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.

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