Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas time in Cairo

Egypt is an interesting place to be during the Christmas season because you have to search REALLY hard to find little pieces of Christmas. Here is a list of great little Christmas experiences in Cairo this year

#1 – Christmas Candle

This was one of the special requests I had asked my mom to pass on to Kelby’s mom to bring when she visited. It’s hard to get the Christmas smell here! I have been lighting it frequently and listening to the Sufjan Stevens Christmas album or “All I Want For Christmas is You” on repeat…

#2 - Sarah’s Community Orchestra concert and BBQ – This was great- a bunch of people joining together outside to drink mulled wine and listen to Christmas carols played by an orchestra of about 20 people from ages of single digits to 50’s. It was one of those moments where no one playing was amazing – just a bunch of people from the community - but together it sounded so refreshing to hear Christmas carols. If you closed your eyes you could imagine a huge orchestra performing. I had to keep reminding myself o where I was at.

#3 - Our Magic Surprise Tree – Last year, Lori and I inherited a fake tree from Peter and Arney Ford when they left Cairo. We kept talking about putting it up, but the weekends kept going by so fast! We left for Istanbul without our tree up, but walked in the house 6 days later to find our tree up with lights strung around, beautiful glass ornaments and a huge bow with a little angel at the top. Hidden in the tree was a note from our friend Jen Hartshorn who had come into our flat while we were gone with decorations, searched all over for our tree and decorated it like a master elf.

#4 - Christmas Pageant at MCC – Every year, my church puts on a play to show the Christmas story for the community in Maadi. It’s pretty sweet because our church meets outside to begin with, so everyone is bundled up at night, there is a Christmas Choir, and the 3 wise man ride in on real camels (they’re a lot easier to come by here) and Mary and Joseph rode off in a reluctant donkey who had to be pushed from behind off stage. One of my favorite lines were “Yalla Donkey! My wife’s going to have a baby!” - Joseph

It was cute. I recognized a couple people in the play and it was neat to see so many people involved.

#5 - Muslim “Merry Christmas!” – One thing I’ve noticed this year that I didn’t last year is how my Muslim friends and students recognize Christmas as something that is important to me. In Arabic, Merry Christmas translates to “Birthday of Messiah”. When my kids or other Muslims have said “Merry Christmas!” I get a huge smile on my face because they had to put extra effort into remembering that their winter break is my Christmas break. For some reason it seems more intentional than when I hear it from someone who celebrates Christmas as well. It’s kind of weird because I don’t say Merry Christmas back. That’s like when you’re at the airport and the person checking you in says “Have a good flight!” and it’s hard not to say “you too!” I wonder if that’s how they feel when we say “Happy Eid” (Eid Sayeed) or “Kareem Ramadan!” for their holidays. I do live in a weird but great place where religion is everywhere and tensions exist, but at the same time, we both coexist and are respectful of what is important to each religion.

#6 - Jen’s Christmas Dinner – I don’t really know if I can explain this one… Jen Hartshorn had sent out hand-made invitations about a week and a half ago inviting about 15 of her closest friends to a night of celebrating Christmas and good friends under the stars. She put together a full Christmas (or Thanksgiving) meal – turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, veggies, 3 different types of pies, assortment of cookies, fudge… None of us knew what to do. She had set up a long table on her roof top balcony with nice plates, silverware, napkins and candles. Many of them she had borrowed from the people who were there! She was so excited to be running around serving us. She had asked Sarah to draw a chalk Nativity scene which turned out awesome… and to play violin while we started eating. She played some of the Christmas carols from her concert. This is really hard to set the scene. It was very un-Cairo…

Then, after we were done eating, Jen called all of us into the living room where she started distributing presents she had bought for each person there. Each person had about 3 presents that were so specific to each person. Each one had a different story behind it and Jen explained each one. All of us were looking at each other like “is this real?” and kind of giggling… Jen was really giddy too. I don’t think I have ever met someone that thoughtful, hospitable and giving. She is amazing. I got a journal covered in Ramadan tent fabric that she had written about 3 pages in, hand warmers for hiking Kili, and each girl in our bible study got a shell ring. Each ring was different because she brought in shells she had picked up at the beach in Ein Soukhna during our little retreat a couple weekends ago. She had each one put into a ring setting so that we would remember that weekend. Then, after all that, she had leftover containers for each of us to take a bunch of food home, so I had the best lunch of all time at school Thursday. I am pretty blessed to know so some great people here. I am being taken care of.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

