My relationships with those around me—our DukeEngage group and the many Egyptians I have talked to, both young and old—have really been at the heart of this trip for me.
Being in Egypt has only reminded me of how American I truly am, even though I have always liked to think of myself as being globally minded and a “chameleon” of sorts who is able to easily find my way in foreign environments. In my interactions here with Egyptians and my American peers, I feel something tangibly different than I do with most Americans in the United States. I have been interested in figuring out what exactly this difference is and why it exists.
A few nights ago I was at a café with Amanda and Dan and we were talking about the incredible sense of calm and serenity that pervades this city and most of the interactions that occur. Why is it that we are able to sit outside at a café for upwards of 3 to 4 hours, even with the city bustling noisily around us, and barely notice the time passing at all? In observing all the young adults sitting around us and chatting the evening away, it feels obvious and rather stupid to even note that this simply doesn’t happen in America.
I rarely ever “hang out” in the same capacity with my friends at home, even with those who I have known for years and feel comfortable talking about nearly anything with. Yet my fellow DukeEngagers and I, some of whom I didn’t know before this trip, can sit back and talk about politics and the world around us, or talk about nothing of significance, for hours without it feeling like any time is passing at all. I am convinced that the “Egyptian psyche” has taken hold of all of us. In America, we always feel the need to fill our time with planned activities and rarely take a step back to appreciate the moments when enjoying someone’s company is all that matters.
On Wednesday night, which was the 4th of July, Amber and I had an adventure that we didn’t bargain for. Ahmed, one of the staff members who we work with at our secondary NGO, Al-Risalah, instructed our cab driver to take us to Talaat Harb Square, a supposedly bustling and fun area of Cairo that we had yet to explore. We arrived and were immediately overcome by the excitement and energy in the streets. Huge buildings lined the sides of the roads and stores were crowded even though it was past 7pm. (Except for restaurants, nearly everything in my hometown is closed by 6pm so I’m still loving the fact that Egyptians are out and about at all hours of the day).
Earlier in the night we had ordered cupcakes to celebrate American Independence Day with Al-Risalah. There were several leftover so we decided to bring the box downtown with us. At each street vendor that we stopped at long enough to look around, we ended up giving the shopkeeper a cupcake. What started out as mindless shopping turned into an evening filled with interesting conversations because we had taken the time to engage with those around us. I’m convinced that in America I wouldn’t walk into a mall and give food to random strangers – it’s something that people in Egypt do, and something that we’ve adapted to in the most positive way possible.
The Egyptians that I have met have all seem genuinely excited to welcome me into their country. Though the language barrier can make it tough sometimes, I have gotten into countless discussions with random Egyptians on the street. (As I wrote about in my last post, we have a natural capacity to overcome these barriers). I’m trying to think of encounters I’ve had with foreigners when I’ve been in American cities and can’t come up with any. Why is it that I am so closed off to the idea of meeting new people when I am in my home environment, but here I can’t wipe the smile off my face when someone welcomes me with a resounding “Welcome to Egypt!!” and is interested in talking to me?
Speaking with Egyptians on the street and in taxis, even in our broken conversations, has been rewarding in more ways than one. Though the lack of efficiency that I have noticed in the workplace in Cairo is frustrating at times, Egyptians have really mastered the art of human interaction and how important it is to cultivate the relationships around you. “You never waste time by talking to people” is one of my favorite things that Ustaz Lo has said to our group. I am going to miss the communal aspect of this city, but I’m hoping I can take a piece of it back home with me.