Friday, July 29, 2011

replying to comment

I just had a first-time experience... I got some hate mail on my blog! The following is what I wrote in the comments section on that particular post. I love dialogue and feel bad about having taken down the comment but it contained information that shouldn't be on my blog. I may be opening myself up to a huge can of worms, but I want everyone to be happy and I love to talk things out, so here is the comment:

"I'm sorry Anonymous, but I had to delete your comment. My blog is about exploring ideas, not tearing down individuals, which is what I felt you were doing. If you feel I am tearing down individuals in my blog, I apologise - that is not my intention. My intention is to seek a deeper understanding, and if you can pinpoint what exactly I said that attacked an individual, or a group of individuals, I will gladly delete or change it.

"Also, as a point of courtesy, I do believe 'hate' comments should not be posted anonymously. My understanding of internet etiquette is that comments such as yours (particularly because you used my full name which I never do on my blog) should be connected to your identity. Please if you re-comment, I'd appreciate if you identify yourself.

"Thank you so much for understanding and I hope we can talk openly and get to a deeper level of dialogue.

"Finally, the one point you made in your comment to which I can reply is the following: I believe immigration and multiculturalism is a beautiful thing, and I definitely think my Muslim friends contribute a great deal to European society. I also think that Muslims have the right to proselytise just like Christians have the right to proselytise. I believe we are all equal as human beings, under God. If you interpreted my words differently, again, I apologise."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

But the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I've learned

(If you haven't yet, please do take a moment to advise me about what my blog can or should look like in the future: everything is changing! Please comment.)

Today I was walking back home from Central London. I crossed the Thames and navigated past Waterloo Station during rush hour, then made my way to the flat of some friends who have been gracious enough to let me consider their place home while I figure out what I'm doing with my life.

I decided to pull out my ipod - after all, most of the other people walking on the streets had headphones. Apparently that's what Londoners do. I'm all about cultural adaptation.

The second or third song that came through my mix was "Painting Pictures Of Egypt" by Sarah Groves. By the middle of the song I was struggling with tears. Why was this, I wondered. Was it because it's a beautiful tune? Well, honestly, I've heard better. Maybe the words? So I rewound to start the song again and started to pay close attention.

And I was take breathless. This woman was singing MY heart!

(let this be a warning to any of us who think song lyrics don't really matter - somehow they went straight to my subconscious without passing through my noticeable brain.)

Here are some excerpts, some of the lines that most touched me. Note the boldface especially.

And the places I long for the most are the places where I’ve been. They are calling out to me like a long lost friend.

It’s not about losing faith, it’s not about trust. It’s all about comfortable when you move so much... and the place I was wasn’t perfect but I had found a way to live.

The future feels so hard, and I wanna go back! But the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I've learned. Those roads were closed off to me while my back was turned!

If it comes too quick I may not appreciate it. Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?

You see, this morning as I was praying I was reminded of how much fear is in my heart. The excitement of transition, of a new phase of life, and of being in a place where I can cook and walk (!!) have helped to distract my heart from the sense of dread that I just might not make it. I can't help but wonder if I'll only last three months and hit the road again, because transition is all I know how to do... or that I won't learn how to live in community, instead hiding my head in the figurative sand of wherever becomes my home and never learning to share anything. Then there are the little fears, that the various practicalities of moving to a new place won't work out.

While I know I need to do this, it's so much easier doing what I've been doing. The future feels so hard and I want to go back! Well, I don't really want to go back, but I know how to do that. I don't know how to do this.

Because I'm worried that the places that used to fit me, before this decade of insanity in my life began... I'm worried they can't hold the things I've learned. I'm worried that the roads of friends, relationships, a home, a routine, that those roads were closed off on me when my back was turned.

I'm full of hope for this exciting new phase, but... yeah.

(this would have been an imperfect prose post, but as we say in Arabic, MABROUK to our lovely hostess Emily who just became a mother once again!)

Monday, July 25, 2011

everything is changing! Please comment.

So I owe a heartfelt thanks to the many of you who read and commented here in the last few weeks as I've processed my pre-move. Your words have encouraged me tremendously. I suppose after sharing my angst of the last few weeks, I'm probably owing you an update, something along the lines of 'first discoveries upon moving to London' or something like that. But it would be a pretty boring post, as the last three days have been doing little other than sleeping and catching up with old friends. I'm sure I'll have a bloggable reaction to London soon and then I'll be happy to share it.

