Friendly people, delicious Arabic food, peaceful deserts and spectacular ancient architecture are a few things today´s media fail to mention when talking about Egypt, where half of the population protested against its recently overthrown president, Mohammed Morsi.
But it was precisely the people, delicious food, peaceful deserts and ancient architecture I experienced for the seven weeks I lived in Cairo this summer.
With the help of an international student-run organization called Association Internationale des Étudiants en Sciences Économiques et Commerciales, AISEC, I had found an internship focused on promoting tourism in Egypt. My job was to explore the country and visit its hidden beauties as I documented my experience.
Before arriving in Cairo, I was aware that my wardrobe, habits and freedom would change during those weeks. I also knew Egypt had recently held a revolution and there were many protests where people had been injured or killed. Friends and family tried to persuade me to cancel my trip or choose another country. But being a young journalism student, I was intrigued by a different culture and a country that is struggling to find its democratic path after a modern revolution.
I lived with students from all over the world who were also there on various internships. Together, we explored the different shades of brown that covered the city: the countless historic mosques and markets that give life to a hectic and nonstop social structure.
“I got to see how local Egyptians live and how life in the Middle East is different from life in the U.S.,” said Ehsan Zaman, 20, who studies finance in Baruch College in New York. “However, people in Egypt are just like people everywhere else in the world and the media often misperceives them.”
One of the misperceptions I had before traveling to Egypt was that people would be very aggressive and the city unsafe for foreigners. But Egyptians were incredibly friendly with me and my colleagues. They helped with whatever we needed. “Welcome to Egypt” was a phrase we heard countless of times from strangers as we walked down the streets.
“A few of the locals really helped me out with getting acquainted with the Egyptian lifestyle, and I became really good friends with them,” said Andrew Daniel, a 19-year-old economic and business student from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I never once felt threatened when I was in Egypt, even as I strolled the streets of Nasr City at 5 or 6 a.m. almost every night.”
As the weeks passed, we traveled to Alexandria, Luxor, Aswan and the Sahara desert. The stress-free and low budget trips outside Cairo ranged from a four day Nile cruise stopping in many ancient temples to flying next to the Valley of the Kings on a hot air balloon to visiting one of the biggest and most modern libraries in the world.
“It was crazy how cheap the traveling and everything else in Egypt was,” said Daniel. “It really made it possible to do anything you could imagine and essentially not have to worry about the price.”
But what surprised many of us even more was the silence and tranquility found in Egypt´s deserts. Almost all of my life, I have lived by the sea. Discovering dry landscapes with overpowering sandbanks and mountains which surrounded me with nothing but stillness marked a new stage in my life where anything seemed possible.
“The sand dunes and the oasis where we saw the sunset in the middle of the Sahara are things that mark a person´s life,” said Monserrat Miranda, 19, an industrial relations student from the University of Guanajuato in Mexico.
Yet, as I traveled, I noticed how tourists were rarely seen around the country. After the first revolution, tourism suffered a downfall. It was clear that now, tourism would suffer again as word of this new revolution spread through the country.
But life carried on normally through most of June. I met people who supported Morsi, others who hated him and people who embraced the democratic process and disagreed with the current situation.
It was not until the last days of the month that Cairo changed: taxis became scarce, hundreds of cars lined up through the city as they waited for gas and people became anxious and many times aggressive.
Tamarod rebels started camping in Tahrir Square while Muslim Brotherhood supporters marched through Nasr City, a conservative area in Cairo. The city was clearly divided in two.
Protests began on June 28 and all the student interns were put under house arrest for four days. The crowded streets outside our home became deserted, and the usual Quran chants during prayer time were replaced by angry and energetic statements in Arabic. Everyone was anxious as we watched the increasing protests on TV, and our nerves escalated as we wondered if we were going to be able to leave the country or, in the case of others, continue traveling.
“As an American, I am familiar with one party controlling congress and changing control every few years,” said Zaman. “But in Egypt, the last week only brought the nation to move backwards as opposed to forward. It shocks me how many Egyptians are embracing this backward-like path of the nation.”
I am back in Miami and whatever happens there probably won’t affect me directly. But I will never forget this summer in Egypt and just hope others will get to see again the friendly natives, delicious Arabic food, peaceful deserts and spectacular ancient architecture I got to experience for a few weeks.
But more than that, it has become clear to me that if a country thrives for democracy, people need to embrace a true democratic process and how it works. Egypt has the potential to be a great and welcoming country. I lived it, but it is now up to its people to understand and embrace it for a better future.
Shabnam Haritham, a civil engineering student at Lovely Professional University in Jalandhar, India, agrees. “I got to know an Egypt which is not known to the outer world — an Egypt which craves for freedom,” said Haritham, 20.