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Classes and feeling at home

Time April 29th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The TAFL is a wonderful place to learn Arabic. Part of the “Coliat al Adab” in Alexandria University just steps away from the famous Alexandria Library, the TAFL center is buzz of international connections with students from all over the world. Students from Russia, Japan, England, Somalia, America, Germany amongst other places all come to the TAFL center to learn various levels of Arabic.

What really stands out in this small building is the professors. The Arabic professors are experienced, approachable and extremely patient with all the students. The sense of family among the staff is apparent especially with the sad moments that have happened this semester…one professor was killed in an automobile accident, and just the other day the founder and first director of the TAFL Center, the professors’ professor, passed away. It was from these events that I could candidly see the intricate web amongst the TAFL staff as they held each other for support and never forgot their professional obligations to their jobs and students.

My week schedule is as follows (classes are 2 hours each):
Monday: Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), Islamic Culture
Tuesday: 4 consecutive hours of MSA, Islamic History
Wednesday: MSA, Colloquial Egyptian
Thursday: Colloquial Egyptian, MSA

Classes like Islamic History and Islamic Culture are more flexible and have often switched around.

The most important classes to me are the MSA and Colloquial Egyptian. The MSA classes are highly structured and focus highly on grammar, comprehension, and syntax. Arabic is an academic challenge unlike any other I have dealt with. I have tried to learn languages before with some success (Spanish for example), but Arabic is different in that it uses a totally different alphabet with some sounds that aren’t commonly found in English. I am constantly pulling from my Urdu and Gujarati background in order to make some comprehension of this rich language. I know that after I leave I would have barely, just barely, scratched its surface.

Studying is rigorous and tiring. I wake up at 7:30 am and sometimes dont get back to my dorm until 5 pm. I take refuge during my long weekends by running on a track, going to the beach and just lazing around.

I have effective become a resident of Alex, no longer a visitor. I knew this the day I stopped feeling bad for giving the taxi drivers 4 Egyptian pounds (Guinea) instead of the 10 they would demand from foreigners. But truth be told, I have never been treated as a complete foreigner (at least not initially) as some of the other IFSA students for the obvious reason of my skin color. I feel very happy walking around the sook (back alley markets) without being stared at and blending in with the rest of the population. Most of my compatriots are unable to experience such a thing, as they are often somewhat a sort of spectacle. I think I am fortunate for this.


Celebration Picture

Time March 1st, 2010 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

This is one of the pictures of me in the celebration in Cairo.



Time February 22nd, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

This past weekend I headed to small city of Marina (El Alamein), located an hour’s drive outside Alexandria with some friends.

Marina is a coastal resort city that caters to the super wealthy and elite in Egypt…most houses cost (far) over a million Egyptian pounds and are typically occupied for a few months.  Access to Marina is prohibited to the public and one must be a resident or a guest of a resident in order to enter the city. According to our host, Marina is composed of some 20 islands all connected by bridges. Apparently the Bin Laden family owns one of the islands in Marina. In order to purchase a house on said island you must submit a resume and have interviews with one of the Bin Laden’s. It’s apparently a very serious process.

Dr. El Komi’s good friend (our host), Dr. Zain owns a chalet close to the ocean and was kind enough to rent it to 9 of us for a small price. He was amazingly kind throughout the entire trip.

When I arrived, I was struck by how how deserted it was. There was hardly anyone around besides us…the reason being that this time is considered “off season” and “too cold”. However, by our American standards of weather, we could not be happier with +70 degree weather and ocean breeze.

We spent our days lazing on the beach, swimming in the frigid waters, and visiting the near by mall/hotel, Porto Marina, fully equipped with an in-built Venetian-styled canal (with gondolas, of course) and an especially decadent Chili’s restaurant. The last night we went to the beach and lit a small fire all while gazing at the million stars above. We became ancients guessing constellations and tracing our own pictures across the black horizon.

The breathtaking beauty of the Mediterranean and Marina is only enhanced by the desolate and barren land surrounding the city. Gated communities are an amazing thing; this phenomenon seems to have no borders and is a common global characteristic among the rich and elite. One must contemplate the desire to physically segregate living-space from “others” (i.e. a high wall and a guarded gate) based on class differences. It is profound how much a sense of physical distance between one and another can create a sense of security and hetero-distinctiveness.

To me, class lines in Egypt are very distinct and recognized openly. In our Arabic classes we have learned over 12 titles for people based upon what class they appear to belong. For example, we are to address a man with glabiyya (long traditional gown) in one way, while a man wearing western clothes or a suit is to be addressed in another way…and yet another way for a person that has completed the Hajj. The distinctions continue based on the person’s occupation, age, gender etc etc.

Note that I am not suggesting that somehow Egypt’s class distinctions are completely unique or that such things to do not exist in the U.S…we have our own distinct way of denoting class and we inherit social attitudes towards people of different social standings.

The segregated experience in Marina conflicts with another experience I had when Egypt played a soccer match against Algeria (about one month ago). In this instance, sport tied in with nationalism created a sight of unlike anything I had seen before in my life. When Egypt beat Algeria the streets of Cairo were literally on fire. People from all walks of life celebrated the night away in absolute bliss. I ran through the streets in my tweed suit (this celebration was right after I attended the Egyptian Opera) with my doorman (and now friend) Taamir.

The crowd of celebrators grew thusly: first a group of people would start waving flags and chanting certain slogans, then more strangers would come (with percussion instruments like tablas) and continue the chant. Typically after about 20 to 30 people have gathered several people would take aerosol cans and lighters to make home-made flame throwers. At this point traffic would cease as the celebration spilled onto the main streets. In the mean time groups of other celebrators would come and join thus growing the crowd at an exponential rate. Then all of us (several hundred by this point) would run on of the bridges over the Nile in order to join the nucleus of Cairo’s celebration. Literally thousands of people had descended upon one city square, all of them in absolute bliss.

As I observed random people hugging each other (some wearing thobes and others with western clothes etc.), it seemed as though nationalism outweighed many of the class differences that night. However, this nationalism was spurred on by competition against “the other” (in this case Algeria). The tenuous rivalry between Algeria and Egypt goes far beyond sport. The attitudes of Egyptians towards Algerians as a people is highlighted with negative comments referring to their “overly-French” pride and brutish tendencies towards violence. Furthermore, Egyptian  nationalism is directly tied in with Islam! There is no real conflict between “church and state” as there is in the U.S.; Islam and the state can coexist quite nicely (but this subject can be reserved for another day).

I will upload some photos later.



Time February 8th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The orientation was amazing. There is simply too much to write about so I will highlight the most remarkable things that I experienced. I will start with the food. I can confidently say that I have been overfed and that I have experienced Egyptian hospitality. I do not know if this is the norm, but nearly every meal after breakfast consists of 6 appetizers, drinks, 3 main course dishes, dessert and coffee/tea. I cannot seem to get enough Turkish coffee these days (ah-wah masboot) and they (collective they) cannot seem to tire of feeding me tahini.

Besides the food, the orientation has offered me several opportunities to explore Egyptian historical monuments. So yes, I have seen and been inside the pyramids and ambled by the sphinx; and yes I have seen King Tutankhamen’s casket along with several well-preserved mummies; and yes I have prayed in Saladin’s Mosque; and yes I have been in the Citadel at Alexandria etc etc. This is all well and amazing in its own right, but what stands out are the people.

First and foremost, most Egyptians think that I am Egyptian. Whenever I tell that I am not Egyptian, the second thing they tell me is that I must be Arab. When this too has failed, they still insist that my face is Egyptian (khalass!). For the most part, the locals I have tried to talk most with are the Taxi cab drivers. Most taxi drivers here love to talk. I normally start by telling them where I am from and that I like Egyptian music; typical response: Oum Kulthum! Ya Helwa! Then we play the heritage guessing game (aren’t you Egyptian?) and then the religion guessing game (but you are Muslim yani?) and finally the “what I like about the US” game (Jimmy Carter!!).

We also received several lectures ranging from topics of health, Egyptian music, ancient Egyptian history, archaeology, women in the Arab world, and Islam. We got a lecture from none other than Egypt’s Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities: Dr. Zahi Hawass.

A rather flamboyant personality with an inclination towards stardom (and abhorrence for cell phones), Dr. Hawass explicitly schooled us on the recent groundbreaking archaeological digs he was leading and the arduous tasks he undertook in order to become the best in his field. I asked him what his greatest disappointment was, and he answered without batting an eyelid “I have none”. After the lecture he commissioned a pass that will allow us (as a group) into any historic site monitored by the Council of Antiquities including all Museums for free! This tremendous gift has enabled several of the trips on which we went.

IFSA Butler held a photo contest among us Egypt students. I somehow managed to win! Below you will find the pictures that I submitted. This is ironic considering the number of times that I forgot my camera! The photos were judged by Chris Harrison, Dr. El Komi and very kind  (and famous) photographer whose name I have regretfully forgotten…I am sorry about this; as soon as I can find his name out I add it without fail. The prizes were: a wonderfully painted ceramic mug and what appears to be a wooden-ebony in-layed box of dominoes.


Just days before I leave

Time January 19th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It is just a few days before I board the flight onto Egypt and I am starting to feel nervous. I have tried not to keep my expectations too high so that I will truly enjoy every moment in the country.

Tomorrow afternoon I board a train to Penn Station, New York, where my sister will pick me up. Then, on Monday I get dropped at the airport and away I go.
toothbrush? check
socks? check
notebook? check
passport? check

I have done the last bits of my luggage check and have a feeling that I am lugging around a little too much…I have a tendency to overpack, but I rather be over prepared than under prepared. Still, I do not think I am prepared in the sense that I do not know Arabic, and am unfamiliar with the culture. I plan to submerge myself in the language when I get there and see if I can just pick it up. It will definitely be difficult, but not impossible.


HIV Test

Time January 11th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

One of the things I need to do before going to Egypt is getting an HIV test.  Egypt may choose to reject someone access to their country if they are HIV positive; the United States shared Egypt’s policy until just last week.

Several years ago, when I was in Kenya, I did an independent study on the negative social stigma associated with HIV (specifically in Mombasa). In my study I reported on how local forces and stigmas affected the lives of those with HIV and AIDS. However, I did not consider, until now, the institutional forces that directly shape the lives of those with HIV. The (late) United States and Egyptian policies regarding foreign HIV-positive nationals is an example in which governmental institutional forces greatly affecting the lives of those with HIV in an attempts to protect those within its borders.

Consequently, Egypt has a relatively low rate of HIV; an especially stark comparison to its southern Sub-Saharan counterparts. However, according to UNICEF, access to information about the spread, prevention, and treatment of HIV is currently limited. I am interested in discussing with some Egyptian locals on their view of the pandemic, and whether they are concerned with its spread. I also would like to informally compare the attitudes of some medical workers in Egypt to the ones in the U.S..

Recently I talked to one of my good friends who works as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) in the U.S. medical field. She expressed concern on the changed U.S. policy of allowing people with HIV into the country. She gave me the medical worker’s perspective that working with a large population of under-treated HIV infected people is nightmarish and complex. (Note that we live in the Baltimore-Towson metropolitan area, and that according to Maryland AIDS Administration, “Baltimore-Towson had the fourth highest AIDS case report rate of any major metropolitan area, 29.6 cases per 100,000 population during 2007″…a seemingly valid reason for concern).

There are more people with HIV in Maryland than in the entire country of Egypt.

I look forward to learning more about this subject.


Predeparture Entry 1

Time January 4th, 2010 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

In a few weeks I will be on a plane to Cairo. The excitement hasn’t hit me yet…

I am, more than anything else, stressed about finances, visas, immunizations, other program details etc. The faster I get all the formal work out of the way, the more relaxed I will feel.

I am trying to decide what I should pack. I think the weather will be very nice even though I will be arriving in the winter. I hear the beaches in Alexandria are beautiful year round…