Posted by: sarahcferg | November 14, 2009

I fail…

…at keeping up with this blog. At least I’m better than my brother.

Anyway, life in Amman is very much in a routine right now. The immense amount of class that we have each week (about as much as I take at Columbia, but all in Arabic, and without the same number of credits) and the lack of exciting things to do in Amman has made things move very slowly. I can’t complain too much, though. My family is still extremely kind, and I have accomplished some exciting feats in my Arabic education- most importantly, finishing my first all-Arabic research paper- a satisfying 18 pages on the appearance of the first human form statues in Neolithic Ain Ghazal, Jordan.

I thought that I should dedicate a post to the every day life here- complete with pictures of my home, and the persistent cat that, though decidedly a stray, has decided that he wants to be my pet. He spends every day at my window, attempting (sometimes succeeding) to open it. When I go outside, he comes running and jumps on me for some cuddles. Twice now, I’ve woken up to find the cat purring contentedly on my chest. I feel almost guilty putting him back outside. He certainly is sweet, but I can’t vouch for his cleanliness or healthiness. I wish I could bring him to a vet and take him home with me. I named him Agammemnon. Anyone want a cat?

As I said, school plods on, though not free from the frustrations that have bogged us down from the very start. When your history teacher asks you why you would claim that the Neolithic Age was from 12 to 8 thousand years ago when that was clearly before the time of Adam, or when he argues that once a girl is capable of having children, there is nothing stopping her from marrying, you begin to lose faith in the educational system. Especially when he ardently maintains that he is liberal. And when your host brother, an intelligent man in his 40’s, asks how you could possibly read for fun, you begin to question whether there is any hope for the educational system. My host family, like I said, is lovely, but I feel decidedly out of place where the only books other than the Qur’an find their home on my bedside table.

Thankfully, I am taking a few weekends to travel, view art and ancient civilization, and remind myself what it is that fascinates me about the Middle East. Next weekend should take me to Damascus (after a plan for this weekend fell through) and the weekend after, Eid el-Adha, or the day of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac (or Ishmael, depending which holy book you read) should find me in Jerusalem. If at all possible, I plan to squeeze a visit to Beirut in, as well. It seems a pity to miss the opportunity to buy a $200 plane ticket.

If all of these plans come to fruition, rest assured I will write about them here. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures of my home life here.

Posted by: sarahcferg | October 2, 2009

Ma Helwa Turkeya!

Alas, Eid is over and I’ve been back in Amman for a week. Post-Ramadan, classes are longer and more tiresome, but at least I can eat during the day! I have to say, my friends and I have been relishing how wonderful it is to see people eating and to be able to bite into a big sandwich in public. Ah, the little things in life.

At least the end of Ramadan gave me the opportunity to go to travel to Turkey for 9 delightful days. It’s such a beautiful country, and I barely even scratched the surface! I went with four other friends, two of whom branched off after Istanbul to visit Cappadocia and Ankara while the two others and I headed to Izmir, on the Aegean coast, Ephesus, and Fethiye, on the Mediterranean (Turquoise) coast.

Because we saw so much, I will leave you with highlights from the trip

– Turkey is SO GREEN! I knew Amman was brown and dusty, but I didn’t realize just how brown and dusty (having come from Egypt) until I left and went to Turkey! There are so many trees, so many flowers- the countryside is simply spectacular. Hills simply covered with green with weird and beautiful rock formations poking through.

– Istanbul was wonderful. Where else can you cross a bridge, stay in the same city, but move to a different continent? Nowhere! That’s where! It has so much to offer- from the museums to the incredible monuments, it’s like Cairo, in that you could spend a lifetime there with things left to see.

– Ephesus was such a treat for me to see. It’s heavily reconstructed, but nonetheless the ruins are beautifully preserved, and it’s almost like walking through an ancient city. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, as well- I would have been happy to have a few days to go hiking and explore.

