Friday, October 26, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of Bureaucracy

Egypt is really good at bureaucracy. I mean really, really good. Of the country’s 80 millions people, somewhere between 6 and 10 million are employed by the government, which means if you count family members, perhaps half of the population depends on the income of government jobs. The bureaucracy is excessively huge, employing millions more people than necessary. The most conspicuous bureaucratic sector it the tourism and traffic police—men that basically spend the entire day doing nothing. Their salaries are measly, but at least it’s a reliable job. For the ruling regime, the bureaucracy is a way to maintain support. But Egypt is in a trap. Because liberalizing would send millions of people to the unemployment office, the prospects of reform are poor. The bureaucracy also hinders development in other sectors. For example, with more than enough traffic cops, the government has no incentive to provide traffic lights. Instead of providing an efficient, modern system of traffic control found in Western cities, Cairo relies on people. The bureaucracy is so pervasive in Egypt that bureaucracy has become cultural.

I’ve been fascinated by Egypt’s horrible bureaucracy since I first arrived, but I continue to be amazed. AUC, like all of Egypt, loves its bureaucracies. I can’t even remember how many passport-sized photos I submitted to the university. I have three ID’s: my student ID, my housing ID, and my gym ID, two of which I have never used. The students love their bureaucracies too, and they organize everything into committees, even if that means each committee consists of only two or three members.

Here’s a nice case study for a sociologist. Yesterday, the Student Union began its Thursday afternoon film series with a screening of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (remember that in Egypt, Thursday is the equivalent of the American Friday. TGIT.). But this is where the bureaucracy kicks in. The movies are free, yet I still had to “purchase” my tickets at the Student Union table, and a member wrote my ID number down. I thought this was unnecessary, but I did what I was told. So after my colloquial Arabic class finished at 3:50 on Thursday, I headed down to the main auditorium to catch the latter half of Harry Potter. As I tried to enter the auditorium, a middle-aged man grabbed my arm and asked for my ticket, which I pulled out of my wallet and gave to him. I’m glad I could provide “work” for this man. When I entered the large auditorium, I found it to be about 10 or 20% full at most. The ticketing process was completely ridiculous, yet the SU still thought it necessary to buy paper tickets, keep track of who was coming, staff a table for several days before the movie, and provide a doorman to check tickets. In America, this would be a joke, but in Egypt’s culture of bureaucracy, it was all just standard operating procedure.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Jordan: Travels in the Hashemite Kingdom

October 11th was the final day of Ramadan, which meant AUC had a four-day weekend. Most students capitalized on this opportunity and traveled to nearby countries—Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan. I chose the later, mostly because of Petra, but I had also heard rumors of other spectacular sights. Jordan’s proximity to Egypt also made it an attractive option.

I traveled to Jordan with two other AUC students, Alysa, from Georgetown, and Caryn, from Bates College in Maine. A fourth member of our group decided last minute to visit Turkey instead, so our group was just three as we left downtown Cairo on Thursday. Unfortunately the traffic was horrendous, even by Cairo standards, due to the holiday, and the trip took two hours! Normally the drive would only be about 45 minutes. I was concerned we would not make it to the airport in time, but we moved through customs and baggage check very quickly, and even had time to buy a shake at McDonald’s (only my second McDonald’s purchase since living in Cairo). After a two hour taxi ride and a one hour flight, we arrived safely and punctually in Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport.

The airport shuttle dropped us off in Amman, and after a quick taxi ride we arrived at our budget hotel. Certainly not luxurious, but good enough for us (we only had to kill two cockroaches). Luckily Alysa and Caryn are adventurous and low maintenance, which is part of why we got along so well.

The first stop on our itinerary was the Dead Sea. Getting there proved difficult because busses were irregular during Eid. A taxi drove us to the bus station, a second bus dropped us off closer to the Dead Sea, and a third and final bus got us to our destination. The best part of the journey was meeting two other Westerners traveling on the same busses. Piotr and Ania were a young couple, probably in their late 20’s, who were traveling around Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, where they will attend a friend’s wedding in Beirut. Piotr recently spent four weeks hiking in the Himilayas of Nepal. Since we were heading to the same place, we decided to travel together. Piotr and Anya also greatly appreciated our knowledge of Arabic that, while minimal, was enough to bargain prices, ask directions, and prevent scams. I will write more about them in the coming paragraphs.

The Dead Sea was so much fun. Floating around in the water is an experience not to be missed. Swimming is effortless because you ride very high in the water, and there is much less resistance than normal lakes or oceans. You can stand up in the water, float around as if sitting in a recliner, and lay on your back and stare at the sky. The Dead Sea is also famous for its therapeutic, mineral-rich green mud that leaves the skin unbelievably soft. I have pictures of us all covered in green mud walking around like Martians from an old cartoon.

After a few hours at the Dead Sea, we all showered, changed, and ate a light lunch. Piotr and Ania were traveling to nearby Mt. Nebo and Madaba, and we decided to travel together. We like each other’s company very much, plus we could share the expense of taxis. Mt. Nebo is the site where Moses supposedly viewed the Promised Land and died after leading his people out of the desert. The Bible says, “On that same day the Lord told Moses, ‘Go up into the Abarim Range to Mount Nebo in Moab, across from Jericho, and view Canaan, the land I am giving the Israelites as their own possession. There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people.’” (Deuteronomy 32: 48-50). Mt. Nebo was my second Moses mountain in two weeks, although this time I rode up in a minibus. The view from the top was excellent, and we toured the small church at the top that features an amazing collection of mosaics created (if I remember correctly) sometime in the 5th century AD.

After about a half hour on Mt. Nebo, we drove down to the local town of Madaba, best known for its collection of mosaics. The most famous is located inside a local church and features an outstanding map of the Holy Land including all the important religious sites and major bodies of water. I think the mosaic was slightly overrated, but it was nice to see nonetheless. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if there wasn’t a wedding photo shoot going on at the same time with little kids running under the ropes and stomping on this priceless, centuries-old artistic masterpiece.

Day 2—Wadi Rum

We met up at the south bus station with Piotr and Ania early Saturday morning for a bus to Wadi Rum, a beautiful desert area in southern Jordan. Since no buses were going direct to Wadi Rum, we boarded a bus to Aqaba, which dropped us off along the desert highway 15 km from Wadi Rum. After a little negotiating, we found a driver willing to take us to Wadi Rum for a reasonable price. Wadi Rum has a nice visitors center, and here you can chose from a variety of jeep and camel safaris through the area. We decided on a 5-hour tour to all the main sites.

Wadi Rum was stunning in every way. Our jeep rumbled through the rough, sandy valley floors between large, steep rock formations. We hiked through a deep, narrow canyon carved out of sandstone by wind and water. We climbed up natural, picturesque rock bridges and took pictures of the beautiful scenery from below. I ran down a giant sand dune after climbing to the top with tremendous effort, my shoes filled with red sand. Still out of breath, we stopped in the middle of a valley to watch the sun set over the mountains.

Most people camp out in the desert, but we had not booked beforehand, and the cheapest option was to sleep on top of the rest house. I was fine with this because we enjoyed the same beautiful view of the night sky and the pleasure of sleeping outside in fresh, cool air. Before bed, we enjoyed a nice buffet dinner at the rest house, complete with a large pot of complimentary tea. The five of us sat and chatted for a couple hours, although Piotr was suffering a little from an upset stomach that everyone gets at least once when traveling in the Middle East.

Day 3—Petra

I woke up on Saturday refreshed and eager to see Petra. A convenient minibus direct to Petra left at 8:30am, and we arrived into the nearby town at around 10:30. Upon arrival, we found a nice, clean, inexpensive hotel recommended in one of the guide books. The best part was the free shuttle between the hotel and the Petra entrance gate that saved us both time and money. As we settled in to the hotel, my stomach had butterflies of anticipation for what I would soon see. I had been dying to see Petra for a long time, and now I was halfway across the globe, just minutes from the entrance.

After buying our tickets, Piotr, Ania, and I headed down the path toward the canyon (Alysa unfortunately left her wallet at the hotel, so Caryn and her were a few minutes behind). As you walk down the hill, you see holes dug in the rock and a few temples carved out of the soft sandstone, a prelude to what is to come. Then you enter the Siq, the unbelievably beautiful canyon entrance that covers a distance of about three quarters of a mile. At times the canyon is only about 10 feet wide and probably over 200 feet tall. The trip in is incredible in every since of the word. It was literally not credible. Surreal is a better term. Pictures don’t do justice. Then, after strolling through the canyon for about 20 minutes, the famous Treasury jumps out of nowhere, a giant edifice carved out of the rock, towering over the canyon with sublime grandeur. I stood in front of the Treasury for several minutes just staring up in awe.

After several minutes, Caryn and Alysa caught up with us, and we began our trek through the rest of the city. Petra is massive, and it really takes two days to see it all. After exploring some of the buildings, we climbed up a path to the sacrificial point overlooking the city. The view from the top made the hike worth it. We then made our way back down and explored the “downtown,” which includes the remains of several free-standing temples, gates, and other buildings. By this time the sun was beginning to set, but I wanted to make sure to climb up to the Monastery, Petra’s second-most famous building, located on the opposite end of the city from the Treasury and a full 800 steps up a mountain. I reached the top, but didn’t have much time to enjoy the views. I needed to return to the Treasury by 5:15 to meet up with my group. To get an idea of how big the Petra complex is, it took me a full 45 minutes to walk from one end of the Petra complex to the other, a journey that could easily have lasted more than an hour if I wasn’t in such a hurry. And this doesn’t include the trek through the Siq, which take an additional 15 minutes.

We returned to the hotel exhausted and hungry, so we grabbed a taxi to a local restaurant where we munched on fresh falafel, humus, and bread. I ate a huge amount of food and was ready to crash upon returning to the hotel. My day in Petra was over, and I fell asleep more than satisfied with the day’s adventures.

Day 4—Jerash

We grabbed an early bus from Petra to Amman, which took a little less than three hours after which we jumped stations to take a bus to Jerash. Located northwest of Amman, Jerash is home to one of the largest and best preserved Roman cities. Among the many sites are a large hippodrome for chariot racing, two well-preserved theaters, an impressive center square lined with columns, and a half mile of paved road with groves still visible from chariot wheels. In all, we spent a couple hours viewing the main sites, and I’m very glad we made the trip. One of the best parts was the 45-minute bus ride from Amman to Jerash. The countryside was beautiful, with many hills and valley. At times I felt like I was driving through the European countryside with fertile valleys filled with a spattering of rustic farmhouses and a patchwork quilt of carefully tilled land. But my favorite sight of all was the pine trees—tall and straight and green, just like home. There are no pine trees in Egypt.

As the airport shuttle drove us out of Amman, I couldn’t help but notice how much nicer Amman is than Cairo. Cleaner, less crowded, and expanding, Amman is a welcome relief from the hectic life of the Egyptian capital. The taxis are new, clean models rather than the 1985 Fiats running around the streets of Cairo, spewing all kinds of toxic chemicals into the air. Stoplights, new skyscrapers, a minimal military presence, taxis with meters. All of these sights are microcosms of the tremendous economic, social, and political difference between Egypt and Jordan.

Interestingly, though, as I sat on the plane with my friends, waiting to return to Cairo, I thought of only one thing: I’m glad to be coming home.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Importance of Language

I always knew that English was a hard language, but I didn’t understand how hard until I started teaching English myself. Working with Sudanese refugees at the low intermediate level, I have a lot of work to do. In the first two lessons we discussed the past tense. That’s easy, right? I mean all you do is add “ed” to the end of everything. But wait. The word “live” already ends in e, so all you add is “d.” And “study” requires you to change “y” to “i” and add “ed.” And “stop” requires a doubled consonant because the second to last letter is a vowel, and the word ends in a letter other than “w” or “y.” And isn’t the word “cook” just like “stop,” so you spell it with two k’s? Did I mention irregular verbs?

Wow. All these rules, and we haven’t even moved beyond the past tense.

I’ve been thinking: how do I explain the word “did” or the past participle, or the fact that “ing” is used for gerunds and infinitives and some adjectives (but of course not all! How simple that would be!)

I have always loved learning languages. I took Spanish in high school and college and then picked up Arabic as well. I have a knack for grammar, which is why I love Arabic, with its flexible word order and complex rules for case markings. Learning foreign language has changed how I look at the ways in which people communicate with each other. I see language not through the lens of English, with its awkward grammar and countless exceptions, but through a linguistic perspective. Language is a structured mechanism that allows people to express themselves orally. Learning to handle language, not English, is what develops a good writer and a good student.

Why then do we in the United States not learn foreign languages from a very young age like the rest of the world? The vast majority of students who study foreign language never “use” it. But this doesn’t make it worthless. Language is a structure that must be mastered. Language is an analytical skill not unlike math because proper language is developed through an analysis of order and function.

One thing is certain: if students started learning foreign language at the elementary age, writing and grammar would be so much easier.

