Here I blog about my 12 months in Cairo, Egypt on a Fulbright Research Grant. I'm studying Arabic, conducting research on how martial arts empowers women, observing different ways of life, and living creatively.
Yesterday was Sham al-Naseem, a national holiday when all Egyptians spend the day outdoors with family smelling Springtime breezes and eating potent, salted fish called faseekh. I joined some other foreigners at a local park near the Opera House, which was filled with families, young people, and children all eating various snacks and enjoying themselves. After sunset, something curious happened. The entire time we were sitting eating sunflower seeds and popcorn (NOT faseekh) in our circle of foreigners, there were two young couples sitting behind us against the outer wall. We didn’t think anything of this. When it started to get dark, I stole a couple glances and could see that they were getting cozy, with one guy’s arm around his girlfriend’s shoulders, and the other guy’s arms scandalously stretched across his girlfriend’s legs. I kind of giggled to myself at the sight of this, knowing that this kind of contact would be completely unacceptable to the families of those girls. Not more than a half hour after sunset, three park employees walked into our general area and yelled at the couples, saying something along the lines of “half of the park can see you!” And telling them to move away from the wall. The guys got mad and started yelling back, but they were outnumbered. Embarrassed in front of their girlfriends, they had no choice but to move to a different part of the park where eyes would be watching from all directions making sure nothing sinful took place.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I am living in Egypt during a truly extraordinary time. However, I more often forget this simple fact rather than remember it, as nearly everyone around me is depressed and disillusioned over the lack of progress during the last two years. Sporadic clashes are still breaking out between police and protestors, tear gas is still being fired on unruly crowds outside of whichever ministry or headquarters they happen to be protesting that day, political parties opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood are still vowing to boycott parliamentary elections that still haven’t happened, and social events are still being canceled because of protests (or uncertainty of the possibility of protests). Politically, it’s a big mess.
But, I can assure you of this, family and friends: life is going on as [almost entirely] normal every day. For details, read this blog post, “Egypt is Actually Safer Than You Think” http://tahrirsquared.com/node/3864. To quickly allay your fears: Am I in any personal danger? No. As long as I avoid known areas where protests tend to take place and I am up on the current news as to where protests are planned for that day (which I always am), there is zero chance of me getting swept up in a protest. In terms of crime, although the crime rate in Egypt has risen slightly since the Revolution, I had a much greater chance of getting assaulted when I went to college in Washington, DC, than I do in Cairo.
This past week, however, the protests did manage to have a very small effect on my life. Hosni Mubarak and a number of his high officials are currently appearing in court for trial. As to be expected, crowds gather outside of the court building to demonstrate for their demands. It just so happens that the Egyptian children I tutor in English live near the court. The last time I was there, I saw a small, peaceful protest march by their building; small children sat on parents’ shoulders with Egyptian flags painted on their faces. As the chanting became audible from the apartment, I taught Miriam and Ali the word protest. Then I taught them Miss Mary Mack, the clapping game which EVERYONE loves. By the time our two hour lesson ended, police had dispersed crowds using tear gas. The taxi driver who drove me home rolled up the windows. I’m not tutoring this week, as the trials are still going on. I just hope the kids don’t forget the words to Miss Mary Mack after two weeks.
On Thursday I attended a Fulbright seminar on Egypt’s Transition led by Egyptian writer and academic Dr. Ezzedine Choukri Fishere. He discussed the lack of vision and current political stalemate: how all of the parties wrongly think that they can lead Egypt on their own, and how this will eventually bring Egypt to a breaking point. Something that particularly resonated with me was how he described trust as a concept essential to a functioning democracy. He defined trust not as believing in the truth of something, but rather believing in the reliability of an institution. The people of a democratic society must trust that the state institutions will actually do what they were built to do. The problem now is that, after decades of corrupt authoritarian rule, Egyptians have virtually no trust in the state. The very effective example Dr. Fishere used was a traffic light at an intersection. When the light is green, people don’t trust that the perpendicular red light will do its job to stop the other cars from going into the intersection, so they stop and look both ways anyway. And when the light is red, people don’t trust the light as being effective in controlling the flow of traffic because they feel they have been waiting too long, so they go ahead and drive though it.
