In the states, when I have seen men get into a fight, A - It happens rarely, and B - It ends badly because alcohol is involved.
But I just watched a fight between Egyptian men, which was, as typical, A - Not alcohol induced, and B - Ends in peace.
Like Shakespeare’s chorus, I have just told you the beginning and end. Here is what happened. I heard shouting on my street. I went to my balcony to see that I was not a lone voyeur. Five other women were on their balconies watching the fray.
Two tree trimmers were down below, hacking away with machetes in the treetops. The boab*, from the building across the street, shouted and pointed at the litter of leaves on the sidewalk. One trimmer came down from the tree and continued shouting face to face with the boab. The boab shoved the trimmer. The trimmer wrestled the boab to the ground in a counter shove, his turban flying off. Men, who were watching from the street, pulled the two apart.
The two men continued shouting as their comrades held them to opposite sides of the street. After a few more words and gestures, one trimmer began to pick up the leaves and put them in a bag.
A twelve-year-old boy, Youssef, the neighboring boab’s boy, went over with a broom and began to sweep. In view of this generous act, the boab’s wife grabbed a broom and began to sweep. The trimmer, not to be outdone by a child and a woman, took the broom from the woman and began to sweep. Then all the grown men began to work together to clean up the mess.
The boab, his turban replaced and his pride intact, went to give directions to the trimmers and help with the sweeping. When the sidewalk was tidy, the trimmers climbed into the next tree, and the onlookers, myself included, found their way back to their own business.
This is a typical Egyptian fight—a lot of racket that leads to nothing. Alhumidillah*.
Boab: The boab is a man who is caretaker of an apartment building. He typically lives in the basement or under the stairs of the building. He usually cleans, parks cars, carries packages, runs errands, and otherwise waits hand and foot on the people who live in the building.
I’ve never been one to complain, very much. I have not even told friends and family the things that are not so good here.
Since they asked, I made a list.
1. I do not like stepping over the occasional dead cat on the way to the bus stop.
2. People throw their garbage in the streets – more cats.
3. Cats and dogs live wild in the neighborhoods.
4. Wild dogs live in the park, so children play in the street.
5. The streets have no crosswalks.
6. Traffic has no rules.
7. Pedestrians walk into oncoming traffic in order to cross;
8. That’s me, once a day – eight lanes.
9. The drivers do not drive in lanes.
10. On my way to school to teach rich children, I see poor children already at work.
Since we have been on break I have gone to Israel and Palestine, the Pyramids, the movies, etc. I even take myself out to dinner. I am so glad I went to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve because it is almost as though Christmas didn't come here.
There is a very small, around 10%, Christian population in Egypt, and they are called Coptic. Their Christmas is on January 7. I don't know what they do exactly. They worship in an ancient language unique to their religion, and I would not feel at home with them much.
Since I do not have TV, I do not get the American commercials and programs that we are used to seeing that tell us how many days we have left to shop. There are two Christmas trees in my building that people have placed outside their doors--still up, but I don't know the people. They are most likely Coptic, since I am the only non-Egyptian. Maybe I should knock just to say Merry Christmas to someone.
I do know that Christmas is in the heart, blah, blah, and I could have "made" it Christmas in my own apartment, or with the few people that I have made friends, but I didn't stay here anyway. And, it is hard to top being in the Dead Sea on Winter Solstice and in Bethlehem on Christmas eve.
We had originally been told that we would attend a midnight Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity. That is the shrine that is built over the probably fake spot where Jesus was supposedly born. But still, I was excited about that experience. However, the tour guide broke the news to us that ten thousand people apply early in the year for tickets, because the church can only hold about one thousand, we did not get tickets.
Instead we would be going to outdoor mass in Shepherd's Field, where supposedly, and more likely, shepherds really did watch their flocks one silent night. When we get there, the field is packed with people and nothing seems to be organized into a service or a celebration at all, and people are mostly just milling about.
The guide tells us that there are caves all around the field where individual services are being held, but those turn out to be all taken. We can just hang together and one of the teachers will read the story from the Bible and we can sing some carols. (I noticed that he was flipping thru pages trying to find the story, so I had no real interest in him as a spiritual leader! Even I know where its at!)
