Archive for the ‘egypt stories’ Category

This is a copy of an email I received yesterday from a friend and fellow American, Lynel Long,  who lived in Cairo and worked there.  She is an amazing woman who has celebrated many successes in her career working on behalf of women and girls. I first met her in DC in the early 90s and was thrilled to reconnect with her in Cairo.  As I learned more about her career over the past two decades I was amazed at the work she has done on behalf of the disenfranchised and vulnerable and knew I had a lot to learn from her–both in terms of her knowledge about the issues of the work we shared but also about being a savvy consultant who has an extraordinary talent and capacity for making a difference.  It’s always very special to meet role models even at the ripe old age of “almost 60” (and I say that age with pride and cherish every gray hair on my head!) and it was a real treat to be able to learn from her.

Lynel returned to Cairo just over a week ago and has been sharing her initial reactions to life in the new Egypt.  I am lucky to be among the group to receive the updates.  Her email yesterday made my heart sing with joy because it is so full of hope and is one of the most optimistic accounts about what’s going on there that I’ve seen.

Lynel’s account of Friday in Cairo:

There may have been as many as half a million in Tahrir Square by mid afternoon.  It was a beautiful sunny but breezy day and the crowds were out. En route, you could buy flags, t-shirts, banners, 25Jan bumper stickers, and of course, nutritious sausages, foul, and soda pop.

En route across the October 6th Bridge, some young couples were already singing and dancing.  In the Square itself, there were a few groups of marchers weaving in and out of the crowd in support of the Libyan protestors although they didn’t go anywhere very fast.  Thousands of people were waving Egyptian flags so it was quite colourful.  To rock music and protest songs, people were dancing on the balconies of the Haussman buildings overhead, on tops of statues, and one young man on a swaying mail box.  Families were picnicking off to the side of the square and on the Nile, boats of protesters singing and dancing were taking these youth up the river.  The military was guarding the Egyptian Museum.

Young polite and well dressed volunteers asked for identification again to go into the Square.  They had it all very organized (more than anything else these days).  I showed my passport as we did during the protests.  The young man who conscientiously compared face to photo then welcomed us warmly.

The mood had already changed visibly yesterday as the announcement came over 100s of cell phones that Essam Sharaf, the civil engineering professor,  early opposition supporter, and former Min of Transport, was made the interim PM yesterday.  Not sure it all will make that  big a difference since getting investment – foreign and domestic in again – people back to work, kids back to school, and maybe a few of the good young police back on the streets are key.  There are some food and water outages and the Central Bank (officially closed) is trying to stave off inflation by buying LE so banks are on very abbreviated hours but food prices are still rising with the price of oil. The stock market remains closed and the currency is basically non convertible for now.

This particular Friday afternoon, the atmosphere was somewhere between a mardi gras festival and Hyde Park Speakers Corner.  It does appear that people are also congregating there to organize new political coalitions and interest groups.

If the Government is going to make a park where the NDP was burnt down (just by the Egyptian Museum) and as proposed, perhaps they could just extend the green space all the way to Tahrir Square and re-route traffic around central Cairo?  The use of that space has already changed significantly.

I’m back to commuting on the metro again and saw a funny incident yesterday evening. A group of young to middle aged men got on the women’s car (it was after all past 18:30).  A group of young women then got up and protested loudly and tried to push them off at the next stop.  The two groups proceeded to have a face-to-face shouting match for the next three stops almost all the way to Sadat Station.  Finally the guys got off and the women gave a satisfied “AT LAST!!” look.  So gender relations are a changing..

Per the message below, I wouldn’t advise putting much faith in fortress America that had some 12 vehicles stolen by thugs who then ran over protesters.  Another winning hearts and minds moment. The Embassy is officially closed and barricaded although you can try to call ahead for an appointment.

