Posts Tagged ‘shabaab’

Last night, Ahmed and I arrived late at Gareen Balaza (Green Plaza) to see Avatar. It was Friday night, and the place was absolutely packed. I mean, whoa. Crazy, crazy people. The front doors of the movie theater looked like a drain clogged with coffee grounds. Avatar, incidentally, has been here for weeks, and apparently the time hasn’t done anything to calm anyone down about it.

Needless to say, we didn’t get seats (Egyptian films have “reservations” bought at the front of the cinema, to which an usher escorts you once inside the theater), but decided to stick around for the 10 PM showing (the Green Plaza Mall is wicked deep in Smouha and a pain in the ass to get out to). We walked around, headed over the bridge across the Mahmoudiyya Canal, and found an ahwa at the foot of some rather ominous looking Soviet-esque buildings that reminded me too much of ‘umarat al-zabaat.

We talked for hours. I mean, hours. It was pretty awesome, and though the whole thing was a painful reminder of how my Arabic needs to stretch a little bit more while I’m here. I’ve been so caught up in the “teaching English” mentality that I’ve pretty much forgotten to use my Arabic sometimes.

Thank God for Ahmed, then.

And whoa, the things you talk about: the main topic on the table was cultural difference — which is always fun — but we touched on sex, drugs, alcohol, homosexuality, losing one’s virginity, first kisses, the word “slut,” the and the philosophy of live and let live. Refreshing, to be quite frank. I really want to write it all down, but I was just so

We met Kareem (one of Ahmed’s friends) for the movie and got in the theater about five minutes after the start of the film. It was hilarious to look across the theater and see a packed cinema with every single person wearing white, cardboard glasses, but man oh man, what a film.

Much has already been said about Avatar, so I will confine my remarks to a few: the plot was shit. So was most of the dialogue. And that whole “video narrative” thing that the Marine does is a cheap excuse for a voiceover, which (thanks to Melissa) I’ve begun to detest as a cinematic device (that doesn’t sound pretentious). But I have never walked out of a film and looked around in confusion at the outside world. The movie is just an experience, and it really carries you away; I don’t really think I’m going to look at fantasy films in quite the same way, unless they do that. Not just the 3D thing; make me believe that the aliens are actually legitimately real. Crazy stuff.

We ended the evening on Port Said Street (how I love that little avenue!) in Camp Shezar, where we found this hole-in-the-wall that Ahmed knew sold fantastic sandwiches: these finger-thing sandwiches of shrimp and onions and sausages with a kind of spicy, creamy cheese I’ve never tried before. Holy mackeral, talk about hitting the spot.

Before I end, as the title promises, some literary follow-up, for which I redirect you to an article by The Daily Beast:

John Mayer’s Terrible Week, by Rob Tannenbaum.

In brief, JMay decided to toss out the N-word (something that, incidentally, I hear a lot here) during one of his interview with Playboy. His remarks throughout have provided Internet fodder for the past week, bloggers and New Media-types alike, though not without taking the remarks completely out of context. If you don’t mind a girlie-picture sidebar, you can read the interview transcription here, which I think is actually pretty fantastic, and you can decide for yourself.

What does this have to do with yesterday’s post?

Here is Tannenbaum’s relevant point:

Milan Kundera, who cherished novels as paradoxes of instability in a finite world, in 1988 cited “Rewriting as the spirit of the times.” Can we alter that now to “Retweeting as the spirit of the times”? The Internet has loosened the definition of writing, and now the online world is a limitless, unstable fiction. Per Kundera, tweets and blogs translate every link, adding ideology in the guise of summation. The reaction to Mayer contains many truths about race and celebrity, though nothing that fits in 140 characters. The Web is a series of filters, many of which narrow a story until it’s a negligible number of bytes.

For those of you with an acute sense of irony, you will note that I am doing precisely that by copy-and-pasting a section on my blog; the democratization of the written word — the availability of it to everyone, instantaneously — hands the Word over to people to be judged, changed, altered, and fitted to a different agenda at each turn. Imagine if Playboy were only still a magazine subscribed to by older, white men — one kept hidden under mattresses in college and in the back shelves of college; would this have done just as much damage to Mayer as it’s done in this week? Or would it simply have taken longer?


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Some updates are in order.

A while back, I started to complain that my job at IBA wasn’t exactly paying enough; in fact, it was paying the miserly (and miserable) rate of 12 LE an hour for “lectures” — not counting out-of-class preparation time. On a good week, this amounted to about 250; totalling in about $200 a month. Needless to say, I needed a change. IBA’s been a good workshop for finding my feet in a classroom, but it’s not anything to live off of. One needs to eat, and if possible, eat well.

Heba’s contacts finally came through, and I’ve started a job with the Egyptian American Cultural Center in Rushdie; a cushy, air-conditioned joint with a garden and library of preparation materials. This past week’s been the probationary period, and I’ve been observing classes and taking it easy until 2 November, when my first classes start. They’ve got me booked for seven and a half hours a day, six days a week, at a wonderful rate that will leave me unworried for the rest of my days. This also says nothing of just being a few stops down the tramline, instead of all over God’s green creation: I won’t be booking it in a cab from Kafr Abdou to Stanley to Sidi Bishr to Azarita anymore. One place, set times. Hallelujah.

Quitting was not a fun affair, though; despite my efforts, my social graces in this linguistic area are still lacking. I end up saying, “I’m sorry, please excuse me, but I’ve got a better opportunity,” multiple times, trying to explain the benefits, but probably just coming across as a jerk in Arabic that’s greedy for more money. One of the bigger stigmas is attached to someone that is bakhiil (a word usually said with the thumb flicked from behind the front teeth, to signify that getting money from them is like pulling teeth). A person that is overly concerned with money is clearly not kariim, or generous, and I’ve found that it applies to many a situation that we would find simply as being careful.

One of the classes I’ve observed was an all-male group; most of my classes have only had a sprinkling of men in them, and they’ve always been the most disorderly of the group — they are always talking, it seems. But here, no. There was a kind of orderly chaos, and as soon as Ahmed (the teacher) said anything, there was instant silence. I sat next to a twenty-year student at the law college (his father is a judge in Kuwait, apparently), who had written a paper on Mein Kampf (extremely well-written, if the subject leaves something to be desired) and spoke nearly fluent English. He needed some correction with his grammar, but he seemed not have no trouble getting his words out, and the subject he chose to give a final presentation on was an ambitious one: love.

Mahmud seemed to be the alpha of the group; he commanded the room’s attention, and the other boys were silent when he spoke. He was very matter-of-fact presentational; he formally introduced himself (though doubtless everyone but I knew him) and addressed his subject one issue at a time, taking a moment to write it down on the white board at the front of the class. He first defined love: “a magnificent emotion that never ends, it fills you with light and happiness.”

It struck me at this point I was watching something rather unique: I’ve had a number of conversations with American women about the bizarre ideas that some Egyptian men have when it comes to dating women. I’ve speculated about Egyptian manliness, I’ve criticized. I’ve listened to men objectify their wives, sisters, and daughters, and I’ve heard the reverse — where women are almost meant to be feared (think of the terrifying matriarch). Yet here was a young man from the shabaab codifying the male side of relationships. Good golly.

He went on to explain how men should call their “lovers” all the time (he insisted on using that word, which I think is product of mistranslation), let them know how they feel, send flowers, hold hands, watch movies together, and, remarkably, feel jealous. Jealousy, he noted, was a way of expressing love — all kinds of possession were a way of showing the beloved how much you wanted her. This, combined with his advice on how to “enforce” your relationship (I think he meant reinforce), raised my eyebrows somewhat.

There were points when the other boys objected. Mahmud had the audacity to suggest that hugs were a good way of showing love. There was an uproar: “Not in this country!” one boy shouted. Instant objections were raised: what was he saying? How was this advice? You couldn’t hug a girl you weren’t married to in Egypt! He conceded and went on to advice on breakups, which made me snicker: “Cry as much as you can. Feel the pain.” More objections: How does crying solve anything? It won’t bring her back!

These objections and concessions led me to eventually think that this was a somewhat representative projection of male values. The rest of the class did object to the things they though didn’t quite pass muster. But as a student of medieval literature, the values expressed in the classroom a few days ago echoed to me of the melancholy lover of Petrarch’s era: with letters and lovesongs replacing sonnets and distant glances. I wonder if this is a result of a religious society? Perhaps not.

I know it’s Orientalist of me to say so, but some days I really do feel like I’ve stepped back into the 1950s at least. I’m not saying it’s backward, just that it echoes of something familiar and past.

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The sanctity of the tomb is emphasized by the masses coming and going.

The sanctity of the tomb is emphasized by the masses coming and going.

Today is 6 October: the armed forces holiday that commemorates the October War of 1973 — also known as the Yom Kippur War, when the Egyptian Army and its allies invaded Israeli-controlled Sinai territory and the Golan Heights on that high holy day of Judaism, only to be pushed back to within a 101 km of Cairo by the Israeli army. Glorious victory for the Egyptians.


That’s what the Egyptians will say. One of the first sights I saw in Alexandria was the gundi al-maghul, the rather exhibitionist Tomb of the Unknown Soldier placed at the head of Manshaya Square — Markous managed to explain that he was a “fallen soldier in the victorious war against Israeli in 1973.” The tomb is a converted fountain that stands next to the courthouse, and shabaab loiter, while minibuses come and go.

Look! Untruth!

Look! Untruth!

Aside from today’s official holiday, one of my favorite propaganda pieces is in Medinat Nasr, The October War Panorama. A full-fledged (enormous) ride, complete with a 10 LE entrance fee. Enormous, really; you get on an EPCOT style ride that takes you through scene after scene of Egyptian soldiers bravely advancing on the hideous Israelis, Pyramids in the background. Apparently (according to Rough Guides), the complex was suggested by none other than North Korean role model Kim Il Sung in 1983 to Hosni Mubarak, bless his dictatorial soul.

Memorials of the October War abound, and I point them out as a bit of a curiosity; I’ve tried talking to people about the war and they insist (insist!) that I’m wrong. One person said I had been misled by the Jewish conspiracy in America. Another said I was a Jew (insult?). Most have just shaken their heads, as if I were really just an ignorant person unaware of the real truth behind what I had learned in my American school.

This should remind us: history books are not just written by the victors; they are written by both sides. And I wonder: what have we written in to ours?

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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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