Wow. So I forgot what a whirlwind the first few weeks of school can be. New roommates, move-in, new classes, new teachers, buying books, renewing my visa, riots… ok so maybe a few extra complications this particular semester. Anyway I just now am feeling like I have a chance to breathe a little so it’s time to get back to electronically recording my life.
I got back to Cairo the last two or three days of August – just missing registration but just in time for the free orientation lunch (I just learned a new Egyptian proverb that says something along the lines of “if it’s free, then bring more!” There are some things on which me and Egypt really click). During the summer most of the Egyptians went home so I mostly just hung out with international students. It is so
nice to have the rest of the school around! I have a new roommate named Karim from the southern Egyptian town of Minya. It’s not really southern Egypt – it’s really kind of at the geographic center of the country but apparently everything south of Cairo is considered Upper Egypt, so they consider themselves southerners. I specifically requested an Egyptian roommate and I could not have gotten any luckier. “Karim” in Arabic means “generous” and I couldn’t think of a more appropriate name. Karim is the kind of guy that is friends with everyone. He loves to be social (to the point where I have had to learn to be very firm about my bedtime. Grandpa needs his sleep…) and he would drop anything at anytime to help out a stranger as fast as he would help out a friend. The first couple weeks were a frenzy of new people, new faces, Egyptian names that I promptly forgot right after learning them (though you can usually guess either Ahmed or Mohammed for the guys) and SO MUCH ARABIC! I swear I learned more Egyptian dialect in the first week back than I did the entire summer.
Two weekends ago I went with Karim and our friends Sahar (also from Minya) and Zia (an American study abroad-er like me who spent her summer in Lebanon) to stay with his family in Minya. Karim has a wonderful family just as generous as he is and we spent the entire weekend eating, sleeping, snacking, eating, playing Egyptian card games, eating some more, and occasionally working up enough energy to go out and see the city (though only after 7 pm because that’s when it becomes bearable to leave the air conditioning). The food was delicious. There is a reason that Egyptians love to eat so much. Karim’s dad made us home-cooked ta3mea (better known in the U.S. by its Lebanese name – falafel) and foul (kinda like refried beans) and Karim’s mom cooked us the best maHshi (rice-stuffed peppers and eggplants) I have tasted yet. Me and Zia got to help
stuff the maHshi, and we learned to yell into the molokheya pot before you throw in the final crucial ingredient – minced up garlic. The second night we were there the family went all out and made meqlooba (from the word meaning flip over) which is a Jordanian dish where all the contents are cooked in a giant pot with rice on top and then the whole thing is flipped beautifully onto a platter. It all makes for a very exciting presentation. We also managed to go out with Karim’s friend Tariq to Beni Hasan archeological site which is about 45 minutes outside of Minya and consists of several ancient tombs from the Middle Kingdom (~2000 to ~1600 BCE). On the way to and from Cairo we didn’t reserve seats on the train enough in advance so we took turns sharing one seat on the way there and two seats on the way back for the duration of the 4 hour journey while the rest stood and took bets on how many Egyptians could pack into the aisles and between cars. I’ll only say that I grossly underestimated.
Two days ago was my 21st birthday and a group of us went out for dinner, including Karim, Zia, Sahar and Nermin – Zia’s roommate and someone I can already tell is going to be a very dear friend. Nermin is from north Sinai – she can see Gaza from her front porch – and was watching the bombs go off during the strikes that Egypt carried out against the Bedouin rebels in that area during August. After the dinner Zia, Shaimaa, and Elizabeth surprised me with a giant platter of assorted cheesecake and we proceeded to stuff ourselves sick while being yelled at for violating quiet hours. Have I mentioned how glad I am not to be an RA this semester?
Ok so speaking of unrest I guess that I should probably mention something about the protests here this last week and people scaling the walls of the embassy and such. I guess first of all I want assure anyone still worried that I never was in harm’s way and honestly nothing even changed in my routine. Actually, some AUC students blockaded the entrance to the university today and last Sunday in protest of tuition hikes and we have been far more impacted by that than the protests in front of the embassy. I think it is important to remember that news agencies only profit the most when their headlines grab the most attention, though that rarely represents the full story. No one wants to read that 99.99% of Cairenes are going to work and school, eating maHshi and drinking chai as per usual. The truth is that the violence in Tahrir and at the embassy was the result of a very small fringe of people. We have our share of crazy people in the U.S. – just look at the Trayvon Martin case or the shooting in the Aurora movie theater – and everyone has experienced how terrifyingly powerful group mentality cab be. I’m not trying to brush anything under the rug – I’m as dismayed as anyone at the violence this last week – but it is important to put it into context. On the positive side, the protests have sparked a firestorm of fascinating conversations with friends and professors around free speech in relation to religion and culture. During a conversation with Karim and our friend Osama I was surprised to realize what a difference there is in the conception of free speech between our two cultures. Of course after years under oppressive rule and in light of the revolution, free speech is something very dear to the majority of Egyptians. However there is an unspoken line (and in some countries a very explicit line) that everyone is expected not to cross when it comes to speaking about religion. The professor for my Quranic Studies elective tried to explain that religion is so closely linked to everyday life here (Muslim and Christian alike) that religious matters tend to inhabit an ultra-sacred space, rendering it unthinkable to speak about God or Mohammed or any other religious figure without proper reverence, regardless of personal belief. By this way of thinking, your right to free speech ends when it comes to obscenities. The only thing in American culture I can think to compare it to is the sacred space we grant some of our nation’s founding principles. No one would think to suggest that we should abolish the Bill of Rights. Because of this intimate link between religion and culture, when the most sacred religious figure is insulted, it is easy for some Arabs to view it as a personal attack on everything they hold dear, rather than looking at it from a detached academic perspective. You can see where the trouble might arise when one culture believes it forbidden to express something sacrilegious and the other culture believes it sacrilege to forbid something from being expressed.
Anyway there is a lot to be thinking about these days. I’m going to Ain Sokhna this weekend to relax and give my head a break. I have started sorting through pics from August and I will start posting those retroactively like I did for Europe – but not until I put up the second half of the Eurotrip first! Good luck to everyone starting up their semesters and my condolences to those still mourning the end of summer. إن شاء الله (God willing), Thanksgiving break will be here before we know it!