April 28, 2008 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Cairo Filter: I'm working in Egypt this summer for three months and have a few questions.

I'm a 23 year-old American male and am going to be working at a Cairo-based NGO this summer. It's going to be my first time in the Middle East and I have a few questions.

1) I'm going to be renting a flat, and from what I've read there is dialup most everywhere for extremely cheap. I was curious, though, whether it was possible to get reasonably priced broadband in Cairo - and if so, from where? If not, will the dialup be sufficient to use Skype?

2) Relatedly, is the internet there censored? A friend of mine currently in Iran says she can't get on facebook or a variety of other sites. Does Egypt block objectionable websites? I thought they might likely block porn, but what else?

3) I took four years of Modern Standard Arabic in college, but it's been a while since I used it regularly and it's really deteriorated and, moreover, I know only the most basic rules of Egyptian Colloquial. Is there anywhere on the internet where I could watch Arabic movies, television, or news, so I can just get back into the habit of hearing Arabic? I know some places where I can listen to radio news, but I'd really prefer video.

4) What should I read before I go? I've read Max Rodenbeck's history of Cairo as well as AUC's guide to moving to the city. I'm interested in both fiction and non-fiction. I know I need to read something by Naguib Mahfouz, what do you recommend?

5) As someone who is going to be in Egypt for a fairly extended period of time, what else do you think I should know or what do you think I should do besides the obvious?
posted by ecab to Travel & Transportation around Cairo, Egypt (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: MSA is a LOT different than Egyptian and the letterforms are pronounced differently. That you studied MSA will totally help you and you'll be way ahead of people who are unfamiliar with Arabic, but you should kind of start fresh trying to absorb Egyptian. The good news is... dialect is waaay easier than MSA. The Egyptian Arabic vocab clinic recommended on this site is pretty good, I think. The key is, more than anything, just trying to cram as many words and phrases into your head as possible. When you're immersed in the culture it'll become easier. Within a few weeks you'll start remembering your old MSA and understanding stuff.

I'd read some Naguib Mahfouz, most definitely. He's the literary hero of Cairo, there's even a restaurant named after him in the Khan al-Khallili. I read "Respected Sir, Wedding Song, and the Search: Wedding Song" last year but The Cairo Trilogy is what made him famous. But even more, I'd recommend reading The Yacoubian Building.

Here are bunch of helpful books. And although it's not out yet, this one sounds interesting too.

First thing you should know is that the Egyptian people are great, warm people who have an AMAZING sense of humor. And I met so many people with the most amazing caramel colored eyes... I thought they were beautiful. Egyptian society is becoming increasingly repressed, though. Having a personal blog that criticizes Mubarak is a jailable offense. The government is pretty much a dictatorship and while twenty years ago women in Cairo didn't wear headscarves now there is a lot more religious pressure there. While people won't expect you to behave like a local, you should really try to show respect for the religious beliefs of locals and the laws of sharia. Especially when it comes to relationships between men and women, it's just a very different world. Many woman are not allowed to have a boyfriend and in Egypt many marriages are still arranged. For single men and women to be alone together even platonically is considered haram. You can hang out with your own sex all you want, though. And while most Muslims don't drink there are many that do. Be aware that a lot of Egyptian alcohol kinda sucks though. The only wine I remember not being horrible was Sheherazade.

Due to the heat, a lot of Cairenes live their lives at night. At 3am you'll see soccer games going on in parking lots and massive traffic. Dentists offices are open at 10pm. Don't be surprised by the nighttime activity.

If I would recommend two side trips it would be to go to Sinai and The Siwa Oasis. And if you go to Siwa, try to do some kind of jeep or horse safari on the Sand Sea. It's so fun. And if you get a chance to do a caravan and hang out with Berbers or Bedouins and watch them dance, be sure you do. They LOVE their dancing, and it's just so joyful to watch them having fun. Oh, and don't miss the whirling dervishes.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:27 PM on April 28, 2008

Best answer: I lived in Egypt for a while in 2006, then again last summer. I haven’t been back in a year, but these things were all true when last I was there.

Broadband in Cairo comes from one of a few providers – as far as I can tell they all charge the same amount. I used Tedata, which was fine, but it took over a month to get it set up from the time that I first contacted them. And even then, there were issues with it cutting out periodically, not recording payments, etc. It cost something like $50/ month. When I lived there last summer I just went to cafes that had wireless with my laptop to use skype. You can get a $2 coffee at Coffee Bean in Zemalek (next to the Hotel Umm Kulthum) and use their really fast wireless as long as you like. Mostly though, I just had people call me from their skype to my cell phone. It was more convenient for me (if a little more expensive for them).

I never experienced any censorship while I was there. No prob accessing facebook, youtube, or anything else. And I know you can get porn, because if you go to internet cafes you can watch it over the shoulders of young men.

BBC Arabic has news videos, but I don’t think this is the best way to prepare for living in Egypt. I prefer watching Nancy Agram (and other Arabic music vids) on youtube. It really helped with my Egyptian vocab. You can also go here and scroll down to see live feeds from Egyptian (and other Arabic language) stations. For what it’s worth, almost every ex-pat I knew in Cairo barely knew how to say hello – you will be much better off than most. If you want a basic intro to Egyptian Colloquial, this book is decent.

I second The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany. If you can find the movie, watch it.

As someone who is going to be there for a while, I suggest you become a regular somewhere. Buy lemons or falafel off the same guy on the street every day, or stop into the same juice shop every morning and take the time to get to know that person. If you get an invite back to their house, go. Getting to know Egyptians outside of the well-trekked ex-pat system is really enjoyable, and really worthwhile. Also, going on a desert trip with Bedouins to the White and Black Deserts is amazing. I’ve never done it in the summer though.

I have some other advice (listservs, cell phones, etc), if you’d like it, feel free to mefimail me.
posted by milagu at 7:38 PM on April 28, 2008

Best answer: Thirding the Yacoubian Building. Also, the AUC guide is great. It was very helpful when I was there (2004-2005), and I can't imagine its any less helpful now. Also, the Lonely Planet Egyptian Colloquial Arabic Phrasebook was quite helpful for vocab and the like. A'amaya is very different from Fusha, but it flows better, and its relatively easy to pick up the basics in Cairo if you don't mind getting down and dirty with it. At least, I thought it was. YMMV.

Also, I highly recommend visiting the Siwa Oasis. It is simply amazing. I'm not sure how you feel about it, but any place where you can kneel in the exact spot where (legend has it) Alexander the Great knelt way back when is high up in my book. Also, I'd highly recommend visiting Aswan. Yes, a lot of package tourists and the like go there, but its Nubian feel is a great contrast to the rest of the country, and the nearby Aswan High Dam and its Soviet-Egyptian Friendship Memorial are really cool.

I would also echo milagu's advice about becoming a regular somewhere. It can be a bit intimidating at first, but push yourself beyond the comfort zone of Western company and spend a lot of time in a local place, especially one where you're the only khwaga in the joint. You'll not only get great insight into Egyptian and Cairene culture, but your A'amaya skills will increase exponentially. I made a lot of great friends from America and Europe when I lived in Cairo, but the greatest experiences I had there (and honestly, that I have had anywhere) was with the Egyptian friends I made after becoming a regular at a neighborhood cafe. I can't recommend it enough. Also, if one of those locals who you end up making friends with invites you to their house for a meal, GO. It will be a great experience.

I don't know if anyone has told you this or not, or if you've come to some kind of realization on the topic from the things you've read so far, but Cairo is not an easy place to live. I say this not to scare you, or to dissuade you, but to inform you. Its tough, and it takes effort, and it takes god-like patience. In order to survive, you'll need to be able to shrug off the most absurd inconveniences you can imagine, ignore your traditional notions of timeliness, and reprogram your tolerance of noise, pollution, and traffic congestion. Some Westerners I met there loved it, some hated it. The ones who loved it or enjoyed it were the ones who had the patience and restraint to get beyond the day-to-day absurdities of modern Egypt in order to experience the absolutely radiant beauty of the the Egyptian people. The ones who enjoy it are the ones who can accept Cairo, and Egypt as a whole, for what it is: an incredible place, rich in history and in the loveliness of its people, but just barely keeping its head above water. The ones who hate it are the ones who only see it for what it is not: an American or European city. It sounds simple, but just take the place for what it is.

That being said, living in Cairo is one of the greatest experiences you will have. I can't believe it really was less than a year ago that I gave this same pep talk to miss lynnster. But I'll say tell you the same thing I told her: Cairo is chaotic, loud, dusty and crazy, but all that stuff makes the special moments (and there are lots of those) all the more memorable. I know I'll never be able to get Egypt out of my blood.

And I hope you never get it out of yours. You'll be living on the shores of the Nile, dammit! The Nile!

If you like, please MeFimail me for more detailed recommendations.
posted by diggerroo at 9:04 PM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Second the recommendation of Mahfouz, especially his novel Midaq Alley, which gives you a pretty good idea of Egyptian culture circa 1940. Lots have changed since then, so you might want to take a peek at the relevant chapters in a recent edition of Cleveland's A History of the Modern Middle East. As for getting into dialect, friends of mine have used youtube with a good deal of success. Many of Nasser's speeches are online and in Egyptian dialect. Best of luck to you. I'm envious as all hell.
posted by The White Hat at 11:27 PM on April 28, 2008

Oh! Lest I forget! Netflix every movie with عادل إمام, especially اﻻرهاب و الكباب.
posted by The White Hat at 11:30 PM on April 28, 2008

I'd second trying to rent some movies through Netflix - the Yacoubian Building, old classics like Fi Beytna Ragl, La Anam, Da'oua al-Karawan, etc., etc.

I'd also recommend writings by Taha Hussein (his memoir, The Days), short stories by Ghalib Halasa and anything by Sonallah Ibrahim. Mahfouz is great (if you go to Alexandria, you must read Miramar) but there are a lot of other fantastic Egyptian authors who are often eclipsed by him.

Siwa will be HOT during the summer so brace yourself if you decide to go. I'd recommend a short trip to Alexandria - it's a lovely city.

Listening to music could also be a good idea - Amr Diab is one of the most obvious suggestions. I also like Mohammad Munir and Shereen.
posted by anonymous78 at 5:44 AM on April 29, 2008

For reading material, I highly recommend Brian Kiteley's novel I Know Many Songs But I Cannot Sing. It would make the perfect airplane read.
posted by mattbucher at 12:21 PM on April 29, 2008

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