When I got back from Egypt, my Jordanian friends and family all asked me what I thought about the country. I’m still struggling to tie together all of the things I did in Egypt into one coherent narrative, but if I could choose one word to describe the country it would have to be “crazy.” “Crazy,” because the city of Cairo has three times the entire population of Jordan and never sleeps (and I barely slept when I was there, too). “Crazy,” because it seems like there are two sets of laws: one for those who have money and one for those who don’t. “Crazy” because there are so many disparate interests but only one ruling regime and no way to reconcile the differences (not counting the “elections” in which that regime captured 87% of the vote). “Crazy” because half of the people I met acted like shameless money-grubbing scoundrels and the other half were incredibly decent and kind, and I don’t know which group constitutes the majority.
In many ways, the stories that I took out of Cairo illustrate the differences between Arab societies (and also between different parts of Egyptian society). But I think I learned the most on the day that we visited Cairo University, so I’m just going to tell the story of that one particular day. First off, our trip was delayed a day because the police thought there would be an enormous student protest on Tuesday. We spent Tuesday in Alexandria instead, and I thought the city was much more laid-back than Cairo. The tour groups that are ubiquitous in Egypt don’t make it to Alexandria, so the people there were not trying to take money from us just because we were American. The oceanside culture and the European influences could also explain why people just seemed more relaxed in Alexandria. It was almost the opposite of Jordan, where I think people tend to become more socially conservative as you travel away from the capital city. Also, Jordanian city-dwellers tend to be at least as welcoming and hospitable as their Bedouin counterparts; in Egypt, there is a world of difference between the people in Cairo and the people in the rest of the country. As soon as you enter Cairo, you have to be constantly on your toes and ready to deal with criminals, beggars, vendors, stalkers, taxi drivers, pickpockets, and any other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that may come your way. Being alert 24/7 gets very stressful sometimes, and I think it would be very difficult to actually live in the city instead of just visiting it.
Anyway, on Wednesday we visited Cairo University and with all due respect to our lecturers, it was by far the most educational thing we did on the trip. As we rolled up to the front gate in the bus (we named the bus the Santa Maria because it was operated by a tour company of the same name), there were probably around 300 cops in riot gear forming a giant ring around the gate. We later found out that the police had been standing there for an entire day expecting the student protest, but that it hadn’t happened yet. As our bus driver talked with the police lieutenant to try and figure out where to turn around, the lead protesters started running into the circle formed by the cops. These guys were all young males protesting Israel’s decision to classify al-Aqsa mosque in the West Bank as a Jewish historical site and prevent Muslims from praying there.
The first guys were the rowdiest of the bunch and they stood on the base of a column (the police had surrounded a big pillar just outside the gate) shouting and holding signs. The signs were pretty nasty—one that my host mom translated said “Wait, wait, Jews, tomorrow you will dig your own graves”—but I guess it wasn’t much worse than anything that you might see from some of the more ignorant sign-wavers in the U.S. healthcare debate. Still, I’ve never seen this kind of protest in Amman (although apparently there were protests about al-Aqsa all over the Middle East during our time in Egypt) and as a whole, the university life just seemed more vibrant in Cairo. I get the feeling that Jordanian education is more of a technical venture that leads to immediate employment, whereas Egypt has more students involved in campus life and thus is more of a breeding ground for these kinds of protests (as well as other student activities—we listened to a lecture from the political science department about all of the different clubs and groups students participate in, and it was comparable to any American university). It also doesn’t hurt that UC has roughly 50,000 students who come from all over the Middle East, but UJ only has around 15,000 and many of them commute from home in Amman, meaning they are more involved with their families than with extracurriculars.
Anyway, after the Santa Maria narrowly avoided being overrun by protesters (just kidding!) we looped around and entered campus through a side gate. We also picked up a detachment of two plainclothes officers, who were pretty conspicuous anyway because they were two 40-year old guys on a college campus wearing matching button-down shirts and khakis and carrying two-way police radios (I shit you not). As the white brigade made its last charge toward an academic building, I was struck by how similar UC was to American universities. Students were everywhere—the campus was filled with open spaces but it still seemed overcrowded—and they were almost all wearing Western European clothes. In the Arab world, it’s sometimes considered haram for guys and girls to publicly interact or walk together, but on the UC campus everyone was shamelessly flirting and only about half of the girls were wearing hijab. After a lecture from one of the UC political science professors, we split up into groups of three or four to get individual tours of the campus. I asked our student guide (a girl who didn’t wear the hijab) why things were so different, and after a long explanation I think I managed to get a grasp on it: basically, Egyptian students want to dress like Western students, but this is forbidden by the Qur’an (which, among other things, prohibits girls from wearing tight-fitting clothes). This is a problem because almost all of the girls at UC are Muslim and they want to express their European fashion sense as well as their Muslim religiosity. However, the older generation frowns on mixing the religious symbol of the hijab with the haram clothing of the Western world, and if a girl is seen wearing a hijab with European clothes she will get harassed. The result is that a lot of girls in university choose to forgo Islamic decrees about clothing and the hijab, but most of them are still Muslim and they still adhere to the more serious warnings in the Qur’an about premarital sex, drinking, drugs, etc. A girl can, at the other end of the spectrum, choose to wear both a hijab and loose clothing, but this seemed to be a minority of the population [Footnote: Although I did see a couple of students wearing full-body burqas walking around campus. At least, I’m assuming they’re students since I didn’t actually see their faces; for all I know they could have been anything from professors to secretaries]. At any rate, UC was a refreshing change from Jordan, where it’s rare to see an Arab woman in public without the hijab even if she’s wearing Western clothes.
