The Ping Pong Champ of Giza

February 27, 2011 § Leave a comment


A Chinese made sedan with taxi markings screeches to a halt in front of my hotel.  The driver, Nagy, rolls down the window, he’s wearing shades and a turtle neck sweater under a dress shirt.  This uniform reflects the difficulty in managing the changing temperatures in this desertland.  But Nagy’s appearance is eclipsed by an enormous grin.  “Hi,” he says, which, with a few other basics is the extent of his spoken English, although through hand gestures and various emotions, he understands quite a bit.  Normally Nagy navigates his taxi around Cairo and its outskirts for a living.  Today his taxi meter is switched off, he’s heading with me as far west as we can go, to the border of Libya, through the northeastern piece of the Sahara.  Powered by a mixture of natural gas and benzene, we speed past the Mediterranean resort towns of wealthy Egyptians, and small enclaves of Bedouin communities tucked into the sand dunes.  Along the way we stop only for sandy bathroom breaks and prayer.

In a hurry, we fail to pack a lunch, and our only sustenance are the pounds of salted sunflower seeds that Nagy’s wife packed for him, “to keep you awake while you are driving.”  We crunch seed shells for hours, and every time one pile is finished and fluttered out the window into the desert, Nagy’s hand appears to replenish the supply.  In fact he gives seeds as rewards to anyone who helps us out along the way, gas station attendants, people who give us directions, and even military checkpoint personnel.  He himself was in the army on the Sinai peninsula, and has a soft spot for the military men guarding what recently became a “new” Egypt.

Nagy’s cab has Egyptian flags positioned prominently in the front, he too supported the protests and revolution.  Everyone did he said.  And he’s keen to get to work now that President Mabarek is gone, exiled away in his vacation home, poised to live out his dying days.  He tells me that he and his old friends back home near Giza are already talking about how to improve life there.  They want to organize and start creating a new, better society.  The revolution will have more than one chapter if it’s up to him.

Nagy desperately wants to “tell you about my life so you can know my heart,” and thanks to Abdalla, an Egyptian journalist accompanying us, I get a little of his heart, and a lot of his character.  One of five brothers, Nagy says he began working when he was 12, and didn’t get very far in school, learning the plumbing trade instead.  His father and brothers are also mostly drivers.  He says he’s his dad’s favorite because he became independent at a very early age, getting married, and making enough money to support himself and his family when he was in his early 20’s.  Now he has two sons, and says despite being allowed to have more than one marriage by religious custom, he only wants to be with his wife.  Even if she dies before him he’ll stay true he says.  His Arabic flows freely, speeding up and down depending on the urgency of the information he’s sharing.  Nagy gets excited when talking about soccer, and says he could have been great had his club team not been dominated by nepotism.  And his tone becomes soft as he talks about his young sons, 3 and 1 years old.

He says at one point he became fascinated by ghosts, and ghost stories told to him by older people in his neighborhood.  So he went to an abandoned building and spent three nights there, waiting to meet something from the afterlife.  Now he knows there are no ghosts.  And he says back in the day, in his Giza ghetto, he was a champion, the best ping pong player around.  So good, he says, that when he walked down the street people said, “there goes Nagy Ping, the best of the best.”

Everywhere we go Nagy makes friends, and is eager to please.  He finds the best fish restaurant on the coast, and befriends the owners.  He plays video games with teenagers at the cyber cafe where we stop to file a story.  And he interviews and comforts people fleeing Libya across the Egypt border, he wants to know how they are doing, and what’s happening in the country currently embroiled in its own revolution. He desperately tries to explain to me in Arabic mixed with a few English words who should be Egypt’s next president.

Then, taking a break from his rambling biography, he begins to interview me, although I’m too slow to respond, and he quickly answers his own questions.  Why am I not married?  “Marry the girl that loves you, not the girl you are in love with,” he says, “she will give you many children.” “Come live in Egypt,” he says, “learn Arabic and we will be friends.” “If you come play soccer with me, I will let you win.  And then we will eat dinner at my house.” Then, turning his attention back to his own life, he tells me his real dream is to escape to France, “French girls are pretty,” and he drops another handful of sunflower seeds into my right hand.  We crunch our way into the dark dark horizon of the Sahara, with lots of questions, and at least for Nagy Ping, “the best of the best,” lots of answers.

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Homelands

February 6, 2011 § Leave a comment


Adad straightens his tie in the mirror and buttons his suit coat, the same one he wore to the job interview on Friday, the only one he owns.  He’s a little embarrassed by this, he’s had to swallow a lot of pride since he arrived in Chicago a year ago.  He used to have lots of suits but he was only allowed a few pieces of luggage when he fled Iraq.

Adad splashes some cologne on his neck, a Christmas gift from his wife, Zahra.  As he makes one last check in the mirror to make sure he looks good, he yells out in Arabic to the adjacent room.  “Jujee!” Jujee is Adad’s three year-old son, who is watching Mickey Mouse cartoons on YouTube with Arabic subtitles.   He doesn’t turn to face his father, but responds in Arabic.  Translation, “No, I do not want to go to church today.”  Adad responds in a string of Arabic, punctuated by one noun in English, “Chuck E Cheese.”  He is trying to bribe his young son into going to the service.  A few moments later the noun changes, “Toys R us.”  Jujee finally swivels the desk chair around to make eye contact with his father.  He will come.

Zahra is busy in the kitchen putting together a mixture of foods she knows from Iraq, and ones that are new.  Yogurt, tahini, walnuts, dried fruit, those remind her of home, four boxes of Special K breakfast cereal purchased with WIC dollars do not.

The tea kettle whistles and she pours two cups. She sits next to her husband as they converse in Arabic.  As they talk they look straight ahead at the kitchen wall.  They have spent a lot of time together this past year, each one supporting the other through what can only be described as a tough time.  The night before they celebrated their one-year anniversary in Chicago, arranging the same meal they had the day they arrived.  Fish.

Adad and Zahra’s apartment looks like a showroom with almost no distinguishable items that indicate anything about them.  Save one.   A calendar hangs on the sparse living room wall.  The pages are written in Assyrian, one of the oldest languages in the world, and the language of Iraqi Christians.  Adad and Zahra are Chaldean, Iraqi Catholics.   A photo of an elderly Chaldean priest is published on the January page with a short story.  Adad says he was kidnapped, tortured, and assassinated the year before by a radical Islamic group.  In the past year attacks on Christian sites in Iraq have stepped up, including a massacre of more than fifty parishioners and two priests at a Baghdad church in October.  The same church where Adad was baptized as a child.

Thousands of Iraqi Christians have headed to Chicago in the past few years as refugees, fleeing what many perceive to be an attempt to permanently displace their religion from the region.  While Detroit has the largest concentration of Iraqi Christians, Chicago became a second home in the early 1900s when a group of Assyrians came and settled and started a church in the city.  Christians from Iran, Iraq and other nearby countries have been coming ever since, always in greater numbers during times of conflict.

Adad and Zahra’s church on Chicago’s North side is busy with parents inching minivans into a narrow parking lot and teenagers helping their grandparents navigate an icy path into the building.  Four hundred well-dressed parishioners are packed into the mid-size Catholic church as the service begins.  And while the scene is a familiar one in the deeply pious and immigrant friendly Chicago, it is also stark to see so many Iraqis in a church huddled half way around the world from the lives they knew.  Elderly women wear lace shawls embroidered with the word “Lourdes,” a nod to the hallowed Catholic pilgrimage.  Young men swing overpowering incense as a row of priests take turns reading the words of the saints in Assyrian.  And as light shines in through stain glass windows, it is hard not to think it is the bright sun of Baghdad, racing around the globe, to comfort the once persecuted crowd.

The head of the church guild says while he misses his homeland, he also appreciates living in a country where for once he is in the religious majority.  That is a new experience and a blessing he says.  Adad agrees, he’s happier in the United States than he was in Iraq, even though he had to leave his parents and friends behind.  In Iraq he was persecuted not just for his religion, but also for working with the Americans.  Radicals threatened to kidnap his father if he didn’t quit his job.  In Chicago he can pursue his engineering career and his wife her chemistry studies, and his son can pursue his future passion, in peace.  “To go back, I would need 80% of the things I want.   Only then would I consider going home.”

A few miles north of Adad’s church service sits the Skokie Holiday Inn, where a different kind of gathering is going on.   Mostly elderly Iraqi men are embracing, pouring cups of tea, and catching up in a large conference room.  The men are dressed in expensive suits, and wool and leather jackets, signs of regal Chicago.  Most have been in the Midwest for decades.  They are lawyers, doctors, and businessmen, and they are all Assyrian.  Like the Chaldeans, they are Christians.  This is a national gathering for an Assyrian American Association.  The topic of the day is what to do about the anti-Christian violence back in Iraq.

Sitting outside the conference room is a small group of five smartly dressed, noticeably younger men and women.  They are all Assyrian, all successful lawyers, and after listening to a few sentences tinged with references to “Chicawgo,” it’s clear they were born and bred here in the Midwest.   They wear Assyrian flag pins on their lapels and share an impressive knowledge of their motherland, a history that includes “CENTURIES” of battles for the right to worship and live in peace.  “We’re worried with this latest violence, that the final push is starting, to remove us once and for all from our territorial homelands.”  They say only 100,000 Iraqi Christians are left in Iraq, and that soon places like Chicago will become the defacto centers for their heritage, culture, and religion.  The young lawyers passionately explain why this is an unacceptable outcome, that one day they dream of returning to the homeland they have only heard stories about.

Music starts in the conference room and the young group disperses to join the event.   After listening to both the American national anthem and an Assyrian one, the crowd of 100 or so members takes a seat for a long afternoon of speakers.  The lawyers sit up front, their eyes fixated on the podium as they struggle to process the long speeches in Assyrian.

Meanwhile, at a strip mall a few miles away, Adad and Zahra navigate their white mini-van, a gift from a local relative, into the parking lot.  Jujee screams at the site of Chuck E Cheese.  Iraq is the last thing on his mind.

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