Monday, September 30, 2013

Letters from Egypt: Working to Support the Family at Age Nine

This is Abdo and he’s nine-years old. A normal nine-year old would be in the third or fourth grade, heading off to school each morning and coming home to do chores and/or play with friends. I would jump off the bus from school and play with Polly Pocket, ride my bike and wait for my dad to come home to either crank my go-cart or play basketball.

Not Abdo. He wakes up early and comes to my office, making coffee and running errands for the staff for the fee of LE 300 a month (around $43). His mother is alone working as a bowaba (door woman) spending her day washing cars, cleaning flats, hand-washing carpets and any other errands from building tenants. Each day Abdo comes into the office with a smile on his face, and that smile doesn’t fade throughout the day. He has one small brother and I always see him helping his mother even after he’s done at the office.

Some of you may think it’s horrible to employee such a young boy at our office, but that’s the way things are here. I think it is very naïve for many of you to judge the way things are in other places failing to remember that places like the US, once upon a time, also had children dropping out of school to work to help support their family. My father, who would have been 80 this year, was one of them. Luckily, things changed for us.

The UK’s Chatham House released a report, “Education in Egypt: Key Challenges”, detailing the problems that are facing the sector after the 2011 revolution. The lack of priority in Egypt’s education system trickles down into numerous other problems, including unemployment rates which currently stand at around 12%.

Surprisingly, Egypt actually developed an education model that many Arab countries followed. Former president Gamal Abdel Nasser mandated free education for all Egyptians and later extended that into higher education institutions. And in continuing Nasser’s great ideas without any thought to the long-term effects, the president promised employment to all university graduates. Obviously this led to a substantial increase in university enrollment figures and shortly after, there weren’t enough jobs available for the graduates. So what did Nasser do? He created three jobs for one position which parlays into yet another reason why many locals are lazy and wages are low.

Demand rose past the level of state-available resources which caused the deterioration of the public education system. So there is a significant gap in teacher/student ratios, and many schools continue to operate in shifts because of over-population; however, most students only attend school for a part of the day (from around 10 am-1 pm). And I will be the first to admit that the public schools here are absolutely horrible, something is better than nothing (please read my blog “My Trip to Cairo’s Public Schools”).

Abdo was originally hired to work during the summer, between school years, to give his family a little extra money. We hadn’t noticed that all of the public schools had already started. His mother pulled him out of school because the office salary was more important than an education. At nine-years old, this little guy is already carrying the financial burden of his family on his shoulders. Sadly, this is commonplace.

We are currently trying to find out which school he previously attended, the school fees and will offer his mother the LE 300 with the stipulation that Abdo attends school daily (in addition to paying the school fees which usually cost less than LE 200 or under $30). But this is only one child, there are so many more that need help. If you know a child that is not attending school, I encourage you to try to do something – particularly if you are Egyptian because this is your country after all. Do not give money to the parents for the school fees because many will just keep the money for their household needs. Pay the school directly. Buy books, help people learn how to read. But whatever you decide to do, just try to do something.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Letters from Egypt: Flying Saudi with Nightmare Egyptians

View from Dammam, KSA

During any type of unrest or turmoil, airlines really take note. It isn’t just about decreasing flights in and out of a particular country because of safety concerns, but it’s also an opportunity to substantially increase airfare for the flights that will remain in operation. Since I’m still searching for my rich prince charming (if you find him, email me immediately), I was forced to recently take Saudi Arabian Airlines on my way to the UAE.

I didn’t know anyone that had taken this airline and I’ll be the first to tell you that the airline itself, food and workers (sans one female Egyptian flight attendant, but that will come later in the post) were actually good. I had a 10-hour layover in Medina on my way to Dubai and a 2.5-hour layover in Dammam returning to Cairo. I looked up reviews of the airline and airports, which were few and far in between. And as KSA airline is trying to expand its consumer reach, I thought that some of you may be in the same position that I was and choose Saudi Arabian because it is economical.

First of all, let me just go over the travesty that is the Cairo International Airport. Taking Saudi Arabian Airlines means that you will leave from Terminal 1, which is actually my favorite terminal because the employees seem a bit more laid back. However, you will not be with the likes of Emirates Air, Etihad, Turkish Airlines or any other decently respected carrier. Oh no, you will need to just march right on over to Departure Hall 2 inside Terminal 1 – the Saudi only hall. There you will find a bunch of animals that appear in human form, but nonetheless are animals.

Imagine your worst experience in Cairo’s airport –we all have them so I know it isn’t hard. The people in one big cluster of disarray, pushing, cutting, etc. Now multiply that experience times 100 and you still don’t even come close to the Saudi-only hall. An absolute nightmare. From the time I stepped up to the counter to speak with the worker to get my boarding pass and check my bags to the time I actually got said boarding pass and checked my bags took an hour. Why? Because the attendant didn’t believe that as an American, I didn’t need a visa to the UAE. The conversation went like this:

Where is your visa?
I don’t need a visa, I’m American.
Where is your visa?
I don’t need a visa, I’m American.
Where is your visa?
Where is your visa?

And thus he spent 45 minutes trying to find out if it was, in fact true that as an American, I didn’t need a visa prior to travel. I’m going to bypass all of the commotion that happened to even make it to the counter in one piece. Carrefour on a Friday after prayer looks like a breeze compared to this.

Good thing I was there prior to curfew (at the time it was 7 pm). So then came time to pay for the visa expiration fees. Now you are likely going to be hassled for some money here and there but I have never in my five years flying in and out of Cairo been accosted as much as I was in the Saudi hall. On top of all the begging, a few women even tried to stroke my hair. This has happened to me once before from a garbage collector shortly after I arrived, but I mean – this is an airport for Heaven’s sake. There are plenty of foreigners in and out. Oh right, I forgot – not so many in the Saudi-only terminal. And there you have it. A complete FML to the max moment.

The next part I’m going to gloss over, but let’s just say that my area in the plane was almost empty and an Egyptian woman manipulated her way to the area bringing with her the family. It was peaceful and quiet. Keyword: was. She pretended (and yes, I know Egyptians well enough to know how to spot an act when I see it) that she was having a panic attack and needed to move. She had recently had surgery so the German flight attendant began panicking that she shouldn’t fly (of course when that option came up, she was immediately alright she just needed her space).

We are landing in Medina and I’m preparing for my 10-hour layover. What some of you might not know is that when you get into Umra airspace, you need to cover; however, if you are only in transit, you are not required to cover/wear an abaya. As I waited for the cattle to shuffle off hurriedly (because there is so much activity going on in KSA that you just don’t want to miss a thing), an Egyptian female flight attendant, backed by a group of Egyptian women, began screaming at me. “Miss, you can’t leave the plane without covering. Where is your abaya?” I said, “I’m only in transit, I don’t need to cover.” Mind you, I’d already heard several women basically taking bets as to when I would cover. God forbid Egyptian women stay in their lane. She said in a condescending manner, “I understand that this is probably your first time here, so let me explain to you that you need to cover.” I said, “What I understand is that you don’t seem to understand English, so allow me to explain it to you in Arabic: mesh emshee men el matar [not leaving airport].” Then the Egyptian male flight attendant alongside the German asked the problem. They explained to the female Egyptian flight attendant that I was only in transit and not required to cover and then apologized to me for the inconvenience.

Were the Saudis angry? No. It was the Egyptians that huffed and puffed even after being told that I wasn’t required to cover.

Now the strange thing about transiting in Saudi is the old-school system for transfers. In Medina, the officials take your passport and boarding pass upon arrival and do not return them until you are boarding the plane out of the country. I assume this is because it is a holy city and non-Muslims are not supposed to exit the airport. You also cannot have a layover in KSA unless you have multiple hours to spend because the process alone takes ages. I went through what must have been at least six security checks, including even getting my checked luggage for another check. Mind you the airport is small with only one “café” (using that term loosely) that sold Pringles and Pepsi.

I ended up with a Syrian that lived in Cairo who provided shwarma from home to the rest of our group that consisted of two Egyptians. One Egyptian and I actually had mutual friends while the other was a creeper who repeatedly talked derogatory to me and about me, not to mention followed me throughout the time there and up until I finally lost him in the Dubai airport. I actually did leave the airport after all, uncovered, escorted by a Saudi cop to smoke. Later, the same cop allowed all of us to smoke in his office and when the Creeper made yet another remark, the cop turned to me and said: “I hate Egyptians. They’re really bad people.” I responded and said, “Well, this is awkward.” As we were leaving the office, the cop told me that it was okay to smoke in the bathroom.

Since the Medina airport provided next to nothing, the staff did give all of those en route breakfast the next morning. Overall, it could have been much worse – there was also free wifi with a good speed and wall sockets that accommodated any plug. My Saudi experience wasn’t bad because it was Saudi or the GCC nationals. It was horrible because of the Egyptians. I understood why the Saudi cop had such a strong disdain for Egyptians because when these are the only ones you meet, you begin to generalize.

The Dammam airport was a step up from Medina, but it is no lap of luxury. There was a Duty Free which was the equivalent to a roadside shop in a local neighborhood in Egypt. There were smoking rooms, a business class lounge (nothing glamorous) and you get to retain your passport and boarding pass after going through the required security checks (again, more numerous than even the US).

The flight from Dammam back to Cairo was even more animalistic than my departure route; however, a quick shout out to the male Egyptian flight attendant that worked that flight. I’ve never seen anyone handle Egyptians on a flight the way that you did. You have a knack and do not take it lightly. You are a rarity and if no one ever gives you praise, just know that I admired you the entire duration of that God-awful flight. You, sir, are my hero.

So basic lesson here is: avoid Saudi Airlines. Not for the whole Saudi experience itself, but to avoid possibly the worst Egyptians ever born.