Friday, November 06, 2009

Nien Cheng, 1915-2009

A great lady has passed away this week. I was fortunate to have met her in 2006 in her living room over tea. Here are 3 wonderful obits:

Charles Krauthammer

The spirit of Nien Cheng

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I like your ride, Mr. President!

I was escorting some friends around the East Wing of the White House on a public tour last month when serendipity hit us: the Director of the Visitors Center, a woman of salt and pepper hair and a commanding voice, greeted us from behind.

“Are you giving a tour today, sir?”

I thought that perhaps I was in trouble.

“Yes, ma’am.” I responded.

“Would you be interested in participating in a departure ceremony?” she asked.

Having visited the White House just a few times over my six years in DC, I’ve learned that when the President departs the White House for Camp David or any appointment via helicopter, a small group of people – usually close friends and special guests – are gathered on the south lawn to greet the president. Surely, this lady wasn’t asking us regular folks to join her in this special event?

“Yes, that would be nice.” I chirped back enthusiastically.

She then led us outside the hall, through a small garden and onto the circular driveway. There were a few dozen other guests waiting by the South Portico. To our left was the South Lawn and in the far distance, the Washington Monument. The weather was quite warm and humid—typical Washington DC summer weather.

After about 10 more minutes of waiting, the Presidential Helicopter arrived.

Toot-toot-toot… Toot-toot-toot…

As it approached the landing area, it created a wind that pushed us back a few inches.


We were instructed not to yell anything to the President. However, waving was acceptable.

A few minutes later without much fanfare, the big “O” -- President Obama exited the White House and strolled along in his suit. He waved calmly at us and then strode onto the helicopter. His aides followed behind him, toting some bags.

After we left the White House, and reflected on this special experience over lunch, we thought how luck had played a large part in all of this: first, one lady in our group carried her purse, which was prohibited on all White House tours. I had to return to the hotel with the purse, causing at least a 10-minute delay.

Then, when we tried to enter the gate, the Secret Service man told me that the person who requested the tour had to be present; otherwise, we could not enter. Another 15 minute delay.

Finally, when we entered the White House, I gave our group a very extensive and detailed tour, trying to explain each and every photo on the wall. By the time we got to the White House bowling alley area, the director of the Visitors Center found us.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A room with a view

I am in Dupont Circle now. Actually, in a room in a house in the Dupont neighborhood. As I peer outside my window, a bird (pigeon?) is perched on the windowsill of the bathroom. She is incubating some eggs. The owner of the house has advised me to be extra careful not to disturb our feathered friend as I take my shower.

Ah...what a life. To not have to worry about finding a job or apartment.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

ANSWER TO letter to Nathalie Berard--an unwanted French houseguest

After some hesitation and some serious consideration, I have decided to post Nathalie's response to my long letter from April. I welcome your feedback:

* * * * *

Saturday, May 9, 2009 8:33 AM

"Dear" Andy,

Now that i'm back home, i came to read your email with attention.

I just cant believe what i just read.

This is not a letter or a complaint about my behavior. This is a trial !!! You missed your vocation.

A trial, i dont know how to say this in english, a trial with 100% charges. I forgot : there is two sentences with good feelings u had about me and then there is, let's say, four pages of charges.

Four pages in which you dissect every move i made, every word i said, every minute we spent together. You wanted to make a 100 % charges trial and u did it.

How come u felt so hurt that u come here to say such horrible things - this is just beyond my ability of comprehension.

I dont feel like saying bad things to u. I dont have any anyway. I liked you. I liked you when we were writing to each other before we met ; i liked you after we met. I enjoyed your personality.

Now, lets make a nice resume about me : i am a liar, i am a thief, i am a french white trash (nice thing to say),

None is this is true. I have been speaking to you as a friend. When i meet people that i appreciate i dont bother asking myself if i should say this or not. U use everything i ever told u in your trial. Why ? I cant be a liar, Andy, because i am a very straightfull speaking person, i dont even know how to lie.

You have the nerve to write things about that man i told you in Paris (telephone and so on). Up to you. Still your trial.

Anyway, i am not going to take every of your point and answer it. What's the point. I dont have to defend against an somewhat obsessional accusation from a somewhat obsessional guy.

Why are you obsessional ?

So, some things i remember from your CRAZY email.
I didn't steal anything from you or from anyone. This is absolutaly insane. I didn't steal anything to anyone in my whole life. $
I didn't lie about anything or to anyone. Didn't do it in my whole life.

About that guy Meher : And about you by the way. Maybe living in Cairo, being away from home and so on drive you to be paranoïd about people that you meet, i dont know. You really believe that i stole an AC REMOTE CONTROL ?!!
It was decided from the beginning that i would stay there a night to see whether i like it or not and whether i decide it or not to take the room. I decided not to. I didn't like the behavior and the manners of this man. Point.

About Iman : you werent the last one to complain about her and think that she is maybe not the best girl in town. I met other people who happened to know her and none of them liked her. Related me some kind of strange and not so good behavior of her with people.
Iman literally persecuted me with her requests of papers, contract signature and so on. I dont like that kind of behavior (even thought asking for papers, contracts and so on might be normal). Iman gave me a hard time while being in her flat. Now you dissect everything you saw from me and her. I could also dissect everything that happened from her and relate it to you. But what's the point ?
Yes, after the last night, after waiting for hours that she goes out of her bedroom, after telling her that i had to go out, so would she be nice enought to give me a key or confirm that she would be here when i would be back, after hearing her from behind her keylocked bedroom (thing that she has been doing with everyone and that hurted everyone) that she was soooo tired (at 3PM after a 14 hours sleep), i decided it was enought, went to the room, pack my things and told her i was leaving. Then only she went out of her bedroom.
I had a 50 LE note in my purse, i throw it to her (yes, i admit it).
I should have been more patient ; maybe she should have behave another way. She behaved this way not only with me and not only me disliked it. Was it normal that she didn't return my phone calls ? Would have she done it and i would not have spend another night at your place.
About the money ; Iman asked for more than anyone will ever asked for a week's stay.And what she asked for was not, in any case, justified. Iman and i agreed on a more fair price.
Ah yes, Iman invited us to a sudanese restaurant : great. You are so mean in your writing about me, Andy, that the only way to answer you is also to be mean. But do i feel like it ?
I'm not sure. So i will not say anything about the invitation of Iman to a restaurant. But everything u say about my terror of spending money can be said about her.

Your email is dishonest. This is what happens when we decide in advance that we are going to "kill" somebody. This is what happens, and what is the aim, of a 100 % charges trial.

Now, you assume all the worst about me. Shall i have to persuade you of the contrary ? You perfectly know that i was going to treat you all to thank you. Probably not in a sudanese restaurant. I didn't have time and you would then refuse my attempts to clear up things. This is normal. You do that when you just ENJOY doing a trial to someone.

Now, here is my point of view. What u say about the way i handle money is not completely false. There is truth in it. It has nothing to do with a supposed to be devilish nature of mine or a supposed to be "bad" nature of mine. It has to do with lack of money. But it also has to do probably with other things and yes, i should work about this with a psycho analyst. As it comes to you, you, also, have probably things to work out and things you could work with a psychoanalyst. It would not be the same things as me but i guess there would be a bunch of things you could work about. This email of yours for example. Think about it.

What else, my god ?! Ah yes. By the way, thank you for making me such a reputation in town ! Never mind. I wont do the same about you. Again, what's the point. But you see, everything you say, and the fact that you have been talking to as much people as you can about me remind me of something : i did exactly the same thing with my "story" with the egyptian guy of Luxor. So i guess, something really disturbed you about our meeting. Exactly as something really disturbed me about that guy. Again, think about it, "sweetie" !

Yes. My whole point of view about my "stay" with you. My point of view is you made a big deal out of nothing. Here you are, dissecting every of my move and word when we were together. As for me, you put me up during, what, 3 nights ? What is the big deal about it ?
We got along well, had nice talks together. Every of your reproaches to me, let me tell you, has very little to do with my stay in your flat, do you realise this ? Ah yes, i "stole" your lonelyplanet... Did i ? Isn'it on your shelf ?

I let my luggage in your place. Didn't know it was such a big deal to let luggage in your place, my god !! I did this not because i wanted to invade you, guys, but because it was more convenient while i was looking for a place. I, myself, would never be shocked by such a thing if somebody was leaving its luggage in my place in Paris, even for weeks !

You let me your bed. Next time, dont do it. If it has to traumatize you to this point !

On the whole again, you may have some points in what you say. I say this assuming that you will understand it, as an intelligent person. You should just try to be less dramatic, less insulting and less final in your conclusions.
You should also try to be less arrogant, less violent. Some questions about yourself would also be useful for you, my dear. I hope you will not become that horrible guy that sometimes show up behind your intelligence.

Chinese-american guy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wow! You speak Arabic!

The Arabic proverb says, “He who knows the language of the foreign people--may God protect him from their evil ways.” In some ways, the ability to speak Arabic is like possessing a magic key that opens doors. I noticed a few examples while in Cairo:

• In the Mari Girgis neighborhood—as I was walking towards the Art Museum Darb 17-18, a security man tells me in simple English, “Sorry, closed. This area not open.” I tell him in Egyptian Arabic, “ya amm.” Or Hey Uncle—I want to go to the museum. It’s open daily except Friday and it’s very close.” He replies, “You speak Arabic? Ok, come in, please!”

• Even at the market when I purchase postcards, the vendor tells me, “you get a discount because you speak Arabic.” Of course, he says this partly in jest, but I understand his intention.

• At the Cairo Airport, a security man asks me to remove an item from my bag. I ask him in Arabic, “small or big bag? Is my water bottle a problem?” “Hey—you speak Arabic?! No problem at all. Please just go through!” I sometimes think that maybe one day I can show up with a small gun, but as long as I speak Arabic, the staff will waive me through.

Earlier this week, I was in New York. I passed a hot dog stand in Battery Park and overheard the vendor speak Egyptian Arabic on the cell phone. I stopped and thought I had to speak to him. He never got off the phone, so I asked him in Arabic, “I’d like a bottle of water.”

He replied, “$1.50” in English.

I had just bought a bottle earlier in Flushing, Queens for $1.00, so told him in Arabic, “Hey uncle—that’s a bit expensive. Can you make it cheaper? Maybe $1.00?”
He replied in English, “ok.”

This morning, while in Jersey City, New Jersey, I entered an Arabic corner store and asked the vendor in Arabic if he had “koosharee” the famous Egyptian dish of macaroni, rice, lentils and grilled onions. He replied, “insha’ Allah” or God Willing or “yes.” We spoke for a few minutes. I then asked him if he had Molokhayeh, or Jew’s Mallow, a thick green soup popular in Egypt. Again, he replied, God Willing or “yes.” And proceeded to pull out a small tub from the fridge. “I give it to you—free!”

“Allah yekhaleek!” May God Keep You, I thanked him.

I somehow doubt that he would’ve done the same had I simply asked him in English.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Come home!

First conversation with the parents after my return from Egypt:

My Father: we’re worried about you. The economy is hard. Come home!

Learn about computers. When the economy improves you can find a job in any store.

You can take a computer course. If you don’t have a degree you can’t find anything.
Our door is always open to you. After all, we’re one family.
Don’t think like Americans – and not living with the family.
If you have any difficulty, tell us. These are my thoughts.
Of course, my hope is that you come home.”

My Mother: If you can’t find a job, then come home.
Go to a San Jose computer company to find work!

Perhaps, my parents know that I have no intention of returning home to live with them or to find work. However, they persist in inviting me home. I simply say "un huh..." and don't argue.

There is no acknowledgment of the study of Arabic, or perhaps, how valuable this new skill may be. No questions about whether I want to return to the Middle East. My mother does ask if I want to return to Egypt specifically. I say not for now, although I don't rule out a future return. Both of them are more concerned about my future than even I am. Perhaps, this is a natural aspect of being parents.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Yvonne and Mahmoud: a vignette of an Iraqi refugee and her son

On our walk to Nasser Metro Station tonight, we ran into Yvonne, an Iraqi woman and Mahmoud, her four year old son. She asked Lee and me for directions. At first, I thought she was a beggar when she approached us as a mother and child are quite common sights in the streets of Cairo.

“Where are you from? Where do you live?”

She was dressed in normal clothing meaning pants and a shirt; uncovered—with no veil. Yvonne used to be a police woman in Baghdad. I stared at her face. Somehow, the mascara in her eyes made her claim a bit incredible, but I had no basis to believe she was lying. She has lived in Cairo for a year in the new neighborhood of 6th of October. Neither she nor her husband has any work. “There are not many opportunities here.”

She revealed that she used to live in Kurdistan. (Is she Kurdish? We wondered)
In the 10 minute walk to the Station, Mahmoud had a big smile and was full of energy. He jumped, skipped, hopped, ran ahead. And did everything a four year old does—explore and see the world with fresh eyes. I offered my hand and he grasped it as if I were his older brother. Lee did the same. At times, both Lee and I held his hand, so that he would swing temporarily between us. His mom seemed more focused on talking to us in Arabic. She was on her way to a market to get some things. “They are really cheap here,” she explained.

When the name Saddam Hussein came up, Lee uttered, “Allah yarhamu” or may God rest his soul. Yvonne objected. Vehemently. I could not understand all the words, but it was clear she was upset at any mention of the dead dictator.

As we approached Nasser Station, I mentioned that I teach English at the St. Andrew’s Church and if she ever wanted to improve her English, she could register for classes there. She replied that she once stopped by, but there were just too many people.

We arrived at the Square. Mahmoud spotted a ballon vendor on the side of the road. He seemed captivated by all the figures, and kept returning to it, even though mom insisted that he not stray from her side. Before she could utter good-bye to us, I asked her to wait for one moment as I returned to the balloon man. A minute later, I bought an inflated airplane balloon and handed it to Mahmoud. He seemed ecstatic with the new toy. Mom thanked me.

We parted ways: Salaam Aleykoom!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Give me your bag, please!

I am in my last week here and have yet to depart Cairo, yet I know I will miss it already. Can this be possible?

Yesterday, I took the microbus to my afternoon tutorial of Ahmed, a 7 year old child prodigy. There were no available seats, so I became an Egyptian for about 10 minutes and simply contorted my body and leaned over the contours of the seat backs, with my head bumping lightly against the ceiling. I had my backpack with me, so the gentleman by the window seat motioned to me to hand my bag to him for safekeeping. I complied.

While riding the buses, I have observed that it is quite common for strangers to offer their laps as temporary storage areas for other passengers’ bags or heavy items. After 10 minutes or so, a seat opened up in the back. I finally sat down and my bag returned to me. I fished for the small bag of apricots and offered them to the gentleman who safeguarded my bag. He refused, of course. So, I insisted two more times. He finally relented, as I expected. I then offered every passenger around me the same bag. They all refused politely.

After this gentleman left the microbus, I commented to the man next to me: “Did you see that? That’s what I love about Egypt—it really feels like a big family within one community. In my country, we don’t have this.”

He expressed surprise.

Can you understand now why I will miss this country and its people so much?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mormons in Ma’adi

For the first time in a while, I got up early on a Friday morning. I put on a white shirt and slacks. And I accompanied Joseph, my Mormon roommate to a service with the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints. In Cairo? Well, yes, of course. It seems these days that Chinese businessmen and Mormon missionaries are becoming more common in these parts of the world.

After a 20 minute metro train, we walked toward the church, or ward as Mormons call it. We bump into Kevin, Joseph’s friend, who is now in Cairo studying Arabic intensively at AUC. He served a two year mission in Brazil recently and recounted days of being stuck in traffic in the middle of Carnival celebrations, with scantily-clad women or nearly naked bodies running around. “It was a challenge,” he remarked.

The ward is really a house with a large community room, plastic chairs and a podium on a low stage. Two ceiling fans work frenetically above us to cool the room. Parishioners numbered around 60 or more, but now that summer has arrived, and many have left Egypt for home, attendance has dwindled to about 30 or so. One woman has come from Alexandria, a 3.5 hour train ride. All the men are in ironed white shirts with ties, except for one in a pink shirt. I am the only tieless man. Somehow, the formality of Mormon services always reminds me of business meetings. One couple is visiting from California. Another man is working out of the US Embassy temporarily.

We begin promptly about 9:35am with a hymn. Thereafter, some announcements and then a testimonial from a missionary mother about the difficulties of living abroad. “I was getting used to life in Utah when Jed took me around the world.” The theme of today’s service is the Temple and Ordinances. She speaks of “exultation in the celestial kingdom.” And how building temples is one way of being Christ like. “Have the temple be an example for us.” She ends her talk with “in his name –Jesus Christ -- we pray, Amen.”

A young man named Hayden speaks for a few minutes. He will serve his upcoming mission in the Ukraine. “We must follow the counsel of the Prophet (Joseph Smith). There is a three-fold purpose of the Church: 1. Spread the Gospel 2. Perfect the Saints 3. Redeem the dead” Apparently, it is a Mormon practice to convert dead souls into the Mormon faith.

The President of the ward – a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair -- makes some brief remarks: “Can we be as good as the Lord expects us? In sports, those who are most successful in baseball can fail 70% of the time. And fail 50% of the time in basketball.”

After the service, the study session focuses on the Temple and Ordinances. A young man leads the study session. He comes from a mixed background: His grandfather worked in the Auschwitz concentration camp as a SS officer. His grandmother was an inmate at the same camp. Somehow, years later, they met up and married, producing his father. But, through rehabilitation of the dead, he has managed to reconcile and heal the wounds, so to speak…

He reads from the Book of Mormon, which is the size of a fat brick with gold trim. It’s really the Old and New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrines and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price all in one edition.

When it concludes, we mix and mingle a bit. I spot Bertram, my Nigerian teaching colleague from St. Andrews, the Sudanese refugee ministry. A member of the Ibo tribe, Bertram’s last name is Anyaegbudike, which means “someone’s look who does not frighten a warrior.” In other words, a gentle man with a kind disposition. About 5’ 5”, he is perhaps in his mid 30s and speaks with the warmth of a high school guidance counselor. He only joined the Mormon Church about a year ago. Bertram said that while he was an ecumenical Christian before, he was attracted to Mormonism because of the “clean lifestyle” that it offered.

“They are very honest and straight people. No drugs, no smoking, no non-sense.”

He has been in Cairo for more than a year and will be here for four years altogether before he returns to Nigeria. He pulls me in for a warm embrace and smiles from ear to ear. He is quite surprised to see me. We chat for a few minutes. He hugs me again before he takes off.

Just another morning at a Mormon Ward in Cairo.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Late night visit by the Egyptian Police

The door bell rang. 11:35pm.

Two men entered. Rabiyeh, our doorman arrived with Mohamed, a plane-clothed police officer, who said he wanted my name. So, I said “Andy.”

He had a blank piece of paper and proceeded to write it. I dictated it to him slowly, “ أ ن د ي Alef Noon Dal Yeh.” And then my last name: “ ل ي هLam Yeh He Marbuta.” He seemed to hesitate for a moment. Did he want it in English? Did he expect me to hand him my ID?

“Why do you need my name? What is this about?” I inquired.

He didn’t explain himself except to say he needed it. I was very suspicious. Swine Flu?

My roommate Joseph followed my lead and simply gave his name in Arabic. “Yusuf.”
“What is your passport number?” he continued. I had given a copy of my passport to the supervisor when I first moved in last November, as I’ve always done with my previous landlords. So, instead of fishing out my passport, I simply told him, “you should ask the manager for it. He has it.”

Then, suspicion turned into annoyance turned into anger. I pressed him again: “why do you need this information?!”

“We are afraid for you,” He responded cryptically.

So, I responded matter of factly: “If you have no good reason, then go. It is very late now and I have to go to class in the morning. Salaam Aleykoom. Peace be upon you. Good night.” I shook his hand as he left. He had an unfulfilled look in his face, perhaps surprised by such unanticipated resistance for such a simple piece of information.

I am no civil libertarian, but the longer I live in Egypt, the more I feel like I need to protect my privacy, avoid the police and get a gun.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A night of Belly-shaking in Cairo

If belly dance is anything like we saw last night at the Sherazade Hotel then it is very much dying and rippling to a deafening demise.

The man at the door promised us young, vibrant things shaking their goods. “Are they fat and sweaty?” I inquired? “No, they’re sweet!” With that, we paid our 10LE admission into the seedy place.

My German friend Martin and I talked about how it would be a shame to leave Egypt without ever seeing a belly-dancing show. So, he checked out a few hotels and settled on the Sherazade. He, his girlfriend, and my friend Anita ventured into the house of ill-repute.

High ceilings and red light bulbs greet us. Surrounding us are oil depictions of past dancers in their former glory. We are the only customers present, except for the wait staff and the band, waiting listlessly. Smoking and banging on their drums. The stage before us is a square platform about a foot from the floor.

I speak to the first drummer, Sayed, a man in his mid 40s with a mustache and band-aids covering most of his knuckles. He tells me that he has been at the hotel for four years now. He’s traveled from Alexandria to Upper Egypt beating his drum to the swaying dancers. “The shows on the riverboats are generally much better,” he confided in me.

I tell him that I look forward to the music. The second drummer waves me over and says that they would appreciate 50LE for “tea money.” This is the Egyptian euphemism for tips.

We arrived about midnight, with the promise of dancing lasting until sunrise. One girl per hour until Fajr, the first prayer.

The first dancer is young, but shows more flesh than vigour. She shakes her behind, but my guess is that she has never taken a single bellydancing class in her life. She arrives with a pink skirt above the knees. Heavy mascara. Semi-dyed brown hair. At best, she is between skanky and West Virginia strip-club material.

I scrawl a hasty note in Arabic, “Are there tomatoes or eggs to throw at this girl?” and pass it to the man at the next table. He takes the note, and asks me to follow him to the back where there is more light. He reads it and asks me what’s the matter. I show him my displeasure. He assures me it will get better and chuckles. Apparently, he’s a regular patron and says he comes nightly.

When the second girl comes on about an hour later, she tries a little harder than the first. She actually moves around the stage to entertain us. At one point, a patron—I suspect he was a plant—approaches her and unleashes about 10 bills in front of her body as she sways. Another man—the busboy—picks up the bills and hands them to her. Is this meant to encourage the rest of the patrons to shower her with bills?

The “dancing” became so dull that Martin and I started writing Arabic sentences to each other and diagramming them grammatically. I fell asleep half-way through her “dance.”

We stayed until about 3am and then left. After we paid the bill and walked down the stairs, one man accosted Martin for additional tips. Business is slow. And it looks like it’ll remain that way for some time to come if these dancers continue to underwhelm the audience.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

A Car ride with Rania and her girlfriends

Rania is one of those people who seeks movement. She grew up in Dubai, lived many years in Cairo, and studied seven months in Winona, Minnesota, but attended more parties than classes. “My dad got upset at me because I wasn’t doing so well in my studies.” She sports a nose stud, exudes warmth like the sun and for a 21 year old Muslim girl, drinks on a regular basis. We met at Horreyya, the local watering hole for expats and lapsed –or rather, liberated—Muslims. At the time, she was with her Egyptian boyfriend. She kept looking my way, smiled at me and asked me the standard questions Egyptians usually ask:

"Where are you from? What do you do here? Do you like it here?"

I tried to ignore her as her man was glued to her hip and I was with my two roommates at the time.

A month later, I met her again at a local jazz club. She was alone, so I asked about her boyfriend, thinking that if he were present, I did not want to take a chance talking to her. “Oh him? He is no longer my boyfriend as of 3 days ago.”

“I’m so sorry to hear,” I tried to console her. Secretly, I was quite pleased.

“However, since I’m drunk now, I want to call him. I really miss him,” She confided in me.
“Wait one day at least,” I advised her.
“Why?” she inquired.
“So you can give him the gift of missing you!” I explained.
She then turned around. She was wearing an outfit that was open in the back. On her lower back was tattooed the word A M I R A, Arabic for Princess.
“And if a man can’t see this clearly, can he come closer for a better look?” I joked.
She punched me lightly on my arm.

Thereafter, we traded emails by Facebook. More than a few months passed.
We finally met up last week in Midan Tahrir in front of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), a big landmark in downtown. In her four-door, Honda-like car, were two other girlfriends. Rasha, 21, the first girlfriend, was driving the car, and in her senior year of college. Long, black hair flows from her head.

The second girlfriend, 22, also wore a nose stud. She just graduated. “My dad, an investment banker, has been in prison for 20 years, since I was two.”

Understandably, she hates President Mubarak and the Egyptian government.

“Does it seem like we are ‘high’ now? Don’t you smell something?” She asked me, with a mischievous smile.

“Sorry, my sense of smell is very weak. I generally can’t smell anything,” I explained myself, but understood her question quite well. I did grow up in Berkeley after all (!)

Rania explained,
“everyone here smokes hasheesh or uses it in some form, but the government doesn’t care.”
Rania was wearing gold jewelry on her left hand that includes a gold watch and bracelet. With a strong sense of nostalgia, she declared, “I’d give anything to return to Minnesota, because I love the people there. I’d give anything to see my last boyfriend, who was from Ethiopia.” Despite her studies abroad, she does not believe in America as an extraordinary place. “I see America and Egypt at about the same level. Neither one is better than the other.”

We drove around and around for nearly half an hour. I tried to give them directions to find parking, to no avail. Their sense of direction was like that of a blind man’s.

We stopped at a juice stand. Thereafter, we had a long, drawn-out discussion about religion and Islam. When they asked my religion and discovered I have none, they were surprised. Shocked.

Rania’s two girlfriends apparently have never met anyone secular, or who has no religion.

When they asked about Buddhism, they were disgusted that anyone can worship the Buddha—a man.

Dad-in-prison-girlfriend declares, “The Quran is perfect, with no mistakes.”

In my most diplomatic way possible, I tried to tell her that the Quran is full of mistakes, factual and scientific. However, the Quran is not alone in this. So is the Bible and the Torah.

Dad-in-prison-girlfriend: “As you know, men cannot wear gold because it is forbidden in Islam. Science has now proven that there’s something in gold that harms the skin and the health. Also, many women pluck their eyebrows, but Islam forbids this. And now science has shown that by plucking the eyebrows, it is harmful to the health. So, Islam makes a lot of sense.”

I listen attentively and do not respond.

After a while, Rania gets a call from her brother, who says he wants his car back. So, we return to Tahrir, where I am dropped off. Somehow, I don’t think I will see those girls again anytime soon.

Friday, June 05, 2009

An argument on the Nile River

Last week, my friend Yenie and a couple friends cruised the Nile River on a Felucca, a small wooden vessel that transports hapless tourists back and forth.

A motorized boat approached us. Our skipper yelled something to the other captain to the effect, “hey, you’re too close. Get away.” That was enough to anger the man, who responded, “Anta mish kwayyes!” or “you’re not good!”

Our skipper, a proud man from Upper Egypt, shouted back, “Ana ahsan min abuk!” or “I’m better than your father!” a polite insult equivalent to the English phrase "you're a big, bad man."

For a moment, I thought we were going to see blood. My friend Lee joked that they were river pirates, ready to board. I told Yenie that they wanted the woman—her. She was not pleased with my joke.

Fortunately, for everyone, they left as they came—suddenly.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Down and out in Cairo

I just saw a young Egyptian girl in the street next to the AUC campus gate. She seemed to be passed out. About 8-10 people surrounded her. One person was trying to wake her up by patting her cheeks gently. I asked one bystander “hussle ey?” or what happened. He had no idea.

I looked around me for a police officer. None. So, I quickly walked over to the AUC gate and greeted a police officer and asked him to contact the ambulance for the girl. As soon as he saw the commotion, he thanked me and walked over to her.

This incident reminds me of last year when I fell ill and lay down on a bench in the metro station. Ten people surrounded me within a minute. It is this strong community and caring which I will miss dearly when I leave Cairo in about 30 days. While people do help strangers in the US, my sense is that it doesn’t happen as quickly or in such numbers as it does here in Egypt. I could be wrong. I hope I am. In either case, I hope the ambulance came for her and she is resting in a hospital bed tonight.

Rabina yakrimha. May God be kind to her.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Obama to visit Cairo University next week, June 3

There’s a buzz in Cairo about President Obama’s visit to the city next week.

Already, Ahmed, the local shop keeper asked me about the upcoming visit. I asked him if he plans to attend. He said that he is not allowed.

Here’s the conversation with a 63 year-old taxi driver on my way to the airport:

Taxi driver: Obama is a man of peace. Unlike Bush, and his father, who were both men of war.

What do you want Obama to say when he comes?

Just to talk about peace. Clinton was a man of peace. And his wife. She came to visit Cairo and went to the Khan Alkhalili Market and Al Azhar mosque.
Obama speaks Arabic and his mother was a Muslim

His mother or father?

His mother.

Is life in Egypt better now than before?

Before! Everything was much cheaper. Mubarak—what has he done in 30 years?! Nothing.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Brawling in the streets

I witnessed my first real street fight two nights ago.

A commotion broke out close to my apartment. Two women were yelling at each other. A small crowd gathered around them. I tried to listen, but could not make out the jist of the fight. Soon, a rock was thrown. The shopkeeper at the corner quickly shuttered his gate. People started running, including this observer. It resembled the beginning of a riot in Los Angeles.

“What happened?” I asked a few people. No one knew. “A fight” one man responded.
Obviously. But, why? Over what? Honor? Romance? Football?

The next day, my Arabic teacher commented that this behavior is very common, especially during the summer months and in the Holy month of Ramadan, when people are fasting. And sometimes, Egyptians use whatever is available to them, including empty pepsi and coke bottles. At these moments, I’m glad that the people here generally don’t drink and have no guns. Alhamdulillah!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

A murder in Upper Egypt causes delayed pay

There was a murder in recent weeks. The uncle of Mr. Esam, the director of the language center where I’ve been teaching English, was killed last week in Upper Egypt. The details are not clear, but it seems that it may have been a family feud. So, now it’s time for revenge…

My friend Yehia, who is from Upper Egypt, observed, “Taking revenge depends on their education. They might refuse to avenge their relative`s death if they are open-minded people. But this is a weak possibility because it is a matter of culture. They think that it is a shame if they do not avenge his death. As for how long, they will keep waiting until they get a good chance to kill the murderer. This period might last for days, months, or years.”

What does this mean for me? In practical terms, it means a delay in my pay. Mr. Esam has always been 3-5 weeks late in paying my wages. This time, I gave him a month before contacting him. When I didn’t hear from him, I decided that I would quote the words of the Prophet (PBUH) to him: “Give a man his wages before his sweat dries.” However, once I discovered the bad news, I had to delay my pent-up anger, so I simply said, “May God make this the last of your griefs.”

When I arrived at the office, Mr. Esam did not have my money ready. He tried to explain about account numbers and went into extraordinary details about delayed payments from the Bank of Alexandria. The point was--there was no money. I had travelled 45 minutes through heavy traffic to be told that, “sorry, I can’t pay you tonight.” A simple phone call would’ve been sufficient to tell me not to come. Yet, Mr. Esam is incapable of such a civilized act. To make up for his delay, he invited me to dinner the next day. I politely declined. He said he would give me the money at Tahrir Square by Hardee’s restaurant at 9pm.

Now, I think I will have to set pen to paper in my best classical Arabic to rebuke this wayward man. He should be so glad that I don’t practice revenge in the way of those from Upper Egypt.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Ala’s engagement reception

Last week, my student Ala invited me to his engagement reception at his fiancee’s house. So, I went with my next roommate Joseph. First, I bought a basket of flowers with a card. After we left the metro station, we walked 15 minutes. Along the way, I bought some apples and melons as housewarming gifts. We arrived at Koosharee Abu Rabia, or Father Spring’s koosharee shop. I called Ala, but no answer. We waited for another 10 or 15 minutes. Joseph and I decided to enter the koossharee shop and get something to eat while waiting. A few minutes after we began eating, Ala called back and said a 12 year old relative would meet us in a few minutes to lead us to the house.

Imagine about 40-50 people stuffed into a small living space, with loudspeakers the size of a small closet at either side, blasting obnoxious Arabic music, and everyone bumping and grinding to the music.

This is the first time I’ve been to a party when a man comes up to me and says, “Andy, come with me. I want to dance with you!” Well, when in Rome…

Ala’s cousin Fady, who speaks good English, plays in a band and asks if I am Japanese.

“Sorry, Chinese.”

I notice more than a few attractive ladies in the room and ask him who they are.
“Oh…are you looking for a one-night stand?” he asks me matter-of-factly. “Because if you are, then this is not the right place--too close. Everyone knows everyone else.”

“Fady—in your future dealings with foreigners, especially Westerners from the US or Canada or Western Europe, you shouldn’t assume they they are all looking for a one-night stand. Only about half of them are loose. The other half are VERY loose,” I explain.

He laughs.

“Where do you go to look for a nice Christian girl?” I inquire.

“Church, of course! I’ll take you,” he responds.

After more than an hour or so of dancing, the side room opens up for food. Most people rush into the dining room and take a position next to the table to fill their plates. However, they don’t move. They stand there to eat piece-meal from the plates.

I see turkey, chicken, beef, and pork passing around. Dolma, or grape leaves stuffed with rice and sausages. MaHshe, or cucumber stuffed with rice and meat. Lettuce, tomatoes on the side. And lots of Stella beer.

After some food, Joseph is dragged back onto the dance floor. As he and I are the only non-Egyptians at the gathering, we are dragged into the concentric circle of dancing fools for a few minutes of flailing arm movements.

