Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Re: American Express

By Sarah Wali

I am an Egyptian. I am an American. I have lived on both sides of the world, and am aware of the differences. In the States I’m treated like an Arab who doesn’t understand the American culture. In Egypt, I am treated like an American who doesn’t get what it is to be an Arab. As a result I have learned what it means to respect culture, and the importance of attempting to understand the situation I am placed in.

The American students at the Bootcamp have been treated differently on this side of the world. The color of their skin and language they speak makes them stand out from others. As a result, there are different expectations and sometimes different rules. This, in my view, doesn’t imply “arrogance” or an indication that “flash (ing) your white skin” will get you what you want, as Stephen Dockery put in his blog entry American Express.

I can understand Dockery’s point. However, the situation at the hotel that he and the other non-Egyptians were staying in has been misunderstood. They were housed at the Cosmopolitan Hotel located in downtown Cairo. The Cosmopolitan has rules and policies that must be followed. One of the rules is that non-guests, regardless of nationality, cannot go upstairs.

This presented a problem for the Egyptian students. We had each been paired up with an American student to work on a project. The day was packed with lectures and interviews and, at times, the most convenient place to work was at the hotel. In the beginning we went up without security noticing. When they did notice, they stopped me, and explained the policy. I was told anyone who was not registered with the hotel could not go up to the rooms. I spoke to security and the concierge and explained the situation. After a ten minute discussion, I was given permission to come and go from the hotel, as long as they had a photocopy of my identification. I happened to have my American passport with me. They took a copy, and I was registered, thereby able to come and go as I needed to.

I didn’t flash anything, blue or white. I merely talked to the people at the front desk, in Arabic. At the end of the day, this is what we are dealing with - people with different rules and ideas than what the Americans might be used to. Sometimes, when it is appropriate, we may be able to change someone’s mind. At the Cosmopolitan, it was appropriate.

The American students may argue that, beyond the incident at the hotel, the color of their skin got them preferential treatment. I agree. You are an American, and a guest in the Middle East. This is a region of the world where guests are treated differently, simply because there is an awareness that their norms are different, and they should not be held at the same standard that local people are held at.

We see this in Egypt, and even more in Qatar. The girls and I wear shorter skirts, while the Qatari students are dressed in black abayas (long robes) and scarves. No one says anything to us, or reprimands us for our dress code. We are held at different standards because this is our norm. Expectations are different, and as a result of the onslaught of Western ideas and culture in the region, this is understood.

For this and other reasons, political and economic, foreign visitors are not treated the same as other students. I can understand that it is frustrating to come here and want to assimilate with the culture to learn as much as possible, and not be able to. Yet I ask Dockery, if you went to China or Japan, where you look and speak very differently, would they treat you as a national? Would you gain the full Far East experience? Or would you feel the same as you do here? You can not expect people to treat you the same, when you aren’t. This, in my view, isn’t arrogance. It is recognition of differences.

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