A thinker, dreamer, idealist, ardent observer and traveller

Month: September, 2012

Mount Sinai, Jebel Musa….Go tell it to the mountain….

I crave spiritual experiences. There is something about pilgrimages. They give you a rush of joy and a sense of emptiness once they are over. Pilgrimages are spiritual tourism. As a continuation of my Umrah, I was hoping to eventually hike Mount Sinai, which is where according to Christianity the Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses. In Islam, this is where Moses used to pray, where he brought the Jews after saving them from the Pharaoh. It is the place where Moses’s Prophethood was revealed to him. Having seen all the major pharonic sites in Egypt, hiking Mount Sinai was just as important an adventure. It would be like a second Umrah.

Sinai is a strategically important area in North Africa and Middle East. It borders both the Suez Canal and Israel. The Suez Canal is a military area so it’s not a place to go for picnic, however on the road to Sharm el Sheikh, you can see the oil rigs and tankers along the shore of the Gulf of Suez. They are massive. Until this trip I had never seen an oil rig and the neighbouring residential containers in real life. Egypt reclaimed the Sinai Peninsula on 6th October 1973 from Israel. Land and ports are always contentious issues of conflict in geopolitical affairs.

However, if I have to go by the international media with what is happening in the Palestinian territories, and even if the Egyptian Army is allegedly receiving the most US support, as a Muslim, I’m glad the Sinai Peninsula geographically belongs to Egypt. If the Israelis can fence off a nation from the rest of the country for security purposes, imagine what they could do to the Muslim world regarding international shipping and trade. However, there is a likelihood it would not come to this, considering the Middle East, particularly, the GCC countries, Iraq and Iran are the biggest oil producing and exporting countries. Moreover, oil is shipped to other parts of the world by sea. Hence, allegedly no matter how threatened a country may be by its neighbours, money and natural resources make the world go around. Furthermore, just like land, oil and any other kind of fossil fuel are equally contentious. Nonetheless, it is a scary scenario, so good on the Egyptian army for winning back the Sinai Peninsula.

On my travels around Egypt I would always visit the souvenir shops in the hotels I stayed in. They usually stocked gifts made elsewhere, China in particular. Alabaster items such as decorative tea sets were usually made in Pakistan. I guess they forgot to remove the ‘Made in’ sticker. I even found it strange that considering they call themselves an Arab republic, in some shops in Aswan they sold African wooden masks and statues. The only African looking people are the Nubians. In modern, recent times I guess most of them migrated from Sudan at some point. They consider themselves Arab as opposed to African. I suppose the masks and statues are a Nubian thing.

In one shop the shopkeepers were actually interesting to talk to. I pointed out that the souvenirs, except the gemstones, none were made in Egypt and they got slightly taken aback and asked me to tell them how I knew they weren’t Egyptian. My love for handicraft and community trade is such that I make it a point to explore the quality of local produce wherever I go, but considering the company, I thought it inappropriate to divulge my trade secrets. In this shop they had staff from different parts of Egypt, one of them was from Sinai. His colleagues joked that he ‘s not Egyptian, he’s Israeli, he’s Jew, he will cheat you so don’t buy anything from him. Straightforward as I am, I blurted, how can he be Israeli if he’s from Sinai? Isn’t Sinai in Egypt? As for him being Jew, there are many Jews in Muslim countries, so you shouldn’t say that, it’s Haraam. Obviously, the conversation was jovial. The guy wasn’t Jew, but belonged to the Sinai area.

In Islamic discourse it is unclear whether present day Mount Sinai/Jebel Musa is where Moses was informed of his Prophethood and all the other events associated with this mountain. One discussion I read mentions that in Arabic mountain is jebel and there is no mention of this in the Quran. The area mentioned in the Quran is tur and there is vegetation in that particular area. The tip of the Sinai Peninsula is called Tur Sinai. It is a lovely sandy area.

Mount Sinai itself is not barren, there is a little vegetation, some herbs and shrubs scattered around the cliffs/rocks as you ascend it. There is wild life also besides birds. Just before the place where the Steps of Redemption begins, we had to walk through an alley shaft type area which was quite nice because the sun was not shining directly on this particular spot, it was windy and it was like natural air conditioning. As we were walking through this shaft a robin was tripping towards us, as if it was walking in its own world. It came quite close and from its body language it seemed as if it was stunned to see us so it flew away. Many of the birds have created nests in the holes and crevices of the rock walls. There are lizards as well. These ones are greyish and change colors matching the hills.

