Sunday, November 28, 2010


Once again plagued by business and avoidance in posting regularly, someone sent me an article I could not ignore. The article, by author Dr. Tarek Abo-Ghazalah, below asks some insightful and provocative questions about the Arab World. After reading this article, I encourage you to reflect upon whether these questions apply to the non-Arab world, and to our generation. I believe that these ideas are not unique to the Arab World, at least not wholly.
 Is our generation looking at the problems of our world an adapting, or are we standing up to change and raise our voices? Ask yourself where you lie on this spectrum- will you be part of an intellectual revival? Or are you a follower or those who tell you what to believe? Provoke yourself. Ask your own questions.

Toward Developing a Culture of Objective Thinking

The Islamic Reality: By Dr. Tarek Abou-Ghazala

For the past five centuries, the Muslim Mind has nearly ceased to produce any meaningful contribution to civilization. This is manifest by the lack of any beneficial discovery or innovation emerging out of the Muslim World. The reason for this is unclear to many Muslims, who continue to blame others for their shortcomings.
This series is an attempt to try to diagnose the reason behind the lagging of the Muslim Mind.
The population targeted by this series is the Muslim Youth who represent the fresh hope to get us out of our current mental stagnation.
The discussion in this series will take on definitions and narratives of the meaning of the word “Thinking” and its attributes.
These attributes will be discussed in the context of the Quran as the most powerful drive of open thinking, and in light of the applications of this context in the daily life of early Muslims. This in no way means the context is frozen in time, but rather enlightenment to today’s generations of Muslim youth. This is the same way other civilizations look back at their traditions not to bring about change to it, but rather to seek light and guidance from it in their daily business.
The series will be divided into 6 parts:
I- The Definition of Thinking
II- Knowledge Acquisition and Knowledge Production
III- Approaching and Dealing with the Truth
IV- The Muslim Contribution to the Human Mind
V- Thinking Errors: Definitions, Diagnoses, and Treatments
VI- The Objectivity of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)

Todays' Reality
Let us not sugar coat matters. Our current Islamic reality is grim.
A fundamental aspect of our Muslim reality is that we have turned into consumers with little or no material or knowledge production.
The Arab world does not produce its sustenance of food, and relies heavily on exports of basic goods such as wheat, while other countries such as Brazil have become food exporters after reliance on imports for decades.
In addition to the production of necessities of living, the Arab and Muslim world has produced nearly no knowledge over the past 5 centuries.  Again, this is manifest by the fact that all major discoveries have emerged from outside the Muslim world.
Knowledge production is closely related to literacy rates throughout all society.  Low literacy rates cause knowledge production to drop if not cease,  and establishes the society on a deficient labor structure; with the final result being a low rather high-skilled job society throughout all facets of life.
The more a country produces knowledge and is able to implement it in its social structure, the less dependent it is on other nations
This leads to the dichotomy of international dependence vs. national independence.  No country today can claim it is totally nationally independent from other countries.  The degree of national independence from other nations relies on the ability to produce knowledge and implement it in the social structure.  The more a country produces knowledge and is able to implement it in its social structure, the less dependent it is on other nations.
Below are some of the literacy and job statistics:
  • Nearly all Islamic countries are 3rd world countries
  • Illiteracy is between 50 to 80% (Average 58%)
  • 70 million people are illiterate in the Arab world
  • There are 10 million children out of school in the Arab world
  • A significant number of those who make it to graduate education migrate to the west
  • Those who do not migrate, suffer from lack of means.
  • 60% of the region's population is under 30 years of age,
  • Close to 100 million new jobs will need to be created over the next 10 to 15 years in the Arab world
A major consequence of  Arab world illiteracy is the wide spread of child labor which is a repellent to tertiary Education and scientific growth. Poor children, who work, do not achieve higher education which results in further poverty. Once these poor children become grown ups, they push their own kindred to the work force, to help with household expenses. This creates a vicious circle, breading illiterate impoverished children unable to escape.
How to break such a circle is a fundamental question in need of an answer in order to start the ascension to revival.
Such reality requires deep reflection to try to come out of this abyss.

A New Way of Thinking
Regurgitating the mantra “Islam is the Solution” is no solution at all.  All it does is anesthetize a sick patient without performing any curative or even palliative mode of therapy. 
As in surgery where anesthesia per se carries a substantial risk to the patient, social anesthesia carries a similar substantial risk to the people.
A new way of thinking is required today to reflect upon our grim reality to try to identify the most pressing questions in need of answers
For this reason, the Qur'an directed the early rejecters of the message of Islam to a new thinking mode, away from “Mass Thinking”
(Say: "I preach only one thing to you: that you stand up in pairs or singly for God; then consider how there is no madness in your companion. He is only a warner [sent] to you in the face of stern torment.") (Saba' 34: 46) The verse is clear in its instruction of how to think about any major phenomena, singly, in pairs, or both - i.e. a three person thinking cell which will allow deeper reflection of such phenomena without the interference of the masses who might be emotionally driven towards one understanding or another. Such a new way of thinking is required today to reflect upon our grim reality to try to identify the most pressing questions in need of answers.
Only we can answer these questions because we are their contemporaries.

Revival Standstill
Over the past 5 centuries the Muslim world was affected by a severe intellectual drought nearly grinding the Islamic civilization to a halt.
Many attempts to revive this civilization took place during the 19th and 20th centuries, but such a revival was never able to blossom its full potential.
Many factors can be identified as causing this revival standstill.
Such factors include but are not limited to:
  • Poverty
  • Ignorance
  • Disease
  • Dictatorship
  • Division
  • Injustice
  • Lack of human rights
Any of these factors by itself can eliminate a people, let alone combined.  It is needless to say, the Muslim world is inflicted with ALL these factors to a certain degree or another.  But upon careful analysis, we realize that most of these factors are not self-sufficient to cause a revival standstill.  Many nations have started the ascension to revival despite being inflicted with one or more of these factors. 
China for example suffers from tyranny and dictatorship, India from poverty and division, and Brazil from poverty and disease.  Yet all these nations are on a steady path to revival, with China becoming the second largest economy in the world only trailing the USA, India becoming a beacon of high technology industry in the region of Southeast Asia, and Brazil becoming a world major food exporter.
Only one of these factors carries in itself the ability for total destruction of any civilization.
It should not be difficult to agree that this factor is Ignorance!
Ignorance is the single most important reason the Muslim world had been stagnant in its current grim reality.  It deprived Muslim nations from all sources of power necessary to keep a fruitful productive civilization.

Dealing with our problems …. The wrong way
Another reason contributing to this revival standstill is the "Blame Game".
Engaging problems rather than adapting to them should be a national strategy implemented from the top down
Bouncing the blame maintains the status quo, and drains the energy necessary to solve our current crises, resulting in delayed solutions, which could rapidly render them obsolete and unhelpful due to the rapid advancement of science and technology.
Another dangerous factor preventing revival is adapting to the problem rather than engaging and solving it.
In fact, adapting to problems is the single most important obstacle to revival.  Engaging problems rather than adapting to them should be a national strategy implemented from the top down. This engagement of problems should be carried by analyzing their primary and secondary causes. Such methodology will at least serve to:
1-     Identify common root causes behind contemporary problems.
2-     Create a database of solutions readily available to implement when such root cause are identified as culprits of future problems.
3-     Preserve energy which is usually exhausted trying to solve or resolve the same problems.
Living in a society not able to push its way into civilization will psychologically result in a national mood not conducive to advancement: This national mood is characterized by:
  • Sense of insecurity
  • Sense of helplessness, resorting to inaction and reaction instead of being active and proactive
  • Narrow mindedness and tunnel vision
  • Despair
  • Lack of dialogue
  • Scarcity of positive initiatives
  • Prevalence of destructive instead of constructive criticism
  • Loss of faith in the founding pillars and principals
The last point in the above list is the final and most important manifestation of revival standstill.
This has become more evident in the past 10 years, especially with the systematic attack on the founding pillars and principles of Islam: the Qur'an, the Prophet Mohammad, and even Allah.
Muslims have not been able to formulate convincing answers to these attacks, and have rather resorted each time to the very similar reactions which have been fully understood by those mounting the attacks in the first place.
The result has been waves of systematic attacks targeting all facets of contemporary Muslim life.
The list of these attacks is endless.
The following are a few of these attacks which were put forth in the form of questions:
1-    The question of violence: Why are Muslims so violent?
2-    The question of death:  Why are Muslims committing suicide attacks against others? And why do Muslims love to die?
3-    The question of religious freedom and tolerance: Can a Muslim change his or her religion without being executed?
4-    The question of gender equality: Can a Muslim woman lead the prayers of a mixed gender Friday prayer?
5-    The question of the Prophet’s marriages: Can an adult man marry a 9 year old girl?
6-    The question of freedom of speech: Can someone draw the pictures of the prophet?
7-    The question of Homosexuality: Why aren’t Muslims allowed to be “naturally” Homosexual?
Muslims have answered all of these problems, but not swiftly enough to prevent doubts in the minds of Muslim youth.
The reason for this slow response is not the lack of an answer, but rather the lack of tools necessary to answer.  Tools such as quiet dialogue, open-mindedness, hope, constructive criticism, and pro activity, are missing from the Islamic atmosphere today. 
Instead, the mentality of “black and white”, “either or" and knee-jerk reactions to any provocation is what paints and infests the current Muslim mind.
The Muslim mind can no longer maneuver the gray area where most of the daily living tasks, activities and, questions take place.
Protecting the founding pillars and principles should become a priority. This protection however, should take place quietly, persistently, and with a smile.
In the next Article, I will discuss the methodology of objective thinking as evident by careful reading of the original Islamic texts.

Dr. Tarek Abou-Ghazala is a Palestinian Syrian-American cardiologist and one of the most renowned experts on the topics of objective thinking, subjective thinking, and modes of thinking.
He is the founder and chairman of The Circle for Intellectual Revival of Concept Learning and Education. The Circle is an intellectual organization dedicated to producing a moderate Muslim mind that can reason using objective and value thinking. The Circle bases its work on the Quran, the Sunnah and the scientific foundation of the early Islamic scholarly work.
Dr. Abou-Ghazala is Fellow of the American College of Cardiology, and a Fellow of the Society of Coronary Angiography and Interventions and the Islamic Medical Association of North America. He currently resides in Doha, Qatar, where he is a senior consultant cardiologist at Hamad Medical Corporation.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Quiet Place

This week ushered in the beginning of the end of my senior year. Scary to think that I have one semester left after this. Midterms have piled up and stress levels are of course, higher than usual. But this weekend I found myself missing my quiet places. Alone time. I was craving a dusk walk through the orange groves on Kibbutz Na'an. or a stroll along the Nile. Oddly enough, I felt unsafe walking around Gainesville at dusk by myself. Though abroad, walking by myself was not exactly a concern. Maybe it is the 'carpe diem' mentality I choose to live by whilst abroad, but enjoying the simplicity of life, alone time and nature is what I miss most. I miss choosing to walk along the shore because it's beautiful and it's sunset.
Even in quaint little Gainesville, I constantly check my over my shoulder when running down the back trails of Gainesville by myself, or am hyper-vigilant of cars driving by. Shootings from cars, kidnappings and rape are scary realities here that are so much less of an issue, and so much less prevalent in the Middle East. I found it rather ironic that I was scared to take a walk by myself when I craved some me time around sunset on Saturday. I couldn't even ride my bike and be alone on campus because I don't have a bike light, and that is illegal in Gainesville after dusk.
Sauntering through the vineyards and the orange groves on my Kibbutz, laying on the vast green field staring up into the moon, bright, because of a lack of city lights and thinking about the silly intricacies of life is something I need to reinvent here. Why is it that life is easier to put into perspective when you are outside of your cultural comfort zone? Why is it easier to appreciate what we have when it is least tangible to us? I may not have my blooming orchard or my moonlit Nile but I have my friends and family, which in the end, count way more.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Through Their Eyes Sarah Kaiser Cross (Part 2)

Part 2 of the Video

Through Their Eyes

In lieu of words this week, the video I am posting is from when I gave a speech at the UF International Center on general study abroad advice, my experiences, etc. (October 2010) Along with me was another great guy from Brazil who gave his perspective as an international student studying in the States. Enjoy!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pumpkin Beer

Never have I posted on any kind of alcoholic beverage, but last night I indulged in a beautiful blend of caramel pumpkin malt infused with spices of the fall- Shipyard Pumpkinhead Beer. I don't even like beer. In fact, I am a little bit allergic to it. It was that good.

Fall is here along with all of its scents of Cinnamon and nutmeg. Even walking past the bushels of cinnamon pine-cones and gourds of pumpkins in the Publix, I get excited for fall! The weather is starting to change slowly and the leaves begin to droop from the trees here.When you walk outside during the fall, remember to take in the beauty of fall, the changing of the colors and the aromatic flavors highlighted this season. Pumpkin and squash scones, pies, rice mixes and creative recipes are an amazing creative outlet to enjoy the beauty of fall!

Monday, October 11, 2010


It is one of my favorite words. Passion.
There is so much it encompasses, so much it can create.
I am passionate about too many things-
I am passionate about traveling, languages, challenges, romance, music, running, cooking, yoga.

When I searched the ultimate source for all things English (The Oxford English Dictionary- equivalent to the Bible of the English language) I found something interesting.

Find word: passion
1 passion * found in: god
2 passion, n. *
3 passion, v. *

Passion is found in God? Is God definable enough to even be able to link an association between God and passion? In my humble opinion, though daring to disagree with the OED may put me at odds with the greater English world, passion is inherently personal, emanating from the self. God has nothing to do with my passion. Though I suppose I see how people have passion for God or religion. But, I digress.

Currently back in Gainesville, I am trying to find beauty and appreciation in the simple. Contentment is not enough for me. Actively seeking a challenge, and looking for the unique in the every day I am discovering a deeper understanding of happiness. For example, I went to the Harn Museum of Art this weekend and looked at the collections. I forgot how much art provokes emotion and existential thinking.

The point of this musing is this:
Find the things you are passionate about. Try everything once. Be passionate about something, even if it is just one thing. And embrace it.

And check this out.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Time for America.

Forgive my absence, but as you all have learned throughout reading my blog, transitions can be cumbersome. Readjusting back to the pace of America, the rush, the endless to-do lists and the silly required meetings left me spiraling and yearning for the life I created in the Middle East. Slowly but surely I feel the pain subsiding from reentering back into this never-ending rush of life. In this college town of Gainesville I find myself irked at people complaining about having to walk in the heat, or wait in a line. At least three times I day I force myself to stop and literally smell flowers, or a hum a song, or walk slowly, or just count my blessings. I will not enter back into a life will endless stress outlets. Life is short and if I only learned one thing while I was away it was to experience today. Life is delicious and experiencing every aspect of it is what defines you. I wrote a poem that I think sums up the last two years of my life.

Finding you
Isn’t about a moment
Isn’t about an instant
It is a series
Of moments
That create you.
Turning inward
Reflecting on what you know
Realizing you know nothing
And humbly discovering
Your beauty
And your countless flaws
But choosing
To love yourself
Flaws and all.
It is
Going outside yourself
Who you are
And Who you are not
Testing your morals
And surviving
Of the choices
That you have made
No regrets.
Only growth.
Finding you
is beautiful.

Soon I will be adding a new addition to my blog. For all of you future study abroad-ers out there, I will be posting the how-to's and how-come's of studying abroad. From how to apply to what to pack, I hope this will turn into a great outlet for you to learn from what I experienced, avoid some mistakes and hopefully find some study abroad scholarships while you're at it! Feel free to email me or leave a comment with any things you'd like to see included in this new section of the blog, and/or questions.
On a side note, I am very grateful to be an American. You never truly realize how lucky you are to be able to blog without fear of being arrested, or walk around without being arrested for suspicion of being a homosexual (like a teacher of mine from AUC) or speak openly and critique our government. Us Americans, we have it good. I appreciate my liberties and I love my country. I'm home, America.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

My Dream Man

جل أحلامي   
حبيبي مثل الألوان
هو أسود مثل الصحراء السوداء
هو أزرق مثل المحيط المظلم
هو بنفسجي مثل ملابس الملك
هو ذهبي مثل شاطئ البحر الأبيض
هو أصفر مثل نور الشمس
هو أبيض مثل أخلاق قلبي
هو أخضر مثل الأشجار تلعب في الريح
هو زهري مثل حبي
هو رمادي مثل القمر خلال الليل ينيرني

CLS Cairo: Man of my Dreams, a poem By: Sarah Kaiser -Cross

Thank you Google Translate- I think the Google Translated version is way better but in parenthesis was what I actually meant. This was another homework assignment. I had a tough time with this one. What exactly is my dream man? I couldn't conceptualize this concept.

