Thursday, June 29, 2006

An Egyptian scandal

terI found out about this story last night while having a drink with a couple friends who I studied Arabic with a few years back. My first thought was, "Wow, a scoop!" Then I was told the trial had ended a year ago. Looking on the internet, I found this article from an obscure daily (The New York Times), and rather than summarizing the story on my own, I've placed the article below. Check it out, it's really interesting. Post your own thoughts.

Paternity Suit Against TV Star scandalizes Egyptians
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR Published: January 26, 2005

CAIRO, Jan. 25 - The standard three-step program for any unmarried upper-class Egyptian girl who becomes pregnant is an abortion, an operation to refurbish her virginity with a new hymen and then marriage to the first unwitting suitor the family can snare.

But Hind el-Hinnawy, a vivacious 27-year-old costume designer, decided she was not going to playact her way through the virgin-marriage pageant. Instead she did the unthinkable here: she had the child and then filed a public paternity suit, igniting a major scandal and prompting a national debate over the clandestine marriage contracts that young couples are using to have sex in this conservative, religious society.

"The whole society says: 'No! No! No! Don't say this. It's shameful. It's a scandal. Go have an abortion. This girl was not well raised. She's loose,' " said Attiyat el-Abnoudi, a renowned Egyptian documentary maker who after hearing about the case became so involved that she has become the child's godmother.

"The importance of this case is that it is out in the open," she said. "The whole society has to question whether it is only her, or whether the society is changing. Young people want to make love without getting married."

This case has mesmerized the country, particularly because Ms. Hinnawy says her daughter's father is Ahmed el-Fishawy, a famous 24-year-old actor. He is the scion of a family of movie stars and well-known as the host of a now canceled television talk show dispensing advice to devout Muslim youth.

He contends that the couple never had sex or even met off the set of the television comedy pilot, called "When Daddy Returned," where she helped create his wardrobe.
By filing suit, Ms. Hinnawy did more than just shatter a social taboo. She may well set an Egyptian legal precedent by requesting that the court order Mr. Fishawy to submit to a DNA test to establish whether he is the father of young Leena, born in October with a shock of soft black hair. DNA testing is relatively novel here, never before used to prove paternity in court.
In Egypt and across the Arab world, respectable sex requires marriage, particularly for a woman, and especially for the first time.

Ms. Hinnawy contends that the two had what is known as an urfi marriage, a practice in Sunni Islam that allows couples to marry in private with a contract they draft.
Urfi marriages have become far more common in recent years because the combination of tough economic times and a renewed emphasis on Islamic mores means that normal marriages remain an elusive dream for so many.

Tradition dictates that a young man who wants to wed first buy an apartment, furnish it and shower his fiancée with gold jewelry, an unreachable expense for many bachelors. Corporate tycoons and politicians who are married have found urfi marriages a convenient means to carry on affairs with everyone from secretaries to belly dancers with an Islamic seal of approval.

But the clandestine nature of such marriages makes reliable statistics unavailable. Made public, Ms. Hinnawy's story became the talk of Egypt.

Conservative commentators decried the demise of the traditional Egyptian family. Gossip magazines splashed the scandal across their covers. The mufti, the highest religious authority in the country, issued an edict reminding everyone that secret marriage or no, the welfare of the baby girl was paramount.

Ms. Hinnawy said she had purposely held off telling her parents, who had rejected four suitors as unacceptable, that she was pregnant until it was too late to abort.
"I am trying to say to other people, not only girls, to try to have the courage to be responsible for what you do," she said during an interview at her family home. Her baby daughter, whom she will not allow to be photographed, was bouncing on her knee.
She complained that Egyptians prefer hypocrisy to what they consider public disgrace.
"I did the right thing: I didn't hide, and eventually he will have to give the baby his name," she said. "People prefer that a woman live a psychologically troubled life; that doesn't matter as long as it doesn't become a scandal."

In general, abortion is illegal in Egypt, but doctors are given wide leeway to interpret two general Islamic guidelines: that it is acceptable in cases where pregnancy might jeopardize the health of the mother and that the fetus gains a soul at three months. It is an option for women with means, though.
For women in poor Cairo neighborhoods or along the upper reaches of the Nile, out-of-wedlock pregnancies often end in death: the girl killed by her father or brother to end the public shame and cleanse the family honor.

Ms. Hinnawy's family lives in the Moqattam Hills, a favorite new suburb of Cairo's well-to-do on the eastern desert plateau overlooking the heaving metropolis. Her parents - Hamdi Abdo el-Hinnawy, an economist, and Selwa Mohamed Abdel Baki, a psychology professor - acknowledge that they were appalled at first when their daughter told them. Some of the extended family remain horrified.

The fact that the Hinnawys are a family apart is readily apparent from the front gate, which displays the names of both parents. Most such plaques name just the man of the house.
"I don't make the link between honor and sex," said Mr. Hinnawy, a short, soft-spoken man whose wiry hair is shot with gray. "Honor is one thing and sex another. Any guy or girl can have sex without sacrificing their honor. Of course there are certain conditions - that there be love, for example."

Mr. Hinnawy made an unusual decision in supporting his daughter, and the strain sometimes shows. On Jan. 6, the first day of arguments in the lawsuit, he was squeezing his way through the habitually packed corridors at Cairo's Family Court, trailed by television cameras, when a veiled woman screamed above the bedlam: "Go teach your daughter some values! It's a scandal, and you are filming it! Go fix your daughter's mess!"
"She did not make a mess!" Mr. Hinnawy retorted. "It's only a scandal for you and those like you!"
The case galvanized feminists of all stripes, and a score of Egypt's most prominent female activists showed up. Before postponing arguments until Feb. 24, the judge barred spectators, transforming the cramped, drafty waiting area outside the courtroom into a sort of commentators' souk.

On one bench Selma Bakr, a novelist with short curly black hair, said she was thrilled because she was convinced that the case would help defeat the conservative Saudi values that she said had changed Egyptian society for the worse since she was a student in the 1960's.
"These values from Wahhabi Islam are completely different from our Islamic values," Mrs. Bakr said. "This is petrodollar Islam. Women are considered objects for sex, for family, for marriage. But we need to let women be citizens, to have the same rights as all citizens."
On another bench Safinaz Kazem, a veiled, outspoken writer with Islamist leanings, railed against the so-called new religious sheiks whom, it is claimed, Mr. Fishawy consulted while the young couple were secretly fighting about an abortion. Ms. Hinnawy said one such figure had told them that they should each sacrifice five camels and fast for 60 days, then God would absolve them.

Ms. Hinnawy's lawyer, Mamdouh el-Waseemy, argued that Mr. Fishawy must submit to the DNA test to ensure the baby's welfare. In an interview, he said there were about 18,000 paternity suits across Egypt currently. DNA was used for the first time just six months ago, in a complicated rape trial in which the criminal charges trumped the paternity issue.
Mr. Waseemy said the Family Court judges were eager to find a test paternity case to push for DNA evidence, considering it far more scientific than the usual method of summoning witnesses like doormen to testify that they had seen the couple entering the same apartment.
Yousri Samy Sayed, the lawyer for Mr. Fishawy, argues that there never was a marriage and that in the absence of a contract, his client will not submit to the test.
"You cannot accuse any man in the street just by saying: 'This is my husband and the father of my child. I want him to go take a DNA test,' " said Mr. Sayed, a favorite lawyer for actors. "There has to be some evidence first that there was a marriage relationship."
He accuses Ms. Hinnawy of being a gold-digger, seeking to trade on his client's fame by taking her case public.

Ms. Hinnawy denies the charge. She says that there was a contract, but that when she first told Mr. Fishawy last spring that she was pregnant, he nicely asked for both copies so he could make the marriage official by registering it. She says that she has not seen the documents since, and that afterward he told her he would never marry an unveiled woman.
It is hard to gauge exactly where public sentiment lies. Among students interviewed outside the gates of Cairo University, for example, some suggested that Ms. Hinnawy was a tramp whose ambitions would have no effect on youth culture.

Others hoped that she would win and strike a blow for more open, equal relations between men and women and help lift the shame from sex. Some social scientists note that since the case went public, urfi marriages have suddenly become an important subplot in television soap operas, usually resolved with the marriage being made official.

The fictional versions seem pale in comparison with the real drama.

Writing in the semiofficial daily Al Ahram, the columnist Mohamed Shamroukh said, "It's like a TV series where everyone is dying to watch the last episode, making it the first reality series ever starring its own writers with an undetermined ending."


This isn't the end of the story. For the sad, second chapter, check out this link

Monday, June 26, 2006

Al Jazeera, seriously?

Al Jazeera has long been vilified in the West by commentators and politicians who have never watched the channel, let alone understood its contents.

(Note: This could be bias. I have no proof. It's possible members of congress regularly tune in to Al Jazeera. It's also possible they all speak Arabic. I might just be uninformed).

I have generally felt squeamish while listening to such high-pitched convulsions. For the most part, as best I can tell, Al Jazeera's news coverage is a bloodier version of CNN. Al Jazeera chooses to air Bin Laden's taunts to the West, while western media sources only announce that such taunts were broadcast on an Arabic language station, a more patriotic alternative that does not give the aid and comfort to the enemy, or so we are told. On the Iraq war, far more images of dead civilians are shown on Al Jazeera, in large part because the station is really in the blood business. When it comes to American news, the mantra is "if it bleeds it leads." When it comes to Arab news channels, the mantra is "if it bleeds, and you've got that blood on tape, then it leads." It's a different emphasis, but unless you consider it anti-American to broadcast the unpleasant fact that, when wars happen, people die, it's hard to call such news coverage biased.

Of course, Al Jazeera is biased, openly - when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Critics of AJ love to point out that the station refers to Palestinian suicide bombers as "martyrs." It's not really the best criticism. In Arabic, suicide is a negative term. In English, we may think of 'suicide,' negatively, but the word itself is descriptive, and value neutral. In Arabic, the word for suicide implies mental imbalance. To call a Palestinian militant a suicide bomber in Arabic would thus be the equivalent of saying "Yesterday, two insane, depressed Palestinians blew themselves up because they were mentally unbalanced in Tel Aviv, killing two civilians." You might as well call them homicide bombers (for those who don't know, that's what fox news calls them). Where Al Jazeera is really biased in its word choice is in its decision to refer to all Palestinians killed in an attack by Israelis as martyrs. Thus when a Palestinian, civilian or militant, is killed by an Israeli raid, he or she is 'martyred' during an Israeli attack.

What has always befuddled me, though, is that American commentators constantly complain about Al Jazeera's bias. I read Al Jazeera online almost everyday, and I'd never seen a story that seemed to justify such virulent protest by Americans.

Today I read an article that made me think differently (though I stand by my assertion that few who complain about Al Jazeera have ever actually seen it).

Here's the article, the translation is rough:

Saddam would not resist helping Washington with quieting [the violence]

Khalil Duleimi, the head of the defense team for former President Saddam Hussein, said that his client believes that the United States will come to him for help in quieting the resistance in Iraq and in smoothing the path for the withdrawal of the American forces.

Deleimi said in an interview with the Associated Press that Saddam was the key to returning stability...

The article goes on and on. Saddam doesn't want any more bloodshed. Saddam wants to help both Americans and Iraqis. One quote is "This blood in the Iraqi government which was brought to power by the Americans has no purpose. They are unable to protect themselves or the Iraqi people. [The violence] will force the Americans, without question, to the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and to the Baath Party to save themselves."

It would be a good article, if it were a joke. But it's not. The only source for the article is Saddam's lawyer. There's no American spokesperson, no analyst to say how ridiculous these claims are. No one who says "regardless of how bad it gets in Iraq, it is rather unlikely that the US government will turn to Saddam Hussein, whose execution is imminent, and beg for any help he can give."

If anything, the article serves as propaganda for Saddam Hussein. It portrays him as willing to work will all sides for the good of the Iraqi people. There's no mention of the crimes he is accused of.

The story is on the front page of AJ's website, but there's no mention of the story anywhere on Al Jazeera's English language site. Odd, don't you think?

Personal news: this blog's future and being back in Cairo

For those of you who worry, I'm back in Cairo, safe and sound. I got back to my apartment last night at around 9pm, just in time to do a little bit of work and pass out. Amazingly, I managed to sleep from midnight until 8 am. Maybe there won't be any jet lag this time (keeping my fingers crossed). For those who don't know, I found a new apartment. Yes, the days of the giant cockroaches are (hopefully) behind us. I'm now living in a small, cheap, but clean, two bedroom apartment about 5 minutes from the university by foot.

With regards to the blog, some changes are coming. My week in the States caused me to fall behind on my work, but the reality is, I was spending too much time on the blog before anyway. Daily entries are just too time consuming (about 1-2 hours). From now on, I'm going to write only 1 or 2 entries a week, but hopefully the quality will go up. With more time to think about what I want to write, and more time to make sure that what I write is fact, not fiction, hopefully the blog will become more journalistic.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Dispatch suspended

I'm back in the states this week dealing with some family matters. Look for more dispatches from Cairo starting a week from Monday.


Friday, June 16, 2006

A small tragedy

The gym I work out at in Agousa has become a small community for me. The same 8 to 12 guys are come just about every day. Some are a little bigger than me. Others are a lot bigger. But everyone is friendly. You can tell that, for the others, the gym is their social network. The 'captain' of the gym, Mahmoud, works out and gives advice from noon until the last straggler (often me) has finished their workout, normally around 11 or 11:30 at night. The gym is on the first floor (it's about the size of a small apartment) and the captain's apartment is on the fourth. Working out is Mahmoud's passion, his religion even - unlike most other establishments in Cairo, the gym does not close on Fridays, the Muslim holy day.

Immediately, from the first time I showed up, the captain tried to take me under his wing, giving me different exercises to do, prodding, encouraging, pushing me to work harder. After my second workout, he invited me up to meet his family. He's married (his wife wears a hijaab, the traditional Muslim headscarf) with four children. In his early 50s, the ages of his children range from young adults to a toddler who's around two years old. At one point, I told him that, with four kids and a twelve hour-a-day work schedule, he was quite the busy man. When I arrived, his wife was cordial, if reserved. She gave me a big smile, but words were not exchanged; in the Muslim world, husbands generally entertain male guests, and wives entertain female guests. Mahmoud may not be particularly religious, but some customs are more cultural than anything else. His wife quickly ducked into the kitchen, brought us some juice, and prepared tea. These meetings always make me a little uncomfortable. For one, my Arabic isn't strong enough to just ramble in conversation, and I never quite know what's appropriate conversation, and what isn't. For the most part, we just sat there, occasionally exchanging a smile or pleasantries about the house, family, or life in Cairo and America. It seemed as if the captain led a comfortable life. His horizons were no doubt limited, but there seemed to be a warmth in his gym and in his house that I imaged could sustain a happy life.

A few days later, I found out just how wrong first impressions could be. I arrived at the gym a little late, perhaps 10:30. By 11, I was the last person still there. As I finished up my work out, Mahmoud began asking me a few questions about my program. "Do you know a lot of American women here?" "Um, I know some, mainly through my program," I responded. "Do you think you could introduce me to some of them? I would like to meet some American women." Oh God, I thought. Not this. "Ah, the problem is most of the women in my program are very young, just about my age." I hoped Mahmoud's age would end the conversation, but he persisted. "You know, there's no love anymore in my marriage. I come and I go, and we exchange a few words and that's it." I asked him how long he had been married. He said since 1981. During the 70s, Mahmoud had been a professional body builder. He traveled to Vienna to compete, and claims to have met Arnold Schwarzenegger while he was there. He said those were great times. He had met women there that were fun, that life was enjoyable.

Suddenly, I began to think about the gym differently. Maybe it wasn't just a social network; maybe it was an escape valve, a way to work out sexual frustration, to deal with a life that could have gone differently. One thing I learned from my time in Syria, a lesson reinforced by my experience here, is how much more important outward appearances are than real life. They are important enough to list through a loveless marriage for decades.

Now that's a small tragedy

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Saudi Arabia's first match

The World Cup continues, and even if everyone can't watch see the game with a clear picture, it's still the biggest story in town. For the Arab world, last night was the real beginning of the Cup. The match up: Saudi Arabia vs. Tunisia. Both nations are predominantly Muslim. Both maintain Arabic as the official language. Beyond that, the two nations have little in common. Here's a Description of Tunisia from the CIA Factbook:

"Following independence from France in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba established a strict one-party state. He dominated the country for 31 years, repressing Islamic fundamentalism and establishing rights for women unmatched by any other Arab nation. Tunisia has long taken a moderate, non-aligned stance in its foreign relations. Domestically, it has sought to defuse rising pressure for a more open political society."

Repressing Islamic fundamentalism? It's hard to imagine a worse description for Saudi Arabia's political system. Saudi Arabia was founded at the beginning of the 19th century by Abd alAziz al-Saud, from whom the modern day kingdom takes its name. An aside: two points to anyone who posts the name of another country named after its royal family (at least one exists). From its beginning, the Saudi monarchy established itself as the defender of Islam. The nation's entire history has been a succession of bargains between the royal family and the country's strict clergy. The religion of Saudi Arabia is one of the most reactionary in the world. The monarchy has had to fight for every inch of reform. When Ibn Saud wanted to introduce radio to the kingdom, he was only able to do so by convincing the clerics that the invention would be good for Islam. The first radio broadcast was thus a reading of the Quran. Women are still not allowed to drive (if they could, it would presumably lead to more interaction between the sexes). Religious police enforce dress codes on both men and women. Infractions often lead to beatings. Beheadings and lashings are not just an accepted form of justice; they are part of the legal code. A certain number of lashings for theft, another for adultery, for battery, etc.

(I was hoping to link to a NYtimes op-ed by Maureen Dowd, but the site is down until Sunday. If I remember, I'll post the link then)

When it comes to religion, there is little question that Egypt has more in common with Tunisia than it does Saudi Arabia. I haven't looked into Egypt's legal code (stay tuned for a future entry), but the government is primarily a secular one. Egypt has a huge tourist industry, and seeing foreigners on the street without headscarves is normal; Unless you're on business or doing a pilgrimage to Mecca, the only way to get into Saudi Arabia is if you're invited by a Saudi (it really should be "an Arabian," but it appears that Mel Brook's golden rule applies to language as well; those who have the gold, make the rules).

Thus, it seems logical to me that Egyptians would feel closer to Tunisia than Saudi Arabia, and would root for them during the match.

Last night, I went to the gym to work out. The gym I use is small; maybe there are 10 or 15 machines in an area the size of a large living room. The machines are old; some are clearly on their last legs. The 'captain' of the gym, who I will discuss in my next entry, gives me a workout plan everyday. Yesterday was a leg workout. "Just so you know, you won't be able to walk tomorrow," he promised me. He turned out to be wrong; I hadn't lifted with my legs for so long, that by the fourth excercise, my hamstrings started spasming and I had to stop. The gym I go to is a dirty, poorly lit back street. The only sign for it is an unlit billboard that says "WINNER GYM," partially hidden by foliage. If you didn't know where to look, you wouldn't find it.
Walking out of the gym, I turn left. About 100 yards down the block, a left turn takes me to the main road, Sheriat elneal, or Nile Street, where I catch a bus or cab back to my home. But between the gym and that second left turn is a series of bakeries and outdoor coffee shops.

After 10 pm, the coffee shops are bustling, with chairs set up well into the line of traffic. Most nights, when I walk past those coffee shops, their small televisions, produced during the 1980s, are tuned to Egyptian soccer. As I walked past last night, I casually looked over at one of the sets. I could immediately tell from the camera angles that it was not Egyptian soccer. Without my contacts on, I strained to figure out who was playing, to determine what would cause the coffee shop to switch from its normal programming.

As I leaned in, attempting to weave my way through the small, rickety wooden tables and overflowing tiny glasses of tea, just to figure out who was playing, the chatter picked up around me. In an instance, that quickened chatter turned to shouts, which turned to a roar coming from all around me. It was clear that the other two shops down the streets had been tuned to the same game, and celebration was all around. "What's the score?" I asked a man sitting next to me. "2-2, Tunisia just tied the game in extra time." Within seconds, the game was over. While the three coffee shops I was around at the time of the goal hardly qualify as a representative sample of all Egyptians, but I wondered if Egyptians really do prefer Tunisia to Saudi Arabia. Earlier today, I asked one of the security guards at the University about it. He didn't think what I had observed was representative. "Tunisia is Arab, and Saudi Arabia is Arab," Ibrahim said, "but when it comes to sports, we don't get along with Tunisia so well." "Who were you rooting for last night?" I asked him. "Saudi."

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A word on the World Cup

For those who don't know (how is that possible) the United States lost its opening game of World Cup 2006 to the Czech Republic on Monday, 3-0. Thus far, it is the most lopsided loss that this years cup has seen; after the game, the US manager lambasted his players by name, including several of the supposed stars of the team - Kasey Keller, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan in particular - for a lack of effort, a lack of focus and an over all lack of execution.

The ability to watch the World Cup is taken for granted in the United States. If you have cable, you can flip on ESPN2 and see all the matches live. In America, like electricity, refrigerators and Ipods, cable has gone from a luxury item to a necessary and relatively affordable sign of middle class living. It is thus not an exaggeration to say that checking out the games this June is, for Americans, a piece of cake.

Not so in Egypt. Here in Cairo, and I believe throughout the Middle East, the rights to broadcast the World Cup were bought by ART, or Arabic Radio and Television. In the Middle East, most people get their news and entertainment from satellite television; few people pay for more than the dish. ART is a satellite television provider available by subscription only. In the US, if you want to watch Al Jazeera, Al Arabiyya or any other Arabic language station, ART is the provider you call. The packages range from 30 to 60 bucks a month (if I remember correctly).

But in the Middle East, people don't pay much for satellite television.

Until now.

ART must have paid a fortune for the rights to broadcast the World Cup, and their passing it on to consumers. In order to subscribe to ART, an American friend who has been living here a year told me, it costs 3,600 Egyptian pounds. That's more than 600 dollars, or a small fortune here. Whatever the price is (I'm having trouble finding it on the ART website), it's clearly more than most Egyptians can pay. I watched the first cup match, between Germany and Costa Rica, on a small TV at a local coffee shop. The reception was so terrible we left for a second local spot. By the time we had decided to move from the first place, I had developed a strong headache.

The experience is not unique. Small outdoor coffee shops are the norm in Cairo. People go to meet friends, sip tea, smoke shisha and, now, watch futbol. Walking from locale to locale, you can tell which shop owners know a thing or two about stealing cable and which are pure amateurs. It's only at the nicest places that one can watch the game as it can now be seen - a large screen, a clear picture and with quality sound.

What a shame that so many here can't fully appreciate the world's biggest party.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Pan-Arab nationalism, past and present

Pan-Arab nationalism - a political movement that calls on Arabs (not Muslims) to unite, due to a common history, for a better future - was most popular during the 1960s. Its chief proponent was the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Egypt during the late 1950s and 1960s. Nasser rose to power through the military (it was a military coup in 1952 that freed Egypt from England's colonial rule) but he became an Arab icon in 1956 when he made the bold and unexpected decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. The decision to unilaterally take the canal from British control was not as unexpected as its consequences; British, French and Israeli troops invaded Egypt to retake the damn in late October, despite a United Nations resolution, only a few months old, that recognized Egypt's national claim. In an episode that is not mentioned often in today's Middle East, the US quickly intervened on the side of Egypt, demanding that French, British and Israeli forces leave. The episode was widely believed to have destroyed the myth that Britain remained a Great Power.

But in the Middle East, the Suez Canal crisis was seen as a huge victory for Nasser and his new notion of Pan-Arab nationalism. Arabs had stood up for themselves...and won. Suddenly, Nasser was like a God. The idea of Arab unity was so powerful that in 1958 (just two years after Suez), Syria invited Egypt to unite the two nations as a first step to an all-Arab union. The experiment, known as the United Arab Republic, lasted just over two years. In 1961, Syria seceded, due to Egypt's heavy handed policies.

But what truly destroyed the notion of pan-Arab nationalism was the disgrace of 1967. In a war that lasted only six days, Israel destroyed the militaries of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Nasser had touted his Arab socialism as the path to development and Israel's destruction. '67 proved that neither had happened. Nasser remained in power until his death in 1970, but just barely; revolutions in Syria and Iraq just after the war revealed the earthquake in Middle Eastern politics wrought by the 67 war.

Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979 suddenly brought a new philosophy to the foreground: pan-Islamism. Like in 1956, a new ideology had risen, fought the West, and, apparently, won. Islamic movements sprung up throughout the Middle East, including in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood successfully assassinated Egypt's President Anwar Sadat in 1982. Hezbollah grew in the south of Lebanon, and killed more than 200 US Marines in a suicide van attack during the same year. During the decade, the Syrian government also faced a challenge of the Muslim Brotherhood, and crushed it brutally in the city of Hama, killing as many as 10,000, including civilians.

But Islamic insurgencies have failed to topple any Arab government since Iran's revolution. Instead, governments like Egypt's have been forced to play a delicate balancing game between their Arab identity and the potential threat of a Muslim takeover. During the 1990s, Saddam Hussein in Iraq adopted a far more pious stance, funding mosque construction and religious instruction throughout his country. Similar policies were adopted more recently in Syria.

What's interesting is to recognize that these ideas - pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism, secularism, democratization - all still exist, and can still be seen in Egypt. The country is still an Arab republic, but Islamic values are apparent everywhere. The Islamic brotherhood is still officially outlawed here, but its existence is tolerated and its existence and importance are obvious. Throughout the Agousa neighborhood, where I live, you can find pictures with the slogan "alislam, hua alhel," "Islam is the answer." It is the slogan of the Muslim brotherhood, and while the phrase can't be found on major highways or billboards, it is everywhere on Cairo's backstreets. Initially the Iraq War caused the government here (led by President Hosni Mubarak, who rose to power after Sadat's assassination in 1982) to hint that it was ready for more democratic reform, but such promises have thus far gone unfulfilled.

To see the importance of these ideas, you can look directly at Egypt's constitution. It begins:

1) The Egyptian Arab Republic is a country whose political system is democratic socialism, built on an alliance with the working class.

And the Egyptian people are a part of the Arab nation, working towards the realization of complete unity.

2) Islam is the religion of the country, and the Arabic language is its official language, and the principal of Islamic law is the primary source of legislation.

3) The sovereignty of the people is the source of power and the people participate in their own sovereignty through the constitution.

Compare that to our constitution. Imagine if it included "America is an Anglo-Saxon nation, and it works to unite all the Anglo-Saxon nations." Just a thought.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The price of oil

USA! USA! For those who don't know, America's first World Cup game is today (7pm in Cairo, noon in NYC) against the Czech Republic. There's also a lecture I'm going to in an hour (perhaps the source of my next entry...), so my time for today's entry is short.

In case you were wondering, gasoline in Cairo costs 1.4 Egyptian pounds to the liter. If my calculations are correct, that comes out to about 93 cents a gallon. The notion that all Arabs get their gas basically for free is quite off the mark. My apartment (a three bedroom) costs about $320 a month, and would be at most three times that if it was in a nicer neighborhood and building. Taxi rides that in New York would cost 8 bucks are about a dollar here. Food is also cheap (I can get a decent meal for $1.50, and I think even nice meals here generally run in the 10-15 dollar range, excluding the highest class establishments). As you can see, in comparison to the cost of living, Egyptians are actually paying more for their gas than we are.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Egypt's economic outlook

In the coming months, this is something I hope to write about a lot more. It's a topic that can be overwhelming, especially for someone (full disclaimer) with little economic background. Cairo is a sprawling city with upwards of 15 million residents, and while economic indicators can help to explain certain aspects of Egypt, they hardly paint a clear picture of what life is like here. I suppose the best 'big picture' you can find is provided by the IMF. The International Monetary Fund ensures the stability of exchange rates, provides economic advice for developing (and, less forcefully, developed) economies and is a lender of last resort during economic crises. IMF reports are critical for developing nations. A positive report causes private investors to put money into an emerging economy. A bad report can eliminate foreign investment. In April, the IMF released a largely sunny progress report. There are other stats one can throw out: the growth rate is around 6%, unemployment is close to 11 percent, (comared to 4.6 percent in the US) and the US dumps in about 800 million dollars in economic aid annualy (plus another 1.3. billion in military aid)

Jay Nordlinger of the National Review attended the World Economic Forum summit in Sharm elShaikh and described Egypt's economy this way:
"Egypt may be having problems on the political front, but they are making big strides on the economic front. And they're happy to trumpet it. On the roads to Sharm El Sheikh's Congress Center--specially built for this conference, in under eight months--are signs: "Egypt: Open for Business"; "Egypt: Open for Competition"; "Egypt: Open for Growth"; "Egypt; Open for Change." These are not empty claims, for the facts back them up. Tariffs, taxes, and other barriers are falling; GDP is rising (by a profected 6 percent this year). Inflation has been subdued. Foreign investment is pouring in, and the Egyptians are asking for more."

For most people here, though, I imagine such a simple picture doesn't really fit. There is a lot of construction going on in Cairo, but there's also a lot of rubble. Walking by the American embassy the other day, my roommate was astonished to find a high-rise building in the same condition that it had been in (no walls, electrical wires jutting out every which way, a work crew milling on the sidewalk) the day he'd left Egypt, 12 months ago. The story may be anecdotal, but the building was within a block or two of the American embassy, in the wealthies part of the city. What you see walking the streets is the incredible gap here between rich and poor. According to an Egyptian student I met, the middle and upper classes here just don't have the same sense of social awareness you find in the states, primarily because the situation here seems so hopeless. In an odd reversal, western fast food changes charge prices that the average Egyptian could never afford, and cater to the rich, primarily local, upper class. The banking system may be improving, but most people don't use it. We pay our rent in cash. We pay for meals in cash. We get our stipends in cash. Some places do accept credit cards, but only those that are frequented by western clients. Immediately upon arrival, I had to take out a few hundred dollars from Citibank in order to pay the first month's rent and deposit. I ended up helping an Egyptian man who was using the stall next to mine. He was short, with graying hair, perhaps in his early 50s. It was apparent he had never used a touch-screen before.

Perhaps the best example of the economic gap here can be found in my neighborhood. There's a Mercedes-Benz dealership, fully stocked with new model luxury cars. This morning, there were perhaps a dozen young men out front, cleaning the windows in preparation for business. A hundred yards away, women sit on the corner and sell spices and vegetables off of carts, while others walk donkeys down the street (perhaps for my next post I will investigate where the hell these donkeys come from, and where they go).

Of course, the main problem for me is one of perspective. First, I've only been here a week, so I can't comment on what Egypt looked like years ago. But perhaps a bigger problem is that I judge by American standards. The poverty here is real, but to assume a booming economy here will resemble a booming economy in the West is obviously unfair.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A small victory

First off, check out this week's War News Radio program. It's really fantastic. It's not everyday you hear what your average Iraqi has to say about events in his or her own country.

Since my arrival in Cairo, I've been waiting for the famed Egyptian sales pitch to come my way. I have to admit, by Thursday, I was surprised no one had offered me a "great deal" on exotic rugs, an "exclusive offer," on fine dishes or a "special price" for Arab treats. No one had even tried to sell me perfume. Until today.

I got out of bed today at 1 (I'm sleeping from dawn until I wake up these days because of a not-so-small cockroach problem) and decided to head to the center of the city to wander around. The American University in Cairo, where I'm studying, is in the most western part of the city (where you'll find McDonald's, KFC and Hardy's), and I figured it was as good a place as any to find an internet Cafe. [An aside: the AUC area is also the heart of the tourist and travel industry. One travel office had a large banner above its entrance that read "direct flights to Baghdad." Apparently that's it's best selling point. I guess a lot of people are flying from Cairo to Baghdad these days]

Right now, my Egyptian colloquial still isn't fantastic, and often random people on the street shout things to me I can't make out. This especially happens in the neighborhood where I live, most likely probably because there are virtually no foreigners. But as the midday sun scorched my neck, I found myself in a reasonable mood. As I walked a crowded street, a boy of about 15 with dark brown skin (I would not have mistaken him for Syrian) began barking at me "mister, mister, scuse me, mister." I decided to engage him. "Afwan, elinternet cafe fein?" [where's the internet cafe? that's what I wanted to say, anyway]. "Come, come," he said, as he led me across the street.

Fuck. I don't have time for this, I thought, my sunny mood slowely weakening. He walked me into a small perfume shop, a few steps below ground level. A shabby red rug covered the floor. Perfume bottles lined the wall, reflected by wall-to-wall mirrors. "I really just want to know where the internet cafe is," I said, stopping at the entrance. He told me that everything was fine, that his father would tell me where the cafe was. All he wanted to do was give me the store's business card. He invited me to sit down.

His father showed up, a short, stout man with a tight mustache and a growing bald spot on top of his head. "Welcome, welcome," he called in a warm voice. He introduced himself as Abdul, and asked if I wanted coffee or tea. "I really just want to know where the internet cafe is," I told him. "No pressure, no pressure. You are friend. Sit, sit." I reluctantly said I would have some tea. It's a smart trick he pulled. By agreeing to have tea, I was forced to stay for an unspecified amount of time. The son disappeared to make the tea, which, amazingly, was not served for a solid 20 minutes. Perhaps he was boiling the water by the heat of the sun.

As we sat, an amusing conversation began. The Arab was trying to engage his American customer with mediocre english. The American was responding only in even more atrocious Arabic. Finally he relented and we spoke mainly in Arabic. I told him I was a student, with little money. He said he would give me a special price, because I was a "special friend." It's amazingly easy to make special friends here. (He always said "special friend" in English. Perhaps he didn't feel comfortable bullshitting to that extent in his own language, but I doubt it.) I tried to explain in Arabic that I didn't wear perfume, that I had a girlfriend in America, and that the only perk of that unfortunate situation was that I didn't have to smell nice. Ever. I must have butchered the Arabic though, because he didn't seam to get the joke. "I give you special price. 1 guinea." Well, I thought, if I can get out of hear for only 20 American cents, I guess that would be fine. As he let me (that's not the right causitive verb) try on a few perfumes, we discussed my living situation-- I'm looking for an apartment. Suddenly, another boy, maybe 14 with the beginnings of a thin pubescent mustache showed up in the doorway. Abdul, who had been showing me perfumes, turned to the boy and told him I was looking for an apartment. Abdul asked how much I was willing to pay. I explained I was living with a friend, and between us, we were willing to pay 2000 pounds a month ($380bucks). "Not a little more?" He asked "No," I said. The boy rushed out to look for an apartment. Normally, he wouldn't do this, Abdul assured me, but I was a special friend.

After trying on a few perfumes, I told him which I liked better. Finally, his son returned with the tea, as did the boy from the apartment. He said he'd found an apartment that was fantastic (no coachroches, he promised) for only 1,600 pounds (300 dollars). The catch was that the apartment would not be vacated for a week, but for a small deposit it could be held... I said I could make no decisions without my friend. I felt the pressure of three sets of eyes looking at me. The stout owner was perhaps 5'7," the two adolescents much skinnier and maybe an inch or two shorter. Their combined gazes were still intimidating.

I said I would talk to my friend about the apartment, and the topic changed back to the perfumes. "Okay," Abdul said, as he reached behind his desk for a few velvet-covered boxes. Inside the box were glass bottles of varying size. "This one, 120, this one 100..." Wait, I thought, what was going on? "Afwan, wa lekin fakaret en kulta wahid guinia bes." Sorry, but I thought you said only one pound. "No, one pound, one gram. Special deal, normally it's two pounds one gram, but you are special friend." So he's trying to drag me in for 20 bucks hunh? "Sorry, but I'm really not that interested in buying perfume." "No pressure, no pressure," he said at a feverish pitch, as he reached for a smaller box. "This one 50, this one 40." Finally he got down to the smallest bottle. "This one only 10 pounds." I stood firm. He offered to sell me half the bottle for 5 pounds. "Only 5 pounds he said, in a voice that was quickly approaching a wimper. I'm not buying I said. I'm interested in the apartment, and I need an internet cafe. Where was the business card I had been promised anyway? Finally, I was at the doorway, a half hour after my entrance, with business card in hand. "Please, 5 pounds only." Almost out. I promised to call about the apartment. "Where's that internet cafe?" I asked the boy again. He pointed around the corner. "Just 5 pounds!" Abdul moaned. 3 more steps until street level. 2 more. 1. Freedom. Zero dollars spent.

I still couldn't find the internet cafe. So I asked another shop owner.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Personal news: ups and downs

There is good and bad news on this, my first day of classes. First, the bad news. I must warn you, the bad news is gross, so if you haven't the stomach for infestation, this would be the time to skip down to the good news section.
The bad news, is that the roach infestation in my apartment is major. And I mean, major. The day before yesterday, my roommate and I went out and bought roach motels and spray, and put them / sprayed it in the bathroom and kitchen. Yesterday morning, we found about 7 dead between the two rooms. In the bathroom, we found a giant living one, which we quickly sprayed and killed.
We haven't gotten to the bad part yet.
During the afternoon, I sprayed some more in the bathroom, and I sprayed at the entrance to my room, and a little on the floor. Bad for my health, I figured, but good for my sanity. Still, it was hard to sleep. There is nothing that disgusts and terrifies me more than large cockroaches (see previous post and reference to The X-files). It was hard to sleep. I kept imagining that I heard things, kept straining to feel if something was on some part of my body. At some point, I think I did drift into the lightest of sleeps.
At 2:20, I awoke to feel what I thought was something on my leg. I thrashed for a moment and quickly realized I had definitely felt some type of crunch between my left right thigh and the mattress. For a moment I waited in bed. Finally, I got up, and flipped on the light switch. As I turned to look back at my bed, I saw a large roach on its back struggling to live. I looked down, and freaked out. There was another on my hip, near the waistband, inconceivably on its back, stuck to my underwear fabric, also struggling. I smacked it away, then grabbed my sandal I smacked the one on my bed. I was breathing hard, stressed, and ultimately, flipping out. "Unbelievable," I thought. At 2:30, my evening of sleep had ended. And right before the first day of class. How could I turn my light off? I could have sprayed the repellent behind and under my bed, but I decided that sleeping with such odors rising through the mattress was probably a bad way to go. I sat up, thinking how terrible it was going to be to have to move. I like the neighborhood I'm living in. I just joined a gym. I have a spot picked out, a local tea shop with nargiles (water pipes), to watch the world cup, which starts on Friday. Still, I knew I couldn't live with the problem I'm living with. I thought about lost money. The rent, plus the security deposit, plus the 'finder's fee' came to about 400 bucks, more than my monthly stipend.
This morning, we spoke to the landlord about the problem, An exterminator is coming in this afternoon. If it doesn't work, I'll be moving out next week. Will keep you posted. This is the grossest post I've written (and hopefully the grossest one I will write).

On to the good news. I arrived at opening orientation groggy (on only about 2 1/2 hours of sleep), but with caution optimistic for my first day. First, there was a speech about what the summer session will be like. An hour 40 of classical Arabic will be followed every day by 2 1/2 hours of Egyptian dialect. The entire summer's syllabus will be focused on Egypt - culture, politics, history, literature. Then, I headed to my first at 10. It was awesome. As the teacher began the introduction, I realized I hadn't seriously studied Arabic since Middlebury College, where I spent my 2004 summer. Since then I've taken an Arabic course at Penn, and gone to Syria, but I haven't taken a real Arabic course, with real homework (or at least with real homework that I did). Coming to Cairo, I worried if I actually still enjoyed studying verbs and nouns. Within minutes, that fear disappeared. I actually got a jolt of adrenaline as I realized how psyched I was to study vocab. It's now official, I am a nerd. But at least I now feel excited about the year.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

my own big brother moment

For those who don't know, I now have a cell phone in Cairo. If you're calling from the states, it's: 011201055451. From Cairo, it's: 0101055451.

I bought my cell phone (In the Middle East, Arabs and foreigners alike refer to them as 'mobiles' and pronounce it in the British style) two days ago at Radio Shack. That's right, Radio Shack. One of the perks of western cultural infiltration is that it allows one to read very funny transliteration of English into Arabic. I've also eaten at a McDonald's and a Pizza Hut. For the record, I intend to switch entirely to local foods soon, but I'm trying to pace myself and avoid what I will euphemistically refer to as stomach problems and other ailments that most westerners experience upon their arrival in Egypt. But back to Radio Shack. The cell phone I settled on is a slick Sony Ericsson which ran me about 80 bucks (400 Egyptian pounds). The salesman, a slight 5'10" Egyptian with a soft, undemanding demeanor, said I had made a good choice. A strange comment, I thought, seeing as he had been the one to point it out. But no matter. Riding on the euphoria that can only come from being told you have good taste by someone who you are paying, I approached the cash register. I asked about warranty. He said it was a year, free of charge. I asked him to let me hear the alarm (my cell is my only clock here). It was loud. I said 'I'll take it.' In a quiet, slightly accented voice he told me to wait a minute. From under the desk, he pulled out and began to fill in a form in Arabic. As my eyes wandered around the store (adapters, CD players, batteries) he asked, "Can I see your passport?" I had gone to the shop with my roommate Justin who lived in Egypt for a semester and had been here a week. The request didn't seem to bother him. I told the clerk that I didn't have my passport, but that I had a copy, which a proceeded to take out and put on the table. "That's all I need, he said." He filled in my passport information and did not return my copy. I proceeded to pay and walked out, a new cell phone in hand. "What happens to that copy of my passport?" I wondered.
This morning, I woke at around 9. I had had a rough night sleeping. Before going to bed, I'd gone to brush my teeth and found three cockroaches in or near the bathroom. The largest of the three (gargantuan, antennae an inch long) was under my toothpaste on the bathroom sink. If the problem isn't solved, I'll have to move. [When I was at an age between 8 and 12, I watched an episode of the X-Files where cockroaches were sent by aliens to study humans. In the episode, one cockroach would show up in a poorly lit scene. Suddenly hundreds would appear and burrow into an unsuspecting attendant or late night security guard or over-worked scientist. As is probably apparent by my mentioning it, the episode left an impression] After waking up, I walked into the living room and told my roommate about the previous evenings events. I brushed and watched my face. We talked about buying some Roach Motels. Suddenly (as I suppose it always is) I heard my mobile ringing from my bedroom. Strange. The only person I had given my number to in Cairo was my roommate, and it would have been about 3 am in the states. I didn't recognize the number on the phone, but unlike my girlfriend who is too busy and popular to pick up unknown numbers, I excitedly jumped at the opportunity and hit send. "Hello?" I said. In the background I could hear typing, and what sounded like a busy office. "Uh, you speak English?" a male voice responded in a gruff, thick, but understandable Egyptian accent. "Yeah, who is this?" I said. More typing in the background. "Thank you." The man promptly hung up. Big Brother, it appears, is listening.

big brother news part 2

Judging by an email I received about my "big brother news" entry, I think some may have missed the point of the post. While a meeting between an Israeli prime minister and, say, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be news regardless of what transpired, Israeli and Egyptian heads of state meet all the time. The meeting alone isn't front page news. An agreement that negotiations are the best path to peace is meaningless. The equivalent would be if, with the 2004 presidential race heating up, Kerry and Edwards had met and announced that America would be better off if George Bush wasn't the president. The reality is that neither the Israelis nor the Egyptians changed their position at all (nor were they expected to do so) at the recently concluded summit. If anything important happened at Sharm Al-Shakh, it wasn't an agreement that a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians is a good idea.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Big brother news

Note: I In the US, we generally associate state-run newspapers with the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 1984. In the book, the hero Winston Smith works in the records department, 'rectifying' what had previously been written. When a former leader of the party was discovered to in fact be an enemy of the people, Winston would go into overdrive erasing that person's good deeds from the history books. When Oceania is at war with Eastasia, all newspapers, magazines and books are 'rectified' to show that Oceania had in fact always been at war with Eastasia. When the enemy changed to Eurasia, Winston and his colleagues would feverishly work to rectify the history books. Yesterday morning I woke up at 4 am (jet lag). After 3 hours of lying in bed, I decided to go for a walk and buy a newspaper. I picked up one of the many state-run Egyptian newspapers, Al-Akhbar (The News). What I found did not remind me of 1984. What is published, is what happens. But the definition of front page news may (no conclusions on day 2) be a little different for the state-run papers. What follows is a (rough) translation of the beginning of the lead article of Al-Akhbar from June 5, 2006. There is a 3X3 picture of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sitting with new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert underneath the headline: Header: Mubarak and Olmert agree on the necessity of resuming negotiations to realize peace. Sub-head: The President - "Negotiations for the sake of a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis push the peace plan on all tracks. If Israel arrives at a final solution the Arab world will not hold back from recognizing [Israel]." Olmert - "We are sorry for the accident on the Egyptian-Israeli border that killed two [Egyptian] security officers and we have decided to form a combined committee to determine what occurred and to make sure that there is not a repetition of the accident." Smaller sub-head: Israel is committed to the road map and will meet with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to move forward. Body: Sharm al Shakh - President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed during their diplomatic mission last night in Sharm al-Shakh on the necessity to resume peace negotiations. The president announced during a press conference his agreement with Olmert that a peace agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian people arrived at through negotiations is the principal requirement in order to arrive at a general peace agreement among all parties. Mubarak also announced his willingness to work with Olmert in order to realize this goal, and that he was sure that it is possible to change the current situation in the Middle East. He said that it is important to us to place the parties at the negotiating table, and that this is the principal option. He invited the Fatah and Hamas movements to solve their differences so that they could return to negotiations, that their internal problems make it more difficult to deal with the principal problem. Mubarak announced his belief that if peace was realized and the problem ended, the Arab world would recognize Israel and begin complete diplomatic relations. Olmert promised during the press conference that Israel wanted to arrive at a negotiated settlement and that if it cannot it will take its own path. He said that he agrees with President Mubarak that a negotiated settlement would be better for the sake of peace in the region. Additionally he said that Israel is committed to the road map..... This continues, but I must go. The above translation took about an hour. Hopefully I'll be able to do it faster as the year goes on. My conclusion: In Egypt, whatever the president says, it's front page news.

Personal news: first day

Note: If I'm writing on a topic I think is only of interest to those who know me, I will title it "personal news." I don't want to waste the time of my millions of other readers who are more interested in my keen analysis of the Middle East than in my day to day life.

Today was (and continues to be) orientation. We began at 9 am with an introduction (already, only in Arabic) from the US and Egyptian directors of CASA. The provost of the American University in Cairo (AUC) also welcomed us. He did so by informing us that the current weather is only 'warm' and that in the next couple of months, we will experience what Egyptians believe to be 'hot.' He also mentioned that, once it gets 'hot,' we may begin to see visitors and tourists from the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait) who will come to Cairo in order to "get cool." I guess everything is relative.

News and notes from the introduction: The CASA program is now entering its 39th year, and there are around 1,400 CASA graduates out there in the world. The program began (do the math) in 1967, and the director, Mahmoud Al-Batal informed us that currently the program receives less funding than it did in the 1970s. Al-Batal said that, when he was asked to become director in 2000, he was unsure he wanted the job because he feared he would be known as the director who oversaw the end of the CASA program. That all changed, obviously, on 9/11. Funding from the Department of Education has increased, and this year's class is the largest ever (35 students). During the 80's, Al-Batal reports, the program got about 40 applicants a year for 20+ spots. This year, there were over 140 applicants. This is not to say I am in the Arabic elite. Some applicants (I was informed by a friend who knows people on the CASA selection committee) were turned away because there Arabic was too good. That 9/11 has increased interest in Arabic and increased funding for Arabic studies is clearly an uncomfortable reality for the directors of the program. There is no question that CASA is in better shape today because of those terrorist attacks.

In 10 minutes, I have my placement exam for Egyptian dialect. Seeing as I don't know any Egyptian dialect, the process should move quickly.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Driving in the heat

The first thing I noticed as I got out of the airport was the heat. It caused fear. At 8 p.m., as I got into the taxi, I began to sweat. Pulling away from the airport, I discovered that having the window down made little difference. There seemed to be two choices: hot still air with the windows up, or hot moving air with the windows down. I thought it was a universal law that the windows down ensured some measure of comfort. The laws of physics (or is it chemistry? biology? In college, I was not one for science) were apparently different in Cairo than on the left side of the Atlantic. More than anything, the heat at 8 pm made me fear what the heat would be like at 2 pm. I tried to convey this to my taxi driver. Apparently my Arabic needs work.

Quickly, my mind wondered to a different topic - death. As in, the likelihood of death on every drive in Cairo. The 50 mile an hour speed limit is more a point of reference (kind of like the zero year in the Christian calendar) than a law here. The white lines dividing lanes are even less important. At night, headlights are turned off so that they can be flashed at intersections to warn other drivers. Horns blare constantly. Whether or not the cars have turn signals is unclear, but they certainly are never used. According to the woman sitting next to me on my flight - a project manager for USAID - 40,000 people die a year in car accidents in Cairo alone. The notion of slowing down before a blind ally is foreign here. So is seatbelt use. As my taxi driver careened along the highway, cutting in and out of traffic, using his horn with abandon, he was fatalistic about his profession. "Driving is crazy here," he said. I told him how people say the same thing about New York, but that those people needed to travel to Cairo to learn what crazy really was.