To Give, or Not to Give…

On my way to the grocery store, a young boy, maybe 9 or 10 approached me, wearing torn jeans and dirty clothes.  His hands were held out, making gestures as though he was putting food in his mouth.  Without even thinking about it really I just turned away and kept going to the store.  At the entrance sat an old woman, who regularly sits there to beg.   

As usual, now that it’s gotten warm, there seems to be an increase in people begging, near the malls, supermarkets, major intersections,  etc.  People begging is a fact of life in Egypt.  They can present a quandary for foreigners.  For one thing, many from more properous countries have not seen the kind of poverty that exists in third world countries (believe it or not some Egyptians will dispute with you over whether or not Egypt is a third-world country, but that’s another story).  For another thing, foreigners can be the main target of beggers.  Foreigners seemed to be viewed as ‘rich’, even though we might be people of modest means in our own countries. 

When I first arrived here, I felt moved to give to most people who asked.  I never would have turned away someone like the young boy I saw today.  The first I remember was an old woman at the souk, who kissed the ruba junay I gave her (1/4 of an Egyptian pound), the second a woman crying in front of the masjid, holding onto her son.  As time passed, I became hardened, especially since it seemed that foreigners were special ‘targets.’  In my opinion, if someone is in need, they are not going to beg just when they see that you are not from Egypt.

I’ll recount some experiences.  I have had people actually run towards me.  One woman was hurrying, calling out ya madam, ya madam.  I kept going because I thought it was pretty audacious to chase after someone to ask for money.  Another woman beckoned me at the souk, making a tisk, tisk sound.  Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I stopped, thinking maybe she had a question,  she also was asking for money.

I’ve read travel books encouraging people not to give to beggars because it makes it difficult for other travelers.  Beggars will come to expect a handout.  There is a double dilemma for muslims.  Aren’t we supposed to ‘want for our brother what we want for ourselves?’  Aren’t there ahadith about the Prophet, salallahu aleyhe wassalaam, giving to who asked? 

I don’t turn everyone away.  I almost always give to elderly women.  There is just something very pitiful about an old woman out in the street begging.  Doesn’t she have children to care for her, family?  Maybe I see myself in these old women.  God knows I’d hate to be old and forced to beg. 

The people who I rarely give to are men and children.  I usually feel shy to give to men, even if they are old.  Occasionally if the kids are with me, I’ll hand them the money and let them give it.   I don’t give to children because most of the time it’s an adult putting them up to beg and I can’t agree with that.  I don’t judge the parents.  They were born into what looks to me like crushing poverty and most likely will die in it.  I don’t know what I would do in their situation, but I still don’t like someone pushing their kid to ask me.

The last group, disabled and younger women, it’s a case by case basis.  I’ve grown to be weary and somewhat suspicious because of all the trickters and professional beggars out there.  I’ll write about them later, inshallah.


Maintaining Good Health

Arggghhh!  I don’t know what it is, but our family keeps coming down with these stomach illnesses.  I’m just getting over weeklong nausea/diarrhea, and ds had bout of vomiting the other day. 

NO MORE OUTSIDE FOOD (I really mean it this time)!!!  It’s not like we’re addicted to eating out.  It’s really occasional, like when I’m too tired to cook.  I usually cook 6-7 days out of the week.  Anyway, if you do order out, avoid salads and sauces!  They are some main culprits of food-borne illnesses.  The salads don’t get washed enough, and the sauces sit out too long.  Grilled, fried, or broiled meat is likely to be ok, just because it’s been cooked at high temps. 

I’m also going to get more serious about washing fruits and veggies.  I already do a thorough job, but now I’m going to wash the cukes BEFORE I cut them.  I may even soak some of the stuff in vinegar to disinfect it. 

I don’t want to go overboard, but it’s very frustrating, frightening even to have something making you ill, and you don’t know what it is.  I don’t have any desire to go to the doctor, cause they don’t know either.  LOL, I remember how one brother described a visit.  Shorter than the time it takes to recite Surah Al-Kauthar. 

It kind of makes you paranoid and you start looking at everything to see if it makes you sick.  Like the bottled water.  I swear it tastes weird lately.   Sigh….


Dh and dd both agree the Nestle taste’s strange lately.  I wonder what’s going on with that?  Lately it’s also hard to find, most stores are out. 

I spoke with a sister and she said that lot of other people here have complained of recurring  stomach illness.  She said she’s wondered about pesticides!?! 

What a day!

My daughter is getting bigger mashallah, so we went to Ataba to shop for abayas.  Ataba is a shopping district in Cairo.  It’s like the New York shopping district on steriods.  There are sections for clothes, electrical appliances, plastics, fabrics, books, and much more.

I was too intimidated to go there alone.  Alhamdulillah my daughter’s Quran teacher offered to go with us.  She also brought along her two young daughters.  I’d had reservations about going on a Friday, but alhamdulillah it wasn’t too crowded.  We took a taxi there, and got out in an area called Central Opera.  A shoppers delight!  I don’t like shopping, but at the prices you really want to buy stuff.  We got a nice blue abaya for my daughter (they call them izdals) for 28LE (about $5).  I bought an abaya also for 58LE  ($10), the cost had been 65LE, but of course the ustadha being Egyptian, she had to bargain the price down a bit <grin>.  There were cheaper abayas, from about 40LE, but the one I bought was a new design. 

We weren’t finished shopping, but when the idhan was called, every shop begin to close.  We went to pray salat al-jumuah.  I usually don’t go to the masjid on al-jumuah.  First of all, I’m frustrated by my lack of understanding even after more than a year of study.  This is due to a variety of factors.  One, my laziness.  It’s just easier to communicate in English and I haven’t been as active in following up my study as I should.  Another reason is the sound quality in most masajid.  The khatib speakers are usually horribly unclear, to the point that if the khutbah was in English I’d miss some of it.  Plus, as I stated before, I am far from proficient in ammeyah.  But today, mashallah I understood so much!  And it was a good khutbah too.  About the importance of good iklaq.  How Islam is like a tree, and the fruit of the tree is husn al-khuluq, sidq, etc.  So I was happy that I went and was able to benefit (inshallah). 

I purchased a nice bag in addition to the abayas (12LE!), and then we were invited to the teacher’s home in Shubra for a visit.  We traveled via the Metro, the underground subway system.  This is the first time I rode on it and it was surprising clean and fast.  You would think you were in an American city.  One nice difference are the women only cars, which are great so you don’t have to bump into men.  The price was just 1LE.  They don’t yet have this system in Madinat Nasr, but according dd’s teacher, it is coming. 

Shubra is considered to be a ‘sha’by’ area.  Those are the older, poorer areas of Egypt, which have a different character than newer places like Madina Nasr, Mohandessin, and Ma’adi.  The streets are narrower, the buildings older and built with more character.  You almost feel as if you are walking thru a movie set.  It reminds me of the immigrant areas of Chicago, with their close set apartment buildings.   Families live close together, there are small shops, not larger grocery stores.

Shubra is also known for having a large number of Christians.  I did see large numbers of women without hijab, however that is not necesarily an indicator of what faith you are. One indicator I did see however while purchasing rice.  The shop keeper had a small cross tatooed on his hand.  You know the muslim shops because they are playing Quran in the background. 

The teachers mother came by while we were there.  She lived upstairs.  She gave me an example of the typical tajmeel and takreem one can expect when visiting traditional Egyptian homes.  “Ahlan, Ahlan, Ahlan.”  Kissing my cheeks.  “You light up our house, you light up all of Cairo.”  She was small, old and charming and she kept repeating her welcome the whole time she was there.

We went home on the bus, another economical way to travel.  1 LE and 10 piasters (like pennies).  I HAVE to learn the public transportation system here.  I’ve been resistant, because what I see most frequently are there crazy driving ‘microbuses’ (vans).  They go around yelling out the destinations, Ramses, Ramses!, and you jump in, liable to be crushed between male passengers.

I had some interesting conversations with the teacher.  She asked why so many foreigners move to Madinat Nasr, why not go somewhere cheaper?  She told me what I already know, the prices are higher because of the large number of foreigners.  I told her the Arabic language centers are there.  She replied that they are there because of the foreigners, if we go elsewhere they will too.  Another reason for living in Madinat Nasr is the convenience.  You have several malls, lots of grocery stores, hospitals, etc.  But it is worth checking out other areas, instead of continuing to pay these sky-high rents.   

Finding an Quran or Arabic Teacher

There are several options for studying Quran and/or Arabic in Cairo.  Al-Azhar University offers virtually free classes,  with programs targeted to foreigners.  However, it can be a major hassle going through the proper channels to register.  There are also the Arabic language centers (Arabic centers are a whole ‘nother post), many of whom have carved out a VERY lucrative business catering to muslims and non-muslims who want to learn Arabic.  Many centers will also have on hand, or will locate a Quran teacher for you.  That route is pretty easy, although it can add up.  Another option might be a private teacher who comes to your home.  The cost of this can vary widely. 

I’ve found that the teachers who are accostomed to working with non-Egyptians, generally charge more.  The rate for both Quran and Arabic seems to be between 15LE-25LE ($2.60-$4.30), depending on the teacher and their experience.  Some teachers can charge up to 30 LE ($5.20).  Cost doesn’t matter as much if you plan to be here a short time, but in the long term, you’ll want the most economical solution which allows you to learn.  Meaning don’t settle for a cheap teacher who can not teach.

There are various ways to find teachers, one is through the language centers.  Some,  but not all, will send teachers to your home.  Another option is to ask other foreigners.  Usually there are a few teachers well-known among different groups of foreigners.  The option I prefer best is to ask Egyptians.  This may not work for Arabic, after all, it’s not likely Egyptians will be studying Arabic at home.  There are however, Egyptians who study Quran at home, and if you know any they may be able to refer you to some.  I prefer this option because you usually can find a lower rate. 

It’s generally much easier to find male teachers than females.  Especially qualified ones.  My son’s Quran teacher is a hafidh of Quran (meaning he has memorized the Quran in it’s entirety), has ijaza in Qira’at (he’s been certified to be proficient in proper recitation of Quran), and is a student at Al-Azhar.  We pay him 25LE for a two hr lesson, 4-5 days a week.  A female teacher WITHOUT ijaza, might cost you 30-40LE for the same amount of  time.  My daughter’s last teacher wanted 20LE an hour. 

Teachers and imams make VERY little money.  Many times not more than $50 a month, so teaching on the side can be a way for them to supplement their income.  That means you may find a very qualified teacher for little money.  One thing to remember is that most people teach on the side.  They have a ‘main’ job or study.  So when something else comes up, you may end up missing lessons. 

In my experience, most teachers prefer to be paid monthly.  Some request the money in advance.  If you do pay in advance, try and be sure the person is trustworthy.  Another option is to offer to pay weekly, or at the end of the month. 

Oasis in the midst of a concrete desert

One challenge of living in Cairo is finding safe places for play and recreation for children.  I really have to make myself go out nowadays, especially in the heat.  One good thing about Madinat-Nasr is the abundance of gardens around.  You really need to see some green after all the ugly concrete buildings that predominate.  Here are some pics from one short outing where the kids rode their bikes.

Talk like an Egyptian…

While the official language is Arabic, the actual language of Egypt is a weird mix of colloquial Arabic, English, French, and words left over from Turkish rule.   Due to a variety of factors; high number of language centers, relatively low cost of living, easy entry, Egypt can be a good place to study standard or classical Arabic.  It is not however a good place to speak it.  Even educated people will have a hard time conversing with you in fusha, or classical Arabic.  Dh, who is fluent in Arabic, claims that the people understand English better than they understand fusha.  He does have a point. 

Once while ordering fish, I requested a little less than a kilo.  Or aqal min kilo.  A blank look from a man behind the counter.  I tried a few more times.  Finally someone translated it to Egyptian (ammeyah) for him.  “A’al min kilo.”  “Oh”, and he says to me exasperated, “Well speak Arabic!”  Excuse me, but I was! 

You do need to have some survival Arabic, as most people are far from fluent in English.  I tried to order bottled water last night, something I do weekly, in Arabic, with no problem.  For some reason, this time I was put on hold and given someone who supposedly spoke English.  “What is your order?”  I repeated to him, this time in English that I wanted 4 cartoons of Nestle.  “What?”  I tried again, 4 boxes of Nestle.  Silence.  Third try, I want 4 boxes of Nestle water.  “Oh, Nestla?”  Yeah, that. 

A lot of times you can just use the English word and add a slight accent to it.  I asked for Vaseline at a pharmacy and just got blank looks.  I tried a few more times, before inspiration struck.  I looked at how it was written in Arabic on the bottles behind the counter and pronounced it that way.  “Oh, Vazleen!”, exclaimed the pharmacist in recognition.   There are tons of English words used here in place of the proper Arabic words, delivery, baby, cash, and bye-bye just to name a few. 

The irony is, Egypt can claim a big part in actually preserving the Arabic language thanks to the scholars of language they graduate from Al-Azhar University.  Unfortunately that scholarship in no way extends to the streets and common language of the people.