Tag Archives: Egypt

Eid Mubarak–A Very Expat Holiday in Cairo

Eid is one of the biggest holidays of the Muslim calendar. It commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, and the miracle of having the ram appear to be sacrificed instead. In the Islamic tradition, the sacrificial son was Ishmael, and the prophet Mohammed traces his lineage back to him, just as in the Christian tradition Jesus traces his lineage back to Issac. Eid is celebrated in most Muslim countries by a sacrifice of various animals, usually sheep, sometimes cows and cockerels as well. For the past several days, I’ve seen dazed-looking flocks of sheep lining the Cairo streets, and known that the date of the Great Sacrifice was coming soon.

As a longtime vegetarian, I admit that I looked forward to Eid with no small amount of trepidation.  My memories of Eid in Morocco consisted mainly of trying not to step in puddles of bloody rain in the streets of Rabat, and watching kids play catch with severed goat heads before tossing them onto makesihft bonfires on street corners. I’d been on a train that morning, so I’d missed everything to do with the slaughter and only saw a bit of the aftermath. I was torn, this time around, between the desire to experience an “authentic” Egyptian Eid and the desire to stay as far away from slaughtered animals as humanly possible.

Though I’d heard that there might be a parade in the morning, the guy who invited me to watch with him never got back to me. So I spent the night before Eid at home with my new flatmates and took their advice: the best way to spend Eid morning is to get so drunk the night before that you sleep through the sounds of the animals screaming. (Don’t worry, mom. I didn’t actually get that drunk).

I did sleep through the morning slaughter, but was awakened by the steady pounding sound of cow cadavers being hacked to pieces in the building directly opposite my window. I was relieved to discover, on looking outside, that while the activity was audible it was not visible, and there was no blood running down the road as I remembered from Maroc. The only visible signs of the slaughter from my vantage point were carts of bloody sheepskins driving down the street. A butcher-shop smell was in the air.

I went out for lunch with an Egyptian friend, who told me he didn’t like the  smell of blood or the taste of sheep meat either, and so didn’t really celebrate the Eid.   Like disaffected 20-somethings everywhere, he found spending too much time with his parents at home “boring,” and so we were two of many young adults in the restaurant-cafe, presumably all taking a break from awkward familial conversations at home. It reminded me of nothing so much as the inevitable, desperate cafe run with friends that accompanies almost any holiday visit home in the US, when you’re sick of being asked what you’re doing with your life. Young adults everywhere are the same.

In the evening, Lorna and Ellie invited a handful of friends for a small house party–their own take on the celebration of Eid.  It was very non-Muslim, in that there were large quantities of alcohol, and no real link to any Eid traditions. Just a few expat women and their spouses (some foreign, some Egyptian), with cocktails and conversation and bellydance tv.

All in all, it was the kind of holiday celebrated everywhere by people without their families nearby, or by people faced with huge cultural holidays that are not their own.  We find friends and gather, not out of any kind of tradition, but out of a need for companionship and solidarity. That when everyone around us is celebrating in  a way that we can’t join, at least we are not alone.

 

 

 

An almost-night of bellydance

I’m back in Cairo, after many adventures, and I promise I’ll get around to blogging about my time in the desert at some point fairly soon. In the meantime, starting off again in media res…

This evening, my new flatmates and I were  supposed to go out to experience Egyptian Cabaret in all its sleazy glory.  I’m living with the incomparable Cairo-based artists Lorna of Cairo and Ellie of London, and there’s nothing better for a flat full of artists than to go out and experience other forms of art, wherever and however they might be found.

So.

We took a cab into downtown, near Tahrir, to look for a certain dive that Lorna knew of. When we arrived, however, we experienced a shock. All the shops, normally closed well before midnight, were open. Lights were blazing, the streets were full, and everyone walked around in pre-holiday excitement in preparation for Eid. This meant two things. First, Lorna couldn’t find the cabaret, because every other time she’s been there the shops have been closed. With everything open and all the lights on, the usual landmarks didn’t work. Second, when we finally did find the place, it turned out that the cabaret was closed–because drinking booze and watching girls shimmy is apparently haram (forbidden) before Eid.

Like any enterprising women, then, we decided to figure out Plan B. We could go shopping, since the stores were all open, but we wanted to relax. Cup of tea in a local coffeeshop, then…with bellydancers on the TV. Many, many bellydancers. A whole channel full, in fact. And they were better dancers than we’d have been likely to see at the live cabaret, which as mentioned before is fun largely because of the level of sleaze, rather than the talent of the dancers.

Lorna and Ellie decided, after several dances, that it was imperative that we find this channel on the TV at home, in the interest of having access to 24-hour a day bellydance. The name of the channel that we needed to search for?

…wait for it…

“El Tit”

And yes. That means exactly what you think.

 

Expats, Locals, and the Space in Between

In these last few days, I’ve met several expats living and working in Egypt. Some of them, like me, are doing development work, or are trying to give back to the communities in which they live. This, on the face of it, is good. Wanting to give back and help people is an admirable inclination. Not everyone shares it. In general, I very much approve of the impulse to do good.

And yet.

When you go out into the world to “help people,” you need to be careful. If your purpose is simply to pat your own back about how good a person you are, it shows. And if you consider the people that you are helping to be fundamentally different from or inferior to you, that shows also.

Yesterday, I went into a fair trade gallery with an Egyptian colleague. The expat lady who owns the shop immediately, on hearing about my project in Egypt, exclaimed “that’s wonderful!” and proceeded to tell me how nice and rewarding it is to work with Egyptians, and they’re so lovely, and so grateful, and it makes you feel so good to know that you’re doing something good for them…in the tones you might use to talk about working with multiply disabled children. The main difference being that the people I know who actually do work with multiply disabled children don’t talk about them that way. She mostly ignored my colleague, who has a degree in Egyptology and speaks fluent English. Every now and then she would include him in her conversation in the way that one might invite a child to contribute a few words in a group of adults.  And she spoke so much and so fast that I could barely get a word in edgewise to even things out.

My colleague is a quiet man. When I asked later what he thought of this woman, he said only that she had been helpful, which was entirely true. She gave me contact information for several other organizations in the area that might be good for my organization to work with.  And her work in fair trade is truly exemplary. She provides women in inaccessible villages around Egypt with a source of income by helping them design things to be sold in her shop, and her shop has some of the highest quality and most unique souvenirs I have seen. She is helping people, and doing it well. But the way she spoke to my colleague, and to her Egyptian employee, was so paternalistic that it really put me off, and I’m sure that my distaste showed to some degree though I did my best to hide it.

Interactions like this one (sadly, this incident is not isolated) make me incredibly angry. How do you manage to speak condescendingly about intelligent adults, in their own presence, as though they were not there? As if they didn’t understand your words? How do you do it, and how do you think it’s okay?

I have to believe, or at least I choose to believe, that people who speak and act in this manner do so unconsciously. That the bias is subconscious and the paternalism is unwitting. That if they actually realized they were causing offense, that they would behave differently. But it’s hard to speak to people about bias, about the ways in which they’re getting things wrong, particularly when there are a number of things that they’re doing right. No one wants to be told they’re being condescending and possibly racist.  It’s hard to raise the issue without creating offense or alienation.  It’s difficult to know what to do. What to say.

I was raised to believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity. I try to behave towards people in a way that reflects this. I am absolutely certain that I do not always succeed, that there are times and places and people that bring out the worst in my character and bring the biases that I have tried hard to overcome into the foreground. But I try to make these instances few and far between, and I try to be aware of them, at least, when they occur.  I try to treat all people with respect. (Friends who are reading this, please do let me know if and when I fail. I won’t like hearing it, and I’ll probably hate myself a little, but it’s something I need to know).

Expathood is difficult. You’re miles from home and anything familiar, the people have different customs and culture from your own.  You’re bound to notice these differences and form opinions on them. But “different” does not mean “less than.” It does not mean “wrong.” And it’s never alright to treat someone badly, just because they’re not similar to you.

