Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pictures are up

Now that I have Internet fast enough to upload pictures in a reasonable amount of time, I've put all of my photos onto a Google Picasa website. If you want to see what I've been up to, visit:


Back Home

Well, I made it back home safely after a long flight, and it's good to see some snow and cold weather. The fresh air is nice too. The Christmas tree is up, the holiday cookies are on the counter, and the music of carols fills the kitchen.

Whoever said anything about reverse culture sock doesn't know what they were talking about. I have yet to feel any such feelings. Rather, I have enjoyed the simple conveniences of the West. Amsterdam Airport was a welcome relief with its sanitary bathrooms and paper towels. Signs are well marked, traffic regulations are obeyed, and buildings are thoroughly clean. Ah, the site and smell of clean. The best part may simply be that I can go about my daily activities without the constant confrontations and tensions that characterize life in Cairo.

I look forward to a long break back in Michigan. I can see friends and family, catch up on everybody's news, and enjoy a few Red Wings hockey games. I hope everyone has a wondeful holiday season.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Friday, December 14, 2007

The end of classes and a few observations

I’m done. This morning at around 9:40, I handed in my last exam of the semester, and now I’m free to enjoy a couple more days in Cairo before heading home on the 17th. What a semester it has been—a roller coaster of exciting new experiences and difficult cultural and linguistic challenges. I’m kind of sad to be leaving Cairo now. I’ve grown more and more attached to it despite all of its problems. Looking back, I’m amazed at how far I’ve come, and I think it’s safe to say that the experience was well worth it. Living and studying in Cairo will certainly pay dividends in the future.

I thought it would be fun to include a list of the best, worst, and most. Some of them are more serious than others.

Best thing in Egypt: The exchange rate. 5.55 Egyptian pounds to the dollar and accompanied by a very favorable cost of living. Dinner out at the best pasta place in Cairo: $2.70. A taxi cab to the best pasta place in Cairo: $1.08, or split it four ways at 27 cents a person. A haircut including a shampoo: $3.63. A breakfast with a croissant, fig pastry, and coffee: $1.03. Train ticket to Alexandria, a trip of two hours: $4.68.

Worst thing in Egypt: Taxis. Old, run down, and pollution-spewing with a huge excess of labor supply. Ignore the rules of the meter and start the negotiations. Give the driver enough money and he’ll take you wherever you want. Sound kinds of like the Egypt government, if you get my meaning.

Best food: I was going to say that no Egyptian food is worthy of this recognition. However, the Fish Market in Alexandria has some of the best seafood in the world.

Best dessert: Om Ali at Abu El-Seed Restaurant. Nobody makes a better Egyptian-style rice pudding.

Best drink: Mango juice. Fresh, delicious, and as thick as a smoothie.

Best place to visit outside of Cairo: Alexandria. Egypt’s “other city,” with a refreshing Mediterranean breeze, is necessary for purging one’s lungs of Cairo air.

Worst place to visit outside of Cairo: Dahab. The epitome of Red Sea resort tourism characterized by constant battle with the salesman. Dahab is the Arabic word for gold, and that's exactly what they're looking for.

Best escape within Cairo: Al-Azhar Park. A former trash dump, al-Azhar park is Cairo’s best urban development project. As far as I know, it’s the only place you can go in this city and stare at nothing but green.

Most annoying: Traffic. If there are existing traffic laws, they are simply not enforced. Cars completely ignore traffic lanes, and the absence of traffic lights is beyond comprehension. One New York Times article said the city’s traffic infrastructure was only designed for a half million cars but that there are currently about 2 million vehicles on the road. I wonder if this total includes the donkey carts? That’s right, donkeys and BMW’s use the same streets.

Most shocking: Russian tourists. Rule number one in an Islamic country is modest dress, but I’ve seen more Russian skin than I thought possible. Get back on the bus, please, because I’m embarrassed for you.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Teaching English to Refugees

Twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday, I leave the library at 5:15 for the Tahrir Square Metro station in downtown Cairo. I purchase a ticket for one Egyptian pound and board the north train to Marg. I travel 13 stops north to the neighborhood of Ain Shams, a trip of about 30 minutes. 13 stops twice a week.

The trains are always crowded at this time, and often I have to push my way on the train and burry myself in the deep crowd of Cairenes. The sights and sounds of the Metro are a worth the trip itself. The TV’s broadcast the afternoon call to prayer, the poor sell cheap trinkets in the car, and the beggars pass out slips of paper describing their families and providing blessings from the Qur’an for those who are generous to the less fortunate. Old men in traditional robes and turbans sit next to young girls dressed in colorful dresses and hijabs. The pious softly chant recitations from their pocket Qur’an. I listen to snippets of conversations and pick up a few words here and there. I draw stares. I am the only white person on the train.

“Aiywa, binzil hina,” I say to the man next to the door. This is where I get off. Once out of the Metro station, I walk just two or three minutes to the El-Wafa center, a small hole-in-the-wall facility nestled between two clothing shops. There is a small reception area where the center’s director works. Down the hallway is a small bathroom and two small classrooms with a few chairs and a chalkboard. Basic yet sufficient.

Classes are taught in pairs, and I was blessed to have a wonderful partner named Vicki. Unfortunately she left last week for the US because of serious health complications of a close family member. She was so helpful and a patient teacher, and I hope everything works out for the best.

I teach a low intermediate class of about 5 or 6 students (attendance is not always consistent, but I have my regulars). They are all men in their late 20’s and early 30’s. All of them are natives of the Darfur region of Sudan and have come to Cairo to escape the war, hunger, and crime caused by a complex tribal and sectarian power struggle. If you looked at them, however, you would never guess that they were victims of one of most brutal humanitarian crises today. Their economic situation is surprisingly good all things considered. They wear clean clothes and own cell phones. They have jobs. But they are Sudanese and not Egyptian. When we were having a conversation about weddings in America, one student says he’s waiting to get married until after he returns to Sudan. I wonder if that will ever happen.

We do not discuss families in class. I do not know what these men have seen or done. I do not know where their families are or what has happened to them. As recommended by STAR, I leave this topic open. They have the freedom to say what they want, but so far none of them have mentioned their pasts except for a few unspecific comments here and there. Although I have numerous questions about their personal lives, I am left to speculate.

