Monday, September 6, 2010

Finally, Cairo: Where Splendid Things Gleam in The Dust

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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.
Back in America, as the Park 51 mosque + cultural center exposes some of the ugliest aspects of America and challenges us all to evaluate our understanding of our rights and freedoms, I think this provides a perfect climate for a conclusion. The reality is that I went to Cairo with ambitions to "find myself" only to realize that everything I'd ever needed in this world is waiting for me right here at home. While America is far from perfect, it has granted me the freedoms that I so cherish and have come to realize are integral to my happiness. These freedoms should not be commandeered by a few or proclaimed by one group over the other based on religion, race, class, or seniority. America should be a true reflection of democratic ideals before these ideals can spread organically from us to Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. Ultimately, Islam has given us no enemies; gaping poverty and inequality, a lack of access to education, and the denial of a people's underlying humanity have. While we can legislate freedoms, it is a bigger challenge to practice tolerance and acknowledge your own privilege; that is the truest test of any individual and society as a whole.

Of course, I want to thank all of you who gave me the opportunity to share my point of view and experiences. Thank you for reading as I allowed the events to shape this blog; thank you for all your comments. Thank you for voting this blog the Best Travel Blog!!! Most of all, thank you for being a virtual family and support system throughout the humorous, hardening, and hearty experiences. For the time being, I'd like to stay Stateside and cultivate relationships here with my family, friends, and my wonderful, encouraging new boyfriend. As I wrap up my M.A. at American University in D.C. and begin a promising new career path, I'm laying the foundation for my first major career move to Haiti (it's time to make that journey home) within the next 1-2 years. In the meantime, I do have an idea for another blog and I'll let you guys know the moment I get it launched!

In conclusion, my German friend once asked me if it was difficult to often be the first black person or the first Haitian person that people meet in my travels. I thought about the many places I've been and the times people have tried to touch my hair, rub my skin, or take a picture of me. Each time, I took the opportunity to share something about my culture with them, breaking down barriers, challenging stereotypes, and laying the foundation for life-long friendships for that is the truest goal of a globetrotter. When you travel next, take the opportunity to do the same and write about it to share with others!




Update: TIPS FOR FUTURE TRAVELERS IN THE COMMENTS SECTION

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your blog. I don't know how I stumbled upon it. As a fellow Haitian-American traveller (who studied & lived in West Africa long ago)I've enjoyed your insight.

There can be the tendency to romanticize or demonize our foreign experiences, but you've done so with balance. You've talked about what you've found great, without neglecting the negatives.

Good luck with all your future endeavors.

Nadeve said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I enjoyed reading your blog.

GoHard said...

Very well written, I also like the honesty you bring to your blog. I traveled to different countries in asia this summer and i wanted to do a blog on that but i feel that im not that great of a writer.

Frenchie said...

Thanks for the kind words guys. @GoHard, I'd encourage you to write for your own pleasure. I had no idea what this blog would become when I first started it but I think my passion for blogging is what drew a lot of people to it. Safe travels and give blogging a try!

BVS said...

I thought Iam totally speechless but here's what I want to say:
Before meeting you in person and after reading your blog I had this good impression about your positivity. We've only met for a couple times - we didn't do a lot but we said a lot indeed about how things are in the country and the world. I was happy that I met you and have the chance to communicate with an African-American lady of almost the same age. I wanted and still do and always will extend a hand to break down cultural barriers and challenge stereotypes. I love your note and I see how cultured you are, despite our disagreements, I still look at the commonalities. I want to seize the opportunity to say you might have perfectly cited all the negatives or at least the differences from a western perspective...sometimes harsh, some lack the depth or nature or history of some traditions and ofcourse religion, some are true, reasonably and wisely said. The reason a true humanist local may oppose you at times is when you a strangner gets down to the core of a culture and bring out all the negatives, differences and hopeless issues - thats when you are left truely jaded, especially when they live to a police state and try to keep doing what they are doing to keep this country thriving with relative peace amidst the craziness and the chaos. I as all Egyptians belong to an ancient culture, perhaps a big portion of us intentionally or unintentionally omit the things the developed world has long improved and excelled in. There are so many barriers to demolish, so much change to do..but I totally agree and admire your quote "splendid things gleam in the dust". My roots trace back to the turks but I can't think of being anything but Egyptian. I am proud and lucky to belong here. Here is far from perfect like everywhere in the world, but getting close perfection is still achievable on this land. This is a rich country with everything the only problem is its people don't know it and if some know, all they need is to be granted the opportunity, ancient nations like that might take them forever to be the change they want to be.
Thanks for your blog on cairo, congrats for winning - I will have to read every post. I hope this wouldn't be your first and last visit. I'm sure you been around the country but looks like you havnt bene with the right gang. Living in Egypt is difficult but culd be enjoyable. I promise you and your roommates next visits wouldn't be as tough because next time you make it you know you been here before and you the things you should and shouldn't do and an expert. Someone who relatively wrote a well-informed blog about Cairo / egypt and shared her experience transparently and truthfully, you know you also made friends and not alone. I made it long but you got me thinking :) Good luck with your career and study.
Salam,
May Kosba

Jamdown said...

Welcome home. I live in the D.C. area too. I have to admit that after reading your blog, I have absolutely NO interest in visiting Egypt -- not even to see the great Pyramids. I just don't feel like I need to pay good money to visit racist countries -- there are enough racists right here in the good old USA, if I feel the need to see any.

Great blog and looking forward to your next adventure.

Dee O. said...

WOW! This was such an amazing read! You are so lucky to have the opportunities to travel to such amazing destinations! And your writing is so good, I feel like I was right there with you! :)

Feel free to check out my blog:
www.THATGOODGOODBLOG.blogspot.com

Tinora said...

I can't believe I found your blog. It is exactly what I was looking for. I was just wondering the other day why there are no travel sites catered to people of color that warn of the possible problems you can run into abroad because of racism etc. and then I found this... amazing. I'm a 21 year old black woman, planning on studying abroad in Egypt this coming spring so this blog is definitely a life saver. Although I must admit that I feel a little more apprehensive about going now that I've read some of your experiences. Although sadly I am not surprised, I have traveled to quite a few countries myself and have had my share of awkward race based experiences (ie a woman in china telling me I would be so beautiful if only my skin was a bit lighter). While reading through your blog over the last 2 days I must admit I almost changed my mind about going to Egypt, but I figure nothing will change if no one does anything to address the situation. Any advice you have would be appreciated.
Thanks for sharing your journey.

Fly Girl said...

Wow. I can't believe that I've just discovered your blog. I write about my travel experiences and cultural reviews from a black perspective with a Caribbean emphasis as well but I have never come close to the conflict-ridden experiences that you chronicle in Cairo. I am so very, very, appreciative that you have documented them because it really needs to be voiced. I had to fight the curator for the Tut exhibit when it came to Chicago to admit that their contemporary Egyptian image was not in the image of ancient Egyptians and that the Arabs currently in Egypt had nothing to do with the creation of ancient Egyptian history. I have gotten into more arguements and online battles than I can remember because I can't stand how African history gets re-written. I am amazed at your experiences in Cairo and will continue to read older posts but thanks for sharing your valuable insight.

Frenchie said...

Thanks so much for all the positive feedback! I'd encourage you all to have your own experiences in life but I do want to impart some advice for future female Cairo travelers:

-Choose the neighborhood you live in wisely. Zamalek and Maadi are the safest neighborhoods you will find and the ones I'd recommend for single females
- Try your best to adhere to social norms but maintain your own sense of style and self worth
-Make friends w/ Egyptians when you can. This will be integral in navigating daily life and the bureaucracy
-Also make friends with other expats. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience in the expat community that you should tap into
-Taxi drivers aren't your friends. A close, unmonitored environment is not the place to be friendly and accommodating
-Always be mindful of your surroundings! Being open minded doesn't mean you have to be naive!
- Get out of Cairo every opportunity you get! check out the Sinai, the Nubians in Upper Egypt, etc
-Join Cairo scholars listserv just so that you'll have a community when you first arrive and you can learn what's going on in the city
-Bring pepper spray with you. It's technically illegal in Cairo but many foreign woman bring lipstick style cans of pepper spray with them. I can't tell you how many times I wish I'd had some.
- Set up a Skype account before you arrive and buy plenty fo credit.
- Take the time to learn some Arabic. It will make life a little easier (and you wont get ripped off as often)
- Ignore the things that can be ignored and don't allow the things that will bother you later on to be ignored

Ma sallema! Best of luck to you :)

mocorama said...

