Sports, Weddings and Language Experiences
Last weekend I had a trip scheduled to go back to Cairo because one of my friends was getting engaged to an Egyptian woman. Another development also came up which for me was a wonderful opportunity. Egypt was the host nation of the under-20 year old World Cup Football tournament. It just so happened that the championship game and the third and fourth place game were going to be held at the Cairo stadium the day before the engagement party, and one of my friends could get fairly cheap tickets. So I decided to make the trek up to Cairo a day early to watch the game. Neither of the games were very exciting at all, which was disappointing. But it was a great experience being a part of the crowd. The stadium was packed, obviously, and when we had gone 75 minutes into the game (Brazil was playing Ghana in the finals) and neither team had really even had any good chances at scoring, much less actually scored a goal, the entire stadium decided to start cheering for Egypt. So that was probably the most exciting part of the game was 65,000 people doing their standard Egypt cheers. It made me wish that Egypt was actually in the finals. Ghana ended up winning in penalty kicks by the way … after 120 minutes with nothing remarkable happening in the game.
I stayed an extra day in Cairo so that I could do some errands that I had to do. When I got to the office to pick up my ticket and do some other things, I looked at the ticket and realized I was actually missing my train as I was looking at the ticket. When I asked what could be done about this, they suggested that I try and go down to an obscure window off the side of one of the METRO stops where they sell last minute tickets. However, they warned me that it is rare that they will sell tickets to foreigners at that window for some reason. So I rushed out of the office, and jumped in a taxi to take me to the nearest METRO stop. The taxi ride took about 15 or 20 minutes, and I had a conversation in only Arabic with the taxi driver for the entire ride. It was quite exhilarating. He apparently knew what words I had learned in Arabic and decided to use those instead of the many possible synonyms that he could have used. This was the first exciting development. When I got to the METRO stop, I asked around for where the place was where I could buy train tickets and people told me that it didn’t exist and I would have to go down to the train station (which I had been told wouldn’t sell me last minute tickets). So I was persistent and finally someone told me that I was at the wrong stop and that the stop before had a window where such things were possible. So I took the metro back a stop and managed to find the window. At the window I chatted with the guy for awhile in Arabic, hoping that it would convince him I wasn’t a regular foreigner and then told him that I wasn’t actually a foreigner at all, but just a very white Egyptian with blue eyes (I have actually seen two Egyptians who fit this description). Anyway, he obviously knew I was joking, but he liked my attempt and sold me the ticket. Who knows, he may have sold me the ticket without all of the extra steps, but I still feel like it was a language victory for me.
The third and final story which happened on this day was that I was trying to call my friend who lives at a hotel in a different part of Cairo. At the hotel there are Egyptians who answer the phone, and so when I called I spoke Arabic to the guy who answered the phone. When I asked for my friend (J) he said that there was no J there which was strange to me, but I decided maybe there was some miscommunication and so decided I would just stop by. A few minutes later J called me and apologized, but said that the man who had answered the phone thought that I was Egyptian and was maybe some Egyptian guy who was stalking the foreign woman or something. Which was obviously a great compliment to me. An Egyptian thought that I was an Egyptian on the phone from my Arabic. It may also be that people in Cairo are more used to foreigners knowing some Arabic, and so are more used to speaking a simple Arabic with foreigners. Because when I got back to Beba I once again felt slightly incompetent. One of the errands I did in Cairo was managed to find an excellent book in conversational Arabic that I have been studying since I returned.
As far as my time in Beba is concerned apart from the language, it has been a really good experience so far. People are very patient with me for the most part with my Arabic, which is nice. I am here as an English teacher and to help to foster relationships between different members of the community. My classes started off going well, but because they are in a Church, only Christians were attending. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do about this, because one of the reasons for the English program is to help foster relationships between the different groups. With only one group attending, it doesn’t really accomplish this goal.
However, to my surprise there was a solution to this. I enjoy exercising, and so without any ulterior motives I sought out a gym that I could go to. To my surprise, such a thing actually does exist in Beba, and it is just down the street from the church. When I got there, I realized that I had accidentally stumbled onto one of the only places that I have seen so far where Muslims and Christians willingly spend time together (mostly Christians spend their free time in the Church compound). The camaraderie of the tiny gym was between everyone regardless of religious differences. The owner of the gym is a Muslim man who is actually also an ex-bodybuilder that used to attend international bodybuilding competitions. Because of this and because of his personality and love for people as well as his generosity, he is both very famous and very well loved in Beba. We get along very well, and so often will go for walks after the gym or sometimes go to a tea shop or something. He literally knows almost everyone in Beba and whenever we walk around town it seems like every person in town says hello to him (they all call him coach). I think because of our friendship, and because of the other people that I know from the gym, the Muslims are both hearing about the English program and are not as worried about it. So far, through people that I know from the gym, four Muslims have come to take the placement tests and there are now at least one in every level that is offered. It is obviously a small step, but I feel like every chance I get to both build relationships between myself and all members of the community, as well as encouraging interaction between others will hopefully break down false stereotypes. And we discuss a lot of topics in the English class which I think is interesting just hearing the different views on things from the Muslim and Christian perspective. Also, maybe even more than the religious differences, there is just a different understanding of any country from the perspective of the minority groups. It is interesting that I am now mostly a part of a minority community, which was definitely not true in the States.
Another interesting experience that I had was that I was able to go to my first Middle Eastern wedding. The manager at the gym (different from the owner) invited me to the wedding of his brother. I thought it would be a good experience, so I agreed to go even though I didn’t really have anything appropriate to wear. When I arrived at the wedding, the manager at the gym saw me and ran over very excited. He grabbed my hand and pulled me through the crowd that was sitting around in front of the stage which had two throne like chairs on it where the bride and groom were sitting. There was also groups of men dancing on the stage off to both sides of the thrones. He pulled me up on stage to say hello to his brother, none of which I was prepared for, and so while I was thinking of how to act appropriately, his brother stood up and grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks. I figured that was probably the proper protocol so I mumbled something about “a thousand congratulations” and wished him a long and happy marriage, the best I could do at such short notice, and stumbled off stage to go find the friends I had come with. They were sitting off to the side so I went and joined them. After awhile, however, I could see they were getting somewhat restless and kept looking at the dancers on stage. They finally said that they wanted to go up on stage and dance with the other guys and wanted me to come along. Seeing as it was my friend’s brother’s wedding (and he wasn’t making me pay to go to the gym) I thought that perhaps I was obliged to join them. So I did, and it was actually a lot of fun.
I actually just remembered that I had one more very interesting conversation here in Beba in halting Arabic a few nights ago. As you all know, the Church that I am living with is Coptic Orthodox and everyone here knows that I am Protestant. So the other night one of the people that I met a couple of times came over to talk to me. We ended up talking about the fact that I was Protestant, and he asked me why I was protestant. I told him that it was probably mostly because I grew up that way, but that I consider myself more ecumenical now than necessarily a die-hard member of any particular Christian denomination. He said he understands that all Christians are Christians, but then proceeded to tell me that only Orthodoxy was right though. Which is hard to deny based on that statement, seeing as that is the definition of “orthodoxy”. He then said what was wrong with Protestantism, which I regrettably couldn’t understand, and then proceeded to explain what was wrong with Catholicism. Which interestingly enough is also along the lines of what Martin Luther found wrong with Catholicism, and also what was mostly changed during the reforms of Vatican II and Pope John Paul. Anyway, we then moved on to discuss other things, like politics, and sports. And it was a very interesting conversation and I think it used up all of the Arabic I know in one conversation. The conversation didn’t flow very well, and he had to keep stopping and trying to explain what he was saying in other words and with hand gestures and whatnot, but still it was good.