Welcome Back In America!

17 September, 2010

I’m writing this from Gate 14 at JFK International’s Terminal 5. In about an hour and a half, I’ll board a plane back to Long Beach, California, and our journey will be officially complete.  Set’s ended yesterday when her parents picked her up after our 13-hour flight, and mine will end when mine pick me up after my 6-hour flight.

I don’t think I can top Set’s last beautifully written entry, but I can add one thing to the list of “Things We Will/Will Not Miss About Egypt.” I’m personally amazed that she didn’t mention driving/transit. Who would ever miss nearly dying every time you try to cross the street and arguing with cab drivers? Who has an affinity for frantically trying to buckle a non-functional seatbelt as your cab driver weaves in out of crowded street lanes, honking and flashing his brights whilst doing 120km/h and blasting Islamic prayer songs? Who would hold a fond place in their heart for the crowded mashrouas (microbuses), jammed with more people flinging money around than the floor of the NYSE, or have fond memories of watching hundreds of Egyptians literally trying to beat the train to the tracks as it inches out of the station?

Well, me, for one.

Egypt, by and large, is a land of contradictions, cognitive dissonance in the form of a nation state. It’s these contradictions that make one want to off themselves, yet eventually, it’s these contradictions that make you fall in love with the place. Everything that I hated about Egypt is going to be something that I look back upon and laugh about with a twinge of fondness. Everything I loved about the country will be the things I carry with me and never forget.

Set covered our last day in Egypt pretty well. We had a lovely dinner with our friends at Ibn-al Balad (Literally, the Son of the Country) and then hung out with our friends until it was time to go. At 4am, we were picked up by Osama, our driver, and had an uneventful drive to Cairo. Aside from seeing two people get in shouting matches in line to board the plane, our flight home isn’t worth writing about.

However, our arrival back in America was slightly more exciting. After disembarking at JFK, Set and I approached our first Customs checkpoints. After handing in the little Customs declarations cards to the agents working there, Set blazed right through when my agent decided to ask me a few questions. “What were you doing in Egypt?” He asked.

“Studying Arabic and teaching English,” I said.

“Ah, okay. I see.” And with that, he smiled, crossed out my customs declaration, took my passport, and beckoned me to follow him. I ended up in a small area filled with Arab and Pakistani men, none of whom spoke English very well. I would spend the next 2.5 hours waiting in this area as the ICE/Department of Homeland Security guys apparently examined every crinkle, crease and fold of every passport in front of them- of which there were many. Finally, it was my turn to be questioned.

It started off with pretty much the same questions I’d been asked at the first checkpoint. In my incandescent rage at being detained without explanation for the past 2.5 hours, I’d been coming up with all kinds of pithy responses to the questions I thought I’d be asked, but I decided I’d just play it straight forward lest I find myself in a beachfront cell at Camp X-Ray. It took about ten minutes, and pretty much ran the gamut from “Where did you stay/where did you work” to “Did you receive any specialized military training over there.” Aside from the hand-to-hand combat that I’d mastered after working the Young Learner’s Program for three weeks, no.

With that, my passport was finally stamped and I was let out of Diplomatic Limbo America and into Real America. On my way out, I asked the agent what the reason was for my detainment and questioning. He said, “It’s a completely random screening” as he looked past me and at all of the Arab men and Pakistani guys in their shalwar kameezes. Despite what may seem like some pretty blatant profiling, I should temper my exasperation by mentioning that the DHS employees were very professional and polite with everyone they were talking to.

And now, after an all too brief visit with some great friends, I’m back at the airport, waiting to fly back to California. I’m so excited to be back that I think I’m probably going to land about 20 minutes before the plane actually does. Reading back through the entries we’ve written over the past year has been a serious trip, and I’d like to thank you, our dear readers, for your comments and for sticking with us and our ramblings. As Set mentioned, these certainly won’t be our last entries in this blog.

!مسلاما يا أصحابي

(Goodbye, friends!)

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Alif Shukr ya Misr

15 September, 2010

Translation: a thousand thanks, Egypt.

