Tag Archives: Arabic

Befuddled, or Tiny Violin Day

There was a point when I felt like my life path was always waiting for me, like that mini-game with digging for treasure in Mario Party, and I was lucky enough to be uncovering what was always there.  With Arabic, the Egypt trip and working at Amnesty, I felt confident in my direction, if not my skills.  I had a great answer anytime someone asked what I was up to, and in my daily life I felt like I was stretching, learning and adding to the conversation.

Then I came home and Andrew and I broke up.  I started working and trying to recover from losing not only Andrew but some of my closest friends.  I moved in with some strangers, and tried (and failed) to get back to where I used to be with my freshman year friends, and the great new people they had acquired in the meantime.  That of course only served to remind me that they all live together and I lived with strangers.  UNA was a constant source of negativity, although many would argue that I was that source.  And finally, I got a poor review from Amnesty that I wasn’t expecting at all.

That leaves a lot of things up in the air, like human rights and nonprofit as a career choice, as well as the basic people I spend my time with.

I don’t know what I’m going to do with where I live, whether I go on coop in the fall or spring, traveling, or even writing this blog.  I had wanted to try for an international coop at the Arab League this spring, but now I’m questioning my wherewithal to live alone in Cairo for six months.  I don’t know if my tutoring job is waiting for me, though it probably is, and I have no idea what to do about UNA.  I miss the debate and the camaraderie (when it was there), but I don’t know if there’s a place for me there anymore.  Even if there is a place, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  For a long time people on both sides of the aisle have been wondering why I’m wasting my time, but I have yet to determine if that premise is true.

So that’s where I am today.  It’s a grey day in Cuba and I’m 21 years old and I have no clue what I’m doing with my life, or even with my time here.  It’s not pretty, succinct or resolved; it’s just today.

Inspiration: here, via here, Mariseca y les Aldeanos

Learn from Experience

I think it’s important to pause and reflect before, during and after every adventure.  While I did some of that because it was mandated for Egypt, I also did a decent amount of that for this blog.  More often, though, I tried to make this a way of reflecting in a sort of “together” academic sort of way.  Post-Egypt I hit the ground running, so here is a look back at what I’ve learned, whether it be for my next trip to Egypt, travel in general or writing this blog.

When I go back to Egypt:

  • Cairo Jazz. I tried often, but never made it, and I hear it was a blast.
  • Alexandria. We were the definition of gilded cage while there, and I barely got to see any of the great Euro-Arab hybrid city.
  • Speak  more with locals. I’ve got a lot more confidence about my ability to intimidate/tell off strange men or hustlers, so I should stop whining about how the boys get extra practice and just get some myself.
  • Take more pictures. This gets into a bit about traveling as well, but there’s a lot of my experience that I didn’t capture, whether that be Egyptian friends or the khan el-khalily market.  I have a million pictures of ancient things, and I think it kind of burnt me out.
  • Sinai Peninsula. This place is wicked important historically, politically and scuba-ically.  We all wanted to go but weren’t allowed to because of our security detail, and I’ve heard from many that it’s must-see.

Travel:

  • Pictures again. I want to take more pictures of people, and less of stuff, as well as to try to avoid picture burnout.  It should be neither an obligation nor a chore.
  • Pack lighter. I will always and forever say this.
  • Wander around more. We were so busy in Egypt that I didn’t explore nearly enough.  Luckily, with Havana being much safer and my time frame much longer, this should be easy.
  • Plan ahead. I didn’t realize how little time I would have once I was there.  This meant that I didn’t know how much I wanted to do something until my time was almost over.
  • Collect local music. Every day in our vans we listened to some great music, but unfortunately only Wa wa wa made it back.  Cuba is world renowned for its music, and is in fact one of the aspects of Cuban culture I’ve researched before, so I plan to pick up some great CDs.
  • Plan souvenirs ahead. Buy throughout, instead of mostly at the end (so stressful!)
  • Think in the local currency. After all, that’s where you are.  If you don’t heed Miss Asha Fierce’s wise words, you’ll go broke.
  • Carry pen and paper always, and don’t be afraid to take notes. In fact, I want to go one better and bring a voice recorder too for when my thoughts get going too fast for my pen.
  • Buy smart. This applies to everything, but I thought of it when it comes to myself.  The Egyptian skinny jeans and the handmade mirror I bought are among my favorite souvenirs, and they aren’t silly knick-knacks, they are things I will wear and decorate with for a long time.

This Blog:

  • Pictures! I know it makes a big difference when I’m reading the blogs of strangers.  Unfortunately, my internet and computer situation in Egypt made this basically impossible.  I hope to go back and update some old posts with pictures, as well as to post WAY more pictures from Cuba
  • Loosen up. Sometimes I need to just show the basic, emotional part where you’re processing a million things at once, instead of just the polished academic.  The downside?  It makes my mother nervous.
  • Be honest. There are some things I couldn’t be honest about in Egypt, and some things that just would’ve given my mother and Gram a heart attack.  But really, a lot of it wasn’t so bad.  I’d like to show people a more realistic picture, if I can.
  • Take video! I took one or two videos but they were awful and I never posted them.  I have the power, so I figure why not?  In the near future you may see a youtube account with some rough videos off of my canon still camera.
  • Encourage comments. I know how many people read this, and I have a vague idea of who.  At this point, it’s mostly me just saying whatever I want, or occasionally answering questions I’ve heard in person from friends and family or reacting to relevant news pieces.  For those of you family members who are not quite so into the internet, reading a blog without ever commenting/making your presence known is called lurking.  And yes, it’s meant to sound that creepy.  I KNOW you have questions and things to say–people email me or they ask my mom or, more often, they will tell me months after I return.  So comment!  an interactive blog is a fun blog!  I’ve been making an effort lately to encourage comments, which is something I never really did or thought about in Egypt.

What about you?  If you have been to Egypt, travelled or blogged then you should have some suggestions!  Also, since you’re here you read this blog, and doubtless have some suggestions for what I could improve.  For example, Eena requested captions for the pictures, since the few from Egypt don’t really have explanations.  So when I’m in Cuba and all my photos have great captions, you can thank her.  As for the rest of you, what are your suggestions?

An Americaine in Cairo

Recently, I mentioned the time I spent in Egypt to a young (late-20s early 30s), liberal, well-traveled woman, and was surprised by the response.  I gave my usual one-sentence opener, which is that I was there for six weeks this summer, loved it, and can’t wait to go back.

Really?!  I’ve lived everywhere, even Beijing, and that was the worst city for being a woman.  I was so uncomfortable all the time.”

Um, wow.

Granted, that opening line is designed to intrigue, confuse and incite discussion.  But this is the first time I’ve encountered someone who not only had actually been there, but is in pretty much all the same demographics as me, and does not want to go back.  Not only that, she was thoroughly uncomfortable.  So in light of this, I think it’s about time I reflect succinctly on my time there, through the lens of a young, white, liberal, ostentatious, middle-class American woman.

Oi, what a mouthful.

First, I need to emphasize the ways in which my experience was different from that of the average tourist.  I honestly believe that I have a very different view of the country based on my education before and during my trip, as well as the nature of my trip (ie length of time and breadth of cultural immersion).

  1. I speak Arabic. This is huge.  I am not amazing at it, I was nowhere near the best in our group (VERY much to my chagrin), but I made a sincere effort and that changes both how people treat you and how you are able to assess any given situation in-country.
  2. I have studied the culture and politics far more than your average person. I am by no means an expert, again, but I do believe that I am better versed in religious and cultural practices, as well as the politics of the region and Egypt in particular, than most westerners.
  3. I had Ilham. This is a biggie.  Ilham is not only academically versed in the Arab World, but she straddles western and middle east culture.  Born in Lebanon, educated in France and the US, she was able to help us through some of the roughest of cultural clashes, successfully staving off culture shock as well as making us smarter, better people.  In short, as the Pasha would say, “Ilham is a bomb lady.”
  4. I stayed there for a long time, by tourist standards anyway. The people in our neighborhood got to know us and left us alone.  I also became quite used to the Egyptian way.
  5. We had security. We’re not entirely sure for who’s benefit they were there, and sometimes they were more present than others, but I was definitely treated differently at Khan el-Khalili market when a suit was overseeing all my haggling.

Now there were a few things that helped me thrive in Egypt that aren’t necessarily specific to my trip, and that I highly recommend for anyone traveling to that area.

  1. I have a good eff-off face. This is key on the subway, in the market, and walking down the street.  People know to leave you alone, which is how I was able to walk through the market in Luxor, by myself, and be left mostly alone.
  2. I went off the beaten path. This is  one of the biggest points of our program, Dialogue of Civilizations.  I talked to Egyptians who had never spoken to Americans before.  I went to the other side of the Nile in Luxor, where all the natives live.  I went to a tiny village where there is virtually no crime or illness.  If all you see is the pyramids at Giza and the men and children who hock their wares, you will have a very skewed version of the country.  It would be like coming to the US and only seeing Disney World, or a rural WalMart.
  3. I had a support system. Every day, I had intense cultural discussions with Janine, Sarah, Allyson, Katie, Alex and Anthony.  There were 25 of us Americans, all experiencing roughly the same things, and we really helped each other talk through every awkward, uncomfortable or confusing encounter.  If I hadn’t had a bunch of smart, kind people to  air these issues with, I probably would’ve internalized them and gotten upset.  I highly recommend not going alone for your first time in Egypt, and definitely talking about the issues you encounter.

Alright, now that the full-disclosure is done, here’s my take.  Were there uncomfortable moments, derived entirely from the fact that I was female?  Yes, of course.  There was an incident in a restaurant and a similar one outside the train station that freaked me out.  There were men who didn’t realize I knew what they were saying.  There were times when I was really angry at the American guys I was with for not understanding when we needed protection and when they were just a nuisance, pleasing themselves.  But unlike the woman I spoke to, I was comfortable walking around alone during the day, at least in Zamalek.  The first week we were there I took a cab alone.  An intense experience, of course, but I got through it just fine.

On the flip side, a lot of this has to do with my own personality.  I pointed out the restaurant thing to the girls I was with, who were disgusted.  I later told some girls about the train incident, which no one else witnessed but was clearly directed at me, and they were all shook up, and kept asking if i was okay.  It was disgusting and undesirable, but I was in no way hurt.  As for the cab, one of the guys pointed out that I was one of the (if not the) only girls on our trip to do that solo, especially so early on.

As far as Egyptian women, I did not have the same perception as the woman who told me she wouldn’t go back.  I did see them walking at night, and I did see them by themselves.  On the other hand, I know from my research the ways and frequency with which many of them are cat-called or physically abused, and it is revolting.

So, my conclusion?  Yes, I still would go back.  And I know I will, someday.  There’s a sort of balance between cultural understanding and maintaining your personal integrity.  There’s also that balance between my own feminist ideals and the reality of life in Cairo.  Yes, I did once  tell off a cab in colorful Egyptian because I had simply had enough of being treated like that, but most of the time I kept my cool about it, the same way I do when I’m treated that way in America.  I don’t mean to make excuses for men behaving poorly, but I honestly don’t think it was much worse than how I am treated here, with just a few exceptions.

I think the biggest measure is that in the end, when I reflect on my time in Egypt and what it meant for me academically, personally and socially, the catcalls aren’t even on my mind.

Declaration of Intention

I had a blast writing this blog, and in egypt in general.  Originally, I started this one specifically for the trip, to be grandparent- and Bridgiebear-friendly as well as to calm the collective nerves of my family.  In the meantime though, I had lots to say (shocking) that had nothing to do with the trip, so I started a separate blog. 

At this point, the necessity of separating the two doesn’t really exist.  There’s nothing profane on either blog, and I don’t want this one to die.  Increasingly posts of one type are bleeding into the other, as the Egypt experience invairably colored everything I do.  I like wordpress far better (it shows me stats so I know how I’m doing; the other blog is on blogger) and I’ve already distributed this link to most of the people who matter in my life.  So I’m keeping this one and transferring the best of my other blog to here. 

So what will I write about now?  Well, I plan to continue travelling as well as learning about the Middle East, Arabic language and culture and international politics, so there will be some of that.  I’ve also assigned myself some homework (i’m on coop and miss school cuz i’m a nerd) and i’ll be keeping up with that here.  Basically, I don’t feel done with my research about women’s clothing.  I have started expanding the paper, and that will be reflected in various posts here. 

So I hope you keep reading–there will be plenty of stuff, new and old, coming down the pike!

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

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.

Burnout

We are exhauuuuusted.  Lately there’s been rumblings of mutiny because of it.  So here’s an idea of our workload, because get this, I’m taking classes and being graded over here.

9-1: Arabic, Monday-Thursday

5-7: Tutoring at St. Andrews, Tuesday

8-whenever: Group meeting/class with Ilham, every Tuesday.  It usually goes till like 10:30, 11

every Friday, Saturday & Sunday plus some weekdays: guest lectures, tours, site visits.

Also: we are responsible for writing journal entries several time a week,reading three books and writing a paper on each one while here, as well as a 7-9 page research paper.  Oh and the homework our Arabic teachers assign, not to mention all the memorization and practice our frazzled brains can handle.  The other day one of the leaders asked me if I had been able to explore much yet.  Um, yeah, that’s a no.  We have a total of four free days while we’re here, and most of us spent our only one so far sleeping, reading and doing research.  We’re up at 7 or 8 every day, sometimes earlier on the weekends

Don’t get me wrong, I really love everythng we’re doing, leanring and seeing.  And I honestly can’t think of a beneficial way to lighten our schedule.  I guess we’re just going to have to keep using our version of “i’ll sleep when i’m dead”:  I’ll sleep when i’m in Amrika.  That’s almost the same thing, right?