Friday, August 18, 2017

Strangers on a Train in Egypt



Asalamu Alaykom,




This is a picture I took from the train window.  Obviously, it was a dirty train window which I kind of like since it gives the photo a kind of impressionistic style.

Traveling by train in Egypt might not seem like a good idea with the recent train collision that killed 43 passengers.  That wreck happened the day after we had passed over the very same tracks leaving Alexandria.  We survived and they did not.  That's mighty sobering.

We already had bought our tickets for a return trip Alex, so there was little chance of us changing our minds and going by Super Jet.  That name "Super Jet" makes it sound like lightning fast air travel, but it's actually a big bus.  I would rather go by train.  A train is more reliable; we've had two buses break down en route (and we don't even use them that much).  A train is steadier, roomier, and safer.

On average, over the last years, there's been twenty-two deaths a year from train.  Now, remember, the train accidents aren't even happening every year:  they've been maybe every three to four years.  I'm saying the yearly average to make a point.  Each year in Egypt, there are 12,000 road fatalities.  The numbers speak for themselves.

We had tickets for the  6 AM train.  We travel second-class.  It's funny how "second class citizen" is a really horrible epithet to call someone in the U.S., but it's an honorable place to be on an Egyptian train.  Our seats were going to be in the first row on the second class car.  It gets air conditioning, so that's a plus.  The seats are well cushioned and mostly clean.  It's all good.

The problem was that second-class is a financially unattainable goal for many passengers.  They wish they could afford it, but they can't.  For me?  If I can't afford it then I don't lament it.  We live within our means.  For them?  They come into second-class and crowd around the seats of those who paid extra for that space.

I told my husband that I would not allow for anyone to grab a hold of our seats during the trip.  I had seen that on the previous trip.  I had seen a group of five men occupy two empty seats and the one who was perched on the edge of the arm rest used an arm rest across the aisle for support.  That seat had been occupied by a hijabi and his hand had been centimeters from her breast.  It was upsetting to see the disregard for her space.  I wasn't going to let that happen to us.


Every time passengers came into our car, I would sit up straight and tall and look a bit tough with a "Don't mess with me expression."  They stayed away from our seats.  If they started to touch my son's seat back, I would tell them in Arabic that it was his seat.  They would let go.

My hub was sitting across the aisle with an older, rotund man doing Suduko puzzles in a little book.  The man was incensed INCENSED when the wishful passengers would come on.  Turns out he was a government employee who thought he could regulate every place he occupied.  You can't really.  All you can do is appeal to their goodness.  He didn't get that.  I think he was really pushing the issue with his strong seatmate, my husband, next to him; he thought he had back up.

It got dangerous when the man got up OUT of his seat to PUSH a young man's arm out of the train car into the passage way so he could shut the door.  Yes, we were losing AC due to their wish to have the door open, but NO TOUCHY the other other passengers!  The young man started to posture in defiance.  I was really worried.  When he sat back down and cooled off, I leaned over and told him nicely that it isn't right to touch anyone.  I understood him, but didn't support him touching and that it could start a fight.  If there was a fight on the train, my husband would definitely be involved and that would be dangerous for all three of us.

Alhumdulillah, the man relaxed.  I saw into his eyes that he really heard me and that he knew he had been wrong.  He didn't do it again.

Why didn't we complain to the supervisor?  We did!  The worker checking tickets actually told the man that he should be nicer about the men going off to work.  Give them some space in the second-class train car!  They could have AC too!

This was a 6 AM train, if you recall, so really no one had to have AC at that time.  If there had been a real need, the situation would have been different.

It wasn't just men.  Women came into the car to stand around us.  I told off two pairs that my husband was sitting there and that it wasn't right for them to have hands on his seat.  The whole car heard her in Arabic trying to explain why she had a hard time that day and heard me answering (again in Arabic) that we ALL have our problems.  I smiled and pointedly asked in Arabic, "Would you like me to put my hands on your husband's seat?"

She laughed and said of course not.

The two younger women in front of my husband's seat laughed and smiled.  They knew.

Later, a soldier got on.  He actually wasn't a second-class passenger, but no one asked him to leave.  Hard to ask someone to leave who's risking his life for you.  The next time that the old man lambasted a passenger, he joined in with his thoughts.

The soldier announced on the train that we are all Egyptians who need to share.

That's when I got up.  Ya, me, the American, I got up and addressed the solider.

My husband right away told me to show respect because HE'S A SOLDIER.

I answered back that I had called the man Erees, or boss.  I went on to ask in my choppy Arabic if he was married.  He smiled and didn't answer, so I asked again.  The whole train is watching this show, by the way.  He answered that he was not.  I joked that all the unmarried ladies were happy about this and the two younger women giggled.

I went on to tell him that when you have a family inshahallah, you feel more protective.  You aren't as OK with letting a group of passengers crowd your seat.  It's not respectful for men to be crowding me and my space or for women to be doing the same to my husband.  A male passenger vocally agreed.

The soldier tried then to school me on the Egyptian way of caring and sharing.

I told him what I know to be true, "How many Egyptians are there on this train?  Can they ALL fit in this car?  Where is the limit?  Because if we let these passengers in, so they can get more space and more air, eventually NONE of us will have either.  If we are all hot and crowded together, when the next group of Egyptians come to the second-class, guess what those people will be told?  Get out!  So either we say it now or later, but not everyone can ride in here."

He sat down.



One of the younger women tried to continue a kind of debate with me, but I told her that I didn't want her to talk to me about it.  I wasn't very nice, but I really had to shut it down.

Soon after, the supervisor, as he walked through, started to get complaints that that AC wasn't working.  He said that it was, but the niqabi women were in a panic.  The babies were getting sweaty.  I took out my Chinese fan.

One of the panicking niqabis was the mom of the young woman I'd been curt with.  Her mom was running back and forth to the passageway door to feel the air.  She was told it was dangerous for her to be there.  It was also weird.  The passageway was filled with men.  Somehow, niqabi sisters often end up being less modest even though they are trying so hard to be the MOST modest.

She started to talk anxiously to the man with the tea trolley for some sugar.  The heat was badly affecting her.  I told her that I had some candy and gave her a caramel.  She took it and took her seat again.

Guess what the supervisor eventually had to do?  He had to kick out the passengers who didn't have a second-class ticket.  He even shut the door on the arm of one of them!  That almost started another fight.  The supervisor recognized that he had to finally do something by the book.  Egypt has a LOT of bending/breaking the rules to help others which actually screws it up worse.

The joke was really how the three of us grown-ups in that first row had policed the issue the whole ride, with many of the other passengers AND even the supervisor thinking we were rude or crazy.  In the end, the whole train car came to realize that we suffer when we act like we can share everything we have with others.  We can't...or rather we can, but it's not going to feel good!

The door was now shut.  The cool air from the AC started to be felt and we all relaxed again.


Shortly there after, we started our approach to Sidi Gabour Station.  That's when I saw another train out the window.  It was bent askew on the other tracks.  I questioningly looked to my husband and saw a train on its side out his window.  Between the wreckage, a group of police men sat drinking tea.  Truly Egyptian moment!

Yes, this was the scene of the train collision.  I looked out my window again and saw how part of the train sat on the tracks with each chair empty.  Each chair represented someone just like me, or like the soldier, or the niqabi, the young women, the babies, the men going off to work...who wanted to get to their destination safely, but didn't.

The train was so quiet in that moment.  It was a walk in the cemetery.  Around us, there had been chaos, injury, and death.  I kept saying "Allah yer hamo" for the victims.  I then decided to use my finger joints like counters to accurately remember the forty-three who died.

The young woman, sensing our imminent arrival, leaned over and told me that she hadn't meant anything bad.  She apologized.  I told her that we just needed to stop talking about and I was sorry that I didn't have all the right Arabic to tell her in a better way.  We accepted each other's wish to end the trip nicely.

The next moment, we had arrived.  I don't know how many people said, "Alhumdulillah" but really we all should remember that not everyone arrives at their destination.  If we are blessed enough to arrive, then it's best to express our gratitude.

We all grabbed our belongings, said our goodbyes and exited the train.  A new day awaited us.

Alhumdulillah.

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