Archive for June, 2013

photo 1

A photo I took while having some tea with a friend on the Corniche (kudos Instagram)

As I wake up each “morning” around 11am-3pm (I know, I know – don’t judge) I turn my pillow over, adjust the air conditioning as necessary, and expose additional bits of skin hiding under the heavy polyester blanket to the cool air circulating throughout my bedroom. After snoozing my iPhone alarm a few times, I typically peel myself from bed, rub my eyes a few times, and meander to the bathroom like an extra in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. Sure, the lack of a proper shower/tub/curtain/door is a little peculiar; and yes, the water takes a lunar cycle to heat up; but these are things one can adjust to quite easily. Though, once I ride the elevator down to the lobby and step outside the doors to my building, I’m instantly hit with the reminder of where I am. I quickly spot the Himalayan mound of trash, the fruit vendors, the shopkeepers, the dirt, and the plethora of wild cats and dogs rummaging through all of the above. Then there’s the heat. Dear God, the heat.

I mention these things because finding the intersection of West and [Middle] East has become a recurring trend in my adventures this week. The bitter culture shock of living in Cairo has long gone, and I’m actively creating a routine of frequenting the posh coffee shops such as Cilantro and Kosta and eating at not-so-posh ful, falafel, and koshary joints. Amidst all of this I’ve encountered some new friends. Last week I mentioned my local Egyptian friend Amr who is as Egyptian as they come, and I enjoy his company precisely because of this. We talk about politics, music, religion, culture, youth, etc., and I can never get enough of learning about life according to a young Cairene. However this week I had the privilege to meet a group of Egyptians (and other international expatriates) from a fundamentally different pocket of Egyptian society. Many of these new friends are western-educated, speak English as well as (if not better than) me, and enjoy discussing the various sadistic plots from the past season of Game of Thrones (spoiler alert: they all die). In the spirit of Egyptian hospitality, I was invited to join them for a delightful weekend on the north Mediterranean coast in a city called El Alamein. As I sipped a Mango smoothie and engaged in a lively debate regarding whether or not I thought the local beach was the best beach I’d ever been to (which it was NOT, I should say. See: Oahu, Maui, San Diego), I had to keep reminding myself that this little resort town and the people therein were as much a part of Egypt as the bustling streets and niqab-wearing women in Cairo. Though it was a weekend largely devoid of practicing Arabic, reading the latest Morsi news, or playing human Frogger, it served another important purpose in my journey throughout Egypt. This weekend showed me that Egyptian society is not confined to political protests, men in gellabiyas, and fastidious attendance to daily prayers. Some Egyptians simply enjoy having a beer, watching Jon Stewart, and sharing stories of their exposure to vast international cultures. It was a refreshing weekend, and now I’m back in Cairo preparing for Arabic language courses throughout the summer.

Observations:

– Very few people speak fusha (pronounced fuhs-hah), or Modern Standard Arabic, here in Egypt. Back in the States, most Arabic professors stress that students must learn fusha because that’s what everyone in the region speaks. They give some credence to the fact that regional dialects exist, but if I had a nickel for every time I was reassured that “everyone understands fusha” well, I’d have a lot of nickels. Whether it’s a function of the lack of formal education among many of the city’s shopkeepers and taxi drivers, or whether it’s because I picked the Arab country with perhaps the most deviant colloquial, I’ve had a lot of difficulty using what little Arabic I brought with me. For example, in Modern Standard Arabic the word for “the price” is said to be السعر (al-sihAr) while Egyptians exclusively say بكام (al-bihKAM) to settle their bills. It’s a little frustrating knowing that a large portion of what I have already learned/will learn in future fusha classes will be of nominal value here in Cairo, but I’m hoping that the strong foundation in classical Arabic will pay dividends during future travels in the region.

photo 3

Anti-regime posters plastered on a wall in Tal3at Harb Square near Tahrir Square

– The upcoming protests on June 30th have the entire city country galvanized. Conveniently when I was up north this weekend, large pro-Morsi protests were held in the outskirts of Cairo and a crowd well over 6 figures large turned out to wave flags and recite Quranic verses. The anti-Morsi protests slated for June 30 are expected to gather well over 1 million attendees – including almost every young person I’ve met in Cairo to date. Listening to everyone complain and proclaim their grievances against the current regime is very interesting from a politically philosophical standpoint. Egypt is experiencing its first ever taste of democracy, but I’m afraid they’re not giving it time to mature in their palate. Though their claims of government incompetence and corruption appear valid, the idea of forcefully ousting a president who’s term has lasted less than one year is a bit alarming. There are ~80 million people living in Egypt, almost 40 million of which live in the Cairo metropolitan area. If a small/medium/large subset of these highly diverse millions felt entitled to overthrow the government every time the regime failed to deliver something they desired, the country would descend into chaos as it endures a perpetual revolutionary cycle. Democracy, in all its grandeur, requires patience. Democracy also means that the losing team must semi-peacefully ride the pine until their chance to compete in the next elections finally approaches. Such is what Republicans will do until 2016, and what Democrats did all throughout the 80’s and 90’s. As people ask me “do you think Morsi will step down?” I find myself unable and unwilling to answer. I personally don’t see anything short of widespread death and dispersion at the hands of Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood as suffice to call for his ouster. On the same token, I don’t think a man who has been consolidating politically power for the past 12 months is prone to relinquishing it very easily. However, I do recognize that some people are literally starving as a result of his regime’s inability to responsibly manage the provision of basic civil services. Time will tell what is to become of this great country, and I hope the best for the people of Egypt regardless of the outcome of June 30th and onward.

– On a less serious note, updated ‘Shisha Sesh’ count: 6. I think grape, melon, and peach are my favorite flavors thus far.

As usual, thanks for reading!

Advertisements

One week down in Cairo and wow… just wow.

living_in_cairoI expected “different”. I expected “unique”. But they didn’t tell me Cairo would be like this. Cairo (al-Qahira) is an amazing amalgam of noise, humanity, cement, river, and dirt, yet somehow it all just works. I’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout western Europe in my lifetime, and I’ve even been to far corners of the United States that might as well be foreign lands (ahem.. New Orleans), but there’s just nothing that compares to being in the thick of things here. When I was growing up I assumed that the rest of the world, and the United States for that matter, acted and operated like Southern California but while utilizing different languages and wearing funny clothes. Though I’d like to think that my perceptions of international cultures has matured since then, I’ve found that my preconceived notions of Egyptian culture were far from how things actually are. Yes, there are McDonalds’, KFC’s, and Baskin Robbins in Cairo, but no amount of chicken nuggets or rainbow sherbet can shield you from all that’s going on outside your window.

First impressions:

– As expected, I was woken up at the ripe time of 3:08AM for the first call to prayer (Fajr) on my first morning in Cairo. It’s one thing to hear an adhan (and do play the 11 second clip of Hafiz Zeeshan Kasimuddin’s recitation on the right hand side of the page to hear the best version I’ve heard to date) bellowing through your windows each morning, but it’s another to hear TWENTY adhans from every local mosque steamrolling into your 7th floor apartment. To be fair, I do think the adhan is hauntingly beautiful – especially Hafiz’s. It’s something that just screams “Middle East” or “Islam”, and I’ve grown to like hearing it five times each day (the other times being 11:56AM, 3:32Pm, 6:59Pm, and 8:32PM – in case you were wondering). If nothing else, it’s a humble and frequent reminder of where I am, what I’m doing, and why I’m here. Now, on the other hand, the relentless cacophony of young men hawking melons, sodas, and butane canisters outside my window is a battle I’m far from winning at the moment.

– Everyday things are expectedly cheap by western standards. Though I realize that items here are priced proportionally with what the average Egyptian is making at his/her job, it’s hard not to act like Russel Brand/Dudley Moore in the 2011/1981 film “Arthur”. During my first few waking hours I was in dire need of an internet connection to get back in touch with the western world. I stumbled upon a cyber cafe, nestled myself between some rambunctious young boys playing Counter Strike, World of Warcraft, and Grand Theft Auto, and fired off a few requisite emails. On that note, it was a welcome sight to see Egyptian children leading childhoods similar to mine: in cyber cafes playing “shoot ’em up” games, as my father would say. These cafes are typically run by old men who barely know what a computer is, much less how to operate them, and who rely on their grandson to take a break from slaying murlocks to come manage your computer or printer. Anyway, I digress… it cost me about 7 Egyptian Pounds (or 1 U.S. Dollar) for a little less than 2 hours of computer time.  For another frame of reference, a 25 minute taxi ride from my apartment to the city center ran me about 12 L.E. (or about $1.70). This is not an attempt to brag about wealth discrepancy, but rather to shed some light onto just how different the economies of Israel and Egypt — neighboring Middle Eastern countries might I add — really are.

– Crossing traffic is everything people, blogs, etc. said it would be. There is no better way to explain it other than human Frogger. One must be deliberate, yet careful. Patient, yet hasty. Crossing the street is an invariable battle of wills, and drivers are not kecairotrafficen to being the “suckers” who let the pedestrian waste precious seconds of their time. In a game of chicken to see who is more courageous, jaywalkers extraordinaire glide between cars (often no more than 1-2 inches away from being struck) while drivers speed up and slow down to prevent or permit safe passage. When a walker has made his/her choice to venture forth, drivers often speed up to try and see if you have the nerve to keep going. Should you accept this challenge, you’ll find the car stopping just a few inches in front of you coupled with a reluctant wave of the hand as he admits defeat.

– While we’re on the subject of cars and driving, it’s worth mentioning what the overall driving experience is like in Cairo. When it comes to traffic rules, there ARE NO traffic rules. Cairo is the wild, wild, east(?) when it comes to driving, and truly anything goes. The streets have no lanes, and I have yet to see a traffic light (or sign, for that matter) anywhere in the city. Drivers are free to drive anywhere, park anywhere, and honk anytime with impunity. Regarding honking, I’m already picking up on what certain honks mean. Cairo’s streets are inundated with honking horns, and in addition to the adhans which I mentioned earlier, they have to be on a short list for new national anthem. Some honks mean “watch out, I’m wedging my 1974 Citroen sedan in between you and the median”. Some mean “I’m here on this motorcycle in your blind spot, don’t merge into me”. Some are solicitations for people to jump onto their moving minibus. Some, I’m convinced, are because they simply like the sound. All of this is in conjunction with hundreds of locals filling every available cranny in between vehicles (usually in motion) like sand over rocks. Oh- and Egyptians absolutely refuse to use anything even remotely resembling a sidewalk, and there appears no way to convince them to do otherwise.

– Shisha (hookah). Is. Everywhere. Shisha is endemic in Egypt, and anywhere there is a ledge, curb, table, or surface of any sort, there is an old man sitting there smoking on it. I had my first Egyptian shisha-sesh (say that 5x fast) tonight, and I’m sure my lungs are going to hate me for what’s in store over the next 7 months. To allay the concerns of my less-familiar friends and family back home, shisha is flavored tobacco smoked out of a waterpipe (the hookah) in cafes and among various social events. People typically smoke shisha when having a cup of tea, browsing the internet, or simply having a conversation among friends.

Takeaways:

amr and meNow that I’ve no doubt succeeded in terrifying my followers with accounts of me hopping between moving vehicles, waking up to midnight loudspeakers, and digesting 50-cent felafel sandwiches, it’s worth noting the more important takeaways from my first week in Cairo. Egyptians have to be the most hospitable and welcoming people on earth. Not because their country is full of rich historical sites and treasures and they’re trying to make a pound or two off of you, but because it’s in their DNA to be friendly and helpful towards their guests. Knowing nothing about me other than what he could find on my limited Facebook page and subsequent profile picture, my new friend Amr (who may or may not be waking up to for Fajr prayer as I write this) has taken me under his wing and shown me the beauty, charm, and plethora of mobile phones that Cairo possess. I’ve been fascinated by his stories of life as a young, in-love, future college graduate, and I hope to impart on him the same kind of cultural lessons from my home back in America.

More to come soon. Ma’a Salaama!

On The Ground:

stock-photo-16681817-jerusalem-and-tel-aviv-road-signsAs expected, Jerusalem is vastly different from Tel Aviv. Weather: sure, architecture: definitely; however the cultural variations are most stark. Certainly the intersection of Arab/Palestinian communities with Jewish ones is among the most distinct and economically disparate faults of the Israeli government, but when chatting with a lot of locals in Jerusalem I’ve found that the commingling of various Jewish sects often creates more friction that an outsider might expect. I envisioned most Israeli Jews living in relatively peaceful coexistence under the banner of a  Jewish State, happy to be among a social majority. Though there aren’t protests in the streets, per se, there is evidently a lively and heated debate between more secular Jews and their ultra-Orthodox counterparts over issues of economic integration and “sharing the burden“. As a function of neglecting a formal education in English, math, the sciences, and computer skills, these ultra-Orthodox communities are vastly under-qualified to enter the modern workforce and are additionally exempt from serving in the military (as all other Israeli youth are mandated). The ultra-Orthodox are growing at a much faster rate than secular Israelis due to an exponentially higher birth rate, and are demographically gobbling up neighborhoods in order to sustain their expanding communities’ needs. These communities then implement conservative norms such as forbidding the operation of vehicles on the sabbath, enforcing strict codes of social conduct, and many others. One interesting quote I heard from some locals was that “we get along better with the Arabs than we do with the Orthodox,” and I was very surprised to hear such a claim. As someone who expected Jerusalem to be a city personified by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I found it interesting that Jerusalem suffers from internal dissension as much (if not more) than it does from various foreign pressures from its neighbors and the international community.

