Alexandria

Now Egypt’s second largest city, it is a hard to believe that Alexandria was once only a tiny fishing village. Then came Alexander the Great. Fresh from his recent conquest of Jerusalem and Gaza, he swept into Egypt, greeted as a liberator. Before setting off for further victories to the East (you have to conquer more than just a couple countries to be known as “the Great”) Alexander founded Alexandria, envisioning it as the link between Greece and the fertile Nile valley. One of the perks to being so Great it seems is the ability to decree “build!” and then leave while others turn your words into reality.

And a great city it became. In less than a century it had transformed into one of the largest cities in the world, for centuries second only to Rome. It was an international trade hub for its easy access to the Red Sea as well as a port for the very lucrative trade of Egyptian cotton. As the centuries passed however, Alexandria’s prominence waned, as battles and natural disasters reduced the city to a fraction of its previous size. It was only in the mid 1800s, when Muhammad Ali rebuilt the city, that it regained a remnant of its former glory.

Now it is just a short two-and-a-half hour train ride from Cairo, which would have been quite comfortable if the air conditioning had not failed. Although I arrived uncomfortably overheated from the trip, the cool Mediterranean breeze was refreshing and the seventy degree weather made me quickly start to wonder why I chose to live in Cairo and not here.

After celebrating a wonderful triple birthday the previous night with some of the other Egypt Fulbrighters, a few of us set off to explore the city. We began with the recently rebuilt Library of Alexandria.

Alexander’s successors in Egypt established the ancient library shortly after his departure and it became the first known library to collect books from beyond its country’s borders. It pursued its mission of “collecting all the world’s knowledge” by well-funded visits to famous book fairs as well as a “knowledge tax” where they copied the books off of every ship that came to port in Alexandria, quickly amassing over 700,000 manuscripts!

Unfortunately, this temple of knowledge was destroyed in one of the later battles over the city, with one possible incident occurring when Julius Ceasar set fire to his own ships in a desperate battle and the fire spread, ravaging other parts of the city. The ruins of the library are now underwater, but not forgotten, as the new library clearly seeks to revive Alexandria’s reputation as a center for learning and knowledge.

Clearly channeling the spirit of its predecessor, the new $355 million dollar construction is a sight to behold. The library itself is contained in a massive tilted disk, whose outer stone walls are covered in the writings of over 100 languages. Its interior was just as impressive, with multiple floors holding shelves upon shelves of books in individually lit cases, giving off the distinct impression that the books themselves are giving off the light.

The library’s also houses a museum, which has a number of fascinating permanent collections. The collection of rare manuscripts was incredible. Not only did they have a number of religious texts that were over a thousand years old, but also great works including Euclid and a number of Islamic scholars who revolutionized the study of optics and medicine. They even had the only surviving manuscript from the ancient library, a document pieced together from twenty separate fragments whose Greek writing was almost illegible. Sadly, we were informed that this was only a copy, with the real manuscript in Vienna, bringing to mind the vast number of Egyptian treasures that reside outside the countries borders.

The museum also held a collection on Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s third president. Although it was interesting to see the gifts presented to Sadat (including, oddly enough, a key to the city of Pittsburg…) as well as his old pipes and pajamas, the highlight of the collection was the last uniform he ever wore. It was still stained with his blood and you could see where the bullets tore the fabric in his 1981 assassination!

We left the library to explore the city’s famous catacombs, once again diving back into ancient history. Discovered when a donkey just fell through the ground in 1900, the tombs were one of the last major works dedicated to the religion of ancient Egypt. They extend twenty meters into the ground and after over 300 years of construction, contained a number of passages and alcoves, and even a banqueting hall! Although the art was an interesting combination of Greek and Egyptian styles, walking across the old wooden planks in the basement makes one feel much more like Indiana Jones than an ancient Greek nobleman.

Although we did not have time to wander the rest of the city, we did get to see almost all of the corniche along the ocean, but only because our taxi driver misinterpreted our directions and took us to the wrong part of the city :P

I boarded a train the next day, taking the short but scenic ride back to Cairo. Although I was not looking forward to returning to the heat of the capital, at least the air conditioning on the train worked this time :)

More than just fun and games…

After reading about my trips and excursions throughout Egypt and across the Middle East, perhaps some of you are wondering if I actually have to do anything here, or if I have just been given a license to freely wonder around the Middle East for a year. So I thought that it was about time to let you know that there actually is a purpose to my extended presence in Egypt—being a Fulbright grantee is not completely just fun and games, there is a little work involved. :)

Fulbright has been around for quite sometime now. In fact, it was established in the mid-1940s by J. William Fulbright to fund the “promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” Over the years it has developed into a massive program that sends US citizens all over the world and then invites a greater number of our foreign counterparts to come to the US, usually as part of a college or graduate education.

Although there are different types of Fulbrighters (for doctoral research, teaching English, etc) I am here as a Fulbright student and spend the year first studying Arabic and then implementing a nine-month individual research project.

The Arabic portion of my grant was intense, with classes 4-5 hours a day, five days a week but the reward was well worth it. Studying in Egypt gave me my first significant chance to learn a local Arabic dialect. It was a liberating experience after having spent years in the shackles of the complex grammar and precise voweling of standard Arabic (for a better perspective on this, ready Caity’s blog post here). Now I can actually speak with people on the street, in shops and in taxis, hearing their thoughts about politics, religion and their families.

After three months, I finished my Arabic studies (for the time being anyway, Arabic is a language you study forever…) and started work on my project. After months of brainstorming and discussion the previous year, I had decided to focus on the publications of al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world and perhaps the most respected voice on Islamic learning in the Sunni world. However, as Islam has no central religious hierarchy (no Pope equivalent), when Muslims are looking for religious guidance they have many learned sheikhs at many different institutions to choose from—with even greater variety now due to increased internet access growing popularity of Islamic televangelists. I was interested to research what role al-Azhar played in the lives of Egyptians in Cairo, given the rise of these other actors and the institution’s close and at times controversial relationship with the state.

I spent the first month doing background research, reading the history of the institution and looking into a number of issues that have a strong resonance in Egyptian’s religious lives so that I could speak with them about topics that were important to them, and not just to me. I had just scheduled my first interview when the revolution began and I remember getting a phone call from Maha after the police had disappeared throughout Egypt saying that it might be a good idea to postpone the interview for the time being. She was right and I was evacuated four days later.

While in Nairobi (our chosen evacuation point), I found out that I was admitted into an MA program in Teaching Social Studies in Secondary School, starting in the fall. With a clear idea of my future plans and greatly influenced by an incredible education program I visited in Uganda, I came back to Egypt two months later with a new project idea in mind. Fulbright, perhaps realizing that the Revolution and our two months off had most of us returning with a new direction, accepted my proposed change.

Not a student...

More in-line with my future plans, I am now studying Islamic Education in Egypt, specifically looking at moral education. I was inspired by the incredible way that the PSA program in Uganda approached the education of our whole being, not just providing the participants with information to be digested and regurgitated on a test. The program seamlessly wove in questions and discussion about human nature, prejudice and self-reflection into lessons on math, science, agriculture and history.  This is in contrast to my experience in the US education system, which, with few exceptions, has a fragmented approach to education where none of the subjects relate to each other and students are seen as empty vessels to be filled up with information that often does not relate to their lives, aspirations or the world around them.

The belief in the US that state and religion should be kept separate has also led to the removal of any classes relating to morals/ethics/values, at times replacing them instead with civics, which is more interested in teaching the functions of the government and our place in the system than developing our ability to understand how our actions, beliefs and decisions can positively or negatively affect our lives and our communities.

With these ideas in mind I chose to study Islamic education, which in theory, has a more developed sense of educating the entire person, helping them to develop character as well as knowledge, even with specific words in Arabic for each type of teaching. But as everything sounds good in theory, I want to see whether or not these ideas are being implemented in Egyptian schools today and I will spend the next few months reading text books and talking with students and teachers to find out. In the end, I hope to learn something that I can bring back to the States, something that will inform my future study and teaching so that I can help my students develop as people and not just good date-memorizers and test-takers.

And that is ultimately the purpose of Fulbright, the cultural exchange.  If I had any doubts of its importance, Mahmoud cleared them up. He is the son of a very sweet plumber I met a few months ago and I have since been adopted into his family. As Mahmoud is currently unemployed (like an unfortunately large portion of Egyptian youth) he asked me if I could teach him English to help him get a good job here. During one of our classes, we were talking about differences between Egypt and the US and he said to me, “I think that it is very good that people from America come here and Egyptians go there, we learn a lot from each other.”

