Monday, September 6, 2010

Finally, Cairo: Where Splendid Things Gleam in The Dust


One cannot truly reflect on any experience in life without a period of self reflection as well. For better or worse, each time you set foot in an unfamiliar city and embark on a new journey, it changes you in a fundamental way. Cairo was no different. Cairo is firmly epitomized in my mind by the description of Gustave Flaubert as a place of contrast: where splendid things gleam in the dust. It forced me to confront the best and worst of people, my world-view, religion, fundamental needs, and of myself. Throughout blogging in Cairo and discussing my experiences with other people 3 themes became very obvious to me early on and stayed with me until the end:

 The experience of travelers vary due to factors that are, at times, beyond their control. While some may downplay the role race, sex, and class have in shaping your experience abroad, I believe that it's integral to discuss these things honestly and openly in order to paint a complete picture of any country. My boyfriend once said to me that, when you are a part of the dominant culture, it doesn't occur to you to consider identity because everything is set up to your benefit. I can see this unconscious omission of the experiences of anyone who is not a Western, white man in most travel guides and blogs about Cairo. Only a few even mention sexual harassment and, when it is mentioned, it is solely from the perspective of white female travelers. When people of colour are mentioned they are either the Orientalized natives, the black African maids for hire, or the poor refugees to pity. Thus, with Black in Cairo, I wanted to bring a different experience to the globetrotters discourse and challenge the status quo. My goal was not to have race, class, and gender relations become the sole focus of any traveler to the point of paranoia but, to discuss these topics as an aspect of traveling and encountering other people to take into consideration wherever you plan to go.

Another thing that I was confronted with while blogging was that discussing racism and sexism from/between people of colour towards other people of colour is still a taboo topic. Often, I received emails, comments, and tweets from people filled with righteous indignation that I "painted" my interactions with Egyptians, especially the men, in a way that they believed to be counterproductive. "There's no point in discussing these things. After all, 'The Man' oppresses us all so why are you complaining?," they'd say. The reality is that the oppressed can easily turn into the oppressor when one whitewashes the lessons of the past and present. People of colour are capable of the same types of xenophobia, racism, and bigotry in the name of religion, nationalism, or self-grandiose that others have perpetuated against us throughout history. Exempting people of colour from conversations on these topics because of their colonial histories, in my view, is paternalistic and offensive. It belies the belief that the societies of African, Asian, Arab, or Latin American countries are not as culturally and socially advanced as their Western counterparts and, thus, can not be held to the standard and expectation of treating all human beings as equal. I was told once to overlook the way  I was treated in Cairo because "they" were still a developing country! This is a perception that I reject. Purposeful and systematic intolerance and racism can be perpetuated by any group towards another and all societies should be held equally accountable for it. Attempting to silence someone who speaks out on any injustice they perceive is an attempt to silence their humanity. On the other hand, all human beings are capable of acts of selflessness, unity, and charity regardless of colour, education, or means.

The third circumstance that I had to contend with was the fact that I was living in a police state.The security apparatus in a police state is nothing to take for granted! A lot of my friends and readers asked why I didn't post pictures of me or my friends on my blog. The truth is that I wasn't sure how much I could do or say before 'Big Brother' would come knocking at my door. Although I tried to push the envelope and discuss topics that are usually not touched upon in other Egypt-oriented blogs, there are also a lot of things that I saw/experienced that I did not write about; for example, Cairo's thriving underground gay scene and police brutality at peaceful protests. One of my roommates warned me that bloggers she knew being detained just of mentioning instances of racism in Egypt, something I did quite often. As President Mubarak is perched on the edge of death and the end of his dynasty, the political climate in Egypt is tense. Accounts of police violence and detention for undisclosed crimes against the state were on the rise. Thus, for security concerns, I kept named, photos, and some details off my blog. This was a very tough decision to make. I continuously strove for honesty and integrity while blogging yet I had to make the conscious decision when to omit details or not to write something at all.

