Loving the Koshary since August 2005

30 July 2006

Here Are the Highlights

I'm back in the US, now, in a swirl of work, family, commuting. But as much as my blog stand as a testament to my time in Egypt, it's not the end of the story. I have a feeling I will be back someday, maybe sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, here are the blog posts that meant the most to me, and the ones other people said were decent. Sometimes, one post fits both categories. Oh the joy.

The best (say others):
In the Sahara with 11 People, or, How to Make Your Own Peace with the Sky
Valley of the Kings of the Open Road

The Mysterious Shop on Maraashly Street
Dahab, In Memory
Adventures with Saeed, or, How Not to Get Religion, Drunk or Stoned

The ones from my heart:
Cairo: Thanks for the Allergies
At the Red Sea . . . In a Black Mood
Jordan: Chapter 2 - The Christian Restaurateur tells me how to be happy

Misfit Fittin' In

You've Got to Love Bitterness

Coming Back to Amr
My B-Day. My Friends.
Dahab - Abdullah's Unstable Water and Other Arguments

Par Avion

11 May 2006

Real Democracy in Egypt - I Decide to Vote in the AUC SU Elections

Today, I got to hit someone in the name of democracy.

Yesterday police beat up protesters complaining about the treatment of judges who dared to call the presidential election a farce. Was I with them? No.

I was trying to vote for Student Union president here at the American University in Cairo. This sounds innocent enough. It’s a student election right? Again, no – it’s a four day horror fest where mobs of orange and green class hooligans accost you, wherever you are, and demand that you Vote or Die (Thanks P. Diddy).

The candidates platforms are so broad as to be completely unattainable. Their experience broad and similar – they’ve both been primo social butterflies, flitting from one event board to the other. AUC has “events” like other schools have bad cafeteria food. EVERY DAY. It’s really not that hard to fill your dance card with all the amazing things you’ve done for the campus.

The candidates also try to impress you with their amazing scholastic ability. One candidate’s platform handout said he had a 3.089 GPA. That’s a ‘B.’ The kicker was, that GPA was as of Fall 2004. That’s four semesters ago. He could be surfin’ a ‘D’ and I wouldn’t know it.

The campaign workers don’t care, though. They apparently got trained in the democratic process, which in Egypt involves buying votes, screaming loudly and beating up the opposition.

Sometimes they’re subtle: “Have you voted yet? You should vote for Seif!” Other times, not so subtle. “Please vote.”
“No,” I say.
“Why not?”
“Because I don’t like you.”

No, I didn’t really say that. But after hours and hours of fending off earnest thugs, my polite tank was running dry.

So today, I decided to vote.

As I walked up to the voting location, I was accosted like a celebrity. Or, maybe a serial killer. It wasn’t like they were approaching me for my winning ways, killer smile or debonair lifestyle. In their eyes, I was a big piece of election meat, just ready to seasoned for either candidate #2 or candidate #3.

Did I mention the candidates are numbered? In Egypt, that also serves as an easy jail number for the mugshot, after the losing candidate gets sent to the big house for some hard labor.

Hands grasped my arms, orange t-shirt onion breath in my ears. “Vote for 2! Vote for 2 Have you seen his plan?” I assured them I was going to vote for 2. It didn’t matter, they followed me in, through the metal detectors, like a hawk waiting for a foolish rabbit to come into the open field.

umber three’s green shirt goons, blocked my path. “Vote 3,” said a big man. I assured him I was going to vote and my mind was made up. I did that by pushing past him.

I pushed through the crowd of yelling students, the whole place a blur of orange and green, designer jeans and FCUK shirts. A guy flew stumbled backwards past me, just pushed by the opposition. His friends pushed back. Blue-shirted AUC security guards hurdled into the fray like missiles, separating the rich and the very rich alike.

I was ten feet from my goal. I was going to vote, and no one was going to stop me. Not even people grabbing my shoulder and yelling in my ears. Not the bodies pressed up against me in the center of this maelstrom of democracy and testosterone.

Then, right in front of me, orange pushes green. Green pushes back. The crowd polarizes like a magnet, both sides pushing back. A fist shot out. Whumpf. That’ll leave a mark on that Diesel shirt. People were getting a bit to close for comfort, so I pulled my bag to the center of my back and burrowed in, shoulders and elbows first. I put an elbow one large man’s belly and pressed past, leaning in, right shoulder first. I staggered left with the crowd, using my mass, shoulders and hand to keep a bit of breathing room.

The blue-shirts again, security guards in the mix. The poll only feet away. A small Egyptian girl who had come with me grabbed my sleeve. She was almost shaking. “Let’s go!” She said. “They close the gates when there’s a fight! We won’t be able to get out.”

“I don’t want to,” I yelled back, looking back at the excitement. “This is fun!”

She gave me a quizzical look. I grinned back. But she was right. So we left.

I didn’t vote. But it didn't really matter. That's not the point of democracy anyway, is it?

02 May 2006

Par Avion

Dear Senegal,

I left you a week ago – the same way I met you. My heart in my throat.

From the first, I could only compare you to my only other real experience. You were different of course, in so many ways. But I was fascinated to see how I responded to you, how I changed anew, how I remembered how much I liked to change.

I loved you for that. I thrilled in the chance to fill, to grow, into the space you gave me in the short time I had.

I studied you first, careful as always. So some things didn’t surprise me. I worked on the language, the mannerisms, and the traditions. What made you laugh, what made you smile, what made you sad. What you dreamed for the future, the past you wanted leave behind.

And so I appeared to you, out of the dark.

But other things gave me pause: The rhythm of your life, how who you are changed over time, how your language was different than the one I thought was all-important and thought I knew so well. You were more than I expected, yet your heart was simple.

I spun, reeling in confusion, as who you really were overtook me like a gust of wind. But afterward, we were both still there, growing together, swaying in the breeze and the night.

Then, I took you for granted. I felt that I understood you, that there were no more challenges. I got comfortable in my limited vocabulary, what I could get away with. I looked over the horizon, looked for the next sun.

And, I lost you.

I’m without you now. Who we were together changed who I am now. But I can’t help feel there was more for me to learn, more for me to change. And now – I can’t.

Maybe I’ll see you again. Maybe I won’t. It might not be up to me. But I’ll keep growing, keep changing.

And I’ll miss you.

26 April 2006

Dahab, in Memory

I loved Dahab. Look back and few posts and you'll see the fun I had in that tiny strip of hippy tourist heaven. Two days ago three terrorist bombs turned it into hell.

I had friends who were there, they screamed "Get down" as they heard one explosion after the other, one in a place they had shopped at an hour before. Another friend of mine was at one of the bombed restaurants, in the midst of screams and smoke. Around him lay his friends, some badly hurt. Less than 15 feet away his waiter lay dead - his brains and blood splattered across the floor. My friend escaped death that day, touched only by fate.

Some call this evil. Some say it's a play against the West or the Egyptian government. But I know who really felt it: The normal people -- Egyptians and foreigners.

The Egyptians: Denied the same hospital care foreigners got; told to look for friends among a stack of dead bodies; forced to watched as the town mayor pranced in among the carnage to see the damage -- until the angry, tearful owner of a destroyed restaurant grabbed him by his lapels and gave him a conscience in cuss words.

The foreigners: Vacationing German and American doctors quietly consoling the frantic and the dying, cheerfully bring some back from the brink of despair and death; a friend who wonders still if it's safe to go outside and can't stop wondering if that nice Egyptian man she met at a restaurant is alive or dead.

Dahab was peace. It was happiness. It was Bob Marley with an Egyptian accent. Now the burned bloody holes on the battered boardwalk serve notice that something worse than death can strike, turning each day into the blackest night.

It's called fear.

24 April 2006

The Changing Relationship - China and the Middle East

In the 'Well put, old chap' quotes department:

Yet Saudis are quick to note that China's gain is not necessarily America's loss. China cannot provide the security guarantees that the United States has to most of the countries in the Gulf region. In that light, the idea that Saudi Arabia would turn entirely to China can also be seen as a bit of political stagecraft.

"We are in a Catholic marriage with America," Bahlaiwa said, emphasizing that divorce was unthinkable. "But we are also Muslims - we can have more than one wife."

Read the rest of the story.

18 April 2006

In Italy, Blushing at Knees

I spent all of 13 hours in Milan, Italy on my way to Senegal. I was a bit woozy still from the sleeping pill I popped as my Alitalia flight went wheels up from Cairo International.

I wasn't going to be ambitious, just curious. Wander around Milan a little bit, savoring the fact that I had packed less then I usually would for a sleepover. Maybe drink an espresso and flex my childlike Italian.

But then there were . . . the women's knees.

See, in Cairo? No womanly knees, no legs at all really. Now it's not like I have some thing for knees, you understand. It's just, living in an Islamic country means you get used to seeing a lot less of the female species than usual.

This means that anytime I go to places in Egypt with Western tourists, be it the beach in Dahab or the entrance of the Egyptian Museum, I have this immediate reaction, similar to what most people in the Midwest US would feel if someone came down the street in nothing but a bikini bottom. Mothers would call children indoors and the town hall bell would announce an emergency city council meeting to discuss the latest affront to good taste, apple pie and baseball. Well not quite. They'd probably just say "Stupid Yuropeans" and go back to their coffee.

Okay, so my reactions are different: Raised eyebrows, usually, and some under-the-breath comment about low women. Or, "they must be Eastern European prostitues," as some friends of mine whispered as two slinky minxes high-hipped by us at the Egyptian Museum.

The point is: You get used to the modesty. It starts to affect how you feel about people.

In Milan, immodesty surrounded me. I think my face turned a shade of the red-light district and stayed that way throughout my entire visit.

Other than be embarrased the whole time, I really didn't do anything that exciting. Wandered to the city center, window shopping along the way. Went in the big cathedral, where I sobbed my eyes out (still working on the reasons for that).Had a cappucino AND espresso by the central piazza. Ate a Texas McMenu meal mostly because you could get beer with it. I had to "Maxi-size" the meal to get the beer. Drat.

Hours later I shoved my Euros in my bag. No more fashion shopping for me - West Africa, here I come.

Dahab - Abdullah's Unstable Water and Other Arguments

It was a weekend. That’s it, nothing special. But I smelled sand, snorkels and seafood, and for poor students in Egypt, that means Dahab.

It’s not that special of a place, really. Most of the resort towns springing up around the Red Sea are just that: Package tourist hell courtesy of piped-in trees and spray-painted cement. But Dahab, while just a blip on the Eastern edge of the Sinai, tries to be different.

It’s hippy-heaven.

Or was, anyway. Like most hippies, Dahab has aged and gotten a bit more practical. The days of huts on the beach are long gone – now there is a plethora of rasta-shops, pizza places, and beach-seafood joints with hawkers who’s best English is the type meant to get you to eat at what is (obviously, they say) the best place. Among dozens.

Unlike Cairo, Dahabian English is decidedly Caribbean. Tinny strains of Bob Marley dribble out of inadequate speakers. Want some lemon juice with your fish? “Ya mon,” says the waiter, his carved-shell ganja necklace fighting for hang time with the dreads that sprout from his Muslim head.

Ah, Egypt. How thou doth confuse me.

I went with a trio of friends – K, D, and M. Oh, what fun. Nothing like mixing friends in the blender of travel and seeing what comes out the other side.

Of course, like any small town, you run into people you know – a gaggle of other AUC students, in my case. Before you know it, we were doing things in bunches; my dream of a vibrant foursome now shot to shreds.

Meet Abdullah. He’s a Jordanian-Palestinian, but more American than I. He’s down with the latest lingo, the current pop culture. Want an obscure (but like, way hilarious, bro) movie reference? Abdullah’s your man. He’s also massive – he played football for a US college team. Three years I think, y0.

Like a cloud, we descended on an “Indian” restaurant for supper that night. We expected quality. After all, the sign out front clearly said “Real Indian Chef.” Ya mon, don’t even try going to the other Indian restaurants on this Egyptian beach – they only have Egyptians steamin’ up THEIR jasmine rice.

Jamaicans, Indians, Egyptians. The multi-ethnic electricity zapped in my head. Especially because most of the tourists hailed from Russia’s Great White North.

I saw one Russian woman, wearing an accent and little else, talking with a man who looked disturbingly like Osama bin Laden. Osama is from Saudi Arabia, has a long beard, wears a turban and a camouflage jacket, and enjoys repression. He likes long walks on the beach.

I almost wanted to flash a peace sign at the guy and say, “one love, bro.”

It got late, K and D got happily smashed. K gets un-quiet and D gets boisterous, by the way. They happily chatted about things, and slowly fell over backwards on their bench. The better to see the stars, I guess.

Before you know it, D and M got into deep discussion about, um, things – you know, politics, the environment, religion, values, morality. Nothing that could offend, obviously.

