In Other Wor(l)ds: Becca in Egypt


Becca Novak is 25 years old and lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the Education Manager for ScriptEd, a startup nonprofit organization that connects students to tech careers by recruiting volunteers to teach computer science in under-served schools. Previously, she taught special education for three years in San Francisco as a Teach For America corps member. She graduated from Tufts University in 2010, where she majored in English. She also studied Arabic, which led her to study abroad in Egypt in 2008.

On Choosing Egypt: I had been studying Arabic for a year and a half, and I wanted to put that knowledge to use and improve my speaking. I think a lot of college students are interested in a fun semester abroad, but I was much more interested in pushing my personal boundaries. Cairo is a cultural hub for the Middle East and my school accepted credits from the American University so it seemed like a natural choice to study abroad in Egypt.

The real question is why I chose to study Arabic. I became interested in the Middle East in 2005 when I visited Lebanon and Tunisia on a high school educational trip called Arete. At the time I thought I might end up living or working in the region for longer, but I also wanted to understand more about this region that was always in the news. I heard about the Middle East all the time but I didn’t even know anyone who had been there.

The view from my apartment.

The view from my apartment.

On Safety: I didn’t expect to feel as safe as I did. I had heard so many terrible things about sexual harassment and the oppression of women (which was definitely present; I got a ton of cat calls and it was rare to see women out and about on the street, especially downtown). However, there were so many people around all the time that I ended up feeling very safe, at all hours of the day or night. Any time I had a minor conflict with a shopkeeper or a taxi driver, someone (or, usually a group) would come check it out and get involved. I feel much less safe walking around major US cities after dark — people either aren’t around or are afraid to get involved, or both.

On Transportation: Infrastructure—especially transportation—was a huge culture shock. In the U.S. it is so easy to take our (mostly) clean, functioning transportation system for granted. There are so many informal or unregulated systems in Cairo to get around, and it was really overwhelming to try to figure it out, especially at first.

Inside a pyramid.

Inside a pyramid.

On The Unexpected Normal: Early on during my study abroad in Egypt I befriended one of the students at my school who was working the study abroad student orientation. He invited me to come to iftar (breaking the Ramadan fast) with him, and I got very excited because I thought I would get to meet his family and have what I imagined would be a real Egyptian experience. I went to meet him and he brought me to the Marriott Hotel for dinner, and I only then realized that this was supposed to be a date. I panicked and made some excuse to leave ☺

I think that’s a really common experience – you kind of come up with a romanticized picture of a country and expect certain things, but when it comes down to it people are just people, doing the same things we do in the US. Another example of this: early in the semester, I took a school-planned trip to Alexandria, and I roomed in the hotel with an Egyptian student. She told me that this was the first time she had shared a room with someone who wasn’t a part of her immediate family. Then she snuck out to go meet her boyfriend. She was kind of a badass.

“Only in Egypt”: The Internet went out for about a week while I was in Egypt. Not just in my apartment; it went out in the whole country. Apparently the fiber optic cable that runs along the ocean floor and brings the Internet to Egypt got cut by an anchor. That felt like a real “only in Egypt” moment . . . when things go wrong, they really go wrong. And somehow everyone keeps plugging along.

On “Lost in Translations”: Apparently there’s a thing about foreign women being easy. I actually got mistaken for a prostitute once, which seemed to actually be an honest mix up. I was chatting with a taxi driver who was dropping me off at my friend Mitch’s house on Shaaria Nubar. I said I was going to my friend’s house and he asked if my friend was Egyptian or American, and then asked if I had a lot of friends. I said I had a few friends, some were Egyptian, some were American. He asked if he could be my friend, and I was feeling so proud of our chat that I said, “Sure!” Then when we got to Mitch’s house, the cab driver parked the car and got out with me and asked to come upstairs. All of a sudden I remembered that I’d seen other Egyptians mix up the words for “friend” and “boyfriend” and I realized he thought I’d been talking about my tons of boyfriends.


A prehistoric petrified waterfall I saw during a biology class fieldtrip.

