Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fasting - الصيام

AaSiyaam - Fasting
followed by
Algafaf - Dehydration

Written a month ago and promptly forgotten. Posted now, while in Germany, one day before going home. Whoops!

It's Ramadan in Egypt and true to what i've heard on Al-Jazeera specials and read in snippets of Arabic textbooks here and there.... Egypt does Ramadan RIGHT. The extent to which Egyptian Muslims ALL seem to be fasting, as well as the shifted rhythm of the day, is all rather fascinating. The energy in the street, or lack thereof, is palpable at certain times (all is dead calm from 4 to 10 AM,  then normally but sleepily continuing throughout the afternoon, the lull in energy and break in good moods at 5 pm is obvious and can result in scuffles in the street, and at 6, as people are buying food to prepare for breaking the fast at 7, all is excitement and anticipation). It seems to revolve around food (SO MUCH FOOD in fast-breaking meals!) prayer and improving one's relationship with God, time with family and evening gatherings, and acts of charity for those in need. (Though there's a fair amount of grumpy, less-than-courteous or charitable behavior going on in the heat of the day, when unsurprisingly, people get thirsty and snap a bit quicker.) I was honestly dreading Ramadan, thinking everything would be closed and that everyone would be unavailable, and what would it matter anyway, since I don't live with a Muslim family. Buuuut I do have Muslim friends! Who invite me to their homes to eat with their families (so so lovely and just like a pre-Christmas December meal with family), and to restaurants, and more than that, I have a roommate who loves to cook and loves to serve those she cares about with good food, particularly this time of year. The times Kelsey, Enas, and I have shared meals and stayed up at night, laughing and drinking cups of green mint tea are something I never want to forget, thank you. 

Officially, the month of Ramadan commemorates God revealing the Qur'an to the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). According to what I've been told, God desires that Muslims fast to remind them of those who have little to nothing all year round. As such, any sort of consumption is abstained from throughout daylight hours. Added prayer times in the evening, after the fast-breaking meal, provide opportunities for men and women to meditate and "draw closer to what God wants us to be," in the words of one of my muslim friends.

In terms of aesthetics, at certain times of day, Ramadan has a hushed, calm, and pretty quality of I've become an immediate fan. Other times of day can be, uh, stressful. LIke when you're in a large group ordering the fast-breaking meal at a restaurant and EVERYONE is starving and not thinking straight and the restaurant is a zoo. The cycle of energy throughout the day easy to get sucked into. When the evening call to prayer sounds, the maghreb, the silence and calm is unimaginable (everyone and their mom is eating, yo). Lanterns are lit in the streets and in the minarets and Christmasy lights adorn just about everything. It's beautiful. Soon thereafter, the streets begin to buzz with activity, as people freshly sated with an evening meal head out to expend some energy, walk along the corniche, go shopping, buy sweets and juice, and look fly in their new Ramadan outfits. It's pretty sweet. (Except when they set off full-size fireworks from the balconies next door. And keep doing it until 2 or 3. Whyyyyyyy!)

I'm not fasting, and most of my American friends aren't either. I thought this would make me feel guilty, but if anything, it's a helpful reminder that while this is my current home, I am not a muslim Egyptian. Outside of my apartment, I've only eaten food at the lounge of the building where we study, and furtively in the locker room of the gym where I work out. I don't feel comfortable guzzling water in front of a bunch of fasting women walking on treadmills, so my usual habit of sipping on a whole bottle while working out is completed in a few chugs in a bathroom stall. [EDIT: THIS WAS A BAD IDEA. I ended up getting severely dehydrated the second week of Ramadan and the pharmacist who was getting me electrolytes said "why on earth are you not drinking more? You're not fasting! You're not used to this!" Yeah, uh, he was right. Whoops. SECOND EDIT: I've since learned that even fasting people break the rules, for a whole realm of legitimate reasons. You just don't talk about it if you see someone breaking their fast. Don't hate me, muslim fasters who might be reading this, I'm not trying to bust you, I'm just sharing what I've heard and what I've seen!]

The return to Austin approaches, and while I'm content about that, there are delightful Egypt things that no Austin afternoon can emulate, and those things (those ridiculous, bedraggled, adorable cats that hang out in Camp Shezar, buying fresh mango by the kilo with a scale dating from 1940, sitting with friends smoking shisha and drinking tea until the wee hours, being dragged by Egyptian girls into the center of a dance circle at parties to uproarious laughter when they realize, yep, that foreigner really DOESN'T know how to belly dance) have convinced me that a year in America, or a bit longer, depending on that master's, is a great pit-stop on the way to future periods of living abroad, if God wills it. Preferably in Tunisia, in a beach-side villa. Just sayin'. [EDIT, written one day before I fly home: leaving is not as hard as I thought. It's time to go home!]

It's my 3rd to last Friday in Egypt. Off to go make a cup of al-arosa tea and sit on my dusty balcony and drink in the joyful cacophony of Ramadan evening Sporting noises.

Some Ramadan stuff:

Basia and Kaylea cooked a Tex-mex iftaar in our apartment. Note the Ramadan decorations above our dining room table and the mango she's slicing to set on a bowl of perfect mango pico de gallo!

Kunefe machine! It pipes out lines of dough onto a huge rotating cooking surface, to be used in Ramadan sweets.

A street decorated with Ramadan swag.
Pre-iftar with classmates and professors, for our final celebratory meal

A particularly scenic iftar overlooking Islamic Cairo (al-azhar mosque is the most obvious building)

Learning how to make homemade atayif (pancakes stuffed with coconut, raisins, and nuts, deep-fried and soaked in lemon sugar syrup. Yes.)

Atayif assembly line

Eating a DIFFERENT sort of atayif and drinkin' that tea with Ghada

Lanterns, or fawanees, are a big part of Ramadan tradition

(I wish I had a picture of some fights and of the empty streets and of the power outages and of the other things that have characterized Ramadan, but those just wouldn't be as pleasant to browse through. :)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Acclimation - تأقلم

Ta'aqlum - Acclimation

Too much time has elapsed to write anything  to make up for a 2-month blog lag. Hmm. Bloglag. Surely someone has proposed that word before. When you can't keep up with new vocab in Arabic, just make up new ones in your native tongue! Same diff!

Since the last post, (in April, whaaaat?) we've taken two trips to the Red Sea (Hurghada and Sharm el Sheikh, respectively) which both have different flavors and fall on different sides of the Red Sea (the latter is located in the Sinai) but share a similar penchant for attracting Russian tourists (who, in turn, LACK a certain penchant for sunscreen and swim suit cover-ups). Both trips offered spectacular snorkeling, boating, relaxing, unwinding, debriefing, gossiping... All the good things vacations give you. They also get strangely emotional sometimes; perhaps we have time to focus on the stranger bits of group dynamics, the crushes and the unspoken stuff, without immediately falling back on the "welp,, time to go study!" excuse. For the second trip (just this past week), feeling the one-month-til-the-finish-line crunch, I dragged a lot of work with me and managed to get through a tiny bit of research in my (AIR-CONDITIONED) hotel room... as I got up periodically to, ahem, throw up. Guess I'm not as immune to Egyptian tap water as I thought I was. (It's a running joke in our group that "Immunity to Egyptian drinking water and street food" is a bullet point we should proudly list on all our resumes).

As the end of the program draws closer and closer and the date of our final show-us-everything-you've-ever-learned-in-Arabic exam looms, the dynamics in our group (down to 16 folks!) has cinched and tightened. My Plan II crew was out of this world and are still my closest college friends. But these Arabic nerds, man (m3 kul i7tiraami, ba2a!). I want to see where everyone in this group ends up! Throw a bunch of easy-going but driven American twenty-somethings into post-revolutionary Egypt for a year, and I think it's natural that the resulting bond will feel a bit irreplaceable. Walking to dinner at a ful and falafel joint last night, I asked a friend if he knew the word for withdrawals in Arabic. We couldn't arrive at a suitable translation, and just got distracted by Egyptian drug vocabulary instead, but we both agreed we'd be feeling withdrawals, and howww, with respect to our friends and from the language.

In May, I visited Texas for two weeks and got to spend time with my grandpa, my aunts, my immediate family, and a smattering of college and church friends. It's hard to describe how precious that first cup of morning coffee felt, with my grandpa Jack right there to talk to. After a whole day of just bouncing around the house, and an afternoon visit to Amira in Georgetown (still my favorite Egyptian, no contest), I met some Austin friends for Zocaritas, like we used to nearly every Wednesday in college. When I arrived, I momentarily sat in my car listening to Brandi Carlisle and panicked about the sure to be awkward dynamics I'd encounter with my friends after having not seen them for 9 months. But in the end, nope, after a squealy sidewalk reunion, we're just... friends! Good friends! And I dunno what I was thinking. Of course we're still friends. People come and go, people move away and come back and pursue lives and friendships persist when you give them a little bit of care from time to time.

It's clear to me after the two weeks in Austin that I love. love. love America. I slipped right back into my little Austin niche. But it's a devotion steeped over in the assurance that it will always be there, and that my citizenship doesn't expire. I wrote in my journal while in Austin "I've seriously never felt more satiated and restless all at once." And, moreover, I'm pretty sure that the gifts and desires God has given me are better used abroad. I feel more vibrant and aware while traveling, and while setting up shop, home, and routine while abroad. Part of the purpose of living in Egypt, as I mentioned to some peeps before coming, was to see if I could enjoy life and thrive and find community while not in my own culture. i.e., could I do this for longer than the 10 months I've been here? The answer seems to be a strong yes, though likely not in Alexandria. Too much sexual harassment, yo, and not enough happy hours! (kidding. kind of.) Austin is a spectacular place to be landing at the end of August, but it'd also be neat to get off that plane in Senegal, China, Tunisia... new places! (Indicative of the two weeks of self-indulgent introspection that Austin break became, I also wrote in my journal: "America's always pretty ugly on the way home from the airport," "people really just want to make sure you're safe, no matter where it is you go," "old friendships persist," and "can't make dem summer watermelon jokes in Texas :(")

It'd be silly not to mention the recent presidential elections, during which we were all just trying to go about our lives, amidst the excitement and tension. Our second day of summer session class was set to happen on runoff results announcement day, for the contest between Ahmed Shafiq and Mohammad Morsi. It was an exciting afternoon, (even though yes, the military council is still definitely in control of Egypt), but honestly, most of us were bummed not to be going to class. (See previous reference to "nerds").

Regardless, pretty quickly we heeded our director's warning, left class, and were all scattered across the city in our various apartments. As I always do the second I get home in the Egypt summer heat, I tore off my outer layer of clothing and sat sweating in front of our new fan (it's white and made in China and says "Rose" in red letters on the front and I think we're in love) while scanning twitter for updates, so long as our awful internet would allow. When our internet cut out at the very moment the elections council announced "And the new president is..." my roommate Kelsey and I panicked for a few moments, gauging from the ruckus outside that the scene might get ugly fast. Screams rose from the street and the rowdy café on the corner rumbled with yells and applause. A man tore off his shirt and kissed the ground, shrieking. When I understood he was shrieking "Morsi, morsi, morsi!" and wasn't crying out in dissatisfaction, our momentary fears of evacuation evaporated. Had Shafiq been elected, many people predicted we'd have been evacuated, due to the potential anger that would have rippled through Tahrir and the rest of the country. Egypt wouldn't have dissolved or gone into chaos (Egypt's nearly 90 million people don't all fit in Tahrir!), but the demonstrations could have gotten ugly and the disappointment (based on the assumption that a Shafiq win was a sure indicator of election tampering) would've soured this country's hopeful outlook.

I sort of understood the importance of finally having a president, from the Egyptian mindset, a week later, on a day trip to explore Islamic Cairo with a couple friends. We were stuck in traffic in a taxi in a particular congested and polluted section of old, old, old Cairo. A fist fight erupted on our right, and our taxi driver yelled out his window to add his two cents. Women carried precarious loads of clothing and groceries on their heads, paying no heed to bakery deliverymen squeezing their way through crowded foot traffic, wooden trays of fresh bread balanced above the crush. A young boy smiled at me from behind my car window, as he thrust some tissues toward my face in a well-practiced sales offer. We passed a church, then a mosque, then another mosque, then all manner of stores. Nice cars, junky cars, trucks full of young men moving to another construction job, wealthy Egyptian women talking on cell phones tucked into their hijab. In short, regular Egyptian life, playing out on all sides. And through it all, as our taxi inched along, Morsi's second official presidential address sounded through the scratchy taxi speakers. When the driver turned up the volume, and we listened intently to his words about cooperation and hope and jobs and youth and the fight ahead for Egypt, I felt thrilled to be in mixed-up, hodge-podge EGYPT and not in Tahrir, not in my airy apartment in Alex, not in a hotel in Sharm, not in America watching from afar, but in Egypt, in the middle of the daily fray.

