Gyms, Shopping, and Sushi–Settling In

These past few days I’ve gone out in the evenings, for the first time since coming to Cairo. I found a gym online and got lost trying to get there yesterday, ended up walking around Cairo’s shopping area after dark. Unlike in other cities, where walking around at night is dodgy, Cairo actually felt quite safe. Because of the desert climate, most people don’t go outside in the afternoon. The evening is when the streets become alive.

Searching for my gym (which I eventually found and took pilates and zumba classes), I found shops with seasonal sale signs in the windows, a nod to the middle-class consumer culture that was rising in Cairo before the revolution took place.  I bought gladiator sandals and a turquoise sundress, and walked around until I found a sushi cafe that proudly advertised its two locations as Cairo and Sao Paulo. More important than the cuisine, though, was that it was a place where I could sit for a few hours with a notebook by the window, without worrying about being heckled by the servers or the passers-by.

I realized, as I sat watching Cairo’s easy nightlife pass before me, that I’m beginning to settle here. I’m beginning to get to know the city, not as an Egyptian but as a new expat, and I’m beginning to learn my way around and feel comfortable. Though the city is massive, I’m carving out pockets of familiarity.  Slowly  but surely, I’m making Cairo into my home.

A Local Perspective on Indecent Exposure

Today was my first day back at the office since the incident of the masturbating pervert outside my window. My Egyptian supervisor had read about it on Twitter (where I had reported it to #harassmap), so he asked me for details. When I told him all that had occurred he sighed.

“I understand men like this.”

Seeing my surprise, he went on.

“There are two kinds of Egyptians now, modern and traditional. The modern ones are educated, they date and have relationships like in the West, and they’re fine. The traditional ones have their strong traditions and families and culture, get married when they’re about twenty, and they’re fine too. But then there are the ones in the middle.

“The ones in the middle are caught in between. They don’t have the tradition, or the education, and they’re lost.  I think they’re the majority right now.  They see things in the movies—I hate to say, porn—and they get the idea that this is real life. That these kinds of things they see in movies are really what’s normal in the West. So they think it’s okay.”

 

A Classic Sightseeing Day in Cairo

Today I took advantage of the fact that I’m working with a major travel company by tagging along for a group sightseeing day. Today was a classic “visiting Cairo” kind of day. One of my colleagues was taking his group to the Egyptian museum and the Giza pyramids, and so I tagged along, joining the throngs of tourists to look at the wonders of Egypt’s pharaonic past.

The Egyptian museum, I discovered, is much better with a guide. I remember seeing it my first time in Egypt, six years ago, and being overwhelmed by the sheer number of artefacts on display, jumbled together in cases without labels. I tried to look at everything, but it was impossible to absorb it all.

Today, though,  I was part of a tour, and I listened with fascination as my colleague explained the significance of many of the highlights. Particularly interesting was a tiny statue of Kheops, the pharaoh buried in the Great Pyramid. For the ancient Egyptians, statues had the potential to act as vehicles for the soul to return to if the body was damaged, and so statues of individuals were highly valued as a kind of “afterlife insurance.”

During his time as pharaoh, Kheops forbade the creation of statues with any likeness other than his own, dashing the hopes of an afterlife to all his citizens for a generation. Consequently, after the pharaoh died, people destroyed all of his statues in retaliation. The only surviving statue of the pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid is only about three inches high. At least his pyramid survived.

Though learning details about the other pharaohs was interesting, the highlight of the Egyptian Museum is and always has been the treasure of Tutankhamen.  From my trip to Egypt six years ago, Tutankhamen’s death mask is one of the few items that I remember with great clarity.  Though iconic, photos do not do it justice. The sight of it alone, in person, was worth the cost of the entire trip.

This time around, I noticed more details. The finely worked hieroglyphs on the mask’s interior, the intricately inlaid semi-precious stones around the rim. The details of the boy-king’s facial features. The textures of the gold and gems. The other incredible treasures of the tomb, including  fabulous amulets of scarabs and winged goddesses to keep the king safe as he journeyed through the afterlife.

After the Egyptian Museum  we headed for the Giza plateau, to visit the great pyramids. Massive wonders of the ancient world, looking out over the city of Cairo in unexpected proximity. The sprawling suburbs of Giza are only a few minutes away. The pyramids themselves are surrounded by tourist touts barking camels and overpriced souvenirs. I ignored them, and focused on the monuments themselves.

The smallest of the three main Giza pyramids was the one we chose to go inside, and we entered down a long, narrow shaft near the base of the tomb. Though the walls were close and the ceiling low, the space wasn’t nearly as claustrophobic as I expected. At the end of this long tunnel was a central chamber, followed by another tunnel to another chamber, probably the one where the king was buried, thousands of years ago. Standing in that central chamber, I could feel the weight of history, like the weight of the stones pressing in above my head. I was standing inside the one of the only surviving wonders of the ancient world. There’s almost nothing more incredible than that.

 

 

Sexual Harassment in Cairo (#indecent exposure)

This evening I started to write a post about the wonderful day that I had exploring Cairo. I went horseback riding around the pyramids of Abu Sir, visited the peaceful Ibn Tulun mosque, and drank strawberry juice by the lake of Al-Azhar park. That blog entry was rudely interrupted, however, by a disgusting case of indecent exposure.

I was sitting on my balcony with my computer, minding my own business, happily blogging, when a man in the building across the street and a few stories down started gesturing at me. I ignored him. A few minutes later I looked down, and he was pantless and masturbating, lifting his hips and gyrating them in my direction, looking straight at me.

I went inside. I closed the blinds. And then I sat and wondered: what the hell should I do?

To say that I was disgusted is an understatement. I’m fairly used to verbal harassment and catcalls on the street, but this is a whole different ballgame. It’s an overtly sexual exposure of flesh. It needs to be reported. But to whom?

I’m in a foreign country, and I don’t know the rules. In the US I would go to the police, but I don’t know the local number here, my Arabic does not include the vocabulary for an incident report, and I’m not convinced that a sexual harassment charge would be taken seriously by the police. I could report it to my male coworkers, who might take upon themselves to beat the guy up for me, but that seemed rather excessive.

So I got out my camera.

I have a lovely DSLR, with a telescopic lens. And I went back outside and took a closeup of the bastard.

He’d put his pants back on, by this point. But he looked scared when he saw that I was taking pictures, which told me it was the right thing to do. Then I took my camera down to reception, talked to the guys behind the desk, told them what happened, and showed them the photo. They said they’d talk to the police and to the relevant building manager.

Back upstairs, in my now-functionally-windowless room, I filed a report on the  Harass Map, where women in Cairo report instances of sexual harassment.

It’s a few hours later. The reception desk called to tell me they’ve reported the man, and to be careful. My facebook friends have offered to send care packages of tasers and pepper spray. (It is moments like these, a thousand miles from home, that I am truly grateful for the internet).

And now.

It’s 11pm, local time, and I’m back outside. The man’s windows are dark and shut. Maybe because of the report, maybe just because it’s late and he’s gone to bed. I don’t care. Because I have a balcony, with a view of the Nile and an illuminated mosque, and I’m damn well going to use it. And no pervert with a penchant for self-exposure is going to keep me cloistered indoors for long.

Update 9/13/11

The man was at it again the following day, so I took some more pictures and caught one with his hand on his crotch. I took it directly to the hotel manager (who wasn’t on the premises the night before). He then got into a big fight with the manager of the other building, who got into a big fight with the pervert. The pervert’s windows have been shut since then.

I admit, I feel a little thrill of victory now, every time I sit outside.

East Coast Earthquake

We interrupt this evening’s regularly scheduled blogging to inform you that the earth shook yesterday afternoon. On the East Coast. Where such things, as a general rule, do not occur.

Doubtless, you’ve already heard about this event, because the news media and the social media spheres were both awash in it. If you live on the east coast, or know someone on the east coast, you might have even experienced the XKCD seismic wave phenomenon:

 

Because you have already heard so much about the earthquake, I will not bore you with details. I will not tell you how it started with a mysterious rumbling almost like a cat’s purr, nor how the sushi chef at the restaurant where I was lunching barely glanced up from his work to calmly tell the crowd, “it’s an earthquake.” As a fellow patron began to scoff, “we don’t get earthquakes in DC,” the ground started shaking in earnest, splashing out bowls of miso soup and spilling mugs of freshly-poured tea. Then, as a  small, detached part of my mind started looking for the nearest doorway and another part of my brain tried to figure out magnitude, the shaking stopped. It was replaced by the excited jabber of incredulous voices and the instantaneous googling on mobile devices.

But I will not tell you all of these things, of course. You’ve heard similar things from all over the blogosphere by now. You’re probably also aware that the quake did very little damage, as evidenced by snarky images like this one.

 

 

I do, however feel the need to blog something about this event for three reasons.

1) It was my first earthquake.

(Okay, technically there was one about six months ago at about 5am, but since I slept through it I don’t think that one counts).

2) It was unexpected.

I remember hoping, as a child visiting relatives in California,  that there would be an earthquake every single time I went to the west coast. My relatives lived a stone’s throw away from the San Andreas Fault, and I was sure that if I spent a week or two in proximity I’d be in an earthquake and therefore be the coolest kid in school when I got home. I never experienced an earthquake in California. How did it come to pass that I’d experience one in DC?

3) I was scheduled to practice aerial that same evening.

To those of you who aren’t aerialists (I’m assuming that’s most of the people reading this blog), the two might seem completely unrelated. What could the earth shaking possibly have to do with hanging from the ceiling…from exposed beams in the ceiling…in an old building…in an area not known for earthquakes and therefore not known  for earthquake-resilient construction…see where this is going? I don’t know much about rigging, but I do know that you want your support structure to be able to take a lot of weight and a lot of g-force.

My friend Echo, of  shenanigans at Smith fame, is an engineer as well as an aerialist. She’s also (rightly) paranoid about safety, and insisted on extra care in inspecting the beams, bracing the ladders, and using floor mats even on the lowest of apparatuses and the simplest of tricks.  According to her, aftershocks are likely within 48 hours of an earthquake, and if you’re hanging upside down from the ceiling when the earth starts shaking, you’re pretty much guaranteed to fall. A mat can make the difference between a mild concussion and a cracked skull. Though there wasn’t an aftershock during practice, and no one fell, I remain much more viscerally aware of bodily fragility and the tenuous nature of even the best structural engineering.

A Brief Update, With Promises of More

I haven’t posted in quite a while, largely because I’ve been moving around a lot and juggling about a million things. This past month has contained experiences about which I could (and might still) write innumerable blog posts. But because I am human and have limited time, here’s the quick and dirty rundown of the events of the past month.

In the past month, I have:

1. Gone to Costa Rica and attended the Travelers’ Philanthropy Conference. This  involved my first-ever trip to Latin America, my first professional conference, both daytime and nighttime hikes in the famous Cloud Forest of Monteverde, and my first encounter with an insect longer than  my forearm.

2. Moved out of my apartment in Waltham, MA and moved everything that I own into storage. It involved a UHaul cargo van, a lot of boxes, and a lot of stress. ‘Nuff said.

3. Visited the Massanutten Resort in the Shenandoah Valley. This involved an Appalachian storyteller, whitewater kayaking, a trip to the Natural Bridge,  and a three-hour sales pitch in which the resort staff tried to convince us that we wanted to buy a time share (we didn’t).

4. Traveled to St. Petersburg, Florida to visit family. This involved lots of seafood, visits to quaint teashops, and spending good times with friends.

5. Returned to my erstwhile home of DC, where I’m currently putting the final touches in place for my imminent journey to Cairo, Egypt. This involves lots of reading, lots of logistics, and lots of distracting myself with friends and aerial classes.

Further updates will doubtless be forthcoming as I work out more of the last-minute details and consequently have more time on my hands.

On Passports and Privilege

I sent in my application for a new passport today. Passport, passport card, expedited service fee, certified mail…$240 in all. Knowing that in a few weeks I’ll have a shiny new passport with 52 pages, valid for another ten years, with no greater hassle involved than some paperwork and a trip to the post office…priceless.

