Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Seven things that I most dislike about this country that I truly love

Since 2008 started with a complete writer's block, I am posting a letter I received from a young Egyptian who is a dedicated reader of this blog. He acknowledges that his post only highlights the negative, so he promised to follow this post with a second one that highlights some of the positive aspects of Egypt . Mo wrote:

Egypt has everything that someone could ask for in a country: beautiful scenery, an abundance of natural resources, one of the richest historical pasts, a giant river running through it, great weather, countless number of beaches, an excellent geographic presence…the list is endless. For a country with so much potential, there is simply no excuse for Egypt to be in its present state. The people are poor, the government is corrupt, the society is less and less open, the streets are dirty, there is almost no middle class…this list, too, is endless.

I have made a list of the seven things that I most dislike about this country that I truly love.

7) Misinterpretation of patriotism: Patriotism can be found in all of the wrong places in Egypt. For example, before the soccer match between Barcelona F.C. and Nadi Al-Ahly, to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Ahly club, the TV channel showing the game displayed images of Egypt's military warcraft performing a show for the President while playing the country's national anthem. How many other countries would try to inspire such patriotism over a soccer match (an exhibition match may I add) between a local sporting club and a foreign team? Many people would also consider pictures of President Mubarrak on billboards all over the country to be representative of patriotism. Few realize that true patriotism is thinking about what is really best for their country and trying to make a positive change in it.

6) Materialism: For a country that has a serious problem with poverty, the level of materialism in Egypt is absurd. One of my friends who goes to the American University in Cairo, told me about the infamous "Gucci Corner", which is where students from the upper class usually hang out between classes and flaunt their newest gadgets or clothes (hence the name). At first I thought he was joking until he showed me a section in the student newspaper that is actually dedicated solely to the most recent happenings and sightings at the Gucci Corner. With all this nonsense, what is typically seen as luxury goods become more of a necessity for the middle class to fit in with the upper classes of society. It is for this reason that a new cell phone may be higher on someone's priority list of purchases than a textbook for example.

5) The streets: It seems that many people in Egypt don't like going from one place to another simply because of what they have to see or go through on their way there. The streets are over-congested, to say the least, and public transportation is not well established at all. The amount of dirt and trash on the streets is staggering. The number of trashcans on the streets is low; and even if trashcans are there, they are usually either not used or not taken out nearly enough. In addition, the noise pollution in the cities is hard to ignore. Even as I write this, my train of thought is often interrupted by the incessant car honks.

4) The state of the economy: Considering its potential to have a strong economy, Egypt's economy is very poor. Egypt has one of the highest Imports : GDP ratios of any country in the world. This means that, for the present size of the Egyptian economy (as measured by its gross domestic product), Egypt quite simply imports way too much. Why, for example, should Egypt be importing cotton when it is perhaps more famous for its cotton quality than any other country. This excessive amount of imports leads to national debt, which weakens the country's currency, which, in turn, leads to Egypt's very high inflation rates (16% compared to Canada's 2% for example). This inflation makes the poor become even poorer as their wages cannot possibly increase at the same rate that the cost of the goods they are consuming is increasing.

3) Religious issues: Religion, or rather peoples' interpretations of it, has led society here to be much less open than it was thirty years ago even. First off, the decision of a woman to wear a hijab has seemingly become a fashion trend rather than a personal decision that a woman would make to show her dedication to God (not to say that the latter no longer exists, but it may be less and less the case). For example, many girls on the street can be seen wearing the hijab but at the same time wearing sparkling jeans and t-shirts with promiscuous comments on them (e.g "I am the girl your parents warned you about"). When I went to Friday prayer last week at the mosque, there were a bunch of small brochures on the bookshelf. Some of them were about the benefits of quitting smoking and other ones were about the dangers of drugs/alcohol. Most notably, one was about the necessity for girls to wear hijab and even went so far as to outline a detailed speech for men to give to their daughters who are unwilling to wear the hijab. Moreover, I was shocked the other day when I saw a number of shops closing for a regular prayer. I thought to myself, "why is Egypt becoming a more closed society like Saudi, as Saudi itself actually becomes more of an open society like what Egypt once was?!"

2) The government: I don't know enough about the Egyptian government to go into all of its weaknesses (although I'm sure a quick survey among a handful of people here would give me enough information on this subject to last a couple lifetimes). But I think the current state of Egypt speaks for itself on how the country is being managed.

1) The pyramids: How could a list of things that I dislike about Egypt possibly contain the pyramids? Shouldn't this be the one thing that's not on the list? One would think so. Until visiting the pyramids that is. Please don't get me wrong, the pyramids are truly one of the most magnificent sites anywhere in the world and should be respected and hailed as the last surviving wonder of the ancient world. However, I have never seen a site that is more visited and more talked-about be so poorly managed. First off, the entrance to go into the area surrounding the pyramids is no more than a small security desk and a sign saying "Welcome to the Pyramids." The price of entrance is not stated anywhere and any foreign tourist would have to be an idiot to not figure out that the Egyptian-looking guy just in front of him paid one-tenth of what he is now being asked to pay. Next, if you plan to ride a horse/camel around the pyramids (which most people take the option of doing), then you follow your unclean looking tour guide to the stable while being sure not to step on any of the uncollected manure all over the ground. How could the area around one of the world's greatest historical treasures be so unpresentable? The main part of the visit, where you actually ride past the pyramids and adore their entire splendor, is actually quite thrilling. However, it would be really hard to mess that part up, so very little credit can begiven. And finally, when you think the tour is over and are ready to be taken back to the entrance, you find that your tour guide has taken you on a detour to a number of shops that sell overpriced perfumes and souvenirs. How many people could possibly want to buy perfume during their once-in-a-lifetime visit to the pyramids? And it takes a lot more than a simple "no, thank you" to convince the people there that you are not interested in their products. And at the end of your tour, your guide asks you for a "guide fee" that was not previously discussed, and is hardly ever happy with the tip you give him. The bottom line is, the pyramids are supposed to encompass everything that Egypt stands for. However, with all that has been said here, maybe that's not such a good thing.

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