Saturday, July 24, 2004

Learning to Respond or Not

BentPyramid, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Having just changed my blog format, I'm still learning how it works. I get emails with people's comments, but I only just figured out that they may appear in the blog in some place other than the last post. Yeah, it is a bit elementary, Watson, but sometimes learning takes time.

I've had so many contacts from people who think for whatever reason that Egypt would be a good place to move to and it's hard to know what to say.

There are young and not so young women who meet someone really interesting while on holiday here and they want to know about coming as a wife. As I've noted in earlier posts, all marriages have pitfalls but cross-cultural have more. And to be utterly cynical, there are many very attractive men here who see a foreign wife as a good investment. He can get a non-Egyptian passport, maybe go live somewhere else, and as everyone knows, foreigners are rich. Well, maybe not everyone, because someone forgot to tell my banker. My advice here is the same as to my daughter: Men may come and go, but your skills, education, your own bank account, and bills stay forever. Always preserve as much of your independence as possible.

JessicaDances asked if it was easy to be brown in Egypt...sure, just skip the sun screen. Seriouisly, colour is not one of the most important defining factors in Egypt. There are people of every shade and if they are going to be judged without prior knowledge, it will most likely be by social class. There is some colour discrimination here as well, but it isn't like in the has an Egyptian flavour. They say that every Egyptian has a Sudanese cousin, and this is highly likely since Egypt and Sudan were the same country until sometime in the late 50's or early 60's. My late husband's family would come to iftar (the breaking of the fast in Ramadan) at our house and we would have about 40 guests of every shade possible from my blonde, my daughter's auburn, to the darkest black...but we are all the same family. I've seen Egyptian families, especially those of Turkish origin who have fair skin, light eyes, and reddish hair, turn up their noses at someone who is dark in colour, but no one would be rude to someone for this...they just wouldn't make a marriage proposal. Prejudice never makes sense.

One of the most interesting phenomena I've ever witnessed was the adjustment of the African American kids whose parents were transferred here for work. They would go to the American school where my children attended and it would either be a completely demoralising or an utterly freeing experience because they found themselves in a city and school where their skin colour was really of minor importance. For many, it was lovely to watch them bloom (I taught at the school for years as a substitute so I got to know most of the students and teachers), but for some they shrank back inside themselves because they'd lost a major element that they'd used to define themselves. I suspect that the situation was much like that of immigrants to North America who choose to live with others of their background because it's very difficult to find a new way to define themselves. We had a lot of Egyptian friends like that in Canada.

Now, to bring this around to another previous discussion, I've never had a problem with being harassed on the streets or anywhere else in Egypt, and I've spent my time here going to all sorts of places that my Egyptian friends find horrifying. That a foreign woman just goes wandering around...why people might be rude to her! Even used to drive my husband nuts. But, a friend of my daughter's once told me that he didn't think that anyone would ever bother me because I was "fierce". I had to laugh at that because "fierce" has never been an aspect that I worked to achieve.

I do, however, have a self-definition that includes being polite to people around me, treating others with respect, and expecting this treatment in return...and I am rarely disappointed. When I am, I usually express this disappointment as politely but firmly as possible. Maybe this is "fierce"...I wouldn't know, but it does give my personal space, even in the most crowded souq, a slipperiness that doesn't let people in to bug me easily. The other thing that helps a lot is that for me life is much too short to go about being angry over someone else's stupidity. I figure that they will suffer enough from it on their own. I believe that one's self-definition is a major part of independence in all aspects of life whether marriage, motherhood, working or dealing with the mechanic.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

That's Me in the Middle

When people talk about women getting harassed in the streets or anywhere else, I'd like to direct anyone's attention to this wonderfully flattering photo of a 55 year old woman standing in a paddock with a young friend. Would YOU harass her? Probably not, although the friend gets her (un)fair share of it. There really is no question about it in my mind. In a vast area of the world it is considered okay for young men, as well as those who just wish that they were young, to comment on the women in their immediate vicinity, and some of these individuals feel that it is their right to do more than comment. It is a major pain for many women and an aggravation that most men really can't quite comprehend in a personal way. After all, no one is harassing them, right? Maybe we should organise a movement that supports "Turn the Tables" Day, a day during which all the women we can arrange turn around and whistle at and comment about any men in their vicinity. Imagine the chaos!

The house in the picture is someone else's rather over-sized version of a country house. I live in a 100 sq metre cottage down the road. It is totally possible to insulate yourself from the culture around you by means of affluence. A lot of Egyptians and a lot of ex-pats do it here all the time. The owners of the house behind me have done it. Within your walls you are free to do and be whatever you want. But movie sets take a lot of maintenance, and I'd rather be riding or gardening.

Many of my observations on my life in Egypt are coloured by the fact that I moved here just before I turned 40, a mother with two children. I would have had many very different experiences had I come as a student or an ex-patriate worker or even as a tourist. I see the world from my vantage point, as hard as I may try to see it from other people's as well. I've seen the affluent life style and I've seen the flip side as well when my husband died unexpectedly in a private plane crash and I found myself having to manage the transfer of virtually all of his business assets to banks and creditors to secure the finances of a factory that he had been just about to put into operation. Everything we owned was pledged to secure the loans and with his death, the banks decided that they'd rather take his companies. As he was a one man show, a classic entrepreneur, there wasn't much option. A quiet life with a bunch of dogs, horses, parrots, and water buffalo looks pretty good after four years of negotiations with banks to settle a USD 250 million debt. The banks did okay since the factory is probably worth almost twice that. Easy come, easy go. There really is a lot more to life than the pursuit of wealth, but it doesn't hurt to have the skills with which you can get by in terms of a living.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Women's Problems

Since the post is anonymous, I can't reply by name, but you are absolutely correct about all the things that you mention in your comment. All of these things are problems that women in various parts of Egypt face. Many of them are faced by women in other parts of the world as well. I'm well past the age of being groped in a crowd but I do remember being shocked at comments as I walked down streets in Mexico, even though I was warned that this was customary. I also recall having a policeman in Guadalajara trying to pick me up despite the children I had in each hand. Hmmmm. I also remember hating to walk past a certain construction site at college because of the catcalls and shouts of the construction workers. Insensitive male misbehaviour is not an Egyptian prerogative, but I will grant you that an awful lot of young men have abysmal manners. These days if I hear something that I'd rather not, I usually sternly turn to the youngster in question and ask him in Arabic if he would like someone speaking in such a way to HIS mother. With the appropriate "mother voice" it usually stops them cold.

Female circumcision is a problem to be sure, but did you have to undergo it? I believe that it is usually restricted to the villagers and the urban poor. I don't know of any of the families that I've either been related to or any of our friends who felt that it was even a reasonable idea.

Divorce is becoming extremely common in Cairo and while divorced women are still rather disapproved of, they are not much of a rarity. Likewise, there is the assumption that young girls should marry, it's astounding the number of parents who are bemused at their career-oriented daughters who seem to have no interest in marriage. The fact is that single women pose a quandry for Egyptian men and they aren't very comfortable dealing with them, or even women in general. But as one Egyptian woman spoke up one day when a group of local women were complaining about men that they'd had to deal with or be married to, "When we can honestly say that we've raised our sons to be different, then we have the right to complain. Most of us don't like the way our men of Egypt behave at times, but who has been responsible for teaching them to respect women's rights?" I think that she has a point, but as a mother of a young man I can also vouch for the fact that it isn't always easy to get the results that you want. Just have to keep working at it.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Finding Your Way Home

Actually, trying to prepare to move back to Egypt is a pretty serious matter. We encountered some interesting reactions upon moving the children to Alexandria. Both our daughter (4 yrs) and our son (7 yrs) had been attending a French immersion program in Toronto and were bilingual, but they had not had the chance to learn Arabic. Most of the people they met, including relatives, had a very hard time understanding that very few people spoke Arabic in Toronto. They had never traveled outside of Egypt and assumed that the rest of the world was like that part that they'd seen. Without meaning to, many people in their own ignorance managed to make my kids feel as though somehow they'd failed by not speaking Arabic, although they'd had minimal exposure to it. The repurcussions in their Arabic classes were rather difficult sometimes. They got over it, however, and are now fluent in Arabic. People may find it difficult to believe that you haven't kept up with Egyptian news, for example, as immersed in it as they are here. It isn't so much a criticism as it is the inability to imagine another lifestyle in another culture.

