Erica in Cairo

Erica is a junior majoring in art history in Meadows School of the Arts and international studies in Dedman College, with a minor in Italian. She also is a Hatton W. Sumners Scholar. In fall 2010, Erica will be taking classes in Egyptology and Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Cairo with SMU-in-Cairo. She hopes to learn as much Arabic as possible while traveling throughout the region.

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Cairo’s polluted charm

Well, it’s 83 degrees in Cairo and the Egyptians are freezing in their jackets. Life has adopted a degree of normalcy here, though “normal” is an extremely relative term. I’ve scientifically deducted that the human body can run on adrenaline and reserve nutrients for about two months until the physical effects of a city like Cairo begin to take its toll.

According to Colombia University, “[the] air quality in Cairo has been reaching dangerous levels of lead, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and suspended particulate matter concentrations, due to decades of unregulated car emissions, urban industrial operations, and chaff and trash burning … The level of air pollution in Cairo ranges from 10 to 100 times higher than the standards set by the World Health Organization.” Part of the excitement of Cairo is its dirtiness, but even the immediate effects are staggering.

DSC00206.jpg I live several blocks away from a grocery store called Metro Mart, the walk to which, there and back, is about thirty minutes. I have remained in relatively good shape here by exercising in the school gym, so this is not as much a reflection of my physical fitness as it is of the air quality in Cairo. When I return from Metro Mart, usually laden with groceries, I slump into the nearest chair feeling shaky and a little nauseated. The effects of this air are absolutely insane. It’s not even air, as most people know it. It’s pollution infused with body odor. Most sane people in the world would have refused to get off the airplane when they realized Egypt has about as much fresh air as outer space.

DSC00238.jpg One of the reasons Egypt is so filthy is because Egyptians see no need to pick up after themselves – the city can’t really get much dirtier. It’s like how you treat the restroom in a gas station versus one in a private home. You don’t really care if water splashes or if you drop a paper towel in the gas station restroom; it’s gross already. However, in a private home you are sure to wipe up any splashed water, you turn off the lights, etc. One wakes up every weekend here to pizza boxes, plastic silverware, and cigarette cartons littering the common area from the previous night’s binge. The Egyptian girls see it as the responsibility of the janitor type figure, who is actually really cute and more of the floor’s maid than anything else, to pick up their entire mess. Americans are practically OCD next to Egyptians, just because we pick up our wrappers.

Cairo would not be the same if it were filled with beautiful Montana air. It would lose much of its fast-paced, polluted charm. However, it is necessary to balance out the grub with excitement and adventure, otherwise you just have headaches all the time. Thank goodness midterms are almost over and Halloween is just around the corner.

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