Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 November 2006
Issue No. 819
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mursi Saad El-Din

Plain Talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

I was invited by AMIDEAST (The American- Mideast and Training Services) to meet and talk to a group of young American students who were over here on an exchange programme. The aim of the programme is "empowering students with conflict prevention and resolution management skills to facilitate a local impact."

Sixteen young Americans, girls and boys, came to Egypt, while 16 Egyptian and Iraqi students travelled to America. The young Americans had the opportunity of meeting Egyptian youth and members of the Egyptian press, as well as officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Arab League.

Following my encounter with the group, I proposed to Sohair Saad and her charming young colleagues from AMIDEAST that, on finishing their sojourn in Egypt, the students should jot down their impressions of the visit. I have now received a number of comments e-mailed from the United States after the students' return home. It would be impossible to reproduce all the comments, so I have selected some quite impressive and insightful extracts.

Makonnen Rice from Toledo, Ohio, writes that the programme "has had an impact on my life. The programme helped me see life more clearly, by helping other people from other locations of the world. I am able to relate my experience in Egypt to helping my team work as a unit. I have educated several people about the Middle East, breaking down stereotypes."

Mary Chesus, from Ben Lomond, California, describes the group's visit to Al-Azhar Mosque and mentions that she had read about a bomb that had exploded in "a bazaar close to the mosque". She describes how she was terrified on the first day of her arrival, but "the first two days passed and I changed my mind. Egypt taught me two things. First, I absolutely love Egypt. Second, the only thing to be afraid of in Cairo is the traffic." She was the first to go into Al-Azhar. She donned a hijab, unrolled her long sleeves and took off her shoes.

"In the place of fear that had built up for months", she writes, "I felt content and I strolled in and sat in silence on the red carpet and admired the most beautiful mosque in the world. I had never been more at peace."

Chloe Bordewick from Barrytown, New York, was impressed by the closeness of the Egyptian family, given that the young Americans were hosted by Egyptian families. Chloe writes that the Egyptian family who hosted her were "not just my father, mother, brother and sister, but an array of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents". She then goes on to compare the Egyptian and American sense of time. The Egyptian's vaguer notion of time, compared with that of the American, meant that people "truly had time to sit and talk to one another". She says she realised "how rushed we Americans are in our daily lives -- what we are losing by not stopping ourselves long enough to listen to other people, even our own families, and so miss out on genuinely knowing them."

I like the end of Chloe's comments: "three weeks was too short a time to spend immersed in such a lively, diverse culture. Yet it gave me a taste, an initiation of sorts into a country where policemen make friendly conversation on the street and families give you a gift for coming to stay with them. Whenever I play my new Mohamed Mounir CD or look [at] photos of a day we spent at the Pyramids, I will always remember the people most of all. Egypt will always feel like home."

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