Sunday, June 29, 2003

Being an Outsider

I know that "civilisation" and "progress" have brought improvements in life style and quality for many people, but I have to also wonder at what cost. I look at Egypt and I see so many different societies. The extremely wealthy live much as the extremely wealthy live in other parts of the world. Let's face it, once the assets reach a certain point, the rules that everyone else is expected to play by can be bypassed. This is a fact of life everywhere. After all, if Chelsea Clinton had other parents would she have gotten such a lucrative job right out of university....even if she did go to Stanford. The truly wealthy have no more idea of the stresses and pressures on the less wealthy than they do of space travel. The upper middle class in Egypt are probably more comfortable than the upper middle class in many countries because the wages are low and household help is readily available and very affordable. Middle and lower middle class are caught in the same catch as I remember in the US when I was young. They have enough money to try to educate their children beyond the parents' level, but often are caught very tightly actually carrying this out. The poor in Egypt are much more poor than in the US, but they aren't likely to starve to death. Food is available, especially for the rural poor but extra money for things that have to be bought is likely to be hard to come by.

Each of these groups have their own sorts of tradition/social rules. The extremely rich have the choice of what types of rules they wish to follow, and on the whole, many of them are more liberal and westernised in some senses. The older traditions and rules hold a stronger sway among the middle and lower classes. Many of the fellaheen (the peasant farmers) live very much as their ancestors did centuries ago, with the additions of pumped well water and electricity.

It would make sense to assume that as a foreign woman I would be most comfortable among the least tradition-bound group, but that isn't always the case. As a foreigner, obviously, to the members of any of the groups, I am an outsider. I am an outsider to my way of thinking too. I will never have the easy, automatic responses of a genuine group member because there is so much that I never learned as a child. I learned this through my marriage. Although my middle-class family from North America had much in common with my husband's Egyptian/Sudanese family in terms of income, employment, and education, there were fundamental differences that could never be ignored. Some things they could never really understand and some things I could never truly believe enough to make them the basis of action.

So, if I am an outsider, what is it about Egypt that makes me feel at home? It's a very reasonable question, and, actually, one that I ask myself quite often. In fact, it may be that it is my very position as an outsider that is appealing, along with the fact that many of my friends are also outsiders in some sense, by birth or marriage. Our fringe positions in this society give us some fudge factor in people's expectations of us, since we are not "native". The vantage point of the outsider is an interesting one, from my point of view. I can observe situations without the emotional/cultural baggage that many people carry. At the same time, I do not feel that I am locked out of any of the segments. One of the most important things about Egyptian society is that it welcomes strangers. It may not understand them, but it does welcome the novelty from beyond, and it is willing, for the most part, to try to explain itself to the newcomer. But it may take a VERY long time for the newcomer to catch on.