My Experience in Egypt

June 21, 2008

Alhamdulillah, by the Grace of Allah (SWT), I have been privileged to spend the last four months living in Cairo, Egypt as I study Arabic at the Fajr Institute (www.fajr.com – what a prime-time website, huh?).  As my time is starting to near its end (unfortunately, I’m scheduled to depart Cairo at the end of July), I thought it may be a good idea to reflect on my time here and to possibly, insh’Allah, offer advice to those will travel abroad for their studies whether it is to Egypt or anywhere else it may be.

SO WHY EGYPT?

It seems to be a thriving place for the aspiring student of knowledge with many people flocking here to study.  The Visa to stay here is a gimme if you are an American and the cost of living is extremely cheap.  I think it is the best option for someone wanting to study Arabic in the Middle East.  Jordan is also fantastic, but extremely expensive.  Yemen was a lil too-third world for me, but if you can hack it, it is also a place of extreme benefit.  I would not recommend studying in Syria, especially if you are an American.  One of my friends got deported from Syria because they thought he was an American spy.

No doubt that there is a lot of hustle in Egypt, especially if you pick Cairo.  However, if you choose to be patient, insha’Allah, you will be rewarded greatly.  Or, you can try to keep up with the bustle (as I did sometimes) and enjoy the ride.

ARRIVING IN EGYPT

Alhamdulillah, I was fortunate to come to Egypt with a good friend of mine and we planned to experience everything together.  We left Florida together, have studied together at Fajr, have lived together (with another brother) and will depart together, insh’Allah.  Regardless of where you go, always try to live with someone at your destination.  It helps keep companionship and it can be good motivation in your studies as well (plus it helps to have a backup alarm for Fajr!).  If you are going to Egypt (or possibly anywhere else in the Middle East) and do not know anyone, let me know, and maybe, insh’Allah, I will be able to hook you up with someone there.

As far as arriving in Egypt goes, be prepared to stopped, held, and questioned at customs by the Egyptian-version of the FBI.  I’m pretty sure some Egyptian government officials are intimidated by a person who grows hair on their mandible (jaw) and that is why we got pulled to the side.  My advice would be to just answer their questions and brush it off.  Never give them your real address on where you are staying.  They are known to come see you if you do.  They had my phone number and called me a couple times during my stay asking me to come in to see that.  I completely blew them off and would recommend you do the same thing.  Everything here is done by paper (20th century stuff!) and eventually they will forget about you.

As far as being in actual Egypt is concerned, just carry a copy of your passport around and everyone will treat you like royalty (yeah).  Bust out the English whenever talking with a police officer and know the USA Embassy phone, just in case (I would also recommend registering with the Dept of State while traveling abroad).

WHERE TO STUDY?

If you are coming for Arabic studies, Nasr City is the place to be.  There are numerous Arabic centers located in Nasr City including Fajr, Diwan, Sibawayh, and Al-Ibaanah.  I personally chose Fajr and absolutely loved it there while at the same time other brothers have had mediocre experiences at Fajr.  Fajr is the oldest and most established.  It has 13 total levels (each level = 75 hours) and if you finish the 13th level, you receive a certified diploma from the Egyptian Ministry of Education that certifies you to teach Arabic (I think).  The books used at Fajr are from a series called “Arabia Bayna Yadaak” (Arabic Between Your Hands).  Diwan, from what I’ve heard, is extremely nice; however, it is more expensive.  I believe they use the Asassy books at Diwan.  Al-Ibaanah has its own books that it uses.  However, I would like to point out that Ibaanah heavily concentrates on grammar at the beginning and thus, many of its students are not very good at speaking.  Many students also branch off and do their own thing with a private tutor, which can for some people, be an excellent idea.  If you want to go to Alexandria, the place to study is definitely Qortaba.  Insha’Allah, keep reaffirming you intention to study solely for the sake of Allah (SWT).

