I spent a summer in Egypt my senior year of college. The things I learned have become key to my understanding of Egypt and the Middle East.
Egypt has a complicated Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Egyptian identity and is filled with Jews, Muslims, and Christians. They each take their religion very seriously, opening their doors to each other and to foreigners with the promise of friendship and understanding. Their places of worship are landmarks – important, historical, and beautiful.
Similarly, Egypt is like an ancient mysterious land plucked from a novel. All one has to do is turn around in Cairo or Giza or Memphis and see the very fabric of time. The poorest people still live in the Ancient Roman ruins of Old Cairo, and the mosques still offer public water and school to local children in need. One can walk the streets of Cairo at any point and get a clear view of life; whether it is early in the morning when the open air meat and fruit stands are full, or at night when the men are smoking hookah and discussing politics.
Unfortunately, most Egyptians are so poor they can barely, if at all, afford to feed their families. The difference between the rich and poor classes in Egypt is staggering and a blow to the face when you first arrive. Ironically, while Egypt has served in the past to deliver much needed grain and bread to surrounding countries, Egyptians often go without themselves. And yet, the people I met and saw were always smiling, offering to help those around them.
During the January 25 Revolution in Egypt in 2011, the people had taken to the streets to protest a corrupt government. During their protest, the Muslims needed to pray, but were fearful of government thugs, who had shown violence toward the people repeatedly. The Coptic Christians in the area formed a protective barrier, using their bodies, between the Muslims and the government. Similarly, the army refused to use tanks against the crowds, despite orders from the regime. Violent clashes did occur between some protesters and police, but, mostly, the Egyptian people stood together, for equality and as beacons of peace during tumultuous times. Unfortunately extremists have created more violence and havoc, which has continued through an election and a coup. But through all this, the people of Egypt have remained as I know them – kind, hard working, and examples of what it means to live in peace.