Friday, June 29, 2007: We arrive from all over the United States, 25 of us in all converging on Cairo. I have flown in on Egypt Air. Only 4 of our group are non-Muslim, the other 21 are American Muslims. We have come here for a 1-month intensive Arabic class at Al-Azhar University under the auspices of a group in America called Al-Ameen Associates. At this point, on our arrival date, I don’t know a single soul. But I’m excited to finally be in the Middle East after completing the first year of my studies at George Mason University for a Master’s degree in International Commerce & Policy. During this first year, I have come to form in my mind the dream of eventually working in the Middle East. When my Master’s degree is complete that is. My dream is to get a job working on economic or human development issues, especially human rights and freedom of the press.
According to the Al-Ameen website “Al-Ameen Associates was established by Dr. James E. Jones and Matiniah Yahya M.Ed. in 1994 to provide high-quality consultation, education and counseling services.” Also, according to their website: “Dr. Jones is a professor of Comparative Religion at The Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences and an Associate Professor of World Religion at Manhattanville College. He has a M.A. from Yale Divinity School and a D.Min. from Hartford Seminary. Dr. Jones is the Director of the Al-Azhar Arabic Summer Immersion Program. Matiniah Yahya is a certified teacher with a Masters in elementary education and over two decades of experience as an educator.” I will tell more about them later.
We wait in the airport until everyone has arrived and then we get into a sweltering and dilapidated bus to go to our apartment building in Muqattum. It is July in Egypt and the heat is more than uncomfortable. People have led me to believe that it will be hot but dry. That is not the case at all. It feels as humid as anything I have experienced on the east coast of the U.S. The bus is even more sweltering, much like you would imagine a metal box that has been closed up under the overbearing sun all day to feel. It’s an oven. The seats are filthy and rickety. We try to open windows but we’re told the air conditioning is on (hmmm!) and will cool us eventually. So we close the windows and bake some more, almost until we get to our apartment at least 45 minutes from the airport, when finally we can feel a cool breeze eeking out of the vents.
It’s so strange when you go to a foreign country. Your imagination prepares a picture of what to expect, your surroundings, the place you’ll stay, the people. All I had to go on was the description of Muqattum from the Al-Ameen website: “Housing is located in Muqattum which is outside downtown Cairo in a residential area. The area is quiet and it sits on a mountain. There is a breeze that is felt when there is no breeze any other place in the area. They say it is at least 5-10 degrees cooler than at the bottom of the mountain.
The building has four floors and we rent about half the building for our stay. On the first floor as you walk in, there is an open reception hall and security booth with 24-hour building security. There is a large gathering room, computer room and a room that will be used as a dining room. There is also an elevator for our use. There are small apartments on each floor. These apartments include: a living room area, equipped kitchen, 1- 2 bedrooms with storage space/closet and most have a balcony.
All apartments will have 2 people to a room which means apartments will house 2 to 4 people. Married couples will be placed in 2 person apartments first (these are limited) and the other students will be placed in same gender apartments. All rooms have air conditioning.”
So, based on the above description, I imagine a kind of oasis, if you will, at the top of a mountain. Now, nowhere in the above description does it say there is greenery, yet somehow in my mind, the “Muqattum oasis” is filled with a sparse amount of green trees, some grass, some nice flowers swaying in the aforementioned breeze. I imagine the suburbs of America except with less greenery. My picture is so badly misinformed and misguided that Muqattum is in fact like visiting a foreign planet. More like Mars than Earth.
We drive through some outskirts of Cairo, passing a huge open air cemetery, which is like a great walled house with no roof and many different rooms. People say that the really poor in society live in this cemetery. It sprawls over acres and acres in the middle of the desert.
We climb a winding road up the Muqattum Mountain, twisting and curving and chugging in our decrepit bus. Egyptians consider Muqattum Mountain the only mountain in Cairo, though at 400-500 feet, most of us would actually consider it a hill. Muqattum is known for its quarries of limestone which were used to build the Great Pyramids of Giza. It is also considered by Egyptians to be possibly a lower middle class neighborhood.
I don’t find out until later that Muqattum is famous for being the main garbage dump in Cairo and it also houses most of the people who collect Cairo’s trash! These people have actually become quite adept at making a living out of the garbage and recycling it in very creative ways.
But. We are told to get off the bus, collect our belongings and go into the building. Unbelievable. We check in with the receptionist and are finally given our rooms. It turns out that my roommates are Lisa and Suhala. Both are American Muslims who wear the full hijab. Lisa immediately begins to complain about how horrible the apartment is. She has friends in Egypt from when she lived here before, so she calls them to see if they can put her up for the month. It’s a big rigamarole.
The apartment is quite horrible. The kitchen looks like it was cobbled together with rusty appliances from a junk yard. Everything is filthy. The bathroom is the most disgusting of all, with a perpetual raw sewage smell and a bathtub caked in grime. Lisa and I have a common ground in our complaints, so we strike up a friendship right away. She is quite hilarious in her vocal expressions of our discontent. Suhala meanwhile is trying to make the best of it and is going to be a very serious student, it’s obvious. She’s here to be serious about Islam. Lisa is also serious about Islam, but she has a great sense of humor and knows how to have a good time.
I go downstairs to try to send emails and find a steamy room with two computers that are extremely slow and barely functional! I let people know that I arrived safely in Egypt and that the place is difficult. I say I don’t know how I will survive here for an entire month.
This place is hell and that’s an understatement. Nevertheless, I am determined to try to make the best of it and have a good time. After settling in to our room a bit, unpacking some of our stuff, the power goes out. It is getting dark. Dr. Jones, Matiniah & company have prepared a meal for us this first night, and we eat by candlelight in a warm and stuffy common room. I’m thinking I may get on a flight back home.
This trip cost me $2,000, which included flight, accommodation for one month, textbooks and our lessons at Al-Azhar. I guess you get what you pay for. Our accommodations are absolutely horrible and our location is in the hinterlands of hell.
After dinner, there is nothing to do out here in this suburb 30 minutes on the outskirts of Cairo. I am sitting in this hell hole in the dark with no air conditioning. The power has been out now for a couple of hours and the rooms are getting unbearably stuffy. Most of the people in our group go to bed early because of the lack of light, but I am determined not to get too depressed. I talk 3 guys, Kevin, Tarek and Latif, into going into Cairo.
The taxi driver is an absolute maniac, squeezing between two cars in the tunnel under the Nile at 80 mph, holding a cigarette with one hand and speaking in Arabic with Latif. He is using wild hand gestures and looking at Latif while careening along in this tunnel and into Cairo. I think, this is it! I’m going to die my first night in Cairo. And not from terrorists, as everyone back home was afraid of. From a gruesome car accident in a tunnel under the Nile.
The taxi driver drops us at some random place in the city (whew!) and we wander around checking out tailor shops for the guys who will want to have suits made eventually. We joke around and take pictures with some of the young Egyptian guys in the tailor shop. We go to a sort of mall with an open air food court, and eat some dinner. We have a great time out in the city, just wandering the streets and watching the people and the sights. Then, we head back to Muqattum to sleep in our grungy quarters and settle in for the long month ahead.
To find information about Al-Ameen Associates see: Al Ameen Associates