By Clayton Matthews, a senior interdisciplinary major with concentrations in sociology, English and biology
Egypt: this place isn’t what anyone back home thought it was going to be. In fact, I don’t think anyone back home really had any idea as to what modern Egypt is, only what it was: Pyramids, Pharaohs, Moses, Cleopatra, tombs filled with riches and curses. At least everyone already knew about the deserts, but we haven’t even gotten to explore a real desert yet. Cairo was a sort of desert for us foreigners though. It was, at various points in its long history, a metropolis of culture and knowledge, but at this point it seems more like a sprawling mass of poverty, slowly burrowing itself in trash and sand. There are oasises of class and beauty scattered around as well, but they are far away from our poor suburban home base in Helwan, 40 minutes south by metro from the city proper. The city is so huge and bizarre that we never knew where to go or who to talk to while we were there. We had no in’s with real Egyptian people so the only inklings we ever got of culture were observations on the street or the metro and perspectives from our Egyptian lecturers.
Now on service, living in the small riverside town of Beni Suef, we have almost too many in’s. Abe Pauls and I live in a small boys orphanage and therefore have 15 little Egyptian brothers who are more than willing to take us to get an authentic Egyptian hair cut or for a walk to the cyber (although the younger ones are not actually allowed to use the computers). Most of the cultural understanding gleaned from them, though, relates to the fact that Egyptians love TV, and more specifically, they love extremely violent American movies. Almost every night, Abe and I find our young hosts’ eyes flashing with unedited blood and guts from another American horror film (a genre they all call “action”) playing on the “Top Movies” station.
I guess Egyptian hospitality is one true piece of culture that I have experienced since moving out of the big city. I feel like I can’t enter a place without being handed hot tea or food or both, and then can’t leave without an invitation for next time or a big sack of food. Additionally, our adult English night class students are always trying to invite us out to do things with them. So far, I have been to a little kid’s birthday party (way too much cake), a bachelor party (reggaeton-style beats with Arabic singing blasting down a side street decked out with strobe and string lights), the local soccer club for a pickup game (and to the shoe store beforehand with Osama), the zoo (where the keeper poked and prodded the lions until they snarled and fought back), and to a new acquaintances-in-law’s house for an afternoon rest (still don’t quite get that one).
Come to think of it, apart from Islam and its huge influence over everyone (Christians included) in Egypt, I am still very unclear as to what Egyptian culture actually is. There have been so many people occupying and ransacking the country and its culture over the years that the only thing that has held its shape (if only for the last few hundred years or so in a history that easily spans 5000) is religion. It seems that most Egyptians just want to be American now, wearing ultra slick shiny suits and pointed shoes with their Backstreet Boys ring tones and heavily gelled hair. Unfortunately, Lady Gaga has yet to hit the scene here, although I don’t think she would fly very far here where I was likely the only bachelor at that party to have ever kissed a girl.