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.

Slight change of plans

So it’s official. This spring I am trading the pyramids for the Dome of the Rock, the Nile for the Mediterranean. Thank you, Mom, for all that you do to give me so many opportunities! Egypt has been the fulfillment of a life’s pursuit, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But though I love it, and have learned more than I could put into words, I do think a semester is adequate – I really can’t handle getting food poisoning one more time.

Many of my study abroad experiences have been motivated by my love for history; I love the larger than life characters, the convoluted plot lines, the stunning art, and the wisdom waiting to be uncovered. I love it all. For those of you who have been to Italy, you know that the atmosphere there almost forces you to split your reality between the ancient past and the present – the perfectly maintained Renaissance villas and breathtaking statues leave little choice if you have any imagination whatsoever.

Cairo has its own wonders, but the ability to throw a person back in time is not one of them. In Cairo you are not living in the ancient past but in Islam, and though there are obviously benefits to experiencing another culture and religion, I would much rather read a book about Nefertiti than Muhammad. The difference between the two times is staggering – Cleopatra’s scanty outfits would be so haram these days. I can’t imagine the verbal abuse and physical harassment she would receive downtown, queen or no. Especially if she were somehow born blond!

47951_1174972823888_1515090959_30732173_6130863_n.jpg Other factors that influenced my decision include the bus ride, which has become something I dread daily. With the dwindling hours of daylight we now return at dusk, which makes the journey at least 1.5 hours, on what are now very musky buses, twice a day. Furthermore, because you are dependent on the bus to commute and they don’t leave every minute, you often have to “kill” at least 45 minutes or so waiting for the next bus to depart after finishing your last class. The result is the wasting of hours and hours every single day, either on buses or waiting for buses.

For an American who gets a high from finding the most efficient way to complete tasks, that whole situation is just brutal. I find that opening my eyes very wide, while raising my eyebrows and taking a deep breath, helps on the rare occasions I get too bothered. It usually turns into a smile (or a grimace). Also, the food and air are both toxic. Delicious and part of the city, though, respectively.

Cairo is an incredible city. There’s not another like it in the world, and there’s no excitement like the Middle East. I feel like I’m somehow cheating the system by going to a clean little Utopia but also managing to stay in the region, but couldn’t be more excited any way you slice it. Adios hijab, hello yarmulke!

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I may have spoken in haste regarding Islamic art …

If you had asked me what I thought of Islamic art during my (laughable) attempt to write ten pages on the subject last night, I would have instinctively told you that it was all worthless. The depiction of the human figure is strictly forbidden in Islam, and that admonition tends to carry over into all figures – human, animal or otherwise – so all of my classical training in foreshortening and twisted perspective is for naught.

Instead, one sees endless designs of twisty stems and leaves, and other geometrical wonders. For those of you who know me, you know that geometry was the only class in high school in which I got a C. I don’t consider drawing repeating shapes artistically stimulating, just like I don’t find splattering red paint on a wall particularly clever, though many fans of modern art disagree on abstract, philosophical terms.

DSC00210.jpg However, after a visit to the Galamiya area of Cairo today, I am inclined to revise my previous blanket statement by at least 20 percent. The class proceeds chronologically, so all of the mosques we have visited thus far have been what I fondly refer to as “bowling alley mosques” (photo left). For some reason they are all lit with a strange green neon-type of fluorescent lighting and are smoky and musty like a bowling alley.

Now that we have proceeded past the Abbasids and Fatimids, however, the state of the mosques has drastically improved. While the earlier mosques are primarily located in the middle of modern landfills, most Mamluk mosques are built in modern Cairo proper, al-Qahira, and are therefore somewhat better maintained.

egypt.jpgThe mosques we visited today were all off of the Qasaba, one of the main thoroughfares of Cairo (Khan el Khalili area). My teacher informed me that the entire area had recently undergone a major restoration, after which all cars were banned from the street. It was so clean and culturally delicious. It was honestly the nicest, most open area of Cairo I have yet visited. Parts of it came close to reminding me of Jerusalem, with buildings rising high to either side of a cobblestone thoroughfare, and plants hanging from windowsills adding a touch of life to the area.

Mosques we visited included the Mosque of Sultan Az-Zahir, which dates to 1266 and is an absolute novelty because, instead of having three large domes on the Mecca wall like in previous Fatimid mosques, it has only one. Though they did the one dome thing pre-Fatimid. But ya, who cares? Really? My art history papers have been reduced to architectural drivel.

egypt1.jpg We also visited the complex of the Sultan Qala’un al-Alfi, which is located opposite the previous mosque and dates to 1285. It’s beautiful, and it consists of a mosque, a madrassa (school), a hospital and much more. An interesting fact about this hospital: If a patient died, the hospital had to pay for the funeral, which, in a state-run system with no incentives for good performance, served at least as a deterrent for letting people not die left and right. It evolved into a center for learning that drew scholars from all parts of the world. (In photo: Gorgeous geometrical designs; Ottoman)

My impression of Islamic art has evolved and lightened considerably since last night, when I would have told you I was about as interested in Islamic art as I am in ornithology or animal husbandry. I still view it roughly with the same suspicion as I view modern art – it can quickly become overrated. But I’m starting to think the Mamluks in particular may have known what they were doing. There’s no Mamluk Bernini, mind you, of this much I am certain, but at least they tried.

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Our first Egyptian strike

School today feels similar to those days with tornado scares or massive blizzards – everything’s just a little “off.” This feeling, however, is not due to a natural disaster, but rather a worker’s strike. To be honest, I’m rather surprised that I haven’t seen more since I’ve been in Egypt – “strike” was one of the first words I learned in Italian.

Everyone seems to be a bit confused over the specifics of the strike, the language barrier making it difficult to deduce exactly what is being shouted and the rumors that fly in such situations making all reports of questionable veracity. I have heard that the wages of the workers were cut in half, from 1200 to 600 Egyptian Pounds/month (roughly $207 down to $103), and that the workers are upset that they can no longer hire family members (for those in management positions). My Egyptology professor told us the second report this morning; I had not heard it before. I think it’s a mix of everything. CNN ireport says that the workers’ contracts promise a salary between 600 and 1200 Egyptian pounds, but workers are receiving paychecks in the 400s (roughly $70). Find the article here

So the story goes … yesterday, in the middle of a very long Arabic class, we were set free to observe the cultural experience that is a strike. Everyone had congregated outside of the HUSS building, yelling around people who, I was told, were lying on the ground in protest. Apparently the workers (to clarify, it is not the food staff or teachers striking, just the janitor figures) were asked to come negotiate indoors, but were refusing to leave the area until the appropriate representative came and talked to them in public. The workers seem to have a considerable amount of student support, and for fear of not being readmitted to campus tomorrow seem to have slept outside the HUSS building last night, joined by a number of students.

The school is a dump today because, as previously noted, Egyptians don’t pick up after themselves and now no one is cleaning up after them. Furthermore, I believe the janitors have purposefully made things messier by, for example, knocking over trash cans in the bathrooms so that toilet paper and tissues are everywhere. However, aside from the mess, the temperature of the school seems to have cooled considerably – the area in front of the HUSS now simply has a bunch of people sitting in chairs in protest and a bunch of students milling about.

Though the workers do seem to have substantial student support, one Egyptian was explaining to me that the workers never really work, and therefore their wages are being lowered. I believe wage assigning is difficult in this area of employment, at least in Egypt, for it is unfeasible to pay a worker based on the number of pieces of trash they pick up as if on commission – are they going to count? And when paid by the hour, there is the option of going to the roof of the library and chatting and smoking (which I always see when I want to study there in between classes). It becomes a self-destructive cycle when the workers proceed to work less because they feel they are not being paid fairly, and then the university wants to lower their wages because it feels that the workers are not doing their jobs.

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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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How to: Get anything done in Cairo

Every once in a while I get the distinct impression that everyone in the service industry in Cairo is actually playing dress-up, and in reality possess no qualifications for their jobs whatsoever. Asking a barista to make you a cappuccino often elicits the same response as if you asked an actor in a spacesuit to operate a rocket ship, or a doctor of philosophy to perform open-heart surgery. “Me?” they seem to say, “I guess … If you really think that’s a good idea … ”

For instance, today at one of the food places on campus I ordered a mocha. The coffee menu is fixed, and mochas are on it. The description is “a shot of espresso with gourmet chocolate, topped with skim milk.” After paying, I gave my receipt to the man behind the counter, always grateful that my blond hair attracts their attention; otherwise I would never get my coffee. Still, all of the employees move so lethargically that if the founder of Starbucks were dead he would be turning in his grave.

At first, the man tries to give me Cocoa Puffs. La, I specify with a smile, slowly reiterating “mocha,” all the while forcing a smile to remain on my face, as if waiting for a particularly slow child to finish reading a difficult passage of text. The “barista” proceeds in a painstakingly prolonged manner – almost as if he has never seen a coffee machine before and is figuring it out for the first time – to put two shots of espresso in a cup, unhurriedly sliding it over to me.

With a confused look I confirm that this is, in fact, just two shots of espresso, and seeing as I am the only customer slide it back with another smile for a bit of milk. By this point all six employees are trying to help the poor soul make my coffee, though it seems as though it is the job of at least three to simply watch me and gauge my reaction, hoping that my expressions will somehow guide them toward serving my order correctly.

Getting anything done in Cairo that requires the presence or aid of Egyptians necessitates a big smile and a kind attitude. The second you get bossy or annoyed, a la with a telemarketer, you are absolutely finished. This essay is in no way meant to be derogatory, but more of a “how to.” With enough charm, you can really get anything done, including buying a camel if that should please you, but the concept of lines and efficiency was not developed by Egyptians – it is normal that they, like Italians or Spaniards, value such a process much less. Just make sure you’re with a real doctor if you need an operation.

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‘Son of Hamas’ book review

Israel and Palestine are like quicksand; every discussion results in little more than a feeling of utter hopelessness and a sense of immense disorientation. Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef has either stabilized the ground somewhat or cast out a sturdy vine to which one can cling, for the perspective is absolutely one of a kind. I’ll let his website give you a brief biography:

“Since he was a small boy, Mosab Hassan Yousef has had an inside view of the deadly terrorist group Hamas. The oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founding member of Hamas and its most popular leader, young Mosab assisted his father for years in his political activities while being groomed to assume his legacy, politics, status … and power. But everything changed when Mosab turned away from terror and violence, and embraced instead the teachings of another famous Middle East leader. In Son of Hamas, Mosab Yousef – now called “Joseph” – reveals new information about the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization and unveils the truth about his own role, his agonizing separation from family and homeland, the dangerous decision to make his newfound faith public, and his belief that the Christian mandate to “love your enemies” is the only way to peace in the Middle East.”

If reading about the son of a Hamas founder who chose work for Israel and converted to Christianity doesn’t interest you, I don’t know what will. Son of Hamas is one of the most moving, interesting, and enlightening books I have ever encountered, clearing up much of the Middle East that I have never understood in a clear and relatable manner – you need not be an expert on the Middle East or even have a great interest in the area to be enthralled by the book. Though I obviously have not been able to vet the man personally, from what I have read the book seems to be sincere and accurate. In a world so greatly affected by Middle Eastern affairs, Son of Hamas should be required reading.

* If you are interested in seeing Yousef’s take on current events, the website to his blog is: http://sonofhamas.wordpress.com/

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Of rivers and odors

You have no idea how dismaying it is to breathe in nothing but body odor after deciding to ignore the searing pain in your chest incurred by breathing deeply. No oxygen or nitrogen present whatsoever. Just a pure, heart-stopping stench. Egypt is a wonderful place, but it has its shortcomings and eccentricities.

Eccentricity number one: If there is a place to wash your hands, Egyptians often use toilet paper instead of paper towels to dry their hands off. In fact, they will sometimes have toilet paper in addition to a blow dryer.

Eccentricity number two: I have always had a superhuman sense of smell. I hate it, for I often enjoy visiting places quite malodorous in nature. However, since I arrived in Egypt I have been so attacked on all fronts by the air that it takes a monster stench to make me contort my face.

Eccentricity number three: You may have read elsewhere, or experienced for yourself, the absolute thuggery that is Egyptian driving. There is no reason whatsoever to have lines on the roads. I am not saying this in jest. You are just as likely to drive for several minutes straddling a line as in a “lane.” The drivers comport themselves like Nascar racers on some form of amphetamine competing for whatever their biggest trophy is (racecar driving isn’t my forte). They are ALWAYS weaving amongst one other, using their horns as replacements for boring old blinkers. Horn honking is a language, and, as I once read, depending on the number and intensity of the honks “can mean anything from ‘Hello!’ to ‘Don’t hit me!’ ” Needless to say, I seldom have the courage to cross one of these strips of deadly concrete without an Egyptian directly to the side of oncoming traffic.

Shortcoming number one: The bus ride to school is, minimum, an hour each way.

Shortcoming number two: You’re always getting sick. I got sick right after Dahab, and within two days of feeling better have succumbed once again. Our baby American immune systems can’t compete with the ferocity of Egyptian germs.

Shortcoming number three: The health center is … interesting. The facility is incredible, for the entire campus is new, but the people seem to have no idea how to operate it. You sort of just wander in to whatever office looks like a doctor might be in it. The doctor doesn’t shut the door, but rather asks you to discuss your (often embarrassing) symptoms right there in the open, when there are chairs of people right outside and the door is perfectly closable. I didn’t have my temperature taken, just got two shots in an inappropriate area and three medications prescribed to me (one of which has been denied FDA approval thrice). Fabulous.

However, even though my body seems to harbor some never-ending grudge against Egypt, my heart and soul love the place. There’s just no place like it. When else in your life will you be crossing the Nile on your bus ride to school? When else will you have the liberty of saying “should we go to Israel or Jordan for our next mini-break?” Some other perks and benefits include …

Perk number one: You can have anything delivered for between 60 and 80 American cents. Dinner and groceries are most common.

Perk number two: You never have to clean your room. We are actually asked to call housekeeping twice a week to have it cleaned for us. They mop the floor, Windex the mirrors, change the sheets, and empty the trash cans in a flurry of activity that takes about 3 minutes flat.

Perk number three: Similarly, you need only bring your towels downstairs to have them swapped out for clean ones. The laundry bit is actually rather necessary, considering the washing machines have been broken roughly half the time we’ve been here (no one wants bed bugs).

Perk number four: Even though our bus ride is an hour long (one way), all of the busses have wi-fi! In addition to sleeping, most of us utilize these hours to check and respond to emails, etc. There’s nothing as exciting as seeing a fresh batch when you’ve got an hour to spare : ) Thank you!

Perk number five: You are being taught by professors regularly featured on National Geographic and The History Channel. One such professor, Salima Ikram, dedicated the history book that she wrote, and which we use, to her close friend and my favorite author of all time, Elizabeth Peters! For those unaware of my tendency to read constantly, Elizabeth Peters and The Mummy Returns are two of the biggest motivating factors behind my decision to study in Egypt (don???t make fun). If that’s not life coming full circle, I don’t know what is.

Egypt, just like any other place in the world, comes with its own set of costs and benefits. However, only a pedant would squabble at the shortcomings of such an epic location. Give me shots and stinky individuals any day, as long as Egypt comes with it.

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What Said says …

I apologize for not writing lately – I actually began writing three separate entries this week, but they all somehow deteriorated into circuitous meanderings regarding East-West relations. I have been unable to reconcile the world that I see here – a world full of kind people and in no way living their lives negatively obsessed with the West – and the literature I am forced to read for my “The Orient in the Western Imagination” course.

The book that we are focusing on is Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” which has been lauded since its original publication in 1978. I have only read 50 pages or so, so maybe it will turn around, but from what I’ve been able to understand Said takes umbrage with how the West perceives and depicts the “Orient.” Furthermore, his “intellectual” writing is about as concise as that of a 13-year-old girl babbling on the telephone. The man defines “orientalism” roughly 1,000 times over 30 pages. The Observer describes the book: “Said observes the West observing the Arabs, and he does not like what he finds.”

The world that I have come to love here is friendly and interesting beyond belief. It is romantic and exciting, but I guess that’s just the orientalist in me speaking, always depicting the east as full of lions and intrigue. “The Orient was an almost European invention … a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences,” wrote Said.

Now I can understand taking umbrage with, for instance, the foreign policy of a particular country and writing a thoroughly researched argument to prove the case. However, this book bemoans the West back to the time of the Ancient Greeks, when Aeschylus dramatized the fall of the Persian Empire. That’s a rather long time to hold a grudge.

One of Said’s main points is that the West does not, and can never, really understand the East; we’ve just lived to “dominate, restructure, and have authority over” the East since our very inception. Even if the west has done the aforementioned, the Islamic empire certainly dominated, restructured, and had authority over a good part of the world during their time. It’s what happens.

It all kind of reminds me of the movie “Mean Girls.” Said makes the East out to be an unpopular girl who is forever obsessing about Regina George, while making the West out to be evil Regina George – forever scheming to stay on top through trickery, lies and deceit. Unfortunately, real life is nothing like “Mean Girls.” Regina was a bad person, but, despite our many mistakes, the West is not inherently evil. Similarly, the average person living in the East isn’t perpetually obsessing over what the West thinks. I’m always saying to the book, “East! Go find what you’re good at. Go find what you love and pursue it! Stop being so insecure!” But again, that’s not at all how I’ve found life to be.

I have not encountered a single Egyptian with such a whiny attitude. They’re interested in America just like Europeans are interested in America; they have their own understanding of the area. Some love America because of Celine Dion. (Not sure why – isn’t she Canadian? But they always ask about her.) Others love Obama, and still others have studied in America and are intimately acquainted with the country.

They don’t live their lives angry about Aeschylus’ depiction of the Persians more than 2,000 years ago, and they’re not irate at Napoleon for bringing in his savants and contributing to the deciphering of hieroglyphics. They don’t dislike England, even though England colonized Egypt – in fact, many of them studied there. They’re kind people doing what they can with their lives, but when reading Said you would think that Aeschylus himself sent every “easterner” the nastiest letter imaginable and it still bothers them.

These are my rather inconclusive thoughts regarding East-West relations. It’s possible that much has changed in the last 30 years; in fact, much certainly has changed in the last 30 years, and this may be why Said’s arguments and criticisms seem somewhat irrelevant to me. He was raised in post-colonial Middle East, while most of the current generation has only read about such times. (Titanic influences them considerably more.) There will always be conflict and misunderstanding between different areas of the world; we can only do our best to live our own lives in a way that demonstrates what we believe – full of happiness, kindness, and intellectual curiosity.

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A frigid sunrise on Sinai

cairo13.jpgUntil we hiked Mount Sinai on Friday night, we did nothing but swim, eat at the innumerable gorgeous beachfront restaurants (I hardly ever had to salt anything!), and go out at night.

The water was incredible- like an entirely new aquatic world. Also, if you were merely swimming on the beach, every once in a while you could hear the scuba divers in training right below you; they circled like sharks, and the water sounded like it was breathing, a la Darth Vader. It was an interesting sensation. We weren’t able to scuba ourselves because Sinai was right in the middle of our trip, and you can’t scuba dive and hike to such elevation in such short time! I have no doubt that I will be back, however, and scuba I will.

One of the coolest aspects of Dahab was its location. You looked right across the water at Saudi Arabia – watched the sun set over the tyrannical country daily. It was beautiful. We heard a story about a man who windsurfed across the water and was met at the Saudi beach by 12 armed guards, then thrown in Saudi prison and eventually extradited to Egypt. Yikes! I was talking to a Saudi friend of mine, who hates going back, and she said, “Yes, it is not illegal for you to go to Saudi Arabia, but if you windsurfed over, you would be in a swimsuit? Yes, that would be the problem.” I also met an American boy who was raised on a compound in Saudi Arabia because his family is in the oil business. Born and raised on a Saudi compound – he has the coolest accent I’ve ever heard. It’s a treat just listening to him talk.

cairo10.jpgMoving on! Climbing Mount Sinai in the middle of Friday night to see the sunrise. To remind you, we were on a bus all of Wednesday night and slept maybe three hours Thursday night, on top of swimming in the sun all day. Oddly enough it was Dakini, who by now had a British accent, that arranged for a Bedouin friend of hers to take us up the mountain for $26 (too much).

I was skeptical, but it worked out surprisingly well! Her guy, Hussein, drove with the windows down for the entire two hours – it felt like a tornado was roaring through the bus – but we arrived safely and in one piece. The group that ended up going with Hussein numbered about ten. (Dakini had swindled Sally and I into paying before we left her camp by saying everyone was going with her.) And aside from us four girls, the other six boys were all West Point studs – incredibly fit and competitive. I thought I was going to die.

It was 1 a.m. when we began the hike, and there was no light whatsoever. Instead of taking it at a “pilgrimage” pace, like the thousands of others attempting the hike at the same time, we began at what was (for me) the pace of a slow run, passing every tourist group we saw, dancing on the rocks to get around them without falling off the side of the cliff. It became much easier when one of the boys took my backpack and our Bedouin leader told us that there was a hut that sold Snickers bars coming up in the next couple of minutes (Egyptian minute = 30 actual minutes). I don’t think I would have made it without such primitive inspiration – I was praying the entire time that God would help me think of Moses and not my lungs.

cairo11.jpgThe entire hike kind of felt like a weird dream now, because it all happened in the middle of the night. By 5 a.m. we had neared the top, after about 700 steps leading to the summit. There were men that smelled like camels renting out “mattresses” (pieces of cotton two inches thick covered with a cloth that smelled like an animal), and blankets (also beastly smelling, and likely covered with fleas). But we all got one of each, knowing that the sun wouldn’t rise for another 4 1/2 hours, and it’s known to be rigidly cold at the top.

When we arrived, our leader took us to the roof of a low edifice where we would have a perfect view of the sunrise, and we waited. Freezing, we waited. I fell asleep. When I awoke, the sun still hadn’t risen, and I was still freezing. The entire experience was one I’m glad I had, but I have a hard time appreciating hiking because it’s harder for me to appreciate beauty while in physical pain. After seeing an absolutely biblical sunrise, we set off back down the mountain. After the mass exodus had dispersed slightly, I put on my iPod and kept up with the leaders the whole trek down.

cairo12.jpgAt the base of the mountain we saw the burning bush at St. Catherine’s monastery, which is as much the burning bush as the rock at Delphi is the belly button of the earth. We then repeated the tornado ride home. Another day on the beach followed, and then Dakini decided to organize a dinner for the group. Sally and I had no interest, so we told the group to call us when they were done. Obviously, we napped. We went to sleep at 10 p.m., thinking that they would be done by 11, so when we woke up at 3 a.m. thinking we missed their call, we were amused to see they had actually just called! We all met up at a dance club called Mojito around 3:30 am., danced until 5:30, laid on the beach until 6, and then went to bed until 8:30, when we had to get up for our bus back to Cairo, another story in itself, which I will report on later.

Dahab is a sleepless city of both relaxation and energy, and a city that I highly recommend visiting. However, rest up me hearties (yo ho) before you go, because you won’t get any sleep once you’re there.

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Dahab!

In America, there is a generally understood concept of “night.” I am no scientist, but I understand it as the part of our 24-hour cycle when the sun goes down. It is a time often spent at home in the presence of one’s family, followed by hours and hours of sleep. My previously understood definition of the word has all but ceased to exist since my arrival in Egypt – darkness and sleeping do not go hand in hand.

cairo8.jpgTake for example our departure for the Sinai Peninsula Wednesday night. It makes perfect sense to drive through the night, because the bus ride is roughly eight hours. But it also means that Wednesday night (and the beginning of our trip) was effectively sleepless. There were, I believe, 22 of us in a glorified van.

After a night of driving through what looked like the moon, we arrived in the beach city of Dahab in the Sinai Peninsula. For those of you familiar with the area, it is a bit like Sharm el Sheikh, but much cheaper and less developed. People walk around in swimsuits everywhere. After being in conservative Cairo, the sight of Europeans in thongs was quite startling.

cairo9.jpgUnfortunately, our first experience in the famous beach city was with the hotel that lost our reservation. Because it was Eid, the end of Ramadan, everyone was traveling and everything was booked – especially for a group as large as ours! So we ended up at what can only be considered a camp, run by a California hippie named Dakini (pronounced like bikini with a “d”).

She had stray animals all over the place, but considered them her pets. Rooms were $15 a night, or $5 without air conditioning. The toilets and showers didn’t work because she was having water problems. After Sally (my roommate) and I had to sneak in to a random hotel to shower, we decided we were not paying $15 to be trapped in such a hovel, and so set off down the beach to find a cheaper, nicer place (or more expensive, if that meant we could use a restroom).

Find a cheaper, better place we did! We ended up staying at a nice hotel, breakfast included, for $8 a night. It had its own private beach, a toilet that flushed, and clean showers. Sounds good to me!

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