Locals visited Egypt, returned just before protests got underway
I returned from Egypt on January 16, a little more than a week before the protests began in Egypt. The purpose was to take students into another culture for 10 days to apply the concepts of anthropology to another culture through journaling. I’d envisioned the term “culture shock” coming alive and the challenges of their ethnocentrism made real instead of just telling students the definitions.
Tourist locations such as the pyramids of Giza were on the itinerary, as well as interactions with locals, such as visiting a preschool in a Nubian village to have an Arabic lesson and play soccer with the children. My image of Egypt was shaped by these experiences with my students: warm people with kind hearts, the strong smell of sweet vanilla at the market, dancing in the streets at a colorful Egyptian wedding and the great depth of time when soaking in the history of the Sphinx.
More people in Egypt hold degrees than in the United States, but there just aren’t enough jobs to go around. It is not uncommon to talk to a taxicab driver that has a doctorate and is on his second job of the day. While we were there, students became aware of the importance of tourism to the economy, being haggled to buy stone mini pyramids and Arab headdresses right out of a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. A morning on a train to Cairo from Luxor, we witnessed a fight break out at a bread line. The argument was diffused by two women, both holding a small basket of soft circular bread on their head with one hand. Bread is subsidized in Egypt, and each family receives only a certain amount not dependent upon family size. The situation led itself to a teaching moment to talk about economics, politics and the connection between status and food, as students had been complaining about their breakfast of three pieces of bread. Some Egyptians we met hadn’t been able to buy meat for the family for some months because the cost was so high.
Quiet squares that I remembered being filled with the sound of people laughing, walking arm and arm to school, were on television upon our return, full of chaos, with people demanding the resignation of the president. The images of newsworthy events, of protest, of people wanting a better life is what much of the Western audience has seen in photographs, with an advertisement for a Rolex watch on the next page. These images invoke people wanting and embracing change, craving work and a chance to use the education that they have earned. While many around me were surprised to see people dancing in the street after the protests showing a different image of the same people, this was a more familiar sight to me.
I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see an Egypt that is changing, hoping and risking itself for something that the people believe in. I am also happy to see my students engaged in politics, reading the newspaper, recognizing geographic locations on TV that they once walked. I now wonder what will happen to the camel I rode, the elders in the small cafe that I smoked a hookah with and the future for the 9-year-old kid working after school to earn money by developing the skill of weaving carpets. The next chapter of Egyptian history is now being written.