Friday, May 1, 2009

Finding my way at Cairo University

On Wednesday night, I went to a play performance at the theater at Cairo University. CU is, I believe, the largest university in Egypt and one of the largest in the world with 250,000 students. Plus it is a city campus, or more like a city in a city. I know that certain divisions, like the medical school, are away from the main campus, but it mostly centralized. Keep in mind that this is a city campus, not something in the middle of central Pennsylvania. It is huge.

I have been out there a couple of times previously. The campus is enormous. The English department, where I attended a conference in the fall, is a full 30-minute walk on campus from the Metro stop. That is assuming you know where you are going, which I rarely do. Thankfully, there are always tons of people around who are very willing to help you get where you need to go (even if they themselves are not certain). This is a very common feature of Cairo. Drivers are always asking people for directions; pedestrians often function like human street signs (in the absence of actual street signs). It can be hard to find your way if you are not willing to ask for help. If you do ask, it can be easy. I have had multiple instances where people walked with me for about 10 or 15 minutes to help me get where I needed to go (including to the English department at CU) or to make sure I got on the right bus.

A colleague invited me to a performance by students from the CU English department cultural association. And I got very lost. The event was in a theater located in the University Hostel (dormitory) which is actually across the street from the main campus. Once I finally spotted it, all of the nearby gates were locked and I had to walk a long way out of my way simply to access the street. Through lots of questions of very gracious people (and a useful bilingual event announcement in hand), I was able to get where I was going, albeit too late to get a good seat.

There were three short plays (two in English)—interrelated stories about the internal lives of women. The first was about a woman whose quiet obsession with singing is diagnosed as mental illness and the second was about a working-class woman who develops an imaginary relationship with the President of the Republic. They addressed serious themes but also incorporated elements slapstick humor and musical theater, which are enormously popular in Egypt.

Most encouragingly the theater was packed, standing room only in a space that seats well over 500. It may have been closer to 1,000. The audience, mostly students, were super enthusiastic, and there was a ton of energy in the room, which I found exciting. I spoke to a colleague and the department needs to pay a good bit of money for the space (including rehearsal time), which prohibits them from running the shows for more than one night. I am glad I caught it, and will be able to find my way much more easily next time.

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