I’ve officially been in Egypt for one week, but it feels like it’s been about a month because we’ve been so busy! Here’s what I’ve been up to the past few days, besides the orientation stuff that I highlighted in my last post:
We have a lot of time to explore the campus and surrounding areas during the day, so a few friends and I have been going swimming in the new pool on campus every afternoon. It’s part of the Recreation center that was just completed, and it’s definitely my new favorite daytime activity here- it’s the only way to get out of the heat! The temperature hovers around 100 degrees Fahrenheit daily, and sometimes manages to drop into the 70’s at night. We have to cover ourselves up for the short walk from the dorms to the pool, but are actually allowed to swim in bikini’s. That’s not to say that it’s the norm- almost everyone there looks like an international student, and there are pictures of girls modeling burkinis (basically waterproof burkas) at the front entrance. I’d love to see one of those in action! There have also been musicians playing lutes (a.k.a. ouds), flutes, and violins poolside lately- apparently they’re practicing for an upcoming performance, but I like to think of them as my afternoon soundtrack.
I’ve also been going out to dinner each night in various parts of Al-Rehab, Zamalek and New Cairo. Planning this usually takes up a good chunk of time- we have to figure out transportation, location, and Arabic-speaking boys to accompany us. A few nights ago, one of the RA’s took a group of about 7 of us to Tahrir for an authentic Egyptian meal. We taxi-ed into a bustling city square, which was even more crowded than usual due to the big Egypt-Algeria soccer match that night. Men were crowded around small TV’s on street corners, smoking and yelling at the screen. We walked down a small side street and into a restaurant called Felfela, which is a beautifully decorated place that reminded me of an Egyptian Buca di Bepo. Joe the RA ordered plates upon plates of food for us, and we feasted. We had falafel, baba ghanoug, hummus, tahina, fuul, meat kebab, and mint tea. It was delicious! Dinner has been followed by coffee, juice, and shisha every night so far. There’s no better way to end a great day than to sit and talk for hours with people from all over the US and world.
These dinners are always an adventure. One night, a group of friends and I walked to a small downtown area called “Meeting Point” for Egyptian food. We decided to try Roasted Pigeon- it’s almost as common as chicken here! I still need to upload my pictures, but all I can say is that it was a little disappointing. We joked that our birds must have been malnourished, because they were tiny and we only got a couple of forkfuls of meat off of them. Next time I’ll have to try stuffed pigeon in hopes of a more satisfying meal.
One of the RA’s, Rabee (pronounced Rob-eeea), also took us to try a more familiar place: Chili’s! It was actually a really interesting experience. The set-up of the restaurant was exactly the same as those in the US, but its customers were mostly families with hijab-wearing mothers and fathers smoking. They had a screen playing Arab cartoons and soap operas outside, which starred very stereotypically Arab actors with bushy mustaches and unibrows. And of course, Ramadan played a part in our meal. There were dates in small containers at each table (you are traditionally supposed to break your fast at Iftar with a date, because that’s what early Muslims did), and the restaurant was decorated with streamers and lights. Also, they do not sell any alcohol whatsoever during this month. It was strange, but amazing to see how the restaurant had molded to this culture. Oh- and the food was pretty good! They didn’t have the full American menu (notably absent were the ribs, because Muslims don’t eat pork), but it wasn’t too bad.
After having Iftar with Rabee, a friend and I decided to try fasting for a day, just to see what our Muslim peers were going through. The rules are pretty rough: you literally cannot ingest anything. No food, drink, water, smoke, gum, etc. Some especially devout Muslims refrain from brushing their teeth or going swimming in fear of accidentally swallowing the water. Normally, you wake up before sunrise (technically before 4 AM) to eat Sahoor, which is the meal before you begin fasting, but we slept through it. So basically, I complained for the entire day. I woke up around 10 for an orientation appointment, went swimming, and hung out with friends. By the time we met up with Rabee at 5:30 to leave for Iftar, I was whining nonstop. It wasn’t so much the lack of food that was making me uncomfortable, but the thirst and dry mouth that accompanies a hot Egyptian day. We drove to a Lebanese restaurant in Al-Rehab (pictures to come), which had a TV inside. Right at 6:30, the TV show cut to a clip of the Call to Prayer, and we were finally allowed to break our fast. I chugged water and immediately started scarfing down my meal. It was the best tasting water I’ve had in awhile.
I plan on fasting again before Ramadan is up, just to do it properly with Sahoor. It’s hard to imagine doing that every single day for a month- I didn’t even have a strenuous day, but ended up complaining about how hungry I was anyways. I usually forget that many of the people around me are fasting because they never mention how hungry or thirsty they are, and go about their days normally. I feel especially bad for Muslims working as waiters while fasting. I had a hard enough time refraining from food over the course of one day, and can’t imagine what it would be like to serve hot, delicious food to tourists all day. I’m impressed!