So much to update on- sorry for the lack of new posts, the past few days have been pretty packed with sightseeing, unpacking, and meeting the other study abroad kids.
First of all, I’m so excited that I get to be here during Ramadan. I keep meaning to explain what that is- I suggest looking it up on Wikipedia, my favorite semi-legitimate research tool. From my understanding, and I could definitely be wrong, it’s a holy month of the Islamic calendar where Muslims focus on prayer and cleansing themselves spiritually. They cannot eat, drink, smoke, or put anything in their mouths (including gum) from sunrise to sundown each day. At sundown, they gather for Iftar, which is the large meal where they break their fast. Being here for this month has been amazing. The other day we walked around Zamalek (the island in the Nile, and a more cosmopolitan part of Egypt) around sundown, and saw groups of people literally sitting on the street on pieces of newspaper eating together. It seems like a great bonding experience.
Culture shock has been pretty predictable. It can be seen most obviously in the rules here on campus. There is a zero-tolerance policy for boys being in the girls’ residence area, and vice versa. We literally have “checkpoints” at the entrance to each gender’s section, and if you’re caught in the wrong one, you must move out of the dorms within the hour. This rule even applies to visiting parents- a dad can’t see their daughter’s room, and the same with moms and their sons. It’s mostly because of the girls here who wear hijabs, or head scarves. They often walk around the suites without their head covered, and would feel uncomfortable and offended if a visiting father saw this. PDA (Public Displays of Affection) is also strongly looked down upon. Even if you are in a committed relationship, there is no holding hands, cuddling or kissing allowed. This doesn’t really affect me personally, but I just find it hard to imagine dating as an Egyptian- it’s impossible to interact with the opposite sex! There’s also a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol and drugs, but that isn’t really a big deal because alcohol is pretty rare in Egypt in general.
One of my favorite cultural differences here is the transliteration from English to Arabic. The Arabic alphabet does not have letters for the English “P” or “V”, among others, which leads to some pretty funny situations. For example, the main gate into campus was sponsored by Pepsi, so it’s supposed to be called the Pepsi Gate. Instead, the Egyptians call it the “Bebsi” gate. This also happens with most of the Western shops and restaurants here- Papa John’s pizza is written as “Baba Joons”. I have to say that I’m shocked by how many American companies are here- there’s a Chili’s restaurant close to campus, McDonald’s and Subway on campus, and even a Coffee Bean!
I got to know a little bit more about my roommate, but not without plenty of confusion due to our language barrier. She’s Egyptian and here on scholarship as an Engineering major. I finally figured out that her name is Eman after calling her “Email” a couple of times before she spelled it out for me… that was embarassing. We haven’t gotten to talk much because we’re both pretty busy right now, but she’s really nice- I came back to a note from her the other day that said, “Hi Sofia! Here is my number- call me and I will came!”
The other girls in our suite area are also Middle Eastern- two are Egyptian and one is Palestinian.They’ve all been extremely nice to me. After I told them that I’m a Global Studies major focusing on the Middle East, the Palestinian girl joked that I would probably be learning all about her home. She was right! I’m already registered in a current events class that is centered around Palestine and Jordan, so I’ll probably have a lot to talk with her about. Another girl is named Jihad, as in the religious struggle that Islam often refers to. Other than that, there are still some empty rooms in my area. A lot of students haven’t moved onto campus yet because they’re missing the first week of school due to Ramadan, which doesn’t end until September 10th-ish. I’ve already had a professor e-mail me to change the first day of class because of this.
My roommate is Muslim, which I figured out our first morning together when she woke up at 4 AM to eat before sunrise. She’s actually praying on a mat behind me as I type this sentence! A few of our Resident Advisors (RA’s) on campus are also fasting, and their dedication is amazing. Going through an entire hot Egyptian day is hard enough, not to mention the fact that they’re running around working with no water. It’s refreshing to see Islam in a local context and as part of these people’s everyday lives instead of as some sort of monster, as it’s often portrayed in the US. I love being able to hear the call to prayer echoing through the streets in Old Cairo and Zamalek. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen people this humbled by and dedicated to something.
The other international students are from all over the place. Everyone was surprised to learn that there are a ton of American students from the South, mostly from South Carolina. Californians are pretty rare in the dorms on-campus- it’s just me, one other girl, and a couple of Berkeley students. It’s been really interesting to hear where everyone is from- I usually only hear about the UC colleges, and Ivy Leagues on the east coast. I had never even heard of most of the universities that the students are from!
The Resident Advisers here are great, and have been putting together sightseeing trips for the international students. I’ve been to Al-Rehab a few times now, and finally got a cheap Egyptian cell phone! I’m not really planning on using it besides short calls to friends here to meet up for meals, etc., because Skype is usually a better option for international calls. Either way, my phone is pretty cool- it has a mini flashlight on the top, and Arabic lettering on the keys! The other day, we went into Coptic Cairo. There is a sizable Christian population here, so we got to see a few churches, a Jewish synagogue, and even a crypt where the Virgin Mary and Jesus had supposedly visited. Down the street, we visited the oldest Mosque in Egypt. Men and women had separate entrances, and us girls had to cover our hair and arms with long green cloaks while the men wandered around in shorts and t-shirts.
That night, we went into Zamalek and saw the other dorms before walking around for a few hours. Crossing the streets here is always an instant adrenaline rush- it’s almost like trying to run across a freeway (sorry Mom!). We walked along the Nile River for awhile, saw the Cairo Tower, and took tons of pictures of the millions of stray cats and kittens that hang out all over the city. I was pretty impressed that we found our way back to the bus after only getting lost once. We had a typical experience with “Egyptian directions”, where they don’t want to admit that they don’t know the way, so they tend to just point in any random direction. No problem though, we happened upon a great coffee shop on the way.
Yesterday (Friday), a few girls and I attempted to check out the pool before realizing that Friday is the first day of the weekend here, so almost everything was closed. Instead, we met more international students during the day and went on the Felluca ride at night on the Nile. Nightlife is huge here, since that’s the only time that it’s not 100 degrees outside- I’m amazed that I haven’t complained about how hot it is in a blog yet! We took buses into Old Cairo at around 9 pm and took turns on these flat boats with huge sails. It was perfect- the weather is comfortable at night, and the lights of the city illuminated the river all around us. I got on the last boat with some friends, so we got an extra long ride and got to chat with some Egyptians.
After the Felluca rides, most of the students returned to campus, but one of the RA’s offered to show us around Old Cairo before returning. We walked a short distance to a less touristy area, and ended up getting tea and hibiscus juice (it’s delicious- try it!) at a hookah restaurant. We sat and talked for a few hours, surrounded by older Egyptian men smoking hookah and playing backgammon and chess. It was nice to be in a smaller group for once, because it felt like a more “real” Cairo experience. We took taxi’s back to campus, and it was definitely the most adventurous ride I’ve been on so far. Our RA “Joe” (real name Yousef) got together 3 taxis to caravan us back to campus, and it was the usual Egyptian driving- straddling two lanes, honking, and spontaneously deciding to squeeze between other cars. None of our drivers seemed to know exactly how to get into the university, so they (logically) drove the wrong way down streets, made U-turns wherever they felt fit, and yelled at each other through the windows. Luckily, the streets are pretty empty around campus.
Today, orientation began. I woke up and was able to check in and get my (free!) bag of AUC goodies, including a coffee mug and shoulder bag. I also explored the library here for the first time- it’s even more amazing than the dorms! It’s highly air conditioned, spotless, and gigantic. I’ll definitely be spending some time there. Joe the RA is taking a few of us to an authentic local Egyptian restaurant tonight, which should be fun. I’ll update again as soon as possible! It should be easier now that I have internet in my dorm room. Oh, and thank you for all of the supportive comments- I really appreciate them. It’s great to hear from everyone I’m missing at home!