Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A bit of Chicago in Ain Shams

I spent most of my daylight hours yesterday reading, researching, and working on a reflection paper (which I have yet to finish) as well as nibbling on leftover Lebanese. In the evening, though, I marched to the Metro, weaving in and out of traffic and looking determined and impassive, though I was really just braindead from my day of isolation and study. The later was exemplified by the fact that I managed to walk all the way to the wrong platform going the opposite direction (Helwan instead of al-Marg) and wait for the train for a good five-ten minutes before realizing my mistake. Happily, I ended up going the right way and meeting Cynthia in Ain Shams. My class didn't start as expected (though whose expectations one is talking about, I can't say--I always expect things to happen in the most unexpected fashion and at entirely different times on entirely different days here in Egypt). The reasons were that the table-maker that Natalie and Cynthia had contracted to furnish the school with a few, usable flat surfaces had suddenly decided to take a vacation and that classes were larger than anticipated (generally a good indication of the enthusiasm of these young men to learn English, but a logistical problem nonetheless). We tried to further divide my class into two classes, meeting at different times. I still don't know how that worked out. I did get to meet a few of my students, though. Many choose English names or even words to be called by, not for classes, but in general here in Egypt. One of my students, who is from southern Sudan as nearly all are, speaks Arabic and Dinka and rather passable English. He's really excited for my classes. Another student was eagerly asking me questions about Chicago. Though I tried to explain that I lived some two and a half hours away, he was enthralled with his conception of the city. Interestingly, many of the guys wear clothes in a style imitative of America's hip-hop artists. The student wanted to know if Chicago looked like that, if everyone there dressed like the Sudanese at the school. Actually, I told him, many did. Some of them would fit in rather convincingly in the city. He then wanted to know why I wasn't dressed that way. I laughed and, instead of explaining America's cultural realities, I told him that that simply wasn't how my family dressed. I point to another student dressed in a white button-down shirt and jeans and told him that's how some people in America dress too. He ended up walking me back to the Metro past the hanging carcasses of dead cows, old men playing towla, speeding buses, and suspicious Egyptians no doubt wondering what a black Sudanese guy and white American were doing navigating the bustling streets of Ain Shams together. Wiching told me he'd been in Egypt for seven years now and that he'd just dropped out of high school after completing his junior year, but was a bit circumspect about the reasons. After he finishes his education here, he wants to travel or return home to southern Sudan (which is probably UNHCR's ideal for him as repatriation to that part of Sudan is possible--it's the Darfurians who still face grave danger). He continued asking me about my friends from Chicago and wants me to bring photos next time. Who knew Illinois was so exotic?
I was exhausted by the time I got home, zoned out, watched the news, read a bit for classes, and did some genealogy (yes, it's a compulsive sort of addiction that I do by default when my mental energy for higher-order thinking has drained away; it's a lot easier to read census records than formulate my opinion on the moral and practical legitimacy of camps as a solution to refugee crisis).
Unfortunately, a dash of insomnia has crept insidiously back into my nights and I just couldn't drift off. Instead, I listened to this week's episode of This American Life which was a series of vignettes from around Pennsylvania on volunteers from both campaigns and the problems they encountered. One of the segments delt with the racism preventing some people, otherwise staunchly aligned with his principles, from voting for Obama. The frustrating ignorance reminded me of spirited discussions I'd had with my paternal grandfather in which he liberally used racial epithets that would scandalize most people in this age of political correctness and offered spurious reasoning and fanciful stories to justify his distaste of black people. My other grandfather would vote democrat even if the candidate were blue, I think, but that doesn't bespeak a critical analysis of the candidate's policies or viewpoints, rather a loyalty to party handed down from his parents.
I keep forgetting Halloween is on Friday and am more annoyed by the prospect of trying to find a costume to attend various parties I've been invited to. Halloween for me is more of a family event where, in years, past, I've taken my little brother trick-or-treating and then we all congregate at home for pizza with my grandpa (the Democrat) who will have been handing out candy beforehand. Two years ago this Halloween, I was in a small church in the middle of France with my host family and last year I was just hanging out with friends at Bradley. Maybe I'll buck up, be nauseatingly ironic, wrap myself in toilet paper and try to get into the US Embassy party as a mummy.

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