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: