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Sept. 24, 2008

Experiencing the "life is life" in Egypt

by Poorna Natarajan, Online Staff Writer
Almost every morning this summer, senior Vanessa Hoy rode a rickety minibus, watching a little boy stand hanging out the door, collecting fare and yelling out the bus's destinations. The bus passed through a barren desert strip where the wind blew, raising dust into the air. At her stop, Hoy entered into a bustling street, where vendors handed out sweet fruit juice in glasses. As she crossed the street filled with traffic to go to school, Hoy could hear the distant but loud trains rolling across the tracks. Hoy finally reached her summer school, located half a world away from Blair in the city of Cairo, Egypt.
"I learned a lot about Islamic culture - not from a text book, but through a personal experience," Hoy says of her summer in Egypt. <i>Photo courtesy of Hoy.</i>
"I learned a lot about Islamic culture - not from a text book, but through a personal experience," Hoy says of her summer in Egypt. Photo courtesy of Hoy.


After a year of Arabic 1, a course offered for the first time at Blair last year, Hoy grew to appreciate the Arabic language. In the spring, she received a handout in her Arabic class about the American Field Service (AFS) Arabic Summer Language Institute scholarship. The scholarship awarded students with a free opportunity to study Arabic for six weeks in Egypt and allowed them to stay with a host family.

Initially hesitant, Hoy ultimately went ahead and applied for the scholarship, hoping to experience a meaningful summer - one that she says she definitely did receive. "It was really a last minute decision. I didn't have much to do this summer, so I thought, why not?" Hoy says. "Arabic is a beautiful language and I really loved the class. I also didn't know too much about Middle Eastern culture, so I applied."

Of about 330 applicants around the nation, Hoy was one of the 30 recipients of the AFS Arabic Summer Language Institute scholarship. Applicants for the scholarship were required to write three essays, ranging from descriptions of past cross-cultural challenges to reasons to pursue Arabic studies.

Alex Flood, a staff member at AFS who was part of the student selection process, explains that many students were well-qualified and it was difficult to narrow down the candidates. "The process was very competitive. We wanted to see students with a solid foundation to continue Arabic in the future," Flood says. "It's great to also see students who are relatively new to the language, but have expressed an interest in Arabic."

Blair Arabic teacher Sawsan Darwish was thrilled by Hoy's decision to apply and her later acceptance to a program exploring Islamic culture. "It's a great opportunity. You get to live and experience the Arabic culture," Darwish says. "Vanessa was the only gutsy one to apply and she seemed to have a lot of fun."

Before leaving for Egypt, Hoy prepared herself for the major culture change by taking appropriate clothes and familiarizing herself with Islamic customs. Hoy packed modest clothes, including shirts with long sleeves and longer pants so that she wouldn't reveal her knees.

Hoy's host family, the Sayez family, included her parents and their 20 year-old daughter Raduaa - a sister with whom she formed a deep cross-cultural bond. "My whole family was incredible. My sister [Raduaa] and I have similar personalities." Hoy says. "It's hard to describe - it's not as simple as if we have similar hobbies or something. We come from different places, but we connected on a totally different level."

Her host family lived in a flat, a living area similar to a two-bedroom apartment. Unlike in the U.S., Hoy noticed how most people in Cairo lived in flats rather than houses, since the city is so overpopulated. Hoy describes how she felt her host family was not a proper representation of the average family living in Egypt. "Poverty in the streets of Cairo isn't something you can avoid," Hoy said. "My host family had a nice house and were pretty well off, so I didn't really get to work with many of the disadvantaged people."

A vegetarian by practice for four years, Hoy was forced to give up her restricted diet to include "a lot of meat", so that she could avoid sickness. Nevertheless, Hoy grew accustomed to the food her host family cooked and enjoyed it. "The food was at first a little strange, but I'm not a picky eater and I liked it," Hoy says. "My host mom cooked a lot Egyptian dishes with sea food and lamb, like kofta, a meat patty with spices."

In Cairo, Hoy experienced the differences between Islamic culture and American culture. In terms of faith, Egypt is more homogenous, which stood out to her. She noticed how the Muslim religion is tied to the mainstream culture, rendering it more conservative and traditional. For instance, many women dressed in more modest clothes, especially women who usually wore a hijab, a simple headscarf or occasionally a niqab, a garment that only revealed one's eyes. Hoy did not veil herself, since neither her host mother nor her sister wore a hijab or a niqab.

Hoy studied Arabic at the Kalimat Future School from 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. five days a week. The Kalimat Future School taught English to students in Egypt during the school year, so all of the signs were in English, facilitating her stay in a foreign country, Hoy says. Learning Egyptian Arabic, a more conversational dialect of the language, Hoy was slightly confused since she had learned classical Arabic at school. Regardless, Hoy feeels that her studies in Egypt were "worthwhile and very helpful" for future travel experiences and her understanding of the general Arabic language.

Hoy grew closer to other AFS students, some of whom she still maintains close contact with today. "Everyone became friends. It's hard to stay in contact today, but a lot of us keep in touch with Facebook," Hoy says. "In fact I had an AFS friend who now goes to [American University] over at my house this weekend."

Apart from visiting Cairo, Hoy traveled to the scenic cities of Ismalia and Giza in Egypt with a group of AFS students. While visiting Ismalia, located near on the west bank on Suez Canal, Hoy was able to swim in the Mediterranean Sea. Giza, a historic town in Egypt along the Nile River, is filled with pyramids. "I went inside a small pyramid, where there was a tunnel that led to the area the mummy of a king was buried," Hoy says. "There were little air shafts that allowed spirits to go the sky."

Hoy says the summer offered an understanding of Islamic culture as an insider rather than an outsider. "I definitely look forward to studying Arabic in college," Hoy says. "I learned a lot about Islamic culture - not from a text book, but through a personal experience."

Hoy recommends the experience for anyone, especially Blazers who love to travel and have an interest in the Arabic language and culture. For Hoy, traveling to Egypt expanded her global perspective and offered personal growth. "By traveling, I learned to be pretty flexible and compromising, because it's a totally different place with different schedules for things," Hoy says. "There is an Egyptian saying, 'life is life,' and that was the mood of the last summer."



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