I was hanging out with a Catholic woman from Paraguay, and she was very disappointed not to be having mass, so she ran ahead to one of the caves and found a priest about to start a service. She told him our situation, and he said his cave was filled with a scheduled tour group, but we could stand in the rear. She came back and got myself and two other Catholic teachers. We left our group and went to the cave. Sure enough there was room for us in the back. (We enjoyed the irony of this story as it reminded us of some other folks who could not find room on Christmas eve.)
The caves are real, but have man-made additions to make them more comfortable, like lights and seats--however you do really get the sensation of being in a cave on a shepherds' hillside. We started with Christmas carols, the Apostles' Creed, the Lords Prayer, and then the priest gave the most wonderful sermon. He said that god sent his son so that love would be tangible, touchable, (in the way that we were here as tourists trying to get spiritual benefits from walking where Jesus walked and touching places that he had touched) more real to people, in other words. And now it is our calling to continue to make that love tangible to others in the world as we touch their lives. He made a little joke here, he said, "As you tourists touch the place where Jesus was born, or one of the six places where he was buried!" This is funny because there is more than one shrine for just about every place he could have possibly been! Every tour guide tells you why the place they are showing you is the most likely "real" place.
Anyway, I am so glad for Carmen who had the idea and the courage to run ahead and find us a place in the cave. It is also very exciting to look around in the cave and realize I am worshiping with Japanese people, Irish people, British people, and North and South Americans. I truly feel that I can worship with people of any religion, anytime, as long as we are all sincerely in awe of our circumstances in this universe.
The other two places that I most enjoyed on a spiritual level were the Sea of Galilee and the Mount of Olives. Both because they are outdoors and relatively unspoiled. You can look at the shore of the sea and at the skyline of old Jerusalem and at least realize that this is the sea and the sky that Jesus and his followers saw.
On the sea we took a boat ride in a replica of a fishing boat and the captain showed us how the nets of the day were used. He cast the net over the left side and it came up empty, then he cast it over the right side and it came up empty, He said "Hey, you all weren't praying the second time!"
Then we went to a museum and saw a real 2,000 year old fishing boat that has been recovered from the Galilee sea bottom. It has been dubbed "The Jesus Boat" because of its time in history. It took over a year to carefully pull the boat out without doing it any further damage-quite fascinating. Besides those places, I enjoyed everything else for its historical value.
The huge churches that are built over top of everything are interesting in themselves because they are hundreds of years old. Some things have been recovered that were built by King Herod. He was determined to show his wealth and power through his palaces and fortresses, so pieces of them can be seen today. In one palace there remains a few pieces of brilliant paint that he had on the walls of his heated bath and sauna.
We viewed many archaeological digs of this time in history, mosaic tiles were popular and sometimes complete pictures remain in place. One of his palaces has an important history that I did not know about. On a mountain top, the whole mountain top, he built a home and a fortress on the coast of the Dead Sea. He had 12 storerooms of food and wine, a staff of hundreds of people, and water cistern that held a years supply of water for them all. It is called Masada. But the most important part of this history did not come until years later.
A group of Jewish zealot-types became disgusted with the liberal synagogues in Jerusalem and fled to the old palace and turned it into a place of refuge and worship for themselves. They lived there for several years quite well. But the Romans were determined to get it back and attacked them. After several days of resistance, they realized that the Romans were going to win. So the Jewish men each agreed to kill their own wives and children, then to kill one another, then cast lots to see who would be last and would fall upon his own sword. They left writing that said, we would rather contradict our own scriptural teaching and die as free men than to be taken in slavery by the Romans. And they carried out their plan, so that when the Roman soldiers overtook the mountain top all they found were the bodies.
Hollywood made a movie of this called "Masada" I plan to see it when I can. The only place we went to in Jordan was a small island that has a memorial for a tragic event that happened there and celebrates the peace between Israel and Jordan. I was absolutely delighted in the Dead Sea. I stayed in it until our time was up. It was the first thing on our itinerary, after an 8 hour bus ride, so I wore my bathing suit under my clothes. I did not want to waste a minute. We fortunately had very pretty weather for this too. (In Jerusalem and further north it was so cold I bought hat scarf and gloves! quite a contrast)
The sea and the mud are delightful. It tastes nasty, worse than just salt water, so I didn't swallow it - just tasted! You float so easy that it is hard to put your feet back down when you want to get out. It makes your skin feel good so I filled up an empty bottle and brought some home. I also bought some mud at the store. I will go back here on my own and will go to the Jordan side. Getting to Israel and back is a big visa/passport hassle I will explain some other time. Chalk it up to (very)bad political relations.
