Tag Archives: Egypt

The Stories We Tell about Resettlement: Refugees, Asylum and the #MuslimBan

By: Nadia El-Shaarawi

As a volunteer legal advocate working with refugees who were seeking resettlement, I learned to ask detailed questions about persecution. These were the kind of questions you would never ask in polite conversation: Who kidnapped your best friend? Were they wearing uniforms? What did those uniforms look like? Where did they hit you? Did you pay a ransom for her release? How did you identify her body? Questions like these, which refugees are asked over and over as part of the already extreme vetting that they undergo to be granted asylum and resettlement, are personal, intimate, painful. They demand a precise and consistent command of autobiographical detail and the strength to revisit events that one might otherwise want to forget. They try to get to the heart of what happened to a person, what forced them to leave everything behind.

On a more cynical level, these questions try to catch a person in a lie, to identify those who are not “deserving” of refuge. The answers are checked and cross-checked, asked again and again across multiple agencies and organizations. In separate interviews, family members are asked the same questions. Do the answers match up? Do the dates and places make sense? Were you a victim of persecution? Are you who you say you are? While these questions and their answers shape the narrative of an individual resettlement case, there is a way in which they don’t get to the heart of what happened to a person, why someone was forced to flee, cross at least one border to enter another state, and is now seeking resettlement in a third country.

Vetting, extreme or otherwise, is about inclusion and exclusion. But before someone even gets to the arduous, opaque process of being considered for resettlement in the United States, decisions are made at the executive level about who to include in a broader sense. While the Refugee Convention provides protection for any person with a “well-founded fear of persecution” on specific grounds, this has never been the full story of the US refugee program, where a presidential determination each year decides how many refugees will be resettled, and from where. Some die-hard advocates and detractors aside, refugee resettlement has historically had bipartisan support and mostly stays under the radar of public attention, except, it seems, in moments where it becomes a reflection of broader anxieties and struggles over belonging and exclusion. Continue reading

Some Questions Only Seem Reasonable Because You Don’t Know The Answer

As scholars and/or scientists, we believe that no question is out of bounds. Is the bible a literal description of the creation of the universe? Does owning guns make people safer? Scientists think these questions can and should be investigated by anyone who feels like doing so. We disagree, then, with the people who think that some questions should be off limits. There are many reasons why: they seem so unintuitive they couldn’t possibly be true; they challenge existing authorities; the truth is not in the interests of the powerful, and so forth.

But scholars also believe that certain questions are not worth asking. Sometimes, its for the same reasons that I’ve listed above — after all, academics are people too. But there is another reason that scholars and scientists roll their eyes when certain questions get asked, or certain answers are proposed: history.

People have been asking questions for a long time, and have been coming up with good answers for just as long. Specialists in a field remember this history: we were taught it as students, and we make it as researchers. We’ve seen answers to questions come and go — often after the real answers are more or less established.

Consider, for instance, the settlement of Polynesia. How did all of those islands in the Pacific get populated when they were in the middle of the ocean? Polynesian voyaging is one of the great triumphs of our species, and the prehistory of the Pacific is now relatively well understood. But that doesn’t stop people from asking the question afresh. A few years ago I was talking to someone about their recent trip to Morocco, where they noted that Berber languages sounded suspiciously like Hawai‘ian. Could Polynesians have migrated from the old world?

Sure they could have. Or they could have migrated from the Americas — Thor Heyerdahl proved that the voyage was possible. In fact, it was once a going theory that they migrated from Egypt. So if you are a non-academic and google for Polynesian origins in the Middle East, you will in fact find books on this subject.

It’s just that those books are out of date and wrong. Polynesians could have come from Egypt or Morocco. However, they did not. And as for similarities in language, well, with a little ingenuity, and given languages with reasonably compatible phonologies, you can find a ‘cognate’ between two unrelated languages about once out of every two words you try.

Isn’t the earth obviously flat? Couldn’t vaccines be dangerous? Why do people ignore the clear evidence the Bible gives us about the creation of the world? People ask these questions all the time, and feel slighted when professors respond by rolling their eyes and assigning remedial reading rather than taking them seriously.

Sure, we could be wrong. Our explanations could be mistaken, and it takes people being mavericky to shake us up from time to time. But — let’s face it — most of the time when people start demanding new answers to settled questions, this demand only seem reasonable to them because they don’t know how good our established answer is. When we dismiss new answers to old questions, we are not abandoning the fundamental tenet of open inquiry. We just want to get back to doing research on problems without good answers. Is complacence and self-certainty a danger? Yes. Is reinventing the wheel in the name of open mindedness a scientific virtue? No.

