Saturday, December 25, 2010


Ma’asalama, ya Misr. Goodbye, Egypt. It’s been a short four months…too short. But I’m ready to go back.

These four months have definitely been some of the best times of my life so far. Whether it was watching the sunrise on Mt. Sinai, eating a huge piece of chocolate cake at the restaurant in Al Azhar Park, high-fiving cab drivers downtown and making jokes with them in Arabic, relaxing on the waterfront in Alexandria, ATVing in Dahab, sitting around the campfire in the White Desert, or exploring ancient ruins, this country has so much to offer…if you’re willing to take the risk and plunge in.

It’s also been some of the most challenging ones. Studying abroad doesn’t just open you up to the world; it forces you to confront things about yourself that you did not see or did not wish to see before. I consider myself a patient person but this means nothing in AUC’s bureaucracy, the long lines at the airport, and confusing and redundant procedures that characterize travel planning in general. For me, language and customs were relatively easy to learn, compared to the radically different conception of being on time or completing tasks when expected. (I guess it goes along with Cairo’s horrendous traffic, the “as you like” mentality.)

I can’t really sum up everything I feel about Cairo at the moment, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s a city of contradictions: the lavish gardens of Maadi, gilded mosque facades, and hyperglobalized City Stars Mall contrasting with the old downtown apartment buildings, garbage-filled slums of Manshiyet Nasr in the shadow of the massive Moqattam mountain, and the ubiquitous thick layer of dust caked on every sidewalk. A city of life and death, where the silent City of the Dead meets the buzzing nightlife of central Cairo.

Upper Egyptians can say what they will about those in Cairo, but to me the city is a microcosm of the country itself. You can find Egyptians of every shape and size here, and the way of life, while not dependent on farming, still is centered around connections between families, friends, and communities. Even the city’s name reflects its centrality: people call Cairo itself “Misr” when this is also used as the larger Arabic term meaning all of Egypt.

This sense of community is really something that makes Egypt so different from the West. There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander; if there’s a problem, everyone who can pitches in to help. On the overcrowded Metro one day, I ran towards the car right before the doors closed. The car was already packed full of people and threatened to dislodge the outermost filling of people like an overstuffed Kunafa Pocket. (Like a Hot Pocket but actually delicious and fresh.) I stopped at the car and looked at the challenge that lay before me—would cramming just one more person into this container force five people out? Immediately, before the doors closed, three people inside the car pulled me in. They had no idea who I was, or where I was going. In this situation, which happens every day, you would expect someone to do the same for you. That is what community means.

I was writing this in the airport (8:13am EST) and talking about how the flight was much less eventful than the one coming here. Of course, right after I typed that sentence they delayed my flight 4 times and then canceled it altogether, meaning I had to get a shuttle to Laguardia and get a flight 6 hours later than my original one. Still, I made it home.

It doesn’t feel like a real goodbye. Granted, I’m not really one to draw out goodbyes in the first place…but part of it is because I know I’ll be back in the future--maybe not this year or next, but definitely in this lifetime. And I’ll have more insights, stronger friendships, and no more Train of Death experiences.

ISA. (Inshallah.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What lies in the shadow of the mountain?

Are the photos below real or from a recent Disney/Pixar motion picture?

To enter the area of Cairo known as Manshiyet Nasr, or Medinat Zibalah (Garbage City), is to enter an alternate reality reminiscent of Wall-E. It shows us a future where our trash has become such a problem that we must stack heaping bag after heaping bag in empty, derelict apartments until the garbage reaches the roof.

This is the world of the Zabaleen, the garbage collectors of Cairo. They’ve been around for quite awhile, probably since Nasser forced a large number of Coptic immigrants to Cairo into this small area. Since the 1960s it has grown to support about 40,000 people, all of whom work in this community as processors of Cairo’s prodigious waste. Every day they go around on trucks and collect up to a third of Cairo’s garbage, putting it in bags and trucking it back to their city to be sorted. Each family and individual has a particular job, whether it’s sorting bottles or collecting paper materials for recycling. They then sell these recyclable materials like metals and plastics to companies for a small profit, which gives them enough to scrape a living.

These people have some beautiful places of worship.

"The Cafeteria"

View of the Citadel from Manshiyet Nasr

Other mosques:

The Zabaleen clean up Cairo for little or no cost to the residents, and it shows. Recently the Egyptian government has been allowing European companies to start collecting Cairo’s garbage, which unfortunately threatens the Zabaleen’s only source of income as the multinationals have larger machines and could take over the garbage market. But many people in Cairo actually say the Zabaleen are much more efficient, as the European companies only recycle 20% of Cairo’s garbage (the rest goes in the landfill), while the Zabaleens’ system turns out a much higher percentage of recyclable materials.

The Zabaleen, being mostly Copts, don’t have the same restrictions on working with pigs that Muslims do, so they developed a use for these animals: having them eat the organic waste they collect from the streets of Cairo. Last year, in response to the outbreak of swine flu in Egypt, the government ordered the killing of all pigs in Cairo. 300,000 pigs in Garbage City were killed, which not only took out a large portion of the Zabaleen economy but also lessened their incentive to clean up the organic trash on the streets. Therefore: no pigs = dirty streets.

This system is a perfect example of where sustainability becomes a part of a community’s interest not for their ideological beliefs, but because it is necessary for them to survive. Without the ability to recycle garbage, the Zabaleen would have nothing to gain by processing Cairo’s trash.

Maybe, as our society becomes more and more wasteful and the possibility of a Wall-E-like future grows, we can learn something from them.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

شكرا يا فرعون! --Reflections

For the past eight weeks I've been volunteering at an NGO in Heliopolis teaching upper-level English to Egyptian university students around my age. We just had our last class and presentations, and I've gotten a taste of what it's like to be a real teacher, designing my own curriculum and guidelines for the final exam. I didn't expect this at all when I signed up. Other classes had their own complete packet of curriculum materials, but the level I was placed in had virtually nothing except the goal of a final presentation on "some topic."

Combined with school, traveling, and other activities...I'll be honest, taking the 3:30 bus from campus and arriving at 6:15 to teach for 45 minutes every Wednesday was really taxing. But I don't regret it. If I hadn't forced myself into this environment I most likely would never have made contact with so many normal Egyptians. I know plenty at AUC, but no offense, those are not normal Egyptians (just the topmost, thinnest layer of icing on the disturbingly-fast expanding cupcake of the Egyptian population).

Some students had an inner drive to study and worked hard in my class, some did not. I'm sure I could have done much better as a teacher if I'd had the planning skills and experience to teach effectively by setting a goal every week, and they might have progressed much more than they did. That said, some of them really enjoyed the class and hopefully I inspired them to work hard and learn about those around them.

Just showing up to class every week gave me an alternative to some of the negativity that's so easy to pick up around here. You know...the crowdedness and smell of the Metro as you're pushed and shoved into an already-packed car that reminds you of sardines...the manipulative theatrics of some cabdrivers and guides at tourist sites...the cigarette smoke, (thankfully infrequent) racism, and late-night, raucous partying that are so ubiquitous in Cairo's society.

All this will eventually take its toll on the hapless American tourist or study abroad student. What's kept me going, though, is being able to break down all the stereotypes that accumulate so rapidly like the clothes on my floor week after week when I teach my class and get a chance to interact in a low-key environment with normal Egyptians. (Don't worry, I do wash my clothes. Enough.) When I explain difficult concepts like American elections or English grammar, the fact that most of them try to put themselves in my shoes is a refreshing change from me having to constantly put myself in their shoes as an American living in Egypt.

It's been doubly tricky as an American Jew. One of my students, a Coptic Christian, pointed out, "Why would you come here if you're Jewish? So many Egyptians hate Jews, it's dangerous for you." She has a point, at least when we're talking about the "Jews = Israel" idea that likes to hang around in too many Egyptian minds, brought on by a biased media and the extreme difficulty for an Egyptian to actually see what's going on in Israel themselves by traveling there.

In a lot of ways, though, I came here because I am Jewish. This land wouldn't hold nearly so much meaning or importance to me if I didn't have a sense of Egypt's historical and present importance as it relates to the Jewish people, and I hope I could in some small way show people here an alternative to the extremists they see every day in the news. For me, I feel like living here has been comparable to being a Muslim in America, just less obvious since I don't go around wearing a kippah.

