Shelby in Cairo

Shelby is a junior with majors in history and anthropology, and a minor in classical studies and Latin, in SMU’s Dedman College. This Spring she plans to take Egyptology classes at the American University in Cairo, in preparation for a career in Egyptology, and she also is looking forward to traveling and exploring the region.

Land of the pharaohs: Inside the Giza pyramids

DSC01485-sm.jpg After being in Cairo for nearly two weeks, I was astonished that I had not seen the Giza pyramids yet! My friends and I sought to remedy this as soon as possible.

We woke up at the crack of dawn, or rather the call to prayer, and we left the dorms at 7:30 a.m. As college students we have few funds, and we want to make those funds last longer, so I figured out a cheap (and safe) way to get to the pyramids. We took a taxi to the bus station and then took a bus to Giza. The bus ride itself only cost 2 Egyptian pounds, or about $0.36! I’m glad that I recently learned Arabic numbers, because otherwise I would not have been able to identify the right bus or route!

We weren’t on the bus for very long when one of my friends said, “Look! Over there!” I quickly turned to look out my window when I saw them. There they were, one pyramid and then the other, towering in the near distance majestically over the tops of modern buildings lining the busy street we were on.

I knew before that the city of Giza was built up around the pyramid complex, but still it surprised me how close modern civilization was to something so ancient. The city of Giza is teeming with life, filled with people, buildings and cars – whereas the pyramid complex was intended to be away from the capitals of ancient times, so as to be the peaceful final resting places of the pharaohs. Life and Death, the Past and the Present abut each other in an unusual way, forming a dichotomy unique to Egypt.

n10912121_34695193_5380-sm.jpgWe had left the dorms so early because we knew that only 300 people total (150 in the morning and 150 in the afternoon) are allowed inside the pyramids per day. This is because human breath is quite damaging to Egyptian art and architecture, and they wish to preserve it for future generations. So we immediately made our way over to the Great Pyramid, climbed up its big stones to the entrance to the tomb.

n10912121_34695178_3086-sm.jpgWe entered into the cavernous space, which was rocky and appeared to be like a natural cave. Then came the more treacherous part, which involved climbing up a rickety iron ladder and into the tunnel. Here we had to bend our bodies completely in half to climb up a 45-degree angle. The space was probably about three feet high, and even though I’m not very tall, it was quite a task. There were rails on either side, but the pathway was just made of plywood and slippery metal rungs. People were also coming down at the same time we were climbing up, so this required a bit of skill.

The air was stale and hot inside the pyramids, and although it was still early in the morning and cool outside, we sweat through our clothes. I can’t imagine what it would be like during the heat of the summer!

We made it to the top and had to crawl through a seemingly smaller tunnel to see the “King’s Chamber.” This was a cool, carved stone chamber, with high ceilings and an empty rectangular stone coffin in the corner of the room. While it had no paintings or decoration of any sort, this was a fascinating room. I can’t even begin to imagine what sorts of treasures this chamber once held.

As the rest of my group left the room, I lingered for a little while longer. Alone, in this quiet chamber, it was beyond surreal. This chamber along with the pyramid which surrounded it has survived for thousands of years. As the world around it has grown and changed, it has remained static, unchanging as a monument of a past civilization.

When we left the pyramid and cooled down a bit, we sought out some camel rides. We did not accept the multiple offers from one Egyptian man who followed us, insisting he would give us a good price on a camel ride for two reasons. One, he was too persistent and two, he didn’t have a camel with him, nor was there a camel in sight.

DSC01477-sm.jpgSo we continued on, found a camel driver who actually had a camel and agreed to take the “long trip” that promised us a spectacular view of the pyramids. I was in the front of the saddle, while my friend got on behind me. At first, it was quite a scary experience, as we were very high off the ground and felt like we were constantly going to fall off. However, we got used to it. Our camel driver, Ali, was really friendly and delivered us as promised to the best view of the pyramids.

Here we were away from the bustle of the tour buses and cars that drive right up to the pyramids. Here it was calm and quiet, and I could see the pyramids more as they once existed in antiquity.

While the city looms in the distance, here the pyramids were mostly surrounded by the desert sands, as they should be.

DSC01418-sm.jpgAfter we had admired the pyramids for far too long, we decided it was probably time to go back. So we hopped on our camel with Ali, our camel driver, and galloped back toward humanity and re-entered the hustle and bustle of the Egyptian city.

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El Khan el Khalili Egyptian Bazaar

DSC01297-sm.jpgAhlan wa sahlan! (Hello!)

Last night, the group of AUC study abroad students went to El Khan el Khalili, which is the oldest Egyptian bazaar. A vendor on the street told us that it was over 800 years old. I assumed he was simply trying to impress us to get us to buy his wares. However, it actually is close to that, dating from 1382! But I know you all are probably not as interested in its history as I am. I digress.

DSC01288-sm.jpg El Khan el Khalili has these narrow winding alleys lined with minuscule shops filled to the brim with knickknacks, scarves, sheeshas, King Tut statuettes, jewelry, spices, and pharaonic scenes depicted on banana leaf paper. These shops sell anything and everything. Entering these alleys is an experience itself as people are pushing their way through masses of humankind. Some are tourists, others are shopkeepers and vendors, and many are men carrying trays of “aysh” or flatbread on their heads.

We were not there for more than two minutes before teenage boys began to yell in broken English, “AMERICA!! U.S.A!!” Americans stick out like a sore thumb in Egypt, and there are very few things you can do to blend in … and you can never blend in completely.

DSC01293-sm.jpg Entering the alley, I was swarmed by about six vendors at a time, throwing scarves on me telling me that it’s my color and asking me what I was looking for, insisting that they have it. Everyone wants to know where you’re from.

At one point a group of us were walking and seven men started shouting from their shops, “OBAMA!” Then their friends would join them shouting “OBAMA! OBAMA!” Several men shouted “Tell Obama we say hi! Hi to Obama from Egypt!” Laughing, we went down another alley and one man shouted to the other vendors “The Obamas are here!!!!!” Needless to say, Obama is very popular in Egypt. Also one man shouted the word “Alaska” at us as well. Egyptians obviously are keeping up with world news and American government!

Vendors are very persistent about their sale offers, and very quickly we learned to say “La shockran,” or “No thank you”. It was an amazing experience, so completely different from any of the malls or markets I have been to! I plan to go back again when I learn how to barter a little better!

Tonight, however, was a lot of fun. The American University in Cairo threw the study abroad students a party in which they served traditional Egyptian food and had traditional forms of dance. They even gave out scarves at the entrance! I got a chicken shwarma, which is shaved spiced chicken served in flatbread, and I also had some hibiscus juice! It was delicious, very sweet and tasted a bit like pomegranate or plum juice.

DSC01312-sm.jpgThey then had performances for our viewing pleasure in a new outdoor theatre. One such performance involved about five drummers providing the music while two men spun colorful fabric tent-like objects over their heads, while spinning themselves as well! This is very hard to explain, so I provided pictures.

DSC01309-sm.jpgAfter this performance they had a Nubian dance group perform some of their traditional dances. They invited everyone down to come dance with the Nubian group! At first, we tried to mimic what they were doing, which involved us in a line with our arms around each other kicking our feet from side to side.

What was hysterical was what we did next. The Nubian group started to do a different line dance, and we all watched carefully so as to follow their steps. It took us about 15 seconds to realize they were doing the electric slide! We all jumped in and joined them in their dance! I never thought I would ever dance the electric slide with a Nubian dance group! There’s a first time for everything!

After this, they played an assortment of dance music ranging from Middle Eastern pop to techno to salsa. It was so much fun! It was like a huge dance party that everyone wanted to be a part of. If this is how the whole semester is going to be, I might never want to leave!

Ma Salima! (Goodbye!)

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Marhaba fi Cairo! (Welcome to Cairo!)

For months before I left to study abroad at the American University in Cairo, I was thrilled beyond belief. I told anyone who would listen about where I was going, what classes I was going to take and where I planned to travel. I was met with several responses, not all of them positive.

There were some who would joyously respond with “Oh that’s wonderful … Cairo is in Asia, right?” For those who knew Cairo was actually in Egypt, I met a different response prefaced with about a minute and a half of silence. With a look of disbelief and disgust they would then say, “How nice… ” and not knowing what else to say they would add, “I hear Third World countries are nice this time of year…”

The few positive responses were from those who had traveled to Cairo and Egypt. These seasoned travelers gushed about how wonderful it is and immediately began to list 70 restaurants/shops/attractions/sites I should go to. This was reason enough to go.

I wanted to study abroad in Egypt because I felt it would provide a completely different experience than any other study abroad program could. I was talking with a fellow American University in Cairo (AUC for short) study abroad student I met here and she explained why she chose Egypt. She said that she didn’t want a Europeanized experience where she would immediately feel comfortable in the culture. She wanted to go somewhere where she would be forced to step outside her comfort zone, with a culture completely different from her own.

I, too, wanted to transplant myself into a foreign culture to experience it for all its worth. Most of all, I never wanted to step outside my dorm room and feel like I was still in America.

The sights, sounds, smells

Cairo is completely different from any other city I’ve been to, whether in America or abroad. When I flew into Cairo International Airport I looked out my window expecting to see the usual runway lined with air-traffic controllers that I’ve seen hundreds of times. In Cairo however the runways are sand swept and the sand blows underneath the plane. The sky is almost the same color as the sand, giving it an eerie aesthetic appeal. I knew now that I was actually in Egypt, and my wish to be in an unfamiliar place was fulfilled.

My taxi ride from the airport was an experience in and of itself! Traffic is insane here. With a population of 20 million, it’s no surprise. Drivers beep their horns as a means of elaborate communication, which can mean anything from, “I’m passing you” to “I’m here, don’t hit me!” Whenever a driver is about to do something that could probably cause an accident, he beeps his horn. This happens probably once every three seconds.

DSC01181-sm.jpg Also Cairene drivers do not use lanes on the freeway; rather they drive wherever they wish on the freeway and on any street. While American drivers tend to use the street lines as guideline, Cairene drivers seem to think they are things to straddle rather than follow. On a three-lane road, many times there are actually five rows of cars, all trying to get somewhere. Needless to say this puts you in extremely close proximity to neighboring cars, often with about a three inches between cars.

The smells of the city are impossible to describe. Everyone smokes, so the air has a distinctive tobacco odor, but no matter where you are you can smell exotic spices and Middle Eastern foods flavor the air. It’s a beautiful city, though, filled with character. Each building has such different architectural details, and many things have such craftsmanship we would never find in America.

City that doesn’t sleep

The American University in Cairo has had numerous activities at night for study abroad students to participate in. I went on a Nile dinner cruise, where we sailed down the Nile watching traditional Middle Eastern performances. There was a belly dancer and a man who twirled swords around his head. The male singer, however, was my favorite part of this. Along with more Arabian beats, he sang Enrique Iglesia’s “Bailamos”!

The city seems to never sleep. Clothing shops and pharmacies stay open until the wee hours of the morning along with the restaurants and pubs. There are people walking around at all hours of the night, wandering after their nightly sheesha (waterpipe or Hookah) or cups of coffee.

The first night I was here, a group of study abroad students and myself wandered around Zamalek, which is the part of Cairo where the student dorms are located. It was around 6 o’clock and the sun had nearly set. All of a sudden I heard Arabic, which I had been hearing all day, but this was different, it was meditative and had a song-like quality to it. It sounded ever so slightly louder than the speech surrounding me. It took me only a couple of seconds to realize that I was hearing the Muslim call to prayer, which happens at five specific times of the day. It gave me goosebumps it was so surreal!

The call to prayer showed me just how different my life in Egypt will be compared to my life back home. It’s obvious now that I’m no longer in the States. Now I’m in Egypt.

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