Sunday, June 1, 2008

The End

This is my 50th and final blog.

On Wednesday, May 28, I walked out of my final class at AUC, my tests completed, my presentations delivered, and my papers submitted. It was a tremendous relief to have my academic obligations over for the year. My two semesters in Cairo have been a frustration and disappointment academically. My four political science classes were a disappointment across the board, and my first semester of Arabic instuction was subpar. Only my two Arabic classes during the spring term were rewarding and challenging enough to win my praise. I look forward to my return to the rigorous academic environment of Michigan.

Looking back on my year, I have difficultly summarizing my experiences. I'm often asked if studying abroad for a year was a good decision or not. I can's say either way. Perhaps one semester would have been more beneficial, but if that was the case, I would have missed out on my best Arabic classes. If I stayed at Michigan, I probably would be wishing I had gone to Cairo. There are pros and cons to any situation, and since I try to stay optimistic about everything in life, I'll focus on the benefits. Except for my accelerated Arabic and media Arabic classes this semester, my education did not happen in the classroom. This is for sure. My education was external to the university. I learned to live in Cairo, and let me tell you, this is no easy task. The traffic, overcrowdedness, noise, pollution, daily inconveniences, and constant tension are enough to drive anyone crazy. Cairo is a city of 18 million built for 10 million. It has a traffic infrastructure designed for 500,000 cars but handles two million. Nobody has change, and everyone wants it. Part of every day is spent ensuring that I have the right change for a taxi. One strategy is buying just enough food at the supermarket so that I get a handful of small bills. Better to buy 21 pounds of groceries than 20; you get 9 singles back, 9 solid gold bricks.

Learning to live in Cairo wasn't the only rewarding experience. I spent three hours a week teaching English classes to refugees from Sudan and Iraq. I built relationships with these people and enjoyed reaching out to communities that I would otherwise never be in contact with. I worked as treasurer of the organization, and I actively participated in the weekly administration meetings that organized, conducted, and finalized all aspects of the program. Student Action for Refugees, which is completely student run, reaches out to over 1000 refugees in the Cairo area. There's something to be said for that.

My travels were another educational tool that I do not take for granted. Being in Egypt, I had the opportunity to see some of the world's greatest treasures ranging from the burial mask of King Tutankhamen to the Pyramids of Giza to the temple of Abu Simbel. I journeyed to Alexandria, Luxor, Aswan, Port Said, the Suez Canal, Dahab, Mt. Sinai, Siwa Oasis, Baharia Oasis, and the White and Black Desert. I also spent four days exploring the historic wonders of Jordan, including the most stunning attraction I have ever seen: the ancient city of Petra. I sat in the fresh breeze of the Mediterranean, swam with rainbows of tropical fish in the Red Sea, and defied gravity in the dense salt water of the Dead Sea. I climbed ancient ruins of the Pharaohs, Nabateans, and Romans, and suddenly a whole lot of textbooks came to life.

A third lesson: learning to live in a developing country with a corrupt government. It constantly amazing me how this place operates, and it's easy to see the negative effects of a system characterized by corruption, a lack of accountability, and silent dissent. Egypt has a long way to go.

Lastly, I cannot underestimate the educational value of writing this blog. I created this project as a means of mass communication with friends and family, but I found out that writing has a powerful affect on the author. My blog was a means of reflection, and through my efforts, I was able to ascertain a lot about my own self, my own interests, and my own identity. Some of my previous blogs highlight a personal growth that would otherwise not happen, and I think I'm leaving Cairo a wiser person. I discovered that I love writing and sharing ideas, and after receiving many compliments from readers, I think it is something worth continuing.

Thank you for reading. It's been a wild ride.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Student Action for Refugees

Last Sunday, I taught my last English class in Cairo. For the last two semesters, I have been volunteering with Student Action for Refugees (STAR), a student-run organization working to raise awareness and reach out to the refugee community in Cairo. Every Sunday night during this past semester, I journeyed to the northern Cairo neighborhood of Ain Shams to teach English to Iraqi and Sudanese refugees. I enjoyed teaching the classes, and I also benefited from a little Arabic practice myself. Both teacher and students learned a great deal about each other, and I will miss my students.

