Three weeks after we arrived in Cairo, all of the Fulbrighters met for an orientation at the American Embassy. There are roughly three different groups of us: the students (like me) who are here after their undergrad to work on a single research project, the scholars who are furthering their PhD work and the English Teaching Assistants who are part of a new program to assist in Egyptian classrooms.
We met outside the embassy gate and after a screening that is far more thorough than any airport. We were led into a conference room and welcomed by the US Ambassador, a former Fulbrighter herself.
She was followed by the man in charge of providing assistance to the 35,000 American’s living in Egypt. His presentation was short but interesting, filled with anecdotes to illustrate his points on how his office can help us, but also general pointers about life here. One such story began with him walking home late at night and hearing someone running up behind him. He turned to find a man out of breath and asking for help, telling a story in broken English that had something to do with blood, mother and two hours. As he was deciding whether or not to go with the man, he had the very distinct image of himself lying in a bathtub without a kidney and decided it might be best to go home. Sitting in front of us with both kidneys intact, he said the moral of the story was to trust your intuition.
Then came the man in charge of security for the personnel working at the Embassy. In contrast to the presentation that we had in DC on the same topic (where the speaker, who seemed to us to be former CIA, left us paranoid and thinking that we had to vary our schedule daily because of a time where someone tried to assassinate him) this man was much more down to earth and actually quite funny. When addressing terrorism, which is luckily not a huge problem in Egypt, he said that we should use common sense. Such as: if we see a person drop off a package and start running, run with them! The same goes for people who emerge out of large petrol trucks running. It turns out that the most dangerous thing in Egypt is not terrorism, robbery or disease, but crossing the street. Interestingly enough, one of the main objects of people’s frustration here, the terrible traffic, makes Cairo much safer because most accidents happen at low speeds.
The final presentation was from the woman in charge of health at the Embassy and she left us fearing for our lives, imagining that we would get tuberculosis from smoking sheesha, amoebas from street food and needed to wash all our vegetables in Clorox.
Hoping that our lunch had not given us a deadly disease, we headed up to the Citadel for the entertainment part of the orientation. Originally built by Saladin in the 1100s, the complex has walls 10 meters high, an inexhaustible well and a commanding view of downtown Cairo. It served as the seat of governance for the next 700 years, with each ruler or dynasty adding their own buildings, gates and walls.
One of these additions, the mosque built by Muhammad Ali, stands out far above the rest. Sent by the Ottomans in the early 1800s to govern Egypt, Muhammed Ali implemented many significant reforms in the country and funded a number of building projects. This mosque is large and gorgeous, standing out on the skyline of downtown Cairo. It is built in an Ottoman style, complete with two typical pencil minaret’s that one sees all over Turkey but no where else in Cairo.
After touring the mosque, we went to dinner at the restaurant in the Citadel, which allowed us to appreciate one of the upsides of the pollution in Cairo, beautiful sunsets. After what turned out to be a fantastic buffet, we were asked to sit in front of a small stage, where we sipped tea and watched a performance by an incredible singer and band performing songs from the great Abdel Halim Hafiz.
Sitting on the small couches, drinking tea and watching the show with the Muhammad Ali mosque lit up in the background seemed like a fitting end to the night. However,when the band finished, there was a short pause and then a man walked out in front of the stage dressed in multiple brightly colored “skirts” that were layered on top of each other. Music began and as he started to spin, the weights in the end of the skirts caused them to lift up and spin around him like discs.
To our amazement he then slowly detached one after the other and pulled them off and spun them over his head, with one layer even lit with strings of LED lights! He ended the show by first pulling a string of women and then men to try on one of the skirts and spin. Both Caity and I spun for just a few seconds, leaving us tripping over ourselves from dizziness and yet he did it for a half hour!
That was the final act of the night, leaving us all to pile on buses and head home. It was a great day and the orientation left me looking forward to the other trips planned for us this year. As long as I can keep both my kidneys, cross the street safely and avoid getting amoebas, I am going to have a great time in Cairo.