Monthly Archives: September 2010

A few pictures

So, I realized I need to do better about including images, so here are a few of my favorites for my first three weeks in Cairo. Let me qualify this by saying WordPress is absolutely horrible at picture managing. It is impossible to add a slideshow, or do anything else other than add a series of images with no organization (you can, however, click on any of these and get a full-sized image). I’ll try to add them into my future posts at proper places.



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Life in Egypt is slowing down. I’m falling into a more regular schedule and stopping being such a gaudy tourist.

I met a wonderful German student in IR this morning named Anna. She spent last semester in South America and is now in Egypt before going back to Germany. I feel like most European students are able to have A LOT more international experience than American students- she even said her home university pays her to attend classes in Cairo. Wish I had it that easy!

In IR this morning, I had to give an impromptu, 5 minute summation speech of nearly 300 years of American history. To a class of Egyptians. The professor wanted an American’s take on American history. Talk about slightly intimidating. After my presentation, a girl asked if Massachusetts was a state and whether she is pronouncing it correctly. Another said she really liked my explanation of our Civil War. She knew we had one, but she didn’t realize it was about the issue of slavery and competing ideas about the nature of our union! All the students obsess about TOEFL; it is their only way to get to study in America. Professor says that religion- Islam, Christianity, Judaism- is bad to mix with politics.

That’s all for now. I’m going to try to figure out an easier way to post pictures on WordPress. If anyone reading this knows how to easily post pics, let me know. I can’t seem to figure it out.

I’m headed to Sharm el-Sheikh on Thursday, and I’m busy planning my Syria trip next weekend. Reading: travel to Syria report here from the NYT. In Damascus, the Umayyad Mosque contains the tombs of John the Baptist and Saladin, the Muslim warrior. Damascus is generally considered the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, so the history there will be astonishing. I also hope to visit Aleppo and Palmyra.

I’ll report back on Sharm el-Sheikh.

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The Mosques are closed??

Over the past few days, I’ve explored Islamic Cairo. I’ll hit the highlights and hopefully this won’t be too long of a post. First stop was Ibn Tulun mosque, featured in James Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me, and it was stunning and gorgeous. It’s the oldest and largest mosque in Cairo; it was completed in 879 A.D. I walked around inside for a while, and then got to climb the minaret and walk around the top of the mosque. It was so historic and awesome and very cool. Pretty cool to climb to the top of a 1,300 year old minaret by a spiral staircase.

I was with one of my roommates, so we walked over to Sultan Hassan and Rifa’i mosques, where we were slightly swindled by some guy, who took us walking through the streets to his mosque, where they wanted money. So we left and headed back to where we were, when we were stopped by another guy who wanted to give us a tour of the Blue mosque, which was on our list, so we did it. It was actually pretty cool. The blue mosque itself was actually under construction, but we could still see the blue wall. He took us into a lot of locked rooms, including the burial site for an old imam and his wife, and across the street to a different mosque where we had been denied admittance earlier. It was actually a pretty legit tour.

So, like 3 hours later, we arrived back at Sultan Hassan and Rifa’i, and they, of course, were now closed. So going to have to come back. Thanks to the first guy.

We then walked back down the streets of Islamic Cairo (3rd time) toward Khan el Khalili and Azhar mosque. We found all the gates of the old city and bought some souvenirs, but couldn’t get in Azhar because of prayer times. So will have to come back as well.

On Friday, I went to the Giza Zoo… it really wasn’t very good; poorly laid out. But I held a lion, in Africa, and got my picture taken. Lots of kids playing soccer- fun. Scream masks everywhere too- so creepy!

Yesterday, my first stop was the ticket office at the Opera House and got 5th row seats at the Symphony Orchestra and a seat for Aida at the Pyramids for 85 LE ($15!). Not bad, I think.

Then I headed to Coptic Cairo- 30 LE for Coptic Museum, very cool. Darkest museum I’ve ever been in. Fun to see Christian art again, and fun to see Arabic mixed with Christian symbols. The art is very different than Islamic art.  Then I found the Hanging Church and St. George’s Church- both beautiful. The call to prayer was the most intense I’ve heard from Coptic Cairo-funny.

Finally, I then made it to Sultan Hassan and Rifa’i , and just like yesterday someone tried to get me to follow him. I was rude to this guy; I was tired. I have a bone to pick, actually. I’m tired to being treated so condescendingly (by only a very few people) around tourist stops. Yes, I am obviously a tourist. I am single, white, carrying a camera, and look lost. I am obviously out of place. But that does not give every single person a license to try to take advantage of me. Everyone seems so nice. They help you cross the street, they ask your name and where you’re from and seem very interested. I love meeting new people like that. But then they lie to you and tell you the mosques are closed (same lie, two days in a row). I believed them the first time, but knew better this time. Said he wasn’t a guide, but he wanted me to follow him to somewhere and then ask for money. They seem interested in you only long enough to ask you for money. They aren’t genuine at all; they only are interested in money. I hate that. Why can’t they just meet someone new and not end the conversation so callously? And taxis too- every one of them honks or the driver yells as they pass me. If I want a taxi, I’ll motion for it! I don’t need your attention because I’m white! Also- buying a Coke today, somebody wanted 5 LE for a can of coke. I was alarmed and was rude to him. I would only pay 3 maximum. Eventually got it there, but it sickens me that most people wouldn’t know any better and would just pay the money. People are taken advantage of all the time.

But, back to the story. Sultan Hassan was nothing special. But Rifa’i was beautiful inside, had lots of tombs, including some unlocked for me, and King Faisal of Egypt and the last Shah of Iran. Cool, and very historic.

I then made it to Azhar mosque and it was nice inside. Busy too- students working while I was there. Very beautiful too. Lots of minarets.

Finally, my first New Era article was published yesterday. It looked good, from what I could see over Skype. Your assigned reading: great NYT story on Egypt’s impending water problem here. I’ll be back in a few days. I’m headed to Sharm el-Sheikh this coming Thursday to lounge by the Red Sea and climb Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Looking forward to that!


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Two Weeks

Over the past few days, I have started at Cairo University and gotten most of the uncertainties worked out with my schedule. I am taking 5 classes: Arabic language, Economics of Egypt, Political System of Egypt, Foreign Policy Analysis, and Evolution of International Relations.

They are 3-hour classes just like at UK, but most of them meet for one three-hour lecture/discussion per week. I have Arabic on M/W mornings, Econ on Wed afternoons, Political System on Tues evenings, FP on Tues mornings, and IR on Tues afternoons. So, my Tuesdays and Wednesdays will especially be full of class, but I also have 4 days off class each week~ so I think that’s an acceptable tradeoff.

Campus is very nice. You can see pictures here. It is centered around a main dome and clock tower. The auditorium under the dome is where Obama gave his address to the Muslim world about a year ago. I walked into the building to try to see it, and I ended up being given a guided tour! I think it had more to do with the fact that I don’t have a student card yet, just a letter signed by the Dean saying that I am, indeed, a student, so the people working in the dome wanted to tag along with me I think, but no matter what, it was pretty cool.

I think this goes without saying, but it is very fun to be around so many young people on campus. Most of the guys wear tight t-shirts and other clothing and gelled hair, and most girls (probably about 70%) wear the hijab. The classrooms are very British prep school style, and no one wears backpacks or carried a bag of any type, which I thought was strange. Everyone just carries a big spiral notebook with them, so I’ve tried to do the same.

We signed up for classes on Monday, so the next day, I was thrown right into my long day of class! Everyone was so nice to me, I’m sure because I look completely out of place. My FP and IR classes are normal CU classes, so I am mixed with all the normal students for those. I’m sure I stuck out like a sore thumb, so I met some great people already who came up and introduced themselves to me. There are only two other guys in the class- they said social sciences are almost entirely girls, so I guess I picked the right faculty! There is a model American Congress that they want me to come talk too! Ha! I’ll just tell them to divide themselves fairly equally and yell at each other for their hour meeting. All the girls kiss hello, and they are very proud of what their names mean. They all wanted to explain it to me.

Impressions of class- my professor seems engaging and tries to elicit student participation. She is also challenged by students mostly girls. Car horns are audible during class. She uses a microphone, but probably could do without it. Most students stand up when speaking. The perspective in class is vastly different than in the US. Big emphasis on US dominance of international politics and how that is bad and “unfortunate.” It was said that we dominate politics through violence. Professor was nice though, says she likes Americans a lot. Will want my view in class she says; she’s had Germans before but never Americans. She thinks it’s strange that I came her, while studying in America is dream for most Egyptians. Although they kind of pick on America in class, we are still the envy of so much of their society. Interesting contrast.

