Ana Sitt, Hear Me Roar!

The last dayof the AWO Arab-Western Youth Dialogue was far more productive.  I’m not sure if it was the added (and forbidden) social aspect that fired up the Americans, or maybe we were just pushed to the limit.  The ladies especially were all in, and it was great.  Nana made a rousing speech that garnered quite the round of applause.

I met a guy who overheard me say something in French.  Many of the Arab youth speak it, and for saudeeqee (my friend) Billel, it’s his first language.  Once he realized I’m decent at it, we hung out and jabbered away in French as fast as I could handle.  The next day, he came over to ask me a question about women’s wages in America.  He asked if I would answer in front of the group during his presentation, and I obliged.  All of this was in French of course, as was the question and answer in front of the entire group.  I answered in English first, but he wanted to know what I said so I explained it in French as well.  Apparently everyone, Arab and American alike, had underestimated my ability with French.  For the rest of the conference the Arabs knew me as the girl who can speak French, and many approached me at random to chat and test me a wee bit.  As for my own group, I guess they thought I was BSing, or that my version of “speaking french” means “I took it in high school and fell asleep a lot in class.”  My roommate Janine said she felt like it was a different person, hearing such foreign (but pretty) things coming out of my mouth.

It was great to practice my French a lot because it pushed me and also validated me.  It’s not quite as disheartening to stumble through Arabic when I have confidence in other languages.

Throughout the weekend we were so incredibly sheltered.  A quick google search of the Arab participants would tell you why–they were all chosen based on experience with America and connection to the government.  We’re already a target as 30 Americans, but when you add 30 affluent Arabs to the mix it means we are swarmed by security and kept in the most gorgeous playpen you could ever imagine.  Unfortunately, this resulted in the cancellation of most of our site visits :(.

PS if you didnt figure it out, the title is arabeezy (3raby and ingleezy)for I am woman, hear me roar

Ambassador

While in Egypt, we were reminded to be mindful of our actions.  They reflect on us, our group, our family, our school, our Egyptian hosts and our country.  Like it or not, for many Egyptians we were ambassadors to the United States.  We were their piece of America, their view of what it’s “really like.”  A certain obligation comes along with that sort of responsibility.  Likewise, now that I’m in the US, I feel a responsibility, sometimes overwhelming, to represent Zamalek, Cairo, Egypt, the Arab World, and my time there.

For a lot of friends and family, I am the only person they know who has ever been to Egypt, and in some cases to the Middle East.  There are already so many misconceptions about an area of the world to which I have accidentally devoted my schooling.  That’s a lot of pressure.  I’m doing my best to choose my words carefully, but even so I find myself constantly doubling back to edit myself and explain more deeply when I answer questions.  It’s not that I’m editing my experience, but rather the American perception of my experience.  I have already seen an off-handed comment or two get filed away as evidence to reinforce a negative perception or stereotype.

I do love, though, talking about Egypt.  I think we as a nation expend a lot of hot air on that part of the world, without really ever understanding or saying much.  If I can contribute positively in any way to the conversation, or maybe even understanding, then some of this high-priced education is paying off.  I do feel that this dialogue is perhaps the most important one, and I feel a personal obligation to help more truth enter the American conversation on the Middle East.  What can be difficult, however, is engaging with people at home on this. Everyone of course asks how my trip was, and my brief answer is generally, “It was great!  I can’t wait to go back!”  This answers the most obvious question after any life-altering decision: would you do it again?  But more than that, it tends to pique interest amongst those who see me as stubborn, independent and feminist.  As in, why the HELL does she wanna go back to that kind of country?  Which is the whole point: I want to provoke you into conversation.

Most people say, “Tell me about Egypt!”  They then look at me eagerly, eyes wide and mouth agape, in anticipation of God knows what.  How do you sum up six weeks of cultural immersion in a ne-sentence story?  Penelope Trunk talks about the art of turning experiences of your life or attributes into one sentence stories of your amazingness for interviews.  While that’s great for interviews, I refuse to do it for real life.  Real people have the time to sit down and ask questions.  That’s what I love–when people ask questions.  Things that seem silly, like “how was the food?” “was it hot?” or “did you wear a turban?” are useful in that they spark more conversation.  So ask me your questions, even if they seem ridiculous or totally un-PC, and I’ll do my best to be honest, for all our sakes.

Division of Labour

We visited the ICRC (Red Cross/Red Crescent) and met with a rep in the hottest room imaginable.  I didn’t faint, but it was dicey for a while.  Despite the heat, it was one of my favorite lectures.  It’s amazing to hear people who are good at this (this being diplomacy, public speaking and representing something other than themselves) field questions.  His job is a mix between relief work and politics, and I was eating it up.

Unfortuntely, some in our number lack the legal background to really learn from the talk.  They spent their time asking uninformed questions and then rudely carried out silly debates during the rest of the q&a.  No, you don’t need to fight about what defines “advanced warning” or “civilians” in international humanitarian law (IHL), because teams of lawyers already have.  When these questions flared up I was really grateful for Kim Jones’ class (Human Rights in the Middle East), and the background I’ve gained from UNA.

Some in our number were freaked out by the morals of the ICRC.  The man was pretty realist (especially about the organization) but not as hardcore as the Arab League ASG.  Some people get upset because the ICRC doesn’t publicly oppose war, or always cause a ruckus over various violations it finds.  However, the ICRC has to face certain realities.  The man we spoke to emphasized that Amnesty International (AI) and the ICRC are both very different, but both very necessary.  AI does field research, releases reports and draws publicity in order to put pressure on various states. ICRC on the other hand does relief work in the field, and don’t go back to their offices for quite some time.  If the ICRC publicly denounces a state r a practice, they jeopardize their ability to help people on the ground.  In the end, there’s only so much merit to being right if you can’t help anyone, as demonstrated by the fact that the ICRC is the only organization still allowed in Sudan.  Being loud and right has its merits, but it doesn’t mean a damn if there’s no one to immediately help in the field.

Meanwhile, some disagree with the idea of relief work as opposed to development aid, the idea being that with proper (western?) development, there would no longer be a need for  relief work.  The ICRC steps in during natural disasters though, and no amount of infrastructure can stop those, and even “civilized” states can have civil war or be invaded.  Even  if the premise that good development aid=no relief work later was true, one would still need the ICRC in the meantime.

After the lecture we had an intense discussion in the van.  Finally, the powder keg of 25 politically minded smartasses went off.  I hnestly can’t believe it took this long!  It was an enjoyable day though, and I actually didn’t argue for a while and just watched others do it–I may have even learned a few tricks.

We Are Family

Everyone is sad to go, for a variety of reasons.  Cairo is like home, and no one wants to go back to the real world, outside of our bubble.  But one of the biggest causes of sadness is that we have all gotten so close so quickly.  Massages, relentless teasing and snuggling en masse have become a regular part of our group culture.  We all have little nicknames (some more loving and adorable than others…) and almost all the roommates love each other. 

I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m not greated by 25 Great Americans every morning at breakfast.  I will miss Brendan’s goofy laugh, Sarah’s practical advice and Nana’s insanity.  There will be no more “anonymous” lovenotes from Meaghan, fake sermons by Khalid or constant freestyling from Ray.  I didn’t come here intending to find all these people who would become so important to me.  In fact, I didn’t think about the social aspect at all.  But I’m glad our ragtag bunch was the group I was lucky enough to join, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

So to my Dialogue family, (which includes a creepy, plastic anatomically correct new addition):  thank you, I love you, I’ll miss you.  I hope to see everyone at our welcome back hafla, and I’m so glad we’ve already started planning reunions.  You’re all welcome to stay with me at NU or in Reading any time, and I can’t wait to see how our friendships transition stateside. 

Dennis Sullivan gave us some good advice: don’t think that you may never come back.  Just enjoy it and think about when you’ll be back.  For me, I think it has to be soon.  I’m as in love with Cairo as I am with travel.  Now I just need to find a way to make Northeastern pay for it all.

Iskandria

I am writing this from the beach on the Med Sea, a few feet from my hotel room in what used to be a palace.  Yeah.  It’s amazing, and I could also not possibly get more out of touch with real Egyptian society.  The Arab Women’s Organization (AWO) is paying for it, which means the first ladies of the Arab League are paying for it.  All expenses are paid, although the food is not always great.  Tonight an entire fish watched me as I tried to eat it.  I should’ve told them I’m vegetarian.

We’re here to dialogue with students from around the Arab world about women’s issues.  We are in groups based on topic, mine being Social issues, and within that we break the topic down even more, working with Arab counterparts as well as our entire group on the topic of Social as a whole.

There is definietly an interesting exchage of ideas.  I had to bite my tongue while it was explained to me that “according to science,” a woman has enough hormones in one strand of hair to attract a man (it’s beyond his control).  Therefore, to go with hair uncovered would be immodest and an invitation for sexual attention.  Any woman who got any of that attention would deserve whatever she got.  Yeah.

Dating was another interesting topic.  Apparently, women shouldn’t be with more than one man because if their husband doesn’t measure up, they will actually want to be satisfied and might cheat or divorce him.  We then discussed this great plague of the United States: single mothers.  The Arab youth at this conference were foaming at the mouth to talk about it, so I can only assume they recieved some sort of lecture or all read the same article.  They were baffled and saddened by this horror, and couldnt not comprehend what a woman in the US with a child (but no husband) does.  In their culture, if your husband dies or there’s a divorce, there’s a clear chain of command for guardianship, with the male guardian dealing with the woman’s fiscal responsibilities.  The idea that the woman simply works, raises her child and relies on friends and family to help when they can (they referred to this as charity) was thoroughly foreign.

