Thursday, March 24, 2005

Foreigners in Cairo

Two years ago, I was pretty much hating almost everything about Cairo. The pollution, the noise, the dirt, the traffic, the driving, the streets, the TV, the newspapers, the people, the dickheads, the punks, the governance. (I'm getting much better now, thanks to that mental hospital!). So I was pretty astonished and interested whenever I saw any foreigner walking in the street. "What's s/he doing here?!!". I know why I have to be here and why I have to take all that, but why do they? I was wondering why they would leave their first-world countries to come live here.

Coming as a tourist for a week or so, I can understand. Especially those smart tourists who come in organized tours, being completely isolated, and watching Cairo from behind a glass window. Those are smart, they get what they want, without getting into it. And they enjoy it. They know the Egyptian saying better than we do apparently, "seeing Egypt from up above, is different then seeing it from down below".

But those others, who come and live it. I'm yet to completely figure those out.

During my late teens and early twenties I was involved with this cultural exchange program. High school kids from Egypt spend a year abroad, and high school kids from abroad come spend a year in Cairo. Two years ago, I was checking that program out again (after I thought that it had miserably failed), but after a few encounters I decided to end my activities there. Well, for a number of reasons, but mainly two. One, I think the program is a failure. High school kids are two young for that kind of exchange. Sixteen year olds spending a year in a different country, totally different culture and in a complete strange family, all by themselves. And all the supprot they have is by amateur volunteer strangers! Most of the Egyptians ofcourse go to the U.S. (for many reasons, English being one of them), and they come back really either just missing everything here, or just taking the silly stuff from America, like the earrings, pony tails, and the accent. The other reason I ended my activities there, is that the US State department decided to do its thing in changing the Arab young minds by providing 50 scholarhsips to Egyptian kids (from families who can't afford the actual cost of the program, and from outside of Cairo too) to go to the States. I asked the program rep from the US, "why aren't those scholarships reciprocal? fund kids from the US to come here too? Learn more about our culture like you want us to learn about your great culture". Didn't get a straight answer. Well, thank you very much, I didn't want to be a part of this. Although I really think that nothing much will change as a result of the State department's intervention. That program has been there for decades, now more kids will be getting to go, and unlike before they'll get a chance to meet congressmen (that was part of the deal)! You know, the congressmen had to take some pictures with the poor kids from that terrorist country called Egypt for their next election rounds.

During my good old days with that program, I had an interesting experience with an American girl. Well, until now I'm not sure why she picked Egypt to spend her year in (I think that's the only country she got, and she didn't have a choice). She was a beautiful, simple but high-maintenance girl (I don't think that's really just because she's blonde). Which I thought was interesting. For the first while you'd think that such a combination doesn't work in Egypt, but it actually does pretty well. Egyptian girls are very high-maintenance themselves, so Egyptian guys are used to that, but they're not used to too much beauty. At one point I was trying to back-off all the guys she was hanging around with, so I honestly told her, "You know, the only thing those guys care about is getting laid!". I was surprised with her unexpected response, she said, "I know". Umm, Ok. Even her American friends were talking about her behind her back, so I figured I'd better back-off from her myself (well, I think she backed-off, thinking that I was dickless!). Believe it or not, by the end of her stay in Egypt, she converted to Islam, changed her name and wore a veil. As far as I could tell, she did that to marry the guy she loved (no, that wasn't me). Years later now, she's called by her old name again, unveiled, and is happily married to John in America, raising a cute little child. In all truth, I believe that's all she really wanted to be, a caring mother. She actually told me that once --and I believe it.

Those foreign kids who come to Egypt for cultural exchange really have it tough. For one, they live in Cairo. But the bigger problem is they're really almost never a part of that Egyptian family they live with. The families try to be polite, but they don't really welcome a foreign guest in their house for that long. Egyptians can be great hosts, but we have a saying "lucky those who visit and make it short"! Can you imagine how difficult it was to find host families for those kids. The only families that did, where those who sent their kids in return, and they still preferred not to host anyone. Typical Egyptians aren't really interested in cultural exchange, they're stuck in their own culture, and don't even care to look around. Amazingly enough, some of those kids really love their experience here. Yes, love the people, the excitement, the adventure. Weird. But hey, they go live the rest of their lives back home eventually.

What about all those foreign grownups who live in Cairo. The way I see it, they're all here for a reason (ofcourse). The most interesting are those who are truly interested in our culture. No ulterior motives, no journalism assignments, no academic and research plans, nor CIA or military activities ofcourse. I met one Canadian guy once who's been touring the world for the last 5 years. Pretty crazy if you ask me. I understand doing it for one year, but 5, get out. Well, he spent a year in the UK working for financial purposes I suppose. But other than that he's almost been to every corner on Earth. Sounds suspicious, right, maybe. He lived on the cheap, mostly used buses to travel between countries. Really interesting. Some people might be suspicious about such a guy, a year of work in the UK, could mean a year of training at MI6, and the guy went to places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran too. But I wasn't suspicious at all, just thought he was really interesting (and crazy).

Some other culturally-interested foreigners make it here in a more sane manner. Some of them are those back-packers, some are not. Some are interested in the history, the ancient stuff, the beaches and diving (that's not in Cairo though), and some are actually interested in the culture. All the former are understandable, but the latter isn't. I think they find Cairo and its culture very exotic. Which it definetely is compared to a developed country's capital.

From here on, the list of foreigners gets more standard. Journalists, academics, and expatriates. Multinational companies' expatriates (and local companies foreign "experts") are really not interested in anything except in making money. They live one hell of a luxurious life here, which they wouldn't dream of having back home. I won't list what they get here so no one gets envious. But, they come here, spend a few years, manage a company, or a few Egyptians within a company, and then move back home. Love it, or hate it, its their job. Some do love it (really, how can they not), and some still hate it, even though they really get everything.

Journalists. Nothing interesting there. Its their job to report from war zones and live in the line of fire. There are informed reporters and uninformed reporters, and there are good reporters and bad reporters. Thomas Friedman for example is an informed bad reporter (well, columnist). Alot of other informed good ones, so I'm only mentioning a bad one.

Academics are quite interesting, and they scare the hell out of me sometimes. Remember, they write history books and poli sci theories. Like journalists, there are informed academics and uninformed academics, and there are good academics and bad academics. Bernard Lewis is an informed bad academic. I need to define the terms good and bad, don't I. I think I'll leave it vague, but let me say that "bad" doesn't have to literally mean bad (ever heard Clinton ask about the word "is"). With a bad academic, it doesn't show that easily. They do alot of research, and back their work with alot of analysis, so its not that obvious, and they look really smart regardless of the conclusions they come up with. Ofcourse the academics I'm talking about are, political science, history, religion, and linguistics academics. No engineering or science academics are interested in wasting their careers here. There are really interesting academics though. I know one who's been living in Cairo since the early 70's. But can you imagine if an academic reaches a level of strong distaste of our culture (possibly for very valid reasons). How would that affect the research work they're doing? I'd expect it to show, but its hard to refute, because its not just superficial analysis, but usually real research and real analysis, affected with the personal injuries they encounter in our culture.

I shouldn't forget diplomats who live in Cairo for years (but it could be rare to see those walking in the streets). I guess they could be looked at similarly to expats as well as journalists. Its a career and a job, doesn't matter what country it is. But some of them are more interesting than just that. The previous Canadian ambassador loved it here so much he decided to settle here after his term has ended. How stupid is that! He's not gonna have his fancy Zamalek villa with the swimming pool anymore, but instead, he's getting himself an apartment in downtown Cairo! I don't know if he really went ahead with those plans though. Something sure is mysterious about Cairo that makes alot of people love it for no obvious reason. Beats me.

There are also foreign wives to Egyptian husbands. I think those are really sacrificing alot for their families, and the saying applies here, "Heaven is [definetely] beneath the feet of [those] mothers".

Hmmm.. so whom have I missed.

I realize that I've limited the term foreigners to "Westerners". There are tons of other foreigners, from non-Western countries, mostly Arab and Islamic, and quite a number of Indian expats too. But the difference between the two cultures (Egyptian and non-Western) are not as great, so its not as interesting.

