Getting the heck out of Dodge

The break celebrating the end of Ramadan and the October 1973 War officially starts tomorrow.

We're on the 10:45 bus out of Cairo, heading to the Sinai.

The Official Plan:

Climb Mt. Sinai
See St. Catherine's Monastery

Take a bus to Jordan via Israel (the border crossing is going to be oh so fun, but we've heard absolute nightmares about the ferry)

Wadi Rum

Our target date of return to Cairo is Sunday, October 5 (depending on whether or not we get stopped at the Israeli border. This is a possibility because AUC's woefully uninformed visa services officer declined to do the paperwork to get Kelly and I re-entry visas because he was under the impression we could buy them at the border. We can't. I have a number in my passport indicating that my student residence visa is in process at the Mugammaa, hopefully that plus paying a fine will be enough to get me across. That's what the visa guy said, anyway, after he figured out he was wrong and yet still refused to help us. We have multiple back-up plans in place just in case we get detained. Cross your fingers that we don't have to use them!)

I will (eventually) get around to responding to the cascade of emails in my inbox...but probably not until October 6.

In the meantime, think about this: I managed to fit everything I'll need for an entire week into my L.L. Bean backpack.


I greatly appreciate the outpouring of concern that hit both my comment box and my inbox after I posted my last entry. Unfortunately, besides being made aware of the situation, there isn’t much that I believe that American University can do to solve our problems. We are directly enrolled in the American University in Cairo as non-degree seeking students. In study abroad lingo that’s called a partner program, one in which student’s home institutions send them abroad to other institutions without directly managing the program. AU pays our tuition to AUC and provides us with a study abroad advisor, but they have no other control over our study abroad experience.

Several days ago a ten-page petition circulated among the international students, regarding issues of sexual harassment and also the problems posed by the pre-mature move to the new campus in New Cairo. The petition contained some exaggerated claims but presented an overall picture of the problems that international students have been experiencing. Kelly and I forwarded the petition to the study abroad office at AU to make them aware of the situation before the deadline for Spring semester study abroad passed, to allow students who had applied to go to AUC in February the opportunity to go elsewhere. This was absolutely the first time that American University was made aware of our difficulties.

They sent a very prompt response to let us know that AU’s director was in contact with AUC’s administration to express concern, and that our study abroad advisor would be arriving in Cairo on October 7 to view the new campus. We will have the opportunity to meet with her while she is here.

My parents forwarded the contents of my blog post to the Study Abroad advisor and the director of the Study Abroad program at American University. They are aware of what’s going on and reported that AUC claims that only one complaint of sexual harassment has been formally received. Clearly whoever responded to the director is not in contact with the International Student Affairs Office or the Office of Residential Life, or any of the Residence Directors.

AUC has given us an option in response to complaints received: we have the opportunity to withdraw from housing, to pay on a pro-rated basis for the housing we’ve received, and find our own apartments. We would lose our housing deposit of $300 and also have to pay $300 for a bus pass.

Frankly, I don’t consider that a fair response.

My intention in posting my last entry was not to cause problems for AU’s study abroad office or to upset my family and friends, but rather to express that my cultural experience in Egypt is being greatly affected by AUC’s poor housing decision.

If you feel the need to express any further concern, please address it to the American University in Cairo.

President David Arnold: president@aucegypt.edu

International Student Affairs Office: isa@aucegypt.edu


I learned tonight (at a long overdue floor meeting) that there's a sign in front of our hotel that explicitly states: No Foreigners in addition to the ever present No Photo.

Perhaps this should have been an indication that housing two hundred American, Canadian, and extremely wealthy, mostly westernized Egyptian, Jordanian, and Palestinian girls there would lead to huge problems.

Since we moved to Heliopolis we've been dealing with an incredible amount of sexual harassment. Keep in mind that the entire time we've been living in the hotel so far has been during the month of Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims and the time in which all Muslims make extra effort to worship God and live in a pure and holy way.

As such, all sexual thoughts and acts during the fasting hours are technically forbidden. However, we cannot walk down the street in Heliopolis (in daylight or after sundown) without catcalls, honking cars, constant hissing, and what i'm sure are likely extremely lewd expressions in colloquial Egyptian being tossed our way. I was warned to expect the harassment, I can take the verbal abuse.

What I have difficulty accepting, however, is the physical component of the problem. Two weeks ago this sequence of events happened:

On Monday I walked a few blocks to get food from a small restaurant called Tito's. There were three of us, we were followed the whole way there by a single man who repeated "you are so beautiful" over and over again. We saw boys who we recognized as international students but didn't actually know walking across the street and hurriedly joined them. The man faded away after that.

On Tuesday I walked 15 minutes into the very beginnings of the Roxy Square neighborhood to get dinner at a chicken restaurant. To get there we had to walk down a poorly lit street that runs through two walled off, guarded compounds. We were walking four abreast on the sidewalk. My friend closest to the edge was groped by a passing man and no one realized what had happened until she screamed at him in Arabic.

On Wednesday I walked to the closest grocery store with another friend after Iftar, again through mostly deserted streets. We were three doors from the grocery store when a younger man came walking towards us. Hemmed in by parked cars we couldn't dodge him, and out of the corner of my eye I saw him reach toward me as he passed by, but he was prevented from grabbing me because of my low-slung bag.

Twenty minutes later while I was browsing the peanut butter section my friend's chest was groped by a grocery store employee while he handed her a sample in the bakery area.

Since then we've been taking the shuttle to CityStars (a massive mall) to grocery shop, and going to the small food stand directly across the street or ordering food in. We no longer walk very far after sundown. I never go anywhere alone (except to the food stand). Quite simply, I'm afraid and I do not feel safe in this neighborhood.

The fact that we're foreigners has no bearing on the level of harassment we're receiving--our Egyptian and Arab dorm-mates are harassed at an equal level. Surveys conducted of Egyptian women indicate that veiled women experience only 10% less harassment than unveiled women.
My Palestinian suitemate told me that it will get even worse once Ramadan ends.

The only strategies we were given of combating sexual harassment are based on the theory that if you start yelling, loudly, other people in the area will come to your rescue and shame the groper for his actions. In our case, the only other people around are soldiers guarding the compounds (all of whom are armed with pistols or machine guns) and they participate fully in verbally harassing us.

By deciding to house us in a completely isolated area full of military compounds that is hostile to outsiders in general, AUC put their female students in a terrible situation where there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop men from touching us inappropriately. And that makes me angry.


Small Items of Note

School, thankfully, is the same everywhere.

I have three good professors, a great professor, and only one truly terrible professor who manages to go through exactly two powerpoint slides per hour of class.

My favorite class is Societies and Cultures of the Ancient Near East, which surprises me greatly because generally I much prefer studying post Renaissance history and my appetite for Ancient Egyptian history was pretty much quelled after being forced to mummify a chicken and endure an entire year of Egyptian themed educational activities during fourth grade seminar.

The only reason I'm taking the class is to fulfill the ancient history requirement for my history major, and I expected to endure rather than enjoy it. Instead I am fascinated and would willingly sit through three hours a day of lectures.

My professor (also the assistant provost of the university) makes the currents in the Mediterranean Sea, the geographical importance of Turkish mountain ranges and the anatomy of a camel's hoof interesting.

We also are going on regular weekend field trips to explore the ancient history of the region. This Friday we spent the day sweating through the Egyptian Museum (its not air-conditioned, and its still beastly hot here) , visiting all of the displayed objects that were connected to our principal focus, the lands outside of Egypt.

The mummy room is very creepy, but I have now seen the mummies of Hatshepsut and Ramses II (plus many more). Our purpose in viewing the mummies was to see the skull wound that killed a pharoah that was caused by the shallow axes carried by ancient armies. It looked very painful.

Other small items of note:

- Our internet is still sporadic. For one glorious day it worked (at high speed) in our rooms. But this is Egypt, and nothing ever works well for long.

-The hot water in the hotel gets turned off every morning between 8:00 and 8:30. This is extremely painful for college students like myself who are used to sleeping in on weekends.

-The mosque next to our hotel broadcasts the friday services at high volume, which consists of chanted koranic texts followed by angry shouting followed by more chanting. Its not clear enough nor do I understand enough Arabic to be able to tell what the imam is saying.

-Tomorrow night I start my career as a conversational English teacher for an NGO called A Better World. I'm co-teaching with my friend Hannah. Unfortunately my internet is not capable of downloading the lesson plans I'm required to teach from...but hey, maalish!



Indications that perhaps the cheap hot-water kettle and power strip purchased at the Egyptian equivalent of Wal-Mart are not working: the smell of burning rubber, smoke, and a completely melted power cord casing that now exposes the wiring.

Discoveries made as a result: Dar al Handasseyah does not have reliable smoke detectors or a sprinkler system, we probably should not have attempted to heat up hot water, watch tv, and charge two computers at the same time using our one and only accessible power outlet, and homemade pasta was not an achievable dream.

The good news is that, at least until we can replace it, the power strip is still functional.


New Campus Novelties

Yesterday morning while we were waiting for the shuttles to take us to class we heard firing coming from somewhere around the hotel—target practice, we assumed. On the way to the new campus, the shuttles take the Ring Road around Cairo. We pass by a sprawling necropolis (Coptic, Greek Orthodox, and Muslim, all buried in their separate sections) and a barren military base, before driving past the pre-towns of New Cairo. New Cairo is under construction, a vast site of half finished homes and office buildings and billboards promising that the Arabia Smart Building will arrive in 2009. Along the road signposts point to under-construction housing compounds with names like “Moon Valley,” “Concorde Gardens,” “Hyde Park,” and my personal favorite, “Lakeview.” I am intensely curious if the developers of Lakeview plan to create an artificial lake.

It takes, without traffic, thirty-five minutes to arrive at the New Campus, which towers above the rest of New Cairo merely because it is (almost) completely constructed. Beyond the campus lies one construction site, but behind that steel shell stretches unbroken desert and hazy sky. The only things that are close to being completed on the New Campus are the classrooms. Even then, it is more likely than not that the air-conditioning isn’t functioning, that desks are missing and that the chairs are trailing plastic wrapping. The Library is built, as is the bookstore, but only three food outlets, all vastly over-priced in comparison to what we’ve been eating on the Old Campus and around Cairo. The dorms, computer labs, sports facilities, cafeteria, food courts, science labs, everything that would make this a functioning university…they’re still under construction.

The buildings are aesthetically beautifully and practically ridiculous. We’ve had classes for exactly a week and I still get lost going from class to class, even though I had them all before. I’ve walked around in circles in the buildings, going from courtyard to courtyard trying to find a room that I’ve found before coming from a different direction. Staircases are few and far between and seemingly placed randomly, while the blinking exit signs often lead bewilderingly to blank walls and no exits.

I am somewhat more able to negotiate the labyrinth of office spaces in the Administration Building thanks to the wild goose chase I was sent on when I attempted to submit my passport to receive my student visa. I entered Egypt on a thirty day, multiple entry tourist visa, and submitted what I thought was all of the necessary paperwork during orientation. I followed the instructions I was given, and arrived exactly one week after I submitted my documentation to the Business Support Office, passport, photo, and 62.10 LE firmly in hand, after I wandered around the basement of the Administration Building for a half an hour, looking for the office. The man at the Business Support Office shuffled through his official approval documents and told me he hadn’t received mine, that I had to go the Registrar to ask them what had gone wrong. After another half an hour trying to find the Registrar, the receptionist there sent me to Student Services. The day before Tommy had tried to find Student Services, and someone told him that it wasn’t built yet. The receptionist was able to give me a general direction, so I set off, asking people who didn’t have a clue where the building was. I ended up in the theater department’s unfinished performance hall, and it was only by luck that the next door I tried belonged to the actually constructed Student Services building. After a half an hour wait, Student Services told me that they could not help me with my visa and perhaps I could try the Study Abroad Office, which she’d heard might be in the Core building. Anyone who knows me well and happens to be reading this knows that I am not an extraordinarily patient person when dealing with inefficient bureaucrats, or for that matter, inefficient fast food workers. By this time I was boiling mad. By chance on my way to the Core Building I happened to see a very precariously perched piece of posterboard announcing the location of the International Student Services Office, so I took my chances and went to see them. The ISSO turned out to be two women sitting in an empty office, and they were even less helpful than the people at Student Services, likely because I recounted my trials in a frustrated rant. I ran into other extremely frustrated Study Abroads in that office, and we essentially decided to bypass the Registrar’s main reception desk and find the office of the exact person responsible for our visas, whose name was helpfully included on our so far completely incorrect instruction sheet.

The Military and Visa services coordinator took exactly thirty seconds to tell me that my visa approval had not yet been granted because there was no proof that I had paid my tuition. Apparently, the New York Office of AUC, where all American study abroad students submit their tuition payments, had not transmitted the appropriate data needed to register study abroad students as paid in the AUC computer system. She told me to bring in copies of my tuition payment, and only then could my application be sent to the appropriate government ministry for processing, which would take another entire week. My whole ordeal (and the identical ordeal of 400 other study abroad students) could have been eliminated had they told us at orientation that we needed proof of payment, because at that point there were still printers on the Old Campus that we had access to. I had the copies of my receipts saved in my inbox. What I did not have anymore was access to a working printer, nor enough days left on my tourist visa for me to find a working printer.

Luckily, I discovered that there is a fourteen day grace period for my student visa to begin after my tourist visa expires, and when I asked my Palestinian suitemate to ask the manager of the hotel in arabic if It was possible for me to use their printer she looked at me like I was crazy and pulled an hp deskjet out of her closet.

Dealing with this university’s bureaucracy leads me to admire American University’s administration as a model of efficiency, which for anyone familiar with American University’s administration is an unbelievable statement.

The good news is that I like all of my classes, and I absolutely love two of them. My classes are confirming that it was completely the right decision to come to Cairo for school, because I would not be able to take the same type of classes in DC. I need to fulfill an Ancient or Middle Ages history requirement for my history degree, and I have already studied both Greek and Roman history and the Middle Ages, which were my only options at AU. Here at AUC my Societies and Cultures of the Ancient Near East class is a fascinating exploration of the impact of geography on the development of ancient cultures in the Middle East, as well as an in-depth overview of the vitally important but poorly understood influence of Ancient Iraqi civilization on the later Greeks and Romans. Yesterday my professor made learning about the locations of mountain ranges interesting—his fifty minute lecture felt like fifteen.

In other news: I have a ton of absolutely gorgeous pictures that I took in Alexandria…but the internet connection is still not good enough to upload any of them (Sorry, John!)


Terrifying Taxis

I'm used to taking public transportation because of going to school in DC. Metro, Metrobus, I've got that down. No problem. On a few occasions I have had to call for taxis, which was never a huge problem.

Here in Cairo my only transportation option is taking a taxi to wherever I need to go. Taxis in Egypt come in two types: City Cabs, which are expensive, air-conditioned, and need to be called at least twenty minutes in advance, and black and white taxis, which are cheap. Of course, as a college student trying to stretch every piaster possible for travel money, I take the black and white taxis

Black and white taxis are everywhere in Cairo. My guess would be that the majority are vintage 50s, 60s, and 70s vehicles. There are always a few taxis broken down on the side of the road with the drivers fiddling with the engine, and there is usually always a taxi around waiting to be hailed. The taxi drivers only speak Arabic, so taking one is always an adventure.

The first time I took a black and white cab was with my survival Arabic teacher Mr. Youssef and fellow classmate. We were on our way to an Egyptian restaurant to practice our am’iya skills and eat falafel (known in am’iya as ta’amiya).

Mr. Youssef hailed our taxis while we were standing in the street on the side of the busiest square in all of Cairo, Midan Tahrir. We got into the taxi and off we went, careening through traffic. We ended up getting lost somewhere in a neighborhood on the right of Ramses Square, with Mr. Youssef and the taxi driver shouting out the cab doors to people on the street, asking for directions.

We ended up in tiny crowded alley ways, trying to get back to a main street. The taxi driver jammed our taxi into impossibly tiny spaces, reversed erratically, and at one point, we hit a boy. He was crossing the street that we were turning into, and he kind of just bounced off the hood, cursed at us, and walked away. It was at this point that I started panicking just a little bit.

I realized that I absorbed more of the survival Arabic lessons than I thought I did when the taxi reversed around a corner at what felt like a rapid rate of speed but was probably 5 mph. I actually (without realizing it) started shrieking stop! stop! in am’iya. Of course he didn’t listen to me and we actually didn’t hit the parked car behind us, but…hey. I know the word for stop quite well!

We made our way back onto a busy street. In order to drive in Cairo I would have to forget everything I learned in driver’s ed and think about traffic in this way: the best analogy that works is that driving in Cairo is like bumper cars, with the object being not to collide, exactly. People shove their vehicles every which way, use every possible inch of space in the road, and generally terrify me every time I’m in a moving vehicle.

My taxi then proceeded to slam into a scooter that was forcing its way into the flow of traffic from a side street that was merging (for lack of a better term) onto the main street.

The scooter driver was furious. He raised his fist and shouted and then proceeded to maneuver his scooter behind the taxi, where he kicked my passenger door as hard as he could while screaming obscenities in Arabic, while traffic was still moving. It was an amazing feat. My classmate and I spent the entirety of this ride drop jawed, while Mr. Youssef kept repeating “Maalish! Maalish! This happen every day in Cairo! Maalish!”

Maalish is the Egyptian equivalent of “Its okay, don’t worry about it.” I hear (and use) Maalish quite a bit. We finally arrived at our destination, twenty minutes after everyone else. The food was good.

Luckily the craziness of my first taxi ride has not been equaled by any of the other taxi rides I’ve taken. Unfortunately though, the hotel where the girls are staying doesn’t seem to be well known by the taxi drivers. Our taxis have gotten lost any number of times. We lean in the window, tell them where we’re going, and they say they know where it is…but no one does. Yesterday we ended up in Northern Heliopolis when we live in Southern Heliopolis, and the cabby just rode around and around in circles until he finally stopped to ask for directions. We made five u-turns. It was absolutely ridiculous!

In other news: they installed air conditioning in our study lounges today, boys are now apparently allowed through the gates of our hotel (they were previously turned away by our guards), and supposedly the internet will be faster by the time I get back from Alexandria. Unfortunately, there was an orientation held today on the new campus and it is so far from being finished that the first couple of weeks of classes are really going to be interesting. I’ll have to see it for myself, but it doesn’t sound good.