Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bititkallim arabi? Shwaya shwaya.

Though it's only a quarter past four in the afternoon, today has already been a good day. With new confidence and new words in my Arabic repertoire from spending five days surrounded by quite talkative Egyptians, I'm making an effort to speak the language as much as possible. At three different stores and in two different taxis, I was a whirl of niceties, questions, and understanding. I was able to explain to an employee at a supermarket in Zamalek that I wasn't having any of his 59 LE (nearly $11) toilet paper and wanted to return it and then to raise a stink about him refunding me 58 instead of 59. Thank God I've learned my numbers! Elsewhere, I remembered the proper way to politely say excuse me to a woman (the forms of words depend on the gender of the speaker or the one being spoken to, depending on the situation) and was able to understand her response to my question in Arabic. For all of my gushing about my progress, I must admit that my command of the language is still very rudimentary and gleaned from conversations with Egyptians rather than any formal classes. Perhaps I'll make a point of taking some sort of Arabic class next semester to polish things up a bit.
Now, I'm settling in after running errands in order to do rather a large amount of reading on "Humanitarian Regime Policies and Politics". I have a paper due on the topic on Thursday. Though I should already have thrown myself into the material headlong, I find it necessary to continue recapping my jaunt to the Red Sea. Doing so thematically, rather than chronologically, is probably best considering that my days were quite similar to one another:

A Ball of White Cotton
The Red Sea near Ras Sudr isn't quite as clear or alluring as down at Sharm al-Sheikh, but then again, the experience of staying with an Egyptian family in their condo in a vacation "village" is altogether different as well. I liked the less flashy, more Egyptian character of it all.
The only white person for miles, I shouldn't have been surprised that I would attract stares just as I often do in Cairo. I was, however, amused that this curiosity with my appearance extended even to my hosts. Some of Maged's shirttail relatives were even surreptiously snapping shots of my apparently glamorous American self. When I shed my shirt to go swimming with everyone else, I was told that my skin was "like milk". The even more imaginative simile in which my referent was "a ball of white cotton floating on the sea" pretty much takes the cake. Though I contented myself with taking in the scene of the here rough, there smooth, partially rock-strewn beaches, the passing ships in the distance, the mountainous formations across the sea back on the African side of Egypt and those toward the east, further into the Sinai peninsula, everyone around me insisted on remarking how much they admired my hair or how cute I was. It doesn't do much for a 22-year-old man's self-image to hear how "adorable" he is. From stud to plush toy in no time flat, I tell you. But really–to those of you 20-something guys out there with dimples, scant facial hair, lights eyes and light hair who are in the market for attention, I can assure you that there are veritable armies of matronly Egyptian women just waiting to (s)mother you, tell you how sorry they feel for you being thousands of miles from your own mother, and how you really should eat more (and will, in fact physically atempt to assist you in this endeavor).

"You Don't Eat Meat. Do You Eat Chicken?"
In my normal routine, I eschew all meat but seafood, making exceptions only for the rare indulgence in steak-frites in Paris and for those times when my grandmother forgets I don't eat ground chuck. (Mercifully, she recently discovered that even in Lacon, you can find tilapia.) As my willingness to make these relatively small and narrow exceptions shows, I'm not militant vegetarian. Thus, in the spirit of flexibility and not wishing to offend my hosts here in Egypt or miss out on the local cuisine, I was prepared to take place in limited carnivory should I find myself at a Rotary event or in a private home. Apart from these situations, maintaining my normal quasi-vegetarian lifestyle in Egypt is usually not that much of a struggle. Things like koshary, ta3miyya, and fuul are leguminous godsends that help make up for protein not gotten from meat. But despite the ubiquity of these vegetarian staples, the concept of vegetarianism is quite a strange thing to most Egyptians. (Heck, even some of my own relatives in the States think I'm a bit crazy for not salivating over burgers and hot dogs on the grill in the summer.) Maged's family is no exception. Thankfully, hospitality is a hallmark of Egyptian culture and they didn't mind trying to accomodate despite the evident bafflement. "You don't eat meat?" they would ask via Maged who valiantly served as my translator throughout the trip. "Do you eat chicken?" I would sheepishly reply in the negative, wincing at the thought of inconveniencing my gracious hosts. They didn't mind and instead, doubled up on the ostensibly vegetarian portions of the meal (never mind that the fasulia, a vegetable stew featuring green beans in a tomato broth had beef stock and the molokhiyya, chicken stock). Their curiosity piqued, many asked why I was a vegetarian. I obviously didn't bother to clarify that by American standards my eating fish disqualified me from the vegetarian club and that chicken, fish, and the flesh of any imaginable animal was considered meat these days. I tried to get off the hook by saying it's healthier. How on earth would I have Maged translate my conviction that my diet reduces energy consumption and is thus better for the environment? or that I pass on everything from Thanksgiving turkey to spaghetti with meat sauce for reasons of social responsibility? It's so strange coming to a country where all of my (perhaps high-flown) idealism is so alien to the day-to-day lives of the people around me. If it's slightly challenging to try and explain myself to family in central Illinois, it's utterly impossible to do so in Cairo. I won't even extend this discussion to organic food! Ha. It makes me wonder what sorts of cultural values Egyptians would have a hard time tying to explain to Americans. In the end, I think my favorite aspect of the trip culinarily was the pomegranate seeds heaped in bowls and dusted in sugar.

"Do You Think You'll Get Divorced One Day?"
"My brother and I have different fathers" I explained to a gaggle of the same woman who earlier were plying me unceasingly with ta3miyya when one of them inquired as to the nearly twelve-year age difference between us. They all became downcast as they jumped to the conclusion that my own father must have died. "Oh no," I lightly explained "my parents are divorced." As mentioned in my last entry, my conversations with Maged and his family covered quite a gamut of social issues. My hosts, part of a growing number of Copts belonging to Evangelical and other Protestant churches, are shocked by how rampant divorce in America is. In Egypt, divorce is certainly not unheard of and is, in fact, on the upswing, but social attitudes are not quick to change. While I would never suggest that Americans who get divorced are immune from heartbreak or difficulty, the act is largely free of the stigma that paints divorcées in Egypt with heavy shame. Maged's family was at first puzzled when I so casually explained the complicated dynamics of my own family as I've been used to doing ever since I can remember. I told Maged that nowadays the question "Are your parents married?" is not at all uncommon in the States. A look of shock. "Do you think you'll get divorced one day?" asked Maged's pregnant newly-wed cousin. I reassured her that it wasn't on my to-do list and I didn't expect to, but that I didn't think most people went into a marriage planning to get divorced.

Papsi al-Kelb
Aside from the many relatives, friends, and relatives of friends that were staying with us, there was another guest who, in fact, caused quite a stir. In a different way than Maged's high level of English and Western-style education, Papsi was a prime example of the cultural influence of America in the Middle East. How? Just by being a dog. As you may recollect from other of my entries, dogs are usual found on the street of Cairo in packs scrounging for food, dodging cars, and being kicked. Many are even poisoned or otherwised done away with. The pet stores in my neighborhood (of which there are too) would, in the States, be shut down in seconds flat by even the most forgiving inspector. Cats are sometimes confined in birdcages while neglected, malnourished dogs are chained tightly to doorways. Given this environment which may be related to the rather particular relationship between Islam and keeping pets, the large majority of Egyptians are not used to interacting with canines, especially not lapdogs or house pets. It was in this context that probably half of the guests in the condo were skittish around this exceedingly inoffensive little creature. Maged's uncle, a man in his 50s, was so terrfied of the animal that, when it walked quietly into the room, he jumped out of his chair folded it up and ran screaming in circles, riling up the dog who began chasing him and barking excitedly. The grown man roared death threats and waved the chair crazily while I did everything in my power to refrain from bursting out laughing from my position on the couch.
On a sadder, but still dog-related note, I found out during my trip that our faithful old man of a dog back in Peoria died. Barkley was a faithful friend, especially to my little brother who's having a hard go of it in his absence. That degree of attachment is just another example of how different a role domestic animals play in my home and host countries.

Well, I've spent far too long writing this cumbersome novella and should probably get to writing of a more academic persuasion. First, some news of Egypt:

Sectarian violents continues in southern Egypt
Egypt's Foreign Minister pays surprise visit to Baghdad, will reopen embassy there
Government detains more Egyptian Brotherhood members
Egyptian bloggers, the government, and religious conservatism

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