Monday, August 30, 2010

Ramadan Kareem

Or, Prosperous Ramadan
Ramadan is the Muslim holy month when Muslim people fast from sun-up to sun-down. This is the first Ramadan that has occurred in summer in 32 years, so it is harder on everyone. I have heard many different reasons and meanings for Ramadan, and they are all lovely. Just as in any other religion, there are people here who have stronger faith than others. Women choose to wear the veil (hijab- a head scarf) for 2 reasons. Many women are un-veiled (I work with many women who don’t wear a head scarf unless they are praying). Some because it is culturally expected, and others because they have reached that level in their religion. So people take their fasting more seriously than others. During the fast, people abstain from 5 things- water, food, sex, smoking and impure thoughts. Young children, old people, unwell people, pregnant women and women who have their period do not fast. They are supposed to make up for the fast another time- some do, some don’t (I work with a girl who owes about 2 years!) Ramadan is a time for reflection, to reflect on what you have and to be grateful that you have it. Also to think about people who don’t have food or water. This is also a time to prosper- people give money and food to the poor (it is a Muslim’s duty to give to the poor all the time) and give food to passing cars when they break their fast.

The fast is broken with a feast (iftar) at evening prayers, and then again in the morning before the sun comes up (around 3:45 am). While walking thru Islamic Cairo just before the prayer call, people were setting up their food on the streets and getting ready for iftar. As soon as the call to prayer happened, people immediately had bottles of water to their mouths and started eating and smoking. And it was so quiet- eerily quiet in a city so large. At work today, us expats found a quiet room to eat in. We are all uncomfortable to eat in front of people who are fasting, although they say it is ok. It reminds them to be spiritual…I still don’t want to watch someone else eat when I am hungry!

Ramadan lantern and decorations at an apartment
During Ramadan, the time goes back 1 hour, so sundown happens earlier! Ramadan lasts for 1 month, and finishes with huge feasts. During this month, it is very family and friend oriented. People socialise and visit a lot, and have iftar at their houses. In many ways it is similar to our Christmas with eating and spending time with family. Some houses even hang lights with their Ramadan Lanterns. The lanterns are an Egyptian tradition. In old times, the Ramadan man would come to the houses with his lantern, and he would wake up the family to eat before the sun comes up. Now, every house hangs a Ramadan lantern during Ramadan to remember old times.
Ramadan lantern in the lobby of my building
So far Ramadan has been a positive start…tune in later on this month and maybe I will be singing a different song (people get grumpy and hungry!) when stores are always shut and I get nothing fixed in my apartment!

**This is what people at work have told me and what I have read. This may or may not be completely what happens- its just my perspective!

Funerals are Easier to Attend when you Attend the Right One!

This is a funny story, mixed with tears.  Our lovely Egyptian friend lost her father last week.  Very sad.  We went to the funeral to pay our respects, as you do.  We took our bus there, all of us expats from work.  The driver got lost many times, but we finally we found the mosque (it was one of thousands).  We all kind of looked at each other, and the Egyptians looked at us white people, and we took a deep breath and walked in.  When you go to a funeral, the room is divided with a wall, and the women sit on one side, and the men on the other.  The 2 men went to the men's side and we went to the women's.  Us white women sat in a row, facing about 6 Egyptian women, nodded and sat quietly. Our friend wasn't there, but we thought, its just the way here (by the way, it was about 930 at night!)  They begin whispering and poking each other, and finally, one comes over to tell us we are in the wrong place. (afterwards, my friend's said that would have been me if the situation had been reversed- I seem to be the spokesperson for our group!) The wrong place!  It is not Dalia's father's funeral, its someone else's!  Now that I look back, I laugh, because we went to the WRONG FUNERAL!

We left, and our friend's from work came to get us.  It turns out we were at the right mosque, but there were 2 funerals that night.  We just couldn't read the Arabic signs. So that was an interesting cultural/language experience!

Once we arrived at the funeral, it was very sad. It was more of a memorial, as her father had been buried the day before, on the day he died.  It is a Muslim tradition to wash and wrap the body in a certain way, and to bury it immediately.  I wonder if it also has something to do in the past from the heat.  
It was silent the entire time we were there, except for the man reading from the Quoran. It sounds beautiful.  I wish I could understand it.  We hugged our friend, and then sat down and it was a time to reflect.  And it was so deeply peaceful and heartbreaking to sit in silence and reflect on loved ones and loved ones who have passed, and to hold my grieving friend's hand. I found I really focused on the Quoran reading and it was such a profound experience, to sit in silence in a holy place and reflect on life and the passing of life. 

A Mosque in Islamic Cairo

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Doors of Hell Opened, and then Opened Again

Or so the people here say…I haven’t talked about this yet, but the heat is intense. I arrived during a heat wave, and I have never felt anything like it. It was about 46 degrees Celsius out, with humidity of about 30%...the Internet says feels like 52. So you can see how the doors of hell have opened! I didn’t deal too well with the heat that week, from being dehydrated and jet lagged. I had heat exhaustion at one point which just goes to show how bad it is. I make sure now that I drink about 3-4 litres of water a day!
The heat is constant, but the heat wave broke…to a lovely 36 degrees Celsius! This is actually manageable, most days.


(mom, this is just from my friends telling me all about it- I would never try it ;)
Think of the fat caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland who always has a sheesha (hooka) pipe in his mouth, smoking lazily from it and blowing smoke rings...well, that's it! Sheesha is a favourite past-time here in Egypt. It’s available everywhere, from the ahwas (traditional coffee houses) to our local hangout down the road. Sheesha is a water pipe with tobacco that is mixed with molasses. The tobacco is also soaked in a flavour, like apple juice for apple (You can get mint, watermelon, melon, lemon, orange, strawberry etc). There are coals placed on top and a pipe part to smoke from.  When you breathe in the smoke goes down the pipe, thru the water and out the mouthpiece- which is plastic and hygienic! Sheesha smells really lovely, and not at all like cigarettes and the taste is whatever flavour you choose.  Its still bad for you, even though people have told us the water is a filter...I read its like smoking 5 packs a day.  But once in a while, its a nice way to wine down--although a glass of wine would be much better!

No Problem, no problem!

The school is so not finished. It’s a beautiful school, with marble everywhere (black and grey and white) and all the amenities- apparently we are lucky and have more grounds to play in that many other schools- and there is not a lot of grounds for our western standards! They will still be doing construction around us as we teach. We mention that there is still work to be done, and the answer is no problem, no problem! This is the answer to everything, and we are learning that it’s the answer to things when people want to avoid dealing with something or don’t have an answer. There is dog poop on my stairs- no problem! We have no water- no problem! (we still have no water) We want to go to Maadi in the taxi- no problem! (driver can’t find where we live) We want to sign our lease- no problem! (we still haven’t signed it)
**I typed this a few weeks ago, before I had internet access...
The school- still not finished!  Still no problem!  We have no grounds finished, no pool, no basketball court etc.  I could go on and on!  I did manage to have a map in my bag to show to the taxi driver, there is still dog poop on the stairs in my building (a new pile), we did get our water back (but it goes away at dinner time!) and still no lease...but this has been explained to us- Egyptians will do it in their own time (we can add Egyptian time to Island time, and other "times" we have heard of- I think maybe its just us North Americans who have set times and we follow them!) and because it is Ramadan it takes even longer to get things done!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Indy 500 on the Streets of Cairo

Taxi in downtown Cairo

Or, regular commuting to work in Cairo.
This is the scariest thing I have ever experienced. It is SHOCKING how crazy people drive here. In Canada and NZ, these people would have had their licences removed for good, but here it’s the norm! Traffic rules are non-existent and signalling and headlights are only fancy decorations on your car. I have seen everything from mopeds (with a family of 4 on them) to cars from the 50’s to brand new Jeeps driving down the highway (as well as a pile of precariously stacked boxes of explosives, I kid you not!) The highway to my school is 5 lanes across, and at the best of times there are 7 cars across. They drive down the middle of the lanes as well...the white lines are decoration only. I could reach out the window and touch the other cars, which of course I don’t since we are going 90 km/hour. Then you add the people who are crossing the highway at random places and it gets hectic!

People honk for many reasons, and they seem to know what each honk means. Obeying the honk is something else. Short honk means I am passing you, I am coming up behind you, I am passing you on the shoulder, you are drifting into my lane, or I am going to squeeze into this small space. Longer honks mean you are not moving out of my way, you are going to crash into me, you are stopping and I don’t know why, get out of my way or we are in a traffic jam, I will just honk. Seriously.

Then there are the taxis. Taxis honk when they see a light skinned person like myself from down the street, then as the come up behind you, then as they pass and then again once they have passed…and then they back up and ask "Taxi?" Just in case I didn't hear them...

My Flat

I arrived at my flat at 4 in the morning. It was down a very quiet street with lots of cars (now that I see Cairo, there aren’t that many cars) and the door was wide open…not too secure! The marble entry way was not well kept, so I was a bit worried about it all but the flat itself has recently been redone, and we have marble through-out, as well as wooden floors. Everything has worked out and I love where I live! Nothing hugely different, other than the marble bathroom and granite counter tops!

We have been taken very good care of. Dalia and Mahmoud, who both work for the school in admin areas have been amazing. They spent our first week in Cairo running us around to banks, shopping and to find cell phones, as well as helping us to sign our leases and sort out any work needed in the apartments. They are locals, and live in our area of town. We even went to Mahmoud’s birthday party!

The other expat teachers and I have all banded together. We live within a block of each other, and it’s nice to be close since we have spent so much time together.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


I live in the “expat oasis” of Maadi. I have yet to see more that a few westerner’s at the supermarket, and other than us I haven’t seen too many. From the sounds of it, most people are away for the summer, and the hot August month. The Egyptians who live and work in Maadi are used to seeing foreigners and their lack of clothing, and some speak a little English. The roads are dirty and covered in sand and rubbish, and the sidewalks are broken and also dirty. People walk down the roads instead. People like this area because it is cleaner than the rest of Cairo...I know, I said it was dirty! Its also very green- there are lots of trees here. There are cars everywhere, parked on the sides of the roads, driving down the roads and honking at everyone and everything. Taxis always honk as they come up to you, as they go by and after they pass- just in case you didn’t see them, or hear them the first 3 times. People so far have not even bothered to look at me! Which is fine with me. The ones who do talk, have been so friendly. Their English is very basic, only knowing a few words.

Friday, August 20, 2010

First Impressions from my Arrival in Cairo

I arrived in Cairo, Egypt after 2 days of travel. The flight itself was interesting, with people taking out their Qurans and praying at their chairs. And a very noisy flight- it was my introduction to the night life here, as the city comes awake after 8 pm. Here are my initial impressions:

-the heat was like a blast from a furnace- it feels as if I am standing next to a fire all the time

-the airport is surrounded by sand

-looking at the city as we flew in gives the impression of no order- the streets are all in circles and there is no straight lines

-Cairo goes on forever

-the drive to my flat was terrifying! No lights, lots of honking

-the people would give you their shirts off their backs-culturally they seem to give, give, give

-constant haze that you think is clouds (if you’re from the country) but its smog, and a constant smell- dirt and sand and heat coming off the ground