Tag Archives: hospitality

My Allyson Experience

Allyson Goldhagen is a dear friend to whom I refer as Goldilocks.  People have stopped cars to talk to her, filmed her eating, invited her to weddings, proposed marriage etc.  Usually as soon as they meet her.

Allyson is a magical wonder of intelligence and idealism, and a heavy dose of both at that.  Her fair hair and skin and blue eyes get her attention in the Arab world, and she never ceases to have amazing stories of local interaction.  Every day in Egypt, every few hours it seemed, she was having the sort of experiences that people write travel memoirs and blog posts about.  Not me! I was getting lost in cabs by myself and accidentally witnessing indecent exposure.  Needless to say, Alyson’s perspective is very different from mine, since she has some sort of magic travel dust in her flaxen hair.

One day, eager to explore and nearing the end of our time in Cairo, Sarah, Khalid, Katie myself and a few others set out to see the Museum of Modern Art.  Or was it the Modern Art Museum?  I’m not sure, but I know we all fought about the name!

Well our Arabic wasn’t pitch perfect, or maybe our source was off, but we got out of the cab and wandered around some impressive gates to see that we misunderstood.  Rather than open until one, it was open after one.  At about eleven am and not wanting to admit to defeat, we had little choice but to kill time.

We explored the museum’s compound for a bit, generally meandering toward Tahrir square.  Quickly becoming thirsty in the Cairo sun, we looked for those famed juice bars.  Before we could find one, we caught the eye of a cute young couple.  By young, I mean 18 or so.  They had been lounging in Tahrir, as roundabouts are one of the few green spaces in Cairo.  More importantly, out in public is their only option for handholding and coy smiles.

They didn’t speak any English, but Sarah and Khalid had enough Arabic to let them know we were thirsty and wanted a drink.  We were sent on our way with directions and smiles, but soon realized we were misunderstood: we stood in front of a vending machine.  Not quite the cultural experience we were looking for.

Disheartened, we decided to wander rather aimlessly around the swuare until we found one.  Never ones to let hospitaly waver, the young Egyptians noticed and made it their personal mission to make our day.  As we walked toward a juice bar, our hunger and ignorance of koshery came out, and that was that.  Koshery is this amazing dish of noodles, lentils, and fried onion , sprinkled with lemon juice and some sort of red sauce.  It costs about a dollar, and regular Egyptians eat it by the big metal bowlful.  At one point, I sat next to the sweet girl who was our guide, and she started fishing through her bag while we talked about music and politics and our home towns.  She produced a silver ring, and thrust it toward me.  I had a feeling I understood the word she said to me, but I wanted to double check as I was so taken aback.

It is a gift.  Take it, it is for you my friend.”

Such a simple gesture, but all so unheard of amongst strangers in America.  She then produced several other trinkets for the rest of the girls at the table.  We were dumbfounded, and cobbled together lip gloss and such to repay the favor.

The next hour or so was filled with friendly chatter, delicious koshery, and eventually, yes, our juice bar.

As we strode towards the museum, our bellies full and eyes smiling, Khalid interrupted our thoughts

“Hey guys!  We just had an Allyson Experience!” and out came that sincere laugh that filled the humid air.

An Allyson experience is the ultimate in traveler fun: something fun, happy and adorable that occurs on your way to doing…well, something else entirely.

Yovo, Yovo Bon Soir

That’s the refrain we heard all throughout Benin.  Countryside, city, airport.  Adults, children, wisened old anciens.  We were told we would be greeted with song, and man, they weren’t kidding.

Yovo, Yovo, bon soir!  Merci bien et toi?!”

It loosely translates to “whitey, whitey, good evening!  I’m good thanks, and you?”

As a result of this song, which every Beninois is taught from birth, (the way I learned “Trot Trot to Boston”) almost every Beninois greets us by saying “Bon soir!” even when it’s not evening, encouraging us to respond accordingly.  Even when they’re not running and yelling Yovo, they still sort of are.

