Sunday, 23 November 2008

I am in the field!

So Mike and Daniela now have a blog and well I'm jealous and need to have one too :) Have been totally encouraged by their writings and well hope this one will be a good outlet for all the unwritten thoughts that bombard me daily.

I've been "in the field" for the past 23 days. Been in Cairo since October but officially started fieldwork early november. The transition was a bit weird. As in until October 31st I was just writing funding applications from home (and going to endless weddings- mating season in this country!) and suddenly in Nov. 1st I am in the field!

So the plan was to secure access to the factory during the first few months, become a regular and then hopefully find a family that can host me by mid January. I started contacting ppl (well to admit not all of them, I only called a few and waited for replies. the first week I was terrified, not sure why, but just the sudden transition was weird- I remembered all those older PhD students who told us that they spent the first few months afraid to hang out with ppl- how I made fun of them then and now suddenly found myself in their shoes at the beginning, but things got better alfterwards). While I went on doing the work of meeting labour leaders and attempting to secure access to Helwan etc I mostly spent the first few weeks trying to understand what it means to be "in the field".

Okay so being in the field meant understanding what "regular" Egyptians do everyday-or so I thought it is. The first thing I thought of was that I needed to change the way I drive around in this country. Being a "regular" Egyptian, I can no more commute with a car driven by a driver.

Okay so this is a bit complicated. My family has a few cars, but the one they use to do all the "mashawir" with- (Mashawir is errands and at the same time a drive to somewhere- so if you're cancelling a meeting and want to use a vague word you say I was in a meshwar! or I had "zarf" which translates into "circumstances" which I find fascinating because it simply says politely "something" came up and you don't have to explain precisely how long the zarf/meshwar is/what it entails- unlike with cancelling meetings for example in the U.K). So anyhow the car for mashawir is supposedly also my car-which means I have to commute with a driver most of the time because he can manage between dropping me around and doing the rest of the duties for the entire household. This is how I have been commuting everywhere for the largest part of my life (and it is not uncommun in the community I come from). Only when Khaled goes home or is on a break I can take the car and drive anywhere on my own. At very few occasions I took cabs all around. But cabs are also relatively expensive and generally unsafe to take at night for a woman because it puts you in the stituation of being with a man alone(or that is what I realised after starting to commute daily with them the first few weeks).

So now I decided no more commuting with the car and moved a bit to taxis. I have been totally fascinated by how social class in this country is arranged by the way you commute around (see below- end of post-the different categories of transportation and the differences between them). Taking the taxi I found later was expensive to go back and forth to downtown from where my house is (around 45 mins with traffic and costs around 40 Egyptian pounds for a return trip- 4GBP). I also figured it is not the "real" way most Egyptians move around. But for a long time I was so scared of taking any other form of transportation- mainly because well I simply didn't know how to take one.

There are usually no clear signs on buses/mini-bus - you have to read some scriblled destinations- which in most cases, I've never knew any of these destinations. To get off is the same, no clear bus stops and you need to know where to pull off. There are no signs how much it costs and it is quite embarassing to ask- because well this is for most people a "known fact" because this is how "everybody" generally commutes ever since they're young. (mmmm it's like asking how much a bottle of water costs or how to pay at the cashier- EVERYBODY knows it won't be more than one pound and that you need to go to the till to pay- but if someone comes asking it sounds like huh how come you don't know!).

I then decided to get a map of Cairo (in addition to my lonely planet)! Yes like a tourist and attempt to learn the different street names/destinations besides the two three big neighbourhoods where I used to go. In fact to my shame I realised that even places in downtown etc where I used to hang out I really never knew some of the streets names or the streets "Ahwa"- (Street coffee shops frequented by men and the "working classes" generally). I knew where the upper class pubs, westernised coffee shops, cultural centres and universities are. I felt akward realising how little I knew about the place I've been living in. This is Cairo, Downtown, where my school is and yet I know very little. precisely because even when you drive around you can know the directions without needing to know the names. A fact I realised that most of my friends from the same class share- a complete ignorance of street names. Even Khaled my driver who knows the streets so well, wouldn't know many of the names in places- especially of places he doesn't need to take transportation from.

This was a bit embarassing at the begining. I would take an appointmenet from somebody on some street ahwa and then take forever to arrive there because I would get lost on the way. Or i'd be on the phone with someone and pull off the map while they explain how to come (obviously without telling them). This increased as i took less and less cars and cabs (you can always just ask the cab driver to drop you somewhere) and more and more I started taking the underground and finally the mini-bus.

The underground was pretty easy and I still wonder until today how come none of my friends or myself ever took it before. In fact they seem fascinated by the fact that i actually take the underground in Egypt. Mathilde my friend from France who was here for research last year was also shocked at how most Egyptians she met never stepped foot in the underground or a mini-bus and thought of it as an "adventure".
The undeground as my family used to tell me is "smelly", "packed", "stops all the time" and full of "covered people". It really has a combination of all this sometimes, but not to the extent to never use it-especially in a country where it takes almost an hour to commute from any point to another. Now I take the underground with my "informants" most of the time, which in a sense reduces the clear class divides and allows us to share a chat on the tube (and fight over who gets the ticket- will write more abt that). yes I do get off in the fancy town of Cairo, and they know it, but the fact that we "nerkab" (get on a bus/metro) together makes a difference.

I only took the mini-bus twice. Once with Matthew the American journalist working on labour issues I'm working with and another time with Karim one of the so called informants but really now more a friend(will write more about Karim next time). With Matthew being an American, it gave me the chance to act like an ignorant tourist for a bit and not to be too embarassed by how different I look, to ask the prices/where it pulls off. Being there the first time was normal. I got a little scared by how ppl jump/pull off while the bus is running but in a few minutes had got used to it. The only thing I noticed was that the bus driver makes ALOT of money. We all collect the money and send it front to him and sitting behind the guy, he didn't stop collecting money from all those who jump off/on as he goes. He makes at least 50 Egyptian pounds/hour. On our way back an old man sat next to Matthew and I, he then asked us to pay his trip- understandably we looked out of place there, so we did.

The second time I took the mini-bus was with Karim. Karim used to be a worker in Mahalla and was moved to cairo after being detained when leading the labour strikes in April. He is 24, speaks some English and is active everywhere and hangs out with Matthew and I on the famous ahwa of activists/labour leaders etc- el borsa. Matthew was the one who introduced me to Karim. Anyhow, Karim and I were going to Maadi to catch some friends' documentary (another commun friend) and decided to take the mini-bus. It was 7 pm and the main mini bus station in downtown was full. loads and loads of ppl standing, running and fighting over who gets in and some waiting for some long time. I began to understand what it means to go somewhere to the other in Egypt and why it makes so much difference what type of transportation you take. In arabic in Egypt we say "atbahdel fil mowasalat" (loosing your respect while taking transportation). This truely is a fact-there are no fixed hours, not enough seats, risks of being harrassed and well increasingly you spend a lot of time commuting with many stops and crazy traffic. In maadi for example it took us an hour to get around although knowing this route it takes max 15 minutes. This traffic also seperates us into different zones. To go from one end of town to the other can take up to 2 hours (which should normally take 30 min). This means that unless you REALLY have to, people just stay in their neighbourhoods and don't get to see the rest of Cairo.

Being on these buses/metros I can't stop staring at people (which Karim makes fun of all the time). All the faces seem to impress me, all the noises, colours. This is a totally new world for me. I look quite odd on the metro- with my hair curley and in the air. (see women cars description down in the list of transportations). The majority of women are veiled and the only ones not, have their hair pulled back in the very Christian community way which I know but can't describe- but sometimes can check from the cross they are wearing (note that I am finding less and less women not christian with their hair loose). They are mostly young women in their 20's and most often commute together in groups and wear a lot of colours- in contrast to my long black fieldwork jacket that covers my body to my knees (have been trying to dress differently- will talk abt that later). There is a sense on the tube that we all look at each other/examine each other but rarely speak. I have to say there is also a sense of hostility which I cannot explain. Not sure if this is just me being sensitive or what this weird exchanges are. We'll see.

On the tube women talk, a female seller comes to sell socks for veiled women (not sure what these mean- we all wear socks don't we), Small balls that grow in the water and accessories. Every so often someone would by those socks and a few these balls and we'll throw a joke about these balls. On the tube there is a lot of signs stuck in tube but mostly islamic sayings. I once found an add for a marriage agency declaring that you can call and will help you find the right person and they accept all types of women. I found that fascinating. The girls/women are quite strict about not letting a man in. There was once an old man that came by accident and suddenly everybody was shouting and telling him to go out. I thought how stupid can't they see it's an old man! But in a minute the man was already kind of rubbing himself next to most girls and somehow I understood that I shouldn't be that naive sometimes!

The most weird thing is that well now I do all my work with the metro. But often do the rest of the things (like going to westernised bookstores/catching coffee/lunch with friends) in the car with Khaled. I feel a bit of hypocrisy here. But I somehow still live "home". Going to these places also one dresses slightly differently. But in retrospect I actually think on the tube I am the one generally under-dressed/man like. Maybe I could. Well I dunno. It's weird. It feels weird to go to labodega in fancy zamalek area with a mini-bus. I usually take the taxi if I don't want my car. But sometimes I just want to save money, or to be honest I am just too drained by transportation.

This has been the most weird thing. I am home- and some ways of being are part of it. But then also I am in the "field" and yet trying to secure access to the community in Helwan/factory. It's taking long and somehow being not a tourist/foreignor I can't just show up there alone and start chatting to people. Here, you have to be introduced by someone. If you want to make sure you integrate well. So far I've been attending meetings and hanging out with labour leaders in Cairo on different coffee shops, doing interviews to some and waiting as they put me in contacts with others. But it is slow and people are still trying to trust me before they put me with others/ some are actually so up in the sky (the labour aristocracy) that they lost contact with ppl in Helwan and the rest are scared/embarassed to be with a girl etc...some bail off after deciding to help me and giving me their word. I keep trying all contacts and start all over again in finding new ones. Sometimes I feel I'll never get there, never mix in the community. But somehow I am trying to let things take its time and learn more about the general politics of labour unions/leaders while in Cairo. (I will write more about what I've been doing next time).

But somehow this means I am still stuck at home. I am also still waiting for my scholarship cheque to be disbursed (takes 40 days) and still living off my family's money (except for the few pounds I make from working with Matthew as a translator). So really not so financially independent to decide. I contemplated moving out of home and going to downtown or something until I have secured a family in Helwan in January to live with. But then again I am not sure how will this help. This is not a society that accept women living alone. I will pay a lot for rent in Cairo (when I have a little scholarship) and although it can give me independence, it will also make me hang out with the labour leaders/activists alot- which although is something I am working on/I want to be careful from because I don't want to be seen by state security to be hanging out with the leftist too much- otherwise they'll crack down my research. Not sure.

Some of the anthropologists I met here who come from Stanford etc are living in Zamalek (another posche neighbourhood) and still go to parties/pubs. Saba Mahmood is in Maadi (another poshe neighbourhood). So it's not like they're all doing it the right way. But this sense that while I do my daily interviews and wait for access I am still at home feels weird for me. It puts me in such a bad mood with my family-because I always feel i shouldn't be here! It took us a lot of negotiations for them (and me) to realise that I am not back like as if I'm living here again. I am on research-which still is weird because I can't quite do the seperation that easily sometimes. So what does being in Cairo on research means? Do I stop going to fancy cafes sometiems (I've limited them already!), do I not see friends? (I don't seem them often anyways). Not sure. I'm trying to use my work with Matthew as much as I can. Sometimes it's not really related to my work on labour but at least we go exploring/taking photos of general working class neighbourhoods, markets etc which otherwise are quite weird to visit alone. Now I decided (and a fellow anthropologists suggested) I'll use this time to write proper notes, do all the newspaper clippings/write down names, understand the history of the labour unions/general history of public sector-while my interviews with labour leaders/access goes slowly. Sometimes I wake up very frustrated at still being at home and sometimes I feel at peace with it. Guess this is just fieldwork

