Sam Adelsberg, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, offers a glimpse into his experience studying abroad in Egypt in the fall of 2008.
Sam Adelsberg, pictured on Mt. Sinai, studied abroad in Egypt in fall 2008.
I was excited to hear that we had no school on October 6, 2008. I had a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it. Then it sunk in: our day off was in celebration of the (dubious?) Egyptian defeat of the Israeli Army on October 6, 1973. There I was, trying to embed myself in Egyptian society — learning its language, meeting its people, studying its culture — and yet, within my parents' lifetime, this exact society had been the sworn enemy of a country I hold so dear.
In this moment, I tried to think about why I came to Egypt to study abroad, and what I was trying to accomplish while I was there. I soon realized that it was precisely because of that intense historical animosity that I decided to study in Egypt. I wanted to better understand our shared history and delve into the related questions of coexistence that keep me up at night.
Being an openly religious Jew in Egypt was not always easy. However, as it turned out, this core part of my identity was instrumental in exploring Egypt's wonders. As one incredible encounter with a Cairo taxi driver would demonstrate, my Jewish identity enabled me to know an Egypt beyond the stereotypes created on television and movie screens.
The encounter had a relatively tame beginning. As I left the old synagogue in Coptic Cairo, I negotiated the price of a taxi with a driver named Mahmoud. Appreciating the spectacle of an American speaking Arabic, he soon acquiesced to my price. While driving, I'm not sure what got into me, but I told him I wanted to go somewhere other than my apartment, "somewhere off the path." He laughed and made the first right he could.
Fifteen minutes later we arrived in Imam Shaafi, a little neighborhood, bereft of anything or anyone "western," and home to Mahmoud's childhood. It looked just like an authentic Cairene neighborhood should, stuck in the 1950s, loud with playing children, a few cars sprinkled throughout, and all the personalities one would expect. We settled in with a crowd in a local café and began what would become one of my most memorable experiences in Egypt.
After introducing me to all of his friends, I sat with Mahmoud and seven or eight of his buddies for about two hours discussing everything from politics to religion to why Egyptians are the best Arabs (because "we're just better looking").
After many entertaining moments, a man in a suit arrived and took interest in the conversation. I was later told that this was Magdy, the local politician. Magdy took me aside and we began an hour-long conversation about religion and politics at the end of which he told me I needed to return that night at midnight for a "political meeting." I had no idea what this meant, but I knew it would be interesting when I started noticing pictures of Magdy all over the city's walls during our ride back to Cairo.
As promised, I returned to Imam Shaafi at midnight with two friends in tow, and joined the political meeting along with about 60 or 70 people and a Tony Soprano lookalike leading the meeting. His name was Mohammad Salama and he is in the Egyptian Senate. On the walls there were pictures of Mohammad with everyone who is anyone in Egypt. Magdy introduced the meeting in quick and incomprehensible Arabic. I kept hearing him mention "the Amerikim" and then "Sammy." As a Jew from New York, one could imagine the fear that crept through my body.
Then out of nowhere I heard applause, and the whole room started looking at me and smiling. This happened eight or nine times, and my face turned increasingly red with each instance. Finally, when I was quite sure all my blood had rushed to my head, Magdy asked me to address the delegation in Arabic.
Stunned by the request, I looked around the room and then began to cautiously speak, gaining momentum as I moved along. I proceeded to give what felt like a 20-minute speech (though my friends later told me it was closer to five), about the need for intercultural and interfaith exchange to the sound of intermittent applause (literally after every other sentence). I felt like I was giving a State of the Union address in the Twilight Zone.
Following my speech, they moved the three of us to the front and Salama, the Senator, addressed us directly the rest of the meeting, often making jokes as the rest of the attendees looked on in bewilderment. When we finally told them we needed to leave (at 3:30 A.M.!), they stopped the whole meeting so we could all take pictures with the different politicians. Only after three more speeches about us, a round of Egyptian coffee, and a big hug from the Senator, were we allowed to leave. I was also told that I, along with my friends, will be photographed with the two politicians this week for a Cairene newspaper and that Magdy would set up a meeting with the mayor of Cairo in two weeks.
Only in Egypt.
Sam Adelsberg will graduate from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2010 with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and Middle Eastern Studies. In addition to his studies, Sam is also the co-founder and CEO of LendforPeace.org, a non-profit organization that promotes microfinance as a path to economic and political stability in the Middle East.