Thursday, May 14, 2009

Egypt Gets It Right

  I haven't slept much in the last twenty-four hours, but prior to my insomniac night and morning, I had planned to write this entry.  I was talking to Marise yesterday about her frustrations with so much of what's negative about the Middle East and Egypt being highlighted all the time and too little of the positive getting notice.  I think this is the trend in mainstream media in general, but it's all too often the way things work in everyday conversations.  Applying the adjective "Egyptian" to anything connotes inefficiency or a lack of sophistication or lateness far too often when in reality there is so much positive about the culture and the people.  The subtlest cultural insensitivity is often the worst.  A lot of expats feel entitled to speak so tersely about their temporary (or even long-term) home, and some times you have to uncork and complain to remain sane, but I think as I've mentioned before that it's important to disentangle one's frustrations from Egypt itself.  When we're in our own countries and something bad or vexing occurs, we're not as likely to attribute it to a nationwide phenomenon, but rather the particular people or phenomena involved.  Lately I've been trying to keep that in mind here.
  After a post-dinner game of Risk, I found myself too tired to give such an entry the proper attention, so I planned to wait until morning.  Unfortunately, I lay awake all night anxious about a meeting I was to have with my landlord, about finishing off the semester, traveling home, getting my thesis research done, etc. etc.  By the time my landlord showed up forty-five minutes early just as he'd done last time, I was in no mood to deal with him.  He did, as I'd feared, trying to snake his way into more of our money and this time, I didn't have Marise and her family around to help me out.  He left a contract, but is going to return at a later date to pick it up, signed and for the deposit.  I won't explain the whole interaction, but I was so livid and felt so beat down that I wanted nothing other to be home in that moment.  In my mind, there were no weasely landlords in America, no shabby problem-ridden apartments, in fact, nothing at all but family, friends, and relief.  This, quite obviously, is not the case.  
  After he left, I was still unable to get to sleep, so I breakfasted, showered, and slumped into a living room chair feeling victimized and angry.  I continued to feel this way all the way until I met my friends Amanda and Katie at Tahrir Square whence we headed to lunch at the French cultural center in Mounira.  Seeing friends I'd not seen in along time and walking and chatting, it finally occurred to me that the weather was absolutely perfect.  Sunny and breezy and beautiful, Egypt seemed a little less like it was conspiring to impoverish me.  I'm not becoming some kind of categorical Egypt apologist and I stopped believing long ago that it was even worth trying not to resent the problems around because it's somehow culturally insensitive, but I can say that things that used to bother me terribly don't get to me as much anymore.  I never thought that I'd adapt to the degree I have, but I am ten times less stressed out than last semester save for the landlord-centered flare-ups.  And since adapting, I've been able to appreciate even more the things that I'd already begun to like and notice other things to enjoy:
  The cohesiveness of the extended family here is impressive.  I'm sure it can be stifling at times to have to try and live up to the expectations of scores of people, but knowing that you have just as many people to help you out when you're in a bind is something that doesn't exist the same way in a lot of other places.  And furthermore, families are always willing to take other people under their wings.  Even if it's not always the help you're looking for or the way you think you'd like to be helped, there's a wellspring of good intentions and a willingness to help solve problems. There's a warmth and openness that I haven't seen in the same way too many other places.
  The positive side to all the disorder and informality and lateness is an immense flexibility.  People are willing and able to step outside a given role to assist you and to find a way around formal barriers.  It's as if everyone is in cahoots.  I'm sure some of it is disingenuous, but the kind of finagling people have done for me personally to get things squared away with AUC for example are deeply appreciated.  If there's a will, there's a way.  Unless of course Allah doesn't will it, then ma3lesh.  
  There's a kind of vibrancy in the fabric of Cairo that is also rare.  You never feel alone.  I think this must be the value placed on the family writ large.  People are always together socializing at all hours of the day.  Unlike in Europe, things don't close early.  You can run to a juice stand at 11 at night if you feel so moved or go the corner store or for koshary or to the cell phone shop long after the sun's gone down.  It's easy to make friends with Egyptians if you're looking to meet them.  Again, quite the foil to Europe's reserved social processes, it's easy to find yourself swept up in a sea of invitations from new friends if you make the slightest effort.  Above all, they don't want you to be lonely or feel left out.
  The combination of people you meet here is like nowhere else.  Though New York and Paris are diverse, Egypt mixes people together in different proportions.  As a nexus between the Middle East and Africa it is unlike any other place in the world.
  I count myself lucky to live here; to benefit from the warmth of the Egyptian people; to be challenged by the things I find upsetting in such a way as to be forced to examine my own values in a way I wouldn't in the West.  Every infuriating interaction or gesture of goodwill is a unique opportunity for growth that I've never have had if I hadn't come to be a part of this crazy, beautiful city.



1 comment:

Ebele said...

Oh! I love this!
This reminds me of when I first moved to the States (even though my experiences were different from yours, I think the emotions were the same). The Egypt you describe kind of sounds like Nigeria (weasly landlords and "tight" extended families included)lol!
Living and building a life abroad can be extremely hard for some people, but it's a good thing because somehow it strengthens the soul... All the best! ;)