Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

It's Christmas Day worldwide, and I am here celebrating with the family in Seattle!  Merry Christmas, everyone and I hope you are enjoying your holidays!

I celebrated my 20th last week with my boyfriend, who took me out to an amazing Italian dinner in Maadi including an adorable custom-made cake, red roses, and very Egyptian jewelery.  It was perfect in a couple-y, quiet, romantic way, but I kinda missed partying with my girls as a single lady last year because we had such a blast.  Ah, nostalgia.  I feel like I'm becoming too adult in my ways for my own good.  Later a bunch of us went out for a felucca ride and shisha downtown as a sort of last-hurrah before several of our number headed back to the states.  I made up for the adult-ness by making us Jello shots like a college student champ.  Aren't we adorable?

Coming back to the US for Christmas has been a bit strange, not only because of catching a cold just before leaving for the airport in Cairo or the jetlag.   Christmas is celebrated and has a presence in Cairo, but not like here, where I stepped off the plane in New York to be immediately assaulted with Christmas carol music, lights, and various gift stuff.   It was a bit of a culture shock, as was being surrounded by Caucasians speaking English.  I felt odd looking around me as I slid back into US culture in the spot of being a middle-class white person, with all the privilege that goes with it.  In Egypt the advantages are more tangible, because foreigners become the minority so we stand out, but having that framework and arriving back in the US to see Americans walking around unaware of it was a bit jarring.  The foreigners in Egypt, whether they flout their privilege and wealth or try to get away from it, are very aware of how they appear and are perceived.  You have to be sensitive to it, because the Egyptians sure are--you look like a walking dollar sign.

It's hard to let our reality shift, adapt to that shift, and learn from it.  It's scary when those tectonic plates of our psyche start making major shifts. I'm really struggling with mixed emotions about being here in Seattle and going back to Egypt.  It would be easy to just be here, be completely present and disregard the aspects of myself that changed from living abroad.  I could just ignore that it all happened and move on.  It's been so easy to pull on short skirts with tights, throw on my high heels and white wool coat that I left in the States and pretend nothing happened.  But things have changed, I don't mind wearing flats now as opposed to my constant heel-wearing self of last June, and I can't help comparing everything to Cairo in my head.  Seattle looks small, and squat with it's 5-story-or-less buildings in my neighborhood, the individual houses surrounded by small yards...it looks like a suburb of a suburb of Cairo.  I love it of course, but it feels like the small town I left behind for the big city.

I'm a little nervous about returning for round two in the big, bad urban jungle that is Cairo, and at the same time I can't wait.  We call cities in the states "urban jungles," but the fact is that you don't know a real jungle until you head to Africa.  Christmas carols sing that no matter how far away you roam, you can only have real happiness at home, but I'm finding myself very confused and a bit flustered even with the comfort and ease of being home with my parents.  There are gifts I have received that I can't take to Cairo with me because they're too fragile for the foreign environment and I find myself trying to talk about my relationship outside the context of the environment it started in which makes no sense.  How can I talk about my boyfriend without the context of his culture and environment?  People who haven't lived in Egypt just can't quite understand when I try to explain our relationship in an American context.

Well, here I am stuck between two worlds, and it would be easy to lay Cairo aside and go back to my regular US life if I wasn't going back in a week and a half, but I am. Who knows?  I may go back later for years and years, but either way I know I will be back.  I'm just going to enjoy Seattle while I can and get the most out of it, but I never want to forget Egypt for one second because it feels like if I blink I'll forget everything that happened the last 6 months.  My memories of Egypt are far too precious to be lost like that.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My Cairo Top 5

Well, my room mate posted her Cairo Top 3 list, so here's mine. Not that anyone asked but here is my Top 5 Cairo (not Egypt as a whole) list thus far, keeping in mind I haven't seen many of the major sites because I'm waiting for my parents to come, and keeping in mind that there are many more things, of varying sizes that I love and appreciate about Cairo:

1. Sitting in an 'ahwa downtown or by the Nile or next to centuries-old buildings, smoking shisha, sipping oversweetened Lipton Yellow-Label Tea, with my boyfriend. This is the time when I feel like there is no where else in the world I want to be.

2. It's cliche, yes, but the people. Cairo people are multifaceted and individual of course, but tend towards the happy, helpful, and mischievous with an earthy sense of humor. They are incredibly hospitable and sociable and determined to refute the bad image the West has of Middle Easterners. They will also feed you until you burst.

3. Hearing the music I love, every day, every where. I love Egyptian music, 'nuff said. It moves me, it speaks to me, and no one in the US gets that really, but everyone gets it here.

4. Ok, this is a bittersweet one, but the belly dance performances. These are the huge names of the dance world and it is riveting to see them perform, and unique, and sad. I'll have to write more about it later clearly and disentangle the conflicting emotions.

5. Hanging out in multi-national groups of people getting to know each other. Cairo is a major hub of education for the Middle East, so we get people coming through from all over the world. We salsa-danced the night away with Egyptians, Canadians, Americans, Germans, and Brits over Thanksgiving and it was a blast!

Probably I'll have to make a Top 10 List before I go home.

Ho Ho Ho, Habibi

Hello, hello. I am still alive, yes! Winter in Cairo is fabulous, it’s slightly cold and has rained a couple times—yeah it DOES do that—but you pretty much just need a light jacket, scarf, and closed-toed shoes and you’re good to go! The only problem is that no where really has central heating, so buildings, while not reaching a hypothermia-inducing level of coldness tend to be chilly. I mean, 65 degrees feels cold to me now after a summer of twice that. I am now jealous of every hijabii girl out there. So sue me.

Not much news, just the semester wrapping up at AUC slowly and agonizingly and preparing to go home for a couple weeks which means lots of Christmas shopping at the various touristy suuq-shops and strategic packing-planning. Roomies are taking off on the 17th, and I’m out as of the 21st, so it’s coming down to it, but I will return to Cairo January 7th, never fear! Also I turn 20 TOMORROW! I can’t believe it, I dreamed about celebrating my 20th in Cairo for a long time, but it looks like on the day I won’t be doing much. Still, I’ll probably post something on it so stay tuned.

My article on Weddings in Cairo has now dropped on Gilded Serpent, pop over and have a read! Makes an excellent finals distraction when accompanied by hot chocolate!


Tips for Finals
Which I am not following really, but would probably be useful to the non-masochistic out there. To be honest, these goals are pretty much unattainable for most of us during finals, but everyone tells them to us, so think of them as something to aspire to. These tips are probably self-evident, and I know you’ve heard them before, but it helps to remind ourselves:

-Get enough rest: Your brain functions like crap when you deprive it of sleep over and over again during finals, instead try to get a decent amount of sleep, because it will function more efficiently, and memorize things more easily, rewarding you by saving you time.
How I am not following this one: Well I’m doing better lately, having slept 12 hrs last night, but that was to make up for the average 4 hrs per night week I just had of writing papers. Papers are evil, because you CAN stay up late writing them with the only side effect of being really stupid in class the next day. We all know that in the time-management calculus that goes into finals, being stupid during one class period is not equal to getting a bad grade on your final paper worth 30%. You know which one you’re going to go with and that you’ll be up till 4am.

-Eat well: Again, your brain does not function well if it’s not getting the necessary nutrients it needs. You should take snack breaks while studying to keep your energy level up, and eat healthy to utilize those calories in a smart way. Load up on proteins, stay away from bad carbs and junk food. This is all particularly important in light of the fact that many of us do not have time to exercise during finals.
How I am not following this one: Probably my biggest failure this round of finals, actually. I don’t eat all day because I’m holed up in my room, under my warm covers, using my large bed as a large desk, and totally focused on studying. Then suddenly I realize I’m starving and go straight for foods that are easy to prepare quickly or that someone else makes. In other words, I end up with pasta or junk food, neither of which are particularly healthy or fulfill the high-protein/low-carb criteria my body needs for some intense studying. Time for a break and a trip to the store!

-Get exercise: Studies have actually shown that people in better physical shape are able to better sit through long tests and have the mental endurance for them. Weird, eh? Your body and brain are integrated though, so it makes sense. Take study breaks to go for walks/jogs or do some push ups and sit ups to keep maintain your exercise level during finals.
How I am not following this one: I sort of am…about once I day I’ve been going for a long walk, but for someone who’s body is used to professional-dancer level of exercise this is an epic failure. I worry about swiftly becoming flabby in my food and non-exercise binge. Time to hit the gym when finals are over!

-Make a study plan and study with other people: You only have so much time to study during finals, so make plans to use your time efficiently and see if you really can squeeze in that get-together for a last pre-Christmas-break hurrah. Budget out your time realistically so you can do well on all your finals and not just a few of them that you would prefer to spend all your time working on. Study groups are helpful so that you can fill in each other’s gaps in knowledge or missing lecture notes from absences. Not only that but it gives you a chance to feel like you’re being social and see your friends while still getting stuff done!
How I am not following this one: I am, actually. I have a paper taped to my mirror with my schedule for this week, but things have gotten moved around a bit in the game plan a bit. I am studying with friends a bit, but we have ended up gabbing more than studying to be honest.

-Don’t freak out: Breathe, meditate, take walks, drink tea, keep your stress level down. High stress causes your brain to shut down and not absorb the info you need to remember, so try to stay calm and not waste your precious study time by freaking out. “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell talks about what happens when your heartbeat goes above certain levels of BPM. Basically the more you freak out; the more your body cuts off unnecessary functions and goes into an automatic response mode that does not involve critical thinking. You can’t absorb and process information when you get into high-adrenaline-freak-out-mode.
How I am not following this one: My tendency to go hysterical when overstressed drives my BPM right up and drives me right out of study mode and into crying-on-my-bed mode. Not good for studying.


Optional Read: Finals Ranting
I never seem to handle finals all that well, but professors back home have never given me ones that seem like they’re going to be impossible. A lot of work, sure, difficult is to be expected of course, but a couple of my AUC professors are flirting with the impossible.

First there is the guy that moved our second-to-last lecture to a room that I found the building for, I found on the map of the building, but never did find a way to get to even after walking around the building for 20 minutes. Chalk another one up to the “what was this architect ON?” phenomenon. I probably shouldn’t blame the professor for that one, but then again he shouldn’t blame me either.

However, then this guy went and gave us an assignment due smack-dab in the middle of my finals. The damn thing is based on lectures he never gave us in person, he sent us taped lectures because of our extended vacation time, so we haven’t exactly been taught the material either. Also, perhaps he has forgotten that we are all studying frantically right now? Perhaps he doesn’t understand that quite a few professors like to be nice and let us escape earlier by using their last class period for the final? PS—the Arabic teachers are actually supposed to do that, so don’t tell me my finals week “hasn’t started” so I totally have time to do your stupid assignment.

Let me tell you why I don’t: I have a final on Thursday that I must literally review ALL the material of the class for as we will be given essay questions covering the entirely of the reading material. Oh, but she is being generous enough to let us use the 5-page-per-reading-10-pages-per-week summaries that we wrote before…but wait, we aren’t getting them back until the day of the exam. What?? So I basically am re-skimming an entire semester’s worth of readings, awesome.

These are the unreasonable ones though; I fully expected to be doing things like giving a 10-minute presentation in Arabic, or reviewing all my notes over and over on Comparative Politics of the Middle East. That I expect, and is reasonable. These are normal finals: review your notes to make sure you got everything, show off your language skills and prove you learned stuff, ok got it. Move your class somewhere where I can’t for the life of me find it even though I am really trying to attend the lecture so I can stand some chance of passing your final? Very not cool. Give my brain a hernia trying to figure out your stupid assignment based on already hernia-inducing taped lectures where I can’t ask questions or get clarification? Not good. Due in the middle of finals? Just sadistic!

Christmasy Cairo?
Yeah, sure. The flower shops near us a few roads down now have a bunch of cute (if small) Christmas trees out front draped with tinsel and lights to entice people to take them home. Lights wink from balconies in our foreigner neighborhood, and you can see glints of decorated trees in people’s living rooms just like in the US. I feel a bit left out honestly since the other settled-in foreigners have their adorable trees and I opted not to get one as I will be in the states for the holidays.

I would usually at least try to make a wreath or something, but contented myself with using my elementary school skills to make a paper chain decoration stretching 10 feet across the living room from chandelier to chandelier. It's got those awesome paper-cut-out snowflakes we all used to make when we were kids! Don't let anyone tell you elementary school doesn't teach valuable life skills, yo.

Also, Lady Gaga has released a Christmas single with Space Cowboy that I find hilarious if mediocre musically. If you missed getting it for free on Amazon, you can still pick it up for 99 cents, and if you do be sure to listen to the lyrics!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving and Eid

Holiday season is beginning to hit now, and while I may be on the other side of the world from America, the study abroad students are putting on a good show of creating a wonderful holiday season nevertheless. The fun part here is that it's not, "oh is the turkey going to be moist enough?" but rather, "do you think we'll have enough gas to finish cooking the turkey?" or "how the hell do you say nutmeg in Arabic?"

Strangely enough, Eid al Adha (the big feast 2 months after the end of Ramadan) happened to be the day after Thanksgiving this year. Again, let's remember everyone: Muslim calendar coincides with lunar calender, ergo holidays move around. So AUC decided to be oh-so-kind and give us about a week and a half off so that we could somehow manage to finish all our work that has piled up because of the not-so-brilliant Swine Flu vacation earlier mentioned. See my entries around September to see how I enjoyed that vacation, and compare to now when I should be slaving away on term papers every day because my work has gotten beyond backed up. Anyway, we ended up with one big vacation to celebrate both holidays.

Turkey Day
I kicked off the vacation in good form, being invited to two Thanksgiving parties that I really wanted to both attend but were literally across town from eachother! I opted for the student one on the promise of pumpkin pie and dance partying, and it turned out to be a great dinner. I showed up early to assist with basting, cleaning, and last minute hand-wringing as we tried to get everyone in the apartment before the food got cold and our hunger got too intense. In downtown Cairo the thing is that one has to literally go down to the street or even a nearby landmark every time a friend is coming because otherwise it's almost impossible to find the building or apartment, so there was a lot of ferrying people up and down 11 stories in the ancient elevator. All told we ended up with a couple German guys, a few Americans, some Egyptian guys, two British guys (one decided to dress up a bit for his first Thanksgiving by wearing a tie), a Canadian (who deemed it "odd" because they celebrate Thanksgiving a month earlier in Canada) and the lovely hostesses Drift and Jenny. The food was SUPERB! Drift's first solo effort at an entire turkey was a complete success with Spanish seasonings to make it even more special.

I've been asked, what does one eat at Thanksgiving in Egypt? Well, pretty much what you eat at home if you can pay the price for the huge turkey (not cheap!) and any special imported things that you just must have. We had a whole Turkey (with gravy that I made in the last 5 minutes before we ate!), mashed potatoes, Spanish rice, stuffing, salad, green beans, plus Egyptian sweets (kindly brought by our lovely Egyptian friends) and pumpkin pie for dessert. We also learned that attempting to whip ones own whipped cream is impossible without a mixer, so the pie was left to shine on it's own. Everything was delicious and I think a good representation of the holiday for those at the table who had never had Thanksgiving food before.

We were also asked about the "why" of Thanksgiving and after us Americans tossing around the usual sarcastic "celebrating betraying the Indians and white people being jerks" sort of comments, the consensus was food and being with people you love. But mostly food.

After lying around for awhile, we commenced the dancing! Drift, Jenny, and I taught some different Spanish dances as well as American "club" dancing because no one outside America seems to really get it as we discovered. In the end it boiled down to us three American girls, the two British guys, and our lone brave Egyptian friend Said who went along with whatever we tried to teach him with good effort, enthusiasm, and embarrassment. When nicely sweaty and exhausted, we all attempted to take pictures for awhile while jumping...you know the kind, where the people are jumping around so they look all cool and suspended in midair. Yeah, those are really hard to do with six people in one small living room and one digital camera with a timer. We ended up with many pictures of some people jumping, or everyone looking really ready to jump,or having just landed. We did manage to get a great picture of me, Richard, and Said sitting on a couch looking extremely bored, oblivious to a pillow (unexpectedly thrown by Dave) about to hit us. It's on Drift's camera, but I hope I can share it with you soon!

Me and the guys staggered out around 3am and split up to get cabs back to our respective parts of town. I collapsed into bed, fully prepared to sleep at least 10 hours and awake to visit a friend the next day, which I strategically kind of forgot was Eid when I agreed to come visit her.

Eid
The first thing to think of when it comes to Eid al Adha is the killing of animals. I realize this seems a bit morbid and bloody, but the sacrifice of sheep and goats is what immediately comes to mind about this holiday. The idea is that these animals are sacrificed to provide meat for the poor and needy, who otherwise may not be able to afford such a luxury. Also families tend to indulge in eating meat if this is the one time in the year that they can afford it, or in honor of the feast if they would be able to afford it anyway. It doesn't bother me at all, being a meat eater myself, for people to want to eat meat, but I have admit that being a bit of a sensitive type, I was nervous about the amount of blood and gore that was going to be happening publicly. For weeks there have been pens set up around town on the street side with sheep or goats just milling around, being well fed, even decorated, and I couldn't help thinking of them that morning when I got up at the crack of 2pm.

Apparently I needn't have worried--much. My area in Maadi was quiet, unbloody, and totally normal as usual, but what do you expect from an expensive, foreigner quarter? No, I expected the real bloodiness when I headed to Mariuteya to visit my friend that evening...but again, on the way to her place there was nothing to be worried about on the main road next her house. I spent some time at her place having second Thanksgiving dinner and socializing, before snagging a ride with someone to the metro in Dokki.

Now, I have to say that while I was nervous about witnessing anything gory, I was really curious. I have only seen an entire sheep butchered once, and that one happened to be already dead and skinned at the time. I was daring myself to go out and check out scene just to see what the deal was, was it really so bloody, how were people celebrating or reacting to the holiday, and all that crap. I suppose it's human nature to be curious and fascinated by that sort of spectacle, even if it is intellectually uncomfortable. So I was secretly glad when my friend offered to drive me to Dokki through the poorer area of Haram, because I would get to witness something unique I would probably never see in the US.

As we set off the streets seemed really wet, which isn't so unusual for Maadi where rich people's cars get hosed down everyday by their bawwabs to keep the dust off, but I was curious to see the same effect in Mariuteya. When we hit a puddle easily half a foot deep I realized that the streets had been drenched with water to dilute and wash away the blood. The puddles were slightly reddish (hard to see in the dark until we passed under streetlamps), and prevalent in big areas where there had obviously been butchering stations set up earlier. Well, at least I had gone late enough to not witness anything disturbing to me, or not--we passed three stations still set up and I stole quick glances, catching sight of a man with a huge knife hacking into a large skull on a sturdy table, and a cascade of hooves on the tarp a few meters away. Big chopping blocks were set up under florescent lights on the street with people gathered around to get their share of meat as we trundled by. It seemed rather surreal, and the scene faded into the night quickly before I found myself stumbling over a puddles and onto the sidewalk before hopping onto the metro and heading home.

Two holidays back-to-back and apparently I can't get enough of partying because I'm putting on my own thing tonight! Stay tuned for pics and recap, because I have several whole chickens in the oven right now and am thus rather busy!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Game Time


Everyone has probably heard about the Egypt/Algeria stuff going down lately, especially the Western media view, so I wanted to talk about my own experiences and thoughts a bit. A few days ago, Lynette over at Gilded Serpent posted the photo at right from me with the following text (my writing):

"The first picture is of the riots that happened in Cairo on November 14th, when Egypt won a world-up qualifier match against Algeria. Looks scary, but it was actually a lot of fun roaming the streets in between all the stopped cars with people dancing everywhere brandishing flags! It was quite a controversial match, as the Algerians claim to have been attacked on the way from the airport to their hotel, the Egyptian officials and police refuse to back up their story, and the word on the street is that the reason the Algerian players' bus was attacked was that they burnt the Egyptian flag before heading off to play the match! No one is sure what exactly happened, but Egypt's 2-0 victory means that they will play [in] Sudan tonight to pass this round of qualifications."

I received the following reply on GS which is what made me think about the issue more and want to blog about it:

"In response to the photo and description in Kaleidoscope of the aftermath of the Algerian/Egyptian soccer match that states that the Algerians burned an Egyptian flag on the way from the airport and that caused the problems, please watch the 50 or more YouTube videos that show that a mob of Egyptians threw rocks at the team bus that was supposedly protected by Egyptian security forces.

One Algerian player had four stitches and three others were wounded. The French team doctor on the bus gives a first hand report that is in on USA Today. World newspapers are all reporting that FIFA was not abiding by its own rules and the match should have been postponed and played in a neutral country. Of course, now the emotions are so high that there has been widespread violence and destruction of Egyptian businesses in Algiers. Well, this is why I refer to dance than to compete!!"

Yeah, no kidding! I'd rather dance too, but this is the world we live in I suppose and I've been provoked to think about the situation again, and why not?

Well here's the problem I have, with my perspective from living here. We heard about the attacking of the Algerian bus of course, and I myself watched the footage on AlJazeera which looked extremely incriminating indeed. For my flatmates and their friends it was a well-of-course-those-stupid-Egyptians-attacked-the-bus-they're-nuts situation, but it didn't quite ring true to me completely. Not completely made up, but I felt like I was missing a piece of the puzzle. Yes, Egyptians are very nationalistic, and very passionate about soccer, but there is a difference between passionate nationalism and what people were saying went down, which was fanatical nationalism. I mean think about it, why would it benefit Egyptians to attack the Algerians over an impending match? After would be more than plausible, but right before? Why? I think most people that follow soccer are aware, FIFA moves games to other locations if the security proves to be unsuitable, so that means the match should/would have been rescheduled.

The next day a couple people flat-out told me that the police were right, the attack was completely staged, and that the Algerians had injured themselves to make Egypt look bad internationally. I also heard that the hotel the Algerians were heading to was less than a half-mile from the airport, so we have the new angle of what kind of security forces were present. Frankly, I have no idea, but this is a state with military personnel to spare--if they wanted to they could protect those players. It still seemed weird, because I could see people hanging around threateningly and maybe getting riled up, but breaking the windows of the bus? Really? Then again, we haven't gotten news of a complete police investigation so who knows what happened.

Then, the day after the match I heard another interesting piece of news which was that the Algerian team supposedly burnt an Egyptian flag before heading off to Cairo. A good American friend of mine deemed that, "downright provocative" and I have to agree. Egyptians are nationalistic enough (and let's face it, us Americans are too) that if someone burnt a flag, they'd be riled up about it and potentially violent. It's then a political insult, not to mention nothing to do with sports!

Of course none of this justifies anyone getting hurt, but there are a lot of angles going on to the story. I think what most likely happened is that the bus did get attacked, but the Algerian players perhaps were also guilty of provocation, and hamming it up or creating more injuries to encourage FIFA to move the match off Egyptian home turf--if you were an opposing team in this important of a game, would you want to play here?? In any case, those are some pieces of info I have that are bouncing around to ponder, and from an on-the-ground perspective I think that's the most likely explanation. I am not simply content to take the "Egyptians are crazy, nationalistic, and violent" route, because it is impossible for me with the people that I know here personally who would never engage in that behavior, support it, or encourage it.

What I think is even more important is the way the international community is looking at this, and the way Egyptian and Algerian leadership is using the matches to distract. One of my professors flat out remarked that he was frustrated about the World Cup because Egyptian authorities are encouraging the drama as they want to have a smokescreen for domestic issues, albeit temporarily. Seems like a bad strategy to me, because they'll have to face their issues sooner or later anyway! I guess they'd rather stall like anyone with a piece of work we don't want to tackle--but that doesn't make it any better. I'm sure the Western powers wouldn't mind a little political infighting in the Arab League to exploit either, but hey that's just because I'm studying the political history of the region right now! I'm actually glad I can't read a US newspaper to see how they're spinning this, because we all know how America likes to paint an "Us and them" portrait that I find irritating and a root of racial bigotry.

In any case, hopefully it's all over now as Egypt lost today's match against Algeria 1-0. What a NASTY match too, my god! Huge number of fouls, 5 yellow cards to Algeria, and one to Egypt, cleats in sensitive areas, arms nearly broken, at least 3 or 4 players had to be peeled off the grass and driven away in the medical carts--it was pretty dirty, people. Not to mention very close.

Ok, khalas that's my big speech of the day, just my 2 cents!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Update Time

As time goes by, it seems I just get lazier and lazier about updating! I feel bad to the folks back in Seattle who keep up with my blog, and those dancers who stay tuned for any little scrap of dance-related info I may occasionally throw out there, because school is literally trying to eat my life right now. I sincerely apologize for it's rudeness.

A Partial Theory on Various Sources of Stress
Oho, they all said that the Swine Flu Vacation (see my previous post) was going to be so great and so much fun. And then they got surprised at me when I was angry and upset about it...why? Well, everyone understands why now. Class 6 days a week was bad enough, but now finals and term papers are beginning to descend upon us and suddenly the scene is looking quite nasty indeed with everything crammed into an already short semester. My brain's response to stress these days has been, "no no, you can't make me!" and then a prompt shutdown, which can't be good because usually I respond to stress quite well.

Then today my toilet exploded.

I was innocently flushing it just before walking out the door to go see a costumer when I literally heard it making a rumbling noise. As in thunder, or a large train passing nearby. Not so good. I poked my head back into the bathroom, then cautiously approached as I noticed the tank was steaming...uh oh. Really, really not good. At this point something went POP and my bathroom started being flooded with steaming water. I'm not going to lie, I screamed and literally wrung my hands! After rather brief hysterics I realized I needed to do SOMETHING as my bathroom was half an inch deep in water that was luckily not sewage-y looking.

I ran to the balcony as fast as my little legs would allow, and scanned the street below for my bawwabs. The policemen looked at me curiously as I looked probably a bit shell shocked. Spotting Sallah, my favorite bawwab, I screamed in Arabic something that pretty much translates to, "Come, please! Come quickly! Big water! QUICKLY, PLEASE!" and waving my arms which caused the policemen to move from curiosity to outright amusement. Good to know my Arabic hardly holds up in a crisis. Sallah hustled his butt up to my place, hiking his galabeya up and wading in, only to shake his head, smile at me and twiddle the knob that controls water flow to the toilet, causing the flood to halt. He then pointed out a plastic hose on the back of the toilet running to the bidet that had burst from pressure...thus explaining why the water was clean and hot, and not totally disgusting. I nodded with as much dignity as I could while still being in my shell shocked state and managed to inquire if he could bring me the required part today. He said sure, and went off to procure it while I opened the floor drain and began scraping the water towards it with a dustpan. A few hours and $10 later all was right with the world, but I'm still paranoid to flush the toilet!


Winter has arrived!
Fun and games in Cairo all the time, clearly. It IS starting to get cold these days though, although by cold I mean it's in the low 80s during the day and mid 60s at night. I assure you though, it feels cold after a summer of 100+ degree weather every day! We're wearing sweaters to school now, and the bawwabs have started wrapping little white turbans on their heads to keep warm, while the AUC crowd is surely looking forward to donning little Gucci jackets and that crap.

Eid is coming up--the second one, the big one! This will be the feast where animals are slaughtered for their meat and often meat is given to the poor who normally cannot afford to eat it. If you go into the poorer areas right now you can find pens of lambs and goats right next to the street, waiting to be slaughtered. In Mariuteya the other day I drove by a tent/pen with huge fluffy lambs eagerly feeding from a huge troth, their fur dyed in swaths of pink and yellow to look more festive (I suppose). Hallah tells me that she stays in on the day with windows, curtains, and ears firmly shut--apparently it is quite the bloodbath. I can't really see that happening in Maadi though, as the foreigners are doing there thing quite a bit more here, but I suppose we'll see as I am staying in Cairo over the break.

Dance Things
There seems to come a point--or many points--in a dancer's life when we are cut off from teachers, from resources, and community and must turn to only ourselves to keep practicing the art. It is difficult, requires a lot of discipline, and love to go on dancing like this. My whole college experience has pretty much always turned dance into an individual, internal practice for me from the first night I arrived, dancing in my dorm common room on a table while one other girl kept me company playing piano, to now. In between there has been a lot of practicing in tiny dorm rooms, that are no where near a proper "dance studio." My last room I was practicing/living in was literally 10 feet by 15 feet and contained a twin bed, a desk, my dress form, assorted bags of sewing work, sewing machine, nightstand, and a book case (everything else got shoved in the closet) but I danced anyway because I had to keep practicing. I don't know why exactly, but I felt driven, I was not directly attached to the community but I was a member of it, and a professional dancer within it so I had to practice to stay on the ball, to become better.

But I didn't...the truth is that it is so easy to fall off the horse, practicing all alone, in a tiny room, without a mirror but with your schoolwork laid out next to you on the bed. It is so easy to instead go, "oh crap, I haven't gone over those Genetics notes" or "I need to review for that midterm on Thursday!" or worst of all, "I'm just so tired, I really need some down time." The only way I kept myself motivated this last school year to dance like this was to keep improving for my coach, to keep my weight down, and so that I could be good enough to stand in front of teachers in Egypt without being embarrassed. I told myself I only had months to go before Aida Nour or Liza Laziza or (heaven forbid!) Dina was breathing down my neck saying the last girl had been SO MUCH BETTER. I danced like a maniac when I could, would stay up an extra hour after my school work was done because I was afraid I just wouldn't be good enough. Dancing was just more important than sleep to me at that time, I had to do it!

Then I got to Egypt, and the bottom fell out from under me, dance-wise. The teachers here are tough to have a relationship with, and I really want not simply a teacher of moves but also a mentor, plus my problem is that they are expensive and I don't want to waste my money on the wrong person. Coming to another country was expensive enough, getting myself set up in a proper apartment was also tough, AUC wants my soul, and after that I just don't have much time and money left to take lessons or find the people I really was sure I wanted to take lessons from.

I wasn't expecting the emotional jolting and draining I would experience from the second my flight landed. Egypt is tiring. It makes me tired and lazy to live here, I was expecting to get my sea legs within a month and be back to dancing every day like I used to. It didn't happen, I have only danced at weddings in the last two weeks, I have barely even danced in the comfort of my own apartment and it is making me incredibly depressed. Cairo was the goal, getting here and being good enough to be here as a dancer was the goal, but once the goal was attained, I lost my direction completely.

Yes, I am taking lessons from someone right now (it's a secret so don't even ask), and she's fabulous, but she doesn't have much time for me so I go a long time in between private lessons which I used to have once a week back in California. I feel disconnected from something that I'm surrounded by. There is great dancing happening in Cairo, there are fabulous people, but I can't quite get at them because I'm broke and no one knows me. So I'm having a pity party for myself here on the blog...moving on:

What am I reading and writing?
In complete change of subject, I am reading "The Liberation of Women" by Qusim Amin right now, who is excellent. He is an Egyptian philosopher, a disciple of Muhammad 'Abduh, who basically expands 'Abduh's thoughts on educational reform and brings those reforms into conversation with women's status in Egypt. Basically Amin is all about education of women, inclusion of women in the public sphere, including in politics, bringing women out of seclusion and out of veiling practices. Personally I have mixed feelings on veiling and I think I am actually going to write a piece for Gilded Serpent on it, so stayed tuned for that--it'll probably have a taste of Amin's theories in there. More on him later when I'm past the first 10 pages! I want to see what points he makes on Quranic interpretation and hermeneutics--always fun stuff!

Right now though, I'm writing a piece on parties and weddings in Egypt for Gilded Serpent which is nearly finished and I'm thinking of writing a piece on popular music and concerts in Egypt since I seem to keep ending up at them!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dance and Stress

There hasn't been too much to report lately, besides the usual travel money woes ("Where did it all go?!") and school, school, and more school. We're paying for our two week vacation by a combination of using our previously school-free Tuesdays, and some Saturdays depending on how sadistic the professor is. I finally have wrangled a schedule with sleeping in a bit on Tuesdays, not going every other Tuesday, and with the occasional Saturday lecture, which seems much more doable then the schedule my professors originally wanted to inflict on us. Being in Egypt, we have all become masters of negotiation apparently.

By the by, I have several items for sale up on Bhuz right now, so go check it out! Up for sale are a lovely Khaleegy thobe (being modeled by my lovely room mate on the left here) and several beautiful skirts!

Ramadan Review
My Ramadan Article is now out in Gilded Serpent for everybody to check out. I had a lovely time here during Ramadan and I hope you all take the time to check out the article, as it shows a very special slice of Cairo life.

Dance News
Last night I got to go see Randa Kamel on the very famous Nile Maxim! This boat is so ridiculously known for famous people dancing there that I recognized the decor instantly from all the pictures of Cairo big-deal dancers placing them on that stage.

I was sitting at Liza Laziza's table with a couple her friends and Hallah Moustafa, so of course we got a lovely warm welcome from all the staff that know her, the waves and smiles from the band, and just the extra air of being VIPs. I must admit, I did enjoy basking in the reflected pretended "important person" feeling a lot, after having been a nobody since moving here.

The show included the requisite lounge-singer kind of act with two girls singing and dancing around casually a little, a tannoura dancer (who was actually quite excellent), and then Randa herself! She charged out in a boob-hoisting costume with a silver-holographic bra and belt and a yellow satin skirt, slit generously to show the stark line of nude shorts beneath. Hallah and Liza exchanged comments about the costume, which personally I wasn't liking that much. The skirt was riding up slightly above her belt, the line of the shorts was just obnoxious, and the bra was just way to push-up-togethery--BUT, as Hallah said, "Who cares? She could wear the [darn] table cloth and we'd still all love it!"

Randa is clearly a very talented dancer, with a great stage personality. Like all good Egyptian dancers, she has an easy happiness and fun to her dancing that is so accessible and joyful. Her moves are great, and executed so skillfully that I couldn't take my eyes off to take a bite of food! That being said, she is in her "Dina phase," right now which is a bit frustrating as I wanted to see her on her terms. Her moves were very strong and with lots of clean hip locking that I know may be more of a Dina thing. However, Dina has a lovely fluid sensuousness to her that I found slightly lacking in Randa who was hitting everything very solid and cleanly. It was perfect for the folkloric part though, which came across quite well.

She did two costume changes and I much preferred her folkloric ensemble and the bedlah for her last set compared to the first one. The last costume was quite nice in a lovely turquoise color with a sheer skirt over shorts, and much more tasteful than the first.


Oh yes and the band was excellent of course, I was so happy to change from the lounge-singer keyboard and conga drums band to the real Egyptian band! I remember why I came to Cairo now, right...

All in all it was a great show! I love seeing the wonderful dancers here, because it is just so inspiring and uplifting, like a breath of fresh air after sitting through hafla after hafla of mediocre dancers dotted with semi-talented ones that you're too worn out by then to appreciate or enjoy.


The Rest
Well, I found out my rent is due because of some mix up as to whether the last month of my three months that I gave the landlady was a deposit or a month of rent. Turns out it was supposed to be a deposit, no matter what was translated to me or discussed two months ago. So I owe rent now, and the flat owner is pressuring me to get it in cash as soon as possible which means I am again going through the frantically withdrawing cash as fast and furious as I can and running around to different ATMs, starting again today. I have to front 3 months of my own rent, and Dec-Jan for the other two rooms since I haven't gotten room mates or deposits for those rooms for next semester yet. Hooray. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Swine Flu Vacation

Vacation?!
Just as I was getting settled into a regular schedule of classes, private lessons with Hallah Moustafa, and homework the Egyptian government decided to clamp down on the foreign colleges that were open. Apparently all the colleges were supposed to be delayed several weeks in opening because of swine flu, but AUC ignored them at first and now we have had a two-week vacation. This has resulted in general insanity, traveling, and chaos meaning that I haven't exactly felt like sitting down and blogging much.