UPDATE: Cool, Egyptian Sally already classified them into Embracers, Imperialists, and Drifters.


FM said...

Tou que nem posso!!!

Anonymous said...

You know what I think it is for the westerners who really, really like the place? The genuine ones I mean, who like Cairo for what it is, who revel in the dirt and noise and who continue to somehow love it even when they get briefly fed up with it -- among whom I count myself. I think it's the human contact. Last time I got back from Egypt (December, and my wife and I had a blast hanging out with our Egyptian friends and hiring a dirty old cab for a few days to take me to old crumbling Islamic monuments and bootleg DVD markets), I got home to Washington DC and was so freaking dead. No one talks to each other, streets are virtually deserted in comparison even at rush hour, you barely know your neighbors if at all. I know, I know, sometimes those things can be nice -- privacy and quiet can be nice. But a place like Cairo wakes you up, forces you to be a part of something wider than yourself constantly. For better and for worse granted. I've certainly had my share of days when I've lived in Cairo where I wanted nothing more than to rip my hair out and run screaming from the country. But I knew I'd miss it if I did, and I have. I personally would love to live there...if only I could get a decent job (yeah, I'd want one of those expat packages with the big villa for the wife and kids' sake if nothing else) and find a decent school for the kids. And FYI, I don't count Cairo American College as one -- not because it's not academically ok, but because if your kids go there they just won't be a part of the freaking country. We had a friend who grew up her whole life in Egypt, had an Egyptian dad (American mom), but went to CAC and as a result speaks almost no Arabic. Crazy. If I live in Cairo, I want that human touch...and ok, enough money to avoid it when I need a minute or two of privacy and quiet! Perhaps that's why it's harder for an Egyptian to see what a foreigner like me sees in it -- I can escape to a bubble of American family life even in the midst of the craziness, whereas I imagine for most Egyptians when you go home you've still got that all-embracing, frequently stifling culture that does ultimately eminate from the home. Don't get me wrong, the love, affection, and support that comes from that is wonderful and frequently missing in the west, my point is just that whether out and about in the city or back at home, I sense it's probably something really hard to just get a break from. Whereas a westerner has the luxury in Cairo of picking and choosing whenever he wants either side of that coin.

Mohamed said...

FM, I don't understand Portugese!

Anonymous, love your feedback. I think everyone misses Cairo when away from it for too long (its kind of like Cocaine). But as long as you're living here, you constantly need a break. Not a single piece of quite in this city.

Hellme said...


How true. Sad, but true. I've been away from Egypt for a while now, and it's a bitter struggle, daily because I can't isolate what it is that makes me feel homesick. I hadn't lived the bulk of my life in Egypt, but the time that I spent there was strange because - as Mo puts it - I've developed a habit, sort of like the one with class A drugs.

I guess Cairo's overbearing city culture, the consistent bustle of life that never wanes - it's like a constant adrenaline rush. It takes a certain junkie to appreciate that.

Anonymous said...

Well Hellme, I guess I'm one of those junkies as well! I only spent a year in Egypt, but I really enjoyed it. I consider that year one of the best in my life. But like Anon put it above, I could "escape" whenever I wanted as I had an apartment in Maadi, and actually lived up in Gianaclis (a little over half-way to Alexandria--where the Egyptian vineyards are located). Use to go to my apartment every weekend as Gianaclis gets pretty boring if you're not into farming... I picked my assignment to Egypt mostly for the history there (big time history buff) but discovered far more that the Pharonic/Greek/Roman past. Like Anon, I really enjoyed the Arab friends I got to know. Finally, Mo, if you haven't learned to scuba dive, go learn! The Red Sea is the best diving I've ever done (and I've been diving in the Pacific, Atlantic, and all over the Caribbean--been a diver since the 70s) Not only is the water/fish/reef awesome, but sitting on the beach afterwards, with a cold beer and checking out the topless Italian gals didn't exactly suck either! I miss Egypt, sure wish I could get another "fix"!


Mohamed said...

That certainly doesn't suck Tater, hehe. I only know two things about Gianaclis, so you must've either worked at ABC or lived in Sadat's residence!

You guys, this is turning into Cairo lovers' junkie corner, hehe.. What.. am I supposed to go down to the street and hug every Egyptian there now!

Anonymous, how do you find Manhatten for a human contact?

Tater, I've been contemplating learning how to dive for a long time, but I decided to go learn windsurfing instead. Apparently its a big thing here too.

Anonymous said...

Hey nothing wrong with windsurfing! Done a little myself, best to take a lesson, you'll figure out more in a one hour lesson than you learn on your own over a week. Mostly, just were to stand and how to maneuver the sail.

Nah don't go hugging every Egyptian you meet in Cairo, Cairo's certainly got her charms, but she has a few warts too (like all big cities). Traffic was unbelievable, never seen anything like it! Smog also was awful, after a couple of days I'd always develop a cough as my lungs revolted. Folks that stayed there all the time told me that the cough would go away after a week or two, but I never stayed more than a few days, then went back to Gianaclis. So I never adapted to the pollution :-p. Still, I have great memories, one of Allah's gifts to us all is that we tend to remember the good and forget the bad. Makes us all a bit more happy in life!

Well using up too much of your blog, so I'll sign off. But I'll be checking in often, I enjoy reading all the Egyptian (and other Arab)blogs as I enjoy hearing about Egypt.


PS. Oh, I lived on an Egyptian Air Force Base, also called Gianaclis. I was an instructor there and still hear from Egyptian friends I made there from time to time!

Anonymous said...

Manhattan? Well, I have to admit, despite living on the East Coast I've really never spent any time there, so I can't comment other than by conjecture and trying to compare to other places in the US and Europe. From what friends tell me though, I get the sense that it's far more vibrant and that there's more opportunities for "contact". However, it's still the US, and so it's still the case that people can be surrounded by people but still be very, very alone. Look at Japan as a non-western example: lots of people (check out the Tokyo subway), but loneliness and isolation are big issues. It's not necessarily to do with how crowded a place is, it's to do with how much of a sense of real community there is and how strong and how wide family bonds are.

Maybe there are places in Manhattan that have that. To be fair there are places all over the US and all over the west that have it. However, in general there's just a much greater likelihood of one finding themself isolated in the west even where there are opportunities for community. And frankly I think that has a lot to do with family ties. In Egypt and the Arab world your family tends to be big and very tightly connected. In the West some families have that, but it's increasingly breaking down. In more and more cases grandparents are barely there, cousins hardly known, parents less frequently still married (if they ever were at all), and generally there is far less stability and family ties that bind. Compare a society where everyone knows that the guy on the street next to them has a gazillion relatives ready to stand up for them versus the one where you know everybody stands alone. The sense of safety if nothing else is different. But more broadly the sense of interconnectedness is much greater.

Again, I'm not stating a value judgement, both sides have positives and negatives and neither one is absolute in either society, I'm just talking about tendencies. And again, that is why it is potentially so nice for a western expat living in Cairo in that they can pick when they want the positive aspects of either one. I suspect as well that's why it can be so attractive for an Egyptian or any Arab to live in the West, they can similarly pick and choose when they want which aspect of their identity instead of constantly having to live under the thumb of one side. C'est la vie...wala eh?

Mohamed said...

How very true Anonymous. And definetely both sides have positives and negatives like you say.

If I could take my family with me, I'd probably leave Egypt in an instance. If only for a few years. Not out of hatred really, but out of tiresome.

Twosret said...


Here is a wonderful blog by a forgeiner who really enjoys Egypt. I thought it speaks for itself and can give an idea of how a forgeiner is enjoying her life very much.


Memz said...

you should check an organization called AIESEC ( They do work abroad exchanges all the time nad have been present in Egypt since 1979. The purpose of the organization is to develop culturally ssensitive globally minded leaders through participating and running a work abroad exchange program. AIESEC Egypt has got 100s of individuals to Egypt over many years and mamny of those individuals just want to come back to Cairo one day!

Brenda said...

