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Thank you.

Time June 24th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Firstly, thank you! Thank you for reading my posts about my experiences in Egypt, for sharing my random impressions, and enduring the spinning whirlwind of inchoate thoughts I wrote down as I tried to work them through. I also want to thank my wonderful family whose sound sleeping I’ve compromised over the past 5 months. I of course want to acknowledge the friends and professors at TAFL and IFSA whose expertise and kindness made the last semester so worthwhile, thank you. Looking forward to seeing my friends and family again in the States come August!

I’ve delayed writing this post, not because I haven’t had the time—I’ve had the time—but because I haven’t had the words. (As you’ll read soon, I still do not.) Egypt has been great but not in the typical meaning of the word. Egypt was a lot of laughs, a lot of frustration, of stepping back just to breathe. I meet so many people; people who opened my eyes to Egypt, the Middle East, America, and the world. We questioned media, education, religion, society, and the interplay of all of the former and more. Nevertheless ours, mine, was a unique experience. While it was my Egyptian experience, it was not the average Egyptian experience. That would have been still harder, still more frustrating, have been punctuated with still more laughter. I have so many questions, as I should. I wish I could bottle up my experience for all its expansiveness and minuteness and drop it on the sleeping eyes of the world because what we cast our gazes on through the news, and the politics, and the religious extremism of foreign and domestic sources is merely one snap shot, not the full panorama of Egypt. It is one perspective, one view of thousands of millions, and to mistake it for a complete story, to take it for anything more than a snapshot, perhaps informative, true, and honest, is to silence the true vocal depth outside of the frame.

اللي يشرب من ماء النيل لازم يرجع لمصر تاني (those who drink from the Nile will return to Egypt again)

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Different African Coast

Time May 22nd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

24 hours ago, I left Chefchaouen, the Moroccan mountain city painted blue, to travel back to Egypt for my finals week. The bus took us back to our first Moroccan city, Casablanca, which we left after rapidly spending 2 days to step foot in Meknes, Fes, and Chefchaouen. Though we landed in Casa in the dark on May 1st, the cab ride back from the airport revealed at hyper-warp speed what we had always believed: the Arab World, North Africa, the Middle East and Western Asia share only broad the frameworks of Islam, Formal Arabic, and being formerly colonized states and otherwise are gloriously different. The infrastructure of Morocco amazed me after a semester of loving Egypt for her abandoned infrastructure from an age of investment long past that melts back into the ground. The roads were smooth highways organized by lanes that unknown reasons drivers actually abided by. Catching a train was nothing close to the sport it can be in Egypt. As much as I hate how Egyptians out of the kindness of their hearts will try to speak English with me and how perfuse it feels though it truly isn’t, English has barely taken root in Egypt compared to French’s hybrid development on the Moroccan tongue.

In two of the smaller cities we visited, Chefchaouen and Meknes, the older generation caught me by surprise. When I bought a lot of food from local stands in the old parts of the cities (Medina) determining the price become a sticky spot. Not because they were charging me anything but fair and inexpensive prices but because on three different instances the shopkeeper did not know Arabic numbers. A generation below first used French numerals, not just because I am a foreigner but seemly as a preference. However, when I asked to hear the number again in Arabic (as I speak just about as much French as Moulin Rouge teaches) they repeated in Arabic, cocking their head at the foreigner who by all standards should be speaking French not Arabic. I believe they must have been Amazighry (Moroccan Berbers) as many reject Arabic and refuse to speak it altogether, however I did not know this at the time. If I ever have the luck to go back to Morocco (in’shallah) I will definitely learn French numbers for myself as that is the norm. Yet, I am still so curious about this older generation of 60 and older. At the train station the older Moroccans in line ahead of me at the automated ticket machine requested help to work the machines. I don’t attribute this to techno-phobia as the helpful younger Moroccans were reading the screen’s options out to the older Moroccans, who stared in no particular direction, not trying at all to decipher the screen. I’m going to do some research, post-finals, so please ask me when I see you next. By my estimations it post likely revolves around education or access to eye-care and glasses, or a combination there of, but most likely the former.

Having gotten that question off my chest let me tell you how much Morocco felt like home, felt like California, well the hippie small agricultural and hippie town side of Southern California that I know (not LA). It was not just the great citrus and produce, and proximity to the ocean. It was the fresh air blowing in a cool night against the heat of sunny afternoon, the brilliant magenta sunsets (at the absurdly late hour of 9), and the transformative sky marked with dramatic clouds and free of smog and haze. A disclaimer is necessary: my senses nestled right at home in Morocco. Beyond everything reminding me of Ojai and California, breezes would sweep me back to summers in Alaska with my family. Don’t ask me how I can have found the smells of the Alaskan summer tundra in the streets of Morocco because I do not know. But I guess if in each breath we inhale one particle was exhaled in Julius Caesar’s dying breath, then my Alaskan air claims are not as far fetched.

