Thoughts from an Egyptian UChicagoan

On coursework, Cairo, and making it count.

By Salma Tageldin

The first thing I noticed about UChicago students, at least those on Sidechat, is that they complain a lot. And, having been an international exchange student here for the past quarter, I get it now. As a university, UChicago is as challenging as they come. The humongous reading load, the dreadful midterm exams with 60-something percent as the average grade, and the weekly rush of having to finish problem set after problem set have all become regular occurrences. Don’t even get me started on the Sosc essays. I thought I was a semi-decent writer before taking Power.

So, yes, compared to my home institution back in Cairo, UChicago is significantly more demanding. The academic stress, deadlines, and the constant embarrassment inherent to my trying to clearly articulate my points in class are indeed looming presences here. Most weeks, my imposter syndrome is through the roof, even when my grades indicate that I’m arguably doing just fine. Pair this with the fact that I’m more than six thousand miles away from family and friends, and you can get a sense of why it can be difficult to get through the day without screaming into a pillow or even just feeling lonely. Still, I find myself grateful for UChicago more than anything. Given the combination of my experiences at my home institution and the limited amount of time I have here at UChicago, I urge my fellow students not to take what our campus has to offer—the good and the complaint-worthy—for granted.

Let’s start with academia. As an exchange student, some of the things that bother degree-seeking students here seem to actually work in my favor. The workload is heavy, but if I forget my impossible standards regarding my grades, along with my self-imposed performance anxiety, for just a second, I realize that the exact grades I get are not as consequential as I often think they are. Sure, I would love for my credits to get transferred, but I didn’t pick my courses based on transferability. Instead, I chose them based on interest and how much educational benefit I felt I would gain from taking them as a political science major. By learning more about the topics I would never get to explore otherwise, I am able to enhance my already-present interests. In the considerably less flexible academic environment back home, deterred by either the deadly bureaucracy or by the inability to speak candidly in class about domestic concerns, it can be difficult to capitalize on the knowledge of professors who truly do want to help and educate you the best they can. And yet, for the aforementioned reasons, it is not always possible, no matter how kind they are. That said, there were a few exceptions, those whose guidance ultimately led me to Hyde Park.

At the same time, I am learning more than I ever did in the majority of my academic career, and not just from books or journal articles either. I am learning from the fluid flow of discussion in class, the ease with which opinions are expressed without barriers, all without the fear of saying the “wrong thing.” And perhaps it’s not always the wrong thing, but the right thing at the wrong time or in the wrong place, depending on who’s listening—and whoever they might be reporting back to. It is an open secret in Cairo that certain students are delegated the responsibility of reporting any semblance of political criticism that may lead to mass action or mobilization, something which used to be common at public universities in the past. Here, in the near absence of this trepidation, I feel a growing sense of safety that I too am allowed to interject in class, to voice what I think, and to disagree freely about real world issues with evidence and respect.

In a gender and sexuality class I took this past quarter, I was able to voice my thoughts on social power structures, specifically how they relate to race, gender, and their intersection in Egypt and the Middle East. More importantly, I heard the perspectives of the Arab diaspora living here, ones which differ substantially from mine, but which informed me all the same. The only thing I regret is not pointing out more, in this and other classes, the privilege of my classmates, some of whom I felt viewed the issues we discussed as distant, far away, both in space and time from them—issues that are my reality when I return home.

Outside of class, life on campus is, for lack of a better word, an “experience.” Before UChicago, I had never lived in dorms, or even with a roommate. I thought I was destined to hate it all, imagining the horrors of close quarters, shared bathrooms, and rarely cleaned kitchens. Instead, I liked it. It could have something to do with the fact that I am fortunate enough to be placed in Max P, right in the middle of campus, or even that I have an Egyptian roommate, who understands my personal space and is supportive whenever I have one of my routine breakdown-rants at 2 a.m., most commonly about missing my mom or walking by the Nile listening to Mohamed Mounir’s “Shababek.” But what I do know is that it has a ton to do with my house, Woodward, whose resident heads and assistants are always organizing an event of some sort, creating a feeling of familiarity. For example, although I do not celebrate Thanksgiving, having the option to have dinner at the heads’ apartment was a deeply appreciated gesture. Plus, as someone who adores the arts but is not often afforded the opportunity to appreciate them, given the high show prices and the rarity of independent or non-state sanctioned media at home, free tickets to the theater or the opera are deeply appreciated. My friend and I saw our first opera, Le Comte Ory, and it was such a fun experience. Honestly, for someone who has never really liked partying or large crowds, these trips are a breath of fresh air during hectic weeks.

