Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In the thick of it

Every time I go downtown, I realize what a crazy place this is.

Yesterday I had a lunch downtown at Taboula (deeelicious lebanese food. My fave is their luscious kibbeh nayar) in Garden City. By the time lunch wrapped up, it was about 3.00 (what can I say, I seem to lunch the same way no matter where I live..."rush? who's in a rush, lets have a coffee and stay a while") and the start of afternoon traffic hell. I walked to Tahrir Square and considered getting into a yellow cab. Black cabs are open, smell of gas -- both human and petrol related - and you can chew the air from the open windows as you sail along while your driver chain smokes. Yellow cabs are hermetically sealed and have lovely, non-smoking, air conditioning -- unless you get the driver we had the other day: "It is winter now. No air conditioning". They are also hard to get, notoriously unreliable and cost more. But malesh, at least you can breathe.

But then I got distracted by the ever looming Mogamma. There is always something going on in front of that huge wall of a building.

Here's a little sample of what was happening yesterday: amid the usual smattering of lovers sitting closely together on benches, tea sellers minding their bubbling pots and little boys playing football or jumping on the hoses left out to water the lawns, a blond woman, handcuffed to a really young Egyptian man was unceremoniously escorted by two Policemen across the square to a shady tree just under the Mogamma.

Had I been in Canada or Europe, I would have thought: "Don't stare, it's rude." But this is Egypt where staring is considered a fundamental human right.

I unabashedly stood and watched the scene. Lots of smoking, fist waving (the handcuffed detainees) and calm down gestures (the policemen). I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on but the blond woman looked like she'd been drinking and the Egyptian kid looked like he wanted his Mom. I tried to get closer but the policemen gave me a look that told me it would be better if I just walked away. So I did. I'm Canadian, after all. It doesn't take much to get me to mind my own business.

Directly in front of the main entrance to the Mogamma, an informal market had sprouted on the cool marble promenade. So I went and checked it out. Sunglasses 7.50 LE, watches 10 LE, an entire table with everything for 2.5 LE. Scarves, tops, cellphones, kitchen utensils -- you name it, they had it and it was all under 10 LE (about $2.00) And before you ask: OF COURSE I bought something. It would have been fairly retarded not to.

After I had my fill of the market and emptied my pockets of all remaining small bills, I looked at the gridlock, thought better of getting a taxi and made my way to the Metro.

I love the Metro. Riding it makes me feel part of the city. It allows me to observe life and the people with whom I share the city. And it's probably the most efficient, reliable, enviro-friendly (if that matters to you) way to get around Cairo.

This time, I was asked directions and - eureka - was able to give them. In Arabic, thank you very much. (God only knows what train the poor woman is on now...but I meant well.) The machine ate my ticket. Immediately, a uniformed Metro guy appeared and opened the machine to give me a look at the inner workings of the turnstiles before returning my ticket and shooing me into the stream of commuters heading to the platform. I pushed my way on to the women's car (much less crowded and infinitely better smelling) where little boys and women sporting new born babies hawked everything from safety pins to dress socks to dates stuffed with almonds. After about 20 hot but breezy minutes, I was back in Maadi. No chain smoking, no lead inhalation, no traffic-related near death experiences.

Of course, I must admit there's a charm in that type of journey as well. But I'll leave that for another post.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Choosing to embrace the hype

One of my oldest friends and her boyfriend are currently visiting. They are New Yorkers and thrilled (and relieved) beyond words with the results of the recent election.

We've been playing tour guide and taking them to all the must-see spots in our beloved new home town. While taking photos at Coptic Cairo the other day, as usual, passersby who hear our guests' accents want to know:


An enthusiastic Robert: "Yes! America!"

Little kid gives him a thumbs up: "Obama!"

And then Robert nearly does a jig for happiness and I think he's going to hug the kid. But instead, he gives a thumbs up: "Obama." He sighs a contented sigh. And gives the kid an even bigger smile. And then he proceeds to buy a handful of the papyrus book marks the kid was hawking for one crisp greenback.

My friend Stephanie just shakes her head and laughs: "You don't understand. This is the first time in years that we have traveled abroad and are proud to tell people we're American."

Since then, Robert has been greeting anyone who makes eye contact (and for those who know Cairo - that is no small number of people) with a peppy: "O-Bama" He's even developed hand gestures/ makeshift sign language to go with it. In case they don't get what he is trying to communicate. Normally, I would worry about my hulking 6 foot something American guest getting into peoples' faces but 9 times out of 10, he's met with an enthusiastic smile in return and a "yes yes, Obama -- Mabrook" (congratulations).

Seems the whole world has Obama fever. We even stayed up all night watching the coverage while the Canadian election came and went without us giving it a second glance. And I will admit that I could feel a little lump rising in my throat with every "Yes we can" in Obama's victory address.

But I also wrote political speeches by the dozen in my last job, so I am not drinking the whole jug of kool-aid...

There is, however, something catchy about the shift in mood, the optimism and the hope. And in honour of that, I am choosing to silence my inner cynic -- the one that questions how much a new American president is really going to change the state of the world -- and getting on board.

So to our American neighbours, I say: Mabrook! May your new president live up to the hype.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Disappointed but not surprised

8 Egyptian bloggers were chosen by the AUC's Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training & Research to take part in a program to go to America and blog their impressions of the US Elections. They went on two trips -- one in September to intern at the National Press Foundation, learn about the American Electoral system, spend a week with some of the top media sites in the country (The Washington Post, Time.com, the Huffington Post) and then be guests of some of the best journalism schools in the country.

The project was supposed to be an exercise in building bridges and fostering inter-cultural understanding and dialogue. Some of the bloggers had been educated in the American system and have had a keen interest in American society and politics. They were all excited to be going to the States to be part of one of the most exciting elections of our lives.

This week, they went back to the States for part 2 of the project: to be there on election day and blog from their host journalism schools. Two were detained and treated quite badly at the US border and others were selected for "further screening" on each connecting flight. All this despite the fact that their visas were issued by the State Department, despite the fact that they were sponsored by USAID and sent by the AMERICAN university in Cairo and had all the paperwork to prove it.

Can you say: The left hand doesn't know who the right hand is screwing over? While one part of the American government is spending a good chunk of change to try and build bridges with the rest of the world by showing them how great their democracy is, the other part of the American government is showing visitors that their detention centers are just as bad as the ones they left behind in their home countries.

The project has yielded so much thought-provoking debate and insight. Their hosts and regular Americans have been wonderful ambassadors for their country and the process. I'm disappointed that the first people most visitors meet when entering the States can undo it all in one fell swoop.

Read the translation of one of the bloggers' experience: Detained