September 27, 2008

Goodbye Egypt

When I said goodbye to Cairo it was early summer. The city’s outdoor produce markets were burgeoning with the deeply purple plums and prickly pear cactus fruits that appear at the start of the hot season, the nights were still cool enough for rambling conversations over shisha pipes in an outdoor cafĂ©, and the flame trees on my quiet residential street in the Mohandiseen neighborhood had recently erupted in bursts of crimson flowers.

Nearly three months have passed since I left Egypt. As the Gulf Air jet soared swiftly eastward on that July day—toward Mecca, toward the heart of Arabia, two hours further from home on the dial of a clock—I watched Egypt disappear below me, a coffee-colored wilderness of sand and mountains baked in the glow of the setting sun. At that point I’d lived in the Middle East for more than fifteen months, all told, and I was proud of the knowledge I’d acquired of the customs and traditions of this region. I was proud of the Arabic I spoke and the ease with which I had learned to argue with taxi drivers, haggle over prices with vendors, and walk the many invisible tightropes of being a foreign white woman in a conservative Muslim society. But as I turned my imagination toward what lay ahead, all of this and more—Cairo’s several thousand crumbling minarets, its frenetic traffic, its dusty alleyways perpetually abuzz with life—began to recede, already a thing of the past.

Now I live in the United Arab Emirates, that tiny, hypermodern, petrodollar sheikhdom where 80 percent of residents are foreign-born and the other 20 percent, only one generation removed from tent-dwelling Bedouins, race their Mercedes SUVs down the six-lane highways at 115 mph and act as if the worth of a human being can be measured by the size of his or her wallet. Life is cushy here, and I would be lying if I said it would be easy for me to trade in the little luxuries of life available to me in Abu Dhabi—a spacious, well-furnished apartment, a car to drive, real American drip coffee in the morning, Western clothing stores, the freedom to go where I please unmolested by stares and catcalls—to return to Cairo.

There are moments when I catch myself yearning for Egypt, and the way that every morning there I rose to greet the world with shoulders braced for a challenge, and every night I went to sleep pumped up by what I had accomplished. Here I have neither of those feelings, and without them my joie de vivre has dwindled somewhat, and with it, my motivation to maintain this blog. I can hardly expect my readers to be interested in my life when I can sometimes barely muster the will to be interested in it myself.

But perhaps I’ll try anyway, and that will be the real challenge.

June 15, 2008

East Delta Traveling

It wouldn't get light, and it still wouldn't...and then suddenly it did. First a flush of rose started at the lip of the sky where the teeth of the mountains bit sharply into it and crept slowly upward, like flames lapping inside the dark skull of the heavens. Then the acacia trees, tow-headed, twisted figures stooped in the lee of the mountains, bowed into focus one by one, flinging long shadows onto the shale. Creatures seemed to skitter among the tumble of boulders lining the road, and I wondered what sorts of animals lived out here--foxes? hyenas?--but in the trembling dawn light it was impossible to be sure. In all likelihood it was nothing more than my imagination that made me think I saw a flash of ears, a pair of beady eyes, a tail whisking behind a pedestal of broken rock.

And so our bus rocketed south down the highway, while the driver, a dimple-armed fatso crammed into a generic blue uniform too small for his generous body, smoked his thirtieth cigarette out the open window and drove carelessly, his free hand groping the clutch like it was some part of a woman. I met his eyes in the mirror and he smiled at me, a girl traveling alone in the Sinai in cutoff jeans and reddened by the sun, rims of salt crystalized around her toenails. He reached back to hand me a tea-stained leaf of a British tabloid discarded on the bus by a previous English-speaking traveler. Alf shokr, I told him, a thousand thanks. The lead story was about a man beaten to death for cutting in line at a supermarket in London. Shopper slain in tragic queue quarrel, read the headline.

I unearthed a half-eaten bag of crumbled chips from my backpack and ate them one by one as the road uncurled unhurriedly before us.

June 4, 2008

Caution! Gulf Arabs Live Here!

I've relocated to a new neighborhood for my final five weeks in Cairo. Far away from the clamor and freneticism of downtown, Mohandiseen--whose name means 'the engineers'--is a modestly upscale residential district that sprung up in the 1960s and 70s to accommodate the swelling middle class of the Nasser era. My apartment is on the top floor of a five-story walk-up, on a small street canopied with drooping trees that right now are positively aflame with brilliant crimson flowers. Two blocks from me is one of Mohandiseen's major thoroughfares, a wide, showy boulevard lined with Western-style restaurants and swanky boutiques selling everything from shoes to furniture to lingerie.