– The Turquoise Coast, on the Mediterranean is just lovely. The water was perfect, and we spent two days soaking up sunshine and swimming in the clear, blue water. It’s very touristy- frequented by lots of Europeans- but we stayed at a lovely pension with a view over the water, and enjoyed the freedom to be lazy.

– Being in Turkey made me appreciate how much Arabic I speak and understand! I felt like I didn’t get everything I hear here, but there I actually understood nothing! I never thought I’d feel more comfortable reverting to Arabic!

Back in Amman, everything is back to normal. The only thing on my plate for the next couple weeks is delving into research for the 15 page paper we have to write (in Arabic!). Talking about appreciating things, one visit to the library here made me yearn for Columbia… you can only take out three (3!) books at a time (the limit at Columbia is 950) and when I tried to find a book on my topic (the significance of the appearance of the first human-form statues in Neolithic Jordan) I failed miserably. Not that I didn’t understand what was going on, they just didn’t have ANY resources! And I’m writing about Jordan! I don’t know what to do!

I had great fun with my camera in Turkey- enjoy the results:

Posted by: sarahcferg | September 12, 2009

Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba, oh my!

I just returned to Amman from my third trip to Petra, and my first trip to both Wadi Rum and Aqaba. As I mentioned before, Petra is one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen. So I was happy to go both last weekend and this weekend. I think I could go a hundred times and feel as though I had more yet to discover.
Last weekend, I went with seven friends and stayed one night in Wadi Musa, the town right outside of Petra. We spent a very active two days enjoying the natural beauty of Petra, but admittedly, spending less time appreciating the work of the Nabateans, who carved their way into history in the mountains we scrambled over (pun very much intended). I can’t really begin to describe how spectacular Petra is. To begin with, the surroundings are breathtaking. The mountains are wonderfully shaped, and the colors are so vivid as to look unnatural. The structures emerge so gracefully from the rock, and extend as far as you can see from the mountain tops. And the structures themselves, though dwarfed by the mountains, are intricately carved, delicately thought out, and incredibly elegant. Being there and experiencing both the natural and man made wonders is truly special.
I returned again to Petra this weekend with my whole program, but unfortunately did not have much free time to explore as I would have liked. I may have to find my way back there again! Fortunately, Jordan is a small, easily navigable country! After Petra, our group went and stayed in a Bedouin camp, where we slept outside under the stars. I spend most of my time in cities, so being able to see the milky way, and watch the moon rise over the cliffs was unforgettable. Fortunately, no one was bitten by a scorpion.
The next day, we drove straight to Aqaba, which is Jordan’s 20 km coast on the Red Sea (Gulf of Aqaba). I have never in my life seen water as blue and clear as it was there. It looked like liquid sapphires that stretched on forever, and was particularly beautiful in contrast to the mountains that emerge right from the gulf. We went out on a boat and got the opportunity to go snorkeling. Not having been snorkeling for many, many years, I was somewhat nervous, particularly as the current was strong. But I was delighted that I took the plunge, because I got to swim with fishies and explore a beautiful coral reef. I can’t remember if I have seen live coral before, but what they have at Aqaba is really incredible. The reef is extensive, and is composed of many different types of coral in a myriad of colors- from deep pink to electric green to neon purple. There was a fantastic variety of fish swimming, as well.
After our snorkeling we drove just 15 minutes to meet several pick up trucks, the backs of which we climbed into to drive 3-4 hours through the desert of Wadi Rum to reach our next campsite. Again, it is the natural beauty of Jordan that will stick with me when I leave. Wadi Rum is simply incredible. The sand is deep red and the mountains emerge from it out of nowhere, towering over wide, open spaces. Made almost entirely of sandstone, it is apparently in the process of consuming itself, the wind eroding its towering cliffs faster than new sediment can settle. Each year, its rocks will become thinner, taller, and more alien-looking in the landscape. Riding in the trucks was an adventure, but our activity today was more exciting, and allowed us to observe more of our surroundings. Each of us was given a camel (I named mine Clovis after our first dog) and we rode for about 4 hours from our campsite. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the comfort of camel saddles, and their grouchy temperaments, but I had a very loving camel, and I thought it was delightful. I’d love to go back to Wadi Rum and do some real hiking, but for a hot summer day, I was perfectly happy to sit atop a “ship of the desert” and let someone else do the work.
Now, back in Amman, we’re heading into the last week of Ramadan. Which means I’ll be traveling to Turkey on Thursday to take advantage of our week off of school for the holiday, and that when I get back I’ll finally be able to drink water in public and buy a coffee when I need a little pick-me-up during the day.

Posted by: sarahcferg | September 2, 2009

A New Home!

Its been weeks since I last updated. Many apologies. Several rounds of upheaval have stood between me and my website. In brief, I failed to write about:

• My Birthday in Egypt- turning 21 is not quite the same in a Muslim country, but I celebrated with good friends and good food (and a couple of beers)

• The end of my summer program- saying goodbye to friends and moving out of the (not so) lovely Hotel President, which had been our home for the summer

• Saying hello to my Mom and sister, who arrived in Cairo, much to my delight. Getting to show them around and experiencing the sites again with my mom, who had been many years ago, and my sister, to whom it was new, was so much fun. We ate well, had long, hot, busy days, and made it to all the major sites around Cairo, plus Alexandria, all in 6 days. I hope they had as much fun as I did.

• Saying goodbye again to Jessie and moving on with my mom to Jordan, my new home in the Middle East. We spent almost a week staying with my mom’s friend in Amman and taking day trips to sites all over the country (Jordan is very small) and we spent two days in Petra, which was spectacular. Hopefully, I will visit all of the sites again, and write more about them here. Some of them are pretty incredible (especially Petra).

• And then another goodbye, sending my mom off to London and California, and settling in in Amman, with new friends from my program.

And that brings me to where I am today- sitting on my bed in my new home, with a lovely Jordanian family in Amman. They’re an older couple- in their 60s and 70s respectively- and their seven kids are all grown up and have families of their own now. It’s a welcome change from Cairo to find myself in a clean, quiet home, in a relatively quiet, laidback city. Living with a non-English speaking family also forces me to use my Arabic, which is important. They also think that the fact that I don’t eat meat and that there is no TV in my house in California is too crazy to believe. But nonetheless, Mama makes a vegetarian dish for me every night. They just don’t understand why! Classes started in earnest yesterday, though they are foreshortened because of Ramadan. I’ll be taking Modern Standard Arabic, Colloquial Arabic, Arabic Poetry, and History and Culture of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. All in Arabic, but with students from my program only. I want to return briefly to the fact that its Ramadan now. I really had no sense of the extent to which this holy month interferes with daily life until I saw it with my own eyes. In the US we sometimes have days where everything is closed, or has shorter hours. Here, and in all Muslim countries, it’s a whole month. People can’t eat, smoke, drink anything, or have sex during daylight- which during the summer is about 4:00 AM to 7:15 PM- and so all restaurants are closed until after sunset. Not only restaurants, but every business has shorter hours during Ramadan. People just don’t work quite as effectively after 12 hours without food, I suppose. About 7:00, before the sunset and the Muezzin’s call saying it’s time to break the fast, the whole city is literally dead. No cars on the road, no people on the street… everyone is home with their families waiting to eat their Iftar. It’s quite an experience. But I do like the comfort of the routine… I come home before Iftar and watch recitations of the Quran with my family, we eat a date as soon as we hear the call “Allahu Akbar” and then we eat a delicious meal. Mama’s a very good cook- lucky me!

Posted by: sarahcferg | July 30, 2009

I may have found heaven

… in the shape of a lovely city named Luxor.

