Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Nick Visits Cairo University/Final Egypt Analysis

Fair warning: I wrote this to hand in as part of an analytical paper about visiting Egypt, so it’s pretty boring. But I figure I might as well post it anyway since it doesn’t take much effort to copy and paste. Enjoy.

When I got back from Egypt, my Jordanian friends and family all asked me what I thought about the country. I’m still struggling to tie together all of the things I did in Egypt into one coherent narrative, but if I could choose one word to describe the country it would have to be “crazy.” “Crazy,” because the city of Cairo has three times the entire population of Jordan and never sleeps (and I barely slept when I was there, too). “Crazy,” because it seems like there are two sets of laws: one for those who have money and one for those who don’t. “Crazy” because there are so many disparate interests but only one ruling regime and no way to reconcile the differences (not counting the “elections” in which that regime captured 87% of the vote). “Crazy” because half of the people I met acted like shameless money-grubbing scoundrels and the other half were incredibly decent and kind, and I don’t know which group constitutes the majority.

In many ways, the stories that I took out of Cairo illustrate the differences between Arab societies (and also between different parts of Egyptian society). But I think I learned the most on the day that we visited Cairo University, so I’m just going to tell the story of that one particular day. First off, our trip was delayed a day because the police thought there would be an enormous student protest on Tuesday. We spent Tuesday in Alexandria instead, and I thought the city was much more laid-back than Cairo. The tour groups that are ubiquitous in Egypt don’t make it to Alexandria, so the people there were not trying to take money from us just because we were American. The oceanside culture and the European influences could also explain why people just seemed more relaxed in Alexandria. It was almost the opposite of Jordan, where I think people tend to become more socially conservative as you travel away from the capital city. Also, Jordanian city-dwellers tend to be at least as welcoming and hospitable as their Bedouin counterparts; in Egypt, there is a world of difference between the people in Cairo and the people in the rest of the country. As soon as you enter Cairo, you have to be constantly on your toes and ready to deal with criminals, beggars, vendors, stalkers, taxi drivers, pickpockets, and any other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that may come your way. Being alert 24/7 gets very stressful sometimes, and I think it would be very difficult to actually live in the city instead of just visiting it.

Anyway, on Wednesday we visited Cairo University and with all due respect to our lecturers, it was by far the most educational thing we did on the trip. As we rolled up to the front gate in the bus (we named the bus the Santa Maria because it was operated by a tour company of the same name), there were probably around 300 cops in riot gear forming a giant ring around the gate. We later found out that the police had been standing there for an entire day expecting the student protest, but that it hadn’t happened yet. As our bus driver talked with the police lieutenant to try and figure out where to turn around, the lead protesters started running into the circle formed by the cops. These guys were all young males protesting Israel’s decision to classify al-Aqsa mosque in the West Bank as a Jewish historical site and prevent Muslims from praying there.

From Egypt

The first guys were the rowdiest of the bunch and they stood on the base of a column (the police had surrounded a big pillar just outside the gate) shouting and holding signs. The signs were pretty nasty—one that my host mom translated said “Wait, wait, Jews, tomorrow you will dig your own graves”—but I guess it wasn’t much worse than anything that you might see from some of the more ignorant sign-wavers in the U.S. healthcare debate. Still, I’ve never seen this kind of protest in Amman (although apparently there were protests about al-Aqsa all over the Middle East during our time in Egypt) and as a whole, the university life just seemed more vibrant in Cairo. I get the feeling that Jordanian education is more of a technical venture that leads to immediate employment, whereas Egypt has more students involved in campus life and thus is more of a breeding ground for these kinds of protests (as well as other student activities—we listened to a lecture from the political science department about all of the different clubs and groups students participate in, and it was comparable to any American university). It also doesn’t hurt that UC has roughly 50,000 students who come from all over the Middle East, but UJ only has around 15,000 and many of them commute from home in Amman, meaning they are more involved with their families than with extracurriculars.

Anyway, after the Santa Maria narrowly avoided being overrun by protesters (just kidding!) we looped around and entered campus through a side gate. We also picked up a detachment of two plainclothes officers, who were pretty conspicuous anyway because they were two 40-year old guys on a college campus wearing matching button-down shirts and khakis and carrying two-way police radios (I shit you not). As the white brigade made its last charge toward an academic building, I was struck by how similar UC was to American universities. Students were everywhere—the campus was filled with open spaces but it still seemed overcrowded—and they were almost all wearing Western European clothes. In the Arab world, it’s sometimes considered haram for guys and girls to publicly interact or walk together, but on the UC campus everyone was shamelessly flirting and only about half of the girls were wearing hijab. After a lecture from one of the UC political science professors, we split up into groups of three or four to get individual tours of the campus. I asked our student guide (a girl who didn’t wear the hijab) why things were so different, and after a long explanation I think I managed to get a grasp on it: basically, Egyptian students want to dress like Western students, but this is forbidden by the Qur’an (which, among other things, prohibits girls from wearing tight-fitting clothes). This is a problem because almost all of the girls at UC are Muslim and they want to express their European fashion sense as well as their Muslim religiosity. However, the older generation frowns on mixing the religious symbol of the hijab with the haram clothing of the Western world, and if a girl is seen wearing a hijab with European clothes she will get harassed. The result is that a lot of girls in university choose to forgo Islamic decrees about clothing and the hijab, but most of them are still Muslim and they still adhere to the more serious warnings in the Qur’an about premarital sex, drinking, drugs, etc. A girl can, at the other end of the spectrum, choose to wear both a hijab and loose clothing, but this seemed to be a minority of the population [Footnote: Although I did see a couple of students wearing full-body burqas walking around campus. At least, I’m assuming they’re students since I didn’t actually see their faces; for all I know they could have been anything from professors to secretaries]. At any rate, UC was a refreshing change from Jordan, where it’s rare to see an Arab woman in public without the hijab even if she’s wearing Western clothes.

The many nuances of the hijab discussion took a while to work out, and while we were walking we stopped by the hall where Barack Obama addressed the Arab world after his inauguration. We were standing in the street taking pictures when a giant group of protesters marched right by. These guys were less rowdy than the group that was climbing all over the pillar, but they were carrying a giant banner with a picture of al-Aqsa and they were chanting, “The youth of Egypt are coming to fight for al-Aqsa.” They marched slowly into the square and their leader stood up and began addressing them with a megaphone, from the steps of the same hall where Obama spoke just over a year ago. Maybe it was just for me, but the symbolism was uncanny—the same place where the world was so optimistic just a year ago had just filled up with angry, bitter protesters. We couldn’t even get inside the building because the police had sealed it off. I don’t mean to make that sound depressing; it just was a reminder of how much had changed over the past year. It was also my first face-to-face encounter with overtly political Islam—based on what I understood from our student guide, most of the protesters and all of the leaders were members of Muslim student groups. Sometimes I wonder if Arabs devote an excessive amount of energy is devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian issue because their local politics are corrupt or nonexistent, and Egypt definitely made me revisit this theory. In Egypt, it seems that citizens are very dependent on their government for jobs and subsidies but they also have very few means to influence government decisions. This lack of personal efficacy can foster large amounts of frustration, which people occasionally have to release by protesting. Even though we were very close and nearly enveloped by the crowd at one point, I didn’t get a chance to talk to any of the protesters. It would have been nice to ask a few of them what their motivation was to skip classes and march in the streets. [Footnote: Although even in America, talking with protesters rarely reveals the real root cause of their anger simply because Tea Partiers, Glenn Beck listeners, and their ilk aren’t really known for exceptional eloquence, logic, or introspective abilities. So to summarize, I’m not sure how much I missed out by not talking to the Egyptian protesters.] However, our student guide also informed us that some protests are peaceful and some end with the police lobbing teargas over the university walls and because (in her words) people were “very, very angry about al-Aqsa,” I was happy to move on after a short while.

