Tag Archives: alexandria

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.

It’s the Little Things

13 Nov

Getting used to living somewhere new is always a process.  And it’s always the little things that are hardest to adapt to, because they’re things so entrenched in my lifestyle in the US that I don’t even think of them.  Things like:

Automatic Clothes Dryers.  They are virtually nonexistant in Egypt.  Why?  Because we have these!

Toilet Paper.  Actually, two specific issues about toilet paper.  First, it is not widely available in bathrooms in Egypt.  Bring a supply wherever you go, or learn to live without.  Second, (and more awkwardly) no flushing toilet paper.  If you use it, well…you’re gonna have to dispose of it.  In the absence of toilet paper, most western-style toilets have a little handle that turns on a little stream of water that you can use instead.

Smoking.  Smoking is a completely different social phenomenon in Egypt than in the United States.  In the US the mention of cigarettes is often followed by cringes, glares, and judgement.  In Egypt it’s assumed (if you’re a man) that you smoke, and even I’ve been offered quite a few cigarettes by friendly taxi drivers.  You’ll see people smoking at restaurants, cafes, standing around in the street, in taxis and cars, at home.  At hospitals.  Sitting in the back of pickup trucks.  Hanging out the back tram windows.

And that’s just cigarettes.  Shisha is another story completely.  There are constantly groups of men sitting out on street corners, puffing away at their shisha, drinking tea and Turkish coffee, and playing dominoes, for much of the day and night.

In light of the prevalence of smoking in Egypt, and the large role that Shisha plays in lifestyle and culture, it’s interesting to see the measures that the government is recently implementing to try to get the population to cut down on smoking.  Like this recent anti-smoking campaign, that puts gruesome or sometimes unintentionally humorous images on the front of cigarette boxes to deter smokers.


Or, like the recent ban on Shisha in Alexandria.  Smoking Shisha in public is currently illegal in Alexandria, since October or so.  I’ve heard from several disillusioned Alexandrians that the ban is mostly an effort of the Muhafez of Alexandria (the Governor) to rake in some cash, as violators of the ban–both individuals and cafe owners–can face hefty fines.   That’s not to say you don’t still see Shisha out in the streets.  With a network of good connections to alert cafe owners as to when police inspections will occur, the ahwas aren’t getting rid of their Shishas yet.  But you didn’t hear that from me.

Birthday and Halloween

31 Oct

This past week marked the 22nd anniversary of my birth, and the first birthday I’ve celebrated outside of the United States.  I have to admit to a few moments of homesickness, missing the safety and security of being around friends and family who first of all, know it’s my birthday, and second of all, are required to celebrate with me!  Luckily I have a super-nice host family here and great friends who helped me celebrate even without being required to 😉

Highlights of the day included being sung to at 9am in Amiyya class complete with a tray of sweets, lunch with my host fam and some relatives (one of whom is this little cutie with quite a personality, Jenna):

…And dinner with my Flagship friends at the Thai/Indian/Chinese/Japanese restaurant on the roof of the old colonial Sofitel Hotel, with spectacular views of the city.

And tea and cake at home at night over a little homework (but not too much).

This week being Halloween, the Flagship students of course had to celebrate American-style with a full-out costume party and pot-luck complete with spicy homemade chili.  Our make-shift costumes included Scott as a ninja, Zenit as an Incredible, Fatima as the Morton Salt girl, Charlie and Jordan as two Upper Egyptians wearing Galabiyya and facial hair, and Monica, Mae, and I as Red, Blue, and Green m&m’s!  Even Mr. Poopsie the puppy came and dressed up.  Check out the pictures for more great costumes. We finished out the night telling scary stories by candlelight, and all screaming together watching Paranormal Activity (yipes!).


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.

An Alexandria First

21 Oct

I stepped out of the door of my friend’s apartment building tonight after a long day, and a long week, and felt….


I didn’t even realize what it was until the water kept steadily dropping from the sky…nope, this was no air conditioner leak.

Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but it felt like renewal, starting something new, hitting refresh and seeing a new email pop up.

I can’t say that I miss the sloppy slooshy trudging to class, soggy socks, or slippery stairways. But man, my first rain in Egypt….what a great feeling.

Can I just say…

20 Sep

Walking to a cafe after class to get some homework done, and getting to watch a sunset like this?

Corniche Sunset

Ain’t never gonna get old.