Posted by: j | August 24, 2009

Pre-Election Lebanon

Yes, I know, the Lebanese elections are over.

And if I had had a reliable source of speedy wi-fi, maybe I could have posted these photos before the results of the election were in.  But I suppose things such as this are better late than never.

Witnessing the dynamic nature of Lebanese politics in action was absolutely exhilarating, especially coming from Egypt, whose regime hasn’t changed in roughly 30 years.  Lebanon’s political system is far from perfect, but compared to the rampant stagnation and corruption under Mubarak’s faux-democratic regime, Lebanon seemed like a beacon of transparency.   Maybe because the opposition parties aren’t immediately imprisoned after the first round of elections?  Just a guess.

I found the campaign posters especially interesting, and really wanted to post them.


"It works for you" campaign poster, referring to the elections themselves


"Lebanon Lives"


"Stability Today and Tomorrow"


"She's beautiful, and VOTES"


"Security First, Vote First"


Hezbollah's Campaign posters


"Zahle is NOT for Sale." Referring to political corruption in Lebanon

Posted by: j | August 24, 2009

Does She Have Swine Flu?

How to dramatically minimize street harassment in Egypt: Be American.

Because the entire world is engaged in a collective freak-out about the dreaded swine flu pandemic, I’ve begun to notice bizarre behavior in Egypt. Every time I step onto the metro, I watch Egyptians eyes widen in fear, and hear people’s hushsed whispers asking “Is she American?” or “Do you think she has the swine flu?” People even go so far as to cover their mouths and noses with their veils or shirts when I’m around. And for once, I’m not constantly harassed when I’m in public. People are literally terrified of me.

And even though I haven’t been in the United States to contract this entirely over-hyped disease, I continue to let Egyptians think I could be a carrier. Finally, I’ve found some peace when I’m out and about. Fear is a good thing.

Posted by: Ashley Smith | May 27, 2009

International Kickball Club

As a returned education-abroad student, I’m constantly reminded of memories from my time overseas, but as time goes by, it seems like these memories are growing fewer and farther between.  Every once in a while, though, as I notice the date on a calendar, I catch myself wondering, “what was I doing this time last year?”  That happened this morning, and as I recalled the date in my mind, I was reminded of one of my favorite memories from Amsterdam: playing kickball.
It may seem strange that a school-yard game would stand out as such a fond memory from months in an incredible city like Amsterdam, but it was just one of those “moments.”  If you’ve ever studied abroad, you’ll probably understand what I mean.  Every once in a while, everything just seems to come together perfectly, and all the little frustrations of navigating a foreign envrionment fade away.  This was one of those days.  It was the end of the semester, and with finals looming and perhaps a bit of nostalgia for home creeping in, a couple of American students and I were looking for a release.   We invited friends– our British, French, and South African hall-mates who were keen to learn about our game.  There must have been about ten of us, a random collection of students drawn from across the world, with seemingly little in common, but bonded together through our months of living in this strange place.   We assembled on the lawn behind our dorm, and the space usually reserved for passionate football games became our own makeshift kickball field. 
The game lasted well into the evening, thanks to the 10 PM sunsets this time of year.  I can’t say that it went all that smoothly; there were the inevitable misunderstandings of rules, and even a few minor injuries.  My team ended up losing thanks to a last-minute scoring streak by our opponents.  Even so, it was one of those moments that seemed worthy of a picture in a study abroad catalogue.  I remember thinking, this is what it’s all about.  Trust me, I had plenty of learning experiences in museums and my host university’s classrooms.  But this afternoon spent sharing a piece of my American childhood with new friends was the kind of cultural exchange that I’ll remember the most. 
Not quite getting it...

Not quite getting it...


Taking over the football field
Taking over the football field
Team USA/England
Team USA/England
1, 2, 3: GAME FACE!
1, 2, 3: GAME FACE!
Posted by: travelerbyday | May 4, 2009

the Host Family: some thoughts

In my house in France, I have a Host Mom who washes my sheets and towels. She feeds me dinner every night, asks me questions to help me practice my French, and invites me to watch her favorite soap opera in the evenings.  I also have a Host Dad who is generally quieter, grins and asks if I’m doing well when he sees me, and from time to time proffers information about interesting hikes in the mountains surrounding our neighborhood.

Having lived with this older couple for the past eight months, I have become very comfortable in their home, learning how to properly set the table (in France, a feat not so minor as one might think), training myself to sleep through the noise of Host Dad wheeling his moped past my room and out the door to work, remembering to do my laundry after certain hours to economise on water bills.

So why is it that I can’t bring myself to ask the simplest question, “Pass the water?” at the dinner table?  Why do I read with the overhead light on instead of asking Host Mom to change the bum lightbulb in my table lamp?

My program director gave the students some advice before we met our host families.  She explained that the first one or two weeks of living with a new family are very important, because it is during this time that one establishes rules, boundaries, and relationships.

I have found this to be true: a month into my stay, Host Dad mentioned to a guest at dinner that I “love fruit, always choose fruit,” – Good to know, I thought, he’s noticed my presence.

Fortunately (and not), once the two week grace period of adjustment is up, routine sets in, habits are formed, change in comportment is reserved for situations involving misplaced keys or admissions of newfound végétarisme.  This explains my difficulty in asking for the carafe at mealtimes.  When I first came to France, I couldn’t ask for water for several reasons, the most important being that I didn’t know the mot juste and didn’t want to be a loud American, nervously stuttering and rudely gesturing to indicate my thirst; now, it’s established that I’ll keep mum even when I want something: “You have to serve it to her, remember.” (Thanks for getting my back, Host Mom.)

This difficulty of mine stems from a bigger problem, defining the host family.  Are we talking party host?  Nuclear family?  And where does the labeling end?  Do I refer to the woman seated across from me as my host grandmother?  Is she petting my host dog?  Do I have to call it my host bus on the way to my host café in my host country?

Eight months in, I’m still in the process of defining all of the terms and boundaries for myself, but I’m certain that they’re different for other students because of the vast diversity of host families.  Example:  A guy in my program lives with a host family consisting of one 27-year-old dude.  A friend studying in Morocco lives with a Muslim woman mourning her recently-lost husband.  Personally,  I can’t be Facebook friends with one of my six host siblings because he is a monk living in a monastery with limited Internet access.

It’s situations like these that make our homestays memorable and interesting.  If nothing else, they give us excellent storytelling-fodder for bonding with locals or other members of our program.  So for your education abroad plat principal (allow me this last food reference, I’m in France), may I recommend the Host Family?

Posted by: j | May 4, 2009

In the Army Now

This may have been one of the saddest days I’ve faced since being in Egypt. A day at the beach has never been more depressing.

Hany is one of the first people I met in Cairo when I arrived back in 2007. He was actively involved with AUC’s International Student community, and was one of the first to welcome all of the new study abroad kids to Egypt. His outgoing personality and his willingness to bend over backwards to help made him easy to befriend. Leaving America and coming to Egypt is not an easy endeavor, as you might have gathered from reading my blog. Hany fully understood our culture shock, and did everything in his power to make our time more enjoyable. He was our “go-to” guy when we had embarrassing questions about Egyptian culture or when we couldn’t make sense of our Arabic homework. Moreover, he has inspired hundreds of international students to contribute their time to the Egyptian community by asking them to join the NGO he founded. Basically, Hany is one of the most genuinely selfless and amazing people I have ever met.

Which is why it was so hard to say goodbye to him today.

Military service is mandatory for all males in Egypt (with a few exceptions). Hany’s number was called, and as a result, he will most likely be leaving for the army tomorrow. As a sort of last hoorah, he, our friend Elissa, and myself took a day trip to Ain Sokhna. I watched Hany put on a happy face the entire time, but never completely relax. How could he, when his entire life is being put on hold? He is watching greatest achievement, the NGO he founded while he was still an undergraduate, slip out of his hands and into the control of people like me, who aren’t permanent fixtures in Cairo. I watched him as he held his head in his hands as the sun dipped below the horizon. I saw him nearly break. I listened to him as he vented his frustrations about the military, his country, and the NGO. He told me he felt weak. I’ve never seen Hany as anything less than cool and composed; a perfect businessman and colleague, and a natural leader. I couldn’t bear witnessing him crumble like that.

But I can’t blame Hany for feeling helpless; for not being able to see the silver lining. How could one possibly feel compelled to serve and defend a government that provides next to nothing for its people? A government so corrupt and full of greed that it treats Egyptians like second-class citizens in their own country? It’s no wonder everyone tries to wriggle out of their military service. It’s seems impossible to feel a sense of loyalty and pride towards a regime such as Mubarak’s. But then again, if it were possible to feel this way, perhaps military service wouldn’t have to be forced upon the populace.

Yet today, despite his impending departure, Hany talked of his love for his country and his people. He told me how he could have emigrated to Canada when he studied abroad there in college, but chose not to because he didn’t want to give up his ties to Egypt. The problem is that Hany does so much more to serve his country outside the military than he ever could within it. His contributions to Egypt’s underpriveledged communities are far-reaching and effective.

What can he do in the army? Open gates for passing cars? Stand on the street with an unloaded AK47 and harass women? With the execption of the Egytpian Secret Police, called the mukhaberat, the Egyptian military system is unorganized, inefficient, and ineffective. Hany’s service will most likely not be spent doing anything productive or stimulating. And because he will probably only be required to serve one year (knock on wood!), the military won’t even be able to take advantage of his skills as an engineer. He will essentially waste 1-3 years of his life by being denied practical work experience and delaying his MBA.

I don’t know what else to say except that I will deeply miss Hany and all that he does for the people surrounding him. Today in Ain Sokhna I promised him I would do my best to keep the NGO on its feet. After making this promise, we watched the final minutes of the sunset and a pod of dolphins leisurely swim near the rocks where we were perched. For a moment, I think he felt at peace. I really hope he was.

Posted by: Ashley Smith | April 15, 2009

Keukenhof Gardens

Holland, April 2008

I knew I couldn’t go all the way to Holland without seeing the world-famous tulips, so a trip to Keukenhof gardens was definitely in order.  Keukenhof (“Kitchen Garden”) bills itself as the world’s largest flower garden.  With over 7 million bulbs planted annually, it definitely lives up to this claim.  I’ve never seen so many flowers or so much color in my life!  It’s almost hard to believe this place is real—it looks like a painting. 







Posted by: j | March 25, 2009

Snapshots of Alexandria, Egypt

I adore Alexandria because of it’s disregard for life in Cairo. While the city’s former glory has long since faded, there is a certain charm about Alex. It’s small, manageable, and friendly, and the food is amazing. Life there is truly Mediterranean; relaxed and unpretentious. Also, the traffic in Alex isn’t the hellfire that is traffic in Cairo. That’s always nice.

Here are the highlights of my most recent trip to the lovely city of Alexandria, with a few shots of my first trip thrown in there for good measure. Notice the lack of pollution, garbage, and general cleanliness.










Posted by: j | February 23, 2009

Bombs at the Bazaar

I always tell my friends that I feel safer in Cairo than I do in the United States, hands down.

Last night at around 9PM a homemade bomb exploded in the historic Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo.  Although I wasn’t anywhere near the Khan when the device went off, I was extremely unsettled.  This is an area I visit quite frequently; I wander around the maze-like streets in search of undiscovered little shops.  Mostly though, I go to the Khan to say hello to my Egyptian friends that sell their goods there.  This is why a trip to the Khan, for me, is an all day affair.  Sitting with my shopkeeper friends, drinking tea, and watching the customers float in and out of the tiny alleys is one of my favorite ways to spend an evening in Cairo.  I love the Khan.

I was sitting in my apartment last night when I received a text message from a friend asking if I was okay.  Confused, I asked him what he meant.  That’s when I found out what had happened, and my once strong sense of security in this city was shattered.  I had been in the very spot the bomb went off just two days earlier when my friend from home was visiting.

Why did this happen? Because of frustrations over Egypt’s treatment of the situation in Gaza? Because of general dissatisfaction with Mubarak’s psuedo-democratic regime? All I can hope for is that this was an isolated event; just some nutcase throwing a bomb into one of the most lively areas of Cairo, and not part of a larger systematic attack on Egypt’s tourism industry.

I don’t know how or what to feel.  I’m not afraid, but I can no longer boast to all of my friends that I feel 100% safe in Egypt anymore.  How can I, after one of the most charming and popular places in Cairo was bombed?  I could have very well been there.

Besides the deaths and injuries that were a result of this attack, my heart goes out to the Egyptians who work in the Khan.  Everyone I know there will attest that business is still recovering from the similar bombing in 2005.  What will they do now? The recession has taken a remarkable toll on their already slow business, and now the tourists who could afford to visit Egypt will be too scared to visit the Khan.

If this attack was meant to hurt the Egyptian government by scaring away the tourists–its fattest cash cow–it utterly failed.  This kind of attack won’t cause Mubark to suddenly reform Egyptian law or lift the oppressive emergency rule that has been in place in this country for 30 years.  What it will change, however, are the daily lives of the Egyptians who depend on the Khan as their primary soure of income.

Posted by: j | February 6, 2009

The Mogamma, Egyptian Bureaucracy, and Wasta

Yesterday I went to the dreaded Mogamma, the imposing Soviet-era building which houses the Egyptian bureaucracy, to renew my visa.  Having visited the Mogamma before, I was aware of its inefficiency, its disorganization, and its other soul-crushing qualities.  I knew that I needed an Egyptian to accompany me through what would undoubtedly be a horribly frustrating experience.

I turned to my “go-to” Egyptian friend, Hany (who is a saint, I might add), to help me through the process of renewing my visa.  It’s hard to explain just how difficult procuring the visa would have been without him.  Judging from my past experiences at the Mogamma, I would have (literally) pushed my way through the masses of people congregating around the various partitions (because there is no concept of forming lines in Egypt), and then I would have been sent to approximately six different counters/windows/floors before someone told me the correct place to go, waited an hour for the person at the correct counter/window/floor to verify my passport information, waited another three hours while my passport was sent to God knows where, and then told to come back in four days.  Sorry, but I had to get to my fabulous five-star oasis vacation on Friday.  I had no time to wait.

Hany made the process unbelievably easier, and not just because he is native Arabic speaker.  Egypt is informally run on a system of wasta, which doesn’t have an exact translation in English, so the closest thing I can equate it to is “privilege” or “connections.”  Wasta is essential; without it, you are fated to lead a very difficult life.  Everyone has at least a little bit of wasta, whether it be a cousin that works for the government or an uncle that works in a hospital, or even a friend of a friend who has or does something which benefits you.

However, as a foreigner with no formidable ties to Egyptian society, I am effectively wasta-less.  Which is why I rely heavily on my rich, socially-elite Egytian friends when I find myself in a situation which requires wasta.

So I called Hany, and he put his wasta to good use for me.  His uncle knew one of the “higher-ups” in the consular department of the Mogamma, so instead of pushing and being pushed, struggling to navigate the labyrinth that is the interior of the Mogamma, and going on an all-day wild goose chase for a visa, we were ushered into a private office to sort everything out.  Once there, after the usual small-talk, the officer assigned us a girl (I don’t know what her official title was) named Naveen to “speed up” the visa renewal process.  She was amazing.  She dropped the officer’s name to all of the officials who processed my visa so it would be taken care of first.  The whole thing was finished in about two hours (vs. four days without wasta!!).  Pretty impressive, right?

Posted by: travelerbyday | February 4, 2009

L’actualité en France: la Grève

France à la Entropa

One of the most useful words I have learned since living in Grenoble is “la grève,” or “the strike.”  Opportunities to use this word present themselves on a daily basis in France.

For example, this semester’s opening day at the Université Stendhal’s Center for French Studies (CUEF) was interrupted by “les manifestants,” student protesters who convened on university property to express their disapproval of recent changes by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to the national education system.  The CUEF’s president cut short the day’s welcome-back program and asked students to evacuate the building in order to lock the doors and prevent protesters from entering.  Two weeks later, members of educative, workers’, and other associations participated in a nation-wide grève, causing cancellations of courses and slowing transportation, among other public services to be interrupted.

La grève is an important part of French culture; so much so, that Czech artist David Černý used it as the symbol of France in his controversial sculpture entitled Entropa.   The sculpture, recently unveiled in Brussels, portrays several members of the European Union as gross stereotypes.  Photos of Entropa can be seen here courtesy of the BBC News website.

While in all its seriousness la grève indicates France’s profound political and cultural values, it is important to note that the French themselves are not above a good laugh at the expense of tradition:  While my host father was flipping through all five of our TV channels recently, his wife asked him if her favorite soap opera had come on yet; he grinned and responded, “Non – ils font la grève.”

The author of this post, a UK student, has been living in Grenoble, France, since September 2008.

Older Posts »