If you have looked at my blog before, you probably know about my struggle to integrate fully into Egyptian culture. I wrote two posts about this, here and here. Yes, this is the third post about this topic, so sue me.
Anyway, at first I thought it was cultural shock caused mainly by my inadequate language skills and lack of proper understanding of non-verbal communication cues. But as time went by, and my communication skills got better, it seemed an inadequate explanation for my inability to integrate fully into Egyptian society.
The differences in thought patterns and ideas seemed to go deeper than could be explained by a mere lack of communication skills. What could possibly be the cause? Well, during a recent spell of unrest in Egypt, I discovered that it was not only language that separated me from most Egyptians, but rather a deep division in core values.
Freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, “freedom to dress” (if I may coin a term), these were all not essential human rights that had to be protected at all costs. No, these where crimes that “insulted” Egypt and its “values”. People who engaged in such crimes, or even supported them, had to be punished to protect the society from being “corrupted”.
The sad part is that I kept hearing this from even the most “schooled” — I refuse to use the word educated in reference to these people — people I knew. People with PhDs in various fields kept sprouting this same nonsense. And don’t even get me started on the utter stupidity that is unleashed when they move on to the “zionist conspiracy against Egypt” and how this conspiracy is trying to use all those aforementioned freedoms to destroy Egypt.
But lately I have come to the conclusion that my problems have even deeper roots. It’s not only a language barrier, which really doesn’t exist at this point in time, or even a complete lack of agreement on the most basic values. My problem stems from the fact that I have no common cultural background with most Egyptians. I am, in the words of E. D. Hirsch, culturally illiterate with respect to most Egyptians.
I have no common culture to draw upon in my conversations. This makes the task of getting people to actually consider my ideas, which most people over here seem to reject, more difficult than it has to be.
The literature that I grew up with is entirely different from the literature most Egyptians grew up with, nobody gets my references to pearls before swine or, say, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ reference to the limits imposed on my arm stretching by others’ noses. Similarly, I get none of their references.
None of the history they cite makes any sense to me. Nor do their allusions and idioms. We may speak the same language, but the context is entirely different. I think that is the real source of my inability to connect to Egyptian society fully. Anyway, that’s my story and I am sticking to it.