Caroline in Cairo: Observations

Over winter break I traveled to Cairo, Egypt where I spent a month with Lamis and her family. I had an amazing time, learned a lot of Arabic, saw some crazy stuff, and returned with a lot of stories! Here are some observations I made while in Egypt.

 

TRANSPORTATION

I’ve taken all forms of transportation available in Cairo.
Train- pretty cool. average train ride. my ticket from Cairo to Alexandria and back was 90 Egp.
Bus- no. never again.
Minibus- so so so crowded. also scary.
Microbus- super cheap and generally pretty trustworthy. Most tickets were 4 Egp.
TukTuk- So much fun! They’re usually decorated with feathers, lights, or stickers. The only downside is how slow they are.
Boxtruck- Yikes. Crammed with people, nails sticking out of the sides, guys hanging on the back, and a very bumpy ride.
Taxi- some drivers have timers that determine the fare. These drivers are suuuuper slow. Downside of taxi is that sometimes the drivers try to be funny.

1st Microbus ride! In a boxtruck with Salwa (Lamis's friend) before it filled with people! a camel counts as transportation, right?! a mean taxi driver In Lamis's father's car on the way to her mother's village! a man in a village outside of Tanta driving his cart a donkey with a job I rode a donkey sans saddle. it was scarier than the camel.  Lamis's cousin was very patient and only laughed at me a little bit. the train to Alexandria. round trip= 90 egp a boat we rode in Alexandria

There are no rules for driving. At all.

Cars will try to run you over. Especially female drivers.

Crosswalks either don’t exist or they’re not visible. Crossing the street basically just means jumping in front of cars and looking mean enough to hopefully make them stop for you.

Sidewalks are where stores conduct business, the street is shared by pedestrians and cars.

Traffic lights and stop signs are suggestions.

Animal-drawn carts aren’t the weirdest thing. If you leave the house you’re most likely going to see at least one donkey pulling an orange cart

 

FOOD

While in Egypt i ate pigeon, rabbit, quail, beef, chicken, fish, shrimp, ful, t3mayya, kufta, koshary, mulukhayya, and just about every other thing you could think of. The food was always so good. I was fortunate enough to have an excellent host mother (my friend’s mom) who was continuously cooking for us.

1st meal in Egypt! kufta from down the street 1st breakfast! (Lamis's mom said "Don't port this picture! they'll think i'm starving you!") cotton candy at the souq! I wanted the heart and i didn't even ask, the guy just knew. snacks and drinks by the Nile (Lamis and her dad got a hummus drink) Lemonade with mint and pomegranate juice with seeds eating Libyan food with Lamis's old neighbors posing with a dead pigeon Lamis's aunt cleaning the rice for our lunch Lamis's aunt baking the rice a delicious home cooked meal in a village outside of Tanta creeper shot of the meal Koshary (not at Abu Tarek's place) Egypt has Chili's and Johnny Carino's ??? cotton candy by the sea (not pictured: the sea) a very popular seafood restaurant in Alexandria my plate of seafood

Nescafé is love. Nescafé is life.

Guests are served coffee, tea, juice, or Nescafé made to their specifications on a silver tray.

Every meal must have side dishes. Grape leaves, stuffed vegetables, other meats.

Black tea usually follows a meal.

There are endless types of cheeses and everyone has a different favorite. *Cue weird looks if you eat the wrong cheese with the wrong meat.*

You can get a sandwich for 2 Egp (shoutout to Shabrawwi) that tastes amazing.

Falafel is called T3mayya is Cairo. Just go with it.

Abu Tarek has the best koshary and that’s final.

Lemonade will probably never be the same for me. I drank a lot of Lemonade with mint, 2hwa mazboot (sweetened Turkish coffee), and tea with mint. I also tried fresh mango, strawberry, and guava juice!

 

 

SOCIETY

There is a song for everything. Everything has a movie or TV show reference, a little chant, a song, or some connection to pop culture. 