The many nuances of the hijab discussion took a while to work out, and while we were walking we stopped by the hall where Barack Obama addressed the Arab world after his inauguration. We were standing in the street taking pictures when a giant group of protesters marched right by. These guys were less rowdy than the group that was climbing all over the pillar, but they were carrying a giant banner with a picture of al-Aqsa and they were chanting, “The youth of Egypt are coming to fight for al-Aqsa.” They marched slowly into the square and their leader stood up and began addressing them with a megaphone, from the steps of the same hall where Obama spoke just over a year ago. Maybe it was just for me, but the symbolism was uncanny—the same place where the world was so optimistic just a year ago had just filled up with angry, bitter protesters. We couldn’t even get inside the building because the police had sealed it off. I don’t mean to make that sound depressing; it just was a reminder of how much had changed over the past year. It was also my first face-to-face encounter with overtly political Islam—based on what I understood from our student guide, most of the protesters and all of the leaders were members of Muslim student groups. Sometimes I wonder if Arabs devote an excessive amount of energy is devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian issue because their local politics are corrupt or nonexistent, and Egypt definitely made me revisit this theory. In Egypt, it seems that citizens are very dependent on their government for jobs and subsidies but they also have very few means to influence government decisions. This lack of personal efficacy can foster large amounts of frustration, which people occasionally have to release by protesting. Even though we were very close and nearly enveloped by the crowd at one point, I didn’t get a chance to talk to any of the protesters. It would have been nice to ask a few of them what their motivation was to skip classes and march in the streets. [Footnote: Although even in America, talking with protesters rarely reveals the real root cause of their anger simply because Tea Partiers, Glenn Beck listeners, and their ilk aren’t really known for exceptional eloquence, logic, or introspective abilities. So to summarize, I’m not sure how much I missed out by not talking to the Egyptian protesters.] However, our student guide also informed us that some protests are peaceful and some end with the police lobbing teargas over the university walls and because (in her words) people were “very, very angry about al-Aqsa,” I was happy to move on after a short while.
After seeing the rally/protest/angry mob, it was lunchtime. We reunited into one big mob of Americans flanked by Egyptian students and our ever-present plainclothes detail and trooped over to a campus dining hall. On the way, I had a couple of interesting conversations. The first was with a junior named Mohammed who had a pink knockoff Nike T-shirt with iron-on felt letters. However, instead of “Varsity Track Club,” the bootlegger had written “Varsity Crack Club.” As soon as I saw it, I decided that I must have that shirt. For those of you who know me, you know that when I want something I’m usually pretty direct about it, so I just walked up to Mohammed and said, “My name is Nick, and I really like your shirt. Would you like to trade shirts with me?” After a few minutes of talking and joking [Footnote: Zack and I impersonated Egyptian street vendors to try and convince Mohammed of the high quality craftsmanship on my orange American Eagle shirt. We made some ridiculous claims about the shirt in accented English (“Oh, this shirt very nice. Look, this picture sailboat, it American symbol representing the freedom”) and subjected it to some of the B.S. salesman “tests” that street vendors do. It was a great success.] Mohammed and I agreed to swap shirts after lunch, but then his friend Laith asked why I wanted a shirt that said “Varsity Crack Club.” I tried to explain why it was funny, but something got lost in translation because he replied, “Oh, so you are smoking the crack?” But this led to my second interesting conversation, which was about drugs in Egypt. Laith started talking about how he smokes khasheesh (marijuana), which is illegal but fairly prevalent anyway in Cairo. He offered to take us to a café where “you can smoke khasheesh in the street,” but we declined. Talking to Laith and Mohammed, I got the feeling that youth culture in Egypt is very open, welcoming, and fairly Western—these guys were very willing to accommodate us and didn’t seem busy or overwhelmed with academic life at all (Mohammed even came by and hung out with SIT people a couple more times during the trip), and they were also eager to talk about all things taboo with us. Overall, I would say that between seeing the protests and talking to Mohammed and Laith, the youth of Egypt are more passionate and socially liberal than Jordanian youth, but the two groups also share a pan-Arab sense of community and hospitality. It’s hard for me to speculate on their family lives because I didn’t really get the chance to witness any Egyptian family dynamics, but I imagine that families’ Islamic faith plays similarly central role in Egypt just like it does in Jordan.
In summary, Egypt was an eye-opening experience, but I wouldn’t want to live in Cairo anytime soon. It’s a place that gives new meaning to the words “dirty,” “inefficient,” and “corrupt.” [Footnote: On the way back home, an airport security guard solicited me for a bribe so I could bring my hookah tongs on the plane. I didn’t accept because a) I didn’t want to get in trouble for bribing a security guard over something small that I could buy in Amman, and b) I didn’t want him poking around my bag looking for other stuff to “confiscate” too. But still, it’s hard to feel comfortable knowing that the police can be bought by the highest bidder.] Still, the country had a lot of energy and a kind of vibe that you only find in certain places around the world. If I go back, I would live in Alexandria and go to Cairo in small doses. In retrospect, this idea is kind of a microcosm for the SIT program itself—living in a peaceful, comfortable, modern place and occasionally dipping our toes in more hectic, gritty, and/or historical waters. I think I made a good choice coming here.