Saturday, September 14, 2013

Settling In

I'm back up again. It's been a minute. Computer problems were keeping me away for a while, but fortunately, it has all been taken care of. It's been about two and a half weeks since I've been here in Egypt. Since my last post, I've moved into an apartment and I've been going to work most days. I'm now living ion the fifth floor of a nice building in  Maadi, a quiet and green expat friendly neighborhood south of central Cairo on the east bank of the Nile. Living in Maadi is like living in a bubble. It is still very Egyptian, but it is insulated from the rest of Cairo which is polluted, overcrowded, and definitely the loudest city that I've ever met. Don't get me wrong, Cairo is an amazing place and I'm sure that at this point, I've barely scratched the surface. I've enjoyed a few visits to central Cairo and the old medieval sections of the city.(more about that later.) So far, I love Cairo, but at the end of the day its  nice to have something quiet, comfortable, and reasonably familiar to come home to. About a five minute walk from my apartment is a long road full of coffee shops, restaurants,banks, shops, a supermarket, and everything else I could ever want. Sunday through Thursday, a bus comes and picks me, along with some other teachers, and takes us across the Nile to Giza where our school is located.

The school, from what I've seen so far is nice. Its not as rich in resources as I had thought that it might be, but the people I'm working for are great and we get tons of holidays, all added up, about an entire month more than what we get in the states. The school has given me everything I need to be successful, including a year's worth of lesson plans for both classes. I was told that I can use them as they are or change them as I see fit. Best thing about teaching at a private school in Egypt: I will actually get to teach. Learning is a priority here, unlike at home where emphasis is placed on graduation rates and standardized test results at the expense of real teaching and learning. It was made clear from day one that our students are held accountable for their education. If a student fails, which seldom happens here, it is because they made poor decisions. There is no "if the student fails, blame the teacher" mentality here. In fact, Its quite the opposite. My administrators don't care about what is on my walls or how my objectives are written. They just want to see kids learning. Nobody will be coming in my room with a checklist looking for word walls, evidence of data analysis, agendas, lesson plan binders, etc...... I've been told that yes, our administrators do like to see our students' work up on the walls, but it is actually there for the benefit of the students, rather than to provide "evidence of learning" for somebody that might pop his or her head in the room once or twice a year for two minutes at a time. I'll be teaching 9th grade Geography and 11th grade Economics. I'm looking forward to meeting my students for the first time on Sunday. I've been told that they can be difficult, but coming from Baltimore City Public Schools, I'm sure that I'll be OK here. I've seen samples of student work and it was pretty impressive. It is obvious to me that these kids really work hard. I'm guessing that I'll be spending allot more time grading work than I ever had to do at home.

So far, Cairo has been great. I have been out and about in central Cairo more than a a few times and I have yet to see any indication of serious unrest. As I mentioned before, there is a visible military presence in the streets which includes checkpoints manned by fully armed soldiers and the occasional tank and armored personnel carrier placed in strategic positions throughout the city, not something that we are used to seeing at home. A few nights ago I was sitting in a coffee shop and several hundred Muslim Brotherhood supporters marched by and occupied a traffic circle at the bottom of the street. They were carrying signs and banners, waving flags, chanting, and banging pots and pans. Nothing about them seemed alarming or aggressive. Many of them were smiling and waving. My only concern was that some police or military might show up to disperse them and that there could be trouble. I took my cue from the locals, some of whom seemed slightly annoyed by the protesters' presence but otherwise unconcerned. I sat there and watched them pass, payed my bill, and then left in the opposite direction so as to avoid any crowd dispersal related trouble. No big deal. As far as I know, there weren't any problems anyway. Random peaceful protests like the one mentioned above are quite common here and really nothing to be worried about. So that's it..... aside from seeing some soldiers and the occasional demonstration, everything here seems completely normal, everyday people just going about their business, shopping, going to work, visiting friends, etc..... CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, and the like..... all of them should be ashamed of themselves for sensationalizing what is going here in Cairo. I don't mean to minimize what happened here during the week leading up to my arrival, obviously it was newsworthy and quite serious, but I don't believe that any of the news networks made any effort to accurately report the situation here. If I had only gotten my information from the media I would have stayed at home. Fortunately, I had the good sense to actually listen to people who were living here. Everyone of them said come! Watching cable news or reading the New York Times you would have thought that the entire city was in a chaotic state of burning churches and militant Islamic rioters being mowed down in the streets by overaggressive police. I've literally passed thousands of churches here and have yet to come across one that has been burned. I don't mean to suggest that these things didn't happen, or that they weren't a big deal. I'm only saying that even at its absolute worse moments, the vast majority of the city was calm. Apparently in my neighborhood, at the same time that the Muslim Brotherhood protest camps were being violently broken up, people were out walking their dogs and sitting in sidewalk cafes enjoying a cup of tea and reading the newspaper. I don't find this hard to believe. After all, Cairo is a massive city. People here are furious with and resentful towards the international media for its sensationalist coverage of Egypt's current situation. Al Jazeera is most often mentioned in conversations, I think because people here had generally percieved them as being more fair in their coverage of the Middle East than their western counterparts.

