When Margarita from Happy Abroad, a website giving tips on living in a different country, asked me to write about Egypt, I could not decide where to start. After three years in the country and a marriage to an Egyptian, am I the right person to give general advice? Can I still retrieve the feeling when I first came here without any work, study or personal commitments? I must admit the more time passes, the more my eyes and mind get accustomed and it takes effort to remember what impressed or amazed me before. While the first year was the hardest, it was also the most intense experience. I want to focus in this post on internal struggles I had to overcome to fit in a new place, taking into account that each experience is deeply personal. I want to talk about psychological states and social factors I had to consider to live in balance and peace in Egypt.
Language and Communication
One of the most important elements for living in any country for me is knowledge of the local language. It is not so much a practical issue – there is always somebody who speaks basic English or a million of other ways to communicate with people. Still it is a completely different dialogue and attitude if you speak in the language of your conversation partner. It is not only a way to gain respect and trust but also to show a strong will and readiness to overcome challenges. Indeed, my personality slightly changes when I switch to a different language.
Acquisition of a language is never memorising a mathematical equation. Learning becomes a natural and easy process for me when I feel the language. This psychological internalisation is especially important in practice. Why a foreigner at the beginner level would want to speak to a native, knowing it inevitably leads to an embarrassing situation, where wrong words cause funny looks while the grammar is being reinvented? Still you cannot avoid this phase in order to master a new language. So what makes one leave a comfort zone of poorly spoken global English and overcome the psychological barrier of fear and timidity? The motivation should be very strong and nothing is stronger than emotions. This is why, if I hate a language, I will never be able to learn it properly, on the other hand, if for any unexplainable reason I love the language, the people or feel attracted to the place I am in, speaking with locals becomes the most natural and logical thing to do.
I never formally learned Egyptian Arabic, though I have been learning classical/standard version outside and in Egypt for over a year before I actually started to speak with locals. Egyptian Arabic is a dialect or local version of Arabic with simplified grammar, pronunciation and plenty of dialectal words. Arabic in its classical or fusha’ form is never used in daily conversations in any country. Every place has its own version of the language, which mainly exists in spoken form (though some writers use local language as well). Classical Arabic of different formality degrees is used mainly in official texts such as religious scripts, literature and science, media and political speeches. However, in Egypt most TV shows, popular music and other TV content is in Egyptian Arabic, so this is the language space one is involuntary immersed in.
In Egypt prejudices against foreigners are very strong, so speaking Egyptian Arabic helps me a lot on daily basis. I can deal on my own with most of the situations I am used to in Europe and it boosts my self-confidence, e.g. bargain with street vendors, take public transportation, understand colleges gossiping at work or participate in family gatherings. And yes, maybe it is naïve, but every time I start a discussion with a random person on the street or an extended family member, I hope to change his perception of me and alike.
Honeymoon Stage and Disappointment
In addition to acquiring the language as main survival ‘tool’, there are several psychological states one most overcome when moving to a new place. As starting a life in Egypt might somehow be ‘more’ different than relocating between European countries, the psychological effects and contradiction between initial overly positive impression and following discontent is more noticeable.
The first few weeks or even a month are perfect – enjoying new environment, meeting new people and reinventing identity far away from the daily routines of the country left behind. Even if you do not consider yourself a tourist, the same sparkle in your eyes while walking though Khan el Khalili market aisles or seeing an old man selling grilled sweet potato on the street will betray your intentions and a random “Welcome to Egypt” is inevitable. But you cannot not feel troubled living an oriental fairy-tale.
I remember my first visit to Tahrir square in the first month in Egypt on 31st of December 2011. I enjoyed finally being in an almost mythological place, so full of media narratives of freedom, dignity and people’s willpower. I refused to consider lethal consequences of recent protester clashes with the security forces just tenths of meters away. It was not just me, also Egyptians still had hope for a better future at that time…
Beginning of disappointment stage for me usually comes in the second month. So it was when I moved to Cairo. My perfect vision of the world started to get disturbed by garbage on the streets, air pollution, traffic noise and especially harassment. When unsuccessful attempts of finding a job were added to the whole, it led to a vicious circle of long days in a rented room of worn-out “Egyptian baroque” furniture and sleepless nights in front of a laptop screen. I did not even pretend to figure out what could be the solution, but wanted to escape facing the reality. It is very easy to give into this convenient closed home lifestyle satisfying basic needs for sleep and food. Cairo can be stressful and failed attempt to have some peace may lead to escapism.
Internal Struggle and Searching for Oneself
As much as I like to call myself introvert, I am not able to function without external stimulus. I drive inspiration from people and energy from happenings. This how new ideas are born. The presence of foreigners and locals around me finally made me stop and reflect again. Am I back to despised daily routines and disturbing thoughts of my previous residence country? Have I really managed to overcome the challenge simply by changing the theatre decorations and hopping to the next scene?
When you realise the issue was not a place itself, rather it was finding own way to fit in, you are halfway through to finding the right solution. Be patient, it takes time and effort. Oh, Cairo could drain all of your energy, if not prepared and on your own. In the beginning, the essential part was to convince myself to leave the room, the flat or go out to meet new people. “The streets” were unknown kingdom and inability to take control over each situation was uncomfortable and sometimes frustrating.
Every new place provides a privilege to reinvent own identity, interests and social circle. You are free to experiment, it will also help to discover what you really are or want. I had to dig into yourself to understand reasons behind my lack of motivation keeping me inside comfort boundaries. When distraction of daily routines is missing in the new place, all one need is to focus. In Egypt I had the opportunity to experience rapid changes of different political regimes, see negative consequences of social inequality, differentiate between diverse cultural practices and religious believes – all of which made me reconsider my personal convictions, state clear professional goals and chose means of expression. I believe each of us is capable of creative manifestation of inner-self in the individually most suitable way. There are some circumstances enabling us to sharpen the vision of ourselves, on of them is starting a life in a different country. All you need is use the opportunity wisely.
I have described three most difficult steps on my way to finding my place in Egypt. In the next post I will write about public and private space in Egypt, accepting some cultural practices and neglecting others and problems I encountered when trying to explain my experience to people in my home country.