Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Out of Egypt

This evening, I arrived safely back home in New Jersey after (almost) a year abroad in Egypt. I'm really going to miss Cairo and everything Egypt has to offer (mainly that juice). This past year was incredible for so many reasons--working with amazing people, getting to know my extended family better, exploring a fascinating country, not having to be in school... I'm glad that I've gotten to know so many people in Cairo and that it's become a home to me. I definitely plan on visiting more frequently. As they say in Egypt, "Once you drink from the Nile, you'll always return." (Though the saying should be more along the lines of "Once you drink from the Nile, you'll get schistosomiasis and have bloody urine.")

These next few weeks, I get to rest and relax before starting my next big adventure: Mark and Law School! I'll be studying at Georgetown Law so please visit me in DC--much more accessible than Cairo so no excuses this time.

Also, if you have any questions about my experience in Egypt or what to know more details about my trip or are planning a trip of your own (whether a week or a year), please feel free to contact me! I love talking about Egypt and I would definitely be happy to help in any way.

Finally, a huge thank you to you for reading my blog. I've really enjoyed blogging and I hope you've enjoyed reading. I've gotten some great feedback from people and it's been very encouraging. I haven't decided yet but maybe I'll start up another blog for law school (though that will be far more challenging to make interesting). In any case, thanks again! You can now de-bookmarkdoss this website.

mark and egypt

Monday, June 21, 2010

Last Hoorahs

These last few days have been filled with visiting and saying good bye to family, watching World Cup games with friends, and tying up loose ends at work. I'm also getting my last fix of Cairo's cultural events.

On Thursday, I went to one of my favorite spots in Cairo, Darb 1718, which is located behind Coptic Cairo. The place is an art gallery that usually hosts experimental work that could be straight out of some hipster's basement in Brooklyn. The best thing about Darb is when they screen films. They have a great outdoor setup where they project movies on a wall and lay out lots of bean bags for your sitting pleasure. Thursday was the start of the Cairo Refugee Film Festival. A bunch of us from RLAP went together to see the opening film Pray the Devil Back to Hell. It's a generally uplifting story about women in Liberia demanding peace and an end to the Liberian civil war. I liked it.

Darb 1718

Looks like a horror movie. Except it

On Saturday, I went to another great place, the Gomhorreya Theatre, where the Pockemon Crew, a French break dancing group, was performing. The posters advertising the event had (what I hope was unintentional) typo. On the French copy, the poster said the performance started at 9 pm. The Arabic said 8 pm. The promoters of the show must know all about Egyptian time.

The dance show itself was fairly entertaining. The break dancing itself was great. The crew is very talented. However, some of the other dances felt a little silly--like the choreographed interpretive dance to the economic crisis.

I admit, after seeing an interpretive dance about the economic crisis, I did have a better understanding of credit default swaps.

After the show, we checked out the art on display in the lobby of the theater and came across this picture of a bear mauling a dancer. I hope it's art imitating life.

I'm definitely going to miss all of these great, cheap events.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


My year (ten months, to be exact) in Egypt is sadly coming to an end. I had back to the States this Wednesday. I just finished my last full week of work. While I definitely should have blogged in the beginning about what I was going to be doing here this whole time, I guess by writing about it at the end, I have a much clearer idea of what I actually did. Here it goes:

The Resettlement Legal Aid Project at St. Andrew's Refugee Services

Since September '09, I've been a legal intern at the Resettlement Legal Aid Project (RLAP). Our office works with refugees in Cairo, helping them apply for resettlement to other countries. Most of the refugees that we work with are Iraqi and Sudanese but there are also Somali, Ethiopian, and Eritrean refugees who are clients at the office.

Unfortunately for many of the refugees here, Cairo is not a durable solution. Refugees are legally not allowed to work which means that they have to work in the informal economy. Many of them are verbally, physically, and sexually harassed on a daily basis by Egyptians who call them racist and derogatory names and beat them without being provoked. Our office helps refugees with the most dire and urgent cases (such as extreme medical or protection needs) apply for resettlement through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or, for Iraqis who have worked with Americans, the International Organization for Migration (IOM). If their application is successful, the refugees get resettled to another country (usually the US, Canada, or Australia).

