Trouble in the Suez

We spent Friday at the Red Sea, swimming and hanging out at a resort.  We then went to the suez canal in the evening.  I couldn’t believe how intensely blue the water was, especially in contrast with the dessert and mountains that surrounded it.  The sea was warm and pretty calm, with tons of corral and amazing shells everywhere.

red sea

Of course, we are always students, and today was no exception.  In addition to reading our third book, I did some observation for my research, and stealthily took creeper pictures.  In various stores I had already encountered varied bathing suits, but it was interesting to see it in action.  Some women swim in all of their clothing, and many don’t swim at all.  Some wear suits that cover to their wrists and ankles.  In general, there are far more bathing suits available that are modest and almost all of them have a skirt component, which often comes to the knee.

It was comforting to see that the beach is universal.  Kids playing at the beach are always kids at the beach.  They swim, fight, toss a ball around, collect shells and make sandcastles.   Actually, that’s pretty much what we did.

Abduh came with us, which was awesome.  He played volleyball with the guys against a team of Egyptians.  Team USA wiped the floor with them, but it was no Harlangro game.  Had ladies been allowed to play I would’ve shown our guys up (except for Abduh).  Apparently years of soccer training didn’t teach them that it’s best if you keep the ball in-bounds on a serve.


On the whole, this was a phenomenal use of a day off.  I got coated in salt, but after a day at the beach (no sunburn!  woohoo) and a 10 pm bedtime, I felt recharged.  Of course, today’s events wore me out again, but what can you do?  We have less than three weeks left, and it’s time to start cramming everything in!


We are exhauuuuusted.  Lately there’s been rumblings of mutiny because of it.  So here’s an idea of our workload, because get this, I’m taking classes and being graded over here.

9-1: Arabic, Monday-Thursday

5-7: Tutoring at St. Andrews, Tuesday

8-whenever: Group meeting/class with Ilham, every Tuesday.  It usually goes till like 10:30, 11

every Friday, Saturday & Sunday plus some weekdays: guest lectures, tours, site visits.

Also: we are responsible for writing journal entries several time a week,reading three books and writing a paper on each one while here, as well as a 7-9 page research paper.  Oh and the homework our Arabic teachers assign, not to mention all the memorization and practice our frazzled brains can handle.  The other day one of the leaders asked me if I had been able to explore much yet.  Um, yeah, that’s a no.  We have a total of four free days while we’re here, and most of us spent our only one so far sleeping, reading and doing research.  We’re up at 7 or 8 every day, sometimes earlier on the weekends

Don’t get me wrong, I really love everythng we’re doing, leanring and seeing.  And I honestly can’t think of a beneficial way to lighten our schedule.  I guess we’re just going to have to keep using our version of “i’ll sleep when i’m dead”:  I’ll sleep when i’m in Amrika.  That’s almost the same thing, right?


The Zebelline of Cairo is the trash city.  We drove through it the other day, on the way to the most beautiful, amazing church I have ever seen.  I had never heard about the Zebelline before coming here and it’s not on wikipedia, so I’m willing to bet some of you haven’t either.  All the trash of the city is brought there, and the people who live in this largely Coptic Christian neighborhood sort everything.  They then recycle it for money.  Apparently the place has a mob structure.  Those at the top are making millions of pounds, and those at the bottom literally live in filth.

If I ever thought Cairo was dirty, I had no clue what was coming.  We saw the zebelline on what was considered an exceptionally clean day.  The smell is pervasive, and was even worse a week or two ago when all the pigs were slaughtered.  If you haven’t heard, Egypt is wicked scared of swine flue.  They took all our temps on our way in (and redid mine several times, looking just freaked out enough to make me think they were gonna throw me in quarantine) and I’ve heard some people may have been x-rayed, but I haven’t been able to validate that claim yet.

When swine flu first came into the public discussion, President Mubarak decided to slaughter all 300,000 pigs in Egypt, just in case.  There have been no cases of swine flu in Egypt, and no scares.  Muslims do not eat pork, so it is the Coptic Christian population that raises pigs, with tourists and Copts consuming them.  The pigs were slaughtered in the Zebelline, so that’s where all the protests were.  It has quieted down a bit, but it was still considered safer for us not to get out of the vans.  Also, I think most of us would have felt entirely uncomfortable walking around gawking at people’s lives as though they’re some sort of spectacle or tourist attraction that you can buy tickets to see.