I’ve just read the courageous article by Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist, in which he reveals for the first time his status as an undocumented immigrant, and how that has affected his life. His story shows that, contrary to popular diatribe, undocumented immigrants to the US do, in fact, contribute in many positive ways to the country. He has a career in journalism of which I am in fact quite envious, has obtained a highly prestigious writing prize (shared with his co-authors who helped cover the Virginia Tech shootings), and has to all accounts lived that fabled story of the American Dream.

But he can’t get a passport.

The paperwork that I find simply annoying is to him insurmountable. The routine paperwork check at the beginning of each new job that for me is just an irritating step on the way to a paycheck is to him a source of constant anxiety. But he, an immigrant who has spent the bulk of his life inside the US, been educated here, worked here, paid into social security, supported the economy…he is in no way less deserving of a job or documentation here in the US than I am.

I am lucky. To have been born in the country in which I was born, permitting me to live and work here, obtain a passport, and have virtually no barriers to international travel. I did absolutely nothing to deserve such luck—it was simply an accident of birth. As is the situation of Vargas.

In the current set of debates about immigration, the greatest amount of vitriol seems to be bandied about by people who are demographically similar to me. White people born into middle-class backgrounds in conservative states within the US. The thing that most of these people don’t seem to think about, when prating about how immigrants are bad for the country, is that they themselves are the descendants of immigrants. Is it really so easy to forget?

My family came to this country a little over a hundred years ago, on boats hailing from Ireland and Italy. They joined the ranks of countless other immigrants at the time, some of whom came over on regular passports, many of whom did not. Every single new group to come over faced hostility: my Irish ancestors were faced with “no Irish need apply” signs at pretty much every business establishment that was hiring, and actually pretended to be English just so that they could get jobs. My entrepreneurial Italian grandfather named his business Modern Pharmacy, because the Piantanida Family Pharmacy just sounded too damn Italian. He also thought that immigrants were destroying the country and stealing honest peoples’ jobs, and by “immigrants” he meant everyone except for Northern Italians like him.

We haven’t made much progress, as a society. At this point, the distinctions between Irish and Italian are largely forgotten, despite being quite vehemently defended in the 1920s, when each European ethnicity was seen as being an almost-separate race, and Eastern and Southern Europeans were considered undesirable. Now that the descendants of most of the various European ethnicities have all been here for a while and inter-married, this kind of discrimination seems preposterous. At this point, we talk about “American” as though it were a unilateral identity…but the common dialogue still seems to see it as a white identity. It is not.

How do we define what it means to be American? Vargas is attempting to change the dialogue with his organization Define American. He’s talking to people, collecting stories. Trying to get people to think about what “American” really means.

America is a country of immigrants, regardless of how long ago those immigrants may have arrived. “American” is my college roommate, born in the US to Mexican immigrants, now working on her PhD in engineering. “American” is my Muslim friend from Tanzania, currently teaching at a university in Florida. “American” is my Filipino fencing coach, my African-American professor of social policy, my Ukrainian-born professor of Russian language and literature. I could go on. Every single one of these people is just as much an American as I am. Some have regular American passports, some have green cards. Some may be undocumented, I don’t know and feel no need to ask. All have a right to be in this country. All have a right to try to live the American Dream.

 

 

 

 

 

False Identities, Allies, and Legitimacy

This week, two prominent lesbian internet figures were revealed to be American men.  Amina Arraf, the supposed Syrian blogger, was revealed to be Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old heterosexual American man studying in Edinburgh. A day later, the editor of  the American lesbian news site Lez Get Real, was revealed to be a 58-year-old man named Bill Graber using his wife’s name as a pseudonym.

Wow.

There have been other similar cases of people writing under assumed identities to talk about certain issues. Fake memoirs are nothing new, and it shouldn’t surprise us that in the age of the internet, fake memoirs have turned into fake blogs. Motivations vary, I’m sure. At least in the case of the two blogs in question, both authors swear that they had the best intentions at heart, that they wanted to draw attention to an issue that they felt was really important, and felt that they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they didn’t write from within the community.

MacMaster says that “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground…I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

Similarly, Graber says that “I didn’t start this with my name because… I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man.”

