A cup of coffee

Street noise level above average. Temperature ok. I just wore something comfortable and pulled my favourite colourful scarf, made sure that I have the keys, the wallet and the sun glasses. No need for my mobile phone today. Anyone who wants something from me would better just wait. I headed to one of my favourite places on earth. The little cafe the Quartet chose for our weekly coffee. Actually, it’s not my favourite place per se, it’s just being with them makes any place just magical.

After the hellos and good morning, they sat down and ordered their first round.

Amal: Girls, I have no idea why I’m so tired these days. I dream of simply spending the day in bed, doing nothing.

Heba: why? anything happened? Sounds like the first stage of depression!

Amal: not at all. I’m quite happy with my life. I thank God day and night for my little family.

Heba: yes, elhamdlelah, but didn’t you want to do something more?

Zeinab: More? Is there anything more important than building the family? For me, the smiles of my husband and kids are worth the world, and I wouldn’t exchange them for the world.

Amal: Before you two get into one of your usual work versus stay-at-home discussions, hear me out. Since I was a young girl, I always imagined myself to be an important career oriented woman, and didn’t understand how come my mother and other female figures in my family were able to just stay at home and do nothing. Such a waste of time! Then after getting married and having my little baby, I discovered that tending for these new needs take a hell lot of energy and effort more than what I anticipated. And with time, as you know already, I have accepted the role I was dreading so much. But lately, I started feeling a bit of growing bitterness, which led eventually to helplessness and antipathy.

Suad intervened: take care dear, this is not a good sign at all! I didn’t want to comment about this before, cause I really don’t want to interfere in your personal life, but what you are describing is a recipe for an unhappy family. You are sacrificing a part of your heart, and no matter how your family appreciate it, you won’t feel compensated enough, and one day you will snap and destroy the things you treasure most.

Heba: I told you before. Sacrificing your career is a wrong decision. You studied hard for all those years, you worked to make a decent reputation, and then all of a sudden you let all of this get thrown away!

Zeinab: Hold on a minute… Amal, habibti, did you think about the consequences of what you are implying? I mean the little details? Where will you leave your baby? And are you 100% sure she will take care of him as good as you would do? And how much are you going to pay for the nursery? And for the transportation? Or will you just work your ass off just to pay the nursery and the taxis? And after all that, imagine with me a sample of your day. You wake up 45 minutes before your usual time, to get ready first and get your baby ready, then hurry up to drop him off, and run for office, then work for 8 hours, go to the nursery to fetch your exhausted son, then head home, but not for rest and recreation, for the start of your other job. From changing, feeding, bathing, then tending to the pile of laundry and dirty dishes, and finally arranging the house. Are you a super woman to do all of this and remain sane??

Suad: girls, girls, both of you have touched important issues, but please take it easy on Amal, she is in a tough situation and we are here to help her. Look Amal, first of all, know that you are not the only one who is facing this dilemma. Thousands of women across the world suffer from the same problem, regardless of their origins, or their mentality, and very few are able to strike a balance between the multitude of roles they perform. Also, keep in mind that there is not a single formula suitable for all situations. Details like how open minded, helpful and supportive is your husband, how demanding is your baby, how encouraging is your extended family, how demanding is your job,,,, and much more, they all affect your decision making. So please don’t let images from movies, or insinuations from stories and articles you read affect you in any way. Some of the feminist writers go to extreme measures to prove their point, and some house wives defend their raison d’être by just showing you the pitfalls of a working mother. So beware from both of them.

Amal: Thanks Suad for the balanced opinion. I needed your voice to calm the turbulences running inside my head. On one side, when I stay at home, I feel like I’m repressing the woman I wanted to be, and eventually I will turn to be another person than myself. On the other side, just thinking of fostering my ego through a well paved career, makes me incredibly guilty cause my family will definitely be negatively affected.

Heba: so what about building your own career? So many women were able to cultivate their talents and building a business out of it without neglecting their responsabulity.

Zeinab: yes yes,,, hmm I can give you have if you decided to start a catering business. I have some recipes you will eat your fingers after it.

Suad: we all know your delicious recipes Zeinab. But looking at the current economic and the political situation, I don’t think starting a business is such a good idea. Many small ventures started with big hopes and dreams only to be smashed with the harsh reality. I would advise you to take a more stable path.

Amal: you mean a 9 to 5 career? I tried it before but didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought.

Heba: enjoy? No one enjoys work, but we do it to build ourselves, make some money and have a meaning for our existence. No one enjoys work or their workouts, but they do it nonetheless. It’s a necessity of life.

Amal: well, I want something more meaningful than just working to have a pay check at the end of the month. I’m not rich, but elhamdlelah I have enough to make me not running after the salary. I want to make a difference, to benefit people. I want that in my funeral, people would remember me with my good deeds, and feel that I left a good mark in their lives.

Suad: You don’t need a career to do! There are tens of ways to reach the same funeral, not only with a career… There are orphanages, developmental projects, volunteering,,, etc

Amal: True, but this is not what I meant. I want to leave an imprint on this world.

Zeinab: why would you want to feed your ego that much? Every mother if she did her job correctly will leave a mark on her children. Doesn’t this fit your description?

Amal: I can’t argue otherwise, but still I need to fulfil my time with something other than changing diapers and googling the best recipes. Girls, I feel that my mind has started to rust.

Suad: what about your book club? Doesn’t it fill your time with something to do and think about? And what about studying? You can make use of the time spent at home and study online…

Amal: reading helps, but again it’s not enough. I just read for myself. It’s like filling my mind with lots of inputs, with no outputs at the other side. And as for studying, well I thought about it, but it feels like a lot of investment for something that most probably I won’t use.

Heba: look Amal, don’t fool yourself. You want to work. It is a hard choice, and will necessitate a lot of changes to your daily routine, but think about it from the other side. If you didn’t follow your heart and become estranged from your true self, you’ll end up in a place you didn’t want to be. Plus, the amazing woman your husband fell in love years ago will become someone else. Do you want to fit the stereotypical image of unfulfilled women who turn their lives and the lives of their husbands into a trial?

Amal: No!

With that last sentence, she looked at the quartet, bid them farewell till they meet again.

Back to Cairo University

After so many years, I’m back at Cairo University. I studied there from the year 2000 to 2004, which makes me almost 10 years older than most of the faces I see walking around the campus. This didn’t prevent some unfortunate souls to try and harass me, they should thank God that I only gave them the cold reply, and tried silently to smash their heads with my bare fists.

Anyway, back to my normal tone, I felt pretty nostalgic walking around campus, though I usually stayed near Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences most of the time. It’s pretty much the same. The buildings didn’t change much, few alterations here and there, some wall graffiti for the revolution, a couple of new buildings. There were much more cafeterias, which I don’t know if this is a good sign, as the students need something to eat and drink, or if it was a bad sign cause it shows that people go there to socialize more than to grab a bite to eat between lectures. But what astonished me really, was the unbelievable activity of the commercial educational centers selling summaries, written lectures, Q&A,,,, etc! When I was still a student, there were large numbers of such centers on the other side of Faculty of Commerce door, they just bought notes from some students to sell it to those who would rather hang out then get suffocated in the ill-ventilated lecture hall. But now they go much more advanced in regards to selling techniques, you’ll find some standing outside of the campus walls screaming with a microphone with some advertisement for the notes, thousands of flyers across campus, and Baya3een Shanta Salesmen with the backpack!

This is understandable for the Law school, or Commerce Faculty, as the numbers of students is counted by thousands each year, and there is no chance that a sane student would be able to attend attentively all lectures. But to find these printouts for the Open Education Center, that’s ridiculous!

I will talk about my experience with the Open Education Center (El Ta3leem el maftou7) at some other time, but one thing I find it remarkable if having a well maintained website. Using your username and password, you can download lectures (video, 3gp for your mobile, written, summarized), old exams (some of them solved), the book on pdf, final revisions on video. It’s really nice to have your study materials as a soft copy, ma3aleina ba2a of the quality. So what these centers do is simply print out the materials already available for every student with a different header and footer and selling them for profit! Unbelievable!

One thing I discovered is that Cairo University has a distinct smell. When I first entered from the gate, I instantly felt I was on a time machine, and it was thanks to the aroma of the place. I really can’t describe it, it’s a mixture of the smoke of fast food kiosks, the cheap essence of the low-middle class girls, mixed with the general sweat of students who spend the whole day there, plus hints of the occasional shoes “varnish”.

I don’t want to sound pessimistic about Cairo University, I do my best to hide this, but I don’t know how the future of education in Egypt will improve with the current situation. Cairo University was built by enlightened minds who sought elevating the level of education and knowledge of the Egyptian people, many great names contributed in these efforts. They will be happy to know the numbers of students per year, but not so if they talked to any of them. That is not to say that there is no hope. Some amazing professors were still able to surpass these circumstances and provide their students with top-notch curriculum, but at the end, what is their percentage?

And when we talk about hope for Cairo University, I dare say that the best schools are Faculty of Law (English section), Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences, and Faculty of Commerce (English section). At least this was how it used to be in the year 2000. I will tell you about my visit to FEPS, one of the remaining good spots for governmental education. I won’t talk about the educational part itself as I didn’t have the chance to check it, or the proper expertise to judge it, but I will talk about primitive things that any woman will notice from the first glace. Mostly the cleanliness, general atmosphere and little specifics. I was greeted first with the unpleasant bombardment of announcements on A4 paper at the entrance, which definitely ruined the look of the place. Aren’t results, notifications, and that sort of messages supposed to be posted all in one place? And not thrown like this randomly?

Then I decided to go find a place to pray inside, cause I still remember the powerful smell of the women section of the nearby mosque, and would not like to repeat the experience. First I went to the lavatory for my woudou`, the place was ok, decently cleaned. But there was not a single drop of soap or a single tissue. I wonder if the Dean or the professors used the public lavatories, will it be the same quality?

Then I asked a girl if there was a prayer place for girls, as I remember we used to occupy any unused room and tell each other on prayer times, but she pointed at a corner dedicated for girls. It was a corner below the staircase in the new building, hidden with a big wooden board, with a couple of prayers rugs, and a poster talking about the proper form of Hijab. There was some cigarettes butts thrown on the ground, most probably were thrown from someone climbing the stairs on a hurry (despite the no smoking signs), there were a couple of discarded books on what looks like an old night stand. And the ground was purely filthy. I had second thoughts on where to put my bag, or where to take off my shoes for that matter. By comparison, I wouldn’t have any problem praying on the asphalt, at least the dust will be much more sanitary…

I wonder if this was the difference of 10 years since I was a student there, how was it 10 years before I go there? And how will it look 10 years from now?