It’s our last full day in Egypt. It hasn’t really hit us yet that we’re going to start our journey back to the US in less than 12 hours. We’re doing the motions to leave but everything just seems really calm and oddly normal. Today was very productive. We closed our bank accounts, had our last Arabic lesson and said goodbye to our wonderful boss and our workplace. We anticipated a lot of hassle at the bank trying to close our accounts, but it went really smoothly. It took 10x longer for me to break up with Bank of Amreeka.

Last week we went to Nuweiba to experience a week of paradise to unwind after our final and most hectic term at Amideast. Although the last two times we went to Nuweiba were amazing, this time was extra special because we were able to do all the amazing outdoor activities that the town has to offer. We swam in the sea, climbed the mountains, went snorkeling, jumped off docks and slept under the stars. Now I can actually come home to America with a proper tan from a hot country. woo!

So now that we are entering a new phase in our lives, I thought I’d make a list of things I’ll miss and things I won’t miss about living in Egypt.

Let’s start with the things I won’t miss:

1. Getting stared at and yelled at wherever I go. I think this is an obvious one here. I moved here from NYC where everyone is too self absorbed to notice an ethnic girl walking down the street. American style anonymity will be much appreciated after being continuously starepunched by Egypt.

2. No one believing me when I say that I’m American. Whenever we take cabs, order food, or do something wherein we have to interact with people for more then 5 seconds, people ask us where we are from, which is fine. What is not so fine and dandy is when they give me a look of complete disbelief when I tell them that I’m from America. The person always points to Kenny and says: “he is American, you are not. You are Chinese!” Yes, America is a nation full of Kennys running around and waving American flags. The world should be so lucky.

3. Lack of ubiquitous Americanized ethnic food. I think this is just a sign of homesickness. I miss Americanized Chinese/Mexican/Thai food. There are international options here and there but something just isn’t the same. Maybe it’s the lack of corn derived products, lard and MSG. yum. barf. yum.

4. Grading things. I felt like I went on a red pen genocide for the past few months. Also, I can only handle so much bad English in a lifetime.

5. Our apartment. Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. I definitely won’t miss the ants, the lack of sunshine or the crappy laundry machine.

6. Egyptian whiskey/gin/beer/vodka. oof.

Well, I could go on and on (or could I?) but I’d actually like to move on to the things that I will miss about Egypt. Overall we had a great experience in Egypt. Even the moments when we wanted to throw blind punches into a crowd of children eventually all turned into laughable moments. For example: there was a 2 week stretch when we were getting harassed by street kids every time we left work. They would start off by yelling the usual phrases “whass yorr name?” “howaaarrr yuuu” but after we cruised by them, tired and not in the mood to engage, they decided to up the ante and started yelling English profanity at us. I won’t go into details as this is a PG-13 blog, but if you would like to hear what they yelled at us, we’d be happy to tell you in a less permanent forum, perhaps over a beer. Anyways, Kenny decided that after a few days of this that enough was enough. KHALAS! He stomped after the kids, sending them scattering off into alleyways and dark corners, laughing maniacally as they did so. A couple of older boys claiming to be the brothers of the hooligans approached Kenny and apologized for their reptilian siblings. Kenny gave the brothers a stern word of caution, advising them to watch over the little hellions lest they be thrown at a gaggle of hungry rabid trashcats. Something like that. Well, whatever Kenny said must have led to quite the fingerwagging shame-on-you session because the next day I was approached with a peace offering. Three of the boys came up to me as I was walking alone. They apologized for their behavior. I asked them if they were serious or if they were just doing this because they thought it was funny. They insisted that they were sincere and presented a gift of three firecrackers to show how earnest they really were. They haven’t bothered us since. hamdilulah (thanks be to god… or kenny’s stern words).

So a lot of the negative things that we often complained about turned into positive or at least laughable events. There are many other things that were just awesome to begin with, and these are definitely the memories that we will hold onto when we come back to Americastan.

1. The people. Short street interactions aside, 99% of the people that we met in Egypt were amazing, kind, sincere, fun and had a delightful sense of humor. Our students were (for the most part) really eager to learn and talk about a lot of different things and were excited to see us, especially if we were done teaching them. The people we got to know in the various shops and restaurants were always eager to make new jokes with us or laugh at our intro level Arabic. And the various families that invited us into their homes showed that Egyptian hospitality is no joke. We were lucky enough to be able to attend daylong lunches, a wedding, an engagement party and other family events where we were treated as if we were part of the family. I even got to go to a Henna night, which is the Egyptian equivalent to a bachelorette party.