After seeing the rally/protest/angry mob, it was lunchtime. We reunited into one big mob of Americans flanked by Egyptian students and our ever-present plainclothes detail and trooped over to a campus dining hall. On the way, I had a couple of interesting conversations. The first was with a junior named Mohammed who had a pink knockoff Nike T-shirt with iron-on felt letters. However, instead of “Varsity Track Club,” the bootlegger had written “Varsity Crack Club.” As soon as I saw it, I decided that I must have that shirt. For those of you who know me, you know that when I want something I’m usually pretty direct about it, so I just walked up to Mohammed and said, “My name is Nick, and I really like your shirt. Would you like to trade shirts with me?” After a few minutes of talking and joking [Footnote: Zack and I impersonated Egyptian street vendors to try and convince Mohammed of the high quality craftsmanship on my orange American Eagle shirt. We made some ridiculous claims about the shirt in accented English (“Oh, this shirt very nice. Look, this picture sailboat, it American symbol representing the freedom”) and subjected it to some of the B.S. salesman “tests” that street vendors do. It was a great success.] Mohammed and I agreed to swap shirts after lunch, but then his friend Laith asked why I wanted a shirt that said “Varsity Crack Club.” I tried to explain why it was funny, but something got lost in translation because he replied, “Oh, so you are smoking the crack?” But this led to my second interesting conversation, which was about drugs in Egypt. Laith started talking about how he smokes khasheesh (marijuana), which is illegal but fairly prevalent anyway in Cairo. He offered to take us to a café where “you can smoke khasheesh in the street,” but we declined. Talking to Laith and Mohammed, I got the feeling that youth culture in Egypt is very open, welcoming, and fairly Western—these guys were very willing to accommodate us and didn’t seem busy or overwhelmed with academic life at all (Mohammed even came by and hung out with SIT people a couple more times during the trip), and they were also eager to talk about all things taboo with us. Overall, I would say that between seeing the protests and talking to Mohammed and Laith, the youth of Egypt are more passionate and socially liberal than Jordanian youth, but the two groups also share a pan-Arab sense of community and hospitality. It’s hard for me to speculate on their family lives because I didn’t really get the chance to witness any Egyptian family dynamics, but I imagine that families’ Islamic faith plays similarly central role in Egypt just like it does in Jordan.

From Egypt

In summary, Egypt was an eye-opening experience, but I wouldn’t want to live in Cairo anytime soon. It’s a place that gives new meaning to the words “dirty,” “inefficient,” and “corrupt.” [Footnote: On the way back home, an airport security guard solicited me for a bribe so I could bring my hookah tongs on the plane. I didn’t accept because a) I didn’t want to get in trouble for bribing a security guard over something small that I could buy in Amman, and b) I didn’t want him poking around my bag looking for other stuff to “confiscate” too. But still, it’s hard to feel comfortable knowing that the police can be bought by the highest bidder.] Still, the country had a lot of energy and a kind of vibe that you only find in certain places around the world. If I go back, I would live in Alexandria and go to Cairo in small doses. In retrospect, this idea is kind of a microcosm for the SIT program itself—living in a peaceful, comfortable, modern place and occasionally dipping our toes in more hectic, gritty, and/or historical waters. I think I made a good choice coming here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Smoking vs. Drinking: An Eternal and Relevant Debate

I weighed myself at the gym today, and was astonished to find that after a week of gluttony in Egypt, I still checked in at a healthy 82.5 kilograms (roughly 181 pounds, for those of you counting at home). Despite the fact that I never consciously exercised and stuffed my face at every meal, I actually lost 3.5 kilos in Egypt. When I tried to come up with some reasons for why this happened, I could only find three possible ones:

a) I exercised subconsciously because I had to walk around tourist sites like the Pyramids, Coptic Cairo, Alexandria, every museum, etc.; and because I spent a decent amount of time playing in or relaxing around the hotel pool.
b) My irregular and small amounts of sleep (I napped when I could on the tour bus, but most nights I got 3-5 hours of sleep, tops) took a toll on my body and being awake for four extra hours every day burned more calories than normal.
c) I smoked myself thin.

Let me explain: in Cairo, we smoked argeela at least once a day, either at a restaurant or from a hookah set up on our hotel balcony [Footnote: Or the one disastrous time we tried to smoke indoors because we liked being in the relatively cooler air-conditioned hotel room. Luke dropped a hot coal on his bare arm and my bed, leaving a heart-shaped burn on his forearm and a hole through all of my sheets. To extinguish the coal, I emptied my Nalgene onto it, which completely soaked my bed through. I had to sleep on borrowed sheets and more crucially, I woke up without any water to quench the morning thirst that comes from sweating underneath the sheets in a Cairo hotel. Good times.]. On the second night, we even smoked a giant argeela whose name I forget but which I promptly christened “King Kong” because the hookah we smoked it from stood about four feet off the ground and had an eight-foot hose as thick as my forearm wrapped with a snakeskin cover. Apparently this kind of argeela comes from the Gulf, which is like the Texas of the Arab world because not only is it rich in oil, but everything’s bigger there. King Kong tasted OK at first, but as the night went on it kind of soured on me and I stopped smoking. Also, I smoked a few cigarettes in Cairo just because it’s insulting to refuse a cigarette offered to you by an Arab man, especially someone you do business with. So, for example, when I bought my second hookah with the help of A’del, I celebrated by smoking a cigarette with him.

Anyway, the point is that we smoked a lot in Cairo, and I actually feel healthier now than when I left. I ran 5K on the treadmill two days in a row and clocked some pretty respectable times (though this may have something to do with coming back to Amman air, which is relatively cleaner compared to Cairo smog. Going to Cairo may have been the equivalent of spending a week at altitude). I’m not about to trade in my Coors Light for a pack of Marlboros, but I think my experience in Egypt does bring up some interesting questions. For example, in the United States alcohol is relatively cheap and is seen as a socially acceptable vice, but cigarettes are extremely expensive and smokers are ostracized—just look at the dwindling number of places you can light up. In Egypt, it’s the exact opposite: alcohol is expensive and getting drunk is haram, but cigarettes are less than $1/pack and smoking a pack a day is par for the course.

I question whether either country has the right balance of “sin taxes.” In Egypt, nobody disputes that cigarettes are dangerous for you and for others. The packs have giant and un-subtle warning labels [Footnote: We translated one warning label which stated bluntly, “Smoking cigarettes will affect your married life.” Underneath that, there was a giant picture of a drooping cigarette.], but the prices are just so cheap that nobody cares. Of course, this may be a chicken/egg problem: are cigarettes cheap because people demand that they be cheap, or do people smoke because prices are low? There’s also the third variable of social pressure—since alcohol is haram, people who need a vice choose to smoke even though in other circumstances they might prefer to drink, which just magnifies the other effects. All of this (plus the fact that Cairo is constantly covered by a giant cloud of hazy smog) means that lung cancer will be the leading cause of death in Egypt in 30 years, if it isn’t already.

Still, I wonder if the U.S. might be skewed in the other direction. We hate on smokers because they create secondhand smoke, but really, I think America as a whole may have overreacted a little. Smoking is bad, but alcohol has its detrimental effects too—domestic violence, unwanted pregnancies, DUI, binge drinking, and violent crime are just a few of alcohol’s downsides, and the bill for all of these gets passed on to society at large. By making alcohol relatively cheap compared to cigarettes, we just create an “Egypt effect” encouraging people who need a buzz to choose alcohol. This approach may be good if we want to eradicate secondhand smoke, but we shouldn’t deceive ourselves about its other costs. Personally, I think Americans could do with smoking a few more Marlboros and ingesting a lot fewer 40s and/or double bacon cheeseburgers. If just half of the obese people in America could smoke themselves thin like I did, maybe we wouldn’t face the healthcare crisis that we do today; and if half of the criminals sitting in jail right now had smoked a cigarette instead of gotten drunk and committed a crime, maybe our prisons wouldn’t be overcrowded.

This post doesn’t even begin to touch the other topics of illegal drugs, sex, gambling, etc. as outlets for vice; but here’s the thought of the day: if a government encourages balanced consumption of vices, then it will have a balanced palate of problems stemming directly from those vices. If a government favors one vice heavily (i.e. Egypt with smoking or the U.S. with drinking), the problems coming from it will become endemic and spill over into other sectors of society. Sorry to get into debate/PPA stuff, but I got to thinking about why people smoke so much in Egypt and this is what I came up with.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shopping In Egypt

I wrote a little earlier about why I hate tour groups. I know it’s not really rational or anything, but something about the way that you share exactly the same “cultural experience” with 30+ other people really irks me. I think now that I’ve slept a little, I can articulate what I mean: if you travel as part of a tour group, your identity becomes wrapped up in the identity of a larger group that, broadly, can be categorized as “tourists.” Your experience in Egypt (or any other country, for that matter) becomes one that has been developed over time to cater specifically to tourists, one that’s been warped to the point where it’s no longer genuine. It’s not a real interchange of cultures as much as it is an ethnocentric version of Egypt that minimizes culture shock and maximizes total dollars spent in the country. This is how the basic forces of econ work, and the place where they work in their most primal form is in street markets. [Footnote: I blame tour groups for this too, and here’s why: all tour groups face identical time and money constraints—they have a limited budget to visit a limited number of famous historical places in a limited amount of time. They naturally choose the same places to visit—the Pyramids/the Sphinx, the Cairo Museum, Coptic Cairo, etc.—which means it becomes very profitable for vendors to congregate around those places selling cheap goods to large numbers of tourists who, for the most part, don’t know the difference between “real mother-of-pearl” jewelry boxes and plastic ones, or goods that have been “hand-carved in Egypt” vs. mass-produced in Thailand. If there were no tour groups, it would be less profitable for merchants to gather in one place hawking cheap plastic stuff and more profitable for them to provide quality goods to local as well as foreign clients. But I digress—as much as I hate how they affect me, most tour groups are just unassuming old people who want to be taken care of rather than be out on their own in a foreign country, and I can understand why that would be appealing to some people. Just not to me.]

From Egypt

Being touristy is terrible.

The go-to tourist market is Khan al-Khalili, a walking open-air market where tour groups get dropped off for an afternoon, often horribly unprepared for what they are about to encounter. Every shopkeeper, vendor, assistant, beggar, and street performer wants their piece of the great big tourism pie and they are prepared to go to the ends of the earth to get it. From heckling (“Come into my shop, it is very good quality”) to flattery (“Barack Obama good USA #1”) to gimmicks (“Look, fake silk will not go through my ring, but real silk...”) to tactics such as lying (“This real Rolex!”) and pure shamelessness (“How can I get you to spend money here today?”), Khan al-Khalili has it all. I was reluctant to spend any money there at first, but I wound up buying a hookah and regretting the decision. Let me tell the story:

Me, Zack, Marty, and Luke were cruising around Khan al-Khalili when a guy invited us into his hookah shop. I have always intended to bring a hookah back to the US so I figured, what the heck. We started mixing and matching hookah pipes and bases, just to see what the options were. The pipes and bases were actually good quality, but I was getting a bad vibe from the shopkeeper—he was just a very aggressive salesman and I got the feeling that he was used to dealing mainly with tourists. I forget his name, but for reasons that will soon become clear I am going to name him “Shithead” for the purposes of this narrative. Anyway, Shithead spoke excellent English, which meant my usual line (“I study Arabic, give me the Arab price”) wasn’t going to get me a discount. I don’t know how else to describe him other than that he seemed like a real sleeze. Nevertheless, I was running on something like 3 hours of sleep and not functioning at 100%, so I put up with his sales techniques and started talking prices with him. Luke and I did a tag-team thing and got him down to 400 Egyptian pounds or just under $80, which is pretty much the going rate. I shook hands with Shithead and we made a deal.

The trouble started almost immediately—he didn’t have the hookah pipe in silver, even though that was the color I had wanted and what we had been negotiating for. I seriously considered walking at that point, but in my sleep-deprived logic I was thinking that I had already spent about a half-hour in the shop negotiating and was, time-wise, the equivalent of pot-committed. I chose out a new base to go with the gold and Shithead packed everything up into a carrying case. I paid and left, pretty happy with my purchase.

But then things got worse. We got back to the hotel and tried to smoke the hookah, but it wouldn’t work. It turned out that the hoses Shithead had given us were the wrong size for the pipe, and the base was also too large for the pipe. The thing was leaking air in three different places, so of course it wasn’t going to smoke. I realized that I’d gotten ripped off and after we got done with group dinner at 8 PM, I decided to take a taxi back to Khan al-Khalili to return the thing.

Shithead recognized me almost immediately and asked what was wrong. I told him that I wanted to return the hookah and get my money back, but he wasn’t having any of it. We got into a pretty big argument, and I was doing my best to be firm but diplomatic about the whole situation. He was being a total shithead and trying to throw me off in any way possible (at one point, he even argued that I owed him an extra 100 pounds, a retarded bluff which I called by threatening to find a cop. In retrospect, what I should have done was bribe an Egyptian cop to come in the store and help get my 400 pounds back, but I wasn’t thinking like an Egyptian at the time). Without going into the long and tedious details that come out when people are arguing about money, let me just say that my efforts to return the hookah diplomatically failed, and that I left the shop with a slightly more useful hookah (he fixed the hose issue and threw in some rubber seals) and 100 pounds of my money back. Both of us were bitter and cursed at each other as we went our respective ways. As I wandered around Khan al-Khalili I was struck by an inspiration: earlier that day, I had visited a shop that was completely different from every other one I visited—nobody was standing outside trying to reel in customers, it was actually a workshop, and the owner had taken 45 minutes to customize the gift I wanted for no extra charge. I managed to find this little shop again and explained my situation to the guy:

Nick: I bought this hookah, but it is shit. Where can I buy a good hookah?
Guy: Come with me.

So I start walking with this guy and we talk a little bit. His name is A’del and he’s one of the only shopkeepers who actually makes his own stuff (without giving too much away about Lucas’ gift, let’s just say he’s a good woodworker). We walked two blocks over from Khan al-Khalili to a less glitzy but much busier part of town—one thing about Cairo is that the city never shuts down, and more locals go out at night because it’s easier to get stuff done. He took me to a hookah shop owned by his friend min zamann—from way back—and it was incredible. Every hookah was legitimately handmade (I saw his workshop) and the hoses and silver had his name and neighborhood engraved on them. That’s the other thing—I got a silver and blue one, the colors that I originally wanted from the other store, and a much better overall shopping experience. And because I was shopping with an Arab guy, I got the real Arab prices—including extra hoses, rubber seals, and mouthpieces, the whole thing came to just under 200 pounds. I tipped A’del 100 pounds for helping me so much and smoked a celebratory cigarette with him on the way back to Khan al-Khalili. I learned a valuable lesson: the further away you get from tourists, the more interesting stuff you’ll find—and usually at better prices and with less hassle, too. For the rest of the trip, I applied this rule and was generally happy with the results—in Alexandria, we stopped by a little model boat workshop and while I didn’t buy anything, it was better than any of the stuff by the library and the Citadel. On the last night, I went with a couple of the girls to downtown. 90% of the stores on big streets were selling either poorly made girls’ shoes or leather products, but when we wandered down a side street we found an antique store that had tons of old, beautiful things. They had a rooster made of solid silver that had Arabic calligraphy in its tail design; I didn’t buy it but it’s the best example of the random things in the store. The owners were great and very patient—Saed explained the stories behind some of the products while Ahmad fitted jewelry for the girls. I spent every pound I had there (luckily, it was only about $60 US) and I’m really glad that I did so. That’s what tourism should be about.

Taxicab Confessions Pt. 3: Egypt

Let me begin by saying that a taxi ride in Egypt is an experience that will either change or end your life. The drivers in Egypt make Amman’s taxi drivers look like timid grandmas. A lot of this craziness can be traced back to public policy and basic economics—in Jordan, there is a 200% tax on auto imports in order to reduce traffic and emissions, but in Egypt there is no import tax and gasoline is heavily subsidized by the government in order to pacify the people and keep the Mubarak regime in power. As a direct result of these laws, the streets of Cairo are always clogged with traffic and the air is always clogged with smog. Most of Egypt’s taxis date from the 1980s at least—the default model is the all-black Lada, which is a Soviet clone of a Peugeot. All of these black cabs have mechanical meters that are useless because the Egyptian currency has collapsed so much since they were installed that the meters can’t go high enough (think of the old-school mechanical gas pumps in America that had to be shut down when gas hit $4/gallon in 2008; it’s the same problem, only nobody has done anything about it for 20 years). So before you get in the cab, you have to negotiate with your cab driver about where you’re going and how much you’ll pay. I got ripped off the first time I did this because I had no idea just how cheap Egyptian taxis are supposed to be (if you’re a good negotiator, which I was after my first mistake, you can get a ride almost anywhere for 10-15 Egyptian pounds which is about $2). But after you drive a hard bargain, the taxi driver knows he is getting a fixed price, so he wants to get you to your destination as quickly as possible. Therefore, he drives like a maniac through swarms of traffic, playing slalom with tour buses and tractor-trailers so he can make an extra dollar or two. Several times I had to pull my arm in the car because it would have been sideswiped if I rested it on the window (I don't know if it's from collisions or on purpose, but most of these cabs are missing side mirrors), and I flinched more than once when we tried to squeeze in between buses and one of them decided to change lanes. If you want a little safer ride, you can take a newer white cab with a digital meter, but you always risk overpaying if you get lost or stuck in traffic. Most of the locals just take mass transit, though, which is in the form of small white buses that don't actually stop to pick people up unless they're in a group--solo riders have to run alongside the bus and hop up into the doorway like hobos boarding a train.

Fig. 1: Egyptian Taxi

Anyway, my story comes from our third night in Cairo, right before I wrote my first recap of Egypt. Eight of us had piled into two cabs to go to an outdoor café by the Arab League building, but my cab driver couldn’t find the place we asked for even though I gave him written directions from the hotel concierge and he said he knew where it was before we got in. [Footnote: In metered Jordanian cabs, it’s pretty common for the driver to say that he knows where you want to go but then take you for a long and expensive ride as he asks drives around rolling down the window shabab (groups of kids) to help him find your destination. Since we had already negotiated for a fixed price of 10 Egyptian pounds, I figured that our driver would have to be a real dumbass to try the same thing because if he did drive around wasting time, it would be coming out of his end. Unfortunately, this guy was Simple Jack-stupid, because he drove around for half an hour when the ride should have taken about 10 minutes.]

Each time he stopped and asked someone where the café was, I asked if he had figured out where we were going yet and each time he said yes, only to get lost again. Finally, I told him to take us to a giant, can’t-miss traffic circle so we could just meet our friends and walk. Everyone in the cab was getting frustrated and fed up with this guy heading toward the circle and then turned down a street on another wild goose chase, so we had following exchange with him in Arabic:

Everyone in the cab, as he makes the wrong turn: NO!
Nick: (testily) No, we need to go to the circle.
Driver: What?
Nick: We must go to the circle. Please turn around.
Driver: (not turning around or slowing down) Why do you need to go to the circle?
Nick: (freaking out a little) Just turn around and go to the [in English] fucking circle.
Driver: OK, OK.

He turns the cab around.

Nick. (calmed down, but still speaking slowly and enunciating every word in the most condescending voice possible)
We need to go to the circle because you can’t find the café we want to go to, and we have to meet our friends now.
Driver: Why must you meet your friends?
Nick: Because they know where the café is, and you don’t.
Driver: No, no, no, I know now.

At this point, I put my arm around him and look right at him, which in the Arab world kind of means “let’s be real.”

Nick: (seriously) You are a good driver, and a good man. But you don’t know where this café is. And that is why we must go to the circle.

During that entire exchange, everyone in the back of the cab was just cracking up, because they were just as frustrated as I was with this poor driver but I was the one who had to deal with it. Also, when I put my arm around this guy and said, “You are a good driver, and a good man,” I didn’t actually mean it, so I overcompensated by saying it with almost as much drama as a bad Arab soap opera. Since I’m not normally an overly expressive or dramatic person, this probably looked and sounded hilarious to my friends. Combine my poor acting and bad Arabic with the absurdity of the situation and several nights of very little sleep, and this was the funniest taxi ride I had in Cairo.

Taxicab Confessions Pt. 2

The night before we left for Egypt, I met a guy who has to be, hands-down, the weirdest taxi driver ever. Zack picked me up at my house in the cab the night before we went to Egypt so we could go spend some quality time in my host dad’s café. As soon as I got in, I could tell I was in for an interesting ride because the guy’s gelled hair was shaved into tiger stripes and on the back of his head he had also shaved a giant M inside a circle (think of the anarchy A but with an M, and you get the idea. I think his name was Muhammad). He had a matching pencil-thin chinstrap beard and a massive potbelly barely held in check by a shiny button-down shirt. Zack gave him directions to my dad’s café and he responded by saying, in heavily accented Borat English, “I will kill you both!” We both laughed because taxi drivers have a weird sense of humor and I assumed he was quoting a Steven Seagal movie he thought we would like. Zack tried to give him directions again but Muhammad cut him off and said, “No, no, no, I will take you to the French quarter, it is very fun!” [Footnote: Later, after talking to Zack, I found out that this guy had been offering to take Zack to the French quarter for a while during the cab ride to my place. First, he had asked if Zack had a girlfriend, and when Zack truthfully replied that his girlfriend was in America, Muhammad asked if he wanted a girlfriend in Amman too. Muhammad followed up by listing the many different ethnicities of prostitute that he could find for Zack, all of which Zack politely declined. Then, according to Zack, the cabbie reached over and put his hand on Zack’s leg and just declared simply, “I am faggot.” And if Zack wasn’t sufficiently weirded out at that point, right before Muhammad pulled up to my house he asked him this gem: “What do you have between your legs?” Zack replied, “Uh... what every guy has between his legs,” a statement which Muhammad answered by saying, “Oh, I have gun!” We agree that, given Muhammad’s joking nature, this was a metaphor for his manhood, but his word choice still must have made Zack more than a little uncomfortable.]

Anyway, back in the cab, we finally convinced Muhammad that we did not, in fact, want to go party in the French quarter with him. As we were waiting at a light to turn onto Garden Street, Muhammad starts to blast techno music from his speakers. Muhammad had installed aftermarket speakers in the back of the taxi (where I was sitting) and he would dance in his seat to absurdly loud techno/club music for about ten seconds and then just turn the music off. Since everyone drives with their windows rolled down, this would attract the attention of all the other drivers, who would then turn away and ponder the absurdity of the situation: two white kids sitting awkwardly in a cab with a very fat, very gay, and very strangely groomed Arab techno fan dancing his oversized ass off. He ran through this routine—music on, ten-second dance party, music off—three or four times during the ride, usually after he said something that provoked an awkward silence, which he did more often than Michael Scott.

But wait, things get better. Once we got onto the shopping section of Garden Street, Zack and I noticed a couple of girls walking along the side of the road without hijabs, which is pretty rare and pretty haram (at least in Jordan; in Egypt they’re everywhere). Muhammad noticed too, so he just stopped in traffic and started to heckle them. He encouraged Zack and me to do the same, but we just kind of hung our heads in shame as he said things like “My love, won’t you marry me?” in Arabic. They ignored him, and after the cars behind us started honking Muhammad drove off. So right now, we’re not sure if Muhammad was actually gay and was hitting on the girls to keep up appearances (unfortunately, that kind of thing happens a lot here) or if he was actually straight and was just using the gay overtones to mess with us. Also, at some point during the ride he offered to sell us khasheesh (weed). So if I ever find a more interesting cab driver than a fat, tiger-striped, techno-loving, (possibly) gay (possible) drug dealer/pimp, I’ll let you know. But this story was by far the best thing to come out of that night and we’ve enjoyed retelling and laughing about it many times since.

Monday, March 15, 2010

First Impressions of Egypt

I’m writing this post from the outdoor café on the thirteenth floor of the Pharaoh Egypt Hotel at 2:00 AM, so this might explain why things are a little disjointed. I’m just going to try to recap everything that I’ve done in Egypt thus far starting, from the beginning:

The first thing you notice when you land in Cairo is the air. It’s the muggy, humid, polluted, and generally disgusting byproduct of 18 million people (and their cars, air conditioners, etc.) living and working in close proximity. If you doubled the amount of smog in 1970s Los Angeles, you could begin to picture what Cairo is like. I’m not trying to hate on Cairo—the fact that the city has so many people also means that it’s much more lively than Amman. The streets below me are still bustling with foot and car traffic right now, and it’s Sunday night/Monday morning. I guess having such an enormous urban population is a double-edged sword.

On the first day after we got off the plane, we got picked up by our giant tour bus. These buses are everywhere in Cairo because the guided tour industry is so ubiquitous in Egypt. In two and a half days, I’ve seen French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese (possibly Brazilian?) tour groups as well as Americans [Footnote: When all of these different groups wind up at the same places, the multilateral culture clash is shocking. For example, at the Sphinx we ran into a group of young cruise ship couples who were wearing pretty scandalous clothing by Arab standards—the guys were rocking boardshorts and parading around shirtless while their lady friends had miniskirts and midriff-baring tanktops. However, in order to experience “local culture,” the girls decided to wear the hijab and the guys were sporting kufiyas. So the cruise ship crowd was simultaneously offending locals (by wearing headdresses improperly and usually in the wrong colors) and the older American tourists (by dressing promiscuously). Meanwhile, all of the old people were getting herded about by tour guides—the herd mentality was so evident, some of the groups even had matching hats so they could find each other or identical earbud headphones to listen to the same guided audio tour. These clumps of octogenarians tend to move in slow masses, obstruct photos, and generally get on everyone’s nerves except for the local vendors who understandably see them as cash cows. And, to return to my original point, all of these groups roll around in the same air-conditioned tour buses that we take everywhere]. In our bus, we went to a restaurant on the Nile River for lunch before checking into our hotel. Egyptian food is incredible—they tackle the basic stuff right and have a lot of exotic options too. For example, the bread and chicken that they serve at every restaurant is delicious—very fresh, natural, and flavorful. On the exotic side, I’ve eaten stuffed pigeon (tastes like turkey, but with less meat on the bird) and veal liver (just plain foul) as well.

After we ate, we checked in at the hotel and chilled out for a bit. Our hotel has a pool on the 13th floor as well, so we all headed up here to unwind after the flights. We had nighttime class in the hotel banquet room, which was nice but frustrating because nobody actually wants to have lectures when we’re in Cairo (by “nobody,” I mean “me”), and then we had a little bit of a hotel party in my room to celebrate the beginning of the trip. There’s liquor store named “Drinkies” right around the corner from our hotel which clearly caters to Americans, so we walked over there and bought some Egyptian alcohol. Most of it is terrible, but I want to list what I’ve tried just for posterity: Auld Stag whiskey, Omar Khayyam wine, Sakara beer, Sakara King (kind of like a 40), and Stella (not Artois, but a local brand that may be the lightest beer ever made). We stayed up until 2 AM just hanging out on our balcony, which was really great. Unfortunately, everyone including me was a little red-eyed for the lecture the next morning, but we made up for it by going to the Pyramids in the afternoon. At first, I was worried that we were going to get the tour-bus version of things—when our guide announced at our first stop that we had just 20 minutes to walk around the Great Pyramid, there was nearly a small riot in the group. As it turned out, we actually were just rushing to go to different spots around the Pyramids, so this wasn’t as big of a deal as we thought. Still, I thought the whole day was very structured and tour-like—I saw too much from the bus and not enough on foot. Group tourism is one of my pet peeves, because I think it’s a giant cop-out to have the exact same “cultural experience” as thirty-plus other people. I can’t help but compare it to the summer when I worked at the Main Sail restaurant and served lobster, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, and blueberry pie to hundreds upon hundreds of old tourists in a day. I had absolutely no regard for the quality of their experience and was actually quite hostile to them for thinking that they could sample Maine in an hour and a half. And by comparing the Main Sail with, say, Abel’s, where I actually try to do a good job with the customers because they care enough to go somewhat off the beaten path, I think Egypt will be much better for me the further away I get from tour groups. And unlike Abel’s, it will probably be less expensive.

Anyway, I managed to make the best of my Pyramids experience. I got to ride a camel with the pyramids in the background, and I paid the guide 10 Egyptian pounds (under $2) to untie my camel from the caravan so he could just gallop around, which was really fun. That’s another thing about Egypt that’s awesome—everything is comically cheap. Tonight, we spent a grand total of 18 pounds (about $3.50) on 8 cups of tea and two hookahs with unlimited coals. I have a lot more to talk about but right now it’s going on 3 AM so it’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Until then...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Nick aka Nar is the Best Rapper Alive

It’s a bold claim, but you read that title correctly: I am now officially a rapper. I’m in the process of recording a rap/R&B song and music video for my semester Arabic project with Luke, someone who (unlike me) has a lot of experience with music. Our song is called Tis3a Nisa2, which literally means “Nine Women,” and it’s about how I have to choose between nine women who want to marry me (if the theme sounds familiar, it’s because we basically stole it from the Gym Class Heroes song “Makeout Club”). We’ve written about three-quarters of Tis3a Nisa2 thus far with Luke singing the chorus and me rapping the verses, and I would say at this point that it’s pretty good. We already have about a minute of introductory “shoutouts” and two different siren sound effects; these are the perils of recording using exclusively a Skype headset and GarageBand. But the chorus is catchy and I have to admit, some of my verses are pretty sick (for a white kid, rapping, in Arabic). I’ll post the YouTube link as soon as we’re finished.

Anyway, we’re planning on recording some pivotal scenes for the music video in Egypt. I think the style of our video could best be described as what you would get if you shot the “Blame It on the Alcohol” video with a digital camera—lots of slow motion shots of club scenes and us blowing cigar smoke. I also want to bring in some local influences and include stock footage of the military and King Abdullah, but first I have to go buy a Zweina Baladna DVD and I haven’t been able to find a place that sells them yet. I don’t intend to spend too much time working on the video in Egypt though, just because it would be really stupid to spend any significant portion of my one week there video editing (plus, we already recruited Marty as director/principal filmographer). Still, if you happen to see a rap video in the near future that features two white kids rapping in front of the pyramids, then you heard about it here first.

That’s another thing: we’re going to Egypt tomorrow. It seems like we have a generally busy schedule with the group, but I intend to do some exploring of my own too during our down time. I want to get the most out of Egypt and right now it seems like the best way to do that is to not sleep too much. I think I can pull it off, too, since I’m pretty well rested and I’m not going to go too crazy tonight. I assume that in Egypt, like in any other Arab country, we’ll have ample opportunity to drink coffee at every meal, and if they have that extra-strong Turkish stuff then it could be game over for my sleep patterns. Cairo is also apparently the prime destination in the Arab world for nightlife and culture (much more so than Amman), so I think it’s generally understood that this trip is a giant tourist party masquerading as cross-cultural education. This isn’t necessarily bad, it just means I’m getting a tiny dose of what every other study abroad program (or at least the ones in Europe and Australia) is every week.

Finally, I threw up some photos from our trip to Jerash (an ancient Roman city that’s pretty well-preserved) last weekend on my Flickr page. There was a lot to photograph so I started fooling around with the panorama feature on my camera, and I wound up with some pretty cool shots. After Egypt I’m definitely going to use up my monthly upload quota though, so in order to save room I haven’t posted very many of the Jerash pictures—only the final panoramas. But they still look sweet, so you should check them out here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

New Photos


New pics from the Bad'ia and from our trip to the Dead Sea yesterday are up on my Flickr page. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ma' Salaama Nermeen

I am sad to report that in the season finale of Masrooah Warad, Nermeen (my favorite girl and the love interest of at least two characters) passed away. I didn't actually see the episode, but my host mom told me over dinner when I got back from the Bad'ia. With the season over and Nermeen dead, I think my short-lived fandom of the show can officially be declared over. However, I am holding out hope that the final episode, or at least Nermeen's death, was a dream, which is not beyond the realm of possibility on Turkish TV.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Nicolas Cage Conquers the Universe: Adventures In the Bad'ia

I wrote the following entries on paper intermittently over the span of my stay in the Bad’ia. They are reproduced here in order and have been slightly edited in order to form a more coherent narrative. I’m also going to hand in some parts of this entry as an academic assignment, which is why in some places it may seem overly analytical.


The first thing that I noticed about the Bad’ia was that it’s not exactly Lawrence of Arabia. As I write this, I’m sitting on a couch in a modern house with electricity and running water, not a tent surrounded by desert and accessible only by camel. I felt pretty foolish rolling up to town in a full-on dishdash and kufiya when every local guy was wearing Eurotrashy Western clothes. The khanjal (big-ass knife) that I bought for the desert is about as anachronistic as a bow-and-arrow in the 21st-century American west. After 24 hours, I’m tempted to compare the Bedouin tribes to either American Indians, Inuits, cowboys, or Billie Ray Cyrus’ portrayal of the rural American lower-middle class in Hannah Montana: The Movie, [Footnote: I feel like I should explain this reference a little more in case some of my readers aren’t familiar with the nuances of Billie Rae Cyrus’ cinematic works. Basically, the entire premise of Hannah Montana: The Movie is that materialistic urban Americans lack the simple down-home values of their country-dwelling counterparts, a lesson which Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus has to learn by returning from her pop-star lifestyle in Los Angeles to her family’s home in Bible-Belt Tennessee for the summer. As anyone who has actually visited or lived in rural America knows, the Technicolor version of farm life differs significantly from reality—nowhere among the Disney film’s romantic images of chicken coops, horse farms, and picturesque creeks do we see poverty, social backwardness, religious/racial intolerance, or any of the myriad other problems that often form the flip side of the rural American coin. The irony, of course, is that Hannah Montana: The Movie is itself a giant testament to consumerism, the main value it purportedly speaks out against—but that is neither here nor now. The point is that if you visited America and expected your five-day homestay in rural Tennessee to resemble Ms. Montana’s, you would be greatly mistaken, just as I was mistaken to think that living with the Bedouin would entail living in a tent and riding camels.] but none of these comparisons really work on a level deeper than the discrepancies between dated pop-culture images and present-day reality. Basically, my host family seems to have adapted new clothing and technology but remains committed to tradition, hospitality, religion, and other ideals of their heritage. At this point it’s hard for me to articulate exactly how this is different from any other culture, though I may be biased because I tend to make connections rather than highlight differences. Also, tradition has made it hard for me to get to really know my host family—my father, Kasab, is an English teacher and we’ve talked a lot, but he often has to go in the rest of the house to confer with the women, leaving me either alone or with people who speak very little English. Another problem is that almost nobody here speaks Fus’ha—in Jordan as in America, it seems that language tends to degenerate the further you travel from population centers.


Last night, I accompanied my host dad to his brother’s garage (he’s a blacksmith/mechanic), where about 10 members of his extended family were busy installing a completely new electrical system in Kasab’s truck. Jokingly, my host uncle referred to the new wires as the “cobra” or “snake” whenever I was around. Two guys who I think were employed by my host uncle (but were still relatives somehow) seemed to do most of the work with the “cobra” while everyone else sat around drinking tea; my uncle would occasionally weld a new hole between the engine and passenger compartments if it was necessary. When the job was about ¾ of the way done (the truck had started and the two electricians were slowly connecting wires and putting the dashboard/engine compartment back together), an older man who I later found out was Kasab’s father-in-law arrived. From what I could understand, he criticized some aspect of the electricians’ work, which led to an extended dispute with exaggerated yelling, gesturing, and storming out of the garage in disgust by all parties. Eventually, the problem was resolved and when I asked Kasab to explain it to me, he smiled and just said, “It was a misunderstanding,” after which everybody in the room laughed.

The rewiring of the truck was very much a communal effort even if most of the people deferred to the two employees on all matters electrical. When problems arose in the engine compartment, everybody huddled around to contribute their $.02. When I tried and failed to retie my kufiya to block the smoke from the fire (yes, there was a fire next to the truck for warmth; apparently, fire safety is a new concept in the Arab world), several men leapt to assist me at once. I think there were three or four sets of hands working on my headscarf at one point; I couldn’t really see too well but the resulting doo-rag was excellent. The youngest of my host brothers, a 16 year-old named Thabet, was in charge of everything that could be classified as “Charlie work”—serving tea, maintaining the fire, and preparing seats for the older guys and for guests. In the dispute with the father-in-law and with Thabet, I could see that social hierarchy is stricter here than in Amman.


On account of bad weather, I didn’t really do too much yesterday—in fact, I didn’t even leave the house, which drove me a little stir-crazy (read: I daydreamed extensively and designed customized shelving for my dorm room next year). Still, I saw Dr. Raed and Ahmad when they visited to check on me, played chess, and had the following conversation with Thabet [excerpted]:

Thabet: So why don’t you want to go to university with your brother?
Nick: I’d like to, but it won’t happen. We’re different people, we like different things, and that’s why we’ll go to different universities. [side note: I repeat vocab a lot when I speak in Arabic].
T: And you don’t want him to see you with your girlfriend.
N: (laughs). That’s a different problem.
T: Do you have a girlfriend?
N: No, I don’t have a girlfriend.
T: Why not? [Another thing about the Bedouin: they have no qualms asking private questions].
N: (BSing) Uh... it’s difficult to have a girlfriend in university.
T: Yes, I understand. You are busy with your studies. Maybe afterward when you have a job.
N: (recovering) Yes, inshallah.

[Side note: I repeated this conversation several times over the course of the Bad’ia homestay. I also maintained the backstory that I’m a Catholic because it’s very hard to explain that I don’t really go to church, but I’m not an atheist. This led to me getting quizzed by Kasab’s boss on obscure elements of Catholic theology, an exchange which I survived only by feigning poor Arabic skills.]

Anyway, I spent the first third of today (Saturday) inside, which killed me because the rain had finally stopped and I really wanted to go exploring. But today marked a big milestone for my first time indoors—I was invited into the house beyond the guest room. I hung out in Kasab’s self-described “flat,” which was basically a bro-lounge, and watched a series of really terrible movies. Based on my time abroad, I have come to the conclusion that “Bad American Pop Culture” should be a required component in every International Relations curriculum. Today, my eyes and good taste were simultaneously assaulted by a Steven Seagal knockoff of The Rock, where Seagal played an FBI agent undercover as a prisoner on Alcatraz trying to thwart a hostage-taking crisis that somehow engulfs a Supreme Court justice. Luckily, I only saw the end of this explosion-fest (if you thought the final scene didn’t involve people skydiving from exploding helicopters into San Francisco Bay, then think again) which, in all fairness to Mr. Seagal, did a pretty good job of maintaining a coherent plot considering that no scenes were actually shot at Alcatraz.

After that, I managed to catch the end of a movie called Airheads. It starts Steve Buscemi, Adam Sandler, and a guy who looks a lot like a younger Jason Segal as members of a struggling band called The Lone Rangers. In order to gain publicity, the band stages an armed takeover of a radio station and forces the DJs to play their demo tape; Chris Farley is the cop who handles the hostage situation. I am convinced this movie was immediately syndicated overseas just because it was not very good and because most of its stars made it big soon after it was released (I’m guessing in the early 90’s, because the film inexplicably has white rock and roll fans heckling a black police officer with chants of “Rodney King!” “Rodney King!”). Twenty minutes of Christian Bale in Equilibrium was enough to complete the bad-movie trifecta before lunchtime. I left with Kasab to go to an internet café (he wants to take the TOEFL test so he can teach English in the US, and he wanted to have me download some practice tests because although his English is excellent, Kasab isn’t too good with computers). Along the way, we passed a six-car garage turned into a makeshift sheep pen, where a shepherd and his two sons were helping a lamb give birth. We stopped long enough to watch the little guy pop out (I have pictures!) and congratulate the shepherd before going on our way.

About two minutes later, we reached the internet café, which was four older desktops and a fifth slightly newer one all sharing a satellite internet connection. The netcafe was right next to a small poolhall/coffeeshop, so there were lots of shabab (young guys) hanging around and all of them knew Kasab. [Footnote: I haven’t seen a female, not even covered in public, for three days now, and it’s really starting to weird me out. I think Dan Holleb’s theory about radical terrorism being fueled by a lack of sex may be valid—forget about sex before marriage, these guys can’t even flirt to let off a little steam. Not that the Bedouin are terrorists, but I do understand now how easy it must be for the Wahhabis to recruit.] I spent maybe half an hour smoking hookah, drinking coffee (Bedouin cappuchino is Winner instant coffee heated over a Coleman grill, with extra crystals sprinkled/heaped on top like cinnamon on a regular cappuchino. It tastes like hot chocolate at first, but the aftertaste of the dry instant coffee makes you want to vomit) and talking with local guys as they played a version of cutthroat. Mainly, our dialogue consisted of us sharing swear words, a staple of any cultural exchange, and the guys insulting each other in English so I could understand (“He is not a good person,” “He sleeps and drinks in the street,” etc.). After spending too much time in the netcafe, we started to return home but got sidetracked twice. Because of Bedouin customs that basically make it impossible to either refuse an invitation or not invite someone into your home, this tends to happen quite a bit. The first time, we drank tea in the home of a Syrian guy who was quick to ask me my first overtly political question: “What do you think of Saddam Hussein?” Earlier in the conversation, it had come up that some of the American cross-border raids from Iraq into Syria had hit this guy’s hometown, so I tried to choose my words carefully and have Kasab translate. “Saddam Hussein was not a good person, but Iraq did not need to be invaded,” I said diplomatically. Kasab looked at me pitifully. “Nick, I will not translate that. This guy, he loves Saddam.” Oh well, you can’t please ‘em all—even if the Iraq war was geopolitically, ethically, and financially stupid, I’m not about to call Saddam Hussein a good guy. [Footnote: later on, I had this same exchange with some of my host family, and I thought up an even more diplomatic/legalistic answer: “Saddam Hussein was not as benevolent as King Abdullah.” Somewhere, Bill Clinton is proud of me.]

