Thursday, January 10, 2008

Some interesting and unexpected conversations

In all my travels I have found that the most memorable and cutting experiences have come in wholly unexpected contexts. The same has been true for Egypt. The random locals that I have met (at least the ones who were not trying to hassle money from me) have provided some insightful and evoking thoughts. I dont want to take up too much space so I will just give a brief synopsis with some questions that I have pondered on concerning what they said:

Im not going to use their real names and I will do my best to quote them as accurately as possible:

Rachel, a Coptic Christian living in Cairo. She is a student and is 19 years old, she lives at home with her parents:
- "I dont suffer any direct 'persecution' for being a Christian, but there are certain privileges that Muslims have that Christians dont."
- "Most of the rich people are very liberal. It is the poorest who are conservative. Many rich Muslims break the laws (referring both to state law and Islamic law, the latter is a kind of understood legal system), but if they get caught for doing something wrong they can usually get away with it. Not so for Christians, if they even do the slightest thing wrong they will get in a lot of trouble."
Comments and Questions:
- I found it hard at first to sympathize with her because she was obviously a rich Christian, and she had made the statement that most Christians are rich, and just because rich Muslims can get away with breaking the law doesnt mean that they should be able to. But then she started to explain that the laws she was talking about were mainly religiously based ones. For example, her and her friend, a Catholic Christian, both were in university but they were still living at home. In fact, they wouldnt even have the choice to leave home until marriage. This is law for all females. They cannot live on their own until they are married. Consider this as I describe the situation of the next local female that I had the chance to meet.

Mary, a 22 year old, married to a 40+ man, most likely also a prostitute, and most likely only one of his multiple (up to 4) wives.
- No real quotes here just observations. The fact is that because women are not allowed to leave home until they are married there is a great deal of work to do when it comes to asking for the girl's hand in marriage--permission must come from the father, of course. The man must tell her father that he would like to marry her. The father will first ask "How much money do you have?" It is all about the money. I will get into the specifics of this in the next story. The problem is that most younger men dont have money unless they were born with it. As result there are a great deal of younger girls who are "forced" to marry much older men (sometimes being their second, third or fourth wives) simply because the man has money. Here is the next story.

Alex, a 20 yr old man, a week away from having to serve two years in the army (as all men are forced to do)"
- "I hate my country"
- "She broke my heart"
- "Its all about the money"
- "Sometimes I think about taking a gun and shooting both of them, but then I think...what good would it do?"

I know these quotes can be quite shocking. His story is long and sad, but I will try to give the shortened dry version. In Egypt, according to some interpretation of Muslim law, young men and women are not allowed to date. They cannot ever be alone with each other. This makes it very difficult to find a life-partner. But Alex met a girl at school. They would meet each other "on the way" home or to school if only for brief moments. They would SMS (aka text message). But they would have to be careful to delete each message immediately. For three years during what we call high school they did this. "I loved her, man" Alex told me. He wanted to marry her. He told his parents and they arranged a meeting with the girl's parents. The first question the girl's father asked was: "how much money to do you have?" He began to demand that in exchange for his daughter's hand in marriage he would have to pay 20,000 Egyptian pounds (about 3,700 US dollars, but keep in mind that such money is worth a great deal more here). He also told Alex that he would have to buy his daughter an expensive wedding ring and a large house (by the way, i have yet to see any houses, the vast majority of Egyptians live in apartments or tenet housing). Alex, of course, couldnt do any of those things. He left the area for two years with his family, when he came back his love was married and already had a child with him. "She broke my heart." Alex doesnt trust any more girls. He told me that he hates his country and cant wait to get a VISA to the States or to England. Meanwhile he is about to go off for his mandatory 2 years of military service (all Egyptians are required anywhere from 1-3 years depending on how much schooling).

His story along with the others made me rethink a lot of things about the trip. I havent quite processed it all yet.


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