A couple days ago an Egyptian friend told me the infamous Moulid at Saayida Zeinab mosque was cancelled because of the hoorah over swine flu.
They don’t want big crowds, he said.
Camping out, as hundreds of thousands supposedly do in the weeks leading up to the big day, was declared illegal by the Egyptian authorities.
Moulids, meaning birthdays, are Suffi traditions celebrated all over Egypt.
Not specified in the Koran many Muslims do not know, partake or condone the practice.
This one in particular celebrates Saayida Zeinab, who is the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammed, and therefore must occur only at her mosque.
When my roommate AJ announced it was today and he was covering it (he’s a journalist), I repeated what my friend said and stared out the window, wondering where all the people were.
While the huge crowds might have stayed home, Saayida’s birthday, was not a total bust.
Standing in front of the mosque, with an Egyptian friend, Amr, crowds swarmed around us.
He pointed out the frequency of galabyias–the long loose dresses men wear. It’s a different style than how we dress in Cairo, he said, explaining most of the worshippers are from rural regions of upper and lower Egypt.
A guy wearing a shirt reading, “I’m Noisy” with Elmo and white girl bearing arms, we drew attention from the crowd and the interest of a cop.
Do you want to go in the mosque? Amr asked me. The women go in that way–he pointed to an entrance where a mob of women fought to descend a couple steps into the mosque.
Yeah definitely! Can I…I asked? Our new buddy, the cop, said I could if I covered my arms and hair.
Putting on my veil, I spotted a women, standing with two friends, snapping my picture.
One of the friends came over.
Are you here to see this? She asked in Arabic, which Amr translated.
I live down the street, I told her. But yeah, I’m here now to check it out.
Are you scared of getting swine flu because of the big crowd.
Everywhere in Cairo is crowded, I answered. Plus I’m American, don’t you think I already have it? (Swine flu has been a huge deal here, especially since cases were found among American University students. Co-workers say people have moved away from them on subways out of fear of catching the bug.)
As she began to ask another questions, I became suspicious.
Her questions were well thought out, targeted for a specific angle…her friend snapped another picture and she held, what I’d thought was an iPod in her hand.
She was dressed differently, looked better kept and more focused than the many milling around the area.
Are you a journalist? I asked her in Arabic.
Are you recording this?
She said she wasn’t.
She asked if I was going to go in. I said I was, half hoping she’d join.
She didn’t seem to have any intention.
Her friend snapped another picture as I put on my headscarf and Amr and I headed to the entrance.
I relinquished my shoes to a guy at the door was pushed forward by the masses of woman vying to enter.
Think of the most crowded concert you’ve attended and those lines of people forcibly pushing their way to the front or out. Now imagine there is not one destination, people are sitting on the floor, praying begging for money, eating, holding babies, yelling and grabbing your clothes.
From all sides I was shoved deeper into the congregation.
Eyes ahead, overwhelmed by the masses of praying before me, I felt a slap on my shoulder. An elderly woman was whacking me with some clothe.
Apparently she didn’t approve of my dress. Khalas–”enough” I yelled at her. Another woman tried to help by forcefully rearranging my shawl.
In the deepest room women touched and prayed toward a wall and snapped pictures with their cell phone.
All the incentive I needed, I pulled out my camera and snatched a couple shots.
Out in the street, Cairo air never felt so fresh and clear.
This Saturday afternoon found the majority of the Resettlement Legal Aid staff chowing down on delicious Iraqi cuisine and learning dubka dancing in one of our translator’s living rooms.
A couple weeks ago I posted a video of some Iraqi friends dancing dubka in a park. Apparently it’s a competitive form of entertainment across the Middle East.
It was one of those lazy Saturday mornings when I didn’t have anywhere to be until 12:00pm. (The work week in Egypt is Sunday-Thursday).
I woke up around 9 a.m., had a delicious green breakfast, read and looked over Arabic for an hour.
Food somewhat digested, it felt like yoga time.
Every time I want to exercise at home (There are cheap men-only gyms down the street) I always face the same dilemma.
The space is in the living room but the air-conditioning is in my bedroom.
After doing a couple crowded vinaysas between my bed and window, I decided to take action.
If I rotated and moved my bed so it is under the window I would have room for my yoga matt between the foot of my bed and desk.
Deciding to trust my eyes, I gave my bed a shove toward it’s new home.
It didn’t budge.
I took off the mattress, under which I found wood planks. I removed those too.
A pile of old plastic suitcases, decaying taped boxes, an ab table and old projector greeted me.
