Interview with a 6th Grader in Giza

Last week I interviewed Nasr Sherif, a 12 year old living in the Haram [Pyramid] neighborhood of Giza. He is the cousin of the son of my former landlord, attends a public school and only speaks a few words of English. Most of the questions come from a 6th grade class in Portland that I have been blogging with, and I am still working on the transcript of the interview. But here is a video I made of him and his really sweet siblings/cousins. Special thanks to Ahmed Nasr, my former landlord, for introducing and translating. All mistakes and pronunciation errors are my own.

Halfway Through Cairo

I’ve now been in Egypt for two months, studying at the Arabic Language Institute at the American University in Cairo. In exactly two months I will enter back into Israel/Palestine for a week before flying out of Tel Aviv. For the first half of my time in this Northeast corner of Africa I lived in outer Cairo, technically a neighborhood of Giza called Haram (the Arabic word for pyramid). The apartment I stayed at has definitely the best view I will ever partake in, and I look forward to the nostalgia and eventual dementia that will lead me to tell my grandkids that I lived on top of the Sphinx (or Abu el-Hol, Father of Terror).

View from the apartment roof (I'm accidentally blocking the Sphinx, sorry)

The time in Giza was terrific, the culture shock I was hoping for. The basement of the apartment is literally a horse stable (as well as both the neighbors) and me and my roommates were the only foreigners around, forcing me to quickly rely on toddler-level Egyptian Arabic to navigate the necessary microbuses etc. But this week I have moved to a neighborhood closer to downtown in order to experience that aspect of Cairo life more fully. I now live in Mohandessin, still a part of Giza, but just across the Nile from downtown Cairo and Tahrir Square.

The view from my new apartment. A definite shift in the color wheel.

While I am studying here, I am participating in PSU’s Senior Capstone Project Reporting Live, a great program that connects PSU students studying abroad with different middle school classrooms all over Portland through blogging. I have been making short videos for my sixth grade class at Lane Middle School, but I thought I would share them here, too:

See the rest here. Thanks for reading and watching!

Seth

A Fictional Conversation

A house built for travel writing / Photo: the Author

“How’s Istanbul?” Sruly asked.

It’s a sometimes-dreaded, sometimes-welcomed question whose answer colors the travel writing of student, tourist and expat alike. In “How to Write Bad Travel Writing,” a blog post by David Farley, the author writes:

Try not to have much of a point. In some travel magazines and newspaper travel sections editors like articles to have something called an angle—a perspective—and normally it should be as fresh and unique as possible.

[…]

Instead, craft a narrative that involves a play-by-play of everything that happened on your trip.

I didn’t want to do that. The blow-by-blow account of my time in the Orient interests Mom and Dad but it even bores me a little. Instead, I tried to answer my friend’s entreaty in the frame of “what has Istanbul done for me?”

Istanbul is a fantastic adventure, an open space for my mind to wander and an inspiration for writing, reading and reflection.

“I was hanging up my clothes to dry, again, Sruly.”

No dryer?

“No dryer lifestyle,” I said. “It’s that elusive life of non-consumption I’ve been able to exact here, really as a function of there being very little consumer choice…at reasonable prices.”

The lifestyle of ease is like strong drink.

“Which means, a lot less time in in the stupor of comfort and a lot more time spent in rigor (walking everywhere, cooking often) which has inspired (or reclaimed) an ethic for my creative/intellectual pursuits. How is New York City?”

I’ve always had a dryer.

Istanbul: Content and Melancholy

The sun also rises--over the Bosphorus Strait (Photo credit: the author)

When I arrived in Istanbul last week, exhausted from a nineteen-hour train ride via Bucharest, it occurred to me that I had not yet booked a hostel. I’d managed without a smart phone—or even a cell phone—for three weeks backpacking in Europe. I spent a considerable amount of time leaning on the exterior walls of European cafés, trying to get wireless Internet access.

The day-and-night-long rail excursion through Eastern Europe kept me from my café-leaning habit. Without the flicker of free Wi-Fi, I disembarked to Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station with 110 lbs of luggage and a vague plan. The sun was rising over the Boshphorus strait, gilding the water before it impaled my blood-shot eyes. Carrying my backpack over both shoulders, a day pack on the front and my duffel bag over my breast, I felt like a one-man band.

Waddling my way from the train station to the tram was a surreal experience. Istanbul’s population of over 13 million people makes the city into a labyrinth of suited men, veiled women and the inverse of both. At the pre-dawn hour though, the Sultanahmet neighborhood was an eye-rubbing smattering of dock-side fisherman and early-bird-gets-the-worm shop owners. In a metropolis like Istanbul it’s easy to feel alone. When the city sleeps, it’s even more isolating.

Orhan Pamuk (photo credit: renato.guerra / flickr)

The Turkish Nobel Prize winner and author Orhan Pamuk wrote that “Gustave Flaubert…was struck by the variety of life in [Istanbul’s] teeming streets; in one of his letters he predicted that in a century’s time it would be the capital of the world. The reverse came true: After the Ottoman Empire collapsed; the world almost forgot that Istanbul existed. The city into which I was born was poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had ever been before in its two-thousand-year history.”

I thought is would take time for this text to resonate with me; Pamuk writes of the city like a brother for which he holds deep affections. Instead, the irony of a mega city tucked away among ruins and skyscrapers left me beset with melancholy as I lugged my bags from hostel to hostel looking for an empty bed. America is proud of its meritocracy and I felt that there was an injustice in Istanbul’s decline.

Sitting on a bench, looking at Russian oil tankers make their way from Black Sea ports to Mediterranean pipelines, I considered the possibility for a more complex relationship with this future home. Pamuk calls Istanbul a brother because family can be both the most redeeming part of life and it’s greatest source of depression.

We’ll see if I’m ready.

Settling In -أسبوعي الأول في مصر

Well, I have officially been in Egypt for nine days now, and it has been a whirlwind of new faces, school orientations, unpacking, and exploring. I feel like I finally have my feet on the ground, but I am constantly reminded of how much I have left to learn. Here are a few tidbits I have picked up so far:

  • Egyptians don’t sleep much. Most stores are open until at least midnight, and it is completely normal to visit friends’ houses at 2:00 a.m. (Yet the business day still begins bright and early at 8:00 a.m.)
  • Anything can be delivered in Cairo anytime you want it. Groceries? 24 delivery. Cleaning supplies? 24 delivery. Dessert? 24 delivery. Furniture? 24 delivery. Technically, you never need to leave your house.
  • Egyptian Arabic sounds absolutely nothing like Moroccan Arabic. In fact, I am fairly sure that no other dialect sounds anything like Moroccan Arabic. I bought an 3mmiya (Egyptian colloquial) dictionary today, and will be referencing it frequently. 
  • There is always traffic in Cairo. ALWAYS. It is perhaps the only constant in this chaotic city.

The view from my terrace in downtown Cairo

After only three days in Cairo, two Egyptian friends invited me to join them on a trip to Sharm El-Sheikh, a gorgeous resort town on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. I hadn’t had much time to settle in, but how could I turn down such an adventure? Thank god I didn’t, because Sharm turned out to be one of the most incredible places I have ever been. We went scuba diving, rode quads through the desert at sunset, laid out on the beach, smoked sheesha, and ate delicious food. It was fun to get to travel a bit before I have to hunker down and begin graduate classes later this week.

Sunset in Sharm El-Sheikh

Now that I am back in Cairo–and armed with an impressive tan!– I am ready to start classes on Tuesday at the gorgeous American University of Cairo campus. I am really looking forward to meeting my professors, sinking my teeth into new books, and writing about the Middle East. I only have three classes a semester, which is a full load for graduate students. This semester, I am taking:

1. Critical Approaches to Middle East Studies

2. Migrant and Refugee Patterns in the Middle East and North Africa, and

3. Public Policy Law and the Separation of Mosque and State

…All of which sound pretty fascinating to me.

