Tag Archives: safety

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Since moving from a study abroad participant to a leader of trips abroad, I have had some recalibrating to do.  There is a difference between the risks I’m willing to take myself and those I’m willing to allow my students to take.

This came rushing to the fore last summer when I was walking at night in Havana with the majority of our students, and at least one of the Cubans with us was stopped by the police for walking with white women while black.  It is important to note that this is a significantly worse offense than walking while black, although that’s an issue in Cuba as well.  The reason is not only due to racism and history, but also tourism, industry, and hegemony.  While I find the term “tourism apartheid” a bit strident, there is more than a nugget of truth to it, and the way it plays out in Cuba is that it’s somewhat acceptable if the white woman is visibly into it, but otherwise all young black men are assumed to be harassing your tourist dollars away.  Of course, not once has the policia ever showed up to stop genuine harassment (to my knowledge).  And the component of hegemony: when it comes down to it, some lives are deemed more worthy than others, and white skin and our little blue books protect us.  Somewhere in the 20th century, it became unacceptable for an American to lose their life abroad.  It’s cool at home, especially if they lost their life to a legally purchased gun, or if they are not white and middle class.  But that’s a whole other thing.

But back to the story, and the risks involved.  This was probably during what most people would call my time off, but it was nonetheless immediately obvious to me that I was in charge and it was my job to keep my students safe.  This is because regardless of what time of day or night, my state of mind, whether I’m with friends, coworkers, clients or students, or how undesirable the task may be, when something needs to get done, I see it as just doing my job.  This is because I have a pretty broad definition of my job, which goes beyond the things for which I am paid, things done in a cubicle, or times when I am expected to watch how I dress, speak, or act.  In my mind, my job is to keep everyone safe, and increase justice and knowledge whenever possible.  Literally all of the time, for the entire time I’m alive.  I’m off the hook if I’m sleeping, but if someone wakes me up I’m right back in it.

So this leaves me with some dueling priorities.  Number 1, I need to make sure nothing happens to my students, who are likely best served by calmly walking away from the cops questioning their friend across the street.  Number 2, I know why the cops are talking to their friend, and I know it’s bullshit.  I know we have more pull than they do in this scenario, but I also know that if I (or my students) screw up, we will not face the consequences.  The Cubans will.  And then there’s the guilt.  If these guys had been doing their own thing, without a giant pack of white women to whom they were nothing but polite and friendly, no one would be talking to the cops right now.  Oh and number 3, none of my students have any clue that the cops are questioning him for no good reason, or that they have played any role in all of this, or that they could do serious damage by trying to help.  Or rather, I thought this had occurred to none of them.

I get the high sign from one of the Cubans, and a couple of people (who I didn’t realize were intoxicated) translate my message of “keep walking, wait for me at the end of the street, and don’t cause a fuss,”  into something loosely resembling, “holy shit we got that guy arrested!  and now no one can have fun and everyone should scream!”  Somehow everyone instantly became belligerent and less logical in that moment, but eventually they reluctantly followed instructions.  I’ve written before about this, and about how strange it was the next morning to hear 22 different versions of the same night.  But after they left was the real trouble.

After they left was the real trouble because that’s when those students from before, the ones I didn’t count on understanding precisely what was happening, remained.  And they did what I would have done.  They asked the other Cubans what would fix it, and they did their best to follow through.  It didn’t work, but they’re good people for trying.  Meanwhile, I got to be someone I never imagined being: the callous authority figure, giving them instructions that would protect them but not their friends.  Normally, I would have been the one going over to talk to the cops.  Instead, I was the one with a plan for how to get their US passports here before they could potentially be taken to jail.

Luckily, my students were fine, although those who remained till the end were certainly hurt in an irreparable way, the way that only powerlessly watching complete injustice from a place of informed privilege can make you feel.  The guy who the police brought away in cuffs had to pay an unimaginably high fine for a Cuban salary, but he was a free man the next day.  I was of course fine too, as my students and I never wore cuffs and didn’t have to pay a dime, but I was left wrestling with the idea of choosing the safety of one group of people over justice (and potentially safety) for another.  When it comes down to it, I am responsible for my students.  And I don’t know them as well as I know myself, so there is a greater unpredictability to their risks than mine.  But finally, when I take my risks, I can really only take them when I travel on my own, when I am not endangering anyone but myself.  And therein lies the downside of being in a group: a risk for one becomes a risk for all, whether we mean it to be or not.

So yes, I tell them not to swim  off the malecon, but I also don’t say a word when I know they’re doing it.  I told my kids in Greece they better not go to protests, but I was pissed I missed them myself, and Sarah knew without my asking that the first thing I wanted to see in Cairo, other than her gorgeous face, was Tahrir Square.  I count their heads and make them promise me that they’ll use the buddy system, and I tell them they’re not allowed to scare me like that when they get back to the bus late or have too much to drink.

But sometimes it gets trickier, if you can believe it.

I take cabs and walk alone, I dress how I want to dress.  No, I will not tell my female students they can’t wear a mini-skirt to a club on a Friday night.  First of all, I wouldn’t believe in doing that even if it would help.  But second, I know for a fact it won’t do anything to keep away the cat calls and the groping.  Driving and walking alone is harder.  I think in general, everyone is safer with the buddy system.  But I also know it drove us to insanity in Cairo when for six weeks we were basically never alone.  It’s why I would hide in the lobbies between floors reading, or insist on wandering museums alone.  When I could have my independence, I took it.  There’s also something to the idea that if a guy doesn’t have a buddy, it’s not a huge deal.  If a girl doesn’t have one, whatever happens next is her fault.

I don’t want my students to be alarmist, and I sort of read one the riot act when she claimed last summer that her roommate was not only certain to be raped in Havana’s most crowded, safe, zero-violent-crime neighborhood, but that it would be the roommate’s fault, and how dare that roommate scare her like that.  I hate the pearl clutching and the victim blaming and those who would scare us into never leaving America or our hometowns or our kitchens, but I also count heads compulsively.  I always know where the exits and the cops are.  I waited behind because one of them ran off at night to get his fifteenth sandwich of the day, and everyone going home without telling him was unacceptable.

So I let them hate me for not “stopping” or “letting them stop” their friend from getting arrested.  And I do my best not to get into arguments about the futility and misogyny of dress codes as safety measures.  I want them to know street harassment, sexual assault, political violence, corruption, all of these injustices, they happen all the time.  But that shouldn’t keep them home or moving around in air-conditioned vehicles in knee-length baggy skirts in groups of ten or more.  The world is simultaneously more terrifying and more kind than they’ve ever imagined.  I just don’t know how to tell them that.

What About Benin?

I’ll be going to France on May 8, and after a week in Paris I’ll go to Benin until June 5.

Benny-what?

Benin. It’s a small country in West Africa.  It’s mostly known in history for its sad part in the slave trade as a major departure port.  I’ll be spending some time in Cotonou, as well as the capital of Porto-Novo

The Basics

Map courtesy of the UN website

I’m going through Northeastern University and the Dialogue of Civilizations program.  Instead of taking summer classes, I’m doing this.  I’ll get the normal summer credit for it (8 credits/two classes) and will be graded and such.  It’s like what I did in Egypt, except entirely different. 🙂

French is the official language of Benin, so I’ll be taking some lessons while in Paris and practicing my rather dormant French skills while there.  Many people also speak Fon, of which I know nothing, and Yoruba, a language that found its way to Cuba (and modern Cubañol) via the slave trade.  The country is considered very safe, but is severely lacking when it comes to infrastructure.

For our safety/for the sake of NU’s lawyers, we aren’t allowed to ride on motorbikes and will only be eating from a select few restaurants.  I have malaria pills and got my yellow fever vaccine, whose injection site still kinda hurts.  Blast, yellow fever, you’ve done it again!  I’m waiting with bated breath for my visa to come back (this seems to be a theme with me…) and already scoping out luggage and drawing up packing lists.  Here we go again!

Service-Learning

While in Benin, we’ll be meeting up with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to learn more about the country, such as development, culture and politics.  We will each be working with a local NGO for a few weeks, ranging from health care to orphanages to micro-enterprise(!) and lending a hand any way we can.  More on this later, since it’s most of the reason I chose this program.

Songhai Center

I’ll be living in the Songhai Center in Cotonou.  There are several of these throughout the country, and they are used for training Beninese people about agriculture and such.  It’s also thoroughly Green with a capital G, with each part of the center helping to fuel another.  Which brings up another point: I’ll be taking chilly rain barrel showers for most of the summer.  Basically, I’m going to refer you to the video contained in the link below, courtesy of BoingBoingTV, because it does a far better job of explaining than me.

Songhai Video link

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

Zebelline

The Zebelline of Cairo is the trash city.  We drove through it the other day, on the way to the most beautiful, amazing church I have ever seen.  I had never heard about the Zebelline before coming here and it’s not on wikipedia, so I’m willing to bet some of you haven’t either.  All the trash of the city is brought there, and the people who live in this largely Coptic Christian neighborhood sort everything.  They then recycle it for money.  Apparently the place has a mob structure.  Those at the top are making millions of pounds, and those at the bottom literally live in filth.