In relation to this, while in Cairo, I conducted several interviews with Southern Sudanese refugees on the topic of integrating into Egyptian society. These interviews were also left off my blog in an effort to protect the privacy of the participants. Because I am black and Haitian-American, I was granted access into the community, to a point. During one interview one man confronted me with my own privilege, "You are black like us and you get treated like us but you have an American passport. Me, they'll throw me in jail for nothing but you, you have the blue protection (U.S. passport)." I sat their in silence for a long time, my face beat red, before muttering something incoherently. I had nothing else to add to his honesty. Admittedly, a degree of guilt and solidarity with the African refugees agonizing in Cairo led me to try to reflect as candidly as I could because Egypt is still killing black women, men, and children by the dozens trying to cross the Sinai to apply for asylum in Israel while the world says and does nothing (and I'll stop saying it when they stop doing it). It was a small thing to do to write from my position of privilege.The benefits and security an American passport can provide can supersede the colour of your skin or the amount of money in your bank account. The privilege to carry an American passport is one that I hold dear.

 With all that being said, I can truly say that I do not regret my time in Egypt. It was a time of personal growth for me that gave me an opportunity to reshape and rethink my short term and long term goals so that they will better reflect the type of professional, sister, daughter, friend , girlfriend (and, eventually, wife and mother) I aspire to become. During my time in Egypt, I learned the strength and resilience of the human spirit through, not only the many obstacles Egyptians and refugees in Cairo endured just to eat a meal each day, but also my own ability to endure verbal, and on occasions, physical abuse. In a society like that of the U.S. that thrives on instant gratification and anticipated law and order, this may seem like a very small feat. However, considering the fact that the Teabaggers are enjoying their Social Security checks, Medicare and Medicaid, disability checks, and still expect the state and federal government to send police to protect their right to yell at poor people and people of colour about "socialism", navigating daily life in developing nations without the guarantee of security or social services is a testament to the will of the human spirit.

To come to this realization marks a point of personal growth for me. It took a long time for me to be able to say anything positive about Cairo. Initially, the experience left me jaded. I still tense up when men walk behind me. I had an especially difficult time adjusting to having normal interaction with men due to the sexual harassment I experienced in Cairo. While in Cairo, I'd come to a point where I quit my Arabic studies and preferred to willingly comprehend as little of what was constantly directed at me as possible. Ignorance, after all, can be the only semblance of bliss you can achieve. Now, I can look back at my first few weeks in D.C., when I would glare at men who approached me or try to resist the urge to bolt out of taxis, and laugh. I can also reflect on some of the positive aspects of Cairo that I will miss:

  • The sight of the Pyramids of Giza in the distance. The magnificence of the pyramids can not be overstated. I felt humbled each time I saw them.
  • The fresh fruits and fruit juice that lined the streets and mixed with all the other scents of the city to create a scent that was uniquely Cairo.
  • The plethora of cute shoes and purses and a remarkably cheap price. There were so many occasions to shop for, real or perceived, that I could never get enough!
  • The world class cuisine available in many of Cairo's best restaurants
  • The low cost of living that allowed me to enjoy an upper class lifestyle with very few financial concerns
  • The wonderful roommates I had and the great friends I made who truly Godsends throughout my time in Cairo.
Back in America, as the Park 51 mosque + cultural center exposes some of the ugliest aspects of America and challenges us all to evaluate our understanding of our rights and freedoms, I think this provides a perfect climate for a conclusion. The reality is that I went to Cairo with ambitions to "find myself" only to realize that everything I'd ever needed in this world is waiting for me right here at home. While America is far from perfect, it has granted me the freedoms that I so cherish and have come to realize are integral to my happiness. These freedoms should not be commandeered by a few or proclaimed by one group over the other based on religion, race, class, or seniority. America should be a true reflection of democratic ideals before these ideals can spread organically from us to Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. Ultimately, Islam has given us no enemies; gaping poverty and inequality, a lack of access to education, and the denial of a people's underlying humanity have. While we can legislate freedoms, it is a bigger challenge to practice tolerance and acknowledge your own privilege; that is the truest test of any individual and society as a whole.

Of course, I want to thank all of you who gave me the opportunity to share my point of view and experiences. Thank you for reading as I allowed the events to shape this blog; thank you for all your comments. Thank you for voting this blog the Best Travel Blog!!! Most of all, thank you for being a virtual family and support system throughout the humorous, hardening, and hearty experiences. For the time being, I'd like to stay Stateside and cultivate relationships here with my family, friends, and my wonderful, encouraging new boyfriend. As I wrap up my M.A. at American University in D.C. and begin a promising new career path, I'm laying the foundation for my first major career move to Haiti (it's time to make that journey home) within the next 1-2 years. In the meantime, I do have an idea for another blog and I'll let you guys know the moment I get it launched!

In conclusion, my German friend once asked me if it was difficult to often be the first black person or the first Haitian person that people meet in my travels. I thought about the many places I've been and the times people have tried to touch my hair, rub my skin, or take a picture of me. Each time, I took the opportunity to share something about my culture with them, breaking down barriers, challenging stereotypes, and laying the foundation for life-long friendships for that is the truest goal of a globetrotter. When you travel next, take the opportunity to do the same and write about it to share with others!


Thursday, September 2, 2010



I'm so excited to share that, due to you guys who voted and remained loyal readers, BinC was voted the BEST TRAVEL BLOG of 2010! Needless to say, I'm so excited that my first attempt at blogging was so successful! I'm also very humbled to have so many people who enjoyed reading about my Cairo experience and providing me with a virtual support network.

I have returned from Cairo and it's been a whirlwind since I landed in DC. I've started a new job, last semester of my MA, moved out of the apartment I shared with my ex, and a met new man in my life (who also happens to be an avid reader ;), and I had a sweet case of tonsillitis to compliment my busy schedule lol . However, I have been reflecting on my Cairo experience and how I want to conclude and summarize this blog. I'm truly sad to close this chapter in my life but I am excited to consider how I've grown through these experiences. This weekend, I will write the final post of Black in Cairo. Please keep an eye out for it!!

Thank you all once again :)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Egyptian Bureaucracy: The Hospital Edition


On Thursday morning, I woke up bright and early to go see the gynecologist for my routine annual check-up. I wanted to go to th private, "international" hospital in Maadi instead of a public hospital. I'd ventured into one of the public facilities once to get some blood work done only to have the receptionist call out the name of all the tests I needed over the loud speaker for everyone to hear, call a 2 other people over to read the doctor's note, and call the doctor on the phone and loudly discuss the tests I needed with him to my chagrin...

Needless to say, when I walked into the glass doors (past 4 security gaurds that line the doorway for some odd reason) of Al Salam International Hospital last Wednesday and saw that it was as modern and uninvitingly stark and cold as any hospital in the U.S., I felt confident that this would be a simple and carefree task. My appointment was set for 10 am. At 10:05 am I walked over to the receptionist to check in. He looked up at me and told me dismissively that the doctor wasn't in today and to return to the front desk and schedule another appointment...I asked if any other doctors were available only to be informed that none had shown up to work yet. I guess no one has pressing medical emergencies at the hospital that would require a doctor show up to work on time or at all for that matter.

I rescheduled my appointment for Saturday at 10 a.m. and this time my roommate also scheduled an appointment for the same time. We arrive at 10 a.m. only to be told that the doctor isn't in yet. The waiting areas is pretty deserted so we grab a seat and wait for the doctor.

-10:30 The doctor is still not in
-11:00 The waiting area has gradually filled up and people mill around waiting for the numbers to be called.      We are told  the doctor will be here in 5 minutes
-11:30 The nurse checks our vitals...still no doctor
-12:00 Guess who shows up to work?! The Doctor!!! He shuffles us both into his office and apologizes profusely for being 2 hours late. He firsts asks my roommate some questions regarding why she's here today. Doctor:Why have you come to visit?
Roomie: I just want a routine pap spear and STD test
Doctor: Why?
Roomie: ...Why?!
Doctor: yes, why do you need this
Roomie: because, I'm sexually active...
Doctor:..Right now!?
Roomie: No, not right now! In general...I'd also like an HIV test
Doctor: Why do you want that? Do you think you've been exposed?!
Roomie: No, in the U.S. it's routine to get one know it can have some serious implications...
12:20- We are both checked out separately and he hands us each the slides to take to the lab ourselves. He says he'll be in on Wednesday and Saturday of next week if we want to come and pick up/discuss the lab results.
- We arrive at the lab in the room a few doors down and we're told that we must first take the slides and forms to the lab upstairs then return downstairs so that my roommate can get her blood drawn for the HIV test
-At the upstairs lab, we are told to go back downstairs, get a stamp on our forms at the cashiers desk, then return with the slides and paperwork
-Downstairs, the cashier tells us he doesn't have the stamp and to check the lab on that floor
-Back at the lab, the secretary at the desk tells us to wait as he finishes his phone conversations
-1:00 once the receptionist is done chatting on the phone, he kindly informs us that he doesn't have the stamp and to go to the cashier. We tell him the cashier sent us to him!
-The lab receptionist fetches the cashier who informs him that he has no idea what any of us are talking about
-Suddenly, the receptionist remembers that he actually does have the stamp we need!
- The receptionists computer has decided that now is the perfect time to malfunction. This sets the process of getting the stamp, which I'm now convinced is some type of mystical creature, back another 20 minutes
-We leave the lab and return to find that the receptionist has put our papers under a stack of forms and is busying himself with other matters. he tells us to wait five more minutes.
-Frustrated, my roommate grabs our forms and slams them on his desk, "I've been here since 10 am! I'm not leaving until you give me the stamp!"
-The receptionist barely looks up at her. "5 more minutes, " he says again and the people in the lab are at the audacity of this foreign woman. i, on the other hand, am both bewildered and amused as I stand in the corner and laugh to myself
-1:50 We get the stamp! The slides and forms are delivered to the upstairs lab
-2:00 My roommate has her blood drawn and the day is finally over! We stumble out of the hospital exhausted after the 4 hour battle

I return on Wednesday evening to get my results. I was surprised to find that the doctor was not there! I was told to go up to the lab to pick up my results. After 20 minutes of searching through several logs, asking different technicians if they'd seen my file, and looking through the system, my lab results were found! The technician handed me the file triumphantly. Bemused, I looked over the scientific jargon and the results. Normal, everything's ok. Casually looking at the computer screen, the technician says, loud enough for the entire lab to hear, "You know you have the HIV..." I felt like someone had just kicked me in my stomach! Trying to remain composed, "What?!"  "The HIV, it's downstairs in the blood lab." Before my life could flash before my eyes, I realized something, "Wait... I didn't take a blood test!" The technician looks at me then looks back at the screen, "Oh, well, thats not for you. Sorry."
WWWWOOOOOOWWWWW...In utter relief, I just laughed hysterically and left!

In the News:
Stifled, Egypt's Youth Turn to Islamich Fervor
Egypt: Officers Accused of Rape
6 African Migrants Killed near Egypt Border, Sinai
Flying taxis in Egypt
In Cairo, End to Cacophany of Call to Prayer
What the Head Scarf Means when Everyone Wears One

Monday, August 9, 2010

I'll Teach You How to Act in Public!


On my way to class each day, I pass by an all-girls, private elementary school. Like all private facilities in Cairo, police guards stand outside of the school's gates to monitor who comes in and out. Today, as I walked by, one of the police officers made kissing sounds, spsst, and shouted at me. I  ignored him and continued on my way to class.

A few hours later, when class was over and I was walking back to the metro, I saw a few young hijabi girls leaving the gates. Once the same gaurd noticed me, he began making kissing noises and shouting again. That was it! I snapped! How is this little fucker going to protect these girls if he doesn't even respect women! I stopped in my tracks, turned around, and marched towards him. He'd been leaning against a car with a sly grin on his face but when he saw me coming his way, he stumbled to get to his feet and adjust his uniform. I stopped inches from him and demanded in Arabic, "Who's your boss?" He stammered for a while trying to think up a response. The more he stammered, the madder I became, "Who is your fuckin' boss," I asked again, this time in English. Having regained his composure, he pointed at his gun holster and the patch on his arm designating his rank as if to warn me.

I've had about all I can take of Egyptian men! I clenched my fist and asked him again, "Who is YOUR BOSS!" The other guards had walked over by now but they all stood back to see how he would handle the situation. He stood his ground for a few more seconds as a mix of emotions passed over his face, finally he settled on embarrassment and his shoulders stooped. He backed away from me and put his hands up in surrender, "Asfa, Ana asfa." Sorry, I'm sorry. The gaurd closest to him repeated his apology. Recognizing my small victory, I decided to leave it at that. I walked away with my held head high as all the police guards looked down at the ground to avoid making eye contact with me.

