Ma Salama Misr

The day and a half in Cairo after I wrote my penultimate post were a whirlwind of activity, and I was too busy trying not to dissolve into a soggy, weeping mess on my trip back to the U.S. to try and write anything about the end of my trip. Then I was scrambling around preparing for school, and producing the first issue of the newspaper, and faster than I knew it classes had started and I’ve been back in the States for almost a full month. 

I’m going to cop out a bit, and instead of writing up my own, sappy summary of my time in Egypt, I’m going to post a photo essay that I wrote for The Hoya’s arts and leisure magazine. 

MANY EGYPTS

When I was packing for my study abroad program Egypt early this summer, a friend of mine who was living there warned me that I had to be prepared for two Egypts. The first is flashy and modern and moderately Westernized, a country where every kid has a facebook and American pop music booms from every taxi. The second Egypt is more religious, more deeply conservative, a country still grasping at the past out of fear of the future, where men will point at your chest and yell at you if they think your shirt shows too much skin.

I saw both these Egypts during my two months there, and more. I saw Egypt the third world country, where children as young as four worked selling tissue packets on the street. I saw Egypt the burgeoning democracy, got to witness the announcement of the results of the country’s first free elections and see the expressions of immense pride and exhilaration on Egyptians’ faces. I visited the North Coast, where the country’s elite sun bathe on private beaches in front of the crystalline blue Mediterranean. And I walked through parts of Cairo where every building seemed to be halfway deteriorating, where motorcycles, donkey carts, pedestrians and stray dogs crowded the unpaved, trash-strewn streets.

I am fascinated how this country can contain so many separate but tangential worlds, and how Egyptians seem able navigate them with such grace. I didn’t get to witness these worlds completely when I visited, but what I did see of each of them left me hungry for more. 

Ma salama Misr. Inni s’arja lak, in sha’ allah.  

The End is Near

I’m sitting in my hostel in Cairo, having been woken early by the relentlessness of the Egyptian sun streaming through the window over my bed.

It’s been a rough last 24 hours. After bidding a bittersweet goodbye to everyone at the TAFL center (thanking my professors, Dr. Iman and Ustaadh Alaa, was particularly difficult) my friend Matt and I headed back to the hotel to finish packing and get ready to go to the train station. This was around 1:00. After about an hour of packing, frequently interrupted by people coming in to my room to say goodbye (Sahara and Aziza, the two incredibly sweet women who make us breakfast in the mornings and clean our rooms, came back for hugs twice) we piled our luggage into a cab for the train station.Where we proceeded to sit for the next four hours. Granted, we had gotten there about an hour earlier, wary of playing games with the Alexandria traffic that can make a 15 minute car ride take triple the time. But at around 3:30 (the train was suposed to leave at 4:11), an announcement came over the loudspeaker in garbled Arabic, and a woman standing near us told us that our train would be delayed by an hour. Matt and I looked at one another, exasperated, but we sat down with our books and tried to bide our time until 5:15. Well, 5:15 came and went, and still no train. A girl sitting next to us who spoke English tried to explain what was going on, but I don’t think anyone in that station, Egyptian or tourist, knew exactly what was happening. First the train was supposed to come in 15 minutes, then half an hour, then not at all. And no reason was given as to why it hadn’t shown up at 4. Eventually, at around 7 p.m., a Cairo-bound train pulled into the station and we shoved our way onto it, heedless of whether or not it was the one we were supposed to be on. Turns out it wasn’t, because no sooner had we taken our seats then an Egyptian man marched over to us and demanded that we give them up. We did, aware that it was going to be a very long train ride if we had to stand for the whole three hours. But about 30 minutes into the ride, a woman — or a saint — in a blue flowered jump suit (I kid you not) told us to take her seat while she made a phone call. Matt and I split time on the chair, one of us sitting in the seat while the other perched on the armrest, alternating places every hour or so. The woman came back to the car, but wouldn’t let us give her the seat back. Instead, the entire train car seemed to play a huge game of musical chairs to make sure we could keep sitting — every time someone got up, another person would sit down in their seat, and that person would cheerfully stand or sit on the edge of someone else’s seat until a new seat opened up for them. You have to hand it to them — the Egyptian bureaucracy deserves a good kick in the ribs, but the Egyptian people are as generous as anyone can be.

Getting from Ramses Station to our hostel was another ordeal. It was difficult to find a metered cab, so we wound up having to negotiate with a cab driver who wouldn’t take less than 25 pounds (that’s a lot, FYI). Exhausted and starving, since by now it was 10:30 and we hadn’t eaten, we reluctantly accepted. Cairo traffic made sure we got our money’s worth, however. A trip that took me about 20 minutes when I left Sarah’s apartment in June took an hour and a half last night, and then when we got out of the cab the driver wanted 45 pounds because of the izdihaam (traffic). That fight took about five minutes, and I was sufficiently frustrated with Egypt by the time we stepped into the elevator that the welcome we got from the owners of the hostel was a pleasant shock. Mohamed met us at the landing, took my bag and greeted me like an old friend, even though I had only exchanged emails with him twice in order to work out a problem with my booking. After washing my face, checking my email, and then going out for a delicious dinner at a nearby restaurant called Felfela, I was ready to love Egypt again.

I’m staying here with four other guys from our program, so I think the plan for this morning is to explore Islamic Cairo. I’m meeting a friend of one of my favorite high school teachers for lunch, and then we all want to return to Khan al Khalili to buy as many touristy  souvenires as we can.

It’s hard to believe that my stay in Egypt is almost over. Part of me isn’t ready to leave — I still have so much Arabic to learn, and there’s still so much I haven’t done. But I’m also excited to return to the US, to drink tap water and run outside in shorts, to spend time with my family and then get back to school and the newspaper.

I’ve had a really wonderful time here, though. The past two weeks have been especially great. We’ve been back to the beach at the North Coast,

shopped in Manshiya at least half a dozen times, visited the palace and gardens at Montaza,

This is how dates grow — in palm trees. One of the many things I didn’t know before coming on this trip.

From Left: Beth, Avanti and Amy, three of my good friends.

had a farewell dinner and graduation ceremony at one of Alex’s fanciest hotels, 

The view out the window of the restaurant.

sang karaoke at Bamboo and signed Suzie’s wall,

drank copious amounts of juice (mango, coconut, strawberry, pomegranate, etc.), visited a Coptic Church just for the fun of it,

and done a thousand and one other things, big and small, that were absolutely wonderful. If there was any question about whether I would ever return to Egypt before these past two weeks, it is now an absoute certainty: I want to come back here within the next three or four year, to find my friends in Alex and impress them with my improved Arabic skills, to navigate Cairo without feeling like I’m running a gauntlet and to always remember to say “arooh” instead of “adhaab” (to go). 

Alright. My friend should be waking up soon, so I’d better start getting ready for the day. Last 24 hours in Egypt — here I come!

The Feminine Condition

A few weeks ago, my Arabic class was learning a bit of grammar associated with words that can be used to describe only women (for example haamil, or pregnant). The textbook designated these words as describing “the feminine condition.” My friend Amy — who can always be relied upon for a good feminist rant — and I looked at each other with expressions of mingled amusement and annoyance. The feminine condition? “It sounds like some sort of disease they hope we might recover from,” I whispered to Amy. She laughed, and we both rolled our eyes at the absurdity of Al-Kitaab (our textbook).

But all jokes aside, there’s no denying that in Egypt, being a woman seem be as painful and restrictive as an illness. This is a society that is clearly, unabashedly dominated by males. Sure, the same can be said of the U.S. (less than 17 percent of members of Congress are female, even though women make up more than 50 percent of voters, FYI), but American society at least has the decency to try and deny its misogyny, hiding it behind claims that the glass ceiling has been broken even though one in four female college students will experience sexual violence and women still make less than 75 cents to every dollar earned by men.

In Egypt, there is no such pretending. Male dominance is out there for everyone to see. Egyptian men can, and do, say what they like to women passing by — anytime one of us girls walks anywhere we leave a trail of men yelling “mozza” (sexy) or “kiss me” in our wake. Yesterday I walked to Manshiya by myself because I needed to pick up a necklace that I’m having made. It was still broad daylight, and the market is always so full of people, mostly women, that I knew that nothing bad could happen. And nothing did, but as I walked through a narrow passage between dress shops a shopkeeper standing in to the pathway looked right at me, licked his lips, and said “mmm” under his breath. It was easily one of the creepiest, most vulgar things that have ever happened to me. I quickened my stride and kept my gaze straight forward. I was horrified, disgusted, and despite being brought up to conceive of myself as a proud, independent, successful western woman and a worthwhile member of society, I felt like nothing more than a piece of meat.

I know that this is a relatively small thing, something so subtle and discreet that it could have easily happened at in the United States, at a party at Georgetown or walking in Manhattan late at night. Either way, I’ve always told myself that I won’t let the harassment I’ve gotten in Egypt bother me unless it’s physical. If they don’t touch me, they can’t hurt me. But at a certain point, you break. A person can only bear being treated like a sexual object for so long. It starts to get under your skin. And it’s not just foreigners who get it. Two thirds of Egyptian women report experiencing harassment on a daily basis, and women who wear hijab fare no better than those who go without. People wonder why women haven’t achieved social and economic and political parity in the world, and this is why. So many westerners look at Arab women wearing head scarves and abayas and condemn them as instruments of male oppression, but I think that the status of women in Egypt stands to lose far more from the harassment. How can a woman who wants to be a doctor or a politician, a leader in society, how can she take herself seriously, and make others take her seriously, if she is constantly being ogled and yelled at? How can a woman think and act independently if she can’t even feel safe walking to the market on her own?

What is so frustrating about this trend is that it stands in such stark contrast to everything else I’ve experienced of Egyptian culture. This is a culture that prides itself on hospitality so much that every Egyptian home has a special sitting room reserved only for guests, a culture that claims to value modesty and respect, claims to be modern and forward thinking. I have met so many genuinely kind and open-hearted people here, people eager to open their homes and their minds to foreigners, thrilled that we would even want to visit their country and learn their language. Just this weekend Dr. Iman invited us to her house for Iftar, cooking a huge feast for us, introducing us to her grown children, greeting every girl with a kiss on each cheek and every boy with an enthusiastic handshake. I have never met such a warm, intelligent, interesting family. Everything about their apartment — from the books stacked on every surface to the abstract photographs (taken by Dr. Iman’s daughter who was studying on her own in Turkey) that could have been of marbles or the moon hanging on the walls to the picture of Dr. Iman as a young girl, lying in the grass in front of the university wearing a knee length skirt and no hijab — oozed modernity, culture, and intellectualism. Girls and guys discussed politics and fashion in equal measures. But all that stops at the door. Out on the street, a woman’s ability to engage in intellectual discussion or take abstract photos is second to the fact of her body. Her feminine condition.

How can a society that values hospitality so deeply turn around and greet its female visitors this way? For that matter, how can a religion that says a women’s purity is like a pearl (which is a problem in and of itself) condone behavior that treats women like sexual objects? It’s a difficult topic, and one that Egyptians seem unwilling to broach. I’ve talked to my professors and some of the language partners about it, but there’s an eagerness to dismiss the issue as a problem of poverty and a lack of education. “It’s just the shabab (young guys),” people will say, “Most Egyptians don’t agree with the harassment.” But they tolerate it nonetheless, and at too high a price — knowing that they can say what they want and get away with it, the men go further. My friend Sarah, whom I stayed with in Cairo at the beginning of this trip, said that she was walking with a few friends in Zamelek one night when a man reached out the window a car and grabbed her friend’s butt. The car sped away before anyone could stop it, and though several people on the street who heard Sarah’s friend scream rushed over to help, no one suggested that she go after the car or report the incident to the police. They apologized to Sarah’s friend, insisting that this was an isolated incident, that “this is not Egypt.” This may not be Egypt, but these are Egyptians. And Egyptians need to take responsibility for the actions of their compatriots, not for the benefit of female westerners who feel uncomfortable getting cat calls in the street during a two month stay, but for the millions of Egyptian women who put up with this every day, year in and year out. That is what makes me angriest. The men on the street don’t have to respect me — God knows that Americans have done plenty for Egyptians to be scornful of — but I do expect them to respect their fellow citizens, their mothers and sisters and daughters and friends.

I really do love this country — I love the endless activity in the streets, the taste of the ful eskandrani, the bubbling enthusiasm of the people. I want to come back here someday soon, to speak to Egyptians in their own language and do it justice, to rent an apartment and shop at the souq, to read Arabic newspapers and sing Egyptian songs. But I also know that I will never really feel comfortable in Egypt, never be able to embrace it fully, so long as the harassment continues like this.

All that said, there are a few things, small things, that make me feel a little less angry and hopeless about the entire situation. There’s this article, published in the run-up to the Olympics, featuring female Arab athletes from across the Middle East. I spent an entire afternoon watching every video, multiple times, mesmerized by the enthusiasm and confidence these girls show in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition. One runner from Palestine qualified for the Olympics despite never having been on a track before. The Somali basketball team will play knowing that their country’s de-facto leaders, the rulers of the Shabab, don’t consider them to be women at all. I was particularly struck by the words of Fayza Omer, a runner from Sudan: “They ask us why we play since we’re women, and say it’s not feminine. To the contrary, sport gives girls a complete femininity. It gives them shape, it gives them a stronger mentality. Some people think otherwise, but I need to reach my goals, I don’t listen to them. I want to reach the Olympics or other world competitions, I want to be an ambassador for my country. … Sport is a beautiful thing.”

Here in Egypt, there’s also a website called Harassmap that allows women to report places where they’ve been assaulted. The site serves the dual purpose of noting the prime locations where women are harassed and also demonstrating exactly how common the harassment is. Its use as increased dramatically in the past few years, concurrent with the wave of liberalism and hope for change that accompanied the revolution.

These are the kinds of things that will eventually lead to change — on the one hand, seeing women taking ownership of themselves and their bodies, representing their country and achieving something wonderful, while on the other, systematically reporting abuse and identifying it as something that won’t be tolerated any longer. When guys can’t get away with the constant verbal and physically, and when they respect women enough to stop wanting to try, that’s how change happens.

I now declare this rant officially over.

 

No Words

We went to Al Sahel Al Shamali (the North Coast) last weekend, a narrow strip of air-conditioned resorts between desert sand and the brilliantly blue waters of the Mediterranean.

There really are no words for how beautiful it was. The ocean was unimaginably blue, and so salty you could flavor soup with it. Especially because there was not a single thing living in it — no seaweed, no fish, nothing. The salt made the water so buoyant that I could float without effort, bobbing in the waves as the sun beat down on my skin with a ferocity I’ve never felt before. I could practically feel my skin blistering beneath it  — don’t worry Mom, I set the alarm on my watch to remind me to reapply sunscreen every two hours.

We stayed at a five star resort, and the entire experience was more luxurious than any I’ve ever had. My room faced on to the ocean, and the sea breeze was so nice that at night I turned off the air conditioning and opened the door onto the balcony so I could fall asleep to the sounds of the waves.

We arrived at the coast around 1:30 p.m., swam and played and talked and read and sat in the shade until heading back to our rooms at around 6:30 to shower and get ready for dinner. There was an astonishing array of food at the buffet, and even though most of the main courses were meat there were enough salads and dips and bread to keep this vegetarian more than happy.

Top Photo: Heaping helpings of baba ganoush, hummus and tahina (the three gray-ish dips on the left hand side of the plate), tabbouleh and green salad on the right.

Bottom Photo: Whole wheat bread (A rare find in Egypt!), olive bread, roasted red peppers, and stewed green beans in tomato sauce with rice.

I also had a second plate of salad with more red peppers — I’ve had so few fresh vegetables lately that the spinach and peppers tasted like the food of the gods. I am excited to eat a lot of salad when I get home.

After we went walking on the beach, holding our shoes in our hands and letting the waves wash up on our bare feet. It felt like something out of a travel magazine, or else a cheesy romance movie. It was wonderful.

Friday morning I woke up early and swam laps in the hotel’s pool with my friend Avanti (my best Nadi buddy) and we headed to breakfast together. After a few more hours of swimming and lazing about in the warm sand, it was time to head out. We ate lunch at the hotel, and I had an amazingly, luxuriously delicious cappuccino (Non-instant coffee! What a concept! I think it’s the first I’ve had in Egypt.) Then we reluctantly got back on the bus and dozed through the two hour drive back to Alex, dreading the return to noise and trash and school work. It’s already Tuesday now — hard to believe it’s been a week since I was floating in that incredibly blue water — and I’m looking forward to the start of another weekend tomorrow. We’ve got big plans — another trip to the beach, an Iftar dinner, shopping in Manshiya, visiting an Arabic bookstore, and studying for our final exam on Sunday. I’ll report back when it all happens!

I know this was a short post. I think that the pictures say a lot more than any description I could give, and either way I’m too tired to write more. We’re all pretty burnt out from school work, and every night I look forward to the moment when I can collapse into my bed with more and more anticipation. I am not at all ready to leave Egypt — there’s still so much left I want to do, and see, and experience — but I can’t say I’m not looking forward to the end of classes.

!أريد أن أنهي دراسات

That’s all for now. Ma Salama!

Scenes from a Life in Egypt

Its been almost two weeks since our trip to Cairo, and I haven’t reported on anything that’s happened in the intervening time. The truth is, not much actually has happened. We’ve finally settled into the routine of daily life in Egypt, which largely consists of eating, sleeping, and studying, occasionally interrupted by a marriage proposal from a random man on the sidewalk or a particularly good Egyptian meal.  So instead of trying to write a cohesive post encompassing the past 12 days, I’ll just give you a few snippets:

July 9

Under an inky black sky, surrounded by the late-night clamor of a city that seems to sleep even less than New York, we sat in an open-air theater watching traditional Egyptian dancing. The brilliantly lit stage and brightly colored costumes makes it difficult to look away from the dancers. Despite my exhaustion — like so much else in Egypt, the performance started 45 minutes late and we didn’t leave until after midnight — I thoroughly enjoyed the show.

July 14

I discover a new restaurant. One that serves vegetables — and they’re not even drenched in oil or tahina. My life in Alex is changed permanently for the better.

The restaurant is called Bamboo, and it’s a tiny pan-Asian place run by an Indonesian lady named Susie. She married an Egyptian man and moved to Alex several years ago, but still barely knows any Arabic. She does, however, speak pretty good English and her stir-fry vegetables are swoon-worthy. We’ve all become such regulars at Bamboo that Susie knows us by name (and has facebook friended us!) and knows how we like our food. Rebecca will always ask for extra spice, Barb (my roommate) can’t eat anything with soy, I only eat vegetables, preferably unadulterated by rice and sauces. It’s funny that our standard place in Alex — the place where we’re expected and welcomed like old friends every time we show up — is an Asian restaurant. But I guess that’s the exactly the kind of quirk of fate I should expect from this trip.

July 15  

I go to a rock concert. A real life, Egyptian rock concert. Since most of the Arab music I’ve heard is catchy and pop-y and can actually be kind of annoying, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Professor Bassiouney (our program director) told us that we’d be going to see an Egyptian youth group. I definitely wasn’t expecting this. I am a big fan of this band’s music and plan on downloading all of it when I get home.

July 17

Last Monday night, we took a cooking class  at Alexandria’s college for hotel and tourism. Sadly, there are no pictures because I forgot to bring my camera with me. But it was far and away the best meal I’ve had in Egypt. We made mousaa’a (eggplant in tomato sauce), koshary (rice, noodles, lentils, chickpeas, onions and spicy tomato sauce — a traditional Egyptian street food), savory rice pudding, baba ganoush, a tomato and cheese salad with tahina, wara ayneb (stuffed grape leaves), and om ali (an Egyptian dessert that’s kind of like bread pudding, made with lots of nuts and raisins). It was particularly exciting to be back in a kitchen, seeing all the ingredients that go into my food and being part of the process. I forgot how much I like being involved in the production of a meal from start to finish. I definitely want to try making all these dishes, especially wara ayneb and mousaa’a, when I get back to the U.S.

July 19

Salma takes us shopping in Manshaya, Alexandria’s textile souq. I’m a notoriously bad shopper and couldn’t decide on anything I wanted to buy, but I did get some spices from a small shop in a far corner of the souq — cinnamon sticks and nutmeg kernels.

While we were at the spice market, a little girl in a hijab came up to me and asked, “Are you American?” in crystal clear English. I was so taken aback to be addressed in English that I responded in Arabic, “Aywa.” She asked if any of us were from Georgia, and I told her no, we all go to college in Washington D.C. She looked disappointed. “We hardly see any Americans here,” she said. I nodded in agreement, and asked her name. “Fatima,” she said. I smiled, and told her my name was Sarah. “Tasharafna” (nice to meet you) I said, before paying for my spices and turning to leave.

(At Manshaya)

For dinner, we headed to Mohammed Ahmed, our favorite Egyptian restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. We feasted on our standard meal of ful eskandrani (ful with tomatoes, lettuce, and tahina), shakshouka, falafel, baba ganoush, and copious amounts of aysh baladi (Egyptian pita bread).

(Ful Eskandrani)

July 20

The first day of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month during which people fast from the dawn prayer, around 3 am, until maghreb (sunset), around 7 pm. The streets, normally packed with people buying and selling and talking and eating and narrowly avoiding collisions with one another, are utterly silent. I feel as though I’m in an entirely different city. It’s hard to believe that this is the same Alexandria that just one night ago hustled and bustled with the activity of 10 million people crammed into too-small a space.

July 21

I turn 20. The day is mostly uneventful, marked more by a few small, sweet acknowledgements that it’s my birthday than any kind of party, which is frankly the way I prefer it. Ahmed and Sahara, who make us breakfast in the morning, put a candle in a piece of coffee cake when they brought me my daily cup of Nescafe and sang “Sana helwa ya gamil” (the Egyptian equiavlent to “Happy Birthday” — it literally translates “Sweet year beautiful one” in Arabic”). Everyone at the Tafl Center greeted me with a “Kul sana wa anti tayebba” (Every year and you are sweet!). And for dinner, we went to Bamboo, where Suzie prepared me an extra large portion of veggies with rice and gave us all dates and kunafa (a sweet pastry filled with cream, fruit or nuts), both traditional Ramadan foods. My friends all bought me even more kunafa, and Suzie took some pictures of all of us. It was a wonderful, low key birthday.

July 22

Avanti and I go swimming at the Nadi early on Sunday morning. Because it’s Ramadan, there was nearly no one there. We had the entire pool to ourselves and it was glorious. I swam 64 beautiful lengths (one mile) as the sun beat down on my back. Avanti and I arrived in class feeling refreshed from the chlorine and energized from the exercise. Al-sibaha (swimming) for the win!

July 23

I fasted. It was hard. By the time Iftar (the evening meal to break your fast) came around at 7 pm, I wasn’t even hungry. We were invited to iftar at Ustaadha Reem’s house, and she provided us with an amazing Egyptian meal, so I tried to eat a bit, but I felt pretty nauseous. I don’t know how muslims do this for thirty days. The one upside: as we were walking to Reem’s house, we passed by a children’s hospital. One room had its windows flung open, and three girls sat inside — one in the bed, two in chairs next to her. The girls all stared at us as we walked by, so I waved. They smiled and all waved back at me, and I felt like a million dollars. There is something so about a short, random, heartfelt exchange of genuine friendliness. Those seem to happen a lot in Egypt.

That’s about it. We’re headed to the North Coast (the beach-y, resort-y area of Egypt) tomorrow for a weekend at the beach, which I’m really excited about. I’ll post pictures when I get back!

48 Hours in Cairo – Part II. Bonus: What I Love About Egypt.

Friday morning I awoke late from an excellent night’s sleep in my extremely comfy bed in Cairo. I headed down to the hotel’s pool to attempt to swim some laps, but gave up after about 25 lengths because I had forgotten my goggles and the chlorine was beginning to burn my eyes.

After breakfast, the rest of the group headed off to see the Pyramids while Barb and I headed to Coptic Cairo to look at some churches. We walked outside of the hotel and had only made it about 50 feet when a cab driver accosted us and asked us if we needed a cab. His initial offer for a trip from Giza to Coptic Cairo was 60 pounds, and we argued with him until he lowered the fare to 35 (insha’allah my haggling skills are improving with all this practice) — probably still a rip off, but it’s $5 in American terms, which is a pretty good deal for a half hour cab ride. The driver was pretty chatty and we talked to him in a bizarre conglomeration of English and Arabic — Barb, who speaks Spanish, even threw in a little of that.

We arrived in Coptic Cairo to find the neighborhood almost completely dead. It seemed everyone was either at church or the mosque, and it was amazing to think that 12 hours ago we had been in cramped Khan al Khalili, where you can walk five steps without treading on someone’s toes. We walked around a bit looking for the Kaneesa Qadeesa Barbara (Church of  Saint Barbara) and wound up stumbling upon another very small church instead. The church was inside a walled complex and we wandered through alleyways flanked by dozens of small buildings (which turned out to be tombs) before reaching the church at its center. The building’s first story housed a cafe and about three dozen men, women (without head scarves!) and children sat outside drinking tea and soda and eating ful sandwiches. We walked up a flight of stairs to the church itself and sat in the pews for a little while, admiring its cozy atmosphere and highly decorated interior. Pretty soon several people came up to us and introduced themselves, including a man who insisted on showing us the church’s relics. It turned out to be the Church of St Luke, and he gave each of us a small card with a picture of St Luke and a vial full of holy water. Then he asked us if we had eaten breakfast, and if he could buy us tea. We declined, because we still needed to go to the Church of Saint Barbara and were due at our friend’s parents house for lunch at 12, but he wouldn’t let us leave. “Please, let me buy you a Pepsi,” he insisted, and we accepted. He gave us each a soda from the cafe downstairs, and then pulled us inside to meet the Church’s priest. We introduced ourselves and shook hands with the priest and he smiled vigorously at us. In the process, at least three other people came up and asked us where we were from, and if we had eaten, and could they please buy us tea? I have never seen such incredible friendliness or generosity directed towards complete strangers. This tiny community in a dusty corner of Cairo was willing to feed us, talk with us in a broken mixture of Arabic and English, and invite them into their church, which I imagine is probably a very precious and protected place in a city that doesn’t exactly embrace its Christian communities.

This is what I was talking about when I wrote last time that there are things about Egypt that compensate for the heat, the conservatism, the name calling, and the lack of fresh vegetables. The people here are so friendly, so welcoming, so enthusiastic about their lives and sharing them with you. It’s not just a Christian thing, it’s an Egyptian thing. Almost every Egyptian I’ve met, from the language partners to the hotel staff, the professors at the TAFL center to fellow patrons at Mohammed Ahmed (our favorite restaurant), are so curious about us  and eager to make sure that we are all enjoying our time in Egypt. I know that any one of the language partners would drop anything if I called them and said I needed help finding my way somewhere in Alex. The hotel staff all greet us with a friendly “Sabah al Kheyr” every morning, and Ahmed, who serves us breakfast, has made note of the fact that I drink coffee every day and always has it ready for me. Despite the problems their country has, and the simmering resentment towards America that exists in some places (Hillary Clinton got a lot of protests when she came to visit last weekend), the majority of Egyptians are far more positive and open minded than many people in the U.S When people stare at us in the street, I often remind myself that a group of women in abayas in an American city that isn’t used to seeing tourists would draw just as much unwanted attention, if not more. And for all the 20-something shabaab (young guys) with greased hair and tight jeans who shout “kiss me!” (and worse) at us girls as we walked to school, there are people who introduced themselves to us by saying “Welcome to Egypt” and really, truly meaning it. Just a few days ago I was buying ice cream at a shop near my hotel, and when I asked for a small scoop of hazelnut in Arabic, the face of the man behind the counter lit up. “You speak Arabic!” he said. I nodded, and he proceeded to ask me where I was from, and what I was doing in Alexandria. When he found out I was American, he said “Amreeka! Obama! AlBeyt alAbyad (the White House)!” I smiled. “Did you vote for Obama?” he asked, and when I said yes, he gave me a thumbs up. That kind of experience makes up for all the negative ones, and its what makes me want to come back here again, when my Arabic is better and I can repay people for their kindness by speaking to them in their own language without mangling it.

Alright, enough rambling about how much I want to come live in Egypt. I’m sure my parents are cringing as they read this.

After finally extricating ourselves from the overwhelming friendliness at the Church of Saint Luke, we got directions to the Kaneesa Barbara and continued on our way. The second church was less eventful — a children’s choir was practicing, which was nice, but no one tried to make us stay for tea. We also stumbled upon a synagogue, which depressingly was surrounded by a 10 foot wall and had an armed guard. But we were running late to a lunch at our friend Avanti’s house (she’s Indian, but her parents have been living in Cairo for the past two years). Avanti’s mom made a delicious (and vegetarian!) Indian meal and her dad, who works for Nestle, insisted that we try the company’s newest product. The product, called Maxibon, was part ice cream sandwich, part vanilla ice cream coated in chocolate. It was pretty delicious, but I don’t think they’re sold in the States.

After lunch Avanti’s mom took us back to our hotel, where we met up with the rest of the group and then boarded the bus back to Alex. I napped for most of the ride back and then set immediately to work when we’d returned to the hotel. The school week went by pretty quickly, and now here I am back at the start of another weekend. I have plans to go to the naadi and a souq tomorrow, and Friday marks the start of Ramadan, which should be quite an experience. I’m going to try fasting at least once — it’ll be hard to get food during the daytime anyway, and I think it would improve my experience of what Ramadan is really like for Egyptians.

That’s all for now. Masa’ al Kheyr (good night) and Ramadan Kareem (good Ramadan) from Alexandria!

48 Hours in Cairo – Part One

Well, we just got back from our weekend trip to Cairo, and it was fantastic! I think enjoyed the city a lot more than I did when I was there earlier this summer, maybe because I’m a little more comfortable with the country and less easily overwhelmed by the craziness of daily life here.

We left for Cairo immediately after classes ended on Wednesday, accompanied by three of our language partners — Salma, Farida and Tonoubi — Ustaadh Alaa (one of our professors) and his Mrs. Ustaadh Alaa, the program coordinator Rania, and Rania’s extremely energetic children. The ride to the capital seemed endless, and the my stomach churned as we lurched through Egyptian traffic at a snail’s pace. It took us about 4.5 hours to get to Cairo — significantly longer than my 3 hour train ride down to Alex at the beginning of the summer. As soon as we arrived, we boarded a boat for a dinner cruise along the Nile. The food was just okay, but the view from the boat was incredible. We took a bunch of pictures with our classes and joked around with Ustaadh Alaa. There was also a belly dancer, which made me feel kind of uncomfortable. In a room full of women in long skirts and headscarves, it seemed indecent for this dancer to be so scantily clad. Even more so, it felt voyeuristic for us all to be watching her. More comfortable — and frankly, more interesting —was the tanoora (whirling dervish). If I spun around as much as him, I think I’d throw up. It was impressive.

The cruise ship we rode down the Nile.

An extremely blurry picture from the boat. The colored lights are feluccas, tiny rickety boats that you can rent for a night to take you around the river. 

Around 10:30 we were bused to our hotel in Giza, which turned out to be amazingly luxurious. The beds were huge and soft, with real, squishy down pillows instead of the typical Egyptian hard ones that give one the sensation of trying to sleep on a loaf of stale bread. I collapsed into bed and fell asleep at once. Around 8:00 the next morning I headed down to the dining room and was greeted by an expansive breakfast buffet containing everything from croissants to ful. I had some eggs and vegetables and two cups of coffee (they were small and I knew it would be a long day). Then we were herded onto the tour bus for our first stop of the day, the National Museum. The museum is right on Tahrir Square, and evidence of the past year and a half of political turmoil was visible even from within its gated, well-guarded compound. Right next door was the burned-out shell of the building that used to be headquarters for the NDP, Mubarak’s political party. The square, however, was almost completely empty. It looked significantly more quiet than it had been when I was in Cairo last month. The tents had almost all been taken down, and the makeshift stage also appeared to be gone.

An empty Tahrir Square. 

The burned-out NDP headquarters. 

Back inside the museum’s garden, tourists swarmed everywhere. So many of them were dressed completely inappropriately for a conservative Muslim country — women in lace-up, cleavage-exposing tank tops and men in short shorts. I don’t understand how anyone so clearly prepared for exactly what kind of country this is could choose to vacation here. Who comes to Egypt dressed in a manner that I would consider skimpy even in New York? If you’re looking for a place to kick back and party around, this is not it. Egypt is a wonderful place, and the Egyptians (despite their general lack of alcohol consumption) definitely know how to have fun, but you have to know what you’re doing. If we, in our long skirts and backpacks, can’t make the 25 minute journey from our hotel to the university without getting catcalls and offers of marriage, I can’t imagine the kind of reaction these (mostly European, of course) people would spark. I can only assume that they don’t actually spend any time outside the secure confines of Cairo’s most touristy-spots.

The entrance to the National Museum

Anyway, back on topic. The National Museum was incredible. It was packed, literally, wall-t0-wall with Ancient Egyptian statues, tablets, jewelry, and mummies. Any one of the items in there would have been the prize of an exhibit at a museum in the States, but here they were all jumbled together, without much rhyme or reason to their organization. I kid you not, I saw huge stelas leaning against a wall, covered in plastic, just because there was no where else to put them. The highlight was probably seing Tutankhamen’s mask, which really lives up to the hype. I have never seen anything that was simultaneously so ancient, so detailed, and so gold. 

 Cairo, seen from the highway on the drive up to the Citadel. 

After the museum we drove up to the Citadel, which was built by Salah al-Din (of Crusades fame) in the Middel Ages. We didn’t spend much time exploring the citadel itself, but instead went into the mosque contained inside it. The mosque, which was built by Mohammed Ali (founder of modern Egypt) in the 19th century, is made mostly of alabaster and is absolutely stunning. The interior was vast and spacious, with high, domed ceilings decorated in gold and doors flung open to let in sunlight and a breeze People knelt and sat cross legged on the carpeted floor — which made the whole space seem a lot more friendly compared with a church’s wooden pews — leaning their heads back to stare up at the distant ceiling. Outside the mosque was a huge courtyard that offered an amazing, if somewhat hazy, view of Cairo. If you peered far off to the west, you could even see the pyramids poking their peaks up through the buildings and the smog.

Outside the Mosque of Mohammed Ali

Inside the mosque.

The view of Cairo from the Citadel. I’m standing between two of my classmates, Amy on the left and Beth on the right.

We were then driven back to Giza for lunch and a break at the hotel, before heading back out to Khan al Khalili, Cairo’s famous outdoor market. Sarah took me here on my first day in Cairo, but I was so jet lagged and still overcoming the culture shock that I didn’t really enjoy it. This time I really tried to get into the spirit of the market, exploring every corner, sniffing bins of spices and fingering scarves as if to see if they were made of real silk (though, to be honest, I have no idea how to differentiate between a true silk scarf and cotton). I had my eye on a particular orange and blue scarf that I’d seen at a few of the shops, so I went around to each one and asked their price, checking to see who had the lowest starting offer. My greeting of “masa’ alkheyr” always got a surprised smile, and hopefully a lower price. Every salesman I bargained with would insist that his was the best offer, special for me, because I spoke Arabic. I wound up buying the scarf for 30 pounds, after talking the salesman down from 75. I’m still not sure whether I got a good deal, but a friend who bought a similar scarf for his girlfriend paid 80, so I felt good about my haggling skills. Either way, I paid only 5 dollars for a scarf that would be 15 or 20 in the U.S. I was still buzzed on the atmosphere of the market and happily munched away at the grilled corn that Rania bought for all of us on the way back to the hotel.

 

Another blurry picture — my camera isn’t the greatest — of Khan al Khalili

Not everyone seemed to have a good time, however. A lot of people were overwhelmed by the chaos of Khan al Khalili and hated the aggressiveness of haggling. A lot of my friends said that by the time they had finished haggling, they didn’t even want the item they were buying any more. Maybe it’s because I had a good experience shopping — I was happy with the price I got, and didn’t feel pressured to pay more than I was willing — but I felt like haggling increased my desire to buy the scarf I was looking for. When I finally got a price I thought was good, I felt like I had really earned it. I left Khan eager to try shopping in a market again (I’m planning on going to Alex’s open air souq this weekend), while a lot of people said they wished Egypt was more like the U.S., where there’s a set price that everyone pays, where being different doesn’t make you a target for exploitation or harassment.

I’m still sorting out my feelings about Egypt. Sometimes it can be so, so hard to just get through a day here. I get tired of the stares, the cat calls, tired of drawing attention wherever I go. There are so many things I miss about home — salad, running outdoors, choosing my clothing every morning in accordance with the weather and not based on what I think will attract the least negative attention. Yes, having a set price in a store is nice. So is drinking tap water and having cars stop for you when you cross the street. But there are things about Egypt that just don’t exist in the U.S. I’ll talk about this more tomorrow, when I write a post about our second day in Cairo, but the more time I spend here the more I want to come back. I imagine myself living in Cairo, conversing in fluent — or at least proficient Arabic — with the people I encounter in the souq or on the train, knowing where to go and where to shop, memorizing the metro map and becoming so comfortable with the heat that I don’t even notice the omnipresent stream of sweat trickling down my back. It’s a long way off, but I like to think about it (I think my parents would probably be a little less enthusiastic).

Alright, I’m off to the Nadi for a swim at 7:00 tomorrow morning, so I need to head to bed. I’ll add photos to this post and write about the second day of the trip tomorrow evening.

Ma salama!