I enjoyed Morocco and long to go back for a much longer stay, especially to learn their beautiful sh filled Arabic dialect but I am also so glad to be back in Egypt. I only wish I knew her before the revolution, so that I could understand the differences. Egyptians tell me what life was like, the old rhythm, the good and the bad, the stable and the oppressive, allowing me to adjust my lenses and take note of the differences. Yet, this is only a conduit experience. Seeing Morocco tripped a flood of questions about what Egypt was like, what she will become, and how what I saw in Morocco compares. The nearly five months I’ve spent in Egypt seem so small—Egypt is the land of the Pharos after all—and thus 10 days in Morocco was barely more than the length of time are eyes kept open in an eyestaring constant that always comes to a close too early with a desperate blink. My acknowledgement of time notwithstanding, the energy of the Moroccan people completely contrasted that of the Egyptians: the sh’bab (youth) are not menacing, tourists exist and what’s more are daily economic opportunities not rare creatures escaped from the zoo rampant on the streets provoking stares and the internal debate of going up to rescue, pet, capture, or taunt them.

My uncle taught me long ago one of the most interesting things to notice with new cultures and groups of people are whom they joke about, compare themselves to, and have stereotypes about. (Not that I ever want to perpetuate stereotypes but this question often reveals interesting kernels about the speaker’s identity and self-definition.) Since I am studying in Egypt and give that information away much more freely than my American citizenship, out of a desire to speak no English, paranoia and the shear fun of pretending to be Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, German…etc, a couple Moroccans emphatically dished the dirt on Egypt. The first words out, pace Egypt, were always positive “Egypt, the mother of us all” or “Egyptians, the best people.” However, the praise always turned around to reveal a conjoined twin “Egypt is the mother of us all…and Morocco is the father.” I also heard the infamous words spoken by every different native speaker of an Arabic dialect: our dialect is closer than all others to Formal Arabic because… I’ve been told to discredit, internally, these claims made by all (Levantine, Gulf, Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, Algerian, and Moroccan colloquial speakers) because thanks to extensive research many linguistics say no colloquial Arabic is more related to the Formal Arabic spoken by the Quarish tribe and standardized in the Qur’an than another one. The colloquial languages diverge at different points but do not stray further than another sister or brother dialect. This is not to say speakers understand different dialects with the same ease. Understanding different Arabic dialects depends greatly on how many Egyptian soap operas you’ve seen.

Moroccan cities made the demarcation of medina and new city clear, enveloping the medina in ancient walls. With the exception of the city of the dead in Cairo, which is a slum in a graveyard, Egyptian cities merge and flow between the ancient and the new sections of the city. The azhan (Egyptian pronunciation of the call to prayer) sounded softly across Morocco’s cities. Beautiful minarets still broke out across the city line (yes, I’m talking to you Zoe SL). I conclude with some more sights to behold. Now, go check your calendar, find when you are going to visit Morocco for yourself, and if your calendar takes issue with my promise you’ll find yourself in a lavender haze in Morocco, take a tip from our friends in 15th and 17th century Prague, and defenestrate it!

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Morocco Teaser

Time May 14th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I had the incredible opportunity to explore Morocco for 10 days during our break pace Coptic Easter. I am in the midst of finals right now so I shall give you the full details of our peregrination soon. For now I want to give you two pictures of Chefchaouen as a teaser!

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Live Below the Line–Days 2 and 3

Time April 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Challenge is the right categorization of this experience! Figuring I should vary my approach, I cooked veggies stuffed with rice with the idea that it would be enough for 4 meals. However, I severely underestimated how hungry I would be or how filling zucchini and tomatos are (the too cheapest and commonest veggies at my local market).

It is so interesting to walk around with a different lens over my gaze; typically I screen for what I can and cannot eat regarding gluten, so I am no stranger to seeing food and choosing not to have it (just like most people with allergies, or various vegetarian tendencies). Since after spending $1.50 I’ve still been hungry, walking around Alexandria now entails a simple math calculating how much money I’ll have left if I eat that apple and how hungry will I be in the next period of time…etc This surprisingly occupies a lot of mental time.

I have not felt the need to explain my culinary choices to my fellow IFSA students apart from mentioning it weeks ago when I first heard of the challenge. Warning lights flash with this observation because it would be easy for someone to live in poverty, dancing around our daily lives hungry. Though healthy eating, overeating, and obesity are also issues facing Egypt poverty is one too and it does not only hide under the blankets of Alexandria’s homeless but undoubtedly within the hardworking families suffering under the hard economic times. Not a new revelation but an illustration of the real possibility of poverty’s immediacy and unknown residence.

 

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4th Day

Time April 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

A few weeks ago my language partner showed me one of her favorite street cafes in Alexandria. In her words, “its the hawa balody I go to when I want to impress someone.” I left the phrase hawa balody in transliterated Arabic because it better alludes to Egypt’s idiosyncratic cafes; they truly are the national coffee cafes as the literal translation reveals, or to be more accurate Nescafe cafes. Lipton and Nescafe have cemented themselves more thoroughly than the British and the French colonizers and puts the Turkish influence left by the Ottoman rule to shame. But as any tourist guide will tell you Egyptian locals, predominately men, will sit at these cafes drinking nescafe, lipton tea, mint tea, all with mounds of sugar, smoking hookah, playing chess or dominos, and feeding the stray cats.

This  hawa balody does not unfurl to meet the street but is stowed in a beautiful hidden atrium down an one-way alley between two restaurants, opening up in relief into a dust painted and collapsing intersection of facades pointing straight up to the sky to funnel down the streams of light to remind us, as it conveys more particles of dust, that this is not the first face of Egypt. (This is the closest I have found to an Alexandrian huzn to borrow Orhan Pamuk’s use of it.) My desire to share this visage of Alexandria has been so strong ever since I saw it that I took my friend despite my vow to not waste my limited funds for the day on tea. I enjoyed my tea, drinking in more of the view, which surprisingly almost satisfied my hunger in ways the other portion of rice and mixed veggies did not.

Day 4 was the easiest so far because I decided to have a substantial breakfast of oatmeal rather than an apple as I did days 1-3, and have lighter lunch and dinner. This spread my hunger out between meals and since I made sure to drink tons of water was manageable as I had classes from 9 am till 6 pm to keep my mind occupied. Not to say that being hungry in class is not a huge distraction but having feed my brain in the early morning, was one that was much controllable than previous days.

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Living Below the Line, my initial reflections

Time April 22nd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I’m taking the 5-day “Live Below the Line” (the poverty line) challenge to raise awareness about extreme poverty across the world and to try to glean a sliver of insight into that experience. Essentially, the challenge is to spend 5 days feeding yourself with $1.50 a day – the U.S. equivalent of the extreme poverty line in order to give a glimpse into the lives of 1.4 billion people who have no choice but to live below the line every day – and who have to make $1.50 cover a lot more than food.

Day one of the “Live Below the Line” challenge isn’t even over yet and I’ve already encountered an aspect of living on $1.50 a day that I should have thought of but never had before. I had planned out two pieces of fruit and a bowl of koshry for the day. Koshry is an Egyptian fast lunch served in large and cheap quantities from local foul and falafel stands, comprising of macaroni, rice, lentils, tomato sauce, onions, chickpeas, and peppers (I always get it without macaroni to make it gluten-free friendly). However, after eating my apple for breakfast something did not sit right and I threw up while walking to school. The culprit remains unidentified and thankfully I felt much better afterwards and went to classes. Yet that was my allocated breakfast. When thinking about living below the line, I had always associated food and drink, and understanding the hypocrisy of living in our nice apartment and going to university because it stretches so far beyond the reality of those who must actually survive on $1.50 per day. But sickness disrupts the fragile equation. Being sick engulfs so much more than an inconvenience. Grappling with illness and poverty has occupied my mind before but always intense and life threatening illness or small ones that without treatment become life threatening. A mere stomach bug, and even blimp of one like mine this morning, took away 1 of my meals today and I cannot replace it. That made me stop, breathe and think about the ramifications of missing meals, missing work, needing to care for a dependent or loved one, and how quickly it must all torrent out of control.

Now Egypt has unique components that make this challenge special. I can definitely find cheap food. From local fruit and veggies stands produce is cheap and just requires clean water for a good scrubbing. Outside of cooking at home, my options are limited to grab and go sandwich shops, where the variety is foul, mas’a, and fried foods, and koshry. Then of course there are all manner of unsubstantial foods sold all around, such as chips, sweets, and candy bars. Depending where in the city I am, more specifically what kind of building I am in, some tap water is safe. Over the last month, I’ve been easing into drinking tap water from my apartment. Before that it was all bottled or boiled water. Most Egyptians do not have this same concern but even though I can drink the water in my apartment that does not mean the water in the local cafes like me, a lesson I learned the hard way from drinking fresh juice from a glass washed in local water, rather than a plastic cup or bag few months back.

Another reason living below the line is special in Egypt, though I will not witness it, is the cultural tradition surrounding the religious practice of Ramadan. Every night during Ramadan, Egyptians gather on the street at large tables welcome to everyone to feast for free. This month of fasting during the daytime actually results in feeding Egypt’s malnourished consistently for at least that period. My Egyptians speak of the beauty of Ramadan, of seeing a community lace together on the streets, around food, religion, and individuals. As one Muslim pointed out, Islam heavily emphasizes taking care of the community, in particular the hungry, and how misplaced it is to only truly carry the burden of hunger and eliminate it from the streets during the one-month. If Egyptians can support one another during Ramadan, then why stop there? I hope to come back to see Egypt’s unique celebration of Ramadan.

Tomorrow I have fewer classes and I plan on cooking rice with a cheap veggie or two, rounded out with boiled water, just to be sure not to tempt an upset stomach two days in a row.

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Anniversary of Egypt’s Future Family

Time April 15th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

My tram acquaintances stack into a larger trend over these last two months of meeting more Egyptians. A girl I met in yoga the first weeks of the program, invited me to eat with her family. Apart from accidentally eating a small fish bone, I had a great time just hanging out with her and her sister. Just like my American friends, they were amazed and horrified at all the American movies I haven’t seen and told me which ones I must see. As they figured if they as Egyptians had seen them I can hardly claim to be American until I have. In addition to sharing her language, food, and family with me, she showed me the local favorite parts along the Corniche. Exploring it with a local Alexandrian illuminated the aspects of Alexandria’s history that still engage the youth. I loved listening as she pulled at different threads of the city’s history, and thus her own. Alexandrian through and through, all of her family lives here and has for numerous generations. Trying to imagine the city through her lens left me ruminating.

The friendly tram commuters invited me to a party celebrating the year anniversary of their volunteer organization, Egypt’s Future Family, at the university. I met them during a free period between classes for two hours. I loved actually feeling like an Egyptian student for a change. They introduced me to their friends as they scrambled to complete the final preparations before the festivities began. As only Egyptian humor can compose a lighthearted political critique amid the second stage of the revolution to kick-start a celebration, the opening anecdotes focused on the revolution, scintillating laughter across the two hundred students in the audience.

Part and parcel with their pride in being Egyptian, Egyptians are proud of their national humor. More than the mere absence of being politically correct in Egyptian culture, Egyptian humor is applicable in all situations, which I’ve found to be wave-breaking-on-your-face refreshing and startling. Revolutionary-lore spreads how individuals while suffering the blows of the riot police during the 18-days or while being tortured by Mubarak’s regime laughed and cracked jokes on their own situation. Egyptians may breathe in tear gas but they exhale laughing gas.

A wiry boy took the stage and long before he opened his mouth his own image, projected as his backdrop, indicated he was going to rap. Accustomed to an oscillating sequence of ‘oriental’ music and American pop, my jaw sprang into a grin as he started rapping Gangnam Style in Arabic. It took me a concentrated minute to discern whether he was rapping the Korea words with a heavy Egyptian accent or in Arabic. Five girls shrieked and capered throughout his three-song performance to the rolling eyes of the larger audience. My new Egyptian friend who had brought me to this anniversary celebration asked me if I had understood his rapping. I muttered, “Not even a little.” She laughed, “me neither!!”

I met my new Egyptian friend on a tram about a month.  Coming back from school with my language partner, we both noticed the girls next to us listening to our conversation.  A little embarrassed we switched subjects and languages (yes, defeating the purpose of an Arabic language partner).  After saying goodbye to my language partner, I continued on the tram, nose buried in my notebook.   By the next stop the girls next to me saved me from my new vocabulary mumblings and started talking to me.  I enjoyed responding to their superb English with my broken Arabic so much that I overshot my stop by five stops, no small feat.

 

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Luxor and Aswan

Time March 29th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

Though I wish I could blame my denial on the divers cutting the internet cords off the shore of Alexandria but the truth is I’ve been trying to write about our trip to Luxor and Aswan, as well as the past few weeks with different Egyptians friends, but I haven’t been satisfied writing about our enjoyable yet enclosed, and tipping on sterilely isolating, time on the cruise when Egyptians are struggling through such difficult times of finding and fighting to define themselves as a nation.

Essentially, to state the obvious, it is emotionally frustrating to see a people struggle so profusely. It is hard for anyone to be apart of the solution when 1) people are arguing about what the problem is 2) the problem may not be yours to solve but yet 3) bad things happen when good people stand ideally by (not that I’m in the position to unroll large change)—having said that I couldn’t be more glad to be here, to live amid the chaos Egyptians are living.

Our spring break trip took us into other Egyptian dimensions compartmentalized from our daily experiences in Alexandria and Cairo. We flew from Cairo to Aswan, in Upper Egypt, located to the south, on Friday March 1. We cruised on the Nile en route to Luxor for Saturday and Sunday, flying back to Cairo Monday afternoon the 25th of February. The 26th through the 2nd we explored Cairo, visited St. Catherine and climbed Mount Sinai. In total we visited seven Pharonic temples the High Dam, and two sites significant to the Abrahamic religions. Specifically we explored Philae Temple, Kom Ombo Temple, and Edfu Temple in Aswan, and Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, Habu Temple and R’Mose around Luxor. Unfortunately, since the revolution tourism, the primary source of income to Luxor and Aswan, has dwindled down to the occasional hiccup. The venders in Luxor are unable to afford their rent and protested by cutting of access to the Valley of the Kings and Queen Hatshepsut’s temple. Their demonstrations for livable salaries (aka lower rent) had not received drawn much of the media’s eye. Ergo we did not get to visit those monumental sites. But if we were to miss any, I am glad they are magnetic enough to warrant a second trip in the future and that they are the most photographed of the sites! I enjoyed breathing in the historic dust and sand of the temples, finding colour painted centuries before, and absorbing the contrast over a mere few meters of water soaked luscious green and the grating sands. Though a pleasant journey, the cruise felt disconnected from Egyptian life. To combat this we explored on foot in between temple trips and planned dancing competitions with our fellow cruisers from Japan and Taiwan. Exploring we discovered that Luxor has the hidden gem in the rough and it isn’t Aladdin nor a ruby but Egypt’s best falafel. Tucked away in a tiny restaurant in the local downtown are refreshing and green falafels, accompanied by spicy tahina and sliced potatoes. No other falafels have compared, but now we know what greatness is we are on the hunt for the best falafels in both Alexandria and Cairo. Not to perpetuate the stereotype because of course Egyptians eat more than just falafels. Falafels are a staple breakfast food but definitely not the only one.

Visiting Saint Catherine resonated with me more in terms of travel method than the cruise. Along the way, we traveled with Egyptians, drank tea seethed by a fire from nestling against red logs, hiked,  climbed, and stargazed. We spent a long time weaving beneath the stars as their expanding whispers of light dominated the moonless sky. .The local boy, who ensured we did not fall off the mountain during our night decent, told us these stars are nothing in a polluted sky. A powerful statement after we traveled 8 hours by bus to his small desert town. For the real ones we need to trek in for three days; this currently stands as my post-finals plan.

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My Dad Visits Egypt!!!

Time February 26th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

Written 13.2.13

Today, I completed my first Egyptian marathon (unfortunately, I’m speaking metaphorically because I have been told I cannot run through the streets of Egypt, unless of course I am running after foul and falafel or from Morsi). My Egyptian marathon was a linguistic feat of 7 hours of exclusively speaking colloquial Egyptian Arabic, 2 further hours of formal Arabic and 4 hours of formal homework, and 7 hours of meandering through Muhataram (a downtown neighborhood).

The program assigns each of us a language partner to meet with us one-on-one to practice our ameya or colloquial Arabic. Hands down this is one of my favorite aspects of the program. Not only does she endure my stumbling Arabic, but teaches me expressions, vocab, and slang while exploring local youth aspects of the city. For our first meeting, a month ago, she has took me around her favorite area, which is the downtown right by the University of Alexandria, highlighting all the gorgeous architecture. Books in Arabic and English caught our eye on a street with vestibules of used books. Subsequently, I am inching through my first easy Arabic book with the leading role going to my dictionary!

After this marathon, I have to admit I slipped into English-country as my Dad visited for 3 days! We had a great time milling around the old part of the city (a much poorer region than we see on our daily commute), the Citadel, Muhataram, the Bibliotheca, a Coptic cemetery, San Stefano, and every conceivable technology shop (in desperate search of an Apple computer charger—only to discover the city of Alexandria is decidedly discriminatorily against Mac laptops, understandably). I loved exploring with him and showing him how though demonstrations may be occurring in a part of the city, life proceeds as normal. The news never shows the normal life continuing one street over, only the masses and crowds in the thick of it all. Insha’allah his witness and testimony will reassure my family and anyone whom I have unintentionally worried! Of course violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault do happen and are a problem, but one that the rest of the world faces alongside Egypt. Recently demonstrations have been held to spread awareness about sexual harassment and non-violence. In this way demonstrations have been the means and avenue through which a myriad of sentiments can be expressed. As a result, emerging on the streets is not exclusively an anti-Hosni Mubarak act but a non-exclusive forum that is self-critical and inter-discursive. Along a similar vein, graffiti presents a technologically free public discourse open to more Egyptians than the social-network connected youth. While it does not seem to be an accurate poll of public opinion (because for example the Black Block marked all of the city seemingly overnight without garnishing the same proportion of support from the people) it does display the conversation and who is participating. Propaganda and graffiti are huge topics that I will lightly sprinkle throughout my post of my weekend trip to Cairo, insha’allah, as I have been finding them so fascinating!!

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The Sahara Desert translates to the Desert of the Desert (no wonder some Egyptians think foreigners can’t learn Arabic!)

Time February 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I wrote this right after returning from Siwa, February 11. Please forgive the delay!

A lot of small poignant victories have happened over the last few days: I’ve now tackled the microbus and the tram. I’ve explored a remote Berber village with the whole crew: Sarah, Elise, Matt, Dhruv, and Moutaz. We’ve been covered in the Saharan sands. I’ve had my first meeting with my language partner. Finally, I’m understanding more and more of the words little kids said to us or about us when we were walking through the Siwan roads, sticking out like sunburnt and sore thumbs.

Though taking the microbus to class, sloppily jabbering away with my Egyptian language partner in a downtown café, exploring pockets of diverse domestic Egyptian culture like Siwa and thinking I have conservative dressing down pat, may feel like milestones towards understanding and melting into Egyptian culture, I had a simple reminder this morning that there is so much more that I don’t even know I don’t know yet. Casually stepping out of our apartment in a hijab after taking a weekend trip to Siwa, an Oasis in the middle of the Sahara, you could say I had an Egyptian swing in my step. We needed groceries and I was going over the list making sure I knew how to say the random vegetables and fruits in Arabic, when the front of the temporarily closed corner store came into view. I had perfectly timed my Egyptian grocery-run with the afternoon-call-to-prayer. Cleary, I’m not quite as attuned to the Egyptian daily rhythm as I had thought.

But setting aside the deflation of my premature Egyptian ego, as I’ve already eluded our trip to Siwa was an adventure! We took a 10 pm to 5 am bus ride along a cold desert road lite with lampposts, thick with military bases and training facilities, and peppered with the occasional cluster of rest stops. We shared music, ideas, and naps only snapping back to reality to glance out of the windows into the vacuum-ous black night and in response to the snake weaving forced by traffic barricades every so often. Once in Siwa, we walked around in a town that seemed flash-frozen just before dawn in a pause stretched out to infinity. We meandered the wrong direction without seeing a soul. Eventually the six of us clambered into the vestibule attached to a motorcycle (a larger scale a rickshaw) and warmed up for our four-wheeling on the patchwork road to the hotel. After rejoicing with a nap, we tore off into the desert.

We are taking a minute out of your normally scheduled programing to bring you this brief educational message:

  • The Sahara is larger than 9,000,000 square kilometres or 3,500,000 square miles—in nation-state terms, it is almost as large as the continental US or the continent of Europe
  • Extreme sand dunes can pile 180 m (600 ft) or essentially two lengths of football fields stretching into the sky.

The only reassurance I found while we were driving off of sand dunes edging to a 45 degree slope was that I couldn’t see any abandon cars jutting out of the sand or crumbled and dejected at the bottom—if the desert had defeated any it was at least courteous enough to clean up and prevent the car skeletons from marring the endless sands. The desert’s deceit (fittingly enough) consumed a lot of my apprehension and erupted as giddy appreciation of its magnificent beauty and power. Beyond surfing the sand mountains, we found sand dollars (sea cookie), remnants from 150-200 million years ago during the Jurassic Era. Egyptians tourists flock to the desert, ironically enough, to dip in the hot and cold water springs. We perched on top of a smooth ridge to watch the sun melt into the desert.

Next stop was the tented camp where we stayed the night. Our timing could not have been better planned for local Siwans were having celebration of music and dancing in a quilted tent. Without removing our shoes, in an attempt to peek in and dip out, we passed through the internal illuminated quilts and ended up dancing with the performers.

The true highlights of the trip came while stargazing, the part I was honestly looking most forward to!  Matt and I were just chatting and breaking our necks, admiring the stars outside the tents when red smoke billowed, engulfing part of the starkly black sky, right over the only building in the area. Time stretched as we double tacked, and then began running towards the explosion. None of the local Siwans looked up at the explosion, but the deranged white foreigners running through the sand was the abnormal and noteworthy occurrence in the moment. Realizing we were the only two worried, and hearing no screams or groans, we turned bamboozled and flabbergasted back to the other side of camp. Quickly after that, the fighting wild dogs seemed to draw closer so we joined our already snoring comrades in the large sand warmed tent. We didn’t find out what the explosion was until the next morning per our own investigation: they were burning a pile of trash and plastic explodes when burnt.

One other tidbit: We walk through a Siwani berber market and all around the town. Out of 300 people, I saw 5 woman, only 2 of whom could I look in the eyes. The fully covered woman sat crosslegged in the beds of carts towed behind motorbikes. Since this I’ve been paying especially careful attention to where women are veiled, how they are, and which women. I am still trying to get used to walking into the women’s bathroom and finding veiled women adjusting their hijabs, niqabs, or burqas before re-emerging. I feel rude staring (so for the most part I don’t) but even just the mere logistics of putting different types on, their multitude of styles, and how they conduct themselves throughout their daily lives. I have seen women running around playfully in the park in Cairo just this weekend in hijabs and abyas, and I have worked out with women in a gym class while they work hijabs. I am keeping my eyes out to see a woman fully veiled in a burqa run after a pesky child. It must happen and I have so must anticipatory admiration for a woman that can negotiate with so much cloth after a blurr of a toddler. As you can undoubtedly gather, I am looking forward to reading about had discussing gender and Islam, as it is such a visual component and thus apart of everyone in Egypt’s daily world. However, we have much to cover before then (pun intended) as we currently stand in the 1500s through 1700s with the Safavid, Mongul, and Ottoman Empires. I am also planning on where a niqab for a week just to try it out from a cultural perspective. A post to look forward to, inshalla! Last night my sub-conscious went to work mulling over these last comments of mine on veiled woman, preoccupied with the chance that they might not be politically correct by American standards. So consumed with this pontification, this morning when my first alarm sounded, my brain justified my rolling over again by thinking well at least the way I turned off my alarm, and set my head on my pillow was culturally inquisitive and tolerant, such productivity! Perhaps I am at the apogee of conscious incompetency to the degree that I am even subconsciously on the alert for my own cultural incompetency.

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the Study in Study Abroad

Time February 4th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | 2 Comments by

Even though the protests are the hot topic and on everyone’s minds right now and partially because the only Egypt people are seeing right now is the Egypt in protest, I am going to write about my classes. The protests are critically important and merit attention, I am not refuting or diminishing that. Yet the protests are about listening to the voice of the Egyptian people and as a foreigner who has no desire to be arrested and deported (the end result of any non-Egyptian found even observing, let alone participating in the protests) it is their story and not mine to tell. I will write about my life in a protesting Egypt and that, my friends, involves going to classes.

Two of my classes are exclusively in Arabic and two are in English. But to be honest, I learn a comparable amount of Arabic names and transliterated Arabic words in my classes taught in English as Arabic vocabulary in my Arabic classes. My two classes in English are Islamic History and Culture and Arabic Poetry and Literature. My fellow IFSA-Butler students, Elise, Matt and Sarah take Islamic History and Culture with me. I’m enjoying our small discussions. Thus far we covered the beginning fraction of the introduction of Islam to the tribes in the Arabian Peninsula and the first four Caliphs. My poetry and literature class is a tutorial so I am the only student. Starting with the Mu’allaqat, which are the 7 pre-Islamic ‘Hanging Poems’ displayed on the Ka’ba in Mecca. Not only are the poems structured so differently from the English poems I’ve studied, but their words also offer me insights into an entirely different culture than even the one I’m glimpsing here in Egypt.

In between classes, we mingle with students from different programs. I am really looking forward to meeting my language partner. That will happen once we have a better sense of the trend the protests are taking. Then insha’alla the Egyptians and us foreigners will feel freer to move about the city. For as of right now, we go to classes and come home straight away to be sure to avoid the protests that begin to form once work and classes let out. Thankfully our neighborhood is completely safe, probably safer than my collegiate-home in Baltimore. Exploring around our neighbor, we have stumbled upon nice local markets, and vendors. The owners of the few of them seem to be enjoying our language exchange: the practice their English and we respond in Arabic. Now I’m hoping for Arabic responds! But it will come with time (kul haga baud shwya).

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The Anniversary of Cotton and Cosmos

Time February 4th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It’s impossible to pass through Egypt’s main cities without noticing the traffic. Our commute to school typically takes 45 minutes to cross 15-minutes worth of the city. Driving lanes are more guidelines than actual rules. The cars, microbuses, buses, motorbikes and taxis are waves in a tumultuous sea weaving in an out of traffic (oncoming or not). They stop abruptly and perfectly in the nick of time. The success of all the chaos hinges on the car-to-car conversation of honks, indicating who’s slipping into which opening, coming up a one-way road (perhaps from the opposite direction), and telling pedestrians they are about to make a tight blind turn. The pedestrians also engage in this conversation by gesticulating the route they want to take to the taxis and microbuses, which are looking to scoop up more passengers. For example, a tap on your wrist, as if asking what time it is, means you want the route going up Si’a Road, which is the word for watch.

While of course we’d all like to sleep in, the traffic on our commutes offers us such a unique vantage point. If there is little traffic, namely if it’s a Friday or nearing time for a protest, we drive speedily along, seeing Alexandria in fluid action. However, more often than not we see a close up of the passenger reading while packed into the microbuses or the brave pedestrian orchestrating a 6 car width crossing (which is definitely more complicated and different than crossing “6-lanes of traffic”). The traffic produces the perfect people-watching opportunity and presents a metaphor that echoes how some Egyptians have explained how their lives have changed since the revolution: the Egyptians caught in traffic are people in limbo, caught in transit but often not in motion or at least with an unknown amount of time ahead of them before they reach their destination. Out our windows we see what the media does not show that millions of people are living their daily lives in ‘a country in revolution.’ This is not to undermine or diminish the history being made, the lives lost, the injured and assaulted, and the story that is yet to be unraveled.

I am a bystander and an observer throughout the continuing Egyptian revolution. On the morning of the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, I awoke to the early sounds of a protest forming and the murmur of amalgamating voices from the people on the streets. Just like audiences all around the world, I watched the protests not from my apartment windows but from a news channel (in Arabic!). As I now go to sleep at the close of the first day (the first day of what the people have yet to decide), I fall asleep not with fear or lulled by riots as you many image but to the sound of a rooster. In a city of millions of voices, of Lincoln log stacked apartments, of protests, of history and of a billowing future, a rooster echoes in another day, and in’shalla a fresh start.

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Different Communication Styles

Time January 22nd, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

College students often, for a multitude of reasons, go into orientation expecting to learn nothing important and for it to only tell us things we already know, after all we’ve been in school for the last 17 years or so, so hopefully we’ve figured out a few things by now.Right? Having admitted the collegiate skepticism of orientation, I must say, I’ve already found one golden nugget of information helpful in my short 12 days in Egypt. One of the IFSA-Butler site-coordinators laid out the different communication styles Americans and Egyptians generally use.* Americans value direct communication. If you need a favor ask for one, be clear and concise because I have x, y, and z to do before 5:00 pm today, and time is money (hopefully my hyperbole makes the point clear). The Egyptian style of communication is much more indirect and derives social grace and consideration by understanding someone’s needs without them having to ask. The opportunity for a frustrating interaction becomes clear: the Egyptian trying to anticipate what the American is thinking seems pushy, the American not understanding the Egyptian is not merely pointing out a fact but that the standard response to their statement would be an action, finds the American rude and inconsiderate, then the Egyptian seems passive-aggressive to an American by phrasing statements, not direct questions…etc., etc.

Having been warned of such common patterns, I had my radar up and already have seen the interactions arise (not to say each creates a problem by any means), but I noticed them and immediately identified it as perpendicular communication styles. This insight from orientation allowed me to peel back the means of communication to the intention underneath and see what both parties were trying to accomplish and thus bridge the two. By recognizing this general difference in communication style, instead of begrudging my new Egyptian friends for beating around the bush or being ‘passive aggressive’ or indirect, I was able to immediately diffused any cultural frustration and I’m more excited at the prospect of better navigating Egyptian society, insha’alla. Perhaps over the next couple of days I will try to read situations for more subtle signs and give the “generalized Egyptian communication style” a try.

 

*The coordinator cited specific data and clearly articulated that while these trends appear they of course do not apply to even American nor every Egyptian and should be taken with a grain of salt.

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How about a double major in Gastronomy?

Time January 17th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I love to cook. Naturally I was very excited for tonight’s orientation event: an Egyptian cooking lesson! For our feast we made mahshi, which is essentially a hot dolma or a stuffed vegetable, most common of which in the US is a grape leaf. We stuffed a mixture of parsley, chopped onion, uncooked rice, chopped tomato and salt (all the while practicing the Arabic words for the vegetables and cooking verbs) into hollowed-out tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers. Arranging the packed veggies on the insides of cucumber and pepper, we then turned to the origami of folding the mahshi waraq ‘inab (specifically a stuffed grape leaf) around the same filling. Despite the cook’s demonstration on how to carefully fold and not over pack the leaves, I was still miles behind her dexterous wrapping! But inshall’alla, I will be up to speed by the time I make mahshi waraq ‘inab for my friends and family—consider yourselves forewarned!

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But never fear, after baking, we enjoyed our feast andpracticed our polite refusal of more food when, per Egyptian culture, we were offered thirds, fourths and fifths just to be sure we truly were all happily stuffed!

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(Above: my fellow Egyptians-in-training, with the exception of the Egyptian cook and coordinator, of course!)

Today, we also rapidly toured the new Library of Alexandria. Good thing I am here for the semester because almost any amount of time is too short to do this beautiful building of reading rooms, books, and art exhibitions justice. I can’t wait to intersperse my attempts to soak in the Arabic language with a stroll through the libraries many museums!

**If you read my past post it turns out I was gleefully ignorant of the process one must go through to actually be a member of this enrapturing library. Don’t despair, I’ll be a member within a fortnight, insha’alla! I’ll keep you posted!

Shoofokee baud shawy!! (See you in a little bit)

 

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Anti musrya? La’a ana TOURIST

Time January 17th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

So much has happened since my first post. We’ve flown from Dulles to Cairo, explored Cairo for five days, and now come to rest in Alexandria.

  • National Egyptian Museum
  • Arabic musical performance by a Takht group (5-player arrangement of a ney (similar toa flute, a violin, a oud (a large barreled guitar), a tambourine/hand-drum, and the Qanun (stringed instrument like the piano)—this was enthralling to listen to. I am on the lookout for a music shop as I meander and get a feel for Alexandria.
  • Explored the Khan el-Khalili market or souk that winds through tight stone alleys

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  • We saw a performance of the sufi-religious dance called the Whirling Dervishes. The tradition entails spinning continuously for long periods of time (we saw one man spin for 37 minutes) to attain religious ecstasy.

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  • Pyramids and the Sphinx!!

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  • Rode camels in the desert surrounding the Pyramids

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Our tour guide with a camel casually milling around in the background, as if we wouldn’t notice! This tour guide was with us at the National Egyptian Museum, the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx. Regaling us with historical context, and architectural and cultural importance, he never failed to grab our attention with an emphatic “my ladies and gentleman” for every fact!

In addition to learning a lot about ancient Egypt, the chaotic traffic in Cairo and driving to Alexandria has a true silver-lining: non-stop people-watching throughout the diverse parts of modern Egypt. En route to Alexandria we drove through construction zone after unfinished building after crane-storage space…etc. It is not difficult to gauge that Cairo is crowded and its population is ever growing. From our sky-high highway, we paralleled the rooftops, which unanimously house a hodgepodge of rubbish, discarded wood, and multiple satellite dishes. The media may be struggling to grasp and portray the complex Egyptian current events but the Egyptians themselves are well wired in and technologically equipped. Cairo, and undoubtedly other Egyptian cities as well, intertwine the ancient with the modern. The pyramids are not miles outside of the city, out of reach of urban sprawl, but bumped right up to the living and breathing city. Eager to give the tourists the ‘Egyptian and Middle Eastern experience,’ men and boys ride camels and horses around the pyramids and the sphinx, weaving through the groups of us tourists. However, don’t let the dromedaries fool you, this is Egypt in the 21st century and here, the man on the camel with the pyramids in the background is yammering away on his cell phone.

Hopefully by the next time I post I will be a member of the (new) Library of Alexandria!

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Countdown in ١,٢,٣!

Time January 8th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Though I spent nearly every summer of my childhood in Fairbanks, Alaska, stepping into the “warm-spell” of 11°F and the daily winter lives of my family and friends shed entirely new light on their community, and lives, as examples of Alaskan culture. I knew I was going to see (despite the dominate hours of darkness) and experience a new and different side of Alaska and for that reason I was dying to go visit family and friends in the notorious and hauntingly frozen Alaskan winter. The curiosity at root in my Ernest-Shackleton-desire to explore Alaska is carrying me on a much larger adventure to Egypt. The unknown is the thrilling and exciting part, laced with good dose of nerves to reassure me that I’m stretching the limits of the my comfort-zone (which after all is the growth studying abroad, college, and moreover life is all about).

Now for a brief introduction or perhaps better dubbed a warning label: your blogger is internet shy. Why then, decide to write a blog? I see documenting my 5-month Egyptian learning adventure as another great means to stretch my normally-absent-from-social-media comfort zone. That being said, I’m going to branch out and detail what I learn and see in Alexandria, from the Egyptian people, my peers, our program, and the Arabic language itself.

From a small town in southern California, with Alaskan family roots, and education at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, I will soon be adding resident of Alexandria, Egypt to my geographical bio. I’m off to “embrace the chaos” and try to absorb the fact that what I’ve been working towards for so long, exploring an Arabic-speaking country, is less than a day away.

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My small California town is even beautiful on a rainy day!

JHU Winter

A cold baltimore day on then Gilman quad

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An Alaskan sunrise at 11:00 am

 

More soon!!

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