 

 

 

A Long Overdue Update from Luxor

Hello everyone,

It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated this blog. Experiences in Egypt have come thick and fast, and it’s been nearly impossible to find the time to process it all, let alone blog about it. I’m going to make an attempt tonight, and hopefully work backwards over the course of the next month or so to write about everything I’ve been doing lately that’s made me too busy to write.

I’m in Luxor right now, in Upper or Southern Egypt.  Upper Egypt is called so because of its elevation, because it is the area from which the Nile flows, towards the low lands and the Mediterranean to the North.  It is my third day here. I arrived by felucca  (small traditional sailboat) from Aswan, and saw the glories of the Karnak and Luxor temples on my first day. The second day, I got up at crazy o’clock in the morning and went for my first-ever hot air balloon ride, watching the sun rise over the horizon from above the Nile and the many temples down below. After the balloon ride, I went to the valley of the kings, where I saw  the tombs of Ramses I, Ramses III, and Sety II on my regular ticket. Then I paid the extra to see the tombs of Tutankhamen and Ramses VI (it’s worth the extra cost). After the kings, we saw the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the only woman to ever rule Egypt as a Pharaoh, and the Colossi of Memnon (yes, they’re big).  After all that, the group that I had joined briefly to get from Aswan to Luxor departed for Cairo, and I was here on my own.

I’ve had a couple of meetings with people about projects in the area, though I haven’t seen any yet.  The people I’ve met individually through recommendations of other contacts have been lovely. But what I’ve discovered about Luxor is that it lives and breathes by tourism alone, and it’s bleeding its tourists dry. It is impossible to walk alone here without being harassed. In Cairo and Aswan, the harassment is limited to just a few areas—the main tourist areas, if you will. In Luxor, the town has nothing besides tourist areas. Which means no place is safe from harassment, if you’re female and alone.

Take this afternoon. My agenda as I planned it:

  1. Go to the bookstore.
  2. Stop at a jewelry shop.
  3. Take a walk for some fresh air and exercise.
  4. Stop by a café to do some work and relax.

My afternoon as it actually happened?

  1. Start walking to the bookstore.
  2. Refuse the advances of multiple taxi and caleche drivers who alternately ask where I’m going, offer to take me wherever they think I’m going, tell me how beautiful I am, tell me they’re single,  and after about ten iterations of “no, no thank you, no, I’m not interested, no, no, and no,” they leave with a hopeful, “maybe later,” that indicates that they’ll remember me for the next time they see me walking and harass me again.
  3. Go to the bookstore. No hassle here, because they know they have things that foreigners want and will buy without convincing. Spend a very pleasant time and buy a new journal and a pocket phrasebook.
  4. Stop by the jewelry shop next door. Ascertain that I don’t see anything I want in about 2 minutes, stick around for another 5 minutes convincing the shopkeeper that I really are going to leave without buying anything because I really don’t see anything I like.
  5. Start to take a walk.
  6. Feel elated after 3 minutes with only a few minor comments to herald my passage.
  7. Get approached out of nowhere by a guy asking me what I think of Luxor, who does not appreciate the irony with which I say, “It would be a great town without the hassle.” He starts walking beside me down the street (without any invitation on my part).
  8. Face the dilemma: let him follow me down the road and be annoyed by his talk, or lose him with difficulty and risk (almost inevitably) being followed by someone worse? Either way I lose.
  9.  Choose the lesser of two evils—he hasn’t said anything overtly sexual yet, and if he follows me at least he’ll keep the other guys away.
  10. Skip the coffee shop (because then he will want to come in  and keep talking) and go back to the hotel (a good place to ditch someone–now he knows where I live, but at least he can’t get inside).

So.

Afternoons like this one are really pretty mild. No one groped me, proposed marriage to me, made indecent sexual advances to me, or ripped me off. All in all, I can count the afternoon as a relative success, since at least I got what I wanted at the bookstore.

That said, afternoons like this one are indicative of a larger problem. People come to Egypt for the pyramids and temples, for the desert and the Nile and the experience of being someplace exotic and new. But very few people, having been to Egypt once, have any desire to go back, and it’s largely due to the  harassment. The first time I traveled to Egypt, I had no intention of ever returning. The pyramids and the Nile were nice, but I’d been groped, harassed, and propositioned so many times during my 7-day visit that I couldn’t wait to leave.  I like Egypt much better the second time around because I’m not always in the touristy areas where these occurrences are common. But the fact that these things happen often to tourists is an enormous shame.

Egypt has much to offer a traveler.  It’s an amazing, beautiful, and unique country with the potential to do truly great things. But this one unavoidable inconvenience repels repeat business and keeps people away. Egypt needs its tourists–they’re the basis of the entire economy. It needs to treat them well when they arrive.

 

 

 

 

The Alexandria Fish Market

It’s not often that a restaurant meal is the central focus of my day, but today was an unusual day. I woke up early to take the public bus from Cairo to Alexandria, and arrived at my hotel a little after noon.  I hadn’t slept much and was ravenous, so I decided to dive into my Alexandria experience by heading to the Fish Market, a place that had come highly recommended by multiple Egyptian friends.

Based on my time in Morocco, I expected a place with a name like “fish market” to be informal: an outdoor extravaganza by the docks where the fish jumps pretty much directly from the boats onto your plate, hitting the grill and some lemon along the way. Noisy, chaotic, full of life and character…this was my expectation.

Imagine my surprise, then, after a long, hot walk to get there, that the Fish Market was a formal restaurant, with blue and white tablecloths and big plate glass windows that looked out over the Mediterranean. My first instinct was to go elsewhere: I’d been looking for cheap and local, not formal. But I was hungry, and I’d just walked for half an hour in the hot sun…I sat down. The waiters ushered me to a corner table, set for six, next to huge plate-glass windows with a spectacular view of the sea.

The view from the restaurant window

Though there was a menu at the Fish Market, it was mostly symbolic. Though it wasn’t the chaotic boatside restaurant of my imagination, it did have the most important similarity:  a large display counter, where different kinds of fish and seafood  sat half-buried in ice. You could choose your own fish and its method of preparation, and they would bring it to your table made to order.

I had a small crisis at the fish counter. Next to each fish was a small sign indicating the price, but said signs were incomplete. Sea bass was 92 Egyptian pounds (about $15). Was this per fish? Per pound? I hadn’t been planning on spending much money, and no helpful English-speakers were in sight, either in terms of staff or other patrons. This meal looked like it might end up being way more than I could really afford for an ordinary lunch. I finally chose a sea bass that looked like it weighed about a pound, figuring that at least that way I would know the approximate price regardless of the system. I didn’t order any side dishes at the fish counter, because I wasn’t sure how much they’d cost, and I didn’t want to end up paying $30 for my meal.

When I got back to my table I found a bottle of water and a lavish display of mezze, which I hadn’t ordered.  It looked beautiful, but I inwardly sighed. I could already see how this whole meal was going to go–amazing food that I couldn’t refuse at a price I didn’t want to pay. I was tired, I was starving, and I’d been walking in the sun for half an hour after a 3 hour bus ride…I was an easy mark and I knew it. But the mezze looked delicious, and I was too tired to argue and too hungry to think about anything else, so I decided to make the most of my unplanned extravagance and dig in.

Mezze

The mezze were excellent, hummus, baba ganoush, a green salad with tomato, and two dishes I’d never seen before, one made from pureed garlic, the other from fava bean paste. Then my fish came, spanning the length of my plate, and though it needed salt and lemon it was very well prepared.

Grilled Sea Bass

Finally, the bill came. I had already resigned myself to an inflated price, so was incredibly, pleasantly surprised when the total for the fish, mezze, and bottle of water came to just under 70 Egyptian pounds (about $12).  The price of the fish was per kilo, not per pound–remember where you are, Laura! The fabulous mezze were only 10 pounds ($2).  I felt like an idiot, both for failing to remember the local measurement system, and for being so negative and suspicious  that the place was going to rip me off.

Every now and then, my jaded traveler expectations are wrong. This was one of those times.

So thank you, Fish Market, for exceeding my expectations, and for providing a really excellent meal at a reasonable price. I’m here in Alexandria for several days yet…I will be back.

The brutal aftermath...

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.