At this point in my annoyed rant, I must explain something.  These people were not chosen by accident.  By and large, they are all very wealthy and have a personal connection to the government that sent them here.  Googling their last names is outrageous.  The level of honesty is not great, but they also live different lives than many of their countrymen.  That being said, we were able to have interesting discussion on many controversial issues.  This was simply my first real encounter with people who so thoroughly disagree with things that I consider a given.

Tomorrow we continue the conference with the stating of opinions and what we’ve learned, followed by q&a.  That means we will either moderate ourselves or face the firing squad, which is why I’m procrastinating about my paper right now.

Our hotel is essentially a compound.  There is an on-site mosque, a giant beach, a pier or two, a swimming pool, several discotheques, a restaurant or two, a bank, a barbershop, a jewelry store and enough room for a wedding.  We take the bus everywhere, even if it’s only a few km away.  We are scheduled every day from 9am to 10pm, with dialogues, tours and food food food!  It’s delicious, and we’re all gaining back the weight we lost in Cairo.  Unfortunately, though, I don’t feel that I’m getting to know Alex.  Sadly, most of our group has fallen in love with the place, the least Egyptian (and most European) city we’ve visited thus far.  Alexander the great (hence the name) made it into a Greek heliopolis, and in the early- to mid-1900s a mass of ex-pats ensured that the architecture, art and culture of the city was thoroughly European.  While the regume change may have caused a mass exodus, the influence remains (as far as I can see.)  I hope to get out and explore the place a bit, especially since we keep driving past amazing murals, sculptures and installation art.

I don’t understand the purpose of bringing us to this city and this hotel if we can’t fully experience either.  Even within the conference, the aims of the AWO seem scattered.  The AWO seeks to…further women?  without obligation, of course, as it is a subsidiary of the Arab League.  It’s too bad the dialogue isn’t honest and personal relationships aren’t encouraged, or else some real cultural exchange might take place.

Reverse Discrimination

An Egyptian friend of ours, Moustafa, was hanging out wiht us as he often does.  We all decided to go back to our hotel to relax before bed.  Unfortunately, not all of us made it.  It is illegal for an Egyptian to be in a hotel where he is not staying.  This was shocking because he had been allowed in before, during the day.  We were told that under no circumstances could he come in with us at night, the expectation being that he was there to harm us, in one way or another, and that would be bad for business. 

We’ve been warned that in a dicey situation, our American passports will save us, but not our friends.  We can speak and dress freely, because we are seen as silly Americans who don’t know any better, but are a cash cow.  This means that at western-style clubs our EGyptian friends are turned away, and at the Arab Women’s Organization conference our Arab friends have a whole separate set of rules.  They cannot swim if we swim, they have a curfew of 12:30, they may not drink and they may not be affectionate with us in any way.  Some of these rules seem silly or arbitrary, but they do bother us.  They may not hang out with us because we spend our time in our hotel rooms, and they may not go into the room of the opposite gender, especially an American. 

We have no such rules. 

I asked, indignant, why no one told us about the rules. 

“You are Americans,” he said.  “There are things in your culture that we cannot do.  Just be yourselves, and we will be responsible to step away”

Nahdet Mahrousa

We visited an incubator NGO (non-Governmental Organization) within Egypt, called Nahdet Mahrousa (Renaissance of Egypt) a few weeks ago.  The incubator selects possible projects and helps them turn into full-fledged, self-sustaining NGOs that are independent financially and otherwise. NM promotes better standards of health and education, as well as tolerance, employment, financial independence and dignity.  They’re a homegrown group of diverse Egyptians who wanted to help combat the infant mortality rates, high unemployment and brain drain that have been such a problem for Egypt.

NM provides legal assistance, research, HR, funding, branding and PR advice, training and project development ideas.  Some of the NGOs they have helped get off the ground include the Young Innovators Award (YIA), which awards Egyptian high schoolers with the funding to carry our their innovative ideas.  This is an attempt to promote more science and technology in Egypt, and often helps the students land jobs with companies that want to buy their innovations.  Another NGO hey helped create was CEDO, a group that has put career services offices in all the public universities of Egypt.  Previously, only wealthy students who could afford to go to private universities got the kind of career advice that comes standard with a college education in the US.  Now, students who never took a university-level english class can have help going over their resume, or preparing for an interview.

Marisa–you’d be so proud of me!  I networked my little tush off!  I got a few business cards and they said I can send my resume to them for the next coop cycle (sorry mom!).  It would be unpaid but phenomenal, and I absolutely need to find a way to get back here, so we’ll see how that goes.  I would absolutely LOVE to work with them, but so far my Arabic isn’t quite good enough.

What’s amazing is that NM just now (after five years) hired their first PR person for their own organization.  They explain their success (and constant interview requests) by saying that, “good news travels fast.”  I can’t help but thinking that wouldn’t exactly be the case in the US.  But then again, in a country where so few people are (effectively) tackling unspoken issues, a group that dedicates itself to just that must stand out.