Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Letters from Egypt: Double Standard

Sha'maa, our sweet office girl who always has a smile on her face

Although I’ve been updating this blog and discussing activities, I have yet to really explain some culture shock that I’ve recently experience.

For starters, let’s discuss how there is a double standard between Egyptian citizens and foreigners – particularly American. I went to the Ace Club to meet up with Natalie last night. For the first time I was there on time and so I sat at the bar and read the English Egyptian newspaper. In the op-ed section was a piece by a native discussing gambling being brought to Cairo. These are allowed for tourism, but with the same restrictions we have in some of the states: must be on open water, for instance. In continuance, she asked why an Islamic state would allow something against the foundation as most tourists come to Egypt for historical purposes. Her point was that double standards have widened and this is another example.

It’s true. In the US, we have demonstrators against immigrants reasoning they are taking our jobs, evading the law, and the like. When Nat arrived, we decided to go eat somewhere, but I had a full beer and well, I just don’t like to commit the ultimate crime of alcohol waste. Nat said, “Don’t worry, you can take it with you.” To which I replied, “Is it really okay to walk around with this in my hand?” She said, “Of course, you’re American. The rules don’t apply to foreigners, particularly Americans.”

It’s true. We are not held up to the same standards as natives. We are allowed to pretty much do as we please. As I was in Ain Sukhna this weekend for a charity golf tournament, all the other foreigners (mostly Scotts and Brits) kept saying the main reason they like Egypt is because they have more freedom.

There are positives to also being a western female. For instance, I paid for a 15 minute banana boat ride this weekend but the operator gave Farrah and me 30 minutes. Going to a restaurant and I’m waited on immediately hand and foot. Then there are negatives such as all shouts I get as I walk down the street. The lower class workers sometimes pass by and try to reach out and touch me. Or the worst are those who hate foreigners and scream “Shalmuta” which is bitch/prostitute in Arabic all because I am wearing a sleeveless shirt.

However, wouldn’t you hate foreigners to some extent if you saw them violating all the laws that applied to you, yet nothing was done? It doesn’t constitute the Shalmuta example, but I can walk down the street and since I am located where all the embassies are with the highest expat community, military is on every block with policemen in between. If a man tried to harass me, these government officials would beat them in the middle of the street. If an Egyptian walked around with a beer bottle in his/her hand, they would be beaten and then taken to jail. Foreigners get the highest paid jobs and sometimes treat the Egyptians with disrespect. They make above average wages while the typical Egyptian worker maybe pulls in an average of $100 (USD) a month.

If an American and Egyptian man get into an argument in the street and both are taken to jail, the American has his embassy contacted right away and an official is sent over to order his immediate release. The Egyptian male will take a beating while detained and release is undetermined.

It is great to know that Americans in particular are heavily guarded because our government makes sure of it (probably in part forced by media coverage). A US passport is highly revered here and where ever there are a group of Americans, there’s military standing outside. However, it is not fair and we know it. Maybe some are okay with it, but I know I would be outraged if the Chinese, for example, were allowed to come into the US and broke any law they wanted without consequence.

This isn’t saying that Americans can’t be touched, it’s just to put things in a different perspective. Something that I never expected so to speak.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Letters from Egypt: Hashing

I decided to get out on my own this past Friday and my boss told me about Hash House Harriers. You may click on the word and be directed to its origins via Wikipedia, or just know that it is an international group that meets in perspective cities to exercise. One twist is that it is more of a social aspect with the motto, “Runners with a drinking problem.” So I walked to the expat hangout, the Ace Club, and had no idea where to go. I’ve been emailing the grand master all week, but didn’t recognize anyone. I saw this other girl and asked her where we were suppose to meet. Luckily, it was her first time as well. 

She and I ended up going with one of her friends and we had a great time. We introduced ourselves to everyone before the hike began after taking part of several initiation-type activities. Then we were off. I seriously thought I was going to die as we hiked up the steep hill. It seemed like the only bright side to this hike was to make it to the checkpoint. It was like what I imagine heaven to be: a 4-wheel drive with tons of alcohol loaded in back. Sweet nectar... All the while, Natalie just told me about her experience in Cairo and what to expect. Afterwards, we hung out for a bit by the BBQ then we met up after showers at the Ace Club. Ended up going for some Korean food (the irony, Korean food in Cairo) and I went home shortly thereafter. 

It was nice to finally meet some people around my age. I highly recommend expats go hashing at least once!

Letters from Egypt: Alexandria

Life gets busy, or so they say. I have been in Cairo for exactly 21 days and until this past weekend, I hadn’t done much.
My neighbors in New York were Egyptian, from the coastal city of Alexandria. They lived the past year in Alex because they are building a house and now I know why you have to be present to make sure any task is accomplished. Remember those days that I complained about the cable guy taking too long to arrive? I mean, they say he may show up between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm. He never came until 3:50 pm, unless of course you happened to be gone to an appointment between 1 and 1:30. Then the cable guy would show up at precisely 1 pm. If an Egyptian tells you it will be ready in two hours that means two months at best.
I arrive at the train station two hours prior to my departure. Thank God (or Allah, whichever you prefer) for the iPod and games on cell phones. I played with a little kid and somehow managed to illustrate by hand my inability to understand my train ticket. Thankfully, the woman next to me was able to also illustrate where I needed to go since the language barrier proved to be an issue. I have a first class ticket round trip, meaning basically I have air conditioner. Once I arrived, Nada (friend) and Ziad (son) picked me up. It was so good to see a familiar face. They took me to what we would refer to as a country club and I saw Gigi(daughter) and Sheriff(husband). Then Nada and Sheriff took me to a restaurant that overlooked the Mediterranean. It was gorgeous. Live music, great food and a wonderful view.
The next day we went to a private beach located on the grounds of the Presidential Palace. We each had cappuccinos and just discussed life in New York. Then we found ourselves on a boat cruising the Mediterranean with the sites looking like what I imagine to see while on a Greek Island. It was so scenic, but we were brought back to reality by facing the crowds as we made our way to a famous restaurant, the Sea Gull. Live animals were everywhere including various types of monkeys, camels, small horses, birds and even roosters. To order your meal, you must go and pick which fish you would like cooked. At every restaurant they bring you various types of dip with bread (humus, babaganouj and the like), much like chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant. After coffee and Sheriff getting the musician to sing a song all about LeAnne, Nada and I went to the mall and then just drove.

They have since returned to New York and I am a little sad. Alex was so gorgeous and I’m very lucky to have just arrived and been somewhere that many newcomers would have taken months to have seen. I hope they return next summer and if so, I plan on spending even more time in one of the most gorgeous places I’ve seen thus far.