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Cairo: A Tale of Multiple Realities

Bill O’Reilly recently called for an American travel boycott of Egypt for the balance of the year.  As someone who believes in—and has dedicated my life to—encouraging travel because I think it increases understanding and growth on the part of both the visitor and the visited, I had a visceral reaction against such a ‘boycott.’ 

I went to Egypt several times in 2011, but I haven’t been there this year. So rather than just respond with my philosophical reaction to Mr. O’Reilly’s ‘Tip,’ I wanted to get an impression from an American who actually lives in Egypt and is close to what is going on there.  I connected with developmental economist, Heather Morgan, who was raised in northern California. Heather, whose mother is Turkish-Austrian and father is American, has lived around the world, including Turkey, Korea, and Japan, and has recently moved from Hong Kong to Egypt in March for research on food security issues in the Middle East.  She is a writer, an active member of our AFAR.com community and is pursuing a Master’s in economic development in Cairo while working as an economic writer for an Arabic magazine. 

She wrote this, which I found informative and interesting, and wanted to share with our community.  As we have said before, it is often difficult to get beyond the headlines and understand what is really happening on the ground. Heather provides that perspective. —Greg Sullivan

From my yellow and teal colonial style apartment in Zamalek, a small island located in the center of the Nile, I was completely unaware of the events taking place in downtown Cairo this past September 11th—unrest that was the result of anger over an anti-Islam film.  I had spent the day with my Persian American roommate, another graduate student at the American University of Cairo, studying in the pleasant ambiance of Sufi café, a local favorite. It was not until I received a message from my mom the next morning, sent at 2:00 AM on September 12th, asking me if I was OK, that I had any indication of the protests downtown.

Later that afternoon I sat and watched the Arabic news as the Cairo U.S. Embassy was attacked—molotov cocktails were being thrown, and the air was saturated with tear gas and smoke. Then I stepped outside of my apartment for a walk in Zamalek; the sun was shining and the streets were peacefully as usual. As the demonstrations carried on through the week, I was inundated with worried messages from friends and family around the world. Though their concerns were well-intentioned and thoughtful, each message felt like a strange dose of reality, as I was completely unaffected by the events around the US embassy.

While life in Cairo is not without problems, the media’s portrayal of Egypt is far from reality. Cairo’s chaotic charm can take some getting used to for any expat or visitor. But the idea that Egypt is bursting at the seams with unrest, or that Egyptians hate Americans, is far from the truth.  Although it is not unusual to find small protests in post-revolutionary Cairo, they are often isolated and confined to small areas of downtown.  In a city of about 20 million people spread across an area bigger than L.A., Cairo is comprised of dozens of pockets, each one completely unique from another, from the gated communities in the Fifth Settlement such as Rehab, to Maadi, Heliopolis, Dokki, and Corba. As an expat once told me, “There is Tahrir, and yes there are protests, but then there’s everything else in Cairo, and outside of the square, life goes on as normal.” This statement, which significantly influenced my decision to move from Hong Kong to Cairo, could not be a more accurate description of the situation here.

As protests carried on throughout the week, so did life. On the night of the 13th, there was a large house party at my neighbors’. Muslim Egyptians and expats alike were sharing drinks, laughing, and talking. The events on the news seemed oceans away. During the protests of the American embassy, a number of Egyptian friends apologized to me for the fanatics’ behavior. While my general rule abroad is to not broadcast that I am American, and rather play up my Turkish roots, a number of cab drivers actually told me that it was a shame that this was happening. Though America is not the favorite country of most Egyptians, virtually every Egyptian seems to have some relative in the States.

Egypt is not without problems. From water and electricity scarcity to food security issues, along with the precarious future of the Egyptian economy, Egypt faces a number of obstacles that the new government must overcome. Despite the West’s portrayal of unrest in the Middle East being linked to political and fundamentalist Islam, it is unemployment and socioeconomic issues that drive the most discontent.

Like any developing country, one must take certain precautions in Cairo, but in many cases I feel safer walking the streets of Cairo late at night alone than I would in California. Because of the culture of Egypt, it is not uncommon to see women and children out after midnight. From the bawaabs (doormen) and shopkeepers to the endless security forces, you soon find that you are never alone in Cairo.

Cairo functions on a miraculous system of trust and community interdependence—no one seems to ever know where they are going. The Egyptian solution (because maps appear to be unheard of) is to flag down a passerby on the street or the adjacent car to ask for directions. Each person, whether they actually know the way or not, is eager to help. While some locals may try to cheat or rip off a foreign face, if you try to be friendly and they get to know you a bit, they quickly become protective of you, as you are their guest. Cab drivers and shopkeepers regularly offer me dates and sweets, and one cab driver once reprimanded a young man that was making obscene comments to me on the street. While life in Cairo can definitely be chaotic, from the insane traffic to the general lack of organization and unpredictability in general day to day life, it is in every sense a charming sort of chaos.

The protests are over, as the streets of Tahrir were cleared within a week of the initial demonstrations, and I can tell that everything is “back to normal”—because the concerned messages from friends abroad has subsided. As always, my comfortable life continues on inside the beautifully charming chaos that is Cairo.

Read more from Heather on her blog, Hong Kong and Beyond. Photo by Denis Dailleux.