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We’ve Got Your Back

Part 2 on why many expats have no desire to leave Egypt even in troubled times
by Kate Durham

When I put the call out to current and former expats in Egypt for their fondest memories of random acts of kindness, I found myself with more tales than I could tell in one column. Alongside the anecdotes of warm welcomes and unexpected lifts were a number of stories about people stepping in to help a complete stranger in distress.

Sheila Carapico, a professor of political science and international studies, recalls a very eventful year as a visiting professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC). “Around dusk on January 28, 2011, I found myself stranded at the Falaki campus of AUC just off of Tahrir Square where protesters had broken through the police barricades. It was pandemonium. An AUC guard asked a driver making a U-turn to give me a ride. The father, with his wife and infant next to him, invited me to sit with three young kids in the back. Navigation was difficult: Streets were blocked, tires and buildings were on fire, pedestrians were fleeing, young men were directing traffic, inspecting who was in the few cars traveling, and warning of dangers ahead. The family was headed home to Giza but drove a foreigner well out of their way under frightening circumstances to my doorstep in Maadi. Talk about the kindness of strangers!”

When sexual harassment is a constant for all women, many wonder why a foreign female would bother living in these conditions. I received — and have experienced myself — several encounters where Egyptians step in to confront the harasser. In perhaps the most amusing account, psychology professor Dr. Anne Justus, who has worked at AUC for seven years, tells of one such instance when she was harassed in the street. “Nearby there was an elderly woman in niqab [full face veil],” Justus says. “She saw the event, quietly approached the harasser and beat the sh*t out of him with her purse while cursing. It was awesome. I thought he was going to cry.”

That’s when the people on the street don’t even know you. If you’re not a stranger, it often seems the neighborhood embraces you if not as one of them then as one of theirs.

Egyptologist Dr. Leslie Warden has studied and worked in Egypt on and off over the past 14 years. While back for a visit in June, she says, “My old grocer recognized me […] when I stopped by his shop in Zamalek. He still remembered where I lived, that I studied here, etc. In the end he gave me his mobile number in case I needed anything — and I never doubted the sincerity of his offer. It’s the warmth of Egyptians which has made Egypt the home of my heart.”

Heather Campbell, who did her masters in Islamic Art and Architecture at AUC in the early 2000s, learned where she stood from her local shopkeeper Mohamed. In 2003, tensions were high because of the American invasion of Iraq. Campbell was in the shop when a man wearing the galabeya and kufaya from one of the Gulfi states walked in. “This man started asking Mohamed questions about me. Where was I from? Was I American? Full well knowing that I am American, Mohamed replied, ‘La, she comes from Norway’.”

The Gulf tourist persisted with his questions, and Mohamed kept giving false answers. “Of course Mohamed knew I was following the conversation. I had to pretend that I didn’t understand a word and let my gaze wander until the man in the white galabeya left,” Campbell continues. “Mohamed’s fabricated story sent a clear message to me. The man in the galabeya was an outsider and I was not. I was the one he was protecting, and [I] realized this was probably just one of the many ways the people in my neighborhood looked out for me. In a time when things were so uncertain, it was incredibly comforting to know that I had nothing to fear in my neighborhood.”

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