Saturday, March 29, 2003


MSN Hotmail - Message" Unfortunately, the middle-east is very keen to make any disagreement or conflict to be a fight between muslims and/or christians, "infidels" or the "great satan". This is once again evident in the speeches broadcast from Baghdad, where every other word is "God is willing?", every casualty is a "martyr", and "america is intent on killing all muslims". If these religious connotations didn't fall on willing ears, they wouldn't be using them. "

I don't want to argue points of "fact" regarding how many Iraqi's have died under Saddam's leadership or anything like that...Facts are used by both sides to bolster arguments and often it is more a question of how they are used. What concerns me more are assumptions and generalisations. These, I have found, are usually disastrous.

You point out that you have never been in a mosque but you are sure that they are hotbeds of fanatical outcry against the US. I have been in mosques and for all but 45 minutes of a week, they are places of peace, quiet, tranquility and prayer. There are Friday sermons in mosques, just as there are Sunday sermons in churches and Saturday sermons in synagogues. In some mosques (those that make the most interesting news) there may be the sentiments you decry expressed. In most, there are commentaries on how to lead a better life. As for the opposite, I've seen the religious right on TV plenty of times going on about how Islam is a religion of hate. If you believe that, then you have listened and heard them too.

The Arabic language is one that has an unusual feature. It has a benchmark against which the quality of language is judged and that benchmark is the Quran, a book of truly extraordinarily beautiful poetry, no matter what you may think of the content. You are right. Every other phrase in Arabic is "Inshallah", "if God is willing" and this is only to remind us that at the end of the day, we may not actually control the outcomes. I can say that definitely I will come to see you and be hit by a car....shit happens, to quote the stickers in the US. The presence of God in Arab life is meant to be very real. The prayers five times daily (exactly like the Christian prayers in the Middle Ages and those still observed in churches and many religious communities) are meant to bring one's thoughts back to our relationship with God or whatever one believes to be a central force in the universe. Many Muslims are not particularly religious, just as most Christians aren't. I'd even go so far as to say that most are not. However, to speak of God as part of the language is just that, part of the language. Just as many phrases in other languages incorporate religious images, Arabic incorporates a lot. People need to understand that.

Finally, a group of people should never be judged by the rhetoric of their leaders. What comes from the mouths of any leaders is almost always self-serving and designed to have some effect on the listeners. If all Americans were judged by the speeches of George W., you'd probably be unhappy....especially considering how many hysterically funny blunders he makes when speaking.

"My reference to "mullahs" isn't about "mullahs" per se, but any such authority figure, that incites the populace based on fiery religious propaganda. While other religions have their own problems and imperfections I have yet to hear of any church, temple, or synagogue preaching the destruction and full annihiliation of another people. I'm sure they exist, however, I would venture to say there is a larger proportion of them within the Islamic faith."

Again, Bob, take care how you generalise. When you think "mullah" try saying "Pat Robertson" or "Jerry Falwell"
and consider what you are saying. I wouldn't say that Christians are warlike based on their remarks, nor would I generalise that most ministers and priests are like them. The Pope isn't. You are generalising from grossly inadequate and skewed data.

Arabs aren't scary people. Arab men are, on the whole, very polite, decent people...until they are behind the wheel of a car and they turn into New Yorkers. There are nasty, evil people in any country, any culture and in fact, I believe that they inhabit their own culture that is outside of the usual world that we live in. That they inflict their harm on our world is wrong.

Friday, March 28, 2003

Not Watching The War
I think that I'm becoming allergic to televison. After two days of peace while my cable TV box decided not to work, my housekeeper (bless her ingenious soul) managed to get it to work. I can't blame Nagat, since after all her 9 year old son Ahmed comes to my house after school until she finishes work. He gets to watch the tube as a reward for doing his homework while she is here. With a 9 year old, I'd want the TV working too. But it was nice to be able to say honestly that I hadn't been able to watch the news because the set was out of order. It meant that I was going to a bit of extra effort checking my newspapers and wire services online, but that is preferable to having the damn war force-fed to me from CNN or something.

"Watching the war" is becoming an international pastime and this really bothers me. At what point does this become some kind of twisted entertainment like Joe Millionaire or Survivor or something? The news itself is depressing enough. I can neither cheer on British and American troops who I really don't feel have any place in Iraq, despite all the protestations of their leaders. There are all sorts of countries with weapons of mass destruction (Pakistan, India, Israel, North Korea to name a few...or France, Russia to name some others) but Iraq has obviously got some special charm, black and oily I suspect. As I said before, I have no love for the Baathist regime in Iraq and I can't think of anyone who does, but I question the propriety of moving vast quantities of men and materiel halfway round the globe to invade a country that as far as I can see (and I DO read a lot of news coverage from all over) has no real, substantive links to anything that has happened in the US or Britain. The whole scenario absolutely stinks of self interest, and raises the hackles of a veteran of the Viet Nam disaster. As the troops move into Iraq, I watch with dismay the increasing number of civilians and soldiers killed in what is likely to be a messy quagmire.

Today I opted to escape from the modern world and take my favourite mare out into the countryside near Abu Sir to explore some new trails. The farmland in Egypt is cut up into millions of tiny farms, especially in the areas of the Delta that have been cultivated for a long time. Many of the farmers live in villages some way away from their plots, and each morning they walk to the fields with their donkeys, goats, sheep, water buffalo, cows and camels in various numbers and combinations. There are usually mud brick shelters for the animals at the edges of the fields where the farmers and their families take a break for tea and some bread and cheese. Dirt roads and trails cut through these fields along the irrigation canals, and it's possible to ride for hours through some of the lushest fields imaginable.

At a reasonable distance from the more densely populated villages, the chance to observe the wildlife is excellent. Egypt has always been a haven for migratory birds who travel down the Nile to other areas in Africa, and there are a lot of birds that make their homes here year round. Along the canals, we have black and white kingfishers that hover over the water at about a height of a 6 or more metres like little black apostrophes until they plunge into the canal to snatch a minnow or a frog. Even more spectacular are the European Kingfishers that are turquoise and bronze and zip about in pairs playing in the trees over the canals.

An afternoon in the 1800's is a good cure for today.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Bob Mith suggested "The fact that Iraq will be liberated from Saddam, that we will have a government that is hopefully pro-american in the future, which will result in 1.Favorable oil deals, 2. Reduce the middle-age based "mandrassas" and islamic fundamentalism that teaches all that is not islam must die.  If the governments in the middle east took responsibility for the hate preaching in the mosques and mullahs, than quite frankly we wouldn't feel the need to defend ourselves."

How many mosques have you visited, Bob? There's probably one on any street corner here and very, very, very few preach hate. Which is unlike many of the television programs that have been broadcast in the US over the past couple of years. A sheikh in any one mosque might have an audience of 20 or 30 people, but the television programs have an audience of millions and many of the speakers have been filled with hate and misinformation about Isam. Likewise, Egypt has no mullahs. Mullahs are found in Shi'ite Islam, not Sunni, and Egypt is primarily Sunni. Do you know the difference? It's pretty major. And what makes you think that the Middle East is rife with fundamentalism? Have you been here? Or are you taking someone's word for it?

This is the point of the sadness on the part of many who watch this tragic war. If the US wanted to pay out the cost of the war effort to the citizens of Iraq, most of them would be happy to take the money, and many would be happy to move to, say, Florida, which would mean that the US funds would end up being spent in the US....even better. For USD 90 billion, you could probably buy the whole bloody country and it would be yours, lock, stock and oil barrels. And no one would lose a child or parent.

On the other hand, to take the analogy of the car-chasing dog, what in heaven's name will the US do with a country full of ticked off Iraqi's should they have the misfortune to succeed? Just because many Iraqi's didn't like Saddam (and to my knowledge no one, even his family, is all that crazy about him), this doesn't mean that they will prefer to be ruled by total strangers who understaned nothing of their culture, language, religion or history. Not likely. What can you put in a situation like this to run the show other than another dictator? Except this time he/she will like the US for a longer period of time than Saddam did, hopefully?

And how about the Kurds in the north of Iraq? Last time, the US set them up to revolt and then pulled back and left them hanging in the wind. Do you think that they will trust the US government again? It's possible, but I would say unlikely.

I've seen many, many situations here in Egypt when foreigners were either intimidated by locals simply because they couldn't understand the questions that they were being asked in Arabic...things like "Where are you from? or How old is your child? or Are you enjoying your time here? or What are you doing?" Not speaking the language is a serious disability that leads to anxiety and the assumption, often wrong, that someone means them ill. On the other hand, I know of other situations where the foreigner has been courted by an English speaking person, who at the same time is laughing at the foreigner behind his back...or even to his face since the foreigner has no idea of what is being said. But the foreigner in question has his/her own agenda and doesn't necessarily want to hear that he's being strung along. Most of the time, these situations arise in the course of tourism and the worst outcome is a slightly more expensive t-shirt. But the US has proposed to run post-war Iraq, and I would suggest that they are highly unqualified as well as frankly undeserving.

The reaction of the average Iraqi to invasion is no more than what I would expect if, for example, Iraq were to invade the US (assuming it had the resources, which it doesn't) to free the poor 50+% of the US population from the tyranny of George W. After all, they didn't vote him into power and look what he's done to your economy. Poor Americans....yet I seriously doubt that any of the Americans would welcome invaders of any type. It's always worth it to turn the situation on its head to see how things look.
Thanks, blogmom Diana, (when I figure out HTML enough to add links I will) for the push. I've been reading Gotham for a while and while in many ways the content varies between us, I suspect that much of the spirit is similar....and New York is the only city that approaches comparability with Cairo in so many ways. That is why both my children are there for university. I love visiting in New York for a few weeks, but begin to miss the randomness of the Middle East after that.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

edit your blog:
Talking to a friend today, an Egyptian woman. She was watching the news on Iraq and wanted to call me because it reminded her of the Christmas that she and I spent with my children in Germany watching the Berlin Wall being dismantled. She was watching some news footage of some of the captured American soldiers and wanted to know what the US citizens could be thinking of to pay so incredibly much for a war at a time when living is so hard for us all and to send children away to fight it. How can oil be worth sending your children halfway around the world maybe to die?
What can I say? It makes no sense to me. No matter how much many Iraqi's hate Saddam...and I've never heard anyone, anywhere ever say a good word about him...they are not going to be happy about having strangers from the other side of the planet taking over their country. There's an old Arab saying: "Me against my brother; my brother and I against our cousin; my brothers and our cousins against the stranger" This is going to be an ugly war. And where are all these "weapons of mass destruction" that we've heard so much about? Not that I really want to see them, but were they ever there?
After two days of showers (it could only be called "rain" in Cairo) the trees in Maadi are beautiful. We are coming into spring here (such as it is with so little difference among the seasons) and the poincianas, bauhinia's and jacaranda's are coming into bloom. They bloom on the bare trees so that the trees are covered first with purple blooms from the bauhinia's (camel foot tree), then the jacaranda's and poinciana's come out with purple and red respectively. Once this storm passes, the trees will have a year of sun and dust to take them back to their usual faded beige colour. I live in what was once a planned community south of Cairo proper. It was planned in the 20's and 30's to be large garden lots with houses and is gradually being taken over by apartment buildings as the population pressure increases. In the 10 years I've lived here I've seen enormous changes in traffic (for the worse) and availability of services (for the better). Once you had to go into Cairo to buy anything other than food, but now it's entirely possible to live in Maadi and almost never actually go into Cairo itself. Not being much of a city person, I don't really mind not going into Cairo, but as cities go, it has to be one of the most interesting in the world. Every second of the day, something is's like living inside street theatre.
I work with the Canadian embassy to track a group of residents in my area and no one has been told to stay indoors unless they feel it is a good idea. Canadian warnings to residents run along the lines of "You don't want to travel to Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia right now. Other than that, don't do anything stupid." The US embassy warnings are positively inflammatory. The school has the students locked in all day, where usually high school students are allowed off campus for lunch. Students find this silly because in the first place, an easy 65% of the students aren't American and in the second place, at 3 pm they all leave campus and most of them don't go straight home, but out for a coffee or something. Why frighten people for nothing? I really don't understand. Now most of the more seasoned ex-pats check with the Swiss or Canadian embassies for more realistic assessments of the situation.
Mobinil, one of the mobile phone companies, is offering news updates (for free now but of course later you pay) via sms, the phone messaging service. I turn my phone to silent at night when I sleep and wake to find a zillion messages mostly about the progress of the war in Iraq. Not the most welcoming start to the day, but it still beats the television coverage. I think too many are watching "The War" just as they might be watching the Disovery Channel or Survivor, without the realisation that this isn't entertainment, but reality. The presentation, especially by CNN isn't helping this any either. Other than having to check the BBC Arabic Service in the morning to see where the daily demonstration will be so that we re-route any any errands to avoid these errands, the war in Iraq isn't really impinging on my life.

It's not the same for everyone, though. My children graduated from Cairo American College a few years ago and some of their friends are still there. Kids stop by to visit me, knowing that I'm usually home evenings and my own kids are in New York. The American embassy has, by all assessments of other nationalities, gone right off the deep end here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

We've had cold winds from the north, black clouds and rain for the last couple of days. Not really your average Egyptian March weather, although this month in the old Coptic calendar is known for its changeability and winds. Sitting around in offices that are built much more to shed heat than to keep it in, my feet are freezing and my hands get so cold that my typing is clumsy. We are all joking that the weather was especially ordered to keep the American soldiers in Iraq more comfortable....feeling like home in Nebraska. Just got offline with my daughter in New York. Her big news is that they have sun and she wants to go outside and sit in it. Must be nice. But then cold weather here is more of an oddity than a trial.
This is a fascinating time to be living in Egypt. It's always been fascinating to live in Egypt, but it is currently even more so. I've been here since the mid 80's, having moved to Egypt from Toronto, Canada with my husband, son and daughter. When my husband died a few years ago, it never occurred to me to go back to Canada. Egypt had become my home and I can't imagine living anywhere else. This country isn't what foreigners think it is at all, and sometimes it isn't even what most Egyptians think it is. But it is alive, changing, and surviving, just as it has for so many thousands of years. Like everyone else, Egyptians and residents look at Egypt and question whether the changes taking place are for the good or evil, but I'm not sure that we can know yet how change will affect us. Looking around at circumstances and social behaviour I can see where we are with respect to where we have been, but where we will go is mostly guess work. Watching the war in Iraq change this region so quickly has heightened the sense of volatility of change.