Updated Book List

I just wanted to add two more books to my list of those which have been particularly influential in my life. You should read them.

-The Lemon Tree
I hate to admit, before I read this book I had only a superficial understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is so difficult for anyone to take a neutral stance on this issue, and Sandy Tolan gives the best effort I can imagine. He doesn't take sides or convey biases, but rather leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions instead of leading them down a path of his own personal feelings. It acheives two ends: it humanizes the conflict through the story of a Palestinian longing for the right to return home and a first generation Israeli girl who moved into his "abandoned" house, but it also explains all of the political posturing that took place, giving thorough accounts of various resolutions that were passed and individual conflicts that occurred.

-The Memoirs of Cleopatra
I chose this book for my flight back to America in December because it was 1500 pages and I figured if anything could sustain me through 24+ hours of travel, 1500 pages could. Granted, I didn't touch it on my flight because I was too deep into my complimentary wine-induced stupor and subsequent passing out, but I did turn to it when I started to get homesick for Egypt at my parent's home in Huntsville. The end result is that I am now completely obsessed with Cleopatra. She was a mother, a lover, a wife, a queen, a daughter, a warrior, and so much more. She is a strong, independent woman whose sole goal in life is to live on her own terms and preserve her country above all else. She handled difficult situations with grace and poise, and her creative strategies always gave her an edge. Even in her suicide, she was creative and fearless, outwitting the conquering Caesar Augustus. She always tried to take the high road, choosing dignity and honor above courses of action which would be easier for her own person. Even after growing up surrounded by deceit and treachery, she maintained a high moral character til the very end. Aside from that, she bedded two of the most powerful men in history: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. A real go-getter, that Cleopatra.

So, that's that, my dears. If you have any extra time, both of these books are incredible. Plus, for all of my friends back home, an understanding of conflict in the modern Middle East or of ancient Egypt could prove enlightening. Just sayin. Enjoy.

Constructions of Masculinity in the Modern Middle East in Comparison to the Western World

When someone refers to a man who is inherently masculine, what vignette is conjured in your mind? If you are from the West, particularly America, chances are that a physically fit, morally sound, silent-but-strong, somewhat reserved man with few effeminate characteristics springs to mind. For me, I picture my father: a soldier, solidly built, reserved, quiet, yet inherently intimidating; a silent enforcer, well groomed without particular attention to sartorial pursuits, who engages in "manly" activities: physical fitness, a steady job, fixing things, being the head of the household and ruling with a firm yet gentle hand. Of course, as American society evolves and changes, this concept of masculinity changes- for some, masculinity means a rustic-type man who hunts, drives a truck, and enjoys hands-on tasks. For others, the word can evoke a Wall Street banker: successful, busy, who wears a smart suit and carries a briefcase as he earns the salary which will provide for his children, wife, and any mistresses he may have, a la Tiger Woods. While the details are interchangeable, depending upon one's social status, income, and geographical location (one is much more likely to associate owning a rifle with "manliness" in the southeast United States than someone from the West Coast, who may tend to associate a Bluetooth headset and a Rolex wristwatch more with the masculine identity).
However, after having spent the better part of the past few years in the Arab world- Morocco and Egypt with excursions to Jordan and, very shortly, Turkey- my idea of masculinity is slowly changing. Some of the most innately masculine men I have encountered here share very few of the attributes I once considered essential to the characteristic repertoire of a male. Masculinity here means something altogether different than in the Western world. In America, would a man with oil-drenched hair, a prominently displayed pot belly, chest hair spilling out of his open button-down, tighter-than-necessary pants, a unibrow, glittering jewelry- especially in the form of rings, shiny black dress shoes, gingerly smoking a water pipe be considered the archetype of a "man's man"? Probably not. In fact, most of the men I have recently found myself drawn to here in Egypt would be considered "metrosexual" at best in the context of American society. They belly-dance in public; sing at the top of their lungs; hug, kiss, and even hold hands with other men in public; they have no problem straddling another man, very closely, in close crotch-to-butt proximity, on the back of a dilapidated motorcycle weaving through Cairo traffic. But somehow, these are some of the most inherently "manly" men I have ever encountered. How is this? I have been pondering this question for quite some time, and I'm not sure I fully understand it yet.
For one, these men are, cliché as it may sound, completely comfortable with their sexuality. Of course, this is the way in which they have been raised, but beyond that, they exude such an innate bravado that posturing or acting "macho" is rendered completely unnecessary. There is no societal taboo on holding another man close in an embrace. This could be for several reasons:

1. Such close public contact between men and women is prohibited- since this kind of public affection is forbidden, or haram, who, then, can you share your affections with? Should one live a solitary public existence, completely devoid of physical contact or expressions of warmth? Of course not! There's Mohammed, the shopkeeper; and Mostafa, the doorman, and Ali, the friend of your cousin's wife who you met once, at their wedding.

2. The post-colonial remnant of European occupation- France and the British Empire at one time or another controlled large portions of North Africa and the Middle East. When a people are colonized, it is inevitable they will adopt some of the customs of their colonizers. This comfort with what could, in other spheres, be construed as evidence of sexual deviance from the norm, may perhaps be a mannerism introduced into the Middle Eastern social scene by their European conquerors. Which raises another point: if the Middle East is (mistakenly in large part, might I add) considered archaic, backwards, and stagnant socially, politically, and economically, why do they retain European traits, which are considered too "progressive" or "liberal" for many in the United States? But I digress..

3. The alleged "lack of homosexuals" in the Middle East- if there are no homosexuals in Muslim countries as the governments claim, there is no fear in being accused of being gay ifyou act on familiar terms with another man in public. After all, the posturing that occurs in America between men is restricted largely due to a machismo desire to avoid being called "gay" or having their sexuality, their most prized possession, questioned in any way. Without that threat, why not express your fondness for your friend Ahmed in the public domain?

But without regard as to the reason for this social anomaly, how is it possible that even to me, a woman raised in the US and filled with American concepts of sexuality and the like, these Arab men can still be so completely manly, sexy, and desirable? Perhaps because, as a student of Middle Eastern culture, I am aware that while a man may exhibit some less-than-manly behaviors in the public sphere, one can be absolutely certain that he (assuming he is of an earlier generation than my own) is nothing short of paradigm of masculine strength and vigor at home, where most Arab men rule their homes with an iron fist: unquestioned, immovable, the be-all end-all of their family's world. They expect their wives to submit and cater to their needs, their children to obey without question, and their servants to perform their duties perfectly and without prompting. Also, the abundance of testosterone, as evidenced in the staggering amount of body hair, can't hurt their case, can it?

I'm sure to revisit this topic, because it is endlessly fascinating to me, and as my familiarity with Arab society grows, I'm sure my perception of this phenomenon will continue to evolve.

What are your thoughts, my dears?

An pseudo-intellectual off-color joke about colonialism and the Holocaust

Two Jews are sitting together reading their newspapers in 1940s Germany. One looks to the other, and says, "You know, I'm getting really fed up with our leader."

The other looks back, horrified, and says, "You can't talk about Hitler that way, or we'll both end up in a concentration camp!"

The first, confused, replies, "Hitler? Who's talking about Hitler? I'm talking about Moses! If it weren't for him leading us out of Egypt, we'd all have British passports!"


This weekend was ridiculous. I figured moving to the city would make going out and having fun in Cairo easier, and boy...I was right.

Thursday night, me, Becky, Megan, Romani, Joe and his friend Remy from Bahrain decided to go out and have some fun. We left the apartment a little after midnight and headed to our favorite bar, Hurriya, where they have 8 LE Stellas, and proceeded to get drunk. When [our dear friend and beer-tender] Milad finally kicked us out around 3am, shisha at Pottery Cafe was the obvious next step. Fast forward to 6:30am, when we finally found our way back to the dorms and promptly ordered KFC. We crawled into bed around 8am and slept Friday away.

Exhausted from the previous night's adventure, we opted to stay in Friday night. After a quick trip to Metro to stock up on popcorn and other necessities, we spent the better part of the next 3 hours watching Romani [the Resident Director here in Zamalek] attempt to hook up a laptop to the big screen in the lobby so we could watch Sweeney Todd. Rarely have I been prouder of a boy than I was when he finally succeeded in syncing the two up. We watched Sweeney Todd, ordered some Papa John's, then watched some bizarre music videos until 4am. Did you know Akon did a collaboration in Arabic? Hello, awesomeness.
We slept again all day Saturday, and were planning on getting a good night's rest Saturday night since we have school Sunday. But alas, it was not to be. Frankie invited us out for a felucca ride with a few friends, and, thinking it would be an hourlong thing, we said sure. We showed up in Garden City at 9:30 and ended up boarding a yacht with about 30 random people- friends of friends of friends. Lots of alcohol-fueled ridiculousness ensued. Finally, around 3am, I looked around and thought, it's 3am. I have a bus to catch at 9:30. It's a school night. And I'm on a yacht in the middle of the f------ Nile drinking Stella and chainsmoking. WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?!
Having a damn good time, apparently.
My life is ridiculous.
The bad news from this weekend: my beloved 12 year old golden retriever Cody died on Saturday. Living in the alternate universe I inhabit here, I don't think it's totally hit me yet. He was a dear, dear friend. We had had him since I was in the 4th grade and he and I went through so much together. There's no telling how many hundreds of tears I sobbed into his fur over the years. I will miss him terribly.
Another recent development: I have become really, ridiculously insecure, seemingly overnight. I have always been a fairly confident person. But suddenly, I am so consumed with self-doubt it's nearly debilitating. Some of this has to do with the Murphy debacle [recap: Murphy was one of my three best friends in college. My sophomore year, we briefly dated. We decided it was a bad idea and I feel head over heels for my other best friend and his roommate, Kenny. Murphy had a hard time dealing with this and cut me out of his life. We reconciled days before I moved to Egypt and everything was great. Once I got back to the States in December, however, he decided once again that we shouldn't be friends, and told me, much to my surprise that we "haven't been friends for nearly a year". That was news to me.]. Because I was so taken aback by this, and because I thought things between us were fine, I am suddenly completely unsure of all of my relationships. I am constantly wondering if my friends are really my friends, or if they feel obligated to hang out with me. Even when I'm hanging out with my best friends here, I'm wondering if they would rather be somewhere else, if they like me at all. Let it be known: I have amazing friends. Becky and Megan picked me up from the airport when I flew back in to Cairo, Frankie brought me my favorite cigarettes all the way from Amsterdam, and Sachi, Joe, and Romani are the first people to come to my aid if I need anything, day or night. I can feel my insecurities straining my friendships, but a large part of me keeps nagging...if Murphy, your nearest and dearest, felt that way about you and you had no clue, what makes you think these people really like you? It's terrible, and I hate the needy, clingy person it's made me.
Other insecurities have arisen too. It is no secret that I like to have fun; I love nothing more than to waste away and evening drinking, being vulgar, talking about football, shaking my ass, and being silly. However, it seems people have begun to equate this light-heartedness for light-headedness. Two of my best friends routinely have intellectual conversations about the Middle East right in front of me, and blatanly leave me out of them, and I've begun to feel like maybe they think that because I'm not as serious as they are, perhaps I'm not as smart as they are, either. It's really started to get to me, but instead of piping up and defending my intellect, I've started doing something I've never, ever done before: wonder if maybe I am stupid. I mean sure, I know about a lot of things, but I'm not an expert in any one topic. It's a bizarre feeling; after being so confident in myself for so long, suddenly starting to wonder what my worth is on so many different levels. It's frustrating.
Ugh. Enough of my pity party. This is a travel blog, not a therapist's office.
If you need a lift after that depressing entry, here's the most bizarre music video EVER for your enjoyment:

