Friday, 28 April 2006

Back to University...

Salam Alaykum everyone (Peace be upon you),

I hope everyone enjoyed the last few days of spring break (for those of you who had spring break of course). Why is it that a 10 day holiday goes by in the blink of an eye while a week of classes drags on forever?? Just a thought I spent a few idyllic days in Alexandria, breathing “clean” air and basically just lazing around, and somehow they put me in “holiday” mood a lot more than when I was in Abu Dhabi. And I can’t believe how crowded it was! Porto Marina (this mall/ marina) was packed with people, and we had to wait 30 minutes for tables at Alain Le Notre (a café). I guess we’re not the only people who wanted to get out of Cairo and the overwhelming heat; I met more than one AUCian there.

I can’t believe I’m back at university, back to exams, projects and papers. Somehow, finals seem a lot closer now that April is almost over, and now its crunch time, with doctors seemingly getting some absurd thrill in torturing us with never-ending projects and assignments. It’s back to the fourth floor library study rooms, back to group meetings and hours of staring bleary-eyed at computer screens.

I guess I should be grateful I’m only doing three major courses this semester, and so only have three projects to work on. My other two courses are for my minor (Arab and Islamic Civilization) and only require term papers. I’ve already come up with a topic for my Sufism class (a sect of Islam), but it’s my “Veiling and the Construction of an Islamic Identity” class that I have to think about. It’s actually one of the most interesting classes I’ve taken in university; only it’s a graduate level course and so has a LOT of readings and is kind of challenging (but in a good way). Funnily enough, the class is 100% female (I wonder why?), and none of us are from the same country, which I find amazing because it gives us all a chance to hear many points of view, rather than all of us agreeing all the time.

I was thinking of doing an overload and graduating in the summer, but instead I’ve decided to go for an internship and work during the holiday, postponing graduation until next fall. It’ll give me an opportunity to actually see what working life is like, and what field I want to pursue once I graduate, or if I should stay and continue with my Masters degree. Now who wants to help me in writing up a decent resumé? Only because I’m really bad at trying to sum myself up in one page; guess I should pay a visit to the CAPS office (Career Advising & Planning Services).
I guess that’s it for this week, I’ll grant you a reprieve for now I should go and get started on my readings for Sunday, since tomorrow I have a long day at university (yes, I even have to go in my weekends!) with a Help Club meeting for our closing reception next week, and a rehearsal for the as of yet unnamed play I’m in. Plus I still have to edit articles for next week’s issue of Dimensions… I guess my work is just never done

Until next time,
All the best, and Salam Alaykum.
Ethar El-Katatney

Friday, 21 April 2006

Litaarafuu: The Search for Mutual Understanding

How’s everyone? I hope you’re all doing great, and thank you for coming back to visit my blog. I’m warning you though; this entry is verrrrry long, but verrrrrrrrrry interesting, so bear with me.

Last week I was in Abu Dhabi, participating in the Muslim Danish Youth Dialogue forum hosted by the Tabah and Ta’aheel foundation. Its title, Litaarafuu, comes from Verse 13 in Chapter 49 in the Qur’an, which partialy reads “…We have created you of a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other…” Litaarafuu means “that you may know each other,” and this was one of the main goals of the forum.

This conference was so amazingly spectacular that I have no idea where to start or what I should focus on. But I guess the best place to start would be the beginning. Bism Allah Al Rahman Al Raheem (Literally “In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful,” and Muslims say this whenever they begin anything).

I was the youngest delegate and (often felt like) the most unaccomplished person there, with almost everyone having finished their Bachelor’s degree (if not their Masters) and all giving me the impression of being very important people. For example:

“Hello I’m President of the Danish Youth Council.”
“Hello, I’m Editor-in-chief of Islamica magazine.”
“Hello, I’m President of the Danish Liberal Youth.”
“Hello, I’m a host of a television show”

And so and so forth. It made me feel that I had gotten accepted as a delegate by mistake, and if so then Alhamdulelah (Thanks to Allah/God)! So it came as a complete surprise when I was chosen as one of the eight delegates to lead the four workshops (2 delegates for each workshop, one from each delegation). Subhan Allah (Praise be to Allah–used usually to show surprise).

