Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

Illustration by Henry Martin ’48

October 9, 2002:

It's a small world in Egypt
Where music and distant relatives are common currency

Egypt is marvelous, and I want to run away from New Jersey and stay here forever. As it is, I'll be studying at the American University in Cairo until January. What follows are my exploits thus far, excerpts from e-mails I've sent to my parents.

August 25

I am getting a lot of mileage out of my Arabic. For instance, when my passport got confiscated at the Cairo airport and I spent an hour and 15 minutes in a small room being questioned by the police. This is due to the fact that the airline employee at the gate in Chicago insisted upon signing my Egyptian visa, even though he had no business doing that. There was a girl from Berkeley on my flight who's also studying at AUC. As I was being dragged off, I yelled at her to take a cab to the dormitory and call AUC. Naturally, when they had finished detaining me, she was still in the airport, sitting next to her baggage and sniffling because SHE WAS AFRAID TO GO OUTSIDE ALONE AND HAIL A CAB. This is no good; I need friends who will hold up well while I am being tortured.

August 27

My big project for today was to walk to Old Cairo. A long walk from where I live, but possible. Unfortunately, I went the WRONG WAY over the 26th July Bridge, and I didn't realize it until three hours later. I walked through Aguza, Mohandiseen, and Giza. Aguza is very industrial, and Mohandiseen is a very crowded residential district. There's a good hospital there. I kept walking and walking, thinking I was getting closer to Old Cairo. Buses kept passing me, and men hanging out of the doorways kept shouting at me. I finally figured out that they were shouting "Giza." This was my first indication that something was wrong. The second indication was when I translated a road sign and realized it said "Desert Road to Alexandria." The buses that had passed me were going to the pyramids, and I had walked into the Giza district, near the outskirts of Cairo. How about that?

August 27

We learned at the dormitory orientation tonight that EGYPTIAN HARD LIQUOR CAN MAKE YOU BLIND. But the beer is safe.

August 30

Funny story: I passed a dry cleaners today, and I saw a shirt hanging up that was based on the Dolce & Gabbana label. It said D&G (their trademark), in big letters on the front, and underneath were the words "drinking and gambling." Ha ha ha ha. Do you think it belonged to an Arab or to an American? The Amerikanski had a rough time at the Hard Rock Cafe last night. The bar was full of rich Saudis, and the waiters were inattentive to the American students because they were trying to get big tips from the Gulf Arabs.

August 31

I walked to Imbaba again—I was trying to get to AUC, but I once again went the wrong way over the bridge. There was an old man wearing a galabaya and carrying a basket on his head, singing about his "sweet mangoes" in Arabic. I stopped him, inspected the mangoes, and bought one. He didn't understand much of my FusHa, and I barely understood a thing he said. He overcharged me about 400%, even after a lengthy bargaining session, and I don't really like mangoes all that much, but I thought he was pretty cool. One of his eyes was cloudy, like he had a cataract in it, and he was wearing a dirty white turban on his head.

September 1

The Cairo Museum was full of Germans in tube tops and short-shorts (women) and in short-shorts and black leather boots (men). They evidently arrived at the museum by way of a space ship, and thus were able to avoid street harassment. The museum has made some renovations, and most of the King Tut stuff is now grouped in an air-conditioned chamber with glass walls and dramatic lighting. It's nice — sort of a tomb away from the tomb.

September 2

Kate (to deskman at the dormitory): "Good morning. I'd like a refrigerator."

Desk: "Very nice. I will put your name on the list."

Kate: "I put my name on the list last week."

Desk: "Yes, but there is a new list now."

September 3

I passed out asleep after my adventures in Bulaq today. I feared that I would get lost in its tangle of mud streets and be eaten by a goat, of which there were many. There was also a flock of bold geese that rounded the corner at one point and almost knocked me over. I ran into an 8-year-old boy on the way out of Bulaq — young boys here like me because I leap over road barricades and yell back at them in Arabic when they shout HALLO at me. They clap their hands and cheer. Cute! — and I had a pretty decent Arabic conversation with him. I finally asked him where the American University was, and he said: "Al Gamiyya Al Amrikiyya? Masha'allah." (The American University? Whatever God wills.) He knew I was a long way away from it and felt sorry for me.

September 4

Kate: "Ey al-akhbar?" (What's the news?)

Desk: "Your refrigerator will be here tomorrow morning insha'allah." (God willing.)

Kate: "I won't be here tomorrow. Can you sign for it and keep it for me?"

Desk: "Insha'allah. Your refrigerator will arrive tomorrow morning."

Kate: "I don't understand. Insha'allah my refrigerator will arrive tomorrow morning, or insha'allah you will sign for it and keep it behind the desk?"

Desk: "Insha'allah."

September 7

The AUC fieldtrip to the Sinai takes six hours. I think we're leaving at night so we don't die in the desert if the bus breaks down.

The trip to the Sinai was great. It was six hours to our first destination, St. Catherine's. St. Catherine's is a very small settlement (more like a monastery and a hotel) in the middle of the desert. We toured the monastery without the benefit of a tour guide — nice going, AUC — then climbed Jebal Moussa (a.k.a. Mt. Sinai) at 2:00 am. I led the charge up the mountain, arriving at the summit at 4:15 am. It was freezing cold at the top, Everyone rented blankets and bought hot chocolate from the enterprising Bedouin who had set up shop there. Then we sat around and watched the sunrise, which was amazing. The accommodations at St. Catherine's weren't so hot. Bedbugs in all the rooms. I'm covered with bites. Joe found a scorpion behind the curtain in his room and had to kill it with his shoe.

September 9

Here's the rundown of school stuff:

Library at AUC — Inefficient. If you want to read a book on the reserve list for the course, you have to check it out and sit in a certain area. Not so much a "studying library." More like a "let me horse around in a carrel with another student I don't plan to marry" library.

Medieval Islamic Civilization — Scary. Professor says things like: "Suleiman invited all the chieftains of the satrapy to come to him and submit to his authority...of course, he was later tortured to death by the Mamluks." And then laughs hysterically.

Egyptian Students at AUC — Well-dressed. Lots of blondes. Smoke like chimneys. All went to school in Switzerland, U.S., Britain, Germany. Some of them can't read any Arabic at all, and are in beginning-level courses because AUC mandates a year of Arabic study in order to graduate. I've met a large number of sixth-year students. They attribute this to the inefficiency of AUC and the difficulty of getting in courses they need. Eventually they let on that they are only taking 10 hours a semester.

September 20

I've been buying lunch every day at a cook shop near AUC. The people there are very nice, and I invariably end up talking about Egyptian music with them. They are doing a good business, because I eat a lot of koshari. They like me so much that they don't want me to be from America.

Man: "Where are you from, my sister? Canada? Germany?"

Kate: "I'm American."

Man: "Canadian?"

Kate: "No, American."

Man (in English): "Oh, I want to say that America is very, very good country.

Man: (to woman behind the cash register) "[incomprehensible] American government...Iraq...Deeeeeeeck Cheney."

Kate: "Yes, there are problems in the government. I did not vote for President Bush. I voted for a former basketball player."

Man: "My brother lives in Hyde Park. You know Hyde Park? Yes?"


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu