Friday, November 05, 2004

Portable Language

My home seems to enjoy a constant stream of visitors from abroad, many of them the now grown children of friends who are more than happy to explore the exotic East from the comfort of a relatively familiar base. I have amassed quite the collection of guide books that get left behind and a good collection of "Teach Yourself Arabic in A Week" books as well. But there are some Arabic words that are essential to every visitor to Egypt and quite a few that export well also. So I decided to make my own list of Very Useful Arabic Words:

Salaam Aleikum - Peace be upon you, the standard greeting with the standard response of Wa Aleikum Salaam in the short form.

Zayik or Zayek - the first being feminine, How are you?

Ilhamdulilah - Thanks to God is the response to "zayik", as it is the response to almost anything, including the signal that you have eaten all that you possibly can at a lovely dinner table and will burst if offered one more pastry.

Bukra - Tomorrow is when everything happens, unless it happens "Fil mish mish" or in the apricot season which means don't hold your breath. Apricot season used to be so short that if you blinked it was over. We have a longer season now, but things still are happening fil mish mish.

Ma'alesh - A wonderful Arabic word meaning so many things. I just ran into the back of your car? Ma'alesh (I'm sorry, it's not so bad, sh*t happens) I walk into a store looking for something and don't find it so I say "ma'alesh" as I'm leaving in apology to the clerk. Your dog dies and you are feeling miserable? Ma'alesh. These things happen. I'm sorry you're sad.

Yani - My all time favourite useful Arabic word and the one that most visitors take with them. It means "that is to say" or "it translates to". Why doesn't English have a cute little word like this? Example: "We're coming over at 4 pm; yani, when the kids get up from their naps."

Inshallah: As God wills. This is the tag to every statement of intent. I will be there at 7 am, inshallah. I will go to the Opera Thursday, inshallah. Used to drive me crazy until I noticed that things do indeed tend to happen as God wills. I may plan to meet a friend for coffee but if the sink plugs and I have to wait for a plumber, it isn't going to happen. In the US people assume that if they say something will happen, it is simply a matter of will. I guess will isn't good enough in Egypt and you definitely need the help of the Creator.

There are many more words that are useful to visitors and residents but not so many that give the sense of the difference in culture. Nothing here is cut and dried. Everything is conditional and has its own fate. Human desires and actions are not enough to ensure that something will happen. One of the first and hardest lessons to learn on moving to Egypt is to throw away those long pads on which people write the list of all the things that they are going to do that day and to buy a very small pad. I used to be able to complete ten or twelve tasks a day in Toronto with two small children in tow. In Cairo if I get two done, it's been a very good day.

Aleikum salaam wa rahmat allah wa barakatu. Upon you be peace and the mercy of God and his blessing.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Looking For Slightly Crazy Egyptians Stateside

The Ride and Tie Association Homepage - Two People, a Horse, and an Exhilarating Race!

I was recently contacted by a variant of the endurance population in the form of Carol Ruprecht on behalf of the Ride and Tie competition that will take place in Libby, Montana on July 9, 2005. This is the world's championship race and they are hoping to field an Egyptian team to compete. Since Montana isn't on the itinerary of most of the people that I know, I thought I'd try to put the word out almost any way I could.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ride and Tie (and don't worry, that includes roughly 99.999% of the entire world), this is a competition for two people and one horse. The idea is that one person rides the horse for a certain distance, ties the horse and takes off running. Meanwhile the other person has been running behind (one would assume) the rider to the place where the horse is tied, where he/she unties the horse and rides on ahead to the next tie spot. The team continues leap-frogging down the trail until the end of the race.

Obviously, some willingness to run over trails is a prerequisite for this sport as is a certain ability to ride a horse. Likewise, a patient and willing horse is asset. Personally, I'd suspect that a reasonable level of mild insanity would also be useful. From everything I've heard the R&T folk are a cheerful, friendly bunch and Carol will try to help people to find a local horse in Montana to assist them. This is not cut-throat competition at all. Considering what they are doing, how could it be?

The R&T people contacted me last spring about the 2004 race last summer, but I couldn't find anyone mad enough to try it out. I'm really hoping that we can find someone this year. So if any of you know any manic trail-running Egyptians who want to go to Montana in July, please pass the word and the website. Thanks.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Not Seeing the Pain

A number of events in my life recently have made me ponder this point at some length. Last night I drove with a friend of mine to visit an American vet who has been traveling back and forth between Egypt and the US for some 25 years or so. He has a small flat in the area of the stables near the Giza pyramids. If ever there was a neighbourhood that needed a vet, this is it. Here is a neighbourhood of small houses, many of which have tiny horseboxes built attached, where the men who follow tourists around offering camel and horse rides around the pyramids live. The area is old, really. Once a village of antiquities miners, it now primarily caters to tourism and has done so for the past few hundred years.

When tourism is at a low, like during the first Gulf War when for some bizarre reason everyone assumed that Iraq and Egypt were next door neighbours while they are actually nowhere near each other, Nazlit Semman was ghastly. The camel and horsemen couldn't make enough money to feed their children, much less their horses, many of which were walking skeletons. It was horrible. When tourism is hit here, it hits everyone right down to the farmers who don't get as good prices for their produce. Tourism is good here now, despite things like Taba, and most of the horses look okay. Not great but okay. But the men themselves are usually doing pretty well to look okay as well. As a horseowner, it still makes me very uncomfortable going there because there are so many horse, donkeys, and frankly humans, who need help and I am only one person with limited resources.

Many new residents in Egypt have difficulty coming to terms with the needs of the country. We have feral dogs and cats in the cities and countryside (and to be honest, we need them to keep down some of the other wildlife) and people get crazy seeing kittens and puppies being produced just to get hit by cars or to live very difficult stressful lives. Animal rights organisations try to adopt out these dogs and cats, but there are limits to what can be accomplished. If we got rid of them, we'd be overrun by rats, mice, weasels and so on. And animals are not the only problem. There are children working at the ages of 7 or 8 years in the shops and workshops of the country, but the schooling is not really sufficient and adequate for many of these children, so in some cases, they are in fact better off working if they have someone who will also teach them to read and write at the same time. In addition, their families need the income.So many problems, so little time.

I'm interested in endurance riding, an absurd sport that involves traveling on a horse for 50 to 100 miles in a day, and I subscribe to an email list that includes some of the best riders in the world. Some of the American riders and their horses have been invited to travel to Dubai in January at the expense of the United Arab Emirates to participate in the World Endurance Championships. Much of the costs of the trip will be paid by the ruling families of the UAE. Recently HBO has aired a program called Real Sports that I've heard about but not seen. I don't own a television and we don't get HBO anyway here. But this particular program documented the sport of camel racing in the UAE where these same ruling families have been using small children as jockeys for years. These children are often essentially bought or kidnapped from Pakistan and Bangladesh for this purpose. They live in much less than optimal conditions and are often injured or killed in the course of training or competition.

The Americans on the endurance list have been horrified by this program. The charges documented can be checked with a simple Google search on the subject of camel jockeys, and there is plenty of evidence that NGO's, governmental bodies, and other groups have been very concerned about the practice for many years. I pointed this out to the list, trying to let them see that the information about the world is out there. These things aren't state secrets. Life in North American can be so easy and comfortable in many respects that it's easy to forget that life everywhere isn't the same. So many of the resources available to the world for solutions are in places that maybe don't need so many solutions.

But what is the answer? I don't know. The riders invited by the same people who have the children riding camels in the UAE are having to ask themselves whether they can be comfortable going. Can they help more by going and drawing attention to the situation or by staying home in protest? I don't know. Is it better to take the pups and kittens off the streets to try to adopt them out (but often condemning them to a life in cages in a shelter) or to let the ecosystem work its way through, however brutal it may be. Is it useful to get into an altercation with someone abusing a donkey, one of millions working hard throughout Egypt, or can something else be done?

The only thing that I do know is that it is the worst possible choice to simply not see the pain and the problems. The world has ugliness, pain, suffering, and abuse in it. We have to keep our eyes open to the beauty, but we also have to accept the existence of the evil in the world so that our hearts can be strong enough to fight it. To allow the pain to debilitate us such that we can't be active enough to build new things that might improve situations does none of us any good. I try to keep my eyes open to it all and to remember that emotion never built a bridge.