Greetings from Alexandria, Egypt, where my wife, Mary Ann Offer, and I are living while I teach accounting at Alexandria University as a Fulbright Scholar for this year.
The five-time-daily call to prayer broadcast from every local mosque is an immediate reminder that we’re no longer in the U.S. Every neighborhood seems to have a mosque. They are not all beautiful buildings with minarets and mosaics, but more often a place marked by a simple open doorway with men’s shoes lined up outside the door while they stop their workdays to pray.
Although nine percent of the Egyptian population is Christian, we’ve concluded that almost every adult Muslim female here in “Alex” wears the hijab, or beautiful scarves serving the same purpose, covering all their hair and neck. A very small percentage of women choose to wear veils (usually black, with black head covering) over their faces. Most of the veil-wearing women appear to be young adults, often mothers with cute little children dressed just like kids in Oshkosh. In Cairo, the capital, the proportion of Egyptian women who “cover” appears to be lower than in Alexandria, possibly because of the influence of a larger international community.
Other than that, dress is even more varied than for women in the U.S., ranging from suits to jeans to galabeyas (long, coat-like garments, often with beautiful embroidery or other striking trim). Most of the younger women dress very much like their western peers. Sneakers, jeans, and t-shirts over long-sleeved jerseys, along with a color-coordinated head covering are common on campus. Most young Egyptian men would not look out of place anywhere in the west. Some older men, clearly a minority, choose to wear the men’s version of the galabeya.
Alexandria is a densely populated city of about four million people, comprised of fairly distinct neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has its own market area with a butcher, baker, barbers, and other types of vendors. There are some very upscale malls and many small western-style supermarkets. We buy our bread, yogurt, and vegetables from our neighborhood shops and street vendors, and other staples at the supermarket.
Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol, so only a few restaurants even serve it. We can call a business to have beer or wine delivered to our door in a discreet plastic bag (completely legal). Almost everything purchased, even from street vendors, can be delivered to one’s home for a small fee or tip. Fast food places like McDonalds have a row of motor scooters out front for delivery.
Our pleasant, sixth-floor, two-bedroom apartment has a balcony overlooking a villa and the Russian consulate, both with large gardens, and the deep-blue Mediterranean Sea beyond. Riding the very close-by tram to the university takes me about a half hour, costs the equivalent of four US cents, and provides an opportunity to observe the city and its inhabitants as I commute.
My office at the Faculty of Commerce (equivalent to our College of Business) is on the fifth floor with a large picture window looking out at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria) and the Mediterranean. I teach financial statement analysis in an executive MBA program one day a week in Cairo. The students have varied backgrounds: engineers, bankers, IT specialists and the like. Two hours into the first six-hour session, I felt like I knew these students. They are very much like the MBA students I work with in Oshkosh – already employed for at least five years, focused on the material, eager to ask relevant questions in very good English.
I also teach U.S. federal income taxation as part of an undergraduate comparative tax course taught by the dean, Dr. Said Ossman. Additionally, I offer a taxation research seminar to five demonstrators – recent graduates appointed by the administration who are working on advanced degrees while functioning like graduate teaching assistants.
While Arabic is the primary language of instruction at the University, programs in English are available on a competitive basis for those with adequate language skills. My students are smart, friendly, and outgoing. They tend to be middle-class, since only middle-class students seem to get the opportunity to study English at an early age here.
Many American friends express concerns about our safety. It is at least as safe here as in any large American city. There have been several peaceful demonstrations on and near campus, mostly based on demands that appointees of the Mubarak administration resign their posts. They are non-violent and I detect no anti-western sentiment at all. The tragedy in Cairo last month was an anomaly, I believe, and that kind of event would be even less likely to be replicated in Alexandria.
For more information about Professor Westort’s experience in Egypt, check out his personal blog: http://myyearinegypt.wordpress.com/