PIKAS-BALAY: The Other Oriental. By Anabelle B. Ragsag

By Anabelle B. Ragsag

CAIRO, Egypt (MindaNews/09 August) — It was not until my 8th month of living in Cairo did I truly feel that I have started living here. It is as if I got a new pair of lenses, from that of a tourist, to that of a local (even if I know being distinctly Asian-looking, I will always look like an outsider).  I can’t figure out exactly what triggered this change of perspective. But perhaps it’s a combination of many changes.

Sabah il-fol” (may your morning be of flowers), is my way of greeting good morning to the building staff in our apartment, instead of the more common “Sabah il-kheer” (may your morning be good). It is my attempt to be more in the groove of the Egyptian colloquial, which almost always win me a number of surprised smiles from those within hearing distance. I am in no way a linguistic specialist but it is much like in the level of saying “pagsure diha oy” in the Davao area or to say “nagpapahinga (any verb) ako ng bonggang-bongga” .  So imagine a foreigner saying those.

These six months of taking Arabic language lessons have progressed to a point of functional use – where I can stand my ground to a cab driver on how much a fair fare should be (well, that doesn’t say a lot. I’d say it’s more attitude than fluency).  Saying Alhamdullilah like the locals would say has already morphed into my daily vocabulary, when asked how I am.   More than that, I feel being able to read and write Arabic scripts gave me a new window of seeing the world and of having baby steps in understanding this part of the world.  Some seminal thoughts of some far-away plans to teach basic Arabic pro-bono to our Middle East-bound OFWs also seem to come out of nowhere.

When I am at the receiving end of some not-so-playful antics of strange men on the street, I can already answer them flippantly, or better yet, I can already growl and make them run away from me.  Despite the very real issues on sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo that found their way in the Egyptian news, in Al Ahram Weekly titled Streets of Shame and in the New York Times, with the header Covered Up and Harassed in Cairo my experience and that of those I talk to around here, is that these harassments never escalate to violence and they scarcely involve getting physical. This is not to excuse these despicable acts, nor to say that verbal assault is a lesser kind of harassment. However, knowing that this is the case, women who find themselves in these situations can have a recourse – ignore, run away or answer back.  And then there’s the option to report it to the police. Though not everyone will bother going. But that’s a different story.

When a kiosk seller or owner gives me a discount, I can already see the generosity behind that, more than my doubts.  Since most of the front persons in any establishment, whether it be in a tailoring shop, a perfume store, a spice outlet, a knick knack joint, or a restaurant are males, it gets a lot of unlearning from the interactions I have mentioned a while ago. But the good news is, I have met more male strangers who genuinely help, and whose hearts are as pure as anyone’s. It is just that the not-so-good kinds get most of newspaper advantage. There’s this kiosk owner beside the office I often frequent who makes me feel that the store is more blessed when I buy a bottle of water or two, there’s the father and mother of my former student who welcomed me and my sister into their family home with home-cooked Egyptian dinner of  Luxorese bread, molokheyya and okra, there’s the cashier in the grocery who lets us know about the new stock of our favorite brands, there’s the taxi driver who tries to return my money instead of charging more because he does not have change, there’s my Arabic language teacher who is a gentleman personified.

I have slugged it out in the Metro station – be it in the females’ or the mixed compartments. How is the Cairo Metro like? Not bad, at all. I would even put my life in the line, to swear that the interior is cleaner than the Metro of most European cities, Milan, Bonn and Brussels, included! Although it does not run airconditioning,  it’s fast, efficient, and safe. There is the occasional ogling, but I can live with that. But there’s a way out from all those ogling, too. Just hop on the women’s.

Maneuvering the streets of Boulaq and in Bab El Louk (districts within downtown) are kind of an experience with the divine. Any proselytizing religion can bring there would be converts along these streets and I guarantee an immediate confession of faith. But more seriously, I have learned that the best way to negotiate these streets would be to walk across in a diagonal kind of way which, as I have observed, is the only way to successfully approximate the distance of careening cars.

I buy molokheyya on a regular basis – which is the best way to make Egyptians love you instantly. Molokheyya is the Egyptians’ staple veggie, or so I was told, – and also to Ilocanos and a lot of Mindanawon. Can you guess what is it? Saluyot or tagabang. That’s what molokheyya is.  Buy a bundle and the warmth level of your visit to the green grocers suddenly turns familiar and homely.  And I should say a sentence or two about their mangoes. Theirs are as good as, if not better than, ours in the Philippines.

I have finished teaching two semesters of introductory classes in Sociology and Human Rights with mostly Egyptian students, and some from the Gulf.  The first few meetings are almost always emotionally difficult, and there seems to be a necessity of establishing my credibility now and then, as a brown petite woman teaching a room-full of mostly towering, heavy-built Egyptians. Not to mention that the course itself is a challenge to teach in this context.

While the beginnings are always difficult, the end of each semester is always an experience of learning how to let go. I would like to think we both come out of these classes as better persons – each gathering some understandings about the ‘other Oriental’. After all, we are all from the East (whether Far or Middle or South), where the sun rises.

(Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ way of linking with fellow Mindanawons abroad who wants to share his/her experience in his/her hometown in Mindanao or where he/she is currently based abroad. Anabelle Ragsag, a native of Panabo, Davao del Norte currently lives in Cairo, studying Arabic while revising her dissertation for her PhD studies at the University of Bonn, Germany)