Sunday, September 30, 2007


I just got back tonight from a weekend in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city and an anthology of ancient history. Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, the city was once the center of human knowledge and imperial power. The Pharos Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was also here. Roman ruins are found throughout the city including a wonderfully preserved amphitheater and a small labyrinth of catacombs. Alexandria also boasts a wonderful modern history and served as an important center of trade and commerce in the years of European colonialism. Although the grandeur found here in the early 20th century has since deteriorated, I found Alexandria to be an infinitely refreshing experience compared to the hectic life of Cairo.

I left Thursday night with three of my friends from Marwa (Jack, Dave, and Caleb). The two-hour train ride got us into downtown Alexandria a little after 9pm. After looking at several hotels downtown on the waterfront, all of which were booked, we settled on less-than-luxurious accommodations at the New Hotel Welcome House. Luckily, I was with three guys who maintained low expectations for our hotel. A roof, four walls, a bed, and a view of the Mediterranean were all we asked for, and that’s all we got. The bathroom had a “shower,” but in reality it was not functional. The beds were a little hard, and the sheets may or may not have been washed recently. But the toilet worked, and the view was 5-star. We could open the French doors and breathe in huge gasps of fresh, pollution-free heaven while looking out on the bay, with fishing boats bobbing up and down with tide. Fort Qaitbay protected the harbor where 2000 years ago the Pharos Lighthouse would have guided Roman triremes to safety.

Alexandria is known for its fresh seafood, so we had to try it out. The Fish Market is probably the city’s best-known restaurant, so we headed straight there for a late dinner. I ordered the grouper, grilled with oil and lemon, and I can honestly say that this was the best fish I have ever tasted in my entire life. Perfectly seasoned, perfectly grilled, not too dry, and only a single bone to interfere my meal. To make things even better, we shared an ample supply of freshly baked bread straight out of a brick oven and served with a selection of delicious hummus.

Friday was a busy day of sightseeing. After struggling to find a local restaurant for breakfast, we set out for Qaitbay Castle at the tip of the harbor. An old, rickety street car winds through the city, stopping whenever passengers need a lift. It moves slowly, but it gets you where you need to go. The tram dropped us off near the castle, and the sight was amazing. Well restored after centuries of occupation, the castle is almost completely open for exploration. The best part was just sitting in the shade on the northern parapet and admiring the sea, breathing in the fresh maritime breeze, and watching the local fishermen follow the tranquil, rhythmic motions of their sport. In the far distance, just before water turned to sky, a dozen tankers sat anchored. We sat there for a long time, completely relaxed and content to do nothing.

Second on the day’s list of activities was the catacombs, a 2nd century AD Roman creation accidentally discovered when a donkey mysteriously disappeared from its owner. The catacombs are not large, but they are certainly worth the trip. There are several chambers, and the paintings and sculptures are prime examples of Egyptian-Roman art, a unique blend of styles found only where these two great civilizations mixed around the time of Christ.

Pompey’s Pillar is another Roman site located not far from the catacombs. The pillar, once part of a larger and more impressive temple, still stands after almost two thousand years. There were plenty of ruins to be found, including several Egyptian sphinxes. Major excavation projects are ongoing, and there is still much work to be done. One highlight is a large tunnel system, located underneath the pillar and open to the public.

The long walks and midday heat left us in need of a rest by afternoon, so we headed outside the city to Montazah, a park featuring expensive restaurants, beaches, and fancy hotels. It obviously tailors to the wealthy elite, a fact supported by my sighting of a brand new red Ferrari. There is plenty of green space, but it’s not very well kept, and I was generally disappointed. We did run into some other AUC students at the beach, and we tried to meet up with them for dinner, but we eventually headed back to Alexandria for dinner without them.

Our evening meal wasn’t nearly as good as the previous night, but I did have a decent sea bass. After dinner, we explored the city a bit, bought some fresh baklava, and headed for a café along the waterfront. The cafés in Egypt are full of men playing backgammon or chess, smoking shisha, and sipping tea or Turkish coffee. Caleb and Dave joined in with three games of chess.

Friday we got an early start out to the Roman amphitheater. The site was very impressive, and much excavation remains to be done. The theater itself, however, is in very good condition, and the public is able to climb the steps and sit on the benches.

Next we headed to the Library of Alexandria. Built in 2002, the library is a stunning architectural masterpiece, combining ancient history with modern technology, a bridge between Alexandria’s ancient past and its present-day efforts to reestablish itself as a world-class center of scholarship and knowledge. The exterior of the building combines a modern roof mimicking a computer chip on one side with a beautiful stone wall featuring the world’s alphabets on the other. The interior is a stunning display, a beautiful atrium more typical of an airport terminal than a library. The interior is a huge space full of natural light, very spacious with a ceiling supported by a series of columns undoubtedly inspired by Alexandria’s Roman heritage.

After a few last photos of Alexandria and the library, we stopped for a lunch of traditional fatir, a flaky pancake stuffed with a variety of fillings ranging from minced meat to vegetables to honey. We tried to catch the 2:00 express train to Cairo, but the line was so long and disorganized that we missed getting tickets and had to settle on the 3:00. All in all, Alexandria was an amazing trip. I can’t wait to return, sit in the architecture of ancient Rome, and if nothing else, just absorb the beautiful, fresh Mediterranean air.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

My Home: Marwa Palace Hotel

I've been in Egypt now for more than a month. That's over a quarter of the semester. Now that classes are in full swing, time is passing very quickly. Just this week the realization hit me that I have limited time in Egypt. Two semesters seems like a lot, but there is so much to see. And traveling is harder than you think because it's difficult to get anywhere on a regular two-day weekend.

Anyway, I thought I would put up some pictures of Marwa Palace, the hotel where I'm living this semester. About 70 AUC study abroad students live here. The complaints have been too numerous to mention, but it's actually not that bad. We have Internet, an adequate gym, and clean facilities. There's a common room on the top floor, a TV for Monday Movie Night, and a 24-hour supermarket across the street. It's not luxury, but it works for me. If you want to be pampered, go to London or Rome.
The hotel entrance.

The laundry boys. It's a family business located adjacent to the hotel.

Shar'a El-Khatib. My street.

Metro Market. Open 24 hours, 7 days a week, it stocks everything you would ever want or need from a supermarket. During Ramadan, when everything seems to be closed, Metro has pulled through.

Hotel lobby.

My room.
My room (continued).


Friday, September 21, 2007

I sit, and I think, and I listen

Today is Friday, and in a Muslim country like Egypt, that means it’s the first day of the weekend. It is late morning, and most of my peers are traveling around Luxor or sleeping in. I woke up early this morning despite going to bed at 3:30 last night after attending an Egyptian student’s birthday party at an outdoor café with live music. I’m sitting on the 17th floor of the Marwa Palace Hotel scanning downtown Cairo: the Nile, the American hotel chains lining the river, and a nice blanket of hazy smog, not too heavy, but just enough to blur the outer edges of the city like a cerulean pastel. On clear days, I can see the pyramids from here, three giant triangles dominating the southwest skyline despite their distance from downtown and their ages, measured not in years but in millenniums. Today is not one of those days.

I sip recently-purchased Nescafe from a maize and blue mug in an effort to satisfy my coffee cravings and continue to subtly support my home institution. I feel embarrassed about my football team, but I am a true fan, a true patriot of history and tradition. Hell, I even had a class with Bo Schembechler.

It’s noon. That means Friday sermons are projected from the many mosques around the city, and my position in front of an open window on the 17th floor of the hotel is a perfect spot to listen to the sounds of prayer and sermon. I do not understand what is being said except for the occasional Takhbeer (“Allahu akbar,” “God is the greatest”). But I don’t have to understand the language to enjoy these sounds. I agree with John Cage’s philosophy that oftentimes all we must do to hear music is close our eyes and open our ears.

Al-Akhbar (The News)

It goes without saying that media coverage in the Middle East is drastically different from that in the West. Although I cannot read Arabic well enough to make my way through an Arabic language newspaper, I do read Egypt’s collection of English language sources. My favorite is Al-Ahram Weekly, a branch of the government-controlled Al-Ahram newspaper based in Cairo. Despite monitoring by the government, the paper provides a range of viewpoints and can actually include criticism of the government. Many of the columnists are knowledgeable and experience academics working in think tanks in Egypt and the United States. But the perspectives here are very different. The paper does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and instead refers to Tel Aviv. The conflict between the Arab-Islamic world and the West is highlighted in numerous articles, some of which are critical or the West, others of which are simply trying to encourage understanding. Below is a sample of some of the headlines or quotes from recent issues of Egyptian newspapers:

“Going Nuclear: Entering the nuclear era is no longer a luxury, writes Sherine Nasr.” Says one Eygptian nuclear expert: “In a country where the unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent, and where there is urgency to bridge the gap the technological gap with the rest of the developed world, the issue takes broader dimensions than simply trying to satisfy a growing demand for energy.”

The world’s largest tanker just paid $6 million USD and an additional $250,000 in insurance fees to pass through the 101-mile Suez Canal.

“Lebanon is heading towards a show down between the American project and the project of Arab resistance. The only way to avoid a clash that can escalate into a war is to elect a consensus president.”

Writes the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies: “The US seems inescapably schizophrenic: on one hand it calls for the respecting of human rights in the Arab world, and on the other commits some of the most blatant violations of human rights witnessed anywhere, in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.”

He goes on: “The exacerbation of the tragedy of the Palestinian people (during the period since the beginning of the Iraq war) because of the unlimited political and diplomatic support that the US offers Israel, which has reached unprecedented levels, has also played a large role in undermining whatever credibility was left for the US project of ‘democratizing’ the Arab world.”

Several journalists face criminal trial for publishing false rumors about president Hosni Mubarak’s failing health.

“Why the West Attacks Us.” The very opinionated author argues: “The West is not hostile to Islam, per se. It is hostile to a resistant Islam, an Islam that challenges the West’s Darwinism and consumerism.”

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Birqash Camel Market

One thing I’ve been dying to do in Cairo is to get out to the Birqash camel market. The market is located on the outskirts of Cairo, and getting there is half the adventure. Three friends and I took a cab to the site of the old camel market where we picked one of the old, dilapidated minibuses to the market. Driving through the outskirts of Cairo was an eye-opening experience. Here, trash was left to burn on the side of the road. I could smell the rotting animal carcasses left in the open air. Goats scrounged through yesterday’s garbage in search of food. These were images of extreme poverty I hadn’t seen since my trip to Nicaragua in 2004. Although I attend the Ivy League of the Middle East, I must not forget that the majority of Egyptians are quite poor.

As the bus pulled out of the impoverished suburbs of Cairo, the city melted into a gorgeous countryside. Here, in the fertile Nile Delta, herds of goats meandered past irrigation canals, and farm laborers tended lush, green crops under the hot Egyptian sun. The date palms reached stunning heights and dangled their sweet fruits like miniature bananas. The road to Birqash oscillated between smooth pavement and eroded dirt, but the views made the entire journey very enjoyable. After about 20 minutes, when the fertile fields of the Nile Delta turned into khaki-colored sand, we reached our destination.

The first sign of the market was a small herd of camels galloping majestically across the sand just 50 yards from the road. The bus pulled up to the gate, and we all got out to buy tickets. The whole affair was very informal, and I would have missed the ticket booth altogether if it wasn’t for group of four Spanish women who were also sightseeing this morning. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, locals will attempt to sell you admission tickets for 20 pounds even though the official price is set at five. Lonely Planet was correct: the men did ask for 20 pounds at the gate. But we were prepared, and I felt as though I, a lowly ignorant tourist, would conquer this scam. Well, that was not the case. There was no other place to go, and nobody seemed willing to accept five pounds. It was 20 or nothing. Oh well. It’s no big deal; it’s still less than four US dollars, but I really want to have a chat with the Lonely Planet.

The market itself was amazing. The only tourists this morning were the four Spanish women I mentioned before and the four AUC students in my group. Everyone else was either a local buyer or a Bedouin camel trader. Most everyone wore traditional dress with a long, simple robe and a turban. Everything here was simple and authentic because there was no tourism presence. The only item for sale here is a camel, quite possible the most impractical souvenir one could buy in Egypt. A wishful purchase I must admit, but prudence won the day. I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

Bedouin camel traders. Camels come from places as far away as Somalia and Sudan. They travel north towards Cairo on the famous "Forty-Days Road."

I especially like this guy.

Camel traders bargain a price.

Two men drive the feed truck through the market.

This young boy tries a camel his own size.

The camel traders tie one of the front legs on each animal in order to prevent them from running away.

This camel is being unloaded from a truck. I was surprised at how agile these creatures were. They are certainly bred to live in the desert. Ever seen a dairy cow jump from a truck?

From left to right: Jack, Caleb, Dave, and me.

New Class

In addition to the Ramadan schedule changes, I’ve also switched one of my classes. I dropped Comparative Politics of the Middle East and picked up Contemporary Political Islam. I am extremely excited about my new class, and I feel as though the change salvaged my semester. Comparative Politics seemed very superficial, the workload was light, and the professor was a bore. I decided I needed a change. Contemporary Political Islam was a course I was interested in from the beginning but was unable to register for because of space limitations. However, I attended the first class, loved the prospects of the course, and talked with the professor. She welcomed me with enthusiasm and then invited me and another student to tea after class! The class seems very intellectually stimulating, the reading list is heavy, and the discussion will certainly mimic the quality of education and academic rigor of Michigan. I am sure I will have more to share on this class in the future.

The Ramadan Fast

To mark the start of Ramadan, I decided to do something I’ve never done before: I fasted. Muslims are instructed not to eat or drink during daylight hours during this month. Doing it for just one day, I thought, would give me a better perspective on the ritual of fasting and also provide an understanding of how physically taxing it can be. I must admit that I did not complete a pure fast because I woke up after sunrise. Nevertheless, I did not eat or drink between 6:45am and 5:00pm. As I found out, the fast is difficult as it demands extra concentration once hunger and thirst set in. Luckily I had the benefit of sitting in AUC’s air-conditioned buildings. The task of fasting during a hot summer without water is a daunting to say the least, and continuing this ritual for one month would certainly be a tremendous physical challenge. For Muslims, however, Ramadan is a sacred time, and the physical fast is only one aspect of a larger spiritual purpose. I cannot help but have tremendous respect for this display of discipline and devotion.


Thursday marked the beginning of Islam’s most significant religious celebration of the year. Ramadan, which refers to the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, marks the time when the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims are required to fast each day between sunrise and sunset, and the fast is broken with a special meal called iftar.
Cairo, which has a large Muslim majority, has completely transformed. By day the city is relatively quiet as shops close early or decide not to open at all. It is difficult to find open restaurants at night because almost everyone eats at home with friends and family. Traditional foods are sold at the markets and houses display traditional Ramadan lamps called fawanees. Light seems to be a special symbol of the Ramadan celebration, similar to what I would see at Christmas back home.
Ramadan affects every aspect of daily life in Egypt. Families celebrate the iftar meal together each night around 6pm, and the daily wear of the fasting makes late-afternoon activity difficult. To accommodate everyone’s needs, daily schedules change. Workers leave earlier than normal so as to be home by for sunset. At the AUC, classes start earlier and are shortened. 50 minute classes are now 45. Late afternoon classes are postponed until after iftar. For me, this means getting up at 6:30 each morning to catch the shuttle to my 7:30am class. If you’re reading this in Ann Arbor, stop complaining about your 9 o’clock.
This year, economics and politics are major issue because Ramadan falls during the beginning of the school year. Many Egyptian families are financially strained due to the combination of Ramadan expenses and school fees. Special foods and sweets are purchased for the iftar dinners. In addition, families are supposed to donate extra money to the poor. Meanwhile, the children are beginning school and are required to purchase uniforms, books, and other supplies in addition to paying certain fees. All of this is happening during a period of inflation. Even I noticed this the other day when a liter of coke at the market jumped from 2.85 Egyptian pounds to3.35. A quick glance at the daily newspapers reveals a frustration over increasing prices at such an unfortunate time, and many have called on the government to do something. In response, the government is increasing food subsidies to help control costs, but this may not be enough. Many people will simply have to forego traditional purchases in order to make ends meet.
Despite the financial concerns over Ramadan this year, the celebration continues unabated. I look forward to seeing the festivities each night as people pour into the streets and stay up into the early morning hours. In America, our holiday season revolves around Christmas and New Years, but here, in this predominately Muslim country, Ramadan takes center stage.

Friday, September 7, 2007


One thing I've been looking for in Cairo is the real deal. The authentic. The sights, sounds, food, music, art, architecture, etc. that reveal what Cairo is all about. Today I found what I'm looking for. If you travel through the Khan al-Khalili market, you'll find everything a tourist needs: stuffed camels, alabaster pyramids, bellydancing costumes, and bottles of perfume. But if you are with a group of friends looking for a certain 19th century home-turned-museum, and if you happen to get lost in Cairo's poorly-marked streets, and if a random curiosity sends you to the farthest end of a dead-end alleyway in the far back corners of Khan al-Khalili, you'll find something few tourists have probably ever seen. You'll find authentic, hand-carved metal and silver work. No machines. No cheap trinkets. No tourist traps. This is what I saw:

Workers use nothing but hammers and simple chisels to engrave their artwork.

To maintain symmetry and accuracy, workers carefully measure the piece and then mark the design with a pencil before making a cut.

The sword in this picture features intricately engraved Quranic verses and 300 grams of silver.

Expat Softball League

Cairo has a population of 20 million, and a few of them just happen to be Americans living abroad. I recently made a trip to a Cairo suburb to play softball with some of the Americans. To my surprise, I found a well-organized, well-established softball culture. Do not mess with these people. They take the game very seriously.
A close play at second sends the runner back to the dugout.

The wives look on. The women's leagues play on a different day. Most of the expats work for shipping, automotive, or oil companies, or they teach at the international schools.

Games can be intense.

A mosque lies just beyond right field. In this scene, the game keeps on going as the Friday noon calls to prayer ring out over the softball complex. Unfortunately a photo doesn't do justice to sound, but you can use your imagination.

Common Stereotypes

The following is a comparative list of common stereotypes. The first in each set is a common stereotype held by Americans about Arabs or Muslims. The second is a common stereotype held by Arabs or Muslims about Americans. I find the list fascinating. This list was passed out by a professor at AUC during one of the cultural orientation sessions.

1. The Arab world is a violent place, characterized by terrorism.
1. The United States is a violent place, characterized by crime.

2. The violence that characterizes the Arab world is caused by the inherent character of Arab society and/or Islam.
2. The violence that characterizes the United States is caused by the inherent character of Western culture.

3. All Arabs are Muslim. All Muslims are Arab.
3. Most Americans are, at least nominally, Christians. The rest are Jews.

4. Arab society and culture is completely dominated by religion, specifically Islam.
4. American culture is violen, morally corrupt, and arrogant.

5. Islam is a violent, backward, and repressive religion.
5. Western culture is violent, morally corrupt, and arrogant.

6. Islam and Arab society place women in a subordinate position and severely repress them.
6. Western culture and American society repress and exploit women, providing them no protection in a culture characterized by the complete collapse of family structures.

7. The repression of women in Arab society is reflected by the practice of veiling.
7. The repression of women in American society is reflected in their revealing clothing.

8. All Arabs are wealthy.
8. All Americans are wealthy.

9. Islam and Arab society have difficulty in responding to the demands and opportunities of the modern world.
9. Western culture and American society have turned “modernism” into a destructive process.

10. The great threat to the world in general and to Egypt in particular is fundamentalism.
10. The great threat to the world in general and to Egypt in particular is Western culture.

Classes Commence!

After more than my share of waiting and frustration with the ISSO bureaucracy, I finally registered for classes, one day before they began. All international students are required to see the ISSO advisor before getting permission to register. This method does not sound that bad until you realize there is only one advisor for about 300 students. To make matters worse, international students cannot register online, so everything moves like molasses, and problems arise near the end as classes fill up. Luckily, I had very few problems despite my late registration appointment. My classes include:

1. Intermediate Modern Standard Arabic
2. Introduction to Egyptian Colloquial Arabic
3. Comparative Politics of the Middle East
4. Egyptian Government and Politics

I was very glad to see the start of classes. I’ve been in Egypt two weeks, and although I was happy for the time to explore the city and visit Ain Soukhna, everything was interrupted by orientation sessions and ISSO registration frustrations. I’m very much ready for the routine of classes and the intellectual stimulation they bring.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Fishawi's Coffee House

Me drinking turkish coffee at Fishawi's Coffee House in the Khan al-Khalili market. Coffee and tea have been served at this location for over two hundred years.

Friends drinking tea and smoking shisha (hookah). Despite cultural intrigues, I have no interest in smoking this stuff, especially after I heard that it icreases risk of acquiring TB.

Ain Soukhna

This past weekend, the international students traveled to the resort town of Ain Soukhna for off-campus orientation. The resort is located on the western coastline of the Gulf of Suez about 50 miles south of the canal. Personally I’m not a fan of fancy resorts and beach-front hotels, but I must admit I enjoyed the all-you-can eat buffets and the two-day escape from the palpable Cairo smog that I rinse from my body each night before bed.

Interestingly, the best part of the trip for me was the drive across the eastern desert spanning the territory between the Nile and the Red Sea. The rugged landscape of sand and stone mimicked views of the Badlands with its rapidly-changing scenery and dramatic topographic undulations. The desert was like a Salvador Dalí painting: the longer you stare at it, the more sophisticated it becomes. Variations in mineral concentrations or lighting angles bring out a subtle rainbow of colors. The wide swaths of unpopulated terrain reminded me of the national parks back home in America because the land truly defines qualities and characteristics of Egypt otherwise inexpressible. The rugged landscape reveals a certain authenticity about Egypt that you can’t find in Ain Soukhna. The desert remains undeveloped and pure despite thousands of years of history, and therefore it provides a special link to ancient times from the Pharaohs to the Greco-Romans to the Islamic expansion.

The desert was such a relaxing escape from modernity. To me, Cairo embodies too many negative qualities of contemporary cities: crowdedness, pollution, unemployment, poverty, and McDonald’s. And Ain Soukhna, well, it’s just fake, exclusive, and ugly. Prices are given in Euros, not Egyptian pounds, because Egyptians don’t go there. Europeans and Americans do.

My experience this past weekend was important because it provided a brief survey of everything Egypt has to offer, and I have refocused my interests for sightseeing. My top priority is to get out to the White and Black Desert in western Egypt to see the wind-carved rock formations and life-breathing oases. Sharm El-Sheikh and other resort meccas can wait, and maybe if I have time and money, I’ll see them too. But right now, I need to find some dinner. It won’t be McDonald’s.