Some of the meals were provided as part of the trip. Every morning we had breakfast buffet at the hotel with typical middle eastern food just like we eat here. The one difference was the fish, chilled, choice of salted or pickled. I like it. However, I dream of Bob Evans. A typical breakfast has several kinds of cheese, bread, olives, fish, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers. The only things warm are scrambled eggs, and brown beans, creamed into a paste. That is basically the same thing I eat at home every morning, except for the fish.
The best meal I had was on the Sea of Galilee, a restaurant served "St. Peter's Fish" It was a wonderful whole fish, fresh from the sea. One of the teachers asked why the name "St Peters?" So someone told her the story of five loaves and fishes. And I added, It also works for tourists, helps sell fish dinners. She picked up the bread basket and said "Oh I get it, and this is the actual basket that the loaves were in!" So then when dessert came, someone said "and this is Adam and Eve's Apple Pie! It does get comical how commercialized the place can be.
The walk that we took through Jerusalem that was supposedly, and probably not, the way that Jesus walked with the cross was completely lost on me because all the way you have to go through a tight crowded market with people calling to you "Special deal for you my friend" (I felt like saying, "Not really, I can buy that same special crap in Cairo for half your special price, my friend!) However, between two of the "stations of the cross" we stopped and had the best pizza I have ever had in my life.
It just got dark within the last hour, and I have been sitting on my balcony visually eavesdropping on some folks, because I am enjoying what I see. The poorest families from my neighborhood are gathered on a huge rug on the sidewalk sharing a meal. I recognize them--the little boy and old man who collect empty bottles and live in the lean-to in the alley across from my building, my own doorman and his family, the man who cleans cars for the dealership on the corner, and the woman who sells newspapers in the early morning.
The food was prepared, or possibly catered, by those who can afford to be generous. It is being carried out of the dealership, so I think maybe the owners are the providers for this meal. The occasion is Ramadan.
All month long, Muslim believers fast through the daylight hours, so the meal at sundown, called Iftar, is enjoyed with gusto. Egyptian people, who I have already found to be generous, are even more giving during this month. The greeting for Ramadan, "Ramadan Kareem" means, “May Allah make your Ramadan observance a generous occasion."
In the true spirit of the fasting, one is supposed to think of the poor, as well as performing a rite that ensures favor with Allah. All over town I see temporary tents made of wooden frames and covered with colorful fabric and rugs. Inside are tables and folding chairs. The purpose of these “temporary kitchens” is the same as the rug-table set up on my sidewalk. Anyone can walk in during Iftar and eat. Restaurants provide free food, also women form cooking brigades and help to provide. Of course, anyone so moved by the spirit can pitch in to provide food.
At the beginning and end of the month of Ramadan, people give gifts of cash and food to their doorman, cleaning lady, drivers and others who serve throughout the year.
Brightly colored lights hang from the high tops of mosques and in store windows, reminding westerners of Christmas lights. A bright, red-print fabric is often draped in windows. Huge lanterns with stained glass panels sit in windows of offices and homes. Bakeries make special sweets, dripping with sugar or honey and coconut, nuts, or chocolate. Some of these fabulous confections you will only see during Ramadan.
I shopped for nuts and dried fruits to give to the people in my life, along with a little money over the usual cost of their services. They seemed surprised by my participation, since they have only known me for thirty days. It helped that my co-teacher has lived here a year already and gave me a heads-up on what to do! I received warm handshakes and thank you's from the men and double-cheek kisses from the women. This part of Ramadan is good.
The downside--the business day is shorter, making it difficult to do banking and shopping after work. Traffic is thicker, late-afternoon fasters are getting irritable, especially the smokers, and I go all day without snacking or even drinking water in my classroom, because most students are fasting. Also, families get together for large feasts and fellowship during the late night hours, so my students are sleepy and hungry and whiney by afternoon--small inconveniences for such an important time.
One day I did learn a lesson. I decided to spend an afternoon shopping with a friend who is Muslim. We had the bright idea to purposely get off at the wrong metro stop to see the community, thinking it could only be a short distance from our own neighborhood, since it was only one stop beyond our usual.
When we got off the train, it was a though we had stepped back in time. The streets were dusty and alive with fruit sellers, trades of all kinds, meats, breads, all on the sidewalk--and not a tourist in sight--I loved it.
