“Tonight we attended a lecture at Cairo University with Ustaaz Lo as the key note speaker. The topic was Arab- African relations in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and from what I saw on the sign-in sheet the majority of the Cairo students sitting in the room were from other African countries. I didn’t gather much since it was all in Arabic, but from what I did gather the conversation seemed to turn into a somewhat heated debate about nationality and identity; the use of the word “America” was a frequent occurrence. Oh what I would have done to be fluent in Arabic at that lecture, but the opportunity we were given afterwards was just as rewarding for me. Afterwards, we had a mini-forum between the Duke and Cairo students with Ustaaz as our translator. They asked us many questions in relation to US politics, culture and our perspective on Islam. However, the one that stood out to me the most was also the one I wanted to answer least. Through translation, it sounded something like this: “Taking into account the response that the US had to Obama’s presidential campaign and his possible Islamic faith, would you say that America is ready for a Muslim president anytime soon?”
I wasn’t the one to answer this question (Ryan and Desmond did), but I most certainly had a passionate opinion about the subject. As we felt obliged to represent America with honesty, you probably already know the answer we had to give to them: an immediate no. We had to stand up in front of a group of young intellectual students, all of whom were Muslim, and tell them that a presidential candidate would most certainly not be elected in America solely because of the fact that he/she might be Muslim. I am well aware that America has had some very tragic experiences with certain Muslim extremists (need I mention 9/11) but I really couldn’t stop thinking about the ignorance and fear of Islam that has been around for almost 11 years now in America. Desmond had to explain how people would immediately associate Islam with anti-feminism and anti-freedom ideals. What bothers me the most is that any group of people can be victims of the ignorance that so many Americans have. The fact that it’s so easy for us to form an assumption about an entire religion, race, or sexuality just because we have seen or heard about one negative extreme blows my mind. Maybe it’s not just a trait specific to America; In sha’Allah I hope it is not. I know ignorance exists all around the world I’m just not so sure if it’s as prominent in other countries as it is in the one that I call home.”
-July 10th, 2012
I was never able to post this entry until now because it felt incomplete; the inner-debate that I was having within myself felt unresolved until today because my words solely displayed negativity. Something has happened since then that has caused me to readjust my attitude. Yesterday there was an awful shooting in a movie theater in Colorado. It came up multiple times today as we grieved for our fellow Americans back at home. Being in Cairo while this horrific event occurred got me thinking- why is it that Cairo, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world (approx. 17 million inhabitants) rarely has such disasters occur? It has almost 11 million more people than NYC, yet the violent and residential crime rate is so much less. I was always told that the more populated the area was, the higher the crime rate would be. Or does that only apply to America? I couldn’t actually find any crime ratings for Cairo, but from what I’ve searched the most serious crimes you need to worry about here are sexual harassment (a very severe issue) pick pocketing, and some carjacking. Not murders, manslaughter, burglary, or robbery. Why? Maybe it’s because they don’t have easy access to firearms (earlier today when we were mourning for the victims in Colorado Sarah voiced her opinion for stricter gun control when it comes to America’s “right to bear arms”). Maybe it’s because it’s a city run by religion. Or maybe it just has something to do with that strong Egyptian sense of community that Kishan so beautifully referred to in his most recent post.
I think the real reason I was so upset when writing this post at first was because, like Kishan said, “the tension between the American perception of Islam and the Middle East’s insight into America’s views is a vicious cycle”. It kills me to know that people think so poorly of this country and its people when I have met some of the most generous and welcoming people that I will probably ever meet in Cairo. I’m not saying that only the purest of good exists here. I’ve seen the aftermath and torture of sexual assault and I’ve seen the pure hatred of Americans (read about the incident that occurred this week in Kishan’s article). But I do know that the good has most certainly outweighed the bad for me on this trip and although I am left slightly conflicted in thought, I’ll be heading back on that plane to America in one week defending the Middle East and its culture more than I ever did before.
I knew my perspective would change about Egyptians after my DukeEngage experience. I knew my perspective would change about the Middle East. I knew my perspective would change about America and I knew my perspective would change about the world as I thought I knew it. What I didn’t know or expect to change was how I perceived myself. When I say this I don’t mean in reference to realizing how privileged I am like in my most recent blog post; I mean I have made more realizations about why I am who I am here than I have during any other period of time in my life.
Before embarking on this journey, I would fill out those “describe who you are” surveys (whether they were for a class or for an extra-curricular) and most of the time what I wrote down was a list of the standard “good” characteristics that I’m sure 90% of people put down about themselves: “outgoing, friendly, caring”…etc. In reality I just wrote those words down because it’s what I’ve been writing down since elementary school. Yet, due to the lifestyle changes and transitions I have undergone since then, these words no longer encompass everything about me. Here I’ve been able to pin-point certain qualities I never realized before. I’ve analyzed the past more than ever even though nothing in this country reminds me of it; it’s just constantly on my mind. I have come to see how certain events in my life have caused these qualities to form and ultimately define me. I won’t go into details because most of it is personal and I’d rather not post about it on the most public place of the 21st century: the World Wide Web. But I will tell you that some of those qualities I like and some of them I now want to change. Regardless, the point is that this place has done more for me than I could have ever imagined.
Maybe this is happening to me because I have finally removed myself for an extended period of time (2 months is the longest I have ever been away) from the place that I call home. Or maybe it’s this city-something about Cairo is having this effect on me. Yes, it is the dirtiest city I’ve ever been in, filled with soot and smog and low hygiene, but at the same time, as Dan said, it’s one of the most magical and beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.
Today the kids graduated at Ana Al-Mahsry. Graduated? You’re probably wondering how on earth 60 or so children partook in a “graduation” in their own home and why. Well, no they didn’t graduate from a well-respected university, a high school, or even the 5th grade. But they definitely did graduate.
After a long and extremely hot day outside with relay races, carnival-like games, and a slip and slide (which really turned into a full-on water fight) the kids were all gathered into one empty room and told to sit down. I had absolutely no idea what was about to take place; I thought we were just hanging out with the kids before we left for the day as per usual. But after 30 minutes or so they were lined up in their age groups- nursery kids ages 3-6 (with whom I work with every day and even though it is a difficult task I love every single minute of it), group 2 and group 3 (roughly ages 6-12 all together). The staff at Ana Al-Mahsry began to call them forward one by one and present them with a homemade graduation cap (created from construction paper and ribbon), a diploma with their name on it, and a couple of toys each (little plastic guitars with music and a furry stuffed animal) to reward them for how well they did in school this past year.
The boiling excitement those kids expressed as they anxiously awaited their name to be called combined with the indescribable expressions on their faces as they received their gifts was surreal. My high school graduation had nowhere near that kind of enthusiasm and sentiment. Even my brother’s college graduation that I went to before I departed to Egypt didn’t compare. I realize this all sounds exaggerated but it’s really true-I was near tears.
I walked over to one of my favorite (I know teachers are never supposed to have them but it’s really inevitable) students from the nursery after he had received his gifts. He was pressing the notes of the guitar, but it was still wrapped in its original plastic, so I figured he needed some assistance. As I started to pull it off for him, he began to shout and scream; his eyes began to tear. I was so confounded. I quickly put it back in its wrapping so he wouldn’t start crying and left him to his own devices. I tend to over-analyze a lot, and as I went back to watch the rest of the graduation I started thinking about how little Yusef reacted. How often is he really given a gift? Sure the teachers give the students candy at least once a day in class, but I mean a legitimately wrapped and brand new present. If this had been taking place in America all the kids would have ripped off their wrapping, thrown it aside, and left it in the dust. Yusef wanted to keep his present as pristine as possible.
And then it set in for the first time on this trip: the guilty conscience you develop from this type of experience. It’s a feeling of extreme remorse and distress just because you are who you are; because you were given so much more. You knew that they deserved more but now you can feel it inside. I knew I would feel it; I was warned. But hearing people tell you how you are going to feel and knowing that you will feel it doesn’t mean anything at all until it actually happens. Will these kids graduate high school like I did? Some of them maybe, but probably not all. Will they graduate college like I will in a few years? One can only hope.
On the car ride home I was feeling pretty shitty. Just a half hour before this ceremony I was sitting inside with my fellow Duke Engagers away from the children complaining about how I was tired and wanted to be done for the day. Yeah. I’m an awful person. If we had gone home we would have missed the graduation completely. I couldn’t imagine how I had felt that way; what’s even worse is it wasn’t the first time I had felt like giving up. Just a few days before 10 or so nursery kids were all shouting at the top of their lungs for no reason and I couldn’t control them at all. My patience broke for the first time. Not that I yelled or anything, but I completely removed myself from the situation mentally- something that I told myself before coming that I shouldn’t allow to happen. I’ve learned a lot today and I’ve realized a lot of things that I need to change as I continue my work on this trip-Insha’Allah.
Walking to Al-Kayan (one of the NGOs we will be working with throughout our stay in Egypt) I was at the head of our line chatting with Ustaadhe Lo and Ryan. The conversation started with the topic of directions- getting to know our way through Cairo and memorizing our routes to the different NGOs we’ll be interacting with. “You know where we are emba?” says Lo (emba is how he pronounces my name in Arabic). “Yes we were on shariiyah (street) Sudan then turned left then went straight…I’m watching!”
In a quick second our conversation about navigating through the streets of Cairo turned into a conversation about navigating through life. This is always how it is with Ustaadhe, ask any of my fellow Duke Engagers or anyone who has every met him for that matter. It’s probably the aspect about him that I admire and respect the most. He makes you realize that everything can be seen as something bigger and more complex, something to really contemplate. Suddenly we were talking about how many people don’t understand/realize what’s going on in Cairo or better yet how many choose to ignore it. “Not knowing is essentially knowing…so how do we fix that?” he says. I stopped speaking for a little while to contemplate the “Ustaadhe quote of the day”.
We effectively decide what we do and don’t want to know by the way we go about our life; we choose to ignore something and therefore know about it. I may sound like I’m blabbering over here but stop and think about it for a second. Anyways, strange how in the next couple of minutes we arrived at Al-Kayan, where we learned about how many people choose not to address the massive amount of disabled children in Egypt ( which is around 8 million). It related right back to the quote perfectly…that Ustaadhe Lo is a wise man.
I just finished my first college school year where I spent an entire 8 months or so learning Arabic at a top tier institution in the US of A. So why is it that when Ustaadhe Lo (that’s Arabic for professor) let us chickadees finally break free from the nest for a few hours I felt and acted like I was hearing the language for the very first time?
Not even 5 minutes without ustaadhe had passed before we were presented with our first dilemma. After parting ways we headed back up to our apartment and of course couldn’t get our door open. The key fit the lock, but the door wouldn’t open. We figured we were just living up to our typical womanly stereotype of never being able to get anything open whether it be a jar, glass bottle, or in this case, a door, so we called over one of the boys from their place down the hall. Nope, Dan couldn’t get it open either. We had to move to plan B: communicating with an Egyptian without Lo. My roommate Amanda and I volunteered to go downstairs and ask the man at the front desk for help. As we were descending in the elevator we were thinking of words that could help us explain. Sadly enough, we could think of only one: baab (door). How were we supposed to explain ourselves much less get him to come help if we didn’t know how to say the words key, open, turn, lock or anything else pertaining to this situation?
After several attempts of trying to explain via hand motions and few Arabic words such as la (no) and baab we were starting to develop quite a crowd. The first man tried to call over another man for help who called over another man, you get the gist. What we were really hoping is that one of the now 6 or so men around us from the neighborhood would speak a little bit of English: wishful thinking. But wait, it seemed there may be an answer. Not that we could understand what they were saying, but it did seem like they could show us: they were all pointing down the street. We aimlessly followed a man a couple hundred feet down to a key shop. Before we knew it we were being handed a duplicate key that was made in less than 10 seconds. Admitting defeat, we paid the 4 pound fee (which had been jacked up due to the obvious American innocence and stupidity plastered on our faces), said shukran (thank you) and walked back with our heads drooping to the apartment.
The key obviously didn’t fix the problem so what did we do? The little chickadees flew straight back to the homeland and called Ustaadhe on my phone (which my parents had enabled global calling for emergency purposes only- sorry Mom and Dad if you’re reading this, it was a last resort). Acting as a translator with the man at the front desk, Lo was able to get him to come upstairs and open the door for us, which the man did with no problem at all -____- making us feel even more stupid than before.
Suffice to say that Amanda and I made our first attempt to fend for ourselves and interact with Egypt today and epically failed. We felt ashamed for not knowing more Arabic and more importantly, extremely embarrassed because of it. But hey, we didn’t come here to be in our comfort zone, we came for the challenges no matter how they make us feel. Not to worry, we aren’t anywhere near close to giving up. We wake up tomorrow to fight another day. After all, practice does make perfect, right?
The lovely key store