Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Kindness of a stranger

This afternoon, I took a minibus from Mohandiseen, where I have Arabic classes, to Midan Dokki, where I catch the Metro to Maadi, the site of Egypt Today’s office. Surprisingly, the bus is not crowded. And there are a few seats in the back. When I sit down, the man to my right begins talking to me. I don’t understand half of what he says, but I smile and nod and say repeatedly “meshee,” which is the Arabic “Ok.”

Soon, I need to get off the bus and the gentleman to my left speaks to me in basic English. He wears glasses, has a beard and is dressed in a sweater. As we get off the bus, he pays for my ride -- half a pound (a dime). I try to put the same amount in his pocket, but he refuses, saying I am his guest. I try a second time. Again, he refuses. He also needs to go to the same Metro station, so we walk together.

As we approach the window to buy our tickets, he walks ahead of me. I suspect he will try to pay for my metro ride, so I cut him off and take out a 10 pound bill, saying I need change, which was true. He says he also needs change. I beat him to it and bought a ticket for him (one pound or 20 cents).

On the train, we talk a little more. He’s traveled to Damascus, Syria and Istanbul, Turkey, but never to Europe or America. He is a lawyer by training and specializes in family and community law. I tell him that lawyers are generally despised in America because they are seen as liars and cheats. He says lawyers have an equally low position in Egyptian society.

After one stop, a seat opens up and he directs me to sit down. I decline as the next stop Sadat station is my transfer point. Another man is ready to sit down, but the lawyer is adamant and blocks the other man from sitting, saying it is for me. I tell him that I will be sitting down for many hours tonight at my office. I thank him and bid him farewell with “Rabina yihaleek” or May God keep you. Egyptians never cease to amaze me with their kind hospitality.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Alexandria: return to antiquity

For a second class seat, the 8:15am train ride from Cairo to the seaside city of Alexandria was quite pleasant: clean, soft pleather seats, and a nice view of endless farm fields. We pass many poor areas, tenements and markets. Most of the roofs are still unfinished, with the rebar sticking out like antennae. It is said that once you finish building your house, then you must pay a type of property tax, so the crafty Egyptians simply leave the roofs unfinished.

When we arrive in Alexandria about 11am, we are greeted by a gentle downpour. Hallah, my friend from Merkaz Fajr and I buy an umbrella at the station. Made in China. Everything in Egypt is made in China. We make our way to the Corniche or boardwalk. We stop by a Brazilian Coffee shop for coffee and hot chocolate to warm ourselves up. When we go upstairs, a waiter tells us that we need to vacate the shop in 10 minutes for prayers. So, we go downstairs again, order our beverages, and imbibe them as we stand and eat our desserts.

When we walk on the corniche, I spot a woman standing on a big rock with a fishing pole. I slowly make my way over to her, wanting to engage her in a conversation with my rudimentary Arabic.
“Is there fish here?” I ask her.
“Yes. A lot.”
The woman is middle-aged and comes once a week with her husband. She cooks the fish at home and tells me that it is “helwa!” or sweet. Her husband is at prayers for the moment, so she is fishing alone for a while.

As we continue to walk on the corniche, we receive many stares for obvious reasons: what is an Asian guy doing with an Egyptian girl? They must be married! So, that was our cover--Hallah became my wife for the day. I didn't even have to buy her any flowers. If only all relationships can be this easy...

We visit the Citadel Fort Qaitbay and then the Catacombs, ancient tombs that have very interesting paintings that mix Greek and Pharaonic imagery.

At most places that we visit, from the restaurant to the shop where I buy a bottle of water, vendors are very curious about us: where do you come from? They ask Hallah if she is Egyptian. If so, is she married to me?

Return to Cairo—lights out!
In the evening, we buy our return tickets to Cairo. However, we sense something is amiss as our tickets only cost LE 6 (about $1.00). Perhaps, this is the super slow train that will arrive at midnight? Once we board the train, we realize why our ticket is so cheap--there are no lights; the entire train is completely dark! Generally, I have a poor sense of smell, but I can detect a very strong stench of fresh urine mixed with shit wafting through the entire car. I tell Hallah to keep moving to the next car.

We finally spot an open seat and sit down. The window is cracked. Perhaps, a big rock hit it some time ago. It is yellow and stained and dusty. It is also half open, allowing a cool breeze to flow in. It doesn’t bother me, but Hallah minds, so she asks if I can close it. Before I get up to do anything, the gentleman next to us closes the window for us. He begins talking to us.

A medical student, Amjad is 21 years old and from the town of Tanta, close to Alexandria. Because it is dark, it is hard for me to describe him except that he has strong features and is very warm. Occasionally, some light from a passing train lights up our car for a few seconds. I catch a glimpse of his face. He has big, round eyes and a strong chin. He is not fat, but could easily be a wrestler. Amjad speaks with competent, but halting English. In about three more years he will become a doctor. He was in Alexandria today to search for a flat to buy. However, there are many cheats in Egypt so that very often, after you buy a flat, two or three others will say they have also bought the same flat, so it goes to court, which will take five years or so to resolve.

Amjad asks me, “What do you think of Egypt?” I seem to get this question a lot lately.
“I love the people. They are kind and warm,” I reply.

“What do you think of hygiene here?” Of course, I complain about the air pollution and trash. Amjad explains that he avoids eating in most restaurants because they are unsanitary. It makes sense, but he speaks like he is a foreign tourist, disdaining the street stall food.

He lives with his mom and brother. His dad is an engineer and mom is a teacher. She is sitting at the end of the car. “My father visited Holland and loved that country. It is so much better there! In America, it is so much better than Egypt, yes? More advanced in technology? Cleaner?” Amjad asks me very direct and leading questions, almost as if he wants me to confirm his opinions.

Hallah again asks me, “Why are there no lights on this train?!”
Amjad replies, “This is Egypt!” He smiles.

He says, “I hate Egypt! Where there are no lights on the train, the windows are cracked and broken.”

He asks, “Is it hard to find job in America?” I tell him there are many, many opportunities.

Amjad says he fell in love with America after he saw the movie “Prison Break” recently on his computer.

He is curious about how the American people view Egypt, especially after the 9/11 attacks. “Do they think we are terrorists?” he adds. I explain that Americans generally think of four things in Egypt: Pyramids, the Nile, Luxor and King Tut. This seems to comfort him a little, at least.

Amjad is also bothered by the ubiquitous pollution. “Leaders in Egypt do not care about the trash. They steal from the people. Egypt is a very rich country: lots of resources, but the leaders steal from the people.”

Amjad strikes me as bright, warm and ambitious. He asks me several times about the process of getting a visa to go to the US to study or work. He says in Egypt, a doctor can only make LE 400 ($80) on average or maybe LE 5,000 depending on experience, intelligence and the office.

He only goes to Cairo once a year or so. He says, “I may never see you again.” Well, I’m in Cairo until end of June, so if you come, call me, I tell him.

“At first, I was reluctant to speak to you. I was afraid,” He confided to me.
“I am glad that you spoke to me. In the future, when you see a foreigner on the train, just approach him and the worst he’ll say is maybe he is tired and doesn’t want to talk. Most of the time, you will have a good experience,” I advise him.

A small group of rowdy men behind us are laughing at us. Perhaps, they are amused by the spectacle of an Egyptian speaking with an Oriental in English. So, Amjad tells me that if they talk to me, I should avoid talking to them. Also, if they ask, that Hallah is my wife, because in Egypt, there are no boyfriends or girlfriends. He tells me this more for our safety than anything else, it seems.

Also, “sometimes in the dark, beware of thieves.” Now, I am a bit nervous.

When Amjad gets off the train, I shake his hand and tell him to contact me by email and phone. If he ever visits Cairo, he has at least one friend.

Come to Tanta!
Before we leave Tanta, a new couple sits in front of us. The young woman is 21 and a Muhigabat, or a woman who wears the hijab, the garment that covers the hair and neck. After a few minutes, they begin talking to Hallah. They, like most Egyptians, are very warm and welcoming. Mohammad is a 19 year student studying science. She studies home economics at Al Ahzar, Cairo’s oldest and most famous religious University. While he speaks a little basic English, she speaks none, so Hallah becomes our “turgamun” or interpreter. She strikes me as very outgoing and gregarious, a trait that I usually do not associate with Egyptian women. (Of course, I’ve not met too many in my one month here).

Beginning with the basics, she asks if I am Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. Wanting to make my background a little more exciting than it really is, I tell her I am from Malaysia and that I am a student.

“Are you Muslim?”
“Yes,” I reply.
“Do you pray?” she inquires.
“Dimon” (always) I reply.
She smiles.
The couple talks with us for the duration of our journey back to Cairo. They invite us to their hometown of Tanta for a small Eid or holiday in January 2008. A kind offer. I don’t know if the invitation is genuine or they are simply being polite to two strangers on the train. Tanta has much culture and many historical sites, she explains. And they have many mosques.

She and Hallah exchange phone numbers. When she asks me for mine, I tell her that I don’t remember my number, and that she can always contact me through Hallah.

After we leave the train station, she and her friend help us to get a cab. Again, she asks for my phone number. Again, I tell her that she can find me through Hallah.

We return home, exhausted after a productive and very memorable day filled with adventures.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Meandering the halls of the Mugamma

I need to upgrade my 30 day tourist visa to a temporary resident visa, so I make a visit to the Mugamma.

Many foreigners fear and dread this place, as the Cairo Practical Guide warns: “This daunting pre-evolutionary monstrosity on the south side of Midan Al-Tahrir strikes terror in the heart of any Kafka fan.” The place has a reputation as the mother of all bureaucracies.

Mugamma contains a long history. For example, the head of the Nile Transport Office, while under investigation on embezzlement charges, jumped out of an 11th- floor balcony to his death. On a lighter note--in 1983, after the manager died, his assistant took over the space, housing his entire family; he was not discovered until two months later, when he explained that his wife had been nagging him about their small and cramped room. In 1994, a similar case was uncovered: this time it was a civil servant, and he had been living in the office since the mid-1970s. (To read more, click here)

I arrive at 8:30am. Already, the place is filled with people. Vendors line the outside selling snacks and drinks. Some people loiter at the bottom of the stairs. They must be the guides who offer newbies advice and paid services in navigating the Mugamma.

Before I arrive, I receive two sets of conflicting directions:
First, SameH from Fajr advised me to take a left after the metal detector, then another left. However, the Cairo Practical Guide advises readers to go to the first floor, then take a right. Well it’s a circular building, so a left or a right will take you to the same set of windows, I later discovered.

Mugamma is like the DMV, but the workers are mostly women in hijabs, who speak Arabic. If you’re lucky, a few do speak some good English. There are no lines. Only crowds and whoever can elbow their way to the window without causing a fight. At moments like this, a return to the Virginia DMV seems pretty good: you walk in, take a number, sit down, and wait to be called.

I first go to window 12 for a form. It’s about twice as big as any government form that I’ve ever seen and in both English and Arabic, it asks for basic info: address, purpose of visa, etc. I leave Religion blank.

The lady, in her 40s, and in good English, directs me to window 42 to buy some stamps costing 61 LE and to make a copy of my passport and the visa page and come back.
At window 42, the lady also speaks some English and sells me some stamps, then directs me downstairs to get a copy of my passport.

Downstairs: a middle-aged gentleman in the hallway asks if I need copies of my passport page. He takes my passport and walks to a small broom closet with some copiers. After only a few seconds, he returns my passport and one copy. I give him 50 piastres (a dime) and tell him, “SareeH” or fast. He smiles. He then asks if I have a photo. I give him my color photo and he staples it neatly onto the page. I give him 50 piastres as baksheesh (tip). His name is Tareeq and he has worked in this broom closet for 30 years. Wow! Imagine that. I’ve switched jobs annually in my former life in the US. Often, I’ve gotten bored of a job just a month or two into it. I cannot possibly imagine working the same job – especially one in such a small space and dealing with the public – for such a long time. He must be a very patient man.

I return upstairs to window 12 and a different lady reviews my application. A younger lady to her right seems to be new and is learning on the job. The first lady is gently teaching her where to write on the visa applications. They tell me I now have to get my application signed. “Fain?” or Where?

“Right next to us” she points somewhere toward over there.
I leave the window and walk slowly, but don’t see anything relevant:
Non-Arab residency. Not me.
Refugee applicants. Not me. Alhamdullilah.
Arab residency.
Long term residency (3-5 years).
Long term work residency (3-5 years).

Hmmm….I walk back and forth. Then, a man who notices that I have the lost look directs me to a desk by the end of the hallway with two men in business suits, but no sign above them. I walk over and hand my papers to them. The man signs and returns it to me without even looking at me.
“shookrun” I say, or Thank you! No response.
“Shookrun” I repeat. Again, no response. He is busy talking to his friend.

When I return to window 12, the lady tells me that I really do not need the 50 LE stamp and gently removes it. She returns it to me and tells me to get a refund, which surprises me. She could easily have pocketed the money. Many Egyptians do. In my weekly visits to the supermarket, the clerks -- as a rule -- always shortchange customers for anything under half a pound (a dime). Most people are too busy and in a hurry to care. While I initially thought they simply did not have the “faka” or change, I’ve now realized that they do, but want to skim off the top. For example, yesterday I had lunch at Hardee’s, which is Carl’s Jr. in Cairo. For a lunch of 16.50I handed the girl a 20 pounder. She should have given me 3.5, but instead gave me 3.25, all in 0.25 increments of very old bills. She probably figured that it would take me a while to count them and by the time I realized the inaccurate amount, it would be too late or I wouldn’t care. She was right. If she does this 10 times daily, she’ll make 2.5 LE, enough to buy two falafels. That’s breakfast.

In my first visit to Egypt in April, I went to the post office to mail some postcards. I bought stamps for 12 LE. I gave the clerk 20 LE. Instead of handing me 8 LE, I got 3.5 in return. In other words, she kept 4.5 LE (about 90 cents) as her user fee. At the time, I didn’t complain, thinking, ”well—she needs it more than me and I’m a tourist here for only two weeks, so…” Now that I’m a resident, I try to be more vigilant with these matters. I’m sure sociologists would have a field day trying to explain this practice. I’ve heard it said that Egypt is such a poor country that people try to make ends meet in whatever way they can. If that means skimming from the top by shortchanging customers, then so be it.

I should return in two hours to Window 38 to pick up my visa. I receive no receipt for my application. Hmmm…

After I return to Merkaz Fajr to take my final exam, Moustafa hands me a copy of the Quran in English. I had asked SameH earlier in the week for one. The men promised me one before I finished my course. I tell them that I will read it and cherish the gift, always.

Return to Mugamma
At Window 38:
The lady simply recognizes me from my passport photo and hands it to me without confirming my identity. Five minutes after I enter the Mugamma, I am finished. I leave with an extended stay until April 2008. Alhamdullilah!