Students' Journals

Follow the experiences of our Dutch and Flemish students during their stay in Cairo. Read their stories from 2015 and previous years.

Taking pictures in Egypt

By NVIC intern Lies Peeters

While crossing the Qasr el Nile Bridge in Cairo at night, you can see young boys and girls laughing and flirting with each other, people strolling around, entire families having fun, some lonesome wanderers and vendors trying to persuade this public to buy their flowers. This bridge is never empty and that is why I love to cross it. A lot of the people on the bridge take pictures, mostly selfies, sometimes with a long ‘selfie-stick’. It is an interesting social phenomenon, all around the world. It somehow reminds me of a figure in Greek mythology named Narcissus, but that is a different story. ‘Most Egyptians love to take pictures and selfies’, one of my friends told me. Since I have been in Egypt, the amount of selfies I am on must have at least doubled, but I also like to make pictures with my old analogue camera. Taking pictures in public made me aware of some interesting aspects of the Egyptian society, it somehow – in my opinion - reflected on society itself.

So most Egyptians like to take pictures, but they not always like it the other way around. The first thing I noticed is the fact that you always have to be careful where you take your pictures and what you photograph. If you take a picture in the metro, and you get caught doing this, there is a risk one of the security guards will take your phone without asking and remove the picture. Even if this picture was a failed shot and the content of it was blurry without any characteristics of the environment. The same story with military and government buildings. A while ago I was in an old restaurant called the Virginian on Mokattam Mountain. The restaurant breathes old glory, but now the toilets are flooded, the curtains dusty and the Christmas decorations say ‘Happy ew Year’ (my visit was in September). There is one thing that makes this place worth a visit: the view from the terrace. If you go there just before sunset, you have the yellow sky above you and the crazy city under you. Nice picture material. But do not take your pictures too obvious, because 200 meters under the terrace a military compound is located. Of course it is a security issue, but there is nothing to see on this compound. No weapons, airplanes or other things that might betray Egypt’s master plan to conquer the world. Some governments might think you can use these images as an instrument for some kind of espionage activities. Why should there be another reason you take pictures of these buildings?

I like to take pictures in the streets, of people, old taxis, horses, dogs sunbathing on cars, donkeys and crap; everything. But not everybody likes the fact that I might take a picture of something that is not clean, or maybe hints at elements of a poor nation. I took a picture of the Cairo Tower, from behind the Opera parking lot on Zamalek. This parking lot has a big pile of waste, so this was on the foreground of my picture. After developing this film role, I went through the scans with Leon, an old man who has a camera shop near Abou Basha metro station. When he saw the picture of the Cairo Tower with the pile of garbage, he walked around his counter and came back with a big waste bin and started to tell this story about the government. They wanted all the shop owners to have this waste bin in front of their store. When they close in the evening, they should bring the waste bin back into their shop. Leon did not do this, because he preferred the smell of old camera’s over the smell of garbage in his little shop. But still, he was trying to explain the pile of waste I pictured with the Cairo Tower, and I somehow felt bad that I had taken this picture.

In Alexandria, a lady selling bread on a busy street market, pushed me and tried to grab my camera when I wanted to take a picture. She clearly did not like it, although it was just a normal street market. Some pictures might be sensitive, but it is never my intention to offend Egypt as a country or Egyptians as a people. So should I only take pictures of modern buildings like the Stars City Mall in Nasr City and the compounds in Rehab? I don’t know...  

Mogamma experience

By NVIC intern Lies Peeters

A lot of people told me about their experience in the Mogamma, Egypt's biggest administrative government building. The chaos and the craziness they described had made me curious. And I saw the comedy film Al-irhab wal kabab (Terrorism and Kebab), in which the main character – played by the famous Egyptian actor Adel Emam – hijacks the building. My image of the building - and what was going on inside - was not realistic, I thought. Last week I finally had the chance to see it with my own eyes.

