Monday, December 01, 2008

Working haaard for my money

Everyone owes me money this week:

-The Golf in Egypt Magazine for my last article

-Egypt Today (from May). They suck royal donkey. Don’t ever work for them.

-The English language center where I teach. The director pays me only when I nag him.

-Barsoum, my diamond dealer student who’s escaped to Dubai for a business trip. I forgive him.

The only saving grace is an Italian engineer who’s visiting his girlfriend for the week and needs English tutorials for the week, so I’m able to stay off the streets for now…

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Oral Assessment at St. Andrew’s

My former student Mohamed Hussein Mohamed asked me to come by St. Andrew’s today to help with the Oral Assessment of the new students. So, I became an interrogator of refugees asking impertinent questions:

What kind of food do you like?

Are you married?

How many brothers and sisters do you have?

Some questions elicit pain: When do you go to work?

I have no work.

What is one of the problems in Cairo?

There is no work here for me.

I interview about five students. The first two are young men from Sudan in their late 20s. The next three are Iraqis from Baghdad. First, a veterinarian who would like to open up his own practice. Alas, the Egyptian government will not allow him to do such a thing. Second, an articulate woman who practiced as a gynecologist. Unfortunately, she does not have much to do here in Cairo except to make sure her kids are studying in school and they have enough to eat. “The money is running out,” she says matter-of-factly. I mentioned to her that someone on the Cairo Scholars listserv for expatriates was in need of a gynecologist recently. She asked me to forward her the email.

Finally, a dignified and well-spoken man, perhaps in his late 40s, who fled Iraq and is now looking to resettle outside Egypt. His daughter recently found refuge in “Missery” in the middle of America. Missouri, this is. I told him to be careful of the pronunciation, as Missourians are very proud people. I decided that he and the doctor both are advanced. I hope to be able to have them in my class in January, insha’ Allah! (God Willing!).

Monday, November 24, 2008

Shanghai Sojourn, the sequel: A week in China (11/4 to 11/12)

(Background: I was invited by the Shanghai International Strategic Studies Research Institute to give a talk on the US Elections in early November.)

As I arrive at the Cairo Airport for my Qatar Airways flight, I place my two small bags on the conveyor belt. My cell phone and watch cause the metal detector to beep. Mr. Security man comes to me and takes my right hand with both of his. With his right hand, he holds my fingers. With his left hand, he feels my pulse, making me slightly nervous.

“Where are you going?”
Shanghai, China.

“What airline?”
Qatar Airways.

“What time is your flight?”
About 5:30pm.

He looks me in the eyes the whole time. He smiles and lets me go. Apparently, I pass the Cairo Airport human security screening!

Doha airport / layover
In the waiting room are mostly Chinese passengers, who are listless. They play with their loud cell phones belting out lively, Chinese pop songs. One is wearing a NY pink cap and yellow T-shirt with red stripes. Each man wears the standard Chinese businessman outfit: dark, leather shoes, khakis, black shirt, short, cropped black hair, and an aloof stare coupled with impatience. The man facing me is bouncing one leg up and down; when I look up again, both legs are now bouncing. One man suddenly walks away briskly and announces, “smoke!”

Arrival in Shanghai
Johnson says, “I hear that you’ve been working in Iraq? In what capacity?”
I can’t talk too much about it.

“Is it working with local government and city administration?”

Yes, something like that. (In some circles, I’ve come to be known as the secret Agent Man.)

Shanghai is clean, bustling, and building…constantly building…

Bound for Beijing
Friday night, I depart Shanghai on the night train, soft sleeper. My cabin mates are three Chinese businessmen who are not very talkative; the only thing I get out of them is the next morning when they explain their trip is both business and pleasure.

Upon arrival, I look for a phone to call the hotel, but see none. I notice a gentleman on a cell phone with some bags at his feet. I ask him if I can give him one yuan for a phone call. He gives me his phone, but does not take my money. I try a second time, but he adamantly refuses. His behavior surprises me a bit. I am so used to being spit upon when I ask for directions in China. He is from Jiangsu province and visiting the capital. He explains that Cantonese people are especially notorious for being mean to anyone asking for directions.

It is about 7am when I arrive. The air is crisp and cold. The Chinese Authorities have installed x-ray machines at the entrances to all the metro stations. Any Al-Qaeda terrorists will be hard-pressed to plan a successful attack against Beijing infrastructure!

A visit with Mrs. Xie pei pei
Mrs. Xie is a dear family friend. Her husband, Mr. Gu passed about four years ago from stomach cancer. Their friendship with my family spans three generations, going back to my grandfather who first befriended her husband in the early 1980s. Mr. Gu was among one of the first groups of government scientists and students to be able to work and study abroad after the US and China first established diplomatic relations in 1979. Somehow, he wound up in Berkeley, California. As fate would have it, he was trying to buy a metro ticket in the local train system, but the ticket machine proved to be too confusing. My grandfather, who was always a helpful man, especially to fellow Chinese travelers, approached him and tried to help. Perhaps, his first question was, “Are you Chinese?”

Mr. Gu was invited to dinner at some point. I wouldn’t be surprised if grandfather invited him right after Mr. Gu bought the ticket. For the year that Mr. Gu was in Berkeley, their friendship developed. After Mr. Gu returned to Beijing, grandfather wrote to him and asked for his help with his daughter—my mother—and family, who would visit the capital city later to apply for a visa to immigrate to America. And sure enough, when my family traveled to Beijing in 1982, Mr. Gu and his wife proved to be invaluable in helping us navigate the metropolis.

When my mother last spoke to Mrs. Xie, she reported that her health was not good. I felt it was time to visit. My last visit was in the summer 1999, after I completed teaching English in China.

When I arrive at the apartment, Mrs. Xie greets me at the door. She has a thick shock of grey hair. Glasses. At her side is a little dog. It is becoming a common sight to see Chinese with dogs and cats as pets. Her older son, Gu Hong is also present. Although he is in his mid 30s, he has the face of an old man.

Mrs. Xie’s main demon these days is a chronic cough. It gets much worse when she is around fumes or smoke, so she avoids cooking with oil. She has difficulty sleeping, so she must rest in a sitting position.

When I take some photos with her son, she politely says, “No photos, please!” I honor her wishes.

She feeds me some “jiao zi” or Chinese dumplings. I gobble them up, after not eating dinner the previous night or any breakfast. I giver her the live crabs that I had bought in Shanghai. I was told that these crabs are only in season for a short time and are renowned in China for their taste. She steams them for a mid-afternoon snack.

That night at my youth hostel, I meet a gentleman from Ha’er bin, in the North East part of China, who has visited North Korea four times. He speaks very fast and with the accent of the Northeastern Chinese. All his visits to the Hermit Kingdom have been for business. He says the city is very quiet and uniform. People get up about 6am, attend political sessions to praise the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, then go to work. The farmers till the fallow fields for a few hours, then break for lunch. They praise Kim Jong Il again and then return to the barren fields for a few more hours; then they return home.

When I tell him how impressed I am with Shanghai and Beijing, he explains that 10 years ago, China was like a man “who hadn’t washed his face yet.” However, today, China’s goal is to have its infrastructure and facilities at the same level, or surpass that of the West.

Loaf Bakery and Café
On Sunday morning I move over to Chao Yang district, which is in the North East of Beijing, to an empty studio, belonging to a friend of Gu Peng, Mrs. Xie’s son. Gu Peng is in his early 30s. We first met as children when my family visited Beijing in 1982 for our visas to leave the country. I took his toy and hid it somewhere. Unfortunately, it was never found. My mother always tells this story when his name comes up.

His wife studied three years in New Zealand, so has fluent English. She worked six years as an X-ray technician, but was bored silly. She soon dreamt of opening her own café. With plenty of foreign students living in the high rises, there would be plenty of customers. So, a few months ago, she finally opened the Loaf Bakery and Café, which serves an American menu of sandwiches, pastries and coffee.

The customers consist of students from Canada, New Zealand, Russia and Angola. The men from Angola seem to stay the longest and order the most amount of wine. They chat with the Russian gal in English and amongst themselves in Portugese. I try to strike up a conversation with them in Chinese. They tell me they are from Angola, but not much more. I return to my table, with my banana milkshake in hand.

The staff are young, mostly in their early 20s. A few are still teenagers. They come from the neighboring cities where educational opportunities are limited. None of them has attended college. Many of them have not even finished high school. Xiao Hao is one of them. He works as a waiter, and sometimes, the fill-in cook. He is trying to improve his English by meeting with an Australian customer weekly for language exchange.

798 art district
Gu Peng takes me to an art district called 798, which is a renovated area of former warehouses, but now serves as a venue for artists. As we walk by the store fronts, we see an old, faded slogan on the walls: Long live the great Communist Party. Graffiti cover some of the walls. Artistic expression exists! Rebellion is in the air. Not so fast. Gu Peng explains that the graffiti is officially sanctioned by the government and carefully painted to look natural. Welcome to post-Modern China.

Zhou Ying lunch at the World Trade Center
I met Zoe Zhou in Spring 2007 through my friend Sophal. She was a student at Syracuse University in New York state. She tried looking for a job in the DC and New York areas, but found more opportunities in China. The recruitment process took her more than 7 months, with 5 interviews, including several panel interrogations. Now, she works as an operations analyst with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a subsidiary of the World Bank. Zoe has traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia and within China for her work. She may have the chance to visit Cairo, Egypt early 2009.

She is in her late 20s and has a warm demeanor. Large eyes accompany a big smile. We dine at a restaurant with a Taiwan flavor. Afterwards, two women stop by to administer a questionnaire on the service quality of the restaurant. They ask her question after question about the lighting, the food selection and the atmosphere. They thank her with a little plastic food storage box.

After lunch, I make my way to Tiananmen Square. Seven cranes surround the square. The building projects in China are ongoing and omnipresent. Toward the bottom of the square is the Mao Mausoleum, his final resting place. The shrine is open 8am-noon, Tuesdays to Sundays, so I must return tomorrow morning. A friendly proletariat behind the fence tells me that people start lining up after “sheng qi” or the flag raising ceremony about 6:40am. He notices my flag pin, with the US and Chinese flags. I tell him that I live in the US these days and last visited 9 years ago, but never had the chance to visit the great Helmsman. He tells me that even if I arrive by 7 or 7:15am I should still be able to secure a spot in line.

As I prepare to leave the great square, I see a throng of people surrounding the main flag post opposite the portrait of Chairman Mao. They must be waiting for the flag lowering ceremony at 5:04pm. While not as exciting as the flag raising ceremony, I decide to stay until the great anti-climactic event. No music, no horns. Only a column of green troops with their rifles march silently from beneath Chairman Mao’s portrait to the flag post, retrieve the red flag and return to their post.
Let’s see if I can survive Beijing’s morning rush hour traffic to pay homage to Chairman Mao tomorrow before my flight back to Shanghai…

Mao Mausoleum
I arrive about 7:45am. It is still fairly chilly—about mid 40s, perhaps. Maarten Troost in his book Lost on Planet China warns his readers that the line is long. Extremely long. He should’ve written great-wall-of-china long. The line snakes back and forth several times. There must be several thousand people in line already. Most of them are middle aged or elderly tour groups from interior China. Line Monitors are spread every 150 feet or so with bullhorns and a nametag. Little else to keep people in check except an official voice and a stern look. Surprisingly, the line moves at a steady pace. At some point, two men try to sneak into line. They are quickly discovered and ejected by the line monitor, who admonishes them with a disparaging sneer, “what are you doing?! How dare you! Go towards the back of the line!” Everyone else laughs at the pathetic fools. How dare they cut in line to see Chairman Mao! They have to line up like all the other comrades!

The recorded voice announces in both Chinese and English: no spitting or improper attire such as sandals or shorts.

As we enter through security, people begin to throw their cigarette lighters onto the ground. Right before the metal detectors, the line behind me ebbs forward, pushing into me. I politely tell the lady behind me not to push. She responds in a nasty way, saying that I shouldn’t complain as I’m too slow. I feel like giving her a karate chop across her Adams Apple, but I refrain, as I don’t want to wind up in a Chinese gulag anytime soon for battering a Chinese citizen.

Before we climb the stairs, there’s a fresh flower stand to the side where admirers can purchase a bouquet for only 3 Yuan (about 50 cents) to honor the Chairman. One wonders how many times these flowers have been recycled during the week. On the stairs is a woman hawking Chairman Mao Mausoleum brochures for only 1 Yuan (about 15 cents). I ask to see one before I buy. She is annoyed that I’m even asking her, saying, “it’s only one yuan!” I persist and she forks over one copy. After a perusal, I hand over one Chairman Mao bill for a Chairman Mao brochure.

The line rushes forth like a great river. I feel like a salmon returning to my roots, struggling to catch up with the others. We enter the great hall, where a row of flowers has formed already. At this point, I see the friendly proletariat from yesterday who patiently answered all of my questions. I quietly wave to him. He smiles back.

We approach Mao’s body, which is in a special glass case, with stargazer lilies beneath. A special light illuminates his face, which is very orange. It appears more plastic than anything else. Rumor has it that his nose caves in every year, so the whole body is sent to Cambodia, which apparently does an excellent job of embalming dead dictators.

Before we exit the hall, there’s a small gift shop where one can purchase various Mao paraphernalia. Glad to see the Chairman still contributing to the Chinese economy. The gift that keeps on giving.

Shanghai to Doha
In line at the airport, I meet Mr. FateH, an Egyptian businessman from Ismailia, by the Suez Canal. He’s done business in China for 4.5 years buying and selling restaurant equipment, especially plates and utensils. After a few minutes of waiting in line with several dozen passengers, he moves to the next line, which is for groups only. After a few minutes, I follow him. FateH is worried about his baggage weight limit, so I offer to take one of his smaller bags. He invites me to tea by the gate. In his heavily-accented Chinese, he belts out an order of “hong sa” or red tea. While he likes the Chinese people and has had mostly positive experiences here, he did convey a small reservation of sometimes being treated as the outsider. He wasn’t more specific.

On board the plane, my seatmate is a Chinese gentleman who is on his way to Khartoum, Sudan to work for one year; he appears to be in his 40s, which means that he could easily be in his early 50s. I ask him if he’s an oil engineer. He smiles and tells me that he’s in construction. He lived in Sudan a few years ago and even picked up some basic Arabic, but has forgotten most of it. He mentions the two Chinese oil engineers who were kidnapped and killed recently by Sudanese rebels. He then shakes his head.

I note that unlike America, China has developed great relationships with African nations in recent years. He explained that the Chinese government does not attach requirements to their foreign aid, like the Americans. While it would be wrong to say that the Chinese would eventually “control” the African continent, it would be more accurate to say that China would have a stronger influence with her African friends than the Americans. Certainly, time will tell.

I awake to the smell of dinner being served. Chicken or lamb? Mr. Construction takes a few bites of his meal before he falls asleep again. He must be more tired than I realized.

Doha Detour
With an 8-hour layover in Doha, Qatar, I want to leave the airport and at least visit the beach. Or try to get a tour of Al Jazeera. A young man in a flowing white robe sits at the Information desk. He is bespectacled and I greet him in Arabic: Salaam Aleykoom wa rahma Allah wa barakatu. “Peace be upon you and the mercy and blessings of Allah be upon you!” I ask him where I can store my luggage. He directs me to the side. It looks like I have to enter the airport and check my bags early. When I speak with the Qatar Airways counter clerks, they don’t have much to tell me about the sites of Doha. In fact, they seem to exhibit painful expressions when I ask them for suggestions on what to do in 5 hours. The lady just started about 2 weeks ago and has spent most of her time at the airport, so can offer me just a smile, nothing more. The Indian gentleman tells me that I should not venture too far from the airport, as it can be difficult to catch a cab back.

I return to the Info desk and ask my man for a map. “We have no maps here. Maybe you can go to the taxi and he can help you.” What kind of Info desk has no map? I notice the counter is clean. Very clean. It is utterly devoid of any maps, brochures, advertisements, post-it notes, staplers, paper, newspapers, books, rubber bands or pens. In fact, the only thing available is the young man, who is affable enough, but seemingly growing tired of my persistent questions. He tells me that I can go to the corniche, which is about 10 minutes away and not more than 20 or 25 Riyals (at a $US=3.65 Riyals, about 7 dollars)

As I sit down to check for a WiFi connection, two Filipina airport workers are chatting with each other. They tell me that they’ve worked here 2 and 4 years, respectively. They confirm what I just heard: there’s not much to do in Doha. Best to stay in the airport, where there’s Air Conditioning. Their ride arrives and they quickly scatter.

I hail a taxi. Rapig, the Bangladeshi taxi driver, has lived 2.5 years in Doha. He speaks some English and some Arabic. He must be in his late 20s. He says one Riyal is equivalent to eight Bengali Takas, which explains why he works here.
When I tell him that I’m from the United States, he smiles and says, “America—too muss money, too muss power!”

The roads are clean and there’s some construction of new buildings. The corniche is pristine. The water clear. The air fresh. Only a few people jog or walk by me.
From the Corniche to the souq or market, I hitch a ride with Ismael , an Iranian driver of a large van. He’s worked in Doha for a few years. He asks me where I’m from.

“Egypt. I’m Egyptian!”
No. Really. Are you from Philipines?

“I’m from America, but originally from China.”

He drops me off at the market and tells me that if I want to go to the airport in a few hours, I can call him. He leaves his number and I give him 10 Riyals for the ride.

As it is still early, the markets are empty. After nearly an hour of walking around, I decide it’s best to return to the airport.

I walk a few blocks, but see no available taxi. I cross the street, thinking that I can catch more cabs that way. No luck. I keep walking. And walking. Finally, I enter a travel agency and ask to use the phone to call Ismail, the Iranian driver. The man tells me to cross the street to the market area where I can catch plenty of cabs. However, when I arrive, there are plenty of cars, but no cabs. I walk a few more blocks and enter another store to call Ismail. He tells me he’ll come by in 30 minutes. As I wait outside the store on the curb, a random car pulls up and tells me to get in. I tell him that I have to make a phone call to Ismail and tell him not to come, if I’m going to the airport in this car. The driver tells me he’ll pull around. After I call Ismail for the second time, I don’t see the new driver.

So, I return to the curb. Two minutes later, Hassan, an Indian, picks me up. He has lived 20 years in Doha. Although a friendly man, he doesn’t say much as he drives me to the Doha Airport. We pass manual laborers resting on the sidewalks. They are mostly from Iran, Hassan tells me. I give him 20 Riyals as I get out of the car and check in for my flight back to Cairo. I am pretty sure this will be my last visit to Doha for a long time.

Adventure at the Cairo Airport bus station
Two young Egyptian men begin speaking to me—in very good Mandarin Chinese. Shihata accompanied his friend Ahmed, who was seeing his Chinese girlfriend return to China. He tells me he wants to marry her. The young men study Chinese at Cairo University.
When the bus arrives, they tell me it’s the 2LE bus, so they will wait for the 0.75 LE bus. I urge them to get on as I offer to pay their fares.

We take the bus and for the next hour or so chat about life. I ask Ahmed why he studies Chinese. He tells me because he likes Chinese girls. He asks me why I study Arabic. I reply, tongue-in-cheek, that I like Egyptian girls. We both laugh. Shihata gives me a wallet-size picture of himself. I feel the need to reciprocate and dig into my bag for a wallet-size picture of myself. I had brought a few with me for visa purposes. Later, when I ask my students about the picture exchange custom, they tell me that it’s an old practice and not very popular anymore. In addition, only girls still observe this custom. In either case, I think I have two new Egyptian friends who speak very good Chinese.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Installing a new sign--Egyptian Style

The other night, Rabiyah, my quasi-doorman, caught my hand in a strong handshake and asked if some workers could come into the apartment to install a new sign above the entrance to our apartment building. They could’ve made an appointment, right? Well, remember—this is Egypt, where you play it by ear most of the time. Although I was expecting some friends over for a language exchange, I relented. And although they didn’t stay long, they were not the quietest workers. They finished in less than an hour and were on their merry way. Alhamdulilah!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Can you spare some juice, please?

Free juice is a part of Islam, I discovered the other day at the juice stand. As I was drinking my pomegranate juice, I noticed two men come by the store to take a sip from a bottle of water on the counter, one after another. While I’ve seen water canisters on the streets with cups for thirsty passersby, I’ve never seen bottles of water set out for this purpose.

I asked Magdy, the owner why he provides the free water bottle. Why doesn’t he sell water and make more money? He explained, “well…it’s Islam. Our religion…”

“You mean, hasanat?” I interjected.

“Bravo alayk!” he replied. Bravo to you. He seemed to say that I understood. It’s a lot like Buddhist karma. The more good deeds you do for people, the more brownie points you earn for the afterlife.

Even if poor people ask him for free juice, he will not turn them away. In fact, Magdy revealed that every week about five or six people come to the store to ask for free juice. This number is much higher during the holy month of Ramadan. Magdy and Abdou, his colleague both explained how “sweet” Islam is and how I should study it. And God Willing, one day, perhaps I will become Muslim.

After we chat for a few more minutes, I tell them that I shall return on a regular basis now that I know where they are. “The next time you return, the juice will be free!” Magdy reassures me.

I tell him that I will buy his juice. “No, you are now a friend. So, free juice for you!”


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Good bye 28B Abd Al-Raheem Basha Sabry St., apartment #1!

So six weeks after I moved into this spaaacious apartment next to the Syrian Embassy, I am moving out, along with my two roommates David, the Buddhist and Carlo, the Italian. The main reason, unfortunately, is bed bugs have taken over the entire apartment. My main reason is that I have found a smaller apartment in downtown with cheaper rent.

Madame Nadia, the Kitchen Kleptomaniac
Tonight, David went to the kitchen with Madame Nadia, who scavenged the remains of his food from the fridge, which was a sensible act of diplomacy considering she still has his LE 3,500 deposit. She also took some cutlery and plates, and one of the saucepans.

David told me that she also wanted to go in and take the fan from my room, but he managed to hold her back, and explained that I would want the fan for myself. Clearly a clever lie, but now that he’s explained my false position, I actually want it. Dave wrote, “So you are welcome to it if you like, but be prepared for a fist fight with a small, rather creased old lady with only three remaining teeth. My money is on you.”

I will not miss Madame Nadia’s constant intrusion into our apartment. It has become so incessant that I asked my roommate last night if he knew the story of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where a young renter murders his landlady. However, as I recall, that killing was for money, not for being a busybody.

I will miss a few things about living here: mainly, my current roommates; the amount of space and the three balconies with a lovely view of the neighboring ficas trees; the proximity to the metro and to my language center. And the daily calls to prayer (all 5) from the “mosque of light” (Masjid Al-Nour) below our apartment. Ironically, while many Westerners would go up the wall with such regular screams of piety, they were reminders to me of the time passing by.

Allahu Akbar!
God is the greatest!

La ilaha ila Allah wa Mohamedu rassolu Allah!
There is no God, but Allah and Mohamed is his messenger!

Hiya Salaah! Hiya Felaah!
Come to Prayer! Come to Success!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Egyptian con artist

As I approached home the other night, an Egyptian man accosted me. “Salaam Aleikoom! Welcome to Egypt. Where are you from?”




“Wonderful. And you speak Arabic. Alhamdulilah!”

He is Ahmed, a 37 year old from Areesh, a border town between Gaza and Egypt. His hair is short, curly and black. He is wearing a short-sleeved shirt, with a checkered pattern that flows over blue jeans and a pair of leather shoes, apricot color. He has a warm smile and a clean look and an unusually upbeat demeanor. He says that he’s been in Cairo for only two days, but that he’s spent that time in a police station. He was in Agouza, the neighboring area when the police arrested him for no reason, beat him and took his money. I notice that we are in the middle of the street, in between the intersections where the police are stationed, out of earshot.

For a man who’s been beaten and suffered from police abuse, there are no visible injuries on his face or neck or hands. He flips his upper lip with both hands and asks me to take a look at his injuries. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to see.
“My bobba died. He’s now in jenna (heaven),” as he both looks up and points above. “Mumma -- she’s old and not in good health. I reeeally need to go home to Areesh,” he explains.

How? By train? Bus?

“There is no train. Only bus.”

The ticket is…he uses his right index finger to trace “55” on the car hood next to us. “You know the trip from Cairo to Alexandria is 30 LE.”

I think back to my trip to Alexandria in December 2007. My ticket was 20LE.

“As you know, prices have increased since the spring!” he justifies his statement.
Ahmed shows me his Egyptian passport, which is oversized and green. Inside is his photo and birthdate. He asks me how much money I can contribute to his return ticket.

I tell him that I am a student and poor, like him. I want to help him, but I have no money to spare.

I ask him, “are you hungry?”

He replies, “yes.”

“Then, come with me!” I command him. “I’ll buy you a sandwich.” We begin walking down the street towards the Cinema on main street.

“Where are we going?” he asks me.

“There’s a restaurant that serves schwarma.”

“And how much is a sandwich there? Five, six pounds?” he inquires.

“Yes. It depends on the size.”

“Mister--Instead of buying me the sandwich, can you just give me the money for my ticket?” he pleads with me. “I really, really need to return home to Areesh to see mumma!”

I stop in the middle of the street and turn to him. “Ya ahm! (Hey Uncle!) Are you hungry?!”


“Ma Esalama! Good bye!” I turn away from him and head back home. About 10 feet later, I turn back again and say “Rabina Ma’ak! May God be with you. Or Good Luck!” Another 20 feet later, I turn back again and he’s still standing there in the darkness. Finally, another 50 feet or so later, I turn back. He’s gone.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A day at the golf course

Tom Olson, the editor in chief of the magazine Golf in Egypt drives me to the golf course on a beautiful Friday morning. Originally a Minnesota native, Tom has lived the expat life in Cairo for 14 years. He is two years shy of 70 and has a tuft of white hair. A gregarious gentleman, he shares some of his numerous tales with me, including surviving a plane crash over Syria; witnessing a man drive over 100 mph to his death about 5 feet away on the highway; living through a civil war in Beirut, Lebanon. We arrive about 30 minutes later east of downtown Cairo.

Katameya is an oasis in the desert. A pleasant patch of green palm trees and grass surrounded by brown, it is home to 1500 avid golf aficionados. A moderate wind blows from the North. Bunches of yellow dates hang from date-palm trees. The scene is idyllic and a perfect backdrop for the 2008 BMW golf tournament, which played host to amateur golfers from around the world. It is here that I catch up with Sophie and Farid Issa, a golfing couple who have garnered attention for their recent successes in the Vodafone Tournament. I am here to interview them for a profile in the upcoming issue of Golf in Egypt.

The Issas sit comfortably on a couch in the Katameya Resort lounge for our interview. Sunlight floods the common area. Every so often, a friend or colleague stops by to greet the couple. Farid is very orange today: orange shorts, a T-shirt with orange and white stripes and tanned legs. He speaks with a soft, but clear voice, the result of a British education and a few years in the states. His salt and pepper hair is trimmed neatly. His wife Sophie sports a black T-shirt with an emblem of the Egyptian flag over her heart, perhaps a testament to the many decades she has spent living in the country. She speaks with a French lilt and punctuates her sentences with a gentle laugh. Sunglasses sit on top of her head. She wears shoulder-length blonde hair, with thin eyebrows above sleepy eyes and radiates a sunny glow. The arms of a white sweater criss-cross her shoulders.

Golf beginnings
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sophie left the land of gauchos, beef and red wine when she was only a few months old. Her father was a manager of the car company Renault, located in the Western suburbs of Paris. A traveler all her life, she eventually settled in Egypt. She started playing golf when her parents began taking up the game in Egypt. While her brothers and sisters also took lessons, she was the only one who really persisted with the sport. Later, when the Katameya Heights Golf and Tennis Resort opened, Sophie began to pursue the sport seriously. “Katameya made me play golf and that’s when I really started playing.”

Than, a Burmese gentleman, has a very dark complexion and big smile. He picked up golf in West Africa, when he was working in Ghana and Cameroon. He now consults for the Cairo Metro train system. He became friends with the Burmese Ambassador to Egypt a few years ago and says the diplomat always cheats. Mr. Ambassador sent his wife home and asked for the golf clubs to be sent to Egypt, instead.

At the end of our visit, Tom drives me back to Cairo. In downtown, he makes the wrong turn and so asks me if I want to join him at the Marriott for a drink. We spend the next 3 hours at the outdoor café chatting.

Perhaps, I will become a sports writer specializing in golf. And why not? Stranger things have happened.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Searching for a new roommate

Our American roommate is returning to the states in a few days, so we're interviewing for a new roommate. So far, a few people have stopped by:

Nick: an American who just arrived and is working in Cairo for a year. He called a few days ago to tell us he’s found something already.

Norveen: an Iranian lady who’s lived in Cairo for many years, but David already disqualified her because she’s the modern incarnation of Helen of Troy. She would be too great a distraction.

Carlo: an Italian who works in cement. A bit suspicious? Although, perhaps, he might have access to some Italian women.

It's down to Carlo and a Swedish man who's coming by in 2 days. Perhaps the Swede might have access to some Swedish women? David tells me that most Swedish women are lesbians. A Belgian came by today. He is a young fellow of perhaps 22, and fresh out of school. With six languages under his belt, he's now shooting for #7 with Arabic. He had a strange handshake; he pumped David's hand like it was a water pump. And he seemed very serious. I asked him if he brought any beer or chocolates. He had none. David and I both decided that he's out of contention.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Dinner with a Wahabi

Yehia Khalif teaches English and Arabic at the Berlitz language school. At 25, Yehia has a thin frame and speaks softly, but confidently. Born in Saudi Arabia, he came to Cairo 7 years ago to study at Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s premier religious institution that dates back to more than 1,000 years. His parents and family still reside in the Saudi Kingdom. He is now expecting his new baby girl next month.

One of the first things Yehia tells me is “do not judge Islam based on Egypt or Egyptian Muslims.” It seems he does not think too much of the Egyptian form of Islam. His ideal Islam is that practiced in the Saudi Kingdom. While I never asked him, I believe it is fair to call my new friend a follower of Wahabism, the strict form of Islam that the House of Saud embraces. It is a bit hard for me to believe this, as he has no big beard and does not speak in a strident voice.

Yehia picks me up at the Al-Tahrir Cinema by my apartment. I buy some Ramadan pastries from the store as a housewarming gift. The clerk invariably asks me where I am from. I say Hawaii. In America.

Hawaii is an island, yes? Close to Alaska?

No, very far away. Half Kilo of these cookies and half kilo of those, please.

We drive around the corner to pickup Hassan, Yehia’s friend. As we wait, Yehia steps out of the car to buy some water and juice. When he returns, I fight my instinct to open the juice. It is about 5:45pm, about 5 minutes before Magreb prayer (Sunset), when the fast is broken. I started the day by eating the Suhoor, or the morning meal before Fajr (4:20am) and did not eat or drink anything. Only a few more minutes to go…Yehia thanks me for waiting with him.

The car is old. Very old. It is a LADA. Russian. It used to belong to his father, but he has inherited it. The radio still works fine, as he showed me. The rear view mirror is unusually long, about the width of a man’s forearm.

Once Hassan arrives, we drive off to his home. I tell Yehia that I want to pray with him this evening. He is delighted. His small apartment is by the Shooting Club, where the Egyptian Military likes to have its target practice. It is common for him to hear bullets in the evenings.

The living room is well-furnished, with a beautiful chandelier that boasts six bright fluorescent bulbs. New carpets line the floor and the couch and armchairs seem to come from a Victorian Era with gold edges and cushions with green tassels. We wash the Wudoo and prostrate ourselves before Allah.

Yehia leads the prayer: Allahu Akbar! (God is the greatest!) Head touches carpet.
Allahu Akbar! Head touches carpet.

Stand. Right hand over left hand over heart. Bend forward, hands on knees. Straighten again and head touches carpet. Allahu Akbar!

After prayer, we begin dinner: “a simple meal” as our host describes it. It is anything but simple. It is food prepared only for guests. A beautiful Saudi Arabian dish with raisins and grilled onions resting on a bed of Basmati rice, half of which is marinated in Safron. Baked Chicken thighs. MaHshee or rice stuffed into squash and eggplant. A risotto soup in chicken broth. Salad.

Yehia’s wife is in the background. She is not introduced to us and does not dine with us. I know better than to ask. As this is my third meal at a Muslim house, I have grown accustomed to not having the woman of the house join the men for the meal. Perhaps, once Yehia and I become good friends later on, it would be more appropriate for her to join us, but not on the first night, as a dinner guest.

I tell Yehia about my Arabic studies and my interest in Islam.

Why Islam?

Well, the religion is connected to the culture and the people. I don’t know much about Islam, so I am here to learn.

Yehia gives me a hardback Qur’an with both English and Arabic. It is sturdy and similar to the type I’ve seen used in mosques. “Here, this is for you to keep.” I am reluctant to accept such a wonderful gift, but he insists.

About an hour into our meal, we hear the Ithaan or call to prayer for Aisha’ the fifth prayer. Hassan and Yehia are nearly finished, but I am only halfway through with my plate. Yehia tells me that I can take my time. “The Prophet Mohammed (Peace be Upon Him) said that if you are still eating while you hear the call to prayer, then finish your meal before you pray.” Once I finish, I wash again before we pray.

We retire to the couch, where Yehia brings out a huge plate of fruit. Grapes. Apples. Guava. Dates. Hassan stays silent while Yehia and I exchange our thoughts. His pace is deliberate and steady. Pregnant pauses punctuate the conversation every few minutes.

Before I depart for the evening, I tell him that I hope to be able to finish reading the Qur’an before I leave Egypt. Yehia responds that he hopes that we can meet many more times to discuss the Qur’an. I am told by friends that if a Muslim converts a non-believer like me to Islam, then he and 7 generations of his family will have secured a spot in Aljenna or heaven. A wonderful reward, indeed.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bed Bugs in Apt. # 28B

I woke up on Sunday with a few spots on my arms. They looked like bug bites. By Monday, I had a few more. It wasn’t until Tuesday that I started to fear that they were more than bug bites. My housemate in DC came down with chickenpox before I left 10 days ago. So, I feared that I had contracted the disease. By Tuesday afternoon, spots had appeared on my arms and legs, neck, shoulders and around my bellybutton. A visit to the pharmacist helped a little. His over-the-counter diagnosis: I don't have the pox.

“They're just eczema or an allergic reaction to something you ate,” Robert declared confidently. A portly man in his 40s, Robert is a Coptic Christian and was still open at the Magreb or sunset prayer. He sold me a topical anti-itch cream and some Claritin pills to treat the spots.

I didn’t completely trust his cursory diagnosis.

My roommate says it's probably an allergic reaction to bed bugs. I did see one mite (red one) near my bed, which I promptly crushed between the pages of 8 and 9 of Holy War, Inc. by Peter Bergen.

This morning, Nadia, the landlady’s sister wanted to clean the balcony. Walking with a slight stoop, she has thin, grey hair that rests above round eyes. A large, triangular-shaped tooth protrudes from her upper jaw. A gentle septuagenarian, she has an assertive demeanor and pushes her way past you if your grip on the front door is weak.

I showed her my bug bites and the dirty bed. After we removed the bed cover, there was a big stain. It looked like someone had used the bed as a bathroom long ago. She said we can spray it. So, she brought down a roach spray and an insect repellant.

We moved the bed to the balcony, sprayed it and then she kept insisting on washing the sheets without spraying them.

I gently inquired if I can get a new mattress from the landlady. She responded that indeed, there is a new mattress in the apartment above. Although the two American girls were not at home, she would just let herself inside and have the doorman pick up the mattress. Within a few minutes Mustafa, our doorman showed up with the mattress. Cassie spent a few minutes asking him to return the mattress, especially since no one had sought the girls’ permission to enter their apartment. No matter. This is Egypt, where the landlady can enter your premises whenever she feels like it.
Mustafa deposits the futon mattress onto my living room floor. It looks like a large anaconda that just fed on a large lunch.

Nadia tells me three times that I must wash the sheets. “Do you want me to wash them?”
No thank you. I’ll take care of them.

“Do you want me to return tonight to wash them for you?”

No thank you. I’ll take care of that.

Do not forget! They need to be washed. She repeats herself a few times to Dave, my roommate. And then to Cassie a few more times before she takes off.

Cassie leaves for lunch and an errand. In that brief time, Nadia returns twice more to ask if we want the sheets washed.

A few hours later as I prepare for my evening class, Nadia is at the door again. She asks Dave if I want to go up and talk with Mounira, the landlady. Earlier, I had requested a meeting with her, but Nadia said I should wait until after 6pm when Mounira breaks the fast. Now, since the problem seemed to be taken care of, for the most part, it seemed moot now. I tell her that perhaps, “bokra, insha’ Allah,” which is Arabic for “tomorrow, God Willing,” which can really mean “later,” -- which is really what I meant. She probably heard “tomorrow, God Willing.” So, tomorrow I expect Nadia to visit us a few more times. God bless her soul!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ramadan Kareem: Happy Ramadan!

Zoo Visit with Ahmed and Tatiana
With a seven hour layover in Frankfurt, I am picked up at the airport by Ahmed, the brother of Hazem, my friend and language exchange partner. At 24, Ahmed recently immigrated to Germany to be with his German wife and newborn daughter. He says there are more opportunities here than in Egypt. They drive me to the zoo for an afternoon visit. Tatiana, Ahmed’s wife, a friendly woman, spent six years studying Islam before she converted. They give me a bag of new clothes for Hazem.

Arrival in Egypt
As our Czech Airlines flight lands in Cairo, a woman’s voice welcomes us to Kay-row, where it is about 2:15 AM. As we touch ground, the passengers clap spontaneously. My friend Yehia greets me at the arrivals hall. I met with Yehia for weekly language exchange in the Spring. At 24, he is a fresh graduate of Cairo University intent on becoming a lawyer and translator. He is still taking classes at the American University in Cairo (AUC) to hone his translation skills. Despite his training and impressive English skills, he cannot find a job. It is said that his situation is typical of Egyptian University graduates. His father owns a few grocery and furniture stores.

Yehia pushes my luggage into the parking lot, where we find a taxi driver half asleep. I ask him if he goes to Dokki. He nods. Yehia asks me if I should negotiate the fare with him before we take off. I explain that to do so would invite a long, drawn-out argument over the price. Better to just get in and pay him the standard fare of 50LE ($9). After all, that’s what the locals do. We race through the empty highways and streets for the next 30 minutes.

We pass the Syrian Embassy and the Wafd Party Headquarters until we see David, my British roommate, at the door. A freelance journalist, David is a Buddhist who lived in Tibet for a few months. At 37, he has a smooth baby face and the look of a writer. Our other roommate is Cassandra, an American Ph.D student who is studying folklore in Luxor. She’s lived in Egypt off and on for five years and speaks Arabic like a native.

After we sit down for a few minutes, I tell Yehia that I have a book for him. Then I realize that my two plastic bags of books are not with me. Did we leave them in the taxi? Or worse yet, are they still in the luggage cart in the parking lot? Yehia and I decide to try our luck by returning to the airport.

445AM: We wait at the bus station. It’s quiet and still dark. The clerks are still asleep in their plastic chairs. Only a few people wait with us. A street cleaner passes by. Yehia gives him a few pounds and explains that Sa-da-kah, or giving to charity, is always a good thing to do, especially so in Ramadan. The airport bus arrives. At the airport, we first ask one maintenance worker next to a truck with old cans and cardboard boxes if he’s seen anything.

Nothing. Sorry. Try the trash bin over there! Good luck.

We talk to a few other workers who round up carts. Nothing. They direct us to the inside of the airport. The police stop us and recommend that we stay in the parking lot and ask around. It is unlikely that the lost bags would be moved inside, they say.

So, we return to the parking lot and eventually the police station on the side. Inside, the first police officer is asleep. In the second office, the desk is empty and a man is asleep inside the jail cell, with the door open. Is he police or a prisoner?

Yehia knocks gently on the door to wake him. Nothing.
We leave the police station and walk around the parking lot again and ask other workers. Each of them directs us to the trash bin or “over there.” We peer into trash bins, but see nothing.

I’m about to give up, but Yehia insists on trying one last time. We return to the arrivals hall, where the police stop us again. Yehia explains that we’ve talked to everyone, but have been unsuccessful. Can we please try the information desk or the lost and found inside? Mr. Police officer suggests that we call over to the police station, talk to a Mahmoud, say “salaam alaykoum” or peace upon you. And “SabaH Alkheir” or Good morning and try to give some baksheesh (tip) if necessary. Someone, somewhere must have seen these two bags.

We proceed to the information desk, where a man in a red jacket and a walkie-talkie tries to help us. He asks us a few questions, but suggests we return to the parking lot and continue to talk to the workers. We thank him and decide that the bags are long gone.

* * *

On the street by my apartment sits a one-legged beggar. He has a salt and pepper beard and a scruffy face. He perches on a rolling block of wood with wheels. Dressed in a white galabeeyah, the flowing robe of Egyptian men, he pleads with passers-by for spare change. This being Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim calendar, many strangers stop to press into his palm a guinay ($0.20) or two.
“Shookran!” Thank You!

With a bag of bananas dangling from my fingers, I stop by and tear off two for the beggar. He refuses me, “Asif. Ba’ad el magreb.” Sorry, after magreb prayer.
Does he want money instead of food? I quickly realize that he cannot eat my bananas; as an observant Muslim, he is fasting during the day.

His name is Sabry. He lost his leg as a child to a debilitating disease. Polio? He receives a 100 LE pension ($18) each month, but this is not enough. His parents are both dead and he has no other family members who can support him. Originally from Upper Egypt, he now lives in the Dokki neighborhood. Despite his difficult circumstances, Sabry speaks with a smile and radiates optimism.

“The government doesn’t help the people. They are corrupt, but Allah will deal with them.”

I tell him that I am a student and today is my first day. He compliments me and thanks me for stopping by to talk to him. I leave one pound with him before I return home. We shake hands and I tell him that perhaps, God Willing, I will see him later.

Iftar with Yehia and David
For Iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast, Yehia returns with a humongous package of pasta beschamel, flat bread and baked potatoes. His mother usually bakes the entrée. My roommate David joins us in the Iftar meal.

I step out momentarily to look for some juice. Many shops are closed, but I spot one on the side. The vendor and his two friends are eating their Iftar meal on the floor. He invites me to partake. I thank him, “Allah yihaleek!” May God keep you!

“Andi Iftar fee beytee.” I have Iftar at home.

He asks if I am Muslim. “Insha’ Allah.” God Willing.

When I return to the apartment, I have trouble unlocking the front door. Dave had warned me of the tricky key. So, we spend about five minutes trying to open the door. Meanwhile, Nadia, the landlady’s sister, quickly swoops down from her perch upstairs to assist us. She is perhaps in her 50s and considered a “busybody.” She usually lets herself into the apartment to look around. She once entered the bedroom of the previous tenant, whose Sudanese girlfriend was staying overnight with him. Her excuse was that she needed to get something from the room. After we open the door, Nadia leaves.

David and Yehia discuss the relationship between men and women. Yehia asserts that women are always more emotional than men; whereas, men tend to rely more on reason and logic than emotions. David strongly disagrees and points to countless times when he has seen taxi drivers explode and yell at each other or passengers. Yehia then asserts that women are weaker than men, physically and mentally. Again, David disagrees strongly and offers the example of a woman CEO who he interviewed this week. David politely tells Yehia that he has very outdated and traditional beliefs toward men and women.

Toenail trauma
After dinner, I visit the bathroom, but stub my left toe on the threshold. It stings a bit, but when I look down I see that the injury is more serious than I realized. The nail has flipped up like the front hood of a car after an accident. Blood drips from the side. I try to press the nail back down, but to no avail. After Yehia leaves, David tends to my wound. As he is an ex-Medic with the Royal Military, he cleans up the wound, clips the nail and then dresses it. He says I will live.
So, day one passes with some excitement. I look forward to a quiet week before classes resume.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Alhamdulillah: praise be to God!

In my eight months in Egypt, I have learned much about the people, religion and culture of this ancient country. Perhaps, the most common and the most famous Arabic phrase I have learned and use is Alhamdulillah, which means “praise be to God.” In English, we really do not have its equivalent in our secular vernacular. Instead, we must borrow from our more devout compatriots for the phrase. Alhamdulillah consists of two words or three parts: Alhamdu is the praise; lillah is to God. If you simply walk down any street of Cairo on any given day, you’ll hear this phrase. Greet the doorman with SabaH Alkheir or Good Morning. Most likely, he’ll respond with SabaH Alnour, meaning a morning of light to you. Ask him how he is doing and he will quickly respond with Alhamdulillah. Ask him what is new and he’ll say Alhamdulillah.

Get into the taxi and comment on the beautiful weather today; the driver will say Alhamdulillah. Tell him you are happy in your short stay in Cairo and he’ll say Alhamdulillah. In other words, this simple phrase is a distillation of people’s understanding that everything comes from God.

My Arabic tutor, a devout man who prostrates himself five times daily to worship Allah, told me recently that when life is good and you have plenty, you must say Alhamdulillah; when life makes a turn for the worst and you are in pain, you must say Alhamdulillah; when the earthquake comes and you lose your house or family, you must say Alhamdulillah. When you die, you must say Alhamdulillah because at that point you go to Aljenna or heaven.

The spirit of Alhamdulillah is the same as the gratefulness that I learned in my study of Judaism in the last three years with the Rabbis in Washington, DC’s synagogue. When I broke bread and drank kadim wine (or whiskey) with my fellow Sabbath worshippers, I saw the enthusiasm and joie de vivre on people’s faces as they praised Hashem. We prayed before the Shabbat dinner, during dinner, and after dinner; before dessert, during dessert, and after dessert. The whole day was a celebration of the Almighty.

In our current so-called food crisis around the world, I see regular TV broadcasts that show starving families in India and Africa; of large families that must cope with limited or no food; of desperate people in the aftermath of the cyclone in Burma; and of the earthquake survivors in Sichuan Province, China. Of course, these images are not new to me. I saw plenty of poverty and privation in China during my year abroad teaching English after college. At these times, I find myself saying Alhamdulillah for living in Egypt; Alhamdulillah that I am not starving; Alhamdulillah for my freedom and ability to travel; Alhamdulillah that I am returning to the United States shortly. Has my experience in Egypt these months made me more religious? I don’t know. I can say that I have a better appreciation of Islam; of giving thanks to the Almighty on a regular basis, even though I still have doubts that he is up there.

The proverb says, “I complained about my shoes until I saw the man with no feet.” This saying means that you should be grateful for what you have; it can always be worse. Well, in my time in Egypt, I have seen a man with no legs move himself on his palms from train car to train car, begging; I have seen mothers push their disabled or retarded son around in a wheelchair on the train; in the market; in the streets; of small children working as ticket collectors in the microbuses; of families living in the cemetery because they are too poor to afford an apartment in the city. But for the grace of God go I. Alhamdulillah!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

An extraordinary day

Cairo-May 16, 2008

As I boarded the metro train yesterday, my stomach began to grumble. I felt very sick and decided to get off at the next stop, Dar El Salaam, which means House of Peace. I found a bench and lay down. I thought I would rest for 5-10 minutes before getting back on the train. No more than two minutes passed when a group of 10 people surrounded me and a man in a shirt and tie asked me in English, “are you ok? Do you need a doctor?”
I replied in Arabic, “I’m ok. I have a pain in my stomach and I am resting for 5 minutes. It’s no problem. Thank you very much.”

With that reassurance, they went away. After another minute, I got up, thinking that I better stay in a sitting position to avoid drawing attention. A few more minutes passed and I felt much better. Just as I saw Egyptians helping the blind man in the metro a few months earlier, I now was the recipient of their compassion.

* * *
-Regib, the doorman, asks me about my family in China and if they were affected by the earthquake. I tell him no, Alhamdulillah.
* * *

In the afternoon, I take the taxi to the Ahly Club to tutor my student Barsoum. The taxi driver tells me that his father is in the hospital with a broken leg. He hands me a piece of paper with a black and white picture of his father and Arabic writing. It looks like a document that perhaps patients receive when they check into hospitals in Egypt. He then shows me what looks like a cardboard cast. “My father has no money.” He says that it’s been hard to pay the bills. Initially, I feel very sympathetic. If this were my first month here, I would gladly give the driver a few extra pounds; however, six months in Cairo have hardened my heart to such stories, even if they are true.

I instinctively think that the driver conjured such a tale. I then ask him if he has heard of the great earthquake in China a few days ago. “More than 14,000 are dead and another 20,000 are missing. I have family who suffered from the quake. Some of them are still under the buildings!” (This is a lie, but I wanted him to know that he isn’t the only one suffering.) He is silent for a few moments, but then returns to his father’s story.

When we arrive at the Ahly Club, I get out of the cab and hand him a few pounds for the short trip. He returns it to me, and in an incredulous tone, asks, “what’s this?!”
I throw it onto the passenger seat and walk off.

I tell the story to my Egyptian roommate, who confirmed my suspicions: this is a typical story taxi drivers use to try to get foreigners to pay a higher fare. He said my response was appropriate.

* * *
After I get off the microbus and climb the stairs to the 26 July Bridge, I pass a 13 year old boy in a yellow T-shirt, carrying a big square piece of glass. He has set it down for a moment to rest. He greets me and we begin talking. His name is Moustafa and he is on his way to work in Zamalek. He asks me if I know Kung Fu. I answer yes and explain that I began learning it since I was small. I ask him, “Do you know Kung Fu?” He shakes his head, saying he never learned. When we reach the other side of the Nile, I bid him farewell as he slowly makes his way down the bridge clutching the big piece of glass. It’s tough to be a kid in this country.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Forget Iowa. How about that Egypt Vote?

Though overlooked by almost all of the major presidential candidates, American expatriates are mobilizing to have their voices heard in November
By Andy Lei

It is a beautiful spring afternoon and the crowds, many wearing shorts and T-shirts, are out enjoying the sun. A young man wearing an Obama 2008 baseball cap stands near a young lady holding a stack of leaflets. A cameraman is getting ready to film them both extolling the virtues of their candidate. It would seem like a typical campaign rally in a United States presidential year, except for a few small details: The man’s T-shirt sports the slogan “Egypt is Barack Obama country,” while the Sphinx watches impassively in the background.

This seemingly out-of-place outing was organized by members of the local chapter of Democrats Abroad (DA), who were making a 30-second video on the Giza Plateau that they hope will achieve YouTube fame and attention for their candidate.

Traveling or even living abroad doesn’t mean people leave their political passions at the border. According to the US Election Assistance Commission, 330,000 overseas ballots were cast in the 2006 congressional elections.

Alison Dilworth, chief of American Citizen Services (ACS) at the US Embassy in Egypt, says that about 32,800 Americans are living or working in Egypt. However, the embassy does not categorize American nationals based on ethnic background, so it is unknown exactly how many of these are Egyptian-Americans. Of this number, about 40 percent, or 13,120, regularly register to vote from election to election.

Given how close the last two US presidential elections have been and how close the Democratic primary race has shaped up to be, some expatriate partisans are extra-motivated to mobilize the overseas vote.

go here for the rest of the story:

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A visit to the chipsy factory

When Norman and Michael visited the Saqqara Step Pyramids a few months ago, they asked for directions to the microbus. Abu Khalid, the man who helped them, invited them to a wedding party. He introduced himself as the chief of the chipsy (Potato Chips) factory in 6th of October City, a suburb of Cairo. He invited them to the factory for a tour anytime. They operate 7 days a week and never take a break. They exchanged phone numbers and Norman returned to his Alexandria classes. So, last week, Norman and Michael decided to head out to the factory to look for Abu Khalid. The microbus ride took about 30 minutes to the suburb. The roads were surprisingly new and clean. Many new developments are cropping up in and around the city.

After we arrive, we hitch a ride with a man in a pickup truck. We sit in the back of the pickup truck like migrant workers. A few minutes later, we are at the factory gates. Norman and Michael explain to Said, the security man, their purpose in visiting the factory. He is friendly, but a bit wary of our story…until they describe Abu Khaled: a bit on the heavy side, a beard. Said completed the description: going bald, right? A big stomach, about this tall?

“Yes, that’s Abu Khaled,” confirmed Norman and Michael.

“He’s not the mudeer (director) of the factory. He’s the chef in our cafeteria!” explained Said.

We realize the problem: chief versus chef. Of course, what a simple mixup.

On our way back to the bus station, I sit inside the truck with Mohammed, our driver. He’s lived in the area 20 years, the same age as the city. He explained that the city is full of factories: BMW, Mercedes, Suzuki, potato chips, pepsi, coca-cola. You name it, they got it. China—number one! (with thumbs up) America—number bottom!

This was a gentle comparison. Once before, a taxi driver praised China as a great country and the Chinese people as “haboob” or lovable people. However, when he mentioned America, he spat out the window.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Miss u by SMS

I got this cryptic text message on my cell phone last night from Yaseen, the student who is applying for asylum in Spain (see March 20 posting “Estimado Espana—por favor, you quiero vivir en su pais”)

If 1000 person miss u I’m one of them
if only one miss u that’s me
if nobody miss u be sure that I’m dead

I don’t know what to make of it except that the previous message indicated that he was sick. I hope my friend is ok.

I will try to get in touch with him to check up.

Meanwhile, I will go visit a potato chip factory in the morning by the pyramids…

Yes, everyday in this City is truly an adventure!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Praying in Port Said

Port Said is a three hour bus ride from Cairo and is a nice getaway from the hustle and bustle of the capital city. I travel with my friend Min and his friend Enha, both from Korea, but studying Arabic in Egypt.

We take the ferry across the Suez Canal and stand before Mosque Port Fuad. Its twin minarets tower above us as they reach for the sky. We step inside the empty Mosque. After a few minutes of looking around, a short, older gentleman approaches us. He seems to be the groundskeeper. He has a white beard—like Santa Claus, silver hair trimmed neatly at the top, with deep lines in his forehead and a dark prayer mark in the middle of his forehead—where he presses against the carpet for his daily prayers. (This mark is a badge of honor for Muslims, representing their strong faith. In fact, it’s reported that some go to the doctor to surgically add the prayer mark, to give the appearance of piety). He has farmer feet—blackened toenails and callouses. He offers to show us around.

He takes us downstairs to the bathroom where worshippers wash themselves in the ritual known as “wah-doo” before each of the 5 daily prayers. Afterwards, Hassan declares that he loves God. He asks me if I love God, too. As a student at Fajr Center, I’ve been conditioned by my Islamic tutor to repeat the phrase “La ilaha illa Allah wa Mohammedu Rasoolu Allah” (there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger). So, I repeat it to Hassan. He’s delighted.

He asks me, “Are you a Muslim?”
“Insha’Allah!” Or God Willing, I respond. The English equivalent is really “hopefully,” but sometimes in Arabic Insha’ Allah also means yes.

We ask if there are other parts of the Mosque to see, so he shows us the women’s prayer room. He then opens his hand and motions toward his mouth in an eating gesture. I know what he wants: baksheesh, or tip. So, I dig into my pocket and gave him two pounds. We then start to walk upstairs again. He tells me to slow down as he’s an old man and he has pain in his feet and legs. He shows me the medicine in his pocket.

Inside the mosque, another man yells at him, asking what he is doing. He reassures the other gentleman that everything is fine.

After Hassan explains a little about the services and the meaning of the different parts of the mosque, he then asks if we want to pray with him. I look at Min and say this may be an interesting learning experience. So, we agree and head back downstairs to wash and purify ourselves. I tell Hassan that “Ana Gedeed” or I’m new to the faith, so he has to teach me how to wash. He obliges.

We return to the top and follow Hassan in the prayer. Afterwards, we sit on the carpet and listen to him explain the concept of “tawheed” or monotheism. God has no partner, no son, no father. There is only one God and and Mohammed is his messenger (Peace Be Upon Him). He punctuates each sentence with his right hand lightly tapping the knee of Enha. He does the same to Min. Soon, a young man joins our small circle. He speaks very fast, assuming that we are fluent and understand him. He reads from Sura 55, Al Rahman, the Merciful. I’m glad he did because I have read it before with my tutor, so I’m somewhat familiar with its teachings of the creation of the Universe and the Heaven and the earth.

It is now about 3:00pm. We are a bit tired and are thinking about leaving the Mosque and walking around. Hassan asks if we want to stay behind and pray again, this time for the 3:30pm Asir Prayer. Min and I look at each other. We first ask Hassan if we can go up to the Minarets. He says yes, but AFTER the Asir Prayer. So, we agree and return to the bathroom and wash again.

When we return to the top of the Mosque, the hall is now filling up with a dozen or so worshippers. Enha steps outside the Mosque. When she returns, she is covered with a long overcoat-type garment that hides her form, keeping her modest and preventing her from mesmerizing the men too much.

After we pray, Hassan takes us to the side of the Mosque where the Imam meets us. He introduces himself to me as “Usama—Usama Bin Laden.” And cracks a big smile. He is perhaps in his late 30s or early 40s, with glasses and a long, black beard. He is warm and has a “Kirsh” or belly. If he were a woman, he would be perhaps at about three months along.

For the next 30 minutes, we listen politely as he talks about Islam and Allah. He speaks very clearly and pauses a little bit as Min translates a few phrases for me. Min has been in Cairo for nearly a year, so his Arabic is very fluent and he is able to understand much more than I could. We are in a small circle. The Imam sits between me and Min. Enha is at the end of the row of chairs and seemingly cut off from the circle of men. At one point, she dozes off as she is so tired. I don’t think the men realized or paid any attention to our female guest.

Before we leave, one man hands us three large pieces of bread. They are warm and fragrant and as we learned later--very tasty.

Hassan, the young man, Min and I take a picture together outside the Mosque. Before we depart, Hassan returns the tip to me. I am a bit puzzled, but refuse to accept it. I hand it back to him, but he, in turn, refuses. We go back and forth like this for 3 or 4 times. In the end, I finally succeed in pushing the small tip to his pocket and whisper into his ear: “sir, this is for you—a gift. You must take it!”

While we visited Port Said and Port Fuad for only a day, this visit was the most memorable experience for us. I am now working on writing a thank you note to the Imam and Hassan for their hospitality.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Mahmoud the language exchange partner

Meet Mahmoud, one of my four language exchange partners. At 21, he is short, has a chocolate complexion, curly, black hair and a big smile with pearly white teeth. From Aswan, the southernmost city in Upper Egypt, Mahmoud studied some English in school, but never built a solid foundation. Mahmoud is the “office boy” at his company. That is to say, he is the coffee boy. In Egypt, offices generally have one or two people who prepare coffee or tea for the office staff. They also clean the office at the end of the day. I met Mahmoud through my friend Hazem, my first language exchange partner. Hazem told me that Mahmoud wanted to improve his English.

For the past several months we have met twice a week for two hour language exchange sessions: an hour of English and an hour of Arabic. In our first session, I had to teach him basic grammar and review the alphabet with him. I very often feel my Arabic ability is about the same level as his English, so it is somewhat of a symmetrical match. Although Mahmoud is 21, he sometimes behaves like a teenager. He giggles like a girl. And is fairly playful.

Mahmoud makes about 400 LE ($80) a month, which is a typical salary. He sends half of that to his family back home in Aswan. He lives in the office and doesn’t have much of a social life. In his 10 months in Cairo, he has never attended a party, so he expressed a strong desire to attend one. As I was preparing to host a small gettogether, I invited him; however, he was afraid that there would be beer and hasheesh (marijuana). Alcohol, of course, is forbidden for devout Muslims. Hasheesh is also frowned upon, in general. (However, it is also the drug of choice for many young Egyptians.) I told him that there would be small amounts of alcohol that some friends would bring, but there would be no hasheesh, as I am not a pothead.

I tell him that President Jimmy Carter visited Cairo the previous night and spoke to the American University in Cairo (AUC) community about peace between Israel and her neighbors, especially Palestine.

“Do you like Israelis?” he inquires.

“Yes, I do,” I reply.

“I don’t like Jewish. In the past, the prophet says they war with Muslims.”

I ask him, “How many Jews do you know?”

He met one Jewish tourist in Aswan two years ago and spoke to him for 10 minutes. Mahmoud did not have a good impression of the Jewish visitor, which only confirmed his low opinion of Jews. Of course, in this aspect, Mahmoud is a typical Egyptian. While Egypt and Israel are officially at peace, there is very little cultural exchange or tourism between the two. In fact, any Egyptian who does visit Israel should expect to be called into the Egyptian Intelligence Ministry for an interrogation.

I ask him, “How many Chinese do you know?”
He explained that once he met two Chinese girls who were lost in Aswan, so he directed them to the tourism office. That was about a 10 minute exchange. “They were very beautiful,” he recounted. I am the third Chinese he’s ever met in his life.

Mahmoud asks me, “Do you not know Kung Fu?” This is a very common question Egyptians ask of Asians. Usually, I’ve denied that I know any martial arts; however, after many weeks of the same questions, I decided to be mischievous and say that actually, yes, I do know Kung Fu and I studied at the famed Shao Lin Temple. When Egyptians ask me to demonstrate my technique or to teach them, I say I cannot, as “it is a secret.” Moreover, the true master does not settle problems with his hands; rather, he uses his mouth. This answer usually leaves them with a sense of awe.

After I said I do no know any martial arts, he asked, “Why do you not know Kung Fu?”
I tried to explain by asking him, “Does every Egyptian own a camel?” or “Does every Egyptian know how to build a pyramid?”

Obivously, not every Egyptian owns a camel or knows how to build a pyramid and I think he got the point.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Arab greetings: the man kiss

Men kiss men here, not women. It is very common to see men hold hands, or their arms locked as they walk down the street. In fact, a man will routinely rest his head on another man’s shoulder on a metro train. One time, I even saw one man sit on the lap of his male friend.

A kiss from my supermarket manager
Cairo is a city that is adopting the ways of modernity, while holding onto its traditions. It is a place filled with modern amenities like supermarkets and theaters and shopping malls and jazz clubs. But at the same supermarket with 10 different types of cereals, the manager Wael introduces himself to his foreign customers. Shortly after I met him, he greeted me and pulled me in for an unexpected peck on the cheek, Yasser Arafat syle. It was sudden. And warm. And totally appropriate for a Cairo supermarket, yet completely alien to this foreigner. Wael now kisses me on the cheeks whenever he sees me. In fact, the last time he saw me, he kissed me three separate times within 5 minutes. This is unusual, even for an Egyptian.

The doorman to the Fajr center, Abdul Al-Wahead, Servant of the ONE, now routinely kisses me on the cheeks whenever he sees me. His horse teeth protrude prominently from his wide smile. Perhaps, it is because of the one chat of 10 minutes that I had with him a few weeks ago, that he now treats me like a long time friend.

My tutor Dr. Moustafa kisses me on the cheek whenever I do well in my lesson or understand the grammar; this works out to be about once a week or so. At first, it was a bit awkward, to say the least.

How to explain all this male-male bonding? I’m no sociologist, but as I seem to remember reading some time ago, whenever you cut off men from women and only limit them to other men, as is the case in much of the Arab world, then men will sublimate their desires ie they will redirect their desires to other men.

Ahmed, another teacher at the Fajr center, came into the class today for a few moments to ask my tutor something. A tall gentleman in his mid 20s, he looks like a point guard for the Chicago Bulls. He wears a big beard in the style of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). Normally, we shake hands. However, this morning, he pulled me in for a Yasser Arafat type greeting—and gave me a wet one on my cheeks. He then rubbed some perfume from a small bottle onto my right hand. Perhaps, it is a sign that I’ve lived here a while that I did not think the exchange unusual at all.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Arab Hospitality: from Jerusalem to Palestine to Amman – 12/19 to 12/30/2007

As Hallah, my Egyptian-American travel buddy and I leave Cairo by East Delta bus, the radio belts out an Umm Kalthoum tune intermingled with Quranic chants. Somehow, Mother Kalthoum, the songbird of the Middle East, is never far away in Egypt. Her rhythmic songs, which proceed slowly and are favorites of the older generation, repeat themselves—sometimes five to ten times—but in slightly varying degrees. She is perhaps the most famous dead singer in the Arab world. We depart on the 5:30pm bus and crawl through the desert until we arrive at 2:30am in Dahab in the Sinai Desert.

On the bus, I meet Mataz, a call center trainer, who has excellent English. He is very happy that I have the Qu’ran in my studies. I have the English version now, but hope to be able to read it in Arabic next year, I tell him. He gives me his phone number and asks me to contact him after my vacation so we can smoke sheesha, the water pipe.

Detained at the Israeli Border
When we reach the Israeli side, I discover that I forgot my house key in the box by the metal detector. So, I return to retrieve my key, leaving Hallah alone in the hands of the Israeli interrogators. A young man, with a serious look, an earpiece, shirt and blue jeans begins to question her. I had warned her that she may be detained for several hours because of her Muslim background.

He asks her detailed questions about her background, including
-her grandfather’s name
-where her family lives in Cairo
-her itinerary

After the exhaustive interrogation, the agent asks me one question: “That girl—is she family or friend?”
“Friend,” I respond.
“Ok, you may go,” he commands me.

However, Hallah is detained by the Israeli border agents for nearly 5 hours while they conduct a background check on her.
Possible reasons? Hmmm….Her middle name is Ahmed. She’s Muslim. She’s studying in Egypt for the year.

The other detainees consisted of:
-Three Polish girls, one of whom visited Sudan. Their tour leader said he could only wait for them for one more hour and then had to leave for Jerusalem.
-An Indian family living in London. Their two girls were being detained. They usually travel through Dubai, so requested that their passports not have the Israeli entry stamp.
-Two German girls

A small sandwich shop sells some coffee, candies and snacks to the detainees. However, they have run out of sandwiches, so everyone is reduced to munching on chips and nuts.

A Nigerian couple with a baby arrives and sits down next to us. They wait for about five minutes before a portly agent comes by to tell them that they have no visa for Israel, so they cannot enter today. She reports the bad news to them, “You must return to Egypt!” They promptly get up and leave.

After about five hours, the agents finally clear Hallah of her background and give her the green light to leave for the land of milk and honey. We spend the night in Eilat and take the morning bus to Jerusalem.

Hitchhiking from Masada to Jerusalem
Masada means fortress in Hebrew. Nestled against the Dead Sea, it is the site of the last Jewish holdout against the Roman attempt to crush the rebellion about 73 CE. After we descend the mountain, we wait for the 5:05pm bus, but it never comes. A Czech woman waits with us. She speaks Czech, French and Russian, but no English. In her 40s, she is courteous, but quiet.

After a one hour wait, the bus arrives. The door swings open and the driver tells us he cannot take us, as the bus is full. However, we see only one person sitting in the aisle. We plead with the driver to let us on, but he refuses. He closes the door and leaves, as quickly as he arrived. I wonder why he even bothered to stop. The next bus will arrive in about two hours.

I decide that we will have a better chance of picking up a ride by hitchhiking on the main road, rather than staying at the entrance to Masada. So, we start to walk – in the dark – along the road. Not more than five minutes later, a truck stops. The driver has just unloaded his delivery at Masada. He asks why we did not board the bus. After we explain to him, he tells us to get into his truck. Initially, he says he can take us to Jerusalem; He then realizes the two passenger rule—he can only take two, not three. So, our options are (1) have him take the Czech woman to Jerusalem and we get out (2) have him take Hallah and me to Jerusalem and we kick the Czech woman out (3) Have him take her and Hallah to Jerusalem and I stay behind. The first option seemed to be the best, as the Czech woman spoke no English or Arabic. So, we ask the driver, Kudee, to drop us off at the next stop. We drive for more than an hour along the freeway.

Kudee is a blue collar Israeli. He says, “I only care about my dog, wife and 15 year-old son.” He pulls out his wallet with a picture of him. He doesn’t follow politics and hasn’t traveled outside Israel. He tries to make conversation with us in basic English. However, the Czech woman is deaf and mute. He asks for her hotel. I try to translate using my basic French. She does not know the name, but says it’s a Franciscan hotel in the old city by Jaffa Gate. So, he calls a woman in his office, who speaks French and hands the phone to Ms. Czech. After a few moments, there seems to be a breakthrough. He says he can take her to her hotel.

When we arrive at the bus stop, he apologizes profusely to us, saying again, “if only two of you, I can take you straight to Yerushalayem.”

“You are performing a Mitzvah (good deed)!” I tell him. I shake his hand and thank him.
The door closes and they speed away for the Holy City.

At the bus stop, Hallah tells me she doesn’t feel good about this situation: “I would never ride in a strange car with a strange man in a foreign country,” she explains.

I reassure her that everything would work out. I got a good feeling from the driver, who seemed like a decent human being wanting to help out a stranger.