But today, I wanted to ask your opinion, your help. Today's post is about asking for your advice. I know I don't have millions of readers, but I am sure some of you are reading this on your RSS feed, happily lurking and never commenting. I know who you are... well, some of you... and will be sad if you don't comment today. Please, today, I'd really really like your comment if you would... (picture me right now with a puppy-faced tear dropping from one eye as I write this in the faint hope that I still have at least one or two friends who will take the 2 minutes to comment on my blog)

Now that I've ended my Egypt assignment, I feel like I've crossed into a new phase of life. OK, I don't really feel like that, but I feel like I should feel like that. A lot about my life is going to change in the coming months, although I don't really know what or how.

What I do know is that it's time to start being a bit more intentional about blogging. Right now, I write whatever I write here and give it little to no strategic thought.

But as a part of my new life, it is now time to revamp the blog. Or start a new blog. Or replace this blog. Or all of the above. I want my blog to be a bit more focused, to fill a niche. Maybe I'll keep this blog as-is and add on another topical blog. Maybe I'll switch over entirely.

I need your wisdom here... What do you want to hear from me? What would make this blog interesting and relevant to your world? What bloggy niche do you think I might fill? Are there any features my blog should include? And if you come up with a title for that niche and I choose it, I'll probably owe you a prize.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

A chilling thought indeed

So I was just doing a bit of websurfing and came across an article from the Associated Press which posted some excerpts of a manifesto written by the gunman in Norway who went on a killing spree this past Friday. Here is a particularly disturbing quote...

"Multi-culturalism (cultural Marxism/political correctness), as you might know, is the root cause of the ongoing Islamisation of Europe which has resulted in the ongoing Islamic colonisation of Europe through demographic warfare (facilitated by our own leaders)."

My first reaction on reading this was that these are the railings of a truly deluded crazy person. But re-reading it, I realised that there are probably a lot of people who agree with him. People who think that society's problems these days are largely due to a fear of being 'politically incorrect', because the media generally favours things like immigration and diversity over preserving the way things used to be. An open policy welcomed a large number of Muslims to Europe and which invited Islamisation which is slowly taking over. This is the classic Clash of Civilisations at its best.

Yes, actually, come to think of it, I know a lot of people who, I suspect, agree with him about this. I don't expect the people I know to translate that belief into killing sprees that take the lives of a hundred people in one day, because they are actually good-hearted people. Plus, obviously the killing spree was not an effective way to prove his point. In fact, this man has managed to make the 'white nationalists' look bad and thereby make the 'islamists' look good.

If I am completely honest with myself, I actually have to admit that this man has a point. It's become strangely 'politically correct' to support Muslims and Islamists when similar support for 'Christians' or, for that matter, 'white people' is labelled as racism. If it weren't so incredibly sensitive, I could tell some striking stories here which would sadly illustrate how uncool it has become to be that which used to be dominant.

But, really, you've got to give what you take, right? If we are truly multicultural, then Muslim and Christian should be on equal social footing. Islamist and white extremist should evoke a similar reaction. Americans, Brasilians, British, Syrians and Indonesians should all be equal before God and before man. So why is it that in liberal circles, people who are 'different' get put on higher social footing? I know some people would answer that it's corrective, because minorities are disadvantaged from the outset, but I would reply that I think maybe it has gotten a little bit out of hand. I think my stories would illustrate this better than the statement, but sadly, I just need you to trust me that the very fact I don't feel comfortable sharing the stories proves my point.

And why is my asking this question so incredibly politically wrong? Can anything be done to start calling a spade a spade? I certainly do not advocate for murderous rampages. But it'd be kind of comforting to think that there might be some other way to restore respect to the good old boys while still learning to respect people who are different from the majority.

Friday, July 22, 2011

nice people

In Arab culture, a woman has the right to not want to sit next to a man who is not her relative. In conservative families, this is a requirement: so much so that women won't leave the house if not accompanied by such a man. In less conservative families, it's still generally a good idea.

