Tuesday, October 25, 2005

They never cease to amaze me


This article talks about the administrations attempts to ensure that legislation prohibiting torture and inhumane abuse of detainees does not apply to the CIA, which probably employs those techniques more than any other organization in the US government.

I understand that we are at war with an enemy that would and has gladly, at times gleefully, tortured and abused Americans and our allies. I abhor them and their methods as much as anyone. And for that, as well as several other reasons, I cannot stomach the idea of giving free reign to our CIA to behave that way.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


Before and upon arriving in Cairo, our Egypt office asked several times if I could work on Saturday night, and told me over and over again to meet the driver at 5pm sharp outside the hotel for a trip to meet a local partner and see a project site. No problem, I said each time. So I meet up with my colleague and the driver (wondering why my colleague needed to leave her suitcases in my room and was carrying such a large backpack with her) outside the hotel, and hop in the car for what I thought was going to be a car ride to somewhere in the city, but ended up being a ride to the train station. My mind was clicking and buzzing trying to figure out what was going on, but nothing popped into place until I asked my colleague why she had a big backpack, and she mentioned that I was a light packer. Aha, grr, argh, we were SPENDING THE NIGHT AND NO ONE TOLD ME? Ok, I’m a pretty flexible person, but they could have told me – that would have been the nice, normal, thoughtful, and responsible thing to do. So we ran out to get me a toothbrush and toothpaste, hoping that the hotel would have the normal stash of toiletries and hopped on the train for El Minya.

The train ride was relatively uneventful and normal, full of stimulating conversation among my colleague and I. We arrived at the cute town of Minia and the Hotel Aton just in time to crash into our beds, dreaming of the Nile.

Minia, or El Minya, is a beautiful town on the Nile, built of curlicued old decorated-cake buildings, now fallen into disrepair, and the standard concrete third-world architecture that makes globalization ugly. There is much less traffic and pollution there than Cairo, and the pace is more manageable. Our hotel is located just on the Nile, overlooking which we ate our breakfast and watched the relentless sun rise above the escarpment in the distance. It was out of a book, really. Maybe out of this book.

One thing that I didn’t mention was that when the guards at the train station realized that we were three women traveling alone (my colleague and I were accompanied by another, Egyptian, colleague who worked on the project we were about to see), he insisted on sending one of his men along with us on the three-hour train ride as our bodyguard. We insisted that it was unnecessary, but the guy came along anyway, following us doggedly to the hotel. This bodyguard thing was a sort of theme on the Minia trip, as we will see.

After our breakfast, we met up with a fourth woman colleague and headed off to pick up the partner staff and go meet some clients of the project. Again, we were beset by a bodyguard, this time in the form of four guys from the partner organization staff, complete with HF radios. Just in case what? Anyway, we went to a village just outside of Minia, and met four women who have loans out with our microfinance program.

I want you to understand that these are normal women. Two were in their forties, two in their late thirties (although all four of them looked younger than me – are they on to something?), and they were just trying to get by, any way they could. They took the risk of getting a small loan and starting a small business because the risk was worthwhile – if they didn’t take it, they would remain nearly desperately poor, and if they did, even if it didn’t work out, how much worse could things really get? That’s not to say that this project is perfect, or even really that good (although as microfinance projects go, it isn’t a bad one), but just that there are normal women, just like me, just like some of you. They may or may not be natural entrepreneurs, but they’re making a go of it anyhow. They used the money to invest in their microbusinesses, which included small livestock-raising and dairy production. We wondered what their husbands thought, and the only one we met said that he was proud of his wife, and glad to help her out, but we still wondered.

I emphasize their normality really to make my point that development assistance frequently treats the poor as guinea pigs, cavalierly testing methodologies and complicated “solutions” on them. Oops – that didn’t work, and now you’re being beaten by your husband and you’re worse off? Sorry ‘bout that. We’ll try something else next time. And there they are, increasingly dependent on our intervention, their human dignity stripped from them as we pooh pooh their inherent smarts as not being as good as ours. Give me a break. I watched one of the women as she rhythmically shook an inflated sheepskin full of buffalo milk back and forth from where it was tethered, making cheese and butter. Can you make cheese and butter that way? Neither can I. I hated the idea that she or anyone else like her, anyone else like me, would be forced to live grasping at a dollar-bill lifeline that could be pulled up at any time. Oops – sorry, we had to end that program because They cut our funding. Better luck next time!

After our pleasant/weird visit to the clients, we and our entourage of bodyguards went up to Beni Hassan, a Pharaonic archeological site. Up on the escarpment, just beyond the sharp end of the oasis around the river, there are a series of caves, some man-made and some natural. The natural ones are hideouts for bandits, but the man-made ones are burial sites for wealthy Egyptians from the 11th and 12th dynasties, or some 3,000 years ago or more.

The tourism ministry has set up a nice little welcome center that was empty when we arrived. To get onto the path up the hill to the caves, we had to walk through a rickety, dusty, and, given the fact that there was no electricity at the moment, completely useless metal detector, and have our bags inspected. Whatever. If they had put up a wooden arbor covered in flowering vines, it would have been equally useful but much prettier.

The caretaker allowed us into two of the tombs. It was really overwhelming to stand there in a site older than anything that I had ever experienced, looking at vivid wall paintings that the caretaker’s completely fictional explanations could not have obscured.
He told us that Egyptians were doing yoga in this picture (yoga was formalized thousands of years after the Egyptian pharaonic period), and hockey in that picture (yeah, right). We did see the hairdressing that he spoke about, and the monkeys in the fig tree.


Cairo was my base of operations in Egypt, as it unfortunately is for most tourists (but I’m not really a tourist, per se). Cairo has some wonderful nooks and crannies, but my lasting impression of it was the pollution clogging my sinuses and lungs, mind boggling traffic, and the sad decay of once beautiful places. It is definitely worth a visit, especially if you have wonderful friends living there to take you to the secret spots, but don’t plan to stay long unless you have a gas mask.

I have two very cool and accommodating friends in Cairo, who enthusiastically took on the tour guide role during the first two days I was there. The first day, we wandered around Islamic Cairo, a warren of alleys that have housed shops and cafes for ages, and don’t look all that different than they did hundreds of years ago, except they are disrupted by the occasional car. Even the foreigners wandering around (mostly lost and hampered with bags of purchases) probably have their analogs in history.

Behind the busy and crowded storefronts, you can see the remnants of layers of beautiful and old buildings, built on and around one another over time. The walls of arches over the alleys are decorated with intricate carvings, many of which incorporate typical Arabic artistry using Arabic script and quotes from the Koran. I wonder what was inside of those walls, what houses and private spaces they protected. We had lunch on the second floor of a set of shops, on a balcony overlooking an alley occupied by a couple of shisha sellers. It was great to be able to look down and observe the wandering and bargaining while I ate my falafel and chatted about life in Cairo with my friends.

During our wanderings, we entered, after some discussion between one of my friends and the guard that included us leaving after ten minutes and something about a mysterious engineer, an historic mosque that once linked two major madrassas and has what may be the tallest minaret in the city. The building is stunning: tall walls, arched hallways lit by old hanging lamps, a huge courtyard with four wings, a central fountain, and vivid stained glass windows. The painting on the walls and ceiling was so intricate that we wondered out loud who the poor bastards tasked with that tedious but magnificent job were. We also wondered about the pressure that must have been on the guy or guys who were responsible for carving a quote from the Koran around the courtyard wall so that it ended exactly at the corner where the last wall met the first.

We spent our ten minutes just looking around and trying to get photos that would capture it. Then, in blatant defiance of our guard’s warning (we weren’t really worried), we started the epic climb up the endless stairs to the top of the minaret. Step after step up the ancient stairs, through spots so dark you lose a sense of your own height and position in space, and out into the riotously bright afternoon sun, we went. Upon arriving at the top, the effort was made worthwhile by the view: a panorama of Cairo, old and new, shrouded with smog but still fascinating in its inclusion of thousands of hears of history. We breathed hard as we stood there just taking it in: the view and the smog alike.

The smog is really unbelievable. It isn’t as bad as Dhaka in Bangladesh, but it is almost there. It is so offensive and makes just breathing in Cairo so annoying that it feels like the city wants you to leave and never come back. Supposedly, the US government funded a clean air project here several years ago: you’d never know it. If this is better, how was it before?

The next day, we took off on the remarkably clean and efficient metro to the Coptic section of town. The Coptic Church is a branch of Catholic Christianity. Christianity in Egypt pre-dates Islam by many centuries, and the Coptic section is also known as Old Cairo. Many would probably mistake a Coptic Church for a Greek Orthodox Church. There are no statues, only icons, and the sanctuary is surrounded by an intricately carved high wooden screen. We visited the Hanging Church, the Church of Al-Mo’allaqa, which is built over a bastion of an ancient Roman fortress. It is called the Hanging Church because it kind of hangs over the bastion, and the empty spaces inside the bastion now form the basement of the church. The inside is beautiful, with intricately carved wooden elements, beautiful icons from various periods, and walls covered in colorful murals. Through the glass inserts scattered through this oldest and very significant Coptic church, you can look down directly into human history; I could have stood there for hours asking, “How the heck did we get from there to here?”

In addition to this church, we also briefly visited another Coptic church, a mosque, and a synagogue. What struck me most were the similarities between the three types of buildings. All three religions use Arabic script, are decorated with intricate carving and murals, and prohibit statues. All three types of building have similar architectural shapes, as well as a pulpit somewhere in the middle, raised up above the congregation’s space and accessed by steps. This may be the period, of course, as they were all last remodeled probably around the same time by people who were all heavily influenced by the same outside factors, but it just made me think about the number of wars fought over religion when in many ways, we all have a lot more in common than we’ve preferred to believe.

We ended the day smoking a shisha and drinking coffee in the neighborhood where another friend of ours once lived, watching the little girls being ferried home from school, packed into cars like sardines.