Hello friendly shopkeeper I bought a water bottle from this one time, would you mind if three Americans crowded into your shop to interview you?

I know my last post was recent…but this one was too tempting to miss sharing it…

At the end of last week, all five of the Egyptian roommates on our hall whose job it is to help us with homework when they are around traveled and they all have yet to return to Alexandria. This became a challenge for me and the two other girls in our media class as our homework for tomorrow morning entailed asking four Egyptians an 8-question interview about their news reading and watching habits. We ran into each other in the hallway and debated what we should do. We decided to try our luck outside.

Earlier in the afternoon, I had bought a water bottle (and a kinder bar, whoops!) from a very nice man–whose name I now know is Salah–who either owns or works in a convenience store around the corner from our dorms. He was one of the people, like I mentioned in my previous post, who was so pleased to meet an American learning Arabic, and was more than happy to let me attempt to speak. He seemed like an ideal candidate for our somewhat absurdly long interview, so the three of us headed for his shop.

“Hello a second time!” I said as we entered the crowded little shop. He seemed genuinely excited to have us there, and was extremely accomodating as we stumbled through our very detailed questions. When we didn’t know the names of newspapers he wrote them out for us and had us copy them down. As we were interviewing, people would come by to get a soda or a water bottle, and as the three of us basically filled the space of the little shop, Salah would ask us to hand him whatever the customer was asking for. All in all this process took about 20 minutes.

We were somewhat lost for a next stop but decided to try Aseer Mecca–a juice counter by the dorms that a few of us have frequented in the evenings. I was a bit tentative about this choice, as Aseer Mecca is always quite crowded with customers and some people who just seem to hang out there most of the night. At any given time there are four or five employees within earshot and perhaps 20 or so mostly young men scattered about in front of the shop. But we decided to go because we at least knew the shopkeeper was nice and would recognize us.

He was also very accommodating, but I definitely felt like we were often in the way of the many nighttime customers at Aseer Mecca. Eventually, he called another worker up to the cash register and stepped aside to answer our questions. Luckily, this time around we had practiced them once and were familiar with the way the questions should sound. We obliged by buying some juice and thanked him before heading off for our third target.

It was at this point one of the other girls remembered that Mohammad (a University of Alexandria student who works for Middlebury) was currently staffing the Middlebury apartment. He at least was somewhat required to put up with us, and we had met him during orientation, so we went there. After that things passed much less publicly and eventfully than before. Still, I guess this is what adventures abroad is all about!

The two men whose business we interrupted are beautiful examples of Egyptian hospitality. True, in this case we were not in their homes, but both of these men went out of their way to accommodate foreigners who needed to conduct interviews through a language barrier. However embarrassed we felt, neither of these men tried to make us feel at all guilty for what was, in all honesty, a rather inconvenient request. This spirit of hospitality and accommodation is one of the things I love about Egypt so far. This is an assignment I won’t soon be forgetting…


Two years of Revolution

This post comes to you in two parts–first my thoughts on the second anniversary of the revolution and its accompanying violence, and then my thoughts on being an obvious foreigner here in Egypt.

Yesterday (January 25, 2013) was the two year anniversary of Egypt’s revolution. Sadly, due to opposition feelings that the revolution’s goals have yet to be achieved, the day was not one of celebration, but rather, one of violence. There were demonstrations and clashes throughout Egypt that left many injured and two dead. Today, Alexandria is calm once more, and we are allowed out of our dorm, but violence is ongoing and fatal in a city called Port Said. The violence underscores the sad fact that though Egypt united to topple the widely (though not universally) despised Mubarak regime, it remains deeply divided on what Egypt’s future should look like. I cannot state with confidence who I personally hope will ultimately prevail in Egypt, but I can confidently say that I hope Egypt regains peace and stability soon.

Ever since we arrived, the program had been warning us of the importance of January 25 in Egypt, and had indicated that we would probably be asked to remain indoors (which was in fact the case). A few of us were out shopping last week and a shopkeeper kept saying “Well it is a good thing you will be leaving before next Friday.” When we told him we would still, in fact, be here, he looked quite scared and said, “Well…I think that day will be very bad. Very bad.” Others seemed to feel that the 25th would be primarily a day of celebration, with perhaps some very small demonstrations. Having heard predictions ranging from no problem at all to all hell breaking loose, I was unsure what to expect.

The experience of January 25 from inside the dorm was a bit odd. I got my news primarily from a live feed of Al-Ahram (The Pyramids-an independent Egyptian newspaper) that reported every five minutes or so on demonstrations and violence in all of the major cities. The only remotely direct contact I had was in the afternoon a march proceeded about a block away from the dorms, and I could hear the chants from my room. They were the same chants I have been reading about for two years–most notably “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice” which was among the original slogans of the revolution, and is still one unifying aim of an often divided opposition (It is worth noting that slogan rhymes in Arabic and sounds much less awkward than it does in English).

