Friday, June 20, 2008

Home again

I guess I should draw up something conclusive to this blog, since my plane landed in O'Hare last Monday and I've started the next chapter of my adventures: work! I'm interning at the offices of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions this summer, which shouldn't be too shocking a difference from Egypt, just because I'm imagining I'll still get to have conversations about Islam etc; I'll just probably not be a religious minority anymore.

Mom got into Cairo right before my last final. We went to visit the tourists' market, but also campus, the dorms, my favorite restaurants, and my host family. When we got in the taxi to go visit them (the third time I've gone back since my initial stay ended-yay!) the driver warned us that when people go to this neighborhood who don't know it, they usually say, "Oh my god!" when they they get there. This wasn't encouraging, but I've never had anything resembling trouble when I've gone. Plus, we walk from the cab directly to their apartment and back. So they were quite pleased to meet mom, but as we were leaving I was having to say goodbye to them basically for forever, which was hard. It's so wonderful to meet people who like you and are nice to you for no good reason, and who you hoped you were able to treat the same.

Once I finished my finals (final grades: 3 A-'s and a B-) Mom and I headed south to Upper Egypt for our Nile cruise--although not before Mom spent a day by herself while I was taking my music final. She took a taxi by herself and looked around Coptic Cairo--all her own idea, totally autonomous from the tour agency. And this was like her 2nd full day in Egypt--she's so capable! This Nile cruise thing was pretty nice, and our cabin provided excellent napping opportunities and relief from the heat.

My worth as a bride was quoted to us at 2 million camels, and one guide told me I was an optical illusion! By which he meant to say that I was visually observant, but I think there's more than one compliment in there somewhere.

I managed to buy some good gifts, and I got an Arabic lesson in the process:
مَفْرَش table cloth

مَفارِش table cloths

سِوان sheet

When in Rome... well, we had a guide say to us at one site that he found the way we were dressing respectful. Because we were respecting his culture, he felt compelled to respect us and our culture as he interacted with us. I normally felt and had been told that Egyptians, there was a sense of understanding and more lax standards for foreigners, because they are, after all, foreigners. I had never heard and Egyptian speak in such strong disapproval again the prostitute-garb, meaning miniskirts and back-less shirts that Western women are determined to wear in this Muslim country, of the tourist women.

So, the trip with Mom was a nice transition (back to the Western world), though I had a tough goodbye with my roommate. I can definetly see myself going back to Egypt, though my plans for the coming year are pretty set--finish college! I really want to keep up with my Arabic and to throw in some extra effort on my Spanish. I have a lot of pictures that I'll be sharing and I hope that this trip has had a positive impact on my life and that I've have some positive impact on those I met. I'll be telling lots of stories this summer, so even though you may feel exhausted just from the experience of reading this blog, ask me! and I'll keep the anecdotes coming. مع سلامة، يا مصر

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Last days, disconnected observations

There's only a couple days left before mom gets here and we go on our tourism adventures, which should in themselves be fun and informative, but right now I just want to tie up any loose ends and enjoy the people I've gotten to know here. And get through my finals.

I feel like there's so much I haven't experienced about Cairo, but at the same time it's important to acknowledge what I have done. I still need to go shopping in the infamous Khan al-Khalili market, though I have made it to "City Stars," the monstrously large, international style mall here. I haven't done much in the way of anthropological research, but I have had several meetings with my Anthro professor here, and I have a deep respect for him. I still haven't seen "Girls and Motorcycles," and Egyptian movie that looks too inappropriate to have made it into theaters in this fairly conservative country (which is exactly why I need to see it)--but on the other hand I saw Heena Maisara, another Egyptian movie on poverty in Cairo and ways that peoples lives can go right or wrong here. And I saw that movie with my roommate and some friends of hers, and it was interesting to see much a movie about Cairo could surprise and open the eyes of people from Cairo. I haven't gone to mosques during worship or talked to too many people about their faith, but I have visited many stunningly beautiful mosques with my architecture class, and saw examples of how people live as Muslims from my classmates, my professors, and my host family.

So before I start in on adventures with mom (and I'm really glad that we're doing that, because 1.) it'll distract me from being sad that people are leaving and 2.) I do want to see this other side of Egypt and 3.) it gives me a little transition time between AUC being over and the moment when I actually leave Egypt, because otherwise they kick us out of the dorms as soon as final are over and before we possibly could have a chance to catch our breath...and 4.) I'll have no excuse not to shop for people which I haven't really done yet and which could be fun), which hopefully I'll document on this blog as best as possible ان شاء الله (God willing), I want to get in a couple more observations and anecdotes.

February involved a lot of getting used to school here and hanging out with different people. In March I retreated to my room and hung out with Enas a lot, worked on homework, the Lily grant and finding an apartment. I was gearing up, in April, for spring break and then actually going on it, and in May I think I struck a better balance with going out and getting work done, as well as striking a balance between spending time with people I care about deeply here and people who I like to hang out with just for fun.

One day in the beginning of April I heard an Egyptian guy on campus playing the oud (عود-picture stolen from, which I think is a very important instrument in Arab music--but since it was college students he wasn't playing some traditional tune. He was playing the theme from "Pulp Fiction" ("Misirlou" by Dick Dale and His Del-Tones?) on an Arab musical scale. It was hott.

I've continued loving the Egyptian coffeehouses (though "house" seems like an overstatement) and going every once in a while. There are a couple near campus, and a guy friend of mine from Architecture of Cairo class will go in the mornings before class or fieldtrips. I wouldn't go to these places unaccompanied or even without someone male--there's no threat, it's just very palpably a man's world and I need some XY genes along to legitimate my presence there. Usually Sam and I get "take away" but a couple times we've sat and taken our time over a Turkish coffee after class. In early March (which means warm weather here), we took some homework one day to the 'ahwa and were in no rush. We wound up getting into a conversation, entirely in Arabic (me with my paltry Colloquial and Sam, who's only taken formal, newscaster Arabic) with the older men who frequent these places. We just talked about the different names of the drinks served there, what they are made of, the names of the different parts of the water pipes they smoke. But it was neat. People here are comfortable talking to people they don't know--a clerk in a store will comment on something funny to a customer if he notices it, or vendors will gently tease us about our Arabic. Egypt is a good place for joking around.

I don't want to stereotype or generalize, but I do want to try to articulate how it's different from the US. I think that people don't cop an attitude with each other here. If you address someone on the street, there's never a sense of, "Why are you talking to me?" or of people assuming that you're stupid or that your question/comment was unnecessary or obvious. I mean, they're not saints; people get into explosive fights when someone hits their car, but there's an 'innocent until proven guilty' attitude toward others that strikes me as constrasting a coldness and suspicion in the US. That said, I love the US, I'm so excited to get back, really looking forward to feeling comfortable and like I know what's going on. I'm excited to try myself treating people back home in this less suspicious, more friendly way, and I'm sure it will fly there too.

I've noticed that couples seem to genuinely enjoy other, and whenever you see them, they're always in dialogue, back and forth between the man and the woman. I would have said that this is like the US, but when ever I see it here, it always amazes me and looks like a phenomenon I've never seen before. I'll have to people watch back home more to see if this is true, but no matter the age of the couple, they always seem to be on good terms, respectful and interested in what the other has to say. This has been my experience of my host family as well, though, so maybe those two ideas are related.

I've become a little disillusioned with looking or acting or being cool. Everyone has their own definition of cool, of course, but even my own definitions of things I find interesting and intriguing about other people seem really unimportant sometimes. How much better to be good, or respectful, or respectable. This has to do with the AUC Gucci posing (how can there be so many girls in skinny leg jeans?), but also with people I've met and gotten to know, and the cool ones...either I don't feel a gut connection to them, or I eventually have to admit to myself that they aren't as interesting as, say, the people who I orginally found to be less cool, but who are earnest, or who are deeply humorous.

In the past couple months, I've gotten really close to my roommate Enas. I've divulged the secrets of American dating culture to her, she talked me through a small social crisis, and she's basically amazing. She cares about me and thinks that my flaws and faux pas are funny, and I try to watch out for her. I love her sense of humor--light, sarcastic, yet deeply funny. She says that her life isn't very interesting, but just because she manages to avoid drama and doesn't have a lot of embarrassing stories does not prevent her from being delightful company. Before a couple months ago, she had never seen a drunk person, and was very curious about it. I told her she wasn't missing out on anything, but since she's lived in Muslim countries where alcohol is limited to a very few shady spots, she hasn't had the demystifying experience of seeing drunken people on the street or particularly on college campuses. So when a couple of the American kids from the dorm had gone out and gotten a little buzzed, I sent her in their direction to say hi. And I accompanied her to a party that reminded me a lot of high school when people's parents were out for the weekend (and I would sit in the corner, drinking a can of Coke and hoping my friends would be ready to leave soon). Unsurprisingly, drunkness wasn't as neat, or as debilitating, as she thought it might be, and now she wants to avoid drunks as much as possible. So I feel like she's had a good introduction to it. Also amusingly, she asked me the other day if I use laundry paper, and it took us a really long time to realize that she was talking about dryer sheets. But really, her English is impeccable (though lamentably British in vocabulary sometimes, because of her grammar school education)--I think I've mentioned before that she even curses well in English, which I learned in linguistics class is one of the grammatically most complicated parts of the language which students of a language usually can't ever do as well as native speakers.

Last Thursday, I went to a lecture that was like Introduction/Politics of Bollywood, which was pretty informative since I know basically nothing about this industry that apparently has an audience of like half of the entire world. But it also reminded me of something I've been noticing all spring--that contemporary South Asia and the Middle East are much more connected than I'd realized. One of my closest friends here is an American girl whose family is from Bangladesh, and she points out similarities between Arabic and Bengali language, as well as correcting me whenever I call certain foods "Middle Eastern," because she says they originated closer to her homeland. Another friend of mine here says that parts of Cairo look a lot like his native India, and when Enas went to visit my host family with me, she said their neighborhood reminded her of her trip to India. Enas is also familiar with Bollywood movies (and commands a wicked--in both senses of the word--Indian acccent) and that's not unusual here. Attention to Bollywood is surely growing in the US, but it's still pitifully limited. Realizing that my country manages to basically ignore something that's pervasive in so much of the rest of the world is interesting both because it shows me, once more, how much bigger the world is than how I think about it, and that Americans, who say that the world is "shrinking" and that we're more connected everyday, are still insulated from certain unfamiliar forms.

Also, trying to describe the culture and experience of being here as made me much more sure that there's no way I could ever be an anthropologist. Just describing the difference between a normal street around my host family's apartment vs. a normal street in the neighborhood where the dorm is-- that seems daunting to the point of impossible. They're vastly different, but I'd need a boatload of insight to be able to explain how.