Saturday, September 26, 2009


Welcome to Egypt! مرحبا Let me take you on a 12-hour bus ride from Alex to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula.

Dahab, a touristy yet real town on the southeastern side of the Sinai Peninsula, is easily one of the coolest places I have ever been. Its natural beauty comes in a close second to that of my favorite place in the world, la Isla del Encanto, Puerto Rico. The water has the same gradients of blue, starting at an almost transparent sea green, moving to pure sky blue, and ending in deep navy jean. The difference between Dahab and Puerto Rico lies in the mountains... Sinai's are fierce and menacing stone giants with a rugged kind of charm. Saudia Arabia's similar peaks stand out on clear days across the Gulf of Aquba... I swear I could see Mecca. But IMAGINE. Sinai, land of The Book, with the azure ocean all around, and Muhammad's holy land gazing over at us. Here:

Naturally, I rented snorkeling equipment the first day and dove right in. The water's color was just as rich below. I wish you could have been there, Papi and Diego. We also took a day trip to Ras Muhammad, a national park at the tip of the peninsula with outstanding snorkeling. We swam among fish as one of them, and when the strong sun penetrated the surface, they glittered and rainbow sequins appeared all around. The reef was a gem, although its endless depths were slightly unsettling. I also accumulated a solid rock/shell collection while walking around the crustacean formations 1000s of years old (I truly felt like my father's daughter).

Nights in Dahab were spent along its boardwalk in any of the numerous restaurants, bars and shopping stalls, eating and drinking with the sound of the waves crashing, the gusty wind at our hair, and the twinkling lights of Saudiyya off in the distance. I truly got to know and enjoy the other students in my program, as we broke pledge and spoke English a lot, laughed a ton, and searched high and wide for dance clubs. Yes, it can be appropriate to dance in Egypt in public, and yes, we showed up at clubs, started dance parties and danced on tables. Sometimes it's okay to obviously be American.

One day, we set off in land cruisers with 3 Bedouin guides, and they took us off-road into the desert. Remember what I said about how Egyptians drive? Oh, they are just as MAD in the desert with no traction, dunes and rocks. Needless to say, I saw my life flash before my eyes a couple times, but it was worth it for the canyons they introduced us to:
First we saw the Colored Canyon. The swirl of ancient sand and water was gorgeous beneath the relentless sun. We trekked for over an hour, then stopped at a Bedouin rest stop for tea, by which I mean thatched roof over mats and camels lazing nearby. Legit. We were then taken to the White Canyon. I have no other word for the place except Biblical. I could see the devout nomads tiredly walking between these canyons, their prayers reverberating off the boundless stone. I also finally understood the meaning of Oasis, as the sight of one at the end of the canyon was incredibly welcoming. We ate lunch in the Bedouin village there, playing cards with their children, and being offered sips of their salty water from way underground. Real World Egypt, baby.

The night before our departure, we began our ascent up Gebel Mousa جبل موسة, or Mount Sinai, at 1am. I had no vision of where I was going. Every few minutes, I would hear "Gamel? Gamel?" and suddenly a ginormous camel would saunter out of the dark, and we would all cower toward the edge of the cliff to avoid his lunging hooves and spit. I think I have camel-phobia now. I have possibly never seen as many stars. They dotted the sky magnificently, and I could have looked at them forever had my road to the top been less treacherous. The hike was exhausting, and I have no idea how Moses did all that, then received the 10 Commandments from God. Hardcore, beghed, seriously. We shivered at the top for an hour with a horde of other climbers, until finally the sun began to paint colors across the peaks. A hush fell over the pilgrims, and I could feel the solidarity in my heart. Awe as the sun broke across the jagged and holy land. What an experience.
Now, here I am back in Alex, with an even greater love for the country of Egypt. Yesterday I went bowling with the group, today I went to their version of Wal-Mart, a "hypermarket" called Carefour. I also (somewhat proudly) confess that I went to H & M and Starbucks. I am often amused at how American my habits are, and I don't really care - I just remember that I'm lucky. Classes have started rolling, some of them I enjoy, some of them I am annoyed with the pace. My learning takes place mostly outside the university, where I work on my Amiyya, and frustration has subsided in the last day or two. Some of the American students are frustrated with certain aspects of the program and life here, but I am very much at peace. Of course, I have my moments of GAH, but all in all, I have never felt more in the moment of my life. And that is one of the best feelings in the world.

Here is a link to some photos thus far, they really tell the story, so enjoy:

Every day I wish you could all be here with me on my adventures.

Love from Egypt, مصر

Yamila جميلة

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

5-Year-Old Arab Child

عامل ايه? What's up, my friends? Salaam min Masr.

I miss English. Not so much English, just being able to express myself! It is incredibly difficult for me, since I love expressing myself with words (as you most likely know), and here, I am generally unable to do so past the level of a 5-year-old. Sample conversation with a fellow confused American student:

Me: Do you want to swim with me?
Them: Have I become you? Huh?
Me: No, do you want to swim in the ocean with me? *Frantic hand-waving motions*
Them: Ooohhh! No, I do not like to swim.

In all seriousness though, the Language Pledge is hands down the most frustrating part of being here. In English and Spanish, I am talkative, intelligent and respectful (and modest). I say things when I feel them, the way I mean them. I am articulate both academically and interpersonally. I know how to respect my elders by saying the right thing. Last week, I sat through 2 hours of a class about Arabic Literature, and I understood maybe 10% of it. I then proceeded to meet with 2 incredible professors to whom I was incapable of conveying my true admiration and sentiments because of my language barrier. GGGGRRRRRRRR!!

Additionally, it limits my attempts to make friends with the other American students, as we can only talk about whether we like to swim or not. We just got back from a mini-vacation together, and we spoke English a lot of the time (sssshhhh, don't tell!), and now I feel like I know them better. I was talking to a friend here about the notion that the language you learn to express yourself in as a child becomes part of your personality, since it is the channel for emotions, interactions and learning in all forms. I am learning that now.

Although I sound pessimistic here, I also have patient faith that my Arabic will get better! It already is - communication with my Egyptian roommates and haggling vendors has been successful of late! I will do my best to adhere to the Language Pledge, and I will do what I came here to do: come back to the States an awesome Arabic speaker. There is truly a special corner in my heart for this language: it is eloquent without trying, rough on the edges but romantic inside, lyrical and rhythmic, all at the same time. Just keep in mind when you talk to me, that English and Español is música to my ears.

As Kislaya reminded me: Growth is always momentarily uncomfortable.

More to come shortly about my adventures in Sinai, including snorkeling in the Red Sea, clubbing to Arabic techno, hiking canyons with Bedouins, and watching the sun rise on Mt. Sinai with Moses.

Un montón de besos y abrazos a todos,

Yamila جميلة

Monday, September 14, 2009

La primera semana

سلام عليكم Salaam alaikum from Egypt! It already feels as though I've been here forever, yet it's only been a week. There is so much to share, and so many more weeks to go.

The plane ride here was the longest and most interesting of my life. There were excerpts of the Quran on the TV on the plane, a random passenger walked the aisles handing out dates in celebration of Ramadan, and we flew right by the pyramids on our way into Cairo. Egyptians clap when they land, just like Puerto Ricans! The group of students from my program and I were immediately stuffed into a "microbus" with our luggage loaded on top. The dusty 3-hour ride to Alexandria was complete with pouring water into our overheated engine and enjoying Egyptian air conditioning (aka windows).

I am living in the female dorms of Alexandria University in the central town, 2 blocks from the Mediterranean. Ya heard... the MEDITERRANEAN. Holla (god it's nice to even write that English word.) Besides BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper) and a bed with a crater in the middle, it's super! I live with the most affectionate and patient group of Egyptian girls - affectionate because they are eager to befriend us and show us their world, and patient with our broken colloquial Arabic, called Masriyya here. We've had many fun days and nights with these new companions, including a birthday dance/ululation celebration and giggle sessions on our roof (with its amazing view, see below). I will leave Egypt with many new friends, of this I am sure.
The program students are just as awesome, as is the program itself. Classes have just started: I re-learned the history of Islam today, but in Arabic! More to come about the academic part as it gets rolling. The program has organized events like scavenger hunts through the city, tours of touristy sites like catacombs and the Library (incredible, will post pics on Facebook), and a trip to the Montazah Gardens, an enclosed park with manicured grounds and a castle that the royal family used to vacation at when Egypt was ruled by British-installed Farouk. We watched the sun set over the sea there:
Yesterday some of us were given a tour of Old Alexandria by a former student from the program. One of the highlights was being let into the only synagogue in the city. It is now closed, since there are almost no Jews left in Alexandria to worship there, and it is heavily guard for fear that some angry Islamists blow it up. Somehow our guide convinced the guards that we weren't hiding IED's, that we were in fact, innocent American students, and we were let in! This closed synagogue is so representative of the melee of cultures that have swept through Alexandria's past. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Copts, Jews... most were kicked out by Nasr after the 1952 revolution as he tried to nationalize/Arabize all business, much of which had been run by Jews and Greeks. The multicultural/religious influence is evident in the architecture and the main touristic sites: Roman arches, monuments erected by the British, ornate columns, the Greek Orthodox church we saw. The synagogue and the church pictured below:
The rest of the city is supa-dupa Arab and supa-dupa Muslim! It is Ramadan: the minarets sound 5 times a day, men with loudspeakers roam the streets yelling "Allahu Akbar" (at 4am), and I saw a sheep slaughtered on my street yesterday. All of the Egyptian girls are going home this week for Aid el-Ftar, the end of Ramadan celebration.

On that note, I stand out! I am white, female, my hair is uncovered as is a little skin, and I am speaking Arabic in a bad accent (because of our language pledge, more on that later.) We are constantly stared at here, and I am learning to walk looking straight ahead with purpose and a "street face". Whenever the Egyptian girls go out with us, they are of course covered, and I am not allowed to show any male relatives or friends pictures of them uncovered. I have yet to receive any bad harassment, just the occasional comment or hiss, nothing worse than NYC. Everything is extremely segregated by gender, which takes some getting used to, as most of my closest friends are males at home: the boys in our program live 15 minutes away, so I haven't gotten to know many of them yet. I simply do not understand the treatment of women here: to me, it is backwards, with all due respect. Covering up, considering us sinful and lesser, rude comments: it frankly disturbs me. It is thus refreshing to be surrounded by Muslim women getting educated here in the dorms. My one-on-one course is Gender studies, so I hope to be enlightened soon.

That is not to say that views toward women are representative of Egyptians! My overall experience thus far has been that they are extremely hospitable, curious, and happy people. People are always excited to hear our story and tell us theirs, especially when they find out we speak Arabic (or are trying to)! I have been warmly welcomed as Gameela (my name in Masriyya). I find that as a woman, it is often hard to judge who is suitable to initiate conversation with, but as I grow more comfortable and my Arabic better, I imagine that will subside.

The biggest adjustment so far has been speaking Arabic. I was taught Modern Standard Arabic, FusHa, at Tufts, but Egypt has its own dialect (Amiyya), just like every Arab country, or even city. I am slowly getting used to Amiyya, which is easier than FusHa, but damn they speak fast. I also took the Middlebury Language Pledge, which forbids me to speak English while here (except when talking to you all, of course). It is frustrating not to be able to express myself without confused stares, or swear, but in sha Allah, that will pass.

Some random notes:
1.) The driving here is INSANE. I have never seen anything like it, in NYC or Puerto Rico. The lane dividers are mere decorations, and if someone wants to move on the road they just start nudging in that direction and honk furiously. The notorious main road, the Corniche, runs along the coast, and it is a deathwalk. Getting in a vehicle is always an adventure (especially since there are no seat-belts). Being a pedestrian is always a mini-Survivor episode.
2.) I often find myself reminded of Puerto Rico. Part of this is the people's warmth and flamboyant greetings. Part of it is the coastline and its azure water. Part of it is the cement buildings and filthy streets. Both places seem to be of the second world - "developed" elements (fast food and other chains) and impoverished citizens.
3.) To go along with the slaughtered sheep yesterday, my dinner at a restaurant the other night was a fried fish... not fish meat, but an actual fish. He was smiling at me! I almost cried. Then I ate him. I might try being vegetarian when I get back. Seriously.
4.) Favorite place so far: our rooftop. Close runner-up: Silsila Cafe on the ocean, with fresh mango juice and the Mediterannean's waves lapping at us.

I know this has been long-winded, but I've been formulating my thoughts for a week (it seems like an age). I have regular internet access, so feel free to email whenever. What I email people will generally be the same thing on my blog, although I will probably blog more often (promise they'll be shorter), so keep an eye out for blog posts, Facebook pictures, and my Skype name is YamiJean. This week I head to the Sinai Peninsula for 5 days with the group- climbing Mt. St. Catherine at sunrise and desert safaris! Pangs of homesickness hit me now and then, but the worst has yet to come. I wish you could all be on this adventure with me!

Con mucho amor de Egypto,


PS- I leave you with a happy picture of moi looking at one of the most charismatic and lively cities I've ever visited and perhaps ever will, Alexandria: