Archive for September, 2009


Posted in Uncategorized on September 30, 2009 by racheltobias

This entry is taken from another blog site: and focuses on peace and conflict resolution issues . I write a couple of times a month for this blog, and this is a past entry about an experience I had when I worked at Ashoka. It’s slightly dated, but still an interesting reflection. 


Sometimes you find peace where you least expect it.

Last night, on a crisp Chicago summer evening, Tony’s teenage niece was shot 17 times. A few years ago, Tony would be standing on the killer’s doorstep, gun in hand and hatred in heart. Instead today, he sits in a room with 40 of his peers, developing specific strategies to prevent others from acting upon that same violent urge he has learned to suppress.

Tony is a Violence Interrupter. He, along with these 40 other men and women are employed by CeaseFire, a Chicago-based organization which aims to end gun violence in urban areas. To accomplish this goal, they take a multi-faceted approach, one which includes a hands-on public education and outreach campaign paired with the work of Violence Interrupters like Tony; these components are means to one end: to show people that shooting another human being is not normal.

As I sit in the Violence Interruptor meeting, I ponder the word “normal,” and flounce upon the idea of its subjectivity. My definition of normality would certainly take on a different shape than the kid who killed Tony’s niece. But then I recall a recent meeting with program founder Gary Slutkin, who noted that social norms are driven by one’s fear of disobeying them. The whole aim of Ceasefire and the work of these Violence Interrupters is to bring objectivity to normality; shooting someone shouldn’t just be abnormal to me and you, but also to the 14-year old drug dealer on the corner of 9th and Broadway, and the abducted child soldier in the war-torn corners of scattered African countries. Behavior change is not such an extraordinary concept; and certainly Slutkin’s goals are simple and realizable. For example: Twenty years ago, nobody would have blinked twice if I lit up a cigarette in this very meeting. Today, to consider lighting up would mean facing a looming sheet of scorn and opposition, one which would most likely deter me from doing so. So why not make violence, even in the most violent societies, unacceptable and abnormal?

The Violence Interrupters at this meeting at living proof that behavior can dramatically change. These individuals are former perpetrators, ex-felons and ex-gang members. They have a history of violence, a history of carrying a gun, and/or involvement in gang activity or leadership. They know the code of the streets; they know who owns the block, who has the last word, and who orchestrates business dealings. More importantly, they know what goes through someone’s head when he’s about to take another human life.

A hefty interrupter with a vintage handlebar moustache and a plunging voice raises his hand. He is leaning so far over the table with the excitement of engaging that it seems almost to be attached at his hip. When referencing any of his colleagues, he never fails to maintain the politest of airs, explaining the relationship between he and fellow interruptors “Mr. Joe” and “Mr. Ed.” “At one time,” he says, “we couldn’t stand each other. But now we love each other.”

If you poked your head into this room, the word “love” would most likely not be used to describe this seemingly rough and tough group of individuals. But there is a lot of love in this room. It is a room full of thought, heroism, compassion, empathy, and most unexpectedly, peace.

Also present in this room is tragedy. For the hour or two this meeting lasts, the Interrupters share the week’s conflicts. The 16-year old girl with the 5-year old daughter who uses her sexuality to play guys against each other. The 7 dead after a game of dice gone sour. The smashed-in face of a guy who looked at another’s girl the wrong way. The 4-year old caught in the crossfire of a fight no child should ever understand:

Homicide by firearm is the leading cause of death in African American males in the United States, and second leading cause of death among American youth. 90% of these shootings have been found to be group-based, directly related to group and peer pressures. As with a disease, we see violent behavioral symptoms spread through concentrated groups of people.

We normally see with lenses that distinguish certain aspects of life as black, others as white. We put “good people” in one pile, and “bad people” in another. It is difficult, terrifying perhaps, to see shades of gray. Shades of gray upset the tranquility of normalcy; and so we are afraid to see them. But what if, for a moment, we apply Gary Slutkin’s theory on social norms to our own perceptions of the world? What if shades of gray become the norm, so that eventually seeing things in black and white was no longer acceptable. What happens when you entrust a former enemy with helping bring the rest of the enemy population over to your side? What happens when you believe that there are only good and bad behaviors, learned behaviors, instead of good and bad people?

Tony happens. And Ginelle, and Ed and Joe and all of the Violence Interrupters happen. Ceasefire happens. And all of a sudden, you see expectations starting to shift. Perhaps understanding those we thought we could never understand is an answer we’ve been looking for.

An hour after the Violence Interrupter meeting has adjourned, we find ourselves in West Garfield, a rough neighborhood of Chicago. On each block corner stands a group of five or six teenage boys, no older than 17, in “uniform:” jean pants, a white t-shirt, and a blue or red baseball cap pulled shrewdly over the eyes, so as to make if difficult for the authorities to identify any specific individual after an incident. Girls who couldn’t be older than 14 or 15 push around strollers with wiggling daughters and sons. From shady front porches, grandmothers cast powerless eyes over parentless grandchildren as they frolic playfully through the streets.

We walk with Ceasefire outreach workers throughout the neighborhood, passing out bumper stickers like lollipops. Even the intimidatingly organized boys on the street corners give us a friendly smile and take the stickers with pleasure. They support Ceasefire; they don’t want to kill each other, but it’s the only way they know how to make their point. Right now, my definition of what is normal is vastly different than theirs. But I don’t believe it always has to be that way.

A street corner in West Garfield surrounded by echoes of violence and marked by the inner workings of gang culture was the last place I expected to find peace.

But sometimes you find peace where you least expect it.


The Mad Ones

Posted in Uncategorized on September 28, 2009 by racheltobias

Arabic word of the day:

 Asir bateekh — watermelon juice


Ahora estoy en Barcalona, sitting in a Café, sipping a sangria and eating salad (for the first time in a month!…hallelujah!), and have finally found a fleeting moment and motivation to begin writing again. Living in Egypt has been such an abrupt change in pace, that it has been difficult to tear myself away from my daily routine and sit down to write. However, since you have taken the time to read this, I promise to continue to put words on a page.

(Disclaimer: I may often lose my train of thought because I am thoroughly engrossed in this feta-licious salad…)

In Egypt I have a new routine, a new group of friends, and a new home. I think I am quite blessed in that I can easily feel home anywhere. I won’t lie, living in Egypt is not the easiest thing I have done. There are many things I miss: for instance dryers. There is not a dryer to be found in this country – my jeans have stretched out beyond any hope of butt-fitting. I’m pretty sure they even line dry my clothes at the dry cleaners. But, as they would say in Barcelona, asi es la vida. The frustrations I have been having and the things I dislike only give me more joy when I think about what an adventure this has been and will be. I mean, if I can wear stretched-out jeans, I can do anything, no?

I live on a small island in Cairo called Zamalek, which sits on the Nile, connected to the madness of the city by straddling bridges which I must cross every day to begin my long journey to the American University in Cairo. Zamalek is a lovely place: it is one of the higher-end places in the city and its spattering of embassies makes it the primary place of residence for many diplomats and ex-patriots. There are an abundance of cafes, shiisha bars, delivery bikes, and taxi cabs, who beep their horns as regularly as they breathe.

The first month here was Ramadan, which is the Muslim month of fasting. During Ramadan, practicing Muslims should not eat, drink or smoke from sunrise to sunset, should not do drugs, drink alcohol, or have (or even think about having) sex. Therefore, there tend to be limited signs of life during the daylight hours: workdays are shortened and people sleep during the day, waking up at 6:30pm for iftar (breakfast). During iftar the streets are empty, the shops are closed; if you broke your leg, you might have to wait until iftar had finished before being tended to (only an exaggeration but almost).

Club Shot

Because I have made so many Egyptian friends and almost no American friends, it seemed only appropriate for me to follow Ramadan like everybody else. Otherwise I would be eating five or six meals a day since breakfast is at 6:30pm, lunch is at midnight, and dinner is around 3:30am. Fasting was not difficult; the only challenging part was to abstain from drinking water during the day, especially because the AUC campus is so hot. When Ramadan falls during the summer months, it’s a big bummer.

 A normal (week)day (during Ramadan) for me in Egypt goes something like this:

5:30 am: Wake up for school to catch the 7am bus to the American University in Cairo with my three other American roommates. Take a cold shower (since we still have not had the privilege of hot water. Think about how great it would be to eat a peanut butter-banana-honey toast for breakfast.

6:50 am: Walk to the bus stop with 50 other sleepy American students. Pass the landlord on the way out of my building’s elevator. Sabbah al-haier. Good morning.

7:00 am: All aboard the Bobblehead Bus. Ride about an hour to campus, during which everyone trys to get a few extra bumpy minutes of sleep.

8:30am: Modern Standard Arabic (fus-ha) with my professor Neshwa. She is very strict, and just about strangles us with her veil when we don’t do our homework.

9:45 am: Walk down Gucci Blvd. on my way to my next class. The students at AUC are typically children of the Egyptian elite, and are not necessarily academically motivated. More pressing to them is their wardrobe – you won’t see an Egyptian student wearing sweatpants or a T-shirt unless they have some sort of death wish. God forbid I wear Levis instead of designer jeans – I get the “look-up-then-look-down” from every Egyptian girl. The girls are glittering in Prada sunglasses and Coach sneakers; they don’t carry books or notebooks to school…once in a while they carry a teeeeeeeeeny tiny notepad which I suppose could hold maybe a quarter of a century’s worth of notes in history class.

10:00 am: Egyptian Colloquial (al-meeia) with Neshwa again. This class is much more fun and relaxed – just talking and learning how to communicate in Egyptian slang.

11:30 am: Walk to my next class. I really really wish I could drink some water.

11:45 am – 3:30pm: My other classes, depending on the day include Intro to Development, Contemporary Political Islam, and the Rise to Power of Islamic Movements. All interesting, all with mostly Egyptian students. It is fascinating to learn things like Development and Islam from a completely non-American perspective. It is such a different take on the world. (Will elaborate after I have attended more classes.)

4:00 pm: Board the Bobblehead Bus home to Zamelek. God I wish I had something to eat. Is it iftar yet.

5:20 pm: Arrive back to the apartment after walking past a dead neighborhood, everyone twiddling their thumbs until they can eat again. Take a nap, so that I don’t think about how much I want water.

6:30 pm: IFTAR! Al-hamdul Allah!  Thank God. Eat iftar either with friends or have something delivered. Everything delivers in Egypt. Literally, if you wanted an orange and a falafel, you could have it delivered at anywhere any time. At my roommate’s boyfriend’s house, iftar is mouthwatering, with piles and piles of dishes of which it would be extremely rude to turn down any. I, who really won’t eat much seafood, have eaten during iftar mussels, clams, fried fish, prawns (with eyes!), weird types of fish, calamar, octopus soup, and shrimp. Mom and Dad, don’t ever say I am a picky eater ever again. But there are also many Egyptian things that I love to eat: koshary (rice, lentils, noodles, and a spicy sauce), sambousek (fried cheese), kebab, kofta, falafel, homos, fool (very similar to Mexican bean dip), yogurt and mint dip. More than anything though, the best thing about Egypt, hands-down, is the fresh juice. They have juice in every flavor, although I prefer asir (watermeleon) or ananaas (pineapple). These are nothing like juices that we have in the States. These are thick, fresh, and literally to die for. Usually at home, I feel guilty about drinking the calories in a glass of cranberry juice, I’ll take a Diet Coke. I’ve never regretted one glass of fresh watermelon juice in Egypt.

7:15: Food coma. Turn on the TV to take my mind off how full I am. Pick one of the four English channels we have: “A Walk to Remember” is on. I love that movie. Ah, thank goodness, Mandy Moore and Shane West are finally going to kiss. Hold it. Scratch that. No kissing scenes, no sex scenes, no excessive touching scenes allowed on Egyptian television. Alas, I’ll have to wait until I’m in the West to see any kissing. That’s ok, this movie sucks anyway. Movie goes to commercial. The commercial shows a group of men sitting in a room. They are smoking marijuana; laughing, high, in ecstasy, they run out of rolling paper. One of the men takes out a picture of his family, the only paper he has left, and rolls a joint with it. Another takes out a 100-pound bill and smokes it. It’s an anti-drug ad. Another commercial comes on. A man comes home from his day, removes his headdress and his robe, and goes to his liquor cabinet for a glass of scotch. As he takes a sip, the glass becomes red hot, and he burns his mouth. This is an anti-drinking ad. One of the most interesting changes here has been the lack of separation between church and state. In the U.S., we are so used to being able to say and do whatever we want, whenever we want. People who have religious beliefs can make their own choices. Here, the society and the government make your choices for you.


9:30 pm: After recovering, get dressed and meet friends for shiisha. For those of you who think shiisha is drugs, IT IS NOT. I just want to make sure we are on the same page: I am not out smoking pot nightly, as this is what my father thought shiisa was. Shiisa is quite simply flavored tobacco. There is no nicotine, no addictive element; of course it’s still not good for you. I’ve probably smoked enough shiisha in the last month to have lung cancer twice. But halas, that’s it, I really want some cantaloupe shiisa.