We laugh and we learn together. Last week we ended class with a playful debate about the chicken and the egg, and everyone left with a smile. Their English is good enough for jokes, which is better than my Arabic, and the class provides a good outlet for my own language practice. Most of the time I speak English, but items are sometimes clarified in Arabic. This is especially true when I give them reading assignments with new vocabulary.

Classes are fairly flexible, and one of my favorite things to do is prepare a one page reading/speaking passage each class. The students like this too. It frees us from the doldrums of grammar and addresses what the students want to focus on in their language training. The passages are also an excellent cultural lesson, so I talk about American holidays, history, and traditions. Past topics included Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, football, and Native Americans. I also prepare pictures and videos on my computer to accompany the lesson. For example, to explain the rules of football, I downloaded footage from a Michigan-Michigan State football game. And last class, when discussing Native Americans, I played excerpts from Dances With Wolves showing examples of Indian song and dance and the spectacular buffalo hunt. They were enthralled. I’ve also learned a quite a lot about communication through these lessons, because expressing ideas with limited language skills can be a challenge. This was especially true when I did a lesson on American weddings (this was actually specifically requested by one student). I soon realized that I was in over my head. The cultural differences of marriage between Sudan and America are tremendous. I soon found myself trying to explain polygamy, dating, and dowries, and how in American polygamy is illegal, dating multiple people is common before marriage (but never more than one person at a time!), and dowries are nonexistent. “Can you get married without dating?” they asked me. I guess so, but it would never happen. “Do you have to give 100 cows to get married?” No, I responded. Trying to explain dating was impossible—the practice simply does not exist in Sudan, and they could not grasp the concept just as I cannot grasp the concept of seriously considering multiple wives.

After class, I walk back through Ain Shams to the Metro station, sometimes pausing to look at some of the shops along the way. I board the train again, always pleased that the rush hour crowd has dissipated. The 45 minute journey back to Dokki gives me a lot of time to think and reflect. One conclusion I’ve come to: I realize how fortunate I am to ride 13 stops on the north line.

Vicki and me at the refugee craft bazaar held monthly on AUC's main campus.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Adventures in the Land of the Pharaohs

The American University in Cairo is modeled after the American university system, and this includes a Thanksgiving break. Obviously this holiday very foreign to Egypt, and I even overheard a couple Egyptians wondering why there was no class on Thursday. Many American students took off for destinations such as Israel, Jordan, and the Western Desert. I chose Luxor and Aswan. I traveled with four other AUC students, two of which I knew previously. Caryn went with me to Jordan, and Megan is a U-M student who was in my Arabic class last semester.

We decided to fly instead of taking the train because the flight was only slightly more expensive the overnight sleeper train. Unfortunately our best option was a 6:00 am flight out of Cairo, which meant I had to wake up at 3:30 am and grab a cab to the airport by 4:00. After an hour flight, we landed safely in Luxor. The views of the Nile from the air were beautiful, and it showed why Egypt is considered “The Gift of the Nile.” The river is lined on either side by a rich band of lush green agriculture that ends abruptly a few kilometers from the river’s banks. There is no middle ground—land is either rich green agriculture or barren beige sand.

After we arrived at our budget hotel, we settled in, and sipped the complimentary tea. The hotel came highly recommended by other AUC students. Not only was the price excellent ($2.50 a night), but the staff was very hospital and the facilities were clean. We decided to see the East Bank sites on the first day, so we rented bicycles and biked the two and a half miles to Karnak Temple. Karnak has an enviable reputation among all things Egyptian, and it lived up to the hype. What makes the Egyptian temples so impressive is not only their size, but also the fact that every inch is decorated in beautiful hieroglyphics and stone carvings. Originally everything in Karnak was painted, and I wish I could have seen the temple in its prime. Nevertheless, the remains are surprisingly well preserved, a result of Egypt’s warm, dry climate. Emily, one of the girls in my group, studies Egyptology, and she was an excellent guide, sharing her knowledge of ancient Egyptian history.

We biked back to the hotel and grabbed a quick lunch. We got ripped off by the restaurant because they charged us way too much for the meal, but we couldn’t argue since they didn’t have a menu. We should have asked before hand, but we assumed it would be just as cheap as all the other restaurants of similar appearance and style. We were wrong, and we learned our lesson.

After lunch, we took a ride on a felucca (a traditional Egyptian Nile sailboat) and landed at Banana Island. Famous for its fresh fruit, Banana Island is a picturesque destination, and a walk around the island is finished off with an all-you-can-eat banana buffet with no genetic modification. In the summer, Luxor can reach temperatures upwards of 115 degrees, but the end of November is beautiful. Sailing out on the water was perfectly relaxing. The warm setting sun was accompanied by a gentle Nile breeze that would have put me to sleep if not for the hot tea with two scoops of sugar. Back in Luxor, we headed off the tourist bazaar to buy a few gifts and souvenirs before finding a restaurant for dinner. My “Thanksgiving dinner” was spent munching on a pizza while gazing at the ancient remains of the Luxor Temple. Everyone was really tired by now, so we returned to the hotel to try to catch some sleep. But first I grabbed a Stella on the rooftop, read a little Steinbeck, and had a great chat with a British man living who is in the process of moving to Luxor.

Day Two

The girls wanted to take a hot air balloon ride in the morning, so they had to get up at 4 am. I chose not to go, so I got a couple more hours of sleep before taking the ferry to the East Bank We met up at the famous Colossi of Memnon and took a few pictures before driving to the Valley of the Kings. This is the burial site of many of ancient Egypt’s most famous rulers including several of the Ramses and King Tutankhamen. The tombs were spectacular in the same fashion as Karnak—impressive not only in size but also in the intricacy of detail. Unlike the outdoor temples, the bright colors of the painted tombs are still strong. One of the big news headlines here (and around the world) has been the revealing of King Tut’s face. This happened just a few weeks ago, so we were some of the first people to see him. We paid the extra fee for his tomb, but it was actually kind of disappointing. It was much smaller than the others, and all of the best stuff is now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. But at least I got to see a 3,300 year old dead person.

After Valley of the Kings, we hiked out of the valley and down the other side to see the impressive temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The walk was worth it because we got a great view of the temple from above, something most tourists never see. After exploring the temple for awhile, we grabbed a delicious lunch at a local establishment featuring a vegetable stew with rice. I couldn’t help but notice how much better the food was than in Cairo. In fact, I think everywhere has better food than Cairo, something I can back up with every one of my trips outside the city.

After lunch, we perused the ruins of Habu Temple, which features some wonderful carvings depicting ancient wars. We returned to the hotel, grabbed a snack, and walked to the train station where we caught a ride down to Aswan. The train was an hour late and took an extra half hour to reach our destination, so we didn’t get into Aswan until 10pm. By the time we had dinner, stopped at an ATM, and finalized our plans for the next day, it was 11:30. We booked a bus to Abu Simbel, which meant waking up at 3:00 am for a 3:30 ride to Abu Simbel.

Day Three

Abu Simbel is the home of Ramses II tomb, a monument he built to himself after some kind of military victory (ask Emily for details). The temple is so far south it is only about 15 miles from Sudan. It lies next to Lake Nasser, the world’s largest artificial lake created when the Aswan High Dam was completed in 1971. Because the lake was going to flood the temple, UNESCO moved the entire temple complex up to higher ground and built a giant artificial hill to build it in. The project was of Pyramidal proportions, but at least they had the aid of truck, cranes, and the mechanical advantage of internal combustion engines.

The drive between Aswan and Abu Simbel is about 3 hours, but because of security concerns, all tourists have to travel together in a large police escort. This explains the 3:30 start time—it’s required. I’m not sure why it’s so early, but my guess is that for most of the year it gets unbearably hot by midday. For independent travelers like us, Awan proved to be very constricting. The bus to Abu Simbel was required, so we also ended up in a tour group going to other sites including Philae Temple the Aswan High Dam. While it was nice to see all of these places, the time constraints were inflexible. Oh, well. What are you going to do? Philae Temple, which is situated on an island in Lake Nasser, was also very nice (its original island was also inundated by the dam). The High Dam itself is massive, 18 times larger than the largest pyramid. The lake is very beautiful and reminded me slightly of Lake Michigan. Perhaps I’m just not used to the smell of pollution-free freshwater breezes.

We got back to the hotel with about three hours to burn, so we did a little more shopping in the giant tourist bazaar and grabbed some more of that delicious vegetable stew and a couple date desserts from the bakery. Although Aswan is nice, the touristy nature is disgusting. All the shops sell basically the same stuff, and the salesmen are very aggressive and rude. They are also very offensive to women, calling stuff out to them and making awful remarks. Because I was traveling with three other girls, they would say stuff like, “You’re a very lucky man…three wives!” and “How many camels?” This of course is asking me to sell my “wives” in exchange for camels. I felt like throwing back some four letter words, but I restrained myself. The girls felt extremely uncomfortable with such behavior, and I felt uncomfortable because I was with them. The best thing to do was just make jokes about it, but in the end it’s a serious problem in Egypt and the developing world in general. If you treat half your population like property, you’re not going to improve your situation.

Egyptian men aside, the trip was fantastic. Seeing the monuments, temples, and tombs far exceeded my expectations, and I gained a new appreciation for the greatness of the ancient Egyptian civilization. Their artistry, engineering, and empire are impressive, and we as citizens of the modern world are lucky to have so much history to explore.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Up South

On Sunday, November 18, AUC put on a Thanksgiving dinner for all the dorm residents at Marwa Palace. I was looking forward to this event even though I had doubts about the food. So on Sunday evening at 7:30, all the Marwa residents gathered upstairs for our Thanksgiving festivities. Of course the students showed up at 7:30 American and the food arrived at 7:30 Egyptian, but this should come as little surprise after 3 months in Egypt.

In general, the meal can be described as a good attempt that fell a little short. The turkey wasn’t very good as it was served as part of a rice dish. The mashed potatoes and gravy were actually quite good, but this was paired with sub-par side dishes. The best part was the pie. The girls, who all live in apartment-style housing with kitchens, baked a bunch of apple and sweet potatoe pies. I was really in the mood for pumpkin and pecan, but these were close enough. Although it was nice to have a celebration with friends, Thanksgiving dinner just wasn’t the same without family, Lions football, and a 40% chance of snow.

For my latest STAR English class, I wrote up a short essay on Thanksgiving. My students are very curious about anything American, and it doesn’t get much more American than Thanksgiving. I explained the origins of Thanksgiving dating back to the pilgrims and Squanto and how the Indians helped the first settlers survive. I then tried my best to explain Thanksgiving dinner and all the traditional foods. I even taught them the phrase, “That’s as American as apple pie,” which is kind of hard to do especially since there is no Arabic word for pie. I’m hoping to bring in an apple pie for the final class. Educational theorists are always talking about the importance of interacting with the language and the culture—a good excuse to eat pie if you ask me.

On Thursday, the real Thanksgiving Day, AUC has no classes. I’m taking this opportunity to visit Luxor and Aswan, the two largest cities in “Upper Egypt,” which means southern Egypt. After living most of my life discussing excursions to “Up North,” Michigan, I still haven’t got used to the fact the Upper Egypt is in the south. The reason for this is the simple fact that the Nile River flows south to north, so traveling up river means moving south.

So instead of spending my Thanksgiving with family in Michigan, eating excessive amounts of food, and watching Lions football, I’ll be sightseeing in the Valley of the Kings. It’s not very festive, but there’s always next year.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my family, friends, and blog readers!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

November 17

November 17. One month to go in my semester. Three full weeks of class. I can’t believe I’ve been here three months now. November 17 is also the Michigan-OSU game. I wish I were in Ann Arbor today, but alas, distance is an unconquerable obstacle. At least I have and Sopcast, the lethal weapons of any expat college football fanatic.

AUC is putting on a Thanksgiving dinner at Marwa tomorrow night. Turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries, rolls, and pie are among the items on the menu. Thanksgiving is coming a little early this year, but I think AUC will do a nice job making us Americans feel at home. I’ll let you know how it goes. There is no class on Thursday, so I’m taking this opportunity to travel to Luxor and maybe Aswan. Luxor has some of the best Pharaonic ruins in Egypt, including the famed Valley of the Kings and the recently-revealed face of King Tutankhamen.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

In Cairo Winter Comes

Winter approaches in Cairo. Not the cold, icy winter of Michigan, but the cool mornings that warm to comfortable sunny afternoons, and evenings that call for a sweater. The weather in Cairo changes methodically, every week a degree or two colder than before, and rapid temperature changes are nonexistent. I notice the temperature the most when I get off at the Ain Shams metro stop in north Cairo and step outside from the ticket booth on my way to STAR teaching. The sun has just set, and the night air lingers, every week a little cooler than before.