The view from the balcony of my new apartment.

Mohandiseen, though a youngster compared to the venerable old neighborhoods that comprise much of Cairo, has already carved a niche for itself in the city's geosocial makeup. Each year from June to August, Mohandiseen plays host to scores of wealthy vacationers from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and elsewhere in the Gulf, who come to Cairo to escape the punishing heat of summer in the Arabian Peninsula and to take advantage of the comparative freedom of Egyptian society to shop, eat out in mixed-gender groups, go to the movies, dance in nightclubs, and gamble at Cairo's several foreigners-only casinos. Indeed, Mohandiseen is famous for its ‘furnished flats,’ fully equipped apartments in some of the neighborhood’s ritzier quarters that are rented out on a short-term basis during the summer months and which cater especially to Arab tourists, offering them a level of privacy and comfort above that of a hotel--albeit for two or three times the going rate during the rest of the year.

Contrary to what you might expect, however, these visitors from the conservative heartland of Islam are not highly regarded by most Egyptians. Reputed to use their time in Cairo to frequent brothels, consume large amounts of alcohol, and generally engage in moral debauchery, Arab tourists (particularly the men, who--with their long white robes and heavy Gulf accents--stand out here like creatures from another planet) are a source of amusement for some Egyptians and a cause of concern for others. “While Mohandiseen was known as the favorite place for Arabs to rent apartments,” American anthropologist Lisa Wynn writes in Pyramids and Nightclubs (2008), “several Mohandiseen property owners told me that they refused to rent to Arab tourists because of the scandals it cause with neighbors…. [They] were popularly said to drink, hold wild parties, and bring women back to their apartments, which gave a bad name to the apartment and building.”

Whenever I pose the question Why do so many tourists from the Gulf come to Cairo during the summer? to my Egyptian friends, the answers I receive invariably support Wynn’s findings. Wynn goes on to argue in her study that for the most part the assumptions that Egyptians hold about Arab tourists are incorrect, and that in fact the majority of Arabs travel here with their families and have never seen, nor desire to see, the inside of a Cairene whorehouse. So why do Egyptians persist in stereotyping Arab tourists as sexual predators and reprobates, despite ample evidence to the contrary?

It is my belief that such perceptions are the product of wounded pride. Egyptian civilization has a long and illustrious history dating back thousands of years, whereas most cities in the Gulf are less than a century old; yet modern Egyptians are an impoverished and degraded lot, while Gulf Arabs, who only a generation ago were tent-dwellers whose principal mode of transport was the camel, are living large on the financial windfall of their booming oil wealth. Is it any surprise that Egyptians resent the Arab tourists who materialize on their streets each summer, clanking with gold beneath their traditional Bedouin garb? Economic realities leave them no choice but to welcome these visitors to their country, but behind their backs, Egyptians relish the chance to impugn their moral characters at every opportunity:

Can you believe, my friend was approached by a Saudi in Costa Coffee last night, he asked her to come home with him that very minute!

Yesterday I saw a Gulfie guy walking with a prostitute, I could tell they'd both had a lot to drink...they could hardly stand up straight. I wonder how much he was paying her?

Never go to the Hard Rock Cafe during the summer, that's where the Saudi men hang out.

Yes, I've really heard all these things. And next will be, Don't move to Mohandiseen in June! You'll be harassed by Arabs every time you set foot outside your apartment! You know they don't wear anything under those robes of theirs, don't you...?

May 25, 2008

Fil Mish Mish

I've just purchased a little sack of apricots from a man outside my building. He squats on the curb each day in sandals and a gallabiya and sells his fruits out of a woven cane basket, weighing it in a pair of rusty kilogram scales. Sometimes he has cantaloupes, which here have flesh of a light mint color instead of the orange we're used to; other days it's peaches. Today he was peddling apricots, their furry golden faces still smudged with pollen and earth.

Because apricots appear in the markets across Egypt for such a short time each year, Egyptians use the expression with the apricots (fil mish mish) to mean that something will most likely never come to pass, roughly the same way that we might use the English saying when pigs fly.

Today was living proof that even apricots in Egypt are not beyond the realm of possibility.

May 3, 2008

Saudi Bans Alcohol in Five-Star Cairo Hotel

The Saudi Arabian owner of the Grand Hyatt in Cairo announced last week that his hotel, home to the Hard Rock Cafe, will stop serving alcohol on the premises, after dumping out an estimated LE 8 million worth of liquor in front of a crowd of shocked onlookers. It sounds like the tabloids, but it's true. Read more here.

May 1, 2008

City Mouse in the Country

Cairo is home to a quarter of Egypt’s 80 million inhabitants. It is the industrial capital, the seat of government, and the cultural and commercial heart of the nation, a sprawling metropolis known affectionately to Egyptians simply as ‘Masr,’ the same name they use for their country as a whole. Yet Egypt is a big place: 1 million square kilometers of desert and arid mountains dotted with towns and cities, most of them perched on the coast (Mediterranean, Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez, Red Sea) or hugging the long, sinuous twist of the Nile River.

In the twelve months I have lived here, I have spent little time in the vast swathes of the country outside of Cairo. So when a friend of mine invited me to spend a day with him at his home in Beni Suef, a city of about 200,000 that lies two hours south of Cairo along the road to Luxor, it was with an eye toward correcting this deficiency that I boarded a crowded microbus at eight a.m. on a Saturday morning—bolstered by a breakfast of hot fuul sandwiches and a banana—and embarked on my first real visit to ‘the rest’ of Egypt.

My friend Mohamed met me on the main road through central Beni Suef and we went immediately to a juice shop for glasses of fresh orange juice, pressed while we waited and served to us room temperature while we sat in plastic chairs on the sidewalk just outside. A pair of preteen girls, curious at the sight of a Western girl unabashedly sipping juice in the sleepy Beni Suef sunshine, approached us, giggling, and asked Mohamed if he was Egyptian. His nationality was obvious; what they really wanted to know was by what stroke of luck he came to be sitting with one of the only American females they had ever seen in their city. Was I a chat-room bride whose precious U.S. passport would be his ticket out of Egypt? Or a hapless tourist who had stumbled off the train to the Valley of Kings six hours too early? That we could simply be friends—of different sexes, from different countries, and speaking different languages, yet neither of us trying to exploit the other—was an idea they couldn’t fathom.

Our next stop was the Monastery of the Virgin Mary, a solid whitewashed complex built on the spot where Mary is said to have stopped to rest during her flight out of Egypt. A devout Muslim and a lifelong agnostic, we prowled as respectfully as two non-Christians could through one of the holier sites of New Testament lore, perusing pamphlets of Coptic doctrine in the bookstore and tiptoeing among the pews in the crumbling, weather-beaten old church. On holidays, the still-active nunnery at one side of the complex plays host to pilgrims from Cairo and local worshipers alike, and in the evenings the Coptic youth of Beni Suef congregates on the outdoor patio overlooking the Nile to drink tea and soda and socialize. Christians account for about a tenth of Beni Suef’s population, roughly the same percentage as in Egypt as a whole, and I got the impression from Mohamed that his tolerant attitude toward them and their holy places is somewhat of a rarity among the Muslim majority in the city. The antipathy goes both ways, too: as long as we were in the monastery grounds, I made sure not to call Mohamed by name, for fear that the hospitality of the people working there would evaporate when they discovered his religious background and we would be asked to leave. A Christian named Mohamed? Not likely.

After paying a fisherman five pounds to row us across the river in his boat and spending an hour hiking through fields of wheat and strawberries on the other side, we caught a cab to Mohamed’s family’s apartment, where his mother had kindly prepared a generous lunch for us of boiled potatoes and beef, an assortment of grape leaves, zucchinis, and peppers stuffed with spiced rice, soup, bread, and a cold salad of tomatoes and parsley, topped off with fresh strawberry juice for dessert. In typical Beni Suef style, we ate sitting on the floor, using the pieces of chewy, whole-wheat pita to scoop up the food instead of silverware. His younger sister and his parents seemed pleased to have me, his father, a law professor, telling me repeatedly how much he’d enjoyed visiting Washington, D.C. on his sole trip to the U.S. thirty years ago and his sister shyly trying out her English on me to ask, of all things, if I’d voted for Clinton or Obama in the primaries. Her own preference was for Obama, whom she refused to believe is not in fact a Muslim no matter how earnestly I tried to persuade her otherwise (according to a friend of mine in Haifa, the Israelis are also convinced that Obama harbors Islamic sympathies, and for that reason are actively campaigning among the Americans living abroad in Israel to vote for Clinton—for once the Middle East is waging its wars by proxy through our politicians instead of the other way around).

