Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Neverending Story

Living in Egypt: Stranger in a Strange Land

The longer I blog, the more interesting twists to the practice I find. One twist that I'm sure more experienced bloggers than I have worked out is how to tell where a message has been posted when you get an email to notify you that one has been posted. I've used Haloscan but as yet haven't figured out how to use it for the information that I want, and it may, in fact, be one of those "You can't get there from here" situations. So, when I got a post from the ubiquitous Anonymous discussing the interesting Muslim attitude to religion change, I actually went schlepping through my archives to find where the post was made.

I found the post back on July 17 with a discussion of marriage. It's obvious to me from the number of comments that come to these posts that Islam in general is intriguing a lot of my readers and that the social/family aspects of it are especially interesting. I suppose that I could just post a comment there but that's kind of unsatisfying. So instead I decided to post something referring to a previous post, which adds a bit of weaving to the tapestry.

When I was getting to know my husband, I was not technically a Muslim. To technically be a Muslim there are steps to be taken that vary from source to source. My husband, not being very bound by the more complicated traditions, said that basically I had to repeat the Fattah, the opening lines of the Quran, with belief and conviction. When we moved to Egypt and were faced with the legal system, we discovered that I had to go to Al Azhar, be interviewed by a sheikh to satisfy him that my adoption was not frivolous, and then I would be registered as an "official" Muslim. As Mr/Ms Anonymous noted, Islam does not demand that a non-Muslim wife become Muslim, but being a non-Muslim married to a Muslim is an act of recklessness under Egyptian law if there are children involved.

As well, also as noted by Mr/Ms A., Muslims are discouraged from trying to convert others to Islam. At the very least, this is extremely bad manners on the part of the converter, and in the eyes of the law, it is illegal. Since it is assumed that Muslims will not go around trying to bring the world into the fold of Islam, so the law was probably created to prevent others from converting Muslims to other religions. My husband was very specific in our discussions of Islam that he would never ask me to become a Muslim, and his mother on hearing that I was Muslim immediately demanded of him whether he had applied any duress to me or tried to persuade me. Either would have been unforgivable in her eyes.

Unfortunately, for someone to give up Islam for another religion is both unthinkable and unforgivable. The general rule of thumb is that an apostate is destined for a nasty end. This rather inflexible attitude is not one of the more endearing aspects of Islam, although historically it is somewhat understandable in its logic. Islam places itself firmly in the same lineage as the Judeo-Christian tradition. Readers of the Quran will find familiar Old Testament stories such as Noah and his ark and many New Testament stories of Jesus. As (in Muslim eyes) the natural successor and the ultimate refinement in the development initiated by the Jews and tuned more by Jesus, Islam is the final step in development and to what would a Muslim turn after all? The logic makes sense, really, even if the conclusion is a bit abrupt.

All that lives changes, however, even religions. There have been changes in Judaism, Christianity, and in Islam even, and there are likely to be more as long as they are living religions. Right now there are more mixed Muslim/non-Muslim marriages in which the woman is Muslim than there ever have been. My inlaws would be very upset if my daughter were to marry a technical non-Muslim, but I believe that there is more to Islam than technicalities. One's relationship to God is the most personal thing that exists, and (as always being a bit of a square peg in a round hole) it really isn't ANYONE else's business at all.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Messing About In Boats

After a long day of dashing about Cairo, sitting in meetings, and having to make it back to Abu Sir in time to feed the menagerie, the last thing that I wanted to do was go for a felucca ride tonight. But my friends from Alexandria, Francoise and Catherine, were in town to commune with the Cultural Attache of the French embassy for a few days and after their day of meetings, a felucca ride was felt to be the best thing. I was the transport, so I met them at a sidewalk coffeeshop in Maadi where we commiserated over latte's and capuccino's and then went off to rent a boat for an hour.

Francoise and Catherine are both French, teachers of French in Egyptian schools, and employees of the embassy who train teachers and try to introduce innovative teaching techniques to teachers of the Egyptian French schools. It may seem odd, but children in Egypt can attend school in almost any language and culture in Cairo. There are French, American, Japanese, Pakistani, Canadian, British, German, and Irish schools here, to name a few. French schools are often receiving technical support from the French government, and Francoise is the chief instrument of this support. Her daughters went to primary school with my children, as did Catherine's son, and we've been friends since I first moved to Egypt.

By the time we were tired of caffeine, it was dark but that is no deterrent to felucca sailors. In fact, night time is one of the best times to enjoy the Nile. The feluccas are wooden lateen-rigged sailboats that can carry as many as 20 or so people around a central table that is perfect for picnics. Since it costs about 35 LE (divide by 6 roughly to get a USD rate) for an hour on the river, this comes down to peanuts for a large group. The rate is per boat per hour, not per person. We climbed down the stone steps to the Nile from the busy Corniche and walked onto a boat.

Our captain poled us away from the dock and raised the sail as we headed into the current. As you may have learned in a geography class, the Nile flows north, one of the few rivers not on the Arctic circle to do so. On the other hand, our prevailing winds are from the north to the south, which means that for eons people have used sails to travel south against the current while being able to just drift back downstream to the north. Tonight the river was filled with boats as students returning to school were gathering to catch up with each other's summer and enjoy an evening without homework before school starts. There were some out there filled with ex-pats from Maadi as well, as we could tell from the American accents floating across the water out of the dark.

If you are into complete compliance with all safety regulations, feluccas are not for you. They have no running lights, and if you choose not to use the light over the table, no lights at all. Life jackets?: What are they? But there aren't very many accidents involving feluccas. Power boats don't like to hit them because the heavy wood construction does horrible things to fibreglass. The captains are extremely skilled sailors who generally have grown up on the water and they handle the boats beautifully. I've helped to dock sailboats but doing it with no motor and just using the drift of the river and the wind is quite a trick. So what's the attraction?

There we were, three rather stressed middle aged women sailing with the wind upstream on the Nile and experiencing the sensation of the stress sliding downstream away from us. The breeze, fresh and strong on shore, seemed to envelope us, coming from all directions and cooling us gently. As we moved away from the shore the roar of the heavy traffic on the Corniche was absorbed by the water, fading to a gentle rumble. We could hear laughter and chat from other feluccas near us on the river and at one point we passed a motor launch usually used as a water taxi but now filled with teenagers singing and clapping their hands in unison. It was too far away to make out the words, but the craft glowed with youthful happiness. Another felucca came by and some of the college age passengers were dancing baladi style in the light of a bare bulb to the music played on a portable stereo. What foreigners call belly dancing is called baladi dancing here and it isn't only the province only of scantily clad women in fancy trousers. Everyone learns that style of dancing, hence the term baladi or country-style, and these kids were good.

We were far enough out on the river that we could just make out the lights of the restaurants, clubs and parks along the shore, still filled with families who would soon be spending their evenings with lessons and homework inside. The skyline of riverside apartments on the Maadi side of the river contrasted with the high reeds and palms of the Giza shore where it was still farmland with the occasional outrageously ridiculously large villa. It's hard to convey the magic of the Nile at night, but the peace that our hour imparted was miraculous.

When we had finished the ride and climbed the stairs back into the noise and pollution of the city, the traffic on the Corniche had somehow increased dramatically. Cars were passing at high speed and pretty much bumper to bumper. We knew that sooner or later there would be a break and we grabbed the first one to make it to the median. As we waited there for the next one, a young man came up to us, gestured for us to follow him and stepped off the strip into the traffic. We just looked at each other, trying to decide if he was a total nutcase or he knew something that we didn't. We opted for the nutcase at first, but then he held up his hand commanding the traffic to stop and it did! We scrambled across the road before the drivers could change their minds, and we got into the car. The young man opened the car door for me, as they often do when they are hoping for a tip for "helping" you park your car (when in fact they've mostly just gotten in your way). But in this case, we figured that our traffic stopper really deserved a tip, so we gave one. At that point, we realised that he was deaf and dumb. Maybe not hearing the traffic makes it easier to risk your life in the streets. I wouldn't know. But we all decided that after a grim day, someone like that made it all worthwhile.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Remembering September 11

Both my chldren were at Columbia University, still asleep in their dorm rooms that September morning. At about 3 pm or so I got a phone call from one of my daughter's friends who was still in high school here in Cairo that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center and I laughed at her, accusing her of having accidentally turned on the movie channnel instead of the news. Her shocked voice slapped a lid on the laughter and I dashed over to Zena's house to watch the progressive disaster on television. I was in time to watch the second plane hit the towers to our utter horror. Using my mobile phone, I called my daughter first and then my son, waking them both and telling them to stay on campus no matter what they might have planned for the day.

While the disaster was unquestionably a hideous shock to the US, it was no less of a shock here. Why would anyone do such a thing? And who? No one in Cairo among the people I knew believed for a moment that Arabs were involved...after all we knew all about local urban planning, construction, and the endless fiascos of organisation. Impossible, how could Arabs have ever pulled that off? To this day, quite honestly, I have trouble believing it. Someday maybe the world will know the truth, but it certainly was all speculation that day.

As a rider and home vet, I am a member of a number email lists relating to matters equestrian and veterinary. One of these lists, for endurance riding, had recently had members who had participated in world class endurance events in the Gulf, and the equestrian federations in the Emirates were becoming extremely active in endurance. This new awareness of things Arab in this discipline made for some heated and important exchanges, since I was one of the few people that list members knew who actually lived in the Middle East. For months, I worked my fingers over a hot keyboard to try to remind people that despite Fox News and CNN, most of the folks who lived in my part of the world were still just folks and none of them were happy about what happened in New York.

The event had impact upon my daughter's graduating class right away. They had all just started school in late August and this hit them before they even had a chance to settle in. Many of them, including my daughter, came home for a year having found the events and the social reactions to them extremely unsettling. My daughter's roommate, from a small town in the Pacific Northwest, seemed to think that the news broadcasts were infallible, and my daughter's frustration with trying to explain that many things were being oversimplified or blown out of proportion for the sake of an exciting story met with deaf ears. Some of the kids were frightened by the sudden anti-Arab feeling and by the violence that followed September 11. Random violence doesn't happen that much here. Egyptians tend to save their animosity for their fellow family members.

A year later most of the kids had returned to their studies in the US, although many more chose to go to study in Canada. My son stayed on in New York and commented that with the extremely hetergeneous population there, it was much better than many places in the US, despite the fact that he had been able to see the smoke from the burning towers from his room window. I don't think that we can really judge the complete impact of the 11th yet. Many of the actions by the US government after the attack have had rather dubious consequences, to say the least. I suspect that the US occupation of Iraq will someday be viewed rather coldly by analysts. I can't see any good really to come of it all, but then I remember another land war in Asia all too well.

But in the end, change is inevitable. Even death involves change from living matter with a soul to decomposing matter, one must assume, without a soul. The hard part is that in the middle of it you can't really see where the process is going. Once you've been there, where ever that is, you can look back to evaluate it. One good thing that I've been aware of is an increased interest in the lives of people in the Middle East, an increased interest in understanding the cultures and societies. This summer I hosted no less than 6 college students (not counting my own kids) who were coming to Egypt to see the country and culture. Who knows? Overall, it may turn out to have been a good thing in the long run.