From the Cradle to Constellations

November 20, 2014 • The Vicarious Globetrotter, The World at Yale • Views: 1811

By Rudi-Ann Miller

A Vicarious Globetrotter Interview with Zein El Azzouni, SM ’17

For many, the word “Egypt” conjures up images of the remnants of a fabulous and mysterious empire. It is the land of hieroglyphics, sphinxes, pharaohs, and other really old things. Westerners are often limited in their understanding of what life in modern-day Egypt is like, giving Zein El Azzouni endless opportunities for jest. Zein confesses that she often finds mirth in deceiving ignorant Yalies about herself and her country. “Sometimes when I introduce myself, I tell people ‘Oh yeah my name is Cleo, short for Cleopatra and my family owns a pyramid. It’s a small pyramid, and we don’t live there all the time but we’re still very proud of it,’ ” she chides. When she is not pretending to be that famous queen, Zein, a sophomore in Silliman College, is setting her sights beyond the boundaries of the cradle of civilization.

Courtesy of Zein El Azzouni

Courtesy of Zein El Azzouni

Egypt is a land of ancient, mystical wonder and the sacred soil of the world’s most famous monoliths. Thousands of tourists flock to the Pyramids of Giza, possibly the greatest achievement in the modern world. However, Zein believes both Egyptians and Western visitors have a limited knowledge of the genuine character of her country. “I don’t think many people in my country have seen much beyond Cairo and life in the city. I have been lucky that my father’s job has exposed me to so much more of the real Egypt.”

Zein’s father, Marwan El Azzouni, is a botanist and heads a company that specializes in radiation detection and monitoring devices. Zein recalls that for one month a year, her father would embark on missions to conduct research on plants in East Africa. On one such expedition, Mr. El Azzouni and his colleague, Giuseppe Orlando, discovered the Huernia pulchra, a succulent from Northern Somalia. Sometimes, Mr. El Azzouni’s projects allow him to bring his family, and on these trips Zein has been introduced to a diverse array of places and people, such as the nomadic Bisharin tribe. The Bisharin, a group of roughly 42,000 pastoralists, travel along the eastern part of the Nubian Desert between southern Egypt and Sudan—a stark contrast to the majority of Egyptians who are clustered in Cairo and its surrounds.

Since only 4% of Egypt is arable land, the majority of Egypt’s communities, from antiquity to the present-day, have hugged the Nile. Cairo, the capital, is home to 20 million of Egypt’s 88 million people. “Cairo is insanely crowded,” Zein describes, her very demeanor increasing in intensity as if to mimic the frenzy of the streets. Zein, on the other hand, is a self-described “chill” person unless, as I learned, she begins discussing topics she is passionate about, of which there are many.

Courtesy of Zein El Azzouni

Courtesy of Zein El Azzouni

Like a timeline through history, her interests start with archeology and anthropology. Zein believes that beyond the stereotypical, tourist trap pyramids at Giza, there are still many more sites in Egypt’s storied past waiting to be excavated. Egypt with its thousands of years of history has an embarrassment of riches with regards to ancient ruins and artifacts. The unfortunate reality is that exploration and research into Egypt’s past has been and continues to be undertaken largely by foreign teams of Egyptologists rather than her own people. “In Egypt, there’s this idea that archeology is what you get into when nothing else works,” she states woefully. Moreover, the Arab Spring and subsequent political instability has caused a slump in tourism revenue, which not only aids Egypt’s economy, but also funds excavation and conservation initiatives in the Ministry of Antiquities. Nevertheless, Zein has considered archeology as one of the pathways she may find herself on, post graduation. “When I interviewed at Oxford we were given boxes of these crazy artifacts and just told to identify them all. It was one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever had,” she describes. Despite being accepted into Oxford’s renowned program, Zein El Azzouni decided on Yale.

Indeed Yale was the better choice for Zein and her manifold curiosity. At Yale, she has taken classes such as Medieval Celtic literature, Black and White Photography, and Islam Today: Jihad and Fundamentalism. She is a writer for Amicus (Yale’s undergraduate law magazine), as well as Political Chair for the Arab Students Association. In addition to these commitments, Zein takes flying lessons at the Robinson Flight Training program at Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport. Zein is looking to secure the initial small-craft pilot license, yet her sights are even higher.

Courtesy of Zein El Azzouni

Courtesy of Zein El Azzouni

“How do I get to space as an Egyptian?” she asks, half-jokingly, half realizing just how much this goal truly means to her. Zein’s most current and perhaps most important interest has been in astronomy and astrophysics with the hope of someday being an astronaut. At this point in the interview, she begins lauding over the movie Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as part of a team of explorers traveling beyond this galaxy to determine if humankind could leave its damaged planet and inhabit a new home. Zein explains enthusiastically that this movie is fascinating as it is one of the first to digitally represent wormholes and black holes. Kip Thorne, noted physicist, was the science consultant and one of the executive producers on the movie. Zein hopes to interview him for an article on the “science behind” Interstellar later this semester. Unfortunately, Egypt does not have a space program and, as an international, Zein’s chances of securing employment with NASA, or similar U.S.-based agencies, are slim. “But I could always start Egypt’s space program, or become a science journalist, or just become Minister of Antiquities,” she laughs, unaffected by her current limitations.

Rudi-Ann Miller ’17 is in Silliman College. Contact her at

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