We Four in Egypt

Now back in the US!

Why are we here?

An anonymous Canadian asked me a question:

I have 2 ask..why r u in Egypt? I’ve read ur blog occassionally and for the most part, you don’t really enjoy or fit in with the culture or the predominant religion, Islam.

Why would you stay somewhere that you consider somewhat racist? You spend most of the time with expats. It doesn’t make much sense.

Seems like a fair question, though I’m intrigued by this notion that you should only live places you love, and immediately leave places you find you don’t love. Because how would we know how we’d really feel about living in Egypt until we moved here?

Now here’s the long-winded answer.

What brought us to Egypt was Africa, a real passion for learning more about this gigantic continent with the possibility of traveling to sub-Saharan Africa and especially Ethiopia and other parts of East Africa, which are not all that far away. And where both my kids were born. We brought them from Ethiopia to the US, and they inspired us to come back this way.

What brought us here was a desire for our kids to feel at home in the world, to think of the world not from an exclusively American perspective but one informed by life beyond the States.

What brought us here was a sense of adventure, of wanting to live and work outside of the US.

And what brought us here was an interesting career opportunity for me (the boring part).

All these things have worked out great. I’m fully immersed in the Middle East, of course, but also in Africa, and I have more opportunities to learn about and understand this continent than I ever would in the US. On a daily basis, I see and interact with Africans from all over the continent, not just Egypt but also Sudan, Ethiopia, and other countries.

And the boys, I think, have really benefited, young as they are. Their school is incredibly international, and they are learning a lot about the world. Their classmates are Egyptian, Italian, American, Moroccan, Japanese, Ghanaian, and… the list goes on.

And right now we are here because I have a two year contract. And, actually, I really enjoy my job, which I don’t write about because it’s not good blog fodder, and Mr. Four enjoys his lifestyle too. We can afford for him not to work (a luxury in the US for people in our income bracket), and we can afford household help (an even more amazing luxury). My work schedule here is about 35 hours/week, and I have generous holiday time in addition to six weeks of annual leave. I have so much more time with my kids here; it’ll be hard to go back to the US for this reason alone. Life is easy and good.

We have faced some challenges we didn’t expect. I was warned about racism in Egypt, but coming from the US (with its own problems with racism, you might have heard), it was hard to understand how that would play out for our family. It’s been a disappointment. I also didn’t realize how utterly confusing our family would be to many Egyptians (though I hasten to add there are plenty here who do get us).

Despite occasional angst, the problems, we’ve decided, don’t merit breaking my contract, which would likely cost us lots of money in moving expenses back to the US, as well as major professional issues for me. And the longer we’re here, the more we like.

Lots of people live in places they don’t love for very mundane reasons. And, there are many, many Cairenes who don’t love Cairo at all. In fact, many Egyptians here apologize for Cairo! As if some of the problems of living here are their fault individually. My concerns about Cairo are voiced by many others, Egyptians and expats. And there are plenty of expats who are only here for the money (and not just oil families). That’s not us by a long shot.

We do spend a lot of time with expats. As a friend observes, just like Egyptian immigrants to the US spend a lot of time with Egyptians and other Arabic-speakers. This is not an unusual phenomenon, to spend time with people who speak the same language and have the same culture. Our community here is American but also international, and the expat community is great. Despite all this, we have become friendly with some Egyptian families (including some who have invited us over for dinner this weekend), and I have some wonderful Egyptian colleagues at work. Mostly, though, we hang out as a family.

It’s a romantic and misguided notion to think that if you move to a new country, the locals will rush to befriend you. That doesn’t happen so much in places like Cairo, with something like 40,000 Americans and 100,000 expats.

It’s true that I don’t have a particular adoration for Egyptian or Arab culture (though I do find Arabic fascinating and I love Egyptian food). But I didn’t know any of this until I got here. I don’t have a particular interest in Islam, though it’s been great to learn about Islam from my Muslim friends and colleagues. I love, for example, hearing the call for prayer five times a day. I love seeing the Nile River on my afternoon commute, and, on rare clear days like today, the Great Pyramids in the distance.

Our reasons for moving here, and then staying, are complex. What is simple is this: moving here was a great decision, and I’m so glad we’re here.

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31 March 2008 - Posted by | africa, ethiopia, expat scene, family, our life in egypt

11 Comments

  1. I love Egypt, but living there requires putting up some shields of tolerance. I think this applies to Egyptians and foreigners alike. My husband went back to Egypt after 3 years away. He said, “It’s changed. It’s so dirty and it’s crowded everywhere we go.” lol…A lifetime in Egypt had hardened him to things that might have normally bothered him. I just think everyone has what I call “Cairo moments.” These are the days when the dishonesty of the taxi driver or the cheek of the bawaab just plays on your last nerve. Having lived abroad in 3 countries over a 6 year period I think that venting is a normal part of acclimating to your new culture. A sense of humour is essential for life in Egypt. I think you’re just going through the normal phases of fitting into life. Next Ramadan you’ll be hosting the iftar and inviting over Egyptians and foreigners alike.

    Comment by Cairogal | 31 March 2008

  2. Wow…I didn’t think my ? would inspire an entire post..but I’m glad it did. I do understand that people don’t always fall in love with where they live. However, I suppose because I have always lived in a place I love I can’t quite understand that.

    I have been 2 Egypt and in particular Cairo. I even learned 2 speak Arabic and I do understand how foreigners are treated. I couldn’t live there but not because of racism or Islam or whatever. I just can’t handle the massive population, the pollution and the endless traffic. I loved the Egyptian countryside. If I had money, I’d buy an estate somewhere further south of Cairo. But I found Egypt a country that was hard 2 function in without Arabic. I guess what I couldn’t understand besides ur daily frustrations of functioning in a foreign country was that u hadn’t fallen in love with Egypt’s Egyptians. It’s the best thing about the place. The kindness of strangers. I don’t feel it here in North America so much. But in Egypt they were always so nice and helpful. Cairogal, cabbies gotta make a living as well. Plus it’s a poor country and every1 is trying 2 make a living which makes 4 a system where people just feed off each other. Sad but true.

    I have been 2 the States and sorry u can’t even remotely compare American racism against every non-white to Egyptian racism. Yes, every country has it’s racism..every person it’s prejudices..but take a look at ur government’s response to a primarily Black population in New Orleans after Katrina. Ur country’s history of slavery which is the primary reason it’s a world power. The Egyptians are, for the most part, not so bad. Also, they are pretty dark frankly. Not a huge amount of fair skinned Egyptians. I think it’s more the concept of adoption that is foreign to them. Fostering yes, but adoption no. It’s probably what is causing the confusion. I have Egyptian friends from my time spent in Egypt and when I told them that I was considering adopting, I was advised against it. Strongly.

    Different does not mean better or worse. Just different. Example. Not all women would support a man..myself included..but u do…it’s just different..not better or worse…Kudos 2 u..and it’s good that u r trying 2 enjoy living in a new and different place.

    To me…Egypt wasn’t so African…more Arab.

    You should go to South Africa next if you can. It’s beautiful. A real African experience 4 ur kids.

    Comment by anonymous | 31 March 2008

  3. Anon, first, to address a few things: it is incredibly easy to navigate life in Cairo with only a few words of Arabic. Shockingly easy. My intention is still to learn more, but it’s far from necessary.

    In regards to kindnesses from strangers: Egyptians are often lovely people, I agree, and I hear this notion of how warm they are all the time. But I haven’t seen this as being hugely different from my experiences in the States. Then again, I haven’t lived in any major US cities, just smaller cities and towns. Eh, maybe I lived in places with all the nice people.

    In regards to racism: unless you are a person of sub-Saharan African descent who has spent time in the US and in Egypt, I’m not sure you’re in any position to evaluate different kinds of racism. There is a lot of racism here (and many Egyptians would strenuously object to being called “very dark”); it just manifests itself differently. For example, darker skinned people are almost always lower status here (none running for president that I know of). And I’ve spoken with some sub-Saharan African women about their experiences here: the comments and treatment are very different than what they’d get in the US.

    I’m not denying the US’s long history of racism. Not at all. But American racism doesn’t mean there’s no Egyptian racism.

    It’s obvious you love Egypt, but visiting a place is very different from living there.

    In any case, thanks for explaining your thoughts on this more.

    Comment by Ms. Four | 31 March 2008

  4. Egypt as a visitor and as an expat are two very different experiences. Had I visited the country before taking a job there I don’t think I would have wound up there. No regrets, mind you. When I arrived a friend/colleague gave me a cheat sheet of words/expressions that helped me get around. Since I lived in Maadi (and most of the streets are numbered) I learned my numbers first, along with yameen, shamel, and alatool. I do think if one is to venture off around the city by taxi that knowing Arabic will usually make your fare cheaper. It also makes asking for directions a whole lot easier. I do think that knowning Arabic tends to endear Egyptians to you-they appreciate the effort. Since so many Egyptians in Cairo speak some English life is not so hard for the linguistically challenged expat.

    As for taxi drivers making a living: I just don’t buy into that. I’m ok w/ the “foreigner tax” in Egypt which tends to increase the price of pretty much anything negotiable by up to 30%. My Egyptian friends would say, “Only give him 15 LE for the fare from Maadi to Heliopolis,” but I knew he was always expecting more like 30+. And I’m ok with paying 30+. I just don’t believe in being gouged beyond that unoffical foreigner tax. Tourists are typically the victims of this, and I suppose many people think that it’s only XX dollars-what’s it to me, etc. For those who live in Cairo, maintaining a sense of balance and relative fairness when it comes to paying higher prices can become a bit of a daily battle-taxi fares for those w/o cars tend to be at the heart of every battle. Alas…it is not just foreigners who view Egyptian taxi drivers w/ contempt.

    Egypt is a poor country that is reliant upon tourism and bakhsheesh and is very much crippled by classism. All of these form a recipe for the above-mentioned gouging. As for racism, if adoption wasn’t already a foreign enough concept for most Egyptians, throw in there an adopted child of African origin (Egyptians don’t consider themselves African unless it involves winning the African Cup in football) and you’ve got a lot of confusion. I’ve known of 2 African-Americans who took jobs in Egypt in the last few years. Both were let go quite suddenly from their jobs. While the person hiring might not have cared about their skin colour, someone else did…perhaps a parent, a higher-ranking administrator in the school, etc. I guess I would forgive some of the ignorance if Egyptians were not exposed to those of darker skin colour. When you hear a Sudanese man/woman referred to as “abd” on the street it makes one even less forgiving.

    Comment by Cairogal | 1 April 2008

  5. I was going to stay out of this discussion, but as a fellow mother of a black child in Cairo that is just not possible. I am really outraged by the remarks by anonymous. There is no reason we have to compare racism in Egypt to racism in the USA. Racism anywhere is bad. But I would really advise against any minimising of the very real racism that exists in Egypt, and which I have also seen directed at my own child. Racism takes a different form here, but it is no less venemous.

    Here are some linguistic examples of what we face:

    1) The slang use of the term abid (slave) directed as an insult against darker skinned people or sub-Saharan Africans in Egypt.
    2) The use of the non-human plural to describe Africans in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. ie they are not “Afrikaan” or “Afrikiyeen” as in standard Arabic, but “Afarika”. It is immensely insulting.
    3) The constant reference to anyone of visible African origin as a generic “Sudani”, the constant reference to black girl children (including my own daughter) as “chocolata”.
    4) Constant jungle references to African men and sexualised references to African women, who are widely stereotyped as prostitutes.

    This is all done without any apparent understanding of why it would be offensive. But there are also problems in Egyptian officialdom.

    For example, 10 unarmed African migrants and asylum seekers were shot dead by Egyptian security forces as they tried to sneak across the border into Israel since the beginning of this year. That is a staggeringly high number. They were shot simply because they did not obey orders to stop. Many migrants try to get to Israel because of the harsh treatment they get in Egypt.

    Also, there is a big Sudanese gang problem in Cairo and many non-gang affiliated members of the African community have been victimised by these gangs. The Egyptian police do little to intervene,however, because it is Africans preying on other Africans.

    Likewise, African women who are sexually assaulted in Egypt are often advised by NGOs not to go to the police, because as a vulnerable population it puts them further at risk of deportation or mistreatment.

    Africans report being beaten up on the streets of Cairo. Those who try to work as street vendors are especially at risk. Some have been hospitalised.

    All this is not to mention the en masse displacement of the Nubians to make way for the Aswan dam, and the continued marginalisation of this population to this day.

    I say all this and I DO love Egypt. I have spent the past decade in the region — a third of my life. I speak Arabic fluently and I feel I do have a stake in the region. But we must not remain silent about the very persistent and very poisonous racism that exists in this country and region.

    Sure, some of the problems are due to a total misunderstanding of adoption. But a lot of that is caught up in misunderstanding of why a white American family would ever WANT to adopt a black child. That is what is often so offensive about it.

    It is also offensive because people here have no shame about saying these things in the earshot of a small child.

    Comment by cindy | 1 April 2008

  6. I think others have made the reality of Egyptian racism pretty clear. I wanted to add my thoughts about two issues, first about Egyptians’ awareness of adoption, and second about finding imperfections in a foreign country … and yet still living there.

    If it were not for the negative fixation on skin color and class status, I would not be bothered by Egyptians’ being unfamiliar with adoption. However, there is something about it that I do find sad – and I choose this word deliberately. While Cairo is in many ways a regional crossroads, a cosmopolitan place, and arguably the world’s oldest tourist destination, Egyptians in Cairo do not send signals of being terribly interested in understanding or accepting family structures different from their own. I say that this is sad because this kind of intolerance is not at all unique, but it is destructive. And Egyptian media have sometimes carried stories about intolerance encountered by Arab and Muslim immigrants to the US and Europe. They should be alarmed about xenophobia in the US and Europe, but this makes they way many Egyptians react to adoptive families in Cairo all the more remarkable. It is sad.

    The question that anonymous asked (“why r u in egypt?”) seems to be an expatriate version of the “love it or leave it” insult that reactionaries hurled at 1960s protestors in the US. Expatriates come to places like Cairo for as many reasons as people come to live anywhere else in the world. I choose to live in the Middle East in part because I am a human rights lawyer, and there are a lot of challenging issues for me to work on here. But as a result I am pretty painfully aware that every country I have lived in has some pretty bad faults – even as they also have some significant strengths. The U.S. is like that too, of course. But for an expatriate, I think it is actually an insult to the intelligence of a foreign country to act like everything is perfect when it’s not. I think the United States could benefit from more foreigners living in our country, and helping to identify some imperfections and some ideas to address them. If expatriates in any country continue month after month raving about how perfect their new home is, they are either not going outside, or they are exoticizing a foreign people. No one is perfect.

    [FYI, I find this debate about whether Egypt is in Africa fairly amusing, since it touches on a key Egyptian identity crisis. Egypt is certainly very Arab, and even though Egypt's football team just won the Africa Cup a few weeks ago many of its people would certainly react in shock if someone called them African. But it's a big continent; there's no single African identity anyway. Egypt and its Arab/African identity crisis is just as "real" a part of Africa as South Africa. I think what puzzles me is the assertion that adoptive parents of Ethiopian kids should move to South Africa because that would be a more quintessential African experience. It would be African, sure, but it would not be more African than Egypt, which shares a river, a church, and even a language group with Ethiopia.]

    Comment by Mike | 1 April 2008

  7. Cairogal, Cindy, and Mike, thanks so much for your comments here. I’m mulling all this over and will do another post on this soon.

    Comment by Ms. Four | 2 April 2008

  8. Ms. Four,
    Kudos to you for giving such a well thought out response to the original question! Hoping to see you on your visit stateside this summer.

    Comment by Wendy | 2 April 2008

  9. I’ve enjoyed this thread very much. Thanks for openly sharing your thoughts on why you went along with the challenges of living in Cairo. We are Americans living in Nairobi for 5 months, and some of your thoughts echo our experiences (and motivations for coming to begin with). The shock and bafflement at some of what we’ve experienced here, complaining about the baffling a lot at first, then trying to understand why we are baffled so we can learn from it–all occupies a lot of time. Still, we love it and want to come back for another stint, as long as we can stay.
    I’ll leave it at that. Saw you via the Africa Reading Challenge and will look forward to your reviews. -Lynn

    Comment by bloomlikeflowers | 4 April 2008

  10. What a wonderful post followed by an very interesting (and informative) conversation. Thank you!

    Comment by Meghan | 16 April 2008

  11. I’m aware that this is an old post but it seems that you lack the input of someone who is black and American and living in Cairo. I went to school in the deep south, lived in Europe,traveled Asia. With that being said, Egypt is by far the most racist place I’ve ever been. The racism here is malicious. It is not based on any type of ignorance of black people but a loathing of dark skin and a contempt for Africa. Verbal and physical attacks towards black people are common and every day. My Nigerian friend was stoned by a group of young men and told to “go back o Sudan”. The injuries she bore were so severe that she was forced to return to the US for surgery. To conflate the US’s racism in comparison to that of Egypt’s is a luxury only bestowed upon the willfully ignorant and white. For those of us who have experienced both, Egypt feels like the US circa 1930s when one could still find a cross burning in your yard only b/c of the colour of your skin.

    Comment by BlackinCairo | 14 June 2010


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