Thank you Mahmoud, Mr. Fulbright would be proud. :)

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Actually, I am a bit embarrassed to tell this story. It has, however, been at the center of my life for the past few weeks (and in fact prevented me from doing other interesting things I might have written about instead), so I thought that I would share the somewhat unfortunate, but hopefully entertaining, saga of my wounded foot.

It started shortly after we returned from Kenya. I quickly rejoined the capoeira group I so abruptly left two months previously and although seriously out of shape, I was excited to return to the kicks, spins and cartwheels that make capoeira such an incredible martial art. In the end, it was the cartwheels that did me in.

I had just returned from my second session and I was excited to show Caity some of the different moves that we were doing in class. After demonstrating different kicks and dodges, I got to the last move, a type of cartwheel (called an “Aú”) where you pause halfway up in a handstand before finishing. It looks pretty cool if you do it right. Unfortunately, I did not do it right.

After pausing in a wobbly handstand, I started to come down, but instead of gracefully bringing my feet to the floor, they crashed into the dresser, landing me hard on my butt. Caity rushed over and made sure I didn’t try to get up, examining the scrape on my left shin and what looked to be a nasty cut on my toe. I would like to say that I was not just showing off, but if that was the case, I certainly received what my dad calls “insta-karma”. :P

What it should have looked like...

It was about 11:30 pm and we were hesitant to go to the hospital (never having been before in Egypt and unsure of the care I would receive) and so we did what any prudent person would do in this situation: we called Mom. Luckily, in addition to being calm and compassionate, she is also a nurse. We described the situation and she told us to clean up the wound and then check it again in the morning.

When we woke up, it looked better, but still not very good. In consultation with my mom, we decided to try and take care of it ourselves. My mom became our on call nurse, who we provided with frequent updates (to the point where we started signing emails “Bolton Nursing Station: Cairo”) and Caity was my wonderful in-home nurse, a role she was unfortunately quite used to after my bout with Lyme disease two summers ago.

I quickly realized that having an injured foot significantly changes your daily activities, cutting everything out of your schedule that requires walking more than fifty feet. My day centered on the bed, where I slept, ate and exercised. My expeditions out to help Caity consisted of hobbling to the kitchen and awkwardly propping my foot up on a chair to do dishes or cut veggies, while she selflessly handled everything else. There are many reasons that I am happy to be married, but having a sweet, helpful (not to mention cute <3) nurse on hand 24 hours a day has definitely been added to the list.

After a week I started feeling better and after two weeks I was walking without pain. With my improved state, we made the (in hindsight) unfortunate choice to take a three-day trip out to the Western Desert. I kept my foot covered in a sock and shoe to prevent it from getting dirty, but it started hurting again after a day or two. I did the “manly” (i.e. stupid) thing of trying to shrug off the pain, not mentioning it to Caity until our last day out. When we returned from the desert, it turned out that the pain I had felt was my wound getting infected. In consultation with our Colorado colleague, we decided this was out of our hands not and finally went to the doctor.

Don't forget the socks...

After waiting a few minutes, we were shown in to his office where he had me take off my sock. He looked at my foot for no more than two seconds, asking if I had any allergies (I said no) and then prescribed antibiotics and a foot powder, insisting that I also wear white cotton socks. Being used to doctors in the States who sit down, ask you a series of questions and then fully explain the affliction, I found his style very brusque, especially since he didn’t even tell me the problem until I asked when leaving his office at the end of the visit!

I took my prescription to the pharmacy downstairs, where they gave me everything for (in comparison to the US) absurdly low prices. Pharmacies here provide just about any drug you want over the counter and I got the feeling that my prescription sheet was more of a list to them than an authorization from a medical professional. To top it off, they even deliver.

I followed the doctor’s orders, taking the pills and liberally applying the powder to my foot. Unfortunately, after a few days we found out that I am actually allergic to something—the powder that we have been dousing my foot with! My next visit to the doctor found my foot looking worse than before (meriting a ten second evaluation this time) before I was sent home again with a saline wash.

Luckily, it seems that this saga is only a trilogy and my foot is finally healing. I am ready to walk around outside, do exercise somewhere other than the bed and maybe even start going to capoeira again. I have thankfully kept my toe and certainly learned my lesson. I will be much more careful when practicing at home and that is the last time I pick a fight with a dresser!