Friday, May 27, 2011

Love And Hope Spring Eternal

I've been writing this blog for about eight years now and right from Day One I've been getting emails, mostly from women, about moving to Egypt to pursue a relationship with someone. Many of these inquiries stem from holiday romances, some from people met at univerisity abroad, some from internet romances that someone wants to pursue. Our revolution hasn't changed the incoming traffic one bit, other than my correspondents report even more nervousness from their friends and relatives who worry that a move to Egypt will automatically end in disaster. I finally decided that it was time to put out a list of things to think about before marrying into Egypt.

I spent 25 very interesting years married to an Egyptian man whom I met in Canada while in grad school. We married and had our kids in Canada but we were visiting Egypt very regularly before we moved to Egypt. Some years while the kids were still very young, I spent a month or two staying with my in-laws while my husband would travel back and forth between Cairo, Khartoum and Toronto. When I finally moved to Egypt, I'd been visiting it since 1976 and had spent a fair bit of time exploring and learning my rudimentary Arabic. I had decided that I loved Egypt's chaos, its happy loopiness and randomness, and it was actually my idea to move here against all of my husband's objections. We had a good life, our children had a varied and rich childhood, and while there were some ups and downs, I wouldn't have missed a minute. I did NOT move here cold without having visited quite a bit, nor without knowing some Arabic (enough to do daily tasks fairly independent), and I knew (or at least thought that I did) my husband's family quite well. In other words, I probably made the transition from Canada to Egypt under the best of circumstances. I'm not sure that most other people will be so blessed. So here is my open letter:

Dear Whoever is thinking of moving to Egypt for a partner,

I really should have a sort of form letter for this because I don't know how many emails I've sent to people who are thinking of following a friend to Egypt. First, the reality of life here is not seen anywhere in the western media. Life here is nothing like what they show on the news or in magazines. It is not especially dangerous, but it is not a life for someone who is unaware of his/her surroundings. Tell all your friends and relatives that you are not moving to the moon or to the 2nd circle of hell. That said, there are some serious questions that you need to ask and answer for yourself before making any kind of permanent or even semi-permanent commitments to a life here.

1. Do you like living in Egypt? Is this a country that fits well with your lifestyle and personality?

This must be decided for you and you alone. Life is impermanent and people come and go in it. So if you think about living in Egypt, it's important to know that you would like living here with or without your partner. I suggest coming on a visit to see if you can cope with the life in Egypt, whether it is in the pollution, crowding, and excitement of Cairo or in the much slower life of the villages or smaller cities. Don't just visit the pyramids and museums. Go everywhere. Check out shopping centers and souqs. Talk to other people living here. Go grocery shopping. Try cooking. Look for a job ...if only to see if you would be happy working here.

2. Are you willing to learn Arabic?

It is possible in some places to live in Egypt without knowing Arabic, but to be honest, you will be missing out on most of the life here if you can't simply carry on a conversation with the people around you. Even a simple task like grocery shopping can be much more effective and interesting if you can ask what new foods are and how to prepare them. Getting lost is less of an issue and Surprise! many of the things that people say around you are not cause for concern. Written Arabic and spoken Arabic are almost different languages, but there are many language schools here in Egypt and abroad that will help you to learn the language.

3. Do you know what you are getting into? Relationships are complicated and more so across cultures.

If you are considering an alliance with an Egyptian partner, you need to meet his/her family. You never marry a person, no matter where you live, you always marry his/her family and their history. This is true of marriage within your culture and religion and even more true if you are moving outside of your culture or religion. Your partner's unconscious assumptions about the role of wife and mother or husband and father are determined largely by what existed within his/her family, just as yours have, and it's a very good idea to meet the role models, to say the least. As well, although it is totall unPC to say anything about social class or anything like that, if your family backgrounds are too different, the adjustment can be very difficult. With a new geography, new culture, and new language, why make things harder than necessary? The more you know, the better you are prepared.

