Check out my post on the Foreign Policy Egypt Blog about boxes of sweets with Jewish symbols printed on them showing up in an Egyptian supermarket. Ridiculous, I know, I know.
Hassan is a friend of mine who works at the corner-store near my house. We go to the gym together and whenever I have time I try to stop by and hang out. We talk about a lot of things such as America, Egypt, and what the best shoulder work out is (I’ll admit I have been slacking a little on the gym lately).
I like Hassan because he is a nice guy, but also because he is really easy to talk to and is not over-friendly. What I mean is that some Egyptians will consider you their new best friend immediately upon meeting them and call you 10 times a day. I think this is really nice and people do not mean any harm by it, but it can put you off. Cultural differences.
Anyway, Mustafa, Hassan’s uncle, invited me to eat dinner with them tonight in their store, and I wanted to share the experience and the food. Mustafa made a simple, typically Egyptian meal. We had aiysh beledi (“country bread,” or Egyptian pita bread), mixed salad, kofta (ground beef), some type of meatloaf, and some kind of chicken thing – look at the picture. The salad was good, but the meat was delicious and better than a lot of the meat one would get here at a nice restaurant. Nothing beats home cooking.
In Egypt, unlike in America, when someone invites you for a meal, you can but are not expected to bring anything. An invitation to eat here is a serious thing, and it is the host’s pleasure to have you over and to eat all of their food. In fact, Egyptians will sometimes almost force you to eat until you explode. I had to fight with Hassan because he was practically shoving the last kofta down my throat. It is very nice, but an easy way to get indigestion!
Also, I noticed that many Egyptians do not drink with their meal. I was the only one drinking (water) during dinner. At the end of the meal we had soda, which it seems to me acts as a refreshment, a dessert, and a digestif all at once, because most Egyptians do not drink alcohol. When someone asks you if you want haga sa’aa (something cold), they will bring you a Pespi or an orange Fanta, the latter to which I am slightly addicted.
My roommate and I went to our usual ful (fava beans stew) and taamiya (falafel) stand around the corner after the gym tonight. As I was standing waiting for my sandwiches to be made I turned my head and smiled at the guy next to me, just as a kind of friendly gesture. The guy turned to me and here is the exchange which took place:
Guy eating taamiya sandwich: Please, have some (referring to his sandwich)
Me: No, thank you. Is it I good though?
Guy eating taamiya sandwich: Yes, very good. Are you Muslim?
This type of exchange is very common in Cairo. People are very friendly, and if you express any interest in something they have, they will often offer it to you, whether it be the food they are eating or the shirt they are wearing. When people offer you food, and they are eating a bag of chips for example, you can take a chip. My roommate, however, once took a sandwich from his taxi driver. You are not really supposed to do that. You also obviously don’t take the shirt.
Your religion is also public knowledge here. Unlike in the United States, the first or second thing people here might ask you when they meet you for the first time is if you are a Muslim.
I’ve just bought a copy of a book that has been prominently displayed at my local bookshop for the past few weeks. Because it has a free video CD that comes with it, I just couldn’t resist. The book is titled “Saddam was Not Executed,” and it is by an Egyptian author named Anis Al-Deghidy. The book is in Arabic, but here is a picture of its English cover:
I don’t know anything about the book yet other than the fact that the guy in the store told me it is very popular. I asked him if he thought Saddam was still alive, and when I asked where he thought he might be, he gave me an answer along the lines of “Saddam surrendered Iraq to America…he is under American protection.”
I then went next door to buy my food staples, which by the way include whole wheat bread, cheddar cheese, orange juice, Ritz crackers, ice cream, and bad Egytian potato chips. I also make salad sometimes, so don’t worry.
I showed the cashier my newly purchased literary masterpiece and he said “yes, Saddam was not killed. Saddam is good. America made Saddam, and then he stood up to them.” He wouldn’t really get into it any further than that, but as I walked outside, my roommate was finishing a conversation which apparently began with one of the grocery store workers telling my roommate that he had a German-Jewish friend. Neither of us are sure where that information came from, but regardless it led to him telling us how all people are the same, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jew, and that we all go through the same things in life. For example, America was nothing, and now it is powerful. Egypt, too, was nothing, and then it was powerful, and now it is nothing again. He was very nice, and we couldn’t really disagree with him, and despite the fact that I sometimes wonder how genuine these kumbaya street discussions are, it left me with a good feeling. We wished him a happy Ramadan and walked home.
Today the roommates and I went to iftar at our landlady’s home in 6th of October City, about a 20 minute car ride Northwest of Cairo proper. Iftar is the meal traditionally eaten to break the fast during Ramadan, and it is common to invite friends and family to one’s home or to eat at a communal meal (some of which are subsidized) at a mosque. Our landlady, who I am happy to say is very nice and easy to deal with, which is not usually the case in Cairo, had invited us a long time ago to come to her home for a meal and to meet her family. She lives in a beautiful, modest (but quite nice by Egyptian standards), white stone house which was actually designed, both inside and out, by her husband, who is a doctor. They grow olives, mint, and hibiscus at the house and have a pool and a quiet back porch with a wonderful breeze that, frankly, makes you forget you are in Egypt.
Her family was of course very nice and she has two married daughters, only one of whom we met, who like most upper class Egyptians her age is well educated and fluent in English. The food, shown below, was completely home cooked and delicious. And as usual in Egypt, they pretty much forced us to keep eating. I had 3 bowls of soup and 1 and a half plates of everything else and now I feel sick. It was well worth it, though.
We also had an interesting conversation with our landlady’s daughter, Pakinam, and her husband, Ahmed, who is also well educated and fluent in English and who does advertising for Coca-Cola. Our landlady’s grandmother was Turkish, and she gave her kids, Pakinam and Ingi, Turkish names. Pakinam asked us what we thought of Egyptian culture, on which I happened to have many opinions, so we all got into a discussion about it and it was very interesting. I won’t go through the whole discussion now, but I wanted to share Ahmed’s thoughts about American culture as he has lived and done business there. Ahmed said that Americans are generally very straight forward and helpful and they are willing to help strangers unless they are given a reason to mistrust them. I asked him for some negative impressions and he brought up an issue which I often hear Egyptians talk about which is Americans’ ignorance regarding world affairs.
I think this is a fair criticism of American culture as there are way too many Americans in my opinion who know nothing about what is going on in the world and yes, who do not know where Iraq and South Africa are and whatever it is that woman said. However, what I do object to, and I don’t think Ahmed really meant it this way, is when people from other countries call Americans ignorant as if they are more ignorant on average than people from other countries. That is ridiculous. Just because way too many Americans do not know where China is on a map does not mean that fewer Americans than say, Azerbaijanis, do not know, for instance, the square root of sixteen. It seems to me that Americans are often chastised for their lack of geographical knowledge. This is no excuse, but in the Middle East for example, geo-political issues are much more domestically salient than they are in the United States. It makes more sense that the average person in Beirut would know something about what is going on in Amman, for example, than an average person in Salt Lake City would know about what is going on in Guatemala City. What is happening in Amman is more likely to have an effect on someone in Beirut than what is happening in Guatemala City would have on someone in Salt Lake City.