Guess who's blog is a finalist for BEST TRAVEL BLOG 2010?!! MINE!!! Thanks everyone for voting for me! please take a moment to vote 1 last time for BLACK IN CAIRO:

In The News:
Fighting for Safe passage- A Lesson for Egypt from India

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Building Monuments to Nothing


This bleaching cream high rise stands in the center of Spinney's, the contemporary supermarket inside of City Stars Mall. City Stars is the ritziest mall in Cairo serving an upper-crust clientèle with stores/brands  from all around the world.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tugging At My Heartstrings


Nothing humbles you quicker than being confronted with your own privilege. As difficult as Egypt has been, the reality is is that it has provided me with one of the few opportunities in my life to break into an upper-class sphere simply because the majority of  people around me are so poor. Due to 1) the strength of the U.S dollar 2) the unspoken respect commanded by an American passport and accent 3) and a degree of self-censorship from the prejudices of the masses that I've face, I've been able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle even with the daily inconveniences of Cairo. I've struggled with this privilege and it's inherent elitism throughout my entire time in Egypt. As a child growing up, there were periods when my immigrant family did not even have hot water. Thus, to be unexpectedly catapulted into an upper-crust lifestyle when children beg outside my window has left me trying to reconcile my sucesses, my obligation to my fellow man, the Egyptian gvernment's obligation to its people, and  the complacency and creativity of the people.

The other day, I was riding the metro home on the metro when a woman put her child down on the ground next to my feet and started peddling her goods. I was sitting in the corner of the cart and stared down at the bundle in surprise. Often times, metro peddlers will hop from cart to cart selling everything from glue to hairpins for a few pounds. The peddler will throw his/her goods into each persons lap and return to pick up the money for good purchased or the goods that people did not want. This particular woman was dressed in a dirty gallabeyah with a scarf haphazardly wrapped around her hair. Her feet had been blackened by the dirt on the streets and flopped loosely in over-sized slippers as she walked. Beads of sweat mingled with the stray hairs on her forehead as she gathered her goods (hair clips, I believe) and began a sing-songy chant about the quality of the goods she was selling. As she worked her way up and down the aisle, the young girl she'd put down sat stunned for a moment as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. The child could not have been more than a year old and once she realized that she was in a strange place without her mother, she let out a heart-wrenching wail. The mother flinched at the sound of her child's cries but continued to peddle her goods down the cart.

I looked down at the little girl who's face was now smeared with a combination of tears and dirt. Her wails finally subsided into pitiful hiccuped whimpers as if she'd realized that her mother needed to work and wouldn't come back for her until she was done. The girl cowered at my feet and I instantly wanted to save her from the life of hardship and unfairness that surely awaited her. For some reason, I felt guilty that she would not have the best things this world could provide as i took full advantage of the best her country could offer me. I'd seen Egyptian women offer their bottles of water to thirsty people when the heat of the metro became too unbearable on the hot summer days. I was always amazed at the ease in which people shared water and food here without a second thought about germs or disease. I pulled out my bottle of Dasani water, unscrewed the top, and, a little unsure of myself, offered it to the little girl. She took a long drink of the cool water and instantly stopped crying. She smiled at the bottle, unconcerned about the source that provided it to her. Seeing how happy it made her, I handed the bottle to her. As I got off the train, I looked back to see her small arms wrap around the bottle as she hugged it to her chest and quietly waited for her mother to return for her.

In the News:
NY Mosque Near Sept. 11 Site Wins Approval
I Was Attacked and Beaten By an Egyptian! -What black women really have to deal with in Cairo
No blacks in the pool

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pictures from Every Day Egypt


the overflow from Friday prayer in the park outside the mosque in my neighborhood

It is common to see men stop to pray in what ever space is available. here are some outside a shop

huge homes in the newly built suburbs of New Cairo loom imposing,expensive, empty and  uninviting. few people can actually afford to live in this new suburb yet

these old city buses creak along with everybody piled in for the ride!

Often an entire family piles up on 1 motorcycle; always makes me smile

Makeshift fruitstand in the downtown area line every street corner and alley

the juice man in Maadi suburbs! delicious fresh fruits and fruit juice are always in supply in Cairo!

across the Nile from Maadi. almost every builidng in the city maintains it's dull grey, cinder-block colour complemented layers of dusts years old

Inside the woman's cart when its not crowded. Here you can see the women and their children and the variations of burqa and niqab styles Egyptian women where on their head

the metro

Cairo streets are lined with trash everywhere. few trash cans in the city and public trash pick almost 
nonexistent. The smell can be ghastly 
one of the many neighborhood mosques and black taxi zooms by
the window of Egyptian shoe stores can be both tantalizing and overwhelming
Young boys can often be found doing hard labor to make money
at night, this average neighborhood is transformed into a bustling sooq (market)

Guess who's blog is a finalist for BEST TRAVEL BLOG 2010?!! MINE!!! Thanks everyone for voting for me! please take a moment to vote 1 last time for BLACK IN CAIRO:

In the News:

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