Elections, Whales, and Garbage

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I know, I got some ‘splainin to do. There’s been dead air on my end for over a month now and some pretty big stuff goin’ on in the world. To be honest, I finally popped into a school routine during October and only accumulated enough pictures and stories for a full blog about two weekends ago. But boy when things get rolling they really get rolling. Ok here’s what’s been happening on this end:

Political street art in Tahrir square

Two weekends ago the Coptic Church of Egypt wrapped up an 8 month election process with the selection of Bishop Tawadros as the new pope. (Ha! You thought I was going to talk about American elections huh? There was a huge spike in blog views the day after the election which just adds to my guilty feeling that I should probably mention something about Obama and the huge impact of American elections abroad and blah blah blah. But I don’t want to. So there. I’m gonna talk about the Copts instead.) The old Pope Shenuda died last March sparking the election process which definitely out-does the Vatican’s smoke stacks when it comes to showmanship. At first a panel selects possible nominees from the church’s pool of existing priests and monks. Another panel then selected 2,406 electors comprised of priests and laypeople from several countries – though of course the majority were Egyptians. In a series of voting rounds the candidates were narrowed down to

This is for you Rae! I finally got one of the little buggers.

3 finalists. Then they throw a big mass in the main cathedral in Cairo and the priest residing over the mass puts the three names in a jar which sits on the alter throughout the mass in plain sight. At the end of the mass, one of the altar boys is randomly selected, blindfolded, and then draws the name of the new pope from the jar. The Copts instituted this selection method three popes ago because they believe that the seeming random nature of the final selection allows for the influence of God’s will on the selection. When a monk at Saint Anthony’s monastery was explaining the process to me this summer I couldn’t help but note the similarity to how my brothers and I used to select which movie to watch. Our elections generally resulted in someone crying and running to mom – so far the Copts seem to be fairing significantly better.

“Luxor and Aswan.” I’m not approving any snide comments on this. Costume shops are hard to find in Cairo.

Ok now to catch up on the rest of October. Midterms went fine. Studying was encouraged by the anticipation of a Halloween costume party at the embassy which followed the week of tests for me. I stressed over a costume idea for a good two weeks before I came up with what I thought was a brilliant partner costume idea for me and Zia the morning of the party. Don’t stress if you don’t get it. No one else did. We were Luxor and Aswan. I hate Halloween.

A week-long break followed for the Muslim Eid al-Adha festival. This is the biggest holiday for Muslims and celebrates when God told Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead of his son. In Christianity and Judaism the son is Isaac but the Quran says that it was Abraham’s other son Ishmael – a distinction which some scholars identify as the point at which the three Abrahamic religions split from one another. Muslims celebrate this day by sacrificing a sheep of their own (or a cow or a camel) and then giving away a third of the meat to the poor, a third to family and friends, and saving the last third for a feast. Zia and I went down to el-Minya again to stay with Karim’s family and though they decided not to sacrifice a sheep this year (we weren’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved) we were treated to lots of home-cooked beef and sheep-related Egyptian dishes. We had a nice time relaxing with the family again and got to attend a wedding one night with Karim and his friends Mohamed Abdel Halim and Ahmed Morsy (no relation to the president, though we all called him ra’eese which means president).

Me and Zia with Mohamed Abdel Halim and his sisters

The weekend after we got back I headed down to Hurghada on the Red Sea with the ALI program for a weekend of beaching and SCUBA DIVING!! This was the first time that I have been able to use my newly acquired Diver’s License on this trip and I couldn’t be more hooked now. I went with a company called Corona (who were excellent – lemme know if you need any Red Sea scuba recommendations) and because I signed up late I got placed on a boat with a bunch of Scandinavians and learned all about the scuba diving in the Norwegian fjords. I think that Norwegian sounds like Elfish. The scuba was amazing. On the first dive we saw three giant graceful eagle rays and only after inspecting a particularly strange-looking coral up close I realized that I was looking at a giant puffer fish the size of a microwave – and that was un-puffed. I can’t wait to go again with my family when we head to Dahab in January.

