Tag Archives: adventures

Bright Spots in a Long Countdown

21 Apr

Today marks 36 days til the end of classes.

38 days til we fly out of Morocco.

And 17 days after that will be touchdown in the USA.

Not that I’m, you know, counting down or anything.

We really have had some super cool experiences here in Morocco, and from the pictures I’ve taken you would never guess that I spend 90% of my time sitting at my desk in my dorm room at my isolated English-speaking university in Morocco.   But it’s been so frustrating to be pulled out of a immersion experience in Egypt where I had so much independence and so many opportunities for adventures, only to be placed in a University where the goals of every single student (to learn and become fluent in English) conflict so directly with my own, where our schedule has been packed with more class time and homework to make up for the lack of immersion, and where the only people I have time to interact with are the 15 students of our program, who I have class with 20 hours a week and study with for the rest.

So at the risk of falling dangerously behind in readings and papers this week, I decided to take the opportunity to spend 24 hours living with a Moroccan family this weekend.   Monica and I set off for Azrou, a little town (but bigger than Ifrane) about 25 minutes away by Grand Taxi Friday afternoon, ready to meet our host mom.  It was a little nerve-wracking because we weren’t exactly sure who we were meeting or where we were meeting them, but as soon as we met Mama Aisha she told us she would take care of us like we were her own daughters, and we knew we were in good hands.

Mama Aisha lives in the Old Medina of Azrou, within the walls of the old city.  A door off of a tunnel leading from a main street led up a flight of steep steps to the main part of her home.   A kitchen and two rooms with couches round the walls were the first floor, and two separate flights of steep stairs ran up to a bathroom (squatter–yikes!)  and a tiny door to the roof, where she kept a garden, clotheslines, and awesome views of the city.

We spent the evening learning how to make Harira, the famous Moroccan soup, watching soap operas, and talking to Mama Aisha all about her life, family, and looking through a cardboard box full of pictures and mementos, from the picture book of French postcards from WWI that her Grandfather had given her to the photos of herself in grade school to the photos when her children, now in their 20s, were young.

We learned that the round-room couches double as comfy beds, and the next day did some more cooking, shopping, walking around the town, meeting relatives, and “tanning” on the roof at Mama Aisha’s suggestion (it ended up being a great place to get some homework done in the sun).

We explored the souk and (a little queasily) bought some meat from a relative of Mama Aisha’s in the market.  Then learned how to make an AWESOME Lamb and peas Tagine.

Over lunch we talked politics and society with Mama Aisha and her son Omar, who works in Ifrane but usually stays in Azrou with his Mom.  It was awesome to get to finally talk to some Moroccans and see how they feel about the government, the King, the revolutions in the region and the protests going on in Morocco, and even vented some about American politics.  This was one of the few times I’ve really been able to practice the Moroccan dialect, and I was really happy to be able to do so.  Monica and I both can’t wait to go visit again.

Out of Egypt

24 Feb

It’s still difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that one month ago, I was writing papers from my desk in Alexandria and wondering whether the Tunisian revolution would spark an uprising in Egypt.  That three weeks ago I arrived in the United States, having witnessed the start of that struggle.  That 13 days ago, I cheered and cried and held my breath as the strength of the Egyptian public resulted in Hosni Mubarak’s descent from his 30-year seat of power and flight from Cairo.  And that in just a few days I’ll be boarding a plane back to North Africa, but that it will be the start of a new semester in a new climate and a new dialect and a new culture and a new country.

I still feel like I was wrenched from Egypt.  The January 25th protests were exhilarating, even more so when they continued through the night and into the next days.  I was glued to the news from Cairo and Suez and the word on the street from Alexandria.  As police turned violent and we heard reports of deaths and beatings, I mostly spent time inside with my host family and friends, waiting to see what would happen.  Twitter was cut off the first day, and Facebook was rumored to be next.  The night of the 27th, Thursday, Facebook was gone and I got my first taste of censorship.  When we woke up the next morning the internet and phone lines were cut throughout all of Egypt.  I panicked.  I felt helpless and trapped…no way to communicate with anyone outside my home.  Hosni Mubarak, I thought, you’ve got me, I feel repressed.  I sat in front of Al-Jazeera with Mama Azza and Mohab and we watched as they played over and over scenes of police vans shooting tear gas at masses of people and driving through crowds.   I ventured out with Mohab and bought an international calling card, to attempt a call to the US.   While we were out, Mohab and I ran a couple of errands for Mama Azza (1/2 kilo of eggplant, 1/2 kilo of green beans), and then ran a couple of our own, investigating the source of the black smoke billowing above our neighborhood.  As we were walking along the Corniche, we saw one of the biggest masses of protesters yet, moving along the Corniche, blocking off Alexandria’s entire main street to cars, waving flags, throwing stones at police vans, and chanting slogans.

We asked around a bit and found out that the smoke was from two police vans that had been set on fire, and learned that a little further down a police station had been set ablaze.  As we were walking, two of the vans in question drove by, looking utterly defeated…battered and dented on every side, license plate hanging by one screw.  The streets were populated by groups of people sharing stories and cell phone videos of the fires and protests.  A taxi stopped in the middle of the usually-congested Corniche and its passengers got out to tape over the numbers painted on the cab and license plate, to cover up any identification numbers on the vehicle.  Two boys ran past us, hiding an object in a sweater slung between them.  No one was going about their daily business now.  The smokey dusk was eerily quiet, and the new curfew went into effect. That night they announced that the police force had left Alexandria, and we watched on tv as tanks rolled into the city; the army had been brought in to keep the peace.  The next day I was supposed to be meeting friends from America at the airport in Cairo, but I still had not heard whether they were coming or not.  So I packed a week’s worth of clothes just in case I heard from them and got ready to leave at a minute’s notice.  It’s a good thing I did, too, as a little while later I got a call from the resident director of our program telling me they felt it would be safer if we were all together to communicate, and that they would be coming to my apartment soon to pick me up.  Bag in hand I said my goodbyes to my host family, not knowing that it would be the last time I saw them before leaving Alexandria.

We piled into a car and made our way to Andrew’s apartment.  Because there were no longer police in Alexandria, civilians had stepped up to the job of traffic control and were directing cars and pedestrians, standing in the middle of every intersection.   On the way, a huge protest blocked all traffic going East on the Corniche.  So, cars turned around and people started forming two head-on lanes of traffic on the side of the street that was open.  It was a city run by the people.

The next two days and nights were spent sequestered in Andrew’s apartment.  The eight of us who were still in Alexandria at the time (everyone else had already left for the semester break), plus Andrew, and Mr. Poopsie the puppy huddled under blankets, paced, waited, wondered, and watched the world from the balcony.  We had no internet, no access to news on television, and limited capability to contact people by phone.  We called our Egyptian friends to make sure they were ok, and kept our phones close waiting for calls from the unlisted numbers that could be our parents or friends on the outside.  We ventured out before the 4pm curfew to secure cooking supplies and made giant pots of stew and goulash.  And we sat around some more…waiting for word from The Program.

We got calls from them every couple of hours, updating us on their deliberation process…first to let us know that an evacuation plan was being designed but that they weren’t sure if they would implement it.  If we were to be taken out, it could be by land, sea, or by charter plane.  Finally after a long first day we found out that they had indeed decided to evacuate us, and it would be by the first available flight.  A few hours later another call let us know that we would be leaving on the 31st, escorted to the airport with a guard, and we would have time to go to our apartments the next day to pick up the rest of our things.  The next morning turned out to be more dangerous than expected, and we only were able to get the essentials: a passport.

Outside, the civilian-run state faced its first night on the job.  As we watched from our 11th floor vantage point, men began walking the darkening streets in groups of two or three, all carrying long sticks, staves, or even swords.  Scary!  Until, after watching for a little while, we realized that these were the good guys, the neighborhood fathers and brothers and sons banding together on each street corner to protect their own.  When a car passed through the street, they stopped it and directed all traffic to the Corniche, where the army was patrolling with tanks.  When gunshots sounded nearby, dozens of men sprinted to see what the problem was.

Inside we stayed busy making macaroni and cheese that someone’s mom had sent from America, knitting, reading, and watching movies.  On Sunday morning we packed up early and were waiting by the door when the curfew lifted at 8am.  Our dedicated teachers and the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities picked us up in the University bus to go to the airport, and we made it through army checkpoints easily, after a quick stop to grab food and water for another study abroad program whose 35 students had been stuck at the airport for 2 nights.   We had two short and stressful flights, from Egypt to Jordan and from Jordan to Dubai, and then settled in for the 14 hours to America.  Everyone else was going on to different destinations, so I walked out to Washington, DC to meet my parents on my own.

As I was reacquainting myself with cold weather, automatic clothes dryers and drinking tap water, and trying to stop feeling guilty flushing toilet paper, Egyptians were not giving up.  I was back to my own bed, and they were setting up camp in Tahrir Square.  I was at Will’s on the 11th when the uprising became a legit revolution and popular resistance finally pushed Mubarak OUT!  And we don’t know what it will lead to in Egypt yet, but I don’t doubt that the people will fight for the rights and fair democratic governance that they want and deserve, and the rest of the Mid East dictators better get scared if they aren’t already.

As for me, the Program finally decided after two weeks that the best option would be to continue our program in Morocco, since we are not allowed back to Egypt as a government-funded program until it’s officially “safe” …whatever that means.  I’m hoping to go back and visit my friends and host family and tie up my loose ends in Egypt after the end of the program in June, but for now I’m getting excited to spend three months in this bizarre-sounding place called Ifrane, Morocco.  Alpine climate and Macaque monkeys?  Alright Morocco, let’s see what you’ve got.

عيش, حرية, كرامة انسانية! Bread, Freedom, Dignity!

27 Jan

Well, it’s happening.  Instead of spending the day writing my final paper on ‘The Illusion of Social Class in Two Arabic Short Stories’ (all I’ve got so far is the title) I’ve been glued to facebook, twitter, the blogs, and online newspapers, watching the updates on the continued protests all over Egypt.

My expectations for the “January 25th Revolution” were not great.  The Tunisian revolution turned the head of every person in the Arab world hungry for the same, and of course Egypt is in some ways even more ready for change than Tunisia: Egypt’s population experiences even higher degrees of unemployment and poverty, frustration with the authoritarian president of 30 years, and desperation and hopelessness with their country’s decaying infrastructure and services.  But at the same time, many of the things that clicked for Tunisia are elements that Egypt lacks, like a strong middle class built up by decades of investment in education by the government.  One of the main qualities I’ve noticed again and again in Egypt the resourcefulness  and resilience to keep on keepin’ on in any situation, a characteristic that does not typically lead to standing up and demanding change, and so I, along with many other bloggers and analysts, was shocked by the magnitude and reach of the January 25th protests.

The morning of the 25th I had a four-hour-long MSA exam, then a presentation on my internship, so I returned home at 5, exhausted and disappointed that I hadn’t seen a single protest on the supposed day of revolution.  Not half an hour later, however, I began thinking I was imagining hearing chanting from outside my window, and Mama Azza called to me from the balcony, Katelyn!  Protests on Port Said!  We watched from the balcony as crowds of people marched down the nearby street, chanting and waving flags.  I’m going down!  I told Mama A.  Take care of yourself!  she told me, You’re not going to eat lunch!?

When I got down to street level the bulk of the protest had already moved on, marching East down Port Said, a main drag in Alexandria that runs parallel to the Corniche and the Mediterranean.  A few blocks behind them lumbered several fire trucks, and a group of well-dressed ظوابط, high-ranking police officers.  I decided to trail the protests for a couple of blocks, and was walking behind them snapping pictures when I heard someone call out my name!

Professor Radwa?!  I was incredulous.  My literature teacher (yes, she teaches the class the paper is due for), Radwa, was standing on the corner, and came up to me.  It’s not safe in the back, she cautioned, as the police have been spraying protesters with water to get them under control.  So, we moved up into the heart of the mass of people, ever-growing as more people came down from their lofty balcony perches and joined the march.  I was surprised at the diversity of the people who were marching…women and men, ages ranging from the very young (at one point a boy about twelve years old was sitting on someone’s shoulders leading the chants) to the very old.  As the evening call to prayer began to sound, we passed a mosque, and part of the crowd broke off to pray in the street.

The protesters were organized and peaceful, throwing up peace signs and quieting their chants as we passed the mosque, but there was otherwise not a sectarian feel to the chants or signs.

حرية حرية!  they chanted, Freedom, Freedom!

اسقط اسقط حسني مبارك!  Down with Hosni Mubarak!

حسني مبارك, باااااطل  Hosni Mubarak, obsolete/worthless! (and continued with names of other politicians)

عيش, حرية, كرامة انسانية!  My personal favorite: Bread, Freedom, Dignity!

And they called to the masses watching from the heights of their balconies and rooftops:

انزلوا, انزلوا!!  Come down, Come down!

and, واحد, اثنين, الشعب المصري فين؟!  One, two, People of Egypt, where are you?!

