Archive for the ‘Cairo’ Tag

Part 36

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

The routine in our house was usually that after my father would come back from dawn prayer the mosque, he would be sitting in the kitchen reading the Quran. We would wake up and be asked to turn on a recitation tape or CD and then make wadooh, ritual washing of the body, before praying morning prayer. Only after we do these things are we allowed to sit down and eat breakfast. If my mother was not up, then he would wake her, but on rare occasions he would make and serve us breakfast. Any deviation from that routine usually resulted in a long lecture about our duty to our creator. How we don’t forget to eat or go to the bathroom, but forget about the one that created us. My mother would be cranky in the morning when he would push her to do her prayers and make breakfast a lot. She could not start a day right without a cup of coffee. Light and sweet with milk and never cream. She would have several cups during the course of the day too. It was a bit of an addiction for her.

During summer break before University started, my eye sight became really bad. I used to have perfect 20/20 vision, but I noticed it deteriorating during my late high school years. My father blamed it on me watching too much TV and being on the computer too much. So, I hated myself for a while for having to wear glasses just to see the board at school. That summer we also visited Egypt for the first time since we had lived there. Cousin A, Uncle M’s only son, was enrolled in the pharmacy program and his youngest sister was enrolled in the music program due to her grades being low. Cousin A always had an interest in me since the days that we were very young and used to dance on the roof top together. We were left sometimes to “get to know” each other and he basically showed off his collection of pirated Egyptian music on his computer. We would all watch censored American movies together and I brought over a Sailor Moon tape for us all to watch. Cousin AT, his younger sister, who I used to have a short sexual tryst with when we were younger, had gained almost as much weight as I had at one point. I did not understand her decline in self-esteem, but it finally dawned on me later on what happened. My mother told me many years later that she was circumcised at the age of thirteen because she was found flirting with boys from the balcony. Her father, Uncle M, had also tried to push my father to circumcise me when I was born, but my mother advised him against it. Her reasoning was that some studies showed that being circumcised usually made a girl more promiscuous instead of curbing the desire like initially thought. Their older sister, Cousin AM, was married and it looked like it was against her will sometimes. Her husband would be over and he would put on an air of being playful and try to get me to joke with him, but I would tell him off every chance I got. Most of the people in the household would take it as humor, but we both knew that I did not like him. At all. From what I saw of how he treated his wife and from what I have heard, I gathered that he was an abusive husband. Nobody did anything about it. Cousin AM was a math teacher like our grandmother was, but he ended up making her stay home and quit her job.

We also had visits from our two male cousins that lived with Uncle S’s divorced wife. He sent her money on a semi-normal basis, but the family all claimed that she was mentally ill. They also claimed that she abused them. Uncle M would sit the children down and whisper to them the stories of how their mother would not feed them and would force them to do grueling household chores. He would force them to recount them and reenact them with demonstrations. The children would look vacant and troubled and when he did that, which was an almost impossible combination to see displayed in a person at the same time. Aunt’s S’s family rarely came over anymore because of the hate and rumors that Uncle M’s family were still perpetuating since the last time that we lived there.

Uncle M’s family was well off at that time because they were reaping the benefits of the rented properties that my father owned. They were stealing some of the profits for themselves and not telling my father about it and were not found out until my mother did the math. Not only that, but my mother had to leave some family heirlooms behind and my Uncle had thrown them away without consulting with any of my parents about it. Despite all that, their collective hatred seemed to grow and spread to everyone and everything. We only stayed a week and decided to spend the rest of our vacation at our apartment in Alexandria which was where my baby brother took his first steps.

When I went out, despite being a bigger girl, I noticed a lot of the leers and suggestive behavior that I was willfully oblivious to when I was younger. Whether that was because it wasn’t as common as it was during the time that I visited or I become more experienced and aware with age, I can’t say. That wasn’t the only thing that changed over the years. Gone was the live animals being sold on the streets, you only found those at night in the big cities like Alexandria, Tanta, or Cairo. That, or in the smaller farm villages at any time of the day. Uncle M’s family, before we left to Alexandria, bought a bunch processed meat and other supplies from a small grocery store. No more killing the animals yourself. I instantly remembered the time that my father had tried to get me to kill a duck and, when I would not, he made me hold its wings so that he could do it. Or the times when I would be fascinated watching my mother kill chickens and the bemused feeling that I would get when she would try to kill a rabbit by herself and fail. There was also a lamb that was killed on our balcony in Cairo and it was flooded with blood by the time the affair was over.

Egypt had changed and it was continuing to change while I was not there to experience any of it. Just the aftermath whenever we were able to visit. Soon my first year at Rutgers University would begin whether I was ready or not.

Part 15

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

Our leave to Cairo was also another easy move. My grandmother was sick, but still functional. We had developed a bond by the time it was time to leave, but knew we would see each other again. My Sudanese friend was moving back to Sudan around the same time we had to leave. The third member of the group would be left behind, but she handled the parting well. The three of us made sure to make our last time hanging out together special. We left all furniture and non-essentials packed up in boxes in our apartment on the other side of town.

The business that my father decided to pick up was a dry-cleaning service. The apartment that he landed us was in a twenty-one story building in the middle of Cairo located on the seventeenth floor. They enrolled me in the Saint Fatima private school which was in walking distance from where we lived. Outside of my only friend at school, Basma, I had no friends. My days were spent at home or running errands for my mother. The freedom that I had in Shabeen El-Kom was taken away from me because my parents were scared of the rampant amount of child abductions happening on the streets of Cairo. Children would be picked up off the street and sold into sexual slavery, drug trafficking, and forced to sell cheap merchandise around the city.

So, I would spend my days out of school looking out over old Cairo, new Cairo, and the desert on the two apartment balconies. What fascinated me most was the large Coptic Orthodox church across the street from us and across from it the small squat, in comparison, mosque. The church was as tall as my building, but it was the most beautiful and intricately decorated building that I had ever seen. I would watch pigeons live out their lives in the arches and buttresses of the church. I was watched in deep fascination when the hawks would go on the hunt for their daily meals, the birds making beautiful patterns across the sky fighting for their lives around the church.

When I would come home from school, the first order of business would be trying to beat my mother at a game of chess. Then it would be homework, after which, I watch endless hours of Bollywood, American movies, and old Egyptian movies on TV. The building stairway was littered with violent territorial stray cats so I rarely took that rout. Instead, I opted for the old scary rope elevator that would stop moving when people opened an elevator door on any of the floors. Packs of stray dogs would roam the streets and follow people traveling alone who smelled like food. My walks home would be very hasty.

When we went to playgrounds and parks, it would be a different face to talk to at the swings every day. The mad cow disease hit hard and people resorted to other alternatives including camel meat. It was a quiet, boring, and peaceful time for us. One day, my father took me alone with him the to see the pyramids and we climbed up on the stones of the largest one. He would also take me to spend time at his business  to learn how to write our orders on tickets and answer the phone.

It was during this time that I was reminded of my place as a girl and an American more strongly than ever before. Society and family sought to drill that in.

Part 14

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

The move back to my grandmother’s apartment was a last minute decision. We had more furniture then and it was a much more comfortable living situation. Uncle M and his family moved to live in the fourth apartment beneath ours. Uncle A and his wife, Aunt N, had moved to the United States leaving that apartment free. It was said that they moved because Aunt N did not feel comfortable in Egypt and could not adapt. Aunt H, Uncle M’s wife, thought I was of age to help with food preparation and so I did. Cousin F and I handled smaller tasks while my mother, Aunt H, and her older daughter took care of the major steps.

The main meal in Egypt is lunch while breakfast and dinner are smaller affairs with not as much work put into them. People would go home if they could to have lunch, after which, they would have their daily nap then head back to work. The women who did not work in the family would spend most of the morning and afternoon preparing and cooking lunch.

Bread would be bought in the morning fresh from the local bakery which was basically just a bricked enclosure surrounding a large oven. Meat would be bought from the impromptu farmer’s market that consisted of local farmers from the surrounding area squatting on the main street. The animals are held in cages made of dried shaved sugarcane and it’s a spectacle to look at for those not accustomed to seeing their food alive prior to eating. Chickens, pigeons, guinea pigs, rabbits, ducks, and sometimes Turkeys kept tame with thin rope. You would buy them live and kill them at home or, if you had money, see which ones would kill them for you for a fee. Vegetables, rice, spices, sugarcane, fresh cheese, flour, eggs, nuts, and fruit are common fare on the street too. Either in large sugarcane baskets, large reed baskets, large metal pans, or on wooden carts pulled by donkeys or horses. Fresh yogurt, fresh milk, fresh molasses, butter, dried processed pasta, dried apricot paste sheets, oil, tomato paste, tea, and candy could be bought from almost any corner store. Beef and lamb, when they had it, had to be bought from the local butcher’s shop. Only the rich bought them live and had them slaughtered by butchers for hire.

The milk had to be boiled before use, the rice had to be meticulously picked through to find any rocks then rinsed repeatedly with water to clean off the dirt and excess starch, and the flour shifted several times to catch anything that may be in it. There is a leafy vegetable called jew’s mallow in English that had to be minced with a rounded blade that had handles on a wooden cutting board before being cooked. Garlic and onions had to be peeled and cut not by choice, but by necessity. We had to grind most of our spices and make our own blends using a pestle and mortar. Most of the ingredients were bought the day of the meal after the head female of the household chose what the menu would be.

It was a labor intensive process  and the entire family sat around a wooden or plastic low round table covered with old newspaper. Each side of the table shared a large plate or bowl of the food served while the main dish sat in the middle of the table in a pot. Most of the time, one of the men of the house would divide the meat between family members, but sometimes the woman would. Although Aunt H herself worked at an electronic company, she would go home a little early to help prepare lunch.

We still played outside and, like a typical child, I would try to avoid having my younger siblings tag along. That changed quickly over time and I took it upon myself to protect them. A few months later, my father had decided that it was time for him to start his own business in Cairo. We made preparations to move there soon after he bought an apartment and set-up the business.

Part 8

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

The pretense for our journey to Egypt was a lie, like many things turned out to be. Learning Arabic was something I was not particularly good at and that frustrated my father. He told me one day when we were arguing about the move that the reason for it was because of my inability to learn the language. We held a huge garage sale and sold everything we had to fund the move. Looking for buyers of the house was a long ordeal that I didn’t particularly enjoy.

My rebellion came out in odd ways like the time I used a permanent marker to write every vulgar word I knew on my white sneakers. Normally, that wouldn’t of gotten me in trouble, but I happened to be wearing the sneakers when a buyer came by to see the house. My mother didn’t notice what I was wearing until the prospective buyer left. In a fit of rage, she broke two wooden spoons on me for it and I was sent to my father to ride around with him looking for buyers of his old van. It wasn’t easy to do, the ride or the sale, since the inside was completely stripped down. The ride was a long and bumpy one so he got me a bucket to sit on eventually. Vulgar sneakers and all, being lectured along the way, until we found someone willing to take the van off our hands.

Our eventual buyer for the house was a Jamaican family of four. Packing was quick and the only memorable part was the taxi ride to the airport because of how boring it was. Our destination was Cairo and, from there, a then small town in the Menofia Governorate called Shabeen El Kom. It’s about a two hour drive in small buses or vans filled to the brim with passengers. These vehicles sit waiting in droves at locally designated stations for people and each have, most of the time, a guy that walks around reeling people in to board based on their destinations. Some of the stations are official and some are informal gatherings that everyone happens to know about. Either before, or when seated, you give your exact destination and fare money to the driver or the person that reeled you in. It’s always a given that you can haggle your way out of a pricey fare, but in the rare event of them not budging, you have no other choice aside from leaving. Chances are that you can find someone who is willing to work on the price with you if you choose to leave. If not, you have to wait awhile for a returning vehicle.

Legend has it that my grandfather was one of the first people to build a building more than two to three stories tall in the town. Standing five stories tall, plus the roof, it towered over most buildings in the old sector of town. After my grandfather’s death when my father was a teenager, my grandmother inherited the property. The first two floors have been rented out for decades, and still are, to tenants who have not seen a raise in rent since the day they moved in. The third floor was where my grandmother lived and the fourth floor was where one of my uncles lived. That left us the fifth floor.

A new world and new family. Our lives of seclusion was personally deepened and socially broken all in one move.

 

Part 1

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

Keeping a diary was never a thing that occurred to me  growing up and it was never my style to share my thoughts with anyone; not even privately to myself on paper. Instead, I would conjure up other lives on storyboards using my own art and words with any tools that I could get my hands on.

My story, like all others, started in the womb. The ones who conceived me were in love and their lives untouched by the mistakes that would produce me as I am now. She was an innocent and idealistic twenty-six year old virgin when she met him.  Her mother’s family hailed from Georgia with roots nestled deep into the history of this confused country. We still do not know if the tribe of our ancestors was Choctow or Cherokee, but we do know that one of the nations has records of their existence. Her father’s family lived in Minnesota but hailed from Germany and originated from the Netherlands. She grew up in a household that was infused with religious segregation and violence. A mother that was catholic and a father that is mormon, a father suffering from PTSD, a sick mother who was a retired RN that needed tending to, a verbally and physically abusive father to all those around him.  This was her home.

He was an illegal immigrant from Egypt that crossed over by himself. Working odd jobs in New York City and finally finding his niche as a line cook, he paid for one of his brothers to join him in the city. The brother that was able to study pharmacy crossed over on his own by way of scholarship grants offered to him because of his profession. His father was a strict man that built one of the first foundations that would turn the small farm village into a decent sized town and died young from liver disease. The paternal last name was changed due to his grandfather being a revolutionary from Cairo that moved to the countryside for anonymity during the Sadat era. His mother taught math to middle school children. The same violence and abuse pervaded his home demanding obedience from all present.

They met when she walked into the diner where he worked in Minnesota for a time and he said to himself, “that’s the one, that’s my wife.”