I might have only mentioned this once before, but the week structure here is a little bit different than in the States. I have school on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Friday and Saturday are considered the weekend throughout the country, while Tuesday is only a holiday for AUC students. This is mostly because Friday is considered the major prayer day in Islam, and since the majority of Egypt is Muslim, Friday is the new Sunday. Hence ‘Thank Goodness It’s Thursday,” instead of TGIF.
This weekend was a bit more eventful than expected. On Thursday, my friends and I took the bus to Downtown Cairo to grab a bite to eat. What would have normally been a typical taxi ride to the restaurant turned crazy when our driver received a phone call (there are no laws against phone use in a car here, as there are in California. Even if there were, I’m sure absolutely nobody would follow them!). The driver spoke flustered Arabic into the phone, before turning to us and exclaiming, “My wife! (gestures to his stomach, miming a round belly) Baby boy!!” I’m not really sure if he meant he just found out that his wife was pregnant with a boy, or if she had just delivered a child, but we celebrated nonetheless. Margaux and I yelled “Mabrook!” (Congratulations!) and we all cheered. But it didn’t end there. The driver, in between many more excited phone calls, turned back to us and asked what we wanted to name him. I sat there confused for a second before realizing that he was asking us to name his child. We all paused, looking at each other as if to say, “is this guy serious??” We initially said “Alex,” after the only boy in the taxi at the time, but apparently Alexander (or Eskander) is a Coptic Christian name, so our driver turned it down. One of us then yelled, “Ali!” and the driver approved to additional cheers. In the back of my mind, I was wondering if this guy was just putting on a show to get a bigger tip, but if he was, he was putting a hell of a lot of effort into this. He immediately resumed calling people on his phone, and saying “American” and “Ali” over and over again. Once we reached our destination, the driver asked us if we had an American dollar bill to write “Ali” on and sign for his new son, but we were all disappointed to realize that we had all only brought Egyptian pounds. Oh well- there’s one more “Ali” in Egypt because of us!
On Friday, I attended my first Egyptian sports game. My university has been hosting the “2nd Annual Arab University Games” this past week, which we figured out after seeing a group of tall guys walking around in shirts that said “Algeria” on them in Arabic. It’s a pretty impressive group of athletes, so I don’t understand why these events weren’t publicized more! There are teams here from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Syria, Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Bahrain, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen, and the athletes are competing in men and women’s basketball, track and field, judo, swimming, and tae kwon do- is that a random assortment, or what? There really wasn’t much information about the games around, but I heard that each team was composed of the best university-level athletes of the country.
A few friends and I ended up attending the final game of the basketball tournament, which was Egypt vs. the United Arab Emirates (UAE). I know almost nothing about sports, but even I could tell that these guys needed a little work. I heard quite a few people joking about how Arabs in general aren’t the best at sports, except when it comes to squash. The game was fun to watch, though. It was an extremely close game the entire time, which made for some wild cheering from the stands. We somehow ended up being surrounded by rowdy students who even managed to whip out a giant Egyptian flag to wave around for the last quarter or so. The chants were a little different from the ones I’m used to at UCSB (which usually involve a good number of profanities). They ranged from some foot-stomping and yelling “Misr!” (the Arabic name for Egypt), to “Yalla Misr” (Go Egypt!), to something which roughly translates to “if God is willing, we will win!” which was my personal favorite. Apparently, God was willing, and Egypt won the entire tournament. I watched in awe as half of the basketball team immediately sunk down to their knees and got into the praying position for a good few seconds upon winning the game- this obviously took precedence over the usual celebrating and trophy-kissing.
We stayed for a little bit of the awards ceremony, where Egypt got first, UAE second, and Algeria third. You could sense the tension in the air every time Egypt (in red to the right) and Algeria (in green) were anywhere near each other on the court- there’s a fierce rivalry between the two of them because of their history of football (or soccer) matches over the past few years. At the Egypt vs. Algeria basketball game here at AUC a couple of days ago, I heard that players got into a physical fight, and the fans ended up stampeding onto the court. Crazy!
Saturday was unforgettable. My friend Margaux discovered a “Race for the Cure” breast cancer benefit that was going on…at the Giza Pyramids. Race for the Cure is similar to Relay for Life, which I volunteered for in high school and college. Both are cancer benefits in which teams of people run or walk to raise awareness and donations, but this Race for the Cure focuses on breast cancer. Some of you probably remember my incessant e-mails last year, asking for donations for my sorority’s team. So, being able to participate in something like that while abroad- and especially in somewhere as culturally diverse as Egypt- was really amazing.
We signed up the other night, and were pretty excited to find that we got free t-shirts and hats. It only got better from there! My roommate, Emy (that’s her in the picture to the right), was planning on going with her scholarship program, and offered us a free ride to the event. So, Saturday morning, we all woke up at 6 AM to board the bus of about 25 Egyptian students… and the 6 of us. These students were all really nice and excited to practice their English with us. They’re part of the LEAD program, which is actually funded by the US government. The program picks two of the best students from each Egyptian governorate and gives them a full scholarship- books, tuition, and all. Most of these students were not wealthy enough to attend English-speaking primary or secondary schools, so they spend their first year or so at AUC just focusing on English before majoring in whatever they choose. It’s an amazing program- I’m glad that the US is a part of it.
Once we arrived at the pyramids at around 8 AM, madness ensued. There were thousands of people there, mostly dressed in pink for breast cancer awareness. We thrust ourselves into a giant mob of people trying to squeeze in the main gate before reuniting with the LEAD students that we came with. After re-boarding the bus, we were taken to the race’s starting point, about 1.5 km away from the pyramids themselves. There were tents, music, and tons of people ready to go. A big group of students started dancing and waving an Egyptian flag around (seriously, where do all of these flags come from?). It was a crazy sight. My favorite part was the way in which the women dressed for the occasion- most of them had donned bright pink hijabs (head scarves), and some had put their free hats on over the hijab. There were even a few women wearing burqas and abayas (the full body covering) who had safety pinned or wrapped their race shirts on top of their traditional garb. It was a really cool sight.
The race itself was supposed to start at 10 AM, which really means anywhere between 10:15 and noon in Egyptian time. True to this trend, we stood around the starting line for about an hour listening to announcements solely in Arabic over the loudspeaker. There was great peoplewatching while we were waiting, though- we were surrounded by a mix of hijab- and abaya-wearing women, Arab men, and a good number of foreigners from all over the world. It was probably the most white people that I had seen since visiting Sharm al-Sheikh last month! There were also various groups of people who had made their own teams- one group was wearing shirts with the Swiss flag printed on them, and another had a poster that said “Team Hiyah” written on it, which means Team Life. My friends and I decided to name ourselves Team T.I.N.A., with T.I.N.A. standing for This Is North Africa. We remind ourselves of T.I.N.A. whenever something out of the ordinary or completely nonsensical happens, which happens quite a bit.
We started off on the path at around 10:30, and walked with the long trail of people towards the pyramids. The path lead us up to the smallest pyramid, then wound around to the medium, and finally the great pyramid. Students around us sang songs in Arabic, men on camels walked along the trail with us, and tour buses of people stared on in awe. There were even a few people holding posters in honor of family and friends that they had lost to breast cancer, and women in abayas who had proudly pinned their “breast cancer survivor” t-shirts to their backs. I would have never expected to see something like this in Egypt. In a place where gender equality is so often questioned, and women are often covered from head to toe, the fact that thousands of people (both men and women, covered and uncovered) came out early in the morning to walk across the desert to support finding a cure for breast cancer was extremely eye-opening. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I have to admit I teared up a bit mid-race- after being involved in Relay for Life, this was really amazing to be a part of.
After reaching the finish line, we continued down the path to the Sphinx to grab our (free!) lunch and listen to music. The crowd became a little too much to handle, though, so we crossed the street and hung out at Dejeej Kentucky (aka KFC) for a bit to cool down and get more food. Before long, we decided to hail a cab back to campus instead of waiting a few hours for the bus that we had come on, and ended up getting back to campus by about 1 pm. It was a long day, but definitely worth every single second. I can’t say enough how thankful I am that Margaux found out about the event! Now, it’s time to rest up and prepare for the week ahead of me. Arabic midterm, you’re going down.