If someone has been away from Egypt for 10 years, he will come back to a country much changed. If you have been away from Egypt for 30 years, it will almost be like visiting Mars. I first visited Egypt in 1976, almost 30 years ago. I came to a city that had only a few stoplights and no one seemed to grasp their purpose. Now we have lots and they are either re-inforced with human guardians for the intersection or they are ignored. But people now know what they are. Medinet Nasr, a suburb near the International Airport was desert. Kattameya, a new suburb, was desert. There were still farms on the way to the Pyramids on Pyramids Road. Faisal Street didn't exist. Most of the big old mosques in the older part of Cairo had families living in them for lack of urban housing. No Metro. Almost no phones, unlike now when EVERYONE has a mobile phone. Not one decent Chinese restaurant in all of Cairo!!! We now must have almost 10 sushi bars in Cairo. I also recall my husband spotting a donkey cart in downtown Cairo at about 1 am and telling me that they were being made illegal in the city.....still see them all the time even if they are illegal. Egypt would come to a screeching halt without its donkeys.

There have been huge changes in mentality. Egypt in the 60's and 70's was much more "western" in dress, down to bikinis and mini skirts, than it is on the whole now with more and more women wearing scarves. But at the same time, international communication through television and internet is making Egyptians much more aware of fashion and ideas from the outside, so it's an interesting juxtaposition.

Probably the best way to approach a move like this is to be a foreigner. Since both you and Egypt have gone through 30 years of change, maybe you should just take your time and get to know her again from scratch. She'll probably have some fascinating surprises for you.

15 Minutes of Fame

Sharm sunset
Sharm sunset, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
Logged on this morning on my wonderful 28 kbs line to find all sorts of comments on the blog. Bit of a shock after writing this quietly for a year or so.

To answer some comments and questions: No, I'm not poor in the sense that many people throughout this world are poor. I've had my share of financial woes, which is a bit of an understatement, and on the whole if I'm going to be strapped for cash, I'd rather it be in a place where I'm not going to be cold and I know that I can eat for very little. I've seen the urban poor in New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles, and here in Egypt. On the whole, I suspect that it's better to be poor outside of a city than inside one, particularly in a country with fresh fruits and vegetables in the fields 12 months of the year. Eat your heart out, northern temperate climates!

Bashing North America: I'm not really. It just isn't my cup of tea. I have family living happily in the US and it's a great place to visit. I do have some concerns about the aspects of North American culture that get exported, but I'm not alone there.

Copts: The Copts are one of the oldest, if not the actual oldest, group of Christians in the world. The Coptic church dates back to within a few centuries of the time of Christ and is a rich heritage in Egypt. On the whole, I would have to say that cries of persecution from Copts outside of Egypt are rather over-rated. We have both Copts and Muslims living in our area and no one could care less. The Suares family is a Coptic family and one of the wealthiest in Egypt, being the owners of Orascom, a huge conglomerate corporation with interests in telecommunication, construction, and tourism. I think that issue is one that provides people with a personal axe to grind some fun.

Anti-American feeling: An interesting thing about Egyptians, and something that is likely true in many other countries, is that we discriminate between Americans and the American government. The US press often talk of anti-American sentiment as though it were being expressed towards the citizens of the country, when it is not. Egyptians have no illusions of control over their government, and in fact, never have had any control over it. They know that their government does all sorts of things that may or may not be good for the country and that may or may not be personally motivated. Sentiment here cuts across religious lines. No one is happy with the Bush administration's forays into world domination. But any American tourist, businessman, student, whatever, is more than welcome in the country. Just not George W. Bush.

Last spring I had a group of endurance riders come to visit, four women between the ages roughly of say 25 to 60 yrs old. They wandered around the neighbourhood on foot, chatted with watchmen at the neighbourhood pyramids, went horseback and camel riding, basically had a ball. They were fascinated by the international newspapers that were available in the grocery stores (like the Middle East Times which is available online) because they included a lot of news that somehow was never printed back home. And we talked about the difference between people and governments. Maybe all the discussion of the US government being chosen by the people has confused the issue in the US. Okay, you vote (or maybe don't vote) for your representative in Congress, the Senate, your state, your president....but at the end of the day, any of these individuals can and will do whatever he bloody well wants to and you have no say over it unless you can find enough people to get rid of him after the fact. Americans are as much victims of their government as any one else is.

