Category: A Fulbright Scholar in Cairo (page 2 of 9)

Can Artists Wear Shorts, Help Gazans and Stop a Missile?

The world just lost a contingent of its top AIDS/HIV researchers. In seconds. A passenger plane brought down by a missile and deadly intent by a “pro-NAME THE CAUSE” group. The world also lost Gazan children this week. Hundreds of our Nigerian children remain lost, as we have not brought home our girls. Egyptians disappear into a deadly prison system, sentenced to death in mass. Over 80 humans in Chicago were shot Fourth of July weekend.

I see in my mind an image of the globe, with souls leaving the surface. We are losing each other. Not because of disease in these cases, but because of divisions and perceived defense of one’s right to be oneself.

Our loss. Our shared, devastating loss.

And in the midst of tragedy, I am thinking about both loss and shorts.

Cultural sensitivity fatigue. After two years here in Egypt, that’s the stage I am facing. I really want to wear shorts. Be in my comfort zone. Riding a bike, riding in the co-ed (predominantly men) car of the Metro, walking around town comfortable without leers or judgement or cat calls or raised eyebrows. I don’t want to cause a stir; I just want to wear what I want. But no. It’s not possible. As a grown woman in the neighborhoods I go here, shorts are so wrong.

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My view of the co-ed car on the Cairo Metro.

Yes, I am a woman. Lady. Female. Everyday in Cairo, I am reminded of this fact. Awareness of one’s gender is strong and constant here. Signs abound saying “Ladies.” Gender dictates what one wears, where they stand on the Metro, how they travel. Even when I went to get a work permit, they wanted my husband to come as well with his ID. If I wear shorts, can I ever be seen as a role model of an independent woman and artist? Or is it just complete cultural insensitivity, especially during Ramadan, with conservative in-laws, as a person whose salary is funded by the U.S. State Department?

Is wearing shorts being oppressed, bowing to male-dominated American pressures of beauty? Would wearing shorts be a symptom of ethnocentrism, seeing my culture as more right than another’s? I might as well go to work wearing Post-its like the Office Flirt Lingerie Set now on sale for $19 on GroupOn.

I do feel more comfortable, sexy, confident, and myself when I’m wearing shorts.

Manawatu Standard of January 7, 2011 - Malcolm Evans.

Manawatu Standard of January 7, 2011 – Malcolm Evans.

Thinking about shorts and Post-it lingerie at a time like this? There are crises around our world. We are killing each other.

Although trivial on the scale of life and death, the matters are connected in one aspect, being oneself in a co-mingled world of differences.  Factions and flags. If I feel in heart that something is right and I feel confident to do something about it, I should. And I should be the artist I am.

As artists we have signed on to explore and ask questions, of ourselves and others. We did not sign on to propaganda and proving theories. We should make art with the children of Hamas, the children of Zionists, the future recruits of terrorists, the future missile launchers, Israeli settlers, the refugees, the military, the religious leaders, the future and current journalists and politicians, alike.

Like my friend Kevin Koval who questions What Will I Tell My Jewish Kids.

I have two friends that are Gazans and confined to that strip of the holy land. I also have friends who are Orthodox Jewish and Pro-Israel. I have two close friends that are American-Israeli citizens. I have friends in Bethlehem (Palestinian Christian) who have applied to the israeli government for decades for the chance to make the short trip to the holy sites in Jerusalem and received it only once with a 30-day limit. I have Kosovan, French, and Israeli friends asking me if Egypt is safe to visit.

Rep. Tom Cole (R) Oklahoma of the Defense Appropriations Committee is on my TV saying Israeli citizens have a right to defend themselves. Israeli governmental official is now on TV saying their objective is peace and quiet. What I see under #GazaUnderAttack is horrifying and unjust. Russians in Ukraine want to be themselves. Serbians in Bosnia want to be themselves. Albanians and Azerbaijanis want justice. Texans want to carry their guns.

Apartheid. Bullying. Genocide.

Egyptians wanted Bread, Freedom and Social Justice. Now they have handed those back, instead asking for stability, prosperity, and the dependability of status quo.

This post is all over the place. Schizophrenic. Not focused or one-sided. Without fact-finding or truth-seeking. Motivated by loss. Encouraged by empowerment and vision.

Exactly as it should be.

Exactly as artists could help the world these days.

 

 

Marriage: The Other Lean In

Sheryl Sandberg is all about leaning in. A concept for workplace empowerment, especially for women. In just over a year, leaning in has already become an old phrase and old debate. But leaning in is taking on a new meaning in my life as my husband and I’s marriage grows.

This is important because my change of heart into wanting to be a wife came unexpectedly. Neither of us were much into dating, but we were into taking a risk to see where things would go.

Yes, our marriage is young, just a half year so far. It is international, interracial, inter-religious…even though we don’t think about those things. Our marriage is arts and activism focused. Balanced in many ways and ad hoc in others. Foreign and homey.

It is It is cliche and badass.

It is in no ways easy. But in one sense, it is extremely easy, it is natural.

In our new marriage, we are leaning in.

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I often get asked about the treatment of women here, in the Middle East and North Africa. This question makes used to make sense. And I used to answer it. But now that I have been here for a little time and married into the culture, the question has become somehow odd. Way too difficult to generalize. Honestly.

It’s a marriage.

The biggest differences I see are the wedding start times. In Egypt, it is common to start a wedding at 10:00 pm and to open the buffet at 1:00 am or later. There are often two to three bands as well as a DJ and a bellydancer. Sometimes the performers are legendary. Sometimes the bride makes a flying entrance.

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My husband and I married six months ago: vows and celebration on the winter solstice, official paperwork filing a week later. We wore jeans and t-shirts that said, “I will” on the sleeve. And in these first six months, we have gained more clarity on what we will do.

Let’s use Sheryl Sandberg’s words and put our spin on them.

  1. The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid? – Do big, good things. And then leave the fears and cynicism for when our love is the boldest.
  2. Sit at the Table – Yes, the dining room table. We will sit there, together, often. We have yet to agree on the role of the couch and TV in our marriage, but we definitely agree on the role of the table. We both sit there.
  3. Success and Likeability – Let pride in the other person overwhelm us, at least quarterly.
  4. It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder – Have some flexibility with our two career paths. We will both continue to be amazing.
  5. Are You My Mentor? – Love both our families. And let them love us. Have a marriage his late father would be proud of.
  6. Seek and Speak Your Truth – Have the difficult conversation within 24 hours of any difficult situation or any difficult feeling.
  7. Don’t Leave before you Leave – Let the other person know when you feel yourself going in a negative direction; towards being a coward, a martyr, a cheater, a conceder or a quitter in the relationship or in life.
  8. Make your Partner a real Partner – Take turns driving.
  9. The Myth of Doing it All – Both  of us will do at least one thing we don’t want to, everyday: be it dishes, or mopping, or paperwork, or giving the other person space.
  10. Let’s Start Talking about it – Subscribe to the same definition of cheating, TLC, and  blog-appropriate; then stay honest to yourself and to those definitions.
  11. Working Together Toward Equality – Know each other’s ticklish spots and be prepared to use them.

We will lean in.

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Landslides and Lofty Hopes

So, next week there is a presidential election in Egypt. I think it should have quotation marks.

Bare minimum, I predict El Sisi will win at least 85% of the vote. Get ready for a landslide.

In U.S. history, we have had some lopsided results ourselves: Reagan over Mondale and Carter, Nixon over McGovern, Johnson over Goldwater, Eisenhower over Stevenson. And in Azerbaijan where I recently visited, the most recent presidential election results were accidentally released before election day! The third-term incumbent eventually won with 87%.

Yes, there are many landslides, around the world, throughout time, in varying context. But this landslide is rolling right over Tahrir Square and into my heart. So I’m going to write about it. My take is personal, not political. I am not a journalist or political analyst.

El Sisi, I feel he is a good man. A smart leader. I hope that what he, the military and the interment government have allowed these past 11 months (Rabaa, mass trials, mass death sentences, bogus arrests and prison terms, a yes-or-yes referendum, militarization of the public sphere and extensive curfew, home and university invasions, protest law, attacks on journalists and activists, and divisive labeling of citizen terrorists) is not indicative of this soon-to-be presidency. I hope there isn’t a complete unbalance of power, like we had with Morsi.

I hope Egypt under the ElSisi administration develops the social justice and the freedom, simultaneously as the bread. I hope ElSisi’s term encourages  agency,  engagement and education, development of strong opposition parties and candidates, and creative vision.

An application of the values and the good that came from the waves or revolution and awakening.

My fear is that this presidency could eat away at all that.

My fear is that it will feed the senses of entitlement and righteousness, the class divisions, and bring back the fear and dependency.

If ElSisi is a successful president, I hope he is not seen as the hero nor the provider. I hope that Egyptians remember just a couple years ago when community policing was honored and bombs were not a part of the story. I hope this presidency encourages young people and women to become leaders in their fields and their communities. I hope the Governers and Ministers are productive, effective, open minded, and innovative. Supported to try new things. In a more decentralized way. I hope those local leaders are diverse: women, young people, Coptics, former Muslim Brotherhood members or supporters, Sunni and Shia, Sudanese and Syrian refugees, African and Arab immigrants, rich, poor, middle class.

I hope all leaders serve those they represent, securlarly. Without bias, corruption, classism, seniority, sexism or racism.

I hope Sadat Station is re-opened.

I know I hope for much.

Bottom line, I hope my Egyptian activist and artist friends can set a standard where their revolution continues in this direction. They have worked nonstop for years. I see that fact in their eyes and shoulders. I hope they can push this coming landslide into a tide of progress.

Not just for the gasoline and electricity, for the menial jobs, for the safety and security. Remember, there were three tiers for the revolution.

You might think it odd, but I hope this election is messy. Not violent or deadly, no not like that. Just messy, raw. Where citizens and artists take their place at the table, without waiting for the invitation. Where one man isn’t handed the keys of the city.

Today, I was going out for dinner. I decided to take a taxi instead of walking or taking the Metro. As we sat in the traffic at the roundabout, the driver and I were both handed these…

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A group of young men and women in white ElSisi t-shirts just reached in the window of our cab to make sure we had these. There was a also a group of younger kids on bikes circling with ElSisi posters. In my estimation, there are posters of ElSisi on more than 50% of the lampposts and billboards. But this weekend I am now seeing many more posters for the other candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi.

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I hear that most of ElSisi posters, videos, and other publicity are paid for and created solely by his supporters. His campaign has had to do little work.

The official numbers for Egyptian Abroad’s voting:

318,033 total votes
313,835 valid votes

017,207 for Hamdeeen (5.5%)

296,628 for ElSisi (94.5%)

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The Most Beautiful Gay Thing I know

While chatting at the beach last weekend, a friend was asking my husband and I advice. You see, he is an Egyptian man engaged to a North American woman. Similar to my husband and I’s situation. Our friend was asking advice on cultural differences, specifically parenting and the case of “what to do if your kid tells you he/she is gay.”

His fiance and him disagree completely on this issue and they don’t know if they should get married.

He says that if their child claims he/she was gay, that he would love him/her and that’s why he would want to help fix the problem. Maybe a psychiatrist would be needed. Our friend said it wasn’t based on religion. It is just that this is a conservative country and that no one is born gay. It is the society or the environment that leads to gay behavior. Like in Saudi Arabia where there is a lot of gay behavior due to the social separation of the sexes. Or in the States, where gayness is condoned everywhere.

That’s what what our friend thinks.

I opened my mind in order to hear him out. I countered some of his points and then told him that the most beautiful gay thing I know is my friends’ decade-long marriage.

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As I was getting married myself four months ago, I thought “I want a marriage as beautiful as theirs.”

They trust each other, support each other, make each other better, adore one another, and are a team. Check. Check.

Robin and I grew up together. We went to the same special high school academy in the afternoons. We did plays and musicals together. We hung out together. He was there when I was dropped off at college. Then he came out. And grew into himself in a way I couldn’t have predicted. He found happiness. And love.

He found Jason.

Robin and Jason were married in a lovely and honest ceremony with both families present. I was also honored to be there and to help them pick out their wedding registry. I even danced at their wedding with an original piece I choreographed where their button-down shirts were symbolically tied together.

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They sang to one another. They laughed until they cried. They smashed the cake in each other’s faces. Dudes’ dudes, Catholics, theatre folks, lil’ kids…they were all there. It was a beautiful wedding.

May 17, 2008

And the marriage grew from there.

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Robin & Jason, November 2013

Both Robin & Jason did, and continue to do, much for the LGBT community politically and culturally in Chicago. Years went on: I didn’t see Robin & Jason as often. I myself continued donating to the Human Rights Campaign and advocating for LGBT rights, including marriage. I also worked for About Face Youth Project and worked with teens who had been homeless because of their sexual orientation. My circle was proudly transgender, gay, lesbian, queer.

Then I moved to Egypt.

Homophobia is prevalent here. While anti-gay laws are not a death sentence as in Uganda, the social fabric here is thickly anti-gay. Even during the Arists’ Sit-in last summer, while having discussions with artists of all backgrounds, they all shared strongly homophobic sentiments. I was actually shocked by some of the things they said. The Queen Boat raid and the Cairo 52 was a notorious case here. And recently, four Egyptian men were charged of the “crime” of gay sex and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

In a country so un-awaringly homoerotic.

Men in Tahrir 2011

Men in Tahrir 2011

I first really thought about gay rights here when a fellow Fulbrighter was having many difficulties. Even though he was legally married back in his state, his husband could not get qualified as a dependent because Fulbright is a federal program. Whereas opposite-sex spouses of Fulbrighters received travel allowance, living expenses, invitations to trips, discounts, medical insurance, etc.; his husband got nothing.

But great news came out a couple months ago…

“The Fulbright Program now includes dependent supplements for same-sex domestic partners.  According to section 641.2 of the Fulbright Program Policies concerning dependent supplements, the definition of a dependent is either (1) a spouse, or (2) a qualified same-sex domestic partner, or (3) a relative (child, grandchild, parent, or sibling) who is financially dependent on the grantee.”

“Same-sex spouses of U.S. citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs), along with their minor children, are now eligible for the same immigration benefits as opposite-sex spouses.”

Speaking of great news…

I came home from that quick trip to the beach last weekend to open Facebook and find out that Robin & Jason had a baby.

5 lbs 11 oz, 17 3/4 inches long. Healthy. A girl. Through a surrogate in the family. Beautiful.

A daughter

A daughter

Breathtaking.

So when Egyptians talk to me about what to do if a child says he/she is gay, I know that what I want for my own children is for them to be as happy (and as much themselves) as Robin & Jason.

Their daughter has found herself the center of a masterpiece of a family.

Don’t Make a Drug Pun in a Commencement Speech

Do you ever have the kind of honor you don’t know how to handle?

I think this might be like if I were ever asked to be a godparent. Gulp. A deep honor.

I have been asked to give the 2014 commencement speech for my alma mater, Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. And I will be the first ever alumnus artist to do this. They will fly me in, and I will speak. According to some links online, a good commencement speech is 18 minutes.

Gulp.

So, next month, I will put black academic regalia on for the first time since 2000.

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Millikin University graduation day with my parents. My dad holding my cords for me.

This time I will also wear my Masters hood from Columbia College Chicago. As the first and only graduate on either side of my family, you cannot imagine what this commencement speech will mean to me and probably to my parents.

Millikin and Columbia, together they have taught me and changed me.

When I first arrived to Millikin in 1996, my style was exclusively “Goodwill.” No jeans or hoodies; because in high school I realized everyone wore jeans and hoodies everyday and I made a decision not to be everybody. I was stubborn. I wore scrubs and plaid a lot. A smart girl who loved dance and international relations. No frills. Much Beck.

When my parents, boyfriend, and best friend drove down from mid-Michigan and dropped me off at Millikin that Fall, we were all sad.

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I cried for a week and didn’t tell my mother. Later I realized she did the same. That next Spring, the boyfriend broke up with me. Dramatically. I didn’t date in college after that.

Before I knew it, I was taking risks in critical thinking and choreography. In this small university that smells of the nearby soy plant, I was coming into my own.

The perfect undergraduate school for me.

My favorite classes at Millikin were Ethics with Dr. Money, Spider Biology, and Harlem Renaissance. Man, did I love those. Even kept the textbooks. Nearly failed Astronomy because it was early in the morning and very confusing to me. Darlene introduced me to Modern Dance, where I danced barefoot for the first time in my life and I excelled. There wasn’t the stress of wearing pointe shoes in ballet. My voice classes were always a struggle, but I tried. Diagnosed myself as incurably tone deaf. Laura, Kevin, Denise, Doc, Barry, these incredible professors pushed me as an artist, an actor, a director, a person.

Millikin is also where I discovered I was a choreographer. Strange works incorporating acapella tap to explore a skull surgery report, a solo inside a laundry basket, a funny dance to Chopin with a flashlight during a blackout, a 50-member piece exploring facades, a duet dance infused with stand up comedy, pieces up rape and guilt and anxiousness….

My favorite thing was to work with dancers and movers/beginning dancers alike. The less experience the better. Pedestrian movement with bolder technique and tricks. In lieu of the typical rehearsals, I held many late-nite, quasi dance therapy sessions where we jammed and explored as a community. Just because.

One of my friends wrote me a note about how participating as a dancer in one my pieces changed his life and eased his coming out. Wow, I was floored. Dance was changing lives: this was a great departure from the competition circuit I grew up in.

I have never been as artistically happy as with those 8 dance concert seasons at Millikin.

When I graduated, I knew I was heading directly to an internship at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. I knew I wanted to dance in alternative ways. I knew I wanted to keep taking risks like I had at Millikin.

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I am on draft five of the commencement speech: in one version we all dance together, in another I dance alone while a recording of the speech plays aloud, in another we Skype to Egypt, and in another there is a pun about rolling joints (shoulders, neck, ankles). Yeah, this speech is going to need much more work. The only thing I know for certain is that I want to focus on the day itself, not the future, not even tomorrow.

Just a couple more weeks to get it together.

This is the kind of honor I can barely wrap my head around. Let’s hope I speak in a way that salutes the school community that gave me so much.

I need to thank them.

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Is Your Town Nasty?

Saginaw, Michigan is my hometown. It is where my parents live, where their friends and their work have always been. Where their lives have taken place. They both grew up here, on different sides of the river. They met and married here. Buried loved ones here. Then, when I was born, they built a foundation for my life here. Not in the city proper but out a bit towards the farms and subdivisions, Thomas Township in Saginaw County. This is small town America.

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Photo by Roethke Park

The population of Saginaw is down to 51,500, half of what it was in 1960. The car industry decline hit us hard. Nowadays, teenagers and middle-agers run this town. Most of my generation has slipped out. Social life is centered on high school games and musicals: every car is stickered with pride for honor rollers, baseballers and pom pom-ers.

For the second straight year, Saginaw remains the third most violent city per capita in the United States according to statistics compiled by the FBI. The nickname of the place is SagiNasty or “The Nasty” for short. A friend of mine, Monica, just completed 365 days of Saginaw Love, an amazing blog she does voluntarily to provide an alternative to the city’s negative image, spotlighting 365 area companies, individuals, initiatives and good news stories. Now that the year is complete, she is turning her attention to the favorite Saginaw features of other residents and she is collecting recommendations.

Growing up in Saginaw, you can study the Bible or the arts or sports or hunting/fishing/camping. I danced and rode horses. Churches of all denominations dot the Saginaw landscape, but now Center Road is also highlighted by the beautiful Islamic Center of Saginaw. There are about 250 to 300 Muslims in the area. The center holds open house events for the local community.

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I went to Hemlock Public Schools (where my Dad is a coach and custodian), the esteemed Bohaty’s School of Dance as a competition kid, Zion Lutheran Church every once in awhile, and Saginaw’s Center for Arts and Sciences (now known as SASA), where I was honored to find friends of different races and creeds. Saginaw Life was full, vibrant and frantic during my childhood.

Only upon returning as an adult do I feel the drastically slower pace and insular nature of life here.

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The Lent family farm where my grandpa grew up. Photo by Mohamed Radwan.

The Lent family farm where my grandpa grew up. Photo by Mohamed Radwan.

The Lent family farm where my grandpa grew up. Photo by Mohamed Radwan.

My Egyptian husband was in Michigan for the first time ever this week. His highlights included…

  • Root Beer
  • First Snow (despite the fact that everyone else was satirically aghast that it is actually snowing in April)
  • Playing catch, American football, frisbee and golf in the backyard
  • Quietness
  • Nice landscapes
  • Hanging out, chatting with the neighbors, relatives, and friends I bumped into
  • Giving a donation to children’s hospitals while paying for tickets to “Captain America 3D”
  • My Dad getting the whole family tickets to the Saginaw Sting indoor football game at the Civic Center
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Photo by Mohamed Radwan

He said there wasn’t anything he didn’t like. But he also said it was the type of place to come to when we are much older.

In Egypt, especially Cairo, our generation is the most populated, most visible and active. We buzz.

In Egypt, grandparents live with the family. No “Meals on Wheels” are necessary.

Also in Egypt, there are few to no stoplights, lane markings, and stop signs. Every intersection is a fierce lesson in courage, a game of chicken and negotiation; so it took some re-familiarity on my part with the extreme organization of driving in the States. In Egypt, you need to be skilled at driving. In the States, you need to be skilled at following rules.

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Photo by Mohamed Radwan

During my week back here, I went to the DMV. I met with my financial advisor, refigured my student loans, paid my taxes.

In Egypt, we eat late. There are midnight movie options every day. The kids stay up late. Here in Saginaw, we are in and settled by 10 at the latest, as dark night driving brings the danger of hitting deer. In Egypt, the movies come with an intermission. In the States, your 3D glasses are free and then recycled.

In Egypt, we have exactly three choices for beer: Stella, Heineken, or Sakara. All bottles and cans. No draft. And here the beer lists on the menus run off the page…Sam Adams or Miller or Bud… Guinness…Craft Beers.

When it comes to beers, education, support for independent artists, sidewalks and clean air, I prefer the States.

It’s the Good Life.

The American Dream.

But it’s not everything. It’s not the world. To experience other cultures and religions, learn from them, contribute to them, exchange with them, respect them, that is a responsibility, not a luxury.

During this trip, my husband and I guest lectured at Columbia College Chicago in Jamie Thome’s “Teaching Artist in the Schools” undergraduate course. My friend Jamie is an incredible teacher and her students are asked to do creative responses to readings. Her students sang, danced, painted, and wrote poetry in response to reading Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up? I cannot express how beautiful that was.

We spoke about being active in the world as an artist. I spoke of the work in Bosnia, in childhood cancer, starting an associate board for Links Hall, the artists’ sit-in in Cairo, etc. One of the students in that class, a.s. ligori, penned this exquisite response…

Everyone around the world—and in my case, emphasizing on Americans—can ‘see’ everything you have went through, and still are. We do this by choosing to ‘see’ photographs, news and, in the unfortunately rare sense, through films. This inquiry is not enough; in fact, “I” am quite jealous….

Call it jealousy or envy—I will acknowledge it positively as both. You’re probably thinking, why? It sounds absurd, yes, but it’s true. You experienced a REAL revolution, something that I ( being an American) have yet to participate in. I’d love to be involved in something like that one day. I do plan on doing so but not there but doing here. / When I saw the millions of people crowding the inner-city, I told myself, “ I wish this could happen here. Imagine, all of the people—and in the American sense, either Republican, Democratic, either far-left/right—coming together, pushing small differences and quibbles aside, and fighting the main root of the problem. /As an American, I worry that we—the majority distracted by media, consumerism, materialism, depravation, the over consumption of ideologies—may never ‘consistently’ stand for something. / …

I can view your experience by looking at a photograph or news. I can read about it through the paper or magazine, but I still can’t experience it. Sontag says, “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in other country is a quintessential modern experience…” (18, Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others). You were not only just a spectator, an artist or activist, you were an exemplar of ‘legitimate activism;’ a consistent, unyielding force determined and unaffected by distractions. You ARE a characteristic of modernity. It’s taking the past, the culture(s), the people, all forms of art, and ideology in the present, and pushing it forward. There was (and still is) a main objective/goal, as like a jazz song has; but the distance between the beginning and end is immeasurable and impossible to replicate. What you experienced was a long month song, an improvisation of culture with people as instruments, echoing in transcendence.

A photographer may take a picture; a journalist may write it down, a filmmaker may record it. The thing is, ‘being’ there , in that particular moment, is theatrically being part of art-making. The art that was produced can never be duplicated. And for you, being the performers(s) in that performance with Time, is historically priceless.

Living in any place and doing something there, it is not Nasty. It is historically priceless.

 

I Hope Every American and Egyptian Artist Reads This

I, along with 100+ Egyptian and resident cultural and arts leaders, attended an Arts Management Symposium earlier this month, hosted by the US Embassy Cairo, facilitated by Brett Egan from the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. The DeVos Institute has a mission to train, support and empower arts managers locally, nationally and internationally. I guess that international part is a big reason they were here in Egypt.

Mr. Egan based his ideas on a specific context/model: the traditional 501c3 non-profit arts organization in America…with an executive director, artistic director, board of directors, tax incentives and volunteers. Not too common in Egypt. In any case, the ideas of defining mission and connecting fundraising and marketing efforts to a family of support could definitely be applied to many different contexts and thus could prove to be vastly helpful in strengthening the arts in Egypt.

At the top of the symposium, Mr. Egan asked the attendees to share some of the challenges and opportunities their organizations were facing. My husband, an independent Egyptian artist, stated that he believed the arts in Egypt are now facing a lack of vision, a lack of leadership, corruption, disconnection between the Ministry of Culture and the independent artist sector, and serious generational issues, the need to have new blood flowing through the arts.

Mural street art on Mohammed Mahmoud Street off Tahrir Square, repainted scores of times in the last three years and whitewashed by authorities several times as well.

Mural street art on Mohammed Mahmoud Street off Tahrir Square, repainted scores of times in the last three years and whitewashed by authorities several times as well.

Mr. Egan responded, “Today’s session is only three hours and we will focus internally, on things we can control.”

And this last statement is what got me thinking and inspired this blog post.

“things we can control”

This summer, artists in Cairo took over the Ministry of Culture with a 33-day sit in. Egyptians know they have an influence. They lost the fear. There was a movement of artist power, people power, controlling the governance for the common good. This was just one example of many, Egyptians acting outside their assumed sphere of influence, using their assets and abilities to demand change and hopefully to soon create change themselves.

Since the coup/not-coup in July, artists have reacted in different ways to the military control, bio-politics, Egypt Fighting Terrorism campaign, curfew, emergency law, injustices and human rights violations.  But all in all, there has been little push back or demonstration. People have generally bowed down and settled back in to their sphere of influence, to their bubbles of sectors, polarization or isolation.

And an obscene number of people have built a dangerous level of hero-worship for military man ElSisi. The country feels like it is more safe, more stable, more likely to succeed in his hands they say, so they hand over their hard fought rights. ElSisi will provide: he will clean up this place for us. On our behalf. He and the army will make nice monuments and parks. And upon hearing this, a true artist’s heart sinks.

As Tina Turner once sang, “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”

The military led referendum for the Constitution last week came out with a 98% yes vote. Folks putting up “vote no” posters were arrested.

Sadat station has been closed for nearly 7 months with no clear reason why other than “safety.” It is the central station and I am fed up personally.

"Vote Yes" sign over beautified Tahrir Square

“Vote Yes” sign over beautified Tahrir Square

So when I hear someone telling Egyptians in any field to focus only on what is within their control, I cringe. We American artists, art managers, and arts leaders can learn a lot from our Egyptian counterparts. Just as they are learning from us. But it is critical to not simply replicate the other models and tools. In the world of arts management, our cultural differences must be acknowledged, with no one way inherently better than the other:

Egyptian

American

-mobile phone numbers, word-of-mouth -e-mail addresses, promotional codes
-buy tickets at box office, cash society -buy tickets online, credit society
-celebrate friendships and partnerships / swallowed by ancient  and dramatic history -celebrate organizational anniversaries / 10 years or 25 years in business is impressive
-admiring seniority and experience -admiring youth and beauty
-regime change for the common good -focus on what’s within our control
-the artistic family is the start, organizational sustainability is not the top priority, most work is project-based -art is the start, have to be aggressive in building a family of supporters in order to support the organization with in turn allows for the making of more and better art
-planning as we go, quick and nimble -5 or 10 year plan
-wasted time, money, energy – inefficiency, corruption, high administrative costs, unemployment and under-employment especially with the young and women -no time, money, or energy to waste / transparency and low administrative costs are valued / do more with less
-charity is a religious requirement -charity is a tax incentive
-expectation to personally help the poor via your own pocket or mosque/church -shelters, soup kitchens, and other organizations are created to serve the poor
organic and existing social networks -membership & subscription programs
a general understanding that the current political and societal instability have an effect / room for trial & error -must do pretty much exactly what you proposed or planned no matter the changing circumstances
-a tradition of Orientalism, racial and ethnic stereotyping remains yet to be challenged / Egyptian & Arab culture is not yet valued to the level that Western classical culture and training are valued and showcased -performances and programs are targeted to certain racial and ethnic demographics, causing segregation and inequality of access
-arts organizations typically rent space and very few own their own spaces -privately owned arts venues
-Elitism, even with ties required to enter the Opera House / Artists just now starting to look to expand the awareness of the people -a rich history and quickly intensifying expectation of community engagement, or out/in reach
-narratives, documentation -statistics and analytics, evaluation

 

Artists at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center (CCDC), formerly part of the Ministry of Culture and now an independent organization.

Artists at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center (CCDC), formerly part of the Ministry of Culture and now an independent organization.

Yes, we all need a mission. We need to know the who, what, where, why of our art making. Yes, the artists and the arts managers are problem solvers, creating what Mr. Egan defined as the “conditions required to make the best art.” But we need to define the best art by new criteria, relevant to our particular time and place. Is it the most popular, critically acclaimed, innovative on a technical level, impact socially, politically, internally or massively, educationally, economically or developmentally?

In any case, I hope all American and Egyptian artists and arts managers see The Square, the Oscar-nominated documentary out of Egypt. Just to remember the atrocities, the resilience of the artists and of the people, and get re-inspired by their power.

 And let’s all redefine…
“things we can control”

A Dancer Back in the 9 to 5, or 8 to 3:45

After a year and a half, I am back in an office. Back to a steady salary and benefits, incl. health insurance.

For the past seven months I have been applying for positions both here in Cairo and in the States. Many times I applied for different positions at AMIDEAST. Never heard back. Reached out to a colleague at their office in DC who said he thought they may be fully staffed here in Egypt. Went to a Christmas party at Fulbright last week with my fella despite some awful weather and schedule conflicts. Met the deputy country director of AMIDEAST by the cookie table. Joked about how many times I had applied and not been good enough. Went home from the party.

Next day I got a call that I had an interview. A round 2 interview. Missed round 1 but the director had gone in her email and found my application in her junk mail. Ahhh. There you go. Lesson learned.

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Now I am the EducationUSA Coordinator at AIMDEAST, the American-Middle East Educational and Training Services, a non-profit organization working in connection with the US State Department, headquartered in Washington, DC with offices across the Middle East. I manage the advising program in the Cairo office and am the grant manager, supporting Egyptian students and residents (including Syrian and Sudanese refugees) to apply and attend college in the US. I run workshops, general information sessions, a Competitive College Club, resource library, recruitment events, individual advising and consultation, outreach, and events at the US Embassy and with Fulbright. My work supports students and scholars in all fields, mostly Engineering and Medicine, but my special focus is going to be a push in the Arts.

Working in Egypt is a little odd. Firstly, all employees everywhere have to clock in and out, with an electronic card in our case. Every hour of your 40-hour work week must be accounted for. I detest this lack of flexibility, monitoring, finding it degrading to be looked at in terms of hours in the office; but I understand there is a way to clock out-of-office hours in the field and will be doing much of that. Secondly, there is no lunch break. Well you can take up to an hour for lunch but then you have to make it up at the end of the day; so nobody does it. I have a radio and a mini fridge in my office and plan to eat there. I also take 15-20 minute yoga breaks during the prayer time or a quick snack and visit by my husband. Thirdly, I have access to the organization’s car and driver. Imagine that. Lastly, I have to use up a vacation day if I want to take Christmas as a holiday.

Like the Fulbright and diplomatic service, American staff at AMIDEAST are evacuated in times of severe political unrest.

I had hesitations taking a 9-5: I will be honest. Questioning if this was on my career path. Then I realized this work is similar to that of the US Foreign Service; and after 10-12 months in the job, I will have been in Egypt for the length of time as a usual foreign service post. Please note that (if you remember) I failed the Foreign Service Exam by one lousy point back in June.

Besides a captivating job, AMIDEAST provides benefits such as quality pay enough to save up a considerable amount for the future, FICA, health insurance for me and family, life insurance, access to equipment and services, great networking and access to opportunities internationally, connections in the Arts, travel back and forth to the States for visits and conferences (only after a year or two in the position), 21 days vacation, 12 sick days, and 15 holidays (mostly Egyptian). This is quite important, because I am also continuing to teach dance and volunteer for 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital, including coordinating the big 57357 Arts Day at the end of next month and going with the patients to sleep-away camps. The job provides me with enough time off to volunteer and do short projects abroad, and to visit family.

 

I am now working 7 days a week.

Typical Work Week

Sunday = walk 40 minutes to work, 9 hours in the office or in the field, walk home, saving time for meetings or artistic practices including choreography and blogging

Monday = walk 40 minutes to work, 8 hours in the office or in the field, social or cultural activities, or substitute teach gymnastics

Tuesday = walk 40 minutes to work, 7.75 hours in the office, 1.25 hour Metro commute, 2 or 3 hours teaching dance, 1.25 hour Metro commute

Wednesday = 2 hour car or mini bus commute, 8 hours in the Heliopolis branch, 2 hour mini bus commute

Thursday = walk 40 minutes to work, 7.75 hours in the office, 1.25 hour Metro commute, 2 or 3 hours teaching dance, 1.25 hour commute

 

Typical Weekend

Friday = .5 hour taxi commute, 3 hours teaching dance, 1.25 hour Metro commute, volunteer at the hospital, social life

Saturday = .5 hour taxi commute, 3 hours teaching dance, 1 1/2 hour Metro commute, errands

 

This will be my schedule for the foreseeable future. It will take stamina and support. Luckily I have both.

Growing up quick as 2013 comes to a close.

New Job.

New Apartment.

Marriage.

 

Yes, you heard that right. I got married.

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I said yes to a great man, an imperfect man, as I am an imperfect woman. Both artists. Together we say yes to our potential and to every darn day. We vow to have a marriage our parents, including mine who have been married 40 years, his strong mother and his dearly missed late father, would be proud of.

So yes, I am a dancer back in the 9-5. But this is just part of a web of activity that makes me who I am am and makes more things possible. Watch out, world.

 

The Photo That Made Me Rethink Christmas

This is the season. I know it in my heart. But it is difficult to feel it without the snow, carols, lights, and family. That magical time that sweeps you in good tidings from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Ahhhh. I crave it. For the second consecutive Christmas season, I am without my family, in a place where Christmas holiday season is hard to come by. And the missing is more this time.

As beautiful as Ramadan and Eid were to experience, and as much as I look forward to discovering more holidays in the world; when certain traditions have filled your heart every year of your life, you struggle when you go without.

The cider, the snow, the family, the lights.

And then, as your longing starts to multiply on itself, it snows in Cairo! First time in 112 years. Lovely and miraculous.

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But it sure did make a mess of things.

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People went outside and really started to look around them.

Mohamed Radwan took this photograph after the snow in Cairo, and it made me stop.

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Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Wow. I stared at it for awhile, breathless.

Yes, Christmastime is the snow and the hot apple cider with a cinnamon stick and the family, but it is also compassion and international kindness. It is beyond religion and competition. It is time to look around, take some deep breaths, and think of others.

I take a deep breath for the man out in the cold. To be homeless in the winter. To be alone with your thoughts, dark or warming. To live without shelter, without family, without pillow, without privacy. I admire his gifts of quiet resilience and humility.

I take a deep breath for the refugees, without refuge. Those young and old without the right or the safety to return to their home and to their traditions. I am starting to feel and understand their story; and I admire their hope.

