Friday, February 29, 2008

Boundaries, anyone?

You want to know how I have really been feeling? You want to know why this "photographic journal" has not seen any new photographs in several days?

My biggest challenge so far, besides learning Arabic, has been learning to interact with Egyptian men. Most taxis are driven by men, most waiters are men, most grocers and business owners seem to be men, so I have to deal with men everyday. Just in my experience.

In general, as well as in my work as a photojournalist, I am an open, friendly person--not just when I talk, but also in my body language, face and eyes. I smile a lot. I have a firm handshake and make direct eye contact with people. When I am trying to make someone on the other side of the lens feel comfortable being photographed, I use nonverbal cues to try to show that I care about the person, that I am listening and trying my best to understand.

This is not only key to my work, but it's also who I am.

Now that I am in a place where my grasp of the language is minimal at best, I have to rely even more on non-verbal communication. And, really, I am just being me. In addition to this, I am alone much of the time and therefore a pretty easy target. This has caused me a lot of problems. My guard is firmly in place all the time when I am alone--to the point where I am civil, but just barely. Any time I let my guard down even just a little, even if I am just trying to practice my Arabic, something happens.

So let me just try to describe what this is like. When I am with any other person--male, female, Egyptian, American, a mixed group, it doesn't matter--everything is fine. Or relatively so. However, when I do anything by myself, walking down the street, taking a cab, ordering food, or even, God forbid, taking photographs, I can almost assume that a man will make a pass at me, say something vulgar, ask for my telephone number, ask to be my "friend", or propose marriage.

I am not even kidding.

So far, I have tried numerous tactics to try to avoid encouraging this behavior. My taxi ride to class can take anywhere from 30-90 minutes. After a couple of uncomfortable morning cab rides, I started asking the doorman at my apartment to call me a cab. The message I hoped to get across is that I am not here all alone--I know people who know how you, Mr. Taxi, are supposed to behave. So don't try anything! This has been really helpful I think.

I also started wearing a (fake) wedding ring. If strange men ask (and they almost always do), I tell them I am married, and that my husband is here in Cairo with me. I have even invented a job for him, a life, whether we will have children and so on. It really sucks. I hate lying to people.

I try not to talk to taxi drivers AT ALL. Anytime I have tried, even a little, to practice my Arabic on the long cab ride, no matter how innocently the conversation starts, it always goes bad by the end. Sometimes I still think, this person could be alright to talk to. No. It never goes well. Yesterday the taxi driver wanted me to divorce my fake husband so that the driver's father could sit down with my father and work out the details of our marriage. No joke.

If the waiters at a particular coffee shop get too friendly, I change coffee shops. (I am currently relying on internet cafes for wireless access--and my daily caffeine high.)

From now on, I also will try not to visit any tourist sites alone (unless I must while working on a story). Men in the Khan el-Khalili market, Cairo's most famous bazaar, have said some of the most outrageous things to me. Completely unbidden, I am not even looking in the shops, just walking eyes straight ahead and a male vendor says something really offensive about my body.

It's really starting to piss me off and someday soon I am going to let loose with a loud slew of Arabic curses. Don't mess with me, people. I am developing a more aggressive attitude toward men, definitely for the better.

I want to say that I certainly have not had trouble with all Egyptian men and some have shown genuine kindness and respect. I don't think the average Egyptian accepts this type of behavior.
Also, I am a source of curiosity and most people assume that I have money. Culturally, men and women interact less, but the only perception that some Egyptians have of Westerners is from television and movies. Cairo has the mega-city element of anonymity, which allows some people to step out of traditional cultural boundaries. These are all factors.

And oh by the way, I don't fit in with Egyptian women either, although many women have shown me kindness. I think eventually I will have some female Egyptian friends, but not yet.

It all makes life rather lonely. It could make working here damn near impossible. And it's at least part of the reason I am moving to Zamalek, a relatively expensive area where a ton of foreigners live.

It's going to be alright. Right? Sorry for the rant. It's all good. (I am going to my happy place now...)

I want to add that I am doing really, really well. :)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Desert flower

Today I went for a horseback ride around the Giza pyramids with a couple of friends. The horse pictured above is named Warda, which means "flower" in Arabic.

We rode from the stables to a hill in the desert where we stopped for shai (tea) and pictures. The day was overcast, cool and windy, but the ride back still felt exhilarating.

Some observations:
1. Even though we only saw the pyramids from a distance, I found them intriguing and mysterious. And huge.
2. The horses weren't in great health, but they ran like crazy.
3. My butt hurts.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Be my valentine


Everyone needs an outlet for love.