Speaking of fresh air, I love watching the looks of amazement or shock whenever someone asks what my favorite thing about Chicago is, and I answer, “Oh, the greenery, the weather, the walkability, or the public transport.” There has got to be an irony in this, they would say. It can be hard for them to fathom that green public spaces are special, not a given or simply just an aspect of everyday life. They do not have to fear or cope with them being snatched away, seemingly along with our future, as though they hold no value or significance. In Egypt’s deteriorating, increasingly militarized state-economy, families live in fear for survival each day. Tomorrow is never a guarantee, with little job opportunities and rising inflation. Being able to conceptualize a slightly brighter tomorrow feels like a privilege.

Additionally, when hailing from Cairo, I suppose there’s the assumption that you and the desert are intertwined. Sweltering heat is your “natural habitat.” However, as I explain to all who would listen, it’s hard to bathe in the sun, relax, or catch a bus downtown when you can barely breathe from the pollution or from the feeling that you live in a box of cement with slabs of black tar smeared carelessly on top. Over the past few years, the current regime has seemingly prioritized needless grand infrastructure over longer, sustainable productivity projects. Its insistence on urban development that eliminates walkable areas and installs concrete bridges in lieu of decades-old public gardens has stifled what little life remained in the major areas of the city of Cairo, including my suburb of Heliopolis. And still, even in the few remaining neighborhoods that remain unmarred by state intrusion, the threat of harassment looms everywhere. In 2013, a UN study claimed that “99.3 percent of Egyptian girls and women surveyed reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime.” Even universities are not safe, with two students brutally murdered in the light of day after rejecting their assailants just this past summer. The possibility of gender-based violence is therefore on a record high, despite small boosts in feminist mobilization online.

Thus, living on campus is often a relief. I can finally put on my earphones, whether in broad daylight on the Quad or close to midnight by the Regenstein Library, and walk with my favorite songs on repeat. Invincible, without needing permission and free from pangs of terror. And sure, not constantly sweating makes all the difference, too. For a moment, I feel as free as I have ever been, and as thankful as I can be. My time here has made me want to be stronger, to fight harder for a future back home that is full of greenery like Chicago—a future that I recognize will likely never be my own, but I hope will be my daughter’s or her daughter’s, or if that’s too optimistic, then her daughter’s. When I was ten years old, hopeful Egyptians, just like myself now, peacefully took to the streets for a better life, for bread, freedom, and social justice. Some lost their lives for it, and as the 12th anniversary of the January revolution passes by, I remember their sacrifice, and work to ensure that it was never for nothing. The streets will always be ours, even if only in our hearts, no matter how they change them.

To leave you on a higher note, my last-but-not-least UChicago highlight has got to be the students. At the start of the year, my academic advisor mentioned that there is much to learn from the University’s student body. Being 22 and close to graduation, I first thought that their words might be an exaggeration. And yet, she was right. There are my classmates, whose identities and reflections have helped me on my quest to understand and find my own through safe, open discussion. There are also housemates, friendly faces stopping by your table at the dimly lit Cobb Café with reassuring words or just a hello.

Best of all, there are the friends you stay up all night with at the library to finish your readings, or at random common rooms playing card games, dancing to an Egyptian song or talking about missing home. Those you explore the city with during the weekends or criticize the dining hall food with together as you reminisce about your mother’s mahshy (stuffed grape vine leaves) and mulukhiyah. As cliche as it sounds, the whole spiel about UChicago being “the place where fun comes to die” can be true if you let it, or if you fail to look past the grades. But with a little help from friends with whom you can rant about it all, you can build the solidarity necessary to combat anything, see past it all, and truly make UChicago your home away from home for the meantime.

Salma Tageldin is a Student-at-Large (SAL) in the College.