In the office, legal interns get to do a bunch of different things. We interview refugees to see if our office can help them with their case (the UNHCR and IOM have strict criteria that refugees have to meet in order to be considered for resettlement). If they do have a case, we do longer, more in-depth interviews about their lives in their home countries and in Egypt. Afterward, we write up testimonies for them that gets submitted to UNHCR. During this process, we also give them advice on how to strengthen their cases, help them get pscyho-social treatment, and generally aid them in any way we can.

It's been a wonderful experience. The staff and other interns of the office are amazingly kind people and the refugees themselves are incredibly strong, loving people who deserve so much more than they get. The job has definitely been challenging. There have been so many awful stories of violence, torture, rape, and death. And it feels terrible when you have to tell someone that you can't help them. But there have been many success stories and seeing refugees getting to start new lives in other safer countries is a wonderful feeling.

The Egyptian Center for Women's Rights

In February, I began working part-time for the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR). ECWR is an NGO run by Egyptian men and women. The organization has a number of different programs and campaigns that support women's rights in Egypt. This year, they have been focusing on monitoring the parliamentary elections in Egypt--making sure that female candidates are being represented accurately and that women are going out to vote. ECWR also publishes studies, such as the sexual harassment report I referred to a few posts ago. The organization holds protests and generally tries to better civil society in Egypt.

At ECWR, I do a bunch of different things. I help research and write memos about a variety of topics such as divorce or religiosity of Egyptians. I write articles for the monthly newsletter on events that ECWR participated in or on current events in the world related to women's issues. I also get to edit articles and letters that have been translated from Arabic into English. It is incredible how bad some translations are. Oftentimes, I just highlight a whole paragraph in trackchanges and comment: "I have no idea what you are saying. Re-translate."

That translator was later fired. I got to field resumes for new translators which was great. Egyptians put a lot of strange things on their resume. Religion (though that's not too shocking); glamour shots (ok...I heard they did that in Europe too); height and weight (just strange). My favorite quote from a resume I looked at said, under the heading Travel Experience, "I have been to Saudi Arabia, and I am willing to travel further."

Anyway, working at ECWR has been great as well. It's neat to see how a medium size Egyptian NGO functions. My co-workers are super friendly and energetic. At lunch, there is always an entertaining lecture on how important food is and why all work should stop when it's time to eat. Plus, it's great to meet similar-minded Egyptians who are passionate about improving their country.

In general, RLAP and ECWR have been incredible experiences. Plus, as an intern, I get a lot more leeway with vacation time (along with Egypt's seemingly endless amount of public holidays) which is how I got to go on so many exciting adventures. So there you have it...I actually did work here and wasn't playing the whole time.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Japanese Gardening

Egypt's always surprising me with what it has to offer. The other night, I went to the Japanese Garden of Helwan with three friends. A friend had told me about them but I didn't really believe they existed. After a 45 minute metro ride out to Helwan, we arrived at a nice park filled with Buddha statues and screaming children. I don't know much history about the garden and this sign at the entrance wasn't much help:

While we were there, we had a picnic. I brought the mango.

Afterwards, we walked around. A group of kids were following Aly screaming Ni-hao. I think they thought she was Japanese. I also think that they thought they were speaking Japanese. She's not. And they weren't.

Representin' China and Canada.

On the whole, it's a very nice park and if it were in a more central location, I definitely think I'd relax there more often.

East meets Middle East.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

These are a few of my favorite scenes

This way to the lovely baby!

So good.

Enjoy your friskes after some grilled viagra. Also, the restuarant's name? Cook Door.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Ahwa

Being at many crowded ahwas, I've learned that in order to get any service, you have to make yourself heard. Unless you're at a fancy place (and even then), the most effective and efficient way of getting what you want is by yelling. One quirk about male Egyptians is that when they address each other, they start out with things like "O president!" or "O engineer!" Basically, you are elevating the person you're talking to in a slightly-mocking way. So, here's a few titles you can shout out to get what you want, whether you're at an ahwa or you're just trying to get someone's attention.

basha - Comes from Turkish for Pasha, a title for high-ranking officials
bash mohandis - Engineer
bey - Short for basha
brince - Prince
captain - Captain
hagg - One who completes the Hajj
mo'allem - Teacher
nigum -
ostaz - Professor
rieys - President
yusta -
Turkish for something

And here's me yelling them out for your listening pleasure:

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Yesterday, I went on an adventure with Lillie and Brendan to Saqqara, which is about 30 km south of Cairo. The town is well-known for two reasons: it has one of the oldest pyramids in all of Egypt and, more importantly to almost everyone in Egypt, there's a relatively new Egyptian beer that's named after it--Sakara.

Truth be told, none of us really cared about seeing Saqqara's main attraction: the step-pyramid of Djoser. We mainly wanted to just go out on an adventure. So, after I woke up at a reasonable 11 AM, we headed out with a vague plan of getting to Saqqara. Four microbuses and one juice stand later, we made it to the entrance of the pyramid complex. There were no more buses to take us the last kilometer so we had to walk the last bit. Instead of taking the road which seemed to loop around the hill sand, we thought it would be smarter to cut across the desert. A "security guard" saw us and came out of his shack to tell us that we weren't allowed to do that. 2 LE later, we were at the entrance to the site after cutting across the desert.

We didn't end up getting tickets to go into the site and see the tombs. It seems silly--traveling an hour and a half to a destination and then not going in. I was about to type a ",but" and come up with some justification but I guess, yeah, it's silly. To be fair though, that pyramid is not going to look much different no matter how close you get to it.

I'm impractically there.

On the way home, we only needed to take two buses back. I'm still not sure how that worked out.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

My Life on Film

Aasal Eswed

A new Egyptian movie called Aasel Eswid (or, Black Honey) came out recently and I was told to go see it by a guy who sold me rat poison. After learning more about it, I was convinced that it was a movie made for me.

Ahmed Helmy, the star of the film, plays an Egyptian named Masry who left for America as a child and is returning to Egypt for the first time in twenty years to work and potentially live there permanently. Since he's been away so long, his Arabic is broken and he 's culturally assimilated as an American (according to the director's conception of what the average American dresses and acts like). He stands out from the other Egyptians around him and is treated very differently as a result, so, of course, hilarity ensues.

What surprised me most about the film was not the portray of Ahmed Helmy's character as an ignorant, arrogant, and naive American (that's pretty much expected)but rather, how negative Egypt and Egyptians are portrayed in the movie. Most of them are thieving, manipulative, corrupt, and dirty. It's all done in a comedic way, but still... pretty harsh (Not that I'm saying it's not true). It's definitely a movie that can only be produced and directed in Egypt, otherwise Egyptians would be up in arms about how their country was shown in such a bad light. It's kinda like the idea that you can make fun of your sister but if anyone else does, they're going to be in big trouble.

As for the movie itself, I thought it was pretty funny. I identified with many of Masry's frustrations but I definitely wasn't laughing as hard as others in the theater. Part of the problem was that whenever Masry said things wrong in Arabic, they usually sounded fine to me. Oh well. Maybe one day I'll understand everything and speak perfectly, but until then, call me black honey.

A trailer for the film:

Saturday, May 29, 2010


I try keeping most of my posts light and upbeat but there are some things about Egypt that simply can't be described in that manner. One of the most frustrating, disgusting, and awful things I've had to witness on a daily basis in Egypt is the sexual harassment of women.

First, some statistics. A 2008 report by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (full disclosure: I intern there) found that:
  • 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women have been harassed by men
  • 46% of Egyptian women and 52% of foreign women are harassed on a daily basis
  • 62% of Egyptian men have admitted to harassing women
  • 52% of Egyptian men believe that it is the woman's fault
  • The majority of women who are harassed are dressed modestly (i.e. veiled)
Transcending age, class, and religion, sexual harassers in Egypt are severe, constant, and pervasive. Harassment is manifested in words and actions that range from ogling and cat-calling to groping, public masturbation, and rape. Most of my female friends, both Egyptian and foreign, have experienced some sort of harassment. I've asked male Egyptians about it--some condemn it while others shrug and say, "We don't have jobs. All we can do is smoke and harass."

As for the cause, there is no easy answer. Egypt is a sexually-repressed, conservative, and impoverished country and the culture of harassment, for most, is simply an accepted fact of life. Only recently have there been public awareness campaigns to combat it as well as legal consequences for harassing.

As a result of all this, there is much distrust between men and women. For example, once in the evening, I was walking down a street and a white woman was walking towards me on the same side of the street. When she saw me, she immediately crossed the street. Another time, I was waiting for an elevator next to an Egyptian woman. When it came down, before I could get in, she ran in, slammed the door, and pressed the button for her floor. In both instances, I wasn't even making my creepy face.*

Egypt is definitely a man's country. Socially, legally, politically, economically, religiously, and any other "-ly" that you can think of, women come out as second-class citizens. I think the only case when the outcome is favorable for women is when they go clubbing. It's usually always free entry for them. Guys have to pay 50 LE. Taking everything into account, I'd say it's not too good of a deal.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Accidentally in Frankfurt

This past week, I was in America to celebrate Alec Baldwin's receiving of an honorary degree from New York University. My sister also happened to graduate from there on the same day. On my way back to Cairo, I had a connection in Frankfurt that I missed. My plane was late coming in and I took extra long going through security. My rolling luggage's handle was broken and the officers thought that the broken piece inside the bag was a weapon. After emptying my bag and doing a chemical test on it, they announced that it was safe. Great.

I was rebooked for a flight that was 12 hours later so Frankfurt was mine for the exploring! Unfortunately, it was raining most of the time there which put a damper on my adventure but I still managed to run from old building to old building and not get too wet.

St Bartholomew's Cathedral was first on my list. There were lots of very old churches in the area but this one is Frankfurt's pride. Several centuries ago, kings and emperors of the Roman empire were elected and crowned here.

The only other thing that really interested me in Frankfurt was this giant mall called My Zeil. I'm not a mall person, but according to the brochure I had, this mall had the longest escalator in the world. A bold claim but entirely possible. I went to check it out. Pretty long, but the longest in the world? I checked online. On Frankfurt's website, they revise their claim to say that is the longest free-standing (meaning support only at the ends) escalator in Europe. However, trusted source and friend of the blog, Wikipedia, says that there are several other free-standing escalators that are longer. It's ok. I still had blast riding up it.

Nice design from the outside.

The start of potentially the longest free-standing elevator in Europe.

Great view.

The end of the elevator.

Pretty. Long.

The reward at the top.

Aside from that, I saw some other old buildings and historic statues of minimal significance to me and just avoided the rain by sitting in cafes and eating. Of course, being in Frankfurt meant I had to try frankfurters. I also decided to have some German beer even though I'm not a beer guy. I figured the mango juice is better in Cairo anyway.
Germany! Is Bitburger good, Owen?

I eventually made it back to the airport and slept on the chairs til my flight. Four hours later, at 3:45 AM, I made it back to Cairo, argued with 5 cab drivers til I got a good price, and passed out at home. Frankfurt--an exhausting but ok to good detour, depending on the weather.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sama' Khan

Last night, a group of us decided to check out a concert from the Spring Festivals which happens every two years in Cairo. Every night for almost two weeks are various plays, concerts, art installations, dance shows, etc... around the city.

Yesterday there were performances by a female violinist from the Czech Republic and an Iraqi oud trio at a music hall called Sama' Khan. The concert started at 8 on but we were very late. We had the address to the venue but had no idea where it was and everyone we asked was giving us different directions. After taking a 20 minute taxi ride and walking around the city for 40 minutes, we finally saw a large gathering of white people mulling around an antique looking building and knew we made it. A great piece of advice that been passed down many generations in my head is whenever trying to find a Czech and Iraqi concert in a Middle Eastern capital, look for the trendy white people.

In any case, our timing worked out for the best. We got there right as Iva Bittova, the Czech lady, was finishing her set. I saw the last thirty seconds and I can say I'm not too bummed out I missed her. She was playing a violin while barking like a dog. Anwar Abudragh, the Iraqi trio (one of them is actually Syrian but don't tell!), on the other hand, were great. Very beautiful, classical Arabic music with great singing.
The Czech lady came out for the Iraqi trio's last song. She mainly made cat and bird noises while the oud player sang.

That white guy is so trendy with his striped t-shirt. And glasses.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Dahab is a small town about 100 km north-east of Sharm el Sheikh, the famous Egyptian resort town on the tip of the Sinai peninsula. Dahab is like Sharm-lite, a resorty-ish area for budget travelers. It's basically one long strip of hotel after restaurant after hotel, each offering plenty of "good deals, my friend."

We spent two days enjoying the gorgeous weather and beaching. On the second afternoon we went to the Blue Hole (or as the Egyptians call it, blole.) which is known as "the world's most dangerous dive site." It has claimed many diver's lives in the past few years because of a hidden underwater tunnel that is difficult to find causing many divers to go down too deep. We stuck to snorkeling.
Mountains of Saudi Arabia

The end of a long day's work