Study Abroad, At Home


This semester, Barnard College junior Jennifer Altman-Lupu signed up to study abroad in the Middle East. She ended up on the Upper East Side.

Altman-Lupu and the other 11 members of her NYU-run archaeology study abroad program in Egypt’s Western Desert were evacuated on January 31 in the wake of the protests that would oust President Hosni Mubarak. As program director Roger Bagnall explained, “We didn’t want to be in a position where we wanted to get out and couldn’t.” One week later, the program was resumed back in Manhattan, with daily seminar-style meetings in the East 84th Street brownstone that houses NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW).

The students, who attend NYU and Columbia as well as Barnard, were initially drawn to the project by the promise of helping to excavate an ancient city: Amheida, a city in an oasis in Western Egypt that dates to the third millennium B.C. and is now largely covered in sand.

Like many of her colleagues, Altman-Lupu, who studies archaeology at Barnard and had previously participated in a dig in Italy, hoped that working with the international team of scholars who descend each winter on Amheida would help her determine whether to continue studying archaeology in graduate school. She recalls some of the pleasures of her four-week stay in Egypt: browsing the dig house’s small library, where she discovered and quickly devoured a small book about making glass in ancient Rome, and taking long sunset walks along a quiet, palm-lined road by a canal. “It was such a fresh new atmosphere. I find it to be a lot easier to think in Egypt,” she says.

Unfortunately, she and her fellow students had little time to think before the protests sweeping across North Africa erupted in Egypt’s capital. The day the Amheida project students reported to their dig site, January 26, turned out to be the first day after the protests that filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Altman-Lupu had already resigned herself to canceling a planned trip to Tunisia once her program ended, but did not allow the latest news to distract her from her work. In her first few days, she found two ostracon—pieces of pottery used for note-taking—that were deemed worthy of scholarly attention.

She wrote in a blog post two days later: “And just because I’ve been asked a bunch, the riots have not affected me at all. We’re really remote and cut off.”

Not everyone in her group was so calm. Altman-Lupu’s roommate, Roxanne Moadel-Attie, a Barnard psychology major who is part Egyptian, made frequent calls to her mother on Long Island, who held her phone up to her television to allow her daughter to listen to coverage of the uprising. When Moadel-Attie heard that the government was sending camels and motorcycles into Tahrir Square, it reminded her of her studies of tactics used by the government during the Islamic revolution in Iran. She became convinced it would be dangerous to stay in Egypt, especially for the group’s planned tour of the Nile River Valley in March, and made her case to anyone who argued for staying.

“I was trying to explain to them, ‘I’m telling you, I’ve studied this, I’m Middle Eastern—this is going to last a long time,’ ”
she says. “Whether or not the protests physically last a long time, the state of turmoil and all the problems going on in the country are not going to be settled enough for you to be a regular tourist going to all the sites.”

Moadel-Attie also grew concerned when she couldn’t find phone cards for sale anywhere in the nearby town of Mut, though there were no signs of unrest there. “If we had stayed long enough, they might have run out of food, they might have run out of gas,” she says.

Parents of students began posting to the Amheida project’s Facebook page, debating the group’s security in their remote desert site hundreds of miles from Alexandria or Cairo. “I realized that it would probably be good to send a note to families to say that we were completely fine and there was no hint of trouble in the oasis at all,” says Amheida’s academic director, Ellen Morris. “But the morning that I sat down to do that, I got on the computer and there was no Internet. That’s the point at which all of a sudden it became clear that this wasn’t anything ordinary.”

Three days later, Moadel-Attie’s mother, Minoo Moadel, called NYU’s security office to tell them that she had found a company willing to evacuate her daughter from a nearby airport. “If you don’t get them out, I’m going to send a jet, and I’m going to make it known that you guys didn’t do anything,” she told an NYU official who handles international security. Her daughter called her two hours later to say that she’d been told NYU would be chartering its own plane. (NYU spokesman John Beckman denies that Moadel’s call was a factor in the university’s decision, which Bagnall says came after the university consulted the State Department.)

Altman-Lupu, who had been planning to spend the final two weeks of the dig working with a topographer to help map the site using AutoCAD software, remains disappointed that she was pulled out. “Everyone was really frustrated. We hadn’t been in any real danger,” she says. Like most in the group, she plans to take NYU up on the offer to return at no cost in a future semester—in her case, the year after she graduates from Barnard.

Being forced to evacuate in the midst of a study abroad semester is “not common,” says Julie Friend, Michigan State University’s international analyst for travel health, safety, and security. But this has been an uncommon semester, starting with the uprising in Egypt, which was followed by major earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, and most recently Japan, where, this semester, more than 126 students from Columbia alone were studying abroad.

In Egypt, cut off from their programs’ administrators by the shutdown of the Internet and the difficulty of travel, many students were left to fend for themselves. When the protests began, says Luke Bolton, who had left Brooklyn for Cairo on a Fulbright scholarship, he “didn’t expect much to happen.” By Saturday, there was shooting outside the apartment he shared with his wife, Caity Bolton, a 2010 alumnus of NYU’s program in Near Eastern Studies. They took shelter in a friend’s apartment down the street. “At that point, we were scared enough for our lives that we put sofas up as barricades on our door,” recalls Caity.

The Boltons found Internet access through an obscure service provider, which put them “in a better situation than the Fulbright office,” says Luke, who learned the next Tuesday, February 1, that he would lose his grant if he didn’t evacuate temporarily. Two days later, the Boltons boarded a flight bound for Kenya, where they waited almost two months to return to Egypt.

Bolton’s Fulbright colleague, Lauren E. Bohn, a budding journalist, decided to stay in Egypt in spite of the possibility that she would lose her grant and has since reported on events there for CNN. NYU Near Eastern Studies M.A. candidate Liam Stack also stayed and filed dozens of articles for the New York Times, including one on the exodus of American students from Cairo.

In Alexandria, meanwhile, Columbia University junior Dexter Thompson-Pomeroy, who studies political science, watched as police stations burned and Egyptian students at his University of Alexandria dormitory fled to their homes. One chef at the cafeteria, he recalls, handed out bags of food and fresh-baked pitas to him and his fellow students in a language-immersion program run by Middlebury College, then ran to beat an early curfew.

Later in the day, the program director told the 11 students there to move immediately into a two-bedroom apartment in another part of town that was being leased by two other program students. As the sun set, the building’s residents fashioned makeshift weapons, including planks with nails hammered into them, and gathered in a meeting. “It was basically to decide how we were going to protect ourselves if we were attacked,” says Thompson-Pomeroy. “You’ve woken up that morning thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll have class today,’ and then in the afternoon you’re taking stock of what large, blunt objects you could throw at a possible intruder.”

That night, he slept about two hours. “Every time we heard gunshots and shouting, we were conflicted,” he says. “Half of you wants to run toward the balcony and see what’s going on, and half of you wants to run into the apartment and take cover.”

When Thompson-Pomeroy finally evacuated, on the same day as the Amheida students, on a plane he never learned who had chartered, he and his fellow students stood in the aisles, sharing a bottle of duty-free whiskey as they mused about what they’d do next. Thompson-Pomeroy knew that he didn’t want to enroll late in classes at Columbia—an option both he and the Amheida students were offered—because, he says, “the last thing I felt like doing after that ordeal was catching up on three weeks of work.”

It’s a sentiment Moadel-Attie shared. “I couldn’t start at Barnard,” she says. “Midterms would have been the next week.” All but two of the Amheida students ultimately decided to continue the program at ISAW.

The Amheida group readjusted slowly to New York, according to Altman-Lupu. “My theory is that we were all vitamin D–deficient for a little while because everyone was really tired the first few weeks back,” she says. But she praises Morris, who set up courses on Egyptological methods and ancient Egyptian communities, for the individual attention she has lavished on group members. She gushes about Philadelphia’s Penn Museum, where a curator led them on a tour of its stores of ancient Egyptian mummies and artifacts. And she also found an internship at the Tenement Museum, where she is assisting in a new study of the Hebrew Technical Institute, a 19th-century Lower East Side school founded by Jewish philanthropists, a project she sees as linked to archaeology, though she’s using paper archives rather than potsherds.

Moadel-Attie, though, who can remember saying at age 5 that she wanted to become an Egyptologist, found the classes a poor substitute for digging in an ancient city. “I was excited to be a part of the discovery, because you always see the discovery on TV and you experience it through someone else’s experience,” she says. “This was the first time I’d be able to partake in the adventure myself.” A month after the group returned from New York, she withdrew from the program. But she has remained in contact with members of the Egyptian staff, and expressed her solidarity with the protesters in posts on Facebook.

Though he says of Egypt, “I definitely wish I was still there,” Thompson-Pomeroy’s disappointment has also been offset by feelings of solidarity. “My expectations—what I believed was possible in terms of unrest in the Middle East—were completely changed,” he says.

It’s a lesson that informed his next move. While decompressing in Columbia housing, Thompson-Pomeroy enrolled in another study abroad program in Istanbul that hadn’t started yet. Later in February, he flew to Turkey, where he’s now learning Turkish from scratch.

He considered going to another Arabic-speaking country where he could use his existing language skills, he says, but decided against it: “Being evacuated twice in one semester abroad would not be an experience I’d like.”