Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Learning Arabic and Teaching English

Since we don't have a car here, we walk everywhere and we take the Metro several days a week.  What I love about this (aside from getting more fit and reducing our carbon footprint), is that I speak and greet and learn from every day Egyptian people with each block I walk and Metro ride I take.  Today was no exception.  When I walk  back and forth to my Arabic class, I greet people on the street (A Salam A Licum--- phonetically since I can't write in Arabic...yet).  I look at license plates to practice my letters and numbers.  Here are some photos so you can see what I mean:

I get out of Arabic class at the same time as some school children get out down the street so I often pass them clustered around the entrance to their school.  The little girls wear long sleeved pink blouses with wine colored jumpers over them.  They are bright-eyed and eager to practice their English on me.  Several practice their "hello's" from afar, but one bold one comes up to walk with me and says, "How are you?"  I answer slowly, knowing I can't understand basic introductions in Arabic unless they are spoken slowly.  "I'm fine... How are you.... " followed by exchanging names.  The girl, and her friends who admire her bold initiative, are delighted that they are effectively communicating with me in English.  They laugh and then all wave good bye to me as I cross the street.  (I wish I had a picture of that little group of 7 girls in jumpers, but the best photos are ones I wouldn't really want to take.)  

Coincidentally, I saw that girl with her mother (who was completely covered with only eyes showing) on the metro about 15 minutes later as I was on my way to my International Law class.  The girl recognized me and we started to practice English more.  I asked her how old she was, then she asked me.  Unfortunately she didn't get my joke when I said I was "Very, Very Old!"  Anyway, we had a very nice conversation and her mother, even though I could only see her eyes, looked very proud of her daughter for being able to talk to me in English.  The girl reached out and shook my hand when she and her mother got off at their stop.

An interesting contrast to this was a group of young boys I met walking back from dropping Cameron off at school.  They said hello, and I said hello back.  Then one of them, maybe about 9 years old, said, "I love you."  I was going to ignore him, and then realized he's just kid and doesn't know any better.  So I decided to tell him, "No, that's not polite."  and show him how he could talk to me.   I said, "How are you?"  He answered appropriately.  We exchanged names, I said nice to meet you, then we said goodbye.  Hopefully he wiill know better next time how to start up a conversation with a stranger.  

Meanwhile, people continue to help me with my Arabic whenever I make the effort to try to communicate.  One day we had to go somewhere that was too far to walk and the metro didn't go there, so we took a taxi.  I was trying to tell the driver to go straight ahead, but could only remember the expression meaning 'straight ahead' had the word "tour" in it.  I signaled with my hand straight ahead and said, "tour, tour".  He laughed and corrected me, "a la tour".  One one metro ride, when I was practicing arabic with a man sitting next to me (and had exhausted my vocabulary of 5 introductory sentences), a young man came up to help me translate.  He ended up chatting with Jeff and me for the rest of the metro ride and shared a taxi with us on the other end to help us get to our destination.  He insisted on paying for the taxi for us.  This is a very generous culture so this kind of hospitality to a stranger is not that unusual.   We swapped numbers at the end and he invited us to join him and his family for dinner.  We have plans to go there tomorrow night.  I better work more on my Arabic introductions before I go!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Signs of the U.S.

Different as Egypt is from the U.S., there are still many familiar signs.  Here are a few:

The U.S. influence is not just in terms of businesses.  The American University in Cairo (AUC) established in 1919, is a significant presence.  The school used to be in the heart of Cairo but now almost all classes are held at the new campus in an area called New Cairo.  Below is a photo of one of the gates of the University.  There are numerous gates to the new campus, each with security guards checking ID's and metal detectors.  The new campus was just opened last year.  It is enormous with impressive architecture, but it feels too big and is challenging to find one's way around at times.  There is a very nice bookstore that reminds me of when I was in college.  College bookstores are fun places to browse since there are wall to wall classics books divided up by classes.  The library has several floors, each with many computer terminals.  It's well equipped as a type of office center as well with places to print, copy and scan materials.   The blog format won't let me post more photos in this entry, so I'll have a new posting with a few more photos of AUC.  

Friday, September 24, 2010

Star of David for Jews and Muslims

I've seen what looked to me like the Star of David built into fencing a couple times here and was puzzled since I had thought this was a Jewish symbol.  In fact, it is also a symbol in Islam too, as well as in Hinduism and Buddism.  The Arabic word for the symbol is نجمة داوود, pronounced Najmat Dāwūd, which means Star of David, or it can also be called خاتم سليمان, pronounced Khātem Sulaymān, which means Seal of Solomon.  From what I just read, the Seal of Solomon was referring to Solomon, son of David, who was a prophet in Islam. 