I really like a lot of what you say here about foreigners. I applied for a grant to "study" in Egypt last year (sadly did not get it :( ) and my sole purpose was to write a book about everday life there, from my obviously outsider perspective and what that means and how that colors our perceptions, etc. and all that. I wanted to focus on music, as I am a musician and I firmly believe that music can serve as a unifying force. Why did I/do I want to do this? I have friends here in the US and Canada who are Arab, Muslim, and from Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon. The predjudice against them is incredible and I cannot stand it. I guess I feel my writing serves to broaden people's perspectives, and I also myself, want to have a broader perspective on people. I do however, feel that people are people, no matter where you go, and I wanted to come to Egypt and write, just to illustrate how that is true. Not to change, to "romanticize" or to put down. I wanted to show the ways in which we are the same. Anyway. I don't know what category that fits into...have to think about it. But the intention is quite sincere. Thanks for writing this--good food for thought.

Mohamed said...

Absolutely Brenda, people are people. I said it in a slightly different way here.

I wish I could help you get that grant to write that book. Sounds like it would be an interesting one.

Brenda said...

I am going to try again. If I don't get money from someone else, I'll just eventually do it on my own. :) Thanks :) Oh and I liked so much what you said about a great creator making us all the same and different (you said it much better than that, of course)

düssy said...

i know i'm late to the party, but i couldn't help but post. so evocative!

i lived in egypt for almost two years from 2001-2003. i miss it in a way that feels visceral. i wake up in the mornings and lift my head, hoping to smell the air. i step out of bed and miss warm tiles and crunchy sand. i miss my (awful) local mudhdhin, and my (questionable) local fuul and tamayyia.

i think that anon is right. it is the warmth of the people, the vibrancy of the city, the life that pulses through the choked traffic and the packed metro. shortly after being forced by academic obligations to leave Cairo, i moved to prague. i lasted 4 months before hightailing it to damascus. it was cold, grim, and unbearably quiet.

now i live in manhattan. i long for misr and miss her as though she were my native land. i don't know why that is. perhaps it was because i was in such a formative period of my life when i was there (at the tender age of 18, i moved by myself!) or perhaps it was because i experienced the most interesting concentration of people i've seen yet, but i know that i'll be back yet.

so now i content myself with immersion in the region through work and study, but i know its not the same as being there. i feel my arabic slipping away and my stomach growls for fuul bil-baid.

i know that the foreigners may seem like a mystery at times, with their bizarre need to try and live in both the western and the egyptian world simultaneously, needing beer and satellite tv but absolutely okay with riding city buses and shopping from vegetable stands. but sometimes they love egypt in an entirely different way, because they know the alternative places to live, and choose to fight the traffic, the mugamma, and the simsars, all to settle in a little egyptian slice of heaven.

and while i was a member of the academic language crowd, i tried my best to immerse in it all. give the academics a bit more credit. they love it too, or they wouldn't be studying it or living there. it's easy enough to get around that these days. you missed the NGO people though! they're a huge component of the expat scene.

Pris said...
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Shirazi said...

Very insightful post here. This makes me look at things here in Pakistan.

Cairogal said...

Living in Egypt as a foreigner, and accepting the trials and tribulations of a being an Egyptian are usually quite unique. It's only once the injustice of the government and society start to get to the foreigner, that s/he understands. Departure often comes sooon after. That, or bitterness.

Anonymous said...

Marhaba bashaa,
i think like evrything in life, living in a land that isnt urs depends on what u went there for. Cairo is unique in its own right. from islamic scholars to teaching facilities from world wide u name it egypt got it for sure.
my first trip to egypt let me a bit unhappy as a tourist to say the least. my second trip just a week back was soo much more of a nicer one thanks to the locals and their hospitality. coming to meet people who will be ur future family is far different than coming for a tourist packeted holiday.
the busy streets, the hoards of people, the noise, the late nights the beauty of the nile and the pyramids adds to a grt day.
As i was repeatidly told by my future husband and his freinds of many years " Smile, ur in cairo" translating to smile and enjoy urself, dnt try and out beat the rush, jst go with the flow.
then again some people may not see the beauty of a land due to the lack of beauty from within their eyes. who knows. all i can say 1 up to cairo !!
ma salama

Anonymous said...