I take a deep breath for the parents torn by the loss of a child this year, in any country. A child’s life ended by disease, crime, war, accident. A tiny face they see in an empty room. I cannot imagine losing a child and I admire them for their living fully with an open wound.

I take a deep breath for the diplomats, expats, students, and military living in holiday-less areas, feeling honored but feeling like something is missing. For the names under the Christmas tree.

I also take a deep breath in joy.

Make that three deep breaths in joy, sending much gratitude to those who donated costumes and dollars to the dance project at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt. More than 100 costumes have arrived and the big event is set for next month. But in the meantime, seven little dancers with crew cuts in growth, a wig or two, and tumors in retreat took the stage at Cairo Opera House complex in brilliant costumes this week. It was UN International Volunteer Day. The stage was outside. It was 45 degrees and windy with a cold rain. The dancers braved it, more overwhelmed with their excitement to notice how cold they actually were. A few coughs and sniffles. They danced full out to Whitney Houston’s “Step by Step” and a hospital theme song “A Hope in My Heart.” The crowd applauded boisterously and clapped along, all smiles. The dancers skipped offstage in a cloud of joy. Bravo to Gana, Aya, Abdel Rahman, Dina, Khaled, Hleen, Sharouk!

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

One little girl was a bit self-conscious about dancing onstage in her crew cut. I showed her a picture of me bald after the St. Baldrick’s even back in Chicago. Her face lit up and she got the boost of confidence she needed.

Click here to see the photo album of the costume fittings, rehearsal and performance. And you can watch a quick video of rehearsal.

So here is what I want for Christmas this year: Hot apple cider with a cinnamon stick. Sugar and ginger cookies shaped as wreaths and trees. Live musicians at the Fulbright Christmas party playing “Let it Snow” and excerpts from “The Nutcracker.” Healthy parents and a working Skype call with the family. A strong and healthy marriage to a good fella. Shelter for those who seek it. More faces like these at all the children’s cancer hospitals and wards in the world.

Tidings of comfort and joy.

 

Are there funerals in Egypt?

The 4-year-old son of a friend of mine told his mother this morning in the car, “Shawn would be happy to tell me about living in Egypt. She lived there a few days.” Hahaha. Love it. Cute, brilliant kid. My friend reached out to me online and asked if I had any interesting factoids to offer her son.

What do I tell a 4-year-old about Egypt?

Hmmm. Well, this is what I shared.

This is where Egypt is. Near Israel/Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Sudan. And not too far from Greece.

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There are fresh fruits and vegetables every day in the city, brought in from the farms.

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The Nile is beautiful, almost magical and goes from Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea, through the middle of Cairo city, and all the way down to the country of Uganda.

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The Egyptian people want change. So they paint the walls and they stand outside together demanding to be heard.

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And in some ways, it is very much like Chicago. (Saving parking spaces)

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But this 4-year-old was thinking about death today. Like many children his age, death is an arena of curiosity. He said he thought there were no funerals in Egypt.

And no chairs in the pyramids.

I explained that there are funerals here for the Christians. The Muslims visit the grieving family at their home after the first day after a person has died. They must be buried within 24 hours, and in a simple white cloth.

The pyramids have granite coffins, which are empty now. No chairs inside. And they are built in steps or layers. There are a bunch of chairs outside though, for tourists to watch the light show.

 

After this exchange, I thought a lot about death too. Do I have any questions about death? When do we reach the age when we fear it? How is it we never know what to say when someone else is grieving? How are some deaths expected and understood, some lingering and dreaded, some shocking and ripping?

I thought about how children and teens with terminal disease have the same sort of expression and walk as those children and teens living in neighborhoods rampant with political violence or gun crime.  And actually it’s the same as those children and teens who are homeless, kicked out of their homes for being gay or transexual. I’ve had the honor of dancing with all these kids during my experiences.

These great kids can speak of death as an acknowledged step in their stories. Please watch this for one example. They are sadly comfortable with the topic. They may be apathetic to the fight, or they may be determined to survive against the odds, or they might ready themselves for the journey. They see their peers and friends die. And then they go. We read about them.

17-years-old and standing on the corner. A basketball gripped in his hand. On his birthday.

10-years-old and laying in bed. An IV hooked to her arm. A few weeks after her birthday.

15-years-old and joining a movement in Tahrir Square. A stone in his hands. On his mom’s birthday.

6-years-old and crossing the street. Nothing in her hands. On Thanksgiving.

In America, children die. Their names are heard. Foundations are founded. Laws and legacies are created. 5Ks run. Their graves are visited. In Egypt, children die. And either it is a private matter or they are martyred in posters and murals.

I know this is becoming the darkest of blog posts. Apologies. But I hope you can feel the hope and action in it.

All these children deserve our support and love in their dying, in their living. We could offer something small that might mean so much… a party, a family photo shoot, a song, a dance or guitar class, a chance to perform on a stage, a mini-vacation, meeting a hero, a CV or advocacy website, a trip to a world wonder. They should all be able to “make a wish” and maybe even a few wishes. We can hear their wishes and make them come true. That’s what I wish for this Christmas, that everyone reading this will reach out to a family, school, orphanage, shelter, center, hospital before the year comes to an end, and give a child facing disease or rampant violence or homelessness something small that might mean so much. Grant a wish.

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