“You can’t just stay in and study all the time. If you don’t get to know people on an intimate level, you won’t really experience the culture. You cannot be afraid of getting harassed or of the stereotypes. Until you get to know the Egyptian people, the stereotypes feel true, but when you get to know them, their guard comes down. We are a lot alike.”
Katrina Gray is a senior majoring in African Languages and Literature. She set out for the University of Alexandria in August 2010 for a full-year study abroad program. But in late January 2011, she was one of three UW–Madison students evacuated from Egypt when riots erupted.
Here is her story, recorded from a recent interview at Memorial Union. Katrina is back on campus for the spring term.
What was your reason for going abroad?
I am studying Arabic, so I wanted to study abroad in an Arabic-speaking country in an immersion program. Egypt is important in the Arab world because they produce a lot of media such as music, movies, news, and their slang is widely understood.
Where did you stay? What was it like?
For the first semester, I lived in a dorm with both American and Egyptian roommates at the University of Alexandria, which is on the coast of the Mediterranean. The Egyptian roommates were wonderful; they were always there for us to practice our Arabic, since speaking English was forbidden, and to show us around town. My roommate was Shaimaa, a medical student.
After several months, I moved into an apartment with two other American students. We had to deal with things such as grocery shopping, negotiating rent, and getting services … definitely a real life experience! Things went well, but it was challenging. Having done this in Egypt, I can do it anywhere!
What was your experience when the protest riots broke out?
January 24 (Police Day, a national holiday): My close Egyptian friends said that the protests would last two hours, would amount to nothing, and then would be forgotten. But they were wrong!
January 25: I was in a café watching the protests. Things seemed peaceful and people were excited, but were not getting their hopes up. They were not afraid of the riot police pushing them around.
January 26-27: Not much was happening in Alexandria, but we were aware of the news in Cairo. Our program directors were asking us to stay away from the protests. We lost Internet use.
January 28: No Internet and no phone service. TV news was saying that nothing was happening. To be under the power of a dictator … it was, crazy! Like the news was from a different planet. The protests got bigger and the crowds were extremely euphoric. People were looking out for one another. The riot police had left, so I felt safe. The army came in and was sympathetic.
The Egyptians are a communal people and I was accepted into their community. I really miss that. They are very welcoming and hospitable. As the days wore on, people were sharing food with one another.
January 31: We (30 American students) were given instructions for our evacuation. We had to find our own way to the airport, then waited 36 hours for the planes that had been chartered just for us by the State Department. We were flown to Prague and from there, went our separate ways home. I did not get home until February 2; it was a long trip.
Can you share a meaningful experience?
During the evacuation process, my roommate and I were trying to get our stuff to the airport … two girls, six suitcases, and one cat. We had to drag all of this down the street to catch a cab. Our neighborhood had formed a Neighborhood Watch (5 men armed with sticks and clubs) to protect us. I asked them to help drag our stuff, but when we came down, they had two cars waiting to drive us to the airport, so we would be safe. This involved three neighbors and two cars. Our driver was very religious and would not take us in his car without his wife going along, so she had to get dressed and ready, too. He said, “We don’t love the Americans because of their government, but it is our duty to be kind to them. Go back and tell them this about us.”
Crossing the street was like playing a real life game of Frogger. There are cars, and there are pedestrians, and there are no traffic rules, signals, stop signs, or speed limits. You just have to make your way across the street one lane at a time, dodging one car, then the next.
There is no toilet paper. Period. At first, I thought it had just run out and no one had replenished the bathroom supply. As it turns out, there just is no toilet paper. The toilets have a bidet system, and if you improvise with your own paper, you have to put it in the wastebasket to keep from clogging the sewer lines. This took a bit of adjustment. I got so used to this process that when I arrived at the airport in Prague, on my way home, I could not spot a wastebasket and was despairing when I remembered that, here, I could flush!
If you need something from the market and don’t want to go out, you can drop a little basket containing a note and money from your balcony by rope and someone walking by will do the shopping and put the items in the basket. I think this started because women didn’t what to put on their hijab just to go out for a few things.
What advice would you give a fellow student who is traveling to Egypt?
You can’t just stay in and study all the time. If you don’t get to know people on an intimate level, you won’t really experience the culture. You cannot be afraid of getting harassed or of the stereotypes. Until you get to know the Egyptian people, the stereotypes feel true, but when you get to know them, their guard comes down. We are a lot alike.
What will you miss the most?
The fruit! It was out-of-this-world delicious. So fresh! The mangos are like gelato. We ate mangos, pomegranates, persimmons, custard apples (called “ishta,” it looks like an artichoke). The weather was amazing. It only rained two days in five months; the rest was blue skies and Mediterranean breezes. Winter was sweater weather.
What would you like to say to a prospective donor, to encourage his or her support of the study abroad scholarship fund?
It is extremely important for people to support study abroad scholarships. These international programs provide an amazing experience for the students and a positive experience for the people they meet abroad, so it has a global impact. I changed Egyptian friends’ minds about Americans.
I would not have been able to go at all if it weren’t for the scholarships I received.
I am hoping to go back. I may move there when I graduate, and teach English for a while to get my footing. I have the building blocks for a life there … I have friends and a community. Long-term, I am interested in a career with the State Department or in a government field.