Back to School from Around the World

Back to school fever has officially hit the United States! Over the next few weeks, children across the country will be heading off to school for the start of another exciting academic year. Days will be filled with courses in English, math, science, and history among many others, where students will prepare themselves for life beyond the classroom walls. The same holds true for countries around the globe. While the structure, schedules and styles may differ, one thing that remains constant is the importance of a child’s opportunity to learn. Organizations worldwide including the United Nations Children Fund , the Global Campaign for Education, and the Global Women’s Fund, among countless others are working hard to ensure this right to education remains available to all children around the world.

To provide a better understanding of how students learn in other parts of the world, we’ve pulled some fun and interesting facts from places as close as Mexico and as far away as South Korea. They have been grouped by geographic region for your convenience.


Map courtesy of National Geographic

The education system found in many European countries is perhaps most similar to what we follow here in the United States. Academic years begin in the fall, with start dates ranging from mid-August to late-September depending on the country. Students typically begin their day between 8am and 9am, and can go as late as 5pm. Most European countries place a strong emphasis on testing. For example, students in France are required to take and pass the extensive three part Baccalaureate exam to attend a university. Additionally, in Poland, students are required to complete an external exam once they have finished one of their many schooling levels (primary, lower secondary, etc.).

Additional facts about education in Europe:

  • In France, schools are traditionally closed on Wednesday, with required half day classes offered on Saturdays.

  • In Finland, school days are actually shorter than here in the United States, and students receive a 75 minute break for recess each day. Further, students are not subject to rigorous exams and rarely receive more than an hour worth of homework each night.

  • In Germany, vocational training carries the same significance as university studies. Through a dual educational system, vocational students are able to work as apprentices and receive hands on training related to their studies. Following graduation, these positions may result in full-time job opportunities.

  • In Poland, students choose their final educational path prior to graduation. These vary from three year vocational studies to a three year upper secondary school path, or both.


Map courtesy of National Geographic

Back to school time in Asia varies depending on the country. South Korea and Japan, for example, start their year in the spring, whereas China, Hong Kong and Russia begin in September. The structure and style of teaching in Asia also differs across the region. East Asian schools like those in South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong are known for their strict education and extensive testing culture. Alternatively, Russia follows a system closer to that of its European neighbors and requires testing as part of the admission requirement for a university education.

Additional facts about education in Asia:

  • In Hong Kong, class sizes can be large, with as many as 42 kids in each classroom. Some teachers must use microphones to ensure their lessons are heard. This makes one-on-one and small group time between teachers and students difficult.

  • In Japan, it is normal for parents to pay for their children to attend after school tutoring sessions, or Juku. These “Cram Schools” are rigorous, and are intended to either complement a student’s classroom instruction, or prepare them for the extensive testing needed to enter private school, high school or even university.

  • In Russia, there are roughly 16 students in each classroom, and the students remain in the same class over the course of their education which ends at grade ten. Students have the option of completing their eleventh and twelfth grades through vocational studies to learn trade skills, or take the time to prepare for their university entrance exams.

  • In South Korea, testing is so prominent, cities and towns literally come to a standstill on testing days. In fact, traffic is stopped and planes are diverted in some places to minimize noise.

Middle East and Africa

Map courtesy of National Geographic

The Middle East and Africa encompass two hemispheres, resulting in a number of different school years and educational systems. Nigeria and South Africa follow a twelve-month schedule beginning in January, while Iran follows a similar calendar to that found in the United States. Schools in this region also differ in terms of courses taught and the quality of resources provided. Conflict and poverty in many of these regions have made it difficult for children to receive a quality education. Limited resources, lack of schools, and a declining number of qualified teachers have had a major impact on the quality of education provided.

Additional facts about education in the Middle East and Africa:

  • In Nigeria, traditional classes (language studies, math, etc.) are coupled with courses on religion, agriculture and economics. This is done over the course of three terms with month long holidays at each break.

  • In Iran, students are required to pass an exam each year in order to move to the next grade level. Additionally, girls and boys are educated separately up until they enter university.

  • In South Africa, education is required for students up to, and including grade nine. Grades 10-12 are available to those who wish to continue with upper secondary school and prepare for their university entrance exams. Students also have an option of following a vocational track.

The Americas

Map courtesy of National Geographic

Schools systems throughout North, Central and South America differ in terms of size, length of school year, and quality of education. Canada is vastly similar to the United States, in their schooling structure and schedules. Greater differences occur as you move south into Central and South America, especially where resources have become strained. In Mexico for example, classrooms are overcrowded, and students are often times expected to share computers and other classroom resources. Even in parts of Brazil, financial strain has forced some schools to eliminate elective courses (art, music, etc.) from their curriculum.

Additional facts about education in the North, Central and South America:

  • In Costa Rica, the school year runs from February through December. Students are required to complete nine years of formal education, with college beginning at age fifteen.

  • In Mexico, the school year runs from September through June. The school week lasts Monday through Friday, with elective classes on Saturday.

  • In Brazil, a typical school day runs from 7am until noon, at which time students head home to share lunch with their family.

Great International Resources for Students & Teachers

We at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh are always looking for ways to help out our students and teachers learn more about the world. In that vein, we have put together a list of some of our favorite online educational resources. These links include a wide range of information, including facts, photos, videos, podcasts, books, discussion boards, and lesson plans.

We have identified some general international resources at the top of the list. After the break, you’ll find information and resources relating to Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.


 CIA World Factbook An excellent compilation of country facts (i.e. population, geography, etc.).

CNN for Teachers and Students Spotlights the day’s current events and offers printable quizzes, discussion questions, and maps.

National Geographic Kids A variety of resources are present on this website, including an online atlas with road, satellite, physical, and theme maps (population density, weather, and natural resources) as well as country profiles and pictures from around the world.

New York Times for Teachers and Students This blog highlights the day’s events, but also offers everything from lesson plans for teachers and comment boxes for students.

Outreach World This website offers a wealth of information for teaching students about the world. Under ‘Download Instructional Materials,’ it is possible to search for lesson plans by region of the world and age group.

PBS for Teachers Exclusively for teachers, this site acts as a network for lesson planning, programming, and resource guides.

PBS News Hour for Teachers and Students Offers lesson plans for teachers, but is also a great resource for students looking to comment on and follow world events.

Peace Corps World-Wise Schools Also provides lesson plans and resources created by Peace Corps volunteers around the world.

 Time for Kids Interactive and informative, and is applicable to teachers and students. The site has sections with age-specific material.

Region-specific resources can be found after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

Year in Review: International Affairs in 2011

Happy New Year, everyone! 2012 is off to a snowy start here in Pittsburgh, and this seems like a perfect time to review what has happened over the past 360-some odd days.

As always, the global stage was full of tumult and change: 2011 saw the deaths of influential world figures (Warren Christopher, Muammar Gaddafi, Vaclav Havel, Steve Jobs, Kim Jong-Il, and Osama bin Laden, for example); uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa; the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq; devastating natural disasters (earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, typhoon in the Philippines, floods in south-east Asia, and famine in the Horn of Africa); and economic crisis in Europe.

We’ve scoured the web to find some of the best of the “2011 in Review” resources, and compiled them below. Are there any we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments.

2011 Year in Review (Reuters): Photos and descriptions of the most important news stories of the year, including a dramatic 60-second multimedia video presentation of the key stories, and some of the top images from 2011.

Best Articles of 2011 (Foreign Policy Magazine): Although not necessarily highlighting the most important news stories of the year, here are the most-read articles from in 2011.

Best International Relations Books of 2011 (Foreign Affairs): In every issue of Foreign Affairs, scholars review recent academic and nonfiction books.  At the end of 2011, the reviewers were asked to select the best ones.  Here you will find the best books in a number of categories, including: Western Europe; the Middle East; the Western Hemisphere; Eastern Europe; Economic, Social, and Environmental Subjects; Asia; Africa; the United States; Military, Scientific, and Technological Subjects; and Political and Legal Subjects.

Personal Favorites from 2011 (A Realist in an Ideological Age): Stephen M. Walt is a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and writes a blog, A Realist in an Ideological Age, for Foreign Policy.  In this post, he shares his favorite blog posts from the past year, all of which are worth a read.

Shots Seen ‘Round the World (Foreign Policy Magazine): Fifty of the best/most important photographs from 2011, as selected by Foreign Policy.

Top 5 Foreign Policy Books in 2011 (Foreign Policy Association): The FPA asked its staff, editors, writers and bloggers to select the best books about foreign policy. Here is what they came up with.

Top 5 International Documentaries of 2011 (Foreign Policy Association): The FPA asked its staff, editors, writers and bloggers to select the best international documentaries on issues related to U.S. foreign policy. Here is what they came up with.

Twitter’s 2011 Year in Review (Twitter): It is no secret that social media is playing an increasing role in current events. Here is a look at some of the key stories, hot topics, and important moments of 2011 — as seen on Twitter.

Your Top 10 Stories of 2011 (The Guardian): Links to the top ten news stories of the year, as selected by readers.

The Year in Foreign Policy (Foreign Policy Association): The FPA looks at several key foreign policy events that promise to shape the coming year, including the 2012 election.

Year in Review (Foreign Policy Blogs Network): The FPA’s blog network has a number of great, topic-specific “Year in Review” posts, all of which can be found here. Read about 2011 in Russia or Israel, or the year in Global Food Security or War Crimes (to name just a few).


The Northeast Regional Model Arab League Conference

Students gather to discuss and draft a resolution during a committee session. (Photo credit: Allegra Harris & Lara Cole)

This past weekend from Friday, November 4, to Sunday, November 6, marked the annual Northeast Regional Model Arab League conference held at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. The conference, organized by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, brings students together to debate, discuss, and hypothetically solve actual political, social, economic, and environmental issues that the twenty-two members of the Arab League are currently facing. This year’s Northeast Regional Model Arab League was the first of the University Model Arab League conferences to be held since the Arab Spring began at the start of the year, which every student delegation used as a means of promoting international cooperation and human and economic development within their committees.

Universities in attendance included United States Military Academy at West Point, Colby College, Simmons College, Converse College, Northeastern University, Bard College, Endicott College, Emmanuel College, MIT, Drake University, Roger Williams University, Fitchburg State University, University of Massachusetts Boston, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and the University of Pittsburgh. Each university is assigned a country or countries to represent in Model Arab League. Students then choose which committees they’d like to participate in. This year, twelve students from the University of Pittsburgh’s Session: Middle East club attended the conference representing the country of Lebanon.

The three-day long conference is a simulation of the challenges that the Arab League as an international organization faces in addressing impending domestic and international issues pertinent to its Arab member states. Just as in the actual Arab League body, students must adhere to parliamentary procedure and observe appropriate, professional decorum at all times, as well as strictly adhere to the actual policies, ideologies, and worldviews of their respective countries. Each committee, which is headed by a committee chair who moderates debate and enforces the rules, addresses an agenda of four issues and either drafts or supports a resolution that is in the country’s best interest. Debates can get heated and passionate, but also humorous as students interact with each other more during committee sessions and during free time.

By the end of the conference on Sunday, students have gained more knowledge, creativity, and leadership skills than any class could ever teach. By providing a setting for active participation, direct communication, and compromise, Model Arab League encourages and promotes open mindedness, tolerance, and global awareness among the future leaders and decision makers in international affairs.

To learn more about the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, visit

To learn more about Model Arab League, future conference dates, and how to participate, visit


-Krista, World Affairs Council Intern


The Death of Anwar al-Awlaki

Early this morning, the news broke that Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Muslim cleric with ties to al-Qaeda in Yemen, was killed in a drone strike.  Al-Awlaki, believed to be a senior leader of al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen, was suspected of helping to recruit Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab (the “underwear bomber”), and was tied to the attempt to ship explosives into the U.S. via cargo planes last year.

This new development has many asking about al-Awlaki: who he was, what his death means, and whether the action was even legal.  Here are a few articles and blog posts to help you better understand the situation.


Drone strike kills U.S.-born al Qaeda cleric al-Awlaki, U.S. officials say (CNN): The main news article from today.

The Myth of Anwar al-Awlaki (Foreign Policy): A fairly in-depth article from August, 2011 about Awlaki.

Anwar al-Awlaki: Gone But Not Forgotten (Foreign Policy): An opinion piece looking at Awlaki’s role and the future of al-Qaeda in Yemen after his death.

Anwar al-Awlaki: al Qaeda’s rock star no more (CNN): A different perspective on Yemen and al-Qaeda, post-Awlaki.

Al Qaeda’s Not Dead Yet (Brookings): Another opinion on the future al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.

Yemeni Cleric’s Killing: Praise and Unease (Council on Foreign Relations): An overview of the issues surrounding Awlaki’s (targeted) killing.

Was Killing American al Qaeda Cleric Anwar al-Awlaki Legal? (Time): A look at some of the legal issues and debate involved with the drone strike that killed al-Awlaki, and implications for future cases.

Was Anwar al-Awlaki still a U.S. Citizen? (Foreign Policy): A brief blog post asserting that al-Awlaki was in fact, still a U.S. citizen when he was killed.

Is Obama’s Use of State Secrets Privilege the New Normal? (The Nation): An article from (almost exactly) one year ago discussing civil liberties, state secrets, and Anwar al-Awlaki.  Food for thought.

Up-to-Date Information on the Arab Spring

Arab Spring

The topic of this year’s World Affairs Institute is “The Arab Awakening: A Call to Change in the Middle East and Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy.” Because this issue is ever-evolving, we have created a blog with up-to-date information on current affairs in the region.

You can find the blog at — this link has been added to our Blogroll on the right-hand side for added convenience.

You can subscribe to this blog, bookmark the link for regularly updated information, or — if you are searching for information on a certain country — you can select the category from the list on the right-hand side.  You’ll find resources on Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE, Yemen, and more.

If you’re searching for specific information regarding the Arab Spring that you’re not able to find, leave a comment and we’ll see what we can do!

Happy reading!

Day 3 at the SSWA: Arab Spring and US National Interests

Today the Summer Seminar welcomed Dr. Christina Michelmore, chair of Chatham University’s History Department who specializes in modern Middle Eastern history, to discuss the Arab Spring and its implications for US Foreign Policy.

Egyptian protesters filled Tahrir Square

She began by providing some background on US policy in the region. Traditionally, that policy has been based on two primary interests: the security of the supply of Persian Gulf oil at reasonable prices and the security of Israel. However, often these two interests conflict.

Since the 1970s, the US has pursued three major policy tracks. First, it has sought a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Second, it has tried to exclude or at least contain hostile external or regional forces. Third, it has supported stable states; that is, those who are friendly towards the US and not overtly hostile towards Israel.

It may come as a surprise to some people to realize just how many allies the US has in the Middle East. Egypt and Jordan have been crucial partners in the Arab-Israeli conflict; Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and especially Saudi Arabia are key oil producers; the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is located in Bahrain; Qatar is a center of media and education; Oman guards the strategic Straits of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world’s oil must travel; and Yemen has been important to the fight against terrorism. All of these countries have some sort of official alliance with the US.

On the other side of the equation, Iraq and Lebanon cannot be considered strong allies because their internal instability makes them unpredictable. However, both tend to be more focused on internal issues. Meanwhile, Iran and Syria are declared opponents of the US and Israel.

Dr. Michelmore also explained that the tensions between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims play into the instability in the Middle East. Whichever branch is not represented by the governing elite often faces discrimination, and many governments face large minority populations. Also, many citizens identify more strongly as either Sunni or Shi’a than with a national identity.

US policy has typically supported autocratic regimes in the Middle East if they served our interests, despite the fact that such governments did not share our values. After September 11, 2001, policymakers shifted more towards the idea of democracy promotion; however, this effort was soon frustrated when in some cases free choice led to instability or unfriendly governments (for example, violence in Iraq and the election of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories).

Dr. Michelmore then shifted the focus to the wave of popular protests that began last December in Tunisia and have since spread to most other Middle Eastern and North African countries, known as the Arab Spring. These protests have been led by young people (under the age of 35); have utilized civil disobedience (peaceful protests), social media and cell phones; and have common demands (replace autocracies with democracies, improve education, provide jobs, end favoritism, and protect rights and freedoms.)

She also outlined the principle challenges and risks. First of all, it is difficult for the US to support protesters when we are allied with their governments. Second, we don’t know how it will turn out. For example, is it likely to result in the establishment of democracies in the Middle East?

Read the rest of this entry »

>EMEA Mondays: A Primer on Islamic Finance

>How does getting a loan without paying interest sound? Impossible? Not if you get a loan from an Islamic bank. Islamic banking principles are guided by Sharia, or Islamic law. Generally, that means Islamic banks can’t charge you interest (riba) on the loan (Islam says it’s unethical to make money off of money that you personally did not work to earn) and, in the case of stockbrokers, not investing in firms that deal with things that are haram, or forbidden, e.g. pork, alcohol, pornography (in some ways, similar to socially responsible investing).

The Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance says that anyone can receive a loan from an Islamic bank (they do not need to be Muslim), but the individual must accept the terms of the loan according to Sharia. Islamic finance prohibits trading in derivatives or futures (assets that derive their value from some other object, or derivatives that are agreed to be bought for a future specified sum, e.g. agreeing to purchase units of currency in the future at the current exchange rate), as this would be considered speculation, another no-no according to Islamic finance principles.

Sukuk is another useful term to know. Similar to bonds in that they are used to finance existing projects, they use return on assets to pay the investors (who own portions of whatever the bonds are helping to raise money more) instead of interest.

Another one of the things that Islamic banking suggests is for the lender and the recipient to share equally in the risk of the loan. Generally, if a homeowner needs capital to purchase a house, an Islamic bank will buy the house in question, and lease it to the homeowner, until the all of the payments are made; then the homeowner will have his house in full. No interest is made, and if the homeowner can’t pay the money, the bank owns the property.

Do you think Islamic banking and finance sounds more ethical than traditional Western finance practices? Would you consider using an Islamic bank?

Also, read this article about Asia-Pacific universities adding courses in Islamic finance.

>Cleopatra’s Bathing Suit: Being a Woman in the Middle East


Being a woman, traveling in the Middle East requires a certain understanding and acceptance of the norms dictated by the local culture. That is what this post is about, my struggle to reach that understanding and adhere to those norms while still respecting my own beliefs and without offending anybody.
But first just look at all the things that can be done with women’s Islamic fashion!  This is a store front display on the streets of Cairo:

While in Egypt I made every effort to respect the local mores by always wearing clothing that covered my shoulders and legs, despite the sweltering heat.  I even carried a scarf to be used as a head covering, should I visit a mosque that day. Wanting to be only in shorts and a tank-top this was a bit annoying, but not a huge deal, especially as I wished to avoid any creepy leers or extra hassle.  Then I went to Cleopatra’s Bath.

(Read more…)

Cleopatra’s Bath is one of the more popular natural springs, that the Siwa Oasis, mentioned in my last post,  is famous for.  (They have both hot and cold springs.)  Here I should mention that Siwa, being an oasis and removed from well . . . everywhere else, has remained quite conservative.  The women here wear a full burqa, without even the tiny slits for eyes.  Because of the town’s super-traditional nature, the Lonely Planet had advised that when visiting Cleopatra’s Bath, if you were a woman and brave enough to even go in the pool, you should be fully clothed.
My friend (a guy) and myself arrived at Cleopatra’s Bath at about 1 pm, after biking around the oasis in the stifling desert heat the entire morning. Imagine, if you will, being hot, sweaty, tired, fully clothed, and then faced with this temptation of refreshing blue wonderfulness:

I had an extra shirt with me, but no spare pants.  Peter (also mentioned in the last post) sees the conundrum written on my face, and asks if I’m not going swimming.  I explain the situation, and he ever so kindly offers me an extra pair of shorts to swim in.  I protest that shorts will not cover my knees and calves.  He chuckles and points out that there is hardly anyone here.  It’s true.  There are only a few staff, and a small handful of local teenage guys swimming.  I stand there squinting in the sun for a few more moments of hesitation, and then grab the shorts and make a mad dash for the changing room.  I come out and walk purposefully toward the pool, wanting to get in the safety of the water as quickly as possible so the few locals won’t have time to see my legs.  I jump in.  I let myself sink all the way down to the bottom of the deep pool, reveling in the refuge from the heat, and come up slowly.  When I break the surface and wipe the water from my eyes, I look around.
All of a sudden, in the time it took for me to jump in and come back up, I am now surrounded by approximately 50 people, all staring into Cleopatra’s Bath, where I, the lone woman, am swimming. Of course. I become bashful and cling to the wall of the pool, in vain trying to hide my legs beneath the crystal clear water.  As I dangle on the side of the pool, I question myself.  How is it that while swimming in a bath whose namesake was arguably one of the most powerful women in history, I am ashamed of exposing my knees and calves simply because I am a girl?  I mean, really.  I was swimming in basketball shorts and a t-shirt!  Meanwhile, my friend and the other guys swimming get to wear regular swimming trunks without thinking twice about it.
Thankfully, the group was only some tourists, and I’m sure no one really cared.  Peter and my friend would tease me later for being so embarrassed.  It is funny, but it really got me thinking about things.  How can I reconcile myself with a religion that makes me ashamed of my body? Is the burqa oppressive?
Chatting about it later in a hostel with a friend, he pointed out a perspective that jarred me.  We in the west may find the requirements of dress for Islamic women oppressive, but he suggested that if we ask them, they might point to our obsession with looks, and the pressure that women feel to wear the right fashion and cover our faces in make-up and find that to be oppressive.  In a burqa, as the argument goes, a woman is judged solely by the content of her speech and not her body or her looks.  I can’t say I agree with this because the same is not applied to Muslim men.  But I suppose that if a woman has the freedom to choose her religion and therefore her dress, I can respect that position.
Okay, now we fast-forward to a second incident, this time in Jerusalem, Israel.

After exploring Ein Gedi and floating in the Dead Sea, I take the bus into Jerusalem.  From the Central Bus Station, I make my first attempt at navigating the Jerusalem city buses to get to my hostel.  I hop on the #3 bus and the driver confirms that this bus does indeed go to the Damascus Gate, where my hostel is.  I haul myself, my massively heavy backpack and two small bags onto a seat at the front where there is plenty of room and it will be easier for me to get to the door. 
Throughout the route the bus fills up a bit, mostly with Jewish Orthodox people, women with head coverings, men with the black, big brimmed hats, beards and the two curly locks beside their ears.  I don’t think much about it because we seem to be going through mostly orthodox neighborhoods and I’m preoccupied taking in the city sights while looking for the Damascus Gate, my stop.
An older lady boards the bus, pays the fare and begins to walk down the aisle.  She stops,and begins yelling at me in Hebrew!  I stammer, trying to figure out what is going on, and the old man sitting behind me, begins pointing and yelling at me too!  Finally a man across from me asks if I speak English.  Scared and confused, I say yes, looking to him for explanation.
“Women sit in the back.”

