February 4, 2011
It’s been 8 wks since I last posted in this ‘e-portfolio’ of random stories from Egypt. But this past week, the Egyptian people stood up. It was inevitable, and yet stunning. Until yesterday, the government shut down all communications so I hadn’t been able to reach my friends and colleagues. Thankfully, they’re safe, but deeply concerned for their immediate future.
Yesterday, for the first time in 3 decades, Mubarak offered to not run in the next election (as if he ever legitimately ran). In any case, the guy is in his eighties (which is why he’s been grooming Mubarak Jr. for some time) so that concession doesn't mean much. Besides, it’s not good enough for the people. One woman in Tahrir Sq said it well “if we stop now, he will hunt each one of us down.” Already violent thugs, live bullets and faux pro-Mubarak protests have been unleashed.
Mubarak is old, desperate and dangerous. Thanks to his despotic rule, there’s no real organized civil society, no viable alternative yet. It’s developing, but it just needs some time. So the Egyptian people need some protection. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are trying to rally support from leadership in the region to coax the guy out. We need to support and encourage efforts which protect the Egyptian people’s right to peacefully protest.
There is (understandably) a lot of skepticism from many Egyptians who are saying: here we are, putting everything we have on the line for what we believe in, for just rule, for democracy. Let’s stand with them. Please drop your Congress Member or President Obama a line (email, call, text, post on the White House’s FB Wall…). Stand with the Egyptian people.
White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/
Find your elected: http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml
December 5, 2010
The Real Egypt
Tonight, I asked Hamada (my favorite driver here in Aswan) to pick me up from home and take me into town, and for the first time he was late. When I called, he said he would be here in 10, and then he said he would call me in 10. ‘Which is it, Hamada…?’ “I’ll be there in 10…Insha’Allah.”
This means “If God wills it” and is used in a variety of ways. In this circumstance, I heard “Not really 10, more like 30”. Sure enough he was 30min late but I quickly learned why. There was havoc in the streets: thousands of people rallying around the local stadium which happens to be located across the street from the neighborhood I live in. Even though elections were last Sunday, tonight is the second part of the district electoral process. And Hamada tells me there will be some pissed off people in a few hours. This chaos stands in stark contrast to an otherwise, calm and peaceful Aswan.
I met up with Mriana and Coco at the shop located beneath her mother’s home. Mriana wanted to buy me a special gift to take home. And it is special indeed :) After that, Amr and Mayssa met up with us. We watched a wedding party in the street – the drumming was amazing – then we got Om Ali (my new favorite desert) and walked it over to the town center– basically a piazza. We enjoyed the desert on a marble bench next to the water fountains.
Amr tells me how the elections in Upper Egypt are unique because they’re based on tribal affiliation. He goes on to describe the indicators of a successful campaign here which include: family size, name and reputation; money in the bank; amount of support the candidate elicits from its party. “So, it’s like most democracies?” Basically, yes. Apparently, in Upper Egypt, compared to the rest of the country, the results are comparatively reliable. It’s like the Wild West out here – don’t F with it.
My driver called to make sure I was ready to go soon. He felt it wouldn’t be safe for me after the results were announced. So after desert, Hamada picked me up. He always stops at his brother’s shop to get me fresh sugar cane juice for the road (and never accepts my money). It comes in a plastic bag with a rubber band tied around it and a straw sticking out the top. It’s the best.
As we continue on, I witness a crazy wild west middle east scene: trucks driving around with 30 men standing up in the back, fist pumping sticks of sugarcane in the air, chanting. Hamada says “This is nothing”, it gets worse. Apparently, police were dispersing crowds with rubber bullets and tear gas. Sirens were blaring. Soon, election results will be announced and half the people will be pissed and it would be crazy. He says “This is the real Egypt.” Point taken, but this is only one crazy election night after months of calm. I point to my bag of fresh sugar cane juice and add “This is the real Egypt too.” Hamada smiles and nods.
December 4, 2010
Pharaohs with a complex
In four days, I will be returning to the States. Right now, my friend is visiting me from Rome. We’re checking out Temples, spending time floating on the Nile and catching up over tea and good food. Today, we hired a car to take us to Abu Simbel which to me is Egypt’s most remarkable site. At the Southern tip of the country (near Sudan) stands a massive monument to Ramses II, his wife Neferetari and a couple other VIPs. The statues are magnificent and massive—the man was clearly compensating for something. Four years ago, I viewed Ramses’ mummified remains at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. I remember being quite disturbed, viewing the shriveled corpse of a man who went to so much trouble to create a legend of himself. And here he was on display for this tourists pleasure, in glass case in a refrigerated room that smelled funny, all for the price of a shady, minimal baksheesh.
We left Aswan at 3am in order to be part of the caravan to Abu Simbel. I didn’t get much sleep so on our way back, I missed a few calls as I slept in the car. My favorite (and only) sister and awesome brother in law had their first child while I was off being a tourist. My nephew’s name is Jack. I get to meet him in 5 days. I’ve been anxious ever since my sister’s water broke yesterday so this news was an enormous relief. I have a nephew… I have a nephew! I am so amazed and happy.
Over the past several months, MSH has taught teams of nurses’ leadership skills and empowered them to undertake their own quality improvement project in hospitals. On Wednesday, these nurses will present the results of their team projects to each other and to key stakeholders, including the Ministry of Health and the United States Agency for International Development. Due to a last minute change in the date of the event (thank goodness!) I will be able to attend. From there, I take my flight to NYC where I will meet my 5 day old nephew for the first time. Next few days will be busy but I want to make writing a priority.
A bug situation I thankfully don't have but my classmate Anna does in Zambia.
This is 'appreciate what you have/ don't have' day
November 15, 2010
Electricity is out and it is getting hot. in here. Luckily, my laptop battery has a long life. Unfortunately, insects are attracted to light too…
I’m making progress on my project, which I’m using as my thesis. I was asked to design an instrument to measure the quality of client-provider communication in hospitals in Upper Egypt. Studies show patient centered care has been associated with improved treatment adherence and health outcomes. In addition, improving communication with patients requires little financial input. Yet it is rarely selected by nurses as a quality improvement project over infection control; one reason for this is that it is difficult to measure.
So, I’ve been conducting a literature review on the subject. There are a lot of tools out there but not surprisingly, I haven’t found much to fit the developing world context. So I’ve been working with a few local providers (nurses, nursing supervisors, and physicians) to develop a context appropriate instrument. Soon we’ll pilot it.
I was just reading my friend’s blog. She’s also an international health grad student doing her practicum in Africa right now. Her living situation sounds rough…she shares a tiny shack, rarely has electricity—basically lives in the bush and is surrounded by orphans, some with HIV. Being concerned about my groceries spoiling feels lame now. Having a fridge is a luxury. I usually have internet – HUGE luxury. I have screens on my windows. Now, they don’t do much to keep the dirt roads from sanding my apartment but at least I can say I’m living in an apartment! And my kitten didn’t just pass away, probably from an illness for which both prevention and treatment exists. So, sitting here in my dark apartment, stomach growling because I don’t want to let the cold air out of my fridge, fruit fly dancing in the light of my computer screen could be a much worse situation. This is relative Luxury, E. Ew, also just saw photos of an insect invasion at another friend’s apartment in Zambia, atrocious bug situation over there. Okay, time to show appreciation for my gas stove (not electric) and head lamp.
November 14, 2010
Life here could be simpler if I was religious
My landlord and his wife are passionate about Jesus AND they want others (ahem, me) to share this passion. Apparently, despite everything I’ve said, I am still a candidate for conversion. So, I’m getting comfortable with being very direct.
- Do you want to go to church?
- No, thank you
Asked again; still No
- Will you teach me English?
- Of course.
For our first session, an English-Arabic Bible is brought over. Sometimes pushing the boundaries is frustrating…
- Do you want to go for a walk along the Cornish (Nile)?
- Would love to.
- Church first?
- Doh! No.
We “drop by” a Christian gift shop before our walk anyway.
- Join us for supper?
Hit hard with Jesus’ love.
I’m also learning tolerance, even acceptance. I just started watching the Office and that is teaching me tolerance as well. I mean how patient is that staff? Looks like God’s work to me.
Actually, I was pleased with our tutoring session, over the Bible. Having a direct translation is useful. Plus, my formal Arabic is much better than my Upper Egypt colloquial so it’s a confidence booster as well. We help improve each other’s pronunciation and vocabulary while reinforcing our own. As long as I stay aware of my level of comfort, we’ll be just fine.
So, although there are parts that are difficult for me, I do enjoy spending time with my landlord’s family. We sit with other Egyptian families at the park at night – just the other day she took me to the street market which was particularly lively because of Eid. She negotiates prices for me, and encourages me to try new foods. Her two-year old grandson can be a sweet heart…and I always enjoy the company of her daughters in law. When I was sick, it was her husband who was knocking on my door with a stethoscope around his neck with drugs from his medicine cabinet. And if I need simple household items: salt, pepper, matches, they’ve made me feel completely comfortable with asking. So, I’m learning a lot from my landlord’s family, including how to keep things in perspective.
