Friday, October 22, 2010

The "F" Word

I have a confession to make. This may put some people off, but I think it's about time. I am a fob.

The word fob, which stands for "fresh off the boat," is a common expression used among immigrant communities in the West to refer to people who have not quite assimilated to Western norms, whether it be in terms of language, dress, or general demeanor.

In truth, we all know that being called a fob is not exactly a compliment. There is a certain stigma that comes with being cultural, a sense of not being fully evolved. To complicate things even further, there are many different kinds of fobs. Not only does it depend on the person being labeled, it depends on who is giving the label. To a very Americanized Arab (perhaps third or fourth generation), any Arab-American who knows a few Nancy Agram songs and can say more than "hello" and "goodbye" in Arabic is a fob. (In actuality, these "fobs" probably make up the majority of Arab-Americans.) But what I'm more concerned with is what these so-called fobs, the average Arabs living in the West, consider a fob. Naturally, Arabs who have very recently arrived in the West are "honored" with this title. But what I find odd is that Arab-Americans even go so far as to apply this term to Arabs who have never left their countries in the first place. How can a person be fresh off the boat if he's never even been on the boat?

In my opinion, it all comes down to racism. Yes, racism can and does exist among people belonging to the same ethnic group. Arabs who have grown up in the West tend to think of themselves as new and improved, almost superhuman. Having the best of both worlds, many are arrogant, pitying those left behind. Did it ever occur to them that an Egyptian living in Egypt may be just as educated, just as well-traveled, and just as enlightened as they are? Or even worse, did it ever cross their minds that this intelligent, forward-thinking Egyptian may have no desire to leave his country and may it?

And thus, we deceive ourselves again, assuming that our way of life is the way, which brings me back to my point: how can we refer to a person as a fob in his own country? Well, we can't, or at least shouldn't. Therefore, as much as I dislike the term, if we're going to use it, let's at least use it correctly. So, if a fob is someone who has recently arrived in a country and has still not fully assimilated, then I am a fob. I'll understand if you unfriend me.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Leave Me Alone!

For as long as I can remember, I have not been able to shop in Egypt without getting the distinct feeling that my privacy is being invaded. Whether it be a clothing store, supermarket, or fruit stand, Egyptian employees are programmed to follow customers around, watch their every move, ask unnecessary questions and give unsolicited advice in hopes of winning some "Obnoxious Employee of the Month" award.

Honestly, the invasion of personal space is enough cause for irritation. My cousin, Omar, and I used to think that they followed people around simply to prevent theft, but I've long since abandoned that theory. I now believe that they behave in this way with the sole purpose of getting on my nerves.

As a result of this harassment, a trip to the mall for me has become synonymous with cruel and unusual punishment. Who here hasn't had that eerie feeling of approaching a store that looks promising, only to see that it's completely empty, except for ten employees (even though the store is no bigger than your bedroom) eagerly waiting for the slightest hint of interest to swoop in and feast on their prey? Their first question?

"Are you looking for anything in particular?"
"Yes, I'm looking for a big yellow dress just like the one Belle wore in Beauty and the Beast."

Okay, so I usually just say "no," but maybe I should try that sometime. Anyway, since when is it a crime just to look at things without having something specific in mind? It never fails. It is virtually impossible to walk into a store without being asked this question. They seem to look at me like I came from another planet when I tell them that I'm just looking.

In addition to the annoying comments and questions, store employees also insist on fixing every little thing you touch within .03244856 seconds of you touching it. They'll go so far as to refold something that I've already folded and put back in place. I'm no folding extraordinaire, but come on, show some appreciation!

I've had about as much as I can take of this retail harassment. I'm thinking of starting a shoppers' union for those who have suffered and shopped in silence for so long. But until then, if you work in a store, run a koshk, or even if your kids just have a lemonade stand, leave me alone!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Adventures in Babysitting

One of my favorite 80s movies.
I've recently picked up a new hobby. It's not knitting or photography...It's not that sort of thing at all. I have become...a...babysitter.Why the drama? Well, I have a reputation for being afraid of babies. Don't judge me. Before my sister had kids, the only baby I ever knew was myself. Needless to say, I am not a natural. I didn't quite get the hang of it until my second nephew, Ali (also known as "Bila"), came along.

This means that these days I not only find myself watching daily Playhouse Disney marathons but I am actually changing diapers. Fortunately, I love cartoons (though Playhouse Disney doesn't exactly meet my standard for stimulating television). As for the diapers, I was determined to save that "honor" until I had my own children. Well, there that goes.

While this may not seem to have anything to do with my move to Egypt, for me, this is just another example of how much your thoughts can influence your behavior. Because I had made up my mind that I simply didn't know how to take care of a baby, I avoided it at all costs, and thus it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. People often ask me why I would come here and "put myself through this." Well, if you see it as "putting yourself through" something, that is exactly how it is going to feel. Rather than taking action to shape your own experience, you've built a cage around yourself with your thoughts. Gretchen Rubin, of The Happiness Project, puts it well: "Although we think that we act because of the way we feel, in fact, we often feel because of the way we act." I couldn't agree more.

I think the reason this concept is so hard for us to grasp is that it is easier to say "I can't babysit" than to actually try, make mistakes, and learn. We have learned to use our thoughts and feelings as an excuse not to get out of our comfort zones. How different life would be if we realized that, more often than not, we can choose how we feel and what we think, even when it means changing our perceptions of ourselves.

So, don't let my love of "The Hot Dog Song" (and corresponding dance) fool you. Apparently, I can be responsible for another human being. Who could've seen that one coming?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Expect the Inexplicable

When I go out here, I like to make sure I have a camera with me at all times, because you just never know what you're going to come across. In some ways, it's the odd sights and sounds of Egypt that give it its charm. Unfortunately, this notion doesn't quite apply when it comes to linguistic crimes:

...I believe Henry Higgins would call this "the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue."
Yes, I am a grammar snob. I am judging you as you read this.

On a side note, here's something that gave me a laugh in Lebanon:

So what if he can't fly like Superman, climb walls like Spiderman, or do whatever it is Batman does? Desert Hero Camel is my kind of hero.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ramadan Lite

Unless you live under a rock (or aren't Muslim), you know that Ramadan is fast approaching. Muslims around the world spend all year looking forward to it, which is evident from the almost tangible excitement buzzing in the air these days. This all sounds great so far, right? Well it is, but there's just one thing I can't help but wonder: If we're all so excited about Ramadan, then why are we content with short-changing ourselves by artificially cutting the fasting day short?

In case you aren't familiar with this, here's the gist of it: For the last few years, Egypt has been moving up the date that it ends daylight saving time to coincide with the beginning of Ramadan, in order to decrease the number of hours in the fasting day. Essentially, it's one more hour of eating, one less of fasting. In the past, this was enough to bother me; but when I found out that we'd be changing the clock a total of four times this year, I nearly lost it.

If you ask someone what Ramadan is all about, you're likely to hear about sacrifice, discipline, patience, empathy, and charity, among other things. They'll tell you all about the opportunities for spiritual growth the month has to offer. So, where does this lost hour fit in with these virtues? How can we claim to be making any progress in these areas when we're so blatantly watering down what was originally prescribed for us? Instead of taking advantage of the longer fasting day to earn a greater reward, we opt for "Ramadan Lite." To be clear, it's not so much the missing hour that concerns me, but the principle. I just feel that we take enough shortcuts in life as it is, and this is one I don't want to add to the list.

One might argue that it actually makes sense to end daylight saving time, since it's somewhat of an unnatural practice only conjured up in recent years to preserve energy. Some might point out that religion is meant to be easy and that we shouldn't make things harder than they have to be. Still others might tell me to get over it because, in the grand scheme of things, it's not worth pondering and there are bigger fish to fry. And they'd probably be right...except I don't eat fish.

Monday, August 2, 2010

How Lebanon Schooled Egypt

A couple of days ago, I returned from a lovely trip to Lebanon, to visit my one and only Hanan. Though it was a short trip, her family's hospitality made it feel like home, a kindness I hope I can return someday soon. (On a side note, Hanan specifically requested that I clarify that though Lebanon is her home in the Middle East, she and her family are actually proud Palestinians.)

Now, the last thing I want is to turn this into an overly simplistic debate over which Arab country is superior to the rest. Still, I would like to summarize some of the features in Lebanon with which Egypt just can't compete.*

A few ways Lebanon owns Egypt:

1. The air is fresh and free of smog, dust, and other pollutants. I'd almost forgotten what that was like.
2. There are mountains (they make up pretty much the entire country) completely covered with trees...TREES!
3. Sukleen, a waste management company, has bins placed all over the city, as well as maintenance men working around the clock to keep the country squeaky clean. 3o'bal Masr...
4. Cool army uniforms, especially those berets. It sounds odd, but just trust me.
5. Mana'eesh anyone? Once you've tasted the real stuff, Al Amir just won't do (and neither will Egypt's attempts at reinventing this originally Lebanese specialty).
6. Jeita - It's up for one of the 7 Wonders of Nature. Look it up!
7. Just about anywhere you go, you will find one amazing view after another. Hanan and I eventually got tired of taking pictures because everything was postcard-worthy. In Egypt, most of by picture-taking is limited to odd sights rather than scenery.

So, to put it briefly, Lebanon is awesome and everyone should go, but you'd better stop by Egypt and visit me too!

*I know there may be some backlash from a few of you proud Egyptians, so I'm mentally preparing a post with some points arguing the other side, just in case.

Friday, July 23, 2010

It's All About Perspective

So, I've been here in Egypt a while now and I figure it's about time to do something productive with my thoughts. Most of this will have to be a stream of consciousness because that's how my brain works best, especially here where I can't seem to keep my mind on one thing for more than 3 seconds (think goldfish).

One thing I couldn't stop wondering in the last few weeks before I came here was whether it would be the way it was last time, the way I remembered. We often build things up in our heads and romanticize them, conveniently forgetting the realities. This can apply to anything in life, but I think it's quite common with places. People do this with childhood memories all the time, and it's to be expected. But I wondered if I was doing the same as an adult (if I can call myself that). To address this, I tried to come up with all the things that used to bother me in Egypt. I made a list in my head and frequently came back to it to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into: Noise, pollution, nosy people, language issues, arrogant "Westernized" society, chaos, and corruption tended to top out the list.

Even up until the very last moment, I was constantly questioning myself and wondering if I could really re-adapt and look past those irritations. But what I've realized is that, as obvious as this may seem, like people, all places have their virtues as well as their shortcomings. I think that, in part, coming here was a way to prove that to myself, that the world is not black and white, "developed" or "undeveloped," advanced or tragically left behind.

The conclusion that I've come to is that it all comes down to attitude. In fact, I sincerely believe you can change the course of your entire life simply by adjusting your attitude. Now, I don't pretend to be any Mary Poppins (by the way, she actually wasn't that cheery all the time), but I've learned that my perspective can almost change reality. It's a rewarding sort of challenge...

Which brings me back to that list of annoyances in Egypt. Noise, pollution, chaos: It's all part of living in a big city, an experience so many excitement-starved suburbanites dream of, being right in the middle of the action. So, what are we complaining about? The city's got it all. I mean, where else can you get Cinnabon delivered to your door at midnight? As for the chaos, here in Egypt we like to use the phrase "organized chaos," meaning it works, so just play along.

Next on the list, those nosy Egyptians. If you're American, you probably can't stand people getting in your business. I'm not in love with it myself. But guess what? Those meddlesome creatures are the same ones who will rush to your aid at the first sign of crisis. So, is curiosity a fault or a virtue? Maybe it's both.

And what about my less than stellar Arabic? That's not Egypt's fault; it's my own (or perhaps my parents'). But this is one that I can't blame on Egypt. In any case, I've wished for so long to improve my Arabic skills because of its importance in both society and religion, not to mention the fact that I just find languages fascinating in general. Well, I happen to be in one of the most sought-after destinations in the world for learning Arabic, which is why I've decided to take advantage of that this time (this topic will need its own post).

When it comes to Westernized Egyptians, I have a hard time keeping myself from ranting, so I'll do my best. Put simply, many Egyptians here are leaving their own culture behind in exchange for the American promise, the promise that if you speak like this, dress like that, and frequent these exclusive hangouts, you will have somehow liberated yourself from Arab backwardness. Again, this will definitely need its own post. However, I do see a positive in this absurd phenomenon. As a true American Egyptian, I feel that I, and many others like me, serve as an example of how we can embrace multiculturalism without betraying ourselves, our origins, and most importantly, our morals and religion.

As for the last item on my list, all I can say is that where there is power, there is corruption. Simply because it is more transparent in certain countries, such as here in Egypt, does not make those countries, or their people, "bad" or undeserving. Conversely, societies that appear to be incorruptible may simply be better at hiding their dirty laundry. In short, things aren't always what they seem.