We are graded out of 30 marks- 20 of which are the final exam. Much bigger focus on Russian power and influence of France and rest of Europe on the world. So different. Fundamentally, though, the classroom setting is the same. Second class is taught by a professor who spend 9 years studying in the U.S. She reminded everyone that the “Dialogue of Civilization” when Arab students talk with Americans. Looks great on an Egyptian resume, as do classes in English. She did her dissertation in transnational Muslim activism. She runs not your standard Arab classroom and says lecture is the old style of learning; interactive education is the new education and way of the future. She said to think of her as a big sister.

My Arabic class meets on the roof of a building overlooking Cairo. How awesome! We haven’t yet met the Political Systems class, and we’ve only met the professor for Econ- not the actual class yet. His children are American citizens and he has spent a lot of time in America, and he seemed like a very nice person, so that should be good.

I started to explore Islamic Cairo, part of the older city, yesterday, but I didn’t get as much seen as I hoped. I’ll update everyone on that in my next post.

And what would I be doing if I didn’t leave you with some reading assignments?? Article on Gamal Mubarak here. Article on the internet in Bahrain here.

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Memphis, the Metro, and starting at Cairo University

Sunday was the start of school in Egypt, but those of us going to Cairo University had the day off to allow everyone involved to figure out some last minute details. Apparently classes don’t really meet during this first week anyway; this week is meant to allow students to figure out where they are going and get their bearings. So, with the day off, we figured what better to do than to go to Memphis, a former capital of ancient Egypt and a few miles south of Cairo proper.

After 3 drivers, we found one who knew where to go- Memphis is a very small site now. It cost 200 pounds for the whole trip, split 3 ways. We had done the ride before during our orientation when we went to Saqqara. The buildings on the route exist in so many vibrant colors- beautiful. Great mosques too. The area is very poor too- donkeys tied in the street, small boys selling fruits in roadstands, etc, and unfinished buildings everywhere- metal sticking out toward the sky. On the road, they had given up on even putting lanes- just a wide patch of concrete and a free for all.

In Memphis, we saw the Colossus of Ramses II, a smaller sphinx, and ancient ruins of the city. See pictures here. It was certainly worth the short trip from Cairo!

In the evening, I had my first time riding the Metro; I was headed toward Heliopolis. Tickets are 1 pound, about 18 cents- a little cheaper than in DC! The whole system is very modern & punctual. Alarms sound when train approaches, and the stations are decorated and well marked too.

It was a fairly long talk to the Korba area and Heliopolis, but there was beautiful architecture and the Basilica and the churches I couldn’t see as well from the bus. I had dinner in a nice coffee shop and cheered on the local Egyptian football (soccer) team with some other people.

This morning, as a proper introduction to the Egyptian university system, our meeting at CU was postponed an hour, so we had some extra time. When we finally got to CU, it was slightly difficult to get through the main gate because we don’t have student cards yet. But after making it into campus, we sat down with the director of international students and made our schedules. I ended up choosing Theory of Foreign Policy and Evolution of International Relations, one from 9-12 and one from 1:30-4:30 on Tuesdays. Those two are normal Egyptian classes, where I’ll likely be the only non-Arab or non-Egyptian there. We will schedule our Arabic classes tomorrow, and then we just wait for the two core classes (the Egyptian Political System and the Economics of Egypt) to be scheduled because it’s only the three of us from our study abroad program in them. If I can get all three of those classes on Monday and Wednesday, then I’d have 4 free days a week for traveling, etc. That would be nice.

Anyway, campus is nice- large dome and clock tower. So many young people- I enjoy being around them. Most were wearing tight clothing and gelled hair, and most girls (but not all) wore the hijab. We have letters from the Dean after having tea in his office explaining to security to let us through the gate without a student card. The classrooms are very British prep school style- with long pews of seats and slightly elevated by the back of the room. Picture “Dead Poets Society,” or something similar. Everyone seems exceedingly helpful, and the whole situation seems to be good. I’ll look forward to having my schedule completely finalized, though.

So, I have class tomorrow from 9-4:30 with a good lunch break in between. We’ll see how the first day of real classes is. As I said earlier, the professors may not even show up because not much really happens this first week. The schedule seems VERY fluid and inexact, which isn’t bad; just very different than the university and class schedules in the U.S.

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Mechanical bulls, Anwar Sadat, and lots and lots of mummies

My balcony is becoming my favorite place to write. It’s the early evening, and the weather is just beautiful. It dawned on me that I may not actually see rain, or any other precipitation, for four more months. That will be sort of strange.

The past two days have held many more new experiences, as my title here may suggest.

We hopped on our standard bus again and headed toward Heliopolis (Qahriah gadeeda). On our drive, we saw lots and lots of Christian churches. It’s so interested and extraordinary, I think, to see crosses in the skyline instead of crescent moons and minarets. A lot of the crosses are 3 dimensional, too, which is different from the States. I am used to traveling in the Gulf, where there are no churches at all.

Heliopolis is the location of a lot of government buildings and ministries, as well as a lot of Cairo’s richest inhabitants. We stopped briefly at the war cemetery, and then moved to the site of the Egyptian tomb of the unknown soldier, across the street from the site of Anwar Sadat’s assassination. See pictures here. Next, we stopped at the Baron’s Palace- the Baron being the person who was responsible for building most of Heliopolis- built to look like Angkor Wat. He was European, so the entire area is somewhat influenced by his background. All the architecture was beautiful, however, and a lot of it was classically Islamic.  We also saw the Presidential Palace- Hosni Mubarak’s home. From what we could see from the street, it was quite nice, but photographs are strictly forbidden. There were absurd amounts of police, though, and some had machine guns set up on tripods. Intense.

We went to the mall next- City Stars. It was huge, 7 floors. I joked that I’m no longer impressed by a mall without a ski resort, ice rink, and waterfall though (like in Dubai)- but of course it was incredibly nice. Nothing even begins to compare to it in the States. Our group of guys figured what better to do while in Cairo that to go bowling (in the mall), so we found the lanes and I lost by one point! It was intense, haha. I also rode a mechanical bull for the first time ever- in Cairo of all places!

That night, we heard a series of loud noises with flashes, like explosions or something, very near out apartment. Nothing seemed to be happening, but it was a reminder of what can.

Today, we went to the Egyptian Museum. No pictures allowed inside, but it was all extremely nice. It actually seemed poorly laid out and not well explained, but there were of course many beautiful pieces. The museum was literally built around two big statues in the middle, the grandparents of King Tut. It had Ramses II statues as soon as you walk in, and the big Tut exhibit on the second floor. Boats, chairs, fans, jars, statues, mummified animals and food, jewelry, beds, umbrellas, scarabs– all from his tomb. Four huge gold boxes and three sarcophagi and the final beautiful mask for Tut. It was all stunning. As you walk around, there is row after row of highly decorated sarcophagi- beautiful and overwhelming. Everyone’s seen pictures of these things, but they are simply magnificent to see in person.

We saw the actual mummies too- literally 4,000 year old dead people. Still have hair and teeth and expressions and eyelashes. Unreal. Their eyelids are shriveled into their heads. The names that most people have heard of are Amenhotep, Hatshepsut, Ramses II. They still have fingernails and toenails, and their hands are frozen in weird positions. They have long boney arms and necks and very distinct faces- silky white hair on Ramses. Some are especially well preserved, with long hair and alert expressions. It was all slightly disconcerting, really. One mummy was buried with a pet baboon too!

That’s all for now. Probably will grab shawarma for dinner. We were supposed to start school tomorrow (the work/school week here is Sunday-Thursday), but apparently we don’t have to go to campus until Monday now. Everything seems very up in the air regarding the university system. I’ll make my schedule on Monday, so I’m technically not signed up for any classes yet. Having American students attend Cairo University is still very new- the two other people and myself will be (I think) the only Americans there. The class schedule, weekends, holidays, days off, etc, all seem very mutable and fluid. This is what studying abroad is all about, right?? Getting out of your comfort zone? But it also means that I have tomorrow free, so we’ll see what I get into 🙂 I’ll report back after my CU experiences on Monday.

As is kind of becoming my custom, I’ll leave you with another great article. This one is from NPR on social media usage in Syria. Give it a read/listen here.

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Cairo Continued

It is about 11 am here in Cairo, and I am sitting on my apartment’s balcony watching and listening to the city. I have been in Egypt for a week now- although it seems like much longer! Today is Friday, the Islamic holy day, so not much will be happening today. We are almost done with our orientation, but we are headed to Heliopolis and City Stars Mall this evening.

The Mideast peace talks in Sharm el-Sheikh came and went without much notice here in Cairo, it seemed. I read a newspaper with a picture of Sec. Clinton on the cover, but the event certainly doesn’t seem to be talked about or mentioned too much on the news. (Or maybe I just can’t understand exactly what’s being talked about, but I can usually get the drift). After a week’s observations, there seems to be a great ambivalence about politics here- a resignation that the government does not seem too interested in bettering lives (except for the lives of those in power). There is a lot of cynicism and distrust of the government, and also a general sense that society does not have the capacity to initiate or spur change. I saw one Egyptian youth wearing a shirt that said “Guns don’t kill people; the government does.”I am already meeting many Egyptians, especially the younger and more liberal ones (like women who may not be wearing hijab) who will readily tell me that they support ElBaradei for President.

Since my last post, I rode in a Cairo taxi for the first time- and boy, was it a thrill! Drivers have literally no regard for lanes, or rules, or signs, or lights. It is a free for all, including motorbikes, donkeys, and pedestrians that actually seems to somehow work pretty well. It is fast paced and hectic, but it works. Just completely different from behavior in the U.S.  We were headed to al-Azhar Park, and it was quite nice- one of the few nice, open, clean, public areas for men and women and children I have seen in the Middle East. Lots of young people around.  In my travels in the Gulf region, the only public gathering places seemed to be the malls. For all the kindness of the people in the region, society is very private. Families keep to themselves mostly, and the sexes stay mostly segregated as well. I felt like a celebrity at the park (or, probably, more accurately, a person wildly out of place) because the Egyptians would all want to take pictures with us (the foreigners), especially the girls. The park is located on a hill overlooking Cairo, so we had beautiful views of the city panorama and the mosques nearby, as well as the Citadel.

I desperately need to review my Arabic more than I have. When half our group left to go to Alexandria, I found myself being the student left in Cairo with the most knowledge of the Arabic language. Scary, right?! I can easily get around without English, and have a basic conversation, but I still find myself grasping to make basic sentences occasionally. I expect this will improve as the semester goes on.

Another thought- a day ago, yesterday morning, as I sat on the balcony, I had a very surreal experience- over all the normal noise of the city, someone was playing “London Bridge is Falling Down” and other children’s songs over a loudspeaker like a call to prayer. It was very strange, and I still have no possible explanation for it!

I am going to Cairo University on Sunday to receive my class schedule and start classes. The director of international students gave us a presentation yesterday, and she seemed very helpful, so I was glad to meet her.  CU has over 280,000 students, and lectures can be 1,000+ students, which is obviously enormous. None of the classes I’ll be in will be that big, luckily. But CU is commonly known as the oldest and most respected Arab university, and it has educated the most prominent Arab figures and generations of Egyptian leaders for years. One final thought on CU- it is astonishing when I am talking with Egyptians, when I tell them I am a student, their first assumption is that I am at the American University. When I correct them and say I’m at Cairo, they are always so happy! They seem to have a lot more respect for me than if I were at AUC. Interesting observation.

I’m slightly embarrassed to post this, but I had an Egyptian tell me that I look like Jean Claude Van Damme- the muscles from Brussels. I think the Egyptian was trying to impress me (?), but I’m still not sure how to take it… but it is certainly funny! When I come back to the U.S., I’m going to be so confused about certain things- like, I’m already used to walking in streets and peppering my sentences with “inshahallah” and “ilhamdulillah”. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I am confined to the sidewalks again, or can use the future tense without the standard Islamic qualifier.

Last night, I went to the top of Cairo Tower, the highest point in the city, and taller than the pyramids. I tried that ‘cup of corn’-looking item that people sell on the streets. The vendor told me it is called ‘termis’ and it is essentially a type of beans that you eat the center of and spit out the outer covering. They were rather bland, but a fine snack. There was also a man selling koshari, an Egyptian favorite, out of a vat in the back seat of his car. I almost got some, since I loved it the first time I had it, but I decided it might be smarter not to buy it literally out of some guy’s back seat. I walked through Tahrir Square, past the upper house of the Egyptian parliament- the Shura Council, and past a few other government buildings. I saw my first Christian church up close, too- seemed just the same as back at home.

That’s all for now. Everyone here is incredibly nice and kind and welcoming. I love the culture and daily life here, and I’m looking forward to the rest of my time in Egypt. I’ll leave you with four articles I read during this week that represent a lot of what I’m thinking/writing about right now. Hope you enjoy. I’ll post again in a day or two, inshahallah.

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