Sunday, August 29, 2004

What's an Egyptian?

We are six in the house in Sharm el Sheikh this weekend. One American widow of an Egyptian journalist, one Canadian widow of an Egyptian businessman, two Egyptian sisters who moved to Egypt in their early teens, a Polish architecture student who has lived in Egypt since he was six, and the American/Egyptian daughter of the first widow. It's a good group and the Polish student is handlng being the only male in a group of five women very well. We're pretty entertaining, I think.

The variety of backgrounds, languages, interests and ages (from 18 to 55) makes for some unusual conversation and my friend and I have been having a great time listening to the kids' reminiscences of being teenagers in Cairo. The girls all went to secondary school together and none of them knew the Polish boy, although they are all more or less the same age. But the stories are all similar, youthful adventures in Cairo's souq's, nightlife, coffee houses.

Janie and I have different memories of our youth, hers from Ohio and mine from Southern California, but we share a rural background. Neither of us had anything like Cairo to ramble around in as teenagers, but we did enjoy a time of more freedom of movement and action than many kids growing up today do. The world was a considered to be a safer place then, or something....I haven't really figured out what happened to things other than the triumph of liability insurance.

I was thinking about our little group courting skin cancer under umbrellas by the sea, about questions that I get at least once a week about the welcome that Americans specifically get here. All of us are, in one way or another, foreigners here, although none of us really feels like one. And, on the other hand, I recall the entertainment value that my trail rides in the countryside on my own or with guests or friends provide the local population in Abu Sir. There, among the fellaheen, we are foreign even when Egyptian, but our audience smiles at us with blue, grey, and hazel eyes sparkling in faces that may be as fair as our own or the brown that is usually expected. Everyone, from the ancient Greeks to the modern British, have left their mark on the people of Egypt.

Asking about a foreigner's reception in this light is a kind of funny question. Egypt isn't really that monolithic a country. The cultural/racial/ethnic mixes vary in both type and intensity from the north which has been the landing spot for foreigners for centuries to the south where the Nubians, who even have their own language, were dispersed by the flooding of their lands when the High Dam was built. The "ancient Egyptian type" of individual associated with the frescoes and bas-reliefs of the pharaonic tombs is generally conceived to be found around Aswan more than Alexandria, but he/she is just as likely to be fluent in Italian as Arabic. And, in fact, when you see enough of the frescoes and bas-relief, you realise that even in pharaonic times, Egypt was a melting pot of tribes and people's who were drawn to the Nile Delta for a variety of reasons. Welcome is part of Egypt's history.

1 comment:

Joey said...

My girlfriend is half Egyptian, and she is actually in Egypt right now for a while. I have enjoyed reading your blog. Perhaps one day I will visit Egypt and see what its like.