On the other hand, I get the impression that only the conservativist of conservative men have that right (i.e. not to want to sit by an unrelated woman). And even fewer men avail themselves of that right.

So generally when a couple is traveling together and they are assigned two of the three seats in an airplane row, the man will take the middle seat so that his wife is not sitting by an unrelated man. As a lone traveller woman who has absorbed a bit of Arab culture, this always irks me, because it means I end up sitting next to an unrelated man, but because I'm an independent woman (verified by the fact I'm traveling alone) and a foreigner, no one seems to care. I feel like pointing out to those men that I'd rather sit by their wives than by them... i've never had the guts to say it but I probably should.

This was all a rather long prelude of context for what happened on the airplane to me today. I boarded the plane and when I arrived at my row, I was ever so slightly dismayed to find an Egyptian-looking man in the middle seat and a woman - presumably his wife - at the other end of the row. Once again I was stuck by the man.

But when I started to put my bag in the overhead bin and prepare to sit in that chair, I saw the couple exchanging looks. It almost seemed like they noticed I was a girl... but no, it couldn't be.

And yet, sure enough, the woman stood up and went to get something from her bag on the other aisle. Then the man stood up. The woman soon edged her way back in to take the middle seat. Glory be! This was the first time ever an Arab couple had thought of my feelings on this rather petty but quite sensitive matter. (I suppose the wife could have been looking out for her husband's integrity but I prefer to think they were respecting me.)

Then the niceness continued. The man rummaged around in overhead bins until he found blankets and pillows. He passed a pillow to his wife and she handed it to me. Then two more for them. Then he gave her a blanket and she handed it to me. Then two more for them. I smiled and said 'thank you.' Really, I was a bit speechless at such a display of unobtrusive niceness on an airplane.

As we all settled into our seats, they didn't try to make small talk with me or interact me with me in any other way. I hope they weren't waiting for me to reach out because, if so, I didn't get the hint. But I could hear them chatting with each other, laughing, giggling: talking like life-long friends and lovers should. This, as we all know, is not something that is seen everyday on an airplane.

It occurred to me that being a nice person and being a happy person are connected. To me, it seemed like because they were nice, they had the freedom to be happy too.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Egypt obituary

I thought of this blog title because I am leaving this country in 36 hours. Assuming flights aren't delayed, exactly 36 hours, as a matter of fact.

And it's time to look back on yet another four-month posting and think about what I will miss and what I won't. (I did this after my abrupt departure from Timor Leste... see here. Or here is what I wrote when leaving Indonesia... although I wasn't even leaving Indonesia yet!)

But in those blogs, I used the words 'reminiscing'. Why is it that today the word 'obituary' comes to mind?

Is it because the tents are still up and the revolutionaries are getting antsy? Is it because the elections have been postponed because no one is even remotely ready to think about who could run this place? Is it because we are all scared of something but we don't know what?

Or is it because I came to Egypt to help scale up an office, but the staff is now half what it was when I arrived, and there's a general sense of resignation floating around? Is it because I don't yet know whether I'll look back on this season as a time that I did anything, at all, to help anyone because all the projects we're supposed to be starting may or may not start?

And all of this adds up to a difficult list, but I'm going to try:

Things I will miss about Egypt:
  • Feeling completely justified about feeling exhausted at night and vegging in front of the TV
  • The Kempinski bed
  • Full-time access to a treadmill
  • Some absolutely lovely colleagues
  • Being able to lean out the window and see the Nile
  • Sunsets over the Nile
  • The feeling of possibilities (like going to the Sinai for a weekend!)
  • How cheap things are here
  • per diems

Things I won't miss about Egypt:
  • Customer service at the Kempinski
  • The humid heat
  • The fact that my world is 300 square metres big
  • Avoiding harassment whenever I walk on the street
  • Negotiating taxis, what I want to order at a restaurant, and just about everything else
  • The 100 soldiers between the hotel and the office (a 200 m walk) who stare at me every morning
  • The isolation of living in a hotel room
  • Other people coming in and cleaning my hotel room however they want (that is, rearranging things)
  • Office politics
  • sad news and intensity of emotions
  • feeling braindead
Dear Imperfect Prose friends, it's been so long! I hope I can read your blogs but I am getting ready for a big move again so we'll see if I pull it off. I've missed you and I share this with you with all the kindest of wishes

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

software recommendation for you writers out there

So, this week I switched my RSS feeds over to Google Reader. I should have done this ages ago, but better late to the game than never joining at all, right? I was inspired to do this because I plan on joining the Android revolution within the next few weeks (the conclusion of my iphone-induced panic moment last week), so making myself google-friendly may make my life easier. It also may mean Google has the capacity to steal my soul, but I'm just not going to think about that for now.

One by one, I took the feed addresses from my AppleMail reader and typed them in to Google. Each of the blogs and news feeds that I read popped up in perfect user-friendly order. I was so impressed!

This is actually NOT a blog about Google Reader, so I'd better get to the point.

There is a blog that I had signed up for several months ago, but AppleMail had never syncked it properly so I hadn't actually read it. Google opened it just fine, though, so I was finally able to read this Brasilian author's blog.

For your Portuguese-speakers out there, this was what Google Reader produced for me:

For you non-Portuguese speakers, in summary, this blog gave the most glowing review ever to a certain application, aptly named "OmmWriter" (as a casual yogini, I totally get the concept of using a one-syllable humming word to centre my thoughts). She said that as a writer easily prone to distraction, this programme does 50% of the work for her. That's quite a claim.

Well, after reading a raving review like that, I just had to check it out. As it turns out, the timing was pretty good, because I've been working on writing a report all week. And, you know what? It is amazing, with potential to revolutionise my life as a writer. Except for the music - I prefer my own.

In short, what OmmWriter does is white out your entire computer screen so you have nothing but a plain-text writer visible on your computer. This sounds a bit cliché, but Ommwriter does it so artfully and tactfully that it totally works. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the report this week, and time just breezed by because I was all into the writing and forgot to wonder if anyone had emailed me.

If you are any shape or form of a writer, and have any inclination whatsoever to distraction, you should totally check it out. (Oh yes, and it is free.)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Hotels in the Saieed

So after my little angsty interlude yesterday I'm back to sharing some travel tales of our week in Southern Egypt, aka Upper Egypt, aka the Saieed. Incidentally, many Westerners seem inclined to call it "the Upper Nile" and that one is wrong. It's got enough correct names so there's no need to tack on a wrong name, right?

Today I thought I'd share a bit about what it's like actually traveling there as a foreigner (and why I was so shattered upon return - although to truly appreciate that you'd probably also need the schedule of meetings we had lined up in each place. It was a lot):

Day 1: Wake up at 2:30 a.m. for 3:00 departure to airport for 4:45 departure to Luxor. Luxor is a hot tourist attraction here in Egypt, home to the famed "Valley of the Kings", a very hot desert with some amazing historical artifacts. So they have their own airport but it would be a little cheeky to start ahumanitarian programme there (although right now that tourism is low, they really are suffering). Arrive Luxor 5 a.m., drive to Qena city, which is 1 hour north.

Night 1: Make history as the first women ever to stay in Hotel Hamd. This entailed occasions such as reception forgetting to give me my change, the clerk not understanding why I was asking him to go down to the all-men's café to order my coffee for me, management failing to stock the hotel with toilet paper and all staff refusing to go out and buy some, the hotel not giving us towels or sheets. Oh, and the best moment was waiting 15 minutes because there was a guy praying in the middle of the lounge area outside my room, and I didn't want to "ruin" his prayer because a woman walked in front of him during his prostrations. All these special moments aside, we were absolutely exhausted from the previous night's travel schedule, so I couldn't tell you for sure, but I think the room was very comfortable.

Day 2: Travel 2.5 hours by hired car, north to Soheg. On the way to Soheg get picked up by the fuzz because we're approximately the third foreign people in a decade to go on a road trip from Qena to Soheg.

Night 2: Enjoy the Nileside breeze, with a cup of tea and some cats in a stately old mansion which has been converted into a hotel. The rooms were spacious but not luxurious, but the air conditioning worked and the showers spewed hot water. What else does a girl need? Meanwhile, consider celebrating someone's marriage with them downstairs as the dance music wafts through the facility, and brainstorm ways to not only feel pity but actually help my poor Egyptian friend who is fielding phone calls every 10 minutes from some 'official' asking questions about us (including things like 'where did you go this afternoon?' as if they weren't trailing us the whole time).

Day 3: In a different hired car, trek 2 more hours north to Assiut. Because of traffic and a late arrival, we had to go to a meeting before checking in to our hotel, which actually turned out to be nothing but delayed gratification.

Night 3, Day 4, Night 4: Sleep, and enjoy the only few minutes of downtime all week, on a boat.

Our rooms were Nile view, which meant that out of my enormous window I saw lots of water and palm trees on the other side of the river. It was perfect. Except that the airconditioning in my tiny ship cabin didn't work and I couldn't open my window, so the best solution I could come up with was to keep the curtains closed with the hopes that no heat from the sun could enter the room. One of the mornings I did so happen to wake up for a potty-break right at sunrise and it was gorgeous. Unfortunately the appeal of the still beat that of the sunrise and I lasted no more than 3 seconds.

Day 5: Though we were supposed to catch a train at 7 a.m., we managed to hire the car of a friend of a friend and leave at 9:30 a.m. to travel 2 more hours north to Minya. Arriving in Minya felt like we'd exited the badlands and were back in civilization. Not that Assiut or any of those places were really badlands, but Minya felt posh.

Night 5: Stay at a hotel right on the Nile which was also breathtakingly beautiful and the site of a wedding party. It was only a pity that we were way, way too exhausted to enjoy it. I was also getting a bit sick from some bug combined with bad diet and no exercise for a week.

Day 6: Three hours further north and we were back in Cairo. The Kempinski never felt so much like a homecoming.

Friday, July 15, 2011


One week from today I will be making the *BIG* move. Though nothing at all is in any way whatsoever decided yet... don't know where I'll be living, how the job thing is going to work out (though I feel peace about that being an ongoing question), or in fact whether I'll be allowed to stay... I am going back to the country where I've most recently lived for more than a couple of months, the country where my parents live, a place where I have friends and mostly understand the logic behind 'the system.' I plan on sticking around for a while. In my world, I'm setting a very ambitious mental/emotional goal of two years, which seems a bit over-ambitious - after all, I haven't pulled off anything more than 4 months for nearly a decade now. But I'm trying to think big.

I woke up this morning and realised that I'd been dreaming of choosing an iPhone. I have never actually wanted an iPhone, but I decide that once I move to a country with 3G technology and plan on staying there more than a couple of weeks, I want to get something that lets me take advantage of that. I dream of catching up on blogs and writing in random remote places, of talking on skype on a phone, even occasionally going places without my computer (yes, I know, I'm a bit of an addict). For those of you who so kindly read and comment on my blog and to whom I so rarely return the favour, maybe I'll get better at actually interacting.

And so this has started a day of processing all the things that are going to change for me in a week. Most of them are terrifying me: they are ways in which I have grown dysfunctional and skills I will have to re-learn.

For example, what do you do when you have met up with a friend for a cup of coffee, enjoyed catching up but didn't make specific plans for hanging out again? In my world, I never make plans because I'll be leaving soon and will call them for coffee when I'm in town again. I haven't done do-over cups-of-coffee for years! This concept has me a bit frightened.

For that matter, how do you schedule social activities knowing that you can do them anytime in the next year because you'll be around all year? I'm used to there being a sense of urgency to all socialising due to impending travel and am not sure how I'm to deal with a blank slate.

How much shampoo should I buy? How many toothbrushes? Those decisions are always based, for me, on how long I'll be in a location where I won't have easy access to a drugstore. So, does that mean I should only buy one of each? But what if I run out one day... shouldn't I have spare?

Similarly, how does one choose a good towel? My previous logic of the-best-quality-that-takes-up-the-least-suitcase-space/weight probably doesn't apply anymore.

And subscriptions? How do those work for phones, websites, magazines? Three-month, six-month, year-long... Those have never even been an option to me before so I've just rejected them out of hand. But the advertisements point out that you save money with a longer subscription - how do you decide?

As I write this, I am reminded of how incredibly simple my life has been. It's me, my laptop, a suitcase with clothing and a few special items like a coffee press and portable speakers, and my passport. I haven't changed my status with my bank in any way for years, hardly ever use my credit card, don't really have any friends outside of work colleagues. It's not going to be so simple anymore, is it?

