20 questions

No matter how much I write, I still have so much that I want to say! There are millions of little quirks that make up this city. I find myself going about my day jotting down notes in hopes of remembering to record them here.

One thing that I’ve still failed to mention is the time difference. Egyptians will change their clocks four separate times this year, and guess what most of it is for? Ramadan. It’s usually a 10 hour time difference from California, but they pushed the time one hour back to make it easier for those who are fasting. It makes sense- Iftar is at sunset, and with this time change, sunset is at 6 PM instead of 7. So, I’m currently 9 hours ahead of Californians.

The main thing that continues to catch me off guard here is the juxtaposition of Western and Middle Eastern practices in general. Cairo is a huge city, so I expected it to be pretty cosmopolitan. You can find countless western restaurants and stores- I ate Mexican food for Iftar in a giant mall called CityStars last night, and felt like I was back in California. But at the same time, there are unavoidable cultural differences, mostly in the form of language and religion. I have to mention that I also never got the chance to take a class solely focused on Islam or Egypt before I came over here, which means that my background knowledge is lacking in addition to the confusion and culture shock that comes with living here.

So, I ask millions of questions. Luckily, almost everyone that I’ve met has seemed eager to fill me in. One night over Turkish coffee, an RA and a few friends discussed Egyptian culture with me for hours. We classified stereotypical American culture (McDonald’s, sex, and volume- both sound and quantity) as well as Arab (religion, overcrowding, and smoking), dating, the age that they want to marry (26), the divorce rate in America, and academics, among other things. The one thing, though, that I still don’t understand is why such a hot climate bred such a conservative lifestyle. If I had any say in it, Egypt would be composed entirely of swimming pools.

Despite all of my inquiries, I still feel like I’m completely ignorant to this culture. There’s just so much to absorb, in addition to the misconceptions that I need to un-learn. It’s a complex place in multiple ways. Yesterday, I had Iftar at a Mexican restaurant called “On the Border” that had signs advertising how “Ramadan is the best with us”, with a Muslim Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx sitting at my table. On the way home, we listened to Michael Jackson, ACDC, and Lil’ Wayne in the car. It’s hard to wrap my head around it all! In addition to the cultural discrepancies, the language barrier is a huge impediment to getting things done here. I actually met a graduate student the other day who is studying the effects that this barrier has on the Arab world. Arabic is a difficult language to learn, and most people can’t really use it productively unless they’ve grown up with it. I should also mention that there are multiple forms of the language as well- I have been studying Modern Standard Arabic, which is kind of equivalent to Shakesperian English. Colloquial Arabic has different words, letter sounds, and dialects according to country and region. I had a Jordinian RA teach me the phrase for “How was your day?” to ask my Egyptian roommate, only to have her respond with a blank, confused stare. It’s rough.

At the end of the day, I do love it here. I understand that it has only been a week, and I’m still in that gushing “honeymoon” period of studying abroad, but I feel that the experience has been worth it already. I’ve met thought-provoking people, seen beautiful architecture and landscapes, and even gotten a little better at Arabic. I’m excited to see where this year will take me, and am looking forward to the understanding of this place that I’ll (hopefully) have gained at the end of it all.

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