In a short amount of time, daring D insulted M’s man (“He’s a dullard”), convinced her he didn’t feel anyone’s pain (especially poor people or animals), and was going to sell his services to the highest bidding oil company, morality be hanged.

M wasn’t going to let any of that stand unchallenged. Hoo, boy – there’s a good time. For the record, D is not like that. He just was that night.

Then a fellow AUCian strolled into the picture, about the time D and K checked out together – riding the bench into the starlight of sodden dreams.

I missed most of the conversation. Let’s just say, when I came back to get M (she had my room key, mon), she and the AUCian were in a dueling stance ten paces apart. The other girl lifted her pistol . . .

“You just open the Bible, and read it, and you’ll see what is true,” she said.

Such good hippy conversation.

I promised to mention Abdullah’s Unstable Water. The next day he couldn’t get his fins on for snorkeling, his rotund body splashing in the shallow water. “I can’t do it,” he said. “the water’s unstable.” I looked around and didn’t see a pop culture reference coming to his aid, so I did.

Maybe you don’t care, but the best part of the weekend was when I flew through the water, flapping my wings like the large manta ray soaring 10 feet away. It didn’t say anything about Jesus, but I had water in my ears. I might not have caught it.

10 April 2006

Adventures with Saeed, or, How Not to Get Religion, Drunk or Stoned

His name was Saeed. First impression? Old, stately guy in a big, blue button-up sweater, a scar on his weathered face. Walked with a bit of a limp.

“Taxi,” he told me, giving himself permission to not only tell me the story of the fateful traffic encounter, but educate me on the danger of headstrong drivers in a headlong rush.

I had known him for three minutes.

He had asked the time, and found out I was American. In a rush, we bonded in a love for WWE wrestling. Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t actually love the soap opera episodes inherent in the onscreen lives of angry, tight-wearing sweaty men. I just know a bit about it all, enough to carry on a conversation about Brock Lesnar versus The Undertaker.

Oh - Lesnar, all the way, right?

A casual conversation led into a long afternoon smoking sheesha and drinking tea and talking about life. Mostly him talking, though - in the broken English he said he learned from watching wrestling and listening to the BBC.

Eventually he ran out of English and I ran out of Arabic. We sat in companionable silence, watching the flow of the street – donkey carts and 1960s-era taxis jostling for position; The occasional traffic cop, worthless as they often tend to be in Cairo, casually gesturing for no-one to go anywhere.

After several hours, he took me close by to his neighborhood mosque. The imam and I looked at each other, both a bit confused, I think. But Saeed knew what was going on: He wanted to tell me about Islam, and what it should mean to me.

His English fell flat. I got it, regardless: his passion signaled in the way he squeezed my hand, the zeal shining in his eyes. The pleading in his voice.

“This is how you get to Heaven,” he said, handing me a mosque copy of the Koran. “Praise god, praise god, praise god,” he said in Arabic - with fervency so familiar to me from my youth spent in revivals, special meetings, Wednesday night Bible studies and Sunday school.

We sat for awhile. Soon, I left for class – but not until we arranged for him to come over to my apartment the next day to cook fish. “GOOD fish,” he said.

It took about a day to change my mind. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it: Was I leery of inviting a stranger I barely knew into a home I shared with two girls? Was I a coward, afraid of too much unknown in my zone of comfort?

The next day, he showed up and instead of fish at my place, I took him out. Or rather, he took ME out, to a bar – across from a mosque – like a good Muslim. “Are you happy?” He asked. Sure, I’m happy, Saeed. (But was it disappointment I felt? What was I expecting? What exactly was I doing? Why did I feel so strange deep in my gut? Why was I checking for my wallet?)

Then, off to a restaurant a few blocks from his house for some cheap grilled meat, bread and salad. Afterward we went a block down to drink some tea and look at more traffic. “We should buy hashish,” he said, conspiratorially.

I wasn’t smoking hash, I didn’t want beer, and I didn’t want to become a Muslim. The feeling in the pit of my stomach grew even stronger.

I said goodbye. He seemed sorry and sad, although I’m not sure why. In my mind, I pretended it was because we had shared good times and good conversation, not because he was disappointed I didn’t want to get religious, drunk or stoned.

I was sick all night. The next day, I spent hours in the bathroom, vomiting.

I still tell myself it was the salad.

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