“A Sound So Loud I Forgot to Breathe”

While this post does not relate to Jordan it covers a very unique experience I had while I was in Cairo, Egypt for one week.

This post relates to the central theme of my blog, which is my passion and interest for the Middle East, its culture, and of course the Arabic language.  This is just the beginning of my work with Arabic and the Middle Eastern culture, which I plan to dedicate my work and studies towards for the rest of my life.

Anyways, back to my visual narrative on my trip to Cairo.

“A Sound So Loud I Forgot to Breathe” by Richard Hancock.


Blown up cars (usually government or police) such as the one in the photo above are very common in Tahrir Square in the middle of downtown Cairo, Egypt.  Tahrir became a media focal point during the Arab Spring and today is back in the spotlight with the overturn of the year old regime in Egypt.  My three American friends (BJ, Hailey, and Courtney) and I decided to travel to Cairo during our Spring break from our study abroad program in Irbid, Jordan.

During our week long stay in Cairo, we traveled to see the Pyramids, the International Jazz Festival, and many other sites.  However, the most memorable was when we decided to go to Tahrir Square.  Little did we realize the life changing experience that was about to unfold over the next several hours.    At times, we felt our lives and our safety were in danger.


As we passed the week old blown up car, we headed to the center of Tahrir to the camp sites.  In the center of Tahrir, laid a heap of tents filled with men and women.  For some, this had become their new home since the Revolution began. I asked my friend BJ, “How do you think these people would react if we went up to them and starting speaking to them in Arabic?”  BJ, liking the sound of this idea, eagerly went up to someone standing outside of the tents and asked if would be okay for us to come in and talk.  We were welcomed graciously as it was unusual for Tahrir revolutionaries to run into Arabic speaking Americans.  However, I still could not ignore my feeling of discomfort even with their gracious hospitality.

While in Tahrir, I felt an intense feeling that ran throughout my body like igniting a circuit board.  I nearly got sick to my stomach as I pictured what had taken in this exact area just a year earlier.  It was at that moment that I realized just how special it was to have the unique opportunity to be in Tahrir Square.


A young Egyptian man named Hassan (Hassan is in the middle of the photo to the left of my American friend BJ) invited us inside their tent.  As we walked into the tent, heat from the scorching sun bellowed out and sweat instantly began to pour as the smell of body odor and hashish became very apparent.  The young men welcomed us in typical Arab hospitality fashion, immediately offering us cigarettes and our choice of coffee or tea.  It is considered quite rude to not accept food, cigarettes, tea, etc when you are in an Arab home.  We then talked   for several hours as the tent filled many young men and some women who were eager to speak with us, share their stories, and give us their insights on the Egyptian Revolution.  We then received a huge meal that seemed to arrive out of thin air.  We ate falafel, pita, hummus, and a lot of unknown foods.  During this time, BJ and I kept a close eye on our female American friends as some of the Egyptian guys seemed overly “excited” that there were American girls in the tent.

After eating, I approached Courtney (the American girl with the big bright smile in the left of the above picture) if she wanted to go back to the Hostel or if she felt safe “hanging out” with the Egyptian revolutionaries.  Hailey (the other American girl to the right of Courtney in the photo) immediately chimed in saying, “Oh we’re staying here for sure, but you can leave if you want…we’re thinking about sleeping here for the night.”  At that moment, I realized that my friends were getting absorbed in the moment.  Some of our friends we had made at Tahrir came off as very aggressive and temperamental.  I decided to stay in Tahrir for another hour or so, and returned to the Hostel to relax with the owners of the hostel and a new friend.  Much to my surprise, in less than an hour we all witnessed something mind boggling.


It was around 4 PM when I heard a roar from the group of Egyptian men in Tahrir, as they screamed “Sharta!” (police in Arabic).  Immediately, the Egyptian’s in our tent rifled out grabbing whatever weapon was in sight, whether a gun, a baton, a knife, etc. The men approached the cop car yelling furiously, telling the cop to leave before he faced trouble.  Anytime a cop car attempts to drive into Tahrir Square the Revolutionaries work together to remove them.  Tahrir Square is the closest thing to anarchy I have ever witnessed.  A group of the Egyptians began breaking the windows of the cop car until they ripped the cop out of the car.  I could hear the cop begging for his life, as the revolutionaries became angrier.  The cop was beat upon until he was bleeding profusely and then was thrown upon the side walk.  Then our friend Sadat proceeded to take three lit Molotov Cocktails and threw them under the car.

Tahrir car 1

As we stood watching less than a hundred yards away, the three Molotov Cocktails burst into a massive explosion that decimated the police truck.  My eyes dilated as I began to teeter with the feeling of going into shock.  I felt the magnitude of the explosion with every orifice of my body.  The crowd of Revolutionaries ripped with applause and excitement as the smell of gas stained the air and the heat from the flames with the already hot weather set a chaotic and almost hell-like feeling.  My friends and I looked at each other in awe and without words.  The only thing we could do was to capture as much of it as possible with photographs and video.  At the time, we could not grasp this unimaginable experience.

tahrir car 3

The air was filled with smoke and it was becoming hard to breathe. I told my American friends I would meet them back at the hostel.  But, I could not refrain from taking more pictures.  My American friends decided to stay with the Revolutionaries for the evening in Tahrir Square.

me quynh and hassan

Back at the hostel, I began to finally comprehend what I had just witnessed while I relaxed with some of my new friends.  Hassan (NOTE: this Hassan is different from the one in a previous picture), on my right, was the owner of the Wake UP Hostel! Quynh, in the middle, was a traveler from Vietnam, and I forgot the man’s name to the right but he was extremely nice and worked at the hostel too.  These two Egyptian guys treated Quynh and I to sincere Egyptian hospitality over tea, food, and cigarettes. This was the perfect way to conclude my intense day at Tahrir Square.  My experience in Egypt is something I will never forget from the amazing friends I made to witnessing firsthand the Egyptian Revolution in action.

Clearing A Personal Misconception

I have been interested in the Arab culture and Islamic faith since High School when I realized learning Arabic was my number one goal in life.  When I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Denver with an Army ROTC scholarship I witnessed overt “Islamophobia” from soldiers returning from the Middle East.  Hearing words such as “towel head” have encouraged me to learn more about the Islamic faith and Arab culture because I understand that people are all people.  No matter where you travel around the world you will always meet good and bad people.  Growing up, I naturally developed some misconceptions towards the Islamic faith and Arab culture because of the culture I grew up in and my media selection.  My determination to learn the Arabic language on top of opening my eyes to a new culture led me to join the most intense study abroad program for Arabic and cultural immersion in a high risk area.  I wanted to immerse myself in a completely foreign culture, rarely speaking English, and correcting personal misconceptions.

I’m hoping my comments do not aggravate anyone.  I am just being 100% honest about my ignorance towards the Islamic faith and Jordanian culture before I travelled to Jordan.  Before arriving to Jordan I didn’t believe it was possible for an Imam in the Islamic faith to be open minded, because while growing up every time I would see something about an Imam (a Muslim professor of faith/priest) it usually was in a negative connotation in reference of terrorism or “hatred for America.”  This is probably because in High School I loved watching Fox News for some reason, a media outlet widely known for its unfair depiction of the Middle East and specifically the Islamic faith.  There is no doubt I was affected emotionally from the 9/11 events, which also contributed to my misconceptions.  Also, during my freshman year at the University of Denver I visited an Imam at a local Denver mosque for my Islamic Studies class.  My negative experience with this Imam and specifically his views on women rights imprinted a negative image in my head.  However, this was before I was able to wrap my head around the fact that “Feminism” is a Western created concept, also I believe there was some language barrier.

However, my opinion on Imam’s in the Islamic faith vastly changed when I lived in Irbid.  My neighbor in my student apartment at Yarmouk University was the head of Sharia law at the school and the Imam of the mosque on campus.  One evening, less than a month into the program, my American friends and I were drinking and listening to obnoxious dubstep, in order to help remind us of our “Americanness.”  During the period when we began to gradually increase the volume of the music and our voices, we heard a knock.  It was my neighbor an Imam, Dr. Abdel Raoof Kharabsheh.  He asked permission to come inside, to my surprise he didn’t mention anything about the music, he’s just small talking and getting to know us (all in Arabic because he did not speak English).  After twenty minutes of “chatting” Abdel mentioned that it would be polite for us to turn down the music because the walls are thin.  He made a point that he loves music therefore he didn’t care, but he was worried about the other families living around us.  I was blown away by how calm and seemingly open minded this Imam was.  Here is a Jordanian man who is a professor of Sharia law and an Imam who is in room with a couple empty liquor bottles and three females.  This is an epitome of a cultural enigma because according to Jordanian society, unrelated men and women to be in the same room in a residence.  I ended up becoming closer with Dr. Abdel and was blown away by his ability to recite the Quaran.  Sometimes we would play this game where he asked me, “Rich, give me a page number any page number.”  I would say a random number and this man would begin reciting the Quran word for word as I followed by reading the Holy Quran.  Maybe I’m just ignorant but I was blown away by how open minded and non-judgmental Professor Abdel was.  The best feeling in the world is realizing when you’re wrong.  I love a constant reminder of humility.

Image This is the Imam, Dr. Abdel Raoof Kharabsheh

Taboo: Making Friendships with the Opposite Sex in Irbid

First, I will clear up some cultural misconceptions on the relationship between men and women in the Middle East.  For instance, it’s forbidden to hit a woman in any kind of manner according to the Islamic religion.  It is also forbidden by faith to kill.  However, according to Tribal Law until recently there have been rare cases when honor killings can be carried out in an attempt to “retain family honor.”  There is no doubt that women are not treated up to “our standards” in the West, however, I think it is important for people to consider that “our standards” are just the cultural norms in America and is not the same across the entire globe.  But, I believe that the sexual regression from strictly following the Islamic religion (and making it illegal to have sex before marriage) can influence this segregation of sexes.  Often I found young Jordanian men clueless on how to socialize with women because of the segregation.  I believe outlawing sex before marriage has severe psychological impacts on the population of Jordanian society.  Sex is a natural act of life, but in Jordan people aspire to become married and then have sex frequently.  Therefore, making honest friendships with people of the opposite sex in Jordan can be quite the challenge.  I should reiterate that I was living in a very conservative Muslim city.  The conclusions I make can only be acquainted with the city of Irbid.

Not until the last two months of my program in Irbid was I able to make female Jordanian friends.  One day my friends Nate, BJ, and I decided to teach many of our male Jordanian roommates at Yarmouk University how to play Frisbee.  The young men were very intrigued by this foreign game.  It was slightly difficult to explain how to throw the Frisbee exactly in Arabic therefore we acted it in a slow, dramatic fashion.  One day a group of female Jordanian students seemed very curious by this game.  My friend Fuad said to the girls “yella, ma fe mshkla” (meaning “let’s go, no problem”).  When these girls joined us to play Frisbee I realized just how amazing this was.  Guys and girls would never think of playing a sport together in Irbid and here are these young ladies who defy this cultural norm.  Defying cultural norms is not very common in Irbid.  The group of girls named Hadeel, Asaala, Aseel, and Sara began to play Frisbee with us every Thursday and Sunday.  After a few weeks I became close with this group of girls.  I began to see these girls about four times a week and would walk around campus with them, eat at restaurants, and receive extra help in Arabic as well.  Not only did these ladies become great friends it also was the main catalyst for my rapid improvement in Arabic because these women did not speak any English.  A casual relationship between a man and woman in Irbid is very difficult because of the cultural values and the laws.  I feel very honored to have made friends with these girls because of the harassment they and I dealt with when we were together in public.  I wasn’t sure if the other Jordanian students were jealous, immature, or etc. but we would constantly have to ignore verbal harassment from “shababs” (young guys) on campus.  I continue to stay in contact with these girls and hopefully will meet up with them in the future either in America or Jordan.Image

A Jordanian Connection

Leaving the bustling music scene of Denver, CO I was initially worried about being homesick. However, after the first week of immersing myself in the unique Jordanian culture it was easy to leave Denver behind. The only other culture shock I’ve experienced and can relate to is when I lived in a tent in the Rocky Mountain National Park for an entire summer. While living in the woods and living in Jordan are two very different settings I can relate the two by a principal I’ve always believed in. That is, being very open with people and making new friends. In my experiences I have made friends with very diverse people whether they are homeless or at the opposite end of the spectrum.

By the end of the first week I had met a local Jordanian named Fuad. He approached me and asked in Arabic, “Do you want to be friends?” Never have I been so lucky to make a friend like this because Fuad and I have become very close. At first we met in cafes and restaurants to get to know each other better. After a few weeks I went to his house for coffee and tea; the next day he invited me and a number of the people from my study abroad program (CET) to meet his entire family. We were all amazed with their beautiful house. I found the architecture with its ornamental arches and golden leaf chairs to be quite different than homes in the United States. My friends and I were also invited to Fuad’s house to have a traditional meal called “mansef.” This was the first time I had ever eaten with my hands, aside from chicken wings, and it was very delicious.

When I first arrived to Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan I realized my Arabic skills were sub-par to everyone else’s, however, after becoming friends with Fuad and consistently studying very hard I quickly gained ground.   After a few months I became acquainted with many of Fuad’s friends in Jordan.  By the second to last month of my program I began dreaming in Arabic, it was at this point I realized I was meeting my goal of reaching fluency.  Once I began dreaming in Arabic constantly I always thought in Arabic and felt as if I began improving every hour of the day.  When you reach the ability of constantly thinking, speaking, and dreaming in a new language you start having difficulty with your native language.  This is why I believe the key to having a successful language and cultural study abroad experience is making a close connection with local people. I believe I have marked the right impression on Fuad as a person and where I study because he is now in the process of applying to the University of Colorado at Denver. I am extremely thankful for making a connection like this because we will now always be friends.



This is a link to the exact study abroad program I attended, CET Irbid, Jordan Intensive Language and Cultural Immersion Program.