November 12, 2010
Awoke to doorbell ringing and propane tank clanging
Yesterday, I told my landlord that my stove was out of gas. This morning, I received a tank. I went to bed late and decided to sleep in since its Friday (start of the weekend here in Egypt). Apparently, I incorporated the doorbell ringing and wrench banging into my dream: I was sleeping when my bedroom door is flung open and I see my landlord taking pictures of me. In my dream, I get up and close the door. I’m guessing this means that even though I’m renting an apartment sometimes it still feels like I’m sharing a large house. Yesterday, when I let my landlord know that I needed more propane, I was invited to a party for their granddaughter. Samaa’s like 2 months old and sweet as can be but her and her friends can’t talk. And last time I was invited over, just a couple days ago, I endured some pretty intense criticisms about… my lack of religiosity. So I’m keeping my distance from their dinner table conversation for a while.
Wow. The propane seller’s intention was actually to wake me up this morning with the banging. I thought I trained myself to withstand it, I thought I was stronger, but alas. My landlord claimed the clanger won’t be around next week due to Eid Al-Hada (like Thanksgiving feast) so he had to catch him when he could. I can’t imagine sunrise without the wrench…and my guess is I won’t have to.
Nemo shot taken by Steve in the Cape Town Aquarium
November 11, 2010
4 weeks left
I want to photograph everything. My nerves still haven’t adapted to cars and semi’s whizzing past me, blaring their horns in my ear (and everyone else’s) for no apparent reason. When I see a group of men ahead of me and I feel like I’m being checked out, I tell myself to pick my nose. Just the act of reaching for my face in a “non-feminine” gesture and scratching, gets me out of my head, makes me feel less like a sexual object and consequently less affected. Flies still drive me crazy, can’t do much about that….apparently, countdown is inspiring introspection on the most important of matters.
I’ve officially made up with my produce seller. We’ve come a long way from me taking my money back from him and leaving my bags because I was being “grossly over-charged”. In hindsight actually, I wasn’t that over charged. I went in there with a bad attitude one day. Today, he pointed out that the persimmons were perfectly ripe (because he knows I love them). A few extra lemons and even a banana were thrown in. We’re going to be just fine, me and Mustafa. And now I’ll remember not to bargain when I’m in a bad mood.
With my hands full of produce and while shooing flies away from my face I come across the sister of the girl I tutor and her two friends, age 10 or so. Our conversation was short and I realized that I’m getting lazy with my Arabic.
Everyone at my office speaks English really well and I’ve been making less of an effort to practice. This disappoints me. BUT, my colleague Mriana just gave me some Disney movies in Arabic (Nemo, Ratatouille, Beauty and the Beast). I think she noticed my envy this past week when she came into work each day and told me the new words her one and a half year old is learning. His Arabic vocabulary is clearly growing faster than my own. But now with Nemo by my side, I’m hopeful. Bring it lil’ Coco!
November 9, 2010
On my way home, I find the propane seller just passing my front door. So, I decide to get my camera out and capture what I hear outside my bedroom window at 6am every day. The seller was with a young child and they were both pleased that I wanted to take a picture of them. I motion for them to do their thing so they banged the wrench on a tank, this time with extra fervor (I think they thought I liked it). We actually shared a nice, brief moment, and then I thanked them and walked to my door which was just a few feet away from where we were. As I enter my building, they continued to bang, even louder.
Now that they know where I live, I hope they don’t think the foreigner finds the clanging is fun.
November 8, 2010
While walking to work this morning, I met my nemesis face to face, mano y womano: the propane seller with his poor emaciated donkey (an animal abuser too!) He was making the rounds later than his usual 6a-7a shift. I saw that I wasn’t far off thinking he was using a hammer to bang on the tanks; it was actually a wrench that greets me every early morning. I stare him down (not really) and walk on.
The office was mellow. Mriana and I chatted in between work. I’m trying to get a draft for my CE (thesis). We bonded; she’s become my Egyptian sister. After work, my super kind colleague Khalid offered to drive me home and even swung by the store for me to pick up my groceries. I can usually handle walking my groceries home but not the flimsy tray of 18 eggs. I was also pleased to find a new autumn root vegetable selection: beets and carrots.
After these exciting events, I headed to my neighbors for our tutoring date. This is my first time without Andy there. The family and I chat over tea for a bit. They’re a boisterous bunch and have loud voices. I’m asked to join them in eating from a single plate as a family. And it was my least favorite dish Mulukhaya (essentially green slime—even people who love it refer to it that way). Luckily, I just ate* so we proceeded to tea.
After 20 min or so, we hit the books. My girl didn’t do the homework I gave her, I was disappointed but I didn’t show it. After about an hour, when I told her our session was wrapping up, she tried to ask me to do her HW sentences for her as they were due the next day. She still doesn’t know the alphabet and she is in an intermediate level class – how demoralizing. It’s frustrating. I’m leaving in one month and it doesn’t seem like anything I teach her is being reinforced outside our time together. I didn’t feel as uplifted as when I left last time. I reassure myself in feeling like we have a good connection though and she knows I’m proud of her. When I was saying bye to the family, the mother asked me if her daughter was a genius or an idiot. I said she’s a good learner and is better in English today than she was last week.
At home, I peeled odd shaped beets (no easy task) and washed and chopped vegetables. It’s what I can do to unwind, no matter what country I’m in. I heard the propane seller, his wrench and the donkey cart again, it’s rare for him to be out at night. The sound of his banging indicated to me a dire situation, an urgent need for money, perhaps an illness. I feel sad. I chop my vegetables to the sound of the call to prayer and find a soft spot for the propane guy.
November 7, 2010
After work, my landlord invited me to Church. Without even realizing it at the time, I pretended like I misunderstood his wife’s Arabic “You’re going to church tonight? Enjoy!” As I say bye and enter my apartment I think to myself: why not? The wife already knows how I feel about religion (Religion is a private matter). So, I’ll attend as a cultural experience, as their guest. They were just telling me about how they never get to see. So, I turn around and tell them I’m in. They were delighted.
As for the experience, I had certain expectations that I should have let go of. Eventually, I was able to get my hands on an English Bible and sort of be removed from the experience. Three hours later, my neck was sore from lowering my head the whole time and I felt generally exhausted from the experience. So now I know what one small protestant church in Aswan looks like. I’m also more appreciative for all the non-proselytizing religious people in my life. Go them!
November 5, 2010
Over the weekend, I photographed nurses at the Networking Meeting which provides nurses with the opportunity to come together and rehearse the presentations which they will be delivering to the key stakeholders in less than one month.
I feel guilty being so distracted by the kitschy power point presentation styles. There were teddy bears, roses, and one “Happy Anniversary” greeting on an infection control slide. But the most amusing creative displays were their screen savers – WHICH I took the liberty of documenting in between presentations.
At the end of these events, nurses like to take photos with the foreigner. So I’ll have around 200 photos of an event, then on the last day there are a handful of me with random (female) nurses, holding my hand, being my best friend. Then there’s the awkward male nurse who asks for a photo with me so we stand awkwardly couple feet away from one other and capture the moment. Sometimes I feel like a character at Disneyworld or a low-grade celebrity.
November 3, 2010
Well, I had a great day. With the help of my boss Amr, we designed an instrument to measure and evaluate patient-nurse communication in hospitals. On short notice I was able to conduct a very helpful key interview and made it back in time to enjoy some sweets with my colleagues. The survey is being translated by a pro as my little fingers type away. Perhaps it will encourage more nurses to choose improving patient communication as their team challenge –not that infection control isn’t a worthwhile cause but let’s branch out a bit people.
Girl Night! Whoop Whoop!
I was excited to get home today because after 30 hours of constantly interrupted downloading, I finally owned Sex and the City II. This occasion warranted opening the bottle of Patron. I actually bought this in Lebanon to share but we didn’t get into it so I had to sneak is back with me. FYI: if you ever want to get something past customs in a conservative country, throw a swimsuit and a couple pair of underwear on top of everything in your suitcase; they’ll be too embarrassed to look further. So, me and my tequila enjoyed the treat of a girl night (yep, just one).
While taking a movie intermission to make me a snack, my neighbor/ landlord must have seen my kitchen light on because she knocked on my door just then. So I opened and there she is with two books: an Arabic – English Bible and
The Lord is Near: Daily Bible Meditations for 1989. What makes this specific to 1989, I wonder. Funny timing. I hate that I lied to her but I couldn’t tell her how important this stupid movie was to me, so instead “Sorry, gotta run! Steve’s waiting for me on Skype” Steve’s SO impatient…. (if it’s opposite day)
ADHD --> What people wear
There are a lot more hijabs around than when I studied here 4 years ago. It’s understandable for Aswan to be more conservative than urban Cairo but come on, I’ve met maybe two Egyptian, Muslim women not wearing a hijab here.
I try to imagine what the peer pressure is like for a young Muslim woman, as if you’re instantly a floozy to leave the house without covering your hair. It would be like wearing assless chaps in the States, “What kind of statement is she trying to make…”
Today, I walked to work with a sleeveless knit top on. I’ve worn it a zillion times; it’s a thick, grey rectangle. The weather has changed significantly these past few days so instead of being 110 degrees its 90 degrees which is why I walked instead of taking a taxi. Passing people on the street, I felt a lot more eyes than usually on me, I felt like I had assless chaps on. Silly me. It’s winter and I’m walking around, showing off my arms, being a spectacle. After staring for a good amount of time, one man finally asked me (quite innocently) if my arms were cold.
The next day, I wore long sleeves again. Social pressure can be a real bitch.
