Tuesday, February 26, 2013

This too shall laugh

In Egypt, students have to stand in line before morning classes, kind of like the military. The surrounding grounds are divided into sections for each stage, and each section is divided into areas for each class. The students from each class stand in a line of ascending order of height. Being 5' 2", I was always among the first few students in line. These lineups last for about 30 minutes each morning. We salute the flag and sing our national anthem, and the school makes important announcements. The best part of this daily routine is the school broadcast. Every morning a group of kids present news items and stories pertaining to a certain subject. Sundays are for the Arabic broadcast, Mondays are for the English broadcast, and so on.

During high school, I became in charge of the English broadcast. Together with a group of colleagues, I'd prepare our weekly program. We'd always try to make each show entertaining as well as informational. On Mondays, I would stand in front of the entire student body with a microphone in hand, my voice being broadcasted out of two megaphones positioned on the highest point of our school house, and deliver our show. I became a minor celebrity of sorts. I'd always end the program with the same sign off, "With this we come to end of our English broadcast. Until we meet again, this is Amira Shawkey, wishing you a happy day." I loved it when students would come up to me during lunch break to share how much they enjoyed certain segments or suggest future topics. It meant that they were listening attentively to our show and interested in what we had to say. For the first time I understood how it felt to be proud of something I did. No matter the weather, sun or rain, I always showed up on our broadcast days.

In 1991, we had a political segment to talk about the now infamous referendums president Mubarak had every six years to see if the Egyptian people wanted him to continue for another term. Of course the results were always an astounding 99.9% for yes, despite the fact that almost no one went to the polls. The objective of the segment was to introduce the word "referendum" and its meaning. As I was presenting the various forms of the word, singular and plural, I said plulal instead. I immediately realized my mistake, smiled, took a deep breath and repeated the sentence, "And the plulal form of referendum is referenda." As if I suffered from a temporary bout of Tourettes, every time I opened my mouth, all that came out was "Plulal" "Plulal" "Plulal". Our principle, who taught High School English back in the day, came closer and whispered to me, "It is pronounced plural." By this time, the entire student body and most of the faculty were laughing. I surrendered to the fact that I will never be able to say the word plural out loud again. I shook my head and said that no one is perfect. That day, after the broadcast ended, the crowd applauded a little bit more enthusiastically than usual. Later people came up to say how brave I was to admit my mistake and move on. Others said I should have ignored it all together and proceed as if nothing went wrong. I really didn't think much about how silly I appeared at the time this was happening. My only concern was making sure that I didn't ruin the segment and the program didn't exceed its 15 minute allotment. Needless to say, I was very embarrassed after the fact. My confident and cocky ego was appalled that I couldn't properly pronounce a simple word like "plural" (I can't say "comfortably" either). The fact the people laughed about the whole incident made me realized that it wasn't the end of the world.

I like to share this story with my friends and colleague who have a difficult time presenting their work or engaging in public speaking. I always tell them to image the worst possible thing that could happen. They'll trip and fall down. They'll mix up words. They'll make a fool of themselves! So what? Who cares? Most likely, people will laugh and soon enough forget the whole thing. With any work we put forward, we always do our best. We try our hardest to ensure the work is perfect. We practice over and over. We ask for other people's opinion. But shit happens! We can't control the universe and we can't control people's reception of our work. As long as we know and believe that it's not the end of the world, everything will be okay. Even if people mercilessly tease us for a bad performance, always remember a 15 year old girl regurgitating the word "Plulal" "Plulal" "Plulal" in front of a thousand people and tell ourselves "This too shall laugh!"

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Creative Writing - Biography

My earliest memories are of me sitting on the floor cross legged in front of the TV watching old episodes of "Leave it to Beaver" and eating cheese and crackers. You see, I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. That was my home for the first seven years of my life. In 1983 my parents, who are Egyptian, decided to move us all back to Cairo, Egypt. Needless to say, the little seven year old me was in for quite of a shock.

