Sunday, September 21, 2008

Music Reborn

It’s been at least 5 years since I’ve picked up my violin. Five years ago I was first chair in my high school orchestra and I dreaded going to rehearsal. I felt like such a fake. I didn’t practice multiple hours a day so who was I to think I could actually play the violin? My technique was not where it should have been for someone who had been playing for seven years. I knew that. I also knew that I would never amount to any sort of musician. My fears and worries came to a boiling point when I visited a potential college in the spring semester of my senior year. I had a nervous breakdown before my audition for the music program, and I was so upset I didn’t even play my piece. After that I basically lost all passion for the violin, until last year.

Being in a community of artists at home has really sparked my need to play the violin again. Going to Pennsic and seeing other musicians who weren’t practice-crazed and worrying about their next concerto really gave me hope that I could play my violin and actually enjoy it! Pennsic gave me the inspiration to explore Arabic music, and it just so happened that I am able to take six hours of music courses here at AUC.

The first class I signed up for was the Arabic music ensemble, which of course had to be taken in conjunction with Arabic music theory. I feel like I am at a music workshop similar to what you would find at TribalCon or Triboriginal for four hours a week! My instructor, Dr. Wael has a PhD in sound engineering, plays the Qanoon professionally, and also is a professor at the Cairo Music Conservatory. He is very patient with us three Americans in his class and I feel that I am going to learn a lot. In addition to these classes, Dr. Wael invited us to rehearse with the AUC Arab Music Ensemble twice a week, which is comprised of other AUC students who play a variety of instruments Arab style. This ensemble also plays for the folkloric troupe, which I plan to join. ☺

So if these courses weren’t enough, I found that I could take private lessons through the University as a part of my course load…aka I don’t pay anything extra! I signed up for Qanoon lessons with Dr. Wael and lessons with the violin instructor, Dr. Munir. I met with Dr. Munir last week at the last minute, registering for the class the same day. I didn’t have my violin but we talked about what I would like to accomplish in my time here, and my past experiences with the violin. Dr. Munir is very serious about music; it’s his life. He received his PhD in music in Russia circa 1976 and also teaches at the Cairo Music Conservatory. For as intense as he seems to be, he also seems to be infinitely patient and willing to work with me. I have my first lesson with him this Tuesday, and while I am slightly terrified, part of me thinks this is for the better.

This past weekend my friend and I took a visit to Mohammed Ali Street to pick up a tabla for her, and castobans and rayesh for me (the finger tools needed to play the Qanoon). We bumped into Khamis Henkesh and his shop. I was a bit star stuck, so we jammed with him a bit on his multiple tablas he hand makes. I also met up with Dr. Munir to pick up the SCALE BOOK OF DEATH. I looked at the first page and I can barely do the first two measures – but this is a good thing, really. After gawking at the music in front of me, Dr. Munir then proceeded to give me his life story and how he used yoga to improve his violin technique and avoid carpel tunnel. He wants to challenge me in both the Eastern and Western style; we’ll see how far I can go…

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sexual Harassment in Egypt

My experience in Cairo so far has been a reaction to the culture. In preparing myself to be in Cairo, I’ve heard sooo many things a woman should to avoid being harassed. For those of you who I told about the wet hair thing, totally not true – my Egyptian friends laughed at me when I asked! But it pretty much boils down to this – whether or not you are wearing hijab, abaya, niqab, or nothing at all you will be harassed at some point.

Walking just outside of our hotel, men will generally make kissing noises, or try to gain your attention with the 2 phrases they may know in English. These men vary from little boys who may run up to you and pinch your bottom, to the Egyptian soldier trying to look cool in front of his peers. Even drivers will honk in a specific rhythm (supposedly mimicking “Ana Bahebek” or I love you” to get your attention.

Whatever they do to try to get your attention, men here see harassment as cool. It’s a boost to reassure their masculinity. As a foreigner, my fellow international students and I are treats for their eyes, something new and exotic. This is how it was explained to us by AUC administration during our sexual harassment meeting. We will attract attention no matter if we cover our hair, legs, and arms or not. But, the extent of harassment varies greatly because of what you wear and how you act.

So what to do and what not do? One of the best things you can do is to dress modestly. Loose, layered clothing that is neat and clean. The more distinguished you look, the better off you may be. Do you need to cover your hair? I’ve found it’s really up to you. Some places, like the pyramids for example, it’s actually very convenient because of the sun and you fend off vendors trying to sell you cheap turbans.

When I go to Khan el Khalili, I don’t cover my hair, but I do make a point to dress much more moderately. The vendors in Khan are rather funny. Don’t be surprised if you go and you hear phrases like “Spend you money here, make you very happy” or “Come to my shop, and marry me, I promise I shower everyday”

Some things that I have learned besides how to dress are what to say. The Arabic survival course really helped because the Egyptian dialect of Arabic is very different from the Modern Standard Arabic I’ve learned in the States. Greeting someone with Salam Aleikum without a smiling face will release the tension of ‘them vs. you’ and asserts you as a dignified person. The immediate reaction to Salam Alikum is Aleikem aSalam, which really lets this person know that you are not flirting or wanting other behavior besides respect. If someone will not stop trying to get your attention there are two phrases that greatly help.

1. Walk over to them sternly, make the sternest face you can, and say “3yb!”. Aiyb basically means shame and will remind these men of the days their mother would chastise them for being bad. You can also make the tisk tisk tisk hand gesture with this for added emphasis. My residence director has had great success with this phrase, and practicing saying Aiyb with a stern face is very amusing – although don’t crack when you do it for real!
2. The second phrase, which really should be used if a male is staring at you is “Ghud el Basr” (I may have not transliterated that correctly). This comes straight out of the Quran and means “Avert your gaze”. Saying this sternly will also be chastising as you are reminding the male not only that he shouldn’t be staring at you, but also that you

These phrases are more for men and boys that you won’t be in contact with everyday or that say something really inappropriate. For males that you come in contact with in a daily basis, i.e. shopkeepers, or kids on the street, if you set a tone initially that you mean business and you are not to be mocked or harassed they will respect you for it. They will even become protective of you if they see someone trying to harass you in or give you a hard time!

Besides these things, the number one most important thing to do IS TO IGNORE THEM. Men want to see a rise from you, no matter positive, negative, angry, or whatever. By ignoring them, or pretending that they don’t exist, they will stop immediately. If they continue to persist in getting your attention, the phrases above should be used. Also, don’t walk the streets of Cairo by yourself; go with a group, especially one that is mixed with males and females. It really helps. This has been my experience in Egypt thus far, and it has been useful. I haven’t had more than the usual phrases, kissing noises, and marriage proposals. ☺

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Taxis in Cairo

Taxis in Cairo are an adventure to say the least. My friends and I use them all the time to get form place to place when we don't feel like using the metro, or when we have missed the shuttles the school provides to Zamalek and City Stars, the local mall that is closest to us.
There are two types of taxis you can get in Cairo, a black and white cab and a yellow cab. Yellow cabs are usually a little nicer, and the drivers may speak some English. They work on a meter system, so you know how much you owe when you get to your destination, but be careful! These drivers rarely 'have change' - meaning they try to stiff you if you don't have exact cash. I've taken a yellow cab when I'm going to a new area, and it made me feel safer and my friends have used them for moving or going to the airport.

Yellow taxis however, are not for day to day. You have to order them at least an hour in advance, and they are a little on the expensive side. Now, if you want the real Cairo experience, get the black and white cab. A black and white cab is usually independently operated with 2 to 3 drivers sharing shifts on one cab. There is no air-conditioning, the doors on one side won't work, and you're in a better cab if it has side view mirrors and if the doors stay closed. There is an unwritten protocol to black and white cabs that you must follow:

1. Ask someone before hand how much your ride should be. Black and white taxis are not metered, but on a negotiable rate. I try to not tell them how much I will pay before I get in, but instead wait until we reach the destination, hand them the money, and walk away. I've had the occasional irate driver who wanted more because traffic was bad, or thought he could get more by taking the longer way.

2. Drivers will try to scam foreigners. If you ask how much before you get into the cab, they will try to over charge. Negotiate, settle on a price, and stick to that price. Drivers might complain about the traffic, the heat, or anything else to guilt you into paying more.

3. Practice your Arabic! I've found that trying to communicate in Arabic with the drivers means a better fare. I've also had my better conversations with the nicer drivers, and they appreciate your effort to speak Arabic. One of my favorite memories of Alexandria was when my friends and I piled into a cab and the driver blasted Amr Diab the whole way back to the hotel. He even let our male friend honk the horn to the beat of the music!

4. Girls should not sit in the front seat if it can be avoided, especially if you are wearing a skirt.

5. Do not pay the driver until everyone has gotten out of the cab. Hand money outside of the cab from the passenger's side, don't say anything, and leave. I've heard of drivers being so angry as to get out of the cab, grab someone on the shoulder and demand more money. Thankfully this has not happened to me yet, and I don't plan on it happening. Knowing how much you should pay really helps to avoid this, and if you are firm about your price, the driver won't make a scene.

6. NEVER get a cab straight out of a hotel. Most of the drivers here are 'contracted' by the hotel...meaning they will charge 5 times more what should be paid. My friends took a cab from one hotel to the other, less than 5 minutes, and paid 25 pounds. I pay 20 for a 30 minute cab ride from Heliopolis to Zamalek. Take a little walk down from your hotel and grab a taxi, it'll be cheaper and you'll have a nice stroll along the Nile!

Follow these simple rules, and getting around Cairo is very easy. The metro is super cheap - 1 pound aka 20 cents one way, but I haven't explored this option as much as the taxis. The metro does have women only carts. You can ride in the other carts, but I feel at ease in the women's carts (less stares and kissy noises) and they are usually much less crowded less stuffy.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Wust e-Balad

Last Saturday night my friends and I went to a concert near Khan el-Khalili. We were told that we were going to see an Arabic-Jazz fusion band. What we really saw was even better. The name of the band was Wust el-Beled, literally meaning downtown country or downtown and they were fanstastic! Their music is a blend of Western and other world influences with Arabic routes. They ar definitely a big deal in Egypt, as I bought their CD at the Virgin Mega Store the next day! One of their songs, Sidi Omar is a must to listen to.

When we got to the mosque, we weaved through alley ways and a souq to get to the venue, Dar el-Harawy - and we saw a HUGE crowd wedged into what was kind of make shirt outdoor concert venue. At some poine there were chairs and seating, but by the time we got there, everyone was standing on the chairs, children were dancing on top of cars, and people were watching from rooftops of buildings that surrounded the venue. My friends and I were able to wedge ourselves into a primo spot where we stood on chairs and watched the rest of the concert, which was free because of Ramadan.

This is one of the more magical moments I've experienced in Cairo. Finding the venue through a maze of a bazaar, dancing with an entire crowd of Egyptians, and listening to live music under a clear night sky and bright moon will be a memory of Cairo I won't forget.

Monday, September 8, 2008


Lots of wonderful things have happened - I visited Alexandria, went to the pyrmaids again, survived my Arabic survival course, classes started on the new campus and oh! I had a private with Raqia Hassan...


My computer is dead, the internet is down in the hotel, and internet is barely running on campus, so a more detailed account of Alexandria and taking from Raqia will come soon.

Tonight I go to my first Arab music ensemble class, very excited about that.