But from everything I've seen and read, I think it will be more manageable. All this moving around, combined with long hours and stressful work, has diminished my capacity for complexity in life. I'm counting on that, and that all these things which seem so overwhelming to me now will actually be more manageable than a constant state of culture shock.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

death by powerpoint

On our trip to to Upper Egypt last week, our assigned task was to find out everything there is to know about women, specifically their needs for economic empowerment.

So we did a bit of networking, called around to friends of friends, most of whom were former colleagues of current colleagues, and rather quickly managed to arrange dozens of meetings with local NGOs. Meeting other types of people (businesswomen, professors, average women) was not so easy but we managed a little something. But the local NGOs were eager, even thrilled, to meet with us.

Because it gave them an opportunity to do this:

I know it's not a new concept, but can I just say, again, how effective powerpoint presentations can be as a lullaby?

Apparently someone, someday, probably a representative from some donor representing some wealthy Western country (I couldn't imagine which) came to town and trained local NGOs on how to be a good organisation, including how to make a splash. I'd wager that that visit happened sometime after the invention of powerpoint but before the coining of the phrase "death by powerpoint", and well before anyone invented guidelines such as "no more than four lines per page and no more than five words per line."

No, these powerpoints are thorough and long. Some NGOs have years and years of experience and every... single... project... gets... its own slide. For example, one NGO we met told us they have implemented 43 projects, and every single one got its own powerpoint slide filled with words. Fortunately, this particular NGO was also hyper about photos so there was something to look at, but still. After the introduction slides and the concluding slides, which included things like a full organisational chart and a description of their decision-making mechanisms and the history of their founding, we were treated to 43 project slides.

That's not what we wanted to meet them for! We wanted them to tell us about the needs of women. We wanted to - heaven forbid - ask them questions! But when you only have one hour scheduled for a meeting and 43+ powerpoint slides to navigate, there is not much time left for question-asking, especially because by the end we were in that peaceful sleepy-dreamy place of an afternoon nap.

There is, in fact, a reason why they put us through this torture. It's not entirely because they thought we'd be entertained or educated. It's because, misguided though it may be, they were thinking they could impress us. They'd love to work with us, and were hoping we would be so pleased with what we've heard that we'll go back to our main office and tell them how amazing such-and-such an organisation is.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Upper Egypt... they're not really that scary

This is a post I would have not thought to write before going to the Saieed (Upper Egypt), but we got a great photo, and I AM back safely, so here goes...

Can't you just envision bandits hiding in those mountains and attacking us as we drive through? I'm just saying.

Apparently Upper Egypt has a bit of a sordid history - while the rest of Egypt is so excited to have freed itself from the strong hand of a 30-year regime, the southern states never seemed to care about that in the first place. Instead, they have their own ruling parties of tribes and clans.

These 'rulers' are considered by many to be the reason that FGM is so widespread and women's rights in general so limited, and they are also the ones who have ensured that very few people in the south seem to care that Egypt's government was recently toppled. They never cared for the police or security in the first place. Instead, there are stories of bandits hiding in mountainsand attacking, even lynching, people they don't like - like the government and the police (making our police escort all the more ironic).

Fortunately, I didn't put much mental energy into thinking about this while we were driving on the desert roads. It only occurred to me afterwards that I might be perceived to be on the side of the government, not the side of the Saieedi tribes, and thus subject to attack. And fortunately, there was no reason to think about it because nothing at all happened.

Instead, I'll remember cute moments like the time one of our drivers told us he owns a tree in the desert. We didn't really believe him, but sure enough as we drove by a break in the rocky mountains, there was one lone joshua tree. His tree, he claimed with a twinkle in his eye. And so, as much as the legend and lore make me think I'm supposed to be scared of the Saieedis, I actually found their culture to be kind of adorable.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


official statistics range from 93-97% prevalence in Egypt.

There are billboards all over Upper Egypt - that is, Southern Egypt, but referred to as 'upper' because the Nile flows from south to north - warning people that circumcising their daughters (FGM) is not recommended. I wanted to get a photo of one of these billboards while I was there, but it took me a while to work up the courage to ask a driver to pull over and by the time I got to guts I didn't see any more billboards. (A friend said she has a photo; maybe she'll give it to me and I'll share it with you.)

