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.

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