Viagra soup: a photo essay

In an earlier post, I wondered: Why are there a dozen local brands of sildenafil (the generic name for what’s in Viagra) available in Egyptian pharmacies, and only one brand of emergency contraceptive pill (ECP)? I’m not sure that I have a wholly convincing answer to this question, but I’ll lay out some parts of the puzzle. Jump in with a comment if you have other ideas.

Some Egyptian brands of sildenafil: Viagra, Virecta, Erec, Kemagra, Vigorama, Phragra, and Vigorex

Local brands of sildenafil available in Egypt, including: Viagra, Virecta, Erec, Kemagra, Vigorama, Vigoran, Phragra, and Vigorex. Photo by Lisa Wynn

First, Americans might think of erectile dysfunction drugs (EDDs) as somewhat shameful (think about mocking attitudes towards Bob Dole’s decision to do Viagra ads), but they have a more positive connotation in Egypt. Two reasons:

  1. As I’ve written elsewhere, in Egypt these drugs seem to be associated as much with the promise of exuberant, excessive sexuality rather than a shameful lack of erection. Maybe it would be more accurate to call them erection enhancement drugs rather than erectile dysfunction drugs. Continue reading

Why is there no official EC fatwa in Egypt?

Now in the last post on the topic, I mentioned that EC website that Princeton runs, http://ec.princeton.edu. There’s an NGO in Cambridge, MA called Ibis Reproductive Health that got a grant to make EC information and educational materials available in Arabic. A significant chunk of that grant was dedicated to creating an Arabic language version of the EC website. At Ibis, Angel Foster led this project and I took on the job of putting up the Arabic text that she created (with translator Aida Rouhana) online.

These days it’s not that hard to do websites in Arabic, but six years ago, it was a real puzzle. I couldn’t find any Arabic language plug-ins for DreamWeaver or FrontPage, so as I cut and pasted the Arabic text into the HTML programs, it wouldn’t display the Arabic properly, so it was really hard to do the links on specific words. The Arabic phrase for emergency contraception, which looks like this in Arabic:

منع الحمل الطارئ

looks like this in HTML code:

منع الحمل الطارئ

So I just had to muck around, highlighting different phrases, counting off letters or doing searches for strings of HTML code like that above, putting in links and then seeing where the links showed up in the Arabic texts, and then shifting the links around accordingly. It was a stupidly slow process. There was probably a better way to do it, but I wasn’t able to figure it out, so I slogged through the slow way.

Translation vs adaptation
I’m getting off the topic. Angel had decided that we couldn’t simply translate the existing website into Arabic. It had to be adapted to fit the social and cultural context of the Arabic speaking world and meet users’ needs. So, for example, she decided to include specific questions in the FAQs section on the interpretation and acceptability of EC in Orthodox Christianity and in Islamic jurisprudence. We hunted around for any fatwas on EC, both in published compendia of fatawa as well as in online databases, but we couldn’t find any. In fact, in the past 5 years, I have only found 1 fatwa on EC in an one of the many online fatwa databases.

That’s where interest in this Egypt research project came from. What did it mean that there were no fatwas on EC? Either it meant that EC wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen and was so totally unknown that nobody was asking about its status in Islam – hard to believe since there were dedicated products available in several Middle Eastern countries (including Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon) – OR it meant that EC was just wholly uncontroversial and subsumed under jurisprudential discussions about pre-coital hormonal contraceptives. Continue reading

New Reproductive Health Technologies in Egypt

Thanks to Kerim and Savage Minds for inviting me to contribute. I thought I’d write something about a new research project I’ve recently started on new and emerging reproductive health technologies in Egypt. This project looks at Egyptian interpretations of four technologies: emergency contraception, medication abortion, hymenoplasty, and erectile dysfunction drugs.

Some interesting paradoxes to contemplate:

  • Why are there at least a dozen local brands of sildenafil available from Egyptian pharmacies, and “Viagra sandwiches” or “Viagra soup” is on the menu at almost every restaurant that specializes in seafood, but there is only one brand of emergency contraceptive pill in Egypt, which is sold by an NGO because it’s not considered commercially viable enough for the mainstream pharmaceutical companies to bother with it?

The tap in the bathroom of the apartment where I stay when I’m doing research in Egypt. My roommate and I have often wondered where these came from. Was it a marketing campaign by Pfizer during the era when they weren’t allowed to engage in direct-to-consumer advertising for their product? Or did some sink manufacturer just think it would be cool to put Viagra on the handles?

Continue reading