Starting over

As a child coloring in my basement playroom, nine times out of ten I would become disenchanted with "the rules"- staying inside the lines, coloring people peach instead of green or blue, making the typical pretty picture all seemed silly and pointless to me. So I would create a radically abstract picture, damn the rules to hell. After I had created my masterpiece, which seconds before I had been so passionate about, I would step back, cock my head to the side, and realize with a sinking feeling, that my different picture was..ugly. So I crumpled it up, threw it away, and started over, abiding by the rules this time.

This weekend, I am drawing far too many parallels between my life as an adult and my coloring escapades as a child. With more and more of my facebook friends slowly changing their relationship statuses to "engaged", a nauseating anxiety is rising in me. Yet another of my best friends from high school has a rock on her finger and will soon be planning another wedding that I won't be invited to, because I veered off the "right" path; as everyone was beginning to settle down, I did the exact opposite and hopped a flight to the Middle East. And I'm left I doing something wrong? If everyone seems to be so caught up in this marriage thing, there must be a reason for it, right? If I'm the only one not down with this whole marriage deal, the problem must be me. Sometimes I feel like maybe I only ran away to the Middle East to avoid the prospect of marriage, so as not to be embarrassed if it never happened to me. Living here, I have an excuse. But now I'm starting to wonder if I'll regret this radical deviation from the norm in 5, 7, 9 years. I certainly don't now, but when I'm done with my picture, I might look at it, decide it's ugly, and want to start over. Unfortunately, this is one picture that can't be erased or redone. This is my life. God knows I hope I'm doing it right.

Exploding Life

I saw the lights of Cairo come into view below me from the plane. After spending 24 hours in transit, and touching down on three continents, here I was, at last. Home.

The time I've been back has reminded me why I love Egypt so much. Simple things, silly little vignettes- the bizzare, the hilarious, the everyday things that constitute life in Cairo which seem absolutely ridiculous.

The traffic is bumper-to-bumper, but hurtles along the Autostrahd at 60 mph; one single unit, moving in unison, honking, yelling, weaving. A tentacle of humanity stretching for miles, snaking across the desert, encompassing it, taking it. Next to my cab is a small flatbed truck, loaded twelve feet high with bundles and crates. Perched precariously atop the load is a twenty-something Egyptian, chainsmoking and digging in his nose. The driver lazily glances in his rearview mirror from time to time, making sure his passenger has not fallen off the mound of cargo and been consumed by the mass. Emblazoned across the back of the truck is the word "Hyunday". I giggle to myself and light a cigarette.

En route to Meedan Tahrir, I pass a pet shop, the size of an American walk-in closet. Birds screech and puppies leashed to various door handles bark heartwrenchingly. A PETA proponent's worst nightmare. A mammoth white birdcage stands to the left of the shop, but there is no bird inside. It takes me a moment to see them- six white puppies cuddled up at the bottom of the cage. Necessity breeds creativity, I suppose.

Less than a mile later, I notice a shop whose window is partially covered by a sheet strung up to obstruct the view inside. Four 80s-era mannequinns stare complacently out into the chaos of the street. I realize with a lauagh that the mannequinns are in a state of undress, and the sheet has been hung to preserve their modesty. Oh Egypt, I love you.

A girl walks boldly through the traffic, her cellphone tucked into the side of her tight hijab- an Egyptian bluetooth headset.

Finally home after hours of sitting in traffic, I settle into my bed to see if I can persuade the internet to work, just this once. As I am beginning to dose off, I am jolted awake by the all-too-familiar warning call of the housekeepers- "Man on the floor!". Outside my door I hear Egyptian girls shriek and scamper into their rooms, not wanting these men, who are probably carrying someone's luggage upstairs, to see them without their hijabs on. I smile and turn off my light. It's good to be home.