Sunday, February 28, 2010

Al-Azhar Park


The park is the largest green space created in Cairo in over a century, reversing a trend in which unchecked development has virtually eradicated the city's once famous parks. The hilly topography of the site, formed by trash accumulated over centuries, now provides elevated view points dominating the city and offers a spectacular 360° panorama over  Cairo and it's historic sites.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Cairo is filled with daily, unnecessary inconveniences.You just have to adapt to it"- Arabic Gitmo's VP


This weekend marks my first month in Cairo! Usually, the first month's reflection on a new country begins with "The people are so friendly and helpful..." "I love XYZ"...(sigh,awkward silence).... Well, since I can't begin my reflection on Cairo in either way, I promised myself all weekend that I would find something nice to say on this 1 month reflection post so...Al Azhar Park is really pretty. (What!? it really is!)

My roommate describe Cairo pretty well the other day. She said, "Moving to Cairo is like moving to NYC after you've lived in a small town of 100. You realize that the people are assholes." She said when people asked, the only word she can conjure up to describe Cairo was intense. I always say interesting. In reality, there is no way to properly describe the city. Before arriving in Cairo, I thought it would be most difficult to adapt to a conservative society. In fact, that was the easiest part! I try to be respectful and tough it out in the heat with long sleeves on. The daily Calls to Prayer have become as normal as the sound of an airplane flying overhead. I've adjusted to Sunday being the first day of the week. All these things were easy to get accustomed to. The unnecessary inconveniences are what took longer to get used to:
  • Routinely being ripped off because you are a foreigner. Today, for example, my friend and I went to purchase a pair of shoes. Although the price was clearly marked as 90 EGP, the sales clerk charged her 100 EGP. This happens constantly; people will insist that you should pay more because you're foreign.
  • Making death-defying dashes across the street because cars don't stop when pedestrians are crossing and rarely obey traffic signals. In order to cross the street, you have to weave in and out of oncoming traffic and pray to 4 lbs Baby Jesus that you make it. The concept of lanes isn't put inot practice at all in Egypt. Driving is a contact sport.
  • The constant harassment is mind-boggling. I wish I had something to compare it too...let's put it this way, if I walked into a country music bar in Mississippi with just a G-string bikini on and stilettos, fewer men would make profane comments towards me than those who make comments when I walk down the street fully covered in Cairo! Quite honestly, some days, it takes a significant amount of will power to not throw on a pair of shorts and a tank top and run to the corner store. My mind rejects the idea that my Caribbean body must be fully covered under layers of clothes in 90 degree weather but, I do it anyway. When I first arrived, I covered my hair as well but after realizing that it did little to deter the harassment, I don't bother to cover my hair anymore. I refuse to be uncomfortable in order to be respectful of someone's idea of modesty if, in turn, I am not treated with respect. Even women in niqab's are harassed in the street (Why would you hit on a lady in a burqa? Are her eyes seducing you?!)
  • I've actually taken to never smiling and always wearing dark sunglasses (haterblockers)- things I'm very unaccustomed to doing anywhere- so as not to give any man the impression that I am inviting his advances. The other day, on my way to the market,  I found myself conducting an unscientific study to see how many men would walk up to me and make lewd, inappropriate comments. Literally, 2/3 would walk as close to me as they could to whisper something in my ear or shout it out as they walked by. Truthfully, it's funny to think about it now but it can become psychologically draining if you do not learn to be tough-skinned or if you're having a bad day. I've found that I just tune out the moment I see Egyptian men approaching. (counterproductive when you want to learn Arabic but necessary to stay sane)
  • Related to the verbal and sexual harassment is the blatant racism and xenophobia against all foreigners. People will routinely shout slurs at anyone that doesn't look Egyptian...Maybe they do it because they think Arabic is some type of secret code that no one else can crack (smh). I've concluded that Egyptians know more racial slurs than a drunk redneck. I have been told that even Iraqi refugees face prejudices once people hear their accents and realize they aren't Egyptian. While the U.S. isn't perfect, at least Americans mutter racial comments under their breath or apologize for it profusely in a public statement before it's published in a tell-all best seller. In Cairo, the idea of political correctness or racial/cultural sensitivity doesn't exist. Today, for example, I went to Al-Azhar Park with my classmate, a sweet girl from Idaho (She's from Idaho. Please, don't act like you don't know what Idaho's demographics are). Almost immediately, some Egyptians, young and old, male and female began yelling random slurs and us "Tea and Milk" "Africano lover" "Dirty white girl" "samara" (meaning darkie) "Booga Booga" (no need to translate this one)
Having learned to expertly tune Egyptians out, I barely even noticed but, my friend was so uncomfortable and annoyed that we left after only a few minutes. Upon returning to Tahrir Square to shop for comfortable walking shoes, the regular harassment ensued. One man even interrupted our conversation and asked, "I am wondering what an American is doing out with an African in public."  "I'm not African," I shot back in English before realizing that I was wasting my breath on and breaking my rule of not talking to the street-harassers. I suppose I should be amused at an Egyptian calling me African when he is more African than I will ever be just based on Egypt location in Africa. Instead, I'm just surprised at how culturally/racially insensitive and politically incorrect some Egyptians can be! Egypt is in the heart of Africa and a stone throw away from Europe, you can't walk around the corner without seeing a black or white person. Why either would be a novelty to people in Cairo, I can not fathom...It's like the Irish being surprised by red-heads!

