Al Rihla (الرحلة), or “The Journey,” is a travelogue written by Ibn Battuta, a 14th century Moroccan explorer who journeyed almost 75,000 miles over the course of 30 years. He visited the city of Alexandria, Egypt in the year 1326. He was 22, and embarking on his first hajj, the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca. He wrote that Alexandria was a beautiful city, “well-built and well fortified” and one of the most amazing places he visited during his years of travel.
In 13 days, I’ll be embarking on a journey of my own. I’ll take a cab from my parents’ brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn to JFK International Airport, where I’ll get on a plane to Zurich, at which point I’ll sit in a waiting area for an hour and 45 minutes before getting on another plane that will take me to Cairo. When I arrive, it will be 1:40 p.m. in Egypt and I will have spent a net total of 13 and a half hours in transit. After four days in Cairo, I will take a train to Alexandria, where I will spend the next seven weeks of my summer attempting to acquire proficiency in Arabic, immerse myself in Egyptian culture and avoid food poisoning.
In the opening lines of Al Rihla, Ibn Battuta writes, “I set out alone, finding no companion to cheer the way with friendly intercourse, and no party of travellers with whom to associate myself. Swayed by an overmastering impulse within me, and a long-cherished desire to visit those glorious sanctuaries, I resolved to quit all my friends and tear myself away from my home.” Unlike Ibn Battuta’s, my journey will not be quite so dramatic. I am not setting out alone — about 20 or so other American college students are also participating my program — and I wouldn’t really call my desire to go to Egypt and learn Arabic an “overmastering impulse within me.” I love the language, but oftentimes it feels less like an adventure and more like a burden I’ve reluctantly accepted with the understanding that Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service will not give me my degree unless I can demonstrate proficiency in it. I am looking forward to this trip, but I’m also anxious about the culture shock, stressed about five-hour-a-day Arabic classes, disappointed by the fact that I won’t be able to run outside or wear shorts for eight weeks and downright worried about whether I have the sense of daring and strength of character required of someone who’s about to plop down in a totally foreign third world country with absolutely no idea of what to expect. Despite what I say to the well-intentioned adults who, with eyebrows raised, ask me what a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn is doing spending a summer taking Arabic classes in Egypt, and aren’t they having some kind of revolution over there or something, I am scared.
But I’m also excited. This is an adventure, an adventure of the kind few people experience but of which I plan on having many. I had a journalism professor my freshman year who, when we expressed frustrations about sources who weren’t getting back to us or ledes that were impossible to write or research that was moving too slowly, would say, “That’s journalism. If it was easy, everyone would do it. And you’d probably be doing something else.” This Egypt thing is scary, but if it wasn’t, everyone would do it, instead of going someplace European where the drinking age is 16 and every weekend can be spent partying. And in all likelihood, I’d be doing something else.
So that’s my story. It’s T minus 13 days till my plane leaves, and I’ll probably be posting over the next two weeks with updates about my progress studying Arabic in preparation for the trip and my efforts to find ankle length skirts and long-sleeved shirts that don’t make me look like a nun, both of which will most likely be unsuccessful. Until then, ma salama!