Open Call for Questions

I don’t know what to write about next, since I assume that few people are interested in my scintillating recaps of the school week (wake up, go to class, do home work, eat, sleep, repeat). So, I’m turning to crowd sourcing for new topics. What do you want to know? No question is too banal, so long as we keep the conversation away from my digestive tract (we seem to talk about that enough already). Leave your requests in the comments section of this post.

I’m off to the Nadi again to go swimming, but I’ll try to write another post either tonight or tomorrow.

Ma salama!


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!

A Tour of Alex

Thursday morning I rolled out of bed with just enough time to throw on some clothes and head to the breakfast room to grab something to eat before we all piled on to an obnoxiously huge blue tour bus for our first planned cultural activity — a trip around Alexandria. We were accompanied by a tour guide named John and three conversation partners from the University of Alexandria.

Our first stop was at Alexandria’s 100-year-old opera house, one of the few remnants of the city’s colonial heritage that hasn’t fallen into a total state of disrepair. The building has that open, Italianate look about it — majestic but not imposing, lovely but not in a pristine sort of way. We peeked inside, but it wasn’t open until 10 a.m. I’d love to go back some day, insha’allah, possibly even for a concert. One of our language partners, Ghada, has a sister who plays violin at the opera house. It’d be cool to go see her play.

This statue reminds me of the statue of John Carroll in Healy Circle at Georgetown. We were all joking that we should climb into his lap and take a picture, but that would probably have been considered disrespectful. 

Next we toured Alexandria’s catacombs, which were sufficiently creepy to last me the rest of the trip. As with the Pyramids, I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that so much effort was put into building such an elaborate tomb for someone who wouldn’t even be able to appreciate it. Egypt was — is — a sparse country, barely scraping a living out of a narrow strip of arable land along the Nile. The idea that so many resources were left to rot in underground chambers while people living above the surface struggled to survive is unbelievably frustrating, even 2000 years later. Perhaps because it’s so easy to find parallels between the social strata of Ancient Egypt and the rampant inequality of today. The Catacombs are located alongside one of Alex’s poorer neighborhoods, one that looks distinctly different from the bustling downtown area where our hotel is. Laundry hung from every windowsill and Morsi signs were ubiquitous. I wasn’t able to take any pictures of the Catacombs, but I did snap some photos of the neighborhood.

Next we headed towards the Roman Amphitheater, one of Alexandria’s few remaining ancient structures. The amphitheater isn’t actually an amphitheater, but actually an ancient lecture hall. There is a smooth round stone in the center of the theater that you can stand on and hear your voice reverberate back to you as loudly and clearly as if you’d spoken into your own ear. Say what you will about the Romans, but they definitely had a firm grasp of physics. I’m pretty sure the acoustics in the lecture halls at Georgetown aren’t as good. At the theater, John, our guide, also talked to us about the underwater archeological digs that produced a lot of the other artifacts that were on display around the theater. Apparently the earthquake that dislodged Alexandria’s lighthouse 2000 years ago also shook a variety of other monuments into the sea, where they’ve been lying ever since. John pointed to a sphinx the size of a large dog, whose form was perfectly preserved on one side and significantly blurred on the other. The sphinx had been lying on its side in the water, and over the course of centuries the waves had eroded the exposed side until it was as smooth as sea glass.

Our next stop was the National Museum, of which I don’t remember a lot. At this point we had been out in the sun for most of the morning, and despite drinking an entire liter bottle of water I was feeling a bit woozy. The museum was beautiful, but I was mostly looking forward to stopping for lunch, and being able to sit down. For lunch we went to Alexandria’s most famous seafood restaurant, called the Fish Market. The restaurant’s lobby had a display case full of photos of famous dignitaries who had eaten there — everyone from . I didn’t eat any fish, but I did have salad and the various dips (hummus, tahina, baba ganoush, yogurt with garlic) that were provided alongside deliciously soft, warm pita pockets. The restaurant was right on the beach and had an amazing view of the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, after lunch my headache worsened and I felt dizzy when I stood up from the table. Instead of continuing on the tour, two guys from the trip who wanted to do homework took me back to the hotel and I collapsed into bed, sleeping until 8 p.m. I woke long enough to do a little homework and eat some yogurt as my dinner, then went back to sleep.

This morning, having slept for almost 13 hours the previous day, I woke up pretty early (7:30). I decided that I didn’t really want to push it by going to the Nadi (sports club) today, but I did some crunches and lunges and things in my room so as not to feel like a total slug. I would kill for a good run in shorts right now. After breakfast, my roommate Barb and I headed to a cafe on the Corniche to do work. We wound up sitting there for about 6 hours, enjoying the breeze off the ocean and occasionally commenting on the view. At one point the waiter came over and said that he needed my name and number in order for me to use the wi-fi in the cafe. I was confused — how could my phone number be relevant to my using wi-fi? — but I did as I was told. After Barb and I figured that it was probably a ploy to get my number, though as my hair wasn’t brushed and my face was still red from the sun yesterday (I wore sunscreen Mom, I swear! But the sun here is more intense than I’m used to) I can’t imagine why he wanted it.

In the afternoon, Barb and I tried to go shopping to reward ourselves for studying so diligently. Unfortunately, this turned out to be more of an ordeal than either of use was prepared for. Both of us planned on buying clothes here and need more long skirts and long-sleeved shirts, but the attention our white skin attracted made it impossible to shop. In one store we went into, the sales clerk stood right next to us, following us every time we turned to browse through a different rack. In the next, a girl came up to me and asked me if I spoke Arabic. When I responded with, “shwaya” (a little), she burst into laughter. We tried to ask her where the dressing room was, which she seemed to find similarly hilarious. Finally one of her friends showed us where to go. After I had tried on my skirt, I planned to wait for Barb outside the dressing room, but one of the women who worked at the store came up to me. “Friend? Friend?” she kept asking, and even though I replied, “Aywa, hea sadiqati” (Yes, she is my friend) she brought me back into the changing room and opened the curtain to Barb’s stall. Luckily, Barb was fully dressed, but at that point we had both had enough shopping for one day. I paid for my skirt and we headed back to the hotel.

The rest of the night was pretty uneventful. A few of the other kids in the group and I went back to our favorite restaurant, Mohammed Ahmed, for ful and shakshuoka (eggs cooked with vegetables in a tomato sauce), and then I spent an hour trying to find a nearby gym where I might be able to go swimming in a suit that doesn’t resemble a Victorian bathing costume. There appears to be  Gold’s Gym in the city, but I can’t quite figure out where. A project for another day, I guess.

نهاية الاسبوع

نهاية الاسبوع  (Nihayat Al-Usbuoa) means “weekend” in Arabic. In Egypt, the weekend is typically Friday to Saturday, but out work week officially ended today at 4 p.m. and starts back up again Saturday morning. one definitely could not have come soon enough.

I realize that after a week of classes, I haven’t actually written anything about what it’s like learning Arabic here. It’s hard. Classes start at 9:00 a.m. at the University of Alexandria’s TAFL (Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language) Center, which is a 20 minute walk from our hotel along the Corniche (the sea-side roadway). We have two professors, Ustaadh (professor) Alaa and Dr. Iman, who each teach us for half the day. Both are real talkers; Dr. Iman will only speak in Arabic, and routinely launches into long-winded explanations when we ask about vocabulary or a bit of grammar that sometimes wind up confusing us even more than we had been when we’d asked our original question, and Ustaadh Alaa is also quite the storyteller — on Tuesday he lectured for an hour and a half straight about the Muslim Brotherhood and the role of Islam in Egyptian politics. You would never think that mere listening could be so exhausting, but trying to decipher what Alaa and Dr. Iman are saying is probably the most difficult part of class. Every particle of my body has to be focused solely on the words coming out of the professor’s mouth, otherwise I have no hope of understanding what they’re talking about. I come out of class feeling physically exhausted from the effort.

The classes are split into three sections. We typically go over grammar in the morning with Ustaadh Alaa. Alaa is an animated and exuberant professor; he bounds around the classroom speaking rapid-fire Arabic in a booming voice, sometimes yanking a student out of a chair to act out an explanation or playing fast-paced memory games with us to test our vocabulary. At 11:00, we get a 30 minute break during which most of us buy tea or coffee from Ahmed, the man who runs the tiny kitchen at the center. I usually get a cup of Nescafe — this particular brand of instand coffee is ubiquitous in Egypt — and then shuffle back into the classroom for the next segment. After another hour of class, either taught by Alaa or Dr. Iman, we get a second 30 minute break. Most people leave the center to get lunch, but I’ve been staying at the center for the most part. The breakfast provided by the hotel is huge — I typically eat bread with cheese and tomato, plus fruit or yogurt and sometimes a small ball of falafel — and I’m rarely hungry by 12:30, so I’ve taken to bringing a snack for this second break and then eating after classes end at 3. However, everyone came back with the most delicious looking crepes today, so I’m thinking that on Saturday (the first day of our work week) I’ll have to try one. I’ve been eating a lot of ful (mashed fava beans typically served in a pita pocket), so a vegetable crepe will be a welcome change in my diet.

After classes end at 3, the group walks back to the hotel to start our homework, which typically occupies us until we finally collapse into bed around midnight, only taking a break to get dinner. If the classes at the TAFL center are difficult, the homework we’re given is exponentially harder. Almost every night we’ve gotten a 2 to 3 page nas (text) to read and answer questions about, plus grammar exercises. I feel badly that I haven’t spent more time exploring Alexandria, but it’s difficult to strike the right balance between finishing my work and enjoying the city. Thus far, I’ve opted mostly for the homework. That’s not to say I haven’t experienced any Egyptian culture. I’ve drunk my fair share of the fresh fruit juice that Egypt is so well-known for, sat in a cafe on the Corniche reviewing vocabulary while the breeze off the Mediterranean ruffled the pages of my textbook, toured the famous library of Alexandria and gotten dinner with our Egyptian conversation partners (and managed to converse with them at least partially in Arabic, no less!) Tomorrow we have  a tour of Alexandria that was organized by the program and on Friday I’m going to go to the naadi (a sports/social club) with Marina, one of the language partners, so I can swim (swim!) run on a treadmill (possibly even in shorts!) and get more exercise than I’ve had in over a week. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve gone running a couple of times with Matt, one of the Georgetown students in the program, but it is HOT in Alexandria, even at 6:45 in the morning, and we usually only manage to eke out a few miles before the heat and the fumes from the cars on the Corniche get to us. A run in an air conditioned gym seems like the height of luxury, and swimming in a pool even more so.

Sorry that this post is a bit rambling — I’m so burnt out from the intensity of this week that I don’t think I’m capable of more coherent thoughts. Despite the hard work and the hot weather, I am happy and healthy and so thrilled to be here. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the stress of all the work I have, but Alexandria is an unbelievably beautiful and fascinating city. I’m excited to see more of it.

Ma salama!

Election Day

So now is the moment of truth. The results of Egypt’s presidential elections are going to be announced today at 3 p.m. (about forty five minutes!) after being delayed earlier this week.

Everyone is on edge. Our classes at Alexandria University, which started yesterday, ended early so that we could be ferried back to our hotel in cabs. The walk from the university  is only 15 minutes, so it’s kind of crazy that we couldn’t even walk back home. We’ve been confined to our hotel for the remainder of the day, and the traffic on the Corniche (the road along the waterfront that runs past our hotel) is all moving East, away from Al Ibrahim Mosque, where most of the protesters are. Now we’re sitting in the hotel lobby, eating ful, falafel and shwarma and watching Arabic news (which we don’t understand). An image of the mosque in Alex shows efigies of Mubarak and SCAF officials in orange jumpsuits hanging from a streetlight.

It’s not really clear exactly what’s going to happen. I have been expecting the government to announce Shafik as the winner — though it’s far more likely that Morsi actually had the majority of votes. The atmosphere is tense, a feeling that seems to have arisen overnight. I went running this morning with three of the guys in the program, and it seemed like any other day; smoggy and hot. I barely even got any questionable looks or calls of “Welcome to Egypt.” There was no sense of mounting tension, not then, not during our walk to the university. My friend Sarah, with whom I stayed while in Cairo, said that last night Tahrir was like a giant party. But now the apprehension is tangible. The people being interviewed on TV are speaking in urgent tones verging on shouting, though I can’t tell what they’re saying. The protesters in Tahrir and outside Al Ibrahim are definitely shouting.

That’s all the news there is for now. I’ll report back later when the results are announced, insha’allah.

Ma salama.

Update — 4:45 pm: Morsi was declared the winner (after SPEC chief Farouk Sultan waxed philosophical about the the election process for almost an hour and a half). You could hear a huge cheer go up outside as soon as the result was announced. There’s jubilation in the streets of Alexandria.   

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Pictures and Pyramids

I’ve arrived in Alexandria! I have a room, a roommate, a reliable wi-fi connection and a view of the harbor:

But first, a promised recap of the past three days. On Monday, after using the internet in Zamelek, Sarah took me back downtown to show me some of the revolutionary graffiti that has cropped up in the past year and a half. Graffiti is kind of an unfair term for it — it was art, really. Huge murals spanned the walls along one side of the street for more than two blocks. According to Sarah, these were painted by established artists, each with a specific style and intent. My favorite was a series depicting mothers of martyrs, painted larger than life with black hijabs and huge sad eyes. More amateur artists layered their own work on top of the murals — stencils of revolutionaries’ faces, or strings of Arabic script cursing out SCAF.

For dinner, Sarah and I met up with an acquaintance of hers to get Sudanese food at a tiny hole-in-the-wall place on the opposite side of the Nile (I don’t remember the name of the neighborhood). The acquaintance brought about 15 of his own acquaintances, so the group of us took up practically the entire restaurant. There were students from everywhere, doing everything. A South Korean girl taking Arabic at AUC this spring, a half-Egyptian half-Irish girl living with her family while studying with a private Arabic tutor, an American who had been living in Cairo on and off since 2008, is writing a thesis about the revolution, and is now prohibited from leaving the country because he’d gotten in trouble with the Egyptian police earlier this year (something about helping a foreign journalist interview one of the revolutionaries), and a Palestinian who looked much older than the rest of us and seemed to be there just for the fun of it. We were never handed menus, but food was delivered to our table without our asking, and we fell upon it like animals, not really knowing exactly what we were eating, as long as it tasted good. I listened to the conversations going on around me, a little overwhelmed. I marveled at how interconnected the ex-pat community is here. How did all these random people find each other?

The next morning I met up with Barb, a girl from Georgetown who is also in the Alexandria program (who actually turned out to be my roommate!), to go see the pyramids. She was staying at a Coptic seminary in Maa’di, and two Americans who were teaching English to the seminarians — a middle-aged professor and a student from St. Bonneventure University — came with us. The professor, Dea, had arranged for a driver and a guide to take us to and around the pyramids, which wound up being expensive but worth it, since it was kind of nice to have everything explained in English (and an air conditioned cab to boot!)

Giza is only about a 30 minute drive from central Cairo, though it took us an hour and a half because of the insane traffic. There had been an accident on one of the main bridges heading out of Cairo earlier that morning and it nearly every motorist within a mile radius had gotten out of their car to take a look. Egyptians do like a spectacle. You always imagine the pyramids as towering, lonely monuments in the middle of an empty desert, surrounded on all sides by swirling sand. But it’s kind of crazy to see how close the pyramids are to the city — these wonders of the ancient world silhouetted against the hazy, dirty backdrop of Cairo’s suburbs. If you peer at the skyline in my picture, you can see how close Giza is to the city. It’s pretty wild.

Of course, just like in Khan al Khalili and anywhere else in Cairo, there were dozens of vendors and guides at the pyramids eager to rip you off — Bedouins trying to get you to ride their camels, vendors peddling plastic sphinx replicas and cheap scarves. We and our guide brushed them off with a curt “La, shukran” (No thank you) and moved on. After walking around the big pyramid, we walked over to a subsidiary one which had enclosed the burial chamber of one of [Tk’s] queens. We were able to go inside, carefully crawling down a ramp into the cramped dark chamber. The grave had been robbed ages ago, so it was up to us to imagine what it must have looked like with a mummy and her burial jewels inside. I’m not sure whether it was the cool air within the chamber or the idea that this was someone’s grave that sent shivers up my arms.

Next we visited the Museum of the Boat, a huge air-conditioned building next to the big pyramid. The 40 foot long boat had been found in the 1950s buried next to the pyramid. It was deconstructed, but each perfectly-preserved piece of cedar wood was marked with instructions as to how to put it back together. Supposedly the boat would carry the dead Pharaoh to the next world. It was a pretty impressive specimen, especially considering the fact that it had been in the ground for over 4,000 years.

After the boat museum we drove up to a lookout point to snap some more photographs with the pyramids in the background. Then we headed down to see the valley temple and the sphinx. The sphinx was a lot smaller than I had imagined — it doesn’t look like the one in Aladdin, at any rate — but hearing the history of the temple was fascinating. The temple’s walls, floors and pillars had once consisted of polished white and red marble, and when the building was covered (the ceiling was now long gone), light would stream in through tiny windows near the roof and glint off the marble, filling the temple with an eerie glow. Rubbing my hand against a smooth section of one of the now-exposed pillars, I again found myself imagining what it would have looked like in ancient times, and shivered.

After our drive back to Maa’di I got a late lunch with Barb, Dea and Brett (the student who was teaching at the seminary) and then set out alone to wander around the neighborhood until Sarah got off work. We met up with an intimidatingly successful friend of hers who interns for UNHCR and speaks rapid-fire Arabic. Cairo is full of all kinds of brilliant, adventurous people — like the guy from the Sudanese restaurant who was arrested for interviewing revolutionaries for his thesis, or this girl, who’s working to help a Sudanese family petition for refugee status and knows Egyptian politics like the back of her hand. I felt kind of inadequate by comparison — safely ensconced in Georgetown’s program in Alexandria, incapable of even ordering a meal on my own in Arabic, let alone interviewing revolutionaries or refugees.

On our way back from dinner, Sarah got a text from saying that Mubarak had died (which turns out not to be the case … possibly), so we went to that bar near her apartment and wound up talking to the Norwegian and Syrian guys I wrote about in my last post. The next morning, both of us spent a lot of time on our computers reading the news and trying to figure out what exactly was going on. We had lunch at Café Riche, a pretty famous restaurant that has been in downtown Cairo since the turn of the century and was apparently one of the chief headquarters for planning the revolution. I had lentil fatta — bits of pita bread in a creamy sauce made of pureed lentils. Then Sarah shipped me off to Zamalek again to wander around while she worked. Wander I most certainly did — and I got pretty lost as well. But I successfully asked for directions in Arabic — remembering to say “fein” instead of “ayna” for “where?” — and I found my way back to Sarah okay.

I was so exhausted that night that after buying a pita pocket of falafel (called “tamiyya” in Egypt) for dinner I headed back to Sarah’s apartment and collapsed into bed. I woke up early the next morning and read for a little while, waiting for Sarah to wake up. She slept late, so I went downstairs to buy ful — pita stuffed with mashed beans — a classic Egyptian breakfast. I walked around the neighborhood for a while, but soon it was time to head to Ramses Station to catch my train to Alexandria. My seat was next to a bunch of Egyptian army guys, which was a little intimidating until I saw that the man sitting next to me was listening to Evanescence on his iPod. The trip was only 3 hours, and my cab ride to the hotel a short one. After getting my room key and putting my stuff away, I sat in the lobby and watched as other Georgetown kids trickled in. A group of us went out for dinner — we got massive amounts of ful, hummus, falafel and baba ganoush for 6 pounds (about a dollar) each. Then we walked along the Corniche, the walkway that rings Alexandria’s harbor, for a while before heading back to the hotel. That’s where I am now, typing this post in my air conditioned room and enjoying the glorious feeling of being cool for the first time since leaving Brooklyn.


(Not a reference to the Fleetwood Mac album, FYI)

Day four. It’s kind of hard to believe. Harder still to believe I’ve actually experienced so many of the things that have happened over the course of the past few days.

For example, as I packed my suitcase in Brooklyn last week, folding clothes and trying to picture myself wearing them in Cairo, I never imagined that I would soon find myself sitting in a bar at midnight after finding out that the deposed-president of my host country may be dead or dying, talking to a Syrian and a Norwegian about Egyptian politics and the prevalence of rumors and the potential effects of Hosni Mubarak’s death on the instability here. But I was, I did. It felt like something I might read in the memoir of a foreign correspondent, sitting in a smokey room (that part I really could have done with out — my clothes still smell like cigarettes) discussing a country’s uncertain future.

I’m a bit of a nerd. And far too romantic about the life of a journalist. It’s fine.

Either way, as of now its not even clear what exactly Mubarak’s condition is. Sarah got a text saying Mubarak was dead from a friend last night as we were coming home from dinner. She showed it to me, and then asked the cab driver if it was true. He raised his hands in the air, in a kind of non-committal, uncertain gesture. He didn’t know. So when we got out of the cab, we stopped by the bar around the corner from Sarah’s apartment, which Sarah said is popular with foreigners and students, and looked for someone she knew who might have more information. Thus the conversation with the Syrian and the Norwegian. When we headed back to Sarah’s apartment, we used her painfully slow internet connection to check the news. The New York Times and AlJazeera were reporting that Mubarak was “clinically dead” and subsisting solely on life support. At the same time, the websites said that thousands of people were flooding in Tahrir to protest the military council.

This morning though, walking through downtown Cairo to get breakfast, there were no signs that anything had changed. The streets were noisy and crowded, but they’re always noisy and crowded. Now it appears that Mubarak may not have died at all. The state news agency, Al Ahram, initially reported that he was clinically dead but is now saying that he’s merely in critical condition after suffering a stroke. Meanwhile, Mubarak’s lawyer said that he merely slipped in the bathroom and isn’t in danger at all. Sarah said that these kinds of conflicting reports are standard for Egypt — rumors begin to circulate and accumulate until it doesn’t even matter whether they’re true, because people will react to them. This article from Al Ahram is a good example. Even the New York Times article from last night about Mubarak’s death and the protests in Tahrir seemed more anecdotal than factual — it cited Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist candidate who is said to have won the presidential elections this weekend, as arguing that his opponent Shafik would possibly pardon Mubarak if he were to become president. Which is how rumors get started, of course. Shafik never said he would pardon Mubarak, at least as far as I’m aware, but now because Morsi said Shafik might, people will start to believe it’s the truth.

No one really knows what’s actually happening, but that hasn’t stopped the non-stop speculation from politicians, revolutionaries and bloggers. The man might not even be dead, but already a member of the Muslim Brotherhood has said that he “wouldn’t mind” attending Mubarak’s funeral. Some people claim that SCAF started the rumor in order to be able to move Mubarak from prison to a military hospital in the upscale neighborhood of Maadi (I was actually there yesterday, which seems kind of crazy!). Part of the problem is that the government doesn’t seem to have taken a firm stance on the issue. In the absence of any official statement, rumors will do nicely to fill the void. I love this tweet quotes in the NYT blog post I linked above: “So Morsi says he’s won & we don’t believe him. Shafik says he’s won & we don’t believe him. & Mubarak is dead & we don’t believe him. #Egypt.” I’ve only been here four days, but that seems like an accurate summary.

I started writing this post intending to talk about what I’ve been doing over the past two days (visiting the pyramids (!), eating Sudanese food, successfully navigating the Cairo metro on my own), but I forgot to bring my camera’s memory card and I got caught up in all of this political stuff anyway. I’ll try and post again tomorrow (with photos) about that other stuff. Pictures included!

Ma salama!