Thursday, February 28, 2008

Now I know my ABC's...

Before I got here, I was told by several people that I should join a student club as a way to meet more Egyptians. Well, I haven't joined a club per se, but I have started volunteering for an organization affiliated with AUC. The organization is called STAR, or Student Action for Refugees. Once a week I take an hour bus ride out to the 6th of October neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo. 6th of October is a relatively new refugee community, and it's filled with Sudanese and Iraqis.

This Tuesday was my first time teaching. I was put in Level 0, because that was the only spot they needed people for. Luckily we teach in pairs, and my partner is Egyptian, so he can translate anything I'm trying to say into Arabic. I think he and I will work really well together. He's pretty down to earth, and I can get super pumped and energetic. We started the class with everyone introducing themselves with their names, where they were from, why they wanted to learn English, and their favorite food. Since none of them speak a word of English yet, this was all done in Arabic. Then we played a name game. Placement testing was still going on during the beginning of class, and by the time we finished the name game, my partner and I had about 40 adults and teenagers sitting in front of us.

It was really interesting to see how the class divided itself. Men sat on one side, women on the other, even though there were married couples in our class. Some of the students volunteered where they were from within their countries. A lot said Darfur, Fallujah and Baghdad. They all looked healthy and well fed, though, because although most of them are very poor now, they had to have some considerable cash to get out of their countries.

After we did introductions, I started teaching the ABC's. The students had a lot of trouble distinguishing between 'g' and 'j', and I felt like a kindergarten teacher exaggerating everything, being really enthusiastic, and getting super, super excited when someone got through the whole first half of the alphabet without making a mistake (we only got to 'm', and I thought that was more than enough). The class was an hour and a half, but the time just flew by, and I can't wait to go back next week. I really want to learn about these people's lives, so teaching them is a super great incentive for me to work harder on my Arabic. Hopefully at the end of the semester we'll all come out having learned something.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Smoked cat for breakfast, banana fish for dinner

Alistair Hennessey: How are things going with your - what are you calling it? Leopard fish?
Steve Zissou: Jaguar shark.
Alistair Hennessey: Jaguar shark! So tell me - does it really exist?
Steve Zissou: [hesitant] You know, Allie, I don't want to give away the ending.
- The Life Aquatic

This week I did one of the coolest things I've ever done (thus far), which was to get certified to scuba dive in Dahab, a town on the Red Sea. Our group had about 14 people, and we had to go to class twice and practice in the pool once before we went to Dahab. I took the class through a company called Scuba Plus, which was only a few minutes walk from my dorm. The scuba center is decorated inside with mermaid posters, dive charts, and bumper stickers saying things like, "Divers work well under pressure," and "Have you gone down lately?" Our instructor's name was Osama, and he was very nice and super patient, which is good because diving can get kind of complicated.

We left for Dahab around 7:00 pm Thursday evening, and were told that it would take about 7 hours to get to our destination. It did not take 7 hours. It took about 9.5. We were stopping a lot and moving pretty slowly, and I think we really started to roll our eyes around 2:00 am, when all of Osama's diving buddies stopped for a sit-down meal and we waited in the bus. It was absolutely freezing outside, and a cat started yowling with the force of a fog horn right outside our door. (There are cats absolutely everywhere in Egypt.) The cat went to the back of our bus and curled up by the exhaust pipe, and someone started saying that the cat was going to be a lot darker tomorrow if that was how it wanted to stay warm. We were all pretty tired, and soon the conversation turned to the fact that we were going to smoke the cat, get stuck in the middle of the desert, and then have to eat the cat for breakfast. This was for some reason hysterical, at least to me. Luckily, Osama and his buddies got back on soon, and we drove for a few more hours to Dahab and our hotel.

The next morning we got our gear together and jumped into jeeps to drive over the sand to our dive spot. (I had yogurt for breakfast, not smoked cat.) The water was incredibly blue, and it was amazing to jump into the water against a backdrop of huge, jagged desert mountains in the background. I use the term 'jump' loosely, because when you're wearing a weight belt, a wet suit, a vest, flippers, and a giant tank, you have to wade in very carefully and slowly to make sure you don't fall and break anything.

The first day we did two dives, and once I calmed down and got over the fact that I was breathing UNDER WATER, I had an amazing time. We saw beautiful coral, jellyfish, rays, eels, and tons of other tropical fish. During our classroom sessions earlier that week, Osama had told us to watch out for something that sounded like 'banana fish.' I asked what a banana fish was in class, and everyone just laughed at me. Osama said that sometimes he could not pronounce his 'p's very well, and I realized that he was trying to say piranha. I'm sure he was kidding, since the last time I checked, piranhas are indigenous to the Amazon, although I could be wrong. Anyway, we did not see any 'banana fish', but when we went to a restaurant for dinner that night, they did have baracuda on the menu. We all had a great time sitting at this restaurant that was in an open-air beach cabana. Full moon on the Red Sea, great company, good food, and it all glowed a little bit because of all the nitrogen we'd absorbed earlier that day. Pretty fantastic day.

The next day we went to a different dive site, and rolled out of Dahab around 4:00. We made it back to Cairo by 11:30 (amazing!), and I'm now sitting here, exhausted, but very happy with an incredble weekend. If you ever have the chance to go scuba diving and/or join Team Zissou, I would highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"If anyone asks, you are virgin"

My roommate and I were a little taken aback our first night here when Salwa, an Egyptian girl who lives in our dorm, asked us if we were virgins five minutes after meeting us. Salwa remains the only person to have posed that question to me, but every day I'm inundated with reminders of Egypt's obsession with sexual purity. I live in an all-girls dorm, but we have about eight male guards downstairs. They aren't really necessary, but they're very friendly, and handy when you're running away from a cab driver who claims you need to pay him more (I actually did this, and felt like kind of a bad-ass later. Cab drivers will rob Westerners blind here, but more on that later.) The guards, who double as repairmen, sporadically come upstairs to fix appliances and check on things. Any time they do, the cleaning ladies will shout, "Man on floor!" and all the Muslim girls will double-check to make sure their heads are covered. There is one co-ed dorm where AUC students can live, but girls and boys actually have separate entrances. There are no co-ed floors, and girls and boys are forbidden from entering each others' rooms. There are guards stationed at each entrance to make sure no miscreants break the rules. Who knows what would happen if raging hormones were allowed to collide?

This weekend, I met up an Egyptian woman named Naglaa, who is the cousin of a woman I worked with in DC. Naglaa was incredibly nice, and told me that Egypt has grown increasingly fundamentalist over the past years. After reading this article, her statement makes perfect sense. Apparently 60% of Egypt's population is under the age of 25. There are no jobs, and the unemployed masses are increasingly choosing to turn to the Qur'an. Apparently wearing the hijab used to be an anomaly. Now every Muslim girl wears one. In this religiously-fueled society, sex is prohibited before marriage, and sex-ed is something most people have only heard of. Someone in my dorm mentioned to Salwa the other week that her stomach hurt. Salwa asked if the girl had had sex. The girl replied that no, she had just eaten something bad. Apparently it is thought by some here that if you have sex out of wedlock, your stomach will hurt. The ache is the evil invading your system and making you feel bad.

I feel like sexual repression in this country has reached epidemic levels. Because employment is so high and marriage is so expensive, people are waiting longer and longer to marry, and thus have sex. I certainly would not want to excuse the harassment women have to bear by men when walking down the street, but the incessant cat-calling makes sense when one considers that most of these boys are probably virgins. I think the problem would probably be solved if the government boosted the economy, providing jobs and lessening the desire for people to seek religious guidance. Jobs would mean help for the huge youth demographic, and a probable turn away from fundamentalism and the sex taboo. That day may not come anytime soon, but the topic sure makes for interesting conversation in the meantime.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Oh the library at Alexandria? Yeah, it's pretty tight.

We just got back from Alexandria last night. By we, I mean 120 of us from AUC who signed up for the trip. I have to give our bus drivers a huge round of applause for getting those enormous buses through tiny streets in Alexandria and Cairo. I think they must have some Harry Potter-like apparatus built in for magical maneuvering.

'Alex,' as they say here, was amazing. We saw the catacombs, Pompeii's pillar (a big column in the middle of nowhere that was actually built for Diocletian), a giant fortress built in the 1400s, and the new library. My favorites were the fort and the library. The fort is built on a rocky outcrop over the Mediterranean. Even though it was a hot day, the fort was cool inside, and there were about four stories to ramble through with windows to look out at the city and the sea. The fort came with all the usual accouterments: slit above the main gate to pour burning hot oil on invaders, slanted windows to shoot arrows from, a really bad-ass view of the know, just like my house back home.

The fort was my favorite spot, but the library was also extremely cool. The architecture is very modern, and the outside is covered with letters and symbols apparently from every alphabet in the world. You can't check things out from the library (it's for reference only), but there's a museum and art gallery inside you can visit as well as look at the gorgeous architecture. Most depressing moment of the trip: there were copies of the Babysitter's Club in the library at Alexandria. I would have vetoed that, but for some reason nobody asked me to be on the official book-selection committee. Oh well.

On Friday night after we were done seeing all the monuments (Friday is like Saturday here, because the weekend is Friday-Saturday), a bunch of us went to a cafe to get tea, then poked through fabulously gaudy souvenir shops and got ice cream. Egypt has dry counties, but the country itself is not dry, and throughout the large cities you can find a sketchy liquor chain called Drinkie's. We stopped at the liquor store, bought a few bottles of wine, and headed down to the beach. The wine kind of tasted like a mixture of cough syrup and grape juice, but I think drinking sketchy wine on the Mediterranean is still a pretty great way to celebrate your 21st birthday. Thanks to all for the birthday wishes. They really made me feel loved, and like there was less than an ocean, a giant sea, and part of a continent separating me from everyone.

Pictures: the whole album is on facebook under the same title as this post, but here's a preview.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

In which I learn that “Hello, welcome to Egypt,” “You would like some oranges?” and “Nice day today,” all mean “Please marry me and have my children.”

As a woman, walking down the street in Egypt is an experience. You are constantly cat-called, and passing men make these soft clicking noises, like something you would use to summon a pet in the US. I’m not sure any of these men truly believe foreign women are going to pay attention to them. I think it’s more likely they’ve all heard the one story of a brother’s friend’s uncle’s cousin twice removed, who apparently married an American. So hey, it must be worth a try, right?

Apparently the fruit seller down the street is of this mindset. The other day I went to go buy some fruit for breakfast, and the man kept asking me, “Gowz? Gowz?” I didn’t know what it meant. I thought maybe it was another name for banana (mooz), and he was just pronouncing it differently. I just replied, “msh, msh,” which means no. I got back to my dorm and talked to the front desk manager, asking him what the man was saying. When I asked him what the word meant, he just burst out laughing. Apparently it means husband, and the man was proposing. Nice way to start the day, I suppose. Most of the people here are really friendly and completely harmless. I’m sure the catcalling will definitely get old after awhile, but I think of it more as one of the many colorful things that make the culture what it is; a daily tonic, if you will. A proposal a day keeps the doctor away? Perhaps.