Saturday, February 4, 2012

It's been so here's an equally long post

This is a super long entry so be forewarned. I would suggest skipping to the section on Egypt and Cairo if you are short on time.

So it's been a really long time since I last wrote here. Partially, its been because the past month since Christmas has been rather hectic. There was New Years followed by the last two weeks of classes, followed by an amazing 10 day trip in Egypt. The other reason I have not written is because I'm having difficulty choosing what to say exactly. I feel very conflicted inside. On one hand I have had some of the best experiences of my life with some of the most amazing people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, yet on the other I don't know of a time when I have felt so much like I am drowning and unable to catch my breath.

My breaks have been incredible. For New Years I went to Tel Aviv with my roommates and some other good friends. Because neither Jews nor Muslims really celebrate the calendar New Years as each religion has its own New Years, there aren't many places here to ring in the New Year. But we heard rumors Tel Aviv was the place to do it so off we went.  We had I believe one day off for new years in addition to the weekend so we got to Tel Aviv on Friday and left New Years day. Amy, Lindsey, and I couchsurfed with a really fun and outgoing Israeli named Nimrod (Nimi). He was a lot of fun and showed us and our friends a really good time. It was a weekend full of dancing, goofing off, volleyball on the beach and incredible sunsets (pictures on facebook). Lindsey, Amy and I went back after the others (as Nimi and his friend Alon made us an incredible New Years Day Shakshouka). We took the bus back, but missed the rounabout we were supposed to get off at in order to catch a cab back to Nablus. This took us into the middle of a settlement: a first for all of us. It was like a picture out of the Stepford Wives, and although we don't look particularly different than many Israelis, we were recognized as outsiders. It was a very strange and eerie place and we could not wait to figure out how to get out back to our home in Palestine. Luckily we found a presumably Arab bus driver (I do believe some Arabs work in the settlements) who gave us a free lift to the roundabout outside. It was very kind of him. We got back and tried as best we could to recover for the week ahead.

After 9 days of teaching, all the teachers breathed a sigh of relief for the break. Teaching here is utterly exhausting. We have to create our own curriculum from scratch and at the same time draft extensive detailed lesson plans with all the documents attached the thursday night prior to the next week. So thats 10 hours of teaching with nothing to base it off of, every week (and thats just for the private school). It gets hard to think of new things to keep the kids engaged, or for my class: engage them to begin with. I have a really tough class, which most teachers note to be the hardest class in the school. I have the lowest level of 5,6,7 graders. They are already unpopular because theyre not in the upper classes. A lot of them I believe have un-diagnosed learning impairments. And most could care less about learning English. Therefore so much of the work I do in planning is wasted in me spending 20 min or so trying to get them quiet at various points in the class. A couple kids moved up and I am getting some refugee students on scholarship, so this semester should (inshAllah) be better in terms of discipline, but we shall see. Its all just a lot of work, and considering I came here out of a passion for the conflict and human rights (which not only do I not have time for, but am not allowed to do so I dont compromise the program..which I do understand), its been very trying on my passion and motivation.

On top of that my two roommates and other good friend quit. They are my family here. I love them so much and they keep me sane. So that was an incredibly difficult thing to face. I thought about quitting so many times. But it didn't feel right at the time. Partially because this is my first job and it would look really bad to quit halfway through, and partially for the kids. So I chose to stay. And I was optimistic by the time break rolled around. That's why i was so excited for the break. I thought perhaps I would be able to re-energize for the next semester.

So we set off for I trip to Egypt. The basic outline: Nablus--> Jerusalem--> Eilat, Israel--> Border cross to Egypt--> Dahab, Egypt (on the Red Sea)--> Cairo--> border cross to Israel-->Eilat--> Bethlehem--> Jerusalem-->Nablus

I went to Eilat a day before the girls because I planned to go to Cairo for a couple days to visit friends and you need an additional visa to exit the Sinai (coming from the Israel border). So I couchsurfed with a very nice and fun Austrian figure skater. He was a great host and we enjoyed wonderful conversation late into the night. Then I met up with the girls (Amy, Lindsey, Emma--the other friend that left) and we headed to the border. After some worries about being able to get back in for more than a few weeks or month, Emma decided to stay, but Lindsey and Amy I crossed. We missed the bus to Dahab so had to pay extra for a taxi, which was unfortunate, but provided some business for the Bedouin driver, as the border is pretty dull these days except tour buses. We arrived in Dahab in the early evening and set up at the Penguin Hostel (4 bucks a night). It was a really nice place, right on the sea, with a great sitting area and fire pit (pillows and rugs on the floor with low tables). We spent much of our time just sitting there in the sun during the day and by the fire at night. It was chilly all week, but the sun felt so good on our skin. We spent 5 days in the sea town, which was a lot longer than originally planned. We made friends with fellow travelers from Norway, Sweden and Ireland, sitting around the fire and sometimes under the stars.

Despite the stresses of the girls' situation and my sadness to see them go which did lead to some down moments, it was a great trip and we are all so happy we had that time together before we are forced to split up. My original plan was to spend about 48 hours in Cairo taking a night bus there and back, and then going hiking with my sisters and other friends in the Israeli Negev desert. But I realized (thanks to our Irish friend Mark) that th 25 marked the anniversary of the revolution. That was that. I HAD to be there for that! I had studied it in college last year as it was unfolding. I wanted to be there for the anniversary. And I was happy to spend more time with my Egpytian friends. The plan was to stay until the 26 and leave (I ended up staying an extra night and barely leaving then).

So I set off on the night bus for Cairo (about 8 hours). I felt pretty neutral at the moment as I was excited to see my friends in Cairo but sad to leave my sisters. But when the bus hit Cairo I felt filled with nostalgia for the city and people that sparked my interest in the Middle East and the Arabic language. It felt good to be back. My friend Hoss (Ahmed Hossam) was there waiting for me (he had told me to have the bus driver call him before I left). He brought me to Mohamed's (one of my friends who is actually in Maryland studying now) house. His family had offered to host me for my time there. I was greeted by his very dear and sweet mother who brought me to the room I was to use, complete with a Ravens blanket. She also brought in a tray of fruit, yogurt and juices. Then I slept for a few hours (got into Cairo around 7 am).

After I got up and got ready, they called Hoss and Mostafa (who's nickname is Bata, or duck in English), who came to pick me up and take me out. They asked me where I wanted to go first and I said: Starbucks! (oh how I miss American coffee!!!). So we went there first and waited for Amin (him and Mohamed were my first Egyptian friends I met in America) to come and meet up with us. It was great to see them all again. Then we went to a mall outside the inner city area where some more of their friends, some of whom I had met last time were working giving out free samples of a cheese-filled croissant called Molto (of which I came away with a ton of as well as two t-shirts and some key chains). Then I went back to Mohamed's house for dinner where I was stuffed to the brim with delicious food (which became the custom for every night—I was never hungry while I was in Cairo). I have never been so full in my life. And every bite was amazing. Then I actually ended up eating again at Bata's (he had come to pick me up) even though I wasn't hungry at all, but his mom was soo sweet and kind and the food was incredible...I mean...when in Rome right?

Then we went and hung out with the guys. Aly took me for an exhilarating and terrifying ride on his motorcycle without a helmet in the crazy Cairo streets. Then the guys took me out to find cheap shoes since I only had one pair with me and my tendonitis was kicking in. We didn’t have time for much else by the time we found them, so we went to Rehab city and sat at a cafĂ© for a while. We spent a lot on time in transit that night (which goes for most of my time in Cairo), but I was never bored, even in standstill traffic. Bata was worried a lot that I was bored or not enjoying myself, but I assured him that just hanging out with him and the guys was all I cared about. I mean, that is, after all why I came to Cairo again—to see and spend time with good friends. And genuinely, I was not ever bored with them. And when it was just me and Bata, we never stopped talking and laughing.

He was a good friend before this week, but my time in Cairo made me realize that he truly is one of my best friends. We click so well and have such a unique and refreshing friendship. We joke about the same things, openly shared our vulnerabilities with each other, and disclosed secrets that often hadn’t been told to anyone else.

The custom in Egypt (and the Arab world) is that women shouldn’t pay for anything when they are with men. Of course, as an American, this is incredibly difficult to accept, as we have issues letting others pay for us and accepting gifts. So usually I would argue when he (or any of the other guys) bought me something, which was utterly futile as it would go against the custom.