Anyway, what I learned last week was that there has been an extensive awareness campaign throughout Egypt, during the last decade and a half or so, to try to decrease this incredibly high percentage. In addition to billboards, there have been television specials, educational activities in schools, and countless programmes by charitable organisations. Health institutions have also gotten involved, encouraging doctors to help decrease the rate of illness and fatality that is a fallout of FGM. If mothers are going to circumcise their daughters, at least they can do it hygienically and safely.

The other thing I learned last week is that it may not have worked. It may have made it worse. Some anonymous focus group discussions I read about indicated that before the awareness campaigns, men didn't really know much about it. Now that fathers have been 'educated', they have started to actively encourage their wives to make sure and circumcise their daughters because it's better for the family and for their reputation.

Furthermore, when all the doctors got involved, mothers who previously were unsure whether the health risk of FGM was worth the perceived advantages, became comforted to know that they could send their daughters to a professional doctor with good equipment in a clean clinic to do the job.

I'm not sure how to deal with these bits of information. If it's this widespread and growing, then that means that most women I know - even well-educated middle/upper-class women - have been circumcised. It also means that it's not a religious thing because Christians are also doing it, thereby shattering the image in the West that it's an Islamic fundamentalist thing (some say the rate has decreased dramatically among Christians but I don't know).

On the other hand, some figures suggest that it is going down. In the last generation it may have decreased 10% - at this rate, in 10 generations, women in Egypt will no longer have to deal with this!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Don't ever worry about the traffic police in Egypt

There is a rather odd security policy in Upper Egypt: Foreigners visiting the area are always provided with a police escort. It's for our own safety, they say, but I have to admit I felt safer when we were not driving 130 km/hour to keep up with our escort on a barely-paved rural road!

We'd been warned that we would receive an escort, and had hoped it would not happen. But right as I was dozing off on the outskirts of our destination city, I heard a police siren and felt the car slowing to a halt. I was hit by the dread of a girl who has been pulled over for speeding and so was rather relieved to discover that it was our escort.

A newish blue car with matching blue police lights pulled up alongside us. Four men in uniforms were inside. They asked what hotel we were headed to, then confidently pulled out ahead.

Seconds later, we came up behind a bus. The sound of the siren burst out, followed by the irritating sound of an emergency vehicle's horn. You know the noise: a scratchy, low-key beep that hurts somewhere in the gut to hear and instills fear because something must be wrong if you're hearing that sound.

No, the bus did not pull over, so the cops did what any driver would do: changed lanes into oncoming traffic, took advantage of the larger vehicle's halt on a speed bump, and pulled out ahead. What could our driver, who thus far had been exceedingly kind and cautious, do but follow? The bus was too fast, though, and it did the ambulance chasing thing, using the wake left by the cop car to pass a truck. Eventually we got around the bus and began the harrowing drive into town. Don't they know that we are already more likely to die from a traffic accident than bandits, even when our driver is being careful?
They stuck to us like glue for the duration of our time in that city. When we entered a poor neighbourhood to lead a focus group discussion with women, they followed us in. We were the affair of the week in this little rural community: a celebrity had come to town! When we finally emerged from the car, I heard one child say to another, "I wonder if they are American." I felt so much safer now (she says sarcastically).

Yes, we are. And that is why we had an escort. Ironically, though, when the cops first met me after we got out of the car at the hotel, they thought I was Egyptian. And now, thanks to them, all of the city knows that an American came to town. Yes, I felt so much safer.

And my poor Egyptian colleague! She got the brunt of it all, I'm thinking, because they took her number and called her every. single. half-hour. "Where did you go today? Where is that? Who was with you? Where are you going now? How are you getting there?" As if they hadn't been with us every step of the way.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Climbing Mt. Sinai, chapter 6 (and last)

About the Monastery

(yes, I am thinking six chapters is really truly enough rehashing of a 30 hour weekend tour, so I will wind down for now. In fact, no guarantee of blogs for a while, since for the next week I'll be trekking in the proverbial 'field' - that is, actually for once hanging out with the people my organisation serves! Hopefully this means there will be some great stories when I get back.)

