Driving alongside the Nile Corniche last night and seeing the TGI Friday’s on the Nile last night made me think that perhaps they should alter their name just a bit here. I mean, for one thing, here, for the most part, it’s Allah, not God. But for another thing the holiday is Friday and Saturday rather than Saturday and Sunday. This makes things really nice for the Muslim people who live here so there can be a day devoted to prayer on Friday. I also imagine that when this country had a higher population of Jews that this was good too because the Jews could have their Sabbath off. It’s a welcome change not to have everything dictated by Christian holidays all the time.
I happened to be that far down the Nile last night because Echo and I were invited to a party at Dina’s home. Two of her friends are moving to Atlanta, Georgia so it was a going away party of sorts. But her mother was also visiting from Qatar so I think that was part of the celebration too. Dina’s mother is good friends with Faiza, which is how I met Dina, and last week she was with Fazia in Italy. I wish Yasmine had been able to join us, but she is with her boyfriend Tom in Dahab for the week. Unfortunately, she has not been able to spend too much time with Dina and if she had I think perhaps she would have had a different experience in Cairo. I notice that a lot of what she seems to be thinking and feeling about Egypt reminds me of what Laila thought and felt about Morocco at the same time in her trip. The difference is that Laila stayed there for 2 years and Yasmine will be leaving the day before we leave. I talked to Faiza this morning and she wants Yasmine to stay longer too. I’m tempted to tell Yasmine that I’d stay an extra month if she would too. There is a lot of Cairo that I have seen and love that Yasmine has yet to experience. Anyway, one of those things is Dina’s world, which is endlessly beautiful and fascinating. As I mentioned earlier, Dina is an architect who specializes in interior design and she also designs furniture. Last year she lived with her uncle on the street I’m living on. It was a typical older looking apartment—maybe 1940s style. But recently she moved to a neighborhood of Cairo called Maadi. It’s a neighborhood that is full of expatriates and bankers and brokers. It seems like neighborhoods here in general are constructed around people based on their profession. For instance, another neighborhood, Mohandaseen, is full of engineers (Mohandaseen means engineers). Of course, other people live in these places, but it sort of makes sense given how businesses are grouped together on particular streets. Maadi is very quiet compared to the rest of the city and feels a bit suburban even though it’s still in the city. It’s very green and beautiful. I think that one of the reasons Dina moved is because her parents had this basement apartment, which they owned; her other uncle lives upstairs. Her parents let her resculpt the apartment to her liking and she tore down walls and modernized it and designed furniture for it. It’s a stunning apartment with white stucco walls, very sleek and minimalist. She has an original brick fireplace that is round and blends into the new design very well. Her furniture reminds me of a modernized version of some of the couches in Morocco and cushion chairs in Egypt. But her stuff is square as are the lamps she has around the house that she designed. My favorite lamp is as tall as I am and it is a series of white paper squares stacked in a staggered fashion all the way up. When she moved in here there was also just a dirt yard and she landscaped it so there is a phenomenal garden with lush trees, flowers and a lovely brick patio that matches the brick in the fireplace that is near the entrance to the back. The apartment is bright and stunning.
The party was catered and the food was amazing. There was a DJ, though it seemed like Dina’s brother, Tito, spent much of the night DJing. He played one CD that was fantastic fusion music called The Orient Beats Back. I didn’t meet too many people because I often get shy in these kinds of situations, but everyone I did meet was very nice. I found it a pleasant change of pace to be in a space where people could give a shisa if they talked to us or not. It seems like this was a difference in class, as this gathering was obviously a collection of rather elite Cairenes. These are people, given what I gathered by talking to people and what I know about Dina, who travel around the world and who don’t seem to worry about money—certainly not to the extent many more people in Egypt have to worry about. No one was veiled and the women dressed really differently than in the rest of Cairo—mostly tight designer blue jeans and cute little halter tops or designer blouses or t-shirts. The men also wore designer jeans but with polo style shirts. A very different scene than what we experienced when we dined at Mohamed’s house last week. And yet both were the best experiences I’ve had yet in Cairo. A lot of the people in attendance were relatives of Dina—cousins, aunts, uncles and their spouses and friends. I think Dina felt badly that we didn’t meet more people, but I just enjoyed observing and sitting on her patio drinking a glass of nice wine and enjoying the cool breeze.
The afternoon before the party Echo and I spent with Mostafa, a friend we made in Alexandria who was in Cairo to take an exam so that he can teach English in Kuwait. His friend Samer was in town too so we met up with them at Groppi’s after class. We had a very interesting conversation over Turkish coffee (for some reason when you order cahwa Arribe they always correct you with this distinction). Mostafa was asking us what we thought of Nasser and Sadat. I told him that I thought that they did some important things, Nasser nationalizing the Suez Canal, for instance, was crucial not only for Egyptians but also for anti-colonial struggles around the world—Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, for instance, was inspired by Nasser in this way as were many, many others. But Mostafa was asking me this as a sort of segue into suggesting that colonial rule under the British and French was “less worse” than anything since then. I asked him what he thought about the relationship between how the British behaved here and how they used their occupation of Egypt to control India and Kenya and other parts of the globe, but again I think he was only interested in thinking about the effects of colonialism on Egyptian society as if it were in isolation. It’s not that he condoned the mass murder of millions of people in India, for instance, but it seems like he didn’t see a connection between the occupation of Suez and their behavior elsewhere. Mostfafa is a high school teacher and well educated so it makes me want to read the textbooks here to see how this history gets portrayed. A lot of what he was saying, however, was from his grandparents who apparently benefited in some way from King Farouk and liked him far better than anyone since.
Mostafa’s support of his argument was peppered with comments like, “well, the English are civilized.” I asked him what that inferred about Egyptians or anyone else who isn’t English and he didn’t really have a response. He said we should know this because of what the English did in the U.S., but I tried to explain that if he were to query Native Americans he’d never find anyone to agree with him. He wasn’t saying that the violence and economic exploitation was civilized, but he was sort of trying to argue that in a parallel way the culture they produce is really important. Samer chimed in at this point because he believes that good writing must come out of some sort of suffering; he’s traveled in Europe and thinks that much of what they produce is empty because they haven’t suffered. (Samer, by the way, shared with me that about 3-4 generations back his family, which is half Italian and half Egyptian, was Jewish but converted at some point to Islam. He’s not sure about the details, but there are some family papers that they discovered which tell this story). Mostafa sees Egyptians as behind in terms of culture because they didn’t produce any plays or novels until relatively late compared to the British and French. And yet there are centuries of phenomenal artistic, architectural, scientific creations by Egyptians that predate the entire European continent. But his conversation was complicated and fascinating for a number of reasons. It’s difficult for me, a white, Jewish, American woman, to try to say I know what it’s like better than you do. And yet I couldn’t help feeling like I was debating Dinish D’souza, though a much milder form. But it still had that tinge of D’souza speak of “well, my grandfather benefited from the British colonial rule in India, so colonialism was good…” And that was part of what he argued—that they built roads and railways and schools and therefore they were good for Egypt. It’s true, as Mostafa pointed out, that we’re only here for 2 months and we have our own money that we spend and then we leave. We aren’t Egyptian and so we cannot understand. And yet I did feel like I witnessed aspects of a colonized mindset in what he was saying. But who am I to say such a thing to him? I can’t and I didn’t. I mean, I am the colonizer—or at least I represent it given what my country is doing in Asia right now.
I haven’t by any stretch been spending all of my time socializing, though when I do socialize I try to speak Arabic and ask questions to clarify my understanding of the language after this first week of classes. Mostafa and Echo traipsed around downtown Cairo with me yesterday because I was determined to find books for Egyptian children to teach them how to write the alphabet. I finally found one of those books where you can trace over the letters multiple times to get the hang of writing. We finished learning the alphabet this week and I’m starting to recognize letters and even words on signs around the city. Before I kind of ignored them because they didn’t look like much to me, but now I really get excited as I try to read them. As we were learning the letter alif this week one of the items my teacher Khawla put on the board was the name Rami, so I was very happy to find out how to write a friend’s name! Much of the teaching this week, especially today with the TA who did drills with us, was game oriented again. We did word searches in Arabic and listened to the Arabic alphabet song, which I believe can be found at http://www.funwitharabic.com. My colloquial Arabic class had a bit of English mixed into it today because he wanted to talk to us about culture and religion in Egypt. He talked about a history of Coptic Christians and Moslems living together as friends and neighbors. I raised my hand and asked about Jewish Egyptians, but he told me he didn’t know any. He talked about the Jews he does know, mostly students from the U.S. who come to study at AUC, and apparently most of these students are Zionist or Zionist leaning who try to engage him in political battles both in class and in his office. I was really struck and shocked by this because it would seem to me that the Jewish kids who would come to study here would have to have some interest in harmony in this region of the world. Why they would want to come here with those attitudes is beyond me. I guess I should not assume things about the people who study here—especially since I heard a story about some American students who were deported immediately because they were caught outside the gate of AUC in front of the security people saying something about those “f*&^%$# Egyptians.” The students and teachers went on strike and they went immediately to the airport without collecting their things and were sent home that afternoon. Anyway, I had a brief talk with Ahmed, my teacher, about the fact that I’m Jewish and why I am here to learn Arabic especially because I want him to know that not all Jewish people have those beliefs about Israel, Sharon, Zionsim, and the like.
One last thing about AUC—and you can see photos later tonight because I’m in the process of uploading a new batch—you’ll notice how beautiful it is and I’ve already told you how amazing the faculty is. The bookstore is fantastic too. But the food…well, let’s just say cafeteria style eating must be horrible all around the world. It’s yucky meat oriented American style sandwiches for the most part. I found a place that had a bit of baba ganouj on campus as well as some beet salad and yogurt, but that’s about it. They don’t even have good Egyptian bread—just round white dinner rolls. So I have a new acronym for AUC: BYOB (as in bread).