Saturday, November 14, 2009

After spending the day in my apartment writing, reading, revising, reading, taking breaks to eat, watch an episode of The Office and part of a documentary on Obama with Phil, reading some more, and writing some more, I ended up in a long e-conversation with an Egyptian acquaintance about sexual harassment here. He was discouraged by what he perceived as the recurrent negativity in my portrayals of Egypt, my focusing on the social ills. This was the same person that, when Marise and I met up with him insisted that she wouldn't be sexually harassed if the three of us walked Qasr al-Nil bridge together. He reiterated in a Facebook comment that this was a minor problem and so I went into the conversation guns blazing.
He vacillated between saying his religious sister's in the countryside didn't experience the problem and that none of his other foreign friend's had experienced the level of sexual harassment I described to saying he felt deep shame and explaining to me how he believed unemployment, the proscription of premarital sex, drugs, paternal verbal abuse, and pornography combined to create the phenomenon. I conceded that education played some role as I didn't see the same behavior perpetrated by AUCians or the well-to-do Rotarians and Rotaractors I've met.
As Egyptians are wont to do, my acquaintance told me that Egypt was a great country. When that sort of thing I said, I think it's more for the benefit of the speaker, as if pronouncing it makes it so. I told him that I wasn't arguing that Egypt was fundamentally bad (or good), that there were things about America I complain about too. After that remark, though, and as we amicably closed our conversation, I did think about my knee-jerk critical approach to life in Egypt. As I've mentioned before, I think it has to do with the fact that my impression of Egypt is colored far more by the people on the streets of downtown, by the cabdrivers and waiters, than by the students at AUC or the people I met through Rotary.
I began feeling disappointed again that I didn't get to know more Egyptians whom the language barrier wouldn't prevent me getting to know, to try to understand Egypt a bit more deeply, and to give myself the opportunity to see a sunnier side of things. When that sentiment has welled up in the past, I've tried to come up with rather abstract positives to blog about—the premium placed on family togetherness, the "flexibility", the late hours of shops and restaurants. I still agree with most of what I wrote in that entry, especially about disentangling Egypt itself from all of the frustrations and recognizing that this culture and society encompasses much more than my narrow window into it. Now, however, I don't feel like I'm grasping at straws trying to come up with something to make myself sound well-adjusted and cross-culturally savvy.
What I love about Egypt, in fact, are my Egyptian friends, classmates, and acquaintances. I love the environment that exists here that draw the sorts of often fascinating and quirky people that've stretched how I think. I treasure seeing Egypt through the eyes of friends like Marise who, accepting its failings, manages to see the best and to maintain faith in its potential. I am thankful to see Islam through the pure faith of acquaintances like Omar and Sayed who have, in their overtures of friendship and our open discussions, provided a counterbalance to both negative media portrayals of Islam and the intolerance I have encountered in other Muslims.
Egypt, like life, is a mixed bag. It includes ups and downs, hardships and celebrations, vexations and delights. So why do I still wrestle with the question of whether I like Egypt some fourteen months after I moved here? I don't like or dislike Egypt, but rather I would answer that I like living in Egypt in the same way I would say I liked being alive if you asked me if I liked life.

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