Everything was coated in a layer of thick dust and moth balls.
I tried to push the bed-frame with the stuff inside.
It only slid slightly.
I removed the boxes and suitcases, one fell open to reveal a collection of shoes. I picked up a pair of cute red heels, clots of sand fell out, and the inside was filled with grime and mold. The more stuff I moved the more I found…a rusty old knife a tin filled with keys and a couple other metal things I couldn’t identify.
Things to the side I pushed the bed to its new window-front home.
Unfortunately the precarious wooden bed frame suffered on the journey.
The same thing happened to me last year, in an apartment I subletted in Washington DC.
But in DC it was a new Ikea frame where the parts snapped into place.
Now I was dealing with a heavy wooden frame, tired nails and a whole lot of junk jostling for space under the planks. I put the bed back together and was ready to call it a day.
The sideboard fell off and my mattress sunk ominously on the left side.
The fun continued a few hours later when a couple of my friends stopped by. The loose boards were soon thrown to the side as the guys explored the mounds of under-bed crap.
They were especially fascinated by boxes of bullets and old rusty knife.
They debated wether my landlord was a thief or in the military, as I claimed.
After a while they put the bed back together, in slightly better order than I had.
The only item that made the cut for staying above mattress was the ab rack.
After doing a couple obstacle-free vinyaysas this morning I went to Arabic class and checked my email.
“knives under your bed? really?” My Mom wrote. I’m all for it if you need to but I’m worried if you need to.”
She had seen a comment on my Facebook wall and didn’t have the context.
Funny that my Mom thought I needed to sleep with knives under my bed in Cairo? Crazy that she wasn’t more concerned? A failure of my blog there is cause for such concern? A success that she thinks it will all work out here? Awesome that she trusts me to use knives so well?
Ehh…there they will remain.
Have you ever had a dream where you standing in front of a room of people talking and no one can understand you?
I have not, but now I can semi-relate to those who have.
Yesterday I introduced myself in Arabic with a microphone to some 100 Fulbright students, professors and organizers.
The students are all going to the United States as Arabic teacher’s assistants. After most will return to the Middle East to teach English. This was the last day of their crash course in teaching Arabic. 3 other Americans and I were the hands on experience.
I arrived a few minutes early and stood in the back while the organizer of the program talked to them about tea.
When Americans go the the United Arab Emirates they are confused when people serve them tea, he said. In the United States everyone gets their own.
In Italy everyone gets to work and then go to a tea bar and drink tea together. It’s part of the culture.
Talk to the Americans about that, he helpfully advised. They’ll be interested.
After he finished talking, me and my fellow guinea pigs took front and center.
I always wonder which language people who speak multiple think in. If they form sentences and adeptly translate.
I do not speak much Arabic but for what I’m comfortable with the words come out naturally.
After the initial introductions we were dispersed to the crowds. Come here, come here.
I chose a table full of eager looking young woman.
I’m going to Northeastern, one of the woman told me. She’ll be working with my Arabic teacher from last semester, Shakir Mustafa.
Another is going to Boston University.
They’re both living in Roxbury and had heard it was sketchy.
We–me and around 30 Arab students–talked for around an hour.
By talking I mean they spouted questions at me in Arabic which I tried to answer in Arabic.
A lot were about teaching methods and what my Arabic classes were like.
They asked me what I thought about Egypt and why I came, cultural differences and specific information about the their destinations.
The point was to communicate completely in Arabic.
A lot was lost in translation.
After the formal session was over, they all swarmed us with cameras, asking for pictures and emails.
People usually stare at foreigners here. What’s your name, I would ask, before taking pictures? Where are you from? Where in the United States are you going?
One guy handed me an apple with my name carved in it in English and Arabic.
I wonder if they will have the same enthusiasm toward Americans after trying to teach them to pronounce Arabic letters for 8 months.
Back at my work our crazy-busy, people-packed office felt relatively peaceful.
I bit into my ridiculous-looking red delicious. Yumm…
Thanks Fulbright students. It was fun.
“Display patience and good humor when dealing the Mugamma;” My Rough Guide instructs. “Only stage a tantrum or nervous breakdown as a last resort.”
Mugamma is the Arabic word for ??
In Egypt it’s the place where all types of citizen-government and government-alien paperwork takes place.
The day I could no longer postpone renewing my visa was not marked on my calender with hearts and stars.
One of the translators in the RLAP office copied the page with my picture and entry visa into Egypt.
They’ll ask for these, he told me.
I wondered at his expertise.
We [Iraqis] have to do this all the time.
The book said stamps for the visa would cost 8LE but made no mention of the visa itself.
Chantelle a young French woman in my office who’s been here around two years said the first time she renewed her visa it cost 3LE, the second 71LE.
This did not surprise any of us. Maybe there’s a legitimate system, maybe there is not. After all, we are in Egypt.
That may sound critical or patronizing.
It’s actually rather affectionate.
Things have a special way of happening in Egypt.
People are always late, Bowabs always want to carry your groceries, guys always want to open doors, people constantly push each other in the streets and cut each other in lines, foreigners usually play slightly higher for commodities on the street, cars always beep a chorus and taxi drivers yell and stop when you’re walking in the opposite direction.
The sooner you make peace with it the happier you’ll be.
Armed with the copies of my visas, a passport-sized photo, my passport and enough money to cover the unexpected, I walked the 10 minutes from my apartment to Tahrir.
I expected a tiresome and wasted morning.
Most metal detectors do not work in Egypt (they beep incessantly and security guards wave everyone through. Whether this one did or not, I cannot say, but the scanner beside it at least did.
They took my camera out of my bag attached a plastic “9” with a rubber band and gave me another “9.”
Being the untrusting American I am, it was not an easy parting.
The guy who took my camera at least pointed me in the right direction, up a set of stairs where others were also hurrying.
Walking up the two flights it struck me how dark it was.
It these little things, i.e. Dark stairs in a capitol government building which remind me I’m really not in the U.S. anymore.
At the top of the stairs I followed the signs to window 38.
There was no line. No pushing and shoving for stamps as sources had described.
“Gedeed visa?” (New visa?) I asked the woman.
Go to window #12 down there, she instructed me.
The people were at window 12, and seemed to have their game together. They jostled each other, forms and stamps in hand.
A British woman next to me seemed to read my mind. Do you need an application, she asked. I’ll show you, we wasted so much time waiting here without one–she gestured to her friend.
She showed me where to grab an application and another window to buy stamps.
When you finish that, bring it back to #12.
A few painless minutes later I emerged from the Mugamma. I’d filled out the application, bought stamps and handed my application, photos and passport copies to infamous Ms. #`12.
Two hours later I came back to pick it up.
Though I’d left my camera in my office, the same security guard was convinced I had it. After emptying the contents of my backpack he finally waved me in.
Coming out a few minutes later I stared down at the new visa in my passport.
I could stay in Egypt until 4/12/09.
Uhh…Ohh….Was I about to see the nasty side of the Mugamma?
How did they get April…I came in May and back in June, noting said May. And 12….?
They swap the month and date from the American format.
My visa is until December 4th. Exactly 7 months after I arrived from Qatar. Six months from the date my entrance visa expired.
So beautiful, so official. 6 months in Egypt. Just over 2 dollars, just under 2 hours.
Have you seen “Good Will Hunting” when Will rationalizes refusing a hot-shot NSA job?
“Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll give it a shot. Say I’m working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. So I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, ’cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never had a problem with get killed. Now the politicians are sayin’, “Send in the marines to secure the area” ’cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, gettin’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number was called, ’cause they were pullin’ a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some guy from Southie takin’ shrapnel in the ass. And he comes home to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, ’cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile my buddy from Southie realizes the only reason he was over there was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And of course the oil companies used the skirmish to scare up oil prices so they could turn a quick buck. A cute little ancillary benefit for them but it ain’t helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And naturally they’re takin’ their sweet time bringin’ the oil back, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain’t too long ’til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the job interviews, which sucks ’cause the schrapnel in his ass is givin’ him chronic hemorroids. And meanwhile he’s starvin’ ’cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat the only blue plate special they’re servin’ is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what do I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. Why not just shoot my buddy, take his job and give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.”
That’s kind of how I felt today, teaching an employment workshop for Iraqi refugees who will soon be living in the United States.
They sit before me–A man who has worked in the government nearly 30 years, a woman who specialized in surveying, a computer engineer, an engineering student, a petroleum expert and a couple of housewives, among others.
We invaded their country and toppled their government. Every kind of political and social unrest ensued. They all have horrific stories about what personally happened to them in Iraq and why they fled.
They made their way to Egypt, often through transitory countries and spent 1-5 years struggling through the resettlement process.
Interviews, security checks, health screenings and more security.
The more horrific their stories—if they were tortured, specifically targeted, lost spouses, are single woman with no means of support–the more likely they are to be the lucky few selected for resettlement.
