Last Monday we had our first Islamic Thought and Practice class. In three mosques around Cairo. We learned about Islamic theology, architecture, and history in the oldest surviving mosque in Egypt, as well as two other very impressive ones. The oldest mosque is the Ibn Talun mosque, built in 879; the Sultan Hassan mosque in 1362; and the al-Rafa'i mosque was built in 1869, and it houses the tomb of the last shah of Iran (who was exiled to Egypt during the 1979 Islamic Revolution). It was incredible. Cairo is literally our classroom.
On Tuesday I went to my service project for the first time (there is another MESP girl with me at the same one). It is a preschool for Sudanese refugee children. There were 20 kids, ranging in age from about 3 to 7. And they only speak Arabic. We're supposed to help teach them English, but I have a feeling more language learning will happen for Caitlin and I. It was a little overwhelming to be thrown into a situation and expected to teach English to little kids who really have no grasp of the language, other than the word "teacher" and the numbers up to 10. I'm hoping that this week I'll feel more comfortable in the situation, perhaps with some preparation as to what I want to teach. It's funny to be at the same language level as 4 year old kids.
On Wednesday in class we heard from Dr. Mediha Safty, an Egyptian sociologist who spoke to us about the development issues facing Egypt. We learned about the demographic concerns facing the country, such as overpopulation and "poor utilization" of that population. There are issues in Egypt because education is free for all, but then there is an over abundance of people with degrees with no jobs to employ them. This can lead to the rise of extremism and violence, as well as discontent with the Mubarak government. Egypt is essentially a police state, but a police state that wants to appear democratic and free. The government enacts laws so that they are in place in case they want to use them, meaning that you can break them most of the time until the government thinks you've gone too far, at which point, you're punished, sometimes brutally. Today we heard from Hossam Bahgat, a 30 year old Egyptian who started his own human rights organization to protect personal rights in Egypt. He was fascinating; I asked what (in his opinion) is the biggest human rights issue in Egypt and he said that the problem is in the structure of the government: its opposition to change, impunity, and corruption. It was amazing to hear the stories of successes his organization has accomplished, although they focus on small situations, knowing that broad changes cannot come about until the government changes. It is interesting - the people of Egypt are collectively waiting for President Hosni Mubarak to die, but they are completely unsure of their future. No one knows who will step into the power vacuum that will ensue, or if the people of Egypt will revolt. It's very interesting to watch this from outside the situation and to watch it from the perspective of American government.
Anyway, on Wednesday night we piled onto a bus and headed to the Sinai peninsula (which included driving UNDER the Suez Canal - so cool!). We got to Mt. Sinai at about 1 am, tired already from the 6 hour bus ride. But we headed up gabal Musa (Moses' mountain in Arabic) in the dark. The moon was so bright that we actually cast shadows along the path, and Bedouin men with camels asked every 2 minutes if we wanted a "very good price" camel ride up the mountain. It was an exhausting climb, the most epic hike I've ever done for sure. We made it to the top, with shaky legs and sweat rolling down, at around 4 or 5 am. At the top we sat and watched as the sky gradually grew light and the sun finally popped over the mountain tops. It was amazing. (Mom - I told everyone that you totally would have been singing "How Great Thou Art" or something like that. Hope you don't mind.) After taking lots of pictures we hiked back down the mountain and went to St. Katharine's monastery, which has a huge collection of old icons and houses the burning bush. Whether it's the real burning bush is up for debate, but needless to say, it was not still burning. After leaving the monastery we collapsed onto the bus for the two hour ride to Dahab, which is a small touristy town on the eastern finger of the Red Sea. You could see Saudi Arabia from it - it was so cool! We spent most of the weekend swimming in the Red Sea or eating at little restaurants right on the water. I've never been to a tropical place before, but now I totally understand why people vacation at spots like that. On Friday morning we went snorkeling at the Blue Hole, which is second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef for snorkeling apparently. It was awesome! There were tons of fish (as well as people) and we swam right along a huge coral reef. The water is so clear and reflects so blue. It was incredible. I'm sorry that words cannot do it justice. You have to go sometime. We got back to Cairo last night, showered the salt off, and headed to bed. On Thursday we're going to Luxor in southern Egypt, a huge tourist location for ancient Egyptian sights.
Pictures up on facebook! Friend request me if you need to!