When I used to go to field visits in the rural areas of Pakistan I used to see the same kind of lizards crawling out from the fields onto the mud walls of the houses. I’m not fond of lizards, but these are actually quite beautiful because they have different colors, as opposed to the tiny ones you find in the houses in the cities which are pale and sickly looking. We also saw dragonflies. The hike from Saint Catherine Monastery to the Steps of Redemption is at least an hour and a half, so the shaft like path with natural air-conditioning was a good resting place before actually going up the steps to get to the top.

It was on the way to the top, up the Steps of Redemption I saw the lizards, the shrubs, herbal vegetation. It was easy going up the steps. Normally, it’s harder to climb, walk up a hill than it is to walk down. I kept thinking if this is easy, it must be an easy jog coming down and I started looking forward to the trip down to Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Perhaps it was the spiritual experience associated with hiking Mount Sinai that fooled me into thinking would be an easy climb, because the few times I climbed the stairs in the London underground I was completely knackered by the end of it and vowed never again, no matter how great the need for exercise!

I kept having the lyrics of the Bob Marley song in my head, go tell it to the mountain. Like in the song, I was hiking to the top to go tell it to the mountain and make the Almighty listen to me the way he listened to Moses. Albeit he being a Prophet and I a mere mortal, obviously our standings in the eyes of the Almighty Benevolent and Beneficent Lord are incomparable.  What was in my power was to wish that by hiking Jebel Musa/ Mount Sinai to get to Musa’s Musalla, the Almighty would listen to my prayers and wishes the same way he listened to Moses whenever he needed guidance. This is because being human is practically impossible when you are living in a position of weakness and perceived as a bird of prey. This is not victimhood, this is acknowledging your weaknesses, keeping in mind your strengths, pursuing whatever opportunities there are, and facing your threats, or shall we say fears?

We made it to the top some 3 hours later. It was nice. Mission accomplished. Beautiful scenery. There is a small church which was locked by the time we got there, We saw the priest and some nuns at a resting place on our way up. There were blankets and sitting areas after every 30 minutes. People come here to view the sunrise with their tour guides, but not many make it to the top, which I think is a waste of money if you’re not going all the way. However, it could be the construction adjacent to the church, on the other side of the hilltop is a mosque. On Wikipedia it say it’s a mosque, but it didn’t have any features to indicate it as such, unless they had turned it into a prayer room facility for Muslim hikers.

On this trip, I completed my list of everything there is to see in Egypt. Like Pakistan, it is an interesting place for someone dabbling with social sciences.


Poverty indicators vs gender issues

The usual poverty indicators are GNP/GDP per capita, maternal and infant mortality, and literacy rates, give a general view of the state of a country. Discussions in meetings especially concerning the viability of education projects for girls, often mentioned the availability of toilets. Or at the most basic, a functional latrine or a hole in the ground, serving the same purpose, had to be present in the building where the education project was to be implemented, which was usually a room in a house. At least this was one of the primary criteria in Pakistan.

Generally, in development discourse, poverty indicators only give a quantitative idea of the state of affairs. However, experience suggest that just because the indicators show depressing figures, the reality on the ground may be different. Likewise if the indicators show impressive figures, the reality is far more depressing. Hence the need for alternative measures. The UNDP Human Development Index discussed in the annual Human Development Report introduces each year a new indicator. These alternative measures later contributed to the Millennium Development Goals. The HDI was the brainchild of Dr Mahbul-ul Haq, a Pakistani. Other indices include The Economist’s Big Mac index- how much a Big Mac costs in local currency, the purchasing power parity (PPP), how much you can buy for 1US$ in local currency.

In connection with the above, there are many other ways to measure the extent of poverty, poor planning and gender awareness or shall we say consideration. One measure I suggest and which has been discussed in various context when I was working in Pakistan, whether it was board meetings, quarterly general meetings, working group meetings or field observations, was toilets. It is a unit we all need access to, men and women alike. Ironically, my observations tell me that in some places women do not need toilets as much as men do and therefore there is no need to maintain them as much. Or maybe, it’s the same condition in the men’s room, I certainly hope so, otherwise this is a serious issue of male domination and the often dismissed ranting of female suppression. Moreover, this illustrate that for some reason or another, women have no need to relieve themselves as much as men do, unless they are small children. Yet, are even children not entitled to unblocked lavatories, if not clean?

