Wednesday, November 5, 2008

And the winner is...

Amidst the intermittent roars and cheers of Egyptian students boycotting the administration (and Delicious, Inc.) in the main plaza of AUC's new campus, smaller groups of Egyptians and Americans cluster to celebrate a totally different victory – one realized seven time zones, a continent, and an ocean away.

Greeting one of my Egyptian friends, he points to my red belt and asks, “is this for the strike?” (Strikers are wearing red wrist bands.)
“No,” I reply. “This is me being patriotic!”
“You’re a Republican?!” he asks with a mixture of disgust and incredulity.
“No...” I tell him. “Red, white and blue “ – my shirt, belt, and skirt – “It’s America. Patriotism.”
I’m celebrating America.

Soon a few more Egyptians join us, and then a fellow American grabs my arm and cries, “Mabruk!” Congratulations – America has won a victory today.

In the states, Americans are either rejoicing or accepting defeat, as usual after a presidential election. Something, however, is different – and the world feels it. Yesterday America made history. Voters elected a man by the name of Barak Hussein Obama – a black man. America proved to itself and to the world that it is better than often given credit for.

Sometime around 6am local time, 11pm EST, news broadcasters released the news. Obama was President Elect. There were still votes to be counted and states to be decided, but with 338 Electoral votes, Obama had won the election. Winning states such as Virginia would also prove to be historic – Virginia has voted red (Republican) since 1964. After 44 years, the capital of the Confederacy has gone blue.

It’s a few minutes past 6am. I’m stretched out on the couch. My 3-legged cat reclins on my chest while my roommate talks animatedly on the phone with her mother, who is in South Dakota, while surrounded by a mountain of pillows and blankets. Unlike me, she stayed up all night to watch as results came in, and has been ecstatic since the announcement of Obama’s win. Both she and I were stunned when just a few minutes later John McCain was on-screen, ready with his concession speech.

McCain’s speech was well-written and he conceded the victory to Obama with grace and character – albeit with a tired air. I’ve always liked McCain. A Republican friend updated his facebook status just after the speech to say he “had never been so proud to be a McCain supporter.” I can understand the sentiment.

As 6:30am rolled around we expected Obama’s acceptance speech any minute and I had a decision to make: I could either miss Obama’s speech and catch my usual 6:55 bus or stay home, watch the speech, and arrive late to my 8:30am class. When a newscaster announced Obama would make his speech in 25 minutes I contemplated my waiting school bag, took my shoes off, and sat back down on the couch.

There have been enough commentaries on Obama’s speech, so I’ll refrain from going into detail and suffice it to say that as Barak Obama stepped on stage to announce his acceptance of the position of President of the United States of America his attitude was what struck me. He was not a man rejoicing in a personal victory. He was sober and composed, and his face was that of a man who knows the weight of responsibility he is taking on; the face of a man calm, composed, and ready to accept what the people of America have offered him.

Both Americans and the world have celebrated today. Cairo’s youth are rejoicing in Obama’s election just as much as any Obama supporter in the states. There are those who have received the news more soberly, understanding that Obama’s election isn’t going to result in sweeping foreign policy changes in the Middle East, but ultimately world is ready to accept Obama’s words that yes, America can. The question that now remains is whether Obama will be able to live up to the world’s expectations – both inside America’s borders and out.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reflection: Ramadan in Cairo

The first day of Ramadan dawned in pink and blue shades over the Mother of the World. The lights of the city still glittered, their reflections rippling in the Nile, and a few clouds hovered above Cairo’s usual blanket of fog. As the clock ticked toward 5am, I watched the sun rise. A few moments before I had heard the call from the mosque behind my building, signaling the start of the fast.

Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims – a month of fasting and prayer, where each kind or generous deed is worth 100. During Ramadan Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset – or approximately from 4:30am until 6:00pm. The fast is complete: Muslims may consume nothing. No food, no water, not even chewing gum – nothing is allowed (there are, of course, exceptions: children, people who are traveling or sick and require medicine, and menstruating women are forbidden from fasting). Ramadan is a month of reflection and prayer. The phrase ‘Ramadan Kareem,’ which literally means ‘generous Ramadan,’ is heard and written everywhere. I have been told that Cairo is the best place to experience Ramadan – having experienced it, I am inclined to agree.

A few minutes before 6:00 in the evening I went out and walked the streets of Zamalek, the district where I live in Cairo. The streets were nearly bereft of cars, a novelty in such a crowded and bustling city, and just as lacking in the usual throngs of people moving about. The exceptions, for the most part, were clearly foreigners.

Yet the Egyptian people were not entirely absent from the streets of Cairo; they were simply absent in the normal sense. Instead of walking the streets and moving from place to place, they were all nearly motionless, seated (mostly silently) at one of the many long tables that crowded much of the available space on sidewalks and in alleyways. During Ramadan, Egypt’s poor eat better than they do at any other time of the year. It is impossible to go hungry. Food is provided every evening at Iftar, the breaking of the fast, by charity, various wealthy individuals, and mosques. Anyone, I have been told, is welcome to sit and join in the breaking of the fast.

As the moment of Iftar arrived, the mosques could be heard in the distance and there was a sudden commotion as the Muslim people of Cairo broke their fast. Walking along the street, I was invited to join at least three different groups of people in their meals – although I declined the offers, I did accept a cup of dark, sweet juice, and thus broke my fast along with the rest of the city.

For the first two weeks of Ramadan I fasted with my Muslim friends and acquaintances. As the majority of the people I spent time with, including my roommate, were fasting, I decided to join them. Besides, if I was going to experience Ramadan in Cairo, I decided I might as well (to be honest, not eating all day is not difficult – the difficulty of the fast arises with not being able to drink, especially under Cairo’s heat). I finally broke my fast about a week into the semester, deciding that curiosity was not a good enough reason to fast when I had upwards of 7 hours of class in a day.

There were many nights during Ramadan, both in Cairo and in Alexandria, that I spent out with friends. One of my first Iftars was at Luceille's, a favorite Italian restaurant in the Maadi district of Cairo. After the first few weeks, my roommate and I tended to break fast together while watching a succession of That 70s Show, Friends, and E.R. They were lazy evenings, often followed a few hours later by going out and having another meal.

Cairo, as a whole, does not sleep during the month of Ramadan (except during the day). The common routine is to have Iftar at 6, then a few hours later go out and then have dinner, and then have the final meal, Sohour, around 2 or 3 in the morning.

I was invited to various dinners, including a huge Iftar at my roommate's boyfriend's house with homemade Egyptian foods and sohour at a Palestinian restaurant in Nasr City. Near the end of Ramadan, my roommate and I hosted a large Iftar at our apartment, complete with homemade pasta, bread, caramel apple pie, and cookies (and KFC - neither my roommate nor I cook much meat).

The University hosted various Iftar dinners and an Egyptian Sohour for the International Students during Ramadan. These dinners served 'traditional' fare from different areas of the Muslim world, finally ending with Egyptian.

Finally, Ramadan ended just before October began, and the students of the American University in Cairo departed from the city to their various destinations for the Eid break. That, however, is a topic for another day.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Quick update

So I realize I haven't been updating this at all - sorry! I promise to post at least one decent update by the end of the weekend. For now, here's a brief on what's been going on:

Classes at the American University in Cairo started last Sunday, and while the classrooms are ready (barely), the rest of the campus is no where close. Many professors don't have offices yet, and some of those whose offices are ready don't have phone lines and/or internet connections. Needless to say, everything is quite a mess. The Student Center, dorms, and sports facilities are far from done and will not be open until at least the beginning of November, which is a very optimistic conjecture.

On top of having to avoid workers and construction materials/rubble, students have been faced with what ultimately amounts to a huge maze, albeit a very tastefully designed and well-built maze. Between the lack of directional signs and the plethora of courtyards, terraces, hallways, and covered walkways, finding one's way to the Provost's Office or the Department of History can be quite an adventure. Getting in, however, tends not to be too difficult - it's trying to get out that is the biggest challenge.

Now that add-drop has finally finished and students and professors are beginning to learn their way around campus, things should settle down a bit. At least the buses are running on time. I've also noticed that, coming from the buses, the guards at the gate only occasionally check IDs to get on campus. Of course, I typically arrive at 7:20am, and I'm sure the guards realize that NONE of us would be on campus that early unless we had to be. However, while the guards at the side/bus gate may occasionally overlook asking to see an ID, the guards at the library are overly diligent. However, if one must be in possession of an AUC ID to get on campus, what's the point of having to show it AGAIN to get into the Library?

Next step: locate the mail room and a fax machine. Wish me luck!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Jordan: Observations in Conclusion

A hazy sheen lingered between the sun and the freshly washed window of the taxi. The sun rose into the mist and dust, creating a blurry outline as trees and highway rushed past. It seemed odd to be saying good-bye to a country as the sun was rising.
The King’s Highway once again stretched before us, once again sparsely populated. Seemingly the only creatures moving at 6:00am were dogs, picking through the trash by the road in a small, motley pack. The taxi driver was silent, a rare occurrence in the world of talkative Arabs.
Jordan’s movement toward development can be seen in the buildings as we head out of Amman. Japanese civil engineers may not be able to straighten all of the city’s winding roads or disjointed intersections, but Amman is a city to be reckoned with. Its streets are wide and the city is clean in comparison with capitals such as Cairo and even Rome. The amount of construction in the city is impressive, especially in comparison with other third-world countries where unfinished buildings often seem to be more common than on-going construction. Current construction includes what will eventually be the largest mall in Jordan.
Jordanian patriotism is also something to be reckoned with. Driving through Amman, ever overpass is lined with a row of Jordanian flags waving in the breeze. Passing through narrow roads in the countryside, twisting roads in the cities, or the flat, smooth road of the King’s Highway, posters and billboards with pictures of the King are far from unusual. To surround such pictures with more Jordanian flags seems to be quite common. Jordanians hold their King in high affection, and that affection must be contagious – even foreign residents feel a sense of Jordanian patriotism. Everyone, according to my Iraqi host, has at least one CD of traditional Jordanian music in their car.
It is easy to understand why so many foreigners, both Arab and non-Arab, choose to make Amman their home. According to some, Jordan is seen as the most stable country in the region – which can certainly be understood when taking the current turbulence in areas such as Iraq and Lebanon into consideration. However, there are clearly reasons beyond that. Jordanians are open, friendly people. They are quick to smile and generous with hospitality – traits that seem to permeate the Middle East. Amman can be noisy and crowded, but its crowds and noise are of a lesser intensity than that of, for example, Cairo, and the pollution is certainly less.
Beyond the obvious differences in the city itself, there are other clear differences between Amman and Cairo. One of these is the style of dress. In Amman, the percentage of young women who have adopted a more Western style of dress seems to be much higher than in Cairo. While in Cairo young women have found ingenious ways to be highly fashionably and still subscribe to the traditional Muslim modesty, Amman’s younger generation seems, at least at first glance, to be moving in a different direction.
As the Jordanian countryside flashes outside my window at 80 km/h in the glow of the rising sun, I know I will be back.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Music, dance, and shisha

Before the lights of the King's Highway stretched before us in two perfectly parallel lines winding through Jordan's hills, before 120km/h winds rushed through open car windows to meet with blaring hip-hop and R&B, before loud, tipsy Arabs stuck their heads out the windows, and long before finally canceling plans to visit Syria and 2am showers, the night was filled with heaps of food, live music, and lots of dancing.

Harat Jdoudna (which loosely means 'neighborhood of my ancestors') is a restaurant serving traditional Jordanian food in a beautiful outdoor setting. Tables can be found in the ivy-covered and tree-shaded courtyard and courtyard terraces of an old house whose walls and floors contain stones and columns 'scavenged' from the Roman highway which once ran through the town of Madaba barely 200 metres from where the restaurant stands today.

Arriving at the restaurant around 8:30pm, the tables are nearly empty. The courtyard is quiet. The tables are set. There is a constant breeze, and the air is warm and humid but not hot and sticky. Ivy creeps up walls built of local stone. Grape vines entwine themselves around the long branches of sturdy fig trees, creating a green canopy offering both shade and atmosphere. The courtyard is calm. Prepared. Waiting.

Tables slowly fill, and by 9:30 not an empty seat can be seen. Drinks arrive along with shisha, a traditional Arab water-pipe (also known as 'hooka'), and soon clouds of strawberry and fruit flavored smoke swirl up from more than a dozen places in the courtyard, mixing occasionally with cigar and the ever-present cigarette smoke. A middle-aged Arab man takes a seat at a keyboard set up at one end of the courtyard, and music soon fills the air, setting the tone for the evening.

Around 10:00 the food begins to arrive. Within moments, the long, bare wooden table is covered in literally dozens of dishes - salads, dips, and foods of all kinds. Waiters appear with baskets of bread which disappear as quickly as they're brought. Hommus, mushrooms cooked with rosemary and olive oil, rocket salad, traditional Jordanian salads, fried and grilled goat cheese, eggplant dishes, stuffed mushrooms, and a dozen other types of food are passed around and heaped onto plates. The noise level doesn't dim for a moment, however - talk and laughter continue unabated along with the music and shisha smoke.

The entertainer fills the evening air with traditional Jordanian music, and conversations are consistently left unfinished as the entire courtyard claps in time to the music and sings along at the top of their voices. A small group of dancers gathered in front of the musician - a bride and groom celebrating their wedding - are joined by more and more people. The other dancers surround the bride as the keyboard mimics the sounds that a dozen instruments probably would have made a century ago. The musician picks up a local string instrument, called an 'oud,' and adds that into the music as the dancers begin a traditional Jordanian dance.

Sometime around 11:00 the main course arrives, just when non-Arabs believe the meal to be over. However, the food is made to wait as seemingly half the people in the courtyard move onto the makeshift dance floor, hips and arms moving in time to the music. Eventually, the dancers return to their food and once again shisha smoke fills the air.

The courtyard doesn't begin to empty until around midnight, and by 12:30 the majority of the guests have left, still humming or singing, full of good food, exhausted and energized at the same time. This is when bills are paid, cars are loaded, and a dozen wrong turns made before headlights find their way to the King's Highway and the perfectly parallel lights stretching into the distance.

It does not take long to realize, this is Jordan.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Today I stood on the mountain where Moses died

I arrived in Jordan late last night, and had no trouble getting my visa (for 10JOD). My Iraqi friend Shahnaz picked me up at the airport with a few friends, and we headed back to her house in Amman.

Clean streets. Bright lights. New cars. Little traffic. A mixture of English and Arabic on the radio. These were my first impressions of Jordan.

After a 9:15 wake-up turned into a 9:45 wake-up, we headed out to pick up another of Shahnaz's friends and then drove off toward a place I had heard of before, but had since quite forgotten - Mount Nebo. According to the Old Testament, Mount Nebo is the place where Moses went to die. And, thus, I stood on the mountain where Moses, bringer of God's law to the Hebrew people, climbed to take his last breaths.

The first church known to be build upon the crest of the mountain was build around 500 A.D., and successive churches have been built on and around the mountain. Franciscan monks have made the sight a memorial to Moses and have excavated incredible examples of early Jordanian Christian mosaics, with inscriptions in both Greek and Palestinian-Aramaic (with the help of Queen Noor, the Jordanian government, and a vast amount of assistance from the Italians). Unfortunately, the church happened to be closed for work while we were there, so we were not able to walk around the ruins of the early church.

From there, we started down a narrow, steep, winding road through the hilly Jordanian countryside toward a place which in English was simply called "Baptismal Place." As we wound our way through the hot desert in the comfortable interior of an air-conditioned Mercedes, before the vast expanse of the Dead Sea came into sight, a thought occurred to me. Looking at the rough, barren landscape around me, coming from the place where Moses died and knowing where we were going next, I realized that I was in a place where Moses had walked probably 3000 years ago. Where Jesus Christ walked 2000 years ago.

After the roads had flattened out and the heat had climbed a few degrees higher, we reached 'Baptismal Place.' We paid our admission and boarded a poorly air-conditioned bus which dropped our small group by a dusty pathway. Our guide soon led us to a view of the Jordan River - a small, greenish waterway that wound through banks of green reeds. A bit farther and the gold-covered dome of some church came into view. Farther still and our guide stopped, for the first time waiting for everyone to catch up. "Here," he said in broken but understandable English, "is where Jesus Christus was baptized by John the Baptist."

And so I stood, looking down at the ruins of stone steps and a hole that had been dug in the earth to show the greenish Jordan; looking at the spot where John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ 2000 years ago.

In the US, and even in Rome, the places of the Bible are remote in both space and time. Suddenly, I have found myself, physically, right in the middle of Biblical geography.

Of course, the Jordan river is now much smaller that in once was (because of 'dams' in the North or because of the Israeli Occupation, depending on whom you ask) and its waters no longer flow through this spot, necessitating the hole that was dug to show its waters. But, there it is - and in the background, the remains of three successive churches named after John the Baptist and built between 500-600 A.D.

Nearing the end of our walk, we pass the gold dome seen through the trees earlier - it belongs to a 5-year-old Greek Orthodox Church, the most recent monument to John the Baptist. Our guide then leads us down to a platform build over ther edge of the river, with steps built in to allow visitors to touch its waters. Something catches my eye - a crisp, bright, blue and white Israeli flag snapping in the wind, barely 20 yards from where I stand.

"There," our guide points, "is Palestine."

Blogging Egypt

Due to popular demand, I have agreed to create a blog while I'm in Egypt. However, I do not guarantee that I will update regularly, although I will make an attempt to do so.

Comments, thoughts, etc are more than welcome!