عليكم السلام “peace be upon you”
Jeanna Diorio, a dual major in political science and international affairs, received a prestigious National Security Education Program (NSEP) Boren Scholarship to study Arabic language and culture in Cairo, Egypt, this academic year. She was one of 130 students to receive the award from a pool of nearly 900 exceptional undergraduate and graduate applicants from across the U.S. We checked in with Jeanna via email at this, the half-way point in her studies, to say “hello” or, in the standard greeting in Egypt, عليكم السلام, and to see how she is faring.
SD: At what school are you studying in Egypt?
JD: I am studying at the Arabic Language Institute at the American University in Cairo.
SD: So this is an international school that caters to many different nationalities, correct? Are there many Americans there with you? Are any of your classes taught in English?
JD: Yes, more than 500 students from across the world study at AUC each year, accounting for 17 percent of the student body. I am enrolled in the Arabic Language Institute, which is an intensive credit program that offers Arabic language courses to students, diplomats, and businessmen that are hoping to quickly and efficiently gain a working proficiency in Arabic. All five of my Arabic courses are taught in Arabic with nearly all American students and scholars. However, had I enrolled in the typical Study Abroad Program, it is very possible that I would be the only American student in a particular class.
SD: Tell me about your courses? Has it been difficult learning Arabic?
JD: My classes combine both Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Egyptian Colloquial Arabic (ECA). They run five hours a day with a one-hour private tutorial session twice a week.
I came into the program without even familiarity of the Arabic alphabet or script, so while it was daunting in the beginning, as it is with learning any language for the first time, it has become exceptionally rewarding to be able to understand advertisements on billboards or to understand conversations while watching Arabic television.
SD: Do you live in a dorm, apartment, or with an Egyptian family? Have there been any challenges with your living arrangements that you have had to get used to?
JD: Last semester I lived in an apartment with three other female American students. While renting your first apartment may be an experience in the States, it was definitely far more interesting doing so in Cairo. Living in an apartment allowed for more privacy than the dorms and given that host families in Egypt are exceptionally rare for university students, this seemed like the best option. While my accommodation was particularly nice for Cairo, a few aspects took a little getting used to. First, our doorman, or bowab in Egypt, did not speak English, which always made conversing with each other over rent or common household problems an interesting task. Secondly, I found that there is essentially no accountability, so despite my roommates and I paying for a semester’s worth of Internet, we never actually gained online access. It also was rather common to find that the water for the building had been turned off for a few days or that the only working elevator, out of the three in our 20-story building, was not working and wouldn’t be “for the next few days or so.” However, despite these slight drawbacks, I would not have changed that unique first apartment experience.
SD: Has your experience changed your perceptions of the U.S. politically or culturally?
JD: Politically, it seemed that wherever my peers and I went, as soon as we mentioned that we were American, we were enthusiastically greeted with pro-Obama and pro-America comments. I have not experienced any exceptionally negative American political remarks. Culturally, it was astounding to witness the direct result of American globalization, such as the Dunkin Donuts chains found throughout Lebanon and the “Americana” food courts both on campus and at the main shopping mall in Cairo.
I also had the privilege to volunteer with the Student Action for Refugees (STAR) Program where I taught English as a second language to a class of Iraqi, Afghani, Indian, and Sudanese refugees. Having the opportunity to speak with my students both inside and outside of the classroom, I was able to gain a broadened perception of the United States by those who hoped to eventually settle in either Canada or the U.S. One student left his small village in Iraq shortly before the 2003 American invasion, and, despite the overall destruction of his town, he showed no animosity or ill-feelings towards the American political administration. All of my students were eager to hear about life in America, and some beamed with immense pride to share with me that one of their relatives was settled in the States. It appeared that despite any strained political ties with their native countries, my students excitedly anticipated a time when they would have the opportunity to come to America.
One reaffirmed perception is that, as a nation, the United States continues to lack understanding and thorough comprehension of Middle Eastern culture and the Islamic religion, which I believe is essential to strengthening multilateral ties within the region.
SD: How about any perceptions you may have had about Egyptian culture or the Muslim religion? Have those changed?
JD: Upon arriving in Cairo, I did not have too many set perceptions of Egyptian culture or the Muslim religion. Having the opportunity to become close with a traditional Egyptian family allowed me to witness the Egyptian and Muslim life behind closed doors and gain a better comprehension of the culture. Egyptians are known for their incredible hospitality, which I found to be exceptionally true. When purchasing jewelry from a shop in Alexandria, Egypt, the businessman offered my friends and I tea while we were browsing, commenting, “Tea first, business after.” This happened several times while I was shopping in local markets, known as souqs, and it speaks to the inherent personable nature of those I encountered. Despite speaking minimal–if any–English, everyone from taxi drivers and delivery men to local shop owners and waiters were eager to test out their English vocabulary and ask questions about life in America. I believe this welcoming and benevolent nature stems in part from their roots embedded within Islam. The Muslim religion is ever-present throughout the streets of Cairo, from the minarets sounding the daily prayers to the architecturally stunning mosques found throughout the city.
SD: I'd love to hear any thoughts you've had about your experience as a western woman in a Muslim country.
JD: I think it is impossible as a woman to live in Egypt, or more specifically Cairo, and not be acutely aware of her gender while living there. Even prior to arriving in the country, there are common do’s and don’ts that women are advised to follow, from avoiding eye contact with men in the streets to always sitting in the back of taxis. While I have not found these to be completely valid, there is definitely a sense of inferiority to men that has derived from living in such a patriarchal society. As young, unmarried women, my roommates and I are frequently asked the whereabouts of our “husbands,” and whenever we walk with our male classmates, people tend to speak directly to them rather than us, the women accompanying them. Another gender difference in Cairo versus the States is the fact that women are generally not employed in professional environments such as restaurants or shops, as women tend to be confined to the domestic sphere, rather than their male counterparts who can always be seen smoking shisha in local coffee shops or conversing on the streets.
My female peers and I do experience a fair share of verbal harassment, ranging from the daily hissing on the streets to inappropriate comments, despite our conservative dress. However, the district where I resided last semester was incredibly safe, especially for women, and at no point did I ever feel particularly uncomfortable or unsafe, even at night.
While there are definitely stereotypes of American women ever-present in Egyptian society (affluent, superior, lacking morals, irreligious), I have found that by adopting a more conservative dress and remaining polite and respectful, particularly in regard to religious and societal customs and practices, women ought to not experience a problem living and working in a Muslim country.
SD: Has your experience caused you to reevaluate or hone your plans for the future?
JD: My experience thus far in the Middle East has reaffirmed my desire to focus my professional objectives around Middle Eastern studies and politics. While I definitely intend on advancing to either grad school or law school, I will continue taking classical Arabic linguistic classes in the hopes of achieving fluency. After completing my NSEP Service Agreement with the U.S. State Department, I would ideally like to work abroad for the United Nations, USAID, or an NGO concentrating on international law and human rights.
SD: What are a few of the things that have surprised you thus far?
JD: Lack of Mexican restaurants, zero traffic lights/road rules, how disgusting the Nile actually is, 300+ television channels and only four in English, food delivery anywhere, anytime 24/7, craze over soccer (err football), and gracious Middle Eastern hospitality.
SD: Anything else you'd like to share? Advice to future travelers?
I am particularly grateful to the CIE Hood House staff and my professors who tirelessly helped me prepare for my travels. For future travelers, “When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money” (Susan Heller).
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