The star is reportedly mentioned in the story the Arabian Nights.  

I've been reading about some of the symbolism associated with this star in various religions and it is fascinating.   The shape, consisting of two triangles, one pointing up and one down, is said by some to be a harmonious embrace.  It can also symbolize humans position between earth and sky.  Or the downward triangle can symbolize femininity with the upward triangle symbolizing masculinity, together representing the union of the two.

Some people believe this symbol wards off evil, which might explain why I've seen it twice in fences around the perimeters of buildings. 

On a different topic, Jeff, Cameron and I had dinner at the home of some friends we met at a church we've been attending here, the Maadi Community Church.  Conveniently, this church is only a 10 minute walk from our house. This is a nondenominational church (though basically Christian) which is proud to say they have members from 40 different countries.  Cameron loves going to church because there is a nice group of kids there and the children's teacher is wonderful.  I've stayed for part of the classes and they have some religious bopping kind of rock music in the beginning with the kids dancing, then a Bible story (-- the first day, it was about Moses being told by the burning bush to go to Egypt ..... the Bible stories take on new meaning when one is actually in Egypt!), then there's a discussion with the kids, then some kind of activity or game related to the theme.  It was really well done.   Cameron likes church so much that he said today, "Mommy, only three more days until it's time to go to church."  Little people really like routines so it's nice that we've found some things that can be part of a regular routine.

Anyway, a few expatriots from the church have been inviting us places and this was our first time to visit this one couple's home.  It was a very nice dinner with 12-15 people there.  There was a lovely harvest moon tonight and they had a beautiful view from their terrace:


Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Floating Restaurant and the Doctor Visit

It's been a busy few days with classes and Rotary events.  On Monday night, Cameron, Jeff and I all visited our Host Rotary Club here in our community of Maadi.  It was a group of 15 or so very nice and very impressive people.  They went around the room introducing themselves and we learned that one was an advisor to Parliament, another worked with the the Minister of some governmental department, others were professors, lawyers, and other respected professions.

Much of the meeting was in Arabic so we politely listened and Cameron drew pictures of tall trees with ladders going up to them to help kids climb them.  (That's his drawing trademark these days.)

I was asked to tell about myself so I did.  But I later found out when talking one on one with many of the Rotarians that I should slow down when I speak because most of what I said wasn't understood by many.  Talking with many of these people one on one afterwards was a real pleasure and I hope we will end up getting to spend some more individual time with many of them.

We've already called the pharmacist from the Rotary group for medical help.  (Don't worry-- everyone is fine.)  Pharmacists here are more like doctors than they are in the U.S.  They can give injections and they are consulted like doctors by many.  We had to call our pharmacist friend tonight because Cameron had a tumble at school today and cut open his lip.  We wondered if he would need stitches so brought him to see the doctor recommended by the pharmacist.  The doctor just happened to be having office hours between 8pm-10pm (which was convenient because we decided to have Cameron looked at at 7pm.)  Those kinds of business hours are typical here.  Cairo comes alive at night and is pretty sleepy in the morning.  Many businesses are not open until mid-morning.  We learned that the doctor had office hours every night from 8-10pm, except Sunday.  (I think he must be Christian.  I've heard about 15% of the Cairo population is Christian.)  Fortunately, Cameron's lip is going to be fine.  He prescribed some antibiotics and mouthwash.  We picked those up at the pharmacy across the street, then took a taxi home  (... just five pounds for the taxi, or about 85 cents)

On Tuesday afternoon, Jeff and I went to visit the oldest Rotary Club in Cairo, founded in 1929.  This club meets on at the floating restaurant, one of several such restaurants on the Nile.  Below are some photos of the restaurant, and another floating restaurant further down the Nile,  followed by a photo of the view of the Nile from the restaurant window.

We got a very warm welcome from the Cairo Rotary Club as well.  We sat next to a gentleman who told us he was an architect.  He asked where we lived and we told him 14th Street in Maadi.  He asked what number.  When we told him the number, he said he owned and was the architect for the building across the street from ours!  (When this gentleman was up speaking to the club at one point, another man at the table told us not to be fooled by the architect's laid back manner... that in fact he was one of the top architects in the whole country.... I'm not surprised any more by these Rotary folks!)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Trip to the Aquarium

Each weekend we are going to try to spend one day resting, cleaning the apartment, doing laundry and staying in the neighborhood and the second day venturing to see one of the sights around town.  The Community Services Association (a great center for expatriots) has a library which we joined so I was able to take out a book called Cairo, The Family Guide.  We're going to pick places to visit from this book every weekend.  This weekend, our trip was to the Aquarium and Fish Gardens.

The gardens (which here mainly means parks with trees) were a nice place to walk around but Cameron's favorite thing was the caves.  These caves appear to be human-made with piles of concrete or something like it.  It must have been a lot of work to make them.  The largest part of the caves was as high as as a large two story house and they had many bats hanging from the top.  I couldn't see them well except for one clump hanging near a hole that let sunlight in.  But we could hear them!   The squeaking of the bats was loud because of the echoing effect of the caves.  At first I wondered if the sounds were tape recorded and amplified because they were so loud, but I think that's unlikely since nothing about the park was high-tech.  

The aquarium part was different from aquariums we've visited.  There were a few 6 foot long tanks with fish in them, and many empty tanks, some with what looked like pickled fish in large jars.  I'm not sure what they were.  One display had a set of stuffed seals.  We wondered if they had been real once.  

Cameron loved climbing on the cave and running everywhere in the park.  There was a playground and he had a great time there.  Cairo doesn't have public parks with playgrounds and there aren't fields where one can run unless you pay to enter a park.  

This park had different admission prices for foreigners and Egyptians: Egyptians = one Egyptian pound; foreigners = 20 Egyptian pounds (about $3.50).  I support this system of pricing since it makes it affordable for local people to enjoy the park and it is only fair for foreigners to help support this type of facility.  I also like that the price differences are printed right on the sign so there's no issue of having a price inflation slipped in somewhere or getting the wrong change to even things out.

There was a little twist when we went to enter the playground, a man and woman were standing outside of it holding up money to tell us that it was a two pound admission.  We paid the admission, seeing kids playing inside and grateful for a place for Cameron to have fun on a playground.  Jeff noticed after we sat and had lunch next to the playground that those two people disappeared from the playground area soon after collecting our money.  Oh well.  Next time we know.  

All in all, we had a very nice day at this odd and interesting garden.  I've never visited batcaves, gardens and a playground all in the same place before.  You never quite know what to expect, but it's always interesting.

The Metro and the Pens

The Metro is one of my favorite places in Cairo.  As I mentioned in another blog entry, I was so happy to read in the guide books, and find out for myself once I got here, that the Cairo Metro is a wonderful way to get to many parts of the city.  It is clean, safe, has a lot of nice art, is faster (and safer) than going many places in a car, and it costs only one Eygptian pound.  Today's exchange rate is 5.74 Egyptian pounds to one dollar, so the metro costs about 17 cents per trip.  Here are some photos of the metro at the Opera Metro Station on the island of Zamalek which is in the middle of the Nile in Cairo.  There are normally a lot of people around at the metro, but I tried to take these photos when there was a break in the pedestrian traffic.

One of the main reasons I love taking the metro is because it is so interesting.  There are so many different kinds of people and they are almost always very kind and welcoming to us as foreigners.  In fact no one has ever treated me less than friendly and gracious on the metro.  And I don't just mean people smile at you.  Almost every time I ride the metro, someone offers me their seat.  This doesn't just happen as a form of chivalry in the cars that are mixed gender.  It happens often when I'm travelling by myself in the 'Ladies Only' car.  Some kind Egyptian lady, sometimes my age or younger and sometimes older, offers me their seat.  I tried politely nodding and motion that they didn't need to do this, but quickly learned that they really wanted to do this.  I feared they might be offended if I didn't accept, so now I graciously accept and smile and say Shocron (pronounced Show Crawn), which means thank you.  (The first time or two that this happened, I couldn't help wondering if I really looked that old and tired that people thought I always needed to be offered a seat, but I see it is just that they see I am a foreigner and they want me to feel welcome and as comfortable as possible while I am here.  People will literally call out to me in the street, "Welcome!" as I'm walking by when I greet them or nod to them.)

When I ride in the mixed gender cars with Cameron and Jeff, we regularly get many smiles.  Egyptians love children and Cameron is an immediate ice-breaker.  People will say 'hi' to him, tap him on the head, ask him how he likes Egypt, and generally just be happy with us because we're with him... (that's partly a joke, but not entirely!)  Egyptians really like families and can immediately see we are one.

