A High School Summer in Egypt Studying Arabic
Practical Advice and Tips
Article and photo by Connie lp
Preparing to Go to Egypt
After weeks of cramming for Advanced Placement exams and finals I had finally completed them and was able to fully concentrate on my second international adventure overseas: a summer in Egypt to study Arabic with AFS Intercultural Programs, a well-established high school exchange organization that provides generous financial assistance and scholarships. I had rarely been out of the country, much less further than the borders of California, so I was very excited about my forthcoming trip. I had never been to a place that was so remote and different from my own country. The country name “Egypt” evoked many images in my mind: the cool and crisp Nile River flanked with reeds; a hot and arid desert stretched with miles of sand where travelers from afar crossed through means of camel; the Great Pyramids and the powerful pharaohs that built them; and local people dressed in long, flowing cotton robes with women covered with headscarves. Up until then, my only contact with the Middle Eastern country was largely through documentaries on “The History Channel,” novels, textbooks from my world history courses, and the “Eyewitness Series” travel guides. Naturally, I had a very romanticized and idyllic notion of what Egyptian culture and people were like.
Many questions ran through my head as I tried to figure out what and how to prepare for my time in Egypt. My first thought was to get to know the etiquette, customs, and culture before I step into the country. My study abroad program provided a list of suggested websites and books to read in order to prepare for the trip, including those from CultureGrams and Lonely Planet. So I started by perusing these sources, which proved to be helpful. They provided valuable tips on various aspects of Egypt, including the climate, standard dress, etiquette, do's and don’ts , cultural faux pas, etc., and played a large part in reducing the stress and culture shock that I felt upon entering the country. In the weeks before my departure, I also started exploring the Arabic language and reading up on Islam, which is an integral aspect of the local culture and identity. Wherever you end up going, I highly recommend doing research about your destination: know the proper etiquette and customs; start exploring the local language and religion. Know what you are getting into and, more importantly, be open-minded.
Packing: What You Need to Bring
Since I was going to spend just a month in Egypt, packing was relatively low-maintenance; I only carried what I needed in a small duffel bag. To begin packing, start with the essentials: prescription medicine (which is very expensive to ship—do yourself a favor and bring them prescriptions with you), contact lenses, or eyeglasses. My golden rule is to pack lightly: I had a friend who brought so many unnecessary clothes and other products with her that she ended up throwing some them out because she could not fit them in her luggage by the end of the summer. Just bring what you really need and what you will actually use.
Because Egypt is scorching and dry from May until October with temperatures ranging between 80 and 90 degrees minimum, pack comfortably and wear lightweight clothing to keep yourself cool. I suggest light-colored cotton t-shirts and blouses and pants which will absorb less sunlight. Wear comfortable walking shoes. A hat is also practical to protect your head from the heat.
Note to Female Travelers
Egyptians are a conservative and religious people and they dress accordingly. Ladies, please be respectful of the culture and dress modestly; this means not wearing anything tight-fitting and leaving the shorts, mini-skirts, and low-neck tops at home. Wear clothing that will cover your shoulders, arms, and legs. As a foreigner, you will attract plenty of attention (especially as a woman—more on that later) and you do not want any more by dressing inappropriately. I personally recommend buying a headscarf to blend in with the people and to demonstrate respect for the culture.
Learning the Arabic Language
Arabic has its own distinct alphabet with 28 letters and is written and read from right to left. It is written in a calligraphy style script. There are three different dialects of the language: Classical, Modern Standard, and Local (which differ by country). On top of that, Arabic is cited by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the U.S. Department of State as being one of the most difficult languages to learn for native English speakers. Indeed, of all the foreign languages I have studied, Arabic wins the prize for being the hardest and frustrating. Prior to my arrival in the Middle East, I had no knowledge of Arabic, with the exception of a few phrases such as assalaamu alaikum (“hello”) and shuk-ran (“thank you”). Even though the classes I took in-country were for complete beginners, in retrospect, I wish I had spent more time learning basic grammar and vocabulary so I would not have been as perplexed. Using language learning software like the Rosetta Stone, online sources, and listening to audiotapes are great ways to get started learning any language. At the bottom of this article, I have written up a list of great Arabic language resources that you can use to get started.
The Heat and Drinking Water
While there is no way to guarantee that you will not get sick during your stay in Egypt, there are a number of steps you can take to reduce your risk of becoming ill. First of all, make sure your immunization records are up to date before you leave the country. Also, be aware of where you are going to: a developing world country that is 97% desert. Egypt is incredibly hot during the summer months and dehydration is not uncommon, which is usually followed by fever and sickness. Drink plenty of water, wear high factor sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat. Otherwise, you risk heat exhaustion and sunstroke, which may require urgent medical attention. On the subject of water, I want to note that Egyptian tap water is heavily chlorinated (and in my humble opinion, tastes awful). If you are not accustomed to it, it will upset your stomach and you will get diarrhea—I have witnessed all my American comrades fall ill because of it. To avoid getting sick, drink bottled water, which is readily available and cheap.
Egypt is a relatively secure and friendly country (at least when I was there a few years ago before the revolution), but it is very important to know how to stay safe. Be as inconspicuous as you can when you are in public. For instance, speak softly when you are on a bus, train, or in the street; do not wear clothing with English writing; and do not flash items such as your passport, jewelry, or money. This is a surefire way to get mugged (but to be fair, it is so in many countries). Keep a low profile.
As I mentioned earlier, foreigners will attract unwanted attention. Wherever we went, Egyptian eyes followed us, and we were subjected to harassment, whether in broad daylight or at night. Egyptians tend to be very active in the evening since the weather is cooler, so my friends and I usually went into town after dark as well. Now, I would not advise anyone to mill around in the dark in a strange, foreign city so when you do go out, have at least one person to accompany you. Better yet, go in a group. I recall one night when I was walking around the city with my fellow Americans, we somehow ended up in a sketchy neighborhood. Before we knew it, a bunch of children and teenagers were following and staring us as if we were some kind of alien specimens. It was relatively harmless at first, before some started to grab and throw rocks at us. It would have been scary if I was alone, but sticking with several buddies eliminated that fear.
According to the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, 98% of foreign female visitors experience sexual harassment, a widespread issue in Egypt. With such statistics, the chance of being harassed is almost inevitable.
In addition to two male students, there were three other American girls in my group, who were Caucasian and African-American, and I am Asian-American. The city where we stayed, El Minya, is five hours south of Cairo, and rarely receives tourists. So obviously, we really stood out. As a result, we had to suffer the indignities of catcalls, insults, and disgusting comments from local men wherever we went. Although it is very tempting make a retort, the best practice is to bite your tongue and ignore it. Often, the remarks are harmless and nothing will come of them. To minimize attention, do the following: do not make direct eye contact and do not smile at men on the street, as it is perceived as a come on; dress appropriately; stay in a group; do not walk in deserted areas; and if a male tries to touch you, make a scene and catch the attention of those around you. The perpetrator will usually be shocked, humiliated, and will run off.
Egypt is a very different country from the United States and you will be exposed to a new and perhaps strange environment where the practices and customs are ones you are not familiar with, and where you will perhaps encounter behavior that you find offensive. As such, culture shock will inevitably occur, but that is one form of the learning experience in studying or living abroad. As long as you stay open-minded, be understanding, observe, and respect the environment and the people when you are in Egypt, you will learn to appreciate the local culture as much as your own. Soak in everything around you and enjoy the experience.
Connie Ip is from Oakland, California and is currently a French and European Studies double major at Mount Holyoke College. She studied Arabic with AFS Intercultural Programs in Egypt during her high school summer in 2008.