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Cairo Snapshots

Posted by: Veronika | July 8, 2011 | No Comment |

Cairo is:

Walking back from sports at Ana El-Masry holding hands and singing the theme sing from “Remember the Titans” with one of the younger kids.

Taking your life in your own hands dodging motorcycles and taxis as you try to cross major streets.

Talking with the “juice man” in Arabic while you drink fresh strawberry and sugar cane juice.

Seeing young kids sleeping in groups on street corners and in the metro station.

Staging a job interview for the position of “Supreme Overlord of the World” during an English class at Kayan.

Getting hugs and high-5s from your favorite little ones at Ana El-Masry.

Ignoring honks, whistles, looks, and comments from guys when walking down the street.

Buying chocolate croissants from the friendly baker for breakfast in the morning.

Finally getting to the letter “E” with the 3 to 7 year-olds at Ana El-Masry after five and a half weeks of English class.

Listening to protesting in Tahrir Square from the roof of the apartment.

Seeing a woman go from car to car on the street trying to sell tissues with an infant in her arms.

Being greeted by the female students from Kayan with the traditional kiss on either cheek.

Passing by the pyramids five days a week on the way to Ana El-Masry.

Grabbing a falafel sandwich for supper after Arabic class.

Going to bed exhausted each night after a full day in Egypt.

under: Week 6
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The Question of Privilege

Posted by: Blake Hament | July 8, 2011 | 4 Comments |

So I finally have the time to blog again– now that I’m stuck in the apartment with food poisoning. I don’t know whether it was the ful and falafel sandwich from a very local hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the week-old pizza and dipping sauces that I faithfully enjoyed to the end (holy relics of my long-lost country’s cuisine), or just the fact that I rarely wash my hands between playing with the street children and eating the food they prepare for us in the desert. Regardless, I’m enjoying the break, despite the frequent trips to the bathroom.

Driven by hunger and my ancestral instinct to hunt and gather, I left the apartment mid-day today to forage for some food. In the course of my brief foray (the food poisoning has me on a short timetable), I saw a gattling gun mounted to the back of a pick-up truck, protestors camping in Tahrir square, and children sleeping in gutters along the side-streets. Then I found and devoured a McFlurry.

When we talk about third world countries, I see images of huts in Africa, nomads in the desert, or rural villages in South America. It’s disconcerting to see third world poverty and disorganization in a country where everyone wears jeans, owns a cell phone, and watches American movies.

During our first week in Cairo, I met one of the arsonists who set the National Democratic Party HQ on fire in Tahrir during the protests earlier this year. He’s my age, and he wants the same things I do: a solid education and the opportunity to work hard to build the future he dreams of. Due to forces out of our control, I found myself in America where I very much have those opportunities, while he was born in Egypt without the means for a stellar education at a time when a quarter of people 20-30 years old are unemployed.

How do I reconcile with the fact that while I’m on an all-expenses paid trip with my world-renown university, he is choking on tear gas and dodging rubber bullets because he has no hope for a better future in the world as he knows it? We were born into vastly different life experiences. The spectrum of possible reactions ranges from sickening guilt to ambivalent acceptance. Surely he protests for the right to the lifestyle I enjoy, so why not enjoy it? Yet in some way, I feel that that acceptance cements my privilege at the expense of his.

I like what our professor, Mbaye Lo, shared with us the other night. He said that as his father dropped him off for his first day of school, he told him, “this education is not for you to get a job, but for you to help those who cannot help themselves.” The privilege I was born into has afforded me an education, like most of you reading this blog. The education we have does not denote any type of superiority and inferiority, but rather a disparity in opportunity. We may not be in control of where and what we’re born into, but we are responsible for our ensuing actions. It is easy to come to terms with the third world from outside of it, but I invite you to consider how unsettling it can be from within.

