Kids, Camels & Cairo

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My eyes popped open the second I heard the call to prayer resound through the air. At 7:00 A.M., I walked out onto a rare quiet Cairo street and waited for the school van to pick me up. Climbing onto the van, I found a seat alongside the foreign and Muslim teachers, where I was only one of a few women not wearing hijab. It was Sunday morning, the start of another Islamic week of trying to discipline rich and apathetic students.

Traveling across the globe to work in an international school in Cairo, Egypt, was not exactly the glamorous lifestyle I thought it would be. I cherished my travels to the Red Sea, delighted in visiting the Pyramids, and appreciated the natural wonders of the Nile River. However, I also spent days without electricity or internet, was leered at by rude Egyptian men, breathed in Cairo’s cancerous black smog, and coaxed school work from students.

KIDS, CAMELS, & CAIRO is a lighthearted read about Jill Dobbe’s personal experiences as an educator abroad. Whether you’re an educator, a traveler, or just a curious reader, you will be astounded at this honest and riveting account of learning to live in an Islamic society, while confronting the frustrating challenges of being an educator in a Muslim school. (less)




Tanned and rested, we returned to Cairo ready to start work
at our new school. That Monday morning as I got ready to meet the teaching
staff for the first time, I took great care in choosing the proper outfit. I
remembered all too well Ms. Marwa reading the school dress code to me at the
recruiting fair where we were hired. From what I learned, women, more than men,
were held to strict standards. It was clearly spelled out that no tight or low
cut clothing should ever be worn, skirts and dresses had to be ankle length,
and sleeves were to be worn at all times. I understood all too well that my
naked arms, legs, ankles, and toes must never see the light of a school day.

That morning I abandoned half of my wardrobe because it was
either too short, too form fitting, or too flashy. I tossed pieces of clothing
across our crowded bedroom and made my final choice of a dark, shapeless skirt
and paired it with a long-sleeved white blouse. The blouse had a high,
chin-scraping neckline and was loose enough to conceal the fact that there were
breasts underneath. The only shoes that matched my conventional and tasteless
outfits were a pair of unflattering, flat-soled black loafers that I’d thrown
in my suitcase at the last minute. Those shoes would become a main part of my
daily outfit as women were prohibited from wearing any open-toed sandals or
high-heeled shoes. It was believed that the sound of clicking heels drew too
much attention and distracted the male teachers. It would be some time before
I’d ever get to wear my strappy sandals which I carted along with me from the
U.S. My gorgeous sandals would now be relegated to the back of my tiny bedroom
closet where they would gather a layer of desert dust.

As I surveyed my modest outfit in the mirror hanging on our
bedroom wall, I cringed knowing I would have to get used to dressing in this
fuddy-duddy manner for the next two years. Dan, on the other hand, was happy to
see me all covered up. He had already noticed that Egyptian men loved to stare
at foreign women, and he didn’t like it.

Properly attired and ready to face the day, Dan and I joined
teachers and students on the school van, which was to be our daily
transportation to and from school. After the forty-five minute ride, the driver
parked in the lot adjacent to the school and we walked up to the main building.
Upon entering, I was nearly blinded by the shiny gray marble that covered the
walls and floors. They practically shimmered and were so different from the
scuffed and chipped tile of the public schools in the U.S. I learned quickly
that the impeccable sheen was the result of continuous daily mopping by the
blue maids. Easy to spot in the school with their identical blue hijab (hence,
their nickname), I watched their heads bob up and down as they busily mopped the
floors already at 7:00 a.m.

Ms. Marwa, looking much happier to see us this time, greeted
us at the entrance and led us down one of the shiny hallways to her corner
office. While Dan walked alongside her, I lagged behind juggling a stack of
school materials that were about to tumble out of my arms. Just before we
neared her office, I spotted an empty table and veered over to plunk everything
down. Oblivious to the blue maid mopping nearby, I walked straight into a
puddle of water and before I knew it, was flat on my backside with books and
papers scattered all around me. Ms. Marwa, upon hearing the commotion, ran out
of her office and marched straight over to the blue maid admonishing her for
not displaying the yellow Caution! Wet
sign that sat in a corner.

