Rebellion on the Nile

February 15, 2016

Amanda Nagy

A view of Cairo, Egypt’s sprawling capital
A view of Cairo, Egypt’s sprawling capital.
Photo credit: Kieran Minor

As a native of Cairo, Associate Professor of History Zeinab Abul-Magd offers students an insider’s perspective on the city and greater Egypt. She’s uniquely positioned to bring her personal insights and experiences to courses on modern Middle Eastern history and seminars focused on the recent Arab uprisings: While she was in Cairo during her fall 2011 sabbatical leave, the revolution known as the Arab Spring began in Egypt. She took leave for the entire academic year to stay in Cairo, participating in street protests and involving herself in sit-ins and marches while working to mobilize youth groups in her hometown.

In January, Abul-Magd led a dozen students on a winter-term trip to Egypt to study the environmental history and modern hydropolitics of the Nile River, along with exploring recent youth uprisings that took place on its banks across the country. The project complemented Abul-Magd’s first-year seminar in fall 2015, titled The Nile River: Power, Capital, and Revolt, from the Seventh Century to Present. The trip offered the first-year seminar students and others interested in Middle Eastern studies the opportunity to visit important historical sites along the Nile River.

The trip and lectures were organized in collaboration with the American University in Cairo (AUC), a local but internationally reputable school that has a long history of hosting U.S. students studying abroad in the Middle East. The AUC campus hosted the Oberlin group in its classrooms and dorms. According to Abul-Magd, AUC has a strong campus security system that has prevented its international students from encountering any trouble since the beginning of the uprisings in Egypt five years ago.

Field trips included visits to various sites relevant to ancient and Islamic public water provision, including the Suez Canal, villages in the Delta and upper Egypt, a cruise on the Nile to the cities of Luxor and Aswan, the High Dam on the border of Egypt and Sudan, and the pharaonic monuments. The field trips were intended to observe the “consequence of modernity” that took place by building modern dams and introducing new technology to cultivation, and how it affected rural and urban societies in the Nile valley and generated their discontent.

First-year Kieran Minor says he came away from the trip learning that revolution and environmental crisis are inherently tied.

“Water is complicated. And most likely, any big global political conflicts to come will be about water. Both in the fall course and in the winter-term course, we learned Egypt’s importance as an epicenter for both economic and cultural exchange, and it was illuminating to see the way this fact manifests itself in day-to-day life,” says Minor, who is from Danbury, Connecticut.

He says he particularly enjoyed his time in Cairo. “Walking through Cairo, from Tahrir Square to Cairo Tower, seeing both French and Islamic architecture in the same day, and enjoying vendors and cafés were all fantastic, organic ways to see the city.”

Fourth-year Gabriel Brown, a history major and Middle Eastern and North African studies minor, has studied Arabic at Oberlin. Having gained a lot of knowledge about the social and political history of the Middle East in his courses, he says this project appealed to him because it was a chance to learn more about environmental issues facing Egypt. The pharaonic tombs made a big impression.

“During a cruise up the Nile, we stopped at the Valley of the Kings, a gigantic complex of pharaonic tombs. I was amazed to see how well-preserved the artwork adorning the walls was. The ancient Egyptians painted ornate scenes of their pharaohs’ journey through the afterlife. The pharaoh was judged by the gods and not guaranteed a place in heaven simply by virtue of his title. He had to prove himself a capable ruler first.”

Brown says he was surprised by the size and reach of Cairo. “I knew beforehand that it was a huge city, but I was still astonished at both how far it stretched and how dense some parts seemed. Very few people in the city have stand-alone houses; most residents live in apartment buildings. I was also surprised to see agricultural fields that still were within the city’s bounds. Growing up in Washington, D.C., I wouldn’t see agriculture within the city’s limits.

“One of the most memorable experiences involved climbing up a tower in Islamic Cairo. After reaching the top of a narrow staircase, my classmates and I could see an extraordinary view of the city as it stretched for miles in every direction. The view was breathtaking.”

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