Molotov Cocktails & Almost Missing My GRE in Cairo
Living in Cairo isn’t as bad as TV makes it look, but it’s not exactly sunshine and pyramids with the Pharaohs either. Egypt is an emerging market, and living in a developing country, or even visiting one, isn’t for the weak-hearted. There is something about the culture and character of developing countries; the intensity of life that just makes you feel incredibly alive. From delicious but ghetto street food, live and vibrant music to crossing chaotic streets, which are not governed by traffic laws or stop signs, the lifestyle of the Middle East definitely gets addictive.
Like anywhere, there are good days and bad days in Cairo though. Going to underground parties in secret clubs just outside of Tahrir Square amidst riots and tear gas was always great fun. So was getting fresh fruit juice from street kiosks at 2AM with my neighbors and Egyptian friends. If we needed a snack, koshary was always open 24/7. Almost every place in Egypt delivers, and unlike in the US, the sky is not the limit when it comes to delivery; for the right amount of money you can actually get a monkey from the Giza zoo delivered to your home (as a pet preferably!). Some of the worse days in Egypt included nearly fatal car accidents, being stranded in the Sinai desert because of bombings and road closures with check points that stopped foreigners, but even with other mishaps, everything was always somehow manageable.
The biggest challenge for living in Cairo is trying to be productive. Hanging out in Cairo is amazing. It is arguably more fun than almost anywhere in the US, but that also depends on your definition of fun. If you think fun is going to swanky bars, elite fancy places, and blowing a lot of money on designer goods, stick to places like Dubai or Hong Kong, though Cairo does have its share of these things too. However, if you want a bit more unconventional and creative off-the-beaten path fun, Cairo is a great place to have it. I had endless ridiculous adventures in Cairo, some of them intentional, but other times not. Despite the bruises on my thighs (or perhaps because of them), I will always remember the night we ended up illegally riding horses behind the pyramids at 3AM on an unmarked road with the “horse thugs of Giza.” Chaos is a part of life in Cairo, so things are rarely boring. This is all fantastic if you are just a tourist or simply hanging around, retreating from the world, but when you are working or running a business in Egypt, it’s another story.
Fighting Cairo’s Chaos with Resourcefulness:
Oftentimes it seems like Cairo is against you getting any kind of work done. While working with Gizelle Couture, carrying out economic research, and doing my Master’s in economic development at AUC, obstacles would regularly appear out of nowhere. If I had phone calls to Hong Kong or the states, my Internet would die or the power would go out. If we had a pressing deadline, a machine would break, and the only repair shop would be in Downtown, and of course some sort of riot would break out, blocking the roads, making it impossible to have it serviced. In order to salvage projects and make things work in Cairo, you have to be scrappy, and ready to do whatever it takes to get the results you desire.
One particular challenge I had was taking the GRE exam. In order to maintain my enrollment in my Master’s program at AUC, I had to take the GRE and obtain a satisfactory score. After studying for the exam for about a month, I was ready to take the GRE in early June. My test center was in Dokki, near Downtown, but at the time I was still living in Rehab, a remote gated community located in the desert of New Cairo. Not only was this a long distance to cover, and Cairo traffic is particularly unpredictable (this could have taken 30 minutes to 2.5 hours), but the Presidential Elections were about to happen. Following the February 2011 overthrow of Mubarak in Arab Spring, Egypt had been governed by the military. The upcoming transition from military rule to democracy made tensions high, and many people were uncertain about the outcome of the election. The two remaining candidates were the Muslim Brotherhood Candidate Mohammed Morsi, and Omar Shaffik, from the old regime. Many people were nervous about the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood coming into power, as they already controlled parliament, but many others also didn’t want to see the old regime returning. With the Ultras and other groups refusing to accept Mubarak’s old people back in control, there were rumors of another revolution if Shaffik came to power, while countless fears of Egypt becoming like Iran if Morsi were to win presidency also existed.
The weeks before my exam, tensions had been running high, and there had been numerous demonstrations in Tahrir. The morning of my exam followed several nights of chaos and violence. As I stepped into my sleepy driver’s car at 6AM, which I had secured the day before, I wondered if the roads would be open. I wondered if they would let me through the check points, or if they would stop us or point to me as a foreigner. One week before my Swiss friend’s office had been attacked, and he had narrowly missed a confrontation with angry protesters as he waited, stuck in his car like a sitting-duck on the bridge during demonstrations. I wasn’t too worried about my safety; people usually thought I was Syrian or half Egyptian, and I tried to carry myself as though I was from the Middle East. If they asked, my response was always “min Turkiye” (I’m from Turkey). At the time my mind was only focused on whether or not I would make my exam.
As we approached downtown, I could see the smoke and fire in the distance. I quickly took the scarf from my purse and covered my hair the way they do in Turkey. I calmly put on my sunglasses and checked my driver’s emotions to gauge the situation. He was tense, but I needed us to go forward, so I calmed him down telling him a joke in Arabic. He smiled, and we drove forward through Downtown, passing a burning car and an angry mob. In the distance I could see the silhouettes of the Egyptian SCAF tanks behind the bright lights of the Molotov cocktails being thrown. The potent sting of tear gas got at my eyes and nostrils, so I pulled the loose part of my scarf over my eyes and mouth. It burned like raw onions. The worst was almost past. Five minutes later, I had arrived safely at my exam, with ten minutes to spare.
Unlike most students who take the GRE with great anxiety on their mind, I was totally calm at the exam. This calmness and determination, which had delivered me safely to my exam center helped me stay focused and steady during the exam. I am not a great test taker. I do not like exams; the procedures and strict bubbles tend to make me feel uneasy. Much more uneasy than explosions and riots. However, I have realized it is crucial to develop and maintain a state of composure no matter what situation or crisis you encounter. Whether your fears are irrational or very real, it’s important to stay rational and keep moving forward.
End result of this experience: High quantitative GRE score at 97%, good verbal score, and 6/6 on writing.
Lessons to take away:
1. Plan well, but be flexible.
2. Don’t panic. Stay focused on your goal, and remain calm.
3. Determination and focusing on your goal helps you get past your obstacles, whatever they are: even Molotov cocktails and an angry mob.
By economist & writer, Heather R Morgan (@HeatherReyhan)