Sunday, June 13, 2010

May the Hand of a Friend Always Be Near You...-Irish Blessing


Based on my interactions with Egyptians, I've subconciously categorized them into 2 categories: 
Category One includes the poor people on the streets who seemed to have made it their duty to make my daily encounters with them as inconvenient and  unpleasant as possible by harassing me, trying to cheat me out of money, making any number of ignorant and bigoted comments, or unabashedly staring me down. The second category is composed of the small, elite AUCians I interact with on the campus or at chic bars and restaurants. This group ensnares the majority of Egypt's wealth and, for the most part, are willfully unaware of the social, economic, and political situation of the country they live in. Most have gone to Western schools in Cairo or lived abroad. This group is more prepared to discuss the latest Hollywood starlet than the upcoming presidential elections in Egypt. When looking for intellectually stimulating discussions, this group is about as abstruse as Perez Hilton.

Thus, like most foreigners in Cairo, I've found myself slowly drifting into an "expat bubble", not wanting to deal with the unabashed superficiality of the elite crowd at all times- but finding myself doing so more often that not- and feeling even less inclined to be bothered by the masses. My Cairo circle of friends is made up of foreigners from various countries in Africa and the West and a select few AUCians. The other night, I asked a group of foreigners to think of a single average Egyptian that they'd consider a friend and, after much discussion and debate, none of us could come up with a single name. I'm very uncomfortable with the inherent elitism that has become my daily life. Usually when I travel, I enjoy walking around and talking to the regular people. In Greece, for example, I learned more about the realities of their financial crisis from talking to unemployed college graduates I met in stores or in cafes than reading the Economist. The Greeks were friendly and gregarious. In Cairo, however, it's a lot more difficult for a foreign woman to wander around striking up a conversation with people for various reasons.

A few months ago, when I'd first joined, I was pulled into a conversation thread about Cairo lead by an Egyptian writer for an up and coming magazine. Last week, she emailed me and asked if I'd like to go out for coffee and continue our discussion in person. She seemed cool and down to earth so I jumped at the opportunity! We met at Costa Coffees, Egypt's equivalent of Starbucks, and immediately hit it off. She had studied at one of the public universities in Cairo and worked in the nonprofit sector to address some of the issues Egyptians face. She was well-read, intelligent, and actively seeking to promote change in her community- my kind of girl!

 I asked her for an Egyptians perspective on several things I'd found unfamiliar or perplexing in Cairo. We discussed what I'd perceived as the apathy or complacency of the majority towards the government regime and the corruption in every aspect of life. She explained to me that it was difficult to conceptualize when and where the security apparatus would strike. At times, one could speak negatively about the government, expecting a consequence and nothing would happen. At other times, one could make a seemingly benign comment and suddenly be detained. As an example, she told me about her friend who was detained and tortured for making a derogatory comment about a powerful local business man. It was never clear what would be permitted and what could cost you your few freedoms so most Egyptians preferred not get involved. 

We discussed everything from the trash in the streets to Obama's foreign policy towards Israel and the rest of the Middle East. With the flotilla raid debacle fresh in everyone's minds, she was understandably disheartened by what she perceived as a contradiction between Obama's speech in Cairo and his actions in dealing with Israel and the peace process, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other issues in the region. At the end of our conversation, she lamented how difficult it was for her to make friends with foreigners and break into expat circles. I told her that we had the same issues when trying to make friends with Egyptians! We decided to get a group of our friends together and have the same type if discussion and cultural exchange in the near future. I'm looking forward to it! I think it will be beneficial for the expats to get to know the country through the eyes of its inhabitants and for the Egyptians to see us in a different light as well!

Showing me Love: I'm So excited to share my article on #TWiB, a popular current affairs and opinions site - [Black In Cairo] Afrocentrism in Relation to Egypt Pt. 1 - leave a comment please!


Balanced Melting Pot said...

You know, I had the same experience while living in Haiti and I'm HAITIAN. I worked for an NGO, so I was able to meet people from all social levels. I found that the people whose conversation and company I enjoyed the most, felt that I was above their social level and never fully integrated me into their lives. Those who felt I was on par with them (mostly elite) were incredibly superficial and I felt acted as though they did not live in Haiti. Although I was trying to avoid the expat community for the whole "bubble" issue, I did end up meeting some interesting people who were very cognizant of Haiti's reality and lived moderately.

I am having the same experience in Caracas, but I think I'm used to it now.

Vera B. said...

It seem like the elite would know what's going on more than anyone atleast they should be able to have a conversation with you about it.

Anonymous said...

Some of the worst experiences I've ever had traveling, in terms of being constantly hassled and not being able to have a connection with normal people, have been in Egypt and on the Swahili coast. Parts of Kenya and Tanzania, in particular (especially Zanzibar) were absolutely miserable, because every conversation with a local eventually boiled down to "give me money, Mzungu." Sometimes it took as long as an hour or two, but most times it was within the first 5-10 minutes.

I can't figure out what it is that makes those places so miserable, because I've been to other, really poor, places that weren't like that at all, where I was able to spend time with people without every single human interaction turning into being hassled for money. For example,, Uzbekistan and Rwanda and Yemen are poor places, but I never had the same problems there as in Egypt or the Swahili coast.

Frenchie said...

@Balanced It is quite easy to get sucked into the bubble and difficult to ever get out. It becomes a comfort zone, almost a subculture. From previous work, I know that the 'Republic of NGO's' in Haiti have functioned in creating another class of people in a society already divided by class. That may have been why it was so difficult for you.

@Vera in Egypt, some of the elite are part of the status quo. No need for them to discuss the issues because they benefit from the corruption and organized chaos.They function as a bubble as well- private drivers, nannies, American or French education, vacations in Dubai, etc. They are disconnected from the harsh realities of the country and can't discuss what they've never experienced

@Human I'm surprised at your assessment of the Swahili coast. Many of my friends have been and only have positive things to say. I'm sorry that your experience was so tough but I haven't been to these countries yet. While poverty can be factored in to blame for some of these issues, I dont think its the main one because, as you said, you can make a connection w/ ppl in other poor countries. I think a myriad of factors come into play to make the hassling and harassment in some parts of the world worse than others

Matt said...

I am sorry that you are having such a rough time my friend. Look at you using those IPCR dialogue skills though!

Anonymous said...

I am sorry you are having such a rough time finding "average" Egyptian friend.

I have been able to stay away from the foreigners in Guatemala with some reasonable success. Besides not wanting to be the token black girl in their circle, I find them very shallow, and often very racist/ignorant about the people in this country they are traveling with.

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