“Ana ismee Kishan,” I said as we met countless friendly, helpful, and encouraging faces yesterday. The response I got at each place we went was all the same: “Anta misry?” In Arabic, this translates to “Are you Egyptian?” Of course, I somewhat expected these types of comments, but to have it happen numerous times throughout the day was a bit shocking. A strange dichotomy of belonging and alienation fell over me each time; men and women we met would first speak in fluent (and FAST) Arabic to me, as if I was the leader (at least in communication) for the group. Taking Arabic in Ustaad Lo’s (Arabic for Professor as referred to in Amber’s post) class at Duke was one thing; trying to communicate in the Arabic dialect of Ameya with native Egyptian speakers is a whole other ball game.
I was honored that they felt I could blend in, but for some reason it made me uncomfortable at the same time. Maybe because I was worried I would do something that a local Egyptian would not do? Maybe because I am certainly not the best Arabic speaker in our group (nowhere near Dylan, Desmond, or MJ), but those who we met assumed I could converse effortlessly? Whatever it was, I think Ustaad Lo could sense it. He has an incredible knack for picking up on people’s feelings through their body language and facial expression. He would always reply to people who asked if I was Egyptian by saying, “Ya Kishan wa Sarah misryoon,” (Kishan and Sarah are Egyptian) with his signature smile and laugh. The men and women in the room would all laugh (Ya Sarah is a brown-eyed, brunette, caucasian girl with a slight southern drawl straight from the countryside of North Carolina), and I would answer their questions with “La, la, shukran” (No, no, but thank you). Now, I’m not foolish; the way the rest of the group and I wander around the streets of Cairo, following Ustaad Lo like a puppy, does NOT make us blend in. But I think I replied with shukran because it felt nice to come somewhere completely new and feel a sense of belonging, even if it’s only because of appearances.
Yesterday, we first met with the Arab Academy and Al-Diwan. Here we will learn Arabic 9 hours per week. Upon our arrival at both places, we were greeted warmly. Everyone wanted to talk to us (especially in Arabic) and learn who we were. And they wanted us to EAT. They served us pastries, cakes, croissants, sodas, and teas. I was in disbelief at how much food they gave us, and insisted we at least try. Both groups gave us general information about Cairo and tips for learning and practicing Arabic, and they all repeatedly said, “Please, call us if you need help. We want to help and are always willing.” Each person we meet insists on giving us their phone number in case we need anything. Everyone is so friendly, and just as excited to work with us as we are to work with them. They seem genuinely happy that we have taken such a keen interest in their work, and are excited to share that work with us.
Al-Resala is the largest NGO in Egypt, and is sort of a do-it-all organization. They do so many things from taking in orphans, to teaching Egyptians English, French, German, or teaching blind Egyptians how to read braille. In the US, NGOs are often very focused on one specific issue. While this allows for a certain degree of specialization, I think that many of the issues that plague the needy are interrelated. Al-Resala works to combat those issues by taking on what I call a horizontal approach: looking at a broad range of issues and how each one affects the other. By taking a holistic view of social, educational, and economic issues in Egypt, Al-Resala is likely able to better understand how to change and improve the issues that currently plague Cairo’s poor. The volunteers and staff were incredibly dedicated to their work, and I cannot wait to go to orientation on Wednesday.
Today we will be traveling to Al-Diwan and the Arab Academy on our own; without our fearless leader Ustaad Lo to guide us through the bustling streets of Cairo. It seems crazy that we are going to be alone in the city this morning, but Ustaad Lo has so much faith in us, and that gives me comfort. I know there will be bumps along the way, but with practice and time, we will be navigating the streets of Cairo just like Ustaad Lo. As he tells us, “Ya you guys you know the streets better than me…”