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Hip Hop Transforming Muslim Communities Around the Globe

August 9th, 2011 3 comments


The youth are gravitating towards hip-hop in a more effervescent way than ever.  Not only is rap being used as an art form to express the youth’s opinions about political issues, but as a medium to promote positive change.  Some countries are so threatened by this powerful instrument of self-expression that they have banned hip-hop concerts.  The hip-hop genre has also done something that hasn’t been seen before, which is transcend the generational gap, unlike before where only the youth were listening to rappers share their lyrics.

Neda Samarst, who has years of experience in the entertainment and music industry with a focus and expertise in Hip Hop, the Middle East and its youth culture, delves deeper into the emergence of hip-hop in the Middle Eastern world and says we must understand the cultural differences in youth expressing themselves.  Neda says because “unlike Western cultures who freely express themselves and discuss their personal problems and struggles, the Middle East is more conservative and discussing personal or society’s problems in a song, which can be seen as ‘airing your laundry to strangers or outsiders’ which some judge as a weakness rather than an advancement.”  Nonetheless, Middle Eastern hip-hop artists are singing about social issues and encouraging youth to take responsibility in changing their communities in a positive way.



Omar Offendum is a rising Syrian-American rapper who grew up in Washington D.C. listening to all the mainstream hip-hop artists.  From the second to twelfth grade, Offendum was exposed to Arabic and Islamic studies at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Virginia in addition to the local Fairfax County curriculum, taught in English.  He began experimenting with hip-hop and intertwining Arabic poetry in his music when he enrolled in the University of Virginia.  His muses include Edward Said, who has influenced his navigation of the American-Arab identity and Nizar Qabbani, a prominent Syrian poet whom Offendum has translated poetry from Arabic into English in one of his songs.  Offendum says this invites the older generation to his music as well as introduces the younger generations to words they would otherwise never hear.

The messages Offendum hopes to get across through his music are ones that promote unity, understanding and positivity.  Offendum desires his music to incite fearlessness in tackling important issues that may seem challenging.  While Offendum does not want to be recognized as a Muslim rapper but a rapper who happens to be Muslim, he says his music is for people across the world, regardless of any religious background.

Asked about a song meaningful to Offenfum, he responds with “The Straight Street,” named after one of the oldest streets in the world in Damascus.  The message is simply about following the middle road, while meeting and sharing experiences with people of different backgrounds.  His latest solo album, “SyrianamericA” includes a song with poetry by Langston Hughes, translated into formal Arabic, so the older generation can also appreciate the lyrics.  Offendum mentions that Arab rap is not just about politics, but “legitimate grievances and growing up in everyday life that is just as important.”



YAS, an Iranian rapper that sings in Persian, is the first-ever hip-hop artist to have been granted by the Iranian government to create and publicize his music to the general public.  Hip-hop music first intrigued him when YAS’s father would bring him albums from artists such as Tupac.  YAS tells Elan Magazine, as he translated Tupac’s lyrics, he “realized he was saying something different from the rest.”  This empowered YAS to rap about struggles he faced in his own culture and sing about personal pains growing up as the head of the household as soon as his father passed away.

YAS’s musical career officially began after the 2003 earthquake in Iran that took away 50,000 lives.  YAS produced the song, “Bam” which was recorded with a former school friend, Mita who was interested in producing music.  Together, in Mita’s house, they recorded the song on an old, beat-up headset that was used for chatting on the computer.  Even though the quality was not great, YAS remembers seeing tears roll down people’s faces as they heard his song.  Once seeing the impact his music had on others, he realized that music is what he wanted to do.

Yet, rap music was not prevalent or widely accepted in Iran and took some time before the genre became more popular and more of Iran’s societies started to embrace the culture.  YAS gives insight to why people may not have supporting his music or hip hop in general highlighting that there were not many people rapping and he “couldn’t really blame them either because they had no familiarity to the genre.”  Currently, his music is uniting people with fans in the U.S., Russia, Europe, Asia and across the Middle East.  How do people unite through music?  YAS says it’s through “understanding each other’s struggles and recognizing our similarities and common goals in life.”



Government censorship– Since music can be a powerful tool in galvanizing support from the youth, some countries require approval before you can host your own hip-hop concert.  Neda says music in Iran has to pass government censors and if the artist does not have approval from the officials for his lyrics, he may not perform live.

What challenge does this propose? Many of the big-name artists cannot perform in countries such as Iran, and end up doing concerts in the UAE.  For instance, Snoop Dogg did his gig in Abu Dhabi and Usher was in Dubai.  So music makers cannot always go in places such as Iran or where the fans want them as governments deny them entry.

Female rappers– Neda points out more female rappers also need to enter the hip-hop music industry especially since “women play an extremely important role in the Middle Eastern societies.”  Neda says she is not referring to “emulating those female rappers around the world that use their sexuality to get themselves heard, I am referring to the artists who have the power to make a difference and help bring more exposure and show the true strength and potential of the Middle Eastern woman.”  There are some women in the industry, but not nearly the same number of men.

Piracy– Americans went through the phases of Napster and finding alternative ways of downloading illegal music and music artists have continued to suffer the most from this.  We know the consequences of getting caught and many have faced charges for it, but active anti-piracy law and enforcement does not necessarily exist in the Middle East.  It is relatively easy to download music without paying anything for it.  This has devastating consequences for artists in the Middle East, especially when the markets are new and producing music and videos are not necessarily cheap.  Neda says, “We should depend on our own ethics and morals to do the right thing even if the laws have not caught up yet.  Please spend that $1 – $10 and don’t just be proud of their work but play an active role in their success as well.”


Article originally published for Elan Magazine-

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Rising Hip-Hop Star From Pakistan, Adil Omar

August 9th, 2011 1 comment

With no alias, he goes by his real name, Adil Omar, simply because he says he already has a unique name and there is no need for a gimmick for people to remember it.  Adil is Pakistani born and raised who comes from parents that could not really be there for him growing up.  Adil lost his father to alcoholism and his mother suffers from amnesia.  Shortly after, Adil could not focus in his studies and was kicked out of school by fourteen.  These events pushed him towards writing that he felt was the only way he could express himself and overcome isolation. Adil says turning to writing lyrics was the only outlet that was his therapy.

By age eight, Adil was exposed to rappers such as Tupac, Method Man, Redman and Wu-Tang Clan.  After B-Real of Cypress Hill discovered the unusual talents of Adil, he became fortunate to work with names such as Xzibit, Kool G Rap and Everlast, House of Pain and Psycho Realm.  This is when people started taking this hip-hop newbie more seriously.  With his discovery, Adil has been able to learn from these stars “from just being around them and watching them work.”

Adil points out that the majority of Pakistani society may not appreciate hip-hop or rap music, because it is still a new genre in this part of the world.  Becoming a rap artist is also an unusual career path for the majority of Pakistanis, however, once he was approached by B-Real of Cypress Hill, that is when people around him started to realize music making does not just have to be a hobby.  Hip-hop music in Pakistan is an untapped market in Pakistan and has the potential to become a catalyst for empowerment for many of the youth in the region.

Though Adil comes from a conservative society, he says that he does not associate himself with religion because music goes beyond any “racial, nationalistic and religious boundaries.”  The music he makes is where youth can share similar experiences with one another even if the music is not political; “the whole rebellious energy is something a lot of kids could relate to.”