Many menus didn’t have pork products on them to begin with, but now they are absolutely gone.  In many cases, we’ve seen censored menus, so that any reference to pork products is completely whited out.

Getting back to the trash city though, it is exceptional.  Even more amazing was driving through it to see the cave church, which was gorgeous.  At the top of the hill, looking out over the entire city of Cairo, is a church carved into a mountain.

Taking pictures afterward, we ran into some cute little kids who teased us and spoke Arabic.  We have seen tons of little kids, most of whom wave or run up to us.  These children, however, never begged or tried to get money.  The sad thing was that we all knew they lived in the Zebelline.  It is important to note, though, that living in the zebellin doesn’t necessarily mean you’re poor.  Many choose to stay there, like a woman who died a few years ago.  When going through her belongings, millions of Egyptian pounds were found in her mattress, yet she remained in her neighborhood.  Somebody is making money off of the system, it’s just not always clear who.

This little side trip served to remind us of the severe economic differences between the US and other parts of the world.  Zamalek, my neighborhood, is wealthy for Cairo, which is wealthy for Egypt, which is wealthy for Africa.  There are also many different ways to look at poverty, and the brain’s ability to filter.  I’m sure many people who live in the Zebelline have never left.  All they know of the world is garbage.

Things that are Strange Because They’re not

Here’s a list of things that are so normal here I’ve already forgotten that they’re noteworthy.  It’s funny that sometimes the biggest differences fade away because no one else sees them as remarkable, which is perhaps why almost no one mentioned any of this to me before I came.

  • Cats are everywhere.  Consequently, there are no mice or rats
  • Men link arms or hold hands.  this is normal behaviour for straight guys who are friends
  • You can almost always see at least one minaret
  • Everyone rounds when dealing with money
  • There are bidets in every bathroom, even if it’s just a little tube inside the regular toilet that inaccurately shoots water
  • Men with guns are everywhere.  Egypt is I think the most chillax police state in existence.  Mostly, they just want to employ more people so there are soldiers and antiquities/tourism police everywhere
  • People just chilling on the street.  Everybody stands and chats in the street, people sleep on the sidewalks or sit on them for some tea
  • Cars here are nuts.  Triple parking is common, and everything is always bumper to bumper.  Not like our exagerated expression, but legitimately jammed up against each other
  • The smell.  Food is made of different stuff here, so the trash smells different.  Also, their sanitation system is quite different from ours.  The first day or two my nose was in pain from the smell.  I realized the other day that I don’t smell anything.  I don’t Cairo got cleaner.  Also, I bet New York or Boston smells would assail the nose of any Cairene
  • Women are dressed in various interpretations of the hijab.  The range goes from tight, revealing clothing to naquib (face covering), head scarf and long, black, loose-fitting robe.

Basically, things are as different from home as they possibly could be, while still maintaining enough similarities to make my head spin.

True Life, I’m a Geek

We went to the Arab League the other night, and it was wicked awesome.

The building is gorgeous, and we were treated with much greater hospitality than when the American Embassy received us.  The Assistant Secretary-General of the Arab League (aka a big deal) sat with us to have a discussion and answer our questions.  We went with the other group of NU kids who are here for journalism.  They were psyched when he said it would all be on the record unless specific questions necessitated that.

We sat around a huge table with microphones.  There wasn’t enough room for everybody to sit at the table, so everyone else sat in rows around it.  You can bet your ass I got a seat at the table.  Waiters came around and served us some shay (tea) while we listened to the ASG speak.   The ASG was very open with us, which was great.  I love watching diplomats work.  Some of the journalism students were upset that we didn’t get “real,” answers, but that seems silly to me.  He’s obviously a politician, diplomat and spokesperson–he’s not going to either say thins that aren’t in his best interest in order to be ultra-honest or accidentally slip up because some upstart kid thinks they’re the first one to have the gaul to ask a “tough” question on Palestine or Sudan.  I really appreciated the chance to talk to him and to hear his artful way of adressing the questions.  In fact, he was surprisingly critical of some of the League’s history.

I was a little miffed at how little everyone knew about the League of Arab States.  Like, say, that it exists.  The journalism teacher had no concept of it, even after it was explained that it functions like the UN, but is purely regional.  I can understand people not knowing about it—most don’t.  But it has been on our schedule since the beginning, so putting in a little time on Wikipedia wouldn’t have killed anybody.  Also, we have a weekly meeting where either of our group leaders could have given a summary.  A result of the lack of awareness was that many people did not know how to direct their questions.  Until our speaker mentioned it, most in the room didn’t think to ask about Sudan since most assumed it wasn’t in the League.  Ditto for Somalia.

Asha Pandya interviewed me for an article of hers, in which I sounds ridiculously geeky.  Every quote is about how excited I am to be in the building, to hold the SG gavel, to take pictures with countries I’ve represented, and so on.

And now I leave you with pictures of me bugging out.  I know, pictures, finally, and of course they’re all from the Arab League.  🙂

Sitting in the Secretary General's seat...with the gavel!
Sitting in the Secretary General's seat...with the gavel!
The Delegate from Iraq has the floor...
The Delegate from Iraq has the floor...

Oh yeah, and you must all watch this

Taxi Driver

Step 1: Stand in the street and yell the name of the place you want to go.  If you’re a western tourist, this is probably unnecessary, and means theres a prequel to 1: shake your head le (no) every time a taxi beeps at you, which is constantly

2. Get into the cab.  A male sits in the front seat, no matter what.  If there isn’t one, you probably shouldn’t be going anywhere, but all hop in the back anyway.  Don’t ask how much it costs.

3. Say salaam alaykum and the specific streets/square you want to go to.  Don’t ask how much it costs.

4. Say nothing.  You don’t want them to realize how little Arabic you really know, because then they’ll rip you off.  This is a tip from my Arabic teacher, Khowla.  Thanks for the vote of confidence, ustazza (teacher).

5. When you get there, get everybody out of the cab

6. Pay how much it actually costs (do not ask, simply know in advance) and leave.  No discussion, no hagglement.


Parental Advisory: This entry WILL make my parents (and I’m sure some others) very nervous.  Standards of behavior are different in Cairo, so what may sound like a good or bad idea in the US is quite often the opposite in Egypt.  Feel free to skip this one if you don’t want to worry.  You’ve been warned.

My mother always told me to follow my intuition.  If I find myself in a situation where I have that foreboding feeling in my stomach, trust it, because I have good sense and I’m probably right.  This usually works, but I understand occasionally there is a need to take risks despite the worry.

In Egypt, all my senses were immediately thrown off.  Things that are normal at home are taboo here, and things that are normal here would make my mother cry.  Everything, down to the smallest details, is different.  Almost all the stores look run down and dirty, compared to the US, so one needs to find a new litmus test.  It is considered normal to leave one’s store to shepherd people into it, regardless of whether they’re interested.  When shopping, browsing is not really an option.  When you express interest in an item, you’ll be asked how many of them you want before anyone gives you a price.  Haggling is common, and prices are always incredibly inflated.

In many situations, we find ourselves thinking and saying, “This is so awesome!  But my mother would kill me if she could see me now…”  Things like riding on the roof of a falucca (boat) across the Nile at night, roaming Cairo at three in the morning and going to a club with Egyptian strangers.  All of these are normal acts in Egypt, and some of my favorite memories of my trip.  Out of context they sound strange or frightening, but it’s important to know that Cairo is the real city that never sleeps, and there are police at every corner.  The top of a falucca is flat with railings, and it’s the way Egyptians normally travel across the Nile.  In Egypt, hospitality is paramount, and once you meet and make a connection (however breif) you can always revisit it, meaning that the owner of the restaurant you just ate at would love to go dancing, and if you ever return he will take you out for a drink.

All you can do is stay in a group (with at least a couple resident male protectors) and try to adjust to what Egyptians think is safe or unsafe, and always know where the exits are.

PS congrats and good luck to my dad on his first day at his new job!  I know you’ll be great dud, enjoy the upgrade cuz you’ve more than earned it! IWYE