The result is that you have a handful of traffic lights in Egypt, all of which are completely useless unless they are accompanied by a small army of traffic cops who literally stand in front of cars when the light turns red to prevent them from driving forward. True story.
Last night I went to see “The Winter of Discontent,” an Egyptian movie about events from Jan 2009-2011 which led to the revolution, including the detainment and torture of innocent civilians and manipulation of the media. It was very intense but extremely well-done, and unlike most Egyptian movies was not over-the-top dramatic. I actually got the chills as I listened to the snippets of Mubarak’s speeches during the Revolution which were included in the film. When the movie ended, I talked with my friends Chris and Robin about how it almost doesn’t seem real - that just over two years ago Egypt was ruled by an all-powerful dictator, yet now he sits caged in a court room. And today, Egypt is dealing with financial and energy crises, a crumbling infrastructure, and seeping decay of a long-currupt government. Robin said, “My gender and religion permitting, even if it was the last job on earth, I’d never want to be the president of Egypt.” Chris responded, “People say the same about Obama, but at least he inherited a functioning state.” I have smart friends.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from teaching, studying, and researching here for almost a year and a half, it’s that Egyptians are resourceful, determined, and resilient (They’re also funny and loud). Dr. Fishere disagrees with the theory that “Egypt is too big to fail.” He sees no other realistic solution to the current political stalemate. But, whether it comes to that breaking point or not, I am confident that Egypt will not be a failure. It’s just going to take some time.
I finally made it to a Muay Thai kick boxing class at the Dragon’s Den Dojo located across the Nile from me. Scattered throughout the Den’s facebook page are pictures of muscular men in tight, sweaty t-shirts, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect. But a couple friends of mine had gone before and said there are a few girls who train there, so I wanted to give it a shot. According to my friend Karim, the girls there are “scary tough.” The Dojo is located in the basement of Sensei Amr’s parents’ villa. My only real critique of the place itself is that it could use some increased air circulation. I arrived towards the end of the beginners’ class, so the potent smell of sweaty boxing gloves had already begun to waft through the dojo.
I was quite nervous before my class began, but once I started throwing kicks and punches (and elbows and knees- it is Muay Thai), I felt much more comfortable. I was one of 3 girls in a class of about 20 people. There was no instruction, just round after round of kick boxing on punching bags and focus mits. I’ve never done Muay Thai before, but I was able to keep up. I talked with Sensei Amr after the class and explained my background, and he had a few critiques of my technique. He recommended I join the beginners’ class because in the advanced class they usually do a lot of sparring (that night was one of the rare nights when they work on the bags). Unless I “want to come to the advanced class and just use the punching bags while the guys spar,” he said… Clearly not very equal training, at least from what I could tell. But I do want instruction so I’ll try a beginners’ class next time.
Overall it felt great to be back in action. I was so sore afterwards I had difficulty shampooing my hair in the shower! It was an amazing workout and I’m definitely glad I went.
The primary purpose of my visit to Morocco was to attend the 2013 Enrichment Seminar for Fulbrighters in the Middle East and North Africa. We spent 4 days in the capital presenting our research, collaborating and sharing ideas, listening to interesting guest lectures, eating good food in our awesome downtown hotel, and exploring a few of the major sites in Rabat. The conference was organized by the Fulbright Commission in Morocco and I can confidently say it was both enriching and enjoyable. Here is a group photo in the hotel courtyard:
Although this is a super sappy thing to say, it’s true so I’ll say it anyway: The conference was a definite reminder of how appreciative I am to be a part of a dynamic program such as Fulbright. Through both our formal presentations and casual conversations over coffee, I learned so much from passionate and insightful individuals about the challenges and opportunities facing the MENA region. Although we all come from different backgrounds and are doing very different research projects, we were able to come together to share and encourage each other in a very meaningful way. I learned SO much from fellow grantees - about Swahili heritage in Oman, Jewish hummus in Algeria, care for people with disabilities in Jordan, the rise of diabetes in Israel, saint worship in Morocco through music, etc. I also got some really useful feedback on my own research and am looking forward to following up on it in the coming months.
We also took a couple afternoons to see the sights. Here’s a photo from Roman ruins at the Chellah:
This is the beautiful stained glass roof of the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, where former Moroccan kings are buried:
All in all, the seminar was fantastic, Morocco was beautiful, and I came back to Cairo feeling inspired and refreshed.