There are so many stories I could tell about the Metro even though I've only been here less than a month.  One thing I love about the metro is that it's just life and everything basic and fundamental about it.  Even though I don't understand Arabic, I can watch and understand a lot of what happens.  During our first metro ride, an older, frail-looking woman, dressed all in black with her head covered and maybe a veil too, went up and down our car handing out slips of paper to each person (though not to us) and quickly moving to the next person.  There was something written on the paper, but I didn't know what.  I watched to see what would happen.  Before the next stop, she collected all the pieces of paper and I noticed one man put a pound note into the folded slip of paper before handing it back to her.  So I learned this was how some people politely asked for donations.  We gave her some money when we got off.

We quickly learned that this method of handing things out to everyone on the train is also a way of selling things.  During the last week of Ramadan, a boy got on the train a few different times when I was riding and handed out a little bag of heart-shaped balloons in clear plastic to everyone on the train, including me.  He said it was Hamza (five pounds).  A couple women bought the bags from him.  The rest he collected.  The last time I saw him (almost at the end of Ramadan), he tried to coax me to buy a bag telling me something in Arabic that I didn't understand.  I smiled politely and shook my head no.  He went on his way,... many more customers to reach in the few minutes between train stops.  At the time, I thought he would be a regular every week on the train and thought it was odd that he had chosen to be a balloon salesman for his teen business.  But on the last night of Ramadan when we were in a part of town that was well-decorated, I saw there were a lot of balloons and the nightly news showed a lot of Egyptian kids celebrating with balloons.  So I realized that this teen had a Ramadan business:  that's why he was selling the balloons, that's why many people were buying them and that's why he took an extra few moments to try to convince me to buy a bag on the last train ride I took before Ramadan ended... probably he was telling me that Ramadan was almost over and it was almost the Eid celebration (the final feasting holiday once Ramadan ended) and that I should definitely have balloons for my kids!

Today the salesman on the metro car handed out English/Arabic phrase books to every passenger, including us, then collected them at the end.  I might have bought one except that the English sentences had only the arabic writing next to them and nothing to tell me how to actually pronounce the words.  (This is why the Arabic language is so challenging.  Since I can't read the arabic words and don't even know what sounds each letter represents, let alone the different arabic word for each English word, it's challenging to learn.)

One time on the metro when I was in the Ladies Car, I saw a woman just get on the train before the door closed only to find her daughter wasn't with her.  She was still on the platform as the train was pulling away.  She looked to be about 10 years old.   I didn't need to speak Arabic to take one look at the mother and a quick look back at the daughter to understand the impact of what had just happened.  The woman signaled something to the girl that looked like waving her on to take the next train.  Everyone looked a little worried and several women on the train were talking to the woman whose daughter got left.  Fortunately, before the train was out of sight of the station, the woman pulled out her cell phone and was calling the girl (--- Thank goodness for cell phones!!)  Everyone looked relieved.  The fortunate thing was that Cairo is probably the safest city on the planet to have this happen.  There is almost no crime here.  I once talked to a woman who was American by birth but had lived here for 20 years and had a 6 year old son.  She talked about how once her son played hide and seek in a big department store and she couldn't find him for 10 minutes.  (I could empathize with this since I've had to chat with Cameron about this several times since he loves to play hide and seek and doesn't understand the risks.)  The woman said during the 10 minutes when she was trying to find her son, it never occurred to her that anyone might have taken him.  It is simply not a part of the culture here.   Similarly, violent street crime is not a part of this culture.  Consequently, we are probably safer here in Cairo than in almost any U.S. city.

But I digress.  You might be wondering why I mentioned 'pens' in the title.  Here's why.  A couple weeks ago, I was on the train coming home from my night class at the downtown campus of the university.  I sat across from a woman about my age, dressed in the traditional covered way with a headscarf.  She was admiring a box of two pens she'd bought.  They came in a box that had a built-in ribbon so it was clearly meant as a gift.  I smiled at her and was trying to make conversation and told her that was a nice gift.  She then handed it to me.  I quickly, but too late, remembered that the guide book had warned that one shouldn't compliment people on anything in their possession because they will feel compelled to give it to you.  This is the custom.  According to the guidebook, 'excessive admiration attracts the evil eye and puts the owner in the position of having to follow the Egyptian custom of offering the item to the admirer with a gracious, "Here, take it."  And that is just what happened.  I tried to say no and the woman insisted that I take the gift.  Fortunately, she showed me that she had a large bag full of these gift boxes of pens so she conveyed it would be fine for me to have one. (Thank goodness I didn't admire an expensive piece of jewelry!)  We talked for a little while after that until my stop came.  I wished her a Happy Ramadan and she, again graciously, told me she was Christian so didn't celebrate Ramadan.  She said she taught church school and the pens were gifts for the children as they started up school.  She was very nice and we parted ways as friends for that moment, though I expect I'll never see her again.  But I'll always remember her and the pens.  Here they are:

Friday, September 17, 2010

Connecting with Rotary in Cairo

I have connected with Rotary in Cairo and they have been extremely welcoming.  Jeff, Cameron and I met with two Rotarians associated with the ambassadorial scholar program  last week.  (The slide show above called Views of the Nile and the Pyramids are photos taken from the office one of these gentlemen.  If you click on it the pictures get big.)   Our new Rotarian friends were very kind and had excellent suggestions for how our family could get to know Egypt with the help of Rotary and get involved with Rotary activities here.   I was amazed to hear that there are 48 different Rotary clubs in the Cairo area!  This Tuesday afternoon I will be speaking at the oldest of these clubs, founded in 1928.   Jeff, Cameron and I will be going to meet with our host club on Monday evening.  Rotary is doing some terrific service projects events in Cairo that I will tell you more about in another blog entry. We will be attending a Peace Conference hosted by Rotary this February.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kitty City

There are cats all over Cairo, so Cameron and I have nicknamed it "Kitty City".  I don't think we've ever seen a cat that was someone's pet, but we heard from one foreigner that she had a pet cat.  Cameron points out the cats as we see them, everywhere, and he names the ones we see on a regular basis.  Here are some of the cats we see when we go to the Community Services Association.
"Needles"  (Cameron said he named her Needles because her whiskers look like needles.)

"Teedee" because "he looks kind of like a tiger...he has stripes, so the Tee is like Tiger."

"Needles" (again) and "Whitey"
These kitties are all siblings and the people at the CSA feed them which is why they look so healthy and content.  Other kitties we see along the road are quite thin.  Here are some other photos we took a couple nights ago when we went out for Ramadan.

"Belonga", Cameron said "it's just a name I made up for the kitty.
Though we see many cats around Cairo, we rarely see dogs and the few times we do see them, they are usually on a leash held by some expatriate.  The tricky thing about dogs and cats in the street is that you can't pet them because, as our guide book says, rabies is common here and the vaccinations if one is bitten are not consistently available in this country which could mean a quick trip out of the country.  So, Cameron continues to admire and name the kitties in Kitty City from afar.

" Anna & Annie Kitty", Kitty is their last name.

"Tanny's cousin"


Learning Arabic

I've started my Arabic class with Berlitz through a center that helps foreigners called the Community Services Association (CSA).  We are lucky to live only a 10 minute walk from the CSA so this is very convenient.  My Arabic class has only three students in it and is for 2 hours twice a week. The other students are a woman from Uganda and a woman from Turkey.  The class is taught almost all in Arabic.  We're told that by the third class, there will be no English speaking allowed.  By the last half hour of the class, it's challenging to stay focused sometimes.  At the end of the last class we were introduced to the Arabic alphabet.  Above is a photo of what my first name looks like in Arabic.

I was happy to be in a kids' toy store a couple days ago and find refrigerator magnets with Arabic letters and numbers.  Cameron and I eagerly bought them.  A couple days ago, I gave Cameron a challenge of putting all the numbers in order (from right to left).  Now Cameron is just finishing a challenge I gave him which was to use my Arabic book and put the whole Arabic alphabet in order from right to left in two rows.

He just came in to tell me that he has completed the challenge.   Here's the finished product.

Now all we have to do is learn the names of the letters, the sounds they each make and which ones get looped together when writing, as my name shows.  Did I mention that Arabic is the hardest language I've tried to learn so far?  Spanish and Swahili were a breeze compared to Arabic.  The first time I looked at a map and saw all the words in Arabic I thought, "Oh my gosh, what have I gotten us into!"  But for now, we're enjoying the challenge.  It's kind of fun to be at the same learning level as Cameron in something.  I have to do the same refrigerator magnet challenge I gave him in the next day or so!