Monday, November 30, 2009

Egypt Epilogue: Reminiscences

Current Location: Kampala, Uganda
Currently Listening: Vuma, Soweto Gospel Choir
Currently Reading: The Yacoubian Building, Alaa el-Aswany

No words are adequate or appropriate for describing my sadness at leaving Cairo. Yet, I feel that an Egyptian epilogue that addresses religion, the position of women, and my lessons from work will be incomplete without recounting why it is that I am already nostalgic and reminiscent.

I will forever associate Cairo with the sounds of Cat Power, Amr Diab, and Beirut. The city is steeped in the smell of apple sheesha and cigarettes and its palette lends itself to breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, the hues of which play on morning Nile fog, pollution or the rare clear blue skies. In my time there, I saw a desert sky and a moon rainbow. I fell asleep to the sound of guitars on floor mattresses shared with three other people – or 30 bedbugs. I traveled to 5 countries and experienced four different Egyptian microcosms. I drowned in koshary, basbousa and Nutella. I drove through the Lebanese mountains and saw my first coral reefs in the Blue Hole in the Red Sea. I lay on carpets talking about life till dawn, danced on the same carpet to Maps by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and ventured out to experience the wonder that is a Cairo Friday morning.

I learned to give everyone a chance, to engage with everyone, for people will surprise you. I encountered individuals, both complete strangers and new dear friends, whose kindness, consideration and appetite for life rekindled my (previously scarce) faith in humanity. I witnessed that people are capable of love and kindness alongside baffling cruelty and one needs an enormous capacity to listen, understand and forgive. I struggled with resisting complacency in the face of utter happiness and understood the importance of mentors and guiding stars that will constantly question and challenge you. I experienced the enormous rewards of living by Holly’s mantra “when you think you are about to say no to an experience because you are afraid or unsure or bored, just say yes” and Ericka’s motto “I have mostly regretted the things I have not done, not the things I have done.” Most of these lessons were courtesy of the remarkable individuals into whose lives I was all too fortunate to stumble – without them, their humor and their love, the Cairo of 18.5 million people would have felt empty.

And most of all, I developed attachments – to people, places and environments that unfolded me a little, caused me to see gradations within myself, provoked me to feel more sentiments more vividly and created the incomparable rush of feeling truly alive. For that, and for the extraordinary individuals who inspired it, I am eternally thankful.

I am typing this in Kampala, Uganda, where I am already experiencing the kindness and warmth of new strangers. The immigration officer flashed a grin upon hearing I will be here for 21 days and asked “21? Why only 21? You should stay forever.”  Twelve hours into being here, I can see how one might want to do just that.

Egypt Epilogue: Women

The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all. -Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

When I set out on this fellowship, my theme involved employing community development practices to alleviate the challenges and mitigate the conflict affecting women. Rather than reflecting a background in women’s development work or feminist theory – both of which I lacked at the onset of this journey—my theme was born out of observing the differential representation of women in the public sphere. I remember watching a presidential debate in the early Democratic Party primaries in the summer of 2007 and witnessing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton answer the seemingly innocuous question of “Did you watch the Republican debate?” Hillary Clinton dutifully responded “yes”, while Barack Obama smiled and effortlessly quipped “I was flipping between that and the White Sox.” It was the perfect answer – cool, measured, relatable, funny. I paused for a moment to think of the reception Clinton would have received had she said “I was flipping between that and Grey’s Anatomy/Gilmore Girls/insert female-oriented show here.” As I followed the rest of the presidential campaign closely, I was struck by the difficulties women face in representing themselves publicly, as they attempt to navigate a false but seemingly inevitable dichotomy between being likable and popular or smart, competent and a little bit off-putting. I, therefore, became interested in the ways in which women can represent themselves, the prototypes of leadership from which they can draw inspiration, and the way in which they can harness their narratives as they foray into the world.

As I found in my time in Egypt, these challenges become significantly more acute once one steps out of the presidential election sphere in the United States and into the every day life of conservative, religious societies in the Middle East. Similarly to virtually every other facet of life in Egypt, women often surprised me with the ways in which they defied expectations and standard protocol to express themselves. Some chuckled that not only did they not feel an obligation to wear a hijab, but also they never would out of personal opposition to it; others wore jeans and were avid world travelers. My boss was an inspiration to all of us with her achievements, ambition and positive attitude, as she completed a PhD thesis while managing the UNIFEM Country Office and raising two children. The same values and liberties that we prize in the West can indeed be found in Egypt at an increasing rate.

