Max Nepstad
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For this Fourth of July, why not take a dip in Nile?

July 6, 2009 @ 4:23 AM | Permalink

The contrast of my Fourth of July experiences this year and last year are striking; last year I waded through hordes of people on the streets of the U.S. capital to get a glimpse of the fireworks over the mall; this year I was one of  thirty or so students who gathered onto a motor boat on the night of July 3rd so that we could properly welcome Independence Day at midnight. It was from that vantage point that a fellow expatriate decided to take the aforementioned swim in the lovely Nile waters although, needless to say, the decision wasn't really hers to make.

It seems a bit odd to describe myself as an expatriate. I can't help but think of my high school Junior English class in which we studied the classic American expats of the early 20th century, like Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. I think that's why the idea of being an expatriate is strange; with my current definition of the word I envision smoke filled cafés in Paris where poets and writers sip on coffee and eat baguettes while discussing the philosophies of life. Not to say this isn't what happens here in Cairo, but I think the definition has changed since then.

There are pockets of expat neighborhoods throughout Cairo but the biggest is Zamalek, an island running down the Nile that is home to embassies, hotels and relatively upscale residences. With tree-lined streets that have minimal traffic and a plethora of western-style bars and cafés, Zamalek is indeed lovely, however, if one is searching for the "true" Cairo they will be lucky to find it here, as shops selling the staple foul and falafel are few and far between and everything from markets to coffeehouses are replaced by the western equivalent.

I think places like Zamalek exist because ultimately most expatriates miss their home country and seek out a place where they can still eat their panini, drink their cappuccino and associate with people who speak the same language. If this sounds like criticism it's not far from the truth; I lived in downtown Cairo for my entire time here, that was, until my lease ran out and my room mate wanted to move to Zamalek. I really should try being less critical. At least now, sitting in my chair at Costa coffee, I can simply check the menu if I need to check the spelling for a word like "cappuccino".

I suspect the reason there are so many expatriates in Zamalek is the same reason why thirty of us gathered on a boat for several hours of rock and country ballads that reminded us of "AmerrCa". Perhaps that is what defines the difference between  me and Mr. Hemingway; the expats of the early 1900s went to Paris to escape the United States and the Great Depression, and with the invention of the internet not for another half-century they succeeded marvelously. On the other hand, even with our very own depression at hand, many of the expatriates of the 21st century still crave reminders of home. This could be because, unlike in the early 20th century, many expats today are abroad because of a job that has put them there, and not necessarily by choice.

For those expats who choose to go abroad, there are stages to becoming accustomed to a different culture. Before arriving in Egypt several people told me about the "W" curve of adapting in a new culture. Right off the bat, the chart peaks because this new culture is something different and the quirkiness of it is exciting. Eventually the novelty wears off and the chart goes into a dip, plummeting to where the person sees those once new and quirky qualities of a place as annoyances. Eventually the chart is said to return to somewhere in between, where the person feels comfortable and able to stay for long periods of time. Of course, this chart isn't set into stone. I think in the case of Cairo, people either love it, and never want to leave, or hate it and can't find anything to do but complain about it.

This fact makes it difficult to make generalizations about the expatriates today compared to those of the 20th century. My experience as an expatriate has been in Cairo; a city that bears little resemblance to any western city. Perhaps expats today are actually more adventurous than those of the 20th century and are branching beyond European cities. Actually, come to think of it, I don't know many Egyptians adventurous enough to go swimming in the Nile.

Comments

Posted on 8/18/2009 by

Nicole Kaminski

Nicole Kaminski

Izzayak ya Max, ana kunt fi Misr sena di kaman wa kaman fi gama amrika, do you speak Arabic? Cool that you're writing this blog, it's nice to hear another Ami's views on Masr. I love it and hate it at the same time. Are you still there? I'd love to hear what you think about AUC's new campus.

Posted on 2/09/2010 by

Max Nepstad

Max Nepstad

Izzayik ya Nicole, I speak some Arabic and I continue to study. I was in Egypt from January to August of 2009. I'm finishing up school this semester and I hope to return to Egypt soon after graduation.

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Are the pigeons you eat specially raised, or just your urban-garden-variety birds that were unlucky enough to be caught?

Saleem Reshamwala on Flying rat... It's What's for Lunch! 2009-02-19

Despite my joking, yes, the pigeons are specially raised, although I'm not sure of the details of where and how they are raised.

Max Nepstad on Flying rat... It's What's for Lunch! 2009-02-26
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