One American's Situation in Cairo

Conde Nast Traveler
Photographer: Isabel Weiner

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Photographer: Isabel Weiner

Wednesday's announcement from the usually restrained U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office recommends against "all but essential travel" to most parts of Egypt. And Condé Nast Traveler's own Wendy Perrin, after speaking with her travel-industry sources based in the country, says she wouldn't hop on the next flight to Cairo. But that's little help to Isabel Weiner, the daughter of our magazine's photography director, who has been studying and working in Alexandria and Cairo for the better part of the past year. As a young person and a student, we were interested to hear about her experience, as she remains housebound in a suburban area of Cairo, waiting for information on whether (and when) she will have to come home.

Give us a bit of background: how long have you been in Egypt, where have you been living, and what have you been doing?

I'm a 21-year-old International Relations major at Tufts, and when I decided to study abroad in Egypt on an intensive Arabic program, I envisioned myself as a rugged American taking the Middle East by storm and becoming one with the sand. Now, seven months later, I find myself stuck on a couch and eating my fourth package of Oreos.

After completing an Arabic program in Alexandria, I used my newly acquired Egyptian dialect skills and a grant from Tufts University to begin an internship at El Nadeem Center for Victims of Violence in Cairo, while also working on a public health research project. As a native New Yorker, I welcomed the change of pace Cairo offered me and happily crammed into the sweaty women's car of the metro for my daily commute. I transitioned relatively easily from life as a student in Alexandria to intern and researcher in Cairo. I began to enjoy my daily routine: working at El Nadeem, conducting research interviews, shopping at the souk, cooking dinners, and hanging out with new friends, both American and Egyptian.

How would you describe the level of safety you've felt over the course of your visit—has it changed? How and when?

Weeks before June 30, my flatmate and I heard about the rumored protests and uprisings through our new Egyptian friends and at our respective internships. As June 30 drew closer, we wondered why we hadn't received any State Department warnings or embassy alerts. We made plans to leave our Garden City apartment, which is next door to the Ministry of the Interior and the People's Assembly, and spend the weekend in the suburb of Maadi with a friend. Our other flatmate chose to stay in Garden City. We didn't bother with good-byes or even packing our things since we expected to return after a few days.

We have now been in Maadi for six days, and it seems like we won't be able to return to Garden City at all.

Have you heard anything from U.S. government officials or other officials about what's changed since the State Department travel warning of June 28?

I've received two or three warnings, but they have only stated that the embassy is closed. One was a travel warning about limited travel to Egypt. My personal issue with the warnings (and the U.S. news coverage, for that matter) is that the protests on June 30 were planned far in advance, and everyone here knew they would be big and would probably begin after prayer on the Friday before. Yet, despite all of this info, the U.S. news published nothing, and we received no helpful info or warnings from the embassy or State Department until June 28—hardly enough time to make or change plans.

My flatmate and I have since received potential evacuation plans from our universities. If an evac plan is put into place, I'll be assisted in getting to a meeting point near the airport; I'll either take a commercial flight or have a seat on a plane chartered by International SOS. We are trying to decide whether we should wait everything out until Ramadan starts or simply get out now.

What's the general tenor in the streets and what are your friends and colleagues saying about the situation?

My Egyptian friends are telling me to stay away from my apartment in Garden City and to limit my time outside. They seem to think it's fine for me to walk around in Maadi (with a man, if possible). Everyone seems to think that things will calm down once negotiations start. My male Egyptian friends have been moving around freely with no problems (except traffic). Women don't feel as safe doing that. I'm six feet tall, blond, and have a rather German air about me (or so I've been told). Everywhere I go, I get intensely started at. While I've become accustomed to the verbal remarks—"Babe!" "Honey!" "100%!" "Foreigner!" "What's that? Banana!"—the constant harassment takes its toll.

Yet despite being stuck inside with my Oreos and being completely unsure of what will happen tomorrow, I find myself hesitant to leave Egypt. I have yet to change my flight and have in fact started a Fulbright application for another intensive Arabic program in Egypt next year.

For more info on what to do if you have a trip planned to Egypt, see Wendy Perrin's column on the smart steps you should take when canceling your trip—or how to stay safe if you decide to go.

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