Saturday, June 04, 2005

Moving On

Welcome to Cairo American College
I went to the Cairo American College graduation on Friday morning at the Sound And Light theatre at the Sphinx. Unfortunately, having staggered out of bed at 6 am to get organised for getting there on time, I forgot my camera, so you'll have to get by with the photo on the website for the school to give you a rough idea of the high point of the morning.

My high school graduation was a ceremony that took place on a football field on a June afternoon in 1967. My children both graduated from CAC in front of the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza on June mornings about four and six years ago. Do I even need to ask which event would be more memorable?

This was one of many graduations that I've attended at the Sphinx, as I've been attending them for my own children and their friends since 1996. The school has been holding its graduation ceremonies in the location for over fifty years. This year's graduating class at CAC was pretty representative with about 115 graduating seniors from twelve different countries. Although it's called Cairo American College, about half of the students are Egyptian, and over two thirds are usually non-American. But the curriculum is American, even when the culture is a fascinating pot pouri. In recent years with the American concern for safety abroad, the school has become more security conscioius, to the bewilderment of many of the students. Consider the oddity of protecting students from members of their own society. The fact is that most of the students find themselves happily at home in Cairo once the strangeness has worn off. The general safety in the streets (as long as you aren't crossing them!), the richness of the culture, the array of things to do, and the relative inexpensiveness of moving about that gives them freedom in the city are pretty seductive.

I sat there with my friends listening to the student speakers framed against the pyramids and I looked around me. The family I was sitting with were Lebanese/Finnish, while the other friends were British, Canadian, Indian, and American. A cheerful and enthusiastic crowd of Swedes waved a banner in blue and yellow. Massive extended families cheered for many of the Egyptian graduates. The scene was one of friendly solidarity. The podium was flanked by enormous American and Egyptian flags, a sheikh called for a blessing of the graduates at the beginning of the ceremony while the pastor of the Maadi Community Church blessed the group at the end. No matter where the children came from originally, they all acknowledged that their lives had been changed by living in Egypt.

Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Moving Into The Sunlight

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Egypt anger over 'grope attacks'

The fact that men assaulted women protesters by tearing their clothes and groping them to shame them in public is not of interest to me. The behaviour is appalling, no doubt, but the remarkable thing about the news story for me is the reaction of women to the incident. There was a time when the women who had been assaulted would have gone home to hide in shame, but now women are protesting the behaviour and demanding the resignation of the head of security who should have kept the protesters safe. The men who attacked the women are operating under the old mentality, that people can be frightened and shamed into hiding and living quietly without protest. The women who are protesting are operating under a new and, to my mind, healthier mentality that bringing wrongful behaviour into the light of day can stop it.

When I was growing up in California, I recall a conversation among my mother and her friends, women who had grown up all over the US and Europe. Virtually every single one of them had been molested at the very least when they were young, most of them by male relatives (cousins and uncles were favourites). In my mother's case, as a fourteen year old she'd been raped on a train by an American soldier and was too afraid to even push the emergency button to call for help. All of them had been taught to be good, quiet girls and not to make a scene in public. They all instructed their daughters never to put up with any behaviour from anyone that was inappropriate and to make a VERY Loud Fuss In Public should they find themselves in a tough situation. To the best of my knowledge, none of the daughters ever faced the kind of abuse that their mothers had faced.

As a housecleaning veteran, it's my firm belief that if you want something to stay clean it must be exposed to fresh air and sunlight regularly. The same maxim goes for behaviour. Evil flourishes in the dark and the more the public eye is on something, the less likely of wrongdoing. So, good for you, ladies! Keep up the racket!

Monday, May 30, 2005

Enjoying the Amenities

The Culture Wheel

It's often difficult for people living in other countries to imagine the richness of life in Egypt. Not long ago I invited an email friend of mine to visit some time and got the all too common answer that she'd been told that "this was not a good time for Americans to travel in Egypt due to unrest and anti-American feeling." It's so frustrating to hear this refrain over and over again, and I'm compelled to wonder what the purpose of convincing Americans that they are disliked and in danger overseas could be. My background in social psychology suggests a number of reasons, none of which reflect terribly well on the powers that be who are putting out this nonsense about the danger of travel. What can you do?

A group of us received an invitation from some Norwegian friends to attend a musical program at El Sakia el Sawy, a unique venue also known as the Culture Wheel. The name in Arabic refers to the waterwheels of the countryside and to a series of novels by Abdel Moneim el Sawy. This set of libraries and halls is located under the May 15 Bridge that goes from Giza to Zamalek, an odd place for concerts and conferences, but utterly ingenious. It is named for Abdel Moneim el Sawy, an Egyptian writer and journalist who died in 1984 in Baghdad while working there. His son was doing renovations on the bridge when he discovered the unused space under the bridge at the edge of the Nile in Zamalek. He arranged to prepare the area for a group of libraries, a garden, and a hall for films and musical programs, as well as speaking engagements by authors or other individuals. A week before the Norwegian jazz concert, my American housemate had attended a talk by Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, at El Sakia. For myself, it was the first time to go there, although friends have been singing its praises for some time now.

The crowd for the jazz concert was small but eclectic. Our Norwegian community (not so many people really) came out and brought Americans, Canadians and Egyptians with them for the evening. The tickets cost LE 20 per person, or about $3.50 US. You can't get into anything for that price in New York. The performers were two Norwegian jazz musicians, a Norwegian folk singer, an Algerian woman that I'd last seen performing with Fathy Salama at the Citadel last summer, and an American bass player, so the crowd on the stage was very much a mirror of the audience. After the performance, most of the audience moved on to a restaurant/bar at the southern tip of the island for mezze and beer under white canvas tents. The music there was just loud enough to interfere with converstation, to my way of thinking, but the mezze was good and the beer was cold, which is always a plus on a summer night. Before we knew it, it was about 1 am, and the Sakkara crowd had to make our way back to the farms for an early start to riding the next day.

My houseguest is heading back to Los Angeles tonight for a month. Her sister is getting married there and she has a long list of friends and business contacts that she has to see in that month. We found ourselves in Garden City yesterday when an appointment was cancelled so I took her to Nagada ( to visit an Egyptian clothing design house. Nagada is the name of an ancient city in Upper Egypt that is now just a village. It has been famous for centuries for its woven cotton and in recent years a group of designers began using these cottons in clothing and furnishings. I've been in love with their clothing for years, especially the cottons which are striking in their unusual weave and delicious in the comfort for our Egyptian summers. I picked up a couple of pairs of cotton trousers and ordered some matching tops. One of the lovely things about Nagada is that if the item you want isn't available in the fabric that you want, they will make it up specially for you at no extra cost. My friend, who is one of these horrible tall slim California blondes with a ridiculously athletic figure that really can show off clothes, found some crinkled silk dresses, tops, and skirts to take back for occasions in California on her trip. She's been looking forward to the inevitable questions about why she's planning to come back to Egypt to work and live with some trepidation, but yesterday was delighted to find some clothing that will impress anyone with its style and beauty. And then when they compare the prices being paid for a similar quality in North America to the prices in Egypt....Ha!

Living in Egypt isn't all water buffalo and dust at all. Even living out where I do, it's only about 45 minutes into Cairo where I can swan into a sushi bar or a fine Italian restaurant in some posh clothes created by local weavers and designers. The Sakia has something scheduled every night if I want to listen to music there, and then there are the clubs and other venues for concerts and performances. There is so little that cannot be found here if you know where to look that I find very little impetus to travel. Take a look at the websites. They are eye-opening.