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.