Currently most do not have jobs and struggle financially. Some put their children’s education on hold and others live off dwindling savings. Some have money for the moment but no opportunity to earn more.
On a survey I asked them if they had means to support themselves in the United States if they do not find a job immediately. Each wrote, “No.”
Exhausted from years of waiting. Depressed because of all they lost, they look hopefully toward a new life in the country of their occupiers. Their ordeal is almost over.
Yet without fluency in English and a poor economy (9.5 unemployment rate), what will greet them in the United States?
I prepare them for the possibility of working as dishwashers.
One man asks, me a question:
We are not immigrants by choice, we are refugees. We were forced to flee our country. Some of risked our lives and livelihood to help the United States in Iraq. Won’t America give us anything? Won’t anyone help us find jobs?
Voluntary resettlement agencies in the United States receive $900 in federal money for each refugee they sponsor. There are some essential the U.S. government requires VOLAGS to provide newcomers.
The federal money paired with whatever the VOLAG can raise, is expected to cover the refugees first month of rent, food upon arrival, basic furnishings and any job training. English classes and other needs are often not required, though undoubtedly vital to successful resettlement.
Anyone want to calculate how far $900 is going to go toward that?
The International Rescue Mission, one of the main resettlement agencies, reported the average family of four receives $575 in aid a month, lasting a maximum of 8 months. The same report said in its branch in Phoenix, Arizona, the average employment specialist is carrying a caseload of 200 refugees.
I tell the man in my class he cannot rely on anyone, that he needs to learn what resources are available and how to use them.
There is no way to know how much aid he will get in the United States, no way to know who will hire him, if his caseworker will give him the help he needs or he’ll ever work in a high-level position again.
I explain about outlets for job searching, interviews, resumes and building contacts and references. We have lots to discuss and do not get through half of it.
They are receptive, they listen and ask questions.
These individuals will be going to cities and towns across the United States. They are strong independent people, used to supporting themselves. They do not want to rely social services–they want jobs and are willing to take ones they would never consider in Iraq.
They thank me at the end of the workshop. They ask if they can meet individually for more questions and resume writing.
I’m a student, with less education and life experiences than every one of them.
Ours is a crazy world.
* I would love some feedback–about the political/societal aspects of this situation and practical and creative ideas.
Does anyone know resettled Iraqi refugees living in the United States? How are they getting by? How are they being received?
My clients will be resettled anywhere from San Francisco to Boston, Arizona, Arlington Virginia and Detroit–to name a few places.
If you live in any of these locations and want to get involved—i.e. showing a newcomer around or helping them practice English and hearing a story over a cup of tea, shoot me an email. *
My dad is always hosting events at our house.
For example he arranges huge gatherings each Labor day weekend.
Lots of people I hardly know from all facets of his life come and park their cars in a field behind our house. Clients, old friends and classmates, acquaintances and others he invites on whim. Growing up my mother and sometimes grandmother would come too–especially significant because my parents are divorced.
Though a good time, I never fully understood his love for it. Why does he always offer to host things at our house? He works more than any person I know, shouldn’t he give himself a break and relax?
Years when lots of personal things were going on I’d ask if he was still having it. The answer was always yes.
I think here I’m starting to understand the sentiment behind his events.
As I go more places and meet more people I can’t help thinking how friends would interact together.
The 4th of July was an occasion to do this small scale. My different groups in Cairo congealed. International co-workers –Iraqi and other, Egyptians, Syonara, Samar, her children and Suleyman all gathered together at the park.
Seeing friends I hung out with this year and last and told about each other, bonding was surprisingly satisfying.
After eating, wandering the grounds and snapping shots, some of the Iraqi guys taught us a traditional Iraqi dance and we played a very intense Iraqi guessing game.
I asked the Egyptians to share some of their dancing too, but we agreed it probably belonged in a club with all the hip-shaking.
Fireworks you ask?
I saw some the next night out my window, presumably part of the moulid. Cairo is full of surprises.
Happy birthday from Cairo, America.
I hope one day my family and friends and home will have a chance to meet these people….
After all the kindness our Iraqi friends had show us, and maybe because we were so far from the U.S., Steph and I got an unexpected wind of patriotism.
We wanted to show Egypt how Americans celebrate Independence Day.
Without a BBQ in sight, we decided to cook up a feast at my apartment and bring it to Al-Azhar park–the greenest place I know in Cairo.
We drafted the menu in the micro-bus on our way home from the 6th of October.
Green salad, fruit salad, a pesto pasta, hummus, baba-ghanoush, bread, mashed potatoes, Lousi’s(a co-worker) got the fish, chocolate chip cookies and apple pie.
We’d get a Frisbee and toss that around too.
The morning of the 4th found me off to the market, stocking up on supplies for our cookathon.
Steph was bringing processed ingredients, like chocolate chips and salad dressing from the grocery store in Zamalek. I was picking the fresh stuff from the markets surrounding my place.
Fruit and veggies in hand, I confronted the challenge of pesto. We knew we probably couldn’t find basil, so anything green and fresh looking was a contestant.
“Aye ida?” (What’s this?) I asked a woman selling something, which looked green and rather fabulous.
The irony of learning Arabic is, as long as I have to ask what something is, I probably won’t understand the answer. This green plant, was clearly not in my vocabulary.
She told me it was, “helwa, helwa owi,” very great.
Off I went with it.
Back in my apartment we confronted another problem.
Hey Karen….do you know if the stove worked? I asked my roommate.
She hadn’t used it, AJ hadn’t either. We tried to light it with no luck.
Hey Louis, I called my coworker, can we come over and use your stove? You can cook the fish there too.
I just checked and there’s a sign on my stove, which says do not use.
You never used your stove? ( Did you ever go in your kitchen!?)
Oh boys, oh appliances in Cairo.
Steph is our legal director for good reason.
Why don’t you make them on the burner like pancakes? She suggested.
I poured a bit in a pot on top of the stove. The bottom began to burn, the middle wasn’t cooking.
I poured the rest of the batter in. I grabbed the spatula.
I mixed and cut until the batter was cooked and then pressed the thoroughly chocolately substance into a baking dish, which I put in the freezer.
Obviously we pre-empted and tasted a bit. We were all fans.
Meanwhile, Steph was busy playing with the leafy greens in the blender.
One was turnip the other, something extremely bitter.
We added limes sugar, cheese and tomatoes, mixed it into the pasta and fed it to my roommate AJ.
How do you like it?
He told us was delicious and tasted grassy.
By grassy do you mean fresh? Hmmm…
We dismantled our dishes into tubber-ware containers and headed off to the park.
To be continued as 4th part II
I relaxed in chair in an outdoor cafe in 6th of October and tried to coherently and sensitively express my thoughts.
Well, it’s just that, this is great we’re all having fun and learning so much from each other. I feel so lucky to be here. But we shouldn’t be here. None of us would be here if the United States, my country, had not invaded Iraq.
It was around 2 a.m. and our night was winding down with sheesha and drinks (fruit and coffee only!). The day had been a marathon of welcomes from our Iraqi co-workers and friends in 6th of October–a city 40 minutes outside Cairo, known for high immigrant populations.
Iraqi food was the named theme of the day. For lunch they treated us to a feast of grilled meat, tabouli, tahina, potatoes, eggplant , lamb, rice, and goza beans. Stomachs already full, we visited three more houses, where we were serenaded with delicious food and drink.
The first apartment was spacious, with exquisite new curtains matching sofas and tables. It was clear this family was well-off in Iraq and in there three years here, they had done their best to replicate.
The father family, an engineer who works as a translator in our office, drew our attention to a souvenirs given by friends from around the world and a family portrait. Lovingly displayed in a glass cabinet, they were the only personal things visible in the apartment. It was clear this place was a transit point.
The walls were bare.
In the other houses we enjoyed tea, deserts and conversational mix of English and Iraqi (to my dismay, very different from Egyptian) Arabic.
We were welcomed without reservation. Our thanks were met with thanks for our work and friendship.
In my three weeks working in the office no one has criticized my nationality. No one has asked me to justify America’s actions in Iraq. When I’ve brought it up there hasn’t been resentment, just a sense of we’re in this together.
What should we do now?
I don’t know.
I don’t know either.
One Iraqi suggested Americans put down the weapons and get to work rebuilding.
Wouldn’t they be targets? Would peace stick? I asked.
I don’t know.
In the cafe we do not spend time talking about things that did and do go on wrong. We accept the reality of the moments. We are here now. From Australia, American, Quebec, and Iraq.
We play ping-pong, enjoy food and each others’ company.
Momentum is toward the future. We are friends and co-workers, we have a lot of work at the moment, that is our focus.
Safely in a microbus zooming back toward Cairo, Rami calls us.
Our you safe? Are you almost there? You should be there by now?
We’re fine, we’re fine. We’ll be there soon, we tell him.
It is our responsibility to get our guests home safely too, he says.
Yet I still can’t help but wonder….
What if America policy lived by the same responsibility as our friends?