Tag Archives: traveling

Last Day in Morocco

28 May

It’s finally come down to the last day in Morocco.  Our final papers and projects are turned in (or on their way), final exams are all finished, and yesterday we had the half-hour telephone interview that determines our “level” in Arabic.   And in honor of the last day here, a photo re-cap of the adventures we’ve had in Morocco:

One of the most amazing parts of Morocco was how fast the scenery could change…it could be snowing at “home” in Ifrane:

….at the same time as we were driving back from a weekend trip to the desert, just a few hours away:

…And everything else in between.  We visited the first Islamic city in Morocco, Moulay Idriss:

And saw some Roman ruins at Voloubilis:

And visited the old cities of Meknes,


and Marrakesh:

We wandered through Essouira

and hung out in Casablanca.

But most of all, we spent quality time with each other (and with some monkeys!):

And of course with our readings, laptops, and copies of Hans Wehr Arabic to English dictionaries.

It was the hardest I’ve ever worked, and living in snowy Ifrane was not at all what we were expecting when we signed up to spend a year in Egypt.  But it’s definitely not going to be a 3 months that I’ll be forgetting anytime soon!  Salaaam Morocco.


Ifrane, Morocco: Keep Off the Grass

5 Mar

Al-Akhawayn University, where we’ll be finishing out the remaining three months of our year of  Arabic study, is located in the bizarre little town of Ifrane, Morocco.  Here are a few fun facts that I’ve picked up after a week of living here.

1.  Al-Akhawayn means “two brothers” in Arabic, and is named for previous Kings Hassan of Morocco and Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who are not actually brothers.  The money to start the university came from a kingly gift from Saudi Arabia meant to help clean up a huge oil spill off the coast of Morocco.  The oil from the spill ended up getting swept away by ocean currents, but I guess you can’t exactly return a kingly gift, so they money ended up being spent to establish a public English-speaking university in Morocco.  The university brings in some of the best students from around the country, and unlike the rest of the university system, costs a whole lot of money…our guidebook says, “only the rich and beautiful need apply.”

2.  The town and university are both designed with a very European architectural style, and houses, academic buildings, and dorms look more like they could be Swiss chalets than smack in the middle of the Moroccan Atlas Mountains.  This is offset by a huge and beautiful mosque in the traditional Moroccan style, right in the center of campus.  I’m pretty sure it’s in the same style as al-Kutubia mosque, which as you may remember, is perhaps “the most perfect minaret in North Africa.”

3.  Did I mention it snows here?  Yesterday morning I woke my roommates up with my shocked yelp as I pulled open the curtains and the world was covered with a couple inches of snow.  There’s apparently some good skiing nearby, and the town’s population at least doubles whenever there’s a decent snow.

4.  As I’m walking around campus, the words “idyllic,” “pristine,” and “utopian” come to mind.  This lovely atmosphere of course has a price; you can get a 100dh (about $12) fine for walking on the grass.

5.  Most students speak French, Arabic, and English, and many know some Spanish too.  Conversations that you hear walking around are usually in Darija, the Moroccan colloquial Arabic, with some French thrown in.  We’ve discovered that our level of Standard Arabic is not that much different from many of the students here, and in my direct enrollment class (Arabic for use in Mass Media) I was actually helping out with Arabic words and translations!

6.  It’s been really tough coming from Egypt to here.  We all miss our cheap ful and falafel and koshary, our host mamas, the bahr, the warm weather, and our life and friends in Alexandria.  We’re making the best of the situation though, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Morocco has to offer.  All this week we had an intensive 4-hours per day of Darija…it was frustrating starting from the beginning again, but fun feeling like we learned so much in one week.   On Monday, we start our schedule for the rest of the semester, with classes in MSA, Egyptian, Translation, Islamic Studies, Arabic for Mass Media, and Darija.  In the meantime, I’m off to take a swim in the indoor Olympic sized swimming pool on campus….I guess studying here does have a few benefits 😉

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.

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!

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.

Revelation on the Overnight Bus

17 Oct

I’ve never been good at sleeping in the car.  Or in planes, or trains, or buses, even overnight buses.  I think it’s a combination of general discomfort and the possibility that I could be missing a cool sunset, rock formation, town, or bus fight that passes by while I’m asleep.  So for me, a 12-hour overnight bus ride means a lot of time to sit and look out the window and think about the world.  My latest bus trip (to Sinai) brought me to the following realization:

I know what the inside of a tractor-trailer looks like!!

Well, sort of.  Let me explain.  I’ve always been extremely impressed by the way that goods and items are transported in Egypt.  If you have, for example, a TON of tomatoes and you want to get them from your farm in the countryside to Cairo to sell, you stack up baskets and baskets and baskets of tomatoes in the back of your big pick-up truck and tie them down.  Or, if you have planks and planks and planks of wood to sell to the furniture-maker guy in Alexandria, pile them up and rope them in for the ride.  If you’re moving from one apartment to another, who are you going to call?  Not Ghostbusters, and no, there’s no U-Haul here (not that I know of, anyway).  But no worries!  You stack your living room up in the back of the pick-up, and maybe hire a guy to sit on top and make sure nothing falls off on the way.  Likewise, if you have a couple of cows you need to get from one place to another, and it’s too far to walk, you put them in the back of your brightly colored pickup and hope they aren’t feeling jumpy.

Why was I so surprised and amazed by this stacking and piling and transporting of stuff in Egypt?  People have to get things from one place to another in America too!  The difference is that we use big nondescript trucks that you can’t see the inside of.  I can’t say that I’ve ever thought twice about what the inside of that giant greyish 18-wheeler looks like when it’s packed full of cartons of eggs.  But in Egypt it’s all out in the open, and I’m enjoying the view.

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!