Gazing at Giza – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Gazing at Giza

For 19 HWS students, a summer Political Science course – The Political Economy of Development in Egypt – involved an extraordinary opportunity. After reading about the region and completing a paper, the group spent three weeks in Egypt studying with Assistant Professors of Political Science Vikash Yadav and Stacey Philbrick Yadav. The abroad experience included 11 days in Cairo and the remainder of the trip in rural areas of Lower and Upper Egypt, where students learned about a range of development initiatives and challenges through lectures, site visits, readings and writing assignments. The course ended with a final paper upon students’ return to the United States.

“My trip to Egypt was exceptional,” reflected Alex Khaddar ‘10. “The combination of intensive class study and cultural immersion provided an experience that I will never forget. Through lectures from HWS professors, as well as experts in a variety of fields, I was able to walk away from the trip with an extremely informed perspective of a very complex and unique country.”

On their first full day in Cairo, students took part in an urban scavenger hunt to acclimate to their new surroundings. Some “items” they photographed included a falafel or schwarma stand, a neighborhood mosque, and a place where people from different socioeconomic classes might purchase home goods. They also visited City Stars Mall in Cairo after reading about the social impact of neoliberal reforms and exurbanization, and were asked to observe local patterns of sociability at this mall, which is one of the largest in the world. 

“Girls walked together, linked arm and arm, and so did boys, but rarely did the sexes mix unless they were older married couples,” noted Melissa Backus ’10. “We noticed tables in the food courts, but no benches or chairs to sit on, to discourage people from gathering and protesting.” The issue of social protest and organization was tackled by David Faris, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, in a discussion about his article on the use of Facebook and Twitter to organize protests in Egypt, which resounded with Backus.

“The internet allows people to meet anonymously. They could use, for example, an event page on Facebook to plan a protest. This method has been very successful, but the government has started to catch on and it’s becoming more dangerous,” explained Backus. “Videotaping, especially on cell phones, has encouraged online streaming to tackle human rights issues.”

Other guest lecturers included Dr. Richard Gauvain, the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at the American University in Cairo (AUC), who spoke on the wide range of Islamist and pietist groups in contemporary Egypt. Three of the Vikash’s former AUC students, each working in the development field in different capacities, discussed challenges to economic development in Egypt. The speakers were invited to join students for conversation at a Nile-side dinner, providing the opportunity to interact in a less formal setting.

An important component of economic development in Egypt is the tourism industry, which students were able to study first-hand by visiting some major tourist sites. These included the Red Pyramid of Sneferu, the Bent Pyramid in the town of Dashour, the Giza Pyramids, and the Sphinx.

Other sites of interest included one of the oldest mosques in Cairo, Ibn Tulun, a Coptic monastery, the National Museum in Alexandria, Ben Ezra synagogue, the Coptic Museum, and a rare manuscript collection at the Bibliotheca Alexandria, described by Backus as simply “awesome.” A double major in Classics and Ancient Greek, the opportunity to view illuminated texts – the Quran and Coptic texts – was for Backus nothing short of sublime.

Students also learned the history of and visited the fortress of Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi and the mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, and toured the temples at Karnak and Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Queen Hatchepsut, and the Valley of the Queens.

They even had the opportunity to see a desert forest, which was created using partially-treated sewage. This project was funded by the Chinese government in cooperation with several Egyptian ministries to generate timber, which can be harvested annually. This trip was organized by the staff at the experimental farm at the AUC Desert Development Center, where the group from HWS stayed for three days, studying efforts to promote sustainable environmental and agricultural practices in Egypt’s desert regions.

After sailing up the Nile, students visited the Aswan High Dam and learned about the Nubian communities that were displaced by the construction of the dam, a topic of much controversy in the recent history of Egyptian development projects. Students took a well-earned break and enjoyed their last day in Egypt relaxing on a sailboat ride around Elephantine Island.

Trips to Sultan Hasan mosque and Al Rifai mosque were cancelled because of President Obama’s visit to Cairo, which resulted in the monuments being closed to tour groups. However, this visit allowed the HWS group to listen to Obama’s speech at the Grand Cafe in Maadi in an Arabic translation and study the reactions of the customers and wait staff. “A lot of Egyptians love Obama,” Backus noticed. “His speech was broadcasted on all major channels while observers cheered. All streets he’d be on were swept and welcome banners were put up.”

Each student developed a thesis statement while in Egypt and wrote a paper on one of three general topics upon returning: the social dynamics of race, class and gender in contemporary Egypt; the relationship between state and non-state actors in the promotion of development in Egypt; or the political economy of tourism. The students had one-on-one meetings with both Vikash and Stacey to facilitate the research and writing processes, which included journal entries and feedback. “I couldn’t imagine better professors,” said Backus.

“Egypt is a great place to study abroad because of its rich history and even more complex contemporary status,” Khaddar added. “For students who are interested in perusing careers outside of the United States after college this program is a perfect way to get your foot in the door.”

Khaddar is a member of the Hobart squash team and was awarded Most Improved Player in 2008. An International Relations major and double minor in French and Francophone Studies and Political Science, he also plays club baseball, is an officer on the Inter-fraternity Council, and is president of Kappa Sigma fraternity.

Backus is a Resident Assistant, tour guide and hosting coordinator for Admissions. She is a member of the William Smith Judicial Board and healthcare professions club and is an EMT. A double minor in biology and healthcare professions, she plans to attend pharmacy school after graduation. She recently received a Rickey Scholarship to conduct research in plant pathology at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station this summer, and will serve as Senior Intern at Admissions this fall.

Having lived in Egypt from 2003 to 2006, Stacey and Vikash joined the faculty in 2007. Stacey received her B.A. from Smith College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She is an expert on Middle East politics and is proficient in Arabic. Vikash holds degrees from DePauw University (B.A.), the University of Chicago (M.A.), and the University of Pennsylvania (Ph.D.). While in Egypt, he taught a range of political economy courses at the American University in Cairo, while Stacey commuted among Cairo, Beirut and Sana’a, completing dissertation research.

For more information, visit their blog or view photos from the trip.