About 10 minutes later, the bus arrives and we make it to the Central Bus Station in about half an hour. We catch another local bus to the Old City. As we approach the Old City, a woman boards the bus—the same Czech woman we left just an hour earlier.
“Ca va, ca va?” I ask her in French? How are you doing?

She reports that she had to take two buses to Jerusalem and that the driver became a little too friendly with her after we left. He began to touch her hands and complimented her on her eyes. He then began to feel his way up her arms and toward her breasts. Though a shocking situation, we all laughed a little. I felt both amused and saddened by the news. How I had underestimated the driver!

Ramallah: in search of Palestinian ice cream and Arafat’s tomb
Wikipedia describes Ramallah as “the most affluent and cultural as well as the most liberal, of all Palestinian cities” and is home to popular Palestinian activists, poets, artists, and musicians. Ice cream compelled me to go to Ramallah, a thriving city of 23,000 people in the West Bank. My friend Eli told me about the incredible ice cream to be had at Rukab’s Ice Cream, a hallmark of Ramallah. The ice cream is based on the resin of chewing gum, so has a distinctive taste.

So, we set off for Ramallah, expecting to brave a military checkpoint. Instead, we find no checkpoint. Apparently, it was lifted some time ago. We see restaurants and shops all around. The city is generally very clean and full of life. Hallah and I enjoy a large bowl of ice cream (16 shekels each, or about $4) that is hard to describe. Imagine the best ice cream you’ve ever tasted in your life with cheese-like consistency. That’s the best I can describe it.

After ice cream, we trek over to Beyt Arafat, or Arafat’s House. It is also known as Al Muqata. I ask a soldier guarding the tomb entrance what he thought of Arafat. He responds, “He was a good leader.” I ask a blue collar worker on the street for his opinion. “Are things getting better or worse?” “Worse!” He answered, as he moves some heavy boxes into his trunk.

Dining at Restaurant Restaurant in the Old City
Mohamed is 27 and a graduate of Cairo University in Archaeology. He shows me a 2,000 year old shekel that he found in a dig. “This is worth $300” he explains. He is a sweet man and wears a perpetual smile. He is “asmar” or dark and exudes a warmth that is characteristic of the Palestinian people. He started a Master’s Program, but did not finish. He should be teaching at a University, but instead works at the restaurant making schwarma sandwiches for hungry tourists. Such is life for Palestinians. In fact, he does not even have papers to work in Jerusalem, so he is officially an illegal worker. He invites us to dinner at his home in Hebron with his family for Christmas night.

Hebron Homestay
Mohamed tells us to meet him at the restaurant at 4pm, but we are late 45 minutes. From Damascus Gate, we take a mini bus to Bethlehem and then a service taxi to Hebron. It is quiet inside the taxi, except for the Islamic sermon by a Sheikh on the role of women. He speaks rapidly in a very rhythmic and poetic chant. Every word is pronounced in a crisp, clear way. Suddenly, the driver stops the car. He takes his prayer rug to pray on the side of the road. A few minutes later, we are off again. It is dark and the road is empty except for a few cars.

When we arrive at the house, we sit down in the living room, a simple and small square space with cushions and blankets on the floor, reminiscent of a Moroccan restaurant setting. We are served hot tea. Mohamed introduces us to Ahmed, his younger brother who studies Multimedia at the University. Ahmed is extremely worried because he has been ordered to the Israeli Police Station the next day for interrogation. Mohamed plays with his one year old son, Kassem and his six month old baby, Adam. He only returns once a week to be with his family as the two hour commute makes it difficult to return home daily.

We meet his father, an affable and elderly gentleman of 65. He wears a Jordanian headscarf, with a checkered red pattern that one usually sees on Bedouins. Deep wrinkles line his forehead. He is missing two bottom teeth, but he still has a strong smile. He is a remarkable man. Although he is illiterate, he speaks English, Spanish, and Portuguese fluently. He never went to school, but picks up languages quickly. As a businessman, he’s traveled the world and lived in Fresno, California for 9 months, in Brazil for four years and in many other countries in Latin America. Of the women in Brazil, he remarked that they are “helwa” or sweet. So, for the next two hours, Spanish becomes our lingua franca. How strange this sight must be to his family – an Arab speaking with a Chinese in Spanish – in Palestine, no less! I begin to call him “Abuelo” or grandfather.

Mohamed’s 22 year-old wife serves us a large plate of saffron rice with chicken and potatoes. There are small plates of yoghurt, cucumber and tomato salad, and soda. The rice is delicious and the chicken is tender. After everyone else finishes, I still continue to attack the plate until only one piece of chicken is left. After dinner, we retire upstairs to the second floor, where a stove heats the room. We are treated to Turkish coffee and fruit and desserts.

Nasser is Mohamed’s older brother. He has a chubby face and a receding hairline. He is 30, but looks much older. Perhaps, the 3.5 years he spent in an Israeli prison as a 14 year old aged him. One night, an Israeli soldier pointed to him and accused him of throwing a rock. He denied the charges, but to no avail. I can sense the anger inside him; it is subtle, but still present. He tells us of his memory of 9-11. He was going through a checkpoint and saw many Palestinians distributing free Kanafa, a popular Arab dessert. They were celebrating the destruction of the twin towers and the attacks on the United States. Nasser justified it by saying “when you help to supply the Israeli government with guns and bombs and money, then you are equally guilty.” His words unsettle me, but I keep silent.
Before we retire for the night, Ahmed gives me a Muslim prayer bead as a gift.

About 1:00 AM, we prepare for bed. I go back downstairs to the living room, while Hallah stays upstairs with the women. Ahmed has prepared my bed and wants to turn the TV and lights off. I tell him that I am not too tired and can still talk a little. He speaks basic English, so we communicate in very simple English and Arabic. He has two more years of studies and then wants to pursue a Master’s program. I ask him if he can do an internship in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, it is not that simple; he has no papers so cannot intern or work in the Holy City. There is one station in the local area, but with no official internship program. He says “there are no opportunities here.” I tell him that if I can help him in any way to apply for a University in America, then I will. I ask him to email me anytime with questions. Ahmad strikes me as smart and ambitious, but simply has few to no opportunities to excel.

The next morning, we leave by taxi. Nasser serves as our guide as we pass through the Palestinian countryside. Farm fields continue to our left and right as far as the eye can see. Nasser points to the security walls and checkpoints. Very often, these roads are closed, so “we cannot go anywhere.” Or they have to go a very circuitous route to Jerusalem. Nasser’s work permit must be renewed every three months. When we arrive at the Bethlehem checkpoint, he shows his papers and ID. He then puts his right hand on the machine, which matches his fingerprints to the electronic record. He is waived through. After the guards give our American passports a cursory glance, we cross over. On the Israeli side, the lines have formed already; perhaps, hundreds of people are waiting patiently to cross over.

After we arrive in Jerusalem, Mohamed asks nothing of us and I feel that he is interested in a genuine friendship. This is not always the case with friendships struck in this part of the world. For example, a fellow English teacher recently invited me to dinner and then in the same sentence asked me if I can research some MA programs at AUC for him. Even now, I still receive an email or two from Mohamed asking about my life in Cairo.

Dome of the Rock visit
The week before our arrival in Jerusalem, Hallah taught me the Fatiha, the opening sura of the Qur’an. The day before I visited the Dome of the Rock, from which Prophet Mohamed (Peace Be Upon Him) ascended to Heaven. I had memorized 4 of 7 lines. In the hour before, I had to finish memorizing the sura. Friends explained that to enter the Dome, you simply have to recite the Fatiha, thereby proving that you are a Muslim. The infidels, however, will be turned away from Islam’s third holiest site, behind Mecca and Medina.

We enter about 12:45pm. The place will close about 1:15pm for prayers. When I approach the Dome of the Rock, there is a stern man with a walkie-talkie guarding the entrance. For those who look Middle Eastern, he simply asks if they are Muslim and they pass. When I approach, he asks me the same. I say yes. He looks skeptical. “Let me see your passport!” He demands.
I show my passport, but the religion is absent from the document.
He then asks for my name.
That’s not a Muslim name!
“Ana gedeed” meaning I’m new to the faith.
“Can you read the Qur’an?”
“No, but I know the Fatiha” as I begin to recite it. “Bismillah Al-Rahman, Al-Raheem; Alhamdullilah Rab Al-Ameen; Al-Rahman, Al-Raheem, Maalik Yom-Al deen…”

Where are you from?
China. I try to explain that there are many Muslims in Western China. He still looks skeptical.
“No!” and turns me away.
I walk away to gather my thoughts. Maybe I will try again in six months, think to myself. A few moments later, Hani, a Palestinian who witnessed our exchange, approaches me.
He asks me if I’m Muslim. I say yes.
“Then, it’s your duty to enter the mosque! He cannot turn you away! You must protest to his superiors. I will help you.” He is persistent. Hani explains that the guardian mostly turned me away because I did not protest his denying my entry.

Hani lives in the West Bank near Jerusalem. He tells me had to climb the fence in the morning to “enter my city.” If the Israeli authorities catch him here, he will be fined and punished. Hani leads me back to the entrance to confront the guardian. They speak very fast and I do not understand much. The guardian turns to me and again asks if I am a Muslim. He then brings Hallah into the conversation, asking her to confirm my faith. After perhaps 5 minutes of back and forth, the guardian finally relents and allows me to enter. I felt like I had passed a big test.

Hani escorts me inside and serves as my tour guide. As we circle the mosque, I see women worshippers. In fact, most of the people inside are women. Only a few men are present. Hani explains that on Jumaa, or Friday, women occupy the inside of the mosque, while men pray on the grounds of the Temple Mount. When we finish circling the inside of the mosque, another security man approaches us to inquire why I am inside. Hani explains that I’m Muslim and it’s ok.

We approach a column with a small hole. He puts his right hand inside and rubs lightly. He asks me to smell his hand. It has the smell of incense. “We believe that’s what Prophet Mohamed (Peace Be Upon Him) smelled like.”

We then go down one level to the point where it is believed that Prophet Mohamed (Peace Be Upon Him) ascended to Heaven.

After we exit the mosque, Hani, Hallah and I talk for a while on the grounds. A small group of school children are playing with each other. I thank Hani for his help and extraordinary efforts to secure my entry.

Search for a hotel in Amman, Jordan
After we cross the land border from Israel into the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, we hop onto a Singapore tour bus that’s going to Amman. It drops us off in the outskirts of the city, next to a restaurant. Before we hail any taxis, I stop for a moment to put on a sweater as it is cold. Very cold. I place my Lonely Planet guidebook on the hood of a car. At that moment, the car owner and his wife exit the restaurant to go to their car. They wait patiently for me, saying “mish moushkayla” or no problem. They ask us where we come from and where we are going. They then offer us a ride to downtown.

Faisal, our driver, is a middle-aged carpenter with five children. He and his wife, Islam speak no English. In the 45 minute ride to downtown, they ask politely about our travels. We ask them to take us to the Cliff Youth Hostel. However, Faisal insists that he will find us a proper hotel that is “suitable for a Muslim Woman.”

At the first hotel, Faisal gets out to inquire for us. He returns a few minutes later, telling us the rate is 20 Jordanian Dinars (about $30). We decline, saying it is over our budget.

At the second hotel, Faisal reports that they want 15 Dinars (about $22). We decline again, saying it is also not in our budget. I politely request that they take us to the Cliff youth hostel.

Faisal is adamant and says we will continue our search. At this point, I begin to think that maybe he knows some of these hotel managers or may receive a commission for bringing them extra business.

At the third hotel, Faisal asks me to join him inside. There is no hot water. The beds are unmade. The sink is broken and it looks like a pigsty. The man wants 15 Dinars. I quickly decline. He drops the price to 5 Dinars. Faisal and I walk out.

At the fourth hotel, it is not as bad as the previous one, but still unacceptable. 15 Dinars.

At the fifth and last hotel, to my surprise, everything works. The room comes with hot water, cable TV, A/C and is very clean. Two beds for 15 Dinars. While I still prefer a cheaper youth hostel, I tell the manager that I’ll take it just to get Faisal off our backs.

At the reception desk, the manager processes our passports, but then asks if Hallah and I are married. We say no. “Hmmm…normally, it’s ok since you are foreigners, but she is Egyptian American and she speaks Arabic. I’m sorry, it’s too close. I cannot put you two in the same room.”

We thank him and decide to walk to the Cliff Youth Hostel around the corner. I am grateful to Faisal and his efforts and offer to take him out to dinner. Hallah says she is tired and asks if we can do dinner another night, maybe after our return from Petra. We take his number and promise to call him.

Cliff Hotel
Tony, a Palestinian Christian in his 60s, works as the clerk at Cliff Hotel. With a strong jaw, chiseled face and hooked nose, he looks Italian. When he was born, he was a sickly baby. The doctor pulled his skin, but it did not retract. He told his parents to go home and wait for him to die. Dad prayed to St. Anthony – “Please heal my son and I will name him after you!” The prayers worked. Tony has not returned to Palestine since 1982.

The Cliff Hotel located across a falafel stand and Hummus restaurant. King Abdullah came by to munch on some falafels recently. It was a big deal. And still is. Sure enough, we had to go eat where the King ate.

We Wuz Robbed
In the morning, we take a taxi to the bus station. The driver, a Palestinian, spent time in Israeli prison in 1985 and was deported from Israel. He then bounced around in Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, and now lives in Jordan. He is in his 40s and very warm.

We board the minibus to Petra. The passengers are mostly men, with a couple of women seated in front of us. A Lebanese dance tune plays on the radio. A child coughs behind me. The King’s Highway is smooth and straight and cuts through a barren, desert landscape to either side. About two hours into our ride, the driver stops. He motions for me to get out of the bus. Someone else has taken my bag off the bus. He tells me to get onto a second bus. It all seems a bit puzzling, but I’ve learned to go with the flow in my travels in developing countries. Hallah tells me that they need to go to pray, so cannot complete the trip. He then asks for my fare. It is about three to four dinars each, so eight at the most. I give him a ten dinar note ($15) and he runs off, without giving me change. He speeds off in the direction of Amman.

I tell the second driver, Mohammed, who runs after the bus in vain; it does not stop. He is sympathetic and tells me in a resigned tone, “mish kwayyes” or not good. He says he will take us to Petra for 5 dinars total ($7.50). Once onboard, he tells me to ride shotgun so he can talk to me. The sunshine hits my face and I feel its warmth for the first time in more than a week.

Mohamed is perhaps in his late 40s, with a deep suntan, a light mustache, and very warm face. He asks about Hallah and me. Are you married? I say yes, but Hallah modifies our relationship to “engaged.” He praises me for being a lucky man. (Hallah and I had agreed that our official relationship, if asked, was that we were married. In the Middle East, it is very unusual for an unmarried man and woman to travel together.)

Soon, Mohamed asks Hallah to come up front and sit next to me so he can chat with all of us. He fires off question after question. At first, he has trouble understanding us, mainly because he’s hard of hearing. Second, Hallah is not used to the Jordanian accent, so they both have to repeat themselves quite a few times.

Mohamed invites us to his house for tea. He looks back to the other passenger, a young woman, perhaps in her 20s and asks for her permission. As she lives in Petra, it is not out of her way, so she agrees. As we pull into his driveway, we see some of his six children running around. They and his wife live upstairs, while he lives downstairs. He is currently looking for a second wife, he announces. Inside, he asks the other woman to prepare coffee for all of us, saying he’s not very good at making coffee. To our surprise, she complies. So, we sit for about 10 minutes, enjoying coffee and cookies and candies.

“Why don’t you stay here with me tonight, and go to Petra tomorrow morning?” he proposes. We politely decline his invitation. The other woman is reticent. When we arrive at Petra, Mohamed says he’ll pick us up again Sunday 6am to drive us back to Amman.

Sheesha with Ahmed around the campfire
As we walk on the street, a man in a pickup stops and talks to Hallah. “You remind me of an Egyptian girl I used to know. Where are you from?” His name is Ahmed and he’s 24. He offers to show us the city for a while. He wants to invite us for tea at his home. Normally, I do not get into the cars of strange men, especially in foreign countries. However, this being Jordan and the local people having a reputation of being extremely hospitable, I thought it safe to get in, especially since it was the two of us. Hallah rides shotgun, while I sit in the back. Ahmed is dark and has a sharp nose. He is warm and talkative. He has to deliver some bread, so he takes us to his “summer villa” on the hill. He introduces us to his three buddies: Ziad, a tall fellow with a shaved head; Ghazi and Saher (Rock), two cheerful and warm guys in their early 20s. We sit around a campfire while they serve us hot, sweet tea. The night is cold. I look up and see the “Najoom” or stars for the first time in a long time.

Rock is a soldier in the King’s Army. He will soon become an F-16 fighter pilot. Of 400 who tested, only 30 passed. Rock ranked #3 of the 30 top pilots. He is firmly committed to the King. “If the King asks me for my eyes, I will give them to him.” Ahmed added, tongue-in-cheek, “and if he asks for my heart, I will give him my heart.” Rock works at the Silk Road Hotel, owned by his father. He invites us to the hotel for more tea and sheesha (water pipe) later in the evening.

Ahmed invites us to dinner the next night with his family. He will pick us up at 6:00pm at our hotel.

Petra Man
The next day, we make our way to Petra Valley. While we linger in an outdoor souvenir shop, we meet Mansour, a Bedouin shopkeeper who invites us to tea. He’s dark, 28 years old and looks like an Indian. He has visited over 30 countries. He offers to show us around Petra for the afternoon.

Mansour lived in Hong Kong for some time, so picked up Cantonese. He began speaking to me, “mo ah.”
“You speak good Chinese!” I praised him.
“Yes, I do.”
Not the most humble fellow, I thought. And not very Chinese, who are known as very modest people.

Mansour shows us some hidden trails and accompanies us to the Monastery, a popular site at the top of the mountain. We walk up and down the trail. By the time we are finished, it is dusk. We decide to take some donkeys to the entrance.

Riding the donkeys, we float in the darkness. My donkey is named Michael Jackson. I try to speak to the boy guides in the simple Arabic that I’ve learned over the past weeks.
“Kam sana?” or how old are you? I ask the boy behind me.
“What?” he asks me.
“Mineen?” where are you from? I continue with my questions.
“What?” he asks me. “Just speak English!” he gently yells at me.

The formerly empty caves are now lit up with lanterns and Bedouins making camp for the night. Mansour offers his cave to Hallah on her next visit. If she visits in the summer, then she can stay on the roof with him.

We stop for a moment as Mansour leaves our group to stay for the night with his friends. We bid him farewell as we continue onto the Bab Asiq by the Treasury. We dismount, pay our child guides and continue on foot in the darkness by ourselves. Karen, Hallah and I lock arms and use our cell phones and camera lights to light our way. Hallah looks ahead, Karen looks down for cracks and big rocks and I look up at the stars. We continue this formation for the next 15 minutes. It is cold. Dark. A bit scary. Very quiet. But, oh so wonderful. As we approach the gate, we see a store with lights. I offer the store owner the Bedouin greetings “Goo-wak!” (Hello) and “Shhlow-nak” or “what’s your color?” He responds enthusiastically and welcomes us into his shop for tea. We stay for the next 15 – 20 minutes, chat and take some pictures in some Bedouin costumes.

Angry Ahmed
By the time we find out way out of the valley, it’s nearly 8pm. We are two hours late for dinner. Ahmed is angry. Very angry, especially at Hallah. He tells us that his family was waiting for us at 6pm, but we did not show. He asks that we go to his house to apologize to his parents and family. We agree, but first we must shower and clean up.

At his parent’s house, we meet his father, mother and aunt. His father is a traditional man, with a light beard and prayer beads in his right hand. He is very serious, but affable. He asks about Hallah’s background and then says that it may be acceptable in Egypt or America to be late to dinner invitations or not to come altogether; however, in Jordan, when you are invited to dinner, you must show up. We nod politely, shake hands and ask for his forgiveness. We thank them and take our leave.

Ahmed tells us that his fiancée has saved us a plate of Mahshe, or cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and meat. So, we enjoy some cold mahshe in their dining room for the next 2 hours or so. Ahmed’s fiancée is a quiet woman in her early 20s. She does not talk to me at all and only asks Hallah a few questions. Hallah and I sit on the floor to eat. They sit in armchairs and try to talk to us. In the middle of the meal, Ahmed’s fiancée begins to kiss him – on the mouth. On his cheeks. And gives him a few embraces. Having lived in this region for a few months, I know that the Arab culture is extremely conservative. You do not ever see couples kiss in public. It is rare even to see couples hold hands in public. All displays of affection are done in private, behind closed doors. To kiss in front of dinner guests is also bizarre. To say the least. I did not understand her behavior during dinner. Hallah had to explain to me after the dinner: She was sending Hallah a message—Ahmed is my man. Hands off!

After dinner, Ahmed drove us back to Rock’s hotel, leaving his fiancée behind in the house. At the hotel, we smoke some more sheesha and talk for the rest of the evening.
At one point, they turn to me to introduce a new game. I tell them about “Truth or lies?” We go around the circle, tell two truths and one lie. The rest of the group must guess which one is the lie. I begin:

-I’ve smuggled contraband across the Hong Kong border
-I know the Governor of Macau through his brother
-I’ve been to the White House for Christmas and met the President

When it’s Rock’s turn, he gives us three deceptively very simple items:
-I’ve traveled to Syria
-I like girls
-I’ve traveled to Lebanon

Some guess that he’s not been to Syria. Others say he’s not traveled to Lebanon. After a few minutes, he says simply, numbers one and three are true; however, number two is false. “I don’t like girls,” he reveals to us. Hallah and I are more than a little surprised.

We stay up until about 3am. We try to return to our youth hostel, but Ahmed insists that we stay at Rock’s hotel. He puts us up in a complimentary room. Ahmed asks to say a few words to Hallah alone. I oblige him. A minute later, he gives her a peck on the cheek. Again, I’m not the most sensitive person in cultural affairs, but I know that it’s a big deal when an Arab man, who is already engaged to a woman, kisses another woman on the cheek.

Rock gives us two bottles of water for the evening and will give us a 6am wake up call. It takes him two separate phone calls before we are able to get up. Ahmed drives us to the bus station and finds us a bus back to Amman. We bid him farewell. Three hours later, we arrive at the Amman bus depot. A minute after we arrive and begin looking for a cab, the bus driver comes to us and hands his cell phone to Hallah, “It’s Ahmed.” They speak for a minute. Hallah explains that Ahmed is checking in on us to see that we made it safely. “Boy, I’d hate to be his girlfriend. He knows everybody in this country!”

Return to Cairo
In the evening, we board the plane back to Cairo.
We take the airport bus back to downtown Cairo. The driver drinks some tea to stay warm. After we pull out of the airport, he bumps into the curb on the freeway, shaking the bus and the passengers from their slumber, making most of them upset. Many of them yell at him, “hey basha, watch out…don’t do that again!” The door is open, allowing a cold draft to enter the bus as we race down the freeway. It is now very crowded and the driver honks continuously at the other cars. We are back in Egypt, Mother of the World. Alhamdulillah!