Consequently, when my boyfriend asked me if I regretted coming to Egypt to learn Arabic, I contemplated the question thoroughly and hard before answering him. Cairo has been a learning experience. I chose to "rough it"and not live in an expat cocoon far from the city. I wanted to experience the city unfiltered by the Western-imported luxuries or opulence, like the average Egyptian would. I definitely got what I asked for! Although I can comprehend now why someone would choose to keep themselves and their family living in an Americanized suburban bubble, limiting their contact with Cairo in it's purest form (Necessary Classism), I do not regret my decision to come to Egypt or live in the city. Because the Middle East is my area of interest and knowledge, I believe that I would've learned these harsh lessons sooner or later. The Middle East is still pulsating; constantly trying to break into modernity with its own subtle sexual revolution, growing woman's rights movement, and minorities demanding to be treated as equals in brave civil rights movements across the region.  In Cairo, sexual harassment, prejudice, ignorance, and swindling are magnified by harsh wealth disparities, a high unemployment rate, political tension, corruption, and frustrations. Thus, after one month, I do not regret coming to Cairo to see the world through different eyes. However, I do believe that the environment in Cairo and the desert fortress of Arabic Gitmo (AUC) is not conducive to learning Arabic. Neither provide the comfort of or opportunity to interact with average people. The opportunities for all expats to live complete seclude from Egyptians while in Cairo also creates a bubble effect that is difficult to break out of. Therefore, I do regret choosing it as the place to begin my Arabic studies.

- In 2008, the New York Times published a great article by an Egypain-American discussing racism in Egypt. You can find that article here

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Muslims in Haiti


It's been a stressful week. I've basically been shanghaied by Arabian Gitmo. Thus, when I came across this video about Haiti's Muslim community, my first though was:  why did I come all the way to Cairo ?!  I find Haiti and it's history to be as fascinating and enthralling as I do the Middle East. Both pull you in and captivate your senses like a woman undressing slowly. Recently, books have been written about African Muslim brought to the "New World" as slaves. Here you can find passages from one detailing Muslim maroons in Haiti.  

Here is a link to on Haiti's Jewish population as well. According to this article, There are approximately 25 to 30 Jews left in Haiti at present, most of who live in Port-au-Prince.

Halas, tomorrow will be a better day, insha'Allah.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"I Don't Be in the Projects Hallway Talkin 'Bout How I be in the Projects All Day"*


If you are a young, black professional (the kind that likes to brunch hard and pontificate on the purpose of the Talented Tenth over mojito's at happy hours at The Park, pausing only to read  Politico updates on your work Blackberry  or bestow your business card upon someone you've deemed worthy of your acquaintance), you are aware of how necessary it is to have at least one hard core rap song on your iPod to get you through some days. I'm not talking about that mainstream Souljah Boy minstrel-ness,  the materialistic swagger of Jay-Z, or the thoughtful lyrical genius of the Talib Kweli's or Immortal Techniques of hip-hop. I'm referring to that hardcore bass and gritty lyrics of the  Young Jeezy's,the playful ad-libs of Lil Wayne, and the deliberate delivery of the T.I.'s over crunk Southern beats. You know, the song that you play when you're alone after your co-worker/classmate thinks it's a good idea to send you that Obama fried chicken ad as an attachment, does this, or attempts to touch your hair...

That one song is multi-purposed, reminding you of how hard you worked to get where you are when others doubt your genius, giving you motivation to face a hard task at hand, and calming you down when your patience is tested by reminding you of how you could- but won't- react. For myself, Young Jeezy's Standing Ovation (or Pastor Troy's We Ready, for  seriously stressful situations) serves as that song. Normally, I'm not a Jeezy fan but I have developed an appreciation for his hustle because it can be used as an analogy for so many other experiences in life as we learn to assimilate and defy institutionalized boundaries(You saw that?!That's me pontificating right there).

Today, I found myself taking a Jeezy break to keep from expressing my impatience with the immaturity of some of my classmates. As a matter of fact, several aspects of the American University in Cairo** have caused me to take a Jeezy break and dub the school 'Arabic Gitmo.' These things are:
  • The unprofessional, unorganized, and woefully incompetent staff and administrators. Why are you showing up to work at noon when you asked me to meet you at 9am?!
  • Constantly being nickled and dimed (for ex. An additional $330 US to ride the campus bus that's separate from the transportation fee. Of course, you have to ride the bus because the high-walled fortress is 1 hr into the desert)
  • The maze like campus w/ more checkpoints and security than Guantanamo or the West Bank. Not only is it designed so that  even Aladdin couldn't find his way through it but, very few  no signs are clearly posted to tell you which building is which. If you ask 2 different campus workers where the  same building is, you'll get 3 different responses. I don't ask for much, all I ask for is clearly visible signs on the buildings and a staff that's familiar w/ the campus. Why is it that no one can tell me where the administrative building is?!
  • The Student newspaper that feels its appropriate to publish front page articles about a campus worker caught masturbating in the library and the location of his"cum stain" ...I kid you not! (ok, this time I'm just being petty)
  • Compound that with the poor caliber of student's in my Arabic class and you can understand why Jeezy has become a staple. 

I specifically chose to study Arabic at AUC's (i.e. Arabic Gitmo) Arabic Language Institute b/c of the intensive nature of the program. On paper it seemed ideal: We have class times a week 9-3 pm and 4 hours of homework everyday, including the weekends, and tests every 2 weeks. At minimum, I expected Arabic Gitmo to require that the other students be other young professionals and/or serious about learning Arabic to foster a productive learning environment, even at the beginner's level. Instead, in a class of 8, 5 are giddy undergrads on their first semester abroad experience. One young lady waited tables for almost a year after college to save up to pay for these courses and is always serious about her work. Another came from Norway with a determined work ethic. At times I feel like the 3 of us are the only ones paying attention!  The undergrads are eager to party, travel on the weekends, and speak as little Arabic as possible. The program is so fast paced that they have fallen behind. Normally, all of this would be fine with me. I don't really  mind it if the other students are goofing off except for the fact that they insist on holding the class back with insipid questions! Every day, it's the same routine in every class: "Omg,I can't believe we get soo much homework" "I don't feel good...""Can you repeat that?" "How do you pronounce that...can you write it on the board?" "What's the difference between  ?ﺏ and ن

They arrive late to class, always unprepared, talk throughout class, then insist that our instructor explain everything 10 times because they somehow couldn't hear her over their own chatter. The past few days, we've been learning about Idafaa's (phrases indicating belonging), for example  ذيل القط ( Cat's Tail) . I assumed they were simple concepts. How wrong I was! The undergrads have made this the most unbearable and annoyingly repetitive lesson I've endured thus far! At one point today, I  just walked out of class after one girl asked which word was a noun for the 16,000 time! I really do not want to be mean and snap at someone but I am beyond annoyed that they are preventing other people from benefiting to the full extent of our courses. Don't mess with my time and money! Right now, I'm sitting outside, listening to Young Jeezy and reminding myself of how hard I had to work to get here. I'm looking forward to this day coming to an end! Next time, I sign up for a serious program, I will make sure they have an age requirement....

*disclaimer: I just really like that Jay-Z line so I used it as a title. It doesn't have anything to do with this but doesn't it just sound hard?!Didn't it make you think that I was going to tell you about putting someone in their place or something?! lol
** The ALI program is actually a wonderful program with great instructors if you are open to learning Arabic abroad in an American bubble in th emiddle of the desert. Also, AUC has a CASA program for linguists that and people with higher levels of proficiency that I've only heard praises about.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Being Black in Cairo


As a kid growing up in Miami, on May 18th every year, most of the Haitian students and myself would bring our Haitian flag to school and get decked out in our fanciest Haitian flag-inspired outfits.  Each year this ritual took place, part celebration, part confrontation. The Haitian students would come to school ready to celebrate our diversity and rich history on our Flag Day and the African-Americans (sometimes with the help of the Jamaicans) would line up to fight us. Anyone not from South Florida will wonder about the reasoning behind this ritual (to this day, I still don't know why). Some will even wonder if I'm exaggerating (I wish!). This couldn't possibly happen every year, could it?! Unfortunately, this ethnic clash became such a routine part of our interaction with African-Americans that it shaped our view of each other. On May 17th, we were all friends. Then on May 18th, the halls would split down ethnic lines with national flags waving high like flags carried into battle. And then, like a Native American war dance, we'd clash violently, poetically.

In ethnically diverse cities and enclaves in the US, versions of this story are repeated over and over again. Nigerian kids tell horror stories of being called "African booty scratcher". Bahamians still recall being teased relentlessly about their accents. Ethiopians cringe at memories of being chased after school. The things I've heard about Haitians on the playground as a child now make the Pat Robertson's and Paul Shirley's of the world seem like lame opening acts! These interaction permanently served to do several things:
1. They enabled stereotypes of the "other"-that-looks-like-you to develop and perpetuate.
2. They prevented the members of the black diaspora from ever fully integrate within African American culture. We continue(d) to think of ourselves as a people separate from the culture, history, and grievances experienced by our African-American counterparts.
3. As minorities, we learned to define ourselves based on our differences, even to the detriment of presenting a united front on the common issues we face.

Now as an adult, I started this blog after realizing that no sources truly chronicle the experience of being black in a foreign country, not even Egypt! Most travel sites, blogs, and books are written from the comfortable perspective of white men, ambivalent to most racial/ethnic tension that may be noteworthy. After traveling extensively, I realized the need to share some information that I wish I knew before going abroad. For example, none of the sites are going to tell you that Russian gangs roam Moscow for darker people to harm, even stabbing an African-American study abroad student. Or that Spanish sports fans throw banana's at African soccer players...I sort of consider things like this need to know information!

I chose the word "black" for the blog because I felt it would be the most inclusive for the diverse members of African nations, the African diaspora, and the indigenous Nubian/black population living in Egypt. Even though an American passport may allot you better treatment than a Congolese passport, for example, we all share common experiences. After picking the title for the blog, I wanted to let my experience shape the content and from the very moment I arrived, I believe it has. My first day in Egypt, I sat down to have lunch and one by one, all the other black students sat down around me. Surprised, I  decided to just listen in as people introduced themselves. It started off in the usual way, "Hi, I'm so and so. I'm (insert ethnicity here)." I waited for the inevitable; the slow, deliberate gravitation towards the person from your own country or region that happens in the States- African Americans here, Caribbean massive there, African nations over there- but it never took place.

The night we went to the Swiss Club, the same ritual took place. "Hi, I'm Haitian" "I'm Eritrean" "I'm Somalian"..."I'm Sudanese". Again, I waited for it but, no one moved to talk to the person from their own country or reject someone else. Instead, everyone chatted and had a good time. At one point, the Eritrean man wanted to know about Eritreans in the US. I told him that DC had a large Eritrean and Ethiopian population but my interaction with them had been limited. They usually kept to their own community. After being in Egypt for 8 years, he looked genuinely shocked and hurt by this news. He asked me why this was and, avoiding a complex response, I simply said I didn't know.

All things considered, being black in Cairo, faced with the pressures and prejudices of society, has forced us to view the other black person as integral to our own success and assimilation. The experience of being black abroad, in any country, is different from being black in the US or being white-Aglo abroad. Abroad, those historically divided cling to each other for any semblance of home.You learn to see the world and yourself through very different eyes. Sometimes, all it takes is the Black Nod, and you know you're good.

When I think back to those days of grade school, I laugh at the truths we did not know and regret all the opportunities we lost to learn about each other. I wonder how far we could have gotten if we'd learned to celebrate our diversity as well as taking pride in our shared history and struggles.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Language Exchange Partner :)


I signed up for the Language Exchange Partner program  on campus to be paired up with an Egyptian person to practice Arabic with.  I really like my partner! She is an sweet girl from a small town near the Nile.  She was quite nervous when we first met. She told me that, unlike the other student’s who came from wealthy backgrounds and could afford to go to international schools,  she’d never studied in English. Thus, it was a challenge for her to go from learning completely in Arabic to taking classes completely in English! Her  Englih was waaay better than my Arabic though.
She’d studied English as a second language in highschool while I only had 2 weeks of Arabic under my belt.  Anyhow, I enjoyed the exchange immensely! I’d realized that my Modern Standard Arabic (foosa) was improving at a quicker pace than my Egyptian Colloquial Arabic (Armaya) thus it’s importnt to me to start speaking regularly in Armaya.  While MSA is important for reading and writing, no one really speaks it in conversation so its restricting. 
Also, after the past few bad experiences, I was subconciously limiting my interaction with people off campus but that’s not the way to learn a language! I have to jump in head first! I was happy to talk to my language partner. I was afraid that she may be impatient with me as I stumbled through the basics but she was happy to speak slowly and write new words down for me.  I’m even more  motivated to practice Armaya after hearing how good her English is! Yay, I made a friend!!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the bakery. Since  Iearning the word for bread (kobz) ,  I like to test out my skills on the baker down the street lol

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"Man fears time; time fears the Pyramids".-Arab Proverb


The Pyramids of Giza need no introduction. They were magnificent in the ingenuity, breathtaking in the sheer size, and a testament to man's talent!
When I first saw the Pyramids, I just wanted to stand (in the shade) and basque in their glory yet every time I tried to take a moment to gaze at them or admire the architecture, one of the many aggressive local peddler would try to sell me over-priced post cards or "Egyptian" pens. It truly robbed the experience of some of it's poignancy. Our tour-guide made sure to mention that the pyramids were built by laborers not Jewish slaves. I did some fact checking and history and Egyptologists prove that this is correct. Only a few additional points to make on Giza: Go earlier in the day before it gets to hot. I got a mighty sunburn as a reminder of how long it's been since my ancestors were stolen from Africa. Also, don't stop and talk to anyone, man or child, that tries to sell you something- just don't. They are extremely pushy.

The Sphinx is  very close to the Pyramids. It's much smaller in person than I thought it'd be but still beautiful to see in person. The beard, nose, and snake crown were not shot of by Napoleon as rumored but used as target practice by Mamluk's (slave soldiers) of later dynasty. Descriptions of the Sphinx before the arrival of Napoleon describe it as missing these features.

