STUDYING IN CAIRO by Christine Bald
The first thing I noticed upon deplaning in Cairo was how epically I was not going to blend in for the next six months. As I made my way through passport control, I thought I must have something on my face; everyone, it seemed, was staring at me.
In literature, this is called foreshadowing. Indeed, during the first week of my semester abroad, I felt like a one-woman counterinsurgency battling the 16 million residents of Cairo. I was pinched, followed, and relentlessly stared at by Egyptian men. My roommates recounted stories of being grabbed in crowds and verbally abused on the subway. There is no way to succinctly describe the terror of the first few days of life in a country that could only be less like your own if it were un- derwater. Too proud to complain or exhibit fear, I nevertheless had nebulous thoughts of catching the next flight back to the U. S. of A. Before long though, day to day life became more urgent than sexual harassment. The streets were scary and my Arabic was limited to “Maha’s father works at the United Nations,” but my stomach was growling. Somewhere in my head, a switch flipped from flight to fight. I ditched my textbook Arabic in favor of the colloquial, made friends with locals my age, and developed a thick skin. It was sink or swim in Cairo: I chose to swim.
Life in Cairo is like a water ride at Busch Gardens: it’s no fun if you spend the whole time trying to circumvent the waterfalls and deflect the punks squirting water at the boats. There’s no point; everyone gets soaked anyway. The key to Cairo is similar; take the good with the bad and forgive the punks. By the end of my first month the things I disliked about Cairo were vastly outweighed by the things I loved, chief of which was the naked humanity of the city. Egyptians are easygoing and friendly for no discernable reason. Cairo is astoundingly overcrowded with through-the-roof unem- ployment, a poorly working infrastructure and a government that could be charitably described as oppressive. Despite a repressive culture, individual Carienes are raw, optimistic and warm, some- thing I experienced firsthand time and again.
I recently attended an information session for Middle East ex- change programs that included glossy brochures for a London option and a slideshow of Turkey’s serene Bogacizi University. I grinned through the descriptions and pictures of the glamorous programs, thinking how different my semester might have been in any of these locales. There can be little doubt that life would have been a lot easier, but I’ve always been a subscriber to the belief that the most challengi