Tag Archives: egypt

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.

Revolution is in the Air

20 Jan

يا بن علي, قول لمبارك, الطيارة, في انتظارك

It may not have the rhyme and ring in English that it does in Arabic, but the meaning is still apparent in the translation of one of the many chants floating around facebook statuses and twitter these days, “Hey Ben Ali, tell Mubarak, the plane is waiting for you!”

Everyone’s talking about it.  Revolution.  It seems like all around us governments are dying and evolving…Lebanon’s unity government has collapsed, Israel’s faces new instability and change, Sudan has cast votes to determine whether the South will become independent, Palestine is seeking recognition by the UN, Jordanians are rioting, North Africa is on fire with demonstrations and protest, and the people of Tunisia have undertaken what is being called the region’s first true revolution.

The parallels between the conditions in Tunisia before the uprising and the current conditions in Egypt are making people turn their heads, question whether the people here could rise up turn the government upside down, break the long-standing emergency law, and throw out the stubbornly-powerful president of 30 years.  Change movements are calling for a January 25th Egyptian revolution.  Will drastic people-power induced regime change happen in Egypt this month as it did in Tunisia?  I don’t think it’s likely, but maybe it will get things started.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

High School Drama

7 Dec

The past few weeks, I’ve been stuck in the middle as Mama Azza and Mohab clash over school.

Mohab is a typical 16-year-old boy, in his second-to-last year of high school.  He’s a very talented football player (he plays goalie), and is even getting the opportunity to practice with and be scouted for some of the best teams in Egypt.  He has a super-cute girlfriend.   Life is sports and girls and facebook.  He can’t be bothered to get up for school at 7:30 am, just because the Minister of Education recently made going to school mandatory.  School is useless, he claims, and he doesn’t like getting up early.

And he might have a point.  Education is free in Egypt.  However, teachers’ inadequate salaries, even those of private and language school teachers, lead many teachers to use classroom time simply as an ad for the real stuff.  Most high school students get their actual education from private lessons on the side, taught by the same teachers who teach in the high schools, outside of class, for a fee.  So, when Mohab says school is useless, and that he gets everything he needs from outside the classroom, he’s not just complaining without cause.

Mama Azza, however, sees the situation a little differently.  It’s fortunate that their family has enough money to pay for the private lessons and tutoring that one needs to get ahead in Egypt’s “free education” system, but Mohab still needs to put more effort into his lessons.  And because attendance is mandatory now, he really does need to go to school, at least sometimes, because if he doesn’t he could lose his eligibility to take THE EXAMS.

What are these Exams?  All higher-education-seeking Egyptian students take a big exam at the end of high school, which will affect them for the rest of their lives.   With the release of the exam results, students are divided into groups that determine their career paths for life.  Top scorers enter Kuliaat-al-Qimma (top colleges) such as the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Engineering.  Lower scorers may enter the Faculties of Trade or Education or Law.  The lowest tier enters the Faculty of Arts, or Humanities.  Students can opt to enter colleges lower than their score in the hierarchy, but not higher.   And not many choose to go lower.  Families, and parents like Mama Azza dream of having their children graduate from colleges in respected fields and become respected professionals (doctors and engineers), open their own practices, and make enough money to get married to a respectable woman/man.

So parents take it personally when their high schoolers are off goofing around in Alexandria or on Facebook, because, hey, how are they going to get respectable grandchildren otherwise?!

After the Elections

6 Dec

It’s been a week since the 2010 Egyptian Parliamentary elections.   Today finished up the process with the runoff elections, which were, in response to the rampant corruption, violence, and rigging of the first round, boycotted by all of the major opposition parties.  They’ve been called the worst elections in Egyptian history, and a turning point in the regime from playing along with the multi-party facade, if in a mostly conciliatory sort of way, to a parliament 96.5% controlled by the ruling party (according to first-round results).

After mulling over everything that I had seen and witnessed, I guess the biggest conclusion that I have drawn is that at the end of the day, Egypt is the people.  Even if processes fail, the people don’t go away.   When the government fails to provide, the people will find a way.  If the state were to completely collapse, the people wouldn’t just disappear.  Life goes on.  You still eat and breathe and provide for your kids.

Even though these elections could be the WORST EVER–and Egypt has been around a long time!!–most Egyptians still live out their lives without taking too much notice of the doings and goings on of the government, and I guess to some extent so do the people in every country.*  I only was aware of the runoff elections today by the slight increase in police sirens.

Of course, that’s not to say I don’t think government and all that is important.  But seriously, if Hosni Mubarak were to die and the government were to keep it from us, would we notice?  Would it even matter?

*With the large exception, of course, of the Alexandria shisha ban.  That has really gotten some people up in arms.

Election Day

3 Dec

NDP wins 217 seats of parliament’s 508 seats in first round, opposition take 5

16 dead, 100 injured during the electoral process

50 lawsuits filed challenging parliamentary poll results

High Elections Commission: Voter turnout reached 35%

NDP leader says no deals made in election

Wafd Party to submit file of ‘election violations’ to President Mubarak

European Parliament condemns elections conduct

Muslim Brotherhood considering pullout from run-off vote, says supreme guide

I’m sitting here watching the “Latest News” headlines flash across the Al-Masry Al-Youm main page (English Edition because I’m lazy), finding it hard to believe that I live here.  After opening a WaPo article on Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Egypt, I found myself scouring the text for mentions of Alexandria, and wanting more specifics on locations and people.  I flipped through the photos on the article, realizing that I was here!  This all happened right below my balcony.

The morning of the elections I woke up to a text message saying my class in the morning had been cancelled.  Yes!  After a little more sleep, I decided to go out and brave the world of elections.  When I had asked Egyptians whether they were planning on voting, all had laughed and told me no, of course not!  Several even cautioned me to stay inside all day.  Don’t ride public transportation, don’t leave your house.  “What should be a day of people expressing their voice and celebrating in the streets has become a dangerous day when people keep to themselves for fear of violence” one friend told me.

But, judging from my initial assessment of what was going on on the street below my window, it seemed like a fine day for a walk to the bank.   As I was walking, I came across a crowd of men standing in the street.  Banners, signs, and posters with candidates’ names and party information, plus a symbol to distinguish the candidate for illiterate voters, and sometimes a picture, were even more highly concentrated in this area of the street than elsewhere.  A polling station!  The men were clustered around the entrance to a school, with Shurta (police) guarding the gate.  A table and laptop were set up next to the gate, with election officials or volunteers entering data from voters’ Bataqa (voting registration card), and granting them access a couple at a time to the school.  I slunk past the polling station, trying not to stare, but wanting to ask a million questions about everything I had heard about the elections.  Hi there!  Is it true that a judge in Alexandria cancelled voting in 10 out of 11 districts this morning?  Good morning.  I heard that someone was stabbed yesterday for hanging up a poster of his father, an (illegal) Muslim Brotherhood candidate, is that the case?  Hello. Why did you all decide to come out to vote today, despite the very big possibility that there will be a lot of fraud and government intervention in these elections?

But I didn’t ask, just walked on by.  Later, after my (unsuccessful) trip to find the bank, I passed another Legna, or polling station, and was accosted by supporters of the NDP (National Democratic Party, the party of Hosni Mubarak, 82-year-old president of Egypt these past 30 years) and Wafd (opposition) party candidates, handing me flyers and asking for my support and vote.  I explained that I’m not Egyptian so I can’t vote, but still was curious about the elections.   After getting answers to a couple of my questions (yes, some polling stations are closed), and getting offered a motorcycle ride (no, thanks, I have to be going), I started my walk home.  One of the men, Syed, was walking the same way to a polling station near Camp Shezar (where I live), and invited me to come watch the process.  So I did!  Syed, I learned, was voting for the first time, and believed that even if the government was sticking its hands into ballot boxes, elections still presented an opportunity and duty for Egyptian citizens to express their voice and participate in their government.  We asked around to find where his neighborhood polling place was, and after finding it, stood in line to enter Syed’s info into the computer.  While waiting, I talked to the young NDP candidate supporters, who told me that they had decided to support him because of all of the good he had done for the community, such as opening a new hospital, and supporting their football team.  The boys suited me up with NDP gear:  t-shirt and pen!  Syed at this point entered the school to vote, and came back with his index finger marked with magenta dye.  I told him, mabrook!  and described to me the curtained off voting area, and the clear ballot boxes inside the legna.

After parting ways with my new buddy Syed, I went over to Monica’s to work on a literature project, and found that there was another polling station right below her balcony.  I snapped a picture as we were walking up, and was immediately asked if I was from the Press.  Photography is forbidden, I was told.  The atmosphere at this polling place was different than at the others I had seen.  I could feel the tension in the crowd of men that was standing around.  One man, who we were told was “crazy” was ranting loudly about the disparity in campaign funds between NDP and opposition candidates.  As he started getting a little pushy with the Shurta and those around him, Monica and I decided it was preferable to watch the scene unfold from the safety and comfort of her balcony.  The polling station stayed active all day, with dozens of supporters for the Wafd party candidate gathering around the Legna, chanting football cheers, and even bringing in a truck with loudspeakers to start cheers and dances in the street.   This went on until 7pm, when we watched the clear-sided ballot boxes being carried out from the school in a funeral-like procession; a line of vote-filled caskets, each one carried between two black-clad Shurta, disappearing around the corner into a dimly-lit alleyway.

Post-elections, the news has been strewn with images and stories of the widespread fraud and violence, lawsuits against the preliminary results indicating a greater than 90% sweep for the NDP, with not a single seat won yet for a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated independent candidate.  I can’t help but be frustrated by weak response by the State Department to the elections, and wonder if it would have been different were Egypt and the US on different terms strategically and in terms of economic investment (more like the responses to and coverage of last year’s elections in Iran).

On Touring When You’re Not a Tourist

23 Nov

This week was Eid-al-Kabeer, literally, the Big Holiday for Muslims.  So, we had the week off from school!  Because the whole program had time off, Flagship planned a trip for us down to Upper Egypt, about 500 miles south of Alexandria.  When the Pharaohs were around, this area was the religious center of their society, so it’s where you can still visit a lot of tombs, temples, and monuments from thousands and thousands of years ago.

It was an awesome trip!  We visited Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple on the East Bank of the Nile in Luxor:

The Valley of the Kings!!!  They didn’t allow cameras in the valley at all, so I’ll just tell you that it was incredible.  Huge austere mountains with tombs of 67 Pharaohs and nobles hidden between crevices and crags.  Looooooong staircases and passageways down into the mountains brought us to burial chambers covered with hieroglyphics and scenes from the ancient kings’ lives and afterlives.  We conjectured and postulated about what different animals and gestures symbolized, and drew from our memories of elementary education the names of gods and goddesses and mythology of Ancient Egypt.  We got to visit three tombs, those of Thutmose III, Ramses IX, and Ramses IV.  A few of us bought a special ticket to see King Tut’s tomb, the only one that was discovered in tact.  His body and sarcophagus are still kept inside, so we got to pay our respects to the boy king in his original resting place.  A little creepy.  Who are we to be fronting cash to visit dead people in their graves?  Regardless, it was very cool.

We also visited Hatshepsut’s Temple on the West Bank.  She was the only female king of Egypt.  She wore the traditional beard of the Pharaoh, called herself King and not Queen, and was the only woman buried in the Valley of the Kings, not in this temple, which was designed and built for her by her lover.:

And the Collosi of Memnon.  These guys were out in the middle of nowhere, and HUGE!

In Aswan, we visited the High Dam, which regulates the flow of the Nile, and produces tons of electricity for Egypt.  It also had a lot of controversy surrounding its construction because it displaced about 50,000 Nubian people whose villages were flooded, and also flooded a LOT of ancient monuments which ended up being MOVED…how do you move a temple!?

We also visited Philae Temple, which was one of the temples that was moved to higher  ground.   Piece by Piece.   Pretty darn impressive.

Masquerading as tourists in Egypt for a week prompted a lot of thought on my part about why I’m here, and made for a lot of discussions among the group about why we’re all here, and what we want out of our time in Egypt.  We all were of course awed and impressed by the temples and tombs and monuments, and I personally have been wanting to visit these places since I was in First Grade and made my Mom spend an entire year studying Ancient Egypt.  But none of us was comfortable spending the entire trip being shuttled around in tour buses, and eating at every McDonald’s we passed.  I’m not living as a tourist in Alexandria, so it was weird to be put back on that level when we were in Luxor and Aswan.   We all were much more interested in meeting the locals, and seeing how they live and what they eat and where they work.

Luckily for us, we have an awesome mix of people in this year’s Flagship program, including a few who have quite a talent for finding the real Egypt, even in the most touristy places.  So, on our first night in Luxor, everyone went out together with Charlie and Jordan to the sha3by area of the souq (marketplace), and all sat down at the first promising-looking ahwa (street cafe with shisha and tea) that we came to.   This is something that, if we had gone as a group of just girls, we would NEVER have been able to do.  It’s not that anything bad would happen to us, but we would probably be looked at as inappropriate and ignorant.

Even with Charlie and Jordan, they always take the time to talk to the owners of the ahwa to make sure it’s ok that they bring all of their friends, male and female.  And the two of them are just so friendly that they always end up becoming best buds with the guys and owners of the ahwa immediately, opening up the door for even the girls to join in the conversations without seeming inappropriate.  At this ahwa we met Assam and Mousa, who talked and laughed with us for hours, and offered to take us to their cousin’s wedding the next day!  After our tourist stint the next day, we had dinner and got changed, not really knowing what to expect.  What do you wear to a street wedding?  Charlie and Boy Jordan of course wore Galabiyya, the traditional Egyptian men’s garment, and Girl Jordan wore an Abayya, the traditional garment worn by many women in Egypt.

The wedding was held on the street between two apartment buildings.  Colorful flashing lights were strung up between the apartments on either side, forming a canopy of color and light.  The street was filled with benches, where men sat smoking cigarettes and shisha, and clapping along to the music.  At the end of the street was a platform where a singer and a band were playing, and welcoming guests, including us Americans!  We sat and drank some tea, and smoked some shisha, and took in the loud music and colorful lights, and clapped and cheered as our friends took to the dance floor.  I wondered where all of the women were, until I spotted them….watching the festivities from the balconies about the street.  We waved to them, and they giggled and waved back, and beckoned for us to come up to them!  Ok, we figured, I guess this is a much more appropriate place for us to be as women anyway.   So Assam showed us the way up into the apartments where the women were all sitting together.  We were immediately welcomed into their circle, and 10 or 15 of us sat in the little room, talking, dancing, and playing with all of the women’s cute little kids.  We learned that the Sa3edy (Upper Egypt) wedding is three days long.  This was the first day, when the bride and groom’s families have separate parties, with the men separate from the women.  The second day is the Henna ceremony for the bride, and the families of bride and groom drive around the entire town to announce that the couple is getting married.  The third day is the big party with both families, when the bride comes down in her white dress and they start their married life!

The rest of the night we scurried around from apartment to apartment, meeting all the women of the family, and the bride too!  Her name was Nisma, and she was beautiful, quiet, and sweet.  It was an incredible experience, and one that we don’t usually get to have.  When you’re walking around the streets of Egypt, you can barely go a block without seeing a group of men sitting around drinking tea, ahwa, and shisha and talking.  And it’s not that women don’t have these same sorts of gatherings…they just happen in the bounded private spaces like the home rather than in the public streets and marketplaces of the city.   So as foreigners to this society and city, the spaces that are immediately open to us are the ahwas and cafes, spaces that have to be broached before we can access the corresponding women’s spheres in society.  In a way we’re lucky as foreign women to be able to experience, albeit maybe a little inappropriately, the men’s sphere as well as the women’s.  For the foreign boys of our program to intrude into the women’s circles would be a whole different level of unacceptable.  It’s these kinds of nights and experiences that make me appreciate being a woman here, at the same time that I am thankful that we have such great guy friends who can broach the men’s circles for us.  Maybe we’ll even be able to do the same for our guys someday, who knows.

The reason we were able to take this great trip was because of the holiday, Eid al Adha, or Eid al Kabeer, the Muslim holiday that celebrates Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael in obedience to Allah.  The Egyptians who I’ve asked about how they celebrate the holiday for the most part say they “Eat a lot of meat!”  Families who afford it will purchase a sheep or maybe even a cow to sacrifice, and then feast on the meat for the four days of the Eid, sharing parts with friends and relatives and with the poor.  On the first day of Eid, I woke up at the crack of dawn to go to a prayer service with some Muslim friends.  It was held outdoors in the square next to Luxor temple, so the prayers were held with the sunrise and birds flying ahead and the ancient temple behind.

It was great to be able to share with my friends in the celebration of Eid, just as it was great to celebrate a Shabbas dinner with Monica a few weeks ago, and I’m excited to share some traditions of my own as we get closer to Advent and Christmas.