Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Ahmed Shukri was a sailor with the oil companies for about thirty-five years. He hunches over, but is actually quite tall and, in contrast to most Egyptians, who tend to be olive-skinned, he is pale and soft — his face never seems to have a bristle of hair on it, which atop his head is a kind of pompadour of waxy whiteness. He wears striped polo shirts and bowling shifts, and his fingers are permanently knurled around a cigarette: when he walks, when he sits, when he laughs, and he never ashes it — as if the force of his shaking hands automatically does so. He is extremely eager to speak English. He is even more eager to speak German, which I tell him I can’t speak, but this never seems to stop him.

Ahmed Shukri must pass the ahwa on the corner of Delta Street near the tram station about fifteen times a day, and each time he does, he ducks his head into the shadows, squinting behind his giant black sunglasses. He looks for people he knows, and hollers, waves with both hands in the air, and walks on. I’ve noticed that he also looks in the corner that I sit the most often, and when he sees me (and other random people), he walks over and says hello. It’s not just a Hello-How-are-you? gig, but usually one consists of the following programmatical formula:

Hello! Michael! (English) How are you?

(Arabic) Good, Ahmed. How are you?

(English) You are good? Yes? You are good?

(Arabic) Yes, Ahmed. I’m excellent. How are you?

(He says something in German. I laugh. He laughs).

Okay, Michael. I call you later, no? Goodbye.

If Ahmed’s conversational skills strike you as a bit one-sided, you’re not alone. This represents about half of my conversations in Arabic; especially when your deal with hot-shot shop owners who think they can put a sentence together and insist on using English when you are clearly trying to speak to them in Arabic. OR you clearly speak Arabic better than their English. I’ve decided that when someone makes up their mind to not understand you (i.e., because you are a foreigner), they will not.

Much as in life at large.

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Last night, Sarah called up and told me that the nurses had put some pressure on her to go down to the municipal courthouse to mitigate Sa’id’s sentence. Apparently, he gets three to seven years maximum for assaulting a foreigner– three to seven years in an Egyptian prison, which is a fate I wish on no one. Depictions of the treatment of prisoners (The Yacoubian Building, Heyna Maysara) can put one off to the excesses of Oriental “justice.” That in mind, Sarah and Katie have been having doubts. Three to seven years is a long, long time, and the man did get his guts rearranged twice.

That said, the officers of the court apparently wanted a confirmation of statement, so Sarah, Tom, and I piled into a taxi around 9 PM and headed to the Manshaya courthouse. It’s an old neo-classical remnant — lots of columns, cast-iron balstruades, galleries of arcades — that looks like a decaying bit of Paris that washed up on our little outcropping of Africa. Checkered marble floors in black and white, scratched and dirty; winged white marble staircases so scratched and old it looked as if the marble were tipping forward– the edges were so worn from a centuries’ scuffle of hard, formal shoes that they looked ready to break off at any moment. Garbage lined the corridors — dark, tar-coated passageways with chipping paint lit by a succession of naked light bulbs from the ceiling — and groups of people huddled in corners (leathery women in gaudy patterns, hairy-handed policemen in ragged white uniforms and cracked black leather boots, lawyers in threadbare soutanes), staring (I imagine) at three foreigners (and Sarah’s blazing red hair especially) marching down to the municipal offices of Bab al-Sharq, the district where the incident took place. Yet the way they punctuated the corridors (we climbed up a maze of stairs and turned down switchback corners) at the corners, it seemed like they had just finished whispering something secret, and had been discovered — that for a moment, we had intruded on something private that had taken place between whispers, and were unwelcome. Fingers pointed the way, and mumbled salaams.

A polished lawyer type with wiry glasses checked over sheafs of notebook paper, all written in an indecipherable hand. Nothing was typed on his desk. After initial confusion over the incidents in question (the lawyer thought Sarah was Katie) we narrated things as they happened; I say we because this was my first simultaneous translation — Sarah talking to me while I translated for the lawyer, Tom catching my back if I didn’t get something. The man seemed surprised that we were concerned about Sa’id, and wished to think over his sentence. He said it was up to us whether he went free or was put in prison for however long.

To my mind, this almost makes the situation even harder than it was. The purpose of an impartial justice system is to enforce the rules of a society, both so that no one is endangered and that no one is to blame; that is why vengeance — although it resembles justice and even possibly achieves equalization of the status quo — is not actual justice. And perhaps this is why the victim of any crime is not given an actual say in the punishment of the criminal. He or she remains apart, because then the burden of punishment falls on the victim. By his or her edict — his or her determination — the criminal is punished, and I wonder if anyone is so just (or at least honestly confident enough in their sense of justice) to measure out the smallest punishment for the smallest crime. Because then the burden falls on you as the cause of someone else’s despair — someone else’s pain. And pain is the reason you brought the criminal before Justice to begin with.

I know that the American justice system is flawed, but at least it avoids that.

Right now, I hate Egypt because it puts contradictory pressures on the girls involved; to my mind, they are quite just in letting the man lie where he is, and yet at the same time, quite just in letting him go. But both situations perpetuate two very different evils; by letting him go, it means going soft on crime — by not letting him go, you potentially ruin a man’s life.

The girls have four days to think it over.

I seriously welcome opinions on this subject.

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A few days ago, Sarah and I had to take Katie (Brits downstairs, check out Sarah’s blog here) to the hospital for serious stomach pains that didn’t quite fit the profile of ordinary “entry” digestive diseases, nor food poisoning. We checked her in to the university hospital (which was the same hospital that Andrea checked into two years ago after her accident), where hours later, they determined she had appendicitis. Seeing as Katie has no Arabic, it came as a complete surprise to her when, hours later (when Tom and I were visiting), that we told her that we had to leave because she needed to be prepped for her operation.

“Yeah. Wait, you didn’t hear about this before?”

We left and came back later– Katie looks good and is really trooping it out. I will never forget the arabic word for appendix now — za’ida (الزائدة), (incidentally, a linguistically amusing word, as it comes from the root for “excess,” or “extra”).

In the midst of all this, there was Sa’id. Initially a very helpful orderly on the floor Katie checked into, he turned out to be an exemplar of my previous post on harassment. After Sarah had left the hospital, she later how he  told me he wanted to take a few pictures of her and then tried to kiss her hand– which she brushed off as being the usual creepiness. However, when she returned the next day, Katie brought up how she had caught him taking pictures of her with his phone (post-op), and trying to kiss her. They promptly informed the head nurse, who brought in the head of the hospital and a few others, and proceeded the beat the daylights out of Sa’id in front of her. They later brought him back with a number of police officers (and a translator) who beat him up a second time while they took down her statement.

This is not what was expected– naturally, Katie said she cried and told them to stop, but the translator’s response was, “People like him are not human.”

My sympathies are with Katie, and Tom seems to believe unquestioningly that such actions were warranted (Read Tom’s thoughts and colorful narrative here). In the final analysis, I think so too, but there is something in me that is made uncomfortable by beating a man into a pulp in retribution. I myself have wanted to kick the tar out of shabaab when they’ve belittled women. So why the discomfort?

What is the “appropriate” punishment for something like this? When we (I, expats, foreigners) get enraged by sexual or any kind of harassment, how would we turn the tables?  We want to be left alone. We want nothing to have happened in the first place; we wish for the status quo of living and letting others live — the real moral atrocity in harassment I think is that it removes that, it takes away someone’s dignity and makes them into something inhuman and provokes them into an animal-like state of defense. We snap, we are provoked to violence — to swearing, and the desire for vengeance. It’s horrifically ironic that, by response, the victim becomes the reality of what the criminal would have her be.

Rather, we want a moral victory — in which the perpetrator is shamed into  betterment, if just on the level of not bothering anyone — not retribution, blood payment for the single act that has been done to us. Deep down inside, I think we want to change the things in the society that make it acceptable for something like that to be birthed into the world. No one who has ever been harassed has simply stated that they want it to stop to just them. We want the man to be held up in front of the masses, act and identities revealed, and some great Voice to say: “This is dishonorable and such acts are disgraceful, and you must take responsibility for them, because they are of you and among you.”

And silently, each person in the crowd will turn their backs and walk away, shamed by the presence of something they allowed to grow in their midst.


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harassment It’s about time that I tackled one of the more difficult subjects that invariably every American writes about at some point: harassment. I hesitate to bring it up mainly because I’ve heard so many stories that, by this point, I would simply be laundry-listing incident after incident– each progressively (and regrettably) worse than the last. At the same time, though, I know that one has to discuss it, otherwise one risks becoming a part of (and a perpetuator of) the problem itself. My thanks in advance to Rumi for the informative Eid post, and apologies for shamelessly stealing his links.

For the last three nights, crowds of young Egyptians (shabaab) have roamed the streets, set free by their families after the evening meal to roam. And by roam, I mean overwhelmed and flooded; the streets were completely clogged with young men, teens, and tweenish boys, linked arm-in-arm (a custom of friendship here, not of homosexuality), blasting a million different songs from a million different speakerphones, hollering at each other. Scrawny kids in tight, glittery shirts in pink and purple–complete with rhinestones and senseless tiny hoods– blue jeans with a dozen zippers, acid washes, and huge, AirJordan style patent leather sneakers. Hair cut against the scalp with hair gel poured into it for the “cool” look. And everywhere, clouds of bad imitation designer perfume hung in the air.

Of course, there’s no accounting for fashion. Mahmoud tells me that girls with cropped or boyish hair are not just unattractive– they’re downright ugly. The Western media puts forth an idea of beauty that seems to revolve around figure-skaters and ballerinas; lithe, willowy types that wear clothes on the runway well. Here, such women get told that they need to fatten up or they’ll never have sons — or any children — and I think are held in something like contempt. And getting back to fashion — none of my Egyptian friends understand the recent trends of “boho chic” or grunge fashions; to them, girls get made up (almost clownishly sometimes) when they go out.

Imagine, if you will, armies of these boys wandering the streets. Literally, phalanxes of them, all astride. And as they pass you, they scream out any number of things:

– Hi! What’syourname. (It’s all strung together purposely; imagine it said really quickly with no question inflection)
– Welcome in Egypt? Hello!
– Hi! Howreyou? Howreyou?
– Fook you. Fook you! (Personal favorite)
– You…so stubid. So stubid. (Kid last night on the tram. I grabbed his ear and he ran away)

And once they’ve braved you — they’ve done the ritual tap to the foreigner — they turn back to their friends as if they’d recited the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from beginning to end, and congratulate themselves as if you didn’t exist.

The worst are the hisses.

Imagine a cat hissing. That’s the sound you make to say “Hey! Dude!” but mainly it gets used on the Corniche by idling shabaab to catcall girls; “You so beautiful, ” or “Muzza! Muzza!” (kind of like “babe”).

What continuously shocks me is that older women (who are present) do not intervene. In a culture that has such concerns for female honor, the idea of approaching a Western woman and propositioning her — of pulling out your penis and masturbating in public, of physically assaulting her or pressing against her — begs a number of contradictions that I cannot begin to get into: it makes me so angry. These incidents seem to have just gotten worse over the years, as well. In particular, I’m puzzled by an odd cultural double standard; there seems to be an acceptance of Western sexual mores when it’s convenient (i.e., when an Egyptian teenager is horny) but a rejection when someone else seizes advantage of them (i.e., an American has an American girl spend the night). Protect women, veil them — but only in certain circumstances.

At the risk of conflating religion and society, I’d like to bring up something that Michael Muhammad Knight mentioned in The Taqwacores (read it): if men are so weak as to warrant women praying behind them or secluded away on balconies (in mosques), why aren’t the men the ones that are sequestered off? Why seal the women off from the world if the men themselves are the problem?

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Yumna lives in the district of Miami– a distant point on the map beyond the last stop on the little tin tram– where it seems a great many of my friends live. Getting out there is a maze of tram and minibus trips, and rather than tackle that gargantuan task, Fadhila and the crew (Tom, Mubarak, and yours truly) hopped a cab and let Yumna do the talking to the driver via telephone.

Hadia’s cooking for our seafood-themed iftar was on par with Hana’s: but I confess the company was much less intimidating (read: one family, not ten), and that might have made the evening far more enjoyable. Table conversation was a mixture of Arabic and English; initially, we all were chatting away in Arabic until someone remembered that Mubarak (who is Bengali-British) is in his third year of fusha. Occasional switches to English, occasional translations.

Now is perhaps an appropriate time to reflect on ordinary Egyptian hospitality– which is perhaps my favorite part of the culture. It would be pure fancy to attribute it to that overarching myth of the three-day Bedouin, or the sha’abi Southerner who serves the guests extravagantly despite his poverty. Rather, the modern Egyptian is a city-dweller, or at least aspires to be– he is interested in fashion, culture, music, and society– and he aspires to be in an atmosphere that makes his guests– his friends, I should say– comfortable. If you skip a step in the complicated dance of hospitality, it’s okay; the rules are just guidelines anyhow. Didn’t bring anything? No problem– your presence is enough. Forgot to take off your shoes? Stop it, I just want you to be comfortable. He serves the best cuts of meat, the best dishes to you first, he insists on a second serving because you liked the first, on a third course, a cup of tea, something sweet– even his own bed if you care for a nap after all that food. He insists on using your own language to make you comfortable, and he discusses you: your identity, your goals, your family, your religion.

Why? A guest essentially is the greatest gift, I think. Mind you, these are my own personal reflections; I don’t claim to have interviewed anyone on the subject, but my general impression is that  guest provides something to the host that no one else provides: he makes him feel kingly. A man lives in his house and someone from outside the household enters– he has been invited, he has accepted– the host instantly understands that this, in a small way, is a kind of deference. The guest is present: he must be provided for; his sustenance is in the hands of the host. Much as with gift culture– in which a man gives a gift to a girl to display a kind of possession of her– the acceptance of an invitation is a guest’s deference to the acting host: it relinquishes control of food, of the environment. The guest may be welcome, he may be poisoned– in truth, he does not know. All he knows is that he has ventured into the unknown; he has no control of what is to come.

The host, then, acknowledges this great subconscious submission through preparing the comfort of the guest– and providing for his pleasure. Naturally, when we are honored, we wish to be honored again– and I’m sure that there’s something of the “preparation” mentality involved in all this; that is, ensuring that your guest’s hospitality will equal your own when the time comes for the roles to switch. But the role of the host here is principally to serve the guest; it’s quite likely that you won’t see the women of the house making the meal (and they may not eat with you)– the important thing is to see to the guest. And he never, never, never does the dishes. There is no “payment”; no formal acknowledgement with a thank-you note– simply, the meal, the tea, the company.

What is interesting is that our own guest culture (at least formally) has been watered down by comparison: guests are taxing– they intrude on the personal space (the home) and must be ushered out at a decent hour. The showcase is almost invariably the host: apartments are furnished for entertainment, the host is the one that is honored, rather than the guest (hence the gifts, the cards, the thank-you notes, the whole shebang). Guests talk about objects around the house, pictures, the interesting decor; in Egypt, if you comment on an interesting trinket, the host will most likely give it to you (and really insist).

Perhaps I may seem a little enamored by the idea– but perhaps Abdl Halim and his family are just that fantastic at making you comfortable at home. But it seems to be a trend.

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Uncle Abdou lives about forty-five miles to the southwest of Alexandria in the town of King Maryot, on a villa built on land that the Egyptian army is constantly trying to steal in various corrupt and prevaricating ways. Yet he remains: he and his lovely Egyptian wife are both converts to Islam (he from Catholicism, being from Sevilla–his birthname is Javier–and her from Coptic Orthodoxy Christianity), and they’ve built up an oasis in the desert with their children, Noha, Salma, Yassin, and Ali, in a little half-constructed area just shy of all the industrial complexes south of Alex– and as far as I can tell, the only occupied house in the area.

Last night, Tom and I met up with Fadhila and Yumna and made our way down to Abdou’s for an epic iftar which just about killed us outright. Egyptian food is notorious throughout the Middle East for being relatively boring by comparison– the Lebanese are supposed to be the culinary masters– but this is only because, according to guidebooks, tourists never enjoy food in Egyptians’ homes. The best food is in someone’s house, where dishes abound: frankly, I had no idea what I was eating, but it was incredible– especially what Tom later referred to as “salty pancakes” stuffed with ground beef. Fantastic. I even was brave this time and went in for the mulukhiyya, which for me will forever be associated with Umm Markous’ recipe– which was for a horrible, smelly disaster that I was forced to eat. Mulukhiyya is something of an Egyptian national dish: it is a thick, slimy soup composed mainly of diced Jew’s mallow (a green, leafy vegetable related to mint), served over rice or chicken or drunk as a soup, and its consistency puts most foreigners off– myself included. Hana’s looks so good, though: most varieties look…well, dirty. Hers was a bright green color and delicious– I even had seconds.

Deep-fried dumplings and chunks of bitter-seasoned potatoes, a thick sweet almond paste with peanuts and huge chunks of meat stewed in onions and garlic….And then came dessert: the Omm Ali. A hot mixture of diced puff pastry cooked with milk and almonds and raisins…I was singing Hana’s praises all night and wondering exactly why I stayed away so long. Needless to say, by the time tea arrived, all the men were unbuckling our belts.

Yumna’s marriage is in a few weeks (just after eid) and he kept busting out the marriage jokes. Best one:

“What do Syrians call their wives?”
– I don’t know, Abdl Halim.
“The governors. What do Egyptians call their wives?”
– Same ignorance.
“The police. What do the Saudis?”
– No idea, but here comes the punchline…

His wife, who hasn’t been listening, now interjects “Oh my husband, what did you say?”

“Nothing, darling! Absolutely nothing.”

Didn’t get back until 2: having iftar with Yumna’s parents tonight at a fish place in Miami (not Florida).

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