My love[r] is like all the colors.
He is as black as the Sahara dunes
He is like the darkest blue of the ocean.
Purple is clothing, such as King (He is like the purple clothes of a king)
Is a golden beach such as the Mediterranean (He is golden like the shores of the Mediterranean)
Yellow is like sunlight (He like my yellow sunshine)
Morality is as white as my heart (He is white like the innocence of my heart)
Is green, such as trees play in the wind (He is like the green trees that play in the wind)
Zuhri is like love (He is pink like love)
Is gray like the moon during the night Inerni (He is gray like the moonlight that illuminates my nights)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Camel Market

About a 45 minute ride from central Cairo into the boonies, we took a cab out to the Camel Market, known in Arabic as Souq Gamal or Birqash at 7:30 when Cairo still waking up. Fridays are quiet and our drive was free of traffic but full of sights of agricultural fields including tall grass near the banks of the Nile with heads poking up every now and again as people worked in the fields to fill their large brown sacks with fresh crops. Turquoise and yellow painted brick buildings scattered the countryside with fresh laundry hung from the windows, fields of cacti growing the famous prickly pear fruit and the burning of unknown things in the distance. Butchers stood alongside their shops hacking up their freshest purchase and women wandered about mostly preparing for the weekend. When we finally arrived at the edge of the Souq (market) we were overwhelmed. The road leading up to it is full of steaming, and sometimes burning piles of garbage- the result of the systematic killing of all the pigs in Cairo during the Swine Flu outbreaks. When I saw the camel carcasses, I knew I was in for something not...pleasant. It wasn't exactly a welcome sight.
We entered the market at the big gap in the wall along with camels that were going to be loaded up in cars. We had to pay 25 LE for our "Tourist Tackets"but we were able to walk around freely without hassle. We were the only girls there, including the camels--they only sell male camels at this market. There was a huge display table full of scary looking sharp knives and daggers for sale and I was so distracted by my proximity to them when I looked up, I was almost trampled by a camel! There were thousands of camels being herded around by their sellers. There were numbers spray painted on their humps designating their owner and when they were sold. The saddest part of all (and it was really sad) was the beating of the animals. The men have huge thick wooden sticks that they use to beat the heck out of the animals in order to 'show off how they move.' The sound was like the loud thump of beating a was so unnatural. There were quite a few times I had to turn away. Animal rights activists would not be able to handle it there. The men stood in large groups all watching the camels and bargaining with each other shouting out prices.
We stood and watched them and Kareem, Brittany and I started asking the men questions. I couldn't help it! I was so darn curious. They were surprised we all spoke Arabic and began chatting away with us. We found out the camels come by boat up from the River Nile over a 40 day journey from Sudan, Somalia and Aswan. The ones sold at this market are usually for food; camel milk and camel meat. The going rate? 4,000LE for the baby camels and the most expensive large camel reached up to 20,000LE ($3,400). They began to tell us in the United Arab Emirates the camels can go for up to 60,000LE because there is a camel racing scene with 7 and 8 year old jockeys for these huge camels. You would be shocked how fast camels can run. Because of this the sellers at the camel market tie up one of the camel legs and yet they somehow still get loose and throngs of people part to not be trampled to death by stampeding camels. It was a crazy experience to say the least.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Egyptian Women vs. American Women

الاختلافات بين النساء الأمريكية  و النساء المصرية
الاختلافات بدأت عندما ولدت و تعلمت الثاقافة. في أمريكا النساء يدرسن أنّ مسلويات لرجل و في مصر النساء يدرسن أْنّ النساء و الرّجل مختلفون بطبيعتهم و النساء يسطعن أن يفعلن الأشياء المناسبة من الناحية الثقافية. ادوار الجنسين هذه تحدد الكثير من الثاقافة. ادوار الجنسين هذه تتقوي خلال الطفولة و سنوات المراهقة. عن طريق الوالدين و الإعلام و المدرسة و التلفزيون. عادة حوالي في سن ١٣ او ١٤ البنات يبدأن أن يجلسن الحجاب لواحد من ثلاثة أسباب:
١. أفكار دينية
٢. الوالدار و كيف يرون الثاقافة
٣. لتجنّب تحرّش لفطى
التحرّش  يزيد بأمثلة البنات اللاتي ليسن يلبسن الحجاب لأنّهم يتعرضن لالمضايقة أكثر. في أمريكا في حوالي نفس السن ١٣ او ١٤ البنات يبدأن يفهمن أنوثتهن. هناك تركيز مختلف و في أمريكا هو النشاط  الجنس و في مصر هناك تقليل في هذا النشاط الجنسي. بالإضافة إلى هذه القضايا- فرص العمل مهمة جداٍٍ. في أمريكا، تشجع النساء يسطعن أن علي أن يتولين زمام لمور مستقبلهم. النساء يسطعن أن يكن في أي عمل يريدن. لكن في مصر هناك حدود. يعملن في وظيفة مناسبة فقط. لكن في الحقيقة هناك "السقف الزجاجي" هذا موجود في المكانين. كذلك  في مصر عدد ربات المنازل أكثر من أمريكا. هنا تقع على النساء مسوءولية البيت و الرخال يدفعون لكل شيئ. في واللية المتحدة الأمريكية هناك مساواة في الدخل و النساء يعملن في أي وظيفة بسبب حركة حقوق المرأة.
فما هي النتيجة؟ نساء مصر يعتمدن على أزواجهن أكثر من أمريكا. فما هو أي طريق أفضل؟ أنا لا أعرف لأنّ الآفضل لشخص يمكن أن يكون الأسوأ لآخر. ممكن في المستقبل لن يكون هناك فرق كبير...

Translation: (This was my homework assignment last week so I thought I'd share it with all of you! Translations aren't always perfect but I tried my best to capture the main themes)

The differences between American and Egyptian women
The differences begin in the beginning when women are born and learn the culture. In America, the women learn that women are equal to men and in Egypt women are taught that women and men are inherently different and that women are able to do the things only that are appropriate within their cultural boundaries. These gender roles are supported mostly through cultural outlets. These gender roles are strengthened through childhood and the teenage years by parents, the media, school and television.
Usually around the age of 13 or 14 the girls begin to wear a hijab for one of three reasons. First, because of religious preference. Second, because of her parents and how their view cultural standards. Third, because they want to avoid sexual harassment. The problem of sexual harassment is reinforced through negative examples. Girls that aren't wearing hijabs are harassed more and therefore the girls wearing the hijabs  are discouraged from changing this practice.
In America, around usually the same age girls begin to understand their sexuality and femininity. There is a very different focus. In America there is almost a promotion of understanding individual sexuality where as in Egypt there is a significant attempt to lessen this awareness and promotion of sexuality. In addition to this, there are other important issues- such as work opportunites.  In the States, women are encouraged to take charge of their futures and the women are able to do whatever job they want. (if they work hard enough.) But, in Egypt there are barriers. Women work in "appropriate" positions only. But, in reality, a glass ceiling exists in both places, just in different ways. Also in Egypt the number of house wives is far greater than in America. Here, in Egypt, the responsibilities of the house fall on the woman and the men pay for everything. In America there is generally an equality of income and women are able to work in whichever field they desire because of the results of the Women's Rights Movement. What is the result? Egyptian women are much more dependent on their husbands to provide for them then women in America. So, which is the better way? I don't know. Different things work differently for different people but maybe in the future there won't be such a huge difference.

[Reason for the basic vocabulary- that is basically my level right now in Arabic at least on an everyday basis. In Shah Allah, my Arabic will improve more and more but I translated the English as close to the actual Arabic meaning as possible.] I can't wait for your responses!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

3,750 Steps of Repentance

We started climbing Sinai at 2am- the normal time in order to get to the top before sunrise. I successfully convinced 10 people from my group that taking the 3,750 Steps of Repentance over two mountains was way cooler than taking the lazy camel path.These steps were laid by a monk in repentance for a sin he committed. You climb this pathway (this is only part of it) for about an hour straight up over the mountain until you reach the archway- the sign of the halfway point. Climbing in darkness is an adventure in and of itself. Treacherous, difficult and beautiful, this hike took us into a part of the mountain where the view of the stars is like staring into the heart of the universe. Everything shines as bright with constellations scattered throughout the night sky- the only sound you hear is the sound of your own breath trying to catch up before continuing up the stairs. Quiet a workout out, a couple people in our group got dizzy and had to turn around and go back down. But the rest of us finished the hike together though we could hardly feel our quadriceps. We reached the top and settled in for a wait before the throngs of people arrived from the Camel Path. We made it to the top around 4am and the sun wasn't supposed to rise until 5:45. Luckily we had some good music, warm clothes and an amazing view of the surrounding peaks. Misty and windy, sitting on top of Mt. Sinai felt...well, a little touristy. There were so many people, less than the last time I was there, but I didn't feel the spiritual connection I expected the second time around. The sun actually didn't rise in front of us, but rather was obscured by sand storms in the region scattering the light particles. It was kind of a bummer but the sun finally make its grand appearance around 6am. There was no show of colors but rather a sudden appearance of a white shining ball. I have never been able to see the sun so clearly, nor that white before. We made our way down in the day light. All the old people tourists were taking their sweet time walking down the stairs, quite understandably. But unfortunately for them, I didn't have a lot of patience because I determined to make it down to the monastery to lay down, shower and relax before breakfast. No such luck. Even descending quickly, passing everyone in my group, I made it down only 15 minutes before breakfast. I ended up running into an old friend in the monastery from the American University in Cairo. I also got a chance to revisit the burning bush and enter the relics museum at the Monastery. While the relics were impressive and the paintings and decorations well preserved, I was more focused at reading the inscriptions/descriptions of the pieces first in Arabic and then in English to check my comprehension. I thought it was the coolest thing.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Monastery

I decided to go and explore the areas around the monastery so I grabbed my notebook, my sunglasses, some water and hiked up the rocky hills next to the monastery. In flip flops, I made my way up the side of the mountainous area surrounding the high walls of the monastery. I traveled up high enough to get a beautiful panoramic shot of the monastery and snuggled myself into a crevice between two rocks taking in the atmosphere, the blessed silence and the beauty of the mountain. The silence offered such a stark contrast to the chaos and constant drum of noise in Cairo. I was moved.
I thought I would share with you all a nice poem. It's called Sinai. Author Unknown.
Boulders looming above and below
emitting but a muted glow
The mount where it all began
Where God layed down his plan for man.
The ten things we must know
the Commandments which create the flow
The holiness inherent in this place
arose from the very base.
Sitting and journalling in while birds swooped over the monastery and butterflies danced in the wind I counted my blessings and rested so I would be able to wake up and be ready to climb the mountain at 2am.

Arrival to Mt. Sinai

Taking a required trip to Mt. Sinai was part of our program this past weekend. Leaving on a friday morning early we journeyed the six or so hours to Mt. Sinai. We passed through the busy morning traffic bustling all the way till we hit the very outskirts of Cairo. We went through the tunnel under the Suez Canal originally built by the British and further on, wistfully passing the sparkling blue waters of the Red Sea into the desert of rolling sand hills, sparse palm trees and rocky mountains with the altitude slowly climbing the further into Sinai we went. Upon arrival we received our keys and headed to our rooms to drop off our things and explore the monastery of St. Katherine and the surrounding area. Simplicity was the theme of the hostel in the monastery which fit perfectly with the lifestyle of the monks and the simply breathtaking landscape. St. Katherine's monastery, the oldest in Africa and the oldest working monastery in the world, it sits at the base of Mt. Sinai in a kind of valley and surrounded by walls to keep out unwanted visitors or dangers. It reminded me of the castles and fortifications of ancient times. We ate a delicious dinner together and I celebrated Shabbat on my own with a candle as the sun set behind the mountain. My friend Maggie was interested in watching me say the prayers so she came with me and we both said a silent prayer of thanks and gratitude that night. How lucky am I to be here for free all the meanwhile speaking Arabic?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

My Experience in a Hijab.

I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. Egyptian men swear Egyptian women get harassed just as much if not more than foreign women. I didn't buy it. The one thing I hate here is the amount of harassment. It is endlessly frustrating. I decided I was going to fully cover myself and try wearing a hijab to see the differences. I wanted to see the difference in social interactions, the amount of attention and harassment. Maggie, Jamie and Raina decided to tag along. We decided on a having a typical night: metro ride to a different district, dinner, walking around, shopping and returning home. The only difference this time was wearing hijabs. We talked with our adviser Randa about it, who always looks perfect in her hijab, matching colors and perfectly wrapped. She was excited to see what happened as well and helped us pin them correctly- though we each chose different styles. I prefer the double wrap with two different scarves, one kind of see-through in order to see the plain style underneath. There are tons of websites on Hijabi fashion too. ( is one some of my friends look at)
Randa showed us the different ways of pinning them to frame your face and tuck your hair back, and then we were off. We made a pact to only speak Arabic throughout the night. We chose to head to Dokki which is a fun family district decently close to the middle of the city. Walking through the hotel some of the workers recognized me and exclaimed 'ah! you are even more beautiful in a hijab!' I wasn't sure if I thought that was a compliment or not.
The moment I hit the street I there was a difference. To my surprise, it was actually quite nice. We walked toward the metro but this time without whistles, hisses and glances in our direction. We blended into the daily grind with everyone rushing to and fro. People asked us questions automatically in Arabic and then only afterward were surprised by our accents. I suppose the assumption was even though we still are clearly not Egyptian, our hijabs suggested we were Muslim which generally means Arabic speakers. We still received a few, where are you from questions. But all in all the attention must have decreased by at least seventy percent. Walking in the streets you could tell people were a bit curious, but there were significantly fewer vocalized thoughts. Dinner was a breeze. We were given Arabic menus without asking and spoke in Arabic the entire time. It was a huge moral boost to realize that we can have hour long conversations in Arabic on both normal and interesting topics and understand each other. We walked around a bit and bought a few things and headed home. All of these tasks are usually completed without hassle because we have learned to ignore most comments and have adapted to act like an Egyptian. Though clearly foreigners, we are no longer tourists. Nine times out of ten I get Egyptian prices and am able to converse well with people on the street. But tonight was different. Tonight is difficult to summarize because I felt contentment in a feeling. I felt safer. I felt more invisible. Then on the way back I became frustrated with myself for enjoying the feeling of invisibility. Part of me wants to wear a hijab when I go out at night because quite frankly it saves time, grief and hassle. The other part of me was frustrated because I feel like I fell victim to the cycle that the Egyptian males perpetuate for the females. Women feel like they need to wear hijabs because men make women not completely covered feel extremely uncomfortable. If I give in to what I feel is muted cultural suppression I feel like I am not representing who I truly am. And when it all comes back down to it, isn't that what a hijab is supposed to do: Outwardly demonstrate your inward beliefs.

The Hijab.

I have had frank discussions with many of my Muslim friends about the necessity or lack of necessity of wearing a hijab. {In Cairo, we pronounce it, higab.} Last night I walked around the city with a friend for four hours. We picked up some handmade earrings I bought in Zamalek, ate some of the fresh prickly pears and then walked over through random neighborhoods and over the bridge brushing the edge of central Cairo. We walked for about ten minutes and reached a huge tea and sheesha restaurant full of carpets draped over each other on the floor, dingy lights, huge metallic fans and men sitting puffing away, forgetting the problems of the day. I asked my friend about his expectations for his wife and what she will wears. He said, of course a hijab. He then turned to me and asked my opinion on women in the Middle East wearing hijabs. I did an eyebrow raise, subtly seeing if he really wanted my opinion. He told me 'yes, I want to know.' Alright then, I said. There are two important things.
First, I understand the religious factor. A hijab is in some ways, the Islamic equivalent to a promise ring in America. The hijab or burqqa or any other means of covering yourself is a beautiful outward pronouncement of your inner beliefs. There is definitely something to be said for keeping a part or your body special for your husband. In America, it was once and in some cases still is saving yourself, but this is now the exception rather than the rule. Here, wearing a hijab can be a symbol of your desire to keep something special for your husband and only your husband.
My friend said, 'our women, in the Middle East are treasured beyond all else and we want to protect them. A hijab also protects women from other men looking at her.'
My response was, 'that 'protection' is the key that has led to oppression and not protection. Which brings me to my second point. Hijabs also represent female oppression in the Middle East. The very idea that it is a veil of safety from impure thoughts of other men puts women into the category of a thing to protect without ever giving them the tools or education to protect themselves. Women here are extremely dependent on their husbands, both socially and financially. Maybe this isn't a bad thing, but it is certainly different. 'The basic question', he asked me, 'is if you think there is an inherent difference in women and men.' Of course there are differences. Both anatomical and otherwise. But the question is not if the difference exists but whether we can live in a world where the opinions and opportunities are provided for both sexes.

Lastly, a friend from New York and I sat the other night over coffee and discussed similar issues. She is a Muslim raised in California, a world traveler and lives in NY. She said she sometimes wears a higab in the states for several reasons. One, it is really cold and it keeps her warm. Second, she feels that at times a hijab levels the playing field. The way she explained it,-- it makes me feel like I am expressing myself as a being as opposed to a gender. It downplays the femininity factor and forces the focus to be on her as a person instead of a medium of sexuality. Interesting, eh?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Womens Car

There exists a very effective Metro service throughout greater Cairo. It is one of the only things that consistently is running and on time in the entire country. It is only one Egyptian pound which is the equivalent of 18 cents so is obviously quite cost effective and avoids all of Cairo's infamous traffic. It was a little intimidating the first time I rode it last fall but now it's a piece of gato! (cake in colloquial Arabic and French too I think!) Like the states, it is a fast way of transportation to and from work, busiest at the work rush hours. During these hours it is jam packed. There is no AC and little ventilation so it can get quite hot and full of different odors. Sometimes it's so bad I play the where is that smell coming from game. Gross, I know. But, unlike the United States, the Egyptians have two FEMALE ONLY railway cars. There are little women printed above the doors in pink with warnings written to men not enter. It is my safe zone. The women who ride the metro are so sweet and always smile at me. Sometimes I engage in conversations with them and they always love showing off the English words they remember from studying in high school or university. They always are highly amused when I respond in Arabic and full of encouraging remarks. Riding in the womens car is quiet, safe and so much more pleasant than riding the real cars. I like to think that for all the bad stuff Egyptian women are forced to deal with, at least they have this out of the deal. It may sound silly, but it really is a beautiful escape. Everywhere I walk I get cat called, whistled, and comments on oh-wow- how very beautiful (I am). It is one of the only things that will never change here and I will never get used to. I hate it. But in the womens car it is a place devoid of comments, stares and harassment. When I ride in the regular cars I am frequently subject to stares, "accidental" bumps into my chest, and a few times a butt squeeze as I exit the metro doors. That one is particularly frustrating because you can't say anything to the culprit when the doors are closing. It is not always bad but it is definitely something I avoid. I love the womens car. There is something almost empowering about it. Once, when a guy tried to entire the womens car (either accidentally or on purpose, I'm not sure) the women all starting collectively yelling at him effectively forcing him out of the car- much to his public embarrassment. Pardon the cliche, but my first thought was 'you go girls!'

Saturday, July 10, 2010


I had some first hand experience with a cultural faux pas here in Egypt. I was out with a friend for lunch in a restaurant called Abou Shakra in Garden City. We sat down and ordered some food, only slightly aware of the fact that we were the only foreigners there. I ordered a fresh lemon & mint juice. The juice of the Middle East is spectacularly delicious. I am not exaggerating. It is squeezed fresh, straight from the fruit and without extra sugar. There is always foam on the top too! So here I am drinking my drink and without noticing it, I finished the last of it with one big sip, generating a kind of slurp/gurgle thing. The entire (and I am not exaggerating) restaurant tuned and stared at me as if on cue and began giggling, clearly embarrassed for me. Not knowing how to react, I started laughing too, well aware I just learned an Egyptian faux pas. An Egyptian friend later informed me that it suggests that you are "unclean." I suppose if anything, I would think it would suggest over-indulgence? What do you think?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Marina 5.2

The next day was eventful. We woke up around 2 in the afternoon and Sayed informed us we would be going out on the boat. I grew up in Jupiter, Florida which obviously points out my affinity to anything with water- oceans, beaches, boats, pools. You name it. So here we are waiting on the end of a dock for the boat to pick us up; I am looking around this place and trying to take it all in. The water is the clear blue of south Croatia, like the sands of Italy, the condo's of Palm Beach and temperature of the Israeli coastline. His friend drives over to pick us up in his boat, all of them decked in Ray Bans and designer swimwear. So we all meet and do the usual introductions. We cruised along the coast and then out into the Med where we decided to swim around. Hossam tried to tell me there were Sharks, but I told him there aren't. (right?!?) Anyways we met up with some other friends who had this tube that looked like a floating McDonalds toy where you stick your legs through the back and your neck and arms through holes on the front where you hold onto the rope. Highly uncomfortable I was the only one who attempted it. The whole time I am yelling back to my friends on the boat and feeling like such a grandma because I am paranoid I'm going to snap my neck in this contraption! Turned out I was really bad at it.
The remainder of the day basically could be summed up into a boat party, loud music, back-flips off the boat, a sad attempt at tubing and a vibrant orange African sunset. African sunsets are my favorite.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Marina 5

Brittany, Katie, Sayed and myself drove up to Marina after classes ended on Thursday. Britttany and Katie are both in my program and Sayed goes to Depaul University in Chicago with Brittany. We were stuck in traffic for quite a while in Tahrir Square but jammed out to old school 90's hits the whole way there. We pulled into Marina 5 but there are 7 Marina developments that collectively stretch over 20 kilometers of white sand beaches, crystal blue water and dozens of sheek restaurants filled with extremely wealthy Egyptians relaxing in this beach resort town. Made up of around 95% Egyptians, there are rarely tourists in this area. There is a Greek Cemetery from World War II so occasionally some tourists come to visit the graves of their families.
Well pulling into his development we were overwhelmed by how beautiful it was and immediately drawn to the signs (In English) which were lined up successively for the cars to see as cars drive down the road.
Does it please the Great?
Remember Allah.
Sayed, our friend who brought us told us that the signs were put up by a resident of Marina to discourage drinking and driving and obviously serve as a reminder to be cognizant of God.
Sayed's house was extremely gorgeous and reminded me of the part of Admirals Cove that sits on Jupiter Inlet. Huge stone mansions with a sprawling, grass filled backyard, a stone grill built up out of the ground (like those from Italy) and beautiful iron gates leading to the Mediterranean , 5 steps away. Welcome to bliss. We met his friends and cousins and got ready to go out.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Food Poisoning

Dear World, I have been a bad blogger. Sorry for the lack of updates. Well I had an amazing will be sure to fill you all in, in detail probably tomorrow. I will tell you this much- after an eventful night in Marina (North Coast of Egypt) around 6am some friends and I decided to indulge in Nutella. No particular reason except for that Nutella is particularly delicious. Who doesn't love a little Nutella in their life? So afterward we sleep and I wake up not feeling too hot. Turns out that darn Nutella gave us all food poisoning. I am 99% positive it was from the Nutella. I woke up and immediately got sick. It lasted way too long and was basically death. I had to get a shot in 'a muscle' to stop up-chucking. It lasted a while, the death, that is. I only passed out twice and now I'm on two different kinds of antibiotics. I have been out of commission for a while and am still not able to eat food but am doing much better! El hamdullah.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


These last few days have been crazy busy. But I have some good news; I took an Egyptian cooking class!!! Which is really exciting for me- and my new roommates and of course the family. Our Chef is a Monk at one of the Monasteries in Cairo and happens to be a talented cook! We began around 4:30 gathering around two tables surrounded with cutting boards and knives. We prepped everything for the famous stuffed vegetables, called Hashwe, slicing, dicing and hollowing out the white and purple eggplants, peppers and zucchini. We learned how to make kofte (minced meat on a kebab) which is one of my favorite meat dishes here. I helped the cook saute the rice and simultaneously burned my knee on the oven, which apparently here does not have a heat protection. You know when you peek your head through the window in the oven in America? Well it is impossible hear. The glass heats up like the oven. Bah. Everything was delicious, except for the rice pudding which was too watery. After the cooking class Maggie and I decided to go smoke sheesha and grab some fresh juice. Our brains needed a break from all the Arabic because we had been in our classroom building from 9am until 7pm. Heading over to Zamalek we were stuck in Cairo traffic which allowed us to talk to our cabby and practice our Arabic. We reached our sheesha place just in time to watch the sunset set over the Nile behind an old, intricately engraved minaret. Turns out I found a really great friend. We destressed, Maggie ordered her very first sheesha, and I ordered my usual, half lemon and half mint which is the equivalent of smoking a mojito. Though smoking flavored tobacco at times makes me feel guilty. I want to protect my lungs, but whatever. Life is short,

