty (which is germane to never admitting when one doesn’t know something or when one is wrong—the classic giving wrong directions example comes to mind, etc.)
We left after 4:30, all said and done, and reached Amigo (near Ras Sidr) after dark. My time since then has been fantastic for experiencing more directly Egyptian culture and family life (if not at all conducive to sleep with what seems like a small army of relatives, friends, and whoever else turning on fluorescent lights, slamming doors, carrying on loudly literally all night long). My hosts are Copts, whereas many of the other Egyptians I know are Muslims. It's fascinating to try and understand the differences in values and identity whose origins stretch back several centuries.
Maged, his friend Ereny, and I have had rather humorous discussions about the differences between the American conception of masculinity and the Egyptian one. Maged even went so far as to suggest that English was a girly-sounding language and I tried not to rub in his face that his rugged, manly Egyptian men hold hands in the street and walk arm in arm, sometimes draped over one another, calling each other habibi (roughly "dear" or "honey"), and kissing each other’s cheeks while sharing what seems like a universal obsession with Céline Dion. I explained to him that rooted in this expansive physical comfort level somewhere were my continual requests not to be touched (I’m not a touchy-feely person in general, but this is all the more apparent in this personal space-less region). I'm not at all alleging that the average man in Egypt is objectively effeminate or, Heaven forfend, gay, I'm just illustrating how different customs and habits in one culture and be perceived extremely differently in another.
Interestingly, the conversation continued down the path of how, in the States, some people would label the above-described behavior as gay. A general discussion of how gays and lesbians in the States are treated and perceived led me to explain that GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered) people don’t all behave, dress, and talk the same way (something which I take for granted that people know, but something which hadn't fully occurred to Maged). This made me realize just how different the situation is in a country where being gay or a lesbian relegates you to life in the shadows, as part of an underground scene. Homosexuals are far more marginalized and maltreated than in the States. Just as I began to revel in my country and people being so "progressive" despite the lingering homophobia there, I was taken aback at hearing Maged (who hails from a conservative Christian background and has a lot of misperceptions about the existence and character of homosexuality in his country) suggest that perhaps homosexuality isn’t so awful and that it is best to be honest (a Christian virtue) with oneself and others though that, obviously, is not at all easy in Egypt. I thought it was a strikingly pure-hearted and non-judgmental response.

So anyway, there is where I left off–right in the middle of a rather controversial topic, no less. More observations to come. In the meanwhile, here're some links to the news of Egypt:

Egyptian governments officials and others in apparent attempt to "break siege on Gaza" on Monday
More oil, gas deposits found in Egypt
An Egyptian Christian killed in flare-up of religious conflict

1 comment:

Cyril Defurne said...

I was ROFL at your comment about the "universal obsession with Céline Dion". I didn't know about that but it sure sounds hysterically funny to imagine Middle-Eastern grown men in love with Céline. Keep'em coming ;)