My journey started at the photo booth, because I needed a picture for the visa application. The first picture they took was a complete failure, because there was a fly on my head. The second attempt worked out and the picture was – besides the bad quality – pretty nice. After this I had to fill out a form I got from a police officer (who was smoking next to a no smoking sign). Once I completed the form I went to window 46, then window 48 and finally I needed some stamps from window 50. This went very well, besides the fact that the concept of standing in line doesn’t exist in Egypt, so you have to push yourself towards your destination. In the middle of this pushing crowd a lady got sick and – well – the details are not to be described here. Eventually I succeeded in getting the stamps and the nice lady behind the window told me to come back ‘tomorrow inshallah – God willing’. The next day I returned to the lady and delivered my passport, again she told me to come back, but this time in the afternoon. I did what I was told and came back in the afternoon; the lady recognized me and gave me my passport with the visa. Somehow I thought this was too easy, so I asked her ‘khalas’? Yes, this was it. I got my visa.

‘Where are you from?’ is a question you hear a lot when you walk the streets of Cairo as a foreigner. Does it matter where I am from, I sometimes think. Or at least, I like to think it doesn’t matter. Well, it does matter when you are in the Mogamma trying to get a visa for more than a month. Of course I had to go through all kinds of bureaucratic steps and fill out forms before I got it, but all in all, the whole process went rather fluently. When my Romanian friend applied for a visa, however, it took her three weeks to get it. Her roommate is from Ukraine and she started last month, but still didn’t succeed in getting one. One wonders why this is. So ‘Where are you from?’ really does matter when you are in Mogamma trying to get a visa.

Finding an apartment in Cairo

By NVIC intern Lies Peeters

If there would be a contest for the amount of furniture you can stack in one house, the Egyptian people would definitely be on the winning team. They love sofas, chairs and closets, and they love to put them– as random as can be – together in small dark rooms with wide, dusty gold curtains. I read somewhere the Egyptian taste of furniture comes from the Ottoman Empire combined with some influence from nineteenth century Europe. I’m still hesitating about the aesthetics of the style classic, as they call it, otherwise also known as Farouq Quatorze.

My quest for an apartment in Cairo started online with common Facebook groups like ‘Accommodation and Apartments in Cairo’. On most of these groups there was a lot of bad stuff and only a few good offers. A lot of them were from brokers anyway, so I decided to go to a broker called Ahmed in Garden City. On Monday evening we saw around five apartments (I lost count after number 3) in the area of Mounira and Garden City.
The first apartment was gigantic and had four bedrooms. The living room consisted of three different rooms with each five couches and some random chairs. One of the bedrooms had a big closet with two old dusty cellos on top of it. The instruments looked like they dated from the Stradivarius period, but it was most probably the dust that made them look like that. The owner, an old men with a warm smile, kept on talking French with me. I don’t speak French that good, so it was an interesting conversation (nice and short).

The second apartment was smaller and therefore cosier, but there weren’t any visible windows and the amount of sofas was – yet again- very high. There was also a problem with the toilet (water everywhere). One of the master bedrooms had a huge mirror-closet-combination in a colour I can only describe as 'alien green' and it also looked like it came from a different planet After these interesting apartments we saw several others, one of them was clean and without a lot of furniture, but was not in our budget. The last apartment the broker showed us, was small compared with the others and had some kind of sixties atmosphere, with an old fridge and dried flowers on the wall. It was a nice and cosy apartment and in our budget. There were only two things that worried me: there was a big hole in the floor and the elevator did not work (and the apartment was on the seventh floor). Regardless of the hole in the floor and the elevator, we decided to take this apartment. It was in the right neighbourhood, it was cosy, and the floor would be fixed tomorrow - inshallah. And it was.

Lies Peeters will be staying at the NVIC as an intern - for the coming five months. She studied Theology&Religious Studies with a specialisation in Islam and Social History at the University of Amsterdam.

Cairo impressions (March 2015)

Written by Stefan Langenberg

On January 25th 2015, I arrived in Cairo. That was also the first day I met the Egyptian traffic, and more specific, the Egyptian taxi drivers. My taxi driver had no idea where he had to go, but apparently that is no problem in Egypt. He just asked every person he saw where he had to go. So, after a long flight and a long drive, I finally arrived at the hostel where I could enjoy the nice weather and a Pepsi (which is Egypt’s favourite drink I guess), hoping that the nice weather would last. But unfortunately it didn’t. In the one month I’ve been here, I’ve already encountered rain and cold; two things I didn’t expect to find in Egypt. And I’ve experienced my first sandstorms!

My first objective in Cairo was finding an apartment to rent. I already spoke with some people on Facebook so I had my first viewing the day after I arrived. To get there (Midan KitKat), I had to cross the bridge separating Zamalek from al-Agouzah and this meant I had to risk my life (literally) to cross the road. Finding the apartment seemed a difficult task as well, because most people don’t know the street names here. When I eventually found the address and saw the place, I was sold. So after day one, I found my apartment for the next 4 months, off for a good start!

Let me write a little bit about my impressions about Egypt so far. The thing that stands out above all others, is the traffic. It’s incredibly busy and most people drive like maniacs (no offense). If you want to cross the road, you have to evade all the cars to safely reach the other side. One of the most important hobbies for Egyptians is honking their horns, which they do for no reason whatsoever. The second thing I want to mention is the pollution here in Cairo. If you go to the Cairo tower, or any high building, you can clearly see a layer of smog lying on the city. The first few days in Cairo, my throat was sore the whole time. Nevertheless, Cairo has beautiful places but outside these places, dirt, rubbish and decay are noticeable throughout the city, which is a pity.

I would like to dedicate a whole paragraph to the bureaucracy in Egypt. 3 weeks after we arrived, me and two of my friends went to the Mogamma, the centre of Egypt’s bureaucracy, to extend our visas. When we walked into the building, it was as if we had entered another world. There were people everywhere and we had no idea where we had to go. A man came to us and told us to go to the first floor. We walked through a metal detector which went off, but no one really cared so we were allowed to walk through. We entered a hall where we were sent to window number 16. We found out that we had to pick up an application form, which was at a window at the other side of the hall. There they told us that we had to pick it up at window 16, the first window we were send to. So we went back and indeed, they gave us the application form. Why they didn’t gave it the first time? No idea. We filled out the forms, gave them back with a photo and a copy of the passport and went to yet another window to buy 4 stamps for the visa. Then we were sent to window 16 again, where we were told that we had to return the following day. The next day we went back, in the morning, and we had to give our passports and return at 1 P.M. We left without our passports in the hope that we would get them back (In Sha Allah). In the afternoon we went for the third time to the Mogamma. What we saw was just amazing, and not the positive kind of amazing. In one small corridor there were at least 50 people waiting at one window. Behind that window there was one woman who was holding up pictures and if you recognized yours, you had to scream and the passport would be given to you. However, we were standing all the way at the back so we could never reach the window. Because of that, our passports were passed through the crowd and we obtained them. No check of any kind. If you want to experience Egypt’s bureaucracy, go to the Mogamma and try to extend your visa. It’s an experience of a lifetime.

I would like to end with some words about the institute itself. The institute is a beautiful building with amazing staff. The guards, the receptionist and the teachers are all wonderful. If you have any question or problem, you can go the receptionist and she will help you, and it doesn’t matter if you have a problem with your cleaning lady or with the doorman, or you just have a question about how to get to Alexandria, she will do everything she can to help. The guards are always smiling when you enter and are always willing to help you with Arabic. The teachers are all amazing in their own way. I just finished my fourth week studying at the institute and I can see the improvement. We have to work very hard in and outside the classroom but there is always time for a joke or two (or more). I’m very happy to study at the institute and I know this will be an experience I’ll never forget.

Archive 2012

My first impressions of Cairo (June 2012) 
Written by Lucienne Suter

When we arrived at Cairo airport we were met by a pleasant heat. We drove to our hotel « Mayfair », which is located near the NVIC-Institute in Zamalek. Zamalek is placed on a penninsula in the Nile. This area is rather quiet, at least for the conditions in Cairo.

In the first week we have already seen a lot and we have gained many new impressions. After a few days we managed to find a nice apartment for four people in Zamalek. The apartment is on the twentieth floor and we were immediately impressed by the beautiful view over Cairo.

The Arabic classes at the Institute are very instructive, and we are confident that we will learn a lot. Already in the first week we made two excursions. The first into the Coptic quarter and the second into the islamic quarter of Cairo. In the Coptic quarter we visited several Coptic churches, a synagogue and a mosque. In the islamic quarter, where we visited some beautiful mosques, we also passed through the famous Khan el-Khalili bazaar.
Of course as a tourist you must be always careful, that you do not pay too high prices. But in Cairo you can live very well, and it is a beautiful city where there is still much to discover.

Capita Selecta (June 2012)
Written by Philip Vlahos

This week was particularly exciting. From Sunday till Tuesday we had normal classes which were, as always, excellent and very enriching for my language skills. On Wednesday we all drove to Alexandria which was a pleasant change from Cairo because of the sea and its breezes, had a tour of the Great Alexandrian Library, which seemed like a pretty utopian place for a nerd like me.

Everyone decided to prolong their stay in Alexandria. Jann, Marco and I couldn’t find the hotel we had reserved a room in, but a belt merchant was very helpful in helping us find refuge. We ended up in Clement’s Hotel in the middle of downtown Alexandria. It was a very modest but completely sufficient hotel and it only cost 40 EGP per night per person. In retrospective I regret not buying a belt from the merchant. After simply enjoying Alexandria for a couple of days, us three and Lucienne (who was staying with the rest of the students that decided to go back to Cairo a day before us) had a beach day.

Coincidentally some electronic music artists we met in Cairo were being featured at a beach party at the “Bianchi” hotel resort between Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh so we drove there with a microbus, which was an odyssey of its own. It took a while until we found out in which direction we had to drive and at some point on the highway the micro bus driver kicked us out because he didn’t want to drive any further so we had to hire a microbus especially for us from there. We finally got there and it was a really beautiful beach with nice people and good Egyptian electro music. We lost all sense of time there and when it was dark we decided to head back to Alexandria. We had to hitch hike at first and this guy let us get on the back of his pick up truck which was a really cool experience with the wind blowing in our hair. We got out at Sidi Abdel Rahman where we luckily caught the last Microbus back to Alexandria.

Conversation-class in the Taxi (June 2012)
By Luciano Gagliardi

Since the wonderful book «Taxi» – written by the Egyptian author Chaled al-Chamissi – everyone knows how talkative taxi drivers in Cairo are. And in fact, they are a good opportunity to practice the proper oral skills. Not only because of the terrible traffic which forces you to spend a lot of time in the taxi, but also because most of the drivers are patient in explaining what they want to say; although there are at the same time impatient drivers. Combined with their interest in our origin and therefore in our lifestyle in Europe, lots of topics of conversation emerge.

In all my cab rides I was asked whether I am married or not. Either I told the truth and said that I – in the age of 24 years – am not married, which automatically was countered with the question about the reasons why I am not married – or at least engaged. Or to be more creative I invented a wife and some children – or I chose one of my female schoolmates sitting in the backseat of the car to be my wife.

Beside this kidding discussions there are also interesting conversations which allow you to see into an everyday life of a middle class Egyptian. So for example I meet Hossam – a 24 year old guy – who wants to marry his fiancée, after being in engagement for four years. But as it is customary in Egypt, before marrying he must be able to buy an apartment and so – as I realised later – he works in his free time as a taxi driver to earn some extra money.

To complete the anecdote: After half an hour driving trough Cairo he suddenly interrupted the conversation and confessed that he has no official taxi license and even the yellow shining taxi-sign on the roof of his car was not a real one. In fact he was on the way home as he saw me waiting for a taxi. So he fixed the taxi-sign on the roof of his car and stopped beside me.
Finally he was not only lacking of an official taxi license, he also had no idea where exactly I wanted to go – like I had no idea how to go there. So in the end it turned out to be the longest but in the same time funniest cab ride ever – and: I received an invitation to his marriage – Inshallah!