I suppose it's a good idea in theory to keep people from congregating in a university to reduce the chances of swine flu...but seriously? Every. Single. AUC Student. Is. Going. To. Travel. Did the government and AUC not consider this at all? Not only does that mean they will not be reducing their risks of bringing back the flu to AUC, but that if they have it and don't know yet (or don't care) they'll be spreading it around the country or the world depending how far afield they go. Add that fact to two weeks without Arabic lessons and the disruption of my gear-change back to college mode from lazy-ass-sitting-around-Cairo-all-summer mode and I was PISSED.

Therefore the day they told us, I decided to host an iftar at my house.

Dinner Party
Remember in my last entry the not-so-hot state of my cooking skills? Well, for some reason that I think may be related to being incredibly angry over the vacation, I decided to invite some people over for Iftar or breakfast despite not really having cooked for other people in my life. During Ramadan you have Iftar right at sunset when you break your fast for the day, and things had worked out that I had attended only one here during Ramadan so I figured I would have my own.

Another AUC study abroad student invited me to her place and I was unable to attend, so I invited her and her room mates over, so that was three people. Tim was of course invited, along with Autumn and Carolyn's friend Andrew. I ran into a friend from Economics class at AUC that day who was just as distressed about the vacation as me, and wasn't sure what to do with himself so I invited him and his friend over too. I texted Ramy on the way home, who inquired in disbelief if I was cooking or ordering food before he said he would come straight from work to help me cook. Add me and my roomies and suddenly I was hosting an 11-person dinner. Whoops! Oh well!

I did a massive grocery shopping trip on the way home, which is a major feat here as we live a couple blocks from the grocery store and thus insist on just carrying everything home instead of having it delivered. It can get to be very heavy, sweaty work in 90 degree heat. I forgot a few items, including dates and milk for the traditional style of breaking the fast, so I was leaving to go out again when I ran into Ramy on the steps of my building carrying a bag. What was in the bag? Oh, dates and milk of course! That boy seriously does read my mind on occasion.

All things considered it went great, but I couldn't have done it without Autumn, Carolyn, and Ramy traipsing in and out of the kitchen to lend many helping hands. Dinner was served slightly late, the ma7shy wasn't quite great, but everything else seemed like it was tasty and we rounded off the evening eating chocolate chip cookies while everyone figured out where they were going for break.

Having just ordered a $900 costume from Hallah Moustafa I resolved to remain in Cairo and save my cash, so I politely listened to these vacation plans until it got too frustrating and went to clean up the plates and the kitchen. The rest day I woke up to a deserted apartment as my roomies had headed out to Jordan.

Sharm El Sheikh
Well, okay I meant not to go on vacation and spend money...buuut...after being bored in Cairo for a week I was worn down enough to be convinced to go along with my roomies to Sharm for the weekend and stay in the five-star comfort of the Sheraton resort there for Carolyn's birthday. Hats off to my mother for this one for helping me out financially a bit so that I was persuaded to go! I am so, so glad I did go because it was beautiful, relaxing, and considerably better than tromping around the apartment for a few days and bitching at my boyfriend on the phone about how I was bored!

The place had like 8 swimming pools, several of which have their own swim-up bars. I never knew I particularly liked swim-up bars until this trip, but then I went nuts on them! There's something about sipping a mojito not just beside the pool but IN the pool that tickles my fancy I guess!

Staying in Sharm was well...like being at a resort. We swam in the ocean, then laid on the beach in chaise lounges, then migrated to the main pool, then the lower main pool, then the pool bar, then the poolside restaurant, then one of the other pools with a cave and a waterfall (and a bar!) then one of the five-star restaurants...rise, repeat pretty much. The Sheraton was gorgeous, and really an unusual design for a hotel. The thing is sort of situated on a shallow cliff above the sea, so the hotel lobby sits on the cliff, and is wrapped around a man-made grotto in the center rimmed with a network of wooden walkways and pavillions--it really is totally cool! What confused us is that because the lobby sits on the cliff (along with the resort areas and villas which make the complex soooo huge), you go downstairs to go to your rooms, which line the facing of the cliff down to the beach level. It's a neat and unusual design that I found very refreshing, because in Cairo the hotels simply go UP, because they have nowhere else to go!

I was shocked at how much everything looked like Hawaii there, and am pretty sure everyone got sick of my remarks to that point. It seriously weirded me out though, because even the plants looked straight out of Hawaii, not to mention the beautiful tropical fish we observed in the sea! Here we are, on the Red Sea on the other side of the world from Hawaii and I was so surprised to see fish that looked exactly like the rainbow, iridescent, fuscia-faced fish I had seen as a child in Honolulu! There were a few different varieties hanging out in the shallows at the beach, forming a swirling treasure trove of color that got close but not quite close enough for Ramy to grab one like he wanted.

Ramy and I grudgingly returned to Cairo from our lovely weekend outing a couple days ago so that he and I could go back to work, and yesterday my roomies arrived back after visiting Mt. Sinai which apparently was great.

I probably have more to say and update since my last post, but I have to write a couple things for Gilded Serpent so it's over and out for now--stay tuned!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

3 Months In

My, my school has been keeping me busy! I know I can be a slacker about updating, but this takes the cake, doesn't it? My camera is on the fritz, so stay tuned for photos in the next couple days.

AUC Stuff
This last week was the first week of classes, but also the week when I got to do lots of fun activities like running around trying to get my email activated, my ID card to scan properly, my pin # for the online portal reset, a class dropped, and so on. Let me just say that AUC has a lot to learn about organization. Here are two examples:

Exhibit A: I ended up not thinking my Literature and Gender class was right for me, so I wanted to drop it and replace it with a seminar on Palestinian/Israeli issues. Easy, right? Wrong! I first had to find the office to make an appointment to do so. Luckily I ran into another international student who had to do something similar, and HER friend luckily knew where we needed to go to make an appointment to go to another location to make the actual schedule change. So we trooped off to the office, made our appointments for a few days later, and I showed up at the appointed time at the computer lab to see my adviser and get my schedule switched.

The room was chaos. Literally 20 students running around the lab, looking at schedules on computers, sitting and waiting in a clearly backed up and disorganized non-line for their appointment, or just sitting reading something. I finally got to my adviser, who told me that the class I wanted to switch into was full and there was no waiting list, so I should look at the course catalog and come back tomorrow to make the schedule change as they were closing in 15 minutes. I said okay, and came back the next day.

I came in and the guy manning the door asked me if I had an appointment..."uh, well I had one for yesterday, and she said to come back today as it's the last day to add/drop." I was told to wait in the hall with a few other people, so sure, whatever. I waited an hour before I finally got to my adviser again, to tell her that I couldn't find a replacement course and I just wanted to do the drop and take 12 credits instead. What did she say? "Oh, sure no problem, I already dropped you."

Exhibit B: I couldn't log onto the student portal, which you are supposed to do using your ID # and your birthday. Mine should have therefore been 1213** but it wouldn't work at all, so I headed to the registrar's office to get it reset. The first time I went a harassed-looking lady said, "Okay you need to go see your adviser, in the CORE building." Umm...what? I sort of nodded and wandered off, figuring I would try again the next day when there was someone else working.

Sure enough there was, and she said, "Come on back, you want [so-and-so]'s office just over there." Great! I then noticed there were about ten people hanging out in the waiting area outside so-and-so's office...and one person waiting inside the office where the lady we wanted wasn't even present. Not good, but I had time before my next class to wait, so I just took a seat.

After one hour again of waiting I was informed that, "Yeah it's just your birthday, which is 1212**, right?"

More on AUC classes and student culture to come! By the by, looks like I'm joining the Dabke team and/or the Egyptian Folkloric group!

Cooking
If you start dating an Egyptian boy and tell him you don't really cook, he may begin to cry--or at least look like he's about to. Therefore out of love, curiosity, hunger, and embarrassment over my lack of ability to feed myself, I attended a cooking class a few days ago that ended up being a blast! I found about it through Cairo Scholars, where a girl was advertising the class for special Egyptian food, taught by an Egyptian lady, and we'd have Iftar after at her home. For 150LE that sounded great!

We learned to cook a few different dishes, including: Shorbet Lisan ‘Asfour (Orzo soup in homemade chicken broth), Khoshaf bel Laban (Milk with dried fruit & nuts), Ma7shi Felfel we Kosa (Stuffed Peppers & Zucchini), Reyash Dani (Egyptian style lamb chops), Makarona Bechamel bel La7ma el Mafrooma (Oven-baked pasta with Bechamel and Ground Beef), 2amar el Din (Apricot drink), Karkaday (Hibisucus drink).

Everything was delicious, but what I found really fascinating was the style of Egyptian cooking and how people acquire their ingredients here/prepare them for cooking. This is still a country where you CAN get things fresh from the animals or fresh from the farm so to speak, and so it seems like many cooks that live here prefer not to shop the grocery stores like we foreign girls have been doing, but hit up the suuq for your veggies and milk and the butcher directly for the freshest stuff. Tipping the guy who sells you bags of fresh milk or the one who cuts your beef for you ensures that you get the best products too, especially once you develop a regular-customer sort of relationship.

Also of note is that there can be extra steps that us Westerners aren't used to dealing with when you prepare ingredients. For example, when you buy milk here (not at the grocery store) it literally is from the cow, so you have to boil it and remove the heavy cream yourself. This means that you get high quality milk, but in addition once you scrape off the cream and refrigerate it you get the most delicious heavy cream ever to use in your Makarona Bechamel! By the way, that is a baked pasta dish to die for--actually literally because we all stared in awe at how much cream and fats went into it. It was out of this world tasty though!

As a result of this class I theoretically could make these dishes, but at the moment I'm content with just keeping a bottle of 3mr El Din in the fridge because it's delicious and easy! During Ramadan you'll see in stores these packages with pictures of apricots on them wrapped in orange plastic wrap. When you open them up there's something like a big apricot fruit leather inside that you rip into little pieces and soak in water overnight before blending (if you have a blender--we don't have a working one!) and adding sugar to taste. Egyptians and Westerners do tend to disagree on how much sugar to add though, so you can also just have people add their own!

Shopping
In Maadi the road the metro runs parallel to, and has stops on, is called "Road 9." Long story--basically the streets in Maadi DO have numbers...but they make no logical sense. Recently the girls have decided that Shari3 Tissa is pretty much the place to go hang out and shop around, and I have to agree. It's got all these cute little Khan Al Khalili-esque stores hiding beneath upscale cafes, that probably are a little more expensive than the Khan itself, but without the crazy hawking, crowds, and general insanity! I picked up some gorgeous scarves (15LE each) and a swath of the kind of tent fabric that I am craaazy about!

I also picked up a tray of awesome Egyptian desserts from a store next to an equally awesome silver store, with windows packed with boards of trinkets and pendants. So, we basically have been eating little mini-backlava style things of different varieties for the last day. Some come with pistachios, some in squares, or rolls and all are ridiculously decadent!

Ramadan
Ok, since people have been asking it IS indeed Ramadan! I would love to write loads about it, but I am doing an article for The Gilded Serpent on Ramadan in Cairo and don't want to repeat myself, so stay tuned! I'm getting some nice photos, and trust me it is a very festive, fun time of year unless you're hungry or need something between 5:30 and 8pm!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Insomnia

It's 4am again in Cairo, and I am awake again because this is just before my Cairo bed time. Things have a way of getting a little weird so that all of us find ourselves insomnia-ed out and sleeping at completely random times. I maintain that my tendencies to stay up (more than) half the night serve a couple purposes: I sleep through the hottest parts of the day, and when it's super late here it's a good time to chat or skype with my friends back on the West Coast.

Arrivals

The last week has been a little nuts, especially after a solid week of quiet, exploring Maadi, and living alone time. My room mate Autumn arrived, but then got invited to France so the next day we went to the airport en masse to stick her on a plane to Paris and grab Carolyn, my other room mate which turned into a complete fiasco because the airport is totally unorganized. She's keeping a blog by the way (more detailed than mine, because my memory is somewhat awful), named in the style of this one, so be sure to check out "Carolyn in Cairo." Carolyn and I mucked around for a few days and I subjected her to various learning experiences about Cairo and the neighborhood, which she took in her usual good humored, enthusiastic way. She's enthusiastic about everything! I have to say it's the right attitude to have when traveling, and goes a long way towards making sure you have a good trip.

Not long after a couple days of eating Koshary and wandering around downtown with Carolyn, my buddy Tim of Tokyo City Blues arrived to crash on our couch for a couple days while he looked for a place. By this point, my bawwabs were getting more and more confused, but I assured them that Ibn 3mii (son of my uncle) was not staying permanently in my hilariously broken Arabic. Carolyn and I enthusiastically dragged Tim out to a cafe immediately and I lectured her on some 3ameyya differences she'll have to deal with from studying fusha. The good thing was that it made me realize how much colloquial Arabic I've picked up this summer, and I felt sort of proud and motivated to continue. The bad thing is that Tim claims to not remember anything about this night, which I'm not entirely surprised by considering he spent half of it staring into space over his mango juice.

Soon enough Carolyn's boyfriend Cory arrived and the house really got crowded! It's been fun having him around though, as now Ramy and I have another couple to drag out on double dates and be generally adorable with. The first double date was to Harrawi, one of Ramy and my favorite cafes near Al Azhar mosque--what could be better than smoking shisha next to hundreds-of-years-old buildings? Pics of Harrawi forthcoming as I keep forgetting my camera when I go places. I did remember the next night when Ramy surprised by taking us out to the Citadel--which is amazing during Ramadan, by the way--for a Wust El Balad concert! I had been wanting to catch one of their shows since they're a favorite of Ramy's, but I was so surprised and thrilled that we got to see them for free at The Citadel! It was an awesome show, preceded by a short folkloric one that I also enjoyed a lot. The venue was awesome, and I'm glad we missed the bus and ended up walking up to the Citadel itself because you turn these corners and get the most breath-taking views as you go. What shocked me was the wind-chill factor. I was actually feeling cold for the first time in months, which I think totally confused my body. We all had a great time though, and I really, really want Wust El Balad's CD now...plus we're going again next month insha'allah!

Adjusting

Now Autumn has returned from her foray in France, we've all spent one day at AUC running around to get everything done, and Tim has moved out. We miss him lots, but he drops by lots to hang out and use our internet so it's all good! The day at AUC was pretty rough as I suffered MAJOR insomnia the night before, spending a solid hour crying and writing and listening to music on the balcony until So7or (about 3:30am) when Ramy called and tried to calm me down. It sort of worked, but then Carolyn and Cory woke up and we decided to make sandwiches and chat on the balcony. I got half an hour of sleep before the epic jaunt to AUC. It's beautiful (see the pic @ left) but I couldn't appreciate it because of the heat and lack of sleep. Here's an excerpt from the writing that night:

"I’m finding myself going through a new layer of adjustment being in a new country, which I think I will name the “Home?! Oh right—crap!” phase. It crept up on me suddenly and I was swamped with a feeling of love for this place…followed by a sudden wonder of how in the hell I was ever going to be able to go home and act normal. No, I am not concerned about picking up Egyptian habits like walking in the street or smoking shisha all the time or whatever, I am concerned that I will have spent a year in Egypt and it will have (and already has) engraved that time on my heart without any outside indication.

It’s good and bad really, because when I return this year will become my own personal internal experience, but I also want people to know and catch some understanding of what an impact it made. I know that no one will ever be able to understand this stuff quite as clearly or exactly as I do—because it is my personal experience after all—but I want them to see something of what I’m seeing here. I want them to know how I felt listening to the call to prayer in the pre-dawn light when I first arrived versus now a couple months in, and I want people to get why I love Shaabi music, and things like this that no one will ever really get. I know this, and I know that probably when I wake up in two hours (to go to AUC for orientation—it’s currently 4am) I will have accepted it, but right now I’m so sad to think I will go home and have my Egypt visit be remembered like this.

I love Cairo, but man does it make me feel emotionally unstable! The levels and phases of adjusting to life in a new country can be pretty rough, and I’ve gone through a few already, but this one I think surprised me more than others. Of course I’ve had the “I wanna go home!” moments, but I wasn’t expecting to be hit by a fear of going home, or at least not this early in my trip."


Basically I've been playing Cairo mom lately to a lot of people, which is fun and nice, but my cynical non-smiley self is starting to come out. I'm not sure why, I think it may be the lack of sleep or the need to not feel responsible or something, but I'm fighting really hard to not let a bad attitude come out that could alienate my new roomies. They're sweet people, so I'm really determined to make sure things stay on good terms!

PS--It's Ramadan now in Cairo, and its an experience! Next post...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Grand Apartment Saga (part 2)


Where did we leave off? Oh yes, I was in despair and binging on cake while flailing about trying to find room mates, right. Well while flailing about and sending facebook messages after emails and being thrown potential roomies (who were just simply everyone and anyone, regardless of if we had similar interests or could possibly get along) by Mina I was being propped up by a steady stream of encouragement by the boyfriend and a rather large amount of processed sugar.

Then it happened—some room mates finally came along! AUC students? Yeah. Female? Yeah. Studying International Relations?! Yes! However, they were thinking of living in or near Zamalek because they have a friend in the dorms…and I had to be honest with them about how long it took to Zamalek (10-15 min walking, 20 min metro ride, 5 min cab ride), and I did tell them what I liked about Maadi, but ended up recommending they should probably live in Mohandiseen or Dokki as both are closer to Zamalek than Maadi is and a bit cheaper.

However, they were undeterred and asked me to look in to if the apartment was still up for rent. I had Mina make the calls, and then we began to commence negotiations. If this sounds like the beginning of a major undertaking, it’s completely true! We headed back to Street 200, Mina over-dressed and me rather underdressed to start arguing with the landlady (over the phone) about the price of the apartment, if utilities were included, and all that wonderful stuff. We arrived at the flat, and Sallah, the awesome bawwab, took us up so we could sit in the air-conditioned palace that I was hoping could be my new Cairo home. Then, they argued. Mina spoke rapidly and loudly in Arabic on the phone for an extensive period of time, chopping the monthly price back from the $1500 requested to $1300. We were determined to get $1200 though and Sallah knew it, so he motioned for us to shut up, grabbed the phone and started walking out on to the balcony, saying something along the lines of, “look, lady, these assholes are going to walk so you better talk business here.” He returned triumphant, and I continued just smiling and looking charming on the sofa while we haggled over the remaining bits and pieces such as when I would move in (which would prove a major point of contention later, stay tuned), if utilities were included (big fat NO there), and so on. I sat and sat and bugged Mina to keep me updated in English about the status of the arguing and pontificating.

Finally we reached a conclusion, but she wanted a substantial amount of money in check or cash form and she wanted it today, which just wasn’t possible as I didn’t have the money in my bank account at the time. Sallah offered to lend me what money he had, which was so shocking, but is really indicative of what kind of society I’ve been living in here. Sometimes the generosity of people in Egypt makes me feel like I can never leave, but I digress!

This is the snapshot of the negotiations that went on for…oh I don’t know, say like two weeks? We’d get one thing nailed down and then something else would crop up. I was supposed to “come sign the contract tomorrow,” for easily fifteen days if not more. One of the major points of annoyance was that the landlady really wanted me to move in on August 1st, but I point-blank refused to let her make me pay for that full month, which would be especially unfair to my room mates arriving later. How did we avoid the problem? Well, we stalled until it was after the 1st of course!

One thing after another prevented me from going and signing the contract on my dream apartment, and I was worrying because I wanted to assure my potential future room mates that we had a place nailed down. First I left for Alexandria, then when I returned Mina’s sister had a baby so he wasn’t available, then I got sick yet again, and then the worst of worst happened…she wanted three months in advance. In cash.

That’s right, $3600 in cold, hard cash.

I immediately recalled what “The Cairo Practical Guide” had said about banks being able to bypass your daily limit and make withdrawals, so every day for about three days I woke up at a reasonable hour, put on my tourist sandals, and trudged from major international bank to major international bank in the mid-summer Cairo heat hoping that one of them could make the necessary transaction. HSBC? No, mish mumkin. CIB? Sorry, not here. On and on and if I happened to be too late the bank would be closed and I’d grumble and make a note to try that one again tomorrow and trudge on the to the next. Nothing, nada, ziltch. By this point I was withdrawing up to my daily limit every day at the ATMs, in between being on conference calls with my (again, extremely patient) boyfriend Ramy, and Mina trying to figure out something, but crunching along restricted by my daily limit just wasn’t gonna cut it, and I wanted the apartment bad.

Finally I called my parents. I whined and complained and had them call my bank, who gave them the international number for customer service. I called my bank, and after some “oh so you’re in Egypt right NOW?” conversations I got my daily limit raised to $1000, which was an improvement but I really wanted to go sign like, yesterday. I scurried from ATM to ATM that day, but then when I went to go the next day I realized that—oh crap—they’d only put the new limit on for one day. Cue me whipping out my cell in front of yet another ATM and calling the US, because that number was supposed to accept the charges for international calls, right? Not so much…as I found out when I was disconnected once and my balance popped up revealing that this phone call had cost me upwards of 30LE, which made me grind my teeth, call back, and speak asfastaspossible to make sure the new limit was permanent.

Finally, I had amassed a huge, ridiculous amount of cash in the lining of one of my suitcases. I glared at it and counted it repeatedly as Mina for the millionth over the phone said, “okay, so we will go sign tomorrow, wait for my call.”

Friday, August 21, 2009

Phones!

The school year is starting to wind up...I'm starting to figure out my schedule, looking into getting books, and my room mates arrive in T-minus 3 days and counting. Maadi is quiet and pleasant and I've just been hanging out exploring the neighborhood and practicing dance and Arabic. So what's there to write about? Well everyone is curious what life is like in Cairo, and everyone could use some practical advice on living here, so I think I'm going to be doing a series of articles to cover some stuff like that. I also will be posting a revision of my banking post since I've now been here for over two months and noticed some changes that need to be noted.

First up, a lot of people have been asking me, "What do I do about my cell phone in Egypt?!" or the more calm version, "So what's the deal with mobiles there?"

Well, here's the deal:

-There are 3 main companies for phone service here: Mobinil, Vodaphone, and Etisalat. All seem to have decent coverage and service, but I'm on Etisalat myself (although my internet is through Vodaphone, but that's a whole different story) and have been pretty happy with my coverage. The only dead spot in Cairo that I've found? Certain areas of my bedroom...figures.

-Get an unlocked handset. While you are back home check to see if your phone has the service carrier lock disabled so you can use it abroad and that it is compatible with frequencies in Egypt. GSM 900 is the standard here, so make sure your phone supports it otherwise you'll have to shell out for another handset here! While you're dealing with the handset, copy your contacts from your sim to your phone and add the prefix 001 to any US numbers you may call from Egypt.

-Get a local sim card. The sim card is the chip that goes into the handset and communicates with the service provider about your minutes, phone number, etc. Getting one here from one of the above-mentioned providers is cheap and the norm for students traveling here. You can go to any cell phone shop, or any Vodaphone, Mobinil, or Etisalat branch. Just pop your sim in and voila, you will have your local number and can start making/receiving calls!

-Most people go prepaid while here. There are little stalls on almost every street corner that have drinks in refridgerated cases, snacks, cigarettes, and phone cards in various denominations (usually 10, 20, 40, and 100 LE). Find the one closest to where you live and check to see if they have cards from your provider, then just pop in when you need to buy more credit. On my sim card there's a way for me to just key in the code on the card, but there's a way to call and do it too--if you have any trouble practically anyone can show you how to do this, including the guy who just sold you your refill card and that ten-year-old kid next to you on the metro.

I actually find dealing with my cell in Egypt, despite the simplicity, more annoying than back home. At home I don't think about it, because I'm on a shared contract with about a million minutes I don't know what to do with, plus free nights and weekends, so I just call anyone whenever and never think about the money. Same deal with texting or internet usage as I have an unlimited plan. Not so in Egypt, but the system is at least much simpler than going through the process of getting a contract and figuring out a service plan. Plus if you're leery about yet another huge corporate entity having your personal information, there's no need to worry with the prepaid system.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Grand Apartment Saga (part 1)

Two entries within one week?! What? Well this is a special occasion as finally, finally I can report that the lease on the dream apartment I mentioned before is signed, sealed, and paid up! Cool room mates have been located, and have generously sent along the required deposits to seal the deal. I will get the keys tomorrow when they are done fixing up one of the air conditioners. I can now breathe a sigh of relief, pack my stuff, and recount to you the ridiculous saga that was getting to this point. It's horribly long, so I'll break it up with other posts to avoid annoying everyone and so you can skip the posts if it bothers you. Yes I do have to tell my story, darnit!

Part 1:

I once had a beautiful dream of living in Maadi. It is the quiet, tree-lined, foreigner-riddled, expensive part of Cairo that managed to squash my white, affluent guilt and my embarrassment over "not living in real Cairo, like a real hardcore traveler or student," with it's great charm and promise of giving me somewhere comfortable to return back to at the end of the day. With rents there being significantly less of what I would pay back home in Oakland, I decided to stow the guilt over the price tag and found that I was okay with getting somewhere nice and paying more than the Cairo standard. Not to mention living in that area would cut my commute to AUC in half, which is a feat worth moving for. So I made it known to my Cairo friends that I was looking for a new place in Maadi and kept an eye on the Cairo Scholars (CS) listserv to see if anyone was posting any ads.

As soon as I started to look on CS of course, all the postings I had seen with titles like, "room mate wanted in Maadi," or "2 Bedroom flat available in Maadi from Aug. 17" completely dried up. I poked around a little bit, not looking that hard because my rent wasn't up in Zamalek for a bit, when my good friend Mina said his friend had an apartment in Maadi for me to go look at. About the same time as this, I was getting in touch with a kind Italian guy from CS regarding a room he had for rent near El Maadi station that sounded appealing too.

Unfortunately this was the week of hell during which I was rather sick, but the day we went to go check out the place I was on an upswing and thought I was good to go. That morning I did a bunch of wrangling at the Mugamma to get my visa extended, which makes for an interesting adventure, but I was still game enough for what would become the first of many trips out to Sakanat El Maadi. As it turns out, Mina's friend was a Bawwab on street 200 and knew of a nice empty flat in the building, but he wasn't there that day, so after doing the 20 minute metro ride and 10 minute walk in the blazing sun we had nothing else to do but turn around and go home.

I'm having a hard time remembering everything, but I do believe this was also the day Mina refused to let me pay the expensive cab fare home from Maadi and insisted we take the Metro downtown. Normally this would not be a problem, but I was dehydrated, hungry, sick, and frankly probably on the verge of heatstroke. I persevered through the Metro ride, but then I started to tell the boys I needed to be somewhere where I had air conditioning and something to drink. I am not usually one to get too bitchy too quick, so most of my older friends know that when I start saying I "need" something I don't mean in 15 minutes or that I will walk ten more blocks, I mean NOW. Somehow I made it to Talat Harb Mall with Mina holding my hand the entire way because my vision was literally coming out in white spots like I was going to faint and I was completely lightheaded. Falafel, lukewarm air conditioning, and an orange Fanta could have definitely arrived more than a second sooner!

Oh, but round 2 came quickly enough, this time while I was deep into my 5-day course of medication that meant I couldn't eat anything except soup. Blood sugar low, faint with lack of proper nutrition (I have insisted my whole life that "Soup is NOT food"), and bitchy with the fact that I had scheduled my walk through of Mina's place and the Italian guy's place on the same day but 5 hours apart, I rolled into Maadi to meet up with Mina. Then came the apartment hunting part--you see, I had been duped into thinking they were just going to show me the one place.

Let me enlighten you into how apartment hunting actually works here and how you should do it: Deal with the bawwabs, and bring an Arabic and English speaking friend. Once you figure out an area or a street you're interested in start asking around with the bawwabs because they know which apartments are open, what the landlady/lord is like, how much the place will cost, and will help you negotiate because it means a better commission for them from you. This is more than a fair trade off as you will see, but in return be prepared to be run around to view every open flat in every building on the street until you say "Khalas!" It can be pretty fun, chatting with various bawwabs (including the guy who had adopted us named Hassan), while window shopping around for just the right place, but after awhile in the afternoon heat I started to falter. Plus, no where seemed quite as good as the very first place I viewed. It was a gorgeous three bedroom with nice furniture, lots of amenities you rarely see (a dryer, a microwave, gasp!), and I was more or less in love with it at first sight--it would be mine! We went back, I took pictures, and they promised to hold it for us as long as I got back to them by the end of the week.

I visited the Italian guy's place that night, and it was indeed very nice, but I just had to have that place on road 200. I started posting on CS. I had Mina post to facebook groups. I begged my friends to fly over from the US...I was excited but optimistic, and so were the myriad people who responded. Their quick replies to my posts made me think I would have no trouble finding two room mates, but then one by one everyone dropped off because of the price.

Now I can half understand of course, we are all living on a budget and everything, and I get the whole wanting to not break the bank as well as the next person. What I couldn't understand was why everyone around me was turning down a rent amount that would buy me approximately half a shoebox in California. It didn't seem so astronomical to me, just expensive by Cairo standards, so I wasn't expecting all my leads to drop one by one.

Which is about the time when I last posted saying that everything had pretty much fallen through. I had just received a call that my strongest possibility so far had canceled partially because of the large security deposit but also because of gendered living space issues. I think it was partially that, but I got the distinct vibe it was because of my age. One thing I can't help is my age, and trust I do try not to live up to those digits, but when it comes out how old I actually am people get a little weird and a little shifty. People don't want their lease being handled by some girl that age. I told Mina I had pretty much given up, but we soldiered on and I continued to field the requests that came my way, now throwing those dollar signs at them no longer apologetically, but aggressively like a dare.

To be continued...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Shoes, Studying, Schedules, Stuff...

Shopping!
Today I went on the first major shopping trip I have had in Cairo. For over two months I have been shaking and been unable to sleep due to a distinct lack of abusing my debit cards, and now I feel strangely content and peaceful. Perhaps it's due to the lovely turquoise color I seem to be on a kick with lately?


Yes, today I bought two pairs of turquoise shoes and a bag to match! I never thought I'd see the day, but when in Cairo it's all about appreciating bright colors. For whatever reason, it seems like unusual color combinations and saturated shades of colors are more popular here than back home, which I am totally digging. I am a complete shoe addict by nature, and flew out of Seattle leaving boxes of shoes behind that probably totalled about 30 pairs of high heels in all sorts of weird colors and unique styles. That is AFTER cutting things down to the ones I absolutely had to keep! The thing is that I love my high heels, but they need to be a little quirky or interesting to catch my attention and make me plop down the $ to make them mine.

That's why I'm pleased to report that in Cairo, it is all too easy to find an excuse to plop down 75-100LE ($13.50-$18) at this store we went to called "Club Aldo" in Maadi for a decent pair of shoes. Before I knew it the floor around me and Kara was littered with many pairs of "maybe, yeah definitely, I want it in a size 37..." I was good, and only bought three pairs, plus the purse. Cairo is a shoe destroyer, between the dust, sand, pollution, extensive amounts of walking, quality of the sidewalks, so on and so forth, so I don't actually feel too bad about buying a bunch of shoes because most of mine from the US are now on the way out or have already ended up biting the dust (heh).

After paying, we both raised pleading eyes to the face of my semi-horror-struck boyfriend to take us to go clothes shopping "just for a little bit." So it was off to the Grand Mall in Maadi to buy a couple more things, including two skirts for me. Lately I've been seeing a lot of girls around town in these full-length denim skirts and I just thought it looked damn cool enough to acquire a couple of my own. Skirts are great in Cairo in the summer because they get less hot and less crotch-stickagey. Luckily the store also included free hemming! Hooray for being 5' nothing.

The mall was cool and had a little bit of everything without being tooo huge. Okay, maybe the several-story fountain was a bit much, but who am I to judge? I haven't been to a lot of malls around town, but I would recommend this one to any foreigners as it has a variety of shops and a lot of different things to offer, including a couple tempting-looking shoe stores of course. Here's a random smattering of some of the shoes I brought to Cairo: (from the top going left) new flats from Club Aldo, holographic zebra-print flip flops for the beach, tourist sandals (a must-have in Cairo, GET SOME NOW if you are coming), basic black pumps, new turquoise heels, new turquoise flats (gotta have all the bases covered), Guess heels. Not that anyone cares!


Studying
Okay, I admit I have been so, so lazy about so many things since I've arrived. Egypt makes it very easy to say, "weeell I'll be here for a year and it's just sooo hooot...and well I'll do that later when I get up at 2pm tomorrow." It's still not a great excuse, but yeah I've been slacking on my Arabic pretty bad. However, I met this cool American guy at the previously featured Goal Cafe a couple weeks back who basically has been giving me pep-talks/lectures on getting serious about my Arabic. It's what I need, and he was also kind enough to lend me this book, "Kallimni 'Arabi" which is the second in a series on colloqial Arabic. I got the entire thing photocopied and bound for 27LE, which is a deal considering how much it would be normally!

I like this series so far because of a couple different factors:
-It's all written in Arabic. Seriously. No English except for the short glossary at the back and the introduction, which makes it sometimes difficult, but it makes you try so much harder and your reading improves much quicker. However, this makes it next to impossible for someone to use who doesn't know the basics of reading and writing.
-There's a variety of lessons. Not only do you get vocabulary drills from the beginning, but also drills on pronunciation, writing, reading, and conjugation. It's a very smart system, but you have to really commit and take things a bite at a time.
-The audio CD is fabulous. It's clear, precise, and features lessons on stresses within words and normal conversation structures which is excellent. Something I find people neglect a lot is the pronunciation of certain letters, and the stress patterns that make you sound more "authentic."

In addition, I'm telling people that every time we hang out they need to teach me 1 or 2 words that I'll use a lot! None of these really transliterate at all well, or even translate well, but from yesterday I have "gazma" or shoe, "mahal" or store, and "ya salam" which can mean a lot of different things depending on your inflection and head movements. I was the laughingstock of probably half a cafe last night working on the different ways of saying that one!

Schedule
After much emailing back and forth with AUC I finally have my class schedule! I will be taking:

INTRO TO COLLOQUIAL ARABIC
(the one for people with 1 year of fusha but no 'ameyya like me)
LITERATURE & GENDER

INTERMEDIATE MACROECONOMIC THEORY
COMPARATIVE POLITICS OF THE MIDDLE EAST

POLITICAL & SOCIAL THOUGHT IN THE MODERN ARAB WORLD

That last one sounds waaay to sexy for a junkie for inter-Arab politics like me. It's a full load, as per usual, but I'm hoping the fact that I'm try to incorporate Arabic into my daily life anyway will help make that feel less like a class and just more of my normal routine that I'll be happy to grapple with.

Anyway, I will leave you all this random image from sitting in rush-hour Cairo traffic this evening on our way to shopping:


Coming soon: I move to Maadi! Actual BELLY DANCE news!!