Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Om el Donya

It seems that the creeping approach of Ramadan has caused my boss to wake up from the lull of managerial office routine in a frenzied panic, and to throw buttloads of work into my lap. One of these suddenly remembered tasks sent me on a ten-day trip to various parts of Upper Egypt and Fayoum. We are talking about working with farming communities in the heart of the s3eed here. In August. Never have I so frequently lamented my female-ness. Not even while living in Saudi Arabia; at least there one has the option of leading a double life - publicly, a life that is indistinguishible from its repressed surroundings, and privately, one that mirrors western conceptions of leisure.

The trip was educational both professionally and in the way it opened my eyes to how culturally removed Cairo and Alexandria are from the rest of the country. Cairo is so crowded and overwhelming that one often forgets that its residents, and its commuters, are in fact a minority of the larger Egyptian population. I'm among those who complain about the enforced social conservatism of Cairo, and, like most, I usually attribute it to religion. I had forgotten all about straight up traditionalism. I guess that's easy to do in an enormous, mostly Muslim city setting. The following is an email I sent to some friends mid-way through the trip, pointing out various things I had learned about the s3eed by that point :

- It is rude for women to chew gum.
- It is rude for women to cross their legs in public. It is not, however, in any way notable if a man sits with his hands cupping his balls for about 15 minutes, or picks his nose continuously (really, really picking. Like exploratory digging.)
- If you are not veiled, do not be surprised if a development "professional" asks you if "you guys are fasting these days."
- There is a kabab store in Fayoum called "Kalbaz". I look forward to seeking it out tomorrow almost as much as I look forward to having a beer and wearing a (gasp!) half-sleeved t shirt on saturday.

I did indeed make it to Kalbaz, and it proved to be the cheesy, brightly colored, lard-smelling, flourescently lit place I had imagined. Other highlights of the trip included:

- Walking through a village and hearing about how they had to enlarge the police presence after a case of taar (revenge killings) left 3 people dead a few months ago.

- Driving through Fayoum (the actual town, not the touristic "oasis" by the lake) on Thursday night and seeing at least two dozen pick-up trucks absolutely overflowing with wedding guests.

- Quickly realizing that unless you specify otherwise, any cup of tea that is given to you will be unbelievably sweet, and dark to the point where it looks thick. It makes Lipton seem like some sort of baby-faced pre-pubescant whose voice hasn't yet cracked.