Heather in Cairo

Heather is a senior majoring in history and medieval studies in Dedman College, with a minor in art history in Meadows School of the Arts, and a recipient of the Gilman International Scholarship to Egypt. In Fall 2009, she will continue her studies in Arabic and Egyptology in her second semester at the American University in Cairo. Learn more about the SMU-in-Cairo program.

Differences between Israel and Egypt

Pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Day 2)

My second day in Jerusalem consisted of a three-hour tour around the entire old city. This tour started at the Jaffa Gate. I highly recommend taking this tour. It is free, and it helps one get acquainted with the old city.

It is also noteworthy that there is a tourist office at the Jaffa Gate as well. The tour around the old city starts right in front of the tourist office. The journey took me to every major holy site within the city. I also journeyed along the Via Del La Rosa, which is the path that Christ took in his last hours.

The old city is in a constant hustle and bustle, even during holidays such as the Eid. Although many shops run by Muslims were closed, due to the Eid holiday, the city remained vibrant. As my group traced Christ’s last steps, we saw many Christian groups carrying the cross as Christ did, stopping at every stop Christ made and praying.

Church bells rang, and the call to prayer echoed throughout the city. Old Jerusalem is definitely a city enriched in religion; however, people still go about their daily business. I thought it was interesting that even though Jerusalem is a city devoted to religion and tradition, it remains very open as well.

Unlike Cairo, people continue to live the lifestyle that suits them. Clothing is not an issue, except if one wishes to visit a specific holy site. Alcohol is sold everywhere. I believe the term “convivencia” does apply to the city of Jerusalem.

After the tour, my friends and I journeyed to the Mount of Olives, where we visited the Garden of Gethsemane and the Jewish cemetery. My favorite part, however, was the amazing panoramic view of the Haram el Sharif.

Different countries, different lifestyles

Jerusalem is a dynamic city encompassing religion and secularism. Within the old walls of Jerusalem itself, liquor, beer and wine are consumed. People wine and dine within the same walls where others attend church, mosque and temple.

People respect holy spaces and let these areas function as they have for centuries. However, cafes, bars and restaurants function in their own places within the walls.

Just outside the Jaffa entrance is a vast complex of high-end retail, patio style restaurants, bars, clubs and the like. Jaffa Street is fantastic at night. I sat outside with my girlfriends one night and enjoyed being in an environment with other young people enjoying the company of friends. Music, lights and smoke whirled around in the cool air as everyone enjoyed their night. I realized how different Israel was from Egypt, in a sense of secular freedoms.

My friends and I discussed the differences between Israel and Egypt. Although I know Egypt is far more open than Saudi Arabia, it is very strict compared to Israel. The moment I crossed the Egyptian Israeli border, I noticed a difference in the way women dress. In Egypt a female should dress modestly (no skirts or dresses above the knee, no sleeveless shirts, etc.), and in Israel a female can wear anything she wishes.

Although alcohol is consumed in Egypt, alcohol is not socially accepted. There are very few places to even buy beer, wine or liquor. In Israel, alcohol seemed like a common commodity. In Egypt there are social standards for the way male and female youths are allowed to interact. For example, at the American University in Cairo, public display of affection is forbidden. Kissing in public is taboo and even holding hands is not a social norm.

I should make note that in Egypt every place has its own rules. The way one acts at a lounge in the Four Seasons Hotel is far different than in the streets of Tahrir. Even in my own neighborhood, Zamalek, people act differently than in other districts of Cairo. I feel like most of these taboos and social norms are due to social class.

Note: As stated previously, the way one dresses and acts in Egypt is very dependent on the area one is in.

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Pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Day 1)

rooftop-1.jpg 24 hours ago I was at the Turcoman bus station in Cairo boarding a bus to the Taba border, which is the border between Egypt and Israel. My initial intention was to cross the border between Egypt and Israel to get to Jordan. Although I did not want to cross the border, due to the Israeli passport stamp, I wanted to take the shortest route possible. I decided to take the hit with the stamp, since I have plenty of time to get a new passport before my second Eid break from school. The bus ride took approximately eight hours.

As the bus approached the Taba bus station, I mentally prepared myself as I knew I would be making my way across what many guide books and online forums call “no man’s land.” I got out at the bus station, and instead of making the trek across no man’s land, I got tricked into taking a cab for 10LE. The ride was literally 30 seconds. I felt like such a fool. IMG_0529-1.jpg

The next step was getting through the Egyptian and Israeli border patrols. The reason I keep bringing up the issues at the border, specifically the Israeli passport stamp, is because with the Israeli stamp, travel to Lebanon and Syria is forbidden. It is generally better to travel to Lebanon and Syria before going to Israel. Fortunately, I was blessed enough to get border agents who were not in terrible moods because both border agents stamped the exit and entry visas on cards instead of my passport! This is when I knew I must make my pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I literally felt as though I had seen a sign directing me toward the city on a hill. I said masalama to my friends from AUC and made my way through the Israeli border checkpoint.

Two girls approached me at the border and asked if I would like to join them on their trek. I readily agreed. The three of us began our journey to the holiest city on earth. As we made our first steps onto Israeli soil, we quickly learned that the Jewish New Year had just started, so we had to take a private car from the border to Jerusalem, instead of a bus. Fortunately, the drive was super nice.

On our journey to Jerusalem we took a break at the Dead Sea, which was a nice break from the long trip from Cairo. Unlike my previous thoughts about the sea, it is actually very blue. After our relaxing trip to the Dead Sea, we continued on our journey to Jerusalem. I felt like a child. I had butterflies in my stomach as I could not wait to see the old gates of the city. The final descent into the city is much like that of New York City. You pass through a long tunnel, and when you exit the tunnel you are in the old city.IMG_0535-1.jpg

I could not stop smiling, as I was finally in the city which I have spent so much time studying over the past three years. Upon our arrival, the driver took us to the Hebrew University lookout point, where we could see a panoramic view of the entire city. I quickly began pointing out various sites around the city to my new friends. We then proceeded to the Damascus Gate, where the driver let us out. We then said goodbye to the outside world and made our way into the gates of the old city of Jerusalem.

I have studied the city and various architectural elements around the city, but I was unaware of the complex labyrinth-style layout of the grounds. After about an hour of roaming the city in search of a place to stay, we found a hotel that suited our needs. The Imperial Hotel, which is right by the Jaffa Gate in the old city, is a perfect place to stay. The location is excellent and the staff is super nice. The rest of the afternoon included wandering around the old city.

Three years after my first class about the Crusades and Pilgrimage, I finally made my own journey to the center of the world.

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Learning Egyptology in Egypt

ft1.jpgCost of tuition, plane ticket, bus pass, rent: A lot
Attending class on site with the world’s most famous Egyptologists: Priceless
(Shukran (thanks) Mom, Dad, Mimi, and Papa)

First week of school involved early mornings, late nights and lots of nes cafe. My colloquial Arabic class is completely taught in Arabic. The professor will not even speak English in her office hours. It is frustrating, but I know by the end of the semester I will be thanking her. The best feeling is when you catch yourself thinking in a foreign language.

ft6.jpg My Egyptology classes are amazing! One of the classes covers Egypt from the time of Alexander the Great to the Copts, and the other class is a seminar focusing on gender. I look forward to the many field trips that I will be taking with these classes.

I am working with one of my professors on my distinction paper for SMU. I will benefit from his expertise!

ft3-1.jpg The class on gender is very interesting because we are dealing with the common people who made up ancient Egypt rather than the royalty. Like seminars back home, I will be working on a paper and giving an oral presentation at the end of the semester. Unlike researching at home, I have the opportunity to visit the actual sites here!

