Monday, July 25, 2011

Hasta luego, Masr!

A protestor scaled a light pole in Tahrir on Friday.

Just as I finally feel like I'm getting a hang of Egyptian Arabic, I'm heading to the airport in a few hours to kick off a five-week trip through Spain and Italy. Hopefully some of my middle- and high-school Spanish will come back quickly.

In other news, I registered the domain name, so now I am (1) a cool, official blogger with his own .com domain name; and (2) even more goofy because this blog has such a ridiculous name. Note that still works.

So, with that, adios, Egypt!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

My big, fat Egyptian wedding

After a couple hours exploring Coptic Cairo on Friday, I was walking through a nearby Muslim neighborhood with Alex when she remarked how fun it is to just wander down random streets and meet locals. Less than five minutes later, we were dancing in an alleyway to wedding music, holding babies, drinking soda, and photographing small children.

We had been strolling down a trash-strewn street when we heard music; children and women had promptly yelled to us to follow them down an alley. They led us to a small area where women, old men, and children danced, with music from drums and a traditional wind instrument called a mizmar filling the air. After an hour of snapping photos of kids, making friends, and dancing with the older people, we left the neighborhood, promising to come back right after sundown for the wedding party.

(If you can't see the video, click here.)

In the United States, it's almost unheard of to invite a complete stranger to your wedding. But, perhaps because of a combination of the Egyptian tradition of hospitality and the fact that our presence was so outlandish—we were a good six inches to a foot taller than almost everyone there, for example—our attendance was considered an honor.

Two hours later, we were back in "Old Cairo." With no idea what was coming next, we ventured back into that same alleyway, which this time was replete with colorful lights, even more children, and a cameraphone hooked up to a television showing live-action shots of the goings-on in the alley—and, inevitably, our beaming faces. After holding a couple more children and taking approximately 10,000 photos of cute little kids, we got a chance to rest and learn a bit more about what was going on. Our new best friend Mohamed, who told us he had been an aluminum salesman in Tripoli before war broke out in Libya, introduced us to the bride's father and told us that most of the people were family members and neighbors. We sat, had some complimentary sodas, and received an inevitable dinner invitation to Mohamed's house.

One of the five million children running about.

Soon enough, the bride arrived and all hell broke loose. Dozens of women wearing colorful headscarves formed a circle three or four people deep, and young women started shimmying their hips and gyrating to the loud music blaring from a nearby tower of speakers. As I had one of the only two cameras—Alex had the other one, of course—I assumed the role of wedding photographer. Meanwhile, Alex became the party entertainment, dancing with every single woman and child in sight.

Of course, I ended up in the center of the circle, too.

After literally three hours of ridiculousness, we still didn't completely know what was going on. The bride was sitting on the side of the hullabaloo, looking pretty glum (she's in the first photo at the top of this post, wearing a pink shirt with a cat on it), and there was no sign of the groom. When we asked people where he was, some said he was at another party and would arrive soon, others said he wasn't coming at all, and still others told us that he was over there in that alleyway. We think a more formal wedding ceremony had taken place earlier that day; this party was merely part of the all-day celebration.

 (If you can't see the video, click here.)

Either way, what was clear was that I still have much to learn about Egyptian and Muslim culture. There were women in niqabs watching young girls dance suggestively, while some of the older women seemed to remove and put their headscarves back on at will. Meanwhile, I danced with women wearing headscarves, while other women encouraged me to snap photos of everything. Young men took in all the excitement from a few feet away, with youths drinking beer—haraam!—right next to the DJ stand.

All in all, it was a super sha'abi wedding. Later that night at a party at the apartment of some of our American friends, I told two Egyptians that, after the wedding, I was even more confused about Egyptian culture: about how relations between men and women worked, about how modest dress can sometimes go out the window, about how concepts of what is haraam, or forbidden, and hilaal, or permitted, blur in different social situations—at least through the eyes of a Western observer.

"This is Egypt," one of them replied, laughing. "We don't understand it either."

Update (11:40 p.m.): We took Mohamed the aluminum worker up on his dinner invite and headed over to their house this evening for a four-hour affair. After scarfing down a giant plate (read: mountain) of rice, two pieces of chicken—I had to eat Alex's, too, because she's a vegetarian—eggplant, potatoes, a couple sandwiches, various beverages, and a bunch of sweets, I feel like I'm going to explode. The sensation reminds me of both my first night in Jordan last year and my family's trips to that really good vegetarian Indian buffet place in Gaithersburg.