However, most of my work and personal experience in interacting with women painted a different , harsher picture – one that confirms that the problems women face are more fundamental than Hillary Clinton’s struggle to find a relatable feminine voice. Respect for women’s physical, emotional and intellectual integrity took on a bizarre form – when it did exist. There is nothing respectful about hissing or making kissing sounds at a woman who is attempting to cross the street to her grocery store and yet it happened to me every day, to the point that I have now learned to develop an ‘invisible cloak’, whereby I walk as quickly as possible, stare at the ground blankly and block out all sound around me. Men would half-jokingly offer camels in exchange for my friends’ hands in marriage. Obscenities and leering looks were a necessary component of every walk down the street. Beyond my own community’s personal discomfort at the disrespectful verbal harassment of women, I saw more than one woman getting hit in public to no reaction from those around her, as if it were a common, unsurprising occurrence. Male parliamentarians would lament the emancipation of women politicians because it would – God forbid – de facto (?) relegate their husbands to caring for their children and shouldering some of the family planning weight.

The judgment surrounding the activities of women greatly restricts their ability to engage in public activities with confidence. Touching a man, holding hands, and, of course, kissing are entirely off limits for the unmarried in public. A park officer can reprimand youth for public flirtation. Local women themselves will cast a penetrating glare if they perceive of your dress as too revealing, too tight, or too progressive. Riding the women’s car in the metro revealed that judgment originating from women aimed at fellow women can be tougher to stomach than the lewd comments of men because it causes the expectation of solidarity, camaraderie and support to crumble. Egypt can very much be a society of appearances and one’s perceived failure to adhere to the unwritten code of conduct invites judgment in ample amounts. It is this judgment that restrains potential for growth and narrows the spectrum of prototypes from which women can derive inspiration as they define themselves.

And a caveat: Through conversations with better informed friends and colleagues, as well as my own reading, I have come to realize that the Qur’an has been labeled as one of the most peaceful, progressive texts in relation to women. Misconceptions are clarified: Women do not pray behind men because they are inferior, but because in that position they will not put men into temptation when they kneel. Women do not receive less inheritance than their male siblings because they are perceived not to deserve it, but because wealthier male family members hence develop an obligation to look out for the women in their family once their elders have passed away. There is a lot more for me to learn in this realm and I would like to explore the actual text in depth and earnest in the future. For now, however, I am struggling with more questions: Why can men not be expected to control their own urges and desires rather than requiring that women be behind them to remove temptation?  Why can women not be endowed with their justly earned inheritance and be left to their own fates to manage their money and lives, to make their own prudent and unsound decisions?

Do Good Where You Can

A recurrent question in my time in Egypt had been how to break down the aforementioned barriers and alter these expectations if they have been so deeply entrenched in religious and cultural tradition through the ages. What, short of a change in the interpretation of the religious text, can bring about a marked attitudinal shift in a society of 18.5 million? I have yet to develop a cohesive, persuasive answer and have once again turned to the literature, which seems to suggest that it is through targeted, narrowly-focused community development projects that a broader paradigm shift can occur.

In that vein, the mentorship project I have been developing in recent weeks has been the most engaging, fascinating work I have done in a while. It will hopefully travel with me through the rest of the fellowship stops, as I seek to better understand the challenges women face, the prototypes for women in each society, and the way in which younger women shape themselves after the public example of their elders. Beyond the mentorship project, I was delighted to take the lead in developing a comprehensive strategy for facilitating a support network and training curriculum for newly-elected women parliamentarians, as well as contributing to devising new media campaigns aimed at women’s empowerment in Egypt and brainstorming ideas for combating the feminization of poverty.

