Into the Desert I Go

This post is a quick update–I’m leaving Luxor for the Western Desert early tomorrow morning. I’ll be doing a circuit of  the major oases: Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra, Bahariya, and Siwa. There will be dunes, there will be palm trees, there will be camping out under the crescent moon…it will be many layers of awesome.

I don’t expect to have much (if any) access to the internet while I’m out there, so I will probably be conspicuously absent from this blog space for the next ten days or so.

Expats, Locals, and the Space in Between

In these last few days, I’ve met several expats living and working in Egypt. Some of them, like me, are doing development work, or are trying to give back to the communities in which they live. This, on the face of it, is good. Wanting to give back and help people is an admirable inclination. Not everyone shares it. In general, I very much approve of the impulse to do good.

And yet.

When you go out into the world to “help people,” you need to be careful. If your purpose is simply to pat your own back about how good a person you are, it shows. And if you consider the people that you are helping to be fundamentally different from or inferior to you, that shows also.

Yesterday, I went into a fair trade gallery with an Egyptian colleague. The expat lady who owns the shop immediately, on hearing about my project in Egypt, exclaimed “that’s wonderful!” and proceeded to tell me how nice and rewarding it is to work with Egyptians, and they’re so lovely, and so grateful, and it makes you feel so good to know that you’re doing something good for them…in the tones you might use to talk about working with multiply disabled children. The main difference being that the people I know who actually do work with multiply disabled children don’t talk about them that way. She mostly ignored my colleague, who has a degree in Egyptology and speaks fluent English. Every now and then she would include him in her conversation in the way that one might invite a child to contribute a few words in a group of adults.  And she spoke so much and so fast that I could barely get a word in edgewise to even things out.

My colleague is a quiet man. When I asked later what he thought of this woman, he said only that she had been helpful, which was entirely true. She gave me contact information for several other organizations in the area that might be good for my organization to work with.  And her work in fair trade is truly exemplary. She provides women in inaccessible villages around Egypt with a source of income by helping them design things to be sold in her shop, and her shop has some of the highest quality and most unique souvenirs I have seen. She is helping people, and doing it well. But the way she spoke to my colleague, and to her Egyptian employee, was so paternalistic that it really put me off, and I’m sure that my distaste showed to some degree though I did my best to hide it.

Interactions like this one (sadly, this incident is not isolated) make me incredibly angry. How do you manage to speak condescendingly about intelligent adults, in their own presence, as though they were not there? As if they didn’t understand your words? How do you do it, and how do you think it’s okay?

I have to believe, or at least I choose to believe, that people who speak and act in this manner do so unconsciously. That the bias is subconscious and the paternalism is unwitting. That if they actually realized they were causing offense, that they would behave differently. But it’s hard to speak to people about bias, about the ways in which they’re getting things wrong, particularly when there are a number of things that they’re doing right. No one wants to be told they’re being condescending and possibly racist.  It’s hard to raise the issue without creating offense or alienation.  It’s difficult to know what to do. What to say.

I was raised to believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity. I try to behave towards people in a way that reflects this. I am absolutely certain that I do not always succeed, that there are times and places and people that bring out the worst in my character and bring the biases that I have tried hard to overcome into the foreground. But I try to make these instances few and far between, and I try to be aware of them, at least, when they occur.  I try to treat all people with respect. (Friends who are reading this, please do let me know if and when I fail. I won’t like hearing it, and I’ll probably hate myself a little, but it’s something I need to know).

Expathood is difficult. You’re miles from home and anything familiar, the people have different customs and culture from your own.  You’re bound to notice these differences and form opinions on them. But “different” does not mean “less than.” It does not mean “wrong.” And it’s never alright to treat someone badly, just because they’re not similar to you.

 

 

 

A Long Overdue Update from Luxor

Hello everyone,

It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated this blog. Experiences in Egypt have come thick and fast, and it’s been nearly impossible to find the time to process it all, let alone blog about it. I’m going to make an attempt tonight, and hopefully work backwards over the course of the next month or so to write about everything I’ve been doing lately that’s made me too busy to write.

I’m in Luxor right now, in Upper or Southern Egypt.  Upper Egypt is called so because of its elevation, because it is the area from which the Nile flows, towards the low lands and the Mediterranean to the North.  It is my third day here. I arrived by felucca  (small traditional sailboat) from Aswan, and saw the glories of the Karnak and Luxor temples on my first day. The second day, I got up at crazy o’clock in the morning and went for my first-ever hot air balloon ride, watching the sun rise over the horizon from above the Nile and the many temples down below. After the balloon ride, I went to the valley of the kings, where I saw  the tombs of Ramses I, Ramses III, and Sety II on my regular ticket. Then I paid the extra to see the tombs of Tutankhamen and Ramses VI (it’s worth the extra cost). After the kings, we saw the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the only woman to ever rule Egypt as a Pharaoh, and the Colossi of Memnon (yes, they’re big).  After all that, the group that I had joined briefly to get from Aswan to Luxor departed for Cairo, and I was here on my own.

I’ve had a couple of meetings with people about projects in the area, though I haven’t seen any yet.  The people I’ve met individually through recommendations of other contacts have been lovely. But what I’ve discovered about Luxor is that it lives and breathes by tourism alone, and it’s bleeding its tourists dry. It is impossible to walk alone here without being harassed. In Cairo and Aswan, the harassment is limited to just a few areas—the main tourist areas, if you will. In Luxor, the town has nothing besides tourist areas. Which means no place is safe from harassment, if you’re female and alone.

Take this afternoon. My agenda as I planned it:

  1. Go to the bookstore.
  2. Stop at a jewelry shop.
  3. Take a walk for some fresh air and exercise.
  4. Stop by a café to do some work and relax.

My afternoon as it actually happened?

  1. Start walking to the bookstore.
  2. Refuse the advances of multiple taxi and caleche drivers who alternately ask where I’m going, offer to take me wherever they think I’m going, tell me how beautiful I am, tell me they’re single,  and after about ten iterations of “no, no thank you, no, I’m not interested, no, no, and no,” they leave with a hopeful, “maybe later,” that indicates that they’ll remember me for the next time they see me walking and harass me again.
  3. Go to the bookstore. No hassle here, because they know they have things that foreigners want and will buy without convincing. Spend a very pleasant time and buy a new journal and a pocket phrasebook.
  4. Stop by the jewelry shop next door. Ascertain that I don’t see anything I want in about 2 minutes, stick around for another 5 minutes convincing the shopkeeper that I really are going to leave without buying anything because I really don’t see anything I like.
  5. Start to take a walk.
  6. Feel elated after 3 minutes with only a few minor comments to herald my passage.
  7. Get approached out of nowhere by a guy asking me what I think of Luxor, who does not appreciate the irony with which I say, “It would be a great town without the hassle.” He starts walking beside me down the street (without any invitation on my part).
  8. Face the dilemma: let him follow me down the road and be annoyed by his talk, or lose him with difficulty and risk (almost inevitably) being followed by someone worse? Either way I lose.
  9.  Choose the lesser of two evils—he hasn’t said anything overtly sexual yet, and if he follows me at least he’ll keep the other guys away.
  10. Skip the coffee shop (because then he will want to come in  and keep talking) and go back to the hotel (a good place to ditch someone–now he knows where I live, but at least he can’t get inside).

So.

Afternoons like this one are really pretty mild. No one groped me, proposed marriage to me, made indecent sexual advances to me, or ripped me off. All in all, I can count the afternoon as a relative success, since at least I got what I wanted at the bookstore.

That said, afternoons like this one are indicative of a larger problem. People come to Egypt for the pyramids and temples, for the desert and the Nile and the experience of being someplace exotic and new. But very few people, having been to Egypt once, have any desire to go back, and it’s largely due to the  harassment. The first time I traveled to Egypt, I had no intention of ever returning. The pyramids and the Nile were nice, but I’d been groped, harassed, and propositioned so many times during my 7-day visit that I couldn’t wait to leave.  I like Egypt much better the second time around because I’m not always in the touristy areas where these occurrences are common. But the fact that these things happen often to tourists is an enormous shame.

Egypt has much to offer a traveler.  It’s an amazing, beautiful, and unique country with the potential to do truly great things. But this one unavoidable inconvenience repels repeat business and keeps people away. Egypt needs its tourists–they’re the basis of the entire economy. It needs to treat them well when they arrive.