Since Nasser kicked out most of the huge Egyptian Jewish population in the 1960s on charges of sedition and betrayal of the Egyptian state, only about 100 Egyptian Jews remain in the country, largely under the radar--a shocking decline that mirrors what's happened in other Arab countries since Israel's founding. Egyptians can't put a face on Jews other than what they see Israel doing in the media, and that is dangerous. On so many cab rides the driver would innocently ask me my name. Then it would go something like this:

"Ismi Ya'qoub." (Jacob in Arabic)
"Ah, Ya'qoub! Enta Muslimi, Masihi?" (Are you Muslim, Christian?"
"Ana yehudi." (I'm Jewish.)
(pause, driver looks at me) "Isra'il...ta'arif mesh mushkila ma'a al-yehudieen, faqat Isra'il. Kul al-adyan yu'min b'Allah." ( know, we have no problem with Jews, only Israel. All the religions, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, believe in the same God.)

There's always this association with Jews and Israel. Sometimes they'd ask me if I was Israel and be confused when I said I was American, or just guess from my first name (and excellent nose) that I was Jewish.

The above example is one of the better ones I had, and it's good that at least some people try to differentiate Zionism from the Jewish people, a political idea from a religiocultural one. Even Zionism itself has its own hawkish and dovish variations, and each individual has his or her own interpretation of it. Every discussion, then, becomes an opportunity to put a face on the other. Maybe it's a lot of pressure, but the alternative is perpetuating racism and stereotypes. Why hide your faith when you can be an ambassador to it?

It's clear both from my interactions with Egyptians that just having regular contact with normal people from another culture can prevent the insidious seeds of fear, suspicion and hatred from growing too large in the mind's fertile soil.

Yes, I am aware that this is sappy writing. I blame poetic license.

And I guess I ultimately have the Egyptians to thank for making my people who we are today. (They can interpret this as they like.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Black and White Desert

The Black and White Desert has to be one of the most surreal places in the world, and one of the most beautiful. The Black Desert features a blue-black rock layer that lies exposed beneath the sands, and the eerie limestone formations of the White Desert were formed by wind erosion on the chalky deposits that litter the area—the Sahara Desert was once completely underwater, and millions of tiny shells accumulated over thousands of years to form the limestone that highlights the landscape today.
I’d advise you to eat before entering this area, as the Black Desert evokes piles of vanilla ice cream piled high with Oreo crumbs.

Our first stop was Crystal Mountain, a mountain made entirely of quartz crystal.

Camping out next to Jacob's Fire (don't push him in)

The beauty of this area also has not gone unnoticed by the Bollywood film industry. One of the most famous Bollywood films, Kabhi Khushie Kabhi Gham (कभी खूशी कभी घम) features a song where the characters are magically transported to the Pyramids and the Black and White Desert. (I believe this is purely for aesthetic purposes.)

The Camel

Jabba's Palace

The Fish

The Chicken and the Mushroom

The Rabbit

The Small Mushroom


Really amazing scenery. Our jeep drivers, Muhammad and Ayman, drove us around three government checkpoints to keep us from having to pay the 40 LE fee. On the way back, we did the same thing by making a hard left off of the main road into the desert.
But one of the jeeps got stuck in the sand, only 500 feet from the government outpost. Our drivers freaked out, the only time we saw them remotely stressed. Through a combination of pulling, pushing, tying rope to the bottom of the car, and shifting gears, they eventually got it out and we piled in, zipping through the desert sands, before the government cars had a chance to come after us.

Finally, we climbed one of the Black Desert mountains. If you’ve ever been to Sunset Crater in Arizona, it’s a very similar climb. Merciless and steep, but with a great view at the top.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Election Day

Personally, I find maps like this fascinating. The competition to capture seats in Parliament and to win governates really shows the will of the people and Egypt's shining example of democracy to other Middle Eastern countries.

But I guess a slightly more accurate representation of the "will of the people" would look something like this:

The Muslim Brotherhood, the government's main opposition and a banned party, took 20% of the seats in Parliament in the 2005 election. This time they won 0. Ok, Mubarak, you're not going to give them much power. But 0? Asking many Egyptians, none of them honestly believed these numbers. They're not even in the ballpark.

Of course, Mubarak has to be credited with maintaining an astonishing amount of stability in this country of organized chaos. But he's getting old, and another 30 years just doesn't seem all that practical anymore. (I could be wrong, though. Doctors are very good these days.)
Some people think that his son, Gamal Mubarak, is being groomed as his successor. But Gamal is a businessman with not as much experience in politics, and I'm not sure Egyptians want to see the continuation of yet another Pharaonic dynasty.

Right now, the most clear alternative to this scenario is the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and best-organized opposition group that provides key services to poorer parts of Egypt and has an Islamist bent. If they somehow wrested power from Mubarak, we can expect many big changes in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood believes that Egypt should adopt stricter Islamic law and govern according to shari'a, an idea that is becoming widespread throughout the Muslim world but has many differing interpretations. We don't really know how much the Brotherhood would have to moderate their views if they ever gained power, as Egypt has a large Coptic Christian minority that would be totally against living in a country governed by Islamic law. These people claim to be the original Egyptians, before the arrival of Islam in the 700s. These laws, added to their minority status, could make them feel even more like outsiders in their own country. The Brotherhood has also railed vehemently against the State of Israel and Egyptian-Israeli relations since 1979, and it's possible that once in power they could abrogate the peace treaty. (But if they do get power, I assume they'd have larger problems to deal with in Egypt than a rhetorical move against an annoying neighbor.)

Is Egypt really ready for democracy? Mubarak thinks not, according to the results.

Zero seats for the main opposition. Sifr. Ma fish haga. It's really an insult to people's intelligence.

So Egypt has a choice between stability and dictatorship, and religious fundamentalism and democracy. Based on what's just happened, next year's presidential election should be very, very interesting.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pharaonic Propaganda

Propagandistic pictures of Ramesses fighting his opponents abound throughout his temples in Egypt. They adorn the walls inside the temple of Abu Simbel, and at the far end are statues of the gods Ptah, Khnum, Isis and...yes, Ramesses. You'd think four 50-foot-tall statues would have been enough, but no. Picturing yourself alongside the gods was also supposed to ensure your favor with them in the afterlife, since the Pharaoh was the earthly deputy of the gods, tasked with keeping order ("Ma'at", similar to Rta in the Vedas)on Earth and beating back the forces of chaos.

Chaos takes one of several forms:
1) Famine: the Nile doesn't flood at the right time or there are no rains, so farmers' crops are ruined and everyone starves
2) Sandstorms: generally not good
3) Enemies of Egypt: basically everyone who didn't conform to the Pharaoh's rule outside Egypt or believe in Egyptian gods (Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Libyan invaders, etc), therefore being a force of instability if an invasion took place. It was the Pharaoh's job to restore order in a war by prevailing against this force of chaos. If he didn't do this, he was a bad Pharaoh.

Here are a few examples of Pharaoh pleasing the gods by keeping Ma'at.

(Unfortunate victims)

You'll notice they're all in the same pose. This is an awesome pose.
Whether or not the king actually did this to his enemies rather than sitting around on his throne all day and eating falafel doesn't matter--it showed continuity between kings, and ensured their legitimacy.

Abu Simbel and other sites built by Ramesses generally include the story of the Battle of Kadesh, where Ramesses' expanding empire came into conflict with another expanding empire from Turkey, the Hittites. They met at the Orontes River in what is now Syria. There was a lot at stake in this battle; whoever won would basically win control of the entire east coast of the Mediterranean.
There are a lot of reliefs of the Battle of Kadesh at Abu Simbel, where Ramesses is depicted...

...on his chariot sharply shooting his Hittite enemies full of arrows...

...brilliantly braining them with his mace...

...or triumphantly trampling them underneath his feet, winning a decisive victory for Egypt and mercifully allowing the Hittites (what was left of them) to stay around.

If you're an Egyptian, this is all well and good--until you read any decent history book.

...Because the Egyptians didn't actually win.

Instead, the Battle of Kadesh ended in a stalemate where both sides signed a peace treaty.

So are Ramesses and all those other kings smashing, slashing and trampling their way to victory propagandistic liars? Yes, but for good reason. If you want to keep control of your population and minimize earthly chaos, you have to portray yourself as a winner all the time.

It's nice to know that in Egypt things haven't changed much since then.