Despite political and economic turmoil, Egypt remains one of the most influential counties in the Middle East due to its sheer size, its historical significance, its strong national identity, and its position as a hub for both Arab culture and Islamic thought. Egyptians refer to their country as Umm al-Dunya – Mother of the World. Although today Egypt may not be the political power house it once was, its time horizon is much longer than most Americans can comprehend. Visiting the Pyramids or the alleged sites where Jesus and his family hid from King Herod or where Baby Moses was rescued from the Nile, sheds light on the adage “This too shall pass.” Inshallah.
In addition to its geostrategic role, I chose to study in Egypt because I wanted to learn a colloquial dialect that would be understood across the Arab world. As students of Arabic will understand, al-fusha – classical Arabic – may get you through an official meeting at the United Nations but it won’t help you talk to your taxi driver or a local shop owner. However, Arabs from the Maghreb to the Gulf will understand the Egyptian language due to the popularity of its songs, shows and movies, whereas the reverse is not always true.
Is there anything you wish you would have known before leaving and why?
I wish I would have known how safe I would feel. When I told people I was heading to Egypt for the summer, the overwhelming response was “Be safe.” I shared their concerns and questioned my resolve for voluntarily exposing myself to a risky situation. I doubted whether I would be able to truly experience the culture as an outsider. Obviously, I still have to take precautions as a lone female traveler in a developing country actively fighting a terrorist threat within its borders. However, if I had known how welcoming and protective Egyptians would be, I may have been able to dispel some of the fear that often clouds our perceptions about the Middle East. I imagine there are other students, particularly women, who choose not to participate in immersion programs in the region due to legitimate concerns about their own safety. I would offer that the reward is worth the risk, and both the individual and the society – at home and abroad – benefit immensely from a continued exchange of ideas, values, and mutual understanding.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from this experience?
There is no substitute for in-country immersion. As a student of international relations, it is important to have a firm grasp on the theories that guide analysis of global events. However, these theories often lead to a monolithic understanding of the world and rely on assumptions which oversimplify competing narratives on the ground. So far, this immersion has made me question many of my assumptions about Egypt’s revolution, the Arab Spring, and the role of Islam. It has also reaffirmed my belief in language as they key to opening doors in a region that I would otherwise only have peripheral access. I am confident this experience will help me become a better, more nuanced advisor for U.S. policy in the future.