Wednesday, March 23, 2005


i named this blog l'atitude because at the time, i was thinking a lot about how my perspective or attitude was affected by my geography (or latitude). and at this point in my life, i find myself thinking about that again.

recently, my latitude has changed again. taher and i are back in chicago. we have left thailand and our return back was not the happiest for me. of course, i was very, very happy to see my family. that was wonderful. but i missed our life in bangkok and felt myself wondering why we had come back so soon, especially since here in chicago, absolutely nothing had changed. everything was still here and it could have waited until the summer for our return.

of course, we decided to come back for a number of reasons, and it was a compromise for me to come back at this time. but a compromise i was very willing to make. and i was not blind to the fact that chicago is home and we would return eventually. i would never want to live in bangkok forever. but the homecoming was still a bit jarring and it took me a couple of weeks to get used to being back.

it is interesting, though, that although we are back, thailand remains with us in surprising ways. i knew that taher and i would be reminded of thailand and would talk about it, bringing up that moment or this detail to each other; that is certainly happening. but beyond that, i was hoping that the mindset i had in thailand would remain with me here. in a foreign country, for an extended period of time, i had to approach life as a challenge and an adventure. and it was at times tiring and at times invigorating to have to try harder to roll with life. fun and frustrating, but never boring. just going out into the street and using our limited thai and navigating in a new social structure was an adventure. and every single day was different from the next.

when i returned from egypt, i had many of the same thoughts that i am having now. i read what i wrote from that period, and i feel that it pertains to the present, even though the countries from which i departed are literally worlds apart. perhaps after i post this, i will post that entry as well.

one surprising factor in my missing thailand so much is the fact that my students have not forgotten me. i thought that i would leave and they would miss me for a week or so, and then fall in love with their next teacher. but it is only after coming back and fielding their emails for the past month that i am realizing that i was almost an alien compared to their middle-aged, indian-born, salwar-kameez clad other teachers. i think that i taught them a lot more than i believed i did. i know i drove home the english grammar well; i know that stuff very well and i left them understanding things like verb-subject agreement and the difference between indirect and direct speech. however, it is becoming clearer to me that i actually made them see themselves in a different light.

my two favorite classes were my 5th grade girls and my 6th grade girls. my 6th grade girls, 6A, were at the stage where they were becoming more aware of their impending womanhood and were actively trying to negotiate the kind of woman they wanted to be. i entered their lives at a crucial time and i was a different kind of role model. i was the only woman they had ever seen who was forthright and outspoken towards authority figures, i was the only woman who was willing to talk to them about what it is like to be married, i was the only woman they had met whose stock answer was "why not? give it a try." at times i purposely acted more fearless than i was, and sat back and watched as ideas took root in their minds.

i'll give you an example. the school had sports events as well as academic events, and it was common that the housemistress would choose the smart girls for the academic events and the athletic girls for the sports events. winning was key, and the girls were never asked their preferences. they were sized up as far as ability, and then relegated to different events. i started a bit of a revolution in 6A by convincing two of the girls, heretofore labelled as weaker students, to approach their housemistress and demand a place on stage in the next math challenge.

it did not work. but they spoke up for themselves and were elated that nobody shot them for it. and when i had a chance, i nominated them to get up on stage and give a speech, and they nearly fainted with disbelief.

when i think of things like that, i am amazed that i ever left the school- i was in a position that i think is rare: i had the power to affect change- small change, yes, but in the lives of these girls, huge. they didn't get what they wanted by asking their housemistress for it, but they suddenly realized that they could ask. and they promised to ask again. i wanted them to be dissatisfied with quietly taking orders. what year is this? they have minds of their own and certainly they know, to an extent, what is good for them or important to them. someone needs to listen to them.

perhaps all of this seems inconsequential; i thought, to an extent, that it was while i was still in bangkok. but when i left, i was met with uproar. the girls opened up and told me what i had done for them, and i was shocked to my core that i had affected them so much. i thought i was changing their behavior circumstance by circumstance, but from what they tell me, i find i was actually teaching them something more lasting. i was changing - or adding to - their perspective. i planted ideas in their heads and trusted them and talked to them and listened to them. and i guess it worked.

they email me almost every day. if i do not respond right away, they reprimand me. they tell me what is going on in their lives, they complain about their teachers, they share their excitement and their boredom and their concerns and their jokes. 6A is doing a play, "the little princess," and they ask me for my advice on acting. their emails are written english that is sometimes perfect and sometimes broken, and they listen to my edits and try to improve their writing.

they are giving me a real sense of having accomplished something in the 7 months i taught them. i am amazed. and i'm proud of myself. and actually i am very, very proud of them. so kawinthida, ngoc, suphatra, sumalee, shradha, manpreet, nitvaree, narumol and shivangi, keep those emails coming.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

i may never leave (written December 21, 2001)

today's the day. after a year and a half, that day that always seemed so (blissfully?) faraway has arrived. i'm leaving egypt and i simply can't believe it. although returning to chicago means going home to parents and family and friends and grad school and every one of a thousand things i've loudly proclaimed to be missing from my life in egypt, the prospect of actually leaving egypt is a depressing one.

have i fallen in love with egypt or have i simply settled in here? either way, it seems odd to me to leave a place in which i've made a life for myself- and an interesting life at that. i'm happy here- i've come to wear this city like a second skin and to be lifted out of it by plane tonight is going to feel wrong. it feels wrong already- i miss it even as i am rooted in it, as i sit in my flat with the usual random shouting and odd clattering noises drifting in through the window.

perhaps what is painful in leaving egypt is that although i know i can return to the place, that it won't fade away and disappear once i fly away, i have come to love the WAY i live. that is, living here, i can't operate on cruise control. it's impossible. to drift through life here would mean getting run over within five minutes. instead i'm constantly being tested, being forced to observe, being surprised, being faced with mini-obstacles. i have very rarely felt as though i'd seen it all or that there was nothing new to discover. and often i've surprised myself: "learning what you know is something you have to do everyday, every moment." the thought of going back to chicago and re-adopting a blase attitude is sickening. and yet perhaps egypt will have taught me to really see chicago. perhaps egypt has taught me to really see.

i remember being new here, doing everything for the first time. and getting everything wrong, all the time. this week has been full of last times and i've been struck by how familiar things can become- it's not been fun to do what i usually do and know that this was the last time- the last time i'll do namaaz in anwar, the last time i'll go to rassul hussain, the last time i'll amble through this neighborhood or that neighborhood, the last time i'll meet anyone at the road nine metro. or last time for a while, i should say. inshallah i'll be back.

cairo hasn't always been good to me, but that is not what cairo is about. i've been good to it and maybe that's why i've gotten so much out of it. there's a lot to see here but none of it is fancy and miraculous- and none of it is decorated with flashing lights so that your attention is drawn towards it. no, no. this city will never ever make things that easy. but the images of the cairo i know will be burned into my mind forever:

a tiny boy balancing precariously on the massive city wall outside anwar; a small child curled up at the foot of a huge pharaonic statue, sleeping in her rags as this monument to wealth towered over her; the grinning milkman standing outside my door on fridays with his enormous metal milkjug strapped to his shoulder; the dozens of minarets that dot the skyline every time i look at the sky; the old man leaning out of his window every morning at 7:20 when i would ride by in the school bus on my way to school; the hot hot pink flowers growing everywhere, the richest color of flower i've ever seen; the hideously ugly ramadaan lamps; the little boys in gallabeyas, hitching them up to play kickball; the women, wearing black, arranging wreaths of flowers by the side of the road; the donkey carts loaded high with vegetables; the layer of dust on my balcony; the layer of dust on everything :)

"eventually, however, she manages to resist the old lie that life abroad is more real. It's just that the stores are less familiar and therefore harder to ignore."

okay, then. maybe rather than saying i'll never leave cairo, i should say that cairo will never leave me. if i can take with me this idea of how to live, i think i'll be gaining something very precious.

Sunday, March 20, 2005


it is our one year anniversary today. which means, somehow, an entire year has gone by. i know we have done many things in the past year, and it has, in fact, been 365 days, but i am still shocked that time flew so quickly.

i hope the next 50 years don't fly by that way!

i'll have to try and slow things down or something :)

anyway last night, to celebrate, we went to the opera. i first began going to the opera in college and really enjoy it, but last night was taher's first visit. he kept a very open mind about giving it a try and i appreciate it greatly :)

getting dressed up for each other, scarfing down fast food 2 minutes before curtain call, poking each other to stay awake at the 5-hour mark (longest opera in the world). i had fun with this boy who has become my very best friend and, it turns out, an incredible roommate.