Cairo, Interrupted

Launched on the eve of a revolution, a new Civilizations program in Egypt took its lessons—and its students—to Paris.

By Elizabeth Station | Photographs by Maggie Osama, David Casey, Sara ElShafie,
and Elaine Singerman.

A year ago, when the College announced it was starting a new study-abroad program in Cairo, a group of 16 eager students jumped at the chance to enroll.

“I applied weeks before the deadline,” says Elaine Singerman, ’12, who studies Near Eastern languages and civilizations. “I was thrilled to have the chance to actually experience what I’d been reading about all this time.” Sara ElShafie, AB’11, whose father is Egyptian, longed for daily immersion in the language and culture of her extended family. A biology major, she also needed to fulfill the College’s Civilization requirement and could do so by studying history, literature, and archaeology for ten weeks in Cairo.

The program’s website promised that “the rich history of Cairo will reveal itself to students” and that courses would be “devoted to Egypt’s evolving role in a wider regional context.” Both statements proved prescient. Students began their Cairo studies as planned in early January. But they finished the winter quarter in Paris, after the University evacuated the group during growing political unrest on the weekend of January 29.

The students didn’t intend to witness history, but as the program’s inaugural participants, they shared an openness to adventure. “Cairo is so fundamentally different from anything you would experience not just in the United States but in the West,” says ElShafie. “It’s a city that never sleeps, and you can’t experience it passively.” The quarter began with a class on Islamic history and society, taught by Chicago professor Cornell Fleischer throughout the city and on the Cairo University campus. Students settled into apartments in Dokki, a central neighborhood; they learned to cross streets in the city’s wild traffic and haggle with vendors in the bazaar. The group bonded during an early weekend trip to Siwa Oasis, just east of the Libyan border, where they sandboarded on desert dunes and feasted under the stars.

Bicycling in Egypt

On January 23, the students got dressed up for a celebratory reception with visiting faculty and administrators, local dignitaries, and Chicago alumni. “We were very excited to launch the Civilization program in Cairo—our first in a majority Arabic-speaking and Islamic country,” says Martha Merritt, associate dean for international education and director of study abroad, who traveled to Cairo for the event.

No one foresaw what would happen three days later, when protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak erupted nationwide and demonstrators took to the streets in the capital. As a precaution, program staff decided to hold classes in the students’ apartments. “They didn’t want us to walk to the University of Cairo,” says Singerman. At one point, she could hear the protests from her apartment and ran outside for a look. “It was fine—there were more riot police than protesters.”

But the situation quickly escalated over the next few days as demonstrators were injured and killed in clashes with police. The government shut down Internet access and warned citizens to arm themselves against looters. Shopkeepers boarded up businesses and Egyptians prepared for the worst—while continuing to clamor for change. ElShafie followed events with a mixture of “fear, anxiety, and tremendous excitement,” she says. “I basically watched the revolution unfold from my uncle’s living room in a suburb of Cairo,” both on television and by seeing residents patrol the neighborhood outside.

During the tumultuous weekend of January 29, half the students stayed in Cairo. Meanwhile Singerman and eight others traveled to Dahab, a beachside town in the Sinai Peninsula, for a getaway. The experience was “surreal,” says David Casey, ’11. The students had come to snorkel and enjoy the sights but ended up tracking events nonstop via television news and cell phone calls. “We went to this bar where they were showing Al Jazeera English,” says Casey, “and the first thing we see are military vehicles—tanks—rolling down the street towards Tahrir Square, about ten minutes from where we live.”

From Paris and Chicago, Merritt stayed in constant telephone and e-mail contact with program staff, students, and parents. When it became clear that safety concerns and practical issues would make it impossible for students to study and live as planned, College dean John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, made the difficult decision to evacuate the group to the University’s Center in Paris. “In principle, we all wanted the academic program to go on. But we knew what kinds of limitations we’d have to introduce to our students, maybe for a prolonged period,” says Merritt. “What’s the point of being in Cairo and not being able to leave your apartment?”

Before faculty, staff, and students could regroup in Paris, they had to get out of Egypt. The weekend exodus involved complicated logistics. Those departing from Cairo braved military checkpoints and a crush of panicked travelers at the airport, where they eventually landed spots on a US Embassy–chartered plane to Athens. They were carrying their own luggage plus bags for the Dahab contingent, who had flown out of Sharm El-Sheikh airport to Vienna with only their beach clothes.

The students arrived to France in two groups, on January 30 and February 1. “When we got to Paris, we were all so disoriented, like, ‘What do we do now?’” says ElShafie. The contrast with Cairo was severe. Students had grown used to the warmth of Egypt’s weather and its people, to speaking Arabic, to negotiating novel situations daily, and to hanging out in a close-knit group. “[Paris] was not the study-abroad experience that we had signed up for,” says Singerman. “Even the Islamic wing of the Louvre was closed for renovations.”

The Center in Paris swiftly arranged warm winter coats, Metro passes, and housing. Pulling together courses proved a bit trickier. Some students continued their Arabic language studies; others opted for French. In Cairo, lecturer Sooyong Kim, PhD’05, was teaching a literature class on Islamic travel writing that could continue in Paris. But a planned course on Islamic archaeology would be impossible to replicate, since it depended on in situ visits to Egyptian pyramids and ancient ruins.

As luck would have it, Rohit Goel, AM’06, an advanced doctoral student in political science and a specialist in the modern Middle East, was already teaching at the Center in Paris when the students landed. “Given the radical circumstances and situations in which they found themselves in Cairo, the students really wanted a course on the contemporary politics of the Middle East,” says Goel. He devised a syllabus that drew on history and theory to illuminate revolutionary ferment in Egypt and throughout the region. Meanwhile, events continued to provide real-time accompaniment as Mubarak resigned and popular unrest spread to Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Libya.

The politics class gave students “a framework to understand what was going on, to understand the Middle East, government systems, dictatorships, and how people have responded in the past,” says ElShafie. Discussing the long record of US and Western intervention in the region, students also tried to discern their own role. “When you see this sort of pro-democratic revolution going on,” says Casey, “you immediately want to sympathize.” Back in Cairo, some students had wanted to take to the streets with protesters; others thought “this was an event for Egyptians.”

Galvanized by their experience, students continued to read, write, and learn about the region after returning to Chicago in March. Many planned future trips to Egypt and nearby countries. Casey hoped to land a summer job in Tunisia; ElShafie will spend part of a gap year in Cairo before starting graduate school. “If I had known I was only going to have a month there, I would have packed my days,” says Singerman. “Inshallah, I would like to get back, absolutely.”

Pro-democracy protesters, Tahrir Square.