12:00 am: Order sohoor (dinner/lunch). Usually something light for me since I still cannot justify eating a full meal at midnight. Sit with my Egyptian friends and share stories. Beevis raves like a madman about his love affair with Los Angeles, a city which he visits as often as he can, mainly to gorge himself on Cheesecake Factory. Tarek and Soha talk about their upcoming wedding, the traditions that I will see when I attend, and the complications of arranging visas for their honeymoon. We discuss their recent katb kitaab, the official signing of the marriage license which takes place a month before their wedding party. Although they are technically married, it is haram (forbidden/sinful) for them to sleep together without first telling the bride’s father that they are to do so. Sary and Jimmy interrupt loudly to serenade us with Sary’s band’s latest song. Ingy and I begin discussing the problems with the Egyptian government and the challenges they face with a very economically divided society.  My friends speak mostly in Arabic, translating for me now and again, forcing me to practice speaking to them in Arabic and not English. Occasionally they teach me some cuss words or silly sayings, my favorite of which is heluwa nik (don’t say this to anyone who speaks Arabic), and means f-ing beautiful.


2:30 am: Can’t stay up any longer. Ask for a ride home and go upstairs to the apartment, where I stay up for another hour or two writing emails, and talking with roommates. Eventually go to bed and start again the next day.


I love my life in Egypt truly. There are so many great things, great people. The city has incredible mosques, a beautiful and very romantic park which overlooks the entire city and to which I anticipate visiting often, good food, good culture. It is so cheap: you easily live on less than $20 a day if you don’t go out at night. Of course, not everything has been silly and sweet. We have had many a problem with out apartment. Apart from the water, we had a massive fuse blown, our air conditioning units drip so loudly we cannot sleep, and we found human feces in our washing machine, which is stationed in our kitchen. (You really don’t want to know.) Shopping in a local market one day, I had boys throw rocks at me as I walked by, even though my shoulders, legs, and chest were fully covered. I have had to train myself not to make eye contact with men when I walk down the street; I must walk with confidence and with purpose. My wardrobe is conservative in public places; even in the 100-degree weather a sweater is non-negotiable. Cabs are a nuisance, and you’re as likely to get hit by a car or in a car accident as you are to eat falafel. On one occasion, we paid a cab driver 2 pounds (the equivalent of 10 cents) for taking us around the corner and not even finding the right location, after which he chased us down yelling for more money. We recently took a trip to Hurghada, a lovely beach town about 5 hours out of Cairo. A few in the group stayed in a hotel, including one of my roommates. Although she was sharing the room with another Egyptian girl, she had to pay double the room price (in addition to what the Egyptian was paying) because she was American. In some situations, common sense and customer service in Egypt are severely lacking. But hey, Americans have high expectations of service.


Now, my university has been shut down for a couple of weeks because of the swine flu. After visiting Hurghada with my friends, I still had a week to kill, so I bought a ticket to Barcelona, left the next day, and here I am.

Parc Citudella   Gaudi

I am absolutely high on Barcelona at the moment. I have never been in a city quite like this before. The energy is so quirky and bohemian; it is one of the happiest and strangest places I have been. Everyone is beautiful and happy to be alive. One of my favorite strings of the English language is Jack Kerouac’s observation that

“the only people for me are the mad ones”

Untitled   Oops

…everyone in Barcelona is mad. And everyone is for me.

I am surrounded by the most incredible art and architecture. I have become obsessed with Gaudi and began to cry at La Sagrada Familia today, completely overwhelmed by its beauty.

Sagrada FamliaIt is really nice to be traveling by myself: I’m staying in a hostel, meeting so many people from all over the world, and most importantly, speaking only in Spanish. It is terribly refreshing to be able to speak fluently in another language, as Arabic is beyond broken for me. I got pickpocketed twice, and almost had my baby (my Nikon D200) stolen, but I still cannot complain about this city. I’m full of tapas, hot chocolate thicker than syrup and richer than Oprah, stunning vistas, psychadelic pieces of art, antique amusement parks on tops of mountains, dancing fountains, mucho espanol, and una clima muy muy linda.

Gaudi Casa Batllo  Magic FountainI can even wear tank tops! Gracias a Dios! Today I watched los Castellanos make human towers, which was quite a sight.


They can make up to nine or ten layers of people; I saw three teams do four different towers apiece…only one fell.

Concentration  Focus

Tower Built  Preparation



Entonces, I am so happy to be here, happy to be mad, happy to return to Egypt in a few days; quite simply I’m happy to be alive.

Posted in Uncategorized on September 28, 2009 by racheltobias

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