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The Giant American Flag on my Back

Posted by: Erica Nagi | June 3, 2011 | 1 Comment |

Walking around Cairo, I realize that I am wearing a giant American flag. As much as I try to adhere to the conservative dress and “walk like an Egyptian,” my case is a lost cause. I spotted my first fellow blonde in Egypt today and she kept her eyes focused forward as she passed me, like I have come to do walking down the street to avoid eye contact with people or invite conversation. I began to reflect on the gawking stares and the “Welcome to Egypt” comments and what it actually meant to the Egyptians to see an American walking down the street.

It is obvious to me that my American flag is extremely visible. Attached to this flag is a list of qualities – things I have come to accept about America as a foreigner’s cultural assumptions. These are observations that I have collected over the years during the time I have spent speaking with International students at Duke, engaging in controversial conversations in my classes, and speaking with people from other countries during my travels. There is certainly a range within which someone might hold these beliefs, but the beliefs exist nonetheless: First, I am a full supporter of everything that my government says and does; Second, I behave like American women in films, music videos, and song lyrics; Third, I am American, therefore I do not believe in God nor do I live a particularly pious life; Fourth, I believe that my way of life is better than other cultures; and Fifth, I am rich. None of these are entirely false:

I do support many things that my government does – I was proud to vote in my first presidential election in 2008, and I take for granted the idea that I have the opportunity to express the faults that I see in our system of government.  Before I spoke with young Egyptians about the revolution, I had never met someone who was realizing for the first time at age 25 that they could speak their mind or join a group who opposed the status quo.

Albeit a little exaggerated, women depicted in Hollywood films do represent American women in many ways.

I do believe in God. And I am friends with people who are atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists alike.

I receive financial aid to attend school and I may not be rich by American standards, but against the standard of the world, I am rich in many ways – I don’t have to worry where I will get my next meal, I have a roof over my head everywhere I go, I can buy new clothes and new shoes, I have family who loves me and cares for me, I receive a western education which opens up endless opportunities around the world, and I can pursue my dreams for a future career in any field that I wish.

And then I got to thinking that these qualities attached to my flag are only unfortunate if my attitude and actions in Cairo live up to the negative connotation that they normally hold. If I do not listen to Egyptian’s feelings about their newfound democracy and where it might be in 5 years; If I do not seek out difficult conversations with broken Arabic and broken English about how Egyptian women participated in the revolution, then I will not live up to the American ideals of free speech and optimism and hope for the future of democracy.

If I do not try to understand what life is like for an Egyptian woman – what modesty means to her, what it felt like to have a voice in the political process, what her dreams are for the future, then I will not live up to the American ideal of equality between the sexes.

If I do not enrich my own spirituality with the pervasiveness and depth of the Muslim faith here in Egypt; If I do not meet Coptic Egyptians and ask what it is like to be in the Christian minority; If I do not visit mosques and hear the beauty in the call to prayer five times a day, I will not live up to the American stereotype of religious pluralism.

If I do not value the beauty of “maalesh” or see the function in Egyptian traffic or respect the boab in our apartment lobby, or try to make friends with the Juice storeowner down the street who took an interest in my Arabic studies, I will not live up to the American stereotype of open mindedness.

And if I do not pour every ounce of energy I have into helping Ana el-Masry with their mission to improve the lives of children who were dealt the most unfortunate hand in life, I will not live up to the American ideal of charity when I can give so much of what I have to those who have so little. If I do not speak with other Egyptians about the reasons why they volunteer and why they take an interest in charity organizations or how to change their society’s stigmas against disabilities, I will not live up to the Duke ideal of civic engagement.

I have realized that this sign on my back isn’t so bad to begin with—as long as I live up to the positive connotation of the stereotypes… and as long as I am also aware of the list that I have made for Egyptians, and how their list has positive connotations as well.

under: Week 1

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Very moving, Erica. I hope you do seek out those difficult conversations across cultural differences in broken languages.

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