In Adil’s latest music video, “Off the Handle” featuring Xzibit, he wears a traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez commenting that when he is outside Pakistan, he sometimes feels the need to “represent his people from back home,” but was really just having fun as well.  In another video that received much accolade from audiences in both Pakistan and India as well as in America, “Incredible” features him in a Pakistani truck.  Adil says, “People in the West don’t know what to make of it, they’ve seen nothing like it, and people in Pakistan and India are going nuts about it, they love it.”

Adil hopes to get involved with film in the next few years after the release of his debut album.

Adil’s debut album “The Mushroom Cloud Effect” is releasing in 2012, which features Xzibit, B-Real of Cypress Hill, Everlast, Kool G Rap, DJ Lethal of Limp Bizkit and others.  Be sure to watch out for it!


Article originally published for Elan Magazine-

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The Business of High-End Fashion in the Middle East

August 9th, 2011 1 comment

The Middle Eastern market, yet again, proves that it’s a lucrative one.  With mainstream designers specifically creating special lines in order to cater to consumers of the region is proof enough.  Marketing statistics support that brands are important to this specific market, and more importantly, an overwhelming amount tend to be brand loyalists, clearly, this market knows what it wants.

Various designers like Tom Ford, a leading American fashion designer, created his first dishdasha or thobe for Sheikh Majed AlSabah, who then asked Ford to have these produced for stores in the Middle East because of the demand.  Although, men are not the only ones wearing fashionable thobes, but have inspired some Western women’s fashion lines as well, including Hermès’ Christophe Lemaire’s Fall 2011 collection.  The women’s line is very dishdasha inspired with long, multi-layered, cream-colored clothing ensembles.  His line begins with your average ‘abaya template yet is designed as a sophisticated cream-colored women’s version thobe.  Other creations include tunic style dresses, blouses and coats with long and over-sized sleeves and matching pairs of desert sand-color inspired boots and gloves.  You can find Hermès Fall 2011 fashion line here.  Though, Hermès is not the only fashion house interested in using inspiration from the Middle East and expanding their markets to the region.

Marriam Mossalli, Features Editor for Arab News, a leading English newspaper in the Middle East tells Elan that for years, Western designers have been catering to Middle Eastern women by designing customized garments.  Mossalli regularly attends fashion events and trade shows showcasing Western designers trying to penetrate the Middle Eastern market and Middle Eastern designers in the international fashion industry.  When she attends trade shows in Paris, Mossalli recollects how she constantly hears Middle Eastern buyers requesting longer versions of pieces and designers happily conceding.  Mossalli says even traditional clothing like the ‘abaya or thobe, have been made by Western designers such as Armani, John Galliano and Blumarine.  Even Mossalli personally owns a Temperly London couture ‘abaya.  “The truth is fashion is a business. The ultimate goal is to make money. And these designers know that the money is in the Middle East,” states Mossalli.

A Western renowned fashion company, Gucci has continued its long-established relationship (over a decade) in the region with the establishment of a joint-venture between Al Tayer Insignia, the largest luxury retailer in the Middle East and Gucci.  This joint-partnership was established this March to allow Gucci a “direct entry into the United Arab Emirates.”  The Al-Tayer Group is a conglomerate with over 35 of the world’s most renowned luxury companies, including Bulgari, Boucheron, Bottega Veneta, Dolce & Gabbana, Emilio Pucci, Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Ligne Roset, and Yves Saint Laurent.  Al Tayer is headquartered in the UAE with over 80 stores in the region with presence in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Qatar.

In 2010, the Gulf region claimed a $12 billion clothing market, with predictions to increase by 10% in 2011.  Western-styled malls have permeated the region with various shopping centers showcasing Arab and other top designers.  Mossalli says Louis Vuitton in Dubai makes over $25 million per month in sales.  The Emirates is emerging with the world’s most luxuriating experiences, including having built the largest mall in the world, with a ski resort and aquarium inside.

The fashion industry does not stop at the mall, but has inspired the real estate industry.  Isla Moda is going to be the world’s first dedicated fashion island to be built on Dubai’s “Third World” initiative with “limited-edition homes” designed by fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld.  There is also a “Style City” fashion district that is being planned in Abu Dhabi with an exclusive residential and retail-fashion market.

The Middle Eastern consumers of fashion are a force to be reckoned with.  As it continues to develop and gain momentum, the projects are constantly pushing the envelope and it will be exciting to see what’s to come.


Article originally published for Elan Magazine-

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Sandboarding Takes Off in the Middle East

August 9th, 2011 No comments

What is the coolest side-job while still in school?  It is having your own sandboarding business, of course.  Mohamed Marzouk, 20 years old started his own sandboarding business 2 years ago after watching the National Geographic channel highlighting sand-based sports.  Mohamed decided to launch his own sandboarding company in Cairo called Sand Riders with his friend, Moataz Ahmed, for both beginners and advanced riders.

There is rumor that ancient Egyptians rode down sand dunes with wood and pottery.  The Middle East has been named as the birth region for sandboarding, with top destinations in Dubai’s Big Red, Namibia’s Namib Desert and Cairo’s Siwa Oasis.  Big Red is known for its steepest and largest sand dunes in the Middle East.  Every January, Dubai hosts the Hugo International Sandboarding Championships.  Egypt is home to dunes as high as 500 feet and angle slopes of 70 degrees and the Namib Desert is claimed to have the oldest deserts with some of the largest dunes in the world.  These become the top destinations for extreme sandboarding and competition.  While you do not need to be in the Middle East to enjoy sandboarding, lists 44 countries where you can enjoy riding down the dunes.  More tour companies and hotels have also begun offering sandboarding as one of the activities that tourists can add to their itinerary.

Mohamed decided to take advantage of the sports business, and while his initial goals were not about attracting tourists and extreme sandboarders, it started with inviting friends to ride down the desert’s dunes.  After borrowing 15,000 pounds (about $3,000) from his father, Marzouk bought sand boards and other tools to start his business.  All you really need is transportation, sandboards, some shades, a kuffaya and food to have fun in the desert.  To date, more than 1,200 people have gone sandboarding with Mohamed and Moataz.

How the day goes: The day kicks off in the morning where participants meet at a primary location such as at an “On the Run” gas station chain store.  Sand Riders picks up participants (a minimum of 15 and maximum of 80 people) in 4 x 4 trucks and take them to the Katanya Dunes, 85 kilometers away from Cairo.  Trips take place every Friday or multiple days a week in the summers.   Arriving at about 1pm, participants are given sand boards and begin trekking up the sand dunes.  Walking up-hill on feet-sinking sand sounds a lot harder than it sounds.  It can take about 10 minutes to get to the top.  After four hours of falling and getting back up on the sand dunes, participants are invited to a special barbeque.  Once the sun starts setting, and after Maghreb prayer, the party begins.  Participants gather around the campfire, make S’mores and have tea and biscuits. There is tabla playing, singing and dancing and the best part of being under the dessert sky, dazing at the brightly-lit stars.

If you are in Cairo and want to learn more about Sand Riders or go on one of their trips, join their Facebook group with more than 1,000 members here.  Their tag-line reads, “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.”  We seriously agree!

Mohamed currently studies Petroleum Engineering at the British University in Egypt.


Article originally published for Elan Magazine-

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Obama got Osama, but did we really win?

May 2nd, 2011 2 comments

Last night, at 10:43pm, my sister sent me a text, “Osama is dead. Turn on the news.”  At first, I wondered if it was real.  I turned on the news, and it hadn’t been confirmed yet.  Then, as newscasters were getting more updates, it was confirmed that a human operation killed Osama.  A human operation! Not a drone strike that has been the cause of many Pakistani casualties.  Obama had received intelligence from a week ago that Bin Laden was in a mansion outside Islamabad, Pakistan.  Again, we were wrong.  He wasn’t hiding in some cave we spent years looking in.  Even Afghani officials told the U.S., “I told you he wasn’t here.  We kept searching and searching.”  So what justice do the Afghanis get that died with our military efforts?  Okay, so we built schools, gave them electricity, etc.  That could have been done without killing innocent Afghanis.  And can we go back to the fact OBL was found in a mansion?!  Note to current and future terrorists: your inspiration was found in a mansion, not a cave.  He couldn’t handle a cave.

Obama authorized the operation in Abbottabad and OBL was killed in a firefight.  This was great news, we finally got him.  But now if we really think about, 10 years later, billions of dollars spent on unnecessary wars, more civilians lost in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan than the victims from 9/11 and terrorist attacks combined since, was getting this man really worth it?  We killed the ring leader, but how many more Osama proteges are there? 

Muslims and non-Muslims across the world despised Osama, the terrorist, to the core.  But spending limited and our most precious resources (human lives) worth finding this man?  Terrorists have existed prior to OBL and will continue to exist.  Since 9/11, there have been hate crimes on Muslims, Sikhs and others that just “look Muslim.”  We’re experiencing Islamophobia even today.  This “war on terror” brought upon Islamophobia and does not seem it will die with the death of Osama.  We still have our issues to deal with.  There is still so much ignorance about what Islam means to the majority of Muslims.  We need a #win on that.  I’m glad OBL is dead, but do I feel safer?  Will I get my identity back?  Can being Muslim and Pakistani be okay again?

I just got tweeted about a mosque that got vandalized in Portland, Oregon.  These were the words that were graffitied.  “Osama today, Islam tomorow (sic),” “Long live the West” and “Free Cyprus.”  The “USA! USA!” chants last night went overboard and statements like “Osama today, Islam tomorrow” certainly bring us backward.  Are we like the terrorists celebrating death? 


Graffiti on Portland Mosque Under Investigation, David Hench

Bin Laden Dead — War Was Not the Answer,b=facebook

Don’t Get Cocky, America- Al Qaeda is still deadly without Osama bin Laden, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross ttp://

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Niqab Ban Official in France

April 12th, 2011 No comments

The ban to wear niqabs in France became official in France on Monday.  After I posted a link to the article about it on Facebook, a friend (a Muslim man) stated how he clearly supported this ban.  While there are some Muslims (males and females) that support this ban, many others (both Muslims and non-Muslims, females and males) don’t support this ban whatsoever.  About 2,000 women wear the niqab in France, a minority.  What surprises me is that what 2,000 women do (wear) can cause some men to think they have the authority to say what women should and should not wear.  When did men decide that they have authority to say what they like on our bodies?

Furthermore, they very goal of “liberating Muslim women” degrades these women because they are being forced with legislation to NOT wear the niqab.  Yet again, some men (ahem President Nicolas Sarkozy) think they should be telling women what to wear or not to wear.  This is government sponsored denial of self-expression and freedom to practice religion, which does not threaten other people’s security or national security.

The security argument doesn’t hold when supporters of the ban say they have no way of identifying women that wear niqabs, but these women have no problem of lifting their veils so they can be identified.  They cooperate with authorities, whether it is on the streets or at airports. 

If people want to fight against Muslim women being forced to wear the niqab (that exists in Saudi Arabia and other parts in tribal Afghanistan and a few other places).  These women in France choose to wear the niqab, by free will.  The outcome of this ban will result in this small group of women isolating themselves from society as they will choose to not go out publicly as much.  Thank you France and supporters of the ban.

Some quotes that we should all give some thought to:

“We know our world by learning about difference. What is the word we often use? Tolerance. Is that a positive notion? Not really. ‘For the time being, I will tolerate you?’ I’m against that concept. It means difference is a threat. Difference is a blessing and you don’t tolerate a blessing. You embrace it,” – Mohammad Mahallati, presidential scholar in Islamic studies at Oberlin College.

“If some of our sisters are comfortable with Niqab (face veil), there is no legal, philosophical or religious basis to deny them their choice. The decision to ban it in France is a blatant discriminatory affront to individual freedom, dignity and the basic human rights of Muslim women. Such efforts should be opposed by all people who claim to be working for justice, equality and women’s rights.” – Imam Zaid Shakir

Below is a link to a debate between Hebab Ahmed and Mona Eltahawy about the niqab ban.

“First they came for burqas and I did not care,
I did not wear the burqa;

They came for turbans and I did not care,
I did not wear the turban;

They came for the kippah and I did not care,
I was not Jewish;

They also came for the cross and I did not care,
I was not a Christian;

Then they came for English and I did not care,
I did not speak English;

Then the came for me and I panicked,
there was no one for me.”

More links to news about the niqab ban.

Government-Enforced Bigotry in France,,14980643,00.html

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Spring Break to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine

August 20th, 2010 No comments



LEBANON (Beirut, Byblos, Tripoli)

I had bought a one-way ticket to Beirut, Lebanon a few days before I decided to go on this journey. I traveled with three other friends to Lebanon. We arrived Friday afternoon (Juma’). As soon as we got to our hostel, we threw our bags down and headed out. We saw the American University of Beirut. It was gorgeous. I kind of wished I were studying there instead of in Cairo. AUB is located in the middle of the city rather than in the middle of the desert. We had nutella and strawberry with nuts crepes across from the University. They were the best crepes I’ve had thus far.

We walked along the Cornishe. We saw Muhammad al-Amin Mosque. It had a beautiful blue dome that matched the sky at sunset. It looked like the sister of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. We also went inside St. George’s Cathedral and the Maronite Cathedral. I noticed how there were mosques right along side churches.

Then we took a cab to see the National Museum of Beirut. It was a well-kept and clean museum with some great artifacts from the medieval Mamluk period. Some of the artifacts had to be restored, while some got damaged from the 1975 Lebanese Civil War.

Walking around the city, we noticed how some buildings and walls still had bullet holes in them from the Civil War. There was lots of graffiti artwork on walls too, with statements like “Free Palestine” and other social justice statements. I liked the use of these walls for self-expression. Some statements were creative and funny, like “We Came, We Drew, We Ran” and “Homeless peeing site.”

We went back to the hotel, took a two-hour nap and got ready to go out again. We walked around and fell into an area that looked very much European. We had dinner and then went lounge hopping. “Public Display of Affection” was visible in some of these places; a bit opposite in Cairo.

We went back to our hostel, slept and woke up early to try and find transportation to Tripoli. We were going to take a bus straight to Tripoli until the cab driver told us we should visit Byblos, and since we were not following any real schedule, we went first to Byblos. This was a great idea. Byblos is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. We visited the Byblos Castle, which was beautiful. Walking towards the back, we could view the Mediterranean Sea. I felt like I could just live there; it was so peaceful.

From Byblos, we walked a few miles trying to figure out where the buses were to possibly take us to Tripoli. We walked along some highway until a bus slowed down for us so we could hop on. When I asked him if it was going to Tripoli, he said no and sped off. Then we thought other buses would come here and just pick us up along the way. We got lucky, the next bus to slow down for us was the right one.

We arrived into Tripoli, found a hostel, threw our bags down and went out. We found a marketplace that was about to close. A guy found us roaming and led us into where the manufacture soaps. We went inside his shop and found soaps of every possible kind, from lavender to vanilla. It was a Bath and Body Works of its own. We walked around looking for a place to eat and fell upon a local café. The jungle was the décor. We could barely find any females at this place, except wives of husbands. We played cards like the rest of the locals, drank tea and smoked shisha.

The next morning, we went in circles trying to find a bus to go to Syria. Eventually, we found one where some interesting individuals boarded the bus. One guy was bringing in his motorcycle, which he was able to put inside the back of the bus. Another married couple was bringing sacs of plants with them. The bus smelled like smoke and was broken down. My friend sitting next to me had to hold up the broken seat in front of her in which a man was already sitting on. In other words, she was holding him. Goodbye Lebanon, we were about to enter Syria.

SYRIA (Aleppo, Damascus)

The man in charge of the bus collected everyone’s ID cards and visas. Us travelers, didn’t have any visas. The guy dropped us off and the bus continued into Syria. We were to realize later that we wouldn’t get any refunds on the bus tickets we paid for.

Now, we were at the border trying to figure out what the guy was saying. His Arabic was nowhere close to the Egyptian Arabic we knew. He told us to wait, so we did, for three hours. We were waiting for Damascus to approve our visas. Finally, we got the OK. We wrote down our information on some blank pieces of unofficial white paper. He asked us how we were getting into Syria, wherever we were going. We had no idea. He found some bus driver willing to take us and so we paid the guy and got on.

This was by far the sketchiest man to be in charge of a bus. He was pulled over a few times by the police, and by looking through a rear-view mirror since I was sitting in the front, he would chat with the police, pay them sometimes and continued our journey. The bus ride was a good couple of hours. We arrived into Aleppo at night and tried finding a hostel to crash at.

The first place we went to was charging us too much, so we walked around some more and found a cheaper hostel. We were exhausted by then and just wanted to eat. We went into a local café a block away and ordered some food. This place was crowded. My two girlfriends were talking amongst themselves while John (our only male traveler with us) happened to be scouting the room with me. His eyes fell upon the table next to us, and the whiskey they were drinking. Whiskey being consumed openly in a Syrian café? This is interesting, we thought. John, being a white guy was the center of attention for these Syrian guys whom they invited over. The next thing we knew, they were feeding John fruit and whiskey and had the waiter send us fruit and drinks. We could not believe how friendly these guys were. My girlfriends had decided to meet up a friend they had bumped into while we were walking around looking for a hostel to crash at. I was supposed to stay back and watch our friend John. This was going to be an interesting night. I joined these Syrian guys. I had learned that one of the guys had married a Pakistan woman, play underground poker (in which they would postpone for tomorrow night since they had met us) and wanted to know where we were staying. Because tipsy John could not remember where we staying, they did not find out. I finally convinced John to end our night with these guys to meet up our friends at the Citadel. The Citadel was lit up with purples, blues and reds. There were friends and families walking about around the Citadel and enjoying shisha and tea at some local restaurants. The air was chilly so we ordered some warm shai bil-leban (tea with milk). We went back to our hostel and knocked out.

We agreed to wake up early at 7am to have breakfast and visit the Citadel. Thinking there was a time difference, we ended up waking an hour earlier. Nothing was really open at 6am to eat except for a man who was setting up his equipment to make break. My two girlfriends needed change to buy some bread, so they went to a local pharmacy. John and I waited by the man who had asked me if I wanted to visit a school. I thought sure, that would be amazing. He told his friend who took me down the road to an all-girls school. I was introduced to five to six female teachers and the headmaster. They offered me tea and bread. After learning I spoke English, the teachers wanted to practice their English with me, except only about two knew it. My girlfriends were taken to where I was and we had a good hour learning about these women and the school. While we were sitting in the teachers’ room, some of the girls would peek in to look at us and wave. As we waved back, more of the girls would get their friends to come and wave to us. They took us on a tour of the dozen classrooms they had. Not all the girls wore hijaabs, which was interesting. Almost all wore navy blue uniforms with white hijaabs. We toured classrooms where the girls learned about computers, history and math. As we said goodbye to the teachers, we found out that John had to wait outside because he was a boy. We found the boys school as we walked to the Citadel.

We were the first ones to enter the Citadel for the day. It was starting to get warm and we were slowly finding some great spots to view the city. We reached the top and the view was breath taking. You can see a blending of grays, whites and browns. It was simple, yet beautiful. We spent a few hours there until we realized that the local schoolboys came to the Citadel for recess time. They ran around for their physical education. I was entirely jealous that this historical Citadel was their playground.

We exited the Citadel and walked into the market place just a few blocks away. The silk scarves I discovered there were incredibly beautiful. I’ve never seen scarves like this anywhere. They were in a million different colors, styles, patterns and shapes. I bought a bunch, but regret not buying more. It only gives me more reasons to go back to Syria.

That afternoon, we decided to buy train tickets to Damascus, as that would be the easiest way to commute there. Our train was scheduled to leave around 5:30pm and so my girlfriends decided to experience an Ottoman period hammam while John would visit the mosque there. I’ve never been bathed by a Syrian lady before, but this is how it went. We were to undress and wrap ourselves with the towels she gave us. One by one, we were to go to this small room where we would lay down and she would scrub and wash our skin. This was my shower number two since the beginning of my trip. There was a pool of very warm water she wanted us to get into that was a bit gross, but we got in and forgot about wondering when the last time the water had been changed or cleaned. We went back to our saloon where we rested until the lady that washed us came over and insisted she have my friends undergarment. My friends and I looked at each other to figure out if she was actually serious, and she was. We said no and kept a better eye on our things. Her mother brought us some jasmine tea and I thought how great it would be to live like this everyday. However, it was only the upper-class women that lived like this during the Ottoman and Mamluk period.

We walked back to the train station to board the train to Damascus. The train ride was about four hours. We passed through the fields, where families had cattle, sheep and other animals. Little boys would be in charge of directing their animals around the fields; it was adorable. We finally got off the train to take a local bus to the main center of Damascus. We found a very nice man at a hostel where we stayed. He helped us arrange a cab ride to Jordan a couple days later.

We threw our bags down in our rooms, and went out to look for a café. We found one in the middle of some street; another hole in the wall café with some great food and shisha. Our waiter seemed to have some sarcasm. In the end, we found out he was a creeper too who decided to feel up my friend after he insisted he take pictures with all of us (individually). We headed back to our hostel after buying a box of sweets from the street and decided to eat them in bed.

The next morning, we heading over to the souk (market) and got lost in all the things you could buy there. This was Khan-el-Khalili (at its best, minus the hagglers). The concept was simple, buy what you want without being hassled or verbally assaulted. There were tons of markets neatly placed in rows, to buy anything from candy, clothes, soap to appliances and other items for your home. We ate a local café in the middle of the shops. We had hummus, falafels, rice and chicken. We visited churches, mosques and a boy with an orange-dyed chick. He was selling it to us for one American dollar. We were this close to buying it until we realized we’re traveling solo with backpacks.

We were looking for the notorious Umayyad Mosque until we got lost and a boy helped to take us there. It was majestic. This was and still is the largest and oldest mosque in the world, with it being built by year 715. We stood in line to buy tickets to enter the mosque. The guy asked me where I was from, and I said Pakistan. He let me pay close to $1 where my friends had to pay an equivalent of $10. We went inside and as a man thought we were some professional photographers, let us inside through where the men were. I did not realize this until we were in the middle of the room and there were no women to be found on our side.

After the mosque, we headed back to the souk since we could not get enough of it. My friends bought some local artwork and I found a genuine Syrian bag to carry all the souvenirs I could not help, but buy. It was close to dinnertime and we found a local restaurant that had live Sufi music and performers. We ordered the usual and left when we were falling asleep on the cushions. Since John wanted to stay longer in Syria and fly back to Cairo from there, we left him behind and continued on our trip. We were not sure if it was safe to travel solo as three girls, but we decided to go through with it. We put rings on our left ring fingers and went to bed.

JORDAN (Amman, Petra)

We woke up around 4am to take a cab (arranged by the guy at the hotel) into Jordan. He was kind enough to help us get our visas at the border. We passed through Amman, found it to be a very small city and decided to go straight to Petra. Each visa cost us 10 dinars (equivalent to about 14 dollars). Jordan was the most expensive Arab country to visit. We took a bus from Amman to Petra and stayed at the first hostel where the bus dropped us off. It was 5 dinars per person. However, we had no hot water, no soap, our bed sheets and pillows smelled, there was no heat, and the wall we shared with our next-door neighbor had a small glass window in which whoever wanted, could peek through. We couldn’t do much except continue with our plans to visit Petra. We got there around 3pm.

To enter Petra for the day, it cost us about sixty American dollars. It did not make a difference to them if we were students or entering for a few hours since it was closing at 6pm. We sucked it up and paid them. As all the tourists were exiting, we were entering. We realized that we were the only ones walking around deeper into the place. It was getting dark and I was getting restless. We climbed and hiked through for hours and met a nice Palestinian family to walk back with in the dark. They had come to Petra for vacation. The little boy thought it was funny to hide behind some rocks and wait for us until we got closer to scare us. He got us pretty good a few times.

We were exhausted and hungry so walked a bit away from the tourists spots to eat at a local café. We found one, ordered food and then had to argue with the guy in Arabic because he tried overcharging us for food. This was the first time some guy wanted to take advantage of us because we were tourists (one of my girlfriends has blonde hair). I argued with him until he realized that I knew Arabic and knew what he was up to.

After dinner we found an internet café. We sent some emails to our families telling them we were okay. I decided to leave out the detail we were heading over to Israel in the morning. We took a cab back to our hostel, turned our lights off and slept under one blanket, hoping our neighbor wasn’t watching us from the window he could peek through.

We woke up early in the morning to take a bus to Israel.

ISRAEL and PALESTINE (Eilat, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah)

My friends I had guessed that it might be an issue for me to enter Israel for many different reasons. The reason the Israeli security picked that morning was my ten-year valid Pakistani visa. My friends were to go first, and they passed through security screenings without any questions. As soon as I put my bag on the belt to be screened, the female Israeli security guard asked for my password and automatically told me to pick up my bags and to come with her for further questioning. I could see my friends pick up their bags as well and sat on the chairs while she questioned me. First question, what is my grandfather’s first name. I had no idea what it was. Mainly, I couldn’t remember from my mother’s side because I always called him “nana”. And from my father’s, side I never got the chance to meet him because he passed away before I was born. My response was, “I don’t know.” Second question, “What holidays do you celebrate?” I quickly said, “Eid,” then preceded to say “Christmas.” She cut me off and asked me why I celebrated Christmas if I am Muslim. I said because my sister and I grew up celebrating all these holidays culturally in New York, a melting pot of all religions and cultures. The lady asked me where I was coming from, where I was going, and I had gotten all these places mixed up because since the beginning of the trip, it’s been a blur. I can only remember buses and images of where I’ve been, not in the same order. I said I’m coming from Aleppo (completely forgetting Jordan). I looked at my friend and she mouthed to me, Petra. Because of my bad memory, I probably would not have gotten into Israel, with the guards thinking my friends and I were creating stories.

Then she asked me what I wanted to do here, what classes I’m taking at American University in Cairo. I left out the fact that I was taking Arabic so it would not be more difficult for me. She asked me why I wasn’t taking Arabic, so I told her how the language is completely different and it would just be too hard for me.

She told me to come with her for further questioning. I went into a small room with another guard. Another female office asked for my email address, and not even thinking about giving her my spam one, I gave her my real one. Then, she asked me again if I knew my grandfather’s first name and I said, “You know what, it’s probably Muhammad because every other Muslim man is called Muhammad.” She laughed. I eased the tension a little bit. She continued to ask me questions, like what I did in Pakistan, if I keep in touch with anyone from there, if I know anyone in Israel, etc. I was treated as a potential terrorist. I guess we all are potential terrorists anyway, except some don’t get interrogated the same way as others.

She made me sit outside. Then came back outside and asked me one question, if I was sure I didn’t know anyone in Israel. I said no and she went back inside. I did not know what to make of this. What if I wasn’t allowed into Israel? How was I going to get home from here? What about my friends? I would ruin their trip.

While waiting, my friend had met some guy who traveled to Iraq and he was waiting just like me. A few hours passed by and he finally got his visa. This made my friends and I happy. If he got in with an Iraqi stamp on his passport, I was sure to get in with my Pakistani visa, right? My friends had made reservations to go swimming with the dolphins in Eilat but with my situation, they would miss it. So we decided that one of my girlfriends go with the guy who went to Iraq to swim with the dolphins while my other friend waited with me. About 45 minutes later, I got in. I was relieved.

We took a cab to Eilat and decided to look for a hostel to crash in. Unfortunately, we were in a vacation spot for some rich Israelis. We could not find any hostel or hotel room that wasn’t expensive. We weren’t sure what to do except wait until we met up with our friends. The only thing we could think of was go into Tel Aviv and find something there. We took a long bus ride to Tel Aviv. It was about 1:30am when we arrived.

We found a hotel, but soon realized he was only offering us to stay if we paid per hour. That was too creepy for us so we started walking the streets of Tel Aviv. I had forgotten we were in Tel Aviv until I asked my friend. Once she confirmed what city we were in, I told them I had a friend here; a friend I had met two years ago at the Three Dot Dash Peace Summit. I called her, and no one picked up. When I called again, she finally picked up. I told her we just got to Tel Aviv and we didn’t have a place to stay. She was kind enough to let us crash at her place. We met her beautiful family.

I took my fourth shower in this entire journey at her place. Her family had made us such a wonderful breakfast. We were too amazed at this hospitality. Stranded in a city, here was a family treating us like their own. I had met her two years ago and she let my friends and I stay at her place. It was kindness we hadn’t seen in a very long time. I am thankful to have met her and her family. Her aunt gave us presents. She reminded me of my own aunt because she looked like her and had her kind personality. We didn’t bring any presents with us, but gave her family some silk scarves and some artwork my friend and I bought in Damascus. They loved them. Her mom wants to go to Syria, but because they have Israeli passports, is not allowed into Syria. This was the least we could do for her.

We left her house and took a bus to Jerusalem. When we went to an internet café in Jordan, we had made reservations at a hostel in Jerusalem for the night. We realized it was good to book something for the weekend since it was Easter weekend and there would be a lot of people completing the pilgrimage in Jerusalem. We got to the hostel and found out that our reservation did not exist. Though, he offered us mattresses in the lobby with six other British staying with us. We left our bags in the lobby and decided to walk around the Old City.

The Old City was crowded with hundreds of people. We got lucky since hundreds of people were not being let in or were blocked off by Israeli security guards. There were just way too many people in the Old City. We followed Jesus’ trail into various churches. We visited the Wailing Wall and tried to enter the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest city in the world for Muslims. Tourists are allowed to visit this mosque in the mornings, but not during any other time of the day. I was able to get in because I am Muslim, so made it in time for Maghrib prayer.

I had met a family walking to the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque. They were going to take me with them inside while my friends waited outside. The Israeli guard asked me if I was Muslim. I said yes. He asked me if I was American as well, and I responded yes again. He told me to step aside. He yelled at the family that was waiting for me until another Arab soldier guarding inside told his fellow Israeli soldier that he would take care of me. The Arab soldier further questioned me. He asked me what I came to the mosque for, which namaz I came to pray, and where I was originally from. He finally let me in after looking at my American passport. The family ended up waiting for me a little further down, despite being yelled by the Israeli soldier. The daughter took me to the bathroom for ablution and sat next to me during prayer. After I was done, she walked me back then returned to her family.

My friends and I met up outside. We continued to walk through the Old City alleyways. There are four quarters in the Old City; the Jewish Quarter, Christian Quarter, Muslim Quarter and Armenian Quarter. It’s a small area that is closed off by a wall built around it. There are vendors packed side by side selling touristy things as well as families living above the shops and in the further end parts of the Old City, still within the walls. There are many Muslim families we met living in the Old City. I didn’t know they could live there, but they do. We walked around until we realized we were lost and didn’t know where our hostel was. We were staying somewhere right outside the walls. We finally exited and got to our hostel lobby; where we were staying for the night.

My friends knocked out on the couches of the lobby since we wouldn’t be getting our mattresses until 10pm when “lights went out”. I had to make a phone call to the States to confirm my internship placement for the summer in Washington D.C. It was necessary I called my advisor that night so I had bought a phone card from the bus station in Eilat. I had spotted some pay phones as we walked back to our hostel. I went out to the pay phones and realized they were broken. I asked some people and they told me to walk around. I went to a good couple of places, but the pay phones were broken because according to some local, some violence that had taken place a few days ago. I was getting frustrated. When I finally did find a pay phone, the phone card was not working. Some locals had seen me frustrated and a man had offered me his cell phone to use. I was so thankful. I made a quick phone call and as soon as I was done, I offered him my shekals. He refused to take any money from me, and at that point I realized how some humanity still existed in some of the roughest places.

I went back to my hostel and our mattresses had arrived. My friends and I threw our bags on the mattresses to claim them. We fell asleep, except since I was the only one who wasn’t wearing earplugs, woke up to some loud Brits walking in at 3am. They started to have a pillow-fight. I was beyond annoyed that I gave them a look and they finally went to sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night to a Brit without his shirt on. Fantastic, I thought. Some hours later, I woke up again to about a dozen or so guests enjoying their free coffee and breakfast right on above of our mattresses. That was not at all awkward. We got our bags and left. The only reservation we had in Jersusalem was for the coming night inside the Old City. It was a Swedish hostel and the owners were very kind. They gave us a one bed six foot by six foot room with no windows, just walls. We were gladly to take it; at least we were confined to a private area with strangers not looking down on us while we slept.

We continued visiting historic sites and lots of churches. Easter weekend is not the best time to visit Jerusalem, especially if you didn’t reserve any accomodation. We went to an internet cafe and booked a tour of Masada and the Dead Sea for the next day. We continued walking for hours, getting lost and ended up cutting through some field into a Muslim neighborhood. We bought some slushies at the only store we could find in the neighborhood, and they were amazing. We continued walking until I felt like I needed to go back and told my friends to go on ahead without me. I thought I would try to find a cab to take me to the other side, except it would be way too expensive, so I walked. I walked back to the Old City and ended up shopping a little bit. I bought some genie pants that was obviously imported from India. I then came across a spa and body shop. They sold products made from Dead Sea minerals. I ended up buying a bunch of things, especially since my sister loves these products. I thought that since this was the last country I’d be visiting before Egypt, I can afford to buy some things and carrying them with me. The worker at the shop was a young Muslim boy. He offered me some tea while we chatted about his life story. He dropped out of school so he could work.

I ended up taking a bus to Ramallah that night. It took about an hour or so. I went to a local shawarma place, then another place for tea while two men sang and played a drum and the ‘oud (a pear-shaped guitar). It was a huge place with families and couples enjoying the music. I loved the aura; it reminded me of Cairo. I took a cab back to the checkpoint, only to find a group of people waiting to get inside. It was apparently closed and some men tried slamming on the gates. They were obviously angry so they were yelling to let them in. I thought I wouldn’t be able to get back into Jerusalem that night. I started to look for an officer to tell him I was American and had an American passport. There was no guards to be found. I walked around a bit, mainly to get away from what could be a potential violent mob banging on the gates. I finally found a small, separate complex that was bullet-proof and tinted so you could barely see these officers facing the people from the back, trying to get in. I knocked on the glass until the officer realized I could partially see him. He asked me what I wanted, and I told him I want to get out and I have an American passport. He told me, “So what?” I walked away and watched these people be treated as if they were their puppets; they control the situation, regardless if you have an American passport. Finally, they were letting people in one person at a time. There were about fifty people waiting. After an hour and half, it was my turn. I went through the turnstile, put my passport in front of the glass window with my visa to show the officer, put my bag on the belt for it to be scanned and walked out. It was one of the most awkward experiences I faced. Since there were no cabs that could pick you up from this area and the buses stopped running by early evening, I had to find a van to take me back. I got back around midnight, with my friends completely worried about me. They were sitting on the bed, confused and distraught and they had every right to be.

The next morning, my friend and I got ready to go on our first official touristy tour to Masada and the Dead Sea, and we were glad to have done it. We toured the historic Masada, where the Romans took over the fortress in the First Jewish-Roman War. The Jews “preferred death to surrender” to the Romans. Then, we went to the Dead Sea and got to bathe in a mud pool, then float in the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on the Earth’s surface and has one of the saltiest waters in the world. It truly burns if you get some water in your eyes. Relaxing at the Dead Sea was a good way to end this crazy journey.

We returned to our Swedish hostel. My friend who had stayed back in Jerusalem met some friends who also went to AUC with us. A local I had met in the Old City took us to a local cheap place for dinner. It was fun. We headed back to the hostel to play card games and get ready for the journey back to Egypt in the morning.

Our plan was to take a bus straight to Tel Aviv, then another one to Eilat, but that didn’t happen as easily as we hoped it would. There were NO buses running from the Old City, because it was Easter weekend. We walked back and forth to find any bus. We made a sign that said TEL AVIV and held it up for a couple of hours until we finally found some random guy that would take us. It was the only vehicle in sight and he didn’t overcharge us for the ride. Our next challenge was to find a bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat, except we were in the ghetto amongst bus hagglers and monopolies. There were now the five of us trying to bargain prices for our bus ride to Eilat. Once the driver gave us an enormous quote, he would say we woulnd’t find anything better because of the holiday weekend. Then if other drivers approached us, he would tell them to not give us a better deal. They took advantage of the fact it was a holiday weekend, we were outsiders and kids. The drivers told us we would need 10 people in total in order for him to drive us anywhere. We had found a couple of others that needed to go to Eilat. We sat at a nearby park in the ghetto and waited. What we were waiting for, we weren’t sure. As we walked out of the park, we found a used syringe. This park clearly was not safe for kids. We found a corner to sit in where bus drivers didn’t harrass us, but it smelled like pee. Finally, a driver that looked like “The Hulk” approached us and told us that he would agree to take us for a certain price. It was reasonable if we split it ten ways. As soon as we started to drive, he told us he wanted all the money at that point. We told him (based on previous experiences) that we would give him half at that point, and the rest when we reached our destination. “The Hulk” came out and he started yelling at us in Hebrew. It was simply disgusting. We ended up just giving him all the money, thinking how bad of an idea it could have been. After a few hours of driving, he got pulled over the police and was clearly fined. For what? Not too sure; speeding or being so rude, either way, he probably got what he deserved.

In all the deliriousness, we reached some destination after four hours. It could have been Eilat or another place, but we had to take yet another bus to the Taba border crossing. As we rushed to the border patrol officers, we saw the long lines of people waiting to get into Israel. We were glad that we didn’t have to be in those lines to get in, but as happy to get out as well. We had to pay about 100 shekals to get out (close to $20). We were too annoyed to care, that we would pay anything to just get back to the comfortness of Cairo. We had just missed the last bus to Cairo, which was at 4:30pm. We had to find and negotiate for the fourth ride of the day. We found two Egyptian old men that were willing to take us. After we agreed that they shall take us to Downtown Cairo (important detail), they made us wait about forty-five minutes before we actually left so they could enjoy their cigarettes and tea. About 5 minutes of driving, they stopped at a sign that said, “Border Tax”. What? What is a Border Tax? We have visas to be in Egypt already and we just paid 100 shekals to get out of Israel. This is insane. Some guys at the “Border Tax” sign without uniforms are asking us to pay 75 pounds for a “border tax”. I asked the driver what would happen if we didn’t pay and just kept driving. He said no, he wouldn’t take us then. These guys were clearly the drivers’ friends. I thought this to be unbelievable, especially since we’ve used up the last bits of our money for this 8 hour ride back to Cairo anyway. We paid these hoodlums their border taxes, in which they could provide no receipts for. We continued our drive.

We played car games along the ride and I dozed in and out of sleep. Finally, we were getting closer. It was my first time passing through the Suez Canal; it was amazing. Some 250 miles later, we arrived to a place not Downtown Cairo. It looked like my friends neighborhood about half an hour away from Downtown Cairo. The driver told us we had arrived to “Wustul belad” (Downtown Cairo). He thought we weren’t from Cairo, but we were and knew he was lying to us. He then insisted that Downtown Cairo was five minutes away, even though it wasn’t. I called up my good friend Yasser, who I could always rely on and he came to get us. The driver told my friend some bogus excuses that he wasn’t allowed to take his van there, etc. We took a cab home; it was good to be back in Cairo.

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Ohh Alexandria..a way to remember it the 2nd time around

September 23rd, 2009 4 comments

So I had 3 hours of sleep before I had to wake up at 6am to get ready. We met at 7am to take a cab to the train station. We bought first class sleeper cell tickets to Alexandria for 41 pounds (less than $10). It was a very comfortable ride. It took us about 3 hours to get to our destination.

When we arrived, we tried to figure out where the beach was so I took out my Egyptian phrase book and asked the cabbie where it was. He had no idea what I was talking about and then pulled over next to me the second time to ask me where I got this book from. So that didn’t work. I saw a woman on the street and I asked her. She replied in perfect English, “I don’t speak English.” It was the funniest thing ever because she had the most serious look on her face when she said it. We asked another 3 people before we headed in the right direction and the Mediterranean was in sight. As we were walking along the water, we passed by a crowd of people taking boat rides and just hanging out on the beach. As obvious tourists, we attracted attention. These girls wanted us to take pictures with them. Then, this guy insisted I take a picture with him. I wasn’t sure what to say so I said okay. His friend took our picture, then he said shook my hand and shukraned (thanked) me. It was a bit weird, but the beginning of many pictures to be taken with locals. Oh how we didn’t know!

After lunch at the Fish Market is when our journey of craziness began. We walked to the Citadel. We found out from some locals that Egyptians only had to pay 2 pounds to get in and foreigners had to pay 25 pounds. We didn’t want to pay the foreigner price so we thought we would ask some local guys to buy us some tickets to get in. They got us the tickets, but as soon as the lady saw our tickets, she knew we weren’t Egyptian. Our backpacks screamed “TOURISTS!” We had to get other tickets, but at least we paid student prices of like 15 pounds. We went to the top of the Citadel to take pictures and all of a sudden a group of guys started watching us and taking our pictures. I wasn’t sure at first until I saw the cameras pointed directly at us. The roles were reversed. We were the objects of study. These guys then wanted to take pictures with us, so we agreed. One by one and two by two, these young guys were standing up and taking pictures with us. They would then shake our hands and thank us which we thought was interesting. We felt like some sort of Hollywood stars, until the unimaginable happened.

We finally (well my friend) mustered up the courage to tell the guys that we were done taking pictures with them. We literally spent 10 minutes going around and having our pictures taken with these locals. We got down and started to exit. We didn’t realize until the group of 20 boys or so that we took pictures with were following us. They were following us all around and it got to the point where it was so crowded that was got physically violated. I’ve never had that experience in my life. We had two guys with us, except one just disappeared off somewhere so we had one male guarding us. We had to run from these mob of guys. When we finally exited, some boys saw us and asked me, “Remember me? One more picture?” I didn’t know how to say no so my friend told them a straight “NO.” I’ve never been more creeped out. We apparently were attracting a lot of attention. A lot of locals were coming up to us and taking pictures with us and trying to have conversations with us. From young newlyweds talking about going to Texas soon to little kids trying to sell us single cigarettes. We finally got out of there and went elsewhere.

We cabbed to the Catacombs area, except the cabbie didn’t drop us to the exact location. We had to walk in a local neighborhood to get to the place, which once again attracted much attention. We saw 10-year olds on motorcycles and young girls who wanted to shake our hands. We finally got there around 5pm right when it closed. So we walked back through this local neighborhood and realized we couldn’t stay in one place for some time because we grew mobs of people that liked to surround us and sometimes bother us.

We cabbed out to the beach. We entered a hotel entrance and told them we wanted to take pictures just so we didn’t have to go to the public beach where more people would have bothered us. The hotel receptionists were nice and let us in. When we exited, we found out that the room rates were $200 for locals and $400 for foreigners per night!

After the beach we had dinner. At about 7:30pm, we decided to cab back to the train station and got there at 8:10. We had some challenges figuring out where to buy our tickets from and where our platform was. We thought the next train would leave at 8:45pm so we casually started to walk to our platform. We asked a guy if this was our train and he said yes and it would leave in a few minutes. We ran to the train and just as we thought we made it, we realized the first class sleeper cell was all the way in the front end of the train while we were all the way on the other end. We ran so fast, again. As soon as we entered our cabin, we were out of breath and all the passengers could see how we were gasping for air. Two minutes later, our train left the platform. We completely confused the 8:45pm time with the 8:15pm time.

We got back to Cairo at about 11pm. We got a cab, however the minute we told him we were American, he wanted to charge us $15 instead of 15 Egyptian pounds (equaling to about $3). We said no and that we would just take another cab then. He agreed, except it was like sitting in deathcab. The most awkward thing about the ride was how he slipped on his seat belt. I have never seen this with all the cabs I have been in Cairo. He did it with such ease. The seat belt was already buckled, he just swung it over his head and that is when I wondered why he put it in on and how we weren’t able to. Yet, we made it all safely back home, Alhumdulilah. We survived this strangely adventurous day in Alexandria.

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Eid time in al-Qahira

September 21st, 2009 1 comment

I was talking to a friend about when Eid might be and that’s when I realized I could call the receptionist and find out the same information. He responded, “Yes, Eid is tomorrow.” I was so happy and called my friend to go out and buy some mehndi (henna). It was officially chand raat. We went to a few pharmacies to find it, but they were all for hair. The guy at the pharmacy insisted it could be used for the hand and kept telling us to use it with a “sa-ring”. In the back of my mind I thought he was telling us to use it with a syringe, but hoped it wasn’t. Then I had a confused look on my face and he just popped out a syringe to show me. My mouth just went open and the word, “Uhhhh” came out. He then reassured me that I don’t need to use the “needle” part. Obviously! That would be intensely inappropriate. It was interesting to see with how much ease he took out a syringe. I replied, “La shukran.” (No thanks). I took the henna in the form of powder (that’s used for hair) and paid for it. He didn’t have the exact change to return to me and popped out a mini packet of shampoo and handed that as currency. I was once again confused, but simply took the shampoo packet and walked out the door. I’ve never been given some shampoo packet as currency (bartering, really?) If only I can go to a restaurant with some friends and we could all look into our bags, put some value on our belongings and pay the check with it. (10 pounds of Vodaphone credit minutes? Maybe.)

So now my friends and I had henna in a huge pouch in the form of powder. We read the directions and had to mix it with water and let it sit for an hour. It was an interesting process. We created the liquid form of henna in a small cup and spoon, but now how were we going to put it on our hands without an actual tube. Should we have bought the “sa-ring” from him? I thought of using some toothpicks, but didn’t have any. We were able to find matchsticks. Yes, matchsticks. We put on henna with matchsticks and listening to some old-school pop and Bollywood music. Around 2am we ordered some Papa John’s, which was hard to eat with one hand. We managed.

We were supposed to be ready by 5:30am to leave for Eid prayer. We made plans to go to Al-Azhar mosque for prayer. Though, we were still putting henna on until 3am and finally decided to maybe sleep for an hour before we had to get ready for prayer. I caught some shut-eye for an hour before my alarm went off. I didn’t bring any special Eid outfits from the US, so I just put an outfit together with whatever I had that looked fun. We were waiting in the lobby at 5:15 to catch some cabs. We walked out to the main road. It takes less than a minute to find a cab anywhere around our area and most areas in Cairo. But today was Eid and we couldn’t find any cabs. We found one cabbie who told us he was going home to change and then he would go to Al-Azhar mosque. 5:30 was quickly approaching and we thought we wouldn’t make it to Al-Azhar since there weren’t any cabs coming our way. We decided that we would just go to the local mosque near the Nile River and just do our Eid prayer there. Just as we approached the local mosque, we found a cab. All five of us crammed in this cab because we weren’t going to find another one. We got to Al-Azhar just in time. It was incredibly crowded in there. The prayer was literally five-seven minutes, yet there were hundreds of people in this small, yet famous mosque. It took awhile to get in and out. The crowd reminded me of the Khan-el-Khalili market at night. Catching a cab on the way was much more difficult. We waiting in one area for about 20 minutes then decided to go to the other side of traffic and wait for a cab. We finally found one.

We went back to our dorms and ate breakfast at the local cafe. It was now about 8am and decided to sleep and wake up again around dinner time. Yes, my sleeping schedule is a bit disorganized, but I shall get it back to normal soon, Inshallah. We had dinner at the Pottery Cafe and watched a movie afterward. It was a nice Eid with some good friends.

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Strange Happenings

September 15th, 2009 No comments

So, last night on the way back from campus to the dorms, I was riding the bus. It’s about an hour commute each way because the campus is literally out in the middle of the desert and our dorms is in the city. Think of me living in the Upper West Side or more like the Bronx and my campus out in Long Island. So, naturally, I take naps. But this time, it was different. I knocked out and the next thing I knew I felt some guy’s shoulder against my face. I was sleeping on some guys shoulder! The whole time I was thinking if he had noticed. Of course he did. I could feel his shoulder on my face. I’m not sure how long I was sleeping on him, but I straightened my head and ten minutes later, I fell asleep again and yet again, I fell asleep on his shoulder. I don’t know how or why. We were 5 minutes away from the dorms when I woke up and the guy asks me, “So, did you sleep?” I was thinking if he had noticed at all that I fell asleep on him. I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic or whatnot. He told me how he can’t fall asleep on buses, and here I go and say, “I can fall asleep anywhere.” He probably thought, yeah, I believe you because you just fell asleep on a stranger’s shoulder. But he was nice about it. He didn’t mention anything. But it was indeed awkward.

This evening, I got a phone-call from a guy who said he was the fridge guy and told me if I had the money. I asked him how much it was to rent the fridge. He said 350 pounds. I said, yes, I have it. He said he was downstairs and waiting. I went downstairs only to realize I don’t even know this fridge guy’s name so how would I know who it is when there are about a dozen or so men that hang out at the lobby. So I awkwardly approach this man near the entrance and ask, “Fridge?” He says yes. So I hand over the money and ask for a receipt. He has no idea what I’m talking about. Then, he starts laughing. I didn’t understand. He asked me, “You have the fridge, right?” I’m confused, and say, “Yes.” He says, “Okay, so then I’ll pick up the fridge at the end of the semester.” And that was that. All I thought was, I hope my roommate believes me when I tell her how much I paid to rent the fridge. Its all verbal contracts here for fridges apparently.

Later I went out to buy a power strip for the fridge. I enter this small electronics store a block or so away. I go in and ask him for a power strip. He replies, “20 pounds.” I ask him how much for a smaller one, and he replies, “22 pounds.” I was confused. I thought why not take the bigger one for the cheaper price. He said, “No. This made in China and this made in Toor-ki…this better.” So the Chinese products that are shipped here are worse in quality than the Chinese products delivered to America. It reminded me of the same thing my cousin told me about the Chinese products that are shipped to Pakistan. Oh China!

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