As a stunned world watched historic protests sweep Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak from power last January, Nicholas Anders sat in Morocco with one thought racing through his mind: When can I get back to Cairo?
Then a junior in the first weeks
of his AU Abroad program at the American University in Cairo, Anders had left Egypt with the 10 other AU undergraduates when the U.S. State Department chartered flights out of the country.
Once safely evacuated from the revolution, Anders plotted his return.
“These people built the pyramids 7,000 years ago,” said Anders, a foreign policy major in the School of International Service. “I just had a gut feeling that things would be okay. I love the people, I loved the university. I fell in love with the country instantly.”
Back in Washington, Sara Dumont, director of AU Abroad, was scrambling to get the students reassigned to other programs. Some stayed in Morocco, others went to Istanbul, but Anders was determined to go back to Egypt.
“Nick was a special case,” Dumont said. “The main thing about Nick is his age and maturity. Nick is not a 20-year-old student. We do make the distinction here at AU regarding that. At some point I think you need to give adult people full information and let them make up their own minds.”
A Washington native, Anders, 32, lived in Los Angeles for a number of years trying to crack into show business. While there he tended bar at a Lebanese-owned jazz club, which piqued his interest in the Middle East.
“If it was the 1950s I’d probably be studying Russia,” said Anders, who takes Arabic classes. “I would like to go into diplomacy, and I feel a lot can be done with relations between the U.S. and Middle East, which I used to call the Arab world. After a half year there I would never call it the Arab world again because Morocco is no closer to Egypt than Spain is to Iowa. They’re very different cultures, very different mentalities, very different mind-sets.”
Anders first arrived in Cairo on January 14. Eleven days later demonstrations began in Tahrir Square.
“That day itself was not so transforming as the next couple of days,” said Anders, who lived in an apartment in Zamalek, an island community in the Nile River about two miles from the square. “Something was obviously happening.”
Much of the protesting was confined to sections of the city, into which Anders didn’t venture. However, it was impossible to ignore the wave of transformation overtaking the country. One day a plume of tear gas from the square drifted into Zamalek, where Anders most definitely felt it.
“I didn’t go to Tahrir those first few days because it was just not smart,” he said. “I felt I was not Egyptian, I didn’t have any place there. I didn’t want to be misconstrued as an American spy or government agent.”
Although Anders sensed discomfort in the air, he rarely feared for his safety.
“Egyptians are very welcoming people,” he said. “At first the man who owned the bazaar down the street from my apartment called me ‘the American.’ Then he started calling me ‘my son’ for the next five months. He offered me tea every day. They wouldn’t have let anything happen to me—it’s just the Egyptian way.”
Once Dumont was assured of the students’ safety, she evaluated the situation and allowed Anders to return. Following a week “in exile” in Morocco, Anders flew back to Cairo three days after Mubarak resigned.
“A lot of institutions have hard fast rules that they don’t make any exceptions to,” Dumont said. “AU is perhaps unusual in having a more nuanced response. We have access here to a lot of experts, and the freedom to assess the situation and come to a consensus. Nick is extremely thoughtful. Like a lot of adult learners, he comes back to higher education with an incredible determination and focus, and that’s something I respect a great deal.”
The rest of Anders’ semester proceeded rather smoothly. He went about studying at AUC and conducting research on a project that eventually became a paper entitled “Anti-U.S. Sentiment in the Middle East.” It will be published in the November edition of the National Conference of Undergraduate Research.
“Just being there and understanding the mentality was so important,” said Anders, who’s back on campus for his senior year. “I really respect AU for letting me go back. It made all the difference in the world. It was trying and stressful a lot of times, but overall it was a very rewarding experience.”
Anders plans to pursue a master’s degree and a career in diplomacy. There’s no surprise as to where.
“I was so impressed with the Egyptian people, the way they organically policed themselves, directed traffic, cleaned the streets, secured their neighborhoods,” he said. “I want to work there. I want to live there. I love the place.”