Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Notes from the Dizzying Storm

View from my balcony window,
where towers and televisions look skyward.
Wow... it's been a long time since I've written anything.  The first seven weeks of the fall term have flown by in a dizzying storm of Arabic novels, getting to know new people, starting to go to the gym at least three times a week.  You know, new beginnings and things of that sort (note: things of that sort in Arabic is often expressed by the phrase شيء من هذا القبيل which literally means "things of that tribe."  It's these sort of things that make a post-Orientalism Orientalist's heart secretly melt).

Things that have happened

1.  I've moved.  After a brief attempt to live with my closest Egyptian friend fell through, I moved in with a fantastic guy from the same program who lives in Shubra, which is a more working class neighborhood but also a very "old" neighborhood that has a large Christian population.  My metro stop is called "St. Teresa," and the view from my window is a church and mosque with a steeple and minaret standing just a few feet apart, as they are on either side of a small alleyway.  When I had a toothless taxi driver take me home one night from the more upscale area where most of my friends live (can you tell I'm scraping for street-cred here?), he recited to me a dialect poem that he had written called "al-Garas wa'l-Izaan" or "The Bells and the Call to Prayer."  Indeed, you can hear the bells go off about once a day and the calls to prayer at their appointed times throughout the day.

2.  I've read a bunch of Arabic novels.  I have now read a total of six Arabic novels over the past 7 weeks.  One of which, Seasons of Migration to the North, I'd read in Arabic a few years ago.  I've finally read a Naguib Mahfouz novel in Arabic and liked it a lot less than I expected, and read the second Yusuf Idris novel I'd ever read, and liked it a lot more than I expected.  My teacher is a radically disorganized novelist who was also a teacher at Middlebury Arabic school when I was studying and working there.  She's a very good teacher (minus the disorganization) who expects a lot from our writing.  She asked us incredulously one day: Why is that you don't use applicable Qur'anic references to punch up your writing?  Why don't you use popular sayings to add spice to what you say?  This is somewhat like asking fourth graders why they do not weave Shakespearean allusions into their book reports on Misty of Chincoteague.   They probably only know "to be or not to be," and that only becomes applicable in a very limited number of circumstances.  I have been able to use the few Prophetic sayings and Qur'anic phrases that I know... "Actions are according to their intentions" (Prophetic saying), "And perhaps they are actually well aware [though they pretend that they do not]," (Qur'anic allusion).  If only the actual content of the essays were up to the standard of these bold wisdoms.

3.  I've become more cultured.  Cairo, it turns out, has a lot of stuff going on.  Art galleries, music, movies... there are a lot of things to do and yes, they do market to foreigners and Egyptians who are fully literate in European/American culture (the rock concert with the Bob Marley crew rocking out in the corner comes to mind) and often speak perfect English.  But it's been nice to go to lectures, go to galleries, and begin to feel like there are things about Cairo life that allow me to just relax.  This has certainly helped me settle into a groove such that I find life here much less stressful on a day to day basis.

4.  In that vein, I've apparently begun to fit in a bit more.  I've been asked for directions by Egyptians in Arabic without a moment's hesitation about 4 different times.  Being on the metro on the way to Shubra helps because they figure you must actually be from here if you're getting off in Shubra.  Usually it's people from out of town (Alexandria, to countryside) who are trying to find out where Ramsees station is.  Helpfully, the naming scheme of Cairo's metro system does not line up with the naming scheme for its train/bus system, so the main Cairo bus/train hub, which is called Ramsees, is directly above the metro stop formerly known as Hosni Mubarak, now known as Shohada (the Martyrs, ie. of the January revolution).

 Thus, nearly all requests for directions have involved people asking "how do I get to Ramsees?"

- "Well," I tell them, "you get off at this stop that is called Shohada, though on this map it is still listed as Mubarak.  I know it doesn't make any sense. There is no Ramsees Metro stop.  Trust me." (or, usually, "wa-llahi." which is an oath meaning "by God" that is used pretty much all the time by almost everyone I've ever spoken to.  It can also be used as a question: "By God?" to mean... "Really?!")

- "Where are you from?" they ask incredulously, not sure if they should believe this man claiming to be knowledgeable.  It's well known in Cairo that if you want directions, you always ask at least 3 people if you can because everyone wants to be helpful so badly that they'll usually give directions even if they're not quite sure.

- "I'm from America, but I live in Shubra.  You're not from Cairo... where are you from?" Haha!  Turned around that "you're not from here" bullshit right back on ya!

5.  I've fallen in love with the concept of mini-buses and the wacky world of unsystematic but utterly reliable Cairo public transportation options, which is such a complicated matter that I will leave it to another post.  One that I intend to write soon, if God wills it (insha'Allah).

Monday, 12 September 2011

Asad... No, Not that Asad

I've just been reading this fantastic interview with Talal Asad, who certainly thinks more clearly about Egypt and politics than I do.  And also more clearly about a great many other things, such as formations of the religious and the secular/political (see previous posts one and two).

Anyhow, there are some really great sections:

On revolutions:
Maybe one needs to think of the uprising as more than a technique for getting rid of a despotic regime, but as a mode of existence, almost. The novelist Alaa Al Aswani said in an interview with The Independent that being part of this revolution is “like being in love.” I don’t think it’s quite like that. You might say, actually, that it’s more like a religious experience.

On religious parties:
 I can understand why many people would equate the religious right here and the religious movements there. But I don’t think that they’re directly comparable. There is a difference, and I think part of it comes from the savage repression in Egypt of the Muslim Brothers, which the religious right in the U.S. has not had to undergo. This doesn’t justify anything in particular, but it’s something that one has to think about. And, connected with that, there’s the fact that the Brotherhood is a movement that has been resisting what I would call Western imperialism, whereas that isn’t true of the religious right in the U.S., which, on the contrary, very often supports it. Now, I don’t want to be understood to be saying that simply because the Muslim Brothers oppose imperialism they’re beyond reproach. What I’m saying is that it’s more complicated. During the Brotherhood’s rise in the 1930s, it was strongly anti-British. And the United States has been constantly intervening in Egypt after the British left—even supporting Mubarak right until the very end—and that’s not going to be lost on the Muslim Brothers, although it’s still an open question as to whether they and the U.S. government will now regard each other as implacable enemies.
I have tried to tell people to think of the Muslim Brotherhood as the religious right, but of course, they're different.  My point in doing so is that people have a very weak ability to turn problems around in their head.  They remember 9/11 and think "we were justified in our war against so-and-so" without thinking what people must feel like in countries we've invaded.  There were weeks upon weeks of 9/11's that, for lack of superior firepower, didn't spark an invasion of our homeland.  It always strikes me that the people who shout the loudest about how 9/11 justifies us would be the first to join the terrorist resistance to a foreign occupation of North Dakota.

On Colonialism:
I’m also sometimes irritated by people who would like to explain everything in terms of colonialism. That is just so crude. I also find myself resisting people who say that colonialism has nothing to do with the present situation because colonialism is dead and gone. My own feeling is that what people assert or deny is due to colonialism should be constantly interrogated. In our world, external intervention by strong powers, superpowers, or the superpower, is a fact of life. The United States has been intervening in the Middle East for a long time—it would be surprising if it didn’t!

On being in the midst of revolution:

NS: What was it like to be there in the midst of a revolution?TA: Even before my wife and I went, people kept saying to us, “Are you sure it’s safe?” Our Air France plane was actually cancelled. We were due to go on the 29th of January. We eventually left on the 12th of February, via Paris. We weren’t even able to go directly to Cairo, either. We had to go through Beirut. Then, all sorts of people starting ringing, again asking, “Is it safe? Are you sure you’ll be safe? We’ve heard all sorts of frightening things.” Remember the stories circulating early in the uprising about the prisons that had been opened and the police being withdrawn from the streets? That was what the fear was about. People wouldn’t believe me, but I was there for four months, almost, and I went all over town and never encountered any violence. I didn’t have any friends who could attribute violence to the uprisings—which isn’t to say it didn’t happen. Cairo contains eighteen million people, so it has always had its fair share of criminality. But ordinary life, actually, continued. Cafes were open, and shops, restaurants, and so on. You’d often hear that foreigners were in danger, or that ordinary life was impossible, but that is really not true.
I noted last week that being "in the midst of the revolution" can really be a lot like being in the midst of every-day life.  I was up in the Delta during the storming of the Israeli Embassy this past weekend, and people in town simply didn't know about it.  One tried to tell me that the pictures on TV were from the earlier protests because, well, we hadn't heard that things were on fire right now.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Of Peasantry and Pigeonage

This picture has very little to do
with this blog post
I'm sitting in Qaranshu at 3am, having consumed a nescafe with Egyptian-level sugar contents at about 11.30pm;  The Egyptian government has cracked down on protestors following the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, which you probably heard about (following the killing of at least 4 six Egyptian soldiers by an Israeli border raid that you probably didn't hear about... with others still in critical condition);  I went to an Egyptian wedding on Friday and danced on stage with the groom, whom I had met once before and assured me that it would have been a disgrace if I had not come to his wedding party -- unfortunately, amid the blasting Arabic techno beats blasting from every available speaker, the only word I heard was "disgrace," and was worried for at least 15 minutes that I had entered my worst nightmare and committed some unforgivable faux pas in front of a huge audience of Egyptians;  I learned that the business of being a simsaar -- something like an rentals agent who helps people find apartments to rent -- is akin to a mafia-cartel that would put the hurt on anyone trying to help foreigners get cheaper apartments by avoiding their crappy excuse for service.

And yet, here I am writing about something that has nothing to do with any of the above.  This is probably why the only people who read it are those like me who spend a bunch of time on facebook procrastinating and wishing they had something to read that wasn't the newsfeed.  Blockbuster days for readership on this blog run in the 20s or 30s.  I love each and every one of you for that little jump in the readership chart.

Point is, the Arabic language is wide and deep.  It has long been my position that, were it not for ideological considerations, the different "dialects" of Arabic would be taught as separate languages.  The old linguist's saying being "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy."

But even within Egypt, the dialect known as "Egyptian dialect" is... wide and deep.  Take, for example, Quranshu.

The town's accent is akin to the Yemeni and Upper Egypt dialect:
    -->  The deep guttural Qaf (a "k" pronounced as far back in the throat as you can manage) with a hard Geem sound (as in "gum").
    -->  The soft Jeem (as in "jam") remains as such in the Qaranshu accent.

Cairenes, by contrast, pronounce the Qaf as a glottal stop (the catch at the back of the throat at the beginning and middle of "Uh-Oh").  For Cairenes, the soft Jeem is pronounced as a hard Geem (as in "gum").

My friend's family will also mention words in conversation that are "peasant" words.  As it was described to me, these words were used "before we had education."  People tend to make sure I know that certain words are "not used" so that I don't make the mistake of going around Cairo using words that would give me away as a peasant-type.

The stereotype of the stupid Upper Egyptian peasant with the loud, non-Cairene accent, Qaf-as-Geem accent is so famous that it was made into a fish-out-of-water comedy: "The Upper Egyptian at the American University."  Something like: "The country bumpkin goes to Harvard." American University is proverbially upper-class, drawing its students from the aristocracy of Egyptian society.

The people who dubbed the disney movie "Bolt" had no problem playing off of the peasant stereotype when they cleverly had the pigeons in New York speak with unmistakeable Upper Egypt/Delta Peasant accents.

The pigeons in the English version have working-class New Yorker accents.

The Arabic version takes this and makes it totally Egyptian in ways that make jokes that were never there in the original (for instance, Bolt corrects the pigeons pronunciation of Cat from "Guṭṭah" to "ʾUṭṭa".

The accent (and thus stereotyped "stupid" behavior) become clear on the first line of dialogue (not in the video below).  It's totally classist, as was the original, but it's a brilliant example of what translation really is all about.

When I pronounced the word "who" in Arabic in a very Standard Arabic manner this past week, my teacher corrected my non-Cairene pronunciation and started doing her best Upper Egypt accent and performed a famous Egyptian television line that likewise mocks the Upper Egypt accent (which is, in many ways, closer to Classical/Standard Arabic pronunciation).

Of course, this kind of accent-based classism is not strange to Americans (though many would claim that it is).  It's certainly easier to see in England where students from Ireland, Scotland, and all sorts of Londoners came together in Oxbridge after losing their accents... this happens a lot less now, but you can still find people who lost their accents on purpose.

Copying Spenser's GSAM messages, I'll close with the following:

Send your favorite accent-based stories, tales of storming the Israeli embassy, and ways that you have violated cultural norms in front of huge groups of people to my inbox.  I'm waiting...

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

River Days

Downtown Cairo, Illinois, once the stuff of
Steamboat legend.

There have been a lot of changes lately.  A new apartment, Anya heading back to DC to start her new job, a new semester (with new classes, meeting people I didn't know last term).  Even the Arabic I'm speaking is different because I have to get back in the habit of speaking a standard Arabic after spending the last month doing nothing but speaking Egyptian (and reading the standard).

I've taken another visit to the Delta town mentioned in my last post.  I will be going again this coming weekend, if God wills it.  I'll also be reading a novel, something I've done before in Arabic but never before in a single week while also doing other work.  It will be interesting.

Things are pretty quiet right now, though things are supposed to start heating up between now and Friday with big protests planned for Friday.  The government is still cordoning off the central piece of land in Tahrir and cordoning off bits and pieces of other areas, so the protests will start outside Tahrir and then... well... we'll see what happens.  I haven't been following much in politics recently, absorbed in my life and its changes (as are, really, most people in Egypt, it seems to me).  That is, perhaps, one of the stranger things about revolutions... it's not really what most people are talking about (though, of course, January was presumably a different story).

In the meantime, I'm dumping some links and some music about the Egypt region of Illinois, which inspires several lyrics and titles in Josh Ritter's album "The Animal Years."  I was reminded of those lyrics when I read this little article on Grant, whose Western years I don't recall hearing much about in the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War... most accounts of that war from a "generalist" perspective focus on the eastern seaboard, but it was interesting to read this piece and to remember just how crazy important rivers are.

So from my Nile to yours, here's Josh Ritter "Monster Ballads."

"I was thinkin bout my river days/
I was thinkin bout me and Jim/
Passing Cairo on a getaway/
Every steamboat like a hymn."

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Egyptian Countryside Hospitality

The view from the 2nd story
looking out back.
   I just got back from a village called Qranshu, which is the hometown of my friend Ahmed.  He works nights, so Anya and I met him early Friday morning to hop on a series of four mini-buses that took us from Maadi to Tahrir, from Tahrir to the northernmost limits of the Cairo metro system, from there to Tanta, and then from Tanta to Qranshu.  It was a quick trip without much traffic at all, largely because it was Friday morning.  Fridays, being the Muslim Sunday, don't get busy until after noon.  The noon prayer is the one that has the most important weekly sermon.

   It was a testament to the way that Egyptian public transportation works.  Trains and metros are all fine and good, but they are limited in their scope and tend to move relatively slowly.  The flexible, cheap system of minibuses acts as an alternative to the slowly developing or aging metro-train systems.  At the same time, these minibuses are subject to the whims of traffic and the roads can be suddenly blocked for seemingly inexplicable reasons and then cleared away just as suddenly.  On the way back from Tanta, we were stopped for so long that several men got out and started smoking cigarettes on the side of the road.  The cry to get back on the bus went out, and, just as quickly, the minibus started moving as then smokers clutched their cigarettes in their teeth while jumping into the moving vehicle through the open, sliding-door.

Riding the Mare around the yard
    The trip there was also a preview of the kind of hospitality that we were to expect.  Ahmed refused to let us pay for our travel, and he produced reasonable facsimiles of anger when we insisted, to the point that we gave up.  This game went on in at each stage of the journey.  He also told us that he would cut his break short to come back with us on Saturday night.  I finally convinced him on our second day in Qranshu that we could get back on our own.

    We arrived around noon on Friday, and despite the fact that everyone is fasting between about 4am and 7pm, we were given a lunch of freshly-made bread, cheese, eggs, and fresh honey from the backyard beehive.  We were taken on a tour of the barn in the backyard, which consisted of a small shed with cows and chickens.  There were a few goats penned to the mare-drawn cart.  Then there was the mare.  Ahmed had told me about the mare and showed me a picture of him riding her, and when they brought us outside to see her, she had her saddle on and the main animal handler (an in-law of the extended family) was ready to put us on the saddle.  It was quite an interesting experience.  She was pretty finicky, and I wasn't really that great at steering.  Whenever she wanted to turn around and go home, she would, and whenever I tried to get her to turn around at a particular point, she wouldn't.  Sort of the rusty-supermarket-handcart business.  The women of the house tried to get Anya to ride the mare with her long skirt on, insisting that this was normal enough, but she changed into jeans before giving it a sporting go.
this was very much NOT our idea...
we tried to do Egyptian Gothic...
but we couldn't stop grinning 

   The rest of the weekend was spent sitting around the house and the yard, playing the darts game that Ahmed brought back from Cairo as a gift that week, and eating amazing food.  Anya spent a good deal of her first evening going around the village with the wives, aunts, and female cousins of the extended family.  I spent my time walking around the village or the rice fields and sitting around the second-floor living room.

    Most of the family, including me (but not including Anya), stayed up until the village Misaḥḥaraati came to the house just before 3am to wake the household.  He beat his drum as he approached and then yelled the name of one of the household members.  Once he heard someone from upstairs respond to his call and thank him, he walked away.  I was told that if he didn't hear anyone respond, he would ring the doorbell and call again to make sure that the family was awake to eat their last meal before fasting began again.  After the meal, we all went to sleep until the late morning.  Hours during Ramadan are very different.

Anya learning to bake
    It was a fabulous weekend, but it was also exhausting.  There is much less privacy in a rural Egyptian home, and being around people non-stop tends to wear on me.  In this case, it meant being around people and speaking Arabic non-stop, and at a certain point, being tired takes its toll on my language production/comprehension skills.  Nevertheless, people were very patient with me, and Ahmed would very often re-tell the jokes in more plain Arabic (many Arabic jokes are told quickly, and both joker and audience enjoy assonance and rhythm that affects word-choice, which means the joke uses unusual vocabulary that I don't know).

    I was told by every member of the family separately that any time I wished to come back, the door was open.  They made a point of saying that I could come visit with or without Ahmed, which seemed to be their way of saying "we like you because of who you are, not because you are our son/brother's friend."  The invitations were utterly sincere, and the gesture was incredibly kind.  Ahmed and I will definitely be going back to take breaks from the Cairo bustle over the coming year, God Willing (Insha'Allah).

Ahmed's Mom and Sister-in-Law
baking at the outdoor clay oven.

Postscript: While writing this blog post, Ahmed called me on his way from Qranshu to Cairo.  He asked  me to meet him on his way to work.  I was naturally a bit concerned that maybe we were about to be advised about some etiquette that we had failed to follow or that something terrible had happened.  Instead, he handed me the bugspray can that we had left there.  I thought it was perhaps a bit strange that he insisted on meeting up to give me a can of bugspray, but I thought that maybe he had just hoped to grab a coffee and chat before work.  Then he extricated a HUGE bag of his mother's bread from his bag.  Not only is "Mother's Bread" proverbial in Arabic for the care and love of the mother's home, but the country bread that we had in Qranshu was ten times better than what we get in the state-run bakeries in Cairo.  It was truly a beautiful gift.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Theological and Political: Redux

I posted a few weeks back about the theological-political issue where Islam is designated as that particular religion where religion and politics cannot be separated.  I came across this article from 2003 while looking up works cited by Giorgio Agamben.

It seems very interesting and thoughtful while still claiming:

thus [Europe's] specificity in regard to other civilizations - is found in its political secularism, and that this secularism has its roots precisely in Christianity.
 It also reinforces the distinction with Islam:

This refusal is, in large part, an appropriation from Christianity, which introduced into history - with much greater clarity than Judaism and especially Islam - the distinction between religion and politics.
But then insists that the European constitution (this is back in 2003, mind you) ought not simply to mention the Judeo-Christian heritage.

The reference to Judaism and Christianity leaves out only Islam from among the great religions of the Mediterranean basin. Apart from the fact that this is politically inopportune, it seems to me fundamentally unjust: around the end of the first millennium Europe acquired a debt toward Islam that the following centuries of conflict were not able to cancel....For all these reasons, if it is thought opportune to modify the second clause of the preamble of the future European constitution (which now reads, "Inspired by the cultural, religious, and humanistic heritage of Europe..."), one could consider a formula of this tenor: "Inspired by the heritage constituted by the Greek and Roman civilizations, by the Jewish and Christian religious traditions, in fertile dialogue with the Muslim tradition, by the philosophical currents of the age of the Enlightenment..."

I'm not sure I understand this correctly, but the author asks us to recognize the specificity of the Christian contribution to secularism and then to acknowledge the shared dialogue with the Muslim tradition.  It seems a reasonable compromise for someone writing from within the Catholic tradition.  While I might not agree with him about the "clarity" of the Christian tradition on the separation of church and state authority, and while I might not agree with him about the particular circumstances of what he calls a "dialogue," this is one of the more thoughtful approaches to the "Christian roots" argument.

At the same time, as a certain Cambridge professor once noted to me, issues of origins are at bottom issues of ownership.

Ramadan Nights

"Ramadan Kareem" - Standard Ramadan Greeting 
    So, it's Ramadan in Egypt, which I am assured is better than any Ramadan that can be found in any other country.  Several Egyptians have assured me of this fact. It's definitely a different atmosphere.  The month of Ramadan requires that Muslims do not eat, drink (even water), smoke, or have sex between sunrise and sunset for a full lunar month.  In addition, a lot of people tend to try to be better Muslims during this month, giving to the poor more, being nicer to people, etc.

    The culmination of Ramadan is a feast and a party called Eid al-Fitr, but every single day the meal that breaks the fast -- called Iftaar -- is perhaps the most joyous time of day.  It happens around 6.45 right now, and so starting at 6.30 or even 6.15, the streets start to empty as people head home.  Charity tables are laid out for the poor, and every pan-handler on the street that I've seen has received a free meal from one of the local shop owners.  And it's often a good meal, too, with chicken (modest food around here tends to be vegetarian, meat comes at a premium).  It is also tradition to break fast, as Muhammad did, with dates.  For people who can't get home right away, do-gooders can be found standing by the side of the roads in any district in Cairo handing out bottles of water and bags with a few dates to hold you over until you can get to where you're going.

   My favorite store-owners and employees are filled with smiles even more than usual, and one invited me to come break the fast with them (there are many people who, as in Yemen, if they see you in a situation where they are eating and you are not, they will offer you their food before continuing... I'm pretty sure this is another Prophetic precedent, though I'd have to look it up).

   Although people are much nicer, the harassment has definitely not gone away.  Many people claim that, at least during the day, people refrain from their whistling and cat-calls.  The problems for Anya have definitely lessened, but they're still there.  And once night rolls around, and everyone is out on the streets smoking and eating with a vengeance, I'd say it's even worse.  There are things that seem to "become licit" in Ramadan nights... the women's cars on the metro, for instance, seem to have lost the magical spells that keep men out until about 10pm.  I was actually grabbed from behind while joining Anya on a women's car that was full of men.  The man earnestly explained that the car I was about to alight on was for women only.  I didn't have time to explain that there were about 25 men on board, and I wasn't going to abandon Anya to a mixed metro car during a Ramadan evening.

   Speaking of riding the metro at night (which I do more often now because most everything happens at night now), I love taking the evening metro because I can always pick up the evening edition of the Arabic language newspapers.  It's a good way to pass the time on the ride home, and it earns me a lot of appreciative-ish stares.  Reading Alaa al-Aswany or appearing to simply be "not from around here" earns me stares.  Not to mention that most upper-class/Americanized Egyptians refuse to ride the metro because it is a class marker, so the idea that foreigners would do so is at least somewhat novel, I think.

    More later...