Thursday, December 6, 2012

My brain hurts


I'm sitting here trying to explain what's going on, but there's no way to encapsulate everything that has happened over the past day and a half.  There are so many moving parts, so many groups, so many nuances, and I don't want to rush to conclusions. My brain hurts from information overload and I don't feel like I can put coherent sentences together. But I'll try.

The political situation here remains very fluid. Last night there were clashes outside the presidential palace, located in a suburban area called Heliopolis. Two nights ago thousands of Egyptians protests outside the presidential palace, in Tahrir, and cities across the country. These protests were largely peaceful.  Last night, what appears to be pro-Ikhwanis attacked the anti-Morsi protesters. Incredible clashes ensued, four people died and around 450 people were injured. There were reports of birdshot, rifles, bludgeoning, crazy stuff. I'm a little mentally exhausted right now, but it was bad. Tanks have been deployed and the military is saying they will enforce a 3pm (30 minutes ago) curfew. I believe people are still on the streets.

Outside the Presidential Palace

I've been let out of work early the last two Tuesdays because of massive protests.

Things are incredibly inflamed right now. There is so much anger on Facebook and Twitter and just in general.

On a separate but somewhat related note, I have to be honest, I'm getting really sick of the anti-American sentiment in Egypt's upper class right now. It's worse than anything I experienced in the Bush years.  My roommate took a photo of this sign, which has also been circulating on twitter, saying, "Obama, your bitch is our dictator."

Every day I'm bitched at because Obama is supporting a dictator, because the US isn't demanding the Egyptian regime codify human/women's/etc rights, because the Western press is not covering whats going on, or not covering it correctly.  I just sit there as people scream at me. When I try to interject, try to give my perspective or what I believe is that of my governments, they just get even more angry that I'm not seeing things from their perspective. It's not a debate, it's not a conversation, they're not listening to me. To them, it's even more evidence that I am/the USG is an Ikhwan supporter. I have people getting pissed off about the coverage on the Huffington Post. THE HUFFINGTON POST! It's not even real news! There is so much shit for Egyptians to be pissed at, why be pissed at some douchebag sitting in his mom's basement in rural Idaho opining

More updates to come. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

What in the world is going on in Egypt?

A decree giving President Morsi sweeping powers was announced last Thursday, sparking nationwide protests and a nearly 10 percent drop in the Egyptian stock exchange.  The decree removed the the prosecutor general, who was disliked by revolutionaries for his failure to secure any real punishment against former regime figures and security forces who attacked protesters over the last few days.  Morsi had tried to remove him months ago, but the prosecutor general refused to resign and Morsi had to embarrasingly publically retreat.  It also reopened investigations and prosecuttions into these cases "according to the law of the protection of the revolution."

Protestors hold a banner depicting President Morsi as a pharaoh following his Thursday decree.

These announcements were the honey to the poison. The decree declared no institution can dissolve the upper house of parliament or the Consitituent Assembly, tasked with writing the new consitution and the focus of much revolutionary ire for being non-representative of Egyptian society and over-representative of Islamists.

Most concerning, he announced his declarations, laws, and decrees above the reach of the courts until a new lower house of parliament is instated. This decree in effect removed the last check on his power, as the legislature was already disbanded, and consolidated it all under the executive branch.  He also annouced "the president may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and goals of the revolution."

What does that mean? No one really knows. But the fear is that Egypt's first freely-elected president and member of the Muslim Brotherhood is turning into a new Mubarak, only now with the aim of Islamicizing Egypt. 

The swift and angry response seems to have caught Morsi off guard.  Thousands took to the streets on Friday, and there have been sporadic protests and street battles across the country ever since.  Ikhwan headquarters were burned in cities across the country, and in a bad omen of things to come, an Ikhwan supporter was killed yesterday.

All those who are reading this at home and became worried for me, let me emphasize that I have not seen any of this and have been able to go about my daily life without even any real hints of what's going on downtown.  What has happened thus far has been centralized and contained. 

The country is now deeply divided. News reports mention a deep suspicion between Islamists and everyone else. I've seen the division on a much closer scale.  Thursday night and Friday my friends posted statuses on Facebook blaming those who voted for Morsi for the current crisis.  Things like "F*ck all of you who voted for Morsi, this is what you get, I hope you burn in hell." Some of my revolutionary friends refuse to talk not only to their friends who are Ikhwani, but also those who voted for Morsi as an alternative to presidential candidiate Ahmed Shafiq, seen as a remnant of the former regime. This anger is dangerous. The countries which were best able to rebuild after civil wars and strife are those which vowed to move forward and not ostricize opponents, which only makes divisions permanent and pushes them further to radicalization.

The division makes me sad, first and foremost. People aren't identifying as Egyptians, or seeing those who don't agree with them as not "real" Egyptians. I really appreciate now how despite how much people disagree politically at home, Democrats and Republicans, Tea Partiers and Tree Huggers are still able to have relatively civil discussions, if not be friends. Once the dialogue is lost, it's really difficult to reopen it. 

Dialogue now is not even an option for many.  Tomorrow afternoon Ikhwan supporters are gathering outside Cairo University and anti-Ikhwan are gathering at Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque, near my office actually, and marching to Tahrir.  Ikhwan initiatlly were going to gather at Abdeen Square, down the iconic Mohamed Mahmoud Street from Tahrir, but smartly relocated to avoid clashes.  Some of my friends are attending the march with light arms and face protection in the event authorities use birdshot, which blinded many last year. 

The atmosphere is tense. Morsi has not yet backed down in the face of severe international and domestic pressure.  He has signaled a willingness to negotiate, calling his edict "temporary" and promising "guarantees against monopolizing the fateful decisions of the homeland in the absence of the parliament." The Justice Minister, respected by both sides, is attempting to negotiate between Morsi and the judges.

Inshallah tomorrow will just be opposing and simultaneous demonstrations, a show of force for both sides, with scattered clashes. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

He yelled at me.

As you may know, I sometimes work out in the ladies' gym at Gold's.  The greasy, skeezy guys in the main gym are just sometimes too much to handle.  I feel so uncomfortable upstairs most of the time.

Yesterday I was leaving after a workout in the ladies' room and my friend who works there saw me leaving. He's the nicest, most respectful person at the gym. He asked me if I had already worked out, and if I worked out downstairs. I told him yes, and when asked why, I explained it was because of the boys upstairs, how they're just too much sometimes, how I feel uncomfortable.

He got so pissed--maybe a bit annoyed with me, but mostly pissed at them. He said "f*ck them," that I shouldn't let them push me around. Something about me kicking them in the face, too.

It is a little easier said than done, but I was thankful for his reaction and the obvious disgust on his face when talking about the guys who make me so uncomfortable.  Will I continue working out in the ladies' gym? I think there will be days when I succumb to the sanctity of the testosterone-free bubble, but hopefully knowing he will be super annoyed at me for being a wuss will motivate me to get upstairs and work out when I want, how I want. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Please, eat my cookie

Living outside the United States changes me.  Before I moved to Bologna, I was a workaholic.  Long hours on the Hill wore me out. I never wanted to go out--especially on a school night.  Getting me to go to happy hour, especially one a little far away, was difficult. Even on the weekends I wanted to be home by 1am.  I was just so tired.

Then I moved to Italy for a year. Yes, Italy is incredibly inefficient. I'm really not sure why the Bolognese did not clean up their dogs' poop. And is it really necessary to have a national holiday every other Monday? Everything was closed Sunday anyway. I just want to go to the damn grocery store and it's never open.

But yet, Italy taught me to take a step back and enjoy life. Life is about the people you're with, what you experience. It's not about the job. Yes, you should be happy with what you do. But, for the first time, I was in an environment where you are not defined by your job, as is the case with DC. Italy was about the people I was with, the opportunity to travel, trying new things. 

I've been in Egypt less than two months, and I already see I have changed.  I have seen countless Egyptian dawns--not because I woke up early (in DC, I would wake up at 5am to beat the traffic) but because I was up all night. Sometimes on a school night. And not tired the next day.  In fact, after staying up all night I'm still ready to go, enjoy what the next day holds.  I try to eat healthy, but when you're hanging out with a bunch of guys, you learn to be adaptable. I actually ate I think Little Ceasar's last weekend. I haven't eaten that--or Dominos or Pizza Hut--in years.  

I have never really liked sharing food. I joke it's because I only went to two months of first grade--they taught sharing in the months I skipped.  There have been a couple of times I either grudgingly or didn't want to share, much to the surprise of my friends. This weekend, I went out for burgers and got a cookie. My friend sat down next to me, looked at the cookie, asked if it was ours (he asked if it was "ours," not "mine," which in hindsight is telling), and ate it. At first I was shocked--shocked!--that someone ate my cookie. That really doesn't happen in the US.

And then I realized I was being ridiculous. I'm actually embarrassed that I, for such a long time, was not used to sharing my food. I didn't really want to write about it because I was so ashamed. Especially since this guy in particular has been nothing but welcoming, sharing, and all-around awesome. But, hey, I'm growing and part of this blog is sharing the good, bad, and ugly about both my experiences and myself.

The difference was further highlighted a few nights later when I went out to dinner with some American friends.  A few of them were working out the bill down to the last half pound (Egyptian pound is the currency here), completely unwilling to pay more.  But my Egyptian friends--okay, it sucks if you pay more than what you ate, but when you eat out with friends, it is what it is. You're with your friends, having a good time. It's not about fighting for every last pound. 

Now, my friend who ate my cookie and will probably read this and laugh (I hope), I am more than happy to share. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Confession: Sometimes I work out in the ladies' gym

A few days after I arrived I joined the Gold's Gym here. It's a really nice gym, comparable to what you would find in the States. I love it. I love the gym! Running is fun. Wahoo!

My gym!

Inside Golds are two gyms--the mixed gym is an entire floor, with cardio and weights. There's also a tiny women's gym inside the changing room, with two treadmills, three ellipticals, two bikes (I think) and some weight machines smushed inside.

Despite the ladies' gym being subpar, there are times I find myself working out in there. It honestly just gets too much upstairs. Some of the guys are nice, but some are just leery. There are some super beefy guys with muscles so huge there is no way they came from Allah.  I've caught guys flexing their pecs back and forth and checking out their own abs. And they just stare.

Makes me feel gross and dirty. And that's before I break a sweat.

So I retreat to the safety of the ladies gym.

 I feel like I should be like, screw them. I'm going to work out when I want and where I want. But... but...

What does this mean? I'm not entirely sure. But whatever it means, it makes me feel sad inside.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

We read Arabic, motherf***er: Protests in Cairo

That's right. Americans can read Arabic, too.

The US Embassy here and the Muslim Brotherhood got in a Twitter-spat when the Ikhwan posted on their English-language Twitter feed they were thankful no embassy employees were injured during protests in front of the embassy in which protesters scaled the embassy walls, tore down a US flag, and replaced it with a black Islamic flag. This, despite the fact their Arabic-language feed wrote, "Egyptians  revolt for the Prophet's victory in front of the US embassy."

Protests have erupted across the Middle East and spread to many countries around the world, including Indonesia, India over an anti-Islam movie that insults the Prophet. In Libya, armed militants attacked the consulate in Benghazi and killed US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other embassy employees.

The US embassy pointedly highlighted the discrepancy in the feeds on its own handle.

When I saw this I was furious. I spent the last few months trying to persuade my Egyptian friends to give the MB a chance. And now this--they're just playing with fire. Feeding the frenzy.

While no US embassy employees were killed during the protests this week, I think what's going on in Egypt is a bigger problem than what happened in Libya. In Libya, initial investigations seem to show the protests were commandeered by militants armed with RPGs and SAMs. Unfortunately, this is something the US knows how to deal with. The Libyan government immediately came out against the attacks, apologized to the United States, and vowed to work together to eliminate future attacks. The Egyptian government, on the other hand, merely denounced the VIDEO for the first few days, demanded the US bring those behind the video to justice, and support the right of Muslims to defend the honor of Mohammed.

The response of the government and the Twitter exchange above really show how what's going on in Egypt is potentially a much bigger problem.  The protesters are not just driven by anger about the movie--they're sick of being humiliated, sick of their government, sick of US policies, angry with their circumstances, and frustrated. This frustration will be a lot more difficult to address, especially as it is quite nebulous. Why exactly is everyone so pissed? What can the US do to make them not pissed? Everyone is pissed for about a million reasons, and nothing the US can do will make everyone happy.

AND THEN the MB called for Friday protests. People were going to protest anyway, did the party in government really need to call people to the streets? The protests turned out to be pretty violent, with two people dead. I left central Cairo for the suburbs on Friday. My apartment is really close to the square and I didn't want to get stuck or worse.

What did I do instead??? Had a baller time--future blog post coming soon on my weekend!

This morning the Central Security Forces, federal police I think, stormed Tahrir and the area around the embassy and forcibly dispersed protesters. They are now stationed around the area, holding an uneasy calm.  I drove through in my cab this morning and no tent, no person was in the center of the circle--it's the first time I had ever seen that. Police in riot gear were standing everywhere, with huge military trucks and ambulances parked around the streets leading to the square.

Ahram reported that a government official who visited the area after the raid was met with applause from locals.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My SAIS degree, put to good use

If you were to have told me a month ago I would be staying the weekend at a beach house full of Egyptian boys, I wouldn't have believed you. If you would have told me I, in short shorts and a tank top, went on a booze run with a shirtless Egyptian man, at 2am I would not have believed you.

THEN if you were to have told me we would all be chilling on the beach after having dragged a cooler out but without cups, and I came up with the idea of McGuyver-ing cups out of water and juice bottles cut in half, I definitely would not have believed you.

But it is true! I drank out of the top half of a 1.5 liter bottle of water, slightly resembling a wine glass that the boys dubbed my "chalice."  My GW and SAIS education was apparently put to good use this weekend. These institutions of higher learning definitely taught me how to think outside the box.
Pictured: McGuyver-ed cups.  That's how we roll:)

The last three weekends I was here (and really the only three weekends I've been in Egypt) I hung out with a great group of people in sahel, or Egypt's North Coast. With the water so blue and the people so chill, it was a breath of fresh air (literally--by the end of a workweek in Cairo, I can barely run inside because of all the pollution buildup in my lungs. I don't know what I'm going to do going forward when there is no place for me to escape the smog).

Now it's back to the grind. Work is crazy because we have a huge visiting US business and government delegation.

Stay tuned. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The rough life I lead

Three days of work, five day weekend (at the sunny and impossibly blue North Coast).
Two days of work, and then tomorrow--back to the beach! I'm actually quite lucky to have returned to Cairo early, during Ramadan and for the Eid holiday, since the workload is incredibly low and we get so much time off. It's been a nice transition, but I am worried it's making me lazy.

I was there. And tomorrow, I return!
The best part of the past two weeks has not been the beach, but instead all the awesome people I've been meeting.  Friends of friends, people on the street and at my gym, just about everywhere. A fellow SAISer who is in town for about a week introduced me to one of his friends, the one who was awesome enough to let me crash their bro-mance outing to the North Coast. His friends are hilarious. One likes country enough to have some songs on his iPod (at first I thought he was messing with me). Another is just so funny and all we do is make fun of each other--I put ice down his swimsuit and he called me fat.  My favorite moment so far was laying in the grass with a bunch of new friends at the beachhouse, looking at the stars, listening to the waves, and generally goofing around. Seriously, so amazing.

 Despite how awesome everything has been, there have been incidents that highlight the fact that all is not well.  Harassment spikes during Eid--apparently some men think in return for being pious for a month they can be douches during the holiday. A friend walked me home last night after a movie, but we had some not too pleasant encounters.  I was worried mostly for him, because I knew if something were to happen he would have to step in for me.  Also, I also had to ditch a taxi who was driving me around for too long, asking for my number and being a creeper. 

The good outweighs the bad, however, and I think that is something lost during a lot of the talk about Egypt and harassment. Because while there are some men who suck, I have met many, many more who are just awesome, funny, and want to ensure this crazy khawaga (foreigner) is safe.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Taqeef! It's a Ramadan Miracle!

I have air conditioning.  It's Tuesday night (technically Wednesday morning), I arrived on Sunday, and tonight is the first night I have air conditioning in my room.  I arrived to my flat Sunday night after a long trip and met my roommate--she seems super nice. The flat is incredibly central, off of Talaat Harb, which, for those unfamiliar with Cairo, is about three minutes walk from Tahrir Square, of the revolutionary fame.  I wanted to live Downtown, as opposed to the areas that are more "expat-y" because I wanted to break out of the expat bubble.  If I'm going to live in Egypt, then damnit, I'm going to live in Egypt.

But the AC in my room did not work.  I was so tired the first night I just aimed a (not working-well) fan at my face and passed out, sweating the whole night.  I woke up around noon, thinking something along the lines of, "WTF did I get myself into?" I went to see the landlord, who said a repairman would come tomorrow to fix it. Meanwhile, he gave me the keys to another flat, whose AC wasn't working either.  I texted him telling him this is unacceptable and I'm moving unless the AC is fixed tomorrow. He called, apologized profusely for the "disrespect" (you were disrespecting me?? Badeen), and said if it was not fixed tonight he would buy me another.

I did not mention to him that now my roommate and I want to move into the other flat, provided they fix the AC. It is a little more expensive, but still cheap for the area and has these amazing balconies. And shower curtains. And garbage cans. And coffee cups! All things this flat is lacking.

The guy literally gave my AC unit a shower. My room feels cool right now, so hey, I guess whatever works.

Our doorman was helping the repairman.  Seeing the interaction between the two really made the social distinctions in Egypt evident.  The repairman was wearing nice Western clothes (not like in the States--in fact, here the job title translates to "engineer"), nice hair cut, generally well-put together. Spoke no English but I could understand his Arabic. Our doorman wears traditional garb, I think something is wrong with his eyes, and I can't for the life of me understand what he's saying. But the repairman made the doorman carry the AC in and out of my room on his back. The doorman also was carrying all of his tools, and generally acting very subservient.  

Yesterday, my one free day between arrival and work, was hot and stressful. I was trying to work out the AC, went to another neighborhood for a proper grocery store, and visited a few gyms.  That night I met up with my friend Hiba, who I met on a flight to Beirut. She coincidentally was in Cairo this week--definitely one of those people who you meet and just click with. That's why I love traveling and crossing paths with people whom you would never meet otherwise, sharing experiences and stories and keeping in touch long after.

And today--my first day at work! So far I really enjoy it. I'm sitting in a room with three other girls, all Egyptian, doing similar work.  They said after a month or so I can move to a separate office, which I find kind of weird.  They have all been there longer, know the ropes better--why should I get the separate office? Makes me uneasy. I joined a Gold's Gym on a permanent boat on the Nile--SO NICE! I love it and am so excited. I think there is even Zumba! After the gym I met up with a SAISer at her friend's houseboat. Yes, a houseboat.

Now it is past 1am and it is time for bed. Goodnight!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Fiji: Not just beautiful beaches

Yes, I’m in Fiji. I flew to meet up with my sister, Chrissy, who just finished up a semester in New Zealand. I am SO excited to see her. I can’t believe it’s been about six months.

I arrived on Saturday morning, but my bags did not.  It’s Monday morning right now and I am still bagless. Luckily I’ve been able to borrow a bunch of stuff from Chrissy. I arrived in Nadi, the city with the main airport, and we ate breakfast before heading to the airport to catch a flight to our next stop, Suva. 

I’m using this chance to not only work on my tan, but to learn more about Fiji, the culture, the politics, etc. Because that’s how I do.  Right now we’re in Suva, the cultural capital and the seat of the Fijian government. We’re going to be here for about three days. I planned this leg of the trip to get away from the beaches and into real Fijian life.  It’s a nice little town, with malls, restaurants, markets, etc. 

It’s really a fascinating place.  The country is divided basically between Indo-Fijians (descendants of indentured servants from India) and indigenous Fijians.  It’s a two-tier system, with indigenous being first-class citizens and Indo-Fijians second class.  The two-tier system is codified by law, an example of which being Indo-Fijians are not allowed to own land.  After indentured servitude was banned in 1919, many Indo-Fijians went on to buy the land from their former owners and became the business leaders in the country. They faced a backlash from the indigenous, and that’s how we got to where we are today.

The Indian culture here is really strong.  All the stores carry saris, bangles, and salwar khameeses. I’m trying really hard not to buy it all. The cinema here in Suva, the cultural capital of Fiji, is showing a Bollywood film. I really want to see it tonight. Last night Chrissy and I ate Indian food. Delicious!

Fijians are genuinely nice and open. You walk down the street and nearly everyone who passes you by says, “Bula!” or, “Welcome/hello!” Everyone is smiling and wants to talk to you.  It’s much different from other places I’ve traveled, where you can’t really meet anyone’s eyes (i.e. Egypt, because the men will think you’re hitting on them).  A few men give us that smile, but for the most part I honestly am not getting the creeper vibe. It’s really nice. 

Also, people here actually drink Fiji water. I thought it was just a marketing ploy…

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Generational changes in Qatar: "We want to see change happening"

"Education is a tool to work, to change, to keep us moving and growing," said Marwa.

My classmates and I were in a meeting with students from the University of Qatar.  After around of introductions, the students asked us one thing we were most curious about in Qatari culture.  I had asked about the major differences between their generation and that of their parents.

"Our parents used to go directly to the labor market," Marwa said."Now we can continue our education-our parents nag us to continue. It is better to face the labor market with a university degree than with a secondary degree.  They have higher standards for us."

While her mother was a housewife, it is normal for girls to go to work. Ten years ago, it was not allowed for youth and women in particular to travel, whereas now the Qatari government pays for many students to study abroad. The change was not only coming from above, she argued, but also from within their own families as more and more supported their girls' participation in the public realm.

The influence of society and others is strong in pushing the Qatari youth, and women in particular, into higher education and the workforce. 

"Our parents see the difference, ask us to grow more, to not be like the but better."

The Arab Spring also inspired the students to act and voice their opinions, explained Khalid.  It made them aware of what's happening in the Middle East.

"I want to go to Tahrir and see things happening," he said.  I watch al-Jazeera Mubasher (an Egyptian tv channel) every night to see what's going on.  People debate on campus who should win the Egyptian elections."

He thinks, "unfortunately" Morsi, the Islamist candidate, will win.  Marwa piped in, saying Morsi was the better candidate.

Despite the differences of opinions, it was clear both students shared the boy's sentiment that "We want to see change happening."

The students echoed the idea there were no problems with Qatari society.  "I am happy with the current situation and eager to see what happens next," said Marwa.

Qatari society evolved at a feverish rate, with Doha growing out of the desert in a matter of decades as a largely Bedouin society a more urban, modern, and diverse lifestyle.  These changes brought great wealth, education, and healthcare.  But not all the changes were good. 

For one thing, one of the girls expressed apprehension about teenagers meeting and flirting online without the possibility of parental oversight. 

"I am afraid because it's not something I'm used to," Marwa fretted.

There is also the problem of laborers.  Now parents are afraid to allow their children to go out to play.  The situation is now largely rectified, said one of the girls, because the government mandated the laborers move into camps away from Qataris. 

The girls expressed their disappointment about how the world viewed them, many of which are covered. 

"We may cover our faces but we don't cover our minds," said Dalia. "We want people to see us for who we are."

I got to meet my new friend Dalia after the event.  She asked me about my perception of Qatar thus far, and I told her honestly-it is so different from Saudi. I felt comfortable here and there was a real sense of openness.  But she knew, before I mentioned it, what really bothered me about Saudi.

"They treat their women so bad!"

Despite the two countries coming from the same tribes, same families, and same Wahhabi faith, the differences could not be more stark.  Here women chose to wear an abaya, at least at a legal level.  I don't know enough to judge about social pressure, but I assume it's pretty high.  I never felt disrespected by a Qatari man like in Saudi when they would cut in front of me in line or refuse to ride the elevator with me. The girls could play sports-we visited Aspire sports complex, which trains Qataris to be pro athletes and watched women do gymnastics in short shorts and spandex in front of men.  No way that would have ever flew in Saudi. 

Dalia's point about being perceived for the person and not the appearance  was driven home in the car later that day by one of the male SAISers, who tried to say she had to live with people perceiving her a certain way because she chose her appearance and how she presented herself to the world.  This started a heated debate when just about everyone tried to get him to realize she just wanted to be judged not on her appearance but on her intellect.  Basically, he said she should change if she wanted to be taken seriously.  This is the same guy who made the "joke" about women being over empowered. 

What about me, I asked. When I worked on the Hill, I was often dismissed for being just a silly, perhaps a bit pretty girl. It was "cute" that I wanted to work in politics, in international affairs, in the Middle East, on defense issues. 

I was chatting with a family member once who asked what I did-nursing or teaching.  Neither.  I said I graduated from GWU with a degree in international relations and worked for Congress.  As a secretary? No, as a legislative assistant. Loved watching him eat his words, but the fact remains girls like me have an extremely difficult time being taken seriously.

He answered I should have changed the way I talked, the way I spoke, and the way I presented myself.  Seeing as I dressed like a 35 year old boring woman, spoke like everyone else, and acted with an extremely serious demeanor, I'm not sure what else I could have done. I was all business. It was so bad that I didn't own non-work clothes.  There is a photo of me at the beach wearing a knee length black skirt.  Makes me cringe every time I see it.

I'm a mean pain in the ass, I said.  There was no way anyone could have credibly misjudged me as a silly girl.

Everyone laughed because it's true. 

NOTE: I did not use real names.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Stuff Qataris say

At a meeting with the Qatari Majlis al-Shura, the Consultative Assembly, we asked what the most pressing domestic concern is.  The answer? Things are perfect in Qatar.  There are no problems. 

Probably a bit of an overstatement. There is a lot of tension between native Qataris and foreigners or second generation-ers.  

We also had a meeting with the Qatar Investment Authority, the country's sovereign wealth fund. Plenty of gems in that meeting:

"We love food," when asked about investments in Africa that are criticized as taking arable land from poor farmers.

"I don't believe in food security," when asked if those investments were made to secure a food supply for the Qatari people.

"We don't need it.  The government has plenty of money,"when asked what they do with their profits (reinvest).

"They go to mosques and steal people's money," about the Iranians.

"You are safe, the American army is here."

This far Qatar reminds me a lot of Singapore.  Everything is new, shiny, and runs well.  Huge expat community and a degree of social openness.  Both countries' governments are by no stretch of the imagination democratic.  But they seem to have enough money, allow enough relative freedom, and provide for their people well enough to keep people happy.  

It's incredible how different Qatar is from Saudi.  Both are Wahhabi but, wow.  A the Majlis the representatives said of course they support the openness-no one would want to come here or work here or do business if they were closed.

This morning I went running.  And everyone is so nice.  It's incredible. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Boys and girls

The separation of girls and boys is definitely beginning to take a toll on our group dynamics.  I get the feeling some of the boys think its funny, but many of the girls are beginning to get frustrated. Yesterday we went to the University of Dammam,  a mixed campus with separate facilities. We met with students, both genders in the same room but separated by a sign and each sitting on opposite sides.  At the end of the meeting, we broke out into smaller groups and just informally chatted with our peers of the same gender.  The girls were awesome.  We chatted about music, dating/marriage, and school.  

I am not sure if it's appropriate to really detail what they said because I don't want to break their confidence, but in general things are changing a bit.  One girl said she delayed engagement and marriage until she graduated, and another said she really didn't even want to start thinking about it because she is so focused on school.  Additionally, they said they were held to a higher standard academically because girls are stereotypically academically better than boys. They just want to be taught the same curriculum as the boys.

After our meeting, though, the boys made plans with the Saudis for lunch and of course we could not join them.  We had to go back to the hotel-I find that we are spending an incredible amount of time in the hotel.  We couldn't go to where they have lunch, can't smoke sheesha (not an issue for me, but some of the girls would like to), can't work out to get rid of some of our negative energy.  It's only a couple of days, but you can really see the institutionalization of gender discrimination.  

Honestly, I'm a bit disappointed about how quickly some of the boys seem to embrace this and how willing and without a second thought some just leave us behind.  I have only seen one make an active effort to include us.  And he is the only one I have heard say anything along the lines of how they treat women is ridiculous.  I've only heard jokes from the others. Hahaha, lunch was so awesome. Hahaha, the pool was so nice. Hahaha, oh that massage was amaaaazing. 

While the boys went out to lunch, a handful of the girls begged our guide Saad to take us out. We went for a walk on the corniche, which was nice. The weather was actually pleasant by the sea.  And then the boys came back saying how amazing their lunch was, without one mention of oh, I'm sorry you couldn't join.

I hope no one is offended by this post. I admit I am being a bit sensitive, and i do not mean to complain.  Amy for instance, is good with dealing with this and just laughs it off. But there's no point in sharing my experiences if I'm not honest with how I'm feeling and my experiences.  No one will learn anything if I just relay the positive points of the trip. 

We all later met up and went to this bizarre mini air and space museum and then saw an IMAX film about the deep sea.  I have a feeling that was just time filler.  We went to the mall and walked around a bit, and then the girls went back to the hotel (naturally) while the boys went out with the Saudis. Amy, Brit, Michelle, and I sat out in the lobby for a few hours, hanging out, and eventually the guys came back.  We all hung out for a few hours. Until 3am, actually.  

Everyone says Jedda will be better for the girls, more fun for us. Even if it is, I am still really disappointed about the behavior over the past few days. 

Im on the bus to our next stop, Jubail, and one of the boys just said we empower our girls too much in the West. It was meant to be a joke. He was talking about how white guys don't like white girls and date Asians because they are more submissive.  I had to tell him to stop.  

Ugh, wow. That literally hurt me inside. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Adam, Eve, and dinosaurs

Walking through a museum in Riyadh this afternoon, I was struck to see fossils, a dinosaur skeleton, and a prehistoric timeline, side-by-side with a display on how the earth was created (a pretty scientific description). In the United States, there is a heated debate between creationism and evolution. Many think there is no middle ground. The most dogmatic of the Americans believe the earth was created in six days, which doesn't quite jibe with evidence from a ore-human era with dinosaurs. As Saudi is considered a bit of a dogmatic place, I turned to our guide and asked him what the consensus or general understanding of this issue is in Saudi-did Adam and Eve walk the earth with dinosaurs, or did the dinosaurs come first, adding thousands of years to the six-day timeline.

Faris just looked at me blankly. There were dinosaurs, of course. So I asked him, does that mean Adam and Eve lived at the same time as dinosaurs. He was stunned. The thought had just never crossed his mind. God created heaven and the earth as described. But of course it doesn't really make sense that humans coexisted with dinosaurs-it's doubtful Adam and Eve would have lived long enough to populate the earth. But putting the two together, contemplating the impact each narrative. It was this stunning moment where I could literally see change and a different way of thinking emerging. So crazy.

On the one hand, it's better than in some places in the States where people dont believe in any degree of evolution. Despite Saudi's dogmatism (is that a word?), its students are taught evolution. But the failure of the education system to teach any kind of critical thinking or build the capability to make the connection between these two issues, even presented side by

On a lighter note, the museum labeled the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf. Chuckle chuckle chuckle, that is not what it's called, sillies.

Breakfast and lunch were absurdly good. Without access to a gym, I'm going to have to be literally rolled off the plane. Chocolate and white chocolate fondu station, amazing fruit, salad, cereal, etc selection for breakie. INCREDIBLE grilled fish, lobster, chicken, salmon, prawns, fruit, steamed broccoli, salads, desserts, sushi, pastas, hot dishes for lunch. Man oh man.

Tonight we were hosted by Dr. Salsa al-Hazza a prominent women's rights activist. Her children and their friends attended the event too.

I always caution against making generalizations about Arab women being oppressed. Veiled or not, if you see them in action in a market or at home, you know it is really them who wear the proverbial pants. She told her husband to tell us what he does, what his work was. His response? I am a husband. Priceless.

I spoke with her at the end of the night about conceptions of women and women's issues in the Middle East as described in the West. And she said what is basically my understanding, which is that, look. Change had to be homegrown to be sustainable. It has to come from the Saudis and the Egyptians and the Moroccans. I has to happen their way, at their own pace. I think she was a little more forgiving of the status who than I would be (even in America) but in general I think Western involvement in these kinds of changes are only detrimental and cause the issue and those linked with it to be considered foreign ,thereby losing legitimacy in the eyes of the very people they need to win over.

I agree with her that we khawagas should not be involved. But she kept on referring to wearing the abaya as a a choice, which it is not. And I can not tell you how many times I've seen a young Arab lady walk into a house, hotel, or cafe and rip off whatever outer garment she's wearing and discard it with obvious disdain.

And for the he record, were the abaya not mandatory I probably would have happily bought one to be respectful of the culture. I have two Moroccan jellabas and a handful of Indian tunics. I love that kind of dress. But because it's mandatory I think back to those girls I see obviously hating it and get angry.

I've heard a lot of comments from some in the group about well, maybe the abaya is kind of nice. You don't have to worry about what you're wearing, it makes life easier. But for us this is four days. It isn't almost like playing dress up. But for some women, like the ones tossing off their abayas, or in the case of Saudi doing little things to show their rebellion against the abaya by leaving it open, etc., this is life and may not be so fun.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Saudi Arabia: at least we have rambutans

Welcome to Riyadh.


I do not know where to start. Anyone who has spoken with me about Saudi knows my feelings about this place, or at least certain aspects of it. So I will preface this all a by saying I entered with a sort of bias. I'm giving a half-hearted attempt to keep an open mind about these things about which I have a strong opinion, but it's not easy.

We checked into the Ritz Carlton Riyadh. It is a brand new hotel and super swanky. I'd say it borders on ostentatious but after a day here I'd say it leapt over that red line. It reminds me a bit of the hotels in Vegas, just without alcohol, gambling, sin, and the opportunity to for women to do anything. It is in the middle of nowhere, iles away from anything. Best part-we are stuck here and women aren't allowed to use the pool, the gym, or the spa. The Saudis are comping all of our expenses in the hotel except long-distance phone calls. So all food included. Guys get massages for free too.

Yes, there is a spa With massages. And only men can use it. Total shiznat. I don't even like getting massages but I want one just because the said I can't have one.

When I asked the guy who worked here about the gym and he told me that women werent allowed to use it, I just stood there looking at him. Tammy, Merideth, Ashtar-he got my Teresa face. My friends on the trip said he looked terrified of me. I he is scared now, just wait for the end of a week without working out. Later on I was talking to a guy at the front desk and asked him whys not just have separate hours as they did in Oman. He was extremel apologetic(although would he have been so apologetic if it were his own wife looking to sweat it out?) and said that shhh-we could use the gym in the middle of the night when all the hotel guests are asleep. I appreciated the degre of flexibility and the seeming admission the whole thing is bollocks, but...

On the bright side, the Saudis bought us each our own hotel rooms-we don't have to share. I feel like an adult. And we got a fruit plate with rambutans. So there's that.

Th highlight so far was tonight, after we had a bit of a snack had the hotel drive us to the "happening" street of riyadh(can't remember what it's called right now). Today is apparently part of a seven day celebration honoring the king's seven years on the throne. Saudis were driving their huge American-made SUVs around honking their horns, hanging out of the window and dancing in their cars. And while there are a lot of things I don't like about Saudi, it's people are incredibly warm and friendly. They are undoubtedly not used to seeing foreigners just standing around on the street as most are locked up in their compounds. Everyone was trying to talk to us, telling use welcome to Saudi giving us their numbers(they gaves it to the guys in the group, cynics, so it wasn't like that) and offering to help if we needed anything. We also got a a bunch of "I love america"s. Which is good. So do I. It was nice to get to just talk and meet people.

I'm hoping there are plenty of opportunities for meeting our peers outsides the highly controlled hotel and official delegation environment during the upcoming days.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

See you soon, Cairo!

I am now sitting in the Cairo airport waiting for my flight out. I may be a little worse for the wear-- a bruised and scraped knee, without a pair of proper pants, and a bit intimidated by what lies ahead. Despite what Rupak says, good things happen to those who make it happen and I'm going to make it happen. I'm going to do this. And it'll all work out.

So instead of saying goodbye, I say to all my friends here, "See you soon!"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

This may actually happen.

I’ve been in Egypt about a week or so and finally remembered to blog.  When I look back on what’s happened the last week or so, I can barely believe it.

If you had told me last June, or even August after I had left Cairo the first time, I would come back not once, not only twice, but later come back for good, I would have looked at you as if you were mad. It was hot, I was sweaty. I loved Morocco. And the “g” instead of “j” really drove me crazy. But the city—and its people—suck you in. I can’t explain it.

Maybe I just needed something to give me a push—rather shove—to get my butt in gear and out to Cairo. As my close friends know, I found a sort of motivation to drive a move from DC.  In fact, for the past few months I’ve had a one-track mind: find a job in Cairo. All I did was look at job listings and obsessively network with people here. School work? Psssshhh. What school work?

Fingers crossed it’s paid off.

Life never turns out as you plan. I’m hoping, instead, it turns out better. I spent the first few days I was here reconnecting with old friends and connecting with new ones. I had a meeting at an Egyptian organization called the Andalus Institute, which focuses on human rights. They gave me a position as the editor-in-chief of their English-language website and Facebook and Twitter pages.  Absolute madness.

It’s all happening very fast. I told my girl Cordie it’s this overwhelming feeling but I couldn’t describe it. She aptly described it as excitement and fear.

On the state of Egypt and its politics, I’ve noticed the tone of the graffiti here has changed. Now, all of the graffiti is anti-military, a huge change from this summer and to a lesser extent January.  People are waiting for the elections, but no one seems to believe they will be legit. Because they won’t be.

Right now I’m sailing the Nile between Aswan and Luxor. Our first stop was some temple and I turned to Merideth and asked her if there would be a lot of old sh*t on this trip—she told me it’ll all be old sh*t. It’s interesting though, I guess. Last night Merideth and I went out around Aswan and I really liked it—a mix of Cairo and Fes.

Alright, y’all. I get back to Cairo on Saturday and should be there a few days. Perhaps I’ll have more news upon my return.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

January 28, 2012: Cairo

Just finished a good end to my holiday in Cairo. It was nice to meet up with old friends, although my stay was too short. I wasn't able to see everyone I wanted. It was also a good transition back to DC—I was feeling pretty desolate about the possibility of living in DC after graduation. Being back in Cairo gave me hope I’ll get out.

I was so happy to see my friend Marwa and her mother, who is like my mother. Marwa is a really smart and friendly girl; I can’t remember what her job is exactly but it’s really good and she goes on business trips all the time for work. Every Friday they would cook me plates and plates of food and if I ever needed anything, they would take care of it. We regularly went out to dinner over the summer; they loved going to this yacht club on the Nile (they don’t have a boat, though). They rented me the apartment in which I stayed over the summer. I hope if I come back here after graduation to live with them again. It’s nice to have a family away from home.

We went out to lunch and caught up on what we’ve been up to since the summer. I asked them if anything had changed since the summer, and they said no, which was my interpretation of the ‘revolution.’ People keep on coming to Tahrir, but there will be no real change. The activists don’t have any organization or real political platform. Additionally, they don’t really have a lot of popular support. I’ve heard a lot of people say The way to change the system is from within, not protesting without. Without really getting involved, they make it easy for SCAF to maintain the status quo while carrying the banner of the revolution.

After lunch, we walked around a mall for a bit and the girls went shoe shopping and then bought me medicine for my lip, which got busted (the story: tear gas in Tahrir). I thanked them profusely, and told them I was a little embarrassed because I didn’t have money so I initially didn’t want to go to the pharmacy and have to ask them for anything. Mom said I was silly and she would not have let me pay even if I had money.

We then met up with my friend Waleed for gelato, which I thought was good but I know my Italian friends sometimes have a pickier palate. He was a good sport—Marwa and her mom were teasing him a lot (bottom line: men everywhere don’t ask for directions).

I’m not entirely optimistic about the situation in Egypt. I can’t see it changing much. isA I am wrong.

I’m now flying back to DC. Feeling happy, thinking back on my trip: new friends, old friends, good friends, good experiences (everything in Vietnam, Chinese New Year in Asia), bad experiences (old white men in Bangkok). But a bit sad, too.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

January 24: Back in Bangkok

Sadly, the Vietnamese part of my trip came to an end. I met up with Sulaine, Rob, and Carlos for a few hours before I flew out at 5p—they are leaving early tomorrow morning. I felt strangely sad when I left. Okay, maybe I know why. We had such a great time, relaxing, teasing each other, acting like 15 year olds. Dong jokes never got old (Yes, I am bring Michael Burns back the biggest dong I can find). The last night we even attempted a (PG) sleepover and instead stayed up until 2 hours before wakeup.

We rang in the Chinese New Year sitting on the pier of the beach in the dark, listening to the waves crashing and looking at the stars (DIRECTLY!!) above us. We were even, eh, treated, to a full moon.

I hope we keep in touch. I like Bangkok even less now that I had such a great time with them and they’re all going back to Macau. This trip also made me even less convinced I could stand working in DC post-SAIS.

January 22: Vietnamese beach bliss contained, continued

Phu Quoc Sunset

My excitement with the Vietnamese beach bliss has been somewhat dampered by the facebook connectivity issue. Not everyone is lucky as I am to have a university that provides us with a secure US-sign on to enable us to go around such firewalls. If you have to block sites like facebook, you’re fighting a losing battle. You can’t stop people from talking, you can’t stop change, you can’t stop your young people from exploring. You also can’t go after international investment and tourism with this crap.

Our hotel is very much beach bliss. We have a private villa with a private pool—only yards away from an infinity pool overlooking the ocean. The water is clean and sand white.

I was on the plane with a guy staying at our hotel who intrigues me. Not in an “I think he’s cute way,” but this guy is here alone. Our resort is not in the town area—why would you come here solo? I’d be bored out of my mind. Anyway, he’s sitting across from me at breakfast. I guess I should be one to speak—I’m here alone now, only because my friends are wakeboarding. Were I to wait another hour for coffee, we’d have problems.

Like I mentioned, I’m here with my friend Sulaine, a Canadian expat living in Macau, and her friends (my new friends) Rob and Carlos. Rob is a genial British bloke—love the accent and good sense of humor, since I tease him a lot about having no idea what he’s saying. Carlos is hilarious, a Mexican from the great state of Texas—big sense of humor and heart. They appreciate that I have the sense of humor of a 15 year old boy. We’re getting along swimmingly.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Good morning, Vietnam!


January 21, 2012: Two Hours to Vietnamese Beach Bliss

Almost wheels up to Phu Quoc, Vietnam! I’m meeting up with my friend Sulaine, who I met in India, there. We’lI be there for Lunar New Year… yay! I was supposed to be on an earlier flight, but I’d have to wake up at 4am to catch that flight. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I got a seat on an Air Mekong flight.

To be honest, I really don’t like Bangkok. It is probably thanks in no small part to the plethora of old, white creepers and their much younger Thai girlfriends/mistresses/ladyboys. Wherever these men came from, they would stand no chance with a comparable beautiful woman. But they come there and prey on these girls and their poor economic situation, their willingness to do whatever they can for a way out. Some may argue it’s a mutually-beneficial agreement—guys get sex, girls get a measure of financial security. But I more than once saw these pale-faced Rico Suaves verbally abuse these girls. I can only imagine what happens behind closed doors.

My first reaction to Bangkok—a reaction of which I am not proud—was how can Thai men allow these girls to do this? I’m not proud of this reaction because it’s obviously the girl’s choice and no man should be able to impose his will on a woman. But I mean, all of these girls have fathers/brothers/other family. Maybe I’ve spent too much time in the Arab world where there is a lot of emphasis placed on a woman’s honor. But even in America, I’d like to think my father would rather die than have me sell myself off to an old, ugly man.

But I loved Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. Some lady at the airport told me horror stories of earrings being ripped out of ears and taxi cab drivers refusing to let their passengers go. She told a tough-looking Aussie man he was brave for doing HCMC alone, so I was a bit apprehensive about being a solo American chick. But I never felt unsafe, never had any problems. People either let me be or were friendly and talked with me. I even got asked to be in photos waving the ubiquitous Asian V sign. Everyone was cheerful and getting ready for the Lunar New Year. Decorations were up everywhere, families were out, young couples were taking photos. HCMC was easily walkable, which I liked as well. Too many interactions with taxi cab drivers usually turn me off from a city (see: Kuala Lumpur. Taxi cab drivers would either not stop, or if they did, tell you they wouldn’t take you to that place. Made no sense to me—after they drove off, they were without my fare and I was without a ride).

People out for Tet.

Also, Bill Clinton stayed at the hotel I stayed in while he was POTUS. If I paid big bucks, I could have spend the night in the Presidential Suite.

Happy Year of the Dragon!

I visited the War Remnants Museum in HCMC. I thought it would be something educational and relatively propaganda-free, but I think I had too high of expectations. I know Americans committed atrocities in Vietnam, but I can’t imagine atrocities were committed only on the side of the Americans and South Vietnamese. It was just photo after photo of scared villagers—which happened, yes, but not exactly balanced? I don’t know, I wish I knew the history better to be able to judge. There was also an exhibit on the ground floor showing all the “support” the anti-war people had, mostly from commies and leftists. No, I’m not a repub. But I hate all the troop-bashing, in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan. Some may have been assholes, but the majority are good men and women.

A US soldier holds a Vietnamese grenade victim. AQ's wet dream.

January 22, 2012—Vietnamese beach bliss, contained

Last night I tried signing on to facebook to update my status, perhaps upload some photos, and to my surprise, it was blocked. Why the surprise? In hindsight, I remember reading the government blocked such sites. But it worked in HCMC, for me but not my friends. Not sure why yet…

Monday, January 16, 2012

Yes, I'm starting this again.

After two years, I decided it's time to blog again. The past two years have taken me to amazing places, from Ghana to India to Colombia to Oman to so many places I can't believe it. I've met so many people, always willing to help a crazy single female traveler. I'd always be too tired to write down my experiences at night. But these interactions should be shared.

Throughout my travels, I've been amazed about how similar people are everywhere. Yes, we wear different clothes and yes, we worship different gods (okay, actually--many of us worship the same god). But whether you're Muslim or Hindu or Christian or Buddhist or white, Arab, African, Latin American, European-- I see the same people over and over again. I see the teenage girls giggling in their clique, the boys acting rambunctious, the moms nagging their children, the fathers leading their children by the hand. In the United States we have this idea that everyone else is different, but it's really not so. I wish everyone were able to travel as I am and see that no matter where you're from, everyone is like you.

Thank you to my old high school acquiescence/friend Maddy for sparking the re-blogging. It is my hope that the upcoming years are filled with as much travel as the last few, and that readers of this blog will see themselves in the people I meet.