The recent revolution in Egypt shook me to the core. For weeks, I was glued to Al-Jazeera’s live blog of the events, and I even joined Twitter to be able to follow those on the ground. Aside from being interested in politics and history, this revolution captured my attention because I spent the fall semester of 2010 living and studying in Cairo. I attended classes in a building on Tahrir Square, the center of the revolution.
Cairo had become home for me. The adjustment from life in the States was huge, especially on the day-to-day level. The smallest things are hassles in Cairo, from negotiating the correct cab fare to asking for directions to paying your Internet bill; absolutely none of one’s daily operations in the States translate to Egypt. It is foreign in every way. As frustrating as it was at times, the smallest victories were that much sweeter. Once I figured it out, I truly began to love Cairo and all its quirks. I loved the muezzin’s call to prayer, and haggling with cab drivers became one of my favorite games. I loved to sit at a Nile-side café and smoke shisha while doing my homework. I loved the sights, the sounds, and even some of the smells.
Along with the love there were also many challenges. One of the most difficult aspects of being a foreigner living in Egypt is that one is always a foreigner; there is no blending in. Regardless of the quality of your Arabic or the scarf wrapped Egyptian-style around your neck, Egyptians see you as a foreigner. As a foreigner, fortunate enough to be living abroad, knowing that the amount I spent on dinner the night before was the same amount as the average Egyptian earned last month was sometimes overwhelming.
The most pervasive foreign element was Egypt’s conservative Muslim society. I am an active Jew; a facet of my identity formed as a child attending religious school at Temple Beth-El in Northbrook and during my 13 summers at Camp Interlaken JCC, the Milwaukee JCC’s residential camp, and on my 6-week trip to Israel with camp. As such, it was a shock to my parents when I told them last spring I was going to go to Cairo. While I knew they were not going to deny me this opportunity, I knew they were worried. Aside from “Be careful,” the only other thing my father said to me was “Defend Israel.” Fortunately, the moments when I needed to defend Israel were few and far between.
There were two reasons for this. First, and surprisingly, there are a large number of Jewish students who study in Cairo. The satirical blog “Stuff Jewish Young Adults Like” even posted a piece about Jewish young adults travelling to the Arab world. The second is that the average Egyptian is more worried about putting food on the table at night than about Israel. Among the wealthier Egyptians I met, few seemed to care that I was Jewish, and many were very interested in comparing and contrasting religions. Furthermore, the assumption was that if I was American, I was Christian. And since the vast majority of Egypt is Muslim, many people simply didn’t comprehend “another” religion. This being said, I did not go around broadcasting my Judaism. Most people probably did not know.
As Passover approaches, I think of the Exodus story and now my own. While the Jews of the Bible fled Egypt to escape slavery and persecution, I also left Egypt, but for very different reasons. What I learned during my time there is that my Jewish identity is something I have internalized and always have with me, whether it’s displayed or not. We are Jewish, yes, but at the end of the day we are all people. My friends who witnessed the revolution commented on the sense of community; it did not matter whether they were foreigners or nationals, Muslims, Christians, or even Jews. For a few weeks, they were together as Egyptians fighting against an oppressive regime.
David Korenthal studied International Human Rights Law at the American University in Cairo. He is in Chicago currently seeking full-time employment.