Life Swap

Amy Smith, a 21-year-old student at Bristol University, is spending a term at Alexandria University in Egypt

My alarm goes off at about 3am, when a one-legged man, wearing a grey, floor-length kaftan, hobbles loudly down the street, banging his steel drum and reciting verses from the Qur’an. Four hours later, my electronic alarm goes off and I roll out of bed. I dress carefully, ensuring that my legs, stomach and shoulders are covered, despite the heat.

Three friends and I travel to the Alexandria Centre for Languages for an Arabic course as part of our theology and religious studies degree at Bristol University. In our first year at Bristol we were offered the choice of an ancient language. Sanskrit, Latin, Greek and Arabic were available, but I was charmed by a lecturer with a huge smile and a passion for his subject.

As the course developed, so did my fascination with Arabic, its diverse alphabet – and the culture. I researched the possibility of studying in a Middle Eastern country. Fez in Morocco might have tempted us into speaking too much English; Qatar lacked a cultural dynamic. Alexandria looked just right. Egypt has plenty of culture, and its colloquial dialect is the most widely spoken throughout the Arab world.

We arrived in September. The culture shock was so vast that within the first week one of our group returned home. We arrived at 10pm at a small, dark hotel hidden up a side street. The staff refused us entry – unmarried, mixed-sex groups were not welcome. We were left wandering the streets at midnight. Eventually we found a hotel. Even here we had to barter for the price of a room.

Two days later, our course leader arranged flats for us to look around. We chose a spacious, light flat, with a landlady who lives away (fewer problems for visitors, especially male). It is much better than I have been used to in Bristol.

The area around the language centre is crowded with cafes, where only men are allowed to sit, drink tea and smoke sheesha (hookahs). So we have lunch at the centre: small flatbreads stuffed with falafel or beans; or large circular pieces of bread, filled with strips of beef and pieces of cheese.

We have two colloquial teachers. Rania is a young woman who wears a hijab that always matches her jeans. In her lessons we learn how to greet, congratulate and explain why we are in Alexandria. Ingy is more liberally dressed: jeans, short sleeves, no hijab. With her, we carry out role-plays of bargaining with taxi drivers, buying groceries and haggling for gold in the jeweller’s. The teachers seem unaffected by the pressure of Ramadan. They teach for 4½ hours a day, Sunday to Thursday, with no food or water from sunrise until sunset.

One of the hardest challenges in learning Arabic is that it has two dissimilar forms. Alongside ‘amiyya, the colloquial dialect, is fusha, which dominates the media and written forms of Arabic, including the Qur’an. Although they share some vocabulary, it is like learning two languages alongside each other.

At weekends we relax at the Acacia country club, where membership costs £10 a month, and lie by the pool, where dress rules are more relaxed. In the evenings we sit in cafes by the sea and smoke apple sheesha.

I am writing my dissertation at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Its exterior is covered with characters from every alphabet in the world, symbolic of the array of knowledge that was once contained in the old library, and of what will be contained in the new one. Soon the crescent moon will signal the end of Ramadan, and Egypt will show us another face.

Originally published in the Guardian

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in The Guardian