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December 28, 2008

New Year’s Resolutions—عزائم للعام الجديد

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — admin @ 1:28 pm

My apologies to those who had been following my blog and were disappointed to find that I wasn’t updating since last spring.  My access to the internet over the summer while I was bopping about North America was somewhat limited and it became difficult to get back in the habit of posting when internet was available again.  In addition to this, I groaned every time I thought about trying to critically engage with the dominant political discourse around the US elections or the “world financial crisis”, a phrase I became tired of just as quickly in Arabic as in English.

The clusterfuck that was AUC’s move from its lovely (if polluted) downtown location to its incomplete and poorly-constructed new home in the desert wasteland of “New Cairo” provided plenty of material to blog about, but I just didn’t know where to start.  It did give me hope for a while for an actual politicized AUC student body, spurred to action by the mess of the new campus and transportation to it and the lack of student housing.  The administration, as is so often the case, was slightly more organized (as far as dealing with student anger, if not actually administering a university) than the student activists, and time was on their side.  Those students who were able to discern the wholesale reorganization of the educational project of AUC, in line with the transformation of higher education around the world, particularly in the US—above and beyond the simple incompetence of the administration—such students were few and far between, so the protests generally had little focus and tended to degenerate into a public airing of laundry lists of gripes.  The Caravan, on the other hand, fulfilled its role as a responsible student newspaper much more than in previous years, with its writers engaging in some actual gum-shoe, investigative, follow-the-money journalism.  The paper’s crew capped the semester with a great Onion-esque parody issue that they skillfully exploited to say a great number of things they could not have gotten away with saying right-out, not just about the AUC administration, but about Egyptian politics generally.

Relatedly, Adrienne and I moved out of our lovely (if polluted) Garden City environs out to Rehab City (Rehab meaning sanctuary in Arabic).  The appartment building is brand new and poorly contructed. There are already enormous cracks in the walls, and it’s not just the plaster.  None of that is a huge deal, though.  The worst part is the fact that we’re way out in the desert, living in this weird walled-city of some tens of thousands of residents.  A completely manufactured environment where groudskeepers water lawns in the afternoon even during the summer.  We’re in the friggin Sahara people!  It is in many ways a more “authentically Egyptian” environment—albeit a rather upper-class one—than Garden City, where everything seemed to cater to western ex-pats and foreign embassy workers.  The reason we came out here, of course, was to be closer to the new campus, so that we might bike to school.  It is technically feasible to do so, but it is such a huge pain in the ass that I often just take the shuttle (which I’d be paying several hundred dollars for if they checked for a pass), especially on days when I expect to be on campus until dark.  For one, the traffic out here is insane.  With all these wide, straight roads (mostly) and few pedestrians, people drive way too fast.  Downtown drivers are generally skilled at maneuvering their vehicles through difficult traffic situations in ways that seem utterly reckless to the western observer but which are often perfectly safe, if a little chaotic.  Unfortunately, it seems that those drivers think that they can simply use this same style of driving at higher speeds on the open road, which is a recipe for disaster.  There have been a number of serious accidents already among the AUC community and even with shuttle busses.  In the summer, before the campus opened, in fact, a worker on the new campus was killed en route, an event that so angered his colleagues that they went to the faculty and staff parking lot and started smashing up their vehicles.  The university’s distance from civilization and its transportation policies were apparently a point of contention even before the students and most faculty and staff arrived.  Truth be told, though, as far as my commute is concerned, this traffic is not the worst part, as the time I have to spend on these open roads is rather limited.  Instead, the worst part is the perpendicular roads that run from Rehab City toward the new AUC campus.  At one point, these were apparently lovely smooth paved roads.  Now, however, there is so much new construction popping up on either side of them, and so many utilities being installed and re-installed along their routes, that the roads have become virtually impassable for all the piles of sand across them and enormous gaps and holes in the pavement from excavation.  That there is so much disruption on the road is not such a big deal—I can always find one route or another that will mostly work, with a bit of walking—it’s that these conditions change nearly every day, so I can never count on any particular route making any sense.

Getting to downtown, of course, is always even more of a challenge.  It’s only about 30km and a bit over an hour of biking (longer on the return trip because it’s a net 300m climb), but the route is so stressful that it feels like 100km.  First is the stress of the open desert road traffic I just spoke of.  Then comes the stress of the road through Nasr City (dunno the name), competing with hordes of buses and microbuses and motorcycle deliveries, all of which make frequent and poorly signaled stops.  Next is crossing Shari’ Salah ed-Din, which is basically crossing an 8-lane freeway.  After this is getting through the City of the Dead, a vast complex of old mausolea where some of the city’s poorest families live amongst their dead ancestors.  This isn’t so difficult if you stay on the right roads, but it’s easy to make a wrong turn or fail to make a correct one, whereupon one is likely to be beset by throngs of pointing, screaming, grabbing, pebble-tossing kids.  It’s charming, but also a bit intimidating.  The next challenge is the fly-over (an elevated freeway) from el-Azhar and Khan el-Khalili to Opera Square.  It sounds worse than it is—there are often cyclists and pedestrians and donkey carts on these fly-overs, so drivers are used to it.  Still, it’s hard not to imagine getting bumped and thrown over the railing into the middle of the sprawling market below.  Finally, once in Opera Square, one is in the thick of downtown.  At this point, I can just relax and fall more or less comfortably into the courier mindset, dodging through traffic just like everyone else at a speed I can easily handle.  Last time I did this whole ride, it was in the middle of a sandstorm, and I didn’t have any glasses, so I had a hard time keeping my head up and my eyes on the road.  I tried to catch a cab on the way back, but after the driver kept stopping to do little errands, I took my bike off the roof and got back on the road.  Adrienne said I looked like I had aged ten years when I returned.

But, to get back to current events and my failure to write about them, the past several weeks of news have provided a welcome departure from the previous blather about elections and financial meltdown, but it unfortunately came at a time when I finally decided to try to take my Arabic studies a bit more seriously in preparation for final exams.  That’s all over with for the moment, so now I’ve got both time and motivation to write.  Please forgive my choppy prose as I get back in the groove.

Of course, foremost among these wonderful current events is what has been termed in the local lefty press “The Greek Intifada”, which—though you certainly can’t tell this from the mainstream press—continues still.  Seeing my comrades take the initiative as they have and to a large extent framing the debate in their own terms without, it seems, withdrawing into empty adventurism or succumbing to demands of the authorities or the authoritarian Left or even issuing their own demands (which would only lend legitimacy to any authority that might fulfill them)—all of this has been incredibly inspiring.  And it has given me hope for Egypt to see the extent to which Egypt’s Left has been inspired as well despite the fact that I had previously seen little evidence of an anti-authoritarian tendency in its ranks.

This is a cartoon from the local lefty daily el-Badeel (the alternative). It illustrates the extent to which the Egyptian left is looking toward Greece as an inspiration as they deal with the same problems of rampant police brutality and ubiquitous gov\'t corruption. It shows the gov\'t giving orders to Central Security Forces to protect the Greek Club in the event that riots spread to Cairo. The joke is that the Greek Club is a favorite hangout for the intellectual left who are likely wishing the riots would spread here. Just got word from a friend who works at the paper that the Greek embassy\'s press attache paid a visit to express concern over the paper\'s \

Another thing that caught my attention was the phenomenon of Taqwacore—the US (and to some extent international) Muslim Punk movement which just broke into the mainstream with coverage by Al-Jazeera English and the New York Times.  In a lot of ways, I’ve felt like I’ve been living my teenage years all over again, in the sense of struggling to find people whose politics and approach to authority and tastes I share.  I’ve always known there must be people out there in Egypt who didn’t fall into the easy categories of religious conservatives, upper-class metropolitan hipsters or dogmatic lefties, but I haven’t felt like I’ve had the proper socialization or facility with the language to find those people.  It’s not that there are many Taqwacores here, but looking into their bands, together with reading local reactions to the goings-on in Greece, has at least given me some of the vocabulary to talk about anarchism and radical left politics in Arabic, a process that has felt similar to what was necessary in English in my teens.  Unfortunately, the process of adjusting to the culture is proving just as challenging as the first time in my “native” culture.

The third event that has captured my imagination, like nearly everyone in this part of the world and apparently across the globe, is the famous flight of a pair of shoes.  The event was made more entertaining for me by virtue of the fact that I’ve been following the blog of As’ad Abu Khalil, aka “The Angry Arab” since shortly before we moved to Egypt.  Early on during that period, he had apparently lost patience with the habit of western media to portray shoe-throwing as a peculiarly Arab insult, as if it’s not insulting to anyone else.  He jokes that he tested out this theory by letting loose a fusillade of shoes at his American neighbor who merely chuckled, as Americans are not offended by having shoes thrown at them.  The issue became a running joke on his blog and he gained further notoriety after Muntadher al-Zeidi threw his famous loafers at Bush when he summed up the act thus:  “The flying shoe speaks more for Arab public opinion than all the despots/puppets Bush meets during his travels in the Middle East.”  It was also amusing to watch the right-wing blather-chamber attempt to cast Zeidi as a an al-Qa’ida terrorist or a pawn of el-Sadr, despite the fact that the guy is a secular leftist with a picture of Che Guevara on his desk.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to celebrate these developments at the moment, as Israel carries on its bombing campaign against Gaza, inflicting death and fear on the citizens of the Strip just as surely as during the blockade, but in a rather more spectacular fashion that has at least managed to shame Egypt into opening the Rafah crossing, if only to allow the passage of ambulances to treat injuries resulting from the bombing.  Apparently the starvation and lack of basic medicines during the siege was insufficient to pull Mubarak’s ossified heart-strings.  I fail to see how physical trauma is more deserving of treatment than kidney failure.  I think I’ll leave this subject for the moment, though, lest this post get taken over by colorful invective.

To finally get to the subject of this post, the new year us nearly upon us, and in fact Islamic New Years coincides very closely with the Gregorian one this year.  (This shouldn’t be taken as an indication that I’ve converted or anything, just to be clear—I haven’t.)  I’ll be on the road for New Years (both of them), so I thought I’d make my resolutions public a bit early.

But first, a piece of news:  as many of you know, Adrienne and I are moving back to the States, to Washington D.C.  I have to admit, I’m a little wary of the move.  It’s not that I’m particularly stoked about Egypt, but I was rather liking not living in the United States.  There had been some chance that we would move instead to Detroit, which in many ways I would have preferred.  It’s just across the border from Canada and it’s such an economically depressed area that it might be easier to ignore the fact that you’re in the heart of ‘merica.  Plus it’s host to the largest Arab immigrant community in the US, which might have given me more opportunity to make use of my Arabic.  Instead, we’re moving to the nation’s capital, a place that I visited just once for a few hours, where I experienced nothing so much as the overwhelming architectural symmetry.  I trust that there is plenty in the city that will endear itself to me.  I’m just a little apprehensive.

I’m also still a little unsure of what to do with myself there.  I could always go back to mess’ing, but the inevitable bureaucracy that would go along with the job in the city of a zillion varieties of state security forces, along with a totally un-challenging system of street numbering (goes with the symmetry) seems like it might make the work a bit boring.  I’ve heard the DC messenger community isn’t super cohesive anymore, but that may have changed, if it was ever the case.

Another option is more school.  The reason we’re going to Washington is because Adrienne accepted a position at American University.  As such, I could take two classes per semester at AU for free.  Unfortunately, the only thing I can imagine doing academically at the moment is Arabic and Middle East Studies.  I’ve invested so much in the language that I feel an overwhelming responsibility to myself to get to a point closer to fluency.  Unfortunately, the offerings in those fields at AU are not stellar.  Georgetown, however, also in DC, is apparently top notch.  I’d have a lot of work to do, however, to get accepted and funded there.

Which brings me to my first resolution:  to focus on the Arabic and not slack like I did last semester.  This will be difficult with my generally bad study habits.  I’ve always pretty much just done the minimum amount of work and depended on my ability to perform well on tests and in essays.  I might end up with good marks and a certificate this way, but I won’t be able to perform well in the language ultimately without really applying myself.  I may not ultimately continue with Arabic at all, but I want to feel that I at least made good use of my time in Egypt vis-à-vis the language.

My second resolution is to write here at GWK at least once a week.  ISA (in sha2 allah), this won’t interfere too much with the first resolution.  I’m guessing/hoping that I will be able to do with my Arabic classes what I did with the class I took on the Nile and post many of my assignments here.  This may make things a little more difficult for some of my readers, and I apologize, but I may translate some of my favorites.  Here, in any case, are a number of on-line translation tools you can use, though computational linguistics has not progressed to the point that Arabic automatic translations come out very well.

For the moment, I’ll mostly be seething about the fascist Zionist state next-door and hopping around to different embassies to get the necessary papers for a trip Adrienne and I have planned to Aswan (by train), Wadi Halfa (Sudan) by boat across Lake Nasser, another train to Khartoum, bus to Lake Tana (Ethiopia), another bus to Addis Ababa, train to Djibouti and freighter ship to Yemen.  If anyone has any contacts in any of those places or travel tips, hit me up!


  1. My friend Driss’s brother worked in D.C. as director for the Muslim World Initiative for the United States Institute of Peace, and undoubtedly could give you some ideas. If you email me, I can give you his email address. Then you can write him, and in Moroccan tradition he will treat you like family because, you know, his brother is my friend.

    Oh, and I edited a book for him. There is that. It was this book: Liberalism without Democracy: Nationhood and Citizenship in Egypt, 1922-1939 (Duke University Press, 2006), which reveals the inherent contradictions of colonial liberalism (the idea of occupying a people to liberate them).

    Comment by Blaize — December 28, 2008 @ 8:03 pm

  2. Une fois de plus un poste vraiment passionnant

    Comment by amatrice — May 19, 2014 @ 12:27 am

  3. Ces articles sont franchement attrayants

    Comment by — May 31, 2014 @ 9:15 pm

  4. Une fois de plus un poste visiblement séduisant

    Comment by — June 4, 2014 @ 3:30 pm

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