Here I blog about my 12 months in Cairo, Egypt on a Fulbright Research Grant. I'm studying Arabic, conducting research on how martial arts empowers women, observing different ways of life, and living creatively.
I’m writing my last blog post from Egypt right now, on my final night in the country. It came suddenly and sadly a month too soon. However, due to the military coup and ongoing unrest, the Fulbright program is temporarily suspended for a minimum of 30 days. We were instructed to evacuate as soon as possible. I am staying in an airport hotel for the night, as I didn’t want to take any chances with road blockages or clashes on the morning of my departure. My sweet little cat (actually not so little, she’s 3 kilograms overweight, so I’m hoping they let her onto the plane!) is here with me. As it turns out, clashes have broken out on one of Egypt’s largest bridges, 6th of October. As I am typing this, so far two people have been killed. The entrances have been blocked off by tanks. 6th of October is the road I take to get to the airport, so I think I made the right choice to stay at the airport hotel for the night.
I may be giving the wrong impression about the situation here, that it’s in complete chaos. I don’t want to do that, so let me explain a few things before I continue: I’m exhausted. Emotionally, mentally and physically. The task of having to pack up a year and a half of my life, say goodbye to the great friends I’ve made here, and mentally prepare myself for what’s sure to be a difficult transition back into American life, cannot possibly be accomplished in a mere day. But that is what I’ve had to do. So I’m doing my best. But, because of these factors, I’m a bit emotional and haven’t had time to properly process what’s happening - both to this country which I love so dearly, and to my own personal life. I was so looking forward to having this final month to do all of the things I wanted to do but haven’t yet, or simply do my favorite things over and over again, like drink mango juice at a Nile cafe, smoke shisha on a rooftop bar overlooking the city until the morning hours, laugh at the silly nuances that you can only enjoy after having lived here for so long, play one more match of soccer with all my diplomat friends at the British Embassy, buy falafel and fool for insanely cheap prices, make jokes with my produce guy, drink hibiscus juice, experiment with Egyptian cooking, and I can go on and on. I was looking forward to a time of reflection on my experience, so that I could gain proper closure, while at the same time prepare myself for a drastic transition.
On top of all these personal aspects, my early evacuation also means that I won’t be able to give a self-defense seminar for women at the American Embassy. This event was scheduled for July 24, followed by a presentation open to the public where I would discuss my research and how beneficial martial arts can be for women and society. I am extremely disappointed.
I don’t have the luxury of time to do any of those things. And I’m going to have to be OK with that. I managed to squeeze in one last Egyptian meal and a final falucca ride on the Nile, and said goodbye to the friends that I could. Everything else is going to have to wait until next time. I know there will be a next time, but probably not for a while.
For those of you who are reading from a location outside of Egypt, I would love to tell you about what’s really going on here, from my perspective. I cannot possibly do that properly now, though. For one, I haven’t yet had time to process it all and read the literature that has been produced about the recent events from trusted Middle East observers. I’ve read what I could though, and I recommend you do too. There are a lot of differing opinions, strong ones, being expressed on June 30th and its aftermath. Some will say it’s a military coup, but many others will deny this. The sensationalist news media will have you believe that Cairo is in chaos and that it’s dangerous to leave your home. This, I will say for certain, is completely untrue. Indeed, tensions are high and violence is breaking out in localized areas, albeit more so than usual. This requires a high level of alertness and a constant intake of live news. Citizens will not be caught up in clashes if they step outside to grab groceries or go to work, if they follow these steps.
The most recent update as I write this is 17 dead in clashes across the country so far today. Awful. Maybe I should just stop writing about the current situation because it is so volatile and instead go back to talking about myself…
I am nervous for Egypt. I am impressed, happy, and proud, that tens of millions of Egyptians peacefully demonstrated in the largest demonstrations in human history on June 30th. But I am hesitant to be entirely optimistic about the military takeover and interim government. I do not think it is a good sign for long-run democracy that the nation’s first democratically elected president was removed by a military coup. Yes, it was a popularly supported military coup, but it was one nonetheless. This fact alone raises legal questions concerning the billions of dollars of aid that the U.S. gives to the Egyptian military every year. Not to mention the IMF Loan.Additionally, and potentially more dangerous, is the now isolated Muslim Brotherhood. They clearly do not represent a majority of Egyptians, but they are a significant portion of the population. Most likely, some disgruntled members of the Brotherhood will turn to extremism and possibly even terrorist activities. This is a very ominous prospect not only for Egypt but for the entire world.
Also, there is the issue of anti-American sentiment, which I’ve felt more acutely than I ever have before due to the widespread (untrue) belief that the Obama Administration and the American Ambassador Anne Patterson support the Muslim Brotherhood. For the first time ever, I lied about my nationality. I told my taxi driver I was Canadian - I didn’t even have to think about it, I just sensed that that was what I should do. This bothers me. I do hope these sentiments will quiet down with time and not get worse.
