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.