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Year's Lesson

Khadijah Haseeba is completing her BA in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. She spent 2002-2003 studying at the American University in Cairo via the UC Education Abroad Program.

by Khadijah Haseeba

My year in Cairo taught me lessons that I will take with me everywhere and always. It taught me the reality of a truth I had known all along but did not live: that humanity and human societies are dynamic, multifaceted, ever-changing and evolving, and that social, political and economic phenomena affect the cultural and social manifestations within human societies everywhere. Let me explain.

Though not of Arabic heritage, I grew up in a Muslim household and have lived amongst Arabs and Muslims from all over the world. This was my first time abroad and I fancied myself a savvy traveler by virtue of my "well-seasoned" and "diversely cultured" upbringing. I was not supposed to go through culture shock. I, after all, am Muslim, know Muslims and Arabs, have grown up with them, for God's sake, and know them!

This overconfidence was the source of nearly three months of unexpected culture shock and adjustment. I went to Egypt thinking that all I had to learn was the language, and I ended up learning lessons that I now know we may all be blinded to from time to time.

You see, I had transposed my experience of Muslims "here" to what I would find "there." Thinking I would find an ultra-conservative society, I was taken off guard by the multifaceted reality of Egypt. It took me quite some time to realize that I had fallen into the same trap that so many do, thinking that aspects of life "there" will naturally reflect aspects of life "here." I wasn’t taking account of the fact that no society is monolithic, one-dimensional or homogeneous. Every culture, religion and community is dynamic, with a spectrum from the religious to the secular, from the conservative to the non- , and everything in between. Drawing on my experience of men, Egyptian or otherwise, in the Muslim communities I was familiar with in the US, I was taken aback by the ordinary Egyptian males I encountered in the bustling streets of Cairo. They were so aggressively intent on letting me (and just about every other female walking down the street) know that they appreciated what they saw, that I began to question the basis for calling this a Muslim society. I resented their behavior and was confused by it, so accustomed was I to the averted eyes and almost uncomfortably deferential treatment I had received from just about every Muslim male I had encountered here in America.

It took me quite a while to realize that I was battling against myself and the stereotypes I had landed with. Once I became aware of my bias, I began to speak with professors and advisors about my lack of clarity on the subject. And now that I was no longer convinced I had the answer (namely that Egyptian men were "just jerks"), I found myself defending Egyptian men and "their" society to my fellow study-abroaders, but it was a tough situation. I was aware that there must be something more behind this social manifestation, yet I was defending blindly: the "what" was still unknown to me.

Dr. Samia Mehrez of the Arabic Literature Department at the American University in Cairo helped me to gain insight into this phenomenon (enigma, to me). During the course of an invaluable conversation with her, I began to see the strains tugging at the fabric of Egyptian society. Living under a politically suppressive government, the average Egyptian male is virtually emasculated. The hierarchical structure in Egypt, following in the tradition of the Pharaonic and Mamluk legacies, flows from "Daddy Mubarak" as he is known, the head of the societal household, patriarch, demigod, "father." This casts the average male in the role of the "son," not yet of age, not fully a man. He is virtually impotent, unable to provide sufficiently for his family in a poor economy, unable to vote and make his voice heard in pseudo-elections. What better way to assert your virility than to let every woman who passes your way know you're a man?

While every woman encounters this harassment in the streets of Cairo, it is the blond, blue-eyed foreigners who receive the most attention. The reason for this is three-fold: first, for those with a genetic heritage of dark hair and eyes, the opposite is naturally rare and exotic. Second, the overclass has traditionally been fair-skinned. From the Ottomans to the British, for hundreds of years the ruling class has not looked like the average Egyptian. Therefore, the exoticism of rarity is compounded by the desire for and envy of the fair ruler. Thirdly, and most political, there is the American involvement in Egyptian affairs. Our government supports the present regime, and without that support it is doubtful whether Mubarak could have sustained his government since the assassination of Sadat more than two decades ago, even under a permanent state of martial law. So harassment of the average fair-complexioned foreigner can be seen as vicarious retaliation against the powers that be.

A further manifestation of this hierarchy, I came to understand, is the crystallization of the Egyptian household. To the extent that "Daddy Mubarak" and "Momma Suzanna" and their son Gamal are the prototype of the Egyptian family, any attempt to modify the family is an act of revolution that threatens the very hierarchy of power, and the attempt to introduce further egalitarianism between man and woman or father and child is, in a sense, an act of sedition.

The elite of Egypt tend not to adhere to this rigid duplication of the Mubarak prototype. Not only are they not bound as tightly by these unwritten laws (what elite ever is?), but these laws are not meant for them. This system is meant for the masses, historically simple farmers, illiterate, uneducated… and in awe of the inheritor of the presidential crown, only the third to be called "president" since the father of modern Egypt, Gamal Adbul Nasser.

The displacement of aggression onto women is a sociological phenomenon that occurs all over the world, not just in modern Egypt. It is a manifestation of intense social, political, and economic pressures, all of which have increased in the past decade which has witnessed a concomitant increase in the public display of aggression toward women.

These are just a few of the underlying reasons that helped me to understand what I was witnessing and being exposed to daily. I hope the insights I gained will help those of you who may have traveled to Egypt and left perplexed, or may have heard stories you couldn't reconcile with what you thought you knew. The complexities of any society require in-depth research to fully comprehend and do justice to it. Perhaps this account of my experience will spur much-needed further study of the complexities of modern Egyptian society.

Center for Near Eastern Studies