Touristy Stuff:

No trip to Israel would be complete without the standard trips to the Old City, Dead Sea, and various other notable locales. I had the privileged opportunity to be shown a slew of holy and historic cites by a fantastic tour guide named Natalie (who’s contact information I would be happy to pass on). Evidently, Israel takes its tourism very seriously and implements a very rigorous certification requirement  entailing 2+ years of training for all official tour guides. The quality of the tours we received really reflected this commitment to excellence, and Natalie demonstrated a keen expertise in all aspects of Jerusalem’s history. We toured the Western Wall, al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock (where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Issac/Ishmael – depending on your faith), among other noteworthy sites. Even as a very secular person, I couldn’t help but be moved by some kind of magical mysticism surrounding a city as vested in religious and anthropological history as Jerusalem. We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and eventual ascension into heaven, and needless to say it was a very powerful place to behold. They have places where you can reach your arm in and literally touch the rock that Jesus’ cross was fastened to, and I was sure to rub all sorts of Holy juju onto myself wherever I could. A large amount of the biblical history of Jerusalem was beyond what I could recall from my brief stints in childhood Catechism class, but it was certainly fascinating to learn bits about the original City of David, the various demolitions of Jerusalem by various marauding powers, and the evolution of Jerusalem’s society as a result of generations of conflict.

More Interesting Visits:

Some high points of my trip to Jerusalem, and Israel in general, include visits we made to the Golan Heights and to Rosh Hanikra (a city on the northwestern border with Lebanon). Being able to see Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon from various perched vantage points, I photoreinforced my understanding that Israel simply cannot afford to be wavering, timid, or overly defensive in its national security strategy. The Golan Heights is an occupied territory in northeastern Israel that was claimed from Syria as a result of the 1967 Six Day War. Though there has been relative peace between the two nations over the past few decades, a bloody civil war continues to wage inside Syria and now along its border with Israel. Regional instability emanating from the revolutionary tides inside Syria, Jordan, or Egypt have the ability to destabilize Israel if for no other reason than sheer proximity. Former treaties, agreements, and détente, with the Mubarak and Assad regimes to Israel’s south and north are now at risk, and this concerns Israel tremendously when analyzing the prospects for peace in a post-Arab Spring Middle East. At multiple points when driving north or south along the Israeli coastline, the border with the West Bank is no more than 9-10 miles to your east. I had a chance to study Afghanistan and Pakistan security challenges this past semester, and the concept of Afghanistan as a source of “strategic depth” for Pakistan continually came to mind when surveying how territorially narrow the Israeli homeland actually is. There is no place for Israel to fall back to, and major population hubs are a matter of miles (if not meters) away from contested/hostile territories. This sobering fact forms the backbone of Israel’s obsession with security, and it is no longer surprising to see the preemptive measures Israel’s military is willing to take to protect the country. I have yet to come to a conclusion on how I feel about this strategy as I find myself perpetually grappling with the legal and realist arguments for courses of action or inaction.

Onward:

The delicate balance of multiculturalism, vigilant national security, and religious sanctity makes Israel the most unique country I have visited thus far in my journeys. Israel occupies a unique place in the world politically-speaking by being the only true democracy amidst a sea of dictatorships, monarchies, and fledgling democracies who’s fates are not yet known. In terms of government organization, provision of civil services, and generally liberal attitudes and lifestyles, there is little to suggest that Israel is not a “western” country. However, as you barter the prices of melons and candies in the shuk, suffer the fate of a thousand car horns in the crowded streets near the Old City, and realize just how little personal space you have in lines for restaurants and ATMs, Israel appears very Middle Eastern in nature. In a way, Israel was the perfect springboard into my next stop: Cairo, Egypt. Israel possessed just enough Middle Eastern charm, coupled with various western creature comforts, to make the culture shock less severe than it could have been. Politically, I’m glad I was able to observe the domestic dynamics and international concerns facing Israel before living in an Arab country. Israel and Egypt possess a highly interesting history characterized by very high highs and very low lows that have cumulatively shaped the current relationship in profound ways. Much has yet to be seen about the fate of Egypt-Israel relations under President Morsi, and I am excited to see (from the sidelines, of course) how that relationship unfolds. Surely I will encounter plenty of critics of Israel during my stay in Egypt, but I will encounter them knowing that the Arab-Israeli conflict does not alone define Israel or the region. Israel grapples with environmental concerns, internal political debates, territorial disputes, and even rifts among its native Jewish communities- all in addition to a stagnant peace process and constant potential for military conflict. I look forward to experiencing Cairo for all that it is and is not, and sharing my journeys with all of you in the weeks to come.