But above and beyond custom, he went out of his way the entire week to spend money in order to make me more comfortable, happy and enrich my trip (starbucks, frozen yogurt and such). And he would get frustrated when I wouldn’t tell him if I wanted something, or if I said I didn’t care what we do. His goal was simply to make me happy and nothing would stand in the way of that When I told him he “didn’t have to do that,” he would tell me he wanted to, that “there are not two Casey’s” or “there is only one Casey,” amongst other incredibly sweet things. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so valued in my life (outside my family). It was perhaps the sweetest thing ever, and every time I was touched with by his generosity, selflessness, and care for me.

The next day, Tuesday, I went around with Mohamed's mom, her Coptic Orthodox friend and Mohamed's sister Sara (and of course Mohamed's nephew Aly who is the cutest baby in the world). We went to a couple churches and then got coffee at a really nice cafe strip. Im having a hard time remembering the exact order after that, but I know there was delicious dinner at Mohamed's house and then Bata picked me up. He took me to get a milkshake and we went to the Mall and met his friend Myar, who is so incredibly sweet. We met up with her a few times after that, and I wish I would have had more time in Cairo so I could have gotten to know her more. Actually I wish I would have had more time in Cairo for many, many reasons. After that we attempted to go to the Nile for a boat (Faluka) ride. It took forever to get down there, and by the time we did it was raining, so we headed back to Nasr City (the part of Cairo the guys live in). It was a long car ride, but again I was never bored. On the way back we passed Tahrir Square on the highway. You couldn’t see the actual square, but we could tell many people were already there in anticipation of the next day, the 25th, the anniversary of the revolution. We had seen fireworks going off in a different area earlier as well. After getting back to Mohamed and Bata’s apartment complex, we stayed a bit with the guys after that, if my memory serves me correctly, before heading back to sleep.

The next morning I got up and got ready for what I hoped would be a trip to Tahrir Square. However, Mohamed’s family seemed very concerned for my safety and did not want me to go. Bata picked me up and took me to a different place for American coffee (ques to find the best American coffee in Cairo). Mohamed’s mom and sister called him, making him promise not to take me down there. Then we met up with Amin, Hoss and Aly. They discussed it amongst themselves, and although they were talking quickly in Arabic, I could pick up that they wanted me to have the experience. So Hoss, one of Mohamed’s oldest friends, called Mohamed’s mom and assured her that I would be perfectly safe: surrounded by the guys, and staying only in the safe parts. She, apparently, felt much better after that and thought it was fine. So we set off for Tahrir. It was the first day where there was no traffic whatsoever, partially because it was the first day of break for schools I believe and then partially people were either in the square or at home. We parked just outside the square and walked in. The guys got me an Egyptian flag to hold and one painted on my face. Really, the only attention I got was people wanting to take pictures, but I never felt unsafe the whole time I was there. It was a more celebratory/commemorative event rather than a protest, although there were pockets of protesters, and later in the day after we left some bigger protests started I believe. We walked around and I took some pictures. It was such an incredible experience to be able to be there on the anniversary. After we walked around a bit, through the crowds, we left Tahrir and headed back. We stopped for some really delicious ice cream, of which I accidentally got a large because I wanted a couple flavors (I’m used to being able to get a small with a couple flavors…oh well). It was DELICIOUS as I haven’t had ice cream in ages! Then I went back to Mohamed’s and spent some time with the family before dinner. Aly got hold of my rather large flag and waved it around—perhaps one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen.

After another incredible dinner Bata picked me up and we met up with Ahmed Adel to go bowling and wait for the other guys. I had met Ahmed before at the mall where he was working. His nickname is Basbousa which is like a candy or something—a very accurate nickname as he is one of the sweetest guys I have ever met. He was quite shy at first as my Arabic and his English are at similar levels, but between turns bowling we managed to chat a little in broken Arablish. He was so kind and a little shy as well, which was quite adorable. Then the other guys came so we set off for the Nile for a night Faluka (boat) ride. It was me and 7 of the guys (some I knew and others I had only met briefly). They got a boat, decked with lights and seats and playing Arabic or “local” (as they called it) music. Eventually, and as is inevitable, dancing began, and far be it from me to ever pass up an opportunity to dance. It was quite a sight im sure, but we had a blast. It was so much fun, and great to be around guy friends again (something I miss in Nablus where it is not proper to be in public with guy friends, and as a teacher I have to worry about small town gossip). And what’s more I felt really respected by the guys. It had been a while since I felt so much respect (don’t really feel it in the streets in Nablus—although I have individuals’ respect, the majority I don’t feel it from).

After the boat ride we went to an area of downtown Cairo to sit outdoors amongst tons of men to watch the Real Madrid vs. Barcelona football match. We stayed for the first half of the game, relaxing and I showed Basbousa and Saad pictures from Palestine. They were really into my pictures and videos, especially the one of Jerusalem where you can see the grand Mosque—one of them got goosebumps. It made me realize how lucky I am that I can freely go to the Holy City, whereas they cannot. My little blue passport allots me a lot of freedom that I often take for granted. I can complain all I want about being hassled a little here and there by IDF soldiers at the border crossings, but in reality all they do is hold me and ask questions for a little. I am not humiliated, asked to take off all my clothes in front of people, pushed around, and have so far always been allowed to pass. This isn’t the case for so many Palestinians, and people from countries such as Egypt can forget about being able to cross the border with any ease or at all.
I think we went back to the apartments after that and stayed for a while in the parking lot talking.

The next morning Bata picked me up, per usual, and after coffee and an errand, we picked up Hoss and Saad and headed for the old city in Cairo, Khan al Khalili. I had been at night last year but wanted to see a little in the daytime this trip. I love the old medinas of Middle Eastern cities (after all I did live in one in Morocco). It took us a little while to get down there, but again I enjoyed just being with my friends. I also got Saad to sing some (he has an awesome voice: I have a video on facebook of him singing from my first trip to Cairo). When we finally found some parking, my first mission was to buy massive amounts of Two Apple hookah tobacco to take back to a family I know in Salem village (right outside Nablus). But before we set down the narrow streets, Hoss and Bata went on a mission to find something. About 10 minutes later they came back with a black bag and gave it to me. I opened it up to find a “belly dancing” dress (not the two-piece outfit, but a complete dress) complete with a noisy sash to tie around the waist. It was a gift based on the dancing shenanigans of the previous night. I got a good laugh out of that one, and I’m sure my cheeks were nice and red as well. Exhibit A of why I love my friends. We got the tobacco and walked around a little before leaving to go pick up my bus ticket and go back to my Egyptian family for dinner. After dinner, we went to of course get coffee (Bata was determined to make sure I got as much American coffee as possible before I left). Then we met up with some friends’ of Bata that I hadn’t met before. We spent some time with them and then went back to the mall I had gone to on the first day to meet up with Basbousa and some others who were working there. After Basbousa’s shift was over, he took me to a superstore to get some toiletries (they’re much cheaper in Cairo than Nablus) while the others went to look at a technology store. I enjoy talking to him and attempting to use my Arabic…Arablish. After getting some delicious mango juice we went back to the apartment building, outside of which all the guys like to hang out. I spent some more time with Bata and Basbousa and then reluctantly went to bed.

I got up at 5:30am the next morning to go ride horses with Amin and his friend Louay. We drove to an area right outside the Pyramid compound where we met up with a man who Amin had been referred to by a friend. He brought out horses and we rode them slowly through the streets until we got to a sandy area. Then we rode the horses up to a lookout overlooking the pyramids and Cairo. We had some tea and enjoyed the view (of course I had forgotten my camera), and then road down. The guy who accompanied us took the reins from me and helped me gallop (had never done that before). I had so much fun! Galloping on a horse is exhilarating and a bit less terrifying than riding a motorcycle helmetless through Cairo. Looking at the pyramids and riding a galloping horse was one of those moments when I realized how lucky I am to have such incredible experiences because of my amazing friends. In those moments all you really can do is thank God and burn the images into your memory forever, so that when you look back on life you remember how blessed you’ve been.

After that, I went back to Mohamed’s for a little bit. Then Bata picked me up and took me out for a little. He bought me frozen yogurt at the Pinkberry (!!??!??!) in Cairo. The first time I saw a Pinkberry was Newbury Street in Boston; so I never expected to run into one in Cairo. I got half mango and half coconut frozen yogurt, no toppings. I had forgotten how wonderful the taste of frozen yogurt is. I savored every single bite.  I could probably write a blog post solely on frozen yogurt and rant for a while.
Anyway, after Bata made sure he had gotten me everything I could possibly need before going back to Palestine, we left and I had dinner at Mohamed’s. That whole afternoon with Bata was filled with long silences where both of us thought about the impending departure and got seriously sad. Then we would chat and laugh it off, but as soon as laughing subsided those thoughts of conclusion crept back.

After dinner Bata picked me up and we set off with Basbousa to go to a Zamalek football (soccer) game. Club football is huge in Egypt (as many may know after the Port Said tragedy). We found the upper class section as I would “get eaten alive” if I sat with the fans. But I had a great view of the Ultras (fans) and enjoyed their chants, synchronized jumping, fire shows and fireworks. It was so cool to finally see what all the fuss was about, and I enjoyed watching the game as well. We left early in case a fight broke out. Then I went back to Mohamed’s and said my goodbyes. It was a really hard goodbye for me. They had been so amazing all week. I had chatted with both Sarah and Rasha a lot. They are so incredibly sweet and enjoyable. I only wish I had had more time to spend with them, and of course little baby Aly. Mohamed’s dad was also so welcoming and sweet, and told me I should stay longer. And of course I adore Mohamed’s mom. She is so gentle, kind and hospitable. I was never hungry in Cairo or on my long journey back as she had packed me a huge bag of food. She teared up as we hugged goodbye—I came close to crying as well. I only spent 5 days there, but they became family to me. Then I said goodbye to Bata’s lovely mother, Mayar, and a bunch of the guys.

Bata, Hoss, Amin, Basbousa and I headed off to the bus station. I’ve never wanted to miss a bus so badly before. I wanted us to be late and miss it so that I would be forced to stay longer. We stopped by Aly’s to say goodbye to him and then arrived at the train station. Bata and Basbousa had to leave right away to get to a football game they had previously promised to play in. The reality of the moment hit me: I had to say goodbye to one of my closest friends, and I had no idea when I would see him again. All the conversations we shared, all the laughs we enjoyed and all the mind-blowingly nice things he had done for me rushed to my head and I literally burst into tears. I don’t cry publicly very often at all, but I’ve never had less control over my tears before.  We hugged and then I hugged Basbousa as well, which was another hard goodbye.  I pulled myself together as they walked away. The bus ended up being late which just made the inevitable departure more agonizing. Amin, Hoss and some other guys that had met us there and I chatted until the bus came. They put my bags on and made sure I was on the right bus before I said goodbye to Amin and Hoss and the rest of them (also so very hard) and then got on the bus. Immediately tears streamed down my face (also doesn’t happen often—I must be getting soft in my old age). I almost got off the bus about 10 times. I cried and slept intermittently the bus ride back to the Taba border crossing. Off the bus and walking to the crossing, there were about 20 instances where I almost walked back to the stop to catch a bus back to Cairo.

But I crossed the border and am back in Nablus now. There were many instances where I have considered just being irresponsible and going back. But, I’m sticking with my commitment, and while my desire is to return to Cairo, I know I am in the right place for now. I am considering going back after this is over, or perhaps working here for the summer and going to Egypt in the fall. It’s all in the air right now, but that’s as close to a plan as I can possibly have right now. I’ll apply to things in both places for the summer and take it from there.

Its funny that I expected to be there only 48 hours in Cairo originally for a total of 5 days in Egypt, which turned into 10 days (5 in each city). That would have been an enormous mistake. I didn’t realize just how much I love my friends there, especially Bata. Its crazy how people connect sometimes and form familial bonds out of seemingly nowhere. He is my brother now.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love Palestine. I think a lot of my distress has been a return to a lack of freedom. Between the societal constructs of Nablus, and the limitations on freedom set by my job, I feel very trapped here. And for those who know me, that is perhaps one of my least favorite things. I would miss Egypt regardless, but I think I would be happier in a different position here in Palestine, and perhaps another city. I love Nablus: its beautiful. And I have met incredible people and friends here—and of course my kids. But personal freedom is something I value a lot. So perhaps this is a good character-building experience for me. I love character-building experiences after they’re done. I have to say I’m not entirely unhappy here. I have friends here as well (even though my best friends are leaving). Regardless, I will pull through, and Im sure as the semester goes on and I fall into work routines, the work will get easier and I will have more valuable experiences. 

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