Impressions of Egypt, Number 6

Whew… Our weekend in Cairo was definitely an adventure. And I think, frankly, that if we had started our visit to Egypt with the tourist sites in Cairo that our impression of Egypt would be quite different.

On Thursday afternoon, we arrived at the train station in Cairo at about 4 p.m. We were met at the train by our driver for the weekend, Yehia. Yehia is a taxi driver in Cairo, and Yasser said that Yehia is the only driver he trusts in Cairo. Unfortunately for us, Yehia doesn’t speak much English. So, he led us out of the train station to his car, a very dilapidated old station wagon in which neither the speedometer nor the fuel gauge seemed to be operable. I took a look at the odometer – well over 250,000 km – but I’m pretty sure that it is no longer operating, either. In any case, we loaded our luggage up in his car, and we were off.

Now for a funny aside. Since Jennifer needed to be met at the airport at around the same time that we were met at the train station, Yasser had asked Yehia to arrange for another driver to pick her up. We had sent this bit of information to Jennifer in an email, not knowing that she had already departed her home base in Bulgaria. So, she got in to the Cairo airport, made her way quickly through customs, and then shared a taxi with a woman from Bulgaria that she had met on the airplane.

Meanwhile, Yehia’s friend got to the airport a little late and held up his sign for Jennifer. We were starting to get a little worried, since we heard that the driver still hadn’t found her about 45 minutes after her flight arrived. Finally, about an hour after her flight got in, Yasser called to say that Jennifer had been picked up. When we got to the hotel, though, Jennifer had beat us there by 5 minutes, and clearly wasn’t with Yehia’s friend.

As it turns out, a Japanese tourist who couldn’t even read Yehia’s friend’s sign had latched onto him because she wanted a taxi. She got in the taxi, and he headed for our hotel, not understanding a word that the woman said. About 10 minutes outside the airport, Yehia’s friend’s car broke down. (Not surprising, if you have seen what passes for a taxi in Egypt.) So, after dropping us off at the hotel, Yehia went back to pick up “Jennifer” from his friend’s broken down taxi. Just after Yehia got “Jennifer” into his car, Yasser called Yehia to tell him that the real Jennifer was already at the hotel. Yehia wondered who was in his car. Yasser agreed to translate, assuming that the woman spoke some English. Unfortunately, the woman in the car spoke neither Arabic, English, or French, only Japanese, so Yasser couldn’t communicate with her either! Nevertheless, it is my impression that Yehia eventually managed to transport her to her desired destination, somehow.

We were spending the weekend staying at the Hilton Pyramids Golf Resort, since I had decided to cash in some Hilton HHonors points, and the hotel I chose in downtown Cairo filled up moments before I made my reservation. (A little suspicious, but anyway…) The Hilton Pyramids Golf Resort was about 45 minutes from downtown Cairo even with no traffic. So, it wasn’t the greatest location. But, since we left the hotel each morning and didn’t return until the evening, it worked out fine.

After getting settled in at the hotel, we set out to make plans for the evening. Yasser had suggested a dinner cruise on the Nile, and it seemed like a good idea. So, we got the concierge to make us reservations on the Nile Maxim, which was the cruise that Yasser had recommended. We also ended up asking the hotel to arrange a taxi, since Yehia was still driving around Cairo with the Japanese tourist.

The cruise was delightful. The food was good, and we enjoyed seeing the city at night from the river. There was also a show on the cruise: The first part was pretty awful, but after the singers finished, there was a Sufi dancer and later some belly dancers. The Sufi dancing was pretty impressive – the guy must have whirled around continuously for at least half an hour – but it was a little repetitive after a while. I didn’t care that much about the belly dancing, so I mostly stood outside and took pictures of the city.

On Friday morning, the adventure really began. We started with the pyramids, and Yehia asked if we wanted to ride a horse or camel, or if we just wanted to go by car. We decided to try riding a horse or camel, so he took us to a stable. Now, Yehia, with his limited English, isn’t really a touristy kind of taxi driver, and we think he took us to the first stable that he found. We found out later that we paid far too much for our horse rides, but frankly, it didn’t matter. We rode horses through the desert around the pyramids and sphinx, and that is something that I will never forget.

Shortly after leaving the stable on our horses, though, a guy comes up to us and offers me a head covering – sortof like what Yasser Arafat used to wear. I declined it repeatedly, but still he puts it on me, insisting that I need to cover my head because it is so hot. Our guides from the stable were very complicit in all of this, and I finally was led to believe (though it was never explicitly stated), that this was included in our horse ride. Then, he puts them on Jennifer and Becky, too. He goes along with us for a few minutes, and then the guide lets the boy leading Becky and Jennifer’s horses get ahead, and takes me aside with the head-covering-guy, who wants me to pay 25 L.E. (Egyptian pounds) each for the head covering. I took mine off and gave it back to him, but he continued to insist. I finally gave him a little money (too much, but much less than 25 L.E. each) for all three head coverings, and he went away. This little story does have an up side, though. Our guide could tell that I was very angry about the whole thing and helped to get rid of others who approached us to sell us drinks, postcards, and other junk. In any case, we learn our first rule of the day: Accept nothing, no matter how it is offered, until you have agreed upon a price.

Apparently, though, tourists to the pyramids have “suffered torture that no pen can describe from the hungry appeals for baksheesh that gleamed from Arab eyes” since the days of Mark Twain, who visited in 1866. We actually haven’t found the requests for baksheesh (tips) to be all that onerous, compared to what the guidebook led us to believe, but the number of people touting various wares to tourists is a little overwhelming after a while.

I haven’t ridden on a horse since I was a boy, so by the time we finished our ride two hours later, and for the next two days, I was pretty sore. In fact, I’m still a bit sore. Nevertheless, I think it was worth it. Next weekend, though, I think we’ll just see the pyramids on foot.

After the pyramids, Yehia took us to the Egyptian Museum and dropped us off. We walked over to the Nile Hilton where the guidebook recommended a restaurant and enjoyed some lunch, then started in on the museum. I should perhaps mention that we see the trappings of security at almost every tourist site we visit – metal detectors, X-ray machines, etc. Sometimes they check our passports, too. Usually, though, the guards don’t care if we set off the metal detectors since we are Americans. We’ve certainly noticed that anyone appearing to be of Arab decent is checked much more closely. It makes me slightly uneasy to know that they don’t check everyone closely, even if it does work to my personal advantage. At the Egyptian Museum, though, they check everyone very closely. Since I kept setting off the metal detector, I got a full pat-down. I kept trying to get everything out of my pockets, but I kept missing something, which the guard was sure must be a knife. I finally got everything out of my pockets and convinced him that I didn’t have a knife, although he was still a bit suspicious of the USB Flash Drive on my keychain.

