Friday, March 5, 2010

Things I've Learned in Egypt Part 2: Necessary Classism


There is a listserv that was created for Americans working and studying in Egypt called Cairo Scholar. Many other Westerners and Western-educated Egyptians have also joined the listserv. The listserv functions as an avenue to share information and, at times, to engage in debates about anything. This week, a man send an email through the listserv asking what activities were their for families at Al-Azhar Park. Almost immediately, it sparked a conversation about social class and racism in Cairo:

 "I don't recommend going to Azhar Park especially on Fridays because it is very crowded and the social standard of the visitors in the weekend is very deteriorated. Unless you will stick to the restaurants area in the park. If you have access to clubs like Wadi Degla or Gezeera [private parks and clubs for foreigners] that will be much better, but unfortunately there aren't many public places that is considered good for family to visit."- Shereen, Egyptian

"I strongly disagree with this advice. I assume that by a "deteriorated" social standard Shereen means that they are not rich enough to go to the Wadi Degla or Gezira Clubs. I can only say that whenever I have been there - on any day of the week - I have not been eaten alive by the marauding proletariat masses..."- Sarah, British

"...In Egypt poverty and social standard is very much related. for example back in the States or Europe you can find a plumber who reads every night before he go to sleep, but in Egypt you can never find such a thing. I am not being biased to people from middle or upper classes, this is not the thing" -Shereen, Egyptian 

" I have definitely seen cases where those not from the upper crust are not only good citizens but contributing to the further development of Egyptian society.One example? The Lead Program at AUC, which gives a scholarship to the top performing public school student from each governorate in Egypt [all the wealthy students go to private, international schools]. These students matriculate to AUC, often engage in research, community service, and organize a conference to tackle a social issue facing Egypt, like pollution or trash"- Henry, American

"You speak about poor people who believe in the importance of personal development and education as a mean of getting out from the cycle of poverty and this segment of people is respectable and act in a civilized way. But people who live under the poverty line who had to drop their children out of school and force them to work to earn their living tend to behave in a very different way."- Shereen, Egyptian

"I feel Shereen is being somewhat attacked when there is some truth sometimes in what she is saying, regardless about our politically correct ideas of whats a generalization or not. Sometimes, yes anywhere in the world, there is truth in the notion of different mentalities based on social standard."- Chereen, Egyptian-American

-At this point, I shared my experience last weekend at Al-Azhar with the listserv.

 "I struggle with how people seem to live in different Cairos.  I do not experience the horrendous harassment I hear about but I am older and perhaps that is why. I have never seen any Egyptian rude to my family.  My daughter is young, blonde and pretty and married to a very black man and they have a young daughter.  We go out as a family and everyone is very nice--in fact they find my son-in-law something of a novelty (I think they think he is a famous rapper)."-Deborah, U.S. Department of State (i.e., she lives in a high walled, heavily secured area)

 "When one references "Cairo", we should be honest with ourselves about what part of Cairo we are referring to and how many average Egyptians we see around those parts... Secondly, while one can not correlate poverty with any specific type of behavior, it is unfair to attack those who have pointed out that foreigners are treated a certain way outside of the Westernized bubbles of Maadi, Zamalek, New Cairo,etc..."-me

"Our kids, on a school fieldtrip [to Al Azhar] from St Andrew's, had many racist remarks being made to them. This happens in public frequently, in many Cairo locations.  Imagine how the African refugees feel about Egypt." -Kathy, American director of a African refugee center in Cairo 

There is no burden on you as a foreigner to alleviate tensions, misunderstandings, racism, classism,etc..."- Deborah

If we're going to be sticklers on prejudice, why should we not discuss the strong bias against the "fellaheen" (peasant farmers) amongst middle-class Egyptians. Why, some fellaheen women are blonde, blue-eyed but would never stand a chance against a middle-class, educated, dark Cairene. "Marry your daughter to a crocodile but not to a fallah." ...Egyptians do not treat each other well.- Ahmed, Egyptian blogger

I've highlighted this debate because it clearly shows the way race and class factor in in Cairo. As a foreigner, or a member of an elite Egyptian family, one can live in Cairo for years and completely seclude yourself from the average Egyptian except your server, driver, or maid. This is made pain-stakingly clear at private parks and clubs, hotels, and even some restaurants, that stop short of displaying signs that say "No Egyptians allowed". Instead, some require passports from certain nations for entry. An Italian mother shared with me her relief to find that the Italian Society kept a private park where she could allow her children to play without worrying about "harassment, broken bottles, trash, or dog poop". These places are often the nicest places in Cairo and cater to the whims of their foreign clientele.  Whereas another interracial couple I know living in the city face frequent verbal attacks and so do the poor African refugees Kathy mentioned, these secure expat communities allow people like Deborah's daughter, her black husband, and their mixed child to live comfortably and avoid any harassment at the hands of the "marauding proletariat masses".

In the  past, I was very critical of expats who live and work abroad but seclude themselves from the local population. However, I now realize how it becomes a means of adapting to an often hostile environment. Although, I do not live in one of the expat suburbs, I find myself forgoing the places around my apartment and frequenting the locale's that cater to foreigners. For example, I now shop at the supermarkets that serves a Western clientele to avoid being harassed at the local grocery store.

Repeatedly, other people who've lived and worked in Egypt carefully advised me to limit my friendships/interactions to other foreigners and the wealthy, Western educated circles of AUC to avoid "awkward situations". Initially, I ignored this advice, finding it to be elitist. I did not want to come to Cairo and live and act like an American. After only a few weeks, however, I found myself doing just that! There is no need to subject myself to the derogatory comments of an illiterate street-kid if I can spend a little more and have an enjoyable time elsewhere. Classicism, yes. Necessary, undeniably so.


Matt said...

I kind of want to go to Egypt now just to see what people would do or say to me while walking down the street. I am guessing as a huge blond white guy probably not a whole lot. I wonder how that would change if Jen was walking along with me though?

Frenchie said...

I haven't heard any complaints from white men. They are largely left alone. Also, keep in mind that there is a diffence between living and Egypt and just coming to visit the pyramids for a week.
Regarding Jen, I've met only one Korean-American from CA thus far. I will ask her for her insight on how she's been treated while living here.

Mr. Consistently Inconsistent said...

I have a friend who used to live in Cairo for a few years...and then she went back. Actually, shes done Yemen as well. I am sure her experiences speak to the way Koreans are treated in Cairo.

Classism is one of those things that although the Egyptians may not call it is as such...that is just what it is.

Yes, it is easier to self segregate yourself away from the negativity, but be aware that you dont want to be living in mini-america abroad!

Frenchie said...

That is one of the things I've been struggling with. I want to experience the real Cairo and Egyptian culture unfiltered. However, I do not want to have to face poor treatment on a regular basis. I've found myself being unwilling to venture out of my comfort zone for fear of having to confront verbal or even physical attacks. As I get to know the city better, I hope this will change

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