Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Some photos

View of Cairo and Al-Azhar Mosque from the minaret of Ibn Tulun Mosque

Ibn Tulun Mosque

In Cairo's oldest Mosque (642 A.D.), uncovered women are asked to wear the green robes seen in this photo.

Sign posted outside a Coptic church in Old Cairo.

The walls of "Old Cairo," home to the city's oldest Christian, Islamic, and Jewish religious sites.

Barack Obama's appearance on the Daily Show made the evening news.

Cairo traffic.


The first couple days in Cairo were spent at academic and university orientations covering the basics of the campus tour, class registration, and residence hall life. Unfortunately, disorganization has become the dominant topic of conversation among study abroad students. Details are not worked out in advance, which leaves the International Student Service Office (ISSO) personnel often working out details during the orientation sessions. Confusion and frustration run high. At the dorms, we are frustrated with the lack of preparation with living arrangements. Many services such as wireless Internet and exercise equipment were not prepared before arrival, and the residence director is rushing to try to get everything done. The students don’t help the situation when they ask common sense questions or questions previously asked. “Where will placement exam results be posted?” Answer: at the ISSO office, just like everything else. “Can the results be posted before Monday?” Answer: No, because they will be posted on Monday.

The conversations among students present an interesting cultural question: how much of the orientation experience is cultural, and how much of it just disorganization? I disagree with many of my peers because I think culture has much to do with it. As American students, we expect reliable, high-speed Internet at our fingertips. We want detailed information ASAP. We expect meetings to run smoothly. We expect efficiency in everything we do. We have an attitude of, “I paid for this, so it better be my way.” Basically, we are a generation of now, and Egypt is not. Expectations and the pace of life are much different than in the United States. The way I see it, I’m living in Egypt, and Egypt is not going to change. If somebody needs to change their approach to daily affairs, I guess it should be me.

Culture Shock

All I can say is that the last few days have been some of the craziest in my life. Cairo is indescribable. The experience began as soon as I landed at the airport and drove to the hotel. Driving through the city is really the best way to get oriented to life here—fast, hectic, and disorganized by Western standards. It’s true that the greatest risk to safety and security in Cairo is traffic because on the road, there are no rules.

My new home, the Marwa Palce Hotel, is in Dokki, a nicer district on the west bank of the Nile. The housing process was very unorganized, nothing was prepared, roommates were decided on a whim. The hotel is kind of dumpy, and a lot of the amenities promised don't really exist. The one working elevator is very slow and only fits six people, and we live on the 12th floor, AUC is supposed to put in new weight/exercise equipment and add the wireless internet tomorrow, but that’s not likely to happen. With the disorganization and run-down facilities, we were all disappointed with the living conditions. It’s not that Marwa is that bad, it’s just that the description of the hotel provided to us by AUC was incorrect. The best part about Marwa is that there is a 24 hour supermarket across the street that sells just about everything we need.After settling in, my roommate Jake and I went out to get some food. I hadn't had any food or water since arriving in the airport. I took out some money from an ATM and bought some much-needed water at the supermarket. To get to our meal, we had to cross a busy street, and since there are no stop lights, we basically played human Frogger—just wait for the cars to pass and capitalize on any opportunity. The locals are experts at this game, so we tried to follow their lead. We walked up and down one of the main drags to find a restaurant, and finally decided on a local sit-down place that offered chicken and rice. The meal was quite good, and each person only paid about US$1.60 for a quarter chicken with rice pilaf with raisins. Hopefully we won't get sick, but we decided that we might as well just jump in and no waste time worrying about the inevitable. The whole experience was crazy since we don't speak any colloquial yet. We couldn't communicate, and we weren't sure about protocol with the bill, although one guy knew that 10% tip is the norm. It all worked out in the end, and I think this was one of the best Arabic lessons I’ve ever had.Walking the streets in Cairo is a mind-blowind experience in itself. Between the heavy traffic, constant honking, small whole-in-the-wall shops, fruit and spice stands, beggars, women dressed in hijabs or full veils, calls to prayer, dilapidated cars, run-down infrastructure, thick dust, and an unhealthy level of pollution, it's hard to take it all in at one time. I’m simply just blown away (in a good way!). I've never felt this way while traveling before—I’m truly facing culture shock for the first time. Life here is just 180 degrees from the U.S.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Adventure Begins

San Francisco International Airport
August 18, 2007, 9:47pm

Today I begin my adventure. I just finished a summer internship at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, and now I can turn my attention to the academic year, My Year in Cairo, the title of my blog.

Three days from now, I will board a plane in Detroit, Michigan, and fly 6,000 miles to Cairo, Egypt, one of the most ancient and intriguing hubs of civilization in the world. What child doesn’t grow up in awe of the great Pyramids of Giza and the legends of the Nile? Egypt, it seems, is ubiquitous; just take a look at the cover of a National Geographic or explore the exhibits of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Travel to the heart of Egypt and you will discover Cairo—the largest and most populous city in the Middle East. Cairo truly is a nucleus of human history.

My knowledge of Cairo—and Egypt in general—is rather limited to tidbits of information I’ve collected through conversations with native Cairenes, perusings of Internet travel sites, and brief formal studies in Arab culture and politics. But what I do know is that Cairo is situated at the tip of the fertile Nile delta. It is a bustling city of 20 million people, is harmfully polluted, and is subject to infamous traffic jams because there are no traffic lights. Ninety-five percent of Egypt’s approximately 80 million people live along the banks of the Nile. It’s no wonder Egypt has been called the “Gift of the Nile.” With 20% of the world’s Arab population, Egypt has always played a prominent role as de facto leader the Arab world. From the Arab nationalism of Gamal Abd al-Nasr to the modern celebrity of the Egyptian movie industry, Egypt is very influential among all things Arab.

Despite the large revenues from tourism and developed film industry, Egypt remains quite poor. Egypt has very few oil or natural gas reserves like its Gulf neighbors to the east. Instead, it relies on the economic benefit of the Suez Canal, one of the most important canals in the world. As I found out last semester, the importance of the canal is better understood after studying the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the wars fought over this region, and the effects of European colonialism, that like the entire continent of Africa, has suffered tremendously from such foreign incursions. But there is some good news as well. The Camp David Accords between Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin, hosted by President Jimmy Carter, remains the longest and most robust peace agreement in modern Middle East history. Although the Accords are controversial in some cirles, it is my personal opinion that this model of compromise and cooperation gives humble hope for further advancements of peace in this region.

Of course, I cannot possibly live in Cairo without grasping a better understanding of religion. The American public, I feel, has a tremendously skewed and misunderstood view of Islam, one of the world’s great monotheistic religions. Egypt will provide a unique opportunity not only to study Islam, but also the role of the Christian minority. Approximately 10% of Eygptians are Coptic Christians (the government says less, the Coptics more. Being neither the Egyptian government nor a Coptic Christian, I believe the middle ground is solid ground). Cairo is a bustling metropolis where church bells and Islamic calls to prayer can be heard simultaneously. Religion provides much tension in Egypt: every citizen is required to “have” a religion, and government-issued ID’s reveal this information. Therefore any cop that pulls you over or company that wishes to hire you knows your religious affiliation. As an American who highly values our Constitutional principles, this is a challenging concept. Other political tensions exist. Egypt is home to the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization with a violent, extremist past that is gaining wide political support. In the most recent elections, the government outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and had to step in during the election to prevent the de facto members from winning too many seats. The party claims that it has reformed its violent past; opponents disagree. But what is certain is that if Egypt were purely democratic, the likely winner would be the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization the United States would classify as a “terrorist organization.” This is just a hint at why simple, idealistic views of democracy and peace are so misconstrued, and why I must live in Egypt to fully understand the situation.

As I prepare to depart for Cairo, I cannot grasp the realization that I am about to spend an entire academic year in Middle East. The thought of improving my Arabic three fold or more in a single year is exciting, as is the thought of studying the Middle East in the Middle East. The best thing to do, I believe, is to stop speculating and start opening my mind. I will observe, and then I will comment. I will have questions, and then I will seek answers. That sounds like a good itinerary to me. See you Cairo.