Khush Amdeed (Welcome)

Welcome to Chowraha - crossroads!

Chowraha is the crossroads of thoughts, events, opinions and feelings...all that have been shaped by individuals living in an increasingly complex world inter-connected through various means of communications.

This blog is about the crossroads in society - whether it is those of a diaspora community, global media complicating the structure of nations and cultures, or individuals finding parallels in spaces unknown to them.

The above picture is courtesy a much-admired photographer (Ali Khurshid) whose work is a source of inspiration and reaffirms the belief in the complex beauty of this world.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The AUC vs. Cairo

A view of Cairo from the Citadel in Islamic Cairo
AUC's old campus in Tahrir Square (downtown)
AUC's new campus in New Cairo (both top and bottom pics)
I meant to be more consistent with my posts (reporting from Cairo), but I'm lacking a bit in time management skills.

Well, attending the American University in Cairo (AUC) has been a completely different, and at times opposite, experience from simply living in Cairo. It's as if they are completely different worlds.

AUC has a reputation in the Middle East of being the best university in all of Egypt. And being the best comes with being the most expensive as well. Other reputable universities are Cairo University and Ein Shams University. Al Azhar University was once highly regarded as well, but today it's only considered to be good for learning Arabic. Among these universities and throughout the country, Egyptians know that AUC's student population mostly consists of students from the elite class. Many of them are children of ambassadors, army officials and other important people and they come from a lot of money. But there are also a number of students who attend AUC on scholarship.

AUC seems to resemble a high school rather than a university because of how cliquey it feels. As a joke, but also partially based on truth, one of the school newspapers printed a map of the campus where they showed the hangout spots of all the social groups at AUC. There's the infamous "Gucci Corner", the "Goth spot", the steps where the "Cool Kids" chill and plenty of others that escape my memory right now. I had been hearing rumors about these groups since before I even arrived in Egypt, but I took it all as a joke. Little did I know, that these hangout spots actually exist. On top of that, there appears to be a divide between the "elitist" kids and the scholarship students. It's easy to see that they all hang out with their respective groups and the reason for that is because of the girls and how they look. Almost all of the "elitist" girls do not wear the hijab or headscarf, whereas most of the scholarship girls do wear the hijab. I never thought the hijab could be so representative of what "class" a girl comes from.

In the U.S. I have usually met Muslim girls who wear the headscarf solely for religious purposes. So far, my time in Cairo has shown me that a girl wearing the headscarf here does not necessarily reflect anything about her religious or moral values. Many girls here are forced to wear the hijab because of their family or simply because their culture expects them to. Sometimes it becomes surprisingly hard to find the girls who do wear the hijab for Islam.

What's even more surprising is how women who wear the headscarf are treated in Cairo. Veiled women are not allowed to enter any nightclubs or bars. Some people consider veiled women to be low class. Others think that if they are admitted into clubs or bars, they would be a religious reminder for everyone else, meaning that those Muslims who are drinking and getting high would just feel too guilty if they were to see any veiled women while they're having the time of their lives. Not quite a justification for discrimination, but that's just my opinion.

Going back to AUC, I think that most Egyptians see AUC as a symbol of supposedly modernization, secularism, the rich, etc. It's true that a significant minority but nevertheless a minority of girls wear the hijab on campus, however, AUC is still its own bubble that only represents a certain economic class in Cairo. Getting to know other Cairenes has been more of a challenge than I thought it would be. And it doesn't help that I have little confidence in my Arabic skills, so there still seems to be a language barrier.

Although, I do want to make clear that whatever students I have met at AUC, whether they are part of the "elitist" class or scholarship students, have been extremely kind and friendly towards me. They are always willing to help and even though passing through the "Gucci Corner" of campus was intimidating at first, it never feels like the students are out to get you or bully you.
AUC is simply a different world. Not necessarily bad, but one that is not quite representative of the real Egypt and where the greater number of Egyptians come from or what they go through.
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