I remember from reading news in the US two years ago hearing of a remarkable sense of hope throughout Egypt after the ouster of Mubarak. People wrote about a general belief in the power of the people to overcome their obstacles. Two years on, I think a lot of that hope has waned. I have had many shopkeepers tell me, “I wish you would have come a few years ago. Now is a very bad time. If you had come a few years ago you would have loved Egypt.” This nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Egypt seems odd given the jubilation with which Mubarak’s departure was greeted, but it seems that many here feel very little has changed despite all of the deaths and violence over the past two years. Certainly, I cannot say what the solution is to Egypt’s current woes, but I am hopeful that Egypt will find unity, stability and happiness in the near future somehow. My hope comes from how politically engaged people here are. It is not rare to see strangers strike up conversations about politics here–I cannot imagine people so engaged allowing themselves to sink into oppression again. Below, I have linked to a song called Bohabik Ya Baladi (I love you my country) which I think is very beautiful, and a fitting tribute on the day after this important anniversary.

بحبك يا بلادي

I don’t want this post to just be about these tragic clashes, which, after all, I am by no means experiencing first hand. Something much more integral to my personal Egyptian experience is simply being a foreigner here. I don’t just mean that I feel foreign here, which is certainly true, but I also mean that, by virtue of being white, everyone else knows I am foreign wherever I go.

I suspect that one of the reasons that Middlebury, famous for its language pledge, chose to base its program in Alexandria, rather than Cairo is the extraordinarily small number of foreigners here. Outside of the TAFL center, which is after all the Center for Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language, I rarely pass any other obvious non-Egyptians at all. Our rarity perhaps contributes to the near constant shouts of “Welcome to Egypt! Hello! Welcome” we get as we walk down the street. My personal favorite is still the approximately 15 year old boy who on our first day of orientation shouted after us “Welcome! I am the Egyptian president!”

I was not really expecting to be so conspicuous on the streets, though I certainly had no illusions that I might pass for Egyptian. We spent a lot of orientation trying to strategize for how to respond to Egyptians who would honestly prefer to conduct their business with us in English. Our conclusion was that we should tell them that we are Finnish, feeling safe with the assumption that we would not stumble across the one Egyptian cab driver who had lived in Finland for three years. So far since the pledge though, I have felt too awkward to even notice when I am being spoken to in English, so I have simply replied in Arabic without acknowledging the English. The other night I was buying a water bottle. I asked the shopkeeper “Bikam al-maia?” (how much is the water?), and he responded “Three pounds” before his friend nudged him and pointed out, “No, habibi, she was speaking Arabic!” I love the look on people’s faces here though, whenever I do manage a moderately competent conversation in Arabic. It is a wonderful combination of shock that an American is even trying to learn Arabic and delight that the Arabic I am learning is their own beloved Egyptian dialect. These faces, whenever they occur, more than make up for the looks of frustration I get when I stumble across a conversation full of vocabulary I simply do not have (notably, I discovered the other day, buying shoes).

Anyway, that’s all for now from Egypt! Please continue to keep the Egyptian people in your thoughts as they continue to pick up the pieces. Especially be thinking of Port Said, where today’s clashes following a court ruling related to the soccer riot have so far left 30 dead and 300 injured.  http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/63308.aspx


التعهد اللغوي: The Language Pledge

Some of the girls at Halawiat Masr (Egyptian Sweets)--my transliteration is pretty bad but that should give you an idea of how it sounds...

Some of the girls at Halawiat Masr (Egyptian Sweets)–my transliteration is pretty bad but that should give you an idea of how it sounds…

As of this afternoon I am bound by Middlebury’s famous language pledge, meaning I communicate exclusively in Arabic for the duration of my time in Egypt (again, with the exception of important communication and, we have discovered, matters pertaining to our security in Egypt). Orientation is officially over, and our classes begin tomorrow. The schedule is nice because our one-on-ones will not begin until February so we get to focus on just the Arabic for a week or two at the start of the semester and we have a bit more free time.

I really enjoyed getting to know the other students over orientation. We got along very well as a group, and I feel really comfortable with them given that I just met most of them about a week ago. Now we have a bit of a language barrier to get over as we stumble along in our as yet awkward blend of 3amiya (dialect) and Fusha (standard Arabic), so it is definitely nice that we got a chance to meet each other in English over the past week. Luckily, there are five girls here from last semester, as well as three new students who are all very able to communicate, and they are helping us along, as are our Egyptian roommates. It is a struggle, but Middlebury has provided enough support for us to get by until we are truly communicative.

So far since the pledge, a few of the girls and I went to Fathallah, which is a supermarket. There were four of us standing by a pile of drying racks, arguing loudly in what I am sure was incredibly broken Arabic about whether we should buy two now or just buy one, shop around, and find the best price for a second, and this whole scene elicited a lot of stares from the Egyptian public. But, on the plus side, we took a taxi home, and for the first time in Egypt he didn’t try to get more money from us because we were American. I would like to think this is because we were attempting to speak Arabic, whether or not our Arabic was perfect (hint: it wasn’t).

