ajnabieh: The silhouette of Cairo, with the text in English, "We Are Egypt." (we are egypt)
(Home safe from Cairo, and then from my post-Cairo "hey! Let's drive around the upper midwest for a week!" jaunt through Michigan and Ontario. But this has been sitting on my phone since I got back, and I finally had a moment to put it up here. Hi!)

NOTE: this post contains reference to the getting travel-related food poisoning. Nothing squicky and no details (trust me, you don't want them), but if the mere idea is an issue, best scroll on by.


It was my first night in Cairo. I was jetlagged, exhausted, dehydrated, lost, confused, and about to get really, really sick, though I didn't know it. I ended up deciding to have knafeh for dinner, because I just didn't know anymore, and stumbled into a patisserie. After trying to order, and then being told to go take a seat and that a waiter would come, and then waiting for a table to open up, and then waiting for the waiter (probably all of this would have been easier if I weren't a mess), I managed to order a plate of knafeh and a cup of tea. "Bidoun sukker," I said, and the waiter gave me a funny look. I'm an idiot, I realized--there's an idiomatic way to order your tea without sugar, which I had of course forgotten. And maybe bidoun wasn't even how you said 'without' in Egyptian dialect. God, why had I left my Arabic textbook in the US? It wasn't doing me any good there.

After a while, I got my knafeh and my tea. "Without sugar," the waiter said pleasantly, and I tried not to feel too stupid. The tea was too hot to drink for a long time, but, God, I needed it.


Two days later, I woke up at 9:15 and groaned. Of course, I had to get sick first thing in the morning this time. But I couldn't go all day without eating, and breakfast ended in fifteen minutes. I needed to put something in my stomach. I struggled into clothes and stumbled into the hotel restaurant at 9:32, feeling like an asshole.

The guy in the chef's hat who made omelettes was nowhere to be seen, but the girl who waited tables was around, and said "good morning!" to me cheerfully. I tried to smile back. Normally, this would be the point where I'd pile on the fuul and the boiled eggs and everything, but I decided to play it safe: orange juice, plain pita bread, plain yogurt, some honey to add to it. The waitress came to take my cup. (She'd learned, over my three mornings so far, that I wanted coffee with milk.) "Excuse me," I said. "Can I have tea this morning, instead?"

"Of course," she said, still cheerful, and walked away.

I struggled through some bread, and then a cup of tea appeared next to me. I looked at it. It had milk in it, already mixed. I blinked. No one, I mean no one, drinks tea with milk in the Middle East. God, they must keep a separate pot ready of milky tea for the aganib, because they know we like milk in our coffee and milk in our tea, strange as it is. My heart sank a little, because milky tea was the last thing I wanted in that state. I wanted a nice, plain cup of black tea, boring and bitter and enough to settle my stomach.

But what could I say? I sipped at it, forced down my yogurt, and cursed cultural sensitivity.


Costa Coffee was like a giant suburban Starbucks, sprawled out on the side of Shari3 Gama3t Duwal 3arabi. (By the end of my two weeks, I knew just to call it Gama3t Duwal. I didn't yet.) It struck me as odd that these western-style restaurants took up so much space; in cities back home, they get crammed into the same tight quarters as everyone else. I got a seat--I had finally figured out that, in Cairo, you don't just go to the counter and order and then find your seat--and ordered tea and a croissant. I was feeling better than earlier that morning, but I still wanted to be soothed.

The tea arrived: a pot that must have held about two cups of hot water, a single Twining's English Breakfast teabag, and a latte cup to drink it from. I dropped the teabag in the pot, feeling resentful. When I make tea in a pot this size at home, I use three teabags, not one. The water wasn't going to be hot enough, either, which meant the tea was going to be frightfully weak. I huffed to myself. This cup of tea was going to be wrong.

And then I thought about learning to make tea with the family who put me up in the West Bank when I was there. Boil a saucepan of water; add a fistful of fresh mint, and a fistful of white sugar. Take one tea bag, and dip it in, again, again, again, until the water looks like tea. Then it's done.

This tea, I realized, was an act of fusion. Take tea-making norms from one place, apply them to tea from another. If this had been a bag of Lipton Yellow Label, then it would have made sense. I'd been thrown by my own, anglophile notions of what a "proper" cup of tea was. (Warm the pot, four minutes, no more, one spoon for the pot, milk goes in the cup first.) No, this is perfect, really; this is tea that is both/neither, that follows no rules but its own.

The inscription on the saucer said "Italian about coffee." And English about tea, I expect, in exactly the same way.
ajnabieh: A seagull standing on a "no seagulls" sign, with the text FIGHT THE POWER (fight the power seagull)
Thursday night, tired, still a little jetlagged, I walked the few blocks from my hotel to a sandwich place I'd seen recommended in a lifestyle magazine-thing, which had an English edition and a iphone app, so targeted at expats and that segment of the Cairene upper class who speaks English.  The shop was down a dark streets (no streetlights), next to another, indistinguishable, but it had been recommended, and the prices were obscenely low by my agnabi standards (plus I'd dropped over a hundred pounds on lunch at a Zamalek cafe, I needed to economize).  So I headed in, and ordered in my terrible Arabic.

The man behind the counter clarified what I wanted in perfect English (they always do), tried to convince me to get a second sandwich ("Not tonight, I'm saving it for another visit, since this is so close to me!" I said cheerfully), and then asked, once he'd placed my order, where I was from.  

"I'm American, from New York," I said (because all real Americans know New Yorkers don't count; plus, saying this often has the consequence of people talking about their friends, relatives, acquantainces, etc in New York).  

His face got a little sad, and he glanced at the TV in the corner, showing a salah jum3a somewhere in the world.  "Some people, they are not being good to Americans right now," he said quietly.  

"I know," I said.

We chatted politely about my reasons for coming to Egypt.  I made fun of my bad Arabic (as always, saying I studied fus7a in university impresses people; they shouldn't be impressed, my fus7a is atrocious).  He had had experiences that were relevant to my work, so I asked him about them, politely, explained what I was doing.  My sandwich came out from the kitchen, and he invited me to take a seat and keep talking.

After a few minutes, he said, "We talk all the time about how we are Muslims in this country.  But if we look at what we are doing, we are not being good Muslims.  We are not following the example of the prophet.  He never said to hurt anyone."

"We have the same problem in America," I said.  "People say they are Christians, but they are not doing what Jesus would want them to do."

"When someone says he is Muslim, you know he is not acting  like a Muslim," he said, nodding.

"The more they say it, the less they are!" I said.  We both laughed.  

When I had finished my sandwich, I thanked him, and told him it was delicious.  "How much do I owe you?" I said, reaching into my pocket for the pound coins rattling around there.  

"For you, nothing.  It's your first day," he said.

"Are you sure?"  

"Of course."

"Thank you," I said, smiling.  "I will be back."

I left that night, wandered around my neighborhood, where I was the oldest woman on the street without a headcover, and, I think, the only foreigner.  I went back to my hotel, happy to be here, happy to have met this man.

Last night, I stayed in my hotel room, and flipped between BBC World and Al Jazeera English.  Most times I want to practice my Arabic, but I needed to understand everything, last night.  I ate dinner in my hotel, and the tv in the restaurant played a Coptic priest and an imam critiquing insults to religion while I ate shorobat 3ads and baba ghanoug.

I'm going back out tonight.  I want to pay for my sandwich this time.
ajnabieh: The text "don't ask me, I'm a grad student." (grad student)
I hate, hate, hate cutting things. Hate it. I'm assuming those of you who write recognize the feeling at least a little. I especially hate cutting bits I like, when they no longer fit the tone or structure of the piece they're in. Sometimes they're beautiful, or funny, or meaningful, but they just have to go.

Hey, I guess that's what having a blog is for.

This used to be in the fourth chapter of my dissertation, as the introduction to a subsection on my fieldwork teaching ESL in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

I got the question every time I started working with a new group of students, and this day was no exception. "Where you from?" Wilad asked, as I put the children's book I'd been using to teach colors and clothing back in my purse.

I used to answer that question with "Kensington," my Brooklyn neighborhood, or "Philadelphia," my hometown. But that's never the question they're asking. "I'm American," I say.

"You husband 'arabi?"

I thought of my wife, with her Jewish last name, who was at home with our six-month-old son. "No," I say. "My husband's not Arab."

(Linguistic note: Arabic lacks a copulative verb [i.e., to be] in the present tense. Native speakers of Arabic learning English often drop them as well. In my fieldnotes and writing, I try to preserve syntax where I can, because I think how we talk matters.)

OK, now back to the exciting task of finishing my damn dissertation this weekend. *makes more tea*
ajnabieh: Palestinian flag in front of billboard for the movie Prince of Persia.   (prince of persia)
Deep in my current fieldwork, I'm taking a strange detour, into poetry. There's a small but vibrant Arab arts scene in New York, and I'm trying to figure out how to think about the literary work produced in it as "data" for my research. In particular, I'm trying to work through how to do that without either resorting to a very cheap definition of politics, wherein it means everything and nothing, and yet also not stripping the writing of any artistic content. Suheir Hammad says in her poem "palestinian 98":

this poem begging to be
beautiful poised
articulate this poem
palestinian and too late

But of course the poem's own form refutes its statement: it is "beautiful poised/articulate," even if Hammad doubts its ability to respond to the questions she is posed. Political poetry (particularly the good stuff) is both/and, and I want to be able to capture some of that both/and in my work.

Anyway, this means I'm spending a lot of time reading Hammad's work. She's a Palestinian-American raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, and she's relatively well known for her appearances on Def Poetry Jam, as well as for her poem First Writing Since,, which I think of as the quintessential poem about September 11th. It perfectly captures the relationship between being a New Yorker and being an Arab and being a person committed to social justice, in that particular moment in history.

first, please god, let it be a mistake, the pilot's heart failed, the
plane's engine died.
then please god, let it be a nightmare, wake me now.
please god, after the second plane, please, don't let it be anyone
who looks like my brothers.

True story: Suheir Hammad once performed at a benefit for my wife's former employer. Walking home after the event, we passed her outside. I waved. She waved back. I had to text my roommate in a full bout of fangirl.


Tahani Salah is a poet who is easily compared to Hammad, as another Brooklyn-born Palestinian-American who performs spoken word (and also an alum of Def Poetry Jam). She's younger, though I can't find an exact age, went to Columbia (is still at Columbia?), and has competed on the Nuyorican team at the National Poetry Slam. I've heard her perform at Al-Awda demonstrations and at other Palestine events in the city. She hasn't yet published a book that I can find, and doesn't seem to maintain a website. That means that my major source for her work is YouTube videos of her performances...and that I'm having to make transcripts of her stuff.

This appears to be her most famous poem, "Hate." She performed it on Def Poetry Jam, and also at the National Poetry Slam. This is the Def Poetry Jam version, though the other one is on YouTube as well.

Transcription below cut )

She's a vibrant performer. I am also interested to see how she's interrogating the notion of Palestinians as hateful, not by rejecting it, but by redefining hate as a useful, motivating function. I also find it interesting that in both the performances I watched, there is so much cheering over the lines "And in other countries, there are six year old children who step/and throw rocks to protect the tears and the lives of their grandparents" that I can't hear the following line.

So: poetry as data. Political ethnography is nothing if not interesting.
ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
I continually find new reasons my dissertation research is odd. The most recent is the frequency with which I move between fieldsites. Now, obviously, my "fieldsite" broadly considered is "the Arab communities and institutions of New York City," and I haven't left it. But, more practically, I've moved in and out of different areas of community activism and organizing, following some issues more than others at different times, digging in deeply to a particular niche area and then pulling back out and moving on to another.

I'm lucky: the digging in I'm doing now is into a space where I have a ton of connections, both purely professional and more personal. I keep using Facebook to set up interviews, for instance, because it's where I see people the most. Both of the days I did interviews this week, I was met with hugs and cheerful greetings when I arrived. I'm also getting very little resistance to meeting with me--I was able to schedule a time to talk to everyone I tried to schedule with within a week.

It's good, as I'm coming to the end of the most active phase of my fieldwork, to realize that I am in a different position than I was a year and a half ago, when I was scrambling to do interviews. It's also good to read through what I wrote a year and a half ago; while my depth of knowledge has changed, and I think my framing has shifted, the data I collected then is still relevant and interesting. So, phew: it's not a lost cause, this "finishing the damn dissertation" project.

Among the returns that this week held for me was my first trip to Bay Ridge in months. Is it wrong that my initial thought upon stepping off of the train and walking up Bay Ridge Avenue to 5th Avenue was ZOMG FOOD!!!!1!!!? In any case, the sudden immediate availability of Arab junk food was (pleasantly) overwhelming. Being overwhelmed, I, in the end, resorted to just getting a donut at Mike's Donuts, but I have begun planning what purchases I'll be making at Belady next week when I go back.

The streets look much as I remember them from last summer, when I was down there two or sometimes three days a week. A few businesses appear to have gone under; one restaurant I've never gotten to go to had its windows papered over, though there was a sign indicating this was vacation, not permanent. Perhaps there were fewer people on the streets; it was in the nineties and threatening rain, though, so I don't think that was particularly indicative.

One of the things that struck me was just how much cultural fusion happens in Bay Ridge. It's a neighborhood where immigrant and ethnic groups collide in rapid succession. The stretch of Fifth Avenue that is unquestionably Arab is only five blocks long; halal groceries and sweet shops cluster together, but sit in comfortable relation to old-school Brooklyn coffee shops, Chinese restaurants, a very cool comic store, an Irish pub.

Dollar Store Door in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.  Shows a series of scarves hanging; the one on the far left is a kuffiyeh.

This is the door of a 99¢ store on Fifth Avenue. 99¢ stores are common in all low-income/working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn; they carry a variety of merchandise, including food, stationary, housewares, and toys, most for 99¢ an item. For folks who live in these neighborhoods, they're the general stores. I go to my local one for mailing envelopes regularly (and then a screaming fight with my toddler about how he really doesn't need another plastic dinosaur, or that awesome Dora ball). Although this isn't universally true, many are run by Chinese immigrants, particularly in neighborhoods with a Chinese presence (like Bay Ridge).

The scarves draped in the window share space with decorative plastic flowers, umbrellas, and inexpensive children's backpacks. Next to the two pink scarves hangs a kuffiyeh; not the traditional triangular one worn in the Middle East, or even its politically-relevant neckscarf variant, but the type sold by street vendors in Manhattan in dozens of colors. The symbol of Arab struggle, as recoded by the hipster masses, and resold on the streets of Bay Ridge: there's a poetry in that. And that's the reason I love my fieldwork: because there's poetry in it, right alongside the politics, and it's my job to make it come to vibrant life.

(For those who don't recognize it [and who would, given the crappiness of the photo?], the icon above is of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island, and stands perched at the edge of Bay Ridge, visible from most points within it.)
ajnabieh: Sign for a store reading "Hot Chick." (hot chick)
(My iPod, which is my number-one research tool [I should write a post on this], recently had to be reformatted, so I sent myself a bunch of old notes off it. I found this draft blog post from September, was amused, and thought I should share. A little lighthearted note from the life of the ethnographer.)

I attended a screening of Bil'in Habibti/Bil'in My Love hosted by Adalah-NY and Salam Lutheran Arabic Church in Bay Ridge on Wednesday [September 30, 2009]. The film is very emotionally affecting; I certainly recommend it to anyone looking to spark a conversation about the wall Israel is building in the West Bank, variously called the separation fence, separation wall, security wall, or apartheid wall, depending on one's political preferences. Perhaps the film hit me particularly hard because it was filmed in 2005, which is when I attended an international protest in Bil'in. I kept half expecting to see our signs and flags; alas, we didn't make the cut.

But I want to comment on an amusing exchange in the film. Mohammad, one of the leaders of the popular committee against the wall [who I think, now, with more knowledge, is Mohammad Khatib] is speaking in a lighthearted moment to Shai, the filmmaker, who is a member of Anarchists against the Wall. "When you first came," he said in Hebrew, "we saw you anarchists. You seemed strange to us [strange was in English], you didn't seem to care about your clothes, your hair. But you've been coming here for a year, and, now, I'm with you. I haven't bathed in a week." He then turned to the organizer next to him, and said, "You're always wearing a new suit." The other man said, with great and slightly annoyed dignity, "I have to. I'm a teacher."

Now, this got laughs from the crowd, and probably anyone who has ever organized with anarchists or, really, young leftists anywhere. (Oh, college, I remember you well.) But what struck me, looking around the room at that moment, was that if you lined up all the women's purses and bags in a row, I'd be able to guess which belonged to white American leftists and which belonged to the Arab women activists. Is the bag in question metallic or patent leather, does it have rhinestones, is it a designer name, does it contain any makeup, and does it match the carriers' shoes? 'Arabi. Is it a backpack or canvas bag, could it use a wash, is a metal water bottle clipped to the outside with a carabiner, does it contain a Powerbar, a laptop, and/or a leather-bound notebook? Inglizi.

We are always teaching each other about how we perform gender and proper public behavior. And we can always recognize each other through those practices. Norms vary in predictable ways; there are many femininities; and it matters who's performing them.

At least I left my Kleen Kanteen at home. But I had the Powerbar.
ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (amal)
Last Monday, I attended a rally calling for the New York City schools to close on the two Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The rally was organized by the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays; catchy, no? Unfortunately, my photos turned out pretty poorly; I'll see if I can find some better ones and post them. However, I want to make a few observations about the event, the cause, and the politics around it.

1) Like any ethnographer working in a fieldsite that is reasonably keyed into information technology networks, I googled the coalition and event before I went. Most of what I found was news articles on previous steps taken by the group, including the 15-0 vote in favor of the holiday by the city council (see this NY Times article). Nearly all these articles included Mayor Bloomberg's quote, "If you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school." And every article, without fail, followed this immediately with the information that the NYC schools already take off for Christmas, Good Friday, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover. Clearly, Bloomberg's attempted framing isn't getting any traction in the media.

2) The Coalition's framing of the issue, on the other hand, was clear and consistent. This issue is about equal treatment and respect for the major communities of the city; about 12% of the students in the school system are Muslim. However, a subargument was made that I found very interesting: that the effects on the school system would be minimal. Over the next 12 years, one speaker said at the rally, only 10 instructional days would be lost, due to holidays falling either on weekends or during summer vacations. What's interesting about this is that it's a classic claim that the desired action is a minimal one. This is an easy claim to accommodate, in addition to being one justified on grounds of mutually agreed upon values (multiculturalism). Social movement theory: always relevant.

3) There was clearly an effort made to emphasize the diversity both of the Muslim community in the city, and the members of the coalition. The rally was co-emceed by a gentleman who appeared Arab to me (though he might have been South Asian, and I didn't get his name, and a woman who was East Asian. At least half the speakers were non-Muslim allies, self-identified. There were both Muslim and non-Muslim teachers, both Muslim and non-Muslim parents, and two non-Muslim representatives of unions (the teachers' union and the public employees' union). There were two other Muslim speakers, a coalition member giving the calendar data, and an imam talking about how many elected officials supported the measure. Of the Muslims who spoke, one was Latino by last name, one was South Asian, two were black, and one was Arab; of the non-Muslims, two were black, one Latina, one East Asian. The crowd was as ethnically mixed as this implies, and was prone to break out in spontaneous chants of si se puede.

3a) Yet the largest gap I saw was in getting Muslims there, particularly young Muslims. I attended with staff from the Arab-American Association, where I've done a great deal of my fieldwork, but unfortunately they weren't able to get their substantial youth base to show up. Among the reasons? An Eid trip to Six Flags. Frankly, there weren't a lot of young people there at all; elementary school students with parents, but not a lot of teenagers. Some of this might be reluctance to go into the city, which many outerborough teens have; some of it might have been the fact that it was the second (or for some, the first) day of Eid, and they were busy with holiday activities; some of it, I'm sure, was Six Flags. Teens can be a hard crowd to mobilize, as I remember from my own high school organizing days. But it was too bad more of them couldn't get out there.

4) Another interesting language/identity issue is what, precisely, to call the holidays that are being asked for. You'll note above I say "Eid al-Fitr" and "Eid al-Adha." I spell them this way because I'm a speaker (so to speak) of Arabic, and that's how one transliterates the names into English from Arabic in most general usage. But the Coalition's website says "Eid Ul- Adha and Eid Ul-Fitr," which strike me as South Asian transliterations. The NY Times as "Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha," which strike me as stupid transliterations; I think you need a character there to represent the ع in عيد , and skipping it looks just...wrong. (Perhaps this is a common transliteration in some context?) The Examiner link has both the second and the third. I don't have any conclusions yet on what these differences mean, but I want to flag them. Perhaps you, my almost non-existent readers, have thoughts on this question.

5) And a final note to self: maybe the next time you bring the baby to a fieldwork-protest, bring a tape recorder. It's hard to take notes and give a bottle simultaneously.


ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
Ajnabieh - The Foreigner

March 2016

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