under: Week 6
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On Protests

Posted by: mingles | July 7, 2011 | 1 Comment |

This might be somewhat outdated (actually very much so), but if you know me I don’t always have my life together, as much as I, and people connected to me, would like. If you haven’t heard (but I’m sure you have), the situation in Cairo has recently escalated, following a number of incidents last week, the most recent being a reported clash between tea vendors and protestors at Tahrir Square Sunday night. You can read more about it from the ever-reliable New York Times:


Thankfully we are all well, and I apologize to family and friends who have already been notified for the redundancy in this statement – just thought an official, albeit delayed, update through the blog is still necessary. Notwithstanding minor changes to our daily transportation arrangements, we are still very much in our established routine of service work with both primary and secondary NGO partners, Arabic classes in the evenings, and weekly lectures, dinners and reflections (as Erica’s latest post briefly mentions). In fact, we were in a discussion with staff from the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, at the American University in Cairo, when news of the Sunday night clash first broke out. We carried on with the discussion, avoided Tahrir Square on our way back to the apartments, and obtained information via the internet upon our safe return.

While I do appreciate my safety being constantly cared for, I also find it incredibly ironic that we have to turn to major news outlets for delayed reporting when Tahrir Square is 5 minutes of walking time away from where our apartments are. It is one thing to be in Egypt and speak with Egyptians about their experiences before, during and after the spring events; it is another to be part of unfolding events. I’m not proposing that the group needs to go where the ‘excitement’ is (and as on last Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, it can be downright dangerous), but to construct a sterile environment in which contact with the world outside of our routine is minimal seems a little over-protective as well. (Duke ‘bubble’ anyone?)

I concede it is a fine line to tread. I recently watched (in my opinion) a great TED talk on employing community-based action against street violence in Mexico, by Emiliano Salinas (http://www.ted.com/talks/emiliano_salinas_a_civil_response_to_violence.html). Towards the end of the talk, Salinas used a quote from the Roman poet Juvenal that particularly resonated with my personal beliefs: Count it the greatest sin, to prefer life to honor, and for the sake of living, to lose what makes life worth living.

under: Week 5
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Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Oh My!

Posted by: Samantha Tropper | July 6, 2011 | 1 Comment |

Cairo University Conference audio clip

**The audio from the part of the discussion about which this post is written is attached.

On Monday, July 4, the group participated in a conference between Duke and Cairo University.  Part of this involved a round-table discussion, which was supposed to be a way for the American youth to be heard.  We were told we would be discussing the Egyptian revolution and American perceptions of it, both politically and socially.

The moderator, an academic from Cairo University, prefaced the discussion with some general beliefs about American perceptions and political action in response to the revolution.  One of these involved what he referred to as “the Palestine problem.”  He said Egyptians had seen no change in American foreign policy toward Israel and Palestine but that this issue needs to be solved first.  This begged the question, “What changes were you expecting, given that America has been a relatively steady ally of Israel since its creation in 1948 and that there still exists a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel that has been in place since 1979?”  When I posed this question, the professor launched into an involved explanation, part of which included his idea for a two-state solution.  While his ideas did not seem very developed, he did claim that there should be two secular states.  He was very insistent on them being secular because a government should not be able to use religion to justify its acts.  In keeping with this reasoning, America should not support the Muslim Brotherhood, since it would be a government based on religious ideals.  When I pointed this out, he seemed taken aback, but then answered by skirting around the original question.  Instead, he simply pointed to the fact that many people are against Hamas as a religious organization.

I have many questions that spawned from this discussion.  The professor continuously referred to the “Arab World,” which includes the Middle Eastern countries, except Iran and Israel.  So if there is an entire Arab World, which is primarily Muslim, why can’t Jews have this tiny bit of land?  The professor claimed that the two groups cannot both claim Jerusalem as a holy city, but did not elaborate on that claim, with which I would disagree since both religions have the same foundation, as Islam was a result of Judaism.

After the discussion, I approached the professor to ask him a few more questions.  This time, I asked him precisely what would cause Egyptians to think there would be a change at all in American foreign policy toward Israel and Palestine.  His response pointed to Obama’s campaign for “change” and claimed that “as a Muslim man,” he should be sensitive to this issue.  When I told him that Obama is actually Christian, he simply shrugged, as if that were a debated subject.  When I continued to talk about Palestine being a nation, he stopped me and said, “I’m sorry, I’m very tired,” and walked off.

This post is not meant to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, and while it may come off as one or the other, I do not think this does a good job of representing my political views.  But I found it interesting that this particular attitude came out in this conference.  It goes along with the other anti-Israel sentiments that I have come across here.  But I also discovered recently that in Egyptian colloquial language, the word for “Jew” is the same word as the word for “Israeli,” so when people ask about my Star of David, I have to make sure to tell them that I am Jewish the religion, but not Israeli politically.  The relationship between Egypt and Israel seems peaceful, but I think that the peace treaty of 1979 created more hostility and tension than it did peace since the relationship is so strained.  Furthermore, based on this discussion, America’s foreign policy is not well known in Egypt, or at least not the actual policy.

I don’t really know of a way to rectify this issue, and I will not pretend to propose one, but I do wonder if something is in order here so that some Egyptians do not continue to have a skewed version of these policies and therefore of America in general.  Differentiating between Jewish as a religion and Israeli as a nationality is also important.  I also think Egyptians expect a little too much help from the U.S.  They may be overestimating the country’s so-called “superpower” abilities.

I recognize that this professor is one person in the entire population, but it has also seemed to be more of a popular opinion than I had originally realized.  So take this post at face value since it is not based on data or statistics, but instead on the opinions of a small amount of people.

under: Week 5
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4th of July

Posted by: Erica Nagi | July 5, 2011 | 1 Comment |

4th of July dinner at Lucille’s – an American-style diner in Cairo where we dined and celebrated being American, and everything that comes along with it. Bacon Cheeseburger? Check. French fries and onion rings? Check. Entirely too much food and drink? Check. Thesis interview with a leading women’s rights activist? Check. Conference on Egypt-American relations after the revolution? Check. Patriotic songs in the van on the way to dinner? Everything from Star spangled banner to Yankee Doodle? Check. American flag cake? check. These were all the ingredients that made up one of my favorite 4th of july’s so far…

I have never been more proud to be American in my entire life, than after living in Cairo for 4 weeks. That’s not to say that I dislike this city or that I feel like Americans are better than everybody else in the world.. but its rather that this trip has given me a huge slap of perspective that I certainly needed. It is helping me to understand societal problems that I have only read about in academic articles or on the new york times. This trip is helping me to realize what democracy actually means and how lucky I am to have the opportunity to talk to my friends or even strangers about what our government is doing and whether or not we agree.

This trip is making me appreciate the dream of my future .. the idea that I have very few limits on what I can do and what career I can pursue. It’s also making me appreciate my life, and what Ming  and I have coined, “First World Problems” … aka What grade I get on my Arabic test, what time I have to get up in the morning for class, or what kind of shoes I am wearing, or what apartment I am living in, or what meal plan I will choose, or how often I get to come home during the year to see my family. Compared to the problems we face every day here in Cairo, these first world problems become almost embarrassing. I am at one of the best colleges in the United States with professors who are so dedicated to helping me succeed, I have a right shoe and a left shoe at all times, I always have a roof over my head and smiling faces to welcome me home, I always have a meal to eat.. and I can eat different things every day, and my family not only wants me to come home but is a home of love and support.

The children at Ana el-Masry have taught me in a very weird way to appreciate all of things and not to take them for granted. My problems are first world problems to a T. And without perspective, its easy to get caught up and forget how unimportant those problems actually are in the world. I don’t think I will come back to America and suddenly decide to live on 2 dollars a day and camp on the quad every night and quit school to join the peace corps, but I will certainly have a new outlook on life and a new attitude when I need to get up for class at 9 in the morning… I have opportunities and a future that will hopefully lead me in some path to influence these problems that I am experiencing this summer. In sha allah, this will not be the last time that I am slapped with perspective.

under: Week 6
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I am very tired. As I write this blog (which is way overdue…), there are too many thoughts to transfer from my head to the computer screen. It is hard for me to form coherent thoughts, let alone sentences and paragraphs. As I sit here typing away, I think “this is what Cairo has done to me in the last four weeks… and yet somehow I am still motoring along.” In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am grateful. And, I am all the more excited to see what will happen in the next four weeks.

Before we came to Egypt, Professor Lo told us that at about this point in the trip we would fall in love with Cairo. And, he was wrong, at least for me. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but I fell in love with Cairo right around the end of the first week here. Since then, I have grown to appreciate this place all the more. Sure, there are some annoyances, but that’s to be expected with a whole new culture and lifestyle. I may expect food to be brought reasonably fast in top notch restaurants, but here I’m lucky if I get the right order (or close to it). I may want to cross the street in relative ease on a cross walk, but in Cairo, getting to the other side of a road is all about meandering in between fast moving cars (which speed up as they see you crossing). If you go at a consistent pace, thinking that they don’t want to hit you and will slow down… you will be hit. These are just a few of the many examples floating around in my brain. But, I still love Cairo.

I simply love this city of contradiction, inconsistency, and utter inefficiency. Sure, there are many cities that have these issues all over the world. But, there is something that rings true in the culture of Cairo for me, something that I relate to. Maybe it is the easy going nature of things here, simply letting things happen and taking them as they come. Maybe I just like the food and the people (not counting the “friendly” swindlers and obnoxious sellers… and there are quite a few of them). Maybe I like the history of the place and the diverse scenery of crowded streets, breathtaking buildings, and vast dessert. It could be any one of these aspects, but I think it is a combination of all of them. Plus, there is definitely something magical about Cairo that I cannot put my finger on. Though there are many oddities and issues (as there are in any city), Cairo is charming.

under: Week 5
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Things that matter, things that don’t

Posted by: Samantha Tropper | June 30, 2011 | 1 Comment |

Cairo life is difficult and surprising, especially for American college students, there is no denying that.  We see and experience things we shouldn’t have to, but then again so does everyone who lives here.  Sometimes we feel like the work we are doing is underappreciated, but then again so do many of the people who work at these NGOs long-term.  But then something happens that make us remember the things that matter, the things that don’t.

We’ve been working at the NGO Ana el-Masry for weeks now and many of the kids are still pretty unruly.  In art class a couple days ago, the nursery kids (ages 2 to 5), who were supposed to be coloring pictures of their names in English, began throwing markers and running all over the place while the regular staff members were out of the room.  They had been relatively good in the past so I was a little upset when they began acting in that chaotic manner with us.

After a stressed hour, the older guys (ages 11 to 16) came in. I have been working with Hamdy, who is about 11, and he has been an interesting kid.  He is very bright and interested in art, but can sometimes be quite the pain when he wants to be.  But we were working on the names and he wanted his done, so I asked him if he could write it.  He tried, but it came out “HAND” with a backwards N.  So I began showing him the difference between M and N.  He was having a lot of trouble understanding and began to get frustrated.  Just as he was about to give up, I decided to try writing the letter with numbers attached as the steps in order to write the letter.  He traced it a few times, then actually wrote M all on his own.  When I told him that it was right, he seemed shocked.  But we continued with the letter Y (since he knew H, A, and D) in the same fashion and eventually he got that too.

So for the first time in his life, he wrote his name correctly, without any outside help.  I got so excited and my energy was reflected in him as he jumped up on his chair and said, “Yes!  Yes!  Yes!” repeatedly.  He then proceeded to write his own name on paper ten times without me prompting him to do so.  I was so proud of him, I almost cried.  When I told him I was proud, he seemed taken aback and asked, “Really?  You’re proud of me?”  With an enthusiastic, “Iwa!” (Yes) from me, he smiled wide and then wrote his name in big letters on a piece of paper we then hung on the wall of the English classroom.  Erica also tells me that he writes it on the board every day now when he comes into music class.

I felt happy for quite a while after that.  I finally saw a tangible effect on one of the kids.  I now realize that while some effects may not be as tangible, they are still there and need to be appreciated.  I have never been happier with my volunteer work.  Even if I only made a tiny difference in Hamdy’s life this whole time, it’s all worth it.  Thank you, Ana el-Masry, and Hamdy especially, for teaching me that not every effect of our work can be seen, but does still exist.

under: Week 5
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A Little Insight into the Lives of Egyptian Women

Posted by: Erica Nagi | June 30, 2011 | 3 Comments |

In my spare time here in Cairo (HA!), I have been trying to conduct some research for my thesis. At this point, I’m sort of fumbling around in the general focus of women in Cairo and their part in the revolution/their hopes for the future of democracy. I began my interviews with a general hypothesis: women would feel proud of their participation as a woman because this country does not have a fabulous long history of female participation in the political sphere. The first answer that I received: “What do you mean? The men didn’t look down on the women during the revolution, We are all Egyptians. Men stood side by side with women against Mubarak, but my identity as a woman never really crossed my mind.” Since then, each response has been the same. Egyptian women’s identities as females paled in comparison to their national identities. There goes my first hypothesis into the garbage.

The responses started to irk me a little bit – why weren’t Egyptian women proud of their identities as females? Then I remembered that I was still wearing my American hat – the one that knows how women fight for gender equality in America, for professional equality, for equal wages, for an end to gender violence, for medical rights and birth control and abortion, and for a list that goes on and on. I stopped focusing on why that irked me that Egyptian women “weren’t fighting” for their rights, and started searching for the reasons why that identity didn’t define their experience, and how they were fighting inequalities in other important ways. I spoke at length with one of the women I interviewed here in Cairo about what it means to be an Egyptian woman; I was a little bit shocked at first, but then I was content with her response. I have learned to accept that that’s just the way it is – and its my duty as a foreigner and especially as a researcher to look inquisitively at why things are the way they are and realize what role these identities and relationships play in shaping the way Egyptian society functions as a whole rather than sit on my throne and condemn their culture.

Her analysis: Women are not generally concerned with changing their status as women in Egypt. They are not interested in fighting against men to gain a different status, they are satisfied in their personal lives and accept that men are stronger in certain aspects of society, and that they do not have to rise to the same level in those areas. Egyptian women appreciate their status and rights in society – When a woman gets married, she keeps her own name and her own bank accounts. Financial stability comes from the man – When a woman gets married the man is supposed to care for her from A to Z. She literally does not have to spend a dime on her personal expenses. He has no right to her money but she has every right to his, and its shameful for the man not to support her financially one hundred percent. In return, his career takes precedence over the woman’s career. When the couple has a child, it is the woman who is expected to halt her career so that the man can continue working and support the family. The opposite would be shameful for the man, even if the woman’s career were more lucrative. She explained that married women feel very secure in their place here. I asked if this relationship between men and women was called for in the Qur’an or in the hadith, and she said that the relationship exists within Egyptian Muslim and Christian households alike, so its origins may be religious but it is a cultural phenomenon that exists regardless of faith. (It is important to note that this represents married women, and women from the upper classes. It would be interesting to learn more about women in other classes and single women’s views on this matter.)

In a different interview, I asked a woman about her view on gender violence in Cairo. I was particularly interested in her response, having witnessed a man violently abuse a woman on the streets last week, and her response shocked me: “Gender violence is no different here than any other country.” And then she moved on to explain that from her point of view, women are not concerned with a movement to end gender violence.

