Monthly Archives: October 2010

Of Note

Yesterday, big news was handed down from the Egyptian equivalent of the Supreme Court: state police forces are banned from Egypt’s universities, most notably the university I attend, Cairo University. You can read the article in English from an Egyptian newspaper here. This is important, and Mubarak’s acceptance and enforcement of this will be critical to judge whether he and the Egyptian government will be willing to make advances in democracy and human rights over the coming months and years.

Also important, a senior member of the ruling National Democratic Party absolutely declared that Mubarak would seek another term as president and not turn that role over to his son Gamal quite yet. Mubarak is 82, and many observers thought that he would not seek re-election in 2011, but it seems that he will be.

Finally, Mubarak has finally set the date for the 2010 parliamentary elections: 28 November. This will be in the middle of my remaining time in Cairo, and I am definitely looking forward to seeing how the elections play out. What role will the Muslim Brotherhood play? What role will opposition parties play? What role with Mohamed ElBaradei play?

It’s certainly a fascinating time to observe Egyptian politics. There have certainly been some big advancements over the past few days. Let’s see how it all plays out.

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Alexandria

On Thursday, Josh (a roommate) and I headed to Alexandria, Egypt, on the Mediterranean Sea at the end of the Nile Delta. Trains run from Cairo nearly every hour, and we arrived at the station at noon, but there were no trains available til 9 pm (although people were running across the tracks jumping on the trains, I’m sure without tickets)! So, we met a Canadian and an Australian, and we paid some guy 350 LE to drive us to Alexandria. Our car-mates worked on yachts on the French Riveria, but are taking what I’m sure is a well earned vacation from such a rough job. We found our hotel easily- nice room and awesome view- park and Mediterranean out the window. There elevator is very poor quality, though- no door at all, open shaft, etc. Can’t go down either, no button to push.

For lunch on the way to Alex, we stopped at this placed called Lion Village and got some really overpriced water and snacks. It was also a full service restaurant. Nothing wrong with any of this, but the problem is it is conjoined with a full and very open zoo- lions in cages, emus, hyenas, and deer and lots and lots of dogs- every type of dog you can imagine. It’s really quite sad. And very strange. Only in Egypt.

First stop in Alex was that night- we walked along the Corniche with a beautiful sunset to the Library- gorgeous. Amazing interior and great exterior, some letter of every written form of communication known to have existed. The library is brand new, but the site is quite historical. After the library, we met up with the Alex students on the same study abroad program we are using and went to have the certified “best mango juice in the world.” Walked around after that and go some coffee too. Fun times with fun people.

On Friday, we got up and had breakfast and headed to the Citadel. Lots of people cycling and playing soccer- so much fun. Citadel was fun- worth seeing. Grabbed some ice cream outside and enjoyed it beside the Mediterranean- first time I had seen it.

Headed from there to find a soccer match that the Alex boys told us about, but no luck. Then headed to Kom al-Shoqafa catacombs. Pretty cool. Unfortunately, Josh’s camera was taken from the depository, and we waited about an hour, and the nicest German couple brought it back. We had just accidentally switched bags. There had to be a police report, but all’s well that ends well. And, Josh has an Egyptian police record now!

After we had the camera, we walked to Pompey’s Pillar and walked through its exhibit. Then headed to the train station to buy our ticket for tomorrow (funny conversation with the ticket seller) and grabbed some food before heading back to the hotel. Met up with the Alex boys again that night- the girls already had their “bed checks.” It would be terrible to have their living arrangements.

Earlier today, Saturday, we saw the Roman Theatre and pretty much immediately trained back to Cairo. Great weekend- Alexandria was a very fun and historical place. Looking forward to the next week in Cairo! For all my Alex pictures, see here.

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A Typical Monday

Yesterday, 18 Oct, was a great day and pretty representative of the variety of things I can do on a given day here in Cairo.

It started with my 9:30 am Arabic class on the roof of a building at Cairo University. At the beginning of the semester, I remember joking with my fellow classmates about how stereotypical it is that we are studying Arabic language in a small classroom on the roof of a building overlooking the city of Cairo- very Middle Eastern. The class is going well; it is a little too basic for my tastes, but the professor initially judged our Arabic ability by our vocabulary. So, as a consequence, I’m studying pretty basic vocab and am stuck with the accompanying grammar lessons, which are reviews of things I’ve done for the past two years. I think we’re going to approach the professor about changing the class soon.

Around noon, when class was done for the day, one of my roommates had a guest visiting, and we took the opportunity to see a part of Cairo we hadn’t seen yet: Manshiet Nasr, or Garbage City. It doesn’t translate as Garbage City, but that is the name given to the area in English. It is obviously a derogatory name for the area, but it was quite depressing to visit.

The story behind Garbage City is this: about 2 million Coptic Christians live in this terribly run-down area of town without running water, electricity, or any of the basics of modern life. It is overrun by poverty, disease, dirtiness, and hopelessness. The people survive by processing Cairo’s trash. Garbage City is used as the city’s dump, more or less. The people there separate plastics and other recyclables, and process the rest of the trash to its final destination. The people also used to raise pigs, both as a source of food and to help eat and dispose of the trash all around them, but after the swine flu scare many months ago, the government of Egypt used it as an excuse to slaughter all the pigs (since Muslims consider pigs and pork to be haram, or against Islam, but the Copts obviously don’t mind). So, deprived of their pigs, the area has gone even further downhill in the past few months.

From my experience, it is absolutely filthy and disgusting. The smells are horrible, and the flies are a constant and overwhelming annoyance. Goats, cows, and donkeys are as common walking the streets as people. The shops where people are working on the trash and pitch black and very tight, and must be horrendous working conditions.

After walking through Garbage City, you come to the most wonderful sight though: the largest church in the Middle East. I don’t know what the name of this church is, or if it has a name, but it seats more than 15,000 during a given service. It is carved into a mountainside, and it is stunning to come upon. Coming from Garbage City, it is one of the most stark contrasts I have ever seen.

After returning home from our trip, I caught up on some homework, talked with some friends back in the U.S. online, and made my last UK schedule ever! Spring 2011 is now mapped out- my graduating semester. It looks like I’ll be taking the following: INT 495, AIS 330, AIS 440, HIS 575, and 6 hours of Gaines thesis work. I’ll also possibly be taking PS 439G or PS 442/463 depending on what credit I get to transfer from my semester in Cairo.

Finally, around 8 pm, I headed to watch the Cairo Symphony Orchestra at the Opera House. It wasn’t quite what I had expected, but it was a magnificent performance (and I had a 5th row seat!). It was really a choral performance with musical accompaniment. The first half was sung in Arabic and was entitled, translated, “The Philosophy of Life.” It certainly gave a very vibrant and upbeat take on life, which made me happy. When the pianist, drums, men’s choir, women’s choir, and soloist were all doing slightly different things, it was just beautiful. The second half of the performance was in French, so I could understand a little of it, and it was equally beautiful. The soloist in particular was amazing, and the conductor was quite animated, which was fun to watch.

I just had a particularly good day, worth sharing I thought. I’m heading to Alexandria on Thursday, so I’ll be back in touch after that. You can see all my Garbage City pictures here.

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Istanbul

To start: last Tuesday, two girls in my IR class- Omnia and Raghda- took me to a strip of stores (not unlike the stores on Limestone in Lexington) for some Arabic sweets (fendam) and juice (asab). It was very nice of them. They didn’t realize that Walmart doesn’t carry dates and I didn’t realize that they study Charles Dickens and Shakespeare and lots of other classic English literature. I said that was great.

On 14 Oct, I headed to Istanbul, Turkey for the weekend- the first non-Arab, non-Arabic speaking country in the general region I have visited. I was terribly excited about it. I left Cairo on a 2:30 am flight, but I was able to get some sleep beforehand, so I felt pretty awake.

There is a very nice train/metro service connecting the airport to the city in Istanbul. Everything was very organized and orderly. It was rainy and chilly as I finally stepped into the city. It felt very European (in many respects- climate, appearance, clothing patterns, etc). I didn’t see any hijabs or minarets for my first while on the metro; I could have been in England.

I messed up with my passport at the airport- I knew I had to purchase a visa to enter Turkey, but I had never been to an airport that made you go to a separate window to purchase it. So, I walked up to the passport officer and gave him my passport, and he obviously made me walk back through the line of people and buy a visa. Oops. Strange too- the visa desk would not accept Turkish lira. They would only accept U.S. dollars or Euros, neither of which I had since I was in Turkey!, so I paid with my credit card.

Everything tasted slightly strange. I had a very interesting breakfast on the plane (still not quite sure what it was), and my caffe mocha at Starbucks didn’t taste the same either. I’m looking forward to trying all the Turkish food though.

I got off the metro, and there is the Sultanahmet mosque, and the Hagia Sophia! Beautiful and very big. It was great to stand there in the rain (after not feeling rain for a while) and just looking at them. How cool!

I noticed the streets looked different, and I finally realized it’s because they are not covered in garbage. It is clean here. No dust and sand and stuff scooted up against a building. So nice. Saw the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, got more money and ate chicken doner now. Big wild dogs were everywhere. People selling weirdly drawn circle things.

Then saw the Blue mosque (Sultanahmet), Hippodrome, Grand Bazaar, and then got lost. Bought some Turkish delight (orange and honey and hazelnut), and baklava- which was especially delicious.

I just thought that this is the first time I’ve visited a country where I don’t have at least have the ability to do rudimentary things in their language. It’s going fine so far though. I’ve done the UK, France, and a variety of Arabic speaking countries, but that’s all. Nothing “out of my language zone.”

In Topkapi Palace, there were some amazing relics- no photos though. Sword of the Prophet David, the rod of Moses, some old locks and gutter pipes from the Kaaba (the closest I’ll get to seeing it), the footprint of Prophet Muhammed, the swords of the four rightly guided caliphs, and the beard of Muhammed. I learned the actual Arabic for “peace be upon him” also.

On 15 Oct, I started with a great breakfast from my hostel- coffee, rolls, honey, and freshly made French toast. I climbed Galata Tower, and explored that part of the city a bit- walked a lot, up very steep streets! Reminded me of San Francisco. Had simit bread and dordomru ice cream, delicious. Walked to the Bosporus coast. Saw the old aqueduct, Suleiman mosque, walked through some very awesome and very vertical streets in the old city. Did an excellent 1.5 hour Bosporus cruise. No stops, but saw some ruins, colorful houses, bridges, and crossed into the Black Sea. Reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of Venice. It was awesome to think about the amount and variety of history that has occurred exactly where I was this weekend- from Byzantium to Constantinople, and finally to modern Istanbul. Then I spent about an hour in a traditional hamam, or Turkish bath. Got a private changing room and a towel. Headed into a sauna where we lay on a big heated rock. Glad I didn’t pay more to have a strange man rub me. That would have been weird.

On 16 Oct, I checked out of the hostel and found a ferry to Asia for 1.5 lira. Not many tourists there. Just residents mainly. Not much to see either, just to say you went to the Asian side of the city. Ate ayran, a sour watery yogurt drink, and doner for lunch and headed to the airport. Also had some Raki on the flight… I didn’t receive exactly what I was expecting! (Thanks, Ashley Westerman!)

That’s all. Reading on traveling to Istanbul here. See all my Istanbul pictures on facebook here.  I’m traveling with one of my roommates to Alexandria this coming weekend; I’ll report back then.

