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It was the first time any of the 43 Ben-Gurion University students stepped into an Arab country. They expected poverty, backwardness, and hostility. But they saw something else in Egypt.
"I didn't believe that the level of development would be so high," said Arnon Begani, a BA student of Middle Eastern studies. "They have everything there, skyscrapers, expensive cars, things of the modern world."
And, what's more, the Egyptians were friendly. "I was surprised by the level of general friendliness, openness and welcoming we received both as Israelis and as foreigners," said Megan Schiff, a 26-year-old American student in BGU's one-year English-language Middle Eastern studies MA program. "There was a lot of curiosity about us."
The number of Israelis traveling to Egypt has not yet returned to pre-intifada highs. But Professor Yoram Meital, Chairman of the Herzog Middle East Studies Center at Ben-Gurion University, is increasing that number. Meital brought BA and MA students for a two-week trip to visit Egypt.
The group spent eight days in Cairo and three days in Alexandria, where they had daily lectures about different periods of Islamic architecture, about Islam in Egypt and Egyptian history.
"I think visiting Egypt gave them a lot of food for thought," said Meital. "It revealed to them how much we don't know about Arab society, and how much we are fed on stereotypes and fear."
The students, 40 of whom were Jewish and Israeli, were usually open about their identities - but not always. "There were times when some of the Israelis felt comfortable and happy to say where they were from, and other times they didn't and made up a story like they were German students," said Schiff, adding that reactions to the Israelis were usually positive. "There were a lot of people that said they would like the relations between the two countries to improve."
Begani was one of the Israelis who never hesitated to say where he was from, he said. "I am a person who is not ashamed to say where I am from and I spoke to everybody from the barber to the hotel guards - I told everyone that I'm Israeli," said Begani. "Most of the time I got a warm response. A small group was indifferent, and only one time someone said he was against it. Most of the time, people were warm and curious about where I'm from."
The group also visited Jewish synagogues in Alexandria and Cairo and spent a day cleaning up the latter one. Meital brought pesticide in spray cans and the students sprayed all the books in the library at the Cairo synagogue, which were being eaten by bugs. They also painted the synagogue.
"It was very sad to see that the Jewish community is over," said Begani. "The community is very old and there are very few [Jews] left. You see it is another tragic result of the conflict."
The students were impressed by Egypt as a whole. "I was truly astonished by the beauty of the Ottoman- and Mamluk-era architecture that we saw," she said. "I was also surprised by the interesting blend of East and West that modern Egypt has achieved."
"I saw a high level of urban development - streets, boulevards - public investment which I didn't expect," said Begani. "And it was not just where tourists go."