We already took our first trip out in the field to the Fayyum, which is about 2 hours southwest of Cairo. We visited a village site and a temple dedicated to Sobek. We also took a restroom break at a hotel that Churchill stayed at during WWII, which I thought was really cool.

As Ramadan Kareem approaches its final days, I am doing my last-minute preparations for the Eid break. So until I am back from my Anthony Bourdain-style trip: Masalaama.

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“You want to go to the Khan?”

Last night was my first night truly out and about in Cairo. After meeting a bunch of new people, we decided to go to the Khan for late-night tea and shisha (around 1 a.m.).

There were probably about 15 of us making our way from Zamalek to the Khan. The group was made up of Egyptians, Europeans and Americans. Considering it is Ramadan right now, I was unsure what the atmosphere of the Khan would be. All the girls in the group were dressed as if back in Europe and the States. I thought that we would be a complete show for all the locals; however, I was wrong.

The Khan was extremely packed due to Ramadan, but we managed to find space at a cafe. I was impressed by the hospitality of everyone as the cafe staff did their best to fit everyone in. The shisha was excellent, and the conversation was even better.

A fellow AUCian and I talked about how amazing it felt to sit in such an old market, dating back to the Ottoman Empire. As we sat chatting about various topics, I thought about how awesome it was to be sitting in the Khan during Ramadan.

As 4 a.m. approached and we made our way back to the streets to go home, we passed the Al-Hussein mosque during the call to prayer. Life still went on. Children ran through the streets, people were still talking with each other, and we made our way to our cars. We drove back to Zamalek and enjoyed the cool Cairo breeze blowing through the windows. The night was truly amazing as all of us enjoyed spending our time in an area that both embraces secularism and religion.

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No lines and no sidewalks

TRANSLATION: We prefer mosh pits and walking headfirst into traffic

As the beginning of the semester quickly approaches, I decided to get as organized as possible. With the Ramadan class schedule, I will have no time to take care of anything for the next two weeks.

Unlike the U.S., where there is a Wal-Mart on every corner, Egypt only has little market-type shops where one can find the essential goods. However, one can find a store called Spinnys at City Stars located in the Heliopolis area (about a 35-45 minute cab ride, depending on traffic). I decided to check this place out, but my shopping adventure did not start until 10:30 p.m.

Ramadan changes every aspect of life. The streets are significantly less crowded during the daytime, and one might assume that the city turned into a ghost town. However, around 9 p.m. the taxi horns and Cairo noise resume as the masses storm the streets.

My night journey began at 10:30 p.m. I took my 45-minute taxi ride to the City Stars mall, and I embarked on literally a journey to Spinnys. City Stars is the largest mall I have ever been to, and it is the most unorganized place as well.

I walked around trying to make sense of the place for a while, and then I decided to grab some dinner. All the restaurants at the mall are Brinker-owned (Chilis, On the Border, Ruby Tuesday ect.), so I decided to take advantage of my menu selection. I decided on Ruby Tuesday, since they have a nice salad bar.

Note: it is hard to find a true salad in Egypt. There are lots of salad selections, such as the traditional Greek style; however, the American idea of salad is totally different. I never thought of mayonnaise as a salad dressing, but Egyptians love it. Anyway, I ate my Ruby Tuesdays and headed to Spinnys.

By the time I arrived at Spinnys, it was probably 12:30 a.m. The place was packed. I had never seen so many people crowded into a store in my life. I made my way in to find the products I was looking for. After spending an hour looking around, I decided to check out. I made my way to the front of the store looking for a line, and all I saw were mobs of people with shopping carts. The best description I can give is that it appeared as though people were playing bumper cars with their shopping carts.

Apparently in Egypt, people “do not know how to stand in lines.” I have been told that line many times. Well, there I stood in what felt like a mosh pit at a concert. My arms were full, and I was slowly fading. Although I was suffering the consequences of absolute chaos, a man and woman took me under their wing and helped me press my way forward to the checkout.

This, my friends, is Egyptian hospitality. No matter where you are and how frustrated you might be, due to situations such as these, there is generally someone who will do anything to help you. I finally made it out of Spinnys around 2 a.m. and into a cab back to Zamalek. I definitely had an interesting shopping experience.

Note: people do not use sidewalks here. Due to uneven pavements, animal droppings, trash and the like, people brave the traffic and walk in the middle of the street.

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Lost in translation (mumkin shwaaya)

I thought the sleepless nights would eventually fade away; however, I am slowly learning that a mix of Ramadan and the North African heat translates into insomnia.

It is 4:45 a.m., and I am staring at my computer for the fourth night in a row unable to fall asleep. No matter how early I rise in the morning, I find myself wide awake at the oddest hours of the night. Although I continually complain about my lack of sleep, I am enjoying spending time with my friends here.

Tonight my roommate’s boyfriend and best friend made us a home-cooked meal for iftar. My roommate’s best friend just returned from Palestine, and she brought us some Palestinian pickles, which were superb! The food was excellent, and the conversations that followed were even better. I have enjoyed speaking with so many different people from all over the Middle East.

alqahira.jpgOn an academic note, I found out today that my school day is now excessively long. I have to take the 8 a.m. bus to New Cairo, and I will not be able to return home until 10:45 p.m. This, my friends, is the consequences of Ramadan. Although AUC believes that the revised schedule for Ramadan will allow students to have iftar with their families, this is not true. I will probably not return home until around midnight for the first 2 weeks of school. I am extremely unhappy about this schedule, and I know the rest of the student body is as well.

The picture of the night scene of Cairo was taken by my friend Andrew from his apartment. You can follow his Cairo blog here.

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Children of the sun

Egypt is said to be the land of the sun, and I believe it. Much like the ancient past, mankind is still drawn to the sun and the sea. My holiday to the North Coast revolved around sun, sand and sea.

The nights were spent eating delicious fateer, drinking hot tea and rambling for hours with my Palestinian girlfriends. I felt so ignorant about many situations discussed, especially anything related to Palestine.

Through my conversations, I am slowly learning much about the Middle East as a region. Whereas many Americans view the Middle East as a collective whole, it is actually an extremely diverse region. Although many of the countries share some commonalities, each country has its own distinctions. Some countries in the region share more commonalities than others.

I am learning that Egypt is unique to itself. Some people joke that it is the “America” of the Middle East. Egypt’s Arabic dialect is unique to itself, however most people in the surrounding countries are familiar with it due to Egypt’s prominent roll in the entertainment industry.

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Comparing past and present in Cairo

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”
– St. Augustine

Standing on the 24th floor, gazing out of my friend’s apartment with the cool night’s breeze blowing in my face, I am reminded of how much I love Cairo at night. The lights, the fresh night breeze, the noise, and the bustling of the city rage on until the morning.

I am staring out across one of the most dynamic cities of the world; a city built upon extraordinary history. To some people Cairo is an example of the “convivencia” that Spain saw during the Middle Ages. However, this is a matter of opinion.

My first week here already has provided me with a plethora of conversations about the interactions among Muslims and Christians in Egypt. Ramadan brings the opportunity for me to experience and digest an entire month of Islam’s holiest time of the year. I look forward to forming my own opinion on the matter of religious interactions amongst people in Cairo and comparing the present with the past.

peace-1.jpg I took advantage of the end of the summer by enjoying the North Coast of Egypt with friends. Many of them will embark on study abroad to Europe, so each day was filled with lots of fun. I felt like I was in paradise as I enjoyed sinking my feet into the pristine white sands and swimming in the extremely blue Mediterranean sea.

I experienced the incredibly hospitality of Arab families. The guest/host relationship is taken very seriously here. I felt as though I was a part of the family, as my friends’ mothers took me into their homes as their own. There was no denying any meal. I enjoyed many traditional dishes, which were all fabulous. I will always remember the last week of my 2009 summer.

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