Wanting to leave Egypt: Many of the people who leave Egypt return later. The fact is that university education abroad in many disciplines is preferrable to education locally. I met my late husband when he travelled to Canada to do graduate school, and his experience in business in Canada helped him to achieve his dreams here. My children both studied abroad; one is still studying in New York and comes home on holidays while the other returned to work for a while here before he continues with a graduate level degree. Will they live in Egypt all their lives? I don't know and I don't think that it matters. But they do say that there are many aspects of life that they truly miss when they are outside.

My father was a world federalist. He believed that only a world government could handle the problems of the world and that the governments of countries were a disruptive force on humanity. Maybe he was right. I haven't seen any governments at all, world or national, that I've been all that impressed by.

Finally, women: Do a quick survey and you will find that virtually all of the power structures world wide these days are male-dominated. This means that anywhere you look you will see women with problems. The problems simply vary from place to place. I'd rather be an old woman in Egypt where old women are respected than an old woman in a place that is inundated with the culture of youth and beauty. "We said we'd grow old together, but we never said wrinkled" Get your botox injections here! Yes, women have issues everywhere, and so do men. Happily or unhappily, those issues are changing all over the world. In Egypt many women are refusing to marry if they feel that they aren't getting a reasonable mate and the men are running about trying to figure out what the women want. There are always problems, but the sign of growth is that the problems change.

Thanks for the fame, whoever.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Why live in Egypt?

AbuSirPool, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
As R noted in the comment, why not? There are about 70 million people who are born here and have almost no choice in the matter. Many of them have the absurd notion that life in other countries is better, but I don't think that they are right. Life can be tough where ever you are.

The first argument that I hear is that the salaries are so much higher in Canada, the US, Europe.... well, they are but so are the costs of living. So they basically cancel out. The ideal thing is to be paid by Europeans to live in Egypt, but that's not so easy to manage.

Life in Egypt is not as risk-free as many in Europe and North America would like, a fact for which I am forever grateful. In a "civilized" country with lots of liability insurance, I wouldn't be able to have friends of mine ride my horses unless I was insured up to the eyeballs. Driving anywhere here is an adventure, but once you get the hang of it, no problem. You DO and SHOULD think a million times before you attempt drunk driving in Egypt, however.

It's very hard for people to starve in Egypt. Any fruit seller has a box on the sidewalk in which they place fruits and vegetables that are below standard for the poor who need food. Real food is cheap. You have to wash it and clean it and prepare it for cooking and then have to cook it....Horrors! But it's cheap and good and fresh. Shopping in the US is a nightmare for me because the grocery stores are full of prepared foods that aren't particularly good for you, items for cleaning that are immediately disposed of (what happened to the good old wet rag?), extraordinary quantities of personal hygiene products, and cheap junk food. Coca Cola is cheaper than juice. Great. No wonder the US has major health problems.

Egypt has sunshine about 360 days a year, unless you live on the North Coast, where it actually rains in the winter. I'm outdoors every day. Yes, it's dusty, but I daresay so is Tucson. I can put up with some dust.

One of the main criticisms of Cairo especially is that it is "dirty". Well, yes, it is. Some of that dirt is deposited by its loving neighbour, the Sahara Desert. Some of the dirt is the result of the way-too-many human inhabitants of the city, about 20 million of them. Not too easy to clean up after so many, as I'm sure that London, New York, and Los Angeles could testify.

I believe that too many people expect to visit foreign countries the same way that they visit Disneyland. They expect surgical cleanliness, and neurotic orderliness. Guess what? Most of the world, including huge chunks of the US, isn't like that. Egypt is real. It has problems, but it also has an extraordinary spirit and joy in living. Urban life is doing its best to beat it out of everyone in the world, but so far it hasn't won in Egypt.

Why live in Egypt? I've lived in San Diego, near Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Vancouver BC, Toronto, and visited more citiies in the US and Canada than I care to remember, and I prefer to live in the countryside outside of Cairo, thank you. You couldn't pay me enough to move back.