2. The food: Even though I can’t possibly eat Egyptian food everyday, I’m still gonna miss it. One thing that I’ll miss is Molokheyya. Molokheyya in English is Jews Mallow. WHAT? Mallow, not marrow. Many people made that confusion when they first came here. Anyway, molokheyya is a green leafy herb (also the name of the completed dish) chopped into tiny pieces using a mezzaluna, one of those semicircular knives with two handles. The chopped leaves are then cooked in a broth with garlic, tomato sauce and other spices. The texture is something you need to get used to, as it resembles really slimy and runny snot, but once you get past the initial shock of putting slimy green goo in your mouth, you realize that this is pretty tasty. Mark, our Egyptian Italian friend from Australia got me a Mezzaluna so I could make molokheyya back in the states. See, even the half Egyptians are awesome.

3. Abu rabia. I know, it can be so gross if you eat it a lot, but the idea of getting a Middle Eastern feast for two for under $3 is just awesome.

4. The Adhan aka the call to prayer. Some people might not like the idea of hearing religious things projected at them 5 times a day but it really is a hauntingly beautiful sound that I will miss when I’m sitting around in silent suburbia.

5. Using Arabic all the time. When we came to Egypt, we were completely helpless, illiterate goobers that had no idea how to say anything aside from hello (salam aleikum) and enough (khalas). Now we can hold semi-decent conversations and read things. Our Arabic teacher had a lot to do with this, as he was a great instructor and wonderful person in general, but it also helped that we were forced to use Arabic in everyday situations.

6. Nuweiba. Ohhhhh how I love Nuweiba.

So there is much more that I could definitely but I still have some packing to do before we go out to one last dinner with our friends so I will end the list here.

This past year has been absolutely amazing and has taught me a lot about the world and myself. I can only hope that this experience will not only help me personally but in my career as well. The next step for the both of us will be to move to DC so we can find jobs utilizing our politics degrees. I also know that this won’t be our last time in the Middle East. I hate saying goodbye to people and places I’ve grown to love, so I’d much rather just say “see you later!”

I know that this blog is centered around the idea of two Americans living in Egypt, but we both intend on continuing the blog after we come back. We’re both anticipating a bit of reverse culture shock, so we’ll include our musings on that. We’ll also write about how our experiences in Egypt continues to affect us in the states. We’re also going to continue practicing Arabic so I’m sure we’ll have many more interesting stories for our beloved readers. 🙂

Bye bye Egypt, we’ll miss you and your craziness! ma’salema ya Misr w nashufik urayyib, inshallah! (byebye Egypt and we’ll see you soon, hopefully!)

Ramadan Kareem!

8 September, 2010

(“Ramadan Kareem” means “Generous Ramadan” in Arabic. The typical response would be “Allahu Akhram” or “God is most generous.”)

If you’re going to invest any amount of time and effort beyond quick sightseeing in the Middle East, it’s worth it to stick around for Ramadan. This is the holiest month in Islam, wherein people avoid eating, drinking, and smoking from sunrise to sundown. It’s meant for people to engage in empathy with the poor and those who don’t have enough to eat, and to inspire charitable deeds in an effort to reconnect with God.

I kind of think of Ramadan as a month-long hybrid version of Christmas and Thanksgiving: add religious aspirations to incredible displays of consumerism, and mix with an inordinate amount of food. Preparations for Ramadan started in earnest: we started seeing signs advertising Ramadan a few weeks before it actually started, such as this ad for a café:

(note the lack of food on the tables)

Also, a few days before the start, the supermarkets were jammed with people buying cart after cart of food even until the early hours of the morning. Were it not for the large, decorative Ramadan lamps suspended over Metro Market’s displays, one would think that a hurricane or some other Biblical (Quranic?) level affliction were about to descend upon Alexandria.

The typical modus operandi for Ramadan is that people will avoid any kind of physical activity or exertion during the daylight hours, instead choosing to sleep or cook in preparation for the iftar (breaking of the fast.) Then, the second after the Maghreb (evening call to prayer) sounds, restaurants and kitchens come to life. The streets become absolutely empty, and pretty much all that can be heard throughout the city is the clinking of forks against plates.

As you can imagine, the entire character of the country changes pretty much over night. Much like lapsed Catholics running to Midnight Mass, even the most secularly minded Egyptians seem to become devout. People line up outside of the masjids to collect free food handed out by imams, and traffic becomes even more incomprehensible as people take to the streets to throw out packets of dates into cars as they drive by. Almost every shop plays nasheeds (the acapella religious songs) instead of European and Arab techno.

It’s extremely interesting to watch the transformation, but it also presents some severe challenges when it comes to working. I read an article that said that worker production goes down a significant percentage while spending on food tends to skyrocket, which has economic side effects that ripple throughout the region. At Amideast, our teaching schedules changed from working from 4:30-9:30 every night to 2:00-4:30, then 8:30-11. Also, Egypt was the one Muslim country that instituted a time change for Ramadan- by setting the clocks back an hour, it makes the sun rise and set an hour earlier. We also had to deal with the intense heat of the summer, and these factors all added up in a kind of unholy combination. We quickly grew used to seeing our students come in at 2:00 bright-eyed and bushy tailed, and be damn near comatose by the time class was done. Then, the same thing would happen- after a day of fasting, the gigantic feast prepared at night would cause a food coma of a nearly terminal level, so we had to contend with slack-jawed, heavy-lidded students who couldn’t wait to crawl back home, fix another ample plate of leftovers, and drag themselves into bed before their stomachs burst. Because so many teachers were on vacation during this month, the remaining staff were saddled with 4 classes each, meaning we had to adjust our schedules to keep up with the needs of our many, many students.

Ramadan also had less pleasant side effects- the lack of food, water and cigarettes in a country in which 50% of the male population smokes led to some EPIC levels of crankiness during the day. Similarly, we got used to hearing Ramadan as an excuse for everything: “Ahmed, you weren’t in class the other day and we had a quiz. What happened?” “Ramadan.” “Mohamed, the water’s been off for 12 hours. What happened to the work crew?” “Ramadan.” “Rania, why do you never participate in class activities?” “Ramadan.” “Mohamed, the water’s back on but it’s been a week and the hole still hasn’t been filled yet. People are throwing their garbage in it. What’s going on?” “Ramadan.”

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to overcome was the unfortunate discovery that all three of the bars in Alexandria were closed for the entire month of Ramadan, therefore decimating the expatriate community. Any shop that sold alcohol shuttered its doors. The one exception was a small kiosk located on a very conservative street we called “Stare-a-dise Alley” for the amount of attention we usually get when we walk down it. The owner, a Christian, hid his stock behind sodas in the refrigerator, and would disguise any order within several recycled cigarette cartons to prevent the clinking of bottles. Buying a beer suddenly felt like taking a trip back into 1920’s-era Chicago, complete with all the trickery and sleight of hand.

That being said, Ramadan is something that one simply has to experience if you want to understand the Middle East and how important religion is to its inhabitants. Listening to the calls to prayer resonate as the sunset traced elongated shadows on the buildings as people rush home to eat and the sight of the crowds of people praying in unison in front of the mosques were powerful, interesting experiences that far outweighed the frustrations of dealing with a fasting populace or having to work into the late hours of night.

Ramadan ends on the 11th, and we head back to America on the 16th. We finished our last terms teaching at Amideast, graded our last finals, signed our grade sheets, and boarded the 6am train to Cairo. Ten hours later, we arrived at Soft Beach Camp in Nuweiba, our favorite little beach town in the Sinai. As I write this, the sound of the wind chimes in a gentle breeze are dueling with the sounds of waves lapping up on the sand.

Last night, Set and I slept under the stars on the beach, and she woke up at 5am to find three stray camels wandering around the camp. It’s a great way to end Ramadan, and a wonderful end to our time in Egypt.

We’ll probably upload another entry or two as the week goes on, but for now, here I am, hollering at you from the top of Mount Bekya: