One cannot truly reflect on any experience in life without a period of self reflection as well. For better or worse, each time you set foot in an unfamiliar city and embark on a new journey, it changes you in a fundamental way. Cairo was no different. Cairo is firmly epitomized in my mind by the description of Gustave Flaubert as a place of contrast: where splendid things gleam in the dust. It forced me to confront the best and worst of people, my world-view, religion, fundamental needs, and of myself. Throughout blogging in Cairo and discussing my experiences with other people 3 themes became very obvious to me early on and stayed with me until the end:
The experience of travelers vary due to factors that are, at times, beyond their control. While some may downplay the role race, sex, and class have in shaping your experience abroad, I believe that it's integral to discuss these things honestly and openly in order to paint a complete picture of any country. My boyfriend once said to me that, when you are a part of the dominant culture, it doesn't occur to you to consider identity because everything is set up to your benefit. I can see this unconscious omission of the experiences of anyone who is not a Western, white man in most travel guides and blogs about Cairo. Only a few even mention sexual harassment and, when it is mentioned, it is solely from the perspective of white female travelers. When people of colour are mentioned they are either the Orientalized natives, the black African maids for hire, or the poor refugees to pity. Thus, with Black in Cairo, I wanted to bring a different experience to the globetrotters discourse and challenge the status quo. My goal was not to have race, class, and gender relations become the sole focus of any traveler to the point of paranoia but, to discuss these topics as an aspect of traveling and encountering other people to take into consideration wherever you plan to go.
Another thing that I was confronted with while blogging was that discussing racism and sexism from/between people of colour towards other people of colour is still a taboo topic. Often, I received emails, comments, and tweets from people filled with righteous indignation that I "painted" my interactions with Egyptians, especially the men, in a way that they believed to be counterproductive. "There's no point in discussing these things. After all, 'The Man' oppresses us all so why are you complaining?," they'd say. The reality is that the oppressed can easily turn into the oppressor when one whitewashes the lessons of the past and present. People of colour are capable of the same types of xenophobia, racism, and bigotry in the name of religion, nationalism, or self-grandiose that others have perpetuated against us throughout history. Exempting people of colour from conversations on these topics because of their colonial histories, in my view, is paternalistic and offensive. It belies the belief that the societies of African, Asian, Arab, or Latin American countries are not as culturally and socially advanced as their Western counterparts and, thus, can not be held to the standard and expectation of treating all human beings as equal. I was told once to overlook the way I was treated in Cairo because "they" were still a developing country! This is a perception that I reject. Purposeful and systematic intolerance and racism can be perpetuated by any group towards another and all societies should be held equally accountable for it. Attempting to silence someone who speaks out on any injustice they perceive is an attempt to silence their humanity. On the other hand, all human beings are capable of acts of selflessness, unity, and charity regardless of colour, education, or means.
The third circumstance that I had to contend with was the fact that I was living in a police state.The security apparatus in a police state is nothing to take for granted! A lot of my friends and readers asked why I didn't post pictures of me or my friends on my blog. The truth is that I wasn't sure how much I could do or say before 'Big Brother' would come knocking at my door. Although I tried to push the envelope and discuss topics that are usually not touched upon in other Egypt-oriented blogs, there are also a lot of things that I saw/experienced that I did not write about; for example, Cairo's thriving underground gay scene and police brutality at peaceful protests. One of my roommates warned me that bloggers she knew being detained just of mentioning instances of racism in Egypt, something I did quite often. As President Mubarak is perched on the edge of death and the end of his dynasty, the political climate in Egypt is tense. Accounts of police violence and detention for undisclosed crimes against the state were on the rise. Thus, for security concerns, I kept named, photos, and some details off my blog. This was a very tough decision to make. I continuously strove for honesty and integrity while blogging yet I had to make the conscious decision when to omit details or not to write something at all.
In relation to this, while in Cairo, I conducted several interviews with Southern Sudanese refugees on the topic of integrating into Egyptian society. These interviews were also left off my blog in an effort to protect the privacy of the participants. Because I am black and Haitian-American, I was granted access into the community, to a point. During one interview one man confronted me with my own privilege, "You are black like us and you get treated like us but you have an American passport. Me, they'll throw me in jail for nothing but you, you have the blue protection (U.S. passport)." I sat their in silence for a long time, my face beat red, before muttering something incoherently. I had nothing else to add to his honesty. Admittedly, a degree of guilt and solidarity with the African refugees agonizing in Cairo led me to try to reflect as candidly as I could because Egypt is still killing black women, men, and children by the dozens trying to cross the Sinai to apply for asylum in Israel while the world says and does nothing (and I'll stop saying it when they stop doing it). It was a small thing to do to write from my position of privilege.The benefits and security an American passport can provide can supersede the colour of your skin or the amount of money in your bank account. The privilege to carry an American passport is one that I hold dear.
With all that being said, I can truly say that I do not regret my time in Egypt. It was a time of personal growth for me that gave me an opportunity to reshape and rethink my short term and long term goals so that they will better reflect the type of professional, sister, daughter, friend , girlfriend (and, eventually, wife and mother) I aspire to become. During my time in Egypt, I learned the strength and resilience of the human spirit through, not only the many obstacles Egyptians and refugees in Cairo endured just to eat a meal each day, but also my own ability to endure verbal, and on occasions, physical abuse. In a society like that of the U.S. that thrives on instant gratification and anticipated law and order, this may seem like a very small feat. However, considering the fact that the Teabaggers are enjoying their Social Security checks, Medicare and Medicaid, disability checks, and still expect the state and federal government to send police to protect their right to yell at poor people and people of colour about "socialism", navigating daily life in developing nations without the guarantee of security or social services is a testament to the will of the human spirit.
To come to this realization marks a point of personal growth for me. It took a long time for me to be able to say anything positive about Cairo. Initially, the experience left me jaded. I still tense up when men walk behind me. I had an especially difficult time adjusting to having normal interaction with men due to the sexual harassment I experienced in Cairo. While in Cairo, I'd come to a point where I quit my Arabic studies and preferred to willingly comprehend as little of what was constantly directed at me as possible. Ignorance, after all, can be the only semblance of bliss you can achieve. Now, I can look back at my first few weeks in D.C., when I would glare at men who approached me or try to resist the urge to bolt out of taxis, and laugh. I can also reflect on some of the positive aspects of Cairo that I will miss:
- The sight of the Pyramids of Giza in the distance. The magnificence of the pyramids can not be overstated. I felt humbled each time I saw them.
- The fresh fruits and fruit juice that lined the streets and mixed with all the other scents of the city to create a scent that was uniquely Cairo.
- The plethora of cute shoes and purses and a remarkably cheap price. There were so many occasions to shop for, real or perceived, that I could never get enough!
- The world class cuisine available in many of Cairo's best restaurants
- The low cost of living that allowed me to enjoy an upper class lifestyle with very few financial concerns
- The wonderful roommates I had and the great friends I made who truly Godsends throughout my time in Cairo.
Update: TIPS FOR FUTURE TRAVELERS IN THE COMMENTS SECTION