TELL ME ABOUT NASR CITY

Nasr City (Madinat Nasr) is a mash’Allah, baller-awesome place.  It is considered middle-to-upper class in Cairo but is still relatively inexpensive.  Everything you need is pretty much located in Nasr City.  Al-Azhar University is located here as well so you can manage to run into quite a bit of its students.  Whenever you go out to eat or walk around, you will run into some foreigners who are aspiring students of knowledge.  They tend to stand out for some reason.  Talk with them, network, enjoy!  Subhana’Allah, I’ve met people from the north of Egypt (i.e. Russia, Kazakiztan), east of Egypt (i.e. Malaysia, China), south of Egypt (i.e. Nigeria, South Africa), and, of course, west of Egypt (i.e. Holland, Denmark just for extra emphasis!).  Unfortunately, Americans are seriously lacking in numbers as compared to Frenchmen and Brits.  The only desis you’ll probably find are those from Britain and the USA.

There are also some malls in Nasr City including the famous City Stars Mall, which is a reminder of shopping malls in America.  City Stars is nice, but it is also a place of fitna and thus it would be recommended to go there during the weekdays during the daytime instead of the evenings during the weekends.  Genaina Mall has an ice-skating ring in it if you are into that.

HOW WE LIVE?  WHAT ABOUT COSTS, DUDE?

If you do live in Nasr City, the streets to know are Mustafa an-Nahas, Makram-Obaid, Abbas-al-Ekaad, and Sharia Tayhran.  Nasr City is broken into Zones 6,7,8,9, and 10.  Zone 7 (Hai Saba) is probably the nicest and most expensive while Zone 10 (Hai Ashar) is the cheapest and most developing.

We lived in Hai Thamin (Zone 8 ) right next to Siraj Mall.  Alhamdulillah, we were in a prime-time location and close to everything.  I lived with two other brothers in a 2 bedroom/1 bathroom flat.  Our rent was L.E. 1800 which translates to about $330 split three ways.  We lived on the 5th floor (note: the first floor here is not the first floor it is the ground floor as what is the real 2nd floor is called the 1st floor here) and there was no elevator (alhamdulillah, I lost some weight!).  If you are willing to live in Hai Ashar, you can cut your rent in half easy.

I would like to note that crossing the street in Egypt is crazy.  You will face death everyday while doing it.  Just suck it up and walk like you own the place and cars will try to avoid you, insh’Allah.

You can check out: http://www.geocities.com/learnarabicincairo for a map of Nasr City and other goodies about Cairo.

I LOVE FOOD

If food is your thing, Egypt is also a good place for that.  Koshari is huge here (tho I’m not a big fan, I prefer meat!) as are the other standard Arab dishes.  In Hai Saba (Zone 7), there are good Thai and Malay restaurants.  Assil on Mustafa an-Nahas in Hai Thamin (Zone 8 ) has some off-the-chain shawerma shami sandwiches, a must-try.

Almost all the food places deliever (even MickeyD’s and KFC!), but I would recommend going out to these places so as to at least get some exercise.  I would eat out everyday (but only one meal a day) and I would try to walk everywhere.

I, personally, watched what I would take into my stomach while in Egypt.  I didn’t drink the man –made sugar-cane juice because people are known to get sick off them.  Don’t drink the local water, your body won’t like it.  Drink bottled water and plenty of it.  Please be hygienic and smart.  Oh yeah, if you wear contacts, I would recommend bringing your entire duration’s supply (lens and solution), but glasses you can get pretty cheap here.

I tend to eat anything if it is hot (including corn cooked on a fire!) and try to stay away from stuff that is cold, including cold meat.  Fruits and veggies in Egypt are great as they are smaller but more flavorful (ballerlicious mangos).

MASAJID

Some of the big masajid in Cairo have graves in them and so I would be cautious of them.  Alhamdulillah, Nasr City is relatively new and thus does not posses any masajid with a grave (to my knowledge).  Masjid Bilal (cool name for a Masjid, IMO), located in Hai Thamin (Section 8 in Nasr City) is a popular masjid for Western students of knowledge (including Imam Suhaib Webb).  However, Masjid Bilal has heavy surveillance.

