Friday, August 17, 2012

Hello friends (and comrades)

I can't believe how long it's been since we were last feels like lifetimes, and yet also like it was yesterday.

A brief recap of my early summer.  I left Santa Barbara soon after handing in a final paper for my independent study on the role of the shari'a in the discourse of a group I am particularly interested in here in Morocco...loaded up my boy Vikas's Prius with a backpack and took off at reasonably high speeds towards  Vegas...picked up a friend from Colorado, played craps, lost five dollars, wandered into a tattoo convention,    got rejected from a nightclub, hopped a fence, ate breakfast...drove to zion, climbed a mountain...drove to the grand canyon, drank a beer while gazing into the chasm, talked about the edge of the solar system and extraterrestrial life with an astrophysicist, pitched camp on the side of the highway, looked at the stars...drove through navajo nation; drunk on the beauty of the american southwest, navajo nation was a sobering experience...arrived in durango colorado, tubed the animus river, went to a house party, did yoga on the lawn, visited some anasazi ruins, drove to the great sand dunes, saw colorado burning, burning, burning...there were wildfires everywhere this summer.  In Denver I visited friends, saw music, hiked...flew home to NH to see my parents, spent a weekend on Lake Winnipesaukee, kayaked, dove for treasure with my old man, tried to sail but there was no wind.  Went to a family wedding in New Rochelle NY, my family is proud Italian American, the wedding was something like a cross between jersey shore and the sopranos, delicious food and purple snakeskin theme. Flew to London for a night, visited an old friend, drank whiskey and played backgammon until the wee hours of the morning, missed my flight, got another flight.


So far, my time in Morocco has been amazing.  I arrived in Rabat and was able to find an amazing room in a riad within a couple of days.  I am living with a couple, a French girl and a British guy.  Our riad, which basically translates as a traditional guesthouse, is in the old medina of Rabat and is owned by Marilyn, my roommate's, family.  The riad itself is incredibly beautiful, ornately decorated in the Moroccan style, with three levels and two terraces, the highest of which overlooks the entire city.  The center of the home is open to the sky, so there is always a feeling of being both inside and outside.  From our terrace you can hear clearly the call to prayer from about five different muzzeins; it's haunting and beautiful, especially in the middle of the night.  This particular riad is called the "Maison Ballafrej;" many years ago, the first Prime Minister of Morocco, Ahmed Ballafrej, was born and raised here. Now the old Ballafrej home is split into three separate residences and my roommates and I share the old guest quarters.  For a while the house was filled with friends and short term renters, from Chile, Sweden, France, Spain and the US.  It was a bit of the Auberge Espagnole, with French, English, Spanish and Arabic spoken at any given time, and often all at once.  You can check out photos here, my room is the purple one :)

Living in the old medina is a trip.  Recently named a UNESCO heritage site, this part of the city is completely walled in, and traffic is all on foot or by motorbike, through a labyrinth of passageways.  Most of the people I've met here have lived here their entire lives, although the original families of the medina have now moved into large villas in a richer part of town; although there is a lot of diversity and plenty of foreigners in the medina, the large part of the population are from modest means.  Everyone in the medina seems to know each other, and there are some characters.  One of the pictures I've posted is of the famous "Singawi" who lives outside my door usually.  He's constantly followed by an entourage of dogs (right now he has three adults, and two puppies) and is a known miscreant, often in and out of jail for all sorts of misbehavior.  His presence is tolerated, but just barely.  From our place, within a five minute walk you can find whatever you need in the souk or the market.  There is one street mainly dedicated to groceries, one to clothes, one to electronics, one to pastries, a street for tailors...really everything.  Walk down the street, pick out a live hen, grab some veggies while it's butchered, some fresh bread and, voila, a meal for two days for five dollars.

My first day here I was, as usual, a bit lost looking for my house, and a young neighbor, Mourad, helped me find my way.  We have been fast friends since then; he is 26, plays football to support his family, and has been my unofficial tour guide in the city.  His family has adopted me and their home is my second home here.  In general I have been amazed at the generosity and warmth that is shown to me - of course, as I was warned, I get attention being a foreign woman, but overwhelmingly the attention is earnest and kind - so many people are eager to practice their french or english (some of the things people come up with are hilarious...the other night a neighbor said to me, you want smokin and I kept trying to say no thank you, and then he continued with I have twenty five dollars, and I was like why does this guy want to give me money and then he said Thank you very much and I realized he was just saying everything he could say in English) and every conversation ends with an invitation to f'toor dinner (called iftar in Egypt, the break fast meal is f'toor here).  I've shared the meal with my neighbors on many occasions; we eat in the parents bedroom usually with Mom and Dad, an 8 year old visiting cousin from Holland, 2 aunts who were visiting as well, Mourad and his brother, aunt and uncle and two cousins who also live in the house, and various other friends from the neighborhood.  The meal typically consists of some combination of harira soup, crepe like pancakes with butter, dates, sfoof (a mixture of sesame seeds, crushed almonds, flour and butter) cactus fruit, juice, banana milk, sardines, Moroccan pastries called chebekia, tagine, bread, cheese, coffee and tea.  I've also shared the meal with a Salafi at his home in a suburb (he is helping me with my research, teaching me about Islam and political perspectives) and with a group of lifeguards in a tent on the beach south of Rabat.

Initially when I had planned my trip, I was unaware that I would be arriving for the beginning of Ramadan; essentially the whole time I have been here so far has been during this month long holiday.  This means that during the day, until around 7:40 pm, everyone fasts - no food or water at all.  Although its actually illegal for Moroccans, eating and drinking during the day is tolerated for foreigners, but still taboo in public.  There is no beer or wine being sold except in one single bar, and only to foreigners; you need to show your passport to enter.  Other prohibitions include smoking (cigarettes are fine after dark, but no hash) and sex, unless you're married, and even then only after dark.  Of course, as with any religious practice, everyone has their own ways of observing the holiday; most people won't swim for fear of swallowing water, but many continue to swim and surf.  And everyone I've talked to has a different reason for practicing Ramadan.  Some claim a fear of god, not wanting to anger Allah; some fear social or familial repercussions, even if they don't buy into Ramadan, they don't want to rock the boat; some view this as a time for spiritual cleansing and a turn away from worldly pleasure, as I believe is the religious intention of the practice; and still others view this as a personal challenge to build character and strength.  And yet there are still others who eschew observation - last year a group of people got together to eat lunch in public to protest the imposed restrictions on Moroccans who may not be strictly Muslim.  It is assumed, even legally, if you are Moroccan, and don't belong to the Jewish population (who have been present here even longer than the arab population) then you must be a Muslim - Atheism in general here is a confusing subject.

Aside from life in the medina, Rabat is a beautiful city.  I am minutes from the beach, which may not be as clean and pristine as the beaches in Santa Barbara, but I love it nonetheless.  There are always people out surfing, fishing and swimming.  Also, because it is Ramadan, the nights here are insane.  After f'toor, around 10 pm everyone and their mother - literally - is out and about walking around, shopping, talking, canoodling, rollerblading, playing music.  There is a little fair/carnival set up on the coast and there have been concerts and shows throughout the month.  Even the littlest kids are out until the wee hours of the morning.

Wednesday was a festival for the 27th day of Ramadan, called the festival of youth - I went to a friends place in the medina and around midnight all the women got together to prepare the young girls (probably 5 and 8) for the night.  This consisted of a lot of shouting (of course, none of which I could understand,) doing hair, putting on make up, taking off make up, pillow fighting, redoing hair, more shouting, a turtle walking around, climbing on shelves, getting dressed, putting on jewelry, taking off jewelry, more 1:00 am the girls were ready to go out, we walked around and they had their pictures taken. When I said I was tired and would head home, this was expressly forbidden and I was instructed that we would be eating dinner and then I could go.  Dinner was served to the family of twelve at 2 am and after tea, I was escorted home by all the women and girls - eight of us - at 4 am.

My own work is coming along, slowly but surely.  Next week my darija instruction will recommence (there was a break for the holiday) and this I am greatly looking forward to.  I've been attending demonstrations put on by the - now apparently illegal - February 20th movement, the most active group calling for an end to corruption, abuse of civil liberties, and pushing for democracy.  I've been talking with some activists involved with this movement and have been working on developing contacts with a religious group that is affiliated.  Right now, I'm interested in developing my thesis around how these two groups are challenging political hegemony, without actually participating in institutional politics.  Talking to people about this has been precarious; there is a constant sense of surveillance, and despite vast improvements in my French, from time to time I still encounter a language barrier.  Otherwise, I've been doing a lot of reading and beginning to write a piece (hopefully which I will be able to publish somewhere and also which will be useful for my thesis) on the economic crisis here.  The poor state of the economy has been the focus of a lot of the protests...more to come on that.

Anyway, if anyone is still reading, I love you all, hope to hear from more of you on the blog, and will try to post less and more regularly :)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ramadan In Cairo's Slums

Friday, August 10th

I woke up Friday around 11:30 am to find that the power was out. I wouldn’t normally wake up so late, but I’ve been stuck in Ramadan time; waking up around noon and going to bed in the late hours of the morning to escape the daytime heat. Most of the roommates had made their way to the Sinai to do some research about the shooting of Egyptian soldiers on the border, and if the day before was any warning, the power might not be back on til later that evening. I could of stayed in, clinging to whatever breeze I could feel through our large windows and worked on my Arabic homework, but seeing as the gas for our stove was also out (our only method of cooking anything)- staying in seemed a grim endeavor.

Instead, I decided to grab my camera and wander around downtown and to wherever else I was led to. I walked through Tahrir square, down Asr al Aini and over onto the area where the pro-Mubarak groups gathered around the Omar Makram statue. I took some pictures and pondered the moment- imaging what the area looked like filled with thousands of people. Then I continued onwards with no direction in mind. A guy came along side me, walking my direction and asked me for a smoke in Arabic. I told him I had none and as he heard my accent he began inquiring about my origin. His name was Ali. He was walking my way so we chatted for about 10 minutes, as he knew some broken English. He told me I reminded him of his son and that it was a good day to go to the pyramids since traffic was sparse and we were quite near where I could catch a bus for a couple pounds.
Ali on one of the buses

Obviously I was initially suspicious, but decided to let him show me where the bus was for future reference. I didn’t have intentions of actually going to Giza at the moment- I wasn’t dressed in anything particularly protective, nor did I have my phone with me. He led me to a group of buses and asked around who was heading that direction. I quickly realized we were about to jump on a bus and quickly accepted this fate. The bus, however, turned out not to be a full size city bus, but rather one of the privately owned minibuses I’d been warned about. They have no set route and you can wave them down if there’s room or ask them as they drop off another passenger if they’re heading your way. Often the entering and boarding is done at a slow roll, similar to a “Californian stop.”

A typical Minibus in Cairo 
He said he was going the same direction and could take me most of the way, give me instructions for the rest of the route, and gave me the number of the buses that I should take back. We jumped on three minibuses and one scooter-moped type contraption before arriving at the pyramids. He wasn’t going to take me the entire way, but by the time we got there he started calling me his other son and had grown quite fond of me.  He paid all the fares and refused to take any money. I ended up getting on a camel with a tour guide and he said he’d come back in a few hours and help me make my way back.

The pyramids were awesome and a cool breeze accompanied the entire ride so it wasn’t a miserable desert excursion as I imagined it might be. My guide saw that I was comfortable on the camel, so decided to tell me how to command it on my own. I didn’t see many other tourists, but the ones I did were trodding along as their guide pulled their camels which were tied closely together. Instead, I shouted “Yalla” (let’s go), Ha’arga (or something that sounds like such and made the camel respond much like Yalla), and maneuvered my camel around the pyramids and into appropriate positions for optimal picture taking.  The pyramids were quite the site and even though my pictures of the sphinx somehow disappeared, I appreciate how photogenic my camel was.

Gamal the Camel.

Afterwards, they took me into a papyrus shop and showed me how they made papyrus paintings. The guy striped some papyrus branches, and asked me with a grin, “Are you strong?” I gave him a equivocal look and said, “I believe so, why?” He stripped the branch and layered three pieces together and said, “Here, if you can break this without twisting, I will give you one of these fine papyrus paintings.” He pointed to one on the wall whose price tag was 900 LE. I laughed and said, “I assuming I will not be able to break it”. I picked it up, pulled and broke it in half. His mouth fell open and he said “Oh no, you twisted it.” I said, “No I didn’t, you saw me.” So he cut up another and gave it to me again. I pulled it this time slowly, and in front of his face and SNAP. I broke it again. Now he was really puzzled and asked, “How did you do that?” I lifted my hands, looked up and said “Allah.”…..”So, Can I have my painting now?” He says, “One more time.” He cut another, a big branch, and of course I couldn’t reproduce it the third time. He told me some stories behind the paintings and aggressively tried to sell me a few things. Curious, I pondered about the price as he suggested the idea of the “first Egyptian love story painting” for my girlfriend. He said, “This is would be a very nice gift for her.” I responded, “It would, wouldn’t it?” half bantering. I asked him for a quote and he told me, “No, no. Never mind the price. Just go with what you like…what feels right.” I pretty much laughed in his face. He quoted me 3200 LE. By the time I left 20 minutes later, I walked out with nearly the same painting, personalized for 350 LE. It’s still overpriced, but figured I wouldn’t be buying many souvenirs at tourist attractions.

My new friend Ali was waiting outside smoking and we left the area. He asked if I wanted to go with him to his cousins before he showed me how to get back and I agreed. He ended up just running in for a few minutes, came back, and invited me to his house for iftar (the meal that breaks the fast once the sun sets). We ended up going to a slum north of Zamalek and Dokki called Imbaba. The roads were dirt and mostly wet mud. We passed fields full of vegetables and fruit- whose freshness was apparent in the discrepancy in quality of goods at the stands in his neighborhood compared to my selection downtown. He led me through a series of narrow dark allies to his building. His entire family lived there, on various floors. Each floor seemed to be it's own flat, except each was very small. Ali’s flat  was on the first floor and consisted of a living room area the size of a typical American bathroom with a kitchen separated by a cutain, a washroom, and one bedroom. He had a wife and three young children living there. 
Ali's House. Two doors to the right: Bedroom, washroom.  Curtain behind the TV enters the kitchen.

I spent time upstairs with his oldest son drinking tea and talking about life and politics- in the best English he could muster and the best Arabic I could. The power was out in their flat and he mumbled something about Morsi. It seemed that any unpleasant circumstance triggered a Morsi reference, including the traffic on the way over which I’m sure was not a new development of his presidency. His wife brought out the best homemade cantaloupe juice I’ve ever had and we smoked about 6 cigarettes (I said “La, Shukran” [No, thank you] to the first three and then gave up). Then, Ali wanted to show me around, so he gave me some flip flops and we walked through the neighborhood. He introduced me to numerous people and we bought some fruit. He decided he wanted to take pictures, so gave me money at various vendors and took my picture. 

We returned, shortly before iftar began. His daughter brought us fried fish, grilled fish, rice, pasta, yogurt sauce, and numerous pieces of pita bread. It was the best food I’ve had in Egypt so far. They brought in what I believed to be homemade grape juice, then tea, then fresh fruit. 

We smoked and various guys my age came in to talk- in Arabic. I attempted to talk with them and Ali encouraged me to speak in Arabic because he said that was the only way I’d learn. He told me earlier he only learned English from talking with foreigners. After dinner, he told me his brother made clothing and that he wanted to give me a “Gallibaya.” These are the robes you see many pious men wear around Egypt, but he told me I could wear it around the house at night to stay cool. I accepted, and he then proceeded to suggest the offering of one of his daughters. To break the awkward moment as she sat across from me in the room, I offered him a gift; my collared over shirt he had been admiring which was technically too small for me. I took it off and gave it to him. He went around showing it off to his friends.

After iftar, his son made a reference that I needed to smoke Egyptian hashish (hash) before I left the country. I mentioned I already had and that we had it in the US. They all look amazed. Before I realized,  Ali left the room, and to my surprise returned with some and proceed to roll numerous joints. I watched him intently as his method was much more sophisticated in comparison to my European roommate’s attempt. We sat and smoked, while watching a comedy show that was rather disturbing to me, but entertained them all extremely. How do I explain the show?…. Basically….it’s like punk’d, but in this episode they pretended to hijack a bus as Islamic terrorists with guns, covered faces, fake explosions, and even pretended to kill a few people on board. Then they blindfold the “target,” did something which looked like making him beg and plead for his life, then unblindfolded him, revealing a familiar face, told him it was a prank, and proceeded to laugh about it. I was rather horrified, but maybe I’m just too American, so I just laughed awkwardly.

His younger kids had grew very interested in me, my tattoos and the piercing on my neck (I told them to touch it and they awed). We went out to leave, as Ali decided he would also escort me in a taxi back downtown as they had some errands to run, and his three youngest kids came along. We shopped at a juice shop on the way out. Juice is kind of a big deal here, and for good reason, it’s amazing. Apparently Ali always drinks this sugary drink after smoking hash to “complete the experience.” We jumped in a taxi with a driver he knew and he gave the driver and I a joint to share on the drive. I played some games with the youngest son (about 6-7) and the youngest daughter (maybe 3-4?) while we rode, and by the end of the trip they were yelling “Ya Jamie” as if it were a ritual chant. After a 40 minute, traffic ridden ride, I jumped out in the middle of Tahrir so they could avoid further traffic and left with a couple numbers for the family. He told me I should come every week or so, to relax, bring a friend and stay the night. He said we’d have iftar and relax, and that I could practice my Arabic more. In his words, downtown is not the real Egypt, but here in Imbaba. Downtown, he said, it’s all politics and business, but here it’s the poor with families just trying to get by. No secular-Islamic divide, no hostilities between Christians and Muslims, just good people living lives distant from the portrayal of the media.

When I left, the entire family hugged me, and told me to come back soon.

I ended up taking a walk around my neighborhood only to escape the lacking AC and power outage of my flat, and ended up seeing the Giza pyramids and visiting a relatively inaccessible  (to foreigners) slum in northern Cairo.

I went home and googled the area I had visited (Imbaba) as I had no idea my relative location between the frequent transportation exchanges. News searches showed Imbaba as the sight of many Church burnings by Islamist groups, followed by stories about the Christian-Muslim rivalries in the area. Older articles noted the Islamic fundamentalist stronghold in the region, as well as the apparent Muslim Brotherhood associations (which may or may not still be present).  According to statistics online, the slum was home to 5 million people.

The site of economic collapse and governmental neglect? A former Islamic stronghold? Residence of recipients of Brotherhood assistance programs? The possibility to form a relationship for access?

You know what I’m thinking.

I’m going back Wednesday to spend the night.

Ramadan Kariim

The Woodsock Life...

Here is my Summer recap. I will refrain from boring you guys, as I am sure you all are having an amazing time wherever you all are!

It's been a complete [psychedelic] experience out here (minus the massive consumptions of hallucinogens). Just about every corner you take and every person you meet out here at Byrdcliffe is some gifted individual; hence, it being an "Arts Colony." However, don't be fooled, this place has its share of wacky characters.

Annika and Layla

In the above pictures we have the Maestros of film from Selva Rica. Layla is a singer/song writer as well as an actress. The three of them have made this summer internship in Woodstock possible and a great learning experience. 


Here we have The Team. Kellie and I have been working diligently to learn all we can about film making. During Annika's roaring 20's bday party, we got a chance to show off our camera skills! (Video below)

Dire Honeys at Byrdcliffe from Selva Rica on Vimeo.
Also! Here is another one of our early videos. I hope we've come a long way from this. But we got a good laugh from just doing this particular short, hopefully you do as well!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Officially Blocked!

We should have seen this one coming. Apologies to our MAGIS team member Jamison, not your fault that Google decides to block our friends in Egypt.