In Egypt, young people live with their parents until they get married. Romantic love is a really touchy subject, with the greatest implications of morality and honor. Sex out of wedlock for both men and women is taboo, and if women in particular are not virgins on their wedding night, it will generally spell major trouble for her and her family. Publicly displaying affection, like embracing or kissing, even between married couples, is looked down upon. Flirtation can constitute a warm smile (which has gotten me into trouble a few times--but that's for another post).

So it surprised me that Egypt, as it turns out, is over-the-top crazy about Valentine's Day. Today is February 23 and shops are still filled with every kind of Valentine's Day gift, from the giant cheesy teddy bears to expensive jewelry. Everything is still decorated to the extreme with red, white and pink.


This saleswoman actually told me there are two Valentine's Days in Egypt--the other one is on Nov. 4.


Valentine's Day teddy bears.



It's just one of those little things about this place that reminds me we are all human.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Schawerma tastes better than it sounds

It's official. I eat meat.

And not just any meat--lamb. (Baah.)

While it is not impossible to be vegetarian in the Middle East, it definitely takes more effort. I had to jump on the lamb-eating bandwagon when I arrived, although I did just learn how to say chicken in Arabic ("firaykh").

A popular meat sandwich here is schawerma, which consists of roasted meat, tomatoes, lettuce, onions and something like cilantro in a bun or hoagie roll.

A place just across the street from me, El-Tabei, serves schawerma for dine-in or take-out. It's pretty good.

The chef slices meat from the giant rotisserie leg of lamb and fries it with onions, tomatoes and herbs.

The chef then gets the sandwich part ready. If you're not careful, he'll put a giant scoop of mayonnaise all over it. So watch out for that.

The meat is added and drizzled with tahini (sesame) sauce. Eat up!

A large sammie, like the one pictured above, goes for about 8 L.E. ($1.50) or you can get a smaller one for 3.5 L.E. (60 cents).

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Under the weather


Was it something I ate? Or was it just the combination of stress, pollution, second-hand cigarette smoke and new food that made me sick?

I guess I'll never know, but in any case, I feel funky.

The past few days I've been feeling worn down, sore and also gastro-intestinally afflicted. (Is that even a word? You know what I mean.) This weekend I have hunkered down in the apartment and watched tons of movies including Collateral, Pretty Woman, Men in Black II, The Thomas Crowne Affair and The Killing Fields on the English-language TV channels.

When I awoke at 11 this morning, I decided an Egyptian-American breakfast was just the thing--fried potatoes and an egg scramble with yellow peppers and onions, with slightly sweetened black tea to drink.

It didn't taste just like it does at home, but close enough to make me feel happy.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Evening in Imbaba

Wednesday evening, I went to a pre-wedding party in Imbaba, which is a lower-income, more traditional residential area of Cairo. Western people don't generally go there. A classmate from my colloquial Arabic class, Aaron, had been invited by Omar, an Egyptian/Sudanese friend of his, and in turn invited several people from class (with permission from Omar). Aaron, his roommate Will and I met Omar downtown, and we all took a taxi to Imbaba together.

I had been told the event we were attending was a wedding, but actually the ceremony and reception were scheduled for Thursday. Couples in the Middle East often have pre-wedding parties where the women dance and do henna painting and the men, well, the men do their own thing.

I really didn't know what to expect at this party, but I had a feeling it would be really different from the wedding festivities I attended the last time I was in Cairo in 2006. I knew it would be better to try not to draw attention to myself (which turned out to be nearly impossible), so for the first time since I arrived in Cairo, I decided to wear a scarf to cover my hair and neck. I think it did help to wear the scarf because it is a signal of modesty, especially to men. I admit I was a little nervous (not a surprise for those of you who know me well), but I was really excited to interact with locals in a non-tourist area.

On our arrival in Imbaba, we met the brother of the bride, Ahmed, on a main street, and he escorted the four of us through the alleys to the party's location. As we walked, Ahmed asked if I wanted to sit with the women, or if I would feel more comfortable sitting with the men, since the only people I knew were all men. I consulted with Aaron and we agreed that I would sit with the men just to make it easier for my friends to watch out for me.

As a Western woman, a female outsider, I get to walk a fine line between the sexes. Throughout the Middle East and in many other cultures, women and men are separated. When you go to a mosque, there is a room for men to pray and a separate room for women to pray. There is less mingling between men and women in social settings. It's just one of those traditional cultural things, with religious and moral underpinnings. And at this party, I totally expected the men and women to be separated into different rooms. Thankfully, the hosts were willing to make an exception for me, one of many ways they tried to make me feel comfortable and welcome.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the party was held outside. The bride's family had strung colored lights above the narrow street from apartment to apartment and had invited the whole neighborhood. Women were sitting at one end of the street, the DJ and speakers were in the middle, and men were at the other end.

