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An American in Egypt: Beloit student tells his story

February 9, 2011


Junior Devon Armstrong’s study abroad experience at the American University in Cairo didn't last as long as he expected, truncated by nothing short of a revolution. Below, he shares his experience with Terrarium writer Steven Jackson’12.

student in EgyptTerrarium: Can you tell us about how you wound up in Egypt?

Devon Armstrong’12: I had registered to take Arabic [and] my goal was to focus on Egyptology, as I had taken pretty much every Beloit course offered on Ancient Egypt already, and I knew that the best way to learn about a culture is to see it in person. I was living on campus in New Cairo, a suburb of Cairo where many of the middle and upper classes have moved.  It is probably a 30 to 45-minute bus ride to the Zamalek dorms, which are AUC’s student dorms downtown, where one of the centers of rioting was located.

T: What was your first impression of Cairo?

D.A.: My impression of Cairo when I first landed was that it is a hectic city, an assessment backed by the insane driving of everyone on the roads. There were occasions (and I was in the car for one of these) when a driver would make a mistake and need to backtrack to make a turn. The driver would just turn the car around and drive back on the wrong side of the road to find his turn.

Another reason why I felt [that Cairo was hectic] lay in administrative stuff for AUC.  I felt that, in many ways, it was disorganized. 

T: How long were you in Egypt before the protests? 

D.A.: I landed in Cairo at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 21. The first day of protest was the following Tuesday, Jan. 25.

T: Where were you when you first heard about the protests? 

D.A.: I was in Old Cairo. We had all known that there was something going on Tuesday, as all the RAs knew about it, and were keeping tabs. The orientation leaders had devised a trip to Old Cairo on Tuesday. We went to a church and monastery that is still in use (both are part of the Coptic Museum), then saw a synagogue and a mosque. It was at this last one where we realized the full extent of the protests. 

As we were leaving, a funerary march was entering, carrying a body that wasn't embalmed. The figure was just covered in a sheet, and you could see blood. According to a friend of mine, she ran into the mother, who was continually crying out waladi (my bad transliteration of “my son” in Arabic). Apparently, he had been killed by the police.

On the way back, we saw another funerary march from the bus. The OLs that were with us attempted to distract us all by having loud music and dancing on the bus, which worked. None of us heard about the gunshots until later, after we had returned to AUC.

T: Where were you during the protests and demonstrations?  

D.A.: After that first day, we were kept on campus, pretty much in lockdown. Buses weren’t running, and neither were most taxis. Some people were still foolish enough to leave campus and join the riots, but for the most part, we stayed there, eyes glued to Al-Jazeera. Unfortunately, this was pretty much all there was to do, and there were long periods of time during which there was no new information. [Al-Jazeera] was our sole access to information after the Day of Rage (Jan. 27), once the mobile phones and internet were cut out. They finally turned mobile phones back on the following Sunday (Jan. 30), but by this time everyone was preparing for the inevitable evacuation.

T: Did you speak with any Egyptian citizens, and if so, what were their attitudes toward the uprising? 

D.A.: The citizens that I was able to speak with were also on campus (though they had more freedom to leave, as most of them have cars). Mostly they were in support of the protesters (whooping and hollering if new film came on that showed the protesters “winning”); others were sorry that it had come about in such a way. A few even apologized to me for the protests “ruining” my study abroad, as though I could fault them for that. However, some people took a more conservative attitude toward the protests. These people were under the impression that the riots would be ending soon, especially once the military stepped in. A couple voiced the opinion that the rioters had won already, whereas some others were concerned that the military marked the end of all freedoms toward Egyptians.

T: Are you still in touch with anyone from Egypt?  

D.A.: Yes I am. I’m still in contact with several of my OLs and RAs, as well as many of the international students that were with me.

T: Where are you now, and what will you do for the rest of the semester?  

D.A.: When I was being evacuated, there were three possible destinations (not that you got to choose which one): Istanbul, Athens, and Cyprus.  You were placed on a flight based on where you were in line and where the next plane being filled was headed. My flight ended up taking me to Istanbul. When I landed, I bought a new SIM card to call my dad and found out that, as Istanbul was one of the three possible destinations, and Beloit has a direct exchange program with Yeditepe University here, I was being transferred there for the semester. 

I am now at Yeditepe, and am registered to study primarily anthropology, as well as history and Turkish. I do plan on returning to Egypt if the political situation calms down, but not to AUC at this time, as it is too late in the semester for me to start classes. Instead, I hopefully plan on being able to travel there after my semester ends at the beginning of June. If not, I will be coming back, possibly the semester after I graduate.