Winter is near. When I stepped out of Marwa on Sunday morning to board the shuttle to campus, I said to myself for the first time in Cairo, “It’s a little chilly outside.” I was still comfortable in my jeans and t-shirt, but goose bumps rose up on my forearms. Chilly, just a bit. Today, all the traffic cops and tourism police changed from lightweight white summer uniforms to black wool winter uniforms and sweaters.

Winter is here. Beano’s Coffee has snow flakes and snowmen on the cover of their menu, and Metro is selling Lindt chocolate santas for LE 34.95. Even Santa makes it do the dessert. It just costs a little more for the import.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Breaking Point

There’s no denying that cultural differences are a point of friction no matter how prepared one is for the cultural adjustment. One of the interesting things I’ve noticed in the last few weeks is that tension created by cultural differences has actually increased throughout the semester rather than decreasing. Although it seems that the opposite would be true, I can explain this phenomenon through the increase in frustration American students have with the Egyptian culture and the challenge of living in Cairo. What is at first an inconvenience transforms into large-scale irritation. I call this the breaking point. But the cultural difference isn’t just one sided; Egyptians also are frustrated with Americans. Here is an example of each, Steinbeck style:

What a jackass. A cab from Tahrir is only 6 pounds, not 10. It’s not like we don’t live here and know what’s going on. And if one more person says, “Welcome to Egypt,” I think I’m going to punch them in the face.

No, I don’t have change. Why the hell can’t you give me change for a fifty? Look at your register full of small bills! Forget it. I didn’t want the juice anyway. When I get back to the States, the first thing I’m going to do is buy a pack of gum with a $100 bill, and watch them give me change without even thinking twice. Metro won’t take 50’s? Give me a break.

Is the Internet working? No? Damn it. How are we supposed to do work here if we don’t have Internet? Marwa sucks. How long do we have to put up with this?

We need maid service. The towels are dirty and the sheets smell. All we need is clean towels and clean sheets and a new trash bag. If they’re not going to vacuum, then I’ll do it myself. Just give me the vacuum. Why do we have to be here for the maids to come in? Why don’t the security guards watch them clean the rooms to make sure they don’t steal shit. The guards don’t do anything anyway. How much are we paying for this place?

Elevators are down. Again?

You want me to sign in? What for? This isn’t junior high. You’re just trying to make work for yourself because you have nothing else to do.

I’ve been trying to get this light fixed for a week now. Where the hell is the maintence? Sitting around?

Fucking Egyptians.


The Americans are here. Big group. About 10. Round of Stellas for everybody. They’ll put down a lot money tonight. They don’t get much shisha though. Only a few guys will get shisha. But we don’t make much money on shisha anyways. It’s the beer. A second round of Stellas for the Americans.

They want dance music. American dance music. You think we can do that? Maybe after that other group leaves. They’re about to go. Put on the American music.

What are they doing? Drunk off their asses I’d say. They came here drunk I bet and it only took a few beers to really get them going. They’re disgusting. Who wants to live like this? Look what they’re doing on the dance floor. Why do they have to talk so loud? Give ‘em the bill. Get ‘em out of here. Now look. All the Egyptians are leaving. Our business is leaving!

Fucking Americans.

Birthday Dinner

Last night I went out with 12 friends to one of Cairo’s best restaurants, Abou El-Sid. Featuring traditional Egyptian food such as stuffed pigeon and stuffed vine leaves, the Abou El-Sid was certainly the best Egyptian restaurant I’ve been to. Everything on the menu was enticing, but I decided on the stuffed pigeon with rice and a special sugarcane martini-type drink. I ended the meal with an Om ’Ali, or rice pudding with mixed nuts and dried fruit. If anyone reading this travels to Cairo, you cannot leave without indulging in an Om ’Ali at Abou El-Sid. The restaurant’s atmosphere was great and conducive to good conversation with good company. I spent a long time discussing the Cornell West lectures I attended this week at AUC.

After dinner, we were all ready to hit up a bar, but we had trouble finding one that wasn’t overcrowded or had a large cover. We ended up at a place in Dokki and sat down for a round of beers. All was good except that a few guys, who had been sipping their own alcohol all night and got way out of hand and completely inappropriate. A few people went back to Marwa, and four of us headed to another bar for a more relaxed environment. We sat on the rooftop of a downtown hotel and just chatted over tea and ice cream (you can never have too much dessert). The night ended very well. The outstanding dinner met expectations for a 21st birthday.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

21st Birthday!

Well, I’m 21—a grand achievement in the life of a young man. I now have all rights and privileges under the law. The government says I’m an adult. My driver’s license flips back to horizontal. I can go to the bar and buy a drink.

Too bad I’m not in America, because none of this applies here in Egypt. There’s no (enforced) drinking age because most of the people who drink in this country are tourists.

I’ve never been wild about birthdays, but I can’t help but feel that this one is a little more important than all the others. For college students, 21 is accompanied by all kinds of hoopla, mainly an excuse to get brutally drunk (as if this is somehow different from every other weekend). But not being much of a drinker, I prefer something a little more subdued, if not sober. One or two Stella Egyptian lagers is good enough for me, although I’d prefer something from the Ann Arbor Brewing Company or a Dirty Bastard Ale at Cascarelli’s.

Being so far from home, I can’t help but feel a little nostalgia. It’s kind of like missing a holiday. Fortunately I have a lot of good friends here in Egypt that are more than willing to share in a celebration. I have a very busy week with papers and presentations, so I’m working on plans for this weekend—maybe a nice dinner out and a trip to the Odeon Bar or the Cairo Jazz Club. We’ll see.

Thanks everyone for all the birthday wishes. I miss you guys!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The American Experience

I miss something. This is not surprising for a study abroad experience, especially in a country such as Egypt where daily life is so different than in the United States. But last month, I realized something was missing, but I couldn’t find it. I simply didn’t know what I was looking for. All I knew was that this thing was something more than a triviality. I didn’t miss American food or American TV or sitting in a café drinking good coffee. Yes, these comforts are temporarily absent, but I can live without them for a short while.

After thinking for a long time, I narrowed my understanding of my problem: the thing I was missing was something larger and less tangible yet more inherently present. I missed the communal experience of the university, the experience of going to football games on cool fall afternoons. I missed seeing the colors change in the trees and the crunch of leaves under my feet during a run through the Arb. I missed seeing my breath float in the air on crisp November mornings. I found myself browsing the Internet for pictures of New England autumns, of Michigan wilderness, and of the great American West—images I could identify with as symbols my larger home.

Last week I ran into a friend who was reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a novel I read this past summer while living in Monterey, not far from Steinbeck’s home. At this point I realized what I needed to do: I needed to read Steinbeck. Specifically, I needed to read The Grapes of Wrath, the greatest retelling of the American experience—the most real, the most moving, the most human. It’s not often I revisit a book, but the context of the novel is now radically different. The change of time, distance, and experience, such as that found in Egypt, requires a reexamination of the text.

Now I am half way through Grapes. I am halfway through my semester. The Joads are heading West. I am a product of the West. The Joads are living the failure of the American dream. I, in my relative privilege, am a beneficiary of the American dream. The Joads drive a clunky, rusted jalopy. I drive a silver-bullet Zephyr.

To me, Steinbeck’s unrivaled ability to describe in prose what we as Americans feel deeply inside us is what makes his work so great. Living in Cairo, The Grapes of Wrath has new meaning. The sympathetic vignettes, with faceless characters defined by occupation rather than name, force the reader to fill the void by projecting their own face onto the faceless. The identity of the characters—the capitalists, the laborers, the landowners, the bankers, the living, and the dying—are no different than the identity of the reader. The novel speaks of all America. It speaks of my roots and my identity.

Now I realize what I miss. I miss is the American experience.

Halloween Weekend

Props to Sean Sluys, the do-it-all, make-it-happen extraordinaire. He’s one of those guys that does everything, and does it well. He gets an idea, and follows through. When he decided AUC needed a Halloween party/fundraiser for STAR, he made it happen. He found the DJ, decorated, and organized, and because of his efforts, everyone had a blast. Marwa looked great, everything ran smoothly, and about 200 people showed up. We raised about 4000 Egyptian pounds for STAR, an outstanding success.

With few Halloween items available in Cairo, creativity was the name of the game. My challenge was to construct a costume using nothing but jeans, t-shirts, sweaters, and a pair of khaki shorts. My solution: the prep. It was nothing special, but with a pair of sandals, a pair of khaki shorts, a yellow polo, and a red sweater tied around my neck, I looked the part. Other people did better. Dave won with his transvestite costume, made possible by generous donations from the girls’ floor. Grant was as obnoxious as ever with his red underwear, boots, and mohawk mimicking a Mortal Combat character. Jesse represented white trash with his handlebar ’stache, American flag t-shirt, flannel shirt, very short denim shorts, and a cigarette dangling precariously from the corner of his mouth. Sean also did a very nice job with his Zorro, complete with fencing sword. The dance party was a great time. Plenty of food, music, and fun had by all.

Friday night was also a good time as a group of friends went out to Ma’adi, the wealthy ex-pat suburb in south Cairo, the same place where the softball leagues play. We ate at a restaurant called Lucille’s. An American establishment, they have everything you’d find in America from burgers and fries to milkshakes and all-day breakfast. I couldn’t resist the western BBQ bacon burger, which tasted a little bit like heaven. I rounded it off a ice-cold coke, fries, and a chocolate milkshake. After over two months in Cairo, this was as close to American dining I’ve seen. Everyone had a great time. Upon returning to Marwa, we all hung out at the coffee shop around the corner, sipping tea and Turkish coffee while a few guys smoked a shisha. All in all, a very nice weekend.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of Bureaucracy

Egypt is really good at bureaucracy. I mean really, really good. Of the country’s 80 millions people, somewhere between 6 and 10 million are employed by the government, which means if you count family members, perhaps half of the population depends on the income of government jobs. The bureaucracy is excessively huge, employing millions more people than necessary. The most conspicuous bureaucratic sector it the tourism and traffic police—men that basically spend the entire day doing nothing. Their salaries are measly, but at least it’s a reliable job. For the ruling regime, the bureaucracy is a way to maintain support. But Egypt is in a trap. Because liberalizing would send millions of people to the unemployment office, the prospects of reform are poor. The bureaucracy also hinders development in other sectors. For example, with more than enough traffic cops, the government has no incentive to provide traffic lights. Instead of providing an efficient, modern system of traffic control found in Western cities, Cairo relies on people. The bureaucracy is so pervasive in Egypt that bureaucracy has become cultural.

I’ve been fascinated by Egypt’s horrible bureaucracy since I first arrived, but I continue to be amazed. AUC, like all of Egypt, loves its bureaucracies. I can’t even remember how many passport-sized photos I submitted to the university. I have three ID’s: my student ID, my housing ID, and my gym ID, two of which I have never used. The students love their bureaucracies too, and they organize everything into committees, even if that means each committee consists of only two or three members.

Here’s a nice case study for a sociologist. Yesterday, the Student Union began its Thursday afternoon film series with a screening of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (remember that in Egypt, Thursday is the equivalent of the American Friday. TGIT.). But this is where the bureaucracy kicks in. The movies are free, yet I still had to “purchase” my tickets at the Student Union table, and a member wrote my ID number down. I thought this was unnecessary, but I did what I was told. So after my colloquial Arabic class finished at 3:50 on Thursday, I headed down to the main auditorium to catch the latter half of Harry Potter. As I tried to enter the auditorium, a middle-aged man grabbed my arm and asked for my ticket, which I pulled out of my wallet and gave to him. I’m glad I could provide “work” for this man. When I entered the large auditorium, I found it to be about 10 or 20% full at most. The ticketing process was completely ridiculous, yet the SU still thought it necessary to buy paper tickets, keep track of who was coming, staff a table for several days before the movie, and provide a doorman to check tickets. In America, this would be a joke, but in Egypt’s culture of bureaucracy, it was all just standard operating procedure.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Jordan: Travels in the Hashemite Kingdom

October 11th was the final day of Ramadan, which meant AUC had a four-day weekend. Most students capitalized on this opportunity and traveled to nearby countries—Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan. I chose the later, mostly because of Petra, but I had also heard rumors of other spectacular sights. Jordan’s proximity to Egypt also made it an attractive option.

