Friday, February 29, 2008

Zalamak on Zamalek

On my way home the other day from downtown Cairo to Zamalek, I was in heavy traffic. Nothing new. There’s traffic every day in this city. The microbus driver slows down, but taps the car in front. Upset, the other driver gets out, and yells at our driver, “zalamak!” which translates roughly into “you pick on someone smaller than you.” Generally, this phrase is used to insult other drivers. Another way to look at it is, “You got your driver’s license because you fooled the driving examiner.”

The angry driver opens his car’s front hood to check it for damage. Seeing no visible or major damage, our driver decides to leave the scene. He backs up a foot or so and tries to turn right, but in the process, taps the other car again. The other driver yells again. I don’t catch the insult this time…

Islam’s prohibition of dancing

There is no dancing in Islam, so says Dr. Moustafa. You can dance at home with children, your family, your spouse, but a man should not, and cannot, dance with a woman who is not his wife. He asked me to stand. He grabbed my left hand and swung me around and around in the room. “A man can dance with a man. That’s acceptable. However, it is not right to dance with a woman.” In the same lesson, the good doctor again emphasized how important it is to find a religion. In time, “you will become a Muslim!” he declared with a big smile, as he does in nearly every lesson. Hmmm…a religion without dancing? Is that one of the benefits that he’s touting to make Islam appeal to me? I told Dr. Moustafa that I took many months of Salsa and Tango lessons in the U.S. dancing, no alcohol, no music except for Qur'anic chants. At least in Judaism and Christianity, you can drink alcohol. In the many Shabbat dinners that I attended at the Synagogue in Washington, DC, the Rabbi would usually come around with a bottle of Jack Daniels and offer it to us. At this point, Judaism seems much more attractive.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Oral Presentations: fitting your life into 5 minutes or less

This was the last week of class at St. Andrews. Students took their written test on Monday and Wednesday night was the Oral part. It was simple. I asked the students to prepare an oral statement of 5 minutes on one of three topics:

1. Tell me about yourself
2. Give me an opinion on Cairo traffic, pollution, housing shortage, or another current topic
3. Cairo is my home now, but …

Most students chose to talk about themselves. I passed out the corrected written test to students at the beginning of class; about 5 failed. It’s always difficult to face failure, I told them. I failed statistics twice in college, before I finally passed it on the third try. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid; it just means that there’s room for improvement.

Ban is a 48 year-old mother of three boys, who likes to dye her hair reddish-purple, and wears a matching red jacket this day. She left Iraq a year and a half ago when her family received a letter threatening to kill them. She first took her youngest (12 years old) and oldest son (24 years old) and fled to Egypt, leaving her husband and middle son in Baghdad. She has tried to find any way possible to take them out of Iraq, but so many countries have denied them entry, including Sweden and the European countries. She now lives in the Cairo suburb 6th of October, where she bought a flat.

Ishag, a soft-spoken 27 year old Sudanese, went by the nickname Khaby as a child.
A childhood friend called him last week, asking for Khaby. He had forgotten his own nickname, so initially did not recognize his old friend. “We was living together,” he explained. They chatted for a while and reminisced about the old days.

Salum, from Tanzania, has been in Cairo since 2005. “I don’t like Cairo! It’s too cold in winter and too hot in summer.” He learned Arabic when he was 15 years old. It sounds like he looks forward to the day when he can return to his homeland.

Omer, a tall gentleman from Chad, has been in Egypt for 5 years. He always has an upbeat attitude. He bemoaned his mediocre English abilities and felt maybe he should try to improve his French to improve his job prospects.

In a strange way, I was relearning the backgrounds of my students on the very last day of class. When I reheard their stories, I felt an acute appreciation of the difficult lives they lead. Of the struggles they’ve faced and are facing. And I realized – again – how fortunate I am in being able to travel freely with my American passport.

After the last presentation was given, the students shook my hand as they filed out of the bungalow. I was happy to finish the course, but also sad to see my students leave me. I will have about two weeks before the next 9 week term begins. Alhamdulillah!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Challenge from Dr. Moustafa to find the TRUTH

On Saturday, the doktooor chanted Al Rahman (Sura 55) to me and we spent the entire 2.5 hours of class talking about religion: Where do we come from? La ila illa Allah--There is no god but Allah. And Mohamed is his messenger. We spoke about Prophet Jesus, who never drank wine. What about the Last Supper in which he drank wine with his disciples and broke bread? Lies. Prophets don’t drink wine. The Patriarch Lott sleeping with his two daughters?—lies from the Bible. Lott, a prophet, would never drink wine. And definitely would not have sexual relations with his own flesh.

Dr. Moustafa challenged me: Get up before sunrise. After you take a shower, come out of the bathroom – naked – and go to your room. Sit down and say “La ila illa Allah--There is no god but Allah. And Mohamed is his messenger.” Then, look up and say to God – I want to know the Truth.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Doktooor Moustafa: teacher and preacher

Beer causes cancer! So says Dr. Moustafa, my Arabic tutor at Fajr Center. He has been teaching me Classical Arabic this past month and he is a wonderful instructor. He uses humor, stories, and lots of patience to teach me. He speaks no English, unless it’s absolutely necessary. When I do speak English, he punishes me by asking me to hand over LE 1 to him.

His odd statement came about after I told him about my doorman Mahmoud, who asked me for beer. First, he was amused, but then a little upset. He said to me, “haram alayk” or shame on you! Shame on the doorman for drinking beer, but also shame on me for giving him the beer. Alcohol, of course, is Haram, or forbidden by the Qu’ran. Devout muslims do not touch the stuff. Dr. Moustafa advised me to say this to my doorman the next time he requests alcohol:

What’s your name?
That’s the name of the prophet! Shame on you!

The doorman should stop asking me for alcohol after this exchange. However, I explained to my tutor that I need to maintain good relations with the doorman. So far, he likes me. If I were to stop giving him beers, he may turn against me. Dr. Moustafa asked me, “how about your relationship with God?!”

Last week, I brought in a bag of beer concealed in dark plastic bags. I placed my bag next to my chair, as always. During the middle of the lesson, he asked me what I had in my bag, as it looked rather bulky. He then picked up my bag, saying it was very heavy. I told him of the Koosharee party I was going to in Garden City, by downtown. “Ah…then you have Koosharee ingredients in your bag!” I told him I had “juice” in my bag. Satisfied with that, he did not press me further.

At 35, Dr. Moustafa is fluent in Farsi, French, Arabic and some English. He studied history at Cairo University and still teaches there during the week. He is the most personable teacher I’ve ever had in my life. For example, he hugs me every time he sees me before class. Last week, he fed me breakfast of bread, mashed potatoes, cheese and olives. I reciprocated by bringing him a box of kanafa and bisboosa, two popular pastries in Egypt. A few days ago, he fed me a Kofta lunch. And today, he made me a ful (bean) sandwich during break.

A lecturer on Huda TV, the Islamic televangelism channel on cable TV, explained that when someone praises you, generally he wants something from you. I’ve been thinking about this statement. Obviously, Dr. Moustafa is a very kind and pleasant person. He has treated me like a brother. However, he wants to convert me to Islam. And he has not been shy about his intentions. For example, in the first week of class, he would ask me to recite and then to sing the Fatiha, the opening sura of the Qu’ran, with him. In the second week, he invited me to pray with him at the nearby mosque. I never accepted, telling him “later.” A year of living in China as an English teacher taught me to have a long distance relationship with the word “no.” I would love to pray with him or with any other Muslims; however, with so little understanding of the Qu’ran and Islam, I feel that the prayer is meaningless to me at this point. And in subsequent classes, he would talk about Prophet Mohamed (Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and his life during the lesson.

The other day, Moustafa accompanied me on the metro to downtown, where we waited for my friend David before dinner with his aunt. On the metro platform, he took my hand and asked me, “What is the purpose of life? These are important questions you must ask and be able to answer. You will find many of these answers in the Qu’ran. Surely, you will become a Muslim, insh’allah!” This is a phrase that he has used repeatedly in class for many weeks: “Surely, you will become a Muslim, insh’allah!” And I humor him with “insh’allah!” or “God Willing.”

The proselytizing will continue. And I will continue to say “insh’allah!” I love all the food he has been feeding me, but I remember Economist Milton Friedman’s saying, “there is no free lunch.” Surely, there must be a cost to Dr. Moustafa’s largesse.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Big Brother is watching!

My landlord visited me this week to collect the rent. It was a short and simple meeting. After he counted the money he asked for my passport. He explained that he needs to notify the police that I’m staying here. So, I gave him a copy of my passport. It’s an eerie feeling to know that the police have an interest in knowing where I live and now will have a copy of my passport. Welcome to Egypt!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Dinner with my refugee students

I enjoyed a Koosharee dinner (a popular vegetarian meal of rice, pasta, lentils, fried onions) with two of my students Monday night: Hani, a 20 year-old Eritrean, and Mohamed, a 30 year old Sudanese. Both are refugees. You wouldn’t know it from talking to them. Hani speaks with an American accent. He says “yeah” instead of “yes.” He is wearing a dark Tupac shirt. He is more comfortable speaking English with his sister at home rather than Tagrinya, the language of Eritrea. A resident of Cairo for 10 months now, he spent two years in Khartoum, Sudan. His father remains in Saudi Arabia and his mother lives in Eritrea. She visited him in Cairo just five months ago. Hani speaks very fluently and is one of the best students in class. He should be studying at a University. Unfortunately, he says he “does nothing” the rest of the week. I do not ask him too many personal questions, but it seems that he has no job. He is taking French classes now, but does not really enjoy them. His Chinese neighbor in Eritrea used to teach him a few Chinese words and phrases, so he asked me for a few words tonight. After I explain to him that Chinese verbs do not conjugate, he said, “Maybe I should learn Chinese instead of French.”

Mohamed is a gentle man. He wears glasses and has a scholar look about him. He stands out from the rest of the students by sitting in the front row and always volunteers to speak. Mohamed follows American politics. Both he and Hani are Barack Obama supporters. Mohamed even knows about Senator Bob Dole. He grows pessimistic when I ask him about his future plans after St. Andrews, where he takes English classes. “What can I do when I leave here? All we get is a certificate, a piece of paper that says we took a class here.” He is currently applying for asylum to Australia. In 2004, he left the Sudan, where he faced religious persecution from the Islamic Government. His father disappeared and two of his sisters were kidnapped by the Janjaweed Militia in Darfur. He has never heard from them since. Mohamed received protection from a local church. After spending some time with them, he eventually converted to Christianity, which led to more troubles for him. Security men detained him and accused him of subversion. They beat him repeatedly and tortured him night and day. He was deprived of food, water and sleep. They tied him up and hanged him upside down from a ceiling fan. When he was released, he fled the country.

While Hani will stay in Cairo for the foreseeable future, Mohamed is trying to leave for greener pastures. I wish him well. Australia would do well to accept this refugee, whom I’m confident will make great contributions to their country down under.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

My two minutes of fame with Sunnyland Tours

My friend Nat called me up the other day, asking me if I wanted to make a quick LE 50 ($9) for two minutes of work. He told me that Sunnyland Tours company is looking for foreigners to record a testimonial for their tour services. So, we recorded a spot in front of the Egyptian Museum with impromptu lines: “I’ve been in Egypt for two weeks now and have seen the sites: Pyramids, Luxor, Aswan. Ever since my guide picked us up at the airport, everything’s been on time and wonderful (Insert cheesy smile and wave). Thank you Sunnyland tours!” Afterwards, our photographer took us out to lunch at Abu Tariq, the most famous Koosharee restaurant in downtown Cairo.

The artist Andy Warhol once said that everyone has his 15 minutes of fame. Well, with two minutes gone, I suppose I now have 13 minutes left.