From the moment I saw an exhibition of artifacts from Tutankhamen's Tomb, as a young child in the US, I was fascinated with all things in Egypt: the pyramids, the pharaohs, the Nile, everything.
I have always been interested in Egyptian history, which attracts me with its millennia of Old and New Kingdoms, the Greco-Roman period, the Arab and Ottoman eras, European colonization, and the modern state.
In November 2010, I finally had the chance to fulfill my dream to travel to Egypt. My two-week trip took me from the dusty, chaotic, and crowded streets of Cairo to the awe-inspiring pyramids at Giza, Saqqara, and Dahshur; then to Alexandria and its impossibly blue Mediterranean Sea; and finally to the amazing temples and tombs of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.
Wherever I went, I was greeted with a warm smile and a sincere "Welcome to Egypt!" The first question people would usually ask is what country I am from. When I answered "America," they would nod slowly and say, "America — very good people," followed by many good things to say about President Barack Obama.
I had hoped that the election of President Obama and positive policy changes on his part would begin to heal the wounds inflicted by the US on many parts of the Arab World over decades, and particularly in the past several years. My hopes were strengthened through encounters with everyday Egyptians.
|Heart of Cairo, capital of Egypt.|
I enjoyed the simple but meaningful acts of kindness that I received from Egyptians throughout my travels. A woman selling warm and delicious pita bread in the old Islamic section of Cairo refused to allow me to pay for my loaves. In Alexandria, a group of young guys invited me for a wonderful sail around the harbor and share some delicious local pastries.
In Luxor, I had a nice talk with a father holding his young son in a minibus taxi. When we got out in the town center, the father insisted on paying my fare.
I love to travel independently because it provides opportunities for these impromptu and genuine conversations with local people from all walks of life. I certainly would not have these opportunities if I was walled off in a hotel or tethered to a tour group.
I was really amazed at the sheer number of young people in Egypt. I looked up some figures when I returned and found that about 33 percent of Egyptians are aged 14 or younger, compared to about 20 percent in the US and around 14 percent in some European countries. The median age in Egypt is 24, compared with 37 in the US and around 40 in many European nations.
Wherever I went, boys and young guys would come up to me and ask me where I am from, if I could take a picture with them, and who my favorite football player is. We had a great time talking about Egypt and America, and I felt great doing my small part to build understanding and trust between different cultures — and have a few laughs too.
|It is my hope that Americans look past the negative stereotypes of Islam that we see and hear so often and, instead, seek out friendships with Muslims in the US and even travel to Muslim countries to gain true perspectives.|
Barriers or Traditions?
While I enjoyed meeting and talking with local people, I was frustrated by the fact that during my two weeks in Egypt I had only one conversation with a woman, my tour guide for the pyramids near Cairo. Unlike boys and men who were rarely shy in striking up a conversation with me, girls and women never approached me, and I was very apprehensive about violating cultural or religious norms or making anyone uncomfortable, so I did not initiate conversations with them.
I was disappointed that I was unable to gain a female perspective on life in modern Egypt; especially since the rights of women in Egypt, and Muslim countries in general, is such an important issue. In retrospect, I should have shown more initiative, in proper settings and circumstances, so that I could gain their viewpoint as well.
|Despite these challenges, I was so happy to experience firsthand everyday life in a Muslim country.|
Although most of my travel experiences in Egypt were positive, but there were quite a few challenges that confronted me as a foreign independent traveler. I became very frustrated about having to pay more for every goods and service than local people, whether it was a taxi ride, admission tickets, a bottle of water, or even my breakfast.
Unfortunately, the government of Egypt sets this tone by charging non-Arabic speaking foreigners much higher rates for admission into museums, pyramid complexes, temples, and other places than they charge individuals who can speak Arabic. This is true regardless if these Arabic speakers are from Egypt or from much wealthier nations such as the UAE or other Gulf states.
I eventually got used to having to bargain for everything, but it did not take away the fact that I was being discriminated against based upon my race, color, ethnicity or language and that I was seen all too often as a bulging wallet rather than a human being.
Despite these challenges, I was so happy to experience firsthand everyday life in a Muslim country. I am convinced that if more Americans took the opportunity to travel outside the US, they would be much less likely to support politicians and others who demonize, and cause hardship for, people in other countries, especially Muslim people.
As the great American writer Mark Twain said, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." Generalized fears of a particular culture or religion tend to melt away when you share a conversation, a meal, a boat ride, or a walk along the Nile with a person who is different than you.
Anyway, in the final analysis, all this talk of the "different" is not really helpful or accurate. As to be expected, there are differences between Egyptians and Americans in dressing, language, culture, and religion. But love of family and friends, generosity, kindness, and sense of humor, among many others, are universal and outweigh any differences.
It is my hope that Americans look past the negative stereotypes of Islam that we see and hear so often and, instead, seek out friendships with Muslims in the US and even travel to Muslim countries to gain true perspectives and increase understanding between us all.