There are a lot of things that have building up in my brain lately that I realize I must write about, but have no way to find the words for it all.  I believe the best way to start is to talk about this month, which is considered the most important month for many Arabs: the month of Ramadan.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this holiday, it is the biggest and most widely celebrated in Islam.  It is a month dependent on the Islamic lunar calendar, so it begins on a different day every year, this year starting July 20th.  This month is a time of spiritual reflection, and historically, the Prophet Muhammad first received revelations in the lunar month of Ramadan. Therefore, the month of Ramadan is considered to be the most sacred month of the Islamic calendar.  Ramadan consists of fasting from sunrise to sunset, where Muslims refrain from food, drink, sexual activity, and smoking.

Watching the sunrise go down on a Falooka boat before we eat Iftaar

This is a time when most people stay in doors (especially when Ramadan takes place in the summer!), sleeping and laying low.  The women spend all day preparing special dishes and huge meals for their families.  As soon as the sun sets, everyone gathers for the evening feast, called Iftaar, and spend time in celebration late into the night with gifts, food, music, special t.v. shows, and of course family and friends.  Before sunrise, everyone will eat again around five in the morning in preparation for the long day of fasting to come.  Although children are not required to fast, many of them do in order to practice later in life.  Here in Egypt, most Muslim women wear the higab, or head scarf, to cover their hair.  During the month of Ramadan, even young girls, sometimes five or six years old, wear the higab as well, in order to respect the sacredness of the month.

Inside a mosque for the first time

Having Iftaar on an island off of the Nile river

Keeping all of this in mind, I am experiencing Ramadan in the Middle East first-hand for the very first time.  The best way I can describe my environment here is by telling you that night is day and day is night.  During the day, the normally crowded streets are practically deserted, and many shops are closed until sunset.  However, as soon as the sun goes down, the whole world comes alive.  Women quickly prepare to go out with their friends and families, every shop is filled with people buying helowiyat (desserts, sweets), colored lights line the windows of countless apartments, and people laugh and talk together.  It is a wonderful feeling, and very similar to the days before Christmas in the States.

During the late night hours, many people eat helowiyat and fruit of all kinds, like Kanafa, Atayef, watermelon, mango, grapes, apricots, and bananas.  My personal favorite is the delicious kanafa, which can be made with raisins and nuts, custard, or a type of creamy cheese (custard is the best!).

Kanafa with custard, made with shredded pastry dough and delicious honey.

Best of all, it seems that the music and atmosphere of the late night hours during Ramadan only increase the constant hustle and bustle of the streets.  This light-hearted, joyous feeling that takes over people simply after eating a delicious meal drowns out the grave political tone that resonates on the streets of Egypt lately.  With the new Egyptian president after over 30 years of the same dictator and centuries of corruption, the streets are tense with political anticipation and expectation.  During Ramadan, however, all of this seems to slowly disintegrate in the wind by the pure joyousness of tradition and holiday spirit.  I wait in anticipation of what the social mood might be like at the end of this holiday good cheer.

A group of us girls about to enter a mosque

In Bordeaux, France, meeting a German student

This last week was a mixed bag of emotions, frustrations, confusion, but also memories I hope never to forget. In my last post I talked about my trip in Sharm As-Sheikh to keep me busy, but I’ve still been very homesick with no way to hear my mother’s voice.

How we all feel after trying for hours to get the internet in our dorm

I finally spoke with her a few days ago and I was so relieved, I cried at the sound of her voice over the phone, thousands of miles away from me.

My beautiful niece in 2008

My best friend since I was 2 years old

Yes, my emotions these days seem to run quite high, I am embarrassed to admit.  But out of it all I spoke with and became closer to people with whom I never expected to have much contact.  I took too many pictures…I don’t know if it really has sunken in that I will be here in Egypt for an entire year.  Time moves so slowly and yet so quickly concurrently.

The newest addition to my heart. Lameese and I are two peas in a pod

My parents. I miss them like crazy

My mom, brother, and newest addition to the family, my niece Rowen

My confidence in my abilities sky-rocketed even after a brief chat with my mother.  I recently realized how important it is to keep good ties with family members and friends back home in order to keep yourself grounded and sane.  No contact with my family until quite recently has made me feel vulnerable and fragile, ready to blow away by the first wind of criticism or disapproval.

Awesome dorm-mates and new friends

One of my sisters in Christ, Kelly!!

Even the sound of my mother’s voice makes me feel so safe, secure in the fact that people are persevering with me in spirit, thousands of miles away from me.  It’s heart-warming, really.  It gives me the courage to continue in my endeavors and increase my motivation for self-sufficiency in a country with which I am completely unfamiliar.

New friends in a new program! Grace and I

Summer domestic flagship, last summer in Austin, TX

I’ve come to the conclusion that new experiences and new friends are always a treasure, and we should never fear stepping out from what is comfortable.  I feel that is rather clear.

My sister in Christ, Xin Zhang, in Archachon, FR

However, this does not by any means imply that through this, we break and lose the ties to those who know us best.  There is value in expanding our horizons, making new–and perhaps lasting–friendships through our adventures.

Arcachon, FR 2011

But perhaps that which is priceless is our closest or oldest ties, those relations that we forget are so valuable because of our close proximity.  I have always loved to travel and jump into the next thing, but that oftentimes causes me to take for granted those whom I love so dearly, cheering me on in my wake.  As wonderful as the future always appears in our dreamy thoughts, the present is a gift in itself and should never be pushed to the side.

Bordeaux, FR 2011

To all of you who I have left behind for these trips and adventures I feel I “need” to take: I am sorry for the times I caused you to feel that I didn’t care or didn’t try.   I am sorry for making you feel like you don’t matter.

Austin, TX at the ESL dinner with lovely Eman

Fayetteville, AR 2012Another fabulous niece, Cassie

Because in truth, I am only here today, living my dreams, because of you.  Your influence over me has been crucial, and will remain a part of me forever.  I love you all, and I thank you for your unwavering support and encouragement, even when you did not understand my intentions or goals.  Thank you for standing with me in spirit.  It is the cornerstone on which I base my life.

Best friend forever, Tiffany, in Cali. I've known her since I was 7

My sister in Christ and partner in crime, Hannah. 🙂

This last week we all headed to Sharm As-Sheikh, the famous resort town, for a few days of vacation from classes.  I had heard stories of how this town was built around tourists and how it is quite different from other areas of Egypt, but all of those stories were gross understatements to the reality of this place.  Sharm As-Sheikh is the Las Vegas of Egypt, and quite possibly of the Middle East.  There were no restrictions on clothing there, and I saw almost more Russians than Arabs wandering the streets, buying trinkets with inflated prices.  The staff at any restaurant, café, hotel, or shop spoke English fairly fluently, and a few even spoke Russian.  I truly forgot I was in Egypt for a few days.

A little surprise from the cleaning staff at the hotel

The degree of westernization was astounding, to say the least.  On the 4th of July, a group of us all went to a club and begged the DJ to play American songs, as we were the only people there.  He finally agreed and we danced until 2am to songs we all knew.  It was an unforgettable moment in time, on the open balcony of the club, the lights of such a tourist town twinkling around us and the gentle waves of the sea in the near distance.

Early 4th of July party in Alexandria the day before we left for Sharm

We all had to fight in order to speak Arabic with most of the people there, especially our guide when we took a boat out to the beautiful coral reefs of the Red Sea.  Our guide confessed that our group was the first to which he could give instructions all in Arabic in the 14 years he had lived in Sharm As-Sheikh.

On the Red Sea

Out on the Red Sea, I was blown away by the crystal clear blue waters, only a thin veil to the picture underneath the waves.  I went snorkeling for the first time, and I hope never to forget what I saw, the silent world of fish and sea creatures pulsing with life.  There was no sound, but the waters were tense with energy, even the plants and coral seemed to breathe in their bright colors, flowing with the soft current curling around their edges.  Even the schools of fish all seemed to have such purpose, such importance.  I only wish I had an underwater camera.

The coral reefs, from the boat

Showing a little Egyptian pride

The color changes where you can see the solid coral reefs

By the end of the four days we spent there, I was ready to return to Alex.  Despite the luxury of the experience as a whole, I was ready to leave a place that felt so manufactured, so fake.  The thought that wouldn’t leave my head was that some people come to a place like this, and they have no concept of what the rest of Egypt, the real Egypt, is like.  Perhaps they think that Egypt is that tolerant to loud tourists, or bars, or bikinis on the beach.  They would be shocked and most likely disturbed by the reality.  I, however, prefer the real Egypt, despite its flaws.  Outside of Sharm As-Sheikh, Egypt does not seem so stifled, so perfect. It has the feel of a bustling, crazy city, a nugget of the real world in a very populated area.  Just like the my view underneath the Red Sea, Egypt seems to flow with a type of current, tense with energy, filled with purpose, ideas, feelings, opinions.

