I’ve seen and learned so much, made so many new friends, and become so at ease navigating this labyrinth of a city, it’s difficult to believe that I’ve only been in Cairo for two weeks.
Classes have finally started, and buses and shuttles are running more frequently from AUC’s new campus – where I’m living this semester – to other parts of the city, so I’m starting to feel like I’m actually living here, and not just wandering through a dream.
Saturday morning AUC was on lockdown since President Mubarek’s wife came to the inauguration of the new campus. While a few poor souls living in the New Campus dorms were stuck at school, without access to food from 6 am to 6 pm, I was lucky enough to have stayed at a friend’s apartment in Garden City on Friday night.
So Saturday morning I stuffed myself with street-side falafel, for 2 EP – the equivalent of 36 US cents – and lingered at a cafe drinking mint tea, people watching, and compiling a list of images of Cairo that are now permanently impressed in my mind:
• A family of four on a moped on the highway – a child of 5 or 6 sitting in front of the father, who was driving. The mother sitting on the back holding an infant in her arms.
• A legless man, rolling himself across eight lanes of heavy traffic on a piece of plywood with three wheels attached.
• Three women in burqas eating McDonald’s at the mega-mall called City Stars.
• The astounding sunset over Garbage City, a slum we pass on the way from New Cairo, where AUC’s new campus is located, into downtown.
• Laundry hanging everywhere, from every floor of every apartment building, coloring the buildings that have all faded to brown by the constant assault of the sand.
• Herds of sheep blocking traffic near downtown. Horse and buggy carts are commonly seen on the highway.
• A Burger King neighboring a mosque.
I’ve studied abroad before, in London, and had an amazing time. But I wanted to go to Egypt, not only to learn Arabic and prepare for a future career in the Middle East, but to experience a lifestyle that wasn’t “western,” in a place where things like family and tradition were valued more than the acquisition of material wealth, where prayer calls sound rather than clock towers. The prayer calls are much nicer, I think, than the ding-dong of clocks, and restaurants seem scarce compared to back home, since most people prefer to make large meals at home with their families.
But as the mega-malls and chain restaurants like KFC and TGI Friday’s prove, Egyptians embrace western-style consumerism. American movies are much more popular among young Egyptians than the local offerings, as is American pop music.
My lifestyle here certainly differs from my life back home: I don’t wear a seatbelt here since they usually don’t exist in the vehicles I ride in; my diet consists of a rotation of McDonald’s and koshery, pizza and falafel; I’m watched over vigilantly by my male friends, who’ll never let me take a cab by myself and instruct me to call once I’ve made it home safely. I was given my own private shuttle back to AUC from Tahrir one night when there were only men riding in the other one.
But mostly, my lifestyle here is more relaxed. People are so friendly that I never worry about asking for help, or being lost, because there’s always someone around to help me find my way. You have to be relaxed in Cairo and just go with the flow of things. You can’t be picky about 15 minutes turning into an hour, or being served something you didn’t intend to order at a restaurant. You can’t worry about anything, like being run over when you try to cross the street, because, insha-allah, everything will work out okay in the end.
And so far, everything in Cairo – from conversing with the locals in my broken Arabic and sampling dishes whose components I am completely unaware of, to my classes in Political Science and Arabic at AUC – everything in Egypt is working out splendidly for me.