We bought bread the moment it was ladled out of the underground oven. We shooed flies away and bought huge grapes. Later, I realized it was well over 90 degrees, lunch had been a long time ago, and I was ready to be home.
My friend agreed, so we stopped a taxi and headed into the worst, gridlock traffic jam I have ever seen, including New York City. Several taxi drivers were face to face, arguing in the street and refusing to move the few inches that would have released the lock. I reached for my window crank; it was missing.
I looked through the window and saw a lemonade stand, right there on the corner. A huge ice-filled lemonade jug stood on a rickety table. The tap dripped with the refreshing liquid. I could have touched it had I been able to roll down my window.
I remembered that I had a bottle of water in my purse, a necessity that one always carries in this desert. But, I was with someone who was fasting, and my conscious bothered me. I decided not to take it out in front her, or the taxi driver.
Then my friend noticed the juice stand. She said, "Boy, a nice, cold glass of lemonade sure would taste good right now." I drank the sweat that was pouring from my upper lip and silently vowed not to spend another afternoon with her until after October 14th. Ramadan Kareem.
This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been; the hottest place I’ve ever been; the craziest place I’ve ever been; and any other superlatives you can think of. I have just had beer delivered to my door one day and a piano delivered the next. Yet, I cannot get change for a 5 dollar-pound bill. For the crazy part, I go to a legitimate store to buy a phone card, or fruit or anything, and the cashier always asks if I have correct change. Well of course I don’t. I can’t get any--anywhere. For a one hundred Egyptian Pound (LE) phone card for example, the guy says 122 LE (yep, sounds like fuzzy math from the people who invented algebra) so I give him my best change--125 LE. He walks out of the store, leaving it untended except for me, goes down the street, and eventually comes back with 3 LE, less than $1.00! I have been in the neighborhood market where my change would be 10 LE, and the cashier starts digging through his own wallet.* And another thing, there really is no reliable mail system, but there is a Postal Museum on the tourist route. Another teacher told me, “That explains it, that’s where our mail is!” My street address in Cairo would mean absolutely nothing if you wrote it on an envelope. The thing is, Egyptian people are the most honest people I have ever seen in a big city. The Customs officials, however, know where the mail goes. No one orders anything from eBay, or any such luxury, because it is an accepted fact that customs agents will “inspect” every package. Local people justify this shortcoming by saying, “Oh well, you can get anything you want in Cairo.” The truth is, you can get a lot of wonderful things, and you get nice substitutes for things that you need, but I am looking for a CD of a feminist, bluegrass band from Kentucky. . . I’ve got correct change. As substitutes go, I have found what I need. Alka-Seltzer, my drug of choice for 'mummy tummy', as the locals call the queasiness that newcomers experience, is called Rani. It is bright orange, tastes like orange Kool-Aid mixed with children's aspirin, and it fizzes right up out of the glass. After the initial shock, it does the job. Egyptian beer is very good. Wine is so-so, and smokers are in Paradise. There really is no such thing as a non-smoking section. People basically ignore the occasional “no smoking” sign, even in the way-upscale shopping mall. In fancy restaurants, waiters sometimes ask “smoking or non", but the best seats are reserved those who puff. The delightful molasses tobaccos are enough to put me over to the other side. I had the sweetest apple shisha, and now I know why the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland looked so content. It is not like the nervous habit of smoking cigarettes--it is very relaxing. Also, you don’t actually inhale. A $1.00 pipe will last through a soccer match or a lingering pot of tea with friends. Men shoo women away from the street shisha vendors, it is their territory, but many coffee shops and restaurants cater to women, with a constantly tended water pipe and free wi-fi connection. The phone system I can barely talk about without blowing a circuit. This has been the only serious source of frustration since moving to Egypt. I am homesick. I miss my family. I am worried about my favorite auntie. I miss my friends. I miss my dog. And I can't make a #$%^& phone call. Land lines, as they call the useless hole in the wall, work like an old switchboard with Lily Tomlin at the controls. I received so many wrong-number calls at such odd hours that I unplugged it. When I do plug it in to use it, it is local only--the landlord "owns" your phone, and he decides whether or not you have long distance. Then, during a call, everything you say echoes back to you, an annoyance the other party hears as well. Most of what happens in my day to day life in Cairo is exciting, puzzling, and sometimes funny. Despite my frustration with utilities, I do enjoy being here. I love my job. The school where I teach English, though American International in name and style, is fully Egyptian in reality. The employees operate on a hierarchy of who does what, and you do not cross those class-issue lines. I cannot, for example, walk up to the copy machine in the office and make a copy. I have to give it to the "blue lady" (the Egyptian women on staff wear sky-blue hospital-type scrubs and blue matching headscarves.) She will ask me in Arabic what I want done with this piece of paper. If she is not the right blue lady, she will take to another one, who asks me what I want done. I make some hand motions for photocopy and hold up a finger for 'one.' She will disappear into the back of the office and return with a copy. This never takes less than 15 minutes. One day I gave my teaching assistant money and asked her to go get us both a bottle of water. (She is an extremely wealthy Egyptian college dropout) She told me that she does not go get water, but she will tell a blue lady to go get it. My students are mostly affluent Egyptian children. They can all speak Arabic and English, and many converse in French equally well. Most have traveled on several continents, and lack for nothing material. Some of them, yes kids, have their own driver. I fussed at one of my ninth graders for not doing his essay. He insisted that it was finished but he had left it at home. I told him that every ninth grader I have ever taught said the same thing when they did not do their work. He said, with my permission to use his mobile phone, he would call his driver to bring it in. I wanted to call his bluff and say 'go ahead,' but I hated the thought of some underpaid servant having to stop whatever he was doing and drive an hour out to our school. On the surface it appears that my students live the good life, and on the surface, they do. But I have been surprised to learn that many of my kids are desperately lonely. Some of their parents are jetsetters, for months on end, and they are raised by nannies and cooks. At school, they just devour our attention and seem to thrive on the smallest praise. I give them trinkets, freebies, that I brought from conferences in the states, and they treasure them, saying, "Thank you Miss." They call all of us "Miss." It is a cultural courtesy, plus our names are hard for them to pronounce. (Never mind that I have learned how to say Amr Abdul Rheheem Al Sheik--You can imagine how long it takes to call attendance!) Yesterday my sixth-grade science class sat around a table with me as we began the lesson. They are still very sweet little ones, not being exposed to much of the xxx media that our children have seen by 10 or 11 yrs old. (American movies and video games are here and up-to-date, but very censored) What they have experienced is awfulness of a different kind. For example, my dear little dimple-faced Mohamed told us that he would not be in class for the next few days because he had to go back to Lebanon to renew his passport. He said, "You should see, Miss. The bombs broke everything around us except my house." So Aala pipes up, "Yes Miss, the U.S. gave bombs to Israel and then Israel bombed everybody around them and stole the land." Mohamed added that one time his family was in the car in Lebanon, and a bomb fell so close that the car tipped up a bit. "The driver said a curse word, Miss," he exclaimed. Aazim chimed in, "I hate Jews." Which prompted them all to say the same. I let them talk until they calmed down, then I said, "I have something very important to tell you. I personally know Jewish people who have only love in their heart," I placed my hand over my heart for emphasis, "and I also know Christian people, and Muslim people and Buddhist people, who only have love in their heart, and they want to have peace. So remember, there are good people everywhere you go in the world, who really want to have peace." In this solemn moment I asked them, "So, what do you all think that we can do to help make peace in the world?" Aazim raised his hand, "Put all the Jew-devils in hell, Miss." So . . . how about that science lesson kids, . . . *I have since learned that people do not really expect exact change. They just pay what they have with a little over, but not less. Also, saying "keep the change" is a way of establishing a good relationship with your neighborhood markets. You may need it someday. And when you do, they will kindly oblige. Speaking of kindness, the other night I went to town to grocery shop. Getting into the taxi with several bags of groceries, I dropped my water bottle. Being graceful as I am, I stepped on the bottle and tripped until I landed on my knees behind the taxi, out in the street no less. When I turned to get up, at least four people were trying to help me up; the one who got my attention was an Egyptian woman in full galabeya, reaching out to me with one hand while cradling an infant in the other. Once in the taxi I began to cry, not because I was hurt, but because I am so blessed. The driver handed me a tissue. Looking at me in the rearview mirror, he said, "Welcome to Egypt."
To celebrate my midlife crisis, I decided to see more of the world. The only way to afford this luxury on a teacher's salary is to teach. So, here I am - teaching in an international school in the most delightful place I could imagine in the world, Cairo, Egypt.