It has been a week of interesting small occurrences, without much in the way of excitement. Still, a few things worth describing.
On Tuesday, I taught my classes in the morning on a slightly altered schedule to accommodate my students’ Ramadan teaching schedules. In the afternoon, I gave a talk about my research. The talk was extremely well attended, I thought, with probably almost 40 people in the audience. The audience was a good mix of men and women, and a good mix of undergraduates, graduate students (mostly from the VT-MENA program, but probably some local M.S. students, too), and faculty. My talk seemed to be well received, too, a fact for which I was grateful. I didn’t come to Egypt particularly well prepared to give a research presentation. While a faculty member probably shouldn’t travel anywhere unprepared to make a research presentation, I switched to a new laptop about two weeks before departure. While I made sure to copy over any files I might need for teaching, I brought almost no research files. So, I had to create the presentation from scratch and mostly from memory. I planned to augment it with figures that I could find on the web on Monday afternoon, but the power outage foiled my plans. I was able to download a few figures on Tuesday morning to break up the text.
With lunch on Tuesday, we were given fresh dates. The only kind of dates that I have had in the US have been dried, and the fresh ones (although I have seen them on trees since our arrival) were much different than I expected. If you haven’t seen a fresh date, they are small, elongated fruits. The ones we had were yellow, about 1-2 inches in diameter and 3 inches long. They have a long “seed” or pit that basically runs from tip to tip, and you eat the fruit (and the skin) that surrounds this central core. The fruit basically tasted like the dried dates that I have had, but the consistency was like an apple, while I expected something softer and chewier. They gave us a pretty large bowl of them with lunch, so we took them with us and I snacked on them over the next couple of days.
Also on Tuesday, Becky got stuck in the elevator in the dorm. She wasn’t stuck for very long before someone from the dorm got her out, but it is an experience that she would rather not repeat. The elevators in the academic buildings seem pretty reliable, but the elevator in the dorm is not. It has been repaired multiple times since our arrival… Nevertheless, our room is on the fifth floor (which would be called the sixth floor in an American building), and I am not allowed to set foot on the other floors (because I am male and it is a women’s dorm). So, we ride the elevator.
Wednesday was another slightly altered class day, again because of the students’ Ramadan teaching schedule. Since the start of Ramadan, we have been eating dinner at around the same time as the students in the dorm. (Before this, we were almost never in the cafeteria at the same time as the students, as we ate at more typical American times.) On Wednesday, one of the girls in the dorm got up the nerve to say hello to us. Becky started a conversation with her, and ended up moving over to the girls’ table to talk with them. (They didn’t seem interested in talking with me, and I was pretty sure that I wasn’t supposed to join the all women table for dinner!) The girl who started talking to us is actually from Iraq, although we still haven’t exactly figured out where. Becky talked to them a little bit about their studies, dorm life, and so on. She didn’t talk too long, but I think she really enjoyed interacting with them.
On Thursday after class, Mahmoud took us to the travel agency to get our Nile cruise tickets, which we had reserved a few days earlier. The travel agency was the busiest that I’ve ever seen. A half dozen travel agents at desks, twice as many customers, plus phones ringing off the hook. Whenever you pass a travel agency in the US these days, it always looks deserted. I’m guessing, though, that online ticketing hasn’t taken off in Egypt… In any case, we got our airline tickets from Cairo and our cruise itinerary for Aswan to Luxor. We depart Cairo for our cruise next Friday morning, returning to Cairo on Tuesday evening a few hours before our flight to Frankfurt. In any case, I had expected the outing to take longer, but the agent swiped my credit card, gave us our tickets, and bid us farewell in about 5 minutes. So much for my afternoon outing… In the evening, Becky ate dinner at the girls’ table. After dinner they took her up to show her real life in the dorm. While there, she met a third year undergraduate who had attended my research talk and was very interested in my work. Becky gave her my email address and encouraged her to stop by my office next week. So, we’ll see if anything comes of that. Perhaps she’ll join the VT-MENA program in Fall 2007!
Friday began our final weekend in Alexandria. We stayed on campus in the morning and early afternoon. Around 4 p.m., Yasser picked us up. We drove along the Corniche for a while, until we saw a huge group of people gathered on the shore. Yasser insisted that we must see, and he pulled over to the side of the Corniche and parked. We got out and went to look, but we were too late. If we had made it a little earlier, then we would have seen the fishermen hauling in their nets. The fishermen think that it is bad luck for people to see the fish while they are being hauled in, though, so they bring in the net and then cover the fish as quickly as possible. Yasser also took us to a shop to get some souvenirs, and then we went on to iftar. (Iftar is the name of the evening meal during Ramadan.)
We had iftar at a nice restaurant called “Siomar Oriental Cuisine,” but the food was basically Egyptian. At the restaurant, we finally met Yasser’s wife and his three children. The food was excellent, but the company was better. We really enjoyed meeting and talking with Yasser’s children. He has one daughter who is about 15 years old, and then a boy and a girl who are 13 year old twins. (I might be slightly off on those ages, but I’m close…) It was interesting to talk with them about their schools and about their interests. They have seen more American movies than I have seen, they also like many American TV shows, and they enjoy computer games. Becky recommended some books in English that they might enjoy, which I think that Yasser appreciated since he would like them to read more and watch less TV!
Most of the things that we ate were the same as we have had before: kofta and kababs, fuul, and so on. We had one thing new, though: pigeon. The pigeon wasn’t bad. It tasted somewhat like chicken, but it was more tender and a little bit gamy.
Yasser’s wife was quite disappointed that she hadn’t been able to serve us iftar in their apartment. Unfortunately, the apartment is undergoing renovations, which were supposed to be completed several weeks ago… Listening to Yasser tell about the hassle of getting the apartment completed sounded exactly like working on renovating one’s house or condo in the US. Things are delayed, workers don’t show up when they are expected, when they do show up they don’t do the job exactly right, the general contractor insists that other work must be done (at great expense) before completing the planned tasks, and so on… Suddenly the only part of coming home that I dread is the bathroom remodeling project that awaits me!
Something I have failed to mention is that a different number system is used here. I found this rather amusing since we call the numbers that we use in the US “Arabic numerals.” And some of my students explained that the same numbering system that is used in the US is also used in some other parts of the Middle East, although it sounds like the one used in Egypt is more common. It is fairly easy to learn the Egyptian numerals, but it is a bit confusing as some of the same basic characters are used to indicate different numbers. For instance, 0 in Egyptian is the numeral representing five, and 7 means six. Most of the others are either totally different or have the same meanings, though.
Also, in my first message I mentioned the slums in Cairo, with their reinforced concrete frames filled in with brick walls. When we got to the Arab Academy, though, all of the buildings looked much more modern, with stucco-like exteriors. Since the day after our arrival, though, they have been building a new building beside our dorm at the academy. I was surprised to see that the new building was being constructed with reinforced concrete beams and posts, with bricks filling in the walls! Apparently, the stucco exteriors and plastered interior walls are only a veneer over a concrete-and-brick skeleton! I’ve also been astounded by the quantity of wood that the workers use during construction. They build very elaborate frames and scaffolds, but they are built using used wood and are only temporary. Once the concrete is poured, the wooden structure is removed and the brick laying begins. Then, more wooden structure is built in preparation for more concrete. I’m sure that concrete and brick are cheaper building materials than wood in a desert country, but the building technique is extremely labor intensive. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me by now, though. In addition, I must say that the construction laborers work longer hours than anyone else that we have seen in Egypt. They start before 7 a.m., and they work into the night, even during Ramadan (although they do pause for iftar).
Finally, ever since Ramadan began, we have been awakened almost nightly by fire alarms in the dorm. Usually they only go off for a few seconds and are then shut off. We had assumed that this was because of all the people smoking in the building at night. (Smoking, like eating and drinking, is prohibited for Muslims during the day during Ramadan.) The girls that Becky has been eating with, though, told her that the alarms were “for fun.” Not to rain on anyone’s fun, but I’ll bet if they marched those girls outside a few times in the middle of the night that their fire alarms wouldn’t be quite as fun any more… And I should know, I used to be an Resident Advisor in a dorm!
I should be sending one more of these messages from Alex on Thursday. After that, I probably won’t have email again until I get back to the states.
That’s all for now! Allen