Well it has been a few days since I posted and I have tons of fun stuff to talk about, but I figured I would start with some boring school information. For those of you that don’t know, I chose to come to Egypt primarily as a way to better my skills with the Arabic language by completely immersing myself in the culture and by taking three Arabic classes in my program. While I can safely say that I excel in my Arabic classes at McDaniel, I plunged myself into a whole world of confusion when I landed in Cairo. For one thing, I have studied Arabic for three semesters at home, which isn’t a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, and that studying doesn’t include a whole lot of speaking practice that is useful when living in another country. I showed up in Egypt knowing the names of maybe ten different food items. Added to this difficulty is the fact that in Egypt, they don’t really speak the Arabic that I know. In most schools you study Modern Standard Arabic, the language that is based of the Koran and is used in formal situations, legal documents, and so on. While most people understand this language, called foos-hah, the majority of them don’t speak it; its kinda like if someone came up to you on the street and started speaking old English. So the language that is spoken on the streets is the Egyptian dialect, which is very similar, but changes the sounds of certain letters, and uses different grammatical forms to be much more streamlined. While it is supposed to be easy to pick up, it is not something that you can just recognize or immediately understand. For that reason, we are taking classes in both MSA and colloquial Egyptian, so I’m gonna have all kinds of squiggly lines and dots rolling around in my head. I’m really looking forward to the day that I can walk into a restaurant and order without the waiter assuming that I am completely clueless.
Another big part of adjusting to life in Cairo is the money situation. The currency in Egypt is the Egyptian Pound, which comes in fun colored bills with pictures of the pyramids and stuff like that on it, as well as coins with Tut’s mask engraved on them. As I may have mentioned before, the currency exchange is 1 dollar to 6 pounds, which means that when I withdraw $250 dollars from the atm, I get 1500 pounds. However, prices are not adjusted as they are in other places like Hungary, where i think you have to deal with things in terms of hundreds of Florins at a time, so I can totally get a full meal or a 15 minute taxi ride for like 20 pounds, or like 3 bucks. While it is taking some time to be able to recognize the bills at a glance and it is a little annoying to keep track of the one pound coins, I personally can’t really complain about the money situation here in Egypt; it works out in my favor. Although we have been advised to start thinking about money in pounds, which I plan on doing, it is nice to take a second when I am freaking out over spending 30 pounds on a pizza and realize that I only shelled out 5 dollars.
Ok, enough of the boring school stuff. Last night I went to an club with some friends from the program, fully expecting to have to adjust my dancing style and general club behavior. To my surprise, a night club in Egypt is pretty much the exact same as it is back home, maybe with slightly less grinding and more lit cigarettes on the dance floor. We got a taxi to the club and walked straight in, with is apparently a privilege that foreigners get,because Egyptians have to have a reservation. Anyways, we walk in, pick up a half liter of the local beer, called Saqqara, for 30 pounds, and find a place on the dance floor. After walking around for almost a week and seeing female dress vary from the niqaab, which covers everything but the eyes, to a hijaab, or head scarf, to Western-style clothes, though always modest, it was almost surreal to see girls in tight short dresses with their hair done up and faces adorned with make up. In the Cairo Jazz Club, the music varies every night, and we were there during pop/funk/R&B night, so I recognized the majority of the songs. In addition to our little group of Americans, there was also what appeared to be a bachelorette party going on, so trays of shots were getting carried around the club as I shook my ass and sang Party Rock Anthem at the top of my lungs. The weird thing was, all of the Egyptians were doing the same thing. I don’t know if they all actually spoke English or just knew the lyrics, but at one point I looked around and everyone was singing along with the words “Let’s hear it for New York!!” which makes for a really weird moment in a foreign country. Say what you want about US foreign policy; it seems like other countries still like our music. Going to the nightclub was an awesome experience, and I think it drove home a very important part of Egyptian culture that isn’t really evident to most people: the social stratification that goes hand in hand with religious conservatism. The wealthy Egyptians that live in the area of Cairo called Zamalek are usually the most westernized, speak English, and don’t behave in a way that most Americans would call ultra-conservative. It is in the poorer parts of the city that you see people in traditional dress and women veiled. With all that in mind, I definitely plan on going out some more and experiencing the parts of Cairo that most people think would never exist. Unfortunately, they didn’t play a single Ke$ha song. For shame.
This first week in Cairo has been all orientation, with a bunch of classroom meeting to talk about stuff and some crash courses in Colloquial Egyptian, and today we got the chance to put it all to use in the culmination of out week, an adventure called Amazing Race: Cairo. Based on the tv show, we divided up into 4 teams and each received an envelope with instructions to complete certain tasks around the city in areas that we hadn’t yet visited. We were given the names of prominent landmarks and some cash, and had to navigate around in taxis, by metro, and with directions from random Egyptians to get to certain places and take pictures or get information about Egyptian history. This was definitely stressful at times, but made me feel much more comfortable with my ability to get in a taxi, tell the driver where I want to go, and make some basic small talk during the ride. Besides general bewilderment at some points of the day, one of the main lessons that I picked up today was how nice and helpful the majority of Egyptians are. Time and time again, we would stop some random person on the street and ask for directions only to have other people walk up and join in the conversation to make sure that we get going in the right direction. One of the girls in my group dropped her camera as we got into a cab and a man literally chased down the cab to give it back to her. Another guy noticed that we looked a little lost when entering the metro and bought our tickets for us and walked us to the train. Through the course of the day, we discovered some pretty cool places that I would like to go back to someday. My team managed to win the Amazing Race, which means that we get treated to a free dinner, as well as splitting up the 100 pounds that we had leftover from the adventure!
Well classes start on Sunday, which might be a little soul crushing, but before that, we are going to see the pyramids on Saturday! And I get to ride a camel! And it will be crazy awesome! I haven’t been taking too many pictures thus far because it is a little sketchy to walk around the streets of Cairo with a camera glued to my face, but I promise to be a super tourist and take plenty of pictures when we go to see, you know, ONE OF THE SEVEN WONDERS OF THE ANCIENT WORLD, nbd. Stay tuned, ladies and gents.
ps. If you stuck with me this long, you get to know that the title of this post is a rough transliteration of the colloquial phrase “I want bread, please”