Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! In case you are wondering, Valentine’s Day is a thing in Egypt, and seems generally to be a much bigger deal than in America. Most people are wearing red, there are sweets everywhere, and I even saw Valentine’s themed graffiti as I was walking near the university, though unfortunately I did not have my camera with me at the time. Maybe if it is still there next time I pass I can post it here. This is more of a general blog post rather than any specific event. These are just a few of the cultural aspects of life in Egypt that have made my first month here (oh my goodness, how has it already been a month?) so thoroughly delightful!
One of the first things you learn when you arrive in Egypt is everything will work the way it is supposed to, when you need it, insha’Allah (roughly translates to God willing, but is used with much more frequency than we use that phrase in English). It does not take too long to figure out that God will not always will the washing machine, the Wi-Fi or the electricity to work at all times. Nor will he always will that the trains depart within an hour of their scheduled departure time. If these things happened with this kind of frequency in America, there would be very pushy Americans on the phone to their landlords or yelling at the train conductors demanding the problem be rectified, but the attitude here is a lot more relaxed, and people seem to take things in stride.
This sounds like something that would pose a real challenge to my usual neurotic self, but I must have braced for it well before I got here, because in my first month here very few of these sorts of setbacks have truly bothered me. My first two nights in the Medina, (my dorm, though that word actually means the city), I didn’t realize that one of the two showers on our floor worked much better than the other one. My first two showers were cold and approximated the water pressure of a watering can. I assumed that was just the way it was, until I heard a few of the other girls talking about how great the water pressure was, and realized the second shower was the way to go. During orientation, we had a bus tour scheduled of part of the city on the second day, and the bus decided it was going to show up an hour later than it was booked for, which did not work with our orientation schedule. We took taxis and just arrived at our dinner early, and crammed in a bit of a tour the next day. For the first week of the program, there was Wi-Fi in the Medina, which is supposed to be the case, however it broke three weeks ago and though there are continually university employees assuring our coordinator that it is coming soon, we still have no Internet in the Medina three weeks later. There is Wi-Fi in the TAFL Center, though that periodically stops working for an hour or two. Our washing machine in the Medina sometimes works as expected, and other times finishes the cycle without draining the water so our clothes take about three days to dry (which is always fun given my tendency to procrastinate when it comes to laundry). When we took the train to Cairo last weekend, our first train arrived an hour and a half after it was scheduled to arrive (which by the way I don’t believe was announced, unless it was one of the garbled Arabic announcements I did not understand), and our train back arrived on time, but we sat in the station for an hour and a half before leaving. This sounds, on the surface, like a long list of complaints about Egypt, but my point here is that none of this has really phased me. At most, it has amused me, as we giggle and mutter under our breath “Welcome to Egypt.” I don’t think taking on the Insha’Allah attitude is something an American accustomed to seeking accountability if things are not working can will themselves to adopt, but I am extremely grateful that for whatever reason I have managed to adopt it. It definitely makes life in Egypt a lot more bearable than it otherwise might be, and often downright entertaining.
I don’t want this post to make it sound like the sole cultural difference between Egypt and America is that things don’t always work in Egypt and no one seems to care. That would be grossly unfair to this country I am falling in love with. There are a great many cultural differences that I love, and know I will miss once I get back to America. And like I said, this general sense of acceptance when there are setbacks is actually one of them, I like being calm the way I am here. But there are countless others too.
For example, I recently realized that Aam Ahmed, the man who runs our in house coffee and snack bar as well as taking care of the TAFL Center in many other ways, has a counterpart in every building on campus. For my one-on-one class (which is Egyptology by the way–Yes!) I go to my professor’s office, which is in a separate building, and his first question is invariably “What do you want to drink?” Once I decide, he goes and orders that for me as well as a tea for himself from that building’s Aam Ahmed (whose name I unfortunately do not know). I have learned that the ginger tea in that particular building is one of the world’s most delicious drinks, so I will probably be going for that from now on, I can’t really imagine getting tired of it. By the way, at least in our program, it is by no means a rarity for professors to order drinks for all of their students. I imagine that this is specific to the TAFL Center, as our classes are extremely small (there are five people in my largest class compared to the enormous classes in the normal university setting). However, in a day with three classes it is not uncommon that all three of my professors will insist that I order either a coffee or a tea on their tab. Why is this not a thing in America? Let’s get on that.
There are also some delightfully creative forms of address here. There is a phrase that more directly translates to “Sir” or “Ma’am,” but most often I hear the more creative versions. I am not totally comfortable using most of them yet myself, as I think many of them make a particular comment on the age or social class of the person you are speaking to, and that makes me a bit nervous that I could offend someone with no intention at all of doing so. Some of these terms include president, captain, uncle, and my personal favorite, “not engineer,” which I will admit complete ignorance on in terms of when it is appropriate to use. I’m working on figuring these out, but so far I feel a lot more comfortable sticking to sir and ma’am.
Another lovely linguistic thing is the heavy presence of call and response in Arabic. These are a bit of a pain to learn, because if someone says the first line to you, you need to both recognize what it is, and respond with the appropriate and set response. Some of them are almost poetic though, and I am quite fond of them when they don’t lead to me struggling to remember the correct answer that I know I have learned. For example, the standard call and response for good morning roughly translates to “morning of goodness,” to which you respond “morning of light.” There are also lots of variants with slightly different connotations. This has occasionally tripped me up if I have started to say good morning at precisely the same time as someone else, and have midway been confused as to whether I should go with the first or the second. I can’t imagine it is terribly important in that case, but being my usual awkward self I normally end up garbling a mixture of the two words in my confusion (clearly, that is the best response to this situation: fill in the blank with your choice of nonsense word!). If you sneeze, people will say “May God have mercy on you,” to which you are meant to respond “May he have mercy on us and may he have mercy on you” (This sounds a lot better in Arabic, but that is the most direct translation). I have no idea how many of these there are, but there really seem to be quite a lot. Like I said, they are a bit of a pain to learn, but they are a nice flourish in everyday conversation.
Those are just a few of the things I love about my first month living in Egypt. Unless it is still to come, I have to say I think I have avoided anything I would refer to as “culture shock.” In talking to a few of my friends who have studied abroad before they said they struggled more with re-entry shock, because they had mentally prepared to be surprised by their time abroad, but they didn’t expect American culture to surprise them. Maybe that will be the case for me. It worked out well in my case, as I have truly just been able to enjoy my first month here in Egypt, and insha’Allah I will enjoy it even more as my Arabic gets better. Love from Egypt and Happy Valentine’s Day!