As the most populous city in Africa and one of the fastest growing cities in the world, the first impression of Cairo that greets the uninitiated traveller exiting the airport is the legendary traffic and lack of affirmed traffic laws in general. In addition to cars, trucks, and motorcycles, the roads are also shared by aggressive microbus drivers, swarms of tuk-tuks–– motorized rickshaws operated with handlebars rather than steering wheels, donkey drawn carraiges bringing vegetables to market, and hordes of people walking without deference to oncoming traffic. The neighborhood in which I reside only recently installed its first traffic light; the norm being to turn, cross intersections, and enter roundabouts whenever you feel ready. As such, the daily sound of horns––more frequently used as a signalling device than an expression of anger–– is as reliable as the muezzin’s call to prayer. In my experience, taxi drivers prefer to honk repetitively when approaching a blind intersection to alert other drivers that may be coming rather than slowing down. Seeing my reaction to the choatic conditions, one driver described the horns and flow of traffic as, “we like to take care of each other.” A greater euphemism has never been uttered.
I had the fortune of arriving in Egypt for the last three weeks of Ramadan–– the ninth month of the Islamic calendar commemerating the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Observance of fasting during this month is considered one of the five pillars of Islam. Unlike other Muslim-majority countries where it is a punishable crime to eat, drink, chew gum, or smoke in public, many Cairene restaurants and establishments will stay open to service non-Muslim customers during Ramadan. However, it remains disrespectful, especially among friends and colleagues, to wantonly break fast infront of an observing Muslim. Ramadan is also known as a month for family,friends, and community. “Iftar” or the breaking of the fast at sundown each day turns into a daily celebration of delicious foods and desserts bringing together friends and family that one may not have seen in a while. This tradition stands in juxtaposition to the habit of many households in the US where coordination of schedules for dinner with one’s immediate family can often prove difficult. “Zakat,” or charitable giving, is especially encouraged during Ramadan. Though Muslims needn’t any reminding of this practice, a greater portion of commercials during Ramadan’s post-iftar soap operas are devoted to displaying community projects and reinforcing the notion of charitable giving. Many neighborhoods will line up chairs and tables where well-off families volunteer to provide iftar for those who cannot afford it. “Suhoor” is a light meal consumed prior to “fajr,” or the dawn prayer that marks the beginning of fasting (typically occuring this summer at approximately 3:30 am). In practice, many use suhoor as another opportunity to meet with friends late in the evening, staying at coffee shops until the early hours of the morning and then going directly to the mosque for dawn prayer. Although daytime activity slows down during Ramadan hindering some touristic exploration, a degree of daily lethargy may easily be excused when one considers the lack of sleep, caloric intake, and very hot summer temperatures. I was blessed to be able to share many iftars with the director of the program’s family, as well as many suhoors with friends I met through the institute.
Taken together, my classroom and extracurricular activities here in Egypt have provided an indispensable learning experience and attributed to great personal growth. The study of language, especially in the Middle East, remains an integral part of cultural understanding. Egypt is especially well suited for this endeavor as it has long served as a cultural hub and center for Sunni Islamic thought. In addition to a sizable number of Egyptians working in other states throughout the region, Egypt’s continued proliferation of popular films and music ensures that Egyptian colloquial remains widely recognizable and a worthwhile pursuit when choosing a spoken dialect to study. Beyond these factors, having the opportunity to discuss historical and current events with Egyptians spanning a broad spectrum of socioeconomic status has provided greater insight than I could ever have hoped to glean by reading a book or an article. For instance, hearing different perspectives of the January 25th, 2011 Revolution and its aftermath from those who participated provided a fascinating opportunity to interact with one primary source after another. A more contemporaneous example: witnessing reactions to the succession of states cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar also proved quite informative. As I type this post, aljazeera.com remains inaccessible. Travelling to a foreign country and living the culture firsthand enhances previous study and reframes the lens through which future events are judged. For a student interested in a career analyzing, influencing, or informing policy, participating in a trip like this, without a doubt, mitigates mirror-imaging and produces a more rigorous thinker.