I pause for a moment, bewildered.  As I look between my huge pack, the faces of the two people spewing adamant Hebrew at me, and the other passengers, anger sets in.  Grumbling loudly, I hoist my bag onto my sunburned shoulders and move from the front (where space was aplenty) to the only open spot in the very back of the bus, where sure enough, all the women sat.
I sat in the back of the bus, discreetly trying to dab at tears that the incident brought on. Perhaps I should be thicker skinned, but I could not help it.  I was at first horrified that I had offended, then furious that they had no sympathy for a girl with a heavy bag who did not understand the language or the custom, then outraged at the custom itself.  My mind conjured thoughts of Rosa Parks, segregation and the fallacy of “separate but equal” doctrine while I simmered in my seat.
Regretfully, not every travel story ends with a laugh at something lost in translation or promises to keep in touch.  This one does not. It should be noted, though, that this was a rare occurrence as most buses don’t have this practice.  According to other travelers and locals I spoke with later, it was probably a particularly orthodox route.  After cooling off, the scene still replayed itself in my head. I tried to figure it out. 
Perhaps in the way that there was a perspective on the Islamic burqa that I had never even considered, there was something like that here too.  Maybe I could learn from this, expand my cultural understanding.  I do not deny that this may still be the case.  Understanding the traditions of different cultures and religions, is one of the reasons we travel in the first place.  That said, cultural relativism is a slippery slope.  I suppose that finding the line between understanding and acceptance and the place where your own beliefs are transgressed is a matter particular to the individual. 
For myself, that line falls halfway down a Jerusalem city bus.  And I refuse to be made to cross it again.  Next time, I’ll take a taxi.

~Marie DeAeth, Intern Abroad

>Hello Camel: An Introduction to Egypt and the Baksheesh Economy


My first impression of Egypt? Dusty. Having arrived extraordinarily late at night and weary from nearly three full days in transit, I didn’t take in much of Cairo on the ride to my hostel during the night. By morning light though, sitting on the balcony of the Meramees Hostel, I glanced around while sipping what would be the first of many Turkish coffees, thick as sludge. It seemed as if the entire city of Cairo was covered in a light brown mixture of dirt and sand, that everything was being viewed through a taupe tinted lens. The muted color palette was actually relaxing in way especially when contrasted with the bustle and fray of life below, which was anything but muted.

After a much needed day of rest, I spent my first full day in Cairo doing the quintessential Egyptian tourist bit . . . the Pyramids. The staff at my hostel, whom I adore, proposed their standard tour, wherein a driver takes you around for a day, to three different pyramids, first the step pyramid, Saqqara, 
 . . . then Dahshur where the bent pyramid is:
(they started building it at the wrong angle, and had to change the angle halfway through! Hilarious.) 
 . . . and finally Giza . . . the pyramids any account of a trip to Egypt will certainly picture. And far be it from me to disappoint:

The pyramids at Giza were tallest man-made structures, for thousands of years. It was only recently that the Eiffel Tower took that title. As truly amazing as it is to be standing in front of the pyramids and the Sphinx, the experience is somewhat tempered by the bombardment of locals looking for any way to make some baksheesh…. (Read More)

