copy Excellent Adventures in Egypt

Enter here to share Joni's adventures living and working in Cairo courtesy of the U.S. Fulbright cultural exchange program. Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilization. - Mahatma Ghandi

9/14/2004

Column for the Boulder Daily Camera

I have made arrangements with the Camera to run a monthly column on my experiences here in Egypt. My first submission is below. I'll try to post some more snapshots (words and pictures) to the blog in the next couple of days. Cairo is a city of 17 million people. You see this most clearly in the traffic. Everyone here aspires to own a car, although most (hamdulillah, thanks to God) can’t afford one. Everywhere you go it’s six lanes of traffic crowded into four, cars jammed so densely together in traffic jams that even bicycles can’t get through. Cars are double and triple parked and crammed at odd angles into every available nook, making it difficult for pedestrians to squeeze through. Following local custom, I mostly walk in the streets (fewer obstacles to avoid than on sidewalks) and there is a constant flow of fast little cars, dusty taxis and ramshackle buses brushing by just inches away. Still, the pace of life is so easy-going that it’s fairly easy to ignore the frenetic traffic, even for a not-big-city girl like me. There is no road rage and only occasional outbursts of annoyance, which quickly fade away. People are friendly and courteous, quick to smile and quick to laugh. I offer lots of opportunities for laughter, muddling through my terrible Arabic buying brooms to chase the ubiquitous dust, seeking help getting back into my locked flat (with the key inside), asking for directions. Fortunately, Egyptians talk with their hands a lot so it’s relatively easy to communicate. Back in the States, the most persistent question I heard was “will you be safe there?” Ironically, I am safer in Cairo than in almost any city in the USA. There is virtually no violent crime, very little robbery or theft, not much in the way of pickpocketing. I can walk down the street on my own at any hour of the day or night and feel perfectly safe. And if I should run into a problem – like sprain my ankle in one of those holes that suddenly appear in sidewalks – there are always people around, quick to come to my aid. In MaSr, community is foremost and people are always watching out for one another. This takes some getting used to for Westerners. Everywhere one goes in Egypt there are eyes watching you. Egyptians are endlessly interested in one another’s doings, and the peculiar ways of foreigners are especially intriguing. The hardest eyes to get used to are those of the young men. There are scores of bored post-adolescent boys standing guard in front of embassies, hotels and commercial buildings or half-heartedly directing traffic on street corners. Fueled by fantasy images from Baywatch and MTV, their lustful, slant-wise stares are a constant backdrop to my streetscape wanderings. This is especially troubling for younger women, who provoke rude kissy noises regardless of how “properly” they dress. Being older and tougher skinned, I rarely find myself bothered. Egyptian notions of community are rooted in the values of Islam. Individual morality is a very important part of community: what individuals do reflects negatively or positively on the community of which they are a part. People behaving “inappropriately” will be counseled, chastised, and possibly even shunned. (If those bored men acted on their lustful fantasies, they would run the risk of being barred from their local mosques.) Dress and deportment are important signals of morality, and foreigners who dress and act with respect for Islamic mores gain respect for our own cultures back home. The other frequent question I heard is “don’t they hate Americans?” I have encountered nothing but warm welcome from everyone I’ve met: taxis drivers, shopkeepers, door-minders, passers-by on the street, and from the warm faculty at the College. Of course they all despise George W. – who can blame them – but they are much too polite to raise the topic with me. When I make my own views known, trying to coax out an opinion, folks will open up a little about their anguish and fears. But their feelings are never directed at me as an American. This is a people with a long history of living under tyranny, so they have little difficulty distinguishing between “government” and “people.” Some joke a little about the US taking lessons in governance from Arab states (sad but true), shrug “en sha’allah” (as God wills it), then change the subject. Resignation is a quality deeply engrained – they have 5000 years’ history living closely together under authoritarian regimes. In my opinion, this is Egyptians’ biggest strength and their biggest weakness. People here are intently watching our Presidential campaign, probably more closely than many Americans. Egyptians know that the outcome of our election will affect their everyday lives, a fact that many Americans seem to have forgotten. The Cairo ex-patriot community is engaged in a vigorous get-out-the-vote campaign, with even the Embassy sending emails reminding people of our options to vote from abroad. I’m told that folks who usually vote Republican plan to vote for Kerry this year: from the outside, the choices – and their consequences – are heartbreakingly clear. This week I started talking with people about “sustainability” (the focus of my teaching and curriculum research) asking “what does it mean for Egypt?” We’re still trying to figure out what this means for our culture, and I expect the concept to have a very different meaning in this ancient and “less-developed” country. I’ll write more about this in coming months as my understanding grows. I’ll be here for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, reflection and celebration of community, and will share my experiences and impressions of this special time. I’ll try give a little flavor of life in an Islamic country since this is a mysterious (or frightening) culture to many of us. And I’ll try to capture some of the difference in worldviews between Americans and Egyptians through observations about press coverage and conversations with the people I meet. And, like those 17 million other Cairenes, I will try to keep my cool by breathing deeply in the polluted air and taking long strolls along the corniche, catching the evening breeze watching the silent and eternal Nile glide by. Ma es-salaam (may peace go with you).

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