The End of Ramadan and the Beginning of the End

As this week comes to a close, Cairo is preparing for the end of Ramadan and a huge celebration known as a Eid al-Fitr. For me, this means I get a four-day weekend and enough free time to travel to Jordan. Although I am eager to explore Jordan’s many historic sites and beautiful nature preserves, nothing excites me more than the thought of Petra, the ancient city carved out of the deep canyons of southern Jordan. I won’t lie; my fascination with Petra began after seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and learning that the location of the final scenes was a real city several thousands years old and closed off the Westerners until the 19th century. I hope it doesn’t disappoint.

Eid al-Fitr also serves as the half-way point of the semester. When I return from Jordan, I have only two months before I return home for winter break. Time has passed so quickly! The last two months will be busy with midterms, term papers, and preparation for finals. Eid al-Fitr is certainly the beginning of the end of the semester.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sinai: Or, How I Climbed in the Footsteps of Moses and Swam with Tropical Fish

"When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:18)

Interestingly, my latest excursion outside of Cairo actually began on the 6th of October, 1793, thirteen years before I was born. On this date, the Egyptian army recaptured parts of the Sinai Peninsula from Israel in a brief war that was more of a political victory for President Anwar Sadat than a laudable military achievement. But Egyptians take great pride in this day. The 6th is a national holiday, and one of the major highways through downtown Cairo bears its name. Because the 6th was a Saturday this year, the government announced a national holiday on Sunday the 7th in order to give people a three day weekend. Although the government has known since 1973 that the 6th would fall on a Saturday in 2007, it announced the extra day off less than a week ago. Oh, how I love Egypt! Nontheless, I jumped on the opportunity to take a weekend trip to Mt. Sinai.

Getting to Mt. Sinai is not easy. The best way to get there is to fly to Sharm al-Sheikh and catch a bus to the mountain, but most AUC students take the cheaper option and go by bus. I left Cairo at 12:15am on Thursday evening and arrived in Dahab after nine hours, three passport checks, and four hours of sleep. Dahab is a popular resort town popular among divers because of its world-class coral reefs. After a relaxing lunch by the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba, I went with three other AUC students to Mt. Sinai. The drive itself through the majestic deserts of Sinai was stunning. Huge rock formations shoot up from the flat desert floor in dramatic fashion, deep canyons of soft sandstone appear suddenly after bends in the road, and the sands constantly change color and texture, advertising how diverse and beautiful the desert can be. The sublime grandeur of the landscape transcends words, but if metaphor could do justice, imagine the Pyrenees, steep and sharp, but one-tenth the size. Replace green forests with wind-sculpted stone, and snow-capped peaks with sprinkles of course sand. This is one image of the desert carved by time.

Upon arriving at the base of Mt. Sinai, we met up with another group of four AUC students and began the climb to the top. We moved steadily up the mountain hoping to arrive to watch the sunset and grab blankets and mattresses for camping overnight. The walk was beautiful as we wound our way up the path and climbed the steep steps to the summit. We made it in time for an amazing sunset and ate a rough dinner of crackers, bread, and dry cereal that we brought with us up the mountain. Bedouins rented blankets and mattresses, and we all settled down for bed at about 6:30pm. I was surprised how many other tourists were there, and it was difficult to find a spot to sleep. To my displeasure, the other six guys found a spot only big enough for five people to huddle close and keep warm at night. I, after climbing down part of the mountain to find one of the girls who had not returned after buying a cup of coffee, was the odd man out, and my efforts to make extra room were treated with a frustratingly stubborn attitude from the other guys that somehow my efforts to find a place to sleep were nothing but a rude inconvenience to everyone else. I finally chose to take my blanket and mattress to another location and sleep by myself. I ended up in the same area as the two girls in our group, and we shared blankets in losing battle to fight off the cold.

I knew Mt. Sinai would be cold, but not this cold. I was uncomfortably cold despite wearing two pairs of jeans, two pairs of socks, a t-shirt, a long sleeve t-shirt, a jacket, and two blankets with the assistance of extra body heat. The cold was unfortunate because it distracted me from the amazing view of the night sky: thousands of stars, the rich white band of the Milky Way, a crescent moon, satellites moving tranquilly across the sky, and the occasional spotting of a shooting star. Most nights in Cairo, I can see maybe five stars, and that is no exaggeration. Sinai was beautiful, but tired and cold, I failed to fully appreciate the experience.

The same was true for the sunrise. Most tourists take a 2am hike up the mountain, see the sunrise, and then head down again. The 5:30am sunrise was dramatic, but I feel that I was incapable of absorbing everything to its potential. Only after looking at my pictures did I fully realize what an amazing experience Mt. Sinai truly was.

After hiking down the mountain along a different route than we climbed up, our taxi drove us back to Dahab. The other three guys wanted to stay late and take the night bus back, but I had no interest in doing that again. After hardly sleeping for two nights, I wanted to be back in my own bed, so I took the 2:30pm bus. But before that, I took advantage of Dahab’s coral reefs and went snorkeling. The reefs are literally just meters from the beach. A rainbow of colors meets the eye: coral and fish in every shape and size. I was inches from fish wearing colors of bright yellow, fluorescent blues, bold oranges, and rich reds. I felt as if I were swimming in the aquariums of a world-class zoo.

The drive home was fitting for my weekend. The bus broke down twice, which cost us another hour, and my seat on the replacement bus would not recline. I spent 8 hours with a straight chair, my knees hitting the seat in front of me. And then at the Sharm passport check, the security guard did not accept the photocopies of my passport and residence visa, so I had to get off the bus and explain the situation to another guard, all of this after not having any problem at any of the previous three checkpoints.

I finally arrived back in Cairo at 12:30am on Saturday night, and got back to my hotel at 1:15. In the end, I was glad I made the trip to Dahab and Mt. Sinai, but the trip was exhausting and inconvenient. I spent 23 of my 49 hours in a bus or car, and was generally tired or cold the whole time. I’m just glad I have my pictures, because now I can fully appreciate my experience in a warm room with a comfortable chair and a few extra hairs on my chest. Amen to that.

St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
A Bedouin camel guide.
The view from the top.

A man sits on a ledge and takes a photo of the stunning scenery of Mt. Sinai.

Tourists wait for the first rays of sunlight to peak over the mountains.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

STAR: English Classes for Refugees

The Arab world faces an unprecedented humanitarian crisis: millions of refugees have fled their either homes to escape war and seek asylum. Some were forced to leave, others went voluntarily. Refugees from Palestine, Sudan (especially Darfur), and Iraq make up the majority of political refugees worldwide. Cairo, as the largest city in the Arab world, has a major refugee crisis. Current estimates that I've heard or read range from 175,000 to two million refugees living in Cairo!!! Of Cairo's refugees, most are from Sudan, and about 150,000 are from Iraq, and more are arriving every day. I can’t even begin to imagine the horrors that some of these people have witnessed. The United Nations refugee agencies must be inundated with requests. The economy of Cairo is certainly incapable of supplying enough jobs. Most of these refugees think they will someday be able to return home or move to Europe or the United States, but this is simply not true. Most refugees are here to stay. This is their home. This is their children’s home.

Dr. Paul Farmer once said that the problem in the world today is the false belief that some lives are worth more than others. Like Dr. Paul Farmer, I believe all lives are valuable, that all people deserve a chance to succeed, and that we all share a moral obligation to make this world a better place for all people. I am very privileged. I have the means to make a difference, and I think it would be shame if I refused to do nothing.

Cairo presents a unique opportunity for a native English speaker to reach out to my community. Student Action for Refugees (STAR) is an international service organization that provides humanitarian assistance to refugees in the form of low-cost English classes taught by student volunteers. As soon as I heard about this opportunity, I immediately signed up. This was exactly what I was looking for when I came to Cairo—a service opportunity that I would never otherwise have back in the states. Most importantly, working with refugees provides me with a direct human contact with issues that most people only read about in the newspaper. Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Iraq seem so far away, but now that I live in Cairo, natives of these countries walk the same streets as me, ride the same metro, eat the same food.

My first STAR class was held on Wednesday at the Owafa Center in Ain Shams, an impoverished suburb of Cairo just a few stops form the end of the metro line. Classes are taught in pairs, and I work with a Georgetown student named Vicki. We had five students the first day, and more will probably join. The class is the lower intermediate level, so the students already have a decent background in English. Although there is a curriculum to follow, Vicki and I are responsible for developing lesson plans, designing activities, writing tests, and ensuring the academic progress of our students. The task seems daunting, but STAR provided a very helpful training session with an ESL professor at AUC. Teaching will inevitably be a challenge, but based on my first class, the experience is well worth the effort.