I caught a train home later that evening, and a mere hour-and-a-half later was back in Cairo among the screeching car horns and pushing throngs of Cairenes, having already begun to miss the urban life.

April 18, 2008

Egyptians: Born to Be Inefficient?

I don’t believe that people are genetically disposed toward certain personal characteristics. Despite stereotypes that claim otherwise, I’ve never seen scientific evidence suggesting that any race is biologically lazy, emotional, good at math or dancing, organized, disorganized, intuitively sporty or entrepreneurial. Sure, the customs, the priorities, or the history of a given culture can bestow its constituents with these traits. Cultures that place a premium on education coupled with self-discipline might produce more than an average number of engineers, doctors, and physicists, while those whose traditions value physical movement as an important part of social participation might turn out singers, dancers, and men and women with an ear for rhythm. But this is upbringing, not genes. Nurture, not nature.

Having these views, why did I find myself surprised last week to stumble across a heated debate between two coworkers about how to make the AUC Press warehouse function most efficiently? Let me backtrack for a moment and note that AUC Press is, in my opinion, run with extraordinary efficiency by Egyptian standards. The director sits in the center of a web of command with one thread connecting him to the head of each of the departments (promotion, production, sales, editorial, accounting), who in turn hold threads linking them to their underlings, each of whom is saddled with a set of non-overlapping responsibilities. Yes, there are times when the web falls apart and department heads lose track of what’s going on beneath them. There are lapses in the carefully constructed checks-and-balances system that result in slip-ups like the one last fall, where hundreds of gold-foiled invitations to a prestigious literary award ceremony were mailed with ‘Please RVSP’ written on them. But occasional mistakes can happen in the best-managed businesses, in America as well as here.

So why the caveat ‘by Egyptian standards?’ The purpose of tacking on this modifier is to suggest two things: first, that Egyptian businesses in general tend not to be run efficiently, and second, that because it is in Egypt, AUC Press faces obstacles that companies located in other countries don’t.

Egyptians like to dance, but can they get things done?

As to the first point, it is a fact corroborated by experts and anecdotal experience alike. Transparency International ranked Egypt 105th in its corruption perceptions index for 2007, tied with Djibouti, Bolivia, and Burkina Faso and just above Eritrea and Rwanda. A simple trip to the visa office to extend my visa last October turned into a two-week process involving six separate visits and hours of waiting around in a hot, crowded room while the bureaucrats on the other side of the windows shuffled papers and drank tea. My boss long ago stopped going in person to renew his driver’s license, since without an insider contact it can take days, and on top of that foreigners are often charged exorbitant renewal fees for phony traffic violations; now he has an Egyptian friend who works at the licensing office do it for him.

As for the second point, the Press’ location within the greater framework of the Egyptian business world means that, whatever its own successes, it is limited by the failures of the companies around it. The cream-colored paper used to print novels in other parts of the globe because it’s easier on the eyes isn’t available here, so the Press is stuck with regular white. The laborious censorship screening that imported books undergo at the clearinghouse in Alexandria often delays their arrival in Cairo by weeks, and sometimes without a phone call from the director to a well-placed official they would be held up indefinitely. Four-color printing presses don’t exist in Egypt, so color pages must be printed on less sophisticated single-color presses or sent abroad. The list goes on.

When it comes to business, ‘Egyptian standards’ mean delays, complications, and poor-quality products, the results of a poisonous blend of corruption, mismanagement, and weak infrastructure that plagues many developing countries. Yet to lay the blame wholly on these three factors suggests that what exists here is a situation of otherwise competent people unable to overcome the hurdles imposed on them from above. But the problem runs deeper than that, extending beyond a few wrenches thrown into the wheels and cogs of daily operation to what seems like a fundamental lack of the very concept of efficiency. Which is why I was so surprised to find two of my Egyptian coworkers arguing about the best way to organize the books in the AUC Press warehouse. Is it better to do it by ISBN number, or to forget ISBNs and create a grid mapping the entire facility so that books don’t need to be shifted every time new titles arrive?

I can see pros and cons to both options, but that’s not the point. After having almost convinced myself that I was on the wrong side of the nature vs. nurture dispute and admitted that Egyptians might, in fact, be inherently inefficient, I find myself back where I started. No, they’re not innately, biologically inefficient, they’re just the products of a profoundly inefficient culture.