Saturday, October 24, 2009

Egyptian Culture (and other ramblings)

I thought it was about time for a comparison of the similarities/differences between Egyptian and American culture (and just in time for me to leave for Turkey!).

-“Egyptian time” – In Egypt (like many other countries of the world), you can say a specific time, but don’t expect people to begin showing up until at least a half hour later…if not longer. (Egyptian time comes in handy when you try to explain why the bus is a good two hours late. Yes this has happened.)
-Women – Egyptian women tend to spend most of their time in the home and don’t venture outside as often as the men. In addition, it is improper for me (and other women) to make eye contact with strange men on the street. This took a lot of getting used to at first.
-Traffic in Cairo is insane. There are no good ways to describe it, other than chaos. (By the way, I’m much more likely to get hit by a car here in Cairo than anything else that might happen to me.)
-The weekend is Friday/Saturday instead of Saturday/Sunday. People here go to church or to the mosque on Fridays and I have classes on Sundays.
-Egyptians are very generous and hospitable. On more than one occasion, I have been invited in off the street for tea or a meal and invited to engagement parties or weddings…
-Egyptian food is amazing! I love all of it and am excited to try to recreate some of what I’ve learned in cooking class for everyone when I return.
-Arabic is hard. But, learning Arabic has given me greater appreciation for what my refugee students are going through as they are trying to learn English.
-Plumbing and Electricity are definitely blessings. My flat has had plenty of problems with these two things, including losing electricity for almost 24 hours. I don’t know how my host family lives in the summer without air conditioning.
-Belly dancing is looked down upon in some forms; however, most Egyptians (men and women) know how and are quite good. I, on the other hand, need lots more practice.
-Ethnicities and backgrounds are quite varied in Cairo. For example, there is a significant refugee population (Sudanese, Eritrean, Somalian…), some of which I teach (soon to be taught) every Tuesday. They are beautiful people – all of which hope to be able to return to their homeland someday.
-I’ve never appreciated the various forms of precipitation so much. Every once it a while, it will feel like it’s going to rain, but it never does. I’m looking forward to lots of rain (inshahallah) in the spring.
-I’ve also missed the fall colors…trees in Cairo don’t change colors quite the same way that they do in Iowa.
-The pollution in Cairo is incredible – there are days that a thick smog descends over the whole city (like a fog). Statistics say that living in Cairo is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day…

It’s hard to believe that I have very little time left in Cairo before Travel Component begins. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very excited about traveling through the Middle East and meeting even more new people, but I will definitely miss Agouza and the Egyptians that I’ve met here. I know I’ll have a few days left when we return from travel to be able to say goodbye to everyone I’ve met, but I don’t think it’s long enough – especially when we’ll have to be writing papers during that time, too…

I’ve had even more deep conversations with a broad variety of the MESPers, and I’ve realized that I’m not as alone in many of my struggles than I had thought that I was. Many of us are thinking about the bigger questions – What do I do after I graduate? What are my greatest fears? How do I follow a Middle Eastern Jesus (as opposed to a Western one)? What are the causes of Middle Eastern developmental issues? Is religion the biggest obstacle to minority and women’s rights? (The last two questions are essays for the Peoples and Cultures class.)

Most of the time I can’t believe that I’ve only known these people for less than two months…. We’ve done a wonderful job of living together as a community (in my opinion) and the question now becomes – How will I adjust back to life in the States without all of them?

On another note, people should read the book Taxi by Khaled Khamissi (I believe that’s how his last name is spelled). It’s a fictional collection of stories that have been told by taxi drivers throughout the city. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, just bits and pieces, but in my opinion, it gives a better insight into the lives of the Cairo population.

This weekend won’t be too exciting for me. I have 3 papers due on Monday and an oral/written Arabic final on Sunday. Needless to say, most of the weekend will be spent in my flat working out my opinions on development, human rights, and Muslim/Christian relations. Hopefully I’ll be more coherent and write better than I think I will. I can already tell that I’m out of practice with writing papers…

Tonight I’m watching an episode of Supernatural (Abby says so). The two of us are using it as motivation to get farther on our papers.

What I’m Currently Reading: The Body and the Blood: The Middle East’s Vanishing Christians and the Possibility for Peace by Charles M. Sennott

Monday, October 12, 2009

An Update!