On Arabic: I studied Arabic for a year and a half before I left, so I definitely had a good base when I got there. However, I studied Modern Standard Arabic (formal Arabic, which is what the Koran is written in, along with most newspapers), but in Egypt they speak a dialect that is pretty different. That’s actually a huge regret of mine, because if I had studied somewhere with “cleaner” Arabic like Lebanon or Syria or Jordan I might have improved even more. Learning Egyptian was like starting over in lots of ways, although I had a leg up because I knew the alphabet and had the sounds down. I really like Egyptian – some of the grammar gets collapsed and it feels really loose and dirty to speak, in a way.

I had one phrase that I used all the time because people thought it was hilarious – it was “wialaahy, ya sheikha?!” which basically means “Oh my God, girl!!” It’s something that mostly middle-aged moms say when they’re talking to their girlfriends and it always got a great reaction. Also, “Aywa, ba’a” is very Egyptian, which pretty much is just an emphatic “yes.” Everyone who loves Arabic loves “in sha’ allah” which is how everyone responds to questions – it means “if God wills it.” It makes it really easy to be flaky – if someone asks you to do something you just say “in sha’ allah” and it’s up to higher powers if it works out or not.

One Shocking Moment: I was in a class where we were studying human development, and we spent a lot of time talking about poverty in other countries and how important it is for people to feel that they are being represented. I was one of only a couple Americans in the class; it was mostly Egyptians. One day, a girl raised her hand and said, “We are spending all this time talking about other countries, but what about our country? I don’t feel like my voice is heard. My uncle works for the government, and I know he was told to change votes in the last election! Why can’t we talk about our country?” The teacher told her to be quiet – that she might feel safe talking about this at school, but she could never know who was in the classroom and what might happen. That was a really shocking moment for me.


With some students from an English class I taught in Cairo.

On A Family Visit: I’m sure my parents were a bit nervous that I chose to study in Egypt, but they also know I can take care of myself. They came to visit me, which was kind of amazing because they had each only been to Europe or Canada/Mexico before. On top of that, I have gay moms, which I think made the trip feel a little risky for them – if gay marriage is controversial in the US, it’s not even on the table in Egypt. They did a great job and I think ended up having a really good trip, but it was definitely difficult. I wanted to get them out of the Egypt that only rich white people see, so I planned some things that weren’t a great idea for two middle aged women. For example, taking an all night train to Luxor.

My moms in Luxor.

My moms in Luxor.

On Travel: My favorite trip within Egypt was to the Black and White Desert. While it’s definitely more off the beaten path, most of the expats and students went there. There are these two deserts out to the West of Cairo that look like the surface of the moon – the first one is covered in all of this black matter (volcanic? I have no idea) and the second has these incredible natural structures that I think were made of limestone. To get there we took a public bus out to the desert and then met up with our bedouin guides, who brought us out to camp overnight. My boyfriend at the time came to visit and I brought him out there – we spent the night around the fire drinking sweet tea with our guides, who were all smoking hashish and singing songs and playing the flute.

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In the Black and White Desert.

On Career Influences: At the time I thought I would be a political scientist, or perhaps work for the State Department. Instead, I came back and became a teacher with Teach For America. I think I realized that lots of the problems I saw in Egypt were also problems that we had at home as well, but I am better equipped to work on them here. Living and doing a study abroad in Egypt made it really clear to me that we have enormous resources in the U.S., and it’s ludicrous that we can’t figure out how to make them accessible to everyone. That’s what I’m working on now.

Me and one of my moms on a felucca (a traditional sailing boat).

Me and one of my moms on a felucca (a traditional sailing boat).

On Reflections from Time Abroad: My experience in Egypt was really special, and I still think about it a lot. It shaped many things about who I am today and what I think I’m capable of. While it definitely wasn’t as fun as a semester drinking beers on La Rambla in Barcelona would have been, I think it helped me to see the world in a different light – it’s big but it’s also small. We’re all connected in so many ways, and it’s important to be able to see that as a college student.

On top of my apartment.

On top of my apartment.

Thank you so much for sharing, Becca! It’s been so interesting to read all about your experience, and your reflections on how you’re still influenced by it 6 years later. 


  • If you could be mistaken for a prostitute, then so could Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms! Also, your moms seem to have fared a whole lot better on the overnight to Luxor than that couple behind them!

    Fascinating post, Becca. I learned a lot, and wherever you end up, people are sure to benefit from your intelligent perspective.