Ilona Sābera – portfolio

blogging, journalism, semiotics, short stories

Confessions of a European in Egypt



Disclaimer: Please note these are my very first impressions of Egypt when I visited the country in 2010. Since then I have gained more knowledge and experience of Egyptian social, political and cultural issues. Still I want to keep this post as it might describe well a Westerners first glimpse on Egypt’s everyday life.

The first comes the feeling of inability to do anything on your own, like all the previously known signs have become chaotic and not interpretable. This absence of so common for me European (“Western”) rules for the first moment paralyses my independency and any individual action in Egypt, part of so called “Arab world”. My first instinct is to compare the different approaches and trying to find a common way out.

“We’ve lost what you still have,” I am expressing my inner doubts to each Egyptian I meet. The sense of unpredictability is so attracting here, that I am beginning to wonder if European rationalism and a cause-effect approach is really the unique way of reading the cultures. Can I really apply my background and experience dealing with so different origins?

Network instead of single point

“I will ask my friend if he can give you a ride with his car,” I hear from a guy I’ve met for a couple of hours. And the same night before leaving Cairo at 1am I am woken up by a call from “a friend of a friend” who’s trying to convince me get over my last worries whether I can trust an Egyptian being on time and really comes at the next at 8am to pick me up and drives to the airport for free. “I know it seems strange for you,” Hesham, who likes discussions with foreigners, tries to explain the different conception of helping people and responsibility. “There are always surprises in Cairo,” my Latvian friend Agnija, living in Egypt for several months, starts her stories, both positive and negative.

For me, a European, Latvian individualist, it is considerably hard to accept “real (as an opposite to our virtual ones) social network system” leading relationships between the people. “I’ll ask my friends about finding a flat, if you want to live in Cairo,” another helper is demonstrating his networks.Egipte_bez_Eiropas_paredzamiba_39

I don’t listen to friendly advices: “Don’t go home alone in the night. Call me and I’ll pick you up,” but being in the lack of individualism, I try to do any explorations on my own risk though quarrelling after with people for non accepting offered help. I get so satisfied after getting response on a special waving of my hand, trying to pronounce the right direction “Tahrir, tahrir,” and being able to stop the bus with the sign language I’ve seen from others.

But is the individualism (individual cultures vs. collective cultures) is the only way of development or it only leads to alienation? Each culture must go through this period to become aware of it?

“In Europe everything is so much easier!” I keep repeating. Everything is reasonable and clear. But can we really apply rational schemes to each issue? Haven’t we lost this unpredictability in Europe, putting everything under the same measures? Here even the traffic isn’t simply rational, though somehow Egyptians have their own understanding and a lot of flexibility.

Resistance for a common future model

I found a lot of Egyptians very sincere, like having partial immunity of socially accepted false behaviours. If somebody helps you, he really means it. If somebody calls you a friend – you are his friend. I’ve received very warm welcoming in the family home I visited, even though people weren’t speaking English. However, if you meet somebody considering foreigner only “a western money pot”, he’ll get out of you everything possible.

“They are still in 13th century.” “We are still living and bothering about the problems you’ve been treating long ago.” The phrases of experienced western and non-western journalists are being repeated. “Developing country” what does it mean? Can we really predict the future models? Is there is only one possible way – the “westernisation” of all spheres? Religion, rights, political system – are we with our present and past mistakes are allowed to teach somebody?


Our teenage girls and even younger ones can wear mini skirts, décolleté and bikini and create Facebook galleries with a title “I’m sexy”. We are respecting women’s rights, treating them worse at the work. We are selling products of high consume with women’s body. We are sexualizing each field of everyday life and in the same time have more sexual dysfunction problems. We appreciate only youthfulness and our communicators are creating even younger ideal of self perfection and artificial beauty. Though our religion still affects policies and people’s behaviours.

They are using religious ideals for regulating and explaining social behaviours, though in reality they often aren’t working. They are telling that a husband, who makes his wife wear “burka”, is respecting and protecting here from other men. They are choosing to treat in this way power of woman’s body and of temptation instead of self-control and rational thinking.

Celebrating diversity

It’s simply unfair and discriminating that I can go almost wherever I want. I am often treated as a high class specialist in your country. You in the best case must spend hours in embassies and in the worse – should cross the desert, the fence and the see for getting your luck or disappointment in “marvellous Europe”. You are consuming and appreciating Western media represented models, products and goods.  But what can we learn, improve and share? What is the way to a common contact point and preservation of the beauty of unpredictability?

11 thoughts on “Confessions of a European in Egypt

  1. I welcome native English speakers to point out the mistakes 😉 And of course express your opinion on the topic.


  2. Ilona, I think this level of depth is really understated. How can we appreciate the beauty of people describing a general opposition between two cultures? You’re representing the two cultures like black and white. I’m a single person that doesn’t match the whole european nor eastern culture, what about me? You are too, your egyptian friend too and each of us too. Aren’t alse we the culture? There’s a phrase I heard in the movie : “we have more in common than things that divide us”, I think the point is: what you wanna find comparing the cultures? from which point you wanna see that releations? are you looking for some evidences to what you wanna believe? Or we can question all our believes?


  3. You’re right Rob about the often misuse of cultural frames on a single person. I am usually against it.

    However, in this case, using the opositions (we can say generativity of semiotics) I want to point attention to specific problems, which are often the topic of discussions and comparisons. Anyway, the conclusions are not possible without a level of generalization. And these are my conlusions about my personal experience. And I am open to any other opinions and observations.


  4. I agree with you about generalization, Ilona. Robgardens, you’re a fucking interpretativo.
    However, my dear Iona, I think that you could find your idea of Egypt in the South of Italy, too. The way of life you loved in Egypt is the way of life that I hate in my country. I think that people have to be more independent and self-sufficient. How many “friends” I have in my country who can’t do anything whitout the help of other people!
    I prefer to be autonomous for all the rest of my life.


  5. Thanks for your opinion, Armando :)! Please, don’t offend our friend Robgardens 😀 😀


  6. Armandz I love you too! ahah! Anyway all I was trying to say is that I think it’s more interesting to talk about single person with some “character” that perform some “actions” and then, just after, try to say that one character is common in a culture and another to another culture. Today, now, I prefer this approach instead of assuming that one person, expecially when taken in a specific context, could represent a whole culture. Anyway, we cannot say if a conclusion on a level of categorization is better that another made in another level of categorization..


  7. Ilona, this kind of superfriendly help in Europe is sometimes called “mafia” and often not without reasons!


    • hehe, you made me laugh 🙂 and in the situation I wrote about there was absolutely no connection with any kind of “mafia” (I don´t exactly understand what you mean), which actually refers to Italian criminal organization.


      • no, mafia does not refer to italian organization. mafia definition is connected in with social grouping – very strong bonds of friendship work in keeping society hierachizized (enemy of my friend is my enemy too)


  8. yes, you are right. the strong affection fis fead by blind desire


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s