After yet another great Arabic lesson with our Arabic teacher, Ashgan (who seemed to have a problem this evening where every time she laughed, she tooted... we learned the word for fart in arabic is "geez" (like keys)), Lori and I caught a taxi to take us back to Maadi - the usual Wednesday evening routine. The taxi driver started speaking to us as soon as we got in, which can be a bad sign of a long drive... usually it starts with "what's your name? where you from? are you married? ... what's your number?...why won't you give me your number? I want you be my friend" and the ride is incredibly awkward from there. This driver, Hani, redeemed my trust in Taxi drivers. The 3 of us talked the whole way about his 2 month old daughter, his 16 year old wife (he was 28), how Egyptian women are no good after they turn 20 because their hair falls out, where he lives in Nasr City, how he has 2 cars that he drives - the taxi he was in that he borrows from another guy for 70 pounds a day (he was appologizing that it was a bad car. it seemed like a nice taxi to me! good taxi bling too, 3 fuzzy stuffed hearts hanging from the front window that said "I love" on them). His other car is a nicer car that he goes to pick up people from the airport in. He showed us a picture of his daughter and talked about her with a HUGE smile on his face. His daughter was the chubbiest Egyptian baby I have ever seen! so cute... He explained a typical day for him and kept going back to when he gets to see his daughter - once again, the smile returning to his face.
The only sketchy part was that he kept making the sign of slicing one's neck by drawing his fingers across his throat with the "kkkhhhhhhh" sound, especially when he said "I'm a bad driver" and "It's very dark here", "there are no police around in this area" and once again did the "kkkkhhhhhh"... lori and I laughed nervously.
Other than that, it was one of the most pleasant 45 min cab rides ever. thanks hani!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

It's been a while

Hey Ya'll!!! It's been a while, so I thought I would write. Hopefully the internet doesn't kick me off again. I wrote a great blog a couple weeks ago, and the internet timed out and my whole blog entry was lost and I went through a period of being mad at blogger and the internet, so I haven't written. Sorry.

Ok, quick updates on lots of things:

Ramadan is definately over which is GREAT! Life is back to "normal" (?), we have whole days at school again, which means whole days of prep so I feel a bit more caught up. During the feast after Ramadan, we had a week break so I went on a diving trip with Sarah, Lori, Mike and his friend Dennis from Canada. I was the token American, but regardless of being surrounded by so many Canadians, it was great! We had some amazing dives and saw some great things - like a green Sea turtle, blue spotted rays, a bunch of giant morrays... the list goes on. It was wonderful.

I've been playing some footy with my African buddies and coaching the Varsity girls at the school. The Cairo American Softball League has also picked up and AIS just won our first game last week!!! (as opposed to being killed as usual). We were so excited, we took a picture of the scoreboard and one of the girls made a rice crispy treat giant softball to celebrate!!! I got to play in the Cairo Allstar Game - representing the West Coast team. We won, and it was a lot of fun, but I like playing with my AIS girls where we laugh a ton more, even if we don't get as many runs.

A couple teachers from the school started up a Bible Study last weekend that I'm really excited about! We're going through Romans together and it's a great place to sit and talk about scripture, and about different things we've experienced or are struggling with here in Egypt. I think we're all wondering why we didn't do it sooner!

Ok, super recent , frustrating things - last week I had my second drive-by ass grab (5th ass grab in total, first one this year) which has put me into another funk like I had toward the end of last year. This was in the middle of the day in Maadi walking home from playing soccer. I chased after the car yelling at him and everyone else on the street to stop him. There was a police officer in the street who stood there and laughed at me even thoughI was clearly angry. I got in his face and yelled at him to wipe the smile off his face, which he did immediately (I can't imagine doing that in the states?...). An Egyptian woman driving by tried to help translate and asked what had happened. I told her exactly what had happened, complete with ass-grabbing motion. I understood enough Arabic to notice that her translation to the police man was a bit different and she told him the guy had grabbed my bag, when I still had my bag with me, and had mentioned nothing about that... I yelled at her too for trying to change the story. The whole thing has made me pretty angry and distrusting toward Egyptians again. I think i'm coming out of it but it's hard not to judge or distrust every man I pass and sometimes I pick up a rock just in case. My perspective is a little screwed up right now.
A couple weeks ago on our way to school I saw a man lying in the street after getting hit by a car. He was clearly dead, lying there in his galabaya with blood pouring from his head down the street. All the cars just drove around. People did not seem too concerned, as though this was common place. I haven't been able to get that image out of my head. It was the worst thing I have ever seen. Another friend of mine saw the same thing last week, but with 2 men. Someone told me that it is pretty common, but they usually cover the bodies up with newspaper or cardboard or whatever they can find. Life is so fragile, but it seems more fragile here because little is done to avoid obvious hazards - like putting a walkway over 10 lane highways, that people cross everyday. A couple weeks ago, a huge chunk of a hill in an area called Mokatum fell down and burried a bunch of people in a shantytown below. They knew it was a hazard, but they could build there without people trying to kick them out. It seems like people are content here with keeping things the way they are, even if there is a possibility of changing it. I could write a whole lot more here, but I don't have answers. I don't know what to think. I don't know if I have a roll in this, or what that would be. It's easy to be sheltered, even in Cairo.

On a happier note, this weekend I got asked to coach at a day-long sports camp in Tanta- a little town between Cairo and Alexandria. It was a great little adventure, meeting up with some guy from he sports team named Nadir that i didn't know at the Metro station downtown - waiting 20 min for him to get there, running through the station to catch a train, meeting up with some more people I didn't know, waiting some more, standing on the train because we didn't have seats, getting into Tanta at 2am and staying in a hotel room with a girl named Sally that I didn't know, waking up and coaching 40 girls wearing jeans and ballet slippers running around toe-punching the ball in swarms, and getting a ride home back to Cairo with other people I don't know! In all the day was great and the girls loved it! They had never had a soccer practice before or anything like it. The boys guest coach was my Brazilian friend Marcos who I'd coached with a couple years back at the Wadi camps. It was great to work with him again. I was the only person who didn't really speak Arabic, so much of the day consisted of guessing what was going on, but it was fun. It helped me re-gain faith in Egyptians, to be around people who were so joyful and loving. I think they're going to try to do this every month, and I would like to help out in the future. It was really good.

I wish I'd been keeping up with this thing more, because there are so many stories to tell!!! Like urban climbing across walls and wading through flooded Cairo streets, arabic lesson adventures, fun times on the metro, our gin and tonic bible discussion group in Helio, haramarama and my vampire eye, putting together a barbecue at our house after the guests had arrived, Canadian Thanksgiving dinner party, oh man, so many things!!! I'll end here and try to keep up the updates a bit more. Hopefully i'll get internet set up soon!!!

Peace in the Middle East,


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Nile Mornings

My new flat is about a 10 minute walk from the Nile, so Lori and I have started 5am morning Nile runs a couple times a week. Every day is a little different, but they all contain the following landmarks
Wild pack of dogs (which we have learned to scare off by yelling, clapping, waving our arms and sprinting at them stomping our feet)
A mosque that we run past in our shorts and T-shirts, feeling a little Haram
TGI Fridays on the Nile
More dogs
The Japanese Embassy – complete with a brand new Starbucks
Anywhere between 1-4 men dressed in white sailor uniforms and hats that like to yell “HELLO!” at us and wave in our faces as we run by (keep in mind, it’s 5am)
A heavily guarded helicopter landing pad with sleeping guards
This really cool old burned out Nile cruise boat – it will make the greatest picture when I remember to bring my camera along on a run – with the morning fog… someday
The Ramadan tree (a tree wrapped in Ramadan fabric) and Ramadan tent across from the mosque to serve poor people Iftar
Bright green trees that are starting to turn bright yellow as the seasons are slowly and changing.
And of course, THE NILE!!!
It may not be the beach, but it’s pretty sweet to be able to take a nice morning jog along the Nile to start the day.

I love my job...

