Thursday, July 22, 2010


And so ends my Egyptian adventure. I leave tomorrow for the Cairo airport, and I'll be home on Saturday. I'm sorry I didn't write as much here as I wanted to, but I'm not sorry that I was too busy to do so! I have a lot of mixed emotions about leaving. I am somewhat reluctant to leave. Egypt is so, so different from America in so many different ways, but over the past seven weeks it became my home. At the same time, I am really excited to get home and see people, and to see my cousin Jessica and her new babies! I am busy packing right now, but am hoping to write a much more comprehensive about living here and how I felt about it when I get home. See you all on Saturday!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Questions, part wo

Under what circumstances is it proper to haggle, and how is it done?
It all really depends. If you're in a market/market district, and in a store there with no posted or established prices, just ask the guy how much it is and go for it. If there are posted prices, you'll look ridiculous trying to haggle, not to mention rude, and if you're already getting a very good price on something it's considered a bit rude to keep trying for a lower one. Also, it's important to note the market district bit: most corner stores don't have posted prices but if you try to haggle there you'll be laughed off. If you are in a place where you can haggle, the best strategy is to first find out from an Egyptian friend what a good price for the item is, then go see what the guy wants to charge you for it.
A rough, translated-to-English transcript of the last time I haggled for something (Dylan's gallibaya):
Me: I'm looking for a gallibaya.
Guy: Size? Color?
Me: It is for my brother, he is skinny, like that guy (gestures to other guy in store), any color.
Guy: How's this one?
Me: Okay. How much?
Guy: 155 pounds.
Me: Mmm.... that's a lot.
Guy: 140?
Me: Maybe 90?
Guy: This is real Egyptian cotton! Good quality! 130!
Me: I don't know... 100?
Guy: 120.
Me: Really?
Guy: 110.
Me: Okay.

Do a lot of Egyptians speak English?
Yes and no. Most Egyptians who have been to university speak pretty good English, and a lot of people working in restaurants, markets or any sort of tourist area speak enough to accomplish their jobs. It seems like everyone knows "Hello" and "Welcome to Egypt", as they are often shouted to us on the street. It would certainly be possible to visit Egypt without speaking any Arabic, but I think you'd miss out on a lot.

You said the toilets were small- do they have toilet seats?

Are all dorm rooms singles?
No. The guys' dorms are all singles, but here in the girls' dorms we're two to a room, and some of the Egyptian girls are four to a room.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Questions, part one

There are a few questions that various people have asked me throughout my trip that I keep meaning to answer. One of my teachers from elementary school (hi Kathleen!) asked several in an email to me, and so I thought I'd do them in a blog post so that everyone's curiosity could be satisfied. I will probably only post them a few at a time, as I get quite verbose at times. More to come soon! If you think of other questions, be sure to leave them in the comments for me!

What is kofta?
Kofta is essentially a Middle Eastern equivalent to meat loaf that is cooked on skewers. I am not overly fond of it, but some people get really excited when we have it with dinner. To each their own.

What are Egyptian female students like? Do you see girls wearing burqas at the university?
Egyptian female students are, as far as I have been able to tell, really sweet and very kind. All of the girls who live in the dorms with us have been nothing but unceasingly patient with our bad Arabic and are always willing to help us with homework or any other problem we may have. They are also kind enough to invite us out for meals, etc. with them from time to time. When one of the girls in our program had a birthday, some of the Egyptian girls bought her a cake and threw her a surprise party. Many of them speak pretty good English and study a wide variety of topics, from law to education to medicine to engineering and beyond.
As for dress, most of the girls at the university do wear hijab, though there are certainly those who don't. There is a wide variety of clothing worn, from girls wearing skinny jeans and matching their headscarves with their tops to girls who prefer to wear an abaya (a long, loose, modest dress). The vast majority of Egyptians believe that wearing hijab is a personal choice, and there is not really much social stigma against women who choose not to. As for the burqa: I have yet to see a woman wearing one here, probably because they are simply not common in this region. However, there is a significant minority of women who choose to wear the niqab (a subtle difference, I realize, but one that matters). I know a few girls at my dorms who wear the niqab. Like the hijab, it is viewed as a very personal choice.

What does it mean when men hiss at you?
It's essentially the most common Egyptian equivalent to a catcall. As a foreign woman, some (emphasis on some) men here feel that I am not entitled to the same respect they would give an Egyptian woman. Some of the other girls in my program have experienced more extreme harassment, ranging from having more specific things yelled at them, to some of them being groped when we were in a crowded shopping district. The weird thing about harassment from men here is that if you are being harassed in any fashion and you call attention to it, other men will appear from everywhere to chase the men bothering you off. I've even seen a few men get slapped for bothering us. So, while there is clearly social pressure against harassing women, it's obviously not enough of an incentive for some men to just not do it in the first place.

Friday, July 9, 2010

On the topic of Arabic

I felt like I should, at some point, write something about Arabic, since that is ostensibly why I'm here and going to class for four hours every weekday. I do love Arabic. It's fun to write, and I could go on and on about the general linguistics of it, but everyone but Jesse (hi Jesse!) would be very bored, so I won't.

The first thing to know is that in Arabic class, it isn't uncommon to be taught more than one dialect. For example, in my classes at home (and my ones here) I've been taught Modern Standard or Classical Arabic (henceforth referred to as MSA because it's easier to type), and Egyptian Colloquial (henceforth referred to as Egyptian). MSA is fairly formal, and derives from the Arabic used in the Quran, which is considered MSA's ultimate stylistic model. Very few people actually speak MSA, as the spoken dialects in most countries have shifted away from the Arabic of the Quran (although in some countries, the Arabic has not shifted too much and you can get away with speaking MSA). While you could probably speak MSA to most educated native speakers of Arabic and get away with it, it's generally seen as strange and overly formal to speak MSA.

Unfortunately, Egypt's spoken dialect is really different from MSA. At home, we spent one day a week on Egyptian, and here we spend three hours out of the 20 we spend in class each week on it. The result of this is that while I can read a fairly complex story in MSA, I still get confused when an old lady tries to ask me how long I've been in Egypt. In an ideal world, we would be spending way more time on Egyptian so I could yell at cabdrivers more effectively and learn how to tell men on the street to stop hissing at me, gosh-darnit. The justification we are usually given for the small amount of time spent on Egyptian compared to MSA is that MSA is important for translation and diplomatic work, and that we have plenty of opportunity to practice Egyptian after class and in the streets. This is all great in theory, but as a woman, my opportunities to practice Egyptian with strangers are somewhat limited. The guys in my program gossip freely with cab drivers and shopkeepers, but it's considered untoward for me to chat with them beyond asking prices or giving directions. This means I am often limited to chatting with the girls who live in my dorm, though far be it from me to disparage them as they are all really, really nice and are frequently eager to help me with my homework.

Despite these limits, I have definitely picked up a lot of Egyptian Arabic while I've been here. This includes but is not limited to:
  • Giving a cab driver directions
  • Telling said cab driver that I will give him twenty pounds for that cab ride when pigs fly, and he is only getting 7 pounds from me
  • Asking the price of things
  • Ordering food
  • Haggling (I now have mad hot haggling skills, for your information)
  • Yelling at the TV during a soccer match
  • Describing a person
  • Buying tickets/ trying to convince the person I'm buying tickets from that they should honor my Alexandria University ID and give me the Egyptian student price, even though I am freaky pale and very blonde and the ID does technically say that I'm American

Monday, June 28, 2010

Average Day

Since Sherri (hi Aunt Sherri!) expressed curiosity about it, I thought I'd post on what an average day is like for me here.

6:45 am: My alarm goes off. I promptly ignore it.

7:40 am: Finally get out of bed. Shower and get dressed. Check email, etc.

8:20 am: Eat breakfast downstairs. Breakfast options usually consist of any combination of the following: beans, cheese, pita bread, Egyptian-style baguettes, jam, honey, eggs (scrambled or hardboiled), falafel, corn flakes, milk, mango juice, or apple juice.

8:45 am: Depart for school.

9:00 am: School starts. Most days during the morning we work on Modern Standard Arabic.

9:50 am: Break. During breaks I sometimes go upstairs to find Ahmed, who will sell you pastries, snacks, and various beverages, all at low Egyptian prices.

10:00 am: More Modern Standard Arabic.

10:50 am: Breaktime once again.

11:10 am: More class. Depending on the day, either Modern Standard Arabic or Egyptian Colloquial.

12:00 pm: Break!

12:10 pm: Classtime once more.

1:00 pm: Class gets out. At this point I usually head to lunch. Depending on how I'm feeling, I either go to get lunch at the dorms or go with some of the guys in my class to a local place that sells Egyptian street food. Dorm lunch usually involves rice or koshari (which is mostly rice) and chicken or kofta. If I go with the guys, I usually get a falafel sandwich and a beef shawarma, which is beef and vegetables on a hoagie-ish bun that's been grilled. This usually runs me around four and a half Egyptian pounds, which works out to around 75 cents American. Egypt is a land of cheap, plentiful, delicious food.

2:00 pm: At this juncture, anything can happen. Depending on the day and how much homework we all have, this time can be used for homework and studying, or for an outing of some sort. This may include museums and other historical monuments, like mosques or Coptic churches.

6:00 pm: Dinner. Dorm dinner usually involves bountiful carbohydrates, along with chicken, fish, or kofta. Sometimes we go out to dinner, either by ourselves or with one of our professors.

7:00 pm: Same rules apply as the 2:00 schedule.

11:00 pm: Start pondering sleep.

11:05 pm: Put on pajamas, etc.

11:15 pm: Get into bed.

11:21 pm: Remember something I need to google. Proceed to also check my email, etc.

11:45 pm: Drift off to sleep.

Weekends are fairly similar, with no classes and more sleeping. (It should perhaps be noted that the weekend here is Friday and Saturday, so I have classes from Sunday to Thursday.)


Monday, June 21, 2010


On Saturday, most of the people in our study abroad program took a day trip to Cairo and Giza. We left at around 6:00 am from Alexandria, as it takes a good two and a half or three hours to get to Cairo. We went together with all of us with one van. We had a tour guide and an armed guard, which was really strange at first, but it is apparently standard issue for large groups of tourists.

Our first stop was Giza. I spent a good twenty minutes when I first started writing this entry trying to describe the pyramids, and didn’t get anywhere, so I will leave it at this: the pyramids are amazing. That is pretty much it. You know how awesome the pyramids are in your brain? Multiply that by 20 and you might come close to how incredible it is to be standing right next to them. I pretty much just skipped around like a giddy schoolgirl. The best part was that we were able to purchase tickets to go inside the second pyramid. You have to crouch over to hobble into a three-foot-tall tunnel and there's not really much inside (just a stone chamber, not that that isn't totally great on its own, but I think a lot of people expect there to be art or something), but it's still perfect. During the entire time I was in there, my internal monologue went something like this: "I'M IN A PYRAMID. I'M IN A PYRAMID. I. AM. IN. A. PYRAMID." We also saw the Sphinx, which, again, defies description. It's really strange, when you are looking right at the pyramids and the Sphinx it looks like the desert goes on forever, but if you turn around you can immediately see a Pizza Hut and a KFC. Egypt is a strange place.

Next, we visited the Saladin Citadel, which was built in the 12th century AD to protect the city from the Crusaders. Inside the walls of the citadel is the mosque of Mohamed Ali, built in the early 19th century. This mosque was easily one of the most beautiful buildings I've ever been in. The pictures I took of it simply do not do it justice. The mosque is rather interesting architecturally; Mohamed Ali was an Albanian who came to Egypt with the Turkish army, so the mosque is much more Ottoman in style than most Egyptian mosques.

We then visited the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, which I could easily devote the next five years of my life to walking around in. There's just so many things in there, and so many of . There's nothing quite like seeing a statue you've written a paper on or read about extensively right in front of your eyes. For me, the best parts where the manuscript room, and the two sphinxes and one statue head of Hatshepsut that I had the privilege of seeing. I also got to see Tutankhamen's burial mask, sarcophagi, and various burial effects, which was undeniably awesome. It was also really exciting to see a lot of the artifacts from the Amarna period.

Our final stop for the evening was the Khan El-Khalili market, which is an adventure in and of itself. It's extremely crowded and tiny, and you can't take a step without someone trying to usher you into their shop or make you an offer. I only ended up buying one thing. (Hint: Dad, it's for one of your collections, and I really really hope it will actually fit you!) I like the market here in Alexandria much better, it's not as frantic and you don't have to put as much energy into haggling with the vendors.

All in all, I had a great time in Cairo, but I think one day was enough for me. Cairo has lots of really interesting things to do and see, but it is also ridiculously hot and crowded. An aside to Grandpa: I'm sorry, but I didn't get to see the opera house. If I do another trip there I will be sure to stop by it.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pompey's Pillar/Kom el Shoqafa Catacombs

On Saturday, a group of people from my program (accompanied by one of our professors, Mohammed, who is an incredibly nice person who, for no good reason, decided to take a bunch of lousy 'Merican students to some historical sites on what should have been his day off) went to go see Pompey's Pillar and the Kom el Shoqafa catacombs. We met up outside our school, and took the tram, which is an adventure in and of itself. Tickets are 25 piastres (roughly a nickel, in US dollars), stops aren't announced, and seating is a free for all. In short: good times.

Pompey's Pillar was erected in 297 AD, and was actually erected in honor of the emperor Diocletian, so I have no idea why we're pretending that it belongs to Pompey. It's on the site of Alexandria's acropolis, and in the same area you can visit some temple ruins, including a nilometer and a temple sanctuary, as well as corridors that may have served as extra storage space for the city's ancient library. I was a bit disgustingly cheerful about being there, and may have scared my fellow students and several Egyptians with my enthusiasm.

Next we went to the catacombs. The catacombs were built in the 2nd century AD, and were used as burial space from the 2nd to 4th centuries AD. The art and architecture are really interesting because they are a blend of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman styles. You actually walk down into the larger catacombs and are able to walk around, albeit on wooden planks that aren't nailed down or anchored in any fashioned, which is a bit sketchy. Again, my joy was so effusive as to be frightening.

In other news, I am still having an excellent time. I love my classes and the city in general. If you came to Shatby (the neighborhood I live in and that Alexandria University is in) and asked them where to find the pale girl who sweats an alarming amount, any university official, student, or dorm resident would probably be able to help you find me. I am going to Cairo this Saturday, so will hopefully post about that afterward.