Outlook on Egypt
photo by Perry Smith, UNH Photographic Services
When Egyptian national Islam Karkour arrived in Durham last August, he expected to find a bustling city, definitely smaller than New York City, but with a Big Apple vibe. America, to him, was New York, Washington D.C., or Boston—urban, tough, and loud. He was shocked to find UNH nestled in a quiet countryside where the sidewalks roll up at 6 p.m.
Karkour readily concedes that many of his preconceptions of America, born of Hollywood movies, media, and political rhetoric, do not quite match the reality he has found. It’s one of the reasons he was so excited to be accepted to the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program, a U.S. Department of State award that brought him to UNH this year to teach undergraduate Arabic and take graduate courses. For what was to be his first trip to the U.S., Karkour was eager to compare the “talk” with personal experience.
Breaking down stereotypes and preconceptions is in large part what the Fulbright program is intended to do. American students have the opportunity to learn a critical language such as Arabic from a native speaker, and, at the same time, explore their own cultural preconceptions, in this case about Egyptians.
Karkour, who earned his bachelor’s at Al-Azhar University in Egypt and his master’s at Manchester University in the U.K., says he hasn’t been on the receiving end of any overt stereotyping at UNH, something he seems almost wistful about, if only for the sake of a broad experience. But, for his part, he Skypes with his family and friends in Egypt, telling them what’s he’s learning about Americans, helping to dispel stereotypes back home.
“One of our stereotypes in the Middle East is that Americans are very rude, very arrogant, nose up,” says Karkour. “Some of my friends were advising me not to make eye contact with Americans because they would shout at me, saying ‘don't look at me like that!’”
When he arrived, Karkour found that the people he met were actually nice and helpful.
Another, less pleasant, surprise was learning that there are homeless people in America, some of whom he saw in Syracuse, New York, during his weeklong Fulbright orientation. The idea of “American homeless” was previously unthinkable.
“I keep telling people back home that Americans are not like what we think,” says Karkour, who identifies stereotyping as a very serious issue, one that should be tackled by a non-governmental organization (NGO).
“I'm very sorry to say this, but the vast majority of the Middle East now really dislikes America. We were raised to believe that America is our natural enemy.”
One of the biggest reasons for this animosity stems from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a war many in the Middle East see as being fought for bogus reasons. Moreover, says Karkour, the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison is still prominent in people’s minds. America is also seen as approving and supporting Israeli actions against Palestinians—perhaps even directing them. And American support for dictators in Middle Eastern countries over the years is yet another cause for distrust.
“One of the most famous pictures of the Egyptian revolution is a picture of a used tear gas grenade stamped with ‘Made in America,’” says Karkour. “Egyptians called Mubarak [the ousted 30-year president of Egypt] ‘America’s man in Egypt.’”
While Karkour himself has not always been a fan of American foreign policy, he believes there is ample room for improving the attitudes between the citizens of America and Middle Eastern countries.
“I really respect American people. When I go back home, I want to do something to break stereotypes. I don’t know yet exactly what, but I am sure that there is a way to bridge these two cultures.”
A Lost Revolution
While teaching and learning in America, Karkour is keeping close tabs on the upheaval happening back home. The third anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution was January 25 but, for Karkour, there was nothing to celebrate. The hope of the 2011 uprising has turned into hopelessness for him and many of his friends.
“It is a very sad moment because we have lost our revolution,” he says.
Karkour is deeply concerned about the emergence of a new and brutal military dictatorship under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian defense minister who led the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi last July and who is rumored to be considering a run for president in the upcoming elections. He is widely expected to win.
“At Rabaa Square in Cairo, people were protesting [Morsi’s removal from office] in peace. El-Sisi attacked them with bullets and bombs. It was a massacre. No one knows exactly how many people were killed, but it was around 3,000.”
Major international media outlets confirm that, in recent months, the Egyptian government has been cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, allied with Morsi, and, more recently, journalists and academics have been detained. Violent clashes and deaths are reported.
Karkour contends that el-Sisi is using the media to bolster Egyptians with an intense sense of nationalism, and, at the same time, is creating a false enemy for Egyptians to pit themselves against: terrorists. It’s a bad combination, he says. Those who disagree with el-Sisi are labeled terrorists and persecuted with impunity, says Karkour, adding, the Muslim Brotherhood were the initial targets, but liberals, secularists, and any critical of the government have now been attacked.
While young educated people have the will to effect change in Egypt, they don’t stand a chance against the government, he says. Many of his friends are now in jail for participating in protests.
That Karkour is half a world away causes him inner turmoil. If he were in Egypt now, he might be arrested for his views; yet he is safe in New Hampshire. At times, he admits, he feels ashamed.
“A funny thing is that every night I talk to my mother online on Skype and she says ‘Thank God that you are not here. I don't want to see you.’ If you were an Arab, you would be laughing now,” Karkour says. “It is a cultural thing. There is no way any Arab mom would say this to her son. It is impossible to consider.”