anthropology 301: the 2 white people in Old Cairo

In the early fall of 2011 Jessie and I found ourselves smooshed into small hard chairs in the corner of a metro train jittering toward Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo. When we were booking our plane tickets from Detroit to Italy and Spain, and then on to Thailand, I had seen that our layover was in Cairo. I resubmitted the flight details with us flying out of Cairo a week later and discovered that the price was exactly the same. So how could I pass up a free week in a new destination? What I didn’t know when I pressed the “purchase” button was that Egypt was about to have a revolution and depose their leader and have enough social unrest that it would destroy their tourism industry just a few months before we were scheduled to arrive.

To say we stuck out like a sore thumb would be an understatement. We stuck out like a cow in a velociraptor pen. Curious, at times even menacing eyes stared at us from all angles of the car. Jessie was especially self-conscious because of the female dress code inherent to Muslim culture. Even though she was dressed in a long sleeve shirt and a dress that went down past her ankles, she was most likely a focal point because her hair was uncovered. She was also a bit unsettled because she was trying so hard to not make eye contact with any of the men, an action that can sometimes be misread as an invitation. But Jessie is a smiler. So she turned to the women and children to try to get some kind of reaction. Yet even with them she only got scowls or blank stares.

Two nights before, we’d flown in and taken a frightening taxi ride to our friend’s apartment in Maadi, the foreigner-friendly district. He lives very close to the Nile so we wanted to go and see it immediately. We’d walked from his neighborhood to the next and seen a very tangible change in attitudes as soon as we crossed the tracks. It was so hard to tell if the looks were ones of hostility, intrigue, anger or just plain expressions. Whatever the case, I remember wondering if we were safe and feeling a bit tense. I made Jessie walk in between me and our friend and I’d keep looking behind us to make sure no one was trying to mess with us.

Now we were heading out for our first time without our friend and I was nervous. We walked timidly around the downtown area talking in lowered voices and giving a wide berth to anyone or any building that looked suspicious. We avoided eating street food. I only pulled my camera out a dozen times because I didn’t want it to be public knowledge that it was in my bag.

That was day two. By day five we were strolling down the streets of Islamic Cairo like we’d lived there for years. We’d talked about if it was safe for us to come to this area, but all the guidebooks said that it was a must-see part of the city. And they were absolutely right. Any concerns we’d harbored quickly melted away as we were greeted by some of the most friendly, non-pushy people we’ve ever met on our travels. For a solid six hours we saw faces break into huge smiles and voices jubilantly crying “Welcome to Egypt!” as we walked past. And we were no longer scared.

That was a very humbling trip for me. I grew up in a multi-cultural suburban area of Detroit just twenty minutes away from Dearborn, which has the highest Arabic population in the nation. Take a walk through my local supermarket and you’ll find Indians, Mexicans, Chinese and people of many other nationalities populate the aisles. I was and am very proud of being raised in a place where the mix of races meant that racism was never an issue for me.

But I realized that somehow a fear of Arabic Muslims had snuck in and taken hold within me. Normally while traveling I’m not concerned with being a minority, but here I’d started off feeling very conspicuous. I suppose I have the media to thank for a great part of this. In my lifetime Operation Desert Storm had begun a trend of making Islam the enemy. Reports after 9-11 drove the fear of the Taliban, Hamas, Al Qaeda and other militant Arabic groups into every American. Even this week there was a report on CBS News that during the bombing at the Boston marathon someone saw a Saudi man running away from the area, tackled him, made a citizen’s arrest and turned him over to the police. They are currently holding him on “suspicious behavior” (i.e. running away from a bomb blast). I’m not saying our fears are unfounded, I’m just saying that it’s ridiculous how easily we can become so afraid of other people groups. The fear is there because we haven’t lived among them and experienced their lives and taken interest in really knowing them.

That short week in Egypt has gone miles in helping me to choose to live more freely. It’s made me a much more adventurous traveler. It’s brought me to engage in more situations that stretch my comfort zones. It’s cemented in me a life philosophy that spending time with and being open to people of other cultures is the only way to remove my fear of them and move on to understanding, appreciation, and friendship.

Old Cairo