And in Britain, Lord Owen is explaining once again why the international community cannot and should not intervene (this time in Tripoli) without a UN resolution.  With China and Russia voting on that, it will be a cold day in …..as the Sarajevans know well.  And, after how many years of petrol interventions on behalf of Muammar? Love those Italian ladies (doubt that they shout on trams) and his best friend, Silvio.  Bring it on guys….




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I have no idea what it must be like to be so young and feel such responsibility for the future of my country.  I think as Americans many of us are ambivalent about our country, our politics and certainly the plight of all those around us.  From the moment Rana first spoke to me about what was going to happen I have been both incredibly proud of her for her vision and courage but scared to death for her as well.  I asked her to share a message with you–to let you hear “her words” rather than my interpretation of them.   Please leave comments for her–she needs our support.  I urged her to start her own blog but maybe it’s better for her this way and gives her a bit of a filter and protection if she does it this way.  Here’s what Rana has to say–please listen:

I am not good in writing Diane plus I am either in the street or glued to the TV or talking to my friends who I left in Tahrir square. I will write something after this ends. I will send it to you I received calls yest. night from people I worked with in NGOs and friends from slum areas , they were suffering from the food increase prices so I took money from my family and food and went this morning to give it to them I also took food from your house to them as you asked me to do. I asked them about how they feel and they say it’s a good thing what happened but it’s enough please don’t go again to Tahrir square and tell your friends not to go there again pls. they say they have commitments like house rent and they can’t buy food as food prices are increasing and they don’t have money. They are paid on daily bases and their work is stopped because of what is happening in Tahrir. One laughed and said stop before we make a demonstration “To Stop what’s happening”. They told me we know how much you care about us and people so please stop and if things didn’t go well Tahrir square will always be there.

We are so confused Diane, I don’t know what’s wrong and what’s right. I don’t know whether we should continue going to Tahrir square or not, especially after what I heard in slum area today. On the other hand I say that if Mubarak stayed the Cancer will spread (using your example) but I don’t want that people I care about suffer. I meeting my lawyer friends this afternoon because some say that the constitution states that in case Mubarak left and the vice president was responsible. The demands we want can’t happen like the amendments of constitution. But what I’m sure of is still people who are in Tahrir square are not driven by Muslim brotherhood or any other opposing parties as they claim.

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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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In the past two weeks I’ve been making visits to our field offices to visit training workshops taking place.  For the most part I’m not really a rah rah rah American but I have to admit I was proud to be able to attend these workshops and be able to tell folks it was my American tax dollars that made their participation possible.

This summer the project I work on will be training over 4500 teachers in grades 1-9 in a series of workshops—using computers and ICT equipment, teaching early grade reading (grades K2-3) in Arabic and introducing active learning and student friendly teaching methodologies for teachers in grades 1-9.  For many of these teachers it may be some of the first professional development they’ve had in their careers—at least the kind we host—participatory, hands on, and engaged in active group learning.

It’s very exciting to observe the impact of our training. Although some of the participants are a bit suspicious of why America would provide this training for them (in one school a woman wearing a hijab ran after me and asked my program assistant, Rana, “Why is America doing this for us?”) most of them are just so excited to participate in the training and learn things that will make their jobs more effective and more fun.  One man in an ICT training in Qena stood up and told me “This training is an act of friendship between the governments of Egypt and America and we thank them both.”

So, thanks America.  Thanks for caring enough that more children and especially girls are able to attend school in countries around the world.  And thanks for caring that these children should be learning in classrooms where teachers are trained to be kind, to treat the children with respect and dignity.  Thanks America for joining forces with so many other countries and organizations to make the world a better place.  Thanks folks…YOU ROCK!!!

I need to edit this post.  I went to training in Beni Suef today.  Saw about 350 teachers being trained.  They are so appreciative and excited about what they’re learning.  Loved the school we visited.  The walls in many of the classrooms were covered in Xmas paper!!  It was very old but so incredibly colorful.  I’m sure they have NO idea their walls are gift wrapped in holiday cheer!!!

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Since moving to Egypt I’ve been asked by many people what it’s like to live in a predominantly Islamic country? Although I can understand why people ask me this question on one level—to be honest the question perplexes me on multiple levels.

The other day I began to deconstruct the question in an effort to try and understand what people are REALLY asking me. Are they asking me do I worry about my safety and think I might be at some greater risk from terrorism because I’m living in the Middle East? Or maybe they wonder if as a woman there are issues around the role women have in an Islamic society and how that impacts me in terms of the way I live my life or how I feel about women having to be covered. Or maybe the question revolves around being in a country where most people don’t subscribe to Christian-Judaism beliefs.

There may be a host of other things that drive their thinking and questions to me. But this is what I’ve thought so far. As I think of more or am asked some other more direct questions I can respond to them. But here’s my answer to these.

Terrorism: To be perfectly honest I think I worry more about this when I’m in some large city in the US than here. But I have never let the threat of terrorism drive how I live my life. When I was in college I spent a year living in England during the most turbulent years of the conflict between the English military and the IRA. I saw how folks there went on about their daily lives in the midst of religious and political dynamics that often erupted in violent senseless acts of terrorism.

One time in the early 90s I was attending a work conference in Manchester when a bomb went off in a store I had been shopping in just a few hours earlier. The memory of that event still stays with me and underscores how much being at the wrong place at the wrong time is such a critical factor in all these acts of horror. These events aren’t personal in terms of “who” they target–they are generally pretty random other than hitting on certain “categories” of people. But they couldn’t be more personal in terms of the impact they have on the lives of their victims. They will be forever changed.

I don’t take needless chances. I don’t’ here; I don’t in the US; I don’t anywhere I am. I avoid any kind of demonstrations; I am careful about the areas in which I visit particularly on my own. I try to respect the culture and I certainly treat people with respect and dignity—at least I hope I do. And I think following these guidelines gives me an element of protection. But with the way things are anymore in our chaotic world—one never knows. And you just can’t let that kind of fear decide how you live your life.

I have been treated with politeness and kindness during the time I’ve been here. The thing that stands out most is that everyone who I interact with on a daily basis from the bowab who guards my building to the taxi cab drivers who struggle with my pathetic directions and instructions in Arabic to my colleagues at work is they are just like me. As I listen to their stories about trying to pay for their bills that add up to more than they earn in a month or take care of sick parents or children or enjoy a quiet weekend at home with their family–I am continually impressed with how we are so much more alike than how we are different. If only we could translate this awareness of our shared humanity into something that would make our world a safer and kinder place to live together in peace and harmony.

Feminism and the role of women: Many years ago when writing my dissertation on women and girl’s education in Rwanda—I was struck by how crazy my agenda was in a world that made no sense to me against the backdrop of my personal ideology about women’s roles and responsibilities. That momentous effort was over two decades ago and sadly my thinking and efforts to reconcile my personal perspective in a culture other than my own is no farther evolved today than it was then.

I’ll never forget the angry, frustrated, resentful challenge of a young girl who was one of the top students in the secondary school classroom where I observed day in and day out of my right to come in and blithely ask my questions about their lives. She challenged the meaning of my questions and what I was doing to really leverage any real change for her future. Her anger and frustration poignantly underscored the hopelessness of her desire to go on to university and to do something in her life other than what her mother did and her mother’s mother and all the mother’s before them did—get married, have babies and work the fields.

From her perspective my questions about her role and options smacked of a most insidious and ironic form of paternalism. And it also unearthed her simmering resentment of a world outside her own that offered glimpses of what she wanted but no path on how to get there. My role in that process continues to haunt me even today and I have the same sense of helplessness every time I visit a place where I know there are young girls who want more but have no opportunity to achieve their dreams. And it’s so tragic on so many levels.

But the problem with what I was doing then and what I’m still doing today is that the dynamics between opportunity to go beyond your limited horizons and the cultural and traditional roles that define gender boundaries and modes of conduct are blurred and often hard to disentangle. As outsiders we tend to focus our attention on things that are not that significant in the larger view of things. Wearing scarves and veils strike me as one of those things. The taboo about touching a woman who is not your wife or a family member is another.

My sister said to me the other day something to the effect of it’s the woman who has to carry the burden of being covered, acting differently—and there seems to be an inherent unfairness in that. Well, this is true and it’s been the case for generations everywhere–the double standard. Men in our country can run around without tops on and their pants hanging so low on their midriff they leave little to your imagination (at least on the backside). But as disgusting as many of them look—there are no societal rules about their public display of body parts unless it gets extreme. In contrast, in some communities a nursing mother is forbidden to bare her chest to feed her hungry baby. Is this unfair? Yes. But what is the real goal we should be going for in this situation? I’m not convinced that equal opportunity to bare body parts is the leavening needed to provide equal opportunity for education, work opportunities, career paths, and salaries. These things that many view as the visible manifestations of oppression often are not that meaningful within the local context and redirect the dialogue in a way that does more harm than good.

I plug away working at my little corner of the world doing what I can do. I just want to make classrooms a better place for both boys and girls. I want to ensure more children leave primary school able to read a book and do basic math. I want them to be happy, healthy, free from abuse and the horrible conditions that so often plague the lives of poor children. Beyond that—well, I can’t lose sight of my objectives and goals. All the other stuff isn’t in my line of vision. I don’t have the energy anymore to fight battles beyond that.

Christian-Judaism beliefs: The dictionary tells me that a belief is an opinion or conviction; a confidence in truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof: it is framed around faith; trust and based on a tenet creed or faith. But it also tells me that values revolve around merit and worth and importance and that values have a significance, force, meaning and ethics.

Based on what I’ve seen in the time I’ve lived here—our beliefs may be different but our values are all the same.

For me, that says it all.

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Birthday Celebrations

I am so lucky to have such a wonderful group of people to work with.  My birthday is Friday and since the work week ends today and Sunday is a key holiday in Egypt my team took me on a birthday outing last night.  And the GILO staff had a birthday celebration complete with three types of cake.  I am SO SO spoiled by all of this.  How lucky can one person be?

So, as part of my birthday outing to the Khan Kalili (the oldest bizaar in the world) where we among other things had coffee at an outdoor coffee shop that’s several hundred years old (Fishawy) I was henna-fied by a Sudanese lady.  See my beautiful tatoos?

Being painted with henna.

Finished product

I’ll add more photos from the evening once I can figure out how to download them from my Iphone.

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In preparation for my unexpected trip back to the States mom and grandma needs to get some gifts to take back to the US.  I have the most incredible selection of beautiful Egyptian handicrafts….there are incredible Bedouin rugs (my apartment is full of them), hammered brass trays and brass embedded picture frames, wall hangings…you name it.  There are brightly colored ceramic beads that make beautiful necklaces, an array of poufs (http://www.faridaspassions.com/categories/Home,-Restaurant-Decor-/Leather-Pouffe{47}Footstool/), hand blown glass Christmas tree ornaments.  So much to buy and so little money to pay for it all.  But, Christmas only comes once a year and since I missed it this past year I can make up for it this weekend. WOOHOO…..a shopping we will go, a shopping we will go, Khan Kalili (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMwzaJzOOvYl) yes a shopping we will go!

Well, a shopping we have gone…a shopping we have gone—glass Christmas bulbs, jewelry, rugs, dolls, wine, fez hats, mother of pearl boxes, beautiful paintings. poufs–didn’t get everything i wanted but I think I did pretty well with the budget I gave myself and the time I had to get stuff. I regret I couldn’t find anything in “pink” since my one daughter-in-law just LOVES pink but…I learned I can order Christmas bulbs in pink for her which I can bring back in August with me.  Also learned that I can get bulbs made with folks names written on them in all manner of languages.  Very cool.

Next challenge–get it all in the suitcases and manage to lug it around at the airports. Oh yeah…back ache here we come!!!

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