Sunday, August 31, 2008

Orientation (or the week before the felucca ride)

The orientation that we spent the last week attending included lots of what one expects from these kinds of forums. There were general introductions, an explanation of health benefits, payroll paperwork to complete, greetings from administrators, a library tour, a technology session, a research and professional development grant session, and a teaching panel. Then there were some things more specific for beginning at AUC—“survival Arabic” lessons, living in Cairo discussions, and a felucca ride (see my previous posting).

The first day of the week was held at the new campus in New Cairo, which is a new development in the middle of the desert. It is a remarkable project with a lot of promise. The problem is that it is not done and classes begin one week from today. Truthfully, it is not really close to being done. I am not sure what will happen either. Probably we will spend the first few weeks in classes without technology and in offices without computers. My building—Humanities and Social Sciences—is better off than most; the School of Business is worse off than we are and only Performing and Visual Arts is ready to go. (If this construction timetable is a metaphor, I do like the priorities it suggests!) On the whole, I am patiently prepared to be unprepared.

Adding to the challenges are the start of Ramadan tomorrow—which means that the construction workers who have been working pretty close to round-the-clock will need to change their schedules. It is from hard to impossible, and certainly dangerous, to do construction work in 105 degree desert heat without drinking any water. I need to go to the campus a couple of days this week and will see what things look like when I am there. Maybe I will take some pictures…

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Our stuff is here!

The shipment has arrived at our apartment. All 19 boxes! It apparently arrived in country a few weeks ago and has now been waiting to clear customs.

I just finished a very busy, but productive, week of orientation, which ended last night with a sunset felucca ride on the Nile for new faculty. I am posting a few pictures here.

Sorry I have not posted to the blog as much as I would like this week, but I have some things to say and will try to use this week—the one before classes start—to catch up on some posting. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures, while I unpack!!!

Monday, August 25, 2008

To and from Dahab

To get to Dahab from Cairo, we took a one-hour flight to Sharm el-Sheikh in Sinai, and then took a one-hour taxi ride from Sharm to Dahab. (There are also buses that go from Cairo that take about 8 hours.). Sharm el-Sheikh is a luxury resort of five-star hotels; soon-to-be-former President Bush holds regional meetings there, most recently a few months back. Dahab is much less expensive and has a reputation of being more oriented toward European backpackers. It is a former Bedouin port turned overdeveloped hippie tourist town and scuba dive center. Its centerpiece is a large bay with enormous coral reefs that sits about 20 miles across the Gulf of Aqaba from Saudi Arabia.

The vacation was great. We stayed at a spot directly on the gulf. We swam (in the sea and swimming pool), read, snorkeled, ate, practiced yoga, and even had a massage. We did a scuba diving introduction which was a cool experience. It was my first time. I got the breathing part down pretty easily, but the descent was unbearably painful on my ears. I suspect congestion (allergies are a possible culprit). Plus learning how to regulate depth (by controlling the air in the vest) meant that I was going up and down a lot, which increased the pressure. Anyway, I made it down to about 5 meters; fortunately, Jenna was able to go down to about 9 meters. While she did a longer dive, I was able to have a snorkel, which was still a great treat.

Leaving from the Sharm airport, we had to show our passports. The first security guard saw the USA passport, looked at me and said, “American?” I nodded. Then, “Obama?” I nodded again. And he said, “Not Bush,” and gave me the thumb’s up. The exchange repeated itself two more times at the airport. When the third officer asked me, “Obama?” I replied, “Insha’allah,” which may be the most common expression in Arabic. It translates literally as “If it is the will of Allah,” and means, “God willing.” So, for example, when I ask someone at the university about our shipment (still waiting), the reply is, “This week. Insha’allah.” Hopefully. Prayerfully.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Walking down the road with an iron in my hand

We had a great trip to Dahab. I will try to write about it and post some pictures in a couple days but for now I am getting ready for the start of new faculty orientation tomorrow morning.

It is a big deal, I think. My first official day of work at my first tenure-track job.

I just got back (at 10 pm) from returning an iron I borrowed earlier from a friend. They realized they needed it themselves this evening. I gladly walked it over to their apartment about three blocks away. But because I was still using it when they called, the iron was still hot, literally. So here I was, walking through the streets of my Cairo neighborhood with a still-hot iron in my outstretched hand, careful to avoid burning myself or anyone else. I smiled; it was a funny image.

I am still not sure what I will wear tomorrow, although my options now a couple of somewhat crisp shirts. I don’t think I will wear a suit since much of the new campus (which is supposed be ready for the start of classes in two weeks) is still a hard-hat site. Plus, since it is August in Cairo, it will be 100 degrees.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

"Crazy House"

Tomorrow morning at 4:15am, we are departing for a trip to Dahab, which is a beach town in Sinai on the Read Sea. We are looking forward to six days of vacation. We return next Saturday night, and begin new faculty orientation on Monday morning. I will not be posting to my blog during the trip, but if you want to picture where we are, you can check out the Blue Beach Club (and yoga shala) in Dahab.

We are getting picked up for the trip by a great taxi driver we met last week at a neighborhood midan (literally plaza—think traffic circle). We got his card and call him whenever we have need. He speaks excellent English, and his favorite word is “crazy.” On our first ride with him, he was driving us to Zamalek (a neighborhood located on an island in the Nile River), and he says, “Crazy cinema.” We did not understand until we saw a film crew shooting and blocking the street. He saw a group of police officers, minding their own business: “Crazy police.” A driver cut him off: “Crazy driver.” The difficult roads in our neighborhood: “Crazy roads.” And then we drove by this architectural marvel in my neighborhood—a building that stops me dead in my tracks every time I walk by it: “crazy house.” I am posting a picture of it here. I don’t really know much about it, other than that it is awesome… Check out the spiral staircase immediately beyond the front gate!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

At Sadat Station

A couple of days ago, I was taking the train back home from downtown, Tahrir Square, near where the AUC campus currently sits. (This fall, the university will move to a huge brand new campus in New Cairo, which I will write more about later.) On the platform of Sadat Station (the downtown stations are named for famous people rather than for the places where they stop), a middle-aged man, who I presumed to be Egyptian, approached me and asked me a question in Arabic, which I presumed to be, “Is this the side of the platform for El Maadi Station?” I puffed out my chest, proud that he thought I would know the answer to a question about Cairo. But, sadly, I was only really guessing his question, and had no confidence that I knew the answer. And even if I did think I knew the answer, I had no confidence that I knew how to communicate the answer. My head turned down and I shrugged my shoulders. He asked the guy next to me, who, based on his hand gestures, instructed him to stay on this platform, which was headed in the direction of El Maadi.

Encounters like this one definitely motivate me to get rolling on my Arabic studies. I have picked up a few words here and there. I have some phrasebooks and a set of CDs that I am using. My formal classes will begin at the end of the month. AUC pays for lessons for Jenna and me. We have the choice of classroom study or private tutoring. Jenna is leaning toward private tutoring, but I am not yet sure which option I will choose…

Pics from my first meal in Cairo

I have some belated illustrations to share from my earlier posting about chicken stuffed with hot dog and cheese...

Upgrade to my favorite room

Check out the balcony--we got these super-cool cushions for our wicker chairs!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

My “favorite room in the house”...

... is really neither a room, nor in the house. It is the large balcony of our 3rd story apartment in Maadi Digla. It has a wicker dining table with four chairs and a view of the quiet, tree-lined street. It is fully covered which offers some protection from the sun (the rain is not an issue because the annual rainfall here is between 1 and 2 inches). I think it is a northern/western exposure and what we seem to have discovered is that it stays shaded until mid-afternoon and then the sun hits. And hits hard. Jenna and I are still working through jetlag issues, which means that we are not always able to take advantage of the balcony’s morning shade. In the coming months, we will get some plants to lively it up, and adapt our sleeping patterns to be able to enjoy it in the mornings.

Actually, there are a lot of balconies. In addition to the large one pictured here, there are four smaller ones off the to the sides (one of which overlooks a nice fruit tree).

As for the inside of the apartment, I find it quite large—bigger than the 3-BR suburban house where I grew up. We have 3 bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms—take note all you potential visitors. Overall it is quite nice even if the AUC-issued furniture is a bit bland (albeit serviceable).

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The arrival; or, chicken stuffed with hot dog and cheese

We have arrived. We left Harrisburg Airport at 4:15 pm on Monday and arrived at our new apartment at 4:00 am on Wednesday morning. In between, we visited the Detroit airport for 1 hour and Amsterdam for 12 hours.

We--along with a future colleague, his wife, and their two sons--were met at the Cairo Airport by an AUC expediter, whose job is to steer us through the airport. The airport was crowded and some of the lines were long; the expediter brilliantly walks around smiling and greeting officials and soldiers he knows, which magically seems to make everything run smoothly. He charms our way through immigration and customs. After collecting our bags, we got in an AUC van and received an envelope full of money. Even though it is an official settling-in allowance, I felt like I was in an episode of The Sopranos or something. Not a bad way to live.

We arrived at our new apartment at around 4:00am, where tired representatives of the AUC housing office greeted us. They gave us a quick tour of the apartment—keys, stove, air conditioners. They left us an inventory book which I have just begun to complete (does anyone know how to tell the difference between a “cooking pot-assorted” and a “casserole”?). There was food in the kitchen; I found a dinner in the freezer—frozen chicken patties. To be precise, according the package, it was “chicken stuffed with hot dog and cheese” (seriously). I fried it up (Jenna wasn’t hungry, plus she is a vegetarian). Not a bad 5am dinner. By the time we went to bed, we already heard the day’s first call to prayer and the sun had begun to rise.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Welcome to Cairad: the blog!

Some of you may remember, I wrote a blog during the year I spent at the University of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I began that blog about three years ago by describing the difficulties in finding a map and the peculiarities of State Department shipping procedures, which seemed to be metaphors for the invisibility of the Democratic Republic of Congo, literal and otherwise.

As my wife Jenna and I prepare to depart for Egypt, where I will begin a full-time teaching position in the department of English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo, my experience seems to be nearly the opposite. Everyone “knows” Egypt. Somehow.

Even more remarkably everyone knows the American University in Cairo. Before I even accepted the job offer, I learned of a Gettysburg College colleague who had recently returned from a Fulbright year at the American University in Cairo. Shortly thereafter, another Gettysburg colleague was offered a position there (declined). Then, another Gettysburg colleague was offered a position there (accepted). So, among a pretty small Gettysburg faculty of less than 200, there are two people leaving for AUC, one declined job offer, and one person you spent 2006-2007 there. This makes no mention of the faculty development grant that the college has (and which I just learned about) which for the past two years has sent a group of faculty to visit AUC for a couple of weeks.

However, the most remarkable connection comes thanks to my mom. A couple of years ago, the mother of one of my sister’s childhood friends from Havertown, Pennsylvania, moved into my mom’s apartment building. Over the years, they would greet each other in the elevator or lobby and exchange news about their kids. When my mom told her that I was moving to Cairo, she told my mom about one of her daughter’s best friends, who is Egyptian. My mom emailed her and, lo, she too is beginning a teaching position at the American University in Cairo. So, not only are two new members of the AUC faculty from Gettysburg College, but two grew up in Havertown. (There are about 40 new faculty members this year; the AUC faculty numbers 348 total.)

Three years ago, I remember the dark comedy I found in the US State Department’s shipping protocols (which, as a Fulbright Scholar, I followed). Now, for the AUC move, I am following the protocols of a NY-based shipping company that works in conjunction with AUC and the Egyptian government. Our things have already been picked up so I feel a little hesitant in commenting on the procedures until they have run their course, though I have good expectations. Through the process of packing and inventorying 19 boxes weighing approximately 730 pounds, I learned at least three things:
  1. How to compute cubic (or shipping) weight: It’s very important, but not that interesting. The cubic (or minimum) weight of a 12x12x18 box is about 21 pounds, as I recall. Say I have two boxes this size, one filled with books (actual weight 50 pounds) and the other filled with pillows (actual weight 5 pounds). I will be assessed 71 pounds for these two boxes. If, however, I combine pillows and books in the two boxes, making them weight 25 to 30 pounds each, I will only be assessed 55 pounds.
  2. The difference between consumables and durables: For tariff purposes, I had to categorize my belongings into these two categories. Some of it is obvious—deodorant is considered the former; clothing and books the latter. A few items are tricky. Tennis balls—consumable! Yarn (Jenna knits)—durable!
  3. I, like many people, tend to overestimate the value of my possessions: The inventory includes value estimates. I am shipping 500+ audio CDs and 300+ books which I valued at approximately $10 each. However since the insurance caps at $10,000, I was told (very politely) to reevaluate what my things are worth. Think garage sale value. So I kept reducing the value until I came in under the estimate.
On Monday, August 4, 2008, Jenna and I travel from Harrisburg to Detroit to Amsterdam to Cairo, arriving on Wednesday morning (after a 13-hour layover in Amsterdam). The next week or two will be a bit hectic but I am looking forward to rolling with the blog over the coming weeks, months, and years. I welcome your comments…