Thursday, October 28, 2004

John Kerry meets Hosni Mubarak

I am happy to report that my command of the Arabic language encludes quite a bit of "political vocabulary" and I spend some time "talking politics" here. Not Egyptian politics, American of course. First let me say that the lack of interest or ability or comfort of the average Egyptian to talk about the politics and system of their own country is rather intruiging to me. It makes me want to know more--are people silent because 1) they have nothing to say--they are perfectly content with the system, 2) they have nothing to say--they know nothing about politics and haven't an opinion/the vocabulary to discuss it, 3) have been taught not to talk about it with outsiders or 4) are paranoid about sharing their political opinions outloud due to possible persecution. I am very curious and hope to find out the REAL answer...if there IS one.

This if, of course, in stark contrast to America's favorite pastime (aside from the superbowl and nintendo)--criticizing the political system and speculating on how they could do it better. I suppose I am indulging a bit in this pet pieve of mine by even SAYING that, but americans DO complain a great deal and change their political alliences and opinions with the wind.

YET, that word CHANGE, although annoying, is blessed in a way. For anyone of the possible reasons stated above, not ONE person I have asked in Egypt is in anyway interested in having a new president--after 20 some odd years of Mubarek and all they SAY that want is more--more Mubarek. Is that because everyone has a job? Certainly not. Is that because the healthcare system is serving the people? Ha. Is that because he is a brilliant diplomat, friends with every world leader, and has NEVER waged war on another country? Guess again. Yet he's still the president and "term limits" is a concept that left my host sister, Gheda, scratching her head. We, however, like change in America. I have learned to say this quite fluidly in Arabic, in order to explain my views (often asked of me) on the upcoming election. My opinion is this: Bush makes promises. Kerry makes promises. I am certain both of them have SOME potential for fulfilling them. Neither of them, however, are omnipotent, and are bound by the one thing that they are trying to liberate--the people. That's right, no matter WHAT their intentions are, for better or for worse, it is the people that will either make something happen, or prevent it in the end. Both of them supposedly represent the average American's interests, one with a slight bent to the left, the other with a bent to the right. Yet both of them have the ability, have, and WILL to things that both gladden and anger BOTH sides...sometimes simultaneously and sometimes separately.

What I am trying to say here, does it really MATTER? Well, of course it matters that we exercise our rights to vote, and if i had been on the ball and gotten my absentee ballot (I had the opportunity to do so at the fourth of july function I ducked into, but felt so self-concious that I ran away before I did so) in time, I would be right in line, ready to turn it in. Who would I have voted for? Considering my lack of study on the subject, I can't rightly say for sure, but what I have said repeatedly to my inquisitive Egyptian friends it this: we love change in America. Kerry, I am sure, does NOT have the cure for the common cold, NOR does he have the power to do what every president tries to do--please EVERYONE, ALL of the time. Or even half the people, half the time. Certainly right now, Bush isn't peasing everyone...but he has, and if stays in office, he will again. So, since we love change, why not have a change? We like, as Americans, to get all excited over a new leader and think about how a new president and a new bureaucracy and a new decor in the white house will somehow change everyything in our lives. In the end, however, we find out what has always been, thankfully, true in America: the power of political influence lies in our own hands. Which is certainly more than we can say for our Egyptian friends.

As a side note, I am aware that my own country isn't a perfect democracy by any means. Well, what, exactly, IS a perfect democracy? We'll save that for another discussion. At anyrate, we all know that the U.S. isn't totally free from what is common in many countries in the world--religious and racial persecution on a government level. Even now, it happens. We would be foolish if we tried to deny that Arabs in America have, and still, have suffered deprevations of their constitutional rights in recent years. We may be able to comfort ourselves and say that's all in the name of national securtity...but let's save that discussion for another time as well. Apparently, though, Islam's latest recruit Cat Stevens encountered some kind of religious constraint and/or persecution at the hands of the American government. This was pointed out to me by a very smug Gheda who had been smarting since the day that I told her that Egypt lacks in religious freedom. She looked surprised when I informed her that Muslim converts to Christianity could be and are imprisoned (there is a guy in our branch now who is in prison, in fact), and I should have known she'd come back with a response. She did. She proudly showed me a blurb in a magazine and read the text to me. It said something like Cat Stevens was interrogated by the u.s. government about his decision to become muslim (did you know there is a special verb for this inArabic?) and that he had decided to NEVER go back to America. After reading this she said "so see! America does not have complete religious freedom." I questioned her on the logic of making such a definitive judgement based on four words in a magazine, but she claims to have read about Cat Steven's experience elsewhere. I see. I was more than a little irritated with her--she's 20 and thinks she knows everything--but her obstinance made me think. Doubtless poor Cat has received criticism. It is POSSIBLE, although unlikely, that he was approached and/or questioned by overly suspicious National Security individuals. Interesting, however, that one girl's entire judgement of 200 years of ceaseless efforts to separate church and state was determined by four words in a magazine. Let us not be so easily influenced by the media.

Jamila in a Nutshell

My name is Hilary (Jamila) Johnson, recent and proud member of the Cairo Branch. I came to Cairo the latter part of June 2004 and intend to stay until approximately June 2005. This is by no means my first visit to this country, but you’ll find out more about that if you keep reading!

I was born in Portland, Oregon on 29 March 1978 to Roland and Gloria Johnson. I have three siblings—Monique (married, lives in SLC), Lindsay (married, lives in SLC), and Andrew (passed away 17 April 2001). I love my family. We, The Johnson Family Variety Show (as we like to call ourselves), have a great time together.

I have been interested in international cultures, languages, travel, and politics from the a young age. My first big adventure was in the sixth grade. I participated in study abroad program in Puebla, Mexico. I learned some Spanish, ate tortas, developed a crush on my host family’s neighbor, and had a great time.

This was followed by a semester during my junior year of high school working as a Senate Page in Washington D.C. What a time that was. I LOVED it, but was exhausted by the ceaseless responsibility. I was more than ready to return to “regular teen life” after six months of the adult world and went back to good old Roseburg Sr. High School. However, I had changed considerably during this semester away from home, and I couldn’t seem to go back to a relaxed life. Shortly after coming home I changed gears again and enrolled in the local community college in order to complete my high school requirements. While I graduated with my class in June 1996, I spent my last year and a half of high school on the college campus earning college credit.

August of 1996 found me, strangely enough, at BYU-Hawaii. My decision to attend this school was primarily based on the idea of my best friend at the time, who ultimately decided not to come with me. I set off on my own, and quickly made great friends. My days at BYUH are unforgettable. I developed a true love and loyalty to Polynesian Culture, and enjoyed the tight-knit atmosphere the small campus provides. Most importantly, I benefited from the gospel-oriented lifestyle of BYUH. Although I originally had no intention of attending a “church school,” my testimony solidified and became what it is today due to the constant positive influences around me.

I was sad to leave BYUH, but decided to pursue my political science studies more diligently at BYU-Utah. It was a tough adjustment, but thanks to my fellow transplanted BYU-Hawaii friends and the great social network of The Colony (500 N. 750 E.), I managed to right myself once again. One year at BYU passed rather uneventfully, aside from a few minor auto incidents, and the following summer (1998) found me back in Hawaii—this time in Honolulu. I worked for the summer and prepared for my next two back-to-back adventures—a Fall 1998 internship in Washington, D.C. and a Winter 1999 semester abroad at the BYU Jerusalem Center.

The internship in Senator Orrin Hatch’s office wasn’t the most thrilling experience of my life, but returning to D.C. certainly was satisfying. A highlight includes driving down to Winston-Salem, NC with my good friend Steve and my mother to a Neal Diamond Concert. Another highpoint was hosting my father and sister and traveling with them to the New England church history sites.
The following four months in Jerusalem were, in a word, delicious. I could go on and on, but I’ll simply mention that it was while spending time in that wonderful city I grew to love the Middle East with my entire heart. I visited Egypt and vowed to go return.

I am proud to say that the next year and a half (1999-2001) was spent serving a mission in Sapporo, Japan. Just writing those words gives me a chill—it was a life-changing experience that I can’t possibly describe in an entire book, let alone in a short paragraph. Suffice to say that I was happy to have my parents join me at the conclusion of my service for a mission tour, but broken-hearted to leave. I would have stayed if they had let me.

My last year at BYU (2001-2002) was difficult, but eventually ended in success with a B.S. in Political Science. I worked hard (MTC Japanese teacher), studied hard, and played hard. I was ready for a break upon graduating in June…so I took off for Africa. A best friend from BYUH, Heather, accompanied me on a hitchhiking expedition across Africa—from Cairo to Cape Town to Casablanca. We covered 14 countries on this fabulous trip, searching out random service opportunities and meeting great people.

I returned from Africa to spend six weeks in wonderful New York working on Wall Street, and than took off in October 2002 for Ukraine. I spent several months in this fabulous country under the auspices of The Peace Corps learning Russian and teaching English. I returned to the United States and, after a brief stint in Provo, Utah, moved to my next home—New York. I taught Japanese in a public school in Harlem for the 2003-04 school year. What an experience that was. Hard. The hardest experience of my life, no doubt. I survived it, however, and a highlight was a trip to Japan with ten of my best students.
As much as I love New York, I was happy to leave it for new adventures. I stored my things and came to Cairo to fulfill my dream of learning Arabic. And here I am! I live with a wonderful Egyptian family in Imbeba and study Arabic with one of the daughters. Aside from my friends/experiences at church and a few English teaching jobs, my entire life is spent in Arabic. I love it and love these wonderful people. I am truly blessed and grateful to be a member of the church with the knowledge and blessings of the gospel in my life!

Friday, October 22, 2004

Turning the Development Tables

(A little something I am working on-let me know what you think!)
"Turning the Development Tables: What the Islamic World can Teach the West About Social Wellness."

A brief glimpse of the evening news of any American television network reveals a variety of startling images of the Middle East. Bombed-out busses, ragged children, women shrouded in black, angry politicians, gun-toting teens—all of these images imbed themselves in the viewer’s mind and function like a virus, distorting and exaggerating the negative stereotypes of the Arab world. Indeed, the most positive aspect of Islamic societies—strong and responsible social structures—is easily overshadowed by the global media’s disproportional focus on the violence and poverty in the Middle East. Additionally, the excessive efforts of the “Western” countries to “develop” the Arab world obscure the contradicting fact that the nations of the Middle East have much to teach the developed world about social wellness. Recognition and realization of the potential of the Islamic states to assist the West with its increasingly severe societal problems is, in my opinion, the most significant situation in the Arab world today.

An example of a valuable aspect of Middle Eastern society is the importance placed upon the unity of the family. This is exemplified fundamentally by the amount of quality time spent together. The typical Egyptian family eats, sleeps, and plays together. Everything is shared; selflessness is cultivated. Respect of elders is essential; no child enters a room without formally greeting the adults present, and disrespectful behavior is not tolerated. Parents and relatives reciprocally encourage and praise the children at every turn. Everyone takes responsibility for each other, creating a strong family unit.

It is clear to see how Islamic social structures benefit from the strength of their families. The constantly nurtured children grow into emotionally stable adults. The teenagers, actively engaged in household duties, have no time or inclination for drugs, alcohol, and other destructive behaviors. Islamic societies are essentially free from violent crime, teen pregnancy, divorce, and AIDS. In contrast, the homes are happy and full of content individuals, dedicated to keeping all members of the family unified.

In comparison to the rapidly deteriorating American family unit, the superiority of the Arab social system is undeniable. Why, then, have not American policy makers tried more actively to incorporate such values into U.S. social programs? One answer may be that it may be difficult for both the U.S. and many Arab countries to break from their traditional respective roles as the “teacher” and the “student.” Additionally, neither group has much practical experience functioning in the opposite role. The process of incorporating Arab values into functioning Western social policy is not a simple task. The initial studies in the Middle East and sub-sequential efforts among social and political strata in the West will require dedicated effort by those familiar with the culture, beliefs and attitudes of the people of both regions.

The rewards, however, of reverse development theory implementation will be great for both the Western and Arab worlds. Not only will countries such as America benefit from the domestic application of Islamic social values, Arab-West relations are certain to improve from increased communication and mutual appreciation. It is time to “turn the development tables.”

Don't Drink the Water

Everyone knows the the water in foreign countries is undrinkable. Only purified, sterilized, and chlorinated American water is fit for Westerns. Right?

So we are told by the embassies and travel agencies/companies. And indeed, many local peoples in lesser-developed countries don't thrink their own water directly from the tap. Certainly the family I lived with in Ukraine didn't. They knew that the offering from the tap was not safe and boiled and refrigerated the water as a rule.

While I may hitchhike across continents, I am quite cautious about water. I decided to go against official U.S. Embasy advice and brush my teeth with Egyptian tap water, but one of my first purchases upon ariving here was a bottle of water. Thoughts of danger don't faze me while accepting rides from strangers in Ghana, but the image of that dirty water coursing through my body was enough to fork over $.20 daily for a bottle of water (believe it or not, I can LIVE off of $.20 a day here, so that is quite a sacrifice for just one item). I can't quite explain my total acceptance of the water warning--I just DID. I would never DREAM of cloroxing my vegetables before eating them, as most expats do--my water paranoia did not stretch that far. Yet I would have willingly gone thirsty if nothing but tap water was available.

I spent my summer living in an expat section of Cairo with a state-of-the-art grocery and deli just down the street. Bottled water was readily available and a daily purchase. When I met Gheda and my first forey into Imbeba, I arrived thirsty. When offered water, I was quickly appeased by their reply of "yes" to my question--"Is this water clean?" I was certain it wasn't from the store--these folks don't have the money for expensive purified water--but I assumed it was boiled and chilled. I drank it thirstly and accepted another glass.

I didn't question their water from that point on. When I moved in with them I accepted each offer of water--many glasses a day. I was curious about the boiling/chilling processes--I'd actually never seen them do it but I knew all about how it is done. What a lot of work, I thought.

One day, after gratefully accepting a glass of water, it occured to me to ask again. "Where is this water from?" I asked. "From the refrigerator!" was the giggled reply (everything I say/do amuses them greatly). "Well, BEFORE that, where does it come from?" More giggles. "From the faucet, of course!" Long pause. I thought about this. Was it possible that they had a filter on their faucet? Or had some special water tank outside that was refilled from time to time with purified water? Curious. I didn't think that was likely--they are so poor. There had to be SOME explanation--the water must come from some local well, or something. So I tried again. "Okay, so where did the water from the faucet come from?" This about put them on the floor in hysterics. "FROM THE NILE, OF COURSE!" My mouth went dry. My throat closed up. My body grew chill. From the...Nile? One of the most polluted rivers in the world? I sat down and contemplated this...I wondered just how long I had to live before my body collapsed in on itself due to Nile water syndrome.

Now, I could continue this story with my explanation to Gheda and her sisters that the Nile water is polluted and not one westerner in Egypt willing drinks the tap water--hence my state of shock. I DID explain this to them. But what's more interesting is their reaction to this explation. I think they were more shocked than I to find out that WE find their water to be polluted. My assertion that the water contains "things" (how do you say amboebas in Arabic?) that can make you really sick did NOT satisfy them. "If that's true," the countered, "then why in the world aren't WE sick?" I tried to explain the concept of developed tolerance. They are USED to it. And their health suffers incrementally because of it. Again, no effect. They just laughed. They said "our brother, who lives in Kuwait, is repeatedly told by OUR embassy not to drink the water THERE! Everyone knows that Nile water is the best in the Middle East."

Their stunned reaction to what I had always taken for granted gave me pause. What other things do we totally take for granted about each other--that may or may not be true? And how do we know the are or aren't true? I have been drinking the tap water for over a month now and haven't been in better health. Yes, it is easily provable that that purification system (okay, so I found out now that the water doesn't just come STRAIGHT from the nile, thank heaven) isn't to the same "standard" as the U.S. sytem. It is also known fact that the pipes through which the water run are NOT "safe" by U.S. standards. These are facts--the standard is different. But here I am, alive and well, are so are they. My irrational fear that a drop of Egyptian water would kill me was obviously unfounded.

Now, my intent is not to convince you to drink the water from the tap in Egypt. You take your chances. There IS room for error, as the standard is different, and is much more likely to drink an unwanted guest here than it is in America. My point it something different. My point is that we all think a lot of things--especially about people different different from ourselves. How much of it is true? And does it even matter if it IS true if it keeps us from sitting down and enjoying a relationship with them?

Something to think about. Go grab a glass of water and contemplate it. I'd be happy to hear your thoughts--post a reply!