Spent one year of my Air Force career as an instructor at Gianaclis Air Base near Alexandria. It was my permanent residence for the duration but I also spent a lot of time in Cairo on weekends as we had a leased apartment (known as our "crash pad") in Maadi. Cairo is definitely something to experience... much better to do so as a temporary resident than as a tourist. Aside from the air pollution, noise and traffic congestion, I have nothing but fond memories of the city and people.

Mshmsh said...

Hi, I just found this blog, I moved to Cairo two months ago to work as a bellydancer.
I fell in love with Egypt a year ago and it slowly became my one and only dream to come to live and dance here.

I came here giving up my comfortable european life and got here without anything, just one contact and some pocket money.
I spent a fortune already to make my papers, and I still haven't got any job because there are very very strict rules to dancers especially if they are foreigners, so its normal that it takes 3-4 months to finish your paperwork before you make even one step on the stage.

I live in Abdeen, center Cairo, very very egyptian area, I haven't seen any foreigners even walking around here, almost noone speaks english, everyone stares at me like I am from another planet, the men never leave me alone on the streets and there is no privacy or silence.
Making friends here is almost impossible for a foreigner single young woman (men only want you for one reason, and women are just jealous), and there are no places to hang out alone (if you don't want to spend a lot of money). There are the only two things I really really miss from my country. (A nice silent park with benches, a quiet street to walk, a nice bar to hang out with friends, etc..)

But still, I have no doubt about staying here, even though nobody understands why I am doing this. This place has a magic that no other place has in the world, and I wouldn't be happy without it.
And especially for a professional dancer, even though dancers have a very bad reputation here, this is paradise on its own way.

The never sleeping city life, the markets, the old taxis, the juices, the morning air, the hospitality of people, the furniture, the music, and the thousand crazy, weird, interesting things you can only see in this city will leave a mark in my life I will never forget and makes me want to live here inspite of all the annoying things.

I hope I will feel this magic for a long time and it will give me power and patience to hold on until I can make more money to make my life more comfortable.

Any ideas where to hang out alone here with no disturbing or places to meet foreigners?? Thx.

ASHRAF said...

I've been touched by this blog! Kinda ashamed of myself, foreigners love Egypt and wish to Live in Cairo while an Egyptian teenager like myself wish to get the hell out of here! Fellow foreigners, I just want you to search on the internet for old pictures of the city of Cairo or Alexandria in the 1930s and 1940s! I guess at that time cairo was the city of dreams! A very promising city full of opportunities, where the best schools, universities, streets, boutiques, and Egyptians together with foreigners lived together in harmony! The Cosmopolitan Cairo where all kinds and sorts of people once lived! Now it just turned into a big pile of rubbish and chaos! I love Egypt! But I always wanted it to stay the way it was in the past!

hany said...

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silvania said...

Hi, I'm brazilian and i'm going to visit cairo next month. I'd like to know someone to change informations and experiences. If you want to know me and my husband, send me a message. My e-mail

FEM4Ever said...

So here I was reading your post until I came across that term, that dreaded sexist term 'high-maintenance'
Girls are NOT cars sir!!!
Just when I thought you were a cool guy..bummer

jennyeriksson88 said...

Very intresting to read all of this. I could also write something about this, but its been so long sense anyone wrote so I wont.

Mshmsh I dont know if u can read this, but anyway, are u still living in cairo? I will travel to cairo to study arabic and do much more in september. would be fun to maybe hang out or something cuz i have never been there before and i go alone ;)

Salam /Jenny
If there is someone down there who would like to have contact or just want to write me something my mail is:

mohamed said...

Anyone want to learn and practice Arabic he can contact me at

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oscar said...

I have been in the cairo, because I needed buy viagraonline in a lowest price and this trip was so interesting and exciting.

Monika Csapo said...

I really liked your article, even though I have never been to Cairo and I am a Westerner myself. Your argumentation is very interesting, and you have a great style of writing!It is refreshing that you have a complex way of thinking, and you are not judgmental, even though you have your own opinion.

Jhon Mathews Egypt said...
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Jhon Mathews Egypt said...
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Anonymous said...
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