Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tu as bien grossi

NOTE: I just got back from Kananga where I wrote a lot but could not post. I will try to catch up soon. Here is one.

Tu as bien grossi: This has been the most common greeting I have received from friends in Kinshasa who I am seeing for the first time in three years. Roughly translated: “You have fattened up nicely.” This is a rather high compliment for people living in a city where, according to a study, more than 50% of the people eat one meal every two days. If you get bigger, this means that you are eating well because things are going well in your life—you are employed, have a stable source of income, and, if male, a wife. One example: some famous musicians whose fame has allowed them a fat belly will often wear a too-small t-shirt to accentuate their graisse.

This intended compliment makes me incredibly self-conscious. Putting aside my own American sense of vanity, I don’t think I would be considered overweight by US standards. And I don’t really keep track of my weight, but I guess I have put on 5-10 pounds in 3 years. My measurement: I still wear the same pants that I wore then (even pants I had tailored in Kinshasa), although they fit slightly tighter around the waist.

When I was last here, I had a much better exercise regiment (thanks to Makfitness) than I have been able to develop in Cairo. Then, I was, I think, considered a bit thin for an American, but was, and still am (I think again) quite average.

I do not exaggerate when I tell you that literally the majority of the dozens of friends I have seen here have told me that I have bien grossi within the first two minutes of conversation. It is often accompanied by a “Tu es en bonne forme” (you look good). Although I realize it is a compliment, it is still hard for me not to be self-conscious and to process it in that way.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

From Kin La Belle

Back in Kinshasa for the first time in three years! Wow!

I am even staying in the same room in the Guest House at UniKin where I lived for the year when I taught here.

The city looks mostly the same. There is not much new construction. The condition of the roads is a bit worse (this being after the rainy season). Talking to friends, everyone says things are getting worse. In 2006, the exchange rate was $1US to 450FC (Francs Congolais), and pretty stable. Now it is $1 to 720-750FC. $US is accepted here as official currency (typically for larger transactions—not in day-to-day purchases—only $5 bills and larger are accepted). Since most people who are paid are paid in FC, their purchasing power is diminishing. For someone like me, I come in with US$ and profit from the economic shift (when I do not need the benefit). That is just one easily quantifiable marker of the changes. There are many other less quantifiable stories that I am hearing about how things are here.

Despite my three overnight flights and little sleep (partly due to the showing of a great Nigerian film “Preacher Man”—strongly recommended IF you like Nigerian film, which is its own genre), I have been able to spend lots of time with friends during the first 24 hours of my trip. This part of the return can be quantified by the number of Primus beers I have shared, and the fact that I ate more meals in a 24-hour period than I previously thought possible. Everyone seems as happy to see me as I am to see them.

On the road in front of the house, there is a teenager who runs a sort of phone booth. These are everywhere—if you don’t have a phone or can’t afford to add a full block of credits, you can go and pay to make a call on one of his phones. He also sells SIM cards and credits. I went to see him to buy a card, as I did a couple of times each week when I was last here. He remembered me, which was nice. He updated me on changes to the cellular network, exchanged some money for me, and told me how he has been doing. And I did the same.

Today I will go over to the faculty to get to work.

Postscript: I wrote this blog yesterday (Monday morning) on my laptop but spent most of the day without electricity. There was still none this morning, but I came downtown to the American Cultural Center and was able to get online here and post this.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Some updates...

I am leaving for Kinshasa tonight and will arrive tomorrow morning. Can't wait. I don't know what the technology situation will be but I will blog from time to time. Insha'allah. I will spend June 20 to 26 in Kananga, which I was told is the largest city in the world (1 million people) without electricity and running water. Internet access will be more difficult there, but not impossible due to the incredible ingenuity of people with few material resources. Hook a cell phone signal up through a gas-powered generator or something along those lines...

I was hoping to blog about the past couple weeks in Cairo, but been have too consumed with trip preparations. My friend Stacy was visiting and we went to Alexandria for a weekend (where I saw Lumumba Street). The new library is impressive. The Mediterranean beach culture is a lot of fun in June, even though the circus does not open until July. In the museums and elsewhere, there are celebrations Alexandria's cosmopolitan past, which, on its face, is very attractive. There is a disturbing side to it, in my opinion, which is the romanticization Egypt's colonial past. (Just a though for now: there is a lot more to say on this subject.)

I also went to a Sufi dance concert here in Islamic Cairo, which was fantastic. It was held at the gorgeous Wikala al-Ghouri. Here are some pictures.

I have been asking Stacy to guest-blog about his trip. I don't want to give too much away but it could be a screenplay for a film starring Ben Stiller.

As for the swine flu outbreak, the campus is scheduled to reopen tomorrow, which is too late for me. I am still upset that I won't be able to bring books to my colleagues as planned--this is very disappointing. But the flu outbreak seems to be controlled. The dorm quarantine will be lifted on Monday. The initial patients diagnosed with the illness have been released. Il'hamdu'lillah.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Visas, embassies and things

As many of you know, I am heading to the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC) on Saturday night. It will be my first time there in three years, since I spent a year there as a Fulbright professor at the University of Kinshasa; there will be lots of happy reunions. These last couple of days, I have been busy preparing for my departure, complicated in some ways by the quarantine of my office. It means I have to rely of the kindness of friends for printing. It also means, most sadly for me, that a number of books I planned to give to colleagues are exiled in my office and will not be making the trip with me.

While this week is busy with preparations, the same has been true for the past couple of weeks, really since before the semester ended. In addition to making formal arrangements with my hosts, I have been doing a lot of more informal reaching out to people there and abroad about details related to my visit.

I got my ticket on Kenya Airways through Nairobi. For the return trip, the airline changed once leg of my trip so that my one-hour layover was reduced to an impossible fifteen minutes. I was given a few options by the travel agent, and I chose to spend 24 hours in Nairobi on my return. The airline is putting me up at a hotel too. I have never been there and this seems like a good (albeit too brief) opportunity to check out the city.

The other major activity involved acquiring a visa. During my previous trip, as a Fulbright, I had the US Department of State at my back, which I too gladly accepted (despite my lack of love lost for the administration and its policies). I had even met the RDC consul in person at a reception in Washington, DC, so it was relatively straightforward. I fed ex’d my passport to DC and got it returned by mail a short time later. It was a simple 1-month single entry visa, and after I got to Kin, I was able to have folks at the US Embassy in Kinshasa take care of arranging for me to get a year-long, multiple entry Visa de Courtoisie.

This time, I was more-or-less on my own. I had a faxed copy of an official letter of invitation from the office of the Rector at UniKin. (Academics do have substantial political clout in RDC.) I called the embassy and went to their office with 4 copies of a stack of documents—the letter of invitation, my airplane ticket, proof of the legality of my stay in Egypt (and that I would be allowed to return), proof of Yellow Fever inoculation, my previous Visa de Courtoisie, passport-size photos, and a few other things I may be forgetting.

On the Cairo map I was using, the embassy was marked by the country’s former name, Zaire. But the building was immediately identifiable because the huge concrete wall was painted the colors of the new flag—powder blue and yellow. Though a bit run down, the architecture of the building, located in a historic and fashionable Zamalek neighborhood, is still impressive. The wall around it, however, does make it difficult to appreciate. I should have taken a picture, but perhaps I had subconsciously channeled the Kinois interdiction against public photography.

For my first visit, I deposited my paperwork, filled out a detailed application form, and left my passport. They didn’t give me a receipt for the passport because, they explained, I had not paid the visa fee yet (and I would need to return to do that later in the week). Receipts are rare in Egypt; they are ubiquitous and extremely formal in Congo. Not sure which system was at work. I suspect it was a combination of few receipt requests from people living in Egypt, and an unwillingness to give anything but the most official of documents. Anyway I didn’t expect a problem and there was none.

I received a telephone call and returned two days later to pay. I think they needed to review my materials before accepting money. In order to pay, they told me the amount (the equivalent of a little bit more than $100US) and gave me their bank account number. Since they don’t have a cashier there, I took this small piece of paper they gave me and went to the bank branch where I made the deposit and got the bank deposit receipt. I exchanged the bank receipt for an embassy receipt, and was done for the day.

By the end of the week, I was able to return—for a third time—to pick up my passport with the visa stamped inside of it. It was a bit time consuming—I had to travel to Zamalek, which is about an hour away from my house, three times in one week. But on the whole it was easy and smooth. I suspect I was a bit of a novelty—a US citizen applying for a RDC visa on a US passport in Egypt. When the person at the front desk announced my arrival to the consul, he asked in French if the passport was ready for the Americain. No name required.

The embassy here serves several countries in the region where the RDC does not have embassies: Turkey, Lebanon, and Kuwait (as I recall). The procedures are very different than what US travelers typically experience when traveling abroad. If a visa is needed (and it is not in many places including EU countries), it can be gotten at the airport (as in the case of Egypt, or as I will do during my transit layover in Kenya). All I can say is that the RDC is a country that foreigners, including those from the US, have tried to overthrow on several occasions in the past half-century, so it is more than reasonable for them to be careful when admitting outsiders. I recall a case when I was there of a presidential candidate with dual US-RDC citizenship who hired a private US firm to provide security. The security officers, who had no experience anywhere near RDC, expressed shock that they were arrested after they were found with a huge cache of technological equipment—computers, satellite phones, walkie talkies, etc—and some weapons. They were quickly released and expelled from the country. But what looks like the tools of the trade to a cop from Orlando, Florida, looks a lot different in the suitcase of an American in Kinshasa. It seems reasonable to expect a traveler to have at least a basic understanding of the history of the place they are visiting.

I don’t know a lot about current relations between RDC and Egypt, but the historical ones are strong. When Lumumba was assassinated in 1961, there were massive demonstrations in Cairo, which included the destruction of the American Cultural Center. President Nasser, a great pan-Africanist, expelled the Belgian ambassador as well. Lumumba’s widow and children settled here after at the personal invitation of Nasser. Today, one of Lumumba’s daughters lives here, and works with a regional NGO. And just last week I saw a street named for Lumumba in Alexandria.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Be my friend

I just broke down and joined facebook. You can look for me there.

It is not meant to replace the blog, which I plan to continue to keep up. Just another way to stay connected and get reconnected. I am new to all of this so I am not sure how I'll be using it. It could prove handy when I leave for the Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday night.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Flu

H1N1, otherwise known as swine flu, has hit Egypt. There was one case diagnosed a few days ago. Today there was more bad news: two confirmed cases and one suspected. And to make matters more personal (if not worse), they are students at my university. The students were living in a downtown dormitory which is now quarantined. The students just arrived last week from the US, so they seem to have brought it with them. This all happened overnight last night and news has gone out on international wire services.

The students, it was learned, were on campus where I work yesterday (as was I), so the Egyptian health ministry in conjunction with the university has completely shut down the campus until next Sunday. I was not there today but heard about people walking around wearing face masks. On the bus ride home I was told, despite temperatures near 100 degrees, the air conditioning was shut off and the windows were closed in order to limit the circulation of bad air. Summer classes are canceled for the week and only personnel deemed essential (providing services to students in the on-campus dormitory) will be allowed there.

For me, this is a huge problem because I am leaving Cairo for Kinshasa on Sunday and will not be able to go to campus before I leave to get things from my office that I need and want (books to take with me including some for colleagues in RDC). Plus this means I won’t be able to go to my usual bank branch, handle insurance business, deal with payroll, or make transportation arrangements. I still need my ticket for Kinshasa (because of a late itinerary change) and the travel office is now closed too (though they called me and we worked most everything out over the telephone and through email). Any gifts I had hoped to buy at the campus bookstore are on hold. Plus I need to print lots of things and don’t have a home printer... I also need to reschedule my Arabic lesson off campus.

Hopefully the flu has not spread and those infected are receiving effective treatment and recovering speedily.

Obama: New Tutankhamon of the World

Postscript to previous post. My friend Stacy found this amazing tshirt yesterday in Islamic Cairo. He gave it to Jenna as a gift. The hieroglyphs supposedly spell Obama.

Obama was here

So, Obama came and went.

The day of speech, most of the city shut down. On the night before his visit (well before he even landed), there was already a significant police presence in the downtown area (where a lot of demonstrations tend to jump off). Cars were being towed. On Thursday, most businesses were closed for the day, largely in anticipation of traffic snarls. The reaction that I have gathered from people here is that it was a nice speech, we are grateful that he is not Bush, and it is still a speech. A government poll indicated 77% of Egyptians like the speech. There was a clear statement against the expansion of Israeli settlements, which was encouraging and may represent a policy shift. Several important opposition leaders were invited guests at his Cairo University address. Ultimately though, people feel that words are words and Obama will be judged here by his support for democracy and human rights in this part of the world.

For me, I greatly appreciated the way he began the speech with a relatively detailed acknowledgment of a long tradition of Islam in the US. Islam is not something external to the US, but part of the US for which the nation is much richer. I thought these comments were smart and compelling, and directed (or at least should have been) at a US audience that remains terribly ignorant of its own history.

I heard from people who live and work in the area around Cairo University that residents on the roads where the motorcade traveled were required to keep their windows closed and shuttered. Some residents were even evacuated from their homes. Cellphone signals were scrambled throughout the city, which included emergency services. One story that people were telling was that people who went outside would be blinded by some sort of high tech security device.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


My Arabic textbook has incredible illustrations. The book lists a "designer," Dr. Ahmad Afiifi, who I assume is the artist (and perhaps the caligrapher). I am learning some adjectives, which are being presented through opposites. Some are pretty straightforward.

Short and tall, for example.

Some are more strange and troubling. This one is a favorite...

Any guesses?

Pretty and ugly! Pretty scary ideas about prettiness and ugliness.

And this one? It is trickier.
On the right the man is wearing a hat that is too small; on the left it is too large. The adjectives are narrow and wide.

There are other illustrations, which are quite dramatic. This guy is...