I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t apprehensive about taking a group of American students to Egypt. Not because of the threat of violence—as some subtly and some not-so-subtly cautioned—but because I so badly wanted them to like Egypt.
Trash-filled neighborhoods, crumbling buildings, abject poverty, stray animals and army tanks on the streets pose a jarring contrast to the tranquility of Danville, Ky. To say that Egypt is ripe for cultural shock is an understatement. Especially in Cairo, there is little that is outwardly beautiful.
As the students quickly learned, the police state is impossible to overlook. Young soldiers litter every street openly carrying M14 rifles behind barricades. Convinced that I had brought a group of Americans to Egypt to incite protest on the revolution’s January 25 anniversary, the students experienced the security state first hand as they watched my interrogation by the tourism police, their attempted control over our itinerary and our police escorts to sensitive areas—such as Tahrir Square. It was, of course, initially unnerving for students, but the display of semi-automatic rifles and police checkpoints soon became merely part of the scenery.
The decline in tourism has worsened economic conditions for a majority of Egypt’s already impoverished population, a fact that is also on public display. Women sleep with their children on bags of garbage to cushion themselves from Cairo’s cold, dirty streets and bridges. Local vendors demonstrate the blurry line between selling and begging. And at a Nubian village, young children follow white tourists gesturing hunger by putting their hands to their mouths. Students passed out Clif bars and combs, learned the art of baksheesh and increasingly recognized their own fortunes.
Back-to-back revolutions in 2011 and 2013 have done little to change the political status quo as the military continues to rule. The popular American narrative suggests that the solution to Egypt’s ills is a quick transition to democracy, yet the majority of Egyptians question the prudence of such a political move.
The students heard, time and again, Egyptians reject the notion that democracy would cure the country of its problems, instead openly preferring a strong leader to move Egypt forward. Few Egyptians expressed a desire for democracy—at least anything resembling a Western model. At first, this came as a shock to the students, but with time, they understood.
On top of it all, Egypt is a majority Muslim country. Most Americans have never experienced walking through streets where the majority of women wear the hijab, and many the niqab. In rural areas of Egypt, most men wear traditional galabayas. American media does little to normalize such an environment, but the students came to enjoy observing the fashion and social-status associated with various styles of headscarves.
While the first few days left the students emotionally exhausted and over-stimulated, they quickly settled in. I was more than just pleasantly surprised. I was astounded by the students’ openness to cultural immersion, by their willingness to listen, absorb and rethink their own Western tendencies.
They reveled at the beauty of mosques. They discerned the difference between Islam as culture and Islam as religion. They recognized the pride of natives in their long and fascinating history. Most of all, the students spoke confidently with Egyptians—young and old, poor and middle class, hopeful and hopeless—about the political, social, religious and economic problems plaguing the country.
Over the course of 19 days, we traversed much of the country from the capital to Sudan’s border. It was a full historical, political, religious and cultural immersion.
We learned about the importance and entrenchment of religion within Egyptian culture—from pharaonic times to present. We watched Egyptians pray at mosques and churches. We visited countless historic sites—from the inner chamber of the Great Pyramid to the “holy of holies” at Abu Simbel temple. We saw local farmers tend to their crops along the Nile. And of course, in typical Egyptian fashion, we immersed ourselves in the local evening culture by sitting at countless sheesha cafés.
By the end, the students broke free of Western orientalist images of Egypt that went far beyond camels, pyramids and danger. It is true that it takes some searching to find the true beauty of Egypt, but after 19 days, I am confident that they found it.
by Dina Badie, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Studies
January 28, 2016