Coming to Egypt, I packed way more than I should have: four pairs of pants, two skirts, eight tank tops, two short-sleeve shirts, four long-sleeve shirts, three super slim sweaters, a dress, a denim jacket, a light rain jacket, four pairs of shoes, and my entire bathroom drawer (note: I’m on a two-month trip to Egypt, Israel, and Europe). But of all the things I packed, what I should have truly jettisoned were my preconceptions about Egypt.
In this day and age of 24-hour news channels, information at your fingertips, instant gratification, and ever-quickening tendencies to jump to conclusions, it’s no wonder that so many of us think we know so much. Gone are the days when people go to the source for the real story because you can much more easily verify “the truth” on someone’s Facebook status update.
And so it is with a grand majority of people and their perceptions about Egypt. Prior to going on this trip, nearly everyone I spoke with expressed concern for my safety. They referenced what they had seen on TV or what they had read in the news. While I always find it prudent to be wary of my surroundings when I travel to any destination, I’m not going to let a 30-second news clip or 75-word article focused on isolated incidents of violence in very specific locations deter me from exploring a vibrant country of 90 million people. After all, if there were a shooting in Connecticut, would you cancel a trip to Vegas? In fact, because we only get bite-sized–and often biased–snippets of what is happening in another country, it behooves us to seek out the real story from the people who are living through it.
That being said, I did have my own strongly ingrained, if poorly informed, preconceived notions about what I would experience in Egypt: getting hassled by men, having to always keep my hair covered and wear no makeup, Christians isolated from and discriminated by Muslims, an obliterated economy, and a moving-through-molasses sense of progress and democracy.
Naturally, these concerns had been shaped by my own personal value system and Western Christian culture. My baseline for comparisons can only be my own experiences, but when you’re looking through the window from the inside of your own home, you can never get a 360-degree view. Life is a tour for all of us, but imagine some people never getting off the bus.
A few days before we arrived in Egypt, a woman was assaulted during anti-government demonstrations on Tahrir Square–add that to the nearly twenty women who were assaulted in the same place in January. People I spoke with here roundly condemned those acts but were also quick to change the subject. I would never belittle violence towards women, but my experience in Cairo bore no resemblance to the level of danger those women suffered. Misogyny and the brutal treatment of women occur here in Egypt (as they do in Western countries, too), but most Egyptians and tourists will never be a part of those horrible situations. Visiting Tahrir Square and the neighborhood streets on three separate occasions, I always felt safe. Rather than an atmosphere of tension and aggression, the joy of daily life abounded with small groups gathering in the center just to hang out, brightly lit shops enticing passers-by with the latest fashions, proud parents taking their kids for a sunset stroll, and giggling girls in colorful scarves batting eyelashes at boys who were too cool to show that they cared.
Taking a tour of the Islamic Quarter, I went into sensory overload. From late afternoon to well into the night, we wandered through seemingly endless, narrow labyrinths that were lined with entrepreneurs of every sort. The smell of day-old dusty sweat mingled with the aroma of savory ta’amiya (Egyptian falafels), the shisha smoke of apple-flavored tobacco, and briny just-caught fish. Locals haggled with their favorite butcher, whose freshest slaughtered meats were hung without care for hygiene in the hot air of the skinny streets. Young boys motored expertly through the lanes, transporting freshly baked bread, precision-stacked garlic mountains, and even people. Modern dresses and conservative cover-ups were a rainbow canopy for shoppers who had money to spend and vendors who were ready to lighten their purses.
The Coptic Christian neighborhood we visited is home to the Hanging Church, which was built atop the former walls of Roman fortress, and the Coptic Museum–a delightfully petite building that shelters scant and humble remnants of centuries-old texts and carvings in wood, stone, and metal. The surrounding areas were fortified with high walls and gated entries, all well guarded at several locations by dozens of black-clad policemen toting intimidating weapons. It seemed liked overkill…until the next day when we heard that five Christians were killed by Muslim extremists in a neighborhood in northern Cairo. Two days later, I read a tiny blurb in The International Herald that mourners at the Coptic cathedral of Cairo were attacked by other Islamists. What it failed to mention is that a large group of neighborhood Muslims ran to the cathedral to loyally protect the Christian house of worship and their fellow Egyptians who were hiding inside.
I asked my Christian Egyptian friend Sharif how he, his family, and their fellow Copts felt and were reacting to all this. Although they were extremely saddened by the tragedies, a kind of what-can-you-do attitude sat heavily upon their shoulders. A tiny minority, the Copts don’t retaliate, knowing that it could make things worse for everyone. “We just pray. We love our Muslim countrymen, and we know that a few crazy, hateful people don’t represent everyone.”
Everyone else we spoke to reiterated the same notion: regardless of religion, they are one people…Egyptians. They share the same history, land, and blood. They are each other’s dentists, cobblers, produce vendors, waiters, and bankers. They’ve shared this land for so long and have learned mutual respect and understanding. It may not always be a perfect peace, but neither is it the image of eternal hatred so often portrayed in the media.
Despite any differences and misunderstandings they might have, most everyone is learning that they have a new common distrust and disgust for the state of Egyptian politics. Poor or wealthy, Muslim or Christian, male or female–no one we’ve spoken to would go back to a Hosni Mubarak-style dictatorship, but the disorder that’s descended upon the country after gaining its freedom is giving Democracy a bad name. Trash mounds can linger for weeks because President Mohamed Morsi’s government can’t manage to implement regular pick-ups–emblematic of the new government’s general ineptitude. The economy–particularly in areas that rely heavily on tourism–is reeling from the instability. Every time the electricity goes out (this happened to us in three different neighborhoods), people grumble “Morsi” like it’s a curse word. Most feel like their concerns are falling on deaf ears. Egyptians are getting fed up, and their patience is wearing thin once again. The Revolution proved that they can affect change, but right now they lack the organization to make a move and follow through.
Weekly protests (usually on Fridays) still go on, although we’ve seen none. Life is challenging here and more complex than one can understand through a news report or a blog entry. But in just a few days of being here, exploring the neighborhoods, meeting the people, and conversing with them, I’ve learned more about contemporary life in Cairo than I have in two years of watching the news. I can tell my family and friends not to worry about my safety because the closest I’ve been to danger is having my mind blown away by everything I’ve been learning.