We were first offered a seat, then something to drink (soda, of course), then welcomed to the party over the loudspeakers. And of course, our small group attracted quite a bit of attention, although I did the best I could to minimize this: it was someone else's special day, and I didn't feel good about taking away from that.

At some point, Ahmed asked if I would like to hang out with the women, who were being served a little something to eat. As soon as I walked over, the mother of the bride embraced me and welcomed me. I could only think of "Mabrook" (congratulations) to say, so I just said it over and over again. Then I was introduced to the only woman not wearing the hijab, a scarf over her hair.

Unfortunately I didn't understand until much later that she was actually the bride. She sat down next to me and proceeded to try to talk to me in Arabic for at least half an hour. I didn't think she was the bride because, 1. I didn't know the Arabic word for "bride", and 2. she was surrounded by her closest family and friends during a special event for her--why would she spend so much time with a complete stranger?

The answer turned out to be that we outsiders were a source of extreme curiosity, but people also seemed to feel obligated to make everyone feel welcome. This mix of curiosity and generosity was repeated over and over throughout the night. I could tell that some of the party-goers had had very little interaction with anybody from the West. They may have met other Arab visitors, but this may have been the first time that someone like me or Aaron or Will had shown interest in their lives. And I really do think that they did their best to extend their hospitality to us, even if we completely baffled them.

Taking photographs, well, that's a whole different story. I asked the bride and her mother if they would mind if I took some photographs and they both happily agreed. So I went back to the men's area to get my camera. Ahmed, the bride's brother saw it and said, no no you can't take pictures here it is against our traditions and some of the women may not want to be photographed. He was really adamant about it.

So then I asked if I could photograph the men. He said it would be okay to take a couple photographs of the men, but ONLY THE MEN. I had strict instructions to stay on the men's side to take photos.

As soon as I lifted my camera for the first time, everyone was suddenly saying "Sura, sura!" (picture, picture!) and trying to get in front of the camera. I took a few photos of the men dancing and showed them the results on the back of the camera. Suddenly Ahmed was overruled and it was alright for me take photographs of both men and women.

The women, who were dancing in a big group, beckoned to me, saying "Sura, sura!" so I started taking pictures of them. Out of nowhere, one of the brothers started yelling at me, telling me to stop, saying no, it's not alright. He seemed really really upset. So I of course stopped.

I must have looked completely crestfallen, because the mother of the bride hugged me and was trying to comfort me. And then she started clapping and dancing, so I decided to just dance for awhile.

It was weird, but apparently my dancing was quite entertaining. The bride was trying to teach me to dance Arab-style. I thought I was doing alright, but the other women kept giving me dance instructions--move your hips this way, your hands are supposed to do this--and when I tried to follow, the women would just break into giggles. It was actually a ton of fun, but at some point, I felt like I was the center of attention instead of the bride, so I tried to make other women take my place in the middle by pointing at them, then to politely take myself out of the circle, feigning exhaustion from my dancing lessons.

As soon as I sat down, six or seven little boys came over, saying, "What your name???" and as soon as I told them, they'd repeat my name over and over, "Holly? Holly! Holly???" A little chubby boy named Ahmed kept telling me, "You are welcome!" They were all of course adorable. Someone finally shooed them away and dragged me back onto the dance floor.

Some little girls wanted me to take their picture (not unusual for children anywhere). So I obliged and then showed them the photo on the back of the camera. Out of nowhere, a man started asking what I was doing in Cairo. Mistaking his questions for curiosity, I said that I was living in Cairo and that I am a photojournalist. He suddenly got really aggressive and was saying things like, "Who do you work for? What are you doing? Do you work for a newspaper or magazine?" The other women around me got a kind of shocked look on their faces and I started to get distressed. The guy then said he worked for the intelligence service and said it was against the law to take photographs in poor areas. He was in my face and very upset. I told him I was a guest at the party, that the photographs were for my own personal use and that I wasn't currently working for any news organization, all of which was true. This seemed to calm him down, but it didn't shut him up.

Finally the mother of the bride, God bless her, came and rescued me. She grabbed my hand and just led me away, yelling at the man over her shoulder. She took me over to an area with an awning over it, out of the street and was just hugging me and stroking my face and trying to make me feel okay. I wanted to burst into tears at her kindness. I could tell that she was a good person, a strong woman and wonderful mother.

I didn't know that this was just basic harassment, a regular occurrence to working photographers here. I found out later that I can expect to be harassed like this, but that I am not obligated to give the secret police my name, nationality or any other information and that basically I just have to tell them to get lost. (This information comes from a very experienced contract photographer from the New York Times who has been living and working here for two years.)

Aaron, Will and Omar got me all calmed down. Aaron and I had a good discussion on trying to find the balance between being yourself and trying not to offend people, and trying to understand what people are sensitive about in the Middle East. It all turned out okay. However, I thought I had caused enough stress/trouble/entertainment for both Omar and the wedding couple and we all decided it was time to leave.

The experiences I had at the party just reinforced my reasons for traveling so far. Our cultures are very different, but people in the West and in the Middle East are basically decent. Sometimes it seems like we don't know how to talk to each other, but we need to learn.


The bride is the one in the middle with henna on her hands.


Three of the bride's four brothers are on the left, and the groom is on the right. Ahmed is second from the left. The guy on the far left was the one who got upset that I was photographing the women dancing. The guy in the middle was the only one who at the party who told me he loved me, so that's pretty good!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

I heart Arabic

Here's a photograph of Sami, one of my four Arabic teachers. He teaches the Modern Standard Arabic class on Monday and Wednesday.

The Egyptians have a saying: "Schweya, schweya." This means, roughly, "Little by little" and people seem to say it every time I tell them that I don't speak Arabic very well.

Arabic still makes my brain hurt, but it is getting better. Everyday I am learning new words, phrases and grammar and, little by little, I am getting more comfortable with this difficult language.

However, I still can't believe I'm writing right to left.

.this like everything reading imagine Just


Today Sami taught me how to write (and say) "photojournalist". It's the line of Arabic beginning in the lower right of this photo. It says "musauwira saHafyya".

Monday, February 11, 2008

Egypt vs. Cameroon: 1-0

Egypt's soccer team won its sixth consecutive Africa Cup in Accra, Ghana, Sunday evening.

Damn near caused a riot.

If you can imagine 20 million or so rabid soccer fans taking to Cairo's streets, blocking traffic, lighting fireworks, singing, screaming, chanting, honking and basically going nuts all night long, well you may begin to have an idea of the chaos.

Notably absent from the celebration was the indulgence of alcohol, which is generally looked down upon to varying degrees throughout the Muslim world, but people didn't seem to need alcohol to go crazy.

Oh look. The crowd just below my apartment blocked the street for several hours. I went to bed with earplugs at around 1 a.m.


I made a couple new friends, including Noora, above, who came to Cairo from Alexandria to cheer for her team. Like many other fans, she wore Egypt's colors: red, white and black.


My Arabic teacher told us people were still celebrating in the streets this morning and would drive to the airport to welcome the team home.


My favorites were the young men using cans of insect spray to light torches. Ah, it all made me homesick for good ole' Amrika.

For those of you who don't know, soccer is the sport in most of the rest of the world. Pay attention.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Sara and sheesha

Sara, a new friend from class, and I went to lunch yesterday. Sara's Palestinian and Egyptian, but she grew up in the UK a couple hours north of London. She recently married an Egyptian and moved to Cairo with him.

We talked about Islam, the situation in Gaza, married life, Egyptian men and cultural norms for women in the Middle East. You know, all the things girls talk about.

Oh yeah. And she introduced me to sheesha.

We had pineapple flavor.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Ride like an Egyptian

Here's the taxi driver, Ayman, changing the flat tire yesterday morning on the highway. It only took him three minutes. A policeman did stop to cheer him on and wave traffic around us.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Hold on tight

All I can say is, thank God I do not have to drive in Cairo.

I took my first (and definitely not my last) taxi to the opposite side of Cairo to register for Arabic classes at Kalimat Language and Cultural Center. Any time you are in a car, whether you are behind the wheel or not, it's an experience.

A few rules of the road:
1. Never mind that paint on the road--there are no lanes.
2. The key is to travel as fast as possible.
3. If there is room for your car, you can go there.
4. There are no stoplights. Sometimes a traffic cop will stand near a busy intersection, but don't count on him to protect you from the wrath of the road.
5. Don't forget to use your horn often.
6. Blinkers are optional.
7. Parking is a spectator sport.
8. Don't expect to find a seatbelt while seated in the back of a taxi.

Luckily, I made it to my destination, my cab driver was extremely nice despite the language barrier and he didn't try to increase the fare as i got out of the cab.

Now I just have to make it back.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Marhaba (Hello) Cairo!

My flight from Paris was an hour late, but I arrived in Cairo in time to meet Rasha's father Monir and his brother-in-law Saber at the airport. They were walking around holding pieces of paper with my name on it.

From there we went to Saber's where I was fed, then to a grocery store for supplies.

Finding internet service has been challenging, and my computer battery is about to die. I will update this later today.

Later taters.