Muqattam, the quarter of the Zabbaleen

Muqattam, the quarter of the Zabbaleen

Cairo (June 2012)
By Anita Bunter

Cairo is a city full of opposites. On one hand you can go to Muqattam, a quarter on the outskirts of the city, where the "Garbage people" Zabbaleen live. These Coptic Christians have served as informal garbage collectors for the past 80 years. Though their way of life has been threatened by the state-mandated companies which are taking over the waste collecting, there still are huge heaps of rubbish waiting to be processed and recyceled in their streets and houses.

Cairo Opera

Cairo Opera

On the other hand you can go to Cairo Opera, where people dressed to the nines attend performances of classical music or ballet.. 

Microbus in Medinet el Fayoum

Microbus in Medinet el Fayoum

Cairo is a city full of movement. My favourite mode of transport in and around Cairo and the best place to meet local people are microbuses. They start from Ramses railway station but you can get on pretty much anywhere (just flag them down as they drive by). They only drive off when all seats are taken and the fares are really cheap: A two hour ride from the capital to the oasis city Medinat el Fayoum costs not more than 12 pounds (which is about 2 Euros). But be aware: Never ask the driver about the ticket price. Just get into the bus and check how much the other passengers pay - the driver might ask you for more money because you're a foreigner

Cairo is a city that never sleeps. You can sleep until noon, have breakfast at 5 pm, go shopping until midnight and party until until the break of dawn. This city of millions is alway crowded and in motion. Only in the morning hours the streets calms down. This is the best time to take a trip around the city - because there is no traffic jam and the temperatures aren't that high. Don't forget to stop at the Shaheen Café (one is in Nasr City, one in Dokki), where the best turkish coffee in town is served.

Best coffee in town: Shaheen Café

Best coffee in town: Shaheen Café

Studytrip to Dakhla (26 February - 2 March 2012)

At the end of February we left again for our annual study trip with the students outside of Cairo. This year we decide to go to the oases in the Western Desert: Farafra, Dakhla and Bahariyya (in this order).
We left early Sunday morning and drove all the way to Farafra the first day (approximately 550 kilometer). After checking into the hotel, we left with the bus to Bir Sitta, a hot water spring, to enjoy the sunset from a hot tub. The dinner afterwards was ever more rewarding!
The next morning we visited the museum of the local artist Badr. He built his house and museum in local materials (meaning palm trees and mud brick). He is making mostly wooden statues, sand sculptures and paintings.

Afterwards we left to Dakhla, where we spent 3 nights. After arriving in Dakhla we climbed the hill where the old town of Mut lies. Now there’s only a handful of people living in the old town, most people have abandoned the town and live now in concrete houses surrounding it. The view from the top of the hill over the otherwise flat oasis is breathtaking! Peter Verkinderen, the director of the Arabic program, was supposed to arrive that day, but only arrived the next morning due to a strike in the bus company.

The next day we visited Ismant al-Kharab where the “Dakhla Oasis Project” is excavating. Tony Mills gave us an introduction and a tour around the very interesting Roman site. Afterwards we left for the NGO weaving factory in the little village of Bashindi, around 30 kilometer form Mut.

The next morning after breakfast Omar Ahmed from the tourist office gave us an introduction to the life and habits in the oases. Afterwards we visited the town al-Qasr together with Fred Leemhuis. ‘Qasr’ means fortress in Arabic and on its site there used to be a Roman fortress indeed. The ruins of this fortress still lie buried under the town. Just like in Mut, people have moved out of the old town and have chosen to live around the city in ‘pretty and modern’ concrete buildings. Afterwards we also visited the ethnographic museum in Mut where the museum’s guide Ibrahim Kamel very entertainingly explained the use of all the different tools and objects in the museum. To end the day, we all went swimming in the ‘Magic Spring’ – another hot water spring.

The last day in Dakhla we got an introduction to the different dialects in the oases by Manfred Woidich. Afterwards we left for Bahariyya – our last stop before returning to Cairo. In Bahariyya we took a very hot – almost steaming – bath in another hot spring (this time over 45 degrees Celsius), the perfect ending of an interesting and pleasant study trip!  

Last Modified: 11-01-2016