Yes, last week, we spent 4 days in Luxor. The most densely archaeological place in Egypt, probably, if not the world. It was spectacular. There is so much I could say about the experience, but I’ll limit myself. Somehow, I doubt that those not as enthusiastic about old things as I am would be as interested to hear about them.

As I mentioned in my last post, Luxor is hot. Seriously hot. We had to wake up at 4:30 every morning to go and visit monuments before spending the afternoon out of the sun, and then venturing out once again for the evening. Fortunately, we were staying in a beautiful hotel, built in the early 1900’s, which had a lovely pool. 115 degrees feels a little nicer when you’re in the water and not sweating and sweltering under the outrageously intense sun in Luxor (apparently there’s a UV index from 1-10, and Luxor in the summer is rated 10+ extreme). I will say, the upside of being in Luxor during the off-season is that we were largely alone when we were visiting sites. The experience of being in a massive temple with no one but those in your group is indescribable.

Everything we saw in Luxor was spectacular- the Luxor Temple, the Karnak Temple, the museum (much more informative and more manageable than the Cairo museum), Deir el-Bahri (Hatshepsut’s temple), the Temple of the Kings, the Ramesseum, the Collossi of Memnon, Medinet Habu, and Dendara- but I have to say that my favorite site was Dendara. It’s a temple, mostly Roman, built to the goddess Hathor, goddess of love and what not. The complex itself is comprised of a large temple, a “birthing room”, a sacred lake (now filled with palm trees), and some other buildings, one of which was converted into one of the earliest churches!

The temple at Dendara is one of the most complete temples that remains, and also preserves an incredible amount of color from the original building. It is currently being cleaned by a restoration team, and the difference between those parts that have been cleaned and those that  haven’t is striking. I’m searching for a good parallel, and all I can think of is Grand Central Station when they were cleaning the ceiling in the main hall. For anyone who happened to be in New York when they were in the process of cleaning the ceiling, try to imagine that same effect, but with thousands of years of dirt instead of a hundred. Got it?

The carvings and paintings themselves are really stunning. The level of detail is fantastic, and the colors are incredibly vivid despite their age. In one of the smaller, less aerated rooms, there was even a lingering smell of incense. Or maybe I was imagining it? But I wasn’t the only one to notice. Anyway, if you ever make it to Luxor, take the extra trip to Dendara. It’s one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever visited.

Back in Cairo, school is continuing, as are our “Tuesday advanced projects”, which take us all over the city every Tuesday. This week and last, I went to the Blue Mosque here in Cairo, a 14th century mosque where restoration work is underway. I got to actually participate in the work, which at this point is primarily cleaning the Muezzin, or tower. The people I met there are so kind! They love teaching me new Arabic and then quizzing me on it, asking about America, and telling me about their lives. This Tuesday, they even invited me to the wedding of a man who used to work with them!

The wedding happened to be a Protestant wedding, which took place in a church downtown. It was largely like a Protestant wedding in the US, but a lot louder and more colorful. Of course, it was all in Arabic, but I was able to follow much of it and fill in the rest with what little church experience I have. It is a testament to the generosity of the people here that I was not only invited to the wedding of a man I had never met, but welcomed by both him and his bride with a smile. Very fun.
We’re entering into our last week here in Cairo (at least with the program) and I’m starting to get a little sad- its been fantastic, but I wish I had been more aggressive about getting out and exploring the city. I am definitely looking forward to my mom and Jessie’s visit, though, and showing them around a city that I’ve grown very fond of.

Posted by: sarahcferg | July 19, 2009

In Moses’ footsteps


Another fabulous week in Cairo has gone by!

Monday after class, we were invited to the American Embassy, where we met the ambassador from the United States to Egypt, and were given the opportunity to ask her questions. we also got to talk with a few foreign service agents- including a cultural affairs officer. Did you know you can spend your life in exciting places, bringing American cultural events and bridging cultural gaps? I might have to rethink my career plan…

Tuesday was the first day that advanced students were sent out on our own to organizations in Cairo. The organization that I will be visiting this week wasn’t ready for me, so Aileen and I went to a magazine that looks at design in its various forms. We were actually asked to translate an article about an exhibit at the Tate in Liverpool that focuses on the transformation of artists’ perception and use of color from 1950 to today. I’m not even sure I understood it in English, but we somehow managed to translate it into Arabic. It was difficult, but also extremely rewarding when the woman we were doing it for told me that some of the sentences I constructed would  be used word for word.

The most exciting part of the week, however, was our trip the Sinai peninsula, where we visited the monastery of St. Catherine, home of the burning bush, and climbed Mt. Sinai! After a 7 hour bus ride, we arrived at the hostel in the monastery and napped so that we would have energy to hike the next day. We woke up at 2 AM and congregated at the base of the trail so that we could make it to the top of the mountain before sunrise. The hike was surprisingly strenuous- though that may have had something to do with the fact that I was sick, it was 2 AM, and I haven’t so much as speed-walked in over a month. It’s only a 2 hour hike, but it’s on gravelly, rocky, steep terrain, and the last leg of the hike is 750 uneven steps.

As you can imagine, hiking in a group of 40 people, especially while being constantly asked if you want to ride a camel up the path, is not exactly a pleasant experience, so 5 of my friends and I powered ahead and reached the top ahead of the rest of the group. we got there by 4:30 or so, and had an hour of a perfectly starry night sky before the first light appeared. One of my friends had been up before, and knew of a special spot away from the crowds (yes, there are crowds on top- a solitary experience, it is not) where we had a completely unobstructed, quiet view of the Eastern horizon. I can’t really put into words how beautiful the view was as we watched the first rays of light hit the expanse of mountains around Mt Sinai, so I will let my pictures speak for themselves. Suffice to say, despite my tumble on the top which left my jeans torn and my leg sadly scraped, and despite my sickness, the cold at the top, and the difficult hike, it was a beautiful experience that I will never forget.

Once we descended, we visited the church of St Catherine, which you still enter via 6th century carved wooden doors, saw the burning bush, and were even granted special access to visit the library, which houses manuscripts dating from the 4th century on.

Wednesday, we fly to Luxor. The weather promises to be brutal (50 C=123F) but the monuments promise to be jaw dropping.

Posted by: sarahcferg | July 11, 2009

Information overload

Hi all,

Time flies in Cairo. Too quickly. One month down and one to go, and I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of this city. But then, you could live here for 10 years without seeing everything there is to see, so I can’t feel too bad.

Last Tuesday, the advanced students went to a recycling plant in the city. If there is one thing that I have found upsetting about Cairo (aside from the traffic and the heat) it is the amount of garbage. It’s appalling. Really and truly appalling. The area we went to was on a hill near the Citadel, and is a largely Christian area. It is also the area where all of the trash goes to be sorted and dealt with- though exactly how they deal with it remains unclear. You might remember the scandal when the Egyptian governmnt ordered all of the pigs killed to combat swine flu? Many of them lived in this neighborhood.

. Driving through the streets it was as though we were literally driving through a city of trash. Children were playing in piles of it, women were sorting through it bare handed, and bags with dead animals in them were lying by the side of the street, crawling with maggots and flies. Reaching the center we were visiting was a huge relief after our drive- an oasis of green gardens and trash-free paths. It’s an NGO that collects paper and turns it into paper pulp, which they make into new paper, which they then turn into decorative cards and  journals, and where they also employ women to sew and embroider, and run a school for children of the community. After a tour, we were given free reign to go and socialize with whoever we wanted. Most people flocked to the children to play with them, but a friend of mine and I decided to go and help the ladies embroider! It was really lovely- kind of like a day in the costume shop! We even had a dance party. A very nice experience.  All of the people that I have met here have been so open and generous, and these ladies were certainly no exception.

Today is Friday, also known as our one free day of the week. I had quite a late night last night (Cairo doesn’t sleep) so I slept in a bit, did some studying, and then ventured out into the city to try to find the Museum of Islamic Art. Unlike in New York, where every cab driver knows every street in the city, cab drivers here don’t necessarily know where things are. I guess the city is just too complex and sprawling. There’s no nice grid system to guide you exactly where you want to go. Today, my driver told me that the museum that I wanted to visit didn’t exist. Turns out he was almost right. He dropped me off about 10 minutes from where the museum actually is, but when I finally got there, I found that it is undergoing renovations. Alas, no Islamic Art for me today. Instead, I walked around aimlessly for several hours. I shouldn’t say aimlessly- I got to see parts of Cairo that I never would otherwise. Almost always, I was the only non-Egyptian on the street, and often, I was the only woman. I’m not sure I’ll walk alone in that area again, though- a woman walking alone gets just a little too much attention.

Tonight, I went back to Khan el-Khalili, the medieval sooq, to go shopping with some friends. It has a different vibe at night than during the day, which was nice to experience. The sales tactics are really extreme- to the point of being almost laughable! At one point while I was admiring a nice scarf, the salesman quoted me a very high price. I attempted to haggle with him, but he held firm- his reason? The scarf was 100% cotton. That might have been acceptable if it had been. But it very clearly was not. I told him it was rayon, not cotton, but he refused to budge, maintaining that it was Egyptian cotton. Finally, I pointed out a tag on a different color of the same scarf that said “100% rayon, Made in India”. His justification? The tariffs are higher on items entering the country if they are 100% cotton. Pretty goofy. Later, Aileen and I, along with two other girls from our program, met up with a few guys that are friends of one of our language mentors. We went to a club on top of one of the big hotels on the Nile- the view was spectacular.

Flash forward a day- I didn’t finish my post yesterday, so I’m updating with the rest later.  So today (Saturday now, not Friday) we had our tour of Coptic Cairo. We first visited the “hanging church” which was built between two towers of a fortress and is quite impressive. We also visited one of the oldest synagogues, and another church where the holy family is said to have spent the night. Then we went to Ibn Tuloun Mosque- the oldest extant mosque in Africa- which is a fantastically peaceful space with soaring ceilings and a beautifully tapered minaret, which we were able to climb. Honestly, this city continues to amaze me. It has such in incredible history and such a vibrant spirit. If it weren’t for the oppressive heat, I think I would be constantly on the go trying to take in everything I can.

Posted by: sarahcferg | July 4, 2009

Happy 4th of July!

Hello Fellow Americans,

Happy 4th of July!

I just returned from a fantastic three day trip to St Anthony’s Monastery and Ain El Sukhna on the Red Sea. Before I rave about how wonderfully the government is treating us, though, I want to talk about last Tuesday, when the advanced students got to visit a really wonderful NGO here in Cairo. It is a center that was started after the 1992 Earthquake when displaced families were trying to raise children while rebuilding their lives and homes. The aim of the center was to bring art into the lives of the children as a way of healing and providing a safe and enriching environment. We were able to go and do art projects with the kids, have really wonderful discussions with some of the older kids, and play and read for hours with the really little ones. This was a wonderful experience for several reasons. First, the kids were incredibly excited to meet us, and were affectionate and interested. Second, they spoke only Arabic- and only dialectic Arabic- so we were forced to really use our new skills to communicate with them. And third, our wonderful experience there inspired some of us to try to return and help out more while improving our Arabic and having a good time with the kids. They were so loving and enthusiastic, it was really heartwarming.