4. Do you realise that every country has a different family law? What you are accustomed to is not necessarily what is going to be what you have to deal with here.

Learn about family law in Egypt and get a good lawyer to explain and protect your rights if you choose to marry and live within Egypt. Egyptian family law is currently closely tied to the family's religion and this must be understood and taken into account. As we are currently in the process of reworking the constitution and government (hopefully), much of this is still unclear, but most definitely the family law that you are used to wherever you live now is nothing like the family law in Egypt. Family law is the law that determines marriage, divorce and child custody. For example, a woman's rights to divorce and other things can be specified in her marriage contract...a legal document that is the basis of every Muslim marriage, while divorce is forbidden by the Coptic church. Inheritance is so complex under Islamic law, which will be applied to a Muslim family no matter what anyone might wish otherwise, that it almost is a course of study on its own.

These are the main points. You need to see for yourself. That's the main thing. Egypt is safe to visit, so you should. Think carefully and do what is best for you.

Wishing you all the best,

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Wrong People In the Wrong Place

Yesterday about 350 bloggers in Egypt wrote posts regarding the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. (As a personal aside, I find this propensity for supreme councils to be a bit burdensome...couldn't they have an easier name? Somehow SCAF actually does work better as a name.) Most of these posts were in Arabic, but some were in English, which meant that I could read them. I really wish I'd learned to read Arabic, but at my age, time is a bit short to reach a real level of competency.

Most of the posts were, quite naturally considering the state of affairs in Egypt, not exactly pro-military rule. Everyone is upset over the arbitrary detentions and the fact that frankly nothing much is working properly. It's true that nothing much is working properly, and I believe that the fact that our undear and barely departed fearless leader entrusted the country to the SCAF has a great deal to do with our current problems. One post, written by the son of a military man, points out that the army simply isn't equipped for the job. "And here comes the problem, the army / SCAF may be great at doing their job "protecting the people" but they're certainly not knowledgeable, trained, experienced or ready to do a totally different job: "Leading a country of 85 million people in a pivotal point of its history". It doesn't mean they're bad people, it doesn't mean they're on the "dark side of the force", it's just that you're asking a mechanic to remove your tonsils. Those inflamed, complicated, infected tonsils that have been part of your body for years and that you have to remove now, with a great deal of surgical precision." But we were left with the mechanics to remove our tonsils and to treat our cancers. Not wonderful.

This post hit home to me, being a balanced consideration both of what the SCAF was doing wrong and also a consideration of why this might be happening. I do believe that the top ranks of the military (unfortunately those who do make up SCAF) are part and parcel of the old regime. They make outrageous salaries, have incredible perks, and are basically accustomed to being immune to the normal problems of Egyptian life, living in their bubble world, much like the wealthy businessmen who did so well as long as they could call on the influence of friends in government.

It's worth looking at what the military in Egypt actually do. This is a huge institution that ingests vast quantities of poorly educated young men each year for a two year stint of work and, for much of them, deprivation. I live between two main Army bases, Beni Yusuf and Dahshur, and my farming neighbours and my staff have plenty of stories of their time spent in the military, stories of terrible food, long work hours at tedious jobs of maintenance or sometimes working at the homes or farms of the military commanders. We've all seen groups of conscripts doing basic construction work along roads or such things. One of my neighbours (someone who's moved out of his fancy house at this point) was an officer in the police and used his recruits as drivers, gardeners, handymen and general lift-and-haul personnel at his home. This didn't raise a single eyebrow anywhere as it was standard for someone of his rank. So basically, the largest portion of the army consists of poorly educated conscripts who are enrolled in a two year course of indentured servitude....they may be learning to be soldiers, perhaps will be taught the rudiments (never more than the rudiments) of driving a truck or car, some mechanical skills, or perhaps will simply water a lawn somewhere. The better educated members of society generally get assigned to higher ranks on conscription and can either do a desk job or with the right kind of connections, avoid the entire experience all together. Then you have the lifers who have gone to the military college and dived into the the military pool with the hopes of surfacing as a brigadier general someday. These people have almost nothing in common with the conscripts. When the tank commanders did not fire on the protesters in Tahrir during the revolution, this was the work of the conscripted officers. These were men who were doing their two year obligation and when looking at the protesters could think "There, but for the grace of God, go I". They knew that when their time in the military was up, they could easily be those same protesters. This could never be said of the higher ranks. They are bosses and will always be least they hope so.

But what does this huge institution actually DO? Well, it hasn't fought in a war since 1973, so that isn't its job at this point. Theoretically, its job is to be ready to fight in a war and this is the rationale for the massive military aid that the armed forces receive from the US, to use an example. I've known some of the military personnel who have come to do training with the Egyptian military, and without exception, their advice to me has always been "just hope that you never need them". A helicopter pilot noted that his students would do anything to avoid flying...a troubling habit as a pilot relies on practice to be able to do his job. If pilots of any kind don't fly for practice, when they need to do so under stress they are unlikely to be of much use. An engine mechanic had the same sort of it would appear that the zest for military work in the middle to lower management range is somewhat lacking. But there also seems to be little concern about this from the upper echelons. Perhaps they are concentrating on something else?

As a semi-outsider I have noticed an interesting pattern in the Egyptian business community in that virtually every company of any size had some sort of general or something attached to it. So the military is a business school? I wouldn't call it that as many of these individuals were there for their connections to the old regime rather than for their abilities to actually do anything. Those that I met were, on the whole, extremely rigid, not likely to consider any new practices or ideas, and tended to be happy to work in strict chain-of-command situations. When pushed to release information, or change a business paradigm, or learn something new, they were often shocked into immobility. The military, however, have extensive business enterprises. They do a lot of construction work, they own and run hospitals that, while they are meant for military personnel, are actually used for private patients, and the number of entertainment and vacation properties that are run by and for the military is rather staggering. The Egyptian military have an extraordinary number of business enterprises that go back to an initial concept that the military should be self-supporting, but now go quite beyond that.

But does all of this economic activity make them qualified to run a country? On the contrary, their interests mean that they are more concerned with protecting themselves from any interference from outside the military than they are in integrating with the rest of society. It's known that any system soon aligns itself with whatever it takes to preserve that matter what the pronounced goals of any system might be said to be. Would I be surprised if it somehow is "difficult" or "inconvenient" to hold elections that might see civilian oversight of the military? Absolutely not. Their slowness to deal with old problems, and they are almost without number at this point, is hard not to notice. Out near where I live, farmers are wondering about planting and selling crops in the coming seasons as there used to be some guidance from the ministry of agriculture, guidance that is entirely lacking at this point. They don't know how the market is going to work, whether the government will pay a certain price for needed crops as in the past, or what to expect from life in general. As a result the prices of many agricultural products are rising as the farmers are hesitant to sell something that they might need for themselves. Our Egyptian farmers are wildly underrated, but I've seen them to be industrious, canny individuals who know how to coax the maximum number of food crops out of the valley's soil. They do, however, need some input from the ministry of agriculture and this doesn't seem to be forthcoming.

At this point the SCAF are in the unenviable position of being criticised quite correctly for their mishandling of the daily security issues, their inability to get ordinary police back to work, their detention and abuse of protesters, the lack of information and preparation for democratic elections, the lack of effort on the part of the ministries to assist businesses or the farmers. They were given a job that they were not prepared to do, and that many argue they had no real intention of actually doing properly. If, in fact, they have been working with honorable intentions, perhaps they should be asking for some help to accomplish this task. At the very least, they could arrange that the "bad guys" of the old regime are not appointed to current positions of power. The current policies do leave everyone asking whether they can be trusted to help to run honest elections if and when they decide that they will occur.

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani