Monday, July 14, 2008

If It's Raining, This Must Be Connecticut

From my breakfast counter in Coventry, over a cup of Yorkshire Gold:

As we drove away from our hotel on the 1/2-hour drive to the Cairo Airport, we crossed the Nile (yet again--it splits the city into three sections). I looked down from the bridge and saw two rowing shells, each with four men dressed in white t-shirts, rowing away. And then trailing them, I saw another, a single-person shell, being rowed by...a veiled woman. What a perfect symbol of the incongruities of this city, nation and region. This is a place where almost every receipt we managed to get for Betsy's bookkeeping needs was hand-written, as computers have not at all taken a hold in day-to-day commerce, yet everyone seemed to have at least one, often two, cell phones.

Our flight home was uneventful, at least for me. Betsy was stranded at JFK for hours awaiting her flight to Burlington. Jim chauffeured me home, offering appropriate re-entry narration along the way: "These are clouds. They hold moisture. Sometimes they release it. We call that rain." His mission was to keep me awake until at least 9 pm (4 am Cairo time), and I'm happy to report he was successful. Of course, I was wide awake at 3 am and he was sound asleep.

I know friends will ask me, "How was your trip?" and I was thinking (at 3 am), that's not easy to answer. It was: great, fun, hard, intriguing, troubling, fascinating, hot, mind-bending, and maybe one of the most educational (in terms of my world- and self-views) two weeks I've ever spent. I can't even begin to list all that I have learned, but here's a start:

Jordanians and Egyptians (I would never generalize to the entire Middle East) love America and Americans. We encountered not a single hint of anti-American sentiment anywhere. "Where from?" we were constantly asked. "America." "Ah-med-ee-ka!" would be the inevitable response. "Great country!!"

I don't know the Quran well, but I think it must include a lot of instruction on hospitality. In both countries, we were overwhelmed with how warm and friendly people were, how intent they were on helping us (even if they had no idea what we needed), and how almost to a person, they asked us to come back and visit their city/village/country again.

When I told people, before we left, where I was going, a number of folks asked if I was concerned about my safety. I wasn't then (but did wonder if I was being naive). I'm happy to say that at no point during these two weeks was I ever afraid for our safety (except for the whole traffic thing, but that has also happened in New York City, and I really did get quite used to the insanity of the driving).
I joked in an earlier post about the whole Middle East being a risk management nightmare, and thought of that again when I read in the English-language newspaper about a building in Mansara that had collapsed, killing 6 people. The story said the building had had three stories added without permission, something that routinely happens in Egypt. The story also recounted about five or six other similar collapses, with the same cause. "Building codes are routinely ignored in Egypt," the story said. So I guess if I had thought more about it, the risks to us were more infrastructure-related (the elevator at the hotel in Cairo, for example, was particularly harrowing). But here we are, safe at home, so I guess Allah truly does look out for the foolish.

Seeing so many women in veils, from just the head scarf to burqas with eye slits to fully-covering burqas with no openings for eyes at all, was intriguing, thought-provoking, assumption-challenging. The few conversations we had with women and some of the reading we have done on this topic has made me realize the incredible complexity of this issue. Is a veiled woman "repressed?" Not always, I think. Just like there are many women in this country who would never dream of wearing a spaghetti-strap, midriff-bearing top and low-cut jeans that highlight their muffin tops, and whom we would never characterize as "repressed," in these places there are women who prefer the more conservative looks the veils provide. I'm sure some have not made a conscious choice to cover, but others have. I was struck by how much more I noticed their faces when their faces were all I could see of them (no hair, no neck), and by the beauty I saw in only their eyes. Betsy and I were also very aware of the quality, the elegance, of some robes and head scarves--the colors and fabric--and it made me realize that just as many women there take great pride in their garb as here. I was surprised to find myself realizing how the mystery of what lay behind their covering made them attractive in a way I never thought about before.

I learned a lot about what a spoiled American I am. I might have copped to that before this trip, but mostly just to show how hip and self-aware I am. To quote an old friend, I didn't know what I didn't know. I am such a comfortable and spoiled American that I'm finding myself in a state of total self-disdain at the moment (Jim teased me this morning about being overwhelmed by the air-conditioning and wi-fi). Life is really tough in these places I've been--tough to make a living, tough to get decent health care, tough to be at the mercy of people in other parts of the world who make decisions and policies that profoundly affect your life, yet know nothing about your life. And yet, there they are, making life work, and being kind to visitors in the process.

Here's a contrast. In two weeks, Betsy and I were never once treated rudely, told no, you can't do that, brushed off in any way, despite doing what I'm sure were some dumb things. In fact, as I've said, it was the opposite--people were very patient and polite. So we got off our plane at JFK and headed through the passport checkpoint to baggage claim. We were mostly surrounded by Egyptians, and I assumed some were in America for the first time. This fat, loud woman in a US Customs uniform walked through where we were all standing near the baggage carousel. She said something obnoxious to a waiting skycap before turning and dressing down a teen-aged boy who was (gasp!) looking at his cell phone. "Put the cell phone away!" she said, as rudely as it can be said, "And don't take it out again when I turn my back." His face remained expressionless as he slid the phone in his pocket. "Welcome to New York," I said to Betsy. We were both incredibly uncomfortable and not a little mad at this woman's bullying treatment of this kid. I think that here in America, or at least the Northeast, we are so inured to rudeness that it probably has eroded something important in our souls, and even my very short two weeks of being away from it allowed that important something to peak its head out like a crocus in February. And, like that crocus, I'm sure after a few days at home, that sense of indignation will be covered up by a snowfall of typical American abruptness and dismissiveness of others' needs. But just try to imagine the response in a place like New York City, or Hartford or Boston, if a local person saw obvious foreigners standing on a street corner looking perplexed. Would the local person come up to them, ask to help, offer to take them where they wanted to go, ask them where they were from, if they had children, if they were happy, offer them tea? That happened every day for us. And here, if an obvious outsider did something dumb, inappropriate, unknowingly rude, what kind of response would they get from, say, a clerk in a store, a cabdriver, any observer at all?

[Incidentally, if you want a good example of both Egyptian bureaucracy as well as a cautionary tale about the importance of duct-taping your passport to your chest while you travel, read Betsy's colleague Gary's account of his lost passport, courtesy of the five-star Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo:

How was my trip? Incredible and complicated and (despite the volumes of description I've offered in this blog), hard to describe. Would I go back? Not to Cairo or Amman. This trip has reinforced my belief that I am not by any means a city girl. But to smaller towns and villages and to other countries? Yes. I know, though, that those places have even fewer of the amenities for westerners that the cities have, so it's a significant compromise. And to be honest, I don't know just how far my sense of adventure extends to such opportunities. Betsy and I had a great trip in part because we were very careful about what we did, what we ate, where we stayed. Safe (and by that I mean "comfortable" more than physical) options in all those categories exist in cities, but not so much in villages. I have to say, too, that traveling with Betsy made all the difference. We never allowed ourselves to both be stressed at the same time, and so as soon as one of us got out of sorts, the other would switch to reassurance mode until the crisis passed. That's how we've always traveled, and is probably the hallmark of our friendship, but that was never quite as clear as it was in this very different part of the world.

And yet...for the first time in my life, I feel a more-than-cursory interest in this very important and complex region, and in the Muslim world. On the way home, we passed a billboard advertising "Muslims in America," some sort of information expo at the Hartford Convention Center. Three weeks ago, I would have paid no attention to it. Yesterday, I thought, "I need to go to that so I can learn more."

On our last night in Cairo, Betsy and I were (again) in a cab with a driver who spoke no English (we carried a card with our hotel address in Arabic). As we got closer to Zamalek, he signalled for the card again, which had a very basic street map on it as well. I leaned over from the back seat and said, in my most carefully-accented Arabic, the name of the street we were hoping he'd find. He happily laughed and said, very excitedly, "Arabic! Arabic!" (which actually sounded more like "aah-da-beek!"). I felt the most incredible sense of accomplishment (heightened when he made a few turns and landed us on the right street).

So sure--sign me up for another Middle Eastern adventure (after I've recovered from this one). And if you're even considering the possibility yourself, do it. As Freddie Mercury once sang, "Guaranteed to blow your mind," which, at least in my case, is a pretty good thing to have happen.

1 comment:

Alyce said...

Welcome home and once again, thank you so much for offering such an up close chronicle of your travels. You captured so much of the local culture with your words and pictures, providing me with sights I'll never see in my world. I found myself anxiously awaiting your next day's adventure. Again my thanks, glad you are home safe and sound.