There are lots of local basement masajid everywhere in Nasr City (there are a double-digit number of masajid within a quarter-mile of our apartment building!)  I prefer the basement masjid-scene because it gives one the community feeling that is present in the masajid back in the United States.  Subhana’Allah, there are numerous knowledgeable people at these basement masajid as well.  If you live in Nasr City and are looking for an amazing and patient Quran teacher, I would recommend Shaykh Adel of Masjid Ridwan in Hai Thamin.  Email me for his contact.  Subhana’Allah, I thought he was awesome.  I remember one day he was sitting with his fellow shayook boys (they’re all like 30 years old) and they start testing each other in recitation of different ayaats of the Quran in different qiraat (this is a game for enjoyment for these scholars!).

As far as the different types of Muslims that are present in Cairo, you are going to get the whole shabang.  You have your twirling sufis (with shows every week!) and, at the same time, you have your neo-salafis.  If you ever go to Masjid Hussain, you can see some ‘unique’ characters there too (but try not to pray there!).

Oh yeah, get this, there is an Arab Tablighi Jamaat as well!  They do the whole 3 day stay in the masjid with bayaans all day and everything.  However, the weird thing is, there are Salafi Tablighis and they use Riyadh-us-Saaliheen.  I guess Fadail-Amaal hasn’t been translated into Arabic yet 😛

TAXIS, PLEASE

Everyone apparently complains about taxis in Egypt.  I personally would recommend walking everywhere and when going somewhere further away, using the bus or micro-bus system.  However, in my use of taxis, alhamdulillah, it has been a pleasant experience (I got ripped-off one time, but gave the dude the money cuz he swore to Allah it was legit).  The places to work on your Arabic are at your school, at your masjid, and with taxi cab drivers!  One way to ensure a cab driver will not rip you off is to talk with him the whole time you are in the cab and have fun with the driver.  He is obviously going to know you are not local, but that doesn’t mean you cannot befriend him (I would often just say that I’m from America).  Cab drivers would offer me advice, cassettes, their phone numbers if I ever needed anything.  I would negotiate a rate when going somewhere far, but would just pay them what I thought was fair if going somewhere close.  I remember when I was coming back from the airport once; one cab driver only wanted L.E. 20 from me even though we had agreed on L.E. 25.  Subhan’Allah, there are some really good people out there.  I would recommend that you pay your cab driver after you have gotten out of the taxi at your final destination.  Have fun with the cabbies.  Smile, it goes a long way and people tend to like you more, plus you’re following the Sunnah as this is a sadaqa for your fellow Muslim brothers.

If you sit on the big bus, they have shot-gun seats in the front next to the driver.  Sit there and you can have a say in what they play on the radio as well as well as get an amazing view of the road 🙂

As far as talking with the locals goes, some really good advice I received by several brothers was never to talk about politics or soccer (futbol as they call it).  Talking any politics will get you thrown in jail.  Don’t even say the word ihkwaan anywhere.  Futbol is also a diehard thing here.  You will know when a soccer match is going on b/c no one cares about anything else at that time.  Don’t pick a side to cheer for either b/c if you pick the wrong side, Allahu Alim what will happen to you.

DOING THE TOURIST THING

Yes, I did the tourist thing.  Pyramids were great, but a one-time thing.  Nile is a great river to walk next to.  There are these L.E. 2 party boats that are quite amusing to see.  Al-Azhar Park is fantastic and gives you an amazing view of Cairo.  It was definitely worth the L.E. 5 entrance free.

We went to Alexandria twice.  Alex is a beautiful place.  We went by micro-bus both times (about L.E. 20 each way) though train is also an option.  The micro-bus ride is death-defying, but I recommend just sleeping through it to avoid the anxiety.  Alex can be accomplished in a day-trip.  Definitely check out the beautiful library while you are there, it is breath-taking.  Seafood in Alex is fantastic.  Recommendation:  try the herb-stuffed sea bass at Abu Ashraf Restaurant (prolly the most famous restaurant in Alex and its open 24/7!).

Pollution

This, unfortunately, is a major down-side of living in Egypt.  The air pollution is ridiculous.  Almost everyone smokes including some little kids and women (biggest turn-off ever).  Supposedly, breathing the air in Nasr City is equivalent to smoking twenty cigarettes a day.  I managed to have some allergies when I first arrived though I have never had allergies before in my life!  Furthermore, there were even a couple instances where I would get random nose bleeds in the beginning.  At the same time, the pollution can be avoided by living outside Nasr City in an area like Rehab.  I would recommend this if you travel to Egypt with a family.  You do not want to risk your child getting asthma by living in Nasr City.

Noise pollution is something else too.  Apparently, the New York Times (www.nytimes.com, yeah, like you needed their website) reported Cairo is possibly the loudest city in the world.  Everyone honks their car horn like there’s no tomorrow.  I’ve heard of people having to replace their car-horn every three months (I didn’t know this was possible!).  My advice would be to just bear it and put up with it, insh’Allah.  Sometimes a horn does save your life.

LIVING IN A MUSLIM COUNTRY

This is my first time living in a Muslim country for such an extended period of time (I have visited family in Pakistan for a couple of months several times in the past).  Subhana’Allah, I absolutely loved it.  Granted you will always see Muslims doing un-Islamic things and you need to come here expecting it or you will be sorely disappointed.  However, at the same time, many of the people I have met are amazing and fantastic people.  In Cairo, there are parts where you can go and 95% of the sisters are wearing hijab and there is a masjid on every street (literally!) while at the same time there are parts of Cairo you can go to where you would not be able to differentiate it from a European society.

I loved the Egyptian people as I would chill with the Egyptians at the masjid, in our building, and just other random places (I think some Egyptians look very desi).  Fellow bearded people have an automatic connection in Egypt.  If you walking and there is another bearded brother on the other side of the street walking in the opposite direction, expect a big-wave and try to read “Assalamu Alaikum” off of his lips (yeah, pretty cool, huh?).  I remember once a random bearded brother even picked up in his car to give me a ride where I was going.

There have been some funny experiences here in Egypt as well.  I remember one time a brother asked me if I knew “Assalamu Alaikum” when he learned I was American (I think he was kidding, maybe).  Another time, I went to play basketball with some friends at a sports club.  They wouldn’t let me in cuz I was wearing a thobe (the fobs wanted to be more American like me), so I just took it off in the middle of the street as I always had my bball clothes on underneath ready to play, alhamdulillah.  One time our landlord’s wife sent over some soup for us.  It smelled delicious and I went straight for it, but the taste was waaay off from the smell.  We later realized it was fresh home-made jam (a lot of it) and it was good too, just not be drank in the same way as soup, lol.

I have made a general observation in terms of Islam in Egypt (can be extended to the Arab world) versus Islam in Pakistan (can be extended to the non-Arab world).  The Muslims in Pakistan, mash’Allah, have a lot of zeal and they want to be practicing Muslims, following the Sunnah and everything.  However, it seems, that knowledge seems to be lacking significantly in Pakistan.  At the same time, in Egypt, the knowledge is present and people know the Quran and are well-grounded in the Sunnah.  However, the zeal and desire to follow through with that knowledge is not present.  As Muslims, we need to bring these two extremes together where we can combine knowledge and desire.  Obviously, this reflection does not include all Pakis and Egyptians and it is a simple observation and it is just a thought.

I HEART EGYPT

I’ve loved my experience here thus far, alhamdulillah.  I have significantly increased my respect for Azhari students.  Subhana’Allah, they work out ridiculously hard and are a very impressive group of students.

I have had an amazing time in Egypt thus-far, alhamdulillah.  If you actually go to Egypt, email me and I may be able to give you some more personal tips.  I can be emailed at coolguymuslim @ gmail.com.  I pray that this summary may actually be of some benefit to someone who goes to study abroad.  Insha’Allah I may do a follow-up to this piece after I return back to Florida in a month.  Please keep me and my family in your dua’s, insh’Allah.  Go Islam!