Category Archives: Al-Ameen Associates

from cairo to new york city

Wednesday, August 1:  This morning, Lisa and I FINALLY get on a plane for our flight home.  I doubted it would happen after yesterday’s debacle, but Dr. Jones does manage to succeed.  I think some of our group is left behind to wait for later planes.  This Al-Ameen Associates program has been very poorly managed overall.

me with Lisa on the plane in Cairo

me with Lisa on the plane in Cairo

Lisa wants to drop by her old apartment in New Jersey before heading to Pennsylvania, so we decide to rent a car together from New York.  I will drop her in New Jersey and then she’ll make her way back to Pennsylvania from there.

we pick up a rental car in New York City

we pick up a rental car in New York City

It takes us a good long time to make our way out of the city, especially as I don’t know New York at all and I’m driving without any sense of where we’re going.  At one point, we see this guy selling hot pretzels and pull up to the curb to buy some.

We stop along the road in the city to get a couple of bagels from this guy

We stop along the road in the city to get a couple of bagels from this guy

Finally, we manage to wind our way out of the city and into New Jersey, where we make it to Lisa’s house.  She tries to convince me to spend the night, but once I’m on a road trip, I just want to keep driving.  At one point, I stop at a rest stop and sleep for about an hour.

Thursday, August 2: I finally arrive home at 2:30 a.m. after a long day and night of travel.  Once I get settled in, I will immediately begin to move out of my house to live with two young women, one of whom, Jenn, is in my Master’s program at George Mason and who went on the Mexico Study Abroad trip with me.

When I get home, utterly exhausted, I get this email from R:

If you get this, just let me quickly say– CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOU.
PLEASE CALL AS SOON AS YOU CAN.  WELCOME HOME!!!

I write him back in the morning.

Dear R,

I want desperately to see you as soon as possible.  However, I know the weekend is coming up and you will be off-limits.  Tonight I guess might be our only possibility.  I have to take the rental car out to Dulles, meet Jenn at the house in Arlington to see how much space I have to fill, and then I might very well be free, if you are.  I would love to see you, but let me know if or when you can.

I didn’t get home until 2:30 a.m.!  I was exhausted and had to stop an hour north of Baltimore to sleep for an hour at a rest area.  Before that I just caught myself drifting off and edging off the highway.
Love,
C

Later in the day, I hear back from him.

C,

Me too.  It’s worse than you think as I have to go to S.C this weekend to see my sister.  But I may have a plan if you’re flexible today/tonight.  I’ll call you.

R

And so begins the continuing saga of  a relationship between R and me that lasts until the day after I arrive back from my Singapore and Thailand Study Abroad trip on January 22, 2008.

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Filed under Al-Ameen Associates, Americas, Cairo, Egypt, Middle East, New Jersey, New York, New York City, Oakton, United States of America, Virginia

graduation from al azhar & the unknown soldier memorial

Sunday, July 29: Today we have our graduation from Al Azhar’s intensive 1-month-long Arabic course.  I think I know about as much as I knew the first day I arrived.  My entrance test and my final exam had about the same scores.  Oh well, at least it’s been the adventure of a lifetime.

the group of American women studying through Al Ameen Associates at Al Azhar University

the group of American women studying through Al Ameen Associates at Al Azhar University

another group shot

another group shot

me with Lisa on the terrace overlooking the courtyard at Al Azhar University

me with Lisa on the terrace overlooking the courtyard at Al Azhar University

the "infidels" - Kevin, me, Clint, and Shannon (the only non-Muslims in the group)

the “infidels” – Kevin, me, Clint, and Shannon (the only non-Muslims in the group)

me with my diploma

me with my diploma

Lisa with her diploma

Lisa with her diploma

Lisa and me

Lisa and me

Lisa and me outside in front of Al Azhar

Lisa and me outside in front of Al Azhar

me with my diploma

me with my diploma

On our way home today, we make a stop at the Unknown Soldier Memorial, a pyramid-shaped monument in Nasr City, Cairo. President Anwar Sadat ordered its construction in 1974 in honour of Egyptians who lost their lives in the 1973 October War. It was inaugurated in October 1975. The site was also chosen for the president’s tomb after his assassination in October 1981 (Wikipedia: Unknown Soldier Memorial (Egypt)).

Unknown Soldier Memorial

Unknown Soldier Memorial

Across from the memorial are the stands where Anwar Sadat was assassinated on 6 October 1981.  An annual victory parade was being held in Cairo to celebrate Egypt’s crossing of the  Suez Canal.  Sadat was protected by four layers of security and eight bodyguards, and the army parade should have been safe due to ammunition-seizure rules. As Egyptian Air Force Mirage jets flew overhead, distracting the crowd, Egyptian army soldiers and troop trucks paraded. One troop truck contained the assassination squad, led by Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli. As the truck passed, the assassins dismounted, and Islambouli approached Sadat.  Sadat stood to receive his salute, whereupon, Islambouli threw three grenades at Sadat, only one of which exploded, and additional assassins rose from the truck, firing assault rifles into the stands. After Sadat was hit and fell to the ground, people threw chairs around him to protect him from the hail of bullets.

fatwā approving the assassination had been obtained from a cleric later convicted in the US for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The assassination was undertaken by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.   Though it has yet to proven, it has also been theorized that Sadat’s Vice-President Hosni Mubarak and Defense Minister Abu Ghazala played in role in planning the assassination. (Wikipedia: Assassination of Anwar Sadat)

me in front of the stands where Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981

me in front of the stands where Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981

me with Lisa at the Unknown Soldier Memorial

me with Lisa at the Unknown Soldier Memorial

When I return home after class, I find this email from R.

C,

Back from a family-sort-of-reunion-thing. People from around the country getting together.  Best part was I got a chance to spend some cool pool time with my granddaughter.  2 is such a cute age.  But I’ve a whole night of grading ahead. What a way to spend a Sat. night.  Would much rather be with you.  But I bought a bottle of Bushmills to
help get me through.  Usually, grades improve as the evening wears on.  Not entirely sure why.

Anyway, I’m not sure how much more you’ll be on-line and I guess it’ll be choppy until you actually get back.  And then maybe choppy until you get settled– whatever that means.  In the meantime, if you can, let me know when you think we might get a chance to get together.  From Aug. 1 on I’m flexible, so let me know.

Can’t wait to see you.

In meantime, stay safe.

Love,
r.

In the evening, Basim comes by to pick me up and we go back to The Virginian at Muquttum Corniche.  It’s so lovely now to spend time with him.  I’ve come to enjoy his company, even though it’s been hit or miss much of the time I’ve been here.  I realize I will miss him when I leave here.

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Filed under Al-Ameen Associates, Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt, Middle East, Muquttum, Muquttum Corniche, Nasr City, The Virginian, Unknown Soldier Memorial

meeting a fellow runner in ma’adi

Tuesday, July 3, 2007:  I spend my day, as usual, at Al Azhar University.  The class seems interminable.  The air conditioner barely works and the room is stifling.  The room looks like it is something out of a ghetto, with broken desks, dilapidated tables, and no chalkboard.  As a matter of fact, the teacher turns the table on its short side and writes with a marker on the table top, treating it like a blackboard.

my teacher at Al-Azhar ~ using a table-top as a blackboard

my teacher at Al-Azhar ~ using a table-top as a blackboard

The teacher speaks English, so it is too easy for me to ask questions in English.  This is the problem with having a foreign language teacher who speaks the learner’s language.  I’m not forced to learn, so I don’t.

Lisa and I on the open balcony next to the courtyard where we hang out during our breaks

Lisa and I on the open balcony next to the courtyard where we hang out during our breaks

At the breaks, we stand outside in the heat around the courtyard.  I am wearing a coral headscarf today with a kind of knit cap underneath.  I haven’t found a way to make myself look less than horrible in the headscarf.  Today I look like a gypsy.  It’s pretty ridiculous because women in Egypt don’t wear it this way.  This particular scarf is tight around my head so I feel like a burglar with a stocking over my head.

Shannon and Rabia ~ Shannon is one of my fellow non-Muslims

Shannon and Rabia ~ Shannon is one of my fellow non-Muslims

After school, I take a taxi to Ma’adi to meet Mohsen in his office at Progress 2.  Mohsen is a friend of Jerry’s from Reston Runners, the running club in Virginia that I have belonged to for a couple of years.  Jerry used to work for CARE in Egypt and met Mohsen there.  They often run marathons together all over the world.  Mohsen is one of the founders of Ma’adi Runners, a running club with both Egyptian and expat runners.

Ma’adi lies on the Nile River about 12 km upstream from downtown Cairo, on the east bank. The Corniche, a waterfront promenade of the kind found in many Egyptian towns, runs parallel to the river. The main road into Cairo follows the Corniche.

Amina and another classmate whose name I don't recall

Amina and another classmate whose name I don’t recall

Ma’adi is the least densely populated neighborhood in Greater Cairo, and much of the town is inhabited by well-to-do Egyptians, as well as expats, many of whom are connected with embassies, ambassadorial residences and international corporations located in Ma’adi.  The Cairo office for USAID (United States Agency for International Development) is also located in this suburb.  Mohsen’s company is a contractor for USAID and other international agencies.

Mohsen, poolside at his holiday house

Mohsen, poolside at his holiday house

In Mohsen’s office, he tells me I look prettier than my picture.  He must have thought I looked pretty darn bad in my picture, because after wearing the coral headscarf all day in the heat, my hair is a fright.  I’m hot and sweaty and feel downright unattractive.  He offers me a Turkish coffee and some water while I’m waiting for him to finish his work.  He then asks if I’d like to have dinner somewhere in Ma’adi, or if I’d like to go to a market and pick up a picnic dinner to take to his holiday house about 15 minutes east of Ma’adi.  I say the picnic is fine.

me beside Mohsen's pool

me beside Mohsen’s pool

At the market we pick up kushari (Egyptian pasta, rice and lentils with tomato sauce and crispy fried onions; it’s often thought of as the Egyptian national dish) and a salad and some meat to barbecue. At his lovely holiday house, we sit outdoors by the pool and drink Stella beers and open a bottle of wine.  We have a great rapport, lots of joking all around.  He makes fun of me because when I tell him I’ve written the first draft of a novel with an Egyptian character named Raghib; he says I’m not pronouncing the name correctly.  He says, “How can you write a novel where you can’t even pronounce your main character’s name!?”  We laugh a lot, talk about our mutual friend Jerry, about our lives, about my interest in Egypt.  It’s so much fun and I feel there is a lot of chemistry between us.   He won’t tell me one thing about his situation though, and I feel certain he must be married.  The holiday house, after all, looks like it is inhabited by a family, although no one else is there.  But he is secretive about his family situation and won’t tell me a thing.  He tells me I should come to the Cairo Hash House Harriers on Friday and tells me where to meet him.

me in ma’adi by mohsen’s pool ~ with the wild hair

He drives me back to Muquttum, where I find Lisa is still out with Mahmoud.  Every night we’re in Egypt, she crashes right after class, napping often for several hours, then she goes out with Mahmoud until around 3 or 4 a.m.  So I am the early bird tonight.  We still have class tomorrow, so I must get a decent night’s sleep.

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Filed under Al-Ameen Associates, Al-Azhar University, Arabic language, Cairo, Egypt, Ma'adi, Middle East

demoted!

Monday, July 2, 2007: Today I go to my second day of class.  I am totally lost because I don’t understand what on earth the teacher is saying. She speaks absolutely no English. I keep asking her what she is saying, but of course she can’t tell me.  Since I still can’t understand, I ask the students around me.  I think they must get annoyed by my continual barrage of questions.

Lisa and I at Al Azhar University on my demotion day

Lisa and I at Al Azhar University on my demotion day

The next thing I know someone is knocking on the door of the classroom.  It’s one of the administrators, Professor Ahmed, and Dr. Jones.  They tell me that even though I scored high on the written placement test, it is apparent I cannot understand spoken Arabic.  I also seem to have trouble speaking.  Thus they recommend that I move down a level to a lower class, intermediate versus advanced.

Demoted!!

Dr. Jones and Kevin in his jallabaya

Dr. Jones and Kevin in his jallabaya

This is the problem with language learning.  Often students learn the grammar and learn to read and write, maybe even listen, but speaking can be very difficult.  Especially if the student hasn’t had any place to put into practice what he/she has learned.

Break time! Rabia in the foreground....

Break time! Rabia in the foreground….

So, I move into the intermediate class, with some degree of relief, I must admit.  Because honestly, I didn’t have a clue what was going on in that advanced class.

In the Tajweed class for the day, it is suddenly revealed that Lisa cannot read Arabic at all.  She doesn’t know the Arabic alphabet.  However, because she has lived and worked as a belly dancer in various Middle Eastern countries, her spoken Arabic is quite good and she can get by in almost any situation.   Funny thing this; I can read and understand some words, but I can’t speak or even understand much of the language.  Lisa on the other hand can speak, but cannot read or write.  Together we would make one good student!

Rabia, me and Anita

Rabia, me and Anita

In order to get into this program with Al Ameen Associates, we were supposed to know the alphabet and know the basics of Arabic.  I know this kind of thing, the alphabet, the grammatical structure of sentences, but my vocabulary is horrible and so is my pronunciation.  Lisa’s vocabulary and pronunciation are good.  But here we are having to learn to recite the Qur’an; I can sound out the words, but have no understanding.  Lisa can’t read it, but she can listen and pick it up and understand the general meaning.

Ouch!

This evening, I get an email from R that encourages me to seize the experience in Egypt.  He writes:

I was soo pleased to hear from you.  I’m glad to hear that a plane flight was not enough to knock me off your radar screen.  I’m still not quite touching earth.  I REALLY miss NYC.  And I’m finding my own reality heavy.  Not as oppressive as your current reality, but heavy in new and hereto unrecognized (or suppressed) ways. 
 
I am intrigued to hear about the conditions there.  Sounds challenging, to say the least.  But I have a special favor to ask. I ask that you keep an open mind.  Instead, I ask you to take the challenge deeply to heart.  It is a decision.  You must, and I beseech you to, decide that despite all, you will make this a great experience, not let it be a debacle to live through.
 
Overcome the physical conditions and turn hell into a great conquest.  Not with an open mind, but an aggressive, volitional decision to climb this mountain.  Take it by force: the housing, the sauna-school, the power outages, the habibs, the nutty drivers, and so much more that you’ll come across– Sherman to the sea.  You must not seek to survive a month.  You must thrive in it.  Revel in the discomfort and grow from the knowing that you handled it, and could have taken worse.  Suffer with joy and pride, and with the sense of empowerment you get from controlling and not being controlled by your environment.  Own Egypt.  I envy you the challenge and the triumph that comes with it. And I so look forward to hearing about every minute of it.
 
As for my own mountain, 2.5 hours on Friday.  Depressingly small amount on the pages, but I got over the hurdle and am building my mojo.  Can’t wait for each new day.
 
And yet, a new hurdle.  On Friday afternoon, on the phone to my sister, my right leg just above the ankle began swelling.  I literally watched it swell and turn red.  Seems I was bitten (98.2% probability) by a spider ( 93.6% prob).  I have been laid up since as I have trouble walking.  Quite painful and exquisitely ugly.  I’m on two a-biotics and bed rest.  Not much to do but sit around a mope about a soul-mate soaring in Egypt.  Probably take a week or so to heal and then who knows how long until my ankle won’t look  ‘yucchy.’  
 
Stay well, stay safe, stay in charge.  Tecumseh smiles upon you.  And I just live vicariously and in my memories.
 
~R
Later, I write R back:
Hey there R!

I’m so glad to hear back from you.  I understand and agree with everything you say.  I AM SOOO determined to make this a great experience despite the hardships, and already it is improving.  Our apartment got cleaned, we’ve obtained necessities from the Carrefour, and our classrooms today had air-conditioning.  The bus is still an oven going to and fro, but hopefully we’ll survive that.

My Muslim roommate Lisa is quite a lively lady: she got picked up in the grocery  store the first day and has been out on dates every night until 4:30 a.m.  Some Muslim!  She wears the full black hijab and scarf and the guy in the store told her he loved her eyes.  Her goal is to lose 60 lbs while she’s here b/c she thinks she’s fat.  She’s hilarious and makes me laugh a lot.  Plus, she thinks I’m hilarious and the highlight of her trip — (except for her Egyptian Australian, of course). 

So, your words of wisdom are taken to heart.  Thanks for them.  And I’m so glad you haven’t yet forgotten me.  Congratulations on your first 2.5 hours of work on your book.  Don’t worry about how much you do; just spending that set-aside time each day will help you to accomplish more than you would do otherwise.  Just give it the time and IT WILL COME!

I AM determined to make this a great experience, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking of you and our wonderful time in New York.  It was so amazing and I loved every minute with you.  I think about you so much, it is quite ridiculous.  I’m like a teenager!  Thanks so much for bringing me to life!

I’m so sorry to hear about your spider bite.  You better make sure it wasn’t a brown recluse spider– that can be quite traumatic.  Is it getting better?? I hope so.  That is such a bummer for you.  Let me know how you’re progressing.  I wish I were there to nurse you back to health.

Tomorrow evening I’m meeting Mohsen at his office in Maadi.  He’s going to show me the American school where the Hash House Harriers will run on Friday morning at 6:30 a.m.  Shannon thinks she’d like to run with us.  Shannon and I are the only non-Muslim women here and we both decided next time we go out on the town, we’re ditching the hijab.  There are only 2 non-Muslim men here as well — both in their 20s.  The others all have to stop and pray 5 times a day and we are always waiting for them, or so it seems.

We’re planning to see the pyramids this weekend and some of us may go to Alexandria next weekend.  I want to do the felucca thing maybe Wed or Thursday at sunset; we’ll see who I can get to go along.

BTW, I gave you an incomplete phone number.  It should be: 011-202-25076015.  It seems I left out the country code (2) and Cairo code (02).  Hopefully that will work if you feel like talking at some point.  Like I said, I will try you too, but tell me what time might be good to try.  I would love to chat with you at least once a week – I hope!

Once again, I can’t stop smiling whenever I think of you — I smile a lot.  Some of the women think I’m very cute b/c I keep looking at your pictures and sighing.  Ahhhhh……  am I utterly ridiculous??? I hope you don’t think so.

Anyway take care of yourself and your swollen leg.  Go to a doc if it doesn’t get better soon.  I’ve heard of people with those brown recluse spider bites being laid up for months and getting seriously ill. 

Masalamma, my soulmate!
~ C

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Filed under Al-Ameen Associates, Al-Azhar University, Arabic language, Egypt

1st day of school at al azhar university

Sunday, July 1, 2007:  Today is our 1st day of school at Al Azhar University, founded in 970~972 as a madrasa and the chief center of Arabic literature and Islamic learning in the world.  It is associated with Al Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo and is concerned with the propagation of Islamic religion and culture.  Al-Azhar University concerns itself with the religious syllabus, which pays special attention to the Quranic sciences and traditions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, on the one hand, while on the other hand teaches all the modern fields of science.

some of our group before our first day of class

some of our group before our first day of class

Al Ameen Associates has arranged our classes through the university; however, I can never quite believe that the University is actually involved in our classes.  I often wonder while I’m here if Dr. Jones has just arranged for us to attend classes in these bare bones buildings with teachers hired from outside the university.

me and Shannon in hijab

me and Shannon in hijab

The university is quite horrible by western standards.  There is no air conditioning, or what there is certainly doesn’t cool us off.  There are no blackboards and the classroom looks a storeroom of some sort, which junk scattered in corners and throughout the room.  The teacher uses a table turned on its side as a blackboard and uses dry erase markers which don’t fully erase.   Whenever she erases and writes atop the previous lesson, the shadows of ghostly writing are visible under the fresh letters.  The table top looks like a jumble of scribbles.

Last night at Midan Hussein, Kevin bought a jallabaya, a long gown worn by men.  He wears it to our first day of class.  I wear a headscarf because I’m told it’s ultra-conservative at the university, so I should cover.  I look horrible in a head scarf because it emphasizes my jowly face, which I usually cover with my hair.  Besides, wearing the head scarf only exacerbates my discomfort in this July heat.  I wear a short sleeve shirt, and later find I am the only one who isn’t covered to my wrists.  I think, wearing these clothes in these temperatures is going to kill me!

Deena, Amina and Shannon on the front steps of our apartment building

Deena, Amina and Shannon on the front steps of our apartment building

When we have a break, we stand or sit out on an open air kind of passageway looking out over the courtyard in the university.  There is no relief from the heat which makes me really grumpy.  I think I will not survive this month in Egypt.

Our Arabic lessons are from 8:30-12:30.  We have an hour break and then we have Tajweed from 1:30-3:00.  The word “tajweed” means to improve, make better.

Tajweed of the Holy Qur’an is the knowledge and application of the rules of recitation.  The goal is to read the Qur’an as the Prophet Mohammed recited it.

It is expected that you should have certain manners when reciting the Qur’an:

  • Purity of body and clothes and place.
  • Using sawak, a teeth-cleaning twig taken from the Salvadora persica tree. This is supposed to be used at every prayer or recitation of the Qur’an.
  • Facing the Qiblah, a direction that should be faced when a Muslim prays.  Muslims everywhere should pray facing this direction to achieve unity for all Muslims throughout the world.
  • Seeking refuge from rejected Satan and reading the basmalah, or the formula prayer in Islam “bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm,’ “In the name of God, the most kindly merciful.”  It is recited before each sura except for the 9th.  It is recited several times as part of daily prayers.
  • Not reading when yawning.
  • Avoiding cutting off reading to talk with people.
  • Stopping at a verse of warning and seeking protection with Allah, and stopping at a verse of mercy and asking The Merciful for His Bounty.
  • Humbleness and crying when reading.
in the outdoor covered passageway overlooking a courtyard at Al Azhar ~ we take our breaks here :-)

in the outdoor covered passageway overlooking a courtyard at Al Azhar ~ we take our breaks here 🙂

This is not what I came to Egypt to do, yet I know it is part of the program and I must do it.  It is only 1 1/2 hours each day and I must just get through it.  So, we meet our teacher, Mona, who wears the full burqa; only her eyes are visible to us through a little rectangular slot in the garment.  Luckily, thank God, Lisa is in our small group; there are only 5 of us altogether.  The other three are serious students; Lisa and I are not serious students by a longshot. Lisa will definitely add some humor to the situation, as I’m finding she does to every place that she is present.  All I can say is Al-Hamdullilah to that!

In the evening I write a long email to R about my first impressions of Egypt.  R is a man I started dating in early June before I came to Egypt.  We had met in Mexico in May, but we both live in northern Virginia.  Because my plane left from New York City, he drove me to NYC and spent a day with me there before I flew out.

Here’s the email I send:

Thank God I am finally able to access e-mail.  This place is hell.  And that is an understatement.  Nevertheless, I’m trying to make the best of it and have a good time.

I MISS YOU SO MUCH!  I keep looking at your picture on my camera.  Everyone knows I’m lovesick.  I’m trying to keep an open mind, but the first day I thought, shit, I’m never going to make it here a month.  I may get on a flight back home.  I miss you!  I keep thinking of NYC and how wonderful it was.  I loved every minute of it.  You are so much fun and I LOVE your company.  HOT, HOT, HOT!

I don’t want to complain too much, but I guess you get what you pay for.  Our accommodations are absolutely horrible, Al-Azhar is a dump, and our location is in the hinterlands of hell.  Both nights, Fri and Sat, we have been without power for a number of hours.  Sitting in this hellhole in the dark with no air-conditioning.  The first night a bunch of people just went to bed early b/c of the lack of light, but I was determined not to get too depressed and talked 3 guys into going into Cairo.  The taxi driver was an absolute maniac, squeezing between two cars in the tunnel under the Nile at 80 mph, smoking a cigarette in one hand and speaking in Arabic with Latif, while looking at him instead of the road.

Sorry if this message is a mess, but this is the first time we’ve had internet access and there’s a line of people waiting for the one computer we have available.  You can actually call me if you want at #011 25076015  #225  or 011 25074703 #225.  Remember we are 7 hours ahead of you.  I would definitely LOVE to hear your voice while I’m here, so I may try you too.  Let me know what time of day would be best for me to call.

Last night we went to Al Hussein Square to celebrate Shannon’s 25th b-day.  The Muslims with us are very sedate and I haven’t had one beer or drink since I got here. We did manage to have a good time last night. The school conditions are horrible (NO AIR CONDITIONING!!!!) I fell asleep today during Koran recitation b/c it was so damn hot.  I am wearing a head scarf because everyone else is and I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb.  EVERYONE in Cairo is dressed fully like a Muslim (Hajib and long skirts, etc).  I am shocked.  I thought it would be much more modern!!!!

Anyway, people are waiting, so don’t want to be too long.  I hope I can try to get on more often.  I wish so much I had a cell phone and am tempted to buy some kind of international package.  I hope I can last here for 30 more days.  I’m trying so hard to keep an open mind, but I wonder if my dream of working somewhere in the Middle East will rapidly fade.  Then what????  OMG.

I also text-messaged you about Jenn, so I guess you know I now have a house waiting for me.

R, please don’t worry about me having too good a time.  Frankly, this place is NOT Mexico.  And I have and do cherish every moment I have had and will have (InShallah – god willing) with you.

The one saving grace is that I have a great Muslim roommate, Lisa, who is funny and actually quite wild, and every encounter I’ve had with the Egyptian people has been fabulous.  Without exception, everyone is wonderfully kind.

Other than that, I just know I LOVE being with you and wish these days would go by quickly.  Take care, you, and don’t you dare forget me….:)

Love,
C

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Filed under Al-Ameen Associates, Al-Azhar University, Arabic language, Cairo, Egypt, Middle East, Qur'an, Tajweed

muqattum… cairo’s limestone mountain

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.

Arrival in Cairo on Egypt Air, June 29, 2007

Arrival in Cairo on Egypt Air, June 29, 2007

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.

waiting with our group at the cairo airport

waiting with our group at the cairo airport

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.

first scenes of cairo out the bus window

first scenes of cairo out the bus window

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.

street scenes ~ Cairo

street scenes ~ Cairo

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.

a mosque in cairo

a mosque in cairo

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.”

our apartment in Muqattum

our apartment in Muqattum

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.

looking down the road to the left of our apartment

looking down the road to the left of our apartment

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.

looking down the road to the right of the apartment building

looking down the road to the right of the apartment building

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.

Anyway, we go up and up this mountain, or overblown hill, and then down the long Road 9, until finally we pull up to an apartment building stuck on a dirt road in a run-down neighborhood directly across from the Futures Language School.  I feel panic set in.  What the heck, I think.  Why are we stopping here?  We CAN’T possibly be staying in this godforsaken place.
directly across the street from our apartment ~ the Futures Language School

directly across the street from our apartment ~ the Futures Language School

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.

the Egyptian tailors and Kevin ~ our first night in Cairo

the Egyptian tailors and Kevin ~ our first night in Cairo

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 streets of Cairo on our first night

the streets of Cairo on our first night

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.

having a snack and drinks at a little cafe (with air conditioning!)

having a snack and drinks at a little cafe (with air conditioning!)

To find information about Al-Ameen Associates see: Al Ameen Associates

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