Some interesting graffiti from Central Cairo

My street in Maadi.....It feels  a world away from Central Cairo.... Its actually just a short subway ride:
My morning bus stop:
View from my balcony:

Shops on Road 9, near our apartment:

On my days off, I've had the opportunity to visit the old Muslim and Coptic Christian sections of the city, the famous pyramids of Giza, and some lesser known, but equally cool ancient sites. I spent a few days wandering around the older parts of town, getting lost in narrow alley streets, visiting churches and mosques. The old city is literally like a maze. Following a map there is hopeless. Once you enter, you can't possibly find your way back out the same way that you came in. Old Cairo is an amazing place, crammed full of crumbling old buildings and very busy people doing and selling everything under the sun. As I was roaming the streets taking pictures I was approached by an older man. He told me how happy he was to see that "tourists" are coming back to Cairo. Well, I'm not really a tourist, but I was on that day I suppose. He introduced himself and asked me if I wanted to see some nice things. He seemed a bit eccentric and ordinarily I would have said no thank you, but feeling a bit lost and liking his energy, I figured I'd take my chances. I'm glad I did. His name was Fathi. He seemed to know everyone in the neighborhood. We ended up walking around together for an entire afternoon. After quite a bit of walking, he insisted on buying me tea at a friend's shop and then took me to his "museum" which consisted of a cubby-hole full of random bric-a-brac that he had accumulated over the years. This included old bottles and boxes, foreign currency from all over the world, and a lifetime's worth of old photos of himself posing with tourists. He showed me a picture of himself in a 1980's addition of Lonely Planet Egypt. He was quite proud of this. At the end of the day he insisted on walking me all the way back to the nearest subway stop. This was fortunate as I would have not likely have been able to find it on my own and probably would have ended up jumping in a taxi. Upon arrival at the subway, I asked him if I could offer him anything for his troubles as I had expected that at some point he would ask anyway. He never did. He obviously wasn't exactly what I would consider wealthy. His answer was essentially "as you wish." I was happy to give him a few pounds. Right before I left, he ran off a list of other places that he'd be happy to show me. I took his and his sister's numbers. I think when Lisa arrives in a few weeks, I'll be sure to give him a call. He was 74 years old. I can only hope that I'll have half of his energy when I reach that age.

Some photos from our walk and a few from the day before:

This is Coptic Cairo..... a maze of  ancient churches and monasteries, along with the oldest synagogue in Cairo, all set within the the walls of a former Roman Fortress

Ben Ezra Synagauge..... Built in the 9th century and restored in the 12th by its' namesake, a wealthy Jerusalem Rabbi. There is still a very small Jewish community here in Cairo. Things being what they are, they tend to keep a low profile. I was told by the caretaker that if I wished to attend services, there was an active branch in Central Cairo:

Used Book Market in Coptic Cairo:
Some women sitting on the sidewalk here told me to come back here at night for a big party:

Typical Central Cairo Scene:

 This was my first time ever in a mosque...... This one is 600 years old...... The caretaker invited me in, showed me around, and even allowed me to climb the minaret for some great 360 views over Old Cairo:

My walk through Old Cairo:

Second Mosque of the day: I met two students from Korea who were in Cairo to study Arabic:

 Right about here is where I met Fathi. I spent the rest of the day with him:

Me and Fathi in his "Museum"

Finally made it to the World Famous pyramids at GizaAround 4,500 years old...... Nuff Said...... It was nice to practically have the entire place to ourselves, but I really feel for folks here who make their living in the tourist industry...... It's a shame.