Category Archives: Egypt

An Americaine in Cairo

Recently, I mentioned the time I spent in Egypt to a young (late-20s early 30s), liberal, well-traveled woman, and was surprised by the response.  I gave my usual one-sentence opener, which is that I was there for six weeks this summer, loved it, and can’t wait to go back.

Really?!  I’ve lived everywhere, even Beijing, and that was the worst city for being a woman.  I was so uncomfortable all the time.”

Um, wow.

Granted, that opening line is designed to intrigue, confuse and incite discussion.  But this is the first time I’ve encountered someone who not only had actually been there, but is in pretty much all the same demographics as me, and does not want to go back.  Not only that, she was thoroughly uncomfortable.  So in light of this, I think it’s about time I reflect succinctly on my time there, through the lens of a young, white, liberal, ostentatious, middle-class American woman.

Oi, what a mouthful.

First, I need to emphasize the ways in which my experience was different from that of the average tourist.  I honestly believe that I have a very different view of the country based on my education before and during my trip, as well as the nature of my trip (ie length of time and breadth of cultural immersion).

  1. I speak Arabic. This is huge.  I am not amazing at it, I was nowhere near the best in our group (VERY much to my chagrin), but I made a sincere effort and that changes both how people treat you and how you are able to assess any given situation in-country.
  2. I have studied the culture and politics far more than your average person. I am by no means an expert, again, but I do believe that I am better versed in religious and cultural practices, as well as the politics of the region and Egypt in particular, than most westerners.
  3. I had Ilham. This is a biggie.  Ilham is not only academically versed in the Arab World, but she straddles western and middle east culture.  Born in Lebanon, educated in France and the US, she was able to help us through some of the roughest of cultural clashes, successfully staving off culture shock as well as making us smarter, better people.  In short, as the Pasha would say, “Ilham is a bomb lady.”
  4. I stayed there for a long time, by tourist standards anyway. The people in our neighborhood got to know us and left us alone.  I also became quite used to the Egyptian way.
  5. We had security. We’re not entirely sure for who’s benefit they were there, and sometimes they were more present than others, but I was definitely treated differently at Khan el-Khalili market when a suit was overseeing all my haggling.

Now there were a few things that helped me thrive in Egypt that aren’t necessarily specific to my trip, and that I highly recommend for anyone traveling to that area.

  1. I have a good eff-off face. This is key on the subway, in the market, and walking down the street.  People know to leave you alone, which is how I was able to walk through the market in Luxor, by myself, and be left mostly alone.
  2. I went off the beaten path. This is  one of the biggest points of our program, Dialogue of Civilizations.  I talked to Egyptians who had never spoken to Americans before.  I went to the other side of the Nile in Luxor, where all the natives live.  I went to a tiny village where there is virtually no crime or illness.  If all you see is the pyramids at Giza and the men and children who hock their wares, you will have a very skewed version of the country.  It would be like coming to the US and only seeing Disney World, or a rural WalMart.
  3. I had a support system. Every day, I had intense cultural discussions with Janine, Sarah, Allyson, Katie, Alex and Anthony.  There were 25 of us Americans, all experiencing roughly the same things, and we really helped each other talk through every awkward, uncomfortable or confusing encounter.  If I hadn’t had a bunch of smart, kind people to  air these issues with, I probably would’ve internalized them and gotten upset.  I highly recommend not going alone for your first time in Egypt, and definitely talking about the issues you encounter.

Alright, now that the full-disclosure is done, here’s my take.  Were there uncomfortable moments, derived entirely from the fact that I was female?  Yes, of course.  There was an incident in a restaurant and a similar one outside the train station that freaked me out.  There were men who didn’t realize I knew what they were saying.  There were times when I was really angry at the American guys I was with for not understanding when we needed protection and when they were just a nuisance, pleasing themselves.  But unlike the woman I spoke to, I was comfortable walking around alone during the day, at least in Zamalek.  The first week we were there I took a cab alone.  An intense experience, of course, but I got through it just fine.

On the flip side, a lot of this has to do with my own personality.  I pointed out the restaurant thing to the girls I was with, who were disgusted.  I later told some girls about the train incident, which no one else witnessed but was clearly directed at me, and they were all shook up, and kept asking if i was okay.  It was disgusting and undesirable, but I was in no way hurt.  As for the cab, one of the guys pointed out that I was one of the (if not the) only girls on our trip to do that solo, especially so early on.

As far as Egyptian women, I did not have the same perception as the woman who told me she wouldn’t go back.  I did see them walking at night, and I did see them by themselves.  On the other hand, I know from my research the ways and frequency with which many of them are cat-called or physically abused, and it is revolting.

So, my conclusion?  Yes, I still would go back.  And I know I will, someday.  There’s a sort of balance between cultural understanding and maintaining your personal integrity.  There’s also that balance between my own feminist ideals and the reality of life in Cairo.  Yes, I did once  tell off a cab in colorful Egyptian because I had simply had enough of being treated like that, but most of the time I kept my cool about it, the same way I do when I’m treated that way in America.  I don’t mean to make excuses for men behaving poorly, but I honestly don’t think it was much worse than how I am treated here, with just a few exceptions.

I think the biggest measure is that in the end, when I reflect on my time in Egypt and what it meant for me academically, personally and socially, the catcalls aren’t even on my mind.

Uniform

Some arguments I was told in favor of the hijab:

  • I don’t have to worry what my hair looks like
  • People pay attention to what I have to say, not what I look like
  • I focus more on what’s important, not my looks
  • I respect myself, so others respect me

Notice anything?

It’s the same arguments we use for school uniforms or same-sex education.  This is one of my favorite realizations from Egypt.  I love the idea that even though most Americans are taught to hate the concept of hijab outright as oppression, it is entirely relatable to us in a way that is deemed socially acceptable.

Ana Sitt, Hear Me Roar!

The last dayof the AWO Arab-Western Youth Dialogue was far more productive.  I’m not sure if it was the added (and forbidden) social aspect that fired up the Americans, or maybe we were just pushed to the limit.  The ladies especially were all in, and it was great.  Nana made a rousing speech that garnered quite the round of applause.

I met a guy who overheard me say something in French.  Many of the Arab youth speak it, and for saudeeqee (my friend) Billel, it’s his first language.  Once he realized I’m decent at it, we hung out and jabbered away in French as fast as I could handle.  The next day, he came over to ask me a question about women’s wages in America.  He asked if I would answer in front of the group during his presentation, and I obliged.  All of this was in French of course, as was the question and answer in front of the entire group.  I answered in English first, but he wanted to know what I said so I explained it in French as well.  Apparently everyone, Arab and American alike, had underestimated my ability with French.  For the rest of the conference the Arabs knew me as the girl who can speak French, and many approached me at random to chat and test me a wee bit.  As for my own group, I guess they thought I was BSing, or that my version of “speaking french” means “I took it in high school and fell asleep a lot in class.”  My roommate Janine said she felt like it was a different person, hearing such foreign (but pretty) things coming out of my mouth.

It was great to practice my French a lot because it pushed me and also validated me.  It’s not quite as disheartening to stumble through Arabic when I have confidence in other languages.

Throughout the weekend we were so incredibly sheltered.  A quick google search of the Arab participants would tell you why–they were all chosen based on experience with America and connection to the government.  We’re already a target as 30 Americans, but when you add 30 affluent Arabs to the mix it means we are swarmed by security and kept in the most gorgeous playpen you could ever imagine.  Unfortunately, this resulted in the cancellation of most of our site visits :(.

PS if you didnt figure it out, the title is arabeezy (3raby and ingleezy)for I am woman, hear me roar

Division of Labour

We visited the ICRC (Red Cross/Red Crescent) and met with a rep in the hottest room imaginable.  I didn’t faint, but it was dicey for a while.  Despite the heat, it was one of my favorite lectures.  It’s amazing to hear people who are good at this (this being diplomacy, public speaking and representing something other than themselves) field questions.  His job is a mix between relief work and politics, and I was eating it up.

Unfortuntely, some in our number lack the legal background to really learn from the talk.  They spent their time asking uninformed questions and then rudely carried out silly debates during the rest of the q&a.  No, you don’t need to fight about what defines “advanced warning” or “civilians” in international humanitarian law (IHL), because teams of lawyers already have.  When these questions flared up I was really grateful for Kim Jones’ class (Human Rights in the Middle East), and the background I’ve gained from UNA.

Some in our number were freaked out by the morals of the ICRC.  The man was pretty realist (especially about the organization) but not as hardcore as the Arab League ASG.  Some people get upset because the ICRC doesn’t publicly oppose war, or always cause a ruckus over various violations it finds.  However, the ICRC has to face certain realities.  The man we spoke to emphasized that Amnesty International (AI) and the ICRC are both very different, but both very necessary.  AI does field research, releases reports and draws publicity in order to put pressure on various states. ICRC on the other hand does relief work in the field, and don’t go back to their offices for quite some time.  If the ICRC publicly denounces a state r a practice, they jeopardize their ability to help people on the ground.  In the end, there’s only so much merit to being right if you can’t help anyone, as demonstrated by the fact that the ICRC is the only organization still allowed in Sudan.  Being loud and right has its merits, but it doesn’t mean a damn if there’s no one to immediately help in the field.

Meanwhile, some disagree with the idea of relief work as opposed to development aid, the idea being that with proper (western?) development, there would no longer be a need for  relief work.  The ICRC steps in during natural disasters though, and no amount of infrastructure can stop those, and even “civilized” states can have civil war or be invaded.  Even  if the premise that good development aid=no relief work later was true, one would still need the ICRC in the meantime.

After the lecture we had an intense discussion in the van.  Finally, the powder keg of 25 politically minded smartasses went off.  I hnestly can’t believe it took this long!  It was an enjoyable day though, and I actually didn’t argue for a while and just watched others do it–I may have even learned a few tricks.

Nahdet Mahrousa

We visited an incubator NGO (non-Governmental Organization) within Egypt, called Nahdet Mahrousa (Renaissance of Egypt) a few weeks ago.  The incubator selects possible projects and helps them turn into full-fledged, self-sustaining NGOs that are independent financially and otherwise. NM promotes better standards of health and education, as well as tolerance, employment, financial independence and dignity.  They’re a homegrown group of diverse Egyptians who wanted to help combat the infant mortality rates, high unemployment and brain drain that have been such a problem for Egypt.

NM provides legal assistance, research, HR, funding, branding and PR advice, training and project development ideas.  Some of the NGOs they have helped get off the ground include the Young Innovators Award (YIA), which awards Egyptian high schoolers with the funding to carry our their innovative ideas.  This is an attempt to promote more science and technology in Egypt, and often helps the students land jobs with companies that want to buy their innovations.  Another NGO hey helped create was CEDO, a group that has put career services offices in all the public universities of Egypt.  Previously, only wealthy students who could afford to go to private universities got the kind of career advice that comes standard with a college education in the US.  Now, students who never took a university-level english class can have help going over their resume, or preparing for an interview.

Marisa–you’d be so proud of me!  I networked my little tush off!  I got a few business cards and they said I can send my resume to them for the next coop cycle (sorry mom!).  It would be unpaid but phenomenal, and I absolutely need to find a way to get back here, so we’ll see how that goes.  I would absolutely LOVE to work with them, but so far my Arabic isn’t quite good enough.

What’s amazing is that NM just now (after five years) hired their first PR person for their own organization.  They explain their success (and constant interview requests) by saying that, “good news travels fast.”  I can’t help but thinking that wouldn’t exactly be the case in the US.  But then again, in a country where so few people are (effectively) tackling unspoken issues, a group that dedicates itself to just that must stand out.