Back to Sex and the City…my favorite part was when Samantha did the silly dance and said “Lawrence of my Labia”. The pleasure I felt while watching the movie reminded me of my old captivation with Days of Our Lives. In 5th grade I would go home for lunch almost every day to watch it. So, in other words, Sex and the City had the cred of a soap. Aaaaand I love it :)
November 2, 2010
I went with my upstairs neighbor “Captain Awesome” (aka Andy) to tutor some of the neighborhood girls. It was about a 15 second walk to their home from ours - I see these kids around all the time. Several families share a building which is typical here. As we arrived my heart sank because the mother and kids were all eating (with their hands and from the same plate) and of course they invited, no, insisted that we join. Andy handled the situation beautifully though, pointing to her stomach “I just ate, thank you, thank you”. I’m like “yeah, me too…”
After some chit chat and tea (which must precede all) we get started. Earlier Andy explained to me that she tutors two girls, both the same age but at completely different reading levels. I don’t know their ages for sure but I’m guessing they’re 8-10. The one who reads better (Zoolander flashes in my mind) explained that the two of them go to different schools and that she has a better teacher, hence her stronger reading ability. For such a young child she showed a great deal of compassion and understanding.
Andy and I sit with our girls at the dining room table and open their books. Andy’s girl was reading short sentences when mine opened her book. She knew the drill; find the page she liked and point to words she memorized on that page and recite them. When I asked her to read a word she didn’t choose, she struggled then switched to a word she had memorized. This was an ‘aha’ moment for me. Growing up with a learning disability myself, changing schools six times by 6th grade, I remembered these tricks well. In my case it was believed that it was always the teachers fault, so switch, switch, switch.
I realized I needed to work my way back with her and find out where to start. Learning Arabic from scratch helped me figure out the steps of learning a new everything: alphabet, vowels, sounds, upper and lower case or capitals and “smalls” as they called them.
So we started on the alphabet and I went out of order so she didn’t just recite. She would confuse p with b with d and then start reciting letters, hoping one would click. But with practice and attention she started learning them. It felt good to help her really understand the material and I want to learn how to do it better.
Her female relatives watched me intently as I taught the little girl. Then they brought over another girl to join us. Both are at a similar level so I think it will work for next time. The mothers insist they’re pretty much fluent in English though, kinda like Pakistani parents telling their friends their kid is pre-med if they get an A in science. My girl made real progress and appeared pleased with herself for it. I hope this is the start of her gaining confidence in her ability to learn. I hope she does the homework I gave her…
November 1, 2010
Getting to be part of cool stuff
Things happen for a reason. I worked from home today (I obtained permission of course) but I receive a call to come in ASAP and photograph a sign language instructor. I’m cranky “why don’t you give me more notice….waaaaa”. But not knowing much else, I get myself showered and presentable. This would also be a great opportunity for my neighbor to come and meet whoever it is who knows sign language in Aswan too.
When I last spoke with my neighbor (aka Capt Awesome) she was trying to find a sign language school in town and get involved. But I haven’t seen her in two weeks, and it’s such short notice, so I figure ‘next time’. But as I walk out the door, guess who is arriving home that very moment? She joined on a moment’s notice and off we went.
We catch up as we walk to the office. It sounds like they’ve been adjusting well here. They’re both teaching English, learning Egyptian sign language, exercising, researching funders for a deaf school in Aswan, kaza, kaza (amazing, right?)
We arrive at my office and find that the person I am supposed to photograph is actually her sign language tutor! In hindsight, it’s not that surprising. The deaf teaching community is like 2-3ppl here but I was excited. Maybe it was combo-excitement of seeing my colleagues: Ahmed’s wife had their baby yesterday, Dr. Abdo was back, Mriana, Khaled and Amr were all there…
It was a perfect team effort. I took photos of Mustafa (her tutor) signing common illnesses. These photos will help doctors diagnose and treat deaf patients. Andy and Amr were there to ensure that the photos matched the illness. We discussed additional common illnesses to include; Amr (and his MD) were helpful in knowing how they might manifest themselves. Andy had the perspective of keeping it simple, for example diagnosing a bladder infection: “someone is quicker to say my pee burns than my left kidney hurts; let’s have a sign for that one”. The discussion led to a great outcome and to think, all at the last minute.
November 1, 2010
I was away from my day to day in Aswan for two weeks, about a week in Luxor and in Lebanon. Here are some of my impressions from talking with the Hezbo:
Hezbollah and juice
I had the pleasure of having juice with some Hezbollah members (their treat). Despite being in the Southern Beirut neighborhood of Dahieh (a Hezbollah stronghold), I was unaware of their affiliation until after we met. Good one, E. One of the conversations we had was on the subject of women’s rights in Lebanon. Actually, this was a debate between my friend and our new acquaintance: Hussein. Hussein was critiquing the qualitative methods my friend used to gather data for the research she conducted on women’s rights in Lebanon. I defended her methods. But the debate, naïve Elena, was not on the merits of qualitative research but rather on the subject matter.
Through listening to them, I remembered and shared what I learned from my undergrad course on Feminism in the Middle East. By writing my research paper on the (direct and indirect) impacts of US intervention in Afghanistan on women’s rights, I discovered something important: critiquing women’s rights outside our culture can result in shitty foreign policy. I’ve mentioned before that focusing on the burqa distracts us from a lack of more important freedoms in Afghanistan. For example, one Afghani woman (and Parliament member) said she’s prepared to wear two burqas if it meant the rule of law would be upheld.
The hezbo gentlemen vehemently agreed with my position that “what constitutes women’s rights is subjective”. Had I known they were hezbo, I might have asked more specifically about certain issues. Wrestling with these issues, like everything, is a constant learning process; next book I want to pick up is “Half the Sky”…
Hezbollah and ice cream
My next friendly chat was at Haagen Dazs with another Hezbollah member also named Hussein. Hussein helped my friend with her research on women’s rights 5 years ago and they’ve kept in touch since. We were one and a half hour late for him (Beirut traffic sucks) so he couldn’t stay too long. But in our short talk, he shared some of his opinions relating to the foreign media. By googling him later, I discovered that he used to be Hezbollah’s “Director of Foreign Media Relations”.
Not sure what he’s up to now, he’s (understandably) private about his personal life. I asked him if he had a family and he said “Yes” but this wasn’t the wife and kids I expected, this was his extended family, his community.
Okay, so, not surprisingly:
- Over the last couple years, he’s stopped paying attention to US media because he feels it’s biased, which who are we kidding, much of it is. He feels that there are so many other sources of news and “they [the US media] need us more than we need them”, so he ignores it.
- He told me he believed Lebanon was more of a democracy than the US and that he has more freedom of speech there than we do in the US. For me, personally, I’m not going to try saying whatever I want in Lebanon as I doubt it would go over without consequence. And I noticed him guarding his words too, looking at the people sitting around us…
- To help support the above claim about freedom of speech, he recited a statistic that only 4-5 Lebanese journalists have been killed on Lebanese soil. If this is true (and a quick news search points to evidence that it’s not) it’s not the most compelling argument I’ve heard for a democracy and it reminds me of a funny story
I wanted to check out the pretty downtown I’d seen pictures of. So, in order for my friends (who weren’t fans for the Former PM) to show it to me I had to endure some criticism of the guy. For instance, even though I wasn’t keen on going, I had visit the Hariri shrine (which stands next to the stunning blue roofed Mosque – yes these are the formal names). It was a ridiculous display. The a/c poured out of highly guarded, highly expensive tent and appeared to be a colossal waste of $$$. Finally, I say something like “yep, seems like the fancy downtown is totally unaffordable for anyone except the elite to enjoy”. My friends are like “you can get in serious trouble for making a statement like that!” I zip my mouth, mostly, except to laugh at the ROLEX clock tower in the center of a silent, pristine, marbled central downtown – an area which should be swimming with people on an evening like this. The Starbucks was packed though (middle class can always afford a coffee).
- Hussein also mentioned that Dahiyeh is totally safe to walk around in and explore. Um, I have only one picture from that part of town, for a reason.
Hussein replied kindly to an email from me. I told him I’ll probably be paying more attention to the politics in the region and I’d love to be able to bounce questions off him. He’s like “Sure” So, that’s that. All in all, now I can say I had Haagen Dazs with Hezbollah.
October 30, 2010
I haven’t been as good about writing but I’ve been taking loads of pics! Currently, I’m sitting at a café at the Cairo Airport. An 8 hour layover keeps me from my home in Aswan. Every 3 minutes, I hear “Can I have your attention please?” Even though I know the delays and gate changes have nothing to do with me since I’m here for an eternity, the stupid British accent gets me every time. Lebanon was awesome. I’ll post pics. Now the announcement sound like an Indian guy, twenty-something…
Lebanon is an itty, bitty country with several distinct micro-cultures crammed in there. The location is stunning (situated on the Mediterranean Sea). I found such warm people, incredible food, and amazing sights.
- I had my palm read by the wisest 18 yr old I know. She told me I’m independent, love to travel but need my own space; a place to call home. She told me I can appreciate other’s beliefs while remaining confident in my own. She also gave me the entire series of an American sitcom which I’ll start to tackle on my evenings in Aswan.
- I ate Konaffe: an almond paste with a soft cheese topping, sliced almonds and glazed rose petals. Ooh, and the crepes at La Creperie – made time stop...