Our first day was simply an orientation day, where we got to know each other. I was amazed to realize that the Muslim delegation had come from all over the world—from Egypt, USA, Singapore, UK, Abu Dhabi, Malaysia and many more countries. I’ll admit I was a bit apprehensive that day, since I didn’t really know what to expect of the Danish delegation. On one hand, I was scared of us not being able to get along; and on the other I was scared that we would all want to get along and so would “act” to keep things running smoothly. But I definitely had an image of the “other” in my mind, even though I was trying my best not to be in any way prejudiced before I met the Danish group.

My initial reaction to meeting the other delegation was shock that there were a number of Danish Muslims participating in the dialogue. For me, that was a surprise because it made me realize that I had unintentionally created two “sides” in my mind, painting them in binary opposition, and that the Danish Muslims had no place in my two sided view. It forced me to face up to the fact that painting two sides was a silly idea, and that it’s not simply a case of being one or the other; it was much more complicated than that. So that was the first step in breaking down the barriers that at least I had put up.

We went to an art exhibition later on that day (after lunch at an AMAZING Moroccan restaurant) featuring Islamic art and jewelry at the Muslim Women’s Union, before visiting a cultural center that showed us what the Emirates used to be like in terms of its dress, food, culture etc. I really liked this quote that was up on a wall: “Whoever doesn’t know and preserve their past, can have no present and no future.” Or something like that anyway We were then invited to dinner in the house of a very important person (sorry, didn’t quite catch who he was *oops*) and the generosity of our hosts was simply unbelievable— not to mention the glorious food. Do you think it’s even remotely possible for me to learn to cook like that? *grin*

The next day was when the real work began. After (the usual) sumptuous breakfast, we attended a series of lectures by a very distinguished set of panelists from both sides, discussing whether we were facing a clash of civilizations or a clash of semantics. Instantaneous translation into English/ Arabic was available, and the amount of effort put by the organizers in getting such distinguished panelists is amazing, as were the actual speeches—they gave us a lot to digest before we started the workshops. And can I just say how strange I felt moderating the session with Kasrsten? (My Danish counterpart). Our discussion question was “Is there an intrinsic contradiction between freedom of expression and respect for religious and sacred symbols and sensitivities?” Imagine trying to fit that discussion into 90 minutes. Overall, I think we did an ok job, and it was really the workshop that allowed people to open up and start discussing things truthfully, without trying to sugarcoat their beliefs and convictions.

After the workshop we all took a bus to a Bedouin camp/ tribe two hours out of Abu Dhabi, and this was definitely one of the best and most memorable experiences of my life. The sheer hospitality that was showered upon us was humbling and truly astounding. The girls were all given golden charms (that’s right: gold!) to hang from our watches, and we were greeted with men wearing traditional Arab dress who sang us a greeting song they’d made up just for this occasion.

We took cars to the top of sand dunes and watched the sun set. We prayed the Maghrib (sunset) prayer in the open under the skies. We got henna done on our hands; which is a paste made from leaves and is used to decorate the body—kind of like a temporary tattoo.
The girls were all given gifts of jalabeyas (traditional long flowing dress) matching with a hijab (headscarf). The men also got the male version of the Emirate dress, and we got to take pictures.

Just imagining how much trouble it must have been to find all the different sizes, match the colors, and wrap the gifts truly touches me. A caterer came all the way into the desert to provide us with a feast; I can’t believe how much trouble the organizers must have gone through, and for that I’m truly grateful. They even woke up the camels for us at night so we could pose with them and even drink their milk!! (Ok, it sounds disgusting, but really isn’t—it tastes like whipping cream). They were beautifully white too, unlike the brown camels I see here in Egypt. We were told that it was believed that the camels were directly descended from the Prophet Mohammad’s (Peace be upon him) camel, and so were priceless. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop me from being scared of them

The topic of media and the role it plays in shaping our ways of thinking was discussed the following day, and let me just say how impressed I am with the fact that the Danish participants were all present even though it was Easter. Just imagining giving up my Eid (Islamic holiday) for a conference, no matter how fun it is, is difficult, and so I truly commend them. I hope you all liked the Cadbury crème eggs

The workshop aim was to come up with points we all believe in so as to be able to come up with a declaration, and I’m glad to say that we were able to do so. In the process, I was able to gain a better understanding of how each side thought, and the long bus ride the day before had also given us a very good chance at getting to know how each side regarded the issue and from what angle/ perspective. It’s difficult to express how normal interactions can affect the way you regard what someone is saying; but it’s true that the fact that each and every person I was talking to had ceased to become simply a name affected the way I interpreted their statements. Laughing with Maria over how much we liked dessert, and talking with Mads about the work he’s involved in with an agency in Egypt, made everyone more “real” (if I can say that), and that made their beliefs and ideologies so much easier to respect than when they were simply a homogenous mass presented to us through the media and our own limited knowledge. So definitely, I feel that we accomplished something, and I believe that even if we hadn’t been able to come up with a declaration to satisfy both sides; the simple fact that we went through the process was a very good step that bodes well for the promotion of a society that truly works towards mutual tolerance.

So leaving the (poor) organizers to codify and work on the declaration, we once again got on the bus, but this time headed to Dubai, which was also a couple of hours away. I spent my time being interviewed (eek!) by one of the Danish delegates who was a journalist, and we had a very interesting and enlightening conversation. On the bus, we were each given a gift of a frame with seven layers of sand in it to symbolize the seven emirates, and once again we were amazed at the generosity of our hosts, which seemingly has no bounds.

The bus dropped us off at Jumeirah (bear with me, I know I write too much!), which is a hotel that has a souk (kind of bazaar) which although isn’t authentic, tries its best to appear so. But I must say the Cinnabon (cinnamon pastry) booth kind of destroys the effect And speaking of Cinnabon; did you know that it doesn’t exist in Denmark and so most of the Danish delegates hadn’t tried it? Of course I had to remedy that ASAP, and allow them to feel the happiness that comes from 500 calories a roll

At around 10 or so the bus took us to a Lebanese restaurant (at least I think it was Lebanese), which had this gorgeous sea/water view, where we stayed until 2 am. It was my, Tea-Jeni, and Bar’a’s birthdays (what were the chances??) and so we all got a birthday cake. We got our birthday song sung in Danish (which I have to admit sounds a lot more enthusiastic than the English one), German, English and Arabic. And I felt so veryyyyyy special. And honestly I was touched. I know I’m starting to sound a bit redundant now, but each and every aspect of my experience truly did touch me in some way or another, which is partly why I’m finding it so difficult to stop writing so much, since I have no idea what I should eliminate. I guess you were right in your speech Mads, it is difficult for the media to pick which aspects of a topic to cover

The last and final day of the conference (almost done!) was a happy and yet sad day for all of us. Happy that we’d benefited so much in such a short time and yet sad that our idyllic days were fast coming to an end. How was I going to go back to a life with no cameras following me around? But on a more serious note, it’s true that everyone was starting to get a bit emotional, and although I didn’t and don’t usually show it, I was feeling kind of bereft that all the amazing friends I’d made were going to scatter to literally all four corners of the globe. So here I was sitting there contemplating that sad fact, when suddenly I’m told that I was chosen as one of the two Muslim delegates to get up on the podium and state my reflections on the conference, on what I’ve learnt, and what I’d benefited. And nonchalantly told that it was going to be in 20 minutes, and that the other speaker would be Moez Masoud, who’s a public speaker on Iqraa’, a religious satellite channel.

My reaction? Total blankness. Of course I didn’t want to seem at all unprofessional, so I just nodded that that would be no problem. But inside I was like: “Ummm, what am I going to say?????????” Writing down some points would be helpful right? Only I can’t read my own handwriting most of the time so I rushed to the business centre, quickly typed up a few (I hoped) pertinent points, and then spent 10 minutes running around like a headless chicken trying to figure out why the printer wasn’t working. The manager obviously felt sorry for me, and printed my points from her own computer, and I dashed back to the conference room with literally seconds to spare. But of course, we were in an Arab country, so the 20 minutes turned to 40, and my heart rate slowed down. So now that I’ve totally embarrassed myself and proved that I wasn’t the calm, collected person (I hope!) I looked like; all I can say is that I hope my speech, if not great, at least in some way touched a chord in those who heard it.

And so the concluding ceremony included speeches by Moez and I (I never like saying the “and I” bit, it always sounds so formal), two Danish Delegates, and by some of the panelists like Dr. Karen Karma, Dr. Al-Bouti, and Sheikh Habib Ali Al Jifri. And of course the reading of the Joint declaration. Basmalla, the 7 year old daughter of an Egyptian actor got up and read us a poem, and I saw more than one person with tears in their eyes (of course I wasn’t one of them!!).
After her reading we were once again given gifts (surprise!), but this time by both the Muslim and Danish delegation. From the Muslim side we got books and DVD’s, and from the Danish side we each got a beautiful glass plate from Villeroy and Boch. We posed for group photographs (but of course I had a disposable 2nd rate camera and so no one is looking at me in any of them!) before heading off to Zayed University for lunch. Once again we were welcomed with effusive greetings and a spectacular meal. (I have decided not to weigh myself for a week or so as a result of these amazing meals, and can I just state for the record how glad I am that I can’t cook!!) And then one of the Danish delegates (I’m so sorry I can’t remember your name!) got up and gave us a spontaneous speech about his feelings towards the conference, and how much it had affected him. While listening to his speech, all I could think of was how such a short period of time could be the cause of such fervent and sincere expressions of feelings, and how grateful I was to get a chance to be part of that experience. Because no matter how much I write, this is one of those things that you simply had to be there to feel what I feel.

And if I tell you how saying goodbye a couple of hours later was one of the most difficult things in my life, it’ll be hard to believe because who gets so attached to people in four days? But these are people who have not just come into my life and left; on the contrary they are those who have left footprints in my life (as corny as that sounds) and whom I will never forget. Things like singing “Anamanam/ Tererereree” or “Hakuna Matata” on the bus, or waking up and finding that my roommate had despaired of me learning how to properly fold my clothes and had done them for me may seem trivial, but to me they are indicative of so much more. They show me that there truly is hope; that we are not as different as we think we are, and that at our core we are all human beings and that everything else can be resolved if we put our heart, mind, body and soul into it. Truly, and now more than ever, I believe that, and I will do my best to spread this belief to as many people as I know.

To all the wonderful people I’ve met: Minnie, Maria, Azeema, Karsten, Yasmine, Mads, Jan, Charlotte, Nimrah, Sarah, Hisham, Isacc, Hasanah, Tea-Jeni, Farida, and to everyone else. I just wanted you to know that I was greatly honored to meet you, and that you have truly made a mark on my life. Jazakum Allah kol khair (May Allah/God grant you Good things).

And for all of you who’ve read this far…wow, I’m impressed Thank you for deeming my words worthy enough of your time, and I hope you’ll be back to read my next entry which will be a LOT shorter since I will be in Alexandria, hopefully sitting by the pool and enjoying myself, with no time to write *grin.* And now I think I deserve that chocolate bar which I’ve been craving all day, owing to all the writing I’ve done

Until next time,
Salam Alaykum (Peace be upon you)Ethar

Tuesday, 11 April 2006

Hi everyone!

This has been one of those weeks that you feel goes on and on and on, which you think will never end. Other than papers, midterms, and meetings, I’ve also been participating in the Model Organization Islamic Conference (MOIC).

Going to the conference means I missed classes (and rehearsals for the play I’m in), which is doubly bad for me because I’ll be missing two more days of classes because I’m leaving in a couple of hours or so to go to the airport (I’m traveling to Abu Dhabi for another conference).

The MOIC conference was from 9am-6pm for four days straight, and I was also participating in a workshop this weekend from 6-10 for three days, so I’ve had practically no time to work on my papers/ projects except late at night. I even missed the closing ceremony so I could finish a paper, and I wasn’t there when I was announced as the Best Delegate! So yeah, I’ve been walking into a few walls and drinking a lot of coffee lol. I think I may be Cilantro’s best customer (that’s our Starbucks here). We have L’aroma on campus (another Starbucks alternative), but I still say Cilantro is better. Am I going to be reprimanded for saying that? Hehe. I’d better backtrack and state for the record that L’aroma still has the best hot chocolate, but not the best brownies.

Tomorrow on campus we have International day, which I’m so sad I’m going to miss because it’s one of the best events we have all year. Each country gets a booth, and they sell traditional food, wear the national dress, play music from their country, and sell some really cool stuff. It’s like Global Village in Dubai but on a miniature scale. Last year I got these candles from the Thailand booth and I still have them (of course I have no idea where they are because my desk hasn’t been cleaned in ages, but I know they’re on it or near it somewhere). There’s always a henna lady there (it’s like a kind of tattoo made from plants (I think) that lasts a couple of weeks) but I’m not sure in which country/booth. Maybe India?? In any case, if any AUCians are reading this, then you should definitely go, and stop by the Pakistani booth in particular coz that’s the one my friend Nida is participating in hehe. And the Saudi Arabia booth always has great dates and coffee. Well, you get the picture And don’t forget to pick up Dimensions (the Student Union newspaper) and read my column!