I’m not a particularly skilled interviewer yet, so I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react to that with the image of the violence still fresh in my mind. I generally don’t pose questions that would be stricken as “leading the witness” in a court, and then I wait for the response and ask other non-leading follow up questions or accept it as their answer and move on… I’m scared to pose my opinion that directly contradicts her assertion: Gender violence is excessive and the oppression of women in this country is disgusting. I am scared to receive the kind of glare that can only suggest she is thinking, “The American girl would think that…” But it’s an aspect of this culture that I’m never going to suddenly think has beauty in a strange way, like I have come to think about Cairean traffic, or the jumbled markets, or even gross inefficiency. In sha allah, more interviews to come and more opportunities to learn about Egyptian women in extremely fascinating ways.

under: Uncategorized

You Are Cordially Invited…

Posted by: mingles | June 28, 2011 | No Comment |

Dear Readers,

The Institute of African Research and Studies at Cairo University is hosting a conference in conjunction with DukeEngage Cairo this coming Monday, July 4, from 3:00-7:00pm.

Titled “The United States: Islam in Sudan and the Revolution in Egypt,” the conference will include both a discussion on Dr. Mbaye Lo’s latest book, America, Islam and Sudan, and a panel discussion on the United States and the Egyptian revolution.

The event will be held at the Meeting Hall at the Institute of African Research and Studies, and is open to the public. For more details, please refer to the following programs, in both English and Arabic. All are welcome!

under: Week 5

Reflections on Cairo, Aesthetics, and Comfort

Posted by: Sabrina Rubakovic | June 26, 2011 | 2 Comments |

Often, on the ride back from Ana el-Masri, I look out the windows of the van. While everyone is asleep or absorbed in conversation, I see a moving picture of sorts. A series of frames linking me to the life of Egyptians.

I see roofs littered with trash. Trash everywhere. Dust. Forever-dirty feet. Stray cats and kittens. Cars and chaos.

And often, I find myself seeing not what is there, but what I want to see.

Instead of seeing streets littered with trash and stray animals, I see well-paved, well-kept roads and sidewalks. Instead of seeing chaotic traffic that makes me cringe when walking on the street or when in the car, I imagine orderly cars that obey the traffic laws I grew up with. Instead of run-down towering apartment buildings littered with satellite dishes, I see new or remodeled, tall, strong, clean structures.

I see a Cairo that fits my tastes. A Cairo that is comfortable. A Cairo that is clean, organized, and, well, not really Cairo.

I soon came to realize that Cairo will never be what I want it to be. Indeed, these “imperfections” are part of what defines it, what makes it beautiful.

Once, when walking through a crowded (as if that needs stating) area, I flicked a piece of plastic from my water bottle into the street. I had a strange sense that in doing so I was contributing to the essence of Cairo. Giving my share to the city—leaving my mark, like carvings we make on walls or trees and wish beyond logical reasoning that they will last forever.

When cautiously strolling through the roads of Garbage City, nose plugged, eyes holding a blank stare intending to mask the bewilderment doing laps in my mind circuits, I struggled to take it all in. The filth, the trash, the fact that people lived there. But Garbage City also had the most beautiful church I have ever seen—a truly divine structure that appeared to be carved out of a giant mountain by the hand of Him himself. I remember thinking that the church was made so much more beautiful by the fact that it existed next to the City of Garbage.

Once, in a half-awake daze at Ana el-Masri, my conscious mind was delivered a sudden epiphaneal thought—I reached to the nearest paper on which I had been doodling, and jotted down with a green color pencil we had recently purchased : all the beautiful things about the world are the ones that ruin us. But they are also the things that define us.

Love and hate. Identity. Division. Ambition. Fear. Desire.

“Everything is brown. We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

This is the first sentence I wrote in my journal upon landing in Cairo. This observation  was derived from the view outside my airplane window. Since, I have begun to see that the plethora of brown and sand makes those pink flowers on the highway, deep water of the Nile, and the red of my students’ nail polish, that much more visible.

It has allowed me to see the true color in this place, far past my initial visions.

under: Uncategorized

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