Key gestures and phrases made my life 1000x easier.

ex: there’s a gesture to show someone you’re actually full and not just being nice.

there’s a phrase to tell the person asking for money that you don’t have any but you hope their life gets easier.

*sidenote* sometimes shopkeepers will tell you that your items are free and you don’t have to pay. they’re just being nice %99 of the time and you really do need to pay

I’m creating a second post dedicated solely to shisha and coffee shops.

The Quran is absolutely EVERYWHERE. This might’ve been the biggest shock for me when I got to Egypt. Almost every car has بسم الله, ما شاء الله, الله اكبر or some other religious phrase written in sharpie, painted, or (the most common) attached as a sticker. Taxis, buses, microbuses, and minibuses are especially decked out in written prayers asking for God’s protection. Quranic recitation is unbelievably prevalent. I heard recordings of the Quran being played in: taxis, microbuses, grocery stores, on the street, shops, etc. I was touring the Citadel in Alexandria and i even heard one of the cleaning men reciting the Quran.

*sidenote* One of the mechanics across the street from Lamis’s house blared the Quran non-stop 24/7 the only exception being during soccer games.

Idle chitchat is mandatory when a guest comes over. I really value alone time so i occasionally struggled to keep up with the Egyptian social life.

People stare. A lot. Some people make weird comments. No one ever touched me or was hostile. 

Personal space doesn’t exist outside of the house. There are a ton of people in Cairo and it’s very apparent when there’s a big event or holiday. (like New Year’s Eve)

Foreign brands are everywhere (they have cheetos).

People yell in the streets at all hours of the night. It’s fine. Most people are awake anyway. 

Being late is normal. Meeting times are just general suggestions, give or take a couple hours.

Men will invoke the name of God while catcalling you because that makes it fine???

 MONEY

Haggling is a must. Speaking Arabic helps. Being Egyptian helps even more.

The conversion rate during my time in Egypt was about 18-20 Egp/ 1 USD.

Egypt was very affordable for me but worsening economic woes have exacerbated class tensions as purchasing power decreases and prices of basic goods continue to rise.

I gave my dollars to Lamis’s dad to convert for me at the bank. I didn’t mess with conversion companies but I did see some around.

I bought lots of gifts and spent rather freely and i ended up spending ~1100 Egp / Week. (including a train to Alexandria and frequent trips to coffee shops)

 

I know that generalizations aren’t the best way to obtain a nuanced perspective of a country or a culture; however, the aim of this post is to provide a fun and funny glimpse into Egypt as I saw it.

Arabic Flagship

This semester I participated in the Drama club and the Poetry club through the Arabic Flagship. I also worked as an Arabic tutor and a TA for the Beginning Arabic continued class. The Arabic Flagship helps students studying Arabic achieve a greater level of proficiency in a shorter amount of time. The Flagship hosts weekly meetings in Arabic to discuss cultural and linguistic topics. This semester OU hosted several guest speakers through the Flagship program. The topics ranged from Political Cartoons, to Study Abroad opportunities, to Music.

The poetry club was hosted by my friend Sophie and Ustaaz Hossam Barakat. I thoroughly enjoyed this club because I was introduced to a wide variety of poetry from all across the Arab world. I discovered a wonderful Egyptian poet named Ahmed Fouad Negm and I performed one of his poems at the annual Arabic Flagship Talent Show. My favorite poem that we studied in poetry club was probably Kalaam by Mashroa Leila. This song was written as a response to the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting.

The summer after my freshman year I studied at the University of Texas and participated in the Arabic Summer Intensive program and I’ve just applied to study next summer in Oman. I’m so thankful for the opportunities afforded to me through the flagship program. The people that I’ve met and the connections that i’ve made have helped me to continuously challenge myself on my Arabic learning journey.

I would encourage any Freshman who are considering applying to the Flagship to contact me with questions. I truly believe that Flagship helps students who are serious about Arabic reach their full potential.

Egyptian Sha’bi Music

Egyptian Sha’bi Music

Sha’bi music is a style of popular working-class music which evolved from baladi, an urban folk style originating in the Egyptian countryside, in the second half of the 20th century.

This genre has evolved greatly since legendary artist Ahmed Adaweyah achieved great success in turning Sha’bi music into a powerful genre sought by distribution companies in Egypt. Sha’bi music uses the popular dialect of Arabic to convey incredibly relatable music. The dominant style today is known as “Techno Sha’bi”.
Hassan el Asmar (October 21, 1959-August 7, 2011)

Drawing from early Sha’bi artists such as Ahmed Adaweyah, Hassan el Asmar discusses poignant topics in his songs Ketab Hayeti (The Book of my Life) and Allah Yasemhak ya Zamen (May God Forgive You, Oh Time). Some critics see Asmar as Adaweyah’s natural heir to the throne of Sha’bi music.

 

Sha’bi Music from Film

Another great example of Sha’bi music appears in the film Al Farah (The Wedding). The Egyptian word for wedding comes from the word in Modern Standard Arabic for happiness. Ironically, the most popular song to emerge from this film describes how the artist no longer recognizes himself and the resulting deep unhappiness he feels. The line “Ana mish ana”or “I am not myself” is hugely popular in Egypt. Despite the criticism Sha’bi music recieves for its utilization of simple language, the messages conveyed in Sha’bi songs often reflect the difficulties the Egyptian people face as a result of political, economic, and social instability.

A more lighthearted Sha’bi song that has received nation-wide fame also comes from a film. The song Helwa Rooh from a film bearing the same name is upbeat and fun. The song describes the beauty of a belly dancer (played in the video by world-renowned Singer Haifa Wehbe) and is often used as a song to which Egyptians belly-dance.

Shabaan Abdelrahim (March 15, 1957-Present)

Born in Cairo, Shaaban Abdelrahim was working as a makwagi (one who irons clothes) earning a low wage. His 2000 breakout song “I Hate Israel” became immensely popular while simultaneously attracting intense criticism. His catchy beats and political lyrics captured the hearts and minds of average Egyptians, catapulting him to fame. He is famous for his flashy clothes and his outlandish antics.

Arabic Talent Show

Arabic Talent Show Last night was the night all of our hard work paid off: it was the Arabic Talent Show! I had three “entries” into the show: a song, a video skit, and a short film.

For the past several weeks, my beginning Arabic class has been rehearsing a song to perform at the talent show. Our professor would take a few minutes during class each week to help us learn the lyrics of the song Baba Fein (Where is Your Father?). (It’s a really catchy song, so I recommend looking up the music video if you are looking to take a study break from studying for finals!) I had so much fun rehearsing the song because I think it really did bring our class closer together.

Of course, actually performing the song in front of so many people at the talent show was more nerve wracking than practicing from the safety of the classroom. Our class performed with the other beginning Arabic section, which made me feel more comfortable. We stood at the front of the room and danced and sang once the song began to play. I was in the front row, so I felt even more pressure, and I may or may not have forgotten some of the words, but I don’t regret getting up there to perform.

I’m proud of our class (and the other section too!) for getting up there and performing the song because it really did take a lot of time to practice the song and to gather the courage to perform in front of so many faculty and peers.

We were the third group to perform, so for most of my class the rest of the talent show was about enjoying the other acts. I, however, had two more videos to be played. The first was a video skit I made with Global Engagement Fellow Hennessey Chism for an assignment in our Arabic class. We had turned the video in to our professor a few weeks before the talent show, and after she watched it, she asked if she could submit it to be played at the talent show. It made me feel really good to know that our professor liked our video enough to submit it out of all the videos of the class, but I was still nervous about playing the video in front of everyone. After all, when Hennessey and I had made the video, we’d only been in Arabic for a few weeks. Luckily, the audience laughed at all the right parts, and it seemed to go over well.