On Thursday, all of us piled into our space bus (as we affectionately call the monster of a vehicle that drives us everywhere) and drove about 2 or 3 hours to St. Anthony’s Monastery on the Sinai peninsula, close to the Red Sea. I can’t stress how wonderful this was. I feel like I’ve said that about a lot of my experiences here, but that only goes to show how fantastic this trip has been so far. Anyway, St. Anthony’s is purportedly the first monastery in the world, started by St. Anthony himself, the founder of monasticism, in the early 4th century. According to Father Maximus, the monk who led us around the monastery, St. Anthony was wandering in the desert when he found a freshwater spring at the base of a mountain, and decided to settle there. The monastery has grown since then, although many buildings from the 5th and 6th centuries still stand. Our host institute, the American Research Center in Egypt, has been working with the monks on restoration and preservation work, and I have to say, the entire complex is truly amazing. They actually carried on excavations under the current church (built sometime in medieval times, I think?) and found the original 4th century cells that the monks inhabited. Of course, the monks wanted to be able to still use their church, but were unwilling to cover the cells, so what did they do?  They made their church floor into a glass floor covered with a carpet, so that Father Maximus could pull back the carpet and we could look straight through the church floor to the cells below. Truly incredible.

After the monastery, we went to the Moevenpick resort on the Red Sea to spend two days eating a ton of food, swimming in the Sea and their beautiful pool, and soaking up as much sun as we could. Of course, with the exception of a few lucky (or  very careful) students, we all got burned to a crisp. Despite the burns, thank you for paying your taxes and supporting our wonderful adventures!

Now we’re back in Cairo and gearing up for another week of class. Enjoy your 4th of July!

Maa salaama!

Posted by: sarahcferg | June 28, 2009

The Sustainable and the (still) Sandy

Hello all,

I have so much to write about, I don’t even know where to begin. I suppose it’s best to start from where I left off!

The advanced students did indeed visit a furniture factory last Tuesday. Furniture factory doesn’t quite do it justice, though- it’s the largest furniture factory in Egypt, and they specialize in restoration work and traditional furniture crafts. We got a wonderful tour, and were given the opportunity to speak with some of the craftsmen, too. It was really impressive. We also learned about the owner’s pet project- helping women in Upper Egypt (near Aswan) to maintain and market their traditional craft of embroidery with special silver-coated metal thread. Very cool- I bought a beautiful shawl.

After the furniture factory tour, Aileen and I met up with a guy we met at another party and went to a concert at the citadel, which is a medieval fortress and mosque that sits on a hill overlooking the modern city. It was the seat of power until the 19th century, and is a truly stunning complex. The concert was great, but the view was even better. See the pictures.

Wednesday all of us boarded our space bus and headed to Beni Suef, about 2 1/2 hours from Cairo. Beni Suef itself is a small city, but we were staying across the Nile, at a “village” called Kaan yaa maa Kaan, or Once Upon a Time. It’s the undertaking of our program coordinator and her husband, and is more formally known as the Mediterranean Center for Sustainable Development. It’s a really lovely complex with animals, dorms for visiting students from all over Egypt (the world, even- a group from Zurich was set to arrive soon) who go there to learn about Egypt, the environment, and what students can do about it. The center itself was lovely, although no air conditioning in 110 degree heat is challenging, but the best part was meeting a group of US Government sponsored Egyptian high school students, who came to socialize with us and practice their English/let us practice Arabic.

Friday morning, Aileen and I ventured to to the Egyptian Museum, which provided us with a very, very mixed experience. On the one hand, it was fantastic to see that many incredible Egyptian artifacts gathered under one roof. On the other hand, the hordes of scantily clad, loud tourist groups tromping through the galleries at a very brisk pace, and actually LEANING on the artwork was very distracting and disturbing.

Friday night, Aileen, Zach, and I hired a felluca to take us for a boat ride on the Nile. We went just as the sun was setting and had a really pleasant ride, with a very talkative driver. It was so peaceful and relaxing and a nice break after the stress and crowdedness of the museum. Well worth the kitschy-ness (hey, at least we weren’t in the floating Chinese restaurant we passed!)

In any event, nothing could top yesterday, when we finally made it to the Great Pyramids. No matter what anyone says about them before hand, I think they are more fantastic by far. Yes, I’m studying archaeology, but put aside my interest in archaeology, and I still found myself faced with the most impressive feat of engineering I have ever seen. I don’t even know what else to say, because nothing I can say can express how beautiful and majestic and mind boggling it was to actually stand in front of them. Oh yeah, the sphinx is pretty cool too, I guess.

Today is Sunday, and it’s back to the class-day routine. We have another short week, though- on Thursday, we’re leaving for the Red Sea, where we’ll visit St. Anthony’s Monastery, and stay at a resort (lucky us!)

Maa Salaama!

Posted by: sarahcferg | June 23, 2009

Old Things and Sand

That’s this week summed up for you. Not really, though. That neglects the heat and the 6 hours a day of class…

I think I left off after my first day of class. I would say that class has gotten better, but it’s also gotten harder to sit through 6 hours 4 days a week (poor beginners have 5 not 4 days a week).  Our teachers are really, really sweet, and the work is definitely manageable. The biggest thing standing in our way is the exhaustion all of us are facing when every single day is over 100 degrees.

Last week, Aileen and I got together again with Ahmed and his girlfriend. We went to an engagement party for Iman’s friend- it was really nice. Lots of new acquaintances, and a lovely view from a rooftop terrace. We spoke almost only in Arabic, and though other tended to respond in English, they were happy to listen to our Arabic and correct us/help us when necessary. We even got a chance to practice our dialect by giving directions to our cab driver.

Friday was our day off. We went to Khan al-Khalili, which is the oldest “living” market in the world. It was fantastic. Of course, there was lots of hassling, but people loved when we responded in Arabic. Aileen and I were with our dear friend Zach, who kindly escorted us (prompting many comments such as- “One man, two ladies- lucky man!”). We didn’t buy anything, but we did get a feel for what was available, and saw some of the beautiful medieval architecture.

On Saturday, our group excursion day, we went to Memphis and Saqqara!!! It was incredibly thrilling to me to finally see Egyptian monuments and artwork in their original context. Memphis itself, unfortunately, is no longer standing- it’s mudbrick architecture couldn’t stand the test of time. They’ve displayed much later Egyptian sculpture there, though, so we still visited. There’s a massive sculpture of Ramses II (the Great) along with some other contemporary pieces, including a spectacular alabaster sphinx. After a brief stop, we moved to the site of Saqqara, where some of the earliest stone architecture in the world still stands. Though most of the extant structure of the temple has been rebuilt and restored in modern times, the most imposing sight on the landscape is the Stepped Pyramid of Djoser. Built around 2800 BC, it is truly spectacular. Original wooden beams still poke out the side!

We moved a little ways away to actually enter both a mastaba and a pyramid. The mastaba is that of a high official, and the entire inside- a labyrinth of more than 30 rooms- is covered with carvings, much of which still has traces of the original paint. The scenes are mostly of the owner of the tomb, engaging in activities he would like to continue in the afterlife. Really beautiful. The pyramid was also interesting- we descended an incredibly steep shaft (Alec, Jessie, and Mom, remember the descent into the tunnel in the DMZ? Kind of like that, but less long, and less tall- I had to bend in half to walk up and down) to a series of rooms, all of which were decorated with hieroglyphs, and the ceilings of which were carved with stars. The original sarcophagus was still there, though of course, the body is long since removed. In all, it was a magical experience.

After our day trip, we met up with another contact of Aileen’s- a really lovely girl named Hibba, who was happy to sit with us by the Nile and chat in Arabic. It’s so nice to be meeting so many people that are happy to get to know us and let us speak Arabic to them.

For those of you who are into soccer, you will know that there was a match between the US and Egypt last night. Aileen, Zach, and I went to a restaurant in Cairo and watched with a whole lot of Egyptians. The USA beat them, 3-0. We got quite a few looks, but thank goodness, it was all lighthearted, and really very fun.

Tomorrow, the advanced students are going to a furniture factory. I don’t really know what to expect, but it should be fun!

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