By Linda Lange for The Knoxville News-Sentinel
During the summer of 2003, Valerie Brock ’03 sang with the Egyptian ambassador while a guest at his villa on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. “He likes jazz, and I sing opera,” says Brock about the interlude with Mahmoud Mubarak. He is the permanent representative of Egypt to the Arab League.
How did the Knoxville, Tenn. native meet the diplomat? A chain of events that began four years ago led to her visit to Egypt. She couldn’t have imagined this afternoon spent under date palms admiring the crystal-blue waters of the Mediterranean.
Brock entered Converse College intending to be a music major. In her freshman year, Dr. Joe Dunn, chairman of the politics and history department, asked her to join the Model League of Arab States, under the auspices of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. “Students represent a particular country. They learn about their countries and then debate. Converse is a national champion, so it’s a really big thing at the school.”
The honor student developed a passion for Arabic culture, history and politics and took part in symposiums at the Washington embassies of Kuwait, Egypt and Yemen. She graduated from Converse with a double major – political science and music.
Her interest and involvement garnered an invitation to Cairo, Egypt. For two weeks in August, 10 university students visited offices of diplomats in the Middle East, learned about social issues and participated in political discussion groups. The Americans, all alumni of the Model League of Arab States, met Amre Moussa, Secretary General of the League of Arab States, a career diplomat they were well acquainted with through their research. “He is very beloved – a great person to meet,” she says.
“We were very warmly received. It is a part of their culture to make people feel welcome. They are so eager to please, it knocked my socks off,” she says. Several members of her group were born in or had familial ties to the Middle East. “They spoke Arabic. I spoke a little and tired to learn a word a day. They got so tickled at me,” says Brock who describes her lineage as Irish and Cherokee.
The group was invited to Mahmoud Mubarak’s seaside villa. “It was the most beautiful place I have ever seen,” says Brock, 22. “He asked if anyone was a musician. My friends all pointed to me, so I ended up singing with the Egyptian ambassador. It is the only time my majors converged!”
Catching the Culture
“Honestly I was scared to go to Egypt, considering the turmoil. But when I got there, I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe.” Always under security escort, the group squeezed in sightseeing as time allowed. “I definitely went to the Pyramids, and I rode a camel. It was very scary but a lot of fun.”
She visited the archaeological site Saqquara and toured the step pyramid of Djoser. She was impressed by the King Tut artifacts at the Cairo Museum and the architecture of the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, located within the Citadel walls. They group traveled to Alexandria.
For a cultural food experience, the Americans tried to eat like Egyptians, launching themselves at oddities. “I accidentally ate brain – definitely an accident. I thought it was a fried chicken patty. That was weird.”