Kelsey in Cairo

Kelsey is majoring in English, with a minor in political science, in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. In Spring 2009, she is participating in SMU-in-Cairo in Egypt, where she will be taking courses in political science and Arabic. She hopes the experience will prepare her for a career in international relations or journalism, and she plans to volunteer with a nonprofit while in Egypt.

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First impressions of Cairo

k-IMG_0105-sm.jpg I flew into Cairo during a minor sandstorm. All day long a fine golden haze colored everything, making it impossible to see more than fifty feet in any direction.

At the airport, I had my first adventure negotiating a cab ride to AUC’s new campus – none of the cab drivers in the city seem to know where it is. I was satisfied with the agreed upon 90 pound price (about $16 US dollars), but ended up giving the demanding driver an embarrassingly large tip, since cab drivers typically aren’t tipped at all in Egypt.

These are the kinds of things commonly heard about Egypt that dissuade people from visiting the country: Everyone is trying to take your money, trying to scam you, will harass you (especially if you’re a female). Yes, at the Pyramids there were vendors, and no, you probably shouldn’t buy anything there, but a simple “La, shukran,” (“No, thank you”) is all that’s required to make your visit to such touristy places pleasant.

Knowing just a little bit of the language of wherever you’re traveling is so important. I knew one word of Arabic when I arrived in Cairo, “shukran,” and really feel like it made a difference in the way I interacted with the people here. That’s why I’m so excited to already be studying Arabic, at AUC’s six-day survival Arabic course, before my classes have even started.

AUC is world-renowned for its Arabic language programs, and it seems like the vast majority of students studying here are passionate about learning the language. After a few days of classes, it’s easy for me to understand why. It’s beautiful with its “shs” and “tzs” and rolling “rrrs”; and it seems impossible – so many syllables and vowels next to other vowels, a cursive script with tiny dots below and above the text. So it’s amazing when it begins to make sense, and reveals so much about the culture. Inshaa allah (“God willing,” to be said before any mention of the future), I’ll become comfortable speaking with locals in my next four months of study here.

k-IMG_0103-sm.jpg My first few days in Cairo have been a surreal blur of activity and absorption.

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The day after I arrived, the residence office organized a trip to the pyramids, where there were camel rides and the obligatory walking-like-an-Egyptian photos in front of the Sphinx.

We were then taken for a traditional Egyptian meal at an open-air restaurant where one of the hosts was inexplicably holding a large lion cub in his arms. I don’t really know why he was holding a lion cub at a restaurant, but after about three hours on a bumpy bus, climbing crouched over, down steep tunnels inside the pyramids, and being surrounded by camels, everyone was so dazed, it was like “Oh, fun, a lion cub. (pet). Can we eat now, PLEASE?”

It’s funny how after just a few hours in Cairo, you begin to expect the unexpected. It’s otherworldly, and entirely wonderful.

k-IMG_0118-sm.jpg The next day, after my first survival Arabic class, there was a trip to a Bedouin camp (or something at least designed to look like a Bedouin camp), where we sat on pillows and carpets in a brightly colored tent, drinking tea, some smoking shisha – a very common Egyptian activity – and watched belly dancers and dervishes. Outside the tent, we rode horses in the desert out to a hillside, where we could see the pyramids in the distance, lit up green and red and yellow. The dunes seemed purplish, the blowing sand like a fog, swirling so that time seemed to disappear.

Tonight there was a dinner cruise on the Nile River, and, it seems, the opportunities for amazing experiences are endless. It’s a constant adventure, and not all as romantic as I may have made it seem so far. Cairo is undeniably frustrating; 15 minutes usually means an hour, traffic is insane, mega-malls larger than any seen in the U.S. hover over – what appear to me to be – nearby slums, and it seems to be at least a five-hour adventure to just get groceries. And it isn’t all pleasant; trash litters the Nile, which smells like a zoo.

No, Cairo is certainly not perfect and it’s certainly a challenging place to live, but I’m enjoying the challenges and all the rewards.

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    2 Responses to First impressions of Cairo

    1. Jeff says:

      1. It’s a shame that you’re at the New Cairo campus. The old dorm in Zamalek, the island in the center of the city, and the downtown campus would have made for a better experience.

      2. AUC’s Arabic program is decent, but you won’t even come close to gaining proficiency in the language. That would require at least a year in Damascus or Yemen, where there are few English speakers.

      3. Take a week to go to Lebanon and Syria. Don’t worry, it’s not scary. Beirut’s spectacular.

      -SMU alum and former Cairene

    2. Omar says:

      I really enjoyed reading this experience. I’m not Egyption but I’m an Arabic native speaker from a neighboring country to Egypt, and I believe in the importance of these trips and intercultural interaction.

      Egypt is rich in political and social issues and is going through major changes now. I recommend that you meet all kinds of people there with different idealogies and socioeconomic states, try to listen, try to interact, try to understand, and you will learn a lot about that area of the world.

      I like your description of the Arabic language, enjoy it, and I wish you the best.

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