Friday, April 24, 2009

On money, or taking things for granted

In Cairo, taxicabs don’t have meters, and there are no set fares. After your driver has taken you to your destination, you’re supposed to get out of the car and hand him a wad of cash through the window. The passenger decides the amount of payment, but must do so within an appropriate range.
We’ve learned quickly that if a driver tries to negotiate a price with us when we get into the car, he’s attempting to overcharge us. We generally become furious that our status as Westerners invites this behavior. “Ana mish chawaga!” Jess often yells as we scramble to get out of the car. “I am not a stupid tourist!”
Because we use taxicabs almost daily, it’s from their backseats that we most frequently encounter the Cairene proclivity for swindling foreigners. However, almost all our monetary exchanges are tinged by the feeling that we’re being taken advantage of.
And it isn’t just paranoia. Caitlin, Jess and I have become friendly with an Indian family who lives on the same floor of our building. During an elevator ride recently, the father asked us how much we’re paying for our place. We told him, and his eyes widened in incredulity. They’re paying much less.
Between these everyday frustrations and our eviction from the apartment, I have become distrustful and often angry when spending any money in Cairo. It's exhausting.

But I had a reality check the other night.

I left Cilantro, a local café, around one o’clock, eager to get home. As I stepped out onto the sidewalk, I saw a little boy of about five sitting on the curb. His chin resting in his palm, he looked up and quickly rose to approach me. I didn’t know if he was homeless and alone or if an adult had left him there to beg. Not wishing to be party to the latter possibility, I took him into the nearby Pizza Hut for a slice and a juice.
I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but I cried a little as I walked home. I was suddenly ashamed for all my complaints and frustrations. Every day, millions of Cairenes have to fight extreme poverty, navigate a venal bureaucracy and fear imprisonment and even torture if they question an official or voice opposition to the government. Rampant corruption and nepotism at the top have created outrageous wealth disparity. An here I am, clutching my daddy’s credit card and whining about a few dollars lost here and there and a few inconveniences.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Who here knows what a piranha is?

Jess and I have been teaching English through a program called STAR (Student Action for Refugees). Our class is a mix of Iraqi, Ethiopian, Guinean and Sudanese nationals. At first they would sit segregated according to their country of origin, but they have now begun hobnobbing with the others, too.

There's Mustafa, who's 21 years old and from Iraq. Cairo is just a sojourn on his way to the U.S. He and his father worked as engineers for the U.S. army for five years. His uncle and two other family members were killed, so apparently the Americans told them to leave, promising to get them into the U.S. Now Mustafa is learning English and American football in his spare time. The latter, he says, so he can get a scholarship for college.

The other Mohamed is from Ethiopia. He's working for an Egyptian petrol company here and gave us a ride home from class in his brand new company SUV last week. He complains about the Egyptian food and says that it's impossible to fast for Lent here. When he and Kebre, who is also Ethiopian, found out I'm Orthodox they invited me to come to church with them.
When we told our class about our eviction and our cockroaches, Mohammed laughed and noted, "Well, this is Africa!"

Thierno is from Guinea and seems to have taken a liking to me. One of his sentences for a homework assignment was: "Anna and I are going to the cinema next week." He writes in beautiful, loopy handwriting.
I sometimes use French to explain English words to him. Often the exchange will go something like this:
"Anna, what is this word, 'adventure' en français?
"Um, aventure."
"Ah, aventure!"
And he nods vigorously.

Abdel Aziz, might just be my favorite student. He hasn't missed a class yet, he always does his homework, and he isn't afraid to ask questions. He's an Iraqi gentleman from Baghdad, probably in his early to mid sixties. With his wire frame glasses, leather jacket, beige sweaters and brown leather shoes, he's the snappiest dresser around. He used to have a bushy mustache, which was half red and gray at the roots, but he just got a haircut and trimmed his beard.
"Your hair looks good!" I told him.
"I know," he said.
When he wants to get our attention, he yells, "Teacher!" across the room, and then he argues with us about the meanings of words and sentence structure.
After class, around eight p.m., he goes home and to bed. Then he gets up at six every morning, even though he doesn't work.
As he leaves the classroom, he waves and says, "Thank you, teachers."

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Oppressed peoples... and extraterrestrials

And I thought Wesleyan was bad.

Flyers around the AUC campus are advertising this lecture:

"Aliens, Arabs and Women: Colonizing Outer Space in Popular Culture"

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


I've taken some pictures. Maybe you'd like to see them.

More to be added soon.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Model Citizen

A couple of weeks ago, I finally decided to submit my application for an Egyptian student visa. 
The last time I had sat for a passport photo, a frenzied Chinese lady in a tiny shop in New York City had pushed me up against a grimy wall and snapped a shot of me with her polaroid camera. Another woman in the back room had quickly processed the picture with her blow dryer. I was expecting my experience in Cairo to be similar, but I was mistaken.

I entered the store, and the photographer, a short man in glasses, ushered me up the stairs to the studio.
I was suddenly surrounded by giant teddy bears, magnificent armchairs with gilt wooden trimmings, corners of medieval parapets and lush patches of plastic vegetation. 
"Sit down here," the photographer ordered, gesturing to a stool. 
He scurried away. The next thing I knew, the lights had been turned off and two spotlights were illuminating my face. All around, white screens and umbrella-shaped appliances were either reflecting or producing light. (I clearly know nothing about photography). He positioned his tripod and camera at a 45 degree angle from my face and spent the next five minutes explaining to me how to tilt my head. 
The camera flashed, and he dashed to the back of the room to fiddle with the backdrop. He finally picked a dark brown velvet curtain and said, "One more!"
"No," I said, unable to stop laughing. "No thank you. I just need the one."
"One more!" He insisted. "It's free."
He replaced the stool with a strange contraption, which I assumed I was intended to straddle. When I proceeded to do so, he shook his head violently and told me to rest one foot on the bottom bar and rest my crossed arms on the top bar. 
I realized that I was posing for a glamour shot, and could not contain my laughter any longer.

When I was finally done with my photo shoot, he spent another fifteen minutes editing my visa photo with Photoshop, printed out 20 copies (I needed one) and one of my glamour shot, which he proceeded to frame. The brown background blends with my dark hair, so the picture shows nothing but my face, framed by darkness. But at least I'm smiling.

Brief update

Forgive me, dear readers, for having dropped off the face of the earth for a while. What with being forced to move, finding a new apartment, moving all my worldly possessions to our new home in hundreds of plastic supermarket bags and escaping to a beautiful desert oasis for a few days, only to return with horrible food poisoning and cockroaches in our new kitchen, I have been rather busy. Oh, and I also have midterms.

But all in all, I'm quite happy lately. Cairo is finally warming up, and I have discovered that I have been tanning slightly through my clothing. 

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Difference is in the Details

The other morning on my way to the bus, I passed three boys who were probably around twelve years old.
When they caught sight of me, they began laughing and pointing.
"Sabah al-kheir, gamal!" or "Good morning, camel!" they shouted. I realized that they were mocking me for my overstuffed backpack that was causing me to bend forward slightly and must indeed have looked like a hump.

Egyptians don't wear backpacks to school, but carry their books under one arm. Older girls and women usually put them in their purses. I felt more embarrassed than I probably should have, but it is these small cultural differences that can make one stand out as a foreigner and make one horribly self-conscious.