CRAIG PAUL and TERRY PAUL: Living in Egypt – Part 3

The following story is a series of emails and journaling from Craig and Terry Paul. They emailed a couple of weeks ago from Egypt expressing an interest in following Wayzata Football. Craig has just retired from WHS as the principal and expressed a desire to stay connected. I indicated that the Wayzata Community would like to stay connected to them as well.

As a result of that conversation, Craig and Terry forwarded the following email / journal entries from abroad as they have began a new challenge at the American International School of Egypt in Cairo. will publish these in a new segment called: CRAIG PAUL and TERRY PAUL: Living in Egypt!

Appreciating Ramadan:

We have gained a much better understanding of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and the 4th of the 5 pillars of Islam) and the activities which surround this holy period. Since the Islamic calendar is 11 to 12 days shorter than the lunar calendar, Ramadan migrates throughout the year. Ramadan happened to begin September 1, as did our first day of school.

As the events unfolded, we gained new insights into this Islamic religious recognition. It affects your daily habits, schooling, and economic decisions. Egypt has a 90% Muslim population and 10% Coptic Christians who share a peaceful yet stratified coexistence.

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This first major change was the movement of daylight savings time to September 1 to allow the end of the fasting at sundown to occur earlier in the clock cycle. (Not all Middle Eastern countries do this, but Egypt did.) Adults fast during daylight hours from food, water, smoking and sex and then at sundown celebrate breaking of the daily fast with iftar. Iftar is announced by the mosque loudspeakers at sundown. This begins a food based celebration that, depending on your social status, lasts until early morning hours (4-5am).

Schools feel the impact in several ways. First of all we set up a prayer tent in half of the cafeteria. Since not all kids fast and other religions are represented at our school, a basic lunch is available for these students. In respect to fasting Muslims, most Christian adults eat in their office. Christians try to be mindful not to eat, drink, smoke or chew gum during this month.

We teach the elementary kids the process of prayer and fasting at school. Most Muslim men pray noon prayers in a mosque and the women pray at home. Prayer has a higher amount of participation during Ramadan, just as in the religious observances of most Christians at Easter and Christmas.

Secondly, the students and workers arrive obviously tired and hungry in the morning. This affects teaching as the kids move through their bodies’ highs and lows of the day. Tempers can be short when this abstinence and sleep deprivation occur.

Thirdly, all late buses for staff and students are cancelled through Ramadan as all but one of our drivers are Muslim and the drivers could not make it home for iftar in time. Anyone driving tries to avoid travelling the 2 hours either side of iftar. My 25 minute commute becomes 60 to 90 minutes if I stay till 4 o’clock at school. So we let school out one hour early and hold practices for kids that have transportation (their personal drivers, as few adults, let alone students, drive) and the one bus driven by our only non-Muslim driver. We bus staff to and from work daily, so they head home too. It is tough on kids staying alert, on teachers wanting to stay later in their rooms and on coaches with no activity buses for a month. Ramadan starts 11 days earlier each year so the same process will occur next year, only beginning in August.

Living day to day is affected by the celebration and prayers as shops normally open late here, but with Ramadan, they close for noon and evening prayers and then reopen and stay open very late, as that is when the people walk, shop and celebrate after iftar and in the cool of the evening darkness. The shopping is just like the pre-Christmas rush as the aisles are full of those searching for gifts, treats and iftar food. Liquor (there are Egyptian wines and beers) is forbidden (but can be found). As contradictory as it sounds, Egyptian Ramadan is not only about fasting but is also associated with excessive eating. You miss much of the life here if you retreat to your apartment by 8pm because street life begins then and goes until 4 AM.

Shops open doors at their own pleasure. The pastry shops, sweet shops and grocery stores are very busy selling iftar foods. The restaurants serve iftar specials for the wealthier patrons. Then throughout Cairo, tables are set up in open spaces where anyone can enjoy the iftar breaking of the fast. This is from the street cleaners to business people and families eating very good donated food in a calm, democratic setting. You sit down and enjoy. We have eaten in restaurants where we are served special “Ramadan drinks” as a treat from the owners.

Those businesses with customs needs, record keeping and shipping really slow down during this period. There is an American concept of time, slowed by the normal Egyptian concept and then slowed even further by the Ramadan pace. We have had a supply container in customs for 3 weeks. It is best to schedule around Ramadan. You learn to have patience or have a breakdown.

There is a vibrancy of color during Ramadan as the beige landscape takes on the bright special reflections of Ramadan in cloth, lights and decorations. Lanterns of all sizes made of metal with gaily covered glass windows lit with lights from the inside are everywhere. Described by a secretary as the Egyptian Christmas tree, they are hanging from patios, store windows, outside homes and businesses and for sale in street shops. They are anywhere from 3’ to 10’ and are from one lantern to a lantern that has many windows to it, so it looks like it has several arms! There are also the equivalent of Christmas lights all over blinking on mosques, outside apartments, retail and restaurants, so it truly looks like a holiday!

There are also colorful cloths in primary colors on white all in wild patterns that are used for many settings. What one person uses as a table cloth others use as decorative backgrounds, fence covers, advertising visuals as well as wall and building hangings. We have a yellow and white one as a tablecloth right now. And Terry is looking for one to carry as a bag. Imaginative and fun!

As with our traditional non-commercialized Christmas, Ramadan is a time to be generous with tips, kindness and smiles. You give those that serve you extra pounds or food stuffs this month. Muslims buy gifts for family and friends and for giving to the needy and poor (alms is the 3rd pillar of Islam). The month ends in a huge celebration called Eid al-Fitar (Eid in daily use language) which is the 3 day formal “Festival of Breaking the Fast”. We dismiss school for this first week of October as it is a time of family spiritual and celebratory release. We will go to Athens during this period as those coming before describe as best left for the celebrants.