On the boat with friends

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we adapt to something new.  As much as my generation complains that people resist change, put any single person in a new environment and watch him not only survive, but thrive.  The first few days after I arrived, as much as I tried to blend in, I looked blatantly foreign.  My social skills stuck out as my white skin and grey eyes.  Yet here I am, just barely two weeks in and I am already learning to be street smart, how to use good manners, how I should or should not dress, etc.  All of these sound simple enough on paper, but can only be achieved through trial and error, and lots and lots of practice.  I am finally starting to adapt.  It seems to be much easier to cross the intensely crowded streets, to look like I at least know where I am going, to order things in restaurants, and to give the correct responses to certain cultural phrases.

Typical bread cart in the streets

At a semi-private beach called Agemy Beach

Even the sounds of life in this city no longer sound so foreign to my ear.  My ways of thinking are shifting and even tuning my ear to the sounds of danger, joy, and daily music of life passing by in the streets.  The latter is something I already love a great deal.  There is something quite distinct in the rhythm of the way Egyptians call out to sell their goods (e.g. watermelons, various assortments of nuts, grilled corn on the cob, pottery, bread, etc.), warn you with a short beep of the horn (as opposed to a long beep, which means you are holding up traffic or there is significant danger), or even the flirtatious comments and cat-calling to any woman on the street.  All of this is becoming very normal.  And so quickly!  I know the streets of this city to a very limited extent, and I am looking forward to knowing my way around a little more every day.

A stray cat making a meal of someone's leftovers...he was later chased out.

Fresh mango juice, the best thing in the world

As strange as it may sound, I rather prefer this “lack” of comfort that comes from living outside the United States; the bed I first thought hard, I now consider perfect, the bathroom I first considered dirty, now seems very western and normal.  I appreciate small things very much, like how white the main floor shines when it has just been cleaned, and the look and smell of boiling hot tea in the morning.  It is amazing to me that even in such a short time, by my sheer presence in this beautiful country, my mind-set is adapting, taking in all the glory of a new culture and new ways of life.

My friends and I, making an afternoon of it on the Korneesh

Sunset on the Korneesh

As a young, independent woman, I am learning to lean on others much more here.  The girls are not always mature, but they are wise and nurturing towards one another.  We have so much respect for each other, simply because we know that we are women, and sometimes that can be difficult enough by itself, especially here where the standard and the customs between the sexes is so different.  I rely, nay, require a great deal more patience that I first imagined I would need.  It is much more difficult for me to express or articulate how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking.  I haven’t been shy since I was four years old, yet here I am, one of the quietest ones because I am still struggling to understand what is being said or how to say what I wish.  It is an experience to be sure, and one I will never regret.  Inshallah (God willing; hopefully) my skills and my courage will increase as I continue to adapt and discover.

Two of my favorite people in the program 🙂

A lovely typical day at a café

Visiting a coptic church

A supermarket that had an especially beautiful display window

The following is from my journal during the first day in Alexandria:
I lie here on my bed on my first full day in Alexandria. The very first thing I noticed flying in to this country was all the many buildings, crammed together into little towns and cities, very much like the imprint of a gridded shoe in the earth, a once muddy surface, now dry and cracked. It was quite an impression. As I stepped off the plane into Cairo, the dry heat and dense air hit my face but I was surprised by the hot breeze that occasionally passed by.

On the Korneesh, on the edge of the Mediterranean

We arrived at the girls’ dorms by the late evening where I met my Egyptian roommate, Alaa. She is only 20, but acts like a big sister with me, very caring and patient with my unfortunate Arabic. Most of the other girls in this program are in the same position, with varying degrees of fluency in the dialect here. Madame Hoda, the kitchen manager, has taken an extreme liking to me, as I am uncannily similar-looking to a girl from a few years ago. I’m going to take it as a compliment.

My dorm room

Everyone here talks so quickly that it’s very hard to follow right now. However, they also have very kind eyes and often greet me with a smile. I haven’t ventured outside in the daylight yet, but soon.
One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed, even after a day, is the way in which people communicate. It seems that in order to be heard, everyone talks over everyone else, even those with more authority. It’s as if they fight for their voices to be heard among the chaos (which seems counter-productive). Entry from 6/10/2012
The last thing I would like to mention is how valuable water is here. There is a brand of bottled water called Hayat which means, “Life”. Fitting, isn’t it? One of the biggest symbols of life in this country is indeed water. Without it, everyone would be reduced to nothing. It’s common for Americans to think of the Middle East to be dry and dusty.

View from the plane, Frankfurt to Cairo

But here I am at last, and Alexandria is bordering the beautiful Mediterranean Sea…A symbol of the life that thrives here so vibrantly.

The view of the city from my dorm room

The Mediterranean

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