- Had ice cream and juice with a few Hezbollah members. Discovered I would make a terrible journalist, I’m like “So, what’d you do today? Do you have any kids? No? How does that make you feel?”
- I brought a bottle of tequila (el Patron) back to Egypt. We’ll see how customs in Aswan feels about my decision.
- I got to know Mayssa. A fiercely generous, hard working, sensitive and affectionate woman. Her family is kind of a big deal in Lebanon, well known and connected but she has worked her ass off to get where she is – all on her own merit. I got to see the room she grew up in with an OCD display of alphabetically organized Japanese anime and amazing cartoons & paintings she created. Trolls! She grew up with Trolls! Had fun revisiting her childhood and being reminded of my own in the process.
- I saw Jeita Grotto. Very soon, it will be one of the Wonders of the World. No cameras were allowed and I went solo so I was especially immersed in my surroundings. I did make friends with an Iraqi family there though. Me and the 14 year old were losing our minds, it was magical, amazing, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. I’m like “I can’t believe you’re only 14!” She’s like “I can’t believe you’re 29!” We’re BFFs now.
- I bought the most beautiful backgammon set... it dwarfs the one Steve bought in Istanbul (muahaha). I will cherish this set forever and school Stevie Dean with my newly acquired mad skillz.
This could go on for a while. I’ll just upload pics. Thanks for taking part in my E-Adventure. Only a few weeks to go
October 27, 2010
The Paris of the Middle East
Skipped a few days and some great conversations I want to reflect on later but I am now in Beirut. Yalla
Last night, my friend picked me up from the airport. Side note, the women looked like they stepped away from their photo shoot momentarily to pick up their loved ones: big hair, big shoes, big breasts – the makeup! Oh my, it was quite a sight. Anyway, as we drove past Beirut, I saw a prominent church and a prominent mosque nearly side by side lit up in the downtown district. Each felt equally imposing, equally powerful. Lebanon has 13 different religious sects. This is my first in-person glimpse at it.
We headed to her father’s restaurant, La Creperie, in the town Jounieh. I’d seen pictures of this place, with its stunning cliff top location and high ceilings painted fresco – the restaurant is a large, old house with several rooms. Her father started the restaurant 43 years ago and told me he was the first person to bring crepes to Lebanon back then. Now we see crepe stands dotting the streets but his restaurant is an institution here.
Funny enough, his brother lived in Santa Barbara for years and apparently started the first crepe restaurant there. I expressed excitement about Pacific Crepes in SB but quickly got the shut down; his restaurant preceded PC and there may be some strong feelings towards it. So I meet Mayssa in Egypt, although we both lived in Boston this past year. Now I meet her uncle, in Lebanon, as he just happens to be visiting from Santa Barbara. Perfectly normal
Her father is one of three brothers and it was really neat to see them all together. While taking in the view of the Med from the patio and the moon rising from the mountains we chat over perfect mezza, salads and crepes (chestnut cream and almond paste = a-ma-zing) Her family spoke in French. The brothers make fun of one another for having a hearing impairments (really, it’s just me who needed to talk louder). I listen to the Frenchies and can say things like “I have a pen. I love to play volleyball” in French.
Although Jounieh is a predominantly Christian town, Israel targeted a military building just opposite the restaurant in 2006. Her family pointed out the stones-throw location. It was unsettling to imagine bombs going off so close to their home. Her father poured his heart and life into this restaurant, I can’t imagine what it felt like to look out from the balcony we sat at and see surroundings go up in smoke. Mayssa wrote a great article about her experience being evacuated, leaving her family behind. I can’t even begin to imagine… I was in Egypt at the time of the attack and recall protests in the streets and translating headlines in my political Arabic language course. But being here I see that I was far, far away.
Got nargile (hookah/ shisha) at a café at night. Beautiful spot, delicious and smooth, made with a real apple. Weather was fantastic but the Pizza Hut sign directly in front of us annoyed the hell out of me. They have Dunkin Donuts and loads of American franchises round these parts…
I’m currently sitting in Mayssa’s formal lounge. All the seats have covers on them and I chose one facing the sun. As my friend awakes to see me downstairs writing, she tells me I’m sitting in the right spot. She points to another set of covered chairs: “these are Louiefourteen chairs”. What, Louis the IVth? She lifts the covering and I see old, slightly water damaged French antiques that were given to her grandfather. And here I thought I picked the right seat because I was facing the garden. Good thing I didn’t snap an antique. We’re not in Kansas anymore (more like Paris)
October 22, 2010
Sad face: third amigo left
But luckily, I’ll be seeing our Lebanese American friend (who works at MSH in Boston) in Beirut next week. At her farewell breakfast this morning, we chat about Lebanon and what I can expect. She asks me to bring my “going out clothes” as Beirut is known for its nightlife. I explain that I have none and may have to borrow something from her. She tells me she has miniskirts and such. “Do you wear miniskirts?” she asks. I explained to my dear friend that not since 2003. If I’m borrowing her clothes, we may need to settle for a middle ground between my Peace Corps attire these days and her hottie wardrobe and matchy earrings. In any case, I’m really looking forward to Beirut with her. Her father has an old restaurant on a cliff directly above the Mediterranean Sea, a few miles north of Beirut. I imagine we’ll spend a good amount of time there, chatting, taking in the views and the famous seafood.
October 21, 2010
My Field Supervisor asked me to do a stretching exercise for the participants in between a long day of workshops. About 60 percent of the thirty or so participants were women and all wore full hijab and conservative (yet stylin) clothing. Normally, I would suggest that we bend, stretch our hamstrings, lift our arms, jump…but these women are negotiating a lot of cloth and delicately placed pins, carefully layered to cover themselves up just so. Likewise, bending over in front of men is not culturally appropriate. So, I asked everyone to close their eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then we made circles of our arms and called it good. I thought they liked the deep breaths and I was thinking about how my yoga instructor in Santa Barbara would be so proud of me… But the next day they asked for my colleague Amr to do the stretching break; apparently, he’s better. Whatever people, just breathe
The word for etcetera in Egyptian colloquial Arabic is the cumbersome “kaza, kaza, kaza, kaza”. So, today we went over monitoring and evaluation, criteria for choosing a good indicator, timelines, kaza, kaza, kaza, kaza. Gets me every time
October 20, 2010
I took a day trip to the incredible Hatshepsut Temple with my lovely colleague Mrianna, her husband Osama and their son Kirril “Coco”. This is actually my third time here: once with American University of Cairo and once with Steve in 2006. The structure is carved, in part, from the cliff. And the bright paint, 3,000 years old, still amazes me.
My second archeological adventure was to the Luxor Temple. Upon the Governors invite (ooh-la-la), my colleagues and I attended the Karnak Light Show…along with 1000 other English speaking tourists. It was pretty cool, for being a kitschy, cheesy display of ridiculousness. I enjoyed running around taking pics.
No Egypt visit is complete without a horseback ride through an Egyptian Village. My sweet horse was named Rashmaya. On the ride, I found out the little lady was so “quiet” (read: slow) because she was 3 months pregnant. Actually, the conversation went like this, in Arabic.
Me: She’s not fast.
Companion on Donkey: She has baby, only 3 months, very small.
Me: OMG. So cute, where?
He: In her stomach.
So, I enjoyed my leisurely stroll through the village.
October 18, 2010
Search for wifi leads to a new Bakersfield friend
I leave a staff meeting to try and find wifi to do some research. My colleague told me about a place with free wifi so I ask the front desk for directions. I am explicitly told it’s a 2 minute walk and provided with straightforward directions. Eventually I find myself in drenched in sweat in a semi-hectic spot with not a tourist in sight. Since I was headed to “Snack Time” next to McDonalds, I figured I’d see some non-Egyptians but I was the only one in sight. So, I ask for directions.
This man looked harmless enough. He says he’s walking in the direction I’m going so he’d show me. Even though there were a thousand people around, it was broad daylight, and he refrained from doing anything culturally inappropriate, my “please don’t tell me I’m like a sister to you” guard was up. After I told him I was from America he tells me his brother is there. I don’t respond. Then he says he lives in California so I bite, “where’s he from?” Bakersfield, he replies. This conversation is taking place in Arabic by the way.
Apparently, his brother is a pharmacist in a prison, he works like a dog, and our bankrupt State cut his salary was cut by 10%, all according to my new friend. He also has a family, and two homes (he is having a hard time trying to get rid of the second one.) Yep, sounds like Bako. This is too much of a coincidence so I want to share contact information. I mean public health, Bako, Upper Egypt – so I ask him if he has a family (as I assumed) but he didn’t. So, I told him I have a husband and we would love to meet him and his brother next time we are all there. I gave him my card, who knows. Small world in any case
Nothing is free
30 min later, I make it to Snack Time. I confirm with the cash register guy that there is free wifi so I buy and over priced bottle of guava juice. Internet ends up not working and the Manager recommends I go to McD’s next door, as there’s nothing else terribly close. So to McD’s I head. I immediately check wifi first (before purchasing unwanted drink), it worked. So I bought a small (but it was huge) vanilla milkshake, and proceeded to the webs. Wifi didn’t work. Drank milkshake in vain, headed to shanty wifi spot down the road, shocker, it was “2 min” away. Sat down, tried the connections. Had ten year old girl laugh at my Arabic. Got my money back because that didn’t work either. Finally took taxi home and decided some retail therapy may help overcome feelings of defeat.
A few days earlier, I identified this awesome hookah I wanted at a shop below the hotel we were staying at. In Aswan, it was 4-times the price. So I sit down, and talk to my new friend Hamid. I ask him about Backgammon sets as well, he sends his friends out to bring some back. All these drinks are settling in and I need to go use the ladies but I’m not going back to my room without my hookah, I deserved it. And I might as well add on my favorite game, since I’m there. So, I wait and chat it up with his colleague. The backgammon was still pricey so I decided to take the hookah only. But when I asked for coals (as I intended to smoke the water tobacco pipe on my balcony), I learned that the hotel doesn’t allow them to sell coals anymore and the reason the price was so discounted was because the hookah didn’t actually work, “it’s for decoration only”. For a salesman who is highly conversant in 5 languages, he really failed to communicate that to me.
So, I bought the stupid, pretty thing anyway and ran up to my hotel room. The cleaning guy was in there and told me it would be 2 min. I tried to be patient but he was literally like that jewelry salesman in Love Actually, doing the most unnecessary things and being so pleased with himself while doing them…he was wiping down the top of the door and the handles of the sliding door as I squirmed. Finally, I tell him he has to leave and I close the door behind him. 2 hours, £65 Egyptian Pounds, and 2 liters of sugar water later no “free” wifi but I do have a better understanding of the 2 min rule.
The Egyptian language has the dual so you can say a word in singular: girl or bint in Arabic; plural girls or binat; and dual by adding “een” or “ayn” the end. Maybe Arabic speakers have an obsession with 2’s… (?) Okay, this is a stretch, even for me.
October 17, 2010
Away on a work trip
Started the day off wrong:
- Too little sleep, shuttle arrived earlier than expected
- Made terrible, cranky first impression to my awesome colleague’s super preggo wife
- Tried to sleep in front to avoid carsickness on 3 hr drive from Aswan to Luxor (rural-y route)
- Overheard phone conversation in shuttle in which my Boston-based field supervisor asked the project manager first who I was and then why I was going to Luxor with the rest of the team
- In general, feeling insecure and lacking purpose on our first week long work trip
At night, I enjoyed a beer (first in weeks) on the hotel patio overlooking the Nile and came to terms a few things:
- This event is not about me. I’m here to help, so just be useful
- Don’t be so concerned with an itinerary; go with the flow
- Appreciate my wonderful local colleagues for obtaining approval for my accommodations in exchange for photographing the events
- My feelings of insecurity after what I heard are completely valid
- Ahmed’s wife doesn’t think I’m an asshole
- In general, get out of my head
A New Day
I rested well and started the next day feeling much better, lighter. I got to catch up with my Field Supervisor who introduced me to a colleague as a PhD student. I corrected him, as I am doing my Masters, to which he replied “Really?” Actually, I suspected this.
A week before I arrived in country, I was sent a rather large study that was done in Kenya by one of the leading M&E experts. In a sentence or two, my Field Supervisor asked me to contact the expert and ask to work with her to design something like that for Egypt. The expert and I agreed that approvals for the study could take anywhere up to a year. So now, I am working with her and the IPN M&E Advisor on a case control study for the project expansion which is taking place over the next couple years.
I questioned the impression I gave him at our first, and only, person to person meeting. Apparently, I did well.
My Field Supervisor inquired about how the practicum is going which gave me an opportunity to brag about how fabulous the local team is. Most of them didn’t really know who I was or why I was coming. Yet, when I arrived they opened up their office, homes, family—lives to me. They instantly made me a part of their office family and eventually their individual families as well. I am so touched and hope that one day I can offer the same hospitality to them.
My local colleagues have already embarrassed me thoroughly with compliments to the Boston MSH higher ups. The first day we’re all together, one of them flat out said: “MSH should hire Elena when she graduates”. I’m like ‘thanks for not making this awkward, guys…’ It’s going to be hard to leave in just 5 short weeks.
The Senior Alignment Meeting in Luxor was a success. Key stakeholders, including the beloved Governor, attended and offered his full support to the project. The three msh amigos (Me, Mayssa and Amr) closed our day by jumping into the hotel pool just before the sunset. We played like ten-year olds on a relaxed summer day. The pool floats on a pontoon in the Nile River. The sun set just behind a group of palm trees on the other side. We were the last ones to leave the water, pruned and content.
October 16, 2010
New neighbors moved into the apartment above me. I actually heard their American accents last weekend when they were checking out the place and got pretty excited (they’re actually Canadians). Not a lot of expats (ahem, any) in Aswan and my weekends are pretty lonely in my new place, away from town center.
Our landlord invited us all over to meet for tea. The couple and their 4 year old girl recently left Sudan due to the political unrest. Their daughter greeted me with a handshake and when I said “it’s nice to meet you Leila” she looked at her mother and said “she speaks English?” It was too cute; I wanted to say the same thing! Leila is well on her way to mastering Arabic.
The mother works with the deaf in so many capacities (grant-writing, education, training…). Random fact: I learned that sign language is not universal; there are national sign languages -- American, Sudanese, Egyptian, etc. And further regional dialects within any given country. This makes sense, I just never really thought about it.
Leila’s Mother and I are going to start running together when I get back to Aswan. Apparently the stadium down the street has ‘women only’ days. She seems hard core: starts at 6am and is training for a marathon. She even mentioned a 100k run she wants to do “Yeah, it’d be such a great way to raise money…” I’m thinking it would be a great way to seriously hurt myself. So, she’s kind of Captain Awesome, we’ll see if I can keep up. Well, I know I can’t keep up so let’s see if I can just get up in time to go with her at 6am.
That Egyptian Hospitality
My boss had myself and a couple colleagues over for dinner. A car was sent to pick us up in Aswan as he lives 40 min out of town and none of us drive. We didn’t know where we were going; all we knew was that we weren’t going to his home just yet. We meet him on a random street then we drive elsewhere…I decide to stop asking about the evening ahead and just allow myself to enjoy the surprise. To my delight, we arrive at Kom Ombo Temple which is beautiful lit up at night. The area is pretty quiet – 8p is still too early for Egyptians and too late for tourists. Dr. Abdo took us to a shop to pick out galibayas (traditional Egyptian dress) for ourselves. Despite my best attempts, he and the shopkeepers would not take my money. The man’s generosity is unparalleled.
After gift shopping for ourselves, we headed to his home for one of his wife’s famous meals. She made rose bi leben especially for me (my favorite Egyptian desert: rice pudding) and it was sooo delicious. We played with his grandson, Bilaal, drank tea, and then headed back to Aswan satiated and sleepy.
October 14, 2010
Something that has been hanging over my head for months has been extending my visa. I arrived with a 30 day visa with the understanding that I could extend it every thirty days for $15 fee up to three months. I was told I had to do this in Cairo and since Cairo is a couple hundred kilometers away, I was concerned.
During the past few months, I also heard different things from different people at Egyptian Embassies in different countries. Thankfully this week, the Logistics Manager offered to take me to the local visa authorities. And to our delight, I could renew there for two additional months for only US$2.50. This was great news. Ahmed did all the talking. I threw in a sentence here and there, smiled, but for all intents and purposes did my best to look like someone you want to help, like a friendly kitten.
The things I picked up from their talk were interesting; it didn’t seem like “visa talk” at all. For instance, he had to assure her of my Pakistani origins over and over again. He also provided himself as a reference; we called my landlord and got him on the phone too. He had to delineate his professional background and then I started to get concerned. At this point, I was too tired to continue trying to understand the Arabic conversation so I just paid attention to tone and body language. And it didn’t look great. Judging by the tone of the woman helping us, she was pleading and his body language said he was displeased with her request. We leave and then Ahmed explains to me the favor she asked of him.
Of course, I’m assuming it’s a bribe. After all, this was too good to be true. I’m thinking that I will have to forfeit my extension because I refuse to bribe someone so that I can work for free in their country (right?) Shit, this means I have to leave soon…my worried mind races. But instead she asked him to run an errand for her: just pick up a letter from her son’s school because she couldn’t leave work. It was a cute bribe, no money involved. Ahmed explains that small favors in this small town are ordinary. We picked up the letter for her, it took 15 minutes in total, and then we got the passport with stamps to allow me to stay here another couple months. Only cost me US$2.50.
On Saturday, I leave for Luxor for one week with the office. I’ll be attending the trainings and the Senior Alignment Meeting with MSH staff (both local and Boston), nurses, hospital administration and Government officials. It’s a big deal. My colleague had a suit made for it. Lucky for me, I have a suit with me. A hand-me-down from my attorney sister, apparently black with pink pin stripes wasn’t appropriate for her firm anymore. My suit and I are excited to go to Luxor for a week and be in the action of the trainings. Also, it will be nice to put faces with the research especially since there’s no guarantee that I will get to see its conclusion. Away we go!
October 13, 2010
The coolest taxi driver in Aswan
My taxi driver today was too cool for school. At 9 am, his pop music blared in our otherwise quiet neighborhood. He wore big aviator sunglasses, a crisp white galibaya (traditional Egyptian male dress) with a snazzy sheer floral design. He has ALL the fuzzy accoutrements in his ride: fuzzy dice, fuzzy dashboard, fuzzy seats, fuzzy tissue box cover (?) Inspirational quotes are cut and taped on everything from the ceiling to the fuzzy tissue box cover. During our short drive to work, on several occasions, he played around with pedestrians and drivers and pretended he was going to run them over. I’m terrified of course, until I see looks of horror shift to laughter when the poor people realize it’s their pal, Johnny Good Vibes just having some fun. I was cracking up all the way to work thanks to my pop star taxi driver.
Activities are starting up for the IPN project expansion in Luxor and Qena. So, we have visitors from the DC and the Boston HQ coming to Egypt. Earlier in the week, I tagged along with two of my colleagues to get plants and rugs for the office. We warmed up the place; the plastic even came off the chairs around the boardroom table. During our shopping in town, I made a request for rose bi leben (rice pudding) to the Logistics Manager. To my delight, he actually offered me his mother’s homemade rose bi leben. So, after shopping, we head to his mother and fathers home for some delicious goodness. His mother couldn’t have been sweeter. She told me their home is my home and offered me everything from her homemade cooking to her washing machine. She also gave me one of those long hugs which is usually reserved for family. This coupled with her delicious rose bi leben, made me feel warm and fuzzy all over.
Good hugs in a foreign country are not always easy to find and greetings vary widely from place to place. In S Africa, Afrikaners greet one another with a kiss on the lips. Here, I’m lucky if a man will shake my hand. So, this heartfelt affection was much appreciated.
At the office, I got to meet one of the Boston team members. We've corresponded via email but never met. Being the nosy office that we are, her (very cute) profile picture from facebook may have been viewed by our office before she arrived…
So, as we’re all getting acquainted, she asks us what we expected her to look like and since we all already knew (thanks to the book), there was silence. Then she asked me directly and I said “pretty much as you are.” I felt this was honest. I’ve heard some interesting comments about what colleagues expected me to look like: a Blonde, Oprah Winfrey…of “Pakistani origin” never came up apparently.
Practicing my Arabii
Yesterday on the flip chart, my office had me write their names in Arabic, and then we started on simple sentences. This Arabic thing is coming along, slowly but surely. I’m practicing more, even with Yasmina, my bumble bee who makes me the most amazing drinks. I found that she’s actively trying to learn English as well so we're helping each other. She encourages me by telling me my efforts are “beautiful”.
My apartment is on the ground floor next to a Mosque. The call to prayer is beautiful, but really, really loud. And at five times a day, frequent. There’s also a donkey-cart that makes the rounds from 6a – 7a selling propane tanks. Just to make sure we all know he’s there he shouts, and if that’s not enough, he bangs on the tanks with what sounds like a hammer. Each morning, I want to throw something at him. After three weeks in this place, he hasn’t turned to white noise and I can’t stick my ear plugs in far enough to keep them from falling out by his morning rounds.
In other news, I've been having a lot of fun with my camera lately (thanks Steve). I had a couple fun outings with colleagues and have been enjoying cooking (albeit for one) with the fresh local produce I get to buy from the shops and donkey-cart on my street. Unlike the propane guy, the donkey-cart produce seller respects people’s sleep.
October 7, 2010
It’s been a good week; my health is on the mend. My Egyptian father isn’t knocking on my apartment door anymore with his stethoscope and a sad look on his face “Elena, you don’t sound good, is there anything you need, can I listen to your lungs?” Now, he just knocks to as if I need anything in general. I can’t remember a landlord or neighbor I’ve ever had show half as much concern for me as he and his wife.
At the office, we had a coaching meeting. Nurses and department heads from the hospitals in our governorate (“county”) came together in our office to share the progress of their quality improvement projects at their respective hospitals. The meeting, like all I attend, was conducted in Arabic. I’m disappointed that my once decent language skills aren’t coming back as fast as I hoped. The M&E Advisor is teaching the nurses how to collect and report data about their individual projects and the nurses are actively participating and asking loads of questions. I think back to how I grasped these concepts in my epidemiology class and I want so badly to be able to jump in but with my poor Arabic language skills, I can’t.
One of the things I love about this project is educational aspect of it. After years of struggling with school myself, I was diagnosed with a learning disability (dyslexia) in my early 20’s. With university and community resources, I developed study strategies and eventually I started to get grades I’d never seen on my transcripts before. Helping someone learn is a gift. I may not be able to teach nurses epidemiology in Arabic, but I’m looking into volunteering a day/ week to teach them English. Hopefully, I’ll have more on that.
Actively paying attention to the Arabic during the meeting gets tiring after a while. Not only that, but we have 13 people squeezed around a boardroom table which normally seats 6 and the power is out so it’s close to 100 degrees in there. I’m looking at a nurse in a burqa thinking she must be dying right now. My mind wanders…”on the plus side, her skin is protected from the sun; I bet she has great skin, ooh, flies can’t sit on her face”. I think about a great article I recently read in the NY Times about the Afghani parliament member who said she’s ready to wear 2 burqas if her government can provide security and rule of law. If that’s the only freedom she has to give up, she’s down to wear the inconvenient thing. The West has an obsession with the burqa that distracts us from a lack of more important freedoms.
So, after the meeting, the nurse (in the burqa) introduces herself to me. She lifts her veil after she sees I have difficulty understanding her. We have a nice conversation, all she wanted to do was welcome me and give me her number in case I need anything at all. After our conversation, I feel that she’s more liberal and cool than most people who claim to be liberal and cool are. Just because she wears a burqa, I assumed she might be conservative and closed off. I’m constantly faced with my subconscious prejudices having light shed on them. I guess that’s the hardship and the gift of travel.
I started taking taxis to work because walking to work, as much as I like walking, in triple digit temperatures is stupid. Plus, a taxi costs less than a dollar so no excuses. My driver was listening to prayers on his radio or cassette. The song was soothing and his demeanor was very serene. Our short drive to the office set the tone for a peaceful day. However, this calm was tainted with a feeling of sadness: this is a side of Islam that many Westerners don’t get to see.
Maybe if everything I knew about Islam came from the media, I might think they were all terrorists too. 25% of the world is Muslim, around 1.5 billion people. Any way you cut it, the percentage of Muslims that are terrorists is less than a half of half of one percent. That’s beside the point that, at least for me, the people claiming to be terrorists aren’t really Muslims. Similarly, nuts who bomb family planning clinics and Terry dumb-dumb who wanted to burn a Quran – doesn’t represent Christianity to me. Fact is, most Muslims are quietly living their lives, working hard for their children, craving education and opportunity. At this juncture, we’re stuck with some pretty bad stereotypes about Islam but I’m confident this crazy time will pass, it usually does.
After the taxi ride, I jumped into the office feeling cheerful and centered. One of my colleagues, shared pictures of her sister’s wedding with me so I showed her pictures of my sister’s wedding. The office told me I have a beautiful family and were joked about how Steve will “kiss the bride” one day given our quite large height differential. I feel closer to them each day. After work, my co-worker tells me that she doesn’t want Dec 8 to come (the date I return to the US). I feel cared for and saddened, I won’t want to leave them either. I guess I've come to terms with the fact that what hasn’t happened hasn’t happened. And I'll have to cross that bridge eventually anyway, so I just need to enjoy this experience as it happens…working on it :)
October 3, 2010
I caught a nasty little cold and spent the past few days taking it very easy. Usually, my neighbor (“Egyptian father”/ Baba – I think we’ll call him Baba…?) knocks on my door to check in; he asks if I need anything. And I’m usually fine. This time, I needed drugs, I needed to know where to put my trash, and I needed to know when the bloody power was going to come back on. Since he’s my landlord, happens to be a Doctor and is a kind a patient man, he could help. He insisted on supplying me from his own medicine cabinet. So, I looked up the active ingredients, they will work. And then he broke me the bad news: a/c could be out of reach for hours and the trash goes...
We live in a middle class, Egyptian neighborhood in Aswan and two doors down from us is an empty lot the size of a home. There’s a giant dirt hole with bags of trash sitting in it. He tells me to drop the bag into the green bin. Now, I’ll attach a photo but as you can see the green bin is a joke. Disappointed but helpless, I tell him I’ll take it over and he says to me “Elena, are you going to go dressed like that?” My arms and lower legs are visible, and I’m thinking “yeah, I’m taking out the trash.” I think he sees this “Give me a break?” look on my face because he tells me “There are Muslims here!” I’m like “I know, we’re in EGYPT” but again, this was in my head. He continues to tell me how I am like his daughter and I tell him I appreciate him telling me these things.
So, I add a couple more layers to go out into the 200 degree weather (when no one else is out) to take my trash to a bin that just gets dumped into the giant hole next to it. I do this even though I saw women wearing short sleeve shirts on our street earlier that same day. Although Aswan is more conservative than Cairo, I think “Baba” overreacts. Last night, he even asked me not to stay out late when I left the house at 6p to have dinner with friends. When I got home at 8p, I actually wondered if he would consider this late. The last thing I want to do is bring shame to their Christian family! Back to the trash, I want to find an NGO that will make a pitch to the local Governor (or higher-up) about composting. In a quick, simple google search (Egypt solid waste disposal) I found several reports and press releases which say this may work here…anyway, got a good lead from a friend and we’ll see what happens.