In a great satirical article, one white male blogger responds by pointing out that “If you really have something unique and important to report on, your white male-ness will not get in the way of your being heard. In most cases, it will be an advantage, as bylines and television appearances testify every day.”

Seriously, people. Let’s get real. When you write as someone else, and pass it off as your own life experience, that’s a form of fraud, and it actually damages the cause that you’re writing about for several  reasons.

The first reason is that when a supposed figurehead of a particular group is outed as not being a member of that group, it calls into question the legitimacy and authenticity of everyone else who is writing from within that group. If Blogger  A is False, then why shouldn’t Bloggers B, C, D, and E also be False? Those remaining bloggers then have to work twice as hard to prove that they are who they say they are, and readers are left wondering if, since one public identity was fabricated, some or all of the information written by that person was also untrue.  And while both MacMaster and Graber seemed to think that they were nobly “giving voice to the voiceless,” they were not.  It is both dangerous and presumptive to think that people belonging to geographically or culturally distant minority groups are voiceless. They do have voices. Odds are they’re speaking. Are you listening and paying attention?

The real LGBTQ activists in the Middle East are now in danger as a result of the hoax being revealed. Several of them took risks to identify themselves in an effort to save their supposed lost compatriot. Daniel Nassar, a Syrian gay activist, says that “I used to use my real name as a handle and a picture of my face as an avatar. Now, I’ve been forced back into the closet online. Amina’s arrest may have been made up, but now the threat feels all too real.”

Another Syrian gay activist, Sami Hamwi, fears that this high-publicity hoax could cause Syrian authorities to crack down on gay activists. “I think they will not wait until the blogger is famous or well-read to seek them out,” he said. “[And] arrests in Syria means actual disappearing.… No one can hear or know about the arrested people, sometimes for decades.”

Both of the aforementioned activists use pseudonyms, but they are otherwise who they say they are. They don’t use their real names, because they don’t want to be arrested or killed. Salma, a writer for the Queer Arab magazine Bekshoos, was in touch with “Amina” prior to the hoax being revealed. She says that “I understood what anonymity meant to her and I know what it means to us. I expected a fake picture and even a fake name; I did not expect a fake personality all together.” She continues:

“Sadly Mr. MacMaster with his hoax delegitimized the voice of so many Arab, specifically Syrian, bloggers. He spoke on our behalf without having the right or legitimacy of doing so, while delegitimizing our voice in the process. So I would like to thank you for stepping on our feet, experimenting with our lives, opening the eyes of an oppressive system to our existence, and most of all thank you for lying to us and tricking us into believing you.”

 

Delegitimizing people who are actually on the ground is a very big problem. But there is also another reason why assumed identities are damaging. Both MacMaster and Graber said that they cared deeply about the issues they were blogging about, and wanted to be taken seriously. They felt that in order to be taken seriously, they had to try to write from the inside of those issues. Functionally, they were saying that it’s not actually alright to be vocal about an issue unless it actually affects you directly as a marginalized person. That being indirectly affected by your observations of marginalization from the outside is not valid. That being an ally is unacceptable, and doesn’t count.

In other words, even though they claimed to be trying to publicize issues of lesbianism, in the US and in Syria, both through their actions indicate that no one should actually be interested in lesbians and/or Syria unless they were actually lesbian and/or Syrian. Taken to its logical conclusion, this same train of thought tells us that no one who is male should care about women or vice versa, that no one who belongs to any one racial or ethnic group should worry about what’s happening to members of another ethnic or racial group, and no one in any given country should give a damn about any other country.

That’s dangerous. That’s a problem.

Historically, gaining allies in the dominant group has been a very important step for minority groups to gain their rights. Part of the success of the women’s movement came from men telling other men, “hey, I’ve heard what the women are saying about the limited opportunities they face, and they’re right. We should try to help them.” Part of the success of the Civil Rights movement came from white people in America saying, “hey, racial discrimination is real, and it’s wrong. Let’s see what we can do to help.” Part of the success of the current gay rights movement in the US comes from straight people saying, “wow, it doesn’t make sense for gay people not to have the same rights that we do. We should try to change that.”