Last up was a short film produced by the Arabic Drama Club. I had helped write part of the script, but I wasn’t present for filming, so the talent show was the first time I got to see the video come together. It ended up being really funny and full of inside jokes about the films we had watched, and I am proud to say I got to work on it even a little bit.

The Arabic Talent Show was full of so many talented people. I am really glad that I went not only because of my personal involvement in the show, but because there was so much to enjoy. From belly dancing and poem recitals to a band and a video parody of the Lord of the Rings, the Arabic Talent Show had a lot to offer, and I am proud and grateful to have been a part of it.

Belly Dancing

Last year, I joined a belly dancing club through the Arabic Flagship, and this year I participated in it again. It’s a chance to learn more about Arab culture and do something I love—dance. I’ve danced for most of my life, but I stopped in high school and only picked up belly dancing in the spring of my Freshman year in college. In my opinion, dancing is a good outlet for all of the stress school causes, and it’s also a lot of fun to put on a hip scarf and hear it jingle around you. Last year we spent most of our time learning the basics of belly dancing and threw together a relatively simple dance number for the Arabic Flagship talent show. This year, though, all of the club’s members are veterans and we’ve graduated to harder combinations. The moves are more intricate and faster, which makes mastering them difficult. But, somehow, we seem to be managing.

A typical meeting this year consists of three parts: drills, dance one, and dance two. For the first fifteen minutes or so, we drill various steps, like hip circles, shimmies, and short combinations from one of our dances. Then we move on to our first dance, Ah w Nos, which is one of the dances we will present at the Arabic Flagships talent show. This dance does not fall into a particular belly dance style, but it is much faster and more complex than the one we performed last year. We spend about forty-five minutes reviewing the combinations, learning new ones, and running through the dance. After that, we move on to our second dance, done in the Khaleeji style. For me, this number is particularly difficult as Khaleeji is a new style for us and a lot of its movements are foreign. We usually spend about thirty minutes on this dance, reviewing, learning, and practicing. With the talent show only a few weeks away, hopefully we can get it all down!

Arabic Flagship Round Table

At the beginning of the semester I was accepted into OU’s Arabic Flagship, which is a language intensive program funded by the State Department that aims to improve student’s Arabic skills and cultural awareness. As part of the requirements, I must attend a weekly round table that discusses a variety of topics, from studying abroad to Janbiyas (an Arabic dagger). One of my favorite topics, though, was the second presidential debate. Before the round table officially started, we received vocabulary sheets that listed words that would frequently come up in the debate. I assumed it would include words like “economy,” “foreign policy,” or “social programs.” Needless to say, I was mistaken. When I looked down at the sheet, I burst out laughing and looked to my friend, needing confirmation that what I held in my hand was real. Amongst the expected and benign words that any debate would include (“Republican Party,” “Democratic Party,” “campaign”) were terms that would have seemed out of place in any other election than the one that we are experiencing in 2016. It was impossible not to be drawn to them. It was like they were bolded and in 30-point font. Staring up at me were words like “sexually suggestive gestures,” “contempt,” and “disaster.” And, of course, the infamous “locker room talk.” If you were curious, in Arabic it would be “كلام خاص بين الرجال”, pronounced similar to “kalaam khaas ben ar-rajaal.” The room was filled with random snickers and congratulations to the student who compiled the list until it was time for the round table to start. We watched about thirty minutes of the debate in Arabic, and then broke into small groups to discuss what we watched. Various questions included, “Who won the debate and why?” and “Do you have any suggestions for the candidates?” Everyone in my group decided that Hilary Clinton won the debate, but that does not really matter. What was so amazing about this experience for me was that I could (attempt) to discuss my country’s politics in a language that was not my own. I was able to interact with people who did not even live in America, and get their perspective on our political situation. Despite the humor of the vocabulary sheet, this round table was serious and extremely important.

Arabic Flagship Program