It’s been awhile since I posted, but the last couple weeks have been packed full of adventures of one sort or another. I joke around with several of the MESPers about every day being an adventure, which is quite true. So anyway, here’s a glimpse of what’s been going on in Cairo over the past weeks…

My homestay was wonderful. My family lives in El Marg, which is a much poorer area on the outskirts of Cairo. My journey to and from the Villa each day involved a taxi, the Metro, and a microbus. The taxis and Metro were generally good, except for a few days where the traffic got really bad, but the microbuses were definitely a pain most days. Usually on the way to the Villa, I would have to wait about 30-40 minutes for a microbus that was a) headed the right way and b) not already crammed full of people.

I didn’t get much time to study each day, which made the ITP quiz and the Arabic midterm much more difficult for me than they would have been otherwise, but I think that the experience that I had staying with a Muslim family was worth it. I had three host sisters and a host brother, plus a plethora of host cousins, aunts, and uncles that I never really caught the name of. I was able to eat like an Egyptian – which meant a lot of fuul and tamayya (a bean mixture and fried bean patty things). I like fuul and tamayya a lot, but now, I think I can wait another week or so until I start to eat those foods again.

I also was able to have quite a few deep discussions with my host brother about Islam and Egyptian culture. He also helped me by translating some of the conversations that my family had in Arabic that I couldn’t understand, and by helping me improve my Arabic reading skills. My host cousins and sisters were also great fun to be with. Ahmed, my host cousin who couldn’t have been more than 6 or so months old, was a lot of fun to hold, but often he got taken away from me when I was supposed to eat or the other kids wanted me to play with them.

At the end of the week, my family spent the night at one of my host aunts’ flats. It was a very beautiful flat, and I soon found out just how rich my host uncle was. My host cousins were very intrigued by me and I did my best to answer all of their questions. They were also very set on getting me to belly dance. I tried out what little I know, but I know that they were much better dancers than I was. I also got to wear a gallebeya (a long, dress-like garment that both men and women wear) while I was there. It was very comfortable, and I plan to buy one for myself before I leave Egypt.

My host uncle showed up to the flat the next morning, at which time I realized that my host uncle had two wives in two different flats! I honestly don’t know how my host aunt puts up with this (apparently he was poor before and only married his second wife after he got rich). I know that I wouldn’t be able to.

The next week was more of a normal week, since everyone returned to Agouza from their homestays. The most interesting part of the class week was our trip to the Arab League where we got to meet with the Chief of Staff to the Secretary General of the Arab League, and he answered our questions about what has been happening in the Middle East. Following this, we also got to attend a panel discussion on the life of Gandhi and the opening of an exhibit on his life. In the process, we got to talk to some of the important people that attended the meeting and also eat some Indian food (which was really good).

This weekend we went to the Siwa Oasis, which is located in the Sahara Desert. We spent most of Wednesday afternoon traveling, but Thursday we rented bikes for the day and visited one of our friends houses in Siwa in the morning/afternoon. At first, we talked about Siwan culture as a large group, then the guys left and we stayed and talked to some of our friends female family members about what it is like to be a woman in Siwa (which is very different from Cairo – different language, culture…everything). Women in Siwa wear a full burka after they are married and must ask permission from their husband before they are allowed to leave the house. It’s very much a culture of protection and honor, which is very strange for people coming from a Western culture. The girls also got a chance to get henna tattoos. The process of allowing the henna to dry and absorb into the skin is very long, but I really enjoyed the result. I think I’m definitely going to have to take some henna back to the States when I return.

That evening we biked out to a lake where I didn’t go swimming, but from talking to others about their experience, it was very salty. And – minus the palm trees and water, it reminded me very much of the North Dakota badlands.

Friday we went sandboarding in the Great Sand Sea and swimming in several hot/cold springs. The trek out into the desert in Jeeps was thrilling – at least for our Jeep because the driver kept going to the edge of dunes that were close to a sheer drop down. It was a great time, although I now have sand in most of my clothing and in my backpack. That night we stayed at a Bedouin camp near Siwa. We paid for a Siwan band that came out and played Siwan music, which we danced to – it was great to have another chance to practice some of what we’re learning in belly dancing class. Afterwards, we spent the night in our sleep sheets laying out under the stars…which were breathtaking and beyond words…

Now that we’re back in Cairo, we’re doing a lot of classes and the usual. We went to Al Azhar yesterday, which wasn’t quite as exciting as I had expected, but I did meet a lot of really great Muslims that were a lot of fun to talk to over lunch. Also, last night we had a dance party with both of the girls’ flats and many of our Egyptian friends. There was a lot of Arabic and English music, and a lot of belly dancing – also a great time to practice.

Tonight is Canadian Thanksgiving…for which I am bringing kosherii with the rest of my cooking class. Not really a North American food, but good all the same.

Now…for writing my papers… :-S