Tag: Cairo (page 1 of 2)

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.

 

A Tribute to the Workers Who Make Cairo Work

Today is May Day. International Workers’ Day. I have been thinking a lot about workers’ rights lately after more than 400 people died in a building collapse in a textile factory in Bangladesh. Organized workers and strikers were also a major spark of the Arab Spring. Plus, I’m from Chicago, a union city, a place called “The City of Big Shoulders.”

But today I am compelled to write about a different sector of workers you might not know or think about. My goal is to introduce you to the independent service industry in Cairo. To honor these entrepreneurs and their critical importance to keeping this urban society running.

A broad-shouldered man in a brown suit sits alone in the cafe in the Cairo train station, enjoying a Turkish coffee and reading a local paper. Another man, more casually dressed, approaches him. With little words, a negotiation is made. The more casual bends down and takes off the seated man’s shoes, slipping a piece of cardboard under his now stocking feet. He takes the shoes away while the man continues to enjoy his coffee and paper. In just a few minutes, he returns, delivering the shined shoes on another piece of cardboard, like a platter. He puts the shoes back on the other man’s feet, collects his money, and away he goes.

This is the freelance shoe-shine profession in Egypt. Gazmagaya.

Other workers who keep Cairo working include…

Zabbaleen: Informal garbage collectors sorting through the massive trash piles for over 9 million people and recycling up to 80% of what the collect. All without a single garbage truck or recycling bin.

Bikia Guys: Men driving donkey carts through the streets, hollering on megaphones, collecting old, donated furniture, antiques and appliances for resell or upcycle.

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3’raz : People collecting and distributing gas canisters for people’s homes.

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Tabaya: Without parking meters or open parking lots/garages, the next job is crucial. There are the young men helping drivers find a spot to park, watching people’s cars while they go in to eat dinner, watch a movie, etc., then stopping traffic so that the cars’ owners can back out of the space safely. The cost of this service is unstated, but Tabya are usually given 5LE (72 cents) per car.

Tabaya Part 2: Men hanging outside the minibus door, yelling the destination in order to draw customers, collecting the money, and keeping the peace among passengers.

Side note: No one in Cairo ever pumps their own gas.

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Bawaab: Door guys who also make sure that your car is safe and clean, gates are locked, and no funny business is going on.

Bay Aya Gawel: Entrepreneurs selling newspapers and sweets on the government trains, Metro, and other venues.

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There are no dive-thrus that I have seen in Cairo, but there are the women and men selling hot tea and sandwiches on the side of the street. They use real glasses and metal spoons. No disposables. A driver must pull over and take a moment to enjoy their tea.

6aYar: Although they officially work for companies and are not independent, I consider motorcycle delivery men some of the heroes of Cairo, bringing you your McDonald’s, groceries, prescriptions, or almost anything you could want, including Cinnabon.

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Look around you today for the workers that make your city, your school, or your block work. Who are these fine men and women?

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Around the world, may they all have a beautiful May Day. Power to the people.

My Baby Blanket Was My Prayer Beads

My father is a hilarious and generous guy. Custodian at the school, basketball coach for the girls’ team. My mom is always giving of herself. Has been working at an eyewear business for as long as I have known her. Neither of them ever taking a single sip of alcohol or puff from a cigarette. Both with a cancer story of their own. I’m their only kid, mostly due to complications surrounding the birth defect Craniosynostosis; and the joke is that they got it right the first time and didn’t need any other kids. They gave me the courage to push through fears, help other people, and go for it. I’m the only person on either side of the family to attend a four-year university and graduate. Only one to live abroad. Mostly thanks to the greatest parents out there.

They recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.

February 17, 1973

February 17, 1973

As a kid and as an adult, I have had this thing with baby blankets. I choose one and keep it for 15-20 years before replacing it. Had one in college and it traveled with me when I lived in London. I like them cold. My parents used to keep them in the freezer. And I like to knead these blankets, like how people run their fingers through prayer beads. This was my comfort. My ritual. My prayer.

I grew up in a pretty small town in Michigan. We didn’t speak about religion much at all. My family was loosely Lutheran and I knew a couple Catholics, Presbyterians and Baptists. Didn’t have any real idea about Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, or Agnosticism until 9/11.

Speaking of prayer beads. I went to a concert on Friday night here in Chicago. A friend I had met in Cairo returned to the States to arrange a tour of the legendary Hamid Al-Saadi and Iraqi maqam during the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq war. Mr. Al-Saadi’s voice is richer than flourless chocolate cake. As he sang, he remained seated and constantly ran his fingers through his prayer beads. In his motions, I recognized the same sort of pattern I do with my baby blankets. And I realized just how far this life journey has brought me. Lucky, lucky gal.

At Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, with the legendary Hamid Al-Saaqi and my friend, musician Amir ElSaffar.

At Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, with the legendary Hamid Al-Saaqi and my friend, musician Amir ElSaffar.

This Fulbright grant in Cairo was short. Barely one semester. Too short to accomplish all that I had set out to do in my heart. Just over four months in length. So tomorrow, I am headed back. Not sure how long I’ll be there. Thinking 6-9 months; maybe more but coming back for holidays.

Yet I cannot say that nothing has happened during that Fulbright semester. This is Egypt. Where massive changes can spring up and shift the country from one day to the next. Ever expecting the unexpected. Since my first week here, I have had the honor of witnessing history and joining my friends (safely) in Tahrir Square. I have taken Arabic classes and I’ve learned to play towla in the cafes. I have added many of the local dishes to my daily diet and I dressed as a notorious Alexandrian killer for Halloween, with authentic costume and makeup.

As Sakina

As Sakina

I have visited historic mosques, churches, and one synagogue. I have seen the Sufi dance performance, taught Modern Jazz dance, and began a dance program for 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital.

Dancing at 57357. (Photo by Mohamed Radwan)

Dancing at 57357. (Photo by Mohamed Radwan)

During our Fulbright Orientation here in Cairo, Marc J, Sievers, Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy Cairo called on us to “clear up this fog of fear and hostility that ways us down on both sides.” SInce hearing those words, I have made that my mission. And there is more to do.

Black Friday in Masr

When I wrote about the demonstrations in Cairo back in September…Thanksgiving seemed so far away. So did the violence. These were mostly strangers to me. And I was a stranger among them.

At that time, I walked into a bit of tear gas, but I also walked into great conversations and important steps toward cultural understanding. These protests seemed removed from my experience. I mostly watched the live streaming on my friend’s tv and it was over in a matter of hours. Then Greece kicked off. And other places around the world found their peaceful demonstrations turning to violence, not just here.

This week of turmoil in Cairo seems much different. Feels like it’s hitting home. Because some of those strangers became friends over the last couple months, and now here we are together. Cairo liberals are back to Mohammad Mahmoud Street. Remembering what happened here last year. For the sake of the martyrs. Those who lost their eyes. Those who lost their lives.

U.S. EMBASSY CAIRO SECURITY NOTIFICATION, 19 November 2012: Embassy Cairo wishes to inform U.S. citizens of ongoing protests and small scattered clashes in the area of Tahrir Square near Mohammad Mahmoud Street, including near the Embassy perimeter. This gathering is connected to calls by liberal groups to march to Mohamad Mahmoud Street today (and possibly through Friday) in recognition of the one year anniversary of the clashes near the Ministry of Interior that resulted in numerous casualties.

In addition to potential violence associated with this demonstration, traffic congestion may result in seeking alternate routes. Because of the potential danger associated with the clashes, personnel have been advised to temporarily avoid pedestrian movements outside the Embassy perimeter, exercise caution when driving in the downtown area, and to avoid the Sadat Metro Station until further notice.

People are on Mohammad Mahmoud to make way for some sort of version for the future. Some of whom are my friends. The day starts out with boisterous drumming and peaceful, chanting marches. Many children and families. Their flags and banners fly into the evening.

Demonstrator with banner and eyepatch in honor of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street martyrs from November 2011.

Young men climb atop the blockade walls, attempting to push down each of the giant concrete blocks. The blocks hit the ground in a dusty crash and the crowd roars. But it’s peaceful. Steps away, cotton candy is for sale. No pictures please because they don’t want anyone arrested: the prisons here are known for torture. Somewhere else down the road, the situation escalates and somebody’s sons feel brave enough (or have enough pent up anger) to step up to the front line and start hurling rocks. Eight trucks of police make their way to the square. I eat ice cream and go back to read in my apartment.

A march across Tahrir Square with banners of the martyrs.

The next day, after dinner, I hear shots being fired. Maybe rubber. I see smoke. Maybe tear gas. I hear screams and pounding. Maybe those young boys. My friend and I walk peacefully and somberly to get me to Arabic class. And the media focuses their cameras to the other side of the square, where big wigs from Hamas/Israel/Egypt are playing political games with their people and Secretary Hillary Clinton will soon make her secret entrance.

So strange. I went back to my apartment and there is not a single policeman guarding the embassies near my place. This is a first. They are always there. They must have been needed in the square. Oh my.

This is all in preparation for Friday. The big demonstration. People vow they will be on Mohammad Mahmoud every day until then. I hope that Black Friday here is productive, not violent, not a tangent. No more rocks and colorless tear gas. I hope for liberal collaboration and progress, for their voices to be heard and to be strong against bigotry/discrimination/conservatism by the current administration, constitutional assembly, and parliament. A somber and tense week when it seems that, once again, the future of Egypt is on the line.

Poster for this Friday’s demonstration on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square.

But the world is not focused on this action in Egypt right now. I have seen very few media. It’s not about Egypt. Or even Syria. All eyes on Tel Aviv and Gaza City. All eyes on the Palestinian and Israeli figure heads here in Cairo. All eyes on the U.S. economy kicking off Christmas season.

How will you spend this Friday? Shopping for your loved ones? Stocking up on gifts and necessities at discount prices? Trying desperately to steer your beloved country in a better direction? Supporting a striking Walmart employee? Trying to get a local shop into the black? Hugging your kid? Sleeping off the Thanksgiving turkey or koshary? We will all be doing something or other.

I will spend my Friday, not in Cairo, but traveling to Minia with a cohort of Fulbrighters for a Commission-sponsored trip. I will monitor what is happening here, there, and where you are. Do the same for me.

P.S. I wish you a happy Thanksgiving. May your Black Friday be filled with goodness. I am so thankful to be here.

 

***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.

Look Where You’re Walking

Cairo has no sidewalks. No useful, obstacle-free sidewalks. Some have short palm trees with sharp leaves that you must dodge. Some have cracks and craters with no safety cones or warnings. Most lead to nowhere and require you to perform an entire Step Aerobics routine. Nowadays, post-revolution, sidewalks on the bridges are packed with plastic lawn chairs, the sign of illegal makeshift cafes. Sidewalks are also full of people. People strolling arm-in-arm incredibly slow, an entire family zooming dangerously close on a 1979 motorcycle, people out to harass or mug foreigners, gorgeous young couples in the most beautiful gowns and suits celebrating engagements, and women who can carry enormous bags and baskets on their heads.

It is a rare time when one can walk peacefully on a sidewalk for a long stretch of time in one direction. I got this gift yesterday afternoon.

Walking in Cairo

 

I walked the 20 minutes to Metro Market to get groceries. The sun was setting over the Nile. My thoughts were heavy. Weighed down by events on the Gaza/Israeli border. Weighed down by the horrors in nearby Syria. By the overwhelming poverty in Egypt. By the man on the bridge fishing in the Nile just for a chance to feed his family. By the horrid conditions of some state-run institutions here… schools, hospitals,… Weighed down by the decisions I have to make. Weighed down by the realization that I do not have enough money to make my dreams come true… in particular, the dreams of visiting Kenya, Uganda, Palestine, UAE, Bosnia, and my mother all in 2013. Weighed down by the cancers in and around us all.

But then the sun was setting over the Nile.

Something about the sun and the Nile made me stop.

Beautiful. Gamila. Falling in love with this city, faults and all.

Cairo is a place that sometimes makes you feel swallowed. It’s a spiral of activism and passivity, activism and passivity. A cycle of humor, hope, outrage and exasperation. The pollution is heavy. So is the smoking. Those 1970s motorcycles blow their exhaust right in your face. There is no place to sit at the crowded cafe. The buildings are leaning in. And the people put their hands on your back to shove you into the Metro train, right into a pile of sweaty men. These sweaty men are reaching for the handles above, so you get to enjoy your ride in the comfort of their armpits.

But back to the sunset and the Nile.

Horizon. Horizon. A bigger picture. I cannot put this into words. Sorry. It was simply perspective.

I stood there thinking of those who have lost their eyesight. Young men blinded during the revolution. Those who can no longer see the place they fought for. And those living with bullet wounds here in Egypt. Like my friend next to me, holding my hand perfectly as we walk on the nonexistent sidewalks. I thought of the folks who fought and won a revolution and are now watching disarray with heavy hearts. Like the heaviness I had. It is contagious and cyclical.

Thinking of those people here in Cairo who just shake their heads when they hear that thousands of their countrymen were bussed-in to Tahrir Square to demand that the new constitution be based on Sharia Law, like Saudi Arabia. The drafting of a new constitution is an understandably divisive issue.

In the face of all this, I am inspired by those who lost their eyes to Mubarak’s bullets and yet maintain their vision and the skip in their step. Yeah, I’m thinking of them.

Keep walking, my friends. That’s the only way to see the horizon.

 

***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.

Hot, Fresh and Friendly

In Cairo, everything is available via home delivery. From pillows, to a couple cans of beer, to McDonald’s. Yes, Mickey D’s comes right to your door by way of a young guy on a bright red motorcycle.

I have been to this city briefly twice before, and have been here for three weeks so far on this trip, but I have not yet once picked up the phone to order anything by delivery. I’m not a phone person. Plus, when you’re a dancer, you gesture a lot. And being that I don’t speak the language, I was scared to communicate without my crutch of non-verbal communication.

Been going out a lot for dinner, or eating my own poorly-made pasta with tuna. On repeat. I asked my friend to go out to eat with me tonight and he declined because he’s not feeling well. So, I realized it might be time to dive in to the world of Cairo delivery. I dialed a place called Zooba, which is in a neighborhood about 10-15 minutes NW from here.

A man answered. In broken English and what sounded like a friendly smile.

He asked my name. Then my phone number. I panicked and forgot. Actually had to go look it up to confirm I had it right. Oops. It’s only been my number for a couple weeks. We finally get that cleared up and he proceeds to ask me something but keeps slipping between English and Arabic. I ask, “What? I do not understand.” This repeats. Sigh. He skips whatever he was trying to communicate and moves on to ask my address. He kindly requests that I repeat it. One more time. One digit at a time. Near an embassy. He confirms the address but makes a reference to me living IN the embassy rather than NEAR. But then we go over the order and we hang up.

I had a feeling I would get a call from a wandering delivery guy. Or that it would take forever. Or never arrive at all.

But within 30 minutes, my doorbell buzzes. I open the door to a handsome and happy man with a nicely designed paper bag which contains exactly what I ordered. Everything is the right temperature. Just the way you would want it. The meal costs $8.20 USD including sales tax, delivery charge, and an overly generous tip. $8.20 gets you enough homegrown, organic, vegetarian goodness for at least 3 meals. Containers are larger than they appear.

Zooba Home Delivery

  • Koshari (lentils, roti or macaroni pasta, spaghetti, fried onion, chickpeas, rice, and tomato sauce all layered in one big tub I will definitely reuse)
  • A fresh oriental salad
  • Baladi bread
  • Rice pudding with sweet potato and cinnamon – In a jar. How awesome is that?

I am a very happy gal.

Putting away the paper bag, I see the receipt and delivery order slip are stapled to it. The food order is written in English; the address in Arabic. The phone number is scratched out a few times. And the customer name says HANNA.

The point of this story is two-fold: to document a very important Cairo first for me, and to discuss this idea of friendliness.

In a post a couple days ago, I explained the feeling that many of the people here were only being nice to me because they’re either wanting sex or money. Especially when an unveiled American lady is involved. While there are days that certainly feels so, there are plenty of other times where the friendliness is pure friendliness. Despite “the rage” you might be seeing in the media.

Newstand in Giza

Yes, I have received a few rude comments, but I have not once been touched inappropriately by someone here, unlike last year in Cairo. I am often the only lady in the Metro train car, wearing yoga pants, reading my Kindle; and the guys have certainly been kind. They will offer me a seat, and when I decline, don’t make a big of it. They just sit down themselves and sometimes we have a nive conversation as I stand over them in the breeze coming in from the train car window.

Some people are simply really nice people. Like the Zooba delivery guy. And the lady who helped me when I slipped and fell down a flight the stairs at Saad Zaghloul station this afternoon. And like the policeman I spoke to this morning. Even knowing that the police are considered the enemy by many in this city ([email protected]#k the Police is the second-most popular graffiti slogan after [email protected]#k SCAF), I found this policeman to be extremely friendly in a purely friendly way. He was my age. And dare I say, my type. We chatted for a quick minute about sand in our shoes. I walked on with a bit of a linger. Maybe I’ll see him again sometime. Maybe not. No matter.

In any case. I love a friendly city. And I’ll be calling for Zooba Delivery again for sure.

Money, Girls, Profit and Prophets

So, I have access to see what Google search terms bring people to my blog. Most disturbingly, these terms include “sex web syrian girls” and “syrian girls in cairo” as well as “strangers in cairo for sex and friendship” and oddly, “my wife touches my...”

Now that makes me sick.

Literally. Gutturally. Sick.

Men preying on vulnerable girls in areas reeling with crises. I know of these types of stories in Iraq, Kenya, and Rwanda. And I have heard many first accounts from women in Bosnia tortured and attacked by American and European military and peacekeepers. And now, I have this little peek into what may be happening here. It’s a very sad way to wake up.

There are days in Cairo when I feel my only worth here as an American woman is sex and money. It’s as if the Cairenes are overtly nice to me only because they think I come with sex and/or money. If that’s the thinking, I am a sad disappointment. I am nervous to date a man here just yet, due to some past experiences and a recent break up sort of thing. Plus, for many guys here, my short hair seems to be a turn off. So there’s that. And I’m extremely frugal; might need to squeeze this salary out for the months to follow. I am not sex and money. No one wants to feel that way. Maybe this is how life feels in a golddigger marriage. Yuck.

But the Syrian girls that these men (of any race, nationality, or religion) are searching for on the internet. They are who I fear for today.

Perfumed Spray for Kids – at Metro Market in Zamalek

This frightening glimpse I had into potential sex trafficking is in the context of a country where women’s rights and protections are teetering on an edge. My acquaintance Mahmoud Salem reported in his latest article for Foreign Policy, as an Egyptian addressing America, “Just this week, we had a Salafi member of the Constituent Assembly (the people who are writing our new constitution) talking about efforts to remove or change the law to lower the legal marriage age for girls to the moment they reach puberty and have their first period, even if they are as young as 9 years old. Yes: We might end up having a constitution that grants us child marriages. And you thought you had a culture war.”

I am calling on my friends, Egyptian and American alike, to look stand up against these threats. To thwart this nast when it first appears. To build an alternative. Egypt needs revenue, profit. Desperately reaching out to revive tourism. To revive trade. I hope beyond hope that sex trafficking is not in that mix.

Quick side note: I hold up this beautiful moment when a group of Libyan citizens took to the streets to give their condolences.

Image from ThinkProgress.org

As beautiful as Islam is. As amazing as Judaism is, and Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Agnoticism… As religious people, non-religious people, or military people, or liberal people, or revolutionary people, Let us help each other to stick closer to our prophets than our profits. Not making fun of the sign-maker’s simple error. It’s just a reminder to not lose our goodness if thing’s become about the Benjamin’s.

 

My way of helping the local economy, more felluca rides.

Felluca ride on the Nile

Back to the Google search terms we started this post off with, you should also know that people find this blog through more positive searches, such as “how can i volunteer to help kids with cancer in chicago?” and “egypt america fellowship.” That’s the direction I prefer to steer this ship.

 

Back to School, to Calm, to 5773

Yesterday, Cairo woke up to clearer air and birds chirping.

A calm, enforced.

P.S. My suggestion for Egypt for the next flare up… more female police officers on the beat.

While chaos erupted this week, I believe Morsi made one public speech, maybe two. But he never returned from his trip in order to stand here. He stayed in Italy and was pretty much AWOL. That seemed quite odd to me. Despite the lack of President Morsi, Cairo cleaned up. Some lingering protestors were arrested. Cats came out to pick through all the garbage. And Tahrir Square was wiped bare. “Cleaner than before the revolution,” a woman told me. Trucks took away the beds, tents, chairs, and full set-ups people had arranged.

Then today, Sunday the 16th, Cairo went back to school. With a population this massive, you can imagine the impact that would have on the squashed cars on the street and buzz in the air. Today is also the start of the Jewish Near Year. To all my friends celebrating, I wish you a peaceful and joyful year 5773. Shana Tova. Actually, I’m hoping for a peaceful 5773 for us all.

This morning, I took the train out to the dance academy in Cairo where I will be teaching. This school is a little bit special, runs through the Ministry of Culture, and starts next week. I do not know the religion of my soon-to-be-students, but can guess that they will be of mixed faiths. Some of the young teen students were already on campus today, rehearsing for their brief moment in the spotlight in Aida at the Cairo Opera Ballet next week.

The Institute was being scrubbed down by the custodial staff. And no matter what they did, the space seemed to be resolutely dreary. No colors or posters. No repair, because a new building will eventually be erected after the music conservatory is completed. As the daughter of a public school custodian, I’m trying with difficultly to hold off judgement. I am opening myself up to the wonders of this place that so many students desire to get into. This is the first school in Cairo that I have seen. I have no idea how it compares. In Morocco where I visited a school last year, the poverty was less intense than here; the biggest flaw I saw was that they were teaching Feminism in history class.

Back in Chicago where I come from, teachers are on strike. They are demanding more resources and better conditions for their students, with less standardized testing. As a person who worked in Chicago Public Schools and Saginaw Township Schools and read Kozol’s “Shame of the Nation” twice, my knowledge of educational reform in America is recognizably greater than that in Egypt. Cannot wait to learn more.

I will now share will you photos of the school here in Cairo. Without comment and without much knowledge of the place. What I do know is that the students and faculty all seem quite proud to be here.

Laughter fills the halls and studios already.

Classroom for academics or music theory.

Classroom for academics or music theory.

“The Principal’s Office”

 

Floor damage.

 

***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.

Storms: A Personal Account from the U.S. Embassy

Yesterday was September 11th. I blogged about a seemingly everyday sort of experience. And people responded.

But the day turned an incredible corner.

As the evening settled in, there was a buzz in my new neighborhood, Garden City, which is the home of many embassies.

A weirdness.

Around 7pm, I was home watching CNN when they reported there were thousands of protesters around the U.S. Embassy Cairo, which is just up the street from my apartment. I put on a simple black t-shirt and black jeans, smoothing my pixie cut, so somehow to look more self assured. The promise I made to myself and to my friends was that I would leave as soon as I felt any vibe of things being unsafe.

Well, me with my 5’1″ frame walked right into the heart of a massive anti-American protest and the storming of an embassy. Not because I’m naive or a risk-hunter, but because I was compelled that this is where there are the conversations that need to be had. This is the type of diplomacy I’m good at.

The men were chanting, screaming. Some were sitting along the embassy wall. Some were perched on the entranceway chiseling away the U.S. seal and lettering, replacing them with Bin Laden and the United States of Muslim, to the applause of the crowd below. I was the only American lady there in that main section at that time, that I know of. But people were quite calm and nice, oddly.

Many Egyptian women were in the back of the crowd, in full abaya and niqab. I went up to one of the young women and asked her to translate her sign. Our conversation was brilliant as we realized that we had the same opinion on hate crimes. And when I said I also consider attacks on Sikhs, women, homosexuals, Americans, and transgender people hate crimes, she genuinely agreed and translated for her sister and mother.

As I thanked her and went to walk deeper into the heart of the male crowd, she said, “They will eat you alive.”

 

U.S. Embassy in Cairo, September 11, 2012

The wall of the embassy was spray painted with “[email protected]#k Off U.S.A.” and the old slogan “khaibar khaibar oh Jews the army of Muhammed is coming.” The US flag inside the embassy walls had been replaced with a black flag that was very similar to that of Al Qaeda. There were flags burning in the crowd, but in general, the atmosphere was calm. I got a few men looking at me with a confused glaze, but was treated very well.

Surreal how gracious and welcoming the Egyptian people can be, even to an American who shows up for a minute at the anti-American event.

As I watched a few Salafi men destroy the entranceway, I felt a deep saddening and walked stunned right up to the front. I asked a young man why such actions were necessary in reaction to a wack’s homemade film. What did the U.S. diplomats in Cairo have to do with it? He couldn’t really explain but was kind. He kept saying I didn’t know anything of Islam or Arab culture. When I proved him very wrong, his respect was evident and we continued on to a poignant conversation of religious understanding and tolerance on this very poignant day.

I felt very safe. But after another chat or two, decided it best to leave before things got out of hand. Walked home alone just fine as a beautiful breeze blew along the Nile.

My mood was actually charged from those important conversations.

This morning, the news is nothing but saddening. A similar storming happened in nearby Benghazi with looting, damage inside the interior buildings, a massive fire, and the death of 3-5 people, including the U.S. Ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens.

May they rest in a loving peace.

And may we all live in a loving peace.

I woke up to the following messages from my Egyptian friends, “I am so sorry. But many of Egyptian people are ignorant. They don’t know why and where they are going. Just following the wave. I wanted u to know that not all Muslims think this way. I support Obama and have read that what happened increased Romney supporters.unsure Plus the director or the producer of that film is Egyptian, so USA did nothing. And most Egyptians aren’t that religious.”

Interesting times, my friends.

Choosing hope.

 

***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.

Men’s Sensibilities and a Syrian Girl

Page 43 of Cairo: The Practical Guide by The American University in Cairo Press

“Women’s Lib[eration] has not had quite the same impact in Egypt as it has in some Western countries. This produces some charmingly chivalrous behavior towards women on the part of men–opening doors, carrying packages, etc.–but can also cause the poor things some embarrassment if a woman offers to or insists upon paying for dinner.”

Yup.

That is happening.

Very often.

Nearly driving me crazy.

Even good friends of mine in Cairo are bothered by where I choose to walk in relation to them on the street. Yes, I hop up and down curbs, sometimes even skip and dance in public. Friends and strangers both get upset, when I get upset, when they insist on taking the heavier bags out of my hands. Sometimes the challenge of carrying things is extremely enjoyable. Can’t be the only woman or girl here to think so.

I’m not lady-like and don’t aspire to be. Once in awhile I can pass it off, almost like playing a character, but it doesn’t last long. Please understand this is not just a gender issue for me. I prefer to try to things on my own and then ask for the help I need. Whenever someone, male or female, has the job of tending to me, I get mighty uncomfortable. Asked to fetch my tea, prep my seat, clean up after I leave. My dad is a school custodian. But more than that, a community builder. He taught me everyone lends a hand.

The Cairo Guide goes on to say, “Defer to the custom of the country or your male companion’s sensibilities on this issue.”

Oh yes, men’s sensibilities. I apologize in advance, gentlemen and authors of the Cairo Guide. Couldn’t defer if I tried. And I did try. Will probably offend your sensibilities often and I probably won’t participate well in these aspects of Egyptian culture.

Yes, I asked a male stranger to take a photo of me posing alone in Tahrir Square.

 

For reference on where I’m coming from on this matter, here I am with one of my favorite dance students back in Chicago. I once lifted him on my back so that he could feel some weightlessness, release, and the dance concept of weight-sharing. He is an amazing guy and an amazing dancer. We found a way to be equals, as teacher/student, as different body-types, helping each other.

Darius and I.

 

Back to Cairo.

Last night I had planned a Hello Cairo party. 10 people RSVPd. 9 said maybe. 1 showed up. Me. That’s ok.

Actually it was more than ok. It was one of the coolest things.

I was enjoying my shrimp fajitas alone at TGIFriday’s on the Nile when a brilliant, nearly 14-yr-old girl from Aleppo, Syria came over and sat with me. Confidently and out of nowhere. Bright pink hijab and a bright smile. She and I chatted for nearly an hour. We had a blast.

She wanted to practice her English. And her entire family was at a nearby table: only her father speaks English but not to her level. Someday she wants to study in America or Europe. Her friends don’t seem to understand that she will be safe and that not everyone in those countries hates Muslims. That’s what she told me.

She asked me how old I was. 34. She asked me if I was married. When I said no, she asked what was wrong. I told her about failed attempts at relationships, and about doing good things in the world. We gossiped a bit about guys. She told me about a fight she had with her boyfriend back in Syria. She asked me why I had short hair. Shaved my head for St. Baldrick’s. I told her about Donna and Shea and the other children who have battled, will battle, are battling cancer; she lit up and said she wants to be a doctor and volunteer.

We laughed about how slow the male waiter was with bringing the check, even though I asked several times. I said I might just do it myself, write down on a piece of scrap paper what I ordered and leave the paper on the table with the cash.

It was in this silly moment that I felt like a real role model. An amazing feeling. And in one mere hour, she taught me a lot about being a powerful teen, Muslim young woman, aspiring doctor. She told me she likes Jennifer Lopez and Eminem. I told her about Lupe Fiasco. She said she was worried about her friends back in Syria and that she wants to keep in touch with me on Facebook or e-mail.

Hope she has a great birthday on Tuesday. And I hope she knows that my writing about her is because of how much our conversation meant to me. We are 20 years apart but kindred spirits. Her family has been here 20 days and I hope they can return to a safe and bright Syria soon.

 

***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.

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