For all its frustration, there’s a lot to be said for living in Egypt
By Kate Durham
I was having lunch with some new Egyptian acquaintances when the inevitable question came up. “How long have you been in Egypt?”
I wasn’t expecting the next question, though. Amro asked, “What do you hate about Egypt?”
Huh? I’m used to the looks of shock from foreigners who can’t fathom being abroad so long and Egyptians who wonder why here when I could be anywhere else. But this was the first time I’ve been asked by an Egyptian to complain about Egypt. Usually I’m asked “Eih rayik fi Masr?” ― What do you think of Egypt? ― with that eager smile that says, “Tell me something good.”
Any time you live outside your native culture, you’re going to encounter things that make your head want to explode. And Egypt is no different. There are indeed days that inspire an otherwise adult expatriate to pitch a fit worthy of a two-year-old. Yet we’ve stayed. The political roller coaster and general economic anxiety have many Egyptians wishing they were somewhere else, and yet these crazy foreigners stay.
Why? Because Egyptians, even if they are dreaming of a better life elsewhere, make us foreigners feel at home. After Amro’s odd question, i invited my circle of expats ― some still living in Egypt, others whose careers have taken them from umm el-dunia ― to share stories of random kindness experienced here.
Bob Hoffman has stayed in Cairo several times on business over the past 25 years, and in 2002 he brought his family. It was during Ramadan, so they decided to buy some apricot cookies. In the shop, Hoffman recalls, “[The vendor] handed us a cookie and said, ‘Here taste it. They are the best.’ When I told him it was Ramadan and it would not be proper for us to eat in public during the day, he replied, ‘but you are Christian and so it is ok.’ Even though we did not eat, I appreciated the acceptance. And he was right ― the cookies were the best.”
Holie Barker lived here for a year as a study-abroad, but encountered the local hospitality before she even landed in the country. Her seatmate on the plane was a 16-year-old Egyptian girl who had just completed her own study-abroad program. “When she found out I had no Egyptian money, no Arabic language skills and no way of getting from the airport to the university housing, she offered me a ride with her family. Most of her family pulled up outside the airport in a tiny blue car. Somehow we managed to fit two huge suitcases in what passed for the trunk and crammed in eight people in a car better suited for four. […]Their kindness and generosity was boundless and very humbling for a young girl fresh off the Western boat.”
“I remember as a newly arrived student in 1992, I asked for directions from a man about my age in a galabeya and a beard of the style that a year later would probably have gotten him into trouble with the authorities,” says Rob Ryan-Silva, who after his study-abroad experience returned as a contractor on a development project. “Rather than negotiate my rudimentary Arabic, he just invited me into his ancient Volkswagen with some of his similarly-attired friends and drove me to my destination, seeing me off with a smile and a wave. Not something that would ever happen in, say, New York.”
Every expat has a frustrating taxi tale, but Helen Rizzo, a sociology professor at the American University of Cairo (AUC) for the past 13 years, got a pleasant surprise on one of her rides. Traffic was heavy on the short distance between Mohandiseen and Zamalek, and Rizzo soon found out that the driver was keeping a regular customer waiting because he had picked her up. Since the other customer, a Turkish woman also working in Cairo, was going to the same place, Rizzo told the driver she didn’t mind sharing the ride. “We slowly made our way to Zamalek, the three of us had a very pleasant conversation … And as part of the conversation I mentioned it was my birthday. They dropped me off first and I was about to give the driver a good fare since it had taken over an hour to get home when he told me that he would not take my money because it was my birthday.”
While working here two years as an editor, Tracy Lowe found herself invited to a wedding three hours outside of Cairo. On the way back in the wee hours of morning, her friends decided they were hungry. “We pulled over next to what looked like a tin can with an awning. I assumed my friends had lost their minds when I heard them ordering an enormous meal because I couldn’t imagine where it would come from. [...] Twenty minutes later, an enormous seafood meal was brought out in a column of card tables. As I was eating the best fish meal I’ve ever had, chatting with the wittiest people I’ve ever met, seated on dilapidated folding chairs on the side of the highway, and listening to the call to prayer just before sunrise, I remember thinking I must have died and gone to heaven. Nowhere else could anything so wild and wonderful actually happen.”
I have many similar stories, but the most memorable occurred during my first year in the country. I used to take the Heliopolis tram to my part-time teaching job and would pass the slow ride by reading. One day, I got to work and realized that my bookmark – a felt-covered souvenir from Disneyworld topped with Tigger’s fluffy head – was gone, fallen by the wayside and no doubt lost forever. A month later, I was reading on the tram again when a young woman tapped me on the arm and without a word handed me my Tigger bookmark. Best I can tell, she must have found Tigger the day I dropped it and had held on to it for weeks until she saw me on the tram again. To this day, I am still stunned by this simple act of honesty.
Egypt is a country with big problems and many frustrations. But it is a country filled with people who make small gestures of hospitality and random acts of kindness ― I received enough stories to easily fill two columns. For many expats who have the opportunity to get to know the Egyptians, it is this hospitality that make up their lasting memories of Egypt. And these simple kindnesses are among the reasons many of us don’t see a reason to leave.