Friday, April 14, 2006

Live Like An Egyptian


There are a lot of things that I like about Egypt. Foremost is the individual liberty you get within the relative disorder of a third-ish world country. People here are in a very real sense more free than their cousins in the West. The hand of government may be heavy but it is encountered less frequently. Citizens are left alone to drive cars, build houses, and conduct business according to norms that are not so much legislated as evolved. To the Western observer, places like Egypt and India may at first appear to be lawless, chaotic, and unsafe. Further experience has lead me to describe them instead as flexible, efficient, and permissive. I am not convinced that just because the roads in Cairo do not have lanes that there are any more (or more destructive) automobile accidents. Scarily enough, my admiration for the freedoms available in the third world put me in the same camp as Jarah - a man who judges the value of a society primarily by how much they restrict bonfires.

That is not to say that Egypt is some kind of anarchic paradise. There are a couple of things that make me not want to live here with any kind of permanency. Most obviously visible of these is the physical state of the cities and towns. They are pretty dirty places. Air is meant to be invisible, and even if you were supposed to see it, it would not be brown. Egypt has not reached the point were people are willing to sacrifice immediate benefit for long term environmental good. We only got there in the US sometime during the 70s, so it may be a bit longer before green ideas really get rolling along the Nile. I think I could stand the smog and garbage itself, but the attitude that produces it would grate my nerves something horrible. I can not under sober circumstances bring myself to chuck a cigarette butt in the street, so driving an aged fume-spouting diesel or chucking trash direct into the gutter is way beyond the pale.

The next big negative is more a product of Islamic culture than the state of economic affairs. During our three weeks here, we had almost no meaningful interaction with non-foreign females. The state of women in Egypt is so out of step with my own values and upbringing that I do not think I could go long before acceptance of the traditions of another culture gave way to active judgment and condemnation. The last thing I need is to surround myself by a world that reinforces one of my worst personality traits - a tendency towards superiority. Less high-mindedly, it would be really difficult to meet girls if even the slightest inter-cultural romance could result in serious feelings of dishonor and some kind of family catastrophe. I imagine many Egyptian fathers would rather their daughters go gay than bring me home.

Finally, by living in Egypt and paying taxes and taking part in society I would be giving my implicit support to both the autocratic government of the corrupt Mubarak regime and the tacit popular acceptance that keeps him in power. Egyptians are quick to bemoan the thievery of their leader and his family, but seem disinclined to do anything about it. This implies that they are either happy with the way things are and value stability over ideology or that they just can not be bothered to put up a fight. I reckon it is the former. My American education has left me with the indelible belief that you should stand up for justice and liberty even if the trains are running on time. It would be very difficult to be part of a society that feels so far from similarly.

Egypt is a fine country full of friendly people living and enjoying life, but you will not find me building a little four bed / two bath pyramid with attached garage any time soon. I am too spoiled by London's royal parks and the West's general insistence on sexual equality and governmental accountability. Add to this my own tendency to look down on the unfamiliar and I can see clearly how my residence in Egypt could go very badly indeed.


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