So, I intimated that we got to Alexandria safely – and we did, don’t get me wrong! To do so, we met more or less at 7:30 (٧:٣٠) am in the courtyard of the women’s apartment building, which also happens to be in front of the IFSA Egypt office. Mariam had spent the night in our apartment to save her the trip home and back. Consistent with the rest of Orientation, we piled (rather comfortably in comparison to microbuses) into the Misr Travel van, with our luggage on top. Our driver, Hassan, climbed on top to secure the luggage; we could see the roof bending under the combined weight of Hassan and our luggage. But, as he says, “It’s no problem.” We soon (about 20 minutes after the planned departure) left Misaha Square, our apartments, the IFSA office, and were on our way. Traffic stunk – we got caught in at least three traffic jams (which means that not even mopeds could get through). But once we got out of the city proper and onto the Desert Highway, traffic significantly lessened – I could see a foot or more of pavement between cars. The views along the highway were similar to sights in Jordan, Turkey, and my imagination of California farms – the first in stretches of desert and electric lines, the second in the style of building complexes and roadstands, and the third in the agricultural fields. Even though I spent much of the trip trying to write the last blog, bumps in the road made me delete about three letters for every word I wanted.
We were actually early to a meeting planned for us. Until know, I didn’t know the particulars of where I will study. Within Alexandria University, there are certain colleges called “Faculties.” As far as I can tell, each Faculty has one specific large building for its classes and resource housing. The medical campus, including Faculties of Pharmacology, Dentistry, and Medical Doctoralness (or whatever that word is in English), is on another street nearby. The Faculty of Arts, however, has another building, much smaller than the main building, just to the Faculty’s north. This building house the program now called Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language (TAFL Centre). This building is my academic home. IFSA-Butler is a private organization bringing students to study with the TAFL professors, who seem to have other positions elsewhere within the Faculty of Arts. So, our first meeting in Alexandria was with the director of TAFL, Dr. Lana. She is one very gregarious woman. Our professors also partook in this meeting, which included getting a brief overview of our classes and giving input on what we want to learn. The result, besides wonderful tea and sweets? I’m very excited about academics. Again, the wind of interest changes and focuses on something new. More about figuring out the future in another post.
We were treated to another lecture, this one on living in Alexandria by one of our professors. Having grown up in London, she has a seriously delicious British accent when speaking English. I can’t tell about her Arabic. We’d also met our Alexandria SSC, Moutaz, who also falls heavily to the extreme side of gregarious. I like him more every day. Another new student, Mya (spelling unknown) from France, tagged along for the lecture, Moutaz’s introductory tour of Alex U, and for lunch, where she finally figured out that we were a group. (Since Moutaz is also the Students Events Coordinator for TAFL, the confusion is understandable.) We ate food at the fancy, and quiet, San Giobanni restaurant at the Biblioteca Alexandrina, but until Thursday, we’d not actually seen the inside of the Biblioteca.
We then moved into our apartments. I’ve reiterated this so many times now that I feel like I’m a broken record: oh my gosh the floor plan is wonderful. To quote Brannon teasing me, holy buckets. Dr. Mohamed, upon questioning, told us that IFSA wanted to ensure students had a comfortable home to return to and to give us a break from the constant stress of living in a new culture. The large discrepancy between haves and have nots is reflected in the housing – there is not much to be had between literal villas and places “you don’t wanna live in” to quote Chris. After I got over the shock of crystal chandeliers, a wall of mirrors, porcelain, and Chris’s enormous master bedroom (this place is fancier than my Cairo apartment!), I began to see the broken chunk in one coffee table, the fridge, cracking paint on the molding, and no insulation on the hot water pipes. These are not issues to me aesthetically – both Jeanette and I arrive to this palace from homes that aren’t mansions. I mainly look for ways to streamline the energy consumption of the flat. More about adjusting to life in an apartment in a later post.
The highlight of the evening was the cook who came to teach us how to prepare koshary in the mens’ apartment. While we didn’t really learn the cooking process, we gained over 30 words of appliances, foodstuffs, colors, and phrases. All of these we had to spell for ourselves, which was a great challenge, though Dr. Mohamed and Mariam spellchecked us. The cook, from Aswan in Upper Egypt, had a slight accent – she pronounced her vowels slightly taller/skinnier than Mariam. It’s the first difference in accent that I’ve been able to pick up. Jeanette could not participate with us, due to a broken tooth that an Alexandrian dentist pulled that afternoon. That day, starting on a highway and bonding as a group over childbirth philosophies, ended learning so much more ECA than anticipated.
The next day started with a pattern that continued for three days – I didn’t judge the time correctly before our required meeting time at the bus. Each day I’d wake up an hour or more before the time, 8:30 am, but for one or another reason would be late or not completely together. Argh!
Anyway, Monday. We started the day at TAFL with a two-hour ECA class with Professor Emdel, our ECA prof for the semester. TAFL operates classes on a block/two-hour basis: first hour first class, 10 min break, second hour first class, 30 min lunch break, first hour second class, 10 min break, second hour second class. Emdel’s classes reminded me strongly of being in Luther’s Spanish 201, taught by Yertty, but I enjoyed Emdel’s more, partially because he tailored the class to us specifically, which meant I could go at our pace…Ben, Jeanette, and I were sometimes completely lost, but Brannon kept us going.
Our first presentation of the day concerned the subject of calligraphy, but the presenter didn’t have fluent English. So Moutaz translated, and flicked through pictures of calligraphy pieces from an exhibition in Dubai, then pictures of a seminar in which the presenter was prominent, then pictures of the interior of a dead calligrapher’s house. While the pieces individually were cool, I wanted to learn how to read calligraphy, what the styles mean, and why certain styles arose in the first place. After (in Arabic ‘ba3d ikeda’ = and then) the presentation, Dr. Mohamed and Moutaz took Chris and us to a nearby fast food (ish) restaurant a short walk from our gate of the U. We ate schwerma, the Egyptian version of the Turkish/German döner, and crepes Egyptian-style – which includes vegetables and meat. The music from the restaurant spilled, like tables and patrons, into the street, taking the appeal of the food past the street, filled with packed microbuses and taxis, over the U’s boundary. Coming back to TAFL Centre, we were treated to a lecture by a prominent history professor concerning the history of Alexandria. Having studied the various periods of North African occupation by Macedonian Greeks and Romans, I knew the general gist of the periods of Alexandria, but I wanted more than just explanations of the various landmarks within the city. I wanted to begin to delve into the politics of each era, what precipitated the transitions between the eras, etc. I began to fall asleep, like I would in Archaeology (sorry Colin!) – it was also that magical time between 1:30 and 2 pm. This was notable only in that it was the first lecture in which I got to sleepy…
The main attraction of the afternoon was heading to Carrefour. Carrefour is similar to Target, but it’s found in the large mall (City Centre) on the outskirts of Alexandria. We were asked previously to notice missing items that would make life desirable within the apartments…and Chris, Mariam, Jeanette, and I held a hasty conference before entering the store to divide and conquer our items. Later, we realized we had bought certain items in double and triple amounts, so divide and conquer didn’t really work – we have now three and a half brooms, for instance. Oh well. Because my phone’s still having problems receiving calls – a still ongoing saga that I’ve kind of glossed over – Moutaz accompanied me around. Mariam went with Jeanette, and Chris maneuvered herself. Dr. Mohamed, Brannon, and Ben kind of went their own way. (This has became something of a pattern – I got accompanied, the boys left to their own devices. I’m working on not minding this pattern.) In Carrefour, I really enjoyed Moutaz’s help getting around the store and learning the necessary intricacies, like weighing apples (from Washington state of all places!) before leaving the produce section. Afterwards, we wandered through the mall looking for a Mobinil store – the network of my phone. Meanwhile, we also had dinner, and I learned a bit about common hangouts, why McDonald’s is a status symbol, and motivation behind shopping at a Westernized mall such as City Centre, where brand-name stores advertise clothing I’ve not seen Egyptians wear. Turns out that these brands are status symbols for the very elite. More later. I had enough time Monday night for a luxurious shower…
Tuesday morning started like any other morning thus far: Emdel continued our Arabic (ECA) lessons, and then we had a presentation. The changes? Emdel told us that he was passing the torch of teaching us to another professor tomorrow, and the lecture was in another building – The Alexandria Centre for Maritime Archaeology. Needless to say, I got excited during this lecture, by the very well spoken Dr. Emad Khalil, who gave us a better background on the distinction between underwater and marine archaeology, how the center got started, and some of their largest finds in and around the city. Much of the underwater archaeological studies in Egypt have been around Alexandria, to the point where, to quote Dr. Emad, “Alexandria has been over-studied.” I found out later that one of my professors was very familiar with Dr. Emad’s work, though they didn’t know each other.
We then piled into the van and drove along the Corniche for lunch at a seaside restaurant whose name escapes me. The interior was well decorated, however, in the manner of an upscale European restaurant. The food was incredible: the guys and I had boursii, a local fish that is similar to American fish, filleted and presented under a pile of onions, tomatoes, and lemons slices. Also with the fish came a literal stacked pyramid of rice. I, not familiar with how to eat fish, stumbled along with bones until Brannon began giving me lessons on how to eat and prepare just caught fish. I did think it was delicious.
We then had a little bit of freedom, which meant that Moutaz, Chris, and I were dropped off at the nearby San Stefano mall – she to get coffee at the famous seafront Starbucks, Moutaz and I to fix my phone. After waiting in line for 16 customers (a short line by all accounts) and getting teased by Chris, I got a new SIM card, the card that keeps personal data. (In retrospect, it didn’t work, and I’m still having issues.) When we returned to the van, we found out that the others had all gone for a walk on the Corniche, or at least that’s what they said. Jealous! When we returned to the apartments, we had the afternoon off. So Ben, Brannon, Mariam, and I found a nearby “park” near the British Embassy to play Frisbee. Soon, all sorts of kids – mainly boys under 12 – appeared out of nowhere! A couple men also appeared, but they warily kept their distance. Moutaz also joined us a little bit later. Mariam got wacked in the head a couple times, as did one of the youngest boys until his mother called him out of the circle, but until 5:20 pm when Mariam and I left, I was really impressed with the Frisbee skill of many of the boys. I have yet to see any sort of outdoors sports equipment besides a soccer ball employed by the local population.
That night, when I was working on communications to home and friends, I came across a Portuguese song from a Brazilian CD that includes the word “meshii” – in ECA this word means “OK.” I showed it to Mariam, who then started what became a hour long conversation on Spanish music styles that included YouTube and eventually ended in another hour of me teaching her basic salsa and tango steps. The idea of the frame didn’t really transfer, but I am happy to report that my time with Luther College Ballroom/Swing paid off! The next night I found myself teaching Moutaz how to tango – tangos are apparently used during weddings, and Spanish musical styles are popular here, though I have yet to see anything but Gaga/Kesha/Usher/Pussycat Dolls takeoffs in popular music videos. More on that later.
Wednesday’s class was taught by our first ustaaza (feminine form of “teacher”) – her name was close to Emsa’. Her English grammar and speech pattern was similar to Mariams, both of whom have a distinct stylistic difference compared to Moutaz, Ustaaz Emdel, and Dr. Mohamed. Moutaz taught himself English, so he’s still working out the kinks grammatically, and his English more closely reflects the style of people I meet in the streets – their formal classes in English limited to primary school. Ustaaz Emdel and Dr. Mohamed have both lived in the States, and their English is very close to our pronunciation, albeit with a slight accent. And Mariam and Ustaaza Emsa’ take pride in their university education in Egypt, which makes me wonder if theirs is indicative of an Egyptian university English program.
Anyway, after class we went to the Alexandria National Museum, which in contrast to the Cairo Egyptian Museum is space age. Glass cases, air conditioning and presumed humidity control, aesthetic organization, well-informed guides for each period, good lighting, even some text panels. However, I would still adjust some lighting for better viewing, adjust the level of humidity and dust in the artificial tomb housing a preserved mummy, and work on distinguishing Mamluk from Ottoman from current day periods. I have very little knowledge of post 17th century Egypt, and would like to identify the various subperiods better.
Lunch was at Gad, an incredible fuul, ta’amiyya, tahini, hummus, aish, baba ghanoog, bidinga’yn (eggplant) restaurant inside another stunningly aesthetic building next to the Corniche and the sea. Loved it! (Family, when you come, I’m taking you there.) Chris was in heaven – she’d talked up this place the entire Orientation. And because we were so far along the Corniche (this city goes for a long time along the sea), we went to Montaza Palace that afternoon instead of on Thursday.
Ahhh, the palace. We weren’t allowed inside the Samalek (now a really fancy hotel where Saudi princes stay) or the Haremlek (kept pristine), but Moutaz had worked as a waiter at the restaurant in the Samalek and so gave us a mental tour. The gardens around it are fascinating – when I return I’ll remember to bring my camera. There are pictures of us next to the sea at the palace on Facebook, thanks to Brannon and Moutaz. We wandered through the lawns of dry grass, date-laden palm trees, plants somewhere between yucca and aloe, and some sort of coniferous tree, also passing people bound for the public beach, restoration on a bridge (the area is somewhat submerged during the winter khamseen rains), ex-ex-president Anwar Sadat’s residence, and fishermen. The waves were incredible, and splashed with both allure and hints of dangerous undertow against the giant jack-like pebble and concrete supports. We spent some time there then returned to the parking lot of the Samalek, where we played more Frisbee until we began to hit a billboard with the last princess’s picture. Oops! (Oh, yeah: the palace was the residence of the British puppet king Farouk and family, who seem to be remembered better than I expected. Apparently the difference is that Farouk – there was also a Fouad at some point – consolidated wealth his way but kept inflation down, whereas Mubarak spread wealth through corruption and inflation went up.)
Thursday began once more with class, learning basic stuff compared to Wednesday’s verb conjugation. After class we went across the street to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where an overly happy but quite nice guide took us on a tour of the library. As the architect was Norwegian, the design is way cool and innovative, not to say ethnicity has anything to do with design – just that I’m finding it a trend among Norwegian architects building off of each other’s designs. Anyway, I’ll probably do a whole post on the BA at some point, since I’ve already gone to 6 pages without pictures here. Sorry!
We gathered Chris, Mariam, and Dr. Mohamed at TAFL, then went home, where we bid them farewell. Chris should soon be in the States once again, reading our blogs from afar, but Dr. Mohamed and Mariam we should see throughout the semester. And thus ended Orientation – though we have until Thursday next free (Thursday is our language placement tests), and Sunday the 23rd begins classes. I, of course, have a lot more to say on initial impressions, but I won’t take more time on this post. As I finish the words of this post, I hear the call to midday prayer spread from the very east of the city closer and closer…I’ve missed this.