Political protests and lifelong friendships, but barely a Pharaoh in sight: A year abroad in Egypt

For some language courses, a year in Paris is usual. But if you're reading Arabic, you have to travel a little further afield, as Rosie Collington found out

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The Independent Online

Pyramids, good weather and ancient language is what I imagined my year abroad in Egypt would involve. When friends had tried to offer me advice on my new country of residence before I left the UK in the summer of 2012, it was usually informed by their experiences of resorts in Sharm El Sheikh, the bejeweled tombs of Luxor, or the crowded streets of Cairo, as seen from the top deck of a tour bus. Someone I met at a hostel on the way assured me that everything was going to be fine, because I “spoke hieroglyphs” - and you always get respect for understanding the national language. Few people knew much about life in Egypt, it turned out.

I was going to be living in Alexandria in the north, on the Mediterranean coast, as part of my degree in Arabic and Politics at the University of Leeds. I like to think I wasn’t completely ignorant, but I had very little idea about what to expect before I went. I had shrugged off most of the worst things I had read online as false understandings and misconceptions about a culture and a region that receives too much bad press. I knew things were going to be different, but I imagined I would be able to live in Egypt as I had in England, with just a few minor adaptations here and there.

But it did not take long to realise just how different everything was. And by everything, I am not referring to the people, or even the religion or politics, but to the changes that you have to force in your routine when you move to a different country. For example, before we could settle in to our new homes, we had to find them. Absent were the lettings agencies, the direct debits and the Gumtree advertisements that my friends in the UK had used to settle their accommodation for the academic year. Instead, house hunting mostly consisted in walking up and down side streets for a few hours a day, and asking the doorman or residents of a high-rise building if they knew of any empty apartments inside. Most of the time, this method did not work, but it was the only way. Eventually, a fruit and veg seller on one of the streets found us somewhere to live, and it was nicer and friendlier than anywhere I have lived in England. 

The most dangerous road in Egypt

My language classes had officially started while we were still living in hostels, and it too held a few surprises. For one, although the institution itself was good, it was situated in a village 24 kilometres outside of the city on the most dangerous road in Egypt, the highway that links Alexandria to Cairo. We were used to the hyper-discipline of England’s motorway system, but the rules on Egypt’s roads are not the same, to say the least.

I spent a lot of time in Cairo, meeting up with people, studying, or drinking at the Jazz Club. When we weren’t there, weekends passed by at a town on the Libyan border, where we had made friends, and which was a whole nine hours away from Alexandria by coach. Towards the end of my year in Egypt, no matter where we were, few conversations took place without some mention of President Morsi and the evolving situation.

If you went online, or turned on the telly, or listened to the radio at all last year, you will probably have learned something about the political situation in Egypt. The first protests I saw happened in November, during Morsi’s constitutional referendum. People remained on the streets until the President was forced to abdicate at the end of June. Both the regional and Western media frequently portrayed the situation as nothing short of chaos. As a British student, I am not suggesting that my experience of Egyptian politics was akin to that of most Egyptians, but day-to-day life actually carried on as normal for a lot of people in the country. Our school was forced to close a few times because of roadblocks; protests, clashes and other forms of demonstration were an everyday occurrence. We learned to get all our information and updates on the local scene from taxi drivers.

I returned to the UK just before the ouster of President Morsi. Despite what was widely reported at the time, a lot of people had been talking about it for a while – in March last year I even wrote a piece about the effect of declining support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian universities. By the end, in spite and because of everything that was happening, no one wanted to leave. It is difficult to feel detached from a situation that involves all your friends and the way you have lived for a part of your life. In the end, it took me far longer to adjust to life back in the UK than it had to adjust to life in Egypt.

Egypt is vast, geographically, politically and socially. Its history is deep, and its heritage is rich. As well as scuba diving in the Red Sea, sailing the Nile at Aswan, and eating falafel like chickpeas were dying out, I did things on my year abroad that I could never have expected. Our apartment was opposite the Alexandria Conservatoire for Music, so I even took violin lessons. It was a difficult year, and street harassment is a real and exhausting problem for women. But it was an experience, and hindsight only makes it better.