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I make decisions on a whim, decisions prompted by sudden changes in interest—and subject to immediate retraction once I’ve recovered sense. But this time, when I came to, in early April, I had a second concentration, a 25-page tutorial paper to write on Mohammad Iqbal, and round-trip tickets to Cairo. I had done an about-face in my course of study, shifting from American and British history and literature to a combination of British history and Near Eastern languages and civilizations, focusing on the twentieth-century Middle East. The decision to head off to Egypt for a summer to study Arabic was a commitment that most people would not take lightly, but having set my eye on an uncertain course, I started sailing at top speed. The American University in Cairo (AUC) would be my home for seven weeks of Arabic courses punctuated by excursions around Egypt, followed by two weeks of travel (on my own, on a whim) through Jordan and Lebanon. With plans as uncertain as these, it is little wonder Egypt has been filled with sights and experiences I never anticipated when considering the requirements for my field of study.

Modern tourist, ancient temple: the author visiting Luxor
Courtesy of Rebecca D. O’Brien

It might have made sense to sit down and really think about my motivations before I embarked on a 12-hour flight for a two-month study program in a country whose language I didn’t speak, in an unfamiliar culture, far from the comforts I know at home. There were plenty of opportunities to think twice: for instance, when the nurse at University Health Services threw up her hands at the thought of the vaccinations I might need. I might have benefited from a moment of reflection before I attempted to navigate a street bazaar—foolishly—in a skirt, or when I was first nudged by the bumper of a belligerent Cairene cab while picking my way gingerly across an intersection, or when I stopped to ask directions from a soldier casually twirling a semi-automatic in front of the Pakistani embassy. But I jumped on the Middle Eastern bandwagon with scarcely a second thought.

My interest, to be fair, did not come out of nowhere. I took a religious-history course in my senior year of high school (a course unexpectedly complicated by September 11 and its aftershocks). When I traveled to Spain several years ago, I was fascinated by the remnants of Islamic influence there. Current events only catalyzed the change from what had been a casual interest in politics to a studied fascination with the intricacies of Middle Eastern governments, Islamic movements, and regional social phenomena. Like many of my peers, I was decidedly influenced by global politics.

But as much as academic and personal experience have engendered this curiosity, it was my lack of knowledge about Islam and the Middle East that truly prompted my change of studies. To be unaware of the culture, the language, and the history of the region that had so great a role in my life—and promised to be of greater importance in world politics—was to disenfranchise myself and, more importantly, perpetuate the cultural ignorance I considered so inexcusable. I picked up my study of the Middle East from a sense of duty and personal necessity.

Whatever our diverse motivations, I was not alone in my endeavors at the Arabic Language Institute. About 50 of us, ages 19 through 30, had enrolled in the program, mostly living in a dormitory in Zamalek, a wealthy neighborhood in Cairo. We shuttled back and forth in mini buses to the campus, where we took upwards of four hours of class a day, plus electives and folk dance, calligraphy, and media courses. Among my fellow students were Ellis, the former naval officer, and Will, the ultra-liberal international-relations major, and Nashwa, an Egyptian-American who speaks Egyptian-dialect Arabic but wants to learn grammar. The program attracts dozens of future diplomats and would-be politicians, but there were also Ph.D. students in art history, some master’s candidates in Egyptology, even a smattering of comparative-literature majors and women’s-studies concentrators. Our fluency in Arabic, too, ranged from none to somewhat advanced. I came not knowing a single letter, let alone a word, of Arabic.

 

Regardless of what I thought I would find, my trip took on a life and relevance of its own. I found myself learning two new alphabets: elementary Arabic turns out to be easier to master than the street smarts required to negotiate the streets of Cairo. Just as speaking a new language demands constant mental effort, moving through the city required concerted focus to cope with a series of culture shocks—compounded by the constant strain of existence in a place so foreign to my way of life that every day left me exhausted and feeling farther from home than ever. This was a language immersion program, but it felt like a crash course in cultural alienation.

I was, perhaps, a little too confident about what I thought were well-honed traveling skills. I have never been a finicky eater, I’m healthy, and I’m surprisingly amenable to a low-maintenance, reduced-cost lifestyle. But I was not prepared for the exertion of life in Cairo, the caution required for basic everyday activities, from washing vegetables to crossing the street. Nor was I mentally prepared to confront the contradictions and social contrasts I encountered here. Male soldiers, in pristine white uniforms, machine guns hung casually at their sides, hold hands and kiss in the streets—but many wives, enveloped in black burkas, trail their husbands in public. Shops that sell scandalous underwear hang their wares in their street windows, next to posters of Britney Spears, but an unveiled head and nude knees invite stares, catcalls, and mutterings of disapproval.

Although I half hoped to debunk Western conceptions of the Middle East, I found that the social and cultural position of women consigned me to a role I’d never anticipated. Many Egyptians are extremely hospitable, but Cairo is not a city for a young American woman with no Arabic to explore alone, and so I had limited mobility beyond the streets surrounding the dorms. A fellow student put it well when he said that Egypt almost dehumanizes visitors, regardless of how culturally sensitive or well-traveled they may be. Perhaps it was a matter of miscommunication, but it seemed to many of us that we were often forced to stifle our instincts for compassion, our curiosity, our friendliness. We were taught, by experience and by the authorities at AUC, to avert our eyes from men, to ignore beggars, and second-guess offers of hospitality and friendship. Almost in spite of myself, I became prickly toward most people as a defense mechanism. Egypt, while opening my eyes, also made me avert them. Several people on this trip said that being in Cairo, more than any other place they’d visited, made them realize how lucky they were to be American citizens. I found myself more defensive than ever before about the American way of life, and eager to return to it.

 

For all those strains, in the sixth week of my residence, I began to understand Egypt not as a foreign and hostile place, but as a place where other people live their lives. In a conversation in Cairo, a family friend—an Egyptian who was born there shortly after World War II and subsequently lived in America and Western Europe—attributed much of Egypt’s culture to a complex fostered by years of foreign influence. “‘Who are we?’ becomes the central question for many Egyptians,” he said. “And rather than embrace the different influences we have here, we are constantly seeking to erase the past.” For the younger generation, erasing the past often means clinging to symbols of their Muslim faith and casting aside the Western cultural influences that marked their parents’ generation. As my Egyptian acquaintance said, it is not uncommon for young girls to discuss hijabs (their headscarves) merely as a matter of fashion and peer pressure—an observation that I have also heard younger Egyptians make. There is a sense of reverence and nostalgia among the older generation for the way Cairo used to be, before Nasser built the Aswan Dam, before globalization, before overpopulation. Much has changed here, but not all at the same pace, as the idiosyncrasies that one encounters daily attest. And what I had perceived as glaring inequality and incongruity were manifestations of this Egyptian “complex.”

At the source: atop the southern side of the Aswan Dam on the Nile
Courtesy of Rebecca D. O’Brien

It took me quite some time to realize that my instinct to compare the Egyptian way with my own was fundamentally flawed. I am convinced now that there are aspects of Cairo that make no sense to the citizens themselves: taxi drivers fume at the donkeys and carts that still clog city streets, and slow table service irks even the locals. Life here, in short, is not so foreign, and it is sometimes quite beautiful: I was touched by the sight of young children playing in their parents’ stores, the late night calm of Zamalek, even the rise of the early morning smog over the Nile. It is hard to enjoy that when being carted around to various monuments or when holed up in a dormitory with Al-Kitaab Part One. Understanding Egypt—or, understanding that you cannot understand Egypt—is impossible until you begin to see life here not as a tourist attraction, a nuisance, or a threat to your own culture, but as a different reality.

That insight gained, being here has changed the way I see the world, even if I decide not to pursue studies in the Middle East beyond my undergraduate years, or ultimately put my Arabic on the back burner. Being able to laugh at Egyptian humor, cross streets, haggle for my morning coffee, and manage in a veil in 120-degree heat may be skills I will never employ again, but I’ve had to acquire them. It was far harder to learn that understanding Egypt did not mean setting aside personal standards, but setting aside the lens through which I analyzed my surroundings. These adjustments have made their mark.

Confronted every day with new challenges, often frustrated by deeply ingrained aspects of Egyptian culture and life, my plans stymied by troubles with translation and basic human interactions and needs, I was forced to find stability and confidence in my own capacity to navigate situations—albeit with frantic hand gestures. But all that ultimately became more than a matter of survival. One night toward the end of my stay in Cairo, weary from hours of studying, a friend and I went for a walk by the Nile—daring, for the first time, to wander beyond our neighborhood at night—and talked with some older men who were fishing. They were relaxing, smoking cigarettes, and drinking tea. It was no longer a matter of us and them, but an unspoken understanding. On the Nile, in front of an American chain hotel, we felt at home with our T-shirts and veils.