One month to finish research and class. One month to say a lot of goodbyes. One month to finally master slipping in elegant Arabic phrases into normal speech. One month to eat my fill of Alexandrian seafood dinners. Oh dear. The excitement for the next phase is currently a lot weaker than the mounting panic setting in from knowing that I have to leave my Egyptian life and friends!

Below are pictures from the 2-week Austin break and the following brief trip to Amsterdam and Italy with Sophie sister.


Barton Springs and Pedernales swimmin'

Lone Star loveliness

Austin food, oh boy.

Barbarella Thursdays seem to still exist

Michael visits

tunes and mojitos and redheads back from the Delta

 JAEbird reunions

If you'll note carefully, this is a Taco Deli and Houndstooth combination. Poolside, on a Saturday morning with the gorgeous Amira Jensen. If only every Saturday were so blessed.

Amsterdam. Beautiful, simply put.

On second though, I'll save the Italy pictures for the next post. I'm doing my summer research on Italian architecture in Alexandria and MAN is it crazy how many of the gorgeous buildings in Alex are similar to some Roman beauties! Until then, salaam, good readers.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

الإحراج - Embarrassment

al-iHarag ~ embarrassment

I've long forgotten, or perhaps never knew, who first said to me that language learning is just a bunch of embarrassing moments strung together. But few statements have I quite so emphatically agreed with throughout my college career. (On a side note, am I officially post-college now? Will I ever be post-college? Nobody knows!) Maybe the phrase came from Madame Tatsapaugh-Krohn, my first French teacher in the 7th grade, with the always askew glasses... Maybe she said it first? I truly don't recall. But I agree. You become "fluent" when the language mishaps become fewer and far between, but they never go away. Foreign accents are, after all (according to my linguistics classes a while back at UT) a series of repeated and minute pronunciation mistakes, typically unique to a certain language group or nationality. Also, it bears mentioning the idea that classmates in language classes grow close fast for two reasons: instruction centers around dreaming up every possible chance for us to talk to each other, so we talk together all. the. time. And also, we're constantly embarrassed around each other. Constantly. We say dumb things and get corrected until the dumbness is minimized. Eventually we'll only sound slightly dumb some of the time.

Below is a mere smattering of the many, many recent embarrassing moments from my life, which can be divided into food moments, language moments, and bumbling blonde moments:

*Spilling my cappuccino (made from a powder, don't get excited, now) all over the engraved wooden table at a beautiful café, because I got a little too excited about opening up a new package of coconut candy. I think Lauren and I were also celebrating some sort of internship success? Foreigners are already often treated like special, simpler-minded customers in some cafés and restaurants ("OH, you can read the Arabic menu? Ya salaaaaam) and I didn't help matters by acting like a ditzy child. At least I got free menadeel (tissues) out of the gig.

I've also spilled entire bags of peanuts, cereal, lentils, and beans on the floor of my apartment, which if it sounds like a testament to my desperation to eat and my propensity to grow suddenly hungry FAST, it is. I've been told you can tell when I've been in the kitchen if there is a cereal box put away ajar in the cupboard, and if a few pieces of cereal, swept hastily off the floor from where they spilled, are now in the trashcan. (For those past roommates aware of the extent of my breakfast cereal addiction, it has not met an end in Egypt, though it's been limited to corn flakes with honey or bananas. I'm afraid that when I'm able to return to almond milk and honey nut cheerios, I might overdose).

*Addressing Egyptian women in Foussha (formal Arabic) while half-naked in the gym locker room. I joined a small but wonderful little gym called Premiere, right on the Corniche about halfway between my apartment and the university. The workout room for women (through several sets of double doors and up a flight of stairs, removed far away from the  mens' quarters) is depressingly small and unequipped when compared to what's available to the men, but truly, it suffices and is a nice refuge. You can wear what you want! Plus they give you free towels even if you have to ask the personal trainer, who calls the front desk, who calls someone else, who sends someone else (where?) to retrieve a fresh towel for you after about many, many minutes. I'm just very grateful for the place, and I've met some nice folk thereabouts.

