An Egyptian View on Americans

April 15, 2009

I had to slip into the Semiramis Hotel in Tahrir this morning because both the ATMs at the old AUC campus as well as the printer in the computer lab were broken (I still don’t like the new campus and want ALI and CASA to move back to Tahrir). I went to the business center, which by the way is not a good place to print things unless you want to spend 6.5 Egyptian pounds ($1.15) per sheet.

Anyway, the guy working there, Tamer, told me he had lived in Delaware for 10 years. His English was really good. Egyptians often ask me what I think of Egypt, so I asked Tamer what he thought of America. “It’s a country, just like other countries,” he said. I asked him what he meant by that because he kind of smirked when he was saying it. He said that Americans are really ignorant, more so than Europeans. I asked him in what way. He said that “Americans think that the government and police here just beat us up all day long, and that we all ride on camels, and that we kill women here if they refuse to wear the veil.” I asked him if people really said that to him, and if they had maybe been joking. He said yes they did, and no they were not.

Now I know there are ignorant people in the USA, just as there are ignorant people everywhere. And I know that Americans may be more ignorant of certain things as a whole than people from other countries might be as a whole, as I have ranted before. And of course I can’t speak for all Americans nor can I presume to know what all Americans think or feel or know about. I don’t think this guy was lying about his experience. Maybe he was exaggerating a bit, but I certainly find it surprising, and disappointing, that in his ten years in the US this is the kind of stuff he heard, or the kind of stuff people were saying to him.

So that’s just a view from the other side.


Recent Polling on Muslim Views on Al-Qaeda, the US, etc.

March 2, 2009

Rob at Arabic Media Shack has an informative post on some of the findings of WorldPublicOpinion.org’s most recent polling, which can be found here. Here is the excerpt that he presents:

“Q43-S79. Thinking about the following kinds of attacks on Americans, please tell me if you approve of them, disapprove of them, or have mixed feelings about them?

Attacks on US military troops in Afghanistan
Egypt 2008: 75% Strongly approve, 8 % somewhat approve, and less than 10% disapprove in any form.

On US military troops based in the Persian Gulf States:
Egypt 2008: 70% strongly approve. A total of 12% have mixed feelings or any form of disapproval.

On US military troops based in Iraq:
Egypt 2008: 75% strongly approve. Only 10% with mixed feelings or any form of disapproval.

On US Civilians in the US:
Egypt 2008: 8% approve in any form. 78% strongly disapprove.

In addition, from the Middle East Times:

Less obvious, but probably a logical consequence of wanting the withdrawal of U.S. forces, is the disturbing finding that very significant majorities approve of attacks on U.S. troops based in Iraq, the Gulf, and Afghanistan. Large majorities approve of attacks in Egypt (over 78 percent), the Palestinian territories (87 percent), and Jordan (66 percent). In Turkey and Pakistan views are more divided. However, only minorities in Indonesia and Azerbaijan would endorse such attacks.

US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are technically occupation forces. So I can understand from that logic why, for example, and Iraqi might want to attack US forces because they occupy his or her country. However, why do Egyptians overwhelmingly support attacking US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan? In Iraq, maybe, they follow the logic of resistance an occupier as being legitimate and they see the war as illegal or illegitimate in the first place. But the US, along with a number of other countries, is also an invading force in Afghanistan, a campaign which enjoys much broader international support than does the Iraq one. Might this mean that Egyptians support the Taliban? Probably not, but then why is there such support for actively attacking US forces in Afghanistan? Furthermore, why the overwhelming support for attacking US forces in the Persian Gulf States. How do US forces in the Persian Gulf (or Afghanistan for that matter) effect Egyptians? I don’t think they really do, but I would wager that this is a result more of the general feelings expressed in other parts of the survey, such as the following as reported by the Middle East Times:

The third finding of the polls, which will come as little surprise to Americans familiar with the Middle East and the Islamic world, is the intense suspicion of U.S. goals in the region. Large majorities ranging from 62 percent in Indonesia to 87 percent in Egypt say they believe that the United States seeks “to weaken and divide the Islamic world.”

And what does this mean for President Obama? According to the Middle East Times:

So Obama’s new approach to the region faces an audience that is suspicious of the United States but likes the idea of democracy and opposes attacks on civilians. That’s not a hopeless place from which to start, even if such views have been obvious to most observers all along.

True, but as Marc Lynch often talks about, it is a much more complicated than that.


Lots of Sit-ups

December 24, 2008

It’s pretty humbling when an Army Ranger says “shukran” to you after telling him what you do.


Patriotism For the First Time

November 20, 2008

This is a bit of a late post, but I never got a chance to publish it.

I have heard a lot of people say (and seen a lot of Facebook status messages) that they are “proud to be American for the first time” now that Barack Obama has been elected President of the United States. I understand that people have been incredibly unhappy the past eight years under the Bush administration, but does that mean one still cannot be proud to be American? I was proud when firefighters rushed into the burning World Trade Centers, knowingly giving their lives for their country and their countrymen. I was proud of the US olympic team while watching from a restaurant in Morocco. And I was proud to see Americans stand up and make their voices heard, regardless of the result.


The Same 20 Questions

November 19, 2008

If you were an American wandering the streets of Cairo these days, you might be asked the following questions upon meeting Egyptians:

1. Where are you from?
2. What is your religion?
3. What is your name?
4. What do you think of Obama?
5. What do you think of Israel?
6. What do you think of Bush?
7. What do you think about the invasion of Iraq?
8. Can you teach me English?


American Movies

November 15, 2008

Egyptians love American movies. A lot. Our friend Mohammed who cuts our hair down the street was just telling me that he noticed a couple of things in American movies and wanted to know if they reflected American society. The first is that there are a lot of gangs in America, and the second is that if people are fighting in the street, for example, no one pays any attention. He must have just seen Goodfellas and Bad Boys 2.

Anyway, the point is that Egyptians get a lot of their ideas about America from our movies. Movies are very popular here, and most Egyptians do not read books. They read newspapers, but that’s about it. I can talk more about this later, but let me just quote a statistic from my professor who is an Arabic literature critic. He said that the greatest number of books sold in Egypt in one year written by Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian and possibly the most well-known Arab writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was 3000 copies.

Many Egyptian movies are pointed expressions of Egyptian society. For example, we just finished watching a movie starring Adel Imam, one of the most famous Egyptian actors, in which he plays a business man who at one point buys some poems, releases a book of these poems under his own name, buys all the copies of the book, and then pays some people off to win Egypt’s best poet award. The film of course deals with corruption.

So when Egyptians see American movies, they often think they are a direct reflection of American society. Needless to say I told Mohammed that the mafia and gangs are not really the biggest problems facing American society these days, and that although people do not help each other enough, its not as if it never happens.

I’m not sure he was convinced, but he loves Sly Stallone.


Egypt’s Top Judge

November 10, 2008

My program was fortunate enough a few weeks ago to secure a meeting with Egypt’s top judge, Zakaria Abdel Aziz, head of the Judges Club. The Club is an institution to which all Egyptian judges belong, a type of judicial union/syndicate in Egypt, though I am not sure its exact legal status. Regardless, Abdel Aziz came to speak to us about his experience leading this group, his unprecedented legal opposition to the government (Unlikely Reformers: Egyptian Judges Challenge the Regime), and about women’s legal issues in Egypt, an Egyptian man just being put in jail for sexual harassment in a landmark case(Egyptian Gets Jail for Sex Assault in Milestone Case).

Abdel Aziz began by giving us an interesting history of the Judges Club. He talked about when it was formed, how it works, and how it has historically dealt judicially with Egyptian politics, through times of both relative freedom and of intense political oppression. He was supposed to also speak to us about women’s issues in Egypt, but after giving the history of the Club, instead opened the floor up to questions. A student asked about the relationship between Egyptian law and Islamic law, called Sharia. A very good and fair question, as Egypt’s law is commonly known to be a mix of French civil law as a result of France’s colonization of Egypt, and elements of Sharia law, as Egypt is a Muslim country. Apparently the common knowledge in this case is wrong, as the judge explained that Sharia has nothing to do with Egyptian law. This is plainly false. Even my professor was surprised by this answer.

Abdel Aziz

The judge then went on, frankly to an astonished audience, explaining how although Egypt does not follow Sharia law, it is the best and most advanced type of judicial system and, yes I am serious, would even be a good system for the United States to adopt. He explained that the Jews failed morally under laws given to them in the Torah, and hence God sent another messenger to his people, Jesus, to give them new laws to follow. The Christians, of course, failed in this respect as well, leading God to send the Prophet Muhammad with the laws of the Quran. His proof of this was that it says in the Quran that Muhammad is the last messenger of God, bringing God’s final and complete message.

Slightly shocked, I thought I might change the subject and ask him about something we were supposed to be discussing. My question was “Do you have a comment on the recent ruling regarding the sexual harassment case, and what do you think is the future of this issue in Egypt politically, culturally, and socially?” I received a two part answer. The first part was that yes, there is a problem with sexual harassment in Egypt, but there are these same problems all across the world. In fact, there is an international phenomenon of moral decline, which is causing this problem. Even in America you have these problems. Next, he told me that if I go up to a woman on the street in Egypt and say something to her such as “oooh, you are so pretty,” or hiss at her, then I will get thrown in jail for a week because that is Egyptian law. Sexual Harassment in Egypt really deserves its own post, in fact, one could write an encyclopedia about it, but let me just say that it is sometimes the police officers here who are doing the harassing, and when my classmate got spit on the other day, and my other classmate got her crotch grabbed multiple times in broad daylight, no one went to jail.

So unfortunately, what could have been an incredibly rewarding discussion on the challenges to the judicial system in Egypt turned out to be, for lack of a better term, complete and utter bullshit. My classmates and I were not only disappointed, but angry as well.
What the judge talked about is indicative of a lot of social and cultural problems in Egypt. First, the view that Islam is the be all and end all, that is has the answers to everything, and that one is silly not to embrace it, is manifested in a myriad of contexts and as this educated, influential judge has proven, at all levels of society. Second is the lack of responsibility in Egyptian culture. Even in the Egyptian dialect, one does not say “I missed the bus.” The actual translation would be “the bus missed me.” The judge, who of all people should be willing to take responsibility and admit that Egypt has a problem with sexual harassment, blamed it on the rest of the world and of course, which brings me to my final point, brought the US into the discussion. I realize that because I am American, Egyptians may whole-heartedly want to discuss America with me, or relate what they are saying to the US because they think it might be useful for me or help elucidate a point. But even though the sex that Egyptians see in US movies certainly has an effect on their sexual behavior, it really is not an excuse for the terrible sexual harassment problems in Egypt.

It is a sad state of affairs in my opinion when the man who should be representing rule of law, accountability, and the democratic process refuses to deal with important issues facing his country and preaches his religion in place of a constructive discussion on the role of the judiciary. Not to mention he didn’t answer my question.


The Power of the Judicial System

November 8, 2008

My Uncle Gary has a PhD from Northwestern in psychology, received a law degree from Vanderbilt while in his 50’s, and is a ranked US chess player. He now works as a public defender in Nashville, Tennessee.

“Teen is Acquitted of Double Murder”

I don’t know if this kid is guilty or not. Neither does my uncle. The point is that in the United States of America one has the right to a fair trial and is innocent until proven guilty. No matter if your bloody fingerprints are at the scene of the crime.

I am proud of my uncle for doing what he does. To me, this is a great example of what being an American is all about. Serving your country, fighting for justice, and doing what is right, no matter the circumstances.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

November 4, 2008

In a few hours, history will probably be made. I have been reading lately about the American Revolution. I wonder what the Founding Fathers would have thought about today. I hope they would be proud. These men, along with their wives and families, and the thousands of other Americans who contributed, who worked, who fought, and who died, stood up and were counted. These were ordinary people. Booksellers, farmers, and fishermen. Many of them owned slaves. Today, Americans can still stand up and be counted. Today, ordinary Americans can still make a difference.

Living abroad in Egypt has obviously made me think about the United States and what it means to be American. People here are amazed that the President only serves two terms, and consider Americans lucky that they can not only afford to take the time out of their workdays to vote, but that their vote will actually be counted. America is not perfect. She will never be. The Founding Fathers realized soon after America was born that the struggle for freedom is never ending. This is our challenge as Americans, to always strive for freedom. We owe this to the people who built our nation, and we owe it to ourselves.

I am so proud to an American.


Gym Talk 2 "Why do Americans Think that all Arabs and Muslims are Terrorists?"

October 14, 2008

One of the questions I am most often asked by Egyptians is “why do Americans think that all Arabs and Muslims are terrorists?”

Most Egyptians I have spoken to believe that Americans have a very negative view of Arabs and Muslims (can I just write A/M for now if I am refering to both?) . Some of them do. But just like some Americans have stereotypes about Arabs or Muslims, Americans shouldn’t all be stereotyped either.

Tonight in the gym, the Captain asked me why I was studying Arabic. I told him the usual, which I actually think I have explained to him before, the crux of which being that for whatever study or work I am going to be doing in the future, understanding Arabic will be crucial to understanding the politics, religion, culture, and people of the Middle East. With Ahmed, Walid, Mario (Mahmoud), and the Captain (whose name is also Mahmoud), we continued the conversation and spoke about Americans’ ideas about people in the Middle East. Of course I get very worked up about this topic and although I talked a lot, which I know I normally do in these situations, I thought we had a good conversation and in the end, I think we all learned something and for the most part agreed with each other. I wish I had a transcript of it so as not to miss anything, but I’ll share what I can remember write now.

Ahmed said that Americans believe stereotypes about A/M because of American media. This is interesting, because I having been watching more Al-Jazeera lately and although I think it is a good news channel, it is no doubt biased. So I explained that I think all news and every person has biases, and that the challenge is to gather as much information as possible and then sort it out for oneself. Fox News vs. Al-Jazeera. Neither are perfect, but I learn from both. Ahmed seemed to agree. I explained that part of the reason I am here in Egypt is, in this sense, to get as much information as possible and then go home and try to help Americans understand this region better.

You know what? I realize I sound pompous with some of this and frankly I am sick of writing about this stuff. What I really want to say in this post is how awesome it is and how lucky I am to be able to joke around, talk politics, and make friends with a bunch of Egyptian guys my age in a “ghetto” gym in the middle of Cairo. For me, that is such an important part of what this experience is about. That is the learning that takes place outside of the classroom.