Xela is the second biggest city in Guatemala, which isn’t saying much as the population’s only around 150,000. Still, after Antigua–a city not boasting much above 50,000–the possibilities seem endlessly enticing. A major difference between the two cities is while Antigua is the sweetheart of recurring rounds of tourists—the kind that come to Guatemala just for it (don’t ask me why…)—Xela’s a place that feels more ‘authentic.’ While there are plenty of Spanish schools and gringo-style cafes, most have a grittier look than those in Antigua and are concentrated in one area (Zone 1). Wandering beyond, the amount of tourists dissipate and a more realistic view of the city begins to emerge.
It’s the kind of place I have a feeling takes a while to truly understand, but might be well worth the effort. I’m spending the next week traveling elsewhere in Guate with a friend, but then I’ll return to Xela for another couple weeks.
view from the roof of my school.
My Spanish teacher said this graveyard was transplanted from another part of the city–apparently someone wanted the other land for construction. He said they still come across bones at the old site.
Gallo is one of the national beers of Guate and available all over for a $2 or so dollars.
Profamilia is a community organization that provides children with free lunch and a place to hang out to do homework after school. Sometimes they have organized English, computer or other class for the children–though I haven’t seen this in my brief time here. Many of the children go to school irregularly and work on the streets shining shoes or selling candy. Profamilia also has classes and events for adults–such as sewing and computer classes. Currently they have little funding and few paid employees/long-term volunteers. I’ll continue volunteering here when I return to Xela, so more to come….
Autumn in Egypt. Pshhh.
When September came and went with my airconditioner humming–no change in the weather, foods or styles, I buried my thoughts of cool fall breezes, fresh apples, sweaters and cozy boots, and embraced Cairo’s seemingly eternal summer.
After all, I can only miss macouns, pumpkins and bright leaves so much when guavas and dates are abundant and the sun never misses a beat. (OK sometimes it’s thwarted by pollution).
Yet a couple weeks ago I noticed all was not as static as I supposed.
The first thing I noticed were carts with men who roasted sweet potatoes. I wondered if they were the same men who cut and sold passion fruit all summer long.
Then, walking to work one morning, I thought the air smelled different.
Maybe it was in my head, but I caught a whiff of a scent, which in the States, I would swear without hesitation, was distinctly Autumn. I thought of piles of brightly colored leaves and children heading to primary school.
As I walked through the market, I had to admit, things has changed while I have been busy at work.
Apples, bananas, pomegranates, oranges, guavas and bright orange persimmons were everywhere and decreasing in price. Mangoes, pears, fresh dates, peaches and plums were no more. And Nadia (an RLAP coworker and friend) and I discovered measly remnants were all that remained of our beloved figs, which we had indulged in since June.
(Moze (banana) season in Cairo!)
And the markets are not the only businesses changing up their stocks.
Over the last month, store mannequins have finally adjusted to resemble the appearance of the majority of women on the street–silhouettes hidden in bright layers.
Though I initially brushed the polo-style sweaters off as a silly fashion gimmick, time has already proved me wrong.
A couple weeks ago, Mufas(an Egyptian friend) showed up with a sweater tied around around his neck, superprep style. Days later, he wore the sweater over another shirt as we waited for friends outside Cairo Jazz Club.
(My Mom visited!)
“Aren’t you cold?” he asked, glancing at my bare arms. “Do you want to wear my sweater?”
“No!” I said, stoically refusing to wear such a garment when it was at least 70 degrees.
Yet a couple days later, I found myself stuffing another layer into my bag as I rushed to work and adding another sheet to my bed because I was chilly.
So a couple months later than I expected, at degrees which I’d rush for shorts and Tees at any other point in my life, I find myself excitedly donning sweaters and eyeing boots in store windows.
I only wonder how my body will feel about sub-zero Boston and NY in a few weeks….
*Fashion pictures coming*
Ten students (American, Canadian and Norwegian ), our Iraqi teacher Azhar, a couple Iraqi friends and myself, are squeezed into St. Andrew’s modest kitchen. Some students jot notes, while others cut onions or mix a concoction containing surprising amounts of garlic, spices and oil.
It’s RLAP’s second Iraqi cooking class, a fundraiser to support out work providing legal, psychosocial and cultural advising, as well as English classes to refugees in Egypt.While working as a legal advisor can become completely consuming, we’ve got to escape our endless interviews and piles of testimonies once in a while. Cooking delicious food and earning money to sustain our work seemed like the perfect break from the routine.
One of the best perks of my work Resettlement Legal Aid Project (RLAP) is the constant flow of sumptuous and inspiring Iraqi food. From frequent parties on weekends–whether a birthday, holiday or a resettlement case won–to homemade lunches sent to work, there always seems to be something to celebrate and a willing Iraqi ready to prepare the goods.When the topic of fundraisers arose it seemed natural to share our wealth of food knowledge with the wider Cairo community.
Some highlights of our first two classes are: 19 students (and me!) with hints about Iraqi cooking and newfound lust for Iraqi food, expats buying meat, (there’s a stereotype here that many expats never learn how to cook and buy meat in Egypt) hilarious translation bloopers (the first teacher who taught only speaks Arabic), new friends and connections(everyone seemed to leave the class with someone’s contact info).
And what caught me by surprise?
Cooking was only one of two draws to the class. More than one student loitered outside the kitchen, questioning our Iraqi friends about their lives rather than the culinary traditions. Working and socializing with Iraqis on a daily basis, it seems I’ve lost all sense of what thoughts about Iraqis and Iraq conjure for many other Americans. Will I get a reality shock back in the States in a few weeks?
Classes and menus are arranged on a weekly basis. Let me know if you’re in town and want to reserve a spot.
Otherwise, you better hope I feel like showing off my newly acquired skills the next time we meet =)
Though true to the hype, Egypt is mostly desert–only 3 percent of land is arable–when you open your eyes to it, Cairo has a pretty hopping fruit and veggie scene going back to ancient times.
“Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” is a phrase you might remember from history class, a tour book or even thrown in conversation. Historically, agriculture was Egypt’s greatest economic commodity. In 2000 agriculture accounted for approximately 11 percent of Egypt’s GDP and over 1/3 of the population was employed in agriculture.
The majority of produce is grown in the Delta, an area north of Cairo bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The rest is grown along the Nile, between Cairo and Aswan, just south of the High Dam, which controls the once annual Nile floods and ensures reliable water distribution throughout the year.
Living here temporarily, eating at cafes, restaurants and street vendors, it’s easy to believe the country is largely devoid of all produce except oil drenched eggplants, taamiya (falafel but with fava beans) salad and plentiful fresh juices. Adding to the desert theme, population locations i.e. the pyramids, temples, ruins, desert oases and beaches on the north coast and in Sinai are naturally sand-prone
Since settling down in an apartment with a kitchen and spending more time with Egyptians and Iraqis who cook, I have discovered an inspiring world of fruits and veggies throughout the megalopolis.
A market behind Sayidda Zeinab mosque and one surrounding the Saad Zagloul metro stop, both within a five minute walk of my flat, are where I usually shop.
I never had a fresh fig until a couple months ago a coworker bought a bag while taking a walk from work. Sweet, with a unique texture, they have quickly become one of my favorite fruits.
Guavas are another I never had fresh until living here. Though I drank the juice previously, I had pictured Guavas as papayas and thought the guavas on the streets were pares. When Syonara served me a plate of sliced guavas I learned they were something entirely different. Now I cannot quite imagine my life, let alone breakfasts, without them.
I first spied a couple lonely pomegranates at a small fruit stand across my street about a month ago. Being one of my all-time favorites, and an apparent anomaly in Egypt, I snatched them up. Though completely unripe, they were a promise of what has come. Since, sweet, juicy, pink pomegranates have matriculated to many fruits stands, living up to pomegranate lovers desires and costing around $1 USD a kilo.
Though I haven’t found dates as good as Mahmoud’s to date, I’ve been entranced by the many varieties. The traditional way to break fast for Ramadan, dates –dried, fresh, unripe, overripe, yellow, red and purple are profuse.
The other day I dashed home from work at 2:00 p.m. to grab a forgotten computer cord. I was shocked to see my neighborhood market more bustling than ever. Not only was it the hottest part of the day, but most Egyptians are fasting for Ramadan. The hours shift slightly each day with the sunrise and set–no food, water, cigarettes, sex etc, from approximately 4:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
It seems shopping for food might be one way the fasters distract themselves until the moment of consumption.
My Arabic teacher, Nancy, has asked us to keep our eyes open. You’ll notice all sorts of changes as Ramadan approaches, she said.
From a growing amount of pastries, dried fruit, and special Ramadan lanterns, to clothing vendors shouting something, of which the only word I could decipher was “Ramadan”–Cairenes are seemingly in a frenzy preparing for the month-long holiday.
Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is the holiest month because it’s when Muhammad Hussein, the prophet of Islam, is believed to have revealed the Koran.
Thinking a month long holiday sounds fun?
From what I’ve learned thus far, a theme of the month is discipline.
“In Ramadan, we don’t only abstain from food, drink, smoking, marital sex, but also we abstain form all kinds of immoral acts and obscenity,”Wrote Dr. Muhammad M. Abu Laylah, a professor at Azhar University, on Islamonline.net.
“Our social, religious, charitable acts are combined in our fasting. So, the month of Ramadan is an intensive course in physical and spiritual hygiene.”
Ok. Really think about this. No water in the 100+ heat and no cigarettes for the chain-smoking taxi-drivers. Though just to clarify, “In Ramadan,” refers to the fasting period–sunrise to sunset only. The prophet specifically permits marital sex outside these hours.
While the fast is a personal challenge, in the land of bowabs (doormen) who monitor all comings and goings, neighbors who all know each other and generations of families who live together, or course the holiday is very community oriented.
As fasting is not an option but required of Muslims (there are exceptions for illnesses, travelers, pregnant women, soldiers and young children) it becomes an obligatory social, as well as religious event.
“(Fasting) for a fixed number of days, but if any of you is ill or on a journey, the same number (should be made up) from other days. And as for those who can fast with difficulty, (i.e. an old man, etc.), they have (a choice either to fast or) to feed a poor person (for every day). But whoever does good of his own accord, it is better for him. And that you fast, it is better for you if only you know.” (2:183-84)
The countdown until August 22nd is on.
This is just the teaser ;)
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.
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….
Change is my favorite. Today I returned to Cairo from Alexandria and tomorrow a new adventure begins.
The remaining Northeastern students will return to the United States (I’ll miss you guys =/ ) and I’ll begin my internship at the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in downtown Cairo.
I’m able to spend 6 months working in Cairo because of NU’s co-ops program.
The idea is students get real world experience and build their resumes while remaining full-times students.
While last year I took advantage of NU’s vast job database and enjoyed working at the New England Council in Washington, DC–this time around I decided to do my own thing.
Thanks to the advice, flexibility and patience of my co-op advisors, Lisa Worsh, Cynthia Sweet and Ketty Rosenfeld, among other professors and contacts, I’ve settled.
The aim of RLAP is to help refugees prepare testimony for the United Nations Refugee Agency and the International Migration Organization, in charge of resettlement.
I’ll be working with refugees already approved for resettlement to prepare them for life in new lands–usually the U.S.
I’ll find out more tomorrow, but this involves everything from assisting with housing, jobs, education and language to discussing cultural norms and expectations. After a bit, I might work on the legal side of things too—interviewing and preparing for testimony.
The project was originally specifically for Iraqi refugees and they continue to make up the bulk of the clients. For obvious reasons, the U.S. is accepting more Iraqi refugees than any others.
What kind of things are happening with projects of this sort now? Here’s one perspective.
I’m excited to begin this new phase.