“You live WHERE?”
Yes, it’s true. I live in Egypt. This is a statement that leaves many people dumbfounded. They tilt their heads and peer into my face, intrigued, as if I just told them that I own a time-traveling DeLorean.
This reaction is, of course, different from when I lived in Costa Rica. Everyone thought that was cool. It had beaches and rainforests and sloths. Or when I lived in Taiwan. That was met with confusion: “Thai-land?” No, Taiwan. “China?” No, well…according to the UN…just, no. “Japan?” NO.
But Egypt? Three years ago, when a former teacher learned I was moving here, she grabbed my head and pretended to examine it. She loudly pronounced there were no holes in it, so why on Earth would I do such a crazy thing?
I’ll be the first to admit that living in Egypt is not without its challenges. But there are benefits, too. So let’s cut to the chase.
FAQ#1: Is it safe?!
My main response to this is to ask if the questioner is aware of the number of mass shootings to date that have occurred in the US this calendar year alone. Then ask me again if I’m ‘safe’.
But, yes, without the bullshit: I am safe. Yes, there have been a few scattered acts of terrorism since I moved here. However, as they were not focused on a geographical area or specific population that I am associated with, I am not overly concerned. Much like someone living in the U.S. would not actively think about how to avoid a mass shooting, I do not actively think about avoiding a bomb. My day-to-day existence is free from worrying about getting mugged or shot, which is something I can’t say when I am in many cities in the U.S.
FAQ #2: But is it safe for a WOMAN? Do you have to wear a hijab?
No, a hijab is not mandatory. Yet as a culturally sensitive person, I dress fairly conservatively. No shorts, no spaghetti straps, no V-necks. That being said, despite this, yes, I get catcalled. (At least, that’s what I assume is happening, since I don’t understand much Arabic.) Drivers honk – and a couple have stopped and tried to talk to me. “No, thank you,” is a phrase in Arabic I learned quickly.
I have been groped. Twice. My ass, if you must know. It scared the shit out of me the first time; the guy was on a minibike, though, so my revenge fantasies were left unfulfilled. 18 months later, when it happened again, I looked the young man straight in the eyes – he couldn’t have been more than 25 – and said, “Do not EVER. DO. THAT. AGAIN.”
It felt good. Not as good as smacking him, but…
In my little suburb of Cairo, I am a novelty item: a Western woman. I will garner attention regardless. Instead of being intimidated, however, I use this scrutiny to my advantage. For example, I have made ‘friends’ with the guards of the compounds surrounding my neighborhood and in my school. It is amazing what saying “Good morning!” in Arabic and smiling and waving will do for foreign relations. I also know that most Egyptians are happy to help, especially someone who is clearly a ‘guest’ in their country. This has happened frequently with parents of students I teach; they ask if I need a ride, whether I am walking home from school, or the grocery store, or during a particularly sandy and windy afternoon. To roughly paraphrase Atticus Finch at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird: most people ARE nice, once you finally see them.
FAQ#3: What is the school like? The students? Do you teach diplomats’ kids?
The greater Cairo area is home to many international and/or private schools, all of various specialties, languages, and sizes. I teach at a private international school that follows the Common Core curriculum standards of the U.S. for all grades, but also offers the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme for grades 11 and 12. The faculty is diverse, with local teachers as well as those from all over the globe.
The students are mainly Egyptian, or of mixed heritage, but mainly from the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. Some have British or American ties as well. They are wealthy, with drivers and maids and other servants at their beck and call. They are teenagers, and despite the differences in culture, I have learned over the last 15 years of teaching in four different countries that teenagers are teenagers are teenagers. The adolescent struggle is universal.
FAQ#4: Have you seen the pyramids?
I have seen the majority of the tourist sites here in Egypt. I cannot lie, the Great Pyramid of Giza is fucking amazing. I can see all three in the distance sometimes when I go into Cairo. It never gets old.
I was actually surprised at how much there is to see and do here: take a Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan, learn to scuba dive in Dahab or Sharm El Sheikh on the Red Sea, explore the catacombs in Alexandria, camp in the White Desert, shop in the Khan el Khalili. The best time to visit is in the fall or spring, when the heat isn’t so oppressive (unless you want to be fried to a cinder at the pyramids) but when you could still enjoy some pool or beach time. It does get chilly here in the winter, enough that I have a space heater in my apartment. If you’re only interested in cultural sites, then the winter would be a great option, too.
FAQ#5: Where do you live?
I live in a two-bedroom furnished apartment about a kilometer from my school.. It’s not in a compound, but that does cut down on costs and I’ve never felt unsafe. The owner is a teacher at school, so that is very convenient for rent, repairs, etc. She has also decorated the flat in a Western style, which I love. (Egyptian style furniture can be very ornate and not as comfortable, in my opinion.) Another bonus is that I have a dryer, which is absosmurfly fabulous. I still dry my clothes on a wire rack, but I pop them in the dryer for a few minutes to get the wrinkles out and avoid ironing. (Sorry, Mom!)
Although I would enjoy living in one of the expat neighborhoods in Cairo like Zamalek or Maadi, the commute is too long. I do not want to spend 30-90 minutes in a bus each way each day (depending on traffic) when I can walk to school in 10-15 minutes. The extra sleep is entirely worth it.
FAQ#6: What do they think of Americans and the US?
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since living abroad is that the US is not the world, and the world is not the US. I know it sounds basic, but we as Americans tend to believe that because we are an economic and military superpower, the entire world revolves around us. Thankfully, that’s just not true.
This realization first hit me when I was in Taiwan in 2012. After Obama’s re-election, I was hugging other Americans in the staff room, jumping up and down with joy. The other faculty – local and overseas – were amused at our outpouring of happiness, but otherwise? They didn’t really care about the election. They had their own social and economic and political concerns. They didn’t have time to bother with ours.
Granted, the stakes were raised once Trump was elected. But if there’s one thing people across the world understand, it’s a leader that does not represent the will of the majority. As a result, many are sympathetic to my situation. They know what it’s like, and they see it as simply our turn to pay our dues of bad leadership like the rest of the world.
What is more important, however, is not what Egyptians think of Americans, but what Americans think of Egyptians, and the Middle East/North Africa region as a whole. When I am visiting my family in Minneapolis, the only images of the Middle East I see on the television are ones of violence, poverty, and suffering. No wonder people are afraid for me: the media shows nothing of the area’s stark beauty, fascinating culture, intricate history, or generous people.
In these last few years, I have had the pleasure of traveling in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon; I currently have friends working in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. We know these countries are as multi-layered and multi-faceted as our own. But, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains in her famous 2009 TED Talk, the danger of a single story is a people’s loss of humanity. Many Americans enjoy the benefit of higher education, cutting edge technology, and financial stability. Our knowledge and understanding of the Middle East should go beyond a soundbite on the evening news.