New Hebrew U students who fled Cairo see 'other side'

Some say they’ll return to Egypt someday and are "jealous of their friends who got to stay."

By
February 15, 2011 03:53
Hebrew U students escaping Cairo

Hebrew U students 311. (photo credit: HEBREW UNIVERSITY)

New York State native Penelope Shepherd, 21, has settled into her apartment near Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem, less than a week after she left Cairo when, in her words, the situation became far too dangerous for foreigners.

Shepherd, an Allegheny University undergrad who was enrolled in a study abroad program at the American University of Cairo, is one of 12 foreign students who fled the violence that gripped Cairo during the 18-day “January 25 revolution” and have enrolled instead at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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Shepherd told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that she realized the situation was too dangerous when she and a group of friends were accused of being Israeli spies during a visit to a hookah bar in the Cairo district of Dokki.

According to Shepherd, she was part of a group of four Americans and three Egyptians who were sitting at a big table kicking off some steam on their first night out since the curfew had started four nights earlier and that “after about 30 minutes of everyone staring at us, which was pretty normal since there weren’t any foreigners really left in that part of Cairo” a group of men watching Al Arabiya began shooting them dirty looks until a man spinning a machete in his hands sat right next to them and began eavesdropping on their conversation.

Shepherd said a group of men then began arguing in Arabic about how they should detain them and hand them over to the police at which point her Egyptian friends went over and began trying to talk some sense into the amateur counter-espionage gang, who had apparently been watching a news report on Al Arabiya claiming that Israeli spies had been arrested after infiltrating Egypt to foment the revolution.

After a heated argument, Shepherd and her friends were escorted out by a group of friendlier vigilantes who drove them to the island of Zamalek, which they never left again before fleeing Cairo.

Shepherd said that despite the danger and uncertainty of the past month in Cairo, she never wanted to leave the city.

“I really wanted to stay in Cairo because for the most part, on the island of Zamalek, I felt completely safe. I trusted the residents who were guarding us and actually got to know a couple of people who were on the neighborhood watch and it was explained to me that they were all ex-military and were very organized to keep our community safe from the looting.

“However, after being accused of being a [Israeli] spy and ending up on the wrong side of the protest on the day the pro- Mubarak supporters attacked and having to be escorted out by the military, everything was sort of put into perspective for me – that the anti-foreigner sentiment was not likely to go away any time soon.”

In Cairo on February 2, hours after pro-Mubarak crowds rushed Tahrir Square sparking clashes that left dozens wounded and at least six dead, Shepherd and friends from her study abroad program sat in the bar at the Flamenco Hotel in the Zamalek neighborhood taking in the events of the day and knocking back a few Sakara and Stella beers.

At the Flamenco Hotel, long before her sudden enrollment at Hebrew U, Shepherd told the Post that being in Cairo during the revolution “has been quite an adventure. My parents told me ‘you’re having quite an adventure and if you want to stay, stay.’” Though by that point violence between police and protesters had left over a hundred people dead across Egypt, Shepherd said the only time she was afraid was “on Monday night, when we were sitting in our dorms and we could hear the looters nearby, and the loudspeakers in the mosque saying that looters were on their own way to the neighborhood.”

According to Shepherd and her friends at the bar, they were sitting in their dorm and could hear looters running wild in the neighborhood, driving in circles in the middle of the street in the late hours of the night and generally causing a huge racket.

In Jerusalem, Shepherd thanked the Hebrew University staff for pulling strings to get her into the study abroad program at the last minute, saying the administrators “tried very hard to accommodate us by adding more Arabic classes and accepting us so late – literally two days before I arrived – so I’m grateful they were here for us and so enthusiastic about accepting us into their university.”

Some aspects of modern Israeli life have been less than pleasant for Shepherd.

“My first day at Hebrew University was continually testing my patience, because while I realize that this country has been through a lot and that there is a lot of tension between the two, I did not realize that there was so much of a lack of understanding or people attempting to understand the Muslim population.

“I’m currently living near Damascus Gate in an Arabic neighborhood and people actually laughed at me and made jokes about the poverty in the area, insinuating I must be poor and forced to live there or I would not be,” she said.

“But I feel more comfortable here than I do at the school, where it seems that this sentiment is so widespread that some people do not even want Arabs to attend Hebrew University.”

Shepherd added “on a side note, the country is beautiful! It’s no Egypt, but it’s [Jerusalem] a great city to explore and aside from what I view as racism the people have been very welcoming and friendly to me personally.”

Though for the past few days Shepherd has been busy adjusting to her new accommodations, she still speaks very fondly of her adopted home in Cairo and Egypt as a whole, and said she would make it back when she has a chance.

“I will probably head back to Cairo or at the very least the Sinai Peninsula for spring break, because I really do love it there, miss it and I felt so much at home in their culture. I’m not sure why because it’s so, so much different from America. It’s really an unexplainable attachment."

TWENTY-TWO-year-old Jeremy Hodge is a Jew from Los Angeles who had just finished a five-month semester at the Arabic languages institute at the American University in Cairo and was waiting for the next semester to start when the revolution began. Now he’s at Hebrew University.

“They call us the ‘Cairo Kids,’ we already have a nickname. People think it’s interesting, though, and want to ask questions,” he said.

Speaking to the Post from the Hebrew University campus on Monday, the University of California at Santa Barbara senior said he was at the protests with friends on January 25, but had no idea how big they would get and found himself “kinda sucked in” and getting a taste of tear gas.

During the massive protest that Friday, January 28, he and some friends went to the Ramses Hilton near Tahrir Square to watch the clashes from the fourth-floor balcony, and found themselves trapped in the hotel after the Hilton staff barricaded the entrance to keep out protesters fleeing the clashes.

Hodge said he and his friends waited inside the Hilton bar drinking beers until the evening when protesters fleeing the tear gas and police batons broke the barricade and swarmed into the hotel. Hodge added that the protesters “were very cool though, they were just trying to recover from what was happening.”

He also described his surprise at viewing Tahrir Square after that Friday, and the spectacle of seeing the transportation hub where he had caught buses and taxis dozens of times littered with the “burned skeletons of cars and guys running everywhere with poles and machetes chanting slogans.”

When asked what had brought him to study in Cairo, Hodge said “I grew up with a strong Jewish identity and I wanted to learn not only about Jewish identity in the Middle East but everything else we’re talking about and why it’s the way it is.”

Hodge, who has studied Arabic for over three years and says he speaks the language quite well, added that his unexpected enrollment at Hebrew University is “a great opportunity to see both sides of the conflict. At first I was only going to see the Arab side of the conflict.”

Hodge admitted that people in Jerusalem “have very different feelings about things than people in Egypt, where everyone supports the Palestinians with no question and hates the Netanyahu government, and here I meet people who have completely opposite feelings about the Netanyahu government.”

In regards to discussing politics with his new classmates in Jerusalem, Hodge said “there’s no tension, just some disagreements when it comes to my opinions on Egypt and what I think will happen,” adding that he doesn’t believe that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over Egypt or that the country will embrace sharia law.

Hodge said he was openly Jewish in Cairo and did not face any problems because of his religion.

He did add that Egyptians saw a difference between “Jewish” and “Zionist” and that people would probably be more hostile to someone describing themselves as a Zionist.

Hodge said this isn’t his first time in Israel; during the break for the Muslim holiday of Id el-Fitr in September he paid a quick trip to Israel with some friends.

Following the success of the January 25 revolution and the world media’s broadcast of scenes of the greatest street party in Egyptian history, Hodge said that he “absolutely wanted to stay, and is very jealous of my friends who stayed in Cairo.”

He said that his hands were tied, though, and that he had to leave after UC-SB threatened to pull his financial aid and prevent him from graduating if he stayed.

Still, he said that the irony of his being pulled out of Cairo because of a State Department travel warning even though Israel is the object of a similar warning “is not lost on me.”


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