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A Desert Dream

Studying and Living Abroad in Cairo and Traveling in the Dunes of Egypt

By Rachel Tobias

Travel in Egypt amid the sand dunes
Camels riding across the Egyptian desert.

The sun has set behind the swampland of the riverbed as we float on a felucca, awaiting a glorious Nubian meal prepared for us by our crew of two men. We have spent the afternoon reading, sipping on hibiscus tea, listening to the Nile lap its way into our inner rhythms. Our first mate quietly takes a break from preparing our supper to spread his small rug out on the hull and proceed with his evening prayer — standing, then kneeling, then meeting his forehead to the rug, and repeat. We will spend the night on this felucca, lulled to sleep by whispers of the Nile and campfire kisses. The warm air turns cold in the early morning hours, but it is worth it just to watch the sun rise over the palm trees.

Egypt felucca at sunset
Felucca in Egypt.

I will break out the watercolors (a new resolution to paint once or twice a week) and let my mind wander as I try to capture the scenery on a small white page that barely does justice to a water droplet. I will envision myself in a new place, a new land, experiencing a different culture complete with its own ways of life and ways of thought. Some I will agree with, some I will not. But at least I can try to understand why, which quickly is becoming my favorite word. I wonder whom I will befriend. Or who will befriend me. What I will miss most from home?

Finding My Place in Egypt: The Land of Insha'Allah

Skyline in Cairo, EgyptCairo skyline.

Because I had spent two years learning Arabic at the University of Southern California, intent to learn a language that could potentially connect me with the cultures and countries we have yet to make peace with, the only two options for studying abroad through my university (and receiving transfer credit) were Egypt and Jordan. The 6th grade history buff in me who had always made me yearn to see the Great Pyramids urged me to choose the land of King Tut. And so, in August of my junior year of college, I found myself wandering the streets of Cairo.

Pyramids and Sphinx
Pyramids and Sphinx.

The first obstacle was finding a place to live. The American University in Cairo was about an hour from downtown, which made both the commute and the idea of living on campus unappealing. If attending AUC, you have the option of staying in alternative dorms in Zamalek, which his a small island on the Nile right in the heart of Cairo, still connected to the madness of the city by straddling bridges which I had to cross every day to begin my long journey to the University. This island is the hub for expatriates and diplomats; the majority of the foreign embassies and consulates can be found on this little patch of land.

For a first time resident of Cairo, Zamalek is an ideal place to live. Zamalek is a lovely place: it is one of the higher-end places in the city and its spattering of embassies makes it the primary place of residence for many diplomats and ex-patriots. There are an abundance of cafes, shiisha bars, food delivery bikes, and taxicabs, which beep their horns as regularly as they breathe. There are good supermarkets like Seoudi Market, Alfa Market, and Metro, which carry some American brands of food and other products. On Halloween, I was even able to find canned pumpkin to make pumpkin pie. Aside from having some conveniences to cater to foreigners, Zamalek has the perfect combination of Egyptian culture and language, without being overwhelming or intimidating. Although it is a higher-end area, you will still be greeted each morning by families of cats gracing your doorstep, scavenging for treasures in the garbage which decorates the streets. I learned to walk on the pavement rather than the sidewalk, since it is easy to turn an ankle on the cracked and uneven concrete, and the external air conditioners dripping on to the sidewalk are not an appealing alternative to a shower.

If you are looking to stay in a very local area, without having much contact with foreigners, you may want to consider either Downtown or Mohandiseen. Options for those looking to avoid local areas may want to explore Maadi, which feels almost like a U.S. suburb. For me, Zamalek was a great place to be, although I made the decision to live in my own apartment rather than in the AUC dorms. I wanted to be able to interact with the locals and have a life separate from AUC. After all, learning Arabic was not going to happen in a classroom. I rented an apartment for about a third of the price I would have paid for the same apartment in Los Angeles.

Despite the low cost of living and the quantity of foreigners living in Zamalek, it is still hard to find the same standard of living as you might find at home. For example, I would constantly return to my apartment to find that we had no water and no internet access. I rarely had hot water and never found a clothes-dryer, even at the “dry cleaning” shops. I learned to love my starchy, air-dried wardrobe and my loose jeans. Every apartment has a bowab, or doorman, who oversees those going in and out of the building. Few of the bowabs or landlords speak English, so trying to get anything fixed can be a struggle. “Plumbing” vocabulary was not in my Arabic dictionary. If you decide to live in an apartment, it is preferable to find a building whose bowab speaks at least some English.

Even though my second bowab spoke enough English and I enough Arabic to communicate effectively, I still had to learn the art of patience. Egypt is the land of Insha’allah. Insha’allah means "God willing." Everything in Egypt is "God willing." We will have water by 5 p.m.? Insha’allah. I will see you tonight? Insha’allah. The plane is leaving at 10? Insha’allah. May I please order dinner? Insha’allah. This was a place where I had to adapt to a slower mode of living and means to action. The fast-paced way of living that I was used to in Los Angeles was not to be part of my everyday experience in Cairo, and learning the art of patience was a process. 

Life as a Woman in Cairo

While I went to Cairo to experience a new culture and a new way of life, part of me really believed I would just be an observer. It is, however, important for travelers to realize that there is no such thing as observing your surroundings. We are all active participants of the world around us, even if we are quietly sitting at the outskirts. At first, I did not believe that I would be treated badly, even as a woman. After all, I was only an observer. How wrong I was.

I dreaded walking to the school bus every morning, a trepidation that arose from knowing I must keep my head down and wear sunglasses in order to avoid making eye contact with any men. I always dressed conservatively, often wearing jeans and a tank top with a cardigan, never showing my legs, shoulders, or cleavage; however it probably would not have made much of a difference if I had been naked: my blonde hair and white skin attracted attention everywhere I went. As I walked down the street, I would hear the police officers and bowabs begin to whisper and feel their stares begin to penetrate thorough my shirt. I was constantly angry at this situation; Angry that it seemed that I, and other women, could not smile and converse freely with others in the street. Angry that I had to put on a façade, and a rude one at that, in order to get by without any mushkelaat (problems).

For all the disconcerting looks and comments I received, I always felt 10 times safer in Cairo than I do living in downtown Los Angeles at U.S.C. I felt safe even walking alone at night in Zamalek, which I would never do near my apartment in the States. I never feared being robbed or raped, which has a lot to do both with the pride Egyptians have in themselves, as well as the high degree of religiosity that dominates all aspects of their lives.

Watermelon vendor in Egypt
Watermelon vendor in outskirts of Cairo.

But there appeared to me that there was a lack of respect towards women in Egypt. I taught refugees once a week in a an area of Cairo called Ain Shams, which is about an hour and half away from my house in Zamalek. The cab ride can get expensive (less than $10, but expensive when you have adapted to the currency), so usually I took the metro home since it costed 1 Egyptian pound (less than 20 cents). Each train on the metro has a car specifically designated for women. Men are not allowed in this car, although if you are a woman you are welcome to ride in the men’s car. My first time on the metro, I did not know about the women’s car, so I hopped onto the first car I found open. The train was so crowded; men, only men were pressed up onto me like sardines. After a few minutes, I felt someone’s hand touching my butt; since it was so crowded, I assumed it was an accident and started to move to another wall of the train. I realized the man who had been grabbing me was following me as I moved around the train, his hand on my butt the whole time with the most innocent look on his face. Had this happened at the end of my residency in Cairo, he may have received a good punch in the face and some rude Arabic words; but since I was new to the city and unsure of my boundaries, I remained quiet, and his hand remained on my rear.

From then on I rode in the women’s car.

On The Road in Cairo

Imagine a freeway in the U.S., which has four, maybe five lanes for traffic. Most people use their blinkers to change lanes, people wear seatbelts. Now imagine a freeway in Cairo. There are still four lanes of traffic, with seven to eight rows of cars wedged in together. Cars cross perhaps three lanes at a time, swerving left and right as they please and incredible speed, never thinking to use a blinker. Horns replace breathing on Cairo roads. Donkey carts, buses, and taxis populate the road at the same time.

Flatbed with camel in Cairo, Egypt
Photo by Rachel Tobias.

There are different types of taxis in Cairo. The black taxis are cheaper, but have no meter and no seatbelts. Cairenes do not believe it is possible to die if sitting in the backseat of a vehicle, and therefore cut out the seatbelts for the sake of comfort. Yellow or white taxis have a meter, and are a safer option for those who have not yet mastered the art of negotiating the price of a trip. Taxis are a great way to practice your Arabic. Chances are that cab drivers will only want to talk about President Obama, reflecting the incredible change in the perception of Americans in the Middle East.

Embracing the Culture in Egypt
Hieroglyphics in Egypt
Hieroglyphics are everywhere in Egypt.

Ramadan happened to fall during my first month in Egypt. Ramadan is the Muslim month of fasting, during which practicing Muslims should not eat, drink or smoke from sunrise to sunset. Alcohol, sex, and drugs are forbidden for the month. For that month, there are limited signs of life during the daylight hours: workdays were shortened and people slept during the day, waking up at 6:30 p.m. for iftar (breakfast). A normal Ramadan weekday for me in Egypt went something like this:

5:30 a.m.: Wake up for school to catch the 7 a.m. bus to the American University in Cairo with my three other American roommates. Take a cold shower (since we still have not had the privilege of hot water. Look at the bananas on the counter and resist the urge.

6:50 a.m.: Walk to the bus stop with 50 other sleepy American students. Pass the bowab on the way out of my building’s elevator. Sabbah al-haier. Good morning.

7:00 a.m.: Ride the bus about an hour to campus, during which everyone tries to get a few extra bumpy minutes of sleep.

8:30 a.m.: Modern Standard Arabic (fus-ha) with my professor Neshwa. He is very strict. I realize that I should have finished my homework instead of watching the Egypt-Algeria football match the previous night.

9:45 a.m. Walk to my next class, trying to avert eye contact with some of the more judgmental Egyptian students. The students at AUC are typically children of the Egyptian elite, and are not necessarily academically motivated. More pressing to them is their wardrobe. God forbid I wear Levis instead of designer jeans – I get the “look-up-then-look-down” from every Egyptian girl. The girls are glittering in Prada sunglasses and Coach sneakers; they do not carry books or notebooks to school…once in a while they carry a tiny notepad, which I suppose could hold maybe a quarter of a century’s worth of notes in history class.

10:00 a.m.: Egyptian Colloquial (ameeya) with professor Neshwa. Colloquial language is necessary to communicate with Egyptians. While they will probably understand your formal Arabic, they will laugh at you: imagine one of your classmates speaking like Shakespeare.

11:30 a.m.: I walk to my next class. It is desperately hot and I really wish that I could drink some water.

11:45 a.m — 3:30 p.m.: My other classes, depending on the day include Intro to Development, Contemporary Political Islam, and the Rise to Power of Islamic Movements. It is fascinating to learn things about Development and Islam from a completely non-American perspective.

4:00 p.m.: Board the bus to return to Zamalek. Counting down the minutes to iftar, or “breakfast” when I will be permitted to have my first meal of the day.

5:20 p.m.: I arrive back to the apartment after walking past a quiet neighborhood, while everyone twiddles their thumbs until they can eat again. Take a nap, so that I do not think about how much I crave water.

6:30 pm: IFTAR! Al-hamdul Allah!  Thank God. Eat iftar either with friends or have something delivered. Everything can be delivered in Egypt. Any bizarre craving you might have could certainly be satiated by a deliveryman. The most popular restaurants let you order online on I go to iftar at my Egyptian friend’s family’s house. It is mouthwatering, with piles and piles of dishes being served at a pace I can barely keep up with. There is koshary (rice, lentils, noodles, and a spicy sauce), sambousek (fried cheese), kebab, kofta, falafel, hummus, fool (very similar to Mexican bean dip), yogurt, and mint dip. And then there is the fresh juice, which is one of the most delicious treats one can find in Egypt. They have juice in every flavor, although I prefer bateekh (watermelon) or ananaas (pineapple).

7:15 pm: Food overload. Turn on the TV to take my mind off how full I am. Pick one of the four English channels we have and am stuck watching “A Walk to Remember” Mandy Moore and Shane West are about to kiss. But wait, the kiss never happens. Kissing, sex, nudity or excessive touching is not allowed on Egyptian television. The movie goes to commercial. It is an anti-drug ad. Another commercial comes on. It is a pro-prayer ad. One of the most interesting changes here has been the lack of separation between church and state. In the U.S., many of us are used to being able to say and do whatever we want, whenever we want. People who have religious beliefs can make their own choices. In Egypt, the society and the government make your choices for you.

 9:30 p.m.: Get dressed and meet friends for shiisha, the social pastime of almost everyone in Egypt.

12:00 am: Order sohoor (dinner/lunch). Usually something light since I still cannot justify eating a full meal at midnight. Sit with my Egyptian friends and share stories. My friends speak mostly in Arabic, translating for me now and again, forcing me to practice speaking to them in Arabic and not English.

A Desert Dream

Climbing a desert dune in Egypt
Camels ride across the sands

One weekend we decided to take a break from the city madness and escape to Siwa Oasis, a 7-hour drive from Cairo. We spent our days sand boarding down giant sand dunes, pruning ourselves in bubbling hot springs, and absorbing the magic of Bedouin camps. Sitting on a sand dune one evening, I watched as the sun burned orange and purple into the dunes as it retired for the night. I looked out across the hundreds of miles of desert surrounding me, and knew that this was a perfect moment.

I do not know if it was the sand or the wind or the water, but Siwa had seeped inside of me, infected my brain with its witchery, and captured my heart. Memories of the past six months began to set with the sun as I recalled them.  I was lucky to have had such wonderful Egyptian friends and had the privilege to shake hands with Egypt in a way that I never would have without being able to see things through the eyes and hearts of locals. I faced many frustrating and weary challenges, especially as a woman, but challenge was the goal of the experience. I became a resident, a “local” in my own way, participating rather than observing, and embracing both the joys and the frustrations of living in this captivating land.

For More Info

American University in Cairo

Cairo Scholars ListServ (Community of Ex-Pats in Cairo, I used this all the time, and requires registration):

Middle East Airlines (flights are cheaper if you book as an Egyptian resident)

Related Topics
Student to Student Reports
Living in Egypt: Best Expatriate Resources

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