What is baksheesh? It’s a tip, a little something extra, and sort of involves the idea of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Here’s how it works: The guys at my hostel, are getting a kickback from the driver, for sending us to him. Our driver (he was really a sweetheart of a guy named Sameh, and a great tour guide) after Saqqara and Dahshur pyrmaids takes us to an incense maker and a papyrus shop. Should we buy something there, he gets a kickback from the shop guys. And these kickbacks are not taken from the actual price of the item, but merely added on top of the already inflated prices applied to foreigners. I had no doubt this was going on but the shop guys were really friendly, and suckered me in with free Turkish coffee, so I knowingly bought an overpriced papyrus map. It was only my first day, and it didn’t really bother me. But this is only the tip of the baksheesh iceberg. The guy who loads your bag on the bus, lifting it all of three feet, expects a tip. Anyone who just starts giving you a tour of a mosque . . . expects baksheesh. The children hanging about at the Sphinx who offer to take your picture may say that it’s free, but then immediately demand some cash for the service. When Sameh takes us to our last stop, the pyramids of Giza, we get out of the car, to a chorus of “Hello, Camel!” The phrase is supposed to sound like a question, offering camel rides but I start to feel like maybe they think my name is “Camel.” Sameh conveniently leads us to his friend’s stable where they try to sell us camel rides. I proceed to throw down some of my best haggling skills, and trust me, I love a good haggle. I worked it down to a price that I thought was almost reasonable, only to find out a few days later that I still paid far too much. Such is the baksheesh economy.
But it is hard for me to get mad at Sameh or the guys at my hostel, Mohammed, Achmed and Moustafa, mostly because over my few days in Cairo, I really came to like them all, and I think they were fond of me too, but moreover, because that’s just how it works. These guys are just trying to make a living in a developing country, and tourist dollars are one of the best ways for them to do that. Does that make it fair that everything is absurdly overpriced if you’re a foreigner? Absolutely not. It is infuriating if you dwell on it. I try to remind myself that it’s not the individuals, it’s the system. Some could also argue that being American, from a rich country, we shouldn’t complain about having to pay more, simply because we can afford it, and this argument has its points. But then I do some quick calculations and realize that my driver and the hostel guys all make WAY more money than me! Hmmm. Well, it’s food for thought, at least.

Of course, it would be unfair of me to complain about the baksheesh economy without mentioning that I have experienced a slew of instances of wonderful Egyptian hospitality and kindness.  In addition to countless people who have given me directions on the street and various other things, two particularly nice examples come to mind.  When a friend and I were in Alexandria wandering some back streets in search of food, we came across a street food vendor doling out the last of his lunch portions.  He insisted on giving us his last two spicy beef and liver sandwiches . . . for free!  Sidenote- apparently, when its in a spicy Egyptian sandwich, I like liver!  Who knew?

By far, though, the best experience with Egyptian hospitality came from Peter, an Egyptian guy who I met working at the Tanta Waa Cafe in the Siwa Oasis.  Quite randomly, he invited me and my friend Paul to go with himself and some others to a hot spring favored by locals.  He seemed confused when I asked him, “How much?” He said it was free because he was going with a friend anyway, and he could drive us if we would like to join them.  My friend and I, perhaps jaded by all the baksheesh and scams to squeeze money out of tourists, were skeptical to say the least.  Thankfully though, I trusted my gut and we were treated to an amazing (and entirely free) evening of relaxing in a hot spring completely surrounded by a desert vista blanketed in stars.  Peter turned out to be a really cool guy and we are now Facebook friends.

Egypt, the birthplace of civilization, has so far been utterly astounding. In addition to the pyramids and Siwa Oasis that I just mentioned I’ve also seen incredible Greco-Roman ruins in Alexandria including some crazy-impressive catacombs, the library of Alexandria (a must if you are a library nerd like myself), and the temples at Luxor and Karnak. Currently I am typing this while sitting on the roof of my hostel in Luxor, baking in what has to be 90 degrees Fahrenheit at 9pm. Yes, apparently I’m stuck in the middle of a heat wave that is incredibly hot even for the locals. Despite the heat, the baksheesh, and all the dirt and dust, I am completely in love with Egypt.

-Marie DeAeth, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern Abroad


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