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Egypt: reflections from the author of "Down the Nile"

Rowing solo 120 miles down the Nile gave Rosemary Mahoney a unique perspective on the Egyptian character.

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Q: What surprised you the most about Egyptians? What were you most impressed by and most discouraged by?
I was struck most by the patience and ingenuity of the Egyptian people. They are absolute wizards at finding solutions to daily problems, at fixing things we would consider beyond hope.

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I was also struck by their grace and gentleness. They really seem to me to be an admirably gentle and humane people, which is why it's so astonishing to see the volume of violence and outrage on the streets of Cairo this week. Clearly it's a measure of the extreme frustration and discontent that's been building over the years.

As an American, I think I was most surprised by the level of passivity and acceptance I saw in the average Egyptian in the face of real poverty and little or no opportunity for a better life. I did wonder at that time why so many Egyptians seemed to just accept their lot without expressing anger. Obviously that has changed.

Q: I'm curious about the role of women in the current events. They seem very peripheral. Did you get a sense that they play that kind of role overall in Egyptian society?
In the Islamic world, women are naturally less visible than men. Even in Egypt, one of the most progressive of the Arab countries, women tend to live in the margins of society and to have less power than men.

Among Egyptian men the rate of literacy is 70 percent. Among Egyptian women it's only 41 percent. Those numbers alone say a great deal about how Egyptian women are valued and how they are expected to spend their time.

Education is the key to self-possession and self-direction. Control of women is an important notion in Egypt. An educated woman is more difficult to control than an uneducated one.

Traveling alone in Egypt in the smaller cities, I found it difficult to talk with women, because they were not out on the streets or in the cafes as freely as the men were. Most of them were confined to their houses.

But I personally have found that educated Egyptian women can be very strong-minded, vocal, and daring. Some of the most cogent and logical speakers I've heard speaking from the crowd in Cairo have been women.

Q. What else did you learn during your trip that might shed light on what's happening now and what may happen next?
One of the things that surprised and disturbed me most in Egypt was the level of respect and honor that was bestowed upon the foreign visitor. As I said earlier, a man could be thrown in jail for allegedly showing disrespect to a foreign tourists.

As a foreigner in Egypt, I was treated with great deference, almost as if I was visiting royalty. This is due in large part to Egypt's economic dependence on tourism. For years the idea has been that nothing should upset the foreign tourist, because that could bring bad publicity for the country.

In Egypt I often felt that I was being granted rights and freedoms and a form of respect that the locals were often not being granted, and that made me uncomfortable. I remember thinking more than once that if I were an Egyptian, I would find it difficult not to resent these privileged foreign visitors.

That reverence for the foreigner has existed in Egypt since the time of Napoleon's invasion. And yet I think that the generosity and good-will that I received from the Egyptians I met was sincere and open.

Egypt occupies a unique position in the world as the cradle of civilization. What Egypt has historically, archaeologically, culturally is extremely important to all of us. Their history is, in a sense, everyone's history. That alone seems enough of a reason for us to support and even protect the stability and well-being of that country.

It's extremely difficult to say what might happen next. I, personally, came to love Egypt and the people I met there and I can only hope that we can maintain our good relationship with them.

Randy Dotinga is a frequent contributor the Monitor's book section.

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