Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Like I said – amazing stories. I wound up being placed with Jeem, who also happens to be our belly dancing teacher. She lives in Shoubra in an average middle-class flat. She has three kids (Ahmad -9, Adham – 6, and Allahe – 2, but goes by LuLu). Her husband Adhel works really random hours for a tv company – I didn’t see him much. Jeem and Ahmad both speak pretty good English. They could understand most of what I said, but had a harder time actually speaking English themselves. Which was ok, of course, because it meant I learned a lot more Arabic. When we first got to her house, Jeem took me into the kitchen and told me the Arabic words for everything. She then yelled at me when I promptly forgot most of what she’d said. It took me awhile to figure out that yelling is her way of joking. Ahmad thought it was the most hilarious thing ever to teach me Arabic tongue twisters and then laugh at me when I tried to say them.

Living in their house for a week was very strange because I was in a sort of limbo between guest and family member. I’d be folding laundry one minute and the next minute be served my own huge bowl of aatz as the rest of the family shared one the same size. Jeem also like to yell at me for not doing my homework, but also yell at me for not sitting and drinking tea with her. I’ve never had so much tea and coffee in my life as I drank last week. She made me Nescafe every morning – and I absolutely had to finish it, because if I didn’t I could never get married. When she told me this I laughed because I thought she was joking, but she was serious. She also gave me multiple cups of tea and Turkish coffee every night – it was great. I learned how to make tea “properly” and serve it nicely, too. Egyptian hospitality is a complicated art! By the end of the week I was getting pretty good at it though. Random friends and relatives showed up the house all week, and Jeem had me take care of the tea sometimes. I got the distinct feeling she was showing off her American “daughter”.

I got some pretty interesting insights into Egyptian family relationships as well. Jeem is veiled, but vocally complains about said veil all the time, and takes it off the second she gets inside. (I can’t blame her). There is very clear difference between what happens in the home, and how people act on the street here. Leaving the house – even just to go grab some groceries – is a complicated process because you have to dress up. Out on the street people are pretty reserved, women especially. But once you’re in the house, there’s basically no reserve at all. We went to Jeem’s parent’s house for dinner one day and her sister just sat cross legged on the table to eat, because it was relaxed family meal. Egyptians also don’t have the concept of a quiet conversation inside. Or maybe that was just Jeem’s family because we always had to talk over LuLu’s screaming. She would seriously just wander through the apartment screaming for no reason at all and the parents never did anything about it.

I had a very interesting conversation with my host parents about Obama. Most Egyptians view of America is really very strange. They idolize the average US citizen because they want our rich lifestyle – they’re always trying to be more “western”. But they really don’t like American politics, have a huge mistrust of any US involvement in the Middle East, and absolutely despise Bush. Many expected Obama to change everything, though, and make US-Middle East relations all perfect all of a sudden. Now that he’s been in office for awhile and they haven’t seen any real changes, they don’t really know what to think. So they always ask us what we think of Obama. When Jeem and Adhel asked me, I said that I didn’t think he’d be able to accomplish a lot of what he’d promised during campaigns. And then I told them about some of his domestic policies that I really didn’t agree with – like abortion. This led into a huge discussion about morals, and the states role in morals which was really weird to have with a Muslim family when we barely spoke the same language. They were shocked by what I told them about abortion in the US – so shocked it was almost comical. At the same time as they took a very conservative position on the abortion question they took a very liberal stand on foreign policy (and I know Jeem is basically a “fem-nazi” disguised in her veil). It reminded me again why I don’t like the two-party system, which tries to make everyone fit all their decisions in one box or the other, rather than allowing actual thought and a multiplicity of views. That whole conversation made me really happy that my family spoke English, and realize what an awesome opportunity our home-stays are.

Another favorite moment for me was trying to explain what a moose is. I was trying to tell them about Alaska, so I showed them a picture of a cow and calf. They thought it was a horse. Unfortunately I didn’t have a picture of a bull so they remained very confused. And I didn’t know the Arabic word for deer, so that whole conversation just didn’t really work at all. Getting to Agouza from Shoubra every morning was also fun. This was the first time I’d really traveled alone in Cairo. Thankfully the metro here is incredibly easy, and I lucked out with good taxi drivers. I also had a whole conversation with one taxi driver (in Arabic!) and it took him a couple minutes to figure out that I didn’t speak Arabic fluently. I was so excited! At the end of my homestay, they gave me a number of incredibly random gifts. I got a huge (ugly) necklace, with massive matching earings, AND an identical set to take home to my mom in Alaska. And a pair of socks. And a wooden car. And a half-used jar of nail polish. It was very strange. It was also really sweet, because it was so sincere. They clearly were just trying to say they’d enjoyed having me stay with them, and the way they gave them to me managed to be a lot more genuine than some of the really nice gifts I’ve gotten in the states. It was crazy! Basically, that is a week I will never forget – ever. And according to Jeem, if any of my relatives ever come visit Egypt they aren’t allowed to stay in hotel, they have to go stay with her.

Next post I'll tell you about our visit to the Arab League, which was an experience and half! And also Siwa Oasis. We're leaving tomorrow and come back Saturday. Should be fun. :)

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