An Education in Egypt

David Emnett - Winter 2009

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It was winter 2009. The day I was waiting for was fast approaching. Soon, I would turn 21 years old. Strangely enough, that’s not what I was excited about. In fact, my 21st birthday would barely even exist…

We left for Egypt on December 26th, 2009. After 20+ hours of traveling, we landed in “Masr Om El Donia,” or the mother of the world, just three hours before the end of my 21st birthday. I turned 21 in a plane on the way to Cairo. Now, just how many people do you know who can say that!? Thankfully, international flights offer all kinds of celebratory beverages. It was the beginnings of an experience I will never forget.

In the weeks to come, I would see the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, Hatshepsut’s Palace, the Library of Alexandria, Abu Simbel, the Temple of Luxor, and even visit a Nubian village. I rode a camel to the pyramids. (her name was Victoria) I watched the sun set while cruising down the Nile and smoked hookah on the rooftop of our hotel in Cairo. We walked the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea and even held baby crocodiles. And yet, what I value most from my trip to these ancient lands, is not the tourist sites that I saw. What I really cherish is the perspective I found. 

Fast forward 2 years. I had started reading BBC News because I wanted to know what was going on in the world outside America. A good friend of mine who had traveled with us to Egypt had just sent me an article from BBC’s Africa section. It was titled, “Beer, cabaret and politics in a Cairo ‘baladi’ bar,” and there, under the title, was a picture of the exact bar I had once sat. The article highlighted Cairo nightlife and discussed how this traditional ‘baladi’ bar had survived the wave of religious conservatism in the 1980s. The author of this article sat with revolutionaries when she was there, and featured words from those she spoke to: Ali, a young photographer and protestor and his friend a newly recruited conscript. Ali had been shot in the face a few months earlier when the army opened fire on and ran over demonstrators with tanks; and his friend had just spent his leave week throwing stones at soldiers guarding the interior ministry. By then, the Egyptian revolution was in full throttle. Revolutionaries leading the world’s first Facebook revolution were sitting at what looked like the very table I had sat 2 years earlier.

I had been following the revolution, supporting from afar as students my age took to the streets demanding democracy. Still, I didn’t feel connected. After reading the article, I thought back to my experiences in “Masr Om El Donia.” I realized how the trip had changed me. I had been thrown into a completely unfamiliar environment and learned to adapt. I saw poverty not as we Americans know poverty, but as it exists in third world countries across the globe. I visited ancient mosques and came to understand the subtleties of a religion that a fifth of the world’s population practices. I experienced Egyptian hospitality in Alexandria and visited with young Egyptians in Cairo discovering their view on politics and the development of their country. And, I had sat in a bar with revolutionaries. These experiences connected me. And that, is global perspective.