Friday, October 30, 2009

Travel Component Part 1 - Istanbul

After a really long week of writing papers and getting very little sleep we’re now in Turkey! We flew in Wednesday morning and it was RAINING! It was really exciting. We took a boat tour on the Bosporus that afternoon, which made me want to move to Istanbul. Maybe I should stop trying to learn Arabic, and get to work on Turkish. We keep accidentally using Arabic here, which is really funny. The shopkeepers look at us like we're insane when we say "shokran"'s so terrible, and really funny at the same time. We also keep trying to cross streets Cairo-style. I hope none of us wind up getting ourselves killed because of it - too bad Turks don't understand the "wait" sign. Yesterday we met with a Turkish journalist in the morning and then went to the Ottoman palace. We had the afternoon free to wander around and look at cheesy tourist stuff. We were going to go the Grand Bazaar, but it was closed because yesterday happened to be Turkey’s independence day. I wound up walking back to our hotel with three other MESPers and we got a little lost. What was supposed to be an hour walk wound up taking us about two hours. It was fantastic!! We got to see a lot of the city. J The fireworks last night were ridiculously impressive – I had a great view from my hotel room. The Turks definitely have a lot of national pride. Seriously every building had at least one flag up yesterday, and most had many flags along with a few pictures of Ataturk for good measure.

Today we met with a representative from the AK Party (it stands for Justice and Development in Turkish – not Alaska, I promise!), which is the current ruling power in Turkey. They fed us tea and cookies. He was a really great speaker and if we were Turkish, they might have instantly wound up with 30 new members. Afterwards we went to the US Consulate which was awesome as well. The security there was crazy though! I was surprised we were able to get our Canadians (the intern Dena and one student), and the Brit (Dr. Heather’s husband is traveling w/ us until Israel) through. The whole complex was very impressive – we kind of took over a whole hill. Also, it’s in Asia! It’s crazy how Istanbul spans two continents!

I'm really not sure what internet access is going to look like the rest of the time we're on the road, and I know they're keeping us really busy, but I'll do my best to keep you updated. We're in Istanbul for a few more days and then headed to Ankara on Tuesday. On Thursday night we're crossing into Syria, and then the next Monday (Nov 9) we'll go to Jordan. The following Wednesday we're going to Israel, where life will get really busy! And then back to Cairo on Nov 25. I'm so excited!


Again, I was going to post this awhile ago, and then didn't. Sorry!

All 30 MESP students are completely stressed out right now since we’re trying to write 4 papers before we go on travel component – in a week! We also have finals in Arabic and ITP coming up. It’s been interesting watching everyone become more and more exhausted – after devos this morning Dr. Heather commented that we all “look so fragile”, which is a pretty good summary. If we actually survive this week, we’re all going to be useless when we get to Istanbul. Yay finals week – especially when you know there’s another one coming after travel.

On Friday most of us went up to Alexandria, which was amazing. The train took 4hrs to get there – it’s supposed to take 2 ½! We were all pretty frustrated, and it cut our time short but it worked out in the end. We went to the catacombs and I climbed around in tunnels and tombs where I wasn’t really supposed to be. We lost the “tour guide” as quickly as we could because he didn’t know anything anyway. It was great. So was the library. It’s huge - so many books!! And the shelves weren’t even half full! The whole thing was really open, with lots of space. It’s got a slanted roof so that the sun is always reflected onto the reading desks. I also really loved how many different languages the books were in. English, Arabic, French…it was so sweet. Oh, and they have a museum in the basement. With some of the earliest Iliad manuscripts. And 3rd century New Testaments. And really amazing combinations of Greek and Ancient Egyptian art – Horus sculpted in Greek style. Greek Gods wearing the double crown. It was crazy. Seriously, that library was awesome. I WANT one. We also tried to go to the Greco-Roman Museum. It took us a really long time to find it, and when we finally made it, we discovered that it had been closed for 2 years. Oops.

I also felt very cultured this weekend, because I helped other white people figure out what their train tickets said! Why yes, I can read Arabic numbers!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Arab League and Siwa Oasis

So I was going to post this awhile ago, but didn't. oops. :)

Last week we got to visit the Arab League which was amazing. Except for the part where we all had to be dressed really professionally, which is uncomfortable, especially when you’re in Cairo and it’s super hot and you’re taking a taxi down town. Anyway, at the AL they took us into their big conference room and we got to take ridiculous pictures pretending we were AL delegates. I made a speech. J Too bad none of us look like we’re from the Middle East – oh well, we all felt important. Afterwards we went to one of their small conference rooms and talked with someone important whose name I can’t remember right now. It was a pretty fantastic discussion. We happened to be there the day they were opening a Gandhi exhibit, so we went to the end of the panel discussion related to that and the reception afterward. We got to wander around eating Indian food mixing with (mostly just looking really out of place) with really important people. It was pretty cool. The exhibit was interesting as well – it was basically a series of posters with pictures and quotes summarizing Gandhi’s life. It culminated by making a big deal about Gandhi’s anti-Israel statement. Like I said – interesting…

Last weekend we left Cairo for our Siwa Oasis. Siwa is technically in Egypt, but it has its own distinct culture – language and all. Jon has a Siwan friend, Ismayil, so the first day we were there we got to go hang out with his family. Siwan tea is incredibly sweet and strong; it was kind of like drinking syrup. Oh, and Siwan dates are abnormally good, just fyi. Women in Siwa are extremely sheltered, and basically have no rights. Ismayil told us that most girls are engaged by the time their 13, and get married at 16. The marriage is arranged between the man and the girl’s father, and even after she’s engaged the girl probably will only get to see her fiancĂ© once or twice a year for a minute or two. A women always has to have permission from a male family member in order to leave the house. If she does leave the house, she is fully covered. The few women we saw on the streets were sitting in donkey carts wearing a burka with an extra shawl over their head and shoulders for good measure. When we went to Ismayil’s house the MESP guys were of course not allowed to meet his mom, sisters, etc. So we just sat and talked with him for awhile, while he told us about Siwan culture. We then kicked all the guys out, and the girls got to actually talk to some Siwan women. Ismayil stayed to translate, which made the conversation difficult. We felt like they might not be answering questions fully because they had to say everything through Ismayil. When we asked if certain aspects of their culture were frustrating or difficult for them, they usually just responded by saying “it’s normal”. Even if we didn’t get the whole story it was still really interesting. They also gave us henna which was pretty awesome. Mine’s mostly gone now, but it was sweet while it lasted.

We rented bikes that first day to ride around Siwa – pretty sure 30 white kids singing Do Re Mi while riding down a street in the middle of the desert is a sight the Siwans won’t forget for awhile. That night we went out to a salt lake and floated there watching an amazing sunset. We then went to a spring to get the salt off, and swim some more. We then got to bike home in the dark while getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. After dinner some of us went to explore the old city/fortress. It looks like a giant sand castle, that just had one little wave wash over it. Apparently it rained for a week once, and the fortress melted. The next day we headed out into the desert. As in, the Great Sand Sea. Yeah, the Sahara. I was there. We took jeeps out there and our driver was crazy. I definitely hit my head on the roof a couple times. He thought (and we agreed with him) that it was fun to make really sharp turns for no reason and go over the steepest parts of the dunes whenever possible. Definitely drove down some dune cliffs. We went sandboarding on the dunes, which was slightly disappointing after spending too much time on real mountains with snow where you can actually go down at a decent pace. But that’s ok. We then did some more swimming and watched another amazing sunset. There might have been skinny dipping as well. Maybe. Then we went to a “Bedouin camp” (of questionable authenticity) and spent the night drinking more Siwan tea, dancing to a Siwan band, and staring at the stars. The stars were truly incredible. The band was also pretty awesome – they were drunk and high, but Siwan men know how to dance. It was really funny watching the MESP guys try to dance in comparison to the Siwans, because they pretty much failed. We also helped some random Egyptian policeman and his friends celebrate his birthday – he was high and was blasting American music from his jeep. So funny. That night we all just took our sheets and blankets out into the desert and slept under the stars. I was told it was cold, but I think everyone else was just confused. There were a couple different groups of us out there, and the people I was with definitely got “caravan raided” by a “Bedouin sheet tribe”. I joined the tribe and went to raid the other camp. But they were already asleep so we couldn’t do anything to them – sad day. Dana and I then got into an epic wrestling match with Brian and Chris because Brian stole Dana’s sheet because he was trying to kick her out of the sheet tribe. Overall Siwa was probably our least mature weekend, but it was a ton of fun. And we all needed a chance to relax because now we’re writing papers. We leave for travel in 2 weeks, and have 4 papers, plus finals in ITP and Arabic to do before then. Fun stuff. When we got back from Siwa we went to Al-Azhar. Unfortunately we had transportation issues (our bus didn’t show up) so our time was cut short, but we still got to have some pretty great conversations. The representative who was talking to us was very good at evading questions, which was frustrating. I talked to a student from Nigeria who held forth for a really long time on the problems of corrupt government, but his accent was really difficult to understand so I couldn’t really engage in the conversation as much as I wanted.

We also had an awesome girls dance hafla in flat 5. We baked brownies and such and invited all our Egyptian friends over. A little music, some food, a lot of people, and a big enough space to dance makes for an awesome night. And a lot of dishes. It was fantastic. I’d love to put up pictures, but many of the ones I took can’t go up online because the muslim girls unveiled once they got to our flat.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Like I said – amazing stories. I wound up being placed with Jeem, who also happens to be our belly dancing teacher. She lives in Shoubra in an average middle-class flat. She has three kids (Ahmad -9, Adham – 6, and Allahe – 2, but goes by LuLu). Her husband Adhel works really random hours for a tv company – I didn’t see him much. Jeem and Ahmad both speak pretty good English. They could understand most of what I said, but had a harder time actually speaking English themselves. Which was ok, of course, because it meant I learned a lot more Arabic. When we first got to her house, Jeem took me into the kitchen and told me the Arabic words for everything. She then yelled at me when I promptly forgot most of what she’d said. It took me awhile to figure out that yelling is her way of joking. Ahmad thought it was the most hilarious thing ever to teach me Arabic tongue twisters and then laugh at me when I tried to say them.

Living in their house for a week was very strange because I was in a sort of limbo between guest and family member. I’d be folding laundry one minute and the next minute be served my own huge bowl of aatz as the rest of the family shared one the same size. Jeem also like to yell at me for not doing my homework, but also yell at me for not sitting and drinking tea with her. I’ve never had so much tea and coffee in my life as I drank last week. She made me Nescafe every morning – and I absolutely had to finish it, because if I didn’t I could never get married. When she told me this I laughed because I thought she was joking, but she was serious. She also gave me multiple cups of tea and Turkish coffee every night – it was great. I learned how to make tea “properly” and serve it nicely, too. Egyptian hospitality is a complicated art! By the end of the week I was getting pretty good at it though. Random friends and relatives showed up the house all week, and Jeem had me take care of the tea sometimes. I got the distinct feeling she was showing off her American “daughter”.

I got some pretty interesting insights into Egyptian family relationships as well. Jeem is veiled, but vocally complains about said veil all the time, and takes it off the second she gets inside. (I can’t blame her). There is very clear difference between what happens in the home, and how people act on the street here. Leaving the house – even just to go grab some groceries – is a complicated process because you have to dress up. Out on the street people are pretty reserved, women especially. But once you’re in the house, there’s basically no reserve at all. We went to Jeem’s parent’s house for dinner one day and her sister just sat cross legged on the table to eat, because it was relaxed family meal. Egyptians also don’t have the concept of a quiet conversation inside. Or maybe that was just Jeem’s family because we always had to talk over LuLu’s screaming. She would seriously just wander through the apartment screaming for no reason at all and the parents never did anything about it.

I had a very interesting conversation with my host parents about Obama. Most Egyptians view of America is really very strange. They idolize the average US citizen because they want our rich lifestyle – they’re always trying to be more “western”. But they really don’t like American politics, have a huge mistrust of any US involvement in the Middle East, and absolutely despise Bush. Many expected Obama to change everything, though, and make US-Middle East relations all perfect all of a sudden. Now that he’s been in office for awhile and they haven’t seen any real changes, they don’t really know what to think. So they always ask us what we think of Obama. When Jeem and Adhel asked me, I said that I didn’t think he’d be able to accomplish a lot of what he’d promised during campaigns. And then I told them about some of his domestic policies that I really didn’t agree with – like abortion. This led into a huge discussion about morals, and the states role in morals which was really weird to have with a Muslim family when we barely spoke the same language. They were shocked by what I told them about abortion in the US – so shocked it was almost comical. At the same time as they took a very conservative position on the abortion question they took a very liberal stand on foreign policy (and I know Jeem is basically a “fem-nazi” disguised in her veil). It reminded me again why I don’t like the two-party system, which tries to make everyone fit all their decisions in one box or the other, rather than allowing actual thought and a multiplicity of views. That whole conversation made me really happy that my family spoke English, and realize what an awesome opportunity our home-stays are.

Another favorite moment for me was trying to explain what a moose is. I was trying to tell them about Alaska, so I showed them a picture of a cow and calf. They thought it was a horse. Unfortunately I didn’t have a picture of a bull so they remained very confused. And I didn’t know the Arabic word for deer, so that whole conversation just didn’t really work at all. Getting to Agouza from Shoubra every morning was also fun. This was the first time I’d really traveled alone in Cairo. Thankfully the metro here is incredibly easy, and I lucked out with good taxi drivers. I also had a whole conversation with one taxi driver (in Arabic!) and it took him a couple minutes to figure out that I didn’t speak Arabic fluently. I was so excited! At the end of my homestay, they gave me a number of incredibly random gifts. I got a huge (ugly) necklace, with massive matching earings, AND an identical set to take home to my mom in Alaska. And a pair of socks. And a wooden car. And a half-used jar of nail polish. It was very strange. It was also really sweet, because it was so sincere. They clearly were just trying to say they’d enjoyed having me stay with them, and the way they gave them to me managed to be a lot more genuine than some of the really nice gifts I’ve gotten in the states. It was crazy! Basically, that is a week I will never forget – ever. And according to Jeem, if any of my relatives ever come visit Egypt they aren’t allowed to stay in hotel, they have to go stay with her.

Next post I'll tell you about our visit to the Arab League, which was an experience and half! And also Siwa Oasis. We're leaving tomorrow and come back Saturday. Should be fun. :)