I’m guessing I’ve gone on long enough for a first entry, and I hope you’ll be back to read my second! I’ll find a computer at Abu Dhabi and post my next entry for next Monday. I’ll update this every Monday; this week was an exception because yesterday was “Muled El Nabi” (The Prophet Mohammad’s birthday (PBUH)) and I went to Al Hussein (his great grandson’s mausoleum) to watch the festivities. And seriously that’s an event that every Egyptian and foreigner should attend; there you’ll really get a good dose of everything oriental you ever dreamed of. Shisha (Hookah), whirling dervishes, Sufi ceremonies, music, bokhoor (incense), and not to mention the multitude of shops in Khan El Khalili (biggest oriental shopping bazaar in Egypt) open all night long. If you can stand the crowds, and having to wait a loooong time to find a table in the popular El-Fishaway café, then it’s definitely worth it. And I’m starting to sound like a travel guide so I’ll stop here

Until next time!
Salam Alaykum

Wednesday, 5 April 2006

And so it begins...

Ok this is kind of strange; I’m sitting here and thinking what to write that would interest people who have no idea who I am. I guess I should start by introducing myself a bit. My name is Ethar (comes from the Qur’an and the closest translation is altruism) and I’m a Business Administration senior at AUC. I’m Saudi born, Egyptian raised, and Western educated (I know, an identity crisis just waiting to happen). I have four (very noisy) siblings, and I’m the eldest. I’m minoring in Arab and Islamic Civilization, and I’m in approximately 10 activities this semester (I know, it was a crazy thing to do).

So what have I been up to this weel? Well, first I attended a lecture this week titled “Islamophobia in the West” given by Khaled Abu El Fadl, whom I gather is a very prominent scholar. It was interesting, but I have to confess I was pretty tired and it was a two-hour lecture, so I didn’t really catch everything; though I was supposed to be covering it for Dimensions, the Student Union newspaper I’m a reporter on. Thank God the story was dropped though, and I covered the debate on Wednesday about the Denmark Issue instead, because that wouldn’t have been my best work.

Wednesday was also the henna of one of my friends. A ‘henna’ is a party traditionally held 2 days before a wedding, where the bride and all her female friends basically get dressed up and dance all night. We also have henna done, which are designs done on your body with a paste made from leaves (I think). I had it done on my hands and I think it’s pretty J Her wedding was last Friday, and the singer that came is somehow so much uglier in real life lol. But the Hyatt hotel was amazing, and the Nile looked sooooo amazing (and clean!) from up there.

I’ve been learning how to park lately, and somehow I’m still failing dismally. I was at Cairo University on Friday before the Wedding for my Model Organization of the Islamic Conference (MOIC) session, and I had to park outside, only I suck at it, so my car looked really out of place amongst all the perfectly parked cars. Oh well, at least I didn’t get a ticket ;)

Yesterday some friends of mine from New York came to Egypt for the first time, and since I only know them from the videoconference course I took last semester about cross-cultural perceptions; I was really excited to finally meet them in person. We all went to the Cairo Tower (which I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never been to although I’m a native Egyptian!) and it was hilarious how we were the only group there among all the couples. We then traipsed downstairs to the revolving restaurant. Well actually, I hobbled along since my shins are all black and blue from my morning kickboxing class at Gold’s Gym (I have a mean trainer jk). We had lunch there, although the floor creaked constantly, but all in all it was definitely an experience. Next time, maybe I’ll try the pyramids :D (only kidding, I’ve been there of course).

Hmmm, what else? Oh, I remember. On Thursday my “Intro to Sufism” teacher took us to visit a Sufi Order, where basically the Sufis (they’re an Islamic sect) performed dhikr, which is the remembrance of God and the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). It was really interesting to watch them recite and dance and how they were so welcoming of us. They gave us cake, croissants with date paste inside (which tasted really good btw), chocolates, and strangely enough, tangerines J

Ok, I think I’ve gone on long enough for a first entry; don’t want you to get too bored from the first time :) In any case, I have to go get started on calling all the homes for the elderly here in Cairo, because the Hand in Hand (HIH) is having a mother’s day event on campus for them. And of course I’m a chronic procrastinator, so I’ve left it really late (as usual).

Until next time,
Salam Alaykum!).(literally “Peace be upon you”. The arabic version of hello/goodbye; it works both ways like aloha lol)