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Syria: Damascus, Palmyra, & Aleppo

On 6 Oct, I headed to Syria and made it safely to Damascus. Flight was very quick, but I also slept through most of it. The two men I sat next to seemed to know everyone on the plane; wonder if they were anyone important? Exchanged 800 LE for 6,300 SYP at the airport, and then paid 1,300 for my taxi to the hotel. I’m sure I got ripped off, but not much I could do. It looked like one taxi company had a monopoly on airport travel. Even my taxi back to the airport wanted me to pay twice the meter because he couldn’t pick anyone up. Guess the owner of that one company has a good contact in the government to be given free reign on the airport!

I think I lucked out with my hotel. It seemed to be in the middle of a busy area of town. It was walking distance to the Souq Hamidiyya and the Umayyid mosque, which was great. My room was very small, but luckily I wasn’t here very long.

The people are very fair skinned here. Not very dark. Seen lots of red hair and freckles. Not very common in the other Arab countries to which I’ve been. Everyone has been extremely nice so far too, more so than other Arab countries. Everyone is very helpful. The souq was very busy people set up with weird dolls and lit-up-eye mechanical animals. Kind of creepy, actually. There is also a very split mix between very western and very traditional, more than I’ve seen anywhere else. Some men are in the dress I saw in the Persian Gulf, while others (mainly younger men) are wearing what I’m wearing, or graphic tees, or something like that. But it is a more even split than I have seen elsewhere.

No internet in my hotel, but there was an internet café across the street. An hour of internet was 75 SYP, and I got dinner for 60 SYP, which is about $1.33. Not bad, I’d say. Facebook was blocked when I tried to access it. Not a good sign for political freedom in Syria.

Thought of this back in Cairo- no one really knows how to mail anything here because no one uses the mail service. No one knows where the post office is, and to mail something apparently you just have to find these magical green boxes in the street and put your mail in them. Then, maybe, someone will eventually pick up the mail, and maybe, inshahallah, it will go where it is supposed to go. Hopefully, the person filtering mail can speak English to recognize the address and that it says USA on it. That’s a lot of maybes. Then, after a few weeks or months, hopefully it will somehow arrive at its destination in America. We’ll see. I mailed 16 postcards today, 11 Oct, so hopefully they will arrive safely.

A few random observations- there were no western restaurants in Syria at all- KFC, McDonalds, nothing. I got ‘milk’ (vanilla) ice cream for 50 SYP, and they covered it in sunflower seeds. Not bad, just not what I was expecting. Syrians are kind, happy, courteous, helpful, respectful people. No altercations witnessed at all. Not too much of shop owners begging you to come in, etc.

So, today I went back to the Damascus Fort (closed for renovations), Souq al Hamidiyya, and Umayyad mosque. Then walked through the old city for a while and got a taxi to the train station to try to buy a ticket for the sleeper train tomorrow night. No luck. Then taxied (big rip-off- 400 SYP) to the top of Mt. Qasioun, which was a spectacular view. Taxied back to hotel for 75 SYP, a much better price.

On 8 Oct, I started today an hour later than I hoped; I was headed to Palmyra today. I had synced my iPod with my computer, and it reset my iPod to Cairo time. Plus, I managed to hurt my wrist going down the stairs. Something to make me realize where I was- there were road signs on the way to Palmyra to Baghdad and Iraq. I was not in Kansas anymore! At one point, the road to Iraq was straight and obvious- kind of unnerving, really. Palmyra was beautiful and much bigger than I thought. It was very quiet. Place to myself essentially to explore and see. Stonehenge, eat your heart out! Sellers went around on motorcycles- quite funny- and no longer so quiet. Old rich package tours of Europeans encourage the tourist behavior though. Much more enjoyable by myself.

My hotel room in Damascus was slightly smaller than my room last year in DC, if you know what that means. My bathroom was as big as a shower should be- and it had a shower, sink, and toilet in it! The movies they show on these buses are so ridiculous. Arab Bruce Lee now, Arab Matt Damon earlier. Something about killing Israelis earlier in Egypt. My last bus was much nicer- they fed us and gave us water.

I think Syria has been the most authentic place I’ve been. Definitely need some Arabic to get around here. Not as much English spoken or written, no western comforts, etc. I imagine this was the whole Arab world 30 years ago. It rained between Palmyra and Damascus, and when I got to Damascus! It was cold too! Facebook is blocked here. Very big cult of personality going on it seems. Big decals of Bashar Assad on cars, flags and posters and images everywhere. Reminds you that you’re in a socialist, Baathist dictatorship. As scary as Syria may be in the minds of many Americans (it was part of Bush’s axis of evil a few years ago), it was really quite a charming country. I had nothing but very good experiences.

On 9 Oct, I took the sleeper train from Damascus to Aleppo. The experience was out of the 18th century, I swear. The train was modern and I had a nice bed/room, but I felt like a European explorer or something traveling between two Arab cities by overnight train. A guy woke me up to let another person sleep above me. He yelled “Ya al-shabab’ as he opened my door; essentially saying, “Hey you young’un!”  The bathroom in the train was pretty disgusting but that’s okay.

I met the guy, a few years older than me, sleeping above me. His name was Samhir, and he took me around Aleppo all day. Helped me buy my return train ticket first, then saved me taxi rides by walking me around the city. It’s cheaper, nothing is very far, and it’s a much better way to see the city. He bought me breakfast (some pretty disgusting Syrian ful. Not the same ful as in Cairo. This was beans, some white substance like mashed potatoes, and oil in a bowl, with pita bread, onions, and mint leaves with sugar to eat with it. It was some hole in the wall restaurant. No menu. No prices. Just a big vat of ful on fire about two feet from me. Again, felt like centuries ago.). Then we took the microbus around the city, as well as the normal buses for public transportation. He paid for all the fares, which is good because I couldn’t figure it out. Also had no idea where these different buses were going- but they seem to have a sixth sense for it. He took me to his family’s house, where I met his brother and mother, and they gave me tea and crackers. He showed me some of his graphic design on the computer, as well as pictures of his family and pictures of pretty, famous female singers. Funny. Especially the graphic art on the family photos. Also had Disney princesses hanging on the walls. Then he took me to his family’s work, a couch making company. I drove an Arabic forklift for a while and then just watched and had lots of tea and talked with him and his four friends. They were quite racist toward the one friend who is ‘black’ although he looks no different to me than the rest of them. Finally, I kissed goodbye like they do on the cheeks! So cool. We talked briefly about 9/11 and Israel. I gathered that we disagree about a lot of Middle Eastern politics.  He saved me lots of money- food, transportation, admittance to the citadel. It even rained while I was there! And it got cold too! He never once asked for money like they would in Cairo, and he refused when I offered.

Anyway, I saw the souq, Umayyad mosque, and citadel in Aleppo. Beautiful.

Overall, my experiences with Samhir and Syria renewed my love for travel and especially meeting new people. I loved Syria and will miss it greatly. Most friendly, hospitable, nice, and authentic place I’ve been.

I sat next to a student at the American University in Damascus on the train from Aleppo to Damascus. Great conversation. Says Syrian men are allowed 4 wives- that’s a little different than the U.S.! Information on his passport is incorrect- says he was born on 01/01/1996 for military service purposes. He asked lots of questions about America and different idioms we use that he had heard in movies.

I made it back to Cairo around 4 am, safe and sound. Assigned readings: Washington Post editorial here and New Yorker piece here. See all Syrian pictures here. I’m headed to Istanbul, Turkey, this coming weekend, so I’ll report on that soon!

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Climbing Mount Sinai with a sunburn; Or, a weekend in Sharm el-Sheikh

On Thursday, I left for Sharm el-Sheikh and Mount Sinai for a few days. Our class schedule was changed again- no late Tuesday class but now class on Sunday. So, just a 3 day weekend 😦

We found the very nice, modern bus station in Cairo. Timed it perfectly- got there about 10:15 for a 10:30 bus- lucky us! There are no schedules for the bus departures, so we just had to guess. We made it successfully under the Suez Canal, but could never see it, no passport checks yet. 4 passport checks and 8 hours later, we arrived in Sharm. Mountains to left, sea to right. Pretty cool. Saw a sand tornado too! Great variety of landscape now- some like an African savannah, others like cliff faces. General thought- the class of culture and history in Egypt between Arab and ancient Egyptian is great and interesting.

On Friday, I didn’t realize we had lost an hour- apparently Egyptian daylight savings time expired overnight. Walked around for a bit, then got a taxi after we couldn’t find a public beach. Ended up at a nice place, just a sliver in between a lot of resorts. Water is beautiful and warm. I think this was the first time I’ve gone swimming in the ocean in a very long time- honestly can’t remember the last time. Gorgeous fish are near the shore and swim around you. Most people were older and almost all European. A few nudists too- and lots of naked babies! It was extremely nice wasting the day lounging by the Red Sea (funny to think I was on the beach in October!). I did get a little sunburned, watched some volleyball and soccer, etc. Ate a very good dinner while watching a soccer match. It was won in the last two seconds- exciting! One of my roommates couldn’t go to Sinai with us because he didn’t have his passport. Unfortunate. I think he was the most excited about it too. Gotta have your passport though! On the drive there, we were instructed to tell the police checkpoints we’re going to Dahab, another city on the Sinai peninsula. Wonder why?

We arrived at St. Katherine’s monastery around 1 am and met our guide up Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Pretty amazing to think that I was there. We arrived at the summit at 4 am- so about 2:45 of climbing time. The climb up was just magical. The stars were bright, everything was silent, it was pitch black, and the moon was an upside down half-circle and quite beautiful. The mountains going straight up around us were silhouetted with the moon and stars and strange light they gave off. Occasionally, we would walk through a herd of camels and Bedouins- like being in a movie. Lawrence of Arabia. The whole trip was exhausting though. The climb was much more strenuous than I thought it would be. I could barely make it, and I’m in fairly good shape. I can’t imagine how some of the people I saw hiking made it to the summit.

(seller at 4 am on the summit)

At 4 am on the summit, I actually got to sleep for an hour. At 5, though, everybody started getting ready for the sunrise. Oh, and it was freezing cold. I was wearing an undershirt. I didn’t expect it to be that cold, but luckily, I was only miserable for an hour or two. The sunrise was magnificent, as expected. Great reveal, great colors. 360 degree view was amazing. Here’s a set of pictures following the sunrise as it progressed.

The hike back down was more intense but a shorter duration. We were able to take pictures since it was no longer black outside. The closest thing I can compare to Mt. Sinai is Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. The landscape is unforgiving, jagged, rocky, etc. Paid 5 LE for water, and it was well worth it! Everything about me hurt and I was tired. We climbed the Stairs of Penitence- the most aptly named set of stairs I can think of. I think I can say that I’m proudest of doing this than anything else I’ve done- the time challenge, the physical challenge, the mental challenge, and the sheer accomplishment of making it to the top of Mount Sinai for the sunrise. Steeped in historical and religious significance. Not to be glib, but if there is one Youtube clip worth watching it may be this. Love Mel Brooks.

We descended down a different path and waited at St. Katherine’s until it opened. We went in and saw the Burning Bush, the well at which Moses met his wife, and a 6th century church and mosque existing side by side. Church and mosque on the top of Mount Sinai as well. Wonder if there is a lesson here we could all learn?

Slept through a quick drive back to Sharm; no passport checks this time. Waited an hour for the 12:30 bus to Cairo. By 8:45, I was back in my apartment exhausted.

Assigned reading: New article from CNN on new discoveries in Egypt here. I’m headed to Syria on Wednesday, so I’ll update after my time there. I may update sooner about my classes. You can see all my Sharm/Sinai pictures here. Thanks for reading!

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