When I used to travel to Pakistan on summer holidays as a child, we used to travel to and fro Islamabad- Lahore. Apart from the social and natural observation one gets to do, there is one thing which stands very clear in my mind and that is the state of public toilets on train stations and coach stops. They may be in a primitive state with either a latrine or a hole in the ground to serve the purpose, with a tap and a plastic teapot, a wash basin and no soap. They didn’t smell very nice, but were relatively functional. In some places you have the choice of using a latrine or an English toilet, but even today, they are not blocked and regularly cleaned during the day. I’m not saying you don’t have instances of stinking toilets, or other unpleasantries, such as overflooded floors, discarded used nappies left in a corner, or unflushed latrines, however, generally they are safe to use. In Pakistan, if nothing else, there is a general acceptance that everyone needs to use a toilet and even if there are not many female passengers or travelers, there are still toilet facilities for them. Even if they smell of humidity and mold, or weird detergents.

I have travelled quite extensively in Egypt. I was lucky to travel by air, road and by ship. The latter was an eye opening experience. It often happens on road stops, or even in Cairo that you have to pay 1 L.E to use the toilet. Even if there is no toilet paper or soap, I can tolerate it because common sense would tell you to always keep some tissue, a toilet roll and some soap or handwash gel with you, if not hand sanitizer. What I can’t tolerate is a blocked toilet intended for women, which hasn’t been cleaned for ages and is still being used, I presume by a desparate male toilet user.. Amongst the dysfunctional ones, at least the flush was working and the toilet was not blocked into obliteration, so I would say they were functional. It could be because they were superjet or minibus stations and few women will be coming to those on a regular basis.

What really terrorized me was the boat trip to Aqaba, Jordan from Nuweiba, Egypt. It is a 4 hours trip. On the ship there are 4 toilets, 2 male and 2 female, 2 on each deck. One of both the male and female toilets has a shower facility as well.

A ship which sails to and fro Nuweiba- Aqaba, although most of the passenger are male, there are female passengers, usually travelling with their families or husbands. To my horror and dismay the female toilets were a nightmare. They were all English toilets, they had Muslim showers for abdominal washing. If they were not blocked due to faulty flushes, it was because no one had bothered flushing. It could be people in their homes have latrines and the flush system is different that is, they flush with a pot of water instead of the flush system. There could be several reasons for this. Some of the toilets were unstable so I didn’t even dare to sit on them due to goodness knows what kind of possible bacterial transmission. I’m not being unrealistically patriotic, but I have never encountered such a toilet situation in all of Pakistan. So much for calling Pakistanis miskeen and wondering if they are Muslims.

My first reaction to this toilet situation was to escape and try to sneak into a male toilet. Woe onto me for even trying this. Nearby all the male toilets, men were sitting and playing cards, chit-chatting or smoking strong cigarettes and everyone adamantly pointed their index finger at me, wriggling no-no-no….Haram! So I decided to complain at the information desk. I asked him how many ladies toilets were on the ship. He said, 2. `I asked again, are you sure? He said yes. I told him ,well `I have walked all around the ship, in one all the toilets are blocked, and the other one is locked. He said ‘ok ok’. He called on someone and ordered him to check out the ladies rooms, and told another guy to take me to the other toilet on the upper deck, the locked toilet with the shower facility. Although the toilets were not blocked, they were rattling. I wonder how does anyone sit on such toilets? The ones which weren’t rattling, their Muslim shower facility didn’t work, so it was a matter of going here and there to relieve oneself and using the Muslim shower. I remember checking whether something had been done about my complaint on my return trip to Nuweiba from Aqaba. Obviously not.

Arriving in Aqaba port was an interesting diversion. In the arrival lounge we only saw men, although there were many families on the ship. It could be those people needed visa on arrival. Maybe the families would get out after the trucks and the other passengers as they were in their cars. It was interesting to see how the port authority personnel treated the passengers like nursery children. Once visa was stamped, the travellers would be gathered together as if in a circle, made to sit down and have their names called one by one. Another observation was that the port authority had retina scans. Something which they don’t have at airports, there they have webcams. I didn’t notice the retina scans, I just thought they were outdated cameras. It was observed this shows how differently people who travel by boat are treated compared to those who travel by air. In my opinion, people travel as they can afford. Maybe they don’t need to travel by air. Alternatively the airports could be too far so taking the car on the ship saves a lot of hassle. One major point of convenience however was that everyone we asked for information spoke English, so it was unnecessary to adopt inventive communication methods and get by with the Arabic we knew. Moreover, they didn’t pretend they were unable understand to us.