If I ever thought Cairo was dirty, I had no clue what was coming.  We saw the zebelline on what was considered an exceptionally clean day.  The smell is pervasive, and was even worse a week or two ago when all the pigs were slaughtered.  If you haven’t heard, Egypt is wicked scared of swine flue.  They took all our temps on our way in (and redid mine several times, looking just freaked out enough to make me think they were gonna throw me in quarantine) and I’ve heard some people may have been x-rayed, but I haven’t been able to validate that claim yet.

When swine flu first came into the public discussion, President Mubarak decided to slaughter all 300,000 pigs in Egypt, just in case.  There have been no cases of swine flu in Egypt, and no scares.  Muslims do not eat pork, so it is the Coptic Christian population that raises pigs, with tourists and Copts consuming them.  The pigs were slaughtered in the Zebelline, so that’s where all the protests were.  It has quieted down a bit, but it was still considered safer for us not to get out of the vans.  Also, I think most of us would have felt entirely uncomfortable walking around gawking at people’s lives as though they’re some sort of spectacle or tourist attraction that you can buy tickets to see.

Many menus didn’t have pork products on them to begin with, but now they are absolutely gone.  In many cases, we’ve seen censored menus, so that any reference to pork products is completely whited out.

Getting back to the trash city though, it is exceptional.  Even more amazing was driving through it to see the cave church, which was gorgeous.  At the top of the hill, looking out over the entire city of Cairo, is a church carved into a mountain.

Taking pictures afterward, we ran into some cute little kids who teased us and spoke Arabic.  We have seen tons of little kids, most of whom wave or run up to us.  These children, however, never begged or tried to get money.  The sad thing was that we all knew they lived in the Zebelline.  It is important to note, though, that living in the zebellin doesn’t necessarily mean you’re poor.  Many choose to stay there, like a woman who died a few years ago.  When going through her belongings, millions of Egyptian pounds were found in her mattress, yet she remained in her neighborhood.  Somebody is making money off of the system, it’s just not always clear who.

This little side trip served to remind us of the severe economic differences between the US and other parts of the world.  Zamalek, my neighborhood, is wealthy for Cairo, which is wealthy for Egypt, which is wealthy for Africa.  There are also many different ways to look at poverty, and the brain’s ability to filter.  I’m sure many people who live in the Zebelline have never left.  All they know of the world is garbage.

Things that are Strange Because They’re not

Here’s a list of things that are so normal here I’ve already forgotten that they’re noteworthy.  It’s funny that sometimes the biggest differences fade away because no one else sees them as remarkable, which is perhaps why almost no one mentioned any of this to me before I came.

  • Cats are everywhere.  Consequently, there are no mice or rats
  • Men link arms or hold hands.  this is normal behaviour for straight guys who are friends
  • You can almost always see at least one minaret
  • Everyone rounds when dealing with money
  • There are bidets in every bathroom, even if it’s just a little tube inside the regular toilet that inaccurately shoots water
  • Men with guns are everywhere.  Egypt is I think the most chillax police state in existence.  Mostly, they just want to employ more people so there are soldiers and antiquities/tourism police everywhere
  • People just chilling on the street.  Everybody stands and chats in the street, people sleep on the sidewalks or sit on them for some tea
  • Cars here are nuts.  Triple parking is common, and everything is always bumper to bumper.  Not like our exagerated expression, but legitimately jammed up against each other
  • The smell.  Food is made of different stuff here, so the trash smells different.  Also, their sanitation system is quite different from ours.  The first day or two my nose was in pain from the smell.  I realized the other day that I don’t smell anything.  I don’t Cairo got cleaner.  Also, I bet New York or Boston smells would assail the nose of any Cairene
  • Women are dressed in various interpretations of the hijab.  The range goes from tight, revealing clothing to naquib (face covering), head scarf and long, black, loose-fitting robe.

Basically, things are as different from home as they possibly could be, while still maintaining enough similarities to make my head spin.

Taxi Driver

Step 1: Stand in the street and yell the name of the place you want to go.  If you’re a western tourist, this is probably unnecessary, and means theres a prequel to 1: shake your head le (no) every time a taxi beeps at you, which is constantly

2. Get into the cab.  A male sits in the front seat, no matter what.  If there isn’t one, you probably shouldn’t be going anywhere, but all hop in the back anyway.  Don’t ask how much it costs.

3. Say salaam alaykum and the specific streets/square you want to go to.  Don’t ask how much it costs.

4. Say nothing.  You don’t want them to realize how little Arabic you really know, because then they’ll rip you off.  This is a tip from my Arabic teacher, Khowla.  Thanks for the vote of confidence, ustazza (teacher).

5. When you get there, get everybody out of the cab

6. Pay how much it actually costs (do not ask, simply know in advance) and leave.  No discussion, no hagglement.

Recalibrating

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