Too bad that you are not in Egypt anymore. I just got here and I am a black professional working between Dubai and Cairo. I will read the blog though : )

villa tossa de mar said...

Hi,nice post..I appreciate it!I really enjoyed reading your post and looking forward for some more interesting posts by you..

sadsadasdsdgf said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Shiraz said...

Frenchie--
My comment comes a little late, but I wanted to share some thoughts on your blog. I was introduced to your blog before traveling to Cairo this past summer. I shared it with a couple friends, including an Ethiopian who had previously traveled to Cairo and loved it. For reference, I am a Sudanese-American and while I didn't visit Cairo prior to my summer stay, I traveled to Sudan and other Middle Eastern countries multiple times.

I must admit, I had some issues with your blog. I remember reading a post in which you described Egypt as one of the most racist countries in the world and thought to myself: "She must have forgotten about race relation issues in the States." I was concerned, because my friend who was also traveling to Cairo with me (and who referred me to Black in Cairo) was thinking of transferring to a program in Jordan after hearing your stories. She was extremely worried about the racism, sexism, and the aggressive behavior that is common in Egypt. For that reason, I thought that while your experiences in Cairo helped me predict what life would be like in Egypt, it may also discourage black people from visiting the country.

After living in Egypt for two months, however, I recognize the importance of your blog as an individual and unique story. In particular, I appreciate this last post because it sends an important message that I found myself saying as well: Egypt was an extremely problematic country, but I have learned too many invaluable things to regret this trip. I wholeheartedly agree that Cairo can be interpreted very differently depending on one's race and gender. I saw my white male friends having the times of their lives everyday, while the people of color were quicker to take note of Cairo's many problems.

Still, I think your assessment of the American University is too harsh, considering the other Arabic programs in Cairo. The reality is, most institutions in Egypt and the Middle East will appear to be unprofessional and unorganized compared to what we're used to seeing in America. But Egypt stands out as a country full of crooks desperately looking to take as much American money as possible. One of the easiest ways they do this is by creating "Arabic programs" -- there are plenty in Cairo and most of them have the sole objective of making the most money at the smallest cost. This is something that all foreigners should be aware of. Cairo is full of mediocre and downright horrible programs that will not accommodate you well.

I was supposed to attend the American University in Cairo's Summer ALI program but had to transfer to a smaller institute in Maadi, and this is one of my biggest regrets of the year. Although I spent less money at this new institute, I was put in a horrible overpriced apartment in the "immigrant district" of Maadi. (I guess my program directors thought it was funny to put the Sudanese and other black girl with all the Sudanese immigrants.) Immediately, we dealt with hostility and unprofessionalism from the program, and I ended up reporting this program to my university and the American Embassy. In the end, I fled the country after being kicked out of my crappy apartment a week before the lease was over. Most of my experience in Cairo was centered on my conflicts with this Arabic program, and it took me a while to truly get comfortable in the country. I literally had to leave the program and start making local friends for this to happen. So, I guess the point that I'm trying to make is while the American University may not be perfect, it has one of the best Arabic programs in the Middle East. It is also home to educated Egyptian students and faculty members that do not want to screw you over. This is very rare in Cairo.


Just thought I would share my two cents. Thanks again for initiating such an important discussion. I hope to see more in the future!

Shiraz said...

Frenchie--
My comment comes a little late, but I wanted to share some thoughts on your blog. I was introduced to your blog before traveling to Cairo this past summer. For reference, I am a Sudanese-American and while I didn't visit Cairo prior to my summer stay, I traveled to Sudan and other Middle Eastern countries multiple times. I lived in Cairo for two months this past summer.

I must admit, I had some issues with your blog when I first saw it. I remember reading a post in which you described Egypt as one of the most racist countries in the world and thought to myself: "She must have forgotten about race relation issues in the States." I was concerned, because my friend who was also traveling to Cairo with me (and who referred me to Black in Cairo) was thinking of transferring to a program in Jordan after hearing your stories. She was extremely worried about the racism, sexism, and the aggressive behavior that is common in Egypt. For that reason, I thought that Black in Cairo may discourage black people from visiting the country and experiencing an important foreign lifestyle.

After living in Egypt for two months, however, I recognize the importance of your blog as an individual and unique story. In particular, I appreciate this last post because it sends an important message that I found myself saying as well: Egypt was an extremely problematic country, but I have learned too many invaluable things to regret this trip. I wholeheartedly agree that Cairo can be interpreted very differently depending on one's race and gender. I saw my white male friends having the times of their lives everyday, while the people of color were quicker to take note of Cairo's many problems.

Still, I think your assessment of the American University is too harsh, considering the other Arabic programs in Cairo. The reality is, most institutions in Egypt and the Middle East will appear to be unprofessional and unorganized compared to what we're used to seeing in America. But Egypt stands out as a country full of crooks desperately looking to take as much American money as possible. One of the easiest ways they do this is by creating "Arabic programs" -- there are plenty in Cairo and most of them have the sole objective of making the most money at the smallest cost. This is something that all foreigners should be aware of. Cairo is full of mediocre and downright horrible programs that will not accommodate you well.

I was supposed to attend the American University in Cairo's Summer ALI program but had to transfer to a smaller institute in Maadi, and this is one of my biggest regrets of the year. I immediately dealt with hostility and unprofessionalism from the new program, and I ended up reporting this program to my university and the American Embassy. I literally had to leave the program and start making local friends in order to truly enjoy my stay. So, I guess the point that I'm trying to make is while the American University may not be perfect, it has one of the best Arabic programs in the Middle East. It is also home to educated Egyptian students and faculty members that do not want to screw you over.


Just thought I would share my two cents. Thanks again for initiating such an important discussion. I hope to see more in the future!

Medical assisting said...

I love your blog.I read your maximum of posts and i always found them interesting and impressive.The knowledge shared by all the post are good enough to acquire the whole information.

Jamdown said...

So what do you think about what's going on in Egypt now? I know you are no longer there, but do you have any opinion about the revolution?

Frenchie said...

I think the Egyptian people have taken a brave and much overdue stance and it will require leadership, coordination, and sheer willpower to remove Mubarak. I hope they have the patience to see this through. this will not be quick, easy, or "smooth".

Anonymous said...

its always very interesting to read what foreigners say about u or what u know.always interesting to see things in their eyes!
to you(haitian-american)and to all other foreigners coming to egypt:you are ,as we are,all,judged by our looks!
we egyptians are not less racist than you are!we have our prejudices and judgements.
being foreign ,white and blond as of course being female will make u a bigger target for harrassement!
coz most young guys on the streets have that one idea about white women.
in germany i look like a turkish immigrant .when i speak german i get the treatment of turkish(gastarbeiter)!thats why i found out i need to speak ebglish in many situation:coz when u speak english you r a froreigner,so you get a different treatment.
usa promised southern sudanese (when they had war) they would be accepted as refugees.they came in numbers to cairo ,stayed in neighbourhoods around churches in cairo where they were supported untill they can go to the usa.
suddenly there was a peaceagreement
and the usa said to them:u can go home!
thousands and thousands of them remained in cairo.that caused many problems and tension between them and their poor egyptian neighbours in the poor areas of cairo.
exactly like america does to mexicans and europe to northafricans!

Anonymous said...

What a well-written blog post! You hit on so many important topics and points and never gave in to sensationalism. I enjoyed reading what another American thought about Cairo from more than just a "ooh, pretty pyramids!" tourist viewpoint. Good luck in your travels!


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Petter Joe said...

Your writings are very good.Very interesting and informative article. Thanks for sharing.I like to read more article like this.Petter Joe

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