Allies have a role. Their role is to create more allies. Their role is to increase the number of people who care about a particular issue towards a critical mass, so that social change can actually take place. So if you care about gay rights and you’re not gay, that’s great. If you care about racial equality and you’re white, that’s awesome. If you care about any issue that directly affects someone from a different demographic, but doesn’t directly affect you, congratulations. You recognize that injustice exists, and that it affects people, and you want to change it. That’s good. But don’t try to create the change by pretending to be something or someone that you’re not. Be honest about who you are, and why the issue is important for you. Talk to the people who are directly affected, and help their voices reach a wider audience. Claim your status as an ally, and recognize that it is an important one, and that it is legitimate. Because when you deny that you’re an ally and try to speak for someone else, it doesn’t just delegitimize the people you’re impersonating. It delegitimizes you.

 

 

 

Making Jewelry in Cambridge (or, Crafts as Leisure in the Developed World)

This evening I took a jewelry making class at Boston Bead Works in Cambridge.  The shop, on a side street in Harvard Square, is a great local secret for bead and jewelry aficionados, and contains a wide selection of glass beads, cloisonne, and semi-precious stones. Though I’ve dabbled in jewelry making off and on (mostly off) for many years, I’d never taken a class before, and was pleasantly surprised. The class was small, the instructor was attentive, and at the end of the evening, I had a shiny set of earrings made with a wire-wrapping technique I’d never before seen, stringing amethyst beads inside a silver hoop to resemble an abacus.

 

Abacus Earrings

The photo quality here isn’t great because I took the picture with my ipod. But you get the idea.

 

Though I could leave the post here, as a “this is a cool thing to do if you’re in Boston,” I prefer to take a moment to think about why activities of this kind are available specifically here. Bead shops like this one exist in cities all over the US, and I’ve seen them in Western Europe as well. In the developing world, though, art supply shops with classes on how to make things are pretty much non-existent. In China, when I was buying seed pearls, the saleslady was aghast that I wanted to leave my strung pearls as-is, rather than having them made up into a necklace or earrings right away (I relented and allowed her to turn a few strands into jewelry there at the shop–the necklace and earrings that she put together are quite lovely). Point being, though, that the idea that I would want to go home, take the strands apart, and make something by myself was pretty much unheard of.

There’s a particular mentality in the West, and in the US in particular, that basic art techniques can and should be accessible to everyone, if only on the simplest levels. Shops like this one offering beginning jewelry making, paper embossing, paint-your-own pottery, etc. are exceedingly common. The do-it-yourself mentality is strong, and structured art projects give people a sense of fun and accomplishment.

From what I’ve seen in the developing world, things are very different. Crafts like pottery and jewelry making are seen as professions, rather than leisure activities for the middle class. Though I did have a friend in Morocco who made pottery for fun, she was very much in the minority. And the fact that she worked closely with American Peace Corps volunteers may have something to do with her view of art as a potential leisure activity.

What makes this difference, between craft as profession and craft as leisure? In some ways, it may come from how consumer goods are produced in a given society. In a society like Morocco, where until very recently most peoples’ plates and cups came directly from the potter’s wheel and had damned well better be usable, making pottery was not something to be tinkered with. Likewise, if you wanted jewelry, it was going to be handmade by a craftsperson, and the supplies needed would generally only be available to the professionals. In a society like the US, where most of our plates, cups, jewelry, and pretty much every material object is manufactured, rather than made, crafts like pottery and jewelry making are seen as quaint activities and throwbacks to an earlier time. If you make your own bowl and it breaks, you might be sad, but you can still buy another bowl at Target. If you make your own earrings and mow through a foot of silver wire trying to bend it into the right shape, it’s okay, you can still buy earrings at the mall. Your efforts aren’t materially affecting your well-being, nor are they taking away from anyone else’s profession. So you’re free to explore, and free to screw up, and you spend an enjoyable afternoon. I’ll be curious to see, as manufactured goods spread to more societies, and as leisure time among the middle classes increases, whether the phenomenon of do-it-yourself craftwork catches on in the developing world.