Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Cairo is filled with daily, unnecessary inconveniences.You just have to adapt to it"- Arabic Gitmo's VP


This weekend marks my first month in Cairo! Usually, the first month's reflection on a new country begins with "The people are so friendly and helpful..." "I love XYZ"...(sigh,awkward silence).... Well, since I can't begin my reflection on Cairo in either way, I promised myself all weekend that I would find something nice to say on this 1 month reflection post so...Al Azhar Park is really pretty. (What!? it really is!)

My roommate describe Cairo pretty well the other day. She said, "Moving to Cairo is like moving to NYC after you've lived in a small town of 100. You realize that the people are assholes." She said when people asked, the only word she can conjure up to describe Cairo was intense. I always say interesting. In reality, there is no way to properly describe the city. Before arriving in Cairo, I thought it would be most difficult to adapt to a conservative society. In fact, that was the easiest part! I try to be respectful and tough it out in the heat with long sleeves on. The daily Calls to Prayer have become as normal as the sound of an airplane flying overhead. I've adjusted to Sunday being the first day of the week. All these things were easy to get accustomed to. The unnecessary inconveniences are what took longer to get used to:
  • Routinely being ripped off because you are a foreigner. Today, for example, my friend and I went to purchase a pair of shoes. Although the price was clearly marked as 90 EGP, the sales clerk charged her 100 EGP. This happens constantly; people will insist that you should pay more because you're foreign.
  • Making death-defying dashes across the street because cars don't stop when pedestrians are crossing and rarely obey traffic signals. In order to cross the street, you have to weave in and out of oncoming traffic and pray to 4 lbs Baby Jesus that you make it. The concept of lanes isn't put inot practice at all in Egypt. Driving is a contact sport.
  • The constant harassment is mind-boggling. I wish I had something to compare it too...let's put it this way, if I walked into a country music bar in Mississippi with just a G-string bikini on and stilettos, fewer men would make profane comments towards me than those who make comments when I walk down the street fully covered in Cairo! Quite honestly, some days, it takes a significant amount of will power to not throw on a pair of shorts and a tank top and run to the corner store. My mind rejects the idea that my Caribbean body must be fully covered under layers of clothes in 90 degree weather but, I do it anyway. When I first arrived, I covered my hair as well but after realizing that it did little to deter the harassment, I don't bother to cover my hair anymore. I refuse to be uncomfortable in order to be respectful of someone's idea of modesty if, in turn, I am not treated with respect. Even women in niqab's are harassed in the street (Why would you hit on a lady in a burqa? Are her eyes seducing you?!)
  • I've actually taken to never smiling and always wearing dark sunglasses (haterblockers)- things I'm very unaccustomed to doing anywhere- so as not to give any man the impression that I am inviting his advances. The other day, on my way to the market,  I found myself conducting an unscientific study to see how many men would walk up to me and make lewd, inappropriate comments. Literally, 2/3 would walk as close to me as they could to whisper something in my ear or shout it out as they walked by. Truthfully, it's funny to think about it now but it can become psychologically draining if you do not learn to be tough-skinned or if you're having a bad day. I've found that I just tune out the moment I see Egyptian men approaching. (counterproductive when you want to learn Arabic but necessary to stay sane)
  • Related to the verbal and sexual harassment is the blatant racism and xenophobia against all foreigners. People will routinely shout slurs at anyone that doesn't look Egyptian...Maybe they do it because they think Arabic is some type of secret code that no one else can crack (smh). I've concluded that Egyptians know more racial slurs than a drunk redneck. I have been told that even Iraqi refugees face prejudices once people hear their accents and realize they aren't Egyptian. While the U.S. isn't perfect, at least Americans mutter racial comments under their breath or apologize for it profusely in a public statement before it's published in a tell-all best seller. In Cairo, the idea of political correctness or racial/cultural sensitivity doesn't exist. Today, for example, I went to Al-Azhar Park with my classmate, a sweet girl from Idaho (She's from Idaho. Please, don't act like you don't know what Idaho's demographics are). Almost immediately, some Egyptians, young and old, male and female began yelling random slurs and us "Tea and Milk" "Africano lover" "Dirty white girl" "samara" (meaning darkie) "Booga Booga" (no need to translate this one)
Having learned to expertly tune Egyptians out, I barely even noticed but, my friend was so uncomfortable and annoyed that we left after only a few minutes. Upon returning to Tahrir Square to shop for comfortable walking shoes, the regular harassment ensued. One man even interrupted our conversation and asked, "I am wondering what an American is doing out with an African in public."  "I'm not African," I shot back in English before realizing that I was wasting my breath on and breaking my rule of not talking to the street-harassers. I suppose I should be amused at an Egyptian calling me African when he is more African than I will ever be just based on Egypt location in Africa. Instead, I'm just surprised at how culturally/racially insensitive and politically incorrect some Egyptians can be! Egypt is in the heart of Africa and a stone throw away from Europe, you can't walk around the corner without seeing a black or white person. Why either would be a novelty to people in Cairo, I can not fathom...It's like the Irish being surprised by red-heads!

Consequently, when my boyfriend asked me if I regretted coming to Egypt to learn Arabic, I contemplated the question thoroughly and hard before answering him. Cairo has been a learning experience. I chose to "rough it"and not live in an expat cocoon far from the city. I wanted to experience the city unfiltered by the Western-imported luxuries or opulence, like the average Egyptian would. I definitely got what I asked for! Although I can comprehend now why someone would choose to keep themselves and their family living in an Americanized suburban bubble, limiting their contact with Cairo in it's purest form (Necessary Classism), I do not regret my decision to come to Egypt or live in the city. Because the Middle East is my area of interest and knowledge, I believe that I would've learned these harsh lessons sooner or later. The Middle East is still pulsating; constantly trying to break into modernity with its own subtle sexual revolution, growing woman's rights movement, and minorities demanding to be treated as equals in brave civil rights movements across the region.  In Cairo, sexual harassment, prejudice, ignorance, and swindling are magnified by harsh wealth disparities, a high unemployment rate, political tension, corruption, and frustrations. Thus, after one month, I do not regret coming to Cairo to see the world through different eyes. However, I do believe that the environment in Cairo and the desert fortress of Arabic Gitmo (AUC) is not conducive to learning Arabic. Neither provide the comfort of or opportunity to interact with average people. The opportunities for all expats to live complete seclude from Egyptians while in Cairo also creates a bubble effect that is difficult to break out of. Therefore, I do regret choosing it as the place to begin my Arabic studies.

- In 2008, the New York Times published a great article by an Egypain-American discussing racism in Egypt. You can find that article here


Black Women in Europe said...

I have a couple of things I wanted to say and ask:

1. Thanks for including my blog (Black Women in Europe) on your blogroll.

2. I want to interview you for Please send an email to and tell Reg that Adrianne from Black Women in Europe sent you (I screwed up my email somehow so I don't always get the forwards).

3. Please join the Facebook page. We come up when you search there.

4. I am studying Arabic and having a hard time so far. I wonder how things are progressing with you?

5. I love your blog!!!!!!!!!!!! Everything about it.

Frenchie said...

1) Afwan! You're welcome.

2-3) I'll get in contact with you about both

4)What kind of Arabic are you studying? What type of program is it? I am doing an intensive program in both MSA and Egyptian colloquial. My reading and writing in MSA have progressed light-years ahead of my verbal communication skills in Egyptian Arabic for all the reasons I've lamented above and in my last post. Truthfully, I'm learning that it is difficult to learn Arabic in Egypt. Egypt will not allow you the language "immersion" experience sigh

5) I'm so glad you like it!

Harvey said...

Dang that's hardcore... Man. I'll never complain about being stared at in China again. Never. I swear.

Frenchie said...

I can understand getting stared at in homogeneous societies, that happened all the time when I was in Korea but I still consider Korea/Koreans to be welcoming. I don't have anything to compare the verbal and sexual harassment in Cairo to even after going to undergrad in a small town in the South! It's just blatant racism and xenophobia

Hanna said...

Wow. As a black girl also living in Cairo, you pretty much summed up any average day for me. Good to know I'm not alone my love-hate-fascination relationship with this town!

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