Shortly before midnight, we leave the party and amble slowly back to the metro station, our ears still ringing from the loudspeakers.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The secret habit

Last week, I helped my Egyptian friend Mhmd to prepare for his English exam. During a break, he casually brought up the subject of the secret habit. He didn’t know the English word for it, so using his right hand, with his thumb touching his fingers to form an “o”, motioned up and down. I asked for the word in Arabic, but he hesitated, saying it was very vulgar. He was reading from a document in Arabic about the subject. It warned that those who conduct such an activity will suffer from backaches and knee aches. (This is the first time I've ever heard of such a side effect, but not so different from going blind or having hair grow on your palms).

I told him to look up the subject on Wikipedia. Once the page loaded, I asked him to read the “benefits” section. He was a bit surprised. I encouraged him to read more and get more information from various sources, and not just from his Imam.

Dating or the lack of
Mhmd has a girlfriend. Or rather, a lady friend whom he sees once a week. He wants to marry her, but has never kissed her. Or been intimate with her. He doesn’t even greet her with a hug, let alone a handshake. He cannot invite her over to his house for dinner. And she cannot invite him. Because they are not engaged yet. If he wants to take her to the park, he must go with other friends in a group. And of course, the movie theater is out of the question because it’s in the dark. Too much temptation. However, it seems the only quality time he has with her is attending religious lectures with her and his family. Such is life for a single person in Egypt. So, it is rather surprising that the secret habit is not practiced more often.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Nathalie's Response

Oh my god andy, i just found this. I did nt read it, this is too long for my little brain and i think this is completely inappropriate You make a fuss and such a long and precise story out of what. We talk nicely throught internet, met, liked each other. i slept two days in ur bed. let my bags in ur flat guys for what, five days, or something, hand around during the day, talking with u, chech mails... And so what, what is the big deal.

You are young, already you are making a fuss for such a natural and informal thing...

about meher : thanks you for the pity of this pathetic guy about an old lady. just by the way.
and thank you for relating this to me. by the way.

THIS guy is pathetic, believe me.
He called me today about the ac remote control. Sure i do ac remote control traffic, u didnt know about that, ion fact i am not a journalist but a big dealer of remote controls. i sell it 1 euros in the black market in france.

THIS is pathetic. Poor guy and poor you. You should have send him to hell when he called u but obviously u didnt.

His room was perfectly neat, everything was just like i founded, never saw any ac remote control, never put any ac, it was cool enough, cant even remember where was this ac machine. PATHETIC i am telling u.

Also andy, relax and dont be obsessionnal out of nothing
If things had been different, of course i intended to treat u, guys, to restaurant, and have a nice party the three of us, OF COURSE.

but since u think i am a greedy shit i would disturb your convenience
more seriously you disappointed me so much and i felt so insulted by your behavior and attitude last hours that to tell u the truth i dont have the courage to just pretend i am still happy with you and spend an evening with you.

if you would like anything i could buy for you of if something would please you, just tell me i would be happy to make a present to thank you for your hospitality. but i dont really feel like spending time with u right now. This long letter with the also insulting title u sent me now i didnt read it as i told u, but i already can feel that only the principle that this is so long and so is already wrong and something is crazy about it.

just let me know if you would be pleased with something, ok


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A bone in the soup:

The story of Nathalie Berard, a random houseguest who just wouldn’t leave

Dear Nathalie,

First, I must say you have been a ball of fire in my life this past week and for that—I thank you. Because balls of fire do two things at least:

1. They bring light to the darkness and heat things up.
2. They upset the usual routine and cause some excitement. And now, you have given me something to talk about for the next few months. Or years.

Second, you are a charmer (on your good days). And I really enjoyed getting to know your colorful past (especially the sex with the Egyptian brothers in Luxor) and character. I enjoyed your humor, observations about people (especially the one about those who are young and stupid become old and stupid, not necessarily old and wise), and flirtatious nature; disagreed with your politics, your cynicism, and your constant moving from one place to another. However, you made up for many of your weaknesses with your cooking and humor. And kudos to you for squeeging the bathroom floor after showering (David never did this!). And even though you forget your dish of courgettes and yoghurt, they were the finest I’ve had in a while. So, thank you for all of that!

Had we known each other as friends previously, you would’ve been more than welcome to stay at my place for a week or more. However, we DID NOT know each other before this past week. And that’s precisely the point!

So, that’s the positive. Now, the negative…

April 7, Night 1: When I welcomed you into my apartment, I should’ve been much clearer with you about the limits to my and David’s generosity. I should’ve clearly said “one night” only. And then, on your way. As you remember, I gave you my bed. I don’t do this for just anyone. I do it ONLY for close friends and family. You were none of these. Yet, I felt a natural compulsion to offer you my bed. You can psychoanalyze this later on and perhaps ascribe it to my Chinese background or perhaps, my one year of living in Egypt and learning from the kindness of Muslims. Whatever the reason, both David and I were too polite to say anything to you such as: please leave after one night. After all, we are not Germans.

After that first night, you thanked me for my hospitality, but complained that my room was the noisiest you’ve stayed in for a long time. And you gave me the impression that you wanted to find another, quieter location. And that’s when you went to Zamalek.

At breakfast, you asked me “can you spare me some breakfast?” And then you asked me if that was correct English. I explained to you that if you use the word “spare” in English, it means you are begging. At the time, I thought you had made a simple mistake. Now, upon reflection a few days later, I think the mistake was a true reflection of the person who spoke it. And that’s precisely the point!

April 8, Night 2: you stayed in the Zamalek apartment with the Indian. We thought that would suit you well. You may remember that after I returned home, you complained to me via text about the Indian guy--how he wanted an exorbitant amount from you: “U too cute! Noticed the bastard asked for 150LE a night. Now wants my id. Yaky!” I even asked you if you would like to return. And when you did return the next day, I welcomed you with open arms. You told me that you could not find quiet in that place. While the room was quiet, the work site below disturbed you.

The point is:
To have some workmen below while you are on the 8th floor is normal. Yet, you abandoned that place and did not pay. Granted, Meher said that he felt sorry for you, and offered you the room as charity only for one night: “i cant let an old lady roam around without shelter at night.” Furthermore, Meher wrote me and informed me that the A/C was on and the window open. Also,

“the ac remote control is missing. she didnt inform me

i dont mind the rent, i mind tht she didnt inform me

if u catch her, pls ask her abt my ac remote”

Perhaps, Mr. Meher is mistaken. Perhaps, he just misplaced it in the flat or the German girl took it; however, if you took it then, that shows another side of you.

The 2nd point is that if you took it, then to repay his kindness with your a) carelessness of leaving the window open and b) spite by stealing the remote control demonstrates your wickedness. Meher showed you kindness with one free night’s stay and this is how you repaid him. Oh…how you would’ve been a memorable figure in one of Shakespeare’s dramas or tragedies, my dear.

April 9, Night 3: you stayed with us again. And again, I gave you my bed. And I took the floor. This time around, you tried to be considerate and wanted to sleep on the couch cushions in the living room; however, as David was working all night and would go back and forth, thereby disturbing you or whoever was sleeping there, you decided to take my bed offer after all.

I was kind of puzzled that you returned, especially since you didn’t like the noise level of my apartment. You could’ve easily gone to a hotel; any hotel until you found your ideal room.

April 10, Night 4: David kindly took you to see Iman’s apartment.

I know that Iman asked for 550 LE/7 days. You wanted less. However, you stayed there 2 days. To give her only 50LE is unacceptable and very close to theft. Even at 350LE/ 7 days – a price closer to your ideal -- that would still be 100LE for 2 days. Your action here shows me several things:

1. Not only are you cheap (read: cheapskate, tightwad, skinflint, “bakheel” in Arabic), but you are not classy. You are what I would call “French white trash.”

2. You do not know how to thank people properly for their kindness. Iman treated you to dinner at a local Sudanese restaurant. She took the time and trouble to show you around and to offer you quality cuisine. She paid for your meal. Did you even offer to pay, as I did? Did you reciprocate? Ah yes, you said that you paid for her two taxi cab rides.

3. The pattern is getting clearer now: you stayed a night in Zamalek free. And then left. You stayed in Manial 2 nights free. And then left. Is this called “sleep and run” in French?

The point is:
you embarrassed both David and me by NOT PAYING anything for the use of her room for 2 days. Granted, she returned to you the 50LE you offered her; but, if you have any sense of decency about you, you will understand that she was offended by you more than anything. As you leave on the morning of the 19th for Luxor, you still have the chance to correct this glaring mistake by paying her at least 100LE. You could easily leave it with David. I doubt you will, as you either don’t have the money, or are unwilling to pay. I hope you prove me wrong.

And finally, Iman will think twice before she accepts any referrals from either David or me in the near future. This nasty incident will definitely strain our friendship. And I have you to thank for this, my dear!

April 11, Night 5: You returned to our apartment to use my computer and stayed with us again during the day. I was very sympathetic to your plight; after all, you were unable to use the computer or have internet access in Manial. And you needed to be close to your interviews with belly-dancers in downtown. That night, when we dined at the restaurant cook door, I learned a little more about your personality. You were unwilling to pay for even a 11LE salad (less than 2 Euros). That’s why I bought you the salad, because I pitied you and saw that either you didn’t have the money or were unwilling to shell out the money. And of course, I remember that you insisted on giving me back 11LE exactly for the salad, as you quoted a French saying to the effect, “good accounts make for good friends.”

Before our visit to the restaurant, at Stella Bar, you gave out your phone number to the two Egyptian men next to us. Remember that the first one offered to accompany you on your trip down to Luxor? And then he paid for your beer? As soon as you gave your number to him, he automatically assumed that you were a whore, ready to service him. Of course, since you are so ignorant of the culture here, you thought nothing of this particular action, which is quite commonplace in France.

Again, you stayed with us because you didn’t have the key to Iman’s apartment and she did not return your phone calls. And I gave you the bed, and I took the floor.
The point is: you should’ve gotten the house phone number of Iman. And the address. Very irresponsible of you.

April 12, Night 6: Return to Manial
I accompanied you to Iman’s place in Manial because you had no idea of how to get there. You offered to pay for my taxi ride back home. So, after our tea by the cornice with Iman, I asked you for 5LE. Iman, without even thinking—gave you 5LE from her pocket. Granted, you did resist several times, but I was a bit surprised that you took it at the end. Again, this shows me that not only are you low on funds, but you are not a proud person.

The point is, it was not you who really paid for my taxi home; it was Iman. If anything, you try to avoid paying for others if possible. You are a true Westerner and you give the French people a bad name. My Arabic tutor called you selfish today after I told him about your charming ways. In fact, I have told your story to two friends now and both have laughed their heads off at your behavior.

April 13, Night 7: you returned after noon and stayed until about 11pm. I was not angry at all; rather, I was pleasantly surprised that you returned. You asked me if I was upset at your return. You may remember I replied, “You bring the light.” On one level, it is a compliment that you are so comfortable with me and David that you returned to us. Almost like a pigeon that returns to its sender. However, you spent the entire day here, without any urgency in finding a hotel for the evening. In fact, as you were ready to step out the door, you did not even have an address for the hotel. How, my dear, were you going to find the hotel if the taxi driver did not know? Or if I didn’t go with you? Or for that matter, you did not have plan B – the name and address of a second hotel. You said you had one in mind in downtown, yet you did not have a phone number or an address written down somewhere.

Also, I noticed that you took the Lonely Planet (LP) Egypt guide book from my bookshelf and placed it into your purse. I’m confident that you would’ve returned it to me before your departure to Luxor. However, it would’ve been nice to ask me. To give you an idea of how most people approach this concept of borrowing items, whenever David needs to borrow a book from me, he will usually knock on my door gently, ask if he can enter and borrow my LP Egypt book. This is the man I have lived with for 4 months and have had countless conversations about nearly everything under the sun. In other words, he is a very good friend. And yet, he STILL feels the need to ask me! Again, the points are these:

A. You are seriously unprepared for contingency plans. You’re not a planner and you go by the seat of your pants, which gets you in trouble.

B. You take without permission and take as you like; perhaps, this is what you do with your close friends, but remember we are not close friends. Please remember this point in your future dealings with strangers and new people in your life. Yes, you are a big girl, but this is important.

C. “The trick is to get as much as you can out of the place while paying as little as possible.” You told this to me on the couch. This seems to be your driving philosophy in hotels and travel, and perhaps in life as well. It strikes me as odd that you talk constantly about spending good money on a luxury hotel room, but not willing to pay for it. In English, we call this the “freeloader.” You, my dear—are a freeloader. Say it. Repeat it until it rolls off your tongue. It’s a good word and will contribute greatly to your vocabulary and understanding of the English language. Perhaps, you have a word in French for this as well?

It pains me to say this, but you have problems. BIG problems. Perhaps, your therapist can help you with them when you return to Paris. Then again, can you afford one? Does that French government subsidy (for American readers: read “welfare”) help you beyond eating and drinking monthly?

Strategy of leaving behind your things so you can return.

I saw this strategy once on Seinfeld. The character George Costanza would always leave behind an article of clothing (hat, scarf, gloves) at the house of a new woman he was dating so he could return and therefore see her again. While I can’t be certain of this with you, it does seem awfully similar. So, it was not terribly surprising that you always seemed to leave your two large bags at our place, along with a travel bag in our bathroom; that way, you always had a good reason to return to us.

Question for you: how many days did you expect to stay with us? 3, 4, 5 or the entire duration of your 12 day stay? Each step of the way, it seems that you were not concerned about finding a hotel room; rather, you waited for us to find you a place; first, the room in Manial. Second, the Mayfair Hotel. You may be 47, but you behave like a 17 year old. Excuse me, a 7 year old. No, my dear, you are not old. You are young at heart and irresponsible and inconsiderate. And ungrateful. What a combination!

I recognize that you’ve had some medical and mental problems in recent years; your insomnia of 9 months perhaps contributed greatly to your stress and current difficulties. And for that, you have my sympathies. I cannot even begin to imagine your world or your constant headaches. So, I feel for you and pity you more than anything.

The old English adage says
houseguests are like fish and cheese: they begin to stink after 3 days.
Such a wise maxim. And had you simply stayed away after you moved over to Iman’s house, I think that we would have been able to maintain at least a friendship or professional relationship. Unfortunately, even this is not possible now.

Also, remember my thought about friendship? Well, I’ve decided to drop you as a friend and contact for these reasons:

-You’re a user. Your cell phone for example. I find it appalling that you benefit from the use of a nice cell phone from your male friend in Paris, whom you find repulsive. While he thinks that he may have a future with you, you are simply using him for his phone, his car and who knows what else he may offer you. You are what Immanuel Kant warned against: never use people merely as a means. Unfortunately, I don’t think you ever benefited from your education. Ah yes, you never even read Voltaire’s Candide—your own literature!

-You’re a liar. From day one, and from the first time you advertised on CS to the time you called me, you lied. At least you’ve been consistent.

You said in your ad,
“Willing to pay for a month of course but it has to be cheap.”

Did you ever pay one month for any place? Did you ever intend to do this? I highly doubt it. You found out at the end of March that the Frenchman would not be able to accommodate you; yet when you called me last week, you gave me the impression that while he was wishy-washy, you still intended on staying at his place, most likely. Then, you told me there was “a bone in the soup” meaning, it didn’t work out. If you were more truthful and honest with yourself and me, you would have told me simply that he had guests, and that you could not stay there. Instead, you misrepresented yourself to gain sympathy from people who would be open to an old French woman who was turned out on the streets at the last moment by a heartless landlord. You should enter politics. I think you lie better than most politicians, my dear.
-You’re inconsiderate and selfish

Unfortunately for you—the potential for friendship ended as soon as you arrived at our apartment. As inconsiderate as you became, I was still willing to accompany you to the Mayfair Hotel. Why? I don’t know.

As you recall, you only wanted to take your purse and overnight bag to the Mayfair Hotel, hoping to return to us the next day or so. You may remember—I said nothing. While puzzled about this particular action, I did not object. (Maybe I really am a pushover, after all?) David, in the most polite and diplomatic way possible, told you that you should NOT leave your two large bags with us, because to go back and forth so many times would cause you stress and not be easy. Instead of taking his advice, what did you do? You stormed out of our apartment, almost like we had insulted your mother’s grave.

And even when I still offered to help carry your larger and heavier bag, you told me to stay away. I followed you downstairs to hail a taxi.

However, do you know the straw that broke the camel’s back? After the taxi driver put your bags into the trunk, I tried to open the backdoor and sit next to you. You told me, “no, you sit up front.” Almost like I was the help. Or a servant boy to serve you at your call and beckon. You insulted me at that point. You insulted my intelligence and honor. I decided at that point, that you were going by yourself. And yet, strangely enough, you still wanted me to go with you, saying “Get in. Go with me.” How desperate of you. How sad. How pathetic to see a grown woman like you – 47 years old – to beg me, a total stranger to accompany you to a hotel. Were you that lost? Or lonely? Or deprived of company?