Aids Awareness redefined:

All foreigners must have an annual AIDS test in Egypt by approved Egyptian doctors. With the AIDS issues in Africa, the government decided to test all those foreigners are here beyond a 30 day visas. Thus one workshop day, a doctor came to school and tested all of us. Anyone failing has 48 hours to exit the country.

I had given blood twice per year through the NHS blood drive at Wayzata and for years before that so I felt confident.

Turns out I failed the test. Damn! Was AIDS around in the sixties? Has Terry not told me something? Was I contaminated helping a bleeding student? Were the needles clean in the NHS blood drive? My life past and future flashed before me. What am I going to tell my wife and kids? How do we pack up and go home?

This meant a trip to downtown Cairo to the government hospital for a redo. This is not a Grey’s Anatomy or ER kind of hospital, by the way. And the lines of people waiting at this place are not the normal kind of people you would see in lines in Wayzata, MN. A driver took me there, and did all the interpreting for me, and paid a bribe to get me past those waiting. What a trip it was!

I can tell you though that I watched very carefully to make sure a new needle was being used to test me! Turns out, the second test sample is divided into three parts and each tested separately. That was two weeks ago and I sense that I have passed but no one tells you. If you fail, your employer is sent a notice that you have to be out of the country within 48 hours. Turns out 6 of the 150 of the new employees had to retake the test, all for a variety of reasons related to the massive volume of foreign workers . This test is required yearly for each foreigner. We have had a few new teachers sent home in the past. I was told that at least in the US, we know we can effectively deal with effectively living with AIDS. Not true in Africa and the continent is struggling with the aids issue.

Terry has yet to do her test because she was in Sweden at the time we were tested-enjoy Princess! If you see me home this fall, you will know test two did not go well and we are out of here.

FLEA Markets Same (or Maybe Not)

Every Friday in Old Cairo, there is a flea market. This is the kind of flea market that is held in lots of cities all around the US, where people bring goods to sell that either new or used, and people buy them at reduced prices. People expect to barter for them. In old Cairo, it is held by the Autostrad (freeway), and there are several hundred small retailers selling their items. It is dusty because it is held on dirt, not grass. It is cramped with no protection from the sun unless the vendor has an umbrella. Unless you get there early in the morning (before 10:30), you are cramped in like sardines, and jockey for walking and bartering space. Everything is sold there from pigeons to falcons to fish to rugs to jewelry. It is THE place to go for the locals to get a good bargain! Some of the teachers went and they had a blast bargaining for rugs and kitchen goods, and one of them was ready to buy a falcon for 50 ($10) pounds! We have some pictures of the market taken at 10 AM, before it got crowded. My definition of crowd had already been met! You also see a pile of trash there that would not be inviting to me, but for the Egyptians, it is part of everyday life. It will be picked up eventually by the Zebaleen.

Watering Stops

As we walk in the city, every block has places to refill your water bottle or to wet your face. I have taken pictures of three of these places that are within one block of our apartment. Our security people will fill up their water bottles from these. We have seen people wet clothes and wipe their faces/necks with them. We have seen kids splash each other’s faces with them. They however, are not wasteful with the water.

Getting Employment Across the Street

Yesterday as we ate breakfast, we heard lots of unusual noise, and went out on the balcony. Across the street at the villa entrance were many men trying to pass their business cards through to the security guards to get employment. Unemployment is very high in Egypt and these men were either trying to get day work or a longer employment, we’re not sure. They stood for over an hour with their arms up trying to reach through the gate. We were told the villa is owned by a millionaire. I took some pictures of the villa and its grounds. I also took pictures of the bare lot on its right the garden on its left, and then the high rises two blocks behind it. So now you can see what we look out at from our balcony. We are surrounded by millionaire’s villas on 2 sides of us. One neighbor owns the largest candy factory in Egypt, and I can see him smoking his sishna pipe at night on his balcony 15 yards away! That tells you how precious land is here in Cairo- if he wanted to share any candy with us, he could hand a sack of it over the railing to us!

Some thoughts on economic survival:

It was a myth that tips in dollars or Euros were appreciated when in fact most tips go to those who have no idea what to do with non Egyptian money. How do they spend it as they go nowhere $ are used. A dollar is actually an excessive tip in most daily cases for those that provide a service. Imagine!

Another “honesty experience” happened when Terry and I took a brand new teacher and his wife on their first food shopping trip to the little Metro market. They were accidently charged for cigarettes they did not have in their cart. Three days later, Terry and I were again at Metro and the cashier came to me and said in his very broken English,” remember the two with you 3 days before? They were over charged and here is the 22 pounds. Can you get it to the other two people you were with?” Honesty in shops continues to amaze us in this city of 18 million people.

This is a negotiations based society and you need to be aware. But once a deal is made up front, it is honored. For example, our complex has a man that will wash your car daily. He told me it was 90 pds a month or 60 cents a day. I knew the last director paid 50 per month. I asked the front desk security what the fee was, and yup, it is 90. I told the car washer no thanks and walked away. Sure enough we settled on 50. Okay, I can afford to pay 40 cents a day. The point is to get to the “fair price” or you are perceived as a dumb foreigner. The security and washer would split the new hoped for gain. This is a “foreign” process to most Americans. Hard for me when I know their average annual income is a pittance, but people make up for this by giving food, gifts or money at different occasions such as Ramadan or at Christmas or other special holidays.

With optimism,

Craig and Terry


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