Salaam al aleikum there! I’m studying abroad at the American University in Cairo this semester, and today was my first day of school. It was pretty different from all the first days of school I’ve ever had. And some of it pertains to archaeology, which is why I’m blogging about it here!
I think I may need to tell you about the city first, in order to describe the university. Preceding any other quality of Cairo is its sheer hugeness. I know L.A. is big, with its sprawled out neighborhoods and thickly layered freeways, but it’s also well parceled into its respective parts, e.g. South Bay, the Valley, Downtown, the financial district and Little Tokyo within Downtown. Cairo is made of neighborhoods, too – Doqqi, Mohandessin, Garden City, Nasr City – but a lot of them are indistinguishable from each other except for major infrastructure and landmarks.
Agouza bleeds right into Doqqi, and the trendy suburbs of Heliopolis peter off into this slummy area that becomes the slums of Shubra. The reason for this is the washed-out sand color of the buildings and the fact that most of them have similar proportions, five to ten stories high, no wider or deeper than WPH. And they are all clumped together on pitted concrete city blocks that have sidewalks kind of tottering off the block. So number and repetition make Cairo seem infinite.
The American University, though, is located in New Cairo, a residential suburb tacked onto the outside of Cairo very recently. I missed the bus the second day of orientation week and had to take a taxi to school, so I got to experience emerging from Cairo proper – a smog bubble in the rear window – into a desert sporadically dotted with construction sites and unfinished mansions. (The construction workers live in temporary settlements some ways behind the mansions, where you can’t see them from the road, just like ancient builders’ huts beside the pyramids.) The 260-acre campus looms into view after a forking island in the highway, and its stone facade subtly liberates itself from the sand like one of those eye-crossing paintings at the dentist’s office. The taxi driver and I kept saying “Kabeer…kabeer…” to each other, one of the few vocab words I remembered and which means “big.” We drove to the security gate goggling at the shiny silver letters spelling out AMERICAN UNIVERSITY IN CAIRO.
Today the school was crammed with people for the first time, and so the clean Islamic/Postmodernist architectural lines and sharp shadows were blotted with crowds of crowds and noise. Rumor has it that one of the donors for the new campus was a murderer, sparking an outcry in the student newspaper, but if blood money bought the landscaping it is still stunning to the oblivious observer. I took my time wandering in between classes just so I could listen to all the chatter in Arabic. I’d never paid attention to the aural environment at USC, and today I realized how different an
experience is walking through the hallway when snatches of conservation reach your ear and then are swiftly rejected by your brain. It was like being trapped in a foreign language movie without subtitles. Also, they were speaking Egyptian Arabic, which omits certain sounds that Fusha, the formal written language, uses, so it didn’t even sound like my Lebanese USC professor’s Arabic. When I asked directions in the souk the other day, likewise, every woman I approached made an agitated I-don’t-have-it motion and rushed their children away from me. At first I wondered if I appeared disreputable (out without my brother/father, not with family during iftar, hair let down?) but my Arabic teacher explained to me that they probably thought I was speaking Chinese.
Unfortunately, I was late to my first class because the school instituted a special Ramadan schedule but no announcements went out. The good news was, my first class was hieroglyphs! Dr. Fayza Haikal, Egyptology professor and former president of the International Association of Egyptologists, started the class with a warning that Hieroglyphs I was not an easy class that you take for fun, got several people to leave right away, and launched into a very interesting lecture on the development of the four main Egyptian scripts. I hate to think what those people are missing. For a while Dr. Haikal was the chair of the Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, and Egyptology department, and as rare as it is for an Egyptologist to head that cluster, it is rarer still for an Egyptian and a woman to be a leading Egyptologist. I’m looking forward to the rest of the semester.
~ Tiffany T.