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!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A walk with Dr. Moustafa

Last week, my tutor Dr. Moustafa walked with me after class to my bus stop. He began by asking me if I know of any Korean women. “I want to marry a Korean woman. I think they are so beautiful. That way, I can work and study in Korea. What do you think of my idea?” He asked me. I told him that Korea is a good country. I would inquire with my Korean friend Min about any available Korean women in Egypt.

Dr. Moustafa then turned serious. He explained that his wife is a very loyal woman. “She told me that ‘I am willing to go wherever you go. If you go to hell, I will follow you to hell.’” He has discussed with his wife his ideas of taking a Korean wife. She approves. “I love history. Especially ancient Persian history. Sometimes, my wife tells me that I dream about Persian history and speak Farsi in my sleep.”

When we reach Midan Galaa, where I wait for my microbus, we sit down on the edge of the flower bed. Dr. Moustafa will receive his Master’s degree in three months. He explains that he has a deep desire to travel abroad. To study and to work. When I ask him what his timeline is, he thinks for a moment and replies, “Within a year. I cannot--cannot continue to stay here for more than a year!” His face seemed to writhe in pain when he says this. Dr. Moustafa put in 240 hours last month. That’s about 6 weeks of full time work crammed into one month. He gets paid about LE 800-1000 a month, depending on the number of hours he works. That’s about LE 4 (80 cents) an hour. It is unfortunate that a man of his talents, intelligence and education is paid such a paltry amount.

What he really wants to do is to start his own language center. Across the street is a small sign advertising an office for rent. He says this would be an ideal place for a language center. However, the rent would be very expensive. He asks me if there are any opportunities in America for a speaker of Farsi, Arabic and French. I tell him there should be, as the US has a shortage of good Arabic and Farsi speakers. I will inquire on his behalf.

“I want to have children, but children are expensive. So, I must wait until I can make more money.” I see Dr. Moustafa as a professor at any of the top universities in Washington, DC or New York City pulling down $100,000 easily. There must be a place for him somewhere that can use his language and teaching abilities. I feel a special responsibility to help him find something better than his current position. About two microbuses stop, pick up passengers and leave in the time we talk. When the next microbus arrives, I board and bid the good doctor ma-esalama until the next class.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Estimado Espana—por favor, yo quiero vivir en su pais

(Dear Spain--please, I want to live in your country)

Yaseen has never been to Spain. He speaks no Spanish. And probably has never tasted a sangria or seen a bullfight. However, he now wants to live in the land of Picasso and Gaudi. You see, Spain began welcoming applications from asylum seekers about two weeks ago.

Yaseen is dark, wears a mustache and a perpetual smile. He is affable and prefers classical Arabic to the Egyptian Colloquial Arabic, so tends to teach me a phrase or two in the ancient tongue whenever he sees me. Yaseen has been a refugee for about half of his 35 years. He first fled his home in Eritrea in 1984 for the Sudan, where he lived until 1998. He then returned to his home, but was forced to leave again in 2002 when he resettled in Cairo. Yaseen’s parents and siblings are still in the Sudan. He is now seeking asylum in Spain. Small problem--the asylum form is in Spanish. Since he heard that I studied Spanish before, he called me up earlier today and asked for my help in filling out the form over dinner.

I agreed to meet him at the gate of St. Andrews. We walk a few blocks to the Eritrean Students club where about half a dozen Eritrean men are watching Al-Jazeera news in a small room. There are no women present. Dinner is served in the kitchen on a small end table: two oval plates of warm injera bread with a large pile of sautéed beef and cow tongue. It reminds me of the Ethiopian restaurants in Berkeley, California and Adams-Morgan, Washington, DC. However, when I taste the soft injera bread, it is a bite of heaven. If you’ve never had Injera bread, imagine eating a piece of nerf football that is slightly sour.

After dinner, we sit down in the adjacent room. I begin to fill out the form with my limited, rusty college Spanish. The form is old as it still bears the date starting with 19__. Perhaps, that is an indicator of when they last opened the doors to asylum seekers. Yaseen will send me his personal account of persecution in his home country, which then needs to be translated into Spanish. All this needs to be done in the next few days for him to have enough time to submit it to the Spanish Embassy. Allah Yakreemak! May God be kind to you!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Booze for the Munaqiba, part 2

Our Shirella, or cleaning lady came this morning to clean the apartment. For a 9am appointment, she came 45 minutes late. When I greeted her, I asked if there was “zachma kiteer” or a lot of traffic. She simply said, “Malesh,” which is the Egyptian Arabic equivalent of “never mind” or “oh well” in this context. Um Ahmed is munaqiba, or veils herself from head to toe, revealing only her eyes. She came with another lady...maybe her sister? Friend? An older lady, who is not munaqiba. They spend two hours cleaning and finish just before 12pm. I am already late for my noon Arabic class, so I pay them, leave and tell them to just close the door when they’re done.

When I returned this evening, I looked around the apartment. They did a great job of cleaning. Such a good job that they also cleaned the kitchen of a few beers from the beer supply. Seven missing beers, to be exact. They were taken in a very interesting way. One can was taken from one case of Stella. Two were taken from the Saqqara case. And two were taken from the Heineken case. And two more beers were taken from another box next to the fridge. They were taken in such a way that it would not be immediately noticeable. Had she simply asked me, like she did last time, I'd gladly have given her a few or more. However, she helped herself to a five finger discount.

In the Arabic culture, accusing someone of being a thief is perhaps the worst thing you can call someone. My Sudanese students tonight advised me to go the indirect route. I should call her and say, "hey, there were a few cans that were misplaced in the kitchen today. Maybe you know what happened?" and go from there...

If she confesses and returns the beer, then I may be able to forgive. No matter what happens, I think this will be the last time that Um Ahmed will be cleaning Apartment #6, floor 5.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

“Ikhna” TV program: 60 minutes of fame

I now have another big reason to like Egypt. Yesterday, I was interviewed on a TV program called “Ikhna,” which means “we.” My friend Shereen called me last week asking if I were interested in being a guest on a TV program that explores why foreigners come to Egypt.

Sondos, my contact at the studio, sends a car and driver to pick me up. Hasan, the driver, has worked for the company for a few years. While friendly, he’s not as chatty as a cab driver. We make it to the studio with little traffic. I sit at a plastic table, waiting for the others to arrive. Soon, I meet the director, the producer, the executive producer and some of the hosts. The other guest, Yasmeen, an Algerian lady, is running late. Once she arrives, we are escorted into the studio, a spacious office with a large conference table. Various notebooks and folders act as a tablecloth. The main hostess, Deena, is a young and beautiful Egyptian gal. She wears long, black hair and sports a T-shirt.

They begin the program with my sitting on a chair next to the door, reading an Arabic newspaper (or giving the impression that I can read an Arabic newspaper). Once Sondos enters, I will accompany her to the conference table with the others to begin our talk.

Our interview is interrupted several times by the director for various reasons. The sound quality is not good. The lighting is off. Someone stumbled on a word or two. Cut! Ok…stand by. 5…4…3…2…1…Go!

My interviewers asked very simple questions:

Why did you come to Egypt?
What do you think of the Egyptian People? The food?
What’s been a memorable experience that you can tell us?
I related the story of the blind man in the metro.

What’s a positive aspect of the people here? Negative?
While I praised the Egyptian people, I really could not think of a negative aspect.

While I began in Egyptian Arabic and tried to speak as much as possible, there were some questions that I couldn’t understand, so Sondos, who was sitting next to me, had to interpret.

The interview will air next month on the O TV Channel. Stay tuned…

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Whiskey drinkin’ taxi driver

The driver this morning asked me a curious question: Teshrab? Or “do you drink?” I responded that I drink tea. His name is Khaled, which means “immortal” in Arabic. He speaks fast. Very fast. Like someone on speed. He is very outgoing and, like many of the drivers, easily impressed with my rudimentary Arabic. He inquires further: “teshrab bira?” or do you drink beer? A little bit at parties, sure. He declares, “I drink beer and whiskey!” He asks for my phone number. I’m always a bit wary when random taxi drivers ask for my phone number. So, I tell him that I could just enter his number into my phone. He says he is having a problem with his phone right now, but would take my number. So, I write my number down on a piece of paper. He wants to call me tomorrow night about midnight for a drink. I don’t know what I’ll be doing at that hour, but this being Cairo, it won’t be too unusual if I wind up drinking a Stella with a random taxi driver in some dive bar in downtown. Stay tuned...

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Escorting the blind man in the metro

Sadat Station, downtown Cairo – A middle-aged blind man dressed in a sharp, green suit and tie approaches the platform with an escort. He is wearing dark sunglasses. As soon as they arrive, his escort leaves. Another gentleman grabs a hold of his left arm and guides him a few inches forward, placing him in front of the doors so that he can board the train as it arrives. Once onboard, his new guide stands a few feet away, but cannot get off at the next stop, Nasser station. However, he quietly tells the man in front of him that he should let the blind man get off first. When the doors open, the blind gentleman gets off. He walks slowly toward his left, but the exit is toward the right. Another man quickly grabs the blind man by his left arm and gently, but briskly guides him toward the exit. I follow closely behind them. His new escort exchanges a few words with his walking partner. At the turnstile, the escort inserts his ticket into the machine to exit. He guides the blind man to follow him. However, the ticket only allows for one entry or exit. So, the blind man has to climb over the turnstile, one stretched leg at a time. A few seconds later, he has exited. His escort leaves him, as quickly as he found him. Now, the blind man takes out his cell phone. Perhaps, to call his friend to meet him. A few moments later, a young lady approaches him, offering to help him. His new escort guides him up the stairs onto the street level. I take the other exit to board my microbus to Zamalek.

I share this little vignette with you because it left a very strong impression on me. In my 25 years of living in the United States and one year in China as an English teacher, I never, ever saw anything even close to this scene in public. In the span of only about 5 minutes, this one blind man had about four total strangers guiding him along his way. Sure, I have seen strangers in Washington, DC offering a seat to a blind rider on the metro. But, that’s the law. I have seen strangers offering to help blind pedestrians if they’re lost or about to walk into oncoming traffic. It is quite a different thing altogether to see four strangers help one blind man in succession. And with no coordination. It almost seems like there was an “invisible hand” at work here. I told my Egyptian roommate about this story and he was not surprised at all. In fact, he expects people to do this, especially Muslims. It is comforting. And reassuring to know that there is kindness and a strong sense of community here, even in this metropolis of 20 million plus people. I am very nearsighted, but still have my sight. However, if I ever become blind in this lifetime, let it happen in Cairo and not in Washington, DC. Alhamdulillah!

A visit to Maktab Al Bareed: the post office

I needed to mail some postcards and a letter, so walked to the post office today. This is the same post office I visited spring last year. It has a special memory for me as the clerk took a sizable tip from me during that first visit. I gave her a LE 20 note for LE 12 worth of stamps. She only returned LE 3.5, keeping LE 4.5 or about 75 cents.

When I arrive, I see three men in front of me. There is no clerk to help them. Two men are at a table counting money. A third man sits to the side of the table, but is not busy. All three men are smoking cigarettes. A fourth man sits on the other side of the office, but runs out to get tea. No one wears a postal uniform. In fact, everyone is dressed casually. I stand patiently behind the group of three men. Waiting. Five minutes pass. Then 10 minutes. A young Egyptian lady walks into the post office. She goes to another window and asks for service. They ignore her. She asks again. One of the clerks tells her to wait. She looks annoyed, but resigned. Another man walks in. He asks for service. They ignore him. He asks again and this time, the man who is counting money yells at him in a stern tone. I don’t understand any of it. I can only imagine that he said something like, “I’m counting money. I”ll get to you when I’m done. Calm down, man!”

A few more minutes pass. I take out a piece of paper and began to write down some words from the wall that look like interesting vocabulary that I can show my tutor in the morning. I already recognize the sign for mail and package. I look at my watch. It’s been 15 minutes since I’ve walked in. Still no service. Finally, a clerk goes to the other window and tries to help the young lady. She wants to send a poster. After she’s done, I greet him with “Izayak, ya Basha!” Or “How are you, Pasha?” Basha is the Egyptian word for Pasha, the Ottoman Turkish title for the leader of the Empire. In other words, it is a remnant of the colonial era, but a very respectful, although playful title for clerks and blue collar workers. I ask for two post card stamps to America and one local stamp. He opens up the stamp book, but then tells me that I need to go to the parcel window. Strange. I’m at the proper window, but he tells me to go to the other line. No Matter. I’ve learned that one should never argue with a government worker.

I walk three feet over to the other window. I buy my stamps, place them onto the envelope and post cards. I leave them on the counter and check with the clerk to see if it’s alright. He tells me that I need to drop it off into the mailbox – outside the post office. I do as told. I look at my watch again. It’s been 20 minutes since I stepped into the office to buy three stamps. Two words that a friend used to describe Egypt last year come to my mind as I leave for my afternoon walk to downtown: needlessly inefficient.