22 February, 2012

Twooney Ibn Maadi

Twooney playing 

He was the first friendly face who welcomed me to my new neighborhood.  I named him Twooney Ibn Maadi because he never leaves Maadi, my neighborhood, and Twooney because of his two lives; he got hit by a car yesterday morning, but got away without a scratch.  The lad can't be more than four months old.  

The only times to catch Twooney and his band is early in the morning, before people appear in the streets.  I'm afraid of feeding him and the other dogs too much.  I can't take him back to France with me, and he would not learn the necessary scavenging skills if I consistently provide him with food.  

16 February, 2012

Of basketball and football

Since I have been in Egypt, I have felt rather isolated.  It's not that I don't follow the news or maintain contacts with friends and family; my interests require that I closely track world affairs and I have daily chats online.  But aside from talking with people about my curiosities, I am at the university library, the gym, and in between I eat and sleep.  How I would really like to set out for the Nile, the dunes, and explore Egyptian history!

But in skyping my mother the last few days, I'm rather relieved that my safety in Egypt is no longer her only concern.  All she can talk about is this Linsanity business in New York City.  Never having much  interest in sports, the mother is suddenly subscribing to New York Knicks cable package and talking about going to the Madison Square Garden for basketball games.  Her answer - Jeremy Lin is Taiwanese.  "Actually," I said to the mother, "Lin is American.  His parents are Taiwanese".      

I have always found the question of identity rather challenging.  Being ethnically Chinese with Taiwanese heritage is a part of me, but not the entirety of my being.  I carry American and Taiwanese passports, I call myself Californian and live in Paris, and my travel DNA thus far include footprints on five continents; I am happiest in multicultural and cosmopolitan settings, but sometimes find my peace in the middle of a desolate desert.  But for many, no matter their citizenship, ethnicity equates nationality.  I wish Mr. Lin success in the NBA, but I much rather watch 6 Nations Rugby with a good pint of bitter.

Protesting AUC students
Since I arrived in Cairo, though my inquiry relates to Egyptian politics, I have stayed away from publicly commenting on the subject.  But Egypt's frustration and anger seem to be everywhere.  This morning coming out of my neighborhood, there was an unannounced police checkpoint, massively backing up traffic and upsetting quite a few motorists.  Just yesterday at the American University in Cairo (AUC), protesting students continued to mourn for the loss of one of their own from the Port Said football violence, and demanded that the military government (SACF) step down.  I asked another student next to me, who happened to be Saudi, and he very politely told me that he is in Cairo to study medicine, and does not want to get involved in politics.

In response, SCAF accused AUC as a tool of foreign intrigue, and charged students and professors of aiming to bring about the "downfall of Egypt".  In the meantime, the wee matter of US$1.3 billion and SCAF's persecution of civil society workers continue to influence the development of Egyptian democracy and Cairo's relationship with Washington.  A proper and lovely mess the world is.          

12 February, 2012

My muezzin is better than your muezzin

Students breaking for lunch in Maadi, Cairo

A new apartment and a new neighborhood.  Perhaps it is my illusion, but the muezzins of each mosque seem to project their calls to prayer in a different rhythm, with a subtle but distinct interpretation.  I find these appeals to worship rather soothing, a bit like the Gregorian chants.  

After a week of searching I am finally moved into a proper apartment.  To be able collect something without searching my entire backpack - what a luxury!

Though I remain in Cairo, my new neighborhood is a world away from Tahrir Square, the location of my former hostel.  The city center is rowdy, full of pedestrians, taxis and buses, protestors, the homeless, and the heavy presence of security forces; my new home in Maadi is relatively peaceful, the home of embassies and expatriate havens like the ACE Club and the British Community Association.

I remain conflicted about these expats' clubs.  It is good to have a few pints, relax, and watch 6 Nations Rugby.  However, I am not in Egypt to pass my time with Americans and Europeans, but to conduct my inquiry on an Egyptian subject.  Moreover, while I understand the desire to feel at home, club prohibition of the hijab struck me as odd.  What if a person is American or French but would like to preserve her accustomed sense of modesty?  That club policy seems to me as illiberal as the comment of a Salafist member of parliament, who demanded that an al-Ahram reporter veil herself prior to speaking to him.          

# # #

Toledo craggy and sorrowful.  Glory of Spain and the light of her cities. *

- Miguel de Cervantes

San Roman Church, Toledo

Just a little over two weeks ago, I was in Madrid and Toledo for four days.  Partly to relax but also curious about Toledo's heritage as a city of all three Abrahamic faiths, I went to the former taifa and Castilian capital.  First under al-Mam'un (King of Toledo 1043-1075), then Alfonso the Brave (King of Galicia, and Castile and Léon 1072-1109), it was in Toledo where Peter the Venerable commissioned the first translation of the Qur'an into Latin.  Until Ferdinand and Isabella's abrogation of Granada's 1492 treaty of capitulation, Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Spain were largely free to practice their faith and speak their preferred tongue.  Some even claim that Cervantes was no author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, but merely the promoter of an earlier Arabic work.    

Synagogue Maria la Blanca, Toledo
What beauty the Toledo of the past created!  San Roman, a church built well after the reconquista, is decorated with Arabic calligraphy and Christian icons; some swear that the horseshoe arches and the decorative arts of Maria la Blanca and the Synagogue of el Transito (Sinagoga del Tránsito) resemble the architecture of the Great Mosque of Cordoba or that of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.       

* I hope my translation is faithful to Cervantes' original words.  It was "Toledo peñacosa pesadumbre.  Gloria de España y luz de sus ciudades".

10 February, 2012

The grace of poverty

The Coptic Museum in Old Cairo

Though many Egyptians live on less than US$1 a day, their willingness to share is continuously on display.  Just last night a distressed looking gentleman and his wife received alms from nearly every person in my Metro car.  They would scarcely receive a second glance in the Paris Metro or the Buenos Aires Subte.  I continue to question the source of this charity; is it faith, basic human kindness, or both?

Though some expatriates I have met have cautioned against using public transportation at night, it remains my preferred mode of transportation.  It is through this lens where I get a brief view of Egyptian life, and I want to seize every moment of it.    

Some Egyptians aren't too keen on the military government

08 February, 2012

You say coffee, I say كافية

Nasser the hero, Mubarak the enfant terrible

18C and sand was the weather prediction yesterday.  Growing up in Taipei, I remember days when sandstorms from the Gobi Desert would blanket the sky with an ominous cloud of dust.  But it was never like Cairo.  Here the desert is much closer and does not have to cross an ocean to reach me.  New York City may be dusty, but at Cairo I return to my hostel everyday with a film of grime on my face.

For the past two days, a friend and I have been crisscrossing Cairo, meeting realtors, and looking at possible housing options.  Walking and taking the Cairo Metro is a fine way to explore the winding alleyways and sample street food.

As I am drafting this entry, the Egyptian government's prosecutor is discussing on television the prosecution of foreign NGO workers.  While I do not understand the unfolding discourse in Arabic, from talking to the Egyptians in the hostel, it is their belief that foreign funding is enabling criminal elements to destabilize Egyptian society, and should be punished under Egyptian law.  Although I know that American foreign assistance is never given without an agenda or strings attached, the concept that organizations dedicated to democratic and civil society development would participate in criminal enterprise is challenging indeed.    

06 February, 2012

A Cairene symphony

The one constant of Cairo so far is the car horns.  There are short protesting ones, long loud blasts, or a series of rapid honks as if they are Italians racing to say "ciao!"  I am told that they each have their own significance, like "I'm passing get out of the way," or simply "I'm on your left, don't move over!"

A small kitten adopted me this morning, and was keen to share my breakfast.  So she got almost everything except for my tea.

American University in Cairo Tahrir Square Campus

Breakfast by Tahrir Square
Tahrir Square looked much like a neighborhood under siege this morning.  On the way to the Sadat Metro Station, evidence of street violence remained in plain sight.  The American University in Cairo's (AUC) Tahrir Square campus remains shuttered, with concrete barriers immediately next to the school's buildings.  All through the night I heard the distant explosions of tear gas canisters and shouts of anger coming from the streest.  Though Cairo is relatively quiet at the moment, there is a restive ambiance about the city. 

Mubarak the Terrible?

But the famous Arab hospitality continues.  On the metro, an older gentleman asked me in Arabic if I am Chinese.  He was amused by my answer, and insisted that as the guest, I must take the seat. I also blindly stumbled into the AUC conference "The Arab Spring: One Year On," and got to reintroduce myself to what seemed to be the entire University of Oxford Middle East Centre faculty.   

Tahrir Square is so alive!

First night in Cairo and the city is still very lively at close to 01h00.  Young Egyptian men and families are spilling out of cafés, shisha bars, and restaurants.  Arriving at my hotel at close to 23h00, I ducked out for a chicken shwarma and a soda, and easily found all the food I wanted in less than five minutes walk.    

Except the airport, Egyptians I have met have all gone out of their way to be friendly and helpful.  Even with my limited Arabic, just a simple "shukran" or "asalam alaykum" drew big smiles from those I met on the street.  I briefly walked around Tahrir Square, and took in the street food stalls and signs representing various social and political movements.  

With travel fatigue setting in, I am turning in to get some rest.  Tomorrow I will sort out library privilege at the American University in Cairo, and start looking at apartments with a former Oxford classmate.  More photos to come.