Two Egypts

Before I came to Egypt, I emailed my friend Sarah (with whom I stayed in Cairo) incessantly, peppering her with questions about life in Egypt. She told me that there were two Egypts I had to be prepared for. One was flashy and modern and moderately Westernized — in this Egypt, typified by the Maa’di, the ritzy foreigner-dominated neighborhood in Cairo, and the university campus here in Alex,  I could expect to see girls without headscarves other than myself, I could wear short sleeves, feel secure in my white Americanness. But there’s another Egypt, in the poor areas of the cities, and in the even-poorer countryside, where none of this is true. I’m coming to realize that in order to gain access to the the first Egypt, the one with wi-fi and western food, where women have more options if not more respect, you have to pay for the privilege.

Today I went to the Nadi, Alexandria’s much-beloved sporting club, to run (on a track! in shorts!) and swim and do some homework in the club’s lounge, which looked like something out of a mediterranean resort. The Nadi was a little ramshackle in many places due to ongoing construction work — according to my friend Avanti, who also came to swim, Egyptians don’t have to pay property taxes on any unfinished construction, which makes me suspicious about the number of buildings in this city that seem perpetually halfway unbuilt  — but it was luxurious by Egyptian standards. Frankly, even the fact that I was able to wear shorts and a bathing suit in public (Avert your eyes! Thighs are being exposed! It’s practically x-rated!) seemed luxurious to me. But it cost 70 pounds (about 10 dollars) each for Avanti and I to get in for the day, accompanied by Marina (one of our language partners) who is a card-carrying member. In a country where a dinner of ful and falafel can be had for about 2 pounds, I’m sure that the membership fee is prohibitively high for most people. The option of swimming in a bathing suit is only available to those who can afford it.

The same thing goes for alcohol. Last night, to celebrate the birthdays of two members of our group, we went to the Greek Club, a well-known restaurant on the harbor next to Qaitbey Citadel. It was a fantastic meal, accompanied by wine and an amazing view of Alexandria’s harbor, but it was also really pricy by Egyptian standards. My meal, which consisted of tea, appetizers (which were shared among the table) and lentil soup, added up to 60 pounds. For the people who got meat and alcohol, it must have been much more. It was a really wonderful meal, but it’s hard to believe that restaurant exists in the same city as the poor neighborhoods we drove through on our tour of Alex last week.

The view from the balcony at the Greek Club. Sorry for the terrible photo quality — my camera doesn’t take very good photographs in dim lighting. 

I know that there’s privilege and poverty everywhere — It’s not like we don’t have country clubs and fancy restaurants in the US too. I’d say I’m pretty privileged living in Park Slope, but I still take the subway and utilize most of the same services that any New Yorker has at least some access to, rich or poor. But the same isn’t true here. Clean water can only be bought for 2.50 a bottle and not even the library is open to the public — we had to pay 5 pounds to get in (though it’s 2 pounds if you’re Egyptian). What’s especially striking is how easy it is to spend all your time in the world of privilege here. So far I feel like I haven’t really been exposed to the “second Egypt” during my time in Alexandria, except for in a brief glimpse through a bus window. I appreciate the privileges that my money (and favorable exchange rate) can buy — especially the swimming today — but I feel like a bit of a fraud, not to mention an ugly American, not having really challenged myself by experiencing, at least a little bit, what the majority of Egypt is like.

Alright, that’s enough political talk for one post, yes? Here’s a quick update on what I’ve been doing for the past week:

Saturday through Wednesday: School, school and more school. Have I mentioned that taking a year long course in seven weeks is hard? Because it is. It’s practically physically exhausting. Nonetheless, we had our first imtihaan (test) yesterday — what would be the equivalent of a midterm if I were taking 3rd year Arabic in a sane time span during the regular school year — and I’m pretty sure I did pretty well on it. I watched Dr. Iman grade it and saw her hand move in a “check” motion for all but one of the questions. So at least I can consider myself successful on that front.

Wednesday night we went out to a mall with the language partners to go grocery shopping and get dinner. The mall was like something plucked out of suburban America, right down to the movie theater screening “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer” (once again, paying for access to the privileged Egypt). We ate at a Syrian restaurant called “Shamy,” where I ate the only vegetarian items on the menu, stuffed grape leaves and tabbouleh. Something must not have agreed with me, because I got pretty sick that night, but more on that later. Then we went to an ahwah, where the waiters spontaneously burst into the Egyptian version of “Happy Birthday” for Avanti, one of the two people who had birthdays this weekend, and began dancing on the table. I will say this for the Egyptians — whatever their social, political and economic problems, they know how to have a good time.

Sadly, I got pretty sick that night, and wound up spending all of Thursday in bed or in the bathroom, meaning I missed the group’s fishing trip to Lake Burlus (I think that’s how it’s spelled). I was really upset about this, since I’d been looking forward to going out on a boat, and seeing the Egyptian countryside. So that was a disappointment. But I guess it wouldn’t be a real trip to a third world country without a bout of indigestion. (Sorry if this is too much information about my digestive system — everyone in my group has gotten sick at some point on this trip, so we’ve all lost all shame when it comes to discussing this kind of stuff.)

So Thursday was a bit of a wash. Luckily I was feeling better today to go to the Nadi and then to Dr. Bassiouney’s parent’s house for an amazing Egyptian feast. Even though only a small portion of the food was vegetarian, there was so much and we were served such large portions that I feel like I’m not going to be hungry again til Tuesday. It was really great to see her parents’ apartment (which was absolutely gorgeous, full of antique furniture and beautiful paintings — it looked like something out of a movie) and to meet her family.

Now I’m back at the hotel, trucking through the rest of my homework and mentally preparing myself for another week of school. Week 3, here I come!

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