Home Is Where The Heart Is — منزل الفتى مستقر الفؤاد

I owe you all a blog update about running marathons in Palestine and my usual misadventures in Cairo, but at the moment (as with most moments) I have papers to write. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a cute photo and someone else’s words, which feel especially relevant today:


Mama and me in Palestine.

“So you look at your life, and the two countries that hold it, and realize that you are now two distinct people…When you live abroad, you realize that, no matter where you are, you will always be an ex-pat. There will always be a part of you that is far away from its home and is lying dormant until it can breathe and live in full color back in the country where it belongs.”

Updates coming soon, walahe (I promise).

Tests and Travels in the Wake of the Apocalypse – الامتحانات والسفر بعد نهاية العالم

It has been awhile since my last update– since then I have successfully survived: the Mayan apocalypse, my first semester of graduate school, 100 pages worth of research papers, 3 international flights, and innumerable hours of intensive Arabic studies.

I will spare you (most of) the prerequisite self-indulgent complaining about finals, but suffice it to say they were brutal. In the span of two weeks, I wrote 100 pages of research papers (and, subsequently, grew a few grey hairs). It was tough times, but also very productive times, and I came out with straight A’s from my first semester of graduate school. I learned so much over the course of the semester– about Egypt, about refugees in the Middle East, about Islamic law, about Middle Eastern politics, about conducting research, about the process of building a democracy in a country with no genuine democratic history, about being a graduate student, about adulthood, and – perhaps most importantly, about myself. It was a challenging semester for me, both academically and personally, but the intense satisfaction I felt struggling through these challenges confirmed time and time again that I am exactly where I need to be. I may not always be three steps ahead, but I am learning so much everyday.

After two days of catch-up sleep after finishing my final papers, I left for Morocco to meet my habiba Renda for Christmas. Renda and I were besties in college, and we studied together in Morocco two years ago, so when we found out that we would both be in North Africa this semester, we promised to visit one another. (She’ll be visiting me in Cairo in March!) It was wonderful to reconnect with someone so familiar after four months of new people and new places, and it felt great to be back in Morocco, speaking Moroccan Arabic, soaking up the shems (sunshine), and of course consuming copious amounts of Moroccan mint tea. On Christmas Eve, we hosted an amazzzzing Christmas party. It was about 20 people– a good mix of Moroccans and American expats– and it involved a lots of tasty home-cooked food, good wine, presents, Christmas carols, and friendly people. Everyone was exceptionally warm and happy to be there, which was a perfect, since it was many people’s first Christmases away from home.

Merry Christmas from Morocco!

Merry Christmas from Morocco!

Christmas caroling and joyous holiday spirits.

Christmas caroling and joyous holiday spirits.

On Christmas Day, Renda and I – accompanied by 3 other beautiful humans from various corners of the world – rented a car, and road-tripped down the Southern Moroccan coast to Tiznit. Tiznit is famous for its naqara souq (silver market), so there we stocked up on beautiful silver gifts, and enjoyed the slow pace of a quiet southern town. From Tiznit, we wiggled our way over to Sidi Ifni, a tiny surfing village known for its beautiful art deco architecture. Sidi Ifni was BREATHTAKING, so much so that I am still speechless and will have to let the pictures speak for themselves.

Flowers and waves.

Flowers and sunshine and waves in beautiful Maroc.

After a wonderful week in Agadir, I headed north to spend New Years in Rome with some friends from Portland. It was a short trip – only a couple of days – but well worth it. Rome never called to me in the way it has called to generations of romantics, so I didn’t have many expectations. So of course I was pleasantly surprised to discovered that Rome is at least as romantic and enchanting and historical as it looks in the movies. (Exhibit A: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIm8g4IA_1Y) Instead of taking an official tour, we just decided to explore the city, which ended up being even better. Around every corner, there was another gorgeous basilica or ancient Roman ruin, and it was fun to just be left to discover it for ourselves. Naturally, we also went on an extensive (and also self-directed) food and wine tour, which was delicious in the close-your-eyes-and-savour-every-bite sort of way. My taste buds may never recover.

The Colosseum- built circa 70 AD.

The Colosseum- built circa 70 AD.

Friends in Roma.

Friends in Roma, Italy.

Lasagna is delicious.

Lasagna is delicious.

Still stupefied from all of the pasta and vino and romantic cobblestone streets, I returned to Morocco to begin intensive Arabic studies at a language center called Qalam wa Lawh in Rabat, the Moroccan capital. I had gotten a scholarship to study Arabic here free for the winter term (which you can do too! Check it out here: http://www.qalamcenter.com/Enrollment/IbnBattutaScholarships/tabid/260/Default.aspx), so I decided to spend my vacation in the classroom. It has been a bit exhausting to study Arabic 4-8 hours a day, but I have been learning so much, and I feel newly inspired to invest time in my Arabic studies. [Side note: Learning Arabic can take over a decade. In fact, most native Arabic-speakers do not speak fluent Standard Arabic. So I occasionally hit a plateau where it feels like I am not making any progress and/or I will never be fluent.] Arabic struggles aside, I am really happy to be back in Morocco. I like it here. I like the people, the hospitality, the language, the sunshine, the crowded medina streets, the colorful styles and intricate Arabesque designs… It’s hard to pin-point exactly what it is, but I feel content here in a way that I don’t other places.

Fes-- my favorite city in Morocco.

Overlooking Fes-- my favorite city in Morocco.

The Chellah in Rabat.

The Chellah in Rabat.

Calligraphy class at Qalam wa Lawh.

Calligraphy classes at Qalam wa Lawh.

After four months in Cairo, I still feel like a new-comer, in the best possible way. The more I learn about where I am living, the more I realize the depth of Egyptian history and the many places I have left to explore. In August, when I boarded my plane in Portland on my way to Egypt, I felt like 2 years was a lifetime. Now, 2 years feels like a whirlwind. Though I am really happy to be back in Morocco this month, I am looking forward to returning to Egypt in a couple weeks, getting back into the routine of graduate classes, adventuring in Cairo, and – of course – sleeping in my own bed.

Interview with a 6th Grader in Giza

Last week I interviewed Nasr Sherif, a 12 year old living in the Haram [Pyramid] neighborhood of Giza. He is the cousin of the son of my former landlord, attends a public school and only speaks a few words of English. Most of the questions come from a 6th grade class in Portland that I have been blogging with, and I am still working on the transcript of the interview. But here is a video I made of him and his really sweet siblings/cousins. Special thanks to Ahmed Nasr, my former landlord, for introducing and translating. All mistakes and pronunciation errors are my own.

Jordanian Sunsets – عيد في الأردن

Eid mubarak, kol 3am w entum b7er! (Happy holidays!) Every year, on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah (the last month of the lunar Islamic calendar), Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Adha is a feast commemorating the willingness of Ibrahim/Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael as the ultimate submission to God’s command, before God intervened and provided Ibrahim with a ram to sacrifice in Ishmael’s place. Muslims today often celebrate the Eid by visiting family, slaughtering a goat/sheep/camel (which is then traditionally shared with the poor), and feasting extensively.

A Cairo butcher shop preparing for Eid al-Adha festivities.

A Cairo butcher shop preparing for Eid al-Adha festivities.

For me, the 4-day Eid break provided a perfect opportunity to travel. Originally, a few friends and I had planned a trip to Beirut, Lebanon. But due to the violent protests that erupted there last week in response to the [Syrian-planted?] car bomb that killed 8 people (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20006389), we had to postpone our trip to Beirut. And that is how I came to be in Amman, Jordan last weekend.

At the citadel overlooking Amman.

At the citadel overlooking Amman.

There are some people who do not think that Amman is the coolest city around. Those people are wrong. Amman is a delightful balance of historical flavor and modern convenience – the clean and traffic-free streets are a world away from the chaos and smog of Cairo. (Admittedly, however, the chaos and smog are part of Cairo’s charm.) Amman is spread out across 19 jabals (hills) that display the city’s architecture and many historical landmarks beautifully. But the city’s aesthetic appeal is nothing without mentioning the warmth and hospitality (and diversity!) of the people we encountered throughout our time in Amman. After only two nights in the city, my friend Mary and I had met multiple people who will inshallah (God willing) be lifelong friends. One of the most interesting things about the people we met – beside their being just generally wonderful human beings – was their diversity. 4 out of every 5 people we met were not native Jordanians, but rather Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian “refugees” (though they would not identify themselves this way – most introduced themselves to us as “Palestinians/Iraqis/Syrians living in Jordan”).

After two nights in Amman, we headed south to see the infamous city of Petra, considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Petra is an ancient city in the middle of the desert, believed to be founded circa 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataean empire. Petra’s buildings were literally carved out of the massive red rocks that cover the landscape. Walking out of the Siq (the natural rock corridor leading into Petra) to be confronted by Al-Khazneh (pictured below) – an image I had seen so many times before in travel magazines and history books – was a surreal experience.

The infamous Al-Khazneh (treasury) in Petra.

The infamous Al-Khazneh (treasury) in Petra.

From Petra, we made the short trip to Wadi Dana (Dana Valley) Nature Preserve– a remote slice of heaven in the southwest corner of Jordan. As an Oregonian, I crave desolate landscapes and wilderness, and Wadi Dana provided just the communion with nature that I needed to recover from the bustle of Cairo. We spent the evening drinking copious amounts of tea and watching the sunset while a friendly Australian couple regaled us with stories of expat life in Saudi Arabia. We slept on the roof under the stars, and woke up to a breathtaking view of rocky canyons and untouched wildlife. In the morning, we ventured on a hike into the valley, where we encountered an unclaimed herd of goats and a group of Bedouins on donkeys who invited us for tea.

Sunset in Wadi Dana Nature Preserve.

Sunset in Wadi Dana Nature Preserve.

These four days in Jordan were truly some of the best days of my life – a tall order since I think I have a pretty good life in general. The genuine hospitality we encountered from the moment we stepped out of the plane has stuck with me, and I hope I will have the opportunity to “pay it forward” in Cairo.

Halfway Through Cairo

I’ve now been in Egypt for two months, studying at the Arabic Language Institute at the American University in Cairo. In exactly two months I will enter back into Israel/Palestine for a week before flying out of Tel Aviv. For the first half of my time in this Northeast corner of Africa I lived in outer Cairo, technically a neighborhood of Giza called Haram (the Arabic word for pyramid). The apartment I stayed at has definitely the best view I will ever partake in, and I look forward to the nostalgia and eventual dementia that will lead me to tell my grandkids that I lived on top of the Sphinx (or Abu el-Hol, Father of Terror).

View from the apartment roof (I'm accidentally blocking the Sphinx, sorry)

The time in Giza was terrific, the culture shock I was hoping for. The basement of the apartment is literally a horse stable (as well as both the neighbors) and me and my roommates were the only foreigners around, forcing me to quickly rely on toddler-level Egyptian Arabic to navigate the necessary microbuses etc. But this week I have moved to a neighborhood closer to downtown in order to experience that aspect of Cairo life more fully. I now live in Mohandessin, still a part of Giza, but just across the Nile from downtown Cairo and Tahrir Square.

The view from my new apartment. A definite shift in the color wheel.

While I am studying here, I am participating in PSU’s Senior Capstone Project Reporting Live, a great program that connects PSU students studying abroad with different middle school classrooms all over Portland through blogging. I have been making short videos for my sixth grade class at Lane Middle School, but I thought I would share them here, too:

See the rest here. Thanks for reading and watching!


A Fictional Conversation

A house built for travel writing / Photo: the Author

“How’s Istanbul?” Sruly asked.

It’s a sometimes-dreaded, sometimes-welcomed question whose answer colors the travel writing of student, tourist and expat alike. In “How to Write Bad Travel Writing,” a blog post by David Farley, the author writes:

Try not to have much of a point. In some travel magazines and newspaper travel sections editors like articles to have something called an angle—a perspective—and normally it should be as fresh and unique as possible.


Instead, craft a narrative that involves a play-by-play of everything that happened on your trip.

I didn’t want to do that. The blow-by-blow account of my time in the Orient interests Mom and Dad but it even bores me a little. Instead, I tried to answer my friend’s entreaty in the frame of “what has Istanbul done for me?”

Istanbul is a fantastic adventure, an open space for my mind to wander and an inspiration for writing, reading and reflection.

“I was hanging up my clothes to dry, again, Sruly.”

No dryer?

“No dryer lifestyle,” I said. “It’s that elusive life of non-consumption I’ve been able to exact here, really as a function of there being very little consumer choice…at reasonable prices.”

The lifestyle of ease is like strong drink.

“Which means, a lot less time in in the stupor of comfort and a lot more time spent in rigor (walking everywhere, cooking often) which has inspired (or reclaimed) an ethic for my creative/intellectual pursuits. How is New York City?”

I’ve always had a dryer.

Protests & Progress – مظاهرات والتقدم

Sometime last week, I received the following message in my inbox:

“After exhausting all alternatives with the students insisting on closing the gates, the American University in Cairo is suspending operations, including all classes, because of the danger posed by the continuing closure of the campus.”

For over a week, the entire university –rumored to be the best English-language university in the Middle East– was shut down by a group of 50-300 student protesters. These students blockaded all entrances to the main campus with cars and padlocks, demanding, among other things, a reversal of this year’s 7% tuition increase. While I too wouldn’t mind paying 7% less tuition, the tactics of the protests were ill-conceived and inconsiderate of the thousands of students, faculty members, and staff whose lives were put on hold during the strike. Alhamdulillah (praise god), classes have resumed as of today, after a harrowing week of budgeting debates and dialogue between the protesters and administration. Unfortunately, however, this week off has put classes behind for the semester, and caused deep rifts within the campus community members, many of whom feel understandably put-off and unrepresented by the protesters.

Since classes were cancelled and there wasn’t much we could do about it, some friends and I took the weekend off to explore Alexandria– a beautiful and ancient city 3 hours from Cairo in the Nile Delta, along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Iskanderiya (Alexandria) was a much-needed breath of fresh air from the smog of downtown Cairo. I slept outside under the stars, and every morning I woke up to a breath-taking view of the ocean.

The view from our private terrace overlooking the Mediterranean shoreline.

Having a week off of my graduate school course-load also freed up some time for me to explore Cairo a bit. Unfortunately, when school is not being cancelled due to protests, I spend almost all of my time either at school or doing schoolwork– the life of a graduate student is not exactly glamorous. But, I digress. Cairo is massive (8 million people, by most counts), so there is always plenty to explore. And since everything is still fairly new to me, everywhere I go feels like an adventure. The process of getting a cab, convincing him not to rip you off (while simultaneously convincing him not to fall in love with you because you have blonde hair and speak sweya Arabic), finding where you are trying to go, keeping your game face on just in case you have to haggle along the way.. Needless to say, there is never a dull moment. Here are a few pictures from last weeks Cairo adventures:

Moorish architecture in Khan El-Khalili, one of Cairo's oldest marketplaces.

Post-revolutionary graffiti in Tahrir Square.

Painting ceramics at an artists' café with my friend Parsa.

In some ways, the last month has flown by, and it feels as if it was just yesterday that I stumbled off of the plane into this new life, and in other ways it feels as if I have been here for years. I have three classes, a job, a workout routine, a group of friends, and–perhaps most importantly–a gorgeous balcony to bask in the sunshine and take cat naps on. Moving to Egypt has really shown me how significant one’s conceptualization of a place is to defining their overall experience with it– when I arrived in Morocco for the first time two years ago, I had my return ticket in hand before I ever left. I always knew I would be leaving six months later to return to the City of Roses and my wonderful friends back in the States. I wanted to see everything, be everywhere, meet everyone, but I did not invest in relationships because I always felt my time in Morocco was temporary. By contrast, a month into this, and I already feel like Cairo is home. Accordingly, I do not feel the familiar study abroad impulse to whirlwind tour the country and see-everything-all-at-once. I have time here. Metaphorically, my heart is playing backgammon on the street, smoking sheesha with a greying Egyptian man. Contemplating every move. Taking my time. Moving with the alternately chaotic and slow rhythm of life in Egypt.

Istanbul: Content and Melancholy

The sun also rises--over the Bosphorus Strait (Photo credit: the author)

When I arrived in Istanbul last week, exhausted from a nineteen-hour train ride via Bucharest, it occurred to me that I had not yet booked a hostel. I’d managed without a smart phone—or even a cell phone—for three weeks backpacking in Europe. I spent a considerable amount of time leaning on the exterior walls of European cafés, trying to get wireless Internet access.

The day-and-night-long rail excursion through Eastern Europe kept me from my café-leaning habit. Without the flicker of free Wi-Fi, I disembarked to Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station with 110 lbs of luggage and a vague plan. The sun was rising over the Boshphorus strait, gilding the water before it impaled my blood-shot eyes. Carrying my backpack over both shoulders, a day pack on the front and my duffel bag over my breast, I felt like a one-man band.

Waddling my way from the train station to the tram was a surreal experience. Istanbul’s population of over 13 million people makes the city into a labyrinth of suited men, veiled women and the inverse of both. At the pre-dawn hour though, the Sultanahmet neighborhood was an eye-rubbing smattering of dock-side fisherman and early-bird-gets-the-worm shop owners. In a metropolis like Istanbul it’s easy to feel alone. When the city sleeps, it’s even more isolating.

Orhan Pamuk (photo credit: renato.guerra / flickr)

The Turkish Nobel Prize winner and author Orhan Pamuk wrote that “Gustave Flaubert…was struck by the variety of life in [Istanbul’s] teeming streets; in one of his letters he predicted that in a century’s time it would be the capital of the world. The reverse came true: After the Ottoman Empire collapsed; the world almost forgot that Istanbul existed. The city into which I was born was poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had ever been before in its two-thousand-year history.”

I thought is would take time for this text to resonate with me; Pamuk writes of the city like a brother for which he holds deep affections. Instead, the irony of a mega city tucked away among ruins and skyscrapers left me beset with melancholy as I lugged my bags from hostel to hostel looking for an empty bed. America is proud of its meritocracy and I felt that there was an injustice in Istanbul’s decline.

Sitting on a bench, looking at Russian oil tankers make their way from Black Sea ports to Mediterranean pipelines, I considered the possibility for a more complex relationship with this future home. Pamuk calls Istanbul a brother because family can be both the most redeeming part of life and it’s greatest source of depression.

We’ll see if I’m ready.

Settling In -أسبوعي الأول في مصر

Well, I have officially been in Egypt for nine days now, and it has been a whirlwind of new faces, school orientations, unpacking, and exploring. I feel like I finally have my feet on the ground, but I am constantly reminded of how much I have left to learn. Here are a few tidbits I have picked up so far:

  • Egyptians don’t sleep much. Most stores are open until at least midnight, and it is completely normal to visit friends’ houses at 2:00 a.m. (Yet the business day still begins bright and early at 8:00 a.m.)
  • Anything can be delivered in Cairo anytime you want it. Groceries? 24 delivery. Cleaning supplies? 24 delivery. Dessert? 24 delivery. Furniture? 24 delivery. Technically, you never need to leave your house.
  • Egyptian Arabic sounds absolutely nothing like Moroccan Arabic. In fact, I am fairly sure that no other dialect sounds anything like Moroccan Arabic. I bought an 3mmiya (Egyptian colloquial) dictionary today, and will be referencing it frequently. 
  • There is always traffic in Cairo. ALWAYS. It is perhaps the only constant in this chaotic city.

The view from my terrace in downtown Cairo

After only three days in Cairo, two Egyptian friends invited me to join them on a trip to Sharm El-Sheikh, a gorgeous resort town on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. I hadn’t had much time to settle in, but how could I turn down such an adventure? Thank god I didn’t, because Sharm turned out to be one of the most incredible places I have ever been. We went scuba diving, rode quads through the desert at sunset, laid out on the beach, smoked sheesha, and ate delicious food. It was fun to get to travel a bit before I have to hunker down and begin graduate classes later this week.

Sunset in Sharm El-Sheikh

Now that I am back in Cairo–and armed with an impressive tan!– I am ready to start classes on Tuesday at the gorgeous American University of Cairo campus. I am really looking forward to meeting my professors, sinking my teeth into new books, and writing about the Middle East. I only have three classes a semester, which is a full load for graduate students. This semester, I am taking:

1. Critical Approaches to Middle East Studies

2. Migrant and Refugee Patterns in the Middle East and North Africa, and

3. Public Policy Law and the Separation of Mosque and State

…All of which sound pretty fascinating to me.

The American University in Cairo

Inshallah, I will update more once classes start, and I have more to report. Until then, I’m going to get some sleep– moving to a foreign country is exhausting!


En Route –في الطريق إلى مصر

Merhaba from Türkiye!

As of sometime last week, I am officially on the road to Egypt. I have been planning this trip for months, but somehow my final week in the country still caught me off-guard. Really moving abroad for two years is a lot different than talking about moving abroad for two years. Given that I generally have the travel bug so badly that I can hardly sit still, I was surprised by my own reluctance to leave home. It’s not that I ever doubted whether I was making the right decision, or whether I would actually get on the plane; it’s just that I finally acknowledged the magnitude of this next step. Two years is a long time to be away from one’s family, one’s friends, one’s home state, etc.– especially when the life that is waiting for you on the other side of the world is so unknown. All of this to say that I am a lucky girl to have had such an amazing life in Oregon surrounded by such exceptional human beings, which was –admittedly– hard to leave.

Now, almost two weeks into my travels, I remember all of the reasons why I love traveling and why moving to Cairo is perhaps the craziness (and best) decision I have ever made. I think it really set in for me when I first heard the call to prayer after arriving in Turkey. Something about hearing this sound–which I had grown very accustomed to the rhythm of while living in Morocco–made me feel at home. And I realized that I am going to hear that same sound, five times a day, everyday for the next two years. There’s something really powerful about such consistency. So here I am, learning how to find the rhythm of home in these [very much foreign] daily patterns.

After a lovely weekend laying on the beach in The Bahamas, I arrived in Istanbul last week ready for my next adventure. I don’t speak any Turkish and most Turks don’t seem to speak much English and/or Arabic, so it has been a week of emphatic hand gestures and elaborate sign language story-telling. The first four days I spent CouchSurfing (www.couchsurfing.org) with an eclectic group of ex-pats and travelers from around the world. We spent a lot of time exploring the city and drinking çay (tea) and watching the boats sail by on the Sea of Marmara. Istanbul is a lively, interesting city. With a population of over 13 million and a rich history dating back thousands of years, I felt like I could have explored in Istanbul for years and still never completely gotten my head around it. As someone who studies the Middle East, I found the confluence of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and European cultures especially interesting. There were young Turkish women in mini-skirts walking side-by-side with hijabi women; and, while we heard the call to prayer five times a day, we also had no trouble getting a beer in the midday heat of Ramadan.

After four days in Istanbul, I left my new friends for the Turkish countryside, where I had arranged to work on an organic farm for a week through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwoof.org). So far, my time here has been wonderful. It’s much cooler here than in the city, and everything seems to move at a much slower pace. Not slower in a “this is so frustrating, why can’t we get anything accomplished?!” way, but rather in a very natural “things will take as long as they take, no need to rush” sort of way. Generally, I am always rushing around doing a million things at once, so it has been nice to be forced to take things slowly. It has given me time to catch up with things and go for long runs through the village and do yoga and journal (and blog!), which are things I can never find time for in my normal routine.

Jade Farm, Sakarya, Turkey

Only one more week til I will be moving into my apartment in Cairo!