If I can make one last observation about STAR, it’s this: it was never about the English. While teaching English was a rewarding experience, and my students improved their language skills a little, the bottom line is that you can’t learn much English in a class that meets three hours a week for 10 weeks. That’s just a small part of what we do. For me, STAR is about bringing together communities into a common arena where dissimilar groups share time and space. As a result, we become one community, a STAR community, comprised of American students and Iraqi and Sudanese refugees. Where else in the world does this diverse arrangement exist? It probably doesn’t, and that is why STAR is such a beneficial program.

My experience was much more than a class. It was a dynamic process of building community. And I see the potential in these kinds of activities. Community building and inter-community interaction is the key to improving the well being of people around the world. A peaceful world is only possible if the citizens of the world can begin to think of themselves as a global community with shared interests. Building communities that transcend state-centered identity is a necessary component of such change. I believe in the assumption that a man who loves his brother does not fight his brother. This, I believe, is an assumption we as a global community can build upon.

For more information on STAR, visit our website at

Monday, May 5, 2008

Ma'lish: It's Just the Way It Is

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article on noise pollution in Cairo. According to a government study, the average decibel level in Cairo between 7:00am and 10:00pm is 85, equivalent to the sound of a freight train 15 feet away. And that’s just the average. People shout unnecessarily. Shop owners yell the prices of their goods. Worst of all, the cars honk and honk and honk. Cars zip through the city honking for no reason. They honk because they just got cut off. They honk because nobody is driving in a lane, nobody uses a turn signal, and traffic lights are nonexistent. They honk because there are no rules, and the rules that do exist are not followed.

“So why do you do it?” he was asked.
“Well, to tell you I’m here,” he said. “There is no such thing as logic in this country.”
And then he drove off, honking.

What strikes me is that although people seem not to care, in reality they do. Ask anybody on the street, “Does Cairo have a noise problem?” and they will promptly reply “Yes.” The same goes for other questions. Ask about pollution, the lack of democracy, poor education, poor healthcare, and corruption, and the answer is always the same. But if you ask the follow up question, “What are you going to do about it?” the answer is always, “It’s just the way it is.”

I’m extremely bothered by this attitude, even if I’m not Egyptian. The problems facing Egypt are tremendous in size and scope, and solutions are difficult. But one solution that will never work is the apathetic and indifferent attitude that the majority of the people share. If Cairenes want to live in noisy city with complete disregard to traffic regulations, that’s fine with me. But the problems are much deeper than that. What about the children that suffer hearing damage because of the noise pollution? What about the high rate of pollution-related respiratory disease? What about the civilians sentenced to death in a military court with no appeal? What about the 72% illiteracy rate (59% for women)? What about the 40% who live on less than two dollars a day? What is the answer to these questions? “It’s just the way it is?”

At the heart of Egypt’s political, social, and economic problems is a basic attitude of apathy and indifference. Perhaps I have no purpose sticking my nose in somebody else’s business, but to me this is a question of universal human rights. Egypt can do better, and the change must come from society, not the government. But as long as the attitude remains “It’s just the way it is,” the decibel level will continue to rise and the cars will keep on honking.

Friday, April 11, 2008

And Nothing Much Changed

The talk last Thursday was of protests—major protests throughout Egypt. Angry over rising food prices, low wages, and political issues in Gaza, Egyptians called for widespread protests to increase awareness of these issues.

But there is a problem in Egypt: public protests are illegal (doesn’t seem very democratic now does it?).

There was a lot of speculation over what might happen. Tahrir Square was rumored to be a major site of activity. Egyptians were encouraged to skip work, wear black clothes, and hang Egyptian flags in support of the protestors. Public transportation was at risk of being shut down.

When I woke up Sunday morning, I was ready to catch some of the protests in Tahrir Square. As I took the shuttle to downtown, the first thing I noticed was how light the traffic was. It looked more like a Friday morning before Islamic prayer services than a busy work day. As I approached Tahrir Square, I kept my eyes peeled for signs of protest. I didn’t find any. Hundreds of riot police were stationed around the square in small block formations. Cars zipped around the traffic circles unaffected. The few protestors I did pick out were few and far between, and they were merely standing in a small line with no verbal or visual messages. They remained stiff and silent, and even the Egyptian authorities couldn’t find an excuse to arrest them or beat them with clubs.

I arrived on campus. Activity was light. A few students and staff sat in the library or outside in the courtyard going about there business as usual. Most of the professors had cancelled classes for the day, and many students had no reason to show up for school.

I was disappointed. Instead of large anti-government protests, I saw more of the status quo. The most visible sign of protest was that millions of people were skipping work, something that doesn’t put a lot of pressure on the government to change. The military and police presence remains a serious and potentially dangerous threat to civil society, so I can’t necessarily blame people for staying indoors.

But how will things ever change if people don’t fight, if they don’t struggle against the status quo, if they don’t find a way to make their voice heard?

There are signs of progress in some areas of Egypt. A huge strike took place at Cairo University as professors basically shut down campus. And in northern Egypt, several factories shut were forced to shut down as an angry mob battled police and ripped down pictures of President Mubarak. Dozens of people were arrested. I wish I could have seen this, but I don’t have access to these parts of Egypt. Instead, my only personal experience was what I saw in downtown Cairo.

As I left campus, a heavy dust storm picked up, covering the city in a surreal orange haze. As I passed through Tahrir Square, I took one last look at my surroundings. The riot police stood in stiff formation, the cars zipped around the traffic circles, and people stayed at home. And nothing much changed.

Friday, April 4, 2008

An Essay on Identity

I believe that the question of identity is fundamental to human life. If we as individuals and societies do not know who we are, then how can we look forward? I never thought of who I was until I came to Cairo, Egypt to study for a year. In a country with a radically different culture, religion, language, and society than mine, I know I do not belong. I enjoy living in Cairo for the most part, but deep down in my very roots, I am not part of this community, and I have come to realize that I never can be.

Halfway through the first semester, when the daily stress of Cairo wore me down, I looked for something to comfort me. I saw images of America: the rich colors of a New England autumn, the rustic farmhouses of the Midwestern plains, and the vastness of the Great West. I identified with these images, and they were comforting, but why? I needed something more, and I picked up John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, what I consider the greatest and most authentic American novel. In front of a backdrop of the Depression era, Steinbeck articulates the great American story: moving West. It is the quintessential image of America, but Steinbeck does not paint rosy pictures of the dream. Instead, he questions the values, assumptions, and sacrifices of the American dream by setting his story in one of our country’s darkest hours.

Reading a classic American novel in Cairo was a transformation of my identity; I came to realize who I was. I was an American, and more than that, I developed my concept of what an “American” is.

Every county, every people, has a struggle. Struggles can be wars: the Revolutionary War, when we asked ourselves if liberty and freedom could rule as the laws of men; the Civil War, when we were forced to decide between unity and division and answer existential questions of our nation; and World War II, when our men and women went overseas to fight a battle that was not about land or wealth but about principle. These were times when our nation looked deep into its soul and asked itself, “What are we doing?” and in doing so, asked, “Who are we?”

But struggles are more than wars. The Great Depression questioned the very concept of the American economic dream. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought a revolution with words and inspiration, and ultimately with his life. Free-spirited college students rioted on campuses against the Vietnam War and the cold, concrete establishment of American foreign policy. At times America was angry with itself, and we are angry now.

We are Americans because our challenge is that we can challenge ourselves. American citizens are not necessarily proud of their country, but there is a difference between patriotism and criticism. Criticism can be patriotic, but blind patriotism is never critical. How then can America move forward and go West towards its dreams if we do challenge ourselves to improve?

To me, being American means I have the right to challenge my country, criticize my leadership, and protest against my establishments. Our country is defined by the challenges we have faced and overcome, and I can relate with these events and movements. I never saw the anti-war riots at the University of Michigan, but my father did. I never experienced the struggles of the Great Depression, but my grandmother did. The grandparents of her generation bled on battlefields of the Civil War, and several generations before that, 56 men sat together in a hall during a hot Philadelphia summer and codified their beliefs for a nation.

On Sunday, massive protests will fill the streets of Cairo in what could be one of the largest demonstrations against the Egyptian government in history. It is unknown how big the protests will be, but regardless, this is an Egyptian struggle. I will observe these protests, and I will write about them in this blog, but I will not identify with the cause. This is not my struggle, and it will not shape my identity. But for Egyptians, they will struggle, they will fight, and they will come to realize that these protests are part of their identity. What form that will take is up to them. It may simply be another failure of a weak civil society, or it could be the beginnings of a legitimate revolution against the corrupt and unjust government apparatus.

As I finish up the last few months of my academic year in Cairo, I realize how this experience has changed me. While I expected to learn a great deal about Egypt, this country provided a lens for me to analyze myself in a relative way not otherwise possible in the United States. What I’ve come to realize is that I learned a lot more about America than I did about Egypt, and in learning about America, I learned about myself. And that is something I never expected.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Fixing Egypt's Economy

Egypt has a problem. Well it has a lot of problems. Coming up with solutions is a major challenge, and something that nobody is prepared to do. Unfortunately, between the corrupt government and the apathetic society, it doesn’t look like things are going to change anytime soon. Maybe I should step in and give some advice.

I have a proposal. The service sector in Egypt is massive, by far the largest sector in the economy. This includes both private and public services. The biggest problem I see with the Egyptian economy is the cyclical dilemma of government employment. Millions of people are unnecessarily employed in one of the largest government bureaucracies in the world. To improve the economy, the government needs massive downsizing in employment. But of course this would send millions of people into the streets without jobs and no means of supporting their families. Egypt is stuck.

So how can the government make use of its people? As I write this, thousands of Egyptian men are standing on street corners “providing security” and “directing traffic” (a.k.a. drinking tea). The doorman at my apartment is “making my life easier” with his kind and professional services (a.k.a. drinking tea that he paid for with my monthly “tip”).

This isn’t what I would call efficient use of labor. If we assume that economic value is held in labor and services, then what Egypt needs is an economy in which people provide real labor and real services. That isn’t happening right now.

This is my proposal. The Egyptian government should put its employees to work by adopting a series of public works projects similar to what the WPA did in the Great Depression. Cairo is a disgusting mess of a city, a great armpit of the world. Trash is everywhere. Buildings are dirty. Infrastructure is insufficient. The list could go on and on. So why doesn’t the government put its employees to work on these problems. Instead of paying people to stand around, pay them to clean up trash and manage a massive public clean-up campaign. This wouldn’t cost much more money than what the government is paying out now, and the economic benefit of having a cleaner city would be significant. Tourism would increase. Foreign investment would increase. People would live happier lives, and their productivity would increase.

It’s a simply plan for a complicated problem, and I’m no economist, but I guarantee that it’s better than the status quo.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Siwa Oasis

This weekend marks two important religious holidays: the Western Easter and Al-Mawled al-Nabawi, or the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammed. As a result, AUC had a four day weekend, and I took advantage by traveling to one of Egypt’s most remote and culturally unique locations, Siwa Oasis.

One of the five major oasis of Egypt’s Western Desert, Siwa is located less than 50 miles from the Libyan border. The trip requires two bus rides totaling about 10 hours. I left Wednesday night from the Cairo bus station with Alysa, my travel companion from Jordan last semester. I had difficultly finding people interested in going since most students take advantage of longer breaks to visit sites such as Luxor, Jordan, or Istanbul. Alysa and I left Cairo at 12:15am, connected in the Mediterranean port city of Marsa Matruh, and arrived in Siwa at about 10:30am on Thursday morning.

My first reaction was one of intrigue. The small, dusty town reminded more of a sleepy west Texas setting from a John Wayne classic. The streets were sparse compared to the mayhem of Cairo, and the tourist presence is relatively minimal. The streets are lined with vegetable and stands, olive and date shops, a splattering of rickety hotels, and mom-and-pop restaurants offering a menu of traditional desert dishes including couscous, something I have never seen before in Egypt.

Life in Siwa simple. The inhabitants are not the Bedouin peoples that occupy most of Egypt’s desert lands but are simply classified as Siwans. In addition to Arabic, they speak a dialect of the Berber language of north Africa. They are Muslim. They have their own music, their own dance, their own styles of clothing, art, and handicrafts. The Siwans are a people like no other in Egypt.

After arriving in Siwa, Alysa and I checked into a cheap hotel, ate lunch at one of the popular local joints, and rented bicycles for the day. Fortunately the weather was not too hot, and we spent the afternoon riding through the olive and fig groves that cover the oasis. About 2 miles out of town is the remains of a famous oracle once visited by Alexander the Great. Another mile down the road brought us to the remains of an old Pharaonic temple featuring the familiar hieroglyphics more common along the banks of the Nile. Then we made our way to a natural spring known as Cleopatra’s Bath. While I didn’t swim because I didn’t have a suit with me, many locals and tourists alike enjoy the cool, clean water bubbling up from the deep natural wells that bring life to the oasis. Alysa and I grabbed a soda at the café next to the spring and spent a couple of hours just relaxing on the second-story patio, napping, and listening to reggae covers of Pink Floyd songs. I later found out the music was from an album called “The Dub Side of the Moon,” and I highly recommend it. Nothing is more perfect for sitting in the shade on a hot, dry afternoon.

By late afternoon, Alysa and I were ready to return to the town. We biked back through the winding dirt roads lined with date palms while enjoying the views of the Siwan village. Before returning our bikes however, we stopped at one of the oddest architectural structures I’ve ever seen. Known as the Shali, this complex of buildings stands on a high rocky hill overlooking the town. Once inhabited, the buildings have now decayed into ruin and evoke a haunting, twisted, desolate image as if a collaboration between Dali and Gaudi.

After climbing around the Shali ruins for a half hour, we returned to the hotel for a quick shower and a change of clothes. Refreshed, we went out to dinner at Abdu’s Restaurant and sipped tea at a couple of the coffee houses in town. We wanted to take a half-day desert tour the next day, but we had a really hard time finding someone who was willing to take us at the price we wanted. Being peak tour season, most of the guides were already taken, and we had trouble getting our schedules to match up. We arranged a tour with a local guide only to have him notify us an hour later that the price had gone up an additional 100 pounds. We said no, and after an hour or so we ended up booking a trip out to one of the local desert camps for breakfast.

So the next day, we woke up early and walked 5 minutes to the center of town in order to meet our guide at 8. He wasn’t there, so we waited until 8:30. And then until 9:00. Still no guide. Finally he showed up, and it took an additional 20 or so minutes before he was ready to go. While we were frustrated with the guide, we did enjoy sitting outside and people watching as the town came alive on this Friday morning.

Our guide drove us out a desert camp in front of some massive sand dunes, and he prepared us a breakfast of flat bread, fuul (flava beans), boiled eggs, fruit, coffee, and tea. The meal was actually quite good despite its simplicity, and I ate more than my fair share. Sitting outside in the shade of our tent, Alysa and I relaxed as cool breezes swept across the desert. We chatted with our guide for a long time in English and listend to the story of his life and how he founded this camp several years ago. After about two hours in the desert, we drove to another spring outside of Siwa and relaxed by the water until two o’clock. The weather was perfect for sipping a Coke and reading a good book.

Finally, our guide picked us up and drove us back to Siwa where we caught a bus back to Cairo. While the trip was only a couple of days, I was ready to leave. There isn’t much to do in Siwa, and its main attraction is a relaxing atmosphere. It’s one more thing to check off my list. The bus back to Marsa Matuh was horrible. The bus was infested with cockroaches and the AC didn’t work properly, so the ride was a little too warm for comfort. I was glad to arrive in Marsa Matruh and switch buses to Cairo. Fortunately, this ride was clean, comfortable, and ahead of schedule, a rarity in this part of the world.

The one thing that struck me the most during my trip was the extremely conservative culture, especially in regards to women. Many of the women we saw were completely covered without even a slit for their eyes. How they could see anything, I don’t know, but both Alysa and I were appalled by the faceless bodies moving through town. While I am understanding of cultural and religious traditions, the way in which these women were covered was difficult to justify. I am very used to seeing head scarves every day in Cairo, and I even see some of the niqaabs that cover women’s faces except for the eyes, but the Siwans go a step further. There are no eyes. Gloves cover the hands, a long robe hides the body and head, and a single piece of black cloth covers the entire face. The women reminded me more of death eater from Harry Potter than of human beings. As a Westerner, it’s difficult to look at these women and not be angered. To me, it is a sign of oppression, patriarchy, and social injustice. These women have no public identity, no personal expression, and no voice in their lives. And for me, this crosses the line between cultural relativism and universal human rights.