Moving from international to local politics, our next visit was to Kasab’s brother’s house, were I met the village sheikh. Sheikh Habis works as a mechanic in the Jordanian air force, so I presented him with my aviator sunglasses as a gift. Apparently, they’re hard to come by outside of Amman, so the sheikh was pretty pumped and gave me one of his arghals (the black rings that holds down Arab headscarves, arghals represent a man’s honor) to reciprocate. [Footnote: when I told him that he would “look like the men in the American film Top Gun,” Sheikh Habis’ face lit up with joy, which just reinforces my earlier point about why shitty pop culture should be mandatory for IR majors]. All in all, the sheikh was a funny guy—he joked constantly about slaughtering lambs and cursed as much as the guys in the pool hall. I think that as a group, Bedouin men curse more than guys in Amman, but that may also be because they are not used to having foreigners around and don’t expect me to understand when they say “ibn sharmoota” (son of a bitch) in everyday conversation.

To cap things off, on my way out the door I introduced myself to one of Kasab’s nephews as “Nicholas” (Dr. Raed advised me to go by this name in the Bad’ia, because out there “Nick” literally means “fuck”). He replied by saying, “Oh, like Nicolas Cage!” If you know me at all, you can imagine how stoked I was to finally be compared to my idol and namesake, so I immediately began quizzing this poor Arab kid on the merits of Mr. Cage’s movies. Unfortunately, he didn’t know any of the titles, so he just said, “I don’t remember the names, I just watch and enjoy them,” which I thought was an excellent philosophy. He also gave me a great way to introduce myself to schoolkids, which came in handy the next day.


Today was really fun. I woke up at 5:45 to take pictures and watch the sunrise, and I think I got some real Ansel Adams stuff. After freezing my ass off waiting for the clouds to look cool, I went to school with Kasab, who is a middle school English teacher. He pretty much let me teach the class while he graded tests, which I got a huge kick out of. Most of the time I just read their lesson and let them practice reading English to me, and then answered their questions about America and my family. There wasn’t much language overlap, so sometimes Kasab had to look up and translate, but usually I did a good job of sticking to simple questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My pidgin Arabic and digital camera were huge hits, too. The school itself was shamelessly nationalist in the way that only a Jordanian school can be—I captured some pretty over-the-top propaganda photos and sayings on film—but all things considered, I think they’re doing a pretty good job of educating the kids. Based on my highly informal surveys (asking the whole class at once and listening to what they yell at me), most of the 76 students want to go to university and almost all of them want to visit America. At least as many boys aspired to be doctors/engineers as did pilots/soccer players.


Some of the differences between US and Jordanian schools were noticeable, too. First and foremost, excellence is demanded of the student, not the teacher. While I was hanging out in the headmaster’s office with some of the teachers after school, the father of a 5th-grade student came in and started yelling at Kasab and the principal. Talking with Kasab afterwards, I figured out what the argument was about: the student had gotten 0/5 questions right on his English quiz that day, and the father was demanding to know why the student had’nt been beaten. Patiently, the principal explained that the school doesn’t punish students for poor performance. After what seemed like a long debate about the relative merits of this policy and how it contrasted with the father’s own upbringing, the father demanded that he be notified if his son did poorly (ostensibly so he could conduct the beatings himself at home). Seeing the potential problem, Kasab and the headmaster agreed to call him only if he failed several tests in a row, which the father agreed to. The entire time, the boy (I had nicknamed him “majnoon” or “crazy” during class because he liked to make funny faces at me) was standing right next to me looking like he’d seen a ghost. I felt bad for the kid, but his dad was clearly steeped in tradition—while all of the kids and teachers wore Western clothes, he wore an immaculate gray dishdash with a starched-white kufiya, and his closely-trimmed mustache suggested that he meant business.

Secondly, Jordanian schools don’t really identify special-needs kids. There was one student in particular who clearly had some kind of developmental disorder and needed one-on-one attention, but wasn’t receiving it (on my second day in class, I noticed a few more of these kids, but none as obvious as the first one). As far as I could tell, this poor guy didn’t even have a book, he just kind of sat in class and bothered the other students, who did their best to ignore him or move away from him. It was very sad, but the fact of the matter is that this school just doesn’t have the resources to accommodate him—the only materials beyond the bare-bones stuff supplied by the Ministry of Education were H1N1 warning posters from USAID, which were in every room. Still, it’s worth noting that the Bedouin family system ensures that he’ll be taken care of outside of school, which is somewhat relieving to know.

After school I went to a barbershop, where I took a nap while Kasab got a haircut and a hot shave. We went home to eat lunch and then napped until dinnertime (getting up at 5:45 is a bitch). When I woke up again, I came into the living room and was surprised to see women—Kasab’s wife, sister, and mother were all hanging out watching TV. Even though they cooked all of my meals, this was the first time I’d seen them in four days. They were extremely quiet around me even then, but I managed to tease a few smiles out of them, which in the Bad’ia is roughly the equivalent of pulling off the Ocean’s Eleven heist. Later, I found out that the reason I had been allowed in the room with them was because I am now formally a member of the Al-Naimat tribe, which is pretty cool to think about.

When I came into the room (still groggy from the nap), Abu Kasab and Rami were in the middle of an intense chess match. One of Kasab’s favorite things to do is to insult people in English so they can’t understand; for example, today in class he described his students to me by saying things like, “Muhammad has head like potato,” or, about a chubby kid, “Laith has face like bread.” He did this while the kids were standing next to him, beaming with pride. Anyway, during the chess match, Kasab would do this every two minutes even though he wasn’t playing, until someone got mad enough to hit him. This nearly caused a brawl two games later when I was playing Muhammad in a particularly spirited game [Footnote: over dinner, we had another intensely political discussion in which Muhammad used some of his only English to state bluntly, “I fucking hate Israel.” He asked me if I hated Israel, and I tried to explain that I didn’t hate any country because hate only leads to more war, but I think this diplomatic parsing got lost in translation. When we set up the chessboard after dinner, Muhammad was playing as black, and he said, “I am Iraq. You are America. Let’s go, I am hungry!” He was joking, but still, the national pride implications combined with the fact that everyone was gathered around watching us made the game pretty tense.] because he thought Kasab was giving me advice when really, all he was saying was “You will sweep the floor with Muhammad.” At one point, Muhammad even woke up Kasab’s father, who is a private English tutor, so he could translate for him and make sure there was no cheating. I won that game (USA! USA!), but Muhammad demanded a rematch and the night ended when he finally beat me. Since he had never (up until that point) won a game of chess in his life, Muhammad promptly whipped out his camera phone and took pictures of the board and of me in a mock-crying pose for posterity. He asked me for my email so he could send me the photo, and we exchanged contact info. All in all, I had a great time in the Bad’ia, but it was because of the people and not because I did any of the stereotypical desert activities that I was expecting. It’s kind of bittersweet for my stay to be over so quickly, but hopefully this won’t be the last time I visit Qura Al Naimat. Like Miley Cyrus, I can’t wait to see it again.