This guy was in charge of transporting the scuba equipment to the boats

Prehistoric whale vertebrae. I was nerding out pretty hardcore.

Ok I think that brings me up to this weekend. On Friday I took another trip with the school and headed out to Fayoum and Wadi al-Hitan (Valley of the Whales) where paleontologists discovered the first concrete evidence that whales evolved from land mammals. Somehow I got myself into a situation where I was asked to explain this in Arabic on Thursday (ha yeah right) – a conversation in which my Egyptian friend finally clarified much of the confusion when he revealed that he doesn’t believe evolution is real. Apparently Americans don’t have a monopoly on creationism. The desert was totally beautiful and reminded me of the San Rafael swell in Utah. The wide-open space was a welcome break from the bustle of Cairo.

Yesterday a group of us headed to an area of Cairo that I have wanted to cross of my list for a while. Cairo does not have a centralized garbage collection system. Instead most of the garbage is collected by a class of Coptic Christian Egyptians called the zebelleen (trash people) who make their living by recycling 90% of the garbage and selling the resulting raw materials to manufacturing companies – mostly in China. All of the sorting work is done in a part of Cairo known informally as Garbage City. Zia was able to find us a tour guide named Wagdy who has family that work in various capacities throughout Garbage City so we were lucky enough to see most of the process from start to

If you look closely you can see goats on the roof where the family raises them.

finish. The zebelleen are mostly Coptic pig farmers (Muslims don’t eat pork) who moved to Cairo from the countryside in the 60’s and 70’s because they saw Cairo’s trash collection problem as a business opportunity. The organic waste fed the pigs and the rest was sorted and sold as raw materials. During the swine flu epidemic of 2009 the government forced the community to kill all the pigs, and though people have begun to bring back the porkers, the community has definitely begun to focus on recycling more. If you are interested in learning more check out a 2009 documentary called “Garbage Dreams” (look for a link on the lower right-hand side). It is very well done and does a good job of covering a few of the social issues surrounding the zabelleen – of which an abundance exist. Most families specialize in a specific kind of material which they usually sort on their roof – raising families right alongside all of

Garbage is sorted and recycled on the roof.

Cairo’s garbage. Needless to say it is a health worker’s worst nightmare, though as always I was amazed by the joie de vivre with which Egyptians embrace life in even the most abject of conditions.  The first thing  Wagdy told us was that he doesn’t like when people feel bad for others like the zebelleen – there isn’t any benefit in pity. The monastery itself was shockingly beautiful – a majestic refuge from the garbage-filled streets and testament to the faith of the zebelleen carved right out of the solid limestone cliffs. For me the day epitomized the fuzzy image of Egyptian spirit that has been forming in my mind since I arrived in June and witnessed the massive protests and celebrations in Tahrir square. There is a sarcastic and light-hearted clarity in which Egyptians grapple with the hardships of life – of which it seems like an unfair burden has been leveled on many of them – and yet there is a perpetual drive to return focus to the sweet things in life – family, religion, and good food. That’s something we can all relate to – obnoxiously gleeful Obama-supporters and melodramatic Romney-supporters alike. (There. I talked about the elections.)



One response to “Elections, Whales, and Garbage

  1. Hey Stephen, I was wondering when you were going to post another blog! I love the part about garbage city, how fascinating! It looks kinda like parts of Uganda haha, they like to burn trash in the streets and just generally put trash where sidewalks should be. And HOLY CRAP that bug is terrifying. Do they bite? Attack in swarms and eat humans alive? I bet they do…No thanks.
    That scuba diving trip sounds really amazing, you probably should have poked the puffer fish and watched him turn from a microwave to an oven! Kidding that would be mean. I didn’t get your halloween costume at first either, but I think they turned out beautifully nonetheless! Very clever.
    I can’t believe you’re coming back so soon!
    Much love,

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