Update from Cairo
October 2nd, 2010 | Blog, Travel, Arabic, Cairo, Egypt, tea
First of all, I have to say that living in Cairo is an entirely different experience from living in a smaller town/village in Upper Egypt. So far the move has been extremely interesting, and has opened my eyes to the diversity of cultures and opinions and ideologies of Egyptians. It has also made me realize how limited my perspective on Egypt and Egyptian culture was while living where I was. Don’t get me wrong, I think my initial experience was a very accurate one, and gave me an inroad into the lives of the majority of Egyptians. It was an experience which most foreigners living in Egypt don’t get to experience, which is unfortunate especially if they are working in the development world. Obviously it’s important to have a good understanding of the people you are working with, and that understanding isn’t fully possible simply from reading books or reports or from hearing people talk about it. Not to say that I now have a good understanding of the people I’m working with from living in Egypt for one year, but I think it was an excellent foundation. Anyway, back to my point, Egypt truly does not have a monoculture, which is also a good lesson to learn while living and working in a country.
Here are some of the things that my perspective has changed on since moving to Cairo: I was under the impression that the only thing Christian Egyptians liked to do for fun if they had a vacation was to go visit monasteries. I even asked the question in one of my English classes, ‘where do you go if you have a vacation’ and they all answered with different monasteries. This is not true of all Egyptians, or even all Egyptian Christians. The majority of Egyptians that I have met in Cairo go to Alexandria, or really anywhere where there is a beach, during their summer vacations…or just on the weekend.
I was also under the impression that the public school system was very close to a complete waste. The biggest reason why I thought this was because almost every Egyptian has to take English all the way through primary school and continue with it until they finish high school. A lot of my students that I was teaching were English teachers, which meant that they then went on to study English in their Universities as well. With all of this education in English one would think they would be able to speak and comprehend English fairly well, however that was most certainly not the case. I blamed the education system for this, and although I still think (and I’m sure most people here would agree with me) that the public education system in Egypt needs a major overhaul in methodology and quality, I have been quite amazed at some of the people I have met in Cairo who are also products of this system. Quite a few of my friends in Cairo also attended public schools their whole lives, but their English is phenomenal. I can have normal conversations at a normal pace with them, while using American idioms and expressions. It’s really quite remarkable after a year of not being able to do any of those things.
There are quite a few other things as well, but I guess the point I am trying to make is that I learned, once again, that whenever generalizations are made they very rarely hold true when you actually meet individuals. They can be helpful in preparing people for what their general experience will be like in a place, but it’s always good to allow people to show you for themselves what they are like, and what they think rather than assuming they will be like ‘the other Egyptians’ you’ve met. Which is rarely a very beneficial way to think about people.
I think it is probably time to wrap up this edition, as it seems to be getting slightly long-winded again and is turning into a work letter. However, I feel as though I really should end with the latest in a line of transportation stories. One of the other things that has also changed since I moved to Cairo is that I now have access to the company cars after working hours. Any service worker with an international license has access to the cars, however, there are only two of us right now in Cairo that fit that description and there are two cars, which has been quite nice. So I was driving downtown one evening to meet a group of my friends to go on a boat ride on the Nile. I had just dropped off one of my co-workers at the train station and was running a bit late, so wasn’t paying as good of attention as I should have been. Due to this, I ended up going the wrong way down a small one way street, which happened to be in the embassy section of town, which meant there were a lot of cops around. One of the cops told me to pull over and proceeded to explain that I was going the wrong way, so I apologized and asked him what I should do. He told me just to turn around and head back down the street in the proper direction, to which I responded that I was just trying to reach the next street (which I was almost at) because I wanted to park there. Up until now no cars had come the other direction, thankfully. He said that I would have to go around, so I started to turn around when another policeman came up and started talking to the first one. Between the two of them they decided that it would be alright for me to continue down the street after all since I was just parking. However in the time it had taken them to decide, three or four cars had shown up and were waiting for me. This didn’t seem to bother the policemen one bit, because they had already made up their minds, so they waved for the cars to move out of the way so that I could now reverse down this street towards the next street. This was quite awkward for me as I carefully reversed my way through these confused and somewhat angry other drivers and finally made it to a parking spot. As I was getting out of my car one of the cops then came up to me and asked me to drink tea (this entire conversation had been happening in Arabic by the way, so as not to get confused) I thanked him profusely and was wondering at why the cops were being so nice to me. He then asked me again, a little bit more firmly and threw the word generally translated as ‘must’ in there. Something like, ‘you really have to join me in drinking tea.’ I had experienced this before, what with the Egyptians being so hospitable, and always insisting on treating me to things, so I reached out to shake his hand as I was using all the most thankful Arabic I knew to thank him, but also excuse myself, something like: ‘God keep you and your family well and return your generosity with blessings, but I really must go because I am late, but thank you for your kind offer.’ Although I’m sure it was fully of mistakes and bad grammar, but that’s what I was trying to say. He looked quite flabbergasted by me, especially when I reached out to shake his hand, and it must have finally dawned on him that this foreigner thought that he was actually inviting him to tea. So he said as bluntly as possible, again in Arabic, ‘you need to give me money.’ It was only at this point that I realized when you are being invited to drink tea with a cop, especially after you have done something wrong, he doesn’t actually want to drink tea with you, he wants you to give him some money so he can go drink tea with his friends and so he doesn’t have to write you a ticket. Relating this story then to my Egyptian friends had them practically rolling on the floor in laughter as they pictured me profusely thanking this Egyptian cop and attempting to shake his hand as he was trying to subtly ask me for a bribe.