Key learnings from my work experience in Egypt have been:
  •   Do good where you can. I arrived in Cairo wedded to indicators, requiring that measures of success be defined in concrete, airtight terms before I can be convinced of the capacity of a project to yield meaningful impact. I have not dispensed of all my cynicism and still hold that humanitarian work is often negligently divorced from quantitative indicators and honest, thorough assessments of impact. However, I have also come to believe in the power of smaller, quieter, unexpected interventions – a conversation, a mini-project, a new friendship can change the tide directly and efficiently in similar ways that comprehensive outreach plans hope to accomplish.
  • To effect real change, observe the rhythms of the work environment and adapt to them. I knew I had began to assimilate myself within the professional world in Egypt when I took offense at a friend remarking that Egyptians are lazy because they go to work late (true), they stop for tea/dessert/wedding planning/gossip about mothers-in-law (true), and leave early (true). The humanitarian development world, at least in its lower echelons, is very much the Blackberry-free world in Egypt. Colleagues are involved in each other’s lives and will fight an addiction to productivity by discussing their private lives at the office. Pushing to do too much too quickly or requiring immediate follow-up will not be an effective strategy for motivating work output. Perhaps surprisingly, this has been delightful. I have been relishing the kindness of colleagues who invited me to a home-cooked feast, or took me out for a farewell meal, or brought me into their homes as part of their family. I loved the care and interest they took in my life and the ways in which they were willing to adjust their work schedules to be with their loved ones or those who needed them. Everything always got done, in my experience; it just got done with less consistent, pronounced anxiety and more consideration for the effect work bears on people’s personal lives.
  • Everyone in this field contributes somehow – their motivations and narratives of their professional escapades will differ, but fundamentally, they all contribute to the alleviation of similar problems and face the same challenges. I am continually learning from the humility and drive of fellow aid workers and am finding tremendous inspiration in their stories.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Fox Ate My Breakfast

For there were countless numbers
of stars: each time we looked above we were
astounded by the swiftness of their daring play,
while in our hearts we felt safe and secure
watching these brilliant bodies disintegrate,
knowing somehow we had survived their fall. 

-Rainer Maria Rilke

A morning run in the White Desert - see more photos on the sidebar

There was the time we sat on a train for 23 hours, eerily stationed in the Nile Valley behind a train that hit a cow just a few train stops ahead of us on the same track. Or the time we got kicked off a bus at the Mt. Sinai checkpoint and had to hitchhike back to Cairo from the middle of the desert. And there is, of course, the time I got bullied by a 10-year-old child screaming "King! Kong! King! Kong!" at a major international border. My roommate Geraldine aptly remarked that our expedition into the Western Sahara desert this past weekend was the first uneventful venture away from Cairo in a while. It also constituted perhaps the most beautiful natural landscape I have witnessed in my life.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the (Desert) Galaxy

1. Get three hours of sleep prior to embarking on the desert trip because you are busy jumping up and down in a 5th floor apartment to the sound of Bohemian Rhapsody - and can still hear your friends screaming their lungs out when you are attempting to hail a taxi at Midan Tahrir without the taxi driver mistaking you for a prostitute at that hour.
2. Sleep in the clothes you will be wearing for another 48 hours because every second of extra sleep counts. Relatedly, associate the sound of your alarm clock with a blind walk to the kitchen to inject Nescafe into your eyeballs.
3. "Converse" with a very chatty van driver at 7 AM, only for him to realize that your Arabic and his English confine your exchanges to:
He: "Sleep? Sleep!"
You: "Yes. Sleep. Sleep!"
He: "Arabic?"
You: "Schwaya schwaya" (which means slowly/bit by bit/patiently and is a blatant misrepresentation of your [in]ability to speak the language)
He: *pinches your cheek*
You: *glare/smile/look the other way to see--surprise--more sand hills*
4. Eat a lunch that consists entirely of cheese only to proceed to burp it throughout a bumpy ride in a 4x4 during which your head decides it looks best against a car ceiling as opposed to firmly on your own shoulders.
5. Slide down sand dunes in your white pants as a nod to your inner four-year-old. Proceed to also run and roll in them, in case sand had not crept into your every crevice. Become worried that you will be bitten by a scorpion or snake as a nod to your inner paranoid woman.
6. Attempt to photograph the volcanic stone, chalk rock and salt crystals from inside said bumpy 4x4 only to later discover all your photos are slightly lopsided and cause motion sickness upon viewing.
7. Cut your toe on a chalk rock in the White Desert because you were too busy looking at the sunset coloring the rock formations pink and purple. Realize that the dreamboat you have become deserves to literally fall on her face.
8. Have a friend point out to you that the all white outfit in which you slept the night before is dangerously reminiscent of colonialist desert attire a la Out of Africa. Further realize that you will be wearing this, and just about everything else you own, for quite a while longer to brave camping out in the desert nighttime col.
9. Spot your first desert fox - and discover it inside your bag, gnawing at the wrapper of the stale strawberry wafers you bought at a reststop. Recall your rabies training at camp ages ago and promptly persuade yourself that rabies does not exist in Egypt (much like, say, traffic rules).
10. Feel said desert fox jump over all 17 layers of sleeping you. Thank the conferences you ran for their complimentary sweatshirts, IKEA for making your college blanket last so long and whatever sleeping bag genius came up with the 'mummy bags' that engulf your whole self. When you are done being grateful, realize the fox is still snuggling up next to you. Ignore it and continue looking for shooting stars.
11. Wake up ten hours later to realize you are amidst salt crystals, chalk rocks, perfect sand formations and fox paw prints. Oh and the fox ate your eggs, but really, who cares about that when you wake up in the white desert?
12. Watch your group of friends transform into Dora the Explorer. One will climb salt/chalk statuesque structures in the desert while the other will dig up amorphous pieces of hair and ask if they belonged to a camel in another life. Yet another will taste the salt water in the salt water lake (taste test: it was very salty), while another will wash his whole face in the sulphury water of the hot spring. All will live to tell the story.
13. Arrive home 40 hours after your initial departure to find that you can still taste sand in your mouth and that your kitchen floor will be crunchy for a week courtesy of the sand flowing from your hair. Become instantly sad when you realize that you cannot see the Milky Way on the Cairo sky.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Egypt Epilogue: Faith

[A week is left until the second Fellowship stop pulls me away from Cairo. Here starts a series of reflections on the lessons of my first placement in Egypt.]

Skepticism is the beginning of Faith. -Oscar Wilde

On my first night in Cairo, I met an American man who had recently converted to Islam. When I asked what had brought him to Egypt, he said "it is the beginning of Ramadan and Ramadan in Egypt is unlike anywhere else." Unlike him, I had no prior conception of the expressions of Islam or of Egypt's unique position in the Muslim world. I was ready to absorb the rituals and ask questions and being here has both broken down many stereotypically-held views and reinforced some of my own criticisms of the religion and its applications.

The peaceful mantras of Islam do not register when experiencing it through the press coverage from afar. Allah is an omnipresent guiding force – every sentence expressing wishful thinking and hope that an outcome will materialize in the future ends with "inshallah" and every response to a greeting indicating well-being trails off with "alhamdulillah" – "all praise belongs to God." Feverish soccer fans scream Allah's name in support for Egypt's players as their compatriots are kneeling for their evening prayer amidst a stadium of 60,000 people. Most basically, Salam alaykum, the formal hello, translates into peace be upon you. Words of peace, hope, and unshakable belief that Allah watches, governs and even determines most interactions permeates daily life here.

In addition to the language of peace, Islam emphasizes charity and helping the less fortunate, be they the poor, the homeless or the lost travelers. I have experienced the unexpected kindness of strangers who, in the name of Allah, either gave us a ride from the middle of the Sinai desert to Cairo, complete with free tea and cake to make us feel at home, or let us hitch our broken down rental car to the back of their pick-up tow truck in the middle of the Syrian desert (deserts do not become us, apparently). It is hard to properly attribute the generosity, hospitality and warmth of the people who have embraced me here to religion, or custom, or national character; by their own testament, it flows freely from the tenets of all the above. Among strangers I have had some of my best meals, from the za'atar that a kind family sold us for pennies in Baalbek after being semi-lost under Hezbollah flags for hours to the falafel a Khan Khalili ahwa owner offered to go buy for me when I was famished. On my first week here I sat down among—you guessed it—virtual strangers for iftar, the meal ending the day's Ramadan fast, and was not allowed to stop eating until my belt essentially popped. Living here has provided me with a new appreciation for how Islam and its traditions foster community and promote a sense of obligation to the less fortunate.

The rituals have been a revelation in themselves. Even though I do not observe them, the rhythms of the five calls to prayer define the pace of my day. Many have been the days when I heard the muezzin's voice echo throughout the whole 24-hour period, from my desk at work facing the mosque behind the Egyptian museum, a balcony, a rooftop, or a bed across a mosque shortly after 4 AM. I now better understand the requirements for purity of body and thought before prayer. I barely blinked yesterday when I saw a little boy herd sheep on the largest urban bridge in Cairo in preparation for the festivities of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday commemorating Ibrahim's sacrifice of his son as a signal of his devotion to God. Ritual and tradition appeal to me because they suggest deep cultural ties of the type that bind communities and keep them together and discovering Islam's unique expressions of faith has piqued my interest.

A lot of my acquaintance with Islam has not involved learning something entirely new – it has entailed correcting half-truths and filling in incomplete pictures. Adherence to religious principles is more pronounced, visible and consistent across the board than anywhere I have lived. Sitting at a cafĂ© in Alexandria on a Friday morning, I was among the few who were not part of a sea of believers headed to pray – a scene that repeated itself when I stood alone in the middle of a Damascus square or the busiest Cairo street on a Friday morning. Yet, in every religion, the dogma and its applications have a different value for different people and Islam is no exception. I have met women who would not even think about covering their hair or wearing anything but jeans, as well as Muslims full of faith who still drink. In some senses, Islam allows for fewer gradations, in that the lifestyle requests it makes of its believers are more defined and clear than the more abstract prescriptions of other religions. This does not, however, mean that following the Muslim faith takes the same form and extent for all believers and I have learned to both recognize and be sensitive to the lifestyle choices and internal struggles and reflections that Islam too inspires in its followers.

This account of the ways in which living in a country whose pulse beats in sync with the Muslim faith has informed my conceptions of religion and Islam  would be incomplete without a discussion of my frustrations, challenges, and desires for further exploration. I still struggle to embrace the concept that life unfolds in the way that it does because God willed it so. A recent romantic fallout is attributed to God's desire, a missed bus was not meant to be, a difficulty along the way is God knowing that one can shoulder the burden and muscle the challenge. My objections to this type of thinking are not specific to Islam – indeed, I would say the same to the Alchemist's enthusiastic embrace of concepts of fate and destiny. In a sense, I feel that these ideas diminish personal accountability and holding the reigns over one's own life. A lot of my additional frustrations have stemmed from issues related to Sharia law, women, modesty and related concerns which I will chronicle in a future post. However, two overarching themes do apply here: First, I have occasionally found it difficult  to  voice my critiques, concerns and hesitations about the role and effects of religion within this  uniformly Muslim society, lest they be dismissed as more 'uninformed Western talk' or, worse, they offend with unintended harshness or insensitivity. Secondly, I am finding it difficult to bridge the gap between what I have repeatedly been told is a peaceful, always relevant, progressive, open-minded, tolerant and sensitive text, the Qur'an, and what I will not hesitate to call the occasionally backward, restraining applications that disrespect human rights. I know that these instances that offend me are not characteristic of the religion and do not constitute the entirety of it, but they taint my perception of it nonetheless.

Going forward, I need to deepen this path of learning. I would like to access the Qur'an as a primary text in order to myself attempt to understand the peace in its words. I would also like to become better informed of how the different interpretations have come to be and how some interpretations dominate over others. Similarly, I need to revisit the Western perceptions of Islam and see how my own critical eye has changed in my time here – I need to read what academics, journalists and political analysts criticize about the community of which I have become a part and rechart my own perspective. Finally, I hope to continue being able to tell the story of the nuances – of the kindness alongside the restrictions, the hope alongside the predetermined choices, the unexpected moments of learning. And more personally, I will continue to ask myself questions in the hope of developing as strong a belief in a spiritual something and a conviction about a religious anything as these individuals demonstrate every day in my community here.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mentors and Role Models, Part II

The mentorship project for young women I discussed in an earlier post is getting off the ground with the support of NGOs and international organizations in Egypt. As specific activities are becoming better defined and local partners are increasingly identified, I would love to hear your thoughts and own experiences with mentors and role models. While many details need to remain confidential for the time being, the purpose and underlying objectives are briefly summarized below, along with a few ways in which you can contribute to this fellowship project.

To inspire young women in Egypt to seek out role models and establish mentoring relationships with figures in their community

To motivate young women to identify role models in their communities
To facilitate peer learning and share examples of leadership among young women
To increase cultural awareness and understanding by exchanging stories of exemplary figures
To provide vision guidance and logistical support for the establishment of mentoring relationships between young women and figures in their community

How You Can Help
  1. Contribute to the data collection phase by completing this survey on role models and mentors. Responses are anonymous.  Click Here to take survey
  2. Do you know a teacher, a classroom, a community program or a non-profit that would consider becoming a partner in the pilot implementation of the project? Email me!
Thank you for your continued support, help and inspiration.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Moonage Daydream

Who wouldn't want to be illuminating lovers,
Or controlling the sea?
Who wouldn't want to be the moon?

-Moon, David Poe

It has been a time pregnant with realizations and the learning of lessons. Our apartment in Cairo is experiencing a roller coaster of emotions, as well as its first cold spell. I walked to the window at 2.40 AM to close my shutters slamming in the wind. Then I looked at the full moon, only to realize I was seeing my very first 'moonbow'. White, yellow, purple, red and green concentric rings formed around the full moon. Geraldine, Nadine and I crowded my windows, ignored the mosquitoes that continued to feast on me, and just looked. Nothing like a burst of unexpected beauty to provide some perspective.

Tonight I am going to sleep with the shutters open.