Archive for August, 2010

I arrived in Egypt nearly a year ago right smack in the middle of Ramada. Although I had experienced it in west African countries before it really was a cultural experience being here at that time. It’s a very dynamic time in the yearly cycle of those who follow this very spiritual time of cleansing and renewal.  Although I don’t pretend to understand it all there are some things that really stand out for me.

Although most people outside the world of Islam have a very rudimentary understanding of the tenets of the religion and what happens during that period–my sense is there’s a lot of misconceptions that circulate.  For instance, I’d always heard that not only do they fast and not drink–I’d also heard they can’t swallow their own saliva.  My friends and colleagues tell me this is not traditional and only the most extreme do that.  In reality Muslims mark Ramadan by fasting each day from sunrise to sunset. This is a strict fast – no food and no drink of any sort, not even water.  They also aren’t allowed to smoke which makes it very hard on those who are addicted to nicotine.  Followers  rise early in the morning and take a meal, Suhoor, before dawn and then do their prayers. Their next meal  is taken after the sunset prayer.

Just like Christmas some fear the most important aspect of Ramadan is getting lost in all the social networking that takes place after Iftar–the breaking of the fast in the evening.  I was struck how beautiful the streets of Cairo looked at night decked out in blinking strings of  multi-colored lights and Ramadan lights. And I was also amazed at how the parties lasted well into the wee hours of the morning and flowed out into streets of Maadi because there were so many people out celebrating.  I am told the reason to fast is meant to help followers focus on Allah and the important and meaningful things in life–your family, your health, how you’ve been blessed.

One of the most interesting memories I have of my first Ramadan is of young boys who run between the cars rushing along on the crowded streets in Cairo passing out free water and food once the time has come when they can eat and drink. One of the important things people do during Ramadan–is to share their blessings with others.  The wealthy provide food and aid to the poor–or at least those less fortunate than themselves.  And these young boys running between the cars passing out water and food to the thirsty and hungry exemplifies probably more than any other thing this act of sharing with others.

Special TV programs run series during the month of Ramadan.  I’ve been told they are usually epic stories that often build on the basic theme of good and evil. Although my friends and colleagues are clearly biased they tell me Egypt is known for the excellent Ramadan stories they make–and I think they even have some kind of competition for the best Ramadan series.  The hype is big–for weeks before they start you see lots of trailers and references to the upcoming stories. Despite being limited in understanding them my impression is the setting for them all is always some place in the Middle East and include stories lines that include complex relationships–especially between the men and women.  There seems to be lots of sword fights and men fighting one another.  No surprise here.  Seems to be a pretty generic package for movies anywhere in the world.

I’m glad that I understand Ramadan a little better this year.  I’m mostly glad that I’ve gotten to known a wonderful group of friends who have helped me better understand another culture and religion.  Such a gift–a wonderful Ramadan blessing.

Ramadan Kareem.  Peace and blessings of allah be upon you.


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The first post I ever wrote on my blog (Gods of Garbage) was about the Zeballeen or recylers of Cairo.  My friend and colleague, Laila, has worked with them for nearly 3 decades.  They are mostly Coptic Christians who originally come from the Upper Egypt governorates in southern Egypt.  They are the “displaced” souls who have migrated and resettled in five areas of Cairo and who, for decades, have taken care of waste management for the millions of people living in Cairo.

About four years ago, Laila’s niece who at the time was a film student at NYU, began making a film about three young Zeballeen boys.  Her film was called Garbage Dreams. When she began making the film the three boys all friends growing up in the same garbage neighborhood were in their late teens and contemplating where their lives were headed and how they would survive in a quickly and vastly changing world.

Throughout their lives their future had been clear–they would take over their family-run businesses collecting, sorting and recycling and then reselling the trash of Cairo. But the impact of globalization and more modern ways of doing things threatened their futures and left doubts about their ability to survive and provide for a future family if they couldn’t deal in garbage anymore. Although all three boys had gone to their neighborhood Recycler School (founded and run by Laila’s NGO), their education and more importantly, their cultural capital, left them ill-prepared for many jobs outside their community.  They could read; they could write; they knew how to use computers; but the only world they really knew was the one they lived in and shared with all the unwanted trash of the city.  And outside of that environment they felt both uncomfortable and unwanted.

The Zeballeen actually run one of the most efficient waste management systems in the world.  Depending upon whether garbage is properly sorted (called source management) into perishable food products from non-perishable they actually recycle over 80% of the trash of Cairo–the highest percentage in the world.  But their system which lacks all but the most essential of modern equipment is highly labor intensive–they actually picked the garbage up at the door in apartment buildings–and is perceived as being outdated and not as good.  So, new government policies have resulted in the city contracting garbage collection to more modern international companies who mostly bury the garbage in landfills in the desert areas surrounding Cairo.

The film which was released last year was actually nominated for the Oscars in  the best documentary class. I’m not surprised. I went to the first screening of the film in Egypt on Wednesday night.  It was sobering. It was compelling.  It is definitely a movie worth watching. It’s shocking to get inside of the heads of the Zeballeen who see garbage as a treasure that holds captive all their dreams. It’s freigthening to better understand how on surface levels policies you think are helping the environment might actually be setting back efforts to improve things. And it’s sad to realize that to the “nothing class” of the world–as the boys see themselves–the meager existence they ask from life and the world is so easily threatened and leaves them so vulnerable and invisible and overlooked.

At an international conference about environmental issues Laila’s NGO hosted shortly after I arrived in Cairo I met a lady who’s made a YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLBE5QAYXp8) called The Story of Stuff. Until I watched that I thought I was a pretty responsive person when it came to environmental issues. Her work made me realize I really fall into the category of the problematic.  I’m a hoarder. I’m a buyer.  I’m a stuff-wanter.

I don’t have answers to any of this. I know that all the naysayers out there about no climate change, no environmental problems, no need to do anything about the mess we’re in are–on one level–correct.  From their perspective there isn’t a problem—because they’re not the ones who are going to inherit it.  They aren’t the ones who are struggling to survive in a world in which all these changes are impacting their lives in such draconian ways. They aren’t the ones who are willing to do anything about things to make it better for the others. Indeed, it’s not their problem.  They are not the children who will inherit a world that’s a less friendly place than their grandparents inherited. They aren’t a part of those who care about the “nothing class”.  And I don’t think that they are among the group that care that our world is ever so slowly morphing into a place where I’m not sure I really want to be a part of on so so many levels.

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Growing up I was taught that the Philistines were an ancient people  who occupied the southern coast of Canaan.  According to the Bible the Philistines made frequent incursions against the Israelites. There was almost perpetual war between the two peoples. One of the most infamous of the Philistines was the giant Goliath.  His infamy has been awarded its place in history by the numerous stories and songs about the five little stones, a sling shot and the prowess of   lowly shepherd boy, David, who later became the second king of Israel who defeated and beheaded him in battle.

More recently I learned that the common  meaning of the word philistine is of someone who is lacking in or hostile or smugly indifferent to cultural values, intellectual pursuits, aesthetic refinement, etc., or is contentedlycommonplace in ideas and tastes.  The thesaurus tells me that similar words are: lowbrow, vulgar, or Babbitt.

BABBITT?  HUH?  Seems Sinclair Lewis called one of the characters in his books by this name and indicated he was a middle-class person who easily conformed to his middle-class and conventional ideas self-satisfied with his business and material success.

OK?  Does anyone else fail to follow the logic of all of this?  I guess being a giant in the business world leads one to lose their head and become vulgar and commonplace.

Moral of my “word for today”– trying to figure out the origin of words can be a very confusing ordeal.

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