Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Not what it used to be?

International Day at the American University in Cairo is less international than it was, but it still achieves its major aim, writes Stefan Weichert

Al-Ahram Weekly

International Day at the American University in Cairo (AUC) has for years been filled with international students showing off their cultures to fellow students and staff. This year, however, it was much reduced in size, with most of the countries participating being from the region rather than further afield.

The AUC is like a bubble of joy, a piece of gift-wrapped chocolate to be eaten and enjoyed by the people attending it. There is a laid-back atmosphere at the university, located well away from the noise of Egypt in New Cairo, and made up of new buildings. It offers some of the finest education available anywhere in the country. It is where the privileged people go to learn from the best and to become the best.

For many years, AUC has been attended by foreigners trying to learn about the Middle Eastern way of life. It hosts an International Day twice a year to bring the campus together and to give foreign students a chance to show off their countries, including their food, culture and clothing.

Before the 25 January Revolution, AUC had several hundred international students doing just that, with colourful International Days filled with different events being the result. Last Wednesday’s International Day was reduced to just 11 countries, however, indicating that even the AUC has not been protected from the difficulties currently afflicting the country and leading to an exodus of foreigners. As a result, AUC decided to link its International Day to its Community Day, when different faculties get to show off their departments.

One of the countries on display last week was Nigeria, with Amira Musa, a student at the university for the past three years, greeting people with food and stories from her country. She told Al-Ahram Weekly that the International Day was “not as good as it used to be” as fewer and fewer international students were attending.

This might be because of fears for the country’s stability, she added, looking out over the area set aside for the day. with hundreds of people enjoying themselves with food, games and stories. Even though the International Day has been reduced in size, it still aims to fulfill its purpose, which is to encourage students to get to know each other through laughter and curiosity.

At the Uganda display, people heard stories about the country’s large mountain gorillas, coffee plantations and colonial past. They heard about the Ugandan people’s love of dancing and about the country’s enormous diversity. Uganda has more than 30 tribes, which makes it impossible to generalise about a common identity.

While handing out food at the International Day, Javad Sikder, a Bangladeshi student, talked about how Bangladesh had fought for independence in 1971 because of its common identity, mainly shaped around the country’s language. The war led to better conditions in the country despite continued problems with poverty, he said.

“I think International Day is a great opportunity for Egyptians to get to know more about other countries,” said Fares Mahouachi, who represented Tunisia. “Egyptian knowledge about other countries is not great, so I think it’s a good thing to have a day like this.”

The Tunisian display was filled with posters on everything from democracy and women’s rights to the country’s strong public sector. Mahouachi told stories about the country’s revolution in 2011, about Tunisia’s a free public education system and how it had pioneered women’s rights in the region.

While the topic of the Tunisia display looked ahead to the future, the Yemen display talked about the past. There were images of people building their houses on the tops of mountains, so they could see others approach them from far away. The first Yemeni skyscrapers were also built of mud.

Each country showed off its culture through food, crafts or models. In the Syrian display, jewellery were on sale, and interested eyes glanced at everything as the display’s host Nouran Ashraf greeted them with a firm handshake.

At the Bahrain display, Ama Malak Shehab said that she did not shake hands with men, instead giving them a very nice smile. She said that in Bahrain people usually have a pre-wedding day before the actual one and she was wearing one of the traditional dresses worn at such an event called a thobe.

In Algeria, the bride can wear up to 10 different dresses on her wedding day with a white one being the last, Elhouda Bouzahzah explained as she told visitors about her country’s colonial past. This had meant that even today people in Algeria commonly speak both French and Arabic, she said.

Some of the countries have tried to redefine themselves after liberation from their colonial oppressors. Libyan student Saadi Ali told the Weekly that the country’s capital Tripoli has a mosque built within the former Italian cathedral church. He showed photographs of Libya to anyone who was interested, as people continued to walk around in large numbers until they had been everywhere and the displays had started to run out of food.

“I think it has been a very good day, and it has certainly helped people to get to know each other better,” said Mahouachi from Tunisia.

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