For those who do not know me, I am an Egyptian who spent the first 17 years of his life in Nigeria. My father worked as part of a missionary hospital that offered discounted medical services for the disadvantaged. We also ran a leper’s colony to allow those shunned by society to have a chance at a semi-normal life.
The mission my father worked in was in an isolated compound that separated it from the rest of the country. We lived with a mixed group of nationalities that drew strongly from central and eastern Europe — mostly Germany, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia. There was also a sizable Irish component in the mission. There were also three, including us, Egyptian families in the mission.
The children of the mission, including my sister and me, went to a Catholic school run by the administration of the mission. In short, in the heart of Africa, we were offered a classical education. If you have been to Catholic school, you probably know what I mean.
Anyway, I was brought up with a set of ideals that I considered “unbreakable”. These ideals included a strong belief in personal liberty, and a deep conviction that any sort of discrimination based on race, gender or religion was unacceptable, and that it was considered “bad form” to deceive others. When we wanted something, we were taught to express it clearly. Being direct was a value that we all tried to cultivate.
After finishing my secondary school education in Nigeria, my family decided to move to Egypt. Sometimes I regret that they took that decision, but c’est la vie. The first problem that met me upon arrival in Egypt, was a language barrier.
While I could speak Arabic relatively well, with a very strong accent and very little knowledge of common popular expressions, I was completely incapable of reading and writing the language.
The second, and much more serious, problem I met was a severe culture shock. This was probably exasperated by my poor language skills, but every thing I said kept getting misinterpreted. My lack of knowledge of the proper non-verbal communications cues may have also had something to do with this. I found myself spending more time trying to explain the meaning of what I said, than actually saying anything.
Also, I discovered that the “be direct” directive that was drummed into our brains at school, was more of a liability than an advantage in Egypt. People never truly expressed what they thought, instead they insinuated and implied their meanings. I had a hard time trying to understand what they really meant.
After spending more than 13 years in Egypt, I have finally learned how to overcome most of these issues. While some of what I say still gets misinterpreted, I have learned to either explain my real meaning only once or to let it go entirely. It is simply not worth the effort. Similarly, I do not get all the insinuations that people keep making, but I have learned to ignore anything I don’t understand. I figured that if anybody has something to say to me that is worth my listening to, this person will eventually say it bluntly.
But I still have trouble with the other stuff. Specifically, a lot of values I consider an essential part of human existence, are considered “unacceptable” in my native culture. This applies to a lot of things, gender equality, freedom of speech, liberal social policy, separation of Church and State, etc.
I never questioned these values. I always thought of them as constants in my life that would never change. Apparently, as I have recently learned, this is not so for the rest of my fellow Egyptians. The majority does not seem to hold these values. In fact, from my discussion with people, most of them seem to think that these values are unacceptable. There is always a but attached to them, for example, “we accept gender equality, but…..”. The stuff that comes after that “but” usually completely negates the original value.
While I hope that I can completely overcome my culture shock in regards to language and “directness”, I hope that I never become accustomed to the prevailing position on the really important issues. Sometimes it is frustrating to see people argue for abolishing all the rights that I believe are self-evident, but my hope is that our society will learn to embrace these values. After all, it took the West several centuries to get to their current, and far from perfect, position on these issues. Hopefully, Egypt will get there someday.