The American University in Cairo

Inshallah, I will update more once classes start, and I have more to report. Until then, I’m going to get some sleep– moving to a foreign country is exhausting!

 

Letting the Place Soak in

looking over the road from the balcony

I have now had officially two weeks in Israel, and the constant traveling has helped the internet evade me. I have managed to re acclimate myself to the place, culture(s), people, and heat and settle in a stationary place from which to tell my tales.

I am staying with a Jewish/Swiss family in the north, across the road that is outside our back porch in the Jewish town, Tivon, is the Bedouin township of Basmat Tab’un. Hanging out in my room in the Jewish town, I look out the window to see a mosque, and I hear, five times a day, the call to prayer. If you ever want to experience as many different cultures as possible all at exactly the same time, I recommend Israel.

The first tale I have to tell is a tale of shopping. The second day I was there the family I was staying with and I visited  a store in an Arab village (not the one across the road). “Middle East Craft” was the name. I came in and started looking around, like one normally does in a store. I was told to see if there was anything I liked, but pretty soon I discovered, that shopping was not the purpose of our visit. I was soon brought to the front to sit on an couch and watch as the father of my family played magic tricks with some young Arab boys. There was a table in front of me, spread with Arabic coffee, dates, cookies, candy, and water. I smiled and accepted the hospitality set up for any and all customers.

Enjoying refreshments while shopping.

It was evident that we were there just to enjoy each other’s company.

The night before this I had my first family style Israeli Shabbat meal. I have learned to love Shabbat during previous travels in this country. After a week of non-stop, exhausting volunteer work, the fact that everything closed down (including public transportation), forced me to take a day of rest. I would spend the day reading, napping, staring out at nature, an entire day of it from sun down to sundown. This concept is pretty foreign to us in the U.S. Shabbat meal, then brought a whole new appreciation of this faith observance to me. (By the way, as a Christian, I often wish we would celebrate the Sabbath, or Shabbat, this way, it is not like it is canceled out by the teachings of Christ. In fact this Jewish family does believe in Yeshua, or Jesus in Hebrew, but culturally, by background and by family, they are Jewish and keep the feasts and holidays like many other similar families in this country.) The table was set with a nice cloth, special dishes and silverware, special cups, and Shabbat candles.

The father sang blessings and passed around a cup of wine everyone drank from, then blessed the freshly home baked challah bread and passed it around for everyone to tear a piece from. The whole family was there, the son who had just gotten married and moved out and his wife included. This tradition can be found anywhere in the world Jewish family’s are found. Once a week, the family stops, shares a special meal, dedicates it to God and sings and reads together scriptures. Every week their world stops for this.  It was a different experience, however, knowing that the whole town was shut down for Shabbat as well.

 

 

A weekend in the Jordanian Badia

Last weekend I had the amazing and unique opportunity to spend two nights with a Bedouin family in the Jordanian Badia, in the north of Jordan near the city of Mafraq. This trip was arranged by the CLS facilitators in conjunction with the SIT program in Amman. This was a cultural and linguistic immersion in a traditional Jordanian/Arabic home, and an experience different from anything I’ve ever done before and which I will truly never forget.

I arrived at my family’s house on Thursday evening after a day of class. They welcomed me with a bowl of mansaf, the Jordanian national dish which consists of rice, chicken and laban (a yogurty liquid). The mansaf was accompanied by kibbeh, a deep-fried ball of semolina stuffed with chicken and potatoes. The kibbeh was incredible, and I asked my sister, Wujdan, if she would please teach me how to make it. The family I stayed with was relatively small compared to other Bedouin families–a mom, dad, 2 sons and a daughter. The daughter was around my age, and the two sons were a bit older than her. The oldest was married and lived with his wife and two small sons in the house next door, and I think the other son lived at home (though I barely saw him and wasn’t sure if he stayed at night).

I spent most of my time with the daughter, who was 23 and had just graduated from a nearby university with a degree in science. She told me that she wanted to go work in Amman (about 2 hours away from home) in a private hospital laboratory. Although her father did not have a problem with this aspiration, her older brother was against the idea. I got the feeling that without sanction from her older brother, Wujdan would not be able to go work in Amman.

My second and only full day there, I spent most of my time with Wujdan in the kitchen. She was clearly the one who took care of the home instead of the mother (I did not see the mother lift a finger to clean or cook anything). Wujdan cooked every meal, cleaned the floors daily, and waited on her mother, father and brother. We cooked kibbeh, magloubeh (literally “upside-down” in Arabic, because eggplant, potatoes, carrots and chicken are cooked at the bottom of the pot with rice on top, then the pot is turned upside down onto the platter to be served), and an okra dish (okra, I learned, is “bamia” in Arabic). Everything was absolutely delicious, though I especially loved the bamia dish and kibbeh. I tried to help by rolling the balls of kibbeh, but after one my sister took the semolina mixture away and told me that I had “other work” to do.

There were a few difficulties/oddities surrounding living in the Badia for the weekend.
1. The bathroom. The hammam, as it is called in Arabic, was located in a small hut outside the house and was basically a hole in the ground (Google search “Turkish toilet” and you will see what I mean). I won’t go into too much detail about it, but it was certainly tricky and quite uncomfortable.
2. Eating. Everything in the home is done on the floor. There are no couches, instead there are simply cushions around the wall of a room and everyone sits on the floor. Even preparing food in the kitchen might be done on the floor instead of a counter. There is also no table to eat at, instead they spread out a mat and the food is served on a large platter with everyone sitting around. Bread is served with every meal and distributed at the beginning to each person. From the start I had to come to terms with the idea that my bread would be on the floor near everyone’s feet. This was weird at first, but I came to appreciate the simplicity of life and the people’s closeness to the earth they live on.
3. Modesty rules. The family I stayed with, along with most–if not all–families in the Badia, are conservative practicing Muslims. The women wear headscarves and long, loose-fitting robes, and the men also wear traditional Jordanian dress of a white or off-white thobe (a long robe) and the red checkered keffiyeh on their heads. Luckily, I bought a black thobe with a beautiful blue thread design from a shop in downtown Amman before I left. This came in very handy, because I don’t think I would have been comfortable in any of the clothes I already own. I arrived to the house in jeans, and even with pants on the father handed me a blanket to put over my legs for modesty’s sake. Modesty rules also governed what I could and could not take pictures of (I do not have any pictures of Wujdan, sadly), where I could be in the house, and with whom I could be alone with.
4. The language. The Bedoun dialect was extremely difficult to understand. It did not help that the older women also generally had pretty raspy voices, probably from a long life of smoking. Luckily Wujdan was able to translate a bit for me, either in more basic and classical Arabic (fusha) or in the bit of English she knew.

Although I was the only student from my program in that house, my roommate from CLS, Courtney, was actually placed in the house just across the street from mine. This house belonged to my sister’s maternal uncle. Kinship and family are extremely important in this culture, and there are special names for maternal vs. paternal family members. A maternal uncle is “‘khal,” maternal aunt is “khala,” and cousins from them are either “bint khal(a)” or “ibn khal(a)”–literally daughter or son of the maternal aunt/uncle. This can get extremely confusing in speaking. Courtney’s family had nine children, so her house was a bit more exciting than mine and I spend some time with her playing with the kids. We also went together to the Badia’s Ecological Center, which housed several animals native to the desert, including lots of snakes, a hyena, wolf and owls. After that, we trekked up a nearby hill and looked out across the desert and Bedouin villages. The place where we stayed was just a few kilometers away from the Syrian border, so we could see Syria from atop the hill.

Overall the trip was truly illuminating and I feel extremely lucky to have been given the opportunity to experience a traditional Bedouin family life. The simplicity of their way of life, the strength of their family bonds, and their closeness to the land around them made me reflective on the way I live my own life and the luxuries that I have every day. In the end, we all eat our food, love our families, use the bathroom (in our own way), and have a crazy aunt.

Preparing for Egypt–التحضير لمصر

I decided to go to graduate school abroad because I knew that I couldn’t stifle my wanderlust through another two years of schooling in the United States. I wanted to explore a new culture, improve my Arabic, and travel, so graduate school in the Middle East seemed like an ideal option. After getting accepted to the American Universities in Cairo, Beirut, and Dubai, I was faced with a difficult decision (that took me months to make) about where I wanted to spend the next two years of my life. All three cities have a personality of their own, and it was difficult to choose one when I knew that that would mean not choosing the other two. In the end, I chose Cairo– a fascinating city with a rich history and an exciting political climate. I’m looking forward to exploring the ancient pyramids of Luxor, riding feluccas down the Nile River, and watching the protests in Tahrir Square as Egypt builds a democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

Time is starting to fly by. I leave Portland in less than a month to begin making my way toward Cairo. My first stop is the Bahamas, where I will be spending a week on the beach with one of my best childhood friends. From there, I will be flying to Istanbul to work on an organic farm in Turkey for two weeks, and then I’ll be celebrating my best Moroccan friend’s birthday with him in Qatar. Then to Cairo for orientation and apartment hunting. It will be nice to stretch my legs and satisfy the travel bug a bit before I settle down to build a life in Egypt for the next few years. Portland has been a wonderful home to me, but I am really looking forward to this next adventure.

Heading to Israel, Not Bringing the Rain Boots

Tomorrow I will uproot from the Pacific Northwest, and leave to spend some time in Israel. During this brief period of time I spent home, in Northern California, I went to a wedding. It was typical of Northern California and Humboldt County: redwood trees, fancy cheeses, soft green grass, and summer fog and rain. I wore a dress and my yellow rain boots. It looked perfectly normal. But as I danced barefoot in the soaking grass, I realized I am going to have to retire the rain boots for the summer. They have been my constant companion for the last nine months of school in Portland and Summer in Nor Cal.

I won’t be needing them in Israel. If I miss them, it will be sentimental, not functional. I have been to Israel before, I know I won’t find myself wishing I had packed them. I have come to expect dry, hot summers where any splash of water dries within the hour.This year is going to be different than my past experiences however. This year I will be packing up and heading out solo. I will spend the first couple of weeks volunteering with children, then it’s a month and a half of cultural immersion for me with a normal Israeli family, in a city I had never heard of until I met their son last summer.

This trip is also significant for me spiritually.  I find my identity in the transformative and redeeming power of the Christ, Jesus. This land that I will be grooving in, existing in, is the same land in which He performed all of His ministry. I definitely expect to grow in understanding and experiential knowledge of my faith.

Also, I hope to focus on the positive. I want to see culture, I want to see people living and breathing through their daily lives. I know this area is controversial. I know it is volatile. I also know that peace does not exist solely where there is no conflict. Peace exists in the midst of conflict. It exists in human lives full of love, purpose, and determination living out in defiance of conflict. I hope to document this, because despite the conflicts of territory and governments, humanity and culture rages on.

 

 

Desert Castles of Jordan

One of the great things about being based at the American Center for Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman is the giant network of resources available to us here. ACOR is a longstanding institution that is heavily involved in archaeological research throughout Jordan. ACOR researchers have done some outstanding work related to the ancient sites here, and the institution also has a large library with a wealth of materials related not just to archaeology but politics, history, anthropology, urban development and more topics related to the Middle East. This means that we are constantly surrounded by knowledgeable people who come to stay and research in Jordan. A group of friends and I met a researcher specializing in Roman water systems who was awesome enough to accompany us on a trip to three of the desert castles near Amman.

We visited Qasr Kharana, Qasr Amra, and Qasr Azraq. The castles were built during the 7th and 8th century during the Umayyad period, and are scattered throughout the desert of Jordan. Interestingly, researchers have not been able to definitively determine their purpose. Our archaeologist friend told us that they likely served as meeting places for leaders or a retreat for the wealthy. The three castles we visited were markedly different in size, form and style, as you can see from the photos below.

Qasr Kharana was the most austere; Qasr Amra was the most elaborately decorated; Qasr Azraq was the largest: