10. Anniversary

This year brings a kind of special anniversary for me. It’s exactly 10 years ago since I started fasting during Ramadan. Now, even the not so wise reader should be able to figure out that that means I began fasting in 2001. And the slightly wiser reader will be able to figure out that Ramadan in 2001 came after September. Or perhaps more precisely: After 11. September.

I didn’t grow up in a very religious home and that’s putting it mildly. My father comes from a Muslim family, but was never big on practicing (during university, he was a member of the Catholic club). As a child I had many Muslim classmates and I remember a slight competition at a much too young age about who could fast the most days. But other than that, fasting was never a part of my life.

Then came 11. September 2001. No need to go into details about what happened then. But it started something in me. For the first time being Muslim openly seemed to be in opposition to being Danish, European, Western. I had always categorized myself as Muslim, but never given much thought to what that actually meant to me. All of a sudden I was forced to think those thoughts through.

My conclusion was quite clear. I am Muslim. And there’s a reason I’m Muslim and not Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or whatever other religion out there. For the first time I felt the need to show my surroundings that. And perhaps more importantly, to show them that I was in no way ashamed or embarrassed of it. I know this is a process many others than me went through. Some decided to put on a hijab. Others chose to begin praying five times a day. For me, the right thing to do was to begin fasting.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that I enjoy fasting or look forward to Ramadan. I know people who love the month because of the spirituality they develop through not eating or drinking. I just think it’s hard. But once it’s over and I’ve made it through, I can’t help feeling a tiny bit proud of myself for having done it. And for being Muslim.

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Torn

Sometimes too many bad things happen at once. This weekend was one of those times. Like so many people around the world, and especially in Scandinavia, I was closely following the tragic bombing and shooting in Norway. I know this sounds like a cliché (and one I actually thought I’d never fall into), but the fact is that because this happened in Norway, it somehow affected me more than if had happened in many other countries. Somehow it just seems as if what can happen in Norway or Sweden can also happen in Denmark.

Saturday evening however, something else caught my attention. Once again violence had broken out in Cairo and this time it seemed bad. After three months in Egypt I already have many more friends here than I ever got in Beirut. And while most of my friends there were non-Lebanese, all of them here are Egyptian. So I spent most of Saturday evening looking at my phone – on Twitter for updates about Cairo and on Facebook for updates about Oslo.

And suddenly I felt very torn. Because my friends in Denmark had no way of knowing that once again teargas could be smelt in the streets of Cairo. Just like my friends in Egypt had no way of understanding why the blood flowing in Oslo meant something more than just the loss of innocent lives. It made me realize how much I’m living in two worlds and that sometimes they just can’t be combined.

But sometimes they can. This was a poem written by the Norwegian poet Nordahl Krieg in 1936. It is called “For the Youth” and later music was added to it. The events in Oslo has made it come to life once again. And after listening to it, I realized that this is not just a song for Norway’s youth. It is a song for young people all around the world. It is a song for the Egyptian youth.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a literal translation. This one is made to be sung, but the general idea still stands clear:

 

English translation
By Rod Sinclair (2004)

Faced by your enemies
On every hand
Battle is menacing,
Now make your stand

Fearful your question,
Defenceless, open
What shall I fight with?
What is my weapon?

Here is your battle plan,
Here is your shield
Faith in this life of ours,
The common weal

For all our children’s sake,
Save it, defend it,
Pay any price you must,
They shall not end it

Neat stacks of cannon shells,
Row upon row
Death to the life you love,
All that you know

War is contempt for life,
Peace is creation
Death’s march is halted
By determination

We all deserve the world,
Harvest and seed
Hunger and poverty
Are born of greed

Don’t turn your face away
From needs of others
Reach out a helping hand
To all your brothers

Here is our solemn vow,
From land to land
We will protect our world
From tyrants’ hand

Defend the beautiful,
Gentle and innocent
Like any mother would
Care for her infant.

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End Sexual Harassment Day

Today is “End Sexual Harassment Day” in Egypt. Women and men, Egyptians and non-Egyptians are blogging, tweeting and Facebooking (yes – I’m sure that will become a verb some day soon) about their experiences with and attitudes towards sexual harassment. Seeing that this is something I’ve been wanting to write about for some time, I figured now was a good day to return to my blog.

I have to admit that I was really nervous before moving here. Egypt has maybe the worst reputation in the world when it comes to sexual harassment. And just like I’d been reading up on prices of rent, different neighborhoods, methods of transportation etc., I’d also read lots of things about what to expect as a woman in Egypt. Nothing good it seemed.

So I was very happy when at a dinner party a few weeks ago, I could honestly say that after two months in Cairo, I still haven’t been harassed. Sure, I get the same oggling eyes every day in the street – some of them looking at me as though I’m the devil in disguise, others trying to imagine what’s under the clothes. And yes, I still haven’t experienced one day without some guy commenting on me (luckily I never walk anywhere without my iPod, so I can’t hear what’s being said). The guys hanging out of their cars yelling at me were embarrassing, but I got through it. And maybe I have had to make a special contact on my phone, so that it lights up “Don’t Answer” whenever a guy I don’t know (but who wants to know me) calls (so far there are seven numbers on that list). But so far no one has touched me in a way I found inappropriate, so I really haven’t been harassed, right?

That’s when things became quiet around the table, until one man quietly said “But all of those things are harassment”. It wasn’t until then that it dawned on me that my whole definition of what constitutes harassment has changed. I had to change it, because the thought of not being able to leave my home without experiencing some kind of harassment just seemed too depressing.

I don’t know if that’s the right strategy though. Because it’s not OK to keep calling strange women at all hours of the day and night. And it’s not OK to shout at them in the street. And it’s not OK to tell them what you want to do with them, while they’re trying to mind their own business. It’s just not OK!

I honestly don’t know what, if anything, can be done about it. It’s probably going to take a few generations to change the way many men here perceive women. But then again – I thought it would take generations to change the political system here, yet Mubarak was toppled in 18 days. So maybe the Egyptians can do this as well. I came too late for the political revolution, but I would sure love to be here for the sexual.

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What the Arab Revolutionaries Can Learn From the Lebanese

Yesterday I wrote about what the Lebanese should learn from the Arab Revolutions. But like with so many other things in life, learning is rarely a one way street. And after having spent a month and a half in Egypt (and spending time with people from some of the other countries on revolution-path), I’ve noticed one thing that the Lebanese could definitely pass on to the rest of the region: How to party through a crisis!

So far, most of the Egyptians that I’ve met have seemed very open and warm and welcoming. When they suggest to meet for coffee one day, I actually get the impression that they mean it. At least in their heart. Because physically, they seem very tired. It’s like the revolution has drained everyone of energy and so even though their intentions are the best in the world, when you try to make a fixed appointment you can see a fatigue cross their face that makes you sorry you ever suggested it.

And it’s not only an Egyptian thing. I was speaking to someone who lives in Syria and he mentioned that it was the same there. And the revolution is just getting started there!

So I began thinking about some of the stories my parents told me about life during the civil war in Beirut. Yes, those were hard times. Very hard! But they still managed to have fun. There were times where my parents would sit on the staircase (the only place a grenade shot from the street wouldn’t reach) and get drunk and discuss if it would be better for my dad to lose his head or his feet (seeing that one part of him had to rest in the hallway of our apartment). Once they had company from Denmark, who needed to get back to the hotel, but couldn’t because fighting had erupted in our street. So my dad went down, found the nearest militia leader and made him negotiate a 15 minute truce over the walkey-talkey with the other militia leader, so that the Danish friends could leave.

I’m not saying that civil wars or revolutions or uprisings aren’t hard to get through. Of course they are. And I know the Lebanese are often considered shallow by many other Arabs. But I have to commend their ability to love life and make the most of it no matter what the circumstances are. So while I hope the Lebanese take their lessons from the revolutions, I hope just as much that other Arabs will take their lessons from the Lebanese.

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What the Lebanese Can Learn From the Arab Revolutions

I think most everyone around the world can agree that this has been an extraordinary spring in the Middle East. Things I never in dreamed would happen have happened not only in one, but in two, three, four and more countries. And no one knows when or where it’ll end.

Yet, no matter how happy I am for the people of Tunisia and Egypt, I can’t help feel a tiny bit sad for the Lebanese. And not (like a friend of mine commented) because suddenly they’re not the centre of attention. But because I feel that the Lebanese could actually learn a lot from the Arab revolutions.

So Lebanon does not have a dictator. And the elections are fairly free. And the goods of the country are distributed in a more even way among the different sects and not kept in the hands of a ruling elite. But that doesn’t mean Lebanon couldn’t do with a revolution.

The Lebanese need to revolt against the sectarian system that has kept the country in a paralyzed state for decades and decades. They need to demand of themselves and others to be judged not by religion or family name, but by the fact that they are Lebanese, who work hard to make a living and who want what’s best for their country. They need to demand the right to civil marriages, so that two Lebanese can get married even if they don’t belong to the same religion. They need to demand the right to choose a parliament, which they feel is the best to lead the country – not the best within a certain sect. If for no other reason, then because no serious political issues have been dealt with for the past many years because the parliament has been too caught up in a “he said – she said” sectarian strife.

Are these demands simple? They should be. But I know that for the Lebanese this would mean a complete change in way of thinking and in life that is just as earth shattering to them as it was for the Egyptians to get rid of Mubarak. And just like the Egyptians face a long and hard road ahead of them, so will the Lebanese should they choose to stage their own revolution.

But I hope that the young generation of Lebanese will find courage and inspiration in their peers in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen… Personally I would be proud to join them. Until then all I ask is: When will we be Lebanese?

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Flirting Egyptian style

I was at the exhibition of Cairo Photo Marathon the other day, which was a fun, interesting and very eye-opening experience on a number of levels. The participants chose either the six- or 12-hour round and were given a new headline for each hour. They were then supposed to take a picture that to them symbolized this headline within that hour.

While walking around I had a list of the headlines, so I could match them with the pictures. And there really were very many fantastic photos to look at. However, I did sometimes find it a bit difficult to understand some of the pictures when looking at the headlines.

I mentioned this to a friend and she began explaining the background of the headlines. It turned out that many of them were different kinds of terms of endearment or loving experiences like “Me, I die for…” (Amout ana) or “O slipper of bliss, I wish to be the” (Ya shabshab al hana ya raitny kinit ana). Apparently this is something a man would say to a woman to express his devotion to her.

So I thought back to my Arabic classes in an attempt to figure out how it would sound if a woman wanted to say the same things to a man and asked my friend if I was right. She gave me a funny look and said a woman would never say those things.

So what would a woman say, I asked her. Silence. She couldn’t think of anything that a woman would say to show a guy her interest. Apparently Egyptian women don’t initiate flirting. And not even that – it seems that they don’t even say sweet words to the chosen one once the flirt has started (or should I say “if ever”?).

I asked her to think about it and after a long while she managed to think of one – ONE – thing. And when we spoke about it the next day at work with both men and women present, none of them could think of anything either.

So seriously – does this mean that Egyptian women don’t flirt?! Or are my colleagues just too consumed with work to know those kinds of things? Either way, I’d really like to hear from other Egyptians (or any Arabs) what a woman can say to a guy to show him how much she likes him. I’m sure everyone at the office will be impressed if I can actually teach them a thing or two on that front.

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To the women of Egypt

I need help. I really want to fit in here in Cairo, but am having some trouble. When I first arrived in Beirut, someone told me that I might as well give up any ambitions of ever having Lebanese girlfriends. Lebanese women just don’t do the whole true friendship thing (I was told) and especially not with a foreigner. I don’t know how true that is, but I do know that the only one I made grew up in France.

But this is not the impression I get from Egyptian women. They seem genuinely nice and open, which is why I feel ok asking you this:

How on earth do you dress in the summer without attracting too much attention???

Like I’ve mentioned before, I thought Zamalek (where I live and work) would be kind of like Beirut, but perhaps a bit more conservative. So taking the weather into consideration, I had no problems packing all my more conservative summer dresses. By conservative I mean they don’t show cleavage and they go down to my knees. They have short sleeves (like I said – they are summer dresses), but nothing that show shoulders or the like. Apparently this is still a no-go.

So I’d like to know – what do Egyptian women wear in the summer??

I’ve tried asking for advice and everyone keeps telling me it’s not that bad. But then they start to describe what things I should avoid and it’s basically a description of my entire wardrobe. I suggested (partly in fun, but partly serious) that I could just buy a few abayas to wear when I’m on the street. But then someone told me that that was a sign of prostitutes. So that probably isn’t the best way to go.

I know this may seem like a crazy thing to think about. But I’m actually finding this quite hard. My style is very inspired by the 50’s with floral prints and full skirts and pined waistlines. My clothes and make up and jewelry are very much a part of my identity and a way for me to express myself. So I feel like I have to be someone else in order to live in Cairo. And that’s not a nice feeling.

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