Anyway, I've been known to step out of the shower, half-clutching a towel, zoning out, completely checked out of my current surroundings when WHAM, pryingEgyptianquestiontime. "Where are you from? What do you do here in Alex? How did you learn how to speak Arabic?" come at me. Such inquiries are no new surprise, and are no problem, but when I'm stepping out of the shower, I'm a little taken off guard. As such, in two recent examples of this situation, my brain, trying to cover my ass literally and figuratively, does a strange lingual flip and prompts me to answer in formal Arabic, which of course sounds about as ridiculous in that context as if you introduced yourself to someone in an American locker room with an "I call myself Emily Claire and verily I do study the Arabic language" (rubs towel on hair).

*Mixing up, in Islamic Studies class, the words for "satisfaction," "breastfeeding," and "apostasy," which are, for some cruel and unclear reason, quite similar in Arabic.

*Flashing the back seat of the group taxi several weeks ago, as I squeezed my way out of the crowded white minivan, rushing on my way to 9 AM Foussha class. I was wearing a pair of old jeans that finally gave up the ghost with a finale. A small hole had grown into a rip that I was choosing to ignore, and it no longer wanted to be ignored. Despite the rip, I had thought I could steal a couple more months out of them. Nope. As I clambered out of the mashruwa like a clumsy duckling (there's NO elegant way to edge around several Egyptian men and women, with your butt in everyone's faces as you unfold yourself out the door), I heard a murmured "yaaaa'aaa" ("oh dear!") and a clicking tisk-tisk from the women behind me, about the same time I felt some fresh sea breeze on the back of my thighs (which have not seen the sun in many months). Thank God the men said nothing. I made it through class that day and I don't think anyone noticed that I was wearing my jacket 3rd grade windbreaker style, tied around the waist. Classy. RIP American Eagle bootcut circa 2008.

*The day an old woman kissed me on my forehead in my elevator, after I told her I was American, after she repeatedly asked me "Where are you from, you beautiful girl, white as the moon? Where are you from?" I mention this because it leads to a totally different sort of embarrassment... The embarrassment of being considered better or prettier or fancier or richer SIMPLY because I'm a foreigner. Many things are automatically assumed about us, and even if they're nice assumptions (Just because she's not from here, she must be fancy schmancy) it's plain embarrassing and untrue and makes one feel awkward. Of course there are plenty of people who treat you normally, respectfully, or some who act begrudgingly or don't want much to do with foreigners, but the admiration from some people simply because we're foreigners is among the most offputting and embarrassing ways to treat someone, in my opinion, despite the complimentary connotation.

*The moments when you're completely tongue-tied and dumbstruck and unable to string together logical Arabic, the worst example of which happened just a few nights ago, prompting me to finally publish this blog post. For the past three weeks, a small group of us has gotten together on Thursday nights to practice formal Arabic conversation. Usually I have a good amount to add to the conversation, even if my comments are peppered with mistakes here and there. Last Thursday, inexplicably, my brain couldn't compute the Arabic it wanted to express. AT ALL. I was surrounded by 4 of my closest friends in the program, as well as our benevolent T.A. who helps us out, all smiling encouragingly during my quickly aborted attempts at participation. They didn't betray the slightest hint of annoyance at my inability to form a decent sentence. (You guys are the best!) All my professors' constructive criticism from the past few weeks - that I usually have no issues processing from a glass half-full perspective - compounded in my brain and formed a solid wall that I just couldn't cross. The conversation circle continued and I fell into a silent funk of "I cannot speak Arabic I cannot understand Arabic I cannot do this". I forgot how to say the most basic of phrases in that two hours, and though I listened, with interest, to my friends' conversation on language change, I focused on the mint leaves in my tea cup and tried not to cry.

Embarrassment keeps me humbled, which is useful. Always!

Oooootherwise, much is happening in the world these days... French elections, Egyptian elections, U.S. elections, too much to keep up with properly.. and in our little program in Alex, the pressure is on as tests, papers, projects loom and the last few weeks of the spring program commence. Tomorrow we leave for our last group trip, and after that it's a quick series of due dates and final things before about 3 weeks of break prior to the summer session. I'm going to Austin for 2 weeks! I plan to do many embarrassing and typical things there (singing loudly in my car on mopac), in the familiarity of my comfort zone. Any of you Texans, see you there!

When embarrassed, commiserate with friends. Or pose next to rusting metal structures with them. It all makes one feel better. These are just some of the girls who make my life joyful in Egypt!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

مشغول - Busy

Majhgul - Busy

Life is busy. You're probably all busy too. Now you know how to describe it in Arabic! Just say "ana majhgul" ("majhgulA" if you're a woman) and though people might think you crazy, yo, you'd make perfect sense to the 280 million native speakers of Arabic in the world. (That number's the result of some recent wikipedia time-wasting/justifying-my-decision-to-study-Arabic sessions. Noooot sure why I do that to myself and then complain that I have too much homework to be doing.)

I have a half-written post about embarrassing moments (ooh oh oh so many), a few thoughts scrawled down about insane ideas concerning exercise and nutrition in Egypt, a whole list of strange and sometimes terrifying experiences that have happened in my elevator, an angrily scribbled paragraph about the bewildering issue of classicism here, and some other bits here and there..... but those posts will need to wait for March to pass, with its silly amount of projects, essays, and internship assignments that draw my writing attention away. And really today I just want to put up some pictures of the two past weekends. And they've been two very contrasting weekends indeed. 

Last weekend, several of us travelled to Fayoum, a rural, agricultural area about 2 hours outside of Cairo. We walked through crops and fields at sunset, stopping for donkeys and buffalo to pass, visited a deserted temple, got sand in our hair, picknicked at some man-made waterfalls in the middle of the desert, and eavesdropped on French tourists at our "eco-lodge." (In Egypt, I'm not sure what the difference is between an eco-lodge and a regular hotel, because the eco-lodge had more comfortable and reliable access to hot water, toilet paper, electricity, and food than some of the hotels I've stayed in, but whatever, ma'alesh, it was a beautiful place that oozed warmth and exuded calm.) We also got yelled at (and learned some new, um, slang) for being Americans at a rest stop but that's a subject for a different sort of blog post entirely.

Aaaand just these past couple of days, some of us travelled to Cairo for 4th annual Cairo Jazz Festival. We stayed in a breezy, wooden-floored, welcoming downtown hostel, explored leafy, quiet Zamalek during the day, ate REAL tofu flavored with lemongrass and ginger at a Thai restaurant, listened to a number of truly talented jazz musicians while sipping cups of 1-guinea tea, and watched an excellent film on the underground music scene in Alexandria, with the director in attendance. We all weren't sure we'd ever experienced this liberal side of Alexandria the film portrayed, but it was a good film nonetheless, and fun to see our temporary home portrayed with such loving cinematic panache.

The first weekend was mostly relaxing though still managed to prompt introspective questioning and stressed-out "what am I doing here anyway?" thought sessions, amidst scrambling to finish homework and assignments in every spare moment en route and in Fayoum. The second weekend was invigorating and refreshing and encouraging, while still set in often-chaotic Cairo. Through the second weekend, God answered some of the "what am I doing here anyway?" murmurs in my brain. He is good, Arabic is good, and lazy hostel mornings with a group of 8 of your friends can be a good, sweet medicine for stress.

Pictures are good too. Enough rambling.

Dinner in Fayoum


A temple, and Ryan. (Confession: I don't remember the name of the temple. We'll call it Ryan's temple.) 

desert dog
desert birds

The desert's a GREAT place for some... 

This goat had flair, I tell you. 

A tenacious sunflower that survived from last season.

Sunset yes yes yes

Mama camel and baby camel

Camel family on their way to... Dream park! (so we told ourselves :(:(:( )


 And now for Cairo!

Katie and I, immediately after finding TRUE cupcakes. This peanut butter masterpiece rivaled anything I've eaten an an American bakery. And Egyptians don't even LIKE peanut butter!

An oft-seen symbol of Christian/Muslim solidarity

One of the better afternoons I've had in a while, y'all.

View from the Zamalek festival grounds.

Late-night dinner at our favorite yemeni restaurant after the festival.

..aaaand, half a gazebo. Why? Who knows.

And finally, a good song from the film we watched, Microphone, with many, many shots of Alexandria in the video: