While in Egypt, we were reminded to be mindful of our actions. They reflect on us, our group, our family, our school, our Egyptian hosts and our country. Like it or not, for many Egyptians we were ambassadors to the United States. We were their piece of America, their view of what it’s “really like.” A certain obligation comes along with that sort of responsibility. Likewise, now that I’m in the US, I feel a responsibility, sometimes overwhelming, to represent Zamalek, Cairo, Egypt, the Arab World, and my time there.
For a lot of friends and family, I am the only person they know who has ever been to Egypt, and in some cases to the Middle East. There are already so many misconceptions about an area of the world to which I have accidentally devoted my schooling. That’s a lot of pressure. I’m doing my best to choose my words carefully, but even so I find myself constantly doubling back to edit myself and explain more deeply when I answer questions. It’s not that I’m editing my experience, but rather the American perception of my experience. I have already seen an off-handed comment or two get filed away as evidence to reinforce a negative perception or stereotype.
I do love, though, talking about Egypt. I think we as a nation expend a lot of hot air on that part of the world, without really ever understanding or saying much. If I can contribute positively in any way to the conversation, or maybe even understanding, then some of this high-priced education is paying off. I do feel that this dialogue is perhaps the most important one, and I feel a personal obligation to help more truth enter the American conversation on the Middle East. What can be difficult, however, is engaging with people at home on this. Everyone of course asks how my trip was, and my brief answer is generally, “It was great! I can’t wait to go back!” This answers the most obvious question after any life-altering decision: would you do it again? But more than that, it tends to pique interest amongst those who see me as stubborn, independent and feminist. As in, why the HELL does she wanna go back to that kind of country? Which is the whole point: I want to provoke you into conversation.
Most people say, “Tell me about Egypt!” They then look at me eagerly, eyes wide and mouth agape, in anticipation of God knows what. How do you sum up six weeks of cultural immersion in a ne-sentence story? Penelope Trunk talks about the art of turning experiences of your life or attributes into one sentence stories of your amazingness for interviews. While that’s great for interviews, I refuse to do it for real life. Real people have the time to sit down and ask questions. That’s what I love–when people ask questions. Things that seem silly, like “how was the food?” “was it hot?” or “did you wear a turban?” are useful in that they spark more conversation. So ask me your questions, even if they seem ridiculous or totally un-PC, and I’ll do my best to be honest, for all our sakes.