Now trying to get myself into the habit of writing more. I don't write as much as I want to. Partly because I'm never sure what are "field" notes in Cairo- apart from writing about meetings/interviews/chats in the coffee places with labour leaders. Sometimes I feel that what i write is quite trivial-you know ppl commute in different things, ppl wear colours, we exchange food this way, ppl think of marriage this way etc etc . Most of this is quite normal to me and takes a lot of effort (and confidence) to start thinking of this as important field-information to be written down. I also find it so hard to find the time (and the state of being of writing). I am very disorganised and don't have self-disciplne so am easily pulled away from regular writing. But now trying to just keep on trying to write and figure out the " fieldwork system" as it comes a long. Hopefully this blog will make it comming more.

I have a meeting in Helwan this evening. I hope it really works. But well I'll take the tube to there again which is great, I can do my favourite pass time now observing/mingling with ppl on the tube.

Here is the list of the different transportation available in Cairo from the top to bottom (will add photos soon).

1-Private owned cars (with a driver possibly)- (and well there is everything in the streets from top end mercedes cars to 30 years old italian fiats). upper middle class families would generally have 2 cars plus and generally middle class families might have one (this is a very rough discription). There are all sorts of cars on the streets but the most available are the Daweoo and Huyndai (bro says they have 25% of Egyptian Market share). These are minimum 60,000 pounds worth. So the kind of new but very cheap cars.

2- high-class airconditioned taxis (which are yellow unlike most other cabs, airconditioned and could be called up on the phone). These are very few and cannot be spotted often and are maybe used by a very small amount of people.

3- regular private Taxis in black and white (often cars as old as 35 years but there is a variety)-good for short distances (cost 2/3 pounds) ah and there is no "bondera" prices/meter you negotiate with the driver-which generally depends on your status/ability to pay-which he determines from the way you are dressed up/where he picked you up from. For longer distances from one place in Cairo to other it could cost up to 20 pounds a trip (aprox 2 GBP)

4- public airconditioned buses (now the airconditions stopped working they say) costs about 2 pounds from one part of town to other. But now it is moving to becoming normal buses (this is how they are forcing ppl to pay higher Khaled says- they introduce these and in a few years they become the norm and replace the old buses)

5- underground (just read in the lonely planet that Egypt has the only underground system in Africa!) this is a great way to commute only that in rush hours it is totally stuffed and people don't usually do the wait until those inside come out thing-it's like a fight. What is really intriguing is that there is a women only cars on the tube, which I usually now take. The women only car works up to 9:30 pm afterwards the trains are mixed. This means you are more subject to being harrassed by the men, which here is another part time job for women-to devise ways to avoid men harrasment or the possibility of it. But really the 9.30 line is quite interesting - another way gender roles/binaries are maintained.

6- mini bus/micro- bus. These are private owned small toyota buses that take up to 15 seats but often with the ppl squeezing/hanging off the main doors takes up more. The short ride is 75 piasters. and khaled says that a longer ride is now around 1.5 pounds (used to be 25 p.-50 p before the recent surge in inflation the past couple of years). This is really what the majority of Egyptians use to commute. But the drivers are known to run quickly on the streets and for women there are all sorts of harrasment/rape stories in the news about that. (I might want to keep up with these stories in the newspapers).

7- public buses. Well public buses cost around 50 piasters a ride. But they are usually stuffed with people and it's very hard to find a seat- it is not quite rare to see buses with ppl squeezed and almost no place to breathe. For women this is the most "dangerous" because you are subject to being touched by a man quite often. Most intriguing is that there are no clear bus stops and you usually jump and jump out while it runs/you catch the name. This means that it makes taking this and other types of transporation (like mini-buses) very difficult (and possibly limited to "insiders") because you need to know where to take it and where to stop-which always needs you to ask those around you. Everything here depends on ppl. ppl are part of the system. The proverb we generally use is "elli yesaal maytohsh"- "he who asks around, will never get lost in the way".

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