After a truly wonderful evening of food, conversation, and food, Alex and I emerged with both a better understanding of how an average Egyptian family lives and a clearer picture of what actually happened Friday night. Turns out it was the beginning of a monthlong wedding celebration; the celebration we attended was a party for the bride that followed some sort of opening ceremony earlier that day. I think. Either way, we were invited to come back at the end of Ramadan for more food. Blargh...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

See you at the stock exchange

Many a Cairene evening I've found myself relaxing with new Egyptian friends in the jam-packed alleyways of Borsa, which takes its name from the nearby stock exchange. Under neon lights and the starless sky, young Egyptians smoke shisha (hookah), drink tea and juice, and engage in dardasha (chit-chat) for hours on end.

People hawking everything from packets of tissues to electric shavers approach your table nonstop. Tonight, a crazy old man thrust a handful of peanuts on our table and shouted, "Mango!" before he took the peanuts back when we didn't start eating them.

As one might expect, Cairo is brutally hot during the day throughout the excruciatingly long summer months (but maybe not as hot as D.C. this week?). Cairenes -- residents of Egypt's capital -- stay up late and take full advantage of the cool summer nights, with families and young people filling downtown streets at all hours. It's expected that stores will stay open late, too, and it's not surprising to find yourself stuck in a midnight traffic jam. My friends Mohamed and Gamal told me they stay up every night during the summer until 5 or 6 a.m.

Here's how I spent my night at Borsa tonight:

Monday, July 18, 2011

When North Koreans build museums

"Our heroes had recorded history therefore it is a must to record their struggle. ... During President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak's visit to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea [North Korea] in 1983 he agreed with the Korean President Kim IL Sung that Korean technicians would help construct a monument to honor the great October Victory, the heroic deed of the Egyptian people and their brave sons of the Armed Forces. [O]ur gratitude to martyrs -- Our gratitude to heroes." -October 1973 War Panorama ticket

The fact that North Koreans designed the October 1973 War Panaroma/Museum, where Alex and I found ourselves last week, should've been the first sign that the institution might not live up to the high academic standards one might normally expect from a museum.

The building, which consists of a series of halls and displays centered around a 360 degree, painted panoramic diorama of epic fighting during the October War -- known in Israel as the Yom Kippur War -- glorifies Egypt's performance in a conflict that it basically lost. In short, on Yom Kippur 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel and actually did pretty well the first few days. But then Israel rebounded and beat back Arab attacks. The museum, of course, focuses entirely on the first few days; a similar museum, also connected to North Korea, exists in Syria.

Many landmarks in Egypt take their name from this October "victory," which did, in fact, have a very positive impact on the Egyptian psyche after the country's loss in the 1967 war, or Six-Day War. 6th of October City sits on the outskirts of Cairo, and 6th October Bridge is a major artery over the Nile.

Every side has a right to portray its own version of events, of course, but what was disconcerting about the museum was the fact that pretty much the only other visitors that day were a large group of schoolchildren who laughed and clapped when paper Israeli planes were shot down by glow-in-the-dark Egyptian military vehicles during one of the presentations. The Arab-Israeli conflict is rife with differing, incomplete narratives, and it was almost frightening to see kids so early on being schooled in one such -- particularly militarized -- account of a key event in modern Middle Eastern history.

 Even after his downfall, Mubarak and his face still grace posters and displays in the museum, which is run by the military.

Displays connect ancient Egyptian history to modern Egyptian military prowess.

The panoramic diorama (if you can't see the video, click here).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Protestors defiant as Tahrir sit-in continues

A women in Tahrir Square holds a photograph of a man killed during the revolution.

Protestors in Tahrir Square remained defiant tonight, as they entered the fifth night of their sit-in after Friday's large demonstration. At least three stages stood on the periphery of the square, playing host to everything from musical performances to political speeches. The number of people still in the square at 11 p.m. was staggering.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military body ruling Egypt, issued a harshly worded statement earlier today that suggested its members were fed up with the sit-in and other protests across the country. Tonight, I spoke with a few protestors who have been sleeping in tents in the middle of Tahrir for the last few days, and they were incensed by SCAF's words -- one man called them a "threat" but added that he wasn't scared of anything.

I can't imagine what it must be like to be a young Egyptian now, finally able to speak your mind and hold demonstrations that actually bring about change. Yet the threat of violence remains, and there very well could be clashes in Tahrir in the next couple of days. It's hard to know, but what is clear is that the sit-in is still going strong.

I shot this video at 11 p.m. tonight (if you can't see it, click here):

Monday, July 11, 2011

Checkpoint Ahmed

Tahrir Square remains shut down today, which made our four-minute commute to school slightly more complicated, as we normally get out of the taxi right in the traffic circle.

Instead, this morning we exited the cab just before a civilian-run checkpoint on a main road leading into the circle. A line of young men greeted us, inspected our university ID cards, and searched our bags. In the past, I've been subject to two or three ID checks at the same checkpoint, as well as two or three pat downs and bag-checks.

No members of the police or military force can be found anywhere near Tahrir, and protestors have organized checkpoints like this one at all entrances to the square, including subway station exits. The volunteers' aim is to keep out weapons and the "baltageya" -- thugs supposedly on the payroll of the police and other elements perceived as unsavory. Their concerns are well-founded: On a number of occasions over the past few months, small clashes have broken out after a few troublemakers provoked the crowds.

The checkpoints are the most effective and thorough security I've ever been through in Egypt, where metal detectors are present in hotels, banks, and other building but are rarely utilized. Usually, foreigners walk through security checks with little more than a passing glance.

This time, though, many demonstrators have become distrustful of foreigners and suspect they might even be spies. Particularly since the government arrested an alleged Israeli spy last month, protestors have come to fear foreign interference with their revolution. At one point on Friday, a man approached us because he heard us speaking English; he asked to see our IDs and only left us alone when our Egyptian friend told him that we were with him. Anticipating problems like that, I had left my camera at home that day.

This morning, we exited the square through another checkpoint, as seen in the photo above. It's not clear how long the sit-in will continue -- just yesterday, the protestors succeeding in shutting down the Mogamma, a massive Soviet-style government building that symbolizes Egyptian bureaucracy and sits adjacent to Tahrir. Judging by the persistance of the protestors and calls for another large demonstration tomorrow, it looks like the checkpoints might become a fixture of our daily commute for at least a few more days.

A tent city occupies the center of the square. The lack of traffic in Tahrir is a bizarre sight.

Friday, July 8, 2011

'The Revolution First': Tens of thousands in Tahrir demand justice

Surrounded by thousands upon thousands of proud and sweaty Egyptians, I learned today what it’s like to live through a revolution, with all its uncertainty and hope laid bare by the people who brought it about and have experienced its consequences.

Today’s demonstration in Tahrir Square brought together thousands of people calling for the continuation of the revolution and lambasting the slow pace of reforms. Called weeks ago, the protest gained the support of nearly every major political group in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood and some members of the Salafi Islamist movement. While there definitely weren’t a “million” people there, as originally called for, there were certainly tens of thousands and probably upwards of 100,000.

Mike and I made plans to meet our friend Mohamed on the main street by our apartment building, a few minutes after the end of the communal Friday prayers. After a minute of waiting, all of the sudden we heard chanting and saw a mass of people marching toward us. Mohamed was near the front, and we walked beside him and scores of other Egyptians calling for the downfall of Egypt’s military leader.

We arrived in Tahrir to a festival-like atmosphere, with Egyptians young and old, religious and secular, rich and poor holding up signs demanding speedier trials for Mubarak and his associates, justice for those killed during the January/February uprising, and quicker implementation of reforms. Notably, many people chanted slogans and displayed posters calling for the fall of the current military government, and some reused one of the most popular slogans from earlier this year, “The people want the fall of the regime” – although back then it referred to Mubarak. Photos of some of the hundreds of people who died during the revolution hung throughout the square.

Overall, the demonstration reminded me of a summer music festival. The sun was hot – the mercury hit nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit at one point – which undoubtedly kept numbers down a bit. People who did show up sang patriotic songs and walked between a number of stages gracing the outer edges of the traffic circle. Tons of attendees took out their cell phones to snap photos and take videos of various banners and chants, and people seemed pumped up about the turnout and atmosphere.

In many ways, it appeared like this demonstration, by far the largest and most anticipated since February, aimed to recapture some of the revolutionary spirit from the original 18 days of the uprising. Originally, organizers wanted today’s message to center around the call for the “constitution first” – or, the writing of a constitution before elections take place – but when that received too much backlash they decided its theme would be, “The Revolution First.” Among the protestors’ key demands were the end of military trials for civilians; quicker prosecution of officials from the Mubarak regime and policemen accused of killing civilians earlier this year; and more equitable economic policies. In short, it was a vote of no confidence in the military council ruling the country, and a display of frustration with what many people see as the military’s hijacking of their revolution.

Yet the demonstrator’s exciting, strong show of force belied the uncertainty many people hold for the future. And the diverse chants begged the question of how a people united back in January/February around one demand – Mubarak’s resignation – could now leverage their revolutionary fervor into positive political, social, and economic change, despite the fact that everyone seems to now have different priorities.

It remains to be seen what will come of this protest, and it’s even unclear right now whether a large group will continue their sit-in in Tahrir until justice is had. A lot depends on how the military leaders respond. Based on their past actions, though, I’m not holding out hope that this demonstration will lead to a fundamental change in how the revolution is playing out.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

From Sudan to China

While I don't feel like I've gotten a good feel for Egyptian food -- other than street food like shawarma and ful (like refried beans), and some other tasty, fried things -- over the last couple weeks I've been lucky enough to sample the cuisines of other exotic locales.

A little while back, a group of students from my program ventured to a tiny Sudanese place in downtown Cairo. It was the definition of hole-in-the-wall. You had to walk down an alley, hang a left, maneuver around some trash, and there it was, unmarked and packed with Sudanese people grabbing a bite to eat:

Under photos of Sudanese politicians and fans blasting warm air throughout the modest establishment, we enjoyed a bunch of stew-like dips -- lots of vegetarian stuff, but also meat and chicken dishes -- as well as fried fish and thin, sticky bread that you smother in a delicious, peanuty sauce. The second time I went back, we dined with a Sudanese journalist based in Cairo and a Sudanese man who sold bathrooms or something. Unclear. I was focused on the food.

Sudan was kind of boring, though, so we decided to hop on a plane (read: take a taxi) and check out a pair of Chinese restaurants we had heard about. But these weren't normal Chinese restaurants -- they were run by Uighurs, a Turkic people who live in northwestern China and are heavily persecuted there by the Chinese state. My understanding is that the Uighur restaurants, in a very sha'abi (lower class / "authentic") neighborhood, particularly cater to the Muslim Uighurs who study Islam in Cairo.

The employees speak little Arabic, and the menus consist of photo albums with pictures of the dishes with no explanations. After consulting with people at a nearby table and perusing the pages of the most delicious photo album I've ever seen, we ordered some Uighury dishes. Mine was really tasty -- noodles, veggies, beef, etc.

So we'd be prepared to ask for the same dish the next time we came, we whipped out our notebooks at the end of the meal and asked our waiter what the dish was called. We stood with our pens at the ready, anticipating some complicated Uighur name.

"Your dish," the waiter said, "is called chow mein!"

My second trip to the Uighur restaurants. I think there's chow mein somewhere on that table. There's definitely General Tso's chicken (actually).

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Fourth of July!

To celebrate America's independence, we made the trek to the leafy upper-class suburb of Maadi, where lots of foreigners live and where Lucille's -- home of the best burger in Cairo (and the world?) -- is located. I patriotically destroyed a chili burger. God bless America!

Ever since I missed out on joining the "Clean Plate Club" many years ago at the 50's Prime Time Café at Disney World, I've been desperately trying to make up for my failure.

Friday, July 1, 2011

An Egyptian internship and an Iraqi politician

I've enjoyed a variety of internships, from lobbying for international road safety to working in my congressman's district office, but none were like the "internship" I experienced last week.

Early last week, Mike went to the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a preeminent Egyptian think tank, to inquire about volunteering there. They encouraged him to come back on Thursday evenings, when "youth" have a "discussion group" about politics. They even asked him to prepare a 15 minute presentation, in Arabic, about the role of religion in American politics.

A few of us went along with him last Thursday. After arriving 20 minutes late -- oops -- we walked into a room where about eight or nine surprisingly old "youths" in their late 20s and early 30s were chilling in a conference room. Mike learned that his religion presentation had grown in size to 30 minutes. Ma'aleish -- whatever.

But then, a couple minutes later, an Egyptian professor walked in, sat down, and proceeded to lecture for over an hour about the political rhetoric of Anwar Sadat compared to that of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Or at least that's what my friend told me it was about afterward -- all I understood were some main ideas and lots of random vocab words. The whole experience was super Egyptian -- tea and coffee were served, people were answering cell phones throughout, and everyone was smoking. It was kind of like Good Night, and Good Luck.

The professor finished up a little early -- ilhamdullillah! -- but, just as I was ready to leave, the door flew open and in walked a few intense-looking Iraqi men. Handshakes, greetings, smiles, etc. filled the room. So did one of the Iraqi's full-on traditional garb: robes, gold vest, headdress, etc.

It turned out one of them was an Iraqi member of parliament visiting Cairo and the Al-Ahram Center. Sweet. Of course, more tea and coffee magically appeared before us. Somehow, the headdress man got away with refusing a drink. Not sure how he pulled that off.

The "youths" asked the Iraqi MP to say a few words about politics. He started to speak, and an hour later, he was still going strong. Some of us decided to excuse ourselves and peace out, but Mike stayed -- apparently it went on another hour!

Naturally, there wasn't enough time for Mike to give his presentation on religion. Next time, inshallah.