Just a warning to everyone who follows the news, especially in America: we know that there are a very high number of demonstrations and protests planned for this week. This Friday is the two year anniversary of the revolution, and it would be an understatement to say that people here are still very dissatisfied with the political situation. Clashes started yesterday in the western part of the city and are likely to continue through the weekend. Middlebury is very much on top of the situation, and we are consistently getting texts about areas to avoid. Most likely, we have been told, we will be expected to stay in our dorms this Friday, the anniversary itself, as the situation that day is hard to predict. Hopefully I will have internet throughout this time, so if you see scary news stories feel free to contact me here, on Facebook or by email, but also know that Middlebury is honestly keeping us extremely safe. For the most part, especially recently, protests and clashes take part in an isolated area of the city, while elsewhere life goes on as usual. It is that second part that is of no interest to reporters, and therefore is not always clear if you only know Egypt from the news. I will be following all program advice, and I will be safe in my dorm a lot of the time this coming weekend.

I am here, I am safe, more later!

I am safely in Alexandria, not to worry! We waited for everyone to arrive at the Cairo airport yesterday, which put us at our Alexandria dorms around 1:45 am Egyptian time, so we were a bit bleary eyed as our Egyptian roommates began to show us the ropes. Luckily, the program gave us a bit of a late start this morning, and we spent today getting acclimated. We had some program-specific orientation, enjoyed dinner at an Egyptian restaurant, got our Egyptian phones set up, and went to Carrefour (think Wal Mart) for the basics we weren’t really able to pack. This included my first two Egyptian cab rides on which I am sure there will eventually be enough material for an entire blog post, suffice it to say the number of lanes is really more of just a guideline as to how many cars will fit across a street. The girls in the dorms are extremely friendly and I am really looking forward to getting to know them. The program staff are all wonderful so far as well. Possibly best of all is cAam Ahmed, who works upstairs in the TAFL Center (our home base) making coffee, Turkish coffee, tea and juice all day—good to know I can remain properly caffeinated. So far I am really optimistic about everything, though certainly we are easing into things so far. Mostly this post is just to let everyone know that I am here, I am safe, I am happy, and I am very very excited about the months ahead. Love from Al-Iskandria!

Counting Down…

New Year’s Eve hit this year with the realization that I would be spending almost half of the new year outside of my native country. I am currently sitting at the gate in RDU waiting to board the first of two flights that will eventually land me in Cairo. My parents actually got checked through to the gate, so final goodbyes have not happened quite yet. Nothing I have done to this point in my life seems to quite compare with settling in another country for a semester, so I am incredibly nervous, and more than a little excited.

Those of you who know me well know that I am the world’s actual worst packer, and for this I have no competition. I tried oh so very hard to pack into one suitcase and my backpack, and it did all fit, it’s just that my bag was definitely more than 50 pounds. To my disappointment, I will be arriving in Egypt with a tiny rolling briefcase type bag, a medium duffel, a medium-ish suitcase, and my backpack. Oh well, you can’t win them all. And honestly I can’t think of much that I would willingly remove from my suitcase if given the chance.

For those of you still wondering what I will be doing, I will be in Alexandria which is in the far north of the country and looks unbelievably gorgeous (like seriously, it looks like this). Alexandria is famous for having one of history’s most incredible libraries that sadly burnt down in ancient times, as well as being the capital of ancient Egypt under the Ptolemies, the last of whom was the famed Cleopatra. So for a history dork, this city should be a dream. Of course, the main reason I am going is to work on my Arabic, which has become my obsession and passion ever since I started studying it at Bowdoin, and Egypt is the perfect place for that.

I am studying with Middlebury which means that I will be on an Arabic only pledge (this blog and important communication excepted of course)–if you are super curious about my program you can check it out here. I will be taking a standard Arabic course, an Egyptian Arabic course, one elective (literature of the Egyptian revolution hopefully), and one one-on-one tutorial (hopefully Egyptology!). Anyway, we will be confirming those last few courses during orientation I imagine, so I will let you know how my schedule shuffles out, as so far I have just sent them a list of my top choices. I don’t totally know what to expect on the academic side, except a marked change of pace from my usual Bowdoin semesters.

I should be arriving in Egypt midday Monday, which with the seven hour time difference makes it very early morning Monday on the East Coast. I will try to update this once I get a chance to let you all know that I have arrived safely! I won’t make any promises as to how often I will update this blog, but I will try to keep you posted on my adventures this semester! Please comment if you read this–I expect to get homesick and any communication from home/Bowdoin (second home) will make me smile. I should have internet in my dorm, so I can be reached this semester on Facebook, skype and email (please don’t text me! I can’t meet you at Moulton at six!). I love you all and I will miss you this semester. Please keep in touch and I will try my best to do the same! Also send me addresses and I will try to send a postcard, though I am told about 15% of mail gets lost…oh well. Wish me luck!

Update: I am now at JFK airport waiting on my delayed flight to Cairo! So far so good except the 2.5 hour delay. I am collecting good omens though–the Delta napkins have a polar bear face! Anyway, still safe, still sound!

My flight napkin...You know me and polar bears...

My flight napkin…You know me and polar bears…


Ready to go at RDU!