I really appreciate the way the local MSH office is run. They (I guess we :) maintain a teamwork/ family environment while getting business done. Culturally, it’s a mishmash. Everyone has an office but most of the work is done around the boardroom table, working alongside one another. There are daily meetings organized around delegating tasks. The atmosphere at the meetings is comfortable enough to address challenges there and then. My colleagues respectfully refer to one another as Doctor during the meeting but are casual (while maintain respect) after. Today, the adorable grandson of Dr. Abdo, Bilaal, joined the table for the last meeting of the day. The electricity goes in and out; the temperature fluctuates in what feels like 20 degree swings. We drink our tea and the special drinks made for us. Our drinks are enjoyed alongside a cake baked by another colleague at home. I flinch every time someone’s loud as hell cell phone goes off – (one thing I may never get used to is the frequency and volume with which Egyptians allow to their mobile phones to violate each others’ ears). And at the end of the day, we all pile into our boss’s car as he drops each one of us off at our respective homes.
Last night, before going to bed I took the medication Dr. Baba gave me without thinking about the caffeine content. I didn’t sleep a wink. I got a late start walking to work this morning and realized the poor condition that I was in when I heard myself actually whimper because a fly sat on my forehead. I arrived at work drenched in sweat, tired and hacking up the remaining phlegm. But by the end of the day, I left feeling pretty good. I guess that’s the power of a positive work environment.
September 30, 2010
On my birthday, I went to work. Plans with the PM’s daughters fizzled. Most of the office had to run to Luxor but I chose to stay in Aswan. At around Noon, I had a lovely Skype date with my old roommate, Glynn. She made my favorite desert, stuck a candle in it and sang me happy birthday. I told her that’s sweet and kind of cruel; so she agreed to feed me when I return to Boston. I read with amazement all the wonderful bday posts on facebook, updated status to “b-day rocks. My colleagues were very sweet and one of them brought me tea because “I shouldn’t have to do anything on my birthday”. After work, at around 3p, my boss gave me a ride home. My neighbor/ “Egyptian mother” (I’ll never get used to that) had invited me to have lunch with her family.
We had fish, whooooole fish. For someone who loves her seafood, I am embarrassingly uncomfortable with my fish having a face. Sometimes, when I’m peeling shrimp (or any shelled fish for that matter) I freak myself out; I imagine the thing moved or something and have to stop eating, that or I ask someone else to pull the meat out for me. At the table everyone slaps a whole grilled fish on their plate, so I follow suit. Ugh, picking up that limp, whole fish—that texture…it really weirded me out. My only utensil is a large spoon so I try to detach the head from the body with it, unsuccessfully. Everyone else is going in with their hands; even the two year old isn’t having a problem. I realize this isn’t going to happen to I try to formulate in my head how I’m going to ask this family to remove the meat from the fish for me in Arabic. Of course, I’m mortified to ask (I’m turning 29 today for God sake) but it was the only choice I had. So, I communicated something in my broken Arabic and was brought a fork and a knife. It wasn’t what I was hoping for but I was able to work with the fish AND it turned out to be delicious.
When in need of dinner conversation, religion and politics are best.
I couldn’t tell if this was a family that usually eats in silence or just didn’t want to speak in Arabic around me out of respect. Egyptians aren’t shy people so I tried to make conversation. The two-year old runs to the TV and starts dancing to the music. I say, “I see someone loves music!” His mother replies “its Christian music”. I say “Ah.” Silence…
(What can we talk about? The family is proud of their faith - the father even asked to have a discussion about religion sometime. Now, I hoped this would never happen but out of desperation…)
I start telling them about one of my Arabic language Professors at UCSB. She’s Egyptian and taught me all about the food and culture in the Middle East; she’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had and without her I may not have developed the fascination with the country that led me to study here four years ago. AND, she also happens to be….Coptic! Heyo! I immediately realize this is a ridiculous statement. So, understandably the family is confused. The mother tells her daughters-in-law, in Arabic, that she has a hard time understanding my Arabic. She also tells her she wants to give me the Bible. Nap time! Thank you, thank you, it was all delicious (it really was and if it wasn’t for my awkward conversation starter I couldn’t have probably stayed but I just wanted to be alone) nap time, cough.
A fabulous birthday in Egypt
So, I had the rest of my birthday all to myself. The thing that sounded good to me was turning the a/c on high, lights off, and watching episode after episode of Entourage. I refrained from the internet; I just wanted to indulge in pure Vinny Chase entertainment. There’s my fabulous Egypt b-day. I grilled veggies for dinner, chatted with Steve, and before going to bed, polished off the second season.
September 29, 2010
Turning 29 on the 29th! Today is actually yesterday, it’s early am here…looks like I am adjusting to the night owl schedule. Being the first day in my new apt, a 15 min walk from work, I headed out at about 9a this morning. I took a shortcut which was my first mistake, my second mistake was asking someone along the way if I’m headed in the right direction and my third mistake was actually believing the fool when he told me that my office is in the opposite direction of where I was walking. Turns out, I was on the right track all along so I did a couple laps. Luckily, it was only 110 degrees outside and I was wearing jeans and a long sleeve shirt. I wasn’t at all pissed. I like starting my day like that. I arrived at the office 45 min later (I refused to take a taxi on my first day) and I stood in front of the a/c for a while to cool off.
That steep learning curve
I read manuals and guides and published papers and studies for…7 hours today. I feel smarter but damn, that was a lot of reading. My landlord/ Egyptian “Mother” knocks on my door around 8p and invites me for tea. I met one of her daughters in law and her 18 day old granddaughter, who is perfect. Johnny, the other grandson, I guess my Egyptian nephew (?), hung out as well. Johnny is two years old and kept pointing his plastic gun at his sleeping niece and shooting. It was mildly awkward “ha-ha, okay that’s enough Johnny, um, that’s enough!” The mother invites me to town with her; she wants to do some shopping. It’s around 8:30/9p by now – this is when the Egyptians come out! We go get her granddaughter some clothes. I’m taking photos of her and Johnny looking at the crazy display of little people outfits and she tells me to not speak English because it will harm her chances of getting good price. I put my camera away and did my best to walk and talk like an Egyptian. I think she got “very nice price!” We get vegetables at the souk (market) –I must have spent only $16 on loads and loads of produce. She’s a wheeler and dealer, didn’t let me speak a word to the clerks but got the best prices ever (20 cents for a curry; 20 cents for lemons 8 lemons; $3 for 30 organic, free range eggs…) When we were at the street market (which was packed by 10p on a Tues nt) I heard my name! I was so excited, I’m still excited. My colleague Mriana was there with her son, mother and sister in law. We had a quick greeting, I really adore her. I knew someone in town – so exciting.
On our way home, Johnny sat in my lap. We clapped and I tickled him. My Egyptian mother isn’t necessarily the best driver out there. Children and horse drawn carriages whiz past us. A couple young boys hop on the back of one of the carriages, near the wheel, where the guy can’t see. So dangerous…the mother says to me “No in America”, I shake my head. I put my seat belt on around me and little Johnny in my lap, we clap and giggle.
September 27, 2010
Moved into my new digs
I moved into my apartment in Aswan today. It’s an apartment in a small building owned by a Doctor and his wife – the building is their home. They have requested that I treat them like my mother and father while I am here and have given me hugs already, like family-hold-on hugs. They have three sons so I think they’re excited it’s a girl. They’re very kind, very warm people and I think I’ll be happy here these next couple months. Oh! I also made friends with the neighborhood shopkeepers: Mustafa and Amina. I don’t think they overcharged me so this is going to be the start of a beautiful relationship.
This will be a short paragraph. Kidding, I’m actually really lucky to have a community here. I’ve had several delicious meals with colleagues and their families. Mostly, we eat a big meal, smoke shisha, play backgammon. I haven’t had a glass of wine (or any alcohol for that matter) since S Africa. Last month, I lived with a friend from home on a wine farm in Stellenbosch (wine country outside Cape Town). I think we enjoyed enough wine to last a while though.
My Supervisor told me I did a great job on the quarterly report, and that felt really good. It turned out to be more challenging than I initially anticipated but that’s mainly because of the steep learning curve of getting up to speed on any new project. Today, I selected photos for the report. I’m proud that they’re photos I’ve taken this past week at the two hospitals I visited. I spent today starting on a long reading list from our M&E guru; the docs are perfect to bring me up to speed on the Monitoring and Evaluation framework for the Leadership Development Program. All in all, work is going well.
Bilaal is the Project Manager’s grandson. He is a year and a half and has a curly Mohawk. I adore Bilaal so you can imagine when he came into the office today, I was excited. I put Finding Nemo on my laptop and we focused on clapping and giggling. Everyone in the office (it’s a small office, but everyone) enjoyed Bilaal’s visit and hung out with him. The work atmosphere is really personable, which I appreciate. Speaking of work environment, the schedule differs in Egypt. Our work day is from 9a – 3p. Egyptians rest from in the late afternoon until the evening, around 9p. Then a large meal is consumed, the night owls stay up until the early morning, chatting, drinking tea – on a weekday! Friday’s are off as are Saturdays. Our office doesn’t always get Saturdays off though because hospitals are busiest then. So, my new landlords/ Egyptian parents were very confused when told them that I might be asleep by the time they get back from Church – at around 11p and that perhaps we should arrange another time to have tea. I’ll find a way to adjust.
September, 23, 2010
First hospital visit in Egypt
Today, I visited a hospital about an hour away. The purpose of the visit was three-fold: collect data from nurses on the progress of their QA projects, connect with the local “Coach” and film the nurses speaking about the program and its impact on care. Everyone spoke in Arabic of course and I listened, understanding words here and there. My colleagues would translate pieces for me and I was introduced to all the hospital staff that was present. I took photographs of the nurses giving presentations. One nurse talked about the number of wheelchairs in the hospital increasing from 2 to 13. The Challenge Model empowered the nurses to bring in businesses and wealthy families to donate funds for this purpose. Two different nurses learned sign language for the hearing impaired patients. Success stories like these are abundant. One of my favorite pictures from today is of the next generation of LDP nurses; the rookies to the program. One of the young women is so adorable; I’ll have to post a picture of her.
I was able to chat with the Project Manager for a while. I learned about how he trained at this hospital in the 1970’s, became Assistant Physician, Physician, Department Head, Hospital Head, District Head and now he’s at MSH although he still gets calls to come in for patients. He’s not boastful but proud and just loves his work. Even after retiring, just the other day, he was able to save the life of a mother of five. I’m eager to look up his articles on reducing maternal mortality which is his specialty. Apparently the maternal mortality rate in the District has dropped significantly in correlation with the IPN project. I knew the PM was wonderful but I had no idea until our talk today. He went out of his way to translate for me while encouraging people to practice Arabic with me. And he drove far out of the way to show me the sugar cane fields because I was asking about them. Apparently Egypt, and the small town of Kom Ombo specifically, is the largest exporter of sugar cane in the continent. Who knew? In addition to everything else, we enjoyed an incredible feast at his home this afternoon and met his wife and children (and children’s children). His daughters, who are my age, chatted me up. The eldest daughter, who is most comfortable with her English asks me how old I am, I say 28 but 29 on Wednesday. So she invited me to their home on Tuesday night to celebrate my birthday with them and I’m really looking forward to it. As he sent us off, he said “you are part of my family now”. I feel so welcomed and positive about my time here.
When I returned home today I received a call from an international number but could hear only static. Thinking it was Steve, I talk nonsense and make crazy bird calls. The call hangs up and rings again, this time from a D.C. area code, I’m mildly mortified - it’s the M&E guru whose work I admire greatly. We talked and as usual she was articulate and brilliant. Luckily, she couldn’t hear anything I said the call earlier (I asked). Thankfully, she will still help this young Jedi on her journey to M&E enlightenment.
September 22, 2010
These are a few of my favorite things…
Last night, I had fresh sugar cane juice, apple shisha and rose be leben (rice pudding). Everything was good except the pudding…but that didn’t stop me from finishing it to the last bite. I even ate it with a plastic spoon that had sharp edges and cut my lip each time I took a bite. I read the most recent quarterly report last night and learned that a large part of evaluation is report writing.
I checked out a rental today and brought my team of negotiators with me: the new financial manager and the logistics coordinator. The home is a short walk from work and in a family neighborhood. The family that owns the duplex was all homes, the parents, the kids, the kids’ kids. The family live across the hall from the one they are renting out. They reminded me of the Egyptian families in the Al Kitaab series (my Arabic language textbooks). There were doilies on everything, plastic flowers, strong aromas of Egyptian food, a toddler running around…and they were very warm people. They seem like the type of people who would feed me too…
Tonight, I had grilled fish and fresh mango juice. I played backgammon with my colleague and had my ass handed to me, three times. I didn’t smoke shisha, I can’t make it a habit here. My Arabic vocab is returning to me VERY slowly (I guess it has only been 3 days) but I’m reading a bit and understanding more (Alhamdulillah). The Quarterly Report is coming along and tomorrow I visit my first hospital in Egypt.
September 21, 2010
First day on the job…
I took the public transport in for my first day of work, cost 1 EGP (20 cents). The office is located on the third or fourth floor of a walk up about 10 minutes drive from town. The building has charm, a few offices, a kitchen and a bathroom; it’s pretty standard. The board room has 8 chairs, snuggly fit around a table in a cozy room. The chairs still have plastic on them; the office looks new. I met everyone today and was greeted warmly at the staff meeting. There’s the M&E Specialist, resident joker, and now also my supervisor. The administrative assistant/ maker of perfect tea is a very sweet woman. Her hijab was striped black and bright yellow and her outfit matched perfectly. She reminded me of a bumble bee. The executive assistant to the project manager is simply lovely. During the staff meeting, I was thinking of ways to ask her on a friend date. She can tutor me in Arabic, we can shop together…I was daydreaming of friend love. The logistics coordinator is a helpful, cheerful and very kind person. Then there’s the project manager. In addition to being an admired boss, devoted family man, and in effective in several places at once, I heard he has a goal of performing surgeries a couple hours a day because it makes him feel alive. Good person.
I gave myself a stupid introduction at the staff meeting. I really need to think about what I’m going to say in those situations because winging it isn’t treating me so well. I learned that I will be working on the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) plan for the project. My current task is to prepare the quarterly report which will be used (after several drafts) for the project funder (USAID). I was pretty excited to be asked to do this, I think it’s a great way to get an overview and dive in at the same time. Plus, my supervisor has 3 reports to write this week so he needed a hand and this was the only one in English. E to the rescue!!!
After work, at around 3p, we all walk outside the office. There are six of us plus the project manager’s daughter and his grandson – so seven and a baby. We need to fit into a sedan. It appears that he sometimes provides rides to staff after work. So, I’m looking at the five-seat car and wondering how we are going to fit in this thing “there’s no way: three men, four women and a baby?” I stand awkwardly wondering if I should flag down a taxi, “am I cramping their style, do we have one too many now...?” But before I know it, we’re piling in there. I jump in the back, with the women. I’m virtually sitting on bumblebees lap. She’s actually smaller than me and desperately tries to reassure me that it’s fine. I soon gave up my apologies and relaxed. The two men (not small men) share the front seat. The front passenger door is a few inches ajar as we drive; one holds it as closed as possible as we get going on the busy street. This commotion doesn’t stop the baby from getting passed around though. Everyone is chatting. I understand bits and pieces. They are truly a family.
One of the things that make me uncomfortable about blogging is the changing nature of information. To myself at least, I usually end up feeling like a fool. Actually, the “buildings carved in stone” that I can see from my room are the Tombs of the Nobles, and yeah they’re quite old. The name of my hotel is Rosat al Nil (Bride of the Nile) and rumor is that the Governor stays here because he found a snake in his home. Oh and I’m on the eastern side of the Nile, not the west. The west is here the pharos went to die (hence the Tombs being on the west) and the east is where they lived. But I guess blogging will bring me humility and remind me how much I’m learning! Look at how positive I am...shisha time!
September 20, 2010
Right now, I’m sitting outside my floor to ceiling mint green hotel room looking at the Nile River from my balcony. Across the Nile, on the western bank, there are some buildings carved into the mountains. My hotel is situated right in front of a dock for giant cruise ships; the lady (or gentleman?) of the hour is “Heliopolis”. Tonight, while appreciating the view from my balcony, the dock was like a battleground for a half dozen pirate cruise ships. This town is more than a cruise ship stop though. It has character and for Egypt is as relaxed as it gets. I walked into town this afternoon. The souk (market) had all the goods of the big markets in Cairo but with a tenth of the hassle. And best of all, the air smelled of sandalwood. I purchased some fruits – I forgot how excited I get about the mangos here! And better yet, I enjoyed the Shisha (hookah/ tobacco water pipe) for less than US$1.
Currently, I’m staying at the hotel (the name is in Arabic and my reading will return). The good news is it’s a fourth of the price of the other room that was booked for me and since this practicum is funded by a grant and the rest is out of pocket, cheaper means I can stay here longer. For those of you who are concerned about my safety, it’s very safe. I’ve even received word that the Governor of the Aswan Governorate (think County Supervisor) stays here. When I asked why the Governor of Aswan doesn’t have a home in Aswan, I didn’t receive a very satisfactory reply. So, I’m assuming he brings his women here. Kidding, of course. The Governor is very supportive of MSH’s work here and I’m sure he brings his women to the hotel that’s four-times the price of this one.
Cape to Cairo
I arrived in Aswan without hassles. Well actually, that’s not true. I took a plane from Cape Town to Jo’burg to Cairo to Aswan and after a 12 hour layover in Jo’burg, a red eye, and a 6 hour layover in Cairo, I got cranky. At the Cairo Airport, I can see the finish line. I hear the boarding call for my flight to Aswan and proceed downstairs to the holding tank of a room for our plane. The room is packed, seats are scarce and the sound of loud tourists from the Midwest (they sounded Midwestern in my state anyway) was deafening. I start pacing in little circles before the next flight when I hear a scream coming from the bathroom. We all hear another scream, it sounds like a little girl. Then a prolonged, “I’m in trouble, help me” scream. I look around, people are concerned. Being the heroine that I am (and closest to the bathroom door at that moment) I run in -- first to the Men’s then to the Ladies -- and find that the screaming is coming from a bathroom stall that is apparently jammed and water is shooting out from atop the door with the power of a fire engine hose. I’m unable to open it from outside (duh, E) and too big to slide underneath the door, but I do manage to calmly convince this girl to open it herself because that’s the only way she’s going to get out. The door flies open, I’m soaked. I see a sixty-something American woman screaming bloody murder in the corner of the stall. I tell her she needs to come outside of the stall, past the rage of water. She finally runs out of the bathroom screaming about the foul welcome to Egypt. In the Men’s room, I changed my shirt and the rest of my clothes dried fast under the hot Cairo sun.