Sometimes we would sing it back to confused children, who would erupt in giggles.  I overheard Allegra in a crowded marketplace saying (in english), “Yes I know I’m a Yovo, but I still need to get by!”  It was in that tone that”s halfway between charmed and annoyed.

Many of the little kids say it with wonder or glee.  Some, like at the rural primary school we visited, may never have seen a real live yovo before.  Others, often adults or older children, say it weighted with hope and anticipation: all the yovos they meet are Peace Corps, government or aid/non-profit related.  Sometimes, like at night and said by adult men, there’s a hint of menace in the way it is yelled.

There really is nothing like it in America, except for maybe the pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled Banner.  What else compells every American, regardless of age, region, gender or class, to stand up and say something in unison?  Even ignoring any possible racial implications, we simply don’ tuniversally chant things in unison at a predetermined time.

Like in many other cultures, especially ones that speak romance languages (Benin is officially francophone) color and race are not quite such sensitive subjects.  Of course it’s also important to remember that there are very few light-skinned people in Benin, as well.  There are Lebanese immigrants who mostly own businesses like marches, and Chinese who build all kinds of amazing buildings and are involved in all kinds of trade.  Then there are do-gooders of the religious, governmental and hippie variety.

I wonder if the Lebanese and Chinese hear the shouts of yovo! yovo!  I never saw it happen, but that doesn’t mean much, since I rarely saw Lebanese or Chinese people just strolling the streets.  I wonder if, had we been a more racially diverse group, darker skinned Americans among us would also be called yovo.  I have a feeling it’s sort of like gringo–more a socio-economic issue than one of color.

I love the way our service-learning women used yovo the best.  They referred to the five of us, collectively, as yovo, especially before they knew our names.  They’d joke around when this yovo tried to dance and that yovo tried to sing, or when another tried to lift a bucket of water that they so often carried on their heads.  And they used it when we weren’t there at a party, but some other yovos from our group happened to be, entirely by chance.  As in, there were some other yovos here, but they weren’t our yovos.

By the time we were done in Benin, it got to the point where we started pointing out yovos, out of sheer shock and confusion at seeing ones we didn’t already know.

¿Te Gusta Cuba?

As I mentioned before, I’ve been stealthily gathering intel from all my roommates and some of the tourists we’ve encountered.  I’ve wanted to ask expats but haven’t had the opportunity.  I was fortunate enough to be able to ask the question at the Special Interests section as well.

One universal reaction was to assume that my question held an inherent judgment, though rarely did any two people assume I was making the same judgment, even if they were responding at the same time.  Some were offended that I would even call into question whether they like it, or that I could possibly imply (by virtue of my question) that not loving Cuba was possible.  Others were flabbergasted, asking how anyone possibly could enjoy Cuba.

Another bit worth noting is that most people had to pause and collect their thoughts for a moment before speaking, regardless of how they felt about the place.  Cuba just isn’t black and white, I suppose.

I think on this one I’ll just present you with a few anonymous quotes from the group, without my judgment, since you already got it (sort of) in the form of my response to the question.

“Interesting, different from my first experience I got here”

“It’s really day to day here.”

“[long pause]…um, yeah.  Yeah, I like it here.”

“I’m just kinda frustrated, I cant understand as much as I’d like to.  I guess I’m just frustrated.  It’s kinda holding me back a lot cuz I’m embarrassed.  I’m just embarrassed that I don’t know more.  I don’t like to talk”

“This was my first choice, and some days I wonder why.”

“There definitely is good days and bad days though.  I mean I don’t really have bad days in Boston; there’s always something to do.”

“I feel a lot of pressure to like Cuba.  I think I can not like Cuba and still have had a positive experience.  But I don’t think I can tell people that.”

“I think I could stay here for a while.”

“I’m counting down the days…”

“I don’t think this place is about that, truth.”

“There is no right way to experience Cuba.  If you enjoy how you’re spending your time at the moment, then you did it right.”

“I don’t like it here, but I don’t think that’s the point of coming here.”

“Ohmigawd I wanna live here!”

“I think it’s different when you’re somewhere for a long time.  It’s hard to stay so excited to be there for three months.”

“_____ wants to live here.  How?  Has he been here?”

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”

True Life, I’m a Geek

We went to the Arab League the other night, and it was wicked awesome.

The building is gorgeous, and we were treated with much greater hospitality than when the American Embassy received us.  The Assistant Secretary-General of the Arab League (aka a big deal) sat with us to have a discussion and answer our questions.  We went with the other group of NU kids who are here for journalism.  They were psyched when he said it would all be on the record unless specific questions necessitated that.

We sat around a huge table with microphones.  There wasn’t enough room for everybody to sit at the table, so everyone else sat in rows around it.  You can bet your ass I got a seat at the table.  Waiters came around and served us some shay (tea) while we listened to the ASG speak.   The ASG was very open with us, which was great.  I love watching diplomats work.  Some of the journalism students were upset that we didn’t get “real,” answers, but that seems silly to me.  He’s obviously a politician, diplomat and spokesperson–he’s not going to either say thins that aren’t in his best interest in order to be ultra-honest or accidentally slip up because some upstart kid thinks they’re the first one to have the gaul to ask a “tough” question on Palestine or Sudan.  I really appreciated the chance to talk to him and to hear his artful way of adressing the questions.  In fact, he was surprisingly critical of some of the League’s history.

I was a little miffed at how little everyone knew about the League of Arab States.  Like, say, that it exists.  The journalism teacher had no concept of it, even after it was explained that it functions like the UN, but is purely regional.  I can understand people not knowing about it—most don’t.  But it has been on our schedule since the beginning, so putting in a little time on Wikipedia wouldn’t have killed anybody.  Also, we have a weekly meeting where either of our group leaders could have given a summary.  A result of the lack of awareness was that many people did not know how to direct their questions.  Until our speaker mentioned it, most in the room didn’t think to ask about Sudan since most assumed it wasn’t in the League.  Ditto for Somalia.

Asha Pandya interviewed me for an article of hers, in which I sounds ridiculously geeky.  Every quote is about how excited I am to be in the building, to hold the SG gavel, to take pictures with countries I’ve represented, and so on.

And now I leave you with pictures of me bugging out.  I know, pictures, finally, and of course they’re all from the Arab League.  🙂

Sitting in the Secretary General's seat...with the gavel!
Sitting in the Secretary General's seat...with the gavel!
The Delegate from Iraq has the floor...
The Delegate from Iraq has the floor...

Oh yeah, and you must all watch this


Parental Advisory: This entry WILL make my parents (and I’m sure some others) very nervous.  Standards of behavior are different in Cairo, so what may sound like a good or bad idea in the US is quite often the opposite in Egypt.  Feel free to skip this one if you don’t want to worry.  You’ve been warned.

My mother always told me to follow my intuition.  If I find myself in a situation where I have that foreboding feeling in my stomach, trust it, because I have good sense and I’m probably right.  This usually works, but I understand occasionally there is a need to take risks despite the worry.

In Egypt, all my senses were immediately thrown off.  Things that are normal at home are taboo here, and things that are normal here would make my mother cry.  Everything, down to the smallest details, is different.  Almost all the stores look run down and dirty, compared to the US, so one needs to find a new litmus test.  It is considered normal to leave one’s store to shepherd people into it, regardless of whether they’re interested.  When shopping, browsing is not really an option.  When you express interest in an item, you’ll be asked how many of them you want before anyone gives you a price.  Haggling is common, and prices are always incredibly inflated.

In many situations, we find ourselves thinking and saying, “This is so awesome!  But my mother would kill me if she could see me now…”  Things like riding on the roof of a falucca (boat) across the Nile at night, roaming Cairo at three in the morning and going to a club with Egyptian strangers.  All of these are normal acts in Egypt, and some of my favorite memories of my trip.  Out of context they sound strange or frightening, but it’s important to know that Cairo is the real city that never sleeps, and there are police at every corner.  The top of a falucca is flat with railings, and it’s the way Egyptians normally travel across the Nile.  In Egypt, hospitality is paramount, and once you meet and make a connection (however breif) you can always revisit it, meaning that the owner of the restaurant you just ate at would love to go dancing, and if you ever return he will take you out for a drink.

All you can do is stay in a group (with at least a couple resident male protectors) and try to adjust to what Egyptians think is safe or unsafe, and always know where the exits are.

PS congrats and good luck to my dad on his first day at his new job!  I know you’ll be great dud, enjoy the upgrade cuz you’ve more than earned it! IWYE

My New Arab Family

Abduh is our go-to guy here in Cairo.  He’s been working with the group that comes each year for some time now, and is now more than a friend to anyone on the trip, and by that I mean anyone who knows Dennis Sullivan.  Basically what I’ve learned here is that if you know “Dr. Dennis” you’re good to go.  My department head is well-known here, and rightfully so–he’s been coming for a couple decades, and most recently has been here on sabbatical living here in Zamalek.

Abduh and his family had us over to his house for dinner last night.  I don’t think I can really convey how sweet and generous this was.  He hosted 23 American students plus our teachers for an epic feast that his wife and daughter prepared.  Abduh, his wife and three kids were so incredibly hospitable.  Picture how you are treated in the home of a close friend or relative who is an impeccable host(ess).  Now multiply that, and imagine that they just met you 72 hours before.

The turkey was the size of several soccer balls, and if this was kitchen stadium there would be a 10 for plating.  They also prepared baba ganoush, mashed potatoes, french fries, rice, pita, pasta, crudites and there was probably more.  Everyone got first and second massive helpings, followed by some parlour games and dessert.  There was fresh fruit, tea, coffee, soda, water and baklava.  Fruit is considered a dessert here, considering its high natural sugar content.

After we ate Abduh and his family told us that if we ever come back–no matter how many years, with our spouses and children or whatever–we need to come see him.  He told us to tell our families we have a new family, an Arab family, and that he thinks of us like his sons and daughters.  He is willing to take us wherever, and help us with anything, like where to find a good place to buy cheap traditional clothes of good quality.  The man (and by man I mean teddybear with a booming laugh) isn’t kidding about taking care of us–no one is allowed to mess with us.  He gives us advice and keeps any potential scam artists away.  One man mistakenly thought our van was a local shuttle and started to get on it, but Abduh and our driver  pretty much pounced to keep him away from the four of us girls in the van.

I learned a lot from our teacher, but I’ve also been learning a lot from all of our new friends.  The men who drive the vans were picked by Abduh and answer to him, and he runs a pretty tight ship.  They’re pretty much always early, and they don’t let anybody get near us.  More than that, they’re really fun.  They’re on the younger side and very friendly to us.  They play arab music every time we get in the vans now because we always request it, and one of the vans has tvs in it so we get to watch arab music videos and movies.  I was trying to find a good youtube link for “the wa-wa song,” but I think I’ll need its real name to find it.  Whenever we are in the vans waiting our drivers answer all manner of questions, usually involving pop culture or language.  They’re also good for restaurant recomendations.

It’s so strange how polarized our social interactions are with various Egyptians.  At the touristy spots everyone is trying to scam on you and we act like they don’t exist so they’ll go away.  Meanwhile, people on the street are so excited to meet anyone from Amrika.  Children wave to us, people ask us about our pop culture and politics, and strangers help us if we look lost.  It’s amazing how different we are treated in our own neighborhood as opposed to when we are at the Sphinx or what have you.  I’ve found that when I make an honest effort to speak Arabic they not only laugh very little compared to how I must sound, but they smile and are excited.  People try to help us with pronunciation and give us new words so we can get better.  This is really the most hospitable country.  As I type this our waiters at the Cafe Vivant are bending over backwards to be sweet to us.  One just taught me how to say “no onio or peppers,” because he noticed I picked mine out of my food.

I’ve really never been treated so well in my life, and yet I’m in a country where we are allegedly hated and people have so little.

Additional addendum to security and safety: Abduh.