copy Excellent Adventures in Egypt

Enter here to share Joni's adventures living and working in Cairo courtesy of the U.S. Fulbright cultural exchange program. Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilization. - Mahatma Ghandi


September 17, 2004 Weekly Activity Report

It’s been a busy week in il-qahiyra (Cairo, “victorious city” in Arabic). I’m up to four official picture ID cards (no trouble remembering who I am), have opened an Egyptian bank account (only took 1 and ½ hours – fortunately, there was no line), have purchased a few pieces of very fashionable clothing, styled for Muslim ladies (thereby attracting even less attention as I saunter down the streets), and pleased myself immensely by directing a clueless taxi driver to my flat – with no wrong turns. What competency! Last Sunday, Moshira took me to the weekly meeting of the Saqqara Chapter of the Rotary Club, of which she is an active member. Flashback to mid-August, when Roger Hoogerheide (an EPA colleague) lasso’ed me outside his cubicle and asked me to look for an Engineers Without Borders project while I was in Egypt. (Roger is co-chair of the committee that selects projects for the organization to undertake.) I mentioned this to Moshira and she told me that her Rotary chapter takes on a community project each year, and that this year the group was looking at ways to help a very poor village outside Giza. Sounded like a potentially good match for EWB, so I tagged along with Moshira to talk about the idea with the club. The chapter meets in the very posh Gezira Club (a holdover from British colonial days) which is now a very popular – and very busy athletic-cum-social club for the well-to-do and the movers and shakers of Cairo. They didn’t want to let me in the door – no surprise, since I am neither well-to-do, not mover-shaker and a foreigner to boot – but Moshira persisted and finally got me in by paying a E£ day use fee (for which she would let me reimburse her). The Rotarians were warm and welcoming, a 50-50 mix of men and women, all with the air of business and professional folks. The group divided quite naturally into women on one side table and men on the other (contrary to the mix-em-up style in similar meetings in the States) but the meeting dynamic was just like home. Although the conversation was conducted in that “other language” (with Moshira helpfully interpreting from time to time), I didn’t have a lot of difficulty following the proceedings because of long experience…people are people not matter where and who we are. The group enthusiastically endorsed the EWB idea, Roger-on-the-spot immediately e-mailed and application form, and the Committee is scurrying around collecting information and taking photos. I think I may get to go with them tomorrow to visit the Vilage and “listen in” while the Rotarians talk with local council and governate members. And I think I’m going to be made an honorary Rotarian – should get me in the door in the Gezira Club more easily next time I attend a meeting. I’ve spent a lot of time this week just getting settled, mentally and physically. By Friday last week I started to feel like all of me was finally in the same time zone, and I found myself making street turnings automatically as I walked around Zamalek. I am astounded by how much energy it takes to be “on alert” all the time. In Boulder/Denver I make my around on auto-pilot most of the time, never having to think about where I’m going ‘cuz my feet just take me there. In this new and foreign place, I find myself having to think about things like “this corner or the next?” all the time and it is really exhausting. It’s nice to feel some routines start to settle in. I acquired a printer and hooked it up – hamdulillah! – have started organizing notes and files for the curriciulum project and have started putting together notes for the various lectures I’m being asked to do. Dr. Mona, who teaches Transportation in the Tourism Faculty, has asked me to do a lecture on transportation environmental impacts next week. Eman came up with the great idea of using Nile cruises as one of our curriculum case studies (wonderful opportunities to do some comparisons with Costa Rica and the US). If Dr. Mona agrees, we’ll put together a second lecture and exercise with the students researching various aspects of environmental impacts of Nile cruise ships. We plan to have Eman’s 1st year Masters’ students (Tourism Development course) do a similar exercise around protected areas (resorts, environment, culture). I also expect to do some presentations for the faculty and TAs on sustainability and ecology, sharing some of the ways we are trying to introduce these concepts in Colorado. Helwan has no environmental courses whatsoever in its curriculum, so this is very new ground here. Moshira toured me around the beautiful Faculty of Fine Arts in Zamalek on Tuesday. This campus includes arts, architecture and design, and it was a lot of fun wandering through design studio spaces and knowing instantly where I was. (For the ENVD folks: studio classes have 50 students and lecture classes routinely contain 200-300 people.) The Fine Arts campus is centered around two villas that once belonged to a pasha and his daughter. The villas and grounds were confiscated by the government during the Nasser years, and the University has built classroom buildings in the grounds. It’s a wonderful, rambling maze of courtyards and benches and student art everywhere: brilliantly colored mosaics, sculptures, paintings. The whole complex feels very alive and bursting with creativity. There is even a “free school” for folks who aren’t enrolled in a diploma program but just want to learn to draw. I met the Dean – a gentle, gracious gentleman – and several of Moshira’s colleagues. They have asked me to do one or two presentations as well, but I’m not sure about the subject yet – Moshira and I will figure out what makes sense, I’m sure. It’s good that I’m being asked to do these lectures since, to no one’s surprise, the “security” people have asked that I concentrate on lecturing, not research in my grant. (It’s supposed to be about 80% research and 20% lecture.) These mysterious folks are really worried about having foreigners running around the country asking questions. I can’t do any kind of formal, standardized interviews (“please fill out these questions”) or use a tape recorder to record conversations. I can have “informal discussions” with people (open ended questions) and hamdulilah for Eman and the students, since they can act with more freedom than I. This is what life is like under a regime that is hyper-paranoid and intent on controlling information – keep that image in mind, all you folks back home, and get out that vote! Eman and I have already had several interesting “informal discussions.” (Thanks to god for Eman! She is a delight to work with – exceptionally bright, very quick, sweetly open-minded – and is obviously very well-regarded in the tourism world here. She is getting us immediate access to people that it would take me weeks to see.) We are asking about what sustainability means to people here and how the concept is being played out in the tourism industry. So far, feedback is that there isn’t much concept of sustainability here, although folks are using that term (and eco-tourism) in some marketing contexts. The folks we’ve been talking with are former agency and authority heads, with broad understanding of the industry, and they seem fairly frustrated by Egypt’s inability to take control of its own destiny with respect to tourism. I’m hearing a lot about how awful mass tourism (a.k.a. “garbage tourism”) is for the country, and how mass tourism has brought about a decline in the both quality of tourists and the tourism experience. GATT will open up the market here to direct foreign operation and people are expecting a lot of dislocation – opportunities and dangers, just like the Chinese character for change. It will be very interesting to learn whether this view continues to prevail as our “informal discussions” move to operators and younger people. I also spent a lot of time checking out library resources this week. The delightful Helwan librarians (Mme.s Zenab, Sphab and Iman) provided me with my first picture ID, a thumb-sized pix on my all-in-Arabic library card (membership purchased for E£40). The American University folks are handing out membership cards to Fulbright grantees for free this year, a change from prior practice. Once again. the contrast between Helwan and AUC couldn’t be greater: four floors of stacks, separate banks of computers for printing and research, access to on-line data bases and interlibrary loan, and a restful, shaded courtyard just outside the library door with quiet corners and livelier spaces for student hang-out and student group activities. There’s even a snack bar. But Helwan’s dusty little one room library is made very welcoming by the library ladies, who thoughtfully position the fan breeze my way when I’m sitting at one of the long tables reading and taking notes. On Sunday I’ll pick up my 5th picture ID/3rd library card at the American Embassy. What an experience that visit was! Unlike other embassies I have seen, this one is not topped with concertina wire and marine gunposts. It doesn’t need to be: the entire neighborhood around the embassy is blockaded. For blocks around, every street and alleyway is blocked by heavy metal fences, concrete roadblocks and soldiers with automatic weapons. (These are not traffic cops – these are the serious Mubarak-special variety troops.) No one is allowed in, by car or on foot, unless they have specific business at one of the embassies. It was eerie walking down these silent, traffic-less streets knowing that the cacophony of Midan TaHrir (traffic chaos central) is just blocks away. I found myself wishing I were Canadian when I passed their embassy later in the week: broad, inviting plaza entry and one bored cop on guard at the door. I am not proud to be an American these days. (Library membership fee at the US Embassy is only E£5, but I doubt that many people take advantage of the bargain…) So that’s the news from Nile Valley-land, where the women are strong, the men are beautiful and the children are lively and full of mischief.


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