Revolution…Again?

Hello to anyone who still happens to be checking back here! As I imagine you either know or assume by now, I am back at home safe and sound after my stint in Egypt and then about a month as a European tourist. What a semester! Nice to finally be home, relax, and take it all in for a bit.

I wanted to post because if you follow world news at all, Egypt has been front and center with a rather odd sounding story. After massive protests across Egypt, the Egyptian military removed President Morsi from power after only a year in office. This puts Egypt in a rare category, having overthrown two presidents by popular demand in a span of 2 and a half years. The politics of this story are really complicated, and not being presented in their full context in many media sources. If you are interested in getting a slightly more comprehensive understanding than what you will see on the nightly news, here is my own take on the situation, along with some responses and analyses I have come across and found intriguing or helpful.

Perhaps the best introduction that I have found on the matter comes from the Vlogbrothers channel on YouTube (thanks Hank Green, you are my hero for this). To watch that 7 minute video, click here. He did a pretty good job in this video of addressing a lot of the first questions that Americans have when they hear Egypt just overthrew their president, most importantly “didn’t they elect him?” As Hank explains, the rush to elect a new president after the overthrow of Mubarak meant an organizational vacuum among most political persuasions of the revolutionaries. Essentially, the liberal and secular voters ended up splitting their votes early on, which led to a runoff that allowed Egyptians the choice of either Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Shafiq of the Mubarak regime. While these two men each represented the voices of some Egyptians, to many the choice was an attempt to determine the lesser of two evils and hope for the best. Despite Shafiq’s ties to the at that time just deposed Mubarak regime, Morsi only won by a few percentage points. So yes, the Egyptian people did just elect Morsi, but it was an election for which they had not had sufficient time to organize and prepare to avoid splitting votes of more closely aligned candidates. While many tried to make the best of it, there came a tipping point in Morsi’s presidency that prompted some opposition members to devise a new solution.

This new solution was Tamarod, a signature drive that was going around in the last weeks of my own time in Egypt, and continued to circulate until the protests that have just overthrown Morsi. The movement aimed to collect 15 million signatures against Morsi by June 30, the one year anniversary of his inauguration (the number 15 million was chosen because it was higher than the number of votes he had collected in the presidential elections). They called for early elections and planned large demonstrations to take place June 30. By the time of the protest, the leaders of the movement announced that they had collected over 22 million signatures (to put that in perspective, in 2011 Egypt’s population was around 82.5 million people). Beginning a few days before the planned June 30 demonstrations, millions of Egyptians took to the streets in support of Tamarod, calling for Morsi to step down. Those against this move were also out protesting, which in some locations led to violence. Responding to opposition demands that the military assist the will of the people, the Egyptian military gave Morsi a 48 hour deadline to resolve his differences with the opposition, or they would announce their own plan. Morsi allowed the deadline to expire, and on July 3, the head of the armed forces announced that Morsi was no longer the president, and that Adly Mansour, a judge and the current head of the High Constitutional Court, would be taking over as interim president, pending new parliamentary and presidential elections, as well as a redrafting of the constitution. (I am trying my best here to pare this information down to bare facts, but obviously the sources from which all of the current news on Egypt is emerging have strong opinions on the issue, so much of the bare structure of information seems to be contentious).

So all of this leads to another hot button question about what is going on in Egypt–is this a coup? For the past week my Facebook news feed has been a never ending string of different takes on this question, and I have ultimately come to my own conclusion that while this is a very important semantics question in the context of US government aid to Egypt, it ultimately is not a very helpful label for the current situation. People are floating their own terms such as “Popularly Legitimate Coup” and “Revocouption,” and none of them seem totally satisfying. This is a unique event in history, and I think it needs to be understood on its own terms, which the media does not seem to have time for. Does it fit the technical definition of a coup? Yes, a coup is basically the sudden overthrow of a government, and yes, that basically happened here. However the numbers in the streets demonstrating against Morsi were by most reports greater than the numbers in the streets demonstrating against Mubarak in 2011, and they were calling for military assistance to see that their demands were met. This gives it a distinct flavor that is not very well described by the connotations surrounding the term “coup d’etat” in the opinion of many, though certainly according to continued supporters of Morsi’s regime this ought to be labeled a coup.

This is an interesting opinion piece by an Egyptian professor who firmly believes that it should not be considered a coup: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/04/coup-egypt-mohamed-morsi-people

A few immediate thoughts on the event, from one who calls it a revolutionary coup: http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up-front/posts/2013/07/04-egypt-revolutionary-coup-morsi-wittes

And then the article that uses the term “popularly legitimate coup” or “Coup but…” http://www.bigpharaoh.org/2013/07/05/popularly-legitimate-coup-an-egyptian-invention/

So to sum it all up, it is hard to process exactly what this might mean for democracy in Egypt, or more broadly in the Middle East, that we have all been so hopeful about since the Arab spring that got rid of Mubarak and led to Morsi’s presidency in the first place. To those who support what has just happened, the overthrow of President Morsi, is merely a continuation of the revolutionary spirit that overthrew Mubarak’s regime in 2011. The revolution’s demands have not been met, or even satisfactorily addressed, and so the people rose up against a new leader who did not adequately represent them, or in a frequently heard phrase, from a regime that had stolen their revolution. For these people, the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi is a demonstration of the power of the people, similar to the sense of jubilation Egyptians felt after Mubarak fell in 2011. Of course, there are many sides to this story, and for those who believed in the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, this was a sad day for democracy in Egypt, in which the military overthrew a legitimately elected leader. While there are plenty of indications that seem to point to the probability that Morsi no longer had the consent of the governed, there are no real hard facts to deny that Morsi was a legitimately elected leader ousted by the military.

I think it is important to remember a few things here. First of all, the United States does not have a monopoly on democracy. Egypt today is forging its own path, and the answers it finds to the questions of how to form a responsive government likely will differ from America’s answers to these same questions. Once Egypt’s democracy has had time to develop, it may look very different from our American democracy, because it was forged in a different time and place by people with different needs. It would not be wise to assume that any variances from our own model of government indicate a weakness in the commitment of Egyptians’ to forming a government that will respond appropriately to the will of its people.

Secondly, we must remember that revolutions take time. There are 13 years between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States that indicate the time it took between deciding our country was independent, and when we finally developed a system that allowed us to effectively govern it. That was a different time, and I don’t by any means wish to draw a direct parallel, I would, however, like to remind you that the Egyptian Revolution may not have ended just because they got a new president. Revolutions occur when there are deep problems embedded within a country’s apparatus of power, and it can and will take time to sort those institutionalized problems out. Add to that a sense of victimization and consequent lashing out at opponents by previously suppressed groups, and you quickly realize there is a lot of mess to sort through in the wake of revolutionary fervor. It is unwise to rush this process (often done by rushing to elect new leadership before the time is ripe) as sorting through these problems takes an immense effort before a new system can find itself on stable ground. While as an American the idea of what is going on in Egypt right now is pretty hard to grasp, and perhaps a little bit frightening, based on the hope expressed by many people I know there, I personally am trying to give the situation the benefit of the doubt, and I hope it will turn out as many believe it will to be a move in the interest of the Egyptian people. It is impossible to say what lies ahead for Egypt, either in the immediate, or more long range future, but I hope you will join me in hoping for better days for this country that welcomed me so kindly.

What Study Abroad Meant to Me

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou

Since I started college I have heard so many of my friends and peers debating whether or not to study abroad. Do I have time in my schedule? What will I miss at my school in a semester? Is it worth it? These are the questions that usually come up. Obviously, the answer to the first two is personal, and I cannot answer it for anyone but myself. Equally obvious is how easy it is for a language dork such as myself to justify studying outside of America for a time. Regardless of these two caveats, having gone through the experience I have some insight into that final question: as to whether or not study abroad is worth it the answer is an unequivocal and unqualified yes. As far as I am concerned there can be no exception to this rule. I know there are some genuine and justifiable reasons why an individual might choose not to study abroad, but if it is an option for you personally, please do study abroad. Study abroad absolutely anywhere and for at least a semester. I cannot imagine that you will regret it.

Having spent a bit of time to reflect on my experience (not a lot, mind you, plenty of reflecting yet to be done) I can offer my take on what I got from my own study abroad experience. There were some really specific things I got out of it that cannot be applied as general advice to any student who might be considering study abroad. For example, I needed to intensively work on Arabic, so I chose a language pledge Arabic program. I also wanted specifically to get to know the Middle East on a personal level (we are on a nickname basis now, Alexandria is her formal name, but she goes by Alex). Neither of these things are true of many people.

These two aspects were central and critical to my own study abroad experience, but there are general gains to be made by any American student studying abroad in Egypt, New Zealand, France, Italy, or wherever the wind may blow them, and this is perhaps the most beneficial aspect of study abroad. I cannot speak for everyone’s life path of course, but you may never have a logistically simpler way to settle in for several months into a completely different country, and having gone through this now I firmly believe it is an experience everyone of our generation should try to take advantage of, but not exactly for the reasons people emphasize.

A lot of times people try to sell study abroad as if it is a sort of extended vacation with some classes thrown in to justify your time. When done right that is exactly what it is not. I am on a vacation right now, and an amazing one where I am seeing a lot of incredible European cities that are all brand shiny new to me. We are in each place for a few days—just enough time to see the sights, eat the food, and travel to the next place. There is definitely something to be said for this type of travel—it exposes you to the world’s diversity and allows you to soak in some history. I believe any kind of travel is genuinely enriching, and I absolutely encourage it, but it cannot replace the experience of settling in. On this kind of trip you end up hopping from place to place noticing how different every city is from where you live, or perhaps how different they are from each other—but in any case the point of pure travel is seeking and appreciating difference.

Study abroad—and by this I mean for at least a semester as it really does take that long to be able to reach this point—but study abroad is about seeking and appreciating the ways in which people and places are the same, and now as any other time, that is an incredibly important lesson to learn. We have heard it constantly stashed into neat little slogans since kindergarten, but seeing this lesson come together in an environment that had originally shocked you as incredibly foreign and different is the only way I have yet experienced to truly comprehend it. Of course this goes in stages, and honestly you may not feel it until your time is done, but the lesson will seep in if you have taken the time to truly engage with your host country.

Fresh off the plane, more than likely you will see the differences everywhere. People are speaking in a completely different language (maybe some more rapid version of one you have been studying in a textbook or maybe one you are wholly unfamiliar with), people dress slightly differently and have different ideas of what to do with their hair, people use different hand gestures or they use the same ones to mean something completely different, the architecture looks different, the city looks older, take your pick. All of these things will stand out to you on your first day, and many of them will continue to surprise, delight and frustrate you for the next few weeks or possibly months. But every day your new city will hold a few less surprises and a few more familiar faces. Every day that gibberish the people on the streets seem to be able to communicate in will be that much more comprehensible. And this is when you slowly start to realize that people everywhere are just people, with the same motivations, the same worries, and the same dreams. They go about it a different way because they grew up in a different corner of the world, and so often we allow that simple fact to obscure the great many things we share. People love to love and be loved. People will do so much to support and protect their families—in whatever form these families may come. People like to find an order and an explanation for the world around them. People plan for the future. People set goals for themselves. People enjoy making connections. People do what they need to do to get by. People live by a set of values they believe in as much as they are able to—sometimes tied to religion, sometimes of their own devising. People make mistakes. None of these things are limited by nationality. The story will be the same anywhere you go.

You can sit next to your teacher’s poster stating “Appreciate our similarities, celebrate our differences” every day for a year, and you still won’t appreciate just what it means until you have seen the foreign melt into the human before your own eyes. I saw it in Egypt, and I assure you Egypt looks and feels foreign to an American arriving there. By the time my mom was visiting me at the end of the semester, I had suddenly seemed to forget so many of the less glaring ways Egypt was different to me when I first arrived, and seeing her discover Egypt in a week demonstrated to me the difference between travel and study abroad. To be clear, “people are people everywhere you go” is not an insight or a thought that is new to me. I, like most people, have never consciously thought anything else. But the thing is, this lesson is too important to leave to chance, and one must be absolutely certain that there is not the tiniest speck of doubt in one’s subconscious that people of X, Y or Z country that is in whatever type of conflict with A, B or C other country are in fact people. All of the most terrifying events in human history, where people have acted in unimaginably cruel ways toward their fellow human beings have come as a result to at least some extent of dehumanization. People on one side of a conflict somehow managed to convince themselves that people on the other side were less human than they were, and that they had nothing in common with them. Apparently it is a surprisingly and horrifyingly easy belief to shed. I am hopeful that a future world in which more people have had the chance to settle in and get to know people of a different land on a personal level will be a world in which this belief is harder to shake for whatever political ends may be at hand. That sounds like a really lofty statement when what I am basically saying is that you personally should study abroad for a semester—but I think the point I am trying to make is that the more people this world has who have who studied abroad, the more people it has who know in the deepest corners of their mind that people are people, and surely that is the world we all want to live in.

So this generic letter is just one more way of saying thank you to everyone who made this semester possible for me. Thank you and all of the love in my heart.

Goodbye for now

It has been a while since I wrote, and I do apologize. The last month or so has been quite the whirlwind, as we took a program trip to Siwa, had two days of class, then two weeks vacation, then our last two weeks of projects and exams as well as trying to say our goodbyes to our adopted home. Unfortunately I did not really have much time throughout this to sit and collect my thoughts. This does mean I missed posting on Siwa, which was amazing, as well as my trip to Greece, also amazing–but I cannot take time to write about these now as I sit here in Cairo the evening before leaving this country for an as yet undetermined amount of time (I am telling everyone confidently that I will be back in a year, after I graduate. This seems like a good answer for now, so I will work on making that happen). For now I will share a few pictures of Siwa and Greece, but as I said that is not where my head is right now.

Sunset in Siwa

Sunset in Siwa

A different sunset in Siwa--also quite lovely

A different sunset in Siwa–also quite lovely

Me on Mountain of the Dead overlooking Siwa...

Me on Mountain of the Dead overlooking Siwa…

And then after a brief interlude for a few classes, two friends and I took off for Greece where we went to Athens and Santorini–and met up with a friend of one of my friends who knew her way around and spoke Greek (as well as being an awesome travel companion)!

Us in front of the Parthenon!

Us in front of the Parthenon!

Sunset in Oia on Santorini

Sunset in Oia on Santorini…so beautiful (oh tourists, the whole western side of the village is packed for sunset, and applauded when the sun set)…

Both of these trips were amazing, and either would deserve its own post, and not to short change them, but I feel right now like I need to write my thoughts on leaving this beautiful beautiful country.

My mom has been here this past week, and we are in Cairo now to see the pyramids and a few of the sites before I take off for Europe. We took a private car from Alexandria to Cairo (we had a lot of luggage, not to mention I was not sure whether or not my mom would be up for the rather overwhelming train experience), and one of the girls on my program who will be staying here for the summer hitched a ride with us since she needs to get her computer fixed. While it feels like the time has flown, reflecting back on the beginning of the semester on the four hour car ride with her made me realize just how much we have changed since those first tentative days in Alexandria, when taxi rides felt dangerous and Egyptian Arabic sounded like rhythmic gibberish. I am giving myself a moment to be proud of my ability to fly halfway around the world, knowing no one on the other end, with only two years of study in an archaic form of the local language to prepare me, and to end up having what is probably the most rewarding and enjoyable experience of my life. It will be hard to judge until I have returned to my normal routine this fall, but I feel like I have grown a lot this semester, or at least changed. I now know myself better, and what is best is that I know I have the ability to adapt to a very different environment from the one I am used to. On top of all of this, I have made so many friends here, and most importantly Arabic nerd friends. We are a small community in America, and it was so luxurious to have a whole group of us together to appreciate each others’ bilingual jokes. I will miss so many things about being in Egypt, but it of course will be nice to see home and Bowdoin again, for a bit. I say for a bit, because I am not sure how long I will be able to keep myself away from Egypt. I don’t think it will be very long–I truly have fallen in love with this country, and will miss so many tiny details of my life here when I get back to normal (that is not to say there won’t be details of my Bowdoin life that I am glad to get back to).

It is hard to imagine now how comfortable and welcome I felt in a place so very far from home, and that is something that I need to thank all of the Egyptians who were here with the Middlebury program–our roommates and professors and everyone we met along the way. I truly feel as much like I am leaving “home” as I did after my first semester at Bowdoin, which honestly is impressive given how easy adjusting to Bowdoin life was comparatively. I can never thank you enough for the warm welcome you gave me. Thank you for the many cups of tea, juice and coffee, the long conversations about anything and everything, your patience when I understood so little of your language, your shaaby dance lessons, and generally prioritizing spending time with us (even if it was to see an absolutely terrible movie). You did not only help me to progress linguistically, but you successfully made me feel comfortable in my new territory, and you are the true reason that I already want to return to Egypt before I even have left. I love Egypt so much. We had our ups and downs, and a few days of profound frustration, but on the eve of my departure all I feel is love, respect, and a tinge of regret that I will not be here longer right now. I know the country is going through a rough time, but I have nothing but the highest hopes for it. I sincerely hope that I will be back here to see a brighter day for Egypt in the near future (ان شاء الله), and of course to see all of your lovely faces again.

Thank you again to everyone who made my semester in Egypt such an enriching experience. Words cannot express my thanks (in either language). The very fondest of farewells, but I hope not for long, to Egypt and its people (as well as my fellow American students).

Settled in…

I am sorry that it has been so long since I posted anything on here. I keep meaning to and then each time I try to write something I am drawing a blank. Egypt no longer feels new, and surprises no longer await me around every corner. I have settled into what it means to live here. Don’t get me wrong, I am still definitely a foreigner, but I have gotten quite used to even what that means here and how it affects the way people react to me when I pass. I am not by any means bored, I am just feeling more comfortable and accustomed to my surroundings, despite how different they are from what I am accustomed to at home or at school. It is no longer surprising when I turn the corner at the Medina, and see the men from the welding shop welding things without any sort of goggles or masks, sparks flying, in the middle of the sidewalk during the morning rush hour, nor is it surprising to see donkey carts outpacing cars on the major streets of Alexandria, nor am I shocked when I see a wheelbarrow full of bricks being hoisted up the side of an under construction building by a rope. I still notice these things, but they have become a part of the fabric of my daily life. I guess that is what study abroad is about: going somewhere and settling long enough to get over the initial awe you feel at the differences you see so you can arrive at a greater understanding of the similarities all people share no matter where they are from. That is the difference in my intentions here that gives me the right to insist that no, I am not a tourist. A tourist comes to marvel, a student comes to understand. I have done my fair share of marveling, how can you not when you are in the country of one of the world’s oldest civilizations? But I am doing a lot more than simply gawking at the pyramids or gazing in awe at the architectural beauty of Cairo’s mosques. I am settling in, and trying my very best to understand what it means to be Egyptian, even though I can never wholly blend in here.

I have been making a point of getting out more in Alex as it is becoming clear that my time here is winding down, and I want to make sure I get everything I can out of my last month and half here. For example, I finally went with a group of friends to Fort Qaitbey–a beautiful 15th century fort that looms over Western Alexandria–last week on a day with stunningly perfect weather. I have also been going to quite a few concerts, which hopefully I can talk about in a post soon. Thursday night I went to a particularly enjoyable one, a band called Karakeeb that put on a really great show at the library.

The Citadel of Qaitbey

The Citadel of Qaitbey

The view from inside the fort looking east...Alexandria at its loveliest...

The view from inside the fort looking east…Alexandria at its loveliest…

But anyway, since what my overwhelming feeling right now is is just how used to my Egyptian routine I am, I figured I should let you in on just what that routine is. So here goes…a (week)day in the life of Jen in Alexandria…

Unless it is Wednesday, when I don’t have a class until 11 am, consequently making Wednesday my favorite day of the week, I always have class at 9 am at the TAFL Center. I intend to get up around 8 and get ready in a leisurely fashion, arriving at the TAFL Center nice and early enough to get a morning coffee from Aam Ahmed. However, quite frequently, it is a less than leisurely hop up at 8:30, dress as quickly as possible, and power walk to TAFL. I have two or three classes any given day, and just to remind you, yes, they are 100% in Arabic…I love my professors and my classes. Because our program is so small, and because our professors tend to hang around TAFL most of the day, we have very close relationships with our professors here. In particular, the two Fusha (standard Arabic) professors on our program are two of the most engaging and genuinely enthusiastic professors I have had in any subject–which is lucky because if I didn’t love my Fusha professors here I would be quite tempted to ignore it entirely in favor of working harder to be able to communicate in Egyptian dialect, which though not necessarily more important in the long run, certainly feels like a more pressing need on a daily basis for me.

I almost always have a long enough lunch break that I walk to my aforementioned sandwich table (which I finally got a picture of! See below!) or to a little shop where falafel sandwiches (Falafel!) are 1 guinea! (That is cheap even by Egypt standards–a falafel  sandwich is more frequently 6 guinea or so–also this place has the BEST falafel). Then I head back for afternoon  classes, which are always over by just after 3 in the afternoon.

My sandwich table, and its owner who is dressed in a suit and tie every single day!

My sandwich table, and its owner who is dressed in a suit and tie every single day!

Because the weather has still been so nice, and because I am still not over the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea even after months of living about two blocks from it, I quite often stroll down the Corniche after classes, sometimes pausing for a while to just sit at my favorite perch, see the picture below. Sometimes I read here, but quite often I spend the whole time just looking out at the sea and how beautiful it is. And then, once the sun has set, begins my nightly quest for sufficient internet.

My thinking spot...so peaceful so long as you can tune out the horns blaring behind you on the Corniche

My thinking spot…so peaceful so long as you can tune out the horns blaring behind you on the Corniche

Internet in Egypt…is definitely spotty. Especially since one of the weirdest news stories I have ever seen reported, when divers off the coast of Alexandria apparently cut a very important internet-related wire (http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/internet-saboteur-caught-says-telecom-egypt-ceo). I can’t claim to understand the story, but I will say internet has been more challenging since this incident. The apartment generally works though recently it has been quite slow which means that if I need to do anything like watch a video or download something, it is often a better idea to go to one of the cafe’s we frequent. On weekdays, I tend to stay either in the apartment or at these cafes until my homework is done. Then I return to the Medina and either go to bed or stay up quite late talking to the other girls.

One of the best parts of my routine though, is that I have standard three day weekends. I definitely catch up on sleep during the weekend, but they are also a great chance to hang out with friends and see more of Alexandria. Especially since spring break when we got to know the Egyptian guys from the boys’ dorm better, we have been meeting up for dinners, movies, and outings most weekends with them, which has been a lot of fun every time. It is nice that we do tend to have time to relax and get out of the dorms. I wouldn’t call the workload light, but I definitely have more free time than I do at Bowdoin. I also am able to justify going out in Alexandria to myself academically by reminding myself that anytime I am talking to Egyptians it is, in some way, academically beneficial as well. I think this attitude has contributed a lot to how much I am enjoying this semester.

I hope this post wasn’t too dull! And if it was hopefully I can make up for it soon–I have upcoming trips to both Siwa Oasis and Greece, so I will be sure to fill you in on what that is like! I miss you all, and look forward to sharing my stories and thoughts in person once I am back in America!

Al Igaza! (A brief and incomplete account of my spring break adventures)

So we just got back to Alexandria a few hours ago, and rather than dive into my homework I have decided to write up my spring break adventures while they are still fresh in my mind. Spring break could honestly not have been more wonderful. I managed to strike an excellent balance of relaxing and completely insane adventures, and it was wonderful. If I were to tell all of the stories, this post would be insanely long…but I will try to hit the highlights. First though, a basic overview:

We took a train to Cairo on Thursday night, and didn’t make the return trip until Monday night, though we spent Saturday on a safari type trip in El Fayoum, an oasis south of Cairo. We had a day to regroup before we left at 5 in the morning on Wednesday for Hurghada, where I spent the first two days swimming and enjoying the beach and the next day on another desert safari tour. Unfortunately far too many stories to relate in one post but between a few stories and a few pictures hopefully you can get an idea.

El Fayoum:

So our El Fayoum day was a tour organized by the hostel we stayed at in Cairo (Dina’s Hostel by the way, I highly recommend it). We grumblingly rolled out of bed to board our 7 am bus to drive us down to El Fayoum. After a brief moment when the partner hotel in El Fayoum didn’t seem to think we had reserved a tour, our driver arrived, and we headed off into the desert. Very, very far into the desert…at which point our tire decided it was done.

We had been driving deep into the desert for at least an hour by the time this tire simply exploded...

We had been driving deep into the desert for at least an hour by the time this tire simply exploded…

Luckily we were able to hitch a ride with our police escort!

Luckily we were able to hitch a ride with our police escort!

Now I know from already having discussed this story with some people back home, the police escort sounds a bit sketchy at first but it really is not. Egypt is heavily reliant on its tourism, which currently is still struggling to bounce back after the revolution, and so goes to great lengths to protect tourists while they are in Egypt. It is standard procedure to send a police escort with tour groups, particularly in rural areas. Mostly they were there so someone would be around if something happened to our vehicle in the middle of the desert (and look, it did!). As it turned out, our ride with the police ended up being one of the best parts of the day. The guys climbed in the back with the armed police (as you can see in the picture) and the four girls piled into the back seat of the interior. The two police up front with us were extremely animated and excited also that we could speak Arabic. They started asking us about our opinion on Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood (which we refrained from expressing given our current position inside an Egyptian police car), and various other topics. As we were rolling along they suddenly pointed to what appeared to be a vertical wall and told us we were about to drive up it. We all started laughing, but then as we noticed the car was still headed straight for it we realized he had not been joking. I grabbed my friend’s hand as we accelerated up the hill (and I hoped the boys would manage not to fall out the back, seeing as they had had no warning about our vertical path). We made it to the top and the car felt as if it were teetering on the edge of rolling back down the way we came or plummeting forward. Nonetheless, we climbed out to take some pictures of the amazing view this windy perch afforded us.

This is the best shot I managed to snap of the hill/wall our police friends chose to drive us up, though I must say it looked more intimidating in real life. Also note how unnecessary it is to choose this path as it is quite easy to drive around...only in Egypt...

This is the best shot I managed to snap of the hill/wall our police friends chose to drive us up, though I must say it looked more intimidating in real life. Also note how unnecessary it is to choose this path as it is quite easy to drive around…only in Egypt…

Our car perched precariously on said hill...

Our car perched precariously on said hill…

And the view from the top of said hill...okay pretty worth it I suppose (and I lived to tell the tale, so definitely worth it)

And the view from the top of said hill…okay pretty worth it I suppose (and I lived to tell the tale, so definitely worth it)

We then proceeded to our official destination, Wadi El Hitan, or Valley of the Whales, which is a UNESCO world heritage site that has several whale fossils that help to demonstrate the evolution of the whale. It is also just a lovely walk in the desert, so we enjoyed both things.

A whale spine in the desert!

A whale spine in the desert!

Such a cool landscape...the designs in the rocks by the way are completely natural even though some of them almost look like carvings.

Such a cool landscape…the designs in the rocks by the way are completely natural even though some of them almost look like carvings.

Oh my goodness an oasis!

Oh my goodness an oasis!

Fayoum is also famous for its pottery--this shop is in a village called Tunis

Fayoum is also famous for its pottery–this shop is in a village called Tunis

The day had one final adventure in store for us. As we were in the bus headed back to Cairo we had to stop for gas. I am not sure how widely this has been reported outside of Egypt, but Egypt currently is undergoing a pretty serious fuel shortage that was explained quite well in this article. Basically this means that if you pass a gas station in Egypt in the past few weeks, it is either completely empty (having run out of fuel) or has an impossibly long line of cars stretching blocks from it all waiting for their fuel ration. Though this problem exists in Alexandria, it is far more pronounced in Cairo, and even worse in rural regions like El Fayoum. The line for fuel at this gas station was at least a mile long, and two or three cars wide for that whole length, but as our driver pulled up to the front next to the ambulance, we realized why he hadn’t bothered to fuel up while we were in the desert. We watched, shocked, as our van was ushered in front of, not only the tragically long line of Egyptians waiting on fuel, but even in front of the ambulance, and all because or bus was full of foreigners. We caught a few death stares, notably from the ambulance driver, but we fueled up quickly and were back on our way to Cairo.

We had a bit more time to spend in Cairo, and we saw some quite lovely things. Here are a few photographic highlights!

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun (as seen from halfway up its minaret)

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun (as seen from halfway up its minaret)

The view of Cairo from the top of the minaret

The view of Cairo from the top of the minaret

A bead store in Islamic Cairo/Khan al Khalili

A bead store in Islamic Cairo/Khan al Khalili

The courtyard at Al Azhar Mosque

The courtyard at Al Azhar Mosque

Another shot of Al Azhar Mosque

Another shot of Al Azhar Mosque

Hurghada

After a day back in Alexandria to get ready and packed for Hurghada, we boarded our 5 am bus and settled in for an 11 hour ride. I am always a bit weird about cameras on the beach, so I am afraid I don’t have pictures to show you from the beach I lounged on for two days. We also went in a semi-submarine boat where we looked out at coral reefs and all sorts of fish and snorkeled off the side. It was really lovely. The Red Sea is a stunning turquoise and the water was the perfect temperature for swimming. But one can only handle so much relaxation, so the last day we were there a group of students and a few professors headed off for another desert safari where we rode sand buggies, camels and a car called spiders (and also rode on top, rather than inside of our safari vehicle for a bit). This area of desert was quite different than the deserts around El Fayoum and was characterized mostly by dark colored mountains. This safari was definitely very touristy (makes sense–Hurghada is a major tourist spot), but it was still a lot of fun, mostly because of the company. I can’t emphasize enough how much I love the people affiliated  with this program–the other students, the professors and the Egyptian language partners. By far the best part of the Hurghada trip was spending time with them.

Of course we also enjoyed our fair share of feeling-like-foreigners moments–don’t we always? Perhaps the best was when a bunch of us had gone out to a cafe and were all headed back in a microbus which our group pretty much filled. We pulled over for another man and as he opened the door, three different people in our group, with the intention of suggesting he take the front seat instead, said “Mumkin fo’?” which, rather than “Maybe up front?” translates to “Maybe on top?” and the Egyptians among us enjoyed mocking our suggestion that this poor stranger ride on top of the microbus. We also got lots of opportunity to laugh at ourselves as one of the Egyptian guys attempted to teach us shaabi dance moves (shaabi means “popular” and is a genre of music that I typically encounter as young guys zoom past on motorcycles blasting music at inconceivably high volumes). Basically, this dancing involved lot of moving of the arms “like you have a knife” he kept telling us, and as you progress to level two you do these arm movements while hopping like a frog. This looked a lot more like dancing when he did it than when we tried, but it was still a lot of fun laughing at our pitiful attempts and busting out our “moves” in the middle of the desert or really anytime the situation needed livening. Basically this break was a great chance to hang out and relax and see more of Egypt, and it was just the thing I needed.

Me being my cheesy self in the desert

Me being my cheesy self in the desert

Ready to be blasted in the face by sand on our sand buggy ride...also we just look cool...

Ready to be blasted in the face by sand on our sand buggy ride…also we just look cool…

A picture I snapped as we flew away from the Red Sea and back to classes...it really was a perfect break...

A picture I snapped as we flew away from the Red Sea and back to classes…it really was a perfect break…

Until next time!

Fee Fikka? : An Unexpected Detail of My Life in Egypt

“Fee Fikka?” means “Is there change?” and is a shockingly important question if you plan on spending time in Egypt. Among all the potential hurdles I found to worry about before I left for Egypt, I must say that getting correct change didn’t make my list—but as it turns out this is a consistently difficult task. I am not sure exactly what the reason is for this, but it seems there is a nationwide shortage of small change—which when coupled with generally small prices, makes for quite a struggle to hoard your small change.

 

To give you an idea of the problem, when I go to an ATM it dutifully spits out a bunch of 200 guinea bills. Don’t get me started on this—I really cannot fathom why someone along the line made the decision to print so many 200 guinea bills when so little costs nearly that much. Most days, the things I buy include one or two guinea-a-piece sandwiches from my holes-in-the-wall of choice, perhaps a 2 guinea giant bottle of water, and if I am really on a spending spree a 10 guinea coffee from one of the cafes with internet that we frequent, or maybe I will eat the most expensive meal out I have been to yet—which cost 70 guinea. A few times after going to the ATM I have found myself in a dilemma when I only have 200 guinea bills, and all I want is a one guinea foul sandwich that I effectively cannot afford, because if I present the 200 guinea bill, in all likelihood my friend at the sandwich table Hosni will chuckle and inform me that he doesn’t have change for my giant bill. Other times, shopkeepers try to accommodate me, which leads to me waiting in their store for about 10 minutes as they go up and down the street to their neighbors trying to make change.

 

The weirdest part of this problem is how inversely a lot of shopkeepers seem to value their money. More than once, I have noticed that shopkeepers would literally prefer to charge me slightly less than to hand over their small change—usually this is for items that cost a certain number of guineas and 25 piastres (cents, basically) and giving me proper change would require handing over a precious 50 piastre piece and a 25 piastre piece, so instead they give me a whole guinea back. The odd psychology of this has spread among us as well. For example, I would much more willingly lend a friend 200 guinea if they hadn’t been to an ATM in a while than I would break a 20 into 5s even if I had them. We hoard our small change now, and still it seems hard to keep it properly stocked.

 

Why, you ask? Well for one, the second you get in a taxi (and are clearly not Egyptian) you really need to expect that whatever you hand over is what you are paying. Negotiating cab fares is a constant struggle here, and asking for change (at least for timid me) feels like adding insult to injury if the cab driver is attempting to overcharge me—and mind you I make a habit of handing over a few guinea extra as it is. Secondly, I tend to use small change whenever I ride the tram, which costs 25 piastres. It is often quite crowded and the payment system can be slightly chaotic, so while I probably could get change, it is much easier to cough up the right amount. Also, it really can just be a lot more convenient to pay in correct change anywhere around Alexandria, so whenever I get a good stash I have a bad habit of reveling in it (read: using it), and finding myself a few days later with a wallet full of 200s.

 

Anyway, after classes tomorrow I am on vacation for a week, and I could not be more ready for a bit of relaxation. I am headed to a few places this break: Cairo, El Fayoum, Hurghada, and possibly a bit more tourism type stuff around Alexandria. I will be sure to post some highlights here when I get back after a week of relaxing in oases, metropolises and Red Sea resorts! Till next time…

Anecdotes for your amusement

I have had quite a few Skype dates with friends and family back home recently, and it has been really nice to see my some familiar faces again, but these Skype dates have shown me how difficult it is to properly relate my stories from Egypt to people who haven’t been here. Though I didn’t struggle to adjust, so many things about life here in Egypt are so different than they are in America, that when I try to tell my stories to someone who doesn’t know Egypt they sometimes seem to make very little sense. Here is a series of amusing anecdotes for you, and I will try to relay enough background information that you can understand their context as well. Hopefully they can bring a smile to your face as you imagine these sorts of occurrences which are now a part of my daily life.

A Haircut Costs a Chicken

David, one of my classmates on the program, is living in a homestay with the kindest woman you could hope to meet, Mama Batta. She is famous among students on our program for sending David with a bag full of sandwiches, and if you start pondering lunch at just the right time, you can often score a Mama Batta sandwich for free (Thanks Mama Batta/David, y’all are the best). Anyway, early in the program she was assuring him that students who stayed with her were free to practice their religion in her house, there was no problem whatsoever. David has a somewhat sarcastic sense of humor, and made a joke that he would probably need to sacrifice a chicken, and Mama Batta immediately said that was fine, she would just need to put plastic down. We had all heard this anecdote, of course, as David’s birthday was approaching. I joked to Matthew that we should buy him a live chicken as a present. This idea was an inspiration to Matthew, who purchased a chicken at an outdoor market near his dorm and brought it to the Middlebury apartment on Sunday. When David finally arrived we presented him with the chicken and had a good laugh, and then we had to determine what was to be done with it. Matthew, who was in need of a haircut, decided that he was going to attempt to barter the chicken for a haircut. A few of us followed him to the barber next door who required very little convincing to accept the chicken in exchange for a haircut. Granted, the chicken had cost 30 guinea, and a haircut should be in the neighborhood of 5 guinea, so it was a good deal for the barber, but also it was a live chicken rather than the much simpler to deal with money. When Matthew passed the next day the barber informed him that he had eaten the chicken that night, and thanked him very much for the exchange. Only in Egypt…

People Pay You to Ride in this Car?

In addition to driving being literally completely insane, many taxis are in….interesting condition. One stands out as being definitely the worst. When we arrived in Cairo last month, our coordinator helped us get taxis to take us to the hotel. To begin, the man told us the meter was not working, so our coordinator was sure to tell us exactly how much to pay since she knew where our hotel was. Four of us piled into the taxi with our luggage, and we took off, looking forward to our weekend in Cairo. We immediately noticed an incessant beeping every few seconds, but I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. It became increasingly clear that our driver had no idea where our hotel was (despite having assured us he was familiar with it), and we drove around in circles asking several random passersby for directions. The beeping continued under all of this confusion. Suddenly, as our driver was attempting to execute a three point turn, the car sputtered a bit and stopped. He got out, and opened the hood to figure out what the problem was. My friend who was sitting in the front seat turned back to us and said “Literally every warning light on this dash is lit up! I’m not sure how this car was moving in the first place.” This explained the incessant beeping. After doing I am not precisely sure what under the hood, our driver got back in the car and drove us a few more blocks. We couldn’t see our hotel, but he pointed to the right and said “It is that way, it is down there just a bit.” We headed “that way” with our suitcases in tow and walked for almost ten minutes with no luck. Finally we stopped and asked a man if he knew our hotel, and he pointed in the precise opposite direction, of course. We finally arrived, though I believe we were about half an hour behind the group that had left the train station at the same time as us.

Look! Americans! Quickly, Change the Music!

This is actually one of the most amusing things about Egypt: if a group of us enters an establishment for the first time, oftentimes said establishment switches to their American playlist. Now some of these have been put together nicely, and include music of a certain genre that matches the general atmosphere. Other times this is less true. Some of these playlists are a virtual dumping ground for all things American, and will play Frank Sinatra, Usher and Grease Lightning back to back. There is a cafe that a few of us have become regulars at as it is both near the dorm and has Wi-Fi that most of the time works. The cafe itself is very nice, always clean, and looks out on the Corniche. It looks like an ideal place to do homework. The first few times we went there however, they blasted their American playlist at incredibly high volumes. Their American playlist included Candy Shop, Get Low, and other similar songs that are not necessarily my preferred study music. Now that we are regulars they tend to keep their usual music playing when we are there, though I was there on my own the other night and they played Jenny from the block three times in two hours, which given that the waiter knows me was possibly related to my presence. Oh well, anything for Wi-Fi and a good cappuccino.

Anyway, I hope these few anecdotes can entertain you for now. I am sure there are more to come!