Monday, August 31, 2009

Emcees, Junkmen, Bakeries, and Supermarkets

We have entered our second week of Ramadan and noting some changes outside our compound. The sounds of fireworks and kids playing soccer in the street behind our housing has lessened after midnight. The emcee (aka M.C.-master of ceremonies) in the mosque outside the front gate has been broadcasting freestyle at random hours and often he lets guest speakers, including children have free reign at the mic. Sometimes there is a little reverb coming out of the speakers and I’m not sure if it is the sounds bouncing off the concrete buildings, but it almost sounds like a Rastafarian gone wild, I expect to hear a “Jah” followed by some bass. Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part.

Last week when I was introducing a project to my high school art class we were interrupted by the sounds of a loud voice over a megaphone on the other side of the wall behind my classroom. I asked my students if it was the onion man, negative, it was the robabikya (a junkman of sorts who travels by donkey and cart around the neighborhood buying broken appliances and electronics). The other night the director of our school was telling Ana and I how the school sells stuff it no longer uses to the various kinds of junkmen. It appears there are robabikya specialists, immediately remembering the guy who hits up the butcher for the remains of recently slaughtered sheep. (I need to investigate what he does with the bones in a future blog) I do know that the ones who collect the electronics eventually repair and resell the unit for a meager profit. Unless something is decomposing organic matter, the concept of throwing something away doesn’t appear to be a common practice in Alex.

In relation to Ramadan, it has been stated and noted that fasting and heat (as in a hot day) is not the best of combinations and can result in patients being tested and cause tensions to flare up with little provocation. So far I have confirmed two types of places that are “sure bets” where one is guaranteed to encounter an exchange of hostilities served with a side of pushing and shoving.

Bakeries. In Egypt Aish (bread lit. meaning life) is not only a central and staple food but importantly it symbolic and has religious implications much like the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. In fact prior to our arrival here, there has been a bread shortage and the government stepped in to regulate the distribution of flour. It is rumored that a portion of the flour usually makes it to the black market. During our first day in Egypt, Ana and I tried to stand in line to buy bread. Unknown to me I accidentally stood in the female line and was gestured, shouted, and hissed at to get in the correct line. After that, all was cool, if fact just to demonstrate how friendly and kind Egyptians are, the man in front of the long line turned to us and asked how many we wanted, I held up two fingers and he motioned me over to where he was standing. He handed me two pieces of steaming hot bread and I tried to hand him money, which he refused, as did the baker. It is said that people stand in line for over an hour to buy 5 or 10 pieces of bread. The dean at our school told us a joke after we mentioned our adventure. He asked if we have seen the warning labels/pictures of dead babies and people dying on the cigarette packages in Egypt. We stated that we have and he went on to explain how effective these images have been in curbing the country’s smoking problem. He then said that the government is thinking of putting similar warning labels on the bread. The act of buying bread isn’t intended for the novice consumer, be ready take your fellow man down. 

Supermarket. Another place that can lead to fisticuffs is the line at Fathalla (the supermarket where the locals shop). Be prepared to have people cut in front or shove you out of the way. Fortunately most people behave and adhere to the concept of forming a line, but there are those who feel entitled to walk up to any open gap and plant themselves there. If you have ever crossed the boarder from Mexico to the United States you have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about, imagine people at their worst, fighting their way to the front of a line. Most people here just suck it up if the person has one or two items, but sometime someone is hell-bent on ramming their cart to the front. This will definitely ensure a discussion pushing 100 decibels. I can usually discern a word or two in the argument such as “Allah” (God) and “shukran” (thank you), playing the "God card" typically calms matters down a bit and puts Ramadan back into perspective. What you want to avoid is call someone a kharoof (sheep), that might get you into a headlock type of fight we’ve seen around town. 

Where we live and our view

View from our front door

Buildings with alien communication devices 

The front gate to our school/home

Welcome to the jungle

Livingroom and kitchen

Monday, August 24, 2009

Saved by the Chicken Man

Ramadan-the ninth month of the lunar Muslim calendar, is when the Qur’an was said to have been revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. During this month adult Muslims fast-they abstain from eating, drinking, and sex, from sunrise to sunset. The elderly, sick, and pregnant are exempt. -Culture Smart Egypt

Saturday was the start of Ramadan and it was also when the kitchen decided to serve veal for dinner. Ana and I opted out by crossing a line through our names on the meal sheet posted outside the cafeteria. Just for the record, the cooks at the school make amazing meals three times a day and the soups are a grand slam out of the ballpark. The bread (buns, flatbread, sliced, etc.) is made daily and the produce is purchased each morning and I challenge anyone to finder a redder tomato or a sweeter watermelon or a tastier fig, which leads me to wonder if this is life outside genetically modified fruits and vegetables?

In the eyes of the chefs at school, it doesn’t matter if you are petite or large, they subscribe to the belief that any person who dares to stand in their line will be scooped a super-sized portion on your helpless plate. The key to not being overfed at the trough (pronounced troff) is making eye-contact, the second you divert your attention away from the server, you will be punished by a mountain of food. Ultimately, you are in control of your own meal destiny and while maintaining eye contact in only part of the solution to securing a healthy waistline, other precautions such as using hand gestures while simultaneously uttering phrases such as “no,” “half,” “less,” and so on will curb the cook from bullying you into additional pounds. 

Just to confirm veal was indeed being served last night, we walked down to the kitchen and did a reconnaissance mission before one of the cooks had a chance to spot us. We made it safely out the door undetected to the gates of the compound and on to Schutz Street. One of the staff members had mentioned a great falafel place about 15 minutes from school. On our walk we noticed that we didn’t have to dodge cars and you could count the number of people out of the street, did we just enter the Twilight Zone? Then occurred to us that the majority of the city had been fasting all day and the iftar (breaking of the fast) was minutes away. That was when we realized that we might have accidently committed ourselves to missing dinner. We walked around the neighborhood and noticed vendors and other workers sitting in front of plates of food ready to rewarded after a long day of spiritual cleansing. Even more interesting were tables of food set up in alleyways and the ends of city blocks for people who are away from family (vendors, city workers) and the homeless. The concept behind these communal tables (provided either by a wealthy family or mosque) is that no one should be alone at iftar. As a cultural note, Egyptians are family centered; the idea of independence is a foreign concept them, as it is said, most fear the idea of being alone.   

While Ana and I were discussing Ramadan, we watched people race home and we learned through our conversations with some of the Muslim staff at school about the significance of spending iftar with the family. We both wondered out loud that it was like having Thanksgiving dinner for a straight month. We naturally started to name dysfunctional family holiday films such as, Home for The Holidays and countless others that have flooded the market since the 90’s. Would it be like competing for attention and enduring the pains of sibling rivalries every night for an entire month? Then I remembered my friend's stories about her and her siblings taking turns getting "kicked out" of their parent's house after the holiday meal, apparently tensions would escalate to that point. She would joke about making a schedule since there is four kids in the family and it would get confusing on who's turn it would be the following year. Maybe that’s how we Americans are; too independent and detached for our own good. 

The silence of a city of six million was awoken by the maghrib (sunset prayer) over the loudspeakers throughout Alexandria. It was about that time we found ourselves standing in line with several others at the Chicken Man (Kimos) down the street from our school. After a twenty-minute wait we got our bag with a rotisserie chicken, 5 pitas, a salad, 2 mezes (think-appetizers or tapas), and a bag of cheese flavored potato chips for 26 Egyptian Pounds (about $4.70 usd). I only had a twenty on me, but Kino told me not to worry and to pay the rest later. That is how they roll here.           

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Crying over spilled beer

A couple of hours ago I experienced one of those “life lessons”  (maybe you might refer to it as something else such as an “OH SHIT” moment). Ana and I were chatting with another teacher who I will call Tex because I have yet to see him wear an article of clothing that doesn’t make some sort of reference to the country of Texas…be it his Hooters shirt or Astros jersey, I think he also stole the state flag from the capital to hang in his apartment. While some of the staff have been concerned about placing our Drinkies orders, Tex has been hem and hawing over where to buy cigars. I feel his pain; the adjustment can be a challenge if you are accustomed to a certain lifestyle. For example, I can’t just wander down the steps from my living quarters and waltz outside the gate to the corner market for an IPA, any beer for that matter. Now, if I had cravings for a bag of taco flavored Mexico (an Egyptian brand of chip) that would be effortless, a cinch, no problemo, totally doable. Finding beer or spirits requires a little more investigation if you aren’t in the know.

God Bless Drinkies for their four brands of beer (Stella, Sakara, Heineken, plus the bold offerings of Meister Max!) and their home delivery policy of 45 minutes (or in my case to school). On our second day of orientation we were given a brochure with a price menu and alcohol content of all the products they sell (wine and spirits included). Here is what their website states verbatim: “Drinkies, the beverage shop is the retail chain of Al Ahram Beverage Company. With 42 shops across the country operating daily and counting, Drinkies offers all the company’s alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages. To give more convenience to our consumers, Drinkies operates a daily call center for home delivery. During the coming period, ABC will be operating new shops with new retail design making shopping at Drinkies exciting and fun.”  I’m not so sure entering a store with a lone refrigerator and a shelf with a couple bottles of booze qualifies as exciting and fun.

The big fuss on campus from the chain of command was we had to place our adult beverage orders this week since Drinkies will be non-operational during Ramadan. I heeded my boss’ advice and placed mine yesterday. Within the hour the school’s receptionist called my classroom to inform me that the driver was here with my case of Stella (an 18 oz. Egyptian lager). Carrying 24 beers up four flights of stairs induced quite a sweat, so that prompted me to cool off a couple in the freezer for when evening rolled around.

After dinner, we went on a walk with another couple and ventured off into new territory. We walked past one vendor who was selling tortillas so we scored a bag for about 30 cents. I got hissed at for snapping a shot of people trying to crowd onto a bus…I won’t try that again. Ana and I learned about the block that had 4-5 fish food vendors and figured that we were in a fish friendly neighborhood. After the walk we retired back to the couple’s home for a nightcap. I brought over a beverage from the freezer meaning to take out the other three bottles.

Fast forwarding back to this evening, we are talking with Tex and I realized something bad, thinking about the beers I had placed in the freezer the night before. I ran upstairs only to confirm my worst fears…three frozen Stellas with caps halfway blown across the icebox and frozen liquid adhering the lifeless bottles to the freezer’s bottom. At that moment, the day’s final prayer was getting underway, I stared out the door into the sky of sound thinking that Allah was sending me a message.

For further Egyptian beverage information check out:

Beverages in Egypt

The Parent of Drinkies

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Prayer and Funerals

One of the more interesting aspects of living in a Muslim country thus far has been adhan (Islamic call to prayer), which occurs five times daily. The prayers are projected from loudspeakers erected on to poles throughout the city. The first prayer begins a little after 4 am and the last one ends around 9:30ish. If you live on the top floor, listening to prayer is like surround sound, the variety of voices from the different mosques layer nicely. (video shot from our balcony overlooking our campus and neighborhood)

The crux of the mystery is trying to figure out whom the early prayer applies to since most Egyptians seem to be out and about caught up in rush hour traffic even at 11 pm. Let’s also consider our surrounding residents and their children roaming the neighborhood buying fruit, chicken, and smoking shisha pipes outside our compound past 2 am. They say New York never sleeps, well, Egypt make New York seem like a one-horse town tucked away somewhere in Montana. Alex is alive and kicking. In addition to the adhan factor, let’s throw vehicles and vendors (such as the onion man) both armed with loudspeakers into the mix. Continuing with noise, the random shots at night were initially unsettling. I asked a couple of veteran teachers what the sounds were mainly because they sounded like they could be artillery rockets…nope, just firecrackers they said. I wasn’t satisfied with the first two responses so after the third person said “firecrackers” I just accepted it…I’m fairly positive they don’t sell those kind back in the states. I think if I lit one in San Diego, Homeland Security would be knocking on my front door, and not Avon Lady style.

This past Friday we experienced our first Sabbath and as an added bonus a funeral, which was held across the street from our living quarters. Ramadan (month-long Islamic religious observance) is fast approaching and the city is preparing, it is the last weekend and the man at Drinkies told us that we have ONLY four days to place our orders. This news was the hot topic of discussion amongst the teachers and the admin. on the drive back to school tonight, if you snooze on the booze you may as well be living in Saudi Arabia. Next blog: pictures of the animals we eat and Drinkies revealed.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The art of crossing the Corniche

Crossing the Corniche is a rite of passage upon moving to Alexandria. The Corniche is the stretch of road along the Mediterranean and there are generally 4 lanes going in each direction. I say generally because from an Egyptian driver's perspective it is more like 7 lanes. Lines on the road are a mere suggestion. More often than not people drive in the middle of the lanes at high speeds dodging other cars and people. You need a good horn as most drivers chronically use it several times a minute. It might sound like I'm embellishing the situation, making it sound larger than really have no idea. It is impossible to capture the true nature of the driving here, words can't describe it, it must be experienced. One of the other new teachers who sat shotgun on the way from the airport to the school was asked by the driver if he had breathing problems...I guess the driver mistook the hyperventilating and grabbing the dashboard for dear life as a medical condition. Well, yesterday we earned our wings, sort of...Ana and I crossed with a little help of a police officer who also wasn't immune from Human Frogger. The trick is to cross side by side when there is only about 20 cars coming at you.


Thoughts on the trip over

On the flight from Washington DC to Frankfurt, Lufthansa had a radio station dedicated to the history of the 80’s German New Wave movement. The usual suspects were represented from the underground to the one hit wonders such as Trio, Xmal Deutschland, Nena, plus a slew of others. I must admit that I don’t know much about the genre, but after listening to hours of it, I’ve come to a conclusion that it demands further investigation. Coca Cola in Angola is a swell tune.
During my last year at Black Mountain I took some liberties of exposing my students to various styles of music from around the world via on-line radio stations since I’ve always thought music and the visual arts were extensions of each other. Techno Tuesdays was a favorite, Beirut Nights streamed some fine throbbing Mediterranean modern electronic disco, but most of my students were convinced that there was only one long continuous song being played. Norwegian black metal was another favorite…at least for me. Japanese hardcore was a favorite amongst the seventh grade boys, we’ve concluded that the Cookie Monster fronts GISM and most of us are still trying to figure out what the title “Endless blockade for the pussyfooter” means. Any thoughts on the matter are welcome. One afternoon I asked who wanted to hear some original violent gangster music? The condition was they had to promise not to tell their parents or any other adults. Boy, were they in for a treat when Marty Robbins sung about the five brothers who left Arkansas to find the gambler who murdered their pa. The confused looks on their face was classic as one voice from the back of the room uttered, “This is country music!” I said, “Yes it is, what were you expecting? It was a teachable moment as we explored and discussed stereotypes from both visual and auditory perspectives. 
Ana and I enjoyed our final (somewhat stressful) week in San Diego as we took the opportunity to visit with most of our families and friends who we already miss dearly, In retrospect the decision to leave behind life as we know it to go live in a place we’ve never been to is kind of a radical idea, as one of my student’s put it “WTF Mr. Medina!!!” It seemed like the day would never come as we have been anticipating the move since mid-February, one of the teachers we spoke with at the school said the wait would be a killer and it would feel like the day would never come. Well, here we are. 
Overall the flight was uneventful with almost no delay. We did call the airlines in advance to make sure we had priority seating next to screaming babies, I now have perfected the art of grinding my teeth.