However, the sore point of contention even in the seaport departure lounge was the female toilets. I saw female staff and travellers, so they do need toilets. However the ones available left a lot to be desired. The typical stinking, blocked dump, except here they had latrines. They were blocked, had not been cleaned for a while, and there were old used nappies wrapped up and left there as thank you presents it seemed. From my experience of public female toilets in the Arab world, with exception to the Arab peninsula where toilet quality varies, but are relatively clean and usable. In this connection I must add that the public toilets in the UAE are pristine, depending on the emirate. In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, toilets are user friendly, but in variable conditions. This could be because they have dedicated staff to ensure toilet hygiene, and may think women have just as much rights in this regard as men, if not in other matters. Or maybe this state of affairs could also illustrate the influence the Western expatriate population has in public affairs on the Arab peninsula. If that’s the case, I’m all for Western guidance.

In connection with the above, all I can say is, quality of toilets says a lot about a society. Especially, the quality of female toilets. To me, it seems as if women have no right to exist, why else would the female toilets be such traumatic places? I have travelled a lot in Pakistan and have a fairly good idea about what goes on where because I take an interest in my surroundings. No matter how isolated or remote a place, I have never seen a toilet in such a mess. Some classfellows at  Quaid-e-Azam University who belong to remote rural areas told me in their communities there is no such thing as a toilet. They have to go relieve themselves in the fields. Yes, Pakistan is a poor country. It is neither the most female friendly country, just think about the men who ruin women’s lives by throwing acid at their faces. Nor is it the most hygienic place. However, toilets whether used regularly or not should be cleaned according to the need, and be regularly checked whether they need cleaning. And despite being the world’s favourite punching bag, I think that Pakistan scores quite good numbers on the toilet usability scale.

This experience made me think that although Arab countries may have good quantitative indicators, they still lack in the quality department. Women are not as empowered, independent and recognized members of society as they seem to be. Unless they are wives and mothers. And in certain departments they are left to their own devices, and just accept things. What I find disturbing though is that the men really don’t care either. On my return trip to Nuweiba, I dared to venture into the toilets again, and to my shock and horror I saw two pre-teenage boys in the ladies! I probably would just had laughed it off, but I was so annoyed that these 2 cheeky boys had infringed female area. I told them ‘hada daurra maya as-sayedaat, mish rajool. Inta rajool, haram, haram, haram! They just replied, that the guy at the information desk had allowed them to use the ladies and ran off. This only confirmed my doubts that men were using female toilets because they can’t be bothered to go elsewhere, especially where women only come occasionally. However this is no justification for not cleaning them properly.

Another reason which opened my eyes to the condition of women in the Arab world, is on the bigger scale of things actually a very small matter, but I am unable not to compare it to the situation of women in Pakistan.  On the way back to Alexandria we were unable to get tickets to the superjet bus. Its is airconditioned with nice spacious seats. We had to take a Hiace van. Apart from us, 3 ladies and a guy, there were 2 other Egyptian ladies. Towards the end of the ride, the airconditioning stopped working and the driver opened the front windows, the male travellers sitting in front of us opened their windows a little. The ladies sitting behind the front seats were both by the windows and none of them opened their windows and none of the men asked them to open their windows either. In Pakistan, no matter how callous men may be, they don’t let a lady sweat unnecessarily. They will tell her to open the windows because it is hot and she shouldn’t be uncomfortable in this heat. Like I mentioned, the events are very small in the greater affairs of gender discrimination and male domination, but it does say a lot about what people think about women and their position in society. As a woman you can’t complain and you have to make do with what you can. This may also reflect the difference between civil society engangement in Pakistn and Egypt, where in the former, NGOs and community based organizations are far more vocal.

In conclusion, indicators are useful measurements to assess poverty. In my opinion, female toilet conditions in developing countries give a realistic insight into how women’s issues and needs are perceived by society. I’m not saying the toilets I have come across in Pakistan, when I was doing fieldwork or in rest areas while travelling the country, were in pristine conditions. Some had spider webs all over, others were just a hole in the ground, or the water tap was running, hence wasting much precious water. There was no door, so anyone could just walk in on you. Nevertheless, I was unaware of the true extent of a toilet nightmare until I experienced the toilets while travelling around Egypt. It should be noted not all toilets in public rest areas were as horrendous as described. However, if there is a toilet space, whether it is used frequently or occasionally, it should be clean and unblocked. What is even more shocking is that compared to Pakistan, Egypt is a rich country with doubled the national income and half the population. Hence, when it comes to toilet hygiene it should do better. Moreover, it is easy to complain about gender discrimination and the need for gender mainstreaming and not be taken seriously. In order not to be mistaken for a rambling feminist who is out of touch with the real world, I decided to assess female toilet conditions as an indicator for gender discrimination.