As the group passed by the street where my friends live, I went to meet Monica and Mae, saying farewell to Radwa and wishing her luck.  There I saw the first sign of police presence.  Other than the high-ranking officers walking behind the protesters, I was shocked to not have seen previously a single other police officer or sign of security.  However, here, officers were blocking off the side streets and permitting pedestrians to pass through only one by one.  I met Mae and Monica, and we stood for a minute watching the masses of people go by, before rejoining the group.  After walking a few more blocks, we started noticing several people running back from the front, calling that the police were beating people.  We decided that was probably the point at which we should remove ourselves from the fray, so we retreated to a side street and watched the events unfold.  Almost immediately after reports of police beatings were coming from the front of the lines, a group of around 50 Shurta (police) with batons and shields ran past us toward the rear of the protesters, boxing them in from both ends.  Behind this group followed 7 or 8 large trucks, where we could see more soldiers crowded inside the grated windows.

We received a text message from our teacher, still in the midst of the protests, that the police had beaten the protesters with batons and sprayed tear gas, and that the men in the group had protected her with their bodies.  We later read that there were over 8,000 demonstrators gathered near Sidi Gaber who clashed with the police.  The protesters dispersed, but regrouped later in the evening in various locations, some were detained and arrested in Ibrahamiya, and some continued to march along the tram, which I know because the regrouping was happening just as I was heading home from Monica/Mae/Nada’s apartment.  As I walked back to my apartment to have birthday cake and celebrate Mama Azza’s birthday with relatives and friends, the streets were buzzing about the protests, and the energy was almost tangible.  Even the shop owners, as they were moving merchandise inside and closing their doors in preparation for the masses passing by, were exchanging tidbits of what they had heard and experienced that day.

Protests continued into the night in Cairo, with a massive sit-in at Tahrir square, and the end of what had been relative police lenience compared to the forceful crackdown on protests that Egypt is used to.  The morning of the 26th was quiet, but the rest of the day saw 10,000 more people marching in downtown Cairo, government censorship of twitter and facebook, loss of mobile networks and internet in some areas, police violence toward journalists and protesters, and the number of people who have given their lives in this struggle raised to six.  The most significant protests were in Suez, where demonstrators clashed with police after the deaths of two protesters in initial marches the day before, and attempted to take control of government buildings.  The people forced the retreat of the regular police forces and the army was brought in.  Protests in Suez continue today, and there are rumored to be more continuing in other areas later in the evening.  More nationwide marches have been called for tomorrow after the Friday prayers.

It’s hard to say at this point where these protests will go.  There have been rumors of political leaders and the president’s family fleeing the country on private jets, but I’m still skeptical about that bit of information.  Tomorrow, the Muslim Brotherhood, which until now has refrained from officially participating in protests, is expected to join the masses, and El Baradei, Egypt’s opposition hero, is expected to return to Cairo to join in as well.  I keep thinking back to Tunisia, though, and the period of close to a month between Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation that sparked initial protests, and the culmination of these protests in the 14th of January ouster of president Ben Ali.  Can Egypt hang onto this energy for that long?

Will it turn into a full-fledged revolution, or just scare Mubarak a little and get him to make a couple of key changes?  Who knows.  At this point, I wouldn’t put anything past the Egyptian people, and I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next.

All Aboard The Marrakesh Express!

7 Jan

When applying to this 9-month intensive Arabic study program, I knew that our funding would not cover travel expenses for return visits to the US, so I decided to try to stick it out on this side of the Atlantic for the entire duration of the program.  I knew the hardest parts would be Thanksgiving and Christmas–it can be tough sometimes having the best family in the world!–but we all did our best as a little Flagship family to be there for each other during the holidays.  Thanksgiving was a smashing success…we had a pot luck dinner all together at our RD Andrew’s apartment in Shatby, with everyone contributing their favorite traditions from home.  There were about 30 people and sooooo much food!  I spent the whole day cooking with Nada, Fatima, Monica, and Mae, and we produced about 12 dishes between the five of us!  I made two of my family favorites, mashed potatoes and baklava!  YUM.


Mae and I celebrated our Catholic family traditions–Advent and St. Nicholas’ Day–with a teeny advent wreath made out of tin foil, and Clementines and sweets in our shoes!  And for Christmas itself we finally had a week-long break, so Mae, Alberto, Jordan and I planned an ADVENTURE.  The planning itself even turned out to be an adventure, but because of mishaps like our original flight getting cancelled, we ended up with a 13-day trip, much longer than we had expected, and were able to work things out that we didn’t even have to use any unexcused absences from class!  Don’t as me how that happened, but al-hamdulilah it worked out great.

December 21st I finally turned in my last paper on the teaching of critical thinking in the Egyptian and United States education systems, and we set off for the WEST.  We landed in Casablanca, Morocco at around 3am, found our hostel, and the next thing we knew we were waking up to Moroccan mint tea and cornbread.  The first thing on the menu for the day was to purchase a guide book.  We got a little lost finding a bookstore that had one in English, and only ended up finding an edition from 2007, but we sure were glad to have it the rest of the trip!  That first day we learned that Moroccan cities are often divided into the walled “medina qadiima” or old city, and the developed “medina jediida” or new city.  We explored both during our time in Casablanca, and were smacked in the face with the reality of the Arabic language.  Or, should I say, languages?  Modern Standard Arabic, which is what most students of Arabic typically start with, is exactly what it sounds like.  The modern version of the standardized classical Arabic that can be found in the Quran and other ancient texts.  This Arabic has stayed fairly true to its original form over the many centuries of its use because of the significance of these texts, and the mathematical specificity of its grammatical canon.  The Arabic that is spoken in any Arabic-speaking country, however, is completely different, in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and influence from colonizing or nearby countries’ languages.  I’m studying in Egypt, and therefore speak Arabic like Egyptians do.  That means I pronounce my “jiim” like “geem,” drop the “qaaf” completely out of words, and use Masry sayings like “mashy,” (okey dokey) “izayyak,” (how are ya?) and am always feeling “miyya miyya” (A hundred percent).  In Morocco, this turned out to be a complete novelty for the Moroccans we interacted with, as Egypt is kind of like the Hollywood of the Middle East, and most of the widely watched movies, tv, and music that have spread throughout the region originate in Egypt.  “HA!” the shop owners would guffaw, “They speak like the soap operas!”  They would joke with us about ful medames and falafel, and sometimes occasionally would ask us to pay in Egyptian ginay.


So, we were most of the time well-understood and were known as those strange Egyptians that don’t all look completely Egyptian.  Of course, that didn’t mean we understood them.  French is spoken in Morocco almost as much as Arabic, and because we look foreign, we would often get spoken to initially in French.  Sorry…no French, can I get that again, in Arabic?   But the Arabic was almost as bad.  The Moroccan dialect is so strongly influenced by French and Spanish that sometimes I couldn’t tell whether it even WAS Arabic!  We ended up doing a lot of communicating in Modern Standard, with those who could speak it, and having to ask for a lot of repetitions and explanations with those who did not.  We learned some cool and useful Moroccan phrases though, and by the end were getting by pretty well!


I was surprised by how different Morocco was from Egypt, and how developed Casablanca seemed compared to Cairo.  Maybe it is because of the separation between the old and new cities, and the easy passage between the two lifestyles, that there is not a lot of the jumbled mix between the two that you can see in Egypt.  Casablanca’s new city reminded us of Washington, DC, with wide streets and white buildings.  We had our first Tajines, Moroccan medley of meat and veggies, slow-cooked over a charcoal stove in a clay cone-shaped pot, and went to visit a big cathedral, only to discover that it had been gutted and turned into a children’s art workshop.  We paid the guard for tickets to visit the bell tower, and climbed up flights of pigeon-poopy stairs to find that what we had just paid a dollar for was actually a free pass to climb around on the roof of the huge cathedral, and catch some gusty views of the city.  Sweet.


We also visited the fifth-largest mosque in the WORLD, after those in Mecca and Medina, built by the previous king of Morocco.   The gargantuan indoor prayer space can fit 25,000 people, with room for an additional 80,000 in the outdoor courtyard.  In addition to gorgeous intricate traditional carved cedar and colorful mosaic designs, this mosque is tricked out with modern conveniences, including heated floors and a sun roof.  No joke!  The enormous cedar and gold ceiling panels, that each weigh about a gazillion tons, slide open in just three minutes with what must be a HUGE electric motor.  (Sounds like a project my neighbor Mr. Dan would undertake!)

Our next stop was Tangier, so we hopped onto a train and sat Harry Potter-style in compartments with a snack cart that went down the hall every once in a while.  No Chocolate Frogs, unfortunately.  I was shocked at how GREEN Morocco was!  Neatly organized sloping fields with grazing cows and sheep reminded me more of Pennsylvania than the desert I had been picturing.  Water!  What a luxury.


We spent Christmas eve walking around the old medina of Tangier, wandering the steeply-sloping streets in search of Cafe Hafa, where we spent the afternoon sipping mint tea on a cliff-top, watching ships go through the Straits of Gibralter and looking across to Spain!  Afterwards we boarded a late bus and took off for the mountains.


Chefchaoen was a bizarre but beautiful place to spend Christmas.  We arrived just before midnight, and I set up a tiny Christmas tree and we all read A Charlie Brown Christmas out loud before falling asleep.  We woke up to blue.  Chefchaoen creeps up the side of a mountain and sprawls into the valley, and everything is painted blue, from walls and doors even down to the stone steps and steep winding streets.  We followed a cute dog that took a fancy to Mae past some waterfalls and up a path to a hill-top mosque to take in a gorgeous view.


Christmas dinner was delicious couscous with sweet onions, and we celebrated with a bottle of wine we brought from Tangier for the occasion.

The next day, we set off for our last real stop in Morocco, Marrakesh.  To get to the train that would take us there, we had to take two taxis from Chefchaoen to a little town called Souq al-Arbaa, literally named Wednesday Market, after the day of the week they hold their market.  We started off haggling with the taxi drivers like we would normally do in Egypt, having heard that 20 dirham per person was the reasonable price, but they laughed us off when we tried to pay 80 for four.  No no, they told us, this is a Grand Taxi.  Six passengers.  If you want to go now with just four, you’re going to have to pay for the whole six seats.  Otherwise, we can wait for six.  We stared incredulously at them, and the four-door, 5-seat sedans in front of us.  Look, we’re not about to get conned here.  There are four seats in these cars, see?  But silly us, that’s not the way things work in Morocco.  In Morocco that is a seven-person vehicle.  And if you want to go with just the driver and four of you, you’re going to have to subsidize those other two non-existent seats.  So we did end up paying a little bit more for those two extra invisible passengers for the first taxi, but for the second leg of the journey we were joined by two men who both sat in the front seat while the four of us crowded into the back.
We finally made it to Marrakesh, after a packed train ride that left Alberto and I seatless for a while before other passengers got off the train, sitting on our bags in the narrow hall of the train, lined with people.  After an incredible night of sleep, we set off to explore!  Whoever wrote our guidebook must have absolutely loved Marrakesh, proclaiming “the best street markets in the region”  “most perfect minaret in North Africa”  and “one of the best nightly street festivals in the world.”  The book was right!  Marrakesh was one of the coolest places I’ve ever been.  We spent hours and hours wandering around the passageways of the souks, dodging speeding mopeds and big carts fullshopping around and haggling for teapots, leather, spices, and pottery, and marveling at the sheer quantity of stuff, and variety of colors and smells contained in the miles of alleys and twists and turns of the souk.

I’m not sure whether I was over-influenced by the book’s claims, but the minaret of the al-Kutubiya mosque did seem pretty perfect.

Every night, the central square of the old city, called the Gathering of Artists, turned into an incredible festival.  Groups of people gathered around to listen to storytellers, snake charmers, and musicians and other street performers, while around them hundreds of stalls opened their doors for people to sit down and have a whole meal cooked in front of them, or to sit down for just a bowl of lentils, bread and a cup of tea.  Other stalls squeezed grapefruit and orange juice, or served fragrant ginseng tea with strong ginger cake, and still others sold sheep’s head or steaming bowls of snails.

Marrakesh was awesome, but wore us out!  After a few days, we were all catching colds or tummies hurting from the strange food.   We were ready for Spain like no other.  A flight mix-up, late plane, lots of hours in the airport, and one short flight later, we were in the land of all things haram… freely-flowing beer and wine, women wearing tights and skirts in European fashion, and so much HAM!  I hadn’t realized that Spain was famous for its many ways of cooking pig, but it was fun to be able to order a ham and cheese sandwich on a croissant and a beer at the counter of a restaurant literally called Museo de Jamon, Museum of Ham, for 2 euro!  In one 24-hour period, we literally were there 3 times.  YUM!  We felt as though we were living like kings in what our guidebook called a “fine, but drab” hostel, with toasty heating and showers that were always hot.  And tap water that you can drink!

We spent our days walking around, looking at the grand old plazas and palaces, looking at awesome Spanish paintings at El Prado art museum, people-watching, and stopping for a beer or coffee when we were chilly.  At night we splurged on great food and wine, and enjoyed being in a city decorated for Christmas with lights and trees everywhere!

On New Years eve we bar-hopped, bought crazy colorful wigs, and stood in Puerta de Sol square with the rest of Madrid, and counted down to midnight!  At the toll of the bell we ate 12 grapes as per Spanish tradition, to bring good luck for each month of the new year.

Our last night in Spain, we managed to get tickets one of the best jazz clubs in the world, and sat with our coffees and beers, listening to amazing music, and wondering why this atmosphere was so specific to the West, and so absent from Egyptian and Moroccan society.

After a day of travelling back to Morocco through Fez, and then back to Egypt through Casablanca, it felt good to be back home.  Well, home away from home.   What an adventure!  What an awesome break from school and daily life in Alexandria.  But so nice to be back where we can understand the language and be understood, at least most of the time, back to our own beds and apartments, and re-motivated to press through these last three tough weeks to the end of our first semester, and halfway through the year!

Mawlid

29 Oct

“You’re going to the mawlid?  Take care of yourselves.”

It was at the end of probably the longest cab ride I’ve taken in Alexandria.  The twists and turns of the ride had taken us deeper and deeper into the city, and after a while I had started to wake up from my fascinated daze of watching the people and animals and shops go by and notice that the scenery was definitely getting sha3bier.  To be honest I’m not sure how to translate the word sha3by.  It can mean “popular” in some contexts, but in most cases the meaning translates more literally “of the people.”  Of and pertaining to the real people of Egypt.  Not the privileged, highly educated, Westernized elite who drive around Alexandria in cars and sit in the classy “clubs” sipping soda, but the crusty Ahwagees who bring coffee and shisha to the street-side cafe-sitters, the men in galabiyya and shibshib who sell melons from their donkey cart, and the kids who play football in the street between the vegetable stalls.   The women who are never without an armload of  baby, laundry, food.  The people!*

With this realization, I felt that fluttery “uh-oh” type of nervousness in my chest.  What if our cab driver had forgotten about the four Americans he picked up from the other end of town, and was now just driving home?  Improbable.  But the twinge of anxiety also had to do with the fact that we had not the slightest clue where we were going.  Earlier that evening (around 11pm), Monica, Mae, Jordan, and I had been doing some chilling on the balcony when Nada came to tell us about a Sufi festival that was happening that night from midnight until dawn!  They were leaving now, come meet us! they said.  We got our stuff together (our smallest bills in cash and cell phones) and set off.  First we got dropped off at a street carnival in Bahry…all the way at the Western end of Alex.  We wandered around for a few minutes, got a little creeped out by the painted faces and eerily swinging rides, and called Nada, only to find out we were completely in the wrong place.  We actually needed to go to Aras al-Aynab, to the Abu Al-akhlas mosque. We didn’t know the name of the area, but the first cab driver we flagged down seemed to know the place.

The last few minutes of our lengthy ride took us across a small bridge over a little canal, and up a dead-end street, at the end of which we could see the towering spire of a mosque, decorated with brightly colored flashing bulbs.  Al-mawlid, stated our driver.  The festival.  You’re going there?  Be careful.  After more words of caution from our cabbie, we knew we were in for an interesting night.

We walked up the dirt road to the humongous temporary structure that had been constructed next to the mosque.  5-meter beams supported colorful tarps decorated with patterns and designs of famous mosques and prayers in silver and gold letters.  We could see inside the giant tent, shifting throngs of people.  Should we go back? asked Monica.  No one answered.  We had already been drawn in to the colors and sounds of the festival.

We entered the tent and immediately found ourselves in the middle of a dance floor.  I dodged the flailing arms of one whirling dancer, and we worked our way through the crowd of people in various states of dance.  One woman turned in the center of a group of people, her arms outstretched and her head thrown back, laughing.   The dancers were in a constant state of motion; many looked unaware or unconcerned of their surroundings.  The space was lit by strands of colored flashing bulbs strung across the high ceilings, and strings and strings of fluorescent bulbs hanging vertically, sometimes covered with colored tape.   Most of the crowd was made up of men, but as we progressed further into the crowd we could see that only a portion of the tent was designated for dancing, and in the rest of the space, men and women sat on chairs around the edges, smoking shisha, drinking tea, or just watching the dance.  Most people wore long robes, for men the galabiyya, for women the abayya.  There were also of course tons of kids running around, wearing shiny foil party hats and playing with noise-making horns and puppets and colorful jewlery.  There were stalls set up to buy all of these colorful party favors, as well as scarves, sweets, and tea or coffee.

As we broke free of the dancing masses, we spotted the rest of our group!  Daniel, Fatima, Kamelya, and Nada were with some Egyptian friends who guided us all into another huge tented room, with pillows laid out around the walls and clusters of men and the occasional woman leaning up against them, talking and drinking tea.  We we invited in and sat down, barefoot, and were brought sweet tea.  The entire time we were at the festival, people, especially children, stared at us incredulously…”Foreigners?”  And sometimes got brave…”Welcome!  You speak Arabic!?  What’s your name?”  And after learning your name, would insist on a handshake, and in some cases, peek into the tent from outside and call “JO!! JO!! JO! JO!!” until someone looked up and waved.

We chatted with our friends and the groups of Egyptians around us and learned that this mawlid, which literally means birthday, commemorates the life and death of a great sufi imam….actually a pretty recent one who was from Alexandria and died in 1979.  Sufism is a mystical dimension of Islam, and Sufis celebrate the lives of their great leaders and saints with these mawlids, sometimes making long pilgrimages to visit the burial sites of the greatest saints.  Sufis are also the group famed for practicing the whirling meditative dance of the Whirling Dervishes…hence all the dancing, I guess!

After a while, we were told the music was about to start again, and we went out to watch, this time from a bit of a distance.  There was a stage set up at the front of the room, and a turbaned singer was beginning with a low, slow song.  People began to gather…swaying slowly with the singers words.  The song slowly sped up, gaining momentum, and more instruments and drums joined in.  I was amazed at the singer’s stamina…there didn’t seem to be a break in between songs; it was like one song, changing and getting faster and more complex as time went on.  And as the song got faster and more intense, so did the movements of the dancers at the front of the room, until all of a sudden at a high point in the song, all of the dancers were in sync, tilted, whirling, and all I could see was the turning rise and fall of their outstretched arms over the crowd.

I also began watching a man who was sitting in a chair directly in front of where we were standing.  He was galabiyya-ed, turbaned; white hair and wrinkled brown skin.  He was flicking through his prayer beads, passing each bead through his fingers, in time with the music, getting faster and faster.  Smoking huge clouds of shisha.  He looked back at us, his eyes rimmed with dark liner.

We decided to keep wandering through the rest of the festival to see what else we could see, and ended up getting stopped and offered even more tea, so we sat down, drank more tea, and talked to more people, until we finally got up to leave at almost 4am and were begged to stay for longer.

We found a taxi and made it home in once piece, with lots of new sounds, smells, sights and experiences to think about.  I was amazed on the way back by how bustling the city was, after 4am!  People were still out in the streets, buying and selling fruit and vegetables, barber shops still had their doors open and customers going in and out, men were still sitting on the curbs enjoying their shishas, and women and children were still out and about, running around and going about their business.

Luckily, Pizza Roma was also still open in Sporting when we got back, so we processed and debriefed over pizza and fateer.   Yum.  And what an intense night.  I wish i had had my camera with me; I’m already having a hard time believing some of the images I’m remembering.

*A note on generalizations.  If there’s one thing I’ve realized in Egypt it is that I should never kid myself into thinking I can make assumptions about this society or its people.  Or any society or any people.  Every time I start to think I’ve understood or learned something, I meet someone that makes me completely rethink all of my previous thoughts.  All observations are just observations.  I don’t want to generalize or make assumptions, but I do want to describe.  Because how can I not…the place is neat!  There we go.  Another generalization.

Pre-Egypt thoughts

9 Sep

In less than one week I will be in Egypt.  7 time zones away.  Reacquainting myself with the Arabic language, and with life in Alexandria.  Reuniting with the call to prayer, the street smells, the “welcome in Egypt!”s, and the Mediterranean.

I think that it’s finally starting to hit me that I’m leaving my home, family, friends to live for 9 months somewhere else.  Holy cow.  How am I supposed to pack for that?!  And, even tougher: how am I supposed to mentally prepare for that?  I guess we’ll just have to see how it goes.

Last year, Egypt was a brand new adventure.  This time, I know a lot more about what I’m getting myself into.  Last year, my goals were to explore and see and do as much as possible.  This year, I’m going to try to focus a lot more on taking what I’ve learned the past few years, and trying to really piece the scraps together into a LANGUAGE.

Like last year, I’ll be taking Arabic language classes with other American students, and meeting with a language partner a few hours each week.   This time I’m also enrolling directly in a University course with the regular old Egyptian students and an internship with an Egyptian organization, as well as living with a family…well, with a middle-aged lady who wants to avoid an empty nest now that her kids have all moved out.

I’m excited to set off on such a long term adventure.  I’m eager to start to carve out space for myself as a semi-permanent semi-Egyptian.  I’m nervous about speaking the language again, and about how much WORK I’m going to have to do this year.  And what if my host “mom” doesn’t like me!?

Well, no time for worries now.   I’ve got way too much packing to do.  EGYPT or BUST!