Studying Abroad in Cairo!
May 3, 2012 11:16 AM   Subscribe

I'll be abroad in Cairo for this coming year -- what do I need to know? What should I pack? Leave at home? Be sure not to miss? What's overrated?

I'll be doing the Arabic Language Institute at the American University in Cairo my first semester, studying history (in English) in the spring. Living in the dorms in Zamalek (at least initially). I know the basics in terms of dressing modestly, navigating the city, but insider knowledge would be much appreciated!

I'm Jewish, queer, 19, and female. I trust my judgement in terms of disclosing // not disclosing my identities, but if you have information about communities that I might find inviting please do get in touch.
posted by femmegrrr to Travel & Transportation around Cairo, Egypt (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My sister did that program, and from what I remember, the abuse on the street was so bad that she spent most of her time off on the weekends and whatnot traveling to spain/morocco.

Mind you, this was in 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq War, and she's fair-skinned, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed, so no amount of modest dress or hair covering really hid the fact that she was an American.
posted by Oktober at 11:52 AM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, this will be exciting for you! I would listen to whatever the school advises on safe travel in Cairo -- I was in Egypt in 2008 (with friends), and I never felt unsafe when I was in the company of my male friends, and in fact my experience was that everyone was really friendly, BUT I was with a man the entire time. I don't know that I would feel comfortable as a woman doing too much solo traipsing around Egypt. Not unsafe, perhaps, but uncomfortable. YMMV of course, but as a young woman, it's something to bear in mind. Make friends -- and if at least one of them is a tall confident dude, all the better. In 2008, also, people were VERY interested in the election, so get ready for them to talk politics with you. Everyone was very enthusiastic about Obama, and I think I happened to be there during a time when they were feeling fairly pro-American. I can't really speak to public opinion at the moment, obviously.

Now, obviously, I've only traveled there and never lived there and I'm sure other people will have other, better, advice for you, but off the top of my head:

Egypt is AWESOME and you're going to have a great time. See the Pyramids and the Sphinx, obviously, and make sure you take a trip down to Luxor to see the Valley of Kings (it's a quick plane trip from Cairo). We did a bunch of tourist-y shit while we were there and it was all AWESOME. We took a sun-rise hot air balloon ride in Luxor and it was mind-boggling. Egypt has so much history and it's very beautiful. In my personal experience, nothing was really over-rated. I would note that, if you decide to climb up the inside of whatever Pyramid is open at the time, don't expect to find anything inside the room at the top, and everyone who tells you it is claustrophobic getting up and down inside is RIGHT. I did it, because I felt like you don't get to Egypt and not go inside the Pyramid, but it is VERY CLOSE QUARTERS and I almost had a panic attack on the way out. (I am moderately claustrophobic.)

I would definitely bring some guide books with you, because something I found interesting about Egypt was that there aren't really any SIGNS anywhere. You know how in the US, if you are at a historical site, there will be a big map and brochures and signs etc etc. Egypt is more come across a giant awesome temple and there is nothing to tell you what anything is, so it's nice to be able to look stuff up. Even in the museum in Cairo, at least while I was there, a lot of the antiquities were identified by notecards handwritten in French.

I suspect some of the lack of signage has to do with the fact that tour guides are a big industry in Egypt and we actually got one in Luxor and he was AWESOME and brilliant and invaluable, so I would advise that if you go to Luxor. (I can't remember what tour group our guy was associated with, but there are several tour guide places at the Winter Palace in Luxor.) It's not very expensive and it really made it much more interesting for us.

In terms of packing, I have never been hotter in my entire life than April in Luxor, and that's including in Vegas in August. Bring a hat. I wore a LOT of long, full skirts.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:01 PM on May 3, 2012

I've been to Egypt and Cairo several times and always stayed on Zamalek (most recently in 2008). Egypt, and especially Cairo, is a total boyzone, and even big male me noticed that: it's just groups of men everywhere. Zamalek, especially off the major roads that run between the bridges, is better than most places, as is the area around AUC Tahrir campus itself—I've seen groups of college-age women in both places. I also know several anglo women, Egyptologists, who have lived individually in Cairo for extended periods of time and, while they all had harassment stories, they all loved living there.

Zamalek is great. It's definitely the most cosmopolitan part of Cairo; there are lots of western-style amenities: a superb pizza place (Maison Thomas), the English-language bookstore Diwan, and Abou El-Sid, a chic place with terrific fancy Egyptian food (don't miss it).

I've never been to the New Cairo campus, which is way the heck out there and not "in" the city itself; besides the commute, I'd totally prefer to be on Zamalek, for what it's worth.
posted by The Michael The at 12:08 PM on May 3, 2012

As The Michael The says, it's a boyzone. The entire Middle East is, and if I had a penis I would move there and be king, but I don't. So: listen to your school, they will know what's up. Also, you already mentioned dressing modestly. Men will still stare and say crap to you (especially if you're light-skinned.) So maybe learn some good retorts! :) Also, I find that kind of stuff threatening, but a lot of my Arab friends who grew up there could care less and they wear their tight revealing clothes with no worries. So maybe try to adopt their calm when it comes to that kind of stuff. (Though that is much easier said than done, but you also don't want to be a stressball everytime you're out.)

In terms of finding a group of like-minded cool people: Maybe look around and see if you can find an LGBT group in Cairo to volunteer with--or some cool NGO. You will meet some fantastic, like-minded people that way, and also get to experience the city in a different way.

What to bring: Antibiotics?! You're going to be there for a while, and you will probably get food poisoning. It just happens. If you're (un)lucky, you'll get the kind of food poisoning in which you need to shit and vomit with equal urgency and you will want to die. So talk to your doctor beforehand about any meds you should bring.

Finally--I don't know if you've studied Arabic before or not. The Arabic you learn in class will not resemble the Arabic you hear in the street. This is really frustrating for a lot of people learning the language. You need to learn the classical, I guess, but make it a point to practice the colloquial a lot too, when you can. Oh, and! I love my girlfriends there, and my friendships with Arab women are in some ways a lot more intimate than they are with American women. So make it a point to make some close Egyptian women friends--it will make all the difference.
posted by namemeansgazelle at 12:58 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I lived in Cairo for two years, albeit pre-Revolution, and I worked at AUC. Feel free to get in touch with me directly if you have questions. I still know many folks there, especially AUC profs.

So, yeah, it will be tough. The verbal harassment is pretty out-of-control. I did know one grad student who left early. Actually knowing Arabic can make it worse, because you can actually understand what these guys are saying. One tip that helped me: dark sunglasses (a good idea regardless) and obvious headphones, even if you're not listening to anything. The illusion that you can't see or hear the comments is helpful. Other non-Egyptian students will have suggestions, too. And it will be very different when you are with a man. Campus itself will be fine, and very touristy areas will be better, too.

Cairo has always had a very vibrant nightlife, and it's always been a surprisingly safe city for expats, but apparently things are getting pretty bad at night lately, and people are staying home. So check with Americans who have been in town before venturing around town at night.

I am not Jewish, but I have never seen anti-Semitism like in Cairo. And for many Egyptians, Jews = Israelis. I mean this quite literally. Israel is the scapegoat for all problems in Egypt. However, many Egyptians have no sense of names that might be Jewish (if yours is). I'm not Christian (an atheist now, raised Catholic), but I certainly said I was to the random taxi drivers who asked.

Regarding clothes: I felt most comfortable with shirts that hit at least my elbows and pants and skirts that went to my ankle, but not higher than mid-calf. I had a lot of different color lightweight tank tops to wear underneath shirts, especially not completely opaque. It's also helpful to have some light, big scarves to cover you up, especially like when you're on the metro. Also, many fitted clothes here can feel tight over there.

I'll add more if I think of anything else.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:03 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Walking around Cairo with my girlfriend didn't stop the harassment. Wearing fake wedding rings didn't stop it. Men would openly hit on her whether I was there or not. Wearing a head covering also made no difference, because she was visibly very, very foreign. She said that the assumption on the street was that any woman not from Egypt will sleep with anyone. Be prepared to be followed and touched without permission. Some of it will be harmless boasting about how rich he is and how he'd make you a very good husband. Some of it will be considerably less polite. Her buttocks and breasts were groped several times when she was wedged in crowded places and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.

If you have lived in the USA all of your life, then you have never experienced shopping culture like what you're about to see. The entire set of haggling techniques could be a college seminar, but be prepared to walk away, loudly demand to know how the merchant could charge such prices without being ashamed, complain that you are only a poor college student there on scholarship, etc. You will still pay considerably more than a local resident, but then again you can afford to pay a lot more.

Personally, my attitude these days is that I don't go anywhere that revealing my true identity would get me killed. There are enough places in this world where I can be a big Jew in open safely that I can't be bothered putting money into a local economy that would just as soon see me dead. Echoing bluedaisy, I noticed no distinctions made between Israelis and Jews. And the general hatred for Jews was coupled with an almost laughable lack of knowledge about Jews or Judaism. If you're Ashkenazi then your name will produce blank non-recognition. Also keep in mind that you're going to a country where the human rights for LGBT people is probably getting worse rather than better.

Sorry to be contrary. I thought there were many delightful elements of Cairo, but these were so absolutely overbalanced by the unending harassment that I was happy to leave.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:02 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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