I wanted to share some interesting facts about the Monastery of St. Catherine, which sits at the foot of Mt. Sinai and is a special pilgrimage destination for Eastern Orthodox. For me too.

The most important thing to know, I suppose, is that it feels like Disneyland. At least for the tourists - ahem, pilgrims - it does. It is open from 9 am until 12 noon every day. Only. There are brief prayers at quarter to 12 open to the public, but otherwise visitors are expected to do nothing but tour, see, photograph, look.

So the tour guides gather up their sleepy post-mountain little flocks between 8:15 and 8:50 to gather at the tiny entrance to the ancient concrete fortress, with a door that barely fits one-and-a-half people. At 9:00 the monk in charge of tourists - ahem, pilgrims - comes out and announces the rules, once in English and once in Russian (he doesn't bother with Arabic): don't talk too loud because this is a special place, please support the monastery by buying your souvenirs at the gift shop, consider lighting a candle in the church. That's about it. Then the crowds push their way through the doorway. (We went post-revolution when tourism is still low, in the heat of summer when hiking Mt. Sinai is not as desirable. I can only imagine the mayhem of entering this holy site, say, last December.)

In the monastery, there are four main features to see:

1. The Moses Well. Honestly, I never bothered to figure out what this is. I've been to the "Moses Spring" near Petra, where they say Moses hit the rock and made water come out. Is this a replica, or a competitor to that place? Or the original? Or something else? Dunno - it was an old-fashioned hand pump well with a explanatory sign in Greek and in Russian.

2. The church. It is Greek Orthodox and it is very Greek Orthodox. I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by all the chandeliers when I walked in. Barely a space in the air is free from silver chandeliers. I lit a candle and prayed for a prayer. "Mercy" is the word I felt God gave me. "Lord, have Mercy. Kyrie Eleison." So that is what I prayed. So much mercy is needed, it is true, in a world full of pain.

Also interesting in the church: Russian men wearing shorts had been asked to tie sarongs around their legs so they'd be decent in a holy place. Awesome. There was a monk in the church whose job was, it seemed, to identify the Orthodox visitors, presumably by their behaviour in church - that is, crossing themselves and kissing icons. He called them over to do some activity, I think to write out prayers. I wish I had faked it and been invited to write a prayer. Behind the divider (sorry, I forget the name for the place that separates the part of the church where only priests go with the rest of the church), to the side, we had a good view of St. Catherine's coffin. Also in the church on display was one of her fingers which I noticed many pilgrims kissing. I read somewhere that her fingers can allegedly be found in many churches, including Westminster Abbey.

3. The oldest manuscript of the Gospels. I didn't go in to the manuscripts museum area, as it cost extra and I didn't feel like I'd like it more than spending extra time in the church. But a friend went in and told me about it. It's full of some of the most amazing bits of church history imaginable including ancient texts in the languages of all of the ancient Christian traditions: Coptic, Greek, Aramaic, Syriac... A few items have been snatched away to other museums, to the great chagrin of the monks, but many are kept in the monastery. That monastery is worth a fortune, I'm sure.

And yes, among the items there is what is likely the oldest surviving manuscript of the Gospels. It was written on cloth and then erased, then something else was written over it. Over time, the initial inscriptions became visible again, due to the type of ink that had been used, and now you can see the old writing with the blind eye, apparently. This document dates to the 2nd century and matches newer manuscripts word-for-word! That and some other St. Catherines finds apparently went a long way to confirming the stability of Christian theological tradition.

4. THE BURNING BUSH. How did I not know to expect that?! There is a bush there that has survived for longer than the monastery has been around. That's about 1700 years. And the bush could be older. And if it's that old, who's to say it's not as old as Moses? And when you see that desert and see a verdant flourishing bush, you have GOT to wonder. They said they tried to replant parts of it elsewhere and it didn't survive, although they did move it over a couple of metres within the monastery courtyard. Apparently it produces some bright leaves which look a bit fiery, and so many people do believe this is the one and only and the same burning bush.

This is a real monastery, and when I say it's Disneyland-esque, I should clarify that I was only allowed to visit less than 1/4 of its property, as most of it is off-limits to the tourists - ahem, pilgrims. I heard one story of an American woman who was invited to stay there, which must be incredibly special and rare. If I had rated an invitation like that I don't imagine I could have said no!