The Egyptian Museum was truly overwhelming. It contains tens of thousands of artifacts, covering more than 5000 years of human history, but they are poorly displayed in dozens of rooms and seldom are they clearly labeled. I am sure that an Egyptologist could probably spend 20 or 30 minutes describing each piece of the museum, and with a good guide or catalog one could spend days upon days there. For bettor or for worse, though, we only had a couple of hours, which we spent following the “highlights” tour given in the guidebook. At the very least, it directed us to the most significant and interesting pieces in the museum, and we saw plenty of other pieces along the way. I really wish that I could have taken some pictures, but cameras were strictly forbidden.

The vast majority of the museum is not air conditioned, unlike the Alexandria National Museum where temperature and humidity were carefully controlled. Only one small room is air conditioned – the room containing Tutankhamen’s gold funeral mask. Nearly half of the upper floor of the museum is filled with finds from Tutankhamen’s tomb, which was discovered nearly intact by Howard Carter in 1922. Apparently Tutankhamen himself was not a particularly significant pharaoh, but the treasures from his tomb are truly spectacular and his funeral mask (pictured here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Tutankhamun_Mask.jpg ) really was the most astounding thing that I saw in the museum. Some of the other pieces in the museum are older and have more historical significance, but staring into Tutankhamen’s golden face, which I have seen in countless images throughout my life, really sent shivers up and down my spine.

After the museum, it was back in the car to spend some time in Khan al Khalili, an enormous marketplace (or “souk”) in Islamic Cairo where merchants have been plying their trade since medieval times. The interior of the market area is basically pedestrian streets, and the market area covers blocks and blocks. On a Friday afternoon, it was jammed with people – mostly locals, but plenty of tourists as well. For a long time, we just walked around, without the nerve to enter any shops. Just walking down the street was quite intense: crowds of people, men carrying heavy boxes or pushing giant carts of merchandise down the street, merchants trying to entice you into their shops, etc. We did finally enter some of the shops, and we even bought several souvenirs. And, once we started to get the hang of shopping in the souk, it was actually pretty fun. In order to be successful in the souk, you have to already know how much something is worth before you try to buy it. Offering half of the initial asking price isn’t unusual, and starting to walk away is almost always a good way to bring the prices tumbling down.

The only time we got ripped off in the souk was when we went to eat dinner. We picked a restaurant that looked quite busy, as this is a recommended way to at least ensure that your food will be fresh. We sat down and looked at the menu, then ordered some falafel and Cokes. The falafel was on the menu and was very reasonably priced – 10 L.E. But when the guy came for payment, he also wanted 10 L.E. each for our cans of Coke, which hadn’t been on the menu! I protested loudly, but he refused to lower the price. I guess he figured that since we had already drunk part of the Cokes and since they weren’t on the menu that he could charge whatever price he wished. We paid up, but you can bet that we won’t be eating there again… It comes back to the first rule: Never accept anything before the price is settled.

At the souk, I didn’t really feel comfortable taking out my fancy camera. So, I was very grateful that Jennifer had a small point-and-shoot with her. Hopefully she can send me some of her pictures, and I can post them along with mine.

After the Khan, it was back to the hotel. We had planned to swim in the pool after our long day of sightseeing, but the pool closed at sunset, so we were thwarted.

On Saturday, we had another early start. This time, we headed first to the pyramids at Saqqara. Saqqara was the main necropolis of Egypt’s ancient capital at Memphis. There is a huge complex there of temples, tombs, and assorted pyramid ruins, but we went mostly to see the Step Pyramid. Before the ancient Egyptians figured out how to build a real pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Zozer was constructed by placing successively smaller mastabas on top of each other.

After Saqqara, we continued South to Dashur. Our primary goal in Dashur was to see the Bent Pyramid. This is the pyramid that starts up at one angle, but was then finished at a less steep angle because the architect realized that the steeper pyramids were collapsing. Also at Dashur, though, is the Red Pyramid, which is really the first true pyramid. These two pyramids are both the same height, and they are exceeded in height only by the two largest pyramids at Giza.

When we got to the entrance gate at Dashur, a guy in a very dusty old business suit and tie wanted to get in the taxi and ride with us to the pyramid. He said that he was with the tourist police and Yehia seemed to think that it was okay, but being a cynic after the previous day’s adventures, I didn’t believe him. After all, most of the tourist police wear uniforms with big arm bands that say “Tourism and Antiquities Police” – not business suits. He finally showed me a little badge, but I still wasn’t very convinced. Finally, I asked him, “How much?” and he said, “No, no. No money.” So, we let him get into the taxi and ride with us to the Red Pyramid.

Jennifer and I climbed up and into the Red Pyramid. Becky waited at the base of the pyramid, and the tourism policeman stood around and talked to Yehia. The entrance to the chambers was down a long, sloped shaft that was about 4 feet tall and descended deep into the pyramid. There really wasn’t much to see inside, other than the construction of the chambers deep within the pyramid. Plus, the lighting was so poor that I couldn’t even get a picture – which is always a real disappointment to me. Nevertheless, after only seeing the great pyramids from the outside on Friday, it was neat to go inside a pyramid.

After seeing the Red Pyramid, we were ready for the main event of Dashur, the Bent Pyramid. Unfortunately, our best efforts at communications – including hand signals, pointing to the guidebook, and trying to get Yasser on the phone, were unable to convey to Yehia that we wanted to see the other pyramid at Dashur, too. So, we went back through the entrance gate where the tourism policeman hopped out; he didn’t ask for money, therefore finally convincing me that he was, in fact, a police officer. We headed back towards Cairo.

We stopped at a restaurant in Giza for some lunch – a fairly non-descript place – and then proceeded to Coptic Cairo for more sightseeing. Coptic Cairo is the oldest part of the modern city. It is a walled enclosure which contains several ancient Christian churches and synagogues. We quickly found the Hanging Church, so called because it was built above one of the gates to the walled compound.

There, in the Hanging Church, we had a very unexpected encounter. Jennifer, as you may recall, is currently serving in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria. At the Hanging Church, she encountered three other Peace Corps volunteers, one who she knew reasonably well, who had just completed their Peace Corps service in Bulgaria and were traveling around the world. We chatted for a few minutes, took some pictures, and then continued on. I could definitely hear “It’s a Small World” playing in the background.

Unfortunately, most of the entrances to Coptic Cairo are closed due to a large USAID project to lower the groundwater level to protect the basements of these ancient buildings from continual flooding. So, after leaving the Hanging Church, it took us quite a while to actually find the entrance leading to the rest of the sites in Coptic Cairo. We eventually found it, though, and we saw a couple of other churches – including one supposedly built on the site in Egypt to which Mary and Joseph fled – and a beautiful synagogue.

