Tag Archives: meeting people

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.


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!

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).


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.

A Great Escape

15 Oct

A full month has gone by since I landed in Egypt, and I have to say it has been STRESSFUL!  Adjusting to the rather drastic differences in culture, language, and daily life, on top of one of the most intense continuous workloads I have experienced, well, ever, on top of the difficulties of not always having access to the same resources as I’m used to (fast internet, water that doesn’t make you poop everywhere), PLUS the added temptations of exploring new places and meeting new people, have made for pretty constant stress and not a whole lot of sleeping.

So, when we found out that our teachers had a three-day workshop this week and we would be having a 5-day long weekend/mini-vacation from class, in combination with the October 6th National holiday, something had to be done!  Like the good, diligent students we are, we began doing our homework….in our travel guidebooks, that is.  Ultimately, we ended up with a recommendation from a friend that turned out to be the perfect relaxing getaway.  After a 12-hour overnight bus ride after class, Monica, Jordan, Charlie and I found ourselves in Beir Sweir, an area on the Red Sea coast in the Sinai Peninsula.  This was actually a pretty appropriate trip to be taking, as on October 6th, Egyptians celebrate their victory in the 1973 war, taking back the Sinai Peninsula from Israel.  And boy am I glad they did.

The interior of the Sinai peninsula is very rugged and mountainous…in fact it’s the location of the Biblical Mt. Sinai…where Moses got the 10 commandments from God, and let me tell you, that was no easy walk up a hill.  On the coastline of the Red Sea is a completely different story, though.   It’s all sandy beaches leading out to some of the prettiest blue water and greatest reefs in the world.  There are a few big resort towns in Sinai, like Sharm-el-Sheikh (more like Europe than Egypt) and Dahab (backpacker’s paradise), but in between the towns the coast is made up of small camps along the water.   We went to a camp called Al Tarek.  It was nothing but sand, water, sunshine, a few huts, and beds along the water.  Nothing to do but relax.  PERFECT.

So, we relaxed.  Hung out with the camp dogs.  Woke up for a gorgeous sunrise.  Played some poker and dominoes (guess who won).  Ate Ful (fava beans…they’re big in Egypt) and Hummus and PBJ and Nutella and Pomegranates that we brought from Alex, and supplemented with fish and salads from the camp owners.  We got to be buddies with the owners, who were from Cairo, because we were the only other people there who spoke Arabic…most of the other guests were from Israel, making the short trip down for the weekend, or a few days.  The camp is in the northern part of Sinai, where the Red Sea begins to narrow, so you could look across the sea and see a little coastal town in Saudi Arabia, and imagine what life is like over there.   WOW!  I thought about swimming across, but decided against….didn’t think it would be so well received if I swam up in a bikini.  It was crazy to sit there and look to the left toward Jerusalem, look down to the right toward Mecca, and realize how close they are.  It was a great time and we will definitely be back.  I need to work on my tan if I want to be mistaken for a real Egyptian.  (Speaking of which, I got asked for directions today on the tram.  Success!)

We got offered a ride home by a minibus driver, who came and picked us up straight from the camp, which was great!  The ride home was a bit of an adventure.  We were packed into the tiny minibus with 10 largeish Egyptian men, one older Egyptian lady, a guy from Madagascar who didn’t speak a word of Arabic, and an eccentric driver who asked us to take his picture and said, “show it to Obama!”  So Obama, if you ever happen to be reading this blog, here ya go.  The four Agnaby (foreigners) were crowded into the last row and bounced through the twisty turny mountain highways through Sinai, passing our passports up to the driver at about 10 security checkpoints.

Now I’m back to Alexandria, recharged and ready for a BIG week of papers and projects.  I’m working on reading my first complete novel in Arabic!  As you guys are all putting on jackets and watching the leaves turn back in the states, think of me hanging out in an unexpected heat wave; it was 99 degrees F today in Alex.  Yiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!