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