The impact of the events of the past week have yet to be determined. Those are just my basic thoughts. Although I will be across the Atlantic living a completely different life from the one I have had for the past 1.5 years, I will be watching the events very closely. I will continue to analyze, to pray, and to hope for the best possible future for the Egyptian people. They really are something else.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a love-hate relationship with this country. I have super high highs and bitterly low lows all the time, sometimes several of each in one day. I should sit down and make a list of my Egypt loaths and loves. But regardless of that, this place has changed me. I will go home a different person. Not entirely, but in many ways. I have gained a invaluable perspective which has allowed me to look at my own country and the rest of the world in a way that I could not have done before. I am extremely grateful for that. I have a better idea of what I want to do with my life and who I want to be. I just hope I don’t lose sight of everything I’ve learned here, or else I’ll have to come back for another 1.5 years… haha I’m just kidding, mom. But really, although it’s certainly been hard at times, I’ve had an amazing experience and I won’t ever forget what I’ve learned and the people I’ve met along the way.
Signing off from Cairo. See you in a few hours, America!
Last week I gave presentations at three different Fulbright pre-departure orientations for Egyptian students going to study in the U.S. The first was for PhD students who will spend 1-3 years in the States, the second was for Arabic Teaching Assistants, recent graduates who will be teaching Arabic for 9 months, and the third was for undergraduate students who will spend a year studying at a community college in the States. It was my job to speak to them for an hour about the American Education System, Culture, and Society. I was quite a bit overwhelmed by the task at first, especially since they are going to universities ALL over the country - Wisconsin, Oregon, Arizona, Florida, Rhode Island, and everywhere in between. But it ended up being a great success and I think we all had a good time.
While I did tell them about how each region and even each state in the U.S. has its own unique culture, I tried not to focus too much on geographical characteristics and instead discussed American values more generally. Of course, each presentation was preceded by the following disclaimers: I am by no means an American culture expert, and America is diverse in every single way imaginable, which makes this kind of presentation extremely difficult. From my 22 years of experience living in America and my year and a half experience living in Egypt, I was able to give them some general guidelines for interacting with Americans in a polite and culturally sensitive manner:
Some of the students were a little bit overwhelmed at all these “rules” they had to follow. But I also tried to reassure them that they should ask questions if they were ever unsure of things. Another important principle, and possibly the most important, is to be direct, honest and straightforward when dealing with Americans. In Egypt, it is very common for Egyptians to say things they don’t mean, out of politeness. For example: “Don’t worry about paying, keep the money!” or “Would you like a bite of my falafel sandwich?” Egyptians are also known for exaggerating their emotions and making things a much bigger deal than they are, getting angry and aggressive. Usually, however, these tactics are “all talk” and don’t carry the equivalent weight of significance as their actions might suggest. I made sure to inform the Egyptian students that these tactics do not mean the same thing in America: if you say these things to an American, he or she would probably keep the money, have a bite of your falafel sandwich, and get in a fight with you, respectively.
At the end of each presentation we had a question and answer session. The Egyptian students asked me many questions, about crime rates, going to mosque, what Americans think of the hijaab, and how to explain Islamic standards to an American, such as no drinking alcohol and interactions between the sexes (no hugging). For many of these questions, I recommended they speak with the International Student Office at their university because the answer differs from place to place. For others, though, I recommended being honest and direct with Americans at all times. As long as they explain their position on sensitive issues, hopefully there will be understanding on behalf of all parties and things will be fine. I really enjoyed giving these presentations and hope I helped make their transition easier in some small way. Best of luck to all the Egyptian Fulbrighters!!
On Sunday, my Aunt Nermine and cousin Nevine left to go back to the U.S. after spending a little over a week visiting Egypt. It was quite an unexpected trip for everyone involved, prompted mainly by the picture of George and I by the Nile (below) and some praises of fresh mango juice that we were drinking at the time. Days after I exchanged these texts with Nevine, she and her mom purchased tickets leaving for Cairo in two weeks!!! After a whirlwind fortnight filled with shopping for American snacks and hair products to bring for me and George, long skirts and scarves, and gifts for the family in Egypt, they arrived in Cairo. Not before, however, spending 24 hours delayed in JFK because of technical malfunctions with their plane in Florida which caused them to miss their Egypt connection. OH, and Nermine’s bag was lost for more than 3 days. (And I thought the airport strike in Cairo was going to be the problem…)
It turned out that unexpected events would continue to surprise us during our touring of Cairo, Alexandria, and the Sinai. As they flew into Cairo (a day later than originally planned), a dust storm was making its way through the already filthy streets of the city, resulting in exponential amounts of dust to the face and a welcome that was less than ideal. However, we powered through, visiting Khan al-Khalily and braving the gusts of dust and nagging shopkeepers simultaneously. That evening we went to Wakilat al-Ghoury, an Islamic madrassa which hosts an entertaining and colorful Sufi Tenora dance show. After bribing one of the employees to bring us more chairs and causing much commotion, the power went out. As seasoned post-Revolution Cairo residents, Jack, George and I knew that the power would be out for at least an hour due to the electricity shortage, so we made haste to get refunded and leave. We then found ourselves at a bar where my Aunt Nermine put me to shame in drinking Egypt’s national beer: Stella.