I sat up and instantly noticed that my long conservative
skirt had flown up around my waist exposing my not-so-conservative red lace
underpants (there was nothing in the school dress code that said I couldn’t
wear them!). Mortified that Ms. Marwa had gotten the full view, I pulled my
skirt down as fast as I could. Bemused, Dan walked over to me shaking his head.
“I heard the noise and had a feeling it was you. Are you okay?” He stuck out
his hand to help me up. I grasped it and flinched from the sharp pain that shot
up my leg. I twisted my ankle during the fall and it was now turning black and

After that fall, whenever I came near a wet floor, my pulse
quickened and my body went rigid with fear. I slinked past the blue maids as
they held their mops and stared at me. It was no secret to any of us why I
showed dismay. At least I gave them a few minutes of entertainment in what must
have been a pretty dull and tedious job.

Dan held my hand and I hobbled along next to him as we made
our way to the morning faculty meeting. We entered a large meeting room already
abuzz with teachers and administrators. Minutes after we found our seats, Ms.
Marwa walked over to the microphone and waited for everyone to be quiet. Just
as she started to speak, a harsh screech burst out of the speakers causing her
to jump and teachers to cover their ears. The shrill sound was followed by a
bothersome echo that ricocheted off the room’s bare walls. Ms. Marwa carried on
even though it was difficult to understand anything she said.

The staff sat riveted and I did my best to focus, however I
couldn’t keep my eyes from drifting across the room. I looked over at the
teachers and was surprised to see that so many of the women wore headscarves in
a variety of prints and styles. Wrapped tightly around their heads and necks,
the scarves were colorful and added some character and style to their otherwise
plain attire. Despite the stifling Egyptian heat, the majority of them also
wore long and unflattering burkas.

Ms. Marwa did not wear a headscarf, but was dressed in a
flowing black burka that left only her face and fingers exposed. Under her
loose sleeves she wore black stretchy tights called ‘armies’ that covered her
wrists to her elbows. It was the same getup she wore when she interviewed us in
Cambridge, and during the years I worked with her, I never once saw her wear
anything other than a black, gray, brown, or beige burka. I thought she must
have had the most boring closet ever.
The male teachers, Egyptian and foreign, wore typical western-style
clothing of shirt, tie, and loose pants to school. Only on special occasions or
when visiting the mosques, did Egyptian men wear their traditional gallibayas.

Before I realized it, the meeting ended and I shifted my
attention back to Ms. Marwa. She ended by wishing the staff a good school year
and the teachers got up and left. I said a quick goodbye to Dan who sauntered
toward his office in the high school. With my ankle now throbbing and swelling
to twice its size, I limped up the three flights of stairs to my own office. A
small room located right next to the stairs, it held a gray metal desk, filing
cabinet, and two chairs. There was one large window which looked out over the
high school and a spacious green lawn. In the corner of my office was a
bathroom I had all to myself. I felt like a queen and was thrilled to no longer
have to use the smelly student bathrooms where I had to bend way down to wash
my hands or view myself in the mirrors. Enthusiastic to start decorating, I
filled the walls with colorful student artwork I found sitting in a corner. The
artwork seemed to be just what the room needed to look and feel cheery.

Three days later the students arrived and the official school
term began. Dark-haired Egyptian children of all ages chased back and forth
while waiting for the first bell to ring. I stepped with caution into the
unruly fray and navigated through the mobs of excited elementary students,
praying I would make it to the building without any mishaps. With my arms carrying
more school materials, I forged ahead toward the main doors of the elementary
building. Just as I reached out to grab the door handle, a boy coming out of
nowhere ran smack into me knocking me down. It was several seconds before I even
realized what had happened to me. Tears sprang from my eyes as oblivious
students jumped over and around my inert body. My tears were not only from the
pain I was feeling (which was now spreading across my entire backside), but
more the result of getting knocked off my feet by a scrawny ten-year-old. I
looked at the lanky boy and waited for some kind of apology, or help even.
Instead, he gave me a lopsided grin and dashed off to join his friends in their
game of tag, or more like, hit-and-run. Angry and hurt, I forced myself to
stand up. It was the first day of school and already the second time I lay flat
on the ground. No one came to help, or even ask if I was okay. Once again, I
swallowed my pride, gathered my materials, and limped into the school.


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Jill Dobbe