Egyptian Thoughts

So I had my first meeting with Hala and Gilan in about a month. They’re my language-swappers (English for Arabic and Arabic for English). What with our vacation, then holidays, it’s probably been over a month. I was supposed to meet them yesterday, Monday, but instead I waited in the apartment for 4 ½ hours for the plumbers who had scheduled a 10:30am appointment and finally showed up at 3:00pm. I had complained of a drippy faucet (three actually) and they came to fully replace our kitchen faucet. Fair enough. At least it doesn’t drip anymore, but boy was I a crank yesterday!

So I grabbed a taxi today and headed out to Mohandiseen to their publishing company. I met with Hala first, as Gilan didn’t get there until after an hour. We typically just start talking about anything and everything. This time Hala also had a list of questions she’d gathered from watching television (she loves “Desperate Housewives”), such as, what does “I’ll make it up to you” mean, or how do you pronounce “episode” and “Nike”? (The last one threw her because despite looking like “bike” and “like” it ain’t pronounced that way. Welcome to English – I’m so glad I’m not learning it as an adult.)

Hala is in her forties, owns and runs a successful publishing/printing company, but admitted that she misses the creative side of the business which she never gets to do anymore. She told me she’s recently been taking Film Directing courses through a local art college in Maadi, which keeps her busy until 10:00pm three nights a week, from which she comes home and studies until 5:00am, then conducts the first prayer of the day, then goes to sleep for five hours, and starts her business day around noon. She’s exhausted but is really enjoying the classes and even got a scholarship based on her grades. She’s doing it to be able to offer her clients the additional service of making short films or commercials, as she said she gets a lot of requests for those, as well as feeding her desire for creative work. I’m definitely impressed with her drive.

In past meetings we’ve broached some potentially awkward topics, like when they asked me what I thought of Egypt and all that came to mind at first was trash, trash and trash, and they asked me why I waited so long to get married (i.e., I’m old). But this meeting was different. Hala was very forthcoming with her thoughts on Egypt and the current situation with Israel and Gaza. I tried to keep quiet and just let her talk as I didn’t want to get into deep political discussions. She talked about how angry she is and how she’s not sleeping after watching the news. The Arab news is very graphic in its coverage of Gaza, showing primarily, almost entirely, children injured and dead presenting a highly-charged one-sided view. She talked about feeling helpless but so angry. She said that so many Egyptians are livid over this and it adds to their general depression over the state of Egypt. According to her, people have lost faith in President Mubarak, who’s 81, and there’s complete uncertainly as to who will take over from him if he steps down or dies. He’s apparently grooming his son for it, but she said no one likes him; he lacks charisma and was only 11 when his father took office in 1981, and so has lost contact with “the people.” She said initially Mubarak was loved and respected. “He was one of us,” she said. But the corruption is so rampant, there are no job or business opportunities for young people, and a lot of them have no initiative anyway. She fears an increase in violence and crime, but doesn’t think anything can be done about it. She was really down and unfortunately I couldn’t do much to help her mood. I agree with her assessment of Egypt.

I shared with her my story of seeing the body in the Nile and she was surprised at first. But then when I told her what the captain told us, to just ignore it and keep moving forward, she agreed. “My father told me the same thing,” she said. Then she told me of a time when she was driving and saw a man hitting a woman by the side of the road. He pushed her and she fell in the road into Hala’s lane, just after Hala drove by. Hala said she stopped the car and was going to help the woman, but then thought about it and just drove on. She said she knew if she stopped she could easily be blamed for the woman’s injuries, just by being there. What type of society raise children to ignore injured, dead and dying humans? And what type of society discourages helping others because there’s no personal responsibility taught and the random Good Samaritan will instead be blamed? There are times that Egypt feels truly medieval to me.

Hala has a cousin who lives in San Francisco and has been begging her to move there. She visited the U.S. prior to 9/11 and is now planning a trip for this summer and she’s definitely considering the option of moving there. She asked me a lot of questions about how Americans will perceive her with her headscarf. Despite wearing headscarves, both she and Gilan are very modern in their clothing, wearing jeans and slacks, basic sweaters and tops, just with a color-coordinated headscarf. I told her that I thought in the big cities I doubted most people would even react. Then again, I’ve been gone for almost a year so maybe I’m wrong. She’s worried, and sees on the news how Islamic people are singled out, but we talked about how post 9/11 as part of the human race we all need to be more diligent about watching out for others and being aware of our surroundings. Unfortunately, hyper vigilance can lead to erroneous claims and innocent people being accused, but sadly that’s a price we pay for taking charge of our own destinies. And hopefully the system is also designed to weed these out and correct mistakes. We can’t just lay back and let others, Allah, God, the Big Kahuna, do everything for us. And I think that is a very foreign concept to most Egyptians. This is a tough time for Egyptians, who see such great opportunities in other countries to live better lives, but still have deep pride in Egypt.

As I was writing this at night in our apartment, Ron was taking a shower and I suddenly heard a knocking on our window behind me. Without looking too hard (too many teenage horror films of creepy faces in windows) I inched away from the window and made Ron come check it out. As I was waiting for him, I saw something hit the window again. Chuckles and Ricky heard it too and were intently trying to get to the window (which doesn’t have a sill for them to perch on – though we’ll probably have something rigged up for them eventually). We turned off all the lights and Ron crept towards the window. Just as he was standing at the window behind my desk chair, a little bird flew off who had been sitting on our outside sill. It’s 9:30pm! Why isn’t he in bed?! Stupid bird.