One great thing about my teaching job at AIS is that I am never bored. I am constantly surprised about what kids come up with or what situations I find myself in.
A couple weeks ago, my principal came into my class and asked if I would sub during one of my prep periods. I agreed before asking what class it was for. She told me it was 8th grade band, and that the band teacher had said to just give the kids the period as a prep. Since it was the beginning of the 2nd week of school, the kids didn’t really have a whole lot to do, so they all stared at me when I asked them to find something quietly to work on. Then I told them they could even talk to each other and they still stared at me. One kid asked I they could play with their instruments. I thought about it, and for lack of better options said “yes, you can get your instruments out and …practice” the kids start pulling out instruments, asking if they can play the drums, asking if they could grab reeds out of the teacher’s office, and making a whole lot of bad noise. It didn’t take long before Nick, the high school band teacher came running in and asked me what was going on. I must have look shell shocked. I told him “I don’t know!” and wanted to run immediately out of the room or curl up in fetal position in the corner. He started yelling at kids, things like “what? You don’t even play that instrument! What are you doing? And you! Where did you get that?!” and I just stood there… Then Nick came up with the brilliant idea that he teach the 8th grade band and I go and teach his 9th grade guitar class since I “play guitar”. I walked in to a class full of some of my old students from last year, and they were surprised that their 8th grade science teacher from last year was now their guitar teacher for the day. So I awkwardly walked around asking kids to play me the line from their book. After about 5 minutes, Nick comes running back in, tells me he has the 8th graders set up so that I can lead them through their band books and he would take his class over again. I walked in, now playing the roll of band conductor for the rest of class, I painfully conducted them through their lesson book including old favorites such as “hot cross buns”. I have never been so thankful for a class to be over.
A couple days earlier, I had another great teacher right of passage experience. About 2 minutes into homeroom, a student looked up and asked to go to the bathroom. I looked at him confused and said, “NOW?” since he should have gone before class. He looked back with his eyes wide open and nodded his head with a look that said, “yes… NOW!” so I told him “yes! Go!”. He walked 2 steps then threw up his 4am pre-sunrise Ramadan morning meal all over the floor before running out of the room. All the other kids start covering their noses, coughing like they too were going to start a domino of puking all across the room, and saying things like “Gross!” “Sick” that I also wanted to say but had to pretend that I wasn’t trying to hold in my own breakfast while picking up kids backpacks and cleaning the vomit off. I ran outside and tried to flag down a worker who might be able to help clean up the mess, trying to explain with limited Arabic and hand gestures what had taken place moments before. I thought I’d done a good job, but when they came into the room, they looked surprised! (I don’t know what they thought my projectile vomiting hand gestures were… I thought it was pretty clear). So the kid comes back like nothing happened, ready to sit through class. I told him he needed to go to the nurse because throwing up on the classroom floor wasn’t normal and he should probably get it checked out. He didn’t return that day.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

quick disclaimer

I have to appologize for how long and infrequent my blogs have been. I haven't had internet at my flat since I got here and am waiting for my landlords to return from a month long trip so we can get some info from them and set up our internet. Until then I can only check my e-mail at school (sites like the blog and facebook are blocked) and have to pay at a coffee shop to get access to everything. I've been pretty busy lately so haven't been able to get to coffee shops that often. so hopefully you still read even though they're long! we're hoping to set up the internet some time next week. also, i haven't been able to upload any photos, which i really want to do, but haven't been able to. i think the internet here is just too slow and am hoping I will be able to do it once i get internet.

I'm Rama-done with Ramadan

Ramadan started on the 1st of September, which was also the first day of school and my roommate Lori’s birthday. Ramadan ends with the Eid El Fitr (a big feast for a couple days) at the end of September/beginning of October (dive trip!!!). From my understanding, Ramadan is a month out of the year where Muslims fast from sunup to sundown from food or drink in order to be able to feel what it is like to be without these things and to focus on compassion toward the poor. The fast-breaking meal (breakfast…) is known as Iftar and is eaten around 6:15pm following the call to prayer at sunset. There is also a meal around 4am that people wake up early to eat. During Ramadan, Iftars are often spent with families or friends. Everything in Cairo stops completely during this time. The streets are eerily empty and all of Egypt breathes a sigh of relief because they can finally eat. It is pretty common for people who can afford food to put on an iftar on the streets for poor people to come and get food. They do this in big tents made of colorful Ramadan fabrics. At some markets, you can buy Ramadan Bags that have basic staple foods in them to pass out to the poor. Aside from the Ramadan tents, the streets are decorated with lots of colorful lights and huge lanterns called “Fanooses” (I’m sure I’m spelling that wrong)
Ok, that’s what Ramadan is supposed to be – and some people do follow it. Here is what it tends to looks like. During Ramadan, those fasting get very grumpy because they have not had anything to eat or drink since 4am and they are tired because most of the festivities happen during the night, and they still have to wake up to go to work, school, etc. the next day. For this reason and to avoid traffic (which I will get to later), everyone gets off of work and school early so they can get home for Iftar on time. We get off of school at 1:40 and have a special Ramadan Schedule with a shorter “Lunch” break for the Christians, and “Prayer” break for the Muslims. Either way, most kids run out and play soccer. The kids have an even harder time than normal paying attention and not falling asleep in class (which is saying a lot), and their breath smells because they are not even allowed to brush their teeth in the morning. This is especially a problem due to a variation in "personal space" distance than what most westerners are used to. ..
One thing I have found particularly amusing this year is that Daylight savings time came early this year- just before Ramadan so that everyone would have to fast one hour less! (Each year Ramadan gets a little over half a month earlier because it is all based on the Moon and what Sheikhs in Saudi Arabia see. No one knows 100% when it starts until they say it) Next year it will be in August and I don’t think they’ll be able to change the time again. It is pretty horrible to imagine making it through the August heat without water.
Traffic is horrible during Ramadan, and people drive like crazy people. There are far more accidents during this month than other times in this year, mostly during the times when people are trying to get home for Iftar. If you walk down the street during Iftar time, you feel that something is eerily wrong. Cairo is not known for its tranquil, serene aura, but for being one of the noisiest cities in the world with the average decibel level equivalent to that of a construction site. Walking out during this time feels like you’re in a western movie walking into a ghost town where plastic bags drift across the street instead of tumble weeds.
Stores that are normally open all day and late into the night are now only open till around 4 then open again around 8. This makes it difficult to do things like grocery shopping after you get home from work. You have to wait till after 8 to get any errands done. On September 1st, Mobonil, the cell phone provider I use – decided to turn off my phone line that I have had for over a year because I needed to “update my data”. (I thought the word “Data” was pretty vague but turns out they just needed to see a copy of my passport and decided to turn off my phone service till I brought it in. Not only were they not specific in communicating this, but communicated the "Data" thing in an arabic text message) Well, being that it was the 1st day of Ramadan, everything was closed at 4 and didn’t open later in the day. So it was all closed by the time I got home and I couldn’t fix my cell phone service till about 10 pm 2 days later. The same day, I went to the gym and was about to start changing, when a man walked in to the women’s dressing room and told me the gym was closed for Ramadan. I definitely had that “I can’t win!!!” feeling and on that day, came up with the title to the culturally insensitive Ramadan song that Lori and I would later write, called “I’m Rama-done with Ramadan”. Yes, this song does exist, and is pretty amazing. It’s catchy and has been stuck in my head ever since. E-mail me if you want a copy .
At any time during the day, restaurants are empty and you get great service, other than that you feel bad that those serving your food can’t eat themselves during that time. I asked a Muslim friend of mine if this was rude and she said that it’s their own choice to work there, and they kind of get more points for fasting with people eating in front of them.
During Ramadan, people are also to abstain from drinking or even being around alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, sex, etc. – basically anything that would make you "impure". This also leads to grumpiness. Restaurants that would normally sell alcohol are prohibited to sell it during Ramadan and I heard that the few places that do sell it are not allowed to sell it to Egyptians. Egyptians must show that they have a foreign passport if they want to drink alcohol during Ramadan, regardless of their religion.
I was in a taxi last week during the sunset call to prayer and the driver pulled over at a kiosk as soon as the call went off to go buy cigarettes and started smoking immediately. In his rush to buy the ciggies, he almost forgot to set the parking break as the car started rolling backwards into another car. Luckily he put off his fix long enough to run back into the car and set the break. I’m still confused on if they are supposed to abstain from these things just during the day, or during the whole of Ramadan. I think people have varying ideas on this dependent on their level of devotedness.
A friend explained that you are not supposed to put anything bad into you including into your eyes. I thought this would be great – that the harassment on the street would stop for a month. Unfortunately I was a bit optimistic on this one. It may be better though!
I learned this year that Iftars are supposed to be small meals so that those fasting are able to feel what it is like to be poor, but most people feast it up as soon as the call sets off and start chowing down on special sweets that people only eat during Ramadan, dried fruits, nuts and huge feasts.
Well, that’s about it for my Ramadan files! It is a really funny time of the year when looking at it from the outside. It is a huge reminder that I am indeed the minority and that this country is centered around Islam. (I think I understand a bit how other religions feel during Christmas.) It is also a reminder that in any tradition in any religion, the purpose behind it can so easily be lost and replaced by legalism. I am glad that I have been able to have people in my life like my Arabic teacher Ashgan and her family who do adhere to the original meaning of Ramadan and are seeking to serve those less fortunate and be humbled and changed by this season.