Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The banana man wants to travel to China

Tonight, as I buy a kilo of bananas and yustufendi (mandarins), the fruit vendor asks me about traveling to China. He wants a visa and inquires if it’s easier to receive one if he applies as my friend. Having traveled to China only once from Egypt, I remember how troublesome the visa application process was for me, despite my American passport. I tried to tell him that he probably still needs a letter of invitation and a flight ticket. “Can you inquire for me?” “Sure,” I said in a non-committal way. “Promise me?” I felt the pressure. I shook his hand and promised him that I would ask. It seems to me that if the question of yesteryear was “how do I get a visa to America?” the new question of today is “how do I get a visa to China?”

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Tear gas from the nearby demonstrations wafted into our Sa'ad Zaghloul apartment, forcing us to open the windows. My roommates cut open some onions and recommended that I eat them, saying they would help against the effects of the tear gas.
We saw smoke rising from nearby Qasr Al-Ainy street. My friend Hatem told us that it was a burning couch and tires. Despite all this, I still went out for dinner with a friend and tea with another. When I returned on the metro, the tear gas was very strong at Sadat Station. Several men on the platform were peddling face masks for 1LE each. And a number of their fellows Egyptians bought from them eagerly. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Egyptian girls are the red line!

Egyptians returned to Liberation Square last Friday for yet another demonstration to voice disapproval of their military rulers.

Two prominent signs with the word kaathiboon or “liars” in bold red were displayed in the square. The epithet refers to the military junta or Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) which last week ordered soldiers to assault peaceful protesters in the square. In doing so, they beat a young, veiled woman unconscious on the pavement, her headscarf and shirt ripped off, revealing a blue bra against a pale chest.

A few soldiers surrounded her, dragging her limp body. They carried batons and one of them stepped on her half-naked body. This is only one of the various images that Egyptians have witnessed this week in their ongoing revolution as they struggle with a basic question of who will rule their new political system.

Even under Mubarak’s regime, such an act was never perpetrated. Many Egyptians feel a new boundary has been crossed. Taxi drivers now talk of going to the square to “restore her honor.”

I asked one of my Egyptian brothers, how does one go to the military council to “restore” lost honor? The question tripped him up a little.

In visiting Liberation Square this past summer, I witnessed a number of so-called debate circles, where Egyptians would discuss calmly and cordially different subjects. Now, these same debate circles are filled with venom. Men shout. Women shout. Men shout at women. Young men shout at other young men. They are angrier than before. I admit I am a little distressed at these images. Somehow, they frighten me a little more than the men with machetes who walk around the square.

I ascend the stairs from the metro station and am met by the civilian guards who ask me for my passport. I display my Chinese teacher’s ID from my year teaching English abroad in 1998—more than 13 years ago. I hope my youthful picture still matches my current mug. “China? You Chinese? We like China. Enter!”

Gamal, one gentleman in his 40s, was accompanying his colleagues in carrying a giant Egyptian flag. Sporting a Palestinian kufaya around his neck, Gamal first asks me to take some pictures of him. I oblige him. He then asks me to send him the pictures. When I ask him for his email address, he asks another gentleman on the side to write his address for him. I surmise that Gamal is illiterate.

Gamal invites me to a cup of tea and gently pulls me to the side where a tea lady has set up shop with a few bottles of bottled water, instant tea and a Bunsen burner on a piece of wood. I ask her, “how’s business?”

“Pretty good today. Pretty good,” She replies cheerfully.

As we talk, Gamal tells me that he works in a hammam, or bathhouse nearby in Boulaq, a working class neighborhood by the Nile. As he speaks, he reminds me of a Chinese monk with his shaved head, high cheekbones and long eyebrows. He even has a wide nose and piercing eyes. Yes, definitely Chinese monk from the Ming Dynasty.

Using hand gestures, he describes the bath house and the international clientele. They are open every day and he would like to invite me there to try it out. “We have all the best techniques!” In all my time in Cairo, I had heard of the bath houses, but only got close to one a few years ago, but it was closed at the time. So, this intrigued me.

Gamal hinted that perhaps, he could show me the bath house after we finish the tea.
I hinted to him that maybe we should walk around the square a little. He hooked his left arm in my right arm and led me forward.

Every few minutes or so, we stop and he would ask me to take a picture of him in front of a flag or sign or some other background. Then, he would offer to take my picture, even though I was not particularly interested. He insisted. Being polite to my new guide, I relented. When he stepped back to get a better angle, I had the momentary feeling that he would run off with my camera.

I stopped at some hand-drawn cartoons posted on the side and spent a few minutes trying to decipher them. He urged me to hurry up by saying, “yella?” or “let’s go?” I took my sweet time.

Sometimes, when I gave him the camera, he held onto it for an extended period of time, not returning it to me right afterwards.

Close to one of the main stages a man holds up a religious protest sign: “our revolution will not kneel except for one God.” A noose wrapped in the Egyptian flag is attached to the sign.

Gamal spotted a young lady and her mother with some colorful signs. He snapped a few photos and then climbed the concrete platform to take additional photos. The young lady held a home-made sign: “to the military council—we don’t want your service. Return to your barracks. Thank you!”

On her chest was pinned a black and white poster of three photos of women abused by the military police in recent days.

The young lady explained that these actions were simply unacceptable. She was present tonight to protest military rule.

One man on crutches and missing his right leg is on disability, but only receives 130 LE ($21) a month. I asked him how he could live on that small amount. “I can’t!”
A young student of about 14 in a crisp white shirt asked me if demonstrations like tonight’s were possible in China. I replied “no.” While China has economic freedom, there is no political freedom. Whereas Egypt is the opposite. The young boy asked me which one I preferred. I explained that ideally, both would be good.

While I was talking, Gamal stepped off the platform and disappeared into the cro—with my camera. My worst fear now confirmed, I ran after him and quickly caught up with him. It appears that he was simply following the crowd, taking pictures. My guess is that he’s never owned a camera before.

We followed the chanting protesters for the next 30-45 minutes down empty streets.

A mock casket draped in red bunting floats on the protesters’ shoulders. The words on the side read: “Martyr of the military rule.”

A car with a large sign displays the same image of the police battering the women protesters from last week: “Where’s the glory?”

A middle-aged man approaches me and asks me politely: “you are not Egyptian, are you? You don’t belong here. If the police see you, they will arrest you. You should go.”

The teenagers around me tell me that I can do anything I want and should ignore the man. We wait a minute or so for the crowd to pass before we head back to Liberation Square.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Voting night (12/22 Thursday)

Voting in Egypt takes a little more effort sometimes.

I accompany my friend Hatem to go vote in Bulaq, a working class neighborhood. Hatem even warned me that the area is “very, very, very shaabee” meaning ghetto-like. Having visited Bulaq frequently before, I am unfazed.

Hatem is an aspiring actor who will join part of an Egyptian TV series next year. Having voted once already, Hatem is returning this time to vote in the run-offs between the candidates.

We take a tuk-tuk for about half an hour through heavy traffic. The driver, a young man in his late 20s, makes only 80LE ($13) daily. He spends 15LE on gas and maintenance, 25 LE on food, 20LE on his son’s education, 10 LE on cigarettes, and the rest for his family’s daily use. The next day, he begins at zero again.

Couple of times, we get stuck in a rut and our driver jumps out to push or pull the tuk-tuk in various directions. Though he appears thin, his arms are quite strong. I compliment him: “you are much stronger than me. I am weak.” Later, Hatem tells me that this compliment delighted him.

At one point, he bangs the dashboard when another car nearly hits us. I can tell this man is full of fire.

He blasts the music. The loudspeakers are right behind our ears. It feels like an earthquake going through my eardrums. I joke with him and say that the music is not loud enough and that he should turn it up. Unfortunately, he thinks I’m serious and complies.

The driver tells me that he is pleased with the elections and believes that there will be accountability in the new system. “When we vote, the politicians will know our pain. So, that they know that we need to clean the streets or build new roads.”
When we arrive at the school house entrance, several soldiers stand vigil at the doorway with brown AK-47s. Two clerks with uniforms and name tags around their necks greet me. They inquire about my identity.


Hatem explains that I am his friend. I try to insert some humor, saying, “Hatem is with me.” Initially, the clerks are reluctant to allow me entry and the soldiers tell me I need to wait by the door while Hatem votes.

As soon as I tell them that I am Chinese, their frowns turn into smiles. I explain that I am from China, the same place where their clothing is made in. I point to the soldier’s AK-47 and say, “and the same place that produced your gun!” After a minute or so, they let me in without checking my bag, which contained a camera. Or my person, which contained a digital recorder.

We climb the stairs to the 4th floor. There, in a small schoolroom are a handful of clerks. Hatem enters. I hesitate at first, but then enter the room. They welcome me and we chat for a few minutes. The first gentleman offers me a seat and then an orange. When I tell him I am Chinese, his face lights up. “Oh China! Old civilization. 5,000 years old!”

I agree with him, saying that it is just like Egypt.

I remain in my seat, not wanting to appear threatening in any way. I ask him a few questions about the voting process; he explains that the votes are delivered to a central place for tabulation and then reported to the media. He is optimistic about the immediate future.

Downstairs, before we climb into our tuk-tuk again, I thank the election clerks and the soldiers. The head clerk asked me with tongue-in-cheek, “You didn’t see any fraud here, did you?”

“No, of course not. Thank you so much for allowing me entry. I saw and learned a lot tonight and know more about the new voting system. May God be kind to you.”

On our way back home, the Tuk-Tuk driver engages Hatem in a long and full conversation. Once he delivers us to our destination, Hatem fills me in on their talk. At Hatem’s encouraging, I thank the driver with the new phrase, “May God protect you.”

Hatem is impressed by our driver, believing him to be both a possible criminal and also a colorful character.

“He knows the locations of drug dens, burglar hideouts and whorehouses. In fact, one time, the police asked him to become an informant, but he refused that and said he had pride. Another time, he took his sick brother to the hospital, but he did not receive treatment until it was too late and he died right then and there. So, the driver returned later and stabbed the doctor in the back of the head with a knife. He fled and didn’t know what happened to the doctor.”

I’m glad I complimented the driver when I did.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Yusuf the flight attendant turned revolutionary

With a small radio in his left hand and a paper shopping bag with a helmet and some newspapers, Yusuf heads to Midan Al-Tahrir, or Liberation Square. It is early Sunday morning, about 6:30am and the streets are still empty. Yusuf, an elderly gentleman who sports a grey coat and a light sweater over his shirt, black pants and black loafers, has been a regular visitor to Liberation Square since January.

“I used to have money. Lots of it. I used to drive a Benz. Then a BMW 520i.” He speaks excellent English, having practiced it for years as a flight attendant in Saudi Arabia.

One day, President Mubarak destroyed his company. “I lost everything. Then, I became poor. Do you know why I am single? I never married or had children because I had no money,” he recounts his story. Deep wrinkles run across his forehead in waves.

Yusuf’s hair is a mane of silver. Bags hang from his eyes. He has a light salt and pepper mustache on his top lip. I interrogate him in Arabic; he responds in English.
Yusuf now works part time for a small company selling pharmaceutical equipment. When he was looking for work, most managers would say, “old man, you’re just too old! Why don’t you just work in a cafeteria somewhere?!”

Without prompting, Yusuf’s anger swells up against the previous regime. “Mubarak—that dog destroyed everything! He and his fellow dogs destroyed this country,” decries Yusuf.

As we converse on the street near Liberation Square, another gentleman with a yellow helmet and a large gauze bandage underneath his jaw passes by. Some of the protesters resemble construction workers these days with their blue or yellow helmets, which protect them against shooting soldiers and against machete-wielding thugs. He was injured two days ago.

I say “sorry” to him. He replies, “Alhamdulillah! Praise be to Allah I’m still alive.”

Wanting to hear more of his story, I invite Yusuf to breakfast. He says there are a few places nearby. When we walk to a café, they are still preparing for the morning customers, so we head to a second place. We find a food stand and order an Egyptian classic: ful (boiled beans) and one hard-boiled egg cut and mixed with the beans with a bit of salt and oil. Two other customers stand next to us.

Hatem, the ful vendor says that before the recent violence, he stayed busy daily; however, now he has few to no customers. ”Everyone is scared to come to downtown. So, they stay away,” he laments.

After the meal, I pay Hatem and leave 3 LE for tip.

Yusuf and I walk back towards the square. He gives me his phone number and asks me to contact his colleague later. “I’m usually by the KFC after 8pm, so you can find me around there.” I tell him that he is a book and I have only seen his front and back cover, but he has yet to reveal the content. He kisses me three times on my cheeks and tells me that he is sure of only one thing: God. He is not 50% or 80% or 90%. He is 100% sure of his faith in Allah, who provided him dinner last night and breakfast this morning.

Yusuf’s paper bag splits open, spilling his blue helmet out on the sidewalk. I pick it up and return it to him. I will look for him by the KFC later.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ramadan Kareem!

It is still an hour or so before dawn of the first day of Ramadan. I hear some fireworks outside. Do people celebrate the arrival of the Holy Month of fasting the way Americans celebrate the Fourth of July?

This month I am trying to fast, so I prepared a fairly large suhoor, or morning meal before dawn so that I will be able to withstand a full day of forgoing food or drink. You will see a bowl of beans (plenty of protein to keep the stomach happy); a bowl of cereal--corn flakes with 10 sweetened peanuts covered in sesame and honey, 5 dates and one serving of yoghurt; two fried eggs with one piece of bread; a serving of left over soup from two nights ago; and a banana for dessert.

Once I go to bed (about 330pm or so), then I should be ready for the day, insha' Allah.

An American friend who has lived here about 5 years or more recently told me that if I have no strong reason to fast, then I should NOT. She should know since she has fasted for two consecutive Ramadans, even though she is a devout Catholic. "Unless there's a really good reason, I will never fast like that ever again. One week will give you a taste, but really it's after two weeks that you really start to feel the effects of fasting. Which are not good, actually! lol"

That sounds like an ominous warning.

I now hear the Ithaan (or call to prayer) outside my window, and it's different from the regular call, which usually sounds like a recording.

Happy Ramadan!

Stay tuned...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A visit to Midan Al-Tahrir

I wait for my friend Hatem at the Hardee’s Restaurant in Midan al-Tahrir, a common meeting point for demonstrators.

The flag salesman is doing brisk business. When I inquire with him about his sales, his voice is hoarse. Perhaps, from his participation in the demonstrations?

Hatem and I dive into the crowd of mostly young men. Three platforms have been set up. We proceed to the main stage where a dynamic young man is delivering a fiery speech that draws rapt attention from the audience. I remember him as the same man from two weeks ago who captivated the audience with his rhythmic and poetic slogans.

“Allahu Akbar” shouts a man behind us, as he passes by. “God is great!”

In what has become a typical scene from the square, a young man with a long paintbrush walks around painting the Egyptian flag on people’s hands or faces. Though it is free, he usually expects a tip of at least one pound.

On stage is a munaqaba, or a completely veiled woman, an unveiled woman, who turns out to be a national TV broadcaster, and a young kid with a white T-shirt with the Superman logo emblazoned on the front. The banner behind the speaker reads,
“We cannot match the blood of our young martyrs from the justice and freedom.”
When the dynamic speaker finishes, a patriotic song is performed.

At a second and smaller stage, Dr. SalaH Al-anany, a calligrapher, is pontificating on the difference between the army and the military council. “The army is on our side, but the military council speaks politics.” The speaker is a middle-aged man with curly hair down to his neck. Bespectacled, he holds the microphone with his right hand and punctuates most sentences with his left hand.

The banner behind him reads, “From administration of the country’s affairs, returning to an original position and forming a temporary, civilian council for the administration of the country’s affairs. And we invite general personalities to debate in the Square initially to agree in the square.”

Some are on a hunger strike.

While we chat with the medics, a man carries his younger brother to the parked ambulance. The young boy has fainted. Another patient is receiving some medicine inside the van, so there’s no space for the boy. Furious, the man screams at the medics, “he’s my younger brother. I will not abandon him or let him die!” Despite the medics trying to explain to him their limitations, he’s adamant. A few people in the crowd try to restrain him to no avail. Eventually, he is led away.

A young veiled woman, 19, next to us tells us that she arrived the previous day from a nearby town. She wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
She is playful and pinches me a couple of times.

However, some men in the square robbed her and now she needs to return home. Sadly, she is lacking the 35LE for the bus ticket. Hatem reached into his pocket and gives her three pounds.

I offer her the remaining bag of peanuts in my hand. She takes the entire bag and eagerly dives in.

As we turn away, I tell Hatem that she’s a con artist. Hatem is now embarrassed that he was snookered. However, I tell him not to feel too badly. After all, for three pounds, he now has a story that he can retell for the next few months or years.