Monday, June 28, 2010

Tea & Terrorism

Later that night we were privileged enough to meet some families in Luxor. The director of the Karnak restoration had friends who wanted to meet us and share their culture, so we went in groups of three to discuss daily life, speak Arabic and share tea and coffee together. I went with three other people, one of our speaking partners and the director of the archeological restoration in Karnak to his friends’ house. On the way, he briefed us on the family’s history. Our family had had a couple of rough years. The man who we were seeing works on restoration projects on many of the temples in Luxor. His brother was in the Egyptian army and worked as a guard at Hatshepsut’s temple. There was a terrorist attack there in 1997 where a group of terrorists crossed the mountains and lined up 63 tourists and killed them inside the temple. Horrified, his brother was working as a guard there during the attack. All of the Egyptian guards were unarmed. His brother attempted to protect the tourists without any weapon and unfortunately in the process he was shot three times. He was taken to a hospital in Cairo where he wasn’t given very much attention. He developed an infection in his wounds and they had to amputate his arm. Already difficult to find work in Luxor without being handicapped, this man couldn’t find work. After help from some of his friends, the army agreed to give him a job managing the bathrooms after his heroic efforts during the terrorist attacks. I was heartbroken hearing him refer to these events. When we met him, he was a jolly guy but there was clear pain in his eyes. He described what happened to him all the meanwhile patting his arm and repeating hamdull-allah.(thanks be to God) I have never met someone so positive who was hurt so badly. His perspective and their living conditions slapped me awake. Life is not about what you have, where you go or how you succeed. It is about perspective, family and love.
On the last morning we visiting Luxor Temple and were specially guided by Michael, one of ARCE’s archeologists and a specialist on restorations. He had worked on the most famous sites in Egypt and his insight on the history, archeology and architecture of the structure was mind blowing. After that we headed back to our slice of paradise in the Winter Palace and then had a farewell party in the lounge before heading back to Cairo. Upon disembarking from the plane my first thought was home sweet home. I was surprised at myself-- when did the Middle East become my home?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Welcome to Thebes

We left on Friday morning at five thirty am right as the shining African sun peaked over the buildings of Cairo. Heading to Luxor, we all slept on the plane and traveled to our hotel, the Winter Palace that is located right across from the East Bank of the Nile. Our hotel was the oldest in Luxor. A paradise hotel, it has been the place to be seen in Luxor for diplomats, dignitaries and vacationing guests from all over the world. It has been there since the 1830’s. We were flabbergasted with the amount of luxuriousness that surrounded the entire compound. Full of flower gardens, a menagerie, a pool with a bar inside it and pavilions for relaxing in the warm sweet air of middle Egypt, what was once the ancient city of Thebes. We visited Karnak Temple the first night after attending a lecture by a specialist on Egyptian history. My second time visiting, I am now more convinced than ever that the temple of Karnak should be considered to be a wonder of the ancient world. Towering above you, the columns allow you to imagine the daily life of the ancient Egyptians and reconstruct the day to day life thousands of years ago. It made me wonder, how different are we really? Did the people back then have the same worries, the same perception of their world? (minus all the technology and the obvious scientific developments of course) We were blessed to be allowed into an area that has been blocked to the public for decades because of restoration efforts. ARCE, our sponsoring organization is in charge of heading many of the archaeological and restoration efforts all over Egypt. We got a special tour of the area being restored which included a huge additional hall of columns and sacrificial temple. In addition, they led us through the archeological lab where the train the Egyptians to complete restoration projects and teach them preservation techniques.
The next day we visited The Valley of the Kings and Medinat Habu. Both protected UNESCO World Heritage sites, they display the beauty and magnificence of the pharaohs of the Middle Dynasty. I had visited both places last fall and was equally as interested in learning everything all over again. There is so much to see, I felt as if I was visiting it again for the first time. We came back around lunch time to avoid the heat of the day which had reached over 40 degrees Celcius. Lounging by the pool and temporarily escaping reality, we floated in the water, played and had fun just relaxing. We attended a lecture later that day by an archeologist with one of our sponsoring organizations on the ownership of cultural heritage and the denationalization of famous heritage sites. It was one of the most interesting lectures I’ve attended in a long time! In fact, it has now been 14 months since I have taken any class in English!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


In her army shirt and a long brown skirt, with matching gloves, socks, shoes and a hijab, my teacher Emany is ready with a pencil touching her pursed lips prepared to jot down our mistakes, all the meanwhile swiveling back and forth in her chair. Wednesday means quiz day in Amiyya class, the class where we practice our street Arabic. Grabbing our heads and trying to literally pull words out of the deep recesses of our brains, we attempt to answer the oral topic she presents us with and deliver it correctly in front of the class. I went first. A little more nervous than usual I just did it. Attacked! I ended up doing pretty well but made a few little mistakes. Throughout all the presentations, squeeks and screetches randomly reached our ears from the busy street outside or window but we continued on, pausing only momentarily to listen to make sure there wasn't a crash. Our teacher came in today with a huge bruise over her eye explained she had been in an accident the day before. (For more information on the drivers in Egypt, refer to my blogs from last Fall)
Amiyya classes cover the different dialects of Arabic in each different region. Egyptian Arabic is famous because most of the movies in the Arab world come from Egypt, as well as many singers. But the Egyptian Arabic is also kind of at the bottom of the totem pole because it carries such a distinct accent. For example, we pronounce our j's as g's.

Belly Dancing

Would you believe I actually did it? I belly danced. An attempt was made anyhow. In my program we have these 'mandatory cultural activities';belly dancing, cooking, or calligraphy. Obviously belly dancing, right? Well that's what I thought, anyhow. Our teacher walked into the class today and of course started jabbering in Arabic. First thing she does: she showed us two videos of herself belly dancing that were at least five minutes long each. Her style of belly dancing is folklore but there are several others. There are types more for show and those more culturally based. We all stood up after the videos looking skeptically back and forth at one another. Shouting 'yalla' (lets go!) we began. One by one we learned the steps, shaking our hips, shoulders and other parts I didn't know existed. Mostly she would just do a new move and encourage us to follow. Though not extremely informative, it was highly entertaining and surprisingly a good workout. There is this move called the fish (samak) where you move up and down on your tippy-toes while simultaneously rolling your belly in and out. We looked ridiculous! All bobbing up and down around the little room, everyone was a good sport though we were clearly not the most talented of all groups. Our teacher came over and corrected several people making them feel her hips as she undulated or repeat a move in front of the class an embarrassing number of times.
All in one classroom, us 15 girls danced for a good hour and a half. Sweaty by the end we swayed to the music, tried to be graceful and move our necks, hands, fingers and hips simultaneously to the slow voice of the man singing the Arab music. Half of the things we did I definitely could not repeat. Nor would I. Maybe the fish move though.Next week I'll update you on how the fish move develops! All you Americans watch out! 'The fish' will soon be coming to a club near you!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fork Licker

I had the pleasure of getting Fuul Al-Iskandaria. Technically the foul is not from Alexandria perse, but the fuul (a Middle Eastern dish of cooked and mashed fava beans served with olive oil, chopped parsley, onion, garlic and lemon juice) is typical of the Northern Egyptian variety. Luckily there is this little hole in the wall in Garden City home to some of Alexandria's best fuul. One of our graduate assistants from UCBerkley showed us the way to this place. Meandering through the main streets, turning right at the gas station, past the store with the broken window and beyond the first corner lies this "restaurant" which is actually a cart, two picnic tables and a sketchy back room. Kareem assures us this place is clean. (Like I care!) We order the Fuul Al-Iskandaria (Alexandrian Fuul) and various salads brimming with spices we can smell all the way from the 'kitchen.' Catching up on the last few days we discussed our lives in Arabic, when the fuul arrived talking ceased for a good 5 minutes. Spicy, crunchy, gooey and full of that grainy fava bean texture, the fuul definitely hit the spot. It was definitely a fork licker! What is this term, you say? Invented by yours truly, I have found the perfect phrase for expressing full satisfaction from something particularly delicious. If you finish your the food of off your fork but you just haven't had enough, you lick your fork, right? You've got yourself a fork licker!
Unfortunately my roommate and I both got very sick. No matter, I think of it as exercise for your tummy. The more street food you eat, the less sick you get each time. It has proven true for me thus far.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Tahrir Square & Bedouin Love

Weekend Al-Owel means 'the first weekend' in Arabic. Technically my second weekend, this weekend was the first time I was able to relax and sleep without a schedule. Some of the kids went to the pyramids but I caught up on some beauty sleep and then walked over to Tahrir Square, the main square near Downtown Cairo. Bustling day and night with people, cars puffing out yellow smog and tourists pulling maps out of their fanny packs, this square is the crossroads for the Cairo Metro, the tour buses and Cairenes going about their daily work. I love walking through the square filled with people selling sunglasses, books in Arabic, magazines in French, Ace Bandages and fresh Sugar Cane Juice. I usually buy a few peanuts (called Sudan-ee in Arabic) and head to a coffee shop to work on some homework. There is no soy milk in any cafes here (not surprising) so I order an Americano and sit in a little corner muttering my new vocabulary words to myself while flipping the flashcards back and forth.

Waking up to greet the dawn Sunday morning, I went for a little workout before class and spent the whole day cramming my head with Arabic verbs and case endings! Learning a language limits your communication. Think about how you would feel if your vocabulary was stripped away to that of a 10 year old and you were forced to speak that way 9 hours out of every day. Welcome to learning a language. The great thing about this State Department program- they force you to speak an uncomfortable amount that thankfully forces us to become comfortable. We attended a lecture later that day on Bedouin Life in the Sinai Peninsula. Random, right? But it was actually quite informative. Our presenter spoke Arabic and German but gave the presentation in her third language, English for an hour. We were all extremely impressed. I learned new information about Bedouin life and how it is now defined more as an ethnicity instead of a lifestyle, due to changing times and climates. The one thing I wanted to share: when a Bedouin guy falls for a Bedouin girl, how does the courting work? Well...The suitor draws a circle around his foot and shows the woman he is pursuing. If she agrees to his proposal she will later return to the place and draw another circle beside his with her footprint inside. Finally, if the father agrees to the match he will draw a larger circle encompassing both smaller circles. The large circle signifies the dad's blessing on the marriage. Aww.

Graduation Party on the Nile

Romani graduated from the American University in Cairo! I was so proud of him! One of my best friends from AUC, he graduated with highest honors and invited me out to dinner with his family who came in from Sudan. He is half Sudanese and half Egyptian. We met around 11pm at a large boat on the Nile called the Blue Nile which holds several posh restaurants. I was nervous about meeting them and speaking totally in Arabic during the whole dinner. What I didn't realize was his sister and brother both live in London and are darn near fluent in English. We chatted about what I was here, why I loved Arabic, basically all the usual small talk. Then his mother asked me if I was alright with marrying an Arab boy. Then she jokingly added in a harsh Arabic accent full of mischief, 'will you marry my boy and get him an American passport too?' Not knowing what else to do, I laughed out loud. We finished the rest of the dinner with laughter and of course, what night would be complete without a belly dancer? Watching men be completely mesmerized by shimmying was odd. It was seeing mans visual fixation firsthand. Ironically, tomorrow I have my first belly dancing lesson with my program. Several girls decided we wanted to learn how to belly dance. Wish me luck!

Sunday, June 20, 2010


It began Thursday after class. I had all these big plans to see everything- my first day off (after class ended at 3:30). We are in class and studying so often that what precious little time I have, I want to spend it seeing the things I didn't get to see during my last trip here. Of course I was so tired I ended up napping and then running. But in the end we went to Sequoia for the night. Sequoia is a posh restaurant in Zamalek filled with white plushy couches, every sheesha flavor you can imagine and food whose taste lives up to the prices they demand. 10 of us sat down and truly relaxed for the first time in 10 days with the World Cup in South Africa playing on screens above us. We sat next to the Nile, literally about 5 feet away. The breeze was warm and the fans in the outdoor restaurant circulated the smells of Egypt, the scents of different sheesha flavors and the fresh food being thrown on the grill in typical Egyptian fashion. We all ordered sheesha and plates of food because there is a 100LE minimum which roughly translates in USD $15. It is the place to be seen in Zamalek with all the rich Egyptians relaxing in summer heat. Unfortunately I got sick from the food which was kind of a bummer. We walked around after finishing our meal and I gave them a mini-tour of Zamalek. By midnight we were all exhausted from our long week of classes, orientation and adjusting to the crazy jet lag. Sleep, beautiful sleep.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Rooftop Classroom

Teaching English is more difficult than it seems. We had the opportunity today to go to an Christian school in a poorer part of Cairo to teach some of the kids English and play with them. I couldn't have left in a better mood. Besides being absolutely adorable, the children helped us with our Arabic, taught us some new games and better yet kept us smiling the entire time. They were so excited to interact with us. We played with kids from 5 years old all the way to probably 14 years old.
With so much interest they asked us our names, where we came from and if we could speak Arabic. Of course the littlest ones only knew the alphabet and numbers in English but they were so proud of their knowledge and sang the alphabet song with gusto and smiles. Many of the students also spoke a little French and tried so hard to communicate with us. I was truly surprised that I understood what they were saying to me in Arabic. Kids are very difficult to understand because they only speak street Arabic, don't have clear pronunciation and generally speak very quickly. I was thrilled that there was mutual comprehension. Communicating their names, ages and directions of games we wanted to play made me more confident in my Arabic.
We played red light green light, sang some songs, ran around, twirled the little girls in circles and held hands while having them show us their school. When it was time to leave the girls were all sad, hanging on to my legs and asking when we were coming back. I promised I would see them next week. The nun in charge of the school had all the children line up and sing a song thanking us for coming. They shouted goodbyes and kisses out the windows as we descended the stairs to head back to our hotel. We were exhausted and all passed out on the way back to the hotel. We actually had our driver drop us off in Tahrir Square so we could grab a quick dinner from a restaurant called Filfila. A popular choice among Cairenes there are all the popular Egyptian fast food dishes like koshary, shwerma, and fuul. After indulging in some food we headed back to the hotel and passed out.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Nook

I love nooks. I suppose the word summons images of old books, coffee tables and eccentricity. The smell of old books may be the best part of the American library system.
My nook in this sprawling African city lies in Garden City, next to the Nile below a residential building. A little Arab/French cafe, it is filled with desserts (my weakness) from both cultures. Glass display cases show off the culinary perfection displayed. From besbousa to croissants, the smell takes me back to memories of France. Attached is a cafe which serves amazing coffee and conveniently has become my study place. My nook gives me my free time. I figured out while traveling, alone time is an absolute necessity. I used to dread grabbing lunch by myself and now I find that I actually prefer it. Life changes you without evening knowing it.
Tonight I met two gentlemen, bow ties and all, in my nook from Syria and Egypt. They began to speak to me in Arabic asking about what and why I was studying. One of them was a translator between Syria and several Spanish speaking countries. The other was a radio announcer for a Cairo Radio channel. Speaking in perfect fuhsa (classical Arabic) we conversed about the media portrayal of the Middle East in America. We agreed that generally the ME is shown to be a place full of terrorists, backwards customs, extremism and deserts. Anything could be further from the truth, at least in the places I've been. While some of these things are obviously present, the majority of the people, the land and the ideals are diverse. We switched to Aamiya (street Arabic) and I learned about some great new places to go and more about my new two friends. I have never met two more polite, welcoming and elderly gentlemen in my life. Conversations with random people have changed my life. It is high on my to do list in every country.

Monday, June 14, 2010


The air is sweeter here. Zamalek is a suburb within the city of Cairo. Full of ex-pats, foreign diplomats, and wealthy Egyptians, this is the sweetest city within THE city. Trees line the streets emitting a feel of a faux-desert oasis feel. The streets are the least littered with trash and every street corning is lined with cafes, restaurants and upscale stores. Mixed in between there are random Egyptian stores selling everything from yarn to Egyptian cotton to RubberDuckys to DVD players and corn fresh off the grill. I don't think a more random compilation could be found elsewhere. Zamalek has the best food, the best people (ahsahn shabab!) and overall is an amazing suburb to stroll through. Restaurants on Abu AlFeda Street are the best- including Sequoia, Goal and countless others. Lest we not forget La Bodega and the other restaurants which boast tables 2 feet away from the Nile. I returned again tonight for some soy milk (one of the only places I can find it!) and a meal with one of my oldest friends, Romani. We relaxed and reminisced about old times over a meal of fresh cooked fish and sheesha. I could see myself moving back here. Maybe, fee mustakbal.(In the Future)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Backpacks, Pencils and Brains

Today was the official first day of school. We were there from 9am until 5:30pm. My brain hurts. I was so nervous before class started, butterflies and all. I felt like I was back in 1st grade, nervous about the first day of school, meeting my new teacher, lunchbox in hand with my brand new backpack with all the fancy multicolored folders. I guess some things never change. After the madness of all the class, Zack and I went to grab some food and study at a cafe so we could simultaneously fill our bodies with copious amounts of caffeine to stay awake. We ended up grabbing some delicious street food- shwarma (lamb), foul (mashed fava beans) and roz lebn (rice pudding). Now I'm sick. I thought my immunity from my first Cairo experience would transfer over. You know, once an immunity, always an immunity? Apparently not. All our days are filled to the brim. I have never spoken so much Arabic in my life. During lunch, our speaking partners sit with us, after class we have one on one practice with an Egyptian. After that we have more class and then four hours of homework. Bah. The weird part is, I love it. I thrive off of the intensity, the challenge and the culture. I only hope I am not studying so much I miss out the other amazing things in Egypt.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Arabic Huh?

Today we had our class introduction. So here is my schedule. From 9-1 every day we have four hours of class. then from 2-5:30 is homework time with teachers/teaching assistants. We are supposed to have 4 hours of homework every night! Then for two hours in the evening Sunday through Wednesday we have mandatory activities like scavenger hunts through Cairo, language partners, lectures, films in Arabic, belly-dancing, etc. Then we have "unstructured time" where we get to do more homework and eat. Oh, plus office hours, field trips on the weekends and of course random additions. Well, at least I will come away with a strong grasp on the Arabic language, Insha'Allah.(God willing)
Other than that, we walked around the streets of Cairo to explore Tahrir Square a bit. Crossing the streets in Cairo is like playing human Frogger. If you make the wrong move, there is a very real possibility you will be hit by a car. Weaving through the traffic, estimating the distance between you and the car and the approximate distance from you- you run/dash/leap across the street. The best way is to use an Egyptian as a buffer. They know what they are doing. Follow them. We drank some fresh mango juice and relished in the polluted air of Cairo with its smells of fish, chicken, shwerma and fresh fruits being squeezed in the streets.
Everyone begins to come out after dark because the heat dwindles to a bearable temperature. It's a party in Cairo; cars beep at everything and people walk along the boardwalk of the Nile holding hands or out on a family venture. I simply love watching and talking to new people. Everyone here is so eager to help me learn and practice my Arabic. Full of compliments, so many Egyptians will come over and help me with my homework, correct it, and make me practice speaking it with them. Egyptian culture is definitely warm, opening and inviting.
Well, I must go do my Arabic homework. 1 hour down, 3 to go. Tisba'alKhair (good night)!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Bus Tour

Leaving bright and early, we took advantage of the traffic reprieve on Friday. Fridays, you see, are holy days for Muslims. Because of this, the usually unbearable traffic is temporarily lifted, leaving us the possibility of doing a bus tour of Cairo without being stuck in hours of crawling traffic. Taking full advantage, we bumbled along in the bus down the bumpy roads of Cairo, swerving in and out of the different neighborhoods, pausing to take photos of major sites and listening to the history of each neighborhood. Built up from ancient times, the city of Cairo, or at least what we think of Cairo as today, is actually two cities- Cairo on the East Bank of the Nile, and Giza on the West Bank. We went to the top of the city of Cairo and overlooked the neighborhoods slowly rising around the perimeters, and systematically learned about the rich history of one of the oldest cities in the world. The map below shows the suburbs of Cairo decently well. I live right next to the Egyptian Museum and the Nile!

Where I Live (Next to the Egyptian Museum)

First Days on the Nile

I’ve been in Egypt for about 24 hours now. I am slowly readjusting to Muslim Standard Time (MSE). A joke among the students here, MSE represents the Islamic culture in respect to time. Basically, there is none. Every time there is an event with a time on it, it is appropriate to arrive at least 30 minutes late. You will still be the first one there. An hour and a half late is usually when people begin to show. Ironically enough, the program I am participating in now is surprisingly punctual. Our entire program was given to us planned done to 16 hours of every day. I kid you not.
We are staying in the Shephard Hotel, a very nice hotel on the Nile that is over 100 years old and literally right next to the Nile. Not a block away- right next to the famous Nile. The River of Life. Outside my window. Right there. Our room has a Nile view, AC, two large cushy beds, a huge bathroom and everything else we could need for two months. After settling in, we dove right back into our Arabic with intensive colloquial classes and more orientation. It was nice practicing my Arabic again in a real environment. Walking around Zamalek and Garden City, both neighborhoods of Cairo, I systematically took in every smell, sound, sight and interaction I experienced. There were new restaurants, bigger billboards and less people. My favorite shisha place had closed down. But, it was still my Cairo. Streets were peppered with garbage piled neatly in corners and around the sidewalk perimeters, the distinguishable stinging in my eyes from the smog was ever-present and the smell of the roasting lamb filtered through the grimy streets and the beautiful dress of the Muslim women and traditional men proudly presented their culture.
Later, I walked down the Kornishe (the street along the Nile) and was very quickly reminded of what it is like to walk by yourself in the Arab Middle East. Whistles, hissing, a lot of wow’s…It is absolutely crucial that you walk with your head straight forward, walk with a purpose and do not entertain eye contact with men hitting on you because it is a sign that their flirtatious behavior is encouraged. One man yelled at me, with impeccable English I might add, “your body’s worth will be high!” I have no idea what that meant, but I couldn’t stop myself from giggling. I met up with some old friends from the American University of Cairo beside the felucca’s (the boats that sail the Nile) and gave them all hugs before heading back to get a head start on some studying.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Back to Basics. Cairo revisited.

Well Egypt, I’m back. Well not quite. I leave for Cairo tomorrow. Today, I am in the capital of our great American nation, Washington D.C. If I didn’t say before, I am participating in the Critical Language Scholarship, a program with the US Department of State in order to promote difficult language acquisition. Short version- they give me money to learn Arabic at a really prestigious institution/program in Cairo. I arrived at the airport where my old friend Richie met me to accompany me to my hotel via the metro. Checking in was a breeze and I met my roommate, Michelle who is such a nice girl! A grad student in Indiana in Comparative Literature, I can already tell we will be getting along for the next two months!
We prepped for orientation and met everyone as we gathered in the meeting room of the hotel. Tall, short, blonde, bald, old and young- the CLS is the most age and interest diverse program I have been a part of. We have people from rising college sophomores to those in their late thirties finished their PhD programs. Subject interests range from International Relations to Biology to Pharmaceuticals to the Arabic Language. All welcoming each other, we told fun stories about ourselves and afterward went out for dinner at a Thai restaurant while learning tid-bits about each other. Having not visited the area in years, I forgot how beautiful and dynamic the city is. I later met my friend for dinner and we took in the old prestige and vibrancy of Georgetown. We sat down, ate a delicious meal and then walked up to the National Cathedral. It is breathtaking. Grand, populated with multitudes of steeples, the church is almost outdone in splendor by the gardens surrounding it. It must be the closest thing to European architecture that exists in America (in my amateur opinion). I ventured home, woke up early and sat through a long day of orientation. The State Department, I must report, is blessedly efficient. Full of lots of information in small time periods we are now on break before meeting to go to dinner at this fancy restaurant! Will write more upon arrival to Egypt.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


I am on a blogging hiatus until my return to Egypt. I love all your emails and input into my blog but I am exhausted and really need to catch up on my Arabic! I hope you learned a little bit about daily life and the world of the Middle East. I promise I will start up again once I head back to Cairo for more Arabic. Salaam until then. (June 6)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

In Summation.

I honestly don’t think I understood Israel before. Really truly understood, that is. I now get the grunt and grind of daily life. The paranoia of safety and protection permeates the most closely woven of the strings that make up Israeli culture. Everything in Israel comes down to safety- independence- the ability to survive and the pride of being Jewish. For centuries it was taboo, dangerous or embarrassing to claim a Jewish religious identity- regrettably this is true even in some places today. I think it is brilliant how valiantly the Jewish state has fought to retain its statehood and culture. I love that Israel is a melting pot, accepting Jews with open arms from all over the world. Always, the first question asked in Israel is, ‘are you Jewish?’ The significance of that question should speak for itself. The insider/outsider or who can be trusted is a major question there.
My major beef with Israel is the education. I don’t mean the ABC’s (in Hebrew called the AlephBet) but rather the cultural awareness, or lack thereof. Obviously they are exposed to the history of the State of Israel and focus on the Jewish heritage as the common, uniting factor. However, there is very little focus on the similarities between them, the Christians and the Muslims. I realize this goes back to survival instinct, but it is fostering an us versus them mentality. Survival is one thing, but the reality in Israel and in the Middle East is that it is a place of religiosity of all three major religions and a lack of understanding of the commonalities and differences of each other will only lead to more separation and more fundamentalism. The lack of desire to learn about the peoples surrounding them will only harm the Jewish State. Understanding and a desire to learn is the first step to building a lasting peace.
A silly boy in my Ulpan once told me that attempting to learn, to study another culture is offensive because it puts your ‘subjects’ (a rather cynical way of looking at the situation) into boxes, into a scientific-esq situation. I completely disagree; for if people never step outside their culture, if there is no desire to learn about cultures outside your own, how will progress happen? How will understanding unfold? How will people learn to look past appearances? How will prejudice be combated?
I believe that Israel will play an extremely important role in the future. Israel is the shining beacon of light in the Middle East, of progress, where so much of the region is crippled by poverty, illiteracy, and political Islam. Israel has the potential to become a major world player, an innovator and a leader. This will not happen until changes are made on a grassroots level to increase the understanding of the other. At a party I attended on the Israeli Independence Day I was asked by some friends (after learning my background) if ‘I liked Arabs?’ My response- “I like people.” Look at people, not at what defines them.

I guess what I have learned is this: You will never know it all. Keep seeking. Keep learning. If you think it can’t be done, push harder. It is possible. As JFK once said, “We need people who will dream of things that never were.” The world exists to be explored.

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