Friday, April 25, 2008

Adopted by pre-teens

People are curious about me pretty much where ever I go. It's a strange feeling. I'm not used to the attention, and when I am working, there's no such thing as fading into the background.

Sometimes though, I am thankful for being different. And I am thankful that I am a woman. These two qualities make it possible for me to see a whole different side of life than men get to see.

For instance, a couple weeks ago I was at Al Azhar Park, where I was approached by a small group of 12-year-old girls who wanted to know everything about me. I saw a chance to practice Arabic, plus I am always curious about what life is like for women and girls here.

Al Azhar Park is in the middle of Old Cairo. It's a huge green space on a hilltop full of flowers, trees, fountains, walking paths and young couples sitting on benches. It's peaceful. When the call to prayer starts, the voices surround the park in the most beautiful melody. I've taken to hanging out there when I need to get away from the chaos of Cairo.

My new 12-year-old friends learned the basics of who I was and what I was doing in Egypt all by myself. ("You're here alone? Where is your family? Where are your friends?") The girls were on a school trip from Helwan (Arabic for "beautiful") at Cairo's southern-most fringes. After these formalities, they grabbed my hands and whisked me away to the top of the hill to play...

...spin the bottle! Only it was the sweet Egyptian Muslim version: no boys, and the person who spins gets to ask the person the bottle points to a question like, "Who is your best friend in the whole world?" or "What do you wish for?" When the bottle was pointed at me, they asked me if I have a boyfriend and then proceeded to ask a million questions about my love life. (From left to right in the photo: Nesma, Minna, Mai, Mai and Nurmeen.)

My new friends made me feel really welcome--they tried to include me in their games, introduced me to their other friends and even carried my camera bag for me. It was very sweet.

They also frequently asked me if I was too tired to hang out with them. I've been told that I look young, but maybe these girls weren't fooled.

Yep. I'm glad to be a girl.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sudanese house party

I live with two other short American women.

That's my 5-foot-tall roommate Abigail among the ranks of Sudanese teachers she works with at St. Andrew's Refugee Services. Abigail heads the adult education program at St. Andrew's school, and she hosted a going away dinner for one of the teachers, Elwathig, seated on far right, who moved to Dubai in search of employment.

A word about Cairo's Sudanese refugee community: it's huge. Egypt shares a border with Sudan and although no one really knows how many refugees live here, estimates range in the hundreds of thousands. Egypt also hosts Ethiopian, Eritrean, Somali, Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, among other nationalities.

Many refugees are stuck in limbo here, unable to return to their homeland, unable to be resettled by UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission on Refugees) in Europe or the United States, and also unable, in a country where 40% of the citizenry lives on less than $2 per day, to build much of a new life. Now that I am seeing the refugee resettlement process from Egypt, it seems like the refugees I met back in the United States were the lucky ones. America's "teeming masses" flee first to refugee camps, and then to places like Egypt, Syria and Pakistan, where there's not much of a safety net for vulnerable people.

I hope to work on stories about refugees while I am here.

Back to good-hearted Abigail and her Sudanese friends:

We were treated to a mountain of spaghetti...

...original poetry recited by Albino...

...and of course tea. (No gathering in Egypt seems complete without it.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sheesha gone bad

Alright fine. I'm telling the sheesha story.


When my friends Erin and Jim visited Cairo, we went out to an Egyptian restaurant with some photographers, and of course we had to smoke sheesha after the meal. I don't know how it started, but suddenly everyone was taking pictures of each other trying to blow smoke rings and look cool with the pipes. It was quite amusing.

That's Shawn, Scott and Max--photo courtesy of my roommate Susan.

For those of you who have never smoked sheesha, if you're not paying attention, the smoke can actually make you feel light-headed and dizzy. And if you ignore these effects and keep smoking, because, for instance, you are busy being entertained by photographers being complete dorks, sheesha can actually make you feel pretty sick.

Shortly after I took this photograph of Scott and Max, I started to feel dizzy and faint. I broke out in a cold sweat. I prayed the feeling would pass. It didn't. Apparently I was turning green, because Erin who was sitting next to me said, "C'mon, I'll help you to the bathroom."

I knew I wouldn't make it to the bathroom, so I put my head between my knees, to the great shock of the entire restaurant (I'm told anyway). I was pretty sure I was going to die.

I didn't die. Nor did I throw up or pass out. Erin, who is a nurse when she's not traveling the world, kept checking my pulse and pressing a cold cloth to my forehead. It took me awhile to be able to sit up and walk, and I wasn't the same for the rest of the night.

So let that be a lesson to you. As Scott likes to remind me pretty much any time I see him: Know your sheesha limit.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Shaqqati gedidati (my new apartment)

Here are some long overdue photos from my new apartment, for those who care (Mom). In early March I moved from Medinat Nasr a suburb east of the center to Zamalek just west of downtown and much closer to Kalimat where I was taking Arabic classes.

The move has been both good and bad, good for my mental state but bad for Arabic practice, even though I was close enough to walk to class, if I wanted to dodge traffic and breathe the lovely Cairo pollution for that long. Zamalek contains many foreign embassies and therefore, many foreigners. Which means it's not a very Egyptian neighborhood and people are less likely to speak Arabic. It all just means that I have to make an effort to get out of the 'hood and use my Arabic everyday. I'll be sure to post photos from Zamalek itself later on.

Living/dining area. The couch is more comfortable than it looks--I've napped on it before.

The view from the balcony affords mostly cars, but also a few trees.

One of the nice things about Zamalek, and about my apartment especially, is the quiet--a quality in short supply in this gigantic city. Check out today's New York Times humorous but true story, "A City Where You Can't Hear Yourself Scream" about noise in Cairo. So true!

I am thankful to live on what has to be one of the quietest streets in Cairo. It's residential, narrow and leads almost directly into the Nile.

My brain hurts

That's my friend Vivien (he's French) on the last day of fusha (classical) Arabic last month. After two months of intensive Arabic classes, I decided that I would stop taking Arabic for a bit and concentrate on work. I needed a more flexible schedule. I can already feel some of what I learned slipping away, so I hope to continue progressing with help from a tutor.

Vivien gets a little help from Sami, our teacher.

Numbers in Arabic are more complicated than I ever imagined.

"You people will just never get it," laughs Sami shortly before dismissing us. No, that's not really what he said. He was actually one of my favorite teachers. Very nice and one of the most patient people I have ever met.

I really miss class. Inshallah one day I'll be back.

Friday, April 4, 2008


There's nothing like sitting on cushions in the middle of the desert, drinking tea with the Bedouin...right next to a popular diving spot on the Red Sea.

I needed to get out of the crazy city of Cairo for a few days, to a quieter place with fresh air. So I didn't complain when my good friends Jim and Erin Hagengruber (my first Cairo visitors) arrived and swept me away to the Red Sea Coast with them.

We took an eight-hour bus ride to Dahab, through numerous police checkpoints (Dahab was bombed just a couple of years ago) and found ourselves in the midst of the tourist hustle as soon as we got off the bus. But, the sunshine and smell of the ocean cheered me up.

A Dahab taxi took us to the coast where we searched for a cheap place to stay. Dahab is a hustle. Every hotel has a free "welcome drink". Every restaurant has a guy out front to lure in the tourists with a great dinner special. However, it is much more relaxed than Cairo.

The Sinai Bedouin tribes have roamed the peninsula for generations, raising camels and goats. In the past few decades, many have settled and found work in construction or tourism. These kids were selling camel rides to tourists.

Me being a dork (part 1) shortly before I took a short scuba dive with my instructor Ahmed. A mere 20 minutes later, Ahmed had to coax me to leave the safety of the shallows for the nearby reef. Underwater drama ensued. (Photo by Jim "Jimmy" Hagengruber)

Me being a dork (part 2) with dive master Ahmed, right after my 30-minute dive at around 10.5 meters. It was amazing! It was kinda like a tandem sky dive only underwater. Ahmed was hanging on to me the whole time adjusting my buoyancy and oxygen. I basically just got to enjoy the ride. The Red Sea reefs are teeming with multi-colored fish, coral and jellyfish (ouch).

The ever-present sheesha pipe: smoke it next to the ocean to reap heightened positive effects.

Jim and Erin at sunset.