There was a man downstairs who was resting in the car. He was a Ministry of Interior military man—I told him about you and he wanted to get to know you right away and offer you a free room in his house. At hotel “Mohamed”. Perhaps, you can guess the reason for his generous offer? He’s married, but he’s always ready for a French fuck. He asked me about your preference for sex. I told him that you were French and open. Need I say more? He wanted me to call you right away to offer you his hospitality. I was tempted, but decided that you would be better off at a quiet hotel than to have Mohamed chase after you.

Suggestions for your future trips to Egypt or travel abroad in general: (Free. The Egyptians say Abu Balash, katar minu, “If it’s free, take more from it!” I think this fits you) I plan to use this site when I visit Lebanon / Syria next month. Who knows, maybe we will have the same hosts one day and can compare notes on who has the softest couch and which flat is the quietest. This will save you loads of money for hotels. And with that money, you can finally buy yourself some decency and honesty.

-Youth Hostels. There are some fine ones here in Cairo.

-Arrange a free stay with Hotel Mohammed of the Interior Ministry. I can give you his phone number and I’m sure he’ll pick you up at the airport.

If I don’t hear from you, then I will assume that you’ve received my letter, but choose not to answer; which is fine. But, I do hope that this letter gives you some things to think about; perhaps, even try to change your ways.

If we lived in the same city and had mutual friends, I would avoid you like the plague. However, it is better for me to simply say, good luck with your journey and search for peace and tranquility. I think I understand just a little more why you are on this journey.

السلام عليكم

Peace be upon you, my dear.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Meowww! Mish-mish is hungry


Meet Mish-mish, (Arabic for Apricot) a three-week old kitten who lives by my doorstep. She belongs to Mahmoud, who works in the car parts shop next to my apartment building.

“Her mother died, so she is alone,” he explained.

As I returned to my building this afternoon after an errand, I heard the cry of a small kitten. Meowww! I looked down and saw the smallest thing crawl around, next to a plastic container of roos bilaban, or rice pudding, a popular Egyptian dessert.

I watched her for a few minutes. She crawled and then clinged to the hem of my pant leg. Mahmoud came to the doorstep and offered her to me. He proceeded to place her in a plastic bag. While I nearly became a cat owner, I politely declined.

I asked him, “is she a wild cat from the streets?” No.

He said that she likes to eat the dessert. Remembering that I still had roos bilaban in my fridge, I offered to give him some. I quickly went upstairs and returned a few minutes later. Mish-mish stuck her face into dessert heaven. Meowww!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Will Teach for Beer!

So, I think I have found my ultimate justification for staying longer in Cairo beyond the end of my Arabic studies—beer! To be more precise, it looks like I may begin a new stint as tutor to some managers at a beer factory outside the City. Rafat, the gentleman who contacted me this week, is the brother-in-law to Barsoum, my former student who sells jewelery.

In fact, Rafat and I met a year earlier at Baroum’s house during dinner celebrating Coptic Christmas. He and his wife gave me a lift home that night. At 32, he is married to Barsoum’s sister Hala, but has no kids yet. He has a smooth, chubby face with a caramel complexion. He is easy to laugh and about my height with short-cropped hair.

As he drives me to the factory, Rafat and I speak in Arabic. While he has a basic understanding of English and speaks it conversationally, he’s more comfortable speaking Ammeyya, or Egyptian Arabic. I manage to say a few statements about life and my experience in Cairo this past year that make him laugh. For example, I share with him the tale of the Muslim taxi driver begging me for a can of beer when I was going to a Halloween party. Never mind that the Holy Koran was above his steering wheel.

Rafat tells me that he loves Chinese people. “Just love them! They are so industrious. They work very hard -- night and day. They never stop. And they are so nice. There’s a time and place for everything. When they work, they work. When they leave work, they rest. However, in Egypt, They don’t like to work. The people take long breaks to smoke, eat or fool around. There’s no system for anything here.”

The factory is located about 45 minutes southeast of downtown in the countryside. We convene in the conference room. As the men gather, everyone lights up. They offer me tea and beer. I ask for tea, but they keep insisting that I have some beer. It’s still not yet noon. I decline politely.

Rafat and five of his colleagues mainly want to improve their spoken English. They must deal with their Belgian boss and sometimes with English-speaking customers. After assessing their reading, speaking, listening comprehension and writing abilities, I determined that they are all beginning speakers, with the one exception of Rafat, who has the strongest English skills.

After several hours of chatting and assessment, we decide to begin classes in about one week. We agree to a price that will pay for my rent and bean sandwiches many times over. To give you an idea of my wages, every time I visit them for a 2 hour session, I will make more money than most Egyptians make all month.

Rafat drives me to Monib, the nearest metro station and I return to make preparations for the upcoming class. Just as the economy in the US and around the world is in a slump, it may not be such a bad idea to remain in Egypt for a little bit longer as a tutor to beer manufacturers. As the economists say, the desire for beer is an “inelastic demand.” In other words, people keep drinking booze no matter what. Alhamdulilah! (Praise be to God!)

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Tonight’s English class at the Haram street center proved interesting. Alah, or Alan-his English name-is an advanced speaker of English. As he should be, considering his 6 months spent in Australia as a 17 year old. That was 10 years ago. Tonight, he served as the class interpreter, explaining terms that were unknown to the rest of the students, including the four girls from Djibouti, who seemed hopelessly lost.

After class, Alah offered me a ride home, practicing the idea of “doing a favor” that we covered in class. His car, a four door from Korea, still has that new-car smell. He is on his way to his Fiancee’s house, but said he could drop me off. Despite my protests, he insisted on giving me a lift.

A Coptic Christian, Alah is extremely outgoing and speaks with the enthusiasm of an American or Aussie. He stops momentarily at a coffee shop for some Egyptian coffee, which is really repackaged Turkish coffee. He gives me a bag. He tells me of his fiancée, whom he met 20 days ago at Khan AlKhalili, the infamous bazaar and tourist trap. He thought about the appropriate word for a moment to describe his initial meeting with his current fiancée, then uttered “serendipity.” When he first saw her, he said, “she stole my heart.” He told his father, standing next to him, that he wanted to talk to her.

He recalled, “I asked her if she had a boyfriend. Then, I asked to talk to her father later.” I remarked how this one question saved him a lot of time in his search. Soon afterwards, he made an official visit to the father, who gave him the customary grilling about his education, background, future goals and ambitions. He passed. He has spent each night with his beloved, learning about her as a person and future wife. She currently is training to be a tour guide for German tourists.

Alah pulls out a photo of her from his wallet. She looks to be in her early 20s. I comment to him, “if she were a Muslim girl, I’d put her in a niqab (black veil covering her entire body except the eyes).” He laughs, agreeing with my sentiment.
Alah says he hopes that I will be able to attend his wedding in 3 months time.

“Insha’ Allah” or God Willing I say.

After 10 minutes of weaving through alleyways and turnabouts, we make it into lighter traffic. Alah plans to immigrate to Melbourne, Australia within the year after he takes the IELTS exam, similar to the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). After a year or so, he will then send for his wife. Expressing both angst and hope, Alah remarked, “Sometimes, I wonder if I know what I’m doing.”

When we arrive at my building, we trade phone numbers. I wish him a good night. After watching his smooth handling of a large four door car in Cairo traffic, I have no doubt that Alah will be able to handle Australia.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

An early phone call from Irving, TX

I was awakened early this morning by a call from Irving, Texas. Most people – me included – cannot find this hamlet on a map. The voice at the other end of the line was weak and hesitant, but clearly the voice of Hisham, my former Sudanese student now living in Texas with his sister for a year. I had met with him over tea back in November before his move. He was terribly excited. I had advised him on the nature of Texans: They’re very friendly, but proud people. Good barbeque. They see themselves as an independent people and state and more unique than anyone else in the country.

I offered to connect him with some of my Texan friends, should he need connecting. After he left, I never heard from him again…until a week ago or so when he called me early in the morning. We spoke only 5 minutes, like this morning.

He reported that life in the United States was not what he had expected. For one, he was in a small town called Irving, which was far away from the big city. It sounded like he was in the countryside and away from civilization, computers, the internet, even the phone.

-He had met some friendly Mexicans and migrant farm workers

-He had not really made any new friends and seemed hopelessly lost

-He asked me for contacts and promised to call back the next day; he didn’t

In this morning’s talk, I asked him to email me. “I have no internet access,” he replied.

Are you close to a library? “No, not really. And I have no car.”

Is there a bus? “No.”

Can you walk there? “Yes, but the closest one is about 40 minutes away by foot. And my laptop is broken.”

Hisham—spend all day at the library, ok? Go in the morning and come back in the afternoon.

“What jobs can I do? You said I can teach Arabic. How?”

Go to a University--Any university and see if they have a Middle East Studies program. If they do, then teach Arabic there.

“Do I need qualifications?”

If you do private tutoring, no.

“How much should I charge?”

Between $20-$30.

I gave him the website as a helpful resource. “Everything is by email now. What is your email account?” I asked.

“Ah…I don’t remember. I think it is inactive,” he explained.

Then, open a new one. Here—take my email address.

“gmail? What is gmail?”

Google. Google!

“Ah—yes, google. Thank you. I am afraid you are busy?”

If I am busy, I would not answer you. If I am busy, I would tell you I must go. If I am busy, I would say to you—never call me again. You are too polite.

“I learned politeness from my Japanese friends.”

Then, you learned from the wrong people. You cannot afford to be too polite in America. You must be persistent and push, push push!

“Ok, sorry, this line will be cut off in 1 minute.”

Email me and I will connect you with my friends in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone in Irving.

No response. The line went dead…

You can’t cheat him – he’s a Muslim!

I went grocery shopping at the outdoor market a few days ago. I picked up the usual items: some strawberries, tangerines, carrots and eggplant. When I got to the lettuce man, I bought two heads and asked for some cilantro. He gave it to me the last time and didn’t charge me, so I was pretty sure they were complimentary. To be sure, I asked him, “how much?”

He replied, “gift.” I was right.

At the same time, another man next to him asked me for 10LE (about $2). I suspected he was joking, of course. And the lettuce vendor chided him with a wag of the finger. “You can not cheat a fellow Muslim!” And to confirm that I was Muslim, he asked me, “you are a Muslim, yes?”

“Insha’ Allah!” God Willing!

“Thank you Eid,” I said.

“What’s your name?” he asked me. He had forgotten my name even though we met each other some weeks earlier and had exchanged names.

“Khelid,” I replied, giving him my Arabic name. (Khelid is Arabic for the immortal)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Opening the door -- the Islamic way

Last week, I arrived at the home of my student Ahmd 5 minutes early to teach him and his friends English for our weekly English class, in the working class neighborhood of Bolaq. Working class means few to no foreigners ever step foot in this neighborhood. And the residents tend to be poor or of the lower class. After a few knocks, I called him on his cell phone. The mobile rang in the living room. Hmmm…Perhaps, he was out visiting with neighbors for his nightly round of religious talks a la Mormons or Jehova’s Witnesses. Ahmd spends 2 hours each night walking his neighborhood and knocking on doors, on behalf of Islam, to answer any questions neighbors may have about God.

A few minutes later, the door opened, but only a few inches. I could see a light inside, but no voice. Perhaps, the 3 year old nephew opened the door, but was too shy to poke his head out the door. I tried to push open the door a little, but I felt a slight resistance. Ah…perhaps, it was his sister.

At that moment, Ahmd arrived and greeted me. A 27 year old computer engineer, Ahmd is warm and always has a friendly smile. He wears a galabiyeh and slippers. A bespectacled believer, he wears his beard long—in the tradition of the Prophet Mhmd (PBUH). When I first met him months ago, he reminded me very much of an Orthodox Jewish man. Ahmd explains his tardiness: he was praying the Asha prayer at the mosque. Once we entered the living room, Ahmd explained an interesting custom for traditional Muslims. When one knocks on a Muslim door, one should

A) knock 3 times at the most. During his wait, he must stand three feet back. If there is no answer, then he must leave.

B) One must look at the floor and present his right shoulder to the door. This way, if a woman answers the door, then he will not be distracted by her appearance or ever be in the position of accidentally brushing up against her, should she be rushing out the door.

And finally, if a man answers the door, then he can look up from the floor, greet his friend with a handshake and kiss him on the cheeks.

Ahmd also informed me that his sister opened the door a crack for me to tell me that he was not in the house at the time. Unfortunately, I did not hear her voice--at all. Perhaps, the door was not the only barrier to her being heard by a man.

Friday, January 30, 2009

In search of a good eggman

Ever since I’ve moved to my downtown apartment next to the Interior Ministry—reportedly a place of government work (read: bureaucracy) and Egypt’s domestic black site for its political dissidents—I’ve had no access to a supermarket where I can do all my shopping at one time. So, I usually have to journey to no less than three separate places for my food: the mom-and-pop corner store for juice, canned tuna and noodles; to the outdoor market for vegetables; across the Nile River for cookies and brownies; and finally, to the corner for eggs in a hole-in-the-wall where Hisham, the middle-aged vendor runs his operation.

When we first talked, Hisham asked me the essential Islamic question: what’s your religion? And when I told him that I was “kafir” or infidel, he was shocked. And Chinese people in general? “Kufar”—infidels. He was jolted! 1.3 billion infidels? How can that be? I tried to explain Confucianism—the philosophy and demi-religion of China. He couldn’t really understand it and encouraged me to explore Islam. And with that, we exchanged phone numbers. He told me, “if you ever need eggs and I’m not here, just call me and I’ll come down.” As he lives close by, it’s not much trouble, he swears. While I’ve not yet had an egg emergency, it is certainly comforting to know that my eggman is at my disposal—merely on the other side of my mobile. Earlier this week, Hisham called me on my cell phone. A pleasant surprise, indeed. He just wanted to check in with me and say “hi.”

The other day, while picking up some vegetables with my roommate, we spotted another egg store. To our amazement, the eggs were bigger and cheaper than Hisham’s eggs. They were also clean—that is to say, there was no chicken shit on the egg shells. This eggman, named Khelid, seems to be busier and more diplomatic than Hisham. Perhaps, in his late 30s, he has a earpiece and seems to be conducting business deals at the counter while selling eggs. When my roommate Andrew asked him whether he liked China or America better, he said “the two are brothers.” He could’ve been straight from Foggy Bottom!

While I like Hisham, I like cheap eggs even better. So, while it saddens me a little to leave Hisham for Khelid, my new eggman, perhaps I can visit Hisham every now and then. Will Khelid and I exchange numbers? We’ll see about that…

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Islamic Prohibition: notes to women and music

On Christmas day, David’s Palestinian friend Meliha gave me an Arabic children’s book, which she wrote. To thank her, I wrote out a short thank you note—in Arabic. Of course, as my grammar is not perfect, I asked Mustafa, one of my 5 language exchange partners, for help. He is a Mutadayyen, or devout Muslim with a big beard. The Arabic word Mutadayyen translates into “one who lives by religion.” When he read the short note, and noticed that it was addressed to a woman, he said, “I’m sorry. I cannot help you with this note.” I was a bit puzzled at first. He explained that he could not assist me in writing a note that would facilitate a relationship with a woman.

So, I asked him, “you mean, it’s too close to zina (sin)?”

“Yes! Exactly,” He replied, with a smile.

I looked at him for a moment in disbelief.

Then I asked him for the exact sura and aya, or chapter and verse in the Qur’an, which addresses such practices. Mustafa could not give me an exact reference, but explained that Islam frowns on such practices. These guidelines are intended to protect women—and men, for that matter.

“Are you angry or upset with me, Andy?” Mustafa inquired.

“No. I have 4 other Egyptians I can ask for help on this. If you were the only one, maybe I would be a little upset. I understand that the world is big and there are many different peoples with different cultures. Islamic culture is extremely different from Western culture, especially that of the USA. So, I can respect these differences and I want to respect your beliefs. If you don’t want to help me with this note, that’s fine.”

He seemed pleased with my diplomatic answer.

After our language exchange, I told him that I was off to the Opera to meet a friend. Although the Mohamed Mounir concert had been cancelled, I was going there for some coffee. Mustafa said matter-of-factly, “Mounir is not good.”

“You don’t like Mounir? How about Um Kalthoum?”

“Music is not good,” Mustafa replied.

“Some music, or ALL music is not good?” I pressed further.

“All music is not good.”

“What sura and aya?”
He went to his Qur’an and referenced Sura Luqman, aya 6. He asked me to show the sura to my friend at the Opera and he would explain.

Sura Luqman, aya 6 reads:
“And of mankind is he who purchases idle talks (i.e. music, singing, etc.) to mislead (men) from the Path of Allah without knowledge, and takes it (the Path of Allah, or the Verses of the Qur’an) by way of mockery. For such there will be a humiliating torment (in the Hell-fire).”

My Egyptian friend Hatem explained that when Prophet Mhmd (Peace and Blessings of Allah be Upon Him) arrived in Medina, he was greeted by his supporters with songs. Furthermore, this literalist reading of the Qur’an is most common among Mutashaddid, or “fundamentalists.” I now realize that Mustafa and I live in very different worlds.