Giza is more famous but, the tombs at The Step Pyramid of Saqqara are equally as impressive and less crowded. You can go into a smaller pyramid at Saqqara and the tombs. In the tomb lay several rooms of heiroglyphics and paintings depicting daily life in Egypt and offerings. The pictures are carved deep into the stone on every wall and even on the cielings in some rooms. They depict intricate scenes of people hunting, dancing, and the wildlife that lived in the once lush Nile Valley. Unfortunately, I couldn't take a picture inside.

The ruins of the Mortuary Temple and the Hall of Columns also lie there. Both worth seeing!

Coptic Cairo and Islamic Cairo


All in all, this was a great weekend, الحمد لله! I got a lot of sight-seeing done and took plenty of pictures to share! One of the places I went was Coptic Cairo. Coptic Cairo is rich in Christian history, it is where the Romans built the fortress city Babylon. Coptic Cairo held many religious sites but the 2 that stand out the most to me are the Ben Ezra Synagogue that served Egypt's once thriving Jewish population. A synagogue in the center of the Christian part of a Muslim city is truly unique. The architecture of the synagogue also lends itself more to the style of Christian churches from the period than a synagogue. 

The Hanging Church of the Virgin Mary was also very interesting. The church itself is unique because the vanilla structure seems to look down at you from the top of the staircase. It's beautiful in its simplicity. Inside are tributes to the Christian patriarchs. The highlight of this church is the cave leading to where the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, and their midwife Salome) sought refuge refuge and live after they fled from Israel (Mathew 2:13 - 21).

Islamic Cairo refers more to a broad area that a specific sight. I didn't spend as much time there as I did at Coptic Cairo. El Hussein Mosque stands imposingly at the "entrance" of Islamic Cairo. Because I went on a Friday, I was not able to enter the structure during prayer service. I stopped by  The Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar near it but didn't spend much time there. If you like haggling over prices, being continuously hassled, crowds/tourists, and souvenirs, it's the place for you!

Swiss Club- Nightlife


Of course, I had to sample the nightlife here in Cairo! From what I've hard, the best time in Cairo is had off the scene. On Friday night, I visited the African ex-pat weekly party that alternatively held at the Swiss Club or the Swiss Inn. It started off as a place just for the African ex-pats but like jazz, rap, and everything else, as soon as other people found out how much fun the black people were having, they wanted in. In the end, it makes for a great multicultural party with a great variety of music!

**I went with a group of Somalians and met some of my classmates there. Because it's a packed room full of gyrating, sweaty people, you can imagine how the Egyptian men were behaving.I didn't even realize what was going on until some of my classmates complained about being groped and pinched and I noticed that very few guys ever approached me. The ones who did would walk away at the site of the Somalian men and quickly apologize for looking at me. As my roommate said, "No one messes with the Somalians. No one." LOL

Friday, February 12, 2010

Scum of the Earth!


I decided to do a little sight-seeing today and take some pictures. I took the metro to Coptic Cairo and had a great time. Afterward, I headed to Islamic Cairo to check it out too. I took the metro to Attaba and then took an un-metered black cab to El Hussein Mosque at the entrance of the Islamic Cairo area. The cab driver told me over and over it would be 10 pounds in English and in Arabic. Less than 2 blocks away, he picked up 2 women who were going to pray at the mosque. The ladies, mother and daughter, were quite friendly. The mother, Sari, told me they were Somalians visiting from Australia. We chit-chatted and I liked them both very much. As an afterthought, I asked her how much he was charging them. She said 3 pounds! I told her he was trying to charge me more than 3X more and she said that that was ridiculous!

When we arrived at El-Hussein, she handed him 3 pounds for herself and her daughter. I hand him 5 pounds for my ride since he'd picked me up a few blocks before them. We all exit the cab. The cab driver hops out of the car and gets in my face screaming, "10 pounds, 10 pounds!!" Not one to be intimidated, I told him 5 bas, I wasn't going to pay him anymore than that. Sari even shoos him away. He shoves the 5 pound bill back at me and goes back to the car. I'm crossing the street w/ the The Somalian ladies, going towards the mosque, when suddenly the cab driver comes running after me and grabs my arm in the middle of traffic! I am momentarily shocked! No this dirty peasant didn't just touch me!!!!

I try to shove him and walk off. Instead, he grabs on tightly to my shirt and starts screaming at me for money. (Here is a picture of the stain his dirty hands left on my shirt). An American guy, seeing the altercation, comes running across the street and pulls me away from him. I don't think I've ever been happier to see an American in my life! The Somalian ladies had run off to get the police and came back minutes later with 3 Egyptian cops. In a fit of English and Arabic, we explain to the cops what happened while the cab driver yells about me ripping him off! To my surprise, the cops actually side with me and tell the cab driver to take the 5 pounds or nothing. Although, I'd much rather kick him in the balls, I hand the peasant scum the 5 pounds and he had the audacity to snatch it from me and stomp off!

When I got home and told my roommates about the experience, they listened sympathetically. They said they'd had similar experiences with cabbies in Cairo- being chased, hit, grabbed,and spit on. Roommate 1, who speaks Arabic and has lived here for 2 years, advised me to learn to just outrun the cabbies.

Update: Regarding being ripped off, a lot of people have asked me how common this is and if other foreigners have experienced similar things in Cairo. The answer is yes. While most people would just pay a higher fare or get scammed, others have had experiences where people got belligerent and physical b/c they refused to be ripped-off. Some here assume you don't know any better and foreigners have more so they should pay more.

Regarding sexual harassment, it's a problem for all women here. Some Egyptian men automatically assume that Westerners are promiscuous and react to white girls based on this premise.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bokra Insha’Allah eh?


Today in Conversational Arabic class, we learned the days of the week and how to ask what day it is/was. The instructor taught is that Bokra  Insha’Allah eh? meant “What day is tomorrow”. She asked me to repeat it and I did, forgetting to add the Insha’Allah (God willing). She corrected me and said that I should always include the Insha’Allah when referring to the future. I asked if it is considered rude in Egyptian culture to exclude the phrase and she said it was.
The concept of referencing God in regular conversation isn’t foreign to me. In the USA, we frequently say “God bless you” when someone sneezes or”God willing” when we describe something we hope to do. In Haitian culture, we frequently mention doing things if God’s wants or allows it or end sentences with “In God’s name”. Therefore, the idea that you’d know tomorrow if it is God’s will, as the phrase Bokra  Insha’Allah eh  implies, seemed to simply be  a reality to me.
Ditzy President of Her Sorority sitting next to me suddenly shoots up and exclaims, “…But what if you don’t believe in Allah!” Oh poor girl! Her daddy would probably have a fit to know she was being brainwashed and clandestinely converted to a terrorist religion in class!!  Misunderstanding the question, our instructor grabs her chest and says, “You must never say such a thing in Egypt!  You say Insha’Allah even if you don’t believe.”  Ditzy President of Her Sorority’s face turns beet red and she sulks back into her chair, possibly contemplating the heresy she was being forced to repeat in the name of education and cultural emersion. For some reason, I decide to put her out of her misery. I tap her on the shoulder and tell her Allah is simply the Arabic word for God, it isn't specific to Islam. She looked a little relieved after receiving this information but still on the verge of an anxiety attack. Forgive me, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at her.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Man Above Me


I thought it was strange that my roommate mentioned to me  that there is a former interrogator living in the apartment above us. Yes, this was a bit strange but hardly "need to know" information. On Sunday, I forgot my key on campus and was locked out of the apartment. I was decidedly agitated b/c one of the insufferable staff members at Arabian Gitmo (i.e. AUC) had taken it along w/ my ID and forgotten to hand it back to me. She was supposed to have activated my email account last week and of course, a week later I still could not log in to the system.

After calling my roommates at work, I slumped down on the stairs resolutely to endure an hour long wait before someone could come let me in. A stocky old man with an air of authority comes climbing up the stairs, stops and stares at me for a few seconds. I am in no mood to be bothered so I do not bother to reply misharfar (I don't know) when he yells something at me in Arabic. "Do you speak English," he asks grimly. I nod and slide my things aside hoping he'll leave it at that and continue up the stairs. Luckily, my phone rings as he stands there staring down at me. I answer it and, thankfully, he walks up the stairs. When I get off the phone, I turn to find him standing a few stairs above me, staring at me.

"Do you live here," he asks as if he has every right to know. Something tells me to say no, I don't. "Are you just visiting," he follows up. I hesitate for a second, trying to think quickly on my feet. Where is this line of questioning going? He asks again, a little louder this time. Clearly this guy's used to be answered quickly and directly! Yes, I say. He glowers at me, "..Good."

He looks at me for a second, as if to memorize my face, turns and continues up the stairs.

...Well, it's obvious to me that he was very good at what he did! geez.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mafish Mushkela (No problem!)


Eating out in Egypt is relatively inexpensive but my roommate and I went grocery shopping yesterday so that we can pack our lunch more often. We went to the Alpha-Mart,a grocery store, in Dohi. I wasn't able to find ham, it was probably a long shot anyway. I did get some salami and turkey breast. Afterward, my roommate wanted to go to the vegetable market to pick up some fresh veggies. Here she is bargaining at one stand.

American Fast food places deliver in most of the countries I've been to. Here is a pic of McD's, Hardy;s, and KFC's delivery scooters.

I road the metro yesterday! It was 1 EGP to ride. We sat in the middle cars that are reserved for only women on every train.

Things I've learned in Egypt Part 1: Hot showers are a luxury not a right....
You wouldn't believe the effort it takes to take a hot shower at our downtown apartment lol. We can't just hope into the shower and turn the knob. We have to first turn the water tank on until it's filled (about 15-20 mins). Afterward, we have to fiddle with the hot water heater switch until the temperature rises and the water's warm enough to shower in. Most of the time it will turn off before the water gets warm or it will stay on only for a few minutes before I have to begin the process all over again. It makes washing my hair pure joy.....There is that rare occassion when I'll get 15 minutes of uninterrupted hot water and it's nothing short of a miracle, el Humdu lillaah!Roommate 1 said, at her first Egyptian apartment, they had to warm the water over a stove. Roommate 2 said, at her first apartment, their hot water heater never seemed to work at all. In comparison, it makes me very thankful for what we have and all the things we take for granted in the USA.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Egyptian museum


On travel sites, The Egyptian Museum is has a love/hate relationship with bloggers and commentators. Personally, I enjoyed it. I think its a perfect place to begin your trip to Cairo because it wil test your patience and capture your imagination, like everything else in Cairo.
You have to go through two layers of security. The cost to get in with student ID is 30 EGP. The guards may hassle you, unofficial "tour-guides" will try to charge you 50 EGP so that they can tell you wonderfully inaccurate stories of the artifacts, and if you want to see the mummy's, it's an additional 100 EGP. No map is provided when you get inside. The museum is dimly lit and the labels on the artifacts are vague. Also you are not allowed to bring a camera inside the museum....*cough cough*....
With that said, I had a great time just wandering around for hours on my own and looking at things I'd only seen in pictures. Like anything else here, it is what you make of it. The craftsmanship of the ancient Egyptians is impressive. The sheer size of some of the monuments is also breathtaking. The uses of gold, wood, color, iron and stone is intricate. Also, the number of artifacts preserved is amazing! I was under the impression that the intricate mummy coffin's were rare but the museum has tons of them, each one more impressive than the last!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

La Vida Cairo


My first full week in Cairo is over and the weekend (Friday and Saturday here) is underway. I've been trying to take it all in to answer as best as possible the general questions I've been asked via Twitter, Fb, GChat, etc. So here are the answers to your questions thus far:

How is Cairo?

I believe the best way to describe Cairo is both underwhelming and overwhelming at the same time. I chose to live in Downtown Cairo instead of the suburbs of Zamelek or "New Cairo" an hour away in the desert where most of the ex-pats and rich, Western educated Egyptians live. I wanted to get an authentic Egyptian experience in order to practice my Arabic and, quite frankly, avoid drunk American co-eds as much as possible.

Cairo seems to have been frozen in time, maybe in the 1950s, at the cusp of modernity but never quite reaching it.There is something about it that says it could be more than it is now and someone had intended for it to be. From a Western perspective, Cairo is simply dirty. I thought long and hard but I can not find a more appropriate euphemism for it. Trash piles are littered at every sidewalk, every street, because the city has no trash collection service or even trash cans. Stray dogs and cats, especially stray cats, are everywhere shifting through the trash. Some areas are simply poor while others live in squalor that would make the worst neighborhood in the US look like an oasis. EVERYTHING is covered in a layer of dirt to the point that, at first glance, I assumed that every building and sidewalk was grey and colorless. At all hours of the day, men of all ages line the streets chatting or sit at hookah bars watching soap operas and children dodge in and out of traffic.

Traffic...There are very few traffic lights operating in the city which lends itself to traffic jams,reckless driving, and general chaos. The few that do work are treated as mere suggestions by the drivers. At certain intersections or roundabouts, cops will try their best to regulate traffic.I just hope not to get hit by a car while I'm here. Some guy tried to parallel park on me the other day while I stood on the curb waiting to cross the street!

In contrast, the suburbs are like desert Versace homes-high walled, security clad, and sand colored ornate homes. Everything is lined with palm trees and Western restaurants and stores, Construction of gated communities everywhere to keep the rest of Cairo out.

However, the most significant sound in the city is the city-wide Call to Prayer 5 times a day. The first night I was awakened at 5am by the first call to prayer launched over a loud speaker at a nearby mosque. It is truly a humbling sound to hear for the first time, moving in it's spirituality and tradition.

How is the food?
Cairo isn't really known for being a culinary hub so forgive me for not being able to properly answer this question yet. I've had Yemeni and Sudanese food since I've been here. Although many street vendors and small shops and smaller restaurants line the streets around my apartment, I haven't ventured out to most of them and will probably wait until i'm in the suburbs for fine dining reviews.

Cairo has a wonderful service called where you can have food from any restaurant in the area delivered to you.The best meal I've had thus far was ordered from Ataturk. It was the called mixed grilled portions and I still dont know what all the different grilled meats were.

What do you wear? Do you cover your hair?
I tried to pack "modest" clothing for this trip, or at least a Miami girl's version of modest clothing. I brought loose fitting jeans, long sleeve shirts, sundresses, pants, sweaters, loose fitting T's. I also brought a few scarves with me. I attend Arabic classes at AUC which is also in the suburbs. On campus, the Egyptian girls are always well dressed with their hair flowing. The dress code is also more relaxed in the suburbs. Lots of skinny jeans, Louis Vuitton purses, and Chanel shades.Very few cover their hair. In contrast, in Cairo most of the women cover their hair (hijabs), the older women wear long skirts or pants and long-sleeve shirts,very few completely covered (burqas or niqabs).

In Cairo,I do cover my hair loosely at times (as if I'm wearing a shawl). I do it causally so as not to stand out or just b/c it's a little chilly during January here and not routinely.I've realized dressing modestly refers to covering your hair,arms, and legs. With the current 60-70 degree weather that's not an issue but I'll let you know how I feel about this in the summer lol...

...Sexual Harassment?
In relation to dressing modestly,Sexual Harassment, is widespread and casual here. It's a good idea to blend in otherwise the Egyptian men will grope you, rub up on you, or make lewd comments and gestures. I have yet to experience any physical sexual harassment (it only take a few Memorial Days in Miami to learn how to avoid crowds of leering, sexually frustrated men). I have had both the PoPo and a few men on the streets make lewd sexual gestures and say things I'd rather not understand but no one's tried to touch me. Various forms of scammers and perverts have tried to talk my ear off and get me to come with them somewhere. I just walk off as if I don't understand or walk into a store. It's best to first assume that no man is being a good Samaritan when they approach you here. I'd like to add that I have yet to take public transportation, where most of the groping and grabbing happens b/c you cant avoid being in a crowd. Also, white women, regardless of how they are dressed, are grabbed more frequently. My roommate is groped all the time and she ALWAYS covers her hair and body when she leaves the house.

I was told that the Egyptian government has attempted to have PSA's teaching young men that grouping foreigners on public is wrong but clearly they failed.

...Hair care?
Yup,this is a big deal for black women lol. I brought with me EVERYTHING I need to take care of my hair while here,literally a suitcase full of products alone for my personal hair regimen thanks to Hairlista lol. I do occasionally relax my hair so I was overjoyed to find several kinds of Dark and Lovely relaxers at the pharmacy near my house. My roommate also told me that the Sudanese here do it all-relaxers, wash and set, braids, and weaves. I haven't been able to access their level of skill since most are also Muslim and wear hijabs though. For the time being I'm stretching and 1 month post-relaxer, I keep my hair in a bun to protect it from the dirt and pollution in the air and also to keep people from touching it (something that's happened to me frequently abroad...and in the US). Thus far, I've had no trouble taking care of it myself even though I am a novice.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

oh Arabic...


I'm not going to lie, earlier today I was feelin' myself (quite proud) after Modern Standard Arabic classes. In 4 days I memorized all the Arabic characters and their various positions and I was starting to be able to read words that used to look like squiggles to me just last week... I couldn't comprehend what these words meant but at least I could read them! I could even hold the most basic conversation (Asaalamu ailaikum)! Ah, all it took was one afternoon of Egyptian Colloquial Arabic later on to bring me back to reality. Today we learned how to tell time :/ Telling time in Arabic is like a math problem where you add and subtract increments of 5....sigh, back to the drawing board lol

Monday, February 1, 2010

Insha'allah... (Happy Black History Month)


I met a young black undergrad from Emory at the airport when I first arrived. This was her second time studying in Egypt. I asked her about her experience and she said it wasn't what she'd expected. She was surprised at how much Egypt dis-associated itself with everything "African". Other African Americans here made similar comments. I find it interesting that a lot of the African diaspora- the large African population outside of the continent created by the forceful and permanent displacement and disbursement of African slaves in the 'New World'- claim ties to Egypt or Nubian's when our true ancestors came from the other side of the continent of Africa.

This need to identify with a culture that is not our own is telling of the effects of slavery/colonialism. The physical and mental enslavement of Africans was accomplished by removing any sense of self worth through culture, language, and history in order to create a people with no hopes for the future because they had no past. When the descendants of those slaves sought to find any mention of themselves as people in their Western history books, Egypt shined through like a beacon. After all, what positive things have you learned in school about Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, and all the other countries where the slaves actually originated?...go ahead and think about it, I'll wait...Instead of associating w/ the negative images of Africa we are shown, people prefer the myth of Egyptian royalty.

Instead of exploring our true history,blacks outside of Africa (for example the rapper Nas) embrace and champion a culture that is foreign to that of our ancestors so I can understand why Egypt is a shock to someone who expected to be welcomed home. While Egypt has had black kingdoms and the indigenous black/Nubian population remains today, there is nothing "African" about Egypt in relation to Sub-Saharan Africa. Even the darkest/blackest of Egyptians wouldn't call themselves black or African. The cultivation of nationalism here has been strategic so that all Egyptians will refer to themselves as Egyptian first, as if that is their race, ethnicity, culture et al.Also, there is a color complex here similar to that of many post-colonial developing nations, "light is right" and "if your black get back". The media is filled with only the fairest images of Egyptians.

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