the magazine of the columbia daily spectator
May 1 2013
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March 29 2013
Sex & Low Beach
There are moments when Muqattam, the garbage collecting district of Cairo, feels frozen in time. Donkeys transporting goods meander in the streets, old men sit in dusty cafés sipping tea and smoking shisha. The clanking sound of horseshoes is never far off, and women walk through the narrow streets triumphantly balancing huge crates of pita bread on their heads.
Then there are the car horns—drivers frustrated with the traffic jams caused by donkeys and horses. There is garbage everywhere, literally piled as high as some of the buildings. Pickup trucks overflow with canvas bags of garbage—when I spotted these trucks in downtown Cairo, I knew they were Muqattam-bound.
In Muqattam, or “Garbage City,” I felt as if I stuck out like a sore thumb. But as part of a group of eight Columbia students, there wasn’t much I could do about that. It was also the first time I’d volunteered somewhere where I didn’t speak the language or was lucky enough to be mistaken for a local. We spent mornings in Muqattam helping out at an orphanage and evenings meeting with free-press nongovernmental organizations, women’s-rights activists, and college students to learn about the revolution and its aftermath.
I know it’s pretty hypocritical, but I’ve always held a certain amount of disdain towards tourists, especially American tourists, who speak English loudly, buy tons of T-shirts, and take photos of everything. The first time I read an article about slum tours, I was completely outraged. The fact that companies profit from dragging tourists on safaris through marginalized communities seemed inhumane. As a result, I felt an uncomfortable combination of awkwardness and self-consciousness when our very skilled bus driver navigated the narrow streets of Muqattam. I felt as if I were violating everyone I saw.
I wanted to look out the window so badly, but I spent most of the time staring at the floor or the seat in front of me. In my head, I imagined the people outside the bus saying to themselves, “Look at those rich Americans. What the hell are they doing here?”
But I was completely wrong.
The people in Muqattam welcomed us with open arms. Literally hundreds of schoolchildren waved and greeted us from outside the bus—it was one of the most beautiful and fascinating moments of my life. At the orphanage, the kids didn’t care that we didn’t speak Arabic. They just wanted to run around, play with stuffed animals, and have someone care about them. (Arabic only came in handy when they started pulling my hair.)
Yet I was still so tangled up in my fear of what these people thought of me that it took me all week to question whether they feared the same thing.
Being there revealed poignant aspects of living in a garbage-collecting community. Public health is a serious concern. People are often exposed to many life-threatening diseases. A Coptic Christian community, they face discrimination as a minority in Cairo.
Even though this community sits at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in Egypt, it sustains itself by sustaining the environment. Two organizations we met with, Spirit of Youth and the Association for the Protection of the Environment, train the youth and the women of the community in how to recycle and earn a living by weaving recycled fabric and making recycled paper products. Even though the school classrooms are very makeshift, these organizations are preparing some of the poorest children to enroll in government schools. There is no apathy toward poverty here. Every aspect of daily life is geared at opening doors and creating opportunities.
I left Egypt with a spirit of optimism. More than a year after the Mubarak uprising, hopefulness is visible all over Cairo—both in games of peek-a-boo with babies and in dinners with college students and activists. While there, I saw things I know I will never see on CNN: the hospitality of our guide Nayer, the gratitude of nuns in the orphanage, American and Egyptian college students hanging out in a café.
Now, back at Columbia, I am hopeful.
Conversations with my peers in Egypt helped me break out of the panicked tourist mindset. Even though we sat down to talk about democracy, politics, and revolution, we spent more time talking about soccer and whether American high schools really have jocks and cheerleaders as TV shows claim.
Visiting Cairo at a time when tourism had been halted allowed me to fully embrace my status as an American in the world. That’s because I know that I’m learning how not to be the stereotypical tourist. I think a huge part of being an unofficial ambassador is realizing and accepting that I am indeed foreign in many places. I have unique perspectives and a unique voice because of where I grew up and where I come from. I’m not always going to be a chameleon,but that presents an opportunity. The important thing is figuring out how to make the most of that in both foreign and familiar places.
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