I traveled to Jordan with two other AUC students, Alysa, from Georgetown, and Caryn, from Bates College in Maine. A fourth member of our group decided last minute to visit Turkey instead, so our group was just three as we left downtown Cairo on Thursday. Unfortunately the traffic was horrendous, even by Cairo standards, due to the holiday, and the trip took two hours! Normally the drive would only be about 45 minutes. I was concerned we would not make it to the airport in time, but we moved through customs and baggage check very quickly, and even had time to buy a shake at McDonald’s (only my second McDonald’s purchase since living in Cairo). After a two hour taxi ride and a one hour flight, we arrived safely and punctually in Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport.

The airport shuttle dropped us off in Amman, and after a quick taxi ride we arrived at our budget hotel. Certainly not luxurious, but good enough for us (we only had to kill two cockroaches). Luckily Alysa and Caryn are adventurous and low maintenance, which is part of why we got along so well.

The first stop on our itinerary was the Dead Sea. Getting there proved difficult because busses were irregular during Eid. A taxi drove us to the bus station, a second bus dropped us off closer to the Dead Sea, and a third and final bus got us to our destination. The best part of the journey was meeting two other Westerners traveling on the same busses. Piotr and Ania were a young couple, probably in their late 20’s, who were traveling around Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, where they will attend a friend’s wedding in Beirut. Piotr recently spent four weeks hiking in the Himilayas of Nepal. Since we were heading to the same place, we decided to travel together. Piotr and Anya also greatly appreciated our knowledge of Arabic that, while minimal, was enough to bargain prices, ask directions, and prevent scams. I will write more about them in the coming paragraphs.

The Dead Sea was so much fun. Floating around in the water is an experience not to be missed. Swimming is effortless because you ride very high in the water, and there is much less resistance than normal lakes or oceans. You can stand up in the water, float around as if sitting in a recliner, and lay on your back and stare at the sky. The Dead Sea is also famous for its therapeutic, mineral-rich green mud that leaves the skin unbelievably soft. I have pictures of us all covered in green mud walking around like Martians from an old cartoon.

After a few hours at the Dead Sea, we all showered, changed, and ate a light lunch. Piotr and Ania were traveling to nearby Mt. Nebo and Madaba, and we decided to travel together. We like each other’s company very much, plus we could share the expense of taxis. Mt. Nebo is the site where Moses supposedly viewed the Promised Land and died after leading his people out of the desert. The Bible says, “On that same day the Lord told Moses, ‘Go up into the Abarim Range to Mount Nebo in Moab, across from Jericho, and view Canaan, the land I am giving the Israelites as their own possession. There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people.’” (Deuteronomy 32: 48-50). Mt. Nebo was my second Moses mountain in two weeks, although this time I rode up in a minibus. The view from the top was excellent, and we toured the small church at the top that features an amazing collection of mosaics created (if I remember correctly) sometime in the 5th century AD.

After about a half hour on Mt. Nebo, we drove down to the local town of Madaba, best known for its collection of mosaics. The most famous is located inside a local church and features an outstanding map of the Holy Land including all the important religious sites and major bodies of water. I think the mosaic was slightly overrated, but it was nice to see nonetheless. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if there wasn’t a wedding photo shoot going on at the same time with little kids running under the ropes and stomping on this priceless, centuries-old artistic masterpiece.

Day 2—Wadi Rum

We met up at the south bus station with Piotr and Ania early Saturday morning for a bus to Wadi Rum, a beautiful desert area in southern Jordan. Since no buses were going direct to Wadi Rum, we boarded a bus to Aqaba, which dropped us off along the desert highway 15 km from Wadi Rum. After a little negotiating, we found a driver willing to take us to Wadi Rum for a reasonable price. Wadi Rum has a nice visitors center, and here you can chose from a variety of jeep and camel safaris through the area. We decided on a 5-hour tour to all the main sites.

Wadi Rum was stunning in every way. Our jeep rumbled through the rough, sandy valley floors between large, steep rock formations. We hiked through a deep, narrow canyon carved out of sandstone by wind and water. We climbed up natural, picturesque rock bridges and took pictures of the beautiful scenery from below. I ran down a giant sand dune after climbing to the top with tremendous effort, my shoes filled with red sand. Still out of breath, we stopped in the middle of a valley to watch the sun set over the mountains.

Most people camp out in the desert, but we had not booked beforehand, and the cheapest option was to sleep on top of the rest house. I was fine with this because we enjoyed the same beautiful view of the night sky and the pleasure of sleeping outside in fresh, cool air. Before bed, we enjoyed a nice buffet dinner at the rest house, complete with a large pot of complimentary tea. The five of us sat and chatted for a couple hours, although Piotr was suffering a little from an upset stomach that everyone gets at least once when traveling in the Middle East.

Day 3—Petra

I woke up on Saturday refreshed and eager to see Petra. A convenient minibus direct to Petra left at 8:30am, and we arrived into the nearby town at around 10:30. Upon arrival, we found a nice, clean, inexpensive hotel recommended in one of the guide books. The best part was the free shuttle between the hotel and the Petra entrance gate that saved us both time and money. As we settled in to the hotel, my stomach had butterflies of anticipation for what I would soon see. I had been dying to see Petra for a long time, and now I was halfway across the globe, just minutes from the entrance.

After buying our tickets, Piotr, Ania, and I headed down the path toward the canyon (Alysa unfortunately left her wallet at the hotel, so Caryn and her were a few minutes behind). As you walk down the hill, you see holes dug in the rock and a few temples carved out of the soft sandstone, a prelude to what is to come. Then you enter the Siq, the unbelievably beautiful canyon entrance that covers a distance of about three quarters of a mile. At times the canyon is only about 10 feet wide and probably over 200 feet tall. The trip in is incredible in every since of the word. It was literally not credible. Surreal is a better term. Pictures don’t do justice. Then, after strolling through the canyon for about 20 minutes, the famous Treasury jumps out of nowhere, a giant edifice carved out of the rock, towering over the canyon with sublime grandeur. I stood in front of the Treasury for several minutes just staring up in awe.

After several minutes, Caryn and Alysa caught up with us, and we began our trek through the rest of the city. Petra is massive, and it really takes two days to see it all. After exploring some of the buildings, we climbed up a path to the sacrificial point overlooking the city. The view from the top made the hike worth it. We then made our way back down and explored the “downtown,” which includes the remains of several free-standing temples, gates, and other buildings. By this time the sun was beginning to set, but I wanted to make sure to climb up to the Monastery, Petra’s second-most famous building, located on the opposite end of the city from the Treasury and a full 800 steps up a mountain. I reached the top, but didn’t have much time to enjoy the views. I needed to return to the Treasury by 5:15 to meet up with my group. To get an idea of how big the Petra complex is, it took me a full 45 minutes to walk from one end of the Petra complex to the other, a journey that could easily have lasted more than an hour if I wasn’t in such a hurry. And this doesn’t include the trek through the Siq, which take an additional 15 minutes.

We returned to the hotel exhausted and hungry, so we grabbed a taxi to a local restaurant where we munched on fresh falafel, humus, and bread. I ate a huge amount of food and was ready to crash upon returning to the hotel. My day in Petra was over, and I fell asleep more than satisfied with the day’s adventures.

Day 4—Jerash

We grabbed an early bus from Petra to Amman, which took a little less than three hours after which we jumped stations to take a bus to Jerash. Located northwest of Amman, Jerash is home to one of the largest and best preserved Roman cities. Among the many sites are a large hippodrome for chariot racing, two well-preserved theaters, an impressive center square lined with columns, and a half mile of paved road with groves still visible from chariot wheels. In all, we spent a couple hours viewing the main sites, and I’m very glad we made the trip. One of the best parts was the 45-minute bus ride from Amman to Jerash. The countryside was beautiful, with many hills and valley. At times I felt like I was driving through the European countryside with fertile valleys filled with a spattering of rustic farmhouses and a patchwork quilt of carefully tilled land. But my favorite sight of all was the pine trees—tall and straight and green, just like home. There are no pine trees in Egypt.

As the airport shuttle drove us out of Amman, I couldn’t help but notice how much nicer Amman is than Cairo. Cleaner, less crowded, and expanding, Amman is a welcome relief from the hectic life of the Egyptian capital. The taxis are new, clean models rather than the 1985 Fiats running around the streets of Cairo, spewing all kinds of toxic chemicals into the air. Stoplights, new skyscrapers, a minimal military presence, taxis with meters. All of these sights are microcosms of the tremendous economic, social, and political difference between Egypt and Jordan.

Interestingly, though, as I sat on the plane with my friends, waiting to return to Cairo, I thought of only one thing: I’m glad to be coming home.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Importance of Language

I always knew that English was a hard language, but I didn’t understand how hard until I started teaching English myself. Working with Sudanese refugees at the low intermediate level, I have a lot of work to do. In the first two lessons we discussed the past tense. That’s easy, right? I mean all you do is add “ed” to the end of everything. But wait. The word “live” already ends in e, so all you add is “d.” And “study” requires you to change “y” to “i” and add “ed.” And “stop” requires a doubled consonant because the second to last letter is a vowel, and the word ends in a letter other than “w” or “y.” And isn’t the word “cook” just like “stop,” so you spell it with two k’s? Did I mention irregular verbs?

Wow. All these rules, and we haven’t even moved beyond the past tense.

I’ve been thinking: how do I explain the word “did” or the past participle, or the fact that “ing” is used for gerunds and infinitives and some adjectives (but of course not all! How simple that would be!)

I have always loved learning languages. I took Spanish in high school and college and then picked up Arabic as well. I have a knack for grammar, which is why I love Arabic, with its flexible word order and complex rules for case markings. Learning foreign language has changed how I look at the ways in which people communicate with each other. I see language not through the lens of English, with its awkward grammar and countless exceptions, but through a linguistic perspective. Language is a structured mechanism that allows people to express themselves orally. Learning to handle language, not English, is what develops a good writer and a good student.

Why then do we in the United States not learn foreign languages from a very young age like the rest of the world? The vast majority of students who study foreign language never “use” it. But this doesn’t make it worthless. Language is a structure that must be mastered. Language is an analytical skill not unlike math because proper language is developed through an analysis of order and function.

One thing is certain: if students started learning foreign language at the elementary age, writing and grammar would be so much easier.

The End of Ramadan and the Beginning of the End

As this week comes to a close, Cairo is preparing for the end of Ramadan and a huge celebration known as a Eid al-Fitr. For me, this means I get a four-day weekend and enough free time to travel to Jordan. Although I am eager to explore Jordan’s many historic sites and beautiful nature preserves, nothing excites me more than the thought of Petra, the ancient city carved out of the deep canyons of southern Jordan. I won’t lie; my fascination with Petra began after seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and learning that the location of the final scenes was a real city several thousands years old and closed off the Westerners until the 19th century. I hope it doesn’t disappoint.

Eid al-Fitr also serves as the half-way point of the semester. When I return from Jordan, I have only two months before I return home for winter break. Time has passed so quickly! The last two months will be busy with midterms, term papers, and preparation for finals. Eid al-Fitr is certainly the beginning of the end of the semester.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sinai: Or, How I Climbed in the Footsteps of Moses and Swam with Tropical Fish

"When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:18)

Interestingly, my latest excursion outside of Cairo actually began on the 6th of October, 1793, thirteen years before I was born. On this date, the Egyptian army recaptured parts of the Sinai Peninsula from Israel in a brief war that was more of a political victory for President Anwar Sadat than a laudable military achievement. But Egyptians take great pride in this day. The 6th is a national holiday, and one of the major highways through downtown Cairo bears its name. Because the 6th was a Saturday this year, the government announced a national holiday on Sunday the 7th in order to give people a three day weekend. Although the government has known since 1973 that the 6th would fall on a Saturday in 2007, it announced the extra day off less than a week ago. Oh, how I love Egypt! Nontheless, I jumped on the opportunity to take a weekend trip to Mt. Sinai.

Getting to Mt. Sinai is not easy. The best way to get there is to fly to Sharm al-Sheikh and catch a bus to the mountain, but most AUC students take the cheaper option and go by bus. I left Cairo at 12:15am on Thursday evening and arrived in Dahab after nine hours, three passport checks, and four hours of sleep. Dahab is a popular resort town popular among divers because of its world-class coral reefs. After a relaxing lunch by the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba, I went with three other AUC students to Mt. Sinai. The drive itself through the majestic deserts of Sinai was stunning. Huge rock formations shoot up from the flat desert floor in dramatic fashion, deep canyons of soft sandstone appear suddenly after bends in the road, and the sands constantly change color and texture, advertising how diverse and beautiful the desert can be. The sublime grandeur of the landscape transcends words, but if metaphor could do justice, imagine the Pyrenees, steep and sharp, but one-tenth the size. Replace green forests with wind-sculpted stone, and snow-capped peaks with sprinkles of course sand. This is one image of the desert carved by time.

Upon arriving at the base of Mt. Sinai, we met up with another group of four AUC students and began the climb to the top. We moved steadily up the mountain hoping to arrive to watch the sunset and grab blankets and mattresses for camping overnight. The walk was beautiful as we wound our way up the path and climbed the steep steps to the summit. We made it in time for an amazing sunset and ate a rough dinner of crackers, bread, and dry cereal that we brought with us up the mountain. Bedouins rented blankets and mattresses, and we all settled down for bed at about 6:30pm. I was surprised how many other tourists were there, and it was difficult to find a spot to sleep. To my displeasure, the other six guys found a spot only big enough for five people to huddle close and keep warm at night. I, after climbing down part of the mountain to find one of the girls who had not returned after buying a cup of coffee, was the odd man out, and my efforts to make extra room were treated with a frustratingly stubborn attitude from the other guys that somehow my efforts to find a place to sleep were nothing but a rude inconvenience to everyone else. I finally chose to take my blanket and mattress to another location and sleep by myself. I ended up in the same area as the two girls in our group, and we shared blankets in losing battle to fight off the cold.

I knew Mt. Sinai would be cold, but not this cold. I was uncomfortably cold despite wearing two pairs of jeans, two pairs of socks, a t-shirt, a long sleeve t-shirt, a jacket, and two blankets with the assistance of extra body heat. The cold was unfortunate because it distracted me from the amazing view of the night sky: thousands of stars, the rich white band of the Milky Way, a crescent moon, satellites moving tranquilly across the sky, and the occasional spotting of a shooting star. Most nights in Cairo, I can see maybe five stars, and that is no exaggeration. Sinai was beautiful, but tired and cold, I failed to fully appreciate the experience.

The same was true for the sunrise. Most tourists take a 2am hike up the mountain, see the sunrise, and then head down again. The 5:30am sunrise was dramatic, but I feel that I was incapable of absorbing everything to its potential. Only after looking at my pictures did I fully realize what an amazing experience Mt. Sinai truly was.

After hiking down the mountain along a different route than we climbed up, our taxi drove us back to Dahab. The other three guys wanted to stay late and take the night bus back, but I had no interest in doing that again. After hardly sleeping for two nights, I wanted to be back in my own bed, so I took the 2:30pm bus. But before that, I took advantage of Dahab’s coral reefs and went snorkeling. The reefs are literally just meters from the beach. A rainbow of colors meets the eye: coral and fish in every shape and size. I was inches from fish wearing colors of bright yellow, fluorescent blues, bold oranges, and rich reds. I felt as if I were swimming in the aquariums of a world-class zoo.

The drive home was fitting for my weekend. The bus broke down twice, which cost us another hour, and my seat on the replacement bus would not recline. I spent 8 hours with a straight chair, my knees hitting the seat in front of me. And then at the Sharm passport check, the security guard did not accept the photocopies of my passport and residence visa, so I had to get off the bus and explain the situation to another guard, all of this after not having any problem at any of the previous three checkpoints.

I finally arrived back in Cairo at 12:30am on Saturday night, and got back to my hotel at 1:15. In the end, I was glad I made the trip to Dahab and Mt. Sinai, but the trip was exhausting and inconvenient. I spent 23 of my 49 hours in a bus or car, and was generally tired or cold the whole time. I’m just glad I have my pictures, because now I can fully appreciate my experience in a warm room with a comfortable chair and a few extra hairs on my chest. Amen to that.

St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
A Bedouin camel guide.
The view from the top.

A man sits on a ledge and takes a photo of the stunning scenery of Mt. Sinai.

Tourists wait for the first rays of sunlight to peak over the mountains.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

STAR: English Classes for Refugees

The Arab world faces an unprecedented humanitarian crisis: millions of refugees have fled their either homes to escape war and seek asylum. Some were forced to leave, others went voluntarily. Refugees from Palestine, Sudan (especially Darfur), and Iraq make up the majority of political refugees worldwide. Cairo, as the largest city in the Arab world, has a major refugee crisis. Current estimates that I've heard or read range from 175,000 to two million refugees living in Cairo!!! Of Cairo's refugees, most are from Sudan, and about 150,000 are from Iraq, and more are arriving every day. I can’t even begin to imagine the horrors that some of these people have witnessed. The United Nations refugee agencies must be inundated with requests. The economy of Cairo is certainly incapable of supplying enough jobs. Most of these refugees think they will someday be able to return home or move to Europe or the United States, but this is simply not true. Most refugees are here to stay. This is their home. This is their children’s home.

Dr. Paul Farmer once said that the problem in the world today is the false belief that some lives are worth more than others. Like Dr. Paul Farmer, I believe all lives are valuable, that all people deserve a chance to succeed, and that we all share a moral obligation to make this world a better place for all people. I am very privileged. I have the means to make a difference, and I think it would be shame if I refused to do nothing.

Cairo presents a unique opportunity for a native English speaker to reach out to my community. Student Action for Refugees (STAR) is an international service organization that provides humanitarian assistance to refugees in the form of low-cost English classes taught by student volunteers. As soon as I heard about this opportunity, I immediately signed up. This was exactly what I was looking for when I came to Cairo—a service opportunity that I would never otherwise have back in the states. Most importantly, working with refugees provides me with a direct human contact with issues that most people only read about in the newspaper. Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Iraq seem so far away, but now that I live in Cairo, natives of these countries walk the same streets as me, ride the same metro, eat the same food.

My first STAR class was held on Wednesday at the Owafa Center in Ain Shams, an impoverished suburb of Cairo just a few stops form the end of the metro line. Classes are taught in pairs, and I work with a Georgetown student named Vicki. We had five students the first day, and more will probably join. The class is the lower intermediate level, so the students already have a decent background in English. Although there is a curriculum to follow, Vicki and I are responsible for developing lesson plans, designing activities, writing tests, and ensuring the academic progress of our students. The task seems daunting, but STAR provided a very helpful training session with an ESL professor at AUC. Teaching will inevitably be a challenge, but based on my first class, the experience is well worth the effort.

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.