Test me test me, why don’t you arrest me

  • I was grading my class’ first exam and came across the following answer in response to the question “please talk about the obstacles to effective philanthropy in the Middle East.” Y, we will call him, wrote ” Arabs are as stingy as Jews.” He then crossed this sentence out and appended a note to it which said “pretend I did not say that.”  He proceeded to provide a very good answer to the question.
  • On his trip to Stratford-upon-Avon Noah roomed with an Egyptian student from his theatre class, who upon learning that the hotel they were staying did not provide free wireless blurted “they are a bunch of Jews.” Noah objected, since was not the first time A made an anti-Semitic comment, nor the first time a student in his school had done so. A apologized, indicating that this kind of comment was really done from instinct and that he did not mean anything by it.
  • A few weeks back, while Noah was getting his hair cut downtown, Judy was connecting with the young men in the barber shop. They told her how much they liked Americans, she told them she was Canadian and they said Canadians were good people. Judy told them that she liked Egyptians as well and commented “all people are good people,” to which one of the young men commented “Yes, but not Israelis.”
  • In Arabic class yesterday, after a very intimate exchange about his relationship with his deceased father and how he had watched him die and performed the ritual washing of his corpse, we commented to our teacher that we do something similar. “You are Christian?” he asked. “No Jewish,” I responded. He looked shocked. We then had a wonderful exchange where he told me how happy he was that we told him, that he had a former student who told  him of his Jewish identity only when he was leaving Egypt. He let us know that he understood the difference between Jews and Israelis, noting that he did not like Israelis because they kill children. He also urged us a number of times not to share our religious identity with any other Egyptians.

We have not been very public about our Jewish identities.  We did go to high holy day services in downtown Cairo, in a synagogue guarded by the Egyptian army, but that was pretty private until we saw a picture of the back of our heads in the English language Daily News in an article written on Rosh Hashanah that featured the small Jewish community that remains here. And in my travels in the region I have always been cautious about revealing my religion, but have done so many times after I have gotten to know somebody. I recall after telling a professor colleague of mine in Jordan that I was Jewish, she asked “how often do you visit your homeland.” I quickly realized that she was not talking about New Jersey.  I also realized that for many American Jews, Israel is indeed their homeland.


And that  seems to be the issue here. Jewish is equated with Israeli by many, and Israel is seemingly universally vilified here. For those who do understand that Jewish does not equal Israeli, they express openness to Jews but an unequivocal hatred of Israel and Zionism and the catastrophe. But if you think about it, doesn’t Zionism actually create this merger, or doesn’t Israel do so by making all Jews automatically citizens of Israel actually encourage this merger of identity? And don’t my conservative Jewish friends who ask for unyielding support for Israel from the American Jewish community also propagate and encourage this merger of identities? In this perhaps odd way, the perception that I experience amongst people here is in some ways similar to what many American Jews encourage.  So some here understand the difference between Jews and Israelis, and some do not, but even for those who do I am not always sure I believe them.

The anti-Semitic/anti-Israel sentiment amongst the Arabs that I have met is not at all dissimilar to the intense Islamophobia that exists in the United States. I nearly lost my breath when a family member upon learning that Leah would be studying Arabic here asked “why, so she can speak to the terrorists?” And the recent cover of Newsweek with   featuring Arab rage, or the post 9/11 racism that so easily emerged in the United States is far too close to the knee jerk anti-jewishness I hear here.

I am frankly not interested at this moment in having conversations about moral equivalence. For now I am discouraged by the deeply entrenched views on both sides of this persistent and unwavering hatred. And though one of my goals in my time here was to somehow bring a fruitful dialogue to this enmity, I think that was both naive and the result of a bit of hubris.  If nothing else, however, I am a little less ignorant about this part of the world than I was two months ago.

 I asked Y to come speak to me after I read that line in the exam.  He responded to my email by asking if there is anything he should be worried about. I said no, but that I wanted to talk to him about something in his exam.  We agreed to meet after class. When we ran into each other before class in the men’s room, he said to me that he thought he knew what I wanted to talk about. After class we sat down, and I told him that his line about Jews took my breath away. He earnestly apologized. I told him I was Jewish, he said that he thought that might be the case. That actually did not make sense, so I asked him how he knew. He said that he had never seen a last name like mine so he thought I might be Jewish. He told me he did not mean to offend me, that he likes to use humor about this issue, that he has many Jewish friends and that he differentiated between Judaism and Zionism. We talked a bit about the films of Sasha Baron Cohen.  I told him that there was a place for humor, and exams like this were not such a place.  He agreed.  We walked to the bus together, shook hands, and agreed to continue the conversation.  I very much hope we do. Perhaps one small drop in a large and rough sea.


I was Born in the Desert, Raised in a Lion’s Den

We took a journey to another world this weekend.  Five hours west of Cairo is the Baharyia Oasis, on the outskirts of the White Desert. The Oasis, one of five in Egypt, was cut off from the world until the early 1970s when a two-lane road from Cairo was completed. The town was before that totally self-sufficient except for fuel, and relied solely on the barter system.  The completion of the road created a tourism industry, largely focused on taking people camping into the white desert.  Of course, tourism is a complicated enterprise, bringing with it many of the hierarchical relationships that are endemic to colonialism, and it sometimes seems like colonialism but in a different form. I can’t pretend that we have figured out how to navigate these colonial dynamics, but they provide a lot to think about and can serve as a window on politics, economics and social relations.

            Our first night in Baharyia was at a new hotel recently opened by an American women with a Ph.D. in Archeology andan interest in ancient astronomy. She had lived in Cairo for many years, but found it too noisy and busy so decided to move to the Oasis. The 23 room hotel is lovely, decorated with Nubian and Bedouin art, with modest rooms, a lovely rooftop restaurant, and a Bedouin tent in the back. She has built her dream.  As we sat in the tent drinking a beer waiting for the hotel owner to join us, we engaged in a lovely conversation with Muhammad, who was from Baharyia and seemed to be the manager of the hotel.  His English was excellent, his desire to share the joys of the oasis abundant, and his perspective on life open and mutual. His wife had been educated at Cairo University in Commerce, but did not work out of the house. In fact no women in Baharyia worked out of the house, and most did not go outside during the day at all, and certainly never without being covered.  His wife, he told us, was “shy,” and only went out at night, and then only with another woman to visit her mother.  The conversation was fascinating as we reflected on the word “shy”, which Judy took to mean modest which made a lot more sense.  The conversation radically shifted when the hotel owner joined us for a beer (Muhammad was not drinking) and though deeply in love with this country enough to invest in it and make it her home, proceeded to tell us how the medical system sucked, how nobody could understand the creativity she brought to the hotel design, and how she had brought a level of sophistication to Baharyia that did not exist before.  I think all of the was probably true, but could not help but notice that Muhammed, who had previously been very talkative and engaged, became absolutely silent while she was talking to us.  I could not help think of the subtle and not so subtle power relations that were taking place right in front of us.

 After meeting our guide Amar and seeing the town and its environs which included a “natural pyramid” and seemingly endless date trees (nargala) with the sweetest succulent dates, we ate dinner at the hotel, were driven to a hot spring which proved to be too hot for our immersion, and retired for the night, ready to leave in the morning for camping in the desert. Amar is a talented man.  He was about our age with four children ranging in age from 3-12, and had spent his life taking people into the desert.  For many years he would walk with people, but now took people in an all wheel drive vehicle. He told us that he had not used English much since the revolution as that has taken a real toll on tourism across the entire country. (Tourism has historically accounted for about 5% of Egypt’s’ GDP, and had taken a significant hit since the Revolution.)

Amar was a jack of all trades, and I could not help but think of the Bruce Springsteen lyrics from the song Jack of all Trades:

I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain
I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain
I’ll take the work that God provides
I’m a Jack of all trades, honey, we’ll be alright

I’ll hammer the nails, and I’ll set the stone
I’ll harvest your crops when they’re ripe and grown
I’ll pull that engine apart and patch her up ’til she’s running right
I’m a Jack of all trades, we’ll be alright

 He was our driver, guide, cook, knot tier, navigator and chief contexualtizer.  He was pleasantly not very talkative with us, though he and his assistant Muhammed, a 20 year old veteran of the Egyptian army talked endlessly about many things, but given the different dialectic in the oasis, Judy and I were not able to pick out many words. (I did constantly imagine that they were talking about the dumb Americans who did not even know how to set up a tent.)  it is hard to describe driving off road in the desert with no “obvious” landmarks to mark the route, though Amar never got lost, at least not that we knew. He also cooked us three meals all with fresh salads, tea with mint, and warm bread. When we asked him if he cooked at home, he seemed almost offended. Since his wife does not go out during the day, he does all of the shopping, but she does all of the cooking and chores at home. Judy told him in the US we tend to split these duties. I think that this seemed so perplexing to him that it warranted no further conversation. I include some pictures here from our trip, which do not come close to doing justice to what we saw:

The western desert

Sunrise in the white desert

Judy at peace

On our night ride back to Cairo from the Oasis, we stopped at a truck stop where 4 or 5 men were drinking Turkish coffee and huddled around a television watching President Morsi give a speech celebrating October 6th, the holiday celebrating the “victory” over Israel in 1973. The speech was given in a football stadium to over 60,000 people. Morsi noted to the crowd that he still lived in his flat in New Cairo and that reports that it cost 3 million Egyptian pounds ($500,000)for security each time he went out were grossly exaggerated. He also reflected on progress made thus far, including the amount of trash that has been picked up and efforts made to relieve traffic congestion, with 1.5 million traffic tickets given in his first 100 days.  There is actually a “Morsi Meter” where one can track his progress. It is hard to imagine what it would really take to address all of the serious issues this country faces, which are daunting on the face of it, but somehow make sense in light of the vastness of the desert that had hosted us for a small blip in time.

Well this job I’ve got, is a little too hot

For those of you who are interested, the students and administration reached an agreement on Sunday to open the campus. I have a million thoughts and observations about this, more later.  You can read more abot the agreement here.

Sometimes we visit your country and live in your home

Learning Arabic over the last weeks has been a humbling, revealing and joyous experience.  I have spent far too much time traveling the world with so little knowledge of local languages that Judy and I decided we would do are best to learn this aesthetically beautiful language. Though I  have not been able to learn or remember much thus far, the experience has been edifying, and has served as a window on to so much more than the Arabic language.

Judy and I are taking two two-hour classes each week at Al Diwan, one of the language schools where DukeEngage students study when they are here in the summer.  Its newly opened Maadi branch is a four minute walk from our apartment. The branch manager Mo’men is teaching us, and his support and enthusiasm buoys me when my aging brain can’t remember the word or pronunciation that I have learned for the 25th time. His warm welcome, the tea with mint from the garden and the family atmosphere that pervades Al Diwan has made this part of our week most welcome, despite my overwhelming feelings of incompetence. For our first class Mo’men invited us to share bread, cucumbers, tomatoes and mesh (old cheese) with him, introduced us to his wife Shu Shu who also teaches at Al Diwan, and beamed about his sons, one of whom is studying Engineering at Cairo University. Last week Judy and I joined all of the Al Diwan students for koshary in the courtyard of the school, and last week, upon learning that we liked hollowa (hallava) he summoned his colleague Omar to buy some for us which we shared while learning how to read and write. Al Diwan has become a place of comfort, where we learn not just about language but about prayer and revolution and family and friends.

Holowa at Al Diwan

The New faculty orientation at AUC provided us with about 4 hours of basic language instruction, where we learned some survival words and phrases. All of the instruction was phonetic transliteration, so though we were exposed to new and unfamiliar sounds, we were not exposed to the Arabic alphabet. When Judy and I were deciding what to study and how to study it and where to study it, our major predicament was whether or not we should learn the Arabic alphabet or simply learn words and phrases. (Also, one can study classic Arabic or Egyptian Arabic, we are doing the latter). I am glad we took much of the advice that we got from friends and colleagues here and that we are studying the alphabet, for though I will probably never be able to read or write, the alphabet and broader structure of the language has for me served as a window on Egypt, an unveiling if you will of the very form and structure of this place. Letter by letter and word by word, what once appeared to be utterly incomprehensible is now just slightly discernible.

I am familiar with Hebrew so have the experience of reading from right to left, but it is good to be reminded of this here.  So it does remind me of Hebrew as do some of the letters and words. This linkage is important to remember as we also see and observe and sometimes experience the continued schism between the Arab world and Israel. The direction we read in here is an important reminder of similarities amidst the differences.  Also like Hebrew, vowels are not often used and are placed above and below consonants. Many letters connect to other letters, and to add to my confusion, take a different form depending on whether they appear at the beginning, middle or end of a word. And so though knowing this has not really helped me to read per se, it has allowed me to look at what previously looked like beautiful scribble and to be able to discern discrete letters, words and logic.

And that in so many ways mirrors my experience and what I have learned during our six weeks in Cairo. Whether it is the traffic without lanes, the various forms and colors of the hagib, or the cacophony of the emerging political (dis) order, there is indeed a logic and form. It’s just not my logic and form, nor one that I know. And that lesson is the most important of all.

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