The next day was jam-packed with activities, but everything went more or less according to planned. We saw the pyramids and Sphinx in the morning, complete with a camel ride and video taping of one of my many heated arguments with various camel owners. We then ate delicious falafel sandwiches and Egyptian fried dough, Zalabeyah, on board an afternoon falucca on the Nile. That evening we visited the family in Heliopolis, which was a lovely reunion for Nermine. We shared lots of laughs, smiles, and photos.
The next day we went to Alexandria… but only after resorting to plan D. It turned out that the train was going to be 3-4 hours late, which would have completely ruined our day. I luckily befriended an Egyptian woman at the station, Hind, who was in a predicament and needed to get to Alexandria for a business meeting. After running around to no less than 5 different windows trying to get a refund for our tickets, we got in Hind’s car and drove to the bus station. No luck. So we drove to another bus station. Buses wouldn’t leave until 3pm. Desperate, we made a deal with her driver that he would bring us to Alexandria, spend the day there, and then bring us back to Cairo in the evening. Plan D was a success! We arrived safely in Alexandria, saw the library and toured the museums there, got cheap Egyptian food for lunch and nice seafood for dinner. Unfortunately we never made it to the catacombs, but we had a nice day otherwise… notwithstanding a toilet hose explosion in the library which drenched my Aunt Nermine. It was not the first time during the trip that I commended her for being such a trooper.
Shortly after the toilet incident, Nermine, Nevine, George and I were on a plane heading to the Sinai. We flew into Sharm al-Sheikh and were met at the airport by a driver from our hotel in Dahab. By the time we arrived our our hotel (Canyon Estate, which I would strongly recommend to anyone visiting Dahab), we were already feeling relaxed and relieved to be out of the Cairo craziness. Our 4 days in Dahab were filled with lots of sun and fun activities. We rode bikes, ate amazing food, went snorkeling, swam, went on a quad/ATV tour through the desert, and climbed Mount Sinai. It was such a blast.
The only real problems we faced were: a) having to leave! and b) being held at a security checkpoint after climbing Mount Sinai, for no reason at all. We had climbed all through the night and hadn’t slept a wink, so the next morning we were all completely exhausted and couldn’t bear the thought of anything besides pillows and air conditioning. As our taxi was leaving the Saint Catherine area (where the mountain is located), we were forced to stop at a police checkpoint. I overheard a police officer talking with our driver (because of course he didn’t address the actual passengers whom he was disrupting), talking about how there have been several kidnappings of foreigners in that area recently. It sounded like we would have to wait until other cars came so that they could release us all together with a police escort. “Fine, at least this delay is for the sake of our safety,” we thought. So we waited in the heat, dozing in and out of uncomfortable sleep, swatting flies off of each other for over an hour. Finally, they said we could go! Wohoo! However, were there other vehicles traveling with us? No. Was there a police escort? No… That would require the police to actually do their jobs without some sort of bribe or extra incentive, which, I’ve learned, is asking too much. Needless to say, we were not kidnapped, thank goodness.
That night we went shopping in Dahab and met some very kind shopkeepers (they still were right on their haggling game, though). After a final juice and shisha next to the Red Sea with Saudi Arabia lit up across the water, we headed back to Cairo for a final night with the Yassa clan. The goodbyes were hard. In true Yassa fashion, the farewell-giving process took no less than an hour… But it was worth it.
Despite the hiccups along the way, we had an extremely fun and memorable time. I am SO glad that I got to have that experience with my Aunt and cousins!! It really was amazing to explore Egypt all together and I know we’ll never forget it. (Although I do hope they forget about how I excitedly belted out Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love,” per our taxi driver’s request, as we were stuck in traffic headed to the airport).
Yesterday was Sham al-Naseem, a national holiday when all Egyptians spend the day outdoors with family smelling Springtime breezes and eating potent, salted fish called faseekh. I joined some other foreigners at a local park near the Opera House, which was filled with families, young people, and children all eating various snacks and enjoying themselves. After sunset, something curious happened. The entire time we were sitting eating sunflower seeds and popcorn (NOT faseekh) in our circle of foreigners, there were two young couples sitting behind us against the outer wall. We didn’t think anything of this. When it started to get dark, I stole a couple glances and could see that they were getting cozy, with one guy’s arm around his girlfriend’s shoulders, and the other guy’s arms scandalously stretched across his girlfriend’s legs. I kind of giggled to myself at the sight of this, knowing that this kind of contact would be completely unacceptable to the families of those girls. Not more than a half hour after sunset, three park employees walked into our general area and yelled at the couples, saying something along the lines of “half of the park can see you!” And telling them to move away from the wall. The guys got mad and started yelling back, but they were outnumbered. Embarrassed in front of their girlfriends, they had no choice but to move to a different part of the park where eyes would be watching from all directions making sure nothing sinful took place.