Check out the email I recently received from my former student travelling in Egypt. It is amazing and extremely insightful. I was so moved by it that I wanted to post it here for all to see.
Asalama Elieukum (God's peace be upon you)
It has been nearly a year, perhaps even longer, since I was last able to visit with many of you. I hope each of you has been well. After eight months in the Middle East, I am finding it necessary to go back on my vow never to write a mass email. I have always been so hesitant to send my thoughts out as if everyone deserved the same general letter. I suppose this email partly symbolizes me waving a white flag, admitting my defeat in a relentless attempt to find time and computer access to write people whom I care about and always intended to keep informed.
So, bear with me. If you are not a fan of mass emails, my apologies. Until now, I have pretty much been on your team. Yet, at this point I see no better forum to share a snapshot of what I am seeing on the other side of the world. Obviously, there is a lot happening. Everything is new. Leaving a strong community and entering a new surrounding has given a new meaning to all the things that I seemed content with in the states. Although the desire to be among that community has never ceased, I have reached a point of contentment and peace each day in a city that never fails to provide me with something new and challenging. I would like to share a few of the things I have picked up.
First, let's be real, when I told some of you that I would be in Egypt this year, you did not need to say much. The look, as to verbalize, "Best of luck skydiving into Iraq" was enough. Admittedly, a part of me started to agree. It seemed easy to connect Egypt to the news in the broader Middle East, overtaken with violence and a misunderstood perspective of Islam. My other view of Egypt came from my university in Cairo. "Welcome to the land of the Pharaohs," they would say, followed by letters which hinted towards me waking up each morning next to the pyramids and hitching a 10 kilometer camel ride in western desert to make my 8am class. Yeah. Not so much.
My perception has changed. To a certain extent, I have changed. It would be difficult to return to the United States without a new understanding of the Egyptian culture.
Who are the Egyptians?
Despite Egypt's location in Africa, hearing people refer to themselves as "Africans," is quite rare. Nor will you hear them claim the title of "Arab," like most other people in the Middle East. Do they accept these titles? Sure. Still, above all, they have always claimed their own, historic title, "Egyptians."
It has a lot to do with their history. I didn't find many Egyptians touring Karank Temple or Valley of the Kings in Luxor, nor do I see them gathering around the many pyramids in Giza (unless, of course, they have something to sell you). Having the world's richest history distinguishes them and their culture from neighboring Arab or African states; the Nile, Paranoiac history, and the Pyramids are still very much a part of who they are. The real trick is comprehending the mix between the longstanding Egyptian culture mixed in with new modern society.
Understanding the world beyond the guidebooks
Becoming familiar with the reputation of the Sudanese refugees, different characteristics of local mosques, and the rhythm of each morning's call to prayer all came very slowly throughout the past year. In fact, there are many things that I am still attempting to figure out.
Other aspects of the culture like male camaraderie are much more apparent. Men holding hands, kissing on the cheek for a common greeting, offering their food to a stranger, sipping tea for hours, and walking arm in arm is a daily occurrence and a sign of friendship among all males. Unfortunately, most of these things would attract second glances in the states.
I have also had a taste of the cultural aspects of the Arab family. Last semester I had dinner at my teacher's house in a suburb of Cairo called, Maadi. In addition to her job as a teacher, she plays the role of matchmaker, creating possible couples for men and women ( I really wish I had time to explain some of the details about marriages…interesting stuff). "Five years ago," she said, "things were much different." According to her, female clothing is becoming more western, women are marrying at a much later age because men are unable to find jobs that can support a family, and the gap between the urban and rural populations is widening at an incredible rate. It did not take long for me to see some of the things she was talking about.
On my teacher's recommendation, I avoided living in a dorm. Instead, I have an apartment in Zamalek, an island in the Nile River located in the northwest side the Cairo. Living in a neighborhood with Egyptian families, my roommates and I have a better opportunity to understand the society. I was taken aback by the traditions throughout Ramadan and am still amazed by how efficiently neighborhoods are turned into parking lots on a daily basis, accommodating the working day in a city of 18 million. Plus, living in an apartment gives me the chance to practice Arabic with the assortment of doorman and random dudes showing up at our door with a reason to fix something in the house. They are actually entertaining.
Perhaps my best glimpse of family life came while traveling through Syria and Lebanon. I sat next to a man named Mohamed and his family of seven who live not too far outside of Damascus. A six-hour bus ride from Allepo gave us a chance to talk about his work in the military and places he recommended to see in Syria. Mohamed and his wife insisted that I stay the night at their house. Admittedly, my stay included a full range of hand motions that I resort to in the absence or attempted explanation of various Arabic vocabulary, but I was thankful to have the opportunity to listening to his perspective on Israel, play with his kids, and share in their meals.
Arriving at school each day places me a different cultural light. The school is one of the best in the Middle East, easily the best in Egypt. The student population is comprised of those who have rich, successful parents and various students from rural areas whom performed far better than their high school classmates. Walking around campus you can start to see the breaking down of the old and the creation of the new, more western cultural. A female classmate sitting on my left wearing the Hijab (a scarf covering a Muslim woman's hair) sporting a pair of skintight jeans and a trendy shirt was difficult concept in itself; but, the paradox continues when I notice a student sitting opposite of me who also wears a Hijab but chooses more traditional, looser fitting clothing without any sign of skin.
Usually, though, when I am on campus, I concentrate on this…
إنظر إلي. أتكلم اللغة العربية
Arabic. In addition to my other classes, I have fifteen hours of Arabic instruction each week - ten hours of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and five hours of Egyptian colloquial Arabic.
In Egypt, approximately half the population is illiterate, making comprehension of the local language invaluable, especially outside of Cairo. MSA is a decent foundation for communicating in most countries, but while traveling overland from Cairo to Morocco (minus Algeria) I learned just how much the language could change. Social classes, people from urban and rural regions, and my Egyptian friends all use varying degrees of pronunciation, greetings, and informal sentence structure.
If you read a book, watch the news, or listen to a speech in Arabic, it is in MSA. It is not fluid like the spoken language - it is standard throughout the entire world. I learn MSA to continue to do things like read the newspaper and listen to the news, hoping to use this in my career. I spend time learning the local language for obvious reasons – say, survival. You will not find anyone using MSA to buy bread. It is not practical, almost border-line ridiculous. It would be similar to a situation in the States if someone were to ask you for directions in strict Shakespearean dialogue. You may understand it because you are educated, but undoubtedly, you would wonder if the individual had some issues.
Perhaps, most importantly, I learn both forms of Arabic to better understand the culture. While sitting with my doorman and his friends speaking Arabic in an ahwa (coffeehouse) while smoking Shisa (a tobacco water pipe), I gain their perspectives on a typical workday, the increasing amount of demonstrations against President Mubarak and the possible succession of his son, mandatory military service requirement, and the recent terrorist attacks in the city.
What I did not expect to gain from Arabic is such a deeper understanding of Islam. It is impossible to learn the language and not see Islam. Simple greetings and farewells all include a reference to their dependence on اللة (God). Most people are unable to finish a conversation without using the phrase, "In'sha allah", meaning "God-willing". At first, it was a little odd to hear on airplanes and in cabs because my intended destination was always followed by, "In'sha allah."
Okay. If you have made it this far, I give you credit. Thank you. Sorry this things is so long. This is my best shot in sharing a small part of this massive experience. My apologies if I have been slow to respond to personal emails Please know that I appreciate them all very much and love hearing news from home. In'sha allah, I will write back soon.
My hope is that you are all doing well in your corners of the world. For those of you in school, best of luck with your finals. Enjoy the summer. I hope to share many more stories with each of you when I return to the States. You are all in my prayers.