Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas cheer and other exile experiences

Here is Emmett at a local toy store. The artists who own it started posing Emmett with different items. He was good-natured about it. I've promised to send them copies of these photos. Maybe I even will.

Here is the scene Christmas eve after Santa had been through. We hung our stockings firm the window handles since we don't have a hearth. Santa figured it out.

I didn't take a picture of Christmas morning. It was actually quite a nice scene. I was nervous since it was our first year without any family elders around, so Dave and I were running the show. We missed family for sure, but Thomas and Emmett had a nice Christmas. Thomas had been pretty worried about getting coal, and was relieved and pleased at the number of presents he got. Later he wondered aloud if perhaps "Santa couldn't see behind the couch.". Not sure what that means, tho grandpa peter's piano story springs to mind.

And, switching gears, here's a scene from a friend's dissertation defense at Cairo University. She teaches English literature there. Thats her in the corner speaking into the microphone. When I first met Sonia, who got her masters at Santa Cruz in the states, I asked her what her specialty was. I expected her to say Arab literature, or Arabic women, I guess because that would be a very marketable specialty in the States. She said hispanic-American literature. This really surprised me.

Her PhD thesis focused on narratives of exile- Hispanic American women writers whose characters have moved from their home country to the United States. I was really pleased and honored to be invited to watch her defense. I for sure would not have invited my own mother to watch my job talk in the states, but I guess it's different here. It seemed like a lot of her friends and supporters were in the room, and two big bouquets of flowers arrived at the beginning.

It was a little surreal sitting in this classroom in Cairo listening to Arab academics discuss the experience of Hispanic immigrants to the United States. At one point one of the panel of interlocutors said, as if it was self-evident, that virtually all Egyptian scholars that focus on American literature specialize in African- American writers. She asked Sonia to explain what was special or noteworthy about hispanic American works. I found this quite surprising- I was a little sad to realize that scholars focusing on American literature don't generally focus on Hawthorne or Edith Wharton or Mark Twain. Maybe all that was done to death a generation ago.

The interest in, and obvious sympathy with, the immigrant experience in the United States also surprised me. There was a lot of discussion of the hardship of translating the Spanish experience into English, and the fight to retain the language and customs of home against the "Anglo" majority culture. Initially I couldn't figure out why this room full of Egyptians would be in such universal sympathy with this community. None of the questioners or nodding audience members were exiles- they were native Egyptians studying in their own land. It's not as if Egypt is such a haven for migrants or minorities, especially religious minorities. If anything I have the sense that Egyptians are more sympathetic than many Americans to the idea of protecting and preserving national culture. Egypt has had it's periods of empire- why weren't they also discussing the difficulties of assimilating different populations into a coherent whole? I know the whole legacy of colonialism blah blah, but that still wouldn't make Egyptians exiles.

Here is what it looked like on the cairo university campus. I was still puzzling over this after the talk when I remembered something Sonia had said that had gotten a lot of smiles and nodding from the audience. She had referenced how the Louisiana Purchase had transferred huge areas of Texas, new Mexico, California? (I am not checking my facts here - this could be off, but Sonia had it right) to the united states from Mexico and quoted a Latino poet as saying, "we didn't come to the united states, the united states came to us.". That was kind of my lightbulb moment- that would also be how Egyptians feel about the British and their successor, the Americans. Even if it is still their country, so much has been transformed by the West and the products and technology of the West. The craziness around cars, pollution, litter- all of these things were imported in the last century and have been grafted not quite successfully into Egypt. Not to mention that the Mubarak regime, which is acknowledged to be corrupt and ineffective in many ways, survives due to American support. I can see why it might feel like the united states, or at least some nebulous Anglo power, had come to them and was forcing change.

That would also explain why I didn't identify as much with the descriptions of the exile experience as I thought I might. Even though I am no longer living in the geographic territory of the united states, I have not really left it. Americans and other Europeans are top of the heap here, and nobody seriously expects me to speak Arabic or wear a veil. We have special police who make sure we are not harassed or bothered by the locals. (Once when I got in one of my usual fights with a cab driver, which I do everywhere no matter what the city, and the guy was really clueless and so lost and incompetent I just jumped out and started walking away without paying. He followed me and pulled up next to me gesturing that i owed him money. I shouted "la!" (No) quite forcefully through the window and walked away. Two seconds later I heard someone shouting excuse me and a pretty woman in western dress ran up to me. She said she worked with the police and wanted to know if the cab driver had done anything improper. I felt like such an idiot having to explain that basically I'd jumped the fare and the guy was probably well within his rights to ask for money. If I'd said he'd done something he probably would have been put in jail and tortured. I dont know whether she was keeping an eye on me all along or just happened on the scene- either way it enhanced my feeling of walking around in an artificial expat bubble. . . . ) There is more to say, of course, about "exile" and our "immigration" experience in Cairo, but for now I'll just leave it here Anyway, it was a great talk and a very rich subject.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Meanwhile . . .

This is the scene at 3931 Livingston in our absence:

No surprise that these folks work for a nuclear power company.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Weird things

So last week I finally got a taste of what expats complain about in cairo: sometimes one encounters scams and a "lack of work ethic" in Egyptian business. I have heard lots of complaints about this, but really have been treated nothing but kindly since august. It is annoying that sometimes there is a price for Egyptians, and another price for foreigners that is 10 times the local price, and no one sees anything wrong with openly charging foreigners more because we're foreigners. But whatever, there's a lot of privilege in being an expat in cairo. I wouldn't myself back the dual price system as the most advantageous way to level the field, but it doesn't bother me that much.

But last week I finally got around to taking Egypt and the kittens to the vet for vaccinations, spaying etc. This wasn't so much for them as for Thomas and Emmett, since these cats spend a lot of time in the garden and I'd just as soon they were healthy. I went to a place our driver recommended, but it was kind of sketchy. The vet assistant seemed genuinely terrified of cats, and then I saw that the vaccine they were about to give was expired. I took the cats home and later saw that this place is not only unscrupulous, nobody there is actually a vet. They advertise in expat magazines, and charge expats who bring in pets for "vaccines" that are never administered and travel paperwork that is forged. One man evidently tried to board his golden retriever there when he went on a trip only to get a call after six hours that they'd lost the dog. He strongly suspected that they'd actually just sold it since it was a purebred and could get a high price.

I should say that I'm quite sure that Mohammed, our driver, was totally on the up and up in recommending the place. But I think that vets are hard for most Egyptians to wrap their heads around. There are plenty of people here who can't afford basic healthcare, and cats are dime a dozen all over the streets. I did eventually find a good vet and took the cats for treatment, but I think it was completely mind-boggling to Mohammed when he heard me talk about the cost, about $200, with Dave. I think to him I'd done the equivalent of picking up three random pigeons in central park and spending $10,000 on them.

Even for me it's all a bit much. Having cats in Egypt is not the same thing as having a cat in the states. Since I have to keep them outdoors because of dave's allergies, there's no way to stop every other sick and decrepit stray cat in the area from coming in the garden and trying to share their food. And since there is garbage all over the streets here, the cats will bring back tasty morsels of rancid meat to enjoy on the lawn. They also climb into emmett's stroller and sleep there. The whole thing is not very sanitary, even after getting vaccinations etc. I kind of wish I could just cut the cats loose, but that feels immoral, even while getting them basic healthcare also feels immoral because they are just cats and the care is expensive. What do you think, loyal readers? I'm trying to find homes for the kittens, but if I can't, should I cut them loose? Accept responsibility for all 4 cats? Blow off their heads with a shotgun like my aunt carola did once? Suggestions appreciated.

Other weird things: here's Santa arriving by camel to maadi house.

Here's Thomas explaining his list:

Check out his awesome "volcano" shirt- a birthday present from Grand Kathy. It's part of the "science" school series.

And here's Emmett:

Here's the City Stars mall in downtown Cairo, where we went on an expedition last weekend.

And here's me and Emmett riding in the women and children only cars on the metro to downtown:

Finally, here's Thomas and Juan on December 8th, the day Thomas turned 5!!!!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Santa visits the Irish nursery

Santa paid an early visit to Emmett's hadana. Emmett and Felipe were ready.

The kids put on a Christmas show.

Emmett was the only child brave enough to sit on santa's lap. He got big applause.

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Christmas in tha house!

David went out to the wadi, and surprised us all by coming back with this handsome evergreen tree.

I didn't even know they grew in the desert! And where did he find a cross-bow axe I wonder?

Emmett and I set out to decorate it at once.

The tree is sitting in what we like to call "the empty room." This is probably as good a time as any to show you some pictures of the house, as promised lo these many weeks ago.

The "empty room" is the only room in the house that wasn't fully furnished when we arrived. It is a traditional Islamic sitting room where men would receive guests apart from the family parts of the house. I have big plans for this room. Up to now it has been useful for car racing, trains, balloon tosses, and Christmas trees.

(we have been waiting for our fixer guy to come to hang pictures. Supposedly this will happen tomorrow! As you can see, the finest art in our collection is headed for these walls).

On either side of this front room are two wings- one for eating/ lounging, and the other for bedrooms.

These here are two of my favorite rooms. The wife of the last nyt correspondent is a graphic designer, and you can see she had a real flair in decorating.

Kitchen. Pretty average. At night a few lizards come and cling to the windows.

This hall connects the two wings of the house. The rug we inherited but I'd like to change it.

This is the playroom/ guest room. That's giacomo with Emmett and t building a train track.

Here's where y'all will sleep when you come visit.

Here's our messy room complete with one handsome nyt bureau chief.

I guess I don't have a photo of the boys' room. It's pretty crowded now cause it has 2 big boy beds and a crib. Hoping we'll lose that before too long.

Now here's Santa:

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Thanksgiving catch-up

Well, it's already december and I've been a little delinquent about updating november's events. For the last few days ive been laid very low by what I insist is dengue fever, but what medical evidence suggests was just a flu.

Here we are just before leaving to have thanksgiving dinner at our friend giacomo's house. Here we really have to give credit to Thomas for being savvy enough to befriend someone whose parents work for the embassy. This means they have access to the us commissary and all it's goodies. We had turkey AND ham and stuffing and pumpkin pie! Also, they are very nice people.

We all looked very sharp as you can see. Thomas was so polite: when asked what he wanted to wear he said, "whatever looks handsomest.". And, all by himself, after the food was served, he looked at his hostess and said, "what a delicious thanksgiving dinner." I was so proud.

Emmett wore his plaid party pants that continue to be crowd-pleasers.

Here we are on a recent trip to the Wadi with Juan and Felipe's family. You wouldn't believe the off-roading dave had to do to get us to this spot! The Rodriguez's were so scared.

Despite how we look in this picture, we all had a nice time.

Next up, Christmas is coming to Cairo!

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Eid on the gulf of Aqaba

Last week was another "eid" or feast here. Everyone had the week off school. The holiday celebrates, among other things, god's decision to spare Ishmael and accept a sheep sacrifice from Abraham instead. Now, I remember this story in the bible, where God tells Abraham he has to sacrifice his son and then relents at the last minute after ishmael (Isaac to christians) is spread out on the slab. Granted, I didn't have the most church-y of upbringings, and new englanders shy away from emotional intensity generally, but I don't remember anybody celebrating this particular story. It mostly seemed to make everyone uncomfortable and was skipped over pretty quickly. So I was surprised to learn that the islamic world embraces this passage with such intensity. It's one of the biggest holidays of the year- sort of like Christmas. To do it right you really have to slaughter your own sheep. The Egyptian government imports thousands of extra sheep for the occasion. Everyone has to share some of their meat with the poor. On the day of the feast evidently the streets of Cairo run red with sheep innards and gore. Someone told me that the whole thing about feeding the poor has gotten out of hand: there is too much lamb and the poor can't even eat it all and so some just goes bad. I don't know if that's true. In this person's opinion it would be better if some people gave sheep to the poor, and some other people gave money or their time. But the Koran says to slaughter the sheep, and all that is taken very literally hereabouts.

On the other hand, this adherence to text means that absolutely everyone shares with the poor in tangible way. That certainly has not been my experience of holidays in the US even though there is a lot of talk and prayer for the poor on Christmas.

Anyhoo, I thought the boys were a little young for all this, so we joined some friends who were going diving in the Sinai. I really cant describe how different this place was, so i wont try. This is the hotel we stayed in:

It was right on the beach.

One day we rode horses.

We all enjoyed relaxing Bedouin-style.


The only drawback was that there were some Mosquitos. They especially liked Emmett. We were able to take evasive measures, but not before he looked like this:

Poor guy!

We finally got rid of them by sacrificing a sheep . . . Just kidding!

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