After Coptic Cairo, we were headed back to the hotel. But, Jennifer really wanted to get a papyrus, and we knew that most of the papyruses sold in the market to tourists were fakes. So, she wanted to go to Dr. Ragab’s Papyrus Museum where her parents had bought a papyrus when she was a child. We had wanted to go on Sunday morning, but Yasser didn’t think that we would have time. So, Yehia took us to another papyrus museum on the way back to the hotel. All we really wanted to do was buy a papyrus, but first they insisted on giving us a demonstration of papyrus making. Then, they followed us around and wanted to tell us all about each of the papyruses, which was somewhat annoying. Jennifer got her papyrus, though, and we ended up getting one, too. One of the guidebooks says that the main thing about fake papyruses is that when you try to roll them up the paint will chip off. Ours have been rolled up for a few days now, and the paint still hasn’t chipped, so I think we may have gotten the genuine article.

We returned to the hotel and had a swim in the very nice resort pool. A perfect end to another tourist day.

On Sunday, we left the hotel a little later for the Cairo Tower. The Cairo tower opened in 1961 and is now one of the defining features of the Cairo skyline. It is 187 meters tall and stands in the El-Gezira Area, on a large island in the middle of the Nile. We got some great pictures of the city, although it was rather smoggy. I did take a series of pictures that I hope to stitch together into a panorama…

After that, we walked around the area a bit, and then Yehia took us on to the train station. We sat in a café in the train station and had a little snack until almost time for our train. Yehia escorted us to the train and sent us on our way. Yasser was paying Yehia, but I tried to offer him something extra (a little baksheesh) for being so kind to us. He refused to take any money from me, though. Mahmoud met us in Alexandria and returned us to campus.

Cairo was really an overwhelming place. It was loud and dirty, and at least the tourist areas were filled with people trying to sell you things. After the relatively slow pace of our life in Alexandria, we were “homesick” for Alex by the end of the weekend.

I took a number of pictures during our visit to Cairo, and I’ll try to get some of them posted soon. I should perhaps note that I haven’t had a chance to clean up any of the pictures that I’ve been posting. And, since they are being taken in RAW camera format, they definitely need some cleaning up – they haven’t even been properly white balanced. Still, I probably won’t have time for all of that until after I get back to the states, and people seem to be enjoying the pictures in the meantime.

Sorry that this message is late, but between things going full steam in my classes and entertaining our guests, I really haven’t had time for much else.

Regards, Allen

Impressions of Egypt, Number 5

Hello All -

Sorry that I didn’t get this out before we left for Cairo this weekend. So, now I’m a little behind.

This was our second week of class, and the textbooks have finally arrived (well, sortof)! For one of the courses, the students actually found a copy of the textbook in a local library earlier this week. It was a library that they forgot to check previously. And then, on Wednesday, copies of the books shipped from Blacksburg arrived! We are still waiting on additional copies of both books which have been ordered, but at least the students have access to textbooks. This should make the remainder of the courses go much more smoothly.

On Tuesday, we went to meet the President of AAST. His office is in the AAST complex in Miami, Alexandria instead of on the main campus in Abu Qir. No one really seems to know why. He was a very kind older man who spent about 20 or 30 minutes talking to us. It was an easy visit, though, since he did most of the talking. He made Yasser promise to take good care of us and keep us safe so that our visit to Egypt would be enjoyable. I don’t think that he liked the idea that we had gone out into Alexandria on our own, and he really thought that we should take a limo, instead of the train, to Cairo. (I think the train ride actually turned out to be considerably more comfortable, though.) He also said that Yasser should be sure that Becky’s mom knows how prestigious her daughter’s husband is, so that made me laugh. He was espousing a very egalitarian philosophy of non-discrimination and social justice in education, much as you might hear from the president of a public university in the US, which I think explains some unique aspects of the Arab Academy.

In the evening we tried to go to a different mall to pick up a couple of items for our weekend trip to Cairo. We thought that this mall (the Green Plaza Mall) was much closer to the campus in Abu Qir than the mall with Carrefoure. Unfortunately, we were incorrect, and the mall was almost as far as the mall with the Carrefour… (The closer mall is the Montazah Mall…) This mall was much less “American,” too, which sortof surprised me as it has an attached Hilton hotel. I didn’t mind the fact that I recognized fewer American brand names, but the mall was dimly lit and we had a really hard time finding our way around the maze of twisty passageways.

On Wednesday, we went to downtown Alexandria early in the morning to extend our visas, and I rescheduled my first class to late afternoon for the day. Yasser’s driver (Mahmoud) went with us to shepherd us through the process. This probably wasn’t absolutely necessary, as the people in the passport office definitely spoke some English, but it was certainly helpful. The similarities between civil service offices in Egypt and those in America (and probably most anywhere else) were astounding. We took our forms to the window. We were given additional forms to fill out, told to buy the proper stamps and get photocopies of the front pages of our passports, then sent away from the desk. We did this, and went back to the desk. We were sent away again because Mahmoud had put the stamps in the wrong spot and had to get new stamps. And then they didn’t like the photocopy of my passport page, which was too dark. In any case, we finally satisfied the bureaucratic powers, who then said that the it would take one hour to process the visa extensions. Mahmoud took us back to campus, and then he went back to get the passports.

Things in Egypt do not tend to run on time (which is perhaps putting it mildly). Yasser and I have been stressing to the students the need to be punctual, to prepare them for classes in the US. When I got back for my class on Wednesday morning, about half the students were missing. I expressed my frustration that everything in Egypt started late, and one of the students instantly quipped “including democracy.” I couldn’t help but laugh, and we went on with the class.

On Thursday after teaching my classes, we ate a quick bite of lunch and then we were off to the train station. We had first class tickets on the nonstop train to Cairo (less than $7). The train cars looked as if they were once quite luxurious, but they are now quite worn. Nevertheless, they were air conditioned and comfortable enough. It is only a two hour nonstop train journey to Cairo, despite the fact that it can take three hours by car. Plus, you can move around and even use the bathroom on the train, which makes it much more comfortable than a car ride. Ramadan starts on October 4 or 5. When I was first scheduling my trip, I thought that I had scheduled it to avoid Ramadan, but it seems that I misread the table in the guidebook. It is not yet clear how much of an impact this will have on us, but it hopefully won’t be too disruptive. Becky had noticed that the stores were stocking up with sweets and nuts for Ramadan, and she asked Yasser about it. He said that while the emphasis of Ramadan is supposed to be on the fasting during the day, it usually winds up being on the feasting at night, during which people serve lots of special sweets and nuts. In any case, it reminded me of the Christmas season in the US. The emphasis is supposed to be on hope, love, joy and spending time with family and friends, but often winds up being on buying (and receiving) gifts. Coming up… Our weekend in Cairo… Allen Impressions of Egypt, Number 4 Hello All - I thought that “Greetings from Egypt” was a lame subject line, so I’ve moved to “Impressions of Egypt,” which is at least marginally less lame. We started to stretch our wings this weekend, although we didn’t fly far. We had originally thought that we would go to Cairo this weekend. As the week developed, though, it became clear that we would be spending the next two weekends in Cairo. So, we decided to stay in Alexandria this weekend and try to see some things that we hadn’t seen yet. As for our upcoming schedule, I should prepare you for our two visits: On Thursday, Jennifer arrives in Cairo. We will meet her there, spend the weekend in Cairo, and then return to Alexandria on Sunday. The following Wednesday, Jennifer leaves and Mary Anne arrives. Jennifer is a good friend of Becky’s (and mine) from when they were undergrads, who also happens to have been a high school friend of the girl with whom I attended my senior prom. She is currently serving in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria. Mary Anne is Becky’s mother, my mother-in-law. One thing which has required some getting used to is the strange nature of weekends and schedules in Egypt. Everyone takes off Friday, as this is the Muslim holy day. The other weekend day, though, is up for debate. Most businesses seem to take off Saturday, but some take off Thursday. The most unusual I have heard is Yasser’s children’s school. It is a French school, and many foreigners attend or work there. So, they take off on Friday and Sunday, with regular classes on Saturday. Then, there are the hours. Banks and post offices tend to be open from 9 – 2 p.m. Shops and markets, though, are often open until late in the evening (e.g. midnight). Mealtimes are also a bit different: One meal is taken first thing in the morning, but the next meal is typically not taken until around 3 p.m., with the final meal of the day around 9 p.m. Becky and I have been sticking to our usual dining schedule, though. Friday, we stayed in most of the day, with me feverishly working on course materials, trying to put together basic homework and project assignments for most of the term, to reduce the amount of preparation time later. One of my students, though, had indicated on Wednesday that he wanted to be our tour guide on “Thursday afternoon.” On Thursday, though, he indicated that he couldn’t pick us up until 9 p.m. So, we agreed to go with him on Friday instead, when he could pick us up at 6 p.m. He was somewhat disappointed that we had already seen many of the things that he wanted to show us, but we did enjoy talking with him very much. His driving, unfortunately, was less than enjoyable… He took us out to Fort Qaitbey, which we had visited before (the Egyptian Yacht Club is nearby), but it hadn’t been properly identified for us. Fort Qaitbey is at the Western end of the Corniche and is built on the site of the much more famous Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The lighthouse was inaugurated in 283 BC and stood for 17 centuries, but was destroyed by a violent earthquate in 1303. A century later, the sultan Qaitbey quarried the ruins in order to construct a fortress, which was actually pictured in my last set of photos, here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mackenab/43301833 . Near the Fort, we visited an ice cream shop. I wasn’t really planning on eating ice cream in Egypt – at least one of the guidebooks frowned upon it, and hygiene didn’t seem high on the list of priorities at the shop. But after our guide raved about how it was the best ice cream in Egypt and that people came all the way from Cairo just to eat the ice cream (Egyptians seem to exaggerate slightly, I have noticed…), it seemed impossible to politely refuse. So, I had some strawberry ice cream. It wasn’t bad, although the consistency was less creamy and more icy than you would get in the US. And, I still seem to be in good health, for which I am thankful. Other than that, our tour was mostly a driving one. The cost of living in Egypt, if you haven’t gathered already, is extremely low compared to the US. A graduate teaching assistant with a bachelor’s degree who would make$1500-$1700 per month at Virginia Tech makes$150-$170 a month at the Arab Academy. According to our guide, this is enough to subsist on, but not much else, which is similar to the way a graduate student in the US might describe their plight. They join the tenure track, receive a promotion to Assistant Lecturer, and get a substantial raise when they complete their Master’s degree. After completing their Ph.D.s, usually abroad, they receive the title of Lecturer, with a salary of about$1200-$1500 per month. (Sorry, students, the pay jump from GTA to Assistant Professor in the US isn’t that large in percentage terms!) The teaching assistant salary fits in well with our general observation about life in Egypt: labor is very cheap. You can see this with the police, who have people standing at almost every intersection. You can see it in the types of conveniences, like having a driver, that professors in Egypt don’t think twice about but that would be reserved for the very rich in the US. You can especially see it on the construction site next to our dorm, where 20 men with sledgehammers will do a job (like removing a concrete sidewalk) that might be done by one man with a bulldozer in the US. Since labor is so cheap, prices follow suit: Things which can be made or packaged in Egypt are usually cheap. Things (like electronics and some books) which are imported may be more expensive than they would be in the States. The most unfortunate part of the evening was the driving, which was truly frightening. About 3 miles outside of campus, our guide mentioned that he is “not a very good driver” and that he “couldn’t see that well at night.” But we came through the evening in one piece. As we wove our way in and out of traffic, he mentioned that he had been a much better driver in the Arab Emirates, where he went to high school, because people follow the rules of the road there. I commented that the rules of the road were commonly followed in the US, to which he replied that he had learned many of his craziest driving moves from American movies. This points to something that I think is central to understanding how Egyptians view Americans. They largely view us through the lens of our television programs and movies. A television was provided in our dorm room. It receives one English-language channel. (We have been told that it should receive more, but no one has ever done anything about it, which is just as well.) The channel we receive is out of Dubai and is called ONE: ONgoing Entertainment. They show a selection of American television shows, e.g. 90210, Melrose Place, Friends, Ed, The West Wing, Frasier, The View, and a soap opera or two, and movies, e.g. The Rock, Addicted to Love, Body Snatchers, a docu-drama about the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal, and so on. It’s not a terrible selection, and there are some shows that we enjoy when we can catch them, but I’m not sure that I want to be defined by one television channel. (Of course, I suppose that most Americans know even less about typical Egyptian life…) On Saturday, we called the company that provided the car and driver on Thursday night to take us out and about. Our plan had been to visit the Graeco-Roman Museum and the Jewelry Museum, but we were soon told that the Graeco-Roman Museum was closed to visitors. In any case, we decided to start with lunch at Mohammed Ahmed, which was mentioned in the guidebook as a good place for fuul and felafel. Fuul consists primarily of fava beans which are soaked overnight, then boiled and mashed. This is then eaten in a pocket of shammy, which is a pita-like bread. Fuul is a staple of Egyptian food. Felafel, or Ta’amiyya, is made from mashed fava beans and spices fried in a patty. So, Becky and I each had a plate of fuul (with plenty of bread to stuff it in) and we got some felafel to share. We also each had a Coke, because we weren’t sure what we might get if we ordered water, but Mohammed Ahmed brought us a sealed bottle of water anyway, so we would have been fine. We quite enjoyed our fuul and felafel, I must say. I wouldn’t want to eat it at every meal, but it was tasty. It gave us a bit of indigestion, but no more so than if we had eaten a giant bowl of beans at home. Total price for our meal? About$3.50, including tip.

After a filling meal at Mohammed Ahmed, we tried to get to the Jewelry Museum. But the driver the car company had sent spoke much less English than the previous driver, and the only thing we could get him to understand was “museum.” So, he took us to the Alexandria National Museum, which only opened in 2003 and isn’t mentioned in any of our guidebooks. The museum was quite well done, and I was glad that we visited. It included artifacts from the Pharonic (3100 – 332 BC) and Graeco-Roman (332 BC – 638 AD) periods, as well as one floor devoted to more “recent” things from the Coptic, Islamic, and Modern periods. (The modern period here starts around 1500 AD or so, if you’re keeping track at home.)

My favorite uniquely Alexandrian historical thing is the Roman/Egyptian god Serapis. Serapis is part Egyptian (the husband of Isis), and part Greek (a mixture of Zeus and Poseidon). He sometimes takes the form of an Apis bull, too. He was invented by Ptolemy I to bring the Egyptians and Romans together in shared worship – a tactic which was largely successful. I took some pictures of various representations of Serapis, which appear in my new set of pictures.

My only complaint about the museum was that the lighting was really poor. Not just “protect the antiquities from damage” poor, but “can hardly read the cards that identify things” poor. So, to take pictures without a flash I had to bump the camera up to ISO 1600, leading to rather grainy pictures. (This is the miracle of the digital camera, though. With an old-fashioned camera you would have to load high-speed film, if it was even available.)

After seeing the museum, we went into the gift shop, which was very, very small, although they had some interesting things. Before deciding on anything, though, I turned around and my camera bag knocked a small statue off a low shelf and onto the floor where the statue broke from its base. I’m not sure if they would have demanded payment, but it was only 30 Egyptian Pounds (about \$5.20), so I went ahead and paid for it. It was the first time in a long, long time (maybe ever?) that I’ve broken something in a shop. I was quite embarrassed; I’m just glad it wasn’t a priceless antiquity or something. In any case, I am now the proud owner of a foot-high statue of a Greek god that I don’t particularly like. A little superglue will put him back together when I get home, and then he can sit on the shelf and mock me for the rest of my natural life.

After the museum, we decided that rather than try to convince our driver to take us to the Jewelry Museum, we would head back to campus. Once there, the driver asked for the same amount as we had paid on Thursday evening, when we went further, were gone longer, and had ridden in a nicer car. I didn’t argue, as it was still within the range of prices that Yasser had told me to expect from this company, but it certainly spurred me on for Sunday’s taxi adventure.

On Sunday, we decided to make another go at the Jewelry Museum, but we decided to try taking a taxi. We had noted that there were always taxis gathered outside the Academy. So, I called one of my students to learn how to say “Jewelry Museum” and “Arab Academy” in Arabic. (Arab Academy turns out to be very easy – it sounds a lot like it does English.) And we were off.

Unfortunately, the Jewelry Museum was closed. I tried to redirect the driver to another site we hadn’t seen, but while his English was decent, I couldn’t seem to communicate my desired destination. He named a half dozen other sites that he could take us to, but they were all places that we had been before, so we just got him to return us to the Academy.

After we got back, much earlier than expected, I went in to the office. I caught up with Yasser on several items, including telling him about our weekend. He was stunned both that we had eaten at Mohammed Ahmed and that we had taken a taxi. We are not quite as delicate as he may have believed!

You can continue to see all of my Egypt pictures to date here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mackenab/sets/948043/

Or you can see just the newer ones here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mackenab/tags/egypt2/

Regards, Allen

Greetings from Egypt, Number 3

Well, Monday was the start of class, and as you are reading this message I have completed my first week of classes in Egypt. We haven’t done much exciting so far this week other than establish a routine, plan for some people to visit us starting next week, and going out for another feast on Wednesday.

For those of you who don’t know about the program which brought me to Egypt, let me give you a brief background. The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is establishing a new graduate program in Egypt. The program is called VT-MENA (Virginia Tech – Middle East North Africa), and this is the first semester. The academic program belongs 100% to Virginia Tech, but is hosted by the Arab Academy of Science and Technology. The program is starting small, with students in two departments (Computer Science; Electrical and Computer Engineering) and three fields (Computer Science; Computer Engineering; Communications (EE)). I believe that the program’s creators have visions of including more departments and fields within ECE in the future, however.

Most (all?) of the students in the program are Ph.D. students, although the program theoretically includes Master’s study as well. The Ph.D. students will take 1-2 years of coursework in Egypt, then come to Blacksburg to complete their studies on the main campus of Virginia Tech. Courses are being offered via three methods: (1) visiting faculty, such as myself, offering courses in Egypt on a compressed schedule, (2) videoconference courses delivered from Blacksburg, and (3) courses taught by local faculty, who are chosen to be adjunct VT faculty.

This semester, the program is starting with about 12 students. Most of them are on what you might describe as the “faculty track” in Egypt, although it is much different than the faculty track in the US. (Namely, prospective professors join the tenure track after completing their Master’s degrees, then go off to get their Ph.D.s after being accepted to an appropriate program, and then return to Egypt at the rank of Instructor. Then they progress through the ranks of Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor.) And I believe that all of them are taking at least one of the two courses that I am teaching.

After one week, I am quite impressed with the students. Their backgrounds are quite varied, and some are certainly stronger than others, but they are eager to learn, and they participate actively in class. The two classes may well be the two most interactive classes that I have taught since coming to Virginia Tech. I actually had to shut down discussion in one class on Tuesday so that we could get on with the topics at hand. This is not a problem that I have ever had in Blacksburg. (Although perhaps this speaks to my growth as a teacher as well as the characteristics of the students…)

There is a major problem which is not yet resolved. We still don’t have textbooks. Yasser thought that the books would be available in Cairo, as all of the books for the classes being taught locally and by videoconference this semester have been available there. But they weren’t; a fact not discovered until Sunday. So, we considered having them shipped from Blacksburg, but then the plan was changed to have them picked up in London and shipped by the AAST staff in London. Unfortunately, the AAST staff in London were almost all on vacation this week, and they couldn’t help. They were going to be ordered from Europe, and the book for one course was ordered. The book for the other course turned out not to be available from the chosen sources in Europe, though, and has now been ordered from sources in the US. The students may have to share a couple of copies, but at least they will have access to the book.

Our basic routine for Monday – Thursday has become this: I get up around 7, we take breakfast at 8, and then head over to the academic building. Becky uses the internet connection in my office, while I teach my two courses from 9 – 10:35 and 11 – 12:35. Then, we come back to the dorm for lunch. Becky spends the afternoon at the dorm, while I go back to the office, prepare course materials, and handle other business (e.g. Email) until almost dinner time. Then Becky and I take a walk around campus before dinner at 7. We spend the remainder of the evening in the dorm, although I often continue working. I’m trying (without much success) to get ahead in preparation for the travel and visits we have planned for the coming weeks.

On Wednesday afternoon, Yasser and Aleea (sp?), the Dean of Continuing Education, took us out to “lunch.” I say “lunch” as it started at 2 and we didn’t get back to the Academy until 6 – blowing my entire afternoon of work!?! We went to Samakmak, another seafood restaurant. The food was even better than the Fish Market!!! The same basic dishes were served, but they were more flavorful and better prepared. (Something I might have thought impossible a few days ago…) The Fish Market has a much better view, looking out on the Mediterranean and over much of Alexandria, though, so for the whole package I’d say it’s a toss up. (The guidebook suggests that Samakmak may actually be quite cheap by American standards. This was not the case at the Fish Market, which was quite reasonable by American standards, but not cheap. I wouldn’t really know, though, as we have paid for almost nothing.)

Becky had asked about “real” Egyptian desserts, so after Samakmak, we went elsewhere for dessert. We had some baklava and something else, but most interesting was the O Ma Ali or “mother of Ali.” This was some sort of pastry, placed in a bowl, soaked in sweet milk, then baked. It was unique, and very rich. I couldn’t eat much after our fish feast.

After this, we took a brief walk with Yasser, who showed us the oldest and most famous mosque in Alexandria. He also showed us a small area which is what you might describe as an amusement park for poor children. It was setup along the sides of a street, and they had many “rides,” mostly human powered, which went round and round or swung back and forth – all brightly painted – and some other games, like shooting tiny targets with BB guns. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me for any of this, so maybe we’ll go back.

Thursday evening, we went back to the mall. It was mostly an experiment, though, in going out on our own, as we went with a driver we hired (on a recommendation from Yasser). Hence, it was our first unaccompanied trip out of the Academy. I myself am somewhat eager to just take a cab. Our “handlers” seem to have a rather distorted view of our standards of comfort. I suspect that this is due to the fact that professors seem to be in a much higher social class in Egypt than in the US.

I was originally worried about going hungry in Egypt – now I’m worried about gaining weight! I was hoping to run, but I haven’t seen anyone running – in or outside the Academy – since we arrived in Egypt. And almost no one wears shorts, so I am self conscious about both running and wearing shorts. (And I didn’t bring any long running pants…) Perhaps this will improve when the thousands of undergrads arrive on campus in order to start class on Sunday.

And, saving the best for last, here are some pictures, with descriptions. Unfortunately, at the moment they are in no particular order – not even the order in which I took them. Most are things that I have mentioned in my first two messages… I hope you don’t have any trouble viewing them. Have a look and add some comments.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mackenab/sets/948043/

Regards, Allen

Greetings from Egypt, Number 2

Hello Again, Everyone!

This message is again quite long, although perhaps shorter than the last. My class starts on Monday, and I’ll be teaching Monday – Thursday. I think that for future messages my basic schedule will be to send one message out on Thursday, with a brief description of the happenings in class and on campus that week, and another message on Sunday or Monday, detailing our weekend activities (most of which will hopefully be slightly more exciting than this weekend). I didn’t get regular internet access until Sunday, though, so no pictures yet.

Update: One of my correspondents has put forth two theories on the unfinished buildings in Cairo, both from her own international travels. Theory 1: In some countries, there is a tax on finished buildings. So, if you leave your building unfinished, then you pay no tax. Theory 2: In other countries, building loans are uncommon. So, you build until you run out of money, then stop until you have enough money to continue. I’ll leave it to my Egyptian readers to tell me if either of these is the case in Cairo.

Thursday was a tourist day, arranged by the Arab Academy. We got off to a bit of late start, but by mid morning we were headed to the Montaza Gardens. We took a brief drive through the gardens, and then a walk near the Ma’mura Beach. We could also see across the bay to the Montaza Palace, which as built in the early 20th century by a relative of King Farouk.

After that, it was back in the car, headed for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The original Alexandria Library, founded in the 3rd Century BCE (shortly after the city itself), was the greatest library in the ancient world. Unfortunately, it was completely destroyed by fire in 48 BCE. Only one manuscript from the original library has ever been found, and, if I understood correctly, the reason it survived was that it was found in the burial chamber of a king. (Imagine the overdue fines…)

In any case, this new library officially opened in 2002, more than 2000 years after the original library was destroyed. It is really a magnificent piece of modern architecture, featuring the largest open reading room in the world. I took some pictures of the outside, which I will show you later. I was led to believe that pictures were not allowed inside, though, and I left my camera in the car while we were inside the library. It turns out that pictures are allowed inside, just not in the museums. In any case, I’m sure that we will be returning to the Bibliotheca when we entertain Becky’s mom in a few weeks, and I’ll know to take my camera inside then!

The library itself contains several museums and galleries, plus a planetarium (which we did not visit). The Antiquities Museum in the library contained relatively few items, but it was an interesting primer for the history that we will see later. It also reminded me that I need to brush up a bit more on the basic outlines of Egyptian History, which is intertwined in complicated ways with much of the history of the world. The most interesting part of the Antiquities Museum, I thought, were the objects that were discovered during the excavation of the library site. These included a very fine Roman mosaic of a dog, which Becky and I, being dog lovers, really liked. (It sortof reminded us of the RCA dog.)

We also saw the manuscript collection, which contained a pretty wide variety of ancient books and manuscripts. One of the manuscripts on display was a reproduction of the only known manuscript from the ancient library at Alexandria. The original is in Vienna. It wasn’t clear to me whether the original was being restored and/or studied in Vienna, or if the Venetians were simply hoarding it.

After the library, one of our guides from AAST took us to the Egyptian Yacht Club, where he is a member, where we had a drink (Coke, in our case) and waited for Yasser to join us for a late lunch. The Yacht Club is a private club on the Mediterranean. (There is also a club for engineers, which I hope to visit later, if for no other reason than its novelty.) A number of women at the club were wearing two-piece swimsuits: certainly the first time we’ve seen that in Egypt! Our guide said that this was a matter of personal choice and that such attire was permitted even on the public beaches. This contradicts the guidebooks, though, which indicate that such things are not allowed on public beaches and in any case would certainly draw much unwanted attention on a public beach.

After that, it was off for our first meal out, at “The Fish Market,” reputed to be one of the best seafood restaurants in Alexandria. It was a feast: wonderful bread with various dips, the largest prawns I’ve ever seen, several kinds of fried fish, the best calamari that I have ever tasted, and a main course of grilled fish. (I finally found out the name of the fish in English, but it was not a type that I was familiar with, and the name now escapes me.) It was an excellent meal.

After this huge feast, we returned to AAST, where we begged off dinner (we didn’t finish our feast until after 5 p.m.), then went to Yasser’s office to connect to the internet and send/receive email.

On Friday, we stayed in for most of the day. I spent the day preparing for my courses, while Becky read and watched a movie.

In the evening, though, one of the students in the VT-MENA program (and his friend) took us to the mall. It was a strange experience, in that the mall was extremely similar to one that you would find in the US – including people hocking herbal remedies from a kiosk. The only perceptible difference (other than the fact that most things were in both Arabic and English) was that instead of multiple anchor stores, there was only one: a Wal-mart-like store including groceries, clothing, housewares, etc. called Carrefour.

We ate dinner at a pizza place in the mall called Pizza Station, which we were told later is a local chain which was started by some Alexandrian youth who went to college in the US and then came back and opened a pizza place. It wasn’t exactly like pizza that you would get in the US, but it was a reasonable substitute. I’ve certainly eaten much worse pizza in America!

Talking with the students who took us to the mall offered fascinating insight into the minds of two young, well-educated Egyptians. Not to put too fine a point on it, they seem eager to leave Egypt, with their only reservation being their families whom they love very much. I think their expectations of the world outside Egypt were somewhat overblown, but talking to them was certainly very interesting. Becky suggested the idea that they could be the ones to improve Egypt, but they weren’t biting – at least not yet.

Saturday was even more laid back. We stayed in the dorm all day, with the exception of two walks that we took around the campus. I worked on course preparations, which are now nearly complete. I tried to visit Yasser’s office again in the evening, to check email, but the building security guard did not understand what I was trying to do. He thought that I wanted to see Yasser, and repeatedly told me to come back tomorrow. (“Tomorrow” was apparently one of the only English words that he knew.) I tried to call Yasser to translate and to assure the guard that I had permission to enter the building, but I couldn’t get through. I finally gave up and returned to the dorm. I suspect that most future weekends will be filled with tourist activities, so a quiet weekend did not go amiss.

On Sunday, my office was finally prepared, including Internet access. So, our connectivity should be much better for the duration of our visit. (With the exception of the final week, when we plan to tour Upper Egypt.) At noon, Yasser and I met with the majority of the VT-MENA students. They had been assigned VT Student ID numbers, but most had not been given the numbers and hence had been unable to receive VT computer accounts (PIDs). I believe that situation has now been resolved, as I gave out the ID numbers to the students and showed them how to obtain a PID. So far, I am impressed with the students. Their English, which was my biggest concern, seemed good, although I’ll know more after my classes start.

I think I missed the most exciting part of the day, though. Our room is cleaned by housekeepers every day except Friday (which is the Muslim holy day). Previously, the housekeepers have said almost nothing, presumably because I was in the room. Today, though, I had gone to the office when they came to clean the room. And apparently they made extraordinary efforts to communicate with Becky, much to her excitement and frustration. We left our Arabic phrasebook at home; Yasser will try to get us another. In any case, she did manage to communicate that we needed to have our laundry done, and it was taken away to the laundry. (The laundromat on campus does not have machines for individual use, but they wash and press(!) your laundry for you and then return it to you.)

Further observations:

Becky is receiving many fewer stares in Alexandria than when we were driving out of Cairo. Alexandria is a tourist destination, so I suppose that they are accustomed to a variety of people passing through. Yasser says that the Caireans stare at everyone. (I guess that Cairo is a tourist destination, too, but not in the same way as Alexandria.)

On a more general note, I have noted that there is a strong correlation between youth, wealth, and education and the presence/acceptance of Western dress, music, and cultural norms. This is both comforting to me as an American tourist – seeing things that remind me of home – and disturbing – seeing the erosion of a culture in progress. The Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are a Changin’” has been playing in my head for the last few days. The times are certainly changing in Egypt, with both the good and the bad things that this implies.

I failed to mention something else striking: The presence of military police with machine guns, in guard towers along the highway, in intersections, etc. Becky wonders what they are supposed to be watching for, as most of them look bored. I don’t really think that they are watching for anything in particular, but are supposed to serve as reminders of the power of the state. Such is life in a police state, I suppose.

AAST is located in Abu Qir, on the far Eastern side of Alexandria. This is mildly problematic as there isn’t much taxi service or public transport this far out in the suburbs. So, we require assistance to get into town or go anywhere else. This isn’t too much of a problem, as everyone is eager to help. Nevertheless, it leads to a bit of a “trapped” feeling for those of us used to moving about at leisure, and we don’t want to impose on our gracious hosts.

We were really worried about food, but so far, so good. Our hosts at AAST seem to be Americanizing our food – so far every meal that we have eaten at the dorm except breakfast has included french fries!?! But, I think that they are also being extra careful to ensure that our food is safe for our delicate American stomachs.

Greetings from Egypt, Number 1

Hello Everyone! Greetings from Egypt!

This is my first message to this list. I have assembled this list of friends, family, and colleagues who were interested in hearing about our adventures in Egypt. Most of you told me that you wanted to be on this list. But several of you were added by me without asking, usually because I thought that you would be interested, but didn’t have a chance to ask you before our departure. (I’ve thought of and added at least half a dozen people since we left home, and I’m sure I’ll think of more as we go along.) So, if you don’t want to be on the list, just send me an email and I’ll promptly remove your name…

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I’ll provide further background on why I’m here and what I’m doing in a later email. For now, though, I should provide a brief disclaimer: I am an “ugly American” who hasn’t traveled much outside of the USA. I will try to report on what I have seen without prejudice and without too much comparison to my own experience, but some comparison is inevitable.

It has been quite an exciting few days!

On Sunday, we left Blacksburg for Frederick, Maryland, where we spent the night with Becky’s parents.

On Monday morning, we ran a few errands before our departure from the airport. Our last errand, on our way out of town, was a stop at the mall to pick up a couple of items. (Most notably, a charger for my camera batteries, as I had left my charger in Blacksburg.) When we got back out of the mall, the van wouldn’t start. It would turn over, but wouldn’t start, as if the battery, which had started the van twice in the last hour, had suddenly decided to quit. As luck would have it, we were in the parking lot of Sears. So, my father-in-law went inside, bought a battery and a set of wrenches, and installed the battery. So, we were on our way, albeit a half-hour later than planned.

When we arrived at Dulles, it was a complete madhouse. This was the result of traveling on Labor Day, I suppose, but the security line was actually snaked around in front of the ticket counters, making it impossible to access the ticket counters without ducking under the ropes and cutting through the security lines. We checked in, waited through the longest security line I have ever experienced, and arrived at our gate as general boarding began.

Our flight left the gate 30 minutes late on account of the fact that someone checked in a bag but didn’t show up at the gate. I’d guess that he or she was still standing in the security line… Then we sat on the tarmac for 30 more minutes, presumably because we had missed our takeoff slot. Finally, an hour after scheduled departure, we were on our way.

After an uneventful flight, we arrived in Frankfurt early Tuesday morning, and we made our connection for Cairo. The flight followed the coast of the Adriatic Sea, and then crossed the Mediterranean. As we approached Cairo, we could see the Great Pyramids from the airplane. I was astounded by the geography, too – unbelievably green, fertile land, teeming with plant life in the vicinity of the Nile and then unending miles of dessert. I suppose this is what one should expect in Egypt, but seeing it is much more vivid than reading about it.

We were met at the airport by a gentleman holding a sign that said, “Virginia Tech – Alain Mcinsay.” (Actually, I think the spelling of my last name was even worse than that, but I can’t remember exactly what it was.) I’m not sure I would have recognized it as my name if the sign hadn’t also said, “Virginia Tech.” With extreme efficiency, he got us our visas, escorted us through Passport Control, and on to baggage claim. We waited quite a while for our bags, which were quite beaten up, but pretty much everything survived the trip. Then, our escort whisked us through customs with hardly a word. He then spoke for a few minutes with a man from a shuttle service, took us out to a van, loaded up our luggage, and said goodbye.

The van driver got in, and we were off. All of the guidebooks talk about how crazy the traffic is in Cairo. It was crazy, but not quite up to my expectations. There was certainly a rhythm to it… Hand and horn signals, unmarked traffic lanes (Did you know that there is actually an extra lane between any two marked lanes of traffic? Try that trick in the USA…), and so on. Oh, and the pedestrians are just as crazy as the drivers, running across multiple lanes of fast moving traffic. According to one of the guidebooks, Egypt does have a very high rate of traffic accidents. That having been said, though, I dare say that the average driver in Egypt is much more skilled than the average American driver. A much greater level of situational and spatial awareness are obviously required to avoid an accident. We got into quite a traffic jam in Alexandria, and I was astounded that through it all we didn’t bump or scrape (or even touch) another vehicle. Due to the traffic jam, it was just after dark when we reached the Arab Academy of Science and Technology.

We were met by Yasser Hanafy, who is the Dean of the College of Computing at AAST and is our host. He paid our driver, got someone to handle our luggage, arranged for our dinner, and showed us to our room. We are staying in a women’s dorm at AAST. It is a large dorm room, with its own bathroom and shower, two desks, a small fridge, a sitting area, and a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. (I’ll post pictures of the room and our view of the Mediterranean to the web as soon as I get better Internet access…)

So, we had dinner, prepared for us in the dining room at the dorm, and then went to bed.

Today (Wednesday), we took it easy in the morning, with breakfast and lunch again prepared in the dorm. This afternoon, Yasser showed me around the campus, including showing me the probable location of my office, which will hopefully be ready tomorrow. Then, before dinner, Yasser drove Becky and I around Alexandria, along the Corniche. School has not yet started in Egypt, and there are still thousands and thousands of tourists from around Egypt and the Middle East packing the Mediterranean beach along the Corniche. It doesn’t look all that relaxing to me – sitting in a chair among hundreds of people on a crowded beach… But most of the tourists will be gone soon, and Yasser promises that late September and October are the best times of year to be in Alexandria.

Today was also election day in Egypt, but almost no one that I met had voted. It seems that academics in Egypt are completely disenchanted with the political process. I mentioned that this election – apparently the first contested election in Egypt in decades – had gotten quite a bit of coverage in the US press, and I was told that it was no different than previous elections (which were uncontested), but that it was only made to appear different.

Some observations, before I close this message, which is already entirely too long.

First, there are advertisements everywhere. Lots of billboards, but even things that would serve a civic purpose in the US often contain advertising. For instance, on the dessert road between Cairo and Alexandria the mile markers, counting down the miles to Alexandria, advertise a cell phone company! And there are flags on the street lamps, which might carry a season or civic message in the US, but here carry advertising. Quite a bit of the advertising is in English, too.

Second, there is an astounding amount of poverty. This was especially true in Cairo, where we passed mile after mile of what appeared to be slums. These were mostly brick buildings with cement columns. Most of the time the columns extended beyond the tops of the buildings with rebar extending further beyond the tops of the columns, as if to suggest that at any time the buildings could “grow,” should the slums require expansion. This contrasted most sharply to various buildings built by Western companies; I especially remember a beautiful, modern building bearing the name of “Microsoft” on the outskirts of Cairo, but there were certainly others as well.

Third, the guidebooks carry various warnings about the treatment of Western women in Egypt. Becky was subject to quite a bit of ogling from men on the street as we rode from the airport to Alexandria yesterday, and some of the men are clearly uncomfortable interacting with Western women. (The worst, although in retrospect amusing, instance was an 11 or 12 year old boy who called his friends over, pointing and laughing, as we were stopped in traffic.) Since we have arrived at the Academy, though, everyone has been wonderful. The men on the staff here are clearly accustomed to dealing with foreigners.

Finally, in general we have been treated like a king and queen here at the Arab Academy. Most people in the culture seem to be extremely hospitable and generous, I believe, and they are eager to fulfill our every wish with regards to food, making us comfortable, and so on. It is both very pleasant and occasionally a bit unnerving for those of us used to taking care of our own needs.

As I said, this has gone on far longer than I intended. But there was much to report. As we get settled in, and I get busy teaching my courses, I expect that my messages will be much shorter. Hopefully, future messages will also replace many of these words with pictures, which I will post to the web and link. For now, though, that is all.

I am pressing “Send” on Wednesday night, Egypt time, but I won’t have internet until at least tomorrow. So, I don’t know when it might reach you. We shall see!