Before I proceed it is important to understand the nature of Egyptian parents, most importantly the Egyptian mother. Egyptian mothers are the grand pharaohs of a household. Their commands are to be obeyed without argument or even an attempt to understand their rational. This demand of obedience is not solely driven by the Egyptian Mother's dictatorship, no, but by the fact that all Egyptian mothers are always right and more knowledgeable about everything concerning their children. In the spring of 1983, my sister and I were told, by our Egyptian mother, that we are going to move to Cairo where we will live for the rest of our lives. Our opinion on the matter was never sought nor considered in our parents decision.

Upon arriving to Cairo, my only form of protest to this abrupt exile was to give everyone the silent treatment. I would sit in the corner and refuse to talk. I supposed people assumed I couldn't understand Arabic, but that wasn't true. I understood Arabic very well, although my conversational skills were not that good. I spent the summer of '83 in utter silence, speaking to my only friend Amany, my older sister.

Unfortunately my silence didn't pay off. We have moved to Cairo and we were there to stay. Over the years, I had surrender to my fate, but try as I may I could never fit in with the Egyptian culture. I was always labeled odd or weird. As a teenager, this bothered me, so I tried my best to assimilate to other young Egyptians. This was an unsuccessful endeavor. I didn't like Egyptian pop-culture. I thought the movies were pointless, actors were not handsome, and songs were silly. Finally, while in college I was able to embrace the fact that I am different from everyone else around me. I didn't show that different side of me in public, only a few close friends and my sister got to see the real me.

Not conforming to the Egyptian Culture has helped throughout my career. People would assume that I was educated abroad and thus have a better understanding of my profession than my Egyptian counterparts (another fascinating aspect of the Egyptian mindset, what we call the Foreigner Complex - valuing the skills of foreign professionals more than local ones). I was able to push the envelop and defy people's notion of how things are done. I was also constantly criticized for being out of touch with reality and too inflexible. I was often told that my way is not how things are done in Egypt and I have to allow more flexibility. I preserved and people came around, eventually.

On my 30th birthday I had a break through, I like to call it my mid-life crisis. I went through a long and emotional phase of self re-discovery and self appreciation. I experienced a magnitude of emotions, but most importantly I stopped caring about other people's opinions of me. I am who I am, and yes, I like who I am. I'm not everyone's cup of tea and a lot of people are not going to like me. Very few people will see me for who I am. The moment I stopped caring about what other people thought, I was able to allow the true me to come forward for all to see. It has been seven years since my mid-life crisis. Everyday, as I let my self be what it is, I discover new things about me. Somethings I like, others I don't. However, by being true to my self I am able to evolve as a human being.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Gotta Be Somebody

There's on old lady I often see riding the train. She has short gray hair and wears amusing winter caps, I guess that's why I noticed her in the first place. Sometimes I see her on the train, other times I see her on the platform. We walk along the same path from the station. I suppose we live on the same street, only she turns left and I turn right. Sometimes I see her walking around town. She is always alone, with a somber expression on her face. 

Tonight, while picking up dinner from the corner diner, I saw her sitting at a table by the door. She was eating dinner and reading a book. She was sitting there with her short gray hair and knitted cardigan, as always, all alone. As I looked at her I realized that she's me in 30 years. That will be me sitting there at the table by the door, eating dinner and reading a book, all alone. My eyes teared up as I exited on my way home. 

I don't want to be the lonely old lady, but I don't know what to do about it. I can deal with solitude for short durations. But the idea that this is it, forever; and forever is God knows how long, pushed my over the edge. Sure, I can cry and feel sorry for myself. That is all I can really do about it, but I wasn't in the mood for a sad mood that night. I ate my dinner in bed, as always, all alone. Then I went to you tube to look up a music video that would better express how I was feeling. I like to live my life vicariously through songs, movies, and books. I turned on the video, got up out of bed and lip synched my heart out. As always, I was all alone smiling and playing the air guitar, knowing that there's gotta be somebody for me out there.