Greetings From Cairo

Hello to all out there – I apologize for being so tardy in getting going on the blog.  There were some … uh, technical difficulties … which have now thankfully been resolved.

So I arrived in Cairo on the 21st of August.  The trip all the way from Seattle to the AUC dormitory in Zamalek went without a hitch.  I booked a red-eye flight to Frankfurt, Germany, and so I slept for much of the trip.  The heat was searing when I arrived, yet Cairo was as bustling as I remembered it from ten years ago, the last time that I visited.

After checking into my dorm, I prowled around the neighborhood, looking for a place to eat.  Not much besides toney, overpriced eateries with international themes.  I wasn’t having any of that – after all, I’d come all this way to Egypt, so I wanted to eat some Egyptian food!  Eventually I found a street stall and I was able to stuff myself with local fare.  The next day, I discovered that Ramadan lasted another week, after which was Eid al-Fitr.  The cafeteria on the ground floor of the dorm was not open during the day.  So finding restaurants was going to be a problem at first.

The solution to my problem was a restaurant downtown off Tahrir Square called Felfela’s, which served a variety of quickly prepared dishes during the day.  However, even after the holiday was over, I found myself wandering far afield in search of something tasty to eat.  There are no cooking facilities for students in the dormitory, so I have learned supplement my diet with food that I can prepare on a hot plate with minimum mess and preparation.

In the meantime, I also underwent the registration process at the AUC campus.  The campus is located in an appallingly ugly suburb out in the middle of the desert, prosaically called New Cairo (curiously, the uniformity of the buildings in this manufactured community remind me to some extent of the developments which have recently come to disfigure the Issaquah hillsides).  The first day of orientation and registration concluded with a trip to the Citadel in Islamic Cairo, where the students were feted with a genuine Egyptian buffet and then treated to a folkloric show of whirling dervishes.  The view of the city from the walls of the citadel were amazing – and the vastness of Cairo, especially when compared with a relatively small metropolis like Seattle, was striking indeed.

After many vicissitudes over a period of two weeks, I finally arrived at my class schedule.  In general, I would say that the AUC approach to registration, as compared to U Dub’s, is more flexible and organic – which also means that it’s less straightforward.  It reminded me of being an undergrad back in the ’80s, when less was accomplished via computer, and more was accomplished by going from office to office.

As time has gone on, I have found that the level of instruction here is quite good, although as a research institution it doesn’t compare to good ol’ U Dub.  My classes are not overwhelmingly difficult by any means, but schoolwork takes up most of my time.  As a result, I have declined to attend a number of school-sponsored field trips.  I have, however, made a few excursions of my own, which I took either by myself or with a couple of other people.  I will post the photos of these excursions on my next posting.

I assume that many readers are curious about the political situation in Egypt.  While I have not directly participated in any demonstrations, I can say that without a doubt the political situation remains volatile.  Peaceful demonstrations have generally been the norm, but as many readers no doubt know, there have been two outbreaks of violence here since I arrived.  The most serious one was a Coptic protest that went awry about two weeks ago, resulting in a severe riot downtown by the Maspero building and a loss of 24 lives.  There was also an attack on the Israeli Embassy after Egyptians were killed by Israelis on the Gaza border.   With regard to Maspero riot, as it is generally known, the live news footage, which I viewed on television as it occurred, was quite intense, and I saw people being killed.

On a less frightening note, AUC’s fall semester opened with a strike on the part of the employees, supported by student demonstrations.  The demands were for increased salaries and decreased tuition.  The institution’s administration was eventually forced to respond, and an agreement was reached – whether or not it was to everyone’s satisfaction, I’m not entirely sure.

So how would I sum up my experience so far?  Perhaps I should first mention the minuses, just to get them out of the way.   The distance of the campus from my living space is a definite downside.  The evening commutes, taking place in Cairo’s horrendous rush hour traffic, are especially gruelling (often taking as long as two hours).  The only other option, unfortunately, is to live in the New Cairo dorms – and that’s not a viable option, since it would isolate me from the city.  Surprisingly, dorm life – which I had not experienced for over 25 years – hasn’t been a problem.  But I don’t like Zamalek – I find it dull, overpriced and inconvenient.  It doesn’t feel like the “real” Cairo to me – it feels more faux-Western.  If I weren’t staying for only one semester/quarter, I would already be making plans to move to a more popular neighborhood on the eastern side of the Nile.

Fortunately, the plusses are making up for the minuses.  As a result of living in Zamalek, I’ve had to learn how to use the somewhat mysterious Cairo public transit system to get to the places I want to go – a kind of independence which really helps.  But even more than that, the value of the opportunities to learn Arabic and directly experience Egypt’s superlative historical and cultural legacy trumps any minor downsides.  So, all in all, I really don’t have any complaints.

And now that it’s late October, it’s not nearly as hot (although still summer by Seattle standards), and it can be quite pleasant to go exploring!

More to come …