10 March, 2010

Living Like a Rockstar

The conference has proved interesting already. First, I miraculously made it to Helwan, far on the south side of the city, after the driver had to change a tire and then stop repeatedly to reattach said tire before speeding off down the Nile road again. I was left wondering exactly what happens to a speeding car if a rear tire comes off while trying to enjoy the less warm morning air.

At the main gate I asked one of the security officers to point me towards the conference hall. Instead, he commandeered the vehicle of a lovely woman dropping her daughter off at school and demanded that they take me across campus. Mom was very sweet and insisted it was not a problem. Unfortunately, she didn't know where we were going either and finally asked if I wouldn't mind if we just dropped her daughter off first so she wouldn't be late for class. She then had the grace and class to smile, ask my name and welcome me to Egypt profusely when we finally found the place.

I can't say I've been to another conference where I had to walk a red carpet, flanked by young people with ceremonial sashes and swarmed by papparazzos of sorts. Once again, I find myself the sole ajnabia (foreigner). Actually, that's not totally true. Turns out there are a few professors from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia attending, but I'm the only non-Arab and thus the only one whose Arabic is limited. Translation has been provided in the past and it was assumed by others that it would be provided this year. Well, it's just not cost-effective for me and after asking about headphones I was passed person to person and sort of eventually ignored.
Being a big fan of self-advocacy, I just starting asking people with conference badges if they could help me out. Oh, and nobody had me on the list, I guess, because no badge for me. The ladies at the table smiled, handed me a vinyl laptop bag and ushered me on. Finally somebody grabbed a fourth year undergrad student who spoke English and, bless her, when she determined there would be no translation, simply drafted herself into my service as an assistant and translator. Luckily, she also has a very good sense of humor and provided good color commentary during the speechifying by the VIPs at the opening ceremonies.

In fact, the day was more or less salvaged by students who seemed to sense what I needed before I did. And these were mostly undergrads. They would alternately swarm and subside, asking me questions about me, the U.S., social work. One girl grabbed my cup to force her way to the hot water for tea during the break, another guy wrestled a snack plate from other attendees for me, and a few kept trying to figure out how to get me a badge even after I'd given up. A few students and faculty asked for my help in studying in the U.S.

I must add here that somehow, simply by arriving in Egypt, I have acquired an honorary PhD because a fair number of people introduce me as doctora. Yes, I do try to correct them, but the title seems to have stuck.

In the end, a crowd of students sort of adopted me and treated me like a cross between a professor-pet-big sister-rock star. These guys were lining up to have their picture taken with me. Trust me, this has never happened in my nearly 36 years on this planet. We ended up sharing lunch in the school cafeteria, always an interesting perspective on a school. Two of the women live near where I'm staying and brought me home via the Metro, which is not so bad above ground but an endurance test at rush hour on the subterranean leg for even the heartiest soul.

So, did I learn much? Sure, just not what I expected. Tomorrow, the last day, will feature panels on the papers and there are several I am very interested in. I just hope I can follow along. I plan to hunt down the paper authors, if need be.

Next week I have a few meetings with Egyptian and international NGOs about their development work here. And somewhere in the next week I am squeezing in some sites. I really need a map. I just cannot put the parts of this place together yet.

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