25 September 2010

In which I missed the cake

This week is Bryn Mawr College's 125th Birthday.  And I am abroad.  This seems like poor planning.  I blame M Carey Thomas, and her sense of the traditional school year.  Too bad college couldn't have started in February, right?

Anyway, there are various events happening on campus all year, including the Heritage and Hope Conference this weekend, and a cake celebration on Merion Green yesterday.  It was well attended, though I would like to know whether the confectionary recreation of Thomas Great Hall was actually edible, or just impressive.  Photos, video, and a short article about the event can be found here.

The last piece of Bryn Mawr news is a recent interview with President McAuliffe posted on a New York Times blog called "The Choice" about the college application and decision process.  The piece, and the comments, raise good questions about the goals we should embody.  I agree that international perspectives and outreach are vital to the future of the College, and the continuing value of our educations.  I also believe that an elite women's college ought to reach out within our own region to bring opportunities to those who might not have them.

One of the things about being in Cairo is that I have had to return to defending my choice of a women's institution, something I (mostly) haven't had to to since my senior year of high school.  I think the value of an education at Bryn Mawr is immeasurably high, but thanks to pieces like these, I can try and explain to my peers just what it is that I see within the castles there.

Studying in Cairo is exactly what I want to be doing right now, but can you blame me for missing Bryn Mawr, at least a little bit?

24 September 2010

In which we wave to Turkey and Crete

First of all, I apologize for being so stingy in my posts. I'll refrain from harping on my promise to be inconsistent, and simply state that I have been busy.  Doing my homework.  My grandfather should be proud.  Highlights from the past two weeks include some lovely food (Lebanese and Indian were the best in Cairo), an interesting article from Talal Asad on law and civilization, an evening of Mad Men and dancing, a debate (in Arabic) about Egyptian presidential politics, and my first Arabic quiz.  On that last item, thank you Middlebury, for keeping my test-taking skills up to par this summer.

Anyway, to return to the title, and therefore meat, of this post, at the end of Ramadan (yes, it was two weeks ago) a few friends and I went to Alexandria for the weekend.  We took a very pleasant two-and-a-half hour train ride down to the coastal city, known as one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the ancient world.

At the end of Ramadan, there is a huge celebration called Eid Al-Futur.  It's the conclusion to a month of fasting and penitence in the Muslim faith, and the party is three days long to make up for lost time.  Lots of people go out of town, or out of the country, so Alexandria was a very popular place to be.  We were able to rent a beautifully furnished apartment one block from the Mediterranean Sea (at a very reasonable rate), complete with kitchen.

 On the first day, we decided to cook our own dinner, and after several adventures to find a grocery store, we put together the ingredients for chicken curry with rice, chocolate cake, and omelets for breakfast the next morning.  The grocery ordeal took several hours, and after cooking and eating, we had intended to go out onto the Corniche (the boardwalk along the sea) but ended up conversing until early morning.

On Saturday, we were able to meet up with some friends of my family's from Middlebury, in Alexandria for the fall on a Fulbright.  They lived about half an hour away by tram, in another beautiful apartment.  Amy and Larry have since come to Cairo, and I was able to see them again.  Hopefully we'll meet again; it's really nice to know other ex-pats.  And just to prove I actually went along with my camera, here are the three Bryn Mawr girls on their balcony, which looks out on the large garden which accompanies the home of an international political exile (I wish I knew more of the story, but he's apparently quite the mystery).

Amy and Larry fed us brunch, including some Ramadan treats homemade by a friend of theirs, and lent us some fantastic walking tour maps, which we put to good use that afternoon.  The only problem with visiting Alexandria during Eid is that everything is closed.  Actually, this only really applies to the museums and other tourist attractions, but we were able to walk a lot, which was great fun, even though not having a man with us led to more attention than we probably wanted.

Our first stop was the new Library of Alexandria.  The ancient version was destroyed long ago, but a recently constructed complex (unfortunately closed) holds office, books, art exhibits, and several thousand more books.  And, of course, there is a bust of Alexander the Great on the plaza.  He does, after all, share a name with the city.

Behind him, you can see the stage for a concert being set up.  We aren't sure what kind of concert it was, but a crowd was already gathering when we were there.  The actual library building is fantastically modern, with a shallow pool in the front, and walls carved all around with letters from every known alphabet.

Our next stop was the Roman Amphitheater, which was fun to walk around, though not well signed, so I lack almost any explanation for what it actually was.  It appeared to be an active excavation site, so only part of it was open to the public.  I was briefly reminded of exploring old castles with my siblings in Scotland, but these ruins were much sandier, much sunnier, and much drier.

We decided to give up on tourist attractions for the rest of the day, and instead took a self-guided walking tour of the Turkish Quarter, which up on the northwest side of the Corniche.  It is one of the oldest parts of the city, and today, one of the poorest.  It was amazing to see the difference between the Corniche, where you can walk down to beach, or stop in a cafe, or stay in a swanky hotel, and one block inland, where the streets are narrow, and crowded with people, and children ride flatbed donkey carts, and fish and fruit vendors set up in every intersection.

We were waved at and called to by men of all ages, but I'm getting better at reading when situations are dangerous and when they're merely unwanted.  We saw some beautiful mosque exteriors, and felt as though we had finally made it out of the sheltered neighborhoods we frequent in Cairo.

Saturday evening held dinner at a local seafood restaurant, because you can't go to Alexandria and not eat fresh-caught fish.  I had delicious shrimp, and tasted some of the best calamari I've ever had.  We took a cab to the restaurant, only about six kilometers down the Corniche, from our apartment, but it took an hour and a half, because of all the traffic on the road.  Have I mentioned that Egyptian traffic is a nightmare?  Anyway, we decided to walk back along the sea, and stopped a few times in various cafes along the way.  This is a very Egyptian tradition, for everyone, including small children.  As we were making our way home, around three in the morning, I was amazed to see three-year-olds with at least six times as much energy as I had.  I strongly suspect serious naps and sugar infusions are to blame.

Sunday morning we rose and after some pictures and a brief neighborhood walk, we headed to Misr Station to catch the train back to Cairo.  The end of any vacation, however brief, and however close to the beginning of school, is always somewhat depressing, but really, can you blame us for being sad to leave this?

Real classes began on Monday, and they are the reason it has taken me so long to update.  I'm looking forward to going back to Alex at some point, but our next break (two weeks from now) needs planning first.  When I know my plans, I'll share them.  I know travel stories are the most fun, but what else would you like to hear about?  I've been here for a month (as of tomorrow!) and so I think I'm forgetting the little things I've had to adjust to.  Please let me know what topics you'd like me to discuss, or if you have any questions I can try and answer.  Logistical as well as philosophical themes are encouraged.

07 September 2010

In which I remember why I have come to Egypt

As much fun as I've had wandering about Cairo and napping in air-conditioned rooms, the reason I'm here is to, well, study abroad.  In light of that, I am taking five classes at the American University in Cairo, on various topics only vaguely related to my major of Linguistics.  Luckily I have an understanding adviser and a flexible course schedule for the rest of my tenure at Bryn Mawr, so I was free to choose whatever courses I wanted for this semester, within reason, that is.

The expected classes would be some Arabic and some Linguistics, and I'm happy to report that both of those make appearances.  I think the easiest thing to do is give a basic rundown of each course (I've had one meeting of each one, with the exception of Arabic, which meets four days each week, and thus has met twice).  And so, without further ado, I give you, as they say, the dirt:

Society and State in the Middle East, 1906-Present is a history course looking to be discussion-based in a class of thirty students.  The teacher is hugely enthusiastic, and seems interested in pushing us.  We will have several articles to prepare for each session, and throughout the semester we will be working on the culminating project - an annotated bibliography of the sources we explore.  There will be some other assignments, but no major essays, so the preparation and discussion in this class will be the brunt of the work.  The professor is a recent (2007) graduate of an NYU doctoral program, where she specialized in Palestine, so we'll get to concentrate on that region - particularly timely, given the peace talks slated for the end of next week.  I'm excited about the other topics we're discussing as well, and though the majority of students are American, there are enough local/international students to bring other thoughts to the table.

I was expecting Arabic in the News Media to be a linguistic analysis of journalistic jargon, even though it is listed in the Arabic Language department.  As it turns out, I think we'll mostly be reading articles and listening to broadcasts and discussing out understanding of them, in Arabic.  This is great, because I am excited to see Arabic in a productive, real form, instead of in Al-Kitaab, everyone's favorite language instruction manual.  The class is small, and has only one native speaker (though formal Arabic is not his first language), so we should get a lot of practice and individual attention.  I find slight amusement in that the professor has previously taught at the Middlebury Summer School (though not this past year) and another girl who I met this summer (from Norway, studying at St. Andrews in Scotland) and I are both in the class.

Intermediate Arabic 202 is exactly what it sounds like, and thus far, about as interesting.  I don't know exactly how the course will be structured, though we seem to do a lot of worksheets in class.  The lack of knowledge likely stems from the fact that the teacher was late (45 minutes late) to our first class.  This is because we are on a special schedule for Ramadan, so all the classes are moved up incrementally, and then pushed back, after a certain time, so as not to conflict with iftar, the meal which breaks the daily muslim fast.  Anyway, the professor has been flustered about that, and I think after we come back from break this weekend, she'll have found her footing, and we'll get going.

The Linguistics class that was my justification for studying here, Principles and Practices of Teaching English is the only class where I am the lone American, and the lone non-degree student.  The course has a reputation of being easy, and it's a simple way for students to fill elective requirements, so I think that's why most of the other students are there.  The other component to the class is community based teaching, so I will teach staff (janitors, security guards, library workers) for at least eight hours in the coming semester.  It looks like the class will be more about the theories of language acquisition from an educational, rather than linguistic perspective, but hopefully I'll have plenty of opportunities to find inspiration for my thesis.

My last class was going to be several things, some of which I didn't have the proper pre-requisites for, some of which didn't fit, and some of which were canceled, but I have settled on a masters-level class called A Critical Introduction to Middle Eastern Studies, and it's required for all entry-level MA students in the Middle Eastern Studies department.  This is nice, because it means that almost all of the MA students are as new to AUC as I am, and we're starting with very little assumed previous knowledge.  It will be a reading/writing intensive course, with a major research paper at the end, but will complement my history class well, and give me another set of perspectives on world events I've only followed with recreational intentions.  Academia always lends a new view, and the small class should be a comfortable place to challenge what I think I know, which, really, is very little.

Overall, I think the semester is going to be very engaging, and somewhat challenging, and certainly different from anything I could find at Bryn Mawr.  I'm grateful that my Middlebury experience this summer allowed me to take two Arabic language classes, and we'll see how much of my historical writing skills I've retained from the likes of Ms. Lindau and Mr. Kennington's high school lessons.

Just a quick rundown of the logistics, two classes meet Sundays and Wednesdays, one meets Mondays and Thursdays, the graduate class meets only on Mondays (for two and a half hours), and Arabic meets Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday.  The weekends are Friday and Saturday, and Tuesdays are usually used for field trips, etc. which I don't have.  Therefore, Tuesdays will be my reading days, I think.

I apologize for the amount of text without pictures, but I didn't record all of my classrooms, and besides, as it turns out, classrooms look pretty much the same in every expensive institution of higher education built in the last few years.

06 September 2010

In which without meaning to, we seem to have gotten nowhere

First of all, I apologize for the post-drought recently, but I will remind you that I never promised to be consistent, or prolific.  Second, thank you for the birthday wishes - I spent a lovely day relaxing, going to the local Episcopal Church (a little conservative for my tastes, but we'll see how walking distance competes with potentially more stomachable ideology at another congregation in Maadi), getting lost, and eating Chinese food.  That last part wasn't what we originally intended, but on Fridays, basically everything local is closed down, especially during Ramadan.

Anyway, now on to the reason I have such a huge group of readers (seven followers - I'm touched): the thrilling content.

Last week, the Residential Life office organized several trips to keep students occupied in the evenings, and to make up for the very painful process of registration/orientation, which I will relate when I talk about my first impressions of class.  I ended up going on three of these adventures, with varying degrees of satisfaction and success.

On Monday night, I went on a Nile Cruise, which was by far my favorite of the three.  We arrived at the floating restaurant, and we were sent up to the top deck to watch the sun set.

This was ostensibly because Iftar (the meal breaking the Ramadan fast) can not begin until after sundown, but also, I imagine, because the views across the Nile are surprisingly beautiful, given that what you're looking at is a skyline dominated by billboards and chunky buildings, some of which are in serious disrepair, and a sun dyed red because of the massive pollution over the city.

These pictures doesn't do the beauty or the color justice, but they give you a sense of what we were seeing.  Anyway, I sat with another Bryn Mawr girl, her roommate, and several other students from Zamalek.  Our group was by far the largest, but there were also several families who joined us downstairs for dinner and another set of people who appeared to just be along for the ride on the top deck.

We had chicken (a quarter chicken each - huge!), cinnamon-laced rice, kuba (a sausage), and various condiments.  We also had some pretty delicious desserts, all of which were soaked in syrup or honey, just to make them extra-sugary.

On Tuesday, we went 'horseback riding near the Pyramids' which was a fairly accurate description, in all the disappointing senses.  Now, to say that the trip was a total failure would be quite an exaggeration, but it was far less exciting than I hoped it would be.  We were several kilometers from the pyramids, and we were loaded on horses, dragged by small children through a village and up a very steep, very sandy hill, and given a few minutes to look at three pyramids in the distance, lit by colored lights, and generally impressive against the night sky.  It was so dark, though, that no pictures were salvageable, but I suppose the upshot of this trip is that I've learned two things.  First, the pyramids are a fifteen minute cab ride from my room, and second, those things which are overly touristy are best done in small groups.

On Wednesday, because I hadn't been out enough in the last few days, we went to what was advertised as a 'Bedouin Night with Sohour' which I think most people took to mean 'hanging out with some Bedouins who do a vaguely touristy thing on a regular basis and eating some new food late at night' but actually meant 'listen to late ninties pop and techno music while eating rice and chicken, then watch people dressed in carnival-like costumes frolic.'

Of course, there were other elements to the show, including a 'dancing horse' which was the most scared/abused looking animal I have ever seen, and some traditional dancers on stilts, and a whole slew of Sufi dancers often called dervishes, all of whom were moving too quickly to get reasonable pictures, so I promise to borrow some from other people in the near future to show you.

In the next few days, I have classes, and then Eid break from the ninth through the twelfth of September.  It looks like we'll be going to Alexandria, but I promise to let you know where/when I'll be as soon as I know, so that you can worry about me.

I know this has been a long, somewhat vague post, so leave any questions/follow up that you might have in the comments.