I’ve vowed that this blog will not be political (unlike my Twitter feed). I want it to be a little island of on-line escape from the hyperbaric chamber that is our current social media universe. Then there’s another bombing—this time in Manchester—and another disaffected young Arab-Muslim man as the culprit. I can’t be the only one who clicks on a link about a new attack saying, “PLEASE let the attacker not have an Arab or Pakistani name.”
I’m not going to write about the politics of this awful morass. I’m simply going to write about some of the many Arab friends, colleagues, and passing strangers I’ve encountered in the last decade or so with as much forthrightness as I can. You’re free to draw your own conclusions.
My first close encounter with All Things Arab came from serving as an advisor to a criminal law reform project in Egypt from 2005 through 2008. This required me to spend a couple of two- or three-week stints in Cairo each year. A note about me and Cairo. It is crowded, dirty, noisy, smelly, with unspeakably bad traffic… and I loved every single day there. Perhaps a small part of this was that I was put up by the American Embassy at the Four Seasons. OK, maybe a little more than a small part. But the bigger reason was because of my amazing group of Egyptian colleagues and friends.
For Egyptians, there’s always time for other people. No matter how busy you are at the office, how stacked up your inbox or how late the hour, my Cairene friends always had time to sit and drink mint tea and enjoy a shisha (local word for hookah). Since one shisha, properly smoked, takes a solid 45-55 minutes, including at least three changes of coals, this was not a no-cost endeavor in time commitment. But Egyptians are crazy-generous, and I mean to a fault. If an Egyptian was starving and only had two beans left, she’d insist you take both beans.
And I’ve never experienced such heartfelt and emotional arrivals and departures. Each time I walked into the project office on one of my periodic trips, I was mobbed by the staff with literal tears of joy, as well as multiple hugs from each of the men (and the Coptic women) and much heart-touching and big-eyed smiles from the other women. “Oh, Mister Jeff! You have come back to us!” Then repeat this times five when it was time to depart for the States. “Oh, Mister Jeff, you have just arrived! You cannot leave us!” This was at first overwhelming for an Irish-American guy within whose family and its strict one-stiff-hug limit this would be roundly condemned as “making a spectacle of oneself.”
Honestly, I was never more exhausted in my life than when I was in Cairo. This is for two reasons. First, you absolutely, positively had to see and hang out with every single Egyptian friend you had in the city. Although the Greater Cairo area has a rather amorphously counted population of 18 million (hence the aforementioned unspeakable traffic), if you were in town, everybody you knew would find out. Guaranteed. And if you didn’t see each and every one of them, well, that would be a Very Big Hurt Indeed. The second factor in my persistent fatigue was that in Cairo, the evening doesn’t even think about getting started until, ohhh let’s say, 11:00 PM. You know that old wheeze in America, that we have to get seven hours of uninterrupted sleep each night? It’s absolutely untrue. I’m here to tell you that there are 92 million Egyptians who have never in their collective lives, even once, slept for seven straight hours.
Their schedule is something like this:
Wake up: 7:00 AM
Go to work: 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM
Come home: 5:30 PM
Sleep (a/k/a “nap”): 6:00 PM – 9:30 PM
Eat dinner: 9:30 – 10:30 PM
Go Out With Friends: 11:00 PM – 2:30 AM
Go home and sleep: 3:00 AM – 7:00 AM
Repeat: Day after day after day…
So you can see that the average Cairene still gets seven or eight hours sleep per 24-hour period. But never all at once. This would seem somehow greedy to them, I think. This sleep-system works just fine and has for several thousand years from what I can tell. This includes the kids, in case you’re wondering. I’ve been out on school nights at my favorite shisha joint, the El-Fishawy Coffee Shop in the legendary Khan El-Khalili marketplace, at 2:00 AM and watched scores of kids of all ages happily cavorting about the streets with their families. Shoot, my kids were in bed by 8:00 until they were in the fifth grade.
One of my fondest memories was of my regular driver, Mahmoud, taking me and Kay-Kay down to his childhood friend’s cafe, right at the busiest intersection in the middle of Old Cairo. This is not just a kitschy name. We’re talking narrow twisty streets with overhanging decrepit buildings. But it’s a place so full of energy, a place where life is lived out on the streets. It was my last night in Cairo and Mahmoud was off the next day, so there we stood, in the middle of a crowded alley-street, all of his friends in the cafe watching, having our usual teary good-bye with much hugging and man-kissing. Kay-Kay was so moved by this scene, it being the first time she’d accompanied me, she too threw her arms around Mahmoud and kissed his cheeks. She didn’t notice, as I did, neither the chuckling of Mahmoud’s friends nor the bright red of his face. When we got a taxi back to our hotel, I mentioned to Kay-Kay that she’d a) just kissed a Muslim man not her husband or brother, b) in the middle of a crowded street, and c) in front of just about all his friends. As the penny quickly dropped, she made me immediately call Mahmoud and apologize for her, shall we say, immodest behavior. Like twenty-eight times. Ahhh, cultural dissonance.
Fast forward a few years to 2008 and, after dodging any time in Iraq while in uniform, during a moment of temporary insanity I volunteered to head up a big criminal justice reform project… in Baghdad. In hindsight, probably kinda dumb, but there you have it. On this project, I had about 25 Iraqi staff, most of them translators, as well as three dozen or so expatriates, mostly American lawyers. The Iraqis are a different flavor of Arab than Egyptians, but they’re Arabs just the same.
Although the traffic in Cairo is unspeakable, people aren’t trying to snipe you or blow you up on the way to work. At least not often. And once you got to work, there were very few occasions when someone rocketed or mortared you, in contrast to Baghdad where this was a three or four times a week perquisite. Still, I found the very same kind of deeply-felt friendships and the overarching importance of finding time for each other. Since there was a curfew on Iraqis in the Green Zone, as well as a ban on Americans traveling outside the Green Zone for anything but pre-approved official business, most of our socializing took place during long lunches or cutting a few hours off the end of a work day. At least I got more sleep. Baghdad was a strange Bizarro World experience.
My “administrative assistant”—which was how we billed him, since the State Department probably wouldn’t have paid for a position of “my Arab-speaking Radar O’Reilly”—was a little guy named Mustafa. He was that classic fixer who could get anything you wanted, just as long as you didn’t inquiry too deeply into his methodology or the provenance of his procurements. He arrived a little late one morning and came into my office with effusive apologies. I asked what delayed him and he said, “Oh, just a little traffic trouble, Boss.” Later, I stepped outside and saw him on a smoke break, examining the three bullet holes a sniper had put in his windshield that morning. This was the same guy who, a few weeks later, lent me $1,100 without a second’s hesitation when my R&R flight was canceled and I needed to pay cash to rebook so I could meet Kay-Kay waiting for me in London.
Another example from Iraq. We had a custodian who’s wife was pregnant and came down with gestational diabetes. The health care system in Iraq was sort of cash-and-carry, unless you wanted to rely on the completely overwhelmed government system. I asked Mustafa how much they were going to need to treat this and get the baby delivered safely and he said, “Maybe $1,500 U.S., Boss.” I went around to all the expatriate staff and asked them each to kick in $50, which considering the scandalous amounts we were all being paid was chump change, and had Mustafa gift it to the young custodian. I had once mentioned that I loved dolma which is the Middle Eastern version of Greek dolmades or stuffed grape leaves, except the Iraqis stuff any vegetable matter—grape leaves, peppers, tomatoes, onions. After the baby was born in good shape, our custodian’s mother, who was somehow informed of my love of dolma, sent her son into work with a clam-bake-sized pot full of 30 lbs of dolma. It’s just what they do.
I guess the lesson here is that I don’t have a lesson. Just some examples of my personal